Thursday, May 28, 2009

Independence Days week 5

Hmm... This should be interesting.

1. Plant something - Nothing this week.

2. Harvest something - Nothing.

3. Preserve something - Nope.

4. Reduce waste - More like generated excess waste.

5. Preparation and Storage - Nada.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Does trading canned goods with somebody in another state count?

7. Eat the Food - Does eating somebody else's homegrown, local, and/or organic food count if you're in another state?

So what's with the pathetic report this week? Well, to make a long story short, we were busily canceling out all our efforts by burning copious fossil fuels. We took a last minute road trip to go visit Independence Days originator Sharon Astyk, as well as some family in New York.

Unfortunately, the trip got cut short when Lori developed a really bad case of strep throat. But we did get to hang out with Sharon and The Boys for a few days.

Sharon's lifestyle, unlike the fictional account she portrays on her web site, is one of unrivaled luxury. Her chartered cargo planes fly hardwood lumber from China to cook with, because, as she puts it, "Asian greens taste so much better when cooked with Asian fuel." Her turnip-shaped hot tub is filled with bottled Fiji Water, and changed twice daily by her staff. Her heated greenhouse is lined with full grown citrus trees, while her cooled greenhouse grows mache, baby carrots, and endangered meat penguins.

Authors have all the fun.



Monday, May 25, 2009

Favorites, Part 3: The "Picnic Table"

On a whim, after seeing something vaguely similar, I decided to build a little picnic table between the posts of our (still unfinished) arbor. It's smaller than a standard picnic table, but can still seat our whole family. It's also in close proximity to the clothesline, so it can double as a laundry folding area. Or a planting bench. Or a platform for Amelia to play with her random collection of objects, or a shady spot for the cat & chickens, or a sunset viewing station, or any of the other sundry things a table is good for.

Since I was working with the existing posts, the dimensions of the table were pretty non-negotiable. I made the table top out of 2x4's. I wanted something wider, partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly for less screwdriving. But as I will never understand dimensional lumber, I had to go with 2x4's to make it work.

I may start referring to dimenional lumber as pan-dimensional lumber, because it makes no sense in this realm. I mean, a 2x4, as you may or may not know, is not 2 inches by 4 inches. It's 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches. You lose a half inch each way, and you gain a math headache in trying to fill a fixed space. One might think that 2x6 boards would be half again as wide as 2x4's, and that 2x8's would be twice as wide. But you'd be wrong on both counts. You lose 1/2 inch on the smaller boards, and 3/4 of an inch on the wider ones. It all seems very arbitrary.

I thought about going with a mix of sizes for a more rustic look, but the mixed fractions were giving me a headache.

At any rate, it still needs some screws, and a coat of stain or something to keep it from rotting away, but I'm pretty happy with it as an improvised, one weekend project. It was also a lot of fun to work with e5 on something, and let him do some of the actual labor.

Now if I can just finish that arbor....



Friday, May 22, 2009

Favorites, Part 2: The Bearded Lady

When we first got chickens, our plan was to hang on to a couple of the Buckeye roosters. Unfortunately, they were way too aggressive. They could draw blood with their spurs. They'd attack each other, me, Lori, the kids, the mail carrier, the neigbors, inanimate objects... So we decided to try to find a full-grown rooster whose temperament was a known quantity. We found somebody with two roosters available, both well-tempered and both from desireable breeds. And both with ironic names. The Buff Orpington, Rocky, was afraid of his own shadow. And the Araucana (Ameraucana? Americana?) was named Sherry, because his original owners thought he was a hen when they named him.

Unfortunately, Rocky didn't last long. He died of unknown causes. Sherry never liked him, so he may be a leading suspect, but without the CSI: Special Poultry Unit, we'll never know for sure.

At any rate, Sherry is everything we want in a rooster. He's protective of his flock, but he's never shown any signs of aggression toward people. (Despite that, I still flinch from time to time when I cross paths with him, and then remember he's the new guy. I don't miss punting roosters across the yard.) He's much more handsome than any of the other roosters we've had. And anytime he finds food, he alerts the hens with a very distinctive clucking. And he waits for all within hearing range to get there before he takes his first bite.

