Archive for May, 2010


I was hoping for a really good growing season for our little front yard fruit tree orchard this year.  My semi-dwarf plums, apple, pear and grapefruit trees had a tough time of it while I was away in Africa, as Bear is not at all a gardener and he mostly just kept up with mowing the small patch of lawn, leaving my suburban orchard to fend for itself on the automatic drip system.  Fruit trees need more attention than that to do well, although to his credit, none of them died.

So now that I am home and able to water and fertilize and watch over them carefully, they’re all growing better than they were last year when I got home from deployment, and flowered like maniacs in April, promising a bountiful harvest of luscious fruit.

 But flowers don’t always mean fruit.  I’ve had many years of good harvests off the two plum trees and one apple tree, though the pear has never developed much and maxed out at 8 fruits last year, before I returned home.  This year it had a dozen flowers, but none have developed into fruits.  The vigorous Mariposa plum nearest the street has a sad, lonely, single green plum on it – two years ago we took 45 large plums off this tree.

We may get a couple of dozen smaller plums off the weeping Santa Rosa tree, and the little Anna apple, though she looks to be struggling to keep a decent set of leaves on, has a smallish crop this spring as well.  Both trees flowered profusely back in late March and April, so it wasn’t for lack of fruiting potential that the set was so low.

Past years have been much more bountiful than this one promises to be.  All other things being equal, I can only guess that the wild pollinators were not out in sufficient numbers this spring, though I provide lots of year-round understory nectar sources, a diverse mixture including borage, California poppy, sage, and gallardia that freely re-seed in the beds below.  I didn’t pay sufficient attention at the time the trees were flowering, but as we talked about it the other day, it did occur to us that there used to be many more wild bees in residence than we are seeing this year.

This may have little to do with the problem of vanishing bees in domesticated hives, but it is a signal to me that something has changed in the local population of native bees, and highlights the importance of these native pollinators in providing services to backyard (and frontyard) gardens.  My tiny oasis of chemical-free, bee-friendly growing beds and gardens is not enough to ensure our local populations of wild helpers will thrive.

I may need to order a batch of orchard bees this year, for the vegetable garden.


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I can’t help it:  baby vegetable plants make my heart sing and my hands reach for the camera to capture their juvenile beauty.

These beets and turnips will soon fill their planting bed with lovely foliage, shading the soil, conserving moisture, and providing my steamer pot with lots of fresh greens for dinner.  As ordinary as it may be to some folks, growing my own food still delights me, excites me, motivates me.

And I need all the motivation I can get, to finish the next terrace above so I can build a second garden bed and grow even more food.  Bushels of beans and tomatoes to can, onions and potatoes and carrots to store; our food supply for months to come is just a wish, a dream, until I finish excavating the dirt, build the back wall, dig out the bed area, and fill it with growing soil.  Oh, and plant it all, too.

This weekend I nearly got the dirt moving all done, working an hour at a time and resting well in between.  I wanted badly to finish the project completely, but my legs turned to concrete by mid-afternoon, and I was so drained I had to lie down on the living room floor and take a nap.

Thankfully, there are just a few more trugs of dirt to haul up to the gigantic pile above.  Maybe 30 trips up those steps, which are just a working stairway I cut into the hill and reinforced with concrete block, giving me a shorter trip up to the top.  It saved me many steps, and will be the last part of this second level to be cut away, leaving a clear run to lay the first course of what will be my third wall.

I’m planning to begin wall-building next weekend, and with three whole days off, my determined scottish workhorse self is already visualizing getting the wall completely built over the weekend.  That’s a lofty goal and I may not achieve it, but that won’t keep me from trying.

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Big J’s been out in the Virginia woods for some real-world logging training with the rest of the working crew this month, along with Jason’s young gelding Chain; two beginners learning from the best, both men and experienced workhorses.

He’s posted photos on his FB page, the first of many, I hope.

J turned 10 on Sunday.  She’s in foal to Rudy, Ridgewind Farm’s standing stud; her third pregnancy that I know of.  I bought her and her daughter from a guy in Michigan two January’s ago and shipped them to Jason’s farm for training and, it was hoped, to be subsequently used by a couple of apprentices as a starter team.

They were two big, beautiful Suffolk mares completely herd-bound to each other, hardly even green-broke, and sorely in need of patient, constant handling to develop ground manners, as well as basic training as future workhorses.  They got lots of both, but the pair of young horseloggers needed a team to start their business long before my two girls were ready to pull their share of the load, so the original plan changed.

Then changed some more, last Fall, when we decided to split up the mother/daughter pair after realizing the 5-yr-old’s temperament – disruptive, flighty, nervous, and protective of her mother – would always  prevent the two from becoming a well-mannered, quiet, dependable team.   It’s a common problem with a pair of horses left to themselves as these two were, and the mother-daughter bond only makes it worse.

