Saturday, December 27, 2008

Though frost come or sun shine

Next year's elephant garlic peeking through the snow

[risa] For a couple of weeks now, when nothing else is happening, I have been moving garlic.

It's not really garlic, but elephant garlic, a closer relative of leeks, though if you have eaten a clove of it, anyone who catches a whiff of you will assume that garlic is what you've been eating.

But there's more to elephant garlic than the cloves.

As with garlic, if you harvest the stalk, the cloves will suffer as they will have lost their solar collector and can't store food properly. But the stuff is relatively prolific -- even invasive -- so, once you've got some, in the ordinary course of things you will soon have a lot, and perhaps you will then feel it's okay to experiment!

You may, for example, treat it as a leek.

We harvest cloves in late summer from some plants that we've allowed to mature, but we also harvest stalks -- or, rather, the sheaf of leaves that precede the extension of the central woody-fibered flower stalk -- in spring and early summer, and if you catch them young they slice up nicely and go well in stir fries and such. And we use the young sprouted bulbs in the winter as if they were shallots. Plants that have been matured to the flower stage -- which, again, doesn't do much for cloves -- also are encouraged here, as we're fond of the clusters of tiny purple flowers in bread, in soups, and on salads. Bees like them, too. And the flower stalks, which grow to be five feet tall, make perfectly good stakes around the garden.

There was elephant garlic in a small, decrepit and snaky raised bed when we got here, sixteen years ago. When we started the circular garden around front, I undertook to move all the available "shallots" -- in midwinter -- to form a border, by pulling away the termite-riddled boards of the old bed, forking up bulbs, moving the lot of them as one wheelbarrow load and planting one every twelve inches, round the fifty-foot diameter circle. Within a few years, the border was a two-foot thick wall of green, making inroads into the rhubarb patch and into the tomato patch, and what not. It was as if I had put in bamboo.

All well and good, as we do think it an important vegetable, but the cloves have suffered from overcrowding because we couldn't keep up with the harvesting. As the root systems were no longer in a bed with friable soil, but growing just outside the "real" garden, they were too hard to dig in summer, and in winter the mud simply cakes up one's digging fork unbelievably. In either case the work seemed to outstrip the benefits of digging for the stuff, and meanwhile the cloves got smaller and smaller.

We've redesigned the garden into a mini-farm of some nineteen long beds, right across where the circle garden stood for fifteen years. This means that now it is December, the green spears shooting up from this year's bulbs are appearing in curved rows right across our new paths.

These I am digging up, when the fit hits me, and re-distributing among the new beds, most of which are not yet fit to receive any other planting, but elephant garlic is hard to kill. You can lay out a plant right on top of the ground here, in the dead of winter, and it will root and right itself, though frost come or sun shine.

I pick a likely-looking clump, grown about six inches tall, and fork gently around it on four sides. Then I tip it up and rip the chunk, like a grass sod, loose from its surroundings, bring it over to the garden and play a stream of water over the clump until much of the clay is gone and the shining white bulbs, from marble size to golf-ball size, each with its shiny green spear, are easily separated. Placing them in a bucket, I move along the beds with a long stick, dibbling a hole down through the eight inches of straw and leaves to the soggy flattened corrugated board beneath, and punch through the cardboard. I seat the bulb in the hole in cardboard, draw the mulch up to the leaves, and pass on to the next spot. That's it.

Some four hundred bulbs have been relocated in this way; this sounds like a lot, but it has worked out to one plant every three to four feet on more or less a grid pattern. We hope to work around them ...

There's some risk that I'm creating a monster, I know; but it's what I do. We could talk about the Jerusalem artichokes ... meanwhile, there's food, with relatively little chance of crop failure. The elephant garlic seems to like being regarded as a companion plant; it cosies up to everything from pumpkins to parsnips, and its aroma seems to help confuse the bugs as they're hunting down the other veggies. You can use it in just about everything except maybe homemade ice cream. And as a last resort you can set up a table out by the road and give it away, as some other folks around here do with their zeppelins zucchinis.

I think, based on the amount of pathway I've cleared so far, that I'm about fifteen percent done with this task. But I've run out of room. Daughter took enough pity on me, at the end of her holiday visit with us, to take away one clump. I'm thinking I might take some to work with me next week, to set up on the "free" table in pots. What do ya think? Too .. risky?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The valley here was wide

Last Son and Daughter inspect the garden, ca. 1989.

[risa, reposting. Best of the season to everyone!]

