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

archives for 03/2014

Mar 2014
Brining heirloom chickens

One of the few store-bought foods that Mark and I still consider a guilty pleasure is the occasional rotisserie chicken.  That makes me want to learn to cook a chicken as succulently delicious so I can make an equally tasty (but more nutritious) version at home.  My first experiment involved brining one of our homegrown chickens with pepper and garlic added to the salted water, then roasting the bird while basting with butter.  The result was tasty, but  the leg meat was still a bit tougher than I would have liked.

I'm curious to hear from our readers who also grow heirloom chickens for meat.  Do you have a favorite way of turning the meat tender and succulent?  Or perhaps this is a losing battle and you can only get that kind of mouth-feel if you raise Cornish Cross, who grow so fast they're still very young when slaughtered?  I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section!

Posted Sat Mar 1 07:01:12 2014 Tags:
1954 Navy survival film

This 1955 Survival film was made by the US Navy to educate pilots on how to live off the land in north temperate regions but has some considerable entertainment value to the modern day homesteader.

I enjoyed the drawings of animal traps and the narrator's casual tone, even though he seems to think turtles are amphibians.

The section on edible insects taught me that caterpillars are not good to eat but grubs are often the safer bet.

Posted Sat Mar 1 17:01:11 2014 Tags:
Huckleberry and family

October through February are our primary visiting seasons due to farm constraints the rest of the year.  Of these months, the first and the last are the best for trips because weather is mild enough that the chickens don't need extra care and the house can survive without a wood fire, but the garden isn't nipping at my heels.  Soon, our first chicks will be hatching and I'll want to be on hand in case they have trouble for the next couple of months, and after that the weeds will be growing a mile a minute, then the garden produce will be begging to be preserved.  I rarely feel called to leave the farm at any season, but soon even those urges will be stilled.

Which is all a long way of explaining why we slipped away this weekend to visit my father and attend the South Carolina Organic Growing Conference.  More photos and tidbits from the trip in later posts --- today I'm just sharing a photo of Mom's visit last weekend when Huckleberry clearly ruled the roost.

Posted Sun Mar 2 07:01:09 2014 Tags:
Homesteading books
The Weekend Homesteader, found in its natural habitat in a permaculture/homesteading community in South Carolina.

Posted Sun Mar 2 13:27:26 2014 Tags:
Daddy and tomatoes

If you want to go to a conference 45 minutes from your father's house and want to squeeze in a visit at the same time, do you attend the conference first and visit afterwards, or do you have family time right off the bat?  Mark's gut said the latter, and I think he was right, since I wanted to see Daddy more than I wanted to learn at the conference...and some weeks I can't manage even one night away from home.  After a wonderful visit on Friday, I managed to net two whole hours of sleep, and that only came once I gave up on the bed in the guest room and on the quiet and comfortable couch and went to squeeze myself into the back seat of the car.  (Yes, I am the world's weirdest sleeper and really like small spaces.  I should have brought my tent.)

BuffetAnyway, that's all a long way of explaining why --- even though Mark and I were itching to hear Tradd's newest talks and to check out the South Carolina Organic Growing Conference --- we only managed to enjoy a delicious lunch there before heading home.  On two hours of sleep, even pastured pigs, medicinal mushrooms, and biointegrated homesteads didn't sound as lovely as returning to the peace and quiet of our own farm.

I did get one of the nicest February tomato plants I've ever seen out of the weekend, though, plus some cuttings and a rooted sprout from Daddy's Brown Turkey fig.  That brings us up to five fig varieties we're trialling for cold hardiness here at the edge of their range.  More on what I'm doing with my new figs in a later post.

Posted Mon Mar 3 07:57:20 2014 Tags:
image of our flock of chickens hiding from the snow under an old camper

A popular chicken hang out during snow days is under our old camper.

Lucy likes this same spot on hot summer days for the shade and cool ground.

Posted Mon Mar 3 15:54:56 2014 Tags:
Propagating figs

Rooting figsAfter quite a bit of experimentation, last year I settled on a very simple (but effective) method of propagating figs.  I take hardwood cuttings and sink them about eight inches into damp stump dirt in a pot, put the pot on a heating pad, and ignore it for a few weeks until I need the heating pad for something else.  I water occasionally during those heating-pad weeks and during the subsequent weeks, keeping the soil at the moisture level appropriate for seed-starting (or just a hair drier), and put the pots in a sunny spot once the leaves begin to push out of the buds.  By the end of the summer, the cuttings are extraordinarily well rooted and are ready to go into the ground.

Future figI treated the Brown Turkey cuttings from Daddy to last year's methodology, and also potted up the rooted shoot we teased away from the base of his mature fig bush.  The latter will go into the ground soon after our frost-free date, and I'm thinking of putting it on the west side of our wood-stove alcove so the fig will enjoy lots of winter sun and heat while helping shield the trailer from summer sun.  I'll probably keep one of the rooted cuttings as well and then will give the rest away to blog readers or local friends, so stay tuned for future giveaways.

Posted Tue Mar 4 07:44:13 2014 Tags:
adjusting a gutter that was not level

This Snap On extra long ratchet driver made these hard to reach jobs easier.

It's one of the few tools I've held onto since my copier repair days.

Posted Tue Mar 4 16:22:20 2014 Tags:
Snowy tomato

I'm always of two minds about the first spring flowers.  On the one hand, I really, really want to see them, not just for myself, but for my hungry bees.  But on the other hand, I know that early blooms on the fruit trees often mean no harvest that year due to late freezes.  So I decided to poke back through the blog to determine when our peaches and crocuses have bloomed in past years, and how that relates to the subsequent peach harvest:

First crocus bloom
Peaches at first pink stage
Peaches harvested?

Broccoli seedlingThe first thing I noticed --- late peach blooms do seem to be correlated to an actual peach harvest that year.  But do early crocus blooms mean no peach harvest?  Nope.  In fact, the date of the first crocus blooms seems to have very little bearing on when the peach flowers open, suggesting that the two plants are using different cues to decide on the proper time to pop open their flowers.  (Last year's crocus blooms might have been a bit of an outlier, though, because I had transplanted the bulbs in late winter to a new location.)

This post is all a long and geeky way of saying --- okay, crocuses, open up those buds!  And, peaches, stay sound asleep as long as you can.  Because, of course my plants listen to my wishes, right?  (Maybe I should hedge my bets by dumping the ice from my maple sap concentration campaign around the bases of our fruit trees.)

Posted Wed Mar 5 07:23:49 2014 Tags:
making a shade trellis

We upgraded our grape shade trellis today.

Thanks to one of our constant readers Brian we realized the 2x4's we planned to put up would block a good deal of Winter sun.

It's two loops of 10 gauge galvanized trellis wire that uses a couple of heavy duty turnbuckles to increase the tension.

Posted Wed Mar 5 15:58:36 2014 Tags:
Protecting chickens

As you may have noticed, I've been running a bit of an ongoing series here with answers to questions new chicken-keepers might have.  Previous posts included how to hatch homegrown chicks and how to choose the best chicken breeds for homesteaders.  Today I want to touch on a topic that's not so photogenic, but that needs to be considered by anyone who wants to get into chickens --- how to protect those delicious morsels from the wild animals who'd love nothing more than to eat them up.

Baby chicks are most likely to be eaten by rats and snakes, but adult hens tend to succumb to dogs, hawks, raccoons, opossums, and similar predators.  Your first line of defense against predators is to protect your flock when they're most vulnerable --- at night.  A solid chicken coop is optimal, and if your predator pressure is high you'll want to shut the birds in each evening (or to invest in an automatic chicken door to do the job for you).  Raccoons, especially, can reach right through small holes, so be sure your birds' roost is far enough away from gaps so that a predator can't rip their heads off without even entering the A dog protecting chickenshen house.  To be truly predator proof, the coop will also need to have a solid base that extends for several inches into the soil to prevent diggers from entering the coop.  Finally, even though I love giving scraps to chickens, I'm starting to lean away from putting those kitchen scraps in the coop since the scent attracts predators who stick around to eat my birds.

