November 10, 2019

Observation on the Time Change

So here we are, one week after they've changed from daylight savings back to standard time. That the whole time change business is a nuisance doesn't need to be said - we all know that. The critters especially don't care what the clock says. They "know" when it's time to eat!

My observation is that I seem to have "more" time now that we've gone back to standard. Maybe it's my inner clock still being attuned to daylight savings numbers, but it seems when I think it's time to go in or time for chores, I still have another hour of project time available. So while my days are actually shorter, they seem longer.

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that? How does the time change feel to you?

November 6, 2019

Modest Success in Controlling Wiregrass

In my last blog post, 5 Principles of Soil Health: In the Garden, I mentioned some success in my ongoing battle with wiregrass. If you've read my blog for any length of time, you've likely heard me rant, whine, rage, complain about this problem. It's "real" name is Bermuda grass.

Cynodon dactylon. Indeterminate. Spreads by seed and stolen.

It's a popular lawn and pasture grass in my part of the country. It's ubiquitous—there's nowhere that it isn't—because it's heat and drought resistant, plus tolerates heavy traffic and mowing (or grazing). But it has a dark side: it's highly invasive and quickly becomes an extremely tenacious weed. It has a number of other names, but earned this nickname because it's tough as wire when you're trying to pull it out.

It's also impossible to get rid of. Even the "experts" admit that and at some point the southern gardener simply has to accept it as a fact of life and learn to live with it. It's the reason why we tilled for so long in the garden. Its roots choke out everything and become a compacted barrier to the soil. Dan would till and I'd rake out as much as I could before planting, in hopes of getting a harvest before the wiregrass took over.

All of that is to preface my "success," meaning I have by no means conquered wiregrass, I've merely managed to keep it at bay for the past year in some parts of my garden. Let me show you.

These are the swale beds I made last winter.

They were double dug to create swales in our clay subsoil, filled with organic matter of all sizes (tree limbs to twigs) layered with topsoil, woodchips, and compost. The goal was to not only improve the soil in the beds, but to catch and retain rainwater in the swales. (Details here.)

Between the beds I laid down cardboard and paper feedbags covered thickly with wood chips.

Walking aisle between two beds.

The miracle is, almost a year later, they haven't been taken over by wiregrass! I usually expect the wiregrass to regain control by late summer or early autumn.

So what's different here than in other parts of my garden? I know from years of experience that mulch alone will not keep wiregrass at bay.

Wiregrass happily growing up through a thick layer of woodchips.

Case in point - my asparagus bed. Actually, I gave up on asparagus several years ago. I kept having to relocate it because of wiregrass, and finally gave up. I covered the entire bed with a thick layer of woodchips and called it quits. But the asparagus was persistent and made a surprise showing this year. Trouble is, so did the wiregrass.

Asparagus on the left, competing with wiregrass &
blackberry vines. On the right, a walking aisle with
cardboard tucked under the border plus woodchips.

So what do these areas have in common? Firstly, there was a lot of trampling while double digging. Not much survived that. When the soil was dug and set aside, I removed all traces of wiregrass stems and stolens. Third, I didn't mulch the aisles with only leaves or chips; I put down a barrier - in my case cardboard and then a thick layer of mulch. These are the areas that have remained wiregrass free so far.

What I'm going to have to address for continued success is the main pathways down the length of the garden.

One of two large aisles. The black pipe is
for greywater drainage when we need it.

The main aisles get mowed but also can become overgrown quickly. The edges between these and the mulched aisles is where wiregrass reintroduces itself. It's those edges where the wiregrass sneaks back in.

Wiregrass creeping into a heavily mulched area between two beds.

I've got my winter's gardening project cut out for me. I hope to make two more swale beds, plus cover the main aisles with heavy cardboard and chip mulch. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate!

Is this a permanent solution? No! It will require diligent maintenance to stay on top of it. But after so many years of feeling like I'm fighting a losing battle, any reprieve is very welcome.

