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

archives for 03/2015

Mar 2015
Snowy garden

Two weeks ago, when the snow and deep freeze hit our farm, spring ground to a halt. It wasn't until this past Saturday that I felt like we were on the upward swing once again. The snow is finally melting faster than it's falling, and here and there bits of plant matter are beginning to poke above the snow.

Hazel catkins

Hazel catkins loosening and disgorging their pollen are nearly always the first spring bloom on our farm. Like everything else, I noticed the first catkin just about blooming before our snow storm...then the hazel bush went right back to sleep. But with highs above forty forecast for most of the next week, I'm betting the maple sap will start flowing and we might even hear frogs as our snow finally melts away. I sure am glad we don't live in the North!

Posted Sun Mar 1 07:06:58 2015 Tags:
snow damage to the quick hoops

Our two quick hoops took some serious damage this Winter.

It was twice the damage compared to the 2012 snow load.

Posted Sun Mar 1 16:08:06 2015 Tags:
Snow-covered hive

I took these photos a week ago, when snow had been on the ground for six days and I suddenly had the realization that my poor honeybees might be smothering inside their hive. I rushed out and brushed the entrance free, then pressed my ear against each side of each Brushing snow away from hivebox. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And then --- there! --- a low buzz.

The colony sounded awfully weak, which didn't really surprise me given the extremely low temperatures we'd been experiencing. But, at the same time, I knew that people successfully keep bees in much colder climates than ours, so I hoped for the best.

Imagine my joy when I went to listen again this past weekend and heard a louder hum. I think the bees were just hunkering down during the extreme cold, and I now have high hopes that they'll be able to make it until the first spring flowers begin to bloom. The dandelions should be out in force within a month --- hang in there, bees!

Posted Mon Mar 2 07:31:29 2015 Tags:
Splintered tree

When the snow slid off the barn roof, I almost thought I could feel the ground shake.

Unfortunately, the plum trees nearby were squashed by the avalanche. It looks like the snow danger zone extends out for at least twenty feet from each side of the barn.

Good thing Anna ordered plum rootstock to bring our devastated trees back to life.

Posted Mon Mar 2 15:10:25 2015 Tags:
Log in the snow

When I was reading up on inoculating logs with shiitake mycelium, recommendations on log sizes varied widely, ranging from 3 to 12 inches in diameter. Large logs tend to fruit longer and to hold moisture better during dry spells. On the other hand, small logs fruit faster and are easier to wrangle (especially if you plan to soak logs to force fruiting).

One factor I didn't read about, but soon thought of once I started looking at the logs Mark cut for me, is the sapwood-to-heartwood ratio. Shiitakes only eat the sapwood, the pale-colored wood around the outer perimeter of the log. And bigger logs, especially if they grew slowly in woodland settings, might have three quarters of their volume made up of useless heartwood, leaving the fungi far less food than you might think.

Sapwood versus heartwood

In case you can't pick out the sapwood in the first photo in this post, here's a labeled diagram to get you started. This log has been sitting around for a couple of weeks --- the color difference is even more evident in the wet wood of a newly cut log.

Looking closely at my logs got me thinking that maybe the puny 3-inch treetops that I had earmarked for firewood are actually better mushroom logs than these huge logs that I'd originally considered prime fungi fodder. In fact, the smaller-diameter logs have no heartwood at all, so they might contain nearly as much sapwood as the log pictured above. Assuming I'm willing to keep logs moist over the summer with sprinklers, perhaps little logs are the way to go after all?

The decision will have to be made soon because spring weather is finally upon us! Highs in the forties and lows in the twenties means it's finally safe to pull the mycelium out of the fridge and inoculate those logs. Time to enjoy the March Into Spring!

Posted Tue Mar 3 07:36:29 2015 Tags:
goat milking stand upgrade

We upgraded our goat milking stand today.

The neck brace is now wider and taller with a top piece to lock in place.

Everyday this week seems like a possible baby goat day.

Posted Tue Mar 3 15:59:01 2015 Tags:
The Naturally Bug-Free Garden

There's a new book on my shelf...and maybe on yours as well? I braved the flooded creek Tuesday to bring my first copy of The Naturally Bug-Free Garden home, a copy that I ordered from Amazon since the box from my publisher is running late. It was just too hard to wait any longer to hold my second paperback in my hands....


Do you want to jumpstart your 2015 garden with a primer on natural pest-control techniques? If so, you can get order the paperback here:

Or you can join in my launch treasure hunt and enter for a chance to win a signed copy of your very own! Just head to your local library or bookstore and ask if they have The Naturally Bug-Free Garden in stock, snap a photo of my book in the wild, then enter using the widget below. Or, if you've already bought a copy and want to win a copy for a friend, snap a shot of yourself with your new book! I'm letting this giveaway run for a full month so that you'll have time to request your librarian stock a copy for even easier entries. (Yes, strangely, I get even more of a kick out of hearing folks tell me that they checked one of my books out of their local library rather than buying their own copy.) May the hunt begin!

Posted Wed Mar 4 07:04:57 2015 Tags:
Trimming Artemesia

We trim the goat hooves once a month, but let Abigail skip this month due to her being a little grumpy about being wrangled with her extra weight.

Artemesia likes the attention but wiggles a lot. I ended up holding her while Anna finished the last hoof.

Posted Wed Mar 4 15:55:54 2015 Tags:
Anna Melt
Ducks in snow melt

I feel like I'm living in one of those nature documentaries where the ice pack is melting and the grizzlies are hunting in flooded streams. Except the only thing hunting in our flooded streams is ducks...who have finally stopped pouting in the coop and have slowly begun to lay once again!

Oats through snow

As the snow melts, I remember that a world exists beneath the white. Abigail will be thrilled to learn that some of the oats have survived the deep freeze due to their frosty blanket and will soon be dry enough to consume.

Snow Buddha

I'm finally collecting sap again from the sugar maple and box-elder, and the Buddha who had entirely drowned in snow is dancing in front of the trailer once again. Crocuses by next week, perhaps?

Posted Thu Mar 5 07:00:38 2015 Tags:
100 year flood

Snow melt + 2 1/3 inches of rain = 100 year flood.

Flooded gullyWe moved the chickens to the uphill coop when the flood waters began to lap at the toes of their former home.

I tried to retrieve our closer sap bucket, but had to let it go.

Red-winged blackbirds moved into the newly created swamp, and the ducks roamed far and wide.

Maybe we'll be able to cross the creek sometime next week?

Posted Thu Mar 5 14:10:26 2015 Tags:
Two goats

I've been spending a lot of time with our goats as I obsessively monitor Abigail's slow slide toward delivery. The actual specifics of when ligaments disappeared, when udder bulked up partway and then became further engorged, and so forth are going down on paper to make our doe's next pregnancy less nerve-wracking for the human observers. But today I can't resist sharing some of the thoughts I've had on goat language in the interim.

Goat standoff

The way goats communicate is so simple that I can't quite figure out why Lucy doesn't get it. Here's a typical exchange:

Lucy: Let's play! (Head down, tail up in downward-facing dog.)

Artemesia: Let's play! (Slightly lowers her head, then raises one front hoof, waving it about in the air.)

Lucy: *Sigh*. No one wants to play with me. (Wanders off.)

Artemesia: *Sigh*. No one wants to play with me. (Wanders off.)

Goat-dog standoff


Lucy: Let's play!

Abigail: If you know what's good for you, you'll back away slowly, right now. (Head lowered with horns directly facing forward.)

Lucy: Oh, goody, you want to play! (Bounds forward.)

Goat-dog fight
Abigail: #!*@ (Butts Lucy in the face.)

Lucy: WTF?! (Growls.)

Anna: Lucy! Bad dog!

Lucy: Oh, now I get it. Abigail is a cat.

Sometimes, I'm glad to be a human who speaks English, dog, goat, and cat. Does that make me multilingual?

Posted Fri Mar 6 07:37:03 2015 Tags:
mark Baby goat!
cute baby goat

He showed up around 10 this morning.

There were no problems during the delivery.