We went to see the place

We went to see the place in Walterville.
Before we had even seen the house, the neighbor,
a man of some seventy years, bent with woods work,

stopped to chat. "The house isn't much, but the soil
is good. Oh, it has some Scotch broom, I know,
on the pasture, but you can get ahead of that

if you keep after it. I helped the last folks with
their fence, but they wanted the gate right here,
where the tractor couldn't get in. They'd no sense."

We asked why no fence between his place
and "ours." "Oh, I don't need a fence. Don't want
your apples, and you're welcome to mine."

I thought of Frost, whose neighbor needed
fences of old-stone savage granite, because
Frost's apples might eat his pine cones, and

his father had had a saying. This one seemed
more what one wanted: friendly but not oppressive,
and knowing woods and wells. We walked over

the pasture till we reached the incense cedars,
each one five feet thick, and found a hanging
branch worn smooth by generations of children's

swinging. Good, and the valley here was wide,
with the mountains stretching east and west,
and sunshine access on short winter days.

But the house wouldn't do; bedrooms dark
and tiny, with telltale smell throughout
of dry rot underneath. Desire for land

sets one dreaming. One acre, three acres--
not enough to farm, but who can farm
with these prices? It becomes a privilege

just to set out onions, and a cow
is not mere luxury, but even a kind of madness
to actually hope for. We have cross fenced

our high-taxed valleys so that to walk straight
for five minutes can't be done, and all
the while buying our produce from five hundred

miles away, where the tractors have as many
wheels as your freeway rig. We want to put
our hands into the ground and make it yield

enough to make children grow, and not
grow poor in the process. We drove home,
and quarreled along the way about land,

the way people do who have gone to see
not only what they could not have afforded,
but ought not to have desired. The ducks

were glad to see us; she watered them, and I
picked tomatoes, and we kissed and made up,
and lay awake in our small suburban house

beneath the wheeling moon and stars. Why is it,
I wondered then and wonder now, that no one
ever seems to know when they have enough?

When sleep came, there was a vivid dream.
I met again the old man with no fence,
and saw him pointing to the earth. "This

was river bottom in here not too long ago,"
I heard him say. "When we drilled down forty
feet, we hit a driftwood tree, even though

the river now is half a mile away." He opened
up the earth somehow, and showed me the tree,
still caught amid the smooth and rounded stones

deep beneath the topsoil, which now I saw
was dark and rich, as he had said it was.
I reached to touch the soil, and awoke.

The northbound train was rumbling by the house,
carrying produce from industrial farms,
and I was drenched in sweat, and found the moon

had drifted far across the window to the west.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Just enough willpower

A chill has settled upon our landscape

[risa] I thought I would be going to work today, but during the morning hours it didn't look like the few drivers were all that comfy with what they were doing, so, bearing in mind the five-car pileup and assorted crashes all week, I called in to work and self-declared a snow day. I live the farthest away of any of us, and higher elevation, too, so this was not unexpected.

But now what? The next thing on my chore list was to dig elephant garlic bulbs and spread them around in the new beds, but -- unh unh.

Beloved didn't have work today, either, except to go and help Last Son with his shopping, which would be safer to do in the afternoon -- so we did our favorite thing, which is to sit by the fire, drink coffee, and "solve the world's problems."

As this had started around 5:30 a.m., however, there was only so much more we could do of that. So she dressed for barnyard and went to take care of her poultry, and I dressed for crawling and took on the attic, something I'd left off the list for a couple of months.

My insulation supplies, Arrow tacker, and trouble lamp were already there, so it was simply a matter of finding my mask, gloves, hoodie, ladder, and just enough willpower. It's a tiny space, about eighteen inches high mostly, rising to a ridgeline of about thirty inches in the center, and dark as sin. The trick is to inch along between the joists, drag a bunch of stuff as far as you can reach, rest, inch along some more, and then flop over a joist without getting your feet tangled up in the knee braces of all the trusses, which come along every four feet or so, then repeat, till you get where you're going. You can't easily get the trouble lamp to where it's wanted, so you do all this with a LED flashlight tucked into a headband under the side of your hoodie hood. Also a long pole for shoving things into corners you can't otherwise easily reach.

It's cold up there (a good sign), yet when you rest the next time a bead of sweat comes skiing down your nose, hesitates for an itchy moment, and drips down onto the insulation. Every now and then something decides to roll away just out of reach -- you preach at it --

"No. Hey, now, NO. There was NO NEED to do that -- rggghhh -- fehhh -- "

"You okay up there?"

"-- Meh? Mmh-hmm, don't mind me -- " inch along, grab the item, swear at it once more for good measure, inch along.

