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

archives for 08/2013

Aug 2013
Drainage from gutter

A body of water that's kept full by rain alone, with no spring or stream flowing in, is known as a sky pond.  Our experimental pond is going to be filled by roof-overflow, so it's a sky pond, but one that needs an inlet pipe.

Since the pond is located in the area that used to be a swamp due to said roof-overflow, it was a simple matter to pipe the water downhill into the pond.  I dug a shallow trench, fitted a piece of corrugated plastic pipe around the gutter outlet, and ran the pipe down to the pond.  Mom had picked up a three-foot piece of corrugated pipe by the side of the road a couple of months ago, which combined with a ten-foot, purchased length to go right to the edge of the pond depression.  (Thanks for bringing me just what I needed, Mom!)

Rocked pond inlet

As with our greywater wetland, I didn't want the inflow of water to erode away my bank, so I lined the entrance with stones.  Then I covered up the pipe, and sat back to wait for rain.  (This seems to be the surefire way to dry up a soppy summer --- the watched rain cloud never forms.)

Insects drawn to mud

While I bided my time until the sky pond filled, I kept an eye on the gleying process.  Earth Ponds reports that it may take up to two weeks for gleying to take effect (with total sealing of an earth pond sometimes requiring two years), but I could tell something was already smell.  Yep, the pond developed a quite-distinctive fermentation odor, which attracted all kinds of winged critters.  (To be fair, some of them might have just been dropping by to drink from the open water.)  The smell wasn't terrible, but I'd hesitate to reproduce this procedure in a small city lot with nosy neighbors next door.  Good thing our closest neighbor is half a mile away.

Pond filling

And then the rain came!  It was a gentle shower, dropping no more than half an inch of water, but the sky pond filled up fast.  Eventual depth at the deepest point was 13.25 inches.

Pond nearly full

We ran out of rain before we ran out of water-holding capacity, but I can tell I'm going to have to hook up the overflow and dig the secondary pond sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, I'm curious to see whether the pond sinks down to its groundwater level quickly or whether it holds onto this rain.

An automatic chicken waterer makes it easy to go out of town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Aug 1 07:29:39 2013 Tags:
Cave root cellar
Root cellarOur neighbor, Frank Hoyt Taylor, took advantage of the backhoe rented by a friend for grading a house site to dig a root cellar into his north-facing hillside.  When the excavation was completed, it became clear that Frank had opened a hole into a cave, so he decided to gain some extra geothermal cooling by running pipes from the back of his root cellar into the cave.

As with Emily's basement cut-off, I'm going to refer you to $10 Root Cellar if you want to read all of Frank's construction tips.  That way, I'll have room in this post to sum up his results.

The weakest link in Frank's root cellar is the front wall and door, both of which are open to the elements (although insulated with foamboard).  Ice does occasionally form on the inside of the exposed front wall, but temperatures in the main root cellar stay steady for most of the year between 50 and 55 degrees.

Tapping into a cave

The real beauty of Frank's root cellar is the way he has created a very low-budget geothermal system by tapping into a naturally-occurring cave.  The cool-air intake involves four drainage-tile pipes, two of which go directly to the outside and two of which dip into the cave.  Unfortunately, the outside-air pipes were crushed when the backhoe pushed soil Insulated
doorup against the back of the root cellar, so Frank feels the root cellar could benefit from more ventilation.  He is considering adding vents at the bottom of the wooden door, but is happy with the outlet vent at the top of the cellar.

Frank built the root cellar with the help of his friend Jim around 2003.  The pair didn't keep track of their labor (which was extensive) and didn't have to pay for the backhoe since it was already on-site.  Those caveats aside, they estimate they built their cave root cellar for about $200.

Frank enjoys the way cave salamanders share space with homegrown potatoes, and he notes that the structure could double as a tornado shelter if necessary.  When the backhoe-driver came to check up on the cellar a few months after construction, he opined "That root cellar is worth a fortune," and Frank agrees.

This post is part of our $10 Root Cellar lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 1 12:02:14 2013 Tags:
using a graduated cylinder to measure alcohol content in fuel

We got this 100 mL graduated cylinder on Amazon for 12 dollars to do some fuel testing.

Anna has some lab experience and talked me into the glass model for twice the money.

The first test was done on some premium fuel I got at the Food City in St Paul.

Food City uses Ethanol like everybody else and the results showed the advertised 10%, but that was just to get us accustomed to the procedure. We plan to do the next test on some so called "Ethanol Free" fuel that a few stations around here claim to sell.

Posted Thu Aug 1 16:00:08 2013 Tags:

Radical apple
trainingWhat do you do if you have a dwarf apple tree that comes down with fire blight, you're forced to prune it radically, then it responds by sending up masses of water sprouts?  One website recommended tying the water sprouts into loops to make the tree fruit next year instead of zooming further upright.

This particular dwarf is the oldest perennial we have on the farm, but has yet to give me a single flower.  It's been my learning tree in a lot of ways, and has the growing pains to prove it.  I started the tree in the mule garden, transplanted it out when we moved the mules in, then didn't realize that dwarf trees need a lot of TLC if you want them to bear.

So these loops are my last-ditch effort to save a very troubled tree who should have been producing years ago.  The loops are certainly interesting, whether they work or not!

Our chicken waterer is the tried and true solution to a filthy homestead problem --- manure in your chicken water.
Posted Fri Aug 2 07:19:36 2013 Tags:
The last chapter of $10 Root Cellar is full of tips for growing and using root vegetables.  During research for the book, I was fascinated to learn that the popularization of turnips spurred a culinary revolution during the Middle Ages because the roots provided enough supplemental feed to carry cows, pigs, and other animals through the cold months.  Previously, farmers had to dry off dairy animals and slaughter all but the breeding stock among meat breeds as soon as cold weather hit since there wasn't enough grass to bring their animals through the winter.  After the turnip revolution, though, farmers added fodder beets, rutabagas, mangels, carrots, parsnips, and potatoes to their livestock gardens, and meat and dairy became a larger part of the year-round diet.

Although cheap grain has made roots fall out of favor as modern livestock food, one of my favorite bloggers grows roots to feed her dairy cow over the winter.  Nita and her family grow most of their own food on 180 acres in the Pacific Northwest, depending on rotational grazing to feed their beef cows over the winter.  However, as Nita notes, "A dairy cow is a horse of a different color nutrition- and production-wise."  Dairy cows need supplemental nutrition during the winter, and that supplement usually comes in the form of grain.

Roots for livestock
"I only had to look back in history a little ways to get away from grain," Nita explained.  "We [started] looking for roots that would suit multiple species, namely us, the family cow, and the laying hens.  All of the root crops we chose would work well for sheep, goats, and rabbits too.  The roots that we settled on were carrots, beets, parsnips, and rutabagas.  We had grown mangels (fodder beets) before, but found that they were large and because a large portion of the root grows above ground, they did not meet our criteria for easy storage.  The only references I have seen concerning problems is for feeding beets and mangels to rams and wethers.  Some believe mangels and sugar beets can cause calculi in the kidneys and bladder."

Dairy cow
Every farmer tends to develop favorite root crops to match their specific growing conditions and their livestock's needs.  In Feeding Poultry, Gustave Heuser recommends giving 0.04 to 0.05 pounds of mangels, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, or potatoes to each chicken per day as a supplement to their regular diet.  John Seymour prefers feeding rutabagas and fodder beets to his livestock, while Nita usually provides her milk cow a mixture of carrots, parsnips, and beets.  She grows Red-cored Chantenay carrots, Harris Model or Andover parsnips, Lutz/Winterkeeper beets, Laurentian or Joan rutabagas, and Golden Eckendorf or Colossal Long Red mangels for animals and humans, along with Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, and daikon or salad turnips for the table.  "Brassicas are a no-no during lactation unless you want cole-flavored milk," she warns.

Dog eating a root vegetable
"In our zone 7 garden, we are able to hill soil over our root crops and leave them in situ," Nita said.  "We harvest weekly as needed from fall to spring.  After washing, we sort, and any damaged or small roots go to the barn, and the rest are stored in plastic buckets on our north-facing porch, where they stay cool."  Her whole family enjoys the unblemished roots, which are also used as dog treats.

Chopping roots
$10 Root CellarNita uses a mechanical chopper to cut up the five pounds of mixed roots she provides for her dairy cow each winter day.  She notes that the chopper processes the day's roots in one minute, versus five minutes with a knife.  Alternative methods for processing roots for livestock include cooking (essential when feeding potatoes to non-ruminants like pigs and chickens), grating, or feeding whole and raw.

"While the roots won't replace all the grain for your stock, they can play a bigger part of their winter diet, giving variety and giving you more control in what you are feeding your animals," Nita concluded.  "Growing and harvesting roots has made us feel closer to our goal of self-reliance.  And we find as we eat more of these types of in-season vegetables ourselves, we rely less on labor- and energy-intensive food-preservation methods.  While I'm not giving up my canning and freezing, I find that I'm storing less food that way, and actually providing more variety in our meals."

$10 Root Cellar is free today on Amazon, so download your copy now!  If you can't figure out the apps allowing you to read kindle ebooks on your computer or other device, you can also email me today for a free pdf copy.  Thanks for reading!

This post is part of our $10 Root Cellar lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 2 12:02:26 2013 Tags:
tank cleaning day

It takes us about 40 minutes to clean out the sediment in our gray water tank.

Anna does most of the dirty work because she's the most petite between us.

I think it's been 5 years since we last did this chore. There might be some fertile elements in that sediment, but we didn't think to save it till it was all splashed out on the ground.

Posted Fri Aug 2 15:41:06 2013 Tags:

Roma tomatoesEven though I had steeled myself for the tomato blight to hit early and hard in this wet summer, it still hurt when the fungi took over our planting this week.  We've frozen a grand total of three pints of tomato-based soup so far, and it's looking like this major component of our winter diet will be scanty in 2013.  (I still hope to put away a few gallons of soup from the tomatoes ripening now, and the ones I'll end up ripening inside once the blight beats my radical pruning and takes the vines, but it'll be much less than  usual.)

On the positive side, we don't need nearly as much frozen food to take us through the winter any more.  Between our $10 root cellar, quick hoops, and the discovery of brussels sprouts, we fill at least half of our winter vegetable needs with fresh, living food.  Plus, gallons of fruit leather, sauces, and jams should sweeten my winter disposition even without the taste of summer tomatoes.

Pruned tomatoes

Still, it's worth taking a minute to sum up factors I could change to slow the spread of blight in later years.  Even though weather is the biggest reason our tomatoes are failing, I made a major blunder in selecting their location this year, placing nearly half of our plants in the gully.  During a normal year, the gully would have provided a sunny spot that was subirrigated, allowing me to grow tomatoes without risking blight during watering.  But during a wet year, the gully turned out to be a reservoir of infection.  The first signs of blight showed up there, and none of the plants in the gully did well.  In fact, our copper experiment was completely inconclusive because the primary factor that determined blight damage this year has been proximity to those disease carriers in the gully.

Effect of location on

You can get an idea for the difference between gully tomatoes and non-gully tomatoes in the photo above.  The plants in the background are in the lowest part of the gully and have basically been pruned down to nothing because of major blight damage.  In contrast, the foreground plants are much taller and have quite a few healthy leaves left.  I could probably turn the gully into an okay tomato spot by raising the beds up about two feet off the ground, but chances are I'll just come up with another location for tomatoes in 2016, after rotating our tomato plot through the back garden and the forest garden.


