Putting waste to work

April 26th, 2015

Our property is full of gorgeous, huge old trees. We love the shade they provide… but that also means they drop So. Many. Leaves. It’s just insane. We used to fill up the pickup truck’s bed with leaves six to seven times from the front yard alone.

That’s not a bad thing (well, except when I’m actually faced with collecting them). Like I said, two or three years in a row we dumped all those tarploads and truckloads of leaves on the swampy part of the garden, and raised the soil level there a few inches even in just that short time, crazy as that sounds (but it’s true – we didn’t use to be able to walk there at all).

Leaves are Nature’s fertilizer… but they’re also designed to smother competing vegetation, which for us unfortunately means the grass. And we still care at least a little about our reputation with the neighbors – which means the leaves have to go. A major chore and source of tension every year.

It took me a while to figure out I could use the lawnmower (our tiny, electric, wimpy lawnmower) to collect them. (I know, DUH, right? I’m just reinventing the wheel all over the place here.) And suddenly, my leaves were beautifully shredded and just perfect to use for mulch on the garden instead of straw, which I would have had to buy.

Co-generation, as the permaculturists say: the act of creatively using waste as a positive contribution to fulfill another set of goals. Michael Pilarski likens it to the act of directing hot air from your dryer into your greenhouse to warm it; because the hot air was going to be there in any case but now you’re putting it to work. My first thought on hearing this term was those cow poop natural gas digesters that people buy/make. Co-generation is stacking productive uses onto a process that’s already going on and would otherwise create waste.

So instead of putting these leaves out to be taken to the dump, they become a deep mulch layer for the garden, saving me a lot of money on straw and contributing to the health of my soil as the organic matter keeps piling up. My garden has to be mulched in any case… so why not use this free soon-to-be-compost that I’ve already had to gather up anyway?

But dang, my lawnmower – and its bag – is really tiny. And we have a lot of lawn.


Hm, I thought, if only I had a really giant leaf collecting mower bag. Is that even a thing? I can’t be the first person ever to want one of those.

Looking around for options, I googled up this $125 beauty:


Hm, I thought, that doesn’t look too hard to make.

I drew a sort of pattern on an old tarp, and then when I realized the old tarp would fill my lovely expensive sewing machine with dirt and grossness, I went and bought a new tarp. Using a double thickness, I sewed a bag more or less like the above, using leftover window screen from the basement for the vents. I bought some industrial strength velcro as well – man that stuff is sticky! I took off our regular mower bag, wrapped the lips of the tarp around the bag frame and used the velcro to secure them back to the main body of the tarp. More velcro secures the flap that tents over the bar to support the rear of the bag.


Well, I never said it was pretty. And that pile is above knee-high. It’s more impressive in person, really.

To my great surprise, it works! I know the bag is getting full when the lawnmower starts tipping backwards, lol. Only 3 loads with this bag is all I can comfortably handle dragging behind me on the tarp, so I estimate that it holds between 3-5 regular mowerbagfuls.

$10 tarp + $10 specialized velcro = win! Awesomeness! There were some problems though, that you can avoid if you want to make your own.

1) bottlenecking. It’s funnel-shaped, and with all the pressure from the leaves weighing down it gets really hard to empty this sucker. Next time I’d put a reeeeaaaaally long zipper or velcro seam down the side instead of across the back. I had one – a robe zipper – but it wasn’t long enough (needed 40″). Also, it was pink.

2) you might want to vent it  away from your face. This is messy. And not for people with allergies. All the dust, tiny leaf bits, grass flecks, etc that can fit through the screen are propelled out hard with the air from the mower… right into your face. Even with the flap folded over the handlebar, the wind from the sides seems to blow straight back up my nose. If I ever do a version 2.0 I’m definitely relocating the vents or putting a protective flap up somewhere strategic.

3) use heavy-duty thread. No-brainer, right? Except I didn’t even know if this would work, so I didn’t want to make a trip to the nearest Joann’s (30 minutes away) for one spool of thread. I used regular thread instead and hoped it would be strong enough, sewing a double seam in many places… it isn’t. A few stitches have already popped. I think it might last another season no problem, but it will eventually need to be restitched. Or just remade.

Still a gamechanger for me – anything to make this horrible task a little easier, with a little less arguing over whose turn it is to do it this year. Especially if it makes my garden richer in the process, and I’m accomplishing two tasks with the work of one.

Ghost trees

April 25th, 2015

I’ve started a new pest prevention strategy in the orchard…


…and I’m sure the neighbors are wondering just what the heck happened to my trees.

Kaolin, that’s what. Ultra-fine sieved kaolin called Surround, sprayed in water solution and built up over multiple coats, is a physical pest deterrent. Its tiny particles get in the eyes, mouths, and joints of insects trying to attack the tree. While it doesn’t kill them, it does encourage them to go somewhere else and prevent them from finding or biting the fruit. It’s only applied after petal fall, when the bees have already done their pollination (so right now it’s only on my two peaches, but soon it will be the whole orchard.)

