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

archives for 02/2015

Feb 2015
Goat bedding

In Natural Goat Care, Pat Coleby says in no uncertain terms that deep bedding is a bad idea with goats. Unfortunately, she doesn't give any information on why deep bedding is such a terrible idea. So I went ahead and used my usual methods with our girls, and they haven't seemed to have any problems.

Cleaning out the boat barn

Goat helperHowever, a timely post on Throwback at Trapper Creek's blog suggests that the issue could have to do with bacteria affecting newborn kids. So I figured I might as well clean out all the deep bedding in preparation for Mark separating the coop into two stalls for kidding season. That way, we can keep the kidding stall manure-free just to be on the safe side.

The girls had different reactions to me invading their home for the afternoon. Abigail promptly settled in to eat more hay, refusing to move her feet when the time came to scoop beneath her. Artemesia, on the other hand, asked if she could help me out. Maybe standing in the doorway would help? How about if she jumped up in the wheelbarrow? "You lifted me out? Oh, great, I can jump back in --- that's the fun part!"

Tossing bedding over the fence

I'm tossing all of the used bedding over the fence into the tree alley in hopes it will build the soil and maybe kill back some of the weeds. I'll lay down some cardboard on top, if necessary, to turn this into a zone to plant fodder crops for next fall. On the menu are field corn (with the grain being earmarked for the chickens and the stalks for the goats), sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, mangels, and carrots. The last two on the list will probably go in the main garden, though, since this rough kill mulch won't make soil good enough for carrot-like least not for this year.

I'd be curious to hear from other goat keepers. What do you grow for your goats? Have you had any trouble keeping your herd on deep bedding?

Posted Sun Feb 1 07:50:15 2015 Tags:
water tower update 2015

We staged some materials to finish our IBC water tower project but had to use a few 2x4's for the new kidding stall.

Posted Sun Feb 1 15:36:50 2015 Tags:
Peach tree

On warm, sunny days in January and February, I itch to be out in the garden, so I often turn to pruning. However, last winter, I felt like my wintry pruning bout may have been responsible for killing off the spring shoots of our everbearing raspberries, so this year I decided to research before pruning.

Unfortunately, the conclusion I drew after reading several scientific articles's complicated. Winter hardiness is affected by a variety of factors, including how dormant the tree is at the time, the recent air temperature, the plant's maturity, and more. So, although most orchardists agree that fall pruning will lower your fruit plants' winter hardiness for months afterwards, few are willing to go out on a limb and give you a firm date after which it's safe to prune during the dormant season. In fact, the data made me wonder whether, from a tree-health point of view, you wouldn't be better off waiting to prune until after the tree's flowers have opened in the spring.

Peach buds

On the other hand, pruning not only makes a tree less winter hardy; it also makes the tree's flowers more sensitive to cold. Critical temperatures for peach blossoms, for example, can vary by as much as ten degrees based on factors that include the temperature just before the freeze and whether the tree has been recently pruned. So maybe we really shouldn't be winter pruning at all and should stick to the summer pruning and training that has become much more of a staple on our farm.

But, on the third hand, there's just so much more time for careful pruning at this time of year than there is in the summer when every plant is breathing down my neck and asking for attention. So, I'll probably winter prune anyway, maybe taking Lee Reich's advice of pruning in February, or following the Iowa State University guideline of pruning between late February and early April. Because, after all, we do have to compromise between what's best for us and what's best for the trees --- and what's best for me is to enjoy pruning under the winter sun before the vegetable garden begins to consume all of my attention.

Posted Mon Feb 2 07:52:56 2015 Tags:
Richard's sketch up tower

We celebrated Ground Hog Day today by taking the day off.

Our friend Richard made this cool drawing on how we might change the way our IBC water tower is going together.

Posted Mon Feb 2 16:23:53 2015 Tags:

$10 Root CellarIt's time to start planning your 2015 garden, and for many of us, roots will be a large part of our planting. Mark and I love to stock up on carrots for fresh eating throughout the winter months, and now that we've added goats we'll be expanding our root repertoire. But how do you store those crunchy carbohydrates?

$10 Root Cellar walks you through growing, storing, and using root vegetables for animals and humans alike. And you're in luck because the book is on sale for 99 cents today! Grab your copy while it's cheap and plan ahead for a more self-sufficient year.

(By the way, what do you think of my pretty new cover? Credit for the awesome photo goes to Stephen Ausmus at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

Posted Tue Feb 3 07:00:09 2015 Tags:
kidding stall gate
We got the kidding stall finished today.
Posted Tue Feb 3 16:19:39 2015 Tags:
Pregnant goat

As I began setting aside garden areas to grow fodder crops for goats, I realized that I needed to do some math. I'm starting to get a handle on how much supplemental feed Abigail needs to stay in good shape while pregnant, and I assume she'll need a similar ration while milking. So, based on that data, how much space would it take to grow the supplemental feed for one small milk goat during the six-month cold season?

Goat ration

Abigail didn't seem to need much other than hay during the beginning of the winter while her pregnancy was in its early stages, so I figure a sixth of a head of sunflowers and a carrot per day would provide the bulk of her ration during that time. In addition, I've been matching her carrot ration with a similar amount of butternut squash or sweet potatoes lately, figuring that variety is good for our goat's health, and I'll include mangels in that extras list next winter. For the sake of easy math, I then doubled that ration for the late pregnancy and early milking months, resulting in the feed amounts listed below:

Weekly ration (Oct. - Dec.)
Weekly ration (Jan. - Mar.)
Total ration
Heads of sunflowers
Carrots (large)
Butternuts (small)
Sweet potatoes (small)
Mangels (small)

Next, the question becomes, how much space would I need to grow that much feed? Using low-ball figures on yield for each of our 5-foot-by-3-foot beds (better safe than sorry), I came up with:

# beds
Square feet
Heads of sunflowers
Sweet potatoes


Goat manger

That's really not much space at all to provide a goat all of her feed except hay! Of course, by this time next year, Artemesia will be pregnant too, so we'll need to double those numbers. And we might also need to add on some supplemental feed for the summer months, so I'll triple the chart's estimates to be on the safe side. Still, considering that I plant nearly ten times that much area for me and Mark, a few extra beds of butternuts tucked away in a corner shouldn't be too much skin off my teeth, especially since all except the carrots (and possibly mangels) are on my ultra-easy-to-grow list.

Posted Wed Feb 4 07:42:47 2015 Tags:
tapping a Box Elder tree for sap

Does Box Elder sap taste as good as Sugar Maple sap?

We tapped our first Box Elder today to find out.

Posted Wed Feb 4 15:10:49 2015 Tags:
Split white oaks

I went out into the woods last weekend looking for tree species on the shiitake-favorites list...and ended up stumbling across not one but two places with white oaks perfect for the cutting! I guess I wrote too soon when I said our farm is too low and wet for oaks.

The great thing about the oaks I found is that they're close to our core homestead and they're double-trunked. The latter factor means that cutting down one trunk is equivalent to pruning the tree, not killing it. In fact, when Mark cut the trunk he's currently working on in the photo above, I could tell that the top part was already starting to die back as the larger trunk took up more and more of the tree's nutrients. Using up the base of the trunk for mushroom logs and the top for firewood won't be taking much out of our forest ecosystem at all (although the woodpeckers may miss the snag for nesting).

Cutting mushroom logs

I had planned to cut one of the double trunks from the tree in the foreground of the first photo as our second tree, but in the end I decided to give that individual another five or ten years to grow. I wouldn't have gotten many mushroom logs out of the trunk as-is, so instead I opted to let Mark cut a single-trunked oak that was just the right diameter. I think this tree will sprout back from the base (since that's how our double-trunked trees arose in the first place), so hopefully we'll have more mushroom logs about forty-five years. (Yes, counting the rings of one of the cut oaks showed it to be just about Mark's age.)

