Fall Gardening Project

Today was a lovely fall day. While the sky was clouded over, the sun did peek out every now and then, its diffuse winter-ish light a testament to our planet’s progress on its journey to the “far side” of the sun. The temperature was cool, but after feeding the pigs and chickens and moving the chicken tractor I soon tossed off my knit wool cap and vest. With those chores out of the way I was ready to tackle my fall gardening project. Today was the day I planned to get my garden in shape for winter, with a look ahead to spring.

Last year I just about broke my back digging raised beds out of our hard, rocky soil. I’d planned to green manure the beds but an early snowfall killed the small-seeded fava beans before they got a chance to germinate. I also hadn’t gotten my fence finished, so the various animals that parade through our field managed to compress the soil somewhat over winter. By spring I had sunken beds that needed intense chopping and hoeing to become suitable for planting. Despite these failures we did get some early salad greens and we’re still enjoying tomatoes, although I’m unsure how much longer they’ll be ripening. But some stuff just didn’t grow well, and the problem was shallow soil that was low in nutrients and organic matter. So my goal this time around is to build up the soil over winter so that I get deeper soil, beds that are actually higher than ground level, and a higher nutrient content in the soil. Sure, I could just go buy a truckload of topsoil, but I didn’t want to go that route. We don’t own a pickup truck, it’s expensive to buy topsoil, and I wouldn’t really know where the stuff had come from. I wanted to do it myself.

I had two strategies under consideration, and I ended up trying both of them today. First up was the Lasagna Garden. This is a way to build up a plantable garden over winter. Basically, you lay some kind of paper product (newspaper, cardboard, etc) on the ground in the shape of your garden-to-be. Then you make a “lasagna” by layering compostable materials, alternating between “green” (e.g. grass clippings, kitchen scraps) and “brown” (e.g. straw, hay, dried leaves) layers. The stuff rots down over winter to become humus-rich soil full of organic matter and perfect for spring planting.

I started with the layer of paper products, in our case feed bags. I’d been saving these up and had a rather tall stack of them. They are made of two layers of heavy-duty paper, sewn shut with string, and contain only a small amount of glue along the bottom and top seams between the two layers. I decided not to be a purist; I don’t think the amount of glue is enough to contaminate my garden. And as I didn’t have enough cardboard or any newspaper around it seemed the smartest way to make use of something that would otherwise be tossed into the recycling box. I already had the outline of a bed – it was one I’d dug last year and didn’t use this year, so it was weedy and hard. A good candidate, I thought, for this “no-dig” garden method.

After bringing the pile of feed bags to the garden, I brought out my brand-new wheelbarrow (yikes, are these things expensive! but being the procrastinator I am, I simply didn’t have time to shop around for a used one; at least I know I’ll get lots of use out of it). I headed to the compost pile and rolled back the logs barring the bottom front, and took a good look at what I had. I’d started this pile over a year ago but I don’t seem to have much luck with compost. My first attempt at our last house resulted in a soppy, wet, yucky mess littered with eggshells. I hadn’t included enough brown matter. This time I seem to have erred in the other direction. I added straw whenever I dumped a bucket of kitchen scraps on the pile, and now I had a whole lot of brown matter but nothing that looked like soil. Still, I could clearly see some rotting food scraps in there.

To make matters more complicated, I’d dumped lots of weeds from the garden on the pile last month and I’m quite sure many of them were in seed. This is a no-no when using compost to build a garden bed. But I decided it would be much easier to just weed a lot next spring than to try and separate the stuff now (probably impossible, anyway). Not one to be easily deterred I filled up my wheelbarrow and began piling it on top of the feed bags. It wasn’t really a lasagna, since I only had two layers. But since my compost seemed to be a mixture of brown and green (okay, more brown but still…) I decided to just lay it on the paper and hope for the best.

When I was done I realized that I was still missing an ingredient from the usual lasagna recipes: soil. I wasn’t sure how important this was, and looking around me I wondered where I would get soil from. Our field is so thickly planted with grass that you can’t put a shovel into it, and I didn’t want to tear up part of the field anyway. What lies around the edges isn’t thickly grown because the soil there is pretty crappy stuff and I couldn’t see how adding dusty, rocky, lifeless “soil” was going to help me build a garden bed. I knew the soil underneath my feed bags was in bad shape, so adding a top layer of soil would probably be a good thing. But I wasn’t about to go buy some. As I stared off into the distance I thought how silly it was to live on 4 acres and not have a ready source of soil, and then the answer hit me. I was staring at our woods! The ground in there is lovely humus, rich with leaves and bugs. If I scraped some of it off the walking paths I wouldn’t be depriving the forest itself of much, and I’d be clearing up some trails at the same time. So with my wheelbarrow and shovel I headed into our woods.

It was lovely work. The dirt smelled wonderful, and it came up with a nice layer of rotting leaves. It had the perfect texture and “tilth”, and I laughed to myself that I had discovered the perfect source of soil right here in our own woods – free for the taking! I only needed two wheelbarrows full (about 12 cu ft total) to cover up my garden bed. But that was enough for my back muscles anyways. And I got this in just one small patch of pathway. Not only did I solve today’s problem, but now I know I’ve got a wonderful source of humus for topping up beds when I plant next spring.

The finished bed looked pretty good, I thought:

Though I won’t be surprised if it breaks down so much that it’s not very high come spring. Still, it’s a start!

