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

archives for 01/2014

Jan 2014

2013 was a transition year, angsty in places, but delightful on the whole.  Here are my top-ten favorite parts of the homesteading year just past:


1. Kayla.  A friendly face and helping hand have made all the difference this summer, fall, and winter.  Isn't it funny how all my goals and plans revolve around plants and buildings and livestock, but people are what top my best-of lists?

Early transparent apple

2. First homegrown applesScrumptious apples from our own trees was one of the reasons I moved to the farm in the first place, so our first harvest was both delicious and inspiring.  In general, 2013 was also the best fruit year our area has seen in a long time due to a lack of late spring frosts, and we took full advantage of the bounty, experimenting with canning, drying, jamming, and gorging ourselves silly.

Mother-daughter bonding

3. Continued good company.  Mark, Lucy, Huckleberry, and Strider provide daily good cheer.  In fact, this point should probably top the year's chart, but it's nothing new and hopefully won't change anytime soon either.  It's also been a joy to see new and old friends both on and off the farm, and our vacation with Mom will go down in history as one of the best ever.

Erecting quick hoops

4. Bushels of Brussels sprouts.  Okay, maybe not bushels, but enough to eat lots of them all winter.  Beyond the actual Brussels sprout, this also marks the second year when we've had copious fresh food available all winter --- delicious!

Hammock chair

5. Summer on the porch.  Being able to laze about after hours on the porch swing was delicious last summer.  Cozying up in front of the fire during the winter is no less fun.

Wringer washer

6. Greywater wetland.  In addition to drying up a bad muddy spot, our greywater wetland has been fun because it's given me a nature-filled location to do the laundry.  We're always looking for ways to turn normal household tasks into a joy --- that's part of the trick to living in paradise.  Our sky pond needs a bit more work, but looks like it will soon fill a similar niche.

Mailing chicken waterers

7. EZ Miser.  Between the kits and the premade units, 184 chicken-keepers have already tried out Mark's newest waterer invention, despite the EZ Miser having only been on the market since the middle of August.  The reviews have been glowing and we look forward to introducing many more chicken-keepers to clean water come spring.

8. Rooting and grafting extravaganza.  Being able to root a dozen fig trees from cuttings and graft a tastier variety onto two undelicious pear trees expanded my homesteading palette considerably.  I love the experimental and gifting possibilities opened up by these new skills.

Flying squirrel
Watermelon Summer9. Nature sightings.  There's always something beautiful and interesting popping out of the woods to see usThe trail I've been working on this month has made those sightings even more frequent --- in fact, I felt like I was flying Sunday while I carved out a foothold on the hillside above the inundated floodplain.  Catching a wild swarm of honeybees was also astounding.

10. My first ever work of fiction!  This would be much higher on the list if I'd figured out how to actually sell more copies in this new genre, but it still feels like the resolution of a deeply-held dream that began in elementary school.

Hauling lumber on an ATV

Even though we live and work together, Mark's list would probably be entirely different.  It might involve our new ATV and hot water heater, along with other things I've probably completely forgotten.  And there's much more excitement to come in 2014, so stay tuned!

What were the highlights of your year?

Posted Wed Jan 1 08:06:10 2014 Tags:
Draining ringer washer

The sun came out long enough today for a load of laundry.

Posted Wed Jan 1 15:45:22 2014 Tags:
Flying squirrel home

I reached the stump dirt tree with my trail on New Year's Eve, which marks the first tenth of a mile of built trail.  I'm thrilled to have an easy route to this venerable old beech since I love passing by, but have rarely scrambled up to it in the past.

This time around, I noticed signs that a flying squirrel has been living up in the hollow center.  The base of the tree is littered with gnawed hickory nuts and walnuts, the tops taken off rather than the whole shell shattered the way gray squirrels tend to do.  Maybe that flying squirrel we saw last spring moved here after we accidentally scared it away from its previous home?

Healthy and sick beech

Even though I sound a bit bloodthirsty saying this, I was also glad to see a stump-dirt-tree-in-training not far away.  The slightly younger beech was starting to rot out on one side, the bark covered with Carbon Cushion fungus.  Luckily, many happy beeches dot the hillside, so Carbon cushionwatching one tree slide from middle to old age is just a sign of free potting soil in the future, not a decline of the forest.

Progress on my trail may slow down a bit now that December is over and Mark and I are headed back to work on farm projects.  Top of our list is figuring out a way to stop the chickens from pooping in their nest boxes, followed perhaps by work on the new pasture and bathtub.  But I've sunk my teeth into this woodland project, so I may keep stealing a half hour here and there to go chisel into the slope and watch the world go by.  Although I was leery at first of Mark's idea of taking December off from farm projects, the idea has grown on me (as usual) and I think he was on the right track all along.

Posted Thu Jan 2 08:02:56 2014 Tags:
Anna with kiwi cuttings

Anna pruned our Hardy Kiwi plants today.

We mailed them out to a reader who sent us a bunch of various cuttings last year.

Posted Thu Jan 2 15:42:38 2014 Tags:
Kiwi cuttings

Slanted cuttingIt's a little early to be taking cuttings for grafting, but now's a fine time to start hardwood cuttings if you're going to nurture them inside.  We sent some of our hardy kiwi cuttings off to the source of last year's fig cuttings, and that got me thinking about some of the conventions involved in cuttings.

Depending on who you talk to, you should either cut the tops of your cuttings straight and the bottom at a slant...or vice versa.  The former makes the most sense to me since the pointy end will be easy to stick into a pot of soil.

Hardy kiwi buds

I usually don't bother with slanting one end of cuttings, but kiwi buds look upside down to me, and I could easily imagine myself putting them in a pot wrong-side-up.  That's the worst thing you can do when grafting or rooting --- stems can't handle being upside down and generally just die.  I always used to laugh when grafting books admonished me to be careful not to put the scionwood on upside down, but now that I've seen kiwi buds, I've started passing on the same warning!

Posted Fri Jan 3 07:38:17 2014 Tags:
making a flat Winter roosting area for our chickens

We've been having a problem lately with our chickens roosting in the nest box.

I think they like to sit on something they can crouch down on to keep warm in the Winter months, which is why we installed the shelf above their nesting box.

We also blocked up some of the holes for a more closed in area.

Posted Fri Jan 3 16:20:35 2014 Tags:
Lucy in the driveway"Have you thought about planting fruit trees and perennials around the border of your property. The part of your property you don't think you can get to do anything with for years, because of the projects you have going on so close to home. I was thinking of fruit trees and blackberry bushes. Also, straw berries. If they grow without your help, GREAT! If not, try a different spot for next year."
--- john

We've been getting a lot of good comments on the blog lately and I realized this one has actually been asked two or three times over the years, which probably means another dozen of you are silently wondering the same thing.  I have tried planting beyond our perimeter about half a dozen times, and each planting has failed.  Here's a quick rundown on reasons why in case you were thinking of trying it at home.

Baby apple treeThe first planting beyond the perimeter was when we set out our baby fruit trees before moving to the farm.  There was no perimeter.  Every one of these trees perished between not being taken care of during droughts and becoming deer dinners.

My next experiment came after we moved to the farm.  I planted several beds of strawberries in what is now the blueberry patch, at the extreme south end of our current perimeter.  At that time, that area was beyond the deer deterrents which kept deer (mostly) out of our main garden, so the results were predictable.  Bambi came and ate every strawberry plant into the ground.

I thought I'd learned my lesson, but then decided maybe I could get away with planting an Illinois everbearing mulberry tree outside our normal chicken pastures, in an area that we hope will eventually become a pasture extension.  This time, the killer wasn't deer; it was honeysuckle.  The vines swallowed the poor tree whole, and since I didn't pay any attention to it (past the perimeter, remember), I didn't disentangle the tree until too late.  Another $10 down the drain.

Fruit tree overrun with weeds

Stunted pear treeTwo years ago, I really wanted to add another pear tree to our homestead, but couldn't figure out where to fit it within our perimeter.  I'd read that pear trees are more able to handle wet feet than any other fruit tree, so I thought it might be able to survive down in the powerline cut, where at least the canopy is open.  I thought I was learning from my mistakes by erecting a little cage around the tree out of plastic trellis material to keep the deer out.  And I might have even dumped a few leaves on the ground as a rough mulch.

And that pear tree did survive.  The deer didn't eat it, although the honeysuckle vines tried.  But, two years later, the tree has only put out the tiny bit of new growth you see here.  I suspect that if I ever decide the powerline cut is part of our core homestead and bring that zone into line, I could plant another tree and it would quickly surpass this stunted pear.

You, on the other hand, might want to try outside-the-perimeter long as your circumstances are very different from ours.  If you have an established pasture or lawn area (so, no heavy weed pressure except from grass), you might get away with laying down a kill mulch, planting into it, and expecting a fruit tree to survive without care.  If you're experimenting with growing fruit trees from seed, your cost will be nothing, so the experiment will make more sense.  And if you don't have heavy deer pressure, everything becomes much simpler there too.  Sepp Holzer writes about his experiments in this type of situation in his book.

All of that said, I think there's also an argument to be made for keeping all of your energy close to home.  Small areas can yield huge amounts of food if you give the plants plenty of mulch and attention, and it might be better to focus on what you're going to notice every day rather than scattering your dreams across a large homestead.  That's the technique I plan to follow in the future...unless I absolutely need to put in another tree, that is, and can't find room anywhere else....

Posted Fri Jan 3 16:38:59 2014 Tags:
view as seen from outside looking in

My new Winter roosting improvement project didn't seem to help.

Chickens still slept in the nest box.

I might have to relocate the box, but not before trying some nest curtains.

Posted Sat Jan 4 15:28:35 2014 Tags:
Darned socks

"You won't run around in socked feet once you have to darn your own," predicted the friend of the family who was teaching the high-school me to sew.  But I never did have to darn my own socks because I prefer to go barefoot most of the time, which makes socks last ages.

Darning water bottle

But I finally wore big holes in the heels of the three pairs of soft, warm socks I've been wearing nonstop for the last two years, and I wasn't willing to let them go.  Time to learn to darn, darn it!


