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

archives for 07/2014

Jul 2014
Overflowing rain barrel

Our first rain barrel has only been in place for about ten days, but already I wonder how we ever lived without it.  The container ran dry just a day before a thunderstorm dumped enough rain on the farm to fill the barrel back up, and I was cheering the storm on all the way.

However, I'm still finding features I would definitely change in this workshop-designed rain barrel.  The slight leak around the faucet turns out to be quite minimal, so even though I'd probably follow a reader's advice of turning the barrel upside down and using the bung holes if we made another, I haven't felt the need to drain and seal our current barrel.  The overflow pipe is more problematic, though.

The photo above shows how I have to resort to moving the pipe from the gutter away from the rain barrel once the reservoir fills up.  The issue is that the outflow pipe should be bigger --- not smaller --- than the inflow pipe.  Since the outflow pipe is so small, once the barrel is full, water starts gushing out the top (and all over the porch) rather than being channeled through the outflow pipe into the outside world.  In busy summer mode, that just means I wander by and move the inflow pipe to the side Premade rain barrelonce the barrel fills up, but our next rain homemade barrel will definitely have a better design.

As a side note, it's interesting to see that the fancy premade rain barrel that Mark's mother found by the side of the road a few years ago has the same spigot and overflow-pipe issues.  I do like the big screened top, though, which allows me to stick the premade barrel under a roof without installing gutters first.

Posted Tue Jul 1 07:37:56 2014 Tags:
Chickens in the garden

It turns out the White Leghorn in the garden wasn't flying fences. 

Finding the whole flock out of their pasture was a sure sign something else was amiss.

Turns out Lucy was gnawing holes in the fenceline.  I guess all that chicken manure looked too good to resist.

Posted Tue Jul 1 13:50:29 2014 Tags:
Designated rooster

It's been a rough few months on the homestead.  Mark had two close family deaths, which entailed two long trips and one shorter trip plus a lot of emotional anguish.  Then there was the surprise major dental work that knocked him out for the better part of a week, and another illness that he's still recovering from.  All told, my poor husband has been out of commission from a farm-work standpoint for a significant part of the season, which means I've been trying to do both of our jobs...and cutting a lot of corners in the process.

Cockerels in isolation

One place we cut corners was with chicken killing.  Our australorp broilers should have gone in the freezer at the end of May...but we only got around to them on July 1.  Letting heirloom broilers grow past the three-month mark means the cockerels start fighting and are a bit ornerier during processing day (plus, you spend more money for every pound of meat you get back), but the heavier birds will be a treat this winter.  And we now get to enjoy the lower entropy resulting from having only the designated rooster remaining in our pullet flock.

Firewood cutting

With winter breathing down our necks, we also decided to hire Kayla's husband to come in and cut a few trees into firewood.  Mark's been wanting to open up the area in front of the barn for years, so I figured those trees could come down (despite my deeply ingrained tree-hugging tendencies).  A few walnuts and one dead box-elder filled up about a third of the woodshed, so hopefully a few more evenings of Andy's hard work will get us back on track in the winter-heat department.

Walnut firewood

Overall, while it's been tough (and less fun) running more of the farm by myself, it's also empowering to know I can do long as I put in a few extra hours' work here and there.  Just a few years ago, I think everything would have crashed and burned (or, rather, would have grown up in ragweed and poke over our heads) if Mark had been forced to take a few weeks off the job during the summer.  I sometimes wonder what the farm will be like when Mark and I are old and gray, but this experience makes me hopeful that Mark's right --- we'll have everything so streamlined that even octagenarians can handle the labor.

Easy flowers

In the meantime, I'm pleased to be able to report that Mark is starting to feel better, and the farm is starting to come back into shape.  If you want to send your happy thoughts his way, though, good energy is always appreciated.  Thanks for sharing our journey!

Posted Wed Jul 2 07:36:43 2014 Tags:
Anna with duck and Lucy in background

We retired our first duck today along with some chickens.

Lucy likes to patiently wait till Anna throws her the heart and liver. Lucy also enjoys licking up the blood that collects in a cake pan, but she turned her nose up at the duck blood and organs.

Posted Wed Jul 2 15:50:18 2014 Tags:
Second generation hybrid cucumber

Last summer, I set out to determine what I'd get if I saved seeds from a hybrid cucumber.  Why?  Because Harmonie is the world's most prolific and tasty cucumber and resists whatever blight tends to kill all other varieties on our farm in short order.  But the seeds of the hybrid are expensive, so I didn't want to have to spend $12 on them each year.  Thus the experiment to see what would happen if I saved some seeds.

Healthy cucumber vines

Harmonie cucumberFor those of you new to seed-saving, it's generally a no-no to save seeds from a hybrid variety.  Heirloom vegetable varieties generally breed true (especially if you're careful to isolate them from other varieties in the same species), but hybrids will mate with themselves and still produce many different types of offspring.

However, that's not always the case.  95% of the cucumbers that I grew from my saved seeds turned out to look and act just like their parents.  The plants that looked different were clearly that way because of hybridization with Muncher, an heirloom variety I was also trialing last year (but wasn't as impressed by).  Sounds like, as long as I stick to growing Harmonie cucumbers, I can safely save seeds from this variety despite the fact that it's a hybrid.  Success!

Posted Thu Jul 3 07:37:26 2014 Tags:
using JB weld to repair old Teva sandals

Anna is the only woman I've met who does not like to buy shoes. When she finds a pair that works she hangs on to the bitter end.

Hopefully this JB weld epoxy will work at fixing the bottom flap problem and add a few miles to what's already been a longer than normal run for medium grade sandals.

Posted Thu Jul 3 15:29:08 2014 Tags:
Scalding a duck

Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks reports that "ducklings are normally in full feather for only 5 to 10 days sometime between six and a half and ten weeks of age....  Shortly after achieving full feather, young ducks go into a molt....  If ducklings are not dressed before this molt commences, they will not be in full feather again for approximately 6 to 10 weeks."  I didn't take the admonition very seriously since I've plucked chickens who had lots of pin feathers and never had a problem, but I soon found that the report that ducks are more difficult to pluck than chickens was an understatement!

Skinning a duck

When the time came to try our hand at duck slaughtering, Mark and I added some dish detergent to the scalding water and roughed up the feathers a lot with a spoon while dunking the bird up and down in hopes of getting water through the feathers so it would reach the skin.  Despite that extra attention, though, plucking tested even my patience (and I hand-weed our quarter-acre garden mostly by myself each year).  So I ended up skinning the duck, which means we lost that pastured fat (and even skinning wasn't easy).  Final weight of the cleaned carcass (sans skin) for the 10-week-old duck was 1.9 pounds.

The ducks started their molt a week or two ago, so we'd need to wait until August or September to slaughter if we want an easier job plucking.  But I wonder how much easier it would be at that time, since even the big feathers on our trial duck were awfully hard to pull.  I'd be curious to hear from others who have raised ducks for meat.  Do you pluck, or did you throw in the towel and skin?

Posted Fri Jul 4 07:27:33 2014 Tags:
sugar snap fig comparison

It's too hot for Sugar Snaps, but the Chicago Hardy Fig is recovering nicely.

Posted Fri Jul 4 15:28:23 2014 Tags:
Edible flower beds

I know this is probably the first thing many of you would have done, but we've been on the farm for nearly eight years, and I'm just now starting to do a bit of landscaping around the trailer.  And, of course, even my half-hearted efforts at aesthetics are primarily edible and functional.  But the small zone I've tackled this summer does make me smile every time I walk past.  (And there are a few flowers mixed in, even if they're not blooming yet --- foxgloves from Mom and scarlet runner beans from Dani.)