November 2, 2019

5 Principles of Soil Health: In the Garden

By the end of summer the garden was looking pretty raggedy, so for the past several weeks I've been busy cleaning out the beds, transplanting fall seedlings, and sowing root crops. Late, I know, but we had very hot weather all the way through the first week of October. I waited for cooler temperatures and rain to moisten the soil.

While I worked, I took some photos, because I want to make a record of my new gardening workflow. Specifically, I want to make a note of the principles we've learned from videos by Gabe Brown (Keys To Building a Healthy Soil) and Ray Archuleta (Soil Health Principles). They discuss five specific principles, all learned from observing natural processes.

5 Principles of Soil Health
  1. No mechanical disturbance
  2. Soil covered at all times
  3. Diversity of plant species
  4. Living roots in the ground as long as possible
  5. Animal impact
These principles have not only changed how I do things, but how I see things. They have changed my perception of soil stewardship. At the end of this blog post is a list of posts detailing what we've learned and how we've applied it to our pastures and other areas. Here's how I've been applying them in the garden.

Example: one of my cowpea beds. It was one of the first beds I double-dug 2-and-a-half years ago for a hugelkultur swale bed.

Most of the plants are dead, and much of the mulch has decomposed.

Living root in the ground, because there is symbiotic relationship between living plant roots and soil microorganisms. It's these organisms that do the work of building soil.

Instead of pulling the plants, I cut them off just above ground. The
dead roots will add organic matter to the soil as they decompose.
CAVEAT: I do pull weeds by the roots. I only leave veggie roots.

Of the living cowpeas, I cut off most of the vine, but leave some leaves.
This keeps living roots in the ground, which feed soil organisms.

No mechanical disturbance. Some soil disturbance is natural; birds scratch and critters dig. Using a shovel leaves chunks intact and the microorganisms can recover. Tilling destroys the soil ecosystem.

Soil covered at all times. Most of us learn about this the hard way. Leave soil bare, and nature will plant it with all kinds of "weeds." Better to get it planted with what we want from the get-go.

 I neither raked up nor tilled in the leaf mulch. Rather, I left it, covered it
with woodchip compost, seeded, & covered the seeds with more compost.

Diversity of plant species - each bed is planted with root crops, greens, and a sprinkling of low growing Dutch clover.

Animal impact - I admit that animal impact is minimal in the garden. Occasionally, I fence some of it off for the goats with the electric netting. Cats make an impact as well, but not a good one! They seem to think that any freshly planted bed is a litter box!

While I was doing that, Dan milled new border planks for the beds.

Just waiting for everything to grow.

This is definitely a work-smarter-not-harder approach to gardening! I've even had some success in keeping the dreaded wire grass at bay. I'll have another post with pictures on that soon. In the meantime, here are the links to my soil building series that I mentioned above.

I especially recommend that you watch those videos. They explain the rationale behind the five principles and give excellent examples of why they work.

October 29, 2019

Homegrown Diet Diversity (And a Recipe)

An experiment - Ricotta Crust Fig Tarts - recipe below.

One of the challenges of relying on a diet of homegrown food is variety. Over the years I've tried to grow as diverse a garden as I can, but truth be told, some things are easier to grow in any given climate than others. If all I had to do was the garden, maybe I could succeed. As it is, we've got too many other things needing tending, so my gardening time and energy are limited. Instead, I focus on growing things that I can count on to do well in our region. Even then, there are no guarantees. I just have to take advantage of what produces well, and at the very least, hope I can get a seed crop out of what doesn't.

Mostly, our diet diversity is seasonal. Meals focus on whatever is producing well at the time. I do shop at the grocery store, but my shopping list is pretty basic. It sticks to staples we can't or don't produce ourselves such as olive oil and unbleached flour, a few particular favorites like black olives and bananas, and sometimes items to fill in a nutrient gap, like carrots for vitamin A after we've eaten up our own. I also shop for good deals for stocking up.

