Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Remodeling - Baby Steps

We've done a little work on the old farm house since moving in six months ago. We decided we'd live here a year or two and make it tolerably comfortable without sinking tons of money into the dwelling. Then when we know the place better, we'll decide whether it makes more sense to make it really nice or if it would take too much money, time, and labor to only make it acceptable.

So, our work thus far has been replacing broken old rotten windows with double-pane windows, caulking, sealing doors, and other winterizing tasks. Functional stuff. Nothing cosmetic. Except...

We have begun "prettifying" the children's bedroom. The change in lifestyle and leaving behind friends has been pretty stressful, and we thought a nice personal haven would help ease the transition. We haven't done anything major - pulled out some old stained goldish carpet, patched and painted the walls. If you're interested in the total transition, I'm about to put some pics of it on my website. Go to the section about the house, and the bedroom remodel will probably have its own button on the left. Pics should be up by 1 or 2 Feb.

This weekend, we hung a border. I personally wouldn't have picked such a geometrically square border for a house with no right angles, but it's not my room. This shows the room with disarranged furniture, freshly painted ceiling and walls, new door installed, and border just hung. This room had no door when we moved in, and we made do with a curtain for a while. We still need to finish the door and put the molding around it, but it's already much better than a curtain :)

The ceiling along a couple of the walls was so uneven that we had to cut the border in order to hang it. We cut the wallpaper border vertically where the pitch of the ceiling changed the most drastically. The border thus overlaps itself a bit at the top or bottom where the cut was made, but it's surprisingly not noticeable now that it's all hung.

The border has photos of wolves on top of a mountain panorama. If you click on the photo you'll see a larger image which includes one of our many lady bug helpers. Those things are relentless. I can vacuum up a ton of them one day and two days later there will be a couple of dozen hanging out on a south facing window. There were two of us hanging the border, and at one point both of us were on stools with our hands full of wet wallpaper in the process of being hung... and a ladybug got right where we needed to smooth the next section of paper! Having no free hands, we blew at it as hard as we could until it fell off or flew away seeking a less windy place to hang out. We got a bad case of the giggles after that.

The plan is to get a snowflake stencil and add snowflakes to the blue wall. I thought that snowflakes in the summer would be kind of goofy, and who wants snowflakes indoors in the winter time? BRRRrrrr! But, it's not my room.

Actually, it's turning out to be really nice. I suggested I might move in, because it was turning out so well, but I was rebuffed. Sniff.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Book Review: Storey's Basic Country Skills

I received a comment recently from Kat, saying she can't wait to be where I am, experiencing all the newbie things. It *is* wonderful, after all the dreaming and scheming, after all the searching and getting your hopes up looking for property just to have them dashed when a deal falls through -- it is wonderful to finally be loading the U-Haul and to be on your way. I've also noticed lots of urban people on a couple of forums I frequent (Mother Earth News and Homesteading Today) asking "How did you get started?".

It seems that, as in the seventies, there is a big "back to the earth" movement, for a variety of reasons. As in the seventies, the promise of unlimited cheap energy is in question. Natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina have given us a good look at how easily our food and water supply can be disrupted and how reliant we all are on "the system." The huge national debt causes some to question the stability of the dollar. For these and other reasons, it is not uncommon for people today to seek out a more self sufficient lifestyle.

How DOES one get started? When my husband and I first began talking about acquiring a bit of land and moving to the country, we were totally green. I'd lived in big cities or medium sized towns (40K citizens or more). I didn't know diddly. In fact, I found out I didn't even know enough to do effective Google searches. I didn't know the difference between ranching and farming and I had trouble finding info on how to to it on a small personal scale. I'd never known anyone who lived in the country. I didn't know the word "homestead." I felt as though I didn't know enough to begin learning.

As it turns out, there are lots of online forums, books, and magazines dedicated to self sufficient living, or homesteading. You can find a list of my favorites on the resources page of my website. In this article I'd like to introduce you to a fantastic book.

