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Incubation handbook now in print!

Incubation Handbook now in printI’m thrilled to announce that our incubation handbook is now in print! A very skilled intern helped buff up the text over the winter and the result is ready to make your next hatch a major success.

(The ebook is a bit spiffier also, with the same information but more polish and a fancier cover and title.)

Here are some of the reviews of the first edition if you need more incentive to check it out:

“I have had problems with incubating chicks, getting low to no hatch, and high hatch mortality. All of the info in this book makes great sense! This helped me a lot to fix ALL of my hatch problems.” — sunnyweller

“I especially found the “helping chicks hatch” section very helpful. Followed the instructions and saved two chicks!” — Keaokun

“My first attempt at incubating was a dismal failure. I only hatched 6 of 19 eggs. Two of those had facial and beak deformities. This little ebook was so helpful and I was able to pinpoint – many – things I had done wrong.” — V. Schafer

“Awesome book, well written. Not too basic nor too much extraneous detail.” — chem girl

I’m hoping to enjoy another round of intern magic this summer, so I’d love to hear which ebook-only title you’d most like to have available in print. Or perhaps you’d prefer us to turn our newest video course into an ebook and paperback? Please comment and let me know what you want!

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Inoculating mushroom logs with sawdust spawn

We’ve written in the past about our mushroom experiments, which mostly centered around using plug spawn in logs. So I was thrilled when our local library offered an opportunity to try something a little different — sawdust spawn.

(Yes, we do have the best library around. Yes, they did let us take home an inoculated shiitake log of our very own.)


Pros and cons of sawdust spawn

Newly inoculated mushroom log

Sawdust inoculation tool

As best I can tell, the only real downside of using sawdust spawn is that you need to buy an inoculation tool. At $45 per tool, that means sawdust spawn makes the most sense for folks who intend to inoculate at least 36 logs (although you don’t have to do them all at once, of course). My math in today’s dollars:

  • Sawdust spawn: about $1 per log in spawn cost
  • Plug spawn: about $2.25 per log in spawn cost

In addition to long-term price savings, other benefits of using sawdust spawn include:

  • Your logs will produce mushrooms faster (in 5 to 12 months instead of 9 to 18 months).
  • I actually found inoculation with the sawdust tool gentler on my wrists (no hammering!).


Other inoculation innovations

Measuring mushroom log hole locations

Other than the inoculation tool, using sawdust spawn is pretty much the same as using plug spawn. But I thought you might enjoy seeing our teachers’ entire process since it is definitely better than ours!

First the infrastructure: They built tables with little wooden cradles at intervals to hold the logs in place. That means the only time you really need a second set of hands is when drilling the holes.

Also note the measuring stick with the spacing information on it. No laborious hand-measuring each log!

Drilling holes in a mushroom log with an angle grinder

Another innovation is the use of an angle grinder rather than a drill gun. Mark shared a video in which you can see how much faster this is than what we’d done in the past.

(Do be careful though. I could see someone drilling through their hand with this setup.)

Shiitake sawdust spawn

After the holes are drilled, it’s time to insert the spawn. Sawdust spawn comes in a block like the one shown above. You break it up with your hands then scoop some of the loose sawdust out into an empty yogurt container (or something similar).

Inoculating a mushroom log

Waxing a mushroom logNext, bang the inoculation tool into the container a few times to fill it with spawn. Place the tool over the hole and depress the button at the top to insert spawn. The goal is for the spawn to fill the hole up to about the bark level.

After that, all you need to do is wax over each spawn-filled hole. In the past, we’ve used beeswax from local hives, but apparently any food-safe wax works. Our teachers were using paraffin, melted then daubed on with cute little brushes. But they mentioned that there’s a new kind of wax, primarily used with plug spawn, that you can wipe on cold with your finger.

After that, it’s the usual waiting game (with the side note that, since we now live in an area with less extreme precipitation than we used to be located, we need to remember to water our log if we don’t get at least an inch of rain per week).

We haven’t had productive mushroom logs since moving to Ohio, but remembering how fun and easy inoculation was put the process back on my radar. Maybe next year we’ll push wildcrafting mushrooms onto the back burner and inoculate more logs.


About our teachers

Soulshine Acres mushrooms

I want to end with a huge thank you to Soulshine Acres for sharing their expertise with us. They’re a frequent vendor at the Athens, Ohio, farmer’s market if you want to check some of their mushrooms out. Or just follow them on instagram using the link above to learn about their forest farm, full of over 400 mushroom logs.

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Shitake log inoculation video

Drilling holes in mushroom logs just got a lot easier and faster with this new shitake drill bit.

You will also need the angle grinder drill chuck adapter.

More details from a shitake log workshop will be ready for next week.


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March in the garden

Back in Virginia, March was a prime spring-planting month. Since moving to Ohio, it’s usually been an impatient-waiting month instead.

Not this year!

Early spring vegetable seedlings

A warm winter means my test beds of early lettuce and peas germinated well, so I soon seeded more.

Last year and this year's broccoli

Meanwhile, in proof of the winter’s extreme mildness, we’re starting to get tiny side heads on overwintering broccoli (protected by row-cover fabric over caterpillar tunnels).

To celebrate, rather than potting up this year’s broccoli seedlings (who are already slightly stunted from outgrowing their soil), I set out half on Monday. That’s a couple of weeks earlier than is recommended for our area, but the ten-day forecast looks good.