I waited until well after dark before applying the final coat though, because along with it I applied the harshest measure I’ve yet taken in my orchard: an organic insecticide. A little extra chemical persuasion that shouldn’t be applied while bees are flying. I felt furtive, and a little bit like I was stepping over to the Dark Side, but watched with glee as a few oriental fruit moths fell out of the leaves and died on the ground in front of me. Gotcha, suckers.

And then I went inside and struggled with guilt over the possibility that my peach-defense might end up harming beneficials – organic or not, insecticide is insecticide, and so very far from my previous gentler strategies (as per recommendations in Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard).

Josh says I worry too much about bugs, and should think of all the jam and pies instead. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high that this might – just might – be the first year we get any fruit.


April 24th, 2015

Enthusiastic cherry blossoms.




asian pear blossoms.

asian pear blossoms.


Tiny wild bee on apple blossoms.


Scented Iris.

They are calling for frost tonight and for the next couple nights – I’m going to cover my trees the best I can, but they are really too big. I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope the delicate blossoms come out ok.



Reality check

April 20th, 2015

There are days like the one a few days ago, where everything seems so full of hope and promise… and there are days like today.

– Where one of the guard bees seems to take particular issue with you and won’t stop menacing you, flying around you up at your face, until you go get your bee veil and jacket. Planting while in full cumbersome regalia is not fun. Neither is fearing a sting for no reason in your own garden because of one psycho bee.

– Where nearly every single plant hole you dig – I’m not even exaggerating – uncovers another rodent hole, gopher/vole/whatever. I’ve never had rodent holes in the garden before, and I’m no judge but finding multiple tunnels in every single bed in a 5,000sf garden looks like a damn bad infestation to me, and it means it’s just a matter of time before they start killing my fruit trees. And I don’t know what to do. I feel so angry – every year it’s a different damn pest I have to deal with. All I want is one good year where I don’t have to fight tooth and nail to keep what I’ve worked so hard for.

– Where you suddenly notice that one of your hens looks a bit off… and as you look closer, you notice that actually, she looks pretty sick, and might be egg bound, but she won’t let you catch her to find out.

– When you are finally discouraged enough to put everything away and come inside… and you find a tick perched on your shoulder. After contracting two extremely serious (and extremely rare) tick-borne illnesses at this property in the last 5 years, seeing a tick kind of gives me a panic attack. (and now my body will feel ticklish all over for hours).

The only thing that made it better was my sweet Josh, who had dinner nearly finished for me. So some things are all right. But gardening still sucks, and I hate Mother Nature. Forever, The End.

…and 5 more.

April 19th, 2015

The ducklings are finally here!


that car ride was really not so much fun for us, dude

I went and picked them up from the wonderful Dana of Moose Manor Farms (she led the chicken processing lesson I attended at Green Hill Farm‘s Homesteading Days workshops last year so we knew each other already, though I actually found her farm through someone else!) She breeds some really unusual and heritage breeds and is very worth buying from if you are in the VA/MD/PA area. Her birds are SO much healthier than what you buy at a feed store.

These little puffballs are Golden Cascades, and they’re already about a week old.

golden cascade female.

We are hoping that at least three are female… it’s likely, but not for sure. The breed used to be auto-sexing (so you could tell them apart at hatching) but that became unreliable when someone messed up their bloodlines back in the day.

Dana recommended this breed particularly as a good fit for us when I mentioned I wanted them mostly as egg layers, mosquito-larvae-eaters, and slug catchers, but also needed them to be nice and, ideally, self-propagating. (I was really spoiled last year by my experience with having a hen raise up her own chicks with no effort on my part, but ducks are notoriously horrible mothers.) Moose Manor says:

“This breed was developed by Dave Holderread in 1979 to create a triple duty duck that combines good egg yields, efficient production of high quality meat, and pretty plumage.”


what up, says the duck

Ducks are messy, messy little birds. As you can see, I’ve got their water set on some hardware cloth above a paint tray. It really helps keep the mess down; they shake droplets everywhere and kind of “chew with their mouths open” if you can imagine them spraying crumbs all over the place too. They’re definitely going to need to have their cage cleaned every day. (Oh well, it makes great compost, right?…)


I’m just over the moon about these little critters. They’re going to be treated like pets – well, except for any extra males – and I’m hoping to let them free-range through the garden to some extent. They are supposed to be much easier on the plants than chickens are, so it’s not a completely crazy idea. :)

I just have to come up with some better ways to fox-proof the garden first. :( I can’t even figure out how electric fencing might work with our setup, even if we were ready to invest in the equipment. And it scares me to have the kids around it. So we might have to just try really hard to get them to go into the chicken tractor at night (now tractor no longer, it sits permanently in the duck yard corner of the garden), and add them to our list of let-them-out-in-the-morning, shut-them-up-at-night chores. Anyone have experience with electric fencing and children?

