Son of a Ditch

No sooner than the 600 ft long trench to the well is filled in we now find ourselves with an 845 ft ditch to bring power to the barn and building site.   

 

Off grid is not cheap or green

This follows long discussions about our power consumption and pure speculation on what it might be at peak usage when the farm is fully operational. 

We could easily rationalize 9,000 to 10,000 dollars in solar panels and micro-hydro but the batteries are another thing altogether. 

More expensive than the rest of the system, huge and space consuming, heavy, and another thing to maintain, these guys just aren’t reasonable for the flexibility we want. Worse they are a 10-15 year consumable if you are constantly vigilant on use and maintenance schedules. 

“The lead battery industry consumes more than 80% of global lead production and is responsible for exposing thousands of workers and millions of children to harmful levels of lead. It is also the fastest growing lead-consuming industry due to a convergence of rapidly increasing demand for vehicles, cell phones, back-up power supplies, and renewable energy systems.” – The Life Cycle of Metals: Improving Health, Environment and Human Security

Even the best system requires a standby generator – another single purpose purchase and maintenance requirement.

For less anxiety and to remove another (car-sized) bill from our future we plan on being grid-tied for now. We will be providing local power for our neighbors, and the power company will pay us for the privilege. 

A Ditch By Any Other Name

A long open hole, a terrible mess, the cost of progress looks like destruction to me. I will be glad when all this digging is done and what we do with the land grows things besides piles of torn earth. 

that is the pull tape provided by the power company

This ditch would have taken me two or three weekends to dig, and one tricky part might have been impossible. We paid our dear friends Joe and Sandy to tackle this, and he was done in a day and a half. There was also a “while you are at it request” a few trees left on the building site hadn’t fared well. Roots and all he pushed them over. I’ll save limbing and bucking logs for another day.

   
 

The conduit was laid in 10 foot pieces – dropping the pull line through as I went. I started early to get some done before the heat fired up. It was 99 degrees Fahrenheit when I finished. 

 

enough conduit to get to the transformer

 
  
    
 

The job was finished by 4:00, I could have moved faster but the line in the conduit added steps and I wanted to get this done right. After a quick solar shower and locking everything up I hopped on my motorcycle and headed out.

“Son of a Ditch!”, I muttered.

… But I pronounced it differently. 

As I was unlocking the gate I noticed the spool of pull tape provided by the power company was completely empty. The line I had been carefully threading through conduit hadn’t been long enough. 

Like every other project here this one is not going smoothly. I stewed on this and tried to come up with solutions on the long ride home. Currently I am considering a ping pong ball on heavy fishing line with a shop vac on one end of the conduit. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

James Bond’s Lessons in Fertilizer 

How can a bit of dated detective fiction aid a farmer? In Dr. No printed in 1958 Ian Fleming gives a brief history of the trade in fertilizer. Beginning in the guano trade in 1850 and ending with the advent of petro chemical fertilizers.

 


“Now then, guano.’ Pleydell-Smith tilted his chair back. Bond prepared to be bored. ‘As you know, it’s bird dung. Comes from the rear end of two birds, the masked booby and the guanay. So far as Crab Key is concerned, it’s only the guanay, otherwise known as the green cormorant, same bird as you find in England. The guanay is a machine for converting fish into guano. They mostly eat anchovies. Just to show you how much fish they eat, they’ve found up to seventy anchovies inside one bird! “Pleydell-Smith took out his pipe and pointed it impressively at Bond. ‘The whole population of Peru eats four thousand tons of fish a year. The sea birds of the country eat five hundred thousand tons!

Bond pursed his lips to show he was impressed. ‘Really.” 

“Then, around 1850 someone discovered it was the greatest natural fertilizer in the world – stuffed with nitrates and phosphates and what have you. And the ships and the men came to the guaneras and simply ravaged them for twenty years or more.”

…“but the whole industry went bust, with Crab Key and the other poor-quality deposits in the van, when the Germans invented artificial chemical manure.”

…“Then people found that there were snags about the German stuff, it impoverishes the soil,”…

Excerpt From: Fleming, Ian. “James Bond Collection I.” iBooks. 