In the meantime, I'm drowning my sorrows in other parts of the summer bounty.  Even a few tomatoes are delicious when fried and topped with swiss cheese, parmesan, salt, and pepper.  An influx of pullet eggs and cucumbers reminds me that tomatoes aren't the be-all and end-all of gardening life, even if they sometimes feel that way.

Our chicken waterer keeps our coop dry despite torrential rains since it never spills or fills with manure.
Posted Sat Aug 3 07:49:31 2013 Tags:
how not to clean the battery terminals

We've been having starting issues with the ATV and I thought cleaning the muddy battery terminals might fix the problem.

What I need to remember the next time is to make sure not to lose the small nut that just sits on the battery once you remove the screw that holds the wire to the battery.

I heard it bounce off the fender where it must have fallen into the grass, which means carrying in the groceries the old fashioned way until I can find a replacement nut.

Posted Sat Aug 3 16:53:59 2013 Tags:

This time of year always feels melancholy to me, blight or no blight.  We're halfway through our frost-free period, and signs of autumn slowly build.  This year, the autumn feeling is coming faster, with a low of 52 last week sending me hunting for a long-sleeved shirt.  Luckily, I have a sure cure for end-of-summer melancholy --- pondering!

Water strider

Even though I'm supposed to be letting the jewelweed ferment and gley my pond for at least two weeks before adding anything that could boost oxygen content of the water, I couldn't resist tossing in a gallon of pond inoculant to get things moving.  I aimed for transporting a few clusters of parrots feather and some duckweed out of my tiny pond, and ended up bringing along some water beetles and water striders for the ride.  Hopefully I got lots of even smaller critters, too.

Lotus runners

I couldn't resist breaking off a runner from my lotus while I was at it.  The runner had multiple rooted points, and I pushed each into the mud at the bottom of my sky pond with a long pole.

Something about these various inoculants triggered the local dragonfly population, and nearly immediately, half a dozen moved in.  The most common species (I'm thinking a Common Whitetail) was extremely territorial, with up to five individuals chasing each other so busily that no one got to spend much time at the pond.  But two smaller species slipped past the Whitetails' radar and hung out on the lotus pads.

Reddish water

In the meantime, the pond continues to be a bubbling cauldron of life, quite literally.  Pockets of gas continue to drift up from the fermenting jewelweed, leaving an oily skim on the water surface.  Now I know why I sometimes see these oil-slicks in wild locations where I can't imagine human impact has dropped anything in the water!  (And is it possible this oiliness is also why fermenting organic matter seals a pond?)

Another odd observation pertains to color.  After the rain filled my sky pond up, the contents suddenly turned reddish, and even though it seems awfully coincidental that the roof feeding the pond is glazed red, I can't imagine that so much pigment could be flaking off a year after application.  Ideas?

Water in lotus

Of course, I know you're probably far less interested in all of these natural observations, and more interested in whether the sky pond is doing its job.  On Friday, as Kayla and I peered at my little pond, she mentioned that she was able to walk across the ground above it for the first time ever --- the swamp is drying up!  I'd been a bit afraid the soggy ground would just move to the downstream end of the pond, but that doesn't seem to be the case either.

On the other hand, I suspect water levels in my little earth pond are going to vacillate with the seasons.  After I measured the water depth at 13.25 inches Wednesday, we got more rain in the afternoon that raised the pond water up another couple of inches.  And, since then, the pond level has been slowly dropping, reaching 13.5 inches by Saturday morning.  I'll keep you posted on water levels (and far more than you probably want to know about other aspects of the pond) as my experiment progresses.

Our chicken waterer is the tried and true solution to bringing clean water to backyard birds.
Posted Sun Aug 4 07:24:37 2013 Tags:
Wheel close up with damage

It turns out that those three tip overs caused some wheel damage on the Bucket Hauler lawn trailer.

These wheels don't have bearings, but some sort of holder broke away.

Posted Sun Aug 4 15:40:04 2013 Tags:

Orange mushroomsTwo weeks ago, we got a call from the sheriff's office.  "There's an officer who needs to see you.  He's waiting at the mail box," the dispatcher said.

"Can you tell us what it's about?" Mark asked, but the dispatcher had no answer.  So he rushed out on the ATV while I bit my figurative fingernails and tried to decide if someone was dead or if I'd somehow broken a law I didn't know about.  It turned out, though, that I was merely being summoned to jury duty.

BeesI should have guessed why the deputy came calling.  Our county court system had sent out a questionnaire a few weeks earlier, asking if there was any reason I wasn't eligible for jury duty.  I probably could have gotten out of it since one of the eligible excuses was being the owner of a business with no employees (or something similar), but I figured it was my civic duty to serve.  Plus, I've never been called for jury duty before and I always feel I owe it to myself to try new things at least once, to expand my horizons.

Saving tomato seedsAs the date got closer, though, I started regretting my high-minded thoughts.  Our farm and business run like a well-oiled machine most of the time, but that all breaks down if one of the two wheels is missing.  And the jury-duty literature refused to tell me how long I'd be serving --- maybe just one day, but maybe up to the entire four-month court session if there's some big trial I don't know about.

So I scurried around to get the farm ready to live without me.  Like most couples who homestead together, Mark and I divide up our responsibilities, and he can't really do my job any more than I can do his.  Things like checking the peach tree for brown rot, saving Big onionstomato seeds, cooking up soup, and feeding the bees take longer to explain than they do to perform, and I did my best to get caught up for the next day or two on Sunday.

Which is all a long way of explaining why, by the time you read this, I'll be winding down a foggy, country road to the courthouse (and why your comments won't come out of moderation until I get home).  I felt like a real weekend homesteader trying to get ready for a 9 to 5 job that might last all week, and I have to admit that I vastly prefer my full-time homesteading status.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Mon Aug 5 06:37:06 2013 Tags:

Earth PondsAs you can probably tell from all of my pond experimentation last week, Tim Matson's Earth Ponds did a great job getting me excited about playing in the mud.  I read the second edition because a perusal of the table of contents suggested it was pretty much identical to the newer edition, and at the time Amazon had a used copy available for only $4.  (If you've looked at the third edition and see updates, I hope you'll add your two cents' worth as comments on this week's lunchtime series!)

The first third of Matson's book is a chatty story of how he built his own pond around 1980 in Vermont.  He cleared trees in a wetland, then hired a bulldozer to do the excavation.  For $850, the bulldozer operator dug out a large area (about 93 feet by 75 feet) to a depth of 8 Tim Matson's pondfeet.  Water seeped in through the earth as the pond was was being excavated, then overflow created its own spillway once rains arrived, with Matson coming along behind to rock the water's path and prevent erosion.

The rest of this week's lunchtime series will hit the highlights of pond construction according to Matson, but I wanted to provide a few caveats up front.  Earth Ponds is focused on creating an earth-bottomed swimming hole that will keep fish happy and provide a bit of water for the garden, so it won't be relevant to everyone.  If you want to make a little backyard pond like ours, you'll have to guess and experiment, and if you want to create a more vibrant ecosystem, you'll have to overlook all of Matson's attempts to eradicate "weeds" (meaning any aquatic vegetation) from his pond.  Still, I've yet to find a better book about earth-bottomed ponds, so Matson's text is at the top of my list.

$10 Root Cellar is my newest ebook, chock full of tips on growing and storing root vegetables.

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

Posted Mon Aug 5 12:02:13 2013 Tags:
How the modified lawn trailer is holding up.

I was able to use a wheel barrow wheel to get the Bucket Hauler going today.

The driveway still has deep and uneven ruts, which has me re-thinking the trailer concept.

Maybe there's a way to carry 6 buckets on the ATV without the trailer trouble?

Posted Mon Aug 5 16:53:42 2013 Tags:
Testing ethanol content of
gas"Ok, so an (Amazon Associate paid link to a) graduate cylinder, and what I assume is fuel. But no details on what test you're doing, how you're doing it, or how to interpret the results. Let me rush right out to click your link, buy the cylinder, and pour some gas into it. Not that I'd know what the hell anything meant, but hey, you'd make a dime, right?"
--- Anonymous

While this comment is a remarkably trollish response to a blog post meant to show you tidbits of our personal life, I had been meaning to give our readers more details on how simple it is to perform a test for ethanol content of gasoline.  All you need is something that easily measures volume --- a 100 mL or larger graduated cylinder takes nearly all the math out of your hands, but you could just as easily use a ruler in a straight-sided glass cup or jar.

The idea is that when you mix water with gas, any ethanol in the gas comes out of solution and joins the water instead.  So all you have to do is know how much water you initially added to the gas, subtract that out of the clear layer at the bottom of your graduated cylinder at the end of the experiment, and the rest of the clear substance is ethanol.

When starting your ethanol test, the first step is to take your gas sample carefully.  As a far-more-constructive commenter mentioned, you should run at least a gallon of gas into your car before taking a sample from any pump that uses a shared hose.  Then pump a sample into a container and bring the gas home to experiment.

Marking 110 mL on a graduated cylinder

In the meantime, you should take a minute to prep your graduated cylinder (assuming you're like us and only bought a 100 mL one instead of a cylinder with a larger capacity).  Later in the experiment, you'll need to know where the 110 mL line is, which is easy to guestimate by measuring the distance between the 90 and 100 mL lines, then measuring that same distance above the 100 mL line.  To keep things simple, use a piece of tape to wrap around the graduated cylinder at the 110 mL line, marking its location.

Now you're ready to add the gas.  I found it much easier to pour some gas into a small container rather than trying to fill the graduated cylinder from the gas can.  You want to add gas up to the 100 mL line, and don't forget your chemistry lessons --- read from the bottom of the meniscus!

Mixing gasoline and water

Top the gas off with 10 mL of water, meaning that the total liquid level should match the taped 110 mL line.  Then mix the contents.

Graduated cylinder mixing

(Mixing was the hardest part for me because our graduated cylinder didn't come with a stopper, and I ended up slopping a bit of liquid out while plugging the top with my palm.  I think a better solution would have been to use a sandwich baggie pulled over the top of the graduated cylinder, or to invest in some parafilm.  Either way, thorough mixing is imperative.)

Ethanol test results

After mixing, the clear ethanol and water will settle to the bottom, while the colored gas will sit above it.  You can easily measure how much water and ethanol is present, then subtract 10 mL from that to find the percent ethanol in the water.  Probably because of my sloppy mixing, our clear layer came to 17 mL, producing a reading of 7% ethanol instead of the 10% listed on the pump at the gas station.  (If you didn't use the exact amounts of gas and water I listed above, you'll have to do a bit more math: ((Clear layer - Water)/(Gas))x100%.)

As Mark has mentioned previously, ethanol in gas can wreak havoc on many of the small engines found on our farm, so it's useful to know for sure that the ethanol-free gas we've hunted down really doesn't have any ethanol in it.  We'll be testing gas stations soon and hoping to find one near us that is really ethanol-free.

Our automatic chicken waterer makes it easy to leave home without worrying about your flock.
Posted Tue Aug 6 07:40:25 2013 Tags:

Pond test pitThe most important factors to consider when building a pond without a liner are location and soil quality.  You can get an idea for both by digging test pits in an area where you want a large pond to go.  Each pit should be about eight to ten feet deep and should be excavated during your driest season.  You're looking for rock ledges (bad), clay (good), and high groundwater (good).