30,000 new residents

April 18th, 2015

Sitting atop a Freecyled countertop for weed suppression and stability on my soggy soils. Woo Freecycle.

I’ve joined our county’s beekeeper’s association in the hopes that older, wiser beekeepers can maybe help me keep my colonies alive more than two years running. I’ve already found out several valuable bits of information, including that bees are healthier in full sun. I had always thought they must be happier in dappled shade in these hot, humid summers, but I guess not.

So I’ve moved them into the garden, the only spot on the property that gets full sun, and they’re facing south so the morning light can wake them up earlier. Apparently that’s also important.

They’re in the duck yard next to the berry patch, the only place that’s sort of out of the way of constant wheelbarrowing; unfortunately it means they’re facing away from the garden so I can’t see the entrance activity (a good way to judge hive health and also just fun to watch). And while I know it’s not true, it seems like I must be sending them away from the garden. :( On the plus side, it means they’ll be behind a fence and away from Lilu’s curious little fingers.

I am so glad I decided to get bees this year. It’s like having an army of little workers on my side. All my stone fruit trees are in full bloom now, and I can’t wait to go out and see the activity on the blossoms tomorrow!



Spring is springing

April 16th, 2015

This is the most exciting time of the year. I feel this surge of energy and optimism every time I go into the garden; every time I find something gently unfurling.


asian pear “shinseiki” buds peeping out… and an ant friend.

Because that’s really what Spring is, to me: optimism. The weather is perfect; everything is new and healthy, the pests haven’t marred anything yet. All around me the plants are loaded with flowers, each one a potential fruit. It just makes me so dang excited at the possibilities.


gala apple blossoms.

This year there might be peaches, if I try yet one more new approach to protecting them; this year we might get our first homemade strawberry rhubarb jam; we might get our first full dish of asparagus (if any make it out of the garden). This year two of my previously fallow apple trees have buds on them. Most of my cherry’s branches are loaded with flowers. The rhubarb looks beautiful, the peas are just perfect as they unfurl tender little whorls upwards. Earthworms are everywhere, and weeds are very few thanks to the deep mulch technique I used last year.


peach blossoms.

I look around and think what the soil was like before I got here; flat and dead. It took two years before I found my first earthworm; now I see several in each trowelful of dirt, and I feel so delighted that all my hard work has welcomed life back into the soil. Lizards are everywhere, some so tame you can almost touch them. We found a turtle shell too. And cliche of cliches, yesterday I saw two bluebirds. They are so pretty, almost lavender (and I could care less about birds in general. I am not a bird person. But bluebirds, I like. Plus they eat bugs & especially caterpillars, so I’m going to try to do more to attract them.)

I feel like now, just for a few days, maybe a couple weeks, the world is just bursting with bounty and possibility. Before the first reality check, before the first plague of pests, the first disappointment and frustration.

The only thing marring my joy is the rodent tunnels that I found everywhere today. I fear we have gophers. I know we have voles. I am gritting my teeth, wishing for snakes to hurry up and move in, and wondering whether the rodents and I can live side by side, or whether it will be war.  I dunno. Last year they ate half of every single sweet potato root. I’m so tempted to try poison, but I don’t want to risk killing my hunters.


garden helper helps as long as there are snacks.

We will just have to wait and see – at this point, everything is promise.




Integrated composting

April 15th, 2015

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner.

For 6 years I’ve had a compost pile by the kitchen for all our compostable things, dinner scraps, paper towels, veggie tops, etc., which gradually fills up the bin every year until I take out the finished stuff in the spring.

I’ve already talked about how I also separately harvest the built up chicken bedding in the spring, and if I’m feeling especially responsible I’ll mix both composts together before applying the mix to my beds.

So basically I had two separate compost piles, and had to turn two each spring. Double the effort.

Why not combine the two?


Now probably most of you are shaking your heads at me because you had already figured this out for yourselves long ago – but it was a lightbulb moment for me.

Just throw all those scraps into the chicken run and let them compost and turn it for me. Plus, the chickens then devour anything edible and cut down on their own feed costs. So I built this little tip-out door. And I painted it purple, because win.


Sofía was already going out there every morning to open the gate for them and let them out into our forest anyway… and she is very capable of toting along a little half gallon bucket too, which we now store under the kitchen sink so she can reach it. Though I can’t say she loves doing it. And I can’t say I love listening to her whine about it every morning. :P

As you can see above, we put everything** in there that we would normally chuck into the compost bin. Including paper towels (which we still use a few of), toilet paper rolls, chicken bones, egg shells, cheese rinds, and all the other composty bits that you amass every day in an active from-scratch type of house. The chickens sort through it all and get what they want; what they don’t want, they end up burying under the bedding leaves as they scratch around, which gets it composting for me. Win-win.

