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

archives for 08/2014

Aug 2014
Black soldier fly bin

We had several commenters ask questions about our new black soldier fly bin, so I'm going to see if I can answer them all in one fell swoop.  I understand the interest --- we've been intrigued by black soldier flies for years.  The reason we didn't experiment sooner is because we just didn't have time to reinvent the wheel and the only premade bin available when I started researching cost nearly $200.  Luckily, while we were dragging our heels, the folks over at were experimenting to create a lower-cost version that ships to your door for a total of $76.  Their website also walks you through all of their experiments so that you could make your own bin easily at home, but we decided to support their ingenuity and purchase a premade bin.

Black soldier fly larvae

If you follow our lead, I recommend you start some food fermenting to attract black soldier flies as soon as you place your order.  It can take a few weeks for rotten materials (with fermented grain being the blog author's recommendation) to become ripe enough to attract the mother flies, so you might as well start early.  Since we didn't think ahead in that way, I started some chick feed fermenting as soon as we got our bin, but I also went hunting around the yard for black soldier fly larvae to seed our new bug station.  I quickly found a dozen relatively mature larvae in the bedding beneath what was the duck brooder, where spilled feed spoiled and attracted the parent flies.  Other good places to look for larvae and eggs include under the lids of trash cans (for eggs) and in your compost bin (for larvae).

Feeding black soldier fly bin

I filled the bin halfway with partially rotted sawdust (and a bit of homemade charcoal at the bottom) for bedding, then added a bit of the bedding material that my found larvae were living in on top.  The fermenting chick feed went in a container on top of the bedding so the feed will stay wet, and I also added a few vegetable scraps to start prerotting, since black soldier fly larvae (like compost worms) need food partially broken down before they can eat it.  And then my favorite cousin-in-law also came bearing gifts --- coffee grounds, which one of our commenters reports makes a great food for black soldier fly larvae.  Hopefully this combination of materials will get our bin up and running in short order.  Stay tuned for many more updates in the near future.

If any other cousins-in-law are wondering how to make it into the favorite category, it's pretty simple.  Brave our moat and come visit!  Bearing biomass, of course....

Posted Fri Aug 1 06:36:40 2014 Tags:
Blue Heron spotted in flood plain

Usually when I see a blue heron it flies away before I can get a good look.

Today we had one visiting that seems to want to stay a while.

Posted Fri Aug 1 14:24:16 2014 Tags:

Cover cropsHere in zone 6, August is a critical time for cover crops.  Earlier in the year, I dabbled in soil improvement by planting buckwheat (and some sunflowers) into garden gaps.  But August is the month to plant oats and oilseed radishes for long-term soil improvement that will keep growing throughout late summer, fall, and early winter.

As a result, my big goal for August is to make a pass through the entire garden, not just weeding, but also seeding oats in any beds that have finished up their spring or summer crops and won't be needed during the fall and winter.  This job also takes those beds off my weeding plate until spring, which is always a great feeling during the busy summer months.

New garden bed
While I'm at it, I do a bit of terraforming.  This corner of the front garden has been designated excess space, and I plan to turn at least one row of it into high-density apples.  However, the beds in this area were laid out when I was very new to gardening, so the aisles are too narrow for even annual vegetable gardening.  They definitely won't provide space for our apple trees to grow.

The solution was to turn two long rows into one, laying down cardboard over the grassy aisle between them then shoveling the good topsoil from one bed over to widen the second bed.  Finally, I sprinkled oat seeds on top of both the bare soil in the new aisle and the new half of the old bed.  I'm sure our young apples will enjoy the enriched soil when they move in this coming winter or spring.

Posted Sat Aug 2 07:05:48 2014 Tags:
how much horse manure have we collected this year?

Last year at this time we nearly had all the worm bins full of horse manure.

We are trying to catch up to those levels this month, but so far I've only managed to haul enough to almost fill one bin.

Posted Sat Aug 2 14:46:34 2014 Tags:
Black soldier fly bin"How much chicken feed will [your black soldier fly bin] produce?  How many grubs are you expecting per week?  Will it be enough to be a substantial caloric addition or is this just for a treat?  Will this replace any supplements you may currently use?"

This is a good question, but the answer is a bit complicated.  As a starting point, the number of grubs you get from a unit like ours will depend on how much food you provide and on how well colonized your unit is.  Best-case scenario is that our six-gallon unit can handle 2 pounds of food scraps per day, which will be converted into 0.2 to 0.4 pounds of black soldier fly larvae per day.  Of course, if you don't do everything perfectly, you'll get less.

Mass Production of Beneficial Organisms: Invertebrates and Entomopathogens suggests that black soldier fly larvae (fresh, I think, but the table is a bit unclear) provide 1,994 calories per kilogram.  That would mean that our daily 0.2 to 0.4 pounds of black soldier fly larvae would provide 180 to 360 calories, equivalent to the daily energy needs of half to one chicken.

Pastured chicken flockBut that doesn't mean our bin will only feed half a chicken.  Protein makes up about 35% of the calories in black soldier fly larvae, meaning that you should consider the grubs to be more like soybeans than like the 16%-protein feed mixtures from the store.  Since soybeans often make up about a third of the weight of store-bought chicken feed, it's conceivable that our bin's daily output could equate to supplemental protein for 1.5 to 3 chickens.

But how do you work around having this supplemental protein source on hand?  You might get away with mixing one of these homemade layer feeds and simply substituting black soldier fly larvae for soybeans (figuring that a pound of dry roasted soybeans is equivalent to about 2.24 pounds of fresh black soldier fly larvae).  Or, on a smaller scale, you could simply provide your chickens with all the black soldier fly larvae you have available and then also provide an automatic feeder full of store-bought feed and another of grain so the chickens can lower the overall protein level of their diet (by eating more grain) as they see fit.

No matter how you figure it, having a high-protein, animal-based feed available for chickens should cut feed costs and improve the birds' health, along with boosting the nutritional density of the eggs and meat the chickens provide.  The real question will be --- is the positive impact greater than if we simply fed our food scraps to the chickens (as we currently do) instead of to the black soldier fly larvae?

Posted Sun Aug 3 08:18:27 2014 Tags:
best BSF bin?

Why did we choose this particular Black Soldier Fly container?

It was less than half the price of a BioPod, which seems like a good product, but we have a soft spot for the smaller homesteading business operation.

Maybe someone should compare each one side by side to see who can produce the most grubs? Of course you would have to put the exact same food scraps in each bin.

Posted Sun Aug 3 16:18:27 2014 Tags:
Meatball soup

The one thing I wished I'd done differently with our purchase of a quarter of a pastured cow was to ask for more stew beef.  I should have realized that most Americans would vastly prefer ground meat to stew meat, so nearly all of the tougher cuts showed up in our freezer ground.  But ground meat doesn't make a very good fit for adding protein to soup...unless you turn it into meat balls!

You can season your meatballs any way you want, but I decided this combination of flavors worked well with our tomato-based harvest-catch-all soups.  Ingredients include:

  • 1 pound of ground beef (low fat content is better)
  • 1 small egg (this is a great use for pullet eggs)
  • 0.25 cups of parmesan
  • 1 well-packed cup of fresh basil leaves
  • 1 to 3 cloves of garlic (depending on your taste buds)
  • salt and pepper

Meatball seasonings
If you're using a food processor, just throw a chunk of parmesan, the basil, and the garlic in and whir the ingredients around until they're cut into tiny pieces.  Otherwise, start by cutting up the basil, mincing the garlic, and grating the parmesan.  Either way, you next add the egg (I was making a double recipe in the photo above, thus the two pullet eggs instead of one) and the salt and pepper.  Wash your hands well, then turn the meat into the bowl with the seasonings and work them together until they're well mixed.

