Archive for the ‘Bear and Thistle West’ Category

Worth waiting for

baby butternut squash

I didn’t make it to the Fair last week, sorry to say.  There’s just too much to do at the squadron these days as we prepare for our upcoming inspections, getting all the aircraft maintenance programs fixed that have never been set up quite right since they transitioned to the C-40A five years ago.  I’m spending long, long hours there, heading in around 6 am and usually not leaving until 7 pm.  Grueling schedule, for sure, but temporary.

This manic pace started about a month ago, as we got to the point of self-assessment where we realized just how many critical processes were off-track, and how many different things needed to be re-done, re-written, and re-trained on.  The list of projects that I own, as a program manager, have stacked up like dirty plates towering above my head waiting to be washed; an afternoon of oogling farm animals and admiring craft displays just couldn’t be justified.

Ah, well.  There will be other years and other county fairs to go see.

On the home front, I’m obviously not getting much done in the few short hours I’m actually here, which is driving me  a little crazy.  There’s only just enough time for making dinner and tending the garden at the end of the day, so weekends, once devoted to landscaping projects, are filled with all the household maintenance that I used to be able to chip away at throughout the week:  clutter, dirty laundry, mail and junk stacked on the dining room table, grimy bathrooms, gritty floors.  It is what it is.  You can only let that stuff go so long before it sucks your will to live, so I’m just holding ground, keeping my nostrils above the lapping waves.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve resigned myself to the situation and am consoled by the fact that once the big August inspection is over, my work schedule and my life will (hopefully) return to normal. 

On a very different and bright note, the new garden bed planted back at the beginning of May is now filled with happy, vigorous plants, and has started feeding us some of the tastiest, freshest vegetables money can’t buy.

We’ve already eaten the first sweet, tender beets; kale and beet greens, turnips, zuchinni and green beans – all delicious – and there’s lots more food to come out of this 25-foot deep-dug bed.  Two kinds of winter squash (acorn and butternut, thanks Jo!) and potatoes, onions, and carrots will be awhile in the making, but they’re worth the work, and they’ll be worth the wait.  Homegrown, organic food is definitely worth waiting for.


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To understand the colored blankets on the racing piggies, it helps to either be from San Diego, with our Del Mar racetrack culture, or Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby.   Piggies don’t normally wear racing colors while chasing each other around, but they do love to run and it helps keep your bets straight.

I’m hoping to break free from work on Tuesday afternoon and go see a bit of the San Diego County Fair with a girlfriend.  Lots of great livestock, horses, and exhibits; I’m hoping I can swing it.

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Today was my Sunday, the weekend reprieve from work having shifted to the right two days, postponed by a monthly event I am beginning to really despise, Drill Weekend for the Reservists assigned to the squadron. 

I won’t harp on it here, but let me just say that it is exhausting.  And it is for them as well, as they work all week then come in and drill over the weekend, and go right on back to their civilian jobs on Monday.  At least we full-time folks can take a couple of days off afterward to recuperate.

Not sure why anyone would subject themselves to such torture.  The money can’t be that good.  Maybe it’s the retirement points. 

Anyway, I made it through another long working weekend, putting Bear on a Delta flight to Jacksonville early Sunday morning for a week of travel with his job, and now have the house and yard to myself for a few days.

And so, without the evening TV routine, or a slumbering person on the couch in the morning, I’m able to get some long-overdue spring cleaning done.  Amazing how grungy a home can get with only two people in it. 

I’ve gotten late starts these past two mornings, and have had some difficulty getting going on what are really very simple tasks, but progress has been made and the house is not so much a wreck anymore, which boosts my motivation level considerably.  Tonight my dear friend Liz is stopping by with her 16-year-old daughter, Cecilie, to bring a belated birthday gift and share a meal with me here at Bear and Thistle West.

We’ll have spaghetti made with home-canned sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, braised garden greens just picked from the garden going wild, and garlic-toasted sourdough bread, baked last week.  I look forward to the company and companionship.

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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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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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I’m not the only one building things around here, as it turns out.

Just six feet from the sliding glass door on our back patio, a hummingbird has chosen to construct her nest atop a very small wind chime, hanging under the eaves next to the house wall.

And at the edge of the patio, just 12 feet or so from the door, the birdhouse hung under the shade roof eaves is hosting the pair of canyon wrens for the second year in a row.  Construction is in full swing on both nests, despite my constant presence and movement in the yard as I continue to work on terracing the back hill.

I’m delighted, and honored, to have them both here.  It seems a little close to our bumbling human activity, but who am I to judge?  Birds know what birds need.  Neither species seems to be excessively bothered by our presence, carrying on with their nest-building right in front of us; we do, however, give them the courtesy of quieting down our movements when they’re up at their nests or moving to and fro. 

The canyon wrens are now at the small twig stage, having started last week with large (for them) branches, tugged into the small hole, to fill the bottom of the box.  Now they’re just bringing in short, slender twigs, I presume to finish off the inside of the nest.  Every now and then though, one of them will try to cram in a branchy twig that gets caught on the front of the birdhouse, and it’s rather comical to see how many times they’ll try to push it in against all odds.  Persistent builders, these birds.