Abigail and Anna are recuperating nicely.

Posted Fri Mar 6 13:28:48 2015 Tags:
Anna Kidding
Mother goat and kid

It seemed like every day this week, I woke up absolutely certain that Abigail would have kidded. Without taking the time to make my own breakfast, I'd chop carrots and then head up the hill to check on our doe...who kept showing signs of kidding but never quite managed to pop out a kid.

So, on Friday, I decided to go a bit slower. Even though Artemesia was standing at the gate and hollering, I figured our half-Nubian doeling was maybe just in heat and feeling chatty. I performed my morning ablutions, then wandered up the hill to check on the goats about 8:30 a.m.

Nothing. Abigail's udder had expanded again during the night, but her vulva looked about the same --- no sign of mucus. Yes, the doe's ligaments had been absent for 44 hours at that point...but maybe Abigail hadn't read the same websites I had?

For the last few days, I'd had Abigail on a two-hour watch during daylight hours. This was more for my sake than hers --- knowing that I'd wander up to the barn at a set time prevented me from simply moving in with our goats. But at 10 a.m., I hit a natural stopping point in my writing, went out to carry in some firewood, then decided to go up the hill just a little early....

Newborn goat kid

Licking a kid dry...But not early enough! I'd missed the main event and was greeted by a healthy white buckling, standing on his wobbly feet as his mother vigorously worked on licking him dry.

I rushed back home to alert Mark and to collect my kidding basket, then went inside the goat barn to see if Abigail needed any help. The kid seemed extremely vigorous, but he was also very wet and the temperature outside was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit with no sun yet having popped over the hill. Ice was forming on top of the kid's head and on his ears, so I got to work with a towel while Abigail continued to lick (and even bite) at the ice.

Mother goat avoids her baby

I had expected Abigail not to want me to handle her baby, but she didn't mind me lifting him up and setting him on my lap. According to my notes, if there was another kid she should push that one out within about twenty minutes, so I wasn't terribly concerned at first when Abigail didn't want to let her current kid drink. Instead, every time he headed for a nipple, she sidled away.

(Side note: If you're eating your breakfast as you read...maybe wait to finish this post later. Placenta pictures follow.)

Goat in labor

This process continued for a while, until I tucked the kid into the front of my coat and sat down to give Abigail a little peace and quiet. She promptly lay down, and when I let the kid out, he settled down by her head.

Nothing happened, though, except that Abigail started to shiver, and I started to worry. The books said another kid should come within twenty minutes and that the first kid should also nurse within its first half hour of life, and both deadlines had already passed. So I went back to the house to collect a cool-minded husband and a warm bowl of molasses water.

Goat passing placenta

Abigail sucked down the entire bowl of molasses water in short order, and then she seemed ready to push out whatever was on its way. At first, I wasn't sure if it was a kid that needed help, but soon became confident that the mass of gunky goo was the placenta, meaning that Abigail had carried only a singleton this time around.

Some goat owners are disappointed by singletons (since twins are the average), but Mark and I were actually both glad to have only a single kid to handle. The buckling can be Artemesia's paramour this fall, then will go in the freezer (so no name). In the interim, a single kid will drink less of the milk that I want for myself. Yes, I know I sound a bit hard-nosed here, but that's what growing your own food is all about.

Milking kid

Anyway, back to the kidding drama.... Once the placenta plopped to the ground, Abigail turned around and promptly began to chow down. Some goat keepers don't let their does eat the placenta, and the process did look a little gross. But I felt like Abigail might need the dose of nutrients, and her intentness on the placenta also gave me a chance to help the buckling finally find a nipple. I squeezed out a little colostrum to make sure Abigail had let down her milk, then worked with the kid until he figured out that the teat went in his mouth. Soon, he was happily suckling and his fur was quite dry, so I finally felt comfortable leaving the pair alone.

Mother goat

Next up --- I need to decide whether to milk out a bit of colostrum to put in the freezer as a backup, and then (in a few days) it will be time to learn to milk for the human table. With only a single kid, we should be able to start drinking homegrown dairy pretty soon --- I can hardly wait!

Posted Sat Mar 7 07:12:18 2015 Tags:
Anna milking goat for third time

Abigail is clearly bonded with her new baby except for the fact that she can't seem to teach the new guy how to nurse.

We start out with me holding the back leg down for the first few kicks, and then she loses interest in kicking once the milking begins.

I think once he figures out how to control his legs better then he'll learn how to attain the proper nipple angle.

Posted Sat Mar 7 14:32:18 2015 Tags:
Borage seedling

I've never grown borage before, but I should have guessed from the larger seed size that the plant wasn't one of those slow-growing herbs. While thyme, oregano, and chamomile planted in the middle of February are still so tiny that you can hardly imagine them growing out of their starter cells, the borage planted ten days later seemed to be too big for its home as soon as the cotyledons emerged. Time to pot up!

Potting up

I like to keep the nutrient levels very low in my seed-starting trays to get the babies to work on roots while also minimizing problematic soil fungi. But bigger pots means it's time to mix in well-rotted horse manure along with the stump dirt or potting soil, at a ratio of one to one. A friend of Mark's introduced the idea of potting up into plastic cups with holes drilled in the bottom, which is a great innovation since the pots are cheap and you're able to keep an eye on root growth. I have a feeling our borage will require yet one more round of potting up before we're allowed to set them out in the middle of May, and the clear pots will help me ensure they don't grow root bound in the interim.

Technical note: Some of you probably noticed we were unable to make new posts for the last 24 hours. I'm afraid that comments you made during that time period may have been lost --- sorry! I think I got to read them all, at least, although I'm especially sorry that Brandy's comment about placenta can't be shared with the world....

Posted Sun Mar 8 15:34:54 2015 Tags:

Chicken freebiesAre you thinking of adding chickens to your homestead this spring? Or perhaps you want to expand your flock and make sure their run doesn't turn into a muddy mess? I have two books that should hit the spot, one free and one on sale today!

Pasture Basics is the freebie, full of everything I've learned about rotational chicken pasturing over the last few years. Then, if you like what you read in book one, you'll want to be sure to pick up Thrifty Chicken Breeds while it's marked down to 99 cents since this companion book will help you choose the right type of chicken to put on your new pasture.

And, to make this a true chicken-giveaway week, one lucky reader will walk away with a free premade EZ Miser, our favorite type of waterer for pastured poultry. Just share why you want an EZ Miser (or why you love the Avian Aqua Miser or EZ Miser you've already got) on facebook, twitter, or google plus, click on the giveaway widget below, and you'll be entered to win!

Posted Mon Mar 9 07:00:08 2015 Tags:
using kayak to get groceries across creek

Our creek went down enough to get across on the log.

It felt a little dicey walking on it with a full back pack, so we decided to use the kayak to ferry our groceries and chicken feed.

We'll be ready for the next 100 year flood by having one of the kayaks in the barn on this side of the creek.

Posted Mon Mar 9 16:02:35 2015 Tags:
Reluctant milker

I should have known that Abigail's kidding experience was too simple. The birth itself went fine and our doe clearly bonded with her kid...but she really, really didn't want to let him nurse. On the first day, once the placenta was gone and life in the coop had returned to normal, I kept checking in and seeing the kid head for the udder...then Abigail would run in the other direction. A search of the internet suggested that this behavior is distressingly common, and that the solution is either to bottle raise the kid (not our goal) or to stick mom in the milking stanchion in order to give the kid an opportunity to drink.

Goat walk

When the kid was six hours old, I decided to try the stanchion trick. The result? Complete and utter chaos. I tried to leave Artemesia in the coop and to carry the kid while walking Abigail to the porch, but our doe seemed more concerned about leaving her herd mate than she was about the location of her kid. After much screaming (Abigail and Artemesia --- I refrained, despite my frustration), we went back to collect the doeling and all four of us (plus Lucy) ended up on the porch.

Cute goat

Lucy was intrigued by the new creature in my arms, Artemesia figured out that by jumping up on top of the picnic table she could stick her nose in the bag of alfalfa pellets, and Abigail realized that she could yank her neck right out of the stanchion. Nearly in tears, I ran to get backup.