In different parts of his book, Matson writes that pond soil should be either 10% to 20% clay, or at least 20% clay.  As far as I can tell, more clay is almost always better, unless you're building a dam (more on that in a later post), in which case pure clay won't be as stable.  And, while we're talking about the earth, hitting rock bottom in your test pit is a sign that you should put your pond someplace else --- ledges, especially, allow water to flow right out the bottom of your pond and disappear.

Equally as important as the soil, you're looking for high groundwater in your test pits.  In a pond without a dam, the level of the groundwater will tell you the eventual low-water level of your pond, so not hitting water in your test pits is another sign you should look for a different pond location.  Of course, groundwater moves slowly, and in my experiment I found that it took several hours for my excavation to fill up with water, so give your test pits a day or two to fill before calling them failures.

If digging a pond is too hard, check out my paperback, which is full of fun and easy projects you can complete in a weekend afternoon.

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

Posted Tue Aug 6 12:00:46 2013 Tags:

Edible landscapingCongratulations to Bernard, Letty, and Wendy, who won our permaculture onion giveawayLetty regaled us with information about how she integrates chickens into her Louisiana homestead, Bernard took advantage of old hay and horse manure on his newly purchased farm to get the garden off to a good start, and Wendy has created a bountiful, edible garden that fits into a suburban front yard (pictured here).

Unfortunately, we have more onions looking for homes than we had winners.  (Mark tells me the contest was too hard for most people.)  So, I'll make things easier for this second round and stick to the old standby in the blogging world --- you plug one of our books or our chicken waterer in the social media world, leave a comment on this post to let me know you entered, and I'll draw names out of a hat on August 13 and give away Egyptian onions until we run out.  Hopefully this will give folks a chance if they missed our lightning giveaway or found the permaculture giveway too hard.  Thanks in advance for entering and spreading the word about our products so we have time to share our adventures with you on the blog!

Posted Tue Aug 6 14:29:56 2013 Tags:
Butterfly on touch me nots

I left you all hanging about jury duty because they left me hanging too.  Monday turns out to have been an orientation day, after which I'm on call for half the work days over the next three months.  The system seems awkward --- I have to check a website after 5:30 pm the night before each potential trial date, and then I'll know whether the relevant people decided to go to trial or not.  According to the judge, most cases end up being decided without a jury, and the average juror is asked to serve only two days during that three-month period.

So I'm back at work on the farm, feeling unbelievably grateful to have such a wonderful "work" environment!  Chattering with Kayla as we perk up the mule garden feels more like socializing than like work, but we still get a lot done.

Ripening white

In case you wanted something homestead-related in today's post, I've got two disjointed observations to throw at you.  The first has to do with flowers --- have you ever noticed that the old-fashioned annuals that are so easy to grow from seed (like the touch-me-nots in the first photo in this post) attract the most pollinators?  The zinnias I half-heartedly tossed out into the same flower bed are also drawing in butterflies and bees, while the irises I was so happy about this spring were largely ignored by insects.

My second observation has to do with the peaches in the second photo.  These are the white peaches on our oldest tree, the first of which came down with brown rot over the weekend.  Even though the ground color looks awfully green, I'm guessing this is the right stage to pick them if I want to ripen white peaches inside.  Has anyone else had experience with the best time to pick white peaches for indoors ripening?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock clean, easy, and fun.
Posted Wed Aug 7 07:33:32 2013 Tags:

Dugout pondTim Matson explains that there are two types of earth ponds --- the dug-out pond and the embankment pond.  The former is generally built in a flat area where groundwater lies close to the surface, while the latter works best in a valley that can be turned into a pond by building a wall across the valley bottom.

Dug-out ponds are just what the name suggests --- a hole in the ground.  They can be quite small, and commercial fisheries often use a series of dugout ponds in series rather than one big pond to make management easier.  In the case of the fisheries Matson mentioned in his book, ponds are about 15 feet in diameter and 3 to 5 feet deep.

Types of ponds

The main disadvantage of a dug out pond is that the earth needs to go somewhere else --- mounding it up around the sides just creates a really funny-looking pond in a hole.  If you live in a very wet area, though, that excavated soil can be a pro rather than a con --- Matson mentioned one farmer who dug out a pond in a very low area, then used the soil to bring a nearly-as-low field out of the marsh and into more productive conditions.  We're doing something similar on a much smaller scale with our pond experiment.

The embankment method is often used to create a larger pond since it's more cost-effective to mound up the excavated earth as a dam, raising the potential water level and increasing your volume twice as quickly for each scoop of earth removed.  However, embankment ponds often blow out at the dam if you're not careful, so you'll want to follow Matson's tips to clear the embankment area down to the subsoil, then slowly build it up with impervious soil, compacting after every foot or two.  Unlike the walls of a dugout pond, which can be as steep as 2:1, you should keep your embankment flatter, with a maximum slope of 3:1.

Pond spillwayIn both the case of a dugout pond and an embankment pond, you need to think about how water comes into and leaves the pond as well.  Some dugout ponds are sky ponds, relying completely on groundwater and rain to stay full, but most ponds of both types are fed by a spring or stream.  Planning your inlet pipe so water cascades out onto the pond surface will add oxygen, while burying the pipe keeps water cooler in the summer and from freezing in the winter. On the other hand, you can use an unpiped inflow with a small settling pool just before you reach the pond, preventing silt from entering the pond proper.

At the other end of the pond, Matson is less keen on piping, having seen far too many ponds leak around the outflow pipe.  Instead, he recommends creating a stone-lined spillway channel, or, if you absolutely must pipe your outflow, adding an anti-seep collar around the pipe.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post on sealing the earthen pond!

Trailersteading is my best-selling ebook about building a homestead around a used mobile home.

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

Posted Wed Aug 7 12:01:13 2013 Tags:
using milk crates to haul 5 gallon buckets on an ATV

We tested out a new milk crate ATV bucket holder system today.

Anna said "Do you think a bucket would fit in one of those old milk crates?"

It was easy to attach the milk crate to the ATV rack by weaving a few feet of rope through the holes in the crate and pulling it tight against the rack.

Posted Wed Aug 7 15:44:20 2013 Tags:
Seed saving

At this time of year, the garden moves inside and spreads out across all flat surfaces.  Seeds are fermenting or drying, to be eaten or planted.  Tomatoes from the vines I've deemed too Peaches and
seedsblighted are ripening on a table, and so are the first few peaches from our late-fruiting tree. 

I can't quite remember where I did all this work before we had a porch and moved our summer dining outside.  Actually, I've used up half of the picnic table, too, for curing warty summer squash before we smash them open and rip out the seeds.

What does your seed-saving station look like?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for pampered backyard hens.
Posted Thu Aug 8 07:31:34 2013 Tags:

Compacting a pondEarth ponds are never 100% water-tight, but it's important to keep the seepage to a minimum so water levels stay high.  As I mentioned in a previous post, compaction and gleying are two traditional methods of creating a (mostly) water-tight seal, but you can't expect either one to be effective all at once.  A good pond will seep less and less over the course of the first two years as sediment fills leaks and as the weight of the water continues to compact the soil.

Sealing a pond with bentoniteBut what if your pond's still leaking in year three?  Pond remediation often includes adding native clay or bentonite (the latter of which is a specific kind of clay) to the soil.  To do so, you have to drain any remaining water out of the pond, mix the additive into the soil surface, then compact the pond to re-create the seal.  Bentonite generally comes as a powder, so you only need one pound per square foot of surface, but with clay you'll need to add a foot or two to create a good seal.

If even this fails, chances are you've picked a poor site for your pond.  In that case, it's best to find a better location and try again.

Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics is an introduction to raising poultry on grass.

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

Posted Thu Aug 8 12:02:13 2013 Tags:
using milk crates to carry 5 gallon buckets on an ATV

Anna's ATV milk crate bucket holder idea turns out to be a great solution!

We added two more crates to bring the carrying capacity to six 5 gallon buckets.

It now takes 5 trips to empty the truck compared to 3 with the trailer.

Posted Thu Aug 8 16:08:36 2013 Tags:
Bee on woodland sunflower

Busy hive I've been giving sugar water to our two new colonies every time the feeders empty, but at the beginning of this week I decided they needed to start slowing down their brood-raising for winter, so I let the feeders run dry.  I expected that would mean bee activity outside the hive would slow down, but instead, I noticed bearding again on our Warre package hive.  I couldn't even get the camera close without a bee suit, so I haven't looked inside yet, but I'll probably add another box today just in case.

Seeing the bearding on one hive prompted me to check on our other colonies, and all were buzzing with life!  My beekeeping mentor (aka my movie-star neighbor) told me Wednesday that his hive was hopping, which he attributed to the jewelweed flowers opening up.  Just within fifteen feet of one hive, though, I saw jewelweed, woodland sunflower, and virgin's bower all coming into bloom, so I suspect this nectar flow is due to a mixture of fall flowers.  Maybe the fall flow will be strong enough that we'll get to harvest a bit of honey from our two-year-old hive despite their swarm this spring.

Our chicken waterer is a POOP-free treat for permaculture chickens.
Posted Fri Aug 9 07:28:56 2013 Tags:

Trout in a pondTim Matson didn't provide much information on pond biology because he was trying to keep the plants in his pond to a minimum.  However, he did include a list of flora in his section on wildlife ponds, mentioning that fish, ducks, and geese will all eat Sago pondweed, wild celery, coontail, elodea, muskgrass (gives fish an off flavor), arrowhead, wild Japanese millet, wild rice (needs flowing water), lotus, waterlilies, iris, pickerel plant, burr reed, cattails, smartweed, and bulrush.

Fish were more Matson's cup of tea, specifically trout.  As with the paucity of information on plant life, Matson didn't try to cover the needs of different kinds of fish, but he did warn new pond owners away from dropping fish into their water right away.  It often takes about a year for water quality to stabilize in an earthen pond, with initially low pH and low-dissolved-oxygen levels slowly being mitigated by an influx of organic matter and by the growth of microorganisms.  Short of buying water-testing equipment, the best way to know if your pond is ready for fish is to drop a few cheap ones in and see if they survive.

I hope you've enjoyed these tidbits from Earth Ponds, even though the information is more suited to half-acre-and-larger ponds than to little backyard water gardens.  As you can tell, I've been doing experiments of my own about how to make an earth pond that better fits the backyard, and I'll continue to keep you posted about the results.

Homegrown Humus walks you through adding free organic matter to your garden using cover crops.

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

Posted Fri Aug 9 12:02:11 2013 Tags:
ATV with full worm bins in the background

We filled the fourth Cadilac worm bin with horse manure today.

I think having full worm bins is a bit of a warmer, fuzzier feeling than a full wood shed.

Firewood is something we could buy if push came to shove, but a horse manure delivery service is a homesteading fantasy from a hundred years ago.

Posted Fri Aug 9 15:46:55 2013 Tags:

Moldy seedsI had three surprises Thursday --- one unpleasant, one pleasant, and one interesting.  Mark always takes his surprises from worst to best, so I'll write this post that way too.

The unpleasant surprise came when I pulled out the kale seeds I'd saved this spring in preparation for planting our fall crop.  The seeds had rotted in the container!  I'm usually pretty good about harvesting seeds when they're as dry as possible, then letting them sit out for another week or two in an open container to finish dehydrating (especially if I'm going to seal them in plastic instead of paper), but I clearly missed a step somewhere along the way.  Luckily, I have some 2012 seeds still kicking around for one kale variety, and have time to order more of the second variety since the whole month of August works for kale planting around here.  (I also snuck in a packet of Laciniato kale into my seed order to try yet another variety.)

