Announcing PickAPacket.com–a new way to find sustainable seed options

Over the past few years I’ve been thinking about an idea to help me track down seeds from my favorite vendors. Near the beginning of each year we get a number of seed catalogs. I love looking through them in the cold winter months, getting a sense of all that is available, new varieties and picking new things to try.

We typically figure out exactly what we still have in inventory and then decide what we need to order.  Most of the seed vendors now have excellent web sites to order online. I wanted a way to quickly figure out who has what variety and potentially compare prices.  Often we have specific varieties in mind and not all vendors carry that type.  We buy a lot of seeds, so we think about price as well.  We typically put more stock in the success we’ve had with a particular vendor or variety, as well as how adapted the seeds are to our area.

Although you can find single varieties somewhat easily through Google or Bing now, it’s still a laborious process if you want to compare varieties or do a lot of research quickly.  I’m also only really interested in vendors who support the ideals I believe in: no GMOs and a focus on any mixture of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and generally sustainable options.  The only way I really know to accomplish this is to pick vendors I believe in and then crawl their sites to determine what is available.  So I wrote a specialized web crawler that does just that.  The results are now available at Pick A Packet.

I have some ideas for additional features, but for now it is a limited feature set.  I want to make sure the seed companies appreciate the idea of this as a resource before putting too much additional effort into it.  I also want to see if anybody else finds this helpful or just me.  If so, some ideas for future features include social elements (I’m growing this in this area), ratings of success with particular varieties, ability to share photos of specific varieties (both plants and final crop) and helpful resources on the ideas the site is about (GMO issues, open-pollination, heirloom plants, seed saving, etc.).  I would appreciate any feedback or idea you have on any of these ideas or the main concept of the site.

Please share this with any gardening friends you may have.  I hope you’ll find it useful.

the farm equipment conundrum

So now that we have our land and are starting to plan for our first growing season, I’ve been thinking about equipment.  I’ve actually been thinking about it for quite a long time.  I had pretty much decided to get an old Ford 8N this spring, but now I’m having second thoughts.  I grew up with one and used to mow a lot of lawn with a Woods finish mower.  Got used to it and it was certainly faster/better than a standard riding mower.  There are a lot of other things we could use a small tractor for as well, but I’m starting to wonder if an “N” series Ford is more of a sentimental choice.  They are certainly very useful and a great value for what you pay for them.  You can get a nicely restored one for $2500-3000 around here.

However, there are lots of areas where the “N” shows it’s age.  They are known for being super easy to work on and you can readily find parts for them.  But they require constant maintenance from everything I’ve read. I would love to learn to work on them, but I also have a gazillion other things I need to spend my time doing. At this point I should probably be spending time on all the things we want to do with the property, so the equipment needs to make that easier and faster. 

Some other “N” shortcomings include the lack of active PTO, relatively poor brakes, the gear ratios limit what type of attachments you can run (such as a tiller) and it’s fairly difficult to put a loader or blade on the front of one.  People do it, but I don’t think I could figure it out myself.  I’m also starting to wonder if I will end up having to do quite a lot of manual trimming even after mowing, particularly once we start adding outbuildings and more landscaping.  Our property is also pretty wet, which could lead to issues with tire tracks and ruts in the lawn.

The main uses we have for a tractor in the short-term (1-3 years) are mowing, probably snow clearing either via blade or blower and potentially hauling stuff around.  Long-term I would love to have something I could use to run a rotary tiller, compact versions of manure spreaders (our neighbor shares horse poo with us) and 1 bottom plow and potentially other attachments such as a cultivator or wood chipper.  The “N” can do some of that fairly well, some of it okay and some not at all.

For mowing, I was originally thinking about getting a zero turn mower and they are certainly very nice.  But a one note machine.  They are just really great at mowing and not much else. And they are fairly expensive compared to other options.

A new or newer compact tractor, such as those made by Yanmar, New Holland, John Deere and Kubota is pretty much out of our price range.  If we start to make some money off our property, it may make sense then.  But it doesn’t make sense to spend $15-20K on a tractor right now and probably doesn’t even make sense to spend $10K.  Even used that is pretty much the price range for something like that. And that is the low end.  That is why the 8N is attractive, because you can do many of the same things, but the cost outlay is much less.

