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

archives for 12/2015

Dec 2015
Two December gardens

After a cold first frost, the rest of our autumn turned out to be relatively mild. Comparing photos taken in the garden Monday to those taken a year ago shows a huge difference. For example, we're still eating only slightly damaged mustard in the open garden, while last year's mustard was too frozen to enjoy by this point.

Topped Brussels sprouts

Similarly, our late Brussels sprouts are bulking up dramatically, pushing me toward turning this into a twice-weekly vegetable rather than a once-weekly treat.

"Maybe we should have shared some of those with your family at Thanksgiving after all," Mark conceded during our last sprout dinner. We looked at each other, then chorused, "Or maybe not!" Yes, we're Brussels sprout hoarders.

Lettuce under the quick hoops

Under the quick hoops, the lettuce is growing like crazy. Technically, we've been in what Elliot Coleman calls the Persephone Days for over a week, but I've recently concluded that his analysis of what causes winter greens to stop growing is too simplistic. For us, day length is less important than average daily temperature, meaning that our greens will keep right on growing as long as they get enough warm weather to keep their roots thawed. And, right now, that's still very much the case.

Rye at the end of November

As one more data point in our delightfully mild November, take a look at this rye, planted just before Halloween. That's really too late to be seeding even this most winter-hardy cover crop, but I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. And the top matter is already taller in those late beds than it was in most of our garden after an entire winter of growth last year.

Of course, our weather changes on a dime. So we could have the world's coldest December ahead. But, for now, I'm enjoying a winter in which the lowest low has thus far been a fleeting 17, meaning that we've yet to burn any firewood other than branches from the dead peach trees. Maybe this week we'll finally split some real firewood.

Posted Tue Dec 1 06:18:14 2015 Tags:
Headbutting goats

It's getting on toward that time of  year when the world is wet and our goats don't want to stand in damp grass even long enough to pick honeysuckle off the fenceline. I prevailed upon our little herd to go outside long enough Tuesday to let me take some pictures, but they mostly made trouble instead of eating.

Yoga goat

Abigail is completely dried off now, and I'm hoping she'll start packing on a bit of fat soon. After quitting milking cold turkey, our doe's bag got bigger and bigger for about three days, although Abigail mostly complained only during the first twenty-four hours and before there was any real pressure at play. Like me, she's not a fan of disrupted routines. By the end of the week, the milk was being reabsorbed, and now her udder is about the size it was when we first bought her. Drying off is officially a success.

First freshener

Meanwhile, Artemesia looked a bit befuddled when we brought her back from her driveway date, but she's since bounced back...except that she still smells strongly of buck. Now I'm peering at her butt regularly once again, this time to see if I can note signs of early pregnancy. I realized in the process that the changes I'd seen in her butt this summer and fall were symptoms of increasing maturity and heat rather than pregnancy. Perhaps in a few more years I'll be reading goat pooches like a pro. In the meantime, I'll be listening for yelling around my birthday, hoping Artemesia pokes along into pregnancy instead.

And that's the news in Lake Wobegon, where all the goats smell strong, the cats are good looking, and our dog is above average.

Posted Wed Dec 2 07:56:16 2015 Tags:
man holding big butcher knife

One thing we learned while processing our last deer was that a big butcher knife is far superior to a hack saw and allows for a smooth chopping action when you need to cut through a bone.

Posted Wed Dec 2 15:31:24 2015 Tags:
December ingredients

There are two schools of thought on eking out summer and fall crops into the winter. School one says that a homegrown tomato is better than a storebought tomato even when picked green, and you might as well ration your storage vegetables too so you have at least something fresh in February. I started out with this school of thought and managed to eat homegrown, raw tomatoes on Thanksgiving one year and carrots well into the spring. (Both tasted worse than store-bought near the end.)

School two says that it's best to eat homegrown food while it's fresh. Pick a few turning peppers and tomatoes just before the frost, but only enough that they'll be thoroughly consumed by Halloween. Then hit your storage crops hard in November and December so you get to enjoy carrots and cabbages at their peak. I'm coming around to this school of thought and have been serving lots of storage vegetables and garden-fresh greens this fall while pulling nearly nothing out of the freezer.

Of course, the real deciding factor in our meals at the moment is using up stock. I've been socking the precious liquid away all summer, and two more gallons from the Thanksgiving turkey means we really need to expand our soup repertoire. Butternut, bacon, and turkey was a delight and scarlet runner bean, corn, and sweet pepper perked up even my non-bean-eating husband. What's next?

Posted Thu Dec 3 06:50:20 2015 Tags:
Dead tree

Three inches of rain in three days meant the creek rose enough to spill slightly over into the floodplain. Mark had to skip his second-to-last class of the year, and we mostly stayed indoors and rested up from Thanksgiving. Four people-filled days meant that it took me nearly that long to feel normal again.

Wet weather creek

Lots of walks always helps to clear the head. I asked the goats if they'd like to come out with me, and they eyed me from the door of their barn as if I were crazy. So Lucy and I enjoyed wet-weather waterfalls and the scent of sodden leaves on our own. Nothing makes me happier than wandering among trees with no people in sight --- an introvert's paradise.

Posted Fri Dec 4 07:37:00 2015 Tags:
Anna with firewood

Managing firewood gets a little easier for us every year.

We moved our firewood chopping and storage to the back working porch where the ground is drier and the wood gets stored a bit closer to the wood stove.

Posted Fri Dec 4 16:05:34 2015 Tags:
"My wife and I have been dreaming about a simpler unplugged lifestyle for a long time. We are currently saving to buy 20-40 acres in the woods and to build a simple cabin so we can start on our journey. Our plans are to transition into it slowly and then sell our house and cut the ties to daily grind.

"Nevertheless, I have a lot of questions and concerns about paying the bills without a full time job. We have 5 kids ranging from 13 to 2 years old so stability and being able to provide is important. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty and we plan on raising goats, chickens, rabbits and bees. Plus gardening and canning as much as possible.