This isn't a darning tutorial --- if you want an excellent one, watch this video.  But I was happy to find that darning isn't rocket science.  I turned a sock inside out, slid it over my water bottle (since the darning egg is being used as a nest egg in the chicken coop), threaded a thick needle with thin yarn (thanks, Mom!), and got to work.  The idea seems to be to create a woven pattern across the hole (or incipient hole), so you make running stitches in one direction, then turn the sock ninety degrees and repeat in the other direction.  (That video will make my scanty description make much more sense.)  All told, it took about half an hour per sock to make the hole go away.

Darned heel

The test came when I donned my socks and took them for a walk.  Would the heel feel lumpy and rub?  Nope, in fact the darned area felt warm and perfect, just like the heel of a sock should.  Success!  Two pairs down and one to go....

Posted Sun Jan 5 00:00:00 2014 Tags:
fetching water to do dishes

It took a few minutes to break through the ice for some washing water.

Anna agreed to wash the dishes if I went up the hill for a bucket.

Posted Sun Jan 5 14:47:35 2014 Tags:

Ash mountainMy weather guru reports that Monday night is going to be an arctic outbreak in our area.  The weather forecast is currently showing a low of -3 to -5 Fahrenheit, which could easily be -10 here.  Similar events in recent history (January 1985, February 1994, and February 1996) achieved lows of -15 to -24 in Wise, which is usually a tiny bit colder than us, so maybe it would have been -10 to -19 here then.  No matter what the specific temperature, when it gets below 0, that's cold!

Breaking the ice What are we doing to prepare?  I plan to empty out the fridge root cellar just to play it safe, but that's about it.  Our water line and heated chicken waterer already froze when we hit a low of 8 on Friday night, and we're used to using backup systems there.  I did plug in a space heater inside to back up the wood stove on that cold night, and will do so again Monday.  And Mark talked me into letting our spoiled cats spend the night inside as well, blocking off the hallway so they can't wake me up demanding to be let out/fed/loved on in the middle of the night.

Wood fireIn the long run, I suspect the biggest effect of this arctic outbreak for us will be to ensure we have to find some snags to supplement our firewood supply.  We thought we had plenty of wood this year, but it was all lightweight and a bit damp from the wet summer, so a cold winter has caused us to burn through it awfully fast.  Luckily, last year's fallen oak is raised off the ground and probably has some relatively dry wood ripe for the picking.

I'm also a bit concerned about how our baby figs will fare during this exceptionally cold winter.  They're all wrapped up, though, so there's not much I can do except wait and hope.

How are you preparing for the arctic outbreak?  Stay warm and hope for clouds!

Posted Mon Jan 6 07:44:51 2014 Tags:

Life in the SoilLife in the Soil by James B. Nardi is one of those hidden gems that a publisher forgot to hype.  It reads like a companion book to Teaming with Microbes, showcasing the life just a little bit larger --- big enough for us to see with our naked eyes in most cases. 

The book includes some fascinating information about the roles of invertebrates (and some vertebrates) in soil building, cycling, and health, but the meat of the text is a field guide to the main types of critters you'll find in the dirt.  Each entry is illustrated with beautiful black-and-white drawings, and the author highlights something fascinating about each one.

I usually give away books after I read them, but this one merits a semi-permanent place on my bookshelf.  Stay tuned for a lunchtime series that will hit the highlights, but you might consider picking up a copy for yourself if you really want to open your eyes to life in the soil.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Jan 6 12:00:44 2014 Tags:
easy ice sculpture

It's been two years since I completed my first Appalachian ice sculpture.

Yesterday the mood struck again when Anna emptied out a frozen bucket.

A fun way to play in the cold when you have less than an inch of snow.

Posted Mon Jan 6 16:07:58 2014 Tags:

Frost patterns
I'm writing this post Monday at 4:30 pm and setting it to auto-post Tuesday morning just in case the power goes out.  As I type, it's 12 degrees outside and 54 inside --- time to stoke the stove and get that fire blazing!

Carrots and apples
The carrots and apples from the fridge root cellar are nestled down under damp towels in the kitchen.  I figure the water will keep them crispy, and will also humidify the dry winter air.

Cold quick hoops

Frozen sproutsMeanwhile, I decided to go ahead and pick the rest of the brussels sprouts rather than saving them to savor over the next couple of weeks.  I noticed some freeze damage even under the quick hoops after the 8 degree low, so I wouldn't be surprised if they all get nipped Monday night.  I did leave the smallest sprouts behind, though, as a gamble. 

This is the kind of weather that prompts Eliot Coleman to grow his winter crops under row covers inside unheated greenhouses.  I'm glad we only have to deal with short Arctic outbreaks and enjoy a moderate winter most of the time.

Posted Tue Jan 7 07:01:59 2014 Tags:

Feldspar weathers into clayThe beginning of Life in the Soil covers the abiotic (non-living) elements that create soil, generally at a rate of about an inch every 500 to 1,000  years.  The type of soil that will be formed in an area is influenced by the type of rocks involved, the topography of the site, climate, time, and living organisms.  Of these elements, the one I found most fascinating involved the chemical reactions that occur in rocks to create soil.

For example, I hadn't realized that clay and sand both have specific chemical formulas and are created when feldspar (an abundant mineral in many rocks) reacts with carbonic acid (formed from water and carbon dioxide).  All feldspars contain aluminum, oxygen, and silicon, and each also has one of the following constituents: potassium, calcium, sodium, and Soil horizonsbarium.  When carbonic acid (H2CO3) and potassium-based feldspar (2K(AlSi3O8)) react and spit out clay (Al2Si2O5(OH)4) and sand (4SiO2), potassium carbonate is also formed.  Perhaps this is why old soils are often excessively high in potassium?

Another fascinating tidbit pertains to soil horizons.  If you've done any reading about soil, you probably know that natural soils have a layer of partially-decomposed plant matter (the O layer), beneath which is rich top soil (the A layer), then a small, pale E layer out of which the organic matter, clay, and nutrients have leached, followed by a slightly darker B layer.  Nardi explained that the textbook scenario is really only seen clearly in coniferous forests, where toxic levels of iron and aluminum build up in the B layer and keep most roots and soil life out.  In deciduous forests, in contrast, living things tend to mix the layers up, especially if earthworms have been introduced.

Stay tuned for more on the soil "mixers" in tomorrow's post.  In the meantime, you might want to check out my ebook for tips on taking a soil sample and learning more about your soil texture.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Jan 7 12:02:23 2014 Tags:
Sinking creek with frozen layer on sub zero night

It got down to 3 below zero last night.

Anna put out a fresh chicken waterer and it was almost frozen solid by lunch.

A golden opportunity for us to drive in some supplies and biomass.

My feet are still thawing out from this afternoon's activities.

Posted Tue Jan 7 16:02:46 2014 Tags:

Watermelon SummerIf Mark's and my informative (I hope) blog posts have banked any social capital, I'd like to cash it today.  I'm going to ask you each for a favor that will cost you nothing except one minute of your time, but it's very important to me, so let me explain why first.

Despite glowing reviews, Watermelon Summer's launch has been much slower than that of my other ebooks.  I realized after the fact that my goal of reaching into a new genre to introduce mainstream readers to homesteading is a tougher sell than I'd at first thought because my core readers are non-mainstream enough that they don't really want to read a mainstream book.  Luckily, you can help me reach those mainstream readers today by following this link and "buying" a free copy of my book.

How will that help?  I use free periods to get my books into the public eye, which creates a buzz and then generally sucks in actual purchases once the free period is over.  The trouble is that it's easier to get into the top 100 (where strangers start to see my book) in non-fiction categories than in fiction.  To get into the top 100 free in the young-adult category, I need to give away about 2,500 copies, which is quite feasible --- Trailersteading has actually soared as high as being in the top 100 free on all of Amazon in the past, which meant I gave away many thousands of copies that day.  But it takes a concerted effort to get there.

Will you help Watermelon Summer reach out beyond the choir?  Buying a free copy is plenty of help, but if you want to go further, you can share this post on facebook (or on the social-networking site of your choice) or on your blog.  Maybe you could even tell a friend who enjoys young-adult books?  I estimate that if each person who sees this post simply bought a free copy, my book would soar to the top of its category overnight.  Thanks in advance for your help!

As a side note, I've started posting a monthly sum-up of my favorite indie Amazon ebooks over on my book blog, and several of those ebooks are free right now as well.  Stay tuned to that blog for more top picks in the months to come.

Posted Wed Jan 8 08:14:01 2014 Tags:

Crawdad chimneyIf I asked 100 gardeners what mixes soil if you don't bring in your plow, at least 99 of them would probably shout out "Earthworms!"  And while it's true that earthworms are vigorous soil mixers, Life in the Soil makes it clear that lots of other organisms, large and small, are also pulling their weight.

Sure, earthworms can eat their way ten feet deep into the soil, and they add calcium to everything that passes through their gut, resulting in very rich castings.  But did you know that areas with strong crayfish populations can see about a ton of subsoil brought up to the surface through the action of these crustaceans alone?  Subsoil often contains minerals that have leached out of the topsoil, so it's especially handy to elevate this deep earth to where plants can easily reach it.  Other invertebrates that move lots of earth long distances include ants and termites, both of which also carry plant matter underground and produce pockets of rich soil around their nests.

Then there are the looseners.  Even though we're not keen on Japanese beetles and June bugs, I have to admit that their grubs improve soil structure and fertility as they travel up and Miner beedown in the soil.  Ground-nesting bees and wasps like sweat bees, miner bees, and digger wasps all excavate burrows for their larvae to live in, and dung beetles fill their underground dens with rich balls of excrement.  And that's not even counting the burrowing snakes, lizards, and mammals who move even more earth around.

People email me quite often to ask how topdressed compost can make its way deeper into soil if we don't till, and how no-till soil can become light and fluffy.  Once they realize the rich diversity of life in no-till gardens, though, their question answers itself.  Don't plow, and the wildlife will do your job for you.

The Weekend Homesteader includes a primer on how to manage a no-till garden.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Jan 8 12:01:32 2014 Tags:
Cold weather hauling

We planned ahead by buying some plywood for the starplate coop roof before the cold spell hit.

After hauling in the lumber and chicken waterer boxes, I asked Anna what was top of her list.  Biomass was the obvious reply.

Eight bags of oak leaves will mulch the peach trees and hefty logs will add to the forest garden soil.

Lucy shadowed the truck for every trip.

