This month marks a number of new experiments and the completion of several projects. Thank goodness for longer daylight; there is a ton of stuff to do.
- The fruit trees in the food forest are blossoming just in time for the arrival of our bees. This year I’m hanging rocks on various branches to help guide their shapes for balance and fruit production. Feels quite zen when walking by them.
- The kids and I have been training the chickens to follow us using scratch corn in a shake can so they can weed in the food forest for us. We enclose the area in an extra strand of electronet to keep them out of areas we don’t want them (like the burgeoning garlic patch) and let them do their chicken thing on the soil.
- Finished building a pair of rocket stoves built with a good friend (and our kids). We used perlite and cement inside, so while heavy, they are still luggable for car camping and at-home no-electricity cooking. We’ll rely on our Biolite rocket stove for backpacking. The initial test burns worked well and we quickly learned what type of fuel works best.
- Starting a hugelkultur (“woody beds”) experiment with our potatoes this year. Same soil, same location, same seed potatoes, but will compare the trenching method versus a hugel method of burying wood debris at the core of a bed with straw and soil on top. Hugels retain water well and attract mycelium to make for very rich growing soil. Here’s a 10-second visual description of hugelkultur.
- I somehow messed up the recipe for soil blocks and had one grow light burn out unbeknownst to me while I was gone for a week of work travel. I came back to moldy soil blocks growing mushrooms rather than chili peppers and squash. Oops.
- The Biopod I purchased is not working. At first I failed to attract local Black Soldier Fly, and then when I stocked the unit with purchased BSF, they did not take. I’m sure this is user error rather than a flaw with the Biopod design, but I’ve not yet figured out what I’m doing wrong.
- Our new bees colonies are in, but we lost one immediately to an epic war with ants who showed up overnight en masse. Thankfully our local supplier had an extra package of bees which I installed after assisting the remaining bees in their righteous battle over the ants. Dug out the ants, *carefully* applied dichotomous earth, and left a bomb of boric acid + cat food for them to carry down to their queen. All three hives are now up and running.
Highlights for the month:
- We’re back in balance with a smaller flock of 20 layers after selling 10 birds to local farming friends. The smaller flock means less eggs for my son to sell in his first entrepreneurship venture, but also significantly less work for me hauling extra food/water and less work for our family when rotating the entire poultry paddock setup to fresh pasture. Now I’m re-thinking how to capture all that great compost that we’re currently leaving in the field through a combination of a permanent coop with movable paddocks.
- As my friend Laura – purveyor of Modern Victory Garden - says, we’ve returned to the season of the Seedling Shuffle with rapid rollout of seedlings from our grow lights to our greenhouse, and then (for the cold hardy) out into the food forest under mini hoop houses.
- After spending enough time on Permies.com forums, I finally realized I should be growing my own chicken food. I’m now reseeding our pasture with similar ingredients as what is in our commercial feed that we buy direct from the manufacturer via our homesteading group of friends. By the time the birds return to this same ground a year later, it should have a healthy crop of what they normally eat ready and waiting for them. I also added a Biopod to our vermicomposting setup to convert kitchen scraps into grubs for the chickens.
- Ready for the 2013 Battle of the Bees, where we’ll be able to directly compare how our Italian bees do in three radically different hives. From left to right you see a new Perone hive (named after the Argentine inventor) I recently built with our local Bee Godfather, a Kenyan (aka Top Bar) hive, and a classic Langstroth hive. When the bees packages arrive later this spring, we’ll install two packages in the large Perone hive and one in each of the others. Will report back later in the year how this direct comparison between the hive styles pans out, at least for our microclimate here in the Pacific Northwest.
This past month marked the formation a new work team to work on a crazy big eco-project with Fortune 100 CEOs, as well as the milestone of finishing the first draft of my book on building neighborhood resilience.
- Snippets of the sun coming back. Some gorgeous days interspersed with gloomy cloud cover.
- Garlic shoots emerging. Better sign of spring for me than any decorative flower bulbs, although those are gorgeous, too.
- Ever watchful dog protecting my kids and letting me know when anyone is near when I’m deep in thought about how to fix my latest farming mistake.
- Found the best Big Picture summary of what actions our country needs to take that I’ve read in a long time. (note subscription to read is free)
- Two enjoyable weekend construction projects with trusted friends, building a semi-portable rocket stove and a new Perone style bee hive. Details on implementation of each next month after some testing.
- Food crop beds riddled with mice holes, especially under the floating row covers. Time to add a pair of barn cats to the microfarm.
- Two separate dog attacks on our chickens, each time injuring one bird. Negligent dog owners drive me nuts.
- Last bee hive died (the Kenyan style one). They left stores and were OK two weekends ago, so I have some investigation to do to determine the cause.
- Too many laying chickens from our latest batch. They are beautiful healthy birds, but my life is now out of work/farm balance as they require more frequent rotation in the pasture and feed/water refills. Solving by selling off half the flock this week.
