Monday, May 17, 2010

State of the Homestead

Time for another jumbled update on various snippets of homestead life.

I've made a not very well informed start on a permaculture guild around our old apple tree.  Actually I started it way back in January by throwing down a bunch of cardboard during a thaw.  Putting the guild in place has taken a lot more material than I had imagined it would, so it's smaller than originally envisioned.  I used all the litter material that the chickens had been on over the winter months, plus a fair amount of compost and mulch.  I put it on the most badly degraded soil under the apple tree, where roof runoff from the back of the garage had stripped the soil bare.  So now the southern quadrant within the drip line of the apple tree is a guild in the making.  So far I've got one black currant bush, two New Jersey tea plants, a lead plant, one self heal, and a few nasturtiums as living mulch.  Our apple tree is still in need of work to thin its canopy.  (It was ignored for a good many years before we bought the property.)  But it got a good pruning this year, so that a little dappled light reaches the guild plants during most of the day.  They get a brief window of full sun in early morning, when the sun is low in the sky.  I don't really feel that I have a handle on how the guild is supposed to work, or whether it will.  But I've made a start, and that's something.  We'll see how it does.  Next year I'll again use the winter deep litter from the hens to expand the guild further away from the tree.  And I'll need another black currant bush to cross pollinate with the one I put in this year.  It's all part of the lawn eradication program.

Our passive solar heating system is crawling oh-so slowly towards functionality.  We should be able to heat with it, I would think, this coming winter.  Also, we should be able to get domestic hot water out of the deal too, eventually.  But here's the really exciting news.  The system requires a heat dump to get rid of unwanted and excessive heat in the warm months of the year.  That heat gets dissipated into the ground.  Yeah: I know you're thinking what I was thinking.  Heat in the ground is what you want in spring and fall.  Under a greenhouse.  The "shoulder months" of the year (April-May and September-October), when we don't really need to heat the house too much, but the sun is still strong, also happen to be months when warm earth and a protective cover could make a huge difference for season extension.  So yes, we're mulling this.  We think we've figured out a good spot to situate the shallowly buried heat dump, where the piping in a double U-loop configuration would be well suited to a modestly sized greenhouse or hoop house (maybe 12'x8').  A greenhouse is probably way beyond our budget at the moment.  But a hoop house we could knock together in a weekend, or two at most.  And it wouldn't cost very much.  Anyway, it's pretty exciting, even if we have to wait for next year to build anything.  Longer tomato season! Perennial rosemary!  Perennial lemon grass!  Parsley that overwinters!  Spinach all winter!  Early peas!  Will keep you posted.

I don't know what to report on the bees.  Both hives are still occupied, and the numbers seem strong.  Foligno looks to be doing great, and the marked queen has been easy to spot every time we've opened the hive.  But they're ignoring the feeder we put in there for them.  Izhevsk is a mystery.  They've built comb inside their frame feeder, which makes feeding them a challenge.  Plus, it gives the bees an easy place to hide.  We haven't seen the queen in a while.  They're building comb just fine, and there's lots of activity, but I haven't a clue what's really going on in there.  Is she in the feeder?  Or is the colony carrying on without a functional queen?  We gave them a frame with a little brood and a lot of honey in it from Foligno, to help them keep their numbers up.  Let's hope it works.  I've been very pleased to see that the honey bees have found the Tuscan kale plants that overwintered in the garden, and they've been all over the blooms as the plants go to seed in this, their second year.  Good to know about the springtime bee bonus with these plants, since I plan to keep saving seed and breed them to suit our location. 

The garlic plants are looking great. It'll be time to harvest them in just a couple months. 

The great perennial herb planting of 2010 is mostly done.  I've put in valerian, self heal, anise hyssop, lavender, spearmint, yarrow, Roman chamomile, echinacea, skullcap, and bee balm.  Now I get to see how they do, and how much they grow and spread.  Also, which ones the bees take to, if any of them get around to blooming this year.  After that, I just need to figure out how to use them medicinally.

