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

archives for 03/2016

Root cellar additional cooling action

One of our readers dropped me an email Monday to tell me about the root cellar she and her husband want to build on their Vermont farm. The couple plan to give the off-grid Root cellar diagramcooler extra oomph in the summer months by storing ice in the back, using copper pipes full of butane to passively stockpile winter cold for warm-weather use.

In essence, they're hoping to combine the idea of an ice house with the idea of a root cellar. If it works, they'll have achieved an electricity-free, four-season temperature-modified area, allowing the couple to feed themselves and their CSA customers all year long...without the hard work of chipping blocks of ice out of the pond every winter.

Will the ice-house/root-cellar combo go the distance? Donate to their Indiegogo campaign at the $15 level and you'll get two years of temperature records in digital format to answer that question. In the meantime, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this innovative root cellar that's different from any I've ever seen before.

Posted Tue Mar 1 07:26:12 2016 Tags:
Baby lettuce

One-week-old lettuce and peas transplanted successfully out into the February garden. But how did they fare --- even protected by quick hoops --- when outside temperatures fell into the mid twenties?

Quick hoopsThe lettuce brushed off the cold as if it was nothing and kept right on growing. The photo above shows lettuce started inside February 12 then transplanted outside February 19 (on the right) versus lettuce direct-seeded on February 19 (on the left), both photographed after eleven days in dirt.

The difference is striking. The transplanted lettuce will be ready to eat in a week or two at this rate! (Yes, I snip the first leaf lettuce very young.) Of course, transplanting lettuce is pretty fiddly compared to broadcasting a handful of seed so densely that the crop provides a complete weed-buffer once the second set of true leaves emerge. But transplanting a small area looks very much worth it for extra early salads.

Frost-nipped pea seedlings

How about the pea seedlings? Results there were a little more spotty. The direct-seeded control area hasn't come up yet, and among the transplants some seedlings got a bit burned by the 25-degree night even with a quick hoop to protect them. On the other hand, other seedlings seem just as vigorous and happy as always. Looks like my planting calendar --- which told me to direct-seed a large area of lettuce and arugula under quick hoops this week but to wait two weeks for the main pea planting --- was spot on.

Posted Wed Mar 2 07:45:15 2016 Tags:
planting Blue Wind broccoli seeds for Spring garden

Today's the day we started broccoli and cabbage seeds.

We like Blue Wind broccoli.

Posted Wed Mar 2 15:52:32 2016 Tags:
Opening up the winter hive

Natural beekeepers would strongly frown upon opening up the winter hive, even if the day's high was 66. But natural beekeepers would also frown upon feeding a healthy hive in late February just to boost colony size and prompt maximum honey production. Since I'm committed to doing the latter, I need to do the former as well --- more bees need more space or they'll soon swarm.

Nadiring the langstroth hiveI am sticking to the Warre method of nadiring rather than using the Langstroth method of supering, though. In part, this is because I'm trying to get the bees out of the Warre hardware, so I'm hoping they'll build down and finally let me remove that last Warre box (hopefully full of honey) this summer. But nadiring also makes intuitive sense for spring expansion.

To that end, I dragged Mark out to help me lift the existing hive up in preparation for slipping new boxes underneath. But the hive (minus roof) was just barely light enough that I could manage it on my own without straining my back. I didn't take the boxes apart because I was trying to minimize my intrusion as much as possible, but the moderate weight seemed pretty good for this time of year, suggesting that there's at least a little bit of honey left inside for the bees to consume as they wait for true spring.

Now, if I can just remember to buy sugar in bulk, we might have our first good honey harvest since 2010....

Posted Thu Mar 3 07:02:07 2016 Tags:
Tree tapping with goat

Despite the initial dripping when we tapped a black birch Monday, it turns out the first week of March is too early for significant accumulation after all. Four days later, we'd only racked up a quarter of a cup of frozen sap --- no wonder since the daytime highs have only Sap bucket with lidbeen reaching the low forties.

With another warming trend on the horizon, I'm hopeful we'll get more sap soon. There are half a dozen sizable birches in that same area, actually, so the tricky part will be deciding whether I want to tap them all or keep our project on the fun, hobby level.

Of course, since I can take the goats out with me to both tap and collect sap, the fun quotient may well remain high even if I tap all half dozen. Every project is more fun with goats.

Posted Fri Mar 4 07:31:22 2016 Tags:
mark New video
filming lucy
We worked on a new homesteading video this afternoon.
Posted Fri Mar 4 16:48:59 2016 Tags:
Onion seedling comparison

I love stump dirt, but my onion seedlings apparently aren't nearly so keen. I ran a side-by-side comparison of stump dirt versus store-bought potting soil...and the latter won by a landslide.

Despite my disappointment that the homegrown organic matter failed the test, I can guess the reasons. Stump dirt does a great job holding moisture and looks like rich, fluffy ground. However, if the product really is simply beetle castings, I might be seeing the same problem that those who use straight worm castings with seedlings see --- excess salts keep the baby plants from thriving.

Either way, I'll squash my urges to go entirely homemade and will start my next round of seeds in store-bought potting soil. After all, the final crop is the goal and I'll take whatever path I need to in order to achieve that destination.

Posted Sat Mar 5 07:45:56 2016 Tags:
mark Goat menu
goats looking cute on parade
This is the week Japanese Honeysuckle makes it back to the goat menu.
Posted Sat Mar 5 15:05:49 2016 Tags:
First crocus

The crocuses are running late this year...which apparently means nothing at all. But I sure hope it makes the tree flowers run equally late!

Finding ways to harvest tree fruits despite late spring freezes is one of my thought projects for the year. Possible solutions I've come up with include:

  • Easily coverable espaliers so I can protect opening flowers from hard freezes.
  • Espaliers along an earthen bank so the thermal mass of soil can do the job for me.
  • Early transparent applePlanting late-blooming varieties.
  • Planting standard-sized apples in hopes the blooms near the top of each tree won't get nipped. (We don't have tree-free room to try this...yet.)
  • Finding less frost-prone pockets on our property, perhaps the south-facing hillside across the way. Unfortunately, this would require considerable tree removal.

One option I've read about that doesn't seem to work here is:

  • Planting trees on the north side of a building or hillside to slow down their bloom cycle. That's where our high-density apple planting is...and they still persist in getting nipped each spring.