What if your chickens are getting picked off in the daytime instead?  If you have a small run (which you shouldn't), you can beef up the walls just like you did the coop, then can string fishing line over the top in a woven pattern to keep out hawks and owls.  But if you prefer giving your birds larger pastures, or even letting them free range, it's going to be nearly impossible to keep predators out of their daytime living area.  Instead, I recommend adding a rooster to your flock, since he'll sound the alarm and do his best to fight off any invader during daytime hours.  A good dog (trained to protect, rather than eat, chickens) is the second line of defense --- our dog comes running as soon as she hears our rooster's alarm call, and she has managed to chase away a hawk that had pinned a hen three times over the past winter.

White LeghornChickens are pretty alert to predators during the daytime, with hawks being their primary downfall.  After a rooster and a dog, I have two more lines of defense against raptors.  First, I make sure that our chickens roam in areas with lots of bushes and other things to hide under.  Hens often see a hawk coming as the raptor dives down to dine, so if they have something to scurry beneath, the chickens might be able to evade capture.  Second, I raise dark-colored chickens, since I've learned the hard way with multiple breeds over multiple years that letting white chickens free range is like putting up a flashing neon sign: "Chicken take-out, now hot!"

I'd be curious to hear from others who have dealt with their own predator problems.  Which predators are the most likely to eat your chickens?  What do you do to protect the flock?

And for those of you in the planning stages of starting your own chicken operation, be sure to check out our chicken waterers, which keep you from having to handle manure and keep your birds from having to drink it.

Posted Thu Mar 6 07:24:17 2014 Tags:
trellis wire tension tip

What would I do differently when installing another heavy duty shade trellis?

Use fresh trellis wire. We used some recycled wire on the first loop and straightening out the kinks used up most of the tension in the turnbuckle.

The second loop was from a fresh roll and looks a lot tighter.

Posted Thu Mar 6 15:33:43 2014 Tags:
Lettuce seedlings

Dead laciniato kaleLast year at this time, we were chowing down on kale and lettuce leaves that survived the winter under quick hoops and started rebounding as the weather warmed up.  Not so in 2014.  I was able to find a handful of brussels sprouts that had been protected under the mulch for dinner Wednesday, but otherwise it's a waiting game right now.  The new lettuce I planted a few weeks ago has sprouted and some of the kale plants survived and are sending out new leaves, both of which we'll be eating in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Mark is pouting because we're down to butternut squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, and frozen green beans from last year, and both of us are used to a more rounded vegetable diet.  I'd rather wait and eat real food than expand the selection out with grocery store offerings, though.

Quick hoops

Frozen Swiss chardThe positive side of the cold winter is that it helped me get a more solid handle on the cold hardiness of various greens.  Last winter, Fordhook Giant Swiss chard survived the winter with no protection, so I thought the Swiss chard might be just as hardy as our kale.  Not so.  Swiss chard I protected with quick hoops this winter completely perished, along with the Laciniato kale, but my troopers (Red Russian and Dwarf Siberian kale) survived the subzero temperatures under their quick hoops.

Red Russian kale

I used to think of Red Russian as the more delicate of my two dependable kale varieties, but it turns out that the smaller variety did better during this excessively cold winter.  Those of you in the true north should take note and plant accordingly, although I'll admit that if we started having winters like this one more regularly, I'd follow Eliot Coleman's advice and erect a high tunnel over my quick hoops.

Posted Fri Mar 7 07:21:43 2014 Tags:
using a gun to kill a rat

We've still been having an issue with rats in the chicken coop.

I sent one to an early grave thanks to some help from a box of Rat Shot.

You can find a box of 20 for around 8 dollars. The small pellets spread out making it easy to hit a moving rodent while at the same time any extra shot ends up bouncing off nearby structures.

Posted Fri Mar 7 15:54:19 2014 Tags:
Anna Barn cat
Barn cat

Five years ago, Strider turned up in our barn, sick and in need of a home.  Since then, we've managed just fine with two cats --- Strider does all the hard work around the farm and Huckleberry lets us spoil him.  But Thursday afternoon, the cat balance got out of whack.

Another plaintive meow from the barn turned up this little critter, who is still too scared of me to let me check its sex.  The barn cat looks pretty healthy, but was starving and quickly downed nearly a quart of dry cat food over the first 24 hours before starting to slow down to a more normal eating pace.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the feline.  It meows plaintively at me, begging for something even when there's still food in its dish, but it's too scared to come closer than three or four feet away from a human, and that only when I sit down and look in the other direction.

Two cats in the house is really more than I can handle, especially when they both want attention at once.  (Mark's more of a dog person.)  So Mark and I are agreed that this little feline wouldn't fit in.  But I'm not sure if I can catch it to give it away, so I'm a little stuck by the cat in the barn.  Does anyone local want a cat in need of serious TLC?

Posted Sat Mar 8 08:22:33 2014 Tags:
close up view of new seed starting shelf

How did the new seed starting shelf turn out?

Not only does the worn barn wood look nice but the height is just right to slide the indoor chick brooder under which is about to be booted up any day now.

Posted Sat Mar 8 14:48:17 2014 Tags:

pH meterI've always wanted to be able to test the pH of my soil at home, since that's one soil quality I need to manage carefully, especially around blueberries.  However, the cheap pH meter I picked up at a big-box store several years ago wasn't even worth the few bucks I paid for it --- I could never get the device to read anything when I flipped it to pH.  So when Joey got me a fancy pH meter at an auction, I was thrilled!

The Kelway Soil Tester certainly feels more impressive than the previous meter I'd been using, but I'm not really sure I trust its results.  In a few spots, the Kelway Soil Tester read close enough to what my soil reports said that I figured it was on track --- 6.8 in the blueberries where my 2012 soil report said 6.5 (and where I wish the pH was much lower) and 6.2 in the subsoil of the forest garden aisles where my soil report said 6.3.  But when I stuck the tester in a pile of leached wood ashes that have been sitting out in the weather for a month or so, the first test read 5.6.  Only after the day warmed up a bit more did that test come back as 7.4, closer to the alkaline level I would expect from wood ashes.

Wood ashesThat got me wondering if temperature could play a role in pH testing.  I know that moist soil is important for getting a meter like this to read, but lack of water isn't anything our soil suffers from at the moment.  On the other hand, our ground is half-frozen in spots, despite a sunny week.  Does anyone understand the chemistry/physics of pH testers enough to know whether I need to wait and test when the ground is warm?  Anything else that might make a meter think wood ashes are acidic instead of alkaline?

Posted Sun Mar 9 08:43:17 2014 Tags:
pattern a 22 caliber rat shot bullet leaves behind

Jake's comment on my post about 22 caliber pest control got me thinking.

Our Phoenix Arms 22 caliber pistol is called a Long Rifle which I'm guessing means the barrel is rifled to improve accuracy.

I stood 7 feet away and shot a cardboard box that showed a pattern about 12 inches wide. What was weird is right after I did that a rat scurried out of the weeds with Lucy standing by to see what we were doing. Anna yelled "Get it Lucy!" and Lucy caught it and crunched it within a few seconds. The term "Good Girl" is a vast understatement today.

Posted Sun Mar 9 14:02:09 2014 Tags:
Butternut squash seeds"This year I shared my seed order with a friend to bring the price down. I never plant 25 of the same plant. I am curious how much you spent of seeds this year. Also I am curious how many plants of what you are planning."
--- Kathleen

Even though it's a little cheaper to buy all of our seeds at once, I actually plan on two orders per year --- one in the winter for the main season and one in early summer for the fall and winter garden.  This year, I spent $86 on the spring order and I spent $27 last summer on the fall order.  Keep in mind that I do buy from a relatively expensive company (Johnny's) and I buy big packages of many seeds since we grow all of our own vegetables and since I plant heavily in cold soil instead of starting many seeds inside.  On the other side of the equation, I do save a lot of our own seeds and I am sometimes able to eke out last year's packet for another year even for types of vegetable seeds we don't save.  Finally, this calculation doesn't include cover crop seeds, which probably come to another $25 to $50 per year.

