Posted on February 2, 2013
Whether it be groundhogs, prairie dogs, woodchucks, marmots, or maybe some other small furry mammal, we of the supposedly more intelligent species are looking to them on what for most is a cold day in early February for guidance. Silly humans. If you really want to know about the day, just look at the bees! If the bees are out, it is a good day for certain. Look around a little further, and it is easy to see more good signs of a good day and more good days to come!
Happy Day, Everyone!
Posted on January 10, 2013
Posted on May 4, 2012
Paul Gautschi is not a big man in stature, and one cannot help but notice that just walking is difficult for him, as his body is quite crippled from the ravages of Agent Orange. Spend just a few moments with him, however, and you do not see his physical challenges – you only see a strong human being with a profound relationship with the earth and its Creator, a man whose mind knows no limitations.
“I think about how hard I used to work to fail.” He chuckles at the thought and shakes his head at his own folly. Paul obviously takes no credit for what he has created, only giving credit to the true Creator.
He and his wife, Carol (who, as an aside note, is a well-known midwife and delivered my latest granddaughter), bought some land years ago on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, in an area that was probably quite remote at the time. The problem was, though, that they dug a well over 200 feet and it only produced ½ gallon per minute – and the “soil” was a rocky thin layer over hardpan.
These, he claims, were blessings in disguise. Keep in mind, they raised seven children on this land! I can imagine him in those early days, at his wits end, wondering how he was going to make it all work. So he did what many of us would do: he took a walk in the woods, and he called out (probably with a certain amount of despair), “Lord – help me out here!” And the answer was, “Look around.”
Hmmm. He realized the trees were huge – with no help whatsoever from mankind. No irrigation. No plowing or tilling. No weeding. No applied fertilizers.
“I can do this,” he said – and from then on, his approach to gardening changed from slave labor to letting Nature do the work for him.
The Solution in Wood Chip Mulch
Back to the present: we are visiting his homestead on a field trip as part of a Conservation District Native Landscaping class. The first step, he noted, talking about those early days, was to layer things on top – and more specifically, wood chip mulch – not just bark or just inner chips of wood, but the whole tree, including green leaves and branches, similar to how Nature drops a combination of needles, leaves, branches, and trees over time. He was just speeding up the process. This combination of green and brown, he says, is essential to keeping things in balance. It also provides a nice texture, unlike hay or grass clippings, which tend to get slimy and compacted and may contain seeds.
“I haven’t watered this orchard in 33 years,” he says. He rakes across the top of the mulch to reveal black, mineral-rich soil.
Paul is a Certified Master Arborist, but does not own a chipper. “Just another machine requiring fuel,” he says. It makes much more sense to utilize what would otherwise be a waste product from road crews and other sources.
“Look at nature,” he explains. “Nature doesn’t like bare ground. If there is bare ground, something will move in and cover it. Soil is a living organism,” he emphasizes. “It should never be exposed. Whether by scales, fur, or skin – every living thing is covered.” All materials are placed on top. In fact, in the fall, he just covers up his strawberries with more woodchip mulch. Healthy young plants come up every year.
One student makes the comment that she feels badly that we are all standing in his garden, a big no-no for most Pacific Northwest soils in wet, late April. “You can’t compact this stuff!” he exclaims. I look around and notice that most of us are lightly bouncing in place on what is like a giant cushion.
The soil becomes like a sponge, holding just the right amount of moisture. And every time it rains, it’s like giving the garden a dose of compost tea. It’s a constant mineral supplement – and those minerals are key to flavor, nutrition, and vitality. “What is snow?” he asks. “Snow is slow-release, drip irrigation, as well as insulation.”
He points to his orchard. The “dwarf” trees are really quite large (no one tells you how big they’ll get if grown in compost – they don’t know!). The roots spread out unencumbered. The branches, instead of growing upward, bend down toward the earth. The roots have an easier time reaching the water, which is then transported to the fruit. “The fruits are so full of juice and so heavy that they weigh the branches downward – where they are easier for me to pick,” he adds.
“Like nature intended,” we all say in our minds. We are catching on.
Mineral-Rich Soil Smells Rich!
The soil just beneath the top layer of chips is incredible – soft, moist, dark, and rich. He encourages us all to take a handful and smell it. “You can literally smell the minerals in this soil,” he exclaims. His enthusiasm and the wonder at the perfectness of nature are catching.
It is the end of April, and he guides us to a patch of Russian kale planted a year ago beneath a cherry tree. “The tree gives it protection over the winter,” he says. He clips us all a little sample. It is juicy and surprisingly sweet. “Come on over here to the asparagus…” We eagerly follow. This is the best tour ever. The asparagus is literally dripping juices. He comments about the wonders of nature and its perfect sense of timing: asparagus has roots that can mine minerals 15 feet down into the ground. It comes up in the spring when hardly anything else is growing, when we most need something fresh, green, and nourishing.
“When you cut the plant off from its life source, it immediately begins to die,” he explains. Within 10 minutes, it doesn’t have near the vitality it did before. By growing your own food, you can harvest and eat it right there for optimum nutrition. His explanation makes perfect sense to me.
We all can’t help but notice that he also has a lush patch of parsley and cilantro that have overwintered. I help myself to a nibble of the fragrant cilantro. I love this stuff – and when I plant it in spring, it usually bolts before I harvest much.
Building the Soil Without Tilling
But of course, a vegetable can only be as nutritious as the soil in which it is grown. Many agricultural practices only deplete the soil further and further, unlike the mulch applications that continue to build the soil, year after year. Done right, you can use less and less and get more in return (“at about the time we are getting older and can’t do as much,” he notes as another example of perfect timing).