Here he is, calling the girls for a snack:

...and digging in.


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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gratuitous baby photo!



Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Independence Days week 4

A little light this week. I've been busy cutting grass, attacking weeds, and shoveling (forking?) manure. Trying very hard to stay ahead of things before the hot weather arrives.

1. Plant something - Popcorn (Pennsylvania Butter-Flavored, and Ladyfinger). We tried Ladyfinger once before and it didn't do that well, so I'm doing a trial of another variety as a comparison. Field corn (Ohio Blue Clarage). This is from seed we saved a couple years ago. This is sort of an all-purpose corn that I'm interested in growing for several potential purposes. It's supposed to be decent in the milk stage as a sweet-corn substitute, though I'm sure it's nowhere near as sweet as true sweet corn. It's supposed to be great as a livestock feed, and for cornmeal. It's mostly a dark blueish-purple, with some white kernels here and there. And if I could ever grow enough of it, it could be used to heat our house. I planted a plot of about 45' x 15' or so. I was going to plant a bigger area, but the sod has gotten so lush and thick that even the tiller has a hard time with it.

2. Harvest something - Eggs. That's it for the moment. The asparagus is just about done.

3. Preserve something - Still nothing here.

4. Reduce waste - Lori reminded me that we're trying again with cloth diapers. We had some issues (especially with Amelia), so we've made some modifications.

I'm never sure what to count here. Do I include things we do all the time, like hanging laundry on the line rather than using the dryer? What about using a Bissel-type sweeper prior to vacuuming, which reduced the number of vacuum bags and electricity, while providing the chickens with a supply of popcorn kernels and Cheerio crumbs? I tend to focus on new things, improvements, and non-routine tasks. What are other people doing for this one?

5. Preparation and Storage - Not much going on here at the moment. We are fairly well stocked and prepped. More reading, including A Nation of Farmers. Moved some bulk dried beans from their bag into a bucket for better storage. Talked to a couple people about potential barter.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Sold 4 dozen eggs at the office. Missed the farm market this week. Helped a couple people with gardening & farm market questions. Answered chicken questions for the next-door neighbors, who just got a bunch of chicks. Lori baked some cookies for Amelia's preschool end-of-the-year party.

7. Eat the Food - Strawberry jam, syrup, honey, eggs, and popcorn.



Monday, May 18, 2009

The Beginner's Guide to Hoeing

So you want to learn how to hoe? It's not for everyone. You think you've got what it takes? Are you willing to get down and dirty? Do you like getting all hot and sweaty? Do you, um.... do you know when to push and when to pull, and how to perfect your stroke? And.... uh.... hmmm....

Ok, I give up. That's all the tacky innuendos I can come up with. It's harder than it looks. (That's what she said.) And a big welcome to all future Google-based degenerates.

Now on to working that tool....

If you want to keep the weeds out of your garden, the earlier the better. I mean, if you get to this point, the best hoe in the world is not going to get you anywhere:
Now, there's a point somewhere before that where the hoe is useful. And there's probably something to be said for getting out your aggression by whacking the ground Psycho-style with a sharp metal implement. But I really couldn't say first hand. Much like the native birds of New Zealand, I have almost no natural enemies. And I certainly don't have any frustrations or challenges in my life to work out.

My favorite pointy-tipped hoe is great for this kind of aggressive weeding. But really, the best time to hoe is before the weeds are even visible. The time to attack is when the tiny little weedings are still below the surface, plotting their invasion.

This is why, as my garden has expanded, I've converted from Square Foot gardening to the more traditional long row gardening (though my rows are both long and wide, for whatever that's worth).

I also converted from small plastic row markers to 3-foot lengths of rebar (or small garden fenceposts) stuck in the ground at either end of the row, with string or twine strung between. I actually put the posts in and run the line before planting the seeds. Then I use an Earthway seeder to plant the seeds, using the string as a guide. That way I know right where the planted seeds will emerge. It also allows me to hoe right along side the rows without fear of digging up my crops.

