Sunday, June 29, 2008

Time and circumstance

We have about run out of grass clippings for the year, so I have started in on the Japanese knotweed. This dretful stuff was in possession when we got here -- there is no hope of our ever getting rid of it -- more persistent than quackgrass, morning glories or even bamboo, which it resembles somewhat. The shoots are edible, but barely -- Japanese knotweed is to bamboo as Pikeminnow is to rainbow trout -- and by the time I remember to check, it's already seven feet tall and advancing another foot or more across the land, like kudzu. The roots are only a little smaller than Volkswagens, and the stuff travels underground and can come up through concrete -- which is amazing, as the stems are, even in old growth mode, amazingly fragile.

The leaves shaped a bit like aspen leaves, are large and soft and popular with sheep, which we've had here, and chickens too. I'm cropping the entire stand section by section, setting aside the stems to dry -- thoroughly -- for beanpoles first and kindling later, and the masses of leaves for mulch and compost. This is safe to do if you get to them before they go to seed --otherwise, it would be a death knell for a garden.

Beloved has continued planting, transplanting, weeding, and watering the garden, while I have been harvesting, composting, mulching, and watering the orchard. We contacted the firewood man, too, and when he said he might bring wood any time, we spent much of yesterday getting the woodshed ready for him, moving the last of last year's wood to the front porch and moving the straw bales -- eight jumbo three-twine monsters; two to the barn and six to the patio, where we arranged them like a bench facing the "dining" area. Lucky for us we did, as he brought and stacked his first load that afternoon. No one before has ever done our stacking for us, so I gave him my best choker cable, with a wire-rope loop at one end, a good twelve feet long.

Firewooders love chokers, which are extremely handy for snaking logs out of a pile. I warned him it had been through a fire and so was too rotten for real cat work, though good for his truck. He was puzzled that I knew that much about logging, but said "thank you, Ma'am" with real appreciation.

The temperature while all this was going on was approaching 97 F. To keep the house bearable -- we have no air conditioning, which at our age means we have to respect heat waves -- I tacked five tarps to the south and west sides of the house, making awnings of them by twining them to bricks set out into the poultry pasture, and built an attic fan with a salvaged squirrel cage blower attached to a piece of veneer with a hole cut into it. As the outside thermometer rose to 95, we were able to keep the inside registering a mere 78, by battening down the hatches, drawing air from underneath the house and pushing the hot air from the attic at the same time.

In this kind of heat, I find I can turn off the hot water heater, open one valve and close another, and get plenty of tolerably warm water (enough for a shower) direct from the solar collector. We could get it much hotter by putting in an outside shower, but we don't want to drain onto the ground so near the well, so that idea hasn't gone anywhere as yet.

Today we took the day off from homesteading, which was as well as we were both getting a little sore by this time, and headed for the mountains where we attended Meeting for Worship at the home of one of our friends there, followed by a potluck, and then to another friend's retirement party at a famous winery nearby.

This place, where the kitchen has been featured in a series on the Food Channel, has hundreds of thousands of grape vines in thousands of rows across the hills. The main cluster of buildings is bigger than many European castles, and occupies the top of the highest hill for miles in every direction. We felt a little self-conscious here, or rather class-conscious -- Beloved remarked that, while most of our peer group was getting educations and careers, we were homesteading in the mountains and falling steadily behind -- getting by on a tenth of the income of most of our friends -- not losing them, for sure, but losing just a little bit of their respect -- some -- and vice versa, as our goals and ideals diverged from many of theirs over the decades. But it was good to see them all, and we certainly did not turn down the Pinot Gris and fabled food.

As the band played on, and the glasses clinked, a pall of rose-tinged murk fell across the trellised hills and, crossing the sun, bled it of light until all the windows below blazed orange. Smoke from the more than eight hundred fires raging in California had reached us, perhaps drawn north by the rare lightning storm that had crackled through in the night. Time to go home -- our home, for good or ill, till time and circumstance should pry us, like a good many to the south of us, from the land.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hundred Foot Diet (almost)

One aspect of having a lot of garden but not much time to freeze, dry, or can, is finding opportunities to eat really fresh, thereby saving labor later.

When I'm outside in spring, I always grab, whenever I think about it, a dandelion, mint leaf, onion spear, spinach, lettuce, snap peas, whenever they are within reach as I pass by. Later in the year, the obvious: plums, blackberries, grapes, (not this year), tomatoes, corn, pears, and apples, apples, apples. For a break I might sit under the hazel tree cracking filberts. Or even pick a few (very few) acorns, surprisingly good raw in small quantities (choosing acorns from trees with round-lobed as opposed to sharp-lobed leaves if I can).