Storey's Basic Country Skills is a wonderful resource for the beginning homesteader or for the city dweller contemplating a move to the country. It is also a good first source of information for established homesteaders needing information about some new aspect of self sufficiency. It covers an unbelievably wide variety of topics, some of which I'll touch on later. Naturally with a scope this broad it won't have the depth of information as a book devoted entirely to, say, incubating eggs. It does contain sufficient detail to allow you to be effective in a given pursuit, and you can seek out more information as interest and needs dictate. In the back of the book you'll find a categorized list of suggestions for further reading on various topics.

The book is divided into four sections which discuss the dwelling, gardening, food preparation and preservation, and the animals. For fear of writing an entry longer than anyone in will want to read, I'll focus on the first section, entitled "Your Place in the Country". Aspiring homesteaders will immediately relate to the opening sentence: "Living in a Brooklyn apartement, we dreamed of owning a few acres, an old farmhouse, a garden, a stream, and a pond."

This portion of the book will help you decide how much land you need, give you ideas on how to begin your search for land, and how to evaluate properties that you find. It discusses dwellings and how to inspect them. One thing we found while looking for our place is that while some homes were fairly modern, many were built in the 50s and some had been log cabins. Happily, this book discusses old fashioned fuse boxes as well as newer circuit breakers. It discusses the old shallow hand dug wells (yes they're still being used - our place has one), drilled wells, springs, and city water. It covers heating by wood, coal, pellets, gas, and solar. If you want a comprehensive book, this is it!

The book has practical applications for city and country dwellers alike, showing how to build things like decks, walls, and walkways; how to repair leaky faucets, unclog drains, and fix a toilet that won't flush. It has instructions on what to do when the power fails and information on basic wiring. It even touches on home improvement, explaining how to install various types of flooring or hang wall paper. Simple maintenance activities are explained: how to unstick a window, how to change a doorknob, how to repair a screen. Building and restoring furniture is discussed. There's even a section on housekeeping, with helpful suggestions on how to remove different types of stains and various uses for vinegar (who would have thought vinegar could do all that??).

Please be aware that I'm barely skimming the surface. There are so many other interesting topics in this first section I find myself wanting to just list them all: soap making, controlling pests with herbs... but a long list soon gets tiresome so I'm doing my best to exhibit a bit of self control. The other three sections are just as full of information, and the portions that a city dweller can't put into immediate use (livestock, or type of barns, for example) are wonderful for fueling dreams and will prove valuable as you search for your homestead and evaluate potential candidates. Country folk can of course take immediate action utilizing suggestions in the book.

Storey's Basic Country Skills was compiled and edited by John and Martha Storey, whose publishing company has produced many top-notch guides to various aspects of country living. As your homesteading library grows, you'll begin recognizing the plethora of contributing authors as well known and respected experts in their fields. Gail Damerow, Stu Campbell, Louise Riotte, and so many more it makes my head swim. The list of contributing authors truly forms a "who's who" roster of knowledge and talent.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I ordered chickens!

This photo of a Buckeye chicken is from Feathersite.com

Well, it's done. I ordered Buckeye chicks from Duane and Phyllis Urch, 2142 N.W. 47th Avenue, Owatonna, Minnesota, 55060.

I filled out the order form.
I wrote the check.
I addressed the envelope.
I affixed the stamps.
I put it in all in the mailbox and raised the flag.
Now the flag is down and the envelope is gone.
What if I kill them due to my ignorance??

Sometime in April, hatching schedule allowing, I will receive a box of 25 day-old Buckeye chickens in the mail. This sounded very odd to my city ears, so when I was at the post office I asked the postmaster about that. He assured me that they frequenlty accept shipments of chicks during the spring. Apparently this is normal, like lots of cards at Christmas time.

I can't help thinking of what the reaction might be if my old post office in Atlanta had received a box of day old chicks. I don't know that the postal employees would want to touch it. I think children in the lobby area would be interested, and adults would be fearful. But here it's no big deal. They just phone you up and ask if you want to come get them or have your mail deliverer bring them.

So, I've found a local source for starter feed. That's what the chicks will eat at first. Then they switch to grower feed. Then they switch to layer feed - it has more calcium and helps them to lay strong eggs. I may stick with grower feed, though. My chickens will be wandering around outside all day and they'll get lots of calcium from the carapaces of the bugs they'll eat. Buckeyes also eat mice! What great little foragers.