Actually, when I'm up, we can't often or easily communicate directly. I've taken to carrying the cell phone and we call each other up if I need checking on, or want something, or there's some other emergency down there in the world of life and light.

I'm putting in three ninety minute shifts of that today -- one to go. I'm home alone at the moment, so am doing other chores in the interim. We've agreed I won't do crawl spaces with no one else home.

Chore number one is to paint gallon jugs black, for stashing near tomatoes and the like, filled with water, next summer. The idea is that they will soak up sunlight by day and rebroadcast the heat by night, to give the plants a leg up on the season.

Chore number two is to clean kerosene lamps and chimneys, trim wicks, and refill the reservoirs.

When we homesteaded in the Coast Range, back in the distantly receding Seventies, light was an issue. Our place was more than a quarter of a mile from the valley's main road, and the utility company would have charged us a fortune to line in to us. The telephone co-op did not have this policy, so we had a phone in very short order, but the house we built never had electric service.

We had a wood cook stove, a propane refrigerator, and a propane stove and two propane lamps cannibalized from an old travel trailer, one Aladdin lamp, assorted candles, about ten 15-watt twelve-volt lamps, and four kerosene lamps.

Of all of these, we were fondest of the kerosene lamps -- still are. They have been handed down in my mom's family for several generations, and they don't look like the ones you see in the stores now -- each one's base is a heavy, yet graceful, blown-glass bell, rising to the reservoir at about six inches, and the brass collar, stouter than those now available, lifts the lit wick up to a height of twelve inches above the table surface.

These are the lamps you see in movie Westerns, being lit by the actress just as the studio lights brighten to many thousands of times the candlepower of the actual lamp.

The things certainly don't throw much light to sew by, but, if you've avoided the colored and scented oil sold in housewares at Wal-Mart, and trimmed the wick cleanly on a gentle, balanced curve, like trimming a fingernail, and washed the chimney, and, after lighting, replaced the chimney promptly and then set the wick high enough to burn brightly, but not so high as to soot up the chimney, you can read by it. (More on maintenance here.)

If, as we do nowadays, you have utility power, well, you have enough lighting options not to need such lamps very often. But we get power outages here, sometimes up to twelve hours. I once went through three weeks without power during a particularly vicious ice storm in north Georgia. So we keep the old lamps clean, filled and handy, along with several newer ones.

Mind you, the air gets pretty unhealthy if you run these lamps a lot. Think of them as a way to get through the necessary bits of the evening, then get into your nightgowns, reach around behind each lamp, cup your hand, and blow it out -- then go snuggle in bed together like any self-respecting winter-bound critters.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Snow's coming in

Our first dusting of the year

[risa] We have placed our first seed order of the year, with Fedco for a change (our usual supplier having been swallowed up by Monsanto). Seed from Maine may present a few problems as we are in the Pacific Northwest, but its worth a try until we know better where we can safely order locally. We have quite a lot left over from last year, especially corn, beans, runner beans, and peas, but we're also (we hope) getting in packets of:

Boothbys Blonde Slicing Cucumber
Black Zucchini
Golden Zucchini
Burpees Butterbush Winter Squash
Connecticut Field Pumpkin
Scarlet Nantes Carrot
Shin Kuroda
Golden Detroit Beet
Cherry Belle Radish
Bordeaux Spinach
Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce
Hyper Red Rumple Waved Lettuce
Gator Perpetual Spinach or Leaf Beet
Graffiti Cauliflower
Pingtung Long Eggplant
Diamond Eggplant
Early Jalape Hot Pepper
Revolution Sweet Pepper
Rutgers Tomato
Yellow Brandywine Tomato
Aunt Rubys German Green Tomato
Amish Paste Tomato
Sun Gold Cherry Tomato
Mammoth Grey Stripe Sunflower
Andover Parsnip
Purple Top White Globe Turnip
Early White Vienna Kohlrabi

Fruit trees, bush fruits, and potatoes we will seek out locally. We've got lots of potatoes, but they are going to sprout too early, methinketh.

It snowed about two inches here last night. Much more in some parts of Eugene; and the roads aren't improving. We expect maybe 16 degrees F tonight; I'm running a lightbulb in the pumphouse and another in the chicken shed. Everyone be careful out there!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Repost: Lettuce in winter


... used to write this kind of thing ...


lettuce in winter

The potting room was a miserable dank
shed, trash-chocked, roofed in plastic, blackberries
ingrown amid bedlam. She dragged it all into

the light, sifting for tools or nails, then
consigning the rest to dump runs. With one son,
the quiet one, she roofed the room with scraps,

tucking, there, or here, oddly-sized old windows.
To the south, a sliding door turned on its side
served for greenhouse glass. A friend's offer

of a chimney to salvage solved the question of how
to floor. With her other son, the tall one, she
rented a long-legged ladder for picking bricks

from the air, frightened at every ragged breath.
They piled them by the plant-room door, and the girl,
last child, brimful of jokes and laughter, brought

bricks to her from the pile, which she set face up
in a herringbone pattern. They swept sand and mortar
into the cracks, and danced in the sunbeams then.