When it comes to meal planning, I focus on using what I have the most of. And that often means day after day of pretty much the same things to eat. When our chickens are laying well, we eat eggs every day, usually for lunch. But how many ways are there to eat eggs? A lot, actually, but before the summer is over, I still get tired of eating them. Zucchini is another "when it rains, it pours" kind of food. My solution to zucchini fatigue is to not plant it!

For the past several years I've been experimenting with trying to find diet diversity through creativity. I've also been trying to transition to substitutions for store-bought items with things I have readily available. Salad dressing, for example. I love ranch dressing, but dislike its ingredients. Dan likes oil and vinegar, but I have to buy those too. After experimenting a bit, I figured out that plain kefir on my green salads is just fine! Or I can easily add something like Cockeyed Jo's homemade Not "Lipton" Dry Onion Soup Mix for a flavored dressing if I wish. (And check out Jo's other recipes while you're there. She has a lot of homemade substitutes like that). Another dressing or dip we like is to mix kefir with salsa. Sometimes I add leftover home canned dried beans (black turtles are especially good). Former junky foods become tasty and healthy.

Kefir makes an acceptable substitute for sour cream on baked potatoes, and with baking soda for an excellent leavening agent. We also use it in smoothies, to top a bowl of canned fruit, and as a milk substitute on cold cereal (a rare treat, but when I find a good deal on Nature's Path organic cereals at the discount grocery store I stock up.) As you can see, we're finding a number of ways to incorporate a healthy probiotic food into our diet while eliminating several commercially processed foods.

Another one I've been experimenting with is ricotta. I have a lot of whey from cheesemaking, and making ricotta is one way to use it. It's usually used in lasagna, but I've experimented with other ways to use it.

It was the gnocchi dough that got me thinking about pastry crust. Since Dan likes pastries, that led to another experiment.

Ricotta Crust Tarts

For the crust:
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Mix with a fork. Roll out to about 1/4 inch thick and cut into 12 squares. Line muffin cups with pastry squares.

For the filling:

Use with your favorite pie filling. I used fig that I canned previously.

Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

The crust wasn't flaky but it was good. I think I'll try it with baking soda and whey as leavening and see how that changes the texture. I'd also like to try these with a custard filling, for which I'd have to bake the crusts as empty shells. So, more experimenting and I'll have an update one of these days.

October 25, 2019

The Solar Panels Are Up

For the past couple of months I've been sharing with you about our plan to put my chest freezer and second pantry refrigerator on solar energy. After finishing the updates and modifications to the back porch, Dan went to work building a rack for the solar panels. This was a weather permitting project, but we didn't mind the pauses because we definitely need the rain.

He's especially happy that he didn't have to buy a thing to build the rack! He was able to use materials and hardware that he already had.

Required spacing of the panels was specified in the installation manual. For these, a quarter-inch.

The angle will be somewhat adjustable.

The next step will be running the cables from the panels to the house, which is about 30 feet.

In the above photo, the corner of the house that you see is our back porch. That's where the freezer and fridge will reside. A battery box will be built next to the house under the windows. Options for the cables are putting up a pole and running them overhead to the house, or burying them in a conduit under the driveway.

It's hard to be patient about getting this project up and running, but it's important to take the time to do our homework and think things through. Every completed step is progress.

The rest of this series can be found here:

The Solar Panels Are Up © October 2019

October 21, 2019

Pooper 'Possum

Okay, this is a new one on us. We have plenty of wildlife around, which means frequent sightings if not frequent evidence that we're sharing our homestead with them. We are concerned only with anything that threatens our livestock or garden and so take precautions to protect both. Dan keeps the live animal trap set most of the time, although it isn't uncommon to have the bait disappear leaving the trap otherwise untripped! Obviously, our varmints are on to us.

During evening chores not long ago, I checked the bucks' hay feeder. I was surprised to find it largely uneaten, and reached in to fluff the contents a bit. What an unpleasant surprise to put my hand into a pile of poop! Yuck! That explained why the boys hadn't eaten it. I had to throw out a good bit (to me that means spreading it out on bare soil in the pasture) and go get more.