“You don’t have to mix it all up,” he says. “All that needless work, and so destructive! Tilling is like sending a hurricane through the environment! God doesn’t till. He just lays everything on top. When you mix it up, that’s when it ties up the nitrogen. It brings too much oxygen into the soil and the microbes burn up the nutrients too quickly, leaving nothing for the next season.” He points to the lush grass on the edges of the mulch. “Does that grass look like it doesn’t get nitrogen?” he asks.
He recalls how much work he used to do tilling, trying to break up the layer of hardpan beneath. The process only brought more weed seeds to the surface, which then required more tilling – a never-ending process. He shakes his head again, thinking how hard he worked against nature’s way. It was like God was saying, “I sent all those worms to break up your hardpan, and you kept killing them with your tiller.” The evidence is clear: cultivation is destroying our topsoil, and despite the obvious, people are still doing it, and on a very large scale.
No Thinning, Weeding, Hilling, Rotating…. (like, what does this guy do all day?)
Paul doesn’t bother thinning his vegetables – too much work! And what a waste! The soil is so loose, they naturally just move each other out of the way. He doesn’t need to hill potatoes; they, too, just move to where they need to grow. He doesn’t rotate his garlic. “God doesn’t rotate crops,” he explains. “Why should I?” I notice no quackgrass, no bindweed, no real insect issues. I like this guy. And I love his methods. I am tempted to spend the afternoon in his parsley patch, but right now, we are headed to see the chickens, who are busy with their waste management duties.
“Everything in nature is in total harmony,” he explains as we walk. “We (meaning mankind) take out the best. Nature, though, takes out the weak.” So when he harvests potatoes, he puts the best ones back. His crop improves every year.
Throughout our tour, I am marveling at how this man with so many physical challenges, manages to achieve so much. “I let nature do the work for me,” he repeats. But even more extraordinary than what he has accomplished is his deep connection to the land, his reverence to God, and the continual sense of awe in His creation. His source of inspiration truly emanates from his being.
The lessons seem so obvious to those of us who slave to force our gardens into submission, rapid growth, and our contrived sense of pedigreed perfection.
There is an easier way.
Yes, it IS that simple. Just layer it on top. It builds the soil; it conserves water; it releases nutrients gradually. Plants grow together in harmony. And as Paul Gautschi illustrates, we can reap from this bounty, with enough left over to feed our neighbors and give back to the earth.
Permaculture is hardly an original idea. Nature has been doing it on her own since time began.
Paul quotes Einstein, “When the solution is simple, God is answering.”
Maybe it is time to take a walk in the woods. Take a little closer look around us. Witness. Communicate with the Powers that Be. Listen. Learn. Share. Stand back in wonder. Be humbled.
~ * ~
Watch the Film:
Paul Gautschi’s approach and methods have recently been featured in a film, “Back to Eden,” which is currently being translated into several different languages – including Swahili!
Happy International Permaculture Day everyone!
Posted on April 22, 2012
The Warre Hives are finished and out in the field, awaiting the bees!
Here is a video to show you how it’s all put together (plus a little introductory harp music by yours truly – just can’t resist!)
Want a closer look?
Advantages of the Warre Hive:
- Simple system
- Allows bees to do what they do naturally
- Bees build from the top down
- Bees adjust the size of the comb according to their own requirements
- Easier for bees to keep warm during winter
- Fewer problems with disease, mites, and varmints
- Good ventilation
- Is much like a tree
- Bees like trees
- Low cost
- Low maintenance, “hands-off” philosophy
- Lets the bees be bees and follow their natural instincts.
Here is a great link if you’d like to build one yourself or learn more about Abbe Emile Warre and the Warre beekeeping system.
Want us to build one for you? Questions? Contact us!
Posted on April 1, 2012
I love foraging. I love the idea that there is all that food out there just free for the gathering. This is a perfect time of year for foraging, because a little bit later, many plants turn tough and bitter. Nettles and dandelions, for example.
So – for today’s wild feature: Nettle soup.
Those who read my blog know that I’m a freestyle cook who throws things together never the same way twice, depending on what is at hand. So here, more or less, is what I did:
Basically – take your favorite potato-leek soup idea and add nettles. How hard is that?
Ingredients: nettles, potatoes, a leek, a couple stalks of celery, soup stock (chicken would have been good, but I had some beef bone broth available), a handful of French sorrel, a little lemon juice, bacon (optional), garlic, salt & pepper, and kefir, yogurt, or sour cream to decorate the top. Don’t worry – you don’t have to have all of these – except the nettles, of course.
Here’s what to do:
- Collect the nettles. Yes, first you have to pick the nettles and be reminded why their full name is “Stinging nettles.” Emphasis on sting. Wear gloves. I used to know someone who could take a handful of them and rub them on her face with no ill effects, but I have no desire to do something crazy like that to impress my friends with my daring stupidity. I have found, though, that if you pinch them directly on the leaf, no problem. It’s when you brush lightly past them that you break out in a rash, which is something I will remember the next time I decide to go running naked through the edge of a field. Just kidding, of course. Sort of. However you do it, get a bagful, because they cook down like spinach. Personally, I collected 2 bags, cutting them off at mid-stem so they would grow back – one for the soup and one for drying to make tea at a later time.
- Cook potatoes: boil up 5 or 6, depending on how big a batch you’re making. Make this pan the one you want your final soup in.
- Cook bacon: optional item – but we get this really good chemical-free bacon and if you’re a bacon fan, nothing more need be said. Drain it after cooking on a paper towel. Meatless friends, yes, the soup is good without it.
- Sautee the leek & celery in a little fat of your choice: oil, butter, bacon fat. Slice them up first; make sure you get the dirt out of the leek. I use almost the entire leek up to near the end where it gets a little too tough.