Fast forward to today and we know that even though chemical fertilizers have been “fine tuned” it still kills soil biology and our national topsoils have been thinned and sterilized in part by their use.

Geoff Lawton, permaculture instructor, points out that every little hill and fence post becomes a perch for birds. In several videos, he even refers to a bird’s instinct to lighten the load as a “creative event”.  He blows a juicy raspberry then says, “Another creative event”, as birds alight, drop a load, then fly off again and again.

 

A stake on our silt pond

  

A stake on one of our empress trees

 
Like most land that has been hayed and endured our nutrient leaching deluges ours could use a little extra help. Fields are especially vulnerable and without grazing animals (yet) to add their creative events we mow and slowly build up organic material in place.  

But there are lots of birds and bats. So while hiking back up the main field with tools to work on our water lines I hammered in a handful of stakes in places I want birds to perch. 

  
This got me thinking about designing a simple and easy to set perch where birds would be compelled to rest on a horizontal bit allowing their guano to hit the grass more easily. I’ll also start making some bat houses this fall.

For now some stakes in the field and some cardboard under our barn swallows nest collect the goodness. The cardboard goes into our compost or directly in beds as part of our mulching system.

Converting bugs into fertility and enjoying the acrobatics and song makes this a creative event for all of us at the farm.

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Permaculture | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

It Will Only Take An Hour

We decided it was high time to focus on getting some sort of shelving in the barn as things were starting to pile up and we are hoping to begin construction on our farm prep area soon. Our permit was filed a few weeks ago, but before the county will issue the permit we need to get our septic design and an application for a well site inspection filed.

We’ve been discussing shelving for the past year but never settled on any details. Pallet rack shelving comes in so many sizes, it always seemed overwhelming to me to get a handle on it so it kept getting putting off. With the pending construction project and wanting to get our house in order to go on the market, I finally made it a priority.

Some of the shelving is to be used for boxes of stuff from the house – our basement is so full we can barely get through it. With storage space in the barn I can start to go through the basement and sort out what we will use later at the farm from what we need to get rid of. It will be a whole lot easier to sell the house without the basement looking like hoarders live there.

The plan for the weekend was to pick up shelving, file permits, clear out the stuff in the barn – moving things like leftover metal siding over to the “Area of Accumulation”  (a place we set up to store miscellaneous building materials, water totes, fencing, etc… that can be stored outdoors), assemble the shelving and then I could start mowing the fields while M finished up plumbing the livestock watering lines. Time permitting we could also finish backfilling the trenches we dug out last fall for the well.

I pointed out to M that our “To Do” list seemed a little ambitious. “Oh, well the clearing of the barn and the shelving will ‘only take an hour’…” Famous last words. And, as it turned out, the theme for the weekend.

I left the house early Friday morning to pick up the used pallet rack shelving I found on craigslist and then head down to the Building Department. M rode his motorcycle into work and would join me later that evening at the farm.

It took me an hour and a half to drive to the place to pick up the shelving. I spent two hours with the very nice gentleman selling the shelving – he wanted to make sure I knew how it all went together, and of course once you see it all up close and personal – well, we did a little reconfiguring and then of course it took a bit of time to load it all and strap it down.

From there I had to drive another hour and a half to the building department in the county where the farm is located, but it was 1230 pm and I was starving. I made a quick stop to walk the dog and grab a bite so it was almost 230 before I got to the building department. A bit of a kerfuffle over no record of our septic perc test holes having been dug and approved last fall. Thank goodness there was an inspector there that knew our designer and said it was ok for me to file because we were also told at the time we could go ahead and fill the test holes back in. Two hours later…

Another quick stop to drop eggs off to my good friend Sandy, meet her new puppy – ok so it wasn’t exactly a quick stop because who can resist playing with a PUPPY???

Well, by the time I got out to the farm it was after 530 and I was fried – it had been a long day and a bit stressful. I originally thought I’d get there by 200 pm at the latest and could get at least 4-5 hours of mowing in. Hah!

So I set up “camp”, popped a hard cider and Magpie and I went on a walkabout. OK – I did drag a bunch of 5′ bamboo stakes and a can of orange marker paint with me so I could mark where we planted Pacific willows because the grass was getting pretty high and the orange flags were no longer visible and the plan was to start mowing this weekend.

