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Monday, May 2, 2016

Householding Update, May 2, 2016

Saturday Rae and I hit the Canby Garden Show, which appeared to not have as many vendors as in years past.  This made me wonder why: did the missing vendors decide it just wasn't worth the trouble? Did they go out of business?  I missed the vendor from whom I bought peppers the year before last- I especially wanted Italian roasting peppers, but couldn't find any. But I did find eggplant, bell peppers, Serrano peppers, (which reminds me I have to find tomatillo plants- note to self), three different tomatoes for slicing, and for which I didn't pay much (I'm finally getting around to trying a Brandywine this year), and a six pack of beets.  I also grabbed a lemon verbena plant, tarragon, English thyme, sage,  anise hyssop, and a couple of flashy geraniums, just because I like flashy geraniums.  Some of this will go into the ground tomorrow, but the herbs will have to wait because the new herb bed is not ready.  Well, I mean the box is built, but it's full of construction detritus and I still need to fill it with something, probably compost.  I'm going to guess that it will take all the ready compost that I have.

Then the other thing that got accomplished was I finally got off my duff and got some seed started.  I don't have the luxury of being able to eat just any old vegetable, so the selection is going to be limited.  That selection consists of tomatoes (for putting up), cucumbers, basil, scallions, bush green beans, French filet beans, and some more beets. Tomorrow I'll soak and then start some okra seed, which is a bit of an experiment this year.  Have I told you how much I love okra?  A neighbor in Jacksonville who grew up in the south turned me onto a wonderful dish called okra and tomatoes. You cook a mess of bacon and onions together, and then throw in a can (or jar, if you put them up yourself, you industrious thing you) and a mess of sliced okra.  Let it simmer for twenty minutes and then serve the whole thing over rice.  Delicious!  Except that I can't eat cooked onions or rice anymore.  So I've been cooking with garlic as the stand in for onions, and serving it over cauliflower rice.  The last time I made it I browned a couple of Italian sausages with the bacon, which I fished out, and then after I got the okra and tomatoes in, I laid the sausages on top of the whole thing to cook with the rest of it.  And I served the whole thing on grits. That was also pretty wonderful; I didn't know I could make it better, but those sausages went a long way in that department. Another okra dish that I love is fried okra.  I would rather snack on fried okra than popcorn any day.  So anyway, the okra plants will be an experiment, as I said.  They need some pretty consistent and serious heat, which we don't always have in the Pacific Northwest, but I bought the seed from Territorial Seed, which is in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and they said this variety did pretty well for them.

I just hope it does well for me, too!

Monday, April 25, 2016

I'm Back


Did you miss me?

I know it’s been awhile since I actually wrote something.  That’s because it’s been a weird year for me, the details with which I will not bore you. But suffice to say that because I did’t really have anything good to write about, I didn’t. I’m not sure I have anything of interest to relate at this juncture, but I feel the need to write. Lucky you.

I’m not sure if it’s a mild case of depression or the somewhat curtailed list of vegetables that I can still eat (which I think might be the cause of the mild depression - no it's not, it's because I can't drink anymore), but I’ve been having a real struggle with getting excited about gardening this year. Consequently, here it is toward the end of April already and I don’t have anything planted or started. Not. Seed. One.

I figure that I’ll buy starts this year for a lot of it, (CHEATER!) and eventually I’ll get off my duff and get some seeds started.  I did haul out my seed stash last week and threw out the inviable stuff  and then sorted out the seeds I want to start with.  And I ordered some seed- not a lot. I still didn’t get excited though.

What will be the summer bed
But today I was out digging up some weeds and throwing some ancient cabbage plants into the green barrel and I noticed that the soil in the bed in which I was working was looking pretty good.  And that changed my plans for the summer somewhat.  I was planning on planting said bed with Sudan grass and planting the large bed next to the deck with summer veg, but I think I’ll switch the beds, because soil next to the deck needs more work than the other bed.

