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

archives for 06/2014

Jun 2014
Chemical-free honey

After the rain-barrel workshop on Saturday, I dropped by the St. Paul Farmer's Market on my way home.  I was thrilled to stumble across a  local beekeeper who keeps 28 hives without any chemical use at all, resulting in only 10% losses per year.  For non-beekeepers, those are very good stats --- even if you use chemicals, 30% to 50% losses are normal in our area.

I asked the beekeeper what he did about varroa mites, and he shared his home remedy --- rhubarb leaves.  He told me to make a tea out of rhubarb leaves, then to dip in a sheet of plain paper.  After letting the paper dry, you put it in your hive the way you would use mite strips in the fall. 

The internet suggests that the purpose of the rhubarb tea is to extract oxalic acid, which is a proven treatment for mites.  Rhubarb leaves contain 0.2 to 1.3% oxalic acid, and spraying oxalic acid into bee hives does seem to kill varroa mites with only some damage to the bees.  The less-intrusive strips seem much better than spraying if they work, though.  I may have to try that this fall if our mite counts are high.

Posted Sun Jun 1 07:37:51 2014 Tags:
strawberry leather dryer

We've had the Excalibur food dehydrator for 3 years now and love it.

My favorite thing so far is having strawberry leather in the middle of Winter.

The reusable fruit leather sheets are holding up well. They're not hard to wash and look like they'll keep producing leather for years to come.

Posted Sun Jun 1 15:24:38 2014 Tags:
Biochar with bones"I was wondering if you used your biochar to help grow your seedlings and/or put any into your garden.  I have made a lot over the winter and put it in my beds, I am hoping for a great harvest this year.  Also, what is your preferred method for getting your biochar?" --- John

I haven't posted about our biochar in a while because it's become one of those things we just do as a matter of course.  You can read my last big post on the topic here, which answers your question about how we harvest biochar and how we put biochar on the garden up until 2014.

This year, we're trying something different.  Since I haven't seen much impact from the urine-soaked biochar in the vegetable garden, I decided to use this year's charcoal in the composting toilet, tossing a few quarts down the hole every few weeks (or whenever I think about it).  I'm hoping that by putting the biochar in an active compost pile, it will become better inoculated with good microorganisms and will result in more of the kind of boost you read about.  Plus, this way our biochar will be much closer to the terra preta that started the biochar craze, since the charcoal will be combined with human wastes.  The composted biochar and humanure will go under fruit trees in fall 2015, and I might have some data for you in 2016.

Posted Mon Jun 2 06:47:34 2014 Tags:
Using rye to mulch the middle

Mulching the middle with Rye is a little easier than baled straw.

Posted Mon Jun 2 16:06:55 2014 Tags:
Hardy kiwi flower

Let me start with the official information found in many books and websites.  Hardy kiwis come in male and female varieties, and the recommendation is to include one male plant for every eight females in your orchard.  Only a few varieties --- such as Issai --- are listed as having both male and female flowers on the same plant, meaning you can get fruit from a single vine.

Our Anna (aka Ananasnaya) vine is flowering for the first time this spring, and when I looked up into the pretty white bells, I noticed that each bloom consists of a central ovary (the green bump, which will turn into a fruit) surrounded by quite a few stamens.  Wait a minute!  The presence of stamens means that the flower is both male and female and is potentially self-pollinating.  I even tapped the stamens with my finger and saw pale pollen come off, a sign that the male parts are functional.

Male and female kiwi flowersIs my Anna kiwi just an odd duck?  I don't think so, based on the photo to the left, from the Washington State University Extension Service.  The WSU photo shows a male kiwi flower on the left and a female on the right --- their "female" flower, just like mine, is full of stamens.

Interestingly, one of our readers commented last year to say that she had planted an Anna kiwi and a male kiwi, but the male never blooms with the female...and yet she still gets fruits.  We're accidentally running a similar experiment since our Anna kiwi is the most vigorous of the three vines I planted in 2008 and our male isn't blooming this year.  If we get fruits just like the commenter did even though no male flowers are available, I'll know that either Anna is like Issai and is both male and female, or that perhaps all "female" hardy kiwis are male too and don't need a pollinator plant.

Anna kiwi

I'd love to hear from readers who have hardy kiwis flowering right now.  If you go out and look at the flowers of your female plants, do you see a ring of stamens?  If so, what variety are you growing?  Could the need for male hardy kiwis just be an untested "fact" that's been passed down from book to book for years with no data to back it up?

Posted Tue Jun 3 06:36:32 2014 Tags:
5 gallon buckets of manure in truck

We filled the truck up with buckets of horse manure today.

Our first load of the season and it went smoothly.

Posted Tue Jun 3 16:34:20 2014 Tags:
Immature apple

Branching at the top of a treeEven though I really should be weeding and mulching, I'm stealing a bit of time this week to spend pruning and training the perennials.  The high-density apple planting, especially, needs frequent TLC during the growing season so I can channel the trees' energy in just the direction I want, ensuring very early fruiting rather than years spent on vegetative growth only.  In fact, we would have enjoyed a pretty good harvest this year, I suspect, if we hadn't been faced with a late, hard freeze that wiped out nearly every flower.

The only pruning I did in the high-density planting over the winter consisted of cutting off the tops of most of the trees.  This is the same thing you want to do with one-year-old whips to promote branching, and as you can see from the photo to the right, the tops of the trees do branch out the next spring just as you'd expect.  What you probably can't see is the pieces of twine I have holding down all but one of the branches, turning them into near-horizontal scaffolds instead of letting them fight over becoming the central leader.

Summer pruned trees and vines

In addition to bending branches way down, I did head back a few branches that were reaching into other trees' territory.  With high-density plantings, the goal is to cut off as little wood as possible, but if you absolutely have to cut, summer is a better time than winter since a summer cut will be much less likely to promote vigorous vegetative growth.

Loopy appleTo the left, you can see the dwarf apple that I've named my loopy tree since I tied its copious watersprouts into loops last summer.  After spending the better part of a decade without a bloom, my loops tempted the tree to put out quite a show this spring, and a few fruits even missed the hard freeze and seem to be sticking to their twigs.

Although my loops did promote fruiting, in retrospect, I see that they weren't the brightest idea because they resulted in branches coming away from the trunk nearly vertically, which will be weak spots as the tree matures.  With a dwarf, though, it's probably not such a big deal since I won't let those branches get very long anyway.

My job with the loopy tree this week consisted of untying the existing loops and tying some new loops to make sure all of the branches were pointing down.  I hope the effort will be repaid with many apples from this tree in 2016, barring another hard spring freeze.

Not pictured are the blackberries and black raspberries, in which I left the fruiting stalks (of course), but otherwise pruned each plant down to one main stem.  Then I snipped the tops off each of those primocanes to promote branching, which will ensure plenty of spots for flowers on next year's plants.

If you look carefully, you'll notice that I have pictured the hardy kiwis in this post, where I cut the most vigorous vines way back and removed all vines coming up from the base.  Still to come on the summer-pruning agenda is our non-dwarf trees and thinning the red raspberry canes.  But those plants won't be too pissed off at me if I get engrossed in other garden tasks and forget about them, so they're on the bottom of my list.  Back to weeding!

Posted Wed Jun 4 07:32:22 2014 Tags:
5 gallon bucket handle fix how to

Lucy helped me fix this 5 gallon bucket handle today.

It only took about 2 and a half feet of rope and an extra hole next to where the wire handle would fit into the protruding groove.

The rope should be thin enough to fit through the old plastic handle twice. Loop it around on one side and tie the ends together on the other.

Posted Wed Jun 4 15:45:37 2014 Tags:
How to make a rain barrel

I'd like to make this post all about how to make a rain barrel.  But the truth is that the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable had done so much prep work, each rain barrel took the participants only about fifteen minutes to put together.  The sponsors had cut round holes in the top of each barrel for a colander to fit into, and they'd added smaller holes in the sides for overflow and outlet pipes.  The outlet pipe simply consisted of a brass faucet screwed into the barrel, while the overflow area was two PVC pipe fittings screwed together, sandwiching the barrel, then a length of hose slipped over the exterior fitting and hooked on with a hose clamp.  Total supply cost was $27 per barrel --- $10 for the barrel, $1 for delivery of the barrels from North Carolina, and $16 for the hardware.