The other option I’d considered for building soil was trying the green manure thing again. Since I had used all my compost and feed bags on the one large bed, I decided I might as well try seeding the smaller beds. However, once again I improvised based on what I had on hand, not feeling like spending my Sunday-in-the-garden driving around to nurseries instead. I had a lot of small-seeded fava beans left over from last year, but they had been inoculated back then and sat in a plastic bag in the potting shed all year long. I figured it was a total crap shoot as to whether these things would germinate, but what the heck. Last year I’d sprinkled them on top of the soil, which I think was a mistake. This year I took the time to plant them in rows, gently covering them up with my hands. I used a pretty dense line of seeds assuming that I’d be lucky if half of them germinated. It was quick work and I enjoyed it very much.

And, just for the heck of it, I scattered some of them on top of my lasagna bed. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t germinate, but if they did I’d have some extra organic matter to turn into it next spring before planting.

As I was doing this I discovered that my kale seemed to have come back to life in the last couple of weeks. I’d planted it in summer, really not the right time, and it looked small, sickly, and pale all that time. I’d given up on it when, to my surprise today, I discovered it had been revived by the cool wet weather. That was a nice bonus to an already lovely day of hard work. Looking forward to toasting up some kale chips soon!

Categories: being green, gardening, know your food, outdoor projects, working the land | 4 Comments

Fall on the Farm

Fall is definitely here. It was amazing how quickly it happened. But I’m not complaining. Despite our very short summer I still love autumn. I think it’s my favourite season. Today’s post will tell a disjointed story in pictures, but the overall theme is: here’s what’s going for us these days!

┬áThe chickens are starting to look like…well, like chickens. They have most of their feathers now, but with the evenings getting pretty cool I’m keeping their heat lamp on at night. I’m proud to say we didn’t lose a single chick. I’m wondering if this is because the feed store had them for the first 24 hours and got them past the worst of it. But with 25 birds I’ve got two feeders going now and will have to add another water bucket too so I only have to fill them once a day. These guys eat and drink a lot! I’m moving the tractor pretty much every day, and they have gotten into the spirit now. When I begin to move it they all rush forward to the new clover and grass and dig in. Just like the other chickens, if either the feed or the water gets empty they will crowd around the walls closest to the house and just stare, apparently in the hopes of catching someone’s eye. Guess they aren’t so dumb after all!

The garden is looking neat, if not productive, since I finally got around to mowing the grass. Next year I plan to lay down some sawdust or wood chips to create proper pathways between the beds. While we did get a fair bit of lettuce before it bolted, there wasn’t much else going on this summer, except for the tomatoes! Those five plants have eight neighbours in a row outside the view in this photo, and most of them have done well. We’ve been eating tomatoes every day for weeks now, and my new favourite meal is bacon and eggs with fried tomatoes – so sweet! I know with the weather cooling and the rainy season on its way our tomato days are numbered. Hopefully I can pick all the green ones before that time comes and ripen what I can indoors. It will be incredibly depressing to go back to grocery store tomatoes. I’ve given up on a fall/winter garden in exchange for working on soil building. My raised beds are actually sunken beds with very little topsoil, so my plan this fall is to do some mulching with paper feed bags, compost, dry leaves, cut plants (like mullein, which grows in abundance here and fixes nitrogen) and any other organic matter I can get my hands on. My hope is to have much deeper and richer soil in time for spring planting next year.

We took the tarps off our lumber when the dry season started, but soon they’ll be tarped up again. We’ve had two days of sunshine during which we laid the huge tarps out to dry. Tomorrow we’ll put them back over the lumber. While building the chicken tractor earlier this year I noticed the wood was still a bit wet in the middle, so more drying will be a good thing. We are thinking about using the lumber to build a greenhouse, and some exciting opportunities for a barter are in the works. A local family we know through our homelearning network needs firewood, and we have it in abundance. They are willing to exchange experienced labour (carpentry, no less) so we may use that to get a start on the green house. I’ll keep you posted on that project!

The leaves are starting to turn around here, but we simply don’t get anything close to the spectacular show seen in the eastern parts of our continent. Here you can see a Western Flowering Dogwood, its leaves turning a lovely shade of red. It would probably look much better, however, if the leaves weren’t so dry and dead-looking. Still, I will be collecting the leaf fall for mulching and composting this year, and in that case it really doesn’t matter how pretty they are! In the background of this photo you can see our bushy Sitka Alder tree. A resident Stellar’s Jay has returned, sending out his raucous call every morning. He/she was here last year and it is neat to see the bird has returned. It will be one more way to mark the seasons around here. Oh, and speaking of trees, I identified three new ones on the property in the last couple of weeks. We have a Western White Pine, the only one I’ve found around her so far, an Oregon Ash, and a Smooth Sumac. Being the categorization geek that I am, I maintain an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all the flora and fauna I have identified. There are over ten varieties of tree on my list now, and I’m sure I’ll find a few more in the future.

