April 24, 2017

This Is Not a Paper Bag

It may look like a paper bag, but it's not.
It's a pseudo-hornets' nest.

There is an idea floating around the internet for a deterrent for carpenter bees and wasps. Take a small brown paper bag, fill it with plastic bags or newspaper, and hang it in the area where carpenter bees or wasps are a problem. We have a terrible carpenter bee problem and have tried various recommended deterrents, so far without success. Since some people say the paper bag works for them, I decided to give it a try.

Tell-tale sign of carpenter bee sawdust ...

... all over Sam's kitty bed (and all over Sam).

After Dan hung it up the carpenter bees showed up as usual and it did indeed stop them in their tracks. A number of them spent the rest of the day hovering a safe distance from the bag, watching it. They would zoom away and back again, always to halt short of that bag and stare at it.

We were cautiously optimistic that perhaps we had found a solution to the problem. The only reservation in declaring it a success was in not knowing how smart carpenter bees actually are.

The one on the right is bored between two (sistered) porch roof rafters

By about the third day they figured out that no hornets were forthcoming, so they proceeded to ignore it and resume their annoying burrowing in our porch roof rafters. Wasps, ditto. We removed two wasp nests in the same time period, but maybe the wasps weren't smart enough to notice.

Here's one in one of the front porch posts. I filled it with
silicone window caulking, but they cleaned it out again.

If paper bag method has worked for you, then I'm not going to brag that our carpenter bees are smarter than yours, I'm just going to wish it worked for us too.

This one is in the goat barn. From it and the photo
above, you can see that they are not respecters of paint.

I also read that they don't like citrus and found some directions for a DIY citrus spray. Next time I go shopping I'll get some oranges or grapefruit and make some. I'll let you know how it works.

This Is Not a Paper Bag © April 2017

April 21, 2017

Dan's Workshop: Footer or Piers?

Footer or piers? Footer or piers? The first step to any building is the foundation and this question has been under consideration for some time: piers, a footer, or maybe simply a pole barn like Pa Mac? In the end Dan decided on piers. Here's why.

If we'd had cedars to work with, a pole barn would have been an excellent option. As it is, we have pine, which especially untreated like ours, will quickly rot in the ground. No good.

A footer would have required digging a trench. Tree roots and heavy clay were a deterrent to doing it by hand, which meant we'd have to rent equipment to dig it.

The next step would have been to build a form for the footer. That would have meant more materials, although some just pour the concrete directly into the trench.

Being able to mix and pour all that concrete was another consideration. Ideally the entire footer should be poured at the same time, but our little mixer wouldn't be able to do that. The other option would be having someone deliver and pour what we needed.

Piers meant working with smaller, more manageable batches.

With a footer, the entire surface would have to be leveled. With piers, the posts can be cut to the length required.

Because we're using untreated homegrown, home-milled lumber, Dan wanted to keep it as far from the ground as possible. Moisture and termites do not promote longevity.

This way the posts can be set on top of the pier, but the plywood siding (which is treated) can come closer to the ground.

And of course he had an audience.

Interested onlookers.

Now on to the next step.

April 19, 2017

Mountain Goat Wannabe

This is Sky. She's a mountain goat wannabe.
(Background goats: Lini & Lady on left, Conner on right)

Behind the goat barn is a section
of wall from the old goat shed.

Sky loves climbing on it.

And jumping off it (while Jack observes).

Her sister Windy like it too.

Mountain Goat Wannabe © April 2017

April 16, 2017

Ground Prep for Dan's Workshop

I've already told you how we came to decide to build Dan a workshop. I know he's been anxious to get started on it, but with our "food first" motto, we have to tend to growing areas and planting first. April is our month to do most of that. Even so, he's got a beginning made.

Here is where the workshop is going to go, where the old "coal barn" used to be.

When we bought the place, there was an old outbuilding here (photo below). He used the center section for a workshop, and we used the right side for a garden storage area.

The "Coal Barn"

We used the carport to store our homegrown hay.

