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

archives for 05/2014

May 2014
Chicken-proofing cattle panels

I made a big mistake when our livestock panels were delivered.  There are lots of different kinds of livestock panels, some with holes the same size all over and others with various types of small holes at the bottom.  I'd ordered the ones with very little holes down low working up to normal-sized holes halfway up the fence, but what actually came just had two rows of medium-sized holes at the bottom then had large holes the rest of the way up.  Unfortunately, I didn't notice the substitution until the panels were halfway unloaded, at which point I thought it wasn't fair to complain and figured we'd work with what we got.

Of course, once we put our first batch of chicks in the starplate coop, we realized that young chickens have no problem slipping right through those holes.  So we moved on to plan b --- add an expanse of one-inch chicken wire along the bottom of the panels to keep chickens in.  In some ways, this negates the awesomeness of livestock panels since it takes as long to attach the chicken wire as it did to put up the panels in the first place, and the panels will also now be harder to move.  But the chicken wire does keep the chickens in.

Chicken pasture

And we do get keep many of the good qualities of the panels.  I've enjoyed the way cattle panels can be curved into any shape imaginable --- a great asset if you have an irregularly shaped area and want to enclose every inch.  Plus, the heavy metal will keep Lucy from gnawing dog doors wherever she wants them, and will also allow the fences to stand up to bigger livestock if we ever get them.  Finally, I especially enjoy the way cattle panels are Anna-friendly fencing --- easy enough that I can put them up all by myself.

Our little flock is now enjoying the first paddock and I'll be adding chicken wire to new paddocks as they're needed by the pullets and cockerels.  At the moment, there are no gates at the far end of the pasture --- the chicks are still young enough that they don't venture that far from the coop.  I have a feeling gate-building will be on Mark's agenda in a week or two, though.  That's definitely a task too complex for me.

Posted Thu May 1 07:42:46 2014 Tags:
May Day 2014 hike with Frankie Hoyt Taylor

We took the day off to celebrate May Day by going on a hike with a neighbor.

Posted Thu May 1 17:05:33 2014 Tags:
Garter snake

Between getting engrossed in farm projects and Mark having to rush up to Ohio to see his father in the hospital last week, we never did make an April holiday happen.  So May Day seemed mandatory.  Luckily, our movie-star neighbor wanted us to walk over a neighboring property that his intentional community is planning on purchasing, and that seemed like a good May Day activity.  The weather cooperated with beautiful sun but cool temperatures, so we headed out to hike.

Expanded bole

Even though the land is less than a mile and half from our house (as the crow flies), this south-facing slope is about a week ahead of us in terms of leaf development.  I can't explain the huge bole on this tulip-tree, though.


Spring boxAfter our lesson in microclimate (and a walk through a beautiful, maturing forest), we headed down into a sinkhole and then up the other side a little way to see a seep and spring.  The spring had been boxed in so long ago that nature had taken over the spring box and it almost seemed natural.  Until, that is, I peered closely and noticed that the stones were carefully stacked by human hands.  I took a sip since you can so rarely safely drink found water, but the taste was a bit mossy.


Our neighbor found fragments of what was probably a plate in the seep.  We peered at the old objects, then put them back for the next person to find.

Brick walls

MeThe land hosts an ancient barn and a tumbling-down house, both of which we had to explore.  The house had brick walls infilled between wood and then plastered over --- very unusual in our region.  The outside, though, was trimmed with wooden clapboard just like the old house that used to stand on our own property.

We had a fun adventure, and I might have even come out of it with a new author photo for my upcoming book.  What do you think of this shot for the back cover of The Naturally Bug-Free Garden?

(Information on sale price removed since it's not quite sold yet.)

Posted Fri May 2 07:20:54 2014 Tags:
mark Duck door
building a brooder for the new ducklings

We modified our new isolation coop to handle the ducklings.

This way we can let them play in the Sky Pond.

Posted Fri May 2 16:26:13 2014 Tags:
Inside plants

I've learned a lot from this year's foray into starting plants inside at an ultra-early date.  First of all, the plants can spend most of their time outdoors in April, which gives them the light they crave to prevent legginess.  I do have to take the youngsters in when nights are forecast to get below 45 since that really means 35 here, but Mark has been a good sport who doesn't mind bigger and bigger plants taking up the entire front room during cold spells.  (We now eat on the porch.)

Tomato comparison

In addition to light, the other important thing I've learned is that it's imperative to keep seedlings growing fast since a stunted plant generally doesn't recover.  With precocious species like tomatoes, your best bet is to pot them up out of their seedling flat as soon as you see the cotyledons unfurl.  Don't wait for true leaves or the plant will already be starting to turn purple from the stress of searching for nutrients in such a limited space.

For the sake of comparison, the photo above shows tomatoes of the same age and variety, one of which was potted up and the others of which were left behind in the flat.  The difference is striking!  (You  might get away with leaving the tomatoes in the flat much longer if you basically turned it into a hydroponic setup, giving the seedlings daily doses of liquid nutrients in the form of compost tea.)

Malabar spinach seedling

Slower-growers like peppers, on the other hand, don't mind sitting in their baby flats for days and weeks.  And don't give up on late-sprouters --- I put some Malabar spinach seeds in one flat six weeks ago and they're just now starting to come up.  I'm not sure if they really  needed that extended time to germinate, or if something about being left outside during heavy rains finally broke through the seed coat.

On the negative side, as the days warm and the weather turns humid, damping off starts to rear its ugly head.  Luckily, the seedlings I was starting when damping off came to call were non-imperative --- zinnias and experimental apple seeds.  But it's worth noting that there didn't seem to be any damping off for seeds started in early March.  Maybe this is a good reason to go to extremes with jumpstarting spring?

Baby tomato

More pleasantly, the big tomato plant Daddy gave me has already set fruit, although the plant looks purple and pot-bound.  I'm itching to put it (and some of my own seedlings that have flower buds) out, so I'll start checking the ten-day forecast early next week.  So far, once the current cold spell passes, the lowest low is forecast to be in the mid 50s up through May 11.  Maybe I can start sinking these tomatoes deep into the earth for extra roots and early harvests?

Posted Sat May 3 07:54:14 2014 Tags:
Cat on a string

We dropped by Joey's underground house today to check on Michi.

Her owner is connecting remote villages in Brazil via git-annex.

Michi was content to connect to a piece of string fallen out from under a rope bed.

Posted Sat May 3 18:05:08 2014 Tags:
Ducklings dive in

Our ducklings quickly outgrew their dabbling dish, so I figured they were big enough to swim.

Carrying ducklings

Mark added a door to their brooder Friday, but I wanted to wait until I could monitor them before letting the ducks into their pond.  Here I am carrying the ducklings from their temporary bin back to the relocated brooder on Friday afternoon.