Milking a difficult goat"You should have called me sooner," said Mark, taking in the drama unfolding in front of him. He tied up Lucy and Artemesia, then grabbed Abigail's hind leg while I pinned our doe against the wall. That left each human with one free hand, which we used to push the befuddled kid up against the nipple. And, to everyone's relief, he drank...and drank...and drank.

Mark and I considered a second feeding that day, but it gets dark so early at this time of year, and I wasn't sure that Abigail would have produced any new milk in two hours. So we left her until morning, at which point I made the same mistake all over again. I was worried and went up to check on the goats at 7:30 while Mark was still asleep, and seeing the kid shivering in 14-degree weather, I figured that surely I could repeat the feeding on my own this time around. To cut a long story short, chaos reigned again, this time with Abigail discovering a new trick --- lying down in the milking stanchion, never mind that the kid's head was underneath her belly. But I was finally able to tie up the two troublemakers (Lucy and Artemesia), to heft Abigail's belly up in one arm, and to stick the kid onto a nipple with the other.

Milking with a machine and a kid

Meanwhile, I decided that with only one kid, Abigail's udder wasn't getting all the way cleared out, which probably kept the flesh perennially tender, so I pulled out our milking machine and set it to sucking colostrum out of the other teat. I have to say --- that milking machine is a life saver. I was able to hold Abigail up, keep the kid's mouth on the nipple (he isn't too bright), and milk the second teat all with my two hands. When Mark showed up, everything was under control (even though, once again, he was right --- I should have called him sooner).

Milker in training

Since then, Abigail still hasn't let the kid drink on his own, but things have gotten much smoother. After his fourth real feeding, the kid finally started jumping around and acting like a baby goat should, which was a huge relief. Meanwhile, Abigail still requires an admonishing hold around her hind leg at first, but she soon settles into the stanchion (which we've relocated to the kidding stall to make crowd control simpler). Even Artemesia has figured out her role --- cleaning up any tidbits Abigail leaves behind once the milking is done.

For the next few days, we'll stick to thrice-daily feedings, but by the end of the week I hope to attain a morning and evening schedule as if we were milking. And maybe by then Abigail will be making enough milk to share with us as well as her kid.

Posted Tue Mar 10 08:18:05 2015 Tags:
close up of mini mushroom logs being soaked in water

Soaking our mini mushroom logs in a pan of water every other week seems to be enough to keep them moist.

We also wrap each one in a grocery bag to hold in moisture.

Posted Tue Mar 10 14:42:25 2015 Tags:
Mother goat nuzzling ears

Guess whose belly was full and whose udder was empty when I showed up with milking gear in hand Tuesday morning? I guess Abigail's finally going to let me off nursing duty so I can start enjoying this speedy transition from January-in-February to April-in-March.

Yes, the first speedwell and bittercress are starting to bloom, the frogs are starting to call, and it's time to get serious about the gallons of sap coming out of the one tree we've tapped on this side of the still-flooded creek!

Boiling maple sap

My movie-star neighbor had big plans about expanding his sugar mapling operation this year, and I have to admit his enthusiasm was contagious. After all, tapping maples seems to be much simpler and more dependable than getting honey from chemical-free bees. The kink in the maple syrupping plan, though, is boiling down all that sap. The weather is already getting too warm to drive off the moisture from a single tree's sap on our wood stove, and using the electric stove seems very inefficient. But what about the rocket stove?

Rocket stove

I filled a big pot with box-elder sap on Monday night and decided to give the system a test run. The good news is, one hour of rocket-stove use only consumed about half again as much wood as is pictured above. The bad news is, the flames only drove off about a cup or so of water, the sap ended up getting a bit ashy, and I learned that you really do have to tweak the fuel in a rocket stove every five minutes or it'll burn down to coals.

So, no rocket-stove maple syrup for us. I guess we'll stick to syruping on a small scale until a better way to boil down the sap appears out of the ether. Maybe we need to make a self-feeding rocket-stove-fuel hopper?

Posted Wed Mar 11 08:11:49 2015 Tags:
milking stantion latch failure

Abigail figured out how to buck the milking stanchion in just the right way to unlock the screen door latch that was holding it.

I'm pretty sure she can't get out of the above latch, but if she does we might change her name to Houdini.

Posted Wed Mar 11 15:09:11 2015 Tags:
Emergeing daffodils

It's almost physically painful to be forced to stay out of the garden when the weather has suddenly changed over spring after weeks of anticipation. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of going in to the doctor's office for a regular checkup (which I'd been putting off for 7 years) and came home with a clean bill of health...and a virus. So Mark has ordered bed rest and I'm doing my best to comply.

Colorful kale

My long-suffering husband did let me up long enough to get the first garden seeds in the ground at last, a quick project since Kayla and I had already prepared the beds weeks ago, hoping that the abnormally cold weather would someday break. Lettuce, arugula, and peas should enjoy this current mild, wet spell...and planting a month late probably won't make very much difference in the eventual harvest time. That's the great thing about spring --- every day gets warmer and sunnier and plants quickly make up for any lost time.

So, if you're enjoying the warm spell we are --- by all means plant! Just have some quick hoops waiting in the wings for when the lion returns for one last roar before true spring.

Posted Thu Mar 12 07:58:45 2015 Tags:
champagne bucket milking stanchion bottle holder

A stainless steel wine bucket makes a nice milking machine jar holder.

It was easy to mount with a short section of pipe strapping.

Posted Thu Mar 12 15:21:38 2015 Tags:
Cats examine milk

Five months of goatkeeping has been such a joy that I almost forgot the whole point --- milk! But Abigail's production has been increasing quickly, and even though the kid is still drinking as much as he wants, our doe shared a pint yesterday with her human caretakers. Time to figure out the dairying side of goatkeeping. As usual in the caprine world, I've got more questions than answers at the moment, so I hope you'll chime in with your wisdom.

Milking a goatTo wash or not to wash? The udder that is. Older advice was to wash and dry the udder before milking, but newer sources suggest that you might actually move more bacteria toward the milk that way than you remove. Unless there's actual dirt on the teat, many modern experts simply recommend dipping the teat in a disinfectant instead of washing. Others say you shouldn't dip the teat until after milking, and that the dip's purpose is to prevent bacteria from getting up inside the teat and causing mastitis. What do you do? What kind of teat dip do you use (if any) and when? And won't the chemicals from the dip end up in the milk if you use it before milking?

What to do with all that milk? Wow, even a pint a day seems like a lot of milk and production is likely to continue to rise for the next few weeks. I want to start experimenting with cheesemaking, but most cheeses seem to require cultures (except for the lemon juice method that most people say isn't very good). Do you have a culture source you particularly recommend? A way to grow your own cultures so you don't have to keep buying them? Which cheese recipes have worked well for you with goat's milk? And what cheese-making recipes do you recommend? Finally, if that kind reader who once offered us a buttermilk culture is still around, I'd love to take you up on that kind gift now!

Posted Fri Mar 13 08:15:31 2015 Tags:
milking stanchion grip surface

A strip of shelf liner makes it a little easier for our baby goat to get a sure footing when trying to nurse on the milking stanchion.

Of course he figured out how to get a drink from Abigail the next day.

At least it will be there if we need it for the next baby goat.

Posted Fri Mar 13 15:57:45 2015 Tags:
Chamomile seedlings

In one of his books, Paul Stamets explains that it's essential to keep the mycelium (vegetative stage of a fungus) running. In other words, don't let your cultures sit and stagnate --- they need to grow!

While true for fungi, Stamets' admonition is even more true for spring seedlings. My goal is always to keep our seedlings running...or at least moving along at a steady jog.

Seedling thyme

Potting up is one sure method of keeping little seedling roots and shoots growing fast. But when I moved herbs out of their starting flat at the beginning of March, I left about half the seedlings behind, figuring that ultra-slow-growers like thyme and oregano probably wouldn't notice the difference. Plus, I just didn't have enough window space for twice that many new pots.

