Keep it simple Worm Composting — Vermiculture

There are about 8 oz of worms in a gallon of bedding

I’ve run a worm box for my kitchen scraps for about 10 years, and they work great.  We usually generate between 2 and 10 lbs of scraps each day, too much for a single 2ft x 4ft worm box.  I solved that problem by just building more worm boxes–I have 3 of them and they are wonderful!

In 2009, I introduced some of my red wriggler population to my manure pile.  They did a great job.  After about 6 months of increasing population I could tell that it was working because they had really filled up the heap.  The compost was still composting at about the same rate, but my system had changed for the better.  I now have a host of worms working through my compost.

I no longer create large heaps of hot compost, and I no longer have to turn the piles. Continue reading

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Is it a Honey Bee or a Wasp?

Yellow Jackets eat sweet fruit, other insects, & pieces of meat off your dinner plate


Thank you for the pictures–they are always helpful.

You have a colony of western yellow jackets (Vespula Pensylvanica) living in your roof.   They are a similar to the eastern yellow jackets (Vespula Maculifrons), which usually live in underground nests.  I’ve attached photos of a honey bee, a yellow jacket, and a paper wasp for you. Continue reading

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Permaculture tour at the Bullock Homestead

On Tuesday, August 17th, the 4 kids and I joined several others in my Permaculture Design Class to tour the Bullock’s homestead on Orcas Island.  We left early to catch the ferry from Anacortes and came home late, but there were enough “rests” during the day that it all came at a reasonable pace.  (What else can you do when waiting at the ferry dock but pick blackberries and take a snooze?)

The Bullock homestead & nursery has been there for 30 years, and it is an excellent example of a “mature” permaculture system.  The main area of the homestead is densely packed as a perennial “food forest”.   The 3 hour tour started at 1 PM, and I could tell that we were just getting a taste of the thought, detail and purpose that was behind everything there. 

Everything is carefully laid out, with all the details around fertility, water and waste flows thoroughly worked through.  Continue reading

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Cougar Event & 2 Goats Lost

Buttercup has a scratched, sore nose, but is still alive

Some weeks are more eventful than others.

Here is my description of how two of our yearling goats were killed, and how I saved one of the does.

Continue reading

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Chickens & Cows on the Pasture

A chicken hard at work scratching up compacted bedding

A cow pie is money, and I like to get it back in the soil “bank” as soon as possible.  Of course, I’d rather not spend my time following around the cow with a rake to spread the manure out as soon as it hits the ground.  I’ve got chickens lined up to do that job for me. 

It’s the permaculture principle of putting things where they ought to go, but I think of it as having the animals doing their own work. 

We’ve moved our chicken tractors into the pasture areas, and we let them roam around during the day to forage in the grass.  They are learning that there are bugs living in the older cow pies.   It doesn’t take long for a chicken to scratch a load of manure up and spread it over the grass–that’s one of the things they do best.  

A freshly deposited cow pie

This is a concept Joel Salatin has championed at Polyface farms in Virginia, and which is getting more popular elsewhere.   For egg farmers, the idea is sometimes called an “eggmobile” because the chicken pen is mobile and comes into the pasture a few days after the cows have left.  (See Natures Harmony Farm  for an example)  Since I only have a couple acres, and a small pasture, the chickens get to be mobile and the pen stays put. Continue reading

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How much organic material can your car haul?

I’m making the most of my vehicles.

The “commuter car” I drive for my daily commute to Redmond and back is a Toyota Corolla–it takes me 20 miles each way with a little better than 36 mpg.  This is great for my daily drives, and I’m very happy with it.  I do have a pickup, which gets used a lot for our farm jobs.

There is a challenge though.  I combine as many errands as I can on my drive to and from my cubicle job, and one of these is a daily stop at our neighborhood produce stand.  They save their discarded greens for me each day, and I take them home to feed the animals.   The challenge is when my little car and I show up at the market when I really needed my pickup.  Monday was one of those days.

My Corolla often gets used as a farm truck

The question in cases like this is: “do I go home and get the pickup, or should I see how much I can fit in my little car?”  I hate to waste a trip, so usually I try to fit it in.

Here is what I brought home in my little car in Monday’s trip:

  • Four 32-gallon trash cans
  • 1 case of watermelons
  • 150 lbs of spent homebrew grain (for my worm farm)
  • 3 bags of groceries & other stuff
  • Computer briefcase
  • Honey bee swarm capture equipment for 2 people (it stayed in the trunk for the photo).

This only works in the summer because you must roll down both rear windows to fit 3 trash cans in the back seat.

My flock of 28 geese ate all the greens & watermelons the next day.  I’d like to haul this much every trip; but if I did, I would use the pickup.

This post featured on Simple Lives Thursday Blog Hop.

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Pasture Brix

Squeeze grass juice onto the refractometer to measure Brix.

We’ve got a new tool on the farm–a refractometer!  We aren’t checking grapes for wine harvest-ripeness, but rather the grass for “Total Dissolved Solids” or TDS (for short).

The refractometer gives readings in degrees Brix (°Bx), which corresponds to the % of sugar in the tested liquid (there’s more in there than just sugars, hence the “total dissolved solids” tag).  The higher the number, the sweeter the juice.  Our new instrument was purchased from a friend for $65.  I did a quick test with filtered water and it showed an appropriate 0°, so Abigail and I spent some time Sunday afternoon out testing everything we could think of.