One surprise harvest that required no work at all in creating it was that of wild blackberries. The Himalayan Blackberry may be considered an “invasive species” but I’m not unhappy that a huge whack of them grew up around our big debris pile this year. After stumbling upon the plentiful berries yesterday while walking around the property, I stuffed myself silly and then, realizing there were still tons more, went back to the house to grab a bowl. I noticed that some large animals must have been trying to get at the berries too, as there were some paths trampled through the long growth around the berry patch. That made my job a bit easier, so I’m happy to share with the local wildlife.With only a few cuts and stabs from the evil spikes I filled up the bowl rather quickly (I sat it on a camping chair for this photo to provide some perspective on size). I’m planning on turning it into a low-sugar jam/spread and canning it (guess who picked up a complete canning kit recently?!). Then I can enjoy a taste of summer with my breakfasts for a while into the cold season. I’m sure even this big bowl will cook down to maybe only one or two jars, but perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll be able to harvest some more before they’re gone. One benefit of having so much property is allowing it to grow in some places. I’ll definitely be encouraging this “invader” in years to come!

The pigs have grown huge over the summer, and will be ready for harvesting in about another month. Which is a good thing because we ran out of bacon!! We’re excited about having lots of bacon, sausage, ribs, and pork roasts soon. I don’t think we really can appreciate how much meat we are going to get from these four critters, but I’m sure there will be more than we need, and I’m hoping next year to offer some pork shares to friends and family. The pigs have really enjoyed their pasture – you can see a bit of the wooded section here. They truly are forest creatures, preferring to spend hot days and even rainy days under the trees, despite the fact that they have a shelter. They didn’t end up doing too much damage to the area, proving that we have a good ratio of pigs to land in this pasture. While we wanted them to clear things out a bit, we didn’t want to denude the land. I’m sure their manure will provide a new bounty of shoots and roots next spring for the next round of pigs.

On another, dreamier note, I decided over the summer to change my plans for the layout of the farm. The northwest corner of our property is the highest point, and has a nice large flat area that is just calling out for a lovely cob house to be built there. I’d originally dismissed the idea because the tall forest on the west side of the property robs the spot of sun relatively early in the day. However, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. Many a time I’ve gone up there to sit and reflect and admire the view, imagining that one day I’ll be seeing this view from our living room or south-facing deck. These two photos show the view, with a bit of overlap:

The lumber piles on the right are along the west border of the property, and that tall treeline continues on down the hill beyond the debris pile (this photo is facing due south). Husband and I have also decided that horses will be part of our future farm (more on those exciting developments in a subsequent post!) and the spot where the debris pile and scrap logs are sitting is a nice flat area that is just crying out for a barn. We’ll clear a strip about half the width of that photo all the way down to the bottom of the property for a pasture. But I’d like to keep the woods on the east side as they are of a different, and unique, composition (lots of cherry trees, maples, stinging nettles, and pacific bleeding hearts compared to the mostly fir and salal of the west side). The garden will stay where it is, but I’m trying to figure out how not to make it look like a stockade while still keeping out the deer. I could put a perimeter deer fence around the whole place, but I don’t want to shut out the elk who wander through this very field regularly throughout the year, so I’ll have to figure out something. On the left side of the left photo you can see my compost bins, and behind them one of the big maple trees I love. Meanwhile, whenever I need to think, cool off, or just want to take it all in I come and sit up here (on that cinder block) and dream about our plans for the future. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I realize that we finally got our piece of land. And while it is still a work in progress, I’m very much in love with this place.

Categories: country scenes, critters, gardening, know your food, outdoor projects | Leave a comment

Summertime Happenings

It’s hard to believe that summer is almost over. I’ve started doing some major mowing and weed trimming in order to tidy up the property now that the worst of the growing season is over. In the woods the forest of stinging nettles is starting to fall and views are opening up again. I love how the whole look of those woods changes with the seasons. We’ve only been here through two summers now but already it feels like a continuous cycle of changes, with each new season bringing back memories of last year. There hasn’t been much done in terms of projects around the place – money was a bit tight this summer and we focussed on the livestock and garden. Hopefully come fall things will pick up and we can tackle some of the bigger stuff on our wish list – like putting in more fencing.

The pigs are getting huge and we’ll be booking a date for them to head off to “Freezer Camp” soon. Last year we basically randomly picked various cuts of meat and processing types and we learned what we need more and less of. Ground pork features prominently in the adults’ diet, and my son enjoys my homemade sausage patties. Both kids love sausages, and we’ve found a wonderful local sausage maker whose gluten-and-dairy free offerings are perfect for my son’s special diet. We’ll be sending him a huge batch of trimmings from our pigs so he can turn them into a freezer full of sausages for us. We’ll also be getting much more bacon this time around, and now that I’ve learned how to make pulled pork from roasts we’ll keep those in the order as well.

Our home-grown chickens are simply delicious – juicy and meaty and full of good stuff. Today we picked up a new batch of meaties, cute little chicks who will require another freezer in 8 weeks’ time. It was so easy this time around with the brooder and chicken tractor all ready to go. Raising your own meat couldn’t be easier when all is in place. Here’s hoping our experience prevents us from losing as many chicks as we did the first time around (normal for newbies – the little guys get stressed so easily!). We also didn’t bring them into the house this time, being more confident about what they need. They are in the garage for now.

In the garden the tomatoes have been enjoying the heat (finally!) and I harvested my first meal-sized batch of them today. I have a selection of varieties but don’t ask me to name them all! Their ripening has coincided with my pot of basil growing to harvesting size, so all I need is a batch of mozzarella balls and we’ll be enjoying some yummy Calabrese salads over the next few weeks!

