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

archives for 09/2013

Sep 2013

Closing off the
composting toilet wallsNext month, we'll be swapping over to the other composting toilet hole, but I wanted to go ahead and put the roughage on the bottom now while I have corn stalks available.  Learning from our mistakes, I asked Mark to use some of the better junk tin from the barn roof replacement to cover up the cracks in the walls of this new chamber.

"I told you so!" Mark crowed.  He did indeed.  Back when we initially designed the composting toilet, I adamantly refused to make the walls solid, but Mark's gut reaction was right.  I'm glad he's still willing to fix my design flaws even though he knew better from the beginning.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer ensures your chickens don't have to drink their own manure.
Posted Sun Sep 1 07:51:03 2013 Tags:
star plate roofing clip

A third or fourth appendage would be helpful on a job like this, but the next best thing for holding a piece of sheet metal in place is one of those medium to large plastic spring clamps.

Posted Sun Sep 1 13:48:46 2013 Tags:

Liberty AppleI rustled up another early Virginia Beauty apple along with the first ripe Liberty apple so that Mark and I could taste test them together.  The Liberty we tasted had a simpler flavor than the Virginia Beauty, wasn't as dense, and was sweeter, all of which led to me giving it a lower score and Mark giving it a higher score than the Virginia Beauty.  (We have slightly different apple tastes.)  For the record, here are our variety ratings so far for our homegrown apples:

Early Transparent
Virginia Beauty

Enterprise appleYet to come in this year's spectacular fruiting run is six Enterprise apples from our high-density planting.  I had fun lifting up leaves close to the Enterprise fruits and seeing green spots where the fruit was hidden from the sun, a bit like developing images on sun-sensitive paper. Some people even stick paper shapes onto their apples to create specially-colored fruits, but I let nature do the work for me.

Chicago Hardy fig

Ripe figsEven though all of the apples were accounted for, there was one more fruiting surprise waiting for me.  Last year at this time, the first Chicago Hardy fig was ripening up, but the fruits all looked stiff and green on Monday, so I figured they were running late.  Then, out of the blue, a fig tripled in size Wednesday, and by Saturday there were three ready to eat!  The fruits are huge and numerous this year --- maybe we'll be able to eat our fill for the first time?

The EZ Miser is our second-generation chicken waterer, even simpler to use.
Posted Mon Sep 2 07:31:11 2013 Tags:
chicken tractor fixing up

We've had some troubled hens escaping from their pastures lately and we also have some areas of the garden that could go for some agressive chicken scratching.

The solution seemed obvious after Anna suggested it. Tune up our last remaining chicken tractor for some End of the Summer poultry powered weed eating and fertilization.

It only took an hour to get this tractor back in running order. I think it's held up pretty good for being out in the elements these past 4 and a half years.

Posted Mon Sep 2 15:14:31 2013 Tags:
Apple kill mulch"I was wondering if there is something you do to your fruit trees each year to help them grow. I have just started doing that espalier thing for my trees. It is their first year, I put in aged horse manure and mulch around each tree. But I was wondering what type of annual chores your do for your trees."
--- John

I'm a very hands-on gardener, so even our fruit trees (the lowest -maintenance parts of our garden) get a lot of care scattered throughout the year.  It starts with pruning and feeding each tree in late winter, the latter generally being a topdressing of horse manure scattered very lightly underneath the canopy.  In a perfect world, I would mulch each tree at the same time I fertilize it, then keep topping up the mulch as needed throughout the year, but in reality our older trees tend to have small weeds grow up underneath by summer, then Mark cuts the growth back a couple of times with a weedeater.  If I have extra cardboard, I may lay down a kill mulch instead, which is particularly handy around younger trees who can't stand much competition.

Training a peach treeYounger trees also get more structural attention in the summer when I prune a second time (removing watersprouts) and train the limbs into shape.  At the moment, I'm training peaches to the open center system (which I love) and apples to the central-leader system (which I'm not as sure about yet).  After they start fruiting, most trees will begin to maintain their shape on their own and will need less summer pruning and training, but the warm-weather attention is very handy with young trees since it keeps them on track to produce the growth you really want while they're small.

Culled peachSpeaking of fruit, I start paying attention to the developing fruits as soon as the petals drop.  I worry myself sick about late frosts (although I've yet to come up with any preventative that works there), then after the last freeze, I thin the tiny fruits hard.  I think thinning is one of the most-overlooked aspects of getting high-quality fruit in the backyard --- don't skip it!  I also perform some pest management, which mostly consists of removing troubled fruits and twigs.

Peaches ripening insideFinally, I pick and pick and pick!  I've learned that fruits on the same tree don't ripen all at once, and I get a much better harvest if I pluck early fruits as soon as they start to develop infection, then keep picking problematic or particularly ripe fruits as the season proceeds.  We gorge on fruits, dry them, then give extras away or experiment with other preservation techniques.

Sweet potato mulchThat's the bare bones of our fruit-tree management schedule, but, of course, I'm always experimenting with new techniques.  For example, this summer, I'm trying out sweet potatoes planted beyond the tree canopies then used as a living, noncompetitive groundcover under the trees.  Last winter, I started experimenting with grafting new varieties onto medium-sized pear trees, and next year my dwarfing apple rootstock will be big enough to stool and propagate to extend our high-density planting.  But that's all advanced tree husbandry --- the techniques mentioned previously should be enough to get you off to a very good start.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of providing clean water for your flock.
Posted Tue Sep 3 07:47:30 2013 Tags:
using an electric PVC shear cutter to cut pipe sections

Clamping a block onto the side of the Milwaukee M12 PVC shear cutter allows me to cut small pipe sections at the same length without measuring and marking.

Why am I cutting several small sections of PVC pipe? To make the new and improved EZ miser chicken waterer.

Posted Tue Sep 3 15:59:20 2013 Tags:
Wild oyster mushrooms

I always mean to work a bit harder on getting my homegrown mushroom production perfected so we can pick mushrooms whenever we want.  The trouble is that the woods Mushroom pestochurn out high-quality oyster mushrooms with such regularity that I have little incentive to get my act together. 

It's hard to complain, though, when the box-elder by the barn provides the main ingredient for wild-mushroom-and-basil pesto for lunch, then for mushroom green beans for supper.  Delicious!

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock as simple as wildcrafting your dinner.
Posted Wed Sep 4 07:48:50 2013 Tags:

Talking chickenIt's time to vote on your favorite entry in our "I wish I'd known" chicken contest!  I've summed up all the entries here, and you can vote by commenting on the relevant post over on our chicken blog or by liking or commenting on the relevant post on our facebook page.  We're looking forward to sharing an EZ Miser with the winner and an Avian Aqua Miser Original or a DIY kit with the runnerup.  Voting ends Friday!

Posted Wed Sep 4 12:39:07 2013 Tags:
using ATV to haul lumber

I think there might be a better way to haul lumber on the ATV.

Maybe some kind of wooden holder that goes on the front and back to extend the rack surface area by 7 or 8 inches on each side?

Posted Wed Sep 4 16:20:52 2013 Tags:
Red peppers

What does early fall look like on our farm?  It's all about fall colors, fall flowers, and (of course) the fall garden.

For us, fall colors come in the form of red peppers.  Since we prefer our peppers ripe and raw, I don't put in the effort to start a bunch of plants early.  Instead, we just wait until the days start to chill down for this annual treat.  (We also have the more traditional fall colors in the woods, with buckeyes and blackgum having colored up weeks ago.)