- Wash & cook the nettles. Mine were recently rain-washed, but I gave them another quick rinse just to make sure there were no bird droppings or bugs. Throw the nettles in a kettle with a little water & lightly simmer until limp – just a few minutes. Don’t bother cutting them up – just get them in there without hurting yourself. Boiling them takes away the sting. Ok – it’s starting to look like you’re dirtying too many pans at this point. I admit, I really am a messy cook.
- Blend up the vegetables: Put the celery & leek combo in a blender. Add a little of the nettle liquid to the pan they were cooked in so you get those flavors off the pan. Throw that in the blender too, along with the nettles, stems and all. Also throw in a handful of fresh French sorrel if you have it and blend some more. Sorrels are high in oxalic acid, but it is neutralized by heat. They add a little tang and a lot of Vitamin C.
- Mash the potatoes. I used a separate immersion blender to buzz up the potatoes in their liquid, mainly because I didn’t have room in the blender – but it doesn’t really matter where you do it. The potatoes act as a thickener for the soup. Keep in mind you might want to add some soup stock later, so it doesn’t have to be super thin at this point.
- Combine all the veggies: potatoes, nettles, celery, leek, sorrel – it should look very green.
- Add some soup stock to thin it a bit: I am into making bone broths, so I added a cup of beef bone broth that was gelled solid with its natural gelatin. It’s extremely flavorful, full of minerals and vitamins, and melts in the heat. I often have a crockpot of bones simmering on the counter, so I usually have this handy. Chicken or vegetable would also be good.
- Crumble in the bacon (if you’re using it): Everything else is pureed, so this adds a little chew-factor. Give everything a stir.
- Add a little lemon juice and salt & pepper: A tablespoon or so will brighten the flavors – and salt and pepper to taste, less if you added bacon. Mmmm, still needs a little something….
- Garlic! Chop up about 3 or 4 cloves: (hope you still have some!) Chop finely and let it sit for a half minute or so to develop flavors; then toss it into the soup. Give it all a stir. The heat from the soup will cook it just enough and not too much.
- Ladle into bowls and top with kefir, plain yogurt, or sour cream: I’ve been into making homemade kefir with the raw dairy milk from the Dungeness Valley Creamery down the road, so that’s what we used. We’re really fortunate to have a source of grass-fed cows and certified raw milk so close by! VERY much worth the extra price – this milk is a REAL food, and the nutrients are easily absorbed.
- Serve. Amidst “oohs” and “ahhs”. Very fun. Cost was hardly anything. Nutrient ratio out the roof.
We had a lot of family over that night and some went back for seconds.
Caveat: Since making this, I have read that potato water shouldn’t be used because potatoes contain hemagglutinins that disrupt red blood cell function, and those go into the cooking water. What can I say – we all survived.
Nettles as a Superfood
Nettles are seriously good for you. They provide protein, vitamins C and A, carotenoids, potassium, iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. They’ve been used as a tonic and a diuretic, applied to stop bleeding in open wounds, and slapped on bald heads to stimulate hair follicles and new hair growth. They’re a good source of quercitin, a flavonoid that inhibits the release of histamine; hence, they’re effective in treating hay fever and other allergies. They’ve also been used to treat arthritis, gout, urinary tract infections (the diuretic flush effect), and prostate issues; they’ve also been used to purify the blood and to cleanse the liver and kidneys.
Wow. I really do think I should be eating nettles more often.
Plus, they are a whole lot like pot, only they won’t get you high and they are legal. Ok, so maybe they’re not like pot. But – like hemp – they can grow 7 feet tall and be used as a fiber. They are extremely strong. This is good news. I used to do a lot of spinning (mostly dog and llama hair) – and I am definitely going to give nettles a try. They grow so fast and are so prolific, they even show promise to be used in biofuels.
You learn a lot of things on the Internet. I used to really like nettles, but I love them now. So much, in fact, I’m thinking of turning them into pesto.
One site I read said how the authors love to wrap stinging nettles around them because it makes them feel so alive and tingly.
Thanks, but no thanks. I might have to draw the line with that one. I think sex sounds like a better option if you’re looking for those sensations, and a heck of a lot more fun. Just my opinion.
Anyway – before we get sidetracked – bring on the Spring! Take a walk on the wild side. Collect things along the way. Throw them in a soup. Don’t forget some of the domesticated garden plants that are also at their best at this time of year. Cardoon, French sorrel, and lovage all come to mind. Each are rather strong-flavored in their own way, but are so good added in small quantities to just about everything.
And DO give nettles a try!
Won’t be long and the morels will be ready. Oh yes! Can’t wait!
Here are a couple of good sources for identifying your weeds and wild edibles:
Posted on January 13, 2012
AKA: Rescuing the Old, the Warped, and the Neglected in Your Orchard (we’re talking about fruit trees here)
Ok. I admit to having a certain level of pruning phobia. Cutting is just so drastic. So life-changing. So controlling. There is so much potential to do wrong.
But I have come to realize that pruning is one of the most gratifying parts of gardening. It is something you do for the love of your tree, encouraging it to be all that it can be — a simple thing to give it strength and vitality — an opportunity to shape it into a living, breathing thing of beauty. Ah yes.
It’s simple, really. Trees are generally grown by 4 philosophical mindsets, in order of our desire to control:
- espalier or cordon (meaning, rope) and other means of creating walls of picturesque shapes
- open center (vase-shaped), where the tree is topped and scaffolding branches are trained to reach out from the center
- central leader (pyramid shape), where the tree is allowed to keep it’s natural shape and branches are selectively thinned, and
- do-nothing, let it grow as Nature intended.
