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

archives for 11/2013

Nov 2013
Halloween harvest

Sometimes it's a wonder we get anything done around here.  Take yesterday for example.  It was raining after lunch, so I wrote for an extra half hour, then went out to pull up the peppers in preparation for some of our last rye planting of the year. 

But Huckleberry followed me out and danced around enough that he got stung on the tip of his tail by a honeybee.  He ducked into my quick hoop for safety, so I had to drag him out from the lettuce, then carried the spoiled feline home along with a basket of cabbages.  It sure is a good thing Lucy is our usual work companion, not Huckleberry.

Posted Fri Nov 1 07:43:50 2013 Tags:

Graft bud break(If you haven't already, you'll want to start with part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 from the very beginning of Growing Into a Farm.)

In early 2004, I attended a grafting class and came home with a dozen baby apple trees to begin my long-dreamed-of orchard.  With the help of my family, I ripped back honeysuckle and brambles and put the trees in the ground...where they were soon eaten by deer and overcome by weeds.

Meanwhile, the farm slowly began to feel less like a retreat.  During a weekend over-night in April, I left my car parked along the secluded country road and woke to found it had rolled down the hill into my neighbor's field, just a few feet shy of being dunked in the creek.  Later, I learned that high-school kids enjoy spending Friday nights partying down the road from my farm, and I can just imagine their drunken enthusiasm at giving my little clown-car a heave and watching it drift away.  But at the time I felt like the car episode was a malicious attempt by the local community to push me out, and I began jumping at every sound when camping at the farm.  I had no phone and knew no one in the area well—what would I do if my car ended up in the creek and I was stranded there with no way out?

FestivaBy the end of April, my journals had gone strangely silent.  I was still living an hour-and-a-half's drive away from my property, and the chances of moving in anytime soon seemed increasingly slim.  My own idealism, reinforced by that of my father and by my slim wallet, made it unthinkable to consider buying materials or labor to build my house, and I knew deep down that I couldn't finish it by myself.

Over the next year, I dropped by the farm from time to time to take pictures of the wildlife, but my first relationship seemed to be at a standstill.  All that dreaming, planning, and saving, and one winter had worn me down to a nubbin.

Want to know what happens next?  Growing into a Farm is free on Amazon today!  Even though the ebook can be read on any device, I'll also email you a free pdf copy today if you'd rather --- just email with your request.

This post is part of our Growing into a Farm lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Nov 1 12:02:10 2013 Tags:
heated kennel pad update and safety

Reading the reviews on Lucy's Lectro Heated Kennel Pad taught me that the device has been known to malfunction, causing the thermostat in the pad to keep it on all the time creating a situation where it's too hot and will most likely burn out and stop working.

Lucy has been using hers a lot lately, which makes me happy knowing she's comfortable, but I've started testing it once a week by putting my hand on it to see if it's too hot or burned out.

Posted Fri Nov 1 15:48:19 2013 Tags:

ScionwoodDo you want lots of fruit trees, but don't have much cash?  As long as you're willing to experiment with grafting (you'll pick it up fast), all you need is rootstock and scionwood.  Rootstock is pretty cheap (usually $2 to $4, plus shipping), and you can also make your own by stooling (something I'm experimenting with this year --- more on that in a later post).  Meanwhile, scionwood is often free if you find someone willing to swap with you.

Last year, I pointed you toward (and used) the Northern Nut Growers' Association Scionwood Swap (and also did some swapping here on the blog).  But this year I found an even better resource and wanted to make sure you all were aware of it --- The North American Scion Exchange yahoo group.  I think you have to join the group to see anything, then you go here and look through each member's list, trying to find someone who has what you want and wants what you have.  I already tracked down a source for my three wished-for apple varieties of the year --- Kidd's Orange Red, King David, and Chestnut Crab.

Bench graftThere are also various in-person scionwood swaps scattered across the country, but I don't think there are any near us.  And some extension agents (like ours) offer grafting workshops every year where you pay a small fee for your rootstock and are given a wide range of scionwood to choose from.

The downside of all of these ways of getting nearly-free fruit trees is that you have to wait about two extra years for fruit.  But, especially once your first trees are bearing, it starts to feel like a good deal to get ten new fruit trees for the price of one.

Posted Sat Nov 2 08:21:18 2013 Tags:
comparing old battery charger with new one

I think I may have damaged the battery on our first ATV back in the early Summer when I trickled charged it all night with this ancient charger.

A little research will show that 4 amps is a lot for a small battery, and you need to disconnect it after so many hours before it starts to overcharge.

The new AutoCraft charger shuts off automatically and then shifts into a maintanance mode that will slowly send a charge but only when it needs it. No more guess work on when to shut off the old charger.

Posted Sat Nov 2 15:22:18 2013 Tags:

Building a road in wet soilI really appreciated everyone's feedback on my ditch experiment, especially the reader who sent me to this excellent webpage.  Apparently, mounding the dirt from the ditches up on top of the road is the solution, a technique known as a turnpike.  For best results, we'll want to splurge on some geotextile fabric to go under the new dirt --- the stuff at Lowes is expensive ($1/linear foot and up), but probably worth it.  Maybe that will be our next big expenditure (plus renting heavy equipment to make the digging go easier) once chicken waterer season kicks in next year and we're feeling more flush.

Ditch full of water

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see the results of our hand-dug experiment.  Wednesday night's rain raised the groundwater level by six or seven inches, so it was easy to see what was going on in our little ditches.  They definitely filled up, but they don't seem to be moving the water away from the road so much as collecting it in place.

I suspect that we need to commit to making the perpendicular ditch slope all the way down to the alligator swamp (the old bed of Sinking Creek) if we want the ditches to be effective in draining moisture away from the road.  If we feel really industrious this winter, we may dig that side ditch out by hand, but it's brutal digging in the swamp --- so much easier to forget about the problem and hope it goes away....

Posted Sun Nov 3 07:09:59 2013 Tags:
update on the furring strip hand rail 1.5 years later
Our do it yourself hand rail is 1.5 years old and still going strong.
Posted Sun Nov 3 15:21:40 2013 Tags:
Rye cover crop

Sprouting rye50 pounds of rye seed in the ground!  (Actually, I gave Kayla about four pounds, so I guess I can only take credit for 46.)

Where did I fit all that rye?  Since my oats went in early this year, most started to bloom in late September, so I scattered rye seed amid the oats and had Mark weed-eat the latter down.  (You can see the result, several weeks later, in the photo at the top of this post.)  Meanwhile, I planted rye in the beds where crops like tomatoes and squash died after our first frost, and in empty soil left after digging the fall carrots.

Digging swalesOf course, I still had rye seeds left after all that, so I started moving dirt around.  I posted here about my gully terraforming experiment, and you'll need to visit my chicken blog this week if you want to read about the swales Kayla and I dug in the newest pasture to create tree alleys (and about the cute box turtle we found in the process).  All of that digging created bare soil, so I topped it off with rye and finally hit the bottom of the bag!

Of all our cover crops, I feel like rye handles wet soil the best and produces the most biomass, so planting a full bag of rye feels a bit like investing in an internet startup company --- a little bit of effort for (hopefully) a lot of return.  I'll report in the spring about whether the rye I planted latest (November 1) covered the ground adequately, and about whether I have any problem mow-killing it before our summer crops go in.

Posted Mon Nov 4 07:07:12 2013 Tags:

The Resilient Farm
and HomesteadThe kind of books I love the most are inherently flawed, so let me start with the flaws up front in case they're enough to scare you away (and then I'll tell you why The Resilient Farm and Homestead is tied with Paradise Lot as the best book of 2013 for permaculture homesteaders to read).  Ben Falk's book jumps around between personal experience (which I adore) and rehashed theory from other books (which bores me, since I've read the originals).  The text doesn't entirely hold together and is more like reading back through our blog archives (if they were first sorted by subject), complete with more-frequent-than-you'd-like typos.

Those couple of minor flaws aside, what drew me into The Resilient Farm and Homestead is that the book is 100% genuine.  The author has been experimenting with permaculture techniques on his ten-acre Vermont farm for a decade, and he's up front about what did and didn't work...even if it  flies in the face of mainstream permaculture wisdom.  The book has many beautifully-drawn diagrams, but it's also chock-full of (equally beautiful) photos proving that Falk's methods really work.  Perhaps that's why my notes don't just hit pertinent points from the text, they also include projects the book inspired me to want to try on our own farm.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead is also handy for me, especially, because Falk is farming on my level.  Most permaculture books today focus on the urban or suburban homestead covering a fraction of an acre of land, but how do those techniques fare in more extensive settings?  At the other extreme, there are Sepp Holzer and a few other practitioners who make you want to turn hillsides into terraces and to fence in dozens of acres of pasture...with what heavy equipment?  Falk's book walks right down the middle, presenting techniques you can maintain at the few-acre scale with (primarily) hand tools.

I'm going to highlight Falk's most intriguing suggestions in this week's lunchtime series, but this is one book you owe it to yourself to read from cover to cover.  If Goldilocks were reviewing this book, she'd say, "This is not too big or too small --- it's just right!"

For an outside-the-box approach to homesteading habitation, check out Trailersteading.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 4 12:01:47 2013 Tags:
how we built the new holding coop for pre-retirement day

We decided to build a new holding coop for an upcoming chicken retirement day.

Keeping it under 2 feet tall makes it easy to reach in and grab a chicken.

Posted Mon Nov 4 16:16:49 2013 Tags:
Free books

First, a little bit of business.  Congratulations to Stephen, winner of our free homesteading calendar!  Be sure to email me your mailing address and your calendar will go in the mail next week.  Jayne tells me the calendars will be showing up at her house by the end of the week and she'll be mailing them out soon thereafter, so this is a perfect time for everyone else to place your orders while the calendars are in stock.  Now, back to the real post....

Every few years, I go through my bookcase and pull out tomes I'm no longer using.  Fiction goes to the library and general-interest non-fiction goes to my mother, but in-depth homesteading geekery needs another home.  Perhaps yours?

The following books are free to a good home.  (I'll even pay postage.)  It's first come, first served, so email ASAP if you'd like a copy.  I'll mark out each title as it's taken:

Homesteading bookshelf

As a side note, my books became much happier once I added wooden dividers to keep them all lined up straight.  My new method of spending half an hour on a long-ignored household problem once a week is paying off!

Posted Tue Nov 5 07:12:14 2013 Tags:

Ben Falk's book details his experiments at Whole Systems Research Farm, a ten-acre tract of west-facing hillside on the border of zones 4 and 5 in Vermont.  The land was very run-down when Falk bought it, having been logged, sugar mapled, pastured, and then clearcut for skiiing, with the result that most of the soil had eroded away.  Although soil maps showed prime farmland over much of his land, the reality was actually silty, gravelly clays covered by 0 to 4 inches of topsoil, with bedrock within two feet of the surface in some places.

While others would have been daunted by the poor soil, Falk took it as a challenge.  He embarked on ten years of experimentation, with the help of interns, PDC groups and other visitors, and some hired summer help.  The result is six acres of silvopasture (perennial crops and grazing area combined), along with rice paddies, vegetable gardens, and some wild woodland.