Posted Wed Jan 8 15:53:44 2014 Tags:
Cold creek

Doesn't this picture just look cold?  This was 9 am Tuesday, when the temperature had warmed slightly, up to about -1 F.  The creek was starting to freeze over, and had risen about a foot due to (I assume) narrowing of the sinkhole opening from ice.

Upstream ice

Ice breakerFour hours later, if anything, there was more ice formation.  (The view above is from the opposite bank compared to the first photo.)  Mark had to get out there in hip waders to break through the ice and push icebergs out of the way so I could tiptoe across in my calf-high boots (and so the truck wouldn't bog down in frozen water).

Wet dog

We tried to keep Lucy out of the frigid water, but she wasn't interested in being coddled.  Here she is shaking out the damp after a swim across the creek.  The water soon froze into ice crystals in her fur.

Driving on ice

Those of you who haven't been to the farm in person might not realize how amazing the photo above is.  This is the old path of the creek, aka the alligator swamp, and the truck is rolling over the ice without cracking it.  That means there must be at least eighteen inches of solid ice under those wheels!

The high Tuesday was 15 degrees, but the sun was brilliant enough to cause some thawing.  By the time we finished three rounds of hauling, about 3:30 pm, the creek had gone back down to normal levels and some of the snow was gone.  And Mark and I were thrilled to have survived the cold adventure!

Posted Thu Jan 9 08:27:33 2014 Tags:
Homemade Berlese funnel

Beetle larvaIf this week's lunchtime series has made you want to learn more about life in the soil, there are several ways to see the cast of characters with your own eyes.  I tried out a homemade Berlese funnel and quickly rustled up a tiny spider and two beetle larvae, although I took the contraption apart after a couple of hours instead of letting it run the recommended five to seven days.  A Berlese funnel can be made out of any materials as long as it contains a bright light source on top, a funnel holding your soil, and a dark container below for critters to escape into.

Another option is the Baermann funnel, which is often used to sample nematodes, potworms, protozoa, and rotifers.  In this case, the soil is wrapped in cheesecloth and placed in a corked funnel, which is then filled with water.  Once you remove the cork, the water (and critters) are drained out into the jar below.  Baermann funnels tend to turn up smaller organisms than the Berlese funnel does, Wolf spiderso you'll want to check out the results under a microscope.

If you're more interested in big invertebrates, like beetles, why not make a pitfall trap?  Dig a hole in the forest large enough to insert a mason jar into, then elevate a rock or board just far enough above the opening so that an insect can easily crawl underneath.  Pitfall traps are usually considered catch-and-release traps, so you'll want to check it at least once a day so your prey doesn't perish.

Of course, most critters are napping right now during our cold winter, but you're likely to find life hopping around in the warmth of your compost pile.  Or maybe in the deep litter of your chicken coop?  I'd love to see your results if you start hunting down the life in the soil.

Trailersteading is my best-selling ebook about living simply in a mobile home.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Jan 9 12:00:19 2014 Tags:
mark Screnching
Circular saw blade replacement tool tip

Found out today that a small chainsaw scrench which is a combination of a wrench and a screwdriver works nicely when replacing our circular saw blade.

Posted Thu Jan 9 16:04:58 2014 Tags:
Winter scene

I always like to write a recap of how we weathered power outages or other extreme events right after the fact so we can slowly work our way toward doing better next time.  The recent arctic outburst really wasn't so bad as these things go, but I did learn a few things.

1. Now I know why people like rugs and carpets!  I detest them and tore the carpets out of our trailer as soon as we got our mobile home.  However, our feet were frigid during the cold spell.  If this type of temperature became a fact of life in our area, we'd put more effort into insulating and skirting the underside of the trailer, and we might consider throw rugs on the floor.  We'll do the insulating eventually anyway, but it would be top of the list if we regularly hit negative digits!

2. Our wood stove isn't cut out for heating below 0 F.  I chose a tiny wood stove for the trailer because it's more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly to select a stove that's the right size for your space than to buy a larger stove and damp it down.  However, I had to keep the wood stove roaring and still turn on a space heater to keep the trailer up to 60 degrees during days in the low teens.  On the other hand, the space heater accidentally went off during the coldest night and it still stayed (barely) above freezing inside, so it's good to know that in a pinch, the stove could keep our canned goods from freezing even when damped down for ten hours.

Ice crystals

3. It's not the end of the world to be outside below 0.  Since we never get wind, there wasn't any wind chill to deal with, and I was able to do my chores as usual.  I did go inside to warm up my hands between feeding and watering the tractored chickens and the cooped chickens, and I curtailed Lucy's morning walk.

4. We're used to frozen water.  In the blogosphere, I heard a lot of complaining from people whose pipes were frozen and who didn't have any water.  Between the five gallons of drinking water I had stored up in the kitchen, another five gallons of drinking water in the fridge root cellar, and wash water Mark could haul of the tank, it was no big deal to live without running water.  I'd say we could go for about a week to ten days with these stores, then would have to replenish our drinking water supply.

5. The fridge root cellar can't handle the cold.  Even with the space heater inside, temperatures dropped down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit, so I was glad I'd moved the contents of the cellar into the kitchen.  I suspect we could have tweaked the arrangement of the space heater to keep the fridge above freezing, though, if we'd had to.

Leaf delivery

6. Driving supplies in during the cold is a mixed bag.  It was great to get three truckloads of this and that back to our core homestead, but it was so cold that when the truck drove up out of the ford, water immediately froze on the slope rather than running back down.  Now it's like a skating rink walking up and down that part of the driveway.  Hopefully the ice will thaw soon....

How did you weather the cold?  Are there things you want to change on your homestead before the next arctic outburst comes through?

Posted Fri Jan 10 08:12:00 2014 Tags:
Scarlet-bordered assassin bug

Life in the Soil is one of those rare books so chock-full of information that I can't really hit even the highlights in a lunchtime series.  So today's post includes some tidbits too good to skip, but which don't fit into a cohesive post.

  • Soil beetleThe most common insects in soil are usually a combination of ants, mites, springtails, beetles, and fly larvae, with the winner depending on the habitat.  You might not have heard of springtails, but chances are you've seen them if you live in a climate with cold winters.  These tiny insects look like black dots hopping around on top of melting snow, having come up out of the ground to escape the inundation.
  • Not all snails and slugs are grazers of your crops --- many eat decomposing plant matter, or even each other.  And snail and slug populations are kept in check by lots of predators in the soil, including ground beetles, daddy long legs, glowworms, flies, and birds.  Some glowworms (the larvae of fireflies) even track snails and slugs by following left-behind slime!
  • How to make a fly trapDung beetles and flies are in constant competition for high-quality herbivore dung.  (Carnivore dung just isn't as sought after.)  So dung beetles hedge their bets by carrying around tiny mites.  As soon as the dung beetle hits a new cow pie, the mites jump down and go in search of fly larvae, which they kill and eat.  Once the cow pie is used up, the mites hop back on board their beetle partners to ride to the next patch of dung.  (This makes me wonder if you could cut down on fly populations in pastures by somehow encouraging the mites and dung beetles?)
  • Some fungus individuals cover 1,500 acres and are 1,000 to 10,000 years old.

Is your appetite whetted?  There are many other fascinating tidbits in Nardi's book, so this is definitely one you'll want to check out on your own.

One of the top ways to encourage soil life is by using no-till cover crops.  Learn more in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Jan 10 12:02:42 2014 Tags:
cutting pvc pipe to fit in the trunk at Lowes parking lot

We took the day off to celebrate my birthday.

Lunch at Red Lobster and a matinee put a big smile on my face.

I now take the Milwaukee M12 shear cutter to town so we can fit 10 foot long sections of PVC pipe in the car without sticking out the window.

Posted Fri Jan 10 17:52:49 2014 Tags:
Boarding up windows

During the negotiation phase, one of Mark's selling points for buying a hot water heater was energy savings.  While that sounds counterintuitive, I could see his logic.  Since we previously heated water in pots on top of the electric stove, it made sense that a water heater (turned on for an hour a day) could do the job more efficiently.  But did it?

Electric usageI don't really know for sure, but our electric bills have suggested Mark was right.  Despite a December that averaged two degrees colder than in 2012, we used precisely the same number of kilowatt-hours per day in 2012 and 2013.  (The cold is relevant because Mark heats the East Wing with electric space heaters unless it's really frigid, so colder weather means we use more juice.)

Boarding up a windowOf course, there are other factors at play.  We've been nibbling away at closing in the windows in the East Wing all through December, and I'll bet that extra insulation cut Mark's heat use.

The great thing about committing to staying in one spot for the rest of your life is that every little project slowly accumulates on top of the last, and tiny steps eventually make progress.  Maybe in ten years, our insulation levels will be so high that our winter electric bill is no higher than summer.  At least that's something to work toward.

Posted Sat Jan 11 08:28:47 2014 Tags:

Sunbeam space heater on a nice shelf What kind of space heater do I use to heat my small room?

I like the Sunbeam model. The thermostat does a good job at holding a temperature without turning on and off every minute like the cheaper made ones.

The indicator light that tells you it's on was easy to mute by taking the cover off and covering the small LED with electrical tape. I like a dark room with zero light noise at night. The new version was upgraded with a digital display.

Posted Sat Jan 11 14:23:38 2014 Tags:
Anna Kale salad
Kale salad

If you're like us, you've been eating kale nearly daily for the last two or three months, and have another two or three months of the same ahead.  Sure, the green is absolutely delectable sauted with a little balsamic vinegar, but at some point you're itching for a raw winter vegetable straight from the January garden.  That's when you pull out this winter kale salad.

Squeezed kale

The innovative part of this recipe came from Taproot Magazine.  An article there explained how to use a bit of salt and elbow grease to wilt down your kale without heat.  First, remove the big midribs, then slice the leaves up into small segments.  Sprinkle a very small amount of salt on top (maybe 1/8 tsp to serve two), then use your hands to squeeze and mush the kale for two solid minutes.  The kale will keep its delicious, fresh taste, but will be much more easily eaten raw.

Kale salad dressing

You can top the kale salad with whatever you want, but this is our current favorite.  First, I grate a very small carrot (about 1/4 of a store-bought carrot size) into the kale, then I mix up a homemade salad dressing out of toasted poppy seeds, peach syrup that was supposed to be jam but didn't gel, some lemon juice to cut the sweet, a bit of olive oil, and a dash of pepper.  I usually don't like salad dressings, but this one really works with the kale and carrots.  Top it all off with a special store-bought treat --- avocados --- and you have a vegetable side that will disappear very, very quickly.  Enjoy!

