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An example of a working temperate polyculture


Cruising the Internet is a great way to see what other minifarmers and permaculturists are doing to make their situations profitable as well as enriching and sustainable. I came across this article today as an example of what someone can do even near zone zero:

De-slugging the Woods: Maple-mushroom-duck polyculture proving to be ecological, economical, and enjoyable for the farmers.

The article explains some of the economics of their polyculture of sugar maple trees (which provide sap for syrup, as well as leaf mold, shade, and a humid environment), shiitake mushroom logs(which provide the bulk of their income in salable, high value mushrooms), and ducks (which provide valuable eggs while supporting the mushroom crop by eating the slugs that would, left unchecked, eat the mushroom crop).

“Further, it’s pretty easy to argue from a quality of life standard, that not having to pick slugs off logs is nearly priceless.” I bet!


The One Straw Revolution


Just popping by for a moment to share this with you. The One Straw Revolution was a big inspiration for me when deciding to finally start up a minifarm.

You can find a documentary video about the book, and link to get a free PDF copy of the actual book itself, here:


Pawpaws and More


We haven’t posted much because there hasn’t been much to post.  But now that Spring is once again upon us, Murstein is up and walking again, and things are (ever slowly) getting done, there’s stuff to talk about.

The pawpaw trees arrived!

They reminded me of nothing so much as this Guardians of the Galaxy clip.

Because it’s taking forever to get the place done, we thought we’d start putting in a few fruit trees as we can manage to do so, and maybe they will be ready to go online by the time we move in. Murstein and I debated over the first batch. Cherries maybe? But I can buy cherries at the store or farmer’s market, no matter how delicious. However, I had always had my heart set on pawpaws, so pawpaws we got.

Not only are they the largest edible fruit native to North America, they are, by all accounts, delicious. Because we’re getting old and I didn’t want to waste years growing a tree that might have less than stellar fruit, we splurged on three grafted trees from Stark Bros. nursery. They were great to deal with, made tracking the shipment easy, and paid me absolutely nothing for that endorsement.

If you have one pawpaw tree, you should have two, because they are not self-fertile. You need pollen from another non-related tree to make things happen. Personally, I like sets of three for that reason. In case something happens to one, we don’t have to wait 3-7 more years for fruit again. In this case, I picked these three, with descriptions from here:

SAA Overleese – Selected from Overleese seed by John Gordon, Amherst, NY, in 1982. Large fruit; rounded shape; green skin; yellow flesh; few seeds; matures in mid-October in NY.

Prolific – Selected by Corwin Davis, Bellevue, MI, in mid-1980s. Large fruit, yellow flesh; ripens first week of October in MI. Fruit size medium at KSU.

Sunflower – Selected from the wild in Chanute, KS, by Milo Gibson in 1970. Tree reported to be self-fertile. Large fruit; yellow skin; butter-color flesh; few seeds; ripens early to mid-September in Kentucky and first week of October in MI. Fruit size large; averaging 155 g/fruit and 75 fruit per tree at KSU.

The weekend after the trees arrived was sunny and perfect for planting. We gathered all the stuff and set to work.

The soil was rich and black, easy to dig, crumbly, and had plenty of earthworms. Good omens for future production. (We added some peat moss to make it easy for the roots to spread out at first. Also compost.)

Baby pawpaws need shade for the first year or two, because their natural habitat is the understory layer of a woodland. The sun will fry the young’uns. But after that, they produce the most and best fruit in full sun. We thought long about how to make good shade that we could remove one day. Planting them in the understory of our woods, or in the dark area of the yard, was too permanent. When we went to three garden/farm supply stores and failed to find shade cloth, I had a MacGyver Epiphany. How about tomato cages with old t-shirts? I unrolled some line from the fishing pole that (unfortunately) hasn’t seen any action since 2001, found some really stable (bigger at the bottom than up top) tomato cages, and stitched the bottoms of the t-shirts on to the cages so they would stay in place instead of blowing up or away. The neck of the shirt is left open for circulation and a bit of light, because even baby pawpaws need to eat.

