Chestnuts Roasting in a Closed Oven

I had never eaten a chestnut.  Until today, I wasn’t entirely sure what a chestnut was.  I even ordered 25 trees from a supplier in Florida that will arrive spring of 2013.  No idea.  Just doing what I thought sounded like a good idea.  Get some trees in the ground.  Grow lumber for future generations.  Harvest nuts.  Go.

We were picking up apples at Eileen’s  house on Sunday and I noticed what I assumed were buckeyes.  I asked the kids to leave them lay because I don’t want buckeye trees on the farm.  They are toxic to cows and horses, useless for lumber and are not welcome here.  Anyway, I did little more than glance at them and focused, instead, on apples.

But they weren’t buckeyes.  They were chestnuts.  I think they are Chinese chestnuts.  I realized my mistake today and drove back to pick them up after work.  In the cold.  In the wind.  Thankfully, not in the rain.  A cold front came through and dropped the temperature about 20 degrees in 10 minutes.  I didn’t have a jacket with me.  Remember to wear gloves next time you pick up chestnuts, OK?

We roasted a handful in the oven and, true to the description, they are like eating a slightly sweet, nutty potato.  Maybe I’m missing something.  Where is the wonder and majesty?  Maybe in the 68 years since Mel Torme wrote The Christmas Song chestnuts have changed.  Maybe we have more sweets in our diet now.  I dunno.  Though I plan to roast some at Christmas, the jury is still out on the whole chestnut experiment.  However, we’re going to plant some, we have trees coming in the mail and we’ll figure something out.

Now, I want to say a word about Eileen.  When I was younger (maybe just young) I hauled manure from Barney’s for Eileen’s asparagus (Barney deserves a blog of his own), I rebuilt her wooden swing that her cousin had made for her but the tornado threw into the ditch (Babe deserves a blog post) and I helped her pick veggies, cleaned up her fallen limbs and ate lots of her cookies.  She gave me a couple of her deceased husband’s ties.  Years later I did some really stupid stuff and hit a particularly low point in life.  Eileen made it a point to tell me in front of a large group that, to her, I was still as good as gold.  Eileen means a lot to me.

I think it’s great that, though Eileen is now in a nursing home, I am still welcome at her house.  It may not always be that way but, though she has no idea I was there to get apples and chestnuts, I know that I have her blessing even if it comes by proxy through her son.  Thanks Larry.

Gardening with Zombies

Not the Halloween type of zombies or the ones that dance with you while you and your teen-aged girlfriend try to walk home from seeing a movie.

Real, honest to goodness Zombie Apocalypse type of zombies.  Over the years we have read a number of survival books from true accounts of people stuck on boats or on mountains to fictional accounts of  little boys crashed in the Canadian wilderness to full on TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It).  The main character of a book I’m reading is a big fan of guns and beans (who isn’t?), owns a cabin as a BOL (Bug-Out Location) and has plans to use an abandoned lot nearby for a garden if he has to bug-out.

It’s that last point that bothers me.  It’s as if to say, all you have to do is turn some soil over, tip the seed envelope toward the ground and “Voila!” – food.  Haven’t these people seen Second Hand Lions?!  You know, where they planted a garden out of various seed packets and it all grew up to be corn.


Gardens take time.  Gardening is a skill.  Canning is darned near an art.  Heck, all of it is an art, one that has to be developed over time in your own climate with seeds that are well-suited to grow where you live…viable seeds that haven’t been sitting in a can on a shelf in a storage unit for 10 years.

So our hero in the current book spends his Sunday afternoons shooting with the guys, practicing tactics for urban warfare.  He has to know how to use his weapon so he is ready if he needs it.  It’s preparedness.  He fills a cabin with beans, rice and pancake mix (yes, pancake mix) because he wants to eat beans and rice and pancakes.  He buys a couple of seed packets at the big box store just in case.  Just in case?


I don’t even know what to say.

Well, I guess I’ll have to figure it out because I can’t drop off the blog post here.