Ducklings out the door

The youngsters weren't so sure they wanted to come out at first, but putting their dabbling dish right outside the door quickly changed the ducklings' minds.  They're so big now that they can't even pretend to swim in the dish, though, so I scooted the the container a little closer to the pond to tempt the ducklings beyond their comfort zone.

Ducklings on the bank

"Oh my gosh, is all of that water?!" one exclaimed.

Swimming ducklings

Plop, plop, plop --- soon every duckling was in the drink.  Mark had wondered if ducklings need to learn to swim --- the answer is no.  These guys have already started oiling their feathers due to their early dunking, so even though they were skittish of the big expanse of pond, they had no problem staying afloat.  They also cleaned up the duckweed in short order.  I'm going to have to dig another sky pond to stock up on duckweed before I'm entirely cleaned out!

I shut the ducklings back up in their brooder when we left the farm from the day, but I look forward to a lazy day today watching them play while reading in the shade.  Hopefully the ducklings will convince me they're big enough to dabble unattended, although I suspect I'll still spend far too much time watching their antics.

Posted Sun May 4 07:21:27 2014 Tags:
mark Beach bums
Ducklings in the pond

The ducklings don't see any reason to get out of the water now that they have a whole pond to play in.  We may have to herd them back into the brooder at dusk.
Posted Sun May 4 14:58:19 2014 Tags:
Northern highbush blueberry flowers

As trees and bushes begin to leaf out, the full effects of last winter's cold are becoming evident.  Some issues are transitory --- our Caroline red raspberries and many of our thornless blackberries were killed down to the ground, which means we won't get fruits until fall for the reds and until next year for the blacks.  (Black raspberries seem to be more hardy, showing no signs of damage.)  But other damage is permanent.

Baby currant fruits

Many of the young plants I rooted last spring and put in the ground last summer perished since they hadn't built up enough roots to survive a really frigid winter.  I gave Kayla samples of the figs and grapes I treated this way and warned her to keep them inside over the winter if she really wanted to make sure every single one survived.  Now I'm wishing I'd followed my own advice.  It looks like only one baby grape (Reliance) and possibly none of the baby figs survived the winter.  This is clearly an issue of age since our older figs are quite alive, although possibly dead back to the ground, while our older grapes are just fine.  Similarly, the two mulberries we planted last spring may both be dead, although our older tree is doing just fine.

Rabbiteye blueberry flowers

Elsewhere, winterkill is a sign that I pushed the boundaries of our hardiness zone too far.  Rabbiteye blueberries are on the edge of their survivability zone here, and two of the varieties that have done the least well here (Austin and Brightwell) perished during the cold weather.  We'll be replacing them with some northern highbush blueberries (rated to survive much colder winters), but are still happy to have lots of rabbiteye blueberries in our garden since the survivors are absolutely loaded with blooms this year.  And, on the bright side, it looks like our blueberry, currant, and gooseberry harvest may make up for those missing spring red raspberries. 

Young honeyberry

The saddest loss from the cold was two dwarf apple trees.  I'd put three of the dwarf trees off by themselves since they didn't fit in the main row, and the area where they lived might have been a bit colder than the other spot since the smaller two of the three loners perished.  Perhaps more likely, though, the deaths were due to deer damage over the summer weakening the plants, plus their M26 and M111 rootstock, which are reputed to be less cold-hardy than the Bud9 onto which most of the other dwarf trees were grafted.  (We do have apples on M111 rootstock elsewhere that survived the winter fine, but those were older trees that probably had more roots under them.)  Unfortunately, a one-year-old pear tree living in the same area perished also.

Hardy kiwi flower buds

Sprouting scionwoodAlthough this sounds like a huge litany of losses, you've got to keep in mind that I experiment like crazy, so we have a heaping handful of survivors for every plant that bit the dust.  However, the data is helpful because it helps me plan --- newly rooted trees should really be kept in for the winter since I never know if the weather will be particularly harsh, and I shouldn't count on spring red raspberries even though they're delightful since they might not survive the cold.

As a side note, I sprinkled photos of spring excitement through this post instead of photographing the dead and dying.  From top to bottom, photos depict northern highbush blueberry flowers, young red currant fruits, rabbiteye blueberry flowers, developing honeyberry fruits, our very first hardy kiwi flower buds (!!!), and the first sprouts from our grafted apples.  Life goes on in the fruit style!

Posted Mon May 5 07:28:29 2014 Tags:
sweet potato update

It took a few weeks for our sweet potato propagation technique to start showing signs of life, but now the new sprouts are popping up like they want to start a family of their own.

Posted Mon May 5 15:32:16 2014 Tags:
Transplanting tomatoes

The long-range forecast said "Summer!" (i.e. no lows below 50 for the next 10 days).  Time for my favorite day of the year --- Tomato Day!

Tomato mounds

Twenty-four romas went into my small-scale chinampas.  Since the transplants were bigger than usual, I used a post-hole digger to make relatively deep holes to sink the plants quite a ways into the earth.  These guys will need hand-watering for a week or two until their roots tap into the high groundwater in this area (which is currently right at the aisle surface even though the rest of the farms is pretty dry).  After that, I hope they'll get the best of both worlds --- subirrigation will keep the plants hydrated, but the leaves will stay dry.

The field of rye you can see at my back in the photo above is going to become one more tomato row after the cover crops bloom and are cut in a week or two.  In the meantime, I'll probably pot up the transplants that are ear-marked for that row so that they can keep growing during the intervening time period.

String training tomatoes

String trellisTwo tomatoes went into the hot microclimate in front of the trailer, where I'll experiment with training them using the string trellis system.  (The plastic trellis in the background is holding up some young peas, which will hopefully be done fruiting by the time the tomatoes really fill this space.)  These tomatoes have a head start since one is Daddy's ultra-early-started tomato and the other is a Stupice (our earliest-fruiting variety).  Only time will tell whether the location and trellis system will turn that head start into very early tomatoes.

As a final side note, I realized that the baby grape who survived the rash of winter-kill was the one in this hot microclimate surrounded by rocks.  Maybe this spot really is a zone warmer than the surrounding farm!

Posted Tue May 6 06:52:52 2014 Tags:
unwrapping a fig tree

We unwrapped our Chicago Hardy fig tree today.

The leaf insulation wasn't enough to protect it during this past Winter.

Anna cut it back to its base which might mean a few less figs than last year.

Posted Tue May 6 16:01:15 2014 Tags:
Homestead lawn

When you have no neighbors in sight, it seems like mowing should be at the bottom of your priority list.  But Mark and I have learned that a quick pass with the mower significantly decreases the perceived entropy during a busy time of year.  As an added bonus, shorn grass means I no longer get soaked to the knees when I do my morning chores.