Dr. Dettloff demonstrated this for us during his seminar day, and Kathy and I were running all over the farm collecting samples of grass for testing.   He carried a vise-grip specially modified with a stainless steel  “beak” that collects and directs the drops of expelled sap to its tip for collection.  He explained how a farm needs to get his pasture up to above 10° Brix, in order to keep his animals healthy and strong. Continue reading

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Maureen the cow has joined the milking routine

Cow's milk with an inch of cream on top. Photo courtesy of

We planned on letting the calf have all of the cow’s milk for the first three weeks, but life got a little busy, and we ended up giving it some extra days.  Last Friday evening though, it was time for us to change the routine, and we penned “Abel” (a-bull) the bull calf up for the night.

Saturday morning came and Kathy woke up at 5:30 to the sound of Maureen and Abel calling to each other.  She hopped out of bed and moved Maureen from her long pasture tether over to a short rope tied to a nearby alder tree.    That tree is now her “milking stand”.

Kathy told me that Maureen did a bit of dancing that first day, but she learns routines fast and is now standing nicely.  (Hooray for a smart cow!)  The first milking was mostly for training, and yielded about 2 cups of milk.

We have a once-a-day milking routine at our place.  The kid goats and the the calf get penned up at night and are given back to their moms after milking is finished in the morning.  The milk production we lose is made up for by the health of the young animals, and an easier chore routine.

On Saturday we got a a key pointer from a cousin in New Mexico who has done this before.  She suggested that we let the calf suckle for a short time to help the cow let down her milk.  It does make a big difference with how fast the milk comes, and the “hind” milk the comes down is supposed to have a little more cream content.  Perhaps most important is the Mo knows that her calf is OK, and settles in to chew her cud.  Kathy has also learned to lean her shoulder into Mo, so the cow has a clear sense of Kathy’s location.  This morning Kathy brought in a little over a quart of milk, and we expect that to continue to increase some as the routine gets established.

The milk itself is delicious, and it is a treat to have cream.  Maureen is only getting the grass off the pasture right now–it’s a mix of colonial bentgrass & common velvet grass growing on mediocre soil.  Neither of these grasses are really good forages, but it’s the best the soil can do at this point.  These weak soils are one of the main reasons we chose to buy a Dexter cow–they can do well even with less than ideal forage.   If the milk is good from this grass, I can’t wait until “Mo” is mowing our better soil!

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The thatching ant, a beneficial insect

This mound of thatching ants is 4 years old

“You better spray those ants, or they will destroy your house!”   I heard this from Vince, the man who was working on our barn repairs back in 2006.  It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, so I procrastinated.

The ants had just started collecting twigs into a small hill by our driveway, and they were a long way from the house.  I decided it would be good to learn a little bit about them first–just in case.

It turns out that thatching ants don’t like to live in houses after all.  They build their own, so they have no reason to move into mine.  What I found was some references about how they “farm” aphids to collect the honeydew as food.  There were also a couple comments about them being predators of grasshoppers and beetles.   Personally, I think there is more to it than that, because we don’t have many grasshoppers, beetles, or aphids.   That ant hill is next to a cedar tree, and I’ve never seen an aphid on a cedar tree before.

The thatching ant: Formica Obscuripes

Our original anthill is in the middle of a pasture, and has probably been there for 10 years.  It used to be on the edge of the blackberries, but the bushes are gone now.  Its easy to tell where it is because the grass grows HUGE next to that busy ant farm.  I’m not surprised the grass is happy–the ants’ home is a well maintained pile of mulch.

The kids found a 3rd ant hill just last week.  It’s closer to the house, right by the edge of another cedar tree.  It’s so tiny you can easily miss it, but we check on it often.  The spot they chose to build is on poor soil, and I’ll be glad to have them mulch it for me.  I’m glad it’s there.

I’ll bet there will be a lush ring of grass surrounding that new ant hill next year.

Thatching ants are sometimes referred to as “mound” ants because some species construct mounds from small sticks, grass stems, leaves, and pine or fir needles. They may also nest in decayed logs. Under most circumstances, thatching ants should be considered beneficial, since they are fierce predators of other insects.

Washington State University Extension Bulletin #0929

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Finding meaningful work

An audience of 200 people watched me catch the bees

Tuesday evening was fun.

Joel had his soccer practice right after dinner, and the other kids came along with me to enjoy a pleasant evening in the park.   I was kicking the ball with Samuel when Kathy called my phone to relay a “swarm call”.  She said “You need to get this one, and you need to go NOW!”

A swarm of bees had flown through the Cub Scout’s day camp near Lake Sammamish in Issaquah, and was perched on a maple tree branch over their archery range.  The camp director was very happy to see me when I arrived, and immediately asked if I could wait about 20 minutes so the boys could watch.  That’s a question a homeschool parent will never turn down!

After the Scout’s closing ceremony, everyone was moved over to the archery range, and sat down on the grass about 40 feet from the bees.  I gave a 5 minute talk about the bees, explained what was happening and how I was going to take them home with me.  I answered a handful of questions, then zipped on my veil and climbed up the step ladder under the tree.

Everyone was silent as I trimmed the twigs, and raised the box up to the cluster of honey bees.  A quick shake of the branch made them all fall neatly in.  It couldn’t have been a better performance!  I left the box on the ladder for any flying bees to enter, and returned to the applauding croud.   The camp director later told me she had never had so many boys silent for that long.

The boys got a memorable lesson about bees, I got another hive going, and it felt like I accomplished something significant for the day.  

I think it must be time to make a change and get away from my cubicle job, so I can make every day’s work be meaningful like this.

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