30,000 new residents

April 18th, 2015
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Sitting atop a Freecyled countertop for weed suppression and stability on my soggy soils. Woo Freecycle.

I’ve joined our county’s beekeeper’s association in the hopes that older, wiser beekeepers can maybe help me keep my colonies alive more than two years running. I’ve already found out several valuable bits of information, including that bees are healthier in full sun. I had always thought they must be happier in dappled shade in these hot, humid summers, but I guess not.

So I’ve moved them into the garden, the only spot on the property that gets full sun, and they’re facing south so the morning light can wake them up earlier. Apparently that’s also important.

They’re in the duck yard next to the berry patch, the only place that’s sort of out of the way of constant wheelbarrowing; unfortunately it means they’re facing away from the garden so I can’t see the entrance activity (a good way to judge hive health and also just fun to watch). And while I know it’s not true, it seems like I must be sending them away from the garden. :( On the plus side, it means they’ll be behind a fence and away from Lilu’s curious little fingers.

I am so glad I decided to get bees this year. It’s like having an army of little workers on my side. All my stone fruit trees are in full bloom now, and I can’t wait to go out and see the activity on the blossoms tomorrow!

 

 

Spring is springing

April 16th, 2015

This is the most exciting time of the year. I feel this surge of energy and optimism every time I go into the garden; every time I find something gently unfurling.

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asian pear “shinseiki” buds peeping out… and an ant friend.

Because that’s really what Spring is, to me: optimism. The weather is perfect; everything is new and healthy, the pests haven’t marred anything yet. All around me the plants are loaded with flowers, each one a potential fruit. It just makes me so dang excited at the possibilities.

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gala apple blossoms.

This year there might be peaches, if I try yet one more new approach to protecting them; this year we might get our first homemade strawberry rhubarb jam; we might get our first full dish of asparagus (if any make it out of the garden). This year two of my previously fallow apple trees have buds on them. Most of my cherry’s branches are loaded with flowers. The rhubarb looks beautiful, the peas are just perfect as they unfurl tender little whorls upwards. Earthworms are everywhere, and weeds are very few thanks to the deep mulch technique I used last year.

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peach blossoms.

I look around and think what the soil was like before I got here; flat and dead. It took two years before I found my first earthworm; now I see several in each trowelful of dirt, and I feel so delighted that all my hard work has welcomed life back into the soil. Lizards are everywhere, some so tame you can almost touch them. We found a turtle shell too. And cliche of cliches, yesterday I saw two bluebirds. They are so pretty, almost lavender (and I could care less about birds in general. I am not a bird person. But bluebirds, I like. Plus they eat bugs & especially caterpillars, so I’m going to try to do more to attract them.)

I feel like now, just for a few days, maybe a couple weeks, the world is just bursting with bounty and possibility. Before the first reality check, before the first plague of pests, the first disappointment and frustration.

The only thing marring my joy is the rodent tunnels that I found everywhere today. I fear we have gophers. I know we have voles. I am gritting my teeth, wishing for snakes to hurry up and move in, and wondering whether the rodents and I can live side by side, or whether it will be war.  I dunno. Last year they ate half of every single sweet potato root. I’m so tempted to try poison, but I don’t want to risk killing my hunters.

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garden helper helps as long as there are snacks.

We will just have to wait and see – at this point, everything is promise.

 

 

 

Integrated composting

April 15th, 2015

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner.

For 6 years I’ve had a compost pile by the kitchen for all our compostable things, dinner scraps, paper towels, veggie tops, etc., which gradually fills up the bin every year until I take out the finished stuff in the spring.

I’ve already talked about how I also separately harvest the built up chicken bedding in the spring, and if I’m feeling especially responsible I’ll mix both composts together before applying the mix to my beds.

So basically I had two separate compost piles, and had to turn two each spring. Double the effort.

Why not combine the two?

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Now probably most of you are shaking your heads at me because you had already figured this out for yourselves long ago – but it was a lightbulb moment for me.

Just throw all those scraps into the chicken run and let them compost and turn it for me. Plus, the chickens then devour anything edible and cut down on their own feed costs. So I built this little tip-out door. And I painted it purple, because win.