Posted Wed May 7 06:56:04 2014 Tags:
how we move 20 chicks

How do you move 20 chicks from a crowded brooder to a proper chicken coop?

We use a plastic Rubbermaid tub and have had no complaints from the chicks.

Posted Wed May 7 17:33:30 2014 Tags:
Bean seedling

We're fully committed to summer around here, even though I have a sneaking suspicion that blackberry winter might still come along and reduce me to tears.  The long-range forecast looks warm, though, so I'm enjoying seeing the first summer vegetable sprouts poking out of the soil.

Cucumber seedling

The quick hoops are coming down at last to reveal young cucumber and watermelon plants, seeded two weeks ago.  It's time to weed and mulch these little guys and put up a trellis for the cukes.  In fact, that's what's going on in the whole garden this week and next --- lots of watering, weeding, and mulching.  The summer routine is in full swing and I'm happy to be out in the green.

Posted Thu May 8 06:54:55 2014 Tags:
sweet potato starts step 2

When the sprouts are easy to pull off put them in a dish of water to promote rooting untill you're ready for planting.

Posted Thu May 8 16:07:04 2014 Tags:
Grafting aftercare

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the first stage of caring for a newly grafted apple tree --- breaking off the sprouts that open up on the rootstock.  With that done, the tiny trees will soon start channeling their energy into the scionwood, and buds there will begin to open.  That's your cue to give your miniature orchard another few minutes of care.

Your goal with newly grafted apples in the first year is to get them to grow one long stem, which will hopefully reach four feet tall (a stage at which the apple is known as a one-year-old whip).  Since you probably left two or three buds (or maybe even more) on your piece of scionwood, now's the time to break off all but the best sprout so your tree once again channels all of its energy just where you want it --- into developing that whip.

Middle budThe top photo pair shows an apple before and after pruning.  Most of your trees will probably look like that one, with the top bud already asserting some apical dominance and growing faster than its brethren.  If that's the case, gently break off the lower two sprouts to let the top bud have full sway over the future shape of the plant.

The photo to the left shows a more unusual situation where the middle bud created a bigger sprout.  That's fine too!  If the middle bud is biggest, take off the top and bottom sprouts and let that strongest bud take over.

While you're visiting your trees, be sure to pull any weeds that might have come up in your nursery bed, and give the plants a round of water if they need it.  You don't want these apples to have to struggle any more than necessary since they're already recovering from surgery.  Also, resist the inclination to take the bandage off the graft wound --- that area still needs to be kept moist for a few more weeks before the tree is ready to leave intensive care.

It took me longer to type all of these instructions than to actually spruce up around our double handful of baby apple trees.  As usual, the most important gardening work takes mere minutes if hit in a timely manner.  Too bad I never stay ahead of the weeds in the vegetable garden in this way....

Posted Fri May 9 06:48:06 2014 Tags:
Cornish cross close up lounging near coop

How are the Cornish Cross chicks that came with the ducks doing?

They do a lot of sitting around...and seem to be jealous of all the attention the ducks have been getting.

Posted Fri May 9 16:01:15 2014 Tags:
Ducklings in a kiddie pond

It's been six whole days since we last posted about our ducklings.  I know you must all be in withdrawal!

Sky pond

More seriously, we've learned a lot over the past week, so it's time for another photo-rich post.  The first thing we learned is --- our sky pond does hold water!

Two-week-old ducklingWhy do I sound so surprised?  In a linerless pond, you don't really know right away whether your sealing method worked since it takes time for all of the little leaks to stop themselves up.  As a result, I wasn't sure whether my foot-stomped gleying did its job, or whether the pond surface was just reflecting the surrounding groundwater levels.  All winter, the pond waxed and waned with the weather, so I suspected my gleying hadn't done anything.

When the sky pond dipped down to about six inches below ground level early this week, Mark suggested I fill it up with a hose.  This was a good test of the water-tightness of the seal since the groundwater has descended quite low in the absence of rain.  Thus, if the pond wasn't sealed, I would expect the water I added to the pond to quickly drain away.  Instead, twenty-four hours after filling, the pond was pretty much the same depth as when I turned the hose off!  It looks like the sky pond might really be turning into a pond rather than a simple hole in the ground.

Herding ducks

Ducks diningThe next thing I learned was more duck-related.  When we posted last weekend about letting the ducklings out into the sky pond, several of you commented to ask how we'd get them back into the brooder at night.  Although our ducklings did pop out of the water a few times a day to dine inside, our readers were right --- they would have rather slept on the water rather than in their safe little coop.  However, a little bit of gentle herding (with a stick or a second person to channel the waterfowl toward the open door) was sufficient to get them into the brooder each night.  Ducklings are definitely harder to herd than chickens (despite what books say), but shutting them in is quite feasible.


For the first few days, the ducks didn't get out of the sky pond until I made them, but then the duckweed and water bugs gave out and our waterfowl started to spend more time on the bank.  Soon, the little flock realized that strawberries were only two feet Swimming ducklingsfrom the shore and they began to peck hungrily at the green fruit.  That was my cue to move them to a new spot.

The kiddie pool had only enjoyed about a week of duck-weed-growing time, so I was a bit afraid the sterile surroundings wouldn't hold their interest.  But our ducklings told me that water is water --- they were happy.  They were even happier once I tossed in an armload of tender weeds from the garden, giving the youngsters something to play with.

Mark wanted to know what the big picture plan is --- how long will the ducklings be living in the backyard?  When will they go to the starplate coop with this year's young pullets?  The answer is --- I don't know.  It all depends on how well they play with the garden.  I'll keep you posted and will regale you with far too many photos again before you know it.

Posted Sat May 10 07:08:49 2014 Tags:
how to fix a broken pot handle

How much heat can J-B Weld's Quick-Setting steel reinforced epoxy take?

I fixed this pot handle recently and it's been holding up well under average cooking temperatures.

Posted Sat May 10 14:59:29 2014 Tags:
Squash seedling

If I were smart, I'd mark my calendar for a round of weeding and mulching two weeks after I put a mass of seeds in the ground.  Instead, I just play it by ear, which means I freak out when the garden suddenly seems to be overrun with weeds and in need of attention.  Luckily, a few busy mornings gets the beds back into shape.

Lettuce bed

Every plant needs slightly different care.  Slow-growers like carrots and onions (from seed) really require two rounds of weeding before they're big enough to mulch around, while most summer crops can be carefully mulched just a week or two after emergence.  At the other extreme, close-planted lettuce beds often grow so quickly that they don't need to be weeded at all.  This year, though, our manure is chock full of clover seeds, so I had to do a round of lettuce weeding, which is always difficult and makes it look like a cyclone blew through the bed.  One rain later, though, the planting is once again vibrant and ready to feed us half a gallon of leaves per day.