Bed getting the Sudan grass
(the comfrey is doing just fine)

Sudan grass is something I’ve only recently heard about, but what I’m hearing sounds good. Nita over at Throwback at Trapper Creek, whose opinion on all things homesteading I respect mightily, calls it the cat’s meow.  Sudan grass has two things going for it: one is that it’s great for impacted soils because every time you cut it, it sends out more roots, so with each successive mowing it creates more biomass under the soil.  The second thing it has going for it, and this is important, is that it winter kills. It’s also reported to be great at smothering weeds, but I’ll believe that when I see it. So many other cover crops have made the same promise only to disappoint. The other thing that it’s good for but not so important to me is that it makes good livestock fodder, but there are very specific times to feed it because it’s toxic at the wrong times. You can’t feed it when it’s under eighteen inches tall and you can’t feed it around frost time, and definitely not after a frost. But in between those stages, it’s supposed to be very palatable.  I ordered my Sudan grass seed from High Mowing Seeds because they had the size I wanted and the best price for buying it that way.  At five pounds, their price is the same as Johnny’s Seeds ($19.00), but High Mowing has free shipping within the contiguous US. And I only need about a pound; Johnny’s Seeds didn’t offer a pound and it would have been somewhat ridiculous to order it by the quarter pound, and a lot more expensive. Plus, I would have had to pay a lot of shipping. Here is a paper from Oregon State University regarding Sudan grass should you want to learn more about it.

This weekend is the annual trip to the Canby Garden Show, which I like to hit with my buddy Rae.  Last year we managed to miss it because neither one of us was paying attention, but we’re not letting that happen this year.  We have it all planned out.  I’ll look for my nightshades, which are back on the menu (yay!), and then see what other kind of veg is available.  Possibly some herbs. So with that in mind, I need to get the big bed cleaned up this week and some compost thrown on it.  The weather will be hot (eighty-four and eighty-six Fahrenheit, respectively) on Sunday and Monday so all my starts will get to cool their jets in the shade over the weekend, and then next week I’ll get them into the ground.

I honestly can't think of
another word for this
other than disaster.
Something else that needs attention, but I'm dreading taking care of, is the greenhouse.  Oh what a disaster that is.  'How could you let this happen?' you ask. Well, I'll tell you.  I think I got the winter stuff planted too early; by the time I got the plastic up on it, most of what I'd planted was going to seed, which was  a huge bummer.  Then I ignored it all winter.  So this is what I get to deal with now. I promise it wasn't my intention to grow all that biomass.  It just sort of happened. Yeesh.  I think I'll have to take off the plastic so that I can get at it properly, which is just as well anyway; I need to replace the pieced plastic with a solid piece. I was being cheap, and while it was a noble experiment, it helped result in the aforementioned disaster. Ai yi yi.


Well there it is, for what it's worth. I'm back to wasting your precious time again.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Birth Of A Wooden House



I can't say whether it's my amazement at how good this guy is at building this house or the way this film was crafted, but this is currently my favorite all time film.  If you appreciate fine craftsmanship, and are intrigued by timber frame construction, this will appeal to you.  I can't get over how good this guy is, I mean, he even chamfers the edges of his cuts, and he does it all with hand tools.  From felling the trees in January in Latvia when the moisture levels are lowest (which will result in lighter, stronger lumber), to insulating with pine shavings, and finishing with the Japanese technique of Shou Sugi Ban, to plastering with a mixture of sand, clay, lime, linen fiber, salt and wheat flour, and heating the house with two different masonry ovens, one of which weighs five tons and will heat the house for two or three days on a single firing, I guess you could say this guy is my hero.

Sorry Steve.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

USDA Farm Bulletin Archive

Just in case you're interested, you can access a digital archive of USDA Farm Bulletins here.  They are historical, so they may not represent current USDA thinking, but I kind of think of that as an advantage...

There's a lot of good information here and you can download the bulletin into various forms; I'm currently reading how to make vinegar via PDF.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Just In Time For Autumn

This year's summer garden was a triumph for me.  The year's winter garden is shaping up to be less so.  My timing is still not right, I don't think.  In the foreground below, you can barely see the kales and beets (Red Ursa and Westlander kales, Cylindra and Boldor beets*) that I planted, and I have a bad feeling that they will not gain enough size by mid-October to be of much use this autumn or winter.  I also have some cabbages planted a little further back, but doubt they'll gain enough size as well. I think for winter harvests, you really have to get stuff into the ground in July, regardless of heat, and since my beds are occupied in July, that makes winter gardening much more of a challenge.  Obviously, I need another bed! But more on that later.