Transplanting in the rainFor the first day or two, the left-behind seedlings grew faster than the potted up seedlings --- such is the way of transplant stress. But a week after that, the difference was striking. The seedlings that I'd allowed to spread out into bigger pots had suddenly acquired twice as much leaf area...a fact that was true even for the minuscule oregano and thyme that barely seemed to be making a dent in their living accommodations in the flat.

Unfortunately, I couldn't repot all of the herbs because I just didn't have enough room indoors. But since those extra seedlings were just that --- extras --- I decided to give them a bigger and more dangerous place to run. The ultra-sunny flowerbed in front of the trailer just might be warm enough to let these seedlings survive spring freezes. If the next burst of cold holds off long enough for their tender roots to get established, I'll bet the herbs get their feet under them and outgrow the indoors seedlings by the end of the month. The race is on!

Tomato seedling

Up next: tomato seedlings with their second sets of true leaves need more root space ASAP. Next week, Mark and I might make a little cold frame around the front of the trailer to house the broccoli, cabbage, and onion seedlings so there will be more room indoors for big tomato pots. In the meantime, the babies get a hearty dose of manure tea to provide a quick fix of nitrogen for faster growth. Gotta keep those seedlings running!

Posted Sat Mar 14 08:11:03 2015 Tags:
swamp bridge floated downstream

Our swamp bridge floated downstream during the recent flood.

The last time it floated it only went 10 feet and I thought the anchoring job we did after that would have kept it in place.

Maybe there's a better way to anchor it I'm not thinking of?

Posted Sat Mar 14 14:59:07 2015 Tags:
White buckling

I started getting sick the night before our baby goat was born, so I missed a lot of photo and cuddling opportunities. Luckily, just holding Lambchop up to his mother's teats for the first Cuddle pilefour days ensured that the kid thinks I'm some kind of mother figure. So I apparently don't have to worry about him being unsocialized.

In fact, when I went out into the pasture with Lambchop and Artemesia to give our doeling some much overdue TLC, the kid hopped right up into my lap for extra petting...then jumped down...then jumped back up...then jumped down. I guess I don't need to worry about his early nursing issues impacting his vitality either.

Mother and son

Abigail figures that producing milk is a full time job. While I rollicked with the younger goats, our doe stood in the doorway of the coop and chewed her cud. Then she took a break to head to the manger for some hay, called Lambchop over to relieve a bit of pressure on her udder, then got back to the all-important work of cud-chewing. She feels no need to rub up against the human.

Goat on blocks

Artemesia, on the other hand, has been a bit attention starved ever since she stopped being the cutest animal on our farm. She's done a good job of turning into a gentle auntie for Lambchop, bouncing around with the kid while Abigail stands sentry in the doorway. But Abigail has continued to act crankily toward her coop-mate, and Artemesia was quick to lean her shoulder against mine and settle down to soak up a little bit of love when it was offered.

Lap goat

Coy goatIt's a fine line between socializing a buckling to the point where he'll be easy to handle...and falling in love with him. But I hope that Mark's witty name for our kid will remind us that Lambchop is bound for the freezer.

The moniker also reminds me that I left out the biggest
reason new homesteaders shouldn't get goats in my previous post --- it's tough not to fall for the bucklings. But the world only needs so many wethered pets, so Lambchop and I will become friends but not confidantes. I'll save my secrets for Artemesia.

Posted Sun Mar 15 08:12:07 2015 Tags:
2015 color

The earliest we've seen a crocus since we've been here was back in 2013 when they showed up at the end of January.

Posted Sun Mar 15 15:33:26 2015 Tags:

Living chairI've been pondering a shade house somewhere on the north side of the trailer for years. The idea is to have a cool spot for summer dining, mushroom growing, and seed starting during the hot season while still allowing rain to fall through the "roof."

But the idea has never quite gelled into a finished form because I'm not quite sure what I want to make the structure out of.
So when I stumbled across the photo to the left from Pooktre Tree Shapers, a light bulb went off in my mind. Maybe I need to build my shade house out of...trees!

Building with living trees has a long history which may have begun with living root bridges in India. However, those of us lacking a tropical climate can't get away with using aerial roots for construction. Instead, we have to focus on temperate-zone trees that grow quickly and (hopefully) have the ability to easily graft together (inosculate) when nearby branches touch. Plants that commonly inosculate and might be used for tree sculptures include apple, almond, ash, beech, crepe myrtle, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fig, grape, hazelnut, hornbeam, linden (aka basswood), maple, olive, peach, pear, privet, river red gum, sycamore, willow, and wisteria.

Of these, willow is probably the easiest to use since you can root a willow cutting simply by sticking the twig in the ground. Plus, the resulting growth from the willow is malleable and extremely vigorous, making it easy to shape and quick to grow. Finally, in our wet soil, willows are bound to thrive, although I should mention those of you gardening in drier climes might focus instead on elm or plum. (As a side note, using fruit trees to make structures is enticing, but the maturation process will be slower and you'll struggle to mesh your sculptural needs with the plant's fruiting needs. In other words, this is one instance where I'd probably recommend against going for an edible-landscape selection.)

Living willow arch

What have people built from living willow trees? Chairs like the one shown at the top of this post (although that tree is likely a plum), stairs, shade arbors, arches, pergolas, and the newly named "fedge" (a fence that's also a hedge because it's alive). I highly recommend this site (which is where I found the photo above) if you're looking for large-scale ideas, or check out this site for an inspiring array of willow fedges.

Now, before you get too excited, I should tell you that creating structures out of living trees is a long-term project that can take as much as a decade to fully mature, so you'll want to think through your plan up front and make sure you're willing to wait for the finished product. In addition, during the early years, you're committing to a summer pruning and training campaign much like the one you'd use on a high-density apple orchard. In general, you'll want to train the young growth into its final shape as it appears, then rub off new branches that pop up in the wrong spot during the summer months. After the sculpture matures, you'll still need to prune perhaps twice a year (which can provide a handy source of goat fodder or mulch for your garden).

Shade room idea

I'm pondering starting out with a simple arch over our current mushroom station. A lattice of willows at the back could arch across and merge with two larger trees in the front to make a shady bower. Now I just need to determine whether our wild black willows (Salix nigra) are a good choice for tree sculptures, or whether I should splurge and buy one of the willow hybrids that are reputed to grow up to 15 feet the first year. Decisions, decisions....

Posted Mon Mar 16 07:52:50 2015 Tags:

drilling holes in mushroom logs
How long does it take to drill and plug our mushroom logs?

We managed 2.5 an hour this morning with me doing the drilling and Anna marking, hammering and sealing each plug with bees wax.

Posted Mon Mar 16 15:44:59 2015 Tags:
Climbing onto the roof

I've used both quick hoops and cold frames in the past, and usually prefer the latter. However, now that we've finally skirted around the front of the trailer, I couldn't help thinking that the sheltered, warm spot would be perfect for a glass-covered cold frame to house flats of cabbage, broccoli, and onion seedlings while they wait for safe outdoor-planting time. The area is close enough to the front door that I won't mind opening and closing the lid daily during sunny spells, and it'll also be pretty simple to carry the flats inside if we hit a really cold spell. So when Mark found two large, double-glazed windows in the barn, I figured the cold frame was fated to be!

The first step of building our new cold frame was checking to make sure we'd still be able to get up on the roof to clean out our chimney. Now that I have a grapevine on the right side of the wood-stove alcove and a cold frame on the left, Mark will have to go up the front. Luckily, he says the ascent is long as I hold the ladder.

Support board

This area is a relatively easy spot for cold-frame construction since two sides of the cold frame can simply butt up against the existing building. Mark attached a two-by-four along the trailer to support the windows...

Adding a window to a cold frame

...Then hinged the first window into place. (Thanks for the hinges, Rose Nell!)

