Food forest’s fifth anniversary



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 for the fall


Before climate change


After climate change

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.


Everything is loaded this month. Garden is loaded with bounty. Work is loaded with excitement. Family schedule is loaded with activities.

Christmas in July

Years ago we used to send out a Christmas in July newsletter as a lark since no one would expect an annual family newsletter in that month. Given our continued cold temperatures, it feels like I should bring that back. I actually came downstairs from my home office one day to find my family had a fire going in the fireplace with them all sitting around under blankets. Seriously. It was the middle of July!



This month’s highlights:

  • June’s cold weather finally broke towards the end of the month, giving much-needed heat to the corn, tomatoes, and peppers.
  • We threw our first annual Summer Solstice party BYOLS (bring your own local stuff) with everyone wearing all-white. Much fun, great relationships (true wealth), and a celebration of everything hyper-local…from kombucha to kale.
  • Camping with kids = no sleep for anyone but good lifelong memories.
  • Hand-watering got to the point where we reestablished the fully automated irrigation in all it’s geekiness glory. A few years ago we repurposed the fancy lawn irrigation controller to control water dosages to all our veggie beds and food forest with an A/B switch to move from our neighborhood water (shared well system) to our cisterns holding harvested rainwater. Now with a few hours of patching work the full system is up and running again.
  • Newly refilled sheds for of green firewood (not to burn this winter, but the following) give me a good feeling of preparedness for ourselves and our neighbors.
  • Serious growth on the fruit trees should mean our first significant harvest this fall. Hooray!

My greenhouse smells like a pizza

My now almost-empty greenhouse has been smelling like a pizza for weeks as the tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, and basil took off in their growth. Makes me hungry every time I go in there. The sun has warmed the soil enough that we got to transplant most items this past week.

Our significant bindweed problem – what drove me to disassemble our raised beds and start over with a giant hugel bed – has returned. Damn, this weed drives me nuts. But our latest connection of white vinegar + salt + dishwashing soap applied through a large sprayer is keeping it at bay. Sort of. Speaking of the hugel bed…

Year One learnings from new hugel bed:

  • It is actually too warm for cool weather crops like spinach, which immediately bolted when I transplanted them last month. Stick your fingers several inches down into the bed and you can feel the warmth being generated by the woody core decomposing.
  • The grape cuttings I used as part of the debris core are actually sprouting despite being buried under 1′ of straw, compost, and soil.
  • Next time I should use something more decorative as a winter cover crop than rye grass; it looks too similar to our lawn grass and pasture grass, making the bed itself look untidy (from a certain perspective).  🙂

Return of the Jedi, er, sun

A nice rebound from a record-breaking wet March, the sun has finally returned to the Pacific Northwest – at least on some glorious days. With the longer days I’m back to late evening sessions of scything paths through our fields, putzing about my greenhouse, and enjoying the return of bees to our land.

The small town we live in has approximately 50 beekeepers who brought in 2MM new bees this past month (most folks lost most of their bees over the winter). With all the trauma and drama of working out how we have a symbiotic relationship with these crucial creatures, I’ve decided that to be a beekeeper is to be an eternal optimist.

My favorite moment from this past month was standing under one of our blooming Japanese maples with thousands of bees overhead. The tree itself seemed to be buzzing with excitement, welcoming these visitors.

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.