Whole Systems Research Farm

One of the things I like most about Falk's writing is that he was inspired by permaculture theory, but is a realist.  He's found that, on the ground, many of those theories don't hold water once you go beyond the backyard scale, and he writes about how he tweaked various theoretical systems to make them work on his farm.  He also warns that, although you can see inklings of how your experiments will turn out by year five, you really need to wait at least one decade (or, better yet, two) before declaring any system a success or failure.

My next few posts will delve deeper into Falk's systems, but I want to end this installment with two words of wisdom I couldn't fit in anywhere else:

  • If you have a big homestead, put a specimen of each crop in zone 1 as a barometer so you know when to harvest and when problems appear on the more far-flung crops.
  • A great way to activate biochar is to toss it into your composting toilet.

Intrigued?  Stay tuned to the blog for tomorrow's post to read more.

Don't have time to improve ten acres?  Weekend Homesteader helps you focus on the most important (and easiest) projects to start where you're at.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 5 12:02:15 2013 Tags:
straw delivery day 2013
Straw delivery on Election day feels like a new fall tradition for us.
Posted Tue Nov 5 15:45:49 2013 Tags:
Composting toilet bins

It's been about a year since we started using our composting toilet, and the first bin is filled to the brim.  Time to add another seat and change bins!

Sawdust storageWhen we first built the composting toilet, I planned to store the sawdust in the central bin just like the author does in The Humanure Handbook.  Since then, though, I've decided it's better to simply fill up a big trashcan with sawdust and use that to fill our five-gallon bucket, which sits by the seat for ease of scooping.

What's wrong with keeping the sawdust in the middle bin?  Filling a bucket out of the central bin requires awkward bending over, the sawdust there has begun to decay a lot due to contact with the wet ground, and it's also caught a tiny bit of seepage from the used bin beside it, which makes the sawdust much less fun to handle.  Even if that last point is really all in my head (I only saw a smidgen of toilet paper amid the sawdust and doubt there was much seepage), it still seemed like a good idea to shovel the sawdust out and use it as the bottom bedding in the new bin since we want to fill our bin halfway with high-carbon material before we start using it anyway.  Plus, this way we can fill the middle bin next year and give this past year's bin a full twenty-four months to decay before it goes on the garden.

Deciding on sawdust placement only took a couple of minutes, and I spent the rest of the day building the new seat, but this post is already too long, so I'll save that story for another day.

Posted Wed Nov 6 07:13:54 2013 Tags:

Keyline plowingBen Falk is very adamant about peak oil and climate change, but he makes a good argument for using heavy equipment for certain purposes while we have fuel available.  He wrote:

"We have made the conscious decision to take advantage of the small window of time still remaining with which to develop intergenerational land and infrastructure systems, which greatly enables long-term production of the site without any oil input for hundreds if not thousands of years....  I would not want to explain to my children or grandchildren when pressed why with all of the cheap energy and machines we didn't choose to optimize the shape of our farm, construct infrastructure, and do the heavy work that now they must do with a strong back and years of heavy toil."

Mark tends to drag me along kicking and screaming into a similar world of permaculture realism, so I was interested to see what Falk considers worth spending fossil fuels on.  He focuses on five "leverage points" --- ways to quickly improve your farm using the minimum amount of time and energy --- and several of these strategies require heavy equipment on his ten-acre scale:

  • Clearing trees.  Like us, Falk has found that it's tough to start with a forest as the base of your farm.  He's very willing to pull out the chainsaw when it comes to clearing trees.

Falk's swales

  • Swales and fertigation.  Rather than fighting waterlogged soil, Falk chose to create ponds and rice paddies that catch water during heavy storms, then ditches that can channel that water slightly uphill during droughts.  Ducks in smaller ponds infuse the water with  nitrogen, and that rich water is used to fertilize the rice paddies.  Meanwhile, in drier parts of the farm, on-contour swales capture rain to hydrate trees planted upon the double-dose of topsoil along the downhill sides of the trenches.  Elsewhere, island mounds (like what I use in the forest garden) raise plants out of waterlogged soil.  All of these earthworks are easily created with Falk's favorite tool --- the excavator.
  • Tilling and scraping to produce bare soil.  Heavy equipment comes in handy here too, to create the disturbance required to give seeds and new plants a spot to grow.  (On the smaller scale, I advocate kill mulches for this, but on a multi-acre scale, I'm not sure there's a fast alternative to tilling.)
  • Broadcasting seeds and putting in perennials.  Now we're out of the stages that require lots of heavy machinery and into the biological realm, which I always feel is pretty self-explanatory.  A couple of interesting points from Falk's book include using a stropharia root dip for newly-planted trees, which allowed him to inoculate his Harvestorchard mulch for two-year yields of mushrooms, and intercropping buckwheat between large vegetables (squash and tomatoes), then pulling out the cover crop as the vegetables need space.  I'll write more about Falk's plant systems in a later post.
  • Grazing animals, especially ruminants and chickens.  As I'm sure you've heard elsewhere, animals round out ecosystems and help close the fertility loop.  Falk felt that goats and pigs didn't fit his farm, that sheep were useful but should eventually be phased out since they tend to need medications (perhaps to be replaced by cows), that broilers are handy, and that ducks are the perfect livestock for his farm.

If this post isn't already incendiary enough, I'll end with a Falk's stance on another energy source --- cold hard cash:

"But clearly, there are immense concentrations of money today.  One can either ignore this reality, dislike it, and distance themselves from it, or ask themselves, 'How can I harvest these concentrations of money (energy) to help perform the work I would like to complete?'   ...We tap into these concentrations the same way we choose to use some fossil fuel to build terraces, ponds, and swales."

What do you think of using the current wealth of gasoline and money to fuel the beginning stages of permaculture systems?  Is it a worthwhile expenditure if the maintenance stages can be performed with little cash and with hand tools?

Trailersteading is an outside-the-box look at homestead housing.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 6 12:02:03 2013 Tags:
building a holding coop for chickens

We got the new chicken holding coop done today.

The roof is sloped a bit to let rain run off and the bottom is open to the ground.

Posted Wed Nov 6 17:02:22 2013 Tags:
Screw measurements

When Bradley built our composting toilet for us last year, we had to decide whether to have him put in one seat or more.  We opted for one, on the grounds that we'd likely change our mind about the design later and want to make the second a little differently.  (Plus, it's hard enough to explain composting toilets to visitors --- what if they accidentally used the wrong hole?)  Now that it's time for the bin swap, it's up to us to build the second seat.

Composting toilet seat, in progress

The task was simple enough that Mark let me try my hand at construction.  So all the photos will be from a distance, so you can't tell how edges don't quite meet up right and a couple of screws didn't go all the way in....

Composting toilet seat liner

We actually were quite happy with Bradley's design, so I mostly did the same thing again.  However, I've noticed that the floor in front of the seat tends to get wet when women pee, so I decided to make a liner out of metal flashing.  I figure this'll make sure everything goes straight down the hole and doesn't end up soaking into the floor.

Hopefully there won't be anything else to post about the composting toilet until this time next year, but I'll keep you posted if we hit any snags.

Posted Thu Nov 7 07:35:38 2013 Tags:

Whole Systems Design pastureWhen Ben Falk first moved to his farm, much of it was pasture, but he felt it was "crazy to use fossil fuel to mow down the field every year, and I let it go."  At the time, he believed that allowing succession to take place in the field (with grasses giving way to taller herbs and finally woody plants) was the best way to heal his troubled soil.  However, when he finally got ready to add animals to his farm, Falk discovered that neglect had been a severe mistake since "abandoned poor-soil fields have a stubborn inertia."  In other words, reclaiming the grass was a tough process.

Falk's first impulse was to scythe the old fields in hopes of returning them to quality pasture, but he soon discovered that mowing and scything don't have the same effect.  While mowing patchy fields increases stem density of grasses (filling in the gaps), scything actually tends to retard grass growth unless you cut the ground very often.  Infrequent scything drops tall stems to the ground, where they form a mulch on the surface and shade out new growth.

Grazing geeseNext, Falk figured grazing might do the trick.  Unfortunately, grazing a poor pasture with no mechanical cutting stage afterwards just selects for the plants your livestock don't like, so his pastures weren't getting any better.  However, once Falk began grazing, then coming behind the animals to mow and spread grass seeds, his pastures began to provide more food for his sheep and poultry.  Recently, he's also been experimenting with burning as a way of jump-starting this process.

All of this isn't to say that Falk is no longer a fan of scything.  He's found that once burning, grazing, seeding, and mowing have set back succession, he's able to keep the pastures in check with grazing followed by scything.  Just like with his earth-moving, Falk believes that it's worthwhile to use fossil fuels during the early stages of reclaiming his land, but hopes to move away from machinery as his farm improves.

Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics walks you through the nuts and bolts of rotational grazing from a chicken's point of view.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 7 12:01:39 2013 Tags:
making a pasture from cattle panels

Anna and I installed 8 cattle panels today in the new StarPlate pasture.

Posted Thu Nov 7 16:09:54 2013 Tags:

Another potential coverPlanting season begins around March on our farm, and for the rest of the spring, summer, and early fall, the garden swallows up my time.  I tend to come up with ideas for about half a dozen ebooks while weeding each summer, but don't have time to write during warm weather.  The ones that scratch the hardest at the insides of my eyeballs are the ones I hit first in the fall, which this year was Growing into a Farm.

However, Growing into a Farm has an unusual half-sister --- a young-adult novel about a seventeen-year-old girl who returns the abandoned intentional community where she was conceived.  While I'm not so sure the book will be any good (or will ever get finished since it currently seems to be causing much weeping and gnashing of teeth), that's what I'm working on at the moment.

I've gotten far enough into Saving Hippie Holler that it asked for a cover, so I started experimenting.  You can see version 1.0 above --- Mark told me he liked it...but that it looks like a science fiction book about aliens.  Version 2.0 (below) probably captures the theme better, but still seems to be lacking something.  Ideas?

Young adult coverIn case you're curious, other book ideas waiting in the wings include:

  1. Low-cost greenhouse add-on --- I'm actually already about 80% through formatting and updating this book which my father wrote when I was an infant, so it'll definitely get finished the next time Saving Hippie Holler starts making me tear out my hear.
  2. Garden ecology --- I've been working on this one in my head for years, and I might finally be getting to the point where I have enough photos and data to make it a book.
  3. Several new chicken ebooks --- I just can't decide whether I'd rather write about chicken behavior, wild chicken feed, or designing a forest pasture.
  4. Permaculture deer --- We finally seem to have (mostly) won the war, so now might be a good time to share ways to work around (and with) the deer that want to destroy your homestead.
  5. I'm also vaguely considering trying to make print copies of my most popular ebooks available, but didn't hear too much enthusiasm when I broached the idea on facebook, so I might let this one lapse.

As a side note, I seem to have very low self esteem when it comes to writing fiction, so I could I could use some comments stating, "What a great idea, Anna!  I'd love to read a fictional, young adult book!"  Feel free to copy and paste those two sentences into the comment form below....

