As long-time readers are aware, Mark’s a big believer in building your way out of repetitive or unpleasant homesteading tasks. So I get to enjoy his amazing caterpillar tunnels, porch-top planter boxes, anti-chipmunk strawberry beds, anti-bird raspberry area, and deer-proof garden fence.
Now, after a year of making me talk in front of a camera then plunking Mark down in front of editing software, you can enjoy a deep dive into each of those projects. For another day or two, you can even nab your copy at 50% off!
This is our second video course and I hope it comes across as tighter, more informative, and more entertaining than the first one. (It certainly felt that way to me, but maybe I’m just getting over my annoyance at seeing myself in moving pictures.)
As a bonus, Udemy courses come with a lifetime subscription to updates. For example, folks in our Soil-First Gardening Course paid up front for an hour-long course just like this one, then got a bonus half hour of cover-crop information a few months later totally free even though the course increased in price by $10 at the same time.
Which is a long way of saying — I hope you’ll grab a copy now while DIY Gardening Projects is brand new and the cheapest it will ever be! if you really want to make our day, please consider leaving a review after you watch. Reviews not only help strangers decide to take a chance on our courses, they also give us ideas of what to add and how to do better next time.
Advoko MAKES on You tube has been experimenting with using plastic bottles to farm bees.
It seems to be cheaper and easier. That big bottle is a European recycled beer keg.
He has even configured one of his hives to make the top bottle reachable from inside his house!
Perhaps you’ve seen the new USDA hardiness zone map that came out this week? For the first time in eleven years, we have an updated map, and about half of the United States moved half a zone warmer (with the rest staying in the same zone they were in before). You can check your new zone here.
Before you rush out and buy tropical trees to plant in your garden, though, I thought I’d share a few thoughts from our last fifteen-plus years growing fruit.Averages aren’t everything
First, you need to understand what the zone map really means. It’s a thirty-year average of annual extreme low temperatures in your location.
In other words, that’s the coldest it’s likely to get in your garden on an average year — so sometimes the temperature will never drop that low and sometimes you’ll see a freak cold spell that dips even lower. In fact, as the climate changes, unusual cold waves (and heat waves) are becoming more common, so my biggest piece of advice is this:
Be conservative when picking out those fruit trees! Maybe don’t choose a fig that’s only on the edge of hardy where you’re located. Instead, if you live in zone 6b (as we now do), it’s smarter to select varieties hardy to at least zone 6a. This is especially true for fruit plants that take several years to mature.Frost pockets
While you’re planning smart, be sure to consider microclimates. Even though the area we moved from is technically half a zone warmer than the one we’re in now (meaning we moved from zone 6b to zone 6a…which is now zone 6b!), our hilltop tends to evade early and late freezes that would have definitely struck our previous deep-valley pocket.
So no matter what the map claims, believe your eyes if they say you’re actually half a zone colder or warmer than your neighbors. And consider late freezes prone to result in fruitless years when selecting varieties — late bloomers can be a major plus.Heat and drought
Finally, it’s worth looking at the flip side of the coin. The hardiness zone maps don’t say anything about annual high temperatures or droughts, but for many of us both of those climate concerns are increasingly relevant in our gardens.
For example, despite drip irrigation, our hilltop gets so bone dry during scorching summers that I keep losing shallow-rooted blueberry plants. I intend to move the survivors to a wetter location (which I’ll tell you about in a later post). For now, just remember that there’s a lot more to keeping fruit plants happy than making sure they evade the worst winter ice.Shameless plug
If you want to read more of my thoughts on choosing fruit plants that will produce with minimal headache on your part, definitely check out my Weekend Homesteader: Winter ebook (or nab the full series in paperback form).
And I’d love to hear from you. How are you changing your gardening plans in response to the new maps?
The post What the new zone map means for home fruit gardeners first appeared on WetKnee Books.
Last year, I wrote that, when growing ginger in the home garden, you should wait to harvest until after the leaves die back in the autumn. Now I’m not so sure that’s true.
This data isn’t actually from my own garden (although I am eating the result!). It all started when Mark’s mom cut up one rhizome to grow in a corner of a garden bed for my sake. “Harvest whenever you want,” she said.
When Mark and I dropped by at the end of September, the ginger plants still seemed to be growing so I decided to wait. But between then and the end of October, a light frost killed back all of the plants except one.
