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

archives for 02/2014

Feb 2014

Kefir grainsMany of you have written in to sing the praises of kefir, but others have asked how to get started.  Luckily, Brandy is overflowing in milk kefir grains at the moment, and she's willing to mail a starter culture (about two tablespoons of grains, enough to culture a pint right away, a $50 value) to two lucky winners next week.  To sweeten the pot, I'm going to throw in a paperback copy of Lollipops, Garlic, and Basement Salamanders and a Walden Effect t-shirt for each winner.  (These will come in a separate envelope, so you'll get two jolts of homesteading happiness if you win!)

How do you enter?  I've decided to try out a rafflecopter giveaway.  At the moment, what we really want to push is for our loyal readers to follow this link to Amazon, bookmark the page, and use it when you make your usual orders.  We'll get a small cut of each order you place through that link, which will allow us to mail out care packages like this.  (In fact, Mark wants to get in the habit of having some homesteading goodies to share every month, but that will depend on how well the Amazon experiment goes.)

Click on the relevant boxes below to enter!  Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the giveaway!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Sat Feb 1 07:58:22 2014 Tags:
ATV water jug carry

What's the best way to secure 8 jugs of water to the back of an ATV?

Thread a flat bungee cord through the handles and secure each end.

Posted Sat Feb 1 14:42:38 2014 Tags:
Anna Imbolc
Winter camping

If you're sick of winter, today's the day to celebrate.  In some traditional cultures, the February cross-quarter isn't just a time to watch groundhogs, it's considered the first day of spring!  Countries that are now part of the United Kingdom used to celebrate today as Imbolc, referring to the pregnancy of sheep.  Some customs that could still be relevant involve lighting candles or fires to represent the increasing warmth, eating butter and milk to celebrate the birth of farm animals, and divining the weather.

Coleman tentDivining the weather?  Yep --- Groundhog's Day probably derived from the belief that a supernatural hag gathers her firewood on Imbolc to stay warm for the rest of the winter.  If it's going to be an extended winter, she needs Imbolc to be warm and sunny so she can bring in lots of wood.  That's why if the groundhog (or snake or badger, depending on who you talk to) sees its shadow, you're in for more cold weather.

Another tradition involves holy wells (any small water source with healing folklore attached to it).  Imbolc was considered a good time to visit these holy wells, leaving offerings, using the water to bless things, and walking sunwise around the well.

I preemptively celebrated on Saturday by setting up my new tent on top of Beech Hill and basking in the sun.  The jury's still out on which other celebrations we'll come up with today.

Posted Sun Feb 2 08:13:05 2014 Tags:
the ice thickness illustrated with photo

This post is to document how thick the tank ice is. 8 inches.

Last night was warm and all it took to break through was the bottom of the bucket, but on most days of this January it took a few minutes chipping away at it with the spud bar.

Maybe after collecting a few decades of this data on Imbolc day it will prove to be some sort of indicator on how much more below freezing weather we can expect for the rest of the Winter?

I'm going to take a wild guess and say years with ice thicker than 5 inches on Imbolc day would most likely equal a more mild February and March just because Mother Nature likes to be mysterious when she can.

Posted Sun Feb 2 15:41:56 2014 Tags:
Guard dog

Upgrading one section of fence and plugging in the deer deterrent seems to have been sufficient to nip last month's deer incursion in the bud.  It's hard to say how much Lucy helps with these problems --- I do sometimes catch her on the game camera barking at the boundaries, but I've also seen deer in the yard with Lucy sound asleep and not noticing.

Deer carcass

One of these days I'll write an ebook on the topic, but for now, here's a rundown on the utility of various deer-deterrent techniques.  We've tried everything on this list, and I've organized your options from most to least effective.  I hope the summary helps those of you with high deer pressure.  (Just so you know how high our pressure is --- one neighbor killed 18 deer last fall, I suspect the other neighbor got at least half a dozen, I got 1, Lucy got or found 1, and there are still deer everywhere.)

  • Fences --- Moats, especially, are multi-purpose, relatively low-cost ways to keep deer out.  A taller, more solid fence would obviously work even better, but would cost many times more (and wouldn't double as a chicken pasture!).
  • Deer deterrents --- Mark's deer deterrents are my favorite of the ones I've used, although they wouldn't fly in suburbia.  You really need at least four of these deterrents per acre (probably more, and moved every few weeks) for total protection, but the deterrents gave us perhaps 75% protection even before we erected fences.  Other scare-based deterrents we've used have been worthless for large gardens.
  • Anti-deer coversSpot covers --- As a short-term fix while getting a more permanent solution in line, plastic trellis material over especially tasty beds (like strawberries) does work.  Similarly, I've had good luck using one fencepost and some trellis material to make a cage around young trees that are outside our perimeter.
  • Hunting --- This is really only effective if you're willing to kill deer out of season and to fire at any animals you see in your yard.  Deer are creatures of habit, and I suspect that when we have a repeated incursion, it's the same individuals coming in over and over, so killing that problem deer can make a difference.  You can get a kill permit for shooting deer in your garden out of season, but the permit we got only lasted a short time and didn't feel worth the hassle.
  • Dogs --- Their utility really depends on the dog.  As I mentioned above, Lucy is sweet, but probably only keeps deer out 15% of the time since she naps most nights and deer are most active in the dark.
  • Sprays, soap, etc. --- These are completely useless in our climate.  If you have one prize plant and don't live in rainy climate, this might work better for you, but you have to reapply after each rain on all plants you want protected.  Meanwhile, the local standbys of tying smelly bars of soap to a tree or pouring cheap cologne on the ground are completely worthless as well.

Why am I posting about keeping deer out of the garden at the beginning of February when nothing's growing?  This is the time to figure out your campaign for the year, because if a deer gets used to coming into your yard in the winter, it's going to be triply hard to keep it out in the summer.  That's why we ramp up our defenses immediately at the slightest incursion.  Good luck!

Posted Mon Feb 3 07:20:46 2014 Tags:

The World Until YesterdayIn The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond compares traditional societies with the more-mainstream modern culture in an effort to answer the question posed by the subtitle --- "What can we learn from traditional societies?"  Diamond draws upon his extensive experience with the people of New Guinea (many of whom had no contact with Western society until 1931), along with data from other researchers about hunter-gatherer groups around the world, to reach wide-ranging conclusions about how traditional people interacted, what they ate, and how they lived.

In the process, Diamond doesn't sugar-coat the reality of traditional societies, admitting that warfare, infanticide, and many other aspects of these cultures are things we're glad to be rid of.  However, he does suggest other features of traditional societies that we can selectively incorporate into our own culture to improve our lives.

The book is a bit hit or miss, with some chapters stating the seemingly obvious, while others delve deep into fascinating topics I'd never considered.  It's also data heavy, perhaps because the author's Guns, Germs, and Steel opened Diamond up to wide-spread criticism from historians.  What I only realized after reading this later book, though, is that Diamond is an anthropologist, not a historian, so his conclusions are more about broader issues of the human experience than they are about factual histories.

Later posts in this week's lunchtime series are going to suggest homesteading-related implications of Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday.  However, I'll skip over discussing about two-thirds of the book, either because I don't feel like I have the know-how to rehash certain assertions (like his parenting tips), or because I don't want to open an un-homesteading-related can of worms (for example, about Diamond's analysis of the purposes of religion).  Which is a long way of saying --- if what you read here sounds interesting, this is one book you'll want to delve into more deeply on your own.

This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Feb 3 12:00:45 2014 Tags:
what killed our chicken last night and how to guess

We lost one of our White Leghorn hens to a predator last night.

It may have been a raccoon.

What exactly killed our chicken might remain a mystery, but the link has a list of questions that helps in making an educated guess on the predator's identity.

Posted Mon Feb 3 15:45:58 2014 Tags:
Early spring gardening

A cold winter is proof that we need to plan our spring planting schedule by soil temperature, not by the calendar.  For example, my garden spreadsheet says it's time to seed lettuce under a quick hoop and start onions in a flat inside.  But, although the latter will be feasible once I thaw the stump dirt I hacked out of a tree in the woods, the former needs to wait.  Despite preheating the lettuce bed, my thermometer is still reading below freezing just beneath the surface there.  The beautiful weekend just past only managed about a quarter-inch thaw. 

Posted Tue Feb 4 07:50:34 2014 Tags:

Peruvian potato farmerModern-day homesteaders try to grow a lot of our own food, but we know we can always head to the grocery store if a crop fails.  Most members of traditional societies, though, would be faced with starvation if they didn't find ways to hedge their bets.  Diamond presented a slew of methods these traditional hunter-gatherers and farmers used to ensure they always had food to eat, and some of these techniques could be mimicked by modern homesteaders.

My favorite example came from the Peruvian Andes, where farmers scattered
small garden plots across several miles.  Each farmer owned an average of 17 fields, each about 250 square feet in size, so the farmers were gardening a tenth of an acre spread across many tiny plots.  To modern farmers, this method seems very inefficient because the Peruvian farmers spent a lot of their time walking back and forth between these little plots.  However, even though the traditional farmers produced lower average yields than they would if they'd just made one big garden, the many plots in different areas evened out variations in yield due to weather.  As a result, farmers always managed to grow enough to survive and were never faced with starvation even during bad years.

Cow herders in the AlpsA similar technique involves moving seasonally.  For example,
farmers in the Alps gather together in the valleys for the winter then disperse across the mountaintops during the spring and summer.  On the homestead scale, I'd love to one day have an orchard on a ridge top that's more likely to miss late spring frosts.