I've got some cardboard boxes and a light to make a brooder for them. I've got stuff to make them a waterer. They'll get their feed in a low-to-the-ground container like a pie tin or an egg carton.

The chicken house is in great shape. I still need to tear down the old outside run and rebuild it; the fencing is all torn up and the posts are rotten. I also need to figure out a cheap litter for the bottom of the chicken house. I've posted inquiries on a couple of forums and I'm asking folks that I bump into what they use. I guess I'm as ready as it makes sense to be, 2.5 or 3 months before the little puff balls arrive. I'm nervous though. As nervous as... well, as a mother hen!


Monday, January 23, 2006

My Gardening Calendar

I have never started seeds indoors and then transplanted the seedlings into my garden. In the past, I either bought plants at the hardware store or nursery, or planted seeds directly into the garden. This year I want to start some seeds indoors, and that requires planning.

I used to garden in zone 8. In zone 8, I just stuck stuff in the ground and it pretty much grew. The season was long enough to grow anything I wanted to as long as I got it all in the ground on Good Friday. The only things that gave me trouble were peas and cabbage family crops. They burned up or bolted before they got mature enough to harvest. Here in zone 5b/6a, I think I may need to consider pre-warming the soil with plastic, or using floating row covers, or learning to use cold frames, or any number of other "advanced" gardening skills. Basically, there's just a lot more thought that goes into having a garden up here. Or, maybe I was just more of a "seat of my pants" person back then. At any rate, I feel like I need to put a lot of planning into this garden.

So, I started my gardening calendar. I grabbed a spiral notebook and made a page for each month January through September. I divided each page into fourths, roughly, with each section being a week of the month. I labeled each section 1-7, 8-14, 15-21, and 22-30 (or 31 or 28, depending on the month).

Then I got out my gardening index cards. If the cards advised starting seeds indoors X weeks before the first frost, and transplanting Y weeks after the first frost, I consulted a calendar and made entries in my notebook accordingly. In the section for March 8-14, I made a note: Start broccoli indoors. In the section for April 8-14 I made two notes: Transplant broccoli outdoors and Direct sow broccoli outdoors (lots, for freezing). I did this for each crop I want to plant.

Now that some of my seeds have arrived, I need to double-check that my "average" dates are accurate for the specific varieties I plan to grow. I eventually want to incorporate my calendar into a gardening notebook. The gardening notebook is still a vague idea. When it solidifies somewhat, I'll write about it.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Gardening with Index Cards

I'm so excited. My seeds from Southern Exposure arrived yesterday. This comprises the bulk of my veggie plantings. I still want to get onion sets, seed potatoes, and herb seeds. I wake up at night, thinking of gardening and making plans.

In the past, I gardened in central Georgia, where gardening is pretty easy: plant everything on Good Friday. I've never tried starting seeds indoors, either. I always just bought tomato and pepper plants and direct sowed my bean, squash, and lettuce seeds.

This first garden of mine in WV is going to require considerably more planning. Here's how I'm approaching it. I'm kind of anal about getting my ducks in a row, dotting my i's and crossing my t's. Many will laugh at all my planning and scheming, but for me this is working well and it brings me comfort knowing I have A Master Plan.

I began with a stack of index cards and a couple of gardening books. I made an index card for each vegetable I plan to grow. I used 3x5 but in retrospect 4x6 would have been better. On the card I noted:
  • dates to start seeds indoors, to transplant, to direct sow, etc. If they can be planted again for a fall crop, I made a note of those dates.
  • spacing.
  • whether the crop is a light feeder or a heavy feeder, to help plan rotation and companions: I don't want to plant all heavy feeders together, or if I do, I want to follow them with some light feeders and then legumes, to rebuild the soil.
  • I noted the good companions and the bad companions. Sometimes my books disagreed on this, so I only listed what they agreed on. Companion planting is not an exact science, by any stretch of the imagination!
  • I noted if the plants like full sun or part shade. This way I know which plants I can safely tuck in near my trellises without having them suffer from lack of sunlight.
  • I made rotation notes.
I got this idea from Sally Jean Cunningham's book entitled Great Garden Companions (link to amazon.com). Now I can shuffle my cards according to planting date, or heavy vs. light feeders, or what gets along well with onions. I have used the cards to create a rough schedule of when I do what, and to plan one of my garden beds.