Welcoming dog

With skirting in place in this one small section, I finally I felt able to start planting right up against the trailer this year for the first time.  In high school art class, I remember being admonished that edges make or break a picture, and the same is true of a garden.  Having planned greenery rather than weeds up around the base of the trailer does make it feel more like a residence and less like a campsite.

South face of trailer

I'm also pleased to find that the raised bed in front of the south face of the trailer is doing its job of elevating the soil enough so that water pouring off the roof doesn't drown the plants.  (The gutter and piping that together channel excess water from that zone to the greywater wetland help too.)  We aren't seeing the summer shading of the Zebra-striped spiderwindows that I hoped for yet this year, but the grape near the gutter downspout has nearly reached its trellis, promising more and faster sun-blockage next year.  Meanwhile, I filled in the main space with garden vegetables --- two tomato plants and a row of edible-pod peas, the latter of which have already been pulled out to make way for scarlet runner beans.

The third photo in this post also shows the little square of "lawn" created by letting one garden bed go to the lawnmower this year.  I'm actually kinda enjoying that dab of open space, but am also pondering whether it might be a good spot for either a little water garden, a fire pit, or a bricked-over area to put the charcoal grill on.  What do you think --- would you light a managed fire only five feet away from your residence?

Posted Sat Jul 5 07:29:46 2014 Tags:
cucumber completion

Why do some cucumbers look more complete than others?


On cloudy days less pollinators out flying equal a pollination rate under 100%.

Posted Sat Jul 5 16:28:03 2014 Tags:
Rochelle Bilow

As gripping as a novel, The Call of the Farm immerses you in an aspiring-food-writer's journey from city to country as Rochelle Bilow falls in love with a farmer and learns to cook with real food.  This beautifully written, honest, and vivid memoir sucks the reader in and lets us share Rochelle's failed attempts at butter churning, cold days of rock-picking in the spring mud, and moments of delight finding companionship with a crew of like-minded farmers.

Like The Dirty Life, Bilow's memoir is set on a full-diet, draft-powered CSA farm in the northeast.  Along with four acres of organic veggies, the crew raises layers, milk cows, and chickens, pigs, sheep, and cattle for meat.  CSA members are invited to take home as much as they can eat, and the whole operation is run by idealistic young people who consider 60 hours of farm work per week to be a part-time job.  Bilow ends up becoming immersed in the farm, where she spends most of her time cooking, sharing her favorite dishes in both story and recipe form throughout the book.

Cooking with raw milk

The setting aside, the heart of Bilow's memoir follows her "emotions-first" love affair with a man and a farm.  If you're like me, you'll be unable to put the book down once you start, and will end up reading long into the night.  I owe you two pieces of warning, though, before you pick up this riveting memoir.  First, strong language and moderately explicit sex would garner an R rating if The Call of the Farm were a movie --- use your own judgment if you prefer your books to be squeaky clean.  Second, the ending might depress you as much as it did me, and you will definitely spoil the story if you read the about-the-author blurb on the back of the book.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed This Life is in Your Hands, The Call of the Farm will be right up your alley.

Draft horses

Those caveats aside, The Call of the Farm is poised to become one of those must-read homesteading books of 2014.  I enjoyed a galley copy, but the title will be available to the general public in September and can be preordered now.  All told, I'd highly recommend Rochelle's book if you enjoy homesteading memoirs (especially of the "city girl goes to the country" type), since this piece of light summer reading packs a punch.

(As a side note, all of the photos in this post come from Rochelle Bilow's website and were taken by Anthony Aquino.)

Posted Sun Jul 6 07:07:57 2014 Tags:
close up of sunflower before it blooms

I like watching how fast Sunflowers grow at this time of year.

If I was guessing I'd say the rate is somewhere between 1 to 2 inches per day.

Posted Sun Jul 6 15:03:22 2014 Tags:
Used up keyboard

I figure I type at least a million words a year, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that my keyboard laptop started to fail me right after the one-year warranty expired.  Sticky  keys and faded letters were possible to work around, but an unfortunate incident with a flyswatter a couple of weeks ago knocked off the x key and broke the underlying plastic springy thing.  "I could just learn to write without the letter x," I suggested, but Mark looked at me like I was crazy and told me to buy a new keyboard.

Laptop repair

It turns out zareason sells a replacement keyboard for my laptop for $60, which I figure will be worth it if it allows me to easily send emails in pine again (using control-X --- the real reason I need the x key).  The keyboard arrived, I backed up all my files, read a few general tutorials, then took my laptop most of the way apart...and got too scared to finish.

So we're back to x-less typing and I'm hoping the support folks over at zareason have some brand-specific documentation they can send me to make the keyboard swap a little less daunting.  I chose the small company because I wanted a linux-box with the operating system pre-installed (and presumably 100% suited to the hardware), and I've been quite happy with my laptop until the keyboard issues popped up.  In addition, in zareason's defense, I am hard on laptops --- previous laptops have had failed hinges, warped screens, and flaky power-cord sockets within two or three years after purchase, all due to me opening and closing the laptop too much, using the laptop too close to the wood stove, and moving the laptop while plugged in.  Perhaps I should go back to the resiliency of desktops, but the ability to type in front of the fire or in the porch swing makes me stick to these sensitive but flexible pieces of equipment.

Posted Mon Jul 7 07:25:04 2014 Tags:
using lotion on work gloves

Thank you doc for commenting on my work glove post a couple of weeks ago.

A small squirt of Anna's hand lotion was enough to soften up the stiff parts.

Posted Mon Jul 7 15:34:36 2014 Tags:
Chicken tractor preparing ground

A facebook reader asked what's going to go into the beds opened up by the end of the peas.  The short answer is Brussels sprouts, but the long answer is that there are a lot of fall crops itching to be set out or seeded in the next few weeks.  Our tractored chickens are preparing ground for broccoli sets, and we'll also be planting cabbage sets, the last sweet corn and summer squash seeds of the season, and a fall round of sugar snap peas within the next week.

Trimmed tomatoes

Japanese beetlesOf course, planting is only a small subset of what goes on around the garden at this time of year.  We're on thrice-weekly Japanese-beetle patrols, and once-weekly tomato pruning.  The septoria leaf spot has been terrible this year, as you can see from how high I've already pruned the leaves away from the bottoms of our tomato plants, but the good news is that we're enjoying ripe fruits from the vines and hope that this hot, dry weather will slow down the fungal spread.

Ripening onion

Fig flowerWe're currently eating cucumbers, summer squash, cabbages, the last of the spring broccoli, masses of green beans (which are mostly going in the freezer), Swiss chard (if I feel like something so "boring" as greens with all of the summer bounty available), and probably several other vegetables I'm forgetting about.  Meanwhile, I'm watching our onions with an eagle eye --- I had to break down and buy a few bags over the last couple of months, so I'm itching for our homegrown harvest.  And, look, baby figs starting on the Chicago Hardy bush!

Young buckwheat

Since we got a bit behind this summer, I'm also scaling back a bit on my garden plans, but am keeping the soil in the fallow beds weed-free with cover crops.  Buckwheat planted close together the way I describe in Homegrown Humus won't let any weed seeds germinate, and in a month I'll be able to put beds to sleep for the winter with an oat planting.

Resting cats

Being as lazy as our two felines seems like a dream at this time of year, but cold weather will be here before I know it.  I'd better enjoy summer greenery while I can!