Categories: critters, gardening, know your food | Leave a comment

Pigs and Chickens (and Veggies), oh my!

We got a surprise this past Friday – our pigs are ready to come home! Either we miscalculated the time, or they are from a slightly earlier batch of piglets, but they were ours as of Saturday. As much as we wanted to pick them up right away, we had to ask if we could wait until the following weekend because we had already booked a 3 day holiday and did not want to leave less than 24 hours after bringing the piglets home (and Husband – who needs to complete the wiring for the electric fence – was leaving for the mainland the day after we got back). Thankfully, the farm was very accommodating and we’ll be picking them up together, with the kids, this Sunday.

The farm, by the way, is Sloping Hill Farm located in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. They sell their product to some of the top restaurants in Vancouver and elsewhere and we are very pleased to have developed a good relationship with them. When we bought piglets from them last year they informed us they’d never sold them before! But when Husband contacted them they just happened to have some extras. They were very particular about how the pigs would be housed and treated (which aligned with our plans exactly), which only raised our respect for them. We kept in touch regarding how they fared, they apparently approved, and so now we are regular customers!

In other unexpected good news, the chicks I ordered will be ready a week ahead of schedule. They arrive next Wednesday! Setting up a brooder won’t be hard – I can pick up all the supplies at the farm supply store. Then I’ll have two weeks to make the chicken tractors for when they are ready to move outside. I need to find a good set of plans (by browsing through the dozens on but we have the lumber and the chicken wire so I don’t think it will be too much trouble to put something together. Meanwhile, our field is dense with clover and other yummies, so I hope the birds will be happy during their brief stay with us.

With things moving a bit faster than planned, some aesthetic details are being overlooked for now. I won’t have the pasture looking as neat as I’d hoped – some of the wood piled around will doubtless not make it out. It really doesn’t matter as they have a 1/2 acre to roam and they’ll likely dig up a good deal of it anyways. We won’t have the new roof for the shed done, either, though we can certainly work on that after they are here. My garden won’t get any better-looking in terms of fencing, either, but it’s functional for now and appears to be keeping the critters out. But planting more seeds won’t take long, thanks to the beds being pre-dug last fall, and so I should be able to add to the summer harvest soon.

I’ve been thinking about how much I want to have a nice-looking farm, but really the most important thing is growing the food. For that, all you really need is the land (and the right zoning, I suppose). An open field, nothing fancy, will support our chickens. Another chunk of land supports the pigs (and really, they did fine with the portable electric fencing we had last year, it was just a bit more work for us). The garden fencing was inexpensive and relatively easy to put up. Sure it looks ugly, but it keeps the critters out. Don’t get me wrong, I want a nice-looking place, too. But that can wait, and it’s really cool to realize that it’s not a barrier to having a freezer full of chicken, pork, and veggies (assuming there are any leftover from the harvest that we don’t eat fresh and that will freeze well). Once the pigs and chickens are here and settled, and the rest of the veggies are planted, I can devote other sunny days to sprucing up the place (and may even get around to mowing the dandelion-and-weed jungle growing in front of the house). In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying having animals around the farm again and knowing that we are supplying our family with the healthiest and best food you can grow!



Categories: critters, gardening, know your food, outdoor projects | Leave a comment

Permaculture Site Plan: 1st Draft

I’ve been very busy these past few weeks: on any given sunny day, and on several slightly rainy ones, I could be found outside with my 100 ft tape measure, a stake and a mallet, and a sheaf of paper (sometimes wrapped in a clear plastic bag). I was using triangulation to create an accurate map of our property and the major features on it: driveway, house, shed, etc. It took me a few days to get all the measurements, and parts were tricky. In order to use triangulation to locate a specific object in space you must start with two known points that, together with the object, form a triangle. Our property is large and does not contain many two-point features, so often I had to work my way out to a desired object, by locating two trees I could use, or even by planting stakes in the ground.

The result of all this hard work (and a bit of fun with a compass and square-ruler that took me back to grade-school geometry class) was this:

This shows the complete North boundary (North is Up), and the east and west boundaries. The southern boundary is not shown, as it lies way down the page. What you see is approximately half the true length of our property. The Northern boundary lies some distance from our street, which runs west to east, ending at a dead end about halfway along the length of our northern boundary. East from there one enters the forest through a hiking trail. So while it looks as though the house is practically on the street edge, in fact we have a fair amount of yard that extends northwards past the true property boundary to the street.

The dotted lines show the Right of Way (ROW) for the local utility company. A pair of residential power lines runs through this corridor (the poles are not on our property) and there are restrictions on building within this area.

Our driveway begins in the northeast corner and wraps around the house so that the area marked by solid lines including the house, garage, and shed is all gravel save for the tear-drop shaped garden area in front of the deck. This area, enclosed by the solid lines, is flat, having been dug into a hillside. Thus the shaded area behind the garage and part of the house, which is a steep grade of earth that rises abruptly to the high point on our property – the northwest corner. Standing at the northwest corner of the garage the earth rises about 8 feet almost straight up, but quickly comes down as one walks southwards, so that at the site of the shed the land is only a couple of feet higher than the grade around the buildings.

The roadway that extends downwards from the main living area is, as of right now, dirt and rather loosely defined. It wanders southwards until, within the ROW it turns to the west and leads out of the property through a gate, and into the forest next door.