Cold frame cover

After adding the second window, we realized that the two windows bumped against each other when closed all the way. Although we could have tweaked the hinge arrangement slightly to prevent this issue, Mark instead used metal brackets to attach the two windows together into one solid piece. In addition to fixing our slight mismeasurement, that arrangement also made it easy to hold both windows open with a single screen-door hook on the side of the trailer.

Inside the cold frame

Next, we used a two-by-six to form the front wall of the cold frame. Slanting the glass from an 18-inch-high back to a 5.5-inch-high front should help the cold frame collect more winter sun. But the angle did make it tough to determine the location of the two-by-four support on the right side. "Oh, that's easy," Mark said. He lifted up the window glass and motioned me inside to mark and hold the support board.

Closing in the cold frame

The left side of the cold frame involved building a triangle out of wood, which we opted to do the easy way. We used the end of the two-by-six that had formed the front of the cold frame to butt up against the window on the top, then cut segments of an old door (thanks, Sheila!) to fill in the gap left behind.

Cold frame attached to a house

We've still got a little work to do filling in gaps and painting the untreated wood, but the cold frame is nearly ready to go after just a couple of hours' work. I've got a max-min thermometer in there now to test the waters and can hardly wait until we reclaim a bit of our kitchen table from the cold-hardy seedlings. Right now, there's barely enough room to fit two plates into the section the plants left behind....

Posted Tue Mar 17 07:51:19 2015 Tags:
using spray foam sealant

It was 5 degrees warmer inside our new cold frame than the outside temp.

Adding some silicone and spray foam sealant today should help to keep it even warmer tonight.

Posted Tue Mar 17 15:57:53 2015 Tags:

Farming the WoodsI have a love-hate relationship with books from Chelsea Green. Their titles are so enticing...but the price tags are daunting and about half of the books ultimately disappoint once I crack them open. Farming the Woods by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel was partially inspiring and partially disappointing, with a dry and academic tone and far too much basic information, but with beautiful pictures and hands-on information that made reading worthwhile.

The most helpful part of the book was the authors' realistic notations on which plants will really produce in the shade. Despite forest-gardening literature to the contrary, Mudge and Gabriel report that in a woodland setting with more than 40% canopy cover, the only species that reliably bear fruit are pawpaws, elderberries, ramps, and mushrooms. At 25 to 40% shade, shisandra, hawthorn, currant, gooseberry, honeyberry, hazelnut, juneberry, and groundnut join the mix, although productivity is likely to be significantly lower than yields in full-sun environments. For example, hazelnuts produce about 70% of their optimal yield in 30% shade and 30% of their optimal yield in 90% shade, so you have to decide at which point the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

Another useful facet of Farming the Woods was the authors' analysis of which non-timber forest products make economic sense. After all, for forest farming to be more than a hobby, landowners need to be given an incentive to keep those trees standing rather than selling them to the local sawmill. Although many non-timber options were presented, the authors felt that the most economically feasible include tapping sugar maples (and possibly birch) for syrup, growing ginseng for roots, and raising shiitakes on logs. In addition, chestnuts and hazelnuts can provide relatively lucrative nut crops, and turning the forest into a nursery for shade-loving ornamentals can also help pay the bills.

In the end, Farming the Woods isn't the must-read permaculture book of the year that I thought it would be, but it's definitely worth at least checking out of your local library. Or maybe you'd like to be the lucky recipient of my lightly read copy? Enter the giveaway below and you may get a copy of your very own for free!

Posted Wed Mar 18 08:04:08 2015 Tags:
cold frame crack sealage

We finished up the new cold frame today.

Two coats of paint and some caulk where we connected the two windows should help it to go well into the future.

Posted Wed Mar 18 16:09:28 2015 Tags:

Our Meadow Creature broadfork came in the mail a week and a half ago, but between the flood and my cold, I only got to play with it for the first time Wednesday. My first impression? This tool is fun! I'm slowly running out of terraforming opportunities to keep myself happy during the winter, so adding the broadfork to the mix will be as good as an antidepressant.

Using a broadfork on the side of a bed

More seriously, in soft garden soil, the broadfork works almost too well. Mark had to rein me in, reminding me that our goal is merely a light loosening rather than to really till up the soil. I eventually decided that a gentle fluff from the edge of the bed is a good compromise in this kind of situation, which will hopefully add a bit of aeration without negatively impacting soil life. I plan to run a side-by-side comparison this spring, but suspect that beds loosened lightly with the broadfork will be especially good for root crops like carrots.

Using a broadfork on hard ground

I also wanted to see how well the broadfork performs in hard ground, so I headed up to the extremely poor soil of the starplate pastures for test run number two. Here, it took more effort to sink the tines into the earth and I had to put my back into it to loosen once the tines were engaged. This area will definitely be a good spot to work up a sweat next winter, and the soil will probably benefit much more from broadfork action up here than down in the main garden, but I'll admit this area felt more like work than like play.

So did I select the right size? I went for the smallest model, and that is definitely all I could handle in the starplate pasture. I suspect I could have worked with the next size up if I'd stuck to the main garden, but I'm not so sure the extra two inches of loosening depth are really mandatory. So, yes, I think Mark's nudge toward the smallest size was a good choice, and for most female gardeners I would recommend the same. If you're particularly tall or brawny, though, feel free to choose the 14 inch!

Posted Thu Mar 19 08:15:44 2015 Tags:
Installing spile into Black Birch tree

We're trying a new syrup experiment on a nearby black birch.

Posted Thu Mar 19 16:11:29 2015 Tags:
Newspaper bokashi

Our newspaper bokashi experiment is now underway. Here's our current method:

  1. Make a lactobacillus starter using yogurt, molasses, and newspaper. Wait at least two weeks. (We waited nearly three.)
  2. Use a gamma-seal lid and a five-gallon bucket to make an airtight container.
  3. Fill the bottom of the container with about four inches of dry sawdust to soak up any liquid that forms. Alternatives to this step include adding a spout to the bottom of the bucket so you can decant the leachate, drilling holes in the bottom of the bucket and setting it inside another bucket for the same purpose, or using newspaper or cardboard to soak up the leachate.
  4. Place a layer of the newspaper starter on top of the sawdust. Instructions say that one sheet here is fine, but I had plenty of newspaper and didn't want to try to tease apart wet pages so I included a whole newspaper section. (More starter never hurts --- it just helps the bacteria work faster.)
  5. Pour in food scraps. These should be no more than two days old and shouldn't include moldy or spoiled food, but you can include meat and dairy. As you can see, at this time of year, our scraps consist of eggshells, orange peels, a bit of discarded dandelion roots, and onion peels.
  6. Add another layer of newspaper starter to completely cover the food scraps.
  7. Put a plastic grocery bag on top of the newspaper and use your fists to pound everything down. The goal is to remove as many air pockets as possible and to bring the newspaper starter in close contact with the food scraps.
  8. Leave the grocery bag in place, screw on the lid, and set aside for two days until more food scraps accumulate. At that point, you repeat the food-scraps layer, the newspaper layer, and the pounding, then continue with bi-daily additions until the bucket is full.
  9. Let the bucket ferment at room temperature for two to four weeks after filling, then apply to the soil. (More on this step in a later post.)
Burying bokashi

I'll admit up front that I'm a bit dubious of the efficacy of bokashi, even more so after I read the "science" chapter in Bokashi Composting by Adam Footer. So I'm running a three-part mini-experiment to give myself a rough idea about whether the more complicated bokashi method is worth the time and expense.

The control is shown above. I filled a normal five-gallon bucket (no air-tight lid) with food scraps, let them sit on the porch for a month or so, then applied them in a trench in the starplate pasture. I marked the location of the control and will be adding similar trenches full of bokashi made using two methods (store-bought starter and homemade starter) in the months to come. Finally, I'll dig into each area a month or so after application to determine whether the bokashi method really did make the scraps decompose faster and whether the soil seems to be better in the bokashi zones than in the control zone. Stay tuned!

Posted Fri Mar 20 07:48:33 2015 Tags:
Walden Effect T-shirt

I wanted to share this nice T-shirt design one of our readers made.

It's only available for the next 14 days, and she needs at least 3 orders to get the printing process rolling.

