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

archives for 09/2014

Sep 2014

New apple branchesMost folks will tell you to leave a grafted apple alone for its first year of life.  The goal is for it to grow straight and tall, into a one-year-old whip that is hopefully four feet tall (for an apple on MM111).

That makes a lot of sense if you want a tree to achieve its full height potential, but what if you plan to use high-density methods to fit more apples into a smaller space?  As our grafted trees surpassed waist height, it occurred to me that if I want branching to begin relatively close to the ground, I might as well break the apical dominance now rather than waiting until this winter to begin pruning.  The photo to the left shows what happens a couple of weeks after snipping the top off one of the whips --- new branches begin to form in the leaf axils of the top three leaves or so.

Branching apple

What next?  The photos above show an apple on MM111 rootstock that is several years older, and also several weeks further along in its top-snipping adventure.  As you can see, I've tied down all but one of the new branches so the tree will once again enjoy apical dominance while turning the horizontal twigs into scaffolds.  On a vigorous tree like this one, I've managed to snip the top off the tree twice this year (if I recall correctly), building two whorls of scaffolds in one summer.

I doubt our little grafted trees will put out much more growth this summer, but hopefully they'll sink at least a little energy into the new branches.  If all goes as planned, when I transplant them to their new homes this winter, they'll be a bit further along than the typical one-year-old whip.

Posted Mon Sep 1 07:14:11 2014 Tags:
storing onion harvest for the upcoming year

What's the best way to store a year's worth of harvested onions?

We like to use old citrus bags and sort out the damaged ones to be used first.

Posted Mon Sep 1 15:43:02 2014 Tags:
Ground ivy

Weeds and what they tell usThe hypothesis I often see put forth by the permaculture community is that you can use weeds to discover imbalances in your soil.  When I finally tracked down the best book on the subject, though, I was disappointed.  Since then, I've come to my own conclusions --- problematic weeds are an indicator of issues with your management strategy, not necessarily of problems with the ground underfoot.

Since I tweak my gardening techniques every year, it's no surprise that our worst weeds change with the times.  This year's doozy is a plant that I used to consider barely noticeable --- ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), which is pictured above.  My mother enjoys this plant in her garden for its bee-friendly spring flowers, its pleasant aroma, and the way it quickly covers the ground.  Unfortunately, ground ivy wreaks havoc with the mulched areas since it quickly grows amid straw and makes you lose most of your mulch when you rip it out.

Why is ground ivy suddenly a big problem for us?  I only see the weed in the shadier parts of my garden, and primarily during wet years, making me think that there's something about cool, wet conditions that gives ground ivy a foothold over the grass that's supposed to be colonizing the garden aisles.  I can't do anything about the weather, but I can change a management technique that I think has been giving the ground ivy a foothold in the front garden aisles --- weedeating.  Until this summer, Mark was in charge of cutting our "lawn," and he generally opted to weedeat the front garden rather than mow it since the aisles aren't very linear.  However, close cutting can promote ground ivy over grass, especially in shady areas.  Time to commit to mowing instead of whacking the front garden grass!


When I first identified our second troublesome weed of 2014, the book I looked it up in gave it the appellation "devil's racehorse."  I haven't been able to track down the source of that name, and now call the weed by its more common names (quickweed, shaggy soldier, Galinsoga quadriradiata).  But the colorful name that originally made me scratch my head makes so much sense now that I garden --- quickweed will take over a garden lickety split.

While ground ivy is the bane of my existence in the shady front garden, quickweed makes its annoying presence known in the sunny mule garden.  I made the mistake about three years ago of letting a single plant go to seed in a garden bed there, and the result has been nearly endless handweeding of every crop I've grown in that spot thereafter.  The solution here is pretty simple --- whatever you do, don't let quickweed go to seed in your garden!

Have you learned from your garden weeds?  If so, which ones taught you memorable lessons?

Posted Tue Sep 2 07:15:54 2014 Tags:
the finishing touch on our new critter catcher

There's still no sign of the egg eating snake. I think we ran him off.

Looking at other snare poles online prompted me to add a top bolt to ours.

I also tied a knot at the other end so it all stays together.

Posted Tue Sep 2 16:03:22 2014 Tags:
Hazelnut husks

As I peered at our hazelnut bush yesterday morning, I reached out to touch one of the developing fruits...and it fell into my hand.  Time to harvest!

Unlike most fruits, hazelnuts are nearly impossible to see on the bush since they're surrounded by leaf-like husks.  So I opted for the lazy harvest approach --- I carefully shook a branch, watched to see if anything fell off, and then picked up the nut that had dropped.  I could tell that at least one of the nuts wasn't yet ready to harvest using the shake method, so I'll go back around and try again next week.

HazelnutsThis is the first year we've gotten anything from our bush, so the harvest was small --- five tiny nuts.  I took them out of their hulls and will let them cure for a week or two before tasting.  The big question is --- how thick is the shell and how big is the kernel inside?  The bush in question came from Arbor Day's breeding campaign, when folks were just starting to hybridize American and European hazelnuts in an attempt to combine the blight-resistance of the former and the large kernel and thin shell of the latter.  Stay tuned for the big reveal....

(Yes, I am nuts to be so invested in...nuts....)

Posted Wed Sep 3 07:17:48 2014 Tags:
butternut squash harvest

Our total butternut squash harvest this year was 27.

We like to get them nice and clean before storing them for the Winter.

Posted Wed Sep 3 15:47:25 2014 Tags:
Ducks enjoying duckweed

I put it off and put it off and put it off, but eventually the time came to try our hands once again at killing (and plucking) ducks.  By waiting so long, I hoped that all of the ducks would be done molting (which was true for two of the three ducks we processed this week).  Plus, once September hits, the garden year is starting to wind down (although there's still plenty to do), so stealing a morning for poultry butchering seems more feasible.

Scalding a duck

You may recall that, last time around, I ended up skinning our duck rather than plucking.  Since then, I accumulated some tips from a reader who prefers to remain anonymous, the most important of which was --- try heating the scalding water all the way to boiling rather than stopping at the recommended temperature.  Sure enough, boiling water (and lack of pin feathers) changed duck plucking from utterly impossible to merely tedious.  We included a generous squirt of dish fluid in the water, roughed up the duck's feathers while dunking the duck, and then let the duck sit for several minutes in the hot liquid.  This was still insufficient to allow us to use a power plucker to remove feathers, but we did manage to kill, pluck, and dress that duck in 45 man-minutes --- not great by chicken standards, but feasible.