To answer your second question --- I plan our garden by area, not by number of plants.  For example, I'll put in 8 beds of broccoli this spring and the same amount again in the fall.  Each bed is roughly 15 to 20 square feet, and I plant using a high-density system, so that would be about 80 broccoli plants for the spring planting and another 80 plants for fall.  As you can see in the table below, since I start most of our spring broccoli plants outside under quick hoops where germination isn't as perfect as inside on a heating pad, I went ahead and bought 1,000 broccoli seeds this year so I'd be sure to have plenty for both spring and fall plantings.  My rule of thumb is to have at least two or three times as many seeds as I need so I can plant heavily and can replant if the first set doesn't come up, gets scratched up by Huckleberry, or gets killed by a freak weather event.  It's always cheaper to buy the next size up than to rush in an extra seed order and pay an extra round of shipping for one package of seeds.

Spring/Summer Beds
Fall Beds
Seeds ordered


Beans, Green
5 (Succession planted)

Beans, Mung

1,000 seeds
1,000 seeds
Brussels Sprouts

(Will order in fall)
5,000 seeds
Corn, Sweet
17 (Succession planted)

1,000 seeds
6 (Succession planted)

Saved/leftover from last year


12 (Succession planted)
4 (Succession planted)
10 (Succession planted)
1/4 pound (I plant very heavily so we can harvest lots of  baby leaves)

Leftover from last year

10 (These are bulbing onions from seed.  In addition, I have a bed of perennial Egyptian onions for greens.)
3 (Potato onions)
1,000 seeds.  (In addition, potato onions are planted from divided sets.)

Peas, Sugar Snap
Leftover from last year

Poppies, Breadseed

Squash, Butternut

Squash, Summer
8 (Succession planted)

4 (The goal is to rotate our entire planting every three years, so I remove four beds and plant four new ones every year.)

Started from rooted runners in other beds
Sweet Potatoes

I start my own slips from saved tubers.
Swiss Chard


(Will order in fall)
Tokyo Bekana

(Will order in fall)
15 (This is 30 plants)



I hope that helps you get a handle on how much of an area to plant and how many seeds to buy for those of you planning big gardens this year.  The table above is geared toward Mark's and my tastes, of course, so I don't recommend that anyone precisely mimic what we do.  Total acreage (including small perennials not mentioned here, extensive areas set aside for cover crops, and aisles) comes to about a quarter of an acre, and the biggest cost for that vegetable garden is the straw we splurge on every year for mulch.

Posted Mon Mar 10 08:13:58 2014 Tags:

Bees in AmericaOur movie-star neighbor lent me a copy of Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, by Tammy Horn, which turned out to be an interesting, if dense, read.  I'll start with the negatives, as usual.  Bees in America is put out by a University Press, which often means the text is more scholarly than will be appealing to a layman audience.  Horn's book definitely pushes some of those "required reading" buttons, with more primary citation and repetition than is fun for non-historians to read.

On the other hand, if you're willing to do a bit of slogging and skimming, you'll find real gems within these pages.  The rest of this week's lunchtime series will offer some insight into the history of beekeeping in America, so here I'll just mention a couple of tidbits that didn't fit anywhere else.  Did you know that bees have been used as political and social metaphors for centuries, being used to teach that labor is a virtue and that the lower class is disposable in seventeenth century England?  And how about tanging, that tradition of banging pans or drums or ringing bells when swarms pass overhead --- did you realize tanging was originally meant to mark ownership of the swarm, not to make the bees land in your yard?  Stay tuned for other bee tidbits in later posts.

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Mar 10 12:00:36 2014 Tags:
putting a roof on a star plate building

We changed our mind about using 28 inch flashing for the Star Plate roof.

A plywood roof will allow us to crawl on it to install roofing felt and shingles.

Posted Mon Mar 10 16:11:59 2014 Tags:
First crocus

It seems I was looking in the wrong spot for the first crocus of the year.  This beauty turned up Monday afternoon, but the flower was so bold that I suspect it might have opened over the weekend.  The main crop, slowed down by the mulch under the peach tree, may be another week yet (or more if the forecast snow storm pans out).

Second chickMeanwhile, another sign of spring started peeping Saturday and popped out of the incubator Sunday and Monday.  The chick pictured here is number two, and I'll post a rundown on hatch data next week on our chicken blog for the geekier set.

We start our chicks on Avian Aqua Miser Originals, since the waterers keep the brooder dry, prevent
coccidiosis, and are just plain dependable.  If you want to follow our lead, we've marked down this premade chicken waterer to $25 (with free shipping) this week!

Posted Tue Mar 11 08:07:15 2014 Tags:

Making skepsWhen honeybees came to America, they were brought across the ocean in straw skeps.  In Bees in America, Horn explains that these skeps were originally considered an innovation in Europe since they replaced heavier logs and clay plots that were difficult to move.  Horn's book includes some interesting illustrations of how skeps were constructed, and I was especially intrigued to learn that ekes were often placed underneath skeps when the bees needed more room, a bit like nadiring a Warre hive.

In addition to skeps, early American beekeepers were fond of bee gums --- hollow logs used as hives.  Even though the inventor of the Langstroth hive (the primary beekeeping box today) was an American, Horn reports that colonists continued using bee gums and skeps long after the Langstroth hive took over in Europe.  Since skeps and bee gums don't allow for much inspection and manipulation, their use may be one reason the U.S. saw such a rash of pest and disease problems (which I'll cover in a later post).

Bee smokerSpeaking of the Langstroth hive, it was one of four inventions that changed the face of beekeeping in America between 1851 and 1873.  During that period, the bellows smoker, the movable frame hive, wax foundation, and the centrifugal extractor (along with advances in queen rearing) changed beekeeping from a hobby into an industry.  More on the changing face of beekeeping in America is to come in tomorrow's post.

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Mar 11 12:00:33 2014 Tags:
another triangle completed on the Star Plate roof chicken coop

We made some more progress on the Star Plate chicken coop.

Roof construction got easier once we figured out a proper place to put the ladder.

Posted Tue Mar 11 16:27:18 2014 Tags:

Honeybee on hazelSpring can't come early enough if you're a honeybee, eating through winter stores and itching for more pollen to feed your new brood.  This is the first year our hybrid hazel has really bloomed (albeit only male flowers so far), and the honeybees are definitely enjoying the early pollen source.  Previously, crocuses have provided the first bit of protein for our bees, so I'm thrilled to have hazels filling in the gap during such a late spring.

Of course, bees need more than pollen --- they need nectar too.  Many beekeepers feed sugar water at this time of year to simulate an early nectar flow, thus prompting the queen to lay more eggs sooner, bulking the hive up fast so they're ready to take advantage of the tree flowers that will open in a few weeks.

Previously, I've tried to only feed our bees in the fall and only then if they didn't look like they had enough honey to make it through the winter, but I'm relaxing my standards this spring.  We only have one hive left (the barn swarm having finally bit the dust during one of those subzero spells), and I want to be able to split it this spring.  Plus, I'd really like to be able to harvest honey --- it seems crazy that we've been raising honeybees for so long and have still been buying (or trading for) nearly all of our honey for the last few years.  Fancy techniques for raising honeybees only make sense if you get some yield along with the bees.

Empty Warre hive boxOur movie-star neighbor (aka my beekeeping mentor) recommends spring feeding only if you commit to keep feeding until there are lots of flowers around.  The idea is that you don't want to get the hive bulked up, then have a large colony starve because you stop feeding and the spring flowers aren't open yet.  To that end, I've kept a feeder on the bees full time over the last two weeks, although they've only eaten about 1.5 quarts so far.

As you can see from the photo above, our hive has a completely empty box below their main brood chamber to expand into.  We removed the bottom board last week, so now I'll be able to keep an eye on the colony's expansion and will report back about how the feeding campaign impacts their spring bulk up.  Only time will tell whether the spring feeding is a good or a bad call, but I'll keep you posted either way.

Posted Wed Mar 12 08:15:10 2014 Tags:

Apiary woodcutSome of the most vivid imagery in Bees in America involves honey hunters and migratory beekeepers.  Horn reports that during the colonial era, American honey hunters would search through the woods throughout the spring and summer looking for wild bee trees.  The journey would usually begin when the honey hunter set out a plate of flour surrounded by flower petals, attracting and marking the bees at the same time.  By following the path of the now-white bees through the air (a technique known as coursing), the honey hunters were able to locate the bee tree, then to mark it with a slash on the bark to demonstrate ownership.  Come fall, when the bee tree was full of honey, the honey hunter would return, cut down the tree, and split the sweet profits with the landowner.