Full cold moon

In Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation (a top-notch book that I'll be reviewing later this month), Tradd Cotter recommends cutting logs about a week before plugging with spawn to give the tree's natural defenses time to dissolve. At the other extreme, you might get away with waiting as long as two months between cutting and plugging for oaks, but sooner is generally better than later since wild mushroom spawn can invade if you wait too long. But don't inoculate if you're going to see prolonged periods below 18 degrees Fahrenheit in the near future --- instead, keep the spawn in the fridge and wait until the weather warms up a bit. Hopefully our weather will cooperate and we'll be able to plug our oak logs week after next.

Posted Thu Feb 5 07:49:30 2015 Tags:
Making a well cover

Well coverWhen Artemesia gets bored, she starts jumping on things. And since her belly is smaller than Abigail's, even an afternoon of nibbling cover crops counts as boring for our little doeling.

Last weekend, I had the terrifying image of Artemesia hopping up onto our well housing...and falling down the hole. A well cover will keep the water cleaner and will also give us some peace of mind.

Posted Thu Feb 5 15:31:07 2015 Tags:

Insulated skirtingSometimes when I overthink a project, I back myself into a corner and nothing ever gets done. For example, re-insulating the lower part of the trailer would, in a perfect world, go in this order:

  • Add insulation under the floor everywhere that the original insulation has fallen out (and perhaps replace the stuff that's still in place while I'm at it).
  • Run insulated skirting around the entire trailer to fill in the gap between the walls and the ground.
  • Add on porches and other structures onto the sides of the trailer.

But the problem with this campaign is that I haven't wrapped my head around the best way to insulate under the floor, and that's also the project I care about the least. As a result, somehow two porches ended up attached to the trailer before I'd even begun step one of my reinsulation project.

Still, it did seem like a good idea to install the skirting behind the mushroom tower before we started putting mushroom logs and water-tower braces in place. Luckily, I discovered that it's not all that difficult to do the tasks in the wrong order --- yes, I had to crawl under the porch and the trailer, but I embraced my inner coal miner and survived.

So maybe I was wrong with my original plan. Maybe it should have been:

  • Do what I think is the most fun first.
  • Then do whatever suits my fancy next.
  • And finish up with what's left.
Posted Fri Feb 6 06:42:05 2015 Tags:
using a ribbon to estimate the weight of a goat

Turns out you can use a ribbon to estimate the weight of your goat.

Artemesia was very interested...Abigail not so much.

Posted Fri Feb 6 14:43:35 2015 Tags:
Talking to a goat

(This picture of Mark and Artemesia is totally unrelated to this post. But aren't they cute together?)

The Naturally Bug-Free GardenNow back to the point.... I'm experimenting with offering some of my ebooks beyond Amazon at the moment, and I'm hoping I can bribe you into helping me out by leaving a review on one or more of the new sites. I decided to start off with Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook and The Naturally Bug-Free Garden. The first book is perfect for folks who are considering hatching homegrown chicks this spring (or who just want to learn about pasturing very young birds) while the second will get your garden off to a good start (and will be hitting bookstores next month!).

But don't take my word for it! You can download a free epub copy of either or both between now and February 11. Just use the code QB38N at Smashwords for Incubation Handbook and the code SX87Z at Smashwords for The Naturally Bug-Free Garden. Then, if you enjoy what you read, please use the links below to leave reviews on any retailers where you have an account (and also feel free to copy and paste reviews from Amazon if you've already read and reviewed there).

Permaculture Chicken: Incubation HandbookHere are the links for Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook:

And for The Naturally Bug-Free Garden:

"Yeah, yeah," I can hear you saying. "What's in it for me?" I'm glad you asked. I really appreciate the time you take leaving your reviews, so if you do so on any of the sites listed above (including Smashwords and Amazon), you'll be eligible to enter our giveaway using the widget below. One lucky winner will take home a heaping helping of homesteading books:

That's a $92 value, and a huge amount of homesteading wisdom at your fingertips --- I hope the bribe is sufficient to get you to enter. Thanks in advance for your help as I expand my readership beyond Amazon!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Sat Feb 7 07:46:33 2015 Tags:
Pushing down a tree

When cutting on a steep slope, sometimes I don't get my notch quite right.

The solution is to cut until just before the trunk starts to bend back and pinch the chainsaw's bar...

...then push over the tree.
Posted Sat Feb 7 14:29:26 2015 Tags:
Measuring a goat's girth

There are quite a few reasons to estimate your goats' weight on a regular basis. With a doeling, most sources recommend that you wait to breed her until she's attained 70% of her adult weight, and it's also handy to keep track of all kids' weight as they grow to make sure they're doing well.

With adult goats, frequent weigh-ins help you decipher feeding regimes, medications, and possible parasite loads. For example, most sources recommend that a goat be allowed to eat 10% of her body weight in hay if she's not on pasture. Similarly, you should expect a mature goat to put on a little weight naturally in the spring when the grass greens up, perhaps to lose a bit during hot spells in midsummer, then to bulk up a bit again in the fall. If she's losing weight when she should be gaining, you might need to focus on deworming.

Picking up a goat

But it's tough to get an accurate weight measurement on a goat. First of all, you either need an animal scale, or you need to pick up the goat (tough for a goat like Abigail who is not interested in being manhandled; the photo above comes from this past fall, when our herd boss was less pregnant and thus less sensitive about her belly). Similarly, that 10% weight gain after eating her morning hay is going to completely throw off the measurement.

Enter the goat-girth chart or the (slightly) more complicated body-weight formula. In the case of the former (which is accurate to +5% on standard-sized dairy goats), you measure around the goat's body just behind their armpits and shoulder blades, then convert from inches to pounds using the table below. (Be sure to pull the tape tight, and to take into account fluffy winter hair.) If you want to be more accurate, you can use the formula right after the chart, which adds in a second measurement --- the goat's length --- to add in a bit more accuracy.

Heart girth
Heart girth
Heart girth
10 3/45203032100
11 3/46213433105
12 3/47223834115
13 1/48234335125
13 3/49245036140
14 1/410255637150
14 3/411266238160
15 1/412276839170

Here's the formula: (If you put in inches, then you'll get pounds.)

Heart girth X Heart girth X Body length / 300 = Weight

Playing with goats

You can buy tape measurers that automatically convert the heart girth to pounds, or you can make your own the way I did using a bit of ribbon. While my ribbon won't be as accurate as using the formula, it should give me an idea of relative weight gains and losses for our girls, and will definitely make my life easier since I can just pull it tight around Artemesia's chest and call out "37 pounds!" (That was my first measurement, but the girls were so Goat heart girthcaught up in enjoying the bright yellow ribbon that they wiggled like crazy during the first trial. Next time, I'll try measuring while they're chowing down on breakfast, a period when even Abigail lets me check beneath her tail, feel under her belly for babies (who kicked Thursday!), and probe the tendons on either side of her tail to search for signs of impending birth.)

Adding this data to my rough body-condition measurements (feeling for fat in various locations along the body) should help make sure I feed our girls just enough but not too much. I'm not sure that Abigail could eat too much food right now, but since we've decided not to breed Artemesia at her bare-minimum age, we'll have to be careful that she doesn't get too fat while waiting for her fall date with a buck (possibly one of Abigail's kids?). Good thing our little doeling thinks a measuring tape around her chest is as good as a hug!

Posted Sun Feb 8 07:57:11 2015 Tags:
well cover protection

We thought a layer of flashing would keep most of the moisture away from rotting our new well cover.

Posted Sun Feb 8 14:39:13 2015 Tags:
Tapping a box-elder

I was stunned by the productivity of the one box-elder tree we tapped --- after a single bright, sunny day, our two-gallon bucket was nearly completely full!