Sarah is available for custom shirt designs and can be contacted through her ThreadBearDesign Facebook page.

Posted Fri Mar 20 14:00:35 2015 Tags:
Daffodil buddha

Wood frog eggsUsually, spring comes to our farm long before the equinox. But the natural world is running a little late this year. Can you believe it's officially spring and the first daffodil is still struggling to open its bloom?

On the other hands, the frogs are calling like crazy, the first hepatica was spotted in the woods Wednesday, and Mark and I each heard a grouse beating on a hollow log calling for a mate. Perhaps we can finally write off Old Man Winter after all.

Early spring garden

In the garden, I'm a bit behind in chores and the plants are a bit behind in emergence. I went into the winter a little remiss because sprouting-straw issues meant that half of my garlic never got mulched in the first place, and snow cover in February and early March meant that I wasn't able to reach the ground to rip out the chickweed that had taken over that open ground. Luckily, a warm week and a lot of rain washed away the snow and I was able to get peas and lettuce in the ground by the middle of the month. Now I'm hard at work weeding and prepping beds for carrots, parsley, mangels, and cabbage transplants, while slipping in a bit of time to weed our garlic and strawberry beds.

Pruning raspberries

I'm also behind on pruning, but purposely so since I was afraid that early pruning during a particularly cold winter would exacerbate freeze damage. The good news is that my gut feeling was right --- early pruning combined with cold weather is what killed back our red raspberry canes last year. This year, an even colder winter (low of -22 New elderberry leavesFahrenheit) didn't nip the brambles, so we'll get our usual spring and fall crops --- success!

On the other hand, the first elderberry leaves are now starting to pop out, so tree flowers can't be too far behind. That means I need to hurry up and prune like crazy to make up for lost time, a good project for wet days like this when the garden is too sodden to make weeding a pleasure.

Even though the raspberries fared well during our winter cold, I still plan to test some bloom buds on each new species before I prune. After all, if the winter nipped some percentage of the peach bloom buds, for example, I'll want to leave more behind to take their place.

Washing foraged greens

Even though our vegetable garden is running behind, wild food is already becoming available. Creasies keep springing up in our garden despite the fact that I'm pretty sure I haven't let any go to seed since moving here, and dandelions always find new ground to sink their deep taproots into. I pulled a large bowlful of these two delicious greens out of the garden while weeding Wednesday, then washed them in several changes of water and sauted with balsamic vinegar and peanut oil. A delicious dose of spring!

Posted Sat Mar 21 07:28:06 2015 Tags:
mark Lap goat
Lambchop and Anna with Mom

Our little Lamb Chop is at the point where he likes to jump up into a warm lap every chance he gets.

Posted Sat Mar 21 15:12:18 2015 Tags:
Nursing goat

Milking stanchionBaby goats grow almost unbelievably quickly. The kids can stand up within minutes of birth, they seem to double in size at a remarkable rate, and at two weeks old they are mature enough to be separated from Mom overnight.

Friday was Lamb Chop's big night. After milking Abigail nearly at dark, I stuck our little kid in the milking stall all by himself and walked away. He cried and Abigail cried, but they both fared fine overnight, and the next morning I was able to collect a larger share of the milk (11.8 ounces). As Lamb Chop learns to eat solid food over the next few weeks, I'm hoping the human milk quota will continue to grow.

Talking goat kid

Baby goat hornsMy original milking plan involved separating the kid(s) at night and then just milking once in the morning, but Abigail's early nursing issues set me off on a different track. Even after Lamb Chop found his way to the teat on day four, I kept milking twice a day anyway, only getting dribs and drabs (seldom more than cup and often much less). The small amount of milk was appreciated, but I felt like the milking was particularly important because Lamb Chop seems to prefer Abigail's right side, a common issue with single kids. By milking our doe out twice a day, I'm able to ensure that both sides of Abigail's udder keep producing milk. Meanwhile, Lamb Chop was getting all he could drink until the nighttime separation, so I didn't have to worry that he was lacking in nutrients. In fact, he seems to have doubled in size over the last week.

Goat eating bark

Speaking of lacking in nutrients, Abigail has recently started peeling bark off the little saplings in her yard. I suspect she's getting desperate for fresh growth, and I have high hopes that we can set up some temporary enclosures in the most sunny part of the yard in a week or two to let our goats enjoy the first spring grass. I learned this fall that even though goats aren't supposed to be grazers, our girls are quite happy to eat tender leaves growing out of the ground and I can hardly wait for our girls to be off the hay train.

Goat head butt

Mom and goatIn other news, Artemesia seems to be losing her youthful bounce at the same time that Lamb Chop learns to caper --- I guess there can only be one baby in the family at any given time. As you can see in the photo above, I upgraded our doeling to a real collar and gave the mini collar to Lamb Chop. I think our buckling is confident enough in his masculinity that he won't mind wearing pink. In fact, he'll be old enough to possibly become a father in just another ten weeks --- then we'll have to figure out whether Artemesia is willing to go into heat in the summer for a fall kidding or whether we'll need to separate Lamb Chop for the summer so he doesn't knock his mother up. Goat management definitely leaves us with a continuing set of hurdles, but they sure are fun!

Posted Sun Mar 22 07:51:00 2015 Tags:
truck on the back of a roll back tow truck

Friday was one of those days where the truck broke down and the car lost its entire exhaust system.

Nice of it to happen within a mile of leaving home.

Sometimes I miss taking the bus.

Posted Sun Mar 22 15:48:42 2015 Tags:
Imaginary road

It's decision time around here. Do we take the money we've been saving to improve our access and sink 100 tons of rip rap into the 680 feet of terribly marshy floodplain our driveway currently traverses? (That sounds like a lot, but I suspect it would be a mere drop in the bucket.) Or do we use the cash to hire a neighbor with a bulldozer to try to carve a path out above the floodplain, a task that might come to naught if he hits bedrock too soon, and one that would require building a bridge across a rather large gully?

Hillside above swamp

Here's a bit more information about plan B. After crossing the creek, there's easy access up onto the knoll you see at the right side of this photo, but the hillside the bulldozer would be carving into is difficult, to say the least. There would be a lot of short-term devastation involved (although perhaps not more than we cause on an annual basis tearing up the wet soils of the floodplain). And our neighbor warned us that there's no guarantee he won't hit rock before he's able to carve out enough earth to make us a road, which would mean we had sunk our money into a project with no improvement to our access at all.

Then you reach a gully, which our bulldozing neighbor says would have to be bridged --- he's pretty sure his equipment won't continue carving around the bank you see on the right as it runs up this little cove. Instead, he recommended felling two trees to make a bridge for our ATV (which is the intended recipient of whichever driveway fix we decide on). Mark and I don't like the idea of a bridge rotting out under us after a few years, though, so we might instead see if we could find a big culvert or two to bridge this gap (and find out whether the bulldozer can haul them in). Unlike our main creek, this little rivulet dries up in the summer and never gets big enough to wash a culvert out, so a bridge here is more feasible than in other locations. (Our most recent flood reached about six vertical feet up the side of the hill here, but it should stay clear of the top of the bridge.)

Looking down on floodplain

If we were able to carve around the bank and bridge the draw, we'd be home free. Up here is where Joey's yurt stood, and an old logging road runs between this spot and our core homestead. All it would take is a little chainsaw work to make the route passable with the ATV and it's all dry, with no creeks to ford or swamp to traverse.

It's hard to decide between plan A and plan B because we don't have any solid cost estimates for our neighbor's work, for culverts, and for the eventual rock that would need to go down to hold this driveway possibility into place. Our neighbor says it would probably take about two days of dozer work, assuming all goes as planned, but when does anything ever go as planned?

While Mark and I are mulling it over, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. Assuming all you wanted was to be able to haul in manure and straw a few times a year, would you go for plan A or for plan B? If you were looking for a big culvert, where would you look and how much would you expect to pay?

Posted Mon Mar 23 07:30:28 2015 Tags:
new swamp bridge location

We cut our swamp bridge in half and moved it to a new location.