Dry plucking a duck

When the time came to move to duck two, though, I decided to try dry plucking.  Damp down quickly coated my fingers while plucking duck one, and the down was much more annoying to work around than wet chicken feathers.  So I pulled out handfuls of down before dunking the duck and found that the down was much more pleasant (if no faster) to remove when dry.  (This method would also have allowed me to save the down for stuffing, although I was too focused on experimenting with plucking techniques to do so this time around.)  The wing and tail feathers were too tough to remove dry, though, so I dunked the dunk in the boiling water before moving on to these larger feathers.  The result was a duck processed in 50 man-minutes, but resulting in a much cleaner carcass than I managed with duck one.

Duck three was the one with pin feathers, and I don't want to write about that pain and suffering here.  Ack!  I survived (and the duck, obviously, didn't).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, my conclusion is --- dry plucking is a little slower than wet plucking but is much more pleasant.  And, whatever it takes, wait until those ducks stop molting before butchering!

Posted Thu Sep 4 07:37:14 2014 Tags:
using new firewood guide with battery powered chainsaw

We continue to be impressed with the Oregon battery powered chainsaw.

It took about 50 minutes for Anna and me to cut up some tree limbs.

The charge indicator was at the halfway point when we started, which means the battery time is close to 2 hours depending on how much stopping you do between cuts. It still had some juice left when the indicator display was at zero and that's when we stopped.

Posted Thu Sep 4 15:56:15 2014 Tags:
Black soldier fly bin

Black soldier fly laying eggsHow do you know when your black-soldier-fly bin is fully colonized?  Keep stuffing kitchen scraps in, and pay attention to how quickly the contents decline in size.  At first, it'll be a bit like a compost pile --- wilting and general decomposition will reduce your scraps' volume down a bit, allowing you to add more a week or so later.  Then, suddenly, your fly larvae get on the job and the voracious grubs eat the contents in mere days.

I'll be posting over on our chicken blog next week about what we're feeding our black soldier flies, and about our first trial of offering the pupae to our chickens.  But I thought you'd like to see a few photos of the bin in action in the meantime.

There are now hundreds of grubs of various sizes visible through the walls of the bin, a clear sign that
the few larvae I added out of the yard, plus the batch of eggs we purchased, aren't the only source of larvae.  Not that I'd need that information, since I caught a female black soldier fly in the act of laying her eggs on an onion skin.  No oBlack soldier fly larvaene seems interested in laying in the cardboard strips on the top of the bin, but the cycle of life is definitely working anyway.  I've also seen a lot of yellow soldier flies buzzing around, presumably adding their offspring to the festival.

I love it when experiments like this just work, with nearly no effort on our part.  Woohoo for a thriving black-soldier-fly bin!

Posted Fri Sep 5 07:25:49 2014 Tags:
mark Late fig
how our fig tree is late this year compared to previous years

We were eating figs this time last year, but Winter damage slowed things down.

I'm guessing it's still going to be another week or two before the first one ripens.

Posted Fri Sep 5 16:13:30 2014 Tags:
Stacking firewood

Some of you may be wondering if it's time effective to cut up the little branches Mark mentioned in a previous post for firewood.  It does take a lot longer per Btu to cut small-diameter firewood, but these branches are perfect for short-lived fires during the shoulder season (and you get some time back since they don't need to be split).  And, as Mark pointed out to me while we worked, this kind of wood is very available for just about everyone since branches are often being hauled away to the dump or to be burned even if you live in the city.  In our rural setting, the tops leftover from our previous firewood sessions would just rot down to humus if we don't harvest the wood.

Wheelbarrow of branchesIn the past, we haven't cut much of this small-diameter firewood, though, because it feels pretty inefficient when using a gas-powered chainsaw.  This is where the battery-powered saw really shines.  Since the saw's not using any energy except when you're cutting, the operation is quiet (and fun!) and you don't feel like you're burning more fuel than you're creating.  (Do be sure to build a firewood guide, though, and to have one person hold the branch while the other cuts.  Mark thinks the battery saw is a little grabby, so you have to use precautions when cutting small branches.)

That said, I think next week it's time to really put our review saw through its paces.  So stay tuned for the third test --- whether a battery-powered chainsaw can fell a two-foot-diameter tree.

Posted Sat Sep 6 06:39:50 2014 Tags:
close up of sun dried tomatoes

Dried tomatoes are easy with our 9 tray Excalibur dryer with timer.

Posted Sat Sep 6 16:19:34 2014 Tags:

Mutt goatLong-time readers will know I've been dreaming about milk goats for years.  But Mark has been adamantly opposed, and we don't ever embark on projects when one partner is unwilling.

So, imagine my surprise when I teased Mark that Kayla and I were getting a goat together...and he said I could have one all for myself.  Turns out, my adamant opposition to Mark's purchase of a self-propelled, string mower is equivalent to his adamant opposition of my purchase of a milk goat.  "If you let me get a mower, then I'll let you get a goat," Mark said.  "I'll even help you milk it."  Much kissing and hugging ensued.

Goat with hornsAfter rereading my goat book, I decided that a mutt is probably our best option to learn on, and I found the three or four year old girl pictured here on craigslist.  She's semi-dwarf, a combination of Saanen and Nigerian with a bit of Nubian thrown in, and her mixed descent makes her quite affordable ($125).  She's been raised in a setting much like we want to throw her into, and is reputed to give birth easily, to be parasite resistant, and to have been giving a quart of milk a day while feeding her kids on brush alone.  Her owner is currently drying her up and breeding her to a Saanen/Nigerian buck, and is willing to hold onto her for a month while we get our act together (in the process ensuring that the doe is really pregnant).  Add in a wether (to keep her company, source not yet decided), and this might be an easy way to see whether we like goats during the winter, then to jump into milking next spring.

It's a bit daunting to make a commitment to branch out into larger livestock, so we haven't decided quite yet.  But I'd say we're 80% of the way there...and I let Mark order his mower.