- And finally, a lowlight that will become a highlight. Due to my day jobs, I end up reading a lot of bad news. And I’m burning out on it. Yes, our society is due for a radical overhaul, which will most likely be painful. And our planet is reacting against all the damage we are causing it. Which will definitely be painful for us. But I’m weary of reading and researching the bad news each day. So I’m taking a cue from the permaculture revolutionary Paul Wheaton’s email signature about “making a better world through learning good things rather than being angry at bad guys.” Perhaps I’m not the only one going through this…
So an arch druid and an economist walk into a bar…
Being stuck inside due to our weather, I tend to read/plan more in the winter. This fascinating interview by a serious economic mind and the head arch druid leader in North America is one of the more interesting things I’ve read in recent months. It relates to my annual reconsideration of the Big Picture and how we are relating to the world both professionally and personally.
I’m finding it exhausting to pursue both Lifeboat strategy personally and Powerdown strategy professionally (both useful terms from Richard Heinberg). Since I’m not really sure what the alternative is, I plan to continue this for 2013, but the danger is I don’t do either one really well.
This month’s highlights and lowlights…
- My wife’s ability to make the most amazing things, like the $50 in crackers you see pictured here from about $3 worth of store-bought flour/oil and our herbs. This combined with her kale butter is amazing. And preparing it as a family is a good reminder of what life can be. Simple conversations. Simple preparations.
- Toby Hemenway’s latest essay on nomads and the culture of fear we’ve created.
- Our new flock of Golden Comet chickens are cranking out the eggs. 20+ eggs per day from a flock of 30. In the middle of winter. With no heat nor light supplements. Just happy free-ranging birds on pasture with an open sided chicken tractor to protect them from the elements.
- Our greenhouse has literally every surface covered in healthy lettuce, but with the lack of heat and sun, the growth is stunted. They’re in excellent soil in 6″ pots. Think I need to thin the trees nearby to get more winter sun.
- We lost two of our three bee hives yesterday. One to the cold and the other (perhaps) to Nosema. Given that all three hives were literally humming with activity three weeks ago when I last replaced the feeders, I’m going to rethink my strategy of minimal harvesting to help them overwinter. On the plus side, one hive had left plenty of food left, so we get to harvest honey from a full box of frames this week.
As we continue to prep our food beds for the winter and ramp up the greenhouse production of lettuce, I’ve been spending more time on inside projects, particularly a new writing project.
I’m co-creating a Prepared Neighborhoods book with the public (consider yourself invited!). I’m convinced the neighborhood is where the sustainability movement meets emergency preparedness.
And now for our summary of this month’s homesteading experiments…
- Seasonal beers!
- Discovering wine corks soaked in rubbing alcohol as a nearly-free fire starter
- Adding RevoLights on my electric bike just in time for the winter darkness. Very clever engineering. [Update: for the dozen or so folks who almost immediately emailed and texted me with glee to point out that I was not supposed to be buying anything new right now, the RevoLights were a Kickstarter campaign I backed months ago, before we started our Buy Nothing New experiment. Whew! :) ]
- Making my own cayenne pepper from the peppers I finished ripening in paper bags. Never tasted better hot peppers for my eggs each morning.
- Finding the Insurance Information Institute’s emergency plan mobile app. Awful brand name, excellent app.
- Completed CERT training after nine months, which gave me an excuse to experiment with combining a desire to lead a simplified life while still being prepared. My CERT backpack is a great example of how to leverage multifunctional items to equip yourself to handle a wide variety of situations while still keeping the pack simple and light enough to lug around all day for several days. Backpack contents listed below.
- Next batch of Golden Comets not laying yet, but eating as much as full grown birds. High feed cost + frequent rotation schedule in pasture – no eggs = frustration. After the unfortunate timing of our last raccoon attack, my bet to get these birds to laying age before the cold weather and low light set in did not pay off. [Update: it figures, we got our first maiden egg from the new batch of birds the day after I posted this. Maybe we'll still get lucky!]
- Battling Seasonal Affective Disorder – a fancy way to saying these damn winter clouds make me miserable – but I’ve found additional remedies that work well, such as a Mustard Flower tincture and doing hot yoga (stretching in a 100 degree room will warm up anybody!).
For the folks who’ve asked what each item is in my CERT backpack:
Top row: bandages, first aid kits, trauma hemorrhaging kit, kneepads, gloves, CERT vest (above), P100 mask, googles (two pair), headlamp, helmet.
Middle row: emergency blanket, hand sanitizer liquid, Ko7 water purification drops, Camelback water bladder, laminated cheat sheet for how to mark doors, glow sticks, large garbage bags, walkie-talkies for team, Icom BC-166 2-way radio to talk to BIFD, large flashlight, bright orange paracord, Figure 9 rope tighteners, two emergency whistles, one with fire steel (below).