Posted Sun Jan 12 08:05:36 2014 Tags:
Inflection Day

Inflection Day is our first Walden-Effect-created holiday.  Anna did the math and decided January 13 is, on average, the coldest day of the year in our area.  It's all uphill from here!

We looked at the weather and decided to observe the holiday one day early
with a visit to Bays Mountain's park and planetarium.  We climbed a few hills, took in the watery exhibits, and peered at a partly frozen lake.  Thanks for sharing the special day with us, Adrianne and Joey!

Posted Sun Jan 12 17:35:18 2014 Tags:

Tree morphogenesisI found David Lloyd-Jones Tree Morphogenesis Book 1 Reduction Via Thinning as an Amazon freebie, and was soon drawn into the book despite (or perhaps because of) its density.  The author has spent the last 28 years as an arborist, pruning huge trees in a city setting in London.  In the process, he developed his own theories about how trees grow and how we can prune them in ways that promote their natural growth rather than hinder it.

The author's thesis is that the shape of wild trees is determined by what he calls growth phase shifts.  What's that?  Well, imagine a young tree: due to apical dominance (the highest bud suppressing everyone else's growth), young trees tend to shoot straight up if left alone.  At a certain point, though, something damages that apical bud --- maybe wind, a spring frost, or a midsummer drought.  This is the growth phase shift, when side buds get a chance to grow for a short while, until a new apical bud takes over.  Each growth phase shift results in a complication in the tree's growth form, whether that means a double trunk or simply a larger branch that is able to compete with the central leader for a short time.

Tree to be prunedFrom an arborist's point of view, growth phase shifts are important because they tend to create acutely-angled branch forks when two branches compete for the role of central leader.  In contrast, when a tree is growing straight up, branches tend to come off at a more shallow angle since the upward growth of side branches is being suppressed by the central bud.  As orchardists know, acute branch forks are weaker, and Lloyd-Jones goes through a long and fascinating hypothetical account of how evolution may have favored these acute branch angles because those branches snap off during heavy winds rather than taking down the whole tree.

While most of you, like me, probably aren't planning on becoming arborists any time soon, homesteaders spend a lot of time thinking about trees, whether that's fruit trees, trees you're harvesting for firewood, or a woodlot you're managing to create prime lumber.  And even though Lloyd-Jones doesn't speak to those topics specifically, understanding how trees grow will help us all do a better job managing those working trees on our homestead.  Since the price is only $2.99 even if you don't catch the book on sale, you don't have much to lose from giving it a shot.

Posted Mon Jan 13 07:11:54 2014 Tags:
Happy winter chickens

Winter is one of the toughest times to keep your hens healthy, but entries in our chicken photo contest prove it can be done well.

You've got until the end of the week to enter, and anyone can vote on their favorite entry on the blog or on facebook.

What are your chickens doing during this cold winter?

Posted Mon Jan 13 14:54:33 2014 Tags:
Reflected sunrise

I've been playing with different methods of garden rotation over the last few years.  The easy way to do this is to plant in zones --- all of the crucifers go in zone A in 2013, in zone B in 2014, in zone C in 2015, and then back to zone A in 2016.  My long-term plan at the moment is to rotate tomatoes using this method, moving them through the sunniest, sprinkler-free spots: the forest garden, the back garden, and the area around the gully.

But for the rest of the garden, I prefer to keep things mixed up, with each bed being different from its neighbors.  That keeps the bugs confused and diseases isolated, and also helps me hedge my bets for different kinds of weather.  However, since I also take into account corn pollination, winter sun, summer shade, ease of quick-hoop erection, water-loggedness (I know that's not a word....), and depth of soil, along with planting history, the annual rotation takes quite a while to figure out.

Garden rotation spreadsheet

My current method uses a spreadsheet like the one shown above.  I've considered hiring someone to turn my method into an app, but since I've never used a smart phone, I doubt that'll happen anytime soon.  Instead, I just manually hunt through until I find a bed that hasn't been planted with the family I'm trying to find room for within the last three years, then bold that line to remind myself it's been taken.

I generally plan out as much of the spring garden as I can until I get stuck, then run a second round of rotation planning later in the year.  This year, it seems like I planted too much rye to allow me to set out my early May beds, but these things usually work out due to failed early plantings, so I'm not worried.

Sprouting peas

The final step is to pick through my seed box and figure out what I need to order.  This year, I'm running a germination test on old peas (which are clearly fine), parsley, and peppers; am definitely ordering lettuce, basil, onions, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and corn; and have old-but-fine or saved seeds for everything else.

The photo at the top of this post is a reflected sunrise --- color in the west instead of the east on a cloudy morning.  I'm not quite sure why that seemed relevant to garden planning, but it did.  Insert some poetic line here about looking back and looking ahead all at once.

Posted Tue Jan 14 07:41:39 2014 Tags:

close up of the incredible heating machineWhen it gets below freezing the Sunbeam space heater can only keep my room a little below 60 degrees. That's when I use the DeLonghi oil filled radiator heater.

We've got a more modern version of this one made by Honeywell, but its got digital controls which means it shuts off if the power flickers.

The oil filled sections do hold heat for a while, but from my calculations that heat is gone within 15 minutes.

Posted Tue Jan 14 16:15:12 2014 Tags:

Several years ago, Mark came down with Lyme disease.  Local doctors didn't believe he had it since the disease wasn't supposed to have hit our area yet, but my sister had recently finished med school and her mind was wide open to possibilities.  She felt Mark's swollen knee and told him he had one of two things --- Lyme disease or gout.  It wasn't gout.

Months of hard-core antibiotics later, Mark was healed, and he still says my sister saved his life.  Unfortunately, the antibiotics came with a price.  Mark's stomach was already less durable than mine, presumably because he wasn't breastfed* and ate less dirt as a kid, but post-Lyme-disease, his intestinal flora was even easier to wipe out.

Rinsing kefir

Mark has suffered through two tooth problems since then, each of which was treated with mandatory rounds of antibiotics, and after each, his digestion dipped back down into sub-par territory.  I dosed him with yogurt, which didn't seem to help, and with Accu Flora Pro-Biotic Acidophilus, which was handy but not the long-term silver bullet.

Fermenting kefirWhen we saw my doctor sister at Thanksgiving, she took one look at Mark and knew he needed some intestinal support.  So she prescribed kefir, which she drinks daily and swears by.  Another friend kindly sent me a starter culture, which I rinsed and started brewing last night on top of the fridge.

Mark and I are both borderline lactose-intolerant, so I'm not 100% certain kefir will be the ticket.  I'm also a little concerned it might not brew well in our cool house, and my Puritan tendencies make me a little leery of the alcohol content (up to 2%).  Mark's more concerned that he won't like the taste since he's not a fan of yogurt, but I suspect I can doctor the kefir so that it's Mark friendly.

Despite our hesitations, we're both excited about the possibility of a natural solution to Mark's poor digestion.  Maybe kefir as an adult is nearly as good as being breastfed as an infant?

* Mark's mom was relatively young when she had Mark, and she bowed to authority.  At the time, doctors were telling mothers that their breast milk wasn't as nutritious as formula, and my mother-in-law wanted the best for her baby!

Posted Wed Jan 15 08:15:47 2014 Tags:
Black tree

Black sheep to Americans or white crow to Russians.  Neither is quite like its neighbors.

Perhaps every homesteader is a black tree in the gray woods?

Posted Wed Jan 15 15:12:05 2014 Tags:

Low water tankWe use a gravity system to feed wash water into the house from a tank on the hill.  The tank is filled by a pump in the creek, turned on manually as needed.

The line between the creek and the tank isn't buried, so we can only fill the tank during relatively warm weather.  Every winter, we hit a period like this recent spell when we can't fill the tank for weeks at a time and water levels in the tank get very low.  Every winter, we resolve to keep the tank at least halfway filled to prevent the problem.  And each summer and fall, we let down our guard and forget.

This year, we've decided to try a different method.  Every Monday, if the line is thawed, we'll top off the tank.  Having a weekly system seems more likely to succeed than depending on one of us noticing the tank is below halfway full.

Our new method will have to wait until a warm spell finally lets the pump run, though.
  In the meantime, the tank is getting lower and lower, and it looks like we might actually run out of wash water this year.  Luckily, we can pump drinking water from the well to fill in the gap, if necessary, but that will bypass Mark's new delight --- the hot water heater.  I guess that's an incentive to stay more on top of the tank-filling protocol.

Posted Thu Jan 16 08:07:35 2014 Tags:
light shining through barn to pile of straw bales

Sometimes our barn feels like a cathedral on cold mornings like this one.

Posted Thu Jan 16 16:05:34 2014 Tags:
Basket of tomatoes"What are your favorite varietals, the veggies you MUST plant every year?  You should do a lunch time series on all the types that work best in our region!"
--- Emily

I kept thinking I'd posted about this before, but then I realized that even if I did post three years ago, chances are my answer would be different now.  (Plus, January is a good time for garden porn.)  So, without further ado, here are the varieties I always plant (in order of planting date):

Lettuce --- Black-seeded Simpson.  Somewhat boring, green leaf lettuce, but it just works.

Breadseed poppy flowerOnion --- Pontiac F1.  This is the first year our onions have really worked, and only our second year growing Pontiac, so I'm not 100% resolved to never try anything else.  But for now, Pontiac makes me happy.

Poppy --- Hungarian Breadseed.  Not that I've grown any other kind of poppyseeds.  And I'm not really 100% sure that I'm really growing Hungarian Breadseed --- the picture on the package has a blue flower and these flowers are closer to white.  But they make good poppyseeds and I keep saving some for future years' gardens.

Broccoli --- Packman Hybrid.  Although, I'm not actually planting this variety this year since Johnny's doesn't carry it and I think I'm sticking to one seed order for the spring planting.  But when I order from two places, Packman is the best broccoli.

Swiss Chard --- Fordhook Giant.  This is the most freeze-resistant chard.

Tangerine pimento pepperPepper --- Tangerine Pimento.  I grow this pepper because I'm too lazy to start peppers inside many years, and it's fast enough to turn orange before frost.

