Epic Homesteading Fiascos

Kudos to Eric of Garden Fork for keeping the cameras rolling after this disaster. I think I would have been too dispirited to hit record.

It’s particularly frustrating when months of work end in one catastrophic moment. In terms of personal disasters, skunks tearing through our salad beds comes to mind, as well as ruining three five gallon batches of home brewed beer one after the other.

These sorts of disasters can be a lesson, particularly if you have the courage, as Eric does, to share them publicly. And, as our guest on the podcast this week Guy Frenkel pointed out, if you’re letting mistakes get you down it means your ego is in the way of the risk taking that’s essential to any creative endeavor.

What’s your worst fiasco?

How to craft a New Year’s resolution and why you should keep them to yourself

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I think we’re poster children for why you shouldn’t publicize your New Year’s resolutions. Re-listening to our New Year’s resolution podcast of 2015 was just plain painful. Looking back, the results weren’t pretty.

A large body of research going back to the early 20th century explains why it’s a bad idea to let other people know about your goals. When we tell other people what we’re going to do in the coming year, that act of telling deludes us into thinking that we’ve already accomplished the goal. Blogging and social media, I think, makes this even worse in that it gives us all the ability to let hundreds or even thousands of people know what goals we’d like to accomplish in the coming year.

But there’s some subtlety to the research. As this Scientific American article points out, if you let all your Facebook friends know you intend to run a marathon, this can trick you into thinking you’ve accomplished the goal. If, however, you conceptualize a goal as a form of commitment rather than progress, you’re more likely to succeed. A study the article cites puts it this way,

This implies that a behavioral intention worded to indicate a strong commitment to the identity goal (e.g., ‘‘I want to write a paper to become a great scientist’’) should be less negatively affected by social reality than a behavioral intention that implies progress toward the identity goal (e.g., ‘‘I intend to write a paper, as is done by great scientists’’).

In other words, I think there’s a parallel to the way Alcoholics Anonymous frames sobriety as a commitment rather than something that’s achieved.

I’ve decided that publicizing goals on this blog or on the podcast is a bad idea because I don’t think I can adequately distinguish between progress and commitment unless I keep my goals to myself. It’s too easy to fall into bragging mode on a blog that’s dedicated to domesticity. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make resolutions. I’m just going to keep them those commitments private.

SMART New Year’s Resolutions
And I’m going to be smarter about those goals. Another research-based Scientific American article suggests that our goals be “SMART”:

Specific
Measurable
Attainable
Realisitc
Time Framed

An example of a bad goal would be, “I’m going to lose some weight.” A “SMART” alternative would be, “I’m going to lose 10 pounds by July 1.” The article also suggests that goals be inspiring and difficult but realistic. So, for instance, an uninspiring goal might be, “I’m going to walk more often.” A more inspiring and difficult goal might be, “I’m going to run a 5k.” An unrealistic goal (a lot of newbie runners fall into this one) would be trying to run a marathon without first having years for running experience.

With these studies in mind I’ve set a modest (under 10) number of specific, time framed goals that I have written down. I’m not telling anyone what they are and I’ve decided to review them every day.

Have you set some goals? How did your New Year’s resolutions go in 2014?

Help! Small birds are eating us out of house and home!

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So–we thought it would be a nice idea to get a bird feeder.

We had resisted up ’til now because we figured any bird feeder we got would end up a squirrel feeder. Then we discovered this particular type of feeder, which is enclosed in a fine mesh, and meant to hold tiny seeds, like thistle seeds. This sort of feeder attracts small, seed-eating song birds, like finches, but doesn’t feed the mice and rats and squirrels.*

What could possibly go wrong?

We installed the feeder about a month ago, and were delighted to see house finches and tiny lesser goldfinches come to visit. (So were our indoor kitties, I might add!)

And then more lesser goldfinches came, and more, and more… and still more.

Apparently, lesser goldfinches are “gregarious.”

At this point we are hosting a continuous goldfinch convention from dawn to dusk. They’re cute as the dickens, but they are beginning to cost some serious money, because there’s so many of them as of this week that they are now plowing through a full feeder every day. As I type this, I can hear the squabbling outside the window which starts when the seed levels are low.

Now we have guilt–as well as pocketbook pangs. Have we created a monster? Are the goldfinches now dependent on our feed? Was it wrong to feed them like this in the first place? Are impressionable young goldfinches learning to live on handouts? Are we sparking a goldfinch obesity crisis?

Our yard does have more natural food sources, like native sunflowers and white sage gone to seed. Perhaps we should have left it at that? ( I suspect we’re not going to win any permaculture awards for our feeder.)

Bird people, help!

What are your thoughts on feeders?

Is it okay to leave the feeder empty sometimes? Does that encourage foraging, or is it just not very nice to be random about the filling?

Is there a cheaper alternative to Nyjer ™ seed that finches like? Perhaps something that doesn’t come from Africa? (argh!)

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Buck watching finches, thinking unkind thoughts.

*Seed drops, which could feed rats and mice, but sparrows are on clean-up crew

Gardening Mistakes: Six Ways We’ve Killed Plants

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In the years we’ve gardened we’ve killed our share of plants. I’d like to think we’ve learned from our errors. To that end, I thought I’d run down some of the big mistakes we’ve made.

1. The right plant in the right place Our front yard is a hillside. Our backyard has two tall trees that cast shade towards the north. The soil varies in color, texture and quality largely due to almost a hundred years of construction projects (decks, foundation work terracing, etc.). The same plant that might thrive in one spot will wither in another. This is where trial and error comes in. Sometimes the only way to find out if what will grow is to plant stuff and see what takes off.

2. Soil compaction This is a big problem in urban areas and our yard is no exception. The parkway, which gets a lot of foot traffic, is very compacted. Very few plants do well with compacted soil, including natives. The best way to break up compacted soil is with a broadfork, a spendy item. We use a garden fork instead.

3. Soil fertility When it comes to growing vegetables, in particular, you need rich soil. Get a soil test first. But soil fertility is a lot more than chemistry–it’s about life. Healthy soils have a rich and diverse microbial and fungal ecosystem. You can jump start that fertility with compost. But somehow we never have enough compost.

4. Bad nursery stock. I’ve bought my share of root bound plants and plants that came with diseases. The worst example I’ve seen is a nursery selling grape vines that all had incurable Pierce’s disease. That’s a guaranteed failure. Thankfully we’ve found a few good sources when we need seedlings: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and Theodore Payne.

5. The great mystery of watering. I’m still working on this one. I discovered last year that I’ve been under-watering our fruit trees.  To figure out watering needs for fruit trees the pros use expensive soil augurs to take samples. I may break down and get one but in the meantime I’ve got a high quality moisture sensor I’m experimenting with on the suggestion of fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl (thanks Steve!). More on this topic in another post. I’ve also been known to neglect and/or over-water our vegetables as well.

6. Timing. It took us a few seasons to realize that our Mediterranean climate is very different from what the back of seed packages were telling us in terms of when to plant. I’m sure climates that have hard freezes have a whole other level of surprises and heartbreak.

Acceptance
You’re going to kill plants. Just as you have to break an egg to make an omelette, the only way you’re going to learn about your garden, its soil, microrclimates and quirks is by killing plants.

I’m sure I’ve left some things out.  Let us know in the comments how you have killed plants.

Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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