Frying meatballs
Roll out the meat mixture into small balls and set them on a plate in the fridge for half an hour for the flavors to meld.  Then heat a little bit of oil in a skillet over medium high heat and place the meatballs in the pan.  Once the bottoms begin to brown, turn the meatballs over and cook until the other side is brown as well.  (The meat in the center of the balls will still be uncooked at this point.)  Finally, make sure your pot of soup is at a gentle simmer and plop in the meatballs to finish cooking in the soup broth, a process that takes about ten more minutes.  Cut a meatball open to make sure the centers are brown before serving.

This recipe makes enough meatballs to add protein and oomph to 1.5 gallons of hearty soup if you're an average American.  Before I met Mark, I probably would have made the meatballs smaller and used this recipe for 3 gallons of soup; and before Mark met me, he probably would have doubled this recipe to use in 1.5 gallons of soup, so use your own judgment.  No matter which proportion you use, these meatballs will spice up your soup and turn it into a full meal!

Posted Mon Aug 4 07:40:45 2014 Tags:
Onion harvest 2014

Anna likes to push our basket carrying capacity a little past its normal limits.

Posted Mon Aug 4 15:36:48 2014 Tags:
Scarlet runner beans

I've been surprised by how much joy I've gotten out of flowers this year.  I always put the bare minimum amount of effort into non-edible plants, choosing the easiest annuals and perennials that survive lots of neglect.  Zinnias, sunflowers, touch-me-nots, and scarlet runner beans seem worth replanting using my lazy methods, and echinacea and bee balm have already survived years of neglect.

Red sunflower

From the perspective of the local wildlife, sunflowers are probably the top choice among my for-show flowers --- I definitely see more bugs there than on my other "useless" plants.  I've been enjoying the hummingbird who claimed our patch of scarlet runner beans, though --- she drops by multiple times a day and has been busy chasing off the competition.

Weed kill mulch

Part of the reason I've gotten so much bang for my buck from flowers this year is that I started a patch in front of the trailer where we can see the flowers from the couch and from the outdoor table.  So I'm dumping weeds along another section of the front porch this summer to give a little fertility to soil that will become flowers next year.  No, flowers aren't worth wasting cardboard on, but this lazy kill mulch will do its job pretty well anyway.

I'm curious to hear from other similarly lazy flower gardeners.  Which species make the cut among your low-work annuals and perennials?

Posted Tue Aug 5 07:57:37 2014 Tags:
how many bales of straw will fit into a Chevy S-10 truck?

The driveway was dry enough today to drive in a truckload of straw.

How many bales can you fit into a Chevy S-10 truck?

We got 10 bales today for 57.50.

Posted Tue Aug 5 15:51:30 2014 Tags:

Sprinkler repairWe really depend on our pulsating sprinklers to turn dirty creek water into a well-hydrated garden.  So when one starts acting up, we rush to fix it.

The easiest problems are when the sprinklers clog (often from algae growing in the hoses), but this issue has been much less frequent since Mark removed the filters.  More often (now that the sprinklers are aging), we have to deal with sprinklers that get stuck.  Water keeps flowing out, but the pulsating action isn't enough to push the sprinkler head around in its little circle.  Sometimes, greasing the sprinkler helps, but this week, two rounds of grease failed to have any impact on the sprinkler shown above.

Wire sprinkler fixAs I growled and moaned at my sick sprinkler, I realized that if I placed my thumb where the moving piece at the back of the sprinkler hits the solid piece, the sprinkler would run normally.  Perhaps the sprinkler had just come slightly out of true (or had worn down the metal that the moving piece is supposed to hit on)?  Twisting a piece of wire around that stationary piece to emulate where my thumb had been sitting was enough to get the sprinkler running normally again.  My pride at doing Mark-style troubleshooting knew no bounds!

Of course, the wire isn't a long-term fix, since the action of the sprinkler tends to bend it out of true.  We can upgrade to a heavier piece of wire, but perhaps those of you familiar with this type of sprinkler can tell me what's really wrong based on the description above.  Is there something I can adjust to bring back our sprinkler's charmed youth?

Posted Wed Aug 6 07:02:43 2014 Tags:
loading tiller into back of truck

We decided to get rid of this old Statesman tiller we never use anymore.

Why did we stop using it?

Because the soil in a no-till garden looks, feels, and smells a whole lot better.

Posted Wed Aug 6 15:06:35 2014 Tags:
Ripening blueberries

Berries are much simpler than tree fruit.  At least in our climate, the former are less prone to bug and disease problems, and many berry bushes start fruiting when they're a year or less old.  But berries do have two major problems --- picking time and bird predation.  People are always asking me how we keep birds out of our berries, and the truth is that we'd never had much of a problem...until this year.

This spring, the blue jays were so bad amid our strawberries that I'll admit I shot at them to get the family to move out of the yard.  It's illegal to kill a blue jay without a permit from the game warden, but you can scare the birds off with frequent shots into your strawberry patch.  I was very relieved when the jays moved on, leaving the rest of the berries for me.

Pecked blueberrySo when our blueberries started getting eaten, I thought perhaps the corvids were once again at fault.  Nope.  Mild-mannered cardinals were responsible for pecking each ripening fruit just before it became 100% sweet, ruining the flesh that they didn't consume.

At this busier time of year, Mark and I didn't have time to put much energy into the bird problem, so we waited...and it went away.  No, the cardinals didn't stop dining, but the heavier-bearing bushes began ripening their fruits, and there were soon so many blueberries present that the birds couldn't really put a dent in the harvest.

My conclusion is that, short of a voracious family like this spring's blue jays, your best bet is simply to overplant berries so that you can share with the birds.  Yes, you can rig up some kind of bird deterrent or build a frame to cover with netting, but isn't it easier just to double your planting and dine with the cardinals?

Posted Thu Aug 7 07:36:12 2014 Tags:
getting the truck stuck

We got the truck stuck in the worst possible place yesterday.

It's bottoming out on our row of carefully placed cinder blocks.

Pulling it backward and forward didn't work today.


Posted Thu Aug 7 15:49:00 2014 Tags:
Overmature summer squash

One of our readers asked what we do with excess summer squash.  We definitely have a lot of it, since I succession plant to beat the bugs and thus put in far more squash plants than we really need.  We've tried drying or freezing the excess, but neither option seemed very palatable when we broke back into our winter stores.  So, currently, I just pull out old vines once the new ones start producing and eat what we want in the interim.

Cutting up squashEven using that method, there are still lots of big squash that get away from us.  So when I remove vines, I select half a dozen of the darkest-orange squash from various plants to sit on the porch for a month and then be broken open to provide next year's seeds.  After that, the rest of the squash go to the chickens.

If you watch your flock, you'll discover that they're not so interested in cucurbit flesh (although they will eat it if they haven't had many other vegetables lately).  What the birds really want, instead, is the fresh seeds.  Unfortunately, big squash like the ones I earmark for chickens have skins too tough for the birds to peck through, but that's easily fixed by whacking away at the squash with a shovel until each fruit has popped open to expose the more nutritionally-dense morsels inside.  This same method is pretty effective at moving overripe cucumbers back into the food chain too.