Another Biological Woodsman logging with Suffolks in southwestern Virginia took a liking to the bred young mare, an offer was made, and she has moved on to work for him and get him started as a Suffolk breeder.  And I’ll be looking for a big, broke Suffolk gelding next summer to match up with Big J, who is becoming a wonderful workhorse under Jason’s tutelage.

And so the months go by, and the work of training a horse to pull logs out of woods continues, as time and opportunity permits.   I am so very grateful for all the effort and care and experience that is going into this endeavor.   The hope is to have a well-trained team to begin with, when I move to the farm and start working in earnest on all that needs done.  I have a neglected forest to manage, trees to cut for barn timbers, and pastures to mow and maintain, just for starters.  My team of Suffolks will eventually do all the field and forest work, leaving the tractor to scoop manure and compost, lift heavy things, and provide power in the barnyard.  We’ll start slow and small, of course, and having a team trained by Jason to train me as I learn will be worth its weight in gold.

Lessons in the woods - resting is a reward

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The wren babies fledged and left the nest on Mother’s Day, a little earlier than last year’s batch.

Once again, we were out on the back patio drinking our morning coffee at just the right moment, and had front seats for the big event.   After weeks spent feeding their noisy brood, the hard working wren parents woke this particular day and knew the time had come to introduce the kids to the rest of the world.  So they sang their yellow-beaked youngsters out of the birdhouse, calling them out one by one until all four had glided clumsily over to the shrubs, wide-eyed and chirring.

Last year the wren fledglings left their birdhouse nest and never returned.  This year’s family, which may or may not be the same breeding pair of birds, is returning every night to the nest, and the routine of calling the wren kids in at dusk and getting them settled for the night is fascinating and entertaining to watch. 

A little after sunset, Papa wren takes his post up close to the patio and sings a long, loud stanza that sounds like “ally ally out in free-ee-ee,”  over and over again, followed by a string of insistent chirrs.  It may take 10 or 15 minutes but eventually the kids show up, chirring and flitting through the backyard shrubs, and make their way up to the patio overhang to the birdhouse.  One by one, they make their way into their nest, sometimes popping back out and hopping around on the rafters a bit, but finally all four are tucked safely in for the night and their little voices go silent.

The first few days it took both parents to coax the clumsy fledglings back inside; now they’ve got the routine down and Papa wren marshalls them up by himself.  Once the kids are in bed, the two adult wrens fly off into the nearby bushes to find their own sleeping posts, or grab another bug snack, who knows.

In the morning, at daybreak, they wake them up and call them out for another day of flying and feeding instruction.

I have no idea how long they’ll continue to bed the youngsters down in the nestbox, but it’s a pleasure to watch this little vignette of daily wren family life from our front-row seats on the patio, just a few feet away.

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I’m long overdue with an update on my terraced garden bed.  I wish that were garden beds, but alas, I’ve only gotten the first one done so far.  It’s planted, though, which is worth the delay on the rest of the terrace wall-building project.  Simply put, it took longer than I had expected, to excavate the 3′ x 26′ area a foot deep, and fill it with soil saved from previous growing containers and beds.

That didn’t surprise me, it just slowed me down.  Which isn’t a bad thing, as my right wrist and elbow had developed some soreness from all the block lifting and dirt moving, and needed some down time to heal.  I was able to get the bed finished and soaker hose laid down for a short row of carrots before our Farm trip, leaving four flats of seedlings in the care of our neighbor with the hopes of having something to put in the ground when we got back.

Thanks to Jo over at 14 Acres, I have squash and tomatoes up and thriving along with the carrots, and last year’s beet and bean seeds started well too.  The potting mix I grabbed at the store to use ended up being horrible – extremely hard to wet, and it dried out in the cells even though the top was moist, so not everything made it, but enough to give me a first planting.

Mine is a small garden, and so to maximize the productivity of each square foot, the bed is not planted in rows, but in blocks, at the spacing called for between plants in rows, which is known as the French intensive method.  Relying on organic fertilizers, compost, and companion planting in raised beds to ensure soil and plant health as outlined by John Jeavons in his revolutionary book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine expands this approach to gardening into what is known as Biointensive, a combination of Biodynamic and French intensive methods. 

A student of Alan Chadwick, the horticultural genius Englishman who brought this method of gardening to UC Santa Cruz in the 1960’s, Jeavons is still active today in Willits, California, at the Common Grounds Garden as executive director of Ecology Action, the organization he joined in 1972.  I would love to have the opportunity to attend one his Grow Biointensive workshops.