Before it “takes an hour” to read the rest of this post – it took all day Saturday and part of Sunday to clear out the barn and get the shelving up.

The picture above just shows the east end of the barn. The interior of the barn is 36′ wide and 60′ long. This is where the shelving will go temporarily. It will move further in after our farm prep area is built out which is located on the west end of the barn. This area will eventually become M’s woodworking shop.

Then there was the hummingbird rescue operation. Note the ridge cap in the picture above and the long extension ladder – a hummingbird flew in through the door and was trying to get out through the clear ridge cap. M put up the extension ladder and very carefully climbed up. After a bit of flitting back and forth out of his reach, he was finally able to catch it and very carefully, with one hand, descended down the ladder.

The barn was finally cleared of pipes, piles of cardboard (for mulching), metal siding, scrap wood, rebar and boxes of bits and bobs. Tools were sent back to the tool shed (aka the shipping container), tarps were folded and stored, tractor chains were hung, wires were rolled up, floors were swept and the workbench was assembled.

Can we play ball NOW?

M also set up the solar shower v2. V1 used a metal barrel which ended up rusting out, so v2 is a dark grey plastic rain barrel. The barrel sits on top of the shipping container and gets the southern sun all day. We use a garden watering wand for our shower head. A section of a wood pallet and some doug fir rounds on top of some pea gravel make up the floor. A debarked tree limb makes a handy towel rack and helps to keep the shower curtain rod upright.

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No mowing or plumbing or backfilling – but the barn looks great and it will be nice to have use of the solar shower again, especially since the hot water heater in the camp trailer is on the fritz.

Posted in Barn, Construction | 4 Comments

Blooms and Spring Foraging

Frequent walkabouts help us keep track of what is going on at the farm. Spring’s showy flowers are always a hit but also an easy way to identify natives and local residents. Each time we identify something new (to us) I try and keep a mental inventory of two things. 1. What is the plant useful to us or to wildlife for, and 2. What might it indicate in the soils. Some of these fellows we want to cultivate or at least encourage. Some we just look forward to seeing each year.

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Pacific Bleeding Heart – Dicentra Formosa

Bleeding heart often grows in the vicinity of a spring, but doesn’t like to be in the wet all the time. This patch we found just downhill and to the side of a seasonal spring that recently dried out until the wet season is back upon us. We’ve seen patches in other places and now I seem to put it all together that seasonal springs and surface waterflows are always nearby.

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Bitter Cherry – Prunus emarginata

Bitter cherry is a great wildlife food and not really for humans. This tree preforms well in wetter areas can be used for lumber, and the bark is rot resistant and used for basket weaving. The dried bark is an amazing fire starter. The few trees we had fall were initially difficult to split for firewood, until I was taught the trick of zipping both sides of a log’s bark with my chainsaw. The outer bark runs horizontally and the inner vertically making it a tight package. There are quite a few of these guys on the farm, and I have been eyeballing the few large leaners for lumber when we build the house. Flooring and cabinetry come to mind. As with all cherry there is a quantity of cyanide compounds in the bark and fruit stones that need to be kept out of the way of any browsing livestock. The wild bids love them and we like the birds to keep the bugs to a minimum and give us back little phosphorus packages in the mix. (poo.)

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Service Berry – Amelanchier ??

Service berry is new to me. I only properly identified it this week. This one is human edible and quite sweet. It is drought tolerant, works well in the wet and in dry positions. (These were found in wet). These seem like great native additions for the chicken paddocks and also for steep hillsides like our curtain drain. Interestingly this guy will get 20ft high or more and the wood is great for tool handles.

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Native Elderberry – Sambucus racemosa

Our native elderberry has beautiful red clusters of fruit which are edible if you cook them. The birds here get first picking and we’ll probably leave it to them. They are a showy and pleasant addition to the forest edge.

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Siberian Lettuce – Claytonia sibirica

One of my favorites. New leaves are a tasty addition to salads or wilted greens. These were so tender I harvested them with scissors. In the summer the leaves can get bitter, so new growth or spring harvest makes for a delicious addition to a meal. These prefer shaded areas with plenty of moisture. They are a fantastic understory plant.