The ginger that kept its top turned out to be at its peak and made delectable pickled ginger. The plants that had died back came out of the ground with tougher skins (like what you’d find in the grocery store) and several were rotting.
Since pickled ginger is my favorite use for the rhizome and the recipe demands “baby” roots, I’ll aim to harvest before the first freeze next time. For folks who store their ginger on the shelf, you’ll definitely want to wait longer so the protective outer skin will form (although not so long you get the rotting I dealt with).
Not sure if that means harvesting immediately after the first freeze or before, although I suspect the trick is to start root pieces inside so the plants hit maturity before cold weather comes to call. I’d love to hear from folks who have experimented and figured the sweet spot out!
As a side note, growing ginger in a garden bed instead of in a pot definitely resulted in higher yields. And it was less finicky! So much so I might actually grow ginger myself next year rather than begging my mother-in-law to do the hard work for me.
In the meantime, I’m just enjoying my pickled ginger mixed into steamed veggies. That and hoping for more rain to boost our parched fall garden’s yields.
I learned the hard way during some recent insulation work that a pair of scissors is painful.
The standard method of using a utility knife on a hard surface is good if you have plenty of room.
An electric meat carving knife is much better and quicker. It’s light enough to use with one hand while you use the other hand to hold on to the insulation.
In my last post, I shared my brother’s journey to upgrade his off-grid home from the multi-decade-old original solar system to a new one that meshed with his needs in the modern age. But what did he do with the old panels?
The trouble with utilizing ancient solar panels is that they’re so much less effective than new ones that it often makes more sense to just replace them than to add them into a larger array. The panels don’t have to end up in the trash, though.
Instead, Joey came up with a clever hack that takes advantage of the panels with almost no supporting equipment. What’s the solution? He uses the old panels to pump water from his spring up the hill into a pair of large tanks. The result is free water pressure combined with enough storage to carry him through the dry summer and fall.
The system starts when water gravity-flows from Joey’s spring into a 500-gallon tank. On the right, you see the original spring box, which he’s bypassed.
Inside the plastic tank is a float switch and a pump intake. The switch turns on the pump when water reaches a certain level then turns it off when the water drops to another level. Zero management!
Of course, the pump is fueled by the sun. That doesn’t happen quite by magic, though. Instead, Joey made a pump house out of an old cooler that keeps everything dry while also channeling noise away from the house. A more traditional electric box connects the solar panels and pump.
Water is pumped up the hill through pex tubing and into two 550-gallon tanks connected together. Then the water gravity-flows back down whenever Joey turns on his faucet.
The hill just happens to be high enough to provide 30 PSI!
What would he change if he had to do it over again?
Joey installed his old solar panels on swivel mounts. Now, he wouldn’t bother — solar panels are so cheap, he doesn’t see the need to add fancy infrastructure to soak up every last bit of sun.
Otherwise, his water system is running perfectly! It’s even cat-approved.
How do we cut up those long wood mill discards in just the right size for firewood?
We now use a fence post next to some porch steps.
Anna pushes the board up against the fence post where I cut a piece that drops straight down.
Remember my brother, Joey’s, underground solar house? Thirteen years later, I dropped by for a tour to see how it’s aged…and been reenvisioned.Upgrade, round 1
Five years ago, Joey took out the old panels and installed a 1-kilowatt solar array.
It cost him about $2,000 at that time to pay for the panels and racking to install the new panels on the roof, although he notes that prices have gone down considerably since then. (More on that later.)
This allowed him to add on a satellite internet system (1.2 kwh) and a fridge/freezer (0.5 kwh).
Upgrades, round two
A couple of years later, he spent $3,500 on four lithium-ion batteries, in part to bring him up to speed for the new panels and in part to prepare for further upgrades. Since then, he’s started adding in all of the associated wiring for upgrade part 2, the goal of which is to let him add a hot-water heater (6 kwh), an electric vehicle (variable, depending on how much you drive), and an induction stove (2 kwh) while never again dealing with low-power days.
The new system, which he hopes to bring online within a year or two, will involve completely covering the roof in solar panels (a roughly 10-kilowatt array). The solar panels aren’t anywhere near the most expensive part since he’s planning on buying them by the pallet-load, which will cost anywhere from $2,700 to $5,200 for 25 to 30 panels adding up to 10 kilowatts. He hasn’t pulled the trigger on this because, as we learned, delivery of a pallet to a rough-drivewayed homestead can be tricky! (Plus, he needs to change out his roof first.)
