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

archives for 12/2013

Dec 2013

Homesteading calendar

If you waited to get your homesteading calendar, you're in luck --- they're 50% off this week!  Jayne called this a Cyber Monday sale, but I talked her into giving you seven days to make your decision.  After all, I know that a lot of homesteaders don't hit the computer every day, and I don't want our loyal readers to miss the opportunity.  But be sure to place your order by Saturday night, at which point the calendars will go back up to full price.

I could glow about the awesome job Jayne did on this calendar, but instead, I'll share the words of other readers:

"WOW This thing is beautiful. It's way more than a calendar. It has a great reminder of planting dates on the back. Plus constant reminders in every month. And let's not forget Bilbo Baggens birthday.!!!" --- Donna

"It is gorgeous! I encourage this for a gift to yourself or a gift to someone who loves good photography of happy homesteading." --- Julie


Posted Sun Dec 1 08:06:21 2013 Tags:
mark Easy bust
busted water pipe fix in the cold

We had a busted water pipe yesterday that turned out to be easy to fix.

A long term solution might be one of those electric pipe heaters.

Posted Sun Dec 1 13:23:21 2013 Tags:

Complete book of edible landscapingRosalind Creasy's The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping was probably a cutting-edge book when it first came out in 1982, but now I feel like the same information is presented in a better fashion in various forest gardening books and in Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally.  The most helpful two-thirds of Creasy's text consists of an encyclopedia of plants recommended for edible landscaping and, again, I feel like you'd get more information on that topic from Lee Reich's Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention and from Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables.

However, Creasy's book is still worth reading, particularly if you're an urban gardener who has to make your tomatoes and cabbages blend in with the neighbor's perfect lawn and clipped hedges.  Creasy lists varieties of each species that are not only productive, but that also are particularly pretty in the landscape (although some of these varieties have fallen out of favor and may now be hard to find).

And I should add the caveat that there is an updated version of Rosalind Creasy's book available, although there's no search-inside-the-book feature on Amazon, so I can't tell how much the Ha-ha moatbook was revised and now much of the information stayed the same.  I also still mined quite a few thought-provoking tidbits from The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, despite having read many of the more-modern books on this theme.  For example, I'd heard of ha-has, but didn't realize that they were originally imagined as a hidden barrier to keep deer, cattle, and sheep in sight but out of the garden.  And I'd never considered making low-tech permeable paving similar to the way we built our ford, by sinking cinderblocks in the ground and filling them with gravel.  Finally, Creasy's book got me thinking more scientifically about summer shade and winter heat retention around our south-facing bank of windows...but that's fodder for another post.

Posted Mon Dec 2 07:56:25 2013 Tags:
Lucy looking at a crawdad or crayfish

Will a chicken eat a crawdad?

That depends...I've seen some chickens run away after being pinched, but today I gave one to our White Leghorn and she went crazy for it.

We might think about breeding them for chicken food in the future or figure out a way to trap them from our wild population.

Posted Mon Dec 2 16:39:10 2013 Tags:
Current front of trailer

I mentioned in yesterday's post that The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping got me Trellis 1.0thinking in more depth about what we want to do in front of our bank of south-facing windows.  These windows do a remarkable job of heating the trailer on sunny winter days, but, unfortunately, they do nearly as good of a job of heating the trailer on sunny summer days.  In a perfect world, we'd plant a big shade tree here, but that would block out light to my vegetable garden, so I'm instead using vines on an arbor to reflect the summer heat while letting in winter sun.

This spring, I tried out version 1.0 using a simple pea trellis and scarlet runner beans (shown to the right).  I'm glad of the experiment because it proved to me that this area is way too waterlogged to plant directly into the ground.  In preparation for version 2.0, Kayla and I dumped weeds in front of the trailer all summer, and by November, I had some great topsoil to shovel up into two mounds, one on each side of the row of windows.

My dream of what the front of the trailer will look like

This picture shows what I imagine the area will look like in five years if everything goes according to plan.  I've already put in the Issai kiwi (this summer) and the Reliance grape (last month), and the Anna kiwi will be arriving this spring.  The last two were planted in those mounds I mentioned, and Mark pointed out that we have some good soil that needs to be excavated near the goat path, which will allow me to fill in between the two mounds for later root development.  I also plan to finally install the downspout to channel that area's roof water into the greywater wetland, and Mark's going to upgrade the trellis he started to make it strong enough to handle two heavy vines, while also making a lattice on the edge of the porch for the Issai kiwi.  (I think we'll also make the trellis a little higher since the photos above illustrate how the current height will still shade the windows quite a bit in the winter.)

The part I haven't decided yet doesn't actually have anything to do with the plant life, although it does relate to trailer temperature modification.  Eventually, we want to skirt the whole trailer, but that's a long-term project that hasn't made it onto the to-do list yet.  In the meantime, I figured we'd better skirt this one little area now before I start mounding up earth and planting long-lived perennials.  I found several interesting websites while researching the skirting topic and discovered that there are at least two schools of thought on how to moderate the floor temperature of a trailer:

  • Use plain skirting around the outsides, then lay down a vapor barrier on the ground under the trailer with polystyrene foam over top.  This is recommended by the extension service in Alaska.  Related alternatives involve blowing foam insulation into the belly (area between the frame and ground inside the skirting) or making a false floor below the frame to hold insulation right up against the underside of your floor.
  • Make your own insulated skirting around the perimeter of the trailer using polystyrene foam attached to treated two-by-fours on the ground and to the bottom of the trailer.  This option is usually then covered by traditional skirting or paneling of some kind on the outside.  No one talks about this, but it seems like you might get better results if you buried the bottom of the insulated skirting a foot or so into the soil?

Insulated skirtingIn Trailersteading (free today!), one of our readers skirted his home with the insulated centers cut out of doors before installing windows (shown to the right).  That sounds like the optimal skirting material, but I'm afraid we don't have a source here.  Any other ideas or feelings on which of the two skirting options above makes the most sense?

Finally, I'm considering the utility of stones or cinderblocks used as thermal mass in this area.  Hardy kiwis are damaged by late-spring frosts in our area and grapes tend to succumb to fungal diseases during our wet summers, so I figure both plants would enjoy some extra heat gained by covering the ground with stones between their feet.  Rosalind Creasy agreed, noting that a patio in front of the south-facing wall of our house can even help heat the home by radiating heat during winter nights (assuming you can shade the stones enough in the summer so they don't bake you then).  Which brings me to question number two --- would I be better off using cinder blocks instead of traditional skirting in this one zone of the trailer to provide yet more thermal mass?

Anyone who made it through this long post --- you deserve a gold star!  Here's your bonus --- did you know that evergreen shrubs and vines up against the north side of a house can act as exterior insulation, producing a pocket of air that makes your house stay warmer?  And did you know that I'll be able to guess how much our trellis will shade the windows in the summer by going out at midnight under a winter full moon --- the moon shadows will mimic sun shadows six months later.  Tips courtesy of Rosalind Creasy.

Posted Tue Dec 3 07:36:53 2013 Tags:
Hand-cranked corn sheller

You would have thought Anna was playing Agricola from the big smile on her face when she got to try out our neighbor's corn sheller.

She explained that she grew up shelling corn by grabbing a cob with two hands and twisting in opposite directions.

The sheller made short work of this weevily corn, which will give our chickens supplemental carbs this winter.

Posted Tue Dec 3 15:01:42 2013 Tags:
Insulated trailer skirting

Styrofoam cutting toolsI left you hanging in yesterday's post about our skirting decision, and while your thoughtful comments were pouring in, I went outside to start experimenting.  Mark had bought me a four-foot-by-eight-foot-by-two-inch sheet of rigid-foam insulation, unfaced because we wanted to buy from our local hardware store (even though the options there are rather limited) rather than driving an hour to Lowes.  It turned out to be simple to cut the insulation sheet to size with our hand saw (much easier than using the utility knife I tried first).  Digging out a little bit of dirt where the insulation was going to go made it relatively easy to slide the cut pieces into place.

Scrap woodFrom my perusal of the internet before beginning, I'd thought I'd need to make a bottom rail for the insulation to attach to and to use button nails to attach the top of the insulation to the underside of the trailer.  But once I got the insulation wedged into place, it became clear it wasn't going anywhere, so I skipped that step.  I did use a bit of scrap wood to push one piece back so it lined up with the other, though.

The corrugated pipe we're using to send water from our (as-yet-hypothetical) downspout to our greywater wetland goes under the trailer, and I'd originally planned to cut a hole in the insulation to let the pipe through.  But as I worked, I figured it would be simpler to dig down a bit and send the pipe underneath (as you can see in the photo below).  As I type this, though, I'm wondering if that's a good idea, since the pipe will go down and then slightly up, meaning a bit of water will pool in the lowest point and will probably freeze in the winter.  I guess we'll wait and see if that's an issue, or maybe I'll fix the problem before Mark installs the downspout.

Pipe under skirting

You'll notice there are a few small cracks between the sheets of foam in the photo above.  I went back and forth on these, at first thinking I'd seal them with reflective tape, but then realizing that the flashing I planned on putting on the outside would do the same job.  When I finally crawl underneath to deal with the problematic insulation under the floor (one of these days...), I may use some spray-foam insulation to fill in these gaps.

Covering the skirting with flashing

Rigid-foam insulation isn't supposed to deal well with either UV damage or water, so it needs some kind of outer layer.  We could have bought skirting made for trailers, but flashing is so easy to work with (and is always on hand), so I decided to give that a try instead.  After I took this photo, I backfilled some earth around the base (and will add even more dirt later to increase the height of the planting bed), so the gap at the bottom shown in the photo above is already long gone.

This small part of the skirting project was so fun and easy, it made me wonder why we've been putting off skirting for so long.  Then I remembered that I want to replace the disintegrating insulation under the trailer floor before we make it even harder to work under there by closing the space in.  We may need to bite the bullet and do that before summer, though, since the back of the insulation sheets I installed this week are currently exposed under the trailer, and free-range chicks adore pecking at styrofoam....

Posted Wed Dec 4 07:32:06 2013 Tags:
fixing the gutter is not so easy

We installed a downspout, but realized afterward that it's on the wrong side.

Posted Wed Dec 4 16:11:47 2013 Tags:
Digging new beds

WhetstoneThe spot where the old farmhouse used to sit has been earmarked for years as the future site of an experimental nursery, but this was the first year we planted into the area.  Mark started reclaiming the spot about a year ago, a process that involved of lots of weedeating to kill off blackberries and honeysuckle, plus digging out huge poke stumps.  Last fall, I kill-mulched one bed on the side closest to the trailer, using double my usual thickness of cardboard (two layers instead of one), and that bed still came up in blackberries and was a problem over the summer.  So I decided to lower my standards and dig out all the roots in that and another new bed instead of kill mulching for next year.

StonesAnd I'm glad I did!  After a week of Thanksgiving eating and writing, shoveling really hit the spot.  I've decided the biggest problem with no-till gardening is that you don't get to dig often, and I love to dig, so projects like this make my day.

But it was also good to dig that area for more serious reasons.  There were lots of big roots, including one blackberry root mass about the size of a four-year-old fruit tree, so I suspect it would have taken at least two more years of mowing before a kill mulch in that area would take.  Plus, the Appalachian foundation of piled up rocks means Kayla and I disinterred more stones during our digging project than Mark and I have found during the entire rest Wheat pennyof our time on the farm.  The timing was perfect since I want rocks to use around my new grape and didn't have any on hand.