My husband cleared and tilled a wide patch of soil that had been hideously landscaped when we bought our home.  It was so awful we just ignored it for the last few years.  We partly cleared it last fall and sowed a cover crop there, then he tilled under the cover crop and added compost this spring.  This is going to be our three sisters area this year, which will help get those pushy, obnoxious squash plants out of the rest of the garden.  The popcorn is already in the ground and starting to poke up.  The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans are soaking, and will go in the ground very soon.  (Other pole bean varieties are going to be planted elsewhere.  It's going to be a big bean year on the homestead, I hope.)  The third sister will be a few sugar pumpkins along with Lady Godiva, an oilseed pumpkin that yields a "naked" (i.e. nearly hull-less) seed.  If successful, the seed crop will be used to feed the chickens in winter, and possibly produce some oil for our own consumption.  The flesh is considered inedible, but I'd bet our vermicompost worms would disagree.

Our hens have been back on grass for a month or so now.  We put them in the three sisters bed for a little while after tilling, but before we were ready to plant.  They became escape artists, digging away the loosened soil so that they could slip under the bottom of their pen.  They enjoyed it so much that we let them get away with it for a few days.  It was nice to see them out and about.  But given the large hawk population, and our zoning codes, we can't make a habit of free-ranging them.

I've gotten interested in the craft of felting with natural dyes, though I don't know very much about it yet.  Sourcing free raw fleece took two emails to two local farmers.  Felting can be done with wool of fairly poor quality, which means you can get material from farmers raising lamb.  Fleeces from meat breeds aren't worth much for spinning, so there's little demand.  But I've already hit a snag.  While I can handle the effort and time to wash, clean of debris, and dye the wool, after that I bang up against the need for proper tools.  The wool has to be carded before felting.  Either it's done by hand with carding combs, which my right wrist could not handle, or I'd need a hand-cranked drum carder, which could get the job done much faster.  Problem is, drum carders run in the neighborhood of $400.  I may still take the free fleeces, see how far I get with cleaning and dying them, and then see what might be possible for carding.  Maybe I'll find someone willing to loan or rent out a drum carder.

Looks like we're going to get our first crops of grapes, elderflowers, and pears this year.  Maybe even a small handful of cherries and blueberries too.  Exciting stuff.  The grapes are wine varieties that my husband chose.  Maybe he'll get motivated by a good crop to do a little fermenting this year.  I'll definitely take all the elder blooms this year, rather than let the plants put too much energy into producing berries.  Besides, I'm dying to try making a syrup or cordial from the flowers.  Our Collette pear tree set a lot of fruit early this spring.  I thinned most of it off.  Then most of what I'd left got knocked off in a strong wind storm.  But now it's putting on a minor second flowering, apparently a habit of the Collette pear.  In any case, the little pears are already looking very tempting, with a lovely red color.  I know I can't count my fruit before it's picked, but I do have my hopes up.

The container plants are mostly looking very good.  Potatoes are up and will soon be ready for hilling.  The hazelberts are growing very well, which is a little surprising.  I'd been told to expect very little topgrowth in the first few years.  They look vigorous enough that it wouldn't surprise me if they tried for a small production of nuts this year.  There's something nasty looking on one of my figs though.  It looks bad, like a blight of some kind.  I've isolated that plant and am trying to figure out what's wrong, and what I might do to help it.

According to my own personal signs and indicators, it's getting very close to time to put in the heat slut tomatoes and basil.  This year it's Speckled Roman (gorgeous paste that resisted blight well last year), Sungold (finally caved and decided to try this hybrid cherry that everyone raves about), Brandywines and Cherokee Purples for beefsteaks.  And my favorite basil: purple ruffles.  This is the first time I've grown tomatoes without the super productive Peacevine cherry tomato in my lineup.  I've decided to just buy starts of eggplant and chili peppers this year.  It was better than making myself crazy with everything else that had to happen this spring.  Maybe I'll try okra again if I can find some starts.  Not a popular garden veg here in zone 6.

In blog news, I've added a Bookshelf page with a bunch of my favorite titles that help me homestead.  Links and mini-reviews there for your perusal.  Check it out, and let me know whether it's useful.

And that's all the news that's fit to print.


Anonymous said...

Busy, busy, busy! The heat dump idea makes me drool with envy... solar may be a possibility for us down the road, but for now it is still just too expensive, sigh.

OK, please share why purple ruffles is your favorite basil. And is it good for pesto? Wondering about the color.... Thanks!

Barbara said...

For the drum carder, see if you can find a spinning or weaving guild in your area. I know that our local handweavers guild has weekly and monthly rental of equipment that is really a bargin! Here is the equipment page of the guild closest to me: Handweavers Guild of Boulder

Kate said...

