Monday, March 23, 2015

Its own reward

Waiting through dry spells to set out transplants in wet spells; waiting through wet spells to paint and mow.

The potted seedlings are growing slowly this year in spite of their heat and sun lamps. It takes eighteen flats of seedlings to fill the three spring-garden beds. I choose three at a time. I know I'm rushing it, but there has been so little frost that one wants to try. I'm afraid the heat will come suddenly and the spring things will want to bolt.

The green stripe you can see down the middle of each bed is broadbeans, the best eating size of favas. Their job here, aside from creating the beans, some edible foliage, and some soil nitrogen, is to shade the greens a bit and help stave off the anticipated intense summer sun.

Broadbeans are not as favored in these parts as in Europe. Americans have the idea each one must be peeled. Not so, but you want to get to them quickly after picking and shelling. Fresh is key. Frozen too, but again frozen fresh after a thorough blanching to stop the outer shell from armoring up. Good alone or in savory soups. You may also use the tender young leaves as a salad ingredient or in stir fries.

Again, this year, we have largely held off buying seeds as we have so many. I combine most of the year-old to three-years-old greens-and-roots seeds into a mixed lot in a shaker and shake out some over a flat of potting soil, then add a bit more soil, then water and light and warmth. anything that gets big enough is pricked out and put into its ow three-inch pot. Flats going out to the garden, a few weeks later, have eighteen plants each, which I randomize in the beds. In each hole there may go a Russian kale, a collard, a Red Sails lettuce, a Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, a Forellenschluss lettuce, a turnip, a green cabbage, a red cabbage, a Bok Choi, a borage plant, a calendula, a beet, a radish, a mangel, a Fordhook Giant chard, or a spinach. That seems to be the current mix. Carrots don't seem to perform well in this environment, so I have reserved them for their own setting, deep planters that are currently in the greenhouse.

The three inch pots and their flats are plastic, yes. We don't buy them intentionally; they show up -- mostly with nursery plants. I get about ten years out of them.

The tool shown here is a modified (bent) cheap trowel as recommended by Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm. It works very well. This one was lost in the garden three years ago, was recently turned up by the broadfork, and has been put back in service, none the worse for wear. Simplicity in tools, as with so many things, is its own reward.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Going vertical

Jizo is looking a little less lonely in his nest of violets.

We had a spate of rain and I took advantage of the changed conditions to see about getting some greens out to the garden.

These will be in the beds nearest the house in true kitchen garden fashion. Also they are vulnerable to slugs so they want to be inspected frequently.

Trellises have been in these upper beds for the last two years so it is time to have them in the lower garden. I have already set up the one for Sugar Snap peas (planted last week) and green beans (not yet!). I also need one for scarlet runners and cucumbers, maybe also some vining squash, and have gathered the necessary materials and set them out.

We have fifty foot beds, so it's three tee posts per trellis, 25 feet apart, and about 40-48 poles. I select poles from the coppice and cut them near the ground. If they're too tall for the job, which should be ten feet for scarlet runners, eight for everything else, I just firewood the stump end until they're the right height. This year's new poles are about 2/3 hazel and 1/3 bigleaf maple.

Garden authors tell you that going vertical like this saves space, but a thing I like about it is it cuts back on the sunshine on the adjacent beds, cooling the earth in July through September and reducing sunburn on the crops. That's getting to be a consideration here.

Not until the poles are up do I bother limbing them, and even then I only cut the branches that reach into the path, mostly so as not to put an eye out. The others might as well stay and provide the climbers all that much more choice in climbing. Plants like to be catered to as much as anybody.

One might point out to me that the hazels shown here are so tall I won't be able to reach the beanpods. I would then reply that I'll be able to reach about half during the eating harvest. The ones "out of reach" are for seed -- for next year.

God willin' an' th' crick don't rise.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Drought fighters

Drought fighters.  Mulching the paths -- not so much to hold down weeds yet -- they aren't sprouting; it's too dry out. The soil is turning into dust and I want to lock in all the moisture I can while I can. The beds are not as bad, because they already have a lot of organic matter in them. And I don't want to mulch them in the spring months as they need to heat up in the sun.

