Sunday, April 20, 2014

Homestead Update

We have a lot going on around the homestead. I always seem to have multiple projects going on at the same time. But, I have one project that needs to be done last week.

This is a teaser on my chicken tractor / tank. A full post will come later. It is turning out really nice. Just not fast enough.

These gals are the reason I need that chicken tractor done now. They are totally ready to get out of this brooder. They jump out all the time and run around the spare bedroom. Just a heads up, if you read that brooding chickens in the house is a bad idea because of the dust they produce, listen carefully to that sage advice. I swear there is a 1/16 of an inch of dust on everything!

The garlic is doing great. These are the soft neck varieties. I am never buying garlic from the store again.

These are the hard neck varieties. Once I harvest them I plan on building a raised berry circle in this spot. But that will have to wait until I harvest these, look for the berry post later in the year. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Permaculture Design Certification Course

I recently took my first Permaculture Design Certification course. I have wanted to take one for a long time and finally found the time. What is Permaculture? Here is the Wiki definition:

"Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design that develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems"

I like one of Bill Mollison's  (the father of Permaculture) definitions the best. He said Permaculture is "the active application of what you observe in nature, to the things you construct". 

Many people have different definitions of what Permaculture is. I like to think of it as "a toolbox of ideas, based on natural observations, that we can use to make smart, sustainable and ecologically beneficial decisions, in construction, agriculture and human interactions."

The core tenants of Permaculture should give you a good idea of what the movement is all about.

  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.  
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

The course was full of great information, but one of the best parts of the class was human interaction. Humans are social creatures and I think everyone needs to do more to understand each other. I barely know my neighbors after living in my house for over three years. I need to fix that. How many of us really know the family next door, or down the street?

One of the social activities we did was making a huge crock of fermented vegetables. Everybody brought in a knife and cutting board and cut up cabbage, carrots, ginger and garlic. Not only was this fun, fermented vegetables are one of the healthiest things you can eat. Every culture has some form of ferment associated with them.

After everything was cut up, salted and crushed, it was added to this enormous crock. We then added spices and capped it off. Everyone in the class enjoyed eating this delicious ferment on the last weekend of class.

Ferments were around the whole course. For the catered class lunches, a local companies specialty fermented foods were served. I recommend checking out Fab Ferments if you want to try some amazing products. 

The course was put on by The two main teachers were Doug Crouch and Braden Trauth. Many other people came in to teach specialty topics. We learned about alternative energy, the finance and hurtles of starting a small business, natural pest and insect control, how intentional communities are formed, fruit tree grafting techniques, community gardens, seed libraries and many other interesting topics.

And of course, we learned the basic principles of Permaculture, which are:

  •  Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  • Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  • Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  •  Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  • Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  • Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  • Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  • Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  • Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  • Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

There are many websites and books devoted to explaining the teachings of Permaculture. I recommend starting with Toby Hemenway's book, Gaia's Garden.

We visited many places during the course. One of the weekends was taught at Greensleeves farm in Alexandria Ky. I would like to thank Gretchen Vaughn for welcoming our class to her farm.  

We learned how she grows enough produce to support a CSA. They also sell at farmers markets and to select restaurants in the area. Last I heard they were looking for an intern. If you are interested in an experience like that, get in contact with Gretchen.

It was pretty chilly the day we showed up at the farm. This greenhouse was so warm, I didn't want to leave. They start most of their plants in it and use it to brood chickens. A wind storm had ripped the top layer of plastic off, so the class helped put it back in place. The farm has many laying chickens and a couple sheep.There are plans to expand the farms operations in the future when the food forest begins to produce.

This is looking away from the greenhouse. You can see a series of ditches on contour, in Permaculture we call these swales. The purpose of a swale is to slow water down on a property and hydrate the land. Swales also help control erosion. In front of the swales you can see white posts everywhere. Each one of them is a fruit tree. Eventually support species trees and shrubs will be planted on the downhill side of the swales, supporting the hillside and drinking up all the stored water. Typically herbaceous plants are planted on the uphill side. This landscape will be a diverse and productive ecosystem in 5-10 years.

Here is a close up of one of the swales. Eventually this system will turn into a mature food forest. You can graze animals through the lanes created between the swales. I plan on putting in a small swale in my front yard where the land raises up to the road. I will plant both sides of it, creating a small food forest.


We cut down a bunch of willow around Gretchen's pond to make a wattle fence. This would be a great place to plant some runner beans or peas.Trellis material from a box store can get expensive very fast. What if you take one "problem" like willow growing on a pond dam wall, and turn it into a solution.