The fall flowers, of course, are still blooming like crazy.  I particularly enjoy the jewelweed, which attracts hummingbirds (and is so easy to rip up that I let it go to seed even at garden edges).  All these fall flowers mean the nectar flow is continuing, and bees (wild and cultivated) are everywhere.

Baby Brussels sprout

The fall garden is up and running, too, although we're not eating from it yet.  I figure pea flowers a week ago mean we'll get our first succulent nibbles soon.

While we wait, I've been counting the rather excessive number of Brussels sprouts I installed this year.  Last year, only four plants were in a sunny enough spot to bear, and we loved the vegetable so much we opted to quadruple its square footage this year.  But then I got spooked by the early onset of tomato blight and set out another dozen or so Brussels sprouts between the ailing vines.  Is it possible we'll get sick of Brussels sprouts this winter?

Any signs of fall showing up in your neck of the woods?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Thu Sep 5 07:40:31 2013 Tags:
installing a couple of doors on the star plate chicken coop

Got the Star Plate chicken coop doors installed today.

We'll use the small door for most visits and keep the big one closed except for when we need to get a wheel barrow in to replenish the deep bedding.

I used hardware cloth on the screen door to increase ventilation.

Posted Thu Sep 5 15:52:22 2013 Tags:
Calcium water

Making jam with
honeyAfter reading about my experiments with low-sugar jamming, one of our readers kindly sent me several packages of Pomona's Pectin to try.  (Thank you, Rhonda!)

Pomona's Pectin was discovered by Euell Gibbons' diabetic brother who experimented with various ways to create low-sugar jam.  Gibbons learned that the pectin in citrus peels (low-methoxyl pectin) uses calcium phosphate (the form of calcium found in cow's milk) instead of heat and sugar to create a gel.  Modern homesteaders repeat Gibbons' feats the easy way by purchasing Pomona's Pectin, which comes with both the low-methoxyl pectin and the calcium phosphate.

Pomona's Pectin

With Pomona's Pectin, you can use much less sweetener than with normal jams (about 0.25 to 0.5 cups of sugar or equivalent per cup of fruit), and you can also use sugar-substitutes like honey.  I won't repeat the jamming instructions here, since they come in each box of pectin.  But the upshot is that you mix the calcium with water, put a bit of calcium water (and lemon juice) in your pureed fruit, mix the pectin with your sweetener, then bring the fruit mixture to a boil, add the pectin, and bring it all back to a boil.  You can eat the jam as-is, or can it in a hot-water bath.

I was nearly out of peaches by the time my Pomona's Pectin arrived, so I only made one batch of jam with frozen puree and honey.  The result was delicious --- a lot like freezer jam, but less sweet and thus fruitier.  It didn't gel as well as some of my other jams, but I suspect tweaking the recipe would have fixed that problem.  I guess I'll have to wait and report back during jamming season next year!

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free treat for pampered backyard hens.
Posted Fri Sep 6 07:29:30 2013 Tags:
how the new high density apple growing method is working out with photos

It's been less than a year since we put in new apple trees with the high density method.

One tree died, but the rest look great. The Enterprise tree has 6 full size apples!

Posted Fri Sep 6 15:44:06 2013 Tags:
Laundry under the peach tree

When I laid out my plantings on the north side of the trailer, I figured I'd fill in as much space as possible, then take things out as necessary when the trees got bigger.  So I included vegetable garden, brambles, and even a clothesline in areas that will be Food junglebeneath the eventual canopy spread of my trees.

The great thing about the fill-it-in-from-the-beginning method is that there's less mowing and high yields right away.  The bad part is that I actually have to rip out those plants that are now making it impossible to walk around our peach tree.

I plan to soften the blow by replacing some of the shadowed blackberries with a home-propagated gooseberry.  And maybe I can move one of the blackberries over a few feet and get in another year or two of production?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to creating a clean and low-work chicken environment.
Posted Sat Sep 7 08:44:56 2013 Tags:
Star Plate chicken coop half wall covering

Making a Star Plate door extra big has a price to pay.

You need to cover a half wall section on each side.

Metal roofing panels are easy to attach once you get it cut to size.

Posted Sat Sep 7 15:49:04 2013 Tags:
Bee hive on a stump

I go back and forth on the issue of swarm management.  For years, I very successfully managed my hives so they wouldn't swarm, but this year I toed the Warre line and let my hive release a swarm.
Bee swarm
Before I go into the results of that swarm, I figured I should back up and tell those of you without bees a bit about why hives swarm.  If it's healthy, most bee hives have the impulse to reproduce in the spring, but they reproduce at the super-organism level.  So, rather than producing an apple like a tree does, a bee hive produces a swarm, complete with everything needed to start a new colony (queen and workers).

Unfortunately, a hive that puts all that energy into building a swarm tends not to put away much honey.  Which is why so many beekeepers manage hives to prevent swarms.  On the other hand, my autumn varroa mite counts confirmed the big benefit of allowing swarming in a chemical-free bee hive.  Our mother hive (which released a swarm this spring) had a grand total of 6 varroa mites on the sticky board after a three day count, and the swarm we caught dropped only 1 mite during the same three days.  In contrast, the sticky board beneath the package we purchased this spring contained 86 mites.

Mite sticky boards

To put those numbers in perspective, you have to estimate how many mites that would be per thousand bees in the hive (or at least guesstimate the relative size of the colonies).  This year's package hive is one of the strongest I've raised, so it's to be expected that more bees would host more mites.  However, I can't imagine there are more than twice as many bees in the package hive compared to the other two colonies, so swarming definitely helped break the pest cycle in the other two hives.

Whether the benefits of swarming will outweigh the lower honey yields on our farm is yet to be seen.  I'd really love to eventually develop a beekeeping method that both keeps bees alive without chemicals and provides sweet treats for the beekeeper.

Our chicken waterer is a tried and true method of making backyard hens easy and clean to care for.
Posted Sun Sep 8 07:23:52 2013 Tags:
Chicks on a chicken tractor

The chicks discovered the chicken tractor.

They decided it made a perfect jungle gym.

Permaculture is all about stacking, right?
Posted Sun Sep 8 13:56:35 2013 Tags:

EZ Miser built from a kitCongratulations to Robin and Eva, who won free chicken waterers as part of our last contest!  Since we've finally perfected the EZ Miser enough that we're selling it in kit form (10% off this week!), we decided to celebrate with another contest.

To enter, email with one or more photos and your answer to this question: "What is your favorite chicken variety and why?"  To make this round a bit fairer, we'll be judging the winners ourselves so it doesn't turn into a popularity contest.

The fine print: All entries must reach my inbox by Sunday (September 15) 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 your choice of a premade EZ Miser or a 4 pack EZ Miser kit, and the second-place winner will choose between a 3 pack DIY kit, 1 Avian Aqua Miser Original, or a 2 pack EZ Miser kit.  I look forward to receiving your entries and to sharing clean water with your flock!

(And don't forget to spread the word among your chicken-keeping friends about our new EZ Miser kits.  We learned from our mistakes last time around and have a bunch of kits stockpiled, so you won't see a decline in post quality if we have to fill a deluge of orders.  Thanks for your help keeping Walden Effect running!)

Posted Mon Sep 9 07:18:42 2013 Tags:
truck load of 2 gallon buckets with Lucy in background

We spent most of today on EZ Miser production.