And then there's the pure pleasure of finding ancient possessions in the soil around an old home site.  Sure, most of what we found was broken window glass and rusty nails, but Kayla went home with two nice marbles and a little ceramic container that looked like it might have held makeup or ointment.  And I found a rusty coin from 1951, probably not worth much, but fascinating for the notion that it was being held in someone's hand sixty years ago.  I think the second picture from the top might be an old whetstone too?

If I get industrious again, we've got about three more beds we could dig out in the old house area, but since I've got other digging projects on the front burner, I might let Mark mow those areas for another year first.  Either way, it's exciting to have two long beds to fill with experimental perennials --- more on that in a later post.

Posted Thu Dec 5 07:47:31 2013 Tags:
close up of feathers on the ground from a recent hawk attack!

Our White Leghorn hen who likes to eat crayfish had a close call this week.

A hawk tried to swoop down and take her away, but once Lucy heard the noise our rooster was making from the other side of the fence she ran to the scene with enough aggressive barking to scare the predator away.

Posted Thu Dec 5 16:29:14 2013 Tags:

Sprouting apple seedsEver since I read the apple chapter in The Botany of Desire, I've wanted to plant some apple seeds and see if my toss of the dice turns up a new variety worth keeping.  What held me back then was that I didn't have any land to plant on.  And after we got our farm, I figured I'd have to set aside an absurd amount of space for the experiment since each tree would be a standard apple, meaning they'd need to be planted at least 30 feet apart.

But then I started playing with high-density methods, and learned that judicious pruning and training can make even large trees small.  So I started pondering --- could I plant seeds three feet apart as if I were making a high-density apple planting, then use that test orchard to try out seedling genetics?  Presumably, it might still be five or more years before I'd get a taste of these experimental trees, but that still gives me time for many apple generations in my lifetime.  And if any of the seedling apples are worth experimenting with further, I can either transplant the tree or graft its scionwood onto a smaller rootstock.  Worst case scenario, I get a lot of firewood out of the deal.

Apple seedlingThe pros tend to plant somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 seeds to get one variety worth keeping, and I'd definitely plant many, many fewer.  But it's more fun that going to Vegas --- my kind of gambling.  Want to play?

I'm looking for some interesting seeds to start my planting, and I promise to name the new variety after you if you're the source of the seeds.  Drop me an email if you're interested with the name of the mother variety and the possible fathers (other apple trees close to your tree).  I'm  less interested in store-bought apples because the father in that case is often a crabapple, included in the planting to fertilize the named varieties, and I'm most interested in off-spring of these disease-resistant apple varieties.

Or you can play along at home!  Here's what I plan to do --- put each batch of cleaned apple seeds in a labeled ziplock bag surrounded by a damp rag (or paper towel if you roll that way).  Apple seeds need at least a month of cold stratification, so the bag will go in the Apple nurseryfridge, and I'll start checking on it weekly after the month is up.  Once I start to see sprouts, I'll transfer the seeds to a pot, and then, eventually, to a nursery row.  Alternatively, you can get the same stratification effect by planting your seeds directly in the ground right now, allowing them to go through a normal winter.  Either way, expect only about 30% germination, so plant lots of seeds.

As a final side note, if you've got the space for standard trees, you might plant seeds for another reason --- to serve as rootstocks to be grafted onto.  Many people will plant a dozen or more seeds where they want the eventual tree to grow, then will weed out all but the most vigorous specimen a year later.  After grafting, these experimenters get a tree with no transplant shock.  Although I've never heard anyone else say this, it seems to me you could also get at least a little bit of dwarfing action from seedling rootstocks if you choose seeds from less vigorous varieties (like crabapples, self-pollinated Cox's Orange Pippin, Lady, and spur-type Winter Banana and York), or if you choose the least vigorous seedling when it comes time to weed out your planting.  I'd be very curious to hear from anyone who's used seedlings as rootstocks --- how did your trees turn out?

(As a final note, these photos aren't mine --- as usual, click to see the source.)

Posted Fri Dec 6 07:38:31 2013 Tags:
how well do roosters get along with dogs?

When we first got chickens Lucy was a lot younger and very excited about these new feathered friends we were introducing to the farm.

It took about 10 minutes to train Lucy to leave all the chickens alone.

We put her on a leash, walked her over to a chicken in a tractor and made her sit with her back facing the tractor. She was excited and kept looking over at the chicken, but each time I would bring her attention back to me while at the same time saying with as much authority as I could muster "Our chickens!.." This went on for about 10 minutes before she seemed to figure it out and stopped being curious about the chickens.

I think walking her everyday also helps to anchor the training, but the lesson was taken directly out of Cesar Millan's book called "Cesar's Way", which might be the best dog training book available at this time.

Posted Fri Dec 6 15:41:31 2013 Tags:
"I can think of several ways to fix the problem - what did you decide to do? We recently put up a rain-catchment gutter on our cabin, and discovered the roof edge isn't level - also in the wrong direction. That meant the 'attaching blocks' had to be bigger to allow for the difference - making the job take a lot longer than planned."
--- Rhonda from Baddeck

It turns out that Rhonda is on the right track --- the gutters on our roof would have been installed correctly if the whole trailer didn't tilt toward the west.  It started raining, so we haven't finished the project yet, but I think we're going to first try taking out the screws that attach the gutter to the side of the roof, then will give the gutter more of a tilt, if possible, so we can keep the downspout where it is.  Worst-case scenario, we'll move the downspout to the other end.

Interestingly, in a heavy rain Friday morning, I noticed that the downspout seemed to be working pretty well despite the incorrect tilt.  Sure, a bit of water was drizzling out the other end, but most of the roof runoff appeared to be going down the downspout and into the greywater wetland, which seemed well able to handle the extra water.

High groundwater

On the downside, it turns out that the high groundwater in that spot isn't entirely due to water pouring off the trailer roof right there.  Even with that rain being captured by the downspout, water was pooling right at the surface, meaning I need to keep working if I don't want the grape and kiwi I'll be installing there to drown.  I'm hoping the extra water comes from the other downspout twelve feet uphill which spits out water falling on the front porch, but I haven't quite decided if there's a solution short of channeling that water into the greywater wetland too.  I'd like to have a rain barrel at the corner of the porch to make watering seedlings easier in the summer, but we get so much rain that the barrel would do no good in the winter.

Dry stone wall

Finally, just for fun, I piled up lots of rocks around the kiwi and grape mounds.  Hopefully these will act as thermal mass and they'll definitely make the plants more visible so they won't accidentally get weedeaten.  And we're also thinking of taking Brian's advice and making the trellis out of wire since he makes an excellent point about the shade potential of lumber.  I can't wait to see this area in full greenery in summer 2014!

Posted Sat Dec 7 07:36:03 2013 Tags:
expanding the chicken coop update

It's been a year since I talked about problems with one of our chicken coops.

The new double nesting box has helped with egg access, but I think I could've got away with just one nest because the days I've noticed both nest boxes being used was maybe twice.

Posted Sat Dec 7 14:35:55 2013 Tags:

Deer scarerIf all goes as planned, you'll get to read Watermelon Summer, my first young-adult novel, in about a week.  The title is courtesy of my father, who also talked me out of my last-minute jitters and told me the third draft was ready to fly.  (After it gets back from the copy-editor, that is.) 

I don't have a cover yet (although I'm starting to envision one based on a heart-shaped piece of watermelon), but I did add a few "Excerpts from Thia's Notebook" to the back, of which the image here is one page.  As you can tell, the protagonist deals with some of the same issues Mark and I have, although her solutions are often different from ours.  In fact, even though young adult isn't everyone's genre, I think most of our blog readers will get a kick out of this little book because it captures many truths about our homesteading experience that are too personal to make it to the blog.

I'm going to use Watermelon Summer as my first experiment with print-on-demand paperbacks too, although I suspect it might take an extra week or two after the ebook becomes available before you can buy a paperback.  I may be dreaming, but I like to imagine actual young people ending up with a copy of this book and deciding that they want to homestead and perhaps explore the idea of intentional community.  Thus a print copy that's easy to pass around and turn up in a used book store.

I hope you're engrossed in fun projects as well!  Thanks for reading my ramblings.

Posted Sun Dec 8 07:41:19 2013 Tags:
comparing the same cattail plants 90 days later

The rain paused enough today for me to go out and take this cattail comparison photo.

It's a lot less green then it was 90 days ago....but it will be back in about the same time.

Posted Sun Dec 8 13:29:33 2013 Tags:
Frost-damaged brussels sprouts

Plump brussels sproutsA month ago, when I erected quick hoops two through four, one of our readers asked why I was devoting a quarter of that protected space to Brussels sprouts.  After all, the vegetable is supremely cold-hardy, right?  So wouldn't it be fine out in the open?

The photo at the top of this post shows what happens to unprotected Brussels sprouts when temperatures drop into the teens.  The leaves tend to be fine, but the sprouts themselves get nipped.  Frost-nipped sprouts are edible, but aren't quite as tasty, and if you don't eat them right away, they start to rot.

In contrast, the photo to the right shows one of the plants under the quick hoops.  Lots of tasty sprouts, undamaged by frost, and just waiting to be Christmas dinner!  We're eating the unprotected sprouts pretty hard right now, even plucking the not-quite-solid heads, because temperatures are forecast to droop back into the teens (or at least low twenties) this week.  Since Brussels sprouts are among Mark's top-ten favorite foods, I haven't heard any complaints, but maybe that's because my favorite Brussels-sprouts recipe starts with four slices of bacon....

Grating for slaw

In other Brassica-oleracea news, it's also time to finish eating up all of the cabbages that have been stored in the bottom of the fridge for the last month or so.  Our spring cabbages all go into soup base, but fall cabbages have more life choices, sometimes being eaten plain as a raw finger vegetable, sometimes being mixed with meat to make potstickers, sometimes getting roasted (although they never taste as good as roast Brussels sprouts), and sometimes going into experimental dishes like the non-mayonaisse-based cole slaw I'm making above.

I clearly need to step it up a notch, though, because we've got three heads left with outer leaves turning brown that need to get eaten soon.  What cabbage recipes would you recommend for people who don't like traditional cole slaw and don't enjoy sauerkraut?

Posted Mon Dec 9 07:39:20 2013 Tags:
Organic orcharding"The decision to start an orchard involves a decision to stay put.  The first plant you want to get rooted in the earth is yourself.  That's what makes home orchards so valuable; where they abound, they speak eloquently of a stable and responsible community, the first necessity of a healthy civilization and a happy culture."
--- Gene Logsdon

I've owned a copy of Gene Logsdon's
Organic Orcharding since I was in high school, but I don't think I ever read it until this year.  I do recall flipping through the book and dreaming about my very own fruit trees, but am pretty sure I skipped the all-important chapters on pest control and didn't read the other how-to chapters with a very critical eye.  So I figured it was time for a more thorough re-read.

At the time, I also didn't realize that Gene Logsdon was one of the great homesteading authors who writes from personal experience, but with a dash of experimental optimism.  In fact, having read at least half a dozen of his books so far, I'd say that Organic Orcharding is possibly his best --- too bad it's out of print!

Luckily for you, I plan to sum up the highlights in this week's lunchtime series.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of our Organic Orcharding lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Dec 9 12:00:52 2013 Tags:
chicken out in the rain foraging for food

We took part of the morning off due to the rain soaked ground and cloudy skies.

It might take another day or two for the creek to go down, but the chickens seem to be making up for lost time after being cooped up most of the weekend.