I usually cook down my sap in stages, letting a pan of the liquid sit on the wood stove until it's partway cooked down, then later combining that sap with other partway-cooked-down Cooking down maple sapsap to cook up a larger batch of syrup. But I wanted to know right off the bat whether box-elder syrup was worth making, so I took our bucket full of sap and cooked it all the way down over the course of 24 hours. The result was a quarter of a cup of syrup that lacked the bright gold color of maple syrup and the delicate vanilla-like scent, but tasted every bit as good. (Mark said the box-elder sap might be slightly less sweet per unit volume, but he still licked his lips after the taste test!)

I realized in the process that I'd never actually gotten a comparable figure for how much syrup we get out of sugar-maple sap, so I took the half gallon of sap that came from our sugar maple during the same time period and cooked it down, resulting in an eighth of a cup of syrup.

For those keeping track at home, that means my box-elder sap-to-syrup ratio is 115:1, while the sugar-maple sap-to-syrup ratio is 64:1. On the other hand, we got nearly four times as much sap from the box-elder during the same time period, so actual yields of syrup from the two trees were twice as high for the box-elder!

Box-elder and maple syrup comparison

The good news is that we have hundreds of box-elders within easy tapping distance. The bad news is that, if we go beyond tapping a tree or two at a time, we actually have to put effort into the operation. Mark asked me to estimate how many human-hours it took to create half a cup of maple syrup (what we'd produced in January) and I figured about an hour, if that. The reason the project has been so un-time-consuming in the past is that the sap bucket is right on my daily walk, so it only takes a couple of minutes to swap out containers each day. After that, the sap just sits on top of the wood stove, which we're running anyway to heat the trailer, so energy use is also kept at a minimum. For larger amounts of sap, we'd have to make special sap-carrying trips and figure out some way to cook down the sap efficiently (probably outside).

We'll have to put some thought into the right size for our own syruping operation --- the sweet spot, if you will. In the meantime, I'm experimenting with maple-syrup recipes for the next volume in the Farmstead Feast series and am taking suggestions. Other than poured over pancakes, what's your favorite way to eat maple syrup?

Posted Mon Feb 9 07:14:58 2015 Tags:
tether ball for goats

We installed a tether ball today for the goats to play with.

It started raining as we finished up so we'll have to wait for a dry day to see how athletic our girls are.

Posted Mon Feb 9 15:21:10 2015 Tags:
Goat milking stand

As Abigail gets closer to B-day (which could be now or at the end of the month), I'm easing her into the milking routine. She needs that extra attention since, unlike our little lap goat, Abigail isn't a big fan of being fondled. But over the last week or so, I've gotten our pregnant goat to the point where she doesn't mind me feeling under her belly and along her tendons and looking under her tail as long as she's chowing down on her morning ration. So I figured it was high time we started moving her to the milking stand before her morning OB/GYN appointment.

Although most of you will probably think it's crazy, we're considering leaving the milking stand on the front porch. The plus of this location is that it's far away from manurey bedding and is thus quite clean. Plus, it's close to the fridge and running water, making the prep and aftermath of milking easier.

Goat breakfastOn the negative side, Lucy gets fed on this porch at the moment, and our loyal dog is not a fan of anyone except herself and humans eating there. As obedient as ever, Lucy did allow the goats to usurp her porch Sunday morning, but I could tell our dog was edgy due to the amount of split firewood she dragged off into the yard to gnaw on. And Lucy's edginess made Abigail edgy, so our pregnant goat didn't allow me to feel her up the way I usually do.

Meanwhile, Artemesia proved to be even more of a problem. Our little doeling kept trying to hop up onto the milking stand, causing Abigail to butt her off. Then the doeling started exploring the porch, so I ended up tying her to one leg of the milking stand. Unfortunately, I haven't been training Artemesia to understand being tied to a leash, and so spent a lot of effort trying to figure out why she couldn't ramble whimsically about.

So, maybe the porch wasn't such a good idea after all. Or maybe everyone just needs a few days to settle into the new routine?

In the meantime, I'm hoping that some experienced goatkeepers will help me determine how soon after kidding we should start milking our goat. My plan is to shut the kids into the kidding stall for the night, milk Abigail in the morning, then let the kids spend the day with their mom. But when do I start milking? Various sources tell me I should wait three days, two weeks, or much longer between kid birth and starting to steal the kids' dinner. What do you do?

Posted Tue Feb 10 07:34:48 2015 Tags:
firewood hauling

Our 2nd utility wagon is going on two years old.

The wagon structure is holding up well, but the air tends to leak out of the tires after a few weeks.

We might add inner tubes to each wheel, but for now we just use the foot pump to add air on firewood hauling days.

Posted Tue Feb 10 16:20:03 2015 Tags:

Best Management Practices for Log-Based Shiitake CultivationBlog-reader Ron pointed me toward the best shiitake-mushroom writing I've read to date...which you can download free here. Best Management Practices for Log-Based Shiitake Cultivation in the Northeastern United States has a dry, scientific title, but the interior is full of photos and is quite easy to read. In fact, I highly recommend you take the time to peruse all 57 pages if you're thinking of growing shiitakes in logs, but I'll sum up some of the most interesting points here in case you're short on time.

My favorite part of the text was the copious data. The file is full of real numbers about the best time to cut logs (winter and spring), the best number of days to wait before inoculating (none --- although when I look at the graph below, I wonder if a parabola wouldn't have been a better fit for the data than a straight line?), the best trees to inoculate (oak, sugar maple, ironwood, hop-hornbeam, and beech), the number of flushes to expect from a log (8 from red oak, 4 to 5 from red maple, all over the course of 3 to 5 years), and much Best time to inoculate shiitake logsmore. Interestingly, the scientists in charge even reported on blind taste tests, where they found that shiitakes grown on ironwood were considered bland while those on bitternut hickories were prized by top chefs.

Equally useful was the authors' sum-up of the differences between the three categories of shiitakes: wide-range, warm-weather, and cold-weather strains. In the past, I'd just assumed that these distinctions referred only to fruiting times, but mushrooms in each category actually tend to act and taste quite different as well. Cold-weather strains are nice for low-work backyard producers like us since they generally start fruiting on their own (actually preferring not to be shocked in most cases), can be inoculated into larger logs since you won't have to wrestle the substrate into and out of water to force fruiting, and often have the most intense flavor in their fruits. Wide-range strains are also a good choice for beginners because logs fruit quickly after inoculation and recover rapidly between shock treatments. Finally, warm-weather strains are optimal if you only have softer hardwoods like red maples available, or if you need to make sure you'll have a dependable harvest throughout the summer months.

Our spawn is already in the mail as I type, so it's too late to pick out varieties with this new information in hand. But I'm hopeful the types of shiitakes we chose will do well on our farm. Here are the descriptions for our three new strains (shamelessly copied from Field and Forest Products' website):

  • Snow Cap Shiitake (cold weather) --- Produces beautiful, uniform, thick fleshed caps tufted with white lacey ornamentation. A long natural outdoor season makes it a favorite for those who like to visit their logs regularly. Heaviest fruiting occurs early spring and late fall. Possibly the best winter strain in the South.
  • WW70 Shiitake (warm weather) --- This warm/cool weather strain has characteristics close to a CW strain. Its late summer - late fall fruiting period outdoors is one of the longest of all our strains. It is also one of the most beautiful, with dark caps and lots of contrasting ornamentation. Please note that WW70â„¢ does not respond well to force fruiting.
  • Native Harvest Shiitake (wide range) --- Naturalized on our farm several years ago, this strain has been tested from North to South and the results are the same: a very fast, vigorous strain with excellent quality. First found on oak, it is also a good producer on Red Maple. Unlike other wide range species, Native Harvestâ„¢ also gives a late fall flush; an added bonus for the Thanksgiving table! Spawn run is 6 to 12 months.
Posted Wed Feb 11 07:28:17 2015 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: AprilA huge thank-you to those of you who have entered my homesteading book giveaway by downloading and reviewing a free copy of The Naturally Bug-Free Garden and/or Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook! You've still got a couple of days left to win $92 worth of homesteading books, and I've got one more option for you to review. Weekend Homesteader: April covers the first four projects in my Weekend Homesteader series, including tips on why and how to start a no-till garden from scratch. The book is currently free (and seeking reviews) on:

Take a look, and if you like what you see, I'd really appreciate it if you left a review to help the book get a head start on those new retailers! Then come back over here and plug in your information for a chance to win a bundle of homesteading paperbacks.