We spent a couple weekends at the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage. Our class was in the Imago Earth Center in the middle of the ecovillage. We started building, what will be a very long forest swale, in the woods of the nature preserve. This will slow down the water in the landscape and help fight the massive erosion happening in the area.

After digging the swale, we went on a tour of some of the houses in the ecovillage. Intentional communities are very interesting. Everyone we met had something different going on. We saw people raising bees, chickens, sheep, ducks and many varieties of plants. Some for personal use, some for commercial operations.

Towards the end of the class some of us went to an optional apple grafting workshop. We learned how to take scion wood and graft it onto hardy root stock. I grafted six different varieties of apples and will be planting them very soon.

Here we are mixing cob for a small earthbag and rammed earth tire building on Braden's property. We harvested the straw and clay from Braden's back yard.

Cob is a fun and forgiving building technique. One day I would like to design and build my own Earthship.

For our final design we split into groups and voted on what project we wanted to do. I joined the team working on Long Branch Farm. This farm and the trails around it are used to teach under served children the value of nature. There is a young food forest already in place, birding opportunities, trail hiking, vernal ponds, composting toilets and a large barn for community programs.

This overlay map is what is called a sector analysis map. The purpose of this map is to identify energy inputs like summer sun, water and wind patterns. You use this information when laying out your design of the property.

This is a zone map. In Permaculture, there are 5 zones, with zone 0 being the house or center of your design. 
  • Zone 0 - House or center of your design
  • Zone 1 - Area closest to the house, managed intensely, kitchen garden, herb garden
  • Zone 2 - Further out from the house, perennial plants, raised beds, compost, bee hives
  • Zone 3 - Further away still, less managed, nut and berry shrubs, large scale crop production
  • Zone 4 - Semi-wild area, food forest, timber management, forage, wild edibles
  • Zone 5 - Wilderness area, observation, hunting, generally left alone
Any of the things I mentioned can be moved to another Zone. Your bee hives could be in zone 3 if it makes more sense. Your zone 5 could back up right to your house. These are just general guidelines. Understanding your property through careful, patient observation will show you where to locate different systems. 

Here is our final design. Having wheelchair accessible raised beds will allow people with disabilities to easily garden and enjoy some fresh food. An amphitheater located in the woods will offer a cool shady classroom on hot summer days. Water catchment off the barn will store and slow down water moving across the landscape. A cob oven built near the barn will allow people to cook some of the fresh vegetables grown on the property. Raised perennial mounds will be covered in native edible berries and other useful plants.

I recommend that everybody on the planet should take a PDC. The perspective you come away with is worth every penny. Imagine if the world was filled with people who understand the current methods of mono-crop agriculture cannot be sustained indefinitely. Do you know what the largest US export by ton a year is?  It is topsoil, seriously look at a satellite view of the Mississippi river draining into the gulf. We have to change the way we grow our food and raise our animals before it is to late.

I would like to end with another quote from the father of Permaculture. We could turn the destructive and wasteful practices of modern agriculture around over night if the following idea caught on and spread.

"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." - Bill Mollison

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Black Powder Flint Lock Rifle

This past deer gun season I went out hunting with my friend Mike on his property. I learned two valuable lessons.

1. When you see a deer walking down a slope into your firing zone, take off your gloves and make sure your safety is off. 

2. When said deer moves out of your firing zone, because you were not ready to shoot even when said deer turns its flank to you, it will taunt you from a direction it knows you cannot take a shot in.

So after my failed shotgun hunting season came to an end, I thought; there is always next year. Then I remembered we have a black powder season in Ohio. I thought, who do I know that can help me pick the right black powder rifle? Immediately my friend Chuck came to mind. I mean this in the most flattering way, Chuck is the rain-man of firearms.

So I shoot Chuck an email asking what he thinks of the .50 caliber black powder rifles they sell in the sporting goods section of the big box stores. Here is his response:

"I’m a traditional guy.  The in-lines that you may be seeing in the big box stores, are the spawn of Satan….   Sewer pipes strapped to fence posts."

I like chuck.

So what did Chuck do? He let me borrow an amazing piece of machinery. This is a Great Plains Rifle made by Lyman, in Italy. It rifle is a .54 caliber, black powder, muzzle loading flint lock.

Chuck graciously offered to set me up with a black powder rifle and all the fix-in's. I know Chuck because of our shared love of the Red River Gorge. We are both volunteers on the Red River Gorge Trail Crew. Thanks again Chuck for lending me your baby. =)

Flint locks have a interesting history. The first flint lock was created for King Louis XIII by a French gunsmith named Marin le Bourgeoys. This was in the early 17th century around the year 1610. Flint locks quickly became the weapon of choice, and everyone had to have one. People kept tinkering with the design. Isaac de la Chaumette improved the design in 1704.In the 1770's, Colonel Patrick Ferguson made 100 experimental flint lock rifles that were used in the American Revolutionary War, for the wrong side unfortunately. These rifles came to be known as the Ferguson Rifle.