Other methods that traditional societies use to deal with unpredictable food sources are less relevant to the modern homesteader.  We probably don't want to share all of our food with neighbors to even out the supply (especially because we can now just dry, freeze, or can excess for later).  Gorging ourselves in the summer so we can live off body fat during lean times probably won't go into fashion in America anytime soon, either.  But many homesteaders do use the traditional method of "storing" excess produce by feeding it to livestock, then eating the pigs or other animals in the fall or winter.

Yet another response to seasonal food shortages is to expand your diet.  When times are hard, people are willing to eat foods that aren't as tasty or that need special processing to leach out poisons (such as tannin-rich acorns).  Modern homesteaders take a step in this direction when they learn to love winter kale instead of craving hydroponic tomatoes during the cold season.

Stay tuned for more lessons we can learn from traditional societies in tomorrow's post.

This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Feb 4 12:01:08 2014 Tags:
space heater used to thaw frozen water line

These small space heaters have a message printed in capital letters warning against using anywhere but an indoor setting.

It only took a couple of hours of unauthorized space heating focused on the unburied section to thaw out our wash waterline.

Posted Tue Feb 4 16:13:08 2014 Tags:

Sterilizing a seedling flatLast spring, I had trouble for the first time with damping off.  This fungal disease is evident when seemingly healthy seedlings die near where their stems meet the ground.  When you're itching for the first seedlings of the year to push forth their greenery, damping off can be very traumatic for the gardener.  (Okay, maybe that's just me.)

Since I was using the same stump dirt as in previous years, I felt that the issue last year might have been problematic fungi colonizing my old seed-starting flats.  Sure, I could have bought new flats, but I thought it would be easier (and definitely cheaper) to simply soak the ones I have in bleach water for about half an hour.  After that, I filled up the flats and seeded my onions, then made a control flat out of a rotisserie-chicken container.  (Rotisserie chickens seldom come home with us, but we had a long day in the big city last week and I was too exhausted to cook, so Mark bought one as a rare treat.)

Damping off experiment

Hopefully I won't see any damping off at all, but if I see it in the store-bought flats but not in the chicken flat, I'll know I was right about the flats being the problem (and wrong about the bleach water curing it).  On the other hand, if I see damping off in all the flats, I'll know the stump dirt is the problem and will have to consider one of the mainstream cures --- either buying real potting soil or sterilizing my stump dirt in the oven.  I like to think the bacteria and fungi in my unsterilized potting soil are good for baby seedlings, but I could be wrong.

Other possible ways to deal with damping off include tweaking the environment and using home-made sprays.  The fungi involved like cool, damp conditions, so if you can warm things up (maybe with a heating pad under the flats) and keep watering to a minimum, you might be able to whip the bad microorganisms even if they're present.  Some gardeners even make chamomile or garlic tea and pour it over their potting soil to protect the seedlings.  I'll let you know if I have to resort to any of those extremes, and if so, which ones work.  In the meantime, feel free to chime in about your battles with damping off in the comments.

Posted Wed Feb 5 07:16:35 2014 Tags:

LadderThe World Until Yesterday includes an entire chapter on constructive paranoia --- the tendency of members of traditional societies to assume the worst can happen and to avoid potentially hazardous situations.  I was tickled by this chapter because Mark applies the same strategy to our farm, although he calls it "safety first."  We have rules like "No one uses a ladder when they're alone on the farm."  The idea is that, even if I would probably be fine 99 times out 100 when clambering up a ladder, the 100th time could kill me, especially if no one was around to rush me to the hospital.  Similarly, in traditional societies, camping under a dead tree might be fine most of the time, but why risk it if a tree fell on your great-uncle and killed him?

Another tip we can take away from traditional societies is a different way of looking at trade items.  Diamond notes that members of traditional societies trade for both useful and luxury items even if the communities could have easily learned how to make the traded-for items on their own.  Why not be self-sufficient if you can be?  Diamond's conclusion is that trade is really about cementing bonds between the traders just as much as it is about getting something you really need.  In fact, traditional societies often have a time lapse between gifts, so it's more like you're building social capital by giving a gift than like you're bartering.  Those of us raised in a money-based society may find this technique odd, but I feel like using social capital to build relationships is just as valuable in modern societies as it was in ancient ones.

This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Feb 5 12:01:06 2014 Tags:
mark H2O
drinking water jub fill up

Our drinking water thawed out today. It's been frozen for weeks.

Just in time to stock up on back up jugs for this upcoming cold front.

We installed one of those electric pipe heaters today to the section that's not buried and with any luck that will keep us unfrozen for the rest of 2014.

Posted Wed Feb 5 16:02:06 2014 Tags:
Scionwood swap

Scionwood cut endsOver most of the U.S., the beginning of February is the perfect time to cut scionwood to be grafted onto rootstocks or existing fruit trees later in the spring.  So the first task on my list for February in recent years has been emailing scionwood swappers who I've set up deals with earlier in the winter.  We share mailing addresses and reminders of the scionwood we each want to swap.

If you don't have anyone to swap with, check out this post about my two favorite website for online scionwood exchange.  From hanging out with the North American Scion Exchange group, I've also learned that it's better not to wrap scionwood in wet newspaper.  Instead, just cut fresh twigs, slip them inside a ziplock bag, and add one drop of water.  A wit over there admonished us that if one drop of water really doesn't feel like enough...and one more.  As for shipping --- a padded envelope seems to be sufficient, which will cost you less than $3 for small quantities.

Wrapped scionwood
Beeswax scionwoodI've already got a tiny bundle of rare and precious apple scionwood waiting in the crisper drawer of our fridge for the rootstock to arrive.  The pro who sent it painted beeswax on the cut ends of each twig, then wrapped the scionwood in plastic wrap.  He seemed like an expert if his extensive list of apple varieties is any indication, so I suspect his shipping method is also quite effective.

As a side note, I am willing to swap with newbies who don't have anything I want, but only if you do me a favor in exchange.  The favor usually involves taking a photo of your experiment so I can share it with future readers.  So if you're interested in a fruit-tree variety you've heard about here, but don't have an orchard of your own yet, come up with a fun experiment and email me.  Happy swapping!

Posted Thu Feb 6 08:14:39 2014 Tags:

New Guinea tribeOne of the biggest differences between traditional societies and the state societies you and I are more familiar with is how people both inside and outside tribes are treated.  Unlike state societies, where you make friends based on shared interests, friendships in traditional societies are based on kinship, marriage, and childhood geography.  All strangers are potentially dangerous, so when two people meet, they may spend hours trying to figure out if they have a relative in common.  (Appalachia isn't too far off from this tribal focus on kinship.  I can't count how many times strangers have asked me if I'm related to the Hesses in Honaker.  For the record, the answer is no.)

Another important distinction between state and traditional societies pertains to how disputes are resolved.  In state societies, the government has taken away individuals' abilities to resolve major conflicts (vigilante justice), which is both good and bad.  On the positive side, state societies have lower death tolls since wrongs in traditional societies often lead to warfare, which tends to go on indefinitely due to tit-for-tat justice.  On the other hand, members of traditional societies have much more of an incentive to resolve conflict in a way that leaves everyone happy since the other option is war.

Tribal warfareSo how are most conflicts resolved?  Unlike the American justice system, which is based on fairness and guilt, traditional societies resolve disputes in ways that promote a fast, emotional reconciliation without an emphasis on right and wrong.  The goal is to let the two parties reestablish their previous relationship so they can live together peacefully in the future.  Diamond suggests that this is something we should strive to mimic, especially in situations like disputes between divorcing parents and between siblings arguing over an inheritance.  In modern societies, mediation can yield some of the same results if done properly.

Unfortunately, I feel like many of the social advantages of traditional societies may be impossible to recapture in our modern world.  While I regret living a distance away from many loved ones, I also wouldn't want to be forced to settle in town next-door to our family home.  I like the way modern society allows us to be individuals who don't have to cave to mainstream beliefs, but at the same time, I feel a bit lonely sometimes when most of my neighbors live in a very different mental world than I do.  Clearly, most of us have been given the choice about whether to live a more traditional existence, and we've mostly chosen the modern route instead.

This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Feb 6 12:01:08 2014 Tags:
using Truth Cam trail camera to know when a deer is entering our garden

Our trusty trail camera recorded a deer intruder early this morning.

Anna's gardening intuition told her the spot where the fence is mushed down was done by an escaping deer recently.

We upgraded that section with an additional post and tightened it up. I had turned the mechanical deer deterrent off the other night because I didn't want them to get accustomed to the sound. Maybe turning it back on tonight will spook our intruder enough to leave for good.

I wonder if it would be possible to modify a trail camera to send some sort of message when these events happen? Then maybe I could wake up in enough time to turn this intruder into dinner...if of course deer season was in.

Posted Thu Feb 6 16:35:48 2014 Tags:
Anna 1983
Posing in front of the outhouse

The photo above shows a family friend (far left), me and my younger sister in our mother's lap, my father, and my brother.  But if you look closely, you'll see we're posing in front of...(wait for it)...our brand new outhouse.  My father was probably proud of the structure and chose the spot.  When explaining this photo to me, Mom added, "This is before all the [poop] started oozing out from behind the plywood...."

I don't remember the marital strife that seems to have been involved in (not) emptying out the composting toilet, but I do recall sitting inside for hours.  I wasn't constipated; I was reading.

Farmhouse kitchen

Joey in kitchenMore photos from the same time period illustrate our rustic farmhouse kitchen.  One of Mom's favorite stories from this time period takes place here, when a rat, dying from poison, entered the kitchen in search of water and drank out of my younger sister's potty chair.  And I was wondering why my parents didn't decide the farm life was fun....

More seriously, Mom mentions "One knife was handmade...made from a sawblade....  Errol looks tired...and sweaty...."  (If you're keeping track at home, that's my father and younger sister in the top photo and my brother in the second photo, in front of a metal bucket we used to heat up water on the stove.)