I'd be curious to hear from others who regularly see tree flowers in March when you still have ten weeks of cold weather to go. Have you found any solution to the frost-nipped blossoms and fruitless years that result?

Posted Sun Mar 6 07:01:32 2016 Tags:
goats pulling Anna in both directions
Warning: The cuteness of goats can pull you in opposite directions.
Posted Sun Mar 6 15:32:42 2016 Tags:
Seed-starting trays

Several of you made thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on my potting soil vs. stump dirt post (both on and off blog). So I thought it deserved a followup post.

Broccoli seedlingJohn asked whether veggies started in stump dirt might grow slower but then do better in the long run. This is a valid hypothesis --- I'm always a proponent of starting seedlings off in low-nutrient areas at first so they'll develop good root systems. That said, the issue with stump dirt tends to be seedling death, not slow growth, which suggests the problem isn't low nutrients at all.

But I'm not giving up on stump dirt entirely. I've had great luck using the homegrown amendment for potting up tomatoes, peppers, and other seedlings that spend quite a bit of time indoors. I'm just disillusioned about stump dirt's efficacy at getting plants from the seed to the two-true-leaf stage --- the area where I've traditionally had the most failures in the past. I'm hopeful that starting them off in potting soil then moving up to stump dirt will eliminate that issue while also keeping costs low for my always over-ambitious indoor spring garden.

Posted Mon Mar 7 07:12:15 2016 Tags:

steel snap link spring loaded close up in action
We suspended our kitchen counter with two heavy duty spring loaded snap links.

Posted Mon Mar 7 16:01:19 2016 Tags:

Small-scale no-till gardening basicsI've been blown away by the preorder interest in Small-Scale No-Till Gardening Basics. Clearly, the topic has hit a nerve! Here's hoping that everyone enjoys the writing inside now that the book is live.

If you haven't snapped up your copy yet, you can do so today on any of the following platforms:

And while I'm regaling you with book news, part three in the series --- Balancing Soil Nutrients and Acidity --- is up for preorder as well. Once again, I'm giving you a couple of days to nab the ebook at 99 cents before it goes up to its real price of $2.99. So if you want to learn about the science behind remineralization, along with information on how to mitigate soil deficits and problematic pH using chemicals, cows, goats, chickens, mushrooms, cover crops, dynamic accumulators, and more, then here are the links for you:

Finally, just as a reminder, these ebooks are sections of the print book The Ultimate Guide to Soil, which is currently up for preorder and will be hitting bookstores and libraries in July. So if you'd rather wait a few months and read on paper, that option is available as well.

Thanks so much for reading! Your support lets me spend my days experimenting with kill mulches, goats, and cover crops, then reporting those results to you on the blog. So I hope you know I appreciate everyone who buys a copy, tells their friend, shares this post on social media, or leaves a review. You are why I write.

Posted Tue Mar 8 07:08:58 2016 Tags:
Morning in the goat barn

Good news! Artemesia is pregnant. I've been feeling under her belly right in front of her udder like Karla suggested...feeling nothing. Then, Monday morning, a kick! Actually, Artemesia's little parasite(s) were very rambunctious that morning, kicking repeatedly...which is handy since I might have otherwise considered that first movement a fluke. So now I can go back to wondering what sex, what color, and how many.

Goat breakfast

The bad news is, Artemesia is no longer in tip-top health. About a week ago, I started noticing her fur losing its shine and a bit of dandruff cropping up. Granted, both of our goats are also shedding their winter fur at the moment, which gives them a bit of a scruffy look...but Artemesia just looked scruffier than she ought. A peek at her inner eyelids determined that they were quite a bit paler than Abigail's, a sure sign of anemia and a likely sign of worms.

Goat eating garlicJust as when this last happened, I first took a look at the kelp feeder. It wasn't precisely empty...but goats are a lot like cats. You know how cats will look at the last two tablespoons of kibble, turn up their noses, and beg for more as if they're starving to death? Apparently, that's a goat's take on the dregs of kelp as well.

So I topped up the kelp feeder and started the herd on a daily garlic campaign as well. I've tried chopping up garlic and putting it in our goats' feed...and they have a fit. Rightly so --- who wants a big bite of raw garlic when you're expecting sweet potatoes? However, I soon discovered that goats are quite willing to eat an after-dinner mint garlic out of the kelp feeder. In fact, they've been going through a head of garlic a day between them --- I'll have to cut them off soon!

Goat gear

Shiny goatWithin four days, Artemesia's fur started shining again. But her eyelids still aren't as bright as Abigail's. I'm kicking myself for not looking at Artemesia's eyelids when she seemed in tip-top health since individual goats can have different baselines. Instead, I'm ordering some chemical dewormer just to be on the safe side...and I'm also going to pull out our microscope and see if I can get an assessment of worm load in her poop. Mark's going to love our dinner-table conversations this week....

Posted Wed Mar 9 06:36:44 2016 Tags:
039 stihl chainsaw in action

We had some big logs that required a bump up from the battery powered saw.

The Stihl tech in Gate City at Broadwater feed store tuned up our old 039 and is now the only place I'll go for future service.

Posted Wed Mar 9 18:04:31 2016 Tags:
Mayan figurines

Mark and I snuck away to visit the McClung Museum in Knoxville Wednesday. It was a long drive --- 4.5 hours round trip and probably a bit beyond what I'd usually consider a fun day trip. But I was feeling in need of an adventure and Mark is always willing to oblige my infrequent impulses to leave the farm.

Mayan demon

The really impressive exhibits were about the geology and archaeology of Tennessee. But I need to digest a bit before I regale you with lessons learned from those rooms. So, instead, I'll just show you a couple of shots from the Mayan exhibit. A lot of the Mayan artifacts were actually reproductions, but a few --- like the toad and rabbit pots at the top of this post --- were the real deal.

We returned home half an hour before sunset, and I was already itching to get back to my darling goats, my spoiled cats, and my impatient garden. I guess I got that travel-lust out of my system just in time --- 6.5 weeks left until milking season!