The index card shown at the beginning of this entry is for Winter Squash, including pumpkins. You can click the little picture to get a bigger view. It's pretty simple. I can start them indoors around April 15th and transplant them outdoors around May 13th. I made a note to use peat cups for the transplants, because their roots are supposed to be easily damaged, and they don't like being transplanted. I think most folks direct sow their winter squash but I didn't note a direct sow date. Hmm... better look that up.

Here's my card for onions (clickable for larger image). They can be started indoors around Feb 25 and transplanted about April 8th. Or I can direct sow them when the soil is 50 degrees (F). I have no idea when that will be, but I plan to keep a journal and note rainfall, temps, soil temps etc. this first year. I doubt my journal will be half as wonderful as I envision, but it will leave me in better shape next year than this, when I have no idea what to expect in this climate.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Seed Ordering!

When the days are short and the temperatures are cold, it's comforting to settle in with some seed catalogs and plan next year's garden. While the snow flies and the wind howls outside, you can be snug and warm with a cup of cocoa beside you, dreaming and planning.

I love the dreaming and planning stages of gardening. It's reminiscent of the first day of school, when all the paper is crisp and white, the binders are unbent, and the pencils are freshly sharpened. Nothing but promise and possibility and high hopes that this year will be the best yet.

Browsing a gardening catalog is a lot like that first day of school. The photographs of unblemished, well proportioned vegetables are like the virgin sheets of paper. No dog ears, no mistakes made, just the promise of what could be.

I haven't had a garden in ten years or so. I miss it terribly. In years past I just grabbed whatever seeds and plants looked good at the local nursery or hardware store. This time around I'm more aware of open-pollinated heritage varieties, and the importance of preserving these treasures. They grow true from seed of the harvested fruit, and bring important reproducible variety to the gene pool. This year I intend to plant heritage varieties as much as possible, and I may try my hand at saving seed. With so much else going on I may put the seed saving off for a season.

I found that for the Mid-Atlantic area, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a fabulous outfit. I can't vouch for the quality of their product yet, having just placed an order with them last week, but I can say that their catalog is full of valuable information. You can browse it online, print the entire catalog or just a few key pages, or purchase a copy to carry around with you. Their online ordering was simple, and they shipped promptly. So far, I'm a happy customer.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Making a Right Angle (the 3-4-5 method)

Not the most exciting graphic, I'll admit, but hear me out.

This fall, when I was marking out a garden plot, I began by just "eyeballing" it. I'm not that picky about garden layout... it's the content more than the appearance that interests me. But, frankly, my original garden layout was pretty skewed and pathetic looking.

I then employed a neat technique that, if you're not familiar with it, I think you'll find the occasional use for. It's a simple nifty little tool to have in your bag of tricks.

You can create a right angle simply by employing the following procedure:
  1. Measuring out two pieces of string or board other item that can be pulled straight and that measure 3 and 4 feet long.
  2. These will be the two "short" legs of your right triangle, so lay them down in as close to a right angle as you can get by just eyeballing them.
  3. Take a third piece of string or board or what have you, and measure it to 5 feet long.
  4. Make this last piece the "long" leg of the triangle. Once you get everything arranged neatly, if your legs are 3, 4, and 5 feet long, you'll have a right angle.
This works because of the pythagorean theorem, which states that the sum of the square of the two short legs equals the square of the long leg (the hypoteneuse). In other words, (3x3) + (4x4) = (5x5).

Sure enough, 9 + 16 does equal 25.

This will work with multiples of 3, 4, and 5, so if lengths of 6, 8, and 10 feet suit your purposes better, just double everything. I personally find the shorter lengths to be easier to work with, and they're long enough to create a reasonably right angle - easily square enough for a garden plot!

Monday, January 16, 2006


We have a german shepherd dog named Rolf. A fine german name for a fine german pup. As you can see, he's an avid gardener. At just over two years old, he's as big as a "real dog" but he acts like a puppy. He gets excited over everything. He chases his toys around the kitchen. He runs around barking at nothing and generally acting the fool.