Me in hammock

This is what I was doing while all that hard work was happening.  If I'd been a year or two older, I would have had a book in my hand, but I wouldn't have been any more helpful.

Posted Fri Feb 7 07:59:15 2014 Tags:

HutteritesAlthough I'll leave Diamond's larger description of religion for you to read about on your own, I did want to write about one factor that the author believes has made religion a staple of traditional societies.  As I mentioned previously, it's very important to separate "us" from "them" in traditional societies since strangers are potentially dangerous, and religion helps cement that distinction.  Religion is usually expensive either in terms of time or money, so your willingness to jump through those hoops serves as evidence of your commitment to support others of your religion.

Why is this relevant to homesteaders?  Diamond reports that intentional communities are much more likely to stand the test of time if they're based around a central religion.  One study examined the communes that popped up in the U.S. in the 1970s and found that secular communities dissolved four times faster than those with a religious focus.  Similarly, religious kibbutzim in Israel have been much more successful than secular ones.

That observation reminded me of an interesting series of posts on Club Orlov, assessing which intentional communities survive and which fail.  Both Diamond and Orlov touch on the success of the Hutterites, a religious group related to the Amish who live in small agricultural communities throughout the western U.S. and Canada.  It looks like I am Hutterite should move its way up to the top of my reading list.

This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Feb 7 12:01:16 2014 Tags:

showing images from trail camera that prove the deterrent spooked this deer
I moved the trail camera yesterday and it proved Anna was right about where the night time intruder has been entering our chicken pasture.

The images show her being startled by the red light activating on the camera, and then moments later she looks in the direction of the deer deterrent and runs the other way.

Posted Fri Feb 7 15:44:12 2014 Tags:
Scooping out kefir grains

Red-shouldered hawkFirst of all, don't forget that today is your last day to enter our kefir giveaway!  Now, on to the real post....

When I started playing with kefir, I read all of the instructions on the internet that told me to strain my kefir each day in a plastic sieve (no non-stainless-steel metal).  That allows you to decant the kefir from the grains very effectively, and is definitely the best way to manage your kefir.

But...we don't have a plastic sieve.  And the primary hunk of kefir grain is so big, it's quite simple to scoop out of a bowl of kefir.  Sure, I might miss some tiny off-shoots this way, but what has happened so far is that the main grain puts out a smaller bud, like the one you can see in the photo above, and I can either cut that off or just notice it's missing and go scooping around for it when I want to expand my kefir colony.  So far, we've expanded once, and one of the grains is probably about ready to split again.

While my non-seiving method is the height of laziness, I can't help thinking that I'm probably following the lead of the original kefir culturers.  Do you really think the nomadic shepherds in the Middle East who first developed kefir had plastic sieves and time to let the liquid slowly drain out of their fermented milk?  I could be wrong, but I'll bet they were scoopers too.

Cracked puddleWhich is all a long way of saying --- kefir culture certainly can be simple if you let it be!  Once a day, I put in about five minutes decanting a jar of fermented milk, scooping out the, grains, refilling the jar, and (the more time-consuming part) doctoring Mark's kefir so it tastes like chocolate.  I thought I had an iron stomach before we started, but I've noticed my stomach is even stronger now, without even the rare bouts of flatulence that sometimes came from eating peanut butter.

As a side note, kefir isn't terribly photogenic, so I've included a couple of photos from my Friday walk in this post.  So, don't spend too long trying to figure out how a hawk and a cracked puddle relate to fermented milk...but feel free to tell me in the comments if they do.

Posted Sat Feb 8 07:45:55 2014 Tags:
early 1970's memories

Anna wanted to see some pictures of when I was around the age of 5 and my Mom was quick to reply with these snap shots from the 1970's.

The above photo is from my third birthday party...just 2 weeks before I was to meet my younger brother for the first time.

roasting marshmallows on the campfire

A lot of good memories roasting marshmallows by a campfire. This one is of me around the age of 5 making our own dessert with my brother and cousins. My Mamaw told us more than once that playing in the fire would cause us to pee in the bed that night...I can now confirm she was mistaken and that's just another Mountain Myth.

Posted Sat Feb 8 15:47:17 2014 Tags:
Chicken-bone biochar

Chicken bones have been a problem on our farm for years.  I like to stew them up to make delicious broth, but after that, the bones are too brittle to be safely fed to Lucy.  And if we put the bones anywhere except deep underground...Lucy finds them!  Some weeks, I'd decide not to cook one of our delicious homegrown chickens because I didn't want to deal with the bones.

Burning bones

But I recently saw on two different blogs where homesteaders were putting their chicken bones in the fire to make biochar.  Great idea!  It turns out that if I throw the wet mass of bones onto a strong fire in our wood stove just before it's time to damp it down, the bones quickly turn into a crumbly form that I suspect will have many of the benefits of biochar (with none of the succulent smell that attracts Lucy).  We always sift our wood-stove ashes to salvage the charcoal for the garden, so the bone char will be put to good use.

The solution is so simple, I can't figure out why I didn't think of it before!  I guess I'd better thaw out one of those chickens in the freezer....

Posted Sun Feb 9 07:28:09 2014 Tags:
hanging coconut treat for chickens

I've heard of some organic chicken growers using a coconut enhanced feed compared to the conventional product that relies heavily on corn and dreamed up the hanging coconut chicken treat experiment.

Turns out the chickens approve of raw coconut, although I think I'll bake the next one to make the meat easier to chunk away.

Posted Sun Feb 9 15:15:08 2014 Tags:

Chicken tractorNow that we have both the Avian Aqua Miser and EZ Miser available (plus kit forms of each), I often get asked --- which chicken waterer is the best for my situation?  This is the time of year when even folks who don't have chickens...yet...are interested in the answer, so I figured I'd post the answer here rather than on our chicken blog.

Our Avian Aqua Miser Original is my go-to waterer for chicks during their first week of life, for chickens in a tractor, for broody hens, and for small numbers of birds in the winter.  If you've got a flock of five or fewer hens in your backyard, you'll love the utility of this little waterer, which stays perfectly clean due to its hanging nature and is simple to carry inside on cold nights.  Mark's first waterer invention barely takes up any space, so is perfect for tight spaces, and the Original holds enough water for up to 25 chicks per day when they're a month or less old.

EZ MiserOn the other hand, we prefer EZ Misers for broilers as they get larger and for farm-size flocks of layers.  With these larger numbers of birds, you're going to have to allot more space anyway, so having a waterer that sits on a cinderblock isn't usually a problem.  In fact, it's handy to be able to set EZ Misers out in pastures where no infrastructure exists to hang a waterer.  Plus, the larger capacity of the EZ Miser means you don't have to fill the waterer as frequently, which is a boon during busy summer days when you're catering to two flocks of broilers and a dozen laying hens.  Being able to set the EZ Miser down while filling saves yet more energy.

The kit version of each is a way to save money, and also allows you to make a waterer that fits your farm to a T.  For example, this video shows how to turn our Avian Aqua Miser Original kits into a heated waterer that's good down to at least 14 degrees Fahrenheit --- that's what we used in our main coop this winter.  And our EZ Miser kits allow you to install watering spouts into the side of just about any plastic container --- imagine a 55 gallon barrel set in your pasture with six spouts around the edges for watering over a hundred birds for days on end.  To tempt you to try out one of these scenarios, we've marked our most popular EZ Miser kit down to $36 this week --- enjoy!

I hope this rundown helps you figure out the perfect waterer for your farm this year.  We'll be starting eggs in our incubator soon and are looking forward to fluffy spring chicks, so we'll be suiting words to action shortly.

Posted Mon Feb 10 07:46:50 2014 Tags:

Naturally Bug-FreeI hope my newest ebook excites you as much as it does me!  This is the time of year when we all really need some garden porn, and picking the 81 most informative shots of our permaculture garden for this ebook was a real treat.  Of course, I added in plenty of information too, from a rundown on the ten worst garden pests in the U.S. to tips on keeping those (and other) invertebrates at a dull roar without spraying anything.  (You can read the full book description here.)

Naturally Bug-Free is only $1.99 on Amazon, and if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can borrow the title for free.  As usual, it's easy to read my ebook on any device even if you don't have a kindle.  And, also as usual, I'll be setting the book free this Friday if you can't afford that price tag.

If you enjoy what you read, I hope you'll take a minute to write a review on Amazon --- those early reviews really help my books reach beyond the choir.
  In the meantime, stay tuned for a week of insect-related tips drawn from the pages of Naturally Bug-Free.

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Feb 10 12:00:59 2014 Tags:
filling tank from well with Lucy in background

Today was the second time this Winter we've used the well to fill the tank.

We learned the last time it's better to drain the hose now while it's easy instead of letting it freeze solid with a half gallon of water somewhere in the middle.

Posted Mon Feb 10 15:52:35 2014 Tags:
Winter bees

If previous years are any indication, the first spring flowers will be opening up within two or three weeks.  To the human eye, hazel flowers probably don't look like much, but they mean high-protein pollen for our bee colonies to feed to their young.  In fact, if I was unkind enough to open our hives in this dreary winter weather, I'd probably find eggs being laid as the queens gear up for spring --- if no eggs now, then soon.

Instead of bothering our bees, though, I just gave both hives a tap.  Sure enough, hearty buzzing met my ear in each, despite the pile of dead bees in front of the strong hive and the fact that the barn swarm didn't seem to have enough bees to survive this cold winter.  Perhaps the quilt I added to the top of that Langstroth hive has helped the tiny colony stay warm?