The new path will avoid a spot that was going to need a bridge soon.

Thanks for all the useful comments on how to avoid losing our bridge the next time it floods. Next up is to tether a rope to the bridge and tie it off on the medium Willow next to it.

Posted Mon Mar 23 16:04:37 2015 Tags:

Plugging a maple holeAre you pulling out your maple taps and plugging the holes? Maybe it's time to tap a birch!

Birch trees begin running around when sugar maples let up, making them a good second crop for people who have already invested in the equipment for the former and want to extend their syruping season. But birch syrup isn't the same as maple syrup, of course. For one thing, the former sells for a lot more --- maple syrup tends to go for thirty-something dollars per gallon, while birch syrup sells for (by some estimates) ten times that much.

What's with the excessively high price? I think some of the appeal is simply that birch syrup is a niche product, added to which you have to boil down about three times as much birch sap as maple sap to make syrup. Birch syrup is also reputed to be a bit trickier to produce since you have to be more careful to keep the sap from scorching, which likely adds to the price tag. On the plus side, birch syrup is supposed to have a lower glycemic index than maple syrup and table sugar, being closer to the value of honey and sorghum molasses. In addition, birch syrup is often treated as a healthful tonic, perhaps because the extra boiling means that you're concentrating more minerals in each spoonful of syrup.

Birch sap

Mark and I aren't interested in selling birch syrup, but since our maples stopped running last week, we figured we might as well tap a birch tree and see what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that I've only boiled down the barest smidgen of syrup (made from about three pints of sap), but I can tell that birch syrup is very different from maple syrup. For one thing, the former is much darker, even in the sap stage. The photo above shows condensed sap that began life as one gallon of liquid and will still need to be boiled down considerably before it becomes true syrup. As you can see, the condensed sap is already much darker than the box-elder syrup beside it.

Tapping a birch

Another difference between maple and birch syrup is flavor, although this factor will vary depending on which species of birch you're tapping. Most birch syrup sold in the U.S. is made from Paper Birch or Alaska Birch grown in (you guessed it) Alaska, but our much more southern clime means that Black Birch is our common species. Although Black Birch twigs taste strongly of wintergreen, I didn't notice any wintergreen flavor in the syrup we sampled. Instead, the dark liquid reminded me of sorghum molasses, and I'd likely use my birch syrup in the same recipes I use with that southern staple sweetener.

I'd be curious to hear from folks who have tapped birch trees and made their own syrup. What did you think of the flavor and how did you use it in the kitchen?

Posted Tue Mar 24 07:13:46 2015 Tags:
Huckleberry showing off on mushroom day

We finished up our new mushroom logs today.

16 logs total with 3 different varieties of shitake plugs.

Posted Tue Mar 24 15:55:47 2015 Tags:
Walking goats

It's been a long time since I took our goats out to play. First, the honeysuckle started to give out, then the snow fell and completely covered everything edible. But now our grass is just barely starting to grow in the sunniest part of the yard, so I decided it was high time I started reconditioning our herd's gut bacteria. Five minutes longer nibbling on grass each day means that our goats' digestive system will stay happy on the fresh greenery, and I figure within a week or two the ruminants will be safe to graze lush grass at will. Abigail thinks this plan is the ultimate in human stupidity...but I hold the leash.

Pulling goat

Well, I try to hold the leash. I'd meant to walk our little herd to the other side of our core homestead where sun is really making the grass grow, but as soon as Abby saw the tall rye coming up in the front garden, she decided it was time to dine. Rye held little to no appeal this past winter, but I guess the lush new growth tastes sweeter now --- the leaves even smell sweeter as I stand by and watch our doe chew. She also went for tiny new clover leaves barely pushing a quarter of an inch above the ground, in search of protein to go in her milk, I suspect. Those alfalfa pellets we bought are being eaten avidly, but who wants dried when they can have fresh?

Three goats

Abigail has a voracious appetite --- making milk uses up lots of calories. In contrast, Artemesia is just learning to walk on a leash, so our smaller goat spent much more time figuring out how not to get her feet tangled than she did eating. As for Lamb Chop, he apparently thinks dirt is tastier than grass. And who really needs to eat solid food when the milk bar is open?


At the moment, Lamb Chop is also too young to need a leash. Which is a good thing since I'm not sure I could handle three goats in my two hands. On the other hand, our buckling is much braver at two weeks old than Artemesia was at six months old. When Mark came out for our photo shoot, Lamb Chop kept trying to follow my husband across the yard rather than staying with the goat herd. Maybe our buckling has realized that he's one of very few males on our farm and figures the guys need to hang together?

Posted Wed Mar 25 07:29:47 2015 Tags:
tethering foot bridge over swamp

A short section of nylon rope should keep our foot bridge from floating too far during the next big flood.

Posted Wed Mar 25 16:09:03 2015 Tags:

If you've sent me an email or given me a call recently and I've been extremely slow to answer...blame it on the sun. This bout of stunningly gorgeous weather means that our usual schedule of half a day working inside and half a day working outside went right out the window. Instead, Mark and I have been catching up on all of the fun garden tasks that got put off when snow was on the ground, barely coming inside for meals and then collapsing at the end of a long, glorious day. I promise to be a better correspondent once the cold, wet weather returns this weekend.

Specifically, I've been weeding and mulching garlic and strawberries, pruning perennials, transplanting cabbage seedlings, and direct seeding carrots, parsley, and mangels this week. As I plant, I'm experimenting with the broadfork, fluffing up half of each bed while simply raking topdressed manure into the top inch of the other half. It's easy to see the broadfork's effects right away, with manure filtering down into the looser soil in the broadforked areas while the fluffed up soil sits higher above the aisles. I'll keep you posted about germination, growth, and yields of the roots in the broadforked vs. unbroadforked beds as the results come in.

Posted Thu Mar 26 07:41:40 2015 Tags:
lock down to prevent future goat escape

Why did I secure a chicken door with pipe strapping in the goat barn?

Because one of our goats figured out how to pop the latch and open the door.

Posted Thu Mar 26 16:02:23 2015 Tags:
Grafting workshop

Kayla and I enjoyed a girl's day out Thursday --- we attended the annual grafting workshop at the Gate City extension office. I've been to nearly half a dozen grafting workshops now, and this one was by far my favorite. Not only was it held at 2 pm so we could get home before dark, but the selection of scionwood was astounding. I came in the door with nine pieces of scionwood I'd brought from winter trades, planning to just graft what I had...but I walked out with sixteen apple trees. (Good thing they were willing to sell me extra rootstock for a dollar a pop.)

Types of grafts

In addition to the copious scionwood choices, the organizers had three apple books on hand, so I could look up each variety to see whether it would hit the spot. Yes, I did spend an hour paging through the books to determine which types of apples were worth a try. Even though the pages were simply text, I found the most complete book was Fruit, Berry, & Nut Inventory --- I may have to get a copy for future variety selection.

As a side note, I should mention that half of the instruction and most of the scionwood came courtesy of Kelly's Old Time Apple Trees, whose website is rather sparse but who sells both scionwood and full apple trees to ship across the country. Our wedding apple trees came from Kelly's and the fruits are superb! If you don't want to go through the hassle of swapping for scionwood, then Kelly's may be your one stop shopping outlet.

Whip and tongue graft

But the positive points of this workshop went far beyond excellent scionwood selection and a good time of day. The instructors were also pros who helped me learn safer and more effective methods of making the classic whip-and-tongue graft. First, start with their "rule of thumb" --- grasp the rootstock where the top roots branch off, then cut off the top where the tip of your thumb reaches. (I figured my thumb was a little shorter than the digits on their male hands, so cut just a little higher.)

Next (top right photo), hold your knife in your right hand so the beveled edge is up and don't move that hand. It feels awkward at first, but you'll soon learn how to hold the rootstock in your left hand with the roots facing away from your body so you can pull the rootstock away from you against the stationary knife. This is much safer and makes a much straighter cut than the whittling method I'd been using.