Tomato beds
Speaking of rain, an inch or two on Saturday morning turned our tomato raised beds back into chinampas.  You can't really see the tomato plants in this picture, but a few are already starting to bloom.  Visions of plump, red fruits are swimming through our heads, even as we anxiously wait for earlier crops to ripen, like the first spring peas.  This is definitely a good time of year for dreamers!

Posted Sun May 11 07:15:35 2014 Tags:
cattail update late Spring

Our greywater wetland cattails are expanding.

This might be the year we remember to try cattail flowers.

Posted Sun May 11 15:34:13 2014 Tags:
Potted blueberries

Now is not the time to be planting perennials, but I really wanted to fill up the winterkilled gap in our blueberry patch, so I'll commit to watering these two little guys until they get established.  I also snipped off the flower buds so the plant on the right would put its energy into roots, not fruits.  Hopefully, with a little TLC, they'll survive and thrive despite the late planting.

Mark and I went back on forth about where to get our replacement blueberries.  He had noticed some good-looking plants at a local store, but it turned out that those were rabbiteye blueberries, which I've now learned are a bit of a gamble on our north-facing, zone-6 hillside.  So I looked at online retailers instead.  I was sorely tempted to go with Willis Orchards, who provided us with some awesome-looking rabbiteye blueberries in 2009.  But that southern nursery has a pretty small selection of northern-friendly plants, so I instead ordered from Starks Brothers, where the prices were higher and the plants a bit punier, but where the variety selection more up my alley.  In case you're curious, we settled on Earliblue (a very early-fruiting northern highbush) and Sweetheart (a northern-southern hybrid).

Rooted blueberry

Blueberry sproutWhile digging out the two dead blueberries, I was in for a surprise.  The main Brightwell plant was dead (as evidenced by how easily the roots came out of the ground), but one stem had bent down and been hidden under the mulch.  That stem had rooted and now little leaves were poking out, looking for light.

In a previous life, I would have nursed that little plant along and returned it to the patch, but in this life, I know that if the parent was winterkilled, it's not worth wasting space on the offspring.  Instead, I'll pass this little blueberry plant along to my mother, who lives in a slightly warmer climate and whose winters are mitigated by asphalt and concrete.  A freeze-sensitive blueberry variety should be just the ticket in her city yard.

Posted Mon May 12 07:14:30 2014 Tags:
mark Rye time
cutting rye with a weed eater/trimmer

Cut Rye too early and it sprouts back. Wait too long and it goes to seed.

Posted Mon May 12 15:51:09 2014 Tags:
Smoking a hive

At this time last year, the bees in our Warre hive swarmed.  Even though I have several swarm traps out this year, I know that catching a swarm is a gamble, so I decided to go against the Warre party line and preemptively split our hive.

Drone brood

The last time I split a hive, I was using Langstroth boxes and didn't realize how intrusive all of my poking around inside the colony was.  So, at that time, I went through and made sure both new hives had frames of eggs, capped brood, and honey.

I didn't want to be so disruptive this time around, especially since our Warre hive frames are technically movable but actually tend to tear comb when removed.  So this year's split is more of a gamble --- I don't know for sure that both hives have the eggs
Split hivenecessary to make a new queen.  If I'm unlucky and the queen and eggs are all in one colony, I'll either buy a queen for the other colony or will just put the two hives back together.  (As a side note, I think that's capped drone brood in the photo above, not queen cells --- what do you think?)

Even without poking through the frames, though, I can make sure that both hives have an equal chance of success.  With a split, the hive that you leave in the old location gets an automatic boost since all of the worker bees out foraging will go home to that location.  So I took the heavier box to the new spot (in the starplate pasture), figuring the lack of workers there would mean the daughter hive could use the extra honey.  I'll also start feeding both hives, even though there are lots of flowers in bloom, since a split is definitely a setback for each set of bees.

Splitting the hive means that, once again, we probably won't get honey this year.  However, the colony I split has proven its worth as a survivor colony despite not being treated with any chemicals.  Maybe, if I'm lucky, both daughter hives will survive and thrive and give us honey in 2015.

Posted Tue May 13 07:23:59 2014 Tags:
image documenting the largest load yet of 2014

This is our bigest load of chicken waterers so far this year.

Our new EZ Miser bucket waterer is now available on Amazon.

We really appreciate the nice Amazon comments.

Posted Tue May 13 16:21:47 2014 Tags:
Ripening strawberries

I'm extremely jealous of the fact that our helper Kayla has been enjoying strawberries for nearly a week.  The photo above shows our most-ripe berry, proof that it may be another week before we join her in berry heaven.  We got set back by allowing some of our strawberry flowers to be nipped by a hard freeze, so all I can do is wait impatiently for the first color to appear on my favorite fruit.

Pea flowers

Even though I'm behind in the berry department, the garden is brimming with life.  Our peas have just started to bloom, so we'll soon be enjoying those crunchy pods, which is good since lettuce and kale are now on their way out.  Other coming attractions in the next few weeks include Swiss chard and broccoli.

Tiny apple

I was also excited to notice that a few apple ovaries seem to have made it through the hard freeze.  At this time of year, fruit trees drop the flowers that were damaged or which the plant doesn't think it has the energy to turn into fruit.  Usually, I would be thinning further to ensure trees aren't too overloaded, but this year, I'm just glad to see a few flowers sticking and promising autumn morsels.

How's your spring garden growing?

Posted Wed May 14 07:13:33 2014 Tags:
cutting Rye in neat rows with weed eater

Today I learned that by trimming Rye only from left to right instead of back and forth yields nice and neat rows where the Rye lays down in the same direction.

Posted Wed May 14 16:06:32 2014 Tags:
Rooted sweet potato slips

It's hard to believe after a week in which the afternoons topped 90 degrees, but we're slated for a major cool-down today and tomorrow.  Friday night and Sunday night are both forecast to drop to 41...which could mean we'll see freezes on our frost-pocket farm.

Young pepper plant

So even though I have the ground ready and transplants well-rooted, I'll hold off on planting the rest of the tomatoes and all of the peppers and sweet potatoes until next week.  I'll already have to do a lot of prioritizing when I decide what to cover on Friday --- it'll be much easier to carry pots inside than to find yet more frost-protection for tender summer prima donnas.

I should get a better idea of what the actual Friday low will be soon.  The forecast calls for 44 tonight, so if that's 34, I'll know to cover like crazy on Friday.  If the forecast is closer to reality, I might just cover the tomatoes (one bucket per plant) and hope for the best.

