2014 Year in Review

Well, between keeping up with all the projects and having a new baby, this blog has taken a bit of a hit. So this post won’t be too lengthy, but wanted to do a quick bullet point list of stuff we managed to accomplish this year.

  • Poultry
    • Built a brand new chicken coop based on Fresh Air Poultry Houses, large enough for 15 chickens or so.
    • Lost one of our original hens, but picked up 6 new ones.
    • Got our first blue eggs.
    • One of the 6 new “hens” turned out to be a rooster (the Cuckoo Maran). He is still on probation until we determine if he’s going to be nice and helpful or a pain.
    • Built a duck coop and planned to get ducks, but that didn’t happen this year. Hopefully next year.
    • Set up solar for the new coop, which I still hope to blog about at some point. It’s struggling a bit now with the limited daylight and snow/ice, but I think overall will work well for lighting. Would eventually like an automatic door as well.
  • Gardening
    • Put in 2 brand new garden plots. They did okay considering it was the first year, although we still have a lot of soil consistency and wetness issues to work on.
    • Started 4 blueberry bushes, 25 asparagus crowns (of which about half made it) and 75 strawberry plants (3 different varieties of 25 each).
    • Had some luck for the first time with the following this year
      • Melons
      • Pumpkins
      • Leeks
      • Eggplant
      • Gourds
      • Popcorn
      • Sweet peppers
    • Standouts included
      • Potatoes (despite web conditions and compacted soil)
      • Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage)
      • Some of the tomatoes
      • Soybeans
      • Flowers – we had decent luck with various flowers this year, including sunflowers, that we’ve struggled with before.
      • Peppers, although I always want more variety and quantity
    • Still can’t seem to get Brussels Sprouts to work.
    • Our cucumbers and squashes mostly succumbed to a vicious onslaught of insects. Need to do a bit more row cover and other stuff next year.
  • Landscape and other property work
    • Got a riding mower and shed to store it in.
    • Planted 4 apples trees.
    • Had a full landscape design done that we are really excited about implementing over the next 5-10 years.
    • Built 2 bay compost bin

Lots of plans for next year that I may get into in another post. Soon it will be time to buy and start seeds. By the way, if you are thinking about seeds, don’t forget about my new site PickAPacket.com and tell your friends. It allows you to compare prices and see varieties carried by 13 of my favorite non-GMO seed companies, including lots of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated varieties.

State of the garden

Well, it’s already July and I’ve been so busy working I haven’t had much time to blog about it.  The short story is our gardens are overall doing fairly well, considering it is the first year.  We are certainly fighting weeds, but that happens regardless.  The soil structure is definitely better in the front garden, where we dug up a spot that was more hay pasture than lawn.  Both need a lot of work, particularly when dry.  After a rain though, the soil really isn’t too bad and I think with some tender loving care in a few years we’ll start seeing some pretty good structure.

We had a chance to plant more peas this year and focused more on sugar/snap peas, since you get a lot more for the space and they are easier to freeze for later.  Ezra has taken a big liking to peas, particularly shell peas which he eats raw by the handfuls.  On most days he has to go “check his peas” and is actually already doing a pretty good job at learning when they are ripe.  It’s pretty cute.

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It’s been pretty interesting to see the difference having lots of direct sun makes.  It’s mostly a good thing, although we had a couple of issues with transplanting where the plants got some sun scald.  We’ve always had to worry more about wind or temperature than sun before.  The tomatoes I am especially happy with and we’ll see if the actual harvest lives up to the expectation.  But this is the first year I’ve been relatively happy with my tomato (and pepper) starts.  We should start seeing some ripe tomatoes here shortly, there are a bunch off small green ones on the vines.

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Here are some nice jalapeno plants, with some sweet basil in the background.

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More peppers, including the “fish” peppers in the foreground. We use red plastic mulch to help reflect more of the good light spectrum that peppers (and tomatoes) love.  Still trying to determine how much difference it makes.

Potatoes are coming along nicely and we had our first red new potatoes the other night.  We have a nice variety planted, including several different fingerling varieties.  This year we decided to try seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.  Jim Gerritsen has a reputation as one of the top organic potato experts in the country, so curious to see how these do. I think this may be a hit and miss year, with the soil structure not being super loose the way potatoes like.