Posted Fri Nov 8 07:24:40 2013 Tags:

SilvopastureThe facet of Falk's farm that I was most interested in was his forest pastures.  He started his permaculture adventures with Edible Forest Gardens and followed many of the authors' guidelines at first, but soon discovered that on the multi-acre scale, he had to tweak the design a bit.  The first thing to go was complicated guilds, which were too much trouble to keep up by hand, but Falk found that grazing animals made a good replacement for herbs under the trees.

Next, Falk discovered that rows are under-rated.  Many in the permaculture community like to scatter plants around willy-nilly, but on a large scale, rows save time and money since you can fence animals out of a planting easily and can get equipment between rows.  Most of Falk's rows are on-contour hedges of black locust and seaberry, both of which are planted close together (half a foot to a foot apart for the locusts and four to eight feet apart for the seaberries), then pollarded to form hedges (and to produce firewood).  Falk warns that it's essential to commit to mulching trees heavily for the first three to four years and to fencing out deer for the first two or three years.  After that, the more-established trees are resilient and can handle a certain amount of neglect.

SeaberriesAlthough I was intrigued by Falk's silvopasture system, I was disappointed to see only diagrams, rather than photos, in his book --- that's always a warning sign that an idea is still in its infancy.  In addition, Falk takes the permaculture party line about invasives, which I tend to disagree with, so he doesn't mention that seaberries are related to autumn olives and goumis and are potentially quite invasive, at least in Canada.

Those caveats aside, Falk's book definitely got me thinking about things I'd like to try, like tree alleys in our new pasture.  If you want to read about his other systems --- like his rice paddies --- you'll have to check out The Resilient Farm and Homestead for yourself.

If you want a lighter read, my newest ebook is the story of my perilous journey back to the land.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Nov 8 12:01:41 2013 Tags:
more quick hoops

A cold snap last night motivated us to put up three more quick hoops today.

Looks like we'll have even more kale than last year, which was a fair amount.

Posted Fri Nov 8 16:14:25 2013 Tags:
Fall greens

Baby Brussels sproutsI put up a quick hoop over our last planting of lettuce in October, and I meant to erect the other three quick hoops then too.  But I needed to make a decision about who to protect, and vacillation can take awfully long time.

By the time I came back to the project this week, a few things were clear.  We started eating Brussels sprouts from a few beds recently, but the long bed of sprouts that got a lot of shade before the leaves fell from the trees was trailing behind those in sunnier spots.  If we want to enjoy Brussels sprouts from that bed this year (which we adamantly do), we need to extend the season, so that's one quick hoop accounted for.

Tokyo bekana

The other two quick hoops are earmarked for leafy greens, but which ones?  We've got three kinds of kale, tokyo bekana, tatsoi, mustard, and Swiss chard in the ground, and there's not enough row cover fabric to protect them all.  While I could make another quick hoop, I don't think we'd eat more greens than that anyway, so it's best to stick to two hoops of leafy greens.

HuckleberryHuckleberry reminded me that a few of these greens varieties are so tender they won't last into December even under quick hoops.  Despite the brilliant coloration of the tokyo bekana pictured above, showing how healthy the plants are, both this and the other Asian green are going to bite the dust soon, as will our mustard.  Those beds are best left uncovered so I'll be sure to eat the tender greens up before real cold weather hits.

Putting quick hoops over kale

Since I'm opting to cover the most winter-hardy greens in hopes of enjoying their leaves all winter long, kale is the obvious winner.  We devoted two whole quick hoops to beds of kale, and still have other plants that will be left uncovered for November munching.

One change I made to our leafy-greens coverage compared to other years is that I went ahead and covered our Swiss chard as well as our kale.  This decision mostly came about because the chard is at the end of the Brussels sprouts row and didn't require its own hoop, but I also noticed last winter that Fordhook Giant appears to be just about as winter hardy as our favorite kales (Red Russian and Dwarf Siberian).  (Our third kale variety this year is Laciniato --- I'll report on its hardiness next spring.)

If you're still interesting in reading more about our quick hoops, I devoted a whole chapter to the topic in The Weekend Homesteader.  (You can also read the same information in the 99 cent ebook Weekend Homesteader: October.)  Despite having to do more mending this year, we're going into our third season using the same fabric, so the cost comes to about 10 cents per square foot per year, and drops every year the structure stays in use.  I can't say enough good things about quick hoops and eating fresh food all winter --- try it and you'll be sold too!

Posted Sat Nov 9 07:17:23 2013 Tags:
how to attach cattle panels to a fence post

We attached our cattle panels with some nylon rope.

Future adjustments will be easier this way.

Posted Sat Nov 9 14:03:12 2013 Tags:

It's a long road to a tomatoIt's a Long Road to a Tomato, by Keith Stewart, wasn't quite what I expected.  For some reason, I figured the book was one of those city-guy-goes-to-the-country-and-gets-a-chicken books (which I often enjoy), and in some ways that is the gist of the story.  Stewart and his wife did move out of New York City to start an farm...but the book sums up twenty years of experience, and the author did far more than keep a chicken. 

Stewart developed a 12-acre organic-vegetable farm, run by himself with the seasonal help of six interns per year (who require more management than Hispanic laborers would have, but who he pays less).  Not counting large investments (like tractors, of which Stewart owns three), his annual expenses come to just shy of $150,000, which should give you an idea of the scale of his operation.  He grows all of the usual high-end vegetables and herbs, with garlic being one of his favorites, and he trucks the produce into the big city to sell in a Manhattan farmer's market every week.

While I heartily recommend It's a Long Road to a Tomato for anyone considering beginning their own market garden, the book has a wider appeal.  If you're new to the topic, you'll probably learn a lot about problems with our current agricultural system, running the gamut from encroaching development to government regulations.  And even if you're not interested in agricultural policy or starting your own organic farm, you'll probably enjoy the chapters in which Stewart writes about life on the farm, while you'll definitely love his wife's woodcuts.

In the end, I didn't learn anything new from It's a Long Road to a Tomato, but I enjoyed the read.  Chances are you'll feel the same.

Posted Sun Nov 10 07:26:46 2013 Tags:
when to winterize small engine stuff and how

Friday was one of our winterization days.

This is the second year in a row we remembered to run our small engines dry.

The getting ready for winter ritual is almost complete.

Posted Sun Nov 10 12:57:57 2013 Tags:
Apples and carrots

The best way to get good apples is to grow them yourself.  We're getting there, but it takes time.

The second best way would be to team up with a farmer whose tastes and growing philosophy mesh with your own and pick your apples from his orchard.  Or buy his apples at a farmer's market.  I wish I'd gotten more than half a bushel of those delectable Winesaps, but I'm afraid they're all gone now.

Third best is to find a fruit stand that sells semi-local apples by the bushel.  While these are never quite as delectable as homegrown, they're much tastier (and cheaper) than store-bought.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says Red Delicious apples averaged $1.41/pound in September.  In contrast, the going rate for a bushel of Winesaps in our area seems to be about $24, or 50 cents a pound.  (And they taste vastly better than Red Delicious.)

We couldn't eat a bushel of apples before they go soft if we kept them in the house, but the fridge root cellar has room between baskets of carrots to keep apples crisp.  They say not to store apples with potatoes, but my carrots don't seem to mind the ethylene-producing neighbors.

What do you stock up on from the fruit stand to keep your winter meals cheap and tasty?

Posted Mon Nov 11 07:58:49 2013 Tags:

Restoration AgricultureSeveral of you recommended that I check out Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers by Mark Shepard, and I can see why since the book documents the rare example of an extensive food-forest system in its prime.  Unfortunately, the gems are deeply buried --- I barely found anything worth noting down until I was halfway through the book.  There are also lots of typos, and several glaring mis-statements that put the rest of his facts in question, along with pages of rants and regurgitation of other books.  So, I can't entirely recommend Restoration Agriculture, but if you're willing to skim and think critically, it can be a handy addition to your permaculture education.

I'll post more about the nitty-gritty of Mark Shepard's system later in the week, but for now, let me give you a quick run-down on his farm and vision.  Shepard's parents were hobby farmers, so he soon became familiar with the basics of growing his own vegetables.  However, as an adult, he rejected the conventional backyard system, realizing that most of us aren't growing anywhere near all of our own food since we continue buying staples from the grocery store (which equates to buying from factory farms).  Could he develop a system in which farmers can grow perennial staples (preventing erosion, providing wildlife habitat, etc.), so crops like chestnuts and hazelnuts replace corn and beans in the average American's diet?

Shepard put his dream to the test on a 106-acre farm in southwest Wisconsin, on the border between zone 3 and 4.  He developed methods of mixing tree, vine, and bush crops with livestock in such a way that some of the work could be done by conventional equipment that most medium-to-large-scale farmers already have.  Stay tuned for more on the design of New Forest Farm in later posts.

Want to learn to make simple changes in your life to become more self-sufficient?  The Weekend Homesteader shows how.

This post is part of our Restoration Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 11 12:01:50 2013 Tags:
testing out the new chicken holding pen on retirement day

The new chicken holding coop is a huge improvement for processing day.

We had no problems with the first 5 birds, but the last one had plans of escaping before I caught him by the leg.

Posted Mon Nov 11 16:12:05 2013 Tags:

Oilseed radishesWhen Mom came over to visit last weekend, she oohed and awed over the beauty of my cover crops, as usual.  But this time around, she had more purpose to her words --- she wanted to know if the radishes were the same as the daikon radishes she's been buying at the grocery store.

I've posted before that the oilseed radishes grown as cover crops are in the same species as daikon radishes, but probably aren't varieties bred for flavor, so I felt like it couldn't hurt anything to give Mom a few roots to sample.  She took them home, sliced them up, and gave me one thumb up.  "I like them OK," Mom emailed.  "They don't seem quite as spicy as the Daikons, which sell, bigger, at Food City for $3.19, but they are about as spicy as most regular radishes."

On the other hand, my sister enjoyed the flavor of the cover crops, so I'm pulling up a few more to toss in the fridge root cellar.  I could leave them in the ground, but with lows forecast to reach 10 degrees this week, I don't want to risk them freezing and rotting.

As a side note to locals, the winter forecast for our region is finally out from my favorite weather guru:

Basket of cabbages"So based upon the OPI Index (October Pattern Index) they are basically saying a cold, wintry start mid-November to early December will give way to mildness that dominates the heart of winter through January 2014 before more average, colder conditions develop in February toward end of the season."

In other words, don't lose heart during this frigid week, but do take your cabbages in and frost protect any last figs out there.

Posted Tue Nov 12 07:41:02 2013 Tags:

Chestnut with pigsI left you hanging in yesterday's post, so I figure several of you are probably wondering --- what exactly does Mark Shepard's farm look like?  He based his design on the natural oak savanna ecosystem, but replaced wild plants with productive, domesticated species and laid everything out in rows with 23-foot alleys in between the trees.  His primary species include:

  • American X Chinese chestnuts --- Those of us further south can just plant Chinese chestnuts, but Shepard lives too far north for the pure Asian stock to thrive and is experimenting with hybrids.  He plants his chestnuts 12 feet apart.
  • Apples --- Since Shepard is trying to make a profit from his farm products, the trickiness of growing blemish-free apples organically is something he had to figure out.  His solution is to use most of his apples for juice, to plant resistant varieties, to prune high, to graze in early spring to get rid of diseased leaves, and to let pigs eat the blemished fruits off the ground.  His apples are planted 24 feet apart.
  • American X European hazelnuts --- There's been quite a bit more breeding since I wrote this lunchtime series on the topic, but the ideas are the same.  In Shepard's system, hazels are planted four feet apart in rows with apples.
  • Berries --- Shepard also plants raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, and grapes in the understory.  He trains his grapes onto tree limbs, then prunes the tree leaves above the grapes so the latter get plenty of light.
  • Edible and medicinal mushrooms --- These are grown on logs under the trees.