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Sofía was already going out there every morning to open the gate for them and let them out into our forest anyway… and she is very capable of toting along a little half gallon bucket too, which we now store under the kitchen sink so she can reach it. Though I can’t say she loves doing it. And I can’t say I love listening to her whine about it every morning. :P

As you can see above, we put everything** in there that we would normally chuck into the compost bin. Including paper towels (which we still use a few of), toilet paper rolls, chicken bones, egg shells, cheese rinds, and all the other composty bits that you amass every day in an active from-scratch type of house. The chickens sort through it all and get what they want; what they don’t want, they end up burying under the bedding leaves as they scratch around, which gets it composting for me. Win-win.

Are there chicken labor laws? Because I really love making them do all the work for me. (See? Laziness really is a practical design principal. Or at least a good motivator.)

** we do withhold all avocado (poisonous), chocolate (poisonous), anything truly spoiled (chickens can get food poisoning too), and coffee grounds (I’m guessing caffeine is probably not so good for chickens). Those still go into our kitchen compost bin – but with such little input, it’s going to take years to build up a substantial pile such that it becomes a task that I have to take care of.

 

 

Forest fruit

April 12th, 2015

While I was clearing out brush from around the garden – a task that needed to be done anyway, but that also gave me a lot of material for my latest hugelkultur bed – I came across what I think might be a wild blueberry. In fact, I found two.

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because my phone camera is awesome, it is the only thing *not* in focus in the picture. Also: note swampy groundwater level in the background.

We do have wild blueberry bushes in our woods, spindly scraggly bushes taller than me. They fruit, if sparsely. Their berries are about the size of, hm, a generous lentil? A dried pea? But if you get the ripeness just right – which is hard to do when they’re so small – the intense blueberry flavor just hits you like a smack in the face. (But nicer, and better flavored.)

So I cleared the brush from around this little guy and his brother, and left them in peace. I hope I’m right about what they are, and I hope they produce better than their woodland kin with a little more sun. I can’t wait to compare their berries to that of the cultivated varieties I bought, and maybe bring them into the garden if they do well. I’ll be so disappointed if they turn out to be just another scraggly swamp weed!

I also found a fiddlehead, which Lilu thought was awesome and immediately tried to break into pieces, and then stomp to death. I know it’s just a bracken fern, and not edible – but it means that other, edible fiddlehead ferns might do well near that spot. Something cool to keep in mind for later, in another year when I haven’t already spent all our money on plants.

 

Another humble hugel

April 11th, 2015

I’m probably overdoing it on the hugelkultur here. I mean, I don’t even know for sure if it really works! But since I can’t help but overdo things, I went ahead and made one of my worst, soggiest beds into a long, low heap of branches, covered with brush I cleared out from around the garden fence.

I drug some of the last logs out of the forest. I’m running out of wood, which I guess means I’ll be forced to quit this hugel madness soon. Or maybe it means I need a chainsaw.

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those are heavier than they look.

Alea alternated between being droopy and whiny and demanding I hold her hand so she could step carefully over twigs that wouldn’t stop a mouse, and being kind of a kickass helper finding sticks in the woods bigger than she was and dragging them along, stubbornly refusing to give up or take the smaller ones I suggested (hm, wonder who she got that attitude from.)

I’ll look on the bright side and chalk up the whininess to pre-naptime ennui, and the superkid to a preview of what the future might hold if I’m lucky. Garden slave labor, I mean helpers, wooo!

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she was so proud of this chunk of wood she found by herself.

 

So for the times that she wasn’t whining: A plus for yesterday, Lilu. You even held still and smiled for a picture. If the sun had shone at that moment, my head might have exploded.

Today I managed to get most of the bed covered in a 50/50 mixture of woodchips and chicken compost (which is already cooking hot in my pallet bin, by the way, and steamed like crazy when I forked it up!) Looking around on the internets, I’m seeing a lot of other people using a lot more complex stuff in their hugels; grass, kitchen scraps, biochar, bones of their enemies, stuff like that. I’m wondering if mine will end up doing all right without all that diversity.

Here’s the pile weighed down with the mulch layer, with a three year old for scale:

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smiling for this picture is about all the help she contributed today.

 

It needs a few more loads to finish up the end where you can see some sticks poking out – but it was naptime and we needed snacks.