Cucumber --- Harmonie F1.  We love these cucumbers because they don't die as quickly as other cucumber plants in our troublesome climate, they are awesome for fresh eating, and they're very prolific.  Diamont Hybrid was just as good, but was replaced by Harmonie.  I'm working on dehybridizing this variety since hybrid cucumber seeds are expensive (and, as you can see, the companies change them quickly).

Watermelon --- Sugar Baby.  This is starting to sound like a theme, but I grow Sugar Baby because it doesn't get diseases as badly as some other watermelons and the fruits are small so they ripen before the vines die.  In other words, I'm a lazy gardener and Sugar Baby works.

Masai beansGreen bean --- Masai.  These tiny green beans are the tastiest possible, and are a staple for both summer and winter (frozen).

Tomatoes --- Martino's Roma and Yellow Roma for sauce and drying and soup, Crazy and Blondkopfchen for nibbling, Stupice for early and dependable slicing.  These are all chosen primarily for blight-resistance.

Okra --- Clemson Spineless.  We haven't tried a lot of different varieties, but this one is good, so I stuck to it.

Sweet potatoes --- Beauregard.  Same as for okra (and many of the other vegetables listed above).  When you save your own seeds (or make your own slips), if a vegetable variety works, you have no reason to change it.  No, I don't tempt myself by reading seed catalogs.

Squash --- Butternuts and Yellow Crookneck.  They survive the borers and are delicious.

Kale --- Improved Dwarf Siberian and Red Russian.  These win for winter flavor and frost hardiness.

Basket of garlicAsian greens --- Tatsoi and Tokyo Bekana.  These aren't as much staple greens as kale is, but they are fun to have around.

Garlic --- Music, Italian Softneck, and Silverwhite Silverskin.  These are troopers, but I'm not convinced other varieties are any less good.

Anything I didn't list above, we either don't grow, or I haven't settled on a solid favorite variety (or I missed it while browsing my spreadsheet).  Vegetables in the undecided-variety category that come to mind are cabbage, carrots, and corn.

What varieties do you swear by in the garden?

Posted Fri Jan 17 07:59:14 2014 Tags:
update on the winter chicken tractor

We've had three hens in a chicken tractor all Winter so far.

They seem happy and healthy, laying an average of 2 eggs a day between them.

Anna and I had a small debate on the number of hens back in the Fall. I thought 3 would be pushing it and maybe cramp their style, but she was sure they would be fine and I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Turns out two is company but three is a party.

Posted Fri Jan 17 16:24:43 2014 Tags:
Kale under quick hoops

Nipped kaleIt takes a while for the effects of a hard freeze to become evident, but it's been long enough since it hit -3 F that I can tell what is and isn't going to make it.  Under the quick hoops, the kale was barely influenced, but kale outside the quick hoops saw a bit of damage.  The latter will probably recover, as long as we don't get another really cold spell, but uncovered mustard greens won't --- they froze to death.  (I think of mustard as a fall and early winter green, though, so I wasn't counting on those plants to get us through the winter.  In fact, I was a bit surprised they lasted so long.)

Nipped parsleyParsley usually provides tasty morsels in our winter soups and tuna salads, collected fresh all year from its uncovered garden bed.  Unfortunately, the arctic outbreak slowed that gravy train down, since all of the outer parsley leaves died back.  I'm not positive, but am hopeful we'll get a bit more growth out of the 2013 plants before the new parsley bed I plant at the end of March picks up steam.

The cold nipped back nearly all of the chickweed growing in bare spots in the garden.  While this sounds like a good thing --- fewer weeds to pull in the spring --- our other main winter weed (purple dead nettle) is still thriving.  Chickens like chickweed, but not dead nettle, so they consider this a net loss for our homestead.

Of course, I won't know the full extent of the damage until spring, when I find out if any of our perennials perished.  I'm hopeful they're all sound asleep, though, and that the cold spell was just a distant dream.

How did your garden fare?

Posted Sat Jan 18 07:42:25 2014 Tags:
Kayla spreading leaves as mulch in the middle of Winter

What did we do with all of those bags of birthday leaves?

A good chunk of them got spread as mulch during a warm spell on Friday.

Funny how a fruit tree looks a little happier with a thick layer of mulch at its base.

Posted Sat Jan 18 15:01:51 2014 Tags:
Moving earth

I needed more dirt to raise up the planting area in front of the trailer, and Mark knew just where that earth should come from.  "The entrance to the goat path is awfully hard to walk on, because it's such a narrow area between fence and bank," he said.  "Can you move some of that dirt over?"

With Kayla's help, I sure could!  I think I had the easy job, digging in the soft earth, although I tried to keep the wheelbarrow only partly filled so as not to wear out my intrepid helper.  Kayla says we'll have to rename the goat path now since ungoat-like people will be able to walk on it, but I think we'll stick to its current appellation --- the earthen steps are still pretty tricky.

The real problem with projects like this is that bare earth looks so plantable that I'm likely to put some seeds there far earlier than I should.  Maybe that spot is sunny enough for some early spring peas?

Posted Sun Jan 19 08:26:44 2014 Tags:

close up of me using DeWalt impact driver on exterior coveringIt's been over a year since I first started using the DeWalt impact driver and I still think it's an awesome tool.

The LED work light is handy when working in dark corners and the petite size is easier to fit into small spaces while at the same time decreasing wrist fatigue with its light weight.

We still use the DeWalt hammer drill for big holes, but most fastener driving gets done with the impact driver.

Posted Sun Jan 19 14:56:40 2014 Tags:
Thy Hands Hath Provided cookbook

One of our readers sent me a copy of her cookbook to review: Thy Hand Hath Provided: Recipes and Preserving by Jane Bryan.  This beautifully put-together book is full of time-tested recipes that fit well with the homestead lifestyle.  I do have to admit that many are too home-cooking and grain-based for Mark's and my current palate, but others are spot on.  In fact, I'm excerpting a grape juice recipe below because my father asked me just last summer how to make clear grape juice, and another friend also sent me a question about how to make grape juice recently:

Unsweetened (Straight) Concord Grape Juice
(inspired by Joy)

ripe concord grapes, removed from stems and rinsed

Homesteading cookbookPlace all grapes in a pot suited to hold the amount you have.  Bring them to a boil (don't add water --- they make plenty of juice) while mashing them up a bit using a potato masher.  Simmer for 20 minutes until the grapes are very soft.

Transfer the cooked grapes in batches to a food mill.  Here you have two choices.  Turning the food mill the normal direction will give you a very thick grape juice that would compare to extra-pulp orange juice.  It can be diluted, but you will still have some "pulp-y" texture to your juice.  If you don't mind this, by all means, make the juice this way.  You'll use more of the grapes and end up with more juice. 

Your second choices (the one we choose) is to run the food mill the opposite direction (as if you're trying to skim out the mill).  This scrapes the grapes through, giving you mostly juice with a little bit of "pulp."

Chill the juice (what comes through the mill) and drink or freeze.  You can add water to thin it if you like or use it in its potent form.

To Can Straight Juice (per The Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving): Cover and chill the juice for 24 to 48 hours to allow sediment (a.k.a. pulp) to settle.  Ladle or pour the juice into a large saucepan, being careful not to disturb the pulp on the bottom or strain the juice through a sieve.  Bring the juice to an almost boil (190 degrees F, 88 degrees C) for 5 minutes.  Ladle the hot juice into hot jars, leaving adequate headspace.  Top with hot lids and screw rings on finger-tip tight.  Place jars in canner of boiling water (jars should be covered).  Process quart jars for 15 minutes.  Remove canner lid and boil an additional 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

If this recipe sparks your interest, you may want to check out the entire book.  It contains recipes for meals, sides, desserts, drinks, sauces, and preserving by canning and freezing.  There's also a handy page of conversions (tablespoons to cups, pecks to bushels, etc.), pan sizes, and substitutions (eggs to flaxseed, sour cream to yogurt, etc.) in the back.  Thanks so much for sharing, Jane!

Posted Mon Jan 20 07:41:39 2014 Tags:

Modern SimplicityIf you've been lurking for a while and wishing you could afford to buy more of my ebooks, now's your chance to make that wish a reality.  I've bundled all five books in the best-selling Modern Simplicity series together and reduced the price by 36%!  If you haven't bought any books in the series, that's obviously a good deal, but it should save you something even if you've already bought one or possibly even two of the ebooks previously.

The bundle is an experiment, and I'm not 100% committed to keeping it around.  I'll wait about a month and see whether it helps my books reach more people and fills our coffers faster, then will decide whether to unpublish the ebook.  Which is all a long way of saying --- if the bundle looks interesting, download now, because it might not be around forever.

On the other hand, I'll have Trailersteading on sale at its old price of 99 cents next week, so be sure to factor that into your calculations.  I generally only share information about when to catch books free or on sale with people on our email list (and sometimes with facebook friends, if I remember) since I don't want to bore my blog readers with too much marketing.  So if you want to be sure to catch all of the free and sale days, now's your chance to subscribe to my book email list using the sidebar at

Thanks for reading!  And stay tuned --- Bug Theory for Gardeners is coming down the pike in a couple of weeks and I've got some other interesting ebooks up my sleeve after that.  Finally, thanks a million for all of your help skyrocketing Watermelon Summer into the top 100 in its category, where it's stayed ever since that free period!  Your kind reviews and shares made a huge difference, and I'm very grateful.

Posted Mon Jan 20 12:00:26 2014 Tags:
testing the creek pump during the winter freeze

This is our creek pump acting like a fancy park water fountain.

We disconnected it to confirm it was still working. Part of the pipe is frozen.

Anna dreamed up the obvious alternative. Pump water from the well into the tank.

It just took a few minutes to switch the hose from drinking to washing water. Not a day too soon because the tank was getting close to the bottom. We didn't get to fill  it before the well level went down to the pump, but it should be enough to get us through till the weather gets above freezing.

Posted Mon Jan 20 16:15:09 2014 Tags:

KefirNearly a week after our kefir arrived, I have some new thoughts (and a bit of research) to share about the fermented food.  Mostly, I was curious about how kefir differs from the fermented milk product I'm most familiar with --- yogurt.