Mark and I are pretty sure we want to use our rain barrel to make an easy hand-washing station out at the composting toilet.  Installing the rain barrel will be a bigger project than making the water collector since we'll have to add gutters to the roof and to support the barrel at a height above the ground.  I suspect rain-barrel installation will be one of those projects that I deem unnecessary during our busy season but that Mark sneaks onto the list when I'm not looking.

Posted Thu Jun 5 08:14:55 2014 Tags:
temporary pen for broiler retirement day

This temporary pen was all it took to keep 5 Cornish Cross broilers from escaping on their last day.

It takes Anna and me about 20 minutes per bird once we have everything ready.

Posted Thu Jun 5 15:15:47 2014 Tags:
String tomato trellis

Remember my string tomato trellis?  (Here's a photo on planting day.)  The tomato plants are big enough now that I can give you a bit of data on how the new training method is working out.

The instructions in The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners tell you to space the vertical strings six inches apart, but I put mine more like 18 inches apart since I wanted to give my tomatoes plenty of air flow for fungal reasons.  As a result, I had to tweak the design further when the time came to twine the side shoots around their strings --- the strings were too far away for the branches to reach, but I didn't want to wait any longer to tie the tomatoes up.  So I simply slid the bottom part of the two side strings closer to the main trunk, turning the three strings I use for a single tomato into a bit of a W shape instead of a series of vertical lines.

Other than that, training the tomatoes has gone quite smoothly.  I gently twine the stems around their strings whenever I think of it, snipping off extra sprouts at the same time, and I think the process is really easier than my usual method of tying each tomato to a post at intervals.  On the other hand, setting up the trellis would have been a lot more work if I hadn't had a soon-to-be grape trellis handy to work with, so I probably won't expand the string trellis to cover all of our tomato plants in future years.

Growing tomatoes

In other tomato-related news, the sunny microclimate in front of the trailer is definitely doing its job at speeding along our first tomatoes. Both the roma Daddy started inside very early and the Stupice that I started inside at the end of February have big fruits that are at least a week or two ahead of the fruits on our main planting.  Maybe we'll be eating ripe tomatoes before the end of June?

Posted Fri Jun 6 07:20:50 2014 Tags:
trying out a new Lansky sharpener

We replaced our old sharpener with a Lansky Blade Medic.

It seems to be more heavy duty than the kitchen knife sharpener we've been using with the added bonus that it can fit in your pocket.

Posted Fri Jun 6 16:07:09 2014 Tags:
Roasting garlic scapes

I'm ashamed to say that, until this year, I'd yet to find a really delicious way to cook garlic scapes.  As a result, I plucked the scapes out of our hardneck garlic last year...and let them compost in the garden.  I'll never do that again now that I've tasted roasted garlic scapes!

Garlic scapeI roast scapes the exact same way I roast asparagus.  After pulling the scapes out of the garlic plants, I break off the tops (which are tougher and less tasty), then pile the sweet bottom portions onto my toaster-oven tray.  A drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper season the scapes, then I turn the toast oven on high and cook for about thirty minutes, stopping a couple of times in the middle to shake the pan and turn the scapes around so they all get coated in oil and equally browned.  The finished product (not pictured) is somewhat shriveled, with every scape at least lightly browned.  The taste is like roast garlic, but sweet and mild enough to be eaten as a side.  Delicious!

Posted Sat Jun 7 06:36:30 2014 Tags:

broccoli and strawberries
The way Anna prepares fresh broccoli and strawberries is a thing of beauty.

Posted Sat Jun 7 15:53:46 2014 Tags:
"I am curious how much manure you use each year?  Gallons, pounds, buckets.  How many acres or square feet?  One of my friends said he used about 300 bales of hay for each acre he farmed.  Seems high to me?  That said, I guess we are all grass farmers :)." --- John

The tricky part about your question is that I apply manure based on quality of the soil.  In poor soil that I'm just bringing into cultivation, I may lay down as much as two inches of manure over the entire area.  In this case, I'm applying manure both to provide nutrients (especially nitrogen) and to increase the organic matter levels of the soil, improving the poor ground.  Plus, the high levels of manure jump-start the soil life and get everything humming fast.

Cucumber flower

On the other hand, much of our garden is now getting to the stage where the soil simply needs to be topped up with nutrients before each planting.  There, I often apply one to two five-gallon buckets of manure per garden bed (about 20 square feet), which would work out to about 11,000 to 22,000 gallons of manure per acre of ground (assuming no unplanted aisles).  That's about 55 to 110 cubic yards of manure per planted acre, or a layer approximately 0.4 to 0.8 inches deep spread across the planting area.  At this application level, you're only maintaining soil nutrients and organic matter, not improving your ground, so you'll want to add cover crops into your rotation to ensure you're still making your earth richer.

Red currant

Anyway, to get back to the point and to actually answer your question, I estimate that we use about 200 to 250 buckets of manure per year for our vegetables and strawberries.  We also add a few buckets to our bigger perennials, but most of our bushes, vines, and trees get their fertility from the deep bedding in the chicken coops and (starting this fall) from our composting toilet.

Last year, we went through 107 bales of straw, which felt a bit extravagant but which allowed me to use straw as bedding in the coops when I ran out of leaves and also gave me straw to mulch a few of the perennials.  Since our vegetable garden is only about a quarter of an acre, your friend's statistics sounds about right (although I assume he meant straw, not hay).

Poppy flower bud

In case you're curious, our manure costs us nothing but sweat equity and gas for hauling, while our straw costs us a bit over $5 per bale from a local farmer.  You can see my rundown on the other costs of our garden here.

Gardening or farming organically definitely does use a lot of inputs!  Of course, we could turn the whole thing into a closed loop pretty easily if we just had another 24 hours in every day and another ten arable acres to grow grains for straw and cows for manure.  In the meantime, we'll keep bringing in manure and straw to keep our little two-acre growing area feeding us a large proportion of our own food.

Posted Sun Jun 8 07:46:18 2014 Tags:
Strider looking out onto the garden one morning

Our new seed starting shelf does double duty as Strider's new roosting spot.

Posted Sun Jun 8 14:35:05 2014 Tags:
Cornish Cross

Our Cornish Cross chickens are clocking in at a dressed weight of around 3.9 pounds at six weeks of age, which is the youngest you'd want to slaughter even these ultra-speedy hybrids.  We could expect our broilers to perhaps double in size if we let them grow out another month, but, to be honest, Mark and I are heartily sick of Cornish Cross and don't want to risk dealing with the health problems that crop up as the birds get even bigger.  Since the six-week-old dressed weight of Cornish Cross is already twice what we get out of twelve-week-old Australorps, we decided to slaughter at the youngest age possible and move on to birds we enjoy more.

Weighing a chicken

As I butchered the Cornish Cross carcasses, I could tell they were a very different bird than we're used to, and not just because of their heavy weight, small legs, and big breasts.  With Australorps, I'm used to seeing minimal fat, but what fat is present is richly yellow due to their pastured diet.  Despite the fact that our Cornish Cross had access to just as much pasture as our other chickens do, their fat was a very pale cream color, and there was much more fat present.  In retrospect, I think the only real way to get much pasture at all into lazy Cornish Cross is to use Salatin-style chicken tractors, and I'm sure even that would only result in a fraction of the nutritional quality of the meat that we get out of our Australorps.

Roast chicken

But what about flavor?  I brined and then roasted up a broiler twenty-four hours after slaughtering and was pleasantly surprised to find that the taste of a homegrown bird is superior to that of a supermarket chicken.  On the other hand, the Cornish Cross didn't hold a candle to the Australorp broilers we're used to (although the former does have meat that's less tough than the latter, due to the older age of our heirloom broilers).