Posted Tue Jul 8 07:30:04 2014 Tags:
how to add oil to Polaris 700 ATV

You can download the owners manual from Polaris, but it leaves out one detail.

The oil is added by removing the dip stick and pouring it in down that tube.

Posted Tue Jul 8 16:11:52 2014 Tags:

TrailersteadingI'm excited to announce that I'll have two new paperbacks in bookstores in 2015!  With The Naturally Bug-Free Garden spiffed up and turned in (due out this coming spring), I tentatively approached my publisher about the idea of printing Trailersteading as well.  I've been wanting to expand and update this best-selling ebook, but I didn't have high hopes that a mainstream publisher would be interested in a book teaching our permaculture redneck ethics.  However, I was pleasantly surprised --- Skyhorse once again was willing to leave me the ebook rights and publish a full-color paperback edition that will be hitting bookstores in fall 2015, despite the book being about living in a trailer.

What does this mean for you?  I'm looking for more trailersteading tips from the field, so if you homestead in a trailer on any level, now's your chance to see your name in print.  I'm especially interested in contributions in the following areas:

Trailer interior
  • Interior design.  I have a tendency to ignore anything that's purely pretty rather than functional, but several readers clearly wanted to learn more about making an old trailer into an aesthetically pleasing living space.  If you've rehabbed your trailer on the cheap and have photos to showcase your artistry, please drop me an email.
  • Trailer awningRehab suggestions.  On a similar vein, I'm always looking for trailer-related rehab tips that can be turned into a sidebar.  For example, Harry recently emailed me photos and construction information for his homemade window awnings, which he uses to keep out the worst of the summer sun.  Perhaps you have a similar simple but functional trailersteading tip?
  • Inspirational stories.  The heart of Trailersteading is the idea that living in an old mobile home can be a stepping stone allowing you to achieve your goals.  If you have a similar story to share, I definitely want to hear about it.
  • Around the trailerstead.  I plan to add a new chapter about how a trailer fits into the larger homestead.  I've already got sections planned on adding gutters and rain barrels and piping greywater to a wetland for treatment.  Do you have something to add in a similar vein?

I'm not going to buckle down and really start working on the updated version until this fall, but please do send your submissions now while they're on top of your mind!  (I'll try to remember to make another post when the deadline is closer.)  To sweeten the pot, if I decide to use your submission in the paperback version of Trailersteading, I'll send you a paperback of your choice (The Weekend Homesteader, Watermelon Summer, Shiftless, or my color version of the first edition of Naturally Bug-Free) and a Walden Effect t-shirt (size L or 2XL).  Please email with high-resolution photos (anything except pictures from a camera phone will probably work) and a written explanation of your innovation.  Emails will bounce if they're larger than about 5 MB, so be sure to send one picture per email.  Thanks in advance for your contribution!

Posted Wed Jul 9 06:27:43 2014 Tags:
using the right fuel in a weed trimmer

I used some fuel in the weed eater that had ethanol for the first time this year.

The fuel I used was fresh, and I chose the higher octane, but I think I'll go back to hunting down the ethanol free fuel in the future.

It might not be connected, but it now takes a harder pull on the rope to get it started and it does not always start on the first try like it did last year and the year before.

Posted Wed Jul 9 15:51:06 2014 Tags:
Cabbage and summer squash with wine

This is the time of year when summer squash and cabbages start to become overwhelming.  This simple recipe is a tasty way to feed your family lots of both, and it hits those sweet, salty, buttery buttons a bit like mac and cheese in a box (but in a much more nutritious package).

  • 2 to 4 tablespoons of butter (more is tastier)
  • 2 medium summer squash or 4 small summer squash (we use yellow crookneck)
  • 1 small or half of a large cabbage
  • 0.5 teaspoons of salt
  • 3 tablespoons of red wine
Chopped cabbage

Melt the butter in a large skillet, then chop the squash and cabbage and add them to the butter along with the salt.  Saute, stirring often, on medium-high heat for about 22 minutes, until the vegetables are soft or they begin sticking to the pan (whichever comes first).  Add the wine and turn the heat down to medium, then cook for another three or four minutes.  Serves three vegetable lovers as a side.

Posted Thu Jul 10 07:45:39 2014 Tags:
using a trake to plant Fall cabbage

We planted some Fall cabbage today.

The Trake continues to be our favorite trowel and rake garden tool.

In the early days we only had one and ended up fighting over it. That problem was easily fixed by ordering another one.

Posted Thu Jul 10 16:09:17 2014 Tags:
Bowl of blackberries

For the second time since we moved to the farm, all of our cultivated blackberries died to the ground over the winter.  The bushes quickly sent up new stalks in the spring, but since most brambles fruit on last year's growth, that meant no blackberries for us this year.

Or maybe not.  I was thrilled to see that a wild blackberry plant Mark accidentally left in the gully last year is loaded with big, tart fruits.  Blackberries spring up in our area anywhere there's light and not too much disturbance (aka mowing), and I picked lots of these wild blackberries when I was a kid.  As an adult, I prefer to spend a bit more effort tending cultivated varieties since the plants are thornless, the fruits are bigger and sweeter, and they're handily located right outside my door.  But it sure is nice to have backup blackberries when our thornless plants fail!

Green baby frog

We don't use most of our 58-acre farm for anything, but at times like this, I appreciate the way nature fills in the gaps.  And, speaking of nature, dozens of these tiny green frogs hopped out of our sky pond this week.  Even though they're green, I'm 99% sure these are baby gray tree frogs, who will resemble their name better in a few weeks.  Go find a tree, little frog!

Posted Fri Jul 11 07:40:23 2014 Tags:
Dancing with firewood

With Kayla and Andy's help, we've just about filled the woodshed to the point we had it at last fall.

There's plenty more room in the shed, though, since Anna is stacking the wood nearly to the roof this year.  Just to play it safe, we'll put in a few more hours of firewood collection to ensure we don't run low on fuel this winter.

Posted Fri Jul 11 15:10:49 2014 Tags:
Weedeat chinampas

Having Mark available to weedeat the aisles seems to be an essential part of our chinampa experiment.  Since I mounded up weed-filled dirt without a kill mulch (although I did put down some newspaper/feed bags/cardboard and straw around the plants a month or so ago), it takes a few passes with the whacker to get the beds in line.

Chinampas from above

So far, I've been quite happy with this little chinampa experiment, except for the lowest bed, where I planted butternuts.  As you can see in the photo above, the butternut leaves are pretty yellow, which is never a good sign in the vegetable garden.  I suspected lack of nitrogen and topdressed with manure, but Mark suggested an even more likely possibility.  The stump you can see near the butternut bed was a black walnut, and even though the tree has been dead for a few years, juglone might still be present in the soil in that area.

Hazel, butternut, and tomatoes

Luckily, I know better than to put all of my eggs in one basket when experimenting.  The butternuts, peppers, sweet potatoes, and watermelons grown in our chinampa beds are only a subset of the year's planting of each type of vegetable.  In other words, if my manure trick doesn't bring the butternut vines back to vibrancy, I've always got the happy twiners in the forest garden to fall back on.

Posted Sat Jul 12 07:29:41 2014 Tags:
bungee net update

I was hauling another load of horse manure yesterday when I realized I'd forgotten the ratchet strap to secure the top tier buckets.

The cargo net I got last year worked as a good replacement. Having multiple hooks at different spots allowed for several tension choices to get the right hold.

Posted Sat Jul 12 15:43:59 2014 Tags:
New laptop keyboard

Joy and rapture!  My laptop has returned!