Another story that really captured my interest involved French beekeepers in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the 1600s.  These early migratory beekeepers kept their hives on flatboats, traveling at night and anchoring beside flower-filled meadows each day to maximize their honey production.  Later, migratory beekeepers used the railroad and then trucks to move their bees, being paid for pollination (in addition to being able to sell their honey) by the beginning of the 1900s.  In fact, by the second half of the twentieth century, pollination services had become more lucrative than producing honey, with some beekeepers receiving $32 per hive placed in almond orchards in the 1990s.

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Mar 12 12:01:18 2014 Tags:
Star Plate supports

We did the first triangle with horizontal supports.

Installing a vertical 2x4 down the middle of each triangle gives more support.

The Star Plate has holes to secure the supports with a lag bolt, but we realized the alternative smaller holes were easier with long exterior screws.

Posted Wed Mar 12 15:29:00 2014 Tags:

Dividing and replanting our chives cluster in fall 2012 seems to have been a very good idea.  The three clumps did okay last year, but this spring, they're taking off early and quickly.  I was thrilled to realize this week that I now have several meals' worth of fresh, oniony goodness Omelet in trainingpoking out of the ground, with more on the way.

The only thing I would do differently is to cut back the dead growth this autumn rather than letting the top matter decay where it falls.  The new leaves pushed up right through the dead stems, so I had to pick a bit of straw-like material out of the greenery before we could eat it.  That didn't take any of the fun out of a homegrown omelet made from our eggs and chives and a bit of kefir-cultured sour cream, though.  Delicious and simple spring goodness!

Posted Thu Mar 13 07:40:32 2014 Tags:

Healthy bee broodOne of the most useful threads running through Bees in America was the history of pests and diseases that have troubled American hives nearly from the beginning.  Foulbrood and wax moths were the biggest issues in the early nineteenth century, and damage by the greater wax moth seems to have been even more extreme that varroa moths and colony collapse disorder are today.  In fact, 80% of the apiaries around Boston were abandoned by 1809 due to depredations of the greater wax moth.

Being able to inspect hives made a big difference in fighting both of these early pests once Langstroth developed a hive with movable frames, and foulbrood became even less common after a 1923 law outlawed bee gums and allowed bee inspectors to burn hives when signs of the disease were apparent.  However, foulbrood remained a major problem among American beekeepers until antibiotics were developed to fight the bacterium after World War II.  Unfortunately, some strains of the problematic microorganisms became resistant to antibiotics by the 1990s, which led beekeepers to begin using Integrated Pest Management, medicating hives only when signs of foulbrood were evident.  A similar strategy was used for varroa mites, which entered the scene along with tracheal mites in the 1980s.

Bees carrying in pollenPests and diseases weren't the only hurdle honeybees had to face, though.  Pesticides drifting from farmer's fields into bee territory became a major problem around the 1950s, and continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century.  The federal government developed some methods of remunerating beekeepers for their dead hives, but cash payouts didn't help the bees themselves.  Eventually, the worst pesticide, which came in grains that looked like pollen to bees, was outlawed.

Horn's book ended with the small hive beetle hitting Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in 1998, so no mention was made of colony collapse disorder, which started showing up two years after the book was published.  It's interesting to put our current beekeeping woes in perspective, though, and to realize that keeping bees in America has always been a struggle against pests, diseases, and chemicals.  As I'll explain in tomorrow's post, trying out different bee varieties can be part of the solution when new issues rear their ugly heads.

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Mar 13 12:01:17 2014 Tags:
an image that illustrates how to angle the middle support

How does the Star Plate middle support 2x4 get attached to the top of each wall?

It took a bit of trial and error to figure out the correct angle, but once we did it was just a matter of securing 2 long exterior screws through the bottom section of the wall.

Posted Thu Mar 13 16:23:29 2014 Tags:
Planting under quick hoops

There's nothing like a cold, snowy night to send me off into the garden with vigor the next day.  I know better than to plant seeds when the ground is that cold, but I figured I could get away with preparing beds for Friday's pea and Swiss chard planting, soaking some peas to give them a jump start, and even putting in broccoli, cabbage, and onion seeds in the warmer ground under a quick hoop.  (Yes, I did already start those last three crops in the house a few weeks ago, but I get better results outside most years.  Plus, the main rule of homesteading is: Backups, backups, backups.)

Bridge graft

Next, I headed out to the vole-girdled apple trees, which I've been ignoring ever since seeing the damage.  I'd planned to try a bridge graft, using twigs from each tree to traverse the gap between trunk and the bark-covered roots.  However, after digging for at least eight inches in all directions, I only found one rooted area that wasn't all the way girdled.  I don't hold out high hopes for that little bridge graft to take, but I figured there was no reason not to try it.

Posted Fri Mar 14 08:16:00 2014 Tags:

German black beeThe final thread I enjoyed untangling from Horn's Bees in America was the history about which types of honeybees were being raised in American apiaries over the last few centuries.  Horn reported that the first bees to be brought to what would later become the United States were German black bees.  These scrappy bees quickly swarmed into the wild and spread west ahead of the settlers, although they needed help crossing the Great Plains.

German black bees continued to be the primary variety until the same Langstroth who developed the Langstroth hive was involved in introducing Italian bees to America.  Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, many different kinds of bees were imported from abroad, but Italians soon became the most popular due to their gentleness.  However, a federal law in 1922 outlawed further imports of foreign bees in an effort to block out the Isle of Wight disease.

For a while, Americans seemed perfectly happy with what they had, but the pests and diseases that kept cropping up in apiaries made some beekeepers itch to import new varieties again.  Horn reports that, while American bees have largely been bred to similar genetics for the most efficient honey production, Europe has a more artisanal approach to honeybees, with lots of different varieties available for different purposes.  Especially after tracheal and varroa mites arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, many American beekeepers realized that finding more resistant bees was a better approach than dousing hives in chemicals, and in 2004, the federal law against importing honeybees was overturned.

Donning a bee suit to mow near a hiveIn the meantime, nature was filling in the gap.  Africanized honeybees (popularly known as "killer bees") are survivors, able to find nectar in a dearth, to build up to swarm size quickly, and to defend the hive aggressively.  The bees were introduced on purpose in Brazil in the 1950s, but they quickly swarmed north, resulting in many terrified efforts by the U.S. government to prevent the influx of so-called killer bees.  By the time the variety reached the Texas border, though, we realized the problem wasn't as severe as we'd imagined, although policies continue to isolate bees along border counties to slow their spread.  When Horn's book was published, Africanized honeybees were only found in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands since cold and humidity seem to be preventing the bees from spreading further north and east.

As long-time readers will know, we've had a lot of trouble keeping honeybees alive without chemicals, and the only hive that has so far gone the distance is a colony of bees bred in Texas using some Africanized genetics.  Yes, our part-killer bees are a little meaner than any of the other colonies we've had, but they also seem able to live without any medications at all (so far).  While that's a very small sample size, it makes me wonder if we should be terrified of Africanized bees, or if we should embrace the spread of honeybees that seem able to handle modern problems with aplomb.  I'd be curious to hear from others who have dabbled in chemical-free beekeeping --- do you think a slightly meaner hive is worth the tradeoff for simpler beekeeping?

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Mar 14 12:01:13 2014 Tags:
inside view of completed star plate roof

We installed the last plywood triangle today.

Having the roof support done makes it feel more like a chicken coop.

Posted Fri Mar 14 16:08:23 2014 Tags:
Winter tomato

Whatever magic Daddy worked on this little tomato plant, the effects have been quite impressive.  Despite leaving his climate-controlled sunroom to live in our not-too-sunny trailer where the night lows can drop into the 30s, the plant has continued to bulk out and thrive.

Friday, I noticed that the plant was already sending roots out the bottom of its half-gallon pot, so I potted it up into a two-gallon container, sinking the tomato plant deep enough so that the first set of leaves are only barely visible above the soil line.  Tomatoes root well from the stems, so this will give the plant more root area and will prevent it from getting leggy, even though the plant doesn't seem to have any problems in that area.

I'll be very curious to see how big this little guy gets in the next two months before our frost-free date, and whether it gives us ultra-early tomatoes.  Daddy plans to upgrade his tomato all the way to a five-gallon bucket while it's indoors, then to dig the plant a huge hole with post-hole diggers.  I may have to follow suit.

