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

archives for 11/2015

Maturing brussels sprout plant

We've only been growing brussels sprouts for a few years, so I'm not surprised that I'm still working the kinks out of our system. This looks to be a good year for them...but I can't take credit for the success. Because the big, beautiful plants like the one shown above were purchased at the beginning of August as already good-looking sets.

Young Brussels sprouts

In contrast, my best-looking homegrown plant is running about a month behind. If we have a mild late fall, we'll get a good crop from this bed, but a harsh, early winter could just as easily wipe these plants out before they bear.

Moral of the story: start brussels sprouts earlier than you think you need to. I'd say the beginning of May would have been about right in our neck of the woods.

Posted Sun Nov 1 06:09:20 2015 Tags:
Lucas pwer steering stop leak field test results feedback review

This Lucas power steering stop leak fluid did not stop our small leak but slowed it down enough to make it worth the purchase.

Posted Sun Nov 1 14:20:27 2015 Tags:

It's getting on toward the end of the rye-planting season, which meant I needed to make a decision about that bed of big, beautiful mangels. The trouble is, my spoiled goats refused even an aged root this week. And my unspoiled mother politely turned down a second helping of the fodder beets. I guess they're going on the compost pile!

Sprouting rye

When might mangels be a good fit for your homestead? Less finicky livestock --- like cows and sheep --- might eat them. And I also wonder if they might not work as a soil-improving cover crop a bit like oilseed radishes.

But, for now, I'm moving mangels onto the list of "tried it once, won't try it again." At least I got some pretty pictures out of the experiment!

Posted Mon Nov 2 07:28:05 2015 Tags:
fixing west gate to prevent chicken entrance to garden

We've been letting our chickens free range in the floodplain lately.

The problem is they figured out how to go all the way around to the west gate entrance and sneak into the garden when we're not looking.

A new Lucy door and some plastic to block the bottom fixed it nicely.

Posted Mon Nov 2 16:02:37 2015 Tags:
Shaggy mane

A few readers have asked how we manage to eat wild mushrooms without killing ourselves. Since we added a new species --- shaggy mane --- to our repertoire this week, I thought now would be a good time for some fungal wildcrafting tips.

Lion's mane mushroomFirst of all, when I'm out in the woods, I only select the really easy edibles, species that are awfully hard to confuse with anything poisonous. After reading a few mushroom books and websites and hanging around with mushroom hunters, you'll hear the same names pop up over and over. Morels, oysters, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, chanterelle, lion's mane, shaggy mane. These species are all pretty unique and have few or no poisonous lookalikes. You'll notice, though, that I steer clear of even prime edibles that are just plain old gilled fungi since they're too easy to confuse with deadly species like amanitas.

After finding one of these easy mushrooms, I bring it home and look it up in at least two sources. I have three mushroom field guides on my shelf and the internet offers many additional photos and descriptions. There, I learn warnings, such as the shaggy mane's ability to make you sick if you're consuming alcohol that day or chicken of the wood's requirement for thorough cooking. At the same time, I check distinctive field marks. In this case, Mom and I had seen an older shaggy mane in the same spot Friday that was mature enough to be disintegrating into the typical black goo. Finding a younger mushroom that looked the same a few feet away and a few days later made this a pretty safe ID.

Oyster mushroomNext, I restrain our enthusiasm and cook up only about a tablespoon of the mushroom for our first meal. With a few exceptions, most poisonous fungi aren't so strong that they'd kill us at that level of consumption. So I figure the worst we'd have to put up with would be a round of stomach upsets. That said, I often experience psychosomatic symptoms after eating the test fungi, but Mark is less suggestible and doesn't get them. I know the symptoms are psychosomatic because they promptly go away when I get busy doing something else....

Then, for the next meal, we gorge! Delicious, found fungi from our  own woods --- what could be better? (And, in case you're curious, the shaggy mane was about equivalent to an oyster mushroom in flavor --- good but not outstanding.)

In the end, I feel like harvesting your own edible fungi using this method is actually safer than eating store-bought food. I've wildcrafted quite a few mushrooms and have never gotten sick, while I've had food poisoning from off-farm food multiple times. So which is really more dangerous --- eating a shaggy mane or buying that hamburger from McDonald's?

Posted Tue Nov 3 06:12:27 2015 Tags:
Colored blueberry leaves

Indian Summer is the perfect time to weed, feed, and mulch woody perennials for the year. We've already had a week of killing freezes, so topdressing with compost now won't tempt our bushes and trees to put out new growth that will get nipped by winter cold. On the other hand, perennials' roots are still reputed to be quite active at this time of year...and will stay active even longer if sheltered with some insulative mulch.

Winter berry patch

So while the weather is warm enough to make pushing my fingers into rich, black dirt a pleasure, I'm weeding the perennials as fast as I can. But I spared a moment to spread rye seeds and a light coating of straw in areas where I'd ripped out winterkilled rabbiteye blueberries. The soil there is chockful of organic matter due to years of topdressing, and I haven't quite decided what will eventually fill the empty beds.

What's next? I've still got quite a bit of weeding left to get the perennials in order. But after that I'll block off sprouting weeds with a thin layer of newspaper, then hold that down with deep bedding from the goat or chicken coop. A similar round of kill mulching (anchored by pulled weeds that time) in early summer made the fall weed-and-feed expedition much simpler. Here's hoping the winter round holds up as well.

Posted Wed Nov 4 06:13:14 2015 Tags:
hose gets put away

It takes over an hour to drain and wrangle our garden hose collection.