Eventually it started to lean a bit too far for comfort, so we had to tear it down. The workshop is going to go where the old building was, between the concrete slab and the utility pole. Just like in the photo above, he'll put another carport roof over the slab.

The first step was to level the ground.

His home-milled lumber is under the tarp on the concrete slab.

Scraper blade.

Goat barn in the background with chicken coop beyond that.

Not a very exciting blog post, I know, but that's just the beginning of the pile of photos I have to show you. Hopefully the next set will be more interesting.

April 13, 2017

Energy Update

I haven't done one of these posts in quite awhile. I did several of them a few years back, when I was working on chapter eight for 5 Acres & A Dream The Book, "Energy Self-Sufficiency." We had been working hard to decrease our energy usage from the previous years and were successful. We've remained diligent and conscientious in our electric usage, and have looked for alternate ways to add things like solar lighting for the barn, and a solar attic fan.

I am revisiting this because I am working on a sequel of sorts to 5 Acres & A Dream The Book, and I felt an update was appropriate. I want to preface it by stating that I only address electricity because we have an all-electric house. We have electric heat, an electric stove, an electric water heater, and an electric clothes dryer: no natural gas, propane, or home heating oil. If you use any fossil fuels and are interested in comparing your total energy usage to ours, head on over to this calculator to convert your therms into kWh, and then add it to your electric usage for a more accurate comparison.

Looking back over this past year's electric bills, our average kWh usage has been 16.9 kWh/day. The monthly range for that was 13.41 to 20.53 per day. Total monthly usage ranged from 428 to 616 kWh, but our billing cycles vary between 29 and 32 days, so monthly figures are less useful than averages. Our monthly average for the past year was 510 kWh per month.

How does that translate in terms of personal progress for us? Comparing current numbers with some of our daily kWh averages from four years ago:

Nov. 2012 - 15 kWh/day       | Nov. 2016 - 14.12 kWh/day
Dec. 2012 - 17.35 kWh/day  | Dec. 2016 - 13.41 kWh/day
Jan. 2013 - 22.35 kWh/day  | Jan 2017 - 16.06 kWh/day

How did we manage to get our usage down?  Instead of the heat pump we use an EPA certified wood stove in winter and don't use air conditioning in summer. I use a clothesline instead of the dryer (mostly), and although I still use the electric stove, I do a lot of cooking on my wood cookstove in winter and solar oven in summer. In winter we get hot dish-washing water from the cookstove's water reservoir.

Curious as to how we compared to everyone else, I found a national average at the U.S. Energy Information Administration for 2015. Their calculated average was 901 kWh per residential consumer per month.

Of course there are a lot of variables to consider when comparing oneself to this: size of home and location, number of persons living there, and whether they use electricity only or also have natural gas or use home heating oil. Electric usage in the southern U.S. tends to be higher, because there tend to be more all-electric homes in the south. I can add from experience that it takes more electricity to heat a house in winter than to cool it in summer.

Since I had priced an off-grid system when I did my first analysis, I decided to check pricing again. The cost of the systems is said to have dropped considerably, and since we're using less electricity, well, who knows?

I used this calculator at Wholesale Solar for a rough estimate as to the size off-grid system we would need to cover 100% of our usage. It recommended a minimum size of 6844 watts utilizing 35, 200-watt solar panels. This page is set up a little differently and gave ballpark estimates for various size systems. A 7000 watt system is estimated to cost approximately USD $17,600. A far cry from the $71,040 estimate I had four years ago, but it doesn't include batteries, racks for the panels, and a number of other extras. Scrolling through their various packages on this page, however, I found even better pricing. The packages don't include everything, but gives me an idea of cost. And based on our current electric bills and paying cash, it would only take about 20 years to pay for itself! 😁

I'm being silly now, because we don't have the cash and I would never buy such a thing on credit. Still, I think we've done a good job on decreasing our usage and plan to continue to add solar options on a small scale. Every little bit helps.

Energy Update © April 2017 by Leigh

April 10, 2017

Double Digging for Rainwater Collection

Last summer was a doozy in terms of too much heat and too little rain. If you're a regular reader, than you know we're working on additional measures to harvest more rainwater including a larger collection tank and garden swales. One day Geoff Lawton had a link in his newsletter to this page (second video down), and it got me thinking about double digging.