Our new source for 2 gallon buckets is the local hardware store in St Paul.

Posted Mon Sep 9 16:56:11 2013 Tags:

The Big Book of
Preserving the HarvestKayla recommended that I check out Carol W. Costenbader's The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest, and since the text was available at my local library, I figured I didn't have anything to lose.  With chapters on canning, drying, freezing, jams, pickles, vinegars, and cold storage, this initially looked like the go-to reference for every well-rounded homesteader to have on her shelf.  Closer scrutiny, though, showed that the recipes included are more fancy and less basic than you'd want if this was your single reference guide.

On the other hand, The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest shines in the chapter introductions, where Costenbader walks you through all of the basic techniques for each preservation method.  I was particularly taken with the canning section since I haven't canned extensively and didn't know that people at higher altitudes might need to leave more head space (so that's why my peach sauce erupted!) and that minerals in your water can cause the top layer of canned food to turn brown or gray even though it's still perfectly safe.

When I first started the book-learning part of my homesteading education about 15 years ago, Stocking Up seemed like the best option for an all-around basic preservation guide, but since then I've mostly gravitated toward websites.  What resources do you use when you want to know how long to blanch your green beans before freezing and how much head space to leave on top of your canned tomatoes?

Our chicken waterer keeps your hens happy so you can have more time to make jam.
Posted Tue Sep 10 07:48:22 2013 Tags:
how to make a double nest box with sloped roof

The latest nest box addition worked out so well we decided to make another one.

We've got more chickens in this coop so I made it a double.

I thought the front roost extension would help lure in the more curious chickens and then it should turn into a game of follow the leader.

Posted Tue Sep 10 16:04:39 2013 Tags:

Mayo Indian
amaranthTwo readers left comments last week on old posts about amaranth we grew for grain a few years ago, which reminded me I wanted to share my experience with growing amaranth for greens.  Generally, you'll choose either a greens or a grain variety when you plant (although, presumably, both are multi-purpose to a certain extent).  Our first experiment, when growing grain amaranth, was with Manna de Montana, which I had trouble getting to germinate but which then grew into huge plants and produced lots of seeds.  (We didn't even sample the leaves because I didn't know they were edible at the time.)  Joe (a reader) kindly sent us some seeds for Mayo Indian amaranth this year, mentioning that he likes the variety for greens, so we decided to give it a shot.

I planted the amaranth late (in mid-July), but it still jumped right up and grew like crazy.  The plants have a reddish tinge to the leaves and produce red seed heads so pretty that my mom put some in a vase as an ornamental after coming to visit.  I wasn't as keen on the taste, though.  The leaves were edible, but when raw they had a mucilaginous texture like sassafras leaves (interesting in small amounts, but you wouldn't want to eat a lot of them), and cooked the flavor didn't stand up to that of our summer favorite, Swiss chard.

On the other hand, after a search of the internet, I discovered that Mayo Indian amaranth is usually grown for the grain, so I guess I've yet to try a true greens amaranth.  Anyone have a favorite variety to recommend?

Our EZ Miser kits are the economical way to enjoy all the benefits of this second-generation chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Sep 11 07:36:33 2013 Tags:
the new chicks exploring past the trailer for first time

Today was the day our new chicks decided to explore what's on the other side of the trailer.

Soon they'll be big enough to scratch up mulch, but before that we'll move them to their own private pasture.

Posted Wed Sep 11 15:44:44 2013 Tags:
Box turtle in sweet potatoes

People throw around the term "symbiosis" all the time, but most don't realize that the word only means that two (or more) organisms are living close together, not that they're helping each other out.  Symbiotic relationships can be parasitic (one organism benefits and the other is harmed), commensalistic (one organism benefits and the other is neutral), or mutualistic (both organisms benefit).

Why should you care?  If you're a permaculturalist trying to build guilds or an organic gardener experimenting with companion planting, it's handy to know where your combinations sit on the mutualism-to-parasitism spectrum.  That way you can grade the interactions --- parasitism is probably a failure, commensalism is a moderate success, and mutualism is the holy grail of the guild world.

Sweet potato cover crop

While my sweet-potato cover-crop experiment is closer to a commensalism than a mutualism, I'm so happy with the results that I'm going to deem it a glowing success.  This spring, I set out sweet potato slips into some beds I've developed just past the root zone of a peach and an apple in the forest garden, and the sweet potatoes thrived.  They soon formed a living mulch beneath the trees, but only barely rooted there, so they didn't steal any nutrients.  When harvest time came this week, I discovered huge, beautiful tubers, and the tops of the sweet potatoes created a deep mulch ring around each tree, perfect for taking the trees into winter.  Meanwhile, the bare ground left behind in the sweet potato beds made it easy to sprinkle oat seeds for even more biomass production.

What would turn this symbiosis from a commensalism to a mutualism?  If the sweet potatoes had done better close to the trees than they would have done in a vegetable garden bed.  I'd be curious to hear if you've developed any true mutualisms in your garden, but in the meantime, I whole-heartedly recommend sweet-potato cover crops for anyone needing to build biomass around fruit trees.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave home for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Sep 12 08:11:20 2013 Tags:
installing new nest box in the old chicken coop
The new nest box is now installed and open for business.
Posted Thu Sep 12 16:15:08 2013 Tags:
Turtle eating slug

At first, I was puzzled by the box turtle I photographed for yesterday's post.  Why was she hiding under the sweet potato leaves when the turtle-friendly zone is currently around the dropped raspberries fifty feet away?  Then I took a look at the turtle's chin and realized she had been chowing down on slugs.

Toad in straw

Some gardeners stop mulching entirely after a few years because they feel the slug populations get too high.  We have seen an increase in slugs since we started mulching seriously, but our resident critters seem to keep them mostly in line.  Along with box turtles, other wildlife I've seen in our garden intent on slug patrol include skinks, worm snakes, garter snakes, ringneck snakes, shrews, mole salamanders, wolf spiders, and even (potentially) some species of slugs.

So far, the benefits of mulch outweigh the negatives, but I suspect the tables would turn if we tilled.  Chopping up the soil would invariably also chop up a lot of our slug predators, giving slugs the upper hand.  So maybe the moral is --- either till and don't mulch or mulch and don't till.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Fri Sep 13 07:15:59 2013 Tags:
hen peeking out of new nest box with fancy chicken sculpture handle in view

Finished up the new nest box with a proper exterior door installation.

One brave Leghorn hen settled in and sat there through all the construction noise.

Posted Fri Sep 13 15:45:18 2013 Tags:
Dried figs

Drying rackI've always looked forward to Friday the 13ths.  I figure if everyone else is sure they're going to have bad luck on those days, there must be lots of good luck floating around looking for a home, and if I focus, it'll stick to me.  Here's a disjointed account of all of my Friday the 13th good luck.

I discovered that slices of our Chicago Hardy figs dry quickly and taste delicious.  Yum!

Our curing rack is now 100% full with winter bounty.  I've moved most of the onions inside to make room for butternuts and sweet potatoes, and yet some spillover squash still have to cure on the floor.

Good soil

Transplanted blackberryI dug out the blackberries being shaded by the peach and discovered that the soil left behind has been improved dramatically by five years of mulch and compost tossed on top of the soil.  Transplanting one of the blackberries out of the shade zone and into a hole in the lawn reminded me that most of that area is pure clay with about an inch and a half of slightly-dark topsoil near the surface.  In contrast, the soil in the old blackberry row is loose and dark for at least five or six inches down.  Thanks, worms!