Posted Wed Nov 4 15:27:18 2015 Tags:
Dog in the briers

Red RangersI set out with the goal of taking a photo of each animal on our homestead. But I got sidetracked about halfway through, so no shots of our comatose cats (2), our busy bees (uncountable hundreds), or our happy hens (11).

Our dog usually gets top billing, but she wasn't particularly keen on playing along today. She'd had her head in a brier patch barking at a snake or rodent for about two hours, and she told me she couldn't stop working for the sake of fame. So I'm afraid all you get is a Lucy butt.

Our broilers, though, were more amenable to the idea since they're nearly mature and tend to nap through most of the afternoon. So far, I'd say Red Rangers seem like a good compromise between the scrawny heirloom broiler and the lazy Cornish Cross. They do eat like crazy, with sixteen birds going through about fifty pounds of feed per week. But they're also energetic enough to walk up the hillside away from their coop to scratch through the least from time to time. The real test will come in two weeks when we kill and pluck our first bird, but for now I'm happy with how Red Rangers act on the "hoof."

Goats picking through bedding

Tethered goatMeanwhile, in the goat barn, our ladies were busy picking through the fresh bedding I spread after stealing their soiled straw for the blueberries. Previously, I tethered our herd outside, which is always a bit of a puzzle. Where can I attach their leashes so the goats will have plenty to eat (which at this time of year means oats and honeysuckle), where they can't get too tangled, where they're close enough to see each other but not to get their leashes tied together, where they can't eat my perennials, and where Artemesia doesn't feel like she's so far away from me that she has to be on high alert rather than chowing down? My original hillside option was a dismal failure, so we compromised on the honeysuckle-coated fenceline right beside the blueberry patch.

Not counting the honeybees, that's thirty-two lives depending on our daily attention. Some days, it feels a bit like I'm running a kindergarten.

Posted Thu Nov 5 06:37:59 2015 Tags:
Tethered goats

I always save my very worst, nitpicky weeding jobs for when Kayla's coming over. That bed on her left? I'm growing strawberries there, not chickweed...supposedly.

Mulching strawberries

We chatter away, but still manage to get a lot done...although apparently not enough to keep our feline supervisor happy.

Grumpy cat

"Hey, is this a hen party or a work session?" asks Huckleberry. He cracks the whip...then sits down on the newspaper so we have to expend twice as much energy to work around him.

Thanks for braving the yellow jackets, the ornery cat, and the enthusiastic goats, Kayla! We'll look forward to seeing you again next week.

Posted Fri Nov 6 06:36:42 2015 Tags:
testing home made boom pole

I did some tests today to see if a Dynamic microphone could be used in place of a condenser microphone for a boom pole application.

The results say it's a bad idea. Not loud enough for the distance needed even when the levels are boosted.

I'm using a Zoom H4N to record synchronized sound with a classmate's DSLR camera.

Posted Fri Nov 6 16:19:53 2015 Tags:
Cardboard deer

Last year, the acorns fell on the hillsides and the deer stayed out of our valley. But we've had lots of deer sightings this fall already. So I'm hoping to snag one of the three does who have been occasionally making their way into the garden.

First step --- pay attention to their patterns. Due to goats, my usual spot (which allowed me to "hunt" from the couch) no longer sees much deer activity. Instead, I've been spotting the nibblers mornings and evenings on the other side of the chicken pastures when I go to check on our flock.

Friday, Mark helped me set up a cardboard deer around where I've been sighting the real ones. Then I blew through a bunch of bullets to remember that I need to aim a little above and to the right of my sight and that I do better if leaning against something solid (like the coop) to brace myself against the gun recoil.

All told, I bagged that cardboard deer a little over half the time. Here's hoping the real event goes as smoothly.

Posted Sat Nov 7 07:04:59 2015 Tags:
Warre hive mouse blocker

This is how we block mice from entering the Warre hive during the Winter season.

Posted Sat Nov 7 14:37:03 2015 Tags:

Grazing goats"Which one is supposed to be pregnant?" Mom asked when she came by a week ago.

"Artemesia," I replied, pointing to our plump little doeling.

My mother, who knows very little about goats but plenty about pregnancy smiled indulgently. "No."

Saturday, Mom was proven right when Artemesia finally came into heat. I'd started waving the buck rag in her face every morning four days prior, which may or may not have jumpstarted the estrous cycle. No matter the cause, Artemesia seemed uninterested in grazing Friday, Saturday morning her normal tail wag looked a lot more like flagging when I pressed down on her butt, and Saturday afternoon mucous finally appeared on her vulva. Then she started yelling --- she was raring and ready to go.

With 20/20 hindsight, I'm now thinking that our doeling's loss of fat in late summer was due to a mild parasite infestation rather than to using extra calories to feed an unborn kid. At the time, I knew that was one of the possibilities, so I dosed both girls with garlic and squash seeds and also increased Artemesia's rations a bit. Now she's as plump as ever, verging once again on slightly too fat.

ArtemesiaI expected to be disappointed if no kids came popping out in early November, but I'm actually relieved. The cold spell we experienced a few weeks ago pointed out two things that were probably obvious to the rest of you about winter milking. First, your fingers will freeze, which is a no-no for keeping my carpel tunnel in check. Second, Abigail's milk became considerably less creamy during a rainy week when she was subsisting mostly on hay, suggesting that winter milk might not be the holy grail after all.

But spring milk --- I definitely don't want to miss out on that! So it's time to get back on the ball about tracking down a buck to provide stud service. Since the chances of me finding a mate for Artemesia today are slim to none, that means her sex life is going to complicate my first experience hosting a full family Thanksgiving. I can see the explanations to my grand-niece and -nephew now. "Sorry, Auntie Anna has to go make sure her goat has a good time...."