Double digging is a biodynamic (French intensive) soil preparation technique. No-till purists may frown, so I will be quick to point out that double digging is gentle on the land because it is done by hand. It is not a mechanical tearing into the soil. I can truthfully say that no earthworms were harmed in the production of my double-dug beds.

Still frowning? Well, I'm doing it anyway and here's why. Let's start with a look at the soil in my garden.

Shovel included for size comparison. I tried to get a cat to volunteer for
that, but for some reason none of them were interested in posing in a ditch.

The soil in my garden is classified as cecil sandy loam. It, along with the other cecil soil types, are typical for my part of the country. This soil type has a light brown sandy loam topsoil and a red clay subsoil. Diagrammed, it looks like this ⬇

The degree of topsoil darkness is an indicator of the amount
 organic matter present. The red in my subsoil is from iron.

In the garden, my topsoil is typically about four to six inches in depth. Being mostly sand, it doesn't retain moisture very well. Water drains quickly and the soil dries out quickly. It has just enough silt and clay so that it dries rock-hard during drought-like conditions.

When it rains, the topsoil quickly becomes saturated and water drains down to the clay subsoil. The clay absorbs some of the rainwater, but because my garden is on a gentle slope, the rest is drained down to the bottom of the garden.

During prolonged periods of rain it's a big muddy puddle down there and it retains water for a long time. We discovered this by accident our first winter here. We wanted to plant an almond tree at the bottom of the garden and hit water while digging the hole. This wasn't a tree that liked having wet feet, so we planted it elsewhere. At the time I didn't understand what was going on, but after researching and observing, I see the patterns and the problems and want to take positive action to solve them.

The flip side is that the top of the garden dries out very quickly. It seemed to me that double-dug beds would be a good way to harvest more rainwater to benefit the summer garden.

Here's what I've been doing. It starts by hand digging a trench about two shovelfuls deep. The first shoveling removes the topsoil, which is set to the side. The second shoveling removes a layer of clay, which goes into a separate pile to be used elsewhere.

Unlike my swale, which was filled only with logs, branches, bark, and corn cobs (no soil), this trench is filled with layers of rotted wood and bark, biomass, compost, and topsoil. I'm also adding dolomitic limestone and soft rock phosphorous because my soil is poor in those two minerals.

Warm weather planting is upon us, so that's the next step.

Now when it rains my double-dug bed should catch and retain some of the subsoil runoff.

Will it work? Shortly after I took the photo at the top of this blog post it rained. One and a half inches later, my little trench had collected and was holding four inches of rain runoff.

Of course, once the trench is filled in it won't hold this much, but between that trench and the organic matter I'm adding, this should do much to help my poor garden during dry spells.

One last comment, this plan won't work in all types of soil. The particulars of my cecil soil generously facilitate it. Plus, in addition to rainwater catchment, double digging adds much needed organic matter to my soil in a way that should keep it productive for many years to come. Additional soil building and nutrients will be added as topdressed compost and mulch, where rain can deliver them to the roots as nature intended. No more hitting the clay and washing down the hill! Also, I have to admit for some renewed hope for root crops as well. Things like carrots and mangels were never able to penetrate that heavy clay subsoil and have been stunted for me. I'm counting more room for good root growth as another plus.

Speaking of soil types, this might be the time to do a quick plug for my little eBook, How-To Home Soil Tests: 10 DIY tests for texture, pH, drainage, earthworms & more. Click the link or the book cover to learn what it contains and where to find it. These are the same tests I used to learn about my own soil! All of them are easy, inexpensive ways for learning more about your own soil, including tests and charts for everything listed in the subtitle, plus how to read your soil color and weeds.

I've only just begun this project and don't anticipate having all my rows double dug before it's time to plant this year. It will be something I'll just keep working on for awhile to come.

April 8, 2017

Make Way for Ducklings!

And I do mean "make way," because Mama Duck will clear the way if you don't!