I like the latter (#4) idea. It sounds like a lot less work. Maybe you don’t get the biggest fruit in the world and maybe you can’t reach all of it. And hey, maybe those aren’t the objectives.
But here’s our situation: we have 5 very old apple trees – 4 of which are a wonderful tart-sweet heirloom Gravenstein. I think the original intention was the “open center” method, but they have at times been sorely neglected and at other times just pruned willy-nilly by people who didn’t know what they were doing. (Ahm.) They keep producing, despite their twisted deformed shapes. There is no amount of pruning that will totally correct the past at this point, but I cannot in good conscience abandon them.
We have two philosophies of pruning in our family:
- cut off everything below 4 ½ feet from the ground so it doesn’t whack the person in the head who is doing the lawn mowing, and
- prune so future sprouts grow downward so the short person picking the apples can reach the low-hanging fruit.
Obviously, these two mindsets are in direct conflict with one another, resulting in a tree that is even more contorted and confused and probably in need of psychological counseling.
Ah, but enough about me…. And Yes, we have contributed to the problem. So now what?
Time to Take Action! (But what action to take is the question!)
Obviously, suckers will take energy from the tree, so it is good to remove them when you see them – and you can do this at any time of year with great benefit to the tree. I actually did this to one of our trees. The early pruning opened it up to more sunshine and let the air flow through. The tree loved it. It gave me much joy. And my workload now is less. It always feels good when you do something right for a change.
However, for the great majority of pruning, the proper time is right about now, while the tree sleeps. You just sneak up on it in broad daylight when it’s still cold and before the tree starts budding out.
Tools. There is a product out there called “Sucker Stopper,” and I’m not saying I advocate it, because I can’t pronounce napthaleneacetate, and anything that claims to be a plant-growth regulator is highly suspicious in my book, as is anything that requires its own Material Safety Data Sheet. However, a “Sucker Stopper” is kind of an interesting concept on a lot of different levels, and might have been quite useful in my previous life. In my opinion, though, spend your money instead on a good pair of pruning shears and maybe a small saw (I love my Felco F-6 Classic Pruner For Smaller Hands and my Felco F-600 Classic Folding Saw with Pull-Stroke Action, which, in my opinion are the best and have really saved some wear and tear on my hands!).
Philosophically speaking, the whole pruning concept is not difficult to understand: help the tree to more easily bear fruit, which is what it is designed to do anyway by forces far greater than we. All you have to do is take out diseased and broken limbs, let in the light, and allow the tree to breathe.
Humans, however, have an uncanny ability to make things overly complicated and otherwise screw things up. And, Um…that would be me. So to further explain…
There are only 2 basic kinds of cuts. (How hard can it be?)
A “thinning cut” takes out an entire branch. They are good for opening things up, i.e., letting in air and light and encouraging outward growth. Make these flat across the main limb, or if it’s a large branch, just outside the collar.
A “head cut” cuts off the end of the branch, which stimulates branching of the buds behind the cut (so pay attention to the direction of the bud left at the tip after you cut! You want it to point outward). If a head cut is made back to a branch, it will stimulate growth in that branch’s direction. A head cut will also help stiffen the limb. Make these cuts at an angle to shed water.
Where does the fruit grow? Keep in mind that fruit will form for many years on the spurs on older wood – so don’t break off all those little nubbins. By making head cuts, the energy is directed more towards that older growth. That said, also keep in mind that after awhile, those old spurs tend to get old and wear out – as do we all – and so you need to encourage the tree to produce new spurs as well. New growth will carry future year’s apples (apples, cherries, pears, and plums fruit on 2- to 3-year old wood; peaches, nectarines, and figs, though, fruit on 1-year old wood) – so even though it’s tempting to whack everything back to a manageable size and width, don’t cut off all the new growth.
Also think horizontal. Horizontal branches produce more fruit than vertical ones.
So – without further ado – the 5-stroke approach to tree pruning:
- Take out diseased and broken branches
- Cut out suckers (growing up from the trunk of the tree) and water sprouts (growing in clusters from last year’s cuts). I have a theory that if you cut out all the suckers & water sprouts, twice as many grow back – but do it anyway. They suck the life out of the tree, cause excessive shading, and take your tree in wrong directions.
- Cut out “problem” branches. These are ones that grow
- straight up (if they aren’t a major trunk)
- straight down
- at narrow angles
- straight out at 90-degree angles
- toward the center of the tree
- across one another.
- KEEP branches that reach out and gently upward.
- Shorten up leggy branches.
Perspective: When in doubt, step back and look. Problem branches don’t support your vision of the shape of the tree. They don’t do anything besides hog light and nutrients. Take out anything that crowds, overly competes, or limits air flow. Open up the center to let the sunshine in – thin to let the tree breathe – take more out of the top to let light in to the bottom (and control height).
Look at it this way. Vertical branches are often suckers that were allowed to get oversized. They don’t produce fruit. They tend to be excessively vigorous, meaning they have the longest shoots out where you will never reach. Branches that come out at narrow angles develop weak crotches. We don’t like weak crotches. By the same token, when it comes to fruit trees, branches rubbing against each other will not create more fruit. Take out the cross-overs. “Problem” branches are more susceptible to wind damage and can splinter, break, and bleed under the weight of the fruit, and then the insects and borers move in, and then you have real problems. Don’t put your tree (and yourself) through that agony. Remember, too, your human friends. Long thin branches can break from heavy fruit, true, but they also tend to whack people in the head who forget to duck (dang those young whipper snappers!). General rule of thumb is to cut back no more than one third of the overall tree and no more than 20% of the new growth, a rule that is, I am sure, frequently broken.