Posted Sun Nov 8 06:52:25 2015 Tags:
Lucy with failed mic holder

The other thing that failed on my low budget boom pole test was this modified microphone holder fabricated with two brackets and a washer.

I was trying to see if I could get by without installing a proper shock mount.

Turns out this configuration tended to pick up way too much pole noise.

Posted Sun Nov 8 14:17:06 2015 Tags:
Oats and alfalfa

Colin Seis and Darryl Cluff are the modern experimenters who have revived the concept of pasture cropping in Australia. Basically, the idea is to grow grains in existing pastures without tilling, presumably by first grazing or cutting the pasture grasses very low during their dormant season, followed by drilling grains into the stubble. The annual grain is able to grow faster than the sleepy perennial grasses, but the latter survive well enough to regrow once the grain produces seed and is harvested.

I have neither excess pastures nor a wish to grow vast amounts of grain. However, our goats adore oats as a fall and early winter forage plant. And I also wondered whether planting oats in some unused corners of our core homestead would push back the weeds well enough to let me seed other goat-friendly plants there in later seasons. So in early to mid September, I begged Mark to weedeat some experimental areas to the ground, I sprinkled on oat seeds (along with a bit of alfalfa), then I scattered a thin layer of straw on top to keep birds at bay. Finally, I sat back and I waited.

Three experimental areas

To my surprise, my experiment appears to have worked! Now, granted, the oats have grown at about half the rate of those in well-loved garden beds, which means the goats turn up their noses half the time at the lawn-grown oats. But if we don't get a serious cold spell in the next month, I suspect the slower oats will get stemmy enough to strike Abigail's fancy and that she'll be glad of the late forage. (If I had it to do over again, though, I'd plant the lawn oats a week earlier than the garden oats rather than a week later.)

Chicks eating oats

And we've actually already fed one round of animals via lawn cropping. Our Red Ranger broilers started expanding their foraging runs into the oat pasture by the time they were four or five weeks old, which just happened to coincide with the oats being at their most tender and succulent. As a result, the grains closest to the brooder were pecked down nearly to the ground, although the plants quickly bounced back once the broilers were moved to a grownup coop. I don't know whether its the extra sun this spot gets or the addition of chicken manure, but these oats are growing twice as well as the bed I photographed earlier in a no-chicken, shady spot.

The big question now is --- what will these lawn cropped areas look like come spring? Will the grasses pop back up, or will the ground be bare enough to try seeding some soybeans for soil nitrogen and summer goat protein? I'll keep you posted!

Posted Mon Nov 9 07:11:40 2015 Tags:
Brussels sprout
We ate our first Brussels Sprouts of the year last week.
Posted Mon Nov 9 15:41:11 2015 Tags:
Cold frame

I had big plans when we made our cold frame this spring. But the plans got derailed by realizing that the house-side location makes the bed much shadier than plants like. Plus, I forgot to add the cold-frame to my garden spreadsheet, so its contents didn't get planted when I seeded winter greens in the main garden.

But when I pulled out the tomatoes, I figured I might as well toss down some lettuce, kale, and arugula seeds. So I'll get to see how late-planted greens do in the cold frame as opposed to those planted at a regular time and shielded by quick hoops in the sunny mule garden. Soon we'll see if the glass is enough to let these tender morsels mature during winter's cold.

Posted Tue Nov 10 07:04:06 2015 Tags:
Young espalier

Our high-density apple experiment has been 80% successful. The technique has allowed me to grow lots of varieties in a small space, tricking them into blooming at a young age. The only problem? Due to our frost-pocket location, those blooms get nipped most springs, so we don't get any fruit.

So I'm veering off in another direction with my next round of experiments. Espaliered trees are trained to be two-dimensional and relatively short, so it's much more feasible to cover them during late-spring frosts. The only question is --- is MM111 rootstock too vigorous for espaliering? I went ahead and bent last year's graftees down along wires and am prepared to deal with lots of watersprouts if they pop up. Perhaps keeping fertilization to a minimum and summer pruning relentlessly will do the trick.

Posted Wed Nov 11 07:33:22 2015 Tags:
pvc structure day 1

We're experimenting with a new type of PVC moveable greenhouse structure.

Posted Wed Nov 11 15:58:03 2015 Tags:
Biochar humanure

Last week, I started dipping into another source of garden fertility --- humanure. During our first application, we applied waste that had been composting for eight months, and I felt it could have been a bit more decomposed. So this time around, we waited a full fifteen months and the humanure was rich and beautiful. In fact, if I hadn't known where it started, I would have been tempted to plunge my fingers into the compost and smell it like any other rich earth.

The other change was that I tossed the year's biochar down the hole last fall too. The idea there is to more perfectly recreate terra preta, which merged human waste, charcoal, and other types of debris. It's hard to tell which part of the terra-preta process produces the near-magical results, but it certainly can't hurt to inoculate my biochar with humanure.

Humanure experiment

This year, I also decided to run a side-by-side experiment to see how the humanure compares to chicken-manure bedding from the broiler coop. To that end, I laid down newspaper and cardboard as a kill layer around three rows of front berries, then sprinkled half of each row with humanure and half with chicken manure. I'll be curious to see which berries taste sweeter come June.