Murstein brought water-holding tree rings so that the soil stays moist, but not too wet. The maker of the tree rings claims that these can go two weeks, from full to empty. This is good for us, because since the Minifarm doesn’t have water (yet), we have to port it in gallon jugs every week that we fill at home.

It was a long, exhausting day of planting, but someday, instead of funny t-shirts (tree-shirts?) this view from our front window will have a beautiful pawpaw grove.

Other things we got done this weekend, Reader’s Digest version:

* First inoculation of the lawn (around apple trees and mulberry bushes and in land that will one day be garden space) with Milky Spore, a natural bacteria that preys on the grub-children of the Japanese beetle. Since I saw these in the yard in previous summers, I want to have a welcome committee for them this year. 😉

* Murstein dug/burnt out the cardboard used as a spacer between the clay chimney pipes and the concrete we poured as a chimney cap last year. The intent is to fill in the space with a fireproof caulk, since clay and concrete expand at different rates and we don’t want any crazy cracking up there. However, it started to rain and the roofing material is slick, so we thought better to finish this another time.

* Murstein also cut some dead wood off of the big old apple tree and severed some real ropey mother-vines of poison ivy that are climbing up some dead trees. Eventually the dead trees will come down and be used for hugelkultur beds, but for now, just stopping those giant ivy vines from reproducing themselves is a very worthy goal.

* Personally, I care more about useful than pretty, but I caved when I saw “6 for $5” Stargazer lily bulbs at the grocery store. I know, I know, they might be crap, but I’ve bought crap before that cost more than $5 so it wasn’t that bad. If they grow, it will make me happy and feed the bees. What more excuse do I need? We have over 10 acres, so I can afford to be totally frivolous with two square feet.

And that’s all the news that’s fit to blog from the Minifarm this weekend.

An Apology and Progress

When I began writing here, I had an ambition of putting together detailed, step-by-step instructions, so anyone who stumbled on this blog because they were trying to do the same thing I did that week, would be able to copy my methods.I’d meant to do a “part 2” for the chimney top in as much detail as part 1, then the reality of being too tired to write coherently after hauling more than 500 pounds of concrete to the roof-top kicked in. Then, soon after, I fell at the house, spent some time on crutches, had a surgeon put my knee back together, more time on crutches, then spent the winter recuperating and slowly working back up the strength to handle a ladder.

So, as soon as I was fit to climb a ladder, and the snow had melted, I had to see how well the roofing underlayment (which isn’t supposed to be exposed this long) survived the winter.

Roofing underlayment survived!

Not bad, for not being designed to survive a winter exposed

Not too bad. A few wrinkles that I’ll try to smooth out. The edge is pulled up in a few places; I’ll cut that off and make up the difference with a bit of the tape the manufacturer sells for edging and flashing. That will have to wait until it gets warm enough (the tape’s adhesive doesn’t stick to something new when it’s under 40 degrees).

Still, wanting to get a little work done, there was another chore I could take care of while it’s cold. I had pulled down a rotting porch soffit and replaced a joist that wasn’t up to the task, then failed to replace the soffit; as a result, birds nested in the rafters last spring.

Exposed porch joists and rafters

You can really tell which wood is less than 60 years old!

That shows two of the porch joists, rafters, and the roof decking over them. The whole area above the porch is four feet wide and eight feet long — conveniently, the standard size for construction panels at lumber yards. Last year, I obtained a thin bit of plywood they called “soffit material,” painted it white, and busted my knee being stupid in how I tried to put it up. Not wanting to repeat that experience, I went slower, and allowed Laureth to tell me when I was being stupid.

After discovering I’m too wimpy to push the soffit up to the joists, we decided to cut it in parts and put up the parts. Now, this is an old house, where no corner is quite square and no line is quite straight, so I measured the spaces and cut each piece of the soffit to fit its space. I hauled the pieces into place, Laureth helped hold them in place with a pole, and I climbed the ladder and nailed them in place. (With a nail gun; I learned that lesson helping my brother build his house.)

