Millions of reasons to be happy

Two highlights to share this month as the hugelkulture bed becomes more populated with greenhouse transplants and the direct sow seeds begin popping up.

First highlight: the return of the bees. I’ve been checking on our new bees almost daily to see who’s winning a war with ants from the pasture.

Before installing the new colonies in the hives, we did a clean sweep (read: stomp) of the ants that had swarmed the dead hives over the winter and created a careful (will affect the bees as well if they land in it) perimeter barrier with dichotomous earth (DE).

After installing the bees, two of the colonies promptly kicked the remaining ants to the curb and went about their business of bee-ing. But one hive began what’s become an epic battle with the ants, who have them outnumbered by several millions.

We’ve assisted by tracing the ants back to their nest – not difficult given it is 4’ wide and 3’ tall – and bombed it to give the ants something else to focus on besides raiding the honey stores of our new colonies. The bombs made of DE + boric acid + cat food are designed to give the queen indigestion, and they seem to have helped.

We *do* want the ants around for their beneficial nature, but just need to distract them away from the hives while the bees build up their strength in numbers. It seems to be working as the reduced hive entrances now feature multiple bee guards and ants being challenged at every step as they try to regain access.

I’m thankful for the returning sound of thousands of bees over my head as I walk underneath our Japanese maples in early bloom. I can only imagine the sound of millions of these new life forms as they spread out on farms and backyards throughout the west coast of America and beyond. It’s the sound of life, the sound of balance, the sound of happiness, perhaps?

Second highlight: through work I met an interesting fellow with an amazing private collection of 100+ giant crystals and fossils, some of which have been dated to 500M years in age. Since they are in a private collection and not a museum (yet), you can interact with and lay hands directly on them. Something about touching an enormous 5’ crystal unearthed from three miles below the earth’s crust where it grew for 1/2 billion years puts your local problems into perspective. Amazing.

Only three lowlights, all relatively minor:

Turning on my fancy lawn irrigation controller that’s been repurposed to be a fancy food forest irrigation controller revealed multiple water line and electrical cable breaks caused by our solar installation this past winter. Bummer. And the detective work to find and make the repairs is always 24″ down, which means lots of shovel work (and guessing). Double bummer, but now fixed.

Second lowlight was the vigor with which bindweed surged forth from its hidden base in our rock retaining walls. I’ve recruited my elder child into helping me battle this back several times per week with a spray mixture of white vinegar + salt + dishwashing soap. If you pull it, the roots send out shoots, spreading it even faster.

The third lowlight involved most of the family. Imagine the loudest primal scream you’ve ever heard, an equal mix of rage, sadness, and surprise. Now imagine it’s originating from the vocal cords of a very strong, very motivated eight year old child. That sound brought me running to the back pasture, where I found my little girl and German Shepard tearing down the hill at full speed after a beautiful eagle which (unfortunately) had one of our chickens in its clutches.

After chasing it over an acre of pasture, screaming at the top of her lungs, the eagle had enough of this weirdness and dropped the chicken from a height of 40′. Amazingly, the chicken is alive and will fully heal. And we got a great up-close view of the eagle for ten minutes, as he watched me dig the chicken out from under a mess of stinging nettle and blackberry thorns. Gorgeous bird, but I imagine he was pretty frustrated with us.


A tale of two trees

A tale of two trees

A tale of two trees

We’ve been loving the early spring and welcoming its cheerful colors popping out of each fruit tree’s guild of flowers.

As you can see in the nearby image, we’re inadvertently conducting an experiment in the food forest, seeing how well the fruit trees handle the chickens’ extended presence while their pasture regrows from the solar array installation.

The closer tree still covered in blooms is what the further tree looked like just a few weeks ago. The further tree has been a favorite of the chickens, who hop around it, plucking off flower buds with abandon. Oops. We’ll see how that affects the fruit yield.

On the remaining fruit trees, the tent caterpillars were sent to their next life by the tens of thousands this month. Better luck next time, little dudes.

Lots of transplants of the hardier veggies like kale and chard made their way from the greenhouse to the newly compost-topped hugelkultur bed, while we were rebuilding trellises in the food forest and the nearby supporting beds. You read that right, the veggie starts made their own way out there; it was like Fantasia!

Speaking of mice, in the greenhouse this year we’ve been battling the (expected) slugs and the (unexpected) invasion of mice into the greenhouse, who are feasting on our seedlings. Oh well, we’ll just make more to share.

Banking on the sun

BlogHighlight this month was the final day we got to throw the big red switch (literally) to turn on our new 9.9 kW bank of solar photovoltaic panels (36 Iteks made here in Washington state).