Posted Thu Mar 10 07:02:43 2016 Tags:
Mashing up goat poop

As with our bees, I hate the idea of pumping chemicals into our goats unless I'm positive they have a problem with worms. The solution to this dilemma is what scientists euphemistically refer to as a fecal exam and what I call a goat poop analysis. Basically, you're looking for eggs of the parasitic worms that give your herd such a hard time, then you use the number of eggs to decide whether to deworm.

Preparing a goat fecal sample
"Okay, Anna. You just lost me," says the random reader. "How am I going to see microscopic worm eggs, let alone count them?"

Homestead microscopyWell, gentle reader, I'm glad you asked! It's pretty simple --- first you follow your goat around staring at their butt until they poop. Next, you gather three fresh pellets and mash them up in a solution of water saturated with epsom salts. Then you strain out the non-microscopic gunk using a clean rag and pour the remaining liquid into a test tube. Fill the tube to the brim with a bit more of your epsom-salt solution, place a cover slip on top so it's fully touching the liquid, wait 20 minutes, and the worm eggs should float to the surface and adhere to your cover slip. Then it's just a matter of examining the resulting slide under a microscope to see if you find any worm eggs.

(Yes, I glossed over a lot of factors in that paragraph. This website contains the most scientific and, at the same time, home-user friendly explanation I've run across.)

The biggest problem I've had with this experience so far is the obvious --- the watched goat never poops. The easiest way to get your goat to defecate on command is to wait until she stands up. The trouble is, Artemesia is such a people pleaser, she jumps to her feet as soon as I step out the door. So I did finally get some pellets Thursday....but they came from Abigail.

Goat poop under a microcscope

I figured I'd go ahead and try my hand at analysis anyway, even though Abigail's not the one I'm worried about. So I wasn't surprised that I didn't find anything I was sure were worm eggs. (This site has some good images of various goat intestinal parasites. But, basically, you're looking for ovals with circles inside.) Instead, I mostly found lots of debris, one colony of what I think is probably bacteria, and a few of what I think are probably plant cells that didn't get entirely digested.

Now I just need to watch Artemesia's butt a little longer and see what I find in her poop. In the meantime, I've increased her concentrates in case she's anemic because of growing kids instead of intestinal parasites. And I'm also taking the time to sit with her while she eats so Abigail can't bully our first freshener out of the last of her ration. Here's hoping by the time I catch some fresh pellets from our darling doeling, Artie will be in peek health and my anemia scare will be a thing of the past.

Posted Fri Mar 11 06:33:07 2016 Tags:
mark Wilson
basketball in the creek

This basketball floated down to our ford and decided to just hang around.

He's been here almost a week!

I've started calling him Wilson each time I walk by on my way to our parking area.

Posted Fri Mar 11 15:46:06 2016 Tags:
Native American women grinding corn

You'll be unsurprised to learn that my favorite exhibit at the McClung Museum was the Native American wing. Not only is this one of my favorite topics to learn about, but the exhibit was also based on archaeological sites and artifacts from Tennessee, making the information very close to home.

I particularly enjoyed the way exhibit creators focused on how-we-know as well as what-we-know. For example, from the exhibit above: "Corn was ground into meal using mortars and pounders of stone or wood. Archaeologists think women did the work. Why? The repeated motion caused their arm bones to become thicker and stronger than those of Archaic Period women --- a change not seen in men."

Human coproliteOr, more succinctly, take a look at the coprolite to the left. Yes, that's fossilized human poop used to analyze our ancestors' diets. I'd heard of coprolites before, but had never thought of them in relation to our own species. I mean, how exactly does human excrement become fossilized?

Indian corn

Cultivated sunflower evolutionMuch of the rest of the Native American agriculture exhibit contained information I'd read previously in books like 1491 and in more scholarly texts or at museums like Sunwatch. But I was particularly taken by one map (not shown here) that focused on North American cucurbits.

Guess which type of currently cultivated squash evolved very close to where we now farm? The crookneck squash...which just happens to be the one summer squash I find easy to grow organically in our bug- and fungus-rich environment.

Native American figurine

Cherokee water striderOf course, the exhibit wasn't all about field corn and summer squash. There were plenty of cultural tidbits as well, such as clay figurines like the one above and ornaments like the one shown to the left. Interestingly, the pendant is supposed to represent the Cherokee myth of the water "spider," which brought fire on its back across the water from gods to humans.

I put "spider" in quotes in the previous paragraph because, from the image, I think this particular pendant actually represents a water strider. Yes, both water spiders and water striders do exist. Of the two, I think the latter is more likely to carry fire over long distances since they skim rather than scurry across the water.

Cherokee canoe

PotsherdsThere were other fascinating artifacts, too, like this 32-foot-long canoe that was found drifting in the Tennessee River. Mark and I both scratched our heads over the ungainliness of such a tremendous vessel until I decided it must have been used like a Uhaul moving van. My guess will have to stand since the exhibit gave no indication of the canoe's real use.

Overall, the McClung Museum's "Archaeology & Native Peoples of Tennessee" exhibit may be the best I've seen on the topic. I only wish I'd skipped the Mayans so we could have hit the room with my brain fully fresh. In fact, if it wasn't such a schlep to get to Knoxville, I would have used up all of my museum brainpower on that one room alone. If you're in the area, I highly recommend giving it a try!

Posted Sat Mar 12 06:48:45 2016 Tags:
woodshed upgrade
Our redesigned woodshed will make sorting and stacking easier.
Posted Sat Mar 12 15:02:04 2016 Tags:

Goat intestinal analysisGood news --- finding worm eggs in a goat fecal sample is pretty easy. Just focus on the air bubbles at 10x and look for oval shapes on the same level that are just a little larger. Zoom in to 40x to confirm your ID and figure out the species. Thread worm is distinctive because you can actually see a little worm wriggling around inside the egg, while most other eggs look more like the top picture to the right (which I may or may not have identified correctly to species).

Bad news --- Artemesia's worm load is indeed too high. I counted about 50 eggs on my slide, mostly thread worm but some (probably) twisted stomach worm as well. That count might equate to about 2,500 eggs per gram, which is higher than is optimal.

While I'd love to stay organic with Artemesia, I don't want to risk her health during pregnancy. So I went ahead and treated her to a dose of Safe-guard (fenbendazole), which is supposed to be okay for use during pregnancy. I also changed her over to our other winter pasture since thread worms enter a goat's system through the hooves in wet ground. Looks like that muddy spot that offended my sense of order (and Abigail's dignity) also offends Artemesia's health. Time to think of a solution for winter goat lounging near the gate.