In the end, we concluded that Cornish Cross broilers are slightly cheaper to raise per pound than Australorps are, have carcasses that are more familiar to the mainstream American, and are ultra-speedy.  But we're willing to put in more time and a bit more money for healthier and tastier meat, so we'll go back to our heirloom breed "at least for another ten years until we forget what Cornish Cross are like," says Mark.

Posted Mon Jun 9 07:54:30 2014 Tags:

Thrifty Chicken BreedsI've got two rounds of book excitement to share with you this week.  First of all, I have a new ebook out!  Thrifty Chicken Breeds sums up our experiences over the last five years trialling different types of chickens and keeping track of their foraging abilities and of how much it cost to keep the chickens fed.  The result is a recommendation on types of chickens perfect for the homesteader who wants her birds to pay for themselves, plus tips on how to breed an even more self-sufficient homestead flock.

Thrifty Chicken Breeds is only 99 cents on Amazon (or free to borrow if you have Amazon Prime), so I hope you'll splurge a buck!  Early sales make a huge difference in an ebook's future, so I'm not setting this ebook free on Friday the way I usually do.  Instead, I've set aside a limited number of free copies for those of you who are willing to leave a review on Amazon (email me if you're interested), and once I have enough reviews to help the book reach strangers, I'll set up a free period on Amazon.  I announce those freebies on my book email list, so head over here and sign up using the form on the sidebar if you want to know when this and other ebooks are free. 

The Naturally Bug-Free GardenSecond, I revised the manuscript of The Naturally Bug-Free Garden to send to Skyhorse, and as always happens when I know I won't get another stab at a book for quite a while, I went over the book with a fine-tooth comb and also enlarged it.  If you've already downloaded a copy of the first edition, pay attention to your inbox and Amazon should give you an opportunity to upgrade to the second edition for free in the near future.  And if you haven't got the book yet, now's your chance to enjoy a sneak preview of the same text and photos that will show up in bookstores in spring 2015!

A huge thank you to everyone who reads and reviews!  And please don't forget that you can always read my ebooks on any device using these free appsStay tuned for some excerpts from Thrifty Chicken Breeds, coming up as this week's lunchtime series.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jun 9 12:00:11 2014 Tags:
mark Sweet pea
Sugar Snap peas compared to Snow Peas

We used to be Snow Pea people, but switched to Sugar Snap when we discovered how much sweeter and crunchier a pea can be.

Posted Mon Jun 9 16:14:28 2014 Tags:
Shredded paper mulch

What should you do with junk mail?  I've minimized our junk mail to the point that what remains is just right for starting fires during the winter months.  But by June, those credit card offers are piling up, so I shred anything that's not glossy and use the paper as mulch around the perennials.  Sending junk mail through a shredder is slow, but the mulch is an excellent source of organic matter for the soil and is a good weed blocker if applied thick.

What innovative homestead use have you found for junk mail?

Posted Tue Jun 10 06:58:06 2014 Tags:
Polish RoosterWhy are there so many chicken breeds to choose from?  A lot of it is just looks.  Within the last century, dozens of types of chickens were developed with unique plumage that made them good bets to win a prize at the county fair, but these lookers are unlikely to be prime homesteading birds.  Not only is efficient egg-laying and meat production often ignored when breeding exhibition-quality birds, but chickens with feathered feet have a hard time scratching for their dinner, and those with fancy plumes can't glance up.  In general, fancy fowl tend to be eaten by hawks in short order, and they usually don't produce much compared to how much they cost to feed.  The serious homesteader will be better off giving these birds a miss.

The rise of fancy fowl is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In 1868, Charles Darwin (with the help of a "Mr. Tegetmeier") published a survey of the currently known chicken breeds, which included Game, Malay, Cochin, Dorking, Spanish, Hamburg, Crested or Polish, Bantam, Rump-less, Creepers or Jumpers, Frizzled or Caffre, Silk, and Sooty.  As you can tell, Darwin's descriptions were mostly categories rather than actual breeds as we consider them today, so it's not surprising that only thirteen types made the cut.

On the other hand, the relative paucity of chicken types in the late nineteenth century was also due to the fact that chickens were primarily a luxury item in temperate climates at that time.  Chickens didn't become an economical source of human food until the discovery of vitamin D in the early 1920s made it easy to keep flocks healthy and productive through the winter months.  With chickens suddenly becoming a viable alternative for small farmers, it's no surprise that many of the chicken breeds we know today (and others that have since been lost) were developed in the early part of the twentieth century.

Buff Orpingtons in the snowThe heyday of chicken breeding didn't last forever, though.  The discovery of vitamin D not only made chicken keeping more economical for the homesteader, it also allowed large chicken farms to raise thousands of birds at a time.  During the same time period, many Americans were moving off farms and into the cities, and while some ex-farmers bred miniature chickens (bantams) to take with them, others decided it was simpler to buy their eggs and meat at the store.  Before long, homestead-worthy chicken breeds were dwindling and being replaced by types of chickens that did well in the cramped quarters of factory farms.

The more recent surges in backyard chicken-keeping of the 1970s and early 2000s have mostly focused on the breeds that already existed, although the choices were reduced to those that had survived decades of backyard disinterest.  And while most of the chickens that were alive at the time Darwin was writing were probably scrappy farmyard birds with no pedigrees who fit the farms they'd been raised on, the modern homesteader looking to develop a productive flock has more choices but a harder time finding productive genetics.  That's why, despite the wide variety of chicken breeds out there, it can be tough to find a good homesteading bird.  Thrifty Chicken Breeds is all about tracking down that productive breed that can feed your family at a low cost.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  If so, why not read the whole thing for only 99 cents?  Or stay tuned for another excerpt here on the blog tomorrow.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jun 10 12:00:55 2014 Tags:

Chickens on pasture

We water the vegetable garden to even out the weather, but the gullywasher last night was still appreciated.

Pastures will be greener, berries will be plumper, and trees will heave a sigh of relief.

Thanks, rain!

Posted Wed Jun 11 06:33:05 2014 Tags:
Homestead flockAlthough a homesteader can certainly choose Cochins as gentle pets for their preschoolers and Polish to win first prize at the fair, the average farmer will be more interested in making sure her chicken habit pays for itself.  The best farm breeds should produce lots of eggs and/or meat on little store-bought food, but homesteaders should also pay attention to some less obvious chicken traits.

What are the less-than-obvious traits to be on the lookout for?  Prime homesteading birds will usually be good foragers and will stand up well to predators and weather.  They will typically lay in the winter, even when day length drops below the critical 14 hours per day required for peak production (or the homesteader will commit to installing supplemental light in the coop or to doing without omelets during cold weather).  In addition, the best breed for your farm might make good mother hens...or you might prefer a non-broody breed if you're going to use an incubator and want to maximize egg production.  Even if you don't have nearby neighbors, I recommend choosing birds that only make a racket when predators are sniffing around since you'll soon tune out the cackling of loud breeds like Anconas, Leghorns, Old English Game hens, and White Faced Spanish, which means you might lose some free-rangers to hawks as a result.  If you garden (and what homesteader doesn't?), you'll also want to select a breed that's less likely to fly fences and scratch up your lettuce bed—heavier breeds are better in this respect, and the worst fliers (to be avoided) include Hamburgs, Leghorns, Old English Game hens, and all types of bantams.

Salmon Faverolles chickenBeginning homesteaders might choose from among the most productive egg-layers for their first couple of years, but chances are you'll slowly gravitate toward dual-purpose birds that also produce a worthwhile amount of meat (dressing out to at least two pounds at twelve weeks).  From an economic standpoint, it simply doesn't make sense to keep hens around after they've been laying more than one to three years (depending on the breed and on your level of sentimentality).  So if you don't want to be feeding unproductive pets, you'll end up butchering your layers frequently, meaning those stewing hens will need a use in the kitchen.  In addition, once you start hatching your own eggs (a big savings over buying hatchery chicks every spring), you'll notice that fifty percent of your flock is male...and most farms only need one rooster.  All of the excess cockerels will join the spent layers in the self-sufficient homesteader's belly.  Since the most productive egg-laying breeds simply aren't worth your while to butcher and dress out as meat birds, I focus on dual-purpose breeds through most of Thrifty Chicken Breeds.