In the alleys between these trees and shrubs, livestock clip back the grasses and add another food (and income) source.  Shepard recommends using Salatin-style grazing, with the number of each type of animal based on the number of cattle.  For example, if your farm has just one cow, Shepard recommends two hogs (Tamworth, Red Wattle, or Berkshires), four turkeys, one sheep, and variable chickens (with the amount of chickens dependent on how much you want to feed them).  Geese or goats can replace sheep, although Shepard seemed very anti-goat.

I wish Shepard had given us many more details on his farm, but this is all I could pull out of his book!  Hopefully it will be enough to give many of you new ideas, though, just as it set me off on my tree alley experiments.

To learn more about the nitty-gritty of rotational grazing, check out Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

This post is part of our Restoration Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 12 12:01:56 2013 Tags:

Homesteading calendar

What's the best way to be an arm-chair homesteader?  With one of our calendars, of course.

Our copies just showed up in the mailbox, and those of you who preordered will probably see yours soon too.  The real thing looks twice as nice as the proof copy did.

Mom says she doesn't mind gift-wrapping and inserting a gift note at no extra charge.  Just leave a message in your order when you check out via paypal.

Then you and your loved ones can enjoy all of the beauty of homesteading with none of the work.  Now that's the way to be an arm-chair homesteader.

Posted Tue Nov 12 15:56:39 2013 Tags:
Split firewood

I thought I had fire-starting all figured out until this year, when we got our firewood from a different ecosystem.  Usually, our homegrown firewood comes from the floodplain, meaning that we have plenty of box-elder for kindling and walnut for hotter fires; when we buy wood, it tends to be oak from national forest mountain nearby.

A hard piece of firewood

But the drier Starplate pasture was full of scrubby trees that grow up in old fields.  None (except one tulip-tree) were very large in diameter, but some resisted the splitting ax like crazy.  I'm guessing that maybe this ultra-hard wood is hop-hornbeam?

A warm fire

I'm so used to starting fires with box-elder kindling that I thought pale wood equated to easy starts.  It turns out that was a false correlation, as I discovered when I tried to start a fire with another pale wood (not sure what it was since the bark had fallen off).  Since then, I've realized that the easy way to tell which variety to use for kindling (especially if you don't know the species and can't look up its Btu potential) is to heft the round in your hand.  Heavy wood takes more effort to catch a flame, while light-weight wood will flare up in an instant.  (That's assuming your firewood is dry, of course.)

Kindling thief

Some things never change, though.  Lucy continues to be a firewood thief, so I figure these new species taste about the same as the old did to a dog palate.  And the cats still love curling up in front of the stove.  Don't worry, Emily, Strider was in the comfy chair too until seconds before I snapped that shot.

Posted Wed Nov 13 07:23:02 2013 Tags:
Anna Keylines
Keylines at New Forest Farm

Although I complained earlier that Restoration Agriculture included too much rehashing of other books, my very favorite part was actually his explanation of water management using keylines.  I've never tracked down a copy of P.A. Yeomans' book on the subject and thus didn't really understand the system, so I appreciated Mark Shepard's summary.

I've heard people bandy around the term "keyline" for years, and it took me a while to realize they weren't talking about ley lines.  (Yes, my brain does automatically turn off when I hear, or think I hear, certain words.)  I'd also read several authors writing about bringing water from the valleys to the ridges, and I couldn't quite figure out what they were talking about since we all know that water flows downhill.  Mark Shepard's chapter on the topic cleared up all of my misunderstandings.


First of all, a keyline is simply the spot on the landscape where a steep slope turns shallow, as you can see in the photo above.  The idea is that by managing water along this line, you can move the least dirt while having a large effect downhill.

Why do you want to have any effect at all?  I chose to photograph the hill I did because that's the one that feeds the extremely high groundwater in our forest garden.  According to Yeomans (the originator of the keyline concept), swampy bottomland results from mismanaging the water upstream.  To correct the problem, you dig a swale (an on-contour ditch) along the keyline so that water doesn't whoosh right down into the swampy bottom, but instead flows gently (along a 1% downhill slope) to drier areas to the side.  This is known as a spreader swale, and it's what folks mean when they talk about moving water from the valleys to the ridges --- you're not technically bringing water uphill, but you are moving it from a wetter area to a drier area.  The result is a more productive, damper area to the side of the keyline, and a more productive, drier area in the flat zone directly downhill.
Keyline map
Another facet of the keyline system is pocket ponds, which are just like my sky pond, but are located at keypoints (the center of the keyline).  These vernal pools aren't meant to stay wet all year, but they do act as surge protectors, giving you somewhere to store excess water during wet seasons and then disbursing that water to the surrounding area once things dry out.

The final part of the keyline system consists of subsoiling (running a small plow deep in the earth) parallel to the swales each year to break up hardpan.  Similarly, you can build more swales parallel to the keyline swale and plant trees along them, resulting in easy-to-handle rows that still work with (rather than against) your site.

Understanding keylines got me thinking that I should definitely give the concept a try above the forest garden.  I've had pretty good luck moving trees upward into raised mounds, but wouldn't it be wonderful not to have a swamp there each winter?  Sounds like another fall earth-moving project just waiting to be explored!

$10 Root Cellar explains another simple way to dig your way to self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our Restoration Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 13 16:07:24 2013 Tags:
Stihl work gloves

I've been using these Stihl work gloves for about 6 months now.

I liked them at first, but it turns out the band at the wrist tends to slip forward creating a situation where the fit isn't as tight, causing rubbing during aggressive activities.

The next pair of work gloves I buy will be the Palomino grain cow hide gloves I started out using back in 2008.

Posted Wed Nov 13 16:37:49 2013 Tags:
Backyard chinampas
"It is hard to tell in the photos, but does the gully have an outlet, and did you make the 'chinampas' parallel or perpendicular to the grade? Or, 'Will It Drain?'"

--- Eric in Japan, in reference to my post on terraforming the gully

This is an excellent question, and one I didn't really really pay attention to when I first pulled out my shovel.  I made the raised beds parallel to the slope with no drainage option, mostly because you want raised beds to be flat on top, and it's much easier to make them flat if you build parallel to the slope.

Broken drainpipeSince reading Eric's comment, I've been keeping my eye on the beds and I've been pleasantly surprised to see very little water building up in the aisles between.  Granted, it's been relatively dry here (you know, an average of only about half an inch of rain per week), so the groundwater isn't terribly high.  But my sky pond is still about halfway full, despite the fact that Lucy thought there was some kind of critter in the drainpipe from the roof and ripped it to shreds a couple of months ago, meaning only groundwater is recharging the pond.  (I really should fix that....)

Barring extreme waterlogging in my new gully beds, I figure I'll just plant with the water in mind.  For example, I discovered this summer that the watermelons planted in a raised bed above some very soggy soil did much better than those in the main part of the garden, so those would be a good choice for our chinampa beds.  And for all I know, next year will be as dry as this one was wet, and I'll be glad for every ounce of water retained.

Or maybe I'll change my mind and add some drainage!  Only time will tell.

Save up to 20% with holiday bundles

By the way, I decided not to bore you with a full-blown advertising post, but did want to alert you to the new sale on our chicken waterer website --- I hope it makes your holiday shopping easier!  Cold weather has been keeping me inside, so I'm also making changes to my email lists --- please stay alert and click to confirm that you want to stay on my lists if you see an email from me in your inbox.  Thanks for bearing with the marketing interruptions!

Posted Thu Nov 14 07:32:55 2013 Tags:

Forest farmingThe last tidbit I mined out of Restoration Agriculture was really a venue for further exploration.  Shepard explained that the USDA has five officially-sanctioned types of agroforestry, which means we can hunt down scientific studies on each of these topics to give us jumping-off points for our own explorations.  The first two --- wind breaks and riparian buffers --- are self-explanatory and are more about protecting the rest of the farm and ecosystem than they are about growing food, but the others have food potential.

Despite the name, forest farming (as defined by the USDA) isn't the same as forest gardening (as defined by the permaculture community).  This is a closed-forest type of setting with shade-tolerant plants including medicinal herbs (ginseng, etc.), ramps, gooseberries, currants, and edible mushrooms grown underneath the trees.  I feel like this form of agroforestry is most useful for folks who need a cash crop, less so for trying to feed ourselves.
Silvopastures are a concept I've written about here before (and which have informed my own pasture experiments).  The idea is to combine trees and pasture, with the aim of producing 40 to 60% canopy coverage.  An easy way to start a silvopasture is to plant trees along permanent fencelines, focusing primarily on deep-rooted species so they don't compete too much with the grass.  Fruit trees, pecans, walnuts, hickories, chestnuts, and pines have all been used in official studies.

Alley croppingThe final type of USDA-approved agroforestry is alley cropping, with rows of trees separated by annual field crops.  The trees are often oaks, walnuts, or pecans, and the trick (again) is to keep the trees' roots from competing with the annual crops.  Since most people are plowing their annual crop fields, they generally use a subsoiler each year as well to cut back tree roots that are trying to invade the main fields, tempting the trees' roots instead to dig deep.

If you're trying to create your own perennial-based system like I am, I highly recommend checking out extension-service documents about these various agroforestry systems online.  It's always a good idea to know what's been tried before you go out to reinvent the wheel.

If you're sad that there's no lunchtime post coming up tomorrow, you might want to check out my complete list of ebooks for further reading.

This post is part of our Restoration Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 14 12:00:48 2013 Tags:
frozen driveway day

We woke up this morning with a frozen driveway.

The truck was frozen too, but once we jump started her she was ready for some trips to the barn.

A few loads of straw and most of our garbage got hauled before the ground thawed.

Posted Thu Nov 14 16:02:28 2013 Tags:
Anna Carpe diem
Frozen creek

I don't think I ever understood the expression "Seize the day" until I moved to the farm.  But now I know that, sometimes, it's worth throwing the list out the window and going with the flow.

Straw deliveryThursday morning, we woke to a 14-degree farm, and when I took Lucy for her walk through the floodplain, nothing even crunched under my feet --- the mud was solid.  The weather was so wet this year that we haven't had a single day in which we could drive the truck back to our core homestead, but frozen works too.

Three hours later, the truck started slipping around as it brought in the last load of straw, and Mark had to pull it out of the ruts with the ATV.  But we'd filled the barn with 33 bales of straw and had cleared out a year's stock-piled garbage (two truckloads full).  If Mark had tried to do all of that hauling with the ATV, it would have taken him at least a week.

By the way, Mark's newest heated chicken waterer incarnation was still flowing at 14 degrees.  Want to guess how low it'll go?