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We ate this batch for breakfast with some leftover polenta, fried eggs, our home cured bacon, and L’s recent batch of wholegrain sourdough English muffins (or as the Brits in the office call them muffins”

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Pickled Eggs and Deer Mulch

Daylight. Sweet, sweet daylight. My mornings start pretty early and by the time I am ready to catch the bus to work at 5:00 AM the sky is just turning purple and maroon. I feel a physical relief with that little bit of light in the morning now. On the rare morning when I have time to get a run in at home (cardio and core my friends… I really believe that this has made a huge difference in my farm work) I get to see the sun actually rise. 40 minutes to spare is a real luxury and with the light it really changes my outlook.

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My running buddy wondering why I stopped

The hens must feel the same as we are rolling in eggs! L. has been making frittatas and quiche, and our all-time favorite, wilted kale, polenta, bacon and two poached eggs. But my little joy this time of year is pickling our surplus eggs. This is a Southern thing I think, but spicy pickled eggs are a real treat. They really hit the spot especially with a little beer.

I did make the mistake of bringing in some to work for a co-worker to try. Not only did I not screw the lid on tight enough and spill pickled egg juice liberally in my bag but when I put the jar on my desk I got a lot of interesting reactions. :-)

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L. will post the recipe later – she is en route to the farm now and picking up pallet shelving to help us organize the barn. She’s also submitting paperwork for septic designs and water permits. More on that in another post.

Here is the “proper” way to eat pickled eggs.
HowtoEatPickledEggs

In other news, we have caged most of the trees and got a bunch of raspberry plants in the ground. When we showed up last weekend we discovered how much deer love young raspberry plants. Munched to the ground. Boo. Since we have a lot of sheet metal siding scrap left over from barn construction and it needs to move anyway in preparation for more construction we decided to “mulch” the raspberries with it almost 3ft out from the plants. Our hope is that when the deer come for a snack and step on it the “clonk-clonking” will deter them. We’ll see.

  
Tree cages seem to be holding up well. L. found a freecycle listing for rebar and grabbed it all. These worked pretty well for supports.

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You can see some scraps of cardboard from our mulch scattered about. Some critter (not the dog) is having a good time digging into it and flinging it about. This seems to have relented in the last few weeks though.

Posted in Crops, Farming, Gardening, Mulch, Tree Care, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Chicken Food Forest

As part of our Grand Plan permaculture design, each function of the farm will be as close to a self-sustaining system as we can reasonably muster, and this includes our laying flock. We want to create a chicken-centric woodland filled with foods they love. The idea was inspired by the chapter on chickens in Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture.

Food forests mimic woodlands in that plants are grouped together in mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships where plants share nutrients, provide mulch, attract beneficial insects, etc… as well as provide a wide variety of food (fruit, seeds, nuts, herbs, berries, vegetables, etc…) for animals and humans.

In our Chicken Food Forest the birds will literally eat the “low hanging fruit”. We would harvest the rest for them or if there’s an abundance – share it with other livestock and/or eat it ourselves.  The more of their food we can grow on the farm the less, if any, feed we will have to buy in. We also plan to grow grains so we hopefully won’t have to buy feed at all.

Zone 1

Zone 1 from our permaculture farm design prepared before the barn was built. The Chicken Food Forest is to the right of the barn. This drawing is not to scale and the details are a little bit different than depicted here, but it gives you an idea of what we are envisioning.

Paddocks

We staked out four paddocks that are roughly  1300 sf each and have planted the black locusts that will run along the fence lines eventually becoming living fence posts. The chickens will move through one paddock at a time allowing for the plantings to recover and regrow just like in a pasture rotation system. The laying flock will be housed in a coop adjacent to the greenhouse which is attached to the barn. There will be a fairly large strawyard as well as a covered area just outside the coop entrance with a series of gates accessing each paddock.