Posted Thu May 15 07:09:51 2014 Tags:
Weed trimmer spool tool

I stumbled upon a new weed trimmer tool yesterday.

Instead of looking for the right size nail to hold the trimmer spool stationary for removal I now use one of these pegboard L-hooks.

It's just the right size and travels well in a pocket without the sharp point of a nail.

Posted Thu May 15 17:52:43 2014 Tags:

I grew up with pill bugs in our backyard.  When we played with these little land crustaceans, we called them rolly-pollies because they were able to curl up into a ball, and as a result, I tend to think of all woodlice as rolly-pollies.  However, when I looked into the topic, I learned that not only are the little critters in my compost pile sow bugs instead of pill bugs, they're also an invasive species brought over from Europe.  (But then, so are pill bugs!)

In case you feel the need to identify the invertebrates in your compost too, here's a quick primer.  Pill bugs (as I mentioned previously) can roll up into balls, and they also tend to have a blue tinge to their gray.  Sow bugs don't curl up, are browner gray, and generally have little tails visible sticking out from under their shell.  Both live in damp places, are largely nocturnal, and mostly eat decomposing matter (although some will also nibble on seedlings and ripening strawberries).

As a final word to the wise --- even though woodlice are crustaceans like lobsters and crabs, you might not want to eat them.  One scientist reports that woodlice taste like urine, but a few wildcrafters liken boiled woodlice to tiny shrimp.  I suspect the difference might be between pill bugs (which roll into a ball and thus don't produce many defensive chemicals) and sow bugs (which can't roll and thus do produce lots of noxious chemicals).  I'd be curious to hear firsthand reports from anyone who's eaten sow bugs and pill bugs --- does one taste good and the other bad?

Posted Fri May 16 06:37:05 2014 Tags:
using milk crates on an ATV

It took me a while to figure out the best way to mount milk crates to our ATV.

Securing them only near the back bar with rope allows you to flip them back when you have something bigger than a milk crate to haul.

Posted Fri May 16 15:14:58 2014 Tags:
Damp ducks

One week after moving the ducklings into a pasture, they had devastated the entire area (about 200 square feet) and had to be moved to a new spot.  For the sake of comparison, Flapping ducklingchicks of this age would have caused a lot less impact, but chicks of this size would have done about the same, only in different patterns.  (Our Ancona ducks grow a lot faster than Australorp chicks, thus the size and age distinction.)

While chickens peck and scratch, most of the impact of ducks seems to come in the form of wet manure.  Sure, our ducklings ate some of the greenery, but the real reason I moved them so quickly is because their little paddock was beginning to smell due to too much manure in one spot.

The worst of the manure buildup was in the open-bottomed brooder.  I ended up pulling the brooder to a new spot every day the way I do with a chicken tractor rather than trying to lay down fresh bedding because ducklings don't mind sleeping on the damp ground, and they make so much manure I'd be using up lots of straw or leaves to soak it up.  The only downside was that, after a few days, most of the pasture was piles of duck manure from where I'd moved the brooder over those spots.

Duck soup

The other spot duck manure lands is in their dabbling pond.  We put a little kiddie pool with some duckweed in it in the new location, and the ducks quickly turned the clear water into pea soup (or is that duck soup?).  This is a spot where I need to put on my permaculture thinking-cap since the high-nitrogen water in the duck pond would be a perfect fertilizer for the garden, but it takes quite a while to move that water one bucket at a time.  Maybe if we had a little pump (and if it hadn't rained two inches the night before I wanted to empty the pond), I could have utilized both the fertilizer value and the water more efficiently.

Duck pond

Pond inoculantThe photo above shows our ducklings enjoying the next pond in the rotation.  This one is tiny, barely big enough for nine growing ducklings to float in at the same time.  I scooped out a bit of duckweed and pond inoculant to seed the kiddie pool before turning the ducks loose in their new pond, but I'm already learning that it takes much more than a week or two for a pond to grow enough life that the ducks don't demolish it in the first five minutes.  I definitely need to build more sky ponds for the long-term cultivation of aquatic life if we want to keep ducks.

Posted Sat May 17 07:26:25 2014 Tags:
using an old shipping pallet for a toad house

I put this pallet down back in the Winter to avoid stepping in the mud.

Turns out to be a perfect toad house for these three boys.

Posted Sat May 17 15:42:37 2014 Tags:
Cocoa pod

Brazilian chocolateJoey went to Brazil and brought me back a chocolate a fascinating story about Terra Vista, an 800-acre sustainable chocolate farm in Bahia.  The photo above shows some of Joey's new Brazilian computer buddies, one of whom is holding a cocao pod (the brown one) along with a tropical fruit.  The other photo is of my Brazilian chocolate bar, which is interestingly hard --- perhaps much lower in fats than the chocolate I'm used to?  The ingredients list 50% cocoa, 6.6% cocoa butter, 36% sugar, 7% milk, and 0.4% soybean lectin.

Brazil landless movementThe story that goes along with the bar is about the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement, an effort by the peasantry to regain control of agricultural areas in Brazil.  According to the Movement, 3% of the Brazilian population owns 67% of the country's agricultural land.  A new constitution drafted in 1988 can be interpreted to give Brazilians the right to occupy unused agricultural land, to return that land to productivity, and then, eventually, to gain ownership of the property.  Using this method, 50 low-income families moved onto what is now Terra Vista in the 1990s, planted crops, and began to farm organically.

The story made me wonder --- what would life be like in the U.S. if we had a similar law on the books?  Would it be good, allowing lots of young people who dream of farming but don't have the capital to move back to the land?  Or would it be bad, with wild areas currently being protected by neglect instead clearcut and turned into farmland?  I'd be curious to hear your take in the comments section.

Brazilian chicken

On a less serious note, Joey said that what caught his eye in Terra Vista was the free-range chickens, all of which were skinnier than American birds.  There were so many chickens that it seemed that each person on the farm ate one a day, mostly in the form of stew.

I would love to send you to a website so you could learn more about Terra Vista, which Joey said was full of raised beds and other techniques he was familiar with from our own farm.  But the whole point of Joey's trip was to connect villages who don't have internet access, allowing them to trade data using memory sticks carried by hand when people travel from place to place.  So you'll have to use your imagination about everything Joey didn't happen to take photos of.  I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse of sustainable Brazilian agriculture!

Posted Sun May 18 07:14:22 2014 Tags:
update on how the chain is working out for the hanging hammock chair

How's the hammock chair hanging we installed a year ago?

The chain bites into the 2x4, but the damage is only cosmetic.

Posted Sun May 18 15:35:51 2014 Tags:
Upward bound tomato

My tomatoes and I were relieved when the cold wave passed and our low only dropped to 37 degrees.  No frost!