Fly on squashEach chicken will only consume the seeds from maybe half or one large squash per day, but I'm hoping my wheelbarrowful will get eaten before the fruits entirely rot away.  I came back a couple of hours after dumping the squash in the chicken pasture and saw several fruits hollowed out, but also lots Yellow Soldier Flies (Ptecticus trivittatus) circling over the squash, some mating and presumably laying their eggs in the squash flesh.  Does anyone know if Yellow Soldier Flies can be raised in the same bins as Black Soldier Flies?

Side note about soldier flies aside, what should you do with your squash if you don't have chickens?  Today is Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night --- go celebrate!

Posted Fri Aug 8 07:29:33 2014 Tags:
Stove conversion parts

We appreciated everyone's educated feedback about our natural-gas-to-propane stove-conversion project.

It turns out the stove's previous owner wasn't as well informed.

Using the manual, we flipped the pressure regulator from natural gas to propane.  But when we removed the orifices, we discovered that the burners had already been converted over.  ("L" on the orifice refers to LP, commonly known as propane.)

Perhaps the improper conversion is why the stove was being sold cheap?

Posted Fri Aug 8 15:01:02 2014 Tags:
Black soldier fly starter kit

Although I probably would have gone with the wait-and-see approach, Mark opted to spend an extra $20 on some black-soldier-fly eggs to get our bin off to a faster start.  This was probably a good idea since summer is already waning and we'd like to get some data on the composting experiment before winter.

Yellow Soldier FlyMeanwhile, an expert over at provided some information on the yellow soldier flies that I posted about yesterday.  Fly expert Martin Hauser noted: " While [the black soldier fly] eats literally everything (it is used in organic waste disposal), [the yellow soldier fly] develops also in my compost pile, but they clearly prefer rotten fruit."  It sounds like if we had enough excess squash and other semi-sweet morsels, we could expand our bin's capacity with this second species too.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if yellow soldier flies end up laying eggs in many black-soldier-fly bins undetected.

Posted Sat Aug 9 07:26:54 2014 Tags:
Sunflower closeup

In a perfect world our chickens would get most of the sunflower seeds we grow, but the local bird population usually takes a major chunk before the seeds get a chance to finish drying.

Posted Sat Aug 9 14:53:10 2014 Tags:
Homes without hands

Mom brought me this 140-year-old book yesterday, and I've been pondering it ever since.  Books like this always feel like an opportunity, but I generally end up asking myself, "An opportunity for what?"

Harvest mouse nestThe illustrations are beautiful...but the text is really only interesting to folks who are intrigued by both nature and history and thus don't mind mentally translating captions like "hive bee" into "honey bee."  There is a print-on-demand version of the title available on Amazon already, but the book's lack of ranking within the store means it's probably never been purchased.

My mind wanders through various scenarios for bringing the heart of this book back into the public eye.  I could hire someone to scan every image and simply write a quick summary of the nest to go with each picture.  Or I could think outside the box and turn it into a children's story since the author's theme (animal nests) is very age-appropriate.

I've gone through similar mental perambulations over more homesteading-related titles, and always ended up veering away because I have a hard time figuring out which books are really in the public domain and up for grabs.  Robert Plamondon does an excellent job bringing old farm-related titles back into print, so perhaps I should leave the job to him.  But it's hard to turn down opportunities when they stare me in the face so prettily....  Ideas?

Posted Sun Aug 10 07:13:47 2014 Tags:
star plate roof update

The 28 inch flashing material is keeping the coop dry.

One of the rolls is discolored a bit, but it seems to be fine.

I'm guessing it's some kind of coating material that was different when we got the second roll.

Posted Sun Aug 10 15:21:03 2014 Tags:
New comb

A couple of weeks ago, I opted to super (rather than nadir) our larger warre hive.  If you're interested, you'll want to follow that link for more on the pros and cons, but since I wrote my original post, I've realized there's one more major disadvantage to the action.  Supering the hive makes it impossible to guess what's going on inside using a simple photograph up through the screened bottom rather than using an invasive search through the boxes.

In contrast, I nadired the smaller hive three weeks ago, which has allowed me to keep a close eye on the bees' progress.  The sourwood started petering out soon thereafter and the "yellow flowers" (as my beekeeping mentor refers to wingstem, woodland sunflowers, goldenrod, etc.) have only barely started up.  So I wasn't surprised to see that that daughter colony has just now begun to build the first piece of new comb in its third box.

Bottom of a warre hive

With 20/20 hindsight, I'm now figuring that the smarter tack when choosing to super a warre hive is to add two boxes at the same time, figuring any empty space can be deleted when I delve back into the hive to collect honey.  And I think there's a good chance we will be harvesting honey from our mother hive this year since sources on the internet suggest that two warre-hive boxes (one of honey and one of brood) are sufficient to keep a colony going through the winter months unless you live in the far north.  We currently have at least three full boxes on that hive, with the super being the wild card that could bring us up to four.

Since I don't want to repeat last year's disaster of removing brood when I thought I was removing honey, I'll be waiting until mid to late September to steal the sweet stores.  At that point, the queen should have moved down lower into the hive and left the honey unaldulterated in the top box or two, making robbing relatively painless.

It's been a long wait to get significant honey from our warre hives, and I can see how that could turn many apiarists off the method.  On the other hand, either the hive or the chemical-free bees we put into them have resulted in at least one colony that seems able to survive without chemical intervention.  Here's hoping the daughter hive will be just as vigorous, surviving the winter and perhaps giving us a honey harvest in 2015.

Posted Mon Aug 11 07:38:39 2014 Tags:
how to find an ATV fuel leak?

Our ATV developed a fuel leak recently.

A visual inspection revealed what looked like a spot where it was dripping and clearing away mud, and above that was a hose clamp that needed tightening.

The plan is to add a small amount of fuel with newspaper spread out underneath to see if the leak is fixed.

Posted Mon Aug 11 15:43:57 2014 Tags:
Mulching with ragweed

It's ragweed week around here.  Even though Mark went through a couple of months ago and tried to rip up all of the small ragweed within our core homestead, some plants slipped through his net.  Now that the massive plants are getting ready to bloom, it's time to go through with the loppers and cut each one down so we don't have thousands of new plants next year.  The "chore" becomes much more fun when I realize I can easily load all that awesome biomass into the green wagon and use it to top off a kill mulch for next year's high-density apples.

Deer-nibbled ragweed

Meanwhile, out in the starplate pastures, I'm leaving the ragweed alone.  I figure that anything willing to grow in that poor soil will only add much-needed organic matter to the ground, and if the ragweed plants spread their seeds widely, we can just mow down the offspring when it's time to turn the area back into pasture.  In the interim, ragweed acts as a very good deer-monitoring tool since the plants are very tasty to ungulates at three to five feet tall.  Weeds like the one shown above are a sign that the deer are busy munching in that pasture --- yet another reason not to plant apple trees there until our fencing is 100% complete.

Posted Tue Aug 12 07:49:03 2014 Tags:
Clarity De-fog field test

Fogged up safety glasses have always been a problem for me on humid days.

Some days I need to stop weed eating every 10 minutes to clear the fog.

Today I tried something called Clarity Defog it wipes. Wipe the inside of your glasses and say goodbye to fogged up lenses. Not sure how long it will last. I put my used wipe in an airtight container after I opened the sealed foil.