What shouldn't the self-sufficient homesteader care about?  Eggshell color only matters for aesthetic reasons, as does color of a meat bird's skin.  In both cases, the taste and nutritional quality of the eggs and meat are due to what the chicken in question ate (which generally equates to how much non-store-bought feed it consumed).  In addition, I recommend that you don't pay too much attention to the actual breed name or to whether or not your chickens are listed as heritage breeds.  While threatened heritage varieties sound good on paper, it's worth asking yourself—why do so few people raise that type of chicken any more?  Perhaps the breed was particularly suited to only a very specific climate or type of homestead, or maybe (as has happened with many breeds in the last century) breeders began selecting for exhibition-quality looks rather than for productivity and efficiency.  While Thrifty Chicken Breeds does list variety names to give you a place to start, I believe the best chicken for most homesteaders is a mutt specifically bred to match your farm and needs.  So take everything I say with a grain of salt—if your Australorps don't live up to my high praise, seek out another dual-purpose variety that is being raised by homesteaders like you who are interested in productivity over prestige.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  If so, why not read the whole thing for only 99 cents?  Or stay tuned for another excerpt here on the blog tomorrow.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jun 11 12:00:08 2014 Tags:
A big old pile of sawdust

We found a new source for saw dust.

It's closer to home, which would save about an hour of driving, but there's no loader to do most of the work.

Posted Wed Jun 11 15:36:35 2014 Tags:
Shredded paper mulch
"Aren't you concerned about the heavy metals and dioxin that are found in papers and inks?" --- Organic Gardener

"I was actually wondering about this recently.  I am somewhat leery of the chemicals in the paper and inks (even if it is soy based ink there are other chemicals in it that may not be great)." --- Sharon

I put this question to Tradd Cotter at his talk on mycoremediation (using mushrooms to deal with chemical pollutants) and the upshot is that fungi can break down nearly anything we throw at them as long as the fungi are healthy.  Since Mark and I work hard to create fungus-friendly soils (by not tilling, never adding pesticides or herbicides, always applying organic matter to the soil surface, and so forth), I trust our fungi to break down everything except heavy metals.

Black raspberry

The question becomes --- will paper used as mulch in the garden contain heavy metals?  A study by West Virginia University showed that glossy paper may contain heavy metals while, in contrast, paper with only black ink is quite safe in the garden.  The study didn't address the middle ground, though --- non-glossy paper with color ink.

What do we do in our own garden?  Glossy paper hits the trash can (since it makes plants grumble even before you consider the heavy metals issue), black-and-white paper is used without concern in the garden, and non-glossy paper with colored ink goes in one place or the other, depending on how desperate I am for mulch material.  I figure that, given the relatively low quantities of paper we use for mulch, simply using my paper to mulch different areas each year will keep heavy metals from building up to toxic levels.  (My junk mail mulch probably amounts to about 1% of our annual mulch, if that.)

Mulched garden

As a side, note, neither of the questioners addressed the C:N ratio issue, but I think this is an important point for gardeners to understand if they're using paper in or on their soil.  Paper has a C:N of between 50:1 and 175:1, which means that decomposing bacteria will suck nitrogen out of your soil while breaking the paper down if you're not careful.  How do you get around this issue?  Only use paper as mulch in parts of your garden where you aren't going to till in the near future, since mulch doesn't steal much nitrogen from the soil but paper worked into your dirt definitely will.  Or, if you must till in paper mulches, be sure to apply some extra nitrogen (compost, manure, urine, etc.) at the same time so the paper won't steal important nutrients from your plants.

I hope that helps you decide whether or not to use paper as mulch in your own garden.  In the end, it comes down to a personal decision about how careful you want or need to be, and how much you want to save a buck and keep waste materials out of the landfill.  (Or to avoid a trip to the recycling center if you have one nearby, which we don't.)  We try to use up as much of our "waste" as possible, so paper mulch, within reason, is acceptable on our farm.

Posted Thu Jun 12 07:03:28 2014 Tags:

Pet chicken
Are you the type of reader who likes to skip to the end of the book to see how the story turns out?  If so, here's a handy chart summarizing the pros and cons of the types of chickens mentioned in Thrifty Chicken Breeds.

Avg. eggs per year
Weight of adult rooster / hen (lbs)
Primary uses
Primary disadvantages
250 (prolific)
6.5 / 5.5
Green and blue eggs
True Ameraucanas are very rare.  Most birds listed as "Ameraucanas" are actually hybrids more properly known as "Easter Eggers."
250 (prolific)
9 / 6.5
Eggs and meat
Only a moderate winter layer
150 (average)
12 / 9.5
Meat, pets
Feathered feet
110–160 (below average)
11 / 8.5
Broody  hens, pets
Feathered feet
150–180 (average)
10 / 5.7
Less efficient converter of feed to meat than Cornish Cross
Cornish Cross
May not live to laying age
10 / 6
Hybrid, so you can't keep your own flock going.  Also, this very productive meat bird may be hard to keep in homestead conditions.
180–260 (average, good winter layer)
7 / 5
Eggs and meat
Aggressive roosters
Easter Egger
200 (varies)
varies (about 6–7)
Green and blue eggs, pets
Inefficient layers
200 (above average, good winter layer)
10 / 8.5
Currently bred for looks, not production
280 (extremely prolific)
2.4 / 2
White variety attracts predators, flighty behavior
150 (average)
8.5 / 7
Broody hens, "chocolate" eggs
Inefficient layers, skittish behavior
New Hampshire
200–280 (above average, good winter layer)
8.5 / 6.5
Eggs and meat
Inefficient layers
175–200 (average, good winter layer)
10 / 8.5
Eggs and meat, broody hens
Most strains are now bred for looks, not production
Plymouth Rock
200–280 (average, good winter layer)
9.5 / 7.5
Eggs and meat
Most strains are now bred for looks, not production
Red Sex Link
200–280 (varies, but usually prolific)
8–9 / 6–7 Eggs, pets Inefficient meat producer, too friendly for some homesteads, doesn't breed true
Rhode Island Red
200 - 280 (extremely prolific, good winter layer)
8.5 / 6.5
Eggs and meat
Aggressive roosters, flighty behavior
150 (average, small eggs)
2.3 / 2
Broody hens, pets
Inefficient producers, can't see predators, feathered feet
240–260 (above average, good winter layer)
9 / 7
Eggs and meat
White variety attracts predators, too friendly, inefficient meat production
200 (average, good winter layer)
8.2 / 6
Eggs and meat
Fluffy vent feathers can make it hard for roosters to fertilize eggs

Easter Egger chickenWhat if the breed you're interested in isn't listed above?  Here are a few of my favorite sources for chicken stats if you want to research further:

Henderson's Chicken Chart is a great way to compare many different breeds at a glance. 

BackYard Chickens
has a helpful section where visitors have rated many breeds, listing the pros and cons of each. 

Wikipedia is a good source for just-the-facts stats. 

Cackle Hatchery includes egg-laying statistics on most of their breeds. 

But don't get bogged down in crunching numbers and making pro and con lists.  Your on-the-ground data might not match what others have reported, so there's no replacement for just diving in and trying a new breed out!

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  If so, why not read the whole thing for only 99 cents?  Or stay tuned for another excerpt here on the blog tomorrow.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jun 12 13:13:21 2014 Tags:
organic cabbage worm control

What's the best way to feed cabbage worms to ducks?

I plan to try adding today's collection to tomorrow morning's feed. Sort of like adding raisins to a bowl of oatmeal.

Posted Thu Jun 12 16:06:00 2014 Tags:
Processing broccoli

The freezer feels like it's filling up pretty fast this year.  Part of that is the 75 pounds of chicken meat we added this and last week, plus the gallons of chicken broth from feet and necks of all the birds and from carcasses of the seven we parted out.  The broth will be Frozen foodthawed back out in a month or two to form the base of tomato and vegetable soup, but right now the liquid takes up quite a bit of space.

Strawberry season this year was a bit shorter and smaller than previously since frost got some of the earliest flowers and then rain this week caused other berries to rot.  It's hard to complain, though, when we have over a gallon each of strawberry leather and strawberry freezer jam to perk up our late winter doldrums next year.