Posted Wed Feb 11 11:04:16 2015 Tags:
close up of installed battery cut off switch disconnect

I installed this battery disconnect switch to prevent a small short in our truck from draining the battery.

It's a well built product that was easy to install.

Hooking up the battery cable to the switch first gives you a little more wiggle room to get things tightened. You have to reach under a heater hose to reach the knob, but it's a whole lot better than jumping the truck every time we need to use it.

Posted Wed Feb 11 15:49:28 2015 Tags:
Maple syrup meringues

Maple sap sickleThe first recipe I tried with our homemade maple syrup was meringues. I'm looking for a recipe that you can make using homegrown ingredients and that really showcases the maple-syrup flavor, and the meringues came in as a definite...maybe.

The sticking point (quite literally) is that if you don't have parchment paper, your dessert will crumble to pieces when you try to pry the cookies off the pan. Also, Mark didn't realize until prompted that the cookies were made with maple syrup --- instead, he felt that they tasted like vanilla wafers. Still tasty enough to eat up all the crumbs, though!

Here's the recipe in case you want to try this simple recipe at home. Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 0.5 cups maple syrup
  • pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 200 F. Beat the eggs until soft peaks form, then add the maple syrup and salt. Mix lightly, then spoon onto a cookie sheet (or two) lined with parchment paper. Bake in the middle to upper rack for 60 to 75 minutes, until the meringues are starting to turn golden brown. The maple syrup means that these meringues will cook a shorter time than that listed in most recipes, so be careful not to let them burn!

Cooking down maple sap

In other syrup-related news, we've produced about a pint of syrup so far in 2015, and I'm starting to work the kinks out of my low-tech production methods. When I bring home a bucket of sap, I immediately put the liquid in a skillet on the wood stove if we're currently heating the house. Unattended (perhaps over multiple days if the weather is warm), I cook the sap down until it's perhaps a fourth of its original volume, then I sock that concentrate away in a big jar in the fridge until I've got about half a gallon to a gallon of the condensed sap.

When the fridge is getting overloaded with sap jars, I throw the condensed sap back on the wood stove until it once again cooks down to a fraction of its original volume. When I start seeing white bubbles, though, I take the skillet off the wood stove and put it on the electric Maple syrup foaming upstove where I can monitor it more closely. Next, I cook on medium to high heat until foam over --- when the sap suddenly starts creating a huge amount of big white bubbles that fill the entire pan. At this point, I stir frequently and watch the clock, aiming for 1.5 to 2 minutes of further cooking to create the perfect maple syrup.

As you can see from the sap-sickle at the top of this post, our weather is still too cold for strong sap runs, but we've had a few good days so far. It sure is fun to come home from my morning walk with a bucket of subtly sweet liquid that I know will turn into a delightful project and a delicious addition to our late-winter meals!

Posted Thu Feb 12 07:52:58 2015 Tags:
keeping bugs out of a sap bucket

One downside to using a bucket to collect sap is the bugs.

We modified this lid with a piece of metal screen material to help keep our sap more pure.

Posted Thu Feb 12 15:44:26 2015 Tags:
Sunny winter garden

The first chorus frog creaked its spring call from the woods Wednesday and the first male hazel catkins softened into bloom. Meanwhile, Kayla and I spent the afternoon with our hands sunk deep into the soil, preparing a bed for spring lettuce and mulching some overlooked garlic. In fact, it was so warm that even Huckleberry came out to help with our garden tasks.

But I won't be planting lettuce (or peas) quite yet. Even though I mark February 2 as the first outside planting of the year, I play the actual date by ear, keeping an eye on the weather and on soil temperatures. With temperatures due to plummet today and to stay below freezing for the foreseeable future, I opted to simply lay down some dark-colored compost and erect quick hoops to continue heating the lettuce-bed soil, but to keep my seeds inside where they can stay warm and dry.

Cutting scionwood in the snow

Good thing too since our farm looked very different 22 hours later! Fingers sure do get chilly when you cut scionwood in the snow.

Posted Fri Feb 13 06:43:22 2015 Tags:
big truck rock delivery failure

We tried to get a big truck of 6 inch rock delivered today.

The driver had some problems with our driveway and had to give up after several failed attempts.

Now we need to either find someone with a smaller dump truck or do some repair to our driveway.

Posted Fri Feb 13 15:05:20 2015 Tags:

The Goat Care HandbookWhenever I get excited or worried about a topic, I pick up a book to ease my mind. I'm pretty excitable, so I read a lot...especially while waiting for my first doe to give birth.

That said, I picked up Mary Turner Stille's
The Goat Care Handbook largely because I had read part of the text during a google search and was impressed by her astute advice. "Don't trim the hooves of a pregnant doe after the third month of gestation," she warns, "unless she is very docile because her struggles may harm her and the unborn kids." Stille's firsthand experience from decades of goat care came through in that simple admonition, so I had to read the entire book.

And I'm glad I did since the text offered answers to other questions that had been niggling against the back of my mind for weeks. For example, I've often wondered how much time you'd have to allot to goat-dining if you wanted to keep your herd penned up, giving them all of their feed by taking them out into the woods to browse daily. Stille actually kept goats in this manner for a while and found that her goats required about an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening for eating. In addition, she mentioned that she found the same grazing times in pastured goats when she later had fences in place (with the remainder of the day spent chewing cud, napping, and playing). I guess my half-hour of
honeysuckle herding (until we ran out last week) was making a bigger difference in our goats' dietary intakes than I'd assumed!

Doeling eating hayAlthough I've promised Mark not to lobby for any new livestock for at least a couple of years, I was also intrigued by Stille's information about combining goats with other animals. She wrote that a goat mixed in with a flock of sheep makes the woolly livestock easier to handle since the goat will come when you call and the sheep will follow. Similarly, one calf mixed in with goats will eat the waste hay (which goats won't touch once it hits the ground) and will keep the pasture more evenly mowed. (Unrelatedly, but still interesting, Stille is a fan of deep bedding on a dirt floor for goats, unlike Pat Coleby, although Stille does warn that bacteria can get into caprine hooves if you're not careful to keep bedding dry on top and hooves well trimmed.)

Goat browsing

In the end, I'd still recommend Storey's Guide to Raising Dairy Goats as the first book for most beginners to read. But The Goat Care Handbook would make a good second read, especially if paired with Raising Goats Naturally. Of course, the real test will be to see which goat book, if any, stays on my shelf more than a year or two since I cull my collection just as ruthlessly as Stille recommends culling your goats. Stay tuned to see which goat book stands the test of time...more details to come in 2017.

Posted Sat Feb 14 07:38:02 2015 Tags:
tether ball for goats

I moved our goat tether ball to the door frame.

It took a few days but they started to play with it yesterday.

Artemesia figured out how to get her front feet on top of the ball enough to use it to launch herself up and out the door like one of Santa's reindeer.

Abigail followed her lead by bumping it with her horns but was first more interested in saying hi to Lucy.

Posted Sat Feb 14 14:41:05 2015 Tags:
Ancona ducks

I wondered how long it would take for our five ducks to find the larger of our two creeks. And I also wondered --- if they took to the water, would they ever come back?