Using this map I was able to play with siting our future cob house. I cut out a square whose dimensions corresponded to 33 x 60 ‘ (2000 sq ft) and moved it around to see where it would fit. I wanted the parking area to be north of the house so that the southern views were not marred by cars, which also renders the south yard area quite unusable. I wanted to avoid doing any more grading and earth moving if possible (I hate the fact that they dug into the hillside in the first place: it looks like a wound on the earth having that great wall of earth rising up behind the buildings). And we could not have the building anywhere within the ROW. Since there is a neighbour to the east with a house close to the property boundary we wanted to avoid building along the east side. I eventually settled on a site for the future house, though mostly for the purposes of moving forward with the design process: I’m not certain this is where it will end up, but it gave us a starting place.

It then took some time and many false starts to finally come up with a plan for how to divide up the property into the various Zones of permaculture.

This map is almost the entire property; it should actually extend a bit further down but I decided not to be accurate there for the sake of having a manageable paper size. The living area shows the future house (largest black rectangle). Zone 1 is outlined in pink and will contain the kitchen garden, patio and other outdoor living areas. Zone 2 is outlined in yellow and will include more kitchen garden plants, including some dwarf fruit trees and berries, a greenhouse, chicken coop, greywater ponds, rainwater harvesting barrels and cisterns.

Zone 3 will contain most of our polyculture guilds: fruit and nut trees around which guilds are built. These will form our Food Forest. It also contains a spot for drying out logs and milled lumber (brown area on west side). Finally, this Zone contains our water harvesting system, which I’ll now describe in detail.

When it rains, a small stream forms that runs into our property through the West Gate. This is water that comes out of the forest and collects along the power line roadway (which forms a natural ditch that directs water onto our site). A substantial amount of water flows through here during the wet season and we wish to capture and store it and use it to our advantage. So the dark blue line starting at the West gate shows my idea for digging a proper ditch that would then have to run under the road (a simple culvert would do) to get to our Zone 3. This ditch would feed into a system of swales – ditches that run on contour, on the downward side of which are mounds of earth (berms) that are planted with polyculture guilds. The swales capture the water, spread it out over a long stretch, where it slowly sinks into the berms and irrigates the plantings on the berms. Each swale has an overflow area that feeds into the swale below. I’ve only drawn two swales here but probably we have room for 3 or more (this area slopes rather steeply to where I’ve drawn the larger pond). The final swale feeds into the pond. Right now this area is a seasonal “giant puddle” that is overgrown with salmonberry bushes. We’d like to dig it deeper and turn it into a true pond, create a wetland garden around it, and figure out how to make it less permeable so it holds the water year-round. This area will then be home to some geese and ducks, who will do double-duty providing eggs and meat as well as patrolling the food forest for slugs. There will be an overflow for the large pond – a gravel-filled trench, that will lead eastwards under the roadway (culvert) to a smaller, secondary pond. This is currently another seasonal “large puddle” where salmonberries abound. We may try to fix it so it is still wet when the pigs are here, providing them with a place to cool off. But the main source of water for the pigs will be a rainwater harvesting system on the distillery building.

The “roundabout”-looking thing in Zone 3 is a large bigleaf maple tree that sits atop a hill, near the centre. We plan to extend the dirt road and make it go around the tree. From this point southwards the property is all woodland. The brown dotted lines are current trails through the forest. The future Distillery building will go east of the maple tree; an area will be cleared to the south of the building to allow solar access, and within that part of Zone 3 will be more fruit and nut guilds with which my husband hopes to create some interesting spirits.

The light green areas are Zone 4, which can be divided into 3 sections. The first lies along the east side of the driveway and is currently full of trees and shrubs. We’re going to leave this as is for now, as it provides a nice privacy screen to the neighbour’s house. South of that area is a roughly 1/4 acre pasture which will house our pigs each spring/summer. We’re hoping there is enough land in there for them to graze without completely digging up the place, but if necessary we can divide it up into 2 or 3 sections and rotate them through it. The third section of Zone 4 is north of the house. This will be a reserve grazing area for the pigs should the other pasture not be sufficient in size to prevent them overgrazing it.

The grey lines show where we plan to install permanent fencing. The entire area from the house to at least the southern edge of Zone 3 will be perimeter fenced so that deer and elk cannot get into the food forests (I’ve shown it extending around the entire southern half of our property, but am no longer sure if we need to do that). However, I wanted to include in our plans a way for the local elk herd to continue visiting our property. It has been such a wonderful and meaningful experience to wake up to the sight of these gorgeous animals grazing so close to our house, and I wanted to include them in our design plan. So you’ll note that, in the northern section of Zone 4, the permanent fencing ends about halfway along the northern boundary as you approach from east to west. This is so we can leave it open when not in use by the pigs. The elk have been accessing the property through the northwest corner (which is forested) and grazing along the western strip of pasture, then leaving through the West Gate. So by leaving that part unfenced we retain their access. The bit of permanent fencing can easily be closed off by running a short length of temporary fencing (dotted grey lines) for when the pigs need to use it. Removing the temporary fence will open up that part to the elk when the pigs are not using it. Thus, the area in red denotes Zone 5: the wild, untouched zone.