Our kefir sulked for a day, then gelled up its first cup of whole milk (from the grocery store) in 48 hours.  After that, it's been gelling up a cup every day, despite our cold trailer (down to 40 or so at night).  That experience alone is a major selling point for kefir over yogurt for the low-tech --- kefir bacteria and fungi will keep working anywhere between 39 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while yogurt need a special warming container to hold the critters at 110 degrees.

How about flavor?  To my untrained taste buds, kefir and yogurt taste identical.  Yes, kefir is runnier than store-bought yogurt, but when I went through a phase of making yogurt at home, it ended up at about the same consistency as this homemade kefir, so no big difference there.  Unfortunately, Mark's not a fan of the kefir/yogurt taste, so I have to doctor his dose with cocoa and honey.  My favorite way to eat kefir is the same as my favorite way of eating yogurt --- swirling in some unsweetened, homemade applesauce (see below).

While researching the differences between kefir and yogurt, I discovered one tidbit that should help even those of you who aren't likely to make your own fermented milk products.  The beneficial bacteria in both foods are found primarily in the whey (the clear, runny part).  So, if you buy Greek yogurt (what we've been buying), you get a higher protein content but less of the good stuff because the whey has been strained off.  Ditto if you pour off the whey that tends to separate out of plain store-bought yogurt --- stir it back in instead for best health benefits.

Kefir and applesauceSo, what are the beneficial critters in kefir and yogurt?  Yogurt only contains bacteria, and usually you get just one or two strains of Acidophilus sp. and Streptococcus sp. in your yogurt.  Kefir is a symbiotic arrangement between bacteria (up to thirty species including Lactobacillus spp., Enterococcus durans, Lactococcus lactis, Leuconostoc spp., Acetobacter spp., and Streptococcus spp.) and fungi.  The latter are perhaps the real selling point of kefir over yogurt since these yeasts don't pass through your gut, instead colonizing your intestinal linings where they help you resist invasions of E. coli and intestinal parasites.  So eating kefir can cause long-term positive effects in your bowels, in contrast to yogurt, which will only influence your digestion for about 24 hours after ingestion.

Which brings me to another point --- how long to culture kefir.  I've been culturing just until the milk starts to goop up, but further reading suggests I might get more benefit out of culturing the kefir longer.  Over time, the microflora of the milk changes, with the dominant critters giving way to others in a steady progression of Lactococci, then Lactobacilli, next Leuconostoc, then yeasts, and finally Acetobacter.  I need to do more reading on the benefits of each kind of microorganism and on how to tell visually when the kefir has reached each stage, but from my first round of research, it sounds like reaching the yeast stage would be most beneficial.

More on my experiments in later posts, but I'll close with a few more tidbits I stumbled across during my research.  Did you know that you can use the whey from kefir to jump-start lactofermented vegetables, reducing or eliminating the need to add salt?  And that kefir grains grow 5 to 10% daily, so I should have a starter culture to share with one lucky family member within a month.  (Put in your orders today!)

Phew, that's a long post, but I'm always excited to learn more when we add new livestock to the farm.

Posted Tue Jan 21 08:00:28 2014 Tags:
harvesting firewood from a downed oak tree

We spent the bulk of this afternoon harvesting firewood from a downed oak tree.

The plan is to use this cold spell to drive a couple truck loads back to the shed.

It was a hike from the tree to our driveway, so I cut up sections we could carry.

Posted Tue Jan 21 15:38:38 2014 Tags:
Preheating the garden

It's hard to believe with the snow flying and temperatures plummeting, but Monday was a beautiful day in the low 50s and Kayla and I took the opportunity to prep a lettuce bed.  Our earliest planting of the year is always lettuce under quick hoops at the beginning of February, and sometimes I just plant and erect the quick hoops all at once.  However, this year is on the cold side, so I decided to put up the quick hoops a couple of weeks early to give the ground time to preheatLettuce will germinate at 35 degrees Fahrenheit, but prefers the ground be at least 40 degrees.

The bees from both hives were out buzzing around, and I had to run away a couple of times when an overzealous guard decided I was too close to her hive.  The lettuce bed is in the sunniest part of the core homestead, which just happens to be only about fifteen feet from a bee hive and directly in their flight path.  I didn't mind the buzz-bys, though, and was just glad to see activity from both sets of bees.

Posted Wed Jan 22 07:29:46 2014 Tags:
day 2 of our 2014 firewood harvest

7 above zero was enough to freeze up our driveway for an afternoon of hauling.

The sun was a nice treat, but it didn't seem to have much of a warming effect.

Posted Wed Jan 22 15:48:31 2014 Tags:

Grain-free lasagnaAre you off grains but still crave the delicious taste of lasagna?  This recipe includes all homegrown ingredients except the bacon, cheese, salt, and pepper, and you could make the bacon and cheese yourself if you're more hard-core than us.

  • 1 cup of dried tomatoes
  • 1 pound of bacon (some of the grease used and some discarded)
  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 3 onions (or 2 if you want it less onion-y)
  • 1 pound of chicken breasts
  • swiss or mozarella cheese, plus parmesan and cheddar (about half a pound total)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Soak the dried tomatoes in about a quart of water for at least two hours, until they're mostly plump.  Discard the water, chop the tomatoes into small pieces, and set aside.

Meanwhile, bake the bacon by laying the slices on a tray in a 350 degree oven, flipping them over when the bottoms are lightly brown, then removing the bacon from the grease once slices are fully cooked.  Leave the oven on when you're done to preheat for a later step.

Pour off part of the bacon grease into a skillet and use it to saute the onions (chopped into small pieces) and chicken breasts (chopped into bite-size chunks).  You'll want to cook the onions for a while (about five minutes) before adding the chicken so both ingredients are done at the same time.  I add the salt and pepper at this stage, being sure to add about twice as much as I'd usually want for the onions and chicken since the seasonings will be diluted later by being mixed with the other ingredients.

Butternut lasagnaWhile the onions and chicken cook, slice the skin off a butternut, then remove the seeds and cut the flesh into cubes.  Put the butternut cubes into a 9X12 baking dish, then break the cooked bacon into little pieces to mix into the squash.  Add the chopped, rehydrated tomatoes and the cooked onions and chicken.  Top it all off with cheese --- I'm lazy and just layer slices of the cheddar and swiss or mozarella over the meat and vegetables, but you can grate the cheese.  Either way, sprinkle grated parmesan on top.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, until the cheese is turning brown on top.  Cool for 15 minutes so you don't burn your tongue.  Serves 9 to 12.

Those of you who realized this is really the same recipe (in my head at least) as the cabbage skillet pizza I posted about a month or so ago get a gold star!  Because bacon's the same as pepperoni (highly-seasoned, fatty meat), dried tomatoes are the same as tomato sauce (tomato taste), and butternuts are the same as cabbage (sweet, carb-rich vegetable), right?

Posted Thu Jan 23 07:43:54 2014 Tags:
setting up deer deterrent for garden protection with Lucy in background

We've been having a renegade deer nibbling our garden these past few nights.

Step 1 was to relocate our best deer deterrent near the area she's been frequenting.

We also have plans to upgrade the fence near our main gate.

Posted Thu Jan 23 15:23:40 2014 Tags:

Arkansas Black applesIf you're a frugivore like me and prefer fresh fruit, trying out (and then planting) storage apples that will go the distance makes a lot of sense.  To that end, we bought some Winesaps, Stayman Winesaps, and Arkansas Black apples last fall, put them in the fridge root cellar, and waited to see what happened.

The first thing I noticed is that the old-fashioned Winesaps tasted so good, they didn't last out the first month.  That's not a comment on their lack of storage capabilities, but on their excellent flavor!  The Stayman Winesaps were my next-favorite in flavor when we first got them, but those apples started to go mealy inside partway into December, and I cooked up the last ones into applesauce this week before they rotted.

Making applesauceArkansas Blacks were a bit of a surprise.  When we first bought them, the apples tasted a bit insipid (but crisp).  As they aged in the fridge root cellar, though, the flavor changed, becoming more complex and taking on a hint of banana.  (I'd always wondered if the apple variety Winter Banana really tastes like a banana, and now I'm guessing it does.)  Meanwhile, the Arkansas Black apples have yet to lose any crispness, even under home storage conditions, so around the end of December, Arkansas Black became my favored nibble over the Stayman Winesaps.

In case you're curious about other apples that will last at least until the new year, the chart below, excerpted from various sources, suggests some popular choices.  I haven't cross-referenced this against my list of disease-resistant apples, though, so be sure to check there before putting in one of these varieties and planning on it being a low-work addition to the orchard.

Keeps until
Arkansas Black
Late October
Ashmead's Kernel
Mid October
Late October
Clearwater Gold
Late October
Late September
Mid October
Golden Delicious
Late September
Golden Russet
Early October
Gold Rush
Mid October
Grime's Golden
Late September
Honey Crisp
Early September
Hudson's Golden Gem
Early October
Ida Red
Early October
Early September
Mammoth Black Twig
Early October
Mollie's Delicious
Late August
Early October
Late September
Early October
Late September
Stayman Winesap
Early October
Early October
Mid October
Virginia Gold
Early October
Mid October
January to February
(depending on variety)

I'd be curious to hear from others who have stocked up on apples in the fall and watched to see which ones made it through the winter.  Which varieties do you find last best under home storage conditions?

Posted Fri Jan 24 07:53:38 2014 Tags:
mark Bartering
hickory log loaded into the truck

Our neighbor Frankie traded us lunch and this huge hickory log in exchange for helping him run some of his lines for an upcoming ABC pilot he's trying out for.

I'll cut the log in half and then split it's way too big for our Jotul F 602 stove.

Posted Fri Jan 24 16:02:27 2014 Tags:

It only got one degree colder this time around than during the previous cold spell, but the outside world seems to have hit another level of frozen.  I think the issue is that the ground never thawed (in most places) from last time, so we were starting out at a considerably colder point.  I barely managed to keep the trailer above freezing overnight, and the creek (as you'll see in the next photo) actually came close to forming a solid skim on top.

Frozen creek

FireWe're settling in for the longer haul with this cold spell too.  While helping our movie-star neighbor with an audition tape, we filled up jugs of drinking water, knowing our water lines probably wouldn't thaw before the four gallons we had on hand ran out.