Posted Tue Aug 12 15:39:54 2014 Tags:
Rainy garden

Bouts of cool, rainy weather prompt our asparagus to send up new spears, even if it is August instead of April.  In the past, I've left these late-summer asparagus spears alone, but this week I started wondering how much energy late spears will really sock away for spring.  Our asparagus patches are already covered with forests of fronds, and there are only two months of growing time left before frost (with the days getting shorter and cooler August asparagusall the time).  So I opted to pick a handful of August spears to tempt our jaded summer palate. 

If you really want a late-summer harvest of asparagus, the official method is to plant two beds --- one for spring and one for fall.  In the fall bed, you don't harvest any spears when they first come up, letting the plant put all of its energy into frond production.  Then, in July or August, you lop down all the tops and enjoy the new spears that come up in their place.

We have so many vegetables to choose from at this time of year that it doesn't seem worth setting aside asparagus beds just for a fall harvest.  But a stolen spear here or there never hurt anyone....

Posted Wed Aug 13 07:13:29 2014 Tags:
how to prevent birds from eating sunflower seeds

We're trying reader Faith T's comment on using a shopping bag to block birds.

I cut some holes at the bottom which might help to prevent molding.

Doing it side by side with an unprotected flower should be a fair test.

Posted Wed Aug 13 14:36:24 2014 Tags:
Tomato seedlings

About a week after applying humanure around the base of our kiwi plants, I figured out a minor flaw --- the compost is chock full of tomato seeds.  When I cook tomatoes into soups and sauces, I leave the skins and seeds in, and apparently the human digestive tract doesn't bother the seeds at all.  Since tomatoes are a large proportion of our winter diet, the result is a forest of seedlings everywhere I laid down humanure in the garden.

I'll let all of the tomato seeds sprout, then if they seem to be growing too fast, I'll let Mark whack them down with the weedeater.  In future, it might be smart to apply humanure just a few weeks before the first frost --- long enough to get the seeds to sprout before winter naturally kills them off.

Posted Thu Aug 14 07:15:49 2014 Tags:
processing garlic on the porch

Cut the tops and bottoms off. Sort according to size.

Save the big ones to plant again.

Yes...we used the stalks as an addition to the ragweed mulch.

Posted Thu Aug 14 15:47:38 2014 Tags:

The last time I thought we had a copperhead in the yard, it turned out to be a water snake.  And this time, once again, I'm ashamed to say I stole half an hour of Mark's morning and tied up our free-range dog for what I was positive was a copperhead.  Only to discover, upon closer Snake under cardboardexamination of the photos, that our reptile turns out to be...a water snake.

The snake in question was hiding under some cardboard that I'd used to mulch between our blueberry bushes.  I ran out of tree leaves this spring and opted to just weigh the cardboard down with branches, which did a pretty good job keeping weeds down to a dull roar, but which seems to have mimicked a snake's preferred napping spot --- a cavity under a rock.  In hopes of growing some of my own mulch, I was out in the morning cool Thursday moving cardboard closer around the bases of the blueberries and sprinkling oat seeds in between, and I nearly patted this guy on the back before I knew he was present.

Moving a snake

Luckily for me, snakes are slow in cool weather, and this snake was the least aggressive water snake I've ever met.  Despite quite a bit of wiggling the hoe around, trying to get the snake to slither into a bucket for relocation, the snake only (finally) tried to strike when Mark took over the tool and got more aggressive at the snake-capturing campaign.  In the end, our visitor slithered away into the weeds and disappeared from view without seriously trying to bite anyone.

In retrospect, I'm not sure there's really much point in trying to capture and move a snake, even if it really is poisonous.  As Mark pointed out, we could have half a dozen around the yard without knowing it due to how skittish most snakes seem to be.  I just need to remember the basic farm rule --- when lifting something like that piece of cardboard, always lift away from you rather than toward you and assume there's a poisonous snake underneath.  (But do check the snake book one last time before calling in reinforcements since 67% of our copperhead sightings seem to turn into water snakes in the light of day....)

Posted Fri Aug 15 07:19:47 2014 Tags:
ATV repair manual

This Clymer ATV repair manual is a little expensive at just over 30 dollars but pays for itself when it guides you to fixing a problem.

Almost 500 pages of impressive technical details seems to cover just about any problem that might happen, along with a comprehensive troubleshooting section that can often save huge amounts of time.

It's already helped me twice by pointing out a quirk in the way oil is added to a Polaris 700 ATV. The other way was recently when I used the fuel system diagram to track down a leak.

Posted Fri Aug 15 15:42:26 2014 Tags:
Homesteading notecards

Years ago, I made notecards out of my watercolor paintings, and I've been using those cards for letter-writing ever since.  But the inevitable finally happened --- I ran out!  Rather than buying someone else's notecards to fill in the gap, I figured, why not make up some Walden Effect cards to spread the word instead?

Fall notecards

Pumpkin notecardI chose four fun images for fall, then printed 65 of each, enough for me and my mom to use, with some to give away and sell.  If the response is good, I'll even choose another round of homesteading images in a few months and do a winter series to match these fall images, but I won't be reprinting the fall set, so act now if you'd like a copy!

If you want some pumpkins and simplicity quotes to brighten your day, you can buy sets of four or sixteen notecards (which come with envelopes and shipping included, even numbers of each design), or you can enter the giveaway at the bottom of this post to win free packages of four cards.  (As a side note, if you live outside the U.S., you can enter the giveaway, but will need to email me if you'd like to buy notecards.  I haven't figured out what international shipping costs would be yet, but I don't think they'll be too much.)

4 notecards --- $6

16 notecards --- $18
Hay notecard

We'll be giving away sets of four notecards to three different winners next week, and if we get more than 100 entries, we'll add another winner for every 50 entries.  So tell your friends and use the widget below to enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Posted Sat Aug 16 06:08:34 2014 Tags:
mark Alpha cat?
alpha cat ledge

How can you tell which cat is the Alpha cat in a group?

In our group Huckleberry only sits on the prime roosting spot when Strider is off somewhere doing his normal activities. If Strider comes back and it's occupied he just takes it without even a dirty look from Huckleberry.

Posted Sat Aug 16 15:36:40 2014 Tags:
Solar watches

Back in 2003 when my previous watch died, I decided I wanted a watch that would really go the distance.  With my usual supreme unconcern for aesthetics, I chose the huge specimen shown on the right above, and that watch has served me very well.  Between waterproofness, shock resistance, solar battery charging, and automatically setting the time every night using something I can't recall (radio waves from Texas?), I haven't had to deal with watch issues in over a decade.

But all good things must come to an end.  The battery inside my beauty finally stopped accepting a charge a few months ago, and I decided to buy a new watch rather than a new battery.  Over the last decade, due to Mark's hard work to smooth down the edges of my type-A personality, I've stopped wearing a watch every day and instead simply use my time piece to check the hour if I wake up at night, to jerk me out of sleep once or twice a year when I can't wake at my normal pace, and to monitor how long we've been rubbing rocks when counting stream macroinvertebrates.  I do like the solar feature of my old watch since longevity is always a boon, but since I rarely take watches out in the field now, I'm willing to bypass the extreme waterproofing and shock resistance.  I'm even willing to set my watch twice a year to take care of daylight savings time the hard way.

Despite that willingness to downgrade, I put off buying a replacement watch for months.  I remember my old watch was pretty pricey (although I don't recall the exact figure), and I wasn't sure I was willing to spend so much again.  But apparently solar technology has come down considerably in the last decade.  A simple solar watch now costs under $10 even after you factor in shipping!  At that price, and with such good reviews, Mark said he wanted one too.  Here's hoping my second solar watch will last another 11 years, not just the 6 years promised by the manufacturer.