Posted Tue Feb 11 07:32:30 2014 Tags:

LadybugOne group of wholly-positive garden invertebrates is the bugs who consume bad insects.  Spiders, centipedes, dragonflies, mantids (aka praying mantises), ambush bugs, assassin bugs, lacewings, ladybird beetles (aka ladybugs), ground beetles, true wasps, digger wasps, hoverflies, and robber flies all subsist primarily or entirely on other insects during some stage of their life cycle.

Although many of the species listed above are generalist predators, eating whatever ends up
Praying mantis eating a butterflyin front of them, all of these insects help keep pest population explosions in check.  For example, I accidentally let the beetles on my green-bean plants get out of control one summer, and soon thereafter I saw a pair of praying mantises move in to take advantage of the bounty.  Sure, the mantises might have been eating butterflies yesterday, but I consider them beneficial insects because they eat at least as many bad bugs as good.

Parasitized tomato hornworm
Another category of predators is the parasitoids.  Braconid wasps, ichneumonid wasps, chalcid wasps, and parasitic flies all lay their eggs on other insects, and unlike true parasites, the wasps and flies eventually kill their hosts.  That's great news in the garden since many of the prey insects are bad bugs, like tomato hornworms or bean beetles, so the parasitoids keep the pests under control.  As a side note, in case you're scared of the term "wasp," all of the parasitic wasps are too small to be a problem for human gardeners.

Parasitized bean beetle larvaMany gardeners fall in love with the idea of predatory and parasitic insects and decide to buy some of these critters to seed their garden.  However, I believe that you really need to encourage all of these species at the ecosystem level.  I've heard of people opening a container of expensive insects, only to have them all fly away because the garden isn't a hospitable environment for the predators to live in.

Mud dauber nest

Instead of spending your money on insects, why not spend a bit of time encouraging the good bugs you already have to stick around and reproduce?  Many depend on flowers during some stage of their life cycle, so you can encourage them just like you did native pollinators by ensuring you have copious pollen and nectar sources available throughout the growing season.

In fact, you might receive double the benefit from any nest sites you put out for your native pollinators.  Brian Cooper erected mason-bee blocks in his garden, and ended up encouraging mud daubers by providing wet mud nearby.  Brian wrote: "When we went to harvest the bees, we found mud daubers also laid eggs in some of the unused cells.  They collect food for their young inside the cell before they cap it with mud.  I found one cell that was filled with caterpillars and a dauber larvae, and another cell with a pupa of the mud dauber and just bug parts left over."

Dragonfly on Swiss chard

Immature wheel bugWeedy edges will also encourage predatory insects since the predators need to be able to find lots of insects to eat even when your garden pests are under control.  In addition, dragonflies need a pond into which they can lay their eggs, and many insects will benefit from having a very shallow body of water from which they can drink.  When attracting predatory insects, it's imperative not to use any pesticides (even organic ones) and to allow low levels of pest insects to fly under your radar.  If there aren't any bad bugs around, your predatory insects won't have anything to eat and will go somewhere else.

In fact, you'll probably sense a theme throughout Naturally Bug-Free.  To encourage the good bugs, let nature move into your garden.  Leave things alone and the beneficials will come.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Naturally Bug-Free!  If so, you can download the ebook for $1.99 on Amazon by clicking the link above.  Or just wait for another excerpt tomorrow on the blog.

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Feb 11 12:01:15 2014 Tags:
snowy day in February

Predictions of 2 feet of snow prompted Anna to ask me what's the most snow I can remember walking through and I think a few years in the early 70's created conditions close to that in Ohio where I grew up.

Today I overheard a conversation waiting in line at the post office where two older guys were talking about the Winter of 1947 when the school burned down and the snow was up to his waist when he was in the First grade.

I remember one of those Winter days in the early 70's when my Dad took a 2x4 and rolled it in the snow until it was massive. One of us decided it looked like a whale and an hour later after much sculpting and a little blue food coloring we had the only Snow Whale on the block.

Posted Tue Feb 11 15:39:24 2014 Tags:
Caught rat

Lucy with ratWe've been on the trail of the rat living under our chicken coop for a couple of weeks now.  While you'd think rats are a cosmetic problem, they're actually very dangerous as we get close to chick season since rats can demolish a flock of fuzzy babies in short order.

I started trying to catch the rat while Mark was away visiting his parents in Ohio in January.  I stopped after a couple of failed attempts, though, because I was afraid of hurting Lucy...and was also afraid of snapping my fingers in the trap.  Mark has a certain calm focus that's very handy when using chainsaws and setting rat traps, so I let him take care of round 3.

The good news?  Within two hours, the rat was dead.  The bad news?  An hour later, Mark saw another rat.  This one wasn't interested in following its coop-mate's path to the happy hunting grounds in the sky, so we're back to the drawing board.  How to catch a now-trap-shy rat?

Posted Wed Feb 12 07:39:30 2014 Tags:

Spraying Bt for squash vine borer controlSquash vine borers were our archnemesis during our early years on the farm, so much so that I even resorted to spraying Bt on the plants' stems.  And I'm glad to say that the Bt didn't help.  Why am I glad?  Because if that seemingly innocuous* spray had proven effective, I might not have figured out less intrusive ways to keep vine borers in check.

Variety selection was part of my solution, as I'll explain in a later post, but the biggest reason I started being able to harvest summer squash is because I learned to succession plant these speedy vegetables biweekly in the summer garden.  Here in zone 6 (last frost: May 15, first frost: October 10), I plant crookneck (summer) squash on May 1 (a gamble), May 15, June 1, June 15, and July 1 (a slight gamble), a schedule that allows us to be overwhelmed with tasty squashes despite heavy vine-borer pressure and with the use of no other control measures beyond variety selection.

Squash vine borer damage
Yes, the vine borers move in and kill the squash plants eventually, but not until after I've collected at least one big harvest from each bed.  By the time the earliest vines start ailing, I have another planting of summer squash just waiting to take their place.  Those of you living further north can simplify this campaign further since your vine borers generally only go through one generation per year instead of two, so if you wait out the borers, your late plantings of squash should be pristine.

Drying summer squashSuccession planting is handy with other types of vegetables as well, although the strategy only works if you choose varieties that put out a big harvest right away.  For example, I succession plant bush beans rather than growing runner beans since the former provide lots of green beans before the bean beetles move in to dine.  On the other hand, succession planting wouldn't be a good choice for tomatoes since even determinate varieties require months of growth before they ripen their first fruit.

Another benefit of succession planting comes when the food reaches our table.  A few studies have suggested that cucurbits (and perhaps other vegetables) have more micronutrients on hand when they mature their first fruits, so the earliest harvest often tastes best.  Some gourmet farmers pull out their squash vines after the first harvest as a matter of course, figuring it's better to maximize flavor rather than yield.  So maybe the borers are trying to do me a favor by prompting me to eat the most nutrient-rich and tasty vegetables possible?

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Naturally Bug-Free!  If so, you can download the ebook for $1.99 on Amazon by clicking the link above.  Or just wait for another excerpt tomorrow on the blog.

* The glossary of Naturally Bug-Free suggests some ways in which Bt might not be as safe as many of us think.

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Feb 12 12:01:15 2014 Tags:
Do bees like sugar maple sap?

Anna and I sometimes play this game where she'll ask me "Do you know where those maple syrup spouts are that we last used 6 years ago?"

It takes me a few seconds to process the question, and this time my answer was the barn, but the guessing part comes when she wants to know how long will it take to find.

Today my guess was under 10 minutes, which turned out to be closer to 5. A small miracle if you knew just how unorganized our barn is.

What are we using the spouts for? An experiment to see if bees will eat the sap.

Posted Wed Feb 12 15:51:59 2014 Tags:
Maple spiles

Mark mentioned in his last post that we were thinking of tapping some sugar maples and feeding the sap to bees.  I can't decide whether this is a great idea or a terrible idea, since both sides of the argument are well represented on the internet.  On the plus side, an 1870 article in American Bee Journal reports that the author sweetened three quarts of maple sap with a pint of honey and fed the result to his bees.  Various websites also mention modern observations that honeybees will feed on sap coming out of gashes in maple bark or from cut stumps if weather is warm enough for them to fly while sap is flowing.

Bees bringing home pollenOn the other hand, other beekeepers warn that maple sap is too high in solids and will give bees dysentery.  At only 1% to 3% sugar, maple sap has a much lower concentration of sweetness than is found in the nectars bees prefer (30% and up).  At the same time, there are high concentrations of potassium and calcium in maple sap, which might be good for the bees...or might make them sick.  I'd be particularly leery of cooking down the maple sap into syrup, since I suspect that could cause chemical changes that might be bad for the bees.  Instead, I would be more likely to use the sap as the base for making sugar water for bees.

Why am I thinking of feeding bees at all?  The main impetus is our tiny barn swarm colony, which barely had any honey going into the winter and surely doesn't have much left now.  I'm also trying to figure out a hybrid method between the purely bee-friendly beekeeping I've been using in recent years, and methods that produce enough honey to allow a real harvest.  My gut feeling is that a round of spring feeding might boost egg production early enough that we'd get a harvest this year, without (hopefully) negatively impacting the integrity of the colony too much.  Of course, I could just feed them sugar water, but the idea of using a free resource from the farm is enticing.

I'd be curious to hear thoughts from beekeepers in the audience.  Would you feed your bees maple sap adulterated with extra sugar?  If you're a natural beekeeper, would you consider feeding your bees in the spring to boost production?

Posted Thu Feb 13 07:51:04 2014 Tags:

Cicada twig damageI learned my next lesson on timing the hard way.  In 2012, periodic cicadas crawled out of the ground and regaled us with their ocean-like symphony.  I was intrigued by the natural occurrence and enjoyed feeding these protein-rich insects to our chickens, so at first I thought the periodic cicadas were a boon to our farm.  Then I saw this the damage pictured to the left.