Hoeing frequency varies depending on the weather, but generally I try to get out there a couple times a week in the spring. I use the grass growth rate as a guide. If the grass is growing quickly, I try to hoe more often. As long as there are still no visible weeds, it's a pretty simple task.

(A third advantage is that the posts are good at keeping hoses from dragging across tender little plants. The downside is that I can't write on the posts, so I have to remember to write down what I planted where after I'm done. At least I have a record of it beyond little plastic markers though.)

Once the crops I planted are established, I don't worry quite so much about the weeds. The garden plants can hold their own much better once they're over six inches tall. I may try Eliot Coleman's trick of planting cover crops like clover underneath my main crops in early July to act as a mulch and a green manure at the same time.

Of course, this whole gardening thing is always a work in progress, but that's the strategy this year. I can definitely tell the difference between where I've been keeping up on hoeing and where I haven't.

Let's take a closer look at what I'm talking about....

Here's a close-up of some dirt that's just been hoed:
Looks like dirt, right?

Now let's look a little closer at the center of this picture, with a little color enhancement:
THAT is what we want to get rid of. That little guy was going to be a weed. Not any more.

Now let's zoom back out to the original photo. I put red arrows next to all the other little wanna-be weeds. That's at least nine visible (former) weeds in just a tiny patch of dirt. And they took a sweep or two of the hoe to eradicate.
Actually I was only trying to take a picture of the one in the center. I didn't even notice all the others. But once I got it on the computer and enlarged it, I could see them all over the shot.

So that's what we're after. Now go out there and get hoein'.



Saturday, May 16, 2009

Favorites, Part 1: The awesome hoe thingy

I thought I'd write about a few current favorites around the homestead. (I adjusted the wording in that first sentence a little so you wouldn't start thinking about raindrops on roses...) So I started writing these in a single post, but as I am long-winded and have no editor, I decided it was best to split them up into separate posts.

Up first, a mystery hoe.


I bought a few sturdy-looking garden tools at a yard sale last spring. I was also able to take a some old garden tools from my grandmother's toolshed after she passed away. Unfortunately, last year's garden was a total wash. We had flooding. We had a baby. We bought a dairy cow. I made a valiant attempt to plant some stuff, but if you don't keep up with the weeds, you're not gonna harvest much (...which is why we signed up for a CSA last year too.)

Anyway, so I didn't really get to try out any of the new (old) tools last year.

This year, I'm taking the garden more seriously, and giving it a very high priority. I'm honing my techniques. I'm staying on top of it. So far, at least.

And I've fallen in love with one tool in particular. It probably has an official name, but I don't know what it is. The closest thing I can find is called a ridging hoe, or sometimes a pointed hoe. But I don't know who makes or sells ones like this. If you do, let me know in the comments.

It's like a standard long-handled hoe, but instead of a rectangular head with a flat edge, the head is arrow-shaped:

Why do I like it so much? Well, keep in mind as you read these points that we have some pretty gnarly clay soil. Working clay soil is almost always a workout, so anything that makes a job a tiny bit easier is welcome, and any tool that can deal with it well is a blessing.

If you're going after a big weed with this thing, that pointed tip will penetrate the soil a lot more effectively than a flat edge. When my aim is good, I can even pop a pretty good sized clump of grass out with this. Chop hard right behind it and the head digs in an cuts the roots underneath. Pull on the handle and out pops the unwanted green stuff. When my aim is bad and I miss, the hoe goes to one side or the other, and the edge slices that side of whatever I was aiming for. Not a bad consolation prize.

If you turn the hoe to one side just a bit, the edge can cut through the top layer of dirt like an ordinary hoe (though the angle is better than my other hoes). If your arms get a little tired from repetitive motion, you switch hands, flip the hoe around and use the other edge (which gives you about twice as much sharp edge to a normal hoe). If you need to make a furrow to drop some seeds in, just drag that point through the soil. (In fact, I suspect this was the initial purpose of this design.) If you need to push or pull a little soil to cover a seed or shore up a seedling, that pointed tip gives you a lot of precision in tight places. And so far the tool seems tough as nails.

