Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Things as they are and things to come

There is a hint of fall in the air here for a few days -- with rain, which has been hard to come by -- and some signs which I am used to ascribing to the arrival of late August, such as the bloom of the chickory, and September, such as the croaking of Canada geese flying low in vee formation toward the south.

We have been promised high eighties and nineties next week, but it's too late for me; something has triggered my nesting instincts and I've become interested in battening down the hatches! I'm not the only one; at the worker-owned Bi-Mart which I frequent (in lieu of bigger boxes), the aisles where one finds weatherstripping and caulk are being mobbed.

My big project this year was the barn; that's slowing down now.

I've checked its interior rooms, of which there are now four, and it looks like my roofing efforts, for once, have been effective. I found the polycarbonate relatively easy to work with, and I hope I can still say that after the coming winter.

There has been a spate of effort in the garden at last; drawn there by the advent of hundreds of zucchinis, I discovered the effect of neglect on the weed population and have begun trying to keep up. paper and straw are the tools of choice. 

As the pea vines died back, I cleared away both them and their trellis and prepped that part of the "bean" bed for some new plants, which are coming up in the newly remodeled potting room. This has opened up the view from the kitchen window considerably.

We are still adding a lot of material to the compost heaps. As we do so, we turn around to check the grapes, which are having a banner year and coming along well. From time to time we are narrowly missed by falling apples, which we give to the compost -- they're not quite ready to use for much, though they aren't too bad steamed with hot cereal and such.

Speaking of compost! We have gone back and forth about a composting toilet for years. The established rules: not expensive, not in the house, not in the dark (light switch and magazine rack), easily reached at night, no fighting through gates.

This one was given to us. I have built a throne room for it between the tool wall in the potting shed and the poultry room (reducing their space, but acceptably). The floor is framed, with ground cloth, sill plates and joists. The recycled storm door is white and the barn and potting shed doors are red, so you can see where to go at night (important as the days shorten), and the poultry fence is out of the way on the left. Potty is vented through the rear wall and the fan has power.

We managed to mangle the seat cover (it was getting brittle) and the step (ditto), hence the homemade lid and cinder block step. These should be fine.

Potatoes and squash are looking good. Cucumbers failed. Tree fruits good. Blackberries almost nonexistent. Seeing very few pollinators. Tomatoes very sparse. Plenty of wind, but still no ears on the eight-foot cornstalks (Stowell's Evergreen). Never a dull moment.

The foot valve died on the well, an d the pump men were here today. One of them eyed our woodpile, and asked who our "wood guy" is. (I put up about two thirds of it myself, from ice-storm wood). So I am not the only one thinking ahead to long dark nights!

The fall plan will be to keep walking around with the caulking tubes. And make a lot of grape juice and apple butter. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wide awake

"If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this." -- Dogen.

After a week in the 90s, it's become difficult for me to realize I can once again work outside all day. But it's nice enough out. I could go. But my habit now is to hide indoors at midday. Often I take a nap.

When you're over 65, you watch the thermometer more, and also the cloud cover. If it's over 86F (30C) out, and clear, with a hot wind, rural folks my age know they may do poorly at work with what's left of their "large muscle groups" in the direct sunshine. It's why we were, in former times, so often found sitting together in the shade shelling beans and offering pearls of wisdom to hard-working youngsters as they passed by.

The garden got huffy about all the time I spent on the barn, and in a fit of jealousy sprouted weeds all over. I'm putting in shifts now with paper and flakes of straw, playing catch up.

I can hear the zucchinis growing. I run with armloads of them to the steamer, the dehydrator, the grater, the bread bowl, and the oven. Blimps that got past me are sliced and heaved over the fences to the various flocks.

I yank out pea vines and drag importunate pumpkin vines away from tomato cages. I water corn and worry over the few, few blossoms on this year's tomato plants. it's good that we did not use up all of last year's sauce.

Whenever I pass the bonshō -- the "temple bell -- actually a length of steel pipe hanging from a lilac -- I may tap it with my fingers, politely, and give it a small bow. It now has a little white patch painted on it, with, in black:

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Mid-year report from Stony Run Farm

The open three-sided shed that was here when we got here had been built with massive beams, 8X10s and the like.. The whole things is mounted on large stones that had been clawed out of the creek bed, and is settling over the years as the posts dry-rot on top of the stones. Our site is a north facing wetland, and wooden buildings here are even more ephemeral than usual. In 1994 I laid on a skin made up of salvage -- fence boards and old windows -- and we got by for two decades. We surely don't have another two decades in us, but we do feel we need a "barn" for awhile longer.