Posted Thu Nov 12 06:51:07 2015 Tags:
Waterlogged ground

Two years ago, I started dealing with the half of our core homestead that's severely waterlogged. My solution was simple --- build high raised beds that pull the root zone out of the swamp. In two areas, this technique worked like a charm, but the lowest point (our gully) was simply too damp. As you can see in the photo above, the water table stays about five inches below the top of the beds in this area, and crawdads moved in to build tunnels yet closer to the surface. After two years of watching summer crops perish due to wet feet, I decided to move on to plan B.

Retaining wall

We don't have enough sunny spots that we can waste any, so I decided to move all of the good soil out of the gully beds and into one large terrace along the south-facing bank of the gully. In the past, we've had good luck using fence posts and rotting wood from an old house we tore down to make terraces elsewhere, so I replicated the methodology in this spot. The wood will eventually rot away, but by then tree roots will be holding the soil in place.

Filling a terrace

There was just enough soil in the gully beds above water level to fill the terrace. Actually, there's still quite a bit of rich dirt left behind, but I'll have to wait until the dry season to excavate it. Wet dirt is heavy! Then, once that's done, I'll either plant the denuded gully area in cattails to create a wetland or try to dig it deep enough to make a little pond.

Tree terrace

In the meantime, my focus remained trained on the new terrace. I had a good length of woven, 10-year plastic leftover from summer experiments, so I laid it along the side of the gully behind the new terrace to keep this area weed-free. I suspect if I want the plastic to really repel weeds for a decade, though, I'll need to block the sun somehow. Perhaps creeping phlox (the local choice for this application) or thyme planted in holes in the weed barrier will suffice?

Baby pear tree

For now, though, the terrace is good enough as-is. So I set out three dwarf pear trees that I grafted this past spring, watered them in with black-soldier-fly leachate, then kill mulched the babies with cardboard and straw. Here's hoping the saplings get their feet under them quickly and grow!

Posted Fri Nov 13 07:40:00 2015 Tags:
testing out new microphone

Abigail helped me test out the new VidPro XM-55 unidirectional condenser microphone.

The quality is a huge step up from the built in mic on my Canon FS200A camcorder.

Posted Fri Nov 13 15:02:14 2015 Tags:
Goats and barn

Goat owners often dry off their goats two months before the next kids are due...assuming they feel confident milking that long. Alternatively, you can stop milking when you think your doe is getting too skinny or when your fingers start getting too cold. Or, in our case, when you're sure your other doe isn't pregnant and won't need a backup milk source just in case the worst happens.

Goat udder

Since we're now sure that Artemesia doesn't have a bun in the oven, I socked away a couple of quarts of milk for Thanksgiving pies, then started drying Abigail off. She's currently producing a little less than two cups a day during once-daily milkings, so I felt confident that she'd survive the cold-turkey method.

The scientists say that stopping milking all at once is actually the gentlest on your goat since letting her udder fill up without relieving the pressure halts milk production very quickly. In contrast, if you ease that pressure, you're setting back the dry-off process so she has to go through the discomfort all over again. With a medium-to-low producer like Abigail, I don't worry too much that just stopping milking will do harm to her udder, so cold turkey it is.


Actually, in a perfect world, we would have started drying our goat off two weeks ago by downgrading her food supply to simple hay. But, the weather mostly did that for us when it nipped back all of the happy wild foods and reduced our goats' diet to hay plus a bit of daily oats and honeysuckle. I still give Abigail daily concentrates (about two cups of alfalfa pellets plus a cup of butternut squash, carrots, and/or sweet potatoes), though, so I hope that won't gum up the works of her dry-down.

The other factor I took into account when deciding when to stop milking was Abigail's heat cycle. Her milk production always drops by about a quarter when she's in heat, and she cries like the world is coming to an end during that time. I figured I'd doubly depress her and hope she gets over both discomforts fast.

I'll keep feeling her udder every morning in search of lumps or heat that could mark mastitis, but I have high hopes she'll start reabsorbing the milk soon. We'll miss our homegrown dairy. But like most farm products, it's best to enjoy what's currently in season. More brussels sprouts, kale, and lettuce for us!

Posted Sat Nov 14 07:27:41 2015 Tags:
goat walking on top of a fence

One advantage of being a small goat is the ability to walk on top of fences.

Posted Sat Nov 14 15:28:50 2015 Tags:
Potato onions

Quick hoops over tomatoesThe great thing about row-cover fabric is that it's breathable, so you can cover crops even when you're enjoying beautiful sunny days. But there are always so many tasks involved in putting the garden to bed for the winter that I tend to wait to erect our quick hoops until we absolutely have to. But when exactly is that?

The first time to consider erecting quick hoops is just prior to your first frost. If the forecast says you might get a light freeze followed by a week or more of summer weather, it's often worth protecting at least a few tomatoes and peppers in hopes of extending the harvest. Sometimes you get lucky and can eke out summer crops this way until Thanksgiving! But for the last several years, our first frosts have been killing frosts --- down into the mid twenties. At that temperature, a row cover isn't enough to protect tropical vegetables, so I don't even try to cover them up.

Row cover and lettuce

The next most sensitive crop is baby lettuce. While most fall vegetables require planting so early that they're mature and hearty by frost time, leaf lettuce can be eaten as little as month after planting. So I seed our last bed in early October, then protect those seedlings during even the lightest freezes. As you can see in the photo above, I'm sometimes lazy and simply lay a piece of row-cover fabric over this baby-lettuce bed, turning it into a quick hoop later when the other leafy greens need protection too.