Green bean and tomato

And, despite the blight, we're still getting tomatoes!  The Crazy (a large tommy-toe), in particular, barely seems phased by the fungus.  Next time I think it's going to be a blight year, I should include half a dozen plants of this productive variety in our garden.

Anything lucky happen to you on Friday the 13th?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free treat for pampered backyard hens.
Posted Sat Sep 14 07:23:13 2013 Tags:
using a bee suit to mow chicken pasture

Mowing this segment of our chicken pasture system requires moving within the flight path of hundreds of worker bees doing their thing.

This hive has been a bit aggressive the past few months, which is why I put the bee suit on yesterday.

Posted Sat Sep 14 15:26:04 2013 Tags:

Malabar spinachI was interested to see so many comments on my post about eating amaranth leaves, especially Nita's suggestion of Orach as an alternative.  We may try Orach next year, but in the meantime I should report on the other summer green we experimented with in 2013 --- Malabar Spinach.  (Thanks for the seeds, Shannon!)

Malabar spinach is a lot like amaranth in that I think it could slip into an urban homestead's ornamental flower garden without raising eyebrows.  The flavor is superior to amaranth, in my opinion, being very spinachy and mild (acceptable even for salads).

The main problem with turning Malabar spinach into a main crop is that the plant is a vigorous vine, so we'd have to provide a trellis.  The one pictured here grew sideways until it was able to take over the stake I'd put in the ground beside our baby Issai kiwi, then headed straight up.

I was quite content with Swiss chard being our sole summer green until three years ago when blister beetles showed up.  Ever since, these night-time nibblers have turned my Swiss chard into a mess of holes and frass, with only the youngest leaves available for eating.  Maybe I should be focusing on blister beetle control, not looking for a replacement summer green?

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Sun Sep 15 08:31:47 2013 Tags:
using ATV to haul massive amount of 2 gallon buckets

It took 2 ATV trips to haul 100 two gallon buckets back to the barn.

45 stack up nicely in the back with 10 in the front.

Posted Sun Sep 15 15:07:19 2013 Tags:

Berry apronLong-time readers will be aware that our movie-star neighbor loves to harvest Autumn Olive berries, which he freezes for the winter and also turns into delicious fruit leather.  His farm is overrun with the invasive bush, so he only has to walk a few feet from his door to pick, but that picking can be time-consuming.  So this year, our neighbor developed the Berry Apron, a DIY picking tool to make his harvests even easier.  You can follow along at home.

The first step is to take a length of PVC pipe like you'd use for quick hoops and thread a rope through it.  It's even better if the pipe has already been used for quick hoops and has developed a bend.  Using this bend (or what you envision the bend would be) as a guide, sew a channel into an old sheet (the same way you'd make the top of a curtain fit over a curtain rod), then push the pipe (with its embedded rope) through.  Tie the ends of the rope Picking
autumn olive berriestogether to pull the pipe into a solid curve, then make a hole at the peak of the pipe's curve to attach another rope, which will go around your neck.  Finally, use a bungee cord to secure the Berry Apron around your back, and you're ready to pick.

The great thing about the Berry Apron, my neighbor reports, is that it lets you pick with both hands at once without worrying about channeling the berries into a bucket.  He and Nellie (pictured above) plucked about two gallons of Autumn Olive berries into their Berry Aprons in about half an hour, and he could envision using the same aprons with highbush blueberries or any other non-thorny bush berry.

Harvesting autumn
olive berries

I'll be curious to hear if anyone else tries the Berry Apron and streamlines the process.  Our neighbor was already thinking that version 2.0 might be made with a screen instead of cloth, so bugs and dirt fall through.  Any other suggestions to make this good idea even better?

Our chicken waterer is Mark's invention to bring clean water to the backyard.
Posted Mon Sep 16 07:12:44 2013 Tags:
pulling the chick brooder to a new location with pretty flowers

One advantage to not having a mother hen raising new chicks is a reduced foraging perimeter.

We like to have our new chicks near the garden without being close enough to do any real damage.

Moving the brooder a hundred feet seems to reset their foraging zone, but when they're this big we start fencing them in over by the barn with some temporary plastic fence.

Posted Mon Sep 16 16:10:23 2013 Tags:
Anna Sunn hemp
Sunn hemp flower

I've noticed by reading back over old posts that I tend to be less than enthralled with just about every cover crop the first time I grow it, so take this with a grain of salt, but...I'm less than enthralled with sunn hemp.  Here are the negatives that jumped out at me this summer:

  • Japanese beetles adore the plants, which meant I either had to extend my beetle-plucking to the cover crop beds (and cover crops are supposed to be no work) or let our beetle population expand.
  • Sunn hemp doesn't cover the ground quickly (or, really, at all) since it grows up instead of out, meaning that weeds pop up in the bare soil around sunn hemp's feet.  I didn't pull them because cover crops aren't supposed to have to be weeded, so our forest garden has a lot of tall weeds getting ready to go to seed.
  • I don't feel like I got nearly as much biomass production per unit area with sunn hemp as with sweet potatoes, and sunn hemp didn't provide an edible return.
  • Sunn hemp can't handle the more-waterlogged parts of our garden (but, then, only oats and rye have thrived there).
Forest garden

All of that said, sunn hemp is pretty, especially now that it's starting to bloom.  And the plants are legumes, so they fix nitrogen, which my other cover crops don't do.  Still, they failed to meet my two primary goals for cover crops (maximum biomass production and weed suppression), so I don't think we'll try sunn hemp again.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water and dry coop floors.
Posted Tue Sep 17 07:28:14 2013 Tags:
Georgia boot update

One of the Georgia work boots started leaking. I make a point not to submerge them in water, but today some wet grass was enough to make one of my socks damp.

I'm pretty disappointed in the longevity. It was a wet year, which meant most of the time during this 11 month trial I was wearing my Muck boots, which are still going strong, and there was no walking around construction sites with nails pointing up.

Maybe the next brand I try will come closer to feeling like a fair deal?

Posted Tue Sep 17 16:01:50 2013 Tags:

Enterprise appleThe last new-to-us apple variety we got to taste this year was Enterprise, from one of our high-density trees.  The apples were big and beautiful, and their flesh was crisp and just the right texture, which is probably why Mark gave the variety his highest rating of the year --- an 8.  I only rated the flavor a 5, though, because I felt it lacked the complexity (and particularly the tartness) you'd find in my current favorite (Virginia Beauty).  In fact, I'd say the Enterprise we tasted had a flavor very much like a top-of-the-line Red Delicious.

On the other hand, a bit of research suggests that I might like Enterprise better after a month or two in storage.  The developers of Enterprise report: "Flavor is sprightly at harvest but mellows to moderately subacid after storage."  (I've come to realize that "sprightly" in apple descriptions is what I call "insipid".)  Enterprise is a good keeper, lasting up to six months in storage, so maybe when we have more than six fruits to enjoy, I'll be able to run a second taste test with aged apples.