Enough leaks had sprung, and walls sagged, that it was time this year to tear down and start over, but the roof beams are just too heavy to move safely. So it was decided we would pull out what dry rot we could, shim the rest, and just put a new skin on. Also we wanted to tuck in a small "throne room" for the composting toilet we'd been given.

The first order of business was to fork bedding out of the indoor construction area, move some nesting boxes,  lay a ground cloth, then install a sill plate, floor joists, floor, walls, and door for the throne room. We need a new storm door for the front entrance to the house, so I unzipped the old one from the door frame and zipped it to the new doorway in the barn, using the same screws. 

This is a very low barn, so the throne room has rather a low ceiling for us tall people, but it will do. I built a wall right behind the toilet and will make a storeroom in the space created.

I then moved windows from the west exterior wall to the east wall and vice versa, so as to be able to add more glass to the west wall, which is part of a combination potting shed and "greenhouse." Then put new plywood and furring strips all around the exterior. The trim is the best of the old rotten fence boards, de-nailed and re-purposed.

I like a white barn, which is cooler for the animals, and Beloved likes to have a red barn to look at, so we have compromised. The east, north and west walls will be painted red with white trim, and the south wall will be white with red trim. Today it will be in the nineties, so I am blogging instead of painting.

On the roof, I will try white polycarbonate for a change, as roll roofing has proved unsatisfactory with the low pitch.

A disadvantage of being engrossed in reconstruction is the weeds get ahead of me. You can see a bad patch in the corn bed. To the left is the tomato bed, to the right is potatoes. In the background, sunchokes and apple trees. It doesn't look so bad in the photo, but these areas are filling up with grass and there are also (drum roll of eventual doom) morning glories. I'm too old to keep up with the morning glories. They will win.

Here are tomatoes on the right, squash on the left, and blueberries on the left. Grass perking up in the foreground. The big ragged thing in the tomatoes is a last year's Fordhook Giant chard going to seed. I want these seeds as it survived a -9F deep freeze in December. Seed savers have ragged gardens even if they do keep up with the weeds.

In the other direction we have the peas/beans and greens/roots bed, with grapes on the left. This area got fresh mulch recently, but the grass is gaining on the greens. Some things have bolted, but there is a lot of food in that bed, so, I'm not unhappy.

Green and runner beans are at last beginning to catch up with the peas and broadbeans. These do a decent job of suppressing their own weeds.

Mr. Sun presides over the entrance walkway, facing north, with Egyptian onions, elephant garlic, goumis, chard, and a fuchsia. He gets about half an hour of sun at the solstice; by August he's back to full time shade.

Update, 7/3:

Still not terrific, but better than it was. Should last us.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Concerning knotweed

Reposted from 2010.

[Twenty-one] years ago, our family occupied this site. I'm not absolutely certain what "ownership" means; my own tribe has behaved badly, in my own opinion, and I can only plead that that was before my time. And so here we are. I can quibble that our whole species is invasive on this continent, for what that's worth. I do know we Bears gave up what was, to us, a lot of money for fifteen years in order to be able to say the place is "ours," and I know that we have to give a certain sum to the local jurisdiction -- something called a "county" -- every year, or we could be put off the place.

One of the things that was here before we got here -- was here nineteen years ago, all along the southern stretch of the seasonal creek running diagonally through the place -- among many other invasive, non-native species -- is knotweed. Our county purely hates knotweed, perhaps mostly because it can't really be kept in check and so can ruin a landscape planner's day. It seeds readily into the water and sprouts somewhere downstream; perhaps that's how it got to this spot. Once established, it spreads underground, storing food in enormous rhizomes that will resprout if the foliage is cut down. It will resprout through a brick floor with ease, by the way.

We're told the county can tell us to get rid of it -- well and good; shall we dig it up? We're in our sixties. Pigs will eat it and no doubt upend the roots, too, but they are problematical along the creek bank. Shall we spray it with herbicides? We're organic. The county can choose to declare eminent domain and spray it and bill us, I suppose. But in our two decades here we've yet to hear from them. For entirely unrelated reasons we actually kind of appreciate that.

It's, so far as we know, here to stay. How do we make a good neighbor of it? It's said, in young-shoots form, to be edible. In China and Japan there are those who are well versed in foraging for it and preparing it for dinner. All I can say to that really, is that some folks seem to me not very choosy.