Hatched just the other day, I count twelve of them. We have no idea how many eggs she started out with because she had hidden them well.

Her open mouth is a warning to stay back. If you get too close she'll lower her head and march straight toward you. Having (innocently) experienced a Muscovy mama's wrath in the past, I know to steer clear (and so do the cats).

After their first outing, she had a little trouble coaxing them back under the tarp where the nest was. I had to go in so I didn't think any more of it until it was time to do afternoon chores. I found that Mama Duck had taken her brood to the goat barn.

This was worrisome because the goats don't take care where they step. She pecked at any goat that got to close, but that didn't deter them. 

The ducks have tried to take up residence with the goats before, but usually abandon the idea after getting stepped on. Dan and I tried to redirect Mama Duck to another location, but she was suspicious of our efforts.

Besides the potential danger of getting stepped on, there are other reasons I don't like the ducks in with the goats. I know multispecies grazing is getting wowed at these days, and while I agree with the theory, the best practical applications are contingent on factors specific to each species.

For example, the Muscovies love clean water and will waste no time bubbling it and cleaning out their bills. They don't scratch like chickens, rather, they scoop through the soil to hunt for food. They need to clean their nostrils out frequently, so duck water is never clean. Since they claim all clean water, that means that the goat water is never clean. My concern with this is that the ducks may be scooping up parasite eggs and depositing them in the goat water. Keeping goats parasite free is enough of a challenge as it is.

Another problem is that the goats will eat all the duck feed. And since the ducks love chicken scratch as much as the chickens do, they get some as well. But scratch is tossed onto the ground, and the goats will eat that as well. Being on the ground, it's back to the concern about picking up parasites. This, in fact, is the number one way goats get worms, from grazing too close to the ground (where the manure is).

That first night I put up the goat gate to keep the goats in and Mama and her ducklings out. The next morning Dan was able to coax them into the chicken yard.

I don't know how Mama Duck feels about it, but Papa Big Duck was happy to see them, and he's doing a very good job of keeping the chickens from getting too curious. We certainly feel like they are safer there.

She ended up taking them out again, and at that point we just had to resign ourselves that she's the mom.

The timing for this has been good, because soon Dan will be needing to get to his lumber pile for his workshop. More on that soon.

Make Way for Ducklings! © April 2017 

April 5, 2017

Looking Ahead

I love my pillow. It as a gift from here.

April marks an anniversary for us; eight years ago we bought an old house on the five acres that has become our homestead. I know that ten years is usually considered more of a landmark, but Dan and I have been discussing our progress and goals, and it seems that at eight years we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The tunnel I'm referring to is what I called "The Establishment Phase" in 5 Acres & A Dream The Book.  We started with a period of assessment, planning, goal setting, and prioritizing, all with a view toward becoming as self-sufficient as we can: food production (for both us and our critters), energy, and water. This has required planning, research, and experimentation, along with all the ups and downs that come with it.

The largest part of establishing our homestead has revolved around building. Repairs and energy upgrades on the house were important, and so was fencing and housing for our animals. Our old outbuildings were in bad repair, and then there's food growing. It's one thing to grow a year's worth of food, but how and where does one store it? We actually don't need much space to live it, but where do we store a year's worth of food for us, or a year's worth of grain and hay for the critters, or a winter's worth of firewood, or a summer's worth of rainwater? Then there are the tools, equipment, and implements to accomplish all of that. Everything needs a home.

It was our discovery and discussion of the sad state of the carport that got us talking about our goals. As Dan often says, we aren't getting any younger and eventually, we want to be able to get on with simply living. We'd like to have all the projects behind us and develop a seasonal rhythm for our lives. The problem with projects is, there's always another great idea on the horizon, something else to build, another way to expand our homestead. We could probably go on forever with projects, but soon Dan will retire and our income will drop drastically. It was time to decide if and when we could finish our projects, declare ourselves established, and get on with the next phase of our homesteading - a simple seasonal routine.