So now I’m wondering if a smaller garden tractor might be the way to go, particularly if I can find a decent used one.  They certainly do well at mowing and can run all of the implements/attachments I’m interested in since they have rear PTO.  Although we have 10 acres, most of that is not lawn we need to mow and some of the lawn we have is going to be torn up for gardening, chicken coop, a shed, possibly a greenhouse and so on.  So that both cuts down the amount of lawn and makes pulling a finish mower behind an 8N around all of that less attractive. Being an agriculture county we have plenty of options nearby as far as dealers and service.

So that’s the conundrum I’m in right now.  I don’t want to rush into anything and regret it later.  I can always buy an 8N down the road if we develop a use for it and I want to spend the time it requires to keep it running. What I don’t want is to buy an 8N, a finish mower and a building to store them in and find out after one season that it’s not practical for our needs right now.  Anyway this is the type of decision many homesteaders struggle with, so I thought it would be interesting to document my thought processes at the moment.

Some favorite music of 2013

Little bit of a departure for this blog, but I’m always going to be a music lover and musician.  So just thought I’d note some of my favorite music of this past year, in no particular order:

Post move update

As you might expect, life has been pretty busy since our move.  Fall went pretty quick and now we are already headed into winter, so work outside will slow down for awhile. Here are a few of the things we’ve been working on.

  • We put in an herb spiral.  I’ve always found the idea of these one of the most interesting and accessible permaculture concepts.  We have some rocks scattered around the property, so I was able to build this with a combination of repurposed bricks and rocks.
  • We had one little hoop in a raised bed for the fall.  Got quite a bit of lettuce and other greens out of it into November.  Also some radishes and Hakurai turnips.  The last part of November was fairly cold here, so not much is still growing now.  But there are also carrots and bunching onions that should come back and continue to grow in the spring theoretically.
  • Kristin is experimenting with the concept of a couple of “lasagna” plots, which is basically where you build up a raised bed using various materials (grass, straw/hay, food waste, chicken shavings/manure, spent beer mash, etc.)  It’s basically building a compost pile, letting it sit over the winter and early spring and then planting directly into it.  We have two of them going so far, both a standard 4’ x 8’ size that we settled on for raised beds. Makes it easy to use scrap dimensional lumber for frames and the hoops fit over them nicely.
  • We dug up another section in our back pasture and planted garlic.  Our tiller really struggled with getting anywhere with our dense pasture grass sod.  It took about 8-10 runs to break the ground into anything useable.  So we may need to get some sections of the properly plowed at least once to get certain things started, like asparagus, strawberries, etc.
  • I just planted a couple of hazelnut bushes from the Arbor Day Hazelnut Project. They are developing hybrid bushes that can grow in a much wider range of climates, hopefully over most of the US instead of mainly in a small area of the Pacific Northwest.  I also started our windbreak with 10 Norway Spruces from Arbor Day. Eventually I want to build up a substantial windbreak on the north and east sides of the house and along the lane, with a mix of evergreens and deciduous trees.
  • We did a bunch of efficiency work on the house, including blowing cellulose into the attic which was never done for some reason.  We also insulated the basement above grade for now as well as our bulkhead door, with the intent of eventually putting foam board on the entire set of walls in the basement.  This may not be necessary and foam board is pricey, so we’ll see how it goes.  The basement is already noticeably warmer. We would like to eventually put in another heat source, such as a pellet stove.  We have a fairly efficient oil furnace, but I don’t like having that as my only option and it’s certainly not the cheapest way to go for a house of this size.

This winter I hope to do a few small projects, including building a larger chicken coop using the principles in Fresh Air Poultry Houses.  We also still have some odds and ends to wrap up in the master bath, painting to finish in the upstairs and some electrical work to have done.  I hope to get some additional storage and a workbench/tool area set up in the basement, now that we have some of the insulating done.