Sheep and goats eat it. Seen 'em do it, right here. That's a plus. Hens, I'm told. No way our birds are gonna keep up with it, though they may nibble from time to time.

Well, the stuff is tall -- eight to ten feet. it's flimsy, but not too bad, at least for the first year. Bean poles?

So mushy when green, you can manage it with a bread knife.
Yes, some of the bigger stems do in fact make acceptable non-weight-bearing  polewood. They are bendy but if tied in bundles they will straighten over the winter. The stripped leaves can be composted. The trick with this is get it done before the flowering bits go to seed. Also, don't export any roots from the infested site.

We were nervous about the stems possibly sprouting
for the first few years and so installed the
beanpoles upside down. Apparently not necessary.
 There are lots of stems too small or bent or bashed to take part in the beanpole project. What to do with these?
Snip off each stick at the desired length by measuring against the container.
Quite by accident, we found that "sticks" cut from knotweed and dried a deep brown or red make good fire starter or kindling. Not so well as cardboard with cedar, but not bad, though with their bamboo-like structure they sure pop a lot.
About half the winter's supply. Green sticks will turn brown before then.
So every year before the flowering stage we slash the entire patch down, thus saving folks downstream some trouble, and dry it and process it into three piles: beanpoles, kindling and compost. Sometimes the dried leaves and bits are thrown over the southeast "hillside pasture" and mowed. Sometimes they are run through a shredder and spread on the gardens.

In Permaculture terms, what all did we do here?

1. Observe and Interact. We looked over the knotweed patch, and instead of attacking it with herbicides, chose to integrate it into the farm plan.
2. Catch and Store Energy. Practically all foliage is useful. It pulls sunlight into the realm of living things, and is useful to us, our livestock, and many living things. True for knotweed as much as anything else we could grow on that creek bank. Perhaps more so.
3. Obtain a yield. This stuff being prolific and invasive, you won't run out of it and so it can be thought of as a bountiful crop.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback. Make sure you aren't spreading it where it's not wanted. Check.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services. It can freeze back, but otherwise is as reliable as sunrise -- you can't get more renewable than that.
6. Produce No Waste. Compost whatever leaves are not consumed by stock, make beanpoles, make kindling, nothing left over!
7. Design From Patterns to Details. Make your poles in June, before the seeds appear. Make time in the schedule, after planting the garden, before other harvests.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate. Use it, don't poison it.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions. As beanpoles, the stems are biodegradable and can become kindling after their pole life is done. Process a few at a time, between other tasks, so as not to grow tired of it.
10. Use and Value Diversity. Knotweed is a supplement to other materials. Sapling beanpoles are also good -- fatwood is better kindling. Mix.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal. Knotweed, for us, grows mainly in our flood zone.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change. It was barely there when we noticed it. It got ahead of us -- things do. So we learned to live with it.

It's nice when everybody -- and every thing -- pitches in.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The segue into June

The roses on the Rose Gate are a little more than half done for this year. When new branches spring out toward us or our guests, I tuck them back among their companions, thus building a shape we find pleasing. I don't know the variety; they were here when we got here 21 years ago. I moved the bush three times, but not to good places as it has a climbing habit. So the obvious thing was to split the root ball and plant on either side of the gate, where it's very happy.

Warm days and cold nights. The garden did not mind my gamble to put things out early -- the pie cherries are ripening three weeks ahead of schedule -- but things grew to a certain height and just sat there. This week they're beginning to take off. The tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will do all right, by the look of them. It will, with any luck at all, also be a huge fruit year -- apples, pears, grapes and quince have set well. There are even medlars, goumi and aronia for the first time.

As usual though, the stars of this farm are the roots and greens. The potato beds and bins look good. Here we have five kinds of kale, collards, Forellenschluss and Cracoviensis lettuces, red and green cabbages, red and green chard, tatsoi, bok choi, spinach, and turnips. A last year's chard and a kale have gone to seed, which I really want as they survived the -10F spell over the winter, a significant achievement even for them.

Young Man has been here and emptied the duck pools, bucketing the water to the fruit trees, while I have taken on the long-put-off task of cleaning the garage.

Spring can make me keep my head down and back bent a bit much, so it's good when The Cowboy can get away from his job and take me out on the water.

Purple Martins

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Zen things

The tool is a "jembe," a Kenyan hoe made by Mr. Joseph Ogola. Many people in Kenya do all their farm work with this one tool.

Greens bed is coming along slowly. Turnips, radishes, bok choi, tatsoi, kale, collards and chard mostly, with some marigolds and such.

