Saturday, February 28, 2009

The tired woman's orchard planting guide

First, pick an overcast wintry day with leaden skies.

Stumble back and forth with bagged bare-root trees, buckets, your planting shovel, some gallons of greywater, unless the county authorities are watching, in which case absolutely fresh well water will do, and a pile of twigs, a pair of side-cutting pliers, pruners, and about a six-foot section of recycled woven-wire poultry fence.

Set your distances by what you've got, based also on soil, slope, and region factors. Most of my trees are semi-dwarf, since they are not just for my generation, and I'm spacing them on a tight fifteen-by. You may want to go a little wider than than me, or try dwarfs instead, which will serve up fruit to you faster. My preference for semi-dwarfs is based on my probably mistaken observation that, once established, semi-dwarfs seem more drought resistant. And they live a little longer.

Dig a hole. Much bigger than the ones I dig (you almost certainly have a much better back). The one shown looks really tiny, but at least it's fourteen inches deep and seven across, measured. You want your roots unscrunched and pointing downward, and your finished unmulched ground level to be right about where the tree was grafted. If the tree is a full dwarf, maybe a little shallower, so that the grafted fruit tree doesn't form its own roots, resulting in a full-size standard. Eek!

Shown is a four-foot Lambert Cherry. There are other cherries on the premises, which are advertised to pollinate Lambert, or each other, so that there are cross-pollinated early varieties and cross-pollinated late varieties. There are many good books to help you work this out for each kind of fruit tree. The rules are different for some from others. You may also want to talk to your extension agents, or if they have all been fired, your Master Gardeners, who work for free.

Untwist the loops on the ends of the wire "twistie" that holds the wet-sawdust-enclosed "bare" roots in a plastic bag. Slip the bag off the roots, letting the sawdust fall into a plastic bucket, maybe, or on the ground, as suits you. Drop a little dirt around the deepest roots, then pour in your ... water ... then add more dirt, jiggling the tree very gently as you go, to get the soil up against all the roots with no air pockets. Keep this up until you have level ground.

Our soil and our trees like each other a lot so I haven't bothered, but in some places or with some trees, a reason you will want that bigger hole is because you want to put some well-rotted compost in the bottom, beneath the first dirt upon which the deepest roots come to rest.

Now cover the dirt around the tree with a mulch of the sawdust or wood shavings that came with the tree. Flatten gently, pushing away any chickens that come around to scratch it all up. Push them away again. And again. Lose it, and chase the chickens around with the shovel, while the people waiting their turn at the stop sign across the intersection sit in their car open-mouthed at your abusive, unhinged behavior. You should have moved farther out into the country -- too late now, neh?

Catch your breath, get out your pruners and reduce your pile of twigs and such to a pile of shorter twigs and such, and place this ugly mess all around your lovely tree on top of your lovely sawdust or wood shavings, like a very dead wreath. The pretty mulch will hold moisture and feed your tree over time. The ugly stick mulch will help shade the pretty mulch and the base of the tree, holding the moisture even better and also feeding your tree over time.

Now take your side-cutting pliers and build your anti-chicken-scratching device, a wire cage for your tree. Since this is salvaged from fencing that a prior owner of your place pulled with a tractor and then ran over, you've had to work hard to get this six-foot length of it cut and straightened out, but now have sufficiently little regard for its appearance that you don't mind snipping a few lengths of wire from it, shaping "tent-pegs" from them, and pushing them into the ground around the corners of your tree cage so the chickens won't swarm under it to commit their *&%$%$ mayhem on your mulch.

The books go on and on about how to stake your tree so it won't whip itself around in its hole and make a cone-shaped tree-drying tunnel, but I've always found the wire cages seem to do the trick.

So why is your orchard in the chicken pasture?

Birds like shade. Grass likes a bit of shade through some part of the day, at least around here it does, because our summers are almost all droughty, and the shade retains ground moisture along its sweep across the grass throughout the day -- which is also good for the next tree over. And the poultry love dropped fruit. They will clean it all up and leave you the harder-to-reach ladder fruit, without having to have any of it brought to them. Win-win.

Now go take a long nap.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Baby, it's wet outside

We are having a slower weekend than usual. I have painted around past the printing press along the east wall of the garage, built a bed along the west wall of the house, made a little bit of firewood, planted a few hills of lettuce, chard, calabrese, beets, red cabbage, bok choi, potatoes and peas -- sounds like a lot, but this is only about twenty feet of bed -- an example of polyculture.

A project I have been putting off, because I knew I didn't have the strength, was to take down Tall Son's old basketball hoop. The backboard, I could see, was coming undone -- thirty-year-old particle board backed by three-quarter-inch plywood, mounted on two wings of heavy plywood bolted at regulation height to the power pole that feeds our house with four 9/16X6 inch lag screws. And soggy from the rains, which have come back. As in -- HEAVY.