Posted Mon Dec 9 16:28:11 2013 Tags:

"Why should only the outside world get time off for bad weather?" Mark asked Sunday.  Before I knew it, I'd agreed to a one-hour delay on Monday morning.

Homestead rain gauge

And it was a good day to sleep in.  A full weekend of rain had filled my wheelbarrow rain gauge and set the creek into moderate-flood mode.  (Moderate flood means we can't get out with hip waders, but I could walk nearly all the way to the ford without being impacted by high water.)  Don't worry, rust-phobes, I flipped the wheelbarrow on its side after taking this picture.

Wet leaves

The flood reminds me that winter is a season of tough choices for homesteaders.  Do you relax and soak up the peace and quiet in preparation for next year's growing season?  Or do you take advantage of days without pressing plants and animals to get some big-picture projects done?  Mark leans toward the first option and I lean toward the second, so we meet in the middle --- we slow down some, but also slip in projects non-essential enough that they never make the cut during the growing season.  (And I get extra time to write.)

Flowering loop

Winter is also a good time to catch up on blog posts that didn't make it into the summer queue.  For example, I seem to have never mentioned how I experimented with tempting our seven-year-old-but-not-yet-fruited dwarf Yellow Transparent to make fruit buds.  The problem tree was slated for removal this spring since it sent up scads of watersprouts in 2012 after I pruned to remove extensive cicada damage.  But I decided to tie each long, vertical twig into a loop instead, and the trickery does seem to have promoted the formation of fruiting spurs!  I'll keep you posted next year about whether actual flowers are forthcoming.


What big-picture projects are you slipping in between snow storms?

Posted Tue Dec 10 07:36:35 2013 Tags:
Fruit hardiness map

There's a reason I loved flipping through Organic Orcharding before we got our farm --- it's a great book to dream by.  Or, if you want to pretend you're being scientific, you can use the excellent charts for variety selection.  For example, Logsdon recommends starting your orchard planning by learning which species do well in your climate.  The map above hits the highlights, making it clear that you really want to live in zone 6 or 7 if you plan to grow all sorts of temperate fruits.  Zone 8 is pretty good too, although you'll need to choose low-chill apples and peaches, and colder zones start restricting your choices pretty quickly.

Your next stop should be Logsdon's excellent ripening-order charts, which I won't recreate here, but which you can find on pages 28 and 50.  While you're thinking about seasonality, you'll also want to consider adding some winter storers so you can enjoy homegrown fruit after the snows fly.  Logsdon doesn't list storage times for pears (the other good storage fruit), but he does include a handy chart of apple storage periods:

Average storage months
Maximum storage months
Grimes Golden
Golden Delicious
Northern Spy
Red Delicious
Rhode Island Greening
Stayman Winesap
Rome Beauty
Yellow Newton

Finally, you should take into account how much fruit your family can really eat.  Logsdon includes the yield figures below, which seem to be on the low side according to some sources (which I've added parenthetically).  However, his figures might be the most realistic for a chemical-free backyard orchardist.

Estimated yield
  • dwarf
  • semidwarf
  • standard

  • up to 1 bushel
  • 3 bushels
  • 10 bushels (up to 18 according to some sources)

3 bushels (up to 8 according to some sources)

Peach or nectarine
3 bushels (up to 6 according to some sources)
Plum or apricot
2 bushels (up to 6 according to some sources)
1 bushel (up to 3 according to some sources)

I hope these charts help you out if you're still in the planning stages.  You may also get some handy information out of my 99 cent ebook, Weekend Homesteader: December.  Meanwhile, if you're ready to choose varieties and put trees in the ground, stay tuned for tips in later posts.

This post is part of our Organic Orcharding lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Dec 10 12:02:22 2013 Tags:
moving furniture in a tiny house

Another wet and cold day inspired me to move some furniture around.

Posted Tue Dec 10 18:44:31 2013 Tags:
High water

I realized Monday that I'd never explored all the way up the holler behind our farm.  When we first moved here, I didn't want to trespass on someone else's property, but a year or so ago, the owner of that property mentioned that he didn't mind if I walked there since we let his son hunt down onto the adjacent parts of our property.  So I set off with the camera to explore.

Rocky holler

Long-time readers will know that our farm seems to completely lack rocks --- not so up the holler!  Before long, I came across mossy boulder fields, rock-loving ferns and liverworts, and even a pretty waterfall.  Granted, our main creek was at flood stage, so this waterfall on the little spur creek might not exist in dry weather.

Old beech snagAfter about half a mile climbing straight up, an old tire in the creek suggested I was approaching civilization, so I looped back toward home, this time walking on contour along the side of the hill.  Along the way, I discovered another perfect stump-dirt tree, but I had nothing to collect the prime potting soil in (and doubt I'll climb that high with a bucket).  This tree is an ancient beech just like my favorite stump-dirt tree, suggesting that something about that species makes the best potting soil --- I've rooted around in the rotten center of many other trees without finding such black gold.  Maybe rotting beech wood hosts a particularly good species of fungus or beetle?

I'm afraid that after the halfway point, though, I stopped taking photos and started writing the sequel to Watermelon Summer in my head.  Oops.  I really meant to write a non-fiction ebook or two before scratching that itch, but it'll probably be good for me to at least start another fiction piece while all of the lessons of the first are fresh in my mind.  And if people like the fiction, the sequel will be ready to go that much sooner.

I hope you're taking advantage of the winter lull to explore the wider world!

Posted Wed Dec 11 07:44:54 2013 Tags:

Cedar-apple rustOne of my favorite parts of Organic Orcharding was comparing Logsdon's take on disease-resistant fruit varieties to the selections chosen by more-modern authors like Lee Reich and Michael Phillips.  In case you're a new reader, you might want to start out by browsing over these posts:

What's fascinating when comparing Logsdon's list to those of other authors is how few varieties appear on both --- apparently trees go out of style over time, so Reich and Phillips might not have even experimented with the fruits Logsdon swore by in the 1970s (and vice versa).  For example, although Logsdon's list of pears matches up with the ones mentioned in the post linked above, most of his resistant stone fruits aren't on the above lists.  Here's
Brown rot on peachesLogdon's selection of stone fruits resistant to brown rot in case you want to give them a shot:

  • Alberta, Belle of Georgia, and Redhaven peaches
  • Hagan Sweet and Morton nectarine
  • Greengage, Ozark Premier, Redheart, and Stanley plums

However, Logsdon does agree with the other authors that sweet cherries and nectarines are trouble in humid climates (unless you're willing to grow the cherry rootstock Mazzard for its small but disease-resistant fruits).

Which brings us to apples.  Phillips' extensive (although organic) spray regimen makes modern readers believe apples are impossible to grow in a chemical-free fashion, but Logsdon instead considers apples the most reliable of high-quality fruit species.  He makes the argument that if you choose resistant varieties (see below), use the worst apples for livestock, the okay ones for cider or cooking, and only expect a third of your fruits to be dessert quality, you can grow apple trees without any sprays at all.  That sounds like a regiment a homesteader can get behind!

From most to least resistant: I=Immune; VR=Very Resistant; R=Resistant; S=Susceptible

Fire blight
Cedar-apple rust
Powdery mildew




Ben Davis


Black Twig






Golden Delicious
Grimes Golden






Northwest Greening


Nova Easy-Grow





Red Baron

Red Delicious


Sir Prize


State Fair

Stayman Winesap



Tydeman's Early Red




York Imperial

I hope that gives an idea of where to get started if you want to plant a completely spray-free orchard.  If I run across more lists of resistant varieties in other books, I'll be sure to update with another post.

This post is part of our Organic Orcharding lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Dec 11 12:02:05 2013 Tags:
close up of my frozen pet duck with Lucy in the background on the porch

Our sky pond is filled to the top with a healthy layer of ice on the top.

The trailer shades what little sun would have hit this spot, which means it might take another day or two before our recent duck visitor can fly south for the winter.

Posted Wed Dec 11 16:25:50 2013 Tags:

Homemade match boxIt seems to be the trend this year for every blogger to post a holiday gift guide, so I guess we'd better follow suit!  I'll include some specials on our own top products, plus a few gifts I heartily recommend from the outside world.

But first, don't forget home-made crafts!  My mother's fire-starter tin is still my favorite gift of the last year, and there are other good ideas in the comments section of that post.  Mark and I tend to give gifts when the mood strikes rather than around any particular holiday, and gifts that have been well-received this year include honey, home-made jams, sweet potatoes, rooted fruit plants, and garlic.  Why not dig around the edges of your gooseberry bush and see if you've got any baby plants to share with friends?  Raspberries, blackberries, comfrey, and perennial herbs are also likely to have propagated themselves.

Homesteading calendarOkay, I know, some loved ones expect gifts with no dirt on them --- crazy people.  We just put our homesteading calendar up on Amazon, and we recommend this as a low-key way to trick non-homesteaders into liking dirt.  (Then you can give them one of the dirty gifts above in 2014!)  At the moment, our calendar is on sale for $5.99 + $3.99 S&H.

Or why not contact a local farmer and buy some pastured meat for a loved one?  The taste alone will go a long way toward winning them over to the idea of non-factory-farmed protein, and it will definitely boost their health.  If you live kinda close to us, my brother got some pastured pork from these folks and it was delectable.  You can also contact our pastured lamb supplier, but I'm not sure if they have anything available at this time of year.  No matter where you find the pastured meat, it might be a good idea to cook it up and invite your friends over for a holiday meal and then send them home with the leftovers --- that way you can be sure the meat will be cooked just right and will startle their taste buds.

Best knife for butcheringWhat about people who have been won over to homesteading, but who are just getting started?  A great option is a high-quality hand tool that will last them the rest of their lives.  The Trake is a cast-metal trowel that I use daily during the growing season, $22.65 on Amazon with free shipping on orders over $35.  The Felco F-600 Hand Saw is so sharp it makes hand-cutting a breeze ($29.97 with free shipping available) and Mark's new RUKO knife looks like it's going to be our new favorite tool for butchering chickens and deer ($23.52 with free shipping available).

Vegetable seeds are another good choice to give beginners.  For people who have never gardened before, I recommend leaf lettuce (mixtures are always fun), Swiss chard (Fordhook giant is most winter hardy, but the ones with colored stalks are striking), okra (Clemson spineless is our favorite), summer squash (yellow crookneck avoids stem borers), and green beans (we love Masai).  This post will give you an idea of where to buy the seeds.

Chicken watererOf course, if your loved ones have chickens, you know what I think you should get them --- chicken waterers.  We have a hidden sale going on right now just for our most loyal readers --- 10% off our top products.  Do order these ASAP, though, since we can't guarantee they'll reach you by Christmas unless you order this week!  (Barring floods, waterers you order early next week should arrive in time too.)

Which brings me to books.  The up-to-date homesteader could benefit from this year's top reads: Paradise Lot and The Resilient Farm and Homestead.  If they're dreaming about livestock, it's hard to go wrong with the Storey Guides.  And, if they've got a kindle you can browse all of my ebooks here.  (As a side note, my publisher let me know that my paperback is out of stock on Amazon because they're currently changing distributors and shipping all of their books from one warehouse to the other, but hopefully it'll be back up there soon.)

I hope that's enough brainstorming to get you thinking on a homesteading track this holiday season.  And if you didn't see your favorite gift here, leave a comment below.

Posted Thu Dec 12 07:42:14 2013 Tags:

Apple burr knotAs I mentioned in my last post, Gene Logsdon's philosophy on dealing with pests and diseases is much less hard-core than Michael Phillips' since the former is only growing food for his own table.  In general, Logsdon believes that as long as you can keep your fruit trees alive, all other problems are cosmetic and can be treated or not as you choose.