Now, look.  I’m very much in favor of arming your family with an array of handguns and ARs customized to fit each member of the family from ages 3 to 60 (younger than three can pass the ammo!).  You wouldn’t say, “Well, yeah, I now own a Glock so I’m ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.”  You learn how to use it!  I’m very much in favor of beans, rice and pancake mix but you can’t just stop there and call it macaroni!  You have to learn how to cook it.  If gardening is part of your survival prep, plan for it.  Learn how to do it!  I mean, the author is very pointed about the fact that our ‘hero’ is rather useless around the house and doesn’t know anything about gardening.  He just buys guns and beans and pancake mix.  Months worth of beans and pancake mix.  (And he expects his wife to be pleasantly surprised that we’re having beans for dinner.  For the next 9 months. (Oh, and we might have to shoot the neighbors to keep them from eating our beans!))

Do you know how to garden?  Most folks grow a good crop of weeds every year.  Not necessarily bad if you know which weeds are best to eat but not ideal if you’re trying to grow onions.

And you can’t keep onion seeds in storage for more than a year!

I have gone astray.  Let’s get down to it.

Soil.  It takes roughly 7 years to get decent soil in your garden plot.  You need manure, animal or human.  It takes 3-5 years for a grafted fruit tree to grow.  It takes 10-15 years for a fruit tree to bear if grown from seed (and if it’s an apple you might be unpleasantly surprised).  Did you plan that timeline into your SHTF scenario? No?  Well, good thing you’ve got a Glock.  Maybe you can help someone with a garden defend it from marauding vegetarian Zombies.

My friend Linda Brady Traynham died not quite a year ago.  She and I discussed this topic at length over the phone one evening.  She had written about it in 2009 but she makes the point better than I can as she reviews the book Patriot.  Here are the highlights:

 I had been using the term”survivalist” as convenient shorthand, but Mr. Rawles showed me the error of my ways:  we want to be prepared to thrive, not just to survive.  We’re capitalists … and we want a better ROI than just living through the breakdown of commerce and law and order.

“I may have to live through wars in ‘injun territory,’ but I refuse to do so without ample supplies of whipping cream, fresh porto bello mushrooms, and a lifetime supply of OPI nail polish.”  Two years into the bad times our heroes have fended off assorted attackers and formed a Dudly Do Right squad to patrol a big chunk of territory assisting those they think worthy of it.  Their standard breakfast is dried wheat softened with heated water.  Lunch is a big pot of steaming rice.  Period.  Dinner is the elk or venison du jour when hunting is good and more rice.  Dehydrated peanut butter or jerky if it weren’t.  Yeech.  The calorie count is a bit higher, but other than that we’re talking Gulag food.  On special occasions they have a tasty MRE.

…Call me effete, but I’d have turned some of the ingredients into elk-fried rice and told those men that they had enough trenches, go hunting and don’t come back without something that can be milked, and I don’t care if it is domestic or a mountain goat.  One of you other idlers go find a bee hive.

Three years into their communal survival experiment they still haven’t planted a garden!  They keep wonderful around the clock lookouts, of course.  They make terrific IED.  Nothing was more important than a garden, and couldn’t someone not on duty have built a still?  They couldn’t even have made soap out of ashes for lack of sufficient spare fats.

Nail polish.  LOL.  She hit the nail on the head.  In your Red Dawn fantasy scenario you should plan to dig more than the graves of your fallen enemies.  You should plan to garden.  You should find a source of milk and convenient protein.  If you can keep a couple of chickens at your house now you should.  You can pack them with you to your Bug-Out location if needed.  Same for rabbits.  It’s more than just bullets, beans and exploding zombie heads.  Learn to do this stuff now and plan to be comfortable.  What if you get there and the zombies don’t find you?  You just going to watch each other field strip your guns for years?  You need something to do!  Garden.  Keep chickens.  Grow something.  As Linda points out, it may even enable you to make a valuable contribution to your gun-toting community.