The oak firewood we've been cutting this week turns out to be damper than I'd like, but not too much wetter than the walnut that spent all (wet) summer in the shed.  The photo to the left shows a dry hunk of box-elder (on top, flaming), a supposedly-seasoned hunk of walnut (smoldering, right), and a damp round of oak.  The last will burn, but only on a really hot fire, and I wonder how much heat we use up driving off the moisture, compared to how much heat we get back from the wood.  We may decide to simply stockpile the oak for next year and think about another solution for late February firewood.  Or maybe we'll get lucky and this cold midwinter will give way to a warm early spring?

Posted Sat Jan 25 08:33:36 2014 Tags:
Lucy on the porch with snow falling

Everybody here decided to spend most of the day staying warm.

Even in the snow Lucy still likes to jump off her heated kennel pad for the occasional midday milk bone.

Posted Sat Jan 25 15:06:31 2014 Tags:

Lactation graphI don't usually post found facts from the internet here, but this study was just too good not to share.  Scientists studied the lactation records from 1.5 million cows, and discovered that a cow's milk production depends on whether her first child is a girl or a boy.  The cow produces 2.7% more milk if her first calf is female.

Ed Yong goes on to say:

"The first pregnancy is crucial.  It kicks off the development of the cow’s mammary glands, and creates a baseline that affects all later pregnancies."

In other words, it makes a big difference for the entirety of the dairy cow's life whether her firstborn is a son or daughter.  And that doesn't have to be left up to chance.  Yong continues:

"If they wanted to, dairy managers could ensure that most of the calves they breed are females, but they’d need to separate semen by sex to do so.  In the past, some people have argued that this isn’t cost-effective, but it might be worth it if it leads to a 2.7 percent bump in milk production."

On the backyard level, where dairy-cow owners are probably breeding their own replacement milk cows, it's worth knowing that a heifer whose firstborn is a son isn't going to be your most productive cow.  Maybe that's the one to sell, and you should try again with her daughter?

Posted Sun Jan 26 08:11:42 2014 Tags:
mark Icebreaker
large puddle that freezes during winter

Sometimes I wonder if these large chunks of ice I drive the ATV through are big and sharp enough to puncture a tire while breaking a layer several inches thick?

Posted Sun Jan 26 16:15:25 2014 Tags:
Snow and sun

Quite a difference between Saturday (left photos) and Sunday (right photos).  Yesterday was warm enough to melt a lot of the snow and to tempt me to sit outside for a while, but our waterline remained frozen.

Squirrel tracks

The snow did provide a good opportunity to figure out where the squirrels are hanging out.  I closed my trap a couple of weeks ago because it required daily checking and I was tired of making the trek for an empty trap.  I need more data to know for sure, but I think the issue is that our squirrels spend most of their time higher on the hills, at least at this time of year.  The jury's still out on whether I'll decide it's worth climbing the hill every day in hopes of trapping a squirrel.

Posted Mon Jan 27 07:39:06 2014 Tags:

Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement SalamandersAs I mentioned over on Wetknee last week, I've decided to team up with a few select authors whose writings complement my own.  I figure we'll all win --- the new authors will get a boost by being publicized on our site and email list and in the back of my books, my books will get a boost by being publicized in the back of their books, and our loyal readers will get a boost by hearing about quality ebooks (and when they're free or on sale).

Our first author is Aimee Easterling, who you can read more about here.  Today, we're launching her first short-story collection.  Even though it may be outside your primary genre, those of you who enjoyed Watermelon Summer will probably love Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement Salamanders because of its vivid portrayals of the natural world and a simple-living ethic.  Here's the blurb:

"Come home for Easter," Mom said, "I need you to clean out the basement."  Perhaps she'd known the task would attract me as the fetid odor of Skunk Cabbage blossoms attracts carrion-hunting flies.

So begins the first of three urban-fantasy short stories.  From the first page, Aimee Easterling's affinity for the natural world makes settings sparkle even before Fae enter the scene.  Soon the protagonists have to rescue errant children from fairyland, outwit a botanical wordsmith, and overcome a slumbering salamander.

Will they be clever enough to outwit the Fae?

Stay tuned for excerpts from the first short story this week, or buy the whole ebook for 99 cents.  If you don't mind waiting, you can also pick up the book for free on Friday --- stay tuned.  Thanks for reading, and double thanks if you find the time to leave a review on Amazon!  Your early reviews tempt strangers to take a chance on our books and are much appreciated.

This post is part of our Aimee Easterling Short Stories lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Jan 27 12:00:54 2014 Tags:
making a fence taller with rope and chicken wire

We've got a hen flying over a section of fence to hide her eggs again.


Our solution was to extend that fence with some 5 foot tall chicken wire. We used nylon rope to connect it to the bottom fence and got it up in well under an hour.

Posted Mon Jan 27 16:10:58 2014 Tags:
Steamed kale"I keep meaning to ask 'why are you off grains?' It is hard to be self reliant in growing and harvesting them, so those of us with a self sufficiency mind set might do well to wean ourselves off them for that reason alone. I am off gluten containing grains- wheat, rye, and barley. But I would miss oats. And I do miss good homemade bread."
--- Deb

I've gotten this question a few times in the last month, so I thought it deserved a blog post.  I've been refraining from posting much about diet for two reasons.  First and foremost, people seem to have dietary beliefs that they defend with near-religious fervor, and I don't enjoy debates based on gut feelings rather than on facts.  Second, our own dietary beliefs are halfway built on gut feelings rather than on facts since the scientific data on health is far from comprehensive and is sometimes outright contradictory.  So I don't really feel comfortable saying "This is the way to eat" to anyone other than my poor, long-suffering husband.

But you asked about our diet, so I'll tell.  Mark and I don't follow any particular dietary plan precisely, but our eating habits moderately match the paleo plan.  A few years ago, we started experimenting with decreasing our grain consumption as a way of increasing the percent protein in our food, and we quickly felt perkier.  We also decreased our consumption of starch-heavy vegetables like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter Pastured lambssquash, although I consider those a better way to get your carbs than the vitamin-empty grains, so we still eat some.  Meanwhile, we boosted our consumption of meat, un-starchy vegetables, fat from pastured animals (especially chicken broth), and fruits.  (Even though fruit probably isn't any better for you than starchy carbs, it's better for you than the sweet desserts it somewhat replaces in our diets.)

One reason I don't feel comfortable pushing our diet on others is because most people probably don't have access to the quality protein sources we do.  Our eggs are mostly from our own pastured chickens, our chicken meat the same, we buy pastured lamb, and kill deer for supplementary red meat.  Good health depends on the right proportion of omega-3s to omega-6s, so if your only option is grain-fed supermarket meat, you might be better off following the more standard medical advice of limiting your meat consumption.  I'm also not entirely sure that there's enough data to prove that there aren't long-term negative health effects from eating large amounts of meats even if they're pastured, but my gut feeling is that, for us at least, the short-term positive promotes healthier living (more exercise, better moods) that give long-term benefits.

Then there's the moral issue of eating so high on the food chain.  Meat: A Benign Extravagance is an interesting look at this debate, and I tend to think that if we raise our own (even if, like chickens, they get a lot of store-bought feed), meat is ethically neutral.  Others feel very differently.

Which is all a long way of explaining that our diet matches our farm, our bodies, and our morals, but might not match yours.  If you're curious, here's what we consume, in descending order of (believed) healthiness.  (We try to eat as much as we can from the top of the list.)

  • Pastured chicken brothSuperfoods (garlic, kale, pastured chicken broth)
  • Most home-grown vegetables
  • Pastured eggs
  • Pastured meat
  • Home-grown fruits
  • Kefir
  • Canned tuna
  • Store-bought nuts
  • Starchy, home-grown vegetables (winter squash, sweet potatoes)
  • Store-bought fruit
  • Store-bought meat (presumably grain-fed)
  • Store-bought cheese and other dairy products (I would consider this much healthier if it was raw, pastured dairy, but we don't have a source at the moment)
  • Store-bought peanut butter
  • Store-bought oats
  • Store-bought flour
  • Store-bought sugar

Phew!  I suspect that's more than you really wanted to know.  Hopefully it won't provoke the debate I'm afraid of, but I am curious to hear from others who have made informed but possibly anti-establishment dietary choices.

Posted Tue Jan 28 08:01:27 2014 Tags:

Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement SalamandersThere was little to recommend the long drive home.  "Come home for Easter," Mom had said, "I need you to clean out the basement."  Perhaps she'd known the task would attract me as the fetid odor of Skunk Cabbage blossoms attracts carrion-hunting flies.

The dark, moldering depths of the basement were below the house but accessible only through the outdoors.  The dirt floor was more dust than dirt.  Inside were boxes of mildewed books, discarded garments, garden tools, ice skates—who knew what I'd find down there.

When I was younger, the basement had been a cool refuge from the heat of Tennessee summers.  I would step outside and the humid air would surround me like the fog it almost was.  But the basement was a rare refuge.  Only on the hottest days would I trade grass for dust, sun for the dim, uncovered bulb with its dangling metal bead string.  Mostly, the basement was Mom's domain.

Oh, we'd keep things there—winter clothes would be engulfed in black plastic trash bags and would descend to the depths where Mom stashed them away in some odd corner, stacked on wooden pallets to be off the dirt.  Bushel boxes of apples and oranges were carried down by grudging children to chill in the cool, bowls of the fruit carried back up to the house even more grudgingly.

Only Mom would go there to putter, to shift the bags and boxes.  "Do you have a copy of The Plague?" I'd say, "I need it for school."  "Of course," she'd answer.  "Do you need it right now?"  Invariably, the answer would be yes, and down she'd go to rummage, returning an hour or more later, dirt-smudged but triumphant.  The book would release its basement mold slowly, missing the dark.

I hope you enjoyed this first segment of Salamander in the Basement.  Stay tuned for the next installment tomorrow, or splurge 99 cents on the whole story here.

This post is part of our Aimee Easterling Short Stories lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Jan 28 12:01:05 2014 Tags:
work gloves and how they fit

How do you get the best fit for a leather work glove?

My new method is to buy a size too small. Medium is a very tight fit for me, but it only took a few sessions of chopping wood for them to stretch just enough to form a custom fit on each finger.

I'm thinking this might also make the gloves last longer. The first place to usually show wear on the size large I bought in the past was on the fingers that didn't have a snug fit.