A lot of folks don’t realize potato blossoms are some of the prettiest flowers you’ll ever see in your garden, check out this fingerling variety in bloom right now.

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Here are a few other things that are starting to come into harvest. This is the time when all the hard work starts to pay off and you actually see some results from the labor, so I love this time of year.

One of our first broccoli crowns.

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First bush beans, a variety we discovered last year and really has become one of our go-to beans: Provider

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And of course the first of probably too many zucchini.

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Gardens from scratch

We’ve just about got our two garden plots in shape and have started some planting.  Took a lot of tilling and it’s still not great.  With the clay soil it is either too wet and mucky or it’s dry with hard clay balls.  So going to need a lot of amendments, but we knew that.  I’m making semi-permanent raised rows, which should help with drainage and give us a place to focus our compost, manure and other nutrients.

Here’s a few shots of what we’re starting from.

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Slightly closer look at the rows.

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We’ve got three raised beds with row cover going now.

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It’s been really warm for the last week and plants are suddenly taking off.  I had to mow the lawn already.  The lettuce seems happy.  This is lettuce I started indoors in February or March.

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Here is a view of the front garden, which will mostly be perennial berries, asparagus, etc.  We’re using it this year for a few other things, like peas, pumpkins and potatoes.

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And one last shot of some peas that appear to be thriving despite the conditions.

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Spring projects

After a long winter, it’s finally trying to become spring in Vermont.  I ended the winter and started spring with a laundry list of projects, since this will be our first spring on the new property. Fortunately we have a rather large unfinished basement, so I was able to set up a workbench down there and have some room to put together some things.

workbench

We decided we want a few ducks and while some people have good luck just keeping chickens and ducks together, I would prefer not to do that.  Ducks are a lot messier from a water perspective than chickens, so I decided to build a simple coop for ducks.  We hope to get a few sometime this summer. It’s a pretty basic little shed-type structure.

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It’s mostly there except I do want to paint it and still need to do some predator proofing.

We’ve had our 4 chickens for a couple of years now and have decided we need a few more to really keep us in eggs.  The coop I built has worked well, but it is really maxed out at 4 hens. So I decided to build a small version of one of the open air concepts from Fresh-Air Poultry Houses: The Classic Guide to Open-Front Chicken Coops for Healthier Poultry.  This coop should hold up to about 12-15 hens, although we’ll probably just move up to 8 or so initially.  I’ve been building the stud walls in the basement and I’m starting to put it together outside now that the weather is getting nicer.  Here’s where that is at right now.  The design is interesting and will make more sense when you can see the whole picture.

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Another smaller project is a simple bed for Ezra.  He’s not quite ready for one yet, but it won’t be long.  I decided to use these easy plans from Ana White, who has a lot of great DIY furniture ideas on her site.  The finish is going to be this interesting idea I’ve seen a number of folks mention online, which involves using steel wool partially dissolved in vinegar.  This basically reacts with the tannins in the wood, giving you kind of a distressed, old furniture look which gives 2×4 dimensional lumber more character than you would expect.  I’ll finish it with tung oil mixed with citrus solvent, which is another cool more natural way to finish stuff.  Interesting to see how it turns out.  Here’s the headboard without the finish.

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More pics of this stuff when they are finished.

In additional to these projects, we’re also trying to prep 2 fairly large plots, one for vegetable garden and one for more perennial-type items, such as strawberries, blueberries, asparagus and rhubarb.  Our property is extremely wet, with a couple of fairly consistent flows of water running through several sections of the property.  When we had our first big snow melt, it actually started washing out our lane and we had to get some emergency repairs done.  So it’s been a bit frustrating waiting for things to dry up since I also need to put up a clothesline and would like to build Ezra a sandbox.  And of course all the things we want to plant.  Fortunately we do have 3 raised beds going now, so we can get some things planted and we’ll just have to get a late start on some things this year.  There is only so much you can do the first year.

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.

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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.

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Ezra provided some management and quality assurance.

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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.

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