Now for a bench, new-painted green for the color
of wishing, and pots of all sizes, flats too,
with a tall can for watering. She hankered for lettuce

in winter, and sowed the flats in October. After
a month, wild geese and their musical throats gone south,
she noted her seedlings spindly and sad, so taking

her hammer and two-by sixes, built a quick coldframe
with the other half of the always helpful sliding
door. By the sunny south wall in the duck pen she framed it,

and dibbled the seedlings within. They liked that,
but a darkness comes on in December; after a full
day, full week, one comes home exhausted,
to eat,

to sleep, not to water gardens. One thing
only has saved the lettuce: the ducks do not like
coming in for the night. She goes
into the dark

to disturb them; they rush about complaining;
the madwoman hops and chuckles. She locks them away
from coyotes, and turns,
as in afterthought, to visit

her seedlings. By feel
she gives them water, her hands
stretching toward summer in the unseen leaves.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A grand tree


When we moved here, there was a row of ten-year-old conifers along the fence, across the narrow "front" yard, facing our living room windows. I say "front" because unlike most houses, ours doesn't face the street, but is turned sideways away from it. Approaching from the driveway, you come only to the garage, and as you come in through the garden gate, the first door you come to, along the walkway, left around the garage, is the "back" door. To get the "front" door, you must continue, around to the left, past the kitchen window and the terracotta sun which is pictured, in winter sunlight, as the logo of this blog, along the north side, then turn right past an ancient lilac, then right again, onto the front porch at last.

The living room has east-facing windows, and we like to hang fuchsias outside these, from the edge of the porch roof. Beyond the fuchsias are the evergreens.

Two of these are Douglas firs, one an Engelmann spruce. Another, until this past weekend, was a grand fir. They have all put on another fifteen years of growth, and around here, that can be substantial. The Douglas firs are now eighteen inches in diameter, that is, at four-and-a-half feet above the ground -- DBH, Diameter At Breast Height -- and are already over fifty feet tall. They interfere with hot sun in high summer, shield the poor neighbors from our strange goings-on, and one of them is Granddaughter's favorite climbing tree. The spruce sweeps the earth with a generous spread of touch-me-not needly branches, and is a great favorite with the ducks and hens, who regard it as hawk-proof.

We've added to this row a bigleaf maple, a blackcherry, and a scraggly Scotch pine that was a rather dubious Living Christmas Tree a couple of years back. The hens regard the Scotch pine as beneath them in the pecking order, and we've had to fence it off for its own protection. The maple is doing well, considering I once accidentally mowed it to the ground. The blackcherry has required too much watering. It's a shade-loving species, and though I put it right at the end of the line, to the north of the grand fir, it has gotten, or seemed to think it was getting, too much sun even there.

It seemed to me that the cherry and the grand fir were reaching height enough to compete with our garden and orchard; also the grand fir was beginning to get that pale, needle-necrosis-y look that I associate with rot.

It's a youngish tree for that, but that's how it looked to me.

"I think the grand fir is hollow." I said this to Beloved to introduce my "grand" design.

"Hollow? It's practically a teen-ager."

"Mm-hmm, but when I was a timber cruiser, a lot of the grand firs had the look it's getting. The Forest Circus taught me to walk around each one, and if I saw any conks I had to deduct half the board feet in the tree. The Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, cedars, and larches didn't have those. I don't remember them on hemlocks either."

"Does it have conks?"

"No, but I think it's getting ready to. It sounded hollow when I thunked it with the maul this summer."

"So, you're thinking it should come down."

"It, and the cherry, too. If the grand gets any bigger, it will blow down too close to everything and take the cherry with it."

"Oooookay. I'm gone this weekend; do you need me working with you on this?"

"No'm; we've got it all covered." This is a standing joke; "we" in this context means me, the cat, the two geese, and all the chickens and ducks.

I procrastinated, come Saturday, by hauling all the remaining stored apples into the dining room, separating them into Eat Soon, Eat Later, Juice Now, and Feed to Chickens categories. All but Feed to Chickens got washed in a vinegar and salt solution and air dried, then the Eat Laters were individually wrapped in newspaper and stacked stem- up, newspaper-twist-side-up, in boxes and moved back to the cold room.