So it’s a very humble hugel (they’re supposed to be 6 feet tall for the most benefit). It might get a bit taller though; this chips/poo combo is just the first layer. As soon as it stops raining, I can mow up all those delinquent Fall leaves still lying around in 6″ deep mats killing our grass, and put those on top too. I hope that will suffice for now, because it was only after I finished today’s work that I realized… I have no soil to put on top for the final layer. (I mean, the whole point of building the thing is that most of my soil is under water!) Uh, pretty big oops.

Well, it’s an experiment, right? The way I figure, a gigantic pile of compost can’t go wrong in the long run. I mixed in a bunch of organic fertilizer too, sprinkled on a bunch of blood meal for extra nitrogen, and hoped that in straw bale gardening style it would speed up compost bacteria reproduction enough that I might be able to plant in it in about a month. With straw bale gardening, you water blood meal into straw bales every day for 12 days, and voila they are ready to plant into. I figure wood chips might take a bit longer. Hm, maybe I should make a straw bale garden in the next bed over and compare the two.

Oh great, another experiment…

 

 

A fencepost solution?

April 10th, 2015

As you can see from the photo below, as big as my garden seems to me sometimes, it still only takes up about a quarter of our unused land. Maybe less.

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I really hate waste. Wasted energy, wasted potential, wasted resources. I’m not too fond of paying property taxes on a piece of land I’m only using half of, either. Currently the chickens are pastured through the winter in my garden and through the hot summer months in a paddock of about the same size in the woods.

Originally, I was going to divide the woods into paddocks and rotate pigs, dairy goats, and poultry. But the ticks on our property put a bit of a kink in my plans when they made me allergic to mammalian meat and dairy, and I stalled.

Recently I realized that I could still have goats in there even if I can’t use them for meat or dairy; they could just be brushcutters, or pets, or someone else’s hosted 4H project. Trying to come up with other ideas to use the space, I’ve pondered turkeys. At the very least I’d really like to let the chickens out to use the entire space instead of just a small area. I’m also becoming enamored of the idea of a secret food forest, colonizing the woods with useful perennials, and running the chickens in there wouldn’t hurt with the fertilizing.

But any animal use of the land requires a fence, and there lies the problem; how do you set fenceposts into swamp? We aren’t rich enough to just plan on replacing them every few years. All wood rots, even pressure treated (concrete just acts like a sponge and hold water against the wood) so I’d thought I’d use steel Tposts but the farmers in the forum I subscribe to told me they would just rust off at the ground in maybe 2-3 years. I thought about making concrete posts, but the cost of concrete for that big (and so many) posts was astronomical. So again, plans stalled.

How could I get the sturdiness and rust-proofness of a concrete post & solid footing, with the easy replaceability and low cost of a Tpost? I think I may have come up with a solution. Maybe.

First I thought, what if I sunk a 4″ pvc pipe deep into the soil, filled it with concrete, and set the Tpost above ground level into that? I then remembered that concrete wicks water and it would rust out the Tpost eventually anyway – though hopefully slower than if it were underground. So if replacing the Tpost is inevitable, how to make it easier? The ridges and flanges of a Tpost make removing it from concrete impossible. So… what if I sunk it into something standard-sized and meant to be thrown away along with the rusty Tpost, and sunk that into the 4″ pipe instead?

What better place to set up an experiment than in the swampy berry patch area, where my poor thornless blackberries are crying out for a trellis? I found all the materials on hand already.

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plastic wrap, vaseline, 1 1/2″ pvc scrap about 14″ long, 6′ heavy duty Tpost, 3’6″ of 4″ pvc drain pipe scrap, post hole digger, a level, 2/3 leftover bag of ready-mix concrete.

I dug a 6″ post hole, sunk the 4″ pvc 2’6″ down into the ground, leveled it, and poured in a bunch of dry ready-mix around the outside base to act as a horizontal “foot” underground. (Because my ground is so wet, I do not have to mix ready-mix with water before use.) I then backfilled the hole with soil and poured the dry ready-mix down into the 4″ pipe until the 1 1/2″ pipe protruded only about 1/4″ from the top when inserted.

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1 1/2″ pipe set into 4″ pipe. Note ground water already filling the post hole.