New tomato variety

Another hybrid tomato varietyThe interesting surprise came in the tomato patch, where one of my yellow romas turned into an orangish roma instead.  Last year, a totally new tomato variety popped up in my garden (shown to the right), and I assumed the seed had come in with the manure.  But now that I've seen this happen two years in a row, I think I'm seeing the unusual-but-possible effects of tomato hybridization.  (Tomatoes are usually self-pollinating, so you can grow several varieties in the same patch even when saving seeds, but nature doesn't always play by the rules.)  I'm guessing this year's hybrid is probably a Yellow Roma mixed with a Japanese Black Trifele, and I like the way I get the indeterminate, vigorous nature of the Yellow Roma along with a heavier fruit set and a reddish fruit.  Last year's little red roma bred true, so I'll save some seeds of the new hybrid too and will start pondering names for my newly created tomato varieties.

Summer broccoliThe final surprise was a spring broccoli plant that produced a delicious head in August!  Usually, I rip out any spring broccoli that doesn't mature in a timely manner since summer's heat prompts the plants to produce measly heads that aren't worth the garden space.  But this broccoli was tucked away in the forest garden, so I forgot about it.  And the cool wet summer resulted in beautiful head after all!  I guess I should have been more serious about planting broccoli during this wet summer to take the place of our ailing tomatoes.  I did have an extra dozen brussels sprouts sets, though, which are now getting their feet under them between the soon-to-be-gone tomatoes:

Brussels sprout

Any surprises lately in your garden?

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry and manure out of the water.
Posted Sat Aug 10 07:49:02 2013 Tags:
brand new baby chickens near a lap top computer

Before I became a homesteader I would usually observe the end of Summer being when young people would go back to school....often thinking "better you than me!" with great relief that I have already completed my State required dose of compulsory education.

These days Anna and I have our very own end of Summer ritual....the hatching of the year's last batch of incubated chicks.

They started showing up yesterday...and now we have an excited baker's dozen.

Posted Sat Aug 10 14:57:33 2013 Tags:
Honeybees with orange pollen

I slipped out just before dark to take a photograph under our three-box Warre hive to see if bearding really meant they were running out of room inside.  It's a good thing the bees were slowing down for the night, because even the underside of the screened bottom was coated with bees!  The out-of-focus photo below is the best shot I could get inside, but it's pretty easy to see that the bees needed more room.

Congested hive

Unfortunately, the next day it rained.  A two-hour break in showers was enough to get the bees out and moving, so I figured I'd be able to nadir the hive, even though I knew they'd be unruly.  I suited up very carefully because overcast days are the worst time to open up a hive, and the bees were definitely displeased with my actions.  Good thing I've got a few years of beekeeping under my belt now and know to just take a step back, take a few deep breaths, and let those angry ladies batter themselves vainly against my veil.

Worker beesI didn't want to bother the colony longer than necessary since the bees were so upset, so I just plopped the fourth box underneath and went to peer at the entrance.  Warre hives have smaller openings than Langstroth hives do, and this is one day the bees could probably have used more room.  There was a traffic jam of bees coming and going, but I was able to see a lot of brilliant yellow-orange pollen on several of the incoming bees.  Sounds like the colony is still beefing itself up by raising more brood --- here's hoping they don't eat through their winter stores too quickly with so many new mouths to feed.

I haven't written much about my other two hives in a while, but that's because they aren't as busy.  The workers are all out harvesting the current nectar-and-pollen source, but I don't see any signs that either hive might be running out of room.  If anything, I might end up taking the fourth box out from under our two-year-old hive and giving it to our package hive if both colonies keep acting the same way in the near future --- the package hive has been filling boxes like crazy, while the two-year-old hive seems quite content to use two-and-a-bit boxes for the foreseeable future.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1, preventing drowning and disease.
Posted Sun Aug 11 07:17:54 2013 Tags:
Cat tails with barn in background

Once upon a time Anna and I tried selling Cattails on E-Bay to pay some bills.

Now we just admire their beauty and water absorbing power near our wetland pond.

Posted Sun Aug 11 15:34:50 2013 Tags:
Blackberry-peach jam

For the first time this year, I'm realizing that it's possible to reach the point where I've made enough fruit leather and freezer jam, have gorged myself on fresh, and still have an excess of summer fruits.  I plan to can whole peaches once the fruits from our late tree are entirely ripe, but the half-ripe-but-brown-rot-affected peaches also need a home, and those seemed like a good candidate for jam.

Canning with Huckleberry

We don't eat much jam, partly because we've eliminated bread from our diet, but more because jam is just so sweet that it seems like a dessert, even when mixed with yogurt.  Despite the name, the "low-sugar", cooked jam recipes inside the SureJell box call for 3 cups of sugar for every 4.5 cups of peaches, and I wanted to go much lower than that.  So I started reading up on long-boil jams, where the combination of evaporating off water and candying the sugar produces a gel without the sugar-pectin reaction.

Seedy blackberry jamFor my first experiment, I used 1 cup of sugar, a box of low-sugar pectin, 1.5 cups of peaches, and 3 cups of blackberries.  The result was a very well-set jam (although far too seedy).  I didn't have any canning lids on hand, though, so I just stuffed this first experiment in the freezer.

After sending Mark to town for canning lids and accumulating another four or five cups or so of problematic, unripe peaches, I decided to try again, this time without pectin.  I cut up the peaches into big chunks (instead of sending them through the food processor the way I did last time), added about half a cup of blackberries and 1 cup of sugar, and tossed in half a cup of the seedy blackberry jam from round 1.  (So I guess this experiment did involve a little bit of store-bought pectin.)

Cooked-down jamAs the jam was cooking, I started looking up instructions for canning jam.  The SureJell recipes simply call for sterilizing the jars, pouring the hot jam in, then putting on the lids, with no further processing.  While that might have been acceptable even without the pectin, I wasn't sure enough to give it a try.

Meanwhile, extension service websites tell me that sugar isn't necessary for preventing spoilage --- that its purpose in jam is merely to maintain the color and to produce the gelatinous consistency.  But they also recommend processing any jam for 5 minutes in a hot water bath if you live below 1,000 feet in elevation, and for 10 minutes if you live between 1,000 and 6,000 feet.

Jar of jamDespite this data, I was still stumped because the aforementioned extension service websites assumed I'd be adding pectin of some sort, not using the older, boil-down method of jamming.  To be entirely safe, I figured I could use the processing guidelines for canning plain fruit, but I couldn't find any data on how many minutes to process peaches and blackberries in cup-size jars.  I did, however, read that prolonged boiling weakens pectin, so I opted to stick to the extension service's 10-minute guidelines after all.

The result is six little jars of light-maroon jam, which seems to have set up pretty well as it cooled.  I guess I won't know for sure if my experiment was a success until I wait a few weeks and open up a jar to see what's going on inside.

I'm very new to recipe-less jam-making, so I'd love to hear about your experiences.  Any other favorite ways to process small amounts of excess fruit, or (looking ahead), lots and lots of peaches?

Our chicken waterer provides clean water, a treat for backyard birds and their owners.
Posted Mon Aug 12 06:50:22 2013 Tags:
Modfied 5 gallon bucket for killing chickens

We retired some chickens today, and for years we've been using this black bucket as an easy, DIY substitute to the traditional Kill Cone that has worked for thousands of backyard chicken people. My Mom made the hole so she could grow an upside down tomato plant back when that was all the rage in modern gardening techniques. She went back to putting her tomatoes in the ground and offered us the bucket one day.

That bucket collected dust in the barn for a year or two until we started processing our own poultry. We mounted a shelf bracket so it could hang at an easy height and it worked well at keeping the bird still while its head poked out through the hole.

Trial and error showed us the hole was too big. The more aggressive chickens could sometimes get one of their claws through the hole, complicating the procedure.

Today I finally modified an old bucket with a smaller hole which seems to be a huge improvement. A 2 inch hole saw makes the opening just big enough for a chicken's head without the extra room version 1.0 offered.

Posted Mon Aug 12 15:39:50 2013 Tags:

A Way of Life Less CommonMark and I were recently included in A Way of Life Less Common, by Christine Dixon.  The book consists of interviews of six couples and one mother who are homesteading, living off the grid, and/or running a home-based business.  I particularly enjoyed hearing from several homesteaders in Canada, where the terminology is a bit different, but the ideas are very similar to those Mark and I base our lives on.

A Way of Life Less Common is a bit like the profiles in Trailersteading --- an interesting overview of why people chose similar lifestyles for different reasons.  One homesteader was drawn to alternative building practices, another to wilderness ("bush") skills, and yet another to providing a better environment for her young son.  You'll see tidbits of their daily lives (I thought we had invented the concept of going-to-town clothes vs. work clothes!), and will read about their biggest trials and successes.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed rereading my own chapter because I'd forgotten how Mark interspersed his observations with mine.  Like a love letter I had forgotten existed!  If you want to learn about our early years on the farm (and about other homesteading bloggers), you can get $2 off the cover price by going to Createspace and entering this code: D9CP2GX3.  Enjoy!

Our DIY chicken waterer kits help you make the perfect waterer for your unique coop.
Posted Tue Aug 13 07:07:29 2013 Tags:
moving chicks to the outdoor brooder

Today the new chicks moved out of the plastic tub and into their outdoor brooder.

They seem to like scratching around in a few inches of sawdust.

Posted Tue Aug 13 16:01:54 2013 Tags:
Canning peaches

When it comes to fruit management, Mom talks about separating the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are the good fruit that will last for a while as-is, while the goats are damaged and need to be processed ASAP. 

Peach "goats"

I accidentally started sorting the sheep from the goats on our kitchen peach last week when I picked the more-damaged-looking peaches to bring inside and ripen.  In retrospect, those peaches were a little too unripe to reach perfection off the tree, but I suspect my premature picking was instrumental in keeping brown rot to a minimum on the tree despite nearly constant rain.  Brown rot first hits fruits with insect wounds or that are touching other fruits, so removing those peaches before the sugar content was high enough to feed the rot lowered the overall fungal pressure for the tree.  (I've been picking fallen or rotten fruits at least every other day since then, too, which also helps, but there have been many fewer rotten peaches than I expected given this year's weather.)

Peach leather

What all of this sorting means in the real world is that I had at least half a bushel of "goats" looking for a home Tuesday.  Our freezer is getting pretty full of fruit leather, but Mark talked me into filling up the dehydrator one more time, then I opted to can the rest of this batch of peaches.  My goal is to have lots of different variations on preserved peaches to pick between this winter, allowing us to select our favorite methods to focus on in later years.

Sinkful of peaches

My go-to source for basic canning information at the moment is the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but that website nearly steered me wrong this time.  If other sources on the internet are to be believed, white peaches are like tomatoes --- only borderline acidic enough for hot-water-bath canning.  So even though the NCHFP website didn't mention this, I added a tablespoonful of lemon juice per quart to ensure my peaches are acidic enough to can outside a pressure canner.  Since I was adding lemon juice, I decided to take NCHFP's advice on a different matter and can in a very light syrup of 1-1/4 cups sugar in 10-1/2 cups water, even though I'd been planning to can unsweetened peaches.