Finally, for the tongue, brace the thumb of your knife hand against your other hand (which, again, feels quite awkward at first), and gently pull the knife into the wood by sawing it back and forth. Once the knife is seated, finish the cut by rocking the knife rather than pulling it down. Then slide the two pieces of wood together, seal them well with grafting tape, cut down to two buds on the scionwood, dab some sealer on the cut end, and you're done!

I'm still far from perfect, but after sixteen trees, I was starting to feel pretty proficient. Good thing too since I suspect this will be my last grafting workshop for a while --- I'm finally running out of spots to put new trees. Kayla and I are going to have to think of a new girl's day out plan for next year.

Posted Fri Mar 27 07:18:38 2015 Tags:
Lucy riding in the car

Lucy went on a trip today to visit our nice vet in the big city.

She got a clean bill of health and multiple compliments on her beauty.

Posted Fri Mar 27 17:38:35 2015 Tags:
Birch syrup cookie bars

The different types of sugars in birch sap compared to maple sap make birch syrup a little trickier to boil down. It's imperative not to allow the developing syrup to get above 200 degrees Fahrenheit with birch sap unless you want the sugars to caramelize, darkening the color and impacting the flavor. In addition, it's a bit trickier to know when birch syrup is done since it doesn't get as thick as maple syrup, so you'll need to make your best guess, then weigh the finished product to determine how close you are to the optimal 11 pounds per gallon.

Boiling down birch syrupLuckily, our birch tree started running hard when the warm weather came around, and several days in a row of 1.75-gallon yields gave me enough condensed sap to try my hand at syrup making. I ended up with about a quarter of a cup of syrup from three gallons of sap, at a weight of 3.3 ounces for the final product, which means I actually cooked the liquid down a bit further than is optimal (even though the syrup still looked pretty runny, even when cool). This equates to about 192 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup, requiring half again as much boiling down as even the box-elder sap we experimented with last month and three times as much boiling as our sugar maple sap.

With a larger supply of syrup on hand, we were able to try out a more in-depth tasting, this time substituting birch syrup for the sorghum molasses in our favorite oatmeal cookie bar recipe. The result was delectable! I'll include the recipe in my upcoming ebook, Farmstead Feast: Spring, due out in March, but if you'd like some farm-friendly recipes while you wait, Farmstead Feast: Winter is still for sale for only 99 cents. Enjoy!

Posted Sat Mar 28 07:18:44 2015 Tags:
using old tires for goat toy

We discovered today that a half buried tire makes an awesome goat toy.

Lamb Chop likes to jump from one to the other.

Posted Sat Mar 28 13:36:59 2015 Tags:
Oilseed radish flower bed

Last fall, I sent out seeds of some of my tried-and-true (along with a few experimental) cover crops to readers to see how the species fared in other soils and climates. My favorite result is shown above --- Aimee in Ohio planted oilseed radishes in beds that will be used to grow strawberries this year. She reported: "[The oilseed radishes] stayed crisp and green clear past Thanksgiving, which gave me a ready supply of greens and radishes for the guinea pigs. I'll admit it, I ate a few myself. Even though I am not a radish person, they weren't bad." Oilseed radishes also got good reviews from Missouri, although Charity in the Pacific Northwest preferred barley and white mustard in her garden.

Sogrhum-sudangrass hybrid seeds

What's coming up this spring? I splurged on several new varieties, which I plan to try out both within the garden and as cut-and-come-again mulch producers in the newly bare aisle soils in areas where I recently mounded up earth to create higher raised beds. I figured --- why let that bare ground turn into weedy lawn if it can do double-duty by producing biomass for the garden instead? (Of course, I may regret this choice when I have to wade through tall grasses to get to my tomato plants.)

New species on the planting agenda include:

  • Barley --- This may be the plant I've been looking for to fill the early-spring gap before weather warms enough to plant buckwheat. This grain is supposed to mature enough to flower and be mow-killed in just a little over two months. I wasn't terribly impressed when I tried barley as a fall cover crop in the past, but I have higher hopes for its performance in the spring garden.
  • Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids --- I'm trying two different varieties, which look very distinctive in the seed stage (pictured above). I figure this will be a good fit for my aisle experiment.
  • Pearl Millet --- This species should fill a niche similar to the sorghum-sudangrass.
  • Alfalfa --- In part, I'm growing this legume for the goats since I'm currently buying alfalfa pellets to boost our milking doe's protein intake and calcium levels. But I figured it would also be interesting to see how alfalfa fares as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop left in place for the entire summer.
Barley seeds

Want to join in the fun? I have room for a few more experimenters since some of last fall's gardeners dropped out. If you live in zones 3, 4, or 8, drop me an email at and we'll chat. Folks chosen will receive free seeds as long as you promise to share photos for my book and to report on your results!

Posted Sun Mar 29 07:42:18 2015 Tags:
mini mushroom log

The mini mushroom log experiment is showing signs of shitake growth.

We plugged them about 5 weeks ago.

Posted Sun Mar 29 14:05:47 2015 Tags:
Early spring blooms

Winter came back with a vengeance this past weekend. First, we had a light snow on Saturday morning, then Sunday morning dropped down to 16 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, the cold was short-lived and I doubt the fruit trees saw any new damage.

Frozen cold frame

I went ahead and moved all of the plants out of the cold frame just to be on the safe side, and that was probably a wise move even though the interior temperatures only barely dropped below freezing. Unfortunately, when I put the plants back out on a sunny but frigid Sunday morning, I didn't take into account the power of the sun. By 2 pm, most of the broccoli plants had baked with the lid closed even though outdoor temperatures were still in the low to mid 40s. I guess I'll be starting some more broccoli seeds and paying more attention to the cold-frame cover next time. Even if the air feels cold, if the sun is out, the lid should be open!

Baby cabbage plants

On the plus side, I thought I'd messed up the cabbage seedlings, but they seem to have weathered Dandelion Winter just fine. A week ago, the long-range forecast only showed one low of 31 on the horizon, so I went ahead and set out the cabbage into the garden...then instantly regretted it when the weather report shifted dramatically. I covered the plants with row-cover fabric, crossed my fingers, and was thrilled to see that they seem to have come through the cold unscathed! So I guess we'll have early cabbage this year, and late broccoli.

Posted Mon Mar 30 07:37:59 2015 Tags:
IBC water tower scissor jack

We used a scissor jack to secure the front part of our new mushroom tower.

Next up is to re-direct the gutter and design a misting system for the logs.

Posted Mon Mar 30 16:00:34 2015 Tags:
Pruned apple tree

When I was waiting for warmer weather before pruning this winter, one of our readers suggested marking which limbs I wanted to cut to save time later. The suggestion made me realize how far I've come in my perennial-pruning education. Just five or six years ago, I would have done precisely that, but now my eye chooses the next cut in the time it takes for me to reach the wood with my pruning shears --- no more agonizing over choice of direction or lost wood.

Apple tree two years agoThat said, I did spend a minute or two agonizing before cutting the entire top out of this apple tree. But when it last fruited, two years ago, the tree was shorter and we still would have had to pull out a ladder to get to the top fruits. The height meant I didn't thin blooms at the top of the tree, and the resulting apples hit the ground before they were harvested. Quality was much lower for the tree-top fruits than for the apples I was able to baby lower on the tree.

So I lopped off quite a bit of wood this year, leaving a weakly upward-pointing scaffold that I hope will prevent the tree from sending up scads of watersprouts to replace the central leader I removed. Barring late freezes (which means tree fruit is a 50/50 chance around here if everything else is going well), we should get another good harvest from this Virginia Beauty. At the moment, I agree with
our extension agent in thinking that this variety is the tastiest heirloom apple around. But I haven't tasted the other 35 varieties we have in the ground yet!

Posted Tue Mar 31 07:25:40 2015 Tags:
top part of IBC tank where two different gutter pipes converge

Our mushroom tower IBC rain barrel has two gutter sources converging on a tee.

We used galvanized wire to secure the extreme bend to the IBC frame.

Posted Tue Mar 31 15:55:09 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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