It turns out that cicadas lay their eggs in tender twigs of young trees, and seem to preferentially choose fruiting species over wild saplings.  When the young cicadas hatch from their twig homes, the nymphs drop to the ground and tunnel down to feed on the tree's roots.  While the root sucking may be a long-term problem, the real issue is that the nymphs damage fruit-tree twigs so much while coming out of their eggs that the branches often break off and die.

Of course, even cicadas have natural predators, but the insects' periodic nature is designed to keep predation to a minimum.  Cicada killers and other animals that preferentially feed on cicadas can only survive at low population levels most of the time since their food is Cicada killerscarce.  Every 13 to 17 years, the periodic cicadas come out of the ground and provide a feast, but by then, the predator levels are so low that the majority of the cicadas survive untouched.  That's why we have to get a bit more wily when dealing with these insects—periodic cicadas have outwitted their natural enemies and we can't count on help from nature.

The short-term solution to cicada damage is to net adult cicadas away from the twigs as soon as you hear periodic cicadas calling.  But smarter orchardists also plan around cicada cycles.  If you go to, you can choose your state and county and then find out when periodic cicadas have emerged in your region recently.  Add the appropriate number of years to those emergence dates and you'll know when the next brood will be out looking for baby fruit trees.

In a perfect world, you'd plant fruit trees no more than two years before cicada-emergence dates since cicadas aren't as interested in older trees.  Orchardists also choose not to winter prune fruit trees during a year when periodic cicadas are due to emerge, knowing the cicadas will do some of their pruning for them.  That's true permaculture gardening at work!

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Naturally Bug-Free!  If so, you can download the ebook for $1.99 on Amazon by clicking the link above.  Or just wait for another excerpt tomorrow on the blog.

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Feb 13 12:00:57 2014 Tags:
measuring the big snowfall we got today

It snowed all night here, but not quite enough to break our snow depth record.

Posted Thu Feb 13 16:13:17 2014 Tags:
Snow on the road

Snow friendPerhaps if we lived in a colder climate, I wouldn't love snow so much.  As it is, our farm is in a perfect spot for snow.  We see it every year, but don't get bored of endless white expanses.  Good snows like this one that are packable and deep come perhaps once a year.  So even though the snow plow skipped our little road Thursday morning, I'm sure the outside world will be scraped and clear by Monday at least.

Quick hoops in the snow

Sure, snow makes a little extra work on the farm, but not much.  I went out this morning to sweep off the quick hoops and bee-hive entrances.  The quick hoops were mostly in good shape, although I did damage the fabric a bit with the broom before I got a good handle on how to leave a tiny layer of snow behind to protect the cloth.  The one quick hoop made of Tarp-covered chicken tractorsmaller PVC pipes bowed a little under the weight, but sprang back into shape post-sweeping.

Our chickens generally stay in during snowy weather.  Mark is a good farmer who almost always remembers to toss a tarp over the chicken tractor before a snow, so they have a bit of bare ground to explore.  I think they spend the day napping, though, and waiting for it to be over.

Garden snowman

Once my chores were done, I stole half an hour to make a garden-spirit snow woman.  Oregano, echinacea, red raspberry, and fig detritus gave her some character, along with a homegrown carrot.  Maybe she'll give us a boost for the upcoming gardening season.

Posted Fri Feb 14 07:38:59 2014 Tags:

Types of grapesJapanese beetles taught me my first lesson about variety selection.  We had a terrible problem with these invasive beetles on our grapevines until I realized that French hybrid varieties are much more tasty to Japanese beetles than are American varieties.  The latter can be distinguished by their thicker leaves, which are often whitened underneath, and by the relative paucity of beetles chowing down on the leaves. 

In addition to grapes, Japanese beetles also defoliated our young sweet-cherry tree, but damage on other plants seemed to stay at low enough levels that the trees could shrug it off.  After switching our small vineyard over to American grapes and removing our cherry tree, the Japanese beetle pressure was reduced to the point where hand-picking was sufficient to keep beetles at bay.

In general, variety selection can be a helpful strategy in controlling at least five of the dirty-dozen worst garden pests in the U.S.  The table below includes pest-resistant varieties drawn from several different extension-service websites and other sources.

Insect-resistant vegetable varieties
Pest insect
Insect-resistant varieties
Collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage are tastier to these insects than are other crucifers.  Within each type of vegetable, vegetables with dark green, glossy leaves are more resistant to cabbageworms, while cabbage butterflies sometimes avoid laying eggs on red cabbage varieties.  Resistant cabbage varieties include Chieftan Savoy, Early Globe, Mommoth, Red Acre, Red Rock, Round Dutch, and Savoy Perfection Drumhead.
Corn earworms
Any corn with a tight husk will be more resistant to earworms.  Specifically resistant varieties include Country Gentlemen, Golden Security, Seneca, Silvergent, and Staygold.
Cucumber beetles
In general, cucumber beetles prefer zucchini-type squash over others and don't like burpless cucumbers as well as other varieties.  Blue Hubbard squash, Ashley, Chipper, Gemini, Piccadilly, Poinsett, and Stono cucumbers; Early Prolific, Scallop, Straightneck, and White Bush squash; and Galia, Passport, Pulsar, Rising Star, and Super Star melons are all reported to be resistant to cucumber beetles.

However, the more important issue is to select a variety resistant to the bacterial wilt carried by cucumber beetles.  These wilt-resistant varieties include Connecticut Yellow Field, Harvest Moon, and Howden pumpkins; Waltham butternut; Buttercup squash; Black Beauty zucchini; and Ashley, Chinese Long, Chipper, County Fair, Eversweet, Gemini, Improved Long Green, Saticoy Hybrid, Sunnybrook, and Tokio Long cucumbers.  Watermelons are usually resistant to bacterial wilt.
Squash bugs
Squash bugs prefer yellow summer squash over zucchinis, squash over pumpkins, pumpkins over gourds, and gourds over melons.  Resistant varieties include acorn squash, butternuts, Early Summer Crookneck, Green Striped Cushaw, Improved Green Hubbard, Spaghetti, Sweet Cheese, and zucchinis (except for the susceptible Cocozelle).
Squash vine borers
Varieties resistant to squash vine borers tend to have thin, tough stems.  In addition, vining types are more resistant than bush types since the former can root along their nodes and survive moderate levels of borer damage.  The most resistant varieties include butternuts and Green Striped Cushaw, followed by Dickenson Pumpkin and Summer Crookneck.  Other varieties reputed to have at least some resistance include acorn squash, Cucuzzi (also known as snake gourd), and Connecticut Field, Dickenson, and Small Summer pumpkins.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Naturally Bug-Free!  If so, you can download the ebook for free on Amazon by clicking the link above today.  Or drop me an email to receive a pdf copy instead.  Thanks for reading, and don't forget to leave a review when you're done!

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Feb 14 12:01:00 2014 Tags:
Are chicken tractors still effective in the snow?

How are the girls in the chicken tractor fairing during all this snow?

They might be bored having to stay in the same spot 2 days in a row, but they seem perkier and more content than the main flock.

Posted Fri Feb 14 15:41:16 2014 Tags:
Onion seedlings

Outside, I've had to admit that our garden is more of a zone 5 garden than a zone 6 garden this year.  That means we don't have anything fresh coming in except Egyptian onion bulbs, and I'm pushing back my earliest plantings of lettuce, peas, and poppies until the warm spell next week.

Inside, though, our baby onions are growing like gangbusters.  So far, all three flats are acting the same, although the one closest to the wood stove grows fastest.  When I pointed out the adorable little seedlings to Mark, he replied, "I can't remember the last time I bought an onion."  It's looking more and more like this will be the year we hit onion independence!

Posted Sat Feb 15 07:30:30 2014 Tags:
how to repair a fence post and a one year update on said repair

It's been a full year since I shored up this broken walnut fence post.

I'll use this method again to fix a few more fence problems.

Posted Sat Feb 15 15:20:57 2014 Tags:
Firewood on the porch

Snow shadowsPeople in our neck of the woods know what porches should be used for in the winter --- firewood storage.  Mark and I like to split and stack at least a week's worth of firewood to sit on the edge of the porch for easy access to the trailer, and you can tell we're on the upswing of the season when the pile gets higher every week rather than lower.  We split the same amount of wood, but burn less.

The woodshed, on the other hand, is starting to look pretty sparse.  But now that the subzero weather appears to be behind us, I know we'll definitely have enough of the good dry wood to last at least until March.  If previous years are any indication, firewood will become more of a treat than a necessity then, with warmer days heating up the trailer via our south-facing banks of windows and with weekly lows rarely dipping below the twenties.

In fact, next week is supposed to look a lot like March, but my weather guru tells us not to get too excited.  He forecasts at least one more cold snap before February is out.  Maybe that will be the impetus we need to start getting in next year's firewood sooner rather than later.

Posted Sun Feb 16 07:49:01 2014 Tags:
Huckleberry drinking from a 2 gallon bucket

While developing our new EZ Miser 2 gallon chicken watering bucket I got into a habit of leaving a full bucket handy to make it easier to test each variation.

Turns out it's just the right height for Huckleberry to drink from, and he seems to drink more water because of it so we've decided to leave it in place to further spoil him.

Maybe drinking in this fashion is easier on a cat's back?

Posted Sun Feb 16 15:08:20 2014 Tags:

IncubatorOur first eggs of the season are in the incubator!  In 21 days, we'll have new chicks to spice up the farm, and our chicken year will be off to its exciting start.  Here are my ten top tips for those of you new to chicken incubation.