"I just assume that you guys are full time and if so, how do you do it? The feed for animals, property taxes, utilities, gas for the car? Any insight is greatly appreciated."

--- Matt

EZ MiserThat's a good question, and one we touch on here from time to time. First of all, I don't recommend that anyone try to make a living with farm products on the modern American homestead. My mother and father did that back in the seventies and eighties and the stress of raising three kids while grasping at an unattainable dream eventually drove them apart. If you want some more data points, check out this book by Eliot Coleman's daughter or this analysis of why the previous round of back-to-the-landers fled their supposedly bucolic lives within a handful of years.

(Although, to be fair, Joel Salatin makes a good living selling pastured poultry and beef, especially now that he's become so popular. Still, I suspect his hourly wage from farming is right around minimum wage.)

Luckily, times have changed since then. If you select an inexpensive property in a low-income area then leverage the internet to sell your skills to a world audience, you can do well on a modern homestead. Our book Microbusiness Independence outlines our original method of achieving independence --- making and selling chicken waterers online. I'll admit that the SEO section of that text is now out of date, but the other strategies I recommend remain the same.

Bloodling Serial: FREE with Kindle UnlimitedSince then, we've expanded our income stream to focus more heavily on writing and becoming our own publishing company. Although geared toward fiction, I highly recommend this forum for learning about self-publishing the smart way. Using strategies gleaned there, writing has begun bringing home just as much income as chicken-waterer sales in recent years. (I do publish a bit through a traditional publisher, but the vast majority of our sales are from self-published ebooks.)

Next, if you're more extraverted than we are, you might consider offering courses like Milkwood does in Australia or perhaps bringing vacationers to your homestead as a source of income.
Finally, if you're having trouble brainstorming an online business model that fits your aspirations, How to Make Money Homesteading is a good place to start since the book offers dozens of ideas (although it paints with a very broad brush).

I hope that helps get you started. Figuring out how to manage a homestead and a modern life style can be tricky, but the juice is very much worth the squeeze. Good luck with your cabin in the woods!

Posted Sat Dec 5 06:19:36 2015 Tags:
Baby brussels sprout

We've eaten brussels sprouts almost every day this week from the main garden.

But this little guy in the cold frame was shaded by tomatoes and stayed stunted.

Perhaps he'll get big enough to bear sprouts by spring?
Posted Sat Dec 5 12:57:26 2015 Tags:

Critter TalesDid you enjoy Five Acres and a Dream? If so, you'll be glad to hear that Leigh Tate has a sequel out. Critter Tales details her experiments with chickens, goats, llamas, livestock guardian dogs, guinea fowl, farm cats, pigs, and honeybees.

In the process, she's realistic but sympathetic about the trials that face folks new to animal husbandry in a farm setting. Readers follow along as she and her husband jump through the emotional hurdle of killing beloved chickens, figure out how to use water guns to train goats, and build innovative strawbale shelters for pigs. Learning from her mistakes means you won't be fated to repeat them, but at the same time the author's engaging photos and stories will make you yearn to create critter tales too. Before you know it, you may be juggling livestock guardian dogs, chemical-free honeybees, and guineas of your very own.

Sound like your cup of tea? Leigh has agreed to send a paperback copy of Critter Tales to one lucky reader. To enter, follow the instructions on the rafflecopter giveaway below. Good luck!

Posted Sun Dec 6 07:50:27 2015 Tags:
Lucy and the herb garden

How do you find the sunniest spot on the winter homestead?

Look for the napping dog.
Posted Sun Dec 6 15:02:49 2015 Tags:
Frosted comfrey

More frequent deep freezes are starting to nip back uncovered growth. Time to put some of those extra garden greens to use before it's too late.

I always overplant winter greens because all kinds of things can go wrong with this final garden of the year. If it's a warm fall, aphids can move in and make the older plants unusable. A wet fall can promote blights. A cold fall means the late plantings are stunted and fail. It's tough to deal with all of these potential issues, so I just plant about four times as much as we need and figure we'll almost certainly be swimming in greens.

Talking goat

"If you need any help with that little problem, just let me know," Abigail says.

Greens for tractored hens

How about we start with the chickens first, hmmm, Abigail?

Anyway, as I was saying.... The tatsoi isn't long for this world, so I don't mind pulling up whole plants for the critters. That makes it easy to drape the greenery from the top of the chicken tractor so our cooped up flock can enjoy a bit of fresh chlorophyll.

Goat bouquet

The herd instead got a goat bouquet...or rather two bouquets since Abigail won't let her little sister dine within a five-foot radius of her horns.

Goats eating kale

I pulled a little bit of everything for our capricious buddies, but they were only interested in the brussels sprouts tops and kale leaves. Perhaps the story would have been different if they hadn't been gorging on butternut squash, sweet potatoes, alfalfa pellets, hay, and fresh honeysuckle leaves earlier in the day. But what can I say? Our goats live high on the hog and know what they like. Swiss chard and frost-damaged lettuce are not it.

I guess the non-kale greens will go to the chickens. (Or to my mother!)

Posted Mon Dec 7 07:13:13 2015 Tags:
Soil cube tool

Deeply Rooted Organics sent us a soil-cube tool to review. (Thank you!)

The tool is well-crafted out of wood, metal, and plastic and is made in the USA.

We're looking forward to seeing how it does with stump-dirt in a few months.

Stay tuned for updates.

Posted Mon Dec 7 15:01:35 2015 Tags:
Broadforking with cat

There's nothing like a sunny day to pull both me and Huckleberry out into the garden. He hunts voles while I continue broadforking and expanding the new bed in the mule garden. You can tell how long it's been since I got sidetracked from this project by the height of the rye in the foreground.

Cardboard kill mulch

Mom kindly delivered a carload of huge cardboard boxes a few weeks ago, and I used them all up in short order. Next step --- moving dirt from shady beds to build up this sunny zone.