Fencing

The perimeter fencing will be woven wire field fencing with posts made from the cedar we recently had taken down at home. By the time these cedar posts have served their time, the black locusts we have planted all along the proposed fence lines will be in place to take over fence post duty. We will keep the black locusts pollarded in the meantime, using the prunings as chop and drop mulch. Since we have so many trees in a limited area, pollarding will help keep them at a manageable height.

At the bottom of the field fencing we will run a two foot section of hardware cloth or chicken wire to keep the baby chicks from getting out and two strands of hot wire will be added to keep predators out. The interior fencing won’t have to be as secure as the perimeter, so will be either be leftover field fencing or chicken wire – just high enough to keep the chickens from getting into the other paddocks.

Plantings

In addition to the black locusts planted along the fence lines, we will plant fruiting trees, vines and shrubs, herbaceous plants and ground covers that chickens like to eat. Comfrey, grapes, amaranth, rye grass, flax, currants, raspberries, clovers, figs, mulberry, chickweed, oats, millet, sunflowers, etc…. We  will double up the fencing in between the paddocks to create a narrow corridor so that some of the plantings (i.e. grapes that will run along the fencing) will be better protected from the chicken’s scratching.  Other ways to protect plantings from too much damage is to place stones, bricks, etc… at the base of plants that might suffer from the scratching about by the chickens.

This golden hops plant next to the coop has survived the chicken scratching for three years now.

The trees and shrubs will also provide the chickens with protection from raptors and summer heat.

My weeping mulberries aren’t this big yet but pretty soon they will provide a great shelter for the chickens. (photo courtesy of landscapingworkshop.com)

We may run something over the top of the paddocks to help with this until the tree canopy is large enough to do the job. I’m thinking something fun along the lines of a may pole.

(photo courtesy of cowcard.com)

Compost

Although they provide us with delicious and nutritious eggs for which we are extremely grateful for, the chickens will still need to earn their keep in exchange for living in this paradise.  In the paddocks not currently in use we will build compost piles so that when the birds move back in the piles will be chock full of worms, pill bugs, cutworms, etc… ready for the chickens to employ their shredding and mixing abilities as well as adding in fresh nitrogen deposits.

The Chicken Food Forest is adjacent to [what will be] the main Greenhouse and the Kitchen Garden. In early spring and late fall we will let them free range through the greenhouse and the gardens to till the cover crops in, manage pests and apply fertilizer.

Rotation

I read on The Walden Effect that he rotates his birds on pasture every 28 days through four paddocks and allows about 270 square feet per bird. He also says if you are running your birds through the paddocks year round, which we will do, you would need six paddocks. The difference is he’s talking about pasture and broilers and he’s located in Virginia. I’m talking about a densely planted food forest in a more temperate climate (no harsh winter) and a laying flock.

I am thinking about the rotation schedule before I plant so I will know [roughly] which paddock they would be in at any give time in an attempt to make sure the fruits are ripe when they are in a particular paddock or it’s the warmest/driest during the winter, etc….

I started out playing around with a monthly rotation schedule which gives each paddock a 16 week recovery period but I’m already doubting it’s effectiveness as I look out my window at our little flock of 12 birds and how quickly they rip stuff up.

Paddock 1 – January, May, September
Paddock 2 – February, June, October
Paddock 3 – March, July, November
Paddock 4 – April, August, December

As an example of my thought process – the mulberries I am planning to plant in paddocks 1 and 4 start to fruit here in mid to late August, so the birds will have access to the ripe fruit when they are moved into those paddocks. Paddocks 1 and 2 are south-facing and therefore warmer in the winter which is where they will be during the coldest months.  Paddocks 3 and 4 are shaded from the hot western sun by the barn when they are in there during the hotter months. I’m sure I won’t be able to work everything out perfectly, but a little bit of planning should help to make these birds pretty self-sufficient.

If I go with a bi-monthly rotation it won’t work quite as well with them being in the warmer paddocks during the coldest months, but the plants will probably be a whole lot better off. Each paddock would have an 8 week recovery period.