Posted Sun Sep 7 07:16:36 2014 Tags:
how we dry sun dried tomatoes

How do we store our dried tomatoes?

1. Follow steps of Hollywood Sun Dried Tomatoes.

2. Put in containers suitable for freezing, label and store in freezer.

3. Resist the urge to eat them all at one time, but instead wait until you need a dose of sunshine when the short Winter days can sometimes get the better of us.

Posted Sun Sep 7 16:03:32 2014 Tags:
Duck versus chicken eggs

Original plan: Keep a mixed flock of ducks and chickens this winter to see whether it's true that waterfowl are better winter layers than land fowl

Midsummer plan: Get rid of the ducks ASAP!

DucksLate summer plan: Slaughter all the male ducks (meaning we won't be raising waterfowl again next year), but keep the girls for winter layers.  Now that I treat the ducks like chickens (only giving them open water as a treat once a week --- after all, it rains nearly every day), they're much easier to handle.  Sure, ducks don't forage as well as chickens on a hillside, but the experiment is still worthy of carrying to its natural conclusion...

...Especially since the ducks are starting to lay!  I found the first egg (slightly dirty because we haven't built floor-level nest boxes yet) on Thursday and we tasted it on Friday.  The consensus was --- it tastes like an egg.  (By carefully eating bites of duck and chicken eggs side by side, I could detect a very slightly richer flavor in the former, but the difference was very minor.)  I'll be sure to report laying stats in a few months once day length is at winter levels.

Posted Mon Sep 8 07:01:09 2014 Tags:
Cracked hazelnuts

After a week of drying and a few hours in the dehydrator with the tomatoes, our first hazelnuts were ready for a taste test.

The shell-to-nut ratio was perfect and the roasted hazelnuts had a delicious flavor reminiscent of buttered popcorn.

Anna told me I have twelve months to come up with a powered nutcracker for next year's (hopefully) much larger crop.

Posted Mon Sep 8 14:49:50 2014 Tags:
Sweet potato harvest

Big and little butternutI had forgotten how poor our soil used to be until I opened up some new garden areas this year.  Without frequent applications of manure, straw, and cover crops to build the organic-matter levels, our native soil is a cloddy mass of pale silty-clay.  Unsurprisingly, many crops failed to thrive in this new ground...but others did even better.  I figured you might like hearing about the good and the bad in case you have poor-soil areas of your own that you want to put into production now rather than waiting until years of TLC turn your topsoil black.

Who failed the test?  Carrots and butternuts both grew in the new ground, but produced fruits and roots that were half the size of what I'm used to.  In the photo, the butternut on the right comes from an older bed while the one on the left is representative of the squash we harvested from the new bed.  Total yield in the new ground was about a third to a quarter of what I'd expect elsewhere for these two crops.

Nodding sunflower

On the other hand, sunflowers and sweet potatoes seemed to grow even better in the poor soil.  In the top photo, the potatoes in the basket all came from a similar square footage (but from richer soil) as the huge number of potatoes cleaned and stacked on the porch (that came from poorer soil).  Keep in mind that I did take the time to dig these new patches, scooping the topsoil out of the aisles to double the height of the growing beds (and I usually don't dig or till our established beds at all).  So, the thrivers may be responding to the fluffiness and quick breakdown of organic matter into nitrogen that you find in recently churned ground.  Or maybe they just like low organic matter and nutrient levels.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy soils are all alike; every unhappy soil is unhappy in its own way.  So you might find that the crops that thrive in our poor soil don't do so well in yours.  Still, I'd be curious to hear from our readers who have kept an eye on crops growing in good and poor parts of their gardens.  Which plants like and dislike the bad ground?

Posted Tue Sep 9 07:41:00 2014 Tags:
close up of chainsaw sharpening stone

The Oregon battery powered chainsaw has a nice self sharpening feature.

You pull up on the red lever while it's running and a stone sharpens the chain.

It seems to work well as long as you clear the area of stray wood chips.

Posted Tue Sep 9 15:41:37 2014 Tags:
Anna Goat check
Grown up pasture

The decision has been made!  I mailed in our down-payment, and we'll pick up our nanny goat in October.  In the meantime, we've got lots to do and to decide.  For example, we're still not 100% sure whether we want to start with the lowest-work option (one doe and one Milk goatwether) or whether, since we're going to have two goats anyway, we might as well bite the bullet and find another girl.  On the plus side, two girls would make us more likely to have enough milk to experiment with cheese; on the minus side, two girls would mean double the kids to manage in the spring and double the milking chores.  At the moment, we've resolved to let serendipity decide --- if another milk goat turns up on craigslist in the next month that seems like a good fit for our homestead, we'll go for it; otherwise, we'll find a cheap wether somewhere to keep our first find company.

Future goat barn

Since we won't be milking at first, we can save half of our prep chores for later, but there's still lots to do.   It's time to finally add gates to our starplate pastures, time to protect the one tree I care about that's still growing there, and time to convert the starplate coop into the starplate goat barn.  The last task involves splitting the building into stalls so the kids can be kept separate from the mother(s) in the spring, adding food and water stations, and perhaps making a food-storage room (to replace the metal garbage can we used with chickens).  My to-buy list currently includes hoof-trimming supplies, loose minerals and maybe boluses for copper and kelp for additional nutrition, leashes and breakaway collars, and a bit of feed (although we're hoping to raise the goats on brush and weeds as much as possible).  And that doesn't even count the milking, kidding, and disbudding supplies we'll need to think about before spring --- I guess my goat endeavor is going to cost just as much as Mark's high-end mower.

Corn shock

Then there are the less essential preparations that just make me happy.  I decided to dry some sweet-corn stalks in a shock to see if the goats will enjoy them as a midwinter snack, and I also draped the sweet potato vines across the porch for a similar reason.  Too bad we've passed the time to plant carrots and mangels --- next year!

Posted Wed Sep 10 07:14:02 2014 Tags:
new duck box for nesting

We chose an 18 gallon Rubbermaid storage box for our new duck nest box.

The bottom 2x4 extends out 6 inches past the edge to increase stability and provide a sturdy ledge for the ducks to step on and over to get into the box.

Purchase price was 9 dollars and it claims to be crack and weather resistant.