"Sheep" peaches

The rest of the peaches on our kitchen tree look like sheep, although I'm sure a few more will develop rot spots and bird bites in the next week or so as they ripen.  I plan to experiment next with making peach sauce, then with a jam involving pectin, and then Mark will probably talk me into turning the rest of the harvest into fruit leather.  That's not counting all the peaches I'll dice up and add to our raspberry-and-blueberry-with-whipped-cream desserts, of course.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Wed Aug 14 07:07:44 2013 Tags:
using Stihl weed eater to reclaim new area for garden

Wild brambles eat through the Stihl FS-90R trimmer line pretty fast, but it's worth it for the extra garden space we've reclaimed this year.

Posted Wed Aug 14 15:43:56 2013 Tags:
Processing peaches

Another rainy night, another third of a bushel of white peaches on the ground in the morning waiting to be processed.  I didn't feel like spending two mornings in a row slaving over a hot stove, so I turned this batch into fruit leather, but tomorrow's peaches are earmarked for jam.  Kayla is bringing me some green apples from her grandmother's trees today and I'm sending her home with some of our peaches, so we'll both be able to experiment with making jam using homemade apple pectin.

Sugar Baby

Even though the peaches are right outside the kitchen window and are thus on the top of my mind, other fruit is still pouring in.  This has turned out to be our best watermelon year ever, even though two of our three beds failed.  I suspect the amazing flavor from the remaining bed is due to constant subirrigation from roof overflow.  Perhaps those new garden beds in the gully that were too wet for tomatoes could be built up just a bit and then would become the best possible spot for water-loving watermelon next year?

Our automatic chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Aug 15 07:55:00 2013 Tags:

Cicada on peachDaddy saved all of his Egyptian onion top bulbs, and he tells me he has enough to allow everyone who entered our most recent giveaway to be a winner! 

So, Adriana, Charles, Heather, Elizabeth, Jackie, Christine, jen, WendP, and Nena, please email your mailing address to and Daddy will get your onions to you as soon as they dry out enough to go in the box (probably next week). 

Thank you all for entering!

Posted Thu Aug 15 12:55:19 2013 Tags:
How to add acid to ATV battery

We've been having starting problems with the ATV.

It was cool enough for long sleeves this morning and the old battery groaned without cranking. What is it about a marginal battery and the first cold spell of the season?

Filling a new battery with fresh sulphuric acid was easy and only took a few minutes. We'll use a trickle charger to power it up and hopefully have it ready to go for tomorrow morning straw hauling.

Posted Thu Aug 15 16:14:45 2013 Tags:
Apples and

Kayla not only brought me a big bag of green apples, she also copied instructions out of a book (The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest) for turning those apples into pectin.  I mostly followed that recipe, which amounts to extracting the juices from the apples in two parts.  Here's how....

Washing apples

First, I rinsed the apples and quartered them, removing any really rotten spots, but leaving cores, skins, and small dark spots in.  I covered the apples with water, brought them to a boil, then simmered for 15 minutes.

Cooking apples for

The next step is to strain the apple pulp through cheese cloth, but I didn't have any on hand.  Luckily, the internet had a solution --- use an old t-shirt instead.  I had to double up the t-shirt so that apple bits wouldn't squirt through the large holes that had relegated the shirt to Straining apple
pectinthe rag-bag, but the double thickness didn't seem to be a problem.  I put the shirt on top of a steamer, the steamer on top of the pot that fits beneath it, and the apple pulp in the shirt, then waited about ten minutes for the juices to ooze out.

Next, the author recommends putting the apple pulp back in the pot, covering it with water again, and simmering for another 15 minutes to get yet more pectin out.  At the end of that period, you're supposed to remove the apple mixture from the heat and let it stand for ten minutes before straining again.  Since this second time around is the last strain, you'll want to squeeze everything you can out of the apple pulp, which means waiting until the contents are cool enough not to burn your hands.

The author says you'll harvest a quart of juice for each pound of apples you started with, but I used less water for the second round of boiling (just covering the pulp) and instead ended up with closer to a pint of juice per pound of apple.  A quart of the less concentrated apple stock is supposed to be equivalent to half a bottle (3 ounces) of store-bought liquid pectin. 

Straining apple

I'll tell you more about my first attempt to jam with this homemade pectin later, but I wanted to close by mentioning other recipes I've seen for extracting pectin from apples.  One recipe recommends cooking your apples for several hours, which would presumably concentrate the pectin (although I thought I'd read that extended cooking damages pectin).  Another recipe simply calls for adding apples with the other fruit while making jam instead of extracting the pectin first --- in this case, it's recommended to put the skins and pits in a cheesecloth bag to simmer with the jam then be removed at the end, while the apple pulp is included with the other fruit.

I'd be curious to hear from anyone else who's experimented with using green apples (or other non-store-bought components) to make your own pectin.  Please comment and share your experiences!

Our chicken waterer is the best way to get chicks off to a healthy start.
Posted Fri Aug 16 07:26:13 2013 Tags:
strapping ATV to trailer

Putting a new battery in the ATV didn't help.

I was able to use the pull cord to get it started and up on the trailer for a trip to the ATV repair shop in St Paul.

Posted Fri Aug 16 16:46:31 2013 Tags:
Storage onions

Our storage onions began their lives as seedlings in the middle of February, hit the garden in April, and were finally harvested this week.  I actually would have liked to leave them in the ground a bit longer until the tops completely died back, but it's so wet some of the bulbs were starting to rot.  (You know the weather is damp when you hang your laundry on the line Monday, take it in halfway-dry to drape inside when it starts to rain that afternoon, and then find mold growing on your still-damp clothes Wednesday morning.)

Onions on the porch

Harvesting onionsA bit of rot aside, the onions look great this year, although I suspect there won't be enough of them (again).  I've actually been harvesting onions out of the garden for the last month to cook with, so I guess the harvest was really bigger than it seems from this photo.

I spread our haul out to dry on the front porch instead of on the drying racks partly from laziness, but also because I want to be able to pick through the onions as they dry and use up problematic bulbs immediately.  Mark's mom has given us a screen rack I'm looking forward to trying out with the onions...once the ATV is back in working order and we can haul it in.

Our automatic chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock clean, easy, and fun.
Posted Sat Aug 17 07:48:07 2013 Tags:
comparing different style of gate latch mechenisms

The light gates I've made for our chicken pastures tend to sag a little over time.

It took over 8 gates to figure out that the turn and block method with a scrap piece of wood is a better match than the fancy looking hook and eye latch.

The hook and eye gate latch is out of adjustment with just a small amount of sag, but the turn and block method still works no matter how much the gate has shifted.

Posted Sat Aug 17 15:03:50 2013 Tags:
Open-air composting toilet

One of our Egyptian onion winners included a note asking for an update on our composting toilet.  I'd actually been meaning to write a post on the topic, but it's really more of a Mark post than an Anna post --- there's not much to say when things just work.  But Mark is still not entirely excited by the idea of humanure (although he does agree our new system is better than our old one), so hopefully you will all forgive a bit of a light post from me on the weekend.

Blocking out

Keeping wildlife out of the excrement has been the only real problem with our composting toilet.  After Mark added tin to the sides last winter, we didn't see another problem until last week when something reached through one of the few cracks still exposed.  We'll cover that opening up soon, and will definitely cover all the gaps before moving to the next hole this fall.  I had originally thought the compost chamber needed those openings for aeration, but there seems to be plenty of air flow through the open seat and smaller cracks without leaving big gaps between the wooden walls (as was proven by the sniff test).  I've seen a few flies hanging around, but not even as many as are in the chicken pastures, so I figure our sawdust covering is doing its job well there.

Composting toilet seat

The size of the composting chamber seems to have been perfect for the two of us --- the goal is to fill one chamber every year so that by the time we use up the third chamber, the first is ready to empty.  Our original chamber started looking pretty full a month or two again, but summer weather also prompted rapid decomposition, so the contents have sunk down at the same rate we've added to them.  We've used up an entire bin full of sawdust to fill this chamber, meaning that our finished compost will actually consist primarily of rotted sawdust and will presumably be quite good around the base of trees.

I guess I had more to say about humanure than I thought I did.  Who knew!

Our Avian Aqua Miser is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Sun Aug 18 08:52:52 2013 Tags:

5 gallon bucket as Kill Cone Thank you Darren and Jake for the comments on our DIY Kill Cone alternative.

I always hold the head of each bird until it bleeds out, but some chickens have a lot of fight and wiggle their way free and back up in the bucket.

A few pieces of a 2x4 attached to the inside of the bucket with drywall screws decreases movement while the chicken is in the bucket and seems like it would prevent a bird from getting all the way out if you lost hold of its head.

Jake uses a traffic cone, which I bet would work better than a bucket if you can find one and figure out an easy way to mount it at a comfortable height.

Posted Sun Aug 18 15:47:51 2013 Tags:
Miser: Bigger, cleaner, easier

Mark and I have been hard at work this summer developing a second-generation chicken waterer that makes watering your flock even easier.  At long last, the EZ Miser is ready to see the light of day!

If you're interested in the inventing side of the story, check out this post I made about the trial and error process Mark went through to create an even better waterer.  Or just go read about the EZ Miser itself.

I wish we could give away waterers the way we do ebooks, but that would break the bank.  Instead, for this first week, I've taken 10% off the price tag so that our loyal fans can afford to give the new waterer a try.

And if you leave a note with your order, I'll even throw in 20 Egyptian onion bottom bulbs (while supplies last).  I've been saving these bottom bulbs for a special occasion since they're more mature than the top bulbs I usually give away.  You can start eating the green onions from bottom bulbs nearly immediately --- just let the plant keep at least half its leaves at any given time.

We've had an EZ Miser prototype in our pasture for two months now, and I can't figure out how we lived without it.  I hope you love it as much as we do, and I'll be very grateful
if you spread the word so your friends can get in on the early-bird deal too!

Posted Mon Aug 19 07:14:11 2013 Tags:

EZ Miser in brooderEven though we can't give everyone a free EZ Miser, Mark and I do want to share this new-and-improved chicken waterer with at least a couple of our readers at no cost.  So we're combining our 10% off week with a contest, with chicken waterers as the prizes!

To enter, email with one or more photos and your answer to this question: "What do you wish you'd known about chickens when you first started that you know now?"  Mark and I are going to answer the question ourselves as this week's lunchtime series, but I suspect our readers have lots to share that we haven't even thought of.

The fine print: All entries must reach my inbox by Sunday (August 25) at midnight.  Be sure to send photos one at a time if they're larger than 2 MB apiece.  Mark and I will choose winners based on quality of the photos and written explanation.  All photos and text will become the property of Anna Hess, which means I might share them with readers via our blogs or ebooks.

Winners: The grand-prize winner will receive an EZ Miser, and the second-place winner will choose between a 3 pack DIY kit or 1 Avian Aqua Miser Original.  I look forward to receiving your entries and to sharing clean water with your flock!

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 19 12:02:07 2013 Tags:
introducing the new Polaris 700 ATV

I decided we needed a bigger ATV and the guy at the repair shop agreed.

We worked out a trade where I gave him the broken ATV and some money and he upgraded us to the Polaris 700 Sportsman.

After using the Polaris 400 Xplorer for the summer I started having second thoughts on the 2 cycle engine. It seemed to be more difficult to start and get warmed up than what I consider to be normal, and sometimes a guy just needs more power.

Posted Mon Aug 19 16:35:08 2013 Tags:
Peach jam

Homemade apple pectin works!  Which isn't to say that my jam-making experiments haven't included some growing pains over the last week.  For example, my first try (shown above) didn't I renamed it "Peach Syrup" and pronounced it a success anyway.