Which brings me to the main event --- erecting the quick hoops that allow us to eat leafy greens all winter some years. In this case, it's not so much a single hard freeze that will harm your crops as extended cold weather. For example, Friday night dropped down to 21, but I only saw very minor damage on a few uncovered lettuce leaves and no other harm in the winter garden. On the other hand, once we begin to see freezes every night, it's time to cover up the older lettuce, the kale, and any other leafy greens you want to be harvesting after the winter solstice. I'll probably put up our quick hoops this week just to be on the safe side.

Brussels sprouts

How about brussels sprouts? In the past, we haven't covered these plants at all since my goal is for the plants to produce through November and December and then be eaten up when deep freezes hit in January and February. Some of our plants are running behind schedule this year, though, so I might cover them up and see if we can extend the season. That's where Mark's tipi-tunnel experiment will come into play.

The fall garden produces so much bounty for so little work that I consider it low-hanging long as you get the timing right. So mark your calendars now --- start planting leafy greens in August, cover them in October or November, and your winter meals will look 100% brighter all winter long.

Posted Sun Nov 15 07:47:46 2015 Tags:
boom pole adapter

This DIY boom pole adapter was made from a mini-roller and a mic hot shoe adapter.

Cut the roller part off the handle and cover the jagged edge with something soft.

Drill a 1/4 inch hole in the top groove of the handle and use a 2 inch 1/4 bolt to attach the hot shoe which is where the shock mount screws onto.

It's now ready to mount on any extendable paint pole.

Posted Sun Nov 15 15:31:10 2015 Tags:
Boot protector

I've been pretty impressed by how well the Kiwi Boot Protector did at rewaterproofing my Wet bootsold boots. But two coats (the recommendation on the can) didn't seem quite enough after years of neglect.

So after a round of soggy digging, I scrubbed the boots off, set them in the sun for a few hours, and sprayed them again. My goal is dry feet even if I take it into my head to go on another eleven-mile hike in the rain. During that adventure, I brought along two spare pairs of socks and six plastic grocery bags and still came home with wet feet. Next time, my boots will stay dry!

Posted Mon Nov 16 07:13:30 2015 Tags:
red ranger on his last day

We retired our first set of Fall broilers today.

These Red Ranger hybrids seems to be a huge step up from Cornish Cross.

The biggest chicken of today weighed in at 5.5 pounds!

Posted Mon Nov 16 15:50:59 2015 Tags:
Mixed greens

I've played around with mixing salad greens all in the same bed before and wasn't entirely pleased with the results. Black-seeded simpson simply trumps all other lettuces in terms of flavor in my opinion, so mixing in other lettuce varieties wasn't a hit. Meanwhile, trying to interplant spinach was problematic since lettuce and spinach grow quite differently.

But this year I randomly sprinkled a thin line of arugula seeds down the middle of my last lettuce bed before scattering the lettuce seeds across the entire surface. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, some of the kale I'd let go to seed in that bed had dropped propagules that were waiting for the proper season in which to grow. The result? A perfect salad-in-a-bed --- 90% lettuce, 3% red Russian kale, and 7% arugula. Yum!

Posted Tue Nov 17 06:33:33 2015 Tags:
Personality Tests for Your Soil"Why do I have to wait eight months for The Ultimate Guide to Soil if you've already sent the finished version to your publisher?"
--- various readers

I know what you mean --- I'm impatient too! Unfortunately, paper books take months to format and print.

On the other hand, ebooks are speedy. So I'm polishing a quarter of my soil book at a time and releasing each volume in ebook format. The first one --- Personality Tests For Your Soil --- goes live January 5...and if you snag it during the first week of preorder, the price will be only 99 cents! Here are the links:

Seven weeks instead of eight months --- sounds like a more feasible wait, doesn't it? And this way you can start putting what you learn into effect in time to improve your yields for the 2016 gardening year. Thanks in advance for giving it a read!

Posted Wed Nov 18 07:32:24 2015 Tags:
Monarch butterfly closeup

We first noticed Monarch butterflies passing through about a week ago.

This guy showed up today running a little behind schedule.

Posted Wed Nov 18 15:36:13 2015 Tags:
Goat eating fig

We live on the edge of the fig-growing region, even if you choose a super hardy variety. So it was no big surprise that both of our trees died back to the ground last year despite being swaddled in leaf-filled tarps.

That said, I got to wondering whether my trees might not be a little more winter hardy if I Covered figsmade 100% sure they hit full dormancy before they were covered. So rather than protecting our figs right around the time of our first frost, I instead waited a solid month until every leaf had drifted to the ground. Then I let Artemesia pluck off all of the baby figs to make sure they wouldn't promote fungal growth where I didn't want it. (Yes, my darling doeling really will eat the figs and not the bark...if I stand there with my hand on her leash and mind her.)

Then, finally, I cut back the trees to a few main trunks, built an enclosure to fill with leaves, and topped the whole thing off with a tarp apiece. It's a long shot, but maybe the top growth will survive this winter and give us the larger, early crop rather than just a few late figs in October.

Posted Thu Nov 19 06:01:41 2015 Tags:
Erecting a quick hoop

The obvious purpose of quick hoops is freeze protection. However, I also find it useful to split up the garden into use-now and use-later areas by covering up the latter. Usually, out of sight, out of mind is a bad thing in the garden. But when you're stockpiling food for year-round use, a hidden harvest waiting for you in December can be a plus.

Winter garden

To that end, I covered 1.25 rows of kale, one row of lettuce, then about half a row of parsley and a quarter row of mustard greens Tuesday. If Mark's tri-tunnel works out, that'll sock away another row of kale and most of a row of brussels sprouts. A full winter feast! And we have roughly the same area left uncovered for November harvest. This is such a bountiful time of year.