So how does Logsdon deal with pests and diseases?  He begins his trouble-shooting by choosing resistant varieties (which I listed previously), then moves on to low-key preventatives.  For fire-blight prevention, he recommends keeping nitrogen levels low, perhaps feeding your trees only with a mulch of leaves, cardboard, old hay, straw, manure, tobacco stems, grass clippings, or clover.  Meanwhile, he minds phosphorus levels as well since too much of this nutrient will suppress mycorrhizal fungi, which are particularly essential for healthy peaches.  Finally, Logsdon strives to keep problematic fungi in check by ventilating with summer breezes.

One of our readers sent me an email (with the photo above) a couple of weeks ago mentioning how a woodpecker came by to deal with the borers that moved into his apple burr knots, and that turns out to be Logsdon's solution for codling moth larvae as well.  One study showed that if you allow natural woodland to grow up adjacent to your orchard, woodpeckers can eat up to 52% of overwintering codling moth larvae.  Meanwhile, brush piles attract other beneficial birds, wild places attract predatory insects, and even the lightning bug larvae living in unsprayed lawns will eat slugs and snails.  Maybe that's why Mark and I have fewer non-fungal issues than I would expect --- because our core homestead is surrounded by acres of natural forest?

Learn to keep bugs at bayThis post is part of our Organic Orcharding lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Dec 12 12:02:11 2013 Tags:
White Leghorn hen on a roost in the coop

It's been a tough week for the White Leghorn hen.

Today she came out of the coop scratching around like her old self.

When I saw her up and about the first thing I thought she could use is some warm scrambled eggs and Anna agreed. With any luck she'll be able to re-join the flock in a few more days.

Posted Thu Dec 12 16:21:59 2013 Tags:
Boughs of holly

I used to love Christmas trees, but somewhere during the move to the farm, I lost the impulse to put one up.  Mostly, it's just a matter of not having space inside for a big decoration, but Sarah's recent post reminded me that ornamentation doesn't have to take up much (or any) room.

"Do we have any Christmas-tree lights in the barn?" I asked Mark.  Upon hearing that we didn't, I instead headed out into the woods with some clippers in search of pine boughs.  The pine branches were all too high to reach, but young holly and hemlock trees were pushing up toward the canopy as part of the forest's middle age.  A bit of green embroidery thread and a red ribbon I'd tucked away in that embroidery bag turned the greenery into a garland around the base of our jam shelf.

I was surprised at how much the bit of greenery brightened my day.  I'll bet that's why we started bringing in Christmas trees in the first place.  What's your favorite space-saving, low-cost holiday ornamentation?

Posted Fri Dec 13 07:07:38 2013 Tags:
Winslow Homer grafting

I'll end this week's lunchtime series with a couple of scattered tidbits from Organic Orcharding that caught my interest but which I couldn't seem to fit into a coherent post:

  • Logsdon lists several "unusual" fruits (which are now relatively usual, like persimmons, mulberries, and figs).  But he gives a very good warning: Before planting unusual fruits, take a few minutes to find out why they're unusual.  For many of us, the old standbys might make more sense.
  • When growing experimental seedlings, Logsdon recommends letting each seedling grow for one year, then heading it back to eighteen inches.  This prompts the tree to fork.  Let one fork grow normally to test the seedling rootstock, but graft a known variety onto the other fork.  That way, if the seedling isn't worth eating, you can just lop off that half of the tree and enjoy the good fruits from the other half.  (This is an especially handy tip if you're playing along with my apple-seedling experiment.)

I hope that's enough to prompt you to hunt down a copy of the book and give it a read.  Maybe it's even in your local library?

(And, as one final side note, the image at the top of this post is a wood engraving based on a drawing by Winslow Homer, titled "Spring Farm Work -- Grafting" and published in Harper's Weekly, April 30, 1870.)

This post is part of our Organic Orcharding lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Dec 13 12:00:52 2013 Tags:
Closing in windows

When we built the East Wing, we made the entire south wall out of old windows reclaimed from an abandoned school.

Building constructionUnlike the double-glazed windows in the trailer, the single-glazed windows in the East Wing make winters frigid.  And in the summer, the interior bakes.

The right thing to do is probably to take out the windows and rebuild the wall, but I decided to just add extra insulation and cover them up.

If we ever need glass, we'll know where to find it.

Posted Fri Dec 13 16:02:06 2013 Tags:

Sauteing cabbageThanks to your great recipe suggestions, we've used up two heads of cabbage this week!  I cooked up the first head in this recipe emailed to me by a friend:

"Slice up cabbage. [I used a whole head.] Grate 1-2 carrots.  [I used 2.]  Chop some bacon.  [I used two slices.]  Saute bacon in nice big skillet.  [Clearly, mine needed to be bigger!]  When cooked, remove bacon, leaving the fat.  Cook cabbage and carrots until just barely tender.  Toss bacon back in and snarf it up, nom nom nom." --- Jennifer

Cabbage pizza skillet

I liked Jennifer's recipe a lot, but even with the bacon, it just barely made the cut for Mark, so I moved on to the Cabbage Pizza Skillet that another reader recommended.  (Bonus that this one is a full meal rather than just a side dish!)  Cabbage Pizza Skillet will definitely merit multiple repeats since Mark and I are always looking for grain-free dishes that push those pizza buttons.  I'd say this one might be a little closer to lasagna than to pizza, but it tastes great!  Expect it to feed four hungry people.

With just one head of cabbage left, we'll have to make some hard choices between the other excellent suggestions.  I'm leaning toward Erin's baked cabbage recipe, although we don't keep aluminum foil in the house.  I wonder if it would work inside the Dutch oven....

Posted Sat Dec 14 07:52:25 2013 Tags:
crossing creek to fix flat tire

I had a flat tire yesterday coming back from Kingsport.

Something was stuck and I couldn't pry the wheel free no matter how much I banged with the lug wrench. Luckily I was sort of within walking distance. Even luckier was the Deputy that dropped Anna's jury duty notice off recently saw me walking and stopped to give me a ride home.

Today Anna and I went back and were able to push the wheel off with some help from the spud bar.

Posted Sat Dec 14 15:47:28 2013 Tags:
Venison stew with dumplings

We've been eating a lot of venison lately, and this is one of my favorite recipes.  For the stew:

  • 1 pound of venison stew meat, cut into chunks
  • a little bit of vegetable oil
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 quart of homemade chicken stock
  • 1 quart of water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 3 large carrots
  • 1 pint of frozen green beans
  • salt and pepper to taste

Saute the chunks of stew meat in oil until the outsides are brown.  In the meantime, cut up the onions and add them to the meat, cooking until tender.  Then add the chicken stock and water, bay leaves, and thyme (with the last in a tea ball so it's easy to fish the stems out later) and simmer for at least two hours, until the meat is very soft.  Next, cut the carrots into bite-size pieces and add them to the stew, simmering for about half an hour longer until they're soft but not mushy.  Add the green beans then salt and pepper to taste.

Making dumplingsAs a special treat, you can add dumplings, which I adore but don't make often since we're mostly off grains.  I do this by eye, but amounts are roughly:

  • 1 egg
  • about the same amount of yogurt as egg
  • about half as much honey as yogurt
  • a sprinkling of salt
  • about half a teaspoon of baking powder
  • enough flour to make a biscuit-dough consistency

Mix it all together, then plop four spoonfuls onto the top of your stew at the green-bean stage.  Your soup must be at a gentle simmer for this to work.  Put on the lid and let cook for about ten minutes, then flip the dumplings (which will have expanded drastically) over, replace the cover, and cook for another ten minutes.  You can also add herbs to the dumplings, but they seem to soak up enough of the broth to be quite flavorful as-is.

With the dumplings, this serves four hungry people.  Without the dumplings, it would serve four less-hungry people, or three hungry people.  Enjoy!

Posted Sun Dec 15 07:33:04 2013 Tags:
How much water is too much for an ATV?

When is the creek too high for an ATV crossing?

I'm not sure, but on Friday the water height was getting close to the level of the dip stick, which has a little rubber plug to prevent water from going in but I speculated that it was better not to risk it.

Posted Sun Dec 15 14:04:03 2013 Tags:

How do you get an introverted hermit to go to a party?  Hold it less than a mile away in the afternoon so she can get home in time to check on the chickens.

Kidding aside, this was our neighbor's best solstice/Christmas celebration yet.  It was great to see everyone (although we did miss a few familiar faces).

(Plus, this post counts as documentary proof that I left the farm this month.  See, Mom, I'm not really a shut-in!)

Posted Mon Dec 16 08:13:24 2013 Tags:

Watermelon SummerThanks to all of your encouragement (and to your bearing with my whining and complaining), my first work of fiction is now up on Amazon!  As you can tell from previous posts on this topic, I'm not as confident in my abilities in this new genre, so your kind reviews will definitely boost my mood considerably.

Watermelon Summer is a young-adult tale about an intentional community that failed and a girl who refused to give up the dream.  The book is now available on Amazon for $2.99, and if you don't mind waiting, you can use that link on Friday to pick up a free copy. 

And for those of you who are currently being scared off by the "young adult" part of the description, take heart.  55% of young-adult books are read by people over 18, and the biggest demographic is actually among people 30 to 44 years of age.  Chances are you'll fit right in.  (Young adult is actually my very favorite fiction genre due to its usual lack of muddiness and willingness to tackle controversial issues.)

The rest of this week's lunchtime series consists of excerpts from the first couple of chapters of Watermelon Summer.  And to tempt you to stop back by even if you're not interested in fiction, I'll be incorporating images from my past that made their way into Watermelon Summer into the posts.  Enjoy!

This post is part of our Watermelon Summer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Dec 16 12:02:35 2013 Tags:
mark Deer dog
Lucy guarding her deer carcass

I found out today where Lucy has been spending her time these past few days.

Guarding her deer trophy/dinner.

She's quite proud of herself, and I think if she could talk she'd try to get me to help her bury most of it so it can age like a fine wine.

Posted Mon Dec 16 15:50:36 2013 Tags:
Dead hive

To recap, we went into winter with three hives.  Our oldest hive is full of bees shipped to us from Texas in spring 2012 who swarmed in spring 2013.  Our second-oldest hive consists of a package we bought more locally this past spring, who were dusted with sugar to treat varroa mites this fall.  And our youngest hive was a very long shot --- a swarm captured near the barn in late June.

If I had to guess in October when I started winterizing, I would have said the barn swarm had a low chance of making it through the winter, this year's package had a good chance, and the Texas bees had a very good chance.  Nature has already proven me wrong.

Busy bee hive

In early December, we enjoyed one warm, sunny day, and I saw quite a few bees going in and out of the barn-swarm hive.  While I would have liked to believe these bees were happy residents, I had a sinking suspicion that colony had perished and a stronger hive was stealing their honey.  I figured if that was the case, there was nothing I could do about it, though, so I left them alone.

But you know me --- I like to know where I'm at.  So this week I set out to see what I could tell about our hives without opening them up.  I started with the oldest hive, who I'm most confident about, stuck my ear up against the box...and heard nothing.  Could they really be dead?

Clunk!  The camera around my neck knocked into the side of the hive box, and suddenly the bees inside began buzzing angrily.  Two happy lessons learned at once --- if you don't hear bees in a winter hive, give the box a little knock; and, this hive is alive!
Dead bees
The next stop was the second-oldest hive, which I had a lot of faith in too.  Here, though, my faith didn't seem to be grounded in reality.  Even after knocking on the wood, no buzzing was forthcoming, so I opened up the hive and found it dead.  (Photos at the top of this post and to the right.)