Jelly test

Why didn't Jam 1.0 solidify?  Reading up on the topic suggested three potential problems:

  • Too large of a recipeJoy of Cooking recommends starting with no more than 4 cups of fruit, and I used 4 cups of peach puree plus 4 cups of apple-pectin juice for Jam 1.0.  The trouble with big batches of jam is that jamming is very temperature-dependent, and the average home kitchen won't keep the contents of a large pot as evenly heated as the contents of a small pot.  For Jam 2.0, I split my recipe into two pots, each of which held only four cups of liquid.
  • Jelly jarsNot enough sugar.  The recipe I was following called for 7 cups of sugar, but that just seemed extraordinarily high, so I cut it to 4 to match the amount of peach puree.  Joy of Cooking again came to the rescue, telling me that I need 0.75 to 1 cup of sugar per cup of fruit (and the apple juice is fruit, remember) if I don't use low-sugar pectin.  (I do want to try our readers' suggestion of Pomona's Pectin, but our little grocery store doesn't carry it, I forgot to look for the item when I was in the big city over the weekend, and there's not enough time to order it online before the peaches finish ripening.)
  • Not enough cooking timeJoy of Cooking once again provided facts, telling me that it's necessary to cook your jam until it reaches 8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the temperature at which water boils at your altitude.  (So, I'm looking for a jam temperature of 217.7 here.)  If your mother-in-law didn't give you a jelly thermometer like mine did (thanks, Rose Nell!), you can also estimate this temperature by letting the jam run off the side of your spoon --- when the drops merge together into a sheet, the jam is ready.
Cooked peach jam

Jam 2.0 went much better.  I brought 2 cups of my apple-pectin juice to a boil, simmered for 5 minutes, then added 2 cups of pureed peach, 3 cups of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Then I brought the mixture back to a boil and simmered for about fifteen minutes until the temperature seemed right.  After 10 minutes in the hot-water-bath canner, the jars were full of jam that stayed put even when I turned the jars sideways!

I'm not 100% happy with the results, but Jam 2.0 is definitely an improvement.  I now see what various commenters meant when you said that this kind of jam has a "cooked taste."  Sure enough, the bit of jam that didn't fit in the jars and that Mark and I tasted with dinner was more like candy than fruit (no wonder, since the cooked-down jam included half a cup of sugar per cup of finished jam!).  And Jam 2.0 is more solid than I really needed, probably because I hadn't done the altitude calculations before writing this post and cooked my jam to 220 degrees instead of 218.  But perhaps that's a sign I could cut back the sugar a bit more since this recipe gelled so well?

Shiitakes under a peach tree

Since it's so hard to tell when a white peach is perfectly ripe, I've been harvesting the drops each morning, which have been amounting to about a third of a bushel of peaches per day.  I figure this amount will hold out until the end of the week, so I'll probably make at least one more try at jamming.  But first, we'll eat up these shiitakes that popped up in one of the logs I had resting in the peach tree's shade.

The EZ Miser is Mark's newest chicken waterer, making clean water even simpler.
Posted Tue Aug 20 07:02:25 2013 Tags:
Ramshackle chicken coop

When I asked Mark what he wished he'd known about chickens when we first got started, his immediate answer was: "I wish I'd realized coops need to be big and accessible."  He detests our current coops and is looking forward to getting back to work on our Starplate coop in the near future.

Nearly-free chicken coop

I'm not as judgmental about Mark's early coops as he is --- when you ask your husband to build a chicken coop for $10 or less, any serviceable result counts as a success in my book.  But I agree that it's much easier on the chicken owner if a wheelbarrow will fit through the door, if you don't hit your head inside, and if nest boxes open to the outside so you don't even have to enter during daily egg runs.  All of these factors are really for the farmer, though, since I've noticed that chickens are mostly interested in quality of the roosts, safety from predators, and how quickly they can get outside to hunt down bugs.

The perfect chicken coop?

You can read my wish list for the perfect coop here, and we'll keep you posted as we finish up version 3.0 this fall.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear your take on the perfect chicken coop, either in the comments or as an entry in our chicken contest.  Is there a design feature I've missed?

Complete your perfect coop with the perfect waterer.

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 20 12:02:15 2013 Tags:
Our first day shipping out the new EZ Miser trouble free chicken waterer

Our shipping department was in full swing today taking over the front porch.

Thanks to everybody who ordered the new and improved EZ Miser chicken waterer.

We finished up the first batch of orders today and will be shipping them out tomorrow.

Posted Tue Aug 20 16:01:57 2013 Tags:
Figgy homestead

Bowl of blueberriesMom is a New-England expatriate, so the summer that seemed so strange to me was reminiscent of her childhood.  She predicts we'll see our first frost very early this year --- September 21. 

What do you think?  To make guessing easier, our average first-frost date is October 10.  I'm hoping we'll stave off frost for as long as possible since we've yet to taste our first fig of the year and the tree is loaded.


We've had so much rain recently that our experimental pond has overflowed its banks, spreading duckweed throughout the back garden.  Isn't it astonishing how quickly duckweed reproduces?

Kayla in the garden

Trellised butternutIn the vegetable garden, Kayla has been doing over half my work for the last month or two.  I feel a bit guilty when she's out there weeding instead of me, but I always find plenty of other work to do.  Apparently, gardening time is like a pot of soup --- you'll fill it all the way to the top no matter how much space/time is alloted.  Or maybe it's just the astonishing amount of fruit needing processing this summer that has used up all that spare time.

I know this post is disjointed, but all three elements somehow join together in my head, meshing in some odd way along with my fuzzy recollection of the space-time continuum.  Or maybe I just really wanted to post a bunch of pictures and needed words to go with them.

The EZ Miser makes watering your chickens even easier!
Posted Wed Aug 21 07:07:50 2013 Tags:
Broth from pastured chickens

Pastured eggsWhile Mark's chicken learning curve involved coops, the top of my list was food --- not food for the chickens, but food for us.  We started out with twenty hens, then quickly scaled back to half a dozen because we didn't know what to do with so many eggs.  Since then, I've learned the value of pastured eggs, meat, and broth, and our consumption has increased dramatically.

Part of my culinary journey involved coming to the conclusion that eggs and fats from pastured meat are a health food, not a heart attack waiting to happen.  I won't go into the details in this post because I suspect you either believe firmly that all cholesterol and animal fats are unhealthy, or you already agree with me, and nothing I write is likely to change your mind.  Suffice it to say that some people believe that omega-3s from pastured animal products are a good kind of fat and that eggs raise your HDL (good) cholesterol.  If you're a believer, broth from pastured chickens will be on your list of super foods, along with orange-yolked eggs, garlic, and leafy greens.  (That's my personal list; yours may vary.)

Cooking an old chickenEven after making that mental leap, though, we've had to learn how to cook with pastured chicken meat and how to incorporate more eggs into our meals.  The latter is the easy part since a fried egg is a quick way to add protein and round out a lunch when leftovers don't quite stretch to feed us both.  Combining occasional eggy lunches and dinners with our three eggs apiece for breakfast, Mark and I probably go through nearly five dozen eggs per week nowadays.

I'm still working on the best ways to cook meat from our heirloom, pastured chickens since the flesh tends to be stronger tasting and a bit tougher textured than meat from Cornish Cross, even if they were raised on pasture.  (The more-mainstream Cornish Cross don't forage as well as our chickens, so I assume their meat is less nutritious, which is one of the reasons we've avoided the breed.)  You can read some of my heirloom-chicken cooking experiments here --- most have been delicious.

Even though I'm a bit afraid to open up the nutritional debate here, I'm still curious to hear from our readers.  Have your tastes and beliefs about pastured animal products changed as you brought chickens to your homesteads and plates?

The EZ Miser makes it easy to raise healthy chickens that produce healthful eggs and meat.

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Aug 21 12:02:28 2013 Tags:
Jig named Charlotte

The EZ Miser launch has been quite an experience for us, very different from our original launch of the Avian Aqua Miser.  In December 2008, we barely had a web presence, and we sold one or two waterers per week for the first little while.  That gave Mark plenty of time to work the kinks out of mass production.

Testing the EZ Miser

In contrast, this time around, I spent all day Monday at the computer, just fielding emails, and Mark's working as fast as he can building EZ Misers.  That's why I'm posting instead of Mark this afternoon --- his brain power is just about used up from days of tweaking and figuring things out.  (Plus, he's at the post office mailing two ATV-loads of EZ Misers.)

Loading up the ATV

I suspect Mark will have all of his jigs (Charlotte and sisters) up and running in a week or so, at which point he'll be able to stop testing each waterer and start delegating more of the workload.  We appreciate all the business since it will allow us to keep Kayla employed all winter!

Posted Wed Aug 21 15:09:30 2013 Tags:
Accidental self

This is what I look like when I accidentally take a picture of myself running away from the bee hive after sticking a camera underneath and disturbing about a hundred bees who were sheltering there since they didn't fit inside.

Bees building combThe smaller photo is the picture I took up through the hive bottom before the flash set the bees off.  That's right, our strongest hive has already partially drawn out the comb on their fourth Warre box (equivalent to a Langstroth super in size).  I was alerted to the congestion by the now-typical bearding at the hive entrance, which brings me to my conundrum of the day.

I definitely need to add a new box to this hive since the fall nectar flow just keeps getting better.  The question is, do I cut down a Langstroth box to make a fifth Warre box (relatively easy since I ordered extra top bars this summer, but potentially heavy lifting to get a new box underneath); do I take the unused fourth box from the hive that Napping catswarmed this spring (easy, but risks bothering that hive twice for no reason if the nectar flow continues long enough that they need a fourth box despite their slow start); or do I harvest one box of honey from the strong hive and then put the empty back underneath?  I was leaning toward option one until I realized how hard it would be to lift up three full (and one partially full) Warre boxes to get a new one underneath.  All suggestions (except for Huckleberry's admonition that we should all just finish our naps) are appreciated.

Our automatic chicken waterer makes it easy to leave home for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Aug 22 07:34:14 2013 Tags:
Pastured chickens

Like many homesteaders who weren't raised to the task, slaughtering our own meat animals was one of the thorniest issues Mark and I faced as newbies.  Despite our trepidation, though, we've found that taking our meat all the way from egg to table ourselves has given us a mystical (Mark's word) connection to our nutrition that we never felt before.

Our first home-killed chickenWhich isn't to say the journey was easy.  The first chickens I helped kill were pre-Mark, and I can't recall if any of them actually got eaten.  Each rooster had a name and they were all too old for the flesh to be easily palatable by the time we finally did the deed.  The whole event was traumatizing, akin to my childhood experience of naming the calves we were going to sell for meat.

A couple of years later, I had met Mark and we were considering raising broilers for the first time.  Some friends kindly agreed to let us come "help" them slaughter their chickens in exchange for a tutorial, and even though we learned a lot from gutting the birds, the three throats I managed to slit felt like three too many.

When the time finally came to kill our own birds, Mark and I made a deal --- he would kill the chickens (the really hard part emotionally) and I would do everything else.  We got the first bird in the kill bucket, Mark thanked it for the meat it was going to provide, and then he slit its throat.  By the time the feathers were off, I was able to consider the pink thing in front of me to be food worth processing, not an animal I'd murdered in cold blood.