Is there anything left? If, like me, you pruned the living dweedle out of your tree last year in an attempt to impose some form of structure and reform, you were rewarded with an over-stimulated response which in other life forms might be considered exciting, but in the case of a tree meant a superfluity of water sprouts, jumping out of last year’s cuts like a fountain of willow whips.
“Gramma! Get down from there before you fall!” This role reversal would have been more amusing had I not realized I had climbed our old tree only to find myself in a rat’s nest of overgrowth and that it was not only the tree that was a bit out of balance. But I also realized up there that if you think like a powerful old godfather of a tree with an extensive root system, and someone comes along and takes away your food-making supply (i.e., the leaves), that your underground support is going to send a lot of energy up above to fight back. Yo. It’s survival mode.
I sat back for a moment and looked around me. I could almost feel the trees tremble and hear them whisper to each other, “Here she comes with the saw.” The setting sun was turning the sky into pastels. Maybe it was time to call it a day. There is always next year, and if we’re lucky, a year after that.
Trees – ya gotta love em. They teach us so much. They quietly put up with our abuse and, regardless of whatever hardships come their way, keep on reaching for the sun.
~ * ~
Some Extra Help:
Posted on May 28, 2011
We planted my mother with the dogs in the pet cemetery. It’s true. She would have wanted it that way, right next to her best friend, little Lambchop.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. The cemetery, which we affectionately call “Boot Hill,” sits on a little knoll with a view of the Olympic Mountains, overlooking a small creek and the neighbor’s barn and farmland. The sunsets there can be quite spectacular.
My mother was a retired nurse. Intelligent. Caring. Even in the midst of a disease that steals your memories and leaves you without a sense of who you are, she never stopped giving and reaching out to others. Our family pets had a special place in her heart, as did the wild birds, which she helped through many cold winters. She loved the outdoors, the ocean, going fishing, and gardening – things she taught me to appreciate at a very young age.
And so, when she passed from this earthly existence, rather than toss her ashes to the wind, to an outgoing tide, or down a river in time, we thought she might like best to be in our backyard, close to family and pets. It was a stormy day in early December when my brother and I and other family members returned her ashes to the good earth and planted a rosemary shrub on top. At that precise moment, the clouds parted and beams of sunlight streamed through to that little spot below where we all huddled together in a circle, marveling at how such a strong personality could be physically reduced to such a small quantity of dust. We shared a few loving thoughts and memories and were thankful that she was finally freed. I played “Amazing Grace” and “Over the Rainbow” on my harmonicas, the clouds moved back in, and we left.
I often return. Sometimes I talk to our mother, ask her advice, talk about the goings on of this world; plus, it’s a nice place to play my harmonicas. Other times I just sit quietly and look out at the fields and mountains. Our dog, Barkley, frequently joins me. He is a rather tormented, somewhat neurotic soul, who has come a long way since his troubled days in the dog pound – hence the name Barkley, which is the kind of name you get when you spend time in the joint making a racket. I like to think that he sits there in a ray of sunshine in peaceful meditation, getting in touch with his inner dog, thinking about how he can be the best that he can be. He is a very intelligent, thoughtful creature.
The rosemary shrub did not make it through the heavy rains and snow of this last winter, so early this spring, in memory of our mother, I decided to transform the area into a kind of mini-wildlife reserve – and also a kind of secret garden – a place to escape the craziness of this world. I started thinking of my garden in an entirely different light – not only a place to grow food to nourish our bodies, but also a place to nourish our souls.
Plus, we needed a good windbreak to absorb the frequent storms we get off the coast, also something to help stabilize a steep slope, the aforementioned wildlife food and habitat, and last but not least, we needed to ensure that whatever we planted wouldn’t eventually block our mountain view. It was a bit of a challenge.
First, we took advantage of a Conservation District native plant sale and planted about 20 firs and cedars and a dozen or so huckleberry plants. Not all of them made it, but enough will eventually grow to make a forest grove on the northern edge of the property. We will fill in the spaces with rhododendrons and native plants as time allows.
To the west, we planted a new vine maple (Acer circinatum), a familiar Northwest wind-tolerant species that can grow tall in the sun or almost vine-like in the shade. It grows well with conifers, Doug Fir, hemlock, and dogwood. We planted it near the base of a gigantic maple whose limbs are starting to dry and break during winter storms. I love this old tree, and I am not sure why it is dying. Our house is over 100 years old, so the tree could very well be much beyond that. When my son was young, we built a tree fort in it and used to have picnics up there and read the original version of “Treasure Island.” You could hear us calling loudly from the branches, “Shiver me timbers!” The birds also love this tree, and we have often found cherry pits in our hideaway left by marauding raccoons.
Between the vine maple and the cemetery, we planted a Black Hawthorn tree (Crataegus douglasii - Lindl.), which will branch out and provide food and cover for birds and small mammals of all kinds. The hawthorn is a good fit for this spot because it will have room to grow; can be pruned to a hedge or thicket and makes a good windbreak; will stabilize slopes; can be coppiced; its branches can be made into tool handles; and all in all, it makes a good understory plant. Plus, they attract hummingbirds, which were my mother’s favorites.
Around the gravesite, I planted Sunchokes – sometimes called Jerusalem Artichokes – a perennial sunflower that will multiply year after year, creating yet another windbreak. The starchy tubers are low on the glycemic index and provide a good substitute for potatoes, or so they say. Planting a variety of sunflowers here is kind of an inside joke between my mother and me because they unexpectedly showed up in her garden one year, and she was certain that I planted them there, which I swear to God, I did not. I explained a little bird must have put them there, but she gave me the stare that only mothers can give and said she could read “L-I-E” across my eyes, which in earlier years would have made me tremble with guilt. I have planted sunflowers in my garden every year since, and yes, Mom, I planted these out there for you and your little bird friends.