This leaves the bottom 2 acres below Zone 3 to design. I scribbled some notes in there, but have since changed my mind. In wandering through the woodland this winter I’ve fallen in love with it again and am increasingly distressed at the thought of disturbing it much further. I’m hoping that the area already set aside for Zone 3 will provide enough fruit and nut trees to keep my husband happy. Then I could leave the rest as is, though I have some ideas to experiment with what is called “ecosystem to plants” design, basically starting with the current woodland as a template and adding or replacing certain other plants to increase ecosystem health, restore at-risk native species, or just experiment with new polyculture blends. I’ll talk more of this in a future post about my upcoming farm project, which involves this area. For now, I’m hoping to leave this area “as is” and see what we can do with it while preserving its unique beauty.

Well, if you’ve followed me thus far I hope I’ve kept you interested. The process of permaculture design is fascinating to me and I’ve really enjoyed the process so far.

Categories: gardening, know your food, learning, permaculture, water works, working the land | 2 Comments

Preparing new garden beds

The kids have been busy this fall with swimming lessons, art class, skating, and other adventures. In between times I’ve been heading outside whenever the weather permits in an effort to build my new vegetable garden before the weather gets too cold and wet.

I’m following the method espoused by Steve Solomon in his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (my gardening bible). I’m digging a series of six raised beds for a total of 800 sq ft of planting space (the photo above shows one 4 x 25 foot bed complete, and a 2 x 25 foot bed almost complete). It has been hard work, and I made the mistake of doing too much too fast when I first started. I’ve since given myself permission to take the time needed to do the work without stressing my body, and I’m feeling much better about the project now.

The ground I’m working was cleared this past spring and seeded with a mix of grasses and legumes (clover). The heavy mats of sod break up fairly easily with my Rogue Hoe rake hoe (can’t say enough good things about their hoes – we own four of them), but it does require some muscle power and it’s quite a workout. What makes my task so much more difficult is that, while we have lovely topsoil, it is very rocky. I’m constantly tugging out large rocks and occasionally large boulders, too. To get them out of the ground, this country newbie referred to another tome I own and love, The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It. In the chapter on land clearing by hand, John Seymour describes a method for removing large boulders from the ground. Using a pry bar one lifts an edge of the rock as high as possible and slips in a rock or two underneath. Continue doing this until the boulder is propped up on a few rocks, then repeat on the other side of the boulder. Work back and forth on both sides until you raise the boulder up to ground level and can then roll it out of the way. I found this technique to be as simple and effective as it sounded, and there is something quite satisfactory about seeing a boulder almost 3 feet in diameter sitting atop the grass, knowing that I got it up there myself!

Once I’d chopped up the soil about 12 – 18 inches deep with the hoe and raked it back in, I then went over the top few inches with a metal yard rake and removed any clumps of sod, sticks, smaller rocks, and other debris that I could. I mixed a bit of sea soil (a compost mix made mostly from kelp and fish) into the top inch or two. I’ll follow that with some lime (our soil is acidic) and finally some complete organic fertilizer (a la Steve Solomon) before seeding it with small-seeded fava beans. These are not for eating: they will serve as a cover crop. Their roots will keep the soil light and fluffy over the winter, the cover of leaves will hold off some of the heavy winter rain so the soil doesn’t get overly wet (and thus lumpy and hard to dig), the roots will absorb the rain and transpire the moisture through the leaves, and by early spring I’ll be able to yank out the plants and have a nice fluffy bed in which to plant vegetable seeds.

The final piece of this project is to build a fence around the entire garden area to keep out deer and elk. We’ve just had some lumber milled and the edges (flat on one side, bark on the other) will make good fence boards (they’re fir, and won’t last long, but this garden is only to last 3 years according to the long-term rotation plan in Solomon’s book). I will make fence posts out of saplings that we cut down (and will likely have to cut down a few more to get the 14 I need). I love that this fence will cost me almost nothing to build (I’ve recently developed a very healthy respect for the cost of farm fencing) and that I will be doing it myself. Finally, I’ll rig up a couple lines of electric fence tape to keep the large ruminants from attempting to jump the fence, and I’ll tack some netting up around the inside to keep out our local wild rabbits.

I’m very proud of this project, as it the first time I’ve attempted something on this scale with respect to hard, physical labour (as a side bonus I’ve lost about 2-3 pounds). And of course I’m very excited about the prospect of having a “real” vegetable garden for the first time. Mostly though, I’m happy that this work has felt so satisfying – as much as I dreamed about having a homestead, part of me wondered if it would be all I thought it would be when we got there. I’m pleased to report that, so far, I’m enjoying it all very much!

Categories: gardening | 3 Comments

Driveway Facelift

Note: this post was originally published on October 6 on my other blog

With the end of summer upon us, and winter just around the corner, now is the time to get some Farm Projects crossed off our list before it gets too cold and wet. A couple of weeks ago we bought a shed. It’s nothing special, a vinyl lock-together model, but we got it half-price. The hardware store left them out in the open display area after weeks of no rain and, of course, it promptly rained and ruined the cardboard boxes the sheds were packed into. So for half-price we simply had to stack the pieces in the back of the truck, sans boite.

We planned to put it along the field side of our parking/garage area at the end of our driveway. This section was muddy and apparently had never been gravelled. The rest of the driveway had been at some point but the weeds had taken over and it sorely needed a new layer of rocks. We realized that it would be handy to put down some gravel under the shed foundation, and since there’s a gravel supply place not far from here it turned out to be quick and easy to just get a whole dumptruck full of the stuff. We figured we’d do the whole parking area, including the shed region, and however much of the driveway we could on one load.