Posted Sun Mar 13 07:31:50 2016 Tags:
Posted Sun Mar 13 19:18:21 2016 Tags:
Early spring rain

In early March, the grass is just barely starting to grow and there's not very much to see yet in the garden. But, despite the brownness of winter, this is still a pivotal time of the growing year. Not only am I making new beds like the one shown here, I'm also planting annuals and nurturing perennials.

Spring garlic

On the list for the month --- weeding around the garlic, which is starting to grow like gangbusters now that the serious cold has fled. A newspaper layer beneath the straw did a great job keeping weeds at bay everywhere except around the plants themselves. But it's still better to yank that dead nettle before it goes to seed!

Chickens preparing new ground

Other overwinterers won't be around long, so I'll wait to deal with weeds until it's time for the next crop. Above, you can see the tiny bit of kale that survived the winter under a quick hoop. Now exposed to spring rains, the leaves are slowly but surely beginning to grow again.

Overwintering cabbageThe cabbage shown to the left was more of a surprise. I can't recall whether it was just a small plant that didn't have time to head up last fall or a plant that resprouted after I harvested the main head. Either way, it accidentally got covered by a quick hoop due to its proximity to the parsley. And when I took off the cover, the crucifer started to regrow. I guess we'll have one ultra-early cabbage this year!

Spreading compost

Most of my attention, though, is focused on March, April, and May plantings. To that end, I'm spreading various types of compost on spring beds. I'm not 100% happy with any of my homegrown compost...yet. But that's okay because a little extra time in the dirt works wonders toward mitigating high-nitrogen chicken bedding and high-carbon garden-weed compost. Here, I'm topdressing beds that won't be planted until the first of May, giving the compost plenty of time to mellow in the interim.

New green grass

This final shot shows the results of my February garden-redesign campaign. I shoveled all the good dirt from shady beds to make one long new bed on the left side of the photo in an area that enjoys full sun. The topsoilless areas in the foreground will be seeded in oats and clover so goats can enjoy a nibble as I work in the garden.

There are a few more areas I want to redesign too. But now that spring is here, I suspect those beds won't be remade until the fall. Oh well, my garden is now and always a work in progress!

Posted Mon Mar 14 07:43:30 2016 Tags:
mark Goat decks
goat deck

We installed two goat decks to give our girls a place to lounge during the day.

Posted Mon Mar 14 15:25:45 2016 Tags:
Bowl of shiitake mushrooms

Fruiting mushroom logsA year ago, Mark and I plugged oak logs with shiitake spawn. This is our second round of shiitakes, but our first logs didn't last as long as we thought they should have. So we put in a bit more effort, building the fungi a station up off the ground in a shady spot and watering them during droughts (or rather, when I remembered).

Fast forward ahead twelve months, and we harvested a bowlful of Native Harvest and Snow Cap mushrooms! There's about that many unexpanded buttons to be harvested later in the week too and many more to come in the years ahead.

Miniature shiitake logAs a side note, the first miniature mushroom log to fruit is providing quite a good crop --- three medium-sized mushrooms. Mark and I both think these little logs would make great gifts for homesteaders to give suburbanite friends who have neither the space nor the energy levels to move larger logs around. The minis don't fruit any faster than the big logs (despite my hopes), but they do seem to produce a good-size crop in a very manageable package. The next question will be --- do minis last as long as the big logs?

I'll end by sending you to my ebook Weekend Homesteader: March for step-by-step instructions about turning trees from your woodlot into easy edible fungi. Now's the time to plug logs, so best get crackin'!

Posted Tue Mar 15 06:07:33 2016 Tags:

Two-story tomatoesI can still remember where I was when I first saw it --- a picture of a man harvesting tomatoes from the top of an extension ladder. Louis Ver had grown a 23-foot-tall plant a few decades earlier in a town only 45 minutes drive from where I lived in Pennsylvania. Best of all, he had done it organically and picked over 200 tomatoes from the plant over the course of the season! I couldn't wait to try it for myself.

I loved the colors and flavors of heirloom tomatoes, but was sometimes disappointed by the yield. I was pretty sure that this was the answer to my problems. In the years since, I have continued to read and experiment in an attempt to achieve maximum yields on my tomato plants. I would like to share a few quick tips that will help you to grow more tomatoes as well, even if you don't want to leave the safety of the ground.

Ripening tomatoesTip #1: Provide constant moisture. If a plant has all of the sunlight and fertilizer in the world, and a wealth of perfect soil beneath it, its growth will still be frustrated if it doesn't have the moisture it needs. Ruth Stout once had me convinced that rich soil and a good mulch would retain all of the moisture that my plants needed. But even when I gave my tomatoes an occasional gallon of "irrigation tea," per Louis Ver's recommendations, I ended up realizing that I was dwarfing the plants due to insufficient moisture.

Here is the easiest and most efficient way that I have found to water a very big plant. Drill a hole in the side of a 5 gallon bucket, right where the bottom and side of the container meet. Set it 1 to 2 feet from the base of the tomato plant, with the hole aimed toward the plant, and fill it once weekly, letting the water drain out slowly over 5 to 10 minutes. If you don't have a supply of rain or pond water, let tap water age in a bucket for a day or more before dumping it in the bucket with a hole to give any chlorine time to evaporate and the water time to warm to outdoor temperatures. This slow trickle will create a reservoir of water in the soil directly beneath your plant that it can draw from over the course of the week.

Tall tomato plantTip #2: Provide constant fertility. I've learned that spreading compost around your plant once at the beginning of growing season is a bit like giving a child a seven-course meal as soon as they are born and never feeding them again. Of course, organic fertilizers are known for being slow-release, but this doesn't mean that they don't lose potency as the elements leach away their nutrients. It was my pole beans that first convinced me that the "once and done" plan was foolish. Every year bean production would peter out at some point, after which I would place a few shovels of compost in a bucket of water, mix it up, and dump along the row. Within two weeks the plants were pumping out beans at a machine gun pace again! At some point I thought, "Why don't I just do this every two weeks all season long?"