Arugula flower buds

Overwintering vegetables from last year (if any survive) are always the first edibles coming out of the garden, and this year we don’t just have the broccoli pictured earlier. Arugula started feeding us even earlier despite a total lack of winter protection for the plants. They started bolting (sending up flower heads) weeks ago. I quickly snipped the bounty, steamed it slightly, then sauteed the steamed flower heads in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Yum! Those have been good for a meal or two per week for most of March, although they’re starting to come to their end now.

Luckily, kale looks like it will fill the upcoming gap, even though a droughty summer last year meant my plants went into winter on the small side. Hopefully by the time the arugula gets away from me, we’ll have another dependable source of greens to carry us through until the spring lettuce comes in.

Kill mulching garden aisles

Of course, weeds start growing just as soon as vegetables do. The garden beds are usually pretty easy to manage at this time of year — half an hour of yanking fends off long-term problems in our entire plot.

Aisles can be more tricky, but I’ve saved up cardboard all winter to hit the problematic areas. Purple dead nettle and chickweed are easy to yank, while grasses or ground ivy are better off kill mulched. I tend to hit the areas right around the beds I’m using just before planting so weeds can’t encroach on my seedlings. (I’m bound to run out of cardboard before I solve all my problems, which is why they keep coming back.)

Nectarine flowers

March is also the time to count your tree fruits before they hatch. We’re finally back in that mind game, having set out a nectarine a year ago. My produce count for that tree is simple: zero. Not because it bloomed too early (although it likely did) but because I’ll be picking off any young fruits to ensure the tree puts more energy into establishing its roots.

And that’s it for our late March garden. How does yours look?

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Pigeons for manure, eggs, and meat

Pigeon program

Pigeon manureWhen I saw the above teaser of a library program, I was instantly hooked by the reference to pigeon compost. And the photo Nandini Stockton shared of her manure piles was definitely intriguing. But are the feed costs and work worth the output?

To answer that question, I had to listen to the entire (wonderful presentation), the cream of which I’m including below.


Eating pigeon eggs

Cooking a pigeon eggIn addition to manure, pigeons on the homestead are a source of what Nandini referred to as a superfood. Despite their diminutive size, she claimed each pigeon egg contains as many calories as a chicken egg. I couldn’t fact-check this easily on the internet, but did find an article mentioning pigeon eggs’ protein levels, which are higher ounce-per-ounce than chicken eggs.

The downside of raising pigeons for eggs is volume, and not just volume of individual eggs either. Unlike chickens, you can’t keep ten female pigeons with no males around and expect eggs, and they don’t lay every day either. Instead, you need a mated pair of pigeons and each pair only produces four eggs per month. No wonder pigeon eggs are considered a high-dollar delicacy!


Homestead pigonRaising pigeons for meat

The other homestead use for pigeons is meat. Nandini didn’t talk about this much since she clearly considers her pigeons pets. But she did mention that there are specific varieties of pigeons better suited to being used as meat birds. Squabs are often killed at thirty days, right around the time they fledge.


Keeping pigeons on the homestead

So what kind of infrastructure do you need to keep pigeons? The coop (better known as a loft) is a bit like a chicken coop and it usually has at least a small aviary attached. Wood pellets are optimal bedding and pigeons are fed a mixture of grains. They also need special Pigeon coopwaterers with reservoirs at least 3/4 of an inch deep (but which the pigeons can’t poop in, of course).

Nandini keeps her pigeons entirely cooped up from early September to mid April since, otherwise, Cooper’s Hawks chow down on her flock far too easily. Starting in April (or whenever leaves are back on the trees to provide cover), she lets her pigeons out in the mid afternoon. They fly around, forage, and bathe in basins of water she places on the lawn before returning inside for the night.

I asked whether free-flying pigeons bother her garden, and she said they didn’t. But she also noted that her loft is located on the opposite side of her yard from her vegetables. She does plant sedums for her flock closer to their loft, which likely keeps them close to home.


Are we getting pigeons?

Mark says no. After sleeping on it, I decided he was right — an extra worm bin would result in just as good compost at a fraction of the hassle. But if you end up getting pigeons (or already have a flock), I hope you’ll comment and let me know what you think of them as homestead livestock!

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Tips for early spring peas

Soaking pea seeds

Planting pea seeds thick

Peas don’t like heat, so it’s a good idea to plant them as early as possible. But if you plant too early, you’ll end up with only a couple of survivors spread across a large trellis, wasting precious garden space. What’s the solution?

Early-planted peas can do well, but you need to stack the deck for success. First, soak your pea seeds inside for at least four hours, during which time they’ll plump up and wake up. You can actually keep them inside until they sprout, but you’ll want to pour off the water after twelve hours or so and cover the seeds with a humidity dome if you go that route. Sprouted peas also need to be handled more carefully to prevent the tender new roots from breaking, so I usually just do the four-hour-plumping-up soak.

Next, out in the garden, ignore the instructions that pea seeds should be spaced one to three inches apart. Instead, drop them into a furrow in dense clumps before covering them up.

Protecting pea seedlings from critters(Of course, it goes without saying that you waited until the soil was at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit, planned for rain to keep the seedlings growing fast, and didn’t plant just before an extended cold snap.)

Finally, find some way to protect your pea seedlings from critters. The same sprouts that are delicious on our table are also a favorite of rabbits and other garden invaders. We use caterpillar tunnels over our spring pea beds, keeping the enclosure in place until the plants are tall enough to need a trellis.

After all that, it’s time to wait and hope. Fingers crossed for a copious, early crop!

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Spinning brush scratcher

Industrial, rotating brushes are the latest trend in ultra pampering your favorite cow.

It seems as if someone has re-purposed some drive thru car wash technology to scratch an itch.

Could this increased level of stimulation help to make more and better tasting milk?