Money kind of does grow on trees

November 25th, 2015

Each spring I’m taken aback by the prices that seed companies are charging for their seeds nowadays. I mean I’m pretty young, but I can still remember when seed packets were like $3 instead of $6-8, and had twice the number of seeds in them. I was really miffed this year when I dropped $8.50 on a packet of Thai basil seeds, only to open the packet and find a grand total of about 10 seeds in there.

Welp, I think I’ve got enough now.


I’m pretty bad about remembering to save seeds. It’s such an afterthought, the plants don’t even really look like plants any more… they look so sad and austere, it’s hard to remember that they hold a little golden harvest of their own.


But this year I remembered to gather at least a few. I got all the Thai and Italian basil seeds anyone could want; I remembered to save a bunch of butternut seeds from my most beautiful squash and a few (not nearly enough, I always meant to get more and never did) seeds from one absolutely gorgeous 2 pound Italian Heirloom tomato. I saved way too many marigold seeds, and packed a jar full of the tops of a mix of my favorite zinnia flowers (I’ll have to separate them and search to make sure I actually got seeds in there). Unfortunately the squirrels and birds had already saved all my sunflower seeds for me… in their bellies.

I even saved the top off this absolutely monster sweet potato I grew this year:


It’s growing in a little pot next to the kitchen sink. Next year I’ll have lots of slips any time I need them (they’re always so slow for me that I end up planting them too small and several weeks too late.)

Solar winter waterer

November 24th, 2015

Keeping the birds supplied with fresh water in the winter has always been a problem. In past years I’ve only had chickens, so I didn’t need all that much water. I tried putting various pond and tank heaters into a hanging bucket, but those heaters inevitably broke after about a month. Besides, it made me really nervous to daisy chain extension cords out to the coop for the electricity they required.

I’ve also tried passive solar before, kind of half-assedly, by clamping a sheet of glass over the top of their black rubber bucket with only a small opening to be drunk from. It wasn’t nearly warm enough – still froze solid. I usually ended up bringing out a gallon of hot water to them once or twice a day. I’d just kick the block of ice out of their  rubber bucket (those flexible bucket troughs are the best thing EVER), refill, and repeat. This was tedious but it worked out ok.

But ducks…. have I mentioned ducks are gross? They make a HUGE mess every time they drink – more water is splashed onto the floor than actually makes it into their mouths. They need a larger water dish so they can submerge their entire beak. They’d empty out a trough the size of the chickens’ in about five minutes. Not to mention try to get in it and flop around and play…and poop. I’d love to use my current poop-and-play-prevention system of a raised dish with a float valve, but all those little hoses and valves are definitely going to freeze absolutely solid. I’ve been really preoccupied with how I’m going to keep them watered this winter, which I’ve heard might be an especially cold one.

But then I remembered that I’d spent all summer studying plans for solar dehydrators. Those things get very hot inside, at least during the summer. You can get as complicated as you want with dehydrators, but in the end they all depend on a sloped piece of glass like this solar wax melter I’d seen this summer:


I even had a few of the materials on hand, like some gifted storm windows and boards from a salvaged old cabinet. Hm, I thought….


I toyed with the idea of using a rubbermaid tub as the reservoir, but I didn’t want to spend a whole bunch of money on lumber & new materials without knowing if the system works. The boards from my old cabinet happened to be exactly the right dimensions to fit two 5 gallon buckets side by side, so I’ll start there instead.


I’ll plumb them together at the bottoms so they act like one ten-gallon bucket. I plan to cover the tops with glass or clear plastic as a secondary solar collector inside the solar collector.

Once those are set up I’ll attach my float-valve trough in there as well, set about six inches back with just the tip poking out enough for a duck to get its head in for a drink. Hopefully the solar heat inside the box will be enough to keep its little valves and hoses from freezing, providing liquid water all winter long.

Will it work? I don’t know. But I’m really hopeful! I know winter watering is a problem a lot of people are trying to figure out, and I’m hopeful that I may have finally found a solution.


A castle made of trash

November 23rd, 2015

The duck house is nearly finished.

I started building it a couple weeks ago because it suddenly dawned on me that a) winter is coming and the old duck coop had no shelter, and b) winter vacations are coming up and the ducks really need to be somewhere more secure than under a single flimsy layer of chicken wire while we are away. Also, not to be overlooked, c) the highest point on their old coop was only 3′ off the ground. Doing a sort of Russian squatting knee dance in the dark through ankle-deep mud and poop to refill a waterer in the driving sleet is not the funnest way to spend an evening. I was ready to have a grownup duck coop that I could actually stand up in.