I was on the right track. I soon read about experts who do something very similar, as Eliot Coleman spreads a "side-dressing" of compost around each tomato plant monthly and Steve Solomon "fertigates" his larger plants with a 5-gallon bucket of compost tea every other week. I often use a method that is a hybrid of the two, slowly dumping a few gallons of my compost "stew" (compost left in, as with the pole beans) around the base of the plant twice a month in addition to my watering schedule. It really doesn't take much compost to maintain fertility in this manner as long as you planted in good soil or spread
Tomato bushan inch of compost in a two foot wide circle around your transplant; a trowel scoop per gallon of water seems to be adequate.

Tip #3: Give your plant room to grow. Years ago, I planted my tomatoes pretty closely, lopped off all suckers in an attempt to channel the nutrients into that one precious vine, and trained them up twine to a trellis. I later realized that I was severely limiting productivity. This method is fine if you have to grow 20 varieties in a twenty foot garden bed, have lots of time for pruning, and a trellis to train all of your single vines up to, but you won't get much from each plant. I could have grown more tomatoes with four plants per bed and my current techniques.

Here are two methods that work best in most situations:

  • Giant tomato bush. First, plant your tomato in full sun at least five feet from any other large plant. Next, go to a hardware store and buy two sheets of re-mesh (used to reinforce concrete). Back at home, fasten the ends of one sheet with wire, and you will have a cage 3 1/2' high to set around your tomato plant. Do the same with the second, and then put it on top of the first, wiring it securely in place. Tie the cage to one or two stakes that are pounded in securely to prevent the contraption from tipping when the plant gets big. You now have a 7' tall cage, which will hold your giant tomato "bush" securely for the season, as the vines will have to reach at least 14' in length in order to grow over the top of your cage and back down to the ground. Best of all, most of you will be able to reach all of the tomatoes without even standing on your toes! (The one in the picture is just about to flop and head downward after growing out the top of a 10 1/2' cage.)
  • String-trained tomatoSky-high climbing vines. For this method, you'll need to plant your tomato in full sun beneath a second-story balcony, window, or chimney. Next, buy a rope at least 25' long made of rough, natural material (I've used sisal.) Third, tie the rope to something (the balcony railing, chimney, etc.) up on the second story, and the other end gently to the base of the tomato plant (wait until it's not too small and tender). Then, as the plant grows, twist its trunk gently around the rope. You'll need to get up on the ladder weekly to trim suckers with this method, but can allow about 4 vines to climb the rope without everything coming undone, and without limiting your plant's height or productivity. I harvested 500 cherry tomatoes from a single vine when I first tried this, and each additional vine can produce just as many!

Well, there you are. If you water your plant correctly, stagger its feedings over the course of the growing season, and give it plenty of room to grow, you should be harvesting a bumper crop of tomatoes this season even if you only have time or space for one plant. Happy growing!
Nate Harvey is a former weight-training writer who has shifted his focus toward helping people grow big, organic tomato crops rather than big, drug-free muscles. He is currently developing a video course about adapting the techniques of world-class tomato champs to the backyard garden. If you found this article interesting, and would like to see and/or read about all of his tomato-boosting techniques for FREE this season, join up here.
Posted Tue Mar 15 16:20:48 2016 Tags:
Personable goat

Never in my life have I spent as much time on personal daily hygiene as I've spent lately grooming our pregnant goat. My goal isn't really to make her look pretty, though. Instead, I Brushing a goathave a couple of more constructive points on my daily agenda.

The first is to keep myself occupied while Artemesia eats her morning and evening ration at a snail's pace. I realized a few weeks ago that Abigail was getting the lion's share of Artie's food (as well as all of her own) since our horned goat eats at lightning speed then bullies our smaller, hornless goat away from the rest of her dinner. So now I lock Abigail out of the goat shed while Artemesia nibbles on her alfalfa pellets and roots.

And even though it sometimes seems like a long time to wait on a busy morning, I'm actually glad Artie is a slow eater. That trait means I won't have to overfeed the doe just to keep her occupied while milking the way I did with Abigail.

First freshener udder

So I brush our goat to keep myself from getting bored while Artie eats, right? Well, not entirely. I'm also trying to get her used to being touched all over long before the kid(s) arrive. I have a feeling that if I'd done this with Abigail, it wouldn't have been such a hassle (especially at first) to drawn down her milk.

Of course, Artemesia is much more malleable and people-oriented than her herd mate already. But even she flinched and tried to tuck her hindquarters the first few times I gently felt at her expanding udder. After a couple of weeks of personal attention, though, she's still not entirely thrilled at being felt up but she accepts it as a necessary part of eating her Feeling for goat kidsdaily carrots.

While I'm messing around down there, I also press up gently on Artemesia's belly. About 90% of the time, Aurora (or her brother) kicks back. I have a feeling that if I was more experienced, I'd be able to guess how many kids are in there using this push test, but I can never seem to remember exactly where the last kick happened well enough to know if more than one kid is nudging its mother's insides.

Goat eating off the edge of the stanchion

If I run out of goat to brush and prod, I move on to giving our darling a pedicure. I'm very glad to see that her hooves are suddenly growing a rate more commensurate with her food intake --- a good sign that the wormer might have licked her parasite problem. The insides of her eyelids might also be getting a little pinker, but that's harder to tell since my camera tends to misread colors in closeups of Artie's dark face.

As you can tell, though, I'm not entirely teaching our first freshener good habits. Once she's done with the food in the stanchion, she moves on to licking out the bowl. Oh well --- a beloved goat needs to be at least a little bit spoiled, right?

Posted Wed Mar 16 07:09:47 2016 Tags:
trailersteading thumbnail new book on retrofiting a trailer
A short video on how the convertible bathtub works.
Posted Wed Mar 16 15:37:34 2016 Tags:
Opening pear buds

Sometimes I go outside with the camera to take a picture of one thing...but a closer look points out that something else entirely is going on.

For example, I've been noticing pear buds beginning to break dormancy over the last few days. "Slow down!" I told the tree.

But when I took a second look, I realized that only the branches of the original variety on this topworked tree were opening up. The grafted-on variety --- shown slightly out of focus in the foreground of the main photo --- is still holding tight. Looks like the new varieties I chose for flavor might also be better at resisting late frosts as well.

