Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wood Burning Stove

The main, in expense terms, self-reliance project for our homestead this year was adding wood heat to our home.  We had a small decorative fireplace in our living room.  It did not heat the room at all.  Fireplaces are very inefficient forms of heating.

The heating source for our home is a heat pump.  Heat pumps are very efficient in the Pacific Northwest.  The weather doesn't normally get cold enough to require a secondary form of heating.  Heat pumps tend to work efficiently until the weather drops down into the 10 degree range.  In the coldest months of winter, the utility bill jumps only about $80 to heat our 2300 square foot home.

The drawback to a heat pump for us, is that it never really warms the house.  The air blowing out of the ducts is not always hot and not as hot a gas furnace system.  The air at times might only be 90 degrees; therefore, it actually feels cool to the skin.  Since our winters are wet, the house also has a damp chill.  To keep the energy bills down we keep the house at 69 degrees, which the wife is not a fan of.

The decision was made to add wood heat as a secondary heating source to the home.  We looked around and found a local company that offers a wood stove that would fit into our fireplace insert.  The stove we ended up buying was the Aspen made by Kuma.  This stove is rated with a 79% efficiency.  While the ratings numbers are taking with a grain of salt from the EPA, it is far more efficient than older wood stoves and a fireplace.

The Aspen has a small firebox, but still takes a 16 inch log.  If we had a larger fireplace, the stove could be be extended out of the fireplace on demand.  Because of its size, the Aspen only heats 1700 square feet.  This is okay because the way the house is laid out, we only really want to use it to heat our living space during the day, which is about 600 sq. feet.  Our upstairs normally stays a few degrees warmer than the downstairs.  Though, the way the stairs are laid out, the heat from the stove drifts upstairs as well.

We have been using the Aspen stove for a little over two months now.  This is our first wood stove, so there is a bit of learning curve.  The first issue that we had was smoke in the house when starting the stove up.  After setting off the smoke alarms a few times, I found out this was because of a negative airflow in the chimney.  Our chimney sits outside the home and on colder mornings, the airflow will flow down into the firebox.  We ended up opening a window for a few minutes before lighting the stove to fix this issue.  One other thing we did was find a local wood working company that was selling 16 cubic foot bags of kiln dry kindling.  There was less smoke and a much faster start using the kindling.

The wife is the largest fan of the stove after giving me the honey way are you buying that look.  We can heat the main room to about 75 degrees with just a couple of logs.  She is nice and cozy while sitting with the family.  The stove itself takes about 30 minutes or so to get up to a nice 450-500 degree temperature (outside thermostat).  This is the range recommended to us to not have creosote build up in the chimney.  After the fire dies down, the stove still pours heat into the room for about the next two hours.

For us wood is a sustainable source of heat because our homestead is located on a little over 7 acres, of which about 2 are wooded.  There are quite a few trees growing outside the wooded area as well.  Many of these trees we are looking to chop and drop to build soil and replace them with other plantings.  Some people believe we destroy the environment when a tree is cut down, but this is not true.  When a tree is cut down, its roots die off and decay.  As they decay soil is built.  This is even more of a benefit with a nitrogen fixing tree because the nitrogen on the roots is release into the soil and available for other plants.  Part of the design of healthy orchard or forest system will include planting nitrogen fixing or "support" trees close to the main trees.  Their sole purpose is for removal after a few years in order to support the main tree.  For instance, I planted Black Locust next to my Black Walnuts.  When the Locust canopies start interfering with the walnuts canopies, I will cut down the Locust.  Black Locust is an excellent wood.  It is one the most rot resistant woods on the planet and is extremely hot burning.

About a year and a half ago, we cut down a grove of cottonwood trees that were growing by our house.  There were about 9 trees in all, bunched up.  We wanted to open the area up to bring in light for an orchard that was planted.  Interestingly enough, a cottonwood tree sends out runners to sprout up new trees as well as grow trees from the cut trunks of the main tree.  It is a pioneering species and can grow very fast; basically, a weed tree.  The neighbor told myself to get stump killer to kill the stumps, but that feels wrong.  Therefore, I'm letting them grow back to see if I can harvest them in another 5 years or so, or at least when they are tall enough to interfere with the orchard again.  In the last 18 months they have shot up about 10 feet.  Cutting the original lot gave me about a cord of wood for fuel.