Posted Tue Dec 8 07:59:26 2015 Tags:

We sprinkled orchardgrass seeds on a few bare spots last winter. The grass grew slow and the weeds grew fast, so only a few clumps survived.

But the orchardgrass is staying green deep into the winter. Perhaps it has potential as late goat browse?

Posted Tue Dec 8 15:05:44 2015 Tags:
Hard-working wheelbarrow

A really wet year in 2014 proved that our current fertilization source --- composted horse manure from a neighboring farm --- isn't sustainable. Yes, it's a waste product at the source and makes our garden thrive, but if we can't get the manure from point A to point B we're sunk. So one of my big goals for 2015 was to to work on homegrown compost. To that end, I've been gathering piles of weeds all summer, and now it's finally time to build a compost pile.

Building a compost pile

I didn't take any photos on day one, so just pretend what you see here is starting on the ground instead of on the side of an already built compost pile. That said, the first layer consists of partially composted summer weeds...

Adding chicken bedding

...onto which I sprinkled a thinner layer of bedding from the chicken coop to boost nitrogen levels...

Half-finished compost

...then I added a layer of 2/3-composted weeds to inoculate microbes and other critters. After many wheelbarrows of each ingredient and quite a few layers, I had a huge pile of incipient fertility.

Compost pile in the winter garden

I wasn't done yet, though. Since over half of the compostables had been under cover, the pile needs a couple of rains before I'll cover it up and let it cook. During that time, I'll also pour on as much urine as we can come up with to help the compost heat up enough to kill weed seeds. I'm not counting on that effect, but it sure would be nice. Finally, if I get cabin fever in February, I may turn the edges into the center to ensure complete composting.

Since I know this pile won't be nearly enough to feed our 2016 vegetable garden, I've got more tricks up my sleeve. Coming up tomorrow --- playing with goat poop! With a preview like that, how could you stay away?

Posted Wed Dec 9 08:08:53 2015 Tags:
Weedy shiitake log

The oaks we thinned out of the woods to make our shiitake logs were struggling when we cut them.

Perhaps that's why so many weed fungi have popped up along with the shiitakes?

Posted Wed Dec 9 15:47:07 2015 Tags:
Planting a baby fruit tree

This spring's graftees didn't grow as vigorously as in year's past. I think the issue was mostly that their row was a bit too shady, but the deer-nibbling session in midsummer didn't help either. Still, I suspect they'll do fine now that I've moved them to more secure and sunnier spots.


Kayla and I transplanted eleven little apples Wednesday, mulching just around the bases of the trees then planting rye in between. It's way too late in the year for even that winter-friendly cover crop, but it's been such a mild season I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. If the rye gets overwhelmed by weeds, I'll just kill mulch in the spring and start over.

The only thing better than apple-planting day is Kayla-visiting day. Combining the two makes for a perfect afternoon.

Posted Thu Dec 10 08:05:07 2015 Tags:
Willow sapling

The willow cuttings rooted well and are just starting to lose their leaves.

The goats were attracted to the color green and had to be guided away from the future living sculptures.

Posted Thu Dec 10 14:47:32 2015 Tags:
Sprouting compost pile

Phase one of our homegrown fertility campaign is the garden/kitchen/chicken compost pile. But that isn't nearly enough to make it through the year. Enter phase two: the goat compost pile.

The photo above shows the problem with goat manure. Our dainty eaters drop nearly as much hay onto the floor as they eat, and that spoiled hay is full of seeds. If those seeds sprout on the compost pile, it's not a bit deal. But nobody wants a lawn in their garden.

Goat manure

Now, this isn't really as big a deal as I assumed it was at this time last year. After putting uncomposted goat manure on the garden all summer, I realized that it really wasn't any weedier than the composted horse manure we'd been using to date. But I've still decided to earmark the goat manure for large-seeded crops like squash and corn that can easily be protected from weeds using newspaper and straw kill mulches between plants.

And, in the meantime, I'm building my goat compost mountain to see how many of those weed seeds I can bake into submission before they ever reach the garden. To that end, I cleaned out the goat  barn and also used two older piles to make the pile shown above. (It looks bigger than it is since the land slopes toward the camera and the pile is supported on the back by a fence.) In case you're curious, that's about three months' worth of manure from two goats.

Dry compost pile

While turning the older compost to incorporate it with the new, I discovered quite a few dry patches like the one shown to the left in the photo above. I'd assumed I needed to cover up the piles after about an inch of rain fell on them to prevent leaching of nutrients, but it seems like I should have allowed for at least twice that much rainfall pre-covering. Now that the manure is in an even bigger pile, I probably should leave it out for a solid month then take a look inside and see how well it's hydrating before pulling out the tarps.

In case anyone's curious, this pile, unlike the other, doesn't get human pee. I figure the C:N ratio of urine-soaked bedding with lots of goat berries is close to perfect for compost critters. If you want to read far more about various types of manures and other compostables, I recommend my Ultimate Guide to Soil. Enjoy!

Posted Fri Dec 11 07:08:20 2015 Tags:

Tulip-tree firewood dries out in just five months and lights like a charm.

It also burns fast. Next year, we'll have to track down a harder wood for that last log in the stove on winter nights.
Posted Fri Dec 11 14:03:24 2015 Tags:
Winter oats

"Have some oats," I coaxed my grumpy goat.

"Hmmph," replied Abigail. "That isn't worth eating."

"Okay, how about some honeysuckle?"

"What, you expect me to pick one leaf at a time in that briar thicket!" my doe answered. "Where's my winter forage?!"

Goats in the briars

Last winter, we had decades of banked honeysuckle to pull off trees and barns and fencelines. But, unfortunately, we're just about out already.

Which isn't the end of the world. There's scads of hay stored up in the barn and we've got homegrown treats like butternut squash when the girls need something fresh. Honestly, I think I miss the wild forage more than they do --- I count on those hours outside with munching goats to counter the lack of light during these short winter days.