Heinlein said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  

Learning to do anything is simply a matter of putting in the time.  If you want to learn about gardening, the time to start is now.  I can teach you to hit a target at 15-20 yards with a 9mm handgun with an hour of instruction.  You’ll need the rest of your life to learn to garden well.  Start now.  I still have a long way to go myself.

Now, we can’t talk about a well-armed family thriving with a productive garden (and composting their manure for said garden) during the ongoing zombie apocalypse without noting a couple of problems.  These are from Survival Mom’s list of 28 Inconvenient Truths About TEOTWAWKI:

22. Growing your own food is a bigger challenge than you ever thought possible.
23. A green garden can be spotted from miles away, thus endangering your food source and your family.

So.  If you believe there is any possibility of a zombie apocalypse, post-nuclear apocalypse, trucker strike, currency disruption, ice storm, 7 fat and 7 lean years or long-term unemployment (nothing stretches unemployment like not buying food!) and, as Linda points out, thriving sounds better than just surviving, maybe you should take a first step.  Besides, who needs that much lawn?

A Beautiful March Day in October

It’s March.  Well, it’s not but it feels like March…but different.  The weather is right.  We got an inch of rain last night.  The wind is blowing endlessly and I’m in the garden.  March.  But instead of planting potatoes, I’m harvesting the remaining tomatoes and peppers.  I’m cutting up the plants to allow them to compost in a windrow in the garden under (you guessed it!) horse manure.  I’ll haul the horse manure once the row is out.

We’re getting an incredible harvest of green tomatoes but the summer garden is at an end.

The fall garden is getting a good head of steam.  Carrots are doing well.

Spinach is finally starting to come out.  I have the hardest time with spinach.  No idea why.

Radishes are coming out.

Lots of things happening in the garden.  Out of the garden too.  Our last chicken butcher date is this weekend.  I think we’re all ready for it.  Place your order soon.


Strawberries in the Greenhouse

Well, we have this greenhouse…thing…and we’re trying to find ways to put it to use.  So…we’re shootin’ for early season strawberries.  I bought 50 Chandler plants from Ison’s nursery in Georgia.

I marked out another garden row, put down a layer of composted mulch then started digging the hole for the next project, aquaponics.  More on that another time.  I needed to do something with the blue clay I was digging out of the hole so I put down a layer on the strawberry row.  Then I added a layer of composted horse manure and sawdust, jersey green sand and just a bit of aragonite before going to work this morning.

Then the oldest boy and I popped them in the rows when I got home.  Our rows could be straighter but what’s the fun in that?  Plants are 1 foot apart in rows and the rows are a staggered foot apart.  I am loosely following the Missouri high tunnel production plan but I emphasize the word “loosely”.

OK.  Well.  Too much to do to sit around chatting.  Hope this works.  It could be a spectacular failure.  Well, it could be a failure.  It’s not big enough to be spectacular.  Anybody have any tips for me?

Compound Interest

You have savings.  I need capital to get things rolling.  I interest you in allowing me to use your savings by offering to pay you a little more than I borrow when I repay you.  This also rewards you for taking a chance on me.  The difference between what I borrow and what I repay with time factored in is the interest rate.  If I loan out my money at 1% over 70 years it will double.  If I loan out money at 70% for one year it will double.  If I continue loaning out the principal and any interest earned I earn more.  And more.  And more.  It’s compound interest.

Bill Bonner covers this in Family Fortunes: How to Build Family Wealth and Hold on to it for 100 Years.  He says old money sits.  Old family money moves slowly.  It doesn’t get consumed.  It is guarded and at the right times is nurtured into growth.

Is this interesting?  Well, yes but no.  But it happens all the time on the farm.

If I were to foolishly breed rabbits, then breed their bunnies and the rabbits, then breed three generations without harvesting from the stock you would see your interest compound.  But you would lose money…

My wife’s aunt and uncle are tireless supporters of our efforts on the farm.  They are also an example to us of what could be.  Each year they host events at their house selling splits and starts from their garden.