These are the cabbages (Red Acre and January King) I planted in one end of the covered row.  These, I think, will be fine.


The rest of the bed is planted with Andover parsnips and Berlicum carrots (and the occasional errant onion).  These will also be fine.  The challenge here will be getting the parsnips out of the ground when it's time; they are hard to dig because the bottom of the roots are firmly in clay. Ha! My parsnips have feet of clay!


In the big bed (which differentiates it from the long bed), I've planted chard, leeks, arugula...


winter peas,....


Walla walla and salad onions, lettuces, and winter radishes.


All of these are cold hardy but not frost hardy, so this year I am finally building the high tunnel greenhouse that I've been needing.  So I made this, which is a hip bender,....


so that I could take this one inch EMT conduit....


and turn it into this:


Here's how it works: you clamp the hip bender to a solid surface (in this case, my neighbor Larry's sturdy picnic table), and then you put in the conduit and starting at roughly the center of the piece, you bend it slightly, and pull it back and bend it a little more, and then pull it back and bend it a little more and so on until you have the bend you want.


This is the last section of yard left to put into production.  I'll have to move the clothes dryer, which doesn't make Steve happy, but it's got to be done.  Autumn is the best time of year to get a bed ready for the following spring, so I'll get to that once I get the greenhouse done.  My plan is to make the new bed exactly the size as the greenhouse, so that I can eventually move the greenhouse to the new bed.  The area gets more sun in the winter time, so that makes more sense.  Could I build two greenhouses? Of course, but I think I'd be pushing my luck with Steve if I did that.  I need to prove the usefulness of the first one before I try a second.  The black plastic area is where I attempted melons this year, which I will not repeat (probably).


And this is the marvelous broadfork I'll use to break up the new bed. No more tilling!  This is a People's Broadfork by Meadowcreature, which has twelve inch tines.  I would have loved to purchase the fourteen inch, but I couldn't pick it up without difficulty, it was just too heavy.  But then, I am a weakling.  I love my broadfork though!


* I won't be planting Boldor beets again- turns out it's an F1 hybrid, and I don't do hybrids for the simple reason that if I all of a sudden needed to save seed, I want to be able to do it.  So I buy only heirlooms or open pollinated seed.  The Boldor was a boo boo.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Annabelle Has Got To GO

We're down to three hens now.  Annabelle, our Blue Andalusian has had gender identity issues for a little while now and started crowing a couple of weeks ago.  This was after going broody, being cooled down in the Chicken Gaol, and resuming laying.  Yesterday on two separate occasions she hollered out her confusion and that was the third time she'd crowed this week.   Then she did it again this morning.  I live in a small municipality that allows hens but no roosters, and no one is going to believe in a crowing hen, so she had to go.  My buddy Rae came by around noon today to pick up my little miscreant and for her troubles (Rae's, that is), I sent her home with zucchini, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, turnips, turnip greens and beets.  And a very mad hen.

The remaining three are being strangely quiet...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Garden Update - June 2015

So far, this year's summer garden has been wonderful; probably the best I've ever grown.  Because of my needing to eat paleo (with a huge emphasis on the autoimmune protocol) we eat vegetables, usually at least two, with every meal, and the garden has been keeping up with us. Honestly, we're actually having a little  trouble keeping up with it.  I've been drying Costata Romanesco zucchini (on trays in the back of the car parked on the driveway- why not?), but otherwise we are sort of keeping up.  I needed to cull some rutabaga leaves because they were shading the carrots and parsnips and we've been eating them like greens with bacon and garlic (delicious), and we're finally done with the first culling.  Naturally, they need it done again.  If they don't make good bulbs this fall (they need cool weather to form a bulbous root), they will still have been worth the real estate because of their delicious leaves.  They produce a lot of food for the space they take, and that is always a plus in my book. The garden is still popping out new lettuce plants all the time; I succession planted more but that was really unnecessary.