Huckleberry helps

After my aborted attempt to replace my laptop keyboard last weekend, I did more research online, which turns out to have been a bad idea.  Somehow I got the idea that (since my laptop doesn't have a piece of trim between the top of the keyboard and the screen like most others do) I was going to have to take off the whole piece of trim that runs all the way around the keyboard.  I took a bunch of screws out of the back and got that plastic partway pried up, but I felt like I was going to break something if I tried to lift it further.  Huckleberry was no help, so I gave up.

Lifting out a laptop keyboard

Next, I begged my sweet brother to come put me out of my misery.  "You do realize the keyboard lifts up out of the trim, right?" he asked.  "This is going to be simple."

We took out the battery, unplugged the power cord, and, a few minutes later, we'd pried the keyboard away from the clips that line the top edge.  It turns out Joey was right --- the keyboard lifted right up with nothing else holding it in place.

Plugging in a laptop keyboard

Joey gently detached the old keyboard ribbon, attached the new one, and briefly powered up to the computer to make sure everything was working as planned.  Then we shut the laptop down and pushed the keyboard into place.

Success!  Hopefully this keyboard will last me at least another million words, and now I have the old keyboard to pirate key by key if necessary.  Thanks for your help, Joey (and Tony at zareason)!

Posted Sun Jul 13 07:36:29 2014 Tags:
ratchet strap tail gate

Why am I ratchet strapping our tailgate shut?

Because the dang thing kept popping open and spilling precious manure.

I guess I'm lucky it didn't happen on the main road.

Posted Sun Jul 13 17:16:02 2014 Tags:
Laughing Water farm

Mark and I decided my book-advance check should go to a worthy cause --- buying pastured beef for the freezer!*  But where would we find the meat?  Our pastured-lamb producers don't raise cows for sale, so we downloaded the huge Local Food Guide from Healthy Angus cowthe sidebar of this website.  Next, I read all of the farm descriptions of pastured-beef producers within an hour-and-a-half drive of our homestead, I skipped the ones who didn't list an email address (yes, I hate the phone), and then I quickly narrowed down our options to one top choice --- Laughing Water Farm in Marion, Virginia.

What was the appeal of Laughing Water over the other options?  Antoinette Goodrich manages Laughing Water Farm as a healthy ecosystem, keeping her cattle on grass year-round, stockpiling winter pasture, and also putting away some hay.  The only supplements she feeds her cows are sea salt and kelp, and one look at the farm was enough to prove that Antoinette has the animal equivalent of a green thumb.

Ossabaw pigs

Young turkeyWith over 200 acres to play with, Antoinette has room for more than the 40 head of cattle (plus their calves) that she raises to turn into pastured beef.  She stocks Ossabaw pigs too, a heritage breed that was abandoned by sailors on an island off the coast of Georgia.  Over the decades that the pigs lived on their own, they turned into strong specimens well able to thrive on pasture.  Granted, an Ossabaw pig may take a year or more to reach slaughter weight (and that weight is much less than that of huge modern breeds), but for Antoinette, the hardy pigs are worth the wait.

We only spent about an hour on the farm, so there's probably much, much more to Laughing Water's farm-diversity story.  But I should mention that there were also lots of free-range turkeys, ducks, and chickens, plus experiments in no-till gardening, and some great-looking tomato hoop houses.


Appalachian farmAnd excellent record-keeping!  The chart above shows every medication that's been administered to the cows on the property.  Besides worming and immunization, the only problem that has required treatment was pink eye in a single cow.  Antoinette noted that she will treat cows in a scenario like that because she doesn't want the animals to be in pain, but the pink-eye-treated cow wouldn't end up in a customer's freezer.

Cows under a shade tree

Our one mistake during our visit to Laughing Water Farm was getting the meat out of the freezer before we started our tour.  As a result, by the time we reached the cattle, I knew we shouldn't leave our precious haul to thaw in the heat much longer.  But we did stay long enough to learn about the extensive infrastructure, including self-watering stations Pigs in the barndesigned to keep the liquid close enough at any given time so that individual cows will seek out hydration without waiting for the lead cow to bring the herd to water.  There are permanently fenced pastures, through which cows are moved at a rate of about two paddocks per week, and we could tell that the cattle were very happy since most were still out grazing rather than lazing under the shade tree despite the summer heat.  (The pigs, on the other hand, chose to spend a bit more time in the barn.)

Splitting the meat

The other thing I might have done differently is to alert Antoinette that my sister and I were going to split the half of a cow fifty-fifty.  We had to separate the meat a piece at a time, trying to give us each an equal number of each cut.  Antoinette was very helpful in suggesting equivalent cuts for parcels that didn't come out even, but I don't recall the exact details (just that Dani got the oxtail and I got the brisket).

Laughing Water Farm barnThe final cost was $661.25 for each quarter of the cow.  While that price tag is a bit more than some suppliers I've found, Laughing Water Farm clearly produces pastured cows that are head and shoulders above the competition, so I consider the price very fair.  In addition, although I didn't do the math this time around, I'm guessing that even this "high" price per quarter comes out to be cheaper than buying the same quantity of much-lower-grade, grain-fed meat a pound or two at a time at grocery-store prices.

Antoinette brings her wares to the Abingdon Farmer's Market every week, and serious WWOOFers are welcome to come learn at her farm.  Or you can buy the other half of my cow, which I believe is still available, and enjoy an excellent and educational farm tour in the process.  Stay tuned for a later post with a taste test of our freezer full of beef!

*Yes, that does mean (that if you use the transitive property) I technically plan to eat my words....

Posted Mon Jul 14 07:06:57 2014 Tags:
mark ATV rescue
using ATV to get truck unstuck

We got the truck stuck a couple of times today.

Having 4 wheel drive on the ATV makes moving it somewhat easy compared to the old way we used to get a truck unstuck.

Posted Mon Jul 14 16:12:03 2014 Tags:
Tomatoes and parsley

It looks like this will be another low-tomato year, with septoria leaf spot rushing through our planting despite weekly pruning sessions.  I've also seen a couple of patches of early blight, but the septoria is doing the majority of the damage because of its early start.

Septoria leaf spot is supposed to only hit tomato plants relatively late in the year, which suggests that the fault is my own --- I probably carried the fungus over from last year's garden in my saved seeds.  In other words, any seeds I save this year will be equally suspect, although a heat-treatment of 25 minutes at 122 degrees Fahrenheit might possibly make them safer to use.

Luckily, tomato breeders are finally starting to come up with varieties that resist early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot.  Johnny's Select Seeds sells Jasper, a red cherry tomato with intermediate resistance to early blight and septoria leaf spot, while their Plum Regal, Defiant, and Mountain Magic are moderately resistant to late blight and early blight.

An even more enticing selection comes from High Mowing Organic.  Iron Lady is a red slicer bred by Cornell University and North Carolina State University to resist early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot, along with verticillium and fusarium wilts.  I'm thinking we might try all five resistant varieties next year and not use any of our saved seeds in hope of getting the various tomato blights off our farm.

Tomato planting

What's the next line of defense if that fails?  The real reason we lose so many tomatoes to blight is because our climate is very damp, even during the summer.  We already save the sunniest spots for tomatoes and don't use overhead irrigation there, plus we tie the plants up and prune away leaves close to the ground.  And this year I even tried raising the plants up on mounds to produce even drier conditions, but clearly none of that is enough to beat blight.

