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Panthers Hollow

Shelling Black Walnuts: An Update

Jennifer Quinn 

Recently I posted about the difficulty of shelling black walnuts. Then a reader who’s a more savvy Internet user than I am sent me this link to a Youtube video, How to Harvest and Crack Black Walnuts, which is a lot more helpful than the instructions I got from neighbors:

Unfortunately, it turns out they usually only bear every other year, so I guess I’ll have to wait two years to try again. But I was interested in the author’s method of washing the nuts immediately after hulling them, then hanging them in onion bags to dry—only a few weeks, he says, instead of months! And snipping at the shells with wire cutters is an interesting approach for getting out all the meat. He says you still have to go through them and pick out any shell fragments, but his end results sure look better than mine! And he doesn’t even worry about the hulls having bruises, or having some pulp sticking to the nuts after washing.

A Bigger, Better Hugelkultur Bed

Jennifer Quinn 

I’ve written before about my forays into building raised beds with hugelkultur — using wood, especially rotting wood, as the basis. So far I’ve built three of these: one as a sloped mound, which is the usual form, and two as flat-topped, rectangular beds. The first has now been in service for two seasons, and has produced some decent carrots, green beans, and potatoes, now that it’s mostly broken down into a nice, humusy soil. The second — built in fall 2016 and cover-cropped with rye, then clover, then oats and Austrian winter peas — will be planted with bare root strawberries in the coming season.

The third (the sloped mound,) will be planted this season with a spring crop of spinach on one side, and will hopefully produce some garlic on the other. I planted the garlic in December, but found the mound mostly frozen and full of big holes at the bottom. Plus I had absentmindedly left the garlic sets outside in freezing weather, so that some were visibly rotting, and even the ones I planted didn’t seem in the greatest shape. So I’m a little dubious about the garlic, but I’m hoping there’s enough soil near the surface to grow some spinach.

My latest (and probably last, for now) hugelkultur project is the most promising so far. This involved building up a 4-by-12-feet bed that has always been compacted and prone to water-logging. Here’s the first layer, consisting of old and rotting wood, with a few leaves and greens thrown in:


Hugelkultur is a natural for me, since I live in the woods and even have a pile of rotting lumber on my property. It’s hard to see here with all the leaves, but — trust me — that’s a stack of slowly-rotting wood:


The next step was to add a layer of dead leaves, then a layer of the goose-litter compost that I wrote about earlier [Repurposing an Old Structure]:


Finally, I found a good source of partially-composted horse manure, which was just the thing to top it off, and something my previous projects lacked. Here’s the final product:


I then cover-cropped it with winter rye and fenced it in so the chickens wouldn’t tear it up. After the rye matures I’ll cut it down and sow some kind of legume in it, and in 2019 I’ll look forward to putting it into production — my biggest and best hugel bed ever!

Shelling Black Walnuts — Trickier Than You Might Think!

Jennifer Quinn


Recently I wrote about finding a bumper crop of black walnuts on my property and learning how to remove the hulls and prepare them for shelling [An Overlooked Bounty]. Well, that was only the beginning. Two months or so later, after trying as best I could to get them dried out in front of my garage windows, I decided to tackle the job of shelling them.

The truth is, they really weren’t very dry. But by the time I got them collected and hulled, there wasn’t enough sun in my yard to dry them outside. The garage windows are the sunniest indoor location I have, but by late fall they only get a couple of hours of sunlight, and often very hazy sunlight at that. Not to mention that by late November the temperatures were dropping near freezing in there!

The first problem was that about half of them had gotten moldy. I decided to tackle those first. I was concerned about transferring the mold from the shells to the inside, so I began by scrubbing them with a toothbrush, scraping them with a fork, and rinsing them, then drying them in the oven for about a half hour. After all that, I found that they still had a peculiar odor, which I hoped hadn’t affected the meat inside.

The biggest problem was how to shell them. I had been warned that they were harder to crack than English walnuts. Boy, that was an understatement! The nutcracker did no good at all. Then somebody told me — in fact several people have told me — that you have to hit them with a hammer. (Everyone around here seems to know what to do with black walnuts!)

Well, I tried hitting them with my heaviest hammer, and that didn’t have any effect either. The only thing I found that worked was smashing them with a sledgehammer. First I had to find a large, shallow box, line it with paper, and put it on the concrete outside, since I was reluctant to inflict that kind of stress on my laminate floors, and I wanted to keep the nuts clean.

The trouble with the sledgehammer approach is that you end up with all these tiny shell fragments mixed in with the meat. And if you don’t break the shells in several pieces it’s impossible to dig it all out. I had to go at it with a paring knife, and couldn’t help poking myself with it a couple of times.

When I finally ended up with a couple of cups of shelled walnuts, which I had carefully picked through to remove any shell fragments I could find, I had another problem: The nuts had the same unpleasant smell (and taste) that I noticed before they were shelled. Kind of a fermented odor, I would say. I assumed this was caused by the mold that had grown on the shells.

A few weeks later I got around to tackling some of the non-moldy ones. (Or at least not visibly moldy, though they were thoroughly black on the outside.) Disappointingly, the results were no different from the first time.

Possibly the taste-odor problem is due to my not having thoroughly removed the pulp from the shells and not having dried them quickly enough. I learned along the way that it’s important to collect them promptly, and the earlier batches included some that had probably been lying on the ground for several days and had some brown spots. The fresher ones did come out more cleanly, though they all still had a bit of pulp on them after shucking. Maybe next year if I’m really diligent about collecting and shucking them every day I can avoid this problem, though I’m still not sure where and how I’ll dry them adequately.

The real challenge is the shelling. Despite my best efforts (and a huge amount of tedious, time-consuming work) I still found shell fragments in the finished product. Someone will have to show me how on earth you do this, or else do it for me!

Four New Pullets

Jennifer Quinn 


Here’s a somewhat belated report on the newest additions to my chicken flock. I mentioned back in August that four of my five chicks turned out to be pullets [Rebuilding My Flock]. As for the cockerel, I had planned to cull him, though he looked promising, because I already have a good rooster and don’t need another one yet. Then the guy down the road who sometimes buys chickens from me wanted him, so I arranged to trade him for a young Rhode Island Red, which became my next meat bird.

Meanwhile, the four pullets have been coming along nicely, and a couple have begun laying very small (1 3/8 ounces) eggs every two or three days. Since I haven’t yet caught one laying, I don’t know which ones to thank, but I’m pretty sure I know who one of them is. The rooster had begun mating with her a few weeks before she produced her first egg, and they say roosters only mate with hens that are laying. (Or about to begin laying, I guess.) I wonder how they know?

When the weather gets warmer I’ll have to go in the coop some night after they’re asleep and do an evaluation—distance between keel and vent; distance between pelvic bones; are they pointed and flexible, etc. I wish I had someone to help me with this. At least I have a cap with lights now, but it’s awkward having to hold them with one hand, measure with the other, then try to write down the results before I forget them!

I hope they ramp up production this week with the warmer weather, because my two hens are still molting. One looks to be nearly finished, thank heavens, after more than two months, but my older hen—who I thought was finished after a six-month molt—has again lost some tail feathers and stopped laying. Both hens seem to be growing their new feathers nicely after a week or so on feather-fixer ration. But old Flan’s comb is still very pale, so I’m not expecting anything out of her soon. She’s been such a terrible layer, I would have culled her by now except that she was an excellent mother, raising ten beautiful chicks for me in 2016.

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.


Poultry Peacekeeping and Poultry Weather Forecasting

Jennifer Quinn


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 …


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


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?

Photo by Getty Images/Martin Poole

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