The answer is: February. And: yes.

Flapping duck

I have to admit that our ducks are growing on me. Chickens are so much more malleable, but ducks have their own appeal if you're able to let them roam semi-wild across a swampy property. (Outside the core perimeter, of course, so they don't bother the garden.) Despite their white color, we haven't lost a single duck to predators, and the waterfowl continue to average an 80% lay rate throughout the cold, dark winter. In contrast, our hens are only at about 50% at the moment.

When two mallards (wild version of the same species) flew over last week, I actually had a random thought that maybe a drake would drop in and inseminate our tame ducks, then she'd go broody and produce some ducklings to perpetuate the local population of the species. A very slim shot...but I actually wouldn't mind keeping ducks around for a while longer, if only to watch them dabble in the creek...and to enjoy those big, midwinter eggs.

Posted Sun Feb 15 07:17:52 2015 Tags:
cold creek with brick ford

Our creek freezing is an indicator that the previous night got down close to zero degrees.

Some part of our buried water line froze last night. We added an extra electric pipe heater to the part that enters our kitchen a few days ago and thanks to that extra bit of warmth the line thawed just after lunch which is a big improvement from last Winter.

Posted Sun Feb 15 16:17:44 2015 Tags:
Shiitake plugs

To ensure a steady supply of shiitakes, you should inoculate new logs every three to five years. We inoculated logs in 2007 and 2009, but by 2013, were feeling in need of more shiitakes.

Unfortunately, the plugs we ordered that winter arrived looking like plain wooden dowels, apparently mycelium-free. I trusted the source, though, so Mark and I drilled holes, pounded the plugs in, waxed over the holes...and waited.

Unfortunately, nothing happened, and I eventually realize that I should have trusted my gut. Here's your warning: if your spawn arrives and the substrate doesn't appear to be coated with white mycelium, something might be wrong.


Fast forward ahead two years. We decided to order from a different company this time around (Field and Forest Products, whose spawn has always grown like gangbusters for us). And sure enough, the plugs arrived fuzzy with mycelium...but frozen solid!

This time, the issue was entirely my own fault. I knew the spawn was shipping, but didn't change my routine of walking Lucy out to check the mail the morning after it's delivered rather than catching it on day one. So a night in the teens meant that I brought home spawn coated with ice crystals.

I emailed the folks at Field and Forest Products, and they responded quickly and soothingly. I wasn't to worry --- as long as the spawn didn't freeze and thaw repeatedly, it would be fine.

And, yes, I trusted them. But I also recalled how much work and time we wasted on spawn that didn't do anything two years ago. So I fell back on a technique I recently learned in Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation. Tradd Cotter recommends putting questionable spawn somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight for a few days to see if the mycelium begins to grow. Sure enough, after three days on top of the fridge, our plugs were whiter than ever!

Mushroom logs

We'd planned to inoculate our logs this week, but it looks like the weather isn't going to cooperate. While I'd read previously that it's okay to inoculate logs as long as you're not going to see lows beneath about 18, Field and Forest Products has a different guideline. They said to wait until daytime highs are reliably hitting 40 Fahrenheit...which was the case last year at this time, but not so much in 2015. (Actually, with lows of -12 now forecast, we wouldn't be plugging logs this week by anyone's guidelines.)

So the spawn is now resting in the fridge, along with scionwood and maple sap. It sure is a good thing I'm the head cook, or my homesteading spillover into the kitchen might get on the kitchener's nerves....

Posted Mon Feb 16 07:56:32 2015 Tags:

Sapling Grove SecretsThe average reader may not know this, but my father is one of the founding editors of Sow's Ear Magazine, and his poetry has been published widely in other journals including Madison Review. This winter, I got to enjoy the treat of looking through his body of work in search of an ebook...or two, or three. And, in the process, I discovered that his short stories pack the same punch as his poetry. In fact, they remind me of a mixture between O. Henry and Wendell Berry, and I suspect that many of you will enjoy the farm and small-town focus of the four pieces I picked out to include in his debut work.

But don't take my word for it! Sapling Grove Secrets is free on Amazon today to give you a taste of my father's surprising short stories. If you like what you read, you'll make both me and Daddy eternally grateful if you take the time to leave a review. He's saving up for his annual banana split, and a few good reviews on launch day will make that treat much more likely to happen. Thanks in advance, and I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did!

Posted Mon Feb 16 12:00:07 2015 Tags:
chicken tractor in the snow with hen

It snowed enough today to make the chickens and ducks choose a day in the coop instead of their normal routine.

We had a hen who kept escaping so we put her in a tractor for a week, but today seemed like the day to move her back to the flock.

Posted Mon Feb 16 15:50:05 2015 Tags:
Lovage seeds

Spurred on by the permanent flower/herb beds I'm adding against the newly skirted sides of our trailer, I decided to branch out into some additional herbs this year, and also expand our planting of thyme. (Because there's never quite enough thyme on our homestead!) While most perennial herbs are best purchased as plants, I always like to test my green thumb against minuscule seeds, so I filled a flat with chamomile, Greek oregano, thyme, fennel, lovage, and poppies.

Thyme seedsOf these, the chamomile is a self-seeding annual and the middle four should establish themselves as long-lived perennials. Poppies, on the other hand, are typical annuals that are planted in our main garden each year as a matter of course. So why include them in the herb flat?

The trouble is that my planting calendar says to seed poppies outdoors now, but our weather forecast has promised us at least a week below freezing with an ultimate low of -16 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, I could just put off planting the poppies the way I have the lettuce and will the early peas. But I often end up thinning and resetting garden-seeded poppies, so I figured I'd test them out as transplants instead this year.

Onion sprouts

Will the herbs be our first garden sprouts of 2015? Not at all! Onions started in flats at the beginning of February are beginning to send up green leaves at the moment. A perfect visual tonic for a February cold spell!

Posted Tue Feb 17 07:08:26 2015 Tags:
Lucy in the snow

8,5 inches of snow is a bit more than our previous snow storm when the power went out for 10 days

Our main access road got plowed once today, but we decided to wait till tomorrow for our regular trip to the Post Office.

Posted Tue Feb 17 15:12:36 2015 Tags:
Red-shouldered hawk

"How about staying inside today and taking it easy?" said the Red-shouldered Hawk. After seeing how much effort it took to push my way through 8.5 inches of snow just to do my morning chores, I decided the hawk was wise.

New fig leaf

Indoors, my winter-mood-stabilization projects are greening up nicely. The Mars Seedless grape cuttings I started rooting six weeks ago are opening their leaves, as is the little fig tree Sprouting poppy seedsI left inside for the winter. In contrast, Reliance grape cuttings started at the same time are still dormant above ground, which actually is a good thing --- the longer cuttings work on growing roots instead of leaves, the better.

Of my Valentine's herb seeds, all except the fennel and lovage have already sprouted! Shown here are poppy seeds that I planted far too thickly. But I won't mind thinning once they poke up their cotyledons --- a race to green which has been roundly won by the chamomile seedlings.

Snow ice cream

When I got sick of writing, I headed to the kitchen. How about some maple syrup snow ice cream? 2 tablespoons of milk, two tablespoons of cream, 1.5 tablespoons of maple syrup, and a big bowl of snow per serving. Delicious!

Posted Wed Feb 18 07:40:02 2015 Tags:
roof for sap bucket
We made our 2nd sap bucket roof out of Reflectix.
Posted Wed Feb 18 16:59:20 2015 Tags:
Goats eating hay

Carrying hayOn February 11, Abigail suddenly started looking a lot less pregnant. Maybe this is when the babies did the two-week pre-kidding change of position? Either way, I'm pretty sure now that our doe is due at the second possible date, which would be around March 4 if you go by the 150 day gestational period of a standard-sized goat, or around February 28 if you go by the 145 days that miniature goats average. (As a semi-standard goat, I'd say Abigail might be due right in the middle.)