I set to work rather frantically, but in true miserly – ahem, eco-conscious – fashion, I knew there had to be a way to repurpose a bunch of free stuff to make the thing for pennies on the dollar AND keep a bunch of stuff out of landfills. (Really, figuring out how to finish all my building projects using mostly recycled materials is getting to be an exciting challenge of its own by this point.)

So I knew the structure would have to be made of pallets. I had some of those already. An added benefit to pallets is that using them as the floor of the coop would lift the animals out of the swampy, cold winter mud and provide a drier habitat. I reused the roofing I had already from the previous coop, as well as a whole bunch of strong woven fencing we had on hand. I incorporated 4 big storm windows that a friend gave me ages ago, along with some old scavenged siding.


The greatest find came when I went to our local architectural salvage store to find cheap wood and doors, and they happened to be having a “free-to-good-home” extravaganza. I came back home in a minivan loaded to the gills with lumber and two beat up but good-quality solid wooden doors. I got every single piece of lumber in this project for free.


So don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t look like much. It is built out of trash, after all.


But don’t judge! It’s not done yet.

I bought a sawzall today. I’m going to demo a whole bunch more pallets to harvest their wooden slats and build solid exterior walls with them. I haven’t hung the last window or the second door. I might even paint it!

This all has to be done ASAP because right now it has hit freezing outside. While cold won’t kill the birds unless temps get really low, drafts and wet definitely will. So can you guess what I’ll be doing with my Thanksgiving vacation?

I think it’s pretty darn nice, actually, when compared to what they were living in before:


An old chicken tractor without even a floor. Though of course, it was right-side-up at the time.

I’m pretty proud of a few features:

1: that because of the raised floor I can pull the plug on the ducks’ waterer every night to drain it out (they fill it with mud and trash) and the sludge just falls through the floor and doesn’t make a nasty puddle inside. SO IMPORTANT with ducks. DUCKS ARE GROSS.

2: all the windows are held in place with metal bars on pivots, to allow the glass to be removed completely during the summer months for ventilation.

3: the rainwater catchment system:


Roof, to gutter, to inverted trash can lid with screened holes in it. Then the trash can is hooked up via hose to a dish regulated by a float valve. (The reflector is a float to tell me when the water level’s getting low.) Simple, I know, but I’ve always wanted to have something like this and I’ve never built a structure tall or sturdy enough.

My plan next year is to expand the run by another 8×8 area, so that it includes the pophole through the garden fence that connects their garden paddock with our backyard/little pond area*. I made the run so small at first because I just needed something that would keep them secure enough right now. We’ll worry about comfort later.

So this duck house is anything but beautiful, but I find that its resourcefulness (and its bottom line) matters more to me than whether it is cute or not. In the end, the only things I had to buy for it were the gutter, two or three boxes of screws & poultry staples, a few metal braces, and 2 rolls of hardware cloth to line the walls and floor of the coop and run (the ceilings were 2×4 woven wire).

The ducks sure seem to like it.


* Right now the pophole is just open all the time and the ducks have free reign of both garden and back yard, but next year I will want to be able to confine their activities to one side or the other. The plan is to have them in the garden paddock all winter, poopin’ it up. Then when the ground in the paddock gets dry enough to be plantable, I’ll shunt them to the back yard instead while I use their winter’s worth of fertility in the paddock to grow summer or fall crops.

Beyond the worksheet – trace minerals and biological soil remediation

November 21st, 2015

In the past two blog posts I’ve gone over the methods with which to figure out not only what is needed by your soil to attain the ideal ratios between its minerals, but also how to apply that information to real life and find fertilizers you can actually buy in a store. So that’s great – say you follow all those recommendations and get your soil balanced (it usually takes a couple years to balance out, though, by the way).

The problem lies in that the elements on the worksheet are only the top 16 that are known to be critical to plant growth. We used to think there were only 3: the N, P, K that you’ll be familiar with on the labels of fertilizer bags. But there are dozens more – at least 32 have been identified to have some important factor in plant development. And what about those elements that are nearly immeasurable? How can we really know just how complex a plant really is? Maybe we will some day, but in the mean time I’ll play it safe and just make sure that my plants have everything they need to make me the best possible, tastiest, most nutrient dense veggies to keep my family (and maybe some day, my customers) healthy.