Buckets in the garden

Gardening in chinampasFiguring it was better to be safe than sorry, I covered each tomato plant with a five-gallon bucket on Friday night, then removed each bucket first thing Saturday morning so the plants wouldn't cook or dwindle from lack of light.  Most of the plants fit into their buckets well, but the large plant from Daddy (first photo in this post) had to be carefully constrained before I could cram it into a bucket, and my Stupice (our earliest producer most years, photo below) also had to have the top bent down a bit.  Hopefully both plants will bounce right back.

Baby tomato

On a related note, my father was surprised that the plants he'd set outside a couple of months ago didn't make early fruits even though they were large and in a sheltered location where it wouldn't frost.  I explained that tomatoes tend to drop most or all of their flowers when nights dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  This isn't quite the same as a critical temperature, because one chilly night won't generally make a tomato drop fruits.  Instead, a string of cold weather slows the pollen so much that it doesn't travel up the style fast enough to fertilize the ovary within the requisite fifty hours, at which point the plant drops the flower as a loss.

Despite the current cool-down, at least one of my tomatoes managed to set a few fruits, as you can see in the photo above.  I'm curious about whether my Stupice (an early ripener) started inside on February 26 can beat Daddy's tomato (started inside in January, I think).  And will either plant's head start really make them beat my usual first-tomato date of early to mid July?

Want to grow the earliest tomato?  Check out this guest post from one of our readers for expert advice.

Posted Mon May 19 06:57:25 2014 Tags:
Cornish Cross chicks

We started out with 26 chicks and are down to 19.

The chicks aren't quite smart enough to come in out of the rain and prefer napping to foraging, but at least they grow quickly.

Only two and a half more weeks until our broilers are big enough to eat.

Posted Mon May 19 15:49:09 2014 Tags:
Transplanting peppers

I wrote previously that tomato-planting day is my favorite day of the year, but the truth is that I just enjoy putting plants of any type in the ground.  Setting out peppers and sweet potatoes Monday was definitely a treat, especially since the former are so spunky and pretty this year.

Ripening strawberry

The night before I transplanted dipped down to 34 degrees, but there was no sign of frost in the garden, so I decided it was time to take in the row covers and tomato buckets and to stop worrying about freezes.  And what did I find under the row covers?  Strawberries starting to turn last!  I squashed my usual impatience and left every fruit on the plants to ripen all the way --- it's worth waiting two or three more days for berries that are red clear through.  Maybe that's my favorite day of the year, when I plop the first sun-ripened, homegrown strawberry into my mouth....

Posted Tue May 20 07:28:44 2014 Tags:
Brazilian mural and tripod

What do you do if you need a tripod and live in the sticks?

Pick up three of those sticks, cut apart a soda bottle, apply some electrical tape, and start filming.

Photo courtesy of Joey from his trip to Brazil.  Joey reports the tripod was still in action three days later.

Posted Tue May 20 15:02:11 2014 Tags:
Busy bee hive

It's amazing how much you can learn about a hive without lifting the lid.  After splitting our Warre hive in two, I was a bit worried about the colony I'd moved to a new location since I could barely hear the bees inside when I pushed my ear up against the side.  I knew that all of the foragers would have scurried home to the mother-hive location, but was it possible that the daughter hive might contain so little brood that everyone flew the coop?

I was getting nervous enough that I was on the verge of opening up the hive, Warre rules be darned, but I'd waited long enough that there was no need.  Worker bees go through a specified series of jobs, with the youngest workers cleaning out brood cells, 3-to-11-day-old workers tending brood, 12-to17-day-old workers building comb, and older workers heading out of the hive to forage.  A week after the hive split, the first foragers began heading out of the daughter hive, and I could see that many were carrying back pollen!  That was a clue that not only was a colony still living in the hive, there was also uncapped brood present to eat that pollen.

Worker bees

Honeybees feed pollen to their young until the cells the baby bees live in are capped over (which allows the youngsters to change into adults uninterrupted).  This capping occurs on day 7.5 for baby queens, on day 9 for workers, and on day 10 for drones.  So, eleven days after my split, I should be able to figure out which hive kept the queen by looking at both entrances for pollen-carriers --- the one that's still bringing in pollen kept the queen.  After that, it will be another two-week wait while the other hive finishes raising and mating their queen before I should see pollen entering the colony that lost their queen in the split.

If I had my druthers, I'd hope that the daughter hive is the one who kept the queen.  They got slowed down by losing all of the foragers, so it's only fair that they get to bring new bees online faster than the other hive.  Only time will tell whether my wishes came true.

Posted Wed May 21 07:13:02 2014 Tags:
Found board

Recent heavy rains washed this two-by-twelve down the creek.

It lodged behind our stepping stones, and we pried it loose to dry on the shore before we haul it home.

The board will make a good shelf for heavy objects.  Or maybe it will become part of a nest box in the new starplate coop.

Posted Wed May 21 16:09:16 2014 Tags:
Helium crow deterrent

On the farm where our movie-star neighbor lives, crows are one of the worst problems in the garden.  Sure, our neighbors battle deer like we do, but their farm is less wooded, so the four-leggers aren't quite so ornery.  On the other hand, their garden plots are further from their houses, so critters that we never see a problem with move right in to eat.  Specifically, sprouting corn kernels are plucked right out of the ground by ornery crows on a regular basis.

For the last couple of years, our neighbors have used helium balloons as crow deterrents with pretty good success.  Our movie-star neighbor invested in a weather balloon last year, which kept its helium for quite a long time, but even these cheap supermarket balloons can last for a week or two in the garden.

If you battle crows in the garden, what strategies do you use to keep the corvids at bay?

Posted Thu May 22 07:19:24 2014 Tags:
Droopy pea plant

Reflected heat from the south-facing front of the trailer makes this spot too hot for peas.  The plants grow, but they wilt on sunny afternoons.

On the other hand, the tomatoes in front of the peas and the grape vine on one side are thriving.

It looks like we've found another garden microclimate for our farm.

Posted Thu May 22 14:48:53 2014 Tags:
Workers and drones

At this time of year, our move-star neighbor visits his hive every day looking for signs of swarms.  Kayla reported watching a swarm fly over her head about ten miles from our farm on April 19, and May is prime swarming season in our region.  But we haven't seen any activity in our swarm traps yet.

Watching the hiveEven hives that don't plan to swarm seem to make more drones at this time of year.  In our split hive, I've noticed quite a few male bees flying around the entrance, getting their bearings so they'll know how to come home after heading out to look for young queens to mate with.  Our neighbor's hive seemed to be equally heavy on drones --- you can see a cluster of four on the right side of the top photo, distinguishable by their big eyes.