Porch Soffet

Yes, it’s a bit messy when you’re not strong enough to put up the ceiling in one piece

A few nails need to be hammered into place; my framing hammer apparently grew legs and wandered off. I’ll also caulk the gaps. But at least the birds won’t be nesting in the porch rafters again.

A Minifarm Mystery


Yesterday when we went down to the basement to get a Gatorade out of the minifridge in the basement, we noticed a paw print.

2014.08.10 Paw Big

That’s my hand in the picture, for scale.

2014.08.10 Paw High

Whoever made it is able to reach at least four big soup cans high.

This is kind of creepifyin’.  There is no other clue that an animal had even been in the house.  I would have expected it to tear something up, make a nest, or at least relieve itself somewhere, and there is none of that.  Nothing was the least bit out of place.  And the floor is covered throughout with a mixture of sawdust, dust, construction dust, and roofing shingle dust, so there’s a lot of stuff around that it ought to have stepped in.  The print is made of this debris, but I didn’t see any tracks anywhere else in the house.  Not even on the tar paper I used to cover the floor in one of the rooms.  And there’s no obvious egress for an animal that large.  We have had a couple birds get in, but it would be too high for this.

If it were a two-legged playing a prank, I’d expect other stuff to be moved around, or perhaps missing.  There’s none of that business either.

If I believed in woo-woo, I might think (as Murstein put it) that this is Bast’s seal of approval.  But I don’t, and clearly something was here on the physical, sawdust-tracking plane.  The only thing we can think of is that maybe sometime when we were here with the door open moving stuff around, a cat (?) got in, went over and counted coup on the ‘fridge, and wandered out again.

Too bad it looks more like a skunk or fisher than a cat…

Chimney Work, Part 1

So, I was up on the roof tearing off leaky shingles, and found some thin pieces of concrete in my work area. Looking around, I walked up to the chimney, and found this.

Flaking Chimney Cap

Crack spanning brick, concrete, and clay flue liner

Needless to say, this was yet another thing I needed to fix. Doing some research online, I discovered that the optimists say this sort of chimney top lasts 15 years. (And the pessimists say you need to inspect it every spring, and be prepared to slap on another layer if it’s cracked over the winter.) There’s another style, that the optimists say lasts a century or longer, if done well. Since my guiding philosophy for this is to make repairs so that they’ll outlast me, the replacement will be in this second style. (I also learned that the terminology is thoroughly confused: Some use “cap” to refer to this concrete topper, and “crown” to refer to the little metal thing on top that mostly keeps rain from going down the chimney. And some reverse those meanings. And some interchange them randomly.)

So, I took a couple of days off in mid-week, thinking that the first day I’d tear off the old, flaking concrete; patch a few cracks in the mortar (and that big crack that broke one sandstone “brick” into two); and build the form to pour concrete in for the new top. And the second day, we’d borrow a cement mixer, mix up cement to pour in, and haul it to the roof in batches.

The tear-off went decently well. Standing a little “uphill” on the roof, the chimney looked like this, just before I began tearing it off.

Most of the concrete above the brick level came off with just fingertip pressure on cracks and such. For the rest that I tore off, I used a mason’s hammer, mostly the pick on the back.

Based on my readings of several “how to” sets of instructions, I had expected the chimney to be mostly hollow from basically the top of the bricks up. Instead, the concrete turns out to fill the chimney, at least to the depth of the top brick.

Chimney top flat

Although it’s not entirely clear in this picture, the top is still a little convex, especially on the right. I wound up taking it a little bit lower (and then failed to get a new picture), but it’s pretty much at that level. By the time I was done with that, some of the cracks I’d known about had become much worse. This is the scariest-looking corner.