I’ll choose to err just a little bit on the side of generosity. Just like the people who water with diluted seawater every once in a while (excellent trace nutrients), those who spray with seaweed emulsion every so often, and those who sprinkle rock dust around everything “just in case.” I’ve practiced the first two for 3 years… you can add me to the latter category now too.


Those are packages I’m sure the postal gal was not very pleased with me for ordering; 35 pounds of granite dust, 10 pounds of sea salt, 35 pounds of biochar, and basalt dust from Rock Dust Local. This amazing store is well worth a look – it’s like a candy store for gardeners! With free shipping! I want to order All The Things! (Seriously, I wonder how many vegetables I’ll have to actually produce in order to pay back what I’ve spent in coddling the soil underneath them).

These rock dusts here are not part of my soil remineralization worksheet (well, except the sea salt). These are extras, added simply for their high and multitudinous mineral compositions and, in the case of the biochar, their ability to foster hosts of beneficial micro-organisms and hold onto all those minerals, reducing nutrient leaching.

This one wheelbarrow of stuff was going to be really hard to spread around the garden, though; it’s 5000 square feet and I’d never get it evenly distributed. And it’s worth noting that before being incorporated to the soil, biochar must first be innoculated – that is, soaked in beneficial composting microbes & nutrients for a couple weeks – lest it suck up available nutrients from the soil around it when it’s first distributed.

So I’d have to mix it all with compost. Ugh. Not a huge job, but dusty. And I didn’t have any compost… yet.

But I did have chickens. And a chicken coop full of pre-compost. Easy as pie, I just split the bags open and dumped them sort of haphazardly over the floor of the run. The chickens, nonplussed, didn’t seem to mind scratching it aside to look for worms. They did a marvelous job mixing it evenly into the compost while adding their own contributions, too.

A couple months later I simply shoveled out loads of deep, supermineralized, superfertile compost.


I then mixed that with the basic fertilizers recommended by my worksheet. I ended up with maybe 8 wheelbarrowloads of super-rich fertilizer/compost soil amendment. This was much easier to spread evenly than it would have been with just the straight concentrated fertilizers and rock dusts, and way less dusty too.

The chickens are back at work mixing it deep into the soil for me as they work over the garden for the winter. Really, they’re worth so much more than just eggs.

Remineralization worksheet download, part 2

November 20th, 2015

So now that you know exactly how much of each individual element you need to remineralize your particular square footage, it should be easy, right?


Coming up with the proper ratios of elements in natural form is just mind boggling, a labrynthine math problem that used to take me weeks to figure out. It’s not that the math is really that hard; it’s more that every single item you change has repercussions in several different ways. You need to have the balance of all the elements in mind at all times.

Take kelp, for example. 1% N, 0.3% P, 2% K, 2% S, 2% Ca, 0.7% Mg, 0.12% Mn, 0.1% Fe, and on and on. So say you used enough kelp to meet your potassium requirements  – well and good, but then you also have a Calcium requirement that isn’t yet met. So you add a bunch of gypsum… but now your sulfur is through the roof and you’re going to burn all your plants. Now realize that there are 16 elements on this sheet to keep track of at the same time. See how it can get complicated?

Enter The Spreadsheet. Glory in the Excel.


First, I listed all the fairly easy-to-find organic fertilizers and their respective percentages of each mineral they contain. (The pic above is just a small example). I also included organic fertilizer blends from Espoma that are widely available nation-wide.

If you then put a theoretical number (pounds) in the left hand column, and have the percentages of each mineral helpfully multiply themselves by that number and add themselves up in a row up top, it becomes incredibly easy to jockey around with the numbers and add a little here, take away .2 pounds there, try adding some of this other thing instead… until you have the perfect ratio in a sort of shopping list down the left hand side.

Sometimes you can get very, very close. Compare the numbers needed (in yellow) to the pounds that’d be supplied by my theoretical shopping list (just under the yellow).


Click the chart to go download your own copy, or CLICK THIS LINK HERE.

I wish I’d done this years ago! I sure hope it can help lots of people increase the fertility of their soil – please drop me a comment below to let me know what you think! I’d love to hear if it’s working for you. :)

Remineralization worksheet 1 – free download

November 19th, 2015

I first became acquainted with the theory of remineralization back in 2013 after reading Steve Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener. It’s a very good book for anyone interested in soil science, and a fun read if you’re at all interested interested in the geeky side of things. And his main point makes a whole lot of sense.