Posted Wed Sep 10 15:48:39 2014 Tags:
Declining tomatoes

The first half of September is a surprisingly busy time in our garden.  Why the surprise?  Because most people are letting their summer vegetables drift into weeds at this time of year...but I'm opening up areas as fast as I can to plant oilseed radishes and oats as cover crops.  My method means that our farm's soil gets richer every year while weed pressure gets lower and lower...but it does keep me hopping.

Oat cover cropIf I didn't have an oat deadline to consider (September 15), then I'd let beds of dwindling summer squash, cucumbers, bush beans, and mung beans sit around and dribble in a bit more food.  Instead, I rip them out and plant cover crops.  Similarly, I look at larger plants with a stern eye --- will I lose much by raking back the mulch around declining tomatoes and sowing oats to hold the soil over the winter?  Probably not, so oats it is!

I've read that some old-timey farmers used to plant oats around their strawberry plants at this time of year, growing mulch in place for the spring.  I've always been afraid of losing productivity in my favorite fruit, but I opted to experiment with half of one bed this fall.  Similarly, I sowed oats beyond the canopy spread in our blueberry rows, hoping for a bit of extra organic matter with little effort on my part.

Do I get to rest on my laurels once the cover-crop deadline is past?  Nope --- then it will be time to weed the fall seedlings and plant a bunch of beds of garlic.  But I can definitely feel the garden locomotive slowing down as it prepares to pull into the station and rest for the winter.

Posted Thu Sep 11 07:24:50 2014 Tags:
duck nest box exterior installation

We decided the duck nest box should be outside the coop for easy egg access.

I put a golf ball in the nest to encourage the curious ones.

Posted Thu Sep 11 15:04:39 2014 Tags:
Lunchbox peppers

I think I may have found my new favorite sweet pepper.  Too bad it's a hybrid!

I bought a packet of Lunchbox peppers from Johnny's this spring on a whim.  We've been pretty happy growing pimento-type peppers since the smaller fruits ripen up before frost even if I don't start the plants inside ultra-early.  But my heirloom variety started to decline in vigor after a few years, perhaps because I didn't grow enough plants to keep the gene bank deep.

Cut pepperAnyway, to cut a long story short, I chose two new varieties this spring, selecting from among peppers with the fastest days-to-maturity.  The pimento-type pepper (Round of Hungary) that I tried this time around did ripen its first fruit just as quickly as the Lunchbox peppers, but the former has been providing approximiately one red pepper per week from three plants while the latter is overflowing with goodness from a similar size planting.  Even after adding peppers to our salad all week, I still ended up with a bowful in need of preservation.

Lunchbox isn't really a variety but a mix of three different types of pepper.  Luckily for me, most of my plants turned out to be the red type, since that one is much more vigorous than the yellow and orange.  The plants and fruits look like hot peppers, but the peppers are sweet and delicious (although with slightly thinner flesh than you'd expect in larger peppers).

I wonder what I'd get if I saved the seeds of my Lunchbox peppers and tried the hybrid offspring in next year's garden?

Posted Fri Sep 12 07:14:48 2014 Tags:
me harvesting sunflower seed heads

The small, multicolored sunflowers were ready for harvesting today.

Most of our sunflower crop still needs a few more weeks.

Posted Fri Sep 12 14:59:33 2014 Tags:

Larvae crawling offI suspect we'll be making our own upgraded black-soldier-fly bin next year.  The bin we bought is an awesome introduction...but I keep overfilling it since I have 50 pounds of moldy chicken feed to work my way through.  Last week, the mass of decomposing chicken feed heated up so much that white larvae crawled off, and even when I'm more careful, I feel like the bin is getting waterlogged and full of castings when I add half a gallon of chicken feed (soaked to become about a gallon) per week.

Black soldier fly harvest
The photo above shows the kind of crawl-off I'd rather see --- just the black pupae.  This type of heavy harvest comes about once a week, when I add more chicken feed and soak the bin contents in the process.  On other days, I instead get perhaps a couple dozen pupae, still enough to make our tractored hens happy.  But more pupae is definitely better, and I now understand why you might want to have a 10- or 20-gallon bin.  Or perhaps to have several smaller bins (although I'd still want them all to be located right outside the back door where it's easy to put in scraps and to take out pupae for the chickens).

Escaping pupae

Meanwhile, there's at least one feature of our current bin that I don't feel is working as it should.  The velcro strip around the top of the bin, meant to keep pupae from escaping without crawling into the collection bin, has a gap in each corner just big enough for pupae to wriggle through.  I keep finding drowned pupae in the ant-trap moat around the bin, which makes me sad.

While I'm writing a wish list of future changes, I'd like to drill holes in the top of the collection jar just large enough for an adult fly to escape, but too small for a pupa to get Black soldier fly eggsthrough.  Three times now, I've seen adult flies trapped in the collection bin, once because I left a pupa inside too long and it hatched, but twice because the flies went to lay their eggs in the main bin and ended up exiting in a different direction.

That said, our bin is providing a healthy dose of animal protein for our flock nearly every day, and the number of larvae inside seems to keep growing.  I caught one fly laying eggs inside the handle of the drainpipe last week (which I transferred to the bin), but I suspect there have been many other sets of eggs laid without my notice.  I'm definitely ready to say that Mark is right --- black soldier flies are a good fit for our farm.  Now we just need to work the kinks out of the operation.

Posted Sat Sep 13 07:13:13 2014 Tags:
securing the swisher mower to ATV rack for transport back to farm

The new self propelled trimmer mower showed up a week early.

Her first day on the job will be Monday if it doesn't rain.

Posted Sat Sep 13 14:17:43 2014 Tags:
Permaculture tacos

I wish I could give you a solid recipe for the paste I made Saturday because it's based on beans but even Mark found it delicious.  (Plus, all of the ingredients except the olive oil, salt, pepper, and walnuts are ripe on the farm right now).  But I mostly just put in some of this and some of that until the paste tasted right.  Here's my best guess on proportions:

Scarlet runner beans
  • 1 heaping cup of scarlet runner beans in the lima-bean stage, pods removed
  • 1 cup of homemade chicken broth
  • 2 small red peppers, minced
  • 4 small sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil (about 0.25 cups, enough to get the consistency hummusy)
  • 1 large handful of dried tomatoes, on the soft side rather than thoroughly dried
  • 1 small handful of walnuts

Pureeing beansCook the beans, broth, peppers, thyme, and garlic in the chicken broth for about 20 minutes, until the beans are soft.  (Unfortunately, the brilliant color goes away and the beans turn gray at this point.)  Cool, then puree the mixture in the food processor with the other ingredients.  If you're smart, you'll blend up the tomatoes and walnuts first, but they worked out okay added in later.