My beds are not so much raised yet, but I forked the bottom thoroughly to a depth of 6″ and filled them with 16″ of very mature, compost-enriched growing soil, amended with beneficial bacteria and fungi, rock fertilizer and bone meal.  If I had years and years to garden here, the additions of compost each year would eventually raise the bed surfaces; for the two growing seasons I’ll have, ground-level growing will work just fine, I reckon.  And, that’s all the soil I had, or I’d have made them higher.

The soaker hose is a new experiment for me, and I haven’t determined yet if it will water the bed uniformly all on its own; it’s really just a back-up watering system for when we’re gone to the Farm.  I enjoy watering by hand, at least a garden this small, and it’s really the best way to ensure everything gets the right amount of the precious stuff.  Here in semi-arid desert country (11″ rainfall/yr), watering is mandatory.  At the Farm, with its 45″ of annual rainfall, this will not be a problem, obviously.

At any rate, the season’s food growing has begun, and I’m delighted beyond words with my tiny 75-square feet of honest-to-god garden bed.  Even considering possible critter damage, insect predation and plants that just don’t want to grow, there should be puh-lenty of good stuff to eat this summer.  Right outside my back door.

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This morning I’m doing typical Sunday stuff – canning up a few pints of beef stock, cleaning off the dining room table, catching up on emails and blog reading, waiting for my camera battery to charge so I can go take pictures of the seedlings in my new garden bed.

For those of us whose mothers have passed on, this day can easily just be another Sunday, filled with the usual weekend projects, tasks and routines.  Sending flowers and a card or making a special phone call aren’t things we need to remember to do, obviously.  And I was just sitting here thinking how ordinary this day has become without that special person to recognize and honor and spend time with.

But my mom is so much a part of where I am today, and what I’m doing with my life, and she would have loved everything about my plans for the Farm and what I hope to accomplish there.  So shame on me, to neglect to honor and thank her, even though I can’t do it in person anymore.

Thanks, Mom.

Thank you for showering me with love and care and concern as I grew up; thank you for instilling in me through your own life example the ability to work hard and the courage to take on the seemingly impossible; thank you for reminding me to consider the tough spots a challenge instead of a roadblock.

And thanks, too, for encouraging me to dream, and to live the life I have imagined.

I couldn’t do it without you, Mom.

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Iris cristata

We got back from the Farm late last Saturday night, escaping the onslaught of rain heading up from the South that turned Derby Day into a mudfest.   Of the eight days there, four were entirely rain-free, which is as good as it gets, though we made good use of our time, rain or shine.

My primary project this trip was restoring (sanding, grinding rust, and painting) the 19 corral panels I’d hauled down from the pastures in February and stacked in the shop.   They’d been out in the weather for years, and were rusting in many spots and badly in need of a good coat of Rustoleum paint.  I regret not taking before and after pictures, as the transformation was amazing, and made me feel good about spending the time and effort to do the job right.

I didn’t get them all done, just 7 of the 19, but I’m all set up now with my grinder and sawhorses and techniques, so everytime we visit I’ll try and knock a couple out, so that when I’m finally ready to set up the round pen/handling pen, they’ll be ready too.  What a lot of work it was!  I started by washing them down with a sandpaper sponge to get as much dirt, rust and oxidized paint off as possible, then took the grinder to every last little rust spot, then applied a coat of primer to the bare metal exposed by the grinding, then a lovely green coat of Rustoleum.  Laid horizontal on sawhorses at waist level, the panels were easy to work on, but the enamel paint had to dry overnight or all day in between coats, which was the bottleneck of the whole process.

So I was grateful to get done what I did, and most of it was inside shop work while the rain came down, a very good use of time.

We had a couple of sunny days following the rain, which allowed me to finish pulling fence posts up on the pastures, removing the last of the ill-placed and unused lanes and gates that surrounded the Big Pond.  We never could figure out why the old man had set everything up so close to the pond, the ground was mucky in spots and not even close to level.  I’ll find a better place for a handling pen and loading chute as the design of things unfolds, and yes, it’ll be a lot of work to set it all back up again, but I’d rather do that than keep using a setup that makes no sense and doesn’t work well.

I spent a day fixing and cleaning house and shop gutters, right before the big deluge came, before we left.  Good work to get done before loads of rain arrived.  And we found someone to mow the grass, which is a blog post all in itself, about meeting neighbors and being embraced by the local community.

A good visit, all in all.  My camera came out only once, I regret, to take pictures of wildflowers in late-April bloom.  I think I got lazy about photojournalizing my work projects, which I’m kicking myself for, but the work got done, whether you have pictures of it or not. 

The wildflowers were astonishingly beautiful.  More photos to follow.

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