Golf ball in snake
Less pleasantly, I watched Lucy kill this black rat snake while I was pruning the blueberries Monday. I always beg her not to attack rodent-eating reptiles, but our usually well-behaved dog goes tunnel-vision when she smells a split tongue.

It turns out that just this once, the snake she was after was actually a villain. No, not poisonous --- a nest-egg robber! We keep golf balls in our chicken nest boxes to give dim-witted birds the impetus to lay in an easy-to-gather spot. The snake must have swallowed one of these fake eggs, then learned the hard way that plastic doesn't digest the way shells and yolk do.

I still would rather Lucy didn't lay down the ultimate punishment. But I felt a little less guilty when that big white ball popped out of the snake's belly.

Posted Thu Mar 17 06:57:25 2016 Tags:
Protected lettuce

I'm a big fan of this green plastic trellis material.

I use it every year with a few U-posts for supporting peas --- easy to erect and easy to dismantle.

Tree protectionI've used it in the past for temporary pastures for young chickens (although in recent years they've been a bit too flighty to contain that way).

I use it in the winter to protect strawberry plants at their most vulnerable from irregular but devastating deer attacks.

I use it in the spring to save seedlings when freshly planted ground looks extremely attractive to our naughty cats.

And I use it around young trees in chicken pastures. The trellis material isn't strong enough to keep out goats or deer, but chickens will leave anything within it alone.

I'd give you an Amazon link, but I can't seem to find the product online and figure shipping would be prohibitive anyway. But if you're in Lowes, why not pick up a roll? Even using my neglectful methods of piling the trellis pieces on the ground beside the barn when I'm not using them, I've seen no decline in quality of our stash over the last eight years.

Posted Fri Mar 18 07:31:01 2016 Tags:
heavy duty tripod by fancier studios

We recently upgraded to a heavy duty tripod by Fancierstudio.

It's very well built and comes with an extra camera plate and a nice carrying bag.

Posted Fri Mar 18 16:04:54 2016 Tags:
Goat lounging porch

Wanna hang out with the cool kids? A writer friend and I joined up to create a super secret facebook hangout for other homesteaders (and homesteaders-to-be).

This is a spot where you can chat with each other rather than listening to me ramble on indefinitely about Artemesia and organic matter. There've been some inspiring photos and great posts by our initial members and I look forward to seeing what you have to say.

Want to join in? Just follow the link above and click the "Join" button. Either Jill or I will let you in as soon as we notice your request. Looking forward to seeing you over there.

Posted Sat Mar 19 07:11:29 2016 Tags:
cold frame one year later

It was a year ago this week when we made our first cold frame.

Today it's brimming with fresh greens.

Posted Sat Mar 19 16:05:20 2016 Tags:
Talking goat

Do you need an inexpensive starter goat for a pastured dairy herd? Abigail's going to be available as soon as Artemesia's kids are born in a month. Perhaps you'd like to take her home with you?

Grazing goat

Here are some stats:

  • She's an unregistered Saanan x Nigerian cross.
  • She's in her milking peak (3 years old).
  • She can be bred in spring or fall (and is actually in heat today).
  • Milk production is uncertain --- I was learning while milking her last year and know I lowered production a lot. You can see her lactation curve here.
  • Milk flavor is very good. I haven't had anyone tell me it tasted goaty, although my brother thought it was almost too rich to drink straight.
  • She's never been wormed and seems to have both parasite-resistant behavior and genes. (She won't touch any food on the ground, for example.)
  • She's never been fed grain (well, except for a head of sorghum once in a blue moon for a treat) and keeps her weight on well with alfalfa pellets, roots, and hay.
  • Goat on a leashShe's moderately well trained. She'll jump up on a milking stanchion on command and only grumbles a bit when you trim her hooves or milk her. She'll walk on a leash (although she pulls a bit if she gets excited) and comes when she's called (as long as there's not something tasty within reach). She follows off leash as long as you're not close to the garden. She handles being tethered well, knows not to get her horns stuck in cattle panels, and understands electrified poultry netting. In her previous life, she was herded with dogs. (Okay, this sounds like she's really well trained. But you haven't met Artemesia --- when our other goat gets ready to chomp down on a raspberry leaf, I just say her name in a moderately stern tone of voice and Artemesia generally obeys me and moves over. My standards are abnormally high.)
  • We paid $125 for Abigail and aren't looking to make a profit.
Goats from above

And some stats you might find less enticing:

  • Goat eating honeysuckleBoth of the times she was bred, Abigail produced a single kid. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you want to maximize milk-for-people.)
  • She has horns and uses them on other goats (although never on humans). This would actually be a plus if you kept Abigail in a large pasture that could see predator pressure. (She's very alert at fending off potential dangers.) But this is a minus if you want to keep her in a very small herd (like ours) with a hornless goat of a submissive variety. Basically, she can be a bully to smaller, weaker animals. (Yes, this is why we're moving her on.)

Still interested? Then drop me an email at I want to line up up someone who's willing to take her as soon as Artemesia's kids are born, so that means you'd need to have your infrastructure in place and at least one companion goat for Abigail. (No, she can't live without goat companionship...and you wouldn't want her to since she'd cry like crazy!)

So, what do you think? Ready for some pastured dairy of your very own?

Posted Sun Mar 20 07:39:12 2016 Tags:

Kitty candle
Do you like scented candles and wax melts? Author Lindsey R. Loucks has joined her love of story-telling with creative, eco-friendly candles, wax melts, lip balms, and other products with her company “turtledinosaur.” Her candles and wax melts are made with renewable, American grown soy, and include such whimsical names as Make Friends With Vampires, My Mermaid Tail Is Better Than Yours, and Book Boyfriend. Each candle and wax melt comes with a short story to explain the name.

When asked what tips she'd give to other aspiring candlemakers, Lindsey answered:

"I collect as many free or cheap samples as I can from different companies. (My favorites are The Flaming Candle Company, Rustic Escentuals, and Indigo.) Then I experiment by combining scents for a totally unique smell.

"For example, Book Boyfriend is a mix of oud wood, leather, musk, and a scent called Fierce. It took a while to get the proportions right, but once I did, BAM! Book Boyfriend was created! I knew ahead of time kind of how I wanted it to smell, and I got it!"