Wellsir, for the next several nights I found the same thing when I went for evening hay check. Why in the world would any critter prefer pooping in hay instead of fertilizing the ground the way nature intended???

We surmised 'possum, and Dan put out the live animal trap. No joy. I decided to stop using the hay feeder for awhile and emptied it out. I used the hay net instead. That worked somewhat, but instead of pooping in the hay, the dern critter started pooping where the boys made their beds. Grrrr! 

I cleaned out the buck shelter and moved the boys back to their little log barn. Dan moved the live trap back there as well. The next day I found a pile of poop on top of the hay in that feeder! About the time we were conceding defeat, lo and behold, he fell for peanut butter as bait!

There's a lot going around the internet about leaving these cute little critters alone because the eat insects and ticks. Yeah, well, they also eat chickens. They maul their victims and gut them by tearing into the abdomen. We've lost a number of chickens this way.

Dan has a place for rehoming his wildlife catches, so this little guy was relocated there too. It's part of a large county park, pretty isolated, and with a stream and plenty of shrubs and ground cover. Who knows? His mom and dad may already be there - sisters, brothers, and cousins too.

Thankfully, that solved the pooping in the hay problem. Hopefully, he won't find his way back.

Pooper 'Possum © October 2019

October 17, 2019

Off-Grid Laundry

You may recall that our winter project last year was repairing the carport. While we were working on it, we discussed what to do with the space. Once upon a time we parked our jeep there, but eventually it became more useful for things other than a car. Expanding it to store firewood was one of the upgrades, and that left us with space to spare.

Our expanded carport.

When Dan installed a rain catchment tank,

Getting rainwater catchment installed.

we decided to set up an area for laundry. On the back side of the carport, it would be convenient to the clothesline.

Clothesline behind the carport.

Once upon a time, the bricks were our old fireplace.

We've gradually been accumulating everything we need.

My washboard and plunger are circa Y2K! My detergent is
Ecos, the only greywater safe detergent I can find locally.

We hope to use water mostly come from rain catchment.

Last Sunday we got our first rain since August. Only half an inch, but it's a start toward quenching the thirsty ground and refilling our rain tanks.

Because I didn't want to dump the tub water all in one place, Dan installed a hose bib in each tub.

This way I can empty the tubs via hose to where the water is needed most.

No, I haven't used it yet! But we've finally got it set up and I've found good information on doing laundry the old fashioned way. One resource is The Laundry Manual; or, Washing Made Easy, published in 1863 by "A Professed Launderer." It's now public domain and available for free download from the U.S. Archive. It discusses how to clean various fabrics, soap making, removing stains, starching, ironing, and polishing. It also has a section on bread making!

The other resource is a series of videos from Townsends, who are 18th century living historians. This series is definitely worth a watch:

The other thing we'd like to use the carport for is an outdoor kitchen. Nothing's finalized on that yet, but we're working on it. 

Off-Grid Laundry © October 2019

October 13, 2019

Lessons Learned from a Hot Dry Summer

I wish our seasonal weather was predictable. Climate change aside, Dan and I live at a latitude where the weather can go either way - hot or not. We've had rainy summers and dry summers. We've had cold winters and mild winters. We never know which way it's going to go, and that makes it tough for planning what to plant and when.

For the past several months I've been paying attention to what's managed to produce in spite of our hot dry summer. Our last rainfall was 0.7 inch last August. I know everything in the garden would have done better with more rain, or at least more frequent watering. Even so we still managed to get  an acceptable harvest. The survivors:

Watered the least:
  • cushaw pumpkins
  • Ozark razorback cowpeas
  • collards
  • lacinato kale
  • Jerusalem artichokes
Minimal watering:
  • candy roaster winter squash
  • sweet potatoes
  • black turtle beans
Watered the most:
  • tomatoes
  • pumpkins
  • melons
  • peppers
  • rice

Cucumbers started out well, but succumbed to pickleworm. Corn, okra, and green beans were a complete fail, so they aren't included.