Posted Sun Aug 17 07:03:52 2014 Tags:
40 volt battery powered chainsaw review

Anna has been researching battery powered chainsaws and somehow arranged for the nice people at Oregon tools to send us a complimentary review chainsaw to drive around the block a few times.

The first test will have to wait till the massive 40 volt battery charges up.

Stay tuned to see how long the battery lasts and what kinds of firewood it can handle.

Posted Sun Aug 17 16:19:34 2014 Tags:
Full chest freezer

I knew when we bought our quarter of a cow that we might run out of freezer space as a result, and the inevitable has finally happened.  Pastured beef, homegrown chicken, some strawberry jam and leather, plus 22 gallons of various vegetables equates to a freezer nearly full to the brim.  What's next?

If it were September instead of August, I'd say, "Time to rest on my laurels and prepare for winter!"  But the garden is still overflowing, and we should have at least a bushel apiece left of beans, corn, and tomatoes coming in over the next few weeks.  In a pinch, I can give some away, but we always wish we had more summer bounty come spring, so I'd prefer to preserve at least a few more gallons of warm-weather food.

The obvious solutions to round out our preservation campaign are canning and drying.  If I limit myself to plain tomatoes, canning is easiest since I can use the hot-water-bath method, but I'm tempted to brush off the pressure canner we bought years ago as a backup to the freezer and try my hand at canning soup.  Alternatively, I could dry tomatoes, which is a bit more nitpicky but is cooler since the heat source is outside rather than right in our living area.  And, if I were brave, maybe I'd even try my hand at drying corn and beans?

What do you do when you run out of room in the freezer and still have food in the garden?  (Don't say "Buy a pig!")

Posted Mon Aug 18 07:30:28 2014 Tags:
fixing the nest box on a chicken tractor

The bottom of our chicken tractor nest box collapsed this weekend.

After fixing it this morning I made a holder for a 2 gallon chicken bucket waterer.

Posted Mon Aug 18 16:05:19 2014 Tags:
Cover crop seeds

Even though I'm quite happy with my current cover-crop campaign (explained in depth in Homegrown Humus), there are some gaps I want to fill in both the book and in my own protocols.  Time for an experiment!

Part of this year's cover-crop experiment is going to take place off-farm.  As with any gardening book, Homegrown Humus is largely based on my own experiences, which means that people who live far away may have slightly different results.  So I tracked down ten readers scattered across the U.S. who were willing to accept free packs of cover-crop seeds in exchange for putting my experiments at work in their own gardens.  Seed packages went in the mail last week for folks living in zone 5 and colder, while everyone else's seeds will be mailed out tomorrow.  I'm really looking forward to learning how buckwheat and sunflowers do during "cold" months in the Deep South and how oats, oilseed radishes, and fava beans fare all over.

Fava bean seeds
"Fava beans?" you may be saying.  "You haven't mentioned that cover crop before."  Very astute of you!  In fact, fava beans are the other part of this year's cover-crop experiment --- trying out a new species for our farm.  I've read a lot about fava-bean cover crops on permaculture blogs, but the legume seems to be hardy primarily in zones 7 and warmer.  Since we live in zone 6 (and sometimes have nearly zone-5 winters due to our north-facing hillside), I figured fava beans were out of our league.  But why not push the envelope?

To that end, I soaked Windsor fava bean seeds for speedy germination, then planted 0.625 pounds in several different locations around the farm.  Soon I'll know if fava beans are worth the high seed price ($12.75 per pound once you factor in shipping), whether they can handle clayey soil, whether they will survive in waterlogged ground, and whether they do well when mixed with oats and oilseed radishes.  Stay tuned for updates!

Do you want to be part of future experiments?  I usually post this type of opportunity to our facebook page, but even if you're already a fan, facebook might not be showing you our updates.  Be sure to click the like button at the bottom of our posts when you notice them if you want to be sure to see them on your news feed in the future!

Posted Tue Aug 19 07:32:05 2014 Tags:
oregon battery powered chainsaw

We tried out the new Oregon battery powered chainsaw today.

I was very impressed with the power. We cut down a medium sized walnut tree with no problem. We also cut up some small pieces for an upcoming Rocket Stove experiment

It's nice to not need ear protection.

Posted Tue Aug 19 16:09:33 2014 Tags:
Battery-powered chainsaw

When Mark's gas-powered chainsaw died after only a couple of years of use, I decided to see if there were any battery-powered chainsaws out there.  It turns out that quite a few battery-powered saws are starting to look like possibilities for homesteaders who just need to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.  Is a battery-powered chainsaw a good option for us (and for homesteaders like us?).

While attempting to answer that question, I came across many pros and cons for battery-powered versus gas chainsaws.  The major disadvantage of battery-powered chainsaws is that they're not quite up to handling the same extreme cutting conditions that gas-powered saws are.  Most reviews of even the best battery-powered chainsaws suggest that cutting trees more than 9 to 12 inches in diameter (depending on the hardness of the wood) might stress your saw, and you'll need to be pretty careful with maintaining chain sharpness to get even that level of cutting.  Similarly, you can't cut all day with a battery-powered saw since the battery usually gives out after an hour or two, and, in the long run, replacement batteries usually cost over a hundred bucks once the cell stops accepting a charge.  (Of course, Da Pimp might extend that battery life considerably.)

Assembling an Oregon chainsaw

On the other hand, battery-powered saws have a major appeal for folks like us who wouldn't usually be cutting for more than a couple of hours at a time anyway.  There's the quietness factor --- not only are battery-powered saws silent when not cutting, they're much quieter than a gas-powered chainsaw even when zipping through wood.  We'd never have to fight those ornery pull starters (that always seem to get harder and harder to pull as a gas-powered saw ages), and maintenance in general is likely to be much simpler with a battery model.  Homesteaders who go for months without cutting won't need to be as worried about their saws if they opt for battery-powered versions since there's no fuel to go bad, and battery-powered saws probably cause less overall pollution than a typical two-stroke gas saw.  Finally, a battery saw definitely feels safer since the motor isn't running at all as you move between areas to cut.

Is the pleasantness factor worth the lack of power?  We received a review saw from Oregon to see if we can answer that question.  Stay tuned for a bunch of posts from Mark as he experiments with our trial saw, and for a later post from me explaining how we narrowed down the battery-powered chainsaw choices out there.  In a few weeks, I hope that we'll be able to tell you whether or not a battery-powered chainsaw is worth the expense for homesteaders.

Posted Wed Aug 20 08:03:52 2014 Tags:
how to modify an old military Chinese hand cranked generator?

An old hand cranked Chinese military generator found its way back to us recently. (More on those details tomorrow.)

It was designed to power Army radios in the field. Cutting the 4 pin cable reveals black, red, and white wires. The red and white wires equal 30 regulated volts at 1 amp and the red and black outputs 25 regulated volts at 2 amps.

I'm surprised at how little effort it takes to create 12 to 15 volts. The first experiment I want to do is hook up an additional voltage regulator/charge controller to try charging a golf cart battery.

Posted Wed Aug 20 15:57:21 2014 Tags:
Homesteading gear

It turns out that a like-minded neighbor was living a mere half mile down the road from us all this time, and we only learned the extent of our similarities when she got ready to move away.  For health reasons, our neighbor is having to return to her home state, and she decided that much of her homesteading gear wasn't worth shipping south.  Did we want a rocket stove, hand-cranked generator, solar oven (with one broken pane), and much more?  Definitely!