You can tell the emotional level of a task by the behavior of our pets, and chicken-killing is no exception.  During our first few slaughtering days, Lucy danced around excitedly and had to be tied up, an indication that Mark's and my stomachs were tense from the ordeal.  Lately, though, Lucy acts like a lady, even (mostly) leaving the entrails bucket alone when I go inside to put a newly-cleaned chicken into the fridge.  Chicken-killing day isn't our favorite part of the week, but it's no longer dreaded, and I no longer have to wait several days until the butchering images leave my mind before I can partake of the meat.

chickenSpeaking of that meat --- it seems to taste better for having been produced with our own four hands.  Adding meat animals to our homestead has turned our land from a garden that we tend to as outsiders into an ecosystem that we're part of.  Mark sums it up this way: "If you kill the chickens you eat, you're part of the food chain."

I don't know if there's a way to fast-forward through the more difficult parts of learning to slaughter your own meat animals (short of being raised among people who consider the task no big deal).  But I would recommend that carnivorous homesteaders learn to butcher their own meat sooner rather than later.  I try to steer clear of the spiritual world whenever possible, but I have to admit that Mark's right --- killing chickens, in the right mindset, is a mystical experience.

Our newest waterer, the EZ Miser, is bigger, cleaner, and even easier.

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 22 12:00:41 2013 Tags:
How to install a honey gate into a bucket that is food grade certified

Thanks to my cousin Ben we got our honey gate installed today.

Honey collects in the food grade bucket and the large valve makes jar filling easier and faster.

Posted Thu Aug 22 17:02:41 2013 Tags:
Summer Rambo apples

I turned most of the apples Kayla gave me into pectin juice for jam, but a few looked more ripe and ready for a taste test.  I was surprised by the sweet-tart, explosive flavor of the apples and asked Kayla what kind they were.  She replied that the tree was old and no one knew what it had been.

JammingEven with the variety unknown, I could propagate the tree by grafting a twig onto one of our current apple trees or onto rootstock, but I had a hunch I could identify the fruit.  Last summer, Bradley sang the praises of Summer Rambo, which is reputed to ripen at this time of year and which seems to be a local favorite.  Could the unknown apple be Summer Rambo?

Kayla independently came to the same conclusion while on her first-anniversary trip to North Carolina.  She and her husband stopped at a fruit stand along the way and saw some apples she thought looked just like her own.  The variety?  Summer Rambo.

I installed a Summer Rambo in my high-density planting last fall, so in a year or two, I'll be able to compare a homegrown Summer Rambo to Kayla's mystery fruits.  In the meantime, I thought I'd ask our readers --- if you grow Summer Rambo, do the apples at the top of this post look familiar?

(The other photo is Mark's cousin Ben helping me make jam out of some of the apple-pectin juice.  This second round worked like a charm!  We stopped cooking after 18 minutes when the temperature hit 218 degrees, and the jam was lighter in color with less of a cooked taste than last time.  I'm definitely getting the hang of cooked jams!)

Our EZ Miser has been jumping off the shelves because it makes clean water for your chickens even easier.
Posted Fri Aug 23 07:37:34 2013 Tags:
Mother hen with chicks

Portable chicken coopThe response to our "I wish I'd known" contest has been overwhelming!  I'm posting entries one per day on our chicken blog, and have decided to let the public decide which one is the winner.

To be involved, stay tuned to either our chicken blog or Avian Aqua Miser's
facebook page over the next week to see all the entries, then comment (or just push the like button on facebook) to cast your vote.  You can vote for as many different entries as you want, and the one with the most comments/likes will win!  (So if you're rooting for a particular entry, be sure to tell your friends to drop by and vote for it too.)

I'm not sure what the voting deadline will be because all of the entries aren't in yet.  So, don't worry, I'll remind you here when we're getting near the end of the voting period.

Segregated chickensHere are the first entries, with many more to come:

And, don't forget, there's still time for you to enter and win a free EZ Miser!

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 23 12:02:16 2013 Tags:
Polaris ATV hauling boxes with Lucy looking onward

Two things I like about the Polaris 700 Sportsman are related to the engine.

The first is an engine brake. As you let off the gas some sort of braking gizmo in the engine brings the ATV to a full stop. I barely need to use the regular brakes anymore, but what I like most is the increased safety. Sometimes Lucy wants to stop in front of me for a quick smell check where she pauses and puts her nose in the air. The engine brake decreases stopping distance by a considerable amount.

Engine noise is the next thing I like compared to the 400 Polaris. I guess I prefer a more deep, throaty engine to the 2 cycle whine that sounds too much like a chainsaw for my audio comfort level.

Posted Fri Aug 23 17:42:31 2013 Tags:
Honeybees carrying pollen

You'd think that since we've had bees for over four years now, we would have harvested a lot of honey.  Unfortunately, since I'm stubbornly refusing to use chemicals in the hives, it's been quite a learning curve, and this is only the second year I've gone to steal honey from the bees.

The first time around was in 2010.  Our bees had arrived as a package over a year before, so in June I figured I could take any honey they had left over from the winter.  Despite a learning curve, we ended up harvesting about four gallons of honey from four hives that June.


Unfortunately, my mistake of trying to keep mainstream bees without chemicals killed off three of the hives the following winter.  I split the remaining hive in 2011, which meant the bees were busy rebuilding and didn't have time to make extra honey for their beekeeper.  And then both of those hives died, so last year I started a new package again (this time of bees that had been raised chemical-free).  But I'd also changed over to Warre beekeeping methods, so I allowed those bees to swarm...which slowed them down yet again.

Bee frames

Which is all a long way of explaining why I'm still making basic beginner mistakes in the honey harvest department.  I had decided to take a box of honey off our busiest hive, but when I removed the roof, even after smoking, there seemed to be a lot more bees buzzing around than I thought there should have been.  This was my clue to pull up a frame and make sure the box was full of honey only, but I blithely took off the box without checking, shut the hive back up, and carried my haul halfway back to the trailer.

There, I finally pried up a frame.  The first two frames were full of pollen and honey, and I set them aside.  But the third frame was covered with capped brood, and so was the fourth!  Uh oh.  No wonder the bees were pissed off, buzzing me despite having been smoked and carried away from home base.

Bee brood

Even though this all makes sense as I write it, you have to pretend you're me, alone on the farm (Mark was at the post office) with bees everywhere and very little memory of what you did last time you harvested honey.  I probably should have just put everything back, shut the hive up, and dealt with it later once the bees calmed down.  But instead I figured I would first take one of those empty boxes from the less-strong Warre hive so the first hive could maintain their building streak.

The trouble is, I smelled like angry bees, so when I went over to the other hive, they quickly got riled up, and then got angrier when I could barely lift the hive off the empty box on the bottom.  As I struggled to put the occupied boxes back in place, guard bees came streaming out of the hive and one stung me on each knee.  In a perfect world, I could have stepped back after the first sting, but I had to get the hive back on its base so it wouldn't tip over, and by the time that happened, a dozen bees had latched onto each knee, and many were managing to sting straight through my jeans.

Opening a Warre hiveSo I ran back to the trailer, batting at my legs, then rushed through room after room, brushing off bees in each space and shutting the door so the angry insects couldn't follow me.  Out the other door to brush off more bees on the porch, then back into the trailer to brush off the last few bees and pull on another pair of pants and our spare bee suit to mask the alarm smell.

Too worn out (and bee-shy) to do much work on the busy hive I'd begun with, I simply took off the top and quilt, plopped on the empty box and then the box of brood, closed the hive back up, and returned to the house to crush the two frames of honey I'd taken out of that box before realizing it was full of brood.

I'm not sure why the top box of our busiest hive was full of brood --- bees are supposed to start work at the top and move down into the new boxes I'd put underneath.  But nature doesn't always work the way books tell you it does, and the top box was definitely chock full of brood.  Since the hive is now too heavy to lift up, allowing me to nadir new boxes underneath, I'll just keep adding empties to the top if the bees continue to need the space.  Come spring, the colony will be smaller, the bees will have moved out of most of the boxes, and any honey left should be much easier to harvest.  Maybe by then I'll be able to harvest honey without making stupid mistakes and getting stung.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock much easier than keeping bees.
Posted Sat Aug 24 07:27:41 2013 Tags:
Automatic engine brake system on a Polaris 700 Sportsman

Another thing I like about the Polaris 700 ATV is the lack of a clutch.

The sensation of engine braking feels similar to rapid down shifting and maybe turning control of the clutch over to a computer makes that possible.

Posted Sat Aug 24 15:08:52 2013 Tags:
Peach harvest

I've always felt it was too much effort to keep track of yields if a crop isn't harvested all at once, so I don't know for sure how much fruit our kitchen peach produced this year.  My best guess is about four bushels, which is just about average for a mature peach and which feels like a lot.

Since I ran out of freezer room (having saved some space back for more green beans and soup), I did a lot of experimenting with alternative preservation techniques (compared to our tried-and-true peach leather).  I canned a load of peach chunks (which look good) and a load of peach sauce (in which I didn't leave enough head room, resulting in an eruption that ruined the seal on five jars during cooling).  And then there were the jams.

Berry jams

As I've written previously, it took some experimentation to figure out how to make cooked jams with no store-bought pectin, and I'm still working the kinks out of the process.  This week's experiment involved lowering the sugar levels, and also mixing in smaller amounts of other fruits.  I learned that pure white peaches will make a slightly-runny jam with two cups of sugar per batch (two cups of peach puree and two cups of apple-pectin juice), but I wouldn't want to go any lower with the sugar content if I expected my jam to set.

Juicing grapes

Maggie gave me two cups of pulpy grape juice that she had laboriously harvested from her Concords, and I turned those into a batch of jam as well.  Adding two cups of apple-pectin juice and two cups of sugar resulted in a fast, thick jam, making me think that I could have cut back the sugar content.  Or, better yet, mixed some of the grape juice with peach pulp for a tangy, well-set jam containing less sugar.

JamsSince I was making a batch of peach jam at the same time as the grape and didn't have quite three cups of the finished grape jam, I added a layer of peach on top of each jar for a very unique jam presentation.  This jam layering didn't work as well with less-dense jams, though, so be forewarned.

In the midst of all this peach-and-jam frenzy, I let the red raspberries and blueberries start to get away from me.  So, Saturday, I mixed peaches and berries to make a beautiful, slightly-tarter jam (even though the sugar content was my now-standard two cups of sugar per four-fruit-cup batch).  The red-raspberry/peach and blueberry/peach jams are still setting up, so I don't know how well they gelled, but they sure did taste delicious when I licked out the pans, and the colors are stunning.

Although all of this experimentation has been fun, I'm definitely glad the last few peaches are in the fridge for fresh eating, with none left on the tree.  I can't imagine having more than one tree producing at the same time, so take heed while planning your orchard!

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave home for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sun Aug 25 08:03:15 2013 Tags:
Freezing soup

Four years ago when the tomato blight hit this hard, Anna asked me to pull out the vines because they were too depressing.

This year, we've been harvesting what we can to make into soup.  Maybe not as much as last year, but we'll appreciate every nutrient packed morsel in January.

Posted Sun Aug 25 17:37:25 2013 Tags:

Legend cornFor some vegetables, we have favorite varieties and don't experiment at all, but for others, I'm still looking for the type that best suits our farm and palates.  This year, I grew three kinds of sweet corn, and thought I'd share my results.