Anyone familiar with the topic of nutrient density will already have read about the multitude of different studies that demonstrate that fruits and vegetables from a decade or two ago were quite noticeably higher (20-30% +) in vitamins and minerals than the ones we eat today. Theories abound for this, but most settle the blame firmly on commercial ag practices such as intensive growing and chemical fertilizers, which strip the soil of nutrients year after year until there is simply less there for the plants to glean.

A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.  (Scientific American)

If the plant can’t find it in the soil, Solomon points out, it ain’t going to be in the fruit either.

Of course there are others such as Elaine Ingham who, citing the same data, point not to the lack minerals in the soil but to the lack of bioflora and organic content – again, blaming modern agricultural practices’ long-term stripping and burning the soil. And there are others still, such as Dr. Bogs, who agree with Solomon but are adamant that the ideal mineral ratios are quite different. (However, since Dr. Bogs’ won’t publicly share her information, but instead demands a $100+ soil test for the results of her proprietary formulas, I’ll stick with Solomon, who at least is transparent with his information.)

Anyway, despite a few detractors, Solomon’s work has been gaining momentum amongst those interested in nutrient density and the validity of his conclusions are now fairly widely accepted. If you haven’t read his book The Intelligent Gardener, I strooooooooooongly urge you to do so.

So as I wrote in this post way back then, I’ve been trying my hand at remineralization ever since. Each year I get a detailed soil report and translate that into the pounds and types of various mineral elements I’ll need to bring my poor, thin soil back to balance. (I get the extended standard test from A&L Eastern Labs.)

But holy cow, even with the soil lab numbers it’s a labrynthine math problem to figure out what those numbers mean, and particularly how they relate to each other, the most important part. While Solomon does make the empty worksheets available to be printed out at the New Society Website, I really needed something that would do the math for me.

So I finally got in gear and translated Solomon’s chart into a spreadsheet that would calculate it all automatically. (Once again, many many kudos and much respect to Solomon in his transparency in his quest to heal our soils and our health!) In the same spirit, I want to share this automation with you all in the hopes that it can save us, collectively, hours and hours of frustration and perhaps even some grey hairs.

Now (caveat) I’m not fantastic at math. In fact, I think if there’s one subject that gives me the day terrors, it’s math. But I think I have this thing working properly…. now what I need is some … what is it called in the video game world? Beta testing? Er… people to kindly tell me what I did wrong, and how to fix it.

I’ve made it available for download via my google drive at this link here. Each of the grey boxes needs to be filled with your information – just plug in the results of your soil test and it automatically takes care of all the percentages, ratios, multiplications, etc. Don’t fill the white boxes!

Clicking the chart below ought to take you to a blank spreadsheet, which you can then download.



Click the chart to go to the spreadsheet link or CLICK RIGHT HERE.

Be sure also to fill in the grey box at the top right that specifies the square footage that you’re trying to remineralize; this should translate all your needed pounds per acre into the amount you need just for that area. Your shopping list, as it were, will show up in the very last column. Hooray! (Now help me make it better by letting me know if something doesn’t work. And if you have a solution that’s not too complicated. Or if it works fine, just drop a comment below to say hi.  It’d be neat to see how many of us there are. :)

But hold your horses … we’re not done! You can’t just go to the garden store and buy copper or zinc powders by the pound.  So what do these numbers really mean in actionable terms? How can we translate these numbers into real pounds of natural fertilizers that we can buy at the store? It used to literally take me weeks to work out what I needed with pen and pencil. (See above, re: math skills.) Solomon shows us how… and I’ve put that into a spreadsheet, too.

That, I’ll show you tomorrow. :) Spreadsheets FTW!

Cleanup crew

November 18th, 2015

The chickens love getting into the garden every Fall once the main harvest is over. So many leftover greens to eat, and by that time it’s usually just full of little beetles and caterpillars for them to eat, too. While I regularly feed them alfalfa and omega 3 supplements, the yolks are never quite as bright as during this time of year.



They absolutely ruin the nicely delineated garden paths, flinging mulch and topsoil around about as efficiently as a shovel would (I’m not even exaggerating). They leave potholes deep enough to twist an ankle in, or sink a loaded wheelbarrow, and have already taken down my giant hugelkultur bed by about 30%. Every year I just wait it out all winter long. In the Spring, come planting time, I begin letting them out into the forest paddock instead (outside the garden fence) and only then attempt to rake it all up nice and neat again.