Then I brought out the electric chain saw, oiled the chain, and brought down the black cherry without any problems. Next I took a lunch break (beets, beet greens, kale, chard, and hard boiled duck eggs) and went after the grand fir.

Here I courted trouble. The base of the tree was indeed hollow, meaning there would be no hinge worth speaking of for dropping it in the right direction. And at fifteen inches DBH and over forty feet tall, it needed to drop in the right direction -- and was decidedly a leaner, favoring the poultry fence and the Italian plum tree.


I made as much of a wedge-cut and back-cut combo as I felt comfortable with, but could see the tree was still betting on the fence.

There is a solution for this sort of thing, not always shown in the how-to books, but known to most loggers. Trusting the hens not to come push the tree over in my absence (the Barred Rocks will try anything once), I went to the garage and found an iron bar and a hydraulic jack.

Fellow lady farmers (and y'all gentlemen farmers too), trust me: you can push over just about anything with a hydraulic jack.

Not that everyone who knows how to do this always guesses right. I've never smashed the cab of my own pickup truck, as a friend did who then had to walk ten sheepish miles home, but I have flattened my own gas can.

I tapped the bar into the downhill side of the backcut with the hammer side of the maul head, set the jack underneath the bar, and started cranking. After a couple of minutes, where there had been a trunk, branches, needles, living, flowing sap, lichens, spiders, mites -- a whole city of who knows what creatures aspiring to the sky, there was nothing but air. The grand fir lay atop the blackcherry, firewood-in-waiting, as the gods of firewooding intended, and right between the fences too. Some things you remember how to do. For awhile longer anyway.

Starting at the big ends, I firewooded the trees and branches -- we take anything down to one inch diameter -- and stacked, setting aside the slash for pea-brush. Behind me, the chickens, sensing it was now okay to investigate, surrounded the intriguing black hole in the new stump, and began picking off bugs from the interior, an activity that was to occupy them for the next two days.

I came to the end of the grand fir, and there, big as life, I found this year's Christmas tree -- just the right size and shape.

When Beloved got home, Sunday night, the tree was already in the corner of the living room, in its stand, watered, lit, baubled -- with Suzie Snowflake, the family heirloom angel made by my mom from scraps during the great railroad strike fifty-six years ago, on the tip of the leader that had been forty-five feet above ground the day before.

So the grand fir is still a grand tree in its way.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Old, supernumerary, and greedy

The Dark has descended; I see very little of the home place these days, being in town in a large, windowless building, five days a week, and often attending meetings in the evening and getting home around nine. So any meetings that are scheduled for weekends are anathema to me -- I have hay to move -- firewood to process -- insulation to install -- frustration!

I imagine many others, having realized that their own tiny patch of soil may be needed for their survival and well-being, are experiencing the same dissonance; the need to earn that mysterious stuff, money, trumping what feels in the bones more like common sense: real productivity.

We had the youngest two home for dinner, along with Daughter's gentlemanly Young Man, for a good and quiet time and Too Much Food with Long Food Miles, and, as I do every year at this time, I fall into a relatively deep funk, feeling old, supernumerary, and greedy for fats and sugars, and tumble into bed two hours earlier and awaken at four-thirty in the morning, sore from tossing and turning with the undigested unnecessaries that have been romping about in my middle.

Some things got done. I did, during the long weekend, find time to move hay onto beds one through twelve, and completed building the mulch underneath the grape arbor. I also set up the iron tee posts on beds two, four, and six, stringing wire along their tops, for next year's tomatoes and beans. Built bed nineteen, and painted the south wall of the house. Patched a hole in the dining room floor.

It was sunny enough, sometimes, to break routine in a lawn chair with a glass of tea, listening to a laundry list of complaints from our White China gander.

Also made one really splendid fresh garden salad, that featured kale, beet greens, bok choi, red and green chard, onion greens, and the last of the fall lettuce and the Roma tomatoes. But most of this year's festival cooking fell upon Beloved, who has a more certain hand with the recipes favored by company.

As I grow paler, crinklier, tubbier, and surlier each fall, I retreat into gardening books, where the photos of sunny plots crammed with shining, squeaky clean, lean, green leaves forms a mental salve against the sordid reality of feasting against the background of an increasing world famine.

The next month will be even darker. At some point, I will balk even at ogling pictures of green leaves and curl up deep in the blankets with a pile of Patricia Cornwell novels. World, begone! I'll see you when the trees break forth in bloom.