Posted Fri Nov 15 07:28:47 2013 Tags:

Hooking up a hot water tank with low pressure
I hooked up a medium sized hot water tank today.

It's on a switch because we plan to only use it once or twice a day.

Posted Fri Nov 15 16:17:56 2013 Tags:
Comfrey bed

See the comfrey bed above?  I dug out every single root I could find from that spot last year, broke the plants up into smaller segments and stuck them into the ground elsewhere with no water or care.  Not only did all the new starts thrive, the bed now appears to be just as full as comfrey as it was before I dug the plants out.  Time to do it all again!

Wheelbarrow of comfrey

While I'm on the subject, I thought comfrey transplanting day would be a good time to regale you with the comfrey dos and don'ts I've learned over the years:

Comfrey dos:

  • Do use comfrey medicinally as a poultice.  I once cut my foot wide open running barefoot amid glass.  The wound really should have had stitches, but Mom gave me a comfrey poultice, and it healed right up in no time.
  • Chicken eating comfreyDo plant comfrey in pastures.  Although the mature leaves are not their favorite food, chickens will eat comfrey if you accidentally let the pasture get overgrazed.  The birds also enjoy young comfrey leaves even when they have other options.  Best of all, comfrey plants are so hardy even chickens can't kill them.
  • Do plant comfrey beyond the eventual spread of your fruit trees.  I've started lining paths in the forest garden with comfrey.  I can cut the leaves and use them as nutrient-rich mulch, and as long as the comfrey isn't close to my trees, they don't compete much for nitrogen.
  • Do start a comfrey nursery bed.  Within a couple of years, one plant can turn into dozens of plants that are ultra-easy to move elsewhere.

Comfrey don'ts:

  • Comfrey rootsDon't take comfrey internally.  According to some sources, comfrey can be a carcinogen, so I figure it's better not to risk it.
  • Don't put a comfrey poultice on an infected wound.  Comfrey makes your skin grow back over a cut so quickly that it can seal infections in, so wash that wound well first!
  • Don't plant comfrey within the root zone of young fruit trees.  If you have awesome soil, you might get away with this, but comfrey stole nitrogen from my fruit trees and caused their leaves to yellow.  Comfrey didn't seem to cause problems in the deeper shade beneath a mature peach, though.
  • Don't expect to ever plant anything else where your comfrey is now.  Comfrey doesn't run like mint (although it will slowly spread to each side over the years), but it is just as tough to eradicate.  So, think hard about what you want to have in that spot in twenty years before putting in your comfrey.
  • Don't mulch with comfrey stems.  Leaves make a great mulch, but the stems can root and start a new comfrey patch where you don't want one.  Similarly, you won't want to let even a tiny root end up in your compost pile or the soil will be full of comfrey plants.

Anything else you'd add to my comfrey instruction sheet?

Posted Sat Nov 16 07:16:29 2013 Tags:
best cargo net for hauling garbage in truck

This bungee 4X5 cargo net expands our garbage hauling capacity by about 50%.

Posted Sat Nov 16 14:17:43 2013 Tags:
Wetknee books"I'm curious about your book experience. After doing many ebooks and one big book what is would be your preference for future books? Are you finding that sales are still doing well for all your books or are there standout ones?"
--- Mikey

I know this question isn't really homesteading-related, but several of our readers have self-published ebooks and/or have been holding out to sign on with a publisher, so I thought the topic would be helpful for more than just Mikey to hear about.  I also highly recommend ebooks to homesteaders as a potential income source, so even if you haven't written one yet, you might want to take note.

Of course, this post is also partly because I just wanted a chance to crunch data.  After all, I let a publisher take The Weekend Homesteader and run with it as an experiment to test this precise question.  And no experiment is worth much without a conclusion.

First, a caveat: I don't actually know how exactly many paper books I've sold and how much I've made from the operation.  I won't get my first statement and royalty check until next month (yes, that is 19 months after turning in my manuscript).  I'm also a bit fuzzy on how much I'll make per book --- I think it's about 65 cents, but that depends on how each book was sold.  (For comparison's sake, I make 35 cents every time one of my 99 cent self-published ebooks is sold and 75 cents every time one of my $1.99 ebooks is sold.)

Book sales

What I do have is Bookscan data about The Weekend Homesteader from Amazon's Author Central website.  (They warn that the data is usually underreported by about 25%, so I'm correcting it slightly in the calculations below.)  In the chart above, you can see that I sold a lot of books for a couple of months, sold only a few when my first printing ran out and we had to wait on the second set of books to arrive, and then, after another couple of months of high sales, settled in to selling about 50 books a week.

Books over timeSelling a lot of books during the launch then a slow-but-steady stream later seems to be the case with my ebooks as well.  The chart to the left shows estimated income from my paperback (in bold) versus all of my ebooks over their first 13 months in the public eye.  As you can see, my best-selling ebook --- Trailersteading --- actually made significantly more than my paperback did during that period (and I didn't have to wait a year and half for the money).  My other ebooks didn't make quite as much as my paperback, but on the other hand you have to keep in mind that the paperback is equivalent to 12 ebooks, so I figure I made a lot more per word even with my moderately-selling ebooks.  (As a side note: data for ebooks that have come out in 2013 hasn't been added to this chart --- $10 Root Cellar looks like it might give Trailersteading a run for its money.)

Book sales by yearBut did the paperback boost my "brand" enough that it was worth taking the per-word hit?  The chart to the right looks at ebook sales two years before, one year before, and then during the time my paperback has been out.  Although it looks like the paperback might have increased ebook sales during the launch period (which is also when Trailersteading came out), if anything, it decreased sales later in the year.  That's because once my publisher's version of The Weekend Homesteader became available in ebook form, my individual-month ebooks were no longer eligible for Amazon's KDP Select program, which is a real money-maker.  Plus, I'll only get about 65 cents if someone buys the publisher's ebook or paperback, while I'd make $4.20 if that person instead bought all 12 months straight from me.

So, to answer Mikey's question, I don't plan to publish any more print books with a publisher anytime soon --- in this digital age, it doesn't feel like I really need a middle man.  (And wouldn't you rather spend $1.99 for an ebook than $13.50 for a paperback?)  Perhaps if I was the kind of person who liked to go on tour, having a paper book would boost the brand enough to make the it worthwhile, but since I'm a confirmed hermit, ebooks seem to work better for me.

Which is not to say I regret publishing The Weekend Homesteader on paper --- if nothing else, it probably reached a lot of eyes my words wouldn't otherwise have appeared to.  And I always like experiments!  But for those of you who are on the fence about uploading your words straight to Amazon, I say go for it --- you probably won't regret it.

Posted Sun Nov 17 07:47:10 2013 Tags:
Site maintenance

I'm stealing Mark's posting spot to apologize for any website problems you've had this weekend.  Joey and I have been playing around with the site to make it go a little faster, but unfortunately it broke a few times in the process.  The good news is that using the search and comment features now seems to be about twice as fast!  Thanks for putting up with site maintenance --- I think it's all over now (unless I break anything else).

Edited to add: I'm making one more change at 6:30 pm, so you may have trouble again for a few hours Sunday evening.  Tomorrow, hopefully, this will all be sorted out!

Posted Sun Nov 17 13:47:43 2013 Tags:

Living Fences by Ogden TannerLong-time readers will know that I'm interested in hedges, even though I haven't really experimented much with them.  I like the idea of planting a living barrier that will keep deer out and chickens in even after our metal fences rot into the ground.  It would be a major bonus if that barrier also produced food for the chickens and for us.  So I was thrilled when I stumbled across Living Fences: A Gardener's Guide to Hedge's, Vines, & Espaliers, by Ogden Tanner, in our local library.

Unfortunately, the book isn't really what I was looking for (which I suspect might not exist), since it's mainly a list of species you might want to use in ornamental living fences, along with some data on their construction from a landscaper's point of view.  However, I did find some information that will be helpful when I finally get our borders weed-free enough that I can start my hedge experiments.  Here are species that might make the cut:

Spacing in a hedge
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
Thorny barrier; edible fruits; informal hedges 4-6' tall
Can fruiting quinces be used the same way?
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)
Edible fruit; informal or form hedges 4-15' tall

Cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli)
Thorny barrier; informal hedge up to 30' tall
Would fruits be edible to chickens?
European beech (Fagus sylvatica)
Classic European hedge plant; formal or informal hedge 6-20+' tall
Would American beech work as well?  Can chickens eat their nuts?
Beach plum (Prunus maritima)
Edible fruits; informal hedge 6-10' tall

Alpine currant (Ribes alpinum)
Withstands shade; formal or informal hedge 2-5' tall
Will more tasty currants and gooseberries work in a hedge?
Roses (Rosa sp.)
Some have edible hips; informal hedge 6-7' tall
2' (or 3-6' for Rosa rugosa)

And, of course, if I want to screen off an area but don't need the plants to repel animals, I could use vines alone fencelines instead.  Top edible vines include hardy kiwis and grapes.

If you'd like more information on hedges, I've made a few other research posts, and also reported on an ill-fated osage-orange experiment.  (The conclusion to the experiment was: trying to start a hedge in an area that's currently covered in tall weeds and young trees just doesn't work.)  Here are the research posts to get you started:

If you've experimented with edible hedges and/or hedges used as livestock fences (or have found a good source for information about them), I'd love to hear about it!

Posted Mon Nov 18 06:25:33 2013 Tags:

Low-Cost SunroomGrowing into a Farm leaned onto the fluffy side, so I wanted to give you a more technical ebook next.  Low-Cost Sunroom: Heating Your Home With Free Solar Energy is based on a booklet my father wrote while building low-cost greenhouse add-ons in the early 1980s.  You can learn a lot about passive-solar space heating from this updated ebook, and the book also includes step-by-step directions and diagrams to expedite building your own sunroom.

Here's the blurb:

Build a greenhouse add-on for less than $15 per square foot!

A sunroom built onto the south side of an existing building is the most cost-effective way to capture the energy of the sun.  The add-on not only lowers your heating bills, it also provides space to start seeds in the spring and to extend your gardening season in the fall.

This book includes 32 photos and diagrams, including scale drawings to make your building project simple.

Errol HessThe rest of this week's lunchtime series is going to regale you with the first section of Low-Cost Sunroom, but if you want to read it all, you'll have to splurge 99 cents on a copy of the complete book (which can be read on nearly any device).  I'll also be setting the book free on Friday so my loyal readers can pick up a copy without paying, and those of you who prefer a pdf copy can email me Friday to get an emailed copy instead.

As a side note, you can also read about my top fifty favorite homesteading books in Best Books for Homesteaders, a free download when you sign up for my book email list.  To join the list, just go to Wetknee Books and input your name and email address in the form on the sidebar.

Thanks for reading (and double thanks if you find the time to leave a review on Amazon).  I hope you learn as much from this ebook as I did!

This post is part of our Low-Cost Sunroom lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 18 12:01:38 2013 Tags:
Wood-cutting warmup

Don't forget to warm up before you start a vigorous task like wood splitting.

Putting the Chopper 1 inside for a couple of hours before hand seems to help too.  Warm fingers make for easy splits.