I probably should have done this a couple of weeks ago, but I'll be adding a bit more lemongrass oil to our swarm traps today.  Maybe if I'm lucky, I'll catch our neighbor's swarm?

Posted Fri May 23 07:24:15 2014 Tags:
asparagus alley all tied up near barn in Mule garden

It's that time of year when our 3 foot tall asparagus needs a little help standing up.

Posted Fri May 23 16:19:33 2014 Tags:
Honeyberry and strawberry

We planted two honeyberry bushes last spring (Blue Sea and Blue Velvet), and a few berries showed up on each last month.  I waited with baited breath as the first one turned pink and then purple, then I waited yet a little longer since I've heard that honeyberries are best when eaten very ripe.  At long last, it was time for a taste test.

The conclusion?  Half of a tiny honeyberry is too small of a morsel to register on your tastebuds.  Drat!  I guess I'll have to wait until next year for a real flavor sampling.  In the meantime, though, I can write about how honeyberries live up to other claims by nurseries and by garden writers.

Ripening honeyberryThe main reason I planted honeyberries is because I'd read that the fruits ripen up before strawberries in the spring.  This appears to be false on our farm --- we ate our first strawberries a few days before our honeyberry.  On the other hand, our honeyberry bushes are planted closer to the hillside, meaning the ground there is colder in the spring and the plants might grow more slowly than they would have if planted in a more sunny location.  If a taste test next year suggest the species is worth committing to, I'll try out some more bushes in a warmer spot --- honeyberries are just rebranded honeysuckles (Lonicera caerulea), so they should be easy to propagate

Honeyberries did better in the second claim department --- that they grow well in shade.  The area where our bushes are growing is on the shady side of our blueberry patch, so they get about six hours of shade at the summer solstice.  Despite the lack of sun, the bushes are doing great and are fruiting already (albeit lightly), so the species definitely does fit into those difficult-to-harvest-from shady areas.

I'd be curious to hear from others who have eaten more than half of a honeyberry.  What do you think of the flavor?  And do honeyberries ripen up before strawberries in your neck of the woods?

Posted Sat May 24 07:59:38 2014 Tags:
failed epoxy fix

Our repaired pot handle broke again. Anna only used it twice.

I guess I should've degreased the area better, or maybe it was the heat?

Part of me feels like a wood handle might work if the hole was drilled in just the right spot to allow the support screw to thread through and attach to the pot.

Posted Sat May 24 14:49:01 2014 Tags:
Spool of rope

Many moons ago, Mark's mom worked at a rope factory.  When the factory closed, she somehow ended up with several of these huge spools of rope, and one wound up on our farm when we first got started.

Chicken pasture

Sunny chickensWhen you have a huge spool of rope, it's astonishing what you'll use it for.  Little pieces turned into tomato ties and bigger pieces attached fence sections together.  By the time we got halfway through our starplate pasture, I realized the impossible had happened --- we'd run out of rope!

Life without a huge spool of rope now seemed inconceivable.  Luckily, Mark's mother hooked us back up with another spool, which we hope will last another eight years.  Thank you so much, Rose Nell!  The garden, chickens, and I all vastly appreciate that huge spool of rope.

Posted Sun May 25 07:25:02 2014 Tags:
Winchester 16 gauge

What kind of shotgun do we use?

It's a 16 gauge Winchester.

Today felt like a good day for some target practice.

Posted Sun May 25 15:38:20 2014 Tags:
Busy bee hive

Bee feederSaturday morning, I decided to amuse myself with a pollen count.  No, I'm not talking about the type of pollen count that allergy sufferers concern themselves with --- I mean counting how many worker bees were carrying pollen into each of our hives.

As I explained in a previous post, all of the eggs laid by our queen before the hive split should now be capped brood.  So the hypothesis was that I could tell which hive ended up with the queen by looking for the colony into which workers were still bringing pollen.

The mother hive location had so many bees coming in and out (top photo) that my count might be off by a bit, but I think I managed to catch most of the returning workers.  I definitely counted every bee coming into the daughter hive.  Here's what I found out:

Mother Hive
Daughter Hive
Time of day
10:54 am
11:05 am
Length of data collection time
1 min. 30 sec.
5 min. 55 sec.
# workers entering with pollen
# workers entering without pollen
% of workers bringing pollen
Pollen carriers per minute
In full sun; lots of bees at feeder
Sun just starting to hit hive; no bees at feeder

The conclusion?  To my surprise, both colonies were still bringing home pollen at a relatively high rate.  It looks like my I can't tell which hive has the queen based on pollen counts after all! 

Empty comb

I was interested to see that the old piece of bee-keeping wisdom --- bees bring in pollen to feed brood --- seems to be only partially true at best.  And it makes sense to me that a colony would collect pollen whenever the protein source is available since they'll need to store some for times of dearth.

It looks like I'll have to keep my eyes open for other signs of queens, like batches of new workers coming out for test flights.  And then there's my old standby of peering up under the bottom of the hive.  Stay tuned for more investigative reporting from the apiary!

Posted Mon May 26 07:01:11 2014 Tags:
pour and store fuel container review comparison

I like to mix our 2 cycle fuel in this small 1 gallon container on the right.

The cap is a plastic switch. You push pour to open and store to close it.

I was a bit dubious of the design when we first got it, but after a few years of field use I'm ready to conclude I prefer the pour and store type because it makes it impossible to lose that yellow plastic cap. It's also nice to know you've got exactly one gallon when adding the oil.

Posted Mon May 26 16:23:46 2014 Tags:
Baby peach

Breaking off tomato suckerThis is the time of year when I usually thin tree fruits so the full-size apples and peaches won't touch each other.  Thinning prevents disease, results in larger fruits, keeps limbs from breaking, and bypasses biennial-fruiting.

But in a year like this one, there's a grand total of only about a dozen baby fruits on all of our trees.  So instead of taking fruits away, I'm using my thinning energy to tell the trees to hang onto the few fruits they have left!  (No, this doesn't actually have any effect on the tree, but it makes me feel better.)

While you're in the garden thinning (if you need to), don't forget to pluck tomato suckers, to start summer pruning and training fruit trees, to break off strawberry runners, and to keep an eye out for the first insect infestations.  I saw the first cabbage white butterfly over the weekend, so bug patrol will begin this week.

Baby apple

(Here's a bonus baby apple photo.  When you've only got a few of them, they all seem to deserve baby pictures!)