Posted Fri Nov 20 06:59:19 2015 Tags:
chicken and a goat

We retired out last Red Ranger of the year today.

He happened to be the biggest of the flock at 5.7 pounds.

Posted Fri Nov 20 15:38:00 2015 Tags:
Butchered Red Ranger

A couple of you asked for more information on Mark's first Red Ranger butchering post. In case you missed it, I commented with lots of stats here.

The only additional bit of information is the final weight after butchering all sixteen birds. The lightest bird was 3 pounds 13.5 ounces, the heaviest bird was 5 pounds 12.8 ounces, and the average weight was 4 pounds 13.3 ounces. Most were so big I had to cut the legs off before packing them away in gallon ziploc bags!

I really enjoyed working with this breed, despite it being a hybrid, and I'm pretty sure we're going to give them another go next year. I think we'll start a few weeks earlier, though, so the birds aren't finishing off after the killing frost. And we might also kill them a couple of weeks younger since I suspect the feed-to-meat ratio got considerably worse during their last few weeks of life. The broilers also got a lot lazier about foraging during that period, meaning they were packing away more bad fats and fewer good fats --- yet another reason to kill them young.

But, all told, I now think Red Rangers are a good compromise between the fast growth and good conversion ratio of the Cornish Cross and the better foraging and survivability of the heirloom bird. Right now, if someone asked me which broiler to raise on pasture next year, I'd feel confident saying "Red Rangers all the way!"

Posted Sat Nov 21 07:47:31 2015 Tags:
pulley and gambrel system being used to hold up young buck

This morning I woke up to the sound of gunfire.

Anna shot a small buck just past our blueberry bushes. That's 5 for her to my 1.

We spent the morning butchering which was easier than times in the past thanks to a new pulley and gambrel system. Thank you Mom and Jayne.

It took a few minutes to figure out but really made raising and lowering easy.

Posted Sat Nov 21 16:37:20 2015 Tags:
Anna Deer 6.0
Hunting from the window

I "hunted" our 2015 deer from the couch and shot the button buck through the front window. The hardest part was waiting for the goats to move out of the way so I was positive I wouldn't injure anyone I cared about via friendly fire.

We're finally starting to become old hats at butchering a deer, so there's not much to say other than --- Thank you, Jayne, for the awesome gambrel! Instead, here are some stats for those of you keeping track at home.

Deer gambrelAll-time scores:

  • Mark: 1.5
  • Anna: 4.5

Yearly totals:

  • 2009: 1
  • 2010: 0
  • 2011: 2
  • 2012: 1
  • 2013: 1
  • 2014: 0 (Heavy acorn year; deer barely came into the garden.)
  • 2015: 1

Venison as percent of annual  meat consumption:

  • about 8%

Amount of damage deer do to our garden compared to their food value:

  • Roughly even, trending toward us getting more food from the deer than the deer get from us in recent years

There's still time for us to bag another deer this year, and we certainly wouldn't mind the additional delicious, pastured meat. But I've found that once either-sex rifle season starts in earnest, the critters get much wilier and I can no longer hunt them from the trailer. For example, my neighbors on one side tell me they've already killed five deer so far this year, and I suspect the neighbors on the other side are equally productive. A pretty average year here in deer-central, where hunters fill their freezers in November to feed them all year long.

Posted Sun Nov 22 07:33:19 2015 Tags:
door sealing

2015 is gonna be the year we stop letting hot air escape out the back door.

Posted Sun Nov 22 12:50:47 2015 Tags:
Goat eating honeysuckle

We've been writing a lot about dead animals lately, so I figured you might enjoy seeing some live ones. Here's Artemesia eating honeysuckle...just because.

Goat eating mangels

What was Abigail up to when that picture was taken? Straining to get to a pile of discarded mangels that I'd pulled out of the fridge root cellar when she refused to eat even aged, carefully chopped mangels.

"But you hate mangels!"

"Nope, love 'em."

"But these have been frozen and thawed and frozen and thawed so they're half rotten."

"Yup, love 'em."

I really don't understand goats.

Cat inspecting ditch

Well, I guess I do understand goats. If you think of them as vegetarian cats with hooves, everything becomes much clearer.

Speaking of cats, Huckleberry's inspecting my drainage ditch in the photo above. Summer gardening season hit before I finished burying the overflow pipe for our IBC rain barrel, so I'm just now finishing up the project. Good news is --- our tower handled the weight of the heavy rain barrel with no problems and the ground behind the trailer did become significantly drier as a result. Bad news is...well, there isn't really any bad news, except for me being so slow to finish the overflow pipe.

Posted Mon Nov 23 07:08:42 2015 Tags:
Family photo

I wore Mark out driving in a huge loop through multiple big cities today, so I'm stealing his posting spot to make up for it.

Frost-protected figFirst stop --- Thanksgiving feast part one with the Bristol clan. I particularly liked seeing Mom's frost-protected fig tree. Hers produced quite a few more figs than ours this past year, either because of her warmer city location or her impressive insulation job.

Next stop --- stocking up on groceries for our Thursday feast. (More on that in tomorrow's post.)

Then home at last to rest up for the second day of Thanksgiving --- pie day!

Posted Mon Nov 23 16:16:11 2015 Tags:
Turkey slaughtering

Monday was turkey pickup day. Our friends let us drop by early so we'd be sure to get home before dark, which means we got to see the whole butchering operation in action.

Turkey butchering station

The farmers apologized profusely because...the turkeys are too big this year! "That's good, right?" I asked. "More money for you?"

"No," they answered. "We have to give people a discount to get them to take the bigger Cooling a turkeybirds since most folks don't know what to do with leftovers."

