Sunday, November 22, 2009


Some blog-able topics which have been on my mind lately, but that don't seem to merit individual blog posts...

Our new Red Star hens have finally, finally begun laying, or at least one out of four of them has. We bought them as "ready-to-lay" pullets in early October. They should have been laying by mid-October at the latest. Yet we didn't get a single egg for more than a month. Saturday we saw our first egg. The lack of eggs was mystifying since the temperatures here have been very mild for the time of year, and I even took to lighting them starting early in the morning. Here's hoping that single egg heralds a flood of eggy goodness.

We've taken the plunge and decided to go forward with a passive solar heating system. This will cost a lot of money up front, but we'll get roughly half of it back in rebates and tax deductions at both the state and federal level. Not to mention, the price of oil will no longer affect our ability to heat our home. (But yes, in case you're wondering, I'm still deeply conflicted about EROEI, the lifespan of this system, and this sort of spending when we don't know whether or not my husband will have a job after the new year. I just don't see any better options for us.) Work on this project should begin next month. Meanwhile, we've extended the radiant heating system from just the two rooms of the "new addition" on our house (it was already built when we bought it) to the kitchen, which is the central room of the house. These are the only three rooms that will be heated regularly (the last two winters we got by with just two), and we now have programmable thermostats to control each zone of the heating system. So we're fine tuning the heating program to keep the house just warm enough for comfort. My husband has argued me up to a daytime set point of 65 F. After the passive solar is done and inspected for heating, we may look into expanding it to provide for our "domestic hot water" needs - in other words, hot water from the tap.

Our cat is not doing well. I reported in February that she'd been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. Unfortunately, she also has kidney failure, and has recently developed cancer too. Up until this week though everything looked good. She had a spring in her step and still loved to spend the day outdoors. Given her multiple conditions, the prognosis from the vet, and her age (14.5 years), we decided not to try any costly medical interventions. While her hyperthyroidism is easy to control, it looks to me like either the kidney failure or the cancer is catching up with her now. My gut tells me she doesn't have any better days ahead of her. Having put off the euthanasia decision on my last cat for too long, I'm motivated to not allow her to decline too far before making that difficult call. We'll use a vet that makes house visits when the time comes.

My husband has been working on turning a corner of our basement into a root cellar. Much of the work is already done, but the door is the tricky part. With an old farmhouse, the basement is of course very low, and there's no way we're going to find a door to fit the doorway at a hardware store, much less a pre-hung door. And the space needs to be fairly well sealed in order to keep the temperature low inside. This is especially true since the basement is much warmer overall since having the house air sealed and the insulation improved. We need a good barrier between the root cellar and the rest of the basement. I'm hoping this gets done in time to take some of the cabbages still out in the garden.

Our other fall project is the conversion of a corner of our shed into winter housing for the hens. Their mobile coop and pen provide too little protection from winter wind and really cold temperatures. The unheated shed will at least get them out of snow and freezing winds which could cause frostbite on their combs. We have electricity in the shed, so we can light them in the darkest days, though I plan to throw open the shed doors whenever feasible to give them some natural light too. Unfortunately, the doors face almost due north, so there will be precious little full sun for the girls over the winter. I'll be trying an experiment with deep bedding in the shed, which should allow me to never clean out their stall until they go back to rotational grazing in early spring. As a bonus, the 12" deep bedding that they're on all winter will be excellent material for lasagna mulching, which will come in quite handy for the permaculture guild I'd like to establish around a couple of our fruit trees next year. More details on this in a future post.

I've arranged to offer an introductory homesteading class next spring. I'll be taking a break from my usual cooking classes and trying something new instead. I'm nervous but excited; I feel under-qualified and I worry about taking on so much during one of the busiest times of year. No idea whether anyone will enroll or not, but I feel compelled to try. I'm reminding myself frequently that it doesn't take a certified expert in a subject to teach people things they didn't know before. I fully expect to learn from my students (if I get any) as well as teach them.

I've been supplementing the girls' feed with acorns every other day or so. They love them. I think they're starting to develop a Pavlovian response to the sound of me crushing the acorns in a burlap bag. They make their excited little anticipatory sounds as I go through the acorns just before tossing them into the pen to make sure each one is crushed and open enough for their beaks to get at the good stuff. The acorn meats are bright yellow and surprisingly soft; softer even than a fresh chestnut. The girls devour them eagerly. I find it incredibly satisfying to feed them something I got for free in my backyard. The acorn drop is over, but I really enjoyed collecting the nuts in October and early November. It was like a six-week long Easter egg hunt, and a race with the squirrels, who still got plenty. I may have to keep an eye open for other nearby oak trees next year.