We had snow this weekend and Rolf raced across the porch with his chin practically on the wood, scooping up snow, tossing it into the air, and snapping at it with a flash of razor sharp teeth. He loves to snap and grin. He zoomed across the porch at breakneck speed, then about six feet from the edge he'd throw on the brakes and sliiiiide to within inches of the edge. Back and forth, back and forth. It was quite amusing to watch. I have no idea how he avoided getting wood splinters in his paws or chin, but apparently it's a non-issue for him.

Well, after getting chilled, he came inside for a cup of hot cocoa and to sit by the gas heater. We reminded him that dogs don't get chocolate, and even if they did he's growing quite pudgy and wouldn't be allowed any sweets. So he had to content himself with the gas heater. He loves the gas heater. When he hears it cut on he'll trot over there and lie in front of it, hogging all the warmth. As usual, Rolf positioned himself right in front of the heater. Rather than lying down, as is his habit, he made a gross error in judgement: he turned around to get his ears scratched, and his tail hit the glass panel in front of the ceramic heating elements. In an instant there was a puff of smoke and a wretched acrid smell filled the air. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt at all - only singed the tips of his tail fur.

Now my husband has nicknamed him "Smudgepot." I have to admit, it suits him. He's kind of rusty black, roundish, and he smells burnt and funky. Poor little Smudgepot. He stays a respectful distance from the heater, though!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Upgrading Windows

We're replacing the old windows in the house. When I say "we" I mean my husband. The old windows are wonderful - the old wavy glass. We hated to get rid of them but they're so loose in the frames and the frames are so loose in the wall that we really did need to replace them. Much of the wood is damaged beyond repair.

The photo shows some of the crazy angles we have to work with in this house. Fortunately, Home Depot sells some Anderson double-paned windows that will fit nicely inside the existing frames with just some shims and lots of "Great Stuff" foam.

The window here has been sprayed with bug spray, to help keep the lady bugs at bay. We have piles of them! We vacuum them up every few days and they just keep on coming.

We opted to replace the upstairs windows first, for a couple of reasons. First, that's where the bedrooms are. Second, heat rises, and we reasoned if we keep the heat from rushing out the upper portion of the house, we'd also prevent the cold air from rushing in quite as much downstairs. He's gotten seven of the ten upstairs windows replaced, and it's made a huge difference!


Wednesday, January 11, 2006


I've never done double-digging before. Everything I read talks about what a lot of hard work it is, and how very worth the effort it is. So, I figured I'd try it. We had some nice days recently and the ground isn't frozen nor is it too muddy to dig. I have a bed out in the garden area where I've started digging, and yesterday I dug out there about 45 minutes or so.

Here you see my efforts. One major mistake I'm making is I'm digging my trenches length-wise along the bed rather than digging lots of short trenches the width of the bed. The photo shows where I am digging the second trench in the bed. To the left at the bottom of the picture is the dirt I've removed from the second trench and piled onto the top of the first trench where I've removed the first foot or so of soil. Later I'll go along this trench with a garden fork and loosen the soil about another foot down, but I won't remove it; I'll leave it in place. In the bottom right of the picture is my second trench where I've just removed the top foot of soil. At the top of the photo, the left hand portion shows my first trench after digging out the first foot of soil, loosening the second foot with a garden fork, removing sod from the top of the second trench and flipping it into the first trench, upside down, and then scattering some peat moss and manure on it. The right hand portion shows my second trench with just the sod removed. The grass is just field that hasn't been messed with other than mowing, and the straw is part of another experiment that will become garden space this spring.

You can read more about my gardening efforts on the gardening portion of my website.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Small Town Liquor Stores

This past weekend we were in town ("town" being 20 miles away and consisting of about 1400 people). We stopped in the one liquor store in search of tonic. They don't carry tonic at the grocery store or the Rite-Aid (the Rite-Aid is a pharmacy, where you get beer!).

So, anyway, we went into the liquor store and looked around a bit. The owner was behind the counter and asked if he could help us.

We told him we were looking for tonic.
He said he'd never heard of it.
We said "You know, like gin and tonic?"
He just shrugged. Never heard of it.