Serving suggestion: Make little tacos out of Malabar spinach leaves filled with bean paste, chopped arugula, and thinly sliced tomatoes, red peppers, and edible-pod peas.  These can be eaten with one hand like a soft taco if you're careful not to overfill.  While this serving method is a bit time-consuming to prepare, it's pretty and fun for a special occasion!  Happy birthday, farm!

Posted Sun Sep 14 07:44:01 2014 Tags:
ziploc ratchet strap

Our old ratchet straps are 5 years old and rusty.

My new method is to store the new one in a ziploc bag to protect it from the elements.

Posted Sun Sep 14 16:00:54 2014 Tags:
Passionflower fruit

MaypopOne of Mom's friends gave her this unripe passionflower fruit, which she then passed along to me.  Since the maypop is edible and the vine is often included in permaculture texts, I might see if the fruit had gotten far enough along on the vine to produce viable seeds.

I'm always up for growing an experimental species, even though I have a feeling that, if maypops tasted all that good, I would have eaten one before since they're native to our region and since I grew up amid foragers.
  In the meantime, I'd be curious to hear from those of you who have grown passionflowers in your garden.  I know the blossoms are beautiful, but is the fruit worth eating?

Posted Mon Sep 15 07:33:52 2014 Tags:
Swisher trimmer mower in action

We put together the new Swisher trimmer mower today.

It feels like more than twice the cutting power of our previous mower.

I'm still learning how to use it. When the self propelled mechanism is engaged I found myself struggling to keep up with its pace. It's better to just pump the engagement lever a few seconds at a time to let the machine do most of the work.

Posted Mon Sep 15 15:47:33 2014 Tags:

Rooted fig cuttingI don't usually cross-promote books here if we publish them but they're written by someone else.  But our publishing wing has become the majority of our bread and butter lately, so I hope you don't mind the occasional plug...especially if it comes with a homesteading-related giveaway!

I'll start with the part you're probably most interested in --- the free stuff!  I rooted a cutting from my father's Brown Turkey fig this year, and the sapling is looking for a zone-7 or warmer home.  Daddy is picking a gallon of figs a day from this little tree's mother, and says that fig pie is his current favorite way to consume the fruit.  As long as you don't live in a cold climate, fig trees require nearly no care, and can be fit into an area about eight feet in diameter (although I hear they get much larger in California).  Why not enter to win your own no-work fruit tree?

What if you live up north?  Don't worry, I'll swap out your prize for something more appropriate.  You might prefer cuttings from my Chicago hardy fig --- these are easy to root and will produce fruit (with a little care) up through zone 6.  However, if even that is Burgling the Dragontoo tropical for your tastes, you can choose either a medley of our favorite seeds, or a signed copy of one of my (or Aimee's) books.  And, if a northerner wins the prize, I'll pick a second winner to give the fig tree to!

How do you enter the giveaway?  Just plug our books using the widget below.  Aimee has several new books out now or soon --- you've probably heard me mention Shiftless, which has already sold over 3,000 copies and will be an audio book within a few weeks; Burgling the Dragon is available at a special preorder price of 99 cents through September 30; and Aimee's short story Flight of the Billionaire's Sister will make you itch to read her newest novel, slated to release in November or December.  Oh, and did I mention that her short-story collection is free on Amazon today?  Once books are out of the preorder period, you can also borrow nearly all of her books (and mine too!) using Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited, so why not check some out?  Thanks in advance for reading and for spreading the word!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Tue Sep 16 07:12:28 2014 Tags:
Swisher trimmer mower doing an extreme uphill mowing

How is the new Swisher trimmer mower on very steep hills?

Like a dream!

The above hill took a lot of effort with our blade mower, but today was easy once I got the hang of letting the machine drive it up the hill. Gravity takes over when you release the engagement lever for the downward portion.

Posted Tue Sep 16 15:57:17 2014 Tags:
Grasshopper on sunflower

Autumn weather arrived this past weekend and the long-range forecast suggests it may stick around.  Luckily, we're mostly in gravy mode in the garden --- we've packed away enough vegetables to last us for the winter, and are just enjoying eating the rest of the harvest (with occasional bouts of tomato drying or pepper freezing for variety later in the Sorghum flowersyear).  The figs are still dragging their feet and refusing to ripen, but the blueberries are winding down and the red raspberries are in full swing.

Mom asked what I planned to do if we get an early frost and I said that, really, we're ready.  Not that I want summer to end, but when freezing temperatures are forecast, we'll just let them happen.

One experiment hasn't quite reached it conclusion --- the sorghum plants I seeded at the beginning of July.  Just as our current cool spell came in, the plants shot up even higher and pushed out flower heads, which may or may not have time to turn into seeds before the frost.  I took the photo to the left with the zoom feature since these heads are way out of my reach, making our tall sunflowers look like midgets in comparison.

Honeybee in wingstem

Cooler weather also reminds me that it's time to pay attention to the bees.  I did a second varroa-mite count last weekend and was extremely pleased with the results --- 2.5 mites per day in the daughter hive and 3.5 mites per day in the mother hive.  Our Texas bees continue to be worth their weight in gold.

But are they worth their weight in honey?  Now that the humidity has dropped below 90%, I'm hoping for a sunny and moderately warm afternoon to harvest honey from the mother hive.  (The daughter will have the empty bottom box removed but will otherwise be left alone.)  Maybe Friday?

Posted Wed Sep 17 07:12:22 2014 Tags:
moving old freezer with Lucy

Why are we moving this ancient freezer?

To have a rodent proof container to store goat feed near the Star Plate coop.

Yes...Anna helped push once she finished taking pictures.

Posted Wed Sep 17 15:49:24 2014 Tags:
Starplate coop

Several of you asked (or warned) about fencing for our upcoming goats.  I started to write a long post in reply about my complicated plans on that front, but it seemed a little silly to theorize when I'll be able to report on our trial and error in less than a month.  However, there is a goat-related conundrum we're currently trying to solve --- water.

