Spring Fixes

There must be something about March that calls for stuff to break, wear out, or just simply come due for some upkeep. This last month we’ve been in constant fix-it mode…while taking the all important breaks to see that elusive winter sun here in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the projects weren’t much fun, like fixing basement foundation cracks due to flooding. While I sympathize for my fellow gardeners down in the severe California drought, up here we are experiencing way too much water. Other projects I’m not quite sure how to fix yet, like a rain garden swale that does a great job of capturing runoff water but drains so slowly that the plants have to survive in deep standing water for days on end. To be fair, we *have* had a significant amount of rain.

But most projects this past month have been enjoyable, especially working on them with my children. Whether it was building a chick brooder from scrap with my six-year-old, or scything the rye cover crop on the hugelkultur bed with my 11-year old, I am a lucky man with great kids like these (true wealth!). Other projects, like pruning fruit trees or re-sinking all the bamboo guides we use to train our raspberry rows, I did solo, often in the rain. With good rain weather gear, you forget about getting wet and slip into a meditative state out there; a great way to detox from the stress of work.

And speaking of true wealth (relationships), this spring finds me bartering with my neighbors again, helping to kick start their veggie and herb seedlings under our grow lights and greenhouse so the entire neighborhood gets a jump on food production. Love it.

Things I like about winter

EDC 2014

EDC 2014

Now that winter is almost behind us again and I’m balanced on daily tinctures of vitamin D and St. John’s Wort, I can actually reflect on things I enjoy about this season:

  • Wearing flannel-lined Dickies work pants every day
  • Catching up on semi-indoor projects like new workbenches and grow light setups in the greenhouse
  • Flushing our rainwater harvesting cisterns of their 5000 gallons, just to see them full again in a couple of weeks (!)
  • Appreciating my bullet-proof Carhartt jacket that seems to just get better with age
  • Obsessing over indoor projects I have no time for in the other seasons, like my never-ending quest for the ultimate EDC (Every Day Carry) and CERT bag.

    My most recent EDC is pictured here and includes an X-band minimalist wallet, Leatherman Skeletool (primary blade), Streamlight PT2L (primary torch), titanium pocket dangler holding a paracord lanyard, keys, and Streamlight’s Nano Light (backup torch), James Avery wedding ring, stock Apple headset, and a knife belt buckle (backup blade) mounted on my grandfather’s belt. I changed from my perennial favorite Leatherman Expanse blade to the Skeletool to have ready access to the pliers/wire cutters in addition to the screwdrivers, which have been handy recently for wire work with berries in the food forest and tweaks to The Chunnel. The belt buckle knife that I added as a backup blade this year is kinda dorky and at the same time, completely cool. Not pictured is the iPhone 4S that took the photo itself.

New pea trellises, ready for sunshine!

New pea trellises, ready for sunshine!

This month unfortunately included a few lowlights:

  • After painstakingly raising 2′ high broccoli from seed and successfully transplanting them into our new hugelkultur bed, I made the mistake of covering them with Agribon paper for a snowstorm. It may have kept them warmer, but the combined weight of the snow accumulated across the paper snapped 80%+ of the stalks. We probably lost a year’s worth of broccoli with that one mistake. Bummer.
  • Almost to the day from one year ago, we had another dog attack by a pair of sweet but untrained dogs that ran across three acres of pasture, barreled though our electronet fence, and killed two chickens. Negligent and naive dog owners who don’t have their dogs under voice control drive me nuts. My dog is under voice control…why the hell can’t theirs also be?
  • The final lowlight for me this month is a case study of what stupid humans who live in my area do when faced with a super-positive event like winning the SuperBowl. If widespread jubilation leads to rioting and violence, just think what widespread panic would lead to…

To end on a positive note, as we begin to appreciate the signs of spring, I’m most excited by the huge growth our fruit trees put on this year. They are moving from fledgeling trees to recognizable fruit-bearing wonders comprising a proper orchard. I love seeing a full bed of garlic shoots popping up, and early flower bulbs in the fruit tree guilds emerging. And I love the occasional sunny weekend day that allows us to absorb real vitamin D while preparing the garden with new sugar snap pea trellises and repairs to the deer fencing.

The dead of winter

Inside of a Perone bee hive

Inside of a Perone bee hive

This month we’ve been dealing with death, both the unfortunate demise of our remaining bee hives and purposeful elimination of rats in our long term food storage area.

We recently lost the last two of our three different hive styles in the Great Hive Experiment. Both starved to death despite having access to dry sugar, no honey stores harvested from them, sitting right next to our food forest, and access to massive amounts of blackberries in a nearby forest edge.  I clearly need to read up more on natural beekeeping. Since our first colony mysteriously collapsed this past summer, we’re now officially bee-less until new packages arrive late spring,  which does not feel good.

The only silver lining is that we got to peek inside the bottom portion of a Perone hive, which by design is never meant to be opened. See photos for the bees’ beautiful comb designs made when just given a large empty square cavity.

More death followed recently (on purpose) as we found rats (not cute mice, but 12″ rats) had discovered our long term food storage closet and were eating through any container that was not hard plastic. Given the amount of yerba mate they ate, these guys must have been literally vibrating with the amount of caffeine in their systems. While we continue to trap them inside, we’re getting ready to add barn cats to hunt the outside perimeter of the house to stop the rats entering from the pasture. 