I greased up the 14″ long 1 1/2″ pipe with vaseline, wrapped it in plastic wrap and greased it again. I didn’t want any chance of the hardened concrete getting a good grip on that thing. I covered the bottom of the pipe with plastic as well, so that the concrete in it wouldn’t contact-bind with the concrete in the 4″ pipe. (Poke lots of drainage holes in this plastic bottom, otherwise you might as well set your Tpost into a plastic cup.  Don’t do what I did, and forget to perforate the bottom for easy drainage, and then have to go find a very long steel wire to awkwardly poke holes in it at the very end!)

(Edit: I should have just wrapped the 1 1/2″ pipe & bottom in paper. That would have created a barrier that would have held the pieces separate through curing, and then simply disappeared after a few months.)

I finished filling the 4″ pipe with ready-mix, then inserted the bottom of the Tpost into the empty 1 1/2″ pipe. The post part of the Tpost fit snugly into the pvc, though the bottom flanges stopped it about 9″ down. I left it like this, though if you wanted it more deeply connected you could simply flip the Tpost and insert the top instead to the depth you desired. For my purposes, these measurements left the top of the trellis post level with the top of my fence posts. And I’m thinking, since the post is integrally connected to 14″ of 1 1/2″ pipe sunk in concrete, it’s sunk plenty deep enough, no? …Only time will tell.

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Total height 7′, level with surrounding fenceposts. Obviously the height of the 4″ pipe can be lowered to ground level if you want; these were just the pieces I had on hand and they ended up working out for me.

I carefully filled the 1 1/2″ pipe with ready-mix, banging on both pipes with my trowel the whole time to settle the dust in there well. Mound up the cement piled on top and slope it away from the Tpost, and I was finished.

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So the idea is to have it raised up off the ground far enough that water has a harder time getting to it; and that when it inevitably does rust, it is easy to yank out and replace without having to reset the deep concrete pipe and footing. (This design has worked well for me in much smaller scale with a sign I erect at fairs set in milk jugs of plaster; but that is neither under pressure/tension, nor exposed to constant rainfall/groundwater.) The 1 1/2″ pvc tube fits nice and snug inside its concrete sleeve, but does seem to slide when I pull up on it, which is promising.

I still need to create a diagonal brace for the trellis before stringing my wires (it may have a deep concrete footing, but the ground is so muddy I don’t expect that to provide much lateral pressure against a wire tugging at the top. I’m afraid it would just slump over). But in the mean time I’m pretty optimistic. I may have found a solution for our fenceposts – though obviously I wouldn’t have the 4″ bases stick so high out of the ground for that.  It’s been raining for days and shows no signs of stopping, so the concrete should be good and wet and cured by the time it gets sunny again, and I can go test it a bit.

 

 

 

 

Black gold, and a free pallet bin

April 9th, 2015

One of my very first harvests every Spring is black, not green.

I deliberately set my coop’s run directly on the soil in order to be able to use the deep bedding method. The method is simple: every time the bedding starts to look gross, you add another deep layer of organic material on top. It’s that simple.

It works because of the contact with the soil; earthworms thrive underneath all that wet bedding, and with all the, ahem, chicken deposits, the composting method really gets cooking. It never stinks, it could not possibly be easier, and you never ever have to shovel out the run.

Unless you want to, of course. Because of this:

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gorgeous, gorgeous compost. All mine.

Over a year of layers of straw, leaves, grass clippings, earthworms, and poo, you build up quite a lot of very rich compost. So every Spring I “harvest” the chicken coop. I usually have to spread it directly on my beds, cover it with mulch, and let it wait a few months before planting in it, because I had nowhere to put it.

But the other day I found four free pallets! The day after  Josh heroically brought them home for me in the back of our comically small pickup, I set up my first compost bin. I had to chop up a hard maple stump with a pickax first, but I eventually got it all screwed in place. Two 2x2x6′ posts driven into the ground in front provide stability for the sides and also nice edges to hold the cross boards in place. It was just about as easy as I’d hoped – if it hadn’t been for that cussed stump I’d have been done in less than 45 minutes – and I faithfully, in grand tradition, failed to take a picture of it before I filled it. You can kind of see it in the corner of this one picture here.

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boo.

So I immediately had to fill it, of course! I layered each barrowload of used bedding with a barrowload of free woodchips, sprinkled on a few handfuls of the woodash/biochar mixture I’d saved up from our woodstove this winter, and mixed it all up. Except, here’s a picture of just that first barrowload:

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that’s a lot of poo.