We plan to house our new goats in our starplate coop, but the structure is about 250 feet from the closest water source and up a relatively steep hill.  It was a bit wearying to carry a five-gallon bucket to the coop once a week over the summer, so I can only imagine how old the chore will get for goats (who presumably drink more than chickens) during the winter months.

Hand pumpWe've come up with several potential summer solutions, but winter ones will require more industry.  We can finish working up the gutters and rain-barrel system, but the spigot is bound to freeze during the winter whether or not the tank is big enough prevent the whole thing from freezing solid.  Similarly, we could pump water from the creek into our IBC tanks, but our creek-line isn't buried and only sometimes runs in the winter (and we'd still have to deal with a frozen spigot).

Gene Logsdon posted a few weeks ago about burying rain barrels to make mini-cisterns, and I think the idea has potential in our starplate pasture.  I love to dig, especially at this time of year when garden work is winding down, and the starplate earth is much lighter than the stuff in our core homestead.  Plus, Mark brought a hand-pump home from the hardware store many moons ago, thinking we might need it if the world came to an end, and we could use that to get water out of the buried rain barrel in order to hydrate our herd.

But I have a feeling that I'm missing something even more obvious.  Ideas?  How would you water goats located far enough away from the house that extension cords don't really reach?

Posted Thu Sep 18 07:17:52 2014 Tags:
using battery powered Oregon chainsaw to cut down large Box Elder tree

The Oregon battery powered chainsaw made quick work of this large Box Elder.

Some of it is already rotten, but most of it will make good kindling material.

Posted Thu Sep 18 14:42:04 2014 Tags:
Vegetable curing racks

Every year, we seed six plantings of sweet corn, which provide near-continuous availability of the treat over most of the summer.  And every year, one of those plantings gets away from us.

Drying sweet cornMark and I are such connoisseurs of sweet corn that we only eat the grain at its peak.  I start the water boiling at the same time I head out to the garden to pick and shuck the ears, then I drop the corn in the water and turn each ear once, removing as soon as the color changes from pale to bright yellow, a process that takes mere seconds.  The result is corn so sweet, Lucy begs for the cobs, which she completely consumes.

But if I miss that peak-taste window and our corn starts to turn starchy...then Lucy, Mark, and I all turn up our noses.  Instead, I shuck the corn and put it on our drying racks for winter animal treats.  In the past, I've offered dried sweet corn to our chickens, but this year, I think the ears will go to the goats.

Posted Fri Sep 19 07:07:55 2014 Tags:

close up of safety glasses in a plastic container

It took me a while to figure out how to make the Clarity anti-fog wipes stretch as far as possible.

Store the treated glasses in an airtight container to maximize the hydrophobic effect.

Posted Fri Sep 19 14:52:26 2014 Tags:
Partially drawn comb

Warre hiveIt seems like there's never as much honey in my Warre hives as I think there is.  I went out to rob the mother hive's top box on a sunny afternoon this week...and found that there was nothing to steal.  The fourth box was empty, the box below contained a good bit of honey but also some capped brood (meaning it had to be left alone), I didn't dig into the third box (but I hope it's also full of honey and brood), and the bottom box consists of partially drawn comb (photo above).  So, instead of stealing honey, I took away the empty top box, and will probably remove the bottom box later as well.

Of course, you don't really expect to harvest honey if you split a hive, so just having enough bees and stores to get the mother hive through the winter is good.  Luckily, two boxes full of brood and honey are supposed to be enough for a Warre hive, according to the experts, unless you live in the far north.  Since a Warre hive box is only the size of a shallow super, that seems counterintuitive to those of  us who started with Langstroth hives, but I'm willing to bow to wiser beekeepers, who report that the superior insulating ability of the Warre hive allows the bees to thrive with fewer stores.


Unfortunately, the daughter hive is also not doing as well as I'd hoped, and they may actually be in trouble.  I removed the third box (empty) and finally got a look in the second Empty combbox, which turns out to be full of drawn comb but absolutely empty of life (photo to the left).  That means I need to feed fast to get the bees through the winter.

More troublesome was the presence of wax moth larvae under the quilt when I peeled back the final piece of burlap.  Wax moths are usually a sign of a hive in decline, since they mean the colony isn't strong enough to patrol their entire territory.  I hope that feeding the bees will be enough to let them bulk up and defeat the moths, but realize that there's a good chance the daughter hive might perish over the winter.

While I'm thrilled that my hives seem to be bypassing varroa mites without chemicals, I'm still not sold on Warre hives being the way to go --- I'd like to harvest some honey sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately, my past experience has been Langstroth hives with conventional bees that produced honey but perished without chemicals or Warre hives with chemical-free bees that don't produce honey but do survive in a natural setting.  Time to shake things up next year, maybe trying out chemical-free bees in a Langstroth hive on foundationless frames to see if those would give us a harvest in a natural setting.  I'd love to hear from other beekeepers who have figured the puzzle out, in case you want to save me a few more years of trial and error!

Posted Sat Sep 20 08:18:46 2014 Tags:
Oregon battery powered 40 volt chainsaw

I've added bar oil to the Oregon battery powered chainsaw twice now.

Both times resulted in some overspill, which can be a problem if it drips down and makes contact with the sharpening stone.

The next time I plan to refill the original bar oil container it came with first, that way the amount will be exact and I won't feel like such an amateur.

Posted Sat Sep 20 12:13:20 2014 Tags:

Call of the FarmIt seems a little crazy to have two giveaways running at the same time, but we're overflowing with fun items at the moment and it seems like we should share the bounty.  You've still got a couple of days to enter our fig giveaway, but in the meantime, why not also try your luck for a just-released farm memoir?

I reviewed The Call of the Farm a few months ago, and was surprised to get another copy in the mail last week.  It turns out, the publisher used my blurb in the front of the book (a first for me!) and sent a more polished copy as a thank-you.