But, he did have some club soda.
So we took that instead.


Monday, January 09, 2006

The Greenhorns Gather Wood

We've had very dreary weather forever, it seems, and our wood supply was running low.

One day about a week ago the weather was cold and cloudy but nice-ish and my husband and son took the pickup truck slip-sliding in the mud up to a place where we had a tree down across a track. Clear the road, gather some wood. Two birds with one stone. Excellent! Unfortunately they hit fencing metal before they'd gotten 1/3 of the pickup bed filled. They tried cutting through a couple of logs and realized they had to just call it a day. It was more like using a wood burning and etching kit than a chainsaw. We didn't have a spare chain on hand and there was no way to repair the boogered one: it was too messed up. So the wood gathering was cut short. Ha ha.

So, yesterday, the weather was beautiful. Still plenty muddy, but we figured we could manage. We went up toward an area where there are several dead trees standing near a track where we could get the pickup truck in and out. My husband had been up there to fell a tree a couple of days ago and it simply wouldn't topple. He had cut a wedge out where he wanted it to fall, and cut a horizontal cut on the opposite side, but the thing just would not come down. So, that's where we went.

We tied one end of a very long rope around the coveted tree and fastened the other end of the rope to the ball hitch on the pickup truck. We slowly inched the pickup forward, and a satisfying "CRACK" reverberated through the crisp air. The tree leaned, stalled, shifted directions, and landed against a healthy upright tree. I mean to tell you, the dead tree is leaning squarely against a very solid, healthy tree. There is no way to get the dead tree down now. Bummer!

We went on to other dead trees and filled the bed of the pickup. Then we brought the wood down to the house, split the wood that needed splitting, and stacked it under the wood shed. So we have the better part of a cord of wood gathered. Still, it would have been nice to have gotten that first tree. It chafes, knowing the tree is up there laughing at us behind our backs.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Frozen Laundry

It's been really warm here for a couple of weeks. Highs well into the 50s. Lots of mud. This morning before work, I hung some clothes out on the line because the forecast finally suggests we might get some clear weather and, frankly, I'm almost out of clean undies.

Now it's snowing all over my laundry. This photo wasn't taken today, it was taken a few weeks ago in a similar situation.

Since I'm not familiar with cold weather, I thought the clothes would freeze and just stay frozen until it got warm again, at which point they'd thaw and eventually dry out.

But no! They dry much faster when the temperatures are below freezing. For one thing, when the wind blows, little ice crystals get blown out of the fabric and carried away on the breeze. And for another thing, ice can evaporate just as well as water can. It's called sublimation. I learned about that in school, but I'd forgotten about it. When the temps dip way down, the air is typically a lot drier than in the summer time, so it accepts the moisture from the clothing more readily.


Thursday, January 05, 2006


Spent a bit of time today updating the resources page of my new website.

I was poking through the bookshelf and realized I don't know where some of my favorite books are :( This will bother me until I have turned the place upside down and found the missing book under the bed or sofa, or beneath a pile of magazines. I don't need the book right now, there's nothing I want to look up, but knowing I can't put my hand on it makes me nuts.

I also realized I have a few books that get rave reviews and I see quoted and cited, but that I haven't taken time to read. These short rainy days are perfect for reading. I think I know what I'll be doing tonight...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Blogging 101

I like the way blogger.com allows me to post pictures and especially the way it allows folks to search for key terms in the blog, and to leave comments each day. I was going to add a guest book to my website, and a search capability to my journal entries, but I think this might be better. I'm going to give it a whirl, anyway, and see how I like it. Plus, blogger.com lets me create the blog using their tools but I can still host it on my server. Cool!

The news here: I got my driver's license and tags for the pickup truck! I'm officially a resident of West (by god) Virginia now. I feel like I have well and truly arrived.

It's raining, raining, raining here and has been for the last three weeks or more. We need to cut some firewood, but everything is soaked and muddy. Daring to be optimistic, we bought a couple of chains for the chainsaw yesterday. This will probably ensure rain for another forty days.

I'm jonesing to be out digging my garden beds, too, but it's way too muddy for that. Seems like it went from frozen to muck overnight.

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