"I love leftovers," I replied. "Give me the bird that's going to be the hardest to move."

They hemmed and hawed. "You really don't want that one. We can't really sell it. It has a bit of skin torn on the back due to the plucking process...."

"Looks a lot better than some of our birds," I answered. "Hand it over."

Pig and goat

By way of apology, they offered a pack of last year's bacon. I think I know who got the sweeter end of that deal. Thanks for the awesome pastured meat!

(Moral of the story: If you're buying meat or produce from a real farmer and don't mind a few cosmetic blemishes, you'll make their day if you tell them so. Americans eat with their eyes, and delicious grub can be hard to move if it has a spot. You'll probably get a discount too!)

Posted Tue Nov 24 06:23:34 2015 Tags:
Making pies

Every fifteen years or so, Mom pulls a 1974 Good Housekeeping article out of her hat and makes me read it. I wish I could share the whole thing, but it's still under copyright, so I'll just sum it up with the title and subtitle:

"I Remember, I Remember": My 97-year-old mother tells about Thanksgiving when she was a girl --- cornmeal johnnycakes, five kinds of pie, turkey, goose and capon, blueberry flummer. And all the family home.

The story is written by my great-aunt Ruth Tirrell and tells about the feast her great-grandmother and great-aunts made for city relatives returning to the Rhode Island farm around 1885. And each time I read the story, I see something entirely different. This year's gem was the fact that the family relished potatoes, onions, turnips, and parsnips...but considered carrots only good enough to feed to cattle.

Cranberry raisin apple pies

I think I can probably sneak in another little quote about pies without being sued:

"The pies that kept well --- apple, mince and cranberry --- had been made --- all three dozen of them --- a month or so before and laid out on the attic floor. All the women pitched in now to make squash and blueberry pies...."

The family joining me tomorrow is much smaller than my great-great-great grandmother Mary Greene's massive clan. So I figure we'll get by with a 9x13 butternut pie and two deep-dish cranberry-apple-raisin pies. But I followed the family tradition of making dessert ahead to beat the rush. Pumpkin-type pies, especially, taste better on the second or third day!

(And thank you to my pie consultant, Joey, for deciding on the dessert menu.)

Posted Wed Nov 25 07:38:16 2015 Tags:
Picking frozen greens

Mustard, Swiss chard, and kale freeze all the time in the garden. They thaw out and keep on growing.

But what happens if you pick frozen leaves and bring them into the kitchen to cook later?

Answer: The greens turn into goo. Edible if cooked right away, but not really up to snuff.

Moral: Pick your Thanksgiving greens now and put them in the fridge for tomorrow's feast!

Posted Wed Nov 25 13:11:22 2015 Tags:
goat breaks down door of barn with antler pounding

Abigail pounded on her door this morning until it busted open.

I knew when I first heard about the new pounding last week it would be a matter of time before something more heavy duty was needed.

The solution was to replace that beefy screen door latch with a heavy chain.

Posted Wed Nov 25 15:28:00 2015 Tags:
Preparing to brine a turkey

"You'll probably want to brine your turkey," my pastured-poultry producer said when we picked up our 22-pound beast.

I've brined lots of chickens, but my mind drew a blank when I tried to imagine how to keep a tremendous turkey cool while submersing it in a bath of salt water. But the answer is simple --- brine in a cooler.

Brining a turkey in a coolerStep one --- scrub that cooler to within an inch of its life. After cleaning ours thoroughly, I also soaked the cooler in bleach water for a couple of hours just in case, then let it dry overnight to fully kill any bad critters. At the same time, I filled some tupperware containers with water and tossed them in the freezer to create homemade ice packs.

Next, I mixed salt and water and poured the combination into the cooler along with lots of ice. And the turkey of course! Put on the lid and your bird will tenderize in cool safety for eight to sixteen hours.

Turkey roaster

Next step, remove the turkey from the brine and let it air dry uncovered in the fridge overnight. This step is necessary if you want crisp, rather than soggy, skin. We decided the easiest way to do this was to put the turkey in the roaster....which didn't work until we turned the humongous bird sideways.

Then roast and enjoy. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Posted Thu Nov 26 07:03:35 2015 Tags:
Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving --- feasting, family, and fun.

Basting the turkey

I outsourced much of the turkey to my father, not wanting to be responsible if it was imperfect. Despite both of our best efforts, the beast did end up imperfect...but it didn't matter.

Inspecting the greens

Our focus was on the food. But, honestly, I think we had the most fun pulling together to put each dish on the table.

Mashing potatoes

For example, my nephew Jeremiah saved the day by figuring out how to mash the potatoes with the implements in the communal kitchen. The space was well-stocked in every other regard, but we couldn't for the life of us find any kind of masher or beater. Pure elbow grease did the job in the end.

Playing cards

Meanwhile, Maggie kept the kids busy playing our family favorite card game --- Boot.

River canoe

After the meal, it was so sunny and warm most of us gravitated toward the river. I took the kids out on a canoe trip which matched my definition of success --- no one fell in.

Then I went home to decompress with the goats. For an introvert, six hours with nine people is a lot of visiting. But after a good night's sleep, I'm ready to join in the action again today.

Posted Fri Nov 27 08:00:57 2015 Tags:

Tall mushroomI've filled about twenty pages of a notebook this year with tips and skills I've acquired from my quest to rewire my brain for happiness. It hasn't always worked, but I've definitely been happier than ever before.

