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.