In scouring our land there are other areas marked for tree removal.  We found an apple tree shaded out by a pine and a cottonwood.  In another spot there is a pine tree growing on top of an oak tree, though I hate to cut this one because last year the spot grew morel mushrooms.  As mentioned above, we have started to plant nut trees and black locusts for the future. There is work to be down to remove existing trees that are shading out those areas.  Then there is a grove of trees around our drain field for the septic, which we started removing last week to prevent possible issues with rooting into the field.  As one can see finding a good source of wood for us is pretty easy.

One interesting note is: in the latest copy of Urban Farming there is an article on wood burning stoves.  It does have some funny logic and a lefty feel to it, but in all a decent read.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sheep Sorrel

Any time I sheet mulch or a mole disturbs an area, a green ground cover comes in.  It's leaves have the look of a trident or fleur de lis.  Not wanting it in the garden, I pull it up by the pound.  Since we have chickens I throw any plant that I weed to the chickens to see if they will eat it.  Not only do the chickens love the greens of the plant, they also love the seed it produces. It produces a ton of seeds spring through fall.  The seeds come within a few weeks of the leaves.

Finding out what this plant was took a few months. Finally, I was flipping through an edible plant book bought at a 2nd hand book store, and saw this mystery plant.  The plant is Sheep Sorrel and is edible. Sheep sorrel has a tart kind of lemony taste to it.  We now use it in our salads to give the salad a little flavor.

Sheep Sorrel is high in vitamins C and A. It has trace amounts of vitamin B and beneficial anti-oxidants.  On the slightly negative side, Sheep Sorrel is high in oxalate acid.  Therefore, it should not be eaten by the pound or else it will block the uptake of other important nutrients like calcium.

Growing Grass in the Pasture with Natural Alpaca Fertilizer

We moved our alpacas about 6 weeks ago to a new area of pasture that was recently fenced.  They were on the spot for a week, then moved to a different part of the pasture.  Alpacas go to the bathroom as a community; therefore, when they left I turned into there waste into the ground.  I then seeded the whole area with a pasture mix (clover, fescue, oats, grass, and tillage radish.  Originally, the grass is very thin in this pasture, my goal is to improve it to provide more feed to the animals and improve soil quality.


Six weeks later, the part that I turned has mostly grown in about 4 to 5 times as thick and 2 to three times as tall.  I am not a fan of tillage, but in this case it seems like a good way to jump start the pasture from this quick results.  The results have me looking through Craigslist now for a small tiller that I could turn in a pile of alpaca waste with.  With the alpacas we normally shovel off their waste and put it in a pile.  The part that we can't pick up with a shovel is turned into the ground.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Alpacas a Natural Lawnmower

We get a lot of rain during the spring in the Pacific Northwest.  This creates fast growing grass, that easily grows 4 to 6 inches a week.  The moisture and height of the grass makes it very hard to cut with a standard push lawn mower.  Our property has about 2 acres of grass that we need to maintain.  About a 1/2 acre lot is near the house and is the part we normally mow.  The other 1.5 acres are maintained by a neighbor every so often with a tractor.  Thinking in a permaculture mindset, mowing a field or lawn is a waste of bio energy. We are wasting fuel and human energy to mow something to the ground then compost it in a pile.  We are also reaping very little reward from the grass itself.

A goat is an obvious solution to turn a field into food, but I don't really want a goat because they can be hard to contain, destructive in the wrong areas, and I do not like goats milk.  Brandi, was flipping through Craigslist's ads and saw Alpacas listed for $45.  We stewed on it for a while and a week later after some research determined they would make a great addition.  Alpacas have no upper teeth so they don't pull the grass out of the ground like a cow or horse.  They also don't consume as much as a cow or a horse. Six alpacas can easily be sustained on an acre, so we are told.  They also do not try to escape the fence like a goat.

We contacted the person that ran the alpaca rescue farm. After talking with her we ended up getting 4 at first. The three older female alpacas were $45 a piece and a male yearling for $100.  Of course, my wife wanted the cute yearling.  Alpacas are very social animals. When the younger one was brought out its mate became depressed.  The lady decided to give us his mate for free; therefore, we ended up with 5 in all for about $300 with delivery.