I'm a bit bamboozled about what happened to this hive since it had a healthy population (despite slightly higher than recommended varroa levels) going into the winter.  Now, there are only about 150 bees in the hive, a few reaching into comb as if they'd run out of food, but most on the bottom-board and entrance.  If the hive wasn't also completely empty of honey, I'd say the culprit was colony collapse disorder.  But maybe the colony collapsed long enough ago that whatever usually keeps other bees out of these hives dissipated, and the hive was robbed out?

Without much hope, I headed up to the barn-swarm hive, knocked on wood, and heard buzzing!  Despite very low numbers going into winter, this plucky little colony has survived many nights in the teens.  Maybe what I saw two weeks ago was this hive's workers stealing all the honey from the dead hive so the barn-swarm hive could make it through?

All of this musing aside, I think I've decided not to go with straight-Warre-style management next year, and instead to split the strongest hive.  I've got two boxes of Warre comb all drawn out, and that hive seems to have resilient genetics, so it's probably a good idea to turn one into two.

That won't happen until midspring, though.  For now, I'll just hope the two remaining hives last through the rest of the winter...knock on wood.

Posted Tue Dec 17 07:41:07 2013 Tags:
Wortroot farm house

If I'd known I was going to fall in love that day for the first time in my life, I would have taken the attendant trials and tribulations in stride. But I didn't know, so I spent far too many minutes considering whether my parents would buy me a ticket back home to Seattle if I called up and begged.  The remainder of my stay in the West Virginia airport was devoted to figuring out how to get to Kentucky, which meant trying to break through the Appalachian language barrier.

Wortroot yardYou'd think that, since I mastered Spanish in high school and picked up a smattering of French from Canadian visitors, I would have had travel within the U.S. covered.  You also would have been wrong.  Stopping by the information desk at the airport felt like a Peanuts cartoon—you know, one of those scenes where the teacher is talking and all you hear is "wa wa wa, wa wa, wa wa."  The ancient attendant's excessive head-shaking seemed ominous, though, so I decided to try my luck elsewhere.

Welcome sign

I didn't remember my new smartphone (and the airport's free wireless) until the nice lady at McDonald's laughed at me for suggesting bus or train service to the Pikeville area.  She, at least, seemed to speak English, albeit with a mountain twang—perhaps the problem at the information desk had merely been the old guy's lack of teeth?—and she Front yardwas quite ready to give me driving directions to Kentucky.  Until, that is, I mentioned my lack of wheels.  Then the lady started to look concerned and to call me "sugar," so I made up some excuse about having family who could come and pick me up after all, then retreated to a waiting area to figure out Plan B.

Now, before you take my parents to task for stranding me in no-bus-service West Virginia, let me speak in their defense.  Actually, I probably should back up about a week and explain what a suburban girl like me was doing stranded in an Appalachian airport....

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Forsythia's adventure.  Stay tuned for another chunk of her story tomorrow, or download the entire ebook of Watermelon Summer here.

This post is part of our Watermelon Summer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Dec 17 12:00:43 2013 Tags:
block light with a home made 2x4 panel

What's an easy way to block 100% of incoming light and still have the option to turn the "light" on when you want a little sunshine?

I cut a 2x4 and installed a handle for easy removal and closing.

Why not use curtains? The ones I tried let a good amount of light shine through.

Posted Tue Dec 17 16:18:31 2013 Tags:
Hunter's hat

Hat in progressMom sent me a fun birthday package full of odds and ends of crafting supplies.  The pieces that spoke to me immediately were two chunks of fleece fabric cut into the shape of a hat.  I figured, why not sew them together and have headgear for hunting season?

Of course, I couldn't help getting a bit fancy, which turned out to be my downfall.  After sewing the two pieces of fleece together, I cut a bit off another piece of fabric Mom had given me (from somewhere far away --- want to remind me where this came from, Mom?).  The idea was to attach it to the bottom and inside of the fleece so I could fold the bottom of the hat up to have a different-colored brim.

Hat comparison

What I didn't take into account is that the other fabric lacked the fleece's stretch, and that the fold took away some critical millimeters of head space.  So my final hat was too tight to beat out my old standby, shown on the left and bought by my mother-in-law at a goodwill about five years ago for fifty cents.  I guess I'll have to give the don't-shoot-me hat to someone a bit less big-headed than me.

Posted Wed Dec 18 07:52:16 2013 Tags:

Mom, me, and JoeyIt all started before I was born, when my mother hopped in a VW bus with some friends and drove south from her Massachusetts home to join a commune.

"It wasn't a commune," Mom said, correcting my wording just like every other time I'd ask her about Greensun.  "And I wasn't a hippie."

"Sure you weren't, Mom," I'd either say or think, depending on how nice I was feeling at the moment.

"It was an intentional community," Mom reiterated a week before I ended up stranded in West Virginia.  The flier that had restarted this conversation hit the trash can as Mom continued her historical whitewashing.  "You can call it a community land trust if you want, but not a commune."

I wasn't buying it, but I knew what Mom was trying to say with her adamant denial of hippiedom—she hadn't smoked pot (supposedly) and I'd darn well better not either.  That message was coming through loud and clear, so I decided to humor my  mother on the semantics issue.  "Sure, Mom.  You spent a solid year living in an intentional community.  Got it."

I'd been begging to visit the Greensun community since I could pronounce words of four syllables, but Mom never saw any reason to fly across the country to grant my wish.  Never mind that my biological father still lived there (I thought) and that I've never met him.

(Oh, yeah—I'm a love child.  Still not a hippie, Mom?)

Playhouse"You think you want to go there now, but you really don't," Mom replied.  (I decided to let it slide that my mother seemed to think she knew my wishes better than I did, so I stayed silent.)  "When I left, there were plastic doll heads on all the fence posts.  Your father said they scared away deer, but they mostly just scared away people.  Very creepy."

"So, I'll wear my doll-fighting gear," I said.  "No problem.  I'll even bring a wooden stake if it'll make you feel better."

Mom smiled despite herself.  "Forsythia—"  (Naming your child after a flower—another sign of being a hippie.  Just saying.)  "—Do you really want to spend your Europe money visiting an abandoned commune?"

At this point, I couldn't hold my tongue any longer, so I crowed: "Ha!  You admit it's a commune, which means you're a hippie!"

Mom plowed right past that remark and continued trying to talk me out of my plan.  But even though I yes'ed and no'ed appropriately, I was already at Greensun in my mind.

I hope you enjoyed this second installment of Forsythia's adventure.  Stay tuned for another chunk of her story tomorrow, or download the entire ebook of Watermelon Summer here.

This post is part of our Watermelon Summer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Dec 18 12:02:03 2013 Tags:
mark 35
Anna's 35th birthday celebration in Bristol TN
We had a great day celebrating Anna's birthday in Bristol today.
Posted Wed Dec 18 15:47:28 2013 Tags:
Chocolate upside-down cake

Poor Mark has had to bear with four permutations of this cake, but I think I've finally got the details ironed out.  It's delightfully simple, richly chocolate, and makes its own frosting all in the same pan.

First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and pull out a glass, 9x13-inch cake pan (or two 8x8-inch square or two 9-inch round cake pans).  Now prepare the frosting:

  • 1 cup of dark chocolate chips
  • 0.5 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 cup of jam.  (Blackberry or raspberry stands up to the chocolate best, but it wasn't bad with blueberry, and I might try strawberry next.  Homemade, low-sugar jams keep this from turning sickly sweet.)

Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, being careful not to burn them.  (If you start with cold chocolate chips, it might take two minutes, but start with one minute since that will usually melt room-temperature chips.)  Next, stir in the cream and jam.  Spread the frosting mixture in the bottom of your pan.  (No grease is necessary in glass, but I'm not sure about metal.)

Birthday cake

Now, make the cake:

  • 5.5 tablespoons butter
  • 0.75 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 0.5 cups yogurt
  • 0.5 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 0.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 0.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 0.25 teaspoons salt
  • 0.5 cups plus 1 tablespoon cocoa (or just a heaping half cup)
  • 0.5 cups boiling water

Melt the butter, then mix in the brown sugar, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla.  Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cocoa (mixing the dry ingredients first if you want, but I'm usually lazy and just add them straight to the wet ingredients, making sure to disperse the teaspoons of leavening and salt evenly across the batter surface).  Mix in the boiling water and pour the batter on top of the frosting in the pan.

Bake until a knife comes out clean from the cake layer.  I haven't actually tried to flip the cake out, and instead generally just scoop individual slices out of the pan and serve them jam-side-up, but it might work to decant the cake for party presentation.  Be sure to serve warm so the frosting is flowable.  This recipe serves 8 chocoholics or 16 people with self-restraint.

Posted Thu Dec 19 07:57:12 2013 Tags:

Errol Hess in 1969A summer spent among aging hippies might not sound like fun to most going-on-eighteen-year-olds, but the truth is that this felt like a do-or-die situation.  Greensun had sent out a call to all of its past members (thus the flier) asking for a commitment of time and money if we wanted the community to continue.  And as much as I had to agree with Mom that sleeping in an old farmhouse with holes in the wall large enough to see through wasn't so appealing, the alternative was that if the community shut down, I'd never know what I was missing.

And I might never meet my bio-dad.

Which is all a long way of explaining how I ended up in southern West Virginia, which apparently had the closest airport to Pikeville, Kentucky, which was relatively close to Greensun.  (You know you're going to the boondocks when specifying locations involves lots of "It's near"s rather than an actual town's name.)  Mom had given me the phone number of a neighbor who could come pick me up, and she'd even offered to book a room at a nearby hotel so that one of the previous Greensun inhabitants could drive me down when he or she arrived.  But I wanted to get there early to see the place all by myself, and I Cove Ridge Store, 1977also wanted to travel on my own.  After all, if my trip had turned out to be a tour of Europe instead of Appalachia, I'd have been figuring out transportation as I went along, and I didn't want to miss out on that experience.

On the other hand, now that I was in West Virginia (aka the land of no public transportation), I was starting to suspect that I really couldn't get there from here.  While researching options for where to go on my post-high-school and pre-college trip, I'd initially chosen Europe (before throwing that voyage away for what was currently seeming like a very bad idea) since its extensive rail system made it easy to get around for those of us too young to rent a car.  Why couldn't Greensun be located on an Amtrak line?

I hope you enjoyed this third installment of Forsythia's adventure.  Stay tuned for another chunk of her story tomorrow, or download the entire ebook of Watermelon Summer here.

This post is part of our Watermelon Summer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Dec 19 12:01:42 2013 Tags:
ATV on a cold morning

It was cold this morning..but not frozen enough to drive the truck on the driveway.

The ATV was backfiring on cold mornings when I put it in reverse, but today I think I let it warm up enough to prevent those unpleasant explosions.

Posted Thu Dec 19 16:09:49 2013 Tags:
Fallen leaves

Punky firewoodI figure we lose about 10% of our firewood post-cutting and pre-burning.  The scenario generally goes like this --- a tree falls across the driveway (or I need a tree out of the way for gardening purposes) and it absolutely has to get cut today.  I beg Mark to come cut it for me, and he kindly breaks it down into stove-lengths.  We stack the wood, or leave it where it lies, planning to come back with a motorized vehicle to haul it home as soon as driveway conditions permit...then something happens and we forget about it.  Six months later, the firewood is so punky from sitting on the ground that it's not burnable.