The distinction of the first American flint lock, made by a US armory, goes to the Harpers Ferry Model 1803. Followed by the Model 1819 Hall Breech Loading Rifle, which was the first flint lock breech-loading rifle to be widely adopted by any military.

Black powder has a very interesting history as well. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate or saltpeter. Gunpowder was invented in China sometime in the 9th century AD. All the components of gunpowder were know to the Chinese and used in medicines and other applications long before they were ever put together to make gunpowder.

It is thought that gunpowder spread from China to the Middle East, eventually making its way to Europe. The term "black powder" is a relatively modern term dating to around 1890. Before that it was referred to as "gun powder" or simply, "powder". The term "black powder" was coined to differentiate between the old gun powder and the new "white powder", a nitrocellulose powder, or what is today called "smokeless powder".

There is a lot going on in this picture. Those bamboo tubes were made by my friend Chuck to hold a measured load of black powder. Very handy when you are trying to reload in the woods. The copper tube next to them is full of black powder. When you depress the spring tensioned piston on the bottom, you can load the flash pan with powder. You then close the frizzen, holding the powder in. Once you pull the main trigger, after you have pulled the set trigger, the cock, which holds the flint,  flies forward striking the frizzen, shaving off bits of white hot steel, causing a spark, igniting the powder in the flash pan, which then goes through the touch hole and ignites the powder in the barrel. Simple right? Good. 

The blue webbing is actually a tube to hold the .54 caliber balls next to it, very ingenious Chuck. The black and white squares are flints. The black one is setting on a patch. Always remember this order, powder, patch and ball. You don't want to screw that up. The white one is in a piece of leather so the cock can hold it.

It is very important to keep your barrel clean and dry. I have a ton of cleaners and solvents for my guns. I asked Chuck which one to use, he informed me that water is a great solvent and that water is all he ever uses to clean his black powder rifles. 

Here is what the cleaning patches look like in the order I ran them down the barrel. I asked Chuck which one of the many gun oils I have would be good to use on the barrel. His answer, WD-40. Makes sense, but I would have never thought to use it.

Here I am, patiently waiting for a deer to cross my path. I sat on a 5 gallon bucket turned upside down with a pillow on it for 4 hours or so. I eventually gave up because of the cold. It was fun discharging the rifle in my backyard, I love living in the country. =) I will be going out ever year from now on, eventually I will get lucky and fill my freezer.

Thanks again for lending me this beautiful rifle Chuck. I can't wait until I can afford to buy one.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Chicks Love The Worm

Dara and I have been pulling worms out of the worm bin to feed the chickens. While the chickens love them, I realize I am shooting myself in the foot, since I am trying to split my worm colony.

I went out to the compost pile yesterday and put a spade shovel in the ground around it. With one shovel of soil, I pulled out about two dozen earthworms. Here is a video of the chicks running around trying to eat their worm before another chicken steals it. Chicken pinball!


Here is a video of the chicks letting Dara pet them, mostly because I think they are looking for more worms. Either way, they are becoming more accustomed to being handled. Hopefully when they are adults, they will be friendly to humans. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

Burning A Bowl

Okay, its not what you think. Unless you are into primitive technology, then maybe it is what you think... My friend Phil and I went backpacking in the Red River Gorge in January. We decided to burn a wooden bowl around the fire one night.

If you have never been winter backpacking you are missing out. No bugs, very few people, you can see much further through the woods and a fire is actually needed, not just a luxury. You will need the proper gear and knowledge to have a safe and enjoyable outing. Find a friend or a group that goes out in the winter to learn from. You will quickly learn what draws me into the woods every winter.

First order of business, fire. No Bic lighters were used in the making of this fire. Before all the primitive purists out there start trolling the blog, I know my K-bar is not a primitive tool, neither is the ferrous rod we are using, but I would never step into the woods without them, so just let it be. 

Reddit edit: I have learned you should not use the blade of your knife on a ferrous rod. If your knife has a 90 degree edge on the back, use that instead. If you have a K-bar like me, use a file and remove the coating to expose the metal first.

As I mentioned, we used a ferrous rod to start this fire. Let me tell you, it is not easy starting a fire with one. If you carry one of these and have never used it, try starting a fire with it the next time you are camping. Know your gear and its possible limitations. If you needed a fire immediately, because you slipped and fell in a stream, you would definitely not want your only source of fire to be a ferrous rod. 