After having them through the spring and summer, we ended up having to buy some hay, oats and alfalfa. The food expense runs us about $40 a month for 5 Alpacas.  A bale and bag of oats (rotating each day) lasts about 4 weeks.  One of the reasons we require so much extra feed is because I have not had a chance to finish fencing in the other 1.5 acres.  Next, year I expect this bill to drop significantly.

The alpacas tend to eat just about anything which was one reasons I didn't want a goat.  They keep the blackberries trimmed back, but also like the take the leaves off of trees and vines.  I had to put a make shift fence around all the fruit trees.  My fix will be as the trees mature they will all start their canopy at about 6ft which is the highest the alpacas really reach.  To protect bushes outside the fence, I will have to use chicken wire or something to stop them from sticking their nose through.  Another nice thing with alpacas is as fall hits, they suck up the fallen leaves. This means no raking.

One of the best products the alpacas produce is poop.  They are communal poopers, which means they go in one spot.  We found they like to expand on this spot as time goes on slowly moving it, even if you keep it clean.  The poop can be directly applied in the garden because it is not hot like chicken poop.  I put some in the raised beds this season and the cucumbers, zucchini, and peppers took off.  The rest I will use to improve the pasture.  When we rotate them to a different paddock, the poop is turned into the ground from the communal spot.

The other valued product that the market likes is alpaca fiber.  We were the least interested in this.  We had 3 of the alpacas sheared, the others were sheared already when we got them.  Brandi, is looking into taking spinning classes to learn how to work with the fiber.

So far, the alpacas have been a fun experience and work much better than a lawnmower.  They even edged like a trimmer along the fence.  They require little work.  As a bonus they give us much better fertility.  They might cost a little more than just mowing, but nothing like what a single horse would cost.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Egg Shells Protect Against Moles

This year I planted 25 pea seeds at the beginning of April.  At the end of April only 3 of those plants came up.  Disappointed, I went to check on the other seeds.  I tried to dig one up.  All I found was a mole trench.  I replanted a new batch moving the peas inward by three inches and filled in the mole's trench.  A few weeks later and still no peas.  I checked and the mole trench was back in the old spot.  moles eat earthworms, but I swear they are eating my pea seeds too.  There are a ton of snakes in the garden this year and they could be the issue as well.

There were no problems with peas last year.   Then I remembered last year I started the peas in egg shells and planted the egg shells in the garden.  This year because of direct sowing the seed, egg shells were not used.  Therefore, I decided to do an experiment.  I saved some egg shells and planted the seeds in them.  I planted about twelve new starts and ten have come up so far.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Christmas Trees as Mulch

When we first moved here, we bought some would chips from a guy that collected Christmas trees and chipped them up.  That gave me an idea that I executed on last Christmas.  Some cities have drop off locations for Christmas trees.  My dad stumbled upon one of these locations up by where he lives.  We ended up picking up two, 12 foot trailers worth of trees, about 30 in total.

I paid my stepson to cut the branches off leaving just the trunk of the tree.  The trunks of the trees are 2 to 4 inches thick and narrow down quickly.  I used them as landscaping timbers to line the fences and pathways in the orchard.  They can also be used to hugelkultur beds.

There are many theories on what makes pine trees acidic and if using them as mulch has a large effect on the soil. The theory that I am going with is the green needles are acidic. The trees sat over the winter and into spring, for about 5 months.  Most of the pine needles dried out.  The ones that fell off were thrown in the compost pile.  Ten gallons alone fell off in the trailer during transport.

I tried to chip the dried branches, some with needles on them.  Unfortunately, chipping in a small Craftsman chipper was a pain.  The branches where too flexible, still sappy and were too wide to go down into the chipper.  Then an idea came to me as I was adding more purchased wood chips to put in the orchard.  I laid down cardboard like normal to kill the grass.  Instead of putting the wood chips on top of the cardboard, I laid out the Christmas tree branches instead.  Most of the branches are fairly flat, so they lay down nice.  Then I put the wood mulch on top of the branches.  This cut down the need for some of the wood mulch and allowed for quick use of the Christmas tree branches.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Work Truck and Trailer

We purchased some Alpacas recently to mow our lawn and fields.  While a local vet offers house visits, they cost more for trip time, and we would need to buy a chute, which costs over $1000.  Therefore, we needed to get a trailer to haul them to the vet. This also enables us to haul them to a shearer and if the kids want to do 4H.