The crowning achievement in this little retreat, however, is the living chair. Barkley helped me pick the spot for this chair on one of his meditative days when I saw him out on the edge of the bank, his nose turned to the wind, his eyes closed with his face toward the sun, savoring the warmth of an early spring day. I had earlier saved the largest prunings from our old gnarly apple trees. I sawed them into pieces that would make two short legs in front, two tall ones in the back, braces to connect them together, and the straightest pieces for the seat. It is rather rustic looking, to say the least, but in it’s own way, perfect. I set it out in Barkley’s spot, on the south side of the little cemetery, beneath what I think is some kind of delicate birch, planted long ago (possibly by a bird). At the foot of each leg, I planted a willow cutting, a combination of Harrisons, Golden, and Noire de Villaine. They will one day grow tall and willowy (of course), and I will bend them into shapes, fitting for a throne.
I shared a picture of the chair with a friend, who commented that he envisioned a woman sitting on it with a figure behind, arm extended, one hand on the shoulder of the seated figure. It seemed to represent departure, “but certainly not a sad one,” he noted.
This vision is exactly what I feel there. The figure is my mother with her hand on my shoulder. No departure. She is always with me out there. I confessed to my friend that I have been going through some troubling times, which my mother understands – and in that is where the sorrow lies – but, like most earthly things, is transitory. We watch the sun go down together, along with our cadre of wild birds and pets.
What I did not tell him, though, was that I was expecting a visit soon from my brother, who would be flying an airplane from New York, across the U.S., and eventually to Alaska, where his home is. My mother and I have always worried about him; he had had a difficult life in general, but had been going through some particularly hard times of late.
Then one sunny afternoon, in what now seems an eternity ago, my brother buzzed our back acre with his plane. It was a vintage Cessna 195 aircraft, and he was like an ecstatic kid with the ultimate new toy. We later walked out to Boot Hill and I showed him how I was transforming our mother’s gravesite into a sanctuary of sorts for people, dogs, and birds. He liked it. We took turns trying out the chair. We talked about replacing the rusty looking dried rosemary.
A few days later, he left on the final leg back to Anchorage. His last words as he hugged us goodbye, “Take care of each other.”
I was out weeding my garlic that afternoon when a weather system blew in, as they often do, quickly drenching me in rain. I kept thinking of my brother, but was determined to finish this “one last row” before giving him a call on the cell. “Hey – it’s pouring down rain here. Hope you’re doing alright! Love you!”
What I didn’t know at the time was that his plane had fallen off the radar. Before long, a search and rescue effort was launched, but the information had to travel to Anchorage and back before I heard the news.
The rain ceased, nearly as quickly as it had begun, and the sun broke through the clouds. It was a surreal light – a kind of glow-in-the-semi-dark kind of light when you most expect to find a rainbow. An odd feeling overcame me. I could hear him saying to me, “I am worried about the kids. Please help them.” And I replied, “I am always here for you. Always have been. You know that.”
It was then I got the phone call no one wants to receive. I walked out to our little makeshift chair, looked out over the fields, and called him again on the cell. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We have people trying to find you. Try to stay warm. Hang in there. Help is on the way. We love you. We WILL find you!”
But in my heart, I already knew.
Later that afternoon, I walked out to the chair again and sat down. The sky was such a mixture of dark and luminous clouds. I called him again on the phone, knowing he wouldn’t answer. “Do you hear me?” I almost yelled into the phone. “Because I think you do. And I just want you to know I love you. Don’t you worry. We will be ok.”
I have just returned from Anchorage to bury my brother. Odd how you find things out about those you love after they die that you really always knew. He was more like our mother than I ever gave him credit for. His wife and young children have a long, difficult road ahead. I am sorry to report, there is no happy ending to this at this time.
The garden has exploded in my absence. I walked out to our chair yesterday and cut away the wild parsley and other weeds. It felt good to chop and drop, slash, clean, mulch – do something strenuous. The sun came out in the afternoon, and I sat down to rest, feeling the warmth on my face. It occurs to me that in the blink of an eye, our lives are changed, yet all around me, life keeps on growing as if nothing happened. The days are long; spring rains are plentiful; the weeds compete for their share of the sun, just as they always have. I selectively choose those I allow to grow and bloom – such as the sunflowers – and cut back those that will turn back into soil and nourish their roots. It is something I can do in the midst of things I can do nothing about.
I look down to see the willows sprouting at the legs of my chair. They will grow tall and bend, yet remain strong. With care, the chair will live on, long after I do not.
“Do you hear me little brother?” I call out, “Because I think you do.”
I like this spot – this place where I can escape all the world’s craziness. Our most devoted of friends sit at my feet, and standing beside and slightly behind me, I can feel my brother, reunited with our mother. Their hands rest gently on my shoulders.
Posted on March 15, 2011
Like “Lasagna Gardening,” this is another book that I never got around to reading, because again, I thought I pretty much had the fundamentals down. Well, now we have the “All NEW” version, full of good advice and ideas – and I’m here to tell you it’s worth a look.
The basic idea is to build beds, mark out your space in square feet (or it’s not “square foot” gardening), and thickly fill in the space with plants.
The idea is not new, and over the years, it has taken on different forms – biodynamic, biointensive, calorie farming, French Intensive, etc.
As an aside, back in the 70s, “French Intensive” gardening was my mantra. As you might guess, this method is very intense, just like the French, just like their coffee. Intense planting, intense building of the soil, intense results – and a very intense workout getting there. Just drink a quadruple shot of ultra-dark-roasted mud and you are good to go. I was much younger then and in great shape – so the double-digging required to loosen the soil down 2 feet was “pas de probleme.” I dug little pathways between the beds and tossed the dirt into the growing area with great flair. I made neat rectangular mounds that would make any French person sincerely exclaim “Oooh la la!.” Plus, I had recently returned from a year in France on a student exchange program, so I thought I knew what I was doing.