I’ve ordered my first 4 apple trees for spring delivery and we’ll need to start thinking about strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb and additional trees for windbreak to plant in the spring.  Plus our normal seed starting and the fun we always have looking though all our seed catalogs.  This year we’ll finally be able to grow some things we didn’t have room for in the past, such as sweet corn, melons, pumpkins and lots of other things.  Not sure we’ll get to all that in the first year, but we’ll do what we can like we do every year.

2013 Cider Press

After last year’s experiments with cider, I wanted to ramp things up a bit and get a better process.  I’ve had plans for Herrick Kimball’s Whizbang Apple Grinder for awhile now, which basically repurposes a sink garbage disposal with a better motor in order to make a great apple mash for pressing cider.  With all the other new house projects, we were already well into this year’s apple crop before I realized I was running out of time to put together a grinder this year.  So I quickly started ordering parts to build the grinder.  The grinder itself is not that difficult of a project to put together, once you have the right materials.  So I was able to finish that up this past Saturday morning and it looks like this.

AppleGrinder

On Saturday afternoon, we attended a local CiderFest at Happy Valley Orchard, one of the local orchards where we like to get apples. They have teamed up with Citizen Cider, a local hard cider company and have quite an operation going over there.  Super nice folks too, with a well maintained orchard.

I decided to use their drops for my cider and they had them in abundance this weekend, so we decided to go ahead and grab our apples while we strolled through the orchard and sipped on some Citizen Cider.  They directed us to the section of the orchard where they have a few heirloom varieties and we scored a nice selection of Russets (probably Roxbury Russet and Golden Russet) as well as a large golden variety (Grimes Golden perhaps) and a few others.  We rounded out the base of the cider with Jonagolds, Macs, Red Delicious and Honeycrisps, as well as a few others.  We were able to score 2 1/2 bushels in about 20 minutes and many of the drops were in fantastic shape, all for only $4.50 a half bushel bag.  Can’t beat that.

Sunday afternoon we started prepping the apples for pressing, which consistent of a quick wash and brush and quartering the apples.  This went pretty quickly, considering how many apples we had.  We weighed as we went to get a sense for how many apples overall, as well as how many of particular varieties.  We threw in some crab apples from a Bristol neighbor’s tree and a few from a tree on our new property.  We ended up with about 88 lbs. of apples.

After a brief scare with the grinder that just involved tightening up the shaft coupler, we were off to the races grinding all the apples.

LoadingGrinder

The grinder worked magnificently, chopping apples about as fast as we could push them in.FirstPulp

The yield when using this grinder was a night and day difference from our attempts last year, where we used a Cuisinart food processor since we didn’t have anything else.  As soon as we loaded the mash into the bag, juice started flowing.  Below our friend Christine who is visiting for the weekend helps load the pressing bag.

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Check out the lovely flow of cider.

CiderFlows

Ezra provided some management and quality assurance.

EzraObserves

I was aiming for at least 5 gallons to ferment this year and we blasted well past the goal.  I couldn’t believe the great yield we got using this mash.  The only thing I want to try different is to use multiple bags with some pressing rounds between them.  It’s hard to get enough top pressure even on a half bag to get all the juice out.  I was rearranging the bag several times on each press and always got a bunch more juice each time.  I did go back and repress after we got our main press done, but I think I could’ve still gotten a bit more.

Still, we ended up with 8 gallons altogether.  Along with the 5 gallons which I am fermenting with a pitch of Nottingham ale yeast, I set aside 1 gallon to naturally ferment on the porch and a couple of gallons for drinking.  I didn’t go anything this year to kill the wild yeast, so it will be interesting to see what we end up with.  The Nottingham should jumpstart the main batch enough to do the bulk of the fermenting.  Here’s the carboy full of fresh cider ready to start its journey to the hard side.

ReadyToFerment

We found our plot

In all the busyness, I have neglected to post anything about our new property. On July 19th we closed on a 10 acre property in New Haven, one town over from where we are renting now in Bristol. The house is a nice size with plenty of room and not too old. It was built in 2000, so it’s just old enough to need some updating. The last owners moved to California about 5-6 years ago and it’s been rented ever since. So it’s in need of some TLC to get it looking the way we want, but we think the house and property has a lot of potential.