We found a nice looking two horse trailer on Craigslist for $1250.  Except for needing new tires it was in excellent condition.  The owner barely used it and it parked under a cover.  The trailer was built in 1976 so it is solid steel which makes it heavy, but sturdy.  We ended up offering $1100 because of the tires.

We have been looking for a work truck for a few years now, but decided to save some money instead.  Normally we borrow a truck from someone or rent a UHaul.  While inconvenient it is cheaper for us than paying licensing, maintenance, and insurance on a truck.  I don't have a lot of knowledge about car repair other than simple things; therefore, I was looking for a truck with low miles.  I wanted to get something in the 250 (2500) size, preferably with a diesel.  This way I can haul things like cement and rock with less trips.

Even with the trailer purchase, our plan was to haul it with dad's truck, though, it is a little under powered being a Ford Ranger.  The Ranger also needed an upgrade to a 7 pin plug for the trailer.  While my dad was at the Ford Dealer inquiring about getting the trailer plug upgraded, he took a look around the lot for used trucks.  On the lot he found a 1996 Dodge RAM 3500 Dually with a V10 Magnum.  It had only 96K miles on it and one owner.  The used car manager priced the truck wrong when he put it on the lot for $7900 instead of $8900.  They said they will honor that price for my dad if he bought it that day.
I drove up to Longview that evening and took a look at the truck.  It drove great and was in excellent condition.  It had new tires which is worth quite a bit when buying a truck.  While a bit more power than I was looking for in a truck, my wife and I decided to purchase it.  The Ford dealer was originally going to throw away the canopy because of some paint damage.  I had them throw that in as well.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Homemade Orange and Vinegar Cleaner

My wife's friend who came to visit a few weeks ago told us about a homemade cleaner recipe.  Take one or two orange worth of peels and put them in a 1 quart canning jar.  Fill the canning jar with vinegar.  Then let the jar sit for 3 weeks.

My wife tried it out last week.  It took a dark spot off the wall that a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser could not.   My wife also added some to a bucket of water and mopped the floor with it.  No sticky residue was left behind and the floor looked great.

Update 8/1
Over the past few months we have used the cleaner to clean windows (diluted in water about 1 cup to a gallon) with streak free results and mop the floor.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bulk Potatoes and Homemade Fries

A couple times a year a local grocery store, Chucks, puts a 50 lb box of large russet potatoes on sale.  Last November it was for $4 and this month they had a deal for $6.  Chucks sources most of their produce from local growers; therefore, it is very fresh, so definitely a deal.

The potatoes are very large about 1 1/4 to 2 lbs a piece.  For us they are a perfect size for cutting up into  French Fries or making hash browns.  Frozen fries in the store can cost $2 to 3 a pound and do not taste as good as fresh potatoes or even as good as when we freeze them.  While cutting them it is important to soak them in water so they do not brown.


To freeze the potatoes we use cookie sheets.  Aluminum foil or wax paper is placed on the cookie sheet so the fries do not freeze to it.  The fries are spaced so they are not touching and do not stick together.  Normally, 1 1/2 potatoes will fit on a cookie sheet.  Once full the sheet is placed in the freezer.  A day later we pull them out and put them in a vacuum seal bag.  Then they are vacuum sealed and placed back in the freezer.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

GE Geospring Heat Pump Water Heater

One of the biggest electric expenses we face as a family is water heating.  It is the second highest use of electricity in the home, next to heating of course.  Last year, I looked into replacing the water heater with a more efficient model.  My friend has a tankless water heater and loves it.  Unfortunately, we are an electric only house, being out in the county and having no supply of gas.  To get an electric tankless, I would have to bring in 50 to 60 more amps for the water heater, plus the expense of the tankless water heater.  With another panel, additional wiring, an electrician to wire it and permits, this would run $3000-4000 and even more if more line is needed from the pole.

Another option is a hybrid water heater that uses a heat pump to heat the water in addition to the electric element.  Heat pumps transfer heat from the air to a heat sink then disperse that in some manner to the water.  Our home uses a heat pump for its heat and it is very efficient, so I like the idea.  Unfortunately, I didn't really want to spend another $1200 for a water heater.  According to estimates a hybrid water heater would save $200 to $300 a year in energy costs for a 4 to 6 year pay back.  Because the heat pump water heater is using heat from the air, I am not sure what the performance will be in the winter versus the summer.  Our garage runs 40 to 50 degrees in the winter and in the summer it gets into the upper 80s.  My assumption is we will have more savings in the summer than in the winter and will not realize the full $300 a year in savings.