The next step would be blocking rain from hitting our tomatoes with a greenhouse, hoophouse, or something similar.  Or we could follow the recommendation of a Canadian website, which suggests growing tomatoes on a balcony or rooftop for a similar reason.  One of these days, I'll figure out how to have copious tomatoes despite our wet climate!

Posted Tue Jul 15 07:00:54 2014 Tags:
training high density apple tree to grow out instead of up

Today was a high density apple training day.

Trimmed off some branches that were reaching too high and tied them down to encourage horizontal growth.

Posted Tue Jul 15 15:57:31 2014 Tags:
Egyptian onion patch

All of our excess Egyptian onions for the year are long gone, but Daddy has quite a few top and bottom bulbs he's willing to sell.  I asked him why he planted so many onions and he shrugged.  "I had the bulbs and I had the room," he explained.  I understand --- that's the danger of the gardening bug!

Luckily, you get to benefit from my father's poor judgment.  Daddy's selling small flat-rate boxes of top bulbs (at least 100 per box) for $25 with free shipping, and sets of 20 bottom bulbs (and a few top bulb bonuses) for $25 with free shipping.

Egyptian onion bottom bulbs
20 Egyptian onion bottom bulbs
Free shipping within the U.S.
(Sorry, we are unable to ship live plants internationally)

Egyptian onion top bulbs
100 Egyptian onion top bulbs (various sizes)
Free shipping within the U.S.
(Sorry, we are unable to ship live plants internationally)

Trying to decide which starter pack will fit your garden?  If you've got lots of time and room, I'd go for the top bulbs --- you'll need to give them a bit more time before harvesting, but will end up with many more onions by this time next year.  On the other hand, if you want to start eating nearly right away (or don't have much room), the bottom bulbs are a great value (plus, next year you'll have top bulbs to give away or to expand your planting).

To read more about growing and eating Egyptian onions, click here.  And to celebrate excess onions, Daddy is also giving away two boxes, winner's choice (top or bottom bulbs).  Click on the widget below to enter!  (If you live outside the U.S., you can still enter, but if you win, I'll send you a non-perishable replacement prize like a t-shirt or book.)
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thanks go to Barbara Ervin for taking the top photo in this post!

Posted Wed Jul 16 07:34:12 2014 Tags:
stove box in back of truck

The county started posting a guard at each dump site to prevent people from taking valuable garbage and scrap metal.

I was dropping off some trash the other day when I noticed this stove box sitting on the ground next to a dumpster.

The guard was distracted doing something in their little shack which made me think I could take the cardboard and run if I acted quick enough. I made a clean getaway. No sirens or admonishing statement from the guard. The box will live on as a layer of kill mulch for the garden.

Posted Wed Jul 16 14:57:20 2014 Tags:

I Am HutteriteI Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby is an intriguing glimpse into Hutterite culture, a sister religion to the Amish and Mennonites, but one that is centered in Canada instead of in the U.S.  Although none of these religions are technically homesteading-related topics, I suspect many of you are as intrigued as I am by their farm-based communities, so I thought I'd share some tidbits from this interesting memoir.

The author was raised by Hutterite parents who chose to leave the community when Mary-Ann was nearly ten years old.  So the reader sees the Hutterite community primarily through a child's rose-tinted glasses, but also comes to understand why Mary-Ann's parents chose to "run away" after a power struggle resulted in the death of Mary-Ann's young brother.

Although it's easy to understand how inter-personal politics can go wrong in this type of situation, Mary-Ann also shares how safe and accepted members felt as part of the Hutterite community.  The 15-acre vegetable garden, milk cows, and geese fed everyone sumptuous meals, which led to a striking comparison with the moldy bologna, stale bread, and rotting produce that the children ate soon after the split.  On the other hand, the story also served as a cautionary tale for non-Hutterites interested in forming communist communities --- while everything can be wonderful as long as the community stays together, it can be very tough for a family to get their feet back under them after a split.

Mary-Ann was in for other surprises, too, as her family slowly integrated themselves into the outside world.  As you might expect, the author and her siblings had trouble blending in with kids in their classes at school, but there were also troubles at home.  Since Hutterite children start kindergarten at 2.5 years of age and then spend the rest of their lives eating most meals with the community and working designated jobs, the concept of being around her nuclear family all day was a surprise.

In fact, if she had remained Hutterite, Mary-Ann would have had her life planned out for her.  She would have begun alternating between weeks spent baking, washing dishes, and cooking at the age of 17, she would gotten married and then have taken several long breaks to bear children, and finally she would have retired from her work career at the age of 45.  Instead, Mary-Ann and her family were spat out into the "English" world that most of us live in, where great freedom means great responsibility.

I Am Hutterite is first and foremost a glimpse into Hutterite culture, written in an engaging, fiction-like manner.  Whether you'd like to know more about an Anabaptist community or simply want want a light summer read, Mary-Ann Kirkby's book is bound to hit the spot.

Posted Thu Jul 17 07:47:43 2014 Tags:
fixing a 4.5 year old chicken tractor

I built this chicken tractor over 4 years ago and it's held up pretty good under some tough, all weather conditions, but one of the bottom cedar log runners broke.

A treated decking board made a good replacement and it seems to slide nicely.

Posted Thu Jul 17 15:29:03 2014 Tags:

Onie Clark"Onie Mae Cresong Clark, age 79, of Bristol, VA, went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at the NHC Healthcare of Bristol.  Onie was born April 8, 1935 in Washington County, Virginia, a daughter of the late Ward Christopher Cresong and Elvie Smith Cresong.  She was a lifelong resident of Scott County and Washington County, Virginia, where she was a homemaker and was of the Baptist faith.  She was preceded in death by her husband, Silas Clark..."

Back when I was knee high to a grasshopper, Onie and Silas lived up the creek from my childhood farm.  I would run down to visit, barefoot and clad only in underpants, until Onie finally put her foot down and required me to don a shirt.  Despite that one act of tough love, our neighbor was always ready to enfold me in her arms, where I was riveted by her neon orange chewing gum, a color I'd never seen before in my life, and by her southern makeup, so different from the appearance of my clean-faced Yankee mother.

Graduation photoBut appearances weren't important to me at that age.  I was on a mission, and once inside, I headed straight for the bathroom.  No, I didn't need to go, but our family's farm only boasted an outhouse, so the concept of peeing in a toilet was remarkable to my young mind.  Plus, Onie's bathroom had real green carpeting on top of the closed toilet lid, so soft I wanted to run my hands through the pile.  In fact, I probably hid out there for several minutes, drawing pictures in the deep yarn.

Onie with pot-bellied stoveBack in the kitchen, I entered Onie's domain, decorated with big ceramic bins in the shape of mushrooms.  Our country neighbor was most likely cooking soup beans and biscuits, but hers was a version remarkably dissimilar to the type my health-conscious parents set out on our table.  Grownup Anna knows that the difference was copious butter and salt, plus a healthy hunk of bacon in the beans, but child-Anna only knew that Onie could cook like no one else.  There would be yellow tomatoes with red centers, so juicy they oozed across the plate, and perhaps an ear of sweet corn on the side.  I definitely wanted to be invited to dinner.

At the time when Onie was part of my village, my nuclear family was so dirt poor that all of us were fed free lunches at school.  In fact, I remember my kindergarten teacher giving me a red, hooded cape that I cherished, not realizing she felt me a charity case.  And I remember how much I yearned for the big, beautiful boxes of crayons that the other kids brought out to color with, complete with metallic hues and a sharpener in the back.