Posted Tue Jan 28 15:49:45 2014 Tags:
Cutting a log in half

Mark cut our gifted hickory log in half and then split it up into a full wheelbarrow-load of firewood.  Our movie-star neighbor told me that he'd cut down the tree just last week, but that it had been standing dead in the forest for a long time before that, so the wood was bone dry.  He wasn't kidding!  The hickory wood was good enough to act as kindling, but also held a flame well --- a great boon for our current cold spell.  (It's much snowier at the moment than in the photo above, which was taken Monday.)

We've had varying amounts of success with cutting dead trees and using the wood immediately, and I'm starting to understand the differences.  The oak we were cutting up a week or so ago had only been dead for a year and was reclining instead of standing vertically, both of which meant the wood is likely to stay wetter.  On the other hand, a standing dead tree that is starting to lose its bark is probably dry enough to cut and burn now.  Live and learn!  I've got my eye on an elm that perished over the summer not far from our core homestead, but it looks like that will be firewood insurance around 2016.

Posted Wed Jan 29 07:58:10 2014 Tags:

Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement SalamandersOnce or twice we would get hints of the basement's malevolence.  A cat would disappear for hours, only to be discovered at meal time meowing at the inside of the locked door.  And I would dream about the basement sometimes, about the walk down the hill outside the house to the raised doorway, so hard to lift a lawn mower through.  In my dream I'd go down the hill and step off the stone as I've done a thousand times...and not hit bottom.  Falling, I'd wake.  But everyone dreams of falling sometimes.

"I can't come down for Easter," I told my mother, standing at an open window and eying a phoebe newly flown north from Florida.  It bobbed its tail on the branch just outside my window and I strengthened my resolve.  "The wildflowers will be at their peak, the frogs are already calling.  Bird migration..." my voice trailed off.  I thought of the basement—Mom's mysterious domain—and I breathed out gently through my nose.  "Can I come earlier?  Next week before spring gets too far along?"

Five days later I was home.  "I can only stay until Monday," I told her.  Only four days.  I wouldn't be able to clean the entire basement in that time, but at least I could make a start at it, shift a few boxes to make room for more, throw out this and that.

I descended that first afternoon, but the piles were daunting and precarious to my tired hands' touch.  After a bag of winter clothes fell on me from behind, I gave it up and spent the evening frogging instead.  We drove to a nearby pond and shone my flashlight on wood frogs, their neck pouches ballooning as they floated and called from the pond's center.  The basement was forgotten.

I hope you enjoyed this second segment of Salamander in the Basement.  Stay tuned for the next installment tomorrow, or splurge 99 cents on the whole story here.

This post is part of our Aimee Easterling Short Stories lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Jan 29 12:01:10 2014 Tags:
securing the top portion of a fence with nylon rope

How is the taller chicken fence supported in the middle?

I considered putting up another cedar post in the middle, but decided we could get away with threading nylon rope through the top and securing it nice and tight from the barn to the post.

Posted Wed Jan 29 15:43:14 2014 Tags:
Snowy hillside

I'm sure you're all sick of hearing about the weather, but cold continues to keep my interest, especially when I wake up to -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  That's frigid enough that I can only barely do my morning chores, and that the chickens don't even want to leave their warm roosts for fresh food and water.  I skip Lucy's walk, and only go out to see how frozen the creek is in the afternoon, when the sun has brought temperatures up to 22.

Creek crossing icebergs

We don't go outside to work when it's this cold, but there are projects that require our attention.  The most pressing is drinking water.  That line usually stays thawed even when the wash-water line freezes, but the drinking-water line froze up a week ago Monday.  Since then, we've been going through our stored water, and finally came to an end, just one day before Mom promised me five more cleaned-out milk jugs full of water.

Melted snow

The solution?  I tried melting snow, which is feasible, if time-consuming.  The three inches that fell Tuesday night are so fluffy, though, that each gallon only melts down into a single cup of water.  Instead, Mark had the bright idea of ladling out the gallon of water that settled in the bottom of our drinking water tank --- we could have poured it, but then would have had to let the sediment settle out again.

After tiding over our thirst, we turned back to sedentary tasks.  The great thing about a cold, snowy winter is that it gives me plenty of guilt-free time to write!

Posted Thu Jan 30 05:48:36 2014 Tags:

Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement Salamanders"You don't have to go down there today," Mom urged at breakfast.  I frowned at her over a slice of cold apple pie.  What had I come home for if not to tackle the laden basement?

"We could go out in the country instead.  See what frogs are there...." she tempted.

"This afternoon, maybe," I replied, attracted by the reprise of the cold-blooded singers but unwilling to forgo my task.  "I want to see what I can get done this morning."

Back in the basement, I decided to go about it scientifically.  A box for Goodwill donations, another for trash.  A box for Mom to go through, full of lone wooden clogs, cracked doll heads, and other items with less than obvious personal significance.  Boxes for books and fabric and yarn.  My own old boxes I sifted through ferociously, pulling out old paperwork and odds and ends to feed the trash box.

The job was easy at first.  Lone socks hit the trash box, empty jars and bottles of all sorts were set aside to be recycled.  I held up an old pair of my underpants with holes large enough to pass my fist through, and decided that Mom had plenty of rags without this ignoble addition.

But as time passed, the dim basement light began to get to me and the hoarding instinct trickled in.  What lovely cloth!, I thought, spreading a sparkling bolt of fabric between outstretched hands.  Surely I'll use that some day....

Shocked by my own thoughts, I dropped the fabric to the dust of the floor.  All of those empty shampoo bottles could come in handy some day too, I berated myself.  When pigs fly!

The cloth safely stowed in the Goodwill box, I clambered over the raised lip of the door and squinted into the sunlight.  Once my eyes adjusted and my head felt clearer, I headed for the house.

"Alright, Mom, I'm ready for a break!" I called.  "We can go as soon as I grab my binoculars."

I hope you enjoyed this third segment of Salamander in the Basement.  Stay tuned for the next installment tomorrow, or splurge 99 cents on the whole story here.

This post is part of our Aimee Easterling Short Stories lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Jan 30 12:01:09 2014 Tags:
back up power supply for modem and router

We lost power this morning at 5:30am.

How did we still get the blog out on time?

The above CyberPower CP600 uninterruptible power supply unit has our modem and router plugged into it. When the power went off it switched to its internal battery which can run both items for over an hour.

Posted Thu Jan 30 16:45:13 2014 Tags:
Early farm photo

Thousand-gallon tank"Sometimes I feel like we're moving backwards!" I complained to Mark on Monday.  From time to time, I'm guilty of what Mark calls stinking thinking, especially when a farm problem I thought we'd licked raises its ugly head again.  In this case, I was responding to a wily chicken flying into our core homestead, something that was never an issue until last fall, and which I thought we'd since dealt with.  But, in typical drama-queen fashion, one hen incursion can quickly make me think the whole farm is devolving back into the mass of thorn bushes we originally moved into.

Mark props me up well when I go down the wrong mental pathways, but the real solution is to look back at photos from six years ago, before we even started our blog.  During my most recent photo-therapy session, I stumbled across these fun photos from the day when Mark talked me into splurging on a thousand-gallon tank we'd found on Craigslist.  I was dubious about the price tag, but was quick to help as we rolled it up the hill to its current location.  That tank has since made life so much easier!  Except when the ground is frozen solid, there's no more carrying water on our agendas.

Young vegetable garden

HomesteadOr how about these photos of our young homestead, when we only had one garden patch (pure shade in the winter), hadn't learned about quick hoops, and didn't have a single porch to lounge on?  Even I can see we've come a long way since then.

Hudkleberry in the doghouse

Okay, Mark, you're right --- our homestead looks better every year!  Now, if only we could train the orneriness out of Huckleberry....

Posted Fri Jan 31 07:35:28 2014 Tags:

Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement SalamandersFriday morning, I could almost feel the basement pulling at me.  I drove boxes to the Goodwill and forced Mom to sort through mementos and books.  As we labored, the basement was still, tamed either by my ruthless disposal of its goods or by Mom's familiar presence.

After an hour, though, Mom disappeared.  "I can hear that the washing machine stopped," she observed.  "I'd better hang up those pants before they wrinkle.  Don't you need a break?"

"No thanks," I called as she clambered out.  A sudden breeze whipped the door closed behind her, and as if in echo, the bookcase behind me creaked.  I turned to find it tilting precariously, a box of books slowly inching its way toward me.

"Stop it!" I demanded, shoving the box back into place and nudging the bookcase erect.  "It's almost as if the place is haunted," I muttered under my breath.

Half an hour later I had worked my way up under what would have been the eaves if the basement had been an attic.  Here, the ground sloped toward the ceiling so that I had to walk crouched over for fear of grazing my head on nail ends sticking through from the floor above.  In this shallow work space, I made some small headway, organizing Mason jars and labeling boxes of Christmas tree ornaments.

At last, I stood, a box of discards in my arms, and straightened too far.  My head banged painfully against the floor joists, making me swear and drop back into a crouch so I could feel through my thick hair for blood.

"He doesna like it when you take his things, lassie," came a voice from behind me, and my head spun around to take in a most unusual sight.  Perched atop a wicker picnic basket in the corner was what can only be described as a leprechaun—a small, cheery, red-bearded man dressed solely in green and decked out with four-leafed clovers.  I blinked, but the image did not fade and I was forced to conclude the man was not a result of my recent head-banging.

"What are you doing here?" or "Who are you?" would have been more scientific responses to this intruder into my basement, but I found myself saying, instead, "You can drop the accent.  Leprechauns don't live in dirt basements.  What are you—a gnome?  A dwarf?"

I hope you enjoyed this fourth segment of Salamander in the Basement.  If you'd like to keep reading, the ebook is free on Amazon today, and you can also email me today to receive a free pdf copy if you'd prefer.  Thanks for reading!

This post is part of our Aimee Easterling Short Stories lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Jan 31 12:00:31 2014 Tags:
underground greenhouse picture

We've had good luck extending the growing season with our quick hoops.

If we keep moving towards a mini Ice Age Dean Steward's
cattle panel greenhouse with the cinder block basement might be a good direction to consider.

Seems like it could also incorporate some additional diy geothermal energy to keep things from freezing in the Winter and maybe cooler in the peak of Summer.

Posted Fri Jan 31 15:54:32 2014 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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