Enterprise pedigree
By the way, did you notice I wrote "the developers of Enterprise" above?  I chose a mix of heirloom varieties and new developments for our high density planting, and Enterprise is one of the latter.  This modern apple came out of the Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois cooperative apple breeding program (thus the "pri" in the name) using the crosses shown above.  I'm definitely impressed by how well the scientists imparted disease-resistance in the variety since Enterprise has fared the best of all our new varieties in our chemical-free orchard, but the taste issue is still up for debate.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock clean, fast, and fun.
Posted Wed Sep 18 07:59:04 2013 Tags:
Salmon Faverolles

Congratulations to the winners of our chicken variety contest!  We had Ameraucana henan astonishing number of good entries, so I made Mark choose the winners.  (Otherwise, you all would have gotten prizes.)

First place went to Julie for the beautiful shot above of her grandkids and their Salmon Faverolles.  ("Three models for the price of one!" Mark exclaimed.)

Second prize went to Kaat who captured the whiskers on her Ameracauna perfectly. 

Honorable mention (but, unfortunately, no prize), went to Kathleen's Buff Orpington:

Cuddling chickens

...Edith's Buff Orpingtons:

Mother hen

...and Pamela's ISA Brown who survived a neck injury and bounced back in three days:

ISA Brown chicken

To hear more about these and other breeds, stay tuned to our chicken blog over the next few weeks.  And a huge thank you to everyone who entered!

Don't forget to tell your friends about our new and improved chicken waterer, now available in kit form as well as premade.
Posted Wed Sep 18 12:00:57 2013 Tags:
closing up the screen door for the cold season

It's that time of year when the kitchen screen door gets closed up until warm weather 2014.

Posted Wed Sep 18 15:56:49 2013 Tags:
Planting garlic

Garlic week is bittersweet.  This is our last big planting push of the year --- sixteen beds of garlic and potato onions.  All that's left to plant this year after the alliums go in is four final beds of lettuce, plus rye anywhere I can fit the cover crop in.

Butternut squash

The weather seemed to want to drive the message home, with the first cold rains of the year falling Wednesday.  I closed the windows and asked Mark to seal off our screen door, then settled in to make fall comfort food.  Chicken soup with the first of the fall carrots and a butternut pie with the first of the winter squash remind me that cold weather is a time of good food, deep thought, and writing.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Thu Sep 19 07:41:23 2013 Tags:
modified ATV hitch receiver to hold trash cans

This modification should help us to haul out some garbage and bring in some saw dust.

Posted Thu Sep 19 16:06:17 2013 Tags:
Harvesting an apple

Until this year, I didn't realize there was a right and a wrong way to pick apples.  Of course, it's important to wait until the apples are at their peak ripeness, signs of which include dropped apples, seeds turning brown or black, the green on the apple turning yellowish, and (most importantly) the apples tasting ripe.  But once you've determined that your apples are ready to harvest, you shouldn't just go out and yank the fruits off the tree.

Apple spur flower

To understand why not, let me back up and zoom in on the top of an apple.  Fruits like peaches develop on first year wood, but apples are different.  In most apple varieties, flower buds form only on spurs, which are second-year-and-older, short branches.  The same spur that's holding up this year's apple is also where next year's flowers are forming, and if you're not careful, you'll rip the flower buds off right along with this year's fruit, meaning no apples next year.  In the photo above, you can see next year's flower bud as a pointy structure on the top, left side of the apple.

Reach for an apple

To pick an apple without damaging the spur, you want to lift and twist rather than yank.  You can do this one-handed, but at first you might want to use two hands, holding the branch steady with one while twisting the apple with the other.

Basket of apples

Using this technique, Mark and I harvested all of the apples from our 4.5-year-old Virginia Beauty yesterday and got about a third of a bushel.  This is the first year our tree has produced, so I figure that's a pretty good haul (especially considering that I've eaten at least a third as many more over the last three weeks.  I had to consume the split apples so they wouldn't rot, and they tasted so good I just kept eating...).

Virginia Beauty

I sorted the apples and stacked them from best to worst in our crisper drawer.  If we had more, I'd put the fruits away in the fridge root cellar, but at the rate I'm going through them, these apples won't last another month.  And the crisper drawer was empty, having stored spring carrots, peaches, and now apples, with fall carrots not coming in until next month.  It's hard to explain how satisfying it feels to be harvesting (and eating) so much homegrown food.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Fri Sep 20 07:05:15 2013 Tags:
using an ATV to haul garbage cans to parking area

Finished up the ATV garbage hauling hitch receiver platform holder today.

A bungee cord holds it at the bottom with a ratchet strap near the middle.

I can see a future modification to hold some extra buckets of horse manure for 2014.

Posted Fri Sep 20 15:51:02 2013 Tags:
Heirloom apples

"Today's Talk Like a Pirate Day...and I forgot to celebrate it...again!" I exclaimed to Mark Thursday.

"You mean today's our anniversary?" he replied.

Picking applesI wracked my brain, trying to remember when we got married.  "Oops, um, yeah."  Then, picking up steam, "So it's pretty special that we harvested the apples from our Virginia Beauty today because it's our wedding anniversary!"

"That's right!" Mark agreed.  "My aunt gave us that tree from her neighbor's heirloom apple nursery as a wedding present."

"I guess I should have gotten you something for this anniversary, huh?" I mused, then wandered off to google the traditional gift for a fourth anniversary.  "Fruit or flowers!" I exclaimed.  "And you got me fruit today!"

"Well, really, you got me fruit," said Mark, referring to the way I cut up the dropped apples for our lunch.  But I was intent, instead, on the fact that my sweet husband had reached high into the tree to pluck the apples over my head, then shaken the trunk to get the last four from the tippy-top to fall.

Husband-wife apple-picking --- the best anniversary gift ever!  We may have to pretend it's our fourth wedding anniversary every year, although next year's traditional gift (wood) sounds pretty good.  Maybe it will equate to an extra-full woodshed?

Our chicken waterer is the perfect gift for the poultry-lover on your list.
Posted Sat Sep 21 07:48:28 2013 Tags:
forest garden mowing in the fall of 2013

The three fig cuttings are now fully established and looking great in the forest garden.

Posted Sat Sep 21 15:19:28 2013 Tags:
Waterlogged soil

Young apple treeLong-time readers will recall that my young forest garden sits in an area where all of the topsoil has eroded away and where the groundwater pools right at the surface during wet seasons.  My solution to this extremely-troubled growing area is create my own topsoil, raising the trees' roots up out of the groundwater as quickly as I can.

As you can see in the photo above, sometimes that's not quickly enough.  The apple tree in the worst part of the forest garden had to be staked this year because it had no place to put taproots, resulting in a leaning trunk.  In contrast, its age-mate to the right is thriving in the slightly-better soil not far away.

This long introduction is all to explain why, over the last few years, I've been focusing most of my forest-gardening energy on building biomass, with some techniques working better than others.  My hugelkultur donuts were the best option, but they depend on masses of punky firewood and we've been doing a better job lately of making sure our firewood stays dry and gets burned.  So I've instead been growing cover crops (like sweet potatoes) just past the root zone of my fruit trees, then piling up the biomass around the trees' roots to rot down into organic matter, building soil while feeding the trees.

Building biomass

And then there's my brush pile, shown to the right in the photo above.  All of the prunings from berries and trees across our homestead end up in this pile, which reaches over my head during pruning season but slowly rots down to a gentle mound by this time of year.  (Right now, the pile is also topped by yanked-up cover crops and weeds from the surrounding bed.)

You can also see how I kill-mulched under most of the fruit trees last week to ensure they don't have to compete with weeds during their
fall-feeding window, then cleared ground further away to plant rye for winter biomass production.