The guy came and did the best he could at spreading it evenly given our highly curved driveway and parking area. But we still had numerous piles and, without a ‘dozer of any kind, we were left to spread the gravel with nothing but a small spade, two metal rakes, and our own sweat and hard labour.

I have to admit it felt good to get out there and Work again, something I haven’t really done since we prepped the new field for seeding. It took a couple of days for us to spread the stuff. Setting up the shed was easy. I added some logs around the border and made a couple neat parking spaces for the car and truck.

Then of course I realized how ugly my overgrown, weedy garden looked so I tackled that next. The photos below show what the garden side of the parking area looked like before and after the gravel was spread and you can see the overgrown garden in the “before” shot. In the “after” shot you can actually see the garden’s rock border AND the bit of lawn behind it…

And here are before and after shots of the shed area (note our Elk herd in the background of the “before” shot!):

Not only is it great having the extra storage space (we can actually park the Quad in the garage again), but it was an excuse to tidy up an area that had become an eyesore and a dumping ground. Two trips to the dump and a truckful of gravel later, and wow – what a difference. Soon we’ll get another dumptruck load to finish off the rest of the driveway.

Categories: gardening, outdoor projects | 1 Comment

DIY Soil Test

I’m pretty new to this whole gardening thing, but I already knowthat there are different kinds of soil and they get treated differently by gardeners depending on their type. In my new gardening Bible, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, the author describes a very simple test that one can perform to determine what kind of soil you’ve got. I did this test yesterday and was surprised, and pleased, by the results.

Our first opportunity to take a good look at the soil around us was when we cleared land for our new pasture and had to rake it before seeding. I noticed variations in the composition of the soil as I moved around the area. While we are overloaded with rocks (thanks to the glaciers that shaped this land during the last ice age) I could still tell that some parts were thicker and softer than others, and some areas had way more insect life than others lurking under the surface. When we were looking for temporary spots for growing Husband’s heritage wheat and corn test plots, as well as a place to put the heirloom tomato transplants we’d picked up on a whim from a local organic farm, we chose sections of the new field that we knew had thicker, richer soil. However, it still didn’t look like the dark, rich loam that you get out of bags from the garden centre, and I wondered exactly what we had here.

Now that I’ve decided where my garden plot will be next year I’ve been reading more seriously in preparation for digging up my beds this fall. I had become quite convinced that we had clay soil because I’d seen it clump up, I’d seen it retaining water and puddling, and I’d seen it form a crust over the surface. Just goes to show you that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, or at least send you off in the wrong direction. Thankfully, I am an optimist and wanted to make doubly sure that I wasn’t going to have to deal with this, the most troublesome of soils. So I did the soil test.

You take about a half-litre of dry soil, remove as much organic matter as you can (leaves, twigs, etc) and rocks/pebbles, then crush it up as finely as you can. You put the dry soil in a 1-litre glass jar and mark a line on the jar where the top of the soil is. You then fill up the jar with water to about 1/2 inch below the top, add a few drops of low-sudsing dish detergent (natural or eco-friendly brands are low-sudsing), put the lid on and shake vigorously until it’s thoroughly mixed up. Put down the jar and exactly two minutes later mark a line where the first bits have settled out. Exactly two hours later mark another such line, and then two days later mark the final line. These will represent the fractions of sand, silt, and clay in your soil. The proportions of each together will allow you to identify your soil.

As you can see from the photo at the top, our sand fraction (line 1) is about 1/3 of the total soil volume (top line) and silt (line 2) makes up about 1/2 the volume. The clay still hasn’t settled out although it won’t be two days until tomorrow. Still, based on what has settled out over the last 24 hours I’m guessing it will take a lot longer (Solomon says that it could take up to a month for that fraction to settle if it’s very fine). Nevertheless, I already have enough information to go on.

I wasn’t too sure about the sand part because the water was so murky it was hard to tell what had settled and what hadn’t. I just gently wiggled the jar and drew the line between the part that swished with the movement and the part that didn’t. How’s that for scientific? You can see a line of demarcation between lines 1 and 2 in the photo, and I wondered if maybe I’d marked line 1 incorrectly. However, even if the true location of line 1 is where that demarcation is it doesn’t change the results that much. Sandy soils are defined as being more than 70% sand (according to Solomon) and that demarcation is around 50%. The good news is that the clay fraction is definitely less than 1/3 of the total soil volume, which means we don’t have Clay Soil.

What we have is Loam, classified as soils with mostly sand and silt and less than 1/3 clay. Ours trends towards Silty Soil due to the large silt fraction relative to sand, although if I’m mistaken about the true location of line 1 then it trends towards loam or sandy loam. Either way we are dealing with good news. When I read the section on Fine Loam and Silt Soil (page 66 if you have the book) the description of these soils fit ours to a tee which further convinced me of the validity of the results: soils with greater density due to the clay being fine, with smaller pore spaces and thus slower drainage; they also tend to form surface crusts and contain enough clay to form clods easily if tilled up when wet. The good news is they tend to be more fertile than other types of soil. The challenges with this type of soil is the surface crust which can be managed by adding thin layers of compost and only working it in the top layer (my new colinear Rogue Hoe, which I will write about soon, makes this a breeze, not to mention every time I weed with it I will be breaking up that surface crust) and by regular green manuring which I plan to do anyway (this means planting a cover crop any time the bed it not in use and tilling/mulching it into the soil when done).