The ducklings a week ago. They will be released into the poultry moat today.

A few fogs have heralded the change in weather. We have gone over 90F, though it is much cooler today. I have been firewooding the branches of the ash tree. It is slow but meditative work. As I do it, I try to focus on a few Zen observations that Jin Maju, a Facebook friend, posted today.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The soil bank

A repost, because I've been looking around again and very little has changed. ;)

We only know a few of our neighbors, after twenty years; it's a very conservative community and we're a "non-traditional" couple. Yet the folks we've actually met, we like. Get-togethers are rare; if you aren't going to the local church (ours is in town) you aren't going to be invited to the parties. We have friends over regularly but they are mostly from the urban center, twenty minutes away via gasoline.

One way to get to know people is to join the Neighborhood Watch and attend meetings. We plan to do that but, uhhh, we've not yet discovered when and where those are. But it's a potential starting point. I have heard that our local one was started because many of the young people being raised around here have reached the age where it's cool to raid your buddies' parents' house for stuff. A phase; they'll grow out of it, we hope. Stony Run doesn't seem to be part of that loop at present, thank goodness.

Meanwhile, it's fun to speculate on what might happen around here if neighbors were suddenly forced to rely on those in their immediate surroundings for survival.

It's an exercise we can recommend. Do a walk tour or a bike tour (Cowboy did his on horseback, which he discovered opens up conversations) and see what's out there. Where's the water? The timber? Stone, gravel? Good soil? What kinds of buildings are there? Who's advertising their skills as home businesses? What's growing? What could be grown? How adaptable are the various properties? Here's a three-mile bike loop with a few notes on what's to be seen.

This place, on a street corner with a strategic Neighborhood Watch sign, is the edge of a built-up section. It was forty acres once, but was subdivided into five acre plots, still with one owner, though. The first time Risa saw it, it was all in wheat. For the last 35 years, it's had hay taken off it and one rental house, a double-wide, installed. It's much better land than Stony Run's and would easily support a wide variety of agricultural activities, and would be a good site for a farm stand as well. Except for the hay going away, it has essentially fallowed all this time. This is very typical for the area. The Mighty River flows by in the middle distance, at the foot of the mountains -- about a mile away. Some farmers have irrigation rights from there, but not all do. Much would depend on the availability of wells. Drought has been known to affect these.

Much of the open land one sees while pedaling through here is in pasture, and much of that is for horses. The grass is plentiful and nutritious but dries up in late summer and also becomes relatively non-nutritious in the ubiquitous winter rains; much hay and feed is bought in. The horses tend to be play-pretties. Some get ridden; most don't. None locally are doing any plowing or carting, though one supposes they could be re-trained in a pinch. Most transportation is by massive V-8s.

Exotics are popular; llamas, alpacas and emus abound. People buy them for a lot of money, feed them for a few years, then sell at a loss. Not sure what that's about. One farmer keeps a regular mid-sized flock of sheep with one llama for coyote protection and that does seem to work well.

A number of residents keep beef cattle, from a handful to fifty or so. Word is that there are some free-range pigs and goat-cheese operations around, but none show up in the bike tour. There are no CAFOs, apparently; which is a blessing. The mountain in the distance is all Federal lands -- about half Bureau of Land Management and half National Forest. Logging (by clearcut), though much reduced over the last couple of decades, is the principal economic activity in this rural area.

The light green stripe near the mountain is feed corn -- about 100 acres. This is bottom land, near the river. Corn, like other summer crops, is a bit of a risk, though, as the growing season in this valley is shorter so close to the mountain range. Not shown here are the many tractors and attachments left out in the long winter rains -- here, as elsewhere, Americans are notable for their unwillingness to maintain equipment they will wish they still had, someday. The whole mountain is a park, by the way -- frequented by hordes of hikers from the nearby urban center.

There are a number of nurseries; most of them seem to specialize in shrubs and small trees for landscaping, with some focus on things like blueberries and fruit trees. Orcharding was tried a couple of generations ago, and there was extensive dairying and truck farming as well. None of these pays at present. The vegetables and fruits all come from California and dairying is over-regulated and under-paid. The area is zoned agricultural and everyone is happy with that; but with so few actually farming, the impression one has is that folks are waiting out the strange economy, hoping to get back into farming "someday."

Horses are one of the few true industries; some owners breed, others board and train. There are quite a few stables and paddocks around.