Me dreamingLater, I would become saddened by Christmases where the presents were never quite what I asked for.  One year, I yearned for Archie Carr's Handbook of Turtles, and was instead gifted with the larger and more colorful (but harder to read) Encyclopedia of Turtles.  I'm not even sure the issue was so much money as a difficulty deciphering the dreams of a complicated child, but to Onie, I wasn't so complex.  My neighbor saw the silver and gold crayons dancing through my dreams and she gave me the best gift I'd ever received in my young life --- a box of crayons so big the sticks were arranged in stadium seating.  My brother Joey and I would later melt a few crayons on our tin roof, molding them into shapes as glorious as the drawings I made when the crayons were first sharp and new.  That gift may well be the reason I majored in art (as well as biology) when the time came to go to college.


As with her husband, I never really knew Onie as an adult.  When she passed away this week, I hadn't truly visited with her in years.  But my memories of sitting on the ground by her porch and gently massaging sedum leaves into balloons while Onie and Mom visited together will last forever.  And whenever I walk by my touch-me-not flowers that descended from Onie's seeds, I'll think of the colorful woman who once made my dreams come true.  Thank you for the crayons, Onie, and for spreading color and love through my young world.

Posted Fri Jul 18 07:21:56 2014 Tags:
details on chicken tractor repair

Once I installed the new decking board I bevelled each edge.

Without the bevel the edge wants to dig into the dirt when you pull it.

Posted Fri Jul 18 15:46:46 2014 Tags:
Collecting seeds

The last vestiges of spring are coming out of the garden this week and next.  A few small cabbages are lingering in unneeded corners, and I just pulled out the kale, arugula, and poppy plants after harvesting their seeds.  I probably should harvest all of the spring carrots, too, but there's not really room for them in the fridge due to the dozen cabbages currently chilling and waiting to be souped, so I've just been pulling orange roots as needed for the last few weeks.

Summer garden

Of course, the summer crops fill most of my attention at this time of year, both in the garden and in the kitchen.  But we've already started on fall crops, too, setting out broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts and direct-seeding carrots and peas.  Since fall crops often germinate poorly during hot, dry weather, one of my most important tasks at this time of year is remembering to drop back by the fall beds a week or two after planting, reseeding as necessary.

Basket of cucumbers

The other thing I try (and often fail) to remember in the height of summer is to make notes on my gardening spreadsheet about what we planted too much of.  For example, we've had so many excess cucumbers and summer squash for the last few years that I've had to give them away by the basketload, and yet I keep planting the same amount.  Maybe I'll remember to only plant half as many cucurbits in 2015?

Posted Sat Jul 19 06:52:19 2014 Tags:
bags of leaves in the trunk of a car

We went to the big city for a funeral and brought home some bags of leaves.

Posted Sat Jul 19 15:34:41 2014 Tags:

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture TwistMichael Judd sent me a copy of his Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist to review, and I gulped the book down the same day it arrived.  Too bad I couldn't taste the berries in those beautiful pictures!  More seriously, Judd's book is a fast and fun read, mostly geared toward newbie suburban homesteaders, but with tidbits that will suit even the established farmer on forty acres.

I'll discuss the one negative right away.  Most of the book's projects are clearly based on plantings Judd made as part of his edible landscaping business, so they focus on initial aesthetics and don't necessarily have the multi-year followup to see what does and doesn't work.  As a result, there are a few things included that I've seen in other books, but that have failed when I tried them on the ground.  For example, I wouldn't recommend planting comfrey right up to the base of young fruit trees (especially if your soil is poor), and I think it would be handy to note which of the unusual fruit species profiled are invasive in the U.S.  On the other hand, by keeping each section simple, Judd will probably inspire many more readers to take the plunge and try something, which is how we truly learn what suits our site.

Rain garden

That caveat aside, I found a lot to pique my interest in Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist.  First, there's the story of the book itself, which is self-published based on a kickstarter campaign, but is distributed by Chelsea Green --- I wanted to hear more about how that came about!  Next, mixed amidst the most-popular permaculture techniques (hugelkultur, herb spirals, earthen ovens), Judd includes a fascinating section on rain gardens, which sound very much like my sky pond but for soil that actually drains.  In the same chapter, the author also explains how to make an A-frame level for easy keyline marking, a tool I definitely plan to try out.  Finally, those of you who imbibe will likely get a kick out of the various alcoholic recipes scattered throughout the text.

In the end, though, my favorite part of Judd's book was the photos and diagrams.  If you're a magazine reader, you should track down a copy of his book just for the eye candy, and I guarantee you'll end up inspired to try at least one of project on your own homestead.  Judd's beautiful and inspiring read is just the nudge you might need to stop dreaming and start doing.

Posted Sun Jul 20 07:18:51 2014 Tags:
barn lizard

I've always thought lizards are more adorable than most puppies.

Posted Sun Jul 20 14:52:41 2014 Tags:
Partially drawn comb

Despite a week that felt more like September than July, our bees have been working astonishingly hard.  Every time I pass by both hives, workers are flying in and out like crazy.  In fact, the colonies have been so busy, they didn't even mind me weeding nearly on their doorstep last week, a sure sign a nectar flow is under way.

Sourwood has been blooming for a few weeks, and even though the trees I can see from my window seem to be nearly done, I'm still noticing new blossoms littering the forest floor in the woods.  But my movie-star neighbor tells me his bees are probably working basswood, which would explain the hive traffic jams even better.  Even though the lofty basswood at the edge of our yard isn't blooming this year, there are probably many more trees in the woods dripping with sweet nectar for our bees to partake of.

Honeybee hive

The last few times I've taken photos up underneath our hives, I haven't seen much new activity.  In fact, if anything, it seemed like the mother hive had eaten through some of their stores last time I checked, and the top photo in this post shows that they haven't made much headway since last month.  But on Sunday evening, I struggled to take a photo under the daughter hive and eventually realized the problem was that the bees had drawn comb nearly to the screened bottom board, and that the camera simply couldn't focus so close to the lens.  Looks like the feedings I've been giving that hive have paid off.  Time to add another box and proclaim our split a glowing success.  Maybe now I can take them off the dole...again?

Posted Mon Jul 21 07:25:43 2014 Tags:
Warre hive

Both of our hives are now three stories high, with an additional uninhabited attic.

This hive doesn't seem to mind being lost in the weeds on a seldom-visited part of the farm.  But we pulled a few of the larger plants in front of their runway while we were nadiring.

Posted Mon Jul 21 15:27:50 2014 Tags:

Grape and tomato raceWhen I strung up a simple piece of baling twine to guide our young grape vine to its trellis, Mark rolled his eyes.  Did I have to relentlessly reuse found material?, I could see him thinking.  What if the twine rotted out before the grape hit the wire?

Luckily for me, the grape vine took to its job with gusto.  Despite having been a mere unrooted twig only a little over a year ago, the plant settled in to grow like nuts.  I could watch the plant out the trailer window, and I just knew it was going to reach the trellis wire 7.5 feet above the ground in early July.

Then, one day, a bush katydid that I had written about in The Naturally Bug-Free Garden as mostly harmless nibbled the growing tip right off my grape vine!  I had warning too, having watched the same insect bite the end off a tendril just a few minutes before, but I wouldn't quite believe my eyes.  Could that sweet little insect have derailed my baling-twine experiment so quickly?

Bush katydidI snagged the katydid and fed it to our tractored hens (so there!), but the damage was done.  As with any plant that loses its top, apical dominance had fled and the vine began to branch out from lower buds rather than continuing its race for the sky.  But soon enough one shoot took the lead, and this weekend that grape finally reached the wire, proving my crazy reusing ways weren't flawed.