But, as I looked it over, I realized the thing had been moved to the pole from the front of the garage by my dad, the kind of project in which he excelled back in the day (having been a railroad lineman most of his life), by installing an even bigger bolt four feet higher up, and hoisting the assembly into place with a pulley. All I'd have to do was reverse the operation.

Except the wings would swing past the pole and knock me from the ladder once the last bolt came out. How to get up the ladder and back down without being ... encouraged ... to come down, as in suddenly?

I went to the garage and enlisted the aid of a good long rope.

Mounting the ladder against the back of the pole, I climbed up (carefully, rain coming down in buckets now), threw the rope over the bolt, lipped it through the hoop, and climbed down and carried the rope end across the driveway and tied it off to the keypost of the woodshed. Then tied the other end to a tee post in the garden. What we had now was a rope slide -- the kind you might use to slide out over a swimming hole and drop in. Except the idea here was for the hoop to slide down to the driveway -- away from your truly.

This actually worked pretty well, although the backboard, old, wet, and disintegrative (is that a word?) pulled itself loose from the hoop and fell onto the driveway midway through the slide. The main goal, though -- not to get whacked -- was accomplished.

Every farm needs lots of rope.

I had asked Tall Son if he wanted the hoop, and he didn't (I hope he remembers that), so I pulled all the rotted netting off and carried it out to the right-of-way to see if anyone else might like to have it. Curbing your freebies is a strong tradition around here, and one should give as one gets.

I put my toys away, came in, hung up my coat by the woodstove to dry, and made myself a mug of coffee laced with Irish Cream. Not local, but some indulgences are worth it, till TEOTWAWKI comes anyway.


Beloved went Friday to get feed and asked about Rhode Island Reds.

"We had some, but they're all taken, you wanta get on the list for next Friday?"

"Yes, please. I'd like eight."

So, yesterday, Saturday, she's gone all day to the pruning workshop at Master Gardeners, gets in, and there's a message on the phone: "Your-Reds 're-in-come-and-get-'em-before-five-bye."

"Dang!" she said. (Our idea of strong language doesn't amount to much.) "They're closed. Somebody must have changed their mind and now I have chicks. But I can't get at them."

"How old are they?"

"They're in, like, a big brooder and old enough to eat and drink, so they're safe for a day or two, but the crowd in there tend to trample each other -- I have to get them Monday, but I work."

"Maybe call in late?"

"No, early is important for this shift. What I'm gonna do, I think, is bring the rooster cage Monday morning, with chick feed and a a chick waterer, and pick them up and bring them to work with me; they can stay by my desk ... what?"

"Are you kidding? With the racket they'd make?"

"Oh, my crowd are used to it. I bring ducklings to storytime whenever I have a batch. And -- " (mischievous twinkle in her eye) -- "all of my co-workers are egg customers!"

[note, added later. They are home now and so cute!!!!]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"All at the least possible expense"

[risa] Although I did plant another sixteen hills of peas and sixteen potatoes, and painted the foundation of the south side of the house, most of the "farm" weekend was devoted to the garage/shop project.

Most vertical surfaces are getting a single coat of cheap white latex, the kind that says "tint base" on the can. The results aren't pretty, but it's not why we're doing this. It's a generous two-car garage of the kind built sixty years ago, and is cavernous, with open rafters, and dark, with rough-cut barn boards nailed horizontally along full-size 2x6 studs, as in two by six inches, not 1.5 by 5.5 inches.

Hundreds of eighteen-penny and twenty-four penny nails protruded from these walls in all directions, and held old loops of baling wire, Romex, fan belts, and odd tools the day we moved in. It stormed all that week, and we just hung things right on top of what was already there, and over the next sixteen years, the area became something of a family midden. We're digging out this winter and sorting, putting away, and hauling away, and one of the first things we noticed during the recent pre-project tour of inspection was that it's too dark in there to really try to do any work. And the work benches aren't the worst in the world.

One way to throw more light on the work areas is increase bulb wattage, but we're reasoning we'd like to do projects in there, on rainy days, by natural light, and should there be a long interruption of power, by lamplight if necessary. Hence the paint. The one coat has enough albedo, even with old moisture stains and rough grain showing through, to brighten up the whole area -- and when a tiny screw falls to the bench, my fifty-nine year old nearsighted eyes can find it!