1. Start with quality eggs.  Old hens, old eggs, dirty eggs, and bad nutrition are all recipes for heartbreak.

2. Figure out dry incubation.  Depending on your climate, it may be appropriate to follow the manufacturer's instructions about how much water to put in your incubator.  But it might not.

3. Tape the plug and plan for power outages.  Those tiny chicks growing inside their shells can't stand cooling down, so make sure there's no way you can accidentally unplug your incubator or turner.  If you live in an area with periodic outages like we do, you'll also want to figure out what you're going to do if the electricity goes out for a couple of days in the middle of your incubation run.

4. Mark the dates on your planner.  18 days after you start your incubator, it's time to unplug the turner and increase the humidity.  21 days after you start your incubator, chicks will start hatching.

Hatching chick5. Number your eggs.  This isn't entirely necessary, but good data can help you make each incubation run a little better than the last.  I write a number on the large end of each egg in pencil, and record the likely mother, date collected, and whether the egg has any dirt on it.

6. Hang out for the hatch.  Again, this is a bit obsessive, but I like to record the time when each egg pips (the chick first breaks through the shell).  That piece of data lets me keep an eye on the hatch and make sure that pipped eggs haven't been rolled upside down by their early-hatching brethren, and that individual chicks haven't been struggling in the egg for too long.

7. Remove each chick as soon as it's dry.  Some experts recommend leaving the chicks in the incubator for up to 24 hours, but the chicks' chirping says they're much happier if removed to the brooder as soon as their feathers completely dry off.  They're less likely to harm hatching siblings this way too.

8. Decide whether you're going to help chicks out of the egg.  There are major pros and cons of helping chicks, which you can read about here.  The biggest con is that if you help a chick and it's too handicapped to make it in the flock, you will have to euthanize it.  On the other hand, if a chick is simply pipping at the wrong end of the egg, you can sometimes help the chick hatch and have it grow up into a happy hen.

9. Prepare the indoor brooder.  A rubbermaid bin is a good starter home for your chicks and we use Brinsea's EcoGlow Chick Brooder to keep our chicks warm for their first month.  You'll also need to buy or make a small feeder for their first few days of life, and will want an Avian Aqua Miser Original for water.

10. Prepare the outdoor brooder.  If you're like me, you'll get sick of the noise and smell of chicks in your living room after about a week.  So you'll want a place close to the house where they can stay warm and dry but be out of your hair.  The outdoor brooder also allows you to put chicks out on pasture by the time they're a week old if the weather cooperates.

If this post got you excited and you want to learn more, I highly recommend my ebook Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook for further information.  Starting with eggs is definitely a bit more work than buying mail-order chicks, but the skill opens new doors for chicken-keepers and is also an inspiring process to watch.  And even if you pay for top-of-the-line equipment like we did, hatching your own eggs will pay for itself after a few years.  Have fun!

Posted Mon Feb 17 07:24:23 2014 Tags:
tapping a sugar maple tree

Today was perfect weather for installing a Sugar Maple tree tap.

We decided to use one of our 2 gallon EZ Miser buckets for sap collection.

The drip rate was somewhat heavy when we started around 2pm.

Posted Mon Feb 17 16:18:11 2014 Tags:
Individual chocolate cheesecake

As our kefir grains expand, we have to culture more milk.  While growing a bud to send to my mother, I ended up with more kefir than we wanted to eat with our breakfast and decided to use the excess to make individual-serving chocolate kefir cheesecakes.  I decided to keep the recipe grain- and sugar-free, so I ditched the crust and came up with the recipe below for the filling:

  • 0.5 cups of strained kefir milk and cream.  (More on this below.)
  • 1 egg
  • scant 0.5 cups of cocoa
  • 0.25 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 0.25 cups of honey
  • strawberry freezer jam for the topping

Straining kefir
The first step was to strain the kefir to give it more of a cream-cheese consistency.  I had about a quarter of a cup of kefir sour cream leftover from another day's meal along with 0.75 cups of kefir made from whole milk, so I used both.  You could certainly just use kefir made from milk, although the result would be less decadent and probably a bit runnier.

To strain the kefir, I simply took out the grain and put it in a jar to start the next day's culture, then poured the rest of the kefir into a cloth napkin on top of a colander on top of a bowl.  Three hours later, quite a bit of clear whey had collected in the bowl.  I'm not sure what I'll do with this whey --- worst-case scenario, I'm sure the chickens will enjoy it.  The Greek-yogurt-like kefir that stays on top of the napkin is what you use for this recipe.

Cheesecake batter

Now preheat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and beat all of the ingredients except the jam together.  Pour the batter into a greased muffin tin to make six mini cheesecakes, or into a 9-inch-square pan for one big cheesecake.  Bake for about 35 minutes until the top fluffs up and a knife in the center of one of the cheesecakes comes out nearly clean.  (You want the cakes to stay a little on the moist side, so I took them out about five minutes before I would have if they were normal cakes.)

Kefir chocolate cheesecake

Cool your cheesecakes, then top them with strawberry jam.  Although not precisely paleo, I think this decadent dessert is at least moderately healthy, and it's certainly delicious!  Plus, it would be pretty easy to source most of the ingredients on the farm.

Posted Tue Feb 18 07:10:38 2014 Tags:
protecting sugar maple spile from rain

We had a problem with the bag protecting our Sugar Maple spile from the rain.

Anna fixed it this morning after dumping out the rain/sap mix, but when I was going to the Post Office this afternoon I noticed the bag had shifted and the drip was being guided by the plastic onto the ground.

A piece of Reflectix is rigid enough to keep the bag from touching the drip area and the bag helps to keep it in place.

Posted Tue Feb 18 16:24:05 2014 Tags:
Pruning a peach tree

I can still hear our kitchen peach complaining: "I asked the hairdresser to trim off my split ends and I walked out of there with a bob!"  (Yes, my peach tree does use vocabulary from the 1920s --- she's that kind of a tree.)

More seriously, our seven-year-old peach needed a lot of pruning this year for a variety of reasons.  I've always read about winter damage on fruit trees, but had never seen it until this year --- I guess a low of -14 Fahrenheit is enough to nip a significant number of twigs.  Interestingly, the winter-killed twigs were mostly those that were in bad positions anyway, hidden under other branches.  Removing the winter-killed twigs opened up the tree more than I was used to right away, but there was no getting around that part of the pruning campaign.

Peach tree before pruning

The bigger reason the tree looks so shorn (before photo above and after photo below) is that I wanted to lift some of the main branches up out of the fungal zone and to give them an upward, rather than a downward, slant.  My original goal when I trained the tree was for the scaffold branches to rise at a slight angle away from the trunk, but heavy fruit harvests have pulled many of those branches down to horizontal or lower.  Branches at or below horizontal promote the formation of watersprouts, and also need to be propped up during fruiting, so it seemed worthwhile to do some serious pruning now for the long-term health of the tree.

Peach tree after pruning

After cutting out troublesome branches, I replaced the missing scaffolds by bending down smaller branches to fill in the gaps.  As you can see, there are still a few horizontal scaffolds, but I didn't want to do too much too quickly.  Next year, I can take another stab at rejuvenating the framework of the tree.

Even though this peach looks very bare in the photo above, there are still lots of fruiting buds to go around.  Barring a late frost, I suspect we'll see a good harvest despite my heavy hand.  The more likely issue is that watersprouts may come out in spades this summer since the tree will have more energy than it needs to put into the remaining branches.  I'll just have to stay on top of the summer pruning and hope for the best.

Posted Wed Feb 19 07:02:34 2014 Tags:
warming up a cold raised bed

Since its been so cold this year we decided to rake away the layer of straw mulch protecting our asparagus to let the sun warm up the bed.

Posted Wed Feb 19 16:03:19 2014 Tags:
Tapping a sugar maple

When I posted about the potential for feeding maple sap to bees, two of our readers made the suggestion of utilizing freeze concentration to increase the proportion of sugar in the sap without causing bee indigestion by heating the sap to the boiling point.  Mark thought I was breaking the laws of physics until I explained that freeze concentration is just a method of separating most of the sugars from some of the water, resulting in a smaller quantity of liquid that's sweeter than what you started with.

Depending on who you talk to, you can capture 70% to 90% of the sugars in maple sap in 16.5% of the volume through one to two rounds of freezing and thawing.  If your area gets below freezing at night, simply leave your sap outside or, if you're enjoying a warm spell like we are, put a bucket of sap in your chest freezer overnight.  After freezing, let the Concentrate maple sap by freezingblock of ice sit at room temperature until about a third of its bulk has melted --- that's the precious sugar portion.  Toss the ice and put the sugary sap back in the freezer for a repeat freeze-thaw cycle, this time keeping the first half of the melted liquid.  The result should be a liquid that has increased from 1-3% sugar to 5-16% sugar.  (You'll also have some frozen sap-water to turn into Appalachian ice sculptures.)

According to some sources, freeze concentration is a great way to start making maple syrup, as well as for concentrating maple sap for bees.  Freezing generally uses less energy than boiling off the same quantity of water (especially if you can just put your sap outside to freeze), and you won't have to deal with the excessive steam clogging up your kitchen.  However, scientists recommend planning on utilizing boiling to turn your sap concentrate into a real maple syrup since the chemicals that produce the color, flavor, and odor of maple syrup are formed through the application of heat.  Plus, you need to get rid of enough liquid to bring your sap to at least 66% sugar when making maple syrup, which would take quite a few rounds of freezing and thawing.

We'll be trying out our first batch of maple-sap concentrate on our bees, but will boil the next batch down into syrup on top of our wood stove.  Stay tuned for more information in later posts.