So I'll have to put on my thinking cap and get smarter for next year. Maybe plant some willow trees in the gully?

Posted Sat Dec 12 07:51:07 2015 Tags:
gentle leader for goats


Abigail still needs to wear the gentle leader when walking through the garden.

It increases the amount of control you have when your goat is on a leash.

Posted Sat Dec 12 16:00:25 2015 Tags:
Winter honeybees

The outside world thinks it's spring. There are chickweed and speedwell and even a few dandelion flowers open. The wood frogs started calling in the woods (although they Chickweed flowershaven't moved to the puddles yet). And Kayla informed me her hydrangea bush got so confused it leafed out.

Saturday, the bees got into the act too. Workers from both hives were out flying, although I'm not sure they made it far enough to find the flowers for a quick snack.

Since winter is far from over, I anticipate we're all going to have a shock to our systems when cold weather comes to call. But, for now, I'll take the advice of the bees and enjoy the beauty of the day.

Posted Sun Dec 13 07:55:53 2015 Tags:
chickens in a tractor

Our tractor trio gets along just fine despite being birds of a different feather.

Posted Sun Dec 13 16:00:12 2015 Tags:
Metro butternut

Butternut plants$3.95 for 30 butternut seeds. It sounded like a lot when I'd been saving my own seeds for years and could likely refresh my supply at the dollar store for under a buck. But I decided to splurge and try out a hybrid butternut --- Metro F1 --- this year...and I was blown away.

The resistance to powdery mildew meant my vines didn't succumb before they finished ripening fruits. So we ended up with about 200 pounds of winter squash with nearly no work.

Butternut pieThen there's the flavor. So rich and sweet that our pies and soups this winter have been a step above previous years' even though I used the same recipes. Our milk goat gets a butternut squash every two or three days, and she's yet to show any signs of boredom with that portion of her diet. In short, Metro really is better.

The frugal side of me wants to save some seeds and see what I'll get if I plant them in next year's garden. The smart side of me says that, at 2 cents a pound, I should buy another packet of the hybrid and stick to a good thing. What do you think?

Posted Mon Dec 14 07:38:03 2015 Tags:
Mark with Canon T3i

We recently upgraded to a Canon T3i to give our blog videos a cinema look.

Stay tuned for a series of brief Fall garden videos we shot today.

Posted Mon Dec 14 16:29:10 2015 Tags:
Snow cap shiitake
"Alas, my mushroom logs apparently are not going to do anything. We plugged them early this year, set them in a shady spot under a tree, and waited. And waited. Nothing so far." --- Deb

I wouldn't give up hope yet, Deb. If you plugged your logs with shiitakes, they can sometimes take up to eighteen months to bear, with the longer periods being due to slower strains or harder trees (like oak).

Plus, different types of shiitakes fruit in different seasons. All of the mushrooms we've harvested so far from the logs plugged this past spring are the Snow Cap variety, which (as the name suggests) fruit deeper into the winter than most other types of shiitakes. So, for all I know, our WW70 and Native Harvest logs might be fully colonized and just waiting on the right weather cues to fruit. Yours might be too!

Mushroom log setupThat said, "under a tree" isn't really the best place for mushroom logs. In my experience, there's too much sun beneath a typical fruit tree to protect mushroom logs, especially once the leaves fall in winter. The result can be split bark, dried out wood, and the rapid proliferation of weed fungi. So, if you've got a shadier, damper place (but one raised a foot or so off the ground), you might want to move those logs over. We currently have our logs up against the north side of the trailer, and it's definitely the best arrangement we've found for them yet.

Now, if we can just get their sprinklers going next year to keep the logs hydrated during summer droughts, we might just have happy mushrooms...and husbands. I think shiitakes might be Mark's favorite crop!

Posted Tue Dec 15 07:13:33 2015 Tags:

The big thing I figured out with this video is how the auto focus feature seems to correct too often and is barely acceptable when your subject is moving.

Posted Tue Dec 15 16:42:04 2015 Tags:
Pillow repair

I went through a seamstress stage in late high school and early college. But lately I haven't sewn much. After all, most Americans are so obsessed with fashion that I can get an entire Backpack repairwardrobe for about $10 used and then wear it for a year or so until the knees fall out of my pants.

Still, it's handy to know a few important stitches when I have something I really want to repair. The fabric on the big pillow at the top of this post dry-rotted, so I made it a new case in about half an hour of hand sewing. Similarly, the patch I put onto my decade-old backpack last fall is still going strong. Gotta love the back stitch!

Posted Wed Dec 16 07:45:42 2015 Tags:

Anna shares tips on how awesome our brussels sprouts yield was this year.

Posted Wed Dec 16 15:19:24 2015 Tags:

I finished cleaning out the 2014 humanure this week. In the process, the metal that was covering one side of the 2015 bin fell away and revealed this:

Black soldier fly compost

The finding was even more thrilling than this morning's excitement --- watching heat rise off my biggest compost pile. (Yes, I do get quite a kick out of the simple things in life.) Can you tell what's going on?

If you guessed that black-soldier-fly larvae moved into our composting toilet, you were right! We'd had hints of this invasion earlier in the year, but this was the final confirmation of the symbiosis.

Black-soldier-fly binWhat had we seen earlier? First, Mark noticed that if he shone a light down the hole at night, the excrement writhed with the motion of little grubs. (I can't think why he never took a picture....) Second, I kept putting off changing over to a new hole because the 2015 humanure bin never seemed to fill up. Either we weren't using the bathroom as much as we did in previous years (unlikely), or something was digesting our waste as fast as we dropped it down the hole.

I suspect the new addition to our composting-toilet ecosystem began when we bought black-soldier-fly eggs to seed our compost bin in 2014. The insects built up quite a population over the course of the summer and fall, but I wasn't able to get the flies to recolonize the bin this year. (Admittedly, I didn't try very hard.) Looks like they found a place they liked even better.