This paper is 3-ply feeds sacks, not coated with wax or plastic, cut apart to get six sheets per sack.

We're covering the paths with paper and straw. This will cool the paths and lock in moisture. It's not Ruth Stout's nine inch mulch but we have to let some solar heat in.

As the south slopes heat up, we get a breeze from the river that wants to blow the sheets around, so I water them to hold them in place till the straw arrives.

The straw is local but that's about all it has to recommend it. No, this is not really organic gardening, but almost. Each of us has to draw our own line, and I want something to eat.

We hose down the straw to tamp it down out of the wind a bit.

This stripey look is kind of neat but the straw will darken and in a couple of weeks will match the beds.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Peas in our time

We're in a persistent dry holding pattern with thirty degree swings. A bit of rime on the gates in the morning, a little hot (considering it's March) in the afternoons. A little bit of chill in the house calls for a fire, which will be allowed to go out after the day gets rolling.

I want to get the peas in now, as the heat trend is worrisome, which means setting them out in full sun. I'll work in the cool part of the morning.

I'm getting used to the narrower paths and learning to face down the path, working by my side, instead of across the path, working directly in front of me, as I am used to doing.

I'd face away from the sun, keeping the roots of the peas in my shade, but it's downhill (even if it does not seem so in the photos). So I just try to work fast. Fortunately there's a layer of last year's mulch on the surface, and by fluffing this up a bit I can shade the peas as I go along. I'll water immediately after setting out the seedlings, and water again later in the day, for insurance.

After this it's hot enough to paint. Time to climb on the roof and start putting white paint on where the white had faded over the last couple of years. I have a feeling we're going to need all the albedo we can get.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Baby steps

As there are still a couple of possible frosts in the near term forecast, I'm not doing much in the garden, but I did plant a bed of potatoes.

Where there have been, in the past, three rows of potatoes in a bed, here I am doing two. Beds are narrower, this year, as long term readers (there are a few!) may notice, in an effort to make each bed get by on a soaker hose, as we are in drought for a second year (and we anticipate a lot of 90+ degree days) and must conserve the well. Where there have been six beds, there are eleven. Foliage, when the plants are fully grown, will cover the paths more extensively, and the increased shading should help conserve moisture as well.

In the "greenhouse" there is a lot happening, but everything there is young yet. Baby steps.

I'm watching for a spate of (rare) rain in a few days. If it materializes, I'll set out the first flat-grown peas. None of the ones in the garden (from the same batch, so I know germination is good) showed up. I suspect birds, especially the towhees, who have been kicking up the beds something awful. Every year, surprises.

Monday, March 02, 2015

A path

Along the new trail, built by no one I knew,
acorns had fallen by thousands, more than enough
to leave creatures dazed by too much fortune.

Conkers have tumbled among them, each
experimentally chipped and then rejected
by some set of tiny teeth. Hazel nuts

were better, it seems. Should an adder pass en route
to denning, amid this rich mast, amid
this late fall of goldened leaves of ash

and beech, I might merely step aside,
unalarmed as any fattened squirrel.
Across the pasture, I remember, past

the partly shaded ferns, cowslips, bluebells,
buttercups of spring and summer, where
falling water, catkin-patterned, drowned out

the cygnet's cry in an otter's teeth (witnessed
by a kingfisher, two low-flying larks and a heron),
a willow had leaned to hide that tiny sorrow

and also shade a loafing spotted newt.
The hill behind, where bees sought nectar of a kind
from sunburnt heather, swept up to a copse of oak,

wrapped in a druid's dream of mistletoe and ivy.
There I had paused for dandelion wine.
Perhaps the trail will help some find this place.

My children, do not forget there is a world.

This was written in response to a report, by the great writer Robert MacFarlane, of the disappearance of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Saturday, February 28, 2015


Today was a slow day for me, as I'm still recovering from painting one side of the house and attending to various mowing tasks, so I potted on some lettuce and kale from the seeding flats and did dishes, then poured myself a glass of cider.