Posted Sat Mar 15 07:57:55 2014 Tags:
How to make a do it yourself plant watering can

How do you get that slow, smooth spray from a DIY plant watering can?

Heat a needle and then push holes through the cap.

A lot easier than going out to the store to buy one made in China. A smooth spray allows for more even watering compared to a quick dribble.

Posted Sat Mar 15 14:21:10 2014 Tags:
Snail and duckweed

How's the sky pond doing, you may be wondering?  (Okay, you probably weren't, but I was.)

Muddy sky pond

From a distance, the answer would be --- not good.  It got too muddy for me to replace the gutter line Lucy tore up, so the area I was trying to channel water out of is pure mud.  Not very photogenic or efficient to walk through.

Dog looking in pond

But Lucy reminded me to look closer....

Water snails

In the pond itself, I was surprised by the masses of living things waking up from the cold winter.  There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of these little water snails lining the walls, eating decaying vegetation.  Last summer, the parrot's feather and duckweed really took off, and most of the plants didn't survive the winter, so there's plenty of decomposing vegetation in the pond now to feed the snails.  If I could think of an easy way to harvest them, I suspect I could get enough protein out of these little critters to feed our flock for a day or two, leaving plenty of snails behind to repopulate the pond.

Chorus frog eggs

I don't know if the parrot's feather will come back to life, but the duckweed is already spreading across the surface.  The chorus frogs moved in about a week ago, and have been yelling in Mark's ears ever since, leaving behind their little clusters of eggs that will soon turn into tadpoles.  And lots of little water insects are scurrying about in the water.  Maybe Mark's right and this pond could host a goldfish or two this year.

Posted Sun Mar 16 07:49:50 2014 Tags:
Star Plate roof step

Pushing the Star Plate triangles above the top creates enough space at the bottom to have room to stand while securing the plywood to the frame.

Posted Sun Mar 16 14:51:13 2014 Tags:

While I wasn't looking, the garden started to grow.  I'd been a bit concerned that our overwintering garlic couldn't stand this winter's extremes, but the plants are starting to push out new leaves.  The rye cover crop I have on other beds is also filling in and growing up, and I can see hints of new leaves amid the strawberries.  I try to ignore my father's South Carolina reports of first asparagus, though --- I don't expect to see any of that for at least two weeks, if not longer.

Pea trellis

Although I'm planting little bits and pieces of early crops in the main gardens, my eye is most drawn to the sunny patch in front of the trailer.  Due to Mark's hard work on the gutter and Kayla and my dirt-hauling, the ground there is finally well-drained enough to grow non-aquatic plants, so I've put in some peas to begin shading the window before the kiwi and grapes get their feet under them.  The old saying goes that perennial vines take three years to get established: first they sleep, next they creep, and finally they leap.  During those sleeping and creeping years, I'll fill in their habitat with something annual.

Posted Mon Mar 17 07:47:10 2014 Tags:

Planet Whizbang Idea Book for GardenersI usually find something negative to say about every book (along with lots of positives), but Herrick Kimball's The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners is an exception.  This is self-publishing at its best --- quirky but polished.  If I had to say something negative, I'd beg for an index, but the table of contents is really specific enough to help you find projects within its pages.  Other than that, there's nothing not to love about the Idea Book.

The instant you open The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners, you'll be drawn in by the simple line drawings that are informative but also fun.  Think of Bill Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture and you've got the right idea.  I don't know why, but projects always look simpler with line drawings.  However, if you want photographic proof that Kimball's projects are possible, you'll also be pointed toward a hidden website as soon as you buy the book, which allows you to see plenty of photos of the author's work in action.

I'll write more about the projects themselves in later posts, but suffice it to say that many sound quite intriguing.  Kimball also did a great job of excerpting gardening advice from books and magazines of the 1800s, which is a time when gardening was a serious fact of life for most people.  I thoroughly recommend the chapter by E.P. Roe titled "How to Grow Strawberries of the Largest and Finest Quality" --- the method outlined is nearly identical to the one I use, which produces berries so large and delicious that everyone wants to visit us in May and June.

Okay, I did think of one more negative.  Once you buy a copy of The Plant Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners, you'll realize you need to buy two more to give away as gifts.  But that's a good problem, right?

This post is part of our Idea Book for Gardeners lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Mar 17 12:01:10 2014 Tags:
Lucy door weight to prevent chickens from entering garden

How much weight can a chicken lift or push through?

We've had a rebellious hen pushing her way through our home made dog door to scratch up the garden mulch.

Hopefully these two pieces of furring strips will be enough weight to stop a hen while at the same time allowing Lucy to still push through.

Posted Mon Mar 17 15:54:42 2014 Tags:
Anna Potting up
Repotting tomatoes

Daddy's rule of soup is: "Choose your pot wisely, because soup will expand to fill the space provided."  My rule of indoors plants is: "Don't buy potting soil because your plants will expand to fill the soil available."  Since I found a second stump dirt tree this year, that means I've been having fun starting more seeds inside than usual.


Mixing compostIn a perfect world, seedlings in flats would be potted up soon after they emerge into larger containers with higher-fertility soil.  My seedlings don't usually enjoy that perfect world, but I figured my tomatoes deserved a bit of pampering this year.  So I mixed an equal quantity of stump dirt and well-composted horse manure in the wheelbarrow and used that mixture to fill individual pots for the baby tomatoes.  This way, the plants can keep growing without hitting any boundaries, which is what keeps seedlings big and strong.

The broccoli, cabbage, and onion seedlings will go out in the garden much sooner, so I opted for a lazier approach to their health.  Instead of Repotting tomatopotting up, I simply soaked some composted manure in water and used that rich tea to water the seedlings right in their flats.  Stump dirt is relatively low in nitrogen, so this should give the seedlings a boost without requiring the extra space that larger pots would require.

Of course, emptying out the tomato flat meant that I had an extra flat on hand, and I had just enough stump dirt leftover from my weekend walk to fill that flat up.  So I started a few more varieties of tomatoes, some peppers, Malabar spinach, and even a few zinnias.  It's a good thing I've run out of stump dirt for the moment because I've also run out of space to put plants in front of sunny windows....

Posted Tue Mar 18 07:47:59 2014 Tags:

Whizbang shoulder yokeIf I had to pick a single project in The Project Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners that is the most useful, it would probably be the shoulder yoke.  Call me crazy, but I've wanted a yoke for years.  The idea is that by balancing a load on a piece of wood that spans your shoulders, it's much easier to carry heavy things.  And while wheelbarrows provide lower-work hauling on level ground, a yoke would make many of our jobs much simpler during mud season or when wandering through the woods in search of stump dirt.

The trouble with make a yoke is that the tools are traditionally carved out of a solid piece of wood, and most of us don't have that skill.  Enter the Plant Whizbang shoulder yoke, which is built by screwing together three pieces of 1X6, plus a little hardware and padding.

Mark and I are both itching to give this project a try, so hopefully you'll hear more about it in later posts.  In the meantime, I've included one of Kimball's drawings to get you thinking about homemade shoulder yokes.  (I highly recommend checking out the rest of the chapter, though, to simplify constructing your own yoke.)  And if you beat us to this project, I hope you'll send in a photo of your finished project along with a note about how it works for you!

This post is part of our Idea Book for Gardeners lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Mar 18 12:01:02 2014 Tags:
showing star plate flashing roof

We decided to use 28 inch flashing material to cover the Star Plate plywood.

Each piece gets overlapped by 6 inches and attached with small drywall screws.

Posted Tue Mar 18 15:55:25 2014 Tags:

Black chicksAnna: We had a hatch problem and these guys are supposed to be our replacement layers for next year.  What shall we do to fill in the gap?

Mark: How about we buy a few chicks at the feed store to add to our miniature flock?

Anna: Ooh, that sounds like fun!  What about ducks?

Mark: Who said anything about ducks?

Anna: Ducks!  What a great idea!  The feed store has Pekin, or we could buy Khaki Campbell from a local farmer.  Pekin are really for meat, so the Khaki Campbell would be a better bet....