We had more collected rainwater this year and everything was well mulched, so that helped. But towards the end we ran out and I was left to observe how long things survived on their own.

I can't predict next summer, but what observations have I made that can help me in years to come?  One is where things are planted. I rotate plantings, and usually try to take into account companions and foes when planning the next rotation. But this past summer made me think it would be easier if the things that needed the most water could be planted in the same section of the garden. That would make it quicker and easier to move the hose and drip pipe.

The terrain of my garden is another factor. It's on a gentle slope. The beds at the top of the garden always dry out more quickly than those at the bottom. The swale beds help there, so I need to continue making more, focusing on the top of the garden first.

Another observation is that while the raised beds in the hoop house dried out first, I was able to keep my potted plants near the back door watered. I found the pots easy to water with cooled cooking water or the water we catch in a bucket while waiting for hot water for washing dishes. Or dirty goat or duck water. That's got me thinking I should experiment more with container gardening. I've never done especially well with potted plants, but my success this past summer has been hopeful. Plus I've had some excellent inspiration from two Australian bloggers, Chris at Gully Grove, and Tania at Out Back (scroll down to see her large container garden.)

Our summer heat finally came to an end last week. The garden has been so dry that I haven't attempted to put anything in the ground yet. Rain is in the forecast for soon, so hopefully I'll be able to get on with the fall garden then.

October 9, 2019

Back Porch Progress

So this is pretty much where we left off last time.

After Dan installed a solar attic fan for ventilation on the back porch, he insulated that bit of wall and covered it with a piece of paneling. Then he then trimmed out the window.

Kinda hard to get a good photo with the dryer in the middle of the room.

While the dryer was moved, I did a deep cleaning in it's spot and then painted.

You can see that we added a battery and charge controller to the fan so it can be run after the sun goes down.

I chose this particular charger because it was
economical and has a programmable timer.

Then, because these windows get the late afternoon summer sun, I wanted to try some of those thermal heat blocking curtains. Has anyone tried them? Do you think they help?

Hopefully, these will help keep some of
the afternoon heat out in summertime.

Now we're ready to move the freezer. It will go on the right-hand wall where the shelf units used to be. 

Back Porch Progress © October 2019

October 5, 2019

Candy Roaster: A Keeper of a Winter Squash

October means first frost is right around the corner. We may get it this month or next, but either way it's time to get ready for it. One important job is getting in the last of the summer garden. First on my harvest list was the winter squash.

Part of my winter squash harvest. North Georgia
Candy Roasters in front and a Cushaw in back.

I've grown cushaws for a number of years, but this was my first year to try the Candy Roasters. I only had a couple of plants and I thought they did quite well considering how hot and dry our summer was. They weigh about five pounds each and have an interesting striped skin.

The flesh is a pale orange and thick. The skin is thin and easy to pare.

Diameter is about 4 inches across with a compact seed cavity .

Any vegetable with "candy" in the name is appealing, so I was anxious for a taste test. We tried them oven roasted first.

Burger with garden tomato, oven roasted candy roasters, and a big
slice of Orange Glo watermelon (another 1st and another keeper!)

I tossed bite-sized chunks of squash with olive oil, salt, and pepper and baked for about 30 minutes at 425°F (220°C). Excellent! One squash gave us a couple of meals of roasted squash as a side dish and two pies.

Better than pumpkin! I'm definitely going to plant these again next year.

How about you? Did you grow anything new and interesting this year?

October 1, 2019

Discouraging Things

I've been working on chapter twelve of my upcoming book, 5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel. Chapter twelve is entitled, "Discouraging Things," and discusses the difficulties we've dealt with, especially since 5 Acres & A Dream The Book was published. In trying to organize my thoughts for this chapter, I'm seeing several categories of discouraging things.