One lucky reader is going to get it too! Comment below with your favorite candle scent and you'll be put in a drawing for a free sample of Make Friends With Vampires wax melts.

Don't want to wait for luck to smile on you? Then check out Lindsey's Etsy shop and Kickstarter campaign today. Because who wouldn't want their house to smell like a mermaid's tail?

Posted Sun Mar 20 15:46:37 2016 Tags:
Seedlings under lights

I'm still in the learning stages with my new high-tech, indoor seed-starting setup. But so far, I've been very pleased with my results. In fact, seedlings that usually wouldn't be ready to set out for another two weeks are begging to be transplanted. Here's hoping that after this current cold snap, I'll feel comfortable putting cabbages, broccoli, and onions in the ground.

Onion seedlings

Speaking of onions, I'm beginning to see why this has always been my hardest crop. While other seedlings have been doing a little better in the store-bought potting soil than in the stump dirt, the difference in growth among the onions is like night and day. I'm guessing onions are particularly sensitive to salts and I'd been putting majorly subpar specimens in the ground in years past.

Of course, there are still growing pains. I set the fan too close to the seedlings at first and nipped back some of those onion seedlings. Now I've settled on 18 inches away as a good distance to keep air circulating and harden off the baby plants a bit without desiccating tender leaves. Live and learn!

Posted Mon Mar 21 07:05:55 2016 Tags:
Blooming cabbage
"I wouldn't be surprised if that cabbage goes to seed. They are biannuals, and it should flower and go to seed in its second year."
--- Anonymous

Sure enough, our overwintering cabbage is sending out flower buds.

Since we only have one cabbage and it's a hybrid, we'll enjoy the shoots as cabbage raab.

Posted Mon Mar 21 15:58:13 2016 Tags:
Anemone goat

As usual with goats and worms, the result of my second fecal analysis on Artemesia was a case of good news/bad news.

First freshenerThe good news is that the worms that were really overloading her --- thread worms --- had a 100% kill rate from Safe-guard. I still feel the kid(s) kicking in her belly on a regular basis too, so hopefully the supposedly safe dewormer really did have no negative effects on her pregnancy.

The bad news is that the other species present (possibly twisted stomach worm) wasn't killed at all, meaning that it's resistant to this common dewormer. In fact, that species' numbers might have risen slightly after the dewormer reduced competition for Artemesia's gut space. At 21 eggs in one slide from four pellets during round two, the other worm's populations are right on the edge of dangerous...but I'll take a wait-and-see approach there and test again in a week.

Manure alley

With 20/20 hindsight, here's what I've learned from my first foray into chemical dewormers:

  • Identify your worm eggs to species every time you do a fecal exam and then do your counts by species. I wish I had real data (not just a gut feeling) on whether or not the second worm species increased in numbers post deworming.
  • Would a probiotic supplement after deworming have prevented the rise of worm species two? I don't know, but it's worth a try.
  • Clean out the barn before deworming. I don't want to use the manure that fell post-deworming in the vegetable garden in the near future, so I gave our most recent barn cleaning its own composting zone. The trouble is, I hadn't cleaned out the barn for in a few weeks beforehand, so I "lost" more organic matter than I would have liked in the process.

Live and learn!

Posted Tue Mar 22 07:11:17 2016 Tags:
Apple and pear flower buds

Although hard freezes once the garden year starts are always a little dicey, I'm actually glad a cool spell came along to slow spring down. 21 degrees now while apples vary from silver tip to green tip and pears from green tip to tight cluster means a small thinning effect on our hypothetical fruit crop. 21 degrees when flowers are fully open would mean yet another year with no fruit.

Early spring peas
The vegetable garden is similarly unfazed by the return of winter. Baby peas from my second planting are just barely poking out of the ground, and I actually didn't even cover them before the predicted cold spell. I was counting on the fact that the young plants were very close to the earth, which had been warmed well by weeks of summery sun. Sure enough, both the uncovered baby peas and the larger transplanted peas under cover came through the cold snap with flying colors.

Spring strawberry growth

In one part of the garden, though, I'm speeding things up rather than letting the cold slow things down. About a month ago, I erected quick hoops atop one row of strawberries. And, at long last, new growth is finally starting to pop up underneath. In contrast, uncovered plants nearby are still largely dormant.

Of course, I could do a lot more if I wanted ultra-early strawberries. A farm down the road keeps their plants under row-cover fabric all winter and uses black plastic mulch to keep down weeds and heat the soil around their roots. As a result, their fields are already blooming...and in great danger from hard freezes like this. A combination of sprinklers and row cover fabric will probably keep their crop safe. Still, I prefer to walk the middle road and speed my strawberries up a bit...but not too much.

Posted Wed Mar 23 07:16:38 2016 Tags:
mark Dry Spring
anna with sprinklers

We started up our creek irrigation system today to give our Spring garden a boost.

Posted Wed Mar 23 16:03:27 2016 Tags:
New compost pile

Last year's pile of garden-weeds-and-kitchen-scraps compost is pretty much empty. You can see what remains of it in front of one of the covered fig trees in this photo. Basically, a few okra stalks and squash vines weren't entirely composted, but everything else has been spread on the garden to feed spring carrots and summer tomatoes.

The next round of garden fertilization will come from goat-barn leavings, but I'm already building the third installment in the series. The pile in the foreground of the photo comes from beds cleared to make way for broccoli and cabbage...and maybe the resulting humus will feed more broccoli and cabbage in the fall?

Circles and cycles. Closing the fertility loop is a bit like saving seeds. You have to think months ahead, but once you get your plans down pat there's not much extra effort involved.

Posted Thu Mar 24 07:37:59 2016 Tags:
Broccoli seedlings

Three weeks ago, these broccoli and cabbage were my babies. I loved them and cooed over them and urged them to grow.

Grow lights

Now they've been supplanted in my heart (and under the grow lights) by tomato, pepper, zinnia, and basil seedlings. So, despite several likely freezes in the forecast, the crucifers have been moved to the garden to sink or swim.

Garden before

To give them the best chance of survival, I saturated the ground beforehand with three hours of sprinkler action. Then, after setting the babies out and watering them in again, I covered each bed up with row-cover fabric. Crucifers like these can handle lows in the high 20s...but not while they're getting their feet under them. Plus, we've had a strange bout of wind for the last two weeks and the sun is pretty intense at the moment too. All of that adds up to the need for a bit of additional protection.