This year they surprised us with coneflowers, red bud trees an, most recently, daylillies.

I think daylillies are a good example of compound interest.  Unlike rabbits, they don’t taste very good [Turns out I’m wrong.  See comments].  Their value is in their continued existence.  But their continued existence and health multiplies them.  So you split the cluster and plant them again.  And again.  And again.  Before long you have so many daylillies you are looking for a niece to give them to.  Like old family money, old family daylillies are guarded, nurtured and grown over time.  Time.  How do we make daylillies?  The old-fashioned way.  We grow them.

So here is our daylilly savings account.  They gave us 10 different varieties.  Someday it may look more interesting.  I had to plant my flag on some new garden territory here so…

I know this is a farm blog but what’s the fun of gardening if you don’t have something pretty to look at too?  My kids like flowers.  I like flowers.  My wife likes flowers.  And our interest is compounding.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll start propagating plants too.  Gotta do something interesting with all our free time.

Fall Planting

We have big plans for our fall garden.  We are currently reading through The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman, a very inspiring work.

We moved the two outdoor chick brooders out of the garden area as we are finished brooding chicks for the year.  We spread the manure and bedding around and are planting a large area of beets to feed the cows through the fall/winter.  Then we began moving the hill material out of the potato beds onto a compost pile nearby.  We spread sifted 2-year old compost over the bed as we planted carrots, spinach, radishes and lettuce.  We will continue planting down the 30′ row, week by week as long as we can.  Eventually we’ll be forced into the greenhouse.  Can’t wait.

We limed the other potato row with raw aragonite, spread compost and began planting broccoli.  This row will eventually be home to cabbage and cauliflower as well.

The compost is mostly the bedding and offal from chickens we harvested two years ago along with garden waste from the same time period.  This is my first effort at a compost pile we didn’t turn.  As you might expect, we found a fair number of chicken bones and quite a few undigested wood chips.  Those were sifted out and added to the current compost pile.  No sign of the mountains of feathers I loaded into the pile.

I have high hopes for the fall garden.  We are planting in a hybrid of Jeavons’ methods and Coleman’s.  Broccoli gets staggered in the hex pattern.  Carrots in tight rows.  We’ll see how it goes.

What’s in store for your fall garden?  Getting started yet?

Digging Potatoes

We planted potatoes a long time ago.  Well, it seems like a long time ago.

It’s time to dig them out.  I dug potatoes in the morning before work.

Then dad and I dug potatoes in the evening after it cooled off a bit.

These were the short rows of potatoes.  I would estimate I planted 25-30 pounds of seed potatoes in this garden and harvested 200 pounds.  Many of the potatoes came up when we pulled the plant out.  Very few were down in the soil.  The majority of the potatoes were just laying in the hills and it was all hand digging.  Who knows how many I missed.

I let the potatoes dry off a bit before bagging them up in burlap sacks my sister brought by.

We found a tomato hornworm grub and a garter snake as we worked down the evening row.  I have an awful lot of organic material on the rows I’ll need to find a home for.  Not sure what to plant in these beds for the fall garden but we’ll figure it out.

Everything is dry, dry, dry.  Hopefully we’ll get some rain next weekend and I can plant again.  Let me know how your garden is doing.

Hill Potato Blues

What seems like a lifetime ago, but was just this past St. Patrick’s Day, we planted potatoes.  We have hilled them.  And hilled them.

Today, with the greenhouse nearly empty of livestock (just the rabbits and ducks left), I started hauling out bedding.  Well, more than started, I worked on it for a couple of hours and went a foot deep in a 10×15 area but didn’t really make much of a dent.  While the wife and kids weeded the garden I hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow out to the garden beds to surround the peppers.  Finally, I just had to do it.  I had to hill the potatoes again.

The bedding I am hauling out is mostly from under the rabbit cages.  It’s months worth of wood chips mixed with rabbit manure, chicken manure, old hay and who knows what else.  It’s moist, warm and full of worms.  It’s also heavy.