Sun pantry drying rack

I'm most excited about experimenting with the rocket stove and the solar oven, while the Chinese military-issue generator from 1972 tops Mark's list.  However, what I actually used first was an item I thought wouldn't be much use to us here.  A simple wooden rack of drying trays makes sense if you live in a climate where the humidity doesn't often hover around 80%, but if we tried to dry food in such a device without building a solar dehydrator around it, we'd just grow mold.

Still, when I realized I'd picked too much basil for my current batch of pesto, I thought --- maybe the simple drying setup would work for herbs?  I filled the four trays with basil, oregano, chives, and Egyptian onions and will report back in a few weeks once I discover which, if any, dry quickly enough to maintain their flavor in our wet climate.

A huge thank you to our soon-to-be-ex neighbor for sharing the bounty with us!

Posted Thu Aug 21 07:19:08 2014 Tags:
Strider posing with new fixed spatula

Our good spatula broke in two. I tried gluing it once, but it didn't hold for long.

It works okay like this...but we lost a pastured beef meatball last week due to it separating.

Today I got lucky with drilling a hole through both the plastic and metal and securing it with some found hardware. With any luck this will put an end to any future meatball casualties.

Posted Thu Aug 21 15:58:45 2014 Tags:
Ripening hazelnut

Nuts are notorious for taking a long time to bear.  For most species, you probably shouldn't expect a harvest for at least a decade, and during that time nut trees may spread to cover an area fifty feet in diameter.  So it's no surprise that many homesteaders instead turn to the bush growth habit and relatively fast bearing nature of the hazel.

Of course, "relatively fast" isn't exactly speedy.  Almost five years after planting, our unnamed hybrid hazel variety from the Arbor Day Foundation is finally starting to take off, and I was excited to see both male and female flowers on the bush this spring.  I'd thought the latter dropped off, but closer inspection this week turned up a few developing fruits nearly hidden amid the foliage.  Since only one of the three bushes I originally planted survived, this bush is either self-pollinated or (more likely) the wild hazels about a hundred feet away in the woods provided enough pollen for everybody.  No matter who the nuts' daddy is, I'm excited to think that we'll get to taste our first homegrown hazels this year after all!

Hazel bush

Despite our bush's slow initial growth, it has proven itself able to handle waterlogged soil, as is evidenced by the "pond" in the photo above, which is actually a pit I dug to gauge groundwater levels and to elevate the surrounding soil.  Unfortunately, the two named varieties I planted in the starplate pasture this spring have been less resilient in the face of heavy deer pressure.  Only one of the two bushes has survived and I recently decided that the hazel would probably do better if transplanted into the safety of our core homestead close to its cousin.  In fact, I might even dig the little survivor up now rather than waiting for the usual transplanting season (after the leaves fall) since I'm not sure how much plant will be left after a few more months of deer grazing.

Rambling aside, the purpose of this post is really to tell my father to go check on his hazel bush.  Yes, you think it's never born fruit, but I had to look really, really close to see the developing nuts on my bush, so yours might have them as well.  Or you can wait a few more weeks until the husks turn brown and look less like leaves, at which point I suspect the nuts will be more evident.

Posted Fri Aug 22 07:20:52 2014 Tags:

Kefir grains
Brandy is the original source of my kefir grains, and she's been experimenting with wild fermentation for much longer than I have.  So I was thrilled when she offered to share a bit about her experiences...along with a free starter culture for one lucky winner.  Scroll to the bottom of this post to enter the giveaway, but be sure to read Brandy's tips too.  (And don't forget that you've still got a few hours left to enter our notecard giveaway!)


Kefir ice cream sandwichIt's been more than five years since my kefir grains arrived in the mail, packed in a small zippered bag and looking all squished. I don't think I knew what was ahead then, that it would be the one thing I'd keep up with through good times and bad, through morning sickness and two new babies. My kefir grains have traveled, too. After sharing them with dear local friends, they've been packed up and shipped all over the country. I'm still just as excited about kefir as I was when they arrived, so I thought I'd compile some of my thoughts and favorite recipes.

Kefir biscuitsI got the grains on a whim, thinking it would be fun to try them out. I'd had some serious antibiotics a few months before and I was not feeling all that great. I started by making berry and peach smoothies and putting the kefir into biscuits. I'm still doing that, and more. I haven't bought buttermilk in years and I don't really buy much yogurt since Anna enlightened me on the differences. My stomach feels so much stronger, too.

Kefir makes a wonderful substitute for buttermilk, even for those who enjoy buttermilk plain, and adds a lovely leavening kick to quick breads. We put it in waffles, pancakes, biscuits, smoothies, cobblers, coffee cakes, anywhere that buttermilk would normally go. I've even used kefir cottage cheese in place of ricotta in lasagna! My mother, who is gluten-free, enjoys kefir as a way to add a yeasty taste to wheat-free baked goods. All this is making me hungry, let's get to some recipes! Kefir smoothies

Fluffy Kefir Biscuits
Kefir Cottage Cheese
Vanilla Kefir Ice Cream
Kefir Cream Cheese
Long-Fermented Sourdough Biscuits
My simple kefir tutorial


If those recipes sound good, you can get started on kefir in your own kitchen.  Enter the giveaway using the widget below for a chance to win a starter culture, or buy your own for just $10 (plus $5 shipping) in Brandy's etsy store.  Enjoy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Fri Aug 22 12:00:53 2014 Tags:
Chicken tractor predator protection

"Do you have problems with raccoons?  My neighbor has tried chickens for almost 10 years and every single time except this last time (when it turns out the "hens" were roosters. Oy!) raccoons figured out how to get into the chicken tractor (which is really very well built) and EAT them.  Got any suggestions?" --- Nayan

It's tough to make a chicken tractor light enough to pull and still strong enough to keep out predators.  The photo above shows how Kayla used movable screens to keep a hawk from reaching through the mesh into her chicken tractor.

We recommend not trying to beef up your tractor to keep out raccoons.  Instead, keep your chicken tractor very close to home (and get a good dog, if possible) to scare any potential predators away.

With raccoons, it's also handy to make sure your birds eat any kitchen scraps very quickly.  We learned the hard way that raccoons will come for scraps and stay to eat your chickens.  Better a flock that only eats store-bought feed and grass than birds with a more diverse diet who end up in a raccoon's belly.

Posted Fri Aug 22 16:57:22 2014 Tags:
Canned goods

Ripening tomatoes"You know, my parents' house used to be a trailer," Kayla mentioned after I posted about looking for a few more trailersteaders to profile in the upcoming print edition of Trailersteading.  It turns out that her family home is an elegant example of turning a mobile home into a beautiful and functional living space...but you'll have to wait to read about that in the book.

Bed turned bench

Still, I can't resist sharing some highlights from my tour.  From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I was taken by the canned goods that Kayla and her mother have stocked away in their pantry (including lots of pickles from our cucurbit overflow).  And aren't ripening tomatoes always beautiful?
Silverware wind chimes
More functionally, some of you might want to follow the family's lead and turn a yard-sale bed into a beautiful bench like the one shown above.  Just use the headboard for the back and cut the footboard in two to create the sides.  Kayla's mom decided to make her own bench after seeing a similar one selling for $150; in contrast, her version cost only about $10 to produce.