Posted Tue May 27 07:04:40 2014 Tags:

"I'm looking to partner with someone to give away a 300-round package of 9mm ammo.  It's a new offering from PMC in a sealed package so it's ideal for survivalists, in my opinion." --- Eric the AmmoMan

I'm sure one of our readers would love to add the sealed ammunition to their bug-out bag or hunting gear.  Readers, enter using the widget at the end of this post, or read more about the battle pack below:

"Newly released by the same company that equips the South Korean military, PMC's battle packs are really an example of an ammo company listening to how their customers use their product.  In this case, PMC knew a lot of folks were preparing for the worst and the concept of a battle pack will help folks looking to do just that.  PMC's battle packs offer a vacuum seal and high-density advanced polymer sleeve that allows the external package to stand up to the elements a lot better than the standard cardboard box and versatility that you won't find in a traditional ammo can.  These packs are easy to stash in a backpack or bug out bag and stand-up to rough conditions so you know your ammo can be relied upon, even if its packaging is exposed to rain, snow, or other moisture."

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Posted Tue May 27 15:33:21 2014 Tags:
Mulching with feed bags

We have a lot of uses for empty feed bags, but my favorite is kill mulching around small transplants.  As you can see in the photo above, the parts of the garden that spent the winter as rye are a little weedier than I'd like, so rather than hand-weeding, I'm laying down a layer of paper bags and then a layer of straw.  The feed bags conform to the soil surface better than cardboard does in this type of uneven terrain, and they decay just as fast (including the strings).

When we go somewhere other than our usual feed store and end up with the plastic-burlap bags, I generally save the empties for troublesome trash.  We're still pulling old barbed wire and broken glass out of parts of the garden, and that type of debris will puncture an ordinary trash bag.  A plastic feed bag, though, holds wire and glass with ease.

Mark gets his ingenuity honest --- from his mother --- and her use for a feed bag takes the cake.  She makes hip handbags out of the empty plastic sacks, something I'd definitely use if I was a handbag carrier.  (I wish I had a photo to share with you!)

What do you do with your old feed bags?

Posted Wed May 28 08:00:55 2014 Tags:
Fig tree update after freeze out

Both our Chicago Hardy and Celeste fig trees have started the process of leafing out. We were a bit worried after cutting away all the frost damage from last Winter.

Posted Wed May 28 14:34:20 2014 Tags:
Rooted kiwi cuttings

I love rooting experiments so much that I'll often mail people cuttings as long as they promise to report back on their methods and success rate.  One of our favorite* readers, Brian Cooper, wanted to expand his hardy kiwi operation, so I sent him cuttings from all three of our plants, many of which grew roots as you can see.  Brian reported:

More rooted kiwi cuttings"My plan was to bury them vertically and once they poked out then add more compost to the base to allow rooting of the new growth.  Two rooted from the new growth but they also rooted from the hardwood, so it did work but it probably wasn't necessary.  A lot of the compost that was added settled down and the new growth was still above the compost.  I made the cuttings a bit shorter so they fit under my humidity dome and this left a lot of 2" pieces that I put a layer of compost over, and some of them rooted up as well.  I think if I was to do it over, I would just bury all the cuttings (4-6" pieces) horizontally under 1/2" to 1" of compost or dirt."

It turned out that 1 of 7 Male cuttings rooted, 6 of 10 Anna cuttings rooted (even though the cuttings had flower buds on them), and 9 of 12 Dumbarton Oak cuttings rooted.  So if you have a kiwi plant and want to make more, Brian's method looks like a pretty good bet!

* Okay, I know I shouldn't play favorites.  But I love readers who share their experiments and make thought-provoking comments!

Posted Thu May 29 07:21:28 2014 Tags:
new ducks with barn in background

We moved the ducks back to the Sky Pond today.

A temporary fence gives them a nice 50 foot circle to roam around in.

Bad news for the toad and tadpole population.

Posted Thu May 29 16:07:36 2014 Tags:

Sparkle strawberry plant
Last spring, we planted some Sparkle strawberries to replace the late-season variety we hated (Allstar), which in turn had replaced the mediocre late-season variety Jewel.  Time for a rundown on the pros and cons of this new type of strawberry!

As you can see from the photo above, one of the major advantages of Sparkle is that the plants are very productive.  I grow strawberries in the hill system, removing all runners and giving the plants plenty of space, so I always get lots of big berries from each plant.  But our Sparkle planting takes the cake in terms of pure quantity of fruit!  (The plants produced just as many runners as berries, though, so if you hate plucking runners, this might not be the variety for you.)

Taste is another major advantage.  Sparkle is one of the sweetest strawberries I've ever tasted, and although it lacks the fuller-bodied flavor of Honeoye, it compares favorably with Ozark Beauty.  (You can read more about flavor of the strawberry varieties we've tried here.)  Mark says he likes Sparkle even better than our other varieties, while I rank it on the same level.

Hollow strawberry center

Where did the Sparkle berries fail?  Well, the plants don't really seem to be a late-season variety, despite being listed as such on Nourse Farms website.  The Sparkles are ripening up in the mid-season, just a hair behind the first Ozark Beauties, which means that the variety won't extend our strawberry season as late into the summer as I'd hoped.  (Actually, as I go look at Nourse Farms' site, I see that Sparkle is now listed as "late midseason" instead of "late season."  Not sure if they changed the site or if I just made a mistake when researching.)  Maybe next year I'll consider adding another variety that is a truly late-producer.

Less importantly (at least to me), Sparkle berries are so soft and luscious that it's hard to even pick them off the vine without damaging the berries.  I guess that's really only a disadvantage to Mark since I often eat damaged berries as I pick rather than risking them going bad during the two minute journey into the house.  Gotta protect those berries....

Posted Fri May 30 07:09:59 2014 Tags:
man bending over to pull up ragweed

This time of year the ragweed is easy to delete when you catch the ground wet.

Posted Fri May 30 15:36:10 2014 Tags:
Cutting strawberries

Strawberries are our first big harvest of the year.  Sure, we've been eating lettuce so long that we're sick of it, and kale rapini and asparagus are giving way to Swiss chard and peas, but none of those vegetables are worthy of being preserved.  Strawberries, though, come out of the garden by the gallon.  Even after we eat our fill, there's still plenty left to be squirreled away for the winter.

Strawberry freezer jam

My stand-by preservation methods for strawberries include fruit leather (for special treats) and strawberry freezer jam (for dressing spring salads).  This year, I'm trying out a new freezer jam recipe, based on Pomona's Pectin and using a lot less sweetening than usual (plus, the sweetener is honey instead of sugar).  Here's hoping the healthier option will be just as well received in February 2015 as the previous version was in February 2014!

Posted Sat May 31 07:34:56 2014 Tags:
Anna loading rain barrel into our Toyota backseat

What's it take to coax Anna into a trip to the big city?

A rain barrel workshop did it today. Complete with free rain barrel. fit into the backseat with room to spare.

Posted Sat May 31 13:16:54 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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