If you want to read more about how to incorporate composting toilets and black soldier flies into your homestead, you can check out The Ultimate Guide to Soil. Preorder now and the book will show up on your doorstep right around black-soldier-fly time in 2016. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed experimenting and writing it!

Posted Thu Dec 17 07:33:19 2015 Tags:

Thanks for all the nice comments on our recent homesteading videos.

One of our goals for 2016 is to reach out to more people through Youtube by making good short videos on more of the things we do around here.

Why are we adding more videos to the blog? The main reason is that the chicken watering business has slowed down to a trickle which means it's time to create a new revenue stream or go back to substitute teaching.

What can you do to help? Keep reading the blog, tell a friend, subscribe to our Youtube channel, click the thumbs up button if you like the video. Suggestions are welcome from any of you readers that use Youtube to supplement your income.

Posted Thu Dec 17 15:33:06 2015 Tags:
Christmas lights

Mark and I make the perfect couple; I break things. He fixes things. Sometimes I even buy things pre-broken to ensure my sweet husband has enough to do.

More seriously, since Mark stole my Christmas lights to illuminate the chicken coop (more eggs!), I decided to try out some of those new-fangled solar lights that are on the market nowadays. I didn't quite think through the fact that the reason I like lights around the Mini solar panelsolstice is because the days are very short and often quite cloudy, which puts a kink in the recharge plan. After the first evening of pretty lights, my string of bulbs barely glowed in succeeding days.

Mark figured the problem might not actually be the season but the ultra-cheap battery. So he took out a few screws, changed over to a higher quality rechargeable, and suddenly my evenings were once again colorful and merry.

Thanks, honey! And, yes, I know --- this string looks like it would be an even better fit for the chicken coop. (No need for a timer.) But you can't have it --- it's mine!

Posted Fri Dec 18 07:59:09 2015 Tags:
Anna Birthday celebration

We celebrated Anna's birthday today by making Christmas cookies in Bristol.

Posted Fri Dec 18 16:37:04 2015 Tags:
Muddy goat yard

One of the problems with goats in the winter is mud. Even if you pick a very well-drained spot for them, they'll tend to hang out at the gate closest to human activity. The result is trampled up mud, like this.

(In case you're curious, this is one of the bucks Artemesia turned down during her driveway date. She had three choices --- such a lucky girl!)

Finishing a goat gate

Our caprine companions deal with the issue by finding stumps to stand on, which keeps their hooves dry but still leaves me feeling like a slacker goatkeeper. So Mark finished off the gate he'd been adding to pasture two so we could rotate the girls over.

Goat stretching for honeysuckle

I'd like to say we'd stockpiled winter forage for the goats to enjoy in this new pasture, but we're not to that point yet. Abigail ate the few honeysuckle leaves she'd missed during her previous occupation, then the girls went back to the barn to dine on hay. At least they won't have to walk through mud for a few weeks now.

I'm curious to hear what others do about mud-pits in their winter pastures. Do you lay down gravel in those sacrifice areas, have big enough pastures that the goats don't congregate in the same spot all the time, or something entirely different?

Posted Sat Dec 19 07:45:12 2015 Tags:
12 volt compressor review

This Bell 12 volt compressor helped us to air up our low truck tire long enough to get to a local tire shop for repairs.

The guy we took it to believes in a coat of sealant or paint on the rim after it's cleaned to insure the seal won't fail again anytime soon.

Posted Sat Dec 19 15:35:10 2015 Tags:
Gingerbread menagerie

A cookie-decorating party has been my favorite birthday so far. While the events are fresh in my mind, I thought I'd sum up what I learned in case you want to replicate the cheap, fun entertainment.

Gingerbread man1. Start with a basic gingerbread man recipe. I used the one in Joy of Cooking: 1 stick butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup molasses, 3.5 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 0.25 teaspoons allspice, 0.5 teaspoons cinnamon, 2 teaspoons ginger, 0.5 teaspoon salt, 0.25 cups of water. Make the dough ahead and chill.

2. Focus on a few basic colors for your icing. To mix up the icing, just combine confectioner's sugar with a small amount of water to make a paste, then add drops of food coloring to change the hue. Remember, your cookies will be very dark-colored, so lighter icings will look good in contrast. This process doesn't take as many mixing bowls as you'd think since you can make white first, then red, then orange, all in the same bowl. Repeat with blue and green. When each batch is done, spoon the icing into the corner of a sandwich bag or ziploc bag and punch a small hole in the plastic with a wooden skewer so you can squeeze small lines out.

3. When rolling out your cookies, try not to use much flour on your pin since you want the top surface to be dark and pristine. Keep the cookies relatively thick so they can be used as ornaments on your tree and bake at 350 Fahrenheit until the tops just barely lose their shine. Cool a few minutes on a rack, then transfer to plates to decorate. (If you don't own cookie cutters, this set is perfect for homesteaders.)

Gingerbread animals

4. Less is more in the decoration department. Think like a cartoonist and focus on just a few key areas --- the mane of a lion, the whiskers of a cat, the hooves of a horse. (And don't smudge your cat with flour like I did!)

Tin of Christmas cookies

5. Plan ahead with waxed paper and tins to pack away the finished cookies. The icing needs to dry for a few minutes first on a plate, but then they can be stacked carefully in the tin. These make great edible gifts.

I hope you have fun! Maybe next year I'll get more creative and hand-cut my gingerbread to make a farmyard scene.

Posted Sun Dec 20 07:50:37 2015 Tags:

Spoiled goats + Low walls = Spoiled hay

Hopefully touring our imperfect goat barn will help you plan your own to create a better equation.
Posted Sun Dec 20 13:01:19 2015 Tags:
10-day compost pile

It's amazing what a different twelve days can make to a compost pile. I suspect the chicken manure was largely responsible for the fast heating and the equally fast slumping in this case. No matter what the cause, by the time our most recent cold spell hit, the pile was no longer breathing out visible hot air and it had also lost about a third of its bulk. Time to regroup a little bit.