I had to research the habits of nesting hummingbirds a bit, to find out how many eggs they lay, how long it takes to hatch them, and when the youngsters fledge.  Turns out it’s two eggs that take 16 – 18 days to hatch, and a couple more weeks for the naked hummer babies to grow feathers and figure out how to fly.  It’ll be interesting to watch, if Mrs. Hummer decides her nest location is safe enough where it is to go through with the whole process.

Last spring, just after I got back from Africa, the wrens were furiously feeding four clamerous chicks and after a few weeks, Bear and I were treated to the brief performance of the youngsters flying out of the nest box, one morning when we happened to be out on the patio at just the right moment.  It was very cool to watch.

My building project is moving along, one shovelful of excavated dirt at a time.  Update for y’all tomorrow, perhaps; the afternoon is slipping away and I must get back at it.

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We returned from Kentucky to a persistently rainy February in the Golden State.  Total precip was only 2.25″, but it rained 20 days out of the month.  Great for gardens and filling reservoirs, not so good for wall-builders. 

Then March arrived with a hint of lamb, beautiful, warm and sunny, promising weeks of perfect projecting weather.  That all changed the next day.

So it goes.  Of the last 8 weekends, we’ve had rainstorms during six.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little rain in southern California – water being the precious, disappearing resource that it is here – but damnit, Jim, I wish it would pour during the work week, so all us movers of soil can get something done on our few days off.

Even so, despite the weather I’ve made slow, steady progress on the back hill terrace building since we returned from the Farm, mostly in the hour or so of daylight after work, since the weekends have been wet, very wet.  As you can see, the second wall’s done, but the hard part of building the second terrace is still ahead.  There’s still an awful lot of ice plant to pull out and shred, and the hill is steeper here than at the bottom, which means there’s more soil to remove. 

I’m slowly working away at both.  With the help of my trusty Troy-bilt chipper-shredder, Chewie (named after the Star Wars Chewbaca), I am turning tons of overgrown ice plant into shredded mulch and building compost piles, lots of them.  I’m not sure how I would accomplish this project without the ability to convert this enormous volume of plant material into something useable, as there is so much of it, and the backyard is very small.  Disposing of garden trimmings here in suburbia usually means leaving bins out curbside for the collection trucks, but with Chewie at my service I’ve never had to let a single branch or pile of leaves go to waste.  This project is, however, the most he’s had to contend with, and it’s slow going, feeding the tangled, fleshy vines and old roots through.  But we’re getting there.

Moving the dirt is slow work, too.  Like the Incas building their high mountain terrace gardens in the Andes, I am carving out and hauling away the overburden by hand, in trugs, some of it going downhill to widen and level out the bottom edge, but most of it will have to be walked up the steps to the top of the yard, and piled somewhere until I figure out how much I will need for fill and what will be excess to give away.  The few inches of topsoil is getting peeled off before digging out the decomposed granite, to add to my stockpile of topsoil for the growing areas once construction is done.  

So the routine has been going like this:  I escape the squadron as early as I reasonably can, drive 40 minutes home through freeway traffic, and head straight out back for an hour or so of work before daylight is gone.  Once it gets dark, it’s time to make dinner, wash up dishes, and drag myself to bed.  Every little bit helps, believe me – last night I carved out  another four feet at the curved corner, and I’m hoping to get enough of the second bed leveled this week to have room to stack the next order of blocks on Monday.  This weekend is Drill Weekend for the Reservists, so we’ll work straight through.  It’ll probably be beautiful and sunny, too!  Just my luck.

But every morning I take a cup of coffee down to the first level and sit to watch the dawn break over the canyon, and listen to the  birds start to wake up and begin their songs, and I’m newly energized to do whatever little bit I can do that day, even if it’s just a few loads of dirt or a couple of trugs filled with ice plant hiked up the hill.  Because I can see the finished project in my mind’s eye, and remember what the hill looked like before I started, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the process of transforming the one thing into the other.  I could pay someone to do this, but it wouldn’t be the same.

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Container-grown broccoli

I’m only feeding the two of us, so a few container-grown broccoli plants are gracing our table with plenty of goodness this winter.

The brussels sprouts will follow close behind; I’m anxiously awaiting their bounty.

On the way down to the mailbox yesterday I stopped to chat with our neighbor Les, who was conversing with another neighbor from up the street aways, an older gent named Bill, who it turns out is also a container vegetable gardener.  Those of us with small yards must grow what we can, where we can.  Bill was interested to hear of my terracing project and rued the fact his backyard hill faces north, which rules out growing vegetables there.

I advised him to tear up his front yard and plant his vegetable garden there.  I was not kidding.  It was good to talk with someone who goes to the same trouble I do to grow a little bit of food for their table.  Here in suburbia we are a dying breed. 

My passion for growing and putting by my own food is a thing of wonder to my neighbors, friends, and coworkers.  I am born to it, and have felt this urge since I learned to cook and garden and can at my mother’s elbow; it is purt’ near genetic, as far as I can tell.  And that’s just fine by me.  Keeps me out of the atrocities they call grocery stores.

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