So much drama!  This is my favorite part about the growing area in front of the trailer --- since I can watch it out the window, I see every little bit of life that occurs, both good and bad.  I can hardly wait to discover whether, next year, I might get to watch grape fruits develop from tiny blooms right in front of my eyes.

Posted Tue Jul 22 07:35:05 2014 Tags:
Toyota Carolla wheel alignment front view

The big excitement for today was a wheel alignment in Weber city.

All 4 wheels for 59 dollars.

Posted Tue Jul 22 15:18:16 2014 Tags:
Potter wasp

Cannibal flySome of you may experience buyer's remorse.  I don't buy much, so I rarely feel that pang, but I do experience what I've come to call writer's remorse.  What am I talking about?  Imagine you polish a book to within an inch of its life, send it off to your publisher...and then a reader shares these astonishing pictures of beneficial insects from his yard.

The solution?  Posting those awesome images here on the blog so at least some of you will get to enjoy them.  The top photo shows a potter wasp storing a caterpillar to feed her young while the second photo is a cannibal fly getting ready to suck the juices out of a wasp.  Both are taken by Brian Cooper --- thank you so much for sharing, Brian!

Posted Wed Jul 23 07:48:45 2014 Tags:
new recap mud tires for Chevy S-10

We decided to spend some of Anna's new book deal money on truck tires.

Four good sized mud tires cost us just under 300 dollars.

Posted Wed Jul 23 15:54:57 2014 Tags:
Parasitized hornworm

In addition to watching a bush katydid top my grapevine, I've been enjoying a closeup view of life on the tomato plant right outside our front window.  Two weeks ago, a hornworm caterpillar showed up, and I left it alone, knowing that the leaf muncher would soon be munched in turn.  Hornworms are never a problem on our farm because parasitoid wasps kill them in short order, and this caterpillar was no exception.

Hatching parasitoid waspWhat was unique about this hornworm is that I noticed when the adult braconid wasps were ready to hatch from their cocoons.  Tiny black fliers on the immobilized caterpillar alerted me to the hatch, and I was able to watch as wasp after wasp pushed its way out of the top of each cocoon.

Just a few minutes later, I was treated to a viewing of a tiny gray treefrog on our hazel bush, and that afternoon, a female goldfinch visited our greywater wetland to gather cattail fluff for her nest.  When my eyes are open, I know that's a normal day in the life of our diverse homestead.

Posted Thu Jul 24 08:20:25 2014 Tags:
using big stove box for mulching

We used up that big box I stole last week.

I like to take a minute and remove all the tape and labels.

Maybe I'll return to the scene of the crime like a typical criminal?

Posted Thu Jul 24 15:48:03 2014 Tags:
Mulching high density apples

"Guess what this is?" I said to Mark yesterday morning as he walked past.  My voice was full of the excitement of finding a new source of organic matter to mulch with, so he hit the nail on the head with his first try.  "Humanure," my long-suffering husband answered, a distinct lack of enthusiasm coloring his voice.

Cleaning out the composting toilet

We closed off the first bin of our composting toilet last November, and I wrote that I planned to wait a year...or maybe two...before breaking into the stash.  However, my standards always start slipping when I clean out the deep bedding in the chicken coops and still need more high-carbon materials to mulch the perennials.  I figured, as long as no chunks of poo were visible in last year's humanure bin, I could use it beneath plants that wouldn't be producing until this time next year.  Really, that gives the material almost 24 months between excretion and eating, right?

Mulching with humanure

HumanureWhen I opened up the composting toilet bin, I was surprised to see that the contents really just looked like slightly aged sawdust.  There were some chunks of toilet paper around the edges, where the contents were too dry for decomposition, but all other signs of human waste were gone.  I set aside most of the residual toilet paper as we went along and used the four wheelbarrows of organic matter that remained beneath our high-density apples, our hardy kiwis, and our black raspberries.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that despite a lack of odor in the composted humanure, it slightly grossed me out, especially early in my cleanout efforts.  As with slaughtering chickens, I immediately went and took a shower after finishing the cleanout, even though the biologist in me knows that nine-month-old humanure is probably less likely to make me sick than relatively fresh chicken manure and horse manure are.  I handle the latter with barely a sniff, but I definitely still have a hint of the fecophobia that made Mark lack his usual enthusiasm about my crazy experiments.

Berry patch

Mental issues aside, Mark and I have some thoughts for improving our composting-toilet before changing back over to the now-emptied bin this fall, but I'm pretty happy with version 1.0 as-is.  Human "waste" has become an asset to the farm rather than a hindrance --- just what I was looking for!

Posted Fri Jul 25 06:46:54 2014 Tags:
using cardboard in the garden

The last piece of big cardboard went to some brussel sprout transplants.

Posted Fri Jul 25 16:03:23 2014 Tags:
Cooking soup

It's now officially freezin' season!  The tomato crop is far smaller than I'd hoped for, but enough fruits are coming in to produce one or two big pots of soup per week, most of which ends up as winter meals.  And, as if to make up for the moderate tomato harvest, the green beans are extremely prolific this year, allowing me to freeze half a gallon at a time once or twice a week.  Add that on top of this spring's bountiful broccoli, plus the stir fry I'm experimentally freezing, and we've already got 8.5 gallons of winter vegetables socked away in the deep freeze (along with a bunch of homegrown and purchased meat).

Freezing green beans

Whenever I write about our winter stores, commenters always ask about our frozen-food goal for the year.  I'd post a link to my previously written answer, but we're constantly tweaking our diet to include more fresh produce even in the winter months, and are also streamlining non-fresh winter stores to include only the foods that taste best frozen and rethawed.  Last year, we had barely enough winter stores from 6.75 gallons of green beans, 11.25 gallons of vegetable soup, 0.6 gallons of sweet corn, and 0.25 gallons of tomatoes --- just shy of 19 gallons of vegetables total.  Since we plan to stock up on the same amount of storage vegetables (onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and butternut squash) and to continue pushing the weather boundaries with brussels sprouts, kale, and lettuce under quick hoops, twenty gallons in the freezer should do us this year as well.

Posted Sat Jul 26 07:19:36 2014 Tags:
putting together third rack on porch

I put together this last storage rack in about 10 minutes.

Plenty of room for the upcoming onion harvest.

Posted Sat Jul 26 15:04:21 2014 Tags:
Weedy forest garden

It seems like I reinvision the forest garden every couple of years, always thinking this new plan is going to turn a problem zone into an area of bountiful harvest.  So take what I write here with a grain of salt.  But, really, I think I've got it this time!

This year's reinvision is the result of rain and rodents.  When voles girdled the three apple trees that were supposed to grow into the canopy of the forest garden, I finally had to admit that those trees had been ailing for quite some time.  The issue in the forest garden is the same as in the neighboring back garden --- high groundwater drowns anything with roots more than two or three inches below the surface in the winter.  I've worked hard to build tree mounds up out of the wet using copious organic matter (logs, branches, leaves, weeds, manure, etc.), but as the plant materials inevitably break down, my trees' roots end up right back down in the submerged zone.  As of this year, the only perennials that are thriving in the so-called forest garden are a hazel bush and tons of comfrey.  Time to change gears.

Flower bed

The first thing I'm admitting is that high groundwater probably does mean a poor place for trees.  All of my soil amendments have created a rich layer of topsoil, but the quality dirt soon gives way to waterlogged clay that kills deep-rooted plants in the winter.  While I could keep working to make the forest garden a tree habitat, chances are I'd be better off using my efforts to turn it into a shrub and herb (in the botanical, not the culinary, sense) playground.