Of what we need (versus what we'd like), well, since the carport is in dubious condition, Dan needs a workshop. After that we'd like to get our equipment undercover; under an overhang at least. The house is close to being done, so the only other major building project would be a small greenhouse. With all that in mind, I said, "You know, the Little Barn is serving very well for the goats, milking, and hay and feed storage. My dream barn would be nice, but it makes more sense to go with what we've got, simplify the barn plan, and build a workshop with storage." So that's what we're going to do.

Dan's actually got a start on it, so as soon as I get my photos organized and a blog post written, I'll show you what's up.

Looking Ahead © April 2017 by Leigh

April 2, 2017

A Project Never Mind

Have you ever done a quicky job on something with a promise to tend to it properly in the near future? And then forgot about it so that you no longer even noticed there was a problem? Our carport has been that way for a number of years now.

Dan had set it up for his workshop but it didn't get very good rain protection so we tarped it. It looks kinda junky, but we've been so busy with other things that we stopped noticing. Last weekend we were doing some general clean-up in the yard and got to talking about the tarp on the carport. That tarp is getting torn and worn and it seemed as though it would be a fairly quick job to replace it with some plywood, add battens like we did on the chicken coop and Little Barn, and paint it to match the other outbuildings. Couldn't take more than half a day, could it?

When Dan took down the tarp and pulled off the fascia board we discovered that double beam on that side of the roof was in very bad shape.

We discussed what to do about that, but then he took a flashlight to get a peek at the ceiling joists. Our carport has a plywood ceiling which hides the joists, and he wanted to see what kind of shape they are in. Most of them are rotted away as well.

This is likely happened because whomever built the carport didn't overhang the roof more than about an inch. There was no flashing, so rain was able to blow in under the roof. Dan could also see where the roof was leaking. We figure the plywood ceiling is the only thing holding the carport together.

In the end we decided to put the tarp back and leave it be. Hopefully it will last long enough for us to finish our outbuilding projects (one more to go) and then we'll just tear it down. I'd kind of like to use the space for an outdoor kitchen, but we'll see.

We've managed to salvage quite a few things on our place, but sometimes things just aren't salvageable.

A Project Never Mind © April 2017 by

March 30, 2017

Shade Cloth & Thoughts on the Hoop House

With our recent bout of spring-like weather I switched the hoop house to shade cloth.

The setting sun comes in this side so I'll need one more piece to shade it.

Our chances of frost decrease to less than 50% by mid-April, so soon it will be time to plant warm weather veggies.

I've never used shade cloth before so this is something of an experiment for me.

Shade cloth is knitted (or woven) polyethylene fabric.
This one by Agfabric gives 60% blockage of the sun.

Because of that I didn't choose a particularly expensive brand. It's a 60% cloth with grommets to tie it to the structure. Of course I had help.

Meowy, log wrestling.

Hopefully I can extend the life of our salad garden so that we can enjoy fresh green salads for longer into the summer than we're usually able.

While I worked I reflected on the hoop house and it's usefulness. In the eight winters we've been here we've had two that were terribly cold and garden unfriendly. Then we've had a few that were extremely mild so that the winter garden was highly productive. Mostly the temperatures fluctuate from below freezing at night to above freezing during the day. This is tolerable for most cool weather vegetables, so a protected growing area is only occasionally necessary. It's just that I never know beforehand if any particular winter will need it.

This winter was unusual in that it was either mild or cold with less daily fluctuation than usual. The poly cover protected from frost but not freezing temperatures, although everything growing in the hoop house bounced back nicely. When we had our warm spells, however, the hoop house trapped the heat and was too hot to keep cool weather plants happy. I had to roll up the plastic and open the door to vent it. Even so, my arugula bolted in February!

My other concern was how quickly the raised beds dried out. Of course the poly cover kept out the rain, but with warm days and drying winds, it seemed like I had to water every day. I suppose the extra work ought to be worth all those salads we've gotten, but still, it's got me wondering if this was the best option and the best set-up for us.

No conclusions have been reached; I'm just recording my thoughts and observations. And I'm curious about your experiences with growing in a hoop house or poly tunnel. Has it gone well? Have you had problems? How have you solved them? What are your best tips? Care to share?