Nasturtiums in the salad
 Summer showed up this year in early June of all times. Usually we don't get hot weather until the weekend of Independence Day, but we already have forecasts in the low 100's for this weekend.  I hope they are wrong about that because all the lettuces will bolt which will make them bitter. However, I do have cucumbers and cabbages coming right now, and those make good salads as well. I'm glad I planted nasturtiums this year; they are a nice addition to salads as well as making the garden a little prettier.
Covered winter roots in the summer
Because of the forecast I am concerned about my carrot and parsnip seed.  The carrots (Berlicum, a giant storage variety from Seeds From Italy) are starting to come up but the parsnips (Andover, Johnny's Seeds) are still thinking about it. So I spent some time this morning covering them up with Agribon to try to keep them a little cooler.  It seems a weird thing to be planting for winter when it's so darn hot outside but that is what you have to do.  This is the first year I left parts of the garden unplanted so I would have room for planting winter things, and it's also the first year I've managed to get them scheduled and in the ground on time.  More winter vegetables will go into the ground in July.

The big bed currently has new beets and leeks in it; I'll replace the beets with lettuces once they are ready.  The other side of the big bed currently has garlic and more volunteer potatoes.  I swear potatoes are the gift that keep on giving.  I think the only way to not have potatoes in the same place year after year is to turn pigs out on it, which is exactly how I'll manage one day.  In the meantime though, I'm leaving the potatoes for their 'free food' factor, and they'll come out at the end of July ready or not when I harvest the garlic.  At that time, Lord willing and the crik don't rise, I'll put metal ribs and plastic on that bed and finally get around to building my greenhouse.  Well, the ribs and ends will be built; the plastic probably won't go on until the end of September or early October. The leeks will then be protected against frost this winter, and I'll plant lettuces and chard in there as well. I discovered that the chard will go all winter if you keep it covered.

We are currently harvesting (and eating!) beets, blueberries, cabbage, cucumbers, kale, lettuces, nasturtium flowers, radishes, rutabaga leaves, strawberries, turnips and zucchini.  The carrots, cauliflower, and potatotes are almost ready.

Hopefully the hot weather won't croak my garden.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Other Pruning Season - Advice For The Home Orchardist

The summer solstice is coming, and while I won't be sacrificing virgins or throwing clams to the sun in honor of the day, I will be getting ready for it.  That's because the best time to control the size of the homestead fruit tree is right about the time of the summer solstice.

I learned this at the Mother Earth News Fair when I attended a lecture by Ann Ralph, who wrote the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree.  It was a great talk, because she distilled pruning down to three basic cuts, and two times a year, and giving the all important explanation why.

It all boils down to stored energy.  Trees store their energy in the form of sap.  In the winter, sap is stored in the trunk and roots, and in the summer it's freely flowing up until the time of the summer solstice.  At that time, the sap stops moving to the ends of the tree and growth for the year slows way down, and the sap starts to flow back into the trunk and roots.  By the time it's autumn, the sap is pretty much out of the branches and the tree goes dormant. This is why you're better off transplanting a bare root tree in the autumn and winter, rather than planting a potted tree in the spring.

So the first thing to know about pruning is that cuts made in the fall, winter, and spring will result in bushy growth, because after the cut, the tree still has a lot of energy to move, and it will expend that energy growing branches. A lot of new ones.  This is good if you're trying to get your tree to fill out, either during its first year or at a specific area in the tree.  Cuts made at or just after the summer solstice will result in less aggressive growth, so that is when you want to prune to contain the growth of the tree.

The second thing to know is that you are in control of the size of the tree at all times.  Don't worry; I didn't know that either.  But what about dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks, you say.  If you read the fine print in the nursery catalogs you'll notice that a dwarf rootstock still results in a ten to fifteen foot tree, which is way taller than you or me.  Ms. Ralph said that it really doesn't matter what the rootstock size is because you can control how big you let the tree get; what you want to pay attention to in a rootstock is how well it does in your soil and climate.  Some rootstocks are better in well drained soil and some can handle heavy clay.  You should go with a rootstock that will handle what you're going to give it, regardless of what kind it is.  So even though you wanted that Elstar apple and it's only available on a standard rootstock but you wanted a much smaller tree, you can go ahead and get it.