Legend was not so legendary as an ultra-early corn, but I have another planting (pictured here) ripening up in a week or so that might change our minds.  Bodacious (which we've tried before) was good, but not the be-all-and-end-all corn that our hardware store proprietor's son said it would be.  (I suspect the son liked the name more than the corn.)

What lived up to the hype?  Mirai 160Y Yellow.  As their website explains: "Supersweet types (SH2) have high sugar for shipping but are tough and do not have good corn flavor.  Sugar Extenders types (SE) are very tender and have good flavor but are not sweet and sugary.  Types (SU) have old-time sweet corn flavor but are not tender or sweet.  Combining these 3 types of sweet corn give Mirai customers their truly unique, one-of-a-kind 'Mirai Experience' of the best taste, flavor and texture available in sweet corn today."  In our own garden and kitchen, a bit of Mirai corn was sweet enough to turn soup made from blighted tomatoes into a delicious feast.

Of course, like all the sweet corns we favor, Mirai is a hybrid, so we can't save the seeds.  And the variety is currently very highly priced --- I think I spent $4 on 100 seeds.  Still, as a special summer treat, the corn was worth it.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer keeps your flock's drinking water clean and the coop floor dry.
Posted Mon Aug 26 07:27:13 2013 Tags:
Milwaukee M12 cordless PVC shear cutter

I've been cutting a lot of PVC pipe lately.

Hack saw, coping saw, reciprocating and circular saw all paled in comparison to the new Milwaukee M12 PVC shear cutter.

It uses an ultra sharp blade with a pierced point design that leaves no burrs.

Posted Mon Aug 26 16:27:55 2013 Tags:
Saving seeds from summer squash

"Isn't there a band called Smashing Pumpkins?" I asked Mark as I slammed a hammer into our mature summer squash to extract the seeds.

He laughed at my pop-culture illiteracy and told me that during World War II, potential enemy saboteurs would be quizzed on popular culture and jailed if they failed.  I definitely wouldn't make the cut.  I've used up all those brain cells that ought to be devoted to TV characters and pop-culture icons by memorizing plant names and bird calls...

Saving cucumber

...and the intricacies of seed saving.

If you'd like to join the ranks of the terminally uncool, you can learn to save cucumber and squash seeds in past posts.  To protect your cool status, though, you'd probably be better off reading one of those glossy magazines in the supermarket checkout aisle.

Our chicken waterer may not be cool, but it keeps your flock cool with clean water.
Posted Tue Aug 27 07:26:28 2013 Tags:
using new ATV rack to carry multiple bags of chicken feed.

If you sandwich up two 50 pound bags of chicken feed in just the right way it allows enough space to squeeze in a 20 pound bag of chick starter feed.

Posted Tue Aug 27 16:30:18 2013 Tags:
Virginia Beauty apple

There are so many apple varieties most of us have never even heard of.  But how do you know which heirlooms to add to your orchard if you only have written descriptions to choose from?

Since heirloom apples are one of my obsessions, I keep trying to talk people into running apple tastings.  The apple gurus invariably guide me toward Monticello's annual apple tasting, but even though Jefferson gardened in the Virginia mountains just like me, I can't quite talk myself into 9 hours of driving (round trip) to taste his apples.

Cracked apple

This week, I found another reason (besides the driving) to try to keep my apple tastings closer to home.  Our most vigorous apple tree is a Virginia Beauty, and a few years ago we found some Virginia Beauty apples at a fruit stand to taste.  They weren't anything to write home about, and I stopped being as interested in my own tree.  But this year, my Virginia Beauty finally produced fruits, a few of which cracked from heavy rains and ripened early.  I took the world's ugliest apple inside and ate it myself rather than trying to force Mark to overlook its blemishes...and the fruit was probably the tastiest apple I've ever eaten!

Heirloom apples

The experience made me rethink counting on anyone else's apples to give me even a vague impression of what a variety will taste like.  When an apple tree fights insects and diseases and is fed by rotten wood and horse manure, its fruits aren't going to taste anything like those beautiful, sprayed globes from a traditional orchard.  In fact, homegrown tastes much, much better.

So, I'm no longer yearning to attend an apple tasting.  However, if anyone wants to create an online heirloom apple CSA (just enough to taste of each variety coming in the mail the month each is ripe), I'll sign up in a heartbeat.

Our chicken waterer raises healthy chickens who produce the tastiest eggs and meat.
Posted Wed Aug 28 07:14:38 2013 Tags:
putting a roof on the new star plate coop

We're still figuring out how to finish the roof on the Star Plate chicken coop.

Tune in tomorrow to see how well our alternative idea for a roof works out.

Posted Wed Aug 28 15:41:41 2013 Tags:
Teriyaki rabbit

Ever since Shannon shared some of his rabbit-raising adventures, I've been wanting to taste rabbit meat.  So I was thrilled when a frozen rabbit showed up on my door step, courtesy of my cousin-in-law's mother, who had the rabbit given to her in exchange for free legal services.
Dutch oven rabbit
I didn't know anything about the rabbit --- was it young or old; wild-caught or farm-raised?  So I opted to slow cook it in a Dutch oven at 300 degrees for ninety minutes to ensure palatability.  On Mark's advice, I first marinated the meat in teriyaki sauce (which I should have done with our failed squirrel taste test).

The result?  Delicious!  The rabbit came parted out, and Mark and I shared pieces of what would be the breast and wing on a chicken.  Both tasted very much like the relevant parts of a chicken, in fact, although I thought the rabbit foreleg was much better than any chicken wing I've ever eaten --- moister and richer in flavor.  The aroma while cooking was also enticing, and I can't wait to make a broth out of the bones.

That one rabbit created quite a lot of meat.  We've probably got enough left for another three or four meals for the two of us.  While we're not adding new livestock to our farm anytime soon, this taste test suggests that rabbits could definitely be on our culinary list if we found a good source.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens healthy so they lay more eggs.
Posted Thu Aug 29 07:17:00 2013 Tags:
how to make the best chicken nesting box

How tall should a nest box be?

We went with 14 inches high and 13 wide...all from pieces of scrap wood.

Mounting was easy with a couple of shelf brackets.

Posted Thu Aug 29 15:36:17 2013 Tags:

Gardeners of EdenI've been slowly digesting Gardeners of Eden, by Dan Dagget, for the last month or so.  Usually, I know what I think of a book right away, but Gardeners of Eden both inspires me and repels me, making it hard to write a review.  As usual, I'll start with the good parts.

Those of you who have studied natural resource management have probably heard about the great divide between preservationists and restorationists.  Preservationists believe that the best thing we can do to any wild area is to leave it alone, preserving it in its natural state.  Restorationists, on the other hand, believe that we should actively work to improve problems in the natural world (perhaps by carrying out prescribed burns, grazing, or timber cuts).  The philosophy of preservationism is found in the management of most National Parks in the U.S., while restorationists hold sway over the National Forests.

Dan Dagget started out as a preservationist (just like I did), and was an environmental activist in groups including EarthFirst! for decades.  However, over time, he started seeing nearby ranchers in the West who were producing healthier ecosystems than were found in neighboring leave-it-alone preserves.  Dagget researched pre-Settlement human impacts on these landscapes and realized that the land had evolved to depend on a partnership with humanity.  Rare onions and mussels and fishes and birds all seemed to expand their numbers in areas with thoughtful human impact, and Dagget concluded we were doing our ecosystems a disservice by acting like aliens intent only on protecting the landscape from our own depredations.

Dan DaggetWhile inspiring from a permaculture perspective (don't we all want to believe we can create forest gardens and pastures that will improve the natural world while feeding us?), I kept finding flaws in Dagget's logic.  For example, Native Americans weren't evenly scattered across the continent, so doesn't it stand to reason that certain areas have evolved to prefer lower human impact than others?  And can you really judge the health of an ecosystem by the population of one endangered species or by the total number of species present?  After all, edges are often lauded for containing more species than either region they divide, but ecological studies show that field/forest edges are net sinks for songbirds since the birds nest in spots with higher-than-usual predator pressure, resulting in the loss of their offspring and often their own lives.  Could some of Dagget's supposedly-topnotch ranches have a similar effect going on?

Overall, I felt like Gardeners of Eden was a thought-provoking book that suffered from a bit too much pseudoscience.  If you're willing to read it with a critical eye --- especially if you live in the American West --- you'll probably get a lot out of the text and beautiful photos.  But I'd hesitate to pass the book on to a less-than-critical reader.

Our EZ Miser makes it easy to give chickens clean water on pasture.
Posted Fri Aug 30 07:21:40 2013 Tags:
putting a roof on the star plate chicken coop building

We made some progress on the Star Plate chicken coop roof today.

Choosing a safe spot for the ladder is the tricky part.

We're using a roll of 28 inch flashing material that gets overlapped at each seam.

Posted Fri Aug 30 16:11:06 2013 Tags:
Onion drying rack

Garlic curing towerLast year's drying tower was a vast improvement over my cobbled-together vegetable-curing stations of previous years, but the racks were still problematic.  The worst issue was access --- climbing up a ladder with baskets of heavy produce is dangerous and tiring, which led to me ignoring the contents of the racks until absolutely necessary.  The vegetables also sometimes got re-wet by rain splashes, and I felt the roof might have been a bit too close to the top shelves, causing the contents to cook on very hot days.

With a big front porch, this year I finally had room to cure vegetables in plain sight.  I took advantage of the opportunity by spreading onions across twenty square feet or so.  But even that method was imperfect, and not just because I wanted the space for other things.  The onions were more prone to damage on the ground, and less prone to drying well while sitting on a solid surface.

Enter drying rack 2.0!  My stepmother-in-law designs displays and packaging for a pet food company, and she let us know that some display racks were in need of a good home.  One Drying rackcame home with me, and I quickly assembled it and determined the rack was the best thing since sliced bread.  The wheels are still out in the car, but once we dig them out, the unit will even be rollable and easy to move inside if a sudden frost threatens.

I think Jayne has more of these display units looking for a home, and if so, I plant to add more racks to each individual unit.  For drying purposes, I could easily fit about eight levels in one unit and barely use up any floor space at all.  Since the shelves are removable, it'll be easy to change the distance between racks when the time comes to pull in the butternuts and then the sweet potatoes.

In the meantime, our storage onions are finishing up the curing process in their new home.  Most are fully dried and bagged, but the ones that seemed to need a bit more time (or to be eaten sooner) are now laid individually on the rack surface for more even drying.  Thanks so much, Jayne and Rose Nell, for the world's best drying rack!

Our automatic chicken waterer lets you fill the waterer and forget it for weeks at a time.
Posted Sat Aug 31 07:32:00 2013 Tags:
ATV dump bed photos

One of our readers sent us some photos of his ATV modifications.

Tim says he can take it off easily when needed, but might make it a little more narrow to avoid snagging.

A surface area like that would make hauling broken bales of straw a little easier. Maybe I could use part of our Bucket Hauler for something like this?

Posted Sat Aug 31 14:24:36 2013 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
Want more in-depth information? Browse through our books.

Or explore more posts by date or by subject.

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.

profile counter myspace

Powered by Branchable Wiki Hosting.

Required disclosures:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a few pennies every time you buy something using one of my affiliate links. Don't worry, though --- I only recommend products I thoroughly stand behind!

Also, this site has Google ads on it. Third party vendors, including Google, use cookies to serve ads based on a user's prior visits to a website. Google's use of advertising cookies enables it and its partners to serve ads to users based on their visit to various sites. You can opt out of personalized advertising by visiting this site.