Other parts of the new system include about $500 on wires, $550 on charge controllers (about which, more shortly), $1,000 on combiner boxes/breakers/lightning arresters, and a whopping $3,200 on roof mounts. Total estimated cost (including the recently purchased batteries): $13,500.
(Of course, the full math also includes the federal tax credit he’ll get back as well. In some areas, there are )
Sounds like a massive investment, right? That price tag still represents a huge savings over hiring an installer to come in and build the system. Joey estimates the installer cost would have been at least double what he plans to pay.
A unique charge controller
Joey wanted me to mention that his choice of charge controllers is very off-beat. He loves living far away from civilization, where birds and crickets are the only noises he has to deal with. He wasn’t willing to disrupt that tranquility with the usual charge controllers, which run a fan constantly.
Instead, he chose a cheap Epever charge controller that’s silent…but only handles one or two kilowatts. For upgrade 2, he installed more controllers, but will still lose half his power.
He’s okay with this because it ensures that, on a cloudy winter day, he’ll still have enough power. Since solar panels are so cheap, it’s now okay to overdo that part of the system.
Another side note: 24-volt system
During the first upgrade, Joey changed over from a 12-volt to a 24-volt system, which required him to change out the lights in the house. (You can decide whether you’re running a 12-volt, 24-volt, or 48-volt system based on the way you wire the batteries.) The benefit of a 24-volt system is that it lets him use industrial automation equipment, versus the automotive equipment you’d use with a 12-volt system. It also lets his charge controllers handle twice as many panels as they could otherwise.
What happened to the old panels?
I’m so glad you asked! That’s the topic of another post. Stay tuned!
If you’re on our email list, you’ve probably seen a lot of these photos already. But the truth is, I’m about to leave Mark holding down the fort while I travel south for yet another mini-vacation, so I don’t have much homesteading substance to share this week. Instead, I thought you might enjoy fun photos from other mini-vacations instead.
Starting with, above and below, Mark and my houseboat experience in Canada — more stressful than expected, but beautiful and mind-expanding.
Below: Creekwalking with my older sister in the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky. The Rock Bridge Trail is not to be missed!
Totally out of order, the image below is from this past Saturday in which I attended a Centennary Scottish dance ball in Dayton (bringing along six of my students who’d just started dancing this year and who aced their first event!). No, you can’t find me in the picture — I was behind the camera.
The next shot is from a writing retreat I attended in the Hocking Hills this spring. The photo was taken with a timer while drenched through after a downpour — the only way to get those busy trails to myself.
Going further back in time, in March Mark and I met up with Mark’s cousin and cousin-in-law-to-be on Lake Erie. Birding the Magee Marsh boardwalk (birdwalk?) was almost as good as spending time with such good friends.
More recently, Mark’s been on multiple mini vacations learning to sail in Cleveland. But the image below is from close to home as he takes those lessons to the dinghy scale.
And here I am photographing mushrooms in the amazing Heart’s Content old-growth grove in the Allegheny National Forest. If you’re a mycophile, this place is not to be missed!
Looking back at all of these adventures fills me with gratitude and makes me so aware of how much I’ve changed since starting this journey. I’m gradually learning that an imperfect garden combined with a joyful life is far better than vice versa.
You’re all quite clever, so I’m sure you’ve figured that out already. Which brings me to my question — what are you grateful for right now?
When Mark and I went to pick up more waste slabs of lumber for firewood, I talked our neighbor into letting me pick his brain about what it’s like to own a homestead-scale sawmill. I figured several of you might dream of setting up your own operation, so here are his top tips:
Don’t expect to make a profit.
Richard admitted that he started out trying to pay back the cost of the sawmill selling beautiful wood products. However, he soon decided the sawmill was better as a hobby rather than a business.
The biggest benefit he finds to sawing his own lumber is being able to save live edges and be an artist in a way you can’t when working with industrial wood. It’s also a plus that the sawmill allowed him to build most of the required infrastructure. Speaking of which…
You’ll always need more space under roof.
The sawmill itself, of course, requires a shed.