Log garden edging

The wood is, however, still perfect for use in the garden.  This week, I took the yellow wagon down to the bend in the driveway to collect one of these caches of lost and found firewood, then tugged the cart home to perk up the figs and dwarf apples.  Two and a half trips later, I could almost feel the garden letting out a contented sigh.  Too bad most of these piles of punky wood aren't close enough for wagon-work!

Posted Fri Dec 20 08:00:33 2013 Tags:

OrneryThe smartphone Mom had given me (along with strict instructions to call her as soon as I got to Greensun) provided the depressing information that there really were no trains, buses, or even taxis running between Huntington and Pikeville.  I was seriously considering throwing away my pride and calling Mom's old neighbor when a voice disturbed my brown study.

"Excuse me."  The words came from a guy about my age, who didn't seem to understand that person-you-don't-know-frantically-pushing-buttons-on-a-phone is American for "Do not disturb."  The interrupter of my solitary frustration was easy on the eyes, and if he'd been the kid next door, I probably would have been thrilled to be spoken to.  But since I was in an airport all by myself, I couldn't help thinking that the guy was probably a rapist or a serial killer.  So I merely frowned at him and went back to my agitated button-pushing.

But the stranger was undeterred by my lack of eye contact.  "I couldn't help overhearing that you're having trouble getting to Kentucky, and I think I have a solution," he told me.

"Hmmm?" I replied noncommittally, unwilling to be totally rude by ignoring him but hoping my tone would send him away.

Cat in sunroom"I'm Jacob," the stranger said, thrusting out a hand, which I reflexively shook.  "And you're in luck because I'm the sole owner and driver of the Mountaintop Taxi Company.  I just came up here from Pikeville to drop someone off, and I'll give you a 50% discount so I don't have to ride back empty."

(I know what you're thinking.  I start off by telling you this is the day I fall in love, and now here's a cute guy standing in front of me.  Not only is he no serial killer, he's also the love of my life, so I should definitely accept the ride.  Come on.  Could you be a bit less conventional and pay more attention to the dangers of my situation?  And, for the record, I didn't fall in love with least not that day.)

On the other hand, dangers aside, my options appeared to be severely limited.  "Hmmm," I repeated, trying to decide whether accepting a ride from this guy was as bad as hitchhiking, and whether I could walk ninety-odd miles before my shoes wore out.

"Okay, I know it probably seems a bit dicey to accept a ride from a stranger," Jacob said, unfazed by my monosyllabic replies.  "But if it'll make you feel better, I have character references.  Wanna call my mamaw?"

"Your what?" I was startled enough to reply.  And before I could glue my eyes back onto my smartphone screen and make another go-away hum, the stranger had speed-dialed his mamaw (which seemed to be a sort of grandmother) and put her on speaker phone.

Peacock"Jacob?" a female voice answered.  "Did you get your uncle to the airport on time?  Will you be home in time for supper?"

Now it was Jacob's turn to look a bit chagrined, which actually made me feel a lot better.  If he still lived at home, he probably was as young as he looked, and no one my age could be a serial killer, right?  "Um, Mamaw, I'm still up in Huntington, so I'll probably be late...."

"Well, could you pick up some milk on your way home?  Your brother drank it all, and we need some for breakfast.  And maybe some bananas and eggs?"

Wow.  I didn't know it was possible for someone's face to turn that shade of red without his air passage being restricted enough to make him pass out.  "Mamaw," Jacob tried to interrupt her as the grocery list continued.  "Grandmother!  Yes, I'll stop by the store, but there's a girl here who wants a ride down to Pikeville, and she needs to know I run a real taxi service."

"Well, now, I don't know if I'd call it a real taxi service," his grandmother replied.  It occurred to me at this point that her accent was thicker than Jacob's and the McDonald's lady's but that I was understanding her just fine.  Progress, right?  "After all, that's my minivan you're driving and I pay for your insurance.  But you did buy the magnetic sign yourself, so that makes it a bit official, I guess....  Be sure to invite her to supper if she's from out of town!"

"Never mind, Mamaw.  I've gotta go," Jacob replied, ending the call and turning away.  Having endured more than my share of parental embarrassments, I figured he was going to flee and pretend he'd never made his offer.  But somewhere in the midst of the conversation just past, I'd made up my mind and decided Jacob wasn't an ax murderer.

"Wait!" I called, gathering up my bags.  "I'll take you up on that ride, with just one caveat—I drive."

I hope you enjoyed this fourth installment of Forsythia's adventure. To read the rest, you'll have to download Watermelon Summer, which is free on Amazon today.  (Or email me today for a free pdf copy.)

This post is part of our Watermelon Summer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Dec 20 12:00:24 2013 Tags:
rubber ducky floating in pond during winter with wood pile in background

Our stuck duck is now free as a bird thanks to a warm spell we've had lately.

Posted Fri Dec 20 16:04:17 2013 Tags:
Full moon

The full moon wasn't until Tuesday, but Monday night it cast such beautiful shadows on the barn roof, I couldn't resist heading out for a photo shoot.  My camera isn't good enough to capture the full darkness of the dark and the lightness of the light at the same time, so I played around in the gimp until the photograph more closely replicated what I saw.  You might have to view the photo with your freezer door open to get the full effect, though.

Posted Sat Dec 21 07:52:58 2013 Tags:
crossing a steam on the Devil's fork trail near the Devil's bathtub

We celebrated the Solstice today by hiking part of Devil's fork trail.

Be prepared for multiple stream crossings with water occasionally above the ankle.

Posted Sat Dec 21 15:53:55 2013 Tags:
Water on lichens

Mainstream holidays don't tend to speak to me and Mark much, so we often skip them, but then we're left with a celebratory void in our lives.  So, for the next year, we're going to try to come up with one meaningful (to us) holiday per month and make up our own way to celebrate the day.

Stone wall

The Winter Solstice was an obvious choice for December.  After reading far too much on Wikipedia about traditional methods of observing the holiday, we decided to do something entirely different --- go for a hike.  A majestic bald eagle, fascinating stone walls (unusual in our area), about a dozen creek crossings, and skinny-dipping in a deep forest pool were all included in the outing.

Forest pool

What's up for January?  The outside-the-box thinker in the family (Mark) is going to have to make something up because nothing on the calendar called out to me.  Maybe you have suggestions?  You get bonus points if it's in the second half of the month to make it more distinct from Mark's upcoming natal celebration.

Posted Sun Dec 22 07:38:41 2013 Tags:

Stihl MS-211 chainsaw tuneup updateThe Stihl MS-211 chainsaw was having some trouble getting started lately.

A tune-up seems to have solved the problem.

We got it done by a new Stihl dealer in St Paul at Bailey's hardware store for 25 dollars.

Posted Sun Dec 22 15:37:20 2013 Tags:

Watermelon SummerHere's what early readers have to say about Watermelon Summer:

"Gosh, I wish this book were longer.  I loved the story so much." --- Brandy N.

"The character is young, self empowering and driven; but friendly and not superhuman." --- Alan Reid

"Fun page turner." --- S.

And now for the news --- Watermelon Summer is available as a paperback!  What does this mean to you?  First, you have an opportunity to win a free copy.  (Keep reading for details near the end of this post.)  And I've enrolled the book in Amazon's expanded distribution channels, so you should be able to request that your library pick up a copy that you can read for free and share with your neighbors.

Meanwhile, if you hate reading on the computer and don't have an ereader, now's also a great time to pick up your very own paperback copy since Amazon currently has it on sale for 10% off. 
I've enrolled the title in Amazon's matchbook program as well, so if you buy the paperback, you'll be given the opportunity to download a free ebook copy immediately --- perfect if you want to read Watermelon Summer and still give it as a gift.  (I've also lowered the price of the ebook to 99 cents this week to give folks with ereaders a bonus too.)

So, how about that free opportunity I tantalized you with in the first paragraph?  The giveaway is easy to enter --- just leave a comment on this post by Friday, December 27, at midnight with the title of your favorite homesteading-related work of fiction, past or present.  I'll use a random number generator to choose one commenter to win a free, signed copy of the paperback.
  Thanks for reading!

(By the way, you may be asking why there are no photos of the paperback in this post.  My proof copy came in the mail last week and I liked it so much...I immediately gave it away without thinking of taking photos!  I'll try to remember to photograph the next books that come into my hands before they find new homes.)

Posted Mon Dec 23 07:58:50 2013 Tags:

Unlearn, RewildMiles Olson's Unlearn, Rewild is Thoreau-like in that the author translates philosophy into action, but Olson's book is much more readable than Walden is.  On the other hand, a modern audience will probably find Olson more radical than Thoreau, and Olson does have a rose-tinted view of hunter-gatherer cultures (going so far as to posit that rape was virtually unknown in North America before European contact, which seems like a hard fact to prove).  However, even if the philosophy in the first half of the book turns you off, I hope you'll flip to the primitive-living skills in the second half since Olson presents each project in such an inspiring and engaging way.

So, what is Olson's radical philosophy?  He believes we all need to "rewild" --- to return to Stone Age technology and food-gathering methods, spending time alone in nature to cleanse our minds and unlearn.  Olson writes that domestication is "killing the wildness."  He believes that only hunter-gatherers who depend on limited, place-based natural resources can keep their populations small enough and their wants ungreedy enough that they can live lightly on the earth.

Practicing what he preaches, Olson spent years living with a group of friends in scavenged-materials cabins on squatted land on Vancouver Island.  As I'll explain in later posts, he dumpster-dived, ate roadkill, and harvested wild foods like dandelions.  He believes that you can't opt out of the system without breaking the rules unless you're a "lone mountain man," and Olson clearly believes that society with other people is one of our inherent human needs.  So he recommends squatting with friends in a marginalized environment (especially on the edges of cities and towns).

As enticing as I find some of the skills Olson presents, his belief system seems fundamentally flawed.  Like him, I believe that hunter-gatherer societies had a lot going for them, but the big reason we changed over to agriculture (in my opinion) was because our population expanded to the point where we couldn't feed ourselves as hunter-gatherersUnlearn, Rewild does include a chapter on non-pharmaceutical birth control, but Olson stops short of talking about overpopulation as the driving force of our ecological problems.  Maybe he thought that would have been too radical?

This post is part of our Unlearn, Rewild lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Dec 23 12:02:21 2013 Tags:
Flock of five

Several customers this winter have been ordering two of our Working Chicken Combo packs at once.  I figured out today that we can fit five Avian Aqua Miser Originals in an EZ Miser box, cutting down on shipping costs.

To pass the savings on to you, Anna created a new product on our website.  The Flock of Five is five chicken waterers for the price of three. Perfect for the complicated homestead with a chicken tractor here, a broody hen there, some chicks in the basement, and a coop of layers.  Or maybe keep three and give two to a friend?

Posted Mon Dec 23 15:23:07 2013 Tags:
Winter dandelion

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded a free copy of The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook, and it inspired me to try cooking not just the leaves, but also the "hearts" of this often-overlooked wild food.  In retrospect, I think the author was really talking about harvesting the heart of the dandelion in very early spring, when flowers are forming in the upper, central part of the root, but my method of just whittling away the woodier parts of the outer root (third photo) and roasting the center tasted great.  I'll look forward to comparing the flavor of flower-filled dandelion hearts in a couple of months.