While my gardening book is specific to the Pacific Northwest region of North America this soil test can be done by anybody and his explanations of the different soil types and their challenges would also apply. I also found this handy diagram for determining soil type based on your fractions:

When you use this diagram don’t make the mistake I made and eyeball your lines vertically (I’m used to reading graphs with vertical axes; note that the left and right axes on this diagram are angled). Follow the angled lines. So for example, if I was correct with my soil test and I have about 30% sand, 50% silt and 20% clay then I can start at the 30% mark on the bottom axis (sand) but as I follow it upwards I am moving to the left. I stop where it intersects with the line that angles to the right and ends at the 50 on the right axis (silt). I end up right on the border between Loam and Silt Loam. On the other hand, if I was inaccurate and I actually have close to 50% sand and 30% silt I end up in the right corner of the Loam section. Either way I have loam, not clay, and that makes me a happy camper!

Categories: gardening, working the land | 1 Comment

Lazy Days of Summer

Not much going on around the farm these days in terms of major projects. I have finally decided where my vegetable garden will be next year and that is a huge load off my mind. I’ve chosen to put it in the “back yard” (which actually fronts the street). Turns out that area gets way more sun than I thought (I’ve been watching it carefully throughout the day for the last couple of weeks) and it’s right outside my back door which makes for easy harvesting. Nobody really uses that part of the lawn and I noticed the grass is growing thick and healthy there (as opposed to higher up the gentle slope where it’s a sea of dandelions). According to my gardening bible I should make my raised beds in the fall, seed them with cover crops, and let them sit over the winter until it’s time for spring planting. I can’t wait!

Of course a garden means deer fencing and I’m trying to figure out how best to do this given that the fencing will be on the road frontage and along the driveway and nothing says “stockade” like 7 ft high fence posts. This article at Mother Earth News says that you can avoid the stockade look by putting in double fences – apparently deer have poor depth perception and won’t try to jump it. I’ll need to research that a bit more. Besides protecting the garden, I need to fence off an area around the house so the dog can’t run off the property. Right now she’s confined to the deck when necessary and I seem to be the only one who remembers to close the gate (in fairness, it’s used pretty heavily and it’s starting to sag so closing it requires some effort). I’m going to look into pricing soon so we can decide how much we can do at once and where it should go.

Meanwhile, summer is here and it is lovely. Here are some photos from around the farm:

My first tomatoes have ripened and they are delicious. These are Tiny Tims, I believe. I can’t believe these plants survived, let alone are producing fruit. I have only watered them once since planting (twice if you count tonight) and we’ve barely had any rain in weeks.

Husband planted some generic wildflower seed mix he bought at the feed store along the side of our new field bordering the parking area in front of the garage. They took forever to sprout and only one section of the strip produced anything. But what did grow there is putting on a lovely show of colour these days.

Finally, the crimson clover in our field has bloomed and it looks gorgeous. We’re pretty pleased with how the field turned out given we had no idea what we were doing when we raked and seeded it. The soil in places is pretty bad so we’re amazed stuff grew at all. It’s somewhat patchy in places but that could very well be due to our hand broadcasting technique (which we later read doubles the suggested seeding per square footage amounts). It’s no problem, though. We can reseed the field at the end of the season and should have a lovely thick field next spring.

Categories: country scenes, gardening, know your food | Leave a comment

the Fire Pit

It has been busy around here, as evidenced by my lack of posting. First, I had a major work project that took up most of the last week. Then my in-laws came for a visit. And of course the weather has been really nice and I’ve been outside whenever I can.

I finished a project this week in time for the family visit – a fire pit area with seating so we can roast hot dogs and socialize. The area had been used as a place to put cut logs and also any garbage found around the property as we were land clearing. This wasn’t just pop bottles and plastic wrappers, but many car parts, old strands of rusty barbed wire, roof flashing, car mats, etc. I finally got the stuff sorted and got Husband to haul it off to the dump. Then I cut down a few small maple trees and weed-whacked the heck out of it. Here’s the Before and After:

It’s conveniently close to the house, and the large Maple to the right of the photo provides lovely shade and dappled lighting. We have a couple more large logs to bring over for seating, and I need to level a ring around the firepit and finish it with rocks (the concrete blocks were salvaged from the stuff we dug up during our land clearing).

The only problem, potentially, is that this area is where our septic tank and drainage field are. The fire pit spot was already piled with ashes when we moved here, so someone had used it before. Still, we are going to do some experimental digging around there just to confirm that things are where we think they are. A fire pit on top of your septic tank would not only make inspections unpleasant, but the heat could melt the tank top. It could also melt the drainage pipes. We’re pretty sure that neither of those things are too close to the fire pit, but we’re going to check just to be sure.

I’ll end this post with a photo of some of the first strawberries to ripen. The small raised bed beside the trailer was full of them when we moved here and I have done virtually nothing with them. So I was delighted to see some red ones the other day – they haven’t reached their peak of ripeness but are still sweet and tasty. I don’t think these will last long! Oh, and when I was out walking the dog last night I saw my first ever wild strawberries; very cool!

Categories: gardening, know your food, lifestyle, working the land | 1 Comment

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