Are there chicken labor laws? Because I really love making them do all the work for me. (See? Laziness really is a practical design principal. Or at least a good motivator.)

** we do withhold all avocado (poisonous), chocolate (poisonous), anything truly spoiled (chickens can get food poisoning too), and coffee grounds (I’m guessing caffeine is probably not so good for chickens). Those still go into our kitchen compost bin – but with such little input, it’s going to take years to build up a substantial pile such that it becomes a task that I have to take care of.



Forest fruit

April 12th, 2015

While I was clearing out brush from around the garden – a task that needed to be done anyway, but that also gave me a lot of material for my latest hugelkultur bed – I came across what I think might be a wild blueberry. In fact, I found two.


because my phone camera is awesome, it is the only thing *not* in focus in the picture. Also: note swampy groundwater level in the background.

We do have wild blueberry bushes in our woods, spindly scraggly bushes taller than me. They fruit, if sparsely. Their berries are about the size of, hm, a generous lentil? A dried pea? But if you get the ripeness just right – which is hard to do when they’re so small – the intense blueberry flavor just hits you like a smack in the face. (But nicer, and better flavored.)

So I cleared the brush from around this little guy and his brother, and left them in peace. I hope I’m right about what they are, and I hope they produce better than their woodland kin with a little more sun. I can’t wait to compare their berries to that of the cultivated varieties I bought, and maybe bring them into the garden if they do well. I’ll be so disappointed if they turn out to be just another scraggly swamp weed!

I also found a fiddlehead, which Lilu thought was awesome and immediately tried to break into pieces, and then stomp to death. I know it’s just a bracken fern, and not edible – but it means that other, edible fiddlehead ferns might do well near that spot. Something cool to keep in mind for later, in another year when I haven’t already spent all our money on plants.


Another humble hugel

April 11th, 2015

I’m probably overdoing it on the hugelkultur here. I mean, I don’t even know for sure if it really works! But since I can’t help but overdo things, I went ahead and made one of my worst, soggiest beds into a long, low heap of branches, covered with brush I cleared out from around the garden fence.

I drug some of the last logs out of the forest. I’m running out of wood, which I guess means I’ll be forced to quit this hugel madness soon. Or maybe it means I need a chainsaw.


those are heavier than they look.

Alea alternated between being droopy and whiny and demanding I hold her hand so she could step carefully over twigs that wouldn’t stop a mouse, and being kind of a kickass helper finding sticks in the woods bigger than she was and dragging them along, stubbornly refusing to give up or take the smaller ones I suggested (hm, wonder who she got that attitude from.)

I’ll look on the bright side and chalk up the whininess to pre-naptime ennui, and the superkid to a preview of what the future might hold if I’m lucky. Garden slave labor, I mean helpers, wooo!


she was so proud of this chunk of wood she found by herself.


So for the times that she wasn’t whining: A plus for yesterday, Lilu. You even held still and smiled for a picture. If the sun had shone at that moment, my head might have exploded.

Today I managed to get most of the bed covered in a 50/50 mixture of woodchips and chicken compost (which is already cooking hot in my pallet bin, by the way, and steamed like crazy when I forked it up!) Looking around on the internets, I’m seeing a lot of other people using a lot more complex stuff in their hugels; grass, kitchen scraps, biochar, bones of their enemies, stuff like that. I’m wondering if mine will end up doing all right without all that diversity.

Here’s the pile weighed down with the mulch layer, with a three year old for scale:


smiling for this picture is about all the help she contributed today.


It needs a few more loads to finish up the end where you can see some sticks poking out – but it was naptime and we needed snacks.

So it’s a very humble hugel (they’re supposed to be 6 feet tall for the most benefit). It might get a bit taller though; this chips/poo combo is just the first layer. As soon as it stops raining, I can mow up all those delinquent Fall leaves still lying around in 6″ deep mats killing our grass, and put those on top too. I hope that will suffice for now, because it was only after I finished today’s work that I realized… I have no soil to put on top for the final layer. (I mean, the whole point of building the thing is that most of my soil is under water!) Uh, pretty big oops.

Well, it’s an experiment, right? The way I figure, a gigantic pile of compost can’t go wrong in the long run. I mixed in a bunch of organic fertilizer too, sprinkled on a bunch of blood meal for extra nitrogen, and hoped that in straw bale gardening style it would speed up compost bacteria reproduction enough that I might be able to plant in it in about a month. With straw bale gardening, you water blood meal into straw bales every day for 12 days, and voila they are ready to plant into. I figure wood chips might take a bit longer. Hm, maybe I should make a straw bale garden in the next bed over and compare the two.

Oh great, another experiment…