A good garden tool is a wonderful thing. Thanks Grandma!


[ UPDATE: Apparently it's called a "Warren hoe" (or sometimes a "planting hoe"). Mine appears to be made by Union Tools, but I'm not positive. What remains of the writing on the handle is pretty hard to decipher. ]

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Independence Days week 3

Busy week....

1. Plant something - Lots of stuff here. I finally found my seed plates for my little Earthway seeder. Too bad the little seed chute was clogged with debris from sitting in the barn too long. But I did finally get it working, and had a long enough break in the rain to get the ground dry enough for more planting.

Planted carrots (Danvers Half Long, Nantes Coreless, and Chantenay Red Coreless). I also have some planted in a container, with a mix of sand, peat moss and compost, because I have bad luck getting them to grow in the ground. But I did full rows of each of the three above, to see if any of them can make the cut.

And beans (black turtle, Envy (edamame), and garbanzo/chick peas). I was going to plant Jacob's Cattle beans too, but I somehow managed to lose my seed packet.

And finally, on a whim, I bought and planted some sweet potato slips. I'd never grown them before, so when I read that they like a well-drained, sunny location, with relatively poor soil, I was slightly stumped. Then it hit me: The dirt pile. Last year I got a load of fill dirt, to fill in around our foundation where the ground had settled too much. There's a good bit of the pile left, so I figured what the heck. The south side of the pile is now covered in little sweet potato leaves.

Oh, and I put a couple lavender and basil plants in with some annual flowers in the flower boxes by our front door.

2. Harvest something - Eggs and asparagus.

3. Preserve something - Nothing.

4. Reduce waste - Ummmmm. I used a wood pellet bag in our kitchen trash can instead of a trash bag. Pretty lame. Especially since I generated a bunch of waste trying to clean out the garage. I'll have to work on this one.

5. Preparation and Storage - Got a big bag of food grade diatomaceous earth (for insect control, among other things). Rearranged our fake root cellar a bit. Reorganized the garage and barn a bit to move the gardening tools back into the garage. Everything in the barn gets covered with spider webs, bird droppings, chicken dander, and who knows what else. The garage is not great, but way better. It's hard enough to get all the garden stuff done this time of year without having to clean off every tool before use.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Sold 7 dozen eggs at the office. Sold 5 rain barrels to Larry & Gail. Bought greens, pasta, lavender, maple syrup, a pork shoulder, and blueberry pie at the farm market. (I love that farm market!) Bought a quart of honey from a local beekeeper.

7. Eat the Food - Oh I ate the food. I ate the hell out of that food.

I kind of improvised a recipe based on a combination of things I knew and a suggestion from one of the vendors at the farm market. I boiled the (garlic-herb) fettuccine from the market. Meanwhile I made a creamy parmesan sauce and cut up and steamed the asparagus. I chopped up the greens and put them into the collander. I drained the hot water from the asparagus and the pasta over the greens to wilt them just a little. Then the pasta, greens, and asparagus all went back into the pot, and I dumped the cream sauce over it all. And finally, I busted up some roasted peanuts and tossed them in for a little texture. (I would have toasted some walnuts if I'd thought of it beforehand, but the peanuts worked well enough.) And wild blueberry pie for desert. [*wipes drool with shirt sleeve*]

Too bad the ants got to the last third of the pie before we did. That was a kick in the teeth...



Saturday, May 09, 2009


I have, for some reason, not been writing much here lately. It's almost like I've written all my views, explored all my interests, and told all my stories. That's not really true, because there are stories happening here almost every day. There are ideas rattling around in my head. There are even partially written blog posts.

The trouble seems to be motivation. I do something, and I think, I should post about that. Then later, I think, well, it's not that interesting. It's not worth the trouble. I wouldn't be saying anything new. I'm feeling like the band that puts out a couple decent albums and then can't keep it going.