The only newly-frozen food that counts toward my goal of thirty-or-so gallons of stockpiled vegetables is the broccoli --- nearly a gallon put away so far.  We didn't have enough broccoli to freeze last spring and our fall crop bombed, so it's exciting to be able to gorge and still freeze quite a few of the cruciferous buds.

Although rain rots the strawberries, I was glad of a rainy afternoon since it let me work in the kitchen without burning up.  If it's too wet to be in the garden, you can always spend that time preserving the bounty!

Posted Fri Jun 13 07:29:57 2014 Tags:
Chicken tractorOne way to narrow down the vast array of available chicken breeds is to consider the most popular breeds right now in the United States.  Merging together the data from two surveys (one by Mother Earth News and one by the Backyard Chickens Forum), I developed this list of top breeds from most to least popular:

1. Rhode Island Red
2. Orpington
3. Plymouth Rock
4. Wyandotte
5. Easter Egger
6. Australorp
7. Ameraucana
8. Silkie
9. Cochin
10. Leghorn
11. Brahma
12. New Hampshire
13. Star

Of course, a simple popularity contest combines all of the reasons people might choose to keep chickens: copious eggs, delicious meat, charming temperament, pretty feathers, and so forth.  So a serious homesteader probably won't want to simply pick the top three types of chickens from this list without looking further into each breed.

Murray McMurray Hatchery's starter guide, Chickens in Five Minutes a Day, also bases its recommendations largely upon popularity, but the authors break down their recommendations into the following categories:

SilkieProductive white-egg layers: Pearl White Leghorns, followed by Silver Spangled Hamburgs, Single Comb Brown Leghorns, and Blue Andalusians

Productive brown-egg layers: Red Stars and Black Stars, followed by Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Barred Rocks

Multi-colored-egg layers: Araucana/Ameraucana hybrids

Exotic-looking birds: Bantams in general, but specifically White Silkies, Blue Silkies, Frizzle Cochins, Belgian Bearded d'Uccle Mille Fleurs, and Quail Antwerp Belgians

Pets: Cochins and Orpingtons

Some of these varieties won't be appropriate for the self-sufficient homesteader, and some less popular breeds deserve to be more well-known.  But the popularity contest approach at least gives us a place to start.

Want to keep reading about which chicken breeds are best for various purposes?  Thrifty Chicken Breeds is available for 99 cents on Amazon!

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jun 13 12:00:26 2014 Tags:
Herding ducks

A long stick is handy when moving chickens, but essential when herding ducks.

The stick acts like an extension of your arm, making it easy to change the direction of birds who are veering off course.

But even with the help of a stick, it still took two people to move the ducks from their temporary paddock in the forest garden to the forest pasture.

Posted Fri Jun 13 14:08:59 2014 Tags:
Tree frog eye

When I went out to tie up the tomatoes Thursday morning, I discovered this adorable gray tree frog hiding in the crevice of one of the U-posts.

Hiding frog

I was getting ready to slide rebar down each groove to extend the height of my tomato support posts, so it's lucky I was working from the back side and noticed this little guy before he could be squashed.

Gray tree frog

With a little nudging, I was able to convince him to let go of the post with his suction toe tips and to move onto my finger so I could ferry him to another tomato plant.

I suspect the frog has been enjoying hunting bugs attracted to the eight-inch-deep water currently standing in the aisles between my chinampa beds.  I even saw water striders skating across the surface as I waded through to prune and train the astonishing amount of growth our tomatoes put out over the last week.  Water definitely attracts even more life to the garden!

Posted Sat Jun 14 07:28:58 2014 Tags:
how high is the sweet corn?
Sweet corn is already knee high.
Posted Sat Jun 14 16:12:36 2014 Tags:
Twining grape

Young grape vineEven though his siblings perished during the winter cold, the Reliance grape I rooted last year and put in the warm microclimate in front of the trailer is growing fast.  Eventually, this grape will sprawl across the shade trellis (an overhead arbor) in front of our bank of south-facing window to provide protection from the summer heat, but at the moment, the plant is too short and needs some support.

I decided to take a page out of the tomato string trellis book and give the baby grape a piece of baling twine to grow up.  Only a couple of days after offering the support (and gently twisting the grape vine around the string), tendrils have already grabbed hold.  I wonder if the vine will reach up to the trellis by the end of this summer?

Posted Sun Jun 15 07:19:45 2014 Tags:
tomato turning red

The first hint of color started showing on one of our tomato plants.

Maybe the first tomato taste will follow in a week or so?

Posted Sun Jun 15 16:15:03 2014 Tags:
First cucumber

Cucumber trellisFor the last two years, I've started a long row of cucurbits under quick hoops in mid-April, three weeks before our frost-free date.  My very unscientific method of deciding which varieties got to be included in the early planting involved asking Mark, "Which kinds of cucurbits are your favorite?"  The result was a planting that contained two-thirds watermelons and one-third cucumbers.

And the early planting really paid off on the cucumber front.  We got to enjoy our first cucumber Saturday, and in a week or so I suspect we'll be overrun with these crunchy vegetables.  Yum!

Watermelon plantsOn the other hand, I noticed this year that the watermelon plants that I started under quick hoops are actually smaller than the ones I planted directly into the ground at the very end of April.  We had some very cold weather during the intervening period (with a low of 23 recorded one night), and it now appears that the chilly weather resulted in sulky melons.

That got me thinking that perhaps I should jump the gun on some other summer vegetable next year instead, saving the watermelons to go into the ground when it's a bit warmer.  Perhaps green beans or summer squash?  Which types of summer vegetables have you had good or poor luck with starting extra-early under frost protection?

Posted Mon Jun 16 06:38:00 2014 Tags:
close up of squash blossom Gold Rush variety

The first squash flowers bloomed today.

What kind do we like?

When we first started we used the Gold Rush variety, but switched to Yellow Crook Neck when we discovered it tastes a little better and is more resistant.

Posted Mon Jun 16 16:04:13 2014 Tags:
Mars seedless grape

Unlike raspberries and strawberries, which carry through for us nearly no matter what, grapes have been a problem on our farm.  We started out with French hybrid grapes, which attracted Japanese beetles like crazy (and which happened to have seeds, meaning that Mark wouldn't eat them).  There were also some disease issues with those early vines, but to be honest, the other problems were so big I never even got to the point of figuring out what diseases I was dealing with.

Baby grapesAfter Mark pulled those vines out, I planted two Mars Seedless in fall 2011.  The grape vines were pretty minuscule when they arrived, so only this year have they started to come back onto my radar.  One plant (pictured at the top of this post and to the right) clearly needs some weeding and training, but is otherwise thriving.  We might even get to taste a few grapes this year!  The other...isn't.

Grape phomopsis

Diseases in our garden are nearly always fungal, exacerbated by our wet weather, and the issue facing this ailing grape is no exception.  I'm pretty sure what I'm seeing is symptoms of Phomopsis viticola, and since I don't spray anti-fungals, the solution is to prune off the affected areas.  If I hadn't been sticking my head in the ground, I could have pruned a lot less, but I'll just hope that pruning now will keep the other grape from catching the fungal disease.

The good news is that Phomopsis (as people often refer to the disease) can also cause fruit rot, so perhaps it's responsible for the other issue I've had on grapes all along.  Only time will tell whether better garden sanitation practices will allow us to eat chemical-free grapes.

Posted Tue Jun 17 06:38:32 2014 Tags:
4 year old black raspberry plant fruiting

Our 4 year old Black Raspberries are producing some yummy fruit.

Posted Tue Jun 17 15:24:53 2014 Tags:
Wilting broccoli

Developing green bean

What's going on the vegetable garden at the moment?  In addition to
enjoying the first cucumbers and anticipating the first summer squash and tomatoes, I'm keeping my eye on the bush beans and am freezing more broccoli.  I'm also weeding as fast as I can, and planting the second-to-last set of beans, sweet corn, summer squash, and cucumbers.  Oh, and serving us masses of sugar-snap peas, Swiss chard, black raspberries, strawberries, and gooseberries.