Ali, yes, very busy. Though it often seems like I'm running in place, with nothing much really getting done. Spring's like that, I guess. Purple ruffles is my favorite for several reasons. It's really gorgeous for one. Glossy, nearly black leaves with a pronounced curl to them and big serrations at the leaf edge. I always get a few leaves on a few plants that have green splotches on them, but I think those are some of the prettiest. The flavor is deep but not overpowering. I've grown four or five other basils over the years and this one takes the cake. I do make pesto with it. It comes out black, but I don't really care. Normal green basil doesn't hold its color too well through maceration anyway.

Barbara, thanks for the tip. I'll have a look around.

maggie said...

Regarding drum carders... You might find a rental through this link of guilds more or less in your area:

But also try local fiber arts shops. I may be misremembering, but there is one over the border in Chesapeake City that might have a drum carder rental available. SE PA is still a big area and I'm not sure which part you're in. The Mannings are further west, in East Berlin, and may be able to help you out:

Also, would you have any interest in swapping seed? I would like to get my hands on a small amount of Tuscan kale seed. I have Russian Red kale going to seed at the moment (this stuff survived the crazy winter we just had completely unprotected, came back and provided several harvests before going to seed), or a number of OP squash varieties and the usual array of other stuff.

Jennifer Montero said...

Geez - I feel lazy compared to you.

Excuse my ignornace but what is a guild, and what are the main benefits?

Solar heat dump to a hoop house is a great idea, it will really extend your season.

I'm still tilling an area, haven't even planted it yet. I've got my tomatoes going in the greenhouse (have to grow them like that in the UK for any reasonable production) and I have my trusty Sungold in there, with a beefsteak variety. You will be impressed with the taste. I like the Cherokee beans too but only have a few peas in this time.

I spin and knit, but I don't felt (on purpose anyway). You can sometimes buy washed and carded fleece. You could treat yourself this once, for experimental purposes, to see if you like it before undertaking the huge job of carding. I card fleece for 2 seasons, and spin/knit for the other two, or it does bad things to my wrist joints too!

Anonymous said...

Do you have posts up about the passive solar arrangement? We're contemplating something like it.

Regarding the hoop house...great function-stacking! I would strongly recommend making it larger than 8x12'. Mine is that size, and it is prone to wild temperature swings, and it'll freeze in January and February. Air temps stay only 5-10 degrees above outside at night, and the soil can freeze solid. It's just not big enough to have the thermal mass it needs to ride out the fluctuations. Dumping heat into it in September could fry your kale; keeping it cool in Sept and early Oct was my biggest problem last year (I'm in Michigan, so similar climate.)

simply_complicated said...

re the carding issue: there is also possibly a carding mill in your area that would do it for you... it won't be cheap though... you might also try Freecycle (just look it up online and find one in your area)to see if someone might have a carder they could loan you

patricew said...

Jennifer, I didn't know what a permaculture guild was either so I looked it up....

good explanation there

Bureinato said...

Interesting to know about the free fleece. I did some felting at a store that's gone now a long time ago and had no idea where to buy it. Plus, it was rather expensive being carded & dyed & all that good stuff.

I'd like to make those Russian/Mongolian wool felt boots.

So far I've fulled a wool sweater & make moccasin style slippers with it.

Mulberry Mama said...

Regarding the okra: I'm in zone 4 and I plant okra seeds about the same time I set my tomatoes out, which should be in the next week or so. They do fine...we even got a fair crop last year with it being so cold. You have to keep up with it though, or the pods get too hard quickly. If you keep them picked they'll keep flowering and producing from early August until frost, which here is sometime in mid to late Sept. Good luck! I'm also green with envy over your greenhouse opportunity!

Anonymous said...

Can I join the ranks of those 'green with envy over Kate's solar heat dump plans' please?

Sungold is very tasty. I'm trying Brandywine for the first time this year- is that as good as it's supposed to be?

I like the bookshelf BTW, and second the HFW recommendations!


Konnie said...

Thank you so much for your new bookshelf section. As someone new to this, it can be overwhelming just to figure out where to start, so your recommendations will be useful.

Debbie said...

My book of herbs, sez about Yarrow "one small leaf will speed decomposition of a wheelbarrow full of raw compost" Add it finely chopped 1 fresh leaf for each load of compost. Haven't tried it yet as just putting in an herb bed this year.

dltrammel said...

I planted in a small modified three sisters method myself this year, just four mounds. The corn is about a foot tall now.