Forest garden

The result of all of this biomass growing is happy trees covering two-thirds of the forest garden.  The last third just needs a little more TLC before the soil is dry enough to really keep cover crops happy, at which point the soil-improvement cycle will take off nearly by itself.  That area is where I'll concentrate any punky wood I rustle up this winter.  I seem to recall a couple of piles of firewood in the floodplain that didn't get collected last winter and are probably ripe for hugelkultur right about now....

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Sun Sep 22 07:46:33 2013 Tags:
installing a 2x6 platform on the ATV hitch receiver

First I placed a 3.5 foot 2x6 on top of the hitch height adjuster and traced the square hole.

Then I cut the hole out so it sungs onto the metal with a short support on each bottom side.

10 inch decking boards go on the sides to act as a wall and to have a place for the eye bolts where the bungee cord gets secured.

19 inch decking boards are used as the two extended supports with a 2x4 to level it out.

Posted Sun Sep 22 15:14:29 2013 Tags:
Dried figs

Last year, I had a love affair with roasting figs.  This year, I'm not as keen, probably because the figs are bigger, moister, and don't roast quite the same way when halved.  Instead, I'm returning to my first love --- dried figs.

Bowl of figs

Our Chicago Hardy tree has been in the ground just shy of 3 years, and it's already starting to produce masses of figs.  For the past week, I've been able to pick a bowlful every other day, and the bowls keep getting bigger.  Sunday's bowl contained about a gallon of figs.

Drying figs

Although it's a bit wasteful of energy, I dry the figs right away rather than saving them up in the fridge the way my father does until he has a full dehydrator load.  I wait to pick the figs until they're so ripe the skins have cracked, and I don't want to risk any spoiling.  So I halved each fruit in my bowl and filled two trays of the dehydrator, then sat back and waited for the rich rounds to come out that afternoon.

Next year, I'll save some of the dried figs for the winter.  This year, I'm just enjoying eating them up, in between bowls of raspberries and crisp Virginia Beauty apples.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with unlimited clean water.
Posted Mon Sep 23 07:59:44 2013 Tags:

Teaming with NutrientsTeaming with Microbes was an eye-opening, readable, and beautiful guide to the microscopic life of the soil, so I was thrilled to hear that one of the coauthors was coming out with a book about plant nutrients.  Unfortunately, I was very disappointed by Teaming With Nutrients.  Granted, the topic was a tough one to cover for a layman audience, but the long descriptions of cell biology and chemistry felt like a textbook written by an undergraduate, and I can't really recommend the book.

On the other hand, after wading through pages and pages of textbookery, I did finally find some useful information scattered here and there.  I'm going to share some tidbits about how nutrients move through the soil and through plants in later posts in this lunchtime series, and in the meantime you might want to check out Steve Solomon's The Intelligent Gardener for a more hands-on approach to plant nutrition.  I'm still looking for a good book to school me on the middle ground between these two extremes.

Weekend Homesteader: January walks you through testing your soil to discover if it's deficient in nutrients.

This post is part of our Teaming with Nutrients lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 23 12:02:43 2013 Tags:
new nest box with metal roof

Why are we making yet another new nest box?

We moved all the laying hens into one coop due to overgrazing of a pasture.

Anna noticed one hen trying to sit on her sister who was trying to lay an egg. This new double sitter should fix that problem.

Posted Mon Sep 23 16:02:35 2013 Tags:
Weeding raspberries

At this time of year, I'm always torn in several directions.  I want to weed and mulch the fall crops so they'll get off to a good start, but I also want to take some time to pull back weeds around the woody perennials so the weeds don't go to seed.  Luckily, this year I have Kayla to help me out --- she can weed the carrots while I hit the raspberries.

Berry patch

Even with Kayla's help, though, I'm being a lazy weeder so that I can get to the other time-sensitive garden tasks on my list (like finishing clearing up the pastures).  I have a tendency to be obsessive about tasks like weeding, but if I leave my trake behind and limit myself to ripping up big weeds, I can work through a row of berries like the one shown here in less than half an hour.  Next up will be a layer of newspaper to make up for the shoddy nature of my weeding job, then some deep bedding from the nearby chicken coop to feed the berries during their fall root-growth spurt.

The EZ Miser makes clean chicken water even easier!
Posted Tue Sep 24 07:41:40 2013 Tags:

Nitrogen cycleJeff Lowenfels' book provided a handy way of dividing up plant nutrients --- by how mobile they are in the soil.  Understanding nutrients' mobility helps explain why certain soil nutrients can be present in the soil but unavailable for your plants, and why others might not stay put when you add them to your garden.

At one extreme lie the nutrients that are very mobile in the soil and tend to float into plants along with water.  As long as there's enough nitrogen in the form of nitrate, sodium, boron, and chlorine to go around, you won't see deficiencies in your plants.  On the other hand, these mobile nutrients tend to wash away in heavy rains, so those of you who live in rainy climates like I do will want to make sure you provide mobile nutrients only when plants are actively taking them up.

At the other end of the spectrum, phosphorus, copper iron, manganese, and zinc (and, in tropical soils, sulfate, nitrate, and chlorine) react chemically to soil particles.  Plants have a very tough time taking in these nutrients without the help of mycorrhizal fungi, so you can often see a deficiency in your plants even if (for example) there's plenty of phosphorus in Peak phosphorusthe soil.  This is one reason why farmers worry about the world running out of phosphate fertilizers --- they're pouring phosphorus into the soil far faster than plants can use it rather than keeping the soil healthy so fungi can bring plants the phosphorus that's already there.

In between these two extremes lie most of the positively-charged nutrients, which are attracted to soil particles a bit like a magnet to iron.  Roots have to trade a positively-charged hydrogen ion for each cation they take in (a process known as cation exchange).  These semi-immobile nutrients include nitrogen in the form of ammonium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, molybdenum, and nickel.  If your soil is low on these cations, it's probably because you haven't built up your organic matter enough to hold them in place so your plants can trade for them.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post to learn more about how plant nutrients make their way into roots.

If your pantry is overrun with homegrown root crops, check out my ebook to learn how to turn a junked fridge into a root cellar.

This post is part of our Teaming with Nutrients lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 24 12:02:35 2013 Tags:
installing new nest box on top of old one

Yesterday's nest box ended up forming a double decker nesting station.

Posted Tue Sep 24 15:34:52 2013 Tags:
Reading the

Mulching with newspapers is dangerous.  If you're like me, you might get sidetracked reading the headlines and take twice as long to put down your kill mulch.  Then your photographer will have to take a look at an article on hops, and pretty soon you're just sitting in the garden catching up on the news.

Kill mulching

More seriously, newspaper isn't my favorite kill layer in a mulch --- cardboard works better and feeds the fungi more --- but the thinner paper will do in a pinch.  Both Mom and Kayla have been saving me their newspapers, which is why I felt I could do a quick-and-dirty weeding job Monday instead of ripping up every weed.


Another disadvantage of newspaper is that it will blow away in even a mild breeze, unlike cardboard which tends to stay put in our valley without any help from above.  I've started feeding our woody perennials in the fall, though, so partially-decomposed deep bedding did a great job weighing down the newspaper.  In the end, the only real problem is that there's never enough deep bedding to go around --- clearly we need more animals!