Or I may take radishes, beets, parsnips, turnips, new potatoes, or Jerusalem artichokes into the house, dice up, steam briefly, add assorted greens and steam briefly again, and take my bowl outside to eat by the poultry pasture, watching the antics going on inside (it's a 3 ring circus, literally: chicken, duck, goose).

And you might be surprised by how much many of these things go well together.

I was in a rush this morning, because I'm cutting about half my commute by driving to a park-and-ride over in the next watershed, and the bus leaves earlier than I'm really good for. So on the way out of the house, I snapped up a (used) produce bag, a red potato, two radishes (with tops), a hard-boiled duck egg, and a pair of chopsticks, and ran. Made the bus with forty seconds to spare.

At lunch, I got out this unpromising-looking combo and took it to the staff lounge. I cut up the potato and radishes, and zapped them in the staff microwave in a bowl for 99 seconds, while cutting up the greens. Then I added the shredded radish tops to the roots and zapped for 55 more seconds while peeling the egg and dicing it up. Then I took out the bowl from the microwave, tipped it into a cooler bowl, added a bit of pepper and ranch dressing that were on hand, cleaned up after myself, and went out to sit on a bench in the June sun, people-watching and munching.

Much better than one might think. I was never fond of radishes because I only knew them store-bought and raw in salads -- so I'm conditioned to think of them as bitter, not one of my preferred flavors. But homegrown, cooked (yet not overcooked!)! Revelation! Tomorrow, I'll try not to be so rushed, and work some spinach and Bok Choi into this.

And next week I get to start in on the sugar snap peas.

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All gentleness

[posted by risa]
           Rhymes to hang in Bertha's Barn

May you have a good sowing
And a gallant crop;
May your weeds never begin,
Your flowers never stop;

May your radishes be bright,
Your new potatoes succulent,
Your leeks all gentleness,
Your roses truculent;

May your gourds be generous,
Your berries luscious;
All pallor your turnips,
And your beets all blushes;

Your clover emerald,
Your lilac pearly;
Your late apples sweet,
And your sweet corn early.

Marie de L. Welch

--from A Sense of Humus, Bertha Damon, 1943.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The longest day of the year

After the deer climbed onto the porch (while we were both at work) and ate the tops off the potted tomatoes there, we decided to fence the spring/fall beds, along the east side of the garage and north and west sides of the house, right away. While this wipes out the financial advantage to one year's garden, we think of it as a long-term investment. We're members of the Seed Savers Exchange, and there are things out there we very much don't wish to disappear, even if we could undoubtedly get them from the grocery store for about the same cost and much less trouble.

I paced off our agreed-upon fence line and found that we would need 90 feet of seven-foot welded wire, one decent gate (we'd need three, but ugly ones I have no trouble building) and some fifteen eight-foot posts. As our clay soil, mixed with round riverbed stones (mostly basaltic) has already tightened up for the summer, and would wear us down quickly if we tried to set the posts by hammering on them with a maul like John Henry hammering drift pins, we would also need to invest in a tube steel post-driver. I'd used one before, and knew what a difference it would make, but had always gotten by with a maul, by doing the fencing in the dead of winter.

It's been some years now since there was a pickup truck on the premises, but we reasoned we could put everything in the back of the Saturn wagon -- it's ok to to pretend it's a truck now; it has 194,500 miles on it! Coming back with that load made for some slow driving, but, as everyone has eased up on the gas (finally, at $4.35/gallon) we were no trouble to those around us.

As this fence does not expect to be tested by cattle or horses, and we plan to move it next winter, there was no need to make it fancy. We ran it twelve feet between posts and braced the corners with the same kind of posts, tied with heavy-guage wire to the uprights. Instead of fence clips (which require a little more strength than either of us have) we tied the fence to the posts with snips of the same wire, twisted thrre times together at the ends, which will be easy to undo.

The utility gates we simply cut into the fence at one post, re-attaching the fencing back to the post with home-made latches when we're done.

The whole thing, from idea to execution, took one day -- fortunately it was the longest day of the year.

The new enclosure chages the appearance of the whole place. Suddenly we felt much less like gardeners and more like farmers, and were motivated to tackle weeding, mulching, composting, planting, and transplanting all the remainder of the day. We passed each other like ships in the night, Beloved with a wheelbarrow full of chicken-manure hay for next year's bed, I with a "little red wagon" with potted tomatoes. We arranged to take our breaks together under the shade of the fir trees, drinking solar tea and watching things grow.

We took our last break as the swallows went to bed and the bats began coming out to play.

Our cat (or rather Daughter's cat, who stayed behind when she left the nest) came in through the garage, as is her wont, and ambled slowly and arthritically up the walk, pausing to note the unexpected locations of the big pots of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and beets. She walked up to the new gate by the porch, still checking out the pots over her shoulder, and ran smack into the welded wire.