At the end of 2011 Sears combined with Smart Water Heat to offer a $600-700 total discount for heat pump hybrid water heaters.  The best water heater I had researched is GE's Geospring water heater.  This water heater normally retails for around $1200, with the instant rebates from Sears I was able to purchase it for $600.  There is also a $300 federal tax credit that I didn't qualify for because I had spent the allowance already on energy improvements.

Most of the reviews on the Geospring water heater were 4 out of 5 stars with failure of the heat pump being the main problem.  Of course, this was on the older models, and the only reviews I found on the newer model that looks like the one I was purchasing was 4.8 out of 5 stars.  GE offers a 10 year warranty on parts, but service is slow according to the reviews.  Sears' extended warranty on the water heater was $450 and who knows if getting parts would be faster, so I skipped it.  For $450, I could almost by a second one.  My backup plan is to keep my existing water heater around and if the Geospring water heater fails and parts take 2 weeks to get, I will just put the old one back in.  That will be some work, but probably worth saving $450.

I picked up my water heater on December 22nd and installed it on the 23rd.  I have never installed a water heater, but the installation was pretty easy.  I cut the power to it at the breaker and turned off the stop valve going into the water heater.  Then I disconnected the water connections, this helped it drain faster.  Draining the water heater took about two hours.  My dad helped me take the old one down off the pedestal and put the Geospring heat pump water heater into place.   That is when the fun began.

I wanted to get it in before Christmas, so I could run out and get parts if I needed them.  Need them I did.  The first problem was that the Geospring water heater is taller than the old water heater.  While this shouldn't be a big problem, bending the existing flexible copper pipes that connect to the hot and cold lines to the new position was a pain.  It felt like I was going to break them they were so stiff.  I decided to replace them with something more flexible.   I had planned for maybe having to replace one but not two, so I only had one on hand.  Off I went on a drive to the plumbing store, 10 miles away.

When replacing the hose to the cold water line I found out, well subconsciously knew already, that a part of the connection to the cold water line was going to have to be replaced.  During the inspection of the house this was pointed out.  The leak went away; therefore, I thought the rubber washer in the hose connection was re-wetted so it fixed itself.  I had no intent to replace it with this water heater.  Before attaching the new connections, I tried to clean up the stop valve as best I could. Cleaning all the deposits out took 15 minutes.  When I turned the water back on, the valve began to leak.  In cleaning the valve I removed the deposits that were stopping it from leaking, opps.  This is when I knew that I need to do the job right and back to the plumbing store I went.

Getting the valve off was a pain.  I turned off the water to the house.  The line drained into the water heater since my connections were still in place.  I used a crescent wrench and lock jaw pilers to crank the valve off.  Of course, I had to take out a piece of drywall around the inlet because the nut was half way into the wall.  Because, I didn't have a pipe wrench I had to use a lot of force and cussing to unlock the value from the inlet. Frustrated and drained, I made a trip to the plumbing supply store again for a new valve.

Replacing the valve only took a few minutes.  I used plumbers tape on the brass threads and attached the valve. It took the next few days to get it to seal up.  I had slight seeping, maybe a drop every few minutes from the fittings.  My dad brought me over a set of pipe wrenches, which made the process so much easier.  I was able to crank on the connections and got them to seal.

I was ready to post this blog entry a week later, but decided to wait for my first bill to share the great savings I was having.  Then I got January's bill which covers the first 10 days in January and the rest in December.  From the previous year I had only saved 1 kW per day.  I assumed this was because end of December was colder than the previous year and I really hadn't had the water heater in very long, plus I had to fill the water heater and heat the water up. Therefore, I decided to wait for the next bill before posting.

February's bill came which included most of January and my bill went up from the previous year. We had a colder January then the previous year, so again I was assuming we were burning more with energy with heating.  Even with this assumption, I was starting to get kind of worried.  I was realizing that my suspicions were right. We were not going to get great performance out of the water heater in the winter because the garage is too cold.