My neighbor, an elderly farmer who had always grown things in long, single rows but mostly herded cattle, had never seen garden “beds,” much less heard of “companion planting.” When he came across my series of mounds, crowded with vegetation, he scratched his chin and tactfully expressed sympathy in that he thought maybe I had buried my dogs out back. Although now I better appreciate his country sense of humor, I also admit there is always something new you can learn – and that something over the years is that there’s gotta be an easier way.
Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” is that way.
For one, he doesn’t mess with digging up sod, double digging, moving soil from one end of the bed to the other to make room for tossing over the new stuff – none of that. He just lays down a ground barrier, builds a frame for the bed, mixes up a growing medium, and piles it inside. Map out your grid, plant as thickly as the plants will allow, watch them grow like crazy.
It doesn’t get much easier, and throughout the book, you gotta appreciate Mr. Bartholomew’s never-ending cheerfulness and enthusiasm that exudes in every chapter – along with his sense of irony, which makes the book very fun reading.
There are several other things in the Square Foot Gardening book I can appreciate: for one, Mr. Bartholomew is both a civil engineer and an efficiency expert. This explains so much. You have to admit that it doesn’t make sense to scatter a bunch of seed only to thin it out later – and who doesn’t waste lettuce and carrot seeds? Or how about the space you waste if you follow the directions on spacing between rows? In Bartholomew’s beds, there are no rows. You build a bed frame and you tend the garden from the sidelines. And you have to appreciate how he advocates growing enough for your own needs (and perhaps a little to share), but does not advocate methods created for the convenience of commercial farming, which could possibly feed all of humanity if large businesses felt so inclined, which, of course, they are not, and we won’t go there because that’s for a different rant.
But think about it. Our whole mentality of planting in long rows caters to the convenience of large farming practices, an industry that has literally grown up on large tracts of land, abundantly available in the U.S., and also on the abundant availability of cheap oil, which is already history. Gas at $4.00/gallon is making us all reconsider the wisdom of those practices that are just another example of America’s culture of waste.
In the words of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese scientist and author of The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, who demonstrated on his own family farm that he could get comparable results as commercial enterprises simply by working “with” nature rather than against it:
“The food-growing situation may seem to be in good shape today, but that’s just an illusion based on the current availability of petroleum fuels. All the wheat, corn, and other crops that are produced on big American farms may be alive and growing, but they’re not products of real nature or real agriculture.
They’re manufactured rather than grown. The earth isn’t producing those things… petroleum is!”
Time to downsize, folks. Time to take lessons from around the world and efficiency experts such as Mel Bartholomew on how to make the most of our space, water, and other resources, and how to maximize our yields in the process.
So – it begs the question: If you aren’t rolling a combine across the back 40 or even a small tiller in your own little postage stamp on the planet, then how much space do you really need? How do you come to terms with that?
I confess, this is a real problem for me. I have my garden scattered across 15 different growing areas, depending on how you count them, and that doesn’t even include the orchard. Even though I am selling some of my crops, I definitely have room for efficiency. I am caught between being too small to be a big farmer; too large to be a small gardener.
Part of the answer, according to Mel, might be in looking at your garden in terms of individual square feet. How much, exactly, can you fit in a square foot? Turns out, a lot. And just how much space is required to grow all the veggies for a family of four if you stagger your plantings and grow things in 3-dimensional space where you can and throughout all the seasons…well, that depends, of course, but the final answer – not much!
The other big advantage to the Square Foot method is the reduction in labor. If all the space is filled up with plants you actually want, then there is no room for weeds, right? And if you start with a weed-free soil mix, you are 99% ahead of their game. I am currently on a warpath against weed domination and it is very apparent that to win, or at least to hold your ground, you just have to never give them a chance. Easier said than done.
I admit, when I first read this book, I thought, “That’s cool for someone with a small backyard or someone who just wants a little garden, but not very practical for me.” I am, after all, borderline-tenacious about my garden plots in which I have labored intensively (there’s that intense word again), and I’m not ready to give them up. My kids have often suggested that I should reduce my garden to a few raised beds, which they would happily build for me (trying to tactfully say that I have more than I can handle) – as if I’m some little old lady who just wants to putter in her petunias. (It’s just so interesting when your own kids start treating you like one of the elderly. Good grief.)
I mean, I’ve got over an acre of garden and I’m not about to go build a bunch of boxes and line them out in square-foot measurements (I mean, I understand the mentality, but is this not a bit anal?) and fill them with 1/3 peat (agh! there’s that recommendation for a nonrenewable resource again – and I don’t care how much you try to rationalize or justify it!), 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 purchased compost, (because c’mon, we all know the compost stuff I make is full of seeds and weeds because it just never gets quite hot enough to destroy them) – not to mention all the 2 x 6” boards & extra riff-raff required to tend to the plants’ individual needs, protect them against the elements, and provide whatever else they demand (now that they’ve become next of kin) – and even though some folks might be able to scrounge up this stuff for free, wishful thinking – reality is, many of us can’t.
Ok – so now we’re into some bucks for something clean and neat and orderly, which SO appeals to my husband, also of an engineering mindset. Me, of course, I’m more of a freestyle gardener.
Did you follow all that?
The question, again, is: does this make sense to me?
Um, well, as it turns out – yes.
