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Panthers Hollow

To Mow or not to Mow?

Jennifer Quinn 

Why mow? That is the question I generally ask when I hear homeowners complain about having to mow large lawns, sometimes amounting to several acres. What would be wrong with just having a small area of lawn near the house and letting the rest become a meadow?

For the property owner whose main concern is maintaining the landscape there could be a number of answers and approaches, which I won’t go into here. As for me, with something resembling a lawn surrounding my house, garden and orchard area, it involves a different set of issues. My main motivation for mowing is to have a ready supply of organic matter for use as mulch or to add to my compost. I’ve also read, though, that one way to control fleas and grasshoppers is to keep things mowed, and I’ve had a lot of trouble with fleas and grasshoppers.

My usual approach has been to try to keep the areas near the garden mowed to a height where they’re not going to seed, and only mow the other areas a few times a year, mainly to keep them from becoming a jungle. But some of the weeds and grasses outsmart me by simply going to seed at a shorter height, before I can get to them. I guess they’re on an internal clock that tells them when to set seed, and height doesn’t matter. So I feel I should be mowing more often, though I can’t seem to find the time or energy for it, with all the other tasks demanding my attention during the growing season.

Since it seems like a losing battle, sometimes I wonder if I’m worrying about it too much. But here’s another angle: I’ve noticed that wherever I’ve just been mowing, the chickens and guineas are all over it, pecking away at a great rate. I suspect that cutting it down makes it easier for them to find the bugs and seeds that are in there. Possibly this could be helping with pest control. And if they’re finding more to eat, they must be eating less of the purchased feed I give them. So when I mow, maybe I’m actually saving money on feed!

I’ve also decided that if I just leave the weeds on the ground or pile them up somewhere, the seeds will eventually fall out and either get eaten or germinate right where they are, rather than blowing into the garden. So maybe it is worthwhile to try to keep after it as best I can.

grass

Poultry Peacekeeping and Poultry Weather Forecasting

Jennifer Quinn

flock

So what’s all this preening about ... feather mites? But I just treated the poultry house with a liberal application of diatomaceous earth yesterday! On the other hand, it’s getting very cloudy and feels like approaching rain, though it’s not in the forecast for today. Maybe they’re just preparing their feathers for rain? Sure enough, within minutes the rain starts.

A friend once remarked that watching chickens is better entertainment than TV. I’m inclined to agree with that. But it can also reveal some fascinating aspects of their behavior. Here’s an example:

A couple of times I’ve seen two of my young guinea cocks get into a fight. They stand facing each other and jump up and down, pecking at each other and grabbing each other’s bills. What’s really interesting is that once when they were doing this, I saw the older chickens and the other guineas gather around, crying and scolding and even intervening physically to try and break them up! Eventually they seemed to prevail. Who would have thought?

Now, if my cats would just follow their example …

guineas

Unforeseen Costs

Jennifer QuinnAs I still struggle to make my homesteading venture pay for itself on a month-to-month basis, the thought occurs to me: Even if I should one day break even (or even make a profit!) on an operating basis, will I ever get back my investment in equipment?

When I was planning this venture, I had a list of items I knew I would need to do my gardening and use my property in the way I intended. I even had to scratch some large items from my wish list as I discovered they weren’t feasible or necessary: A wood stove or wood-burning furnace; a generator; a large, permanently installed propane heater; an electric food dehydrator; new roof gutters for the house. But I thought my budget allowed for most of the tools and equipment I’d need to get started.

Well ... to get started, yes. And that’s about all. As soon as I got into the thick of things, I discovered a multitude of items I really needed to do the job right. Here’s a partial list:

Canner: $75

Fencing materials: $100s (I’ve lost track)

Incubator and egg turner: $99

Icelandic chicks (not to mention the gas to drive hundreds of miles to get them!): $200

Seed starting supplies: $40+

Beneficial insects (It costs a lot to ship them)

Pitchfork (After 10 years of turning my compost with a spading fork, I thought I owed myself this!)

Electric weed trimmer for areas where it’s not feasible to mow with the scythe or the reel mower

Box trap (for catching rogue predators)

Rifle and accessories, when the above didn’t work: $246

Rat wire for covering windows in coop, patching holes, protecting plants, etc.

Hired help for building and repairing structures

Pump sprayer

Pruners

Wire cutters

Post driver

Post-hole digger

Sledge hammer

Soil thermometer

Soil test, and pH testing kit

Plastic panels for cold frame, guinea shelter

Locks and chains (for poultry housing)

Totes for use as brooders (had to experiment with sizes)

Other poultry supplies: heat lamps, feeders, drinkers, killing cone, scalding pot, etc.

Hose hanger

Knee pads

Row cover fabric

And that’s after finding many useful items that were left by the previous owner, such as a wheelbarrow, plastic sheeting, and various tools.

Besides all this, there’s the ongoing cost of poultry litter, replacement tools, gloves, boots, insect repellent, and more. I’ve pretty much sworn off companion plants as a means of pest control (I don’t think they’re that effective), and am trying to do with a minimum of soil amendments and other inputs, trusting that the work of my poultry flock plus applications of compost will eventually produce richer soil, healthier plants, and fewer insect pests. And I’m adding dried-up weeds and will try some dry leaves in the poultry house to save on pine shavings.