Finally, I got March's bill and the savings were there.  My kW per day used dropped from 65 to 54 from the previous year.  This dropped the bill by $38 over the previous year, though some of that is the difference in days billed.  A few days ago I received April's bill.  The bill was $44 less then the previous year.  I dropped from 59 kW a day to 41 kW a day.  Some of the energy savings came from the fact the weather was warmer this year in February and March.  Below is a table of the my energy bills and the weather since I've had the water heater.  Each bill covers from about the 10th of each month to the 10th with a few days variance.

20122013
MonthDays
Daily kW
Total Bill
Avg Temp
Days
Daily kW
Total Bill
Avg Temp
Jan
31
74
$185.85
41F
30
72
$174.60
38F
Feb
29
68
$160.81
43F
32
70
$182.06
45F
Mar
31
65
$163.84
45F
28
54
$125.25
49F
Apr
30
59
$145.62
53F
29
41
$100.96
54F
May*
29
43
$106.90
N/A
30
39
$101.59
N/A
Jun*
33
41
$115.26
N/A
33
32
$93.19
N/A

*My stepson is now living with us for 80% of the time so energy usage will increase slightly based on his needs.

Now that the weather is warming, I am extremely happy with the GE Geospring water heater and happy I made the investment.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chicken Tractor

Currently we are tractoring our chickens in the front yard.  Tractoring is where chickens are confined in a small run and moved to different parts of the lawn as needed.  This helps the lawn grow as well as feed the chickens.  The lawn is fertilized and aerated by the chickens.  The chickens also keep down bug problems. One thing I have just learned, is mashing down of grass with animals is important.  This builds up a mulch layer which encourages soil life and retains water.

The end goal with our chickens is to paddock shift them with electro-netting.  Electro-netting is a bit expensive for 6 laying hens, so currently we are just moving a tractor.  Next year we might bring in some turkeys and broilers which would make electro-netting justifiable.

This is not a typical chicken tractor because the coop was purchased on craigslist and is not meant to be a tractor.  I didn't have time to build a chicken tractor with all the other projects going on, which is why we purchased a coop that would work.  I ended up reinforcing the bottom with 2x4s and adding wheels for easier movement.  

Because it was just a coop, there needed to be a run in which chickens could graze.  The run is 8 foot long x 4 foot wide, built with 2x4s.  Field fencing was used along the sides.  I used a very light, nylon bird mesh on the top to keep the chickens from flying out and the hawks and eagles honest.  The reason it was built so sturdy is our Australian Shepard is just a puppy; therefore, I wanted a sturdy run he could not bust into.  He is starting to learn his role so it is less of an issue right now; therefore, if I had to do it again, I would use less wood.  Using less would make it easier to move.  The run wasn't bad to move in the garage but after the rains came it got very heavy. 

The coop and run is moved at least once a day, sometimes two.  The chickens graze on the lawn for most of the day.  Our lawn has a variety of plants in it like dandelions, rye grass, clover, etc... As we pile up table scraps we throw them into the run.  A couple of hours before dusk we will feed the chickens about 1 to 2 cups of layer feed just to make sure they are full.  A 50 lb bag tends to lasts our 6 birds about 10 to 12 weeks.  Unfortunately, we are new to raising chickens; therefore, I don't have a comparison of how much we saving in feed by tractoring them.

From the images, the chickens do a good job at scratching and tearing down the lawn.  This is a section they have recently eaten down.  Sometimes they will dig themselves a little hole, especially if a mole or something has made a dirt hill.  Any part they tear up I fill in the hole and put down a chicken seed mix on the bare soil.  

Here is a patch of grass that they were on 4 weeks prior (left).  This part is a little different than the part in tractor image because it was originally sod, which the chickens favored a bit less than native wild grasses.  The chickens still tore through it though.  After 4 weeks it is very healthy.  There is also a decent amount of weeds (chicken feed) in it such as clover and dandelion.  The second piece (right) is the same area that the chicken tractor image is in, 7 to 10 days later.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Chickens Love Catkins

We have some trees on our property that are dropping flowering seeds.  These small strands, about one to two inches and produce purple flowers.  This string of flowers is known as a catkin. The other day I threw one of these in for our chickens and they gobbled it up.  This is great because our property is littered with catkins right now and they are free source of food that the land is producing in the early spring.