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry so the deep bedding is easy to fork out.
Posted Wed Sep 25 07:23:44 2013 Tags:

Root hairsNow that you understand how mobile nutrients are in the soil, it'll make more sense when I write about how those nutrients get into roots.  Root hairs (tiny roots) are constantly growing, searching for new areas full of soil nutrients so they can trade for cations and suck up anions.  The roots use calcium as a way of determining whether they're growing in a good direction --- if calcium stops coming in (for example, if the root hits a rock), the root hair stops growing.

At the same time they're growing, the root hairs are exuding substances that help ease their way between soil particles and that also help in other ways.  The root exudates ooze between soil particles and help dissolve phosphorus, aid in the uptake of metals, and feed microorganisms that make other nutrients more available.  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the roots are also pumping out hydrogen ions to trade for cations in the soil; and (less importantly), roots pump out hydroxyl ions to trade for negatively-charged nutrients.

Mycorrhizal fungi act like extension of the root hairs during this nutrient-uptake process.  The tiny fungi are thin enough and long enough to vastly extend the reach of the plant roots, and they're also good at bringing in immobile nutrients like phosphorus, copper, and Mycorrhizaenickel that would be tough for plants to suck up on their own.  Mychorrhizal fungi also help out by digesting organic matter to free up nutrients, making yet more nutrients available for plants.

As if all of the above methods of getting nutrients aren't complicated enough, plants also have to deal with weeding out nonessential nutrients (like heavy metals) that would compete with essential nutrients in the plant.  Some of the exudates released by roots are used to bind these nonessential nutrients into the soil so they become unavailable, and mychorrhizae also help out with this binding.

Why should the gardener care about all this microscopic action?  First, it's handy to understand how important microorganisms are in teaming with your plants so you'll spend energy keeping the microbes happy (with lack of tilling, the addition of organic matter, etc.)  But you should also be aware that the work of soil microorganisms and mychorrhizal fungi slows down drastically during cool weather, so your plants will have more trouble finding nutrients in early spring.  That might be a good time to pay more attention to ensuring easily-soluble nutrients are available right up against seedlings' roots so they can suck up nitrogen without bothering their sleeping fungal neighbors.

Learn the basics of pasture management for chickens in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Teaming with Nutrients lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 25 12:01:35 2013 Tags:
ATV milk carton rock hauling modification

These milk crates fit nicely onto the ATV garbage hauling hitch platform.

Driveway repair got a lot easier with this modification.

Posted Wed Sep 25 15:23:45 2013 Tags:
American plums

While I was cleaning up the forest garden, I decided to bite the bullet and rip out the Methley plum I've been babying for the last four-and-a-half years.  Several people have sung the praises of their European plum trees in the last year, telling me how much the trees produced with little care, and I figured I'd obviously just chosen the wrong species by going for an Asian plum. 

Since the two new European plums I installed last winter --- Seneca and Imperial Epineuse --- have already grown considerably more than the Methley ever did, I suspect my gut reaction was right and I should have been more hard-hearted sooner.  In fact, I was able to literally rip the Methley plum out of the ground bare-handed, a sure sign that it was lingering, not growing, in our soil.

Now I just need to wait another three to five years for these better plum varieties to produce.  It's a bit easier to be patient now that other fruit trees on our homestead are starting to bear...but not much.

Build your own EZ Misers from our kits and save a bundle!
Posted Thu Sep 26 07:50:56 2013 Tags:

Nutrient deficiency symptoms in plantsNow that you understand how nutrients move through the soil and into plants, you can finish the journey with nutrient movement within plants.  A nutrient's mobility once it gets within a plant's cells will determine where deficiencies show up, as well as how you should apply fertilizers.  For example, Jeff Lowenfels is quick to point out that foliar feeding is really only appropriate for very mobile nutrients since immobile nutrients won't be able to move out of the leaves to where they're needed by the plant.

I'll start with those immobile nutrients.  Calcium and boron are the least able to move once they've been consumed by a plant, so any calcium or boron deficiencies will show up in growing tips.  More mobile nutrients are usually moved from older (less efficient) areas to these critical growing zones, so any problems in very young leaves and buds are likely to be due to nutrients the plant really can't move at all.

Deficiencies of slightly-more-mobile nutrients (like nickel, molybdenum, sulfur, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc) will show up in young leaves.  Finally, very mobile nutrients in plants include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, molybdenum, and chlorine.  Since plants can take mobile nutrients away from old, inefficient leaves if necessary and move them to young leaves, deficiencies tend to show up in the oldest leaves first.

Lowenfels also went into depth about what each nutrient is used for within the plant, but I didn't feel that information was immediately useful for the average gardener.  So, if you want to learn more, check out Teaming with Nutrients and read for yourselves.

Trailersteading is an inspiring account of how several homesteaders went back to the land using old mobile homes.

This post is part of our Teaming with Nutrients lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 26 12:00:57 2013 Tags:
using milk crates to haul heavy gravel across creek

The ATV hitch receiver platform garbage hauler broke on me today.

I knew I was pushing my luck with that extra bucket.

Maybe a piece of angle iron would fix it and make it stronger?

Posted Thu Sep 26 16:02:13 2013 Tags:
Testing soil"Please explain (again) your take on soil testing. I've never had one done and I've gardened for many years. As your photo depicts, deficiencies are detectable by plant performance. I employ crop rotation and try to compensate for particular plant needs at or before planting and religiously compost."
--- Karen

A lot of gardeners test their soil and never use the information, so I know what you mean about it not really being necessary.  I generally only send a soil sample off to be tested if I have a reason to.  Specific testing purposes might include (from most to least important for me):

You want to plant blueberries or something similar in average soil.  If you're going to need to change the pH of your soil, it's good to have an idea of how acid or alkaline your soil is at the moment.

You want to get an idea of how you're improving (or worsening) your soil over time.  I like to look at the percent organic matter and CEC of my soil because these figures are (hopefully) going up every year.  This is generally just interesting, but can be important in permanent perennial systems (like pastures) where you never really see the dirt, so you can't just guess based on on color and texture.

You plan to remineralize your soil.  If you believe that ratios of nutrients are just as important as the absolute amounts (which I'm on the fence about), you'll need more solid data before you can add minerals to your soil.

RemineralizationYou're concerned there may be a slight deficiency that isn't showing up in your plants.  Most soils are lacking in something (related to the remineralization concept above).  Your plants might just slow down a bit due to a mild deficiency, but if you're getting most or all of your nutrition from homegrown food, then a mild deficiency in your plants could turn into a mild to moderate deficiency in yourself.  You might not care much if your plants are only operating at 80% efficiency, but I'll bet you care if your kids are.

You think your soil might contain heavy metals.  A one-time soil test is probably worth doing if you live in a city or have some other reason to believe your soil might have heavy metals present above the recommended levels.

You see some kind of nutrient deficiency in your plants, but can't figure out what it is.  Even though you can tell some problems apart visually, others look pretty similar.  If you're a large-scale farmer, you might even choose to take a plant tissue sample in this situation instead of a soil sample.

You are a chemical farmer.  If you're buying any kind of chemical fertilizer, you should definitely get your soil tested first and see how much of it you need.  On the other hand, if you fertilize with compost, this isn't so important.

There are probably other reasons you'd want to test your soil, but those are the first ones that come to mind.  What would you add to the list?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free addition to a modern coop or tractor.
Posted Fri Sep 27 07:21:39 2013 Tags:
Selling on Amazon

Over the last few years, several of you have emailed me to ask if we have an affiliate program so you can make a little cash by pushing our chicken waterers.  I've had to regretfully say no in because I hadn't jumped through the technical hoops to make it happen...until now!