Mating cucumber beetles
Bug patrol has become a weekly task, which at the moment just involves cabbage worm removal, but which will soon expand out in other directions.  I don't pick cucumber beetles (pictured above), choosing the lower-work option I explains in The Naturally Bug-Free Garden --- I simply select resistant varieties and succession plant to beat the bacterial wilt carried by the beetles.  (That's not to say that when a mating pair perches right in front of me that I don't squish them after taking a picture.)

Topped basilThe perennial plantings need my attention, but woody plants generally have to wait their turn at this time of year.  Instead of summer pruning fruit trees, I spend a minute snipping the top off the young basil plants so they'll bush out and produce many more leaves without rushing into bloom.  Of course, those basil tops make their way onto the menu too.

What's on your garden to-do list this week?

Posted Wed Jun 18 06:22:55 2014 Tags:
Anna tucking in straw bales under tarp

Our latest straw bale delivery came with a bonus today.

The guy said he had the baler set on hay instead of straw, which makes the bales more dense for the same price.

Posted Wed Jun 18 15:26:57 2014 Tags:

Captured box turtleNo, we're not branching out by using our chicken waterers with box turtles.  This shelled friend showed up in our broiler isolation pen Wednesday, and I figured I'd snap a shot before giving him free run of the garden once again.

The reason I think the sighting merits a post is because this is at least the sixth time this year that Mark and I have moved box turtles out of temporary and permanent pastures.  I had been hypothesizing that the turtles were simply hibernating within the fenced areas when I erected the cattle panels or plastic trellis, but since we only made our broiler isolation pen a couple of weeks ago, I now suspect the turtles are pushing under the fences to go where they want to go.

And they're all different turtles too, showing how high our box turtle population must be.  Mark turned up an adorable four-year-old while ripping grape vines out of a new pasture, the hefty boy above is quite colorful, and I seem to recall that the turtle I relocated before him was a more drab (and slightly smaller) female.

Watering the garden
In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, I even rescued a box turtle last month that was being swept down the creek, unable to paddle to shore because the current was too strong.  And then there was that box turtle I stumbled across in the barn, who was eating spilled food beside the barn cat's dish.

Where am I going with this post?  I don't know!  But the fact that I consider box turtles my totem animal would give these sightings much more significance if they occurred in the dream world.

Posted Thu Jun 19 07:17:30 2014 Tags:
Rain barrel faucet

Is plumber's tape sufficient to seal a faucet screwed into the side of a rain barrel?

The drip suggests not.  For now, we'll put a bucket underneath to capture the water.  Then when the barrel is empty, we'll use caulk as suggested by the rain barrel workshop instructors.

Posted Thu Jun 19 16:02:26 2014 Tags:

Rain barrelAlthough we'd most like to have a rain barrel over by the composting toilet, every time I walked past our unused rain barrel, it said, "Put me up!"  Our preferred location will take a few hours to assemble, but I was confident that I could install the rain barrel on the edge of our front porch in half an hour.  That location would save me a few steps every day when I carry water to the heavy-drinking ducks, so it seemed worth the effort.  And, with one rain barrel under our belt, I figured our next installation will be even simpler.

So, what did I do to install the rain barrel?  Mark was in town when I got the water-collection bee in my bonnet, so I did it myself...and took about an hour instead of half an hour (probably because I didn't know where all of Mark's tools were). 

The first step was figuring out where to place the rain barrel.  If I'd been making one from scratch, I would have preferred to make the faucet stick out past the front of the porch rather than coming off to the side near the steps, but since the overflow pipe is on the left side of this rain barrel, the orientation shown above seemed the best.  I stuck a few scrap pieces of 2X6 under the barrel to make it easy to get a bucket out from under the faucet, then called the elevation job done.  (Yes, this is the very quick-and-dirty version of rain barrel installation.  Mark would never let that kind of jurryriggery fly.)

Gray treefrog

Channeling water into a rain barrelNow it was time to cut the downspout from the gutter.  I eyeballed the height and used a sawzall...then carefully worked around the gray treefrog who hopped out of the drain.

Next, I cut a piece of black corrugated pipe to slip over the downspout and send water into the rain barrel, but the black pipe didn't want to bend right to send water down instead of to the side.  So I added a piece of wood on the porch post (see top photo) to give the pipe the appropriate curve.  (The photo to the right shows the pipe pre-curve.)

Rain barrel filling

Literally minutes after I finished putting away Mark's tools, the sky opened up and began to fill the barrel.  It was a joy to listen to water gurgle into the barrel, although I did have to add a third piece of wood under once side when the container started to tilt to one side.  As Mark mentioned in his post, I also discovered that the faucet leaks slightly when only sealed with plumber's tape, so that problem will need to be solved at a later date.

Rain barrel on the porch

It only took a quarter of an inch of rain to fill the barrel, and just before any slipped out the overflow pipe, the storm passed us by.  I figure one rain per week would be sufficient to keep enough water in the barrel for my fowl-watering duties, saving me a few minutes every day since I'll no longer have to lug buckets from the back side of the trailer to do duck duty.  That hour of installation will trickle back into my time bank account in just a few weeks!

Posted Fri Jun 20 06:21:19 2014 Tags:
A baby tree outgrowing grafting tape

Five apples that Anna grafted at home with Parafilm Grafting Tape are all thriving, while four out of ten trees that Anna grafted at a workshop using some sort of athletic tape failed.

The trees grafted with parafilm tape are already starting to push out of their wrappings, while we'll have to unwrap the other trees in a few weeks to give the trunks room to grow.

At 7 bucks and change, a roll of grafting tape will probably last us the rest of our lives.  We feel like the tape has already paid for itself.

Posted Fri Jun 20 15:00:57 2014 Tags:
Millipede eggs

I stumbled across a big, beautiful millipede while weeding this week, then noticed these round balls beneath her.  Were they castings (aka poop)?  Well, yes and no.

Millipede nest

Female millipedes dig nests like this when they're ready to lay eggs, and many species form a protective case around each egg with their own castings.  I broke one ball open and, sure enough, a tiny egg was inside.  Sure of the balls' ID, I carefully put Mama Millipede back in her nest and swept some dirt back over top of her.  A planting of buckwheat ensures the millipede's nest won't be pawed up again until at least a month from now, at which point the eggs will have hatched.

Inside, I learned that mother millipedes sometimes guard their eggs until the babies hatch and that the tiny millipedes come out of the egg with only six legs, making them look like tiny insects.  The youngsters quickly push out of their old skins and add new sets of legs with each molt, eventually turning into helpful decomposers of decaying plant debris like their mother.  Live long and prosper, little millipedes!

Posted Sat Jun 21 07:39:31 2014 Tags:
make your own trimmer string?

Is it possible to make your own weed eater trimmer string?

The video is in Russian, but you get the idea from watching it that common plastic bottles can be converted into a spool of plastic ribbon with what seems to be an easy to make metal jig.

I'm sure the stuff you buy in the store would last longer, but the feeling of making your own might be worth trying it to see how well it works?

Posted Sat Jun 21 14:02:36 2014 Tags:

Squash beetleEven though I use the lower-work strategies I outline in The Naturally Bug-Free Garden to deal with pests on cucurbits, I do crush bad bugs there if they hang around while I'm taking photos or harvesting.

The beetle to the left was clearly a bad bug since it was sitting on a nibbled section of leaf, so I smashed it...then went inside to look the beetle up.  I learned that squash beetles (Epilachna borealis) are actually ladybugs, as are Mexican bean beetles.  Despite their illustrious heritage, though, these are beneficials gone bad --- both species are leaf eaters in all stage of their life cycle.  To tell squash beetles apart from good ladybugs, look for the orange color and for the seven big black spots on each wing cover (i.e. on each half of the back).
Spotted cucumber beetle
Spotted cucumber beetles (Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi) are also on the bad list, although the beetles I saw this weekend were inside squash flowers and might have been acting as minor pollinators.  (Makes me want to do a series of photographs entitled "What Georgia O'Keefe left out of her paintings.")