Posted Thu Feb 20 08:29:36 2014 Tags:
unpowered self opening mechanical gate opener

One of my favorite movie biographies is the inspiring story of Temple Grandin, whose autistic innovations helped to improve the cattle industry and people's understanding of autism. 17 minutes into the film you get treated to a demonstration of an impressive looking unpowered mechanical gate opener.

I'd like to make one someday for our ATV/chicken gate, but there's not much information available, which is why I captured some images of that scene to study.

Figuring out the counterbalance weights and pulley placement might take some trial and error. I'd love to hear comments from any readers who may have seen one of these in action.

Posted Thu Feb 20 15:54:33 2014 Tags:
Training a pear tree

Even though I cut that poor old peach tree to within an inch of her life, I'm really more of a trainer than a pruner, especially with young trees.  Old-fashioned pruning advice will admonish you to cut a branch to a twig pointing in the direction you want it to grow, but you can get the same effect without setting the tree back by using a rope and weight to tie the branch down into the proper orientation.  By the time you train all the scaffolds, you may just discover there's next to nothing that really needs to be cut.  For example, the pear tree above, which I frameworked to Seckel a year ago, only needed the top lopped off once I tied down all the branches.

Training a plum tree

The European plums I added to our collection a year ago needed a bit more cutting, but not much.  They came with extra scaffold branches, and I let them all grow the first year.  As the tree neared its on-farm birthday, I figured I should select my favorites and give them a bit more of the tree's attention by pruning away extra limbs.

Training an apple tree

Despite using such a light hand on the pears, apples, and plums, the rest of our peach trees will probably get significantly more pruning since they grow like crazy on our farm.  But that will have to wait until the next sunny day.

Posted Fri Feb 21 07:39:53 2014 Tags:
how to make an unpowered gate?

Thank you Roland, M, and Zimmy for the awesome comments on yesterday's post about making a contraption to open gates.

Digging around for more information turned up a free Google book titled Fences, Gates, and Bridges and how to build them.

It's a jam packed book of fencing ideas that has a few human powered gate opening options that may help to inspire a new approach to this puzzle.

Posted Fri Feb 21 15:48:07 2014 Tags:

Bloodling WolfWant some fun weekend reading?  Aimee Easterling (our first Wetknee partner author) is working on a werewolf novel, and she made a standalone prequel short story available for free!  You can download a pdf copy by joining her email list (and the book will soon be free on Amazon --- she'll email you a followup when that's the case for those of you who prefer reading on your kindles).

I know werewolf fiction is off topic, so I won't bother you with frequent updates here.  All the more reason to join Aimee's list if you're interested!  Be sure to tell all of your paranormal-fantasy-loving friends about the story as well if you want extra brownie points.

To join the list, just input your data in the form below (or go to Wetknee Books and use the second form on the sidebar).  Enjoy!

Sign up for Aimee's email list (and download a free copy of Bloodling Wolf):

Posted Sat Feb 22 07:26:05 2014 Tags:

speculating on how to make a low budget gate opener
I think the Blue Ribbon for Best Gravity Powered Gate Opener should go to Alvin E Gandy for his ingenious system that can still be seen in some parts of Texas and New Mexico.

The patent was issued in the 1960's and might be a good starting point for someone who wants to make a more simplified version. A solar powered electric opener would be easier, but only last as long as the life of the battery and motor before it would need to be fixed. This mechanical beauty might still be functional a hundred years from now with some periodic lubrication.

Image credit goes to Google Patents and Michael Lubke.

Temple Grandin human powered gate opener.
Unpowered gate opening part 2.

Posted Sat Feb 22 15:35:46 2014 Tags:

Wood stove catAfter a gushing start, warm nights slowed our maple sap flow down to a trickle.  Still, it's no hardship to collect the one bucket on my morning walk with Lucy, and it's simple to boil down the sap post-freezing on top of the fire I light most mornings to take the chill off.  In fact, I realized that the reason I thought the juice wasn't worth the squeeze when we first tried maple syruping about seven years ago was because we didn't have the infrastructure in place to make the process simply take an extra minute here or there in the course of our normal day.  (That is true of so many homesteading tasks....)

Of course, I'll admit that, even in the mountains, we're too far south for optimal sugar mapling --- that's why we're just tapping one tree rather than going whole-hog with the endeavor.  On the other hand, I was interested to read that the sugar content of sap isn't just determined by geography, but also by microclimate and time of year.  One New England study showed a range in sap sugar content of 1.8% to 8.4% (the difference between boiling 36 gallons of sap down to make 1 gallon of syrup and boiling only 8 gallons of sap down to make that same gallon of syrup).  Here are factors that make some sap sweeter than others:

  • Among all trees, sugar content is low in sap at first, quickly rises to a peak, then gradually decreases over the sap run, with another little rise at the end (just as the taste turns "buddy").  So, if you're familiar with your sap season, you could presumably just tap trees during times when the sugar content is high.
  • Cooking down maple syrupSun makes sugar, so those trees with more branches and those trees more exposed to the sun tend to have higher sugar content in their saps compared to neighboring trees tested at the same time.  We accidentally picked a winner in this regard since the tree we tapped is (strangely) on a south-facing hillside at the edge of our parking area, so the tree gets lots of sun all year.
  • Larger trees make more sugar, and so do trees with wider growth rings (meaning they're growing faster).
  • Trees that are sweeter than their neighbors continue to be relatively sweeter throughout the season and from year to year.  Whether this is due to the factors mentioned above or whether the sweetness is genetic was beyond the scope of the study.

Weighing maple syrupObsessive data collecting aside, I'm in love with the process of boiling sap down into sugar because the partway stage tastes just like vanilla extract smells.  After letting the sap simmer on the wood stove until it was starting to thicken, I moved four days' supply over onto the electric stove for the final cookdown Saturday morning (taking over watch duty from Huckleberry).

There are lots of ways to tell when your maple syrup is done, but I chose to eyeball it, backing the diagnosis up with a weight test.  A gallon of maple syrup should weigh 11 pounds, so a cup of maple syrup should weigh 11 ounces.  I figure we produced a bit less than half a cup of syrup, so the weight came out just about right.  I also eked out another tablespoon or so by making hot chocolate in the cook-down pan, rinsing the syrup off the walls for the only sweetener in the beverage --- delicious!

Posted Sun Feb 23 07:29:33 2014 Tags:
using miter saw to cut firewood

Our chainsaw stopped working halfway through cutting up some branches.

I finished this pile with the miter saw, which turned out to be easier since I didn't have to worry about the chain meeting the dirt.

Posted Sun Feb 23 15:22:17 2014 Tags:

Black AustralorpAre you thinking of getting started with chickens this year, but don't know which breeds to consider?  Mark and I have experimented with a heaping handful of chicken varieties and have heard reports from our readers on many others.  In the process, we've decided that certain varieties are better than others for homesteaders.

Why did we choose the chickens below from the long list of varieties out there?  I'm assuming that if you're a homesteader, you value productivity, meaning that your chickens should you plenty of eggs and/or meat for the amount of feed you buy.  You'll likely want your chickens to forage so their eggs have rich orange yolks, and you'll want them to survive the predators that inevitably pop up in a homestead situation.  In other words, you're looking for one tough chicken.

In contrast, non-homesteaders often have different criteria for choosing hens.  They might want a really cool-looking bird, especially one who will win first prize at the fair.  Non-homesteaders may be more interested in a chicken's cuddle potential than in its livestock status, and they may also be interested in preserving an heirloom breed even if that bird isn't a prime forager in their region.  If any of those options sound like you, you might still enjoy some of the chickens on this list, but will also want to do more research before choosing the members of your flock.  To get you started, here's a list of the top 10 breeds by popularity, here are Murray McMurray Hatchery's recommendations, and here are Jenna Woginrich's recommendations.

Red star chickOkay, let's get down to brass tacks!  If I was going to tell a homesteader to buy three chicken varieties, they would be:

Red Star/Golden Comet/other red hybrid egg-layers.  Different hatcheries have their own proprietary "formula" for optimal egg-layers, but the red hybrids we've tried have all been excellent producers and calm birds that forage pretty well.  These are top choices for chicken tractors, especially if you're not going to be eating any of your birds, but they might be a hair too friendly for optimal free ranging without ending up pooping on your porch.

Black Australorps.  These are our favorite all-around homestead birds, which we use for eggs and meat.  (The carcass won't look like a store-bought chicken.)  Australorps are extremely hardy and are great foragers, but they don't lay quite as well as the hybrids mentioned above, nor do they lay much in the winter.  On the other hand, the Australorps are meatier birds, so they make better broilers --- a jack of all trades, but master of none.

Cornish Cross.  If you're simply interested in a meaty chicken that will give you a carcass that looks like the ones in the grocery store with the least feed consumption, this is the bird for you.  I'll admit we've never actually raised Cornish Cross, but that's because we like to hatch our own chicks and to keep one flock for eggs and meat instead of two separate flocks.  If we were going to buy 25 chicks planning to put the adults in the freezer, we'd go straight for Cornish Cross.

Buff Orpington

Other breeds to consider.  Rhode Island Reds will be midway between hybrid egg-layers and Black Australorps in their traits and Plymouth Rocks will be midway between Black Australorps and Cornish Cross.  If you lean more toward eggs or meat rather than having tastes that run right down the middle like ours do, you might want to try one of these alternatives.  Buff Orpingtons and Wyandottes also come highly recommended, but I haven't tried either one yet, and there are also laying ducks to consider.

Finally, don't forget to get all of your gear together while you're in the planning stages.  Check out these automatic feeder ideas, invest in a quality brooder, and get the chicks off to a good start with clean water.  Good luck and enjoy your chicken adventure!