I was encouraged when I actually came out $1 ahead for the month of September, but this month it looks like I’ll be in the negative again. All of which raises the question: How did people eke out a living by subsistence farming?

OK, for starters: no purchased poultry litter, no gardening gloves, no insect repellent, no soil tests, no nursery-purchased companion plants or beneficial insects. A dog and a gun were basic equipment for life in the country, so they didn’t even figure into the equation: that gun could provide much of the family’s meat, while dispensing with most predators not scared away by the farm dog, who subsisted on whatever he could find plus scraps from the table.

Manure from various livestock would have supplied the fertilizer for the crops and garden. Strong men supplied the labor and skills for felling trees, building structures, repairing machinery and managing large animals. Quality tools were used for a lifetime and maybe even passed on to the next generation, while I’ve launched this venture alone with maybe 15 years to make it pay. Land was relatively cheap, and with large families, so was labor. Large families meant more mouths to feed, but also provided economies of scale.

So I wonder, will my homesteading venture ever be more than a costly experiment in sustainable living?

pitchfork
Photo by Getty Images/Martin Poole

An Overlooked Bounty

Jennifer Quinn

walnuts

Since my first September at Panther’s Hollow I’ve been collecting the chestnuts that fall from my two chestnut trees, and have enjoyed learning how to roast them and even make chestnut stuffing. I’ve occasionally noticed what I later realized were black walnuts on the slope behind my house, but never paid much attention to them. For one thing, I don’t often have a reason to go up there, and when I do I'm preoccupied with some task or other. Also, I haven’t usually seen more than a few, but this year they got my attention because there were so many. I realized from the spicy odor they were black walnuts, but I wasn’t sure if they were any good for eating, and I wondered how the green husks could be removed.

Shortly after noticing the bumper crop of walnuts, I was over at my neighbor’s house and saw she had a couple of buckets of them sitting there. So I asked her about them, and she said, "Oh yes!" They were better than English walnuts, she thought. She saves them in jars and uses them in cookies and such. I asked her how to remove the hulls, and she demonstrated by throwing some on the ground and stomping on them. But don’t wear your good shoes, she said, because they’ll stain.

So at the first opportunity, I gathered several bucketfuls, poured them out in the garden, and began smashing them. I found that a sledge hammer worked better for me than stomping them, but unfortunately I forgot to wear gloves. I didn’t want to go back for them, so now, five days later, my hands are still somewhat blackened with walnut stain. Apparently this is a familiar experience for folks around here, since two people quickly guessed what I'd been up to. One greeted me with the comment, "You look like you've been shucking walnuts!"

My neighbor said after shucking they need to dry out for a couple of months, and after leaving them in the garden for a couple of days there was rain in the forecast, so I gathered them in baskets and put them in front of the sunny windows in the garage. Now I’m looking forward to an abundance of walnuts for snacks this winter, as well as for the nut loaf I like to make for Christmas. Considering what they cost at the store, that’s a real luxury!

Becoming Resourceful

Jennifer QuinnMy mother was fond of admonishing me about my various character defects, and one of her more common admonitions was, “You need to be more resourceful!” Well, as a homesteader on a limited budget, I’m finally developing this trait. Here’s an example.

The other day I was rushing to an appointment and found that someone had parked a truck at the edge of the road right by the entrance to my private road, blocking my view. Now, if I had been really resourceful I guess I would have found the driver of the truck and asked him to move it. But I was in a hurry, so I decided to wing it, thinking I had already checked the traffic before I headed up the hill. I guess I took too long double-checking in the other direction, because I crept out just in time to see a red pickup emerge from behind the parked vehicle, heading directly for my front end!

Fortunately, all it did was rip off my front bumper, leaving it lying in the roadway. The pickup wasn’t even damaged. So, after we moved the bumper to the side of the road, I took off for my appointment in town. On returning, I contemplated what to do with the bumper. At first I thought of taking it to a repair shop and having it re-attached, though it was a bit torn up. But I wondered if they’d even want to mess with it in the condition it was in. I had no idea what a new one would cost, but thought it was probably more than I had at the moment. Then I got to thinking...could I just wire it back on for the time being?

I started scrutinizing the font end of the car and discovered several slots where a wire could be put through. I went back to the house and returned with a coil of wire, my best wire snips, and a pair of pliers. Once I had one end secured in place the rest wasn’t so hard. The biggest challenge was the three pieces of the grill that had fallen out. But after about an hour’s work I ended up with what you see in the picture. Not bad, huh?