We've just started experimenting with selling on Amazon and they have a
built-in affiliate program.  So now the answer is yes --- you can earn anywhere from $1.72 to $7.48 each time someone follows your affiliate link and buys one of our chicken waterers.  (You can use Amazon's affiliate program to plug my ebooks too, but the 4 to 17 cents you'd get per book sold probably isn't worth much effort.)  We've been using Amazon's affiliate program from the other end for years and I've been pretty happy with it, especially since they credit sales to your account if someone clicks your link and ends up buying something different.

At the moment, we've only listed our Premade EZ Miser and our EZ Miser kits on Amazon (plus you can see my books here).  I'll keep you posted if we decide the experiment is worth expanding.  Thanks in advance to anyone who decides to sign onto the affiliate program and plug our new-and-improved chicken waterer to your friends!

Posted Fri Sep 27 12:00:49 2013 Tags:
using green garden wagon to move old refrigerator

Today was the day we finally moved our old freezer into the barn.

The plan is to use it for storing cover crop seeds and chicken feed.

Image credit goes to Kayla.

Posted Fri Sep 27 15:58:31 2013 Tags:
Blooming oats

What happens if you plant oats for a cover crop too early (before August 1 in our zone 6 garden)?  They go to seed rather than winter-killing in the vegetative stage.

If you catch the oats just as they begin to bloom, though, I'm thinking you can scatter rye seeds over the bed, cut the oats down, and get a second round of biomass-building in the same season.  Time will tell whether that experiment works.

Weedy cover crops

Why did I plant oats so early?  I've been trying to grow biomass in the back garden for most of the last year, but it's been so wet (and that area is always so soggy) that buckwheat wouldn't grow.  Oats and rye are the two cover crops that have proven their ability to deal with waterlogged clay soil, so I went ahead and planted the former on July 22.  Due to weeds that crept into the poor stand of buckwheat early in the season, I'll be kill mulching the whole garden area anyway, so a few oat seeds shouldn't make much difference.

You can now buy the EZ Miser on Amazon --- even simpler if you've got your payment and shipping information already stored in their site.
Posted Sat Sep 28 07:23:47 2013 Tags:
sewing mild oats leads to wacking it all down with a trimmer

The FS-90R trimmer is Stihl the best way to cut down an oat cover crop.

Posted Sat Sep 28 14:45:54 2013 Tags:
Garden minerals"I was wondering if you could clarify your comment about being on the fence about ratios vs. absolute quantities. Based on your earlier mineralization posts, I'm supposing that you're on board with balancing ratios and on the fence about the absolute quantities. Frankly, I love testing my garden soils, but I'm an environmental scientist and a data nerd :-) I tried Solomon's remineralization techniques this year but didn't notice any stellar gains in plant performance. My TCEC is rather low (5-6) so I'm applying bentonite clay and biochar to help boost nutrient retention. I'll give it a few more years. To me, the soil test is a crucial step towards establishing healthy, balanced soils."
--- Mike Gaughan

As you rightly remember, I also followed Solomon's remineralization lead this spring, and (although I haven't posted here yet about the results), I was disappointed.  Part of my disappointment came because the applied minerals burned the plants I had growing at the time (there's no true fallow season in our garden), which may be due to the way I added micronutrients in chemical form.  I'm okay with a short-term decline, though, if I see long-term improvements...but I didn't.  In fact, not only was there no flavor improvement, there actually seemed to be a decrease in growth (although that's likely due to the cool and overcast summer we had).  As John commented on the same post you reacted to, I might get better results from more natural nutrient sources, like seaweed.

strawberriesOn the other hand, I'm not 100% sold on nutrient balancing being important.  The concept makes intuitive sense, especially if you look at the way ions are pumped into cells.  But I haven't delved deeply enough into the scientific literature to discover whether there are any solid studies supporting Solomon's hypotheses.

In the meantime, I'll probably test my soil again this fall to see how the numbers look post-remineralization.  And hopefully next summer will be a more regular season, so I'll get a better idea of how the garden is doing.  Until then, I'm not ready to recommend for or against remineralization, so I remain dubious.

Our EZ Miser is the new-and-improved way to provide POOP-free water for your flock.
Posted Sun Sep 29 07:54:58 2013 Tags:
putting together Mainstays kitchen island with Lucy

We liked our first Mainstays kitchen island so much we decided to get another one.

Anna said it was easy to put together, and the fact that it comes in a large box made it easy to haul back here on the ATV.

The first one cost about a hundred dollars last year, but this one went up to 110.

Posted Sun Sep 29 15:37:49 2013 Tags:
Fall colors

It's leaf season!  I look forward all year to the time when free biomass falls out of the air, so I start raking as soon as the first drifts pile up. 

Leaf mulch

Right now, that means sycamores, buckeyes, and box-elders (and walnuts, but I work around those).  The combination of early leaves makes a good mixture that clumps well (the box-elder and buckeye) while not rotting away immediately (the sycamore).

Later, the tougher oak leaves will fall, which make a long-lasting mulch and soak up lots of nitrogen under the chicken roosts.  Oak leaves tend to blow around more, though, so I try to put them under fruit trees where the limbs shield the breeze.


I can go through a pretty much unlimited number of leaves just putting the fruit trees and bushes to bed, but I do my best to stock some up for adding to the chicken coop throughout the winter.  I was thinking of building a special leaf-storage bin that would let me push leaves in from the top and open a door on the side to pull them out, but then I realized the cleaned-out brooder was perfect, and wouldn't be needed again by chickens until spring.  Lets see how many bags of leaves I can cram inside.

Our EZ Miser kits make it cheap and easy to build your own automatic chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Sep 30 07:46:25 2013 Tags:

Chicken coopOur last two chicken-related contests have been so well received (with entries still trickling in even though they're over), so I decided to give you one more opportunity to win free stuff and share your chicken adventures.

To enter, email with one or more photos of something special you've built for your chickens.  Your entry can be a coop, a homemade incubator, an automatic feeder, or even your spin on one of our kits.  (Or anything else you can think of!)  If you want to take a minute to write about how you built your chicken attraction, I'll be more likely to share your photo on the blog, but text isn't mandatory for this contest.

The fine print:
All entries must reach my inbox by Sunday (October 6) at midnight.  Be sure to send photos one at a time if they're larger than 2 MB apiece.  Mark will choose winners based on quality of the photos.  All photos and text will become the property of Homemade chicken feederAnna Hess, which means I might share them with readers via our blogs or ebooks (but I don't mind if you keep the photos up on your website or use them in any way you want).

Winners: The grand-prize winner will receive your choice of a premade
EZ Miser or a 4 pack EZ Miser kit, and the second-place winner will choose between a 3 pack DIY kit, 1 Avian Aqua Miser Original, or a 2 pack EZ Miser kit.  I look forward to receiving your entries and to sharing clean water with your flock!

This contest is brought to you by the EZ Miser, now available on Amazon in both premade and kit form.

Posted Mon Sep 30 12:02:40 2013 Tags:
new nest box location for easier hen access

The latest nest box was not working out. It may have been too high.

Now they're both at the same height, which hopefully will put an end to eggs on the floor.

Posted Mon Sep 30 16:09:48 2013 Tags:

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

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