Forest garden swales
However, raising the planting zone up out of the groundwater enough to keep a foot or so of soil dryish does seem feasible now that I've experimented with a sky pond and chinampas.  Both have worked quite well, with Mark's only complaint being loud toads singing on spring nights (requiring him to turn on a fan before bed).  Why not combine the two winning strategies, using dug-out aisles to raise the planting surface while gently sloping excess water toward a sky pond at the lowest point?  As a bonus, I'll get to discover whether a sky pond with no gleying will hold water as well as the experimental one I semi-gleyed last year.  And, as Mark said tongue in cheek, we really need more toads.  Right?  Who doesn't!?

Posted Sun Jul 27 07:48:25 2014 Tags:
close up of hose repair

I first started using these cheap plastic hose repair kits 4 years ago.

There's been no trouble with any of the repairs all this time.

I used the last one today after a mower mishap.

Posted Sun Jul 27 15:22:36 2014 Tags:
Starplate pasture

I'd been planning on setting out our newly grafted apple trees into the tree alleys in the starplate pasture this winter, but my gut says the soil there isn't ready to support tree growth.  Sure, the texture looked great when I dug into it last winter --- well-drained and loose --- but plants have been slow to colonize the bare soil.  In our climate, all I should have to do is avert my eyes if I want weeds to grow over my head, and instead, the ground is still spottily covered with bits of grass and white clover despite the copious addition of chicken manure from our pastured flock and the last mowing over a month ago.  As a result, I figure those tree alleys need another year or two of TLC before I put beloved perennials in place. 

First-year apple trees

So...what am I to do with 11 beautiful apple trees?  Even though a late frost kept our two-year-old high-density apples from fruiting this year, I've been very happy with the vibrant growth resulting from the training method.  So I decided to keep this new round of apples small and closer to home using similar high-density methods.  Sure, if I train the trees to stay diminutive, I'll probably end up getting fewer apples from each plant, but I suspect I'll get the same or more total apples since close-to-home trees are more likely to survive and thrive.

Time to find gaps to fill!  I have five trees on M7 rootstock (usual spacing 12-15 feet) and six trees on MM111 rootstock (usual spacing 15 to 20 feet) to play with, so if I planted them traditionally, they would take up most of our garden.  However, the M7s should make good espaliers along the front of the trailer and the MM111s can be trained to the high-density method if I space them at least five feet apart (based on this handy calculator).  I'm curious to hear from folks who have played with espaliering --- do you think a six-foot spacing for apples on M7 rootstock will work?  And, given that I'm most interested in productivity over beauty, which shape would you recommend?

Posted Mon Jul 28 07:07:41 2014 Tags:
replacing the fly wheel shaft key on a lawn mower

I had to replace the flywheel shaft key on the lawn mower today.

It's my second flywheel shaft key, and it went faster this time. Less than 30 minutes.

The things I'd like to remember for next time would be try not to forget the bell shaped spacer that goes on top of the flywheel and the oil spout goes first before putting the gas tank back on.

Posted Mon Jul 28 15:58:03 2014 Tags:
One week of bee work

I've come to understand that a natural beekeeper's primary job is to make sure the bees have just enough space to continue working without wearing themselves out patrolling large expanses of empty hive.  So, when the third box of our mother hive went from looking like the top photo to looking like the bottom photo in a mere seven days, I figured I'd better give them some room to grow.

Opening up a warre hive

The question was --- should I add the extra box to the top or to the bottom of the hive?  In general, Warre beekeepers nadir instead of super, meaning that empty boxes are added to the bottom rather than to the top of a hive.  The theory is that keeping the lid on the hive and simply hoisting the whole thing up to put a new box underneath causes less disruption to the critical heat and scent within the brood chamber.  In the past, I have only nadired Warre hives, and last week I added the third box to our daughter hive at the bottom, as usual.

Supering a warre hive

However, once a Warre hive has more than two boxes mostly full of brood and honey, it becomes much less feasible to nadir the hive without rigging a lift (or roping two more people into helping you).  In addition, this excellent page suggests that supering is really the best way to add extra boxes onto a booming Warre hive during a heavy summer nectar flow.  In case you don't want to read the long version, the gist is that bees only build down as quickly as they need the space for brood, adding honey into cells above the brood chamber as young bees vacate that space.  So during heavy nectar flows, nadiring simply doesn't give the bees enough room to store the sweet liquid as quickly as it comes in.

Weeding around the hieve

With that data in mind, I opted to super the mother hive (and then to clean up the weeds around the hive entrance, a task that was long overdue).  Before supering, a quick peek down into the top box proved that the upper chamber was full of capped honey, so hopefully that buffer will mean taking the top off the hive had less impact on that all-important brood chamber.  And if this flow keeps up, we might get a box or two of honey this fall despite slowing our mother hive down by splitting her in half this spring!

Posted Tue Jul 29 07:09:18 2014 Tags:
trickle charging ATV battery

It took a few minutes of trickle charging to get the ATV going today.

I cleaned the contacts last week due to a low charge and I guess the short trip from here to our parking area wasn't enough to charge it up.

Posted Tue Jul 29 15:51:49 2014 Tags:
Cutting onions

We ran of our storage onions this year in May --- better than most years, but still leaving me with a two-month drought.  With most vegetables, I simply substitute or do without if our crop isn't sufficient, but I can't quite imagine cooking without onions.  So we ended up buying a few bags at the store (plus planting 20% more to feed us over the next year).

Cleaned onions

We learned the hard way that garlic just doesn't taste quite right until it's been cured, but onions are ready to go in the soup pot as soon as they reach full size.  I haven't even harvested most of our onions out of the garden yet, but I've been pulling the biggest ones for soup for the last week or two.  It seems like we can never freeze enough soup or grow enough onions --- maybe those two problems are related....

Posted Wed Jul 30 07:38:28 2014 Tags:
making new bench for black soldier fly farm

I built a bench like shelf for our new Black Soldier Fly project today.

A big upside down lid makes a good water moat to keep ants away.

The goal is to cultivate enough grubs to supplement the chickens' diet.

Posted Wed Jul 30 16:43:06 2014 Tags:
Sprouting mulch

Mark and I were thrilled to get our summer purchase of straw last month...until it started to sprout.  That's right, I laid down several bales of straw in the vegetable garden as mulch, figuring the straw would do its usual weed-suppressing job, but the mulch turned out to be a source of weeds.  Looking more closely, I saw that the grain heads were full of seeds --- seems like our supplier forgot to thresh before he baled.

Mark's immediate answer was: "Let's buy a flame weeder!"  But I decided to try a low-tech solution first.  As I've been weeding this week, I've grabbed hunks of seedling-filled straw and flipped it over as a unit.  I'm hopeful that the baby grain plants will be smothered by this cruel treatment and will give up the ghost.

In the meantime, I'm setting aside the rest of these bales of straw to use as deep bedding in the coop, where our chickens will be glad to remove the grains.  Looks like we'll have to hit up the feed store for some replacement straw for the garden.

Posted Thu Jul 31 08:22:39 2014 Tags:
making bench big to fit in the new propane burner stove top unit

We made the Black Soldier Fly shelf long to accommodate a propane stove top.

Next up is to figure out how to match up the small connector to the big one on a regular tank of propane commonly sold at grocery stores around here.

Posted Thu Jul 31 15:32:54 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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