Posted Mon Nov 18 15:16:57 2013 Tags:
Russian comfrey flowers

I seem to have opened a can of worms with my words: "Don't take comfrey internally.  According to some sources, comfrey can be a carcinogen, so I figure it's better not to risk it."  Some of our readers feel that comfrey is an herb that's been used for hundreds of years and is safe by default, while others became concerned that maybe the leaves aren't even safe enough to feed to their livestock (and that problems might pass on to humans if we eat meat or eggs from animals that consumed comfrey).

Making mint teaI should admit up front that I hadn't done much research on that assertion before throwing it into a post.  I grew up drinking comfrey-mint tea that my mom made by clipping comfrey and mint leaves, putting them in a mason jar, pouring hot water over top, then refrigerating.  After we drank the iced beverage, I chewed up the greenery and was well satisfied.

However, during my teenage, rebellious years, I started questioning things.  This was before I used the internet, so I'm not sure what book I found the data in, but some source told me comfrey leaves can be carcinogenic.  I passed the data on to Mom, who changed her recipe to mint only, and my rebellion was over.

Since many of you seemed worried about the topic, I decided it was high time to find out the truth, which meant delving into the scientific literature.  The issue is turns out to be that comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that have caused liver cancer in rats at various doses.  In one study, cancer was induced by feeding rats comfrey leaves for 1.5 to 2 years.  In another study, the extracted alkaloids were injected into the rats at a rate of 20 mg/kg three times a week and caused liver damage within 18 weeks.

One of our readers sent me to this refutation of comfrey problems, so I checked that out next.  However, even my quick search of the internet turns up problems with their refutation.  For example, leaves instead of roots were used in the studies I saw, and at least one study consisted of animals eating comfrey leaves instead of being injected with extracted chemicals.  In addition, that website only looks at common comfrey, while many permaculturalists are using Russian comfrey in the same ways.  Finally, it's worth noting that the author clearly has a financial interest in making comfrey available as an herb.

I don't have any solid conclusions since I think we each have to make health decisions for our own families and animals.  I still am unlikely to take comfrey internally, am quite happy to apply it externally, and will keep feeding the leaves to chickens since our working birds have a shelf life of 1.5 years or less.  If we ever owned breeding or milk animals that I wanted to really go the distance, though, I might keep them away from comfrey, and I wouldn't eat any animal's liver if it looked weird.  I hope that clears, rather than muddies, the waters!

Posted Tue Nov 19 07:19:12 2013 Tags:

Sunroom end-wall diagramThe purpose of Low-Cost Sunroom is to show how anyone who is of average handiness with simple tools can construct a durable, well-insulated eight-by-eight-foot solar greenhouse.  First, there are a few simple facts concerning the sun and heat retention (insulation) that the greenhouse builder must keep in mind.  For a more complete coverage of the following subjects, The Passive Solar Energy Book, by Edward Mazria, is recommended as a basic primer.

The word “solar” in solar greenhouse means that the greenhouse is designed to do three things an ordinary greenhouse cannot do.  The purpose of most older greenhouses was to let in adequate light to grow plants in winter and spring and to protect the plants from direct contact with the elements.  The old greenhouse had to have a heat source to keep soil and air temperatures warm enough to grow plants.  The solar greenhouse (1) uses the sun as its main heat source, (2) is well-enough insulated that it does not lose too much heat overnight, and (3) has a system of storing and releasing heat obtained from the sun.

To see the complete plans for this greenhouse, download the diagrams in this pdf file.  Then learn to build it with the 99 cent ebook Low-Cost Sunroom.

This post is part of our Low-Cost Sunroom lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 19 12:01:54 2013 Tags:
sealing in crack for the winter

Reading Low-Cost Sunroom reminded us of a few cracks we noticed last winter where a small draft was sneaking in on those really windy nights.

Posted Tue Nov 19 15:57:56 2013 Tags:

I figured it was a bit of a gamble to topdress my fruit trees in November last year instead of waiting until spring.  The danger is that if you feed them too early, the trees might put out extra top growth, which would winter-kill.  On the other hand, feeding and mulching your trees in the fall can promote root growth during the period between when the leaves fall and when the ground gets cold enough to make the trees truly dormant, in essence extending your growing season.  Plus, putting compost and mulch over possibly-diseased tree leaves that have fallen to the ground prompts the latter to decompose quickly so the disease doesn't overwinter.  And, from a purely human point of view, November is a less-busy gardening month than March is, so anything I can do now lowers stress later.

Budding hazel

And the gamble paid off.  I didn't see any winter-killing last year, so fall feeding definitely didn't hurt.  I might as well lather, rinse, and repeat this year!

First, each tree gets weeded or kill mulched (depending on how bad the weeds are), I scatter a bit of rotted horse manure around the base, then I top it all off with leaves raked out of the woods.  As you can see, rye out beyond the trees' canopy is growing well and will give me some supplemental mulch come May to carry us through the year.

(And, look!  It seems like my hybrid hazel will fruit for the first time next year if the number of flower buds is any indication!  I'd better get Mark at work designing a nut cracker.)

Bark lichen

Getting to spend time around my fruit trees is always a treat, no matter what the season.  I always notice something new, like the lichen coating the trunks of my apple trees.  My peaches don't seem to grow lichen, maybe because they grow more quickly, or perhaps the bark is just the wrong texture?  Either way, the eye candy is appreciated.

Posted Wed Nov 20 07:30:32 2013 Tags:

Variable degrees of south-facing buildingsIn order to obtain maximum benefit from the sun, the glazing (window wall) of the greenhouse should face nearly due south.  In adding a greenhouse onto an existing house, the wall can be up to 30 degrees off true south without losing too much benefit from the sun.  A wall between 30 to 45 degrees off true south will benefit by using the triangular design described at the end of Low-Cost Sunroom, as might those marginal ones between 20 and 30 degrees.

There are two ways of finding solar orientation.  One is to use a magnetic compass.  Check with your library or high school science teacher to find out how far off true south magnetic south is where you live (a figure known as declination).  Or visit to find declination for your location online.  If your declination consists of only a few degrees, and if the wall you want to put the greenhouse on is close to true magnetic south, you have nothing to worry about.  If, on the other hand, the compass shows your wall is Declination10 to 15 degrees off true south, make sure the difference between true and magnetic south is not great enough to throw you beyond 20 degrees off true south.

True south is where the sun is at solar noon.  The other way of finding out how close to south your building is facing, is to find out when solar noon is in your location and to use a post or perpendicular stick to cast a shadow on the wall at solar noon.  If the wall is facing due south, the shadow will stand straight up on the wall, and will be perpendicular to the wall on the ground in front.  The distance that the shadow is off from this description shows the number of degrees the wall varies from true south.  You can use a protractor where the shadow on the ground meets the wall to measure the angle.

When this booklet was first written (1981), Scott County, Virginia, had a declination of only 3 degrees, so the compass reading could be used without correction.  However, declination changes in each location over time, and the area's declination is now 6.75 degrees.

To read more about building a greenhouse add-on for less than $15 per square foot, download the 99 cent ebook Low-Cost Sunroom.

This post is part of our Low-Cost Sunroom lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 20 12:00:16 2013 Tags:
using a grape trellis to shade a summer window

Putting a trellis in front of these windows should give us some Summer shade.

I overlapped 2 eight foot long furring strips to equal the 12 foot span.

Now we just have to wait for the grapes to grow and twist their way to the top.

Posted Wed Nov 20 15:34:19 2013 Tags:
Perfect peach"I have a nectarine tree that fruits like crazy but the fruit rots every time before a single fruit can be harvested. The tree just seems sickly and I'm thinking I might just have to remove it. However, I was watching a video by Alex Ojeda and he said he dug a circle around a sickly lemon tree, placed sticks and such in the trench, and recovered it with the dirt (in essence, creating an "after the fact" hugelkulture). Have you ever tried this (I know you planted your trees in hugelkultures but it's too late to do that with this tree)? If so, would I dig the circle at the drip line or further in? And would it help with the fruit issue or is that just a fungus issue (I was hoping if the tree was healthier, it could fight off the fungus better, if that is the problem)? Thanks for any help you can give."
--- Karyn

I'm afraid that what you're likely looking at is brown rot, the bane of peaches, nectarines, and other stone fruits in the humid South.  While boosting a tree's health with hugelkultur is always a good idea, it's unlikely to prevent this kind of fungal disease if your weather conditions are right for it.  We battle brown rot pretty hard, and after a few years of trial and error, these are my top tips:

  • Plant resistant varieties.  Unfortunately, most nectarines are more susceptible to brown rot than peaches are (and even peaches get it pretty bad).  We ended up cutting down our nectarine because it seemed to be a disease magnet.
  • Prune your trees high and open.  If I could go back in time, I'd change my pruning strategy so the scaffold branches didn't come off the tree lower than three feet above the ground.  Brown rot is produced by a fungus, fungi like damp, and the ground is always the dampest spot.  I am happy with my open-vase form, though, since that lets sunlight penetrate the whole tree and dries fruits quickly once the rain stops.
  • Oriental fruit moth damageTry to manage insect pests that damage fruits.  Brown rot usually enters fruits through tiny holes created by insects, in our case by the Oriental fruit moth.  I do my best to manage Oriental fruit moth populations by cutting off damaged twigs and soaking them in water to drown the insects, but I only have moderate success with this.
  • Thin fruits optimally.  Brown rot also thrives where two fruits butt up against each other as they swell.  If you're careful to thin your tree so every bloom is at least six inches from another, you'll prevent this damp, fungus-prone location.
  • Incipient brown rotMonitor your tree daily starting a couple of weeks before full ripe.  By pulling off any fruits that have borderline brown rot, you can keep the fungus down to a dull roar.  And picking good fruits once the ground color shows ripeness, but before they're soft, allows you to ripen them inside, beyond the fungal zone. 

All of that said, hugelkultur certainly won't hurt.  If you live in a damp location (which I assume you do if you're having trouble with brown rot),  you don't really even need to dig a trench.  Just toss a bunch of wood, one layer thick, on the soil surface around the drip line.  As the wood rots, the tree roots will grow up to claim the nutrients.  Good luck!

Posted Thu Nov 21 07:59:28 2013 Tags:
Errol Solar access
Calculating your sun angle at noon

Summer solstice
Winter solstice

Your latitude
-(    )
-(    ) -(    )
Sun angle
 (    )  (    )  (    )

Examples for a 37 degree latitude

Summer solstice
Winter solstice

Your latitude
Sun angle

At a latitude of 37 degrees, the noonday sun at the beginning of winter is about 30 degrees above horizontal.  This is the sun’s lowest point in the sky; in spring, fall and summer, it is much higher.  But, since this is when we need the sun’s heat the most, we use 30 degrees to find out whether anything blocks the sun from lighting the greenhouse when it is needed.  Trees, even with their leaves gone, can block a large portion of the sun.  Other buildings, hills, etc. need to be sited in such a way that you know they don’t shade needed sun from the greenhouse.