On a similarly crafty note, I was so taken by the harmonious sound of Kayla's silverware wind chimes that I traded a chicken waterer for a set to take home.  When I first saw photos of these wind chimes, I expected them to be a bit tinny like the cheap chimes you can get from big box stores, but I was very wrong!  Want a set of your own?  Kayla has four more already made and up for sale in her Etsy store.

Thanks so much for letting me invade your home and take photos, Kayla and Alice!

Posted Sat Aug 23 07:41:09 2014 Tags:
goats from chicken cam

I've looked at a lot of chicken cam set ups over the years and have not been impressed with any until I found Terry Golson's

What's it take to keep 4 live streaming cameras going in a barnyard environment
? Terry's husband does an excellent job explaining the not so easy IT details that make such a project possible.

They've also got goats to keep their flock of over a dozen chickens entertained.

Posted Sat Aug 23 16:23:26 2014 Tags:
Scarlet runner beans

I'm intrigued by the potential of the scarlet runner beans I'm growing for the first time this year.  I planted them for quick shade along the south face of the trailer while the perennial vines get established, but I was soon taken by the way the orange-red flowers attract hummingbirds (plus bumblebees, butterflies, and other insects).  And now I'm wondering whether biomass production might not really be scarlet runner beans' primary selling point.

Seven weeks ago"Those plants are like annual kudzu!" I told Mark at lunch yesterday, and he asked me why I was being so mean to the beans.  But, the truth is, I was paying them a compliment.  If the species wasn't the scourge of the South, kudzu would have a lot going for it from a permaculture perspective due to its ability to fix nitrogen, to thrive in poor soil, and to grow extremely quickly.  Scarlet runner beans seem to share many of the same traits, as you can see by comparing the two photos above --- the top picture was taken this weekend while the second photo is from only seven weeks earlier.  Since scarlet runner beans are annuals instead of perennials, they can put out this crazy amount of weekly growth with much less risk of the beans taking over the world.

Cover crop polyculture

Since our soil is getting richer by the year, meaning we can grow more food in less space, I've been tossing around ideas for what to do with the freed up growing room.  One big goal is to grow more of our own compost and mulch.  To that end, I'm experimenting with some plants that I wouldn't quite call cover crops since they don't out-compete weeds, but which might mix together to make a prime compost pile.

Insects on bean flowersThe photo above shows this summer's experiment of sunflowers and sorghum, with oilseed radish planted around the roots of the left-hand bed for weed control.  Perhaps the relatively woody stems of sunflowers will combine with the high-nitrogen vines of scarlet runner beans to create good compost?  As a lazy gardener, I'd love it if the compost could be made in place --- just toss the plant carcasses on top of a garden bed in the fall and let them rot into compost by spring while shading out weeds in the process.

It seems like I've always got exciting cover crop experiments in the works.  That's the sign of a geeky gardener --- she's drawn to the buckwheat being grown for soil improvement before she takes a look at your tomatoes.

Posted Sun Aug 24 08:02:01 2014 Tags:
how to mount a ceiling fan on a slanted roof

We recently decided our front porch would be a good place for a small ceiling fan.

How do you install a ceiling fan on a slanted roof?

Level the ceiling fan mounting kit at the opposite angle before securing it.

Posted Sun Aug 24 16:21:16 2014 Tags:
Honeybee on Joe Pye Weed

The bees haven't managed to do any extra comb-building this week, as evidenced by a photo up through the bottom of the daughter hive.  Sure, there are scads of flowers available at the moment, but bees can't fly when it's raining every day.  Luckily, both of Worker beesour colonies have socked away so much honey that they could probably coast until winter if they had to.

Honey is on my mind because this is the time of year to start thinking about the hives' winter survival.  But survival through the cold months doesn't just mean honey stores.  Varroa mites can be a huge drain on a hive's resources in the winter, and the populations sometimes balloon in late summer and early fall.  So I like to do a mite check in August, another in September, and one more in October just to make sure the colonies are on track.  Our two hives passed with flying colors during this first round --- the daughter hive dropped two mites per day while the mother hive dropped 1.3 mites per day, far below the worrisome threshold.

What will we do if mite levels rise over time?  We already use a lot of the methods of varroa-mite treatment/prevention listed here.  Last year, we tried out treating bees with powdered sugar as well, but I don't think I'd do that again --- it could be just a coincidence, but the hive dosed with sugar is the only one where I've ever had a colony abscond in the fall.  Instead, I might try the rhubarb trick that an old-timer recently shared with me.  Better yet, here's hoping our hygenic bees will groom off so many varroa mites that I won't have to do anything at all.

Posted Mon Aug 25 07:01:22 2014 Tags:
hauling 7.5 cubic feet freezer with ATV

Five years ago we hauled a freezer twice this size with the golf cart.

That was during a rare dry spell. The golf cart wouldn't have made it on a day like today and I think we maxed out our ATV carrying capacity with this 7 cubic foot IDYLIS.

A 10 percent discount for veterans along with free delivery made this a sweet deal.

Posted Mon Aug 25 15:24:11 2014 Tags:
Rocket stove

Our power was out for about 21 hours Sunday afternoon through Monday morning.  That seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out the new rocket stove that our neighbor gave us!

Stovetec rocket stove

I'd like to be able to tell you "I only needed two sticks of wood to scramble our breakfast eggs," but the truth is that this first iteration of rocket-stove cookery was a learning experience.  What I mostly learned is that damp wood doesn't fly in rocket stoves --- I didn't really get the fire blazing until I tracked down the piece of kindling in the middle of the photo above, which had been sitting in our woodshed for a couple of years and was bone dry.  The sticks that have been drying on the porch for a week mostly smoldered instead of burning.

Perhaps because I only ended up using one dry piece of wood, the temperature in the skillet on top of the rocket stove never got warmer than what equates to about medium on our electric range.  That's fine for scrambling eggs, and would be great for things like soups, but for my next experiment I look forward to trying out the skirt that fits around a pot to increase the stove's efficiency by 25%.  I also want to get a more solid handle on exactly how much wood the rocket stove consumes, although I have to say that I'm already impressed in that regard.

Rocket stove on cinderblock

What was the biggest surprise about making breakfast on the rocket stove?  How much I enjoyed the fire therapy!  Usually, I get a little cranky during power outages due to internet deprivation, but a dose of fire first thing in the morning instead set me singing happily as I weeded the garden.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that our Cyberpower Battery Backup combined with my laptop battery means I can enjoy about an hour and a half of blogging time even while the grid is down.

In case you're curious, everything in the freezer stayed frozen during the outage, despite highs that nearly reached 90.  If the juice had stayed off for more than 24 hours, though, we would have topped off the cold with our generator.

Posted Tue Aug 26 07:21:09 2014 Tags:
making a firewood guide for a garden wagon

I installed a firewood guide on our steel crate garden wagon today.

The small and medium slots will help us cut up all the fallen limbs we have.

Posted Tue Aug 26 15:47:30 2014 Tags:
August lunch

August is probably the tastiest time of the year on our farm.  This week, we've enjoyed the first lettuce and red peppers, and the fall round of red raspberries are starting to be nearly as copious as the blueberries we've been enjoying for weeks.  Three cups of berries per day make perfect desserts.

Celeste figWe're still eating tomatoes and cucumbers and watermelons (although they're starting to decline), and have plenty of summer squash, green beans, and Swiss chard that will continue to go the distance.  We're nearly at the end of our spring cabbage and carrots (which currently live in the crisper drawer of the fridge), but fall crops are all growing like gangbusters and promise to replace the spring round soon.  In fact, I saw the first pea flower Monday!