Here's my on-the-fly recipe for winter dandelion-heart salad

  • Soaking dried tomatoes3 slices of bacon
  • 1 sweet potato
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oil
  • 2 cups of dandelion greens
  • hearts from those dandelion plants
  • 1 clump of wild garlic (or you can use 1 Egyptian onion or 1 leek.  In case you don't know, wild garlic is often found growing wild in weedy lawns in our area, and the whole plant is edible.)
  • 0.5 cups of dried tomatoes, soaked for 20 minutes in hot water and cut into chunks.  (The image above shows the tomatoes soaking, pre-cutting.)
  • balsamic vinegar
Wild greens

Preheat the oven to 350 and put the bacon on a tray to start baking.  Meanwhile, cut the sweet potato into bite-size wedges, toss with oil, salt, and pepper, and lay out on another tray to bake.

Dandelion heart saladWhen the bacon is slightly crisp, remove it from the heat and divide the grease into two parts.  One part stays in the pan to cover the dandelion hearts and wild garlic, which will roast as the sweet potatoes finish baking.  The rest of the bacon grease, plus some balsamic vinegar, greases the pan in which you saute the dandelion greens, cooking on high until they're tender.

Once the sweet potatoes, wild garlic, and dandelion hearts are al dente, remove them from the oven and add to the dandelion greens.  Break up the bacon and stir it into the pot as well, mix, and serve the salad warm.  This recipe makes a hefty side for two people, but chances are there won't be any left over.

Posted Tue Dec 24 07:38:35 2013 Tags:

Eating roadkillSome of my favorite parts of Unlearn, Rewild are the chapters on meat, which present very outside-the-box thinking.  Miles Olson was once a vegan, but he experienced a journey similar to mine and Mark's --- as he got closer to nature, he realized it made more sense to eat meat.  That's where our paths diverged from Olson's, though, since Mark and I got into pasturing livestock and Olson got into...figuring out when roadkill is safe to consume.

Ever wonder if that deer by the side of the road is delectable meat going to waste, or is a case of food poisoning in disguise?  Olson provides these tips for when to snag the carcass and when to leave it lying:

  • If the hair pulls out easily when you tug on it, the meat is old and might not be safe.
  • Clouded-over eyes are another indication of age.
  • Rigor mortis is actually a sign of relatively fresh meat since the stiffness only lasts for a day or less.
  • Big maggots are a sign of old meat.  In addition, maggots will pre-digest your meat, changing the flavor (but not necessarily making it unsafe to eat).
  • If it's cold outside, the meat is probably safer than if you found the deer on a scorching summer day.
  • Smaller critters (like rabbits) actually keep better than big animals (like deer) because their guts are smaller and less prone to rupturing and sullying the meat.

Assuming you followed Olson's advice and decided the deer by the side of the road was safe to eat, what's next?  Olson provided some tips we can all benefit from about aging meat, a process that makes meat more tender.  He explains that the biggest danger in aging meat is promoting anaerobic conditions, often found in meat in air-tight containers and in ground meat.  Excess moisture also makes meat rot instead of age.  Olson suggests a couple of different ways to age meat safely, one of which is the traditional above-ground technique of hanging the meat in a well-ventilated area away from flies.  The other is to emulate dogs and bury meat at least a foot deep to age the flesh slowly underground.  It's handy to know that in a survival situation, if I killed a deer and had no refrigerator, I could bury big pieces of meat and eat them safely weeks later.

After aging, you'd think the next step would be cooking, but Olson actually eats most of his meat raw to prevent the formation of carcinogens during high-temperature cooking.  Parasites can be a problem with raw meat (especially if you're eating omnivores instead of herbivores), but Olson explains that freezing meat for two weeks kills most parasites.  Of course, you can also cook the meat to destroy most parasites and diseases (short of chronic wasting disease).

Drying hutRather than cooking, Olson dries most of his meat.  Although many traditional cultures smoke meat as they dry it, Olson is concerned about the carcinogenic nature of creosote, so he usually dries his meat smoke-free.  He explains that if you put meat in a well-ventilated, stone hut in a windy place, the food can dry due to the action of wind alone, and I wonder whether you could create your own wind by making a black chimney rise out of a well-ventilated room (similar to the technique some people use to make smells from composting toilets move up and out of human range).  Or you can simply dry your meat the same way you would other foods or clothes --- in a sunny spot away from flies, or in the warm area above your wood stove.

As a final note on alternative meat-eating, Olson does suggest eating some parts of the animal that most of us probably eschew.  He says that livers, lungs, eyeballs, blood, and the fat around the organs of herbivores are all excellent dried.  In general, high-value meats that we often ignore include adrenal glands (high in vitamin C), eyes (high in zinc), bones and soft, velvet antlers (mineral-rich fat), brains, pancreas (high in vitamin K2, which prevents tooth decay), and testicles.

Now, wasn't that a great appetizer for lunch?

This post is part of our Unlearn, Rewild lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Dec 24 12:02:11 2013 Tags:
power check on the refrigerator root cellar

How much power has the Refrigerator Root Cellar used so far this year?

1.2 kill-a-watts is all it took to keep our carrots and apples from freezing.

Posted Tue Dec 24 16:15:38 2013 Tags:
Porch shade trellis

Off and on, as the spirit moves me (and weather permits), I've been working on the south side of the trailer's living shade project.  It's been too cold and wet to fix the gutter, but I snuck out on Monday and put up some trellises for a hardy kiwi and grape that I hope will shade the porch in future summers.

I couldn't quite decide whether to put the trellises down low, in the middle, or up high, so I went for the easy solution (low).  Depending on how much the porch roof shades the vines, I may add some wires higher up to complete the vine supports.

Drilling up high

I say "I did this" and "I did that," but the truth is that Mark helped me with the highest attachment point.  Thanks, honey!  Hopefully we'll both reap the rewards when we have a shadier porch come summer.

Posted Wed Dec 25 08:40:43 2013 Tags:

Scraping a hideSeveral of you have asked in the past whether we tan the hides of the deer we kill, and I've always replied that it sounds too hard.  (Plus, what would I use the leather for?)  But Olson made the process seem fascinating, and now I wish I still had this fall's hide to practice on!  The author explained that there are four ways of tanning hides, and each process results in a different end product.

Rawhide is the simplest method of tanning skin.  First, you remove the flesh by scraping (a process you have to use for any type of tanning).  Usually, the hair is removed as well, which involves soaking the hide in water or in a mixture of wood ashes and water, then pulling out the hair.  After that, a skin earmarked for rawhide is simply laced into a frame or tacked to a board to dry.  Rawhide is traditionally used to  make drums, kayaks, containers, roofing, or armor.

When I first eschewed tanning, I was assuming the only method was brain-tanning, which is a very common technique used to create a breathable fabric called buckskin.  You first remove the skin and hair using the methods mentioned above, then you work brains (or eggs or soap and oil) into the skin.  Next, comes a softening step which involves stretching the skin in many different directions, and you end by smoking the skin to make the softening permanent.

Tanned hidesBark-tanning creates a water-resistant skin, and was traditionally used to make footware, rain slickers, leather jackets, belts, harnesses, and containers.  The method is similar to brain-tanning, but you use tannin-rich water (bark tea) rather than brains, and you soften the skin by working in oil.

The final type of skin is a fur, which simply means you leave the hair on rather than taking it off.  Olson suggests that furs work best with brain-tanning methods, so you end up with a soft, supple skin on one side and the fur on the other.

If all of these methods still sound too hard, Olson presents one final option.  First, create a rawhide skin, drying it completely, then cut the skin into strips and make jello!  Rehydrate the strips overnight, boil the skin-and-water mixture for four hours, add flavors, and the result will set up overnight into a tasty gelatin.

Maybe I'll try one of the simplest techniques next year.  Or perhaps I'll use one of Olson's trapping suggestions to procure a small hide this winter that I can experiment on.  Like other chapters in Unlearn, Rewild, this one made me want to go out and follow his lead immediately.

This post is part of our Unlearn, Rewild lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Dec 25 12:01:43 2013 Tags:
Stihl MotoMix fuel review

When our chainsaw first started having trouble I thought it might be an ethanol problem.

Dumping out the questionable fuel and adding a small amount of MotoMix helped me to quickly rule out an issue with the fuel.

Pre-mixed 2 cycle fuel is a sure fire way to know you don't have ethanol that's attracted water to your tank. It's also a good idea to leave a little bit of this stuff in the system to prevent rust that might happen over the winter storage months.

Posted Wed Dec 25 14:41:24 2013 Tags:

Plant intelligenceMichael Pollan has a new piece in the New Yorker and, while it's long, I highly recommend every gardener read it.  Pollan reports on fascinating (and scientifically sound, although controversial) studies that suggest the possibility of plant senses and behaviors we didn't learn about in school.  Some of the scientists Pollan spoke to even use terms like "plant intelligence" and talk about plants learning.

I was most interested in possible plant senses outside the ordinary.  For example, multiple time-lapse videos show that bean plants grow directly toward a metal trellis, seeming to know exactly where the support is located.  Pollan reported that the scientist "speculates that the plant could be employing a form of echolocation. There is some evidence that plants make low clicking sounds as their cells elongate; it’s possible that they can sense the reflection of those sound waves bouncing off the metal pole."  In another study, the same scientist "found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow 'hear' the sound of flowing water."

I'd heard rumblings about this next study, but found Pollen's interpretation fascinating there as well.  He wrote about how a scientist used radioactive carbon isotopes in a forest to show how trees exchange nutrients using mycorrhizal fungi.  In the study, "mother trees" specifically nourished their offspring, and were seemingly able to recognize that familial relationship.  In addition, evergreen and deciduous trees of different species shared food at different times of the year --- "the evergreen species will tide over the deciduous one when it has sugars to spare, and then call in the debt later in the season."

Finally, a very controversial study suggests that plants may be just as conscious as certain animals.  One study showed that "plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out."  Pollan continued, "What’s more, when plants are injured or stressed, they produce a chemical—ethylene—that works as an anesthetic on animals. When I learned this startling fact from Baluška in Vancouver, I asked him, gingerly, if he meant to suggest that plants could feel pain.... 'If plants are conscious, then, yes, they should feel pain,' [Baluška] said. 'If you don’t feel pain, you ignore danger and you don’t survive. Pain is adaptive.' I must have shown some alarm. 'That’s a scary idea,' he acknowledged with a shrug. 'We live in a world where we must eat other organisms.'"

Interesting reading if you're willing to imagine plants as different from the passive organisms most of us consider them to be.  Or check out the embedded videos to hear directly from a couple of the scientists in question.

Posted Thu Dec 26 08:04:54 2013 Tags:

Olson in the woodsAs you can tell, I was very impressed by Miles Olson's techniques of finding sustainable sources of meat and using every part of the animal.  I was less inspired by his plant-related advice, but did find a few gems to pass on.

Olson advocates tending gardens that are so enmeshed in nature that the average person can't even tell the gardens are there.  This is a bit like the food forests of the Amazon in theme, but Olson is gardening in a more urban environment.  He advocates understanding which wild plants are edible and tending them a bit like a garden, harvesting only 10% of the plants at any one time, replanting roots, and knowing which plants benefit from pruning or coppicing.

Olson creates piles of leaves, into which he plants burdock, wild carrots, and dandelions.  The rotting leaves feed the plants, and they also make it easy to pull out the roots, which he eats.  Elsewhere, he plants seedballs, or seeds food plants into recently-burned areas.

That said, I was left wanting much more information about Olson's gardening strategy.  What does he grow other than dandelions?  Does he have traditional gardens too?  Maybe the bigger picture will be illuminated in a hypothetical book two.

This post is part of our Unlearn, Rewild lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Dec 26 12:02:09 2013 Tags:
Mechanic in a Bottle fuel test kit for testing gasoline

How do you know if that old can of fuel in the barn is no longer worth using?