Garden after

Will they survive? I hope so. If not, I've got about a third as many extra seedlings waiting in the wings. Hopefully Mom and/or Kayla will take those babies off my hands next week if this set of transplants survives. (Hear that, ladies? You've been warned --- get the garden space ready!)

Posted Fri Mar 25 07:33:32 2016 Tags:
big goat

Artemesia seems to spend more time lounging now that she has a bun in the oven.

Posted Fri Mar 25 15:58:01 2016 Tags:
Grazing goat

Artemesia still has four weeks to go. But as you probably noticed in Mark's post yesterday, she looks very, very pregnant. I'm pretty sure she's got at least twins in there because I felt kicking at the same time this week in belly areas about eight inches apart. But I have a sinking suspicion she might be carrying triplets.

Goat eating honeysuckle

Between the worm scare and her growing kids, Artie needs a lot of high-quality nutrition. The trouble is, there literally isn't room in her belly any more for her to eat much at any one time. So I have her on a three times a day feeding schedule. Concentrates in the morning, as much fresh greenery as we can muster this early in the season at lunchtime, then concentrates in the evening. On hotter days, she doesn't really want to eat at noon, though, so I have to move everything a little later.

Out with the goats

(Yes, I do obsess over our dear little goat. How could you tell?)

Dog and goat

In other news, no one nibbled at my goat-sale post, so it looks like Abigail will be going to the butcher in about a month. From a purely financial perspective, I think that's actually the better choice since Abigail will provide quite a lot of high-quality pastured stew meat. Whether I cry when we drop her off remains to be seen.

Posted Sat Mar 26 07:33:44 2016 Tags:
tractor repair

We've been having the same debate for a few years now.

Fix the old chicken tractor or build a new, more modern tractor.

Now that I've got the nest box fixed it might last another year.

Posted Sat Mar 26 16:06:42 2016 Tags:
Garden solarization

Is it too early in the year to get the high temperatures necessary for solarization? Will these translucent drop cloths work as well as last year's transparent ones?

Only time will tell. But it's fun to at least imagine I'm preparing large areas of summer garden space by shaking out a sheet of plastic and weighing down the edges with rebar.

Posted Sun Mar 27 07:24:00 2016 Tags:
guest river gorge

We had a perfect hike yesterday along the 300 million year old sandstone cliffs of The Guest River Gorge.

Posted Sun Mar 27 15:24:27 2016 Tags:

Baby stalactites
Have you ever been on a cave tour and been told not to break off the stalactites because they grow an inch every two hundred years? Then you wonder how exactly scientists came up with that figure?

At the Guest River Gorge this weekend, we were treated to a view of baby stalactites in action. These guys clearly grew faster than average since the little stalactites on the ceiling were already a few inches long and the "cave" in question was a train tunnel built in 1922.

Mark figured that at the rate calcite-laden wader was pushing through the cracks in the vaulted ceiling, the whole thing would start collapsing in about 150 years. I guess we're going to have to keep eating lots of kale if we want to be around to test that hypothesis.

Posted Mon Mar 28 07:26:16 2016 Tags:
mark Wet paper
using wet newspaper to mulch garden with straw

We had a problem with our newspaper layer of mulch last week.

It all blew away with some heavy Spring winds.

The new plan is to wet it first to make it conform to the ground more.

Posted Mon Mar 28 16:03:23 2016 Tags:
Goat log landing

We cut at least twice as many tulip-trees last summer as we needed for 2015-2016 firewood. The trees are so tall that it just made sense to fell all the ones we wanted down while we had the pasture fences out of the way.

Now we're getting ready to put those fences back up so Artemesia will have a completely worm-free pasture for the weeks immediately following kidding. That means cutting those huge logs into manageable sections and hauling them up the hill to the logging road turned log landing. Once there, we can take our time turning the trunks into firewood and hauling the wood home since we learned last year that five months of seasoning is sufficient for this relatively soft wood.

Goat eating multiflora rose

I took advantage of the canopy-free zone last fall to seed a much larger area than we can currently afford to fence with orchardgrass and clover. Maybe by the time I come up with another round of fencing money, the goat-friendly forage will be tall and luxurious?

Posted Tue Mar 29 07:04:52 2016 Tags:
Planting oats

Over the winter, I took topsoil from the beds close to the barn and the woods on either end of the mule garden and created a new bed in a sunnier spot. That left me with several patches of bare subsoil which are kinda-sorta an erosion risk. Not really since they're surrounded by solid sod...but the bare patches still offended my ecologist's eye. So I decided to seed them in goat-fodder crops so Artemesia and kid(s) can graze in the shade while I weed the mule garden. Sounds like paradise in the making, right?

Baby cloverI started by sprinkling some leftover clover seeds that I'd bought for the pasture last fall into the bare patches. I could have put in grass seeds along with the clover, but I didn't want to wait so long for grass to get established. So instead, I waited until the first true leaves came out of the clover seedlings, then I added oats to the mix. (I make this sound intentional --- actually, it took us that long to get to the feed store and pick up the grain.)

Will the fast-growing oats overpower the slow-growing clover and make the legume seeding worthless? Will spring oats suit our goats' palates as well as fall oats do? You'll have to come back this summer to check out the answer to this nail-biting, homesteading cliffhanger.

Posted Wed Mar 30 07:26:28 2016 Tags:
barbed wire

Stretching some top wire to make a height extension for a chicken pasture fence.

Posted Wed Mar 30 15:47:26 2016 Tags:
Planting plum rootstock

My apple-rootstock stool only produced six rooted shoots for use this spring, but my plum stool is a major overachiever, cranking out nine husky suckers plus four smaller shoots that I left behind for later. I set the former out in my nursery bed just outside the back door where I can keep a close eye on them.

(After taking the photo above, I added some straw on top of the kill mulch, and I soaked the ground underneath first...just in case you were worried.)

My goal is to really learn bud grafting this year since dormant-grafted plums only had a 25% success rate last year. Hopefully with nine rootstocks to work with, at least a few will show success.

Posted Thu Mar 31 07:14:03 2016 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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