Paddock 1 – early January, March, May, July, September, November
Paddock 2 – late January, March, May, July, September, November
Paddock 3 – early February, April, June, August, October, December
Paddock 4 – late February, April, June, August, October, December

I’m hoping I can run 30 – 40 birds through this system. I may have to eat those words later, but we won’t be starting out with 40 birds from the get go. It is an experiment that we will monitor as we go along and make adjustments as needed. There is room to add a fifth paddock if needed and we have a few more permaculture tricks up our sleeve so read on…

Keeping the Chickens Employed

If we need to take pressure off of the Chicken Food Forest should we reach our maximum capacity and want to expand our flock, or should we have a lot of older layers needing gainful employment as something other than bone broth, we’ve come across a couple of unique “tractoring” systems we want to try out.

As we break new ground for “people” food forests or convert pasture to broad acre crops, etc…, we will use a small flock of birds (around 10-12 I’d imagine) to help prepare the land. Using an egg mobile and some electronet fencing, the chickens will be moved through an area a section at a time to scratch up the sod, clean out the bugs and fertilize the soil. Geoff Lawton demonstrates this system in his Designing a Food Forest with Chickens video.

After a broad acre garden area is planted out and in full production, the chickens can be moved about in the general vicinity turning kitchen scraps and garden waste into compost to mulch the beds with – another great idea and video (also from my permaculture hero Geoff Lawton) demonstrates how this works. I really love this and think it would be a great job for older hens who are slowing down their egg production – assuming we have all of the bone broth and chicken & dumplings makings we need in the freezer. We do plan on having our flock hatch out chicks so we expect to have a fair number of roosters to meet those needs.

I highly recommend signing up for the Geoff Lawton videos to see the full videos – well worth it and I promise there is no spam, plus you’ll have access to many more free videos he’s produced. They are all quite brilliant.

I’ve been bugging M about making me a chicken taxi so I can easily move my hens about our property at home. Since it is so heavily wooded and sloped, it is hard for me to move the poultrynet around while still giving them access to their coop. Through Sailors Small Farm, I heard about Eliot Coleman’s Chickshaw – which is exactly what I envisioned my chicken taxi to be. We can easily deploy chickens or ducks to any area of the farm that would benefit from their attention.

You say chickshaw and I say chicken taxi… (photo courtesy of smallfarmtools.com)

This post is all about our laying flock. We plan to also raise meat birds and tractor them in the lanes between our fruit and nut trees – but most of you are already familiar with that concept.

It’s all theory at this point, so I am humbly soliciting feedback from all chicken-keepers out there. Thanks!

Posted in Chickens, Compost, Farming, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture, Preparing the land, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Fencing

So many trees, so many deer.
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L and I have been going around and around trying to figure out a fencing plan. Tired of losing trees and the prospect of putting more in is beginning to weigh on us.  So I’m reaching out to my virtual neighbors for some perspective.

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Perimeter fencing
This would be our most expensive option. 10ft fence running through forest and over a creek seems like a daunting task to install and maintain. It might keep the deer out but elk scoff at fences. Trees regularly fall and maintenance and perimeter checks factor into the deal. A 24 acre perimeter means a lotta lotta fence.

Perimiter-Fencing

Paddock or group fencing
We have rows of trees planted on contour but in many different areas of the farm. We could put up fencing row by row or group two or three rows at a time. A little more manageable, but larger groups need height to be a deterrent, smaller groups can be lower  as it provides a very small landing strip for jumpers. Electrifying these might provide training to our year round nibblers.

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The additional downside is that if we do areas larger than the rows themselves (and we do intend to alley graze between rows) we are stuck with massive deer fences to deter leaping over the fence. This could look pretty ugly and “the eyes gotta eat too”.

Cages
Manageable but labor intensive. Lots of fence required if we consider 6-8 ft diameter and more t-posts too. This makes it much harder to pick fruit and prune. Currently we have about 60 fruit and nut trees. 180 T-posts and about 400 ft of fencing material to start and we have plans for many more trees.

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We are asking for your help.
So what do you do? What actually works and what are the downsides? Give us the value of your actual experience with this problem. How much maintenance do you do on fencing, does it seem worth it? Keep in mind we aren’t on this property full time and even a dog or two might not do the trick as we have cougar, coyotes, and bear that would love to snack on them.

Thanks for any help you can offer.

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Permaculture, Tree Care, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 22 Comments