Mark: Calm down.  Weren't we talking about chicks?  You know, baby chickens that we already know how to raise and have the equipment for.

Anna: Or I could look online and see which varieties are available there.  Hmmm, let me look through my books, too, and find out what types my favorite authors recommend.

Mark: Hello?  Are you listening to me.

Napping chicksAnna: Ancona ducks!  That's a great idea, honey.  We'll order some Ancona ducks from Cackle Hatchery, and throw in 25 Cornish Cross chicks while we're at it to explore that meat variety.  It's too late to raise them with our current chicks, so we'll get the chicks and ducklings near the end of April and skip our usual second homegrown hatch of the year.

Mark: Where will these hypothetical ducks live?

Anna: In the starplate coop with our new layers!  Ducks grow faster than chickens, so we should be able to mix the two relatively young.  We can collect rainwater off the roof to make them a little pond.  Maybe make it drain into the swales above the apple trees for fertigation like in The Resilient Farm and Homestead.

Mark: Isn't that a lot of work?

Anna: Well, the new layers were going to go there anyway.  And Cornish Cross grow so big and fast, buying them will really make our broiler endeavor easier this year.  Did you know ducks lay better than chickens do in the winter?

Mark: Is this what you really want?

Anna: Can I have ducks if I don't beg for pigs or sheep this year?

Mark (rolling his eyes): Okay, ducks it is.

(Stay tuned for the more serious explanation of why we're trying ducks on our chicken blog next week.  Or mark your calendars for more fluff April 25!)

Posted Wed Mar 19 07:44:36 2014 Tags:
String tomato trellis

The second project I'm itching to try out this year is training tomatoes onto a string trellis.  As long-time readers know, fungi thrive in our wet climate and we're always battling blight on tomatoes.  We already stake carefully and prune heavily, but Kimball's idea of separating out the three stems to each be supported by one vertical line is a very good one.  Since we have some space below our new grape/kiwi trellis this year, I'll try two or three tomatoes there using Kimball's string method, and may also experiment with adding additional supports for my other tomatoes so I can separate out their three stems more carefully as well.  (In the past, I've trained to three stems, but have tied them all to one stake.)

While I'm talking trellising, I should add that The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners is full of trellises and other structures based on t-posts.  I have a feeling that Kimball loves t-posts as much as Mark loves 5-gallon buckets, so if you have an equal affinity for the lowly t-post, you should definitely give his book a try.  You'll find t-posts turned into grape trellises, pea trellises, hops supports, bird feeder supports, and much more.

This post is part of our Idea Book for Gardeners lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Mar 19 12:01:21 2014 Tags:
sealing up the top of a Star Plate roof with a pentagon cap

The very top of the Star Plate roof is hard to reach safely.

Our solution was to fabricate a 5 sided pyramid cap.

Anna gets a Gold Star today for figuring out the complicated angles.

Posted Wed Mar 19 16:03:27 2014 Tags:
Signs of spring

One of my biggest goals for 2014 was to pick one holiday per month that meant something.  January, I made up Inflection Day, and we celebrated Imbolc in February.  March is one of the easy months since it has an obvious holiday --- the Vernal Equinox (aka the first day of spring, for those less geeky than me).

It's a real joy to wake at first light at this time of year and still have a couple of hours of daylight after supper.  (We're early diners.)  The last week has featured the first butterflies of the year (a comma or question mark, plus several spring azures), frog calls have turned into a frenzy, and the "weedy" wildflowers like speedwell and purple dead nettle are starting to bloom.  I even saw a bat out swooping up the first spring insects!

The Egyptian onions are growing like crazy, making this a great time to cook up some of the last butternuts into
butternut soup.  We've also been enjoying the first kale leaves and will soon be eating lettuce.  The hunger gap is starting to close!

Happy spring!

Posted Thu Mar 20 07:33:22 2014 Tags:
Tire garden bed

I enjoyed reading Kimball's chapter on making tire garden beds not so much because I want to follow his lead, but because I like hearing about working with tires.  I'm still looking for the perfect use for this waste product on our own homestead, so his ideas were welcome.

When making garden beds out of tires, Kimball recommends cutting off the sidewalls with a jigsaw to turn your tire into a more space-saving container.  After removing the sidewalls, he turns the remaining part of the tire inside out, which makes it a bit more vertical (and hides the tread).  Finally, Kimball learned the hard way that it's best to sink your tire into the ground if you don't want your crops to dry out.

Where do I see potential for using tires on our farm?  If I'd been smart, I would have sunk a processed tire into the ground as a root barrier before planting my mint.  And I could see using tire raised beds to help me build the soil up in the forest garden, where the groundwater is so close to the surface that roots often drown.  I'll bet you can come up with even more good ideas for using tires in the garden --- feel free to share them in the comments section!

This post is part of our Idea Book for Gardeners lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Mar 20 12:01:22 2014 Tags:
railroad bridge over the Boody trail in St Paul VA

We took the afternoon off to celebrate the first day of Spring.

Exploring a new trail is one of our favorite kind of day trips.

The new Boody Trail had a nice mix of low impact river walking along with some flavor of the downtown portion of St Paul.

Posted Thu Mar 20 16:10:32 2014 Tags:
Mark by Clinch River

Boody trailheadSugar Hill is our closest park with good walking trails (at least as the car drives), but Mark and I haven't been there for a while.  We've already explored the whole place, so we generally want to go somewhere new.

But we didn't feel like driving far Thursday, and when we showed up at Sugar Hill we were delighted to discover that a new trail has been added to the mix!  How's that for proof that Mark can manifest anything?

Boody trail

Boody Trail is more of a city walking trail than a naturalist's hiking trail, but the length is just right (two miles each way, with some loop potential), and an easy walk along the river sounded like fun.  Plus, the Bluebell Trail portion at the east end (bottom of the map above) is a nice chunk of floodplain, with beautiful sycamores and Virginia bluebells poking up through the floodplain sand.  Like the rest of the trail, there are lots of invasive plants present (Japanese Knotweed in the Bluebell portion of the trail), but I was interested to see that native cane was also being planted --- I'll have to check back and see if the canebrake can outcompete the knotweed.  This one-mile loop is the portion of the trail I'm likely to walk again.

St. Paul town trail

Another three-quarters of a mile of Boody Trail wiggles through the heart of St. Paul.  Since I hadn't seen a map at this point, following the little white signs felt a bit like a treasure hunt, and it reminded me of my days of walking around another town as a kid.  It was fun to pass by my favorite spot in St. Paul (the library) and to walk on a new little pedestrian passage under the bridge, but on the way back, we took a shortcut across the railroad tracks to cut out this portion.  Mark and I agreed that if we had to live in town, St. Paul, Virginia, might be the town we'd live in.  No way we'd trade in our mud and acreage for city streets, though.

Clinchfield bridge

1912A lot of the trail ran near the railroad, which provided nice views of old bridges.  The one Mark pictured yesterday was the prettiest, and was dated to 1912.  The bridge above, wasn't as old, but has its own appeal.  There's even a caboose parked along the trail at one point, which I suspect would be of interest to people with kids.  If you're a trainspotter, I understand that "This is a mega cool spot."


DandelionAll in all, Boody Trail made for a fun adventure.  No real wildflower or wildlife sightings, but I enjoyed seeing the first dandelions of the year along with daffodils in full bloom.  Towns are definitely good places to go if you want to pretend you live a week in the future, weatherwise.

By the way, in case you're curious, I believe Boody Trail is named after the road at one of its trailheads.  I'm not sure what the road is named after, though.  If you know, please do comment!

Posted Fri Mar 21 07:52:26 2014 Tags:
Solar pyramid

The last set of projects that caught my eye in the Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners were for season extension.  Kimball's caterpillar cloche system is very similar to my quick hoops, and although I prefer most of my methodology, I might try his technique of staking a line alone each side of the hoop and attaching the fabric to the line with clothespins, rather than rolling the fabric in rebar (my current method).

I also like Kimball's solar pyramid idea, although I'd probably tweak his design there as well.  He uses an expensive plastic to cover the pyramid, and I'd instead use some of the scraps of row-cover fabric that have become too tattered to be used on quick hoops.  Maybe a solar pyramid would allow me to plant out Daddy's huge tomato in April rather than May?