The cider is mostly apple, with some grape, pear and quince in it, and has been a hit this year, with many requests for seconds. I've been keeping it in a two liter jug and adding quarts of juice from mason jars whenever the level falls. The fermentation has been ongoing since August. There is still a dark area on the kitchen ceiling from a time last fall when I opened the jug too carelessly. 

As I was about to quaff the golden bubbly, a thought occurred to me.

We have been intrigued by the probably very ancient practice, briefly described in an episode of Edwardian Farm, of singing or reciting poetry to the trees in the orchard, and offering them a small libation. It tends to be a Decemberish thing to do, and there is a Christmas carol that seems to date from the slow transition from "wassailing" to "caroling." But what harm could there be in offering, on the last day of February, a bit of thanks and a word of caution to the young trees, some of whom have bloomed already in this winterless winter we've been having?

So I went forth.

Dear apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
'Til apples come another year
For to bear well and bloom well
So merry let us be
Let every one take off your hat
And shout to the apple tree
Dear apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bag fulls
And a little heap under the stairs
-- Guardian
...or words to that effect. I admit I was a little shy and may have mumbled some of it.

Here we are wassailing a pear that is in the midst of bud break ...

... and a peach that has bloomed, poor thing, well ahead of any bees that I can see. There's a big hatch of flies on, so maybe something will come and visit the peaches later in the week.

The hens took considerable interest in the proceedings, so I offered to sing to them as well. All well and good, thanks, ma'am, but perhaps a little comfrey and cleavers for dessert? So I obliged.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This is for the birds

I'm a veg gardener and orchardist. Beloved is the stock owner and does all the animal chores here; but when she is away I fill in. 

Her system is simplicity itself. Let everyone out in the morning and gather duck eggs. Check food and drinking water and replace as needed. Later in the day, gather chicken eggs and wash any (mainly duck) eggs that got dirty, then put away in the cooler. Clean out and refill the duck pools twice a week. Replace the bedding as needed, hauling the enriched straw to the compost heap. Just after dark, close everybody in.

The young man often does the duck pools and bedding for us, which at our age are getting to be real chores. As we are on a small well, we have to conserve water and so he carries five gallons of the duck slurry to each fruit tree in the dry season.

I keep a stock tank in the duck-bathing zone and let duck water ripen there, with added blender-rendered comfrey and weeds poured in, to further enrich the slurry. It's too strong to go straight on the kitchen garden, though I have thought of putting a few hole punched number ten cans in the ground in the tomato beds, and pouring it in there.

Beloved and I squabble over kitchen scraps. I tend to put it all in the compost heaps, but she likes to save out the best stuff to carry to the barnyard. She'll put the trimmings from the broccoli on the end of the counter, give me a significant look, and say "This is for the birds."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The spring things have sprung

You don't miss your frost till there isn't any. Coming into the last week of February, we had had all of six, maybe seven frosty mornings total, which does not bode well for tree fruits, so we were happy to see four mornings in a row with rime on the gates and crunchy grass. I had to kick the water buckets to shatter a skein of glass-like ice for the poultry -- a satisfying feeling. We're not out of the woods but anything helps.

I have half a mind to rap the trunks of the trees with a stick, then drink to them with their cider and sing them a little song.
Every twig, apples big. Every bough, apples now.

In spite of the cold starts the days warmed up to around 60F and so I determined to get some painting done. I'm, alas, a splashy painter, so I wrap up in anything from the rag bin that fits to splash on as I work. 

The south wall of the house gets the most weather and the boards warp and shrink away from each other, letting those long "pineapple express" storm winds infiltrate. So I caulk as I go, brushing the paint onto the caulk and pushing deeper into the cracks.

As I dab at the house, a bald eagle soars past, perhaps patrolling for mice and voles who are also active in this weather. It may not be spring but the spring things have sprung. 


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