After only maybe 3 sandwiched layers and only 1/4 of the coop cleaned out, I realized I couldn’t do any more fancy composting and just filled the thing up to the absolute brim with straight used compost bedding. I found the biggest worm I’ve ever seen:

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porky.

 

and the chickens were going bonkers in there scratching around and pecking up all those little tiny compost bugs & critters I’d exposed. They all came back in from foraging – I guess pickings in there were pretty good. I expect some very yellow eggs this week, gals.

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six chicken makes it a party.

 

Anyway, even without layering in any extraneous materials, I could only fit about 3/4 of the coop’s bedding into my new bin. I have resigned myself to adding the rest in later once this composts down a little bit.

Which it ought to do pretty quickly, given how rich it is. Is it super geeky that I’m really tempted to buy one of those compost thermometers and track its progress? I plan to let it sit til next year, if I can.

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full.

 

Those plastic bags are full of leaves that the neighbor’s kid drags over whenever they rake. I guess he caught me sneaking his curbside yard trash bags one too many times, and now they bring them over regularly. (kidding… mostly.) I dump them into the chicken coop – free bedding! saved from the waste stream! already conveniently bagged up for easy dispersal! – and feel very smug. And then I fold up the bags and reuse or recycle them.

So it’s only one bin’s worth, but I am ridiculously excited. Real compost. With all that added fertilizer. Properly aged. I can’t wait to see the vegetables it grows… I’m just itching to get my hands on some more free pallets and start my own little compost empire!

 

 

Recycled rainwater chickens

April 8th, 2015

What is it Paul Wheaton is famous for saying: that permaculture lets him be as lazy as he really is? Meaning that people can go to extraordinary lengths to find easier methods for doing tasks they dislike. He was referring to avoiding weeding, fertilizing, and planting through the use of guilds and perennial food crops; but I can see how it applies to just about everything. I mean, the whole point of a self-sustaining system is that it maintains itself, with little to no input from you.

Anyway. Being lazy finally motivated me to come up with a better solution for my chicken waterer, because I’m really tired of constantly having to check, refill, empty, and clean (and replace every year) the 3-gallon plastic waterer system I’ve had for years. Using (almost!) nothing but odds and ends found around the house and yard, I’ve put together a new rainwater barrel system.

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unused barrel and stand

Like this blue barrel. Undoubtedly really useful for something, I’ve hung onto it for more than six years but it’s just sat there gathering dust in the basement. (Anyone know what it might have been for originally?) It even already has its own stand and perfect-sized holes in the lid. All I had to do was add a spigot and “leader” hose (the kind used for attaching spigots to hose reels, only a few feet long).

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That spigot, the hose, and the silicone I used to seal it were the only things I bought for the project.

I attached an empty glitter tube as a float on a long skinny dowel. (Would have preferred a golf ball or tennis ball if I could have found one; alas, we do not sports.) This will bob around on top(ish) of the water level so I can easily see, by the height of the dowel, when I need to refill the barrel.

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glitter left in because, duh, fabulous.

So that it wouldn’t slip diagonally but slide more or less up and down, I fitted it through a saved length of aluminum pipe that had originally been attached to one of the solar lights I dismantled for my outdoor solar chandelier. (Which I just now realize occurred during the Year of No Blogging. I’ll have to post a pic later.) The pipe was just the right diameter to fit through the small hole in the middle.

The large hole is eventually going to accept rainwater from a downspout… eventually. Once I, you know, actually build a roof for the chicken run that might collect rainwater and direct it to a gutter. So I attached a sediment trap, of a sort, underneath it for the smaller stuff that won’t be filtered out through the various gutter/downspout screens.

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a costco cashew jar, screen across the lid, as a rudimentary sediment trap

There are holes drilled all around the top just under the lid. The idea is that the heavier sediment falls to the bottom, and the clear water dribbles out the top. I don’t know how it will work since it’s fairly small – maybe half a gallon – but since it’s going to be full of water all the time I couldn’t use something too much bigger/heavier since the blue lid is pretty flexible.