I did try something different though. I planted a few sunflowers in the center of the corn, figuring that will grow taller and provide a spine for the corn when the beans get to climbing.

Not to mention provide a crop of seeds for eating. Or as chicken feed.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Maybe the bees are getting enough natural forage of pollen and nectar that they don't need what you're feeding them?

Kate said...

Maggie, thanks for the tip. I'll certainly put out feelers to anyone who might be involved with handspinning. And sure, I'd be happy to swap seed. Drop me a reminder note when your kale seed is ready for harvest. Mine should be ready around the same time.

Jennifer, glad someone linked Rob's post as an answer to your question about permaculture guilds. I'm far from an expert on permaculture (obviously), but I think of a guild as a sort of small-scale, self-contained unit of forest gardening. Basically, you try to reproduce all the functions and services that a forest provides to itself, writ small, in a backyard setting, so that it takes little to no maintenance once it's set up. In theory, all I should have to do once it's established is harvest, provided it's well designed. Lot of assumptions there.

I may look into having my fleece carded for me if I get that far. But I don't think I'll be able to justify much expense if it comes to that.

Emily, I think you've touched on the major downsides to the heat dump-hoop house idea we're playing with. Yes, it'll be nice to have extra heat in spring and fall. But we'll also have it all summer long, whether we need it or not. And mostly we won't need it. So it'll be a real challenge to figure out how to make that dance work. I'm leaning towards the idea of a hoop house that can be set up and dismantled easily, so that I can remove the sheeting entirely during the summer. Otherwise I think the heat will just be hugely excessive. As for the size, we don't have much room for anything larger. We've got to work with what's possible on our modest lot, and this is in a fairly constricted area to begin with.

Simply complicated, thanks for the additional tip.

Patrice, thanks for linking Rob's article.

Bureinato, those boots are pretty cool! Thanks for the link.

Nikki, interesting to hear that okra works for you in zone 4. It was a total bust for me last year, but then 2009 was a horrible gardening year. I figured I couldn't write it off based on that one experience, but I didn't include them in my seed order either. We'll see if my favorite nursery has any starts.

Hazel, don't turn too green just yet. It's all still in the theoretical stage at this point, and I mentioned the obvious drawbacks above. Brandywine has consistently produced superb flavor for me. It's my favorite beefsteak variety. Thanks for letting me know the Bookshelf is useful. It was some work putting that together.

Konnie, likewise, I'm glad to know you found it of use.

Debbie, interesting. It seems we have a number of compost activating plants on our little property now. Always good to know these things. Thanks.

dltrammel, I think ours is a modified three sisters too. I will probably stick a few sunflowers in there too, as I've heard that they're good companion plants for corn in terms of pest control. I've grown sunflowers for wildlife in the past, but this year I'm adding a good seed producing one as well for our sake.

Lisa & Robb, it's a nice thought, isn't it? I'm due to check them again later this week, so we'll see if they've taken to it in the last several days.

queen of string said...

Just a quick thought, wondered if it was feasible to put the hoop house next to the chickens and benefit from any tiny bit of warmth they might be giving off during the times you need it. I think a demountable house sounds like a great plan, then you can use it like a cold frame, which you then take the top off.

Judy said...

You can use two dog brushes to card your wool. I bought mine at Agway but most stores carry them. They need to look like these.... I get the kids to card so I have more time to spin!

Katidids said...

I second Judy, fine wire dog brushes work great. Takes a bit ore time but with free fleeces it would be worth it! Thanks for the guild links

Kate said...

Queen of string, I definitely like the idea of warming from the chickens, but I'd probably opt to just stick the hens in the hoop house over the winter. I can't really keep them on the grass then anyway.

Judy and Katidids, it's a good suggestion. But the wear and tear on my wrists is at least as much of an issue as the expense of the tools. I've had issues with carpal-tunnel like pain, so I know that carding by hand would just be inviting too much strain. Though if I could outsource the work like you do, Judy, I'd certainly go there.

Unknown said...

Did you start your Anise Hyssop from seed, cuttings, or divide it from other plants? I had very little luck this year with seed. After two months they were each as big as my pinky fingernail.

Kate said...

Steve, I got my anise hyssop as seedlings. But the one I put in last year has reseeded itself generously. I wouldn't recommend buying more than one if you can commit to being patient and taking care of that one plant. You'll get what you need for free the second year.