In the photos below, you can see a new, level terrace built on our hillside, followed by the concrete-based (2400 lbs per hole!) scaffolding erected to hold the panels themselves. This is a grid-tied system, meaning we still can buy electricity from our regional utility company when there is no sun, and sell that same company our excess solar-generated electricity (when we have it). This system does not help when there is a power outage (frequent in our windy winters with above-ground utilities)…but we’ll be able to solve that in the next few years. And for our last remaining friends who wonder if solar panels are worth it, even in the dark Pacific Northwest…read this.

Lowlight of the month is the significantly increased amount of stress in my day job, which I have mistakenly translated into less time with my hands in soil…exactly opposite of what I need. I need to remedy this fast as I threw out my back (that’s where I hold my stress), which of course makes it that much harder to get out in the food forest. I’m reminded of the formula proposed by one of my mentors – the Happo Dammo ratio – which I need to include in my new search for stress mastery, balance and grounding.

Given the new PV panels location, my wife and I plugged up the hives and moved the bees to a new home where they would once again be in full sun and allow my children to observe their behavior from the treehouse. Eventually the gardens beds will expand down in that direction, so the bees will be in the center of the garden. As we moved the hives we discovered the Perone colony had not survived the winter and harvested the remainder of their honey after checking on the supplies of the other two hives (still alive and kicking with plenty of stores). Delicious!

And here’s the time lapse-ish prep and install of the PV panels…


Balance

Perspective

Perspective

Mother Nature is keeping us in balance (at least by her definition) with some gorgeous January weather – blue skies, bright sunshine – that is opposite of this past summer’s Juneuary. I suppose it is a matter of perspective, but the sunshine sure makes me happy no matter what time of the year it comes.

Projects this month included (finally) bricking up the base of the attached greenhouse so it matches the rest of the house, starting the earth-moving work to prep level pads in our pasture for inbound photovoltaic panels that we’ve been thinking about for five years, and starting seedlings for spring planting under the grow lights.

 


Reflections

So, so, so appreciate my wife

So, so, so appreciate my wife

I use this time of year to reflect on what went well this past calendar year, what didn’t, and what I can do about it for the coming years. As the accompanying graphic from the always-brilliant artist behind The Oatmeal explains, greatness for any given project (or just life in general) is the oh-so-lucky intersection of at least four major influences.

Upon reflection, my day job of the last two years (where I have that excellent colleague as indicted in the graphic) is increasingly taking me away from food production duties, and yet that has only decreased our production by 10-20%, mostly due to not prioritizing the daily/weekly management of season extending devices like grow tunnels and Agribon paper.

This year I’ve continued to experience the benefits of a two decade-long buildout of a personal Board of Mentors. They’re like a Board of Advisors for a company, but at a personal level. I’ve found one gaping hole, however, with the lack of a mentor in permaculture. I’ll remedy that this year by carving out time this year to pursue a PDC certificate (permaculture design course) through which I can recruit a mentor specific to my bioregion.

Looking forward to this next year, our first major project will be installation of a ground mount solar PV system we just purchased (will pursue adding wind harvesting when the tech improves as our measurements are currently too low). The solar will be a ground mount system since our roof has way too many angles and not enough continuous space for PV panels.


Colorado comes to Washington

We’ve enjoyed almost a full month of Colorado-like weather with biting cold and glorious blue skies. Love, love, love seeing the sunshine around here, even if it means the chard looks like it is melting under the onslaught of below-freezing weather.

Below you’ll find a special collection of mushrooms found in our yard, food forest, hugelculture bed, and wood-chipped pathways connecting everything. An amazing variety, although we’re missing the return of the hoped-for morels! If you want even more mushrooms, head over to Fantastic Fungi.

 


Food forest’s fifth anniversary

Before

Before

Ah, the wonderful change of seasons in the Pacific Northwest.

One benefit of the increased rain flow is the quick refill of our water cisterns after flushing them a few times for cleaning. 5000 gallons refills in just a week or two. Man, that’s a lot of rain.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of our permaculture food forest. Many, many lessons learned (and some – like how to grow corn – still elude me). The current food forest has 15 fruit trees (eight varieties) – each with it’s own guild of flowers, herbs, and comfrey for chop/drop fertilizing – 13 berry bushes (six varieties), and an increasingly shrinking amount of space for ground crops like garlic, potatoes, and hot peppers. In the coming years, we’ll need to move down the hill for additional growing space, but the new hugel bed has an amazing amount of growing space.

You can see the before and after images here (notice the five year improvement in iPhone cameras as well). Click the panoramic image to view full screen. The posts on the far left are one year old grapes to take advantage of the heat that big black rock wall puts off.

After

After


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