You may notice, in the photo, the bench vise and grinder are rather large. Ladies, if you're setting up shop in a space like this for your small farm, don't get a dinky little vise. Unless you have the same upper body strength as the guys (some do!) you will need bigger stuff because the equipment's strength or weight makes up for what you may lack in leverage yourself. You'll also want pipes of varying size and length to slip over handles like the one on our vise so as to give the handle that little bit of extra torque that the he-men provide with their shoulders.

There's a terrific discussion of the mechanics of women's bodies in a farm setting in an old book (1976) that's worth tracking down: Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer by Jeanne Tetrault and Sherry Thomas. I just peeked and Amazon has "14 Used & new from $9.89" and I think that's a steal even with the shipping charge. As it says on the front cover, "How to negotiate a land purchase, dig a well, grow vegetables organically, build a fence and shed, deliver a goat, skin a lamb, spin yarn and raise a flock of good egg-laying hens, all at the least possible expense and with minimum reliance on outside and professional help."

We're happy to have renewed access to this space, with countertops and tabletops, because we'll want to build several things in the near term that will need a lot of room while making: first, seven horizontal awnings for the windows that get the most sun, using burlap, lath and shelf brackets; second, a solar food dryer, third, a solar oven using a defunct microwave as the core unit, and fourth, a bicycle trailer capable of hauling either a kayak to the river (1 mile) or a bale of straw from the feed store (2 miles).

We'd also like to get back into wine making ...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Days to maturity

The potato-patch-to-be
[risa reposting]

j. s. bach

She turned up the weeds without pity, spreading
their roots before the sun. Most of them died,
though a few tenacious grasses rolled over

when she was not looking, and sucked earth
till she found them skulking about, and banished them
to the heap with the egg shells and old tea leaves.

Returning to the scene of the massacre, she placed
a five tined fork before her, pointed toward
the earth's core. On its step she placed her boot's

sole, and drove its teeth home, tearing living soil.
She did this many times, and in her hearing,
the dark loam whispered in protest. But what

was she to do? One must eat, and the white seeds
in their packet were waiting for the sun.
She carried a blue denim bag at her side,

zippered it open, feeling about in its depths
like the housewife at the station platform
seeking her ticket for the last train--

Seizing her prize, she held it in a soiled palm,
reading the runes of inscription:
"Date of last frost"; "zone three," "days

to maturity." How many days now to her own
maturity? Not to be thought of. Her hand
trembled. Tearing the thin paper rind,

she tipped out contents: a shirtfront
of buttons. Five seeds to a hill she counted,
pinching their graves over them: three hills.

And on to other tasks. The rainmaker
whispered over hilled earth all
the zone's days to maturity, and the date

of first frost held true. Almost forgotten in the rush
of gathering in others: beans and corn, tomatoes--
she sought them last in October, the golden

fruits of that planting. Her other crops
talk to her; the Hubbards never do. (What are they
dreaming at, over there? She brings out the knife.)

Now it is March, she remembers having gathered
the silent, sulking Hubbards. How are they faring?
A look into the pantry reveals them,

dour and uncommunicative, all
huddled like bollards on the high shelf.
She chooses one to halve on the kitchen block.

Scooping out seeds to dry and roast later,
she bakes the halves till soft, slipping off skins
per Rombauer and Becker. "Dice them,

and in a mixing bowl add butter, brown sugar,
salt, ginger, and move the lot to the mixer,
remembering to add milk." With a bowl

of silent Hubbard thus richly dressed,
she goes to the living room, asking blessing
of the gods of the steel fork and the weeds,

the rainmaker, the packet of white seeds,
booted foot and blue denim bag
and the longtime summer sun, eating,

listening to a fugue by J. S. Bach.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

And one Italian prune plum tree

Pear trees going into the pasture beyond the plums. Each tree
will get its own wire cage, from a recycled fence, and a mixed
mulch of hay, sawdust, and twigs.

[risa] Beloved, home more than usual for the weekend, tackled her monthly chore of mucking out the barn. Old poultry-enriched straw was forked out and barrowed down to places among the garden beds that won't be planted within ninety days (for health reasons). Then, with the pickup, she went up to the feed store (about two miles) and bought four 100-pound bales of straw. Each one was muscled up to the barn on a wheel barrow and stacked into the barn, and a bale that was already there was cut up and distributed liberally round both barn and chicken pen. This bale had had time to get ever so slightly buggy, so that it was a real treat for the hens, who went about underfoot scratching with hale and hearty abandon.

While all this was going on, I divided my time between planting and spring-cleaning the garage: plant one pear tree, clear a section of garage wall; plant another pear tree, paint the section of wall and then drop the paintbrush in a pail of water and move the ladder; plant peas and potatoes, put away things on a section of wall where the paint has dried ...

Wait a minute, you ask. Peas and potatoes in February? Granted the ground isn't frozen, as Risa lives in the Willamette Valley, but ... ?