Ninety percent of all usable sunlight occurs between the hours of 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM.  To be precise, this is solar time.  If solar noon is at 12:45 PM in your location, then the above should read “9:45 AM and 3:45 PM.”  You should also be sure to take Daylight Savings Time into account when figuring out solar noon.

Sun angle
A tree may block some, all, or none of your sunlight.

When figuring out what may or may not block access to the sun, remember that the sun rises low in the east, sets low in the west, and is at its high point only at noon.  So a chart showing solar obstructions will be in the shape of an arc.

Path of the sun
The tree due south of the home above will block less light than the tree to the west.

While the sun may shine over the tree in the above drawing at noon, the same tree the same distance away in the east or west, might shade the sun.  To avoid grief, before locating the greenhouse, you must consider these points of solar access.

To read more about building a greenhouse add-on for less than $15 per square foot, download the 99 cent ebook Low-Cost Sunroom.

This post is part of our Low-Cost Sunroom lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 21 12:01:27 2013 Tags:
what is the best type of knife for killing chickens?

We retired the last seven chickens of our broiler flock today.

I've experimented with a variety of blades for this task and think I've finally found the best knife for killing chickens.

The one I settled on has a 3-1/2-inch blade with a gut hook that should come in handy for this upcoming deer season.

Posted Thu Nov 21 16:13:10 2013 Tags:

Camera settingsI got a new camera back in May --- a Nikon Coolpix L810.  I've been very happy with the video and supermacro features, but for day-to-day use, the pictures have been disappointing.  Sure, it's been a pretty gray year, but the colors in my photos always felt washed out.  And when I scaled them down to put up on the blog, they always ended up subtly blurry.

Mark suggested playing with the exposure compensation, since his Nikon generally requires that to be downgraded a notch or two to get good-quality photos.  Following his lead helped a bit (middle photo), but not enough, so I resorted to what should have been my first step --- reading the manual from cover to cover.

There, I discovered the white balance menu option.  On "auto", everything looks gray and "daylight" fares a little better.  But "cloudy" (even on a rare sunny afternoon) was the winner, making colors really glow (especially when paired with downgrading the exposure compensation a bit).  Success!

So, what about the blurry resized images?  There, the issue appears to have been choosing an option that compresses the files more --- the difference between 16M* and 16M.  Or possibly it helped that I turned off vibration reduction and motion detection (although you would think those would have helped, not hurt, the issue).

All of the specifics aside, the moral is clear.  Knowing how to use your tools nets big dividends.  I wonder what else I've been using wrong?

Posted Fri Nov 22 07:23:46 2013 Tags:

Greenhouses provide heatFor the sun to be used as the main heat source in a greenhouse, there must be some way of collecting and storing heat during the day and releasing it at night.  There has to be enough storage available to absorb excess heat in the daytime so that the temperature does not get too hot, as well as to store enough heat that supplemental heat is not needed on a normal winter’s night.

There are two common systems of heat storage: one using containers of water, the other using some type of masonry.  If you can scrounge free water containers, water storage is cheaper.  In the greenhouse described here, the owner must find a source of heat storage.

Storage containers should be painted black, dark green, or dark blue for maximum heat absorption, and must be placed where the winter sunlight will hit them directly.  Because of the corrosive nature of water, metal drums should have a rust inhibitor added to the water to prolong their lives.

It is a good idea to put storage containers underneath the plant beds so that they keep the soil warm.  A plant bed can be a simple wooden box sitting on top of 55-gallon water-filled drums.

Masonry storage can be: a concrete floor, or one of brick, tiles or even dirt, sand, or gravel; or a stack of rocks, bricks, etc. supporting growing containers.  In any case, there should be insulation underneath the masonry to prevent heat loss to the ground.  This insulation can be as simple as bricks stacked on an old wood pallet, keeping them off the ground.

Did you enjoy these excerpts from Low-Cost Sunroom?  If so, download the whole thing --- it's free today on Amazon!  Thanks for reading.

This post is part of our Low-Cost Sunroom lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Nov 22 12:01:43 2013 Tags:
thermo cube update

I hooked up the Thermo Cube again in the refrigerator root cellar.

We added some jugs of water for heat storage.

It's still doing the job of turning the little space heater on so our apples don't freeze.

Some people are saying it might get as cold as 10 degrees.

Posted Fri Nov 22 15:54:18 2013 Tags:
Chickens in the rain

Even the chickens agreed that Friday was a good day to hunker down out of the rain.  I took advantage of the "bad" weather to spend all day writing, bringing my young-adult novel to the (perhaps) halfway point.  Maybe that means it'll all be downhill from here?

Posted Sat Nov 23 07:48:15 2013 Tags:
times when Dungannon refuse is closed

This post is to remind me that my previous post about the times when the Dungannon dump is closed was wrong. There's a new sign, but they refuse to take down the old one.

Posted Sat Nov 23 14:06:08 2013 Tags:

Butchering a deerIn case you've never gone hunting, there are scads of seasons, even if you limit your sights to deer.  There's bow season, muzzle-loader season, youth deer season...and either-sex firearms season.  That last one is when you really want to wear orange if you leave the road, and is when I tend to hear four or five gunshots during a short walk with Lucy.

It's also when I use my lazy-woman's version of hunting to bag a deer.  Here's how I hunt --- I sit on our futon, glancing out our big bay of south-facing windows in between writing blog posts, reading novels, and petting Huckleberry.  A deer super-highway runs right along the southwest corner of our core homestead, and when I see a deer walking by, I grab the rifle, walk quietly out the door so I can steady the gun along the top of the picnic table on the porch, and take a shot.

This year, I bagged a mature doe, the biggest one we've ever gotten.  That means the meat is a little tougher than the yearling delicacies we've enjoyed in previous years, but I'm confident I can make it shine via brining, stewing, etc.  Not counting the liquid and meat we picked off the bones after cooking them into broth, here's the haul:

  • Hams --- 15.3 lb.
  • Steak --- 4.4 lb.
  • Hamburger --- 4.3 lb.
  • Stew --- 5.2 lb.
  • Total --- 29.1 lb.
Cutting up a steak

(As a side note, we cut each ham in half because it was so big.  And we saved back a lot of stew meat rather than grinding it all this time because I've learned to cook with stewing chunks more.  Plus, Mark got sick of grinding, eventually.  On the other hand, Mark turned out to be vastly superior to me in terms of meticulously cutting up steaks, although I did have to give him a lecture on cutting meat on a wooden cutting board.)

Since we've only shot perhaps five bullets this year, that's less than 17 cents per pound --- pretty cheap meat!  For those of you keeping track at home, I'm still leading the deer competition 3.5 to 1.5 ahead of Mark.  Now, if I can just nab one more deer this week....

Posted Sun Nov 24 07:53:19 2013 Tags:

Back to the landFrom about age 13 through 23, art was one of my passions.  I painted intricate watercolor landscapes of closeup natural worlds, and the art ended up in at least eight states (and, I think, in Japan).  The paintings shown here are some of my favorites that are on those walls far away. 

Once I moved to the farm, though, my homestead became my canvas, and I stopped painting.
  While cleaning out behind my desk last week, I came across some of my paintings, hidden away in a portfolio to protect them from the dust.  I don't like having my art on my own walls because I'm hypercritical of my own efforts (and there just aren't many spare walls in our trailer that aren't full of shelves for books, canning jars, and so forth).  So I decided to see if these kittens...ahem, paintings...could find good homes if I cut the price in half and shared them on the blog.

Yoga leaf

UndertowI'm picking out one main painting and one or two studies to share with you each day this week at noon EST.  I've tried to choose paintings for each day that go together.  They're mostly unmatted and unframed (I'll mention if the art has either treatment), and you can buy one at a time, or can save by buying all together.

Be sure to check back right at noon each day if you're interested, since they're first-come, first-served.  However, if you've bought paintings from me in the past and want a sneak preview, email me and I'll let you get first dibs.

If nothing else, I hope a week of nature art will brighten everyone's day!  And hopefully these original works of art will find someone to appreciate them, perhaps as holiday gifts?

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Sun Nov 24 12:41:36 2013 Tags:

new cutting board
After soaking our wood cutting board in bleach water I decided we needed a second cutting board.

What's the best cutting board for meat?

We'll drive this one around the block a few times and report back on how useful the juice groove is and if it makes the cut.

Posted Sun Nov 24 13:14:31 2013 Tags:
Gooseberry leaves

As usual, we're putting in a bunch of new perennials over the winter.  The unusual part is that over half of them are homegrown.  As I've mentioned previously, we set out five figs in late July, four started from cuttings and one from a rooted shoot found under our Chicago Hardy tree.  I didn't blog about it, but I also set out an Issai hardy kiwi at the same time, a bit later in the summer I planted out a couple of Poorman gooseberries from our nursery bed, and last week I transplanted five seedless grapes (Reliance, Thomcord, and Marquis) to their new homes as well.  Over half of these new plants came from cuttings a reader sent us --- thank you, Brian!

Baby hardy kiwi vine

With so much bounty coming our way for free, my annual $100 perennial budget stretched in some interesting directions.  We'll be adding a new variety of red raspberry (Taylor) in the spring, and will be giving hardy kiwis another shot with an Anna plant from One Green Word, as was recommended by another reader.  Last year's store-bought apple rootstock (Bud 9) will be stooled this year and will let me graft new dwarf trees in spring 2015, but in the meantime, I bought another five rootstocks of a larger variety (M7), three of which will be grafted to new varieties, one of which will expand Kayla's orchard, and one of which will go into our nursery bed to be stooled in 2015.  Five OHxF pear rootstocks will be spread out in a similar manner (although I'll probably give Kayla two of those).  And, since I still had some cash left over in my budget, I splurged on two named varieties of hybrid hazels --- Jefferson and Eta --- since my previous hybrid hazel is from a few breeding generations previous to that.

So many exciting possibilities!  What are you adding to your perennial garden this winter?

Posted Mon Nov 25 07:35:50 2013 Tags:

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'll be selling my original watercolors at half price this week in hopes of finding every painting a good home (and of clearing up that space behind my desk).  Today's theme is Out of the Blue.  If you buy one or more of the paintings below, they'll go in the mail early next week and will probably take roughly another week to arrive.

Rock pile
Bolete atop a rockpile

29.5" x 22"

$200 + $50 S&H

This painting was inspired by the rock piles I found in old-farmland-turned-forest in the mountains of West Virginia.  Whenever I stumbled across the piles on my hikes in the woods, I was amazed by the hard work of the farmers, who built them one rock at a time without heavy machinery.  I was also reminded of the cairns I'd sometimes find on European mountaintops, which people would add to, putting something special (usually a rock) on top after climbing to the peak.  I felt like this striking mushroom was definitely something special and worthy of its own cairn.

Sycamore seed
Seed Dispersal

11.125" x 8.25"


$30 + $25 S&H

This pencil-and-watercolor drawing highlights a sycamore seed drifting over a western river.  Only if it's very lucky will the water-loving seed find a damp enough spot to root and grow.
Perky bud
Willow Bud

13.5" x 11.75"

$25 + $25 S&H

This study of a willow bud catches it in its dormant, winter mode, but the bud is just biding its time until spring.

Or buy them all:
$250 + $50 S&H

I hope you enjoyed the eye candy!

