Berries and early fruit are rolling in heavy this year…
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.
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.
Big moves and changes this month:
- While this blog is primarily for friends and family that always ask about our projects, other random folks have found this blog based on my obsessions with electric bicycles, long tail bicycles, permaculture, and more. For those of you reading this anywhere in the US other than the Pacific Northwest, you should probably go ahead and start the process of moving out here now.
If the “before and after” images here denoting problem areas due to climate change don’t convince you, go read the full article for the details. Not for the faint of heart…but a big move may be in store for you whether you want it or not.
- We did our annual field cut with our neighbors so I had the joy of several early meditations sessions watching coyotes and raptors hunt for mice/voles/etc now that their normal hiding places of a 7′ pasture are gone. Owls, ospreys, eagles, ravens, and various hawks. Wow!
- We swapped out our used Prius for a used Chevy Volt. Between the Volt, the Leaf, and my electric bicycle, we’re now 99%+ doing transportation on electricity. Which means we’re now saving for solar panels and trying not to get fat.If you are still on the fence about the benefits of an electric car (particularly if you are a two-car family) check out the math from the always-funnny and usually-right Mr. Money Mustache.The primary behavior change I’ve noticed is a smile every time I accelerate the Volt. The Prius felt like driving a cardboard box in comparison. The fact that I was still burning gas while driving a cardboard box made me dislike the whole experience even more.
- The garden suffered from a lack of attention as both my wife and I decided to take on intensive work projects at the same exact time. What I learned was some crops can’t handle it (I’m looking at you, corn) while others seem to do just fine being ignored. Case in point is the tomatoes. In previous years I’ve been careful with spacing, leafs off the ground, proper pruning for air flow, etc.
This year (as witnessed by the below photo), I just transplanted them from the greenhouse and promptly ignored them…and we still have an abundance of healthy tomatoes. There is a lesson here that Ruth Stout has tried to teach me through her books, I’m sure.
- We finished our treehouse. What was a 2-3 weekend project turned into a summer-long project since both kids were running the screwdrivers. But we just created lifelong memories, too.
- We fired back up the greenhouse for winter salads and jumpstarting cool weather crops like broccoli, kale, and chard.
- Evenings are currently spent processing the abundance of food. Dehydrators are our best friends.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
As our rains and colder weather invade, we button up many of our outside projects and batten down the mini-hoop houses, cloches, and Agribon paper to extend our growing season. The remaining chili peppers – full grown but still green – will be brought in to ripen inside, and the water cisterns will be flushed/cleaned so they can quickly refill for emergency water storage during winter storm power outages.
And so we turn our attention to inside projects like bread-making, cheese-making, and another One Year experiment (our last one was on transportation). A few months ago we began a one year experiment of Buying Nothing New other than food, vitamins, and toilet paper to see how we would fair on 12 months of salvaged, repurposed, or used items. For example, we’ve shifted our apparel purchases to consignment shops (both local and online) for our fast-growing kids and for ourselves as we wear through items working in the garden.
The effect of “buying used” has had an interesting affect on us of actually acquiring *more* stuff in my life. Yikes! We’re actually buying more stuff now than we were before, because our brains were thinking “Oh, I’m saving money because it is used!”
But of course, we’re not. We’re spending cash where we were not before. And we now have more stuff coming into our lives, which is the opposite of the our previous simplification focus. Now that we recognize the behavior change, we’ve corrected it. But for several months, this experiment was clearly a wash (at best) on our finances. I expect we’ll begin making gains now.
- Lessons learned re: our Buy Nothing New experiment. Time to combine a repurpose focus with a simplification focus!
- Cool weather crops coming on strong; warm weather crops still doing well under their cold frames.
- Addition of a Kenyan bee hive (aka Top Bar) that I’m bee-sitting for a friend who is injured. Fun to learn a new style of beekeeping.
- Giving away our honey to friends and family as gifts!
- Renewed interest in finishing my book on Prepared Neighborhoods (citizen-led emergency preparedness at the neighborhood level) and reinvigorating our own town’s preparedness activities.
- The biggest lowlight for our country is seeing the suffering of our East Coast neighbors from the superstorm. So, so, so wish more towns had citizen-led preparedness projects underway. We can’t rely on our government to bail us out; they are going to have their hands full just repairing the core infrastructure.
- The biggest lowlight for me personally is literally the low light. Time to start taking Vitamin D supplements and St. John’s Wort to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Learning from our failures for the Buy Nothing New experiment that were not always so fun. Example: had to buy a new car tire jack in a hurry (no time to search for a used or salvage option) when I discovered our Nissan Leaf does not ship with a spare tire nor a jack. It was a bit of dumb thinking on Nissan’s part that was not fun to discover as we blew the tire away from home – surprising given the Nissan engineers got so many other details about the Leaf correct.