This really isn’t a huge deal but by planting the way Jeavons says to, and since potatoes don’t always come straight up where they should, there’s a dense pack of plant matter and it’s kind of hard to deliver the compost where it is needed.  But I did it.  And kept going back for more.  And I’ll do some more tomorrow.  Why, oh why did I plant 100 pounds of potatoes?

Yes, the plants really do tower over my wheelbarrow.  It’s not just a perspective thing.  I can’t seem to get enough material in there to hill them the way I would like.

Leftover Potatoes

We planted potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.  They are just beginning to emerge above the manure we covered them with.

Last year’s potatoes were planted in the next row over.  We planted turnips there after the potatoes came out.  Some turnips are still there.  As I pull turnips to feed Wilbur (horse) I have found a few potato plants coming up from potatoes we missed last summer.

Aren’t they beautiful?  How about the one on the left?  Finding these encourages me to plant my potatoes on Labor Day instead of St. Patrick’s Day then mulch the dickens out of them.  This article indicates the fall potatoes spend the winter building a root system then shoot for the sky when it’s warm enough for growth above ground.  Be sure to read that article closely because he details how to plant and mulch them to give them the best chance in the winter.

We live near the Northern edge of zone 6 so fall potatoes are a bit of a gamble.  I’m sure my sister, living further South with a sheltered garden location, would be successful at it.  I’m going to try it in the fall.  Our spring is so busy it would be a relief to have something crossed off our list before spring arrives.  If it fails we won’t be out much.  If it succeeds we may be able to harvest the potatoes in time to plant a late crop of beans.

Let me know if you have any tips for fall potato planting.  These volunteer potatoes say it’s worth looking at.

I Need More Carbon

A friend recently commented, “You talk about fecal material a lot.”  I do.  I appreciate manure and what it can do for my soil, the soil life and the world around me.  While most people just use it to pollute drinking water, I make it work.  In order to make it work I need carbon.  Lots of carbon.

The primary use is just to keep the animals warm and dry.  Carbon also helps to sponge up nutrients, preventing odors from escaping and holding nutrients in suspension for later use.  It soaks up liquids, helping to protect the underground water supply.  It adds structure to the soil.  It acts as a weed barrier.  I could go on.

We buy carbon in several forms.

Straw bales are the first thing people think of when they think of barns.  Why straw?  It’s a local resource and is available in quantity.  It’s a by-product of raising small grains.  It is a useful tool for bedding but has its limitations.  It mats quickly, it is not very absorbant and it takes up a lot of space.  On the plus side, it adds air space to compost and rots quickly.

What is better than straw?  Wood chips.

I cut a lot of brush and run most of it through my chipper…the smaller stuff anyway.  That, and chips dropped off by the power company, help me to accumulate large windrows of wood chips.

Wood chips are large and bulky.  They do a good job stabilizing a muddy area but are unpleasant to walk on or scratch in…if you are a chicken.  They are also of limited use absorbing nutrients as there is so little surface area per unit of volume.  But they do make nice paths through the garden.

But what’s better is hardwood sawdust.  Sawdust offers greater surface area per unit of volume and is comfortable to walk on.  Cows prefer to lay on sawdust over straw.  We use it to mulch our garden beds, to bed our chickens, cows in the winter and to catch rabbit manure.

Sawdust quickly soaks up water, urine and manure, it’s easy for the chicks to scratch into, it is easy to move around with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, it is cheap and can be found locally.  We use sawdust straight from the sawmill rather than from a wood shop.  The kiln dried stuff acts and feels different.  Also, we let a pile sit out in the weather for at least a few months before we really tie into it.

Where I am, these are the three easiest forms of carbon to get my hands on.  Each are useful as bedding, build great compost and help maintain soil health.  If given the choice, I would choose a truckload of wood chips over a truckload of fresh horse manure.  It has so many more uses.