But I figure all that destruction is worth it: they’re searching out and wreaking havoc on all the little nasties that are trying to overwinter and destroy my garden next year. It’s the natural thing for chickens to do, so they’re visibly cheerful all day. And of course they’re mixing in their own fertilizer as they go, too.

Go git ‘em, gals.

Bees need a drink too; or, how I got back my swimming pool this summer.

November 17th, 2015

This was a really dry summer. I mean really dry. I’m not big into watering, more of a cross-my-fingers-and-hope-it-rains kind of gal, but even I had to give in a few times to save most of the plants on Backfill Hill. And even with the livestock waterers hooked up to 55 gallon water containers, I was still refilling them nearly every other day.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when the bees started drinking from our pool. First only a little cluster by the far end – but in just a few days it was obvious we couldn’t safely use the pool. They were everywhere. Each time I took the girls out I ended up completely strung out from the efforts of trying to wave bees away from them, and everyone came back in unhappy.

I tried to look up what to do, but suggestions were mostly “too bad, cover up your pool.” So we just kind of abandoned the pool for a couple months, hoping they’d find somewhere else to drink, or maybe drink out of the waterer I’d set up in their own bee yard – nope.

Then I remembered this post I read over at – one of the few blogs I have time to read nowadays. (You know I don’t have time for reading when I can’t even make it over to Scary Mommy, possibly the funniest parenting blog there ever was.) Rusty at Honeybee Suite reminded me that bees prefer briny (salty) water over pure water. My guess is that they seek out trace minerals just like most living things – but what do I know. No wonder the bees were rejecting the purified water I’d provided them.

I bought a $20 solar fountain off Amazon and fitted it into this little solid bottomed planter along with a bunch of stones from Backfill Hill.


I put in about 1/2 teaspoon natural sea salt per quart of water and set it on the edge of the pool right where the bees were thickest. They noticed it right away, but they didn’t abandon the pool in its favor.


So one night I sprayed Off all around the edges of the pool. In the morning they all flocked to this little bubbler instead, and day by day I nudged it about 1-2 feet further away from the pool until it was at the very farthest end of the patio. The important thing? They followed it. Away from my pool and my children. And once I added a sugar water feeder station right next to it? They absolutely flocked to it, and stayed in that far off corner of the patio and didn’t bother us any more.


So it took about a week, all told, but finally no more bees in the pool!



I plan to do the same thing next year, but start earlier. Hopefully they’ll never even notice the pool!



First peach harvest.

August 1st, 2015

Thanks to the use of organic pesticides, I got my first-ever peach harvest this year!


still white from the early kaolin clay sprays.

How did I know when to harvest them? Well, I suddenly realized I was in a race with some other hungry critters.


Ew. And of course they chewed holes through all of my sleeve bags – which didn’t start off on the ground, but gradually sank as the fruit swelled – so I’m still not sure of the outcome of that particular experiment.

So I had to haul them all in a few days before they were ripe, to soften inside. I didn’t weigh them, but wow. If these had been full-sized peaches, I wouldn’t need to go peach picking at all this year.


galoshes for scale.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know I was using the wrong fungicide for brown rot this entire time. And I didn’t realize that every time I saw a stink bug on those peaches on my tree, that it was poking nasty little holes to spread the disease. And I didn’t know that even if I had been using the right fungicide (and a stronger insecticide than neem oil, perhaps), I was still supposed to dip the peaches in a bleach solution immediately after harvesting to kill any residual brown rot spores… so the poor peaches didn’t last long. I had to discard 3/4 of the harvest.

I did get five quarts of canned peaches out of them out of the good ones, though, and several good fresh-eating peaches for snacks, so they weren’t completely wasted.


But let’s just say next year I’ll do a few things differently.  (…I think I should get that tattooed on my forehead. It might as well be my mantra.)

STILL! First peach harvest ever! The peaches were smaller than store peaches, but much darker red and even rose-colored near the pits. It’s made me so optimistic for next year that I don’t even mind the loss of much of the harvest – at least it went to feed the black soldier flies that I’m attempting to farm for chicken food. (That’s a whole ‘nother experiment, and it’s not successful yet. I’ll let you know when/if it works.)

Ladies and gentlemen: The Queen.

July 31st, 2015

I was smiling ear to ear during this last nuc inspection. Why?


Can you see it? How about a closer shot:


Eggs! Those little things that look like tiny grains of rice, stuck end-on in the bottoms of the cells? Future bees!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a Queen! Woooo! This little nuc has 6 fully drawn frames and is well on its way to growing to full colony size and being able to survive the winter.

My first ever split actually worked!