Well, I tried the soil thermometer; it's 40 F in the garden soil. Which is okay; but I actually don't plant right into the ground at this time of year, even with peas -- mostly because the poor things may drown in a cold downpour.

Last summer we spread cardboard over fifty-by-three foot beds and covered it with leaves and hay. The cardboard hasn't faded into the soil yet, but it's wet and very fragile. The hay has made some compost, but as you might expect, not much. But there's a way to do early planting in such beds.

I carry a bucket with potting soil in it, a packet of seeds, a small bag of potato slips, a trowel stuck in the potting soil, and a square plastic half-pint freezer container for scooping.

Along one side of the bed (and later the other) I kneel on my little kneeling bench, put the point of the trowel into the hay, and kind of swirl the trowel around, creating a kind of a bird's nest cup in the hay, or shredded leaves, with the cardboard as its floor. When planting seeds, I want the seeds to have little trouble finding soil, so I rough up the cardboard a little bit with the trowel point, so that I do see dirt in the bottom of the hole. With the freezer container (sans lid, of course) I scoop about a cup-and-a-half of potting soil from the bucket, pour it into the hole, and tamp it down a bit (not too much) with the side of the container. This makes a seed bed about five to six inches across. Now I take three peas from the packet, arrange them in a triangular pattern on the potting soil, five inches apart, pressing them down a little, and then scoop another cup-and-a half of potting soil from the bucket over them, tamping down with the empty container again. And move on to the next spot.

Takes much less time to do than to describe.

In effect, this is "hill" planting. In season, you may do it with beets, radishes, beans of all kinds, squash, corn, brassicas, etc. We've done this for years, with our heavy clay soil so cold and wet there was no hope of ever getting it cultivated in time for a proper garden any other way we've heard of. And we're too poorly in the lower back to make real raised beds. We might even try this with tomatoes and peppers, under cloches, and skip the greenhouse step ( there have been problems with mice there). Haven't yet. Will experiment a little this year.

The peas are well above the clammy clay in a dark, friable medium that will hold them as seedlings, out of the wind but well watered, until they can put down roots.

Oh, potatoes! Well, we have been cutting sections (we call them "slips") with sprouts off home-grown (and thus easily sprouted) soup potatoes all winter, and saving them in the cold room for early planting. I had enough for about half a bed, alternating spots with the pea hills, or every 12 inches a hill, another twelve inches, a potato slip. Put it right on the damp cardboard, under six inches (for now) of hay and shredded leaves. So, while it might be too early for the spuds, if the gardening angel smiles, we're good, and she doesn't, we can easily enough replant, as this is only the beginning of our biggest effort toward succession planting to date.

Oh, and! How many pear trees? Two Anjou, two Bartlett, two Bosc. And one Italian prune plum tree, to go with the plums already on hand.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Self Supporting Home

[risa] Feeling a little timid about the next tree to take down, which is a hefty cottonwood, not that I mind the tree, but it's surrounded by quite a mature blackberry patch ... and timid, too, about getting back into the attic or under the house ... but a weekend is a terrible thing to waste, so I thought -- aha! Yes, organize the garage, inventory what's out there, and prepare to shop to fill in gaps in our "holdings."

Quite a few tools have flown the nest along with the kids, and we have been feeling the pinch, so it must be time to invest in some sockets, spanners, and the like.

Also, it's dark in there, and the CFL I put in place of the 300 watt incandescent casts a puny-ish light, so as I go, I'm also painting the walls and shelves white. This will absorb quite a lot of paint, as the whole garage was built of rough-sawn timbers and barn boards sixty years ago.

It's slow. There are so many haphazard nails protruding this way and that, from which old fan belts and rotting inner tubes hung for decades, in the way of painting, that I've resorted to pulling them all so that I can get at the wall with a brush in the first place!

After 2 days I'm about 1/3 done, but I'm pleased with how it's going and I'm not all scratched up from blackberries or worn out from the attic! Nice ...

Meanwhile, I've been reading a book, A Self Supporting Home, written by Kate V. St. Maur and published in 1905. In it she tells how she talked her husband into moving to a country place; he commutes to work on the train and she goes into poultry in a big way. Also, she gardens, runs an orchard, milks a cow, and keeps bees.

I wouldn't try everything she recommends -- can't see myself whitewashing a chicken shed with carbolic acid in the lime -- but 100 years ago, some things were done differently than we do them, I'm sure ... but it's quite a look into another world, as she describes assembling and using kerosene powered incubators and such.

"By the way," says she, "can you use a hammer and saw? If not, start in to learn from any handy boy you know; for a chicken woman must be able to mend and make things."

I can relate.