We're all enjoying the bit of breathing room from thinking there will be kids at any moment. Plus, by stocking up on hay and upgrading our manger, daily chores have been kept to a minimum. Less hay dropped to the ground means that our storage shed still Goat on a barrelcontains 7.5 of the 9 bales we put away near the end of January. We should definitely have plenty of hay to last until spring.

On the other hand, Abigail has been a bit crankier lately, presumably because those unborn kids are starting to weigh her down. She kicks Artemesia out of the shed unless the weather's really bad in order to keep the doeling out of her hair. "Why don't you go see if you can stand on that ice-covered barrel?" says our pregnant doe. "Oh, goodie!" answered Artemesia. "That sounds like loads of fun!"

Posted Thu Feb 19 06:53:19 2015 Tags:
mark Snowed in
truck driving through deep snow

We made it to town today after being snowed in all week.

Might not have made it without last year's truck tire upgrade.

Posted Thu Feb 19 16:45:30 2015 Tags:

Organic Mushroom Farming and MycoremediationAlthough Tradd Cotter's Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation deserves a full lunchtime series...I already wrote one after listening to his inspiring lectures. So, instead, I'll simply tell you that this beautifully illustrated book is a must-read for anyone interested in homestead-scale mushroom production. You'll learn more in-depth information about many of the home-propagation techniques I've posted about previously, will be inspired to try out mycoremediation in your chicken coop, and much more. Then dive deeper into topics like producing a slurry of morel spores and associated microbes to grow this elusive species at home, or experiment with propagating shiitakes without a lab by stacking thinly sliced logs separated by pieces of damp cardboard.

I really can't do Tradd's book justice in a single post, so I'm merely going to sum up some information on which mushroom species are best to grow in specific ways. Tradd has a great section at the end of the book giving species-by-species cultivation techniques for twenty-four types of mushrooms, and he also breaks the species down into difficulty categories. Based on that data, raw beginners who want to fruit their mushrooms outdoors should consider black poplar mushrooms, wood ears, reishi, brick tops, oysters and elm oysters, shiitakes, stropharia, and turkey tails.

Mushroom raft
The book also clued me in to why my rafts didn't do as well as I thought they would --- only reishi, nameko, black poplar, brick top, and maitake are recommended for this type of cultivation. Stumps, similarly, are best for maitake, chicken of the woods, reishi, enoki, oysters, and beefsteaks, with the tradeoff being that stumps take longer to start to fruit than logs do, but that they then tend give you many more years of harvests before petering out. Finally, if you want to grow mushrooms on cardboard, oysters, blewits, and stropharia are a good choice (at least during the vegetative stage).

Although I have a tendency to focus on the easiest types of mushroom growing (namely oysters and shiitakes seasonally fruiting on logs), Mark likes the idea of faster production using sawdust, wood chips, coffee grounds and other substances in containers. And Tradd succeeded in knocking out one of my roadblocks to Mark's proposal, namely the constant use of throwaway plastic bags. Instead, the mushroom guru recommends putting your growing substrate in PVC pipes, nursery pots, or five-gallon buckets, all of which can be modified with holes and sanitized in a 10% bleach-water solution to allow reuse. Using these methods, you can see mushrooms as soon as three weeks after inoculation when growing oysters on coffee grounds --- too bad we don't drink that beverage or have a coffee shop nearby!

In the end, Tradd's book is just as inspiring as his lectures were, but the contents are much more meaty. I read the book slowly over the course of a couple of months and recommend you do the same to enjoy the full effect. Other mushroom books --- notably those by Paul Stamets --- will be a good supplement for the mushroom enthusiast, but Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation has now risen to the top of my list of recommended mushroom books for the homestead fungiphile. This book will be staying on my shelf for years to come and I expect it will inspire many mushroom experiments. Stay tuned for details as we try to propagate shiitakes using the log method and perhaps grow some oyster mushrooms on old jeans.

Posted Fri Feb 20 04:47:10 2015 Tags:
deer running away in snow

We had our first power failure of 2015 last night.

I guess it was caused by the extreme low temperatures.

Nice of it to come back on before lunch today.

Posted Fri Feb 20 15:33:20 2015 Tags:
Pathways in the snow

At -22 Fahrenheit, we clearly see the difference between the addition we built and the main trailer. Even though the corners aren't precisely square in the former, we insulated it like mad and thus find it easy to keep the internal temperature at a balmy 68 throughout arctic blasts. In contrast, inside the trailer, I had to keep the wood stove running full bore from 4:30 am on to maintain a temperature above 40. We sure would add a lot more insulation to our main living space if our normal weather regularly dropped down so far below 0.

Dog walking down a snowy trail

Despite the momentary discomfort, though, my main concern with this cold snap is fruit trees. Will our Chicago Hardy fig simply die back to the ground the way it did last year at -12, or will -22 be the death knell for this Mediterranean fruit? Our current thick snow cover should protect overwintering garlic and strawberries, but with dormant peach buds starting to get damaged at -10 Fahrenheit, will we even see a bloom this spring? I sure am glad I decided to wait at least until March to prune.

Posted Sat Feb 21 07:47:14 2015 Tags:
mark Snow dog
Lucy plowing through snow deep

What kinds of Homesteading chores do we do when buried by snow?

Anna has been working on a new book and I've been building extra chicken waterers.

Posted Sat Feb 21 13:41:04 2015 Tags:
Cold snow
"Hubby asked me yesterday 'When it's THIS cold out, what ~has~ to be done outside, and how long do you think it will take?'"
--- Karen B.

Great question, Karen (especially since it gives me an excuse to include lots of snow photos in this post)! The answer, of course, will depend on where you live and on what kind of homestead you have. Presumably, if you homestead in Alaska, you've worked out systems to deal with all of the cold-weather issues, and -22 is just par for the course. So, for the sake of this post, I'll assume that you live exactly where we do and homestead exactly how we do.

Snow-covered creek

I've spent a lot of time over the past week wondering how homesteaders managed before the era of 10-day weather forecasts. Luckily, modern homesteaders have quite a long heads-up and tend to know when cold spells are coming. As a result, Mark and I prepared extensively before our current deep freeze:

  • Splitting lots of firewood and stacking it on the porch for easy access.
  • Pouring out our old stored drinking water and refilling the jugs, then filling a few buckets with wash water to sit on the kitchen floor for animal hydration and dishes. (This assumes that your water, like ours, reliably freezes around 5 Fahrenheit, but causes no problems except requiring water rationing.)
  • Measure snowCooking lots of easily reheatable meals for simple human nutrition when the power goes out.
  • Making sure the top layer of deep bedding in the goat barn and chicken coop is very fresh since the animals won't want to go outside and will be adding more manure than usual to the bedding. (Plus, fresh bedding will keep them warmer during those frigid nights.)
  • Filling the goat manger with hay up to the brim. (Remember, a belly full of hay is the best way to keep your goats warm.)
  • Moving any inside plants a little further away from the window and/or closer to the fire. Lifting anything perishable (like sweet potatoes) that are sitting directly on the floor up onto a counter so they won't freeze.

If you messed up and didn't prepare, some of these tasks can be done on sunny afternoons during the deep freeze. But I'll assume they're not part of your daily chores for the sake of this post.

Snowy homestead

Okay, so the mercury has plummeted --- what do you absolutely have to do and how long does it take? Starting at dawn, I make two quick trips into the outside on ultra-cold mornings. The first involves bringing a bucket of warm water and their morning ration to the goats, and taking in yesterday's bucket of ice. The second involves bringing a chicken waterer full of warm water to the chickens, tossing a bit of food into their coop, and then taking in any eggs. Actual time spent outside: two 5-minute sessions, with glove-warming lulls in between.