I suppose eventually I’ll need to get a new bumper, but this should hold it for quite a while, I think. Just one small problem: I just realized my front license plate is missing!

car

Round Two in the Apple Wars

Jennifer QuinnAfter all the work I’ve done on my old apple trees and all the blossoms they had this spring, I was really hoping for a decent harvest this year. The one thing I hadn’t figured out was how to keep the deer and the raccoons off them. I put plastic net fencing around them, mainly to keep the chickens out since I had sown mammoth red clover underneath; but I hoped maybe that would also discourage the deer. They wouldn’t jump over it, I figured, because there wasn’t enough room to land inside. Wouldn’t you know, they just pulled it down, bending a couple of the U-posts flat in the process? You can see where they’ve eaten all the leaves off the bottom branches, as well as the apples. And apparently the raccoons got in, too, because all but three of the apples were gone before they were ripe.

Those last three apples were way out on a limb where apparently nobody could reach them, so I finally pulled them down. As it turned out, two of them were still underripe and inedible, but the third one was actually quite good. So that gave me hope, and got me thinking. Then I came up with an idea for protecting the trees. What if I wrap the trunk and the lower branches in that prickly plastic that I’ve used (unsuccessfully) to keep the cats off the counters. Would that be too uncomfortable for the raccoons to climb on? Well, probably not, since the cats don’t seem to mind it, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Then, I thought, maybe I could fasten bird netting or something over the lower branches, making it too difficult for the deer to eat the apples. There’s also the question of the new apple tree that I’ve planted closer to the house, which is doing very nicely. Next year will be its third, and I’m told it should probably start bearing by then.

I just added a hot wire to the top of my garden fence to keep the deer out, so I’m replacing the energizer with a more powerful one. But I discovered the new one probably gives me a lot more power than I need. So what if I put a fence with a hot wire around both the new tree and the old trees and connect them to the garden fence? Supposedly if I bait the wire with bits of foil spread with peanut butter, the deer will lick it, get shocked, and avoid it thereafter. And the raccoons would have to climb over it to get on the trees. Now, I think that might actually work!

tree

Hatching Failures

Jennifer QuinnWhen I first started my chicken flock I assumed I’d use only broody hens for hatching chicks. I had read that this results in healthier chicks that are better foragers, as well as higher hatch rates. So why go to the expense and trouble of using an incubator? I later realized, though, that sometimes a broody hen won’t follow through and will abandon the eggs, leaving you stranded. Besides, I had hopes of eventually selling chicks, and I didn’t want to subject broody hens to the trauma of having their chicks taken away. So I decided to get one of those cheap Styrofoam incubators as a backup. As it turned out, this year brought several opportunities to use it, since — with my flock decimated — I was without broody hens when I needed them.

Back in April I wrote about my first attempt at using the incubator to hatch some eggs from my flock for a potential customer (“Not So Fast, Jennifer”). Having learned a little from my early mistakes, I expected things would go much better if the need arose again. I ordered two dozen Icelandic hatching eggs, to be shipped one dozen at a time, if and when I had broody hens. When no one had obliged by early May, I decided I’d better start a dozen in the incubator.

The instructions say to plug it into a GFCI outlet in a room where you don’t go in often, maintain the room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees, and keep it out of drafts. Well, the only places I had a GFCI outlet were in the bathroom and in the basement. At that point I knew the basement wouldn’t stay in that temperature range, so I opted for the bathroom. That seemed to be going OK until one unusually cool night when I inadvertently left the window open. It really was pretty drafty in there next morning, but the temperature indicator said “Temp OK.” So I hoped for the best, but in the end only one chick hatched and it was severely disabled.

Gail Damerow’s Barnyard in Your Backyard has a wonderful chart that shows what the embryo should look like on each day of the incubation period. So when I break any eggs that I’ve disposed of, or that don’t hatch, I compare them with the chart to see how far they’ve developed. As it turned out, the majority of the embryos seemed to have died at about the time the incubator was in the chilly draft.

By mid-June one of my hens had finally gone broody, so I put the second dozen eggs under her. She had been setting in the middle of the broody pen, but I added a nice nest box for her and moved her into it when I set the eggs under her. Imagine my dismay when, on the second day, I found she had moved back to her original spot, leaving all but one of the eggs to cool! Still, I put them all back under her and hoped for the best.

Now, the experts all advise candling the eggs (shining a light through them in total darkness to see what’s inside) partway through the incubation period, so as to get rid of any that have died or are infertile. This avoids the risk of having them explode and make a mess all over the other eggs, which can be fatal. Well, I thought I was getting pretty good at this, and I was anxious to do it since I feared the worst for all the eggs that had been left to cool. So I was relieved when I found at least five that definitely showed signs of life. Since I couldn’t see any in the others, I dutifully removed them. Next morning when I broke them, I found to my dismay that at least five seemed to have developed to that point! (I’ve since resolved not to dispose of any more eggs until I’m better at this.)

Since I ended up with only five chicks, I decided to see if I could get another dozen eggs and try one more time. My supplier was leery of shipping them so late in the season, lest they get too warm in transit, but I decided to risk it. Wouldn’t you know, this time there were two power outages during the incubation period? I’m sure those didn’t help, but as it turned out embryos died at all stages, and the one that hatched (after two days of trying!) was again a crippled mess. I guess I should have heeded the advice and cut my losses.

On the bright side, it looks like I have four new pullets, so maybe next year I can get by without the incubator.

chicken in nest box
Photo by Getty Images/georgeclerk