I’d thought about putting in a big PVC pipe that reaches all the way to the bottom and supports itself, instead, but I couldn’t see easily if that needed to be removed and cleaned out. I like the clear jar for easy checking, and I love that I can just unscrew it if I need to. So we’ll just wait and see.

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set up on some extra concrete downspout blocks I found.

The waterer part is just a bullet-like section of 4″ pvc pipe I got free from Lowe’s because it was broken, fitted on one end with a cap and some waterer nipples I had on hand already, and on the other end with a cap that had screw threads on one end so that I can periodically clean out the waterer bullet if I need to.

Strap it to a board that was magically already the right size, level & screw that board to the chicken coop posts, hook it up, take it back apart because I forgot the teflon tape, hook it up again, and voila:

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pvc waterer bullet, two nipples underneath

 

I know, I know, ideally the barrel would be higher so the spigot sits above the top of the hose.  And it will be, as soon as I find/figure out a better base setup. In the mean time it works like a dream as long as the water level is above that top loop of hose, which is about 1/4 of the way up the barrel. And 3/4 of the barrel is… a lot of water. No idea how much water that barrel holds, but unlike my 3 gallon waterer, I know I don’t have to worry about refilling it for quite a while!

At the base of the coop and barrel, I planted up a clematis I had (never got around to planting it last Fall) against a trellis that will shade the barrel during the summer to help prevent hot water and algae growth. (I’m hoping that its proximity to the base of the chicken coop and resultant nitrogen-rich runoff will make for one happy, luxuriant vine). This kind of clematis, Jackmanii, dies down to the ground every winter which means that during the coldest months the barrel will be exposed to more sun and be less likely to freeze. Hooray for making Nature do the work for me!

I can’t wait to build that roof & gutter system and be even lazier.

A solution for the swamp

April 2nd, 2015

So, I haven’t written for a while. …It’s complicated, let’s leave it at that. But in the mean time, things have been trundling on over here, and I’m ready to start a brand new year. Complete with all the frozen mud, snowmelt, and endless spring rains that the change of seasons brings every year.

If there is one enemy I have in this garden of mine, it is water. Water, water, everywhere. And no place worse than in the back corner, which we simply refer to as “the swamp.” I mean, look at this picture of it in mid-June, still mostly mud:

Poor muddy chickens.

Covered in wide, shallow puddles all year round and too squishy to walk on, much less plant, it’s been a thorn in my backside since I decided to farm this area. I’ve been adding most of our Fall leaves to it every year in the hopes of building the soil up – and it has worked, though too slowly. When we first moved in it was all standing water:

Ground level water right at… ground level.

But it’s going too slowly for my tastes. Grow rice, everyone tells me. Ha, ha.

In a fit of winter-amnesia-induced garden optimism, this spring I bought a bunch of berry bushes to colonize that area – gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, marionberries, $$$berries… yeah I don’t know what I was thinking. Long after my purchase, when I finally laid it out precisely, (thanks, Google satellite), I realized that the whole row I had marked for the blueberries was waterlogged swamp and any perennial stuck in that muck would drown right away. It was a pretty depressing reality check – for a minute.

See, over these past 4 months, whenever I wasn’t busy nearly dying of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (yeah, that was fun) I’ve had little to do but read, and learn, and pine for gardening season. Between researching how to build a goat shelter out of straw bales and drawing up plans for a greenhouse made entirely out of reclaimed waste materials, I stumbled onto permaculture: the movement towards building agricultural systems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. I was hooked.

I watched every single one of Geoff Lawton’s videos on permaculture landscaping. His most famous project, perhaps, is “Greening the Desert,” which is an amazing documentary about how he turned an arid, salted, barren landscape into a paradise (and is well worth taking the time to watch). His approach deals mostly with  desert regions, though, so while I was fascinated I didn’t see how his techniques could apply to my swamp problem. But something must have clicked… some understanding about working with the contours of the land, expanding and directing what it already naturally wants to do. Because this spring I saw the swamp in an entirely new light. Suddenly it looked like an opportunity instead of ruinously stubborn piece of crap land.