The most relevant tip for the Thanksgiving season has to do with gratitude --- one of the five core skills of a happy camper. To play along at home, don't just tell the world what you're thankful for once a year around the family table. Instead, you'll get optimal results by writing down your gratitude once a week. (More often gives diminishing returns because you tend to go into robot mode and not really focus on how good you have it.) You'd be surprised how much you'll realize you have to be thankful for if you keep this practice up!

A similar technique is to focus on wonder and beauty in your daily life. I've improved both my sleep and my disposition by remembering five wonderful events of the day before I fall asleep each night. Then (if I haven't drifted off yet), I move on to anticipation of five wonderful things about tomorrow. My favorite part about this practice is that you know you'll need five fun facts to report that night, so you tend to spend all day taking in the beauty around you.

Why is this relevant to a homesteading blog? I think simplifying your brain is even more important than simplifying your life style. Because if you're focusing on wonder and gratitude day to day, then you won't need a fancy kitchen or new car to fill the void inside. And that lack of craving is what drives true voluntary simplicity.

Posted Sat Nov 28 07:00:55 2015 Tags:
mark Goat date
Monte and Arty

We had our first goat date today.

His name was Monte Cristo, and it only took a minute of small talk before he got down to business.

Artemesia rode nicely in the backseat of our car with zero accidents.

Posted Sat Nov 28 16:23:54 2015 Tags:
Goat agility training

"Phew!" I thought to myself Friday as I walked home in the gloaming. My family and I had spent another long day feasting and walking and canoeing, then I'd cleaned up the community house and lugged home two gallons of turkey stock. I was ready to get back to my usual routine.

Prepping the car for a goat

But Artemesia was yelling her head off even though she should have been sound asleep. And when I pulled out the buck rag Saturday morning, she wagged her tail like crazy. It was time for our grand adventure.

Ready for a ride

Luckily, I'd chatted with a local goatkeeper named Tonya three weeks ago and had an open invitation to bring my doeling to visit one of her three bucks. For the sake of herd sanitation, she insisted upon a driveway date, but she also promised me a do-over if the first time failed. So Mark spread the tarp across the back seat of the car, Artemesia jumped gamely inside, then we wound down country roads for an hour and fifteen minutes until we reached Tonya's house.

Breeding pen

Tonya raises Nigerian dwarf goats and she recommended her largest stud, Monte, to do the deed. He's got the best milking lines of the three choices, and he also turned out to be a gentleman, willing to romance Artemesia until she got in the mood.

It didn't take long. Our doeling was pretty much in the mood from the get-go. We watched as he licked at her pee, licked at her back, licked at his own pee, then got to work.

Goat sex

He did the deed a couple of times, but Tonya wasn't 100% convinced. Despite seeing semen, she would have liked to also see Artemesia tuck the lower half of her body down as Monte climaxed.

Goat courtship

But after a couple of go-rounds, Artemesia was getting bored with the whole thing. "Been there, done that," she told us. So we took her home, knowing we'd get another chance for our $75 if she comes back into heat in December.

Mountain goat

All told, Artemesia's date went much more smoothly than I'd expected. She was a sweetheart in the car, Abigail didn't have a fit while her herdmate was gone, and we all got home by mid afternoon. And, hopefully, I can start calling Artemesia a first freshener after this instead of a doeling.

Now maybe we can have a restful Sunday with no family or goat dates to pull me off the farm.

Posted Sun Nov 29 07:32:56 2015 Tags:
livestock pulley gambrel

Our new pulley and gambrel system was lacking any kind of decent instructions.

Once I realized the top chrome piece functions like a mini blind it was easy to adjust the height by pulling up on the load slightly while at the same time pulling the rope with either a forward or backward motion.

Posted Sun Nov 29 14:40:42 2015 Tags:
Anna OPGs
Nigerian dwarf goats

Sanitary bootiesWhile we were waiting around for Monte to romance Artemesia, Tonya took me on a tour of her operation. She has about eight happy does, one of whom is pregnant, plus three bucks. Add in a turkey (whose mate had recently become dinner), five layers, three young silkies, and roughly half a dozen dogs, and their homestead was hopping with life.

Tonya sells most of her kids, so she's used to folks wanting to tromp around in her pastures. As a result, she was all set with little medical booties to cover my farm boots, keeping any diseases I might be tracking in off her farm and any of her diseases off mine. The booties didn't fit Mark's feet, but he didn't mind babysitting our doeling while I went on the grand tour.

Milking stanchion

I was particularly taken by their milking stanchion, which features a side piece that swivels into place then locks with a latch. Although I like our current stanchion, Mark considers its design imperfect. So we may eventually upgrade to something like this when Artemesia begins giving milk in the spring.

Goat manger

Their manger was just the right size for one bale, but I felt like it allowed for more spillage than ours. No upgrade necessary there!

Goat herd

A couple of years ago, I would have wanted to spend quite a while with these fat and sassy does. But Artemesia has won over my heart so completely that I dismissed these perfect specimens as OPG (other people's goats) and moved on. I'd rather load our first freshener back in the car and wind home to enjoy a goat afternoon in our own oat fields rather than pet Cocoa Bean and the other girls whose names had nothing to do with chocolate and were thus forgettable.

Posted Mon Nov 30 07:43:30 2015 Tags:
magnet with strike plate to keep door closed

We had to decrease the spring closing tension on our back door which created the problem of it blowing open a smidgen when the wind blew really hard during the day when we have it unlocked.

The solution was this magnet with the easy 1/4 inch mounting holes.

A small Stanley mending plate made a nice strike plate once I got it lined up exactly where it needed to be.

Posted Mon Nov 30 15:40:03 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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