We’ve already gotten hardwood floors put into the living room and master bedroom. We’ve gutted the master bathroom, ripping out a corner whirlpool tub, the vanity and the toilet. Small closet in the room is getting demoed out as well. The whole place could use a fresh coat of paint, so we made a good start on that over the weekend between us and also some hired painters.

We may update the kitchen at some point, but probably need to wait on that. We would like to use it for a bit to determine exactly what we want to do. We are going to put a gas range in and replace the refrigerator at least. All the appliances appear to be original from when the house was built, so they are showing some age.

View from front porchP1010956

The property itself is mostly cleared, rolling pasture. The farmer next door is haying a lot of it one final time. We’ll be putting in a small garden plot or some raised beds immediately for a fall garden. Next spring I would like to set up 3-4 smaller garden plots and we’ll set up rotations through them over time. We also want to plant some berries, apples, asparagus and other perennials in the spring. May need some trees as well, particularly to get some windbreaks going. The house is up on the side of a hill overlooking the valley, which provides fantastic views, but is also likely to be windy.

Another view from front porchP1010958

Much more as we go, including some before and after room photos as we get updates completed. At this point we plan to move in early September.

Mid-summer in Vermont

It always seems the summer starts to get away from me around this time.  I did manage to go out and take some photos today after all the family left.  We had a full house over the 4th and got to eat some great local meat, including my cured sausage and bacon, eggs and produce from the backyard and homebrew.  I finally smoked some local pastured pork shoulder into some delicious pulled pork in the barrel smoker.  It was in there about 5 hours and to be honest it probably could’ve gone another hour or two as it wasn’t quite as “falling apart” as I hoped.  Still very good though, with a great smoke ring and nice bark.

The summer so far has been a strange one weather-wise in Vermont.  After a mild sunny May, it seemed like it rained all of June.  I think we’ve had rain almost every day for the last 3 weeks.  That means we still have a bit of lettuce and other greens holding on in July!  But also means the tomatoes and peppers aren’t as happy as they could be.  However, most things are holding up well.  The potatoes look great and all the brassicas are enjoying the cooling effects of the rain.  We’re even still getting some radishes.

Anyway, I just added a bunch of new photos to Flickr if you want to see the latest progress.  I did want to show one before and after photo that I think it’s interesting.  This is a row of kale and beets.  The first photo is from June 16th and the second photo is from today.

beetsmidjune

beetsearlyjuly

See more photos at Garden 2013 on Flickr

Homemade Brats

Since I started trying my hand at making sausages, one of the things I’ve wanted to try is homemade brats.  While you can find fresh brats almost anywhere in the midwest, they are harder to come by in New England.

Fortunately they are just a fresh sausage that get their flavor from good meat and a certain set of seasonings.  Most recipes call for a mix of pork and veal, but veal is tough to come by and even tougher to come by if you are looking for a humane option.  Plus it doesn’t add much to the mix other than a certain creaminess.  Certainly most of the actual meat flavor comes from the pork.

So I just made all pork brats, using some wonderful pork shoulder from Jericho Settler’s farm and some fat back.  Here is the result, both just after stuffing and on the grill. They turned out great, although I will certainly be tweaking the seasoning mix a bit.

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Some quick garden 2013 updates

Due to a nice warm spring here in Vermont, our garden is off to a great start.  Here are some photos from a couple of weeks ago, stuff is much bigger now.

We are trying out some new trellis ideas.  The trellis netting works great for most things (tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers), but couldn’t really hang (no pun intended) with the heavier squashes such as Blue Hubbard.  Here is a new trellis I built using scrap wood and chicken wire.  May build a few more, this only took about an hour.

trellis

Peas poking through and then a few weeks later

peas1 peas2

Garlic off to a good start.  It’s almost 2 feet high now

garlic

Bought a tiller

tiller

Hoop tunnel

hoop

Cabbage overwintered in cold frame. Soon after we transplanted it, the chickens got into it. This poor cabbage can’t catch a break. It’s still limping along, so maybe it will come back.

cabbagecoldframe

You can see more photos and keep up with our 2013 garden on Flickr.