This post is part of our Idea Book for Gardeners lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Mar 21 12:01:19 2014 Tags:
how to make a star plate pentagon pyramid top from 2x6 piece

The top of the Star Plate pyramid is a pentagon cut from a piece of 2x6.

How did we determine the size and angles of the pentagon?

We guessed on the size and did an image search for pentagon, printed it on paper and then used it as a template to trace where to cut.

Posted Fri Mar 21 16:08:39 2014 Tags:
Weeding the spring garden

First pea sproutIn March, when the sun shines so bright and you can strip down to a t-shirt and sandals, weeding is pure bliss.  Kayla came over and helped me pluck the speedwells, dead nettles, and chickweed before they had a chance to go to seed.  We cleaned up around the kale, pulled running perennial grasses out of asparagus alley, and started prepping beds for late March planting.  Weather permitting, carrots, parsley, and maybe a few cabbage transplants will go in next week, then the week after that we'll be busy planting onion transplants and parsley.

First daffodil

New elderberry leavesNow that the spring firsts have started, I can feel the warm season gaining momentum.  Thursday, I saw the first few sprouts from our early planting of peas, the elderberries are starting to poke out a few leaves, and the first daffodil opened Friday.

Button shiitake

I know that I post photos of the same signs of life every year, but each glimpse of spring continues to excite me.  I hope I never stop getting a burst of pure pleasure each time I see new signs of plants and animals overcoming the winter cold.

Posted Sat Mar 22 08:16:15 2014 Tags:
Close up of Lucy and a new cute chick

We moved our new chicks to the outdoor brooder this week.

Lucy is always interested in what we're doing and keeps her distance when the chicks get brave enough to forage out from their new home.

Posted Sat Mar 22 14:24:44 2014 Tags:

ShiftlessOkay, yes, I'm aware that werewolves have nothing to do with homesteading.  But reading paranormal fantasy is one of my favorite leisure-time activities --- I can't always be researching ducks and permaculture or Mark would go crazy keeping up with all of my flights of fancy.

So I was thrilled when Wetknee's first partner author wrote a werewolf novel and let me price it at 99 cents to give our readers some fun fiction at a very low price.  I may raise the price-tag later once the book gets established, so be sure to snag it now while it's cheap!

Since Aimee doesn't have many fans yet, I figured a giveaway might help bribe my readers into giving her a launch-week boost.  And the giveaway is definitely homestead-related, even if the book isn't.  We've got a great package of prizes looking for a good home with one lucky winner:

That's $69 worth of homesteading swag, which can be yours if you just take a minute of your time to plug Aimee's book!  Use the form below to enter, and thanks for your help!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Sun Mar 23 07:34:16 2014 Tags:
close up of Muck boots in sunshine

I've tried several different gel shoe insoles in a lot of different work boots, but the combination of soft and hard gels by these new Dr Scholls Memory Fit Work insoles is really what I've been looking for all these years.

Posted Sun Mar 23 16:23:17 2014 Tags:

Grafted apple treeKayla reminded me that now is the time to check with your local extension service to see if they offer a grafting workshop.  In our neck of the woods, it seems like every county has one in late March or early April.  These workshops generally provide lots of scionwood for locally-adapted apple varieties along with a varying number of rootstocks, plus all the equipment and mentoring you need to attach the two together.  The workshop Kayla and I are going to in a week or so charges $15 and sends you home with 12 grafted apples and/or pears --- an excellent deal if you want to start an orchard.

The biggest stumbling block is...where to put all those new trees?  Luckily, you don't have to decide that right away.  Most expert grafters will recommend planting your newly grafted trees in a flower or garden bed, spaced just a foot or two apart, for their first year.  That way, you can make sure the trees don't have to compete with weeds and that they get plenty of water, which should allow the youngsters to grow up to four feet tall their first summer.

Of course, it's a good idea to have at least a vague idea where you might eventually install the trees around your homestead.  Chances are the apple rootstock provided will be the popular MM111, which means a dozen trees would fill up about a tenth of an acre (an area about 80 feet by 60 feet).  If you don't have that much room, you can always experiment with using pruning and training to keep the trees smaller.  I'm pretty confident we can give a dozen apple trees a home since half of our newest pasture isn't spoken for yet, and vole damage means we're down three apple trees in the forest garden (although I'm no longer sure that's the best spot for apples, given the high groundwater).

One last piece of advice if you plan to attend a grafting workshop --- do your homework before you go!  The last time I went to a grafting workshop, I didn't know what a lot of the varieties being offered were, so I chose a bit randomly.  This time around, I'll print out my list of disease-resistant apples and storage apples and come prepared.

Thanks for the heads up, Kayla, and for agreeing to go with me!

Posted Mon Mar 24 07:29:37 2014 Tags:
new chick trying like the Dickens to fly for first time

Our new chicks have started to venture out a few feet from home.

There's something about running down a hill that makes you want to fly.

Posted Mon Mar 24 16:04:35 2014 Tags:
Cutting flashing

Long-time readers will notice that we went back and forth several times on selecting the roofing material for our starplate coop.  Part of the issue is that the roof is made up of five triangles, which means that normal metal roofing panels would be difficult to install.  But we also spend some time considering which roofing materials would work well with rainwater collection since we plan to gutter the coop and then use the collected water for chicken drinking water and a small duck pond (frequently emptied).

Rain barrelThe consensus on the internet about the safest roofing material for rainwater collection is...there is no consensus.  The most definitive study, "Effect of Roof Material for Water Quality for Rainwater Harvesting Systems," found that the first flush contained the majority of both the microbial and chemical contaminants, but even after the first flush, water contained more turbidity, total coliform, fecal coliform, iron, and aluminum than is recommended by the EPA for drinking water.  Water was tested from metal, tile, asphalt fiberglass shingle, cool roofs, and green roofs.  "None of the roofing materials emerged as clearly superior to others in terms of the quality of the rainwater harvested after the first flush," the study's authors wrote, although they felt that the green roof and shingles produced water that would be problematic if treated with chlorine.

On the other hand, other websites veto shingles for rainwater collection, even if the water is only being used on your garden.  The biggest concerns seem to be copper, zinc, lead, chromium, arsenic, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons leaching out of the shingles, although the grit that comes off the shingles is also an annoyance in ran barrels.  Other roofing types that some websites recommend avoiding include galvanized metal (which sheds zinc), any kind of roofing treated to prevent moss growth (which sheds copper), and flashing made of copper or lead.

In the end, we settled on aluminum flashing because it's relatively cheap, is easy to work with on oddly-shaped surfaces, and probably won't hurt our chickens.  If they all come down with Alzheimer's, though, feel free to say: "I told you so."

Posted Tue Mar 25 07:51:55 2014 Tags:
Blizzard like conditions in March

Cutting and hauling firewood for next year had a nice warming effect on me today.

Posted Tue Mar 25 15:51:04 2014 Tags:
Wheeling firewood

Three times Tuesday afternoon, the snow fell so hard and fast that half an inch collected on the ground in just a few minutes.  And three times, the sun came out and melted the snow away in just as short a period.

Snow on daffodilsMark told me I was crazy to consider getting up on the coop roof to finish up that project, so we instead spent a bit of time clearing some of the brush and logs at the corner of the new pasture that we never quite got to last year.  Mark cut while I wheeled the bounty home to stack in the woodshed.

Clearing up that corner of the new pasture turned up two new spots for apple trees.  It seems that that fitting in a dozen more semi-standard apples won't be any trouble at all!

Posted Wed Mar 26 08:10:32 2014 Tags:
star plate metal roof field notes

We finished covering all the Star Plate roof triangles today.

The Star Plate pyramid cap is secured on each side with two exterior screws.

Next up is the overhang section where we'll be attaching gutters.

Posted Wed Mar 26 15:55:42 2014 Tags:
Chopped green onions

The trouble with a cold winter is that you use more of everything.  This is why I try not to put all of my eggs in the same basket and also try to plan on surplus.

Squash and carrotsFor winter meals, I tend to freeze a lot of vegetable soup and a significant amount of green beans, to stock up on storage vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, sprouting beans, and butternut squash, and to use quick hoops to protect lettuce, kale, and brussels sprouts for fresh eating over much of the winter.