The expression on her cat face was easily read from thirty feet away -- the one which is amply described by the texting/internet acronym "WTF?" She sat down and looked at it a bit -- stunned, really. Then she lay down in the middle of the walk -- and waited.

"Gonna be a long wait, kiddo."


"Yah, we're sorry, but it had to be done."

"Shall we make you a little cat door at each end?"


"OK, but can it wait till tomorrow? We're tuckered."


So I cut in a cat door where the fence joins to the house, by the old lilac bush, as the stars began to come in, one by one.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Growing Old

[posted by daughter]

At work today I saw a woman at the "Self Scan" who had caught my eye at least once before. She's stout, good posture, short and holds herself with purpose. Her hair has turned all shades of silver but it's cropped short and doesn't reveal her age like it should. She lifts the items from her cart and I can see even at a distance the muscles in her toned arms. I asked her if she was a fitness instructor and she laughed acrediting her appearance to good genes, I told her that when I grow up I want to look just like her.

One of my new co-workers made a point to tell me that the woman comes in quite often mostly with her partner with an emphasis on the last word. "Ah" I think to myself, she reminds me of my mothers. I admire strong women. I admire women who are willing to accept that they have imperfections. When I grow old I hope I will have the dignity to let my hair turn grey.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Our beckoning goodies

[posted by risa]

In the house, I have been baking herb bread (whole wheat with oats, rye and buckwheat, with fresh minced marjoram, thyme, rosemary, chives and spinach) and practicing with stir frys in our new wok (diced radishes, chard stems, spinach stems, elephant garlic shoots, and Egyptian onions, with tofu, three minutes, adding the chard and spinach leaves, radish tops, onion greens, chives, and marjoram, three more minutes, at lower heat).

Beloved has been washing and sorting eggs, practicing guitar, and rehearsing (she's a singer/storyteller on the library circuit).

Outdoors, I've planted about a quarter pound of runner beans (heirloom) and three cherry tomatoes, and in the greenhouse I've potted four upside-down Santiam tomatoes. I finally reconnected the solar hot water heater and it does appear to be working. We've picked a spot, near the front door, for the fall garden, and I've covered the site for the bed with black plastic to kill off the sod. So we have doubled the land we have "in cultivation," just as we've doubled the poultry run, this year.

I've also cleaned up the compost heap --good looking stuff! -- and put up a wire enclosure for it. While engaged in this task, I found some several enormous nightcrawlers, so I made a quick trip to the reservoir and came back with two trout for the freezer and seven quite large pikeminnows -- these are hard to eat, as they are full of branching bonelets, but make good compost. I cut them up and stewed them with a mess of tree leaves to make a kind of fish emulsion, which I poured off into a five-gallon bucket for later use, diluted, in watering cans, and then took the stewed fish and leaves to the compost barrel and rotated them into the mix.

Beloved has planted a patch of kale, a patch of bok choi, a patch of celery, and all the sweet corn for this year -- a yellow variety and a white variety. Most of the summer vegs still aren't in yet, though we have great transplant weather and the soil is finally warm enough. Beloved has quite a lot of starts hardening off -- eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, summer and winter squash -- but has had so much work in town that she's had to put off getting them into the ground.

Just as we've become more intensively engaged in producing our own food, as well as selling eggs -- trouble.

I'm engaging in a war of wits with the local deer. Cleverly arranged bits of fencing are snatched down and dragged away, and the tender shoots of grapevines and all the leaves of pear seedlings cropped -- not at night, as you would expect, but in the early afternoons when both of us are away at our jobs! Right by the road!

Wailing and gnashing of teeth ...

The damage to the seedless grapes and the pears has been pretty severe -- one of the trees may not live. Surprisingly, they haven't gone after the peas -- perhaps those will be for dessert. The summer garden has had a deer fence since last year, but we have expanded into three other beds for a spring garden. The real fence job was not scheduled until next winter ...

Beloved's just in -- after eight p.m. -- and we talked about our day, and I conveyed her to the garden to admire my work on the compost heap and cherry tomatoes. She started to make the appropriate noises of appreciation, and then instead said:

"There they are."

I peered into the gathering twilight. Across the road, two deer had just halted in their approach toward our beckoning goodies. Yearling doe blacktails, by the look of them.

"Blackhearted pirates! Pear-snatchers!"

"Grape-pilfering suburban pets!"

"Heartless freeloaders!"

They seemed to find our reproaches amusing.

"They're waiting for us to go away."

"We'll have to to move up the fence schedule."

The Bambis twitched their ears at us.

"Go away, arready!"

"Let's walk toward them."

We stepped into the road, and ambled in their direction. They pretended to take no notice of us, nibbling at roadside grasses (as if that were what they had come for), and finally, when we had come within about eighty feet, slid soundlessly away into shadow.