Posted Mon Feb 24 07:23:14 2014 Tags:
trying to make a low budget treadle feeder from available supplies

We're still having a problem with rats stealing our chicken feed.

You can find free plans for a treadle feeder on the internet that involve cutting out pieces of plywood, but I wanted to see if I could build a smaller, low budget version from basic lumber supplies like 2x6's and furring strips.

The next step is to build a platform for the chickens to step onto that will be hooked to some linkage that lifts the cover off the food with the help of the weight of the chicken. When they step off the cover goes back down.

Posted Mon Feb 24 16:35:30 2014 Tags:
Training peach

I saved our medium-sized peach trees to train and prune when Kayla could get across the creek since she had some of her own in need of attention.  I could tell she was a bit afraid of hurting the tree by doing it wrong, which made me realize how far I've come in the last few years.  It hasn't been all that long since I pruned with book in hand and agonized over each cut, but after a few years of pruning and seeing the results, I'm quite comfortable pruning our peaches.

Book learning

I haven't reached that point with all of our fruit plants yet, though.  I did a lot of this --- reading over the relevant section in Lee Reich's The Pruning Book and Grow Fruit Naturally and then worrying over each cut.  I was especially leery of harming our hardy kiwis since I'd sent some cuttings to a reader a few weeks ago, and he reported that when they started leafing out, he saw bloom buds!  In other words, if I don't see flowers off the hardy kiwis this year it's my own fault for cutting the bloom buds off.  Having Kayla present for moral support was very helpful in this case, even though she knew less than I did --- it made me remember that cutting usually works out alright.

Girdled apple tree

And then there's the huge problem that I saw last week and have been trying to block out ever since.  All three of our just-ready-to-fruit apple trees in the forest garden have been girdled just below the soil line and will probably perish.  (The Virginia Beauty, strangely Scionwoodenough, is fine, even though it's no more than fifty feet away.)  I've never protected the bases of our fruit trees because I'd never seen vole damage, but I guess I'll have to cross that bridge now.  And I'll also need to consider whether growing sweet potatoes in the forest garden was such a great idea --- it definitely produced an awesome living mulch and lots of biomass, but I suspect the tasty tubers might be the reason for the vole population explosion.  Or maybe they just ate my trees because of this winter's weird weather?

No matter what the cause is, I don't want to lose the two apple varieties that aren't represented elsewhere on our farm, so I took some scionwood and will graft them onto the rootstock that's coming in the mail in March.  I guess it's lucky that the nursery turned out to only sell roostock in larger quantities, meaning that I was forced to order more rootstock than I thought I needed at that time.  The photo to the left shows two good pieces of apple scionwood, plus a sad section of pear scionwood from the tree I planted outside our core homestead.  I'll be grafting the pear onto a new rootstock this spring as well.

Propagating a hazel

Hazel cuttingOn a more pleasant note, the pruning afternoon turned into a bit of a propagation spree as well.  Our little hybrid hazel had sent up a sucker that was far enough away from the parent plant that I could clip it off and tease out some roots to go with it, and a gooseberry bush also yielded up several kids.  Kayla even found a rooted shoot at the base of one of our hardy kiwis.  I sent all of the babies home with Kayla to hedge my bets --- if her plants thrive and mine fail, I can always get cuttings from her to spruce back up our planting.  That seems like the permaculture way to create backups.

Unless I've forgotten someone, every bush and tree in our homestead is now pruned.  Time to move on to the next project on my list!

Posted Tue Feb 25 07:45:15 2014 Tags:
using a hatchet for kindling

One of the fulcrum pins on our Chopper 1 axe fell off and got lost in the mud.

Our Tekton Camping Axe does a good job with the help of the Bostitch AntiVibe hammer, but it's more than twice the effort as the Chopper 1.

With any luck the replacement pin will be in the mail this week.

Posted Tue Feb 25 15:47:37 2014 Tags:
Overcooked maple syrup

Let's say that --- just hypothetically --- you put some maple sap on the wood stove before you go to bed, figuring you're going to damp down the stove so it'll just cook partway down before morning.  But you forget to close the air vent, so when you wake up, the sap has turned into maple taffy in the bottom of your pan.  At first, you're thankful that it didn't go further and ruin a perfectly good batch of sap, but then you realize that you're going to lose a lot of the precious sweetness when you scrape it out of the pot.  What are you to do?

Homemade maple syrupMy solution was to pour on another round of sap and warm the mixture over a very gentle fire as the cast-iron wood stove came back up to temperature the next morning.  Soon, the maple taffy allowed itself to be stirred back into the sap, and before long, I had some sap just waiting to be cooked down into syrup.

That was so successful that I took a look at my previous half-cup of maple syrup and saw that it had become more the consistency of honey when I put it in the fridge.  So I cooked my second batch down to a bit runnier of a consistency than you'd usually want, carefully poured the hot syrup into the cold syrup, swirling to mix (and not pouring enough hot at any one time to crack the jar), and I ended up with a cup of perfect-consistency maple syrup.  Success!

For those of you keeping track at home, this cup of maple syrup is the result of about 5 gallons of sap from a 14-inch sugar maple over the course of one week (four heavy flow days and three light flow days).  That means my sugar maple sap has a relatively low sugar content of slightly less than 1%, although possibly my freeze concentration method loses more sugar than others suggest.  What I probably should do next is boil down a gallon without freezing first to get a more solid estimate on sugar content of the sap.

Posted Wed Feb 26 07:36:22 2014 Tags:
using a steel brush bit to clean up some barn wood

Anna asked me to build a new seed starting shelf today.

It didn't take long to clean up this piece of barn wood with a steel brush drill bit.

We both decided the worn wood look was better than a brand new shelf board.

Posted Wed Feb 26 16:22:14 2014 Tags:
Onion seedlings

I'm thrilled to be able to say that my simple bleach-soak of the seed-starting flats seems to have been sufficient to eliminate damping off.  Just about every seed sprouted, and many of the seedlings are starting to put out their first new leaves.  They're a bit leggy, though, so I had Mark build the youngsters a new shelf near the bottom of the south-facing windows for more constant lighting over the next month or so before they hit the garden.

Sifting compost

Preheating potting soilThat left my warm shelf near the wood stove open and ready for the next round of seedlings --- broccoli and cabbage.  Since I didn't plan ahead and preheat my stump dirt this time around, I sifted out the frozen chunks, filled the trays, and heated the potting soil the quick way on top of two firebricks on a damped-down stove.  I'll let the chunks of soil I removed thaw and then will sift again to remove the nutshells and pieces of wood, which seem to be more numerous in this stump dirt than the debris has been in previous years.  Then the rest of the stump dirt will go toward the next set of seedlings --- tomatoes and peppers.

I try not to start too much indoors, so most of the plants we're sprouting here are backups for others that will soon be started under quick hoops.  But after a cold winter, the ground will stay cold for quite a while, which means it's worth giving extra attention to our indoors starts so we can have a normal first harvest.  Our winter stores are getting a bit slim and we're looking forward to the first new lettuce and other food from the 2014 garden.

Posted Thu Feb 27 07:34:49 2014 Tags:
how to fix the fulcrum pin on a chopper 1 axe

Needle nose pliers don't have enough torque to bend these cotter pins, but a combination of vise grips and channel locks is just what a Chopper 1 needs to properly replace the fulcrum pin.

Posted Thu Feb 27 14:37:21 2014 Tags:

Whiz bang chicken pluckerWhen we moved to our farm seven years ago, both Mark and I knew the homestead would be a full-time job and working a "real" job too would slow things down dramatically.  Neither of us come from wealthy families, though, so we needed a source of income.

About that time, we went to learn how to slaughter chickens at a friend's farm.  They had a Whiz-Bang Chicken Plucker and Mark was very taken by its ingenuity.  When we looked the product up on the internet and realized that the inventor, Herrick Kimball, was running a small home business based on that (and other products), Mark wondered if we could do the same.

To cut a long story short, Mark ended up inventing a POOP-free chicken waterer that has reached thousands of chicken-keepers in the U.S. and around the world.  We had to tighten our belts for the first year because the microbusiness barely brought us above the poverty line, but then word of mouth helped Mark's invention take off.  Soon we had enough spare cash that Mark was able to hire another local homesteader to help me in the garden part time, giving him time to work on inventing an even better chicken waterer.

Idea Book for GardenersImagine how thrilled Mark was yesterday, when his role model wrote about the EZ Miser on his blog.  We'd sent Herrick a review copy just on the off chance he was willing to give our waterer a try, but his kind writeup went far beyond our expectations.  In fact, Herrick told me he plans to write a review of Trailersteading shortly as well, which prompted me to remember that I wanted to read and review his recent Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners.

Stay tuned for more tips from an inventor very much like Mark in a later  post.  In the meantime, be sure to add The Deliberate Agrarian to your reading list --- this is one of my top-ten favorite homesteading blogs and should be required reading for both the aspiring and established homesteader.  Enjoy!

Posted Fri Feb 28 07:01:20 2014 Tags:
Electric box

The line from the creek pump to the wash water tank finally thawed out last week.  We thought it was still frozen at first, but a failure to follow protocol led to fortuitous results just this once.

We turn on the pump at the electric box outside the trailer.  The rule is to leave the lid open when the pump is running so we'll notice and turn it off a couple of hours later.  But when we tested the pump Friday, we forgot to open the lid.  So when the pump didn't seem able to push the ice up the hill, we forgot to turn it off.

Half an hour later, I noticed water spewing out of the line.  We opened the electric box lid as a reminder and soon had a thousand gallons of wash water on hand.  No more pumping water out of the well and into the tank!  Yet another sign that spring is coming to the farm.

Posted Fri Feb 28 17:01:13 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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