Turning the compost pile

I didn't exactly turn the pile. Instead, I forked up some of the outer perimeter that had sunk down to below critical mass for composting. Now the pile is about as tall as it was before once again, but it's more pyramidal and considerably smaller in total volume. I'll be curious to see if it heats up again or just slow cooks for the rest of the winter.

Posted Mon Dec 21 07:57:44 2015 Tags:
chickens in a tractor

When I was taking a picture last week for an update to our chicken tractor hens I forgot to reset a bucket that was blocking a gap where the ground was uneven and they escaped to plunder the mulch in our garden.

We ended up chasing them back into the coop with the main flock, but the next day they clearly wanted back into their tractor of solitude.

Anna mentioned their laying ratio is higher than the main flock which we give supplemental light to.

Maybe the threat level of a few chickens in a tractor is lower than being in a flock with the freedom of free ranging in a forest?

Posted Mon Dec 21 14:35:43 2015 Tags:
Goat on logs

Family collageHappy Winter Solstice! Or, for those of you who celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa or the Festival of the Radishes, please accept my apologies for my holiday wishes being premature or belated.

Speaking of the holiday season, I thought you might enjoy seeing the card I made for Mom to send to her relatives. The astute reader will recognize some of these images from the blog!

Of course, if Mark and I were going to make our own holiday card, chances are it would revolve around goats. So I'll fill today's post with a little caprine cheer just in case you lack hooved companions of your very own.

Goats eating honeysuckle

Abigail says: "Winter holidays are about feasting. Give me more honeysuckle!"

Circus goat

Artemesia says: "Winter holidays are about fun. If it's more than a foot tall, I want to stand on top of it. You try!"

Goats on leashes

From our farm to yours --- may your year ahead be healthy, happy, and full of inspiration. Don't get pulled in too many different directions and do remember to savor the moment. It's all uphill from here!

Posted Tue Dec 22 07:49:14 2015 Tags:
Elizabethton TN library

Focusing on one film class this past semester was so fun and stimulating that I decided to sign up for another film class for the Winter term.

The picture above is from a recent shoot where I'm helping a classmate with sound production.

Check out her Tone Deaf Films Face Book group for more details on when this funny slasher spoof will be ready to view.

Posted Tue Dec 22 16:28:45 2015 Tags:
Winter shiitakes

My sister and I were discussing New Year's resolutions the other day. Unlike most people, I like to think of them as goals rather than resolutions and I prefer to immediately set up action steps to make them a reality. Still, the start of a new calendar year does seem like a good time to mull over the annual goals.

That said, during our early years on the farm, I overwhelmed us with huge numbers of goals that were really window-dressing rather than reaching to the heart of what would make us truly sustainable and happy. Recently, I've changed gears a bit and instead focus on one annual goal that's so deceptively simple I can write it in a single sentence.

Broody hen

In 2014 and 2015, my goal was to take one work day off per month just for fun. No, it doesn't count if I'm going to the dentist or planning Thanksgiving. There might be fun involved in both those activities, but neither one works to counter my workaholic tendencies. Instead, the free day has to be devoted to exploring a park or just swallowing a good book --- pure unvarnished pleasure with no obligatory springs attached. I failed at this goal in 2014, but did so well this year that I was no longer sliding my free day off into the very end of the month just to say I did it.

Goat eating brussels sprout

Having achieved my goal at last, I'm now ready to move on to a new resolution. So in 2016 my goal is to add another just-for-fun day per month, but this one will be devoted to long hikes like the one I enjoyed this fall. Now I'm off to research medium-distance trails within easy driving distance and plan out next year's fun!

(By the way, in case you're curious, the photos in this post from top to bottom are: shiitakes we hope to eat for Christmas, a broody hen who's got her seasons mixed up, and Abigail eating a spent brussels sprout plant.)

Posted Wed Dec 23 06:33:53 2015 Tags:
Star Wars

Mark and I just got back from watching The Force Awakens with our movie-star neighbor. I'm pretty sure Mark's going to need to digest the film for the next several hours, so you get a glib Anna post rather than a thoughtful Mark post.

I won't spoil it, but will say if you loved episodes four through six, this movie is even better. In a way it's grossly derivative of those original stories but there's enough different that it's like watching the whole thing over again with fresh eyes...and with vastly superior special effects and 3D. The characters are top-notch, the landscapes are unbelievable (filmed in Iceland, Abu Dhabi, etc), and the feel is spot on.

And there is no kid-friendly but adult-bane Jar-Jar Binks.

Posted Wed Dec 23 16:21:43 2015 Tags:
Goat eating winter grass

This winter has thus-far been as abnormally mild as last winter was abnormally cold. Usually, our grass is entirely dormant by now, but new growth keeps popping up to our goats' delight. And we're barely delving into the quick-hoops greens yet since there's still masses of kale and brussels sprouts to eat in the main garden. Our firewood supply is also in particularly good shape since it looks like we're only going to use half as much wood as Raspberry leavesI'd alloted for December despite lighting the stove whenever Huckleberry complains about the interior temperature dropping below 62.

On the other hand, a few plants are getting confused, especially since we had a cold spell in November to pile on the chill hours. During our jaunt to the big city yesterday, I noticed cherry trees blooming along the streets. And even though our fruit trees thus far seem to still be asleep, a few fresh leaves are poking out on certain raspberry canes. This kind of midwinter growth is almost certain to be frozen in the near future.

I'd be concerned about bad bugs not getting knocked back enough by a mild winter, but our weather is as changable as Huckleberry's moods. So I think chances are pretty good we'll still see a cold spell before true spring comes 'round again.

Posted Thu Dec 24 07:52:45 2015 Tags:
how to make ciniamon buns

Anna gave me a tough choice to make today.

Butternut squash pie or home made cinamon buns for a holiday dessert?