Bottom row: duct tape, P100 replacement filters (below), snack bars, bungie cords, microfiber camp towel (above), dry socks, toilet paper (below), large green rubber band to keep doors open behind us, multipurpose camp tool (Emergency Zone brand), lighter, compass with signal mirror, marking crayon, Leatherman tool, pry bar, utility turn-off tool.
Additions not in photo: vice grips to keep doors locked open, sterile eye drops, additional seasonal clothing, fresh batteries for everything including my two EDC (everyday carry) flashlights, backup gloves, ID cards on lanyard, small bills of cash. And I still have room to throw in more food (I get hungry often!).
As our rains and colder weather invade, we button up many of our outside projects and batten down the mini-hoop houses, cloches, and Agribon paper to extend our growing season. The remaining chili peppers – full grown but still green – will be brought in to ripen inside, and the water cisterns will be flushed/cleaned so they can quickly refill for emergency water storage during winter storm power outages.
And so we turn our attention to inside projects like bread-making, cheese-making, and another One Year experiment (our last one was on transportation). A few months ago we began a one year experiment of Buying Nothing New other than food, vitamins, and toilet paper to see how we would fair on 12 months of salvaged, repurposed, or used items. For example, we’ve shifted our apparel purchases to consignment shops (both local and online) for our fast-growing kids and for ourselves as we wear through items working in the garden.
The effect of “buying used” has had an interesting affect on us of actually acquiring *more* stuff in my life. Yikes! We’re actually buying more stuff now than we were before, because our brains were thinking “Oh, I’m saving money because it is used!”
But of course, we’re not. We’re spending cash where we were not before. And we now have more stuff coming into our lives, which is the opposite of the our previous simplification focus. Now that we recognize the behavior change, we’ve corrected it. But for several months, this experiment was clearly a wash (at best) on our finances. I expect we’ll begin making gains now.
- Lessons learned re: our Buy Nothing New experiment. Time to combine a repurpose focus with a simplification focus!
- Cool weather crops coming on strong; warm weather crops still doing well under their cold frames.
- Addition of a Kenyan bee hive (aka Top Bar) that I’m bee-sitting for a friend who is injured. Fun to learn a new style of beekeeping.
- Giving away our honey to friends and family as gifts!
- Renewed interest in finishing my book on Prepared Neighborhoods (citizen-led emergency preparedness at the neighborhood level) and reinvigorating our own town’s preparedness activities.
- The biggest lowlight for our country is seeing the suffering of our East Coast neighbors from the superstorm. So, so, so wish more towns had citizen-led preparedness projects underway. We can’t rely on our government to bail us out; they are going to have their hands full just repairing the core infrastructure.
- The biggest lowlight for me personally is literally the low light. Time to start taking Vitamin D supplements and St. John’s Wort to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Learning from our failures for the Buy Nothing New experiment that were not always so fun. Example: had to buy a new car tire jack in a hurry (no time to search for a used or salvage option) when I discovered our Nissan Leaf does not ship with a spare tire nor a jack. It was a bit of dumb thinking on Nissan’s part that was not fun to discover as we blew the tire away from home – surprising given the Nissan engineers got so many other details about the Leaf correct.
Our heat (and sun) is leaving us too quickly for my taste. I find myself going outside every chance I get while taking work phone calls to enjoy the last days of our sunshine and mild weather.
Hoping we retain enough heat in the next few weeks for our chili peppers to ripen on the vine but they’re all huge so finishing them off inside would not be so bad.
This month’s learnings to share with both highlights and lowlights…
- An appreciation of true wealth (2-3 winter’s worth of good Douglas Fir stored) and true health (a year’s worth of garlic in storage).
- The entrepreneurial spirit I see in my son with his care and responsibility for our chickens and his egg business
- The joy on my daughter’s face as her toes wiggle out another huge potato. We had several 5 gallon buckets worth of gorgeous red-white-blue volunteer potatoes despite planting no new eyes this past year.
- New woodsheds were made by a local woodworker father-son crew and purchased via barter. Love barter deals!
- Steady supply of salad through the heat weeks where normally everything bolts. My wife’s brilliant idea was to create a new bed in the shade, and the lettuce transplants there did wonderfully!
- Almost blowing up myself and my house. Nicked the copper feed line for my generator’s propane tanks when trimming the bamboo surrounding it. One little spark from my shears before I got the tanks shut down would have been a disaster.
- Another failed corn year (four in a row!) after a promising start. Think my problem this year was lack of water. Will push out drip irrigation to the corn next year and tie into my timer system.
- Actually, it’s hard to think of many lowlights from this past month. It’s gorgeous and pleasant most every day outside this time of year and we’re not suffering from the droughts plaguing the rest of the country. Sunshine, blue skies, white clouds, gorgeous mountains, and deep healthy forests. It all goes a long way to erase work stress, crop failures, and any other problems. Feeling very grateful at this time of year as we head into Harvest Festivals and the celebration of this season’s bounty.