Last year, we had such good luck with the last option that I stored less of the other types of vegetables, but the negative teens killed most of our over-wintering plants this year.  The result?  We had to eat more of our inside stores, running out of soup in February and eating up the last butternut this week.  We've still got a bit of everything else left, but are very glad the garden is starting to give us leafy greens again.

Stacking firewood in the snow

The woodshed also suffered during this cold winter.  We went into the 2013/2014 winter with our shed nearly full, and that was lucky since we went through firewood like nobody's business.  In fact, in January I estimated we'd run out of firewood by the end of February.  But, luckily, the weather warmed back up to slightly below average (rather than drastically below average) in February, so we've still got a bit of wood left even as we start to refill the shed.

Filling up the woodshed

In our modern era of homesteading, if you run out of winter stores, you can buy more.  (Assuming you stocked up on cash the same way you stocked up on wood and vegetables, of course.)  But who wants to eat store-bought vegetables when you can just tweak your planting to ensure homegrown goodness?  We'll be sure to store just a bit more of everything this year, and if that means we're still overflowing with vegetables in April, we'll give some away.  Extra firewood will be just that much drier two winters from now.

Posted Thu Mar 27 07:42:28 2014 Tags:
Star Plate chicken coop overhang

We had to shorten this last overhang piece a bit to let the door swing open.

Now I need to figure out the best way to attach a gutter to each side.

Posted Thu Mar 27 16:27:19 2014 Tags:
Marking a line

Now that the coop is nearly done, I'll admit that there were times over the last year when I lost faith in its eventual completion.  Mom says "All ye of little faith" around me a lot, and while Mark disagrees with her semantics (it should be second person singular unless you live in the Deep South), he agrees with the sentiment.  Whenever I despair of farm projects, my kind husband reminds me that he and I together can do anything --- and so far he's always been right.

Holding the ladder

Sometimes, our teamwork doesn't click, but usually a day spent working with Mark is pure pleasure.  We complement each other very well --- I can measure things and hold the ladder while he does...everything else.

Carrying flashing

I guess a real pro could have built this coop entirely by himself, but that seems pretty tough.  That's why the coop languished for most of the summer --- I was too busy in the garden to pull my weight on the building project.  I guess I really am doing something out there even though it feels like I'm not helping much.

Starplate roof

The big picture of the coop is now completed.  All that's left is gutters, a rain barrel, and filling in some holes to complete the anti-predator campaign.  Our chicks (and then ducks) are going to love it!

Posted Fri Mar 28 07:58:20 2014 Tags:
Taylor Red Raspberry plant with Lucy in background

We installed a late Summer Taylor Red Raspberry plant today in our on going effort to have berries all Summer long. Anna ordered it from Miller, but it shipped from Stark Brothers due to some sort of merger.

Posted Fri Mar 28 14:52:28 2014 Tags:

Reasons to save seedsWhen I got started with seed saving, I was mostly trying to save money.  But the more seeds I saved, the more I realized the true benefits go beyond finances.  Here are my top five reasons to save seeds:

1. Pure geeky fun.  Letting your garden come full circle is very satisfying, and the seeds themselves are beautiful.

2. No guilt when over-seeding.  If you buy seeds, especially expensive ones like hybrid cucumbers, you may feel obliged to make each seed count.  But when you save your own, you nearly always end up with way too many seeds.  So there's no reason not to put two seeds in each spot, meaning you don't have any gaps and can select for the hardiest individual.

3. Control over varieties.  When buying seeds, you're at the mercy of the seed companies.  If you love a variety, but the company wants to replace it with something they consider more profitable, then you're out of luck.  But if you save your own seeds, you'll always have your favorite varieties on hand.

Zinnia seedling

4. Free gifts.  Since you'll inevitably have too many seeds of each type, you'll be able to give starter packs of your favorites away.  Or you can swap them with friends or strangers.

5. Saving money.  Okay, yes, you save money too.  We spend only $100 per year on seeds even though we grow all of our own vegetables, plant heavily, and buy from an expensive supplier.  With a small backyard garden, you could cut your seed costs to pennies.

If you want to learn more about saving the easiest seeds, check out Weekend Homesteader: August.  The more advanced seed saver should start with this post.  Happy seed saving!

Posted Sat Mar 29 07:48:56 2014 Tags:
a log too tough to split?

a log very hard to splitWe haven't been able to identify this type of log to the left.

Maybe it needs more than a year to age, but each attempt to split it only results in the axe bouncing off.

I think it may have even been too tough for the chainsaw. When we got it tuned up recently the repair guy pointed out how the piston is scored, which may have been connected to cutting logs like this one.

Posted Sat Mar 29 15:08:38 2014 Tags:
Sweet potato and egg bake

This is the time of year when our chickens are churning out ten eggs a day, which means eggs have to fit into our lunches and dinners, as well as breakfast.  Kayla brought me a recipe for Frittata of Sweet Potatoes, Swiss Chard, Peppers, and Onions, and that seemed pretty good...except this isn't the time of year for peppers, our Swiss chard bit the dust over the winter, I don't like separating eggs and only using part of them, and everything is better with a little parmesan and bacon.  So I came up with the recipe below, which Mark told me to make again --- it's definitely a keeper!


The ingredients:

  • 10 eggs
  • 1 large onion (or multiple small onions.  If your onions have sprouted, just cut up the green part and put it in too!)
  • 1 extra large sweet potato (or multiple small ones)
  • 1 pint of strained kefir
  • Salt and pepper
  • A bit of oil
  • 6 slices of cooked bacon
  • 0.25 cups parmesan cheese

Start a few hours early by throwing the sweet potato in the oven to bake until it's soft.  At the same time, cook the bacon by spreading it out on a cookie sheet (with sides) and putting the tray on the bottom shelf of your oven, flipping the bacon once, and removing the slices just as they begin to turn brown.  Let the potato cool until it's easy to peel off the skin, then mash it up and line the bottom of a 9"X12" casserole dish.

Assemble a casserole

Meanwhile, chop the onion into small pieces and saute it in a bit of oil until the pieces are soft.  Add the onions, salt, pepper, and bacon (broken into small pieces) to the top of the sweet potato.  Spread the strained kefir on top of the vegetables.

Use a mixer to blend the eggs until they're fluffy, then pour them on top of the kefir.  Bake in a 350 degree oven until the eggs are fully cooked and the top is lightly browned, then sprinkle parmesan cheese over the surface and cook a few more minutes.

Homegrown spring meal

Serve with dandelion greens that have been sauteed in balsamic vinegar and oil, and you have a delicious, nearly homegrown dinner for six.  Enjoy!

Posted Sun Mar 30 08:24:46 2014 Tags:
quick hoop with lettuce growing

Our first salad of 2014 feels like it's just days away looking at all this green.

Posted Sun Mar 30 16:44:17 2014 Tags:
Spring flowers

The big question on many gardeners' minds this year is --- will spring eventually catch up, or will the cold winter push even our frost-free date further into the future?  Both wild plants and those in the garden are running behind schedule this year, with most of our earliest spring wildflowers just starting to unfurl.  I finally saw a dandelion blooming in the yard this weekend, and the grass and clover are beginning to grow, but it will be another couple of weeks before we can put our chickens into their pastures.

Blueberry buds 

Apple budSo far, it's a bit hard to tell whether the dormancy of our perennials is due to the slow spring or to cold temperatures nipping flower buds.  The blueberries are starting to wake up, but peach flower buds still look small and shrunken.  On the other hand, apple flower buds are just barely beginning to swell, suggesting that the apple crop, at least, may come through for us this year.

I thought I'd close with a quote from my weather guru.  "Keep the faith," he wrote.  "Spring will come...the April 15 to May 15 period being CERTAIN to result in a glorious rebirth of the mountain dictated by Mother Nature's Time Clock (even though everything is running BEHIND the time schedule right will catch up during this dependable period)."

So there, you have it --- a promise of spring!  No matter when it comes, spring will get here eventually.

Posted Mon Mar 31 07:25:32 2014 Tags:
moving IBC tank to new chicken coop

We moved one of our intermediate bulk containers to the Star Plate coop.

The plan is to collect rainwater for the chickens and fruit tree irrigation.

Posted Mon Mar 31 16:28:00 2014 Tags:

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

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