One division is things over which we have no control, such as weather, and things over which we think we have control, such as planning and execution. Another problem category for Dan and me has been outcomes that don't meet our own expectations. Lack of knowledge, skills, resources, and of course money are all things that are common sources of discouragement. I know these are things every homesteader can relate to, and I'll be telling a few stories of my own in that chapter.

As a compulsive encourager, I think this is an important topic. Why? Because discouragement can lead to frustration, and frustration can lead to burn-out. Somehow Dan and I have managed to avoid that, but it's caused others to give up. But here's the thing - I think the lifestyle changes homesteaders make have a significant positive impact on the world: environmentally, socially, and spiritually. That's why it's extremely important not to give up. So If I were to ask you

What discouraging things have you faced
in your journey toward self-reliance?

How would you answer? I'll be interested in your comments.

Discouraging Things © October 2019

September 27, 2019

Solar Project Part 5: Back Porch Preparations

[I changed the title of this series from "solar pantry" to "solar project," because we changed our original plan. Part 1 of the series starts here.]

So the plan is to move the freezer from the pantry to the back porch and put it on solar. That meant we had to do some rearranging on the porch to get ready. Like most other big projects, that meant a number steps - both planned and unplanned.

About eight years ago, when we were remodeling the kitchen, we took a detour to create a temporary remodeler's kitchen on the back porch.

November 2011 photo of my "temporary" kitchen.
Since then it's been my canning and summer kitchen. 

It served us well, because it took us another year before the kitchen was finished (before and after shots here). Once the kitchen was done I left the electric stove on the porch for canning and whatever summer-time cooking we don't do with my solar oven or Dan's grill.

About three years ago we moved the cabinet in the above photo into the new milking room of the old goat barn. In its place we put shelves.

Very handy for canning pots, coolers, laundry supplies,
my dehydrator, campfire cast iron, and recycling bins.

Now we're planning to move the freezer to this spot, so the shelves needed to be moved. That set off a cleaning binge, and while we were at it, it seemed like a good time to finish the trim around the doors and paint the walls. Years ago I put a coat of primer on the walls, but at the time we were more eager to get on with finishing the kitchen rather than the back porch. So this is how it's looked for the past eight years.

Funny how you can live with something for
so long that you don't even notice it anymore.

Dan put up some trim and gave it a coat of paint.

It feels good to finish something 
that's been unfinished for so long!

I wanted to keep at least one shelf unit on the back porch for my canners, large pots, and recycling bins, so I put it next to the stove.

New home for my my canners, canning
& cheesemaking pots, and recycling bins.

We never use the door behind it, so this seemed like a handy place. Well, it was the only place! I used to have a small table there and I'll miss that, but this solution won out for practicality.

Improving ventilation to the back porch was the next task. I used an old metal box fan in the window for years and that worked well. Then the old fan died and the new plastic one just doesn't have the strength to vent the well, especially when I'm canning. Our solar attic vent fan has worked so well that Dan installed a similar one on the back porch.

Another wall we didn't finish when we did that
side of the house. Made it easier to install the fan!

While he was working on that I started to clean out the freezer in preparation for moving it. Quite a few of the items I mentioned in Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis could be vacuum packed instead of frozen.

I find healthy ingredient crackers and cookies at a local discount
grocery. At 50-75₵ per box they make good stock-up prepper items.

I couldn't believe how many boxes I had stashed in the freezer!
They stay fresh and moth-free when vacuum packed. How-to here.

I also use my freezer for small harvest amounts, like tomatoes, figs, and berries. I rarely get enough at any one picking for a canner load, so I pop them into the freezer and can them when the weather turns cooler. I do the same with bones for bone broth. This year I'm getting everything processed early to clear out the freezer.

Crock pot of pizza sauce cooking down.

Once Dan is done with the fan, he'll finish that wall and then we'll move the freezer. Of course, progress seems slow going right now, but that's what happens when a seemingly simple project ends up with a lot of small steps! But all the steps are good ones, and it will be nice to finally finish the back porch. It's been a good September project.

Next in this series → Back Porch Progress