But I don't need two versions of the book, so one lucky reader will take home this fun farm memoir --- use the widget below to enter!  The entry options are a little different than usual, but email list subscribers still get an effort-free entry.  Thanks for spreading the word, and I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Sun Sep 21 07:35:10 2014 Tags:
plate with broccoli and chicken
The first broccoli of the Fall was ready to eat today.
Posted Sun Sep 21 15:18:32 2014 Tags:
Mom's fig tree

Unusually busy weekend around here.  I drove myself to town (horrors!).  Mark cooked himself supper without me (extraordinary!).  I met one of our blog readers and a couple dozen of her closest friends and family in the flesh (hi, Emily in Bristol!).  Mom showed off the one-year-old daughter of our Chicago Hardy fig tree (impressive!).  Lost 'seng hunters wandered into our yard (unusual!).  My weather guru warned of a possible frost Monday night (yikes!).

(Bet you can't add more parentheticals and exclamation points in a 88 word post.)

Posted Mon Sep 22 07:14:14 2014 Tags:
one string is better than four

The instructions say to go from 4 to 2 strings if the mowing gets bogged down.

Discovered today that our lawn of weeds cuts faster with just 1 string once you get the proper cutting height figured out.

Posted Mon Sep 22 16:25:10 2014 Tags:
Two years of apples

I'd like to put in my order now for a May 2015 with no hard freezes to nip our apple flowers.  Because our high-density trees have grown remarkably over the last two years (2013 in the top photo, 2014 below), and I suspect they could give us quite a few fruits if the weather holds off.

Snaking an apple treeIt's a bit hard to get the full effect from photos like these, but trust me --- you feel like you're in a miniature forest when you walk by the row nowadays.  Mark's already talking about snaking the tops of the taller trees (see left) so they don't grow too far above his reach, and I'm itching for the leaves to fall so I can set out our second high-density row with this year's graftlings.  I wonder if I'll get as much joy from eating the fruits as I do from watching the trees grow?

Posted Tue Sep 23 06:10:19 2014 Tags:
mark Sorghum
height of sorghum

How tall did our sorghum get this year?

Most were close to 9 feet, but the tallest was a little over 10.

It's the first year we've grown it. The plan is to see if the chickens will eat the seeds and save the stalks for our future goat population.

Posted Tue Sep 23 15:43:29 2014 Tags:
Ripening fig

Our first fig ran nearly three weeks late this year, ripening up on September 18.  Even then, we only had the one until today, when I hope to bring in enough figs to make it worth our while to roast some.  Good thing that possible frost passed us by or this would have been a one-fig year!  Instead, with autumn warming back up through the beginning of October, we may get to enjoy gallons of them.

Red raspberriesThe blueberries are finally slowing down, but another row of raspberries is ripening to take their place.  It's a bit odd how our two plantings of red raspberries act entirely differently even though they are all clones of one Caroline plant.  The row closer to the north-facing hillside (meaning they get a lot of shade, even in the summer) ripened up their fall berries nearly a month before the sunnier row, but the shady berries were considerably smaller.  The berries turning color now are huge and copious, promising a bowlful per day for our favorite dessert.

What fruits are you enjoying this week?

Posted Wed Sep 24 07:09:05 2014 Tags:
a look at the sky pond one year later

The sky pond has a different look after one year.

It seems to be most popular with our bee population. They often use the duck weed cover as a safe place to land when they need a drink.

Posted Wed Sep 24 15:47:46 2014 Tags:

Egg yolk colorSince we've been averaging about half a cup of black-soldier-fly larvae going to the tractored hens every day (plus they get all of our food scraps), I decided to run a color test on yolks from our pasture versus from our tractor.  I hypothesized that the latter would have the most bright-orange yolks due to all their treats...but I was wrong!

Instead, the orangest yolks came from the pastured hens (although the leghorn egg was paler --- those flighty critters aren't as keen on scratching for their dinner).  It seems that even a daily offering of insects and pepper tops isn't enough to make up for the hens' lack of space to run around.

I should have thrown in a store-bought egg to make this comparison really perfect, but I can tell you from past experience that those yolks would be significantly paler than even the Leghorn eggs.  So, yes, you will be improving over store-bought with a chicken tractor, but for absolutely tip-top eggs, you need to use rotational pastures and to choose those varieties wisely.  Enjoy your orange yolks!

Posted Thu Sep 25 07:42:44 2014 Tags:
fixing pet door that sticks open sometimes

We've been having a problem with our pet door.

When Huckleberry squeezes through he rubs against the locking tab and pushes it into a position that blocks the door from opening back up.

I drilled a hole through the tab so we could plug a wire through it to keep it open.

Posted Thu Sep 25 15:55:28 2014 Tags:
Lots of black soldier flies

One of my favorite features of our black-soldier-fly bin is the clear plastic, which lets me see exactly what's going on inside.  While this might not be quite as cool as an observation hive (grimy grubs versus beautiful bees), the transparency does make it easy to notice how many larvae are working inside.  And, this week, the feature helped me realize that a bunch of black pupae were congregating in the bottom of the bin.

Escaping pupaeThe instructions tell you to flood the bin with water once a week to prevent this exact problem...but I forgot.  Luckily, it wasn't too late to harvest all of those yummy pupae.  A couple of hours after flooding, I dropped by the bin and saw that there were pupae filling the ant moat (which I'd luckily forgotten to fill with water as well) since they'd all tried to crawl out so quickly that there was a traffic jam in the entrance ramp to the collection bin.

Mark helped me collect all of the escaped pupae, and we ended up with about three pints worth!  In fact, based on how much the contents of the bin dropped in height after the crawl-off, I suspect we might have lost another pint of pupae before I noticed the great escape.  Luckily, "lost" pupae will just turn into lots of adults to repopulate the bin, so it's all good.

The moral of the story?  If you don't keep a close eye on your bin and need to do an emergency flooding, stand by to prevent escapes!

Posted Fri Sep 26 06:56:36 2014 Tags:
pulling ATv free with tow strap

We had to hand winch the ATV free today.

A lot easier to pull than a truck!

I think low tire pressure on one of the rear tires was a contributing factor.

Posted Fri Sep 26 15:46:51 2014 Tags:
Young pear tree"Anna, I think you've been doing some experimenting with pears on your homestead, but I couldn't find any recent updates in the archives.  Any luck with your disease-resistant rootstocks, etc.?"

--- Jake, whose excellent blog is currently one of my favorites.  His writing will definitely be enjoyed by those who love a combination of useful facts, zany humor, and unadulterated geekiness.