Since cucurbits are native to the Americas, they tend to feed more pest insects than many of our other vegetables.  In addition to the ones shown here, you're likely to find squash bugs, squash vine borers, and striped cucumber beetles in your planting, and might also stumble across other cucumber beetles, corn rootworms, melonworms, pickleworms, armyworms, cutworms, leafminers, seedcorn maggots, tarnished plant bugs, aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, mites, and sap worms eating various parts of your plants.  Phew!  Sometimes it's a wonder gardeners have excess zucchinis to foist off on their neighbors at this time of the year.

Posted Sun Jun 22 06:34:25 2014 Tags:
High density apple orchard update June

Our row of high density dwarf apple trees are shaping up nicely.

A few of them are already taller than 6 feet.

Posted Sun Jun 22 14:50:20 2014 Tags:
Bowl of berrties

Mark asked me how many kinds of berries we grow.  Of course, I immediately got bogged down in the fact that many things we think of as berries (strawberries, raspberries) don't technically fit the botanical definition, while others that people don't really put in the berry category (grapes) do.  Geekery aside, we're currently eating two kinds of gooseberries, the last of the strawberries, the first of the blueberries, and masses of black raspberries.  Other "berries" on the farm include honeyberries, red raspberries, blackberries, red currants, grapes, and hardy kiwis.

Berries have a lot going for them on the homestead (ease of growing, quickness of bearing, and pure deliciousness coming to mind), but they do have two major minuses.  First, there are the birds, which we mostly coexist with (although we had to chase away a family of blue jays this spring since the corvids were eating or damaging a full half of our ripening strawberries!).  Second, there's the fact that it takes several minutes a day just to harvest the delicious little morsels.  When I'm feeling overworked and the sun is blazing, I sometimes skip the picking chore, but I usually relax into a happy end-of-the-work-day berry zen.

Posted Mon Jun 23 07:14:15 2014 Tags:
wheel barrow full of cabbages

Today was the day our cabbage looked mature enough for picking.

We've been thinking about trying sauerkraut this year.

Posted Mon Jun 23 16:09:35 2014 Tags:
Harvesting garlic

Cat in the asparagusHuckleberry helped me harvest the garlic Monday, which is a bit later than we usually dig the alliums up.  The cold winter really set our garlic back, and I was hoping that a little extra time would help the heads grow larger.  Of course, I know better --- a little extra time just means the outer wrappings start to rot away and the garlic won't keep quite as long.

Garlic haul

Last fall, I started transitioning away from softneck garlic for lazy reasons (hardneck has bigger heads and cloves), and now I'm very glad I did.  I planted 54% of my area in Music (hardneck), 31% in Italian Softneck, and 15% in Silverwhite Silverskin (softneck), but the yields were more like two-thirds hardneck and one-third softneck.  (I'll have more solid numbers on yields once the heads dry down and I weigh each variety.)

What happened?  The extremely cold weather set the hardneck garlic back so it didn't do much growing until spring, but the temperatures actually killed over half of the softneck plants.  I'd be curious to hear from garlic-growers in zones colder than 6.  Do you plant your garlic in the spring, plant late in the fall and mulch heavily to ensure the plants only put out root growth during cold weather, or stick to hardneck garlics?

Posted Tue Jun 24 07:55:52 2014 Tags:
seedlings on the porch for fall garden

Now is a good time to start Fall garden seeds.

We started broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts this past week.

Posted Tue Jun 24 15:38:19 2014 Tags:
Egyptian onion top bulbs

It's that time of year again --- time to spread more Egyptian onion propagules into the world!  This year, we're selling some and giving some away.  If you're interested in either option, be sure to read this post first to learn how to grow and eat Egyptian onions (and to find out why we think these perennials are so awesome).

I'll start with the free stuff since I'm sure more of you are interested in that option.  This year, I've got a box of top bulbs to give away to one or two winners, each of which will be enough to fill your yard and probably your neighbors'.  The photo above shows what the top bulbs look like --- you split the clusters apart to plant each little bulb separately.  To enter, scroll down to the widget at the bottom of this post.

Egyptian onion bottom bulbs

Would you rather get a headstart on your Egyptian onion garden?  I'm selling sets of 20 bottom bulbs for $25 each, with free shipping.  Bottom bulbs are the quickest way to get started with Egyptian onions since the larger size means the plants won't need nearly as long to become established.  After planting top bulbs, I usually let the bulbs grow for a few months before harvesting any leaves, but with bottom bulbs you can start snipping off a leaf here and there as soon as you see three or four leaves.  (Always allow at least two leaves to remain on the plant so it can keep growing.)  I have three boxes of bottom bulbs available, so they're first come, first served --- snag yours now if you want to be sure to get one!  (And if for some reason no one buys the bottom bulbs by the time the giveaway ends, I'll give the rest away to contest entrants.)  I'm sold out, but the South Carolina branch of Walden Effect (my father) says he has at least eight boxes of bottom bulbs available, so I've put the paypal button back:

Here's the giveaway widget:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Happy green-onion growing!

Posted Wed Jun 25 07:11:23 2014 Tags:
new gloves 5 months later

The new work gloves I posted about 5 months ago are intact with no holes.

Chicken blood has stiffened one. I tried using some linseed oil to soften it up but it only helped a little bit.

Posted Wed Jun 25 15:11:57 2014 Tags:
Ripening tomatoes

We enjoyed our first ripe tomato on the summer solstice from the plant that Daddy started ultra-early (on the left above).  But our second tomato is probably going to come from our own Stupice (on the right above), started inside nearly two months later at the end of February.

String trained tomatoThe big question for tomato-lovers is --- what's the happy compromise between starting your plants early enough to beat your neighbors to the first fruits, but not so early you're babying a plant that should have been in the ground weeks ago?  For us, it looks like the end of February is a pretty good time for starting tomatoes if I'm willing to pot up and nurture them a bit, netting ripe tomatoes up to three weeks earlier than if I'd started the seeds under quick hoops at the beginning of April (my previous, lazy technique).  For the sake of comparison, here's a quick rundown on when we've enjoyed our first ripe tomato in previous years:

Since blight seems to be hitting us early most of the time now, jumping the gun with inside-started tomatoes might be my new method for the foreseeable future.  We're already racing septoria leaf spot and the first signs of early blight, but I'm hopeful heavy pruning will keep the fungi at bay long enough to fill up our soup stores and to sate me on tomatoes.

In case you want to boast about the earliest tomato on your block next year, here's a guest post on growing the earliest possible tomato and here's some information on how cold temperatures can keep early-planted tomatoes from setting fruit.  Good luck making your neighbors jealous!

Posted Thu Jun 26 07:19:32 2014 Tags:
mark Nice rack
retail rack as drying rack

We got another one of those awesome retail racks. Thanks Mom and Jayne.

I think it took Anna all of about 15 minutes to put it together.

Posted Thu Jun 26 15:25:32 2014 Tags:
Weeding the garden

At this time of year, I start weeding by zone.  We've got three vegetable garden plots, plus various larger perennial areas, and each one needs to get hit in the next month or so.  While a better gardener would probably weed the spots that need it the most first, the zone technique gives me a momentary feeling of control and lets me enjoy a manicured look in each area...for a week or two.  And it doesn't hurt crop plants as long as you wait to change over to zone weeding until most seedlings have been weeded around once.

Watermelon plants

Shaggy gardenOf course, the downside of the zone approach is that each area looks pretty shaggy in the weeks leading up to that zone's turn to be weeded once again.  These two shots show the mule garden at the beginning of the week --- enough weeds to make me feel overwhelmed!  Luckily, a quick pass with the lawnmower and then three hours of weeding with Kayla just about perked the whole area up.  I figure one more morning's work will have the whole place sparkling with that just-weeded glow.

Weeded front garden

The front garden took a lot longer to get into shape --- more like two weeks instead of two days.  Many of those beds were full of a rye cover crop until May, and the cold winter made our rye grow so slowly that many weeds had poked up amid the grain by cutting time.  Since I don't let garden areas get any further out of control that that, though, one tough weeding job per year is the maximum I can expect in each area.  Everywhere else, weeding just consists of dampening the soil the day before (via sprinklers or rain), then quickly pulling out weeds between seedlings.  I follow up by smothering further weed seeds with straw mulch, ensuring that later weeding jobs are as quick as our recent pass over the mule garden.