Cinamon buns won out today...but it was a close call.

Posted Thu Dec 24 15:10:28 2015 Tags:
Cat naps

We've been doing some heavy visiting in the last week. I enjoy the time with friends and family, but each trip off farm makes simple afternoons at home feel that much more enticing. With our social agenda finally cleared, we spent Christmas Eve emulating Strider --- relaxing.

Goat breakfast

I thought you might enjoy some random shots from a simple, non-work day. Here's the goats' breakfast --- alfalfa pellets, mangels, and butternut squash.

Roasting brussels sprouts

And part of our lunch --- brussels sprouts. With big sprouts like the ones we've been getting this year, they roast better if cut in half (or even in quarters).

Compost pile sprouts

More signs of this crazy warm weather --- summer squash sprouting out of the compost pile.

Blooming dandelion

And a dandelion in full bloom to trick us into thinking it's spring.

I hope you're enjoying this crazy burst of summer in midwinter as much as we are!

Posted Fri Dec 25 07:52:07 2015 Tags:
short film for Kodak Super 8 POV film contest Buc Films Tim Abelseth Rusty Sheridan Michael Stanton

Some classmates of mine made an awesome short film using the Super 8 format.

It was shot on top of Roan Mountain and I think they did a beautiful job.

Thanks in advance if you've got the time to vote after watching. Voting is only open another 4 days and you can vote one time each day. Make sure to text back the confirmation code and thanks again for helping. Our Film Club gets a substantial prize if they win and I think they've got a good shot at it.

Posted Fri Dec 25 16:29:58 2015 Tags:
Goats on the hill

How can you tell if your goat is in heat? If you've got a buck around, she'll suddenly be interested in him. But even without a buck, heat signs are pretty obvious once you know your individual animals.

Misty goat

Goat in heatWhen Abigail's in heat, she stands outside even when it's damp (despite hating water). And she yells even though she's usually nearly silent, emitting long, bleating moans that sound like she's dying. I can only assume she thinks she'll manage to call a buck into her pasture if she yells loud enough.

Vaginal discharge that's usually milky whitish is another good sign. Even if you don't catch the mucous hanging out on her vulva, you can usually notice the discharge dried on the underside of her tail, a clear sign that she's in the depth of heat. You may also notice that her vulva is a bit reddish and/or puffy at the same time.

Another thing to keep an eye on in the nether region is flagging. Some goats like to wag their tails much like a dog, but once you see flagging you'll be able to easily distinguish it from wagging. First of all, your doe will flag when nothing happy is happening. Second, the latter behavior is more of a rapid back and forth motion with the tail held relatively low. I don't know this for sure, but I've been assuming the flagging is meant to spread the doe's in-heat scent to the nearest buck, thus all the fast fanning motions.

Goat breakfast

A less obvious sign (but pretty striking in Abigail) is lack of an appetite. In the photo above, you can see her less dominant herd mate sneaking Abigail's breakfast. Usually, poor Artemesia would have been butted off the milking stand by now. But when Abigail's in heat, she's far more interested in yelling than eating.

Creek crossing

If you're looking to breed your goat, you'll want to mark each heat on your calendar so you know when to expect the next one. Goat heats are usually about three weeks apart, and once your goat goes into heat you have anywhere from 6 hours to 3 days to get her bred.

Or, if you're giving your goat a year off like we are with Abigail, taking her on a nice long walk while she's in heat seems to help her feel a little better about the no-buck situation. At least she thinks she's looking for a buck, despite not managing to find one.

Goat conversation

Since Artemesia has now gone four weeks since her last heat, we're relatively sure her driveway date stuck and she's pregnant. So mark your calendar for late April --- hopefully she'll pop out at least one girl!

Posted Sat Dec 26 08:18:46 2015 Tags:
Lucy eating deer bones

We froze parts of the deer Anna killed last month that we didn't want to process but thought Lucy would appreciate.

Happy Boxing Day Lucy.

Posted Sat Dec 26 15:14:30 2015 Tags:
Homemade cinnamon buns

Mark came down with a cinnamon-bun craving this year. And after he brought home cans of dough a couple of times, I told him I was pretty sure I could make something better from scratch.

So I played with a few recipes, tweaking them until they were still decadently delicious but didn't give me such a sugar high that I crashed an hour later. And Mark's favorite cinnamon buns were born.

Rising dough

You'll need to start about five hours before you want to eat since cinnamon buns are basically a sweetened yeast bread. For the dough, mix:

  • 3.5 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 package of rapid-rise yeast
  • 1/3 cup of white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup of whole milk, warm
  • 4 tablespoons of butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

If you're using rapid-rise yeast, you don't need to proof the leavening. Instead, just pour all of the ingredients into a bowl, put the bread-hook attachment onto your mixer, and mix at medium speed for a few minutes until the dough is fully combined. (Or you can knead by hand until you get the same results.)

Now cover the dough with a damp dish towel and set it in a warm place until it doubles in bulk (about two hours).

Cinnamon bun filling

Once the dough's ready, mix up the filling:

  • 3/4 cup of brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon of salt
Brush on butter

Flour a clean surface and roll out your dough until it's about as big as you see in the picture above. You want it to be a rectangle rather than a square, but the exact dimensions are up to you. A bigger rectangle will mean your rolls have more layers but a smaller thickness of cinnamon-sugar in between each one.

Now melt:

  • 4 tablespoons of butter

Brush the melted butter onto the dough, leaving about an inch on each long side uncovered. The unbuttered regions will stick together better so your cinnamon rolls won't unravel as they rise and bake.

Spread cinnamon-sugar

Sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar mixture on top of the butter as evenly as you can. Then roll up the dough to make one long cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into sixteen equal pieces. (This is easiest done by cutting the roll in half, then each half in half, then each quarter into quarters.)