On an up note, we starting  transplanting from our greenhouse into the new hugel bed, beginning with broccoli, lettuce, and carrots. It’s fun to imagine what the bed will look like in a few months when completely planted out. 

On days when we know we’ll be around at dusk to shoo them back into their new coop, we’ve been letting the chickens loose in the food forest to weed and battle the encroaching pasture grasses for us. Other than a single area of garlic protected by an extra strand of fencing, they have access to the entire area and are helping with weeding around the established berry bushes, fruit trees, and larger herbs like rosemary. We’ll add stones to the base of each fruit tree to protect them from scratching, but so far the birds are being quite helpful.

Step by step photos of new hugelkultur bed

Thank goodness Solstice is here so our days start getting longer again. So happy we’ll be getting more light, both for the additional outside-work hours and for the sunshine itself!

This month we replaced our classic raised beds with a hugelkultur bed - reusing the rotting wood planks inside the new bed. Hugelkultur is the fancy way of saying “giant sloped-sided raised bed with a woody debris core that rarely needs summer watering”. It’s sure to get you weird looks at holiday cocktail parties, even among the gardening crowd.

The primary problem I was solving for was a massive multi-year infestation of perennial Morning Glory called Convolvulus Arvensis (bindweed). This stuff sucks. I’ve battled it for years after inadvertently planting it myself on the nearby rock walls from a seed packet of wildflower seeds. The most effective treatment I’ve found over the years is not pulling, but spraying the leaves with a salt-white vinegar mixture. But it’s still a losing battle. So the new solution is a 6′ wide, 2′ deep trench dug between the bindweed’s primary home (the wall of boulders) and the new raised bed. We’ll see if this helps.

After we transplanted the permanent (asparagus) and cold hardy veggies (kale, etc) to another nearby hugelkultur bed, we removed the infested topsoil down to 2′ and dug in the 6′ wide trench, which we filled with wood chips. Next step was to haul in two years of woody debris I’ve been saving from fallen trees, annual trimmings, fall leaves, and the (untreated) wood planks from previous raised beds to form the triangle shaped core. We then stuffed all the holes with straw so the soil would stay in place. With the help of a borrowed tractor, we then topped off with a fish compost mixture of soil to form the completed 6′ high raised bed.

Given that I thought this project would take two weekends (it took five) to complete this new woody-debris bed, my initial cover crop will not likely germinate in time for the winter. Will likely just re-seed early spring (covered with with Agribon paper) and hope I don’t lose too much structure/soil this winter.

Creating a Rain Garden

This month’s weekends were filled with the creation of a Rain Garden to stem the overflow of water that creeps steadily towards our garage bays and front door.

Our existing french drain was regularly being overwhelmed after the neighbors above us removed some vegetation that evidently had been soaking up quite a bit of rainfall.

After a free consult from our county’s Master Gardeners, we created two  40′ x 8′ swales to slow down the water entering our property. Next we added a soil/sand mix since the percolation tests in one areas performed so poorly. (Perc tests are easy to do, just a dig a hole to 24″, fill with water, and watch how slowly the water drains.)

Finally, we added a variety of plants from the lengthy recommendation list for our bioregion, selecting mostly plants that are deer-resistant and attractive for pollinators.

We also transitioned our T5 grow lights from a closet in the garage to the greenhouse, and added a more powerful set of metal halide grow lights to the mix. In the grow light photo you’ll notice a new outdoor cat house my son and I built; we’ll get a pair of barn cats after the holidays to help control the mice/rats that love to nest in our firewood shelters.

Weekend Warrior projects

The rapidly shortening days here in the Pacific Northwest, combined with being buried at work, leave me gardening in the dark (literally) while humming REM’s Gardening at Night. On the weekends, we made a radical addition to our day-ranging chicken setup with a permanent coop. The birds still have day access to the pasture through a chicken tunnel (newly named as The Chunnel), but the permanent coop solves for two issues:

  1. I was losing all their valuable manure out on the pasture, where I won’t be able to take advantage of it for years until we expand the garden beds that direction.
  2. I was tired of hauling their feed such long distances, and hauling water at all when you live in the rainy Northwest just seems silly.

As I’m lousy with carpentry, the talented fellow behind Saltbox Designs took my crazy sketches, ideas, and ramblings to construct a structure that won’t fall down and looks great. When Berg was finished, I added a deep litter system on top of an earthen floor, automatic feeders (gravity) and water (harvesting rainwater), while maintaing full-time access to pasture through a Pullet Shut door and the aforementioned and soon to be infamous among our neighbors Chunnel. I’m pleased.

Another full weekend was spent hauling and spreading 51 yards of wood chip compost.  Thank goodness for generous neighbors with tractors.

Breathless from the bounty

This month’s highlights, capturing the benefits of bounty:

  • Oh my goodness, the tomatoes and tomatillos just kept coming, and coming, and…good thing the kids and I like sun-dried tomatoes. The sun-dried tomatillo is amazing as well. We’ve had the food dehydrator going 24/7 for weeks now.
  • And the chili peppers. I believe pure happiness is a little red fruit.
  • A seasonal flush of the water cisterns and they are already full again.
  • Both our wood burning stoves are the cleanest they will be all year. Ready to burn!
  • New-to-us used bicycles for everyone. Just in time for the rains (oops!).


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