Then there are the boards, which need to be stacked in a drying building for a year per inch of thickness. (Be sure to plan the length of this shed around the length of the boards you intend to mill if you’re going for peak efficiency.)
Next up, there’s the planing area, which Richard prefers to keep in the open air but still under roof to prevent dealing with massive amounts of sawdust inside.
Finally, he has a workshop where he turns homemade boards into stunning works of art. He’s also been known to utilize the local makerspace when he doesn’t have all of the tools he needs at home.
Plan uses for the waste products.
Richard told me that most new sawmill owners probably get started thinking of the beautiful things they can create. But it’s also essential to plan for the inevitable waste products.
In addition to the slabs he gives to us for firewood, Richard turns his massive pile of wood shavings into top-notch mulch in the garden. Next, he uses small pieces of wood to create cutting boards and butcher blocks, arranging different colors and patterns to create works of art.
In the end, there’s actually not as much waste as you’d think when you try to use every part of the log.
Find a way to entice your spouse with the output.
Finally, Richard mentioned that owning a sawmill can be an expensive, noisy, space-consuming hobby, so it’s essential to get the whole team on board. He won his wife over by using the wood to create beautiful interior furnishings, by donating finished products to be auctioned off for a cause they both believe in, and by creating lots of gifts that build connections with family and friends.
I chose 2/3 over 2/4 boards in an effort to make our caterpillar tunnels lighter.
We now know this makes them a little too heavy and prone to decay faster than expected.
I was able to fix the problem with some brackets but needed a whole new design.
The new version takes advantage of the light and strong steel rails used to support ceiling tiles in big buildings.
I also decided that a smaller structure is easier to move and less prone to damage.
Stay tuned for a more detailed post on the smaller and better caterpillar tunnel after we’ve finished driving it around the block a few times this year.
In 2012, Mark and I invested in two solar flashlights for camping and power outages. They lasted an amazingly long time, but eventually the batteries stopped holding a charge. Rather than crack open the plastic to try to replace the batteries, I decided to see how much a decade has improved the technology.
After poking around on Amazon for a while, I settled on the TOMETC Solar Power Bank. It had a lot of good reviews, a large battery capacity, and a large solar panel…all for under twenty bucks. Sounds like a winner, right?
Wrong! I’m guessing something about the frosting they put over the solar panel to waterproof it blocks light. Whatever the reason, two full days in the sun resulted in absolutely no change in the charge level of the battery. When I dug deeper into the reviews, it turned out I wasn’t the only one who had this problem, so it wasn’t a defective unit.
Meanwhile, the flashlight is way too bright for what I usually use it for (reading in my tent). An overpowered light drains the battery faster than it should. I estimate I got about eight hours of use out of a full charge. To cut a long story short, I sent this one back.
Next up, I decided to return to the model that served us so well for eleven years. Unfortunately, the original flashlight had been discontinued, but HybridLight has a replacement available. Their offering doesn’t look as flashy as some of the alternatives and costs $10 more than the competition. But they wisely included the option of a low-light setting so I won’t drain the battery bank too quickly while reading and their longevity track record speaks for itself.
How did the actual flashlight do in the field? I wasn’t as thrilled as I’d hoped to be. On low, I estimate I’ll get about twelve hours of use out of a full charge, far less than the fifty hours they promise but still better than the competition. Meanwhile, a day in the sun did little to top the battery up.
I’m starting to suspect that my goal — being able to set a flashlight in the sun for the day then read for a couple of hours at night using that solar energy — is a pipe dream. But perhaps I just haven’t found the right solar flashlight yet. Have you tried a different model with better results?
(For the record, I decided to keep the HybridLight flashlight. It works well charged from the wall and will presumably help us through power outages if left in the sun to trickle charge when grid electricity is available.)
We got a late start on our deck grown tomatoes.
A bit of a mix up on which variety this is but I really like the sweet taste and easy harvest.
This is the second year our deck tomatoes seem to be healthier than the ones we planted in the garden.
I like to split them down the middle to add a sweet dash of color to our salads.
Dear Walden Garden gods,
My compost bin has been overrun with maggots and fat lizards
I am sure that this is linked to my gluttonous watermelon consumption this summer. I am so ashamed!
Should I promise to eat no more watermelon, bag up the vermin, and start anew?