Well, maybe not for my entire garden. But I have a little strawberry patch out back – it’s maybe 12’ x 24’ – and it’s always a pain in the you-know-what to weed, because it is full of quack grass and the god-forsaken-should-be-condemned-from-the-universe morning glory and wild blackberries. I am at the point where, you know, I hate to say this, but strawberry plants are relatively cheap. Maybe I should start over. Maybe I should just smother everything – it’s rather cruel, yes – but in looking at the bigger picture – just cover the entire area with several layers of cardboard, maybe some bark, and then maybe top it off with some fancy beds laid out in measured squares – orderly – in control – plant some new & improved strawberries and maybe a few salad greens and maybe some flowers to attract some bees – and, yes, maybe a few kitchen herbs – the kinds of things you want by your front door – perfect.
It’s a start.
100% of the harvest at 50% of the costs, 20% of the space, 10% of the water, 5% of the seeds, 2% of the work. Hard to argue with that. Mel is taking it on a mission to combat hunger all over the world.
Good idea, Mel. Thank you.
Posted on February 25, 2011
HA HA HA! Says Mother Nature!
(Just proving that the moment we anticipate spring, we are bluntly told it is still winter!)
Mother knows best, I say.
The temperatures are predicted to drop into the teens tomorrow and Saturday. If so, this blanket of snow will be just the thing the garlic and other plants need for survival.
The little backyard birds have flocked in great numbers to the bird feeder. We created little makeshift shelters to keep the ground seed from getting completely buried and, based on a simple recipe suggested by a birdwatching friend, filled up the log feeders with a lard-oatmeal mix (recipe below). Much easier than the ideas I posted in my previous post, New Year’s for the Birds – and easier to smear into the feeder. Definitely a big hit with the feathered friends.
Also – don’t forget to fill up a water bowl – they SO appreciate a little thawed-out water!
High-Energy Mix for Birds:
1/2 part lard (not suet), melted
1/2 part quick oats
How simple does it get? I added a little peanut butter for good measure.
And the good thing is, I can take a break from pruning the apple trees!
Posted on January 31, 2011
Questions for you: Do you have a strategy for keeping up with your garden tasks? Do you make resolutions for your garden? And if so, it’s already the end of January – how are those resolutions working for you?
Last year, I was big into strategies and resolutions. I was determined, motivated, and all about results. I made long lists of resolutions, refined them into measureable goals, and sorted them according to my personal, professional, and gardening lives, which all have a tendency to blur. “Blurring,” I realized, is simply a lack of focus. So I listened to motivation time-management podcasts, broke the goals into tasks, assigned them time slots in my week, and reported results in a calendar. I even purchased a timer to keep myself on track and played a little “race the timer” game when I did housework to prevent myself from getting sidetracked on the Internet. I made myself accountable.
I also defined a “theme” for my garden to help keep me focused. Theme gardens are common in the horticultural world, although they often don’t make sense to me, because they are often based on color or utility (such as a moon garden or a tea garden), rather than light, soil, and water requirements. This is not that kind of theme. This theme is based on something you want to accomplish – a “theme for success,” kind of like a mission and vision statement of a gardening strategy. Kind of like a resolution.
Ok. So true confession here: my theme last year was “Establish Boundaries.” Sounds simple enough. Notice the way it begins with an imperative (command form) verb. I figured if I could just establish boundaries around the many garden plots, I could control the creep of quack grass and other weeds, which were joining forces in an underground plot to take over the world. I described this idea to a counselor friend of mine (I wasn’t lying on the couch at the time…although perhaps I should have been). She smiled and nodded with understanding. “I like it,” she said.
I kept this whole resolution routine up for several months, and yes, the results were impressive.
And then things got kind of chaotic, as they always do when the weather warms, and I realized I was spending a whole lot of time turning my life into some kind of executive project management exercise, and I threw the whole idea in the compost bin. Seriously, did I leave the corporate world to become my own little corporate tyrant? Apparently so. These are deep-rooted habits.
The weeds and grasses grew with a vengeance in the long, cold spring, just to prove to me who was in charge. Meanwhile, my tender flowers and even my sturdy garlic flailed in the wind. My simple motto, “Establish Boundaries,” proved to be not so simple to implement. And later that year, as I harvested one moldy bulb after another, I had to admit that when it comes to backyard farming, there are a whole lot of things that are not in my control.
And so, this year, in the spirit of learning from my mistakes, I decided that I needed to take a long, hard look at what worked and what didn’t in 2010. “Establish Boundaries” sounded like the optimum theme when I made it. Now it is quite obvious that it was all about my unrealistic need for control. World domination. A frivolous endeavor at best.
Perhaps this year requires a gentler approach. “Appreciate diversity.” “Work with nature, not against it.” “Let go and let live” (or rather, in Paul McCartney’s words, “Live and let die”).
I did not bother making garden resolutions this year. Oh sure, I might make a to-do list now and then; however, not in the sense of time management, but rather because my memory isn’t quite what it used to be. Besides, I really like checking off little boxes.
The real difference is that this year, I will be working from a vision of peace and harmony rather than one of a stressed-out control freak (this is starting to sound like a resolution). Either way, I think I’ll get just as much done – I’ll just do it at my own speed and switch tasks when I feel like it. Of course, I realize it’s only the end of January.
As for a mission statement, here is something I wrote earlier that seemed rather profound at the time:
“This year’s garden will support biodiversity and a multitude of ecological functions, build soil rather than take from soil, minimize watering requirements, take advantage of our region’s natural amenities/peculiarities, thrive with minimal effort from me, provide food & habitat to humans and wildlife along with an assortment of other useful products, and at the same time, provide a retreat for relaxation and enjoyment.”
Ok. Maybe a little wordy, but it sure beats “Establish Boundaries.” Jeesh. What was I thinking?
I have pruning to do – in my orchard, in my writing, in my life. I’ll get to it in due time. No ticking timers, thank you.