We attended a class for beginning beekeepers and a meeting of our local beekeeper's association. I got the distinct impression that we were regarded as "fresh meat" at that meeting. The average age in the room was definitely over 60, and it was nearly all men. Not only are these people experts, but they want new beekeepers in this area. And the meetings take place pretty close to our home. It looks like we're going to go ahead with adding bees to the homestead next year. It's a vast subject to learn about, and there are so many things that can go wrong with bees. But I'm excited to try nonetheless.

-All the news that's fit to print. What's new with you?


Amy Blogs @ River Rock Cottage said...

First, let me say how exciting that you are going to teach a class on homesteading! Truly we are kindred spirits in that I believe strongly in passing on knowledge to a younger generation or even those who are new to something. I totally agree that you do not need to be the expert. A humble spirit that YOU are still learning serves to motivate the intimidated soul or the perfectionist that thinks they can't do it themselves.

Second, are you feeding acorns to your chickens? I'm only wondering because my husband suggested this (we have a TON). I know you won't laugh if this is a silly question, right?

Finally, sorry to hear about your kitty. So hard to part with a good animal who has been part of the family so to speak.

Frustrated Farmer Rick said...

We deep bed our chickens in the winter and love the resulting compost we get in the spring. It really brings a lot of organic material to our clay soil and helps with drainage. I am really looking forward to your post on the orchard permaculture guild. I just this year over seeded our orchard with alfalfa and clover. I am just starting to learn about permaculture and would love an example to modify and use.
Also best of luck on the solar system and the root cellar.

Kate said...

Hi, Amy! I'm definitely going into this class with an I-don't-know-it-all attitude. It seems to me that homesteading is a subject that no one can ever really master, since everyone does it a little differently. But yes, my hope is to encourage some people and provide a little proof of concept that someone in their area is at least making a go of homesteading in on a very small piece of land.

And yes, I am feeding acorns to our hens. Not a silly question at all. It's some work to collect them and then crush them. If you decide to do this don't bother keeping any acorns that have a telltale hole in them - that means a weevil has been in there, and there's a good chance the meat is eaten and the weevil has moved on. Hens will eat the weevils if you get them fresh, but most such nuts are just hollowed out.

Rick, thanks for the vote of confidence on deep bedding. The permaculture guild is something I'm excited about for next spring. I'll definitely post about it when the time comes. I don't know if I can claim it's properly an "orchard" guild though since we have only a singe mature fruit tree at this point. We added two cherries and two pears last year. My goal is to build a guild that encompasses our venerable apple tree and the nearest young pear tree. Ideas for it came from Gaia's Garden and from Rob over at One Straw.

Teresa said...

Very sorry to hear about your cat. I understand that tough decision way too well. I know you'll love her lots while she's still here and do right by her in the end.

ilex said...

The beekeepers are desperate all over- every time I buy honey and ask about the honey guy's bees I get the inquiry, too. Go for it. You'll certainly have no shortage of input and assistance.

Joel said...

It may be worthwhile to design your new beehive with an aluminum (or similar) roof, angled to reflect morning sun onto the chickens' doors during the winter.

The bright, shiny roof will also help keep the comb cool in the summer.

Oh, and don't forget to put moats around the hive's feet, to keep ants out!

Kate said...

Teresa, thank you. It's a hard, hard thing to put down a pet. Especially those you've had since they were tiny kittens or pups. Knowing they've had good lives is the only consolation.

Ilex, we're certainly hoping for support from our local master beekeepers. It's rather alarming to contemplate all the diseases that honeybees now have to contend with. But we definitely want to try.

Joel, are you an engineer? I don't know that we can manage that arrangement of reflective roof in relation to the shed, but it's a lovely idea. I've heard of the moats though and that's something we'll probably include in our design. We plan to situate the hive where it gets morning sun and shade by mid-day. That should help keep it cool enough through the hot days. Thanks for the suggestions.

Joel said...

I am an engineer.

I would like to say I'm surprised it's so obvious...but really, I'm not. :)