Cinnamon-bun frosting

Butter a 9x13 dish or two 8-inch round cake pans. Place the cinnamon rolls in the pan relatively close together so they'll merge as they rise. Then set the dish(es) in a warm place to rise again for another two hours (or more or less depending on the temperature of your kitchen).

When the rolls have nearly doubled in bulk, place a rack in the middle of your oven and turn it to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I like to put my pan in the oven as it preheats so the rolls get one more fast rise before they bake into place. Using that method, they usually need about 13 minutes to fully bake so the bottoms are brown, the tops are very lightly touched with brown, and the centers are cooked through.

While the rolls bake, mix up your icing:

  • 1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar
  • 1 scant tablespoon of whole milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla

Stir the icing until it forms a thick batter.

Frosted cinnamon buns

As soon as the buns come out of the oven, drizzle the icing over the hot rolls. I simply get a spoonful of icing and let it drip over the edge of the utensil to make lines across the buns. (Sometimes I mess up and make blobs, but Mark doesn't seem to care.)

This recipe makes 16 buns, which are best served warm. Nuke each one for 15 seconds in the microwave if you let them get cold. Enjoy!

Posted Sun Dec 27 07:11:11 2015 Tags:
Refrigerator root celar

We've got carrots for the goats and apples for Anna in the refrigerator root cellar.

Normally we'd have a small heater to keep it from freezing on really cold days and nights, but this El Nino Winter has yet to show its teeth.

Posted Sun Dec 27 16:08:56 2015 Tags:
Goat laundry

The sun came out to join the summer weather. A perfect day for laundry.

The herd decided to help me out, nibbling on dried-up cattails and fresh honeysuckle while I operated the wringer. Abigail also came over to take a look at some laundered rags, but she soon decided the cartoons are wrong --- goats don't like fabric.

Posted Mon Dec 28 06:51:42 2015 Tags:
clothesline tightener close up

I started using a clotheline tightener on our hanging heated bucket waterer.

It's easy to adjust the height for deep bedding levels or chicken growth.

Posted Mon Dec 28 14:50:07 2015 Tags:
Receding flood

We went hunting chicken of the woods mushrooms this weekend on the off chance the huge log we found in September would have put out another flush in this warm, wet weather. But it seems chicken of the woods isDecaying chicken of the woods much more seasonal than the oysters we've been picking in our own woods.

Oyster mushroom colors

Among the latter species, I've been noticing that one stump just past the edge of our core homestead has a much darker cap than the usual wild type, more like one of the varieties we plugged into logs from purchased spawn several years ago. I wonder if we're introducing new fungal strains to the local woods, and what impact that will have on the ecosystem? The effect on our dinner plates is definitely positive.

Posted Tue Dec 29 06:48:38 2015 Tags:
firewood status

This might be our first Winter where we carry over enough firewood to have two sheds full by next Winter.

Posted Tue Dec 29 15:32:02 2015 Tags:
Waterproof boots

Another year, another pair of waterproof boots to be replaced. And each time, I start out with firm plans to make my new footware last longer. I'll only wear them in the muddiest parts of the farm, I promise. I'll definitely steer clear of briars and will wear the leaky pair instead if water isn't going to rise higher than my ankles.

Then I get lazy. Boots like this are so easy to pull on and off when you just need to dance through the muddy yard to pick some supper lettuce. Might as well wear them while doing my chores so I don't track in as much muck. And who knows when I might be called upon to wade across the creek.

Then, three hundred or six hundred or a thousand miles later, it's winter again and my boots have once again sprung a leak just when I need them most. Which is when my mother-in-law comes through and buys me new boots for Christmas even though I'd considered putting off the purchase for another month or two. Thanks, Rose Nell! My feet are dry and, this time, I'm really going to be careful so they'll go the distance. Except....

Posted Wed Dec 30 07:46:51 2015 Tags:
Planting lettuce

The lettuce in the quick hoops is finally starting to die back.

The cold frame lettuce is ready to eat, but there's not much of it.

So we're planting some new seeds in the gaps, aiming for twelve months of fresh greens.
Posted Wed Dec 30 14:38:08 2015 Tags:
Training a pear tree

One of our readers wrote in a few weeks ago to ask about fertilizing a non-bearing fruit tree. The truth is that if you did a good job building your soil's organic-matter levels early Watersprouton in the tree's life, it might not need to be fed at all until it sets fruit. Instead, you can get away with mulching well to keep down weed competition while also making sure you're only drawing on the organic-matter interest rather than using up the capital.

It's easy to tell whether you should have fertilized by assessing the next season's twigs. Did you see sufficient new growth or did the tree seem to stand still? At the other extreme, if you see lots of long watersprouts like the one I'm pointing out in the photo to the right, then you probably over-fertilized and need to cut back on your feeding campaign next year so your tree doesn't wear itself out making branches you're just going to have to prune off.

Cardboard tree mulch
If I had access to unlimited resources, I'd mulch heavily with rotted wood chips and/or autumn leaves for non-bearing trees. In the real world where I'm carrying most organic matter half a mile on my back, I make do with a solid cardboard kill mulch weighed down with old boards or punky firewood. The cardboard directly under the weights will rot away relatively fast, but the uncovered cardboard sometimes sticks around for nearly a year, especially when sheltered by a leafy tree canopy. And the wood eventually breaks down to --- you guessed it --- feed the soil.

The only trouble is I've now used up all of my Christmas cardboard, both the stash from Mom and the pick-me-up delivery that Kayla's husband Andy treated me to earlier this week. (Thank you!) Maybe I can talk them into wrangling a little more cardboard to finish up the last of my unmulched trees....

Posted Thu Dec 31 06:10:32 2015 Tags:
tree cutting wedge set of three orange

The last time we cut down a tree the angle was off and it went the wrong way.

Watching a tree cutting wedge video on Youtube helped me to realize we needed some felling wedges and more training on how to use them.

I plan to watch the video a few more times before I cut down our next tree.

Posted Thu Dec 31 14:49:03 2015 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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