Next order of business, bacon. When you have bacon, all of life's problems seem to melt away. 

I would like to bring your attention to, the backpacking hammock. No amount of padding or sleeping pads can equal the comfort of these light weight hammock systems. Once you try it you will never go back to a tent. 

My wonderful fiance Dara, bought me this Chainmate handsaw. It is made out of a chainsaw like blade. When I first looked at it I thought, well this is novel, but I bet it won't perform like my folding saw. Let me tell you this thing is amazing. I sawed through the downed log pictured on both sides in a matter of minutes. Sure my folding saw could have done it, but not as fast and easy as this piece of kit. Plus, it compacts down into a very small pouch.

On to the burning of the bowl. You will want a log about this big if you want to do a burn down the center. I have burned a bowl into the side of a log before, but the log needs to be very large and it is not typically movable, once you are done.

Start by carving out a small depression in the center. Place a coal in it and apply oxygen. If you have a tube of some sort this is much easier. We sacrificed one of Phil's cheap trekking poles to use as a blowing tube.

You will want some way of keeping the coals in the depression. A knife, or in this case, a Kukri works very well. Once you get the inside of the depression burning, you will no longer need to add embers, it will keep burning down and out as you add oxygen.

You have to be mindful of the sides burning out to far when you get close to the edge. Some clay or mud works well to stop the sides from burning while letting the burn continue down.

Keep burning it down until you get a vessel deep enough for your needs. Unfortunately for us, the sides of the log we used turned out to be very punky. Before we started burning it was very hard and seemed like a good piece of wood. Once the heat got to the outer part of the log it turned soft. Oh well, we still learned from our mistake. It is soothing having something to occupy your mind around the fire on a cold January night.

Unfortunately, since the punky wood made the bowl not usable, I didn't get a picture the next morning. Sorry. I will do this again, and make sure I get a finished product picture. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Spring Starts

Do you already have your spring starts going? The time is nigh, past nigh! I had to fight the urge to start my tomatoes and peppers in December. We planted our brassicas, tomatoes and peppers at the end of February this year.

What is that you ask? A dirt crab? A yeti fur-ball?  A comfrey root? Yes, you were right the third time. It is the Russian bocking 14 comfrey root to be precise. Symphytum x uplandicum for all the plant nerds. This cultivar is sterile, meaning it does not produce through seed. The only way to propagate this variety is through root cutting. It only takes a little bit of root to get a new plant, as many people who have tried to roto-till this plant to death have found out.

I potted up 48 comfrey starts all said and done. I will be giving most of them away to friends this year. I plan on planting about half of these around the property. I have comfrey in 5 spots around the property right now.

Here are some happy little brassica's growing in soil cubes. Here is a post I did on making soil cubes if you want to learn more.

Here are some tomato starts. We have peppers going as well. Hopefully this year we won't have the wet spring we had last year. We couldn't plant out our starts until mid May last year.

Here is the set-up this year. Looks very similar to the last three years. =) I can't wait to get out in the garden this year. We had poor garden performance last year, mostly our fault from neglect. We plan on paying more attention to the annuals this year as well as continuing to establish perennial plants that will produce with very little input. 

Get out and garden this year!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bedroom Full Of Chicks

That's right, I have 10 girls eating out of my hand in the bedroom! These chicks have a ton of energy and don't mind sharing the same bed.

They are also a pretty cheap date. A little apple cider vinegar, garlic, water, a handful of grain and they are all yours.

Meet my harem. I brought home 10 chicks last night (Edit: I brought 6 more chicks home three days later), so with Dara and Guen that brings my harem of chicks to 18. I have:

8 - Araucanas
2 - Rhode Island Reds 
2 - Black Sex Links
2 - Silver Laced Wyandottes
2 - Isa Browns
1 - Dara
1 - Guen

In my zeal to finally get some chickens, I bought two of everything they had in the store. I want more Araucanas, and will pick up 6 more this week (done). I had never heard of Isa Browns. I bought them before I researched them. It turns out they are a Trademarked breed bred for high egg production. They stop laying quality eggs after 2 years. I have them now, and they are very cute, so I will keep them until they stop laying well.

Here is their luxury apartment. It is a 100 gallon galvanized stock tank. Add a heat lamp, bedding, water and feed and you get a chicken condo. I can't stop watching them, people warned me about this but I didn't know what they were talking about until now. 

I told Dara last night, "we haven't even had them for 24 hours, and I can't imagine not having chickens now".

Everyone should get chickens! And here is cute proof, Dara went camera happy last night.