Cracks in mortar and missing mortar

Then I got to work. Other than a gallon jug of water, these are the tools and materials I used:

Tools and materials

Because the cracks were most likely the result of water running into the mortar and freezing there, I chose a cement that is more resistant to water penetration than most. I used the measuring cup to measure both the water and cement. It would be a little more convenient if I’d measured the water and cement in different containers, as some cement inevitably started hardening in the measuring cup between batches. The quart container on the left I used to mix the cement in, and the pointing tool in the foreground I used both to apply and smooth the cement. You also want to be wearing gloves of rubber or plastic; cement is caustic until it’s cured. I used a cheap pair in Home Depot orange, that has some sort of rubbery-plasticy stuff on the grip side and allows sweat to escape on the back. 

This cement begins to harden 2-3 minutes after it’s mixed, so I didn’t take any action shots of the mixing and spreading. But here’s what that corner looked like after I’d filled the cracks.

Cracks filled

Also, there’s a funny thing about the chimney: When you’re sitting on the roof looking up at it, you see a *lot* more cracks, than when you’re standing on the roof looking down. How many more? Put it this way: In two days of work, I patched the cracks on two of the chimney’s four sides.

So, it’s Friday night, and I’ve a weekend with no responsibilities to fulfill. You’d think I’d have it all done by sundown Sunday, right? Well, probably not. You see, there’s a lot of rain forecast for the weekend. And rain makes roofs slippery. It sometimes washes away cement that’s not set sufficiently. And rain falling into a tub of cement powder, turns your chimney repair materials into a small anchor, suitable to hold your kayak or small canoe in place while you do something else. So, if I get up there at all this weekend, it will be some time that it’s not been raining for long enough that the roof and chimney are dry, and it’s not expected to rain for a few hours.

I’ll fill the cracks on all four sides before I proceed to the next step; before I’m finished, I’ll be putting something like 600 or 700 pounds of concrete on top, and I want to be as sure as it’s possible to be that the chimney will hold it without problems.

Flat Nothing


This weekend there is a Pow Wow nearby.  I’ve gone to this event every year for …a couple decades now.  Never mind how many.  But this year, I decided to forego the fry bread and dump the dancers in exchange for getting another rafter or two done at the Minifarm.  If we could move in a day earlier (years from now), the sacrifice, I felt, would have been worth it.

We started out early and got to the new place before 11 AM.  Just then, Murstein looked around and realized we’d forgotten to buy the kind of screws we need to hold the strong-ties to the wood.  No worries – we’d just head to the hardware store, a few miles away in “town”.  Surely it would just take a short time to go get the screws, come back, and start raftering.  We would get so much done today.  So much!

On the way into “town” we heard a funny noise from the back of the car.  We drove along for a bit, but then the noise leveled up into a really disturbing noise.  We pulled over and took a look.  Sure enough, it was a flat tire.

Since it was on the driver’s side, it meant Murstein was having to change a tire with his tools and self hanging out into a moderately-traveled road with a fast speed limit.  He was wearing his coveralls (which are kind of dirt-colored) and I was afraid he wouldn’t be seen by passing-too-close motorists.  I stood facing oncoming traffic by the tail end of the car so they would see me, standing like stone, hands on my hips, not budging, because my crunched-down man was busy putting on the spare.  I didn’t have my camera with me at the time so you’ll just have to use your imagination, but in my head, Murstein looked a bit like this:


When we got to the hardware store, the clerk looked up the nearest franchise of the tire place where we have a warranty, and gave us directions to a place half an hour’s drive away.  We went there, had lunch at the horrid fast food place next to the tire shop, waited longer than they told us we’d have to wait, and finally – late in the afternoon, got to drive the half-hour back to the minifarm.  By then, it was too late to do any raftering at all (because it would be dark by the time we finished).  Instead, we attended to a couple simple tasks (moving sticks, doctoring a flapping piece of siding) and called it a day.

What did we get done?  Flat. Nothing.

We should have gone to the Pow Wow.