There are no big stories here. Just the day-to-day activities. Things that would have been exciting and new a couple years ago are just part of life now. Or they're things I talked about doing two years ago and am finally getting around to now.

Today I went to the Farmer's Market. I bought some greens, some homemade pasta, and a wild blueberry pie. I picked some asparagus. I made them into dinner. I rearranged the area of our basement that is supposed to become a root cellar some day. I found some cool stuff while cleaning out the garage. I did a little work on "picnic table" I'm building into the still-unfinished arbor. Yesterday I sold seven dozen eggs at work. I love all this stuff. I just don't have anything clever to say about it.

I'm learning all kinds of useful but mundane things. When we started this, I dreamed of being a bit of a purist. If it runs on gas, avoid it. If it's made of petroleum, look for an alternative. If it'll have to be replaced, wait and save your money. Now I can see both sides of many an issue. I see the downside of rototilling, and also the usefulness. I can understand why you'd want one tractor (or other engine) to perform multiple tasks, but I also see how more specialized tools can have their advantages. I understand the benefits of glass for a greenhouse, and also of thin plastic that comes on rolls. And in every case, the decision is not clear cut.

It's like predicting the future. Inflation or deflation? Pandemic or energy depletion or climate change or the status quo or neverending prosperity and growth. (Though simple physics tells us that ultimately growth of any kind cannot be sustained indefinitely.) Last year I saw people predicting an oil price spike, and I saw people predicting an oil price collapse. I know of nobody who predicted both. That just goes to show that it's all a guessing game. And that it's a game that's pretty tricky to win. You look like a genius for a while and then like a fool. Or vice versa.

What does this have to do with anything? Who knows? I guess I just admire people who can keep their blogs going every week - even every day - for years on end. Or authors who can churn out book after book. I can barely take steps toward minor goals some weeks.

Meanwhile, I've got to get some sleep. Today was a good long day, but I'm ready for some shut-eye.



Thursday, May 07, 2009

Independence Days week 2

A light week in many categories. I've been a little under the weather and we've had a ton of stuff going on - Amelia & e5 turned six years old, we had a meeting at Amelia's school, another with the MRDD / County Services folks, e5's kindergarden "music" show, doctor visits... (And let me tell you - nothing makes you feel old quite like sitting in the waiting room at the urologist.)

Anyway, on with the report.

1. Plant something - I transplanted my seed-started onions (Jaune Paille Des Vertus), and finished out the row with a few shallots. I moved my tomato seedlings into yogurt cups, and moved them from the window to under the shop light setup for seeds in the basement. Hopefully that will jump start them. I'm trying a few new varieties this year: Bonny Best, Amish Paste, and Weeping Charley, all from Baker Creek. I've also got a bunch of generic Romas, a few Red Grapes, and a few Mortgage Lifters. All but the last two are mostly for canning, but actually I love Romas for salads and sandwiches too. They're my favorite all-purpose tomato. I forgot to count, but I've got more than 50 tomato seedlings.

I've been dying to plant carrots, beans, and corn, but between the soggy ground and my mysteriously missing seed plates for my Earthway seeder, I'm at a standstill. I'll probably compensate by popping some cucumber, pumpkin, and melon, and squash seeds into my newly freed seed tray.

Oh, and I put out a few more comfrey plants.

2. Harvest something - Just eggs. Oh, and also eggs.

3. Preserve something - Does Lori freezing some "make ahead French toast" count?

4. Reduce waste - Does using old yogurt cups as seed pots for like the third year in a row count for anything? It's not really a new activity, but it does reduce waste. Got a ton of hand-me-down clothes from our neighbors.

5. Preparation and Storage - Not much this week. Read a bit of The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman and started adjusting greenhouse & cold frame plans.

6. Build Community Food Systems - Bought local cider. Didn't get to sell eggs this week, butI'll make up for it tomorrow.

7. Eat the Food - Pumpkin bread from home-canned pumpkins. Local popcorn. Local cider.