— Your anonymous petty gardener
Dear Lucky Gardener,
You should feel proud! Your compost bin has attracted beneficial black soldier flies (the larval form of which looks like the maggots of house flies but the adults of which won’t bother your food or your garden). In fact, black soldier flies are so sought-after that lots of folks pay big bucks for specialized bins and even order black soldier fly eggs to get a colony started.
My favorite thing about black soldier flies is the way they turn kitchen scraps into worm-casting-quality black gold at lightning speed. Mark loves the way his pets greet him with their roiling excitement whenever he makes a compost deposit. Chicken keepers love black soldier flies for the high quality protein they offer as a feed addition. And your skinks are clearly in the chickens’ camp!
If you really, really want the black soldier flies not to come back next year, you can add more carbon to your bin in the form of sawdust, autumn leaves, or shredded paper. Keeping scraps covered with less-yummy alternatives at all times will indeed prevent black soldier flies from colonizing in the future.
Alternatively, if you’re sold and want to double down on your black soldier fly production, Mark’s current favorite colony home is a modified wheelie bin. We love BSFs so much that we have three bins and are thinking about renaming Mark’s pets BFFs!
P.S. I’m really not a garden god, but that’s so nice of you to say…
Are you swimming in summer squash like we are? While you can leave the excess on unsuspecting, non-gardeners’ porches, I’ve found the following one-pot recipe makes eating lots and lots of zucchini and other summer squashes so delicious the bounty ends up in your own belly instead.
- 1 medium summer squash of any type (as long as it’s straight enough to spiralize)
- 7 or more roma tomatoes
- salt, pepper, and oregano to taste
- a pre-cooked protein (ground beef is the traditional choice, but use your imagination!)
- parmesan cheese
Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze each one to release starter juices. Spiralize the squash and add it to a skillet along with the tomatoes. Cut through the mass of “noodles” a few times to shorten them. Add the salt, pepper, and oregano and cook on high heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have turned into a sauce and the squash noodles are al dente. Stir in the pre-cooked protein then garnish with parmesan and chow down!
How about you? Do you have favorite summer squash recipes that let you use up everything your garden produces?
Anna and I assembled a Craftsman steel dump cart while visiting my Mom recently.
The book says it takes 45 minutes to put together but we needed nearly 2 hours.
It’s a solid cart that can handle 750 pounds. Lowes sells it for 350 but Menards has a Yardworks version that is a little over 200.
Our berry enclosure has been unsuccessful at keeping out chipmunks but successful at keeping out birds. So we moved our strawberries (aka chipmunk magnets) to a different setup and are using the space left behind for blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries.
This year, we’ve had great harvests from all of our berries, which means I visit the berry enclosure a lot. And that also means bird netting rubbing against my head every time I take a step turned into a drag. Time to solve that problem once and for all!
My first step was to look back through old Walden Effect posts, where I found this great solution in another gardener’s berry area. Now, how to recreate it to mesh with our existing setup?
We had a lot of 10-foot PVC pipes lying around, purchased when we thought we’d need to extend our garden fence to 10 feet to keep out deer. That turned out to be unnecessary, so I decided to repurpose the pipes into berry-netting supports.
Next, we need to find a U-post that would slide easily inside the pipes. The cheapest, shortest ones were a fit!
I ended up cutting a couple of feet off each PVC pipe before sliding it onto the post since there was only so much wiggle room in our existing system. If you’re starting from scratch, you can probably use the full height.
Last step was to plop old plastic flower pots on top of each pipe to spread out that pressure point and prevent pipes from poking through netting if leaves fall before we take our setup down. If you repeat this, be smarter than I was — don’t stare up at the flower pot as you raise the pole into place or you’ll end up with an almost black eye!
We’re thrilled with the result, although the enclosure still has one big flaw. Honeysuckle has taken over the fence edges and each season it expands to twine into our berry netting. We’re still working out solutions on that front. In the meantime, eating lots of berries is a great reward for not-so-hard work.
Some of the problems with restoring a wheelbarrow is the damage around bolt holes which prevents the round headed bolts from biting in so you can tighten them.
An exterior screw with a washer isn’t exactly flat but it seemed better than a traditional nut and fastened in nicely with the wood of the handles.
Zip ties helped me hold it all together without needing a second hand while I tightened everything down.