Buckwheat flowers

What about areas where I pulled out spring crops but don't plan on planting any new vegetables until fall?  A buckwheat cover crop is the perfect way to build organic matter while keeping weed pressure at a minimum.  Between the tree alley in the pasture and the vegetable garden, I've already used about 15 pounds of buckwheat seeds so far this summer, which keeps the bees and the soil microorganisms happy.

I'm finally starting to feel like the end is in sight with the spring weeding catchup job, but this is no time to rest on my laurels.  Soon, preserving the bounty will take the place of extra weeding, ensuring that the garden keeps me well busy at least until the first frost.  Now's when I make up for those lazy winter days writing in front of the fire....

Posted Fri Jun 27 06:39:14 2014 Tags:
Bees in a warre hive

We haven't opened either hive to make sure our May split worked.  But photos taken up through the screened bottom point toward our apiary now having two queens.  Both hives also sound right, with a steady hum rather than a discordant, queen-less buzz.

This is the mother hive, where the bees are busy filling up the third box with sourwood honey.  The daughter hive is smaller, but the bees seem to be holding their own.  Anna put the daughter back on sugar water to help the colony bulk up and pack away honey for winter.

Posted Fri Jun 27 14:30:59 2014 Tags:
Blueberry suckers

One of the benefits of rabbiteye blueberries is that the mature plants send up suckers a few feet away from the main bush.  If you treat these suckers well, you end up with free blueberry bushes!

My father's rabbiteye blueberry patch is four or five years older than mine, so he's been tantalizing me with descriptions of blueberry suckers for years now.  I only noticed the first suckers around my biggest plant this year, though.

"Should I protect the suckers from mowing for a year and then dig them up, or should I dig them up now?" I asked Daddy.  He reported that the suckers don't grow many more roots even if you wait a year, so I opted to dig up what I could find now.  As you can see from the photo above, there definitely were very few feeder roots on these young suckers.

Potted suckers

I stuck each sucker in its own pot, soaked the soil well, and then cut off the tops.  (I took the photo above before I pulled out the clippers.)  I have high hopes that, if I keep the blueberry suckers in partial shade on the porch and water them regularly, we'll have three new blueberry plants to add to our collection this winter.

I'd be curious to hear from others who have planted out rabbiteye blueberry suckers.  Do you have a method for making the suckers develop roots while attached to the mother plant, or do you snip and pot like I did?

Posted Sat Jun 28 07:49:16 2014 Tags:
escaping chicken in action

One of our White Leghorn hens has been acting bad by flying over the fence.

Maybe it was the Hawk Attack back in December that turned her into a bad girl?

Posted Sat Jun 28 15:23:33 2014 Tags:

Cedar apple rust

"We also have problems with [cedar apple rust].  Getting resistant apples makes a tremendous difference.  Saving susceptible varieties can be done, but requires extra time and funds....  Please share the whole list of which apples in your orchard are susceptible and which are not. We have several lists and they conflict somewhat, due to the exact circumstances of each site." --- jacurry

The list below includes varieties that books report have at least some resistance to cedar apple rust, and I've added notations to the varieties I've tried:

  • Arkansas Black
  • Baldwin
  • Belle de Boskoop
  • Black Limbertwig
  • Bramley Seedling
  • Duchess (aka Duchess of Oldenburg)
  • Empire (slight damage)
  • Enterprise (no damage)
  • Fireside
  • Florina
  • Freedom
  • Grimes Golden (serious damage)
  • Hardy Cumberland
  • Hudson's Golden Gem
  • Keepsake
  • Kidd's Orange Red (moderate damage)
  • King David (no damage, but currently small)
  • Liberty (slight damage)
  • Lodi
  • Mammoth Black Twig (slight damage)
  • McIntosh
  • Myers Royal Limbertwig
  • Novamac
  • Prima
  • Priscilla
  • Pristine (moderate damage)
  • Ralls Genet
  • Red Delicious (no damage, but currently small)
  • Redfree
  • Red Limbertwig
  • Rusty Coat
  • Summer Rambo (moderate damage)
  • Sundance
  • Sweet Sixteen (serious damage)
  • Virginia Beauty (slight damage)
  • William's Pride (slight damage)
  • Winesap (no damage, but currently small)
  • Yates
  • Yellow Transparent (moderate damage)

Plain text varieties are those I don't have enough experience with yet to report on, bold varieties are those I highly recommend in cedar-apple-rust areas, italicized varieties are ones I might recommend, and struck-through varieties don't seem able to handle the rust in our region.

I'd love to hear from other readers with your list of apple varieties that do and don't show cedar-apple-rust damage.  Share your information in the comments section and I'll edit this post to add to the list!

Posted Sun Jun 29 07:25:37 2014 Tags:
chicken coop rain barrel

Our 2nd rain barrel will make getting drinking water to the ducks easier.

Posted Sun Jun 29 15:50:15 2014 Tags:
Wild fermentation cabbage

As Mark mentioned, we decided to try making sauerkraut for the first time this year.  My reasoning was two-fold.  First, although we had fun experimenting with kefir, when we stopped using the fermented milk product for a while, Mark's stomach felt better, not worse, so we're still looking for the proper probiotic to keep him healthy.  And, second...I grew an absurd number of cabbages this spring and they have to go somewhere.

Of course, when I want to try something new, I head straight for the books.  Sandor Katz is the poster child for fermented foods at the moment, and he has several titles out on the topic.  I'd heard that his Wild Fermentation is the basic book for beginners, so even though it pained me to pass up Katz's 500 page The Art of Fermentation, I decided to save that lengthy tome for a treat in case we decide we do like sauerkraut. 

Wild Fermentation

Unfortunately, I didn't research quite far enough, and got the very small, booklet version of Wild Fermentation (subtitled "A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation") rather than the expanded version with the same title (but subtitled "The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods").  If any of you are following in my footsteps, the book I read is fun and beautifully laid out, but is very short --- I'd recommend upgrading to the longer version of Wild Fermentation.  Or just start with Katz's sauerkraut recipe, which you can read for free online.

Sauerkraut juices

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I mixed up my first batch of sauerkraut in a matter of minutes Friday evening, and the salty juices soon filled the bowl.  Since we don't have a big ceramic crock, I followed one website's advice and figured a stainless-steel bowl would do.  On the other hand, I liked Katz's recommendation of using a jug of water on top of a plate as a weight --- simple and free.

Chopped cabbageI do have one observation even before we taste the sauerkraut --- the recipe is absurdly salty.  When I cook it up, half a head of cabbage forms a meal for the two of us (yes, we're major vegetable eaters).  At nearly 3 tablespoons of salt per head of cabbage, sauerkraut would provide three times our recommended daily allowance of salt in one serving.  Perhaps sauerkraut and similarly fermented foods are meant to be a small garnish beside a large helping of other vegetables?

That caveat aside, making sauerkraut was easy and fun.  I'll post again soon with a taste-test of our first batch of fermented cabbage.

Posted Mon Jun 30 07:33:03 2014 Tags:
ATV VIN number shows manufacture year

To change the oil, we needed to find the manual.  To find the manual, we needed to discover the year our ATV was made.

If you're in the same boat, look under the frame of the ATV on the left side for the 17-digit VIN number.  The 10th digit tells you the ATV's year:

A = 1980  B = 1981 C = 1982  D = 1983  E = 1984  F = 1985  G = 1986  H = 1987 J = 1988   K = 1989  L = 1990  M = 1991  N = 1992  P = 1993  R = 1994  S =1995 T = 1996  V = 1997  W = 1998  X = 1999  Y = 2000  1 = 2001  2 = 2002  3 = 2003 4 = 2004  5 = 2005  6 = 2006  7 = 2007  8 = 2008  9 = 2009  A=2010

Our ATV is a 2002 model.

Posted Mon Jun 30 14:04:06 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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