Work with Nature, huh? How do I learn to accept the swamp, live with the mud – and maybe even turn it to my advantage? How about:

  • Instead of chickens in the swampiest corner, I’ll keep ducks there instead. They’ll be happy as clams and eat up the obnoxious mosquito larvae in all the puddles. And if I expand their fenced run into the berry patch at the other end of the swamp, they’ll happily gobble up any weeds & slugs while leaving my perennial thornbushes alone! Plus, they are cute.
  • The area is not entirely flat – from both corners it slopes towards the center as if a stream once flowed right through the middle. I can use these slight slopes at either end to direct the water with swales (or swales’ cousin, the ditch) towards the lowest point. Instead of a flat, wide marshy area I’ll have a little pond and two areas dry enough to support deeper-rooted plants.
  • With the water concentrated at the bottom of the slight slope, I can now grow plants like basketweaving willows, fiddlehead ferns, black currants and other pond-edge plants that I couldn’t grow before.
    • While I’m at it, I’ll dig that lowest part good and deep so the ducks can have somewhere to swim and play while fertilizing our new riparian food garden.
  • If I need more access to the beds, I’ll build simple bridges instead of wrestling and cursing with load after load of woodchips that just sinks into the mud instead of making a stable path.

And the very first step:

  • I’ll take advantage of the marshiness by building hugelkultur beds instead of trying to plant into the wet soil itself. (Hugelkultur is a system of raised beds based on principals of forest decomposition. You lay down big logs, then smaller brush and sticks, then leaves, woodchips, grass clippings, newspaper, whatever compostable materials you have; then a layer of soil on top.) What it boils down to is (eventually) a gigantic pile of perfectly beautiful compost that wicks up just enough water from the soil to stay moist, but not waterlogged. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, I’ve been familiar with the concept for years!

Hugelkultur cross section, from the http://www.permaculture.co.uk/ article, “The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur”.

Big logs, I had plenty of. During our last snow day I had been exploring with the girls back in the woods and come across the remains of the dead trees we’d had cut down last year, sliced conveniently into 5-8′ logs. I hadn’t known the tree company had left them there, but I knew I could find a use for them somewhere. As soon as the weather unfroze them from the ground, I lugged and heaved a dozen of them into a pile closer to the garden gate. (Who needs Crossfit when you have a garden?)

It took all the logs but two to build a bed about two feet high, 4′ wide, and 15′ long. (Once again I forgot to take a before photo, sigh.)  After covering these 12-15 or so logs with all the brush I could find easily, I mixed and spread several wheelbarrowloads worth of woodchips (free, from tree companies) mixed 50/50 with overwintered chicken bedding – that ought to get the composting processes jumpstarted!

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The soil layer on top came from the deep pond/trench that I was digging anyway. Beautiful black mucky swamp goo, just teeming with nutrients and decomposed organics. When it’s not completely waterlogged, it’s supposed to be very fertile stuff. I hope.

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I sprinkled it all with bee-friendly flowers and clover seed (found in the garage from last year’s lawn treatment, still good!) and mulched it lightly. My hope is that the clover will grow thick enough – and quick enough – to crowd out weeds and act as a perennial, nitrogen-fixing mulch. You’re supposed to be able to plant right through it, according to the author of One Straw Revolution.

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They say you can plant into it right away, but I think I’m going to wait a few months, maybe a year. Or maybe plant annuals into it this year? I’m not sure, I’m new to the whole idea, but I’m excited!

 

First cheeseboard

August 1st, 2013

The first of the cheeseboards has been finished and gifted. Gosh, that took a long time - remember when I started back in February? I gathered all the pretty-looking firewood that I’d set aside from our epic tree harvest and splitting, and took those logs to a woodworking friend with some really great equipment, who cut them down into boards for me and planed them all to the same height. I could never have done this without his help.

This is what we started with:

And this is the first of the finished projects:

After gluing, and planing, and sanding, and sanding, and sanding… and then sanding, and sealing, and more sanding, and repeat a few times a day over the course of a couple weeks…

It came out just perfect. I wish you could see it gleam and feel the slick satin of the hand-rubbed finish.

It was gifted as a wedding present to some good friends of ours, who are fashionable foodies and love good cheese even more than they love presentation. (Wish I’d gotten a picture of the wrapping; I used a rustic brown paper with a handmade look, tied it with a jute cord and added a big rose made of burlap, with a letterpress card. I thought it complemented it perfectly, even though it wasn’t the important part.)

I can’t wait to finish and photograph the others.