Assuming you bought the standard sized tree during bare root season which is the best time to get a fruit tree, once you get it into its hole and all tucked in, it's time to make the hardest cut you'll ever make to that tree.  Cut the tree off at a forty-five degree angle with a very sharp pruner or lopper so that it's now at the same height as your knee, even if it has branches on it higher up. Yes, your knee. Remember, we're growing a small tree here.  It's okay, you can do it.  When I espaliered my apple trees, I cut them all at eighteen inches and they were fine.  Come spring when the sap starts to flow, you will find lots of new branches growing on your tree.

So now it's spring and you have lots of branches.  Keep an eye on where they're growing and the direction they are heading; if you have a lot of branches growing toward the center of the tree criss-crossing each other, you'll want to take most of those out at the solstice.  All trees ripen fruit by the exposure to sun which helps develop the sugars in the fruit, so you want to keep the canopy open so that sun can reach into all parts of the canopy.

Once it's the summer solstice, you can now go in and make your cuts to control the ultimate size of the tree.  Use heading cuts to change the direction in which the branch is going, and thinning cuts to remove branches from the tree (see the illustration at right for examples). Heading and thinning cuts can also be employed in the winter for the same reasons, but bear in mind that they will probably result in more growth because the energy of the tree is in storage.

My stump cut
Last autumn I decided that I didn't like the shape or size of one of my Lapins cherries, so I steeled myself and cut it off about hip high. I wish I'd known I could cut it lower, but I think it will be okay anyway, now that I know I can still keep it in control, and more importantly, how to keep it in control. But cutting it back hard did wonders for it, and I would do it again now that I know how well it's turned out. Instead of only two branches in the same lateral plane with the trunk, the
New size and shape. Long branches
will be taken out at solstice
branches are evenly spread around the trunk at a height that will be easier for me to manage.

The other Lapins. The long branches
will be removed altogether with
thinning cuts at solstice
The other thing that Ms. Ralph mentioned is that when you're considering which branches to cut, you should take out any vertical branches, which I've heard referred to as water spouts.  These vertical branches are rarely if ever fruitful. She also mentioned that you should still prune, even if there is fruit on that branch that needs to come off.  You should also thin your fruit, particularly apples. The first reason for thinning is so that the tree can support the weight of all the fruit.  The second reason is so that you can grow larger apples.  She believes thinning fruit to be so important that the first year one of her trees fruited, it bore two apples.  She thinned it to one.

Pluot with an open fountain
shape.  All I have to do is
control its size
I have a lot of work to do.  On my little quarter acre I have eleven apple trees, three cherries, two Italian plums, and two pluots, all of which need attention, especially the apples. The plums also need special attention; I cut them back this winter and they responded by getting really bushy.  I have exactly nine plums on them this year, the most there has ever been, but I will sacrifice fruit if it means I can get the shape and size under control.
Pluot with a bad shape. It
will have to wait until next
winter to be corrected

Getting ready for all this work means getting my Felco pruners tuned up, which I did yesterday.  You can see how to do that here.  My Felco pruners have stood by me for almost fourteen years; they were the first ever birthday present that Steve got me, even before we were married, and they have been great.  If I needed to, I would definitely buy another pair.  They have kept in reasonable shape all these years and now that I've cleaned and sharpened them again they are practically like brand new, and I use them a lot.  The classic Felco pruner is the F2, and they make an identical pruner for smaller hands which is the one I have; that one is the F6.  The videos for disassembling, cleaning and sharpening, and reassembling are shown with the F2 but they work for the F6 as well.  You can expect to pay around fifty bucks for the Felco pruner. If you need to buy pruners but don't want to shell out for the Felcos, at least look for a pruner that you can take apart to clean and sharpen.  Fiskars appears to make one here for around seventeen dollars.

Today is the nineteenth of June, which means you have two days to get your pruning gear tuned up.  If you have time, it might help to go out and take