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Nov 25 12:01:53 2013 Tags:
loading up the rest of the straw bales

We had our second frozen opportunity of the year this morning.

It's a good feeling knowing the straw bales are tucked into the barn for the winter.

Posted Mon Nov 25 15:44:08 2013 Tags:
Loading big logs

Mark and I don't give birthday and holiday gifts to each other, but if we did, this is what I'd want --- huge, punky oak logs well-inoculated with woodland fungi.  I'm going to consider this truckload a pre-Thanksgiving present --- thanks, honey!

Punky wood delivery
The wood was extra --- our third trip after hauling in a truckload of straw and another truckload of bathtub.  By the time we filled the truck with logs, the floodplain was just starting to thaw, but Mark barreled through and dropped off log after log right where I needed them in the forest garden.  These will feed the soil and raise the earth level around our three most waterlogged trees --- two American plums and an apple.

If we get lucky enough to haul in the other two truckloads of wonder wood still waiting at the parking area, I'll give some to our oldest Celeste, who is in a wetter part of the gully than the neighboring Chicago Hardy fig and thus hasn't done as well.  After that, I'm not sure where the wood will go --- maybe in the newly-reclaimed parts of the gully for awesome planting spots next year?

Posted Tue Nov 26 06:49:42 2013 Tags:

As I mentioned in Sunday's post, I'll be selling my original watercolors at half price this week in hopes of finding every painting a good home (and of clearing up that space behind my desk).  Today's theme is High and Dry since oaks live on ridgetops in our region, and since the Virgin's Bower pictured has clearly climbed to higher ground.  If you buy one or more of the paintings below, they'll go in the mail early next week and will probably take roughly another week to arrive.

Virgin's bower
Virgin's Bower

29.75" x 22.5"


$220 + $50 S&H

This cluster of Virgin's Bower seeds is about to break apart.  The seeds will waft away from the parent plant and drift to a new home in the mountains.

Oak community II
Oak Community II

29.25" x 18.75"

$100 + $50 S&H

This second-generation study of a cluster of fallen white-oak leaves brings the dead to life.
Oak community I
Oak Community I

13.5" x 7.75"

$25 + $25 S&H

This is a smaller rough draft for the painting above.

Thanks for looking!

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Nov 26 12:01:50 2013 Tags:
moving a bathtub along with bales of straw

We finally got our used bathtub back to the barn yesterday.

It's a good thing, because today's rain is turning into a flood as I type this.

Posted Tue Nov 26 15:08:04 2013 Tags:
Pumpkin cutting board

As several readers pointed out, I chewed Mark out incorrectly about using a wooden cutting board for meat.  It turns out that wooden cutting boards are probably safer, in actuality, since the bacteria tend to sink down into the wood, where they slowly die off.  In contrast, plastic cutting boards keep any bacteria closer to the surface, and once the plastic boards have been scarred by cutting action, those bacteria can move off the board and back onto food relatively easily.

Wooden cutting boardOn the other hand, it's generally considered good practice to have two cutting boards in your kitchen, one for meat and one for everything else.  Since meat is going to be cooked before eating, any bacteria present will be killed by the high heat, but if you cut apples on a cutting board that has been used for meat then eat the apples fresh, you're at risk of getting food poisoning.  In the past, I've just cut up meat on a plate (annoying, but I don't do it often), but since we'll now have a wooden and a plastic cutting board, I'll keep using the wooden one for fruits and vegetable.  We'll be extra-careful to disinfect the plastic board after cutting up meat, which can be done by washing the board and then soaking it in bleach water, exactly the method Mark naturally gravitated toward.

While doing all this research, though, I did learn one maintenance technique I need to add to my arsenal --- oiling our wooden cutting board.  Now I just need to hunt down some food-grade mineral oil and give my grandmother's board a new lease on life.

Posted Wed Nov 27 07:27:04 2013 Tags:

As I mentioned in Sunday's post, I'll be selling my original watercolors at half price this week in hopes of finding every painting a good home (and of clearing up that space behind my desk).  Today's theme is New Leaves.  If you buy one or more of the paintings below, they'll go in the mail early next week and will probably take roughly another week to arrive.



29.5" x 21.25"

$220 + $50 S&H

A young redbud pod is just beginning to plump up in front of the still-tender leaves.  I painted this when I was first getting to know Mark, so it's a bit melodramatic for reasons you'll understand if you've read Growing into a Farm.
First leaves
First Leaves

26.25" x 17.5"


This study portrays a tulip-tree bud just starting to burst open in the spring.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's art, with an invertebrate theme.

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Nov 27 12:01:53 2013 Tags:
cutting wood and chasing racoons up a tree

Lucy chased a raccoon up a tree that was getting close to the chicken coop and Anna and I chopped a couple rounds of firewood, but other than that we took the day off to rest up for a day of traveling tomorrow.

Posted Wed Nov 27 14:44:54 2013 Tags:
Sunbathing chickens

All week, I've been living in another world.  The piece of young-adult fiction I started in June fermented all summer, started and stopped in October, and then swallowed five days of my life this week.  I'd wake at 6, a chapter already written in my head, type until my brain went foggy, tend to the animals, type some more, pause for lunch, type, eat, type, sleep, repeat.

Now, waking back into the real world, I feel a bit like I do after spending days in bed due to the flu.  The snow crunches beneath my feet and I feel I'm obeying Thich Nhat Hanh who admonished us to "Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet."

Chicken tractor

I haven't written fiction in years, and what I wrote then was pretty bad.  But this time I don't just have a feeling I want to wallow in, I also have a world and thought problem I want to explore and share.  Now that the first draft is done, I've promised to ignore the book for a week so I can edit it with rested eyes, and hopefully I'll be able to share the result with you before Christmas.  Unless my rested eyes say the story is terrible, of course.

Which is all a long way of saying that what I'm most thankful for this year is the freedom to let a project swallow me whole.  I'm thankful for a warm fire to type in front of, and for two cats who are sometimes actually willing to sit somewhere other than on top of my arms so I can do that typing.  (Yes, it is possible to type with two cats on your lap...barely.)  I'm thankful for a husband who doesn't mind that I haven't really been present for the last week, and for a mother who let me mix up her history with my own and cook the result down until it gelled without any added pectin.

Later today, I'll also be thankful for pie.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving wherever you are!

(By the way, the chickens in these photos are being thankful for a rare day of sun last week.)

Posted Thu Nov 28 07:29:56 2013 Tags:
Anna Insect art

As I mentioned in Sunday's post, I'll be selling my original watercolors at half price this week in hopes of finding every painting a good home (and of clearing up that space behind my desk).  Today's theme is Insects.  If you buy one or more of the paintings below, they'll go in the mail early next week and will probably take roughly another week to arrive.

Daddy Long Legs

29.75" x 21.75"

$200 + $50 S&H

Everyone's favorite spider, this daddy-long-legs is walking through a field of Indian Strawberry leaves.
Dragonfly Eruption

27" x 21.75"

$150 + $50 S&H

This empty exoskeleton is all that remains after a dragonfly changes from its watery nymph stage into its aerial adult form.

Or buy them both together:
$300 + $50 S&H

My last series tomorrow has a wintery theme.  Don't forget to stop back by.

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Nov 28 12:01:39 2013 Tags:
Topped Brussels sprout

Is it worth topping your Brussels sprout plants if you don't think of it until late October?  I meant to answer this question by topping every other plant and then comparing the results over the winter.

The trouble is that the tops tasted really good.  And the topped plants just seemed to be growing bigger sprouts over the following week.  So I topped them all...meaning I have no useful data.

What I do have is scads of brussels sprouts plumping up on the stems of my plants.  Although not a good experiment, this is definitely a culinary and gardening success.  Yum!

Posted Fri Nov 29 07:30:21 2013 Tags:
Anna Winter art

As I mentioned in Sunday's post, I'll be selling my original watercolors at half price this week in hopes of finding every painting a good home (and of clearing up that space behind my desk).  Today's theme is Winter.  If you buy one or more of the paintings below, they'll go in the mail early next week and will probably take roughly another week to arrive.

Winter wonderland
Winter Wonderland

27.75" x 21.75"

$150 + $50 S&H

Ground Cedar in the snow reminded me of a Christmas scene in miniature.

Longest night
The Longest Night

29.5" x 21.75"

$150 + $50 S&H

Although shriveled by the time the winter solstice arrives, this acorn is still full of life and is ready to sprout in the spring.

I hope you've enjoyed this journey back in time into my head a decade ago.  Thank you to everyone who has bought art!

This post is part of our Nature Art lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Nov 29 12:00:46 2013 Tags:
scraping ice off the car window

Anna and I had a nice and safe trip to North Carolina yesterday.

I do most of the driving while Anna handles the ice scraping and navigation.

Posted Fri Nov 29 14:53:47 2013 Tags:
Frozen eggs

One of our readers commented that he figured we'd drive in all of that delicious punky wood by the end of the week based on our weather forecast.  He was right about the cold, although not about our energy levels.  A day baking pies followed by a day of extended driving and visiting meant that Mark and I just wanted to be lazy during the second frigid morning in a row.  We even missed a couple of eggs in the nest box, which froze solid and cracked --- a treat for Lucy once they thaw.

Snow on the back garden

I try not to bore our readers by talking too much about the weather, but I think about it a lot.  A low of twelve degrees and a high near freezing for two days means morning chores are cold and the wood stove is blazing.  I can't feed us lettuce because the leaves are frozen solid, but I can push down through the snow to gather leafy greens and Brussels sprouts (although my fingers get cold in the process!).  Our wash water line freezes up, but we still have drinking water since that line stays waterless except when the pump is running, and the fridge root cellar stays barely above freezing with the help of a backup heater attached to a thermocube.  (0.3 kwh of electricity used so far.)

Leghorn in the snow

The chicken tractor stays put since Mark threw a tarp over top of it before the snow started, leaving a bit of snowless ground in the current location but none in the surrounding yard.  Even though I don't have to move the tractor, morning chores take longer because I need to swap out the Avian Aqua Miser Original in the tractor and backup coop (and check on the heated waterer, although it's still flowing so far).  On the plus side, cold weather also settled down the one pesky Leghorn who is living in that backup coop because she spent the last month breaking into the yard to hide her eggs hither and yon.  For a week after being cooped back up, bad hen paced the fenceline, but chickens really don't like walking in the snow, so she finally gave up, settled down, and laid in her nest box.

I always find the temperature extremes fascinating, but I have to admit that I'm glad I live in a region of quickly changing weather.  Before we can get heartily sick of the snow, it starts to melt, and by this time next week, we'll be enjoying a high of 60 degrees.  I feel for those of you who live in the frigid north and won't see bare ground until spring, but you can laugh at us next summer when we're sweltering in the sun.

Posted Sat Nov 30 07:41:29 2013 Tags:

how to adjust the temperature setting on a typical electric hot water heater 110 voltsThe control to adjust the water temperature on our low pressure hot water system is behind a blue plastic panel.

I increased it by 12 degrees recently.

We talked about installing a spring loaded mechanical wall timer, but so far it's not been a problem remembering to shut it off.

Posted Sat Nov 30 15:03:52 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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