Good question, Jake!  I haven't posted much about our pear trees because they're mostly in the waiting stage at the moment.  We originally planted a Keiffer and an Orient pear (the latter of which shouldn't be confused with Asian pears), and they grew quite well...but produced fruits that weren't worth eating.  (Yes, we are snobs.  Yes, if you plan to cook with the fruit, these are probably still quite good varieties.)

Training branches on a pear tree

So, a year and a half ago, I topworked the young trees to change them over to new varieties --- Seckel, Comice, and an unknown variety that is supposed to be similar to Comice.  The two named varieties are reputed to be moderately susceptible to fireblight, and I have seen a small amount of damage from that bacteria, although not enough to really slow down the trees.  (The photo above shows the huge number of new branches the Seckel's central leader has produced during this growing season alone.)  Otherwise, the transformed trees seem to be immune to problems.  Like most pears, our trees grow a mile a minute and I'm kept busy ripping off watersprouts to ensure that the pears don't revert back to their original varieties, then training keeper branches closer to the horizontal so they don't all grow straight for the sky.

Pear fruiting spur

If all goes well, we should see several fruits on each tree next year, at which point I'll be able to tell you whether Seckel and Comice live up to their potential for producing delicious pears that are much less prone to diseases than apples are.  So far, except for the fireblight, our pear trees have been pristine.  Of course, there are apple varieties that are nearly as disease resistant, and we manage to grow several despite having cedar-apple rust coming in from all sides --- a focus on types that are able to fight off that particular fungus is a big help.  But, from a management standpoint, I'd say that pears have definitely been our easiest fruit tree, followed by apples, and then trailed further behind by peaches.  Of course, the peaches do shine in terms of producing soonest after planting, so it's all a tradeoff.  But, yes, plant those pears!

Posted Sat Sep 27 06:55:29 2014 Tags:
ATV with truck in the background

The truck is still where we last left it.

Turns out our neighbor with the tractor got a little nervous when he saw how much mud we were dealing with and wants to wait till it gets a little dryer.

Posted Sat Sep 27 15:10:36 2014 Tags:
Planting garlic

I stressed myself out last week by playing hooky from the garden for three days while a writing project consumed my attention.  When I came up for air, I realized that it was time to plant twelve beds of garlic and two beds of potato onions before the end of the week --- yikes!

Whenever I get overwhelmed by homesteading tasks, Mark reminds me that, together, he and I can do anything.  Add in Kayla, and we managed to get all of the winter alliums into the ground in about 9 man-hours.  Time to quit early and enjoy the fall weather!

Red dragonfly

I've avoided posting anything specific about garlic here because I've pretty much said it all before.  Type "garlic" into the search box on the sidebar and you'll learn far more than you ever wanted to know.

The only thing we're doing differently this year is to cut back to only growing Music garlic.  It seems a bit dicey to put all of our eggs in one basket, but over the last eight years, this variety has consistently done better than all the others, and the huge cloves make cooking a breeze.  Maybe next year we'll try a few other hardneck varieties...but maybe we'll say if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Posted Sun Sep 28 07:00:13 2014 Tags:
freezer vent hole

The old freezer we want to use for goat feed storage accumulates water.

I think it's functioning as a solar still when the sun hits it.

Hopefully this vent hole will help to keep it dryer.

Posted Sun Sep 28 15:16:59 2014 Tags:

My second paperback has a coNew coverver, a publication date (March 3) and a preorder page!  I'm not entirely sure whether I like the image, but then, I hated The Weekend Homesteader cover...until it slowly grew on me over the years so that I now find it delightful (yellow boots and all).  And Skyhorse has done a great job producing a full-color book priced at a steal (marked down to $11.55 at the moment), so grab one while they're hot!

In other book news, the ebook version of Trailersteading is on sale today for $1.99.  I haven't uploaded the expanded and revised version yet (still waiting on print-quality photos from a few contributers --- you know who you are and will get email nudges next week).  But if you buy now, you'll automatically receive an updated edition this winter when the new version is available, and will have saved 50% off the cover price in the process.  Of course, you could also wait for the paperback, which will be coming out in fall 2016.

Thanks for putting up with a day of self-promotion.  I can hardly wait to see the interior of The Naturally Bug-Free Garden, and I suspect you'll have to bear with a glowing post about that too.  I promise that serious content will return shortly to a blog near you.

Posted Mon Sep 29 07:00:14 2014 Tags:
Swisher trimmer mower rope line

Today I tried putting a piece of nylon rope where the trimmer line usually goes.

It worked pretty good till it got frayed, and it still kept cutting, but not as fierce.

Maybe soaking the rope in some sort of adhesive would extend the amount of cutting each piece can do before it needs replacing?

Posted Mon Sep 29 15:44:05 2014 Tags:
Leveling a rain gauge

I love collecting weather data --- not only is it good, geeky fun, the endeavor also helps me decide whether the garden needs to be watered and it helps me keep track of our specific frost-free period.  Unfortunately, weather-tracking kept falling by the wayside when the tools of the trade turned out to be shoddy and quickly bit the dust.

Heavy-duty rain gaugeA couple of years ago, I solved the temperature-tracking dilemma by going completely analog, and now I'm hoping I've found the rain gauge that will survive winter freezes.  The inner cylinder measures up to one inch of rain, then the outer container gives you an extra ten inches of wiggle room.  In the winter,  you remove the inner cylinder, bring the frozen precipitation indoors to thaw, and then pour it into the measurer.

My weather guru sent our new rain gauge along in exchange for using our farm as a weather station --- he's tracking the way a nearby mountain impacts microclimates in our region.  He's had to replace two rain gauges (not sure out of how many -- quite a few) over the last seven years due to freezing, but that's much better than my previous rate of losing a rain gauge every year.

Now, to see if I can remember to thank him by keeping track of which days begin with fog....

Posted Tue Sep 30 07:00:16 2014 Tags:
starting the new Swisher trimmer mower

The new Swisher trimmer mower is very easy to start.

Not so easy if you try pulling the rope with the engagement bar pulled.

Our old mower needs the engagement bar pulled before starting, and my robot brain took over for the first few starts before I realized my error.

Posted Tue Sep 30 17:00:10 2014 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
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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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