I had a container that was a year old and decided to give a fuel test kit a try.

You get 100 test swabs that are easy to dip into a tank or can. Our can of gas was reading marginal by the color code chart, which meant to me that it was okay to use in the Craftsman mower, but too close to the edge for any 2 cycle engines.

Posted Thu Dec 26 16:31:08 2013 Tags:

Nearly every morning, Lucy and I walk out to get the mail, then continue on down the road a short piece to the bridge over the creek.  Depending on my mood, I either consider this walking therapy or walking meditation --- it does both jobs, plus waking me up and jump-starting my creativity for the day.

Winter woods

This summer, though, it was just too muddy to enjoy walking through the floodplain.  And I got grumpy.  So when Mark asked to have the month of December to turn the East Wing into a bit more of a habitable space, I started poking at an idea I've had for a long time --- building trails up above the floodplain so I can walk in the dry.

Steep hillside

The first couple of weeks, I just wandered.  There's definitely something joyful about walking off the beaten path, and I wasn't positive I wanted to lose that joy by creating trails.  On the other hand, the non-swamp parts of our property are very steep, and it's tough to even walk parallel to the slope in these areas without slipping and pulling part of the hillside down with you.  Even though Mark says I'm part billy goat, I don't usually go to these areas because it's just too hard to keep my footing.


Beginning of trailSo I eventually decided to make the least intrusive trails I could that would still let me keep my footing.  I started by following a deer trail, then cut out a notch on the uphill side of the path, piling the shovelful of dirt onto the downhill side.  I figure that's plenty of trail for agile people walking single-file, and the trail will surely get easier to follow each time I tread on it.

My goal is to make a one-mile loop this winter, to replace my one-mile-round-trip driveway walk when the latter is too wet to be pleasurable.  That's not as tough as it sounds since about a third of a mile of the route runs along old logging roads.  If you're following along at home is a handy tool that helps you figure out how long each leg of the trail will be.  Maybe I'll have the trail up and running in time to use it to scope out our first wildflowers in March?

Posted Fri Dec 27 08:06:12 2013 Tags:
Homemade oil lamp

Oil lamp experimentationThe best thing about Unlearn, Rewild is that it's bound to inspire you to try something right away.  I finished the book after dark, which left my experimentation options relatively narrow, but I did have cattails in the greywater wetland right outside our back door.  So I decided to try out Olson's technique of using cattail fluff in oil to create a lamp.  As you can tell, it didn't work too well --- the matches seemed to be better wicks than the cattail fluff --- but it was fun to try.

Maybe next I'll talk Mark into experimenting with some of Olson's toilet-paper alternatives --- snow, moss, the inner bark of cedar trees, a stick, or grass.  Naw, probably better to trap a squirrel in the interest of marital harmony.

This post is part of our Unlearn, Rewild lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Dec 27 12:01:51 2013 Tags:

Skil drill press return spring repair updateIt's been over a year since I fixed the Skil drill press return spring.

No problems to report even though we doubled the work load this year with the addition of the EZ Miser.

I'd say it's my favorite power tool, which is why I thought it was worthy of the R2D2 hood ornament.

Posted Fri Dec 27 16:36:19 2013 Tags:
Brussels sprouts

What's on the menu at the bitter end of December on our homestead?  Lots!

On Christmas, I broke into the brussels sprouts in the quick hoops for the first time.  They were huge and plump, and 1.5 plants provided enough sprouts for a hefty side for two.  I figure what's left should last us through the end of January if I serve them twice a week or so.

The lettuce is just about gone under the quick hoops, but we've got plenty of leafy greens both inside and outside the quick hoops to enjoy --- mustard (a bit damaged by cold) and three kinds of kale.

Cubed butternut

Fridge root cellarIn the kitchen cupboards, we've still got masses of butternuts, sweet potatoes, garlic, and onions.  The first three are no surprise, but this is the first year we've managed to grow enough onions that we didn't run out before the new year.  Maybe they'll last all the way until next year's harvest?

We ate up the last cabbage last week, but still have at least half a bushel of carrots in the fridge root cellar.  Unless I'm forgetting something, that's it for fresh vegetables...but that's okay because there are also lots of green beans and plenty of vegetable soup in the freezer, plus various fruits, jams, and sauces, frozen, canned, and dried.  Quite an abundant array of homegrown foods to last us until the spring 2014 garden gets underway!

Posted Sat Dec 28 08:27:13 2013 Tags:
how to fix water logged boots

I should have gone back to get my hip waders last week...but I didn't.

The water flowed into one of my Muck boots for the first time. In the past when I've got water proof boots flooded they just feel a little broken after they get dried out and usually start leaking within a month of walking.

Drying these Muck boots was a simple matter of drainage and placing them near a heat source the rest of the day. They seem to have bounced back better than a Slinky.

Posted Sat Dec 28 15:25:54 2013 Tags:
Agricola"Anna, I'm curious- are there any staples you buy anymore? I seem to remember you saying you love avocados and can't grow them yet but do you purchase other treats or things like grains?"
--- Maggie

Mark and I were at the grocery store Friday, and I was just thinking that the only thing we bought were treats --- chocolate, avocados, apples, and clementines.  We're mostly off grains, so we only buy flour every few months, preferring to get our carbohydrates from homegrown staples like sweet potatoes and butternuts, along with fruit (a significant quantity of which is still store-bought at this time of year, but hopefully will be homegrown within a few more years).

Other staples we purchase in very limited quantities include: sugar, spices, baking powder,  baking soda, salt, pepper, corn starch, lentils and dried beans.  We buy significantly more dairy products (cheese and yogurt), nuts, and a considerable amount of meat (75% of which is butchered whole lambs from a friend).

We also buy eggs, although most of those go to Lucy (and most of the eggs we eat come from the farm).  On that note, despite a few forays into making our own pet food, we're currently still on dried kibble for both the cats and dog.

Me and BenThe good news is that since the bulk of the food we eat is either homegrown or bought from friends, we could continue eating those staples indefinitely regardless of the state of our wallets or the world.  The bad news is that we seem to increase the quality of the non-staples we buy at the same time we cut down on their quantity, so we don't spend any less at the grocery store.  That's the trouble with growing your own food --- you start to realize that high quality is really worth it.

(By the way, the photos above have nothing to do with this post.  My big brother and I enjoyed a couple of delightful games of Agricola Saturday after he helped me scout the middle third of my new trail.  And Mark and I met up with my cousin-in-law for lunch in the big city Friday.  Today we get to hang out with my mother-in-law, who I don't see nearly often enough.  Quite an action-packed weekend!)

Posted Sun Dec 29 08:10:46 2013 Tags:
big flood at the end of 2013

How do I measure the "size" of an event like one of our creek floodings?

I'd say it's a mixture of how long it takes the water to drop to a safe hip wader depth and the duration of the rain fall.

Posted Sun Dec 29 14:11:34 2013 Tags:
Curing onions"Hi Anna- another curious inquiry: I know you've mentioned what type of onions you grow on your homestead, but would you please repeat it again, and how much did you plant this year to finally have enough to last you through the winter? Our homestead will be the same size of yours and it would be helpful to have an idea of the ideal amount to plant without having to go through eight years of trial and error!"
--- Karen B.

This is an excellent question, especially since it's taken us several years to figure out each aspect of growing our own onions.  The first place to start is with deciding if you want to Potato onionsgrow from sets or from seed.  Although I don't have first-hand data to back this up, the books all say that onions from sets won't be good keepers, so we chose to grow from seed.  However, some farmers are smart and grow both --- using the onions from sets (easy to grow, but more expensive to start) for eating over the summer, then keeping the onions grown from seed for winter eating.  Part of our success with still having onions at the end of December is actually do to a variant of this method --- I used a bunch of our potato onions in summer soups, which left many more of our onions from seed to store for the winter.

Which moves me on to one of the questions you actually asked --- what variety did we settle on for the onions we grew from seed?  We grew Pontiac this year with great success, but before you go out and buy your seeds, please read this post about the difference between short-day and long-day onions.  The short version is that southerners and northerners need to choose different varieties of onions --- we live in the middle, but long-day onions did better for us in my trial.

2013 onion harvest

How much did we grow?  We planted seven beds of onions this spring, which equates to about 126 square feet of onions.  As I'll explain shortly, we're still working the kinks out of starting our seedling onions, so I probably could have gotten about 50% more onions out of that area if I'd made sure all of the seedlings survived transplant and spring cold snaps.  And I'm afraid I didn't weigh our onion harvest this year since I started cutting into them before they were done curing.  Suffice it to say that we're big onion eaters, needing an onion in most things I cook, then take a look at the photo above to get an idea of the harvest quantity.

Onion seedlingsThe final factor I want to point out is the importance of getting your onion seedlings off to a good start.  After various sorts of trial and error, I've settled on starting the seedlings in pots (one big pot works well) inside around the beginning to middle of February.  Onion seedlings are very slow growers, so you won't need to do lots of potting up --- just keep them somewhere they won't freeze solid during spring cold snaps.  I set out the seedlings in early April directly into the soil (although you can set them out sooner under quick hoops), then harvested plump bulbs in the middle of August.

Starting broccoli sets under quick hoopsI had actually planned to plant twice as many onion beds in 2013, but didn't have enough seedlings for various reasons.  I'm used to pushing the envelope with old seeds, but learned the hard way that onion seeds are one of the few that germinate very poorly when more than a year old.  Meanwhile, I also discovered that they're very prone to damping off in homemade potting soil.  In 2014, I'll be buying all new seed, and will try half of our seeds under quick hoops since this method of starting broccoli and cabbage transplants has been a real winner in our spring garden.

In other words, I've still got more to learn!  But hopefully this post will save you at least six or seven years of trial and error.  Happy onioning!

Posted Mon Dec 30 08:35:32 2013 Tags:
update on the progress of using a live trap

Have we ever caught anything with the live trap from last year?

Anna has been trying to catch a squirrel lately, but the last flood washed away the almonds we were using for bait.

Posted Mon Dec 30 15:59:19 2013 Tags:
Worst pests per region

Mexican bean beetle
I started working on an ebook about garden ecology...and it turned into a book about dealing with invertebrate pests in the garden.  Rather than focusing on mainstream, organic solutions like Bt and row covers, I'm writing about what we do in our own garden --- attracting beneficial insects and larger predators, hand-picking, and so forth.

And as I wrote, I realized that some of our readers may have excellent permaculture techniques of their own to keep slugs and bugs from demolishing their fruits and vegetables.  If you're interested in being featured in Bug Theory for Gardeners, please leave a comment below or email with your problem and solution.  I'm less interested in commonly-used techniques like beer traps for slugs, and more interested in options like variety selection, ducks in the garden, and other low-work and chemical-free ways of keeping the pests at bay.

To sweeten the pot, I'll include your URL in the ebook when I give you credit (if you want), and will mail you a copy of either The Weekend Homesteader, Watermelon Summer, or our 2014 calendar (your choice) if I use your tip.  I'm most likely to use a tip if it comes with a photo attached, but feel free to submit picture-less first-hand experiences as well.

I'm looking forward to hearing what you've come up with!
Learn to keep bugs at bay

Posted Tue Dec 31 08:04:21 2013 Tags:
swamp bridge anchoring with a fence post

Last week's flood was the first major test of the new swamp bridge anchoring.

Even though water was above the bridge it doesn't seem to have budged.

Posted Tue Dec 31 16:16:15 2013 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
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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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