The hardest thing was figuring out what the trees were.  After a bit of discovery, it turns out they are poplars.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Building our First Bee Hive

Last year my wife and I attended a couple of bee keeping classes from a local bee-keepker, Jacqueline Freeman.  Shortly after attending these classes my wife witnessed two swarms.  We were then called by Jacqueline to see if we wanted to go with her to capture another swarm.  Unfortunately, we did not have a hive ready for them to live in, so we missed out on having a few hives last year.  Being a do-it-yourself person, I did not want to spend $200 to $300 on a hive.  So, the plan was to build a hive during the winter so we would be ready for when the bees swarm this year.

I spent about $80 on some cedar boards, acrylic plastic and screws to build a 3 foot top bar hive.  Plans for the beehive were downloaded from the Bare Foot Beekeeper.  A few modifications to his plans were made, mainly due to sizing.  His plans are for 12 inch lumber, but most lumber yards and hardware stores only carry cedar that is milled down to 11 1/4.  None of the local lumber yards had a 14 or 16 inch wide board that could be ripped or a rough cut 12 inch board, though I can't imagine what the cost would be for those.


The main modification is an acrylic window.  Originally, this was supposed to be a glass window because I have some glass lying around that I found on Craigslist for free.  I have never cut glass before and cutting a 20 inch piece of window was not a pleasant experience.  After about 20 minutes, I gave up and went to Home Depot for the acrylic sheet.  It took only a few minutes to score and break the acrylic sheet to the size I needed.

Another big modification was the ends.  Instead of keeping the ends squared, I used a table saw and cut on a 15 degree angle to allow the end to fit inside the sides.  Bare Foot's plan called for the sides to be squared and the sides to be screwed in on an angle.

A bottom was added even though, Jacqueline and the Bare Foot Beekeeper mentioned this is an optional addition.  Because of the measurement changes, I screwed up and had a 5 1/2 inch bottom instead of a 5 1/4 inch bottom which is what a 6 inch cedar board milled down to.  I ended up getting an 8 inch board and ripping it down to the 5 1/2 inches I needed.  I used the remaining wood for the trim along the top.


To make the top of the hive, cedar fence boards were used.  They were tacked over each other, then caulked the seam where they met.  Hinges were added to the back of the hive and lid.  One issue that arose, is the lid is heavy and will tip the hive over when open.  I will have to work on this with the next hive, maybe scrap the idea of hinges.

In our classes Jacqueline recommend a shelf for the bees to sit outside of the entrance to cool themselves.  A small piece of wood was screwed below the two 3/4 inch openings.  She also mentioned a screen on the bottom for mites to fall through.  The mites then get trapped under the screen and stay out of the hive.  I used a window screen for that.  Two little blocks were added inside and I stapled the screen tight to the sides and the blocks so that a gap was present between the floor and screen.

For the bars I ripped some 1" thick pine boards I had lying around.  Using the table saw a 1/8 or so track was cut down the middle.  This is to help the bees keep the combs straight.  The best design is to have a triangle type shape on the underside of the top bar.  I don't own a router yet so that would have been harder for me to cut.

Lastly, the hive was painted with a wood paint that I had left over from painting the chicken coop.  While the wood is cedar, a coat of paint will make the hive last a bit longer.  With all the rain this should also stop the wood from becoming soaked.  The inside was not painted to allow a healthy environment for the bees.

The hive was placed near our fruit trees on the edge of our forrest.  Concrete blocks were stacked on each other and anchored with 4 foot rebar.  Small cement bricks are used to secure the hive on top of the blocks.  The fence will also hold the hive when it is propped open so it doesn't tip.  We baited the hive with a few drops of lemon grass oil to attract the scout bees for swarms and will continue to do so through the swarming season.






Monday, March 11, 2013

Chickens and Slugs

I had a good lunch time discovery today.  Our chickens like slugs.  I was dumping some compost and noticed a giant slug on the lid of the bin.  I took it over to the chicken run and threw it in.  They went ape over it. This gives me a nice source of protein for them out of the garden.





Update: March 31st, 2013
Today was a good day to repeat the experiment.  I was out in the garden this morning checking some transplants and I noticed some slugs on the lettuce.  I gathered them up in my hand and took them to the chicken coup.  I dropped them in on their feeder and the chickens went nuts. 

I have to remember to go to the garden with a cup to stop my hand from getting slimmed by all the slugs.