New construction, though rare of late, is mostly of the McMansion style; the ideas seems to be to come up with a play room suitable for installing the largest possible screen for watching 24-hour agitprop and football channels. That said, the homes are better built than in many other areas and would, in a pinch, make good communes. In fact, with the ailing economy, a number of extended families have pulled together at "the old home place" in the manner noted by Sharon Astyk. The only difference is that most of these don't seem to have started gardens yet.

The biggest farmer in the area uses large (for here) acreages and gigantic machinery to turn over an important local cash crop annually: grass seed. The combines actually would be overkill for this size acreage, but they are hired and come into the area once a year, lumbering along the narrow roads. When this recently-sprouted field reaches a certain level of maturity, hundreds of sheep will be run on it over the winter to produce lambs, then the seed and straw will be taken off next summer. Yes, it's a very chemical-intensive rotation; we buy our lamb from an organic-farmer friend.

You may have noticed the high-tension wires in various shots; they are from a hydroelectric project nearby (where Risa does most of her paddling and trout-gathering). In TEOTWAWKI these would undoubtedly fall into disuse; meanwhile, we're pleased to know that locally most of the electricity doesn't come from coal.

Last stop, another of the grass seed fields. The little rise in the distance, by the power towers, is another farm, and this past year they had wheat there. Wheat has its own problems, but it's food, so it's kind of nice to see it making a comeback.

So, what did we learn? a) It's really beautiful around here. b) There's somewhat of a culture gap between Stony Run and its surroundings, but everyone is kindly towards those around them, skilled, and sensible. c) We're not ruining or developing the land as much as one might see elsewhere, and it should retain its tilth for some time to come. This is kind of surprising given the incentive to develop -- four acres, a double-wide house and horse barn are on offer around the corner for over $250,000. d) Potential for sustainable community subsistence is immense -- given the means to assure water supply to all these acreages in the long rainless summers -- but almost completely untapped and likely to remain so.

What this neighborhood really is, is a kind of privately held land bank.

While it's sad (and ultimately dangerous) that the county we live in gets 95% of its food from elsewhere, and there are one billion underfed people in the world, and economics leads this neighborhood into pretty much ignoring the short-term situation, the upside is that future generations may be glad all this soil around here remained intact.

Monday, April 21, 2014

There is generally something

Fog in the morning presages a high -- sunshine, warmth. This is a time to hold off on setting out starts; they're fine in the potting shed/greenhouse anyway. I give them a shot of water, tell them their turn will come, and go to spread compost.

Our compost contains a high proportion of chicken manure, so we accumulate it in one of the three compost bins until about this time every year, then pull apart the bin (recycled pallets), haul the compost to the garden, and hide it under grass clippings or straw. Then we reassemble the bin and fill it with fresh hot bedding from the barn, which can't go on the garden without some rot-down.

Grass in the poultry moat that has gotten past Susannah the goose (who can't deal with mature grass clumps) is cut down before it goes to seed and spread over the compost. It's a little darker than straw, and I'm hoping will absorb more solar heat to warm up the soil. 

When spreading these lighter mulches (or for that matter top dressing with compost), we sometimes pop pots over young plants so as not to have to be finicky about not burying them with the material.

The new starts have inched nearer the garden at midday to get used to the weather -- "hardening off." It often clouds over by three, with a promise of new rain, so toward the end of the day I introduce them to their bed, kneeling on my gardener's kneeling bench and dragging their flat behind me as I go crabwise. The kneeling feels a bit like zazen. Getting up to move from an empty flat to a full one feels like kinhin.

When done in the garden I gather and clean tools, stack flats and pots, and return all to the potting shed. I invite the "gratitude bell," which hangs on a lilac near the path, to ring, then bow to it till the ringing sound fades away. I then gather eggs and think about dinner.

One way to feed yourself at this time of year, when most cool weather crops are not quite ready yet, is to forage around a bit, gathering dandelions, knotweed tips, chickweed, maple bracts, lilac blooms, leaves of still-young garlic and onions, volunteer garden greens and last year's potatoes or perhaps some volunteers. And maybe a French Breakfast radish.

Our wintered-over kale, collards, beets and chard are usually abundant but this was a tough year for them, down to -9F. Surprisingly a nice Fordhook Giant chard came back, and a couple of kale are up and flowering. There is generally something, even this year.

The solids (potato, radish, chard stems and the like) are steamed for half an hour, then I pop in the shredded greens for another 5-10 minutes. I may put an egg in with the greens, either to soft or hard boil, or just break it, pour it in, and let it poach. Season to taste. Add a bit of olive oil or homemade vinaigrette, and serve.


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