What am I watching with an eagle eye?  Our fig bushes!  Last year, the first fig ripened up at the very beginning of September, and I'm looking forward to tasting the first few Celeste figs (along with bowlsful of Chicago Hardy) later this year.

What are you enjoying and looking forward to seeing soon in your own garden?

Posted Wed Aug 27 06:56:27 2014 Tags:
Chevy S-10 truck stuck in the mud with me and Frankie looking at it

Our neighbor with a tractor has agreed to help us get the truck unstuck.

Today we just looked it over and developed a plan.

With any luck it will continue to dry up and make things a little easier.

Posted Wed Aug 27 15:42:37 2014 Tags:
Goldenrod leatherwing

Insects on echinaceaThis week, the world seems to be chock full of soldier beetles.  Specifically, these goldenrod leatherwings are in a mating frenzy --- I counted half a dozen on just a few echinacea flowers on Wednesday afternoon.

With nearly 500 species of soldier beetles in the U.S., gardeners aren't likely to learn them all by name.  But I'm pretty sure all of the soldier beetles are either innocuous or beneficial (although some of their larvae are minor problems on fall fruits).

Feeding soldier beetle

The beneficial species are handy because the larvae eat slugs and snails while the adults consume aphids.  Other species (like the goldenrod leatherwing) seem to fixate on nectar instead, but the world can't have too many pollinators!

(Yes, this post is just an excuse to share pretty bug photos.  What can I say --- they're cute!)

Posted Thu Aug 28 07:07:02 2014 Tags:
when is the best time to pick Mung beans?

When is the best time to pick mung beans?

We pick them once a week this time of year after they turn black.

They make yummy sprouts for greening up tuna salad during the Winter months.

Posted Thu Aug 28 15:19:43 2014 Tags:
Buggy beans

I appreciated all of the thoughtful comments on my scarlet runner bean post last weekend!  Several of you correctly pointed out that the species is actually a perennial, although the distinction won't make much of a difference for most of us since (like tomatoes) scarlet runner beans are perennials that act like annuals in temperate climates.  On the other hand, that reminder did point out that not only the green beans, shelled beans, and flowers, but also the tubers of scarlet runner beans are edible.

Bean beetle larvaHowever, what I wanted to share today is a downside I just discovered of my beautiful bean planting.  Unfortunately, scarlet runner beans seem to make awesome nurseries for Mexican bean beetles, as you can tell from the holey leaves in the photo above (and from the larva that was hiding in a photo in my previous post, repeated to the left).  We use the ultra-simple bean-beetle control method of succession planting bush beans (explained in more depth in The Naturally Bug-Free Garden), but adding scarlet runner beans to the mix means that this year's beetle population exploded and quickly colonized my bush bean plants.  Good thing I'd already frozen several gallons of the staple crop because the plants will probably soon bite the dust....  I might try scarlet runner beans again, but this piece of data suggests I should keep my for-food beans far away from my for-beauty beans in the future.

Fava bean seedling
On a semi-related note, our experimental fava beans have come up!  The seedlings look more like peas than like beans, which is probably because fava beans are really a vetch.  We hope to experiment with eating both the fava bean seeds and the scarlet runner bean seeds at lima bean stage...even though I don't think I've ever eaten lima beans before in my life.  For those of you who are more experienced --- what kind of introductory recipe would you recommend?

Posted Fri Aug 29 07:39:24 2014 Tags:
using a circular saw blade in a weed trimmer eater

Our neighbor mentioned that he uses a miter saw blade on his weed trimmer.

The arbor hole is the same diameter as the Ninja brush blade. Make sure the teeth point to the left to take advantage of the cutting teeth.

I only tried it on some rag weed and it was like a hot knife cutting through butter. Our neighbor reported when he tried it the blade would bind up on even medium sized trees. I think we don't need the little bit of extra cutting power for such a huge leap in danger.

Posted Fri Aug 29 14:50:53 2014 Tags:

While we refer to our "lawn" only in parentheses since the grass is full of dandelions, clover, and whatnot and never gets fertilized (except with the chicken tractor), I do occasionally feel guilty about the grassy areas.  Granted, on our farm, grassy garden aisles make sense, but most like-minded people think all lawns are evil.  However, as I mowed Thursday, I started wondering whether the carbon dioxide coming from our mower might not be offset by the carbon being sequestered in the soil as grass blades and roots turn into humus.

Sure enough, independent scientists (in addition to the lawn-care "scientists" you might expect to feel this way) report that lawns do act as carbon sinks.  A minimal input lawn like ours that only gets mowed with no other treatment sequesters about 147 pounds of carbon per lawn per year (after you subtract out the carbon released by the mower).  The abstract I read didn't mention lawn size, but I'm assuming they're using the American average of a fifth of an acre, which matches up with another study that reports each acre of lawn sequesters a net of 760 pounds of carbon per year.

Of course, cover crops will put the puny carbon sequestration powers of a lawn to shame.  Sorghum-sudangrass will pump a massive 10,565 pounds of carbon per acre into the soil, and oilseed radishes don't do so bad either at 3,200 pounds of carbon per acre.  In fact, a 120-year-old northeastern woodland only clocks in around the carbon sequestration powers of oilseed radishes, and you can still grow tomatoes in the oilseed-radish ground during the summer.

Which is all a very long way of saying --- if you're considering making a patio or leaving that area as lawn, go for the lawn.  But if you really want to sequester carbon fast, plant some cover crops.

Posted Sat Aug 30 07:36:30 2014 Tags:
me using Stihl circular saw blade trimmer

Thanks for the comments on using a miter saw blade with a weed trimmer.

Most people are like my neighbor and report problems with it binding up when cutting small trees which could be a result of not keeping the blade exactly even during a cut.

Maybe in the future Stihl will invent some sort of LED indicator you could look at and know which way to tilt the blade to make the most level cut.

Posted Sat Aug 30 15:08:13 2014 Tags:
Snake eating egg

A few weeks ago, we noticed a drastic decline in the number of eggs coming out of our coop.  As day length decreases, it's normal to notice fewer eggs, but a hen's lay usually drops off gradually rather than all at once.  Added to the mystery, some days our egg haul was back to normal, followed by a series of days with only one or two eggs in the nest box.  What was going on?

Mark solved the mystery when he found a black rat snake sunning itself outside the coop in the middle of August.  For a while, we gathered eggs earlier in the day, and the snake seemed to have moved on, but numbers once again declined this past week.  Sure enough, this time Mark caught the snake in the act, its body swollen around an egg.

Hunting a snakeBlack rat snakes are completely non-poisonous, and from my days as a naturalist, I know most are actually pretty friendly too.  But I still didn't feel comfortable just picking up the snake (which I planned to relocate to the other side of the hill).  Instead, I tried pushing the snake into a bucket, then I ended up chasing it across the coop where the reptile kept trying to slither out holes which no longer fit its body due to the addition of the egg lump.  Eventually, the snake regurgitated its egg and disappeared into the weeds...just as Mark appeared with a homemade tool to make snake handling easier.  Stay tuned for Mark's post on that topic later (and, maybe, a successful catch this afternoon?).

Posted Sun Aug 31 07:11:29 2014 Tags:
how to make a diy snare pole or critter catcher or animal grabber

We didn't get the snake today, but now we're ready.

If you need to do a lot of animal grabbing then maybe the deluxe critter catcher for 140 dollars could be justified, but threading the right size rope through a PVC pipe is a lot cheaper.

Posted Sun Aug 31 15:05:44 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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