Snowy hillside

The second trip is similar to the first and occurs right after lunch. Once again, everyone gets warm water swapped out for the morning ice, and I've noticed that this is when the goats go Snow melting around a tree trunkcrazy drinking, having spent the morning filling up on hay. This is also when I tend to gather our eggs on cold days --- some will have frozen solid and cracked if the night got below 0, but often I'm able to nab them in good condition as long as I get there by early afternoon. Finally, while my boots are already on, I bring in enough firewood to make sure I can keep the wood stove raging until the next morning, while Mark often takes this time to bring in a bucket or two of water from the tank so we can catch up on dishes. Actual time spent outside: 20 minutes, with more dawdling to enjoy the snow.

Snow-covered vehicles

Of course, I can't survive on a mere half an hour of outside time per day, so as long as the day gets above 20, I tend to trick Lucy into going out for a walk with me in the afternoon. She and I take turns breaking trail through the thick snow, and we do all the things that don't actually need to be done. We carry in more hay to top up the manger, check the mail box, and brush snow off the sap-bucket roofs. Then we settle in for a well-deserved rest in front of the fire. Cold and snow are a great excuse to take it easy!

Posted Sun Feb 22 07:29:32 2015 Tags:
Lucy on the porch couch

Where does Lucy stay when it's cold?

She sometimes sleeps in her house with the heated kennel pad, but she prefers the couch on our front porch most nights.

The other night when it got down to -22 she slept on the floor inside with me for the first time.

Posted Sun Feb 22 13:04:48 2015 Tags:

Changing hardiness zonesFirst the Arbor Day Foundation and then the USDA came out with revised hardiness maps during the past decade, responding to our changing climate. And in both cases, the maps promise that our farm has moved to a warmer place. But can we take their recommendations as gospel?

Depending on which map you consider, our farm could have moved from zone 6a to zone 6b or even to zone 7, with average annual extreme minimums of -10 to -5, -5 to 0, and 0 to 5 respectively. However, given the data of the last two years --- with annual minimums of -12 and -22 --- we might be smarter looking for plants that can handle zone 5b or even zone 4b, suggesting that our winters have become colder rather than more mild. Granted, each zone's annual minimums are supposed to be averages only, so it's somewhat normal to exceed those minimums from time to time. Still, two years in a row of deep-freeze conditions begins to look like a trend.

I posted before about Logsdon's recommendations for easy fruit tree species by zone, with the map below summarizing the author's recommendations. If we're moving a zone or two north, though, that would mean Japanese plums, peaches, sweet cherries, and hardy figs all drop off the easy list, leaving us with only apples, pears, European plums, and sour cherries to savor. Similarly, blackberries, rabbiteye blueberries, and hardy kiwis might all become dicey if the current trend toward arctic blasts continues.
Easy fruit trees
Which isn't to say that we won't be able to grow the dropped species at all. However, our sun trap along the south face of the trailer might become prime real estate for plants that have become a gamble from a climatic standpoint, and we might eventually have to admit that peaches and figs in the main part of the garden are doomed to failure.

Or maybe these brief cold spells won't have the same effect as a full zone 5 winter. Only time will tell. But I do recommend keeping track of your annual minimum temperatures and also perusing both of the new hardiness-zone maps...especially if, like Karen B., you're planning to put in $928 worth of fruit trees. If nothing else, stick to spring planting for questionable species, and plant your charges in well-drained soil shielded from wind and in an area exposed to the maximum amount of winter sun. Here's hoping all of your fruit trees --- and mine too --- are surviving this long, cold winter.

Posted Mon Feb 23 07:26:10 2015 Tags:
Lucy helping to drill holes in log

We drilled our first mushroom log of 2015 today.

It was just the right amount of fun, outside labor to remind us that the snow will someday melt.

Posted Mon Feb 23 15:02:38 2015 Tags:
Mini mushroom logs

Oyster mushrooms are easy to propagate on the home scale using cardboard, so I spent quite a few years pushing oysters. But the truth is that, while Mark thinks oyster mushrooms are good, he thinks shiitakes are great.

Unfortunately, shiitake mushroom spawn is less malleable than oysters and won't thrive on cardboard. Enter the mini-mushroom-log propagation experiment!

Cutting mushroom logs

I call it an experiment, but the truth is that Tradd Cotter lists this as a viable technique in his book. Granted, he uses logs that are much larger in diameter than the little rounds I had Mark cut up and drill for me to plug Monday. But I'm hoping that as long as I keep them moist, logs 8 inches long and 3.5 inches in diameter will be sufficient for getting the shiitake mycelium running. Eventually, we can stack multiple rounds together, allow the mycelium to fuse, and thus have enough fungal body to produce a good mushroom flush.

Bagging up mushroom logsThe other thing I'm adding to give this experiment my own personal twist is to bag each log loosely and let the spawn run through the logs at room temperature. This is pure winter-doldrums thinking on my part --- I want something to play with now!

Once I start seeing mycelium on the ends of the logs, I'll put a piece of wet cardboard on top of each log and a fresh, unplugged log above that. Tradd promises that the original spawn will pass through the cardboard and into the new wood, expanding my planting without buying new plugs.

Total cost for this experiment: $3 worth of plugs, plus a bit of electricity to run the chainsaw and drill. I can only peer at my seedlings so many times a day, so having three mushroom logs to pore over while the ground is snow covered is worth the price of admission already.

Posted Tue Feb 24 07:39:33 2015 Tags:
inside the goat barn

How are the goats coping with all this snow?

Anna has started adding some dried kelp to their morning snacks after she noticed Abigail eating most of the kelp in the free choice bins.

They do bounce the tether ball from time to time, but mostly look out the door and yearn for a snow free pasture.

Posted Tue Feb 24 14:14:09 2015 Tags:
Thawing snow

After a warm weekend that began to thaw our accumulated snow, another couple of inches of snow fell Tuesday and set back my belief that spring will actually come. The solution? Ignore the outdoors and write!

I'm working on two different projects at the moment, and am hoping to pick our readers' hive mind about both. The first project is the sequel to Farmstead Feast: Winter, imaginatively titled Farmstead Feast: Spring. Even though this is supposed to be a cookbook, spring is also the time to be planting to ensure that you have something to cook with, so I was considering throwing in a quick section on how much area we devote to each vegetable variety and when we plant in order to feed the two of us all year. But, of course, that information will be only moderately useful to people with different diets and who live in different climates than us. Would you find that a handy appendix at the end of the spring cookbook, or should I stick to recipes?

Dog in the snow

Second, I'm excited to announce that my fourth paperback, The Ultimate Guide to Soil: A Gardener's Tips and Tricks for Organic, Nutrient-Rich, DIY Humus will be hitting bookstores in spring or summer 2016! I originally tried to sell Homegrown Humus to my publisher, but they felt like cover crops were a little too much of a niche subject. And when my editor came up with that alternative title, I couldn't resist saying that I'd expand the book to include much more than the topic I'd written about so far.

I'm planning on keeping The Ultimate Guide to Soil much more hands-on than all of the soil books I've been perusing in order to educate myself about the topic, so I'm devoting perhaps half of the book to less mainstream methods home gardeners use to build the soil. In addition to cover crops, I've planned sections on remineralization, traditional compost, manure, bokashi, worm bins, black soldier flies, compost tea, hugelkultur, biochar, humanure and urine, leaf mould, and chop and drop. But I feel like there are more soil-building techniques that I'm not thinking of at the moment. Maybe you've got some ideas I should incorporate into the expanded book? Please consider leaving me a comment and brightening this snowy day with your ideas!

Posted Wed Feb 25 07:28:20 2015 Tags:
Lucy helping with truck

We ended up damaging our truck battery with all the recent draining and jumping and had to replace it with a new one..

The battery disconnect switch is working out nicely as long as I remember to turn the knob each time I get home.

Posted Wed Feb 25 15:53:43 2015 Tags:
Seed starting

I give myself about a week of wiggle room in my planting calendar, figuring that a few days early or late won't impact the seedlings much and can allow me to fit each planting into a much more favorable weather period. On the other hand, I sometimes use that week of wiggle room for the sake of my own sanity instead. For example, I planted a flat of tomatoes, borage, and cabbage a little earlier than I'm supposed to as a way of keeping the is-it-really-still-white-outside? blues away. Huckleberry was less than impressed at the way I continue to fill up the sunniest spots with seedling flats, but I reminded him that he's not really supposed to sit on the table anyway.

Herb seedlings

The previous round of seedlings are doing well, with only the fennel yet to sprout. Age might be a factor, but it's also possible that the fennel are just taking longer than the members of the mint family --- after all, my lovage seedlings only started poking out of the ground a day or two ago.

I did go through and thin the faster sprouters, slaughtering hundreds of baby seedlings in one fell swoop. I hadn't expected to have such near-perfect germination rates!

Bleaching seedling flats

I've also been pleased to see absolutely no damping off, which could be due to a number of factors. Honestly, I think the most relevant is the time of year and weather --- my earliest plantings often tend to skip that problematic fungus, presumably because it hasn't woken up in the wild yet. But it can't hurt that I've been soaking the seedling flats in bleach water before planting, and that I've been more careful about taking off the clear lids as soon as I notice the first sign of germination. The latter technique lets the surface of the soil dry out just enough to keep seedlings happy but fungi out of the picture.

I've still got a flat of broccoli to plant, but I finally ran out of non-frozen stump dirt. I'll probably break down and buy a bag of potting soil from the store, but that's a slippery slope --- with unlimited soil, I go a little crazy, and there are only so many sunny windows to go around. In fact, Huckleberry thinks I'm already past quota! Maybe I'll have to pull out the seedling card table sooner rather than later.

Posted Thu Feb 26 07:43:42 2015 Tags:
warped door being fixed

The extreme cold temperatures have caused one of our doors to warp.

We fixed it with some foam weatherstrip seals, but might have to upgrade the door if our Winters get much more extreme.

Posted Thu Feb 26 15:48:06 2015 Tags:

Soil compactionIf you don't want to destroy soil texture, burn up organic matter, and decimate your microorganism population by plowing or tilling the soil, what do you do to counteract compaction? Of course, your first step should be not to allow compaction to begin in the first place. I've trained everyone in our household (except Huckleberry) to only walk on our permanent aisles, staying out of the growing beds in our garden, and that goes a long way toward keeping soil compaction to a minimum. In addition, if you're not tilling, you're unlikely to be working the soil during wet weather --- another leading cause of compaction.

Still, who knows what happened to your ground before you moved in? Our core homestead was seriously overfarmed a few decades ago, and I can guess where permanent pastures once existed based on barbed wire that we're still digging out of the ground. Given the wetness of our homestead, I wouldn't be surprised if cows (the most likely animals to have been grazed here) seriously pugged winter soils, repeatedly treading the mud until all of those essential pores between soil particles collapsed.

Oilseed radishIf you suspect compaction, there are a variety of remedies available for the no-till gardener. Adding lots of organic matter never hurts and can greatly improve your soil structure when earthworms collect the compost or mulch and bring it deep into the soil, leaving handy channels for air and water in the worms' wake. Oilseed radishes and some other cover crops (such as alfalfa) are often planted for their tillage traits since the roots extend deep in the soil, then rot and create organic-matter-lined pathways much like the ones earthworms leave behind.

And then there's the broadfork. Given my penchant for winter digging, I've always eyed this tool speculatively, but the high price tag turned me off since I wasn't certain that my soil really needed the help. Still, leaving broadforks out of my upcoming soil book seemed like a major oversight, and when one of the bloggers I follow did all of the research for me and determined that Meadow Creature offers the best model in the U.S., I was sold. When I learned that Meadow Creature was willing to send me a review copy to try out, I was even more thrilled.

BroadforkThe big question then became --- which size broadfork should I choose? Meadow Creature offers three versions, each of which is a little bit bigger and heavier (and will also reach deeper into the soil) than the last. Margot Boyer at Meadow Creature wrote, "The 14" is our best seller; it weighs 20 pounds and provides deep cultivation in an ergonomic design. The 12" is also popular, especially with people who are 5'4" or under --- at 15 lbs it's easy for most folks to use and still digs deeper than any other forks we're aware of. I'm not suggesting the 16" size; it's a heftier tool and of interest mainly to professional farmers."

After talking it over with Mark, I finally settled on the smaller size. Yes, I consider myself to be pretty strong, but I'm also short and I know that the 17-pound t-post driver is right at the upper limit of my strength for repeated use. Plus, experience has proven that tools are much more likely to be used if they're easy to handle and fun.

Which is all a long way of saying that, once the snow melts and my new toy arrives, I'll be improving the structure of my garden beds with a broadfork this spring! I'll probably begin by hitting just half of most beds the first time around so I'll be able to report how much of a difference the broadfork action makes on this year's plant growth. Stay tuned for updates!

Posted Fri Feb 27 07:46:00 2015 Tags:
starplate roof snow load observations

Our Star Plate roof seems to handle snow a little better than the barn.

The steep angle produced twice as much clearing when the barn roof tended to accumulate more each snow episode we've had.

Posted Fri Feb 27 15:12:37 2015 Tags:
Homemade bokashi starter culture

One of the soil additives that I'm researching this year for my upcoming book is bokashi --- a method of composting food scraps in a sealed five-gallon bucket at high speeds with little or no smell. The jury's still out on whether this is a trendy technique primarily of interest to apartment dwellers, or whether land-based homesteaders should also give it a try. I suspect Soaking newspaper in bokashi culturethat after reading the book and doing a few experiments of my own, I'll be far more loquacious about my feelings on the topic.

In the meantime, I followed some internet instructions to make a starter culture out of one cup of whey drained from plain yogurt, one cup of molasses, and six cups of warm water. Soaking newspaper in this mixture, letting the excess water drain off, then sealing the wet newspaper in a ziplock bag to ferment on top of the fridge for two weeks is supposed to create a bokashi-like starter culture (although author Adam Footer believes that this culture isn't as high quality as the store-bought cultures some use). Mark's trying to talk me into buying some of the official starter culture too as a side-by-side comparison, which does sound like a useful way to dip into the advance from my publisher.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you. Have you tried bokashi? What did you feel were the pros and cons of the composting technique?

Posted Sat Feb 28 07:50:14 2015 Tags:
Playing with goats

I'm stealing Mark's spot to hit up our readers for timely advice. This morning, I became convinced that Abigail was going into labor, but now I'm not sure if what I'm seeing counts as contractions. At intervals, I'll see a ripple slide across her baby bump, often with a bulgy kid-part pushing out in an ungainly fashion. Once, I put my hand there and felt a hard kid hoof. Is this simply kids repositioning pre-labor, or do those movements count as contractions?

Goat chewing her cud

Other signs of imminent delivery abound. I caught Abigail arching her back like a cat once this morning, she's been yawning frequently, and she seems intent upon scratching the top of her head against the fence. Actually, our usually standoffish goat even came over and lay down right in front of me, then put her head in my lap asking for a head scratch. Meanwhile, Abigail has also been adamantly chasing our little doeling out of her immediate vicinity. Otherwise, though, she seems content to eat hay and chew her cud as usual.

So, what do you think --- should I be camping out in the starplate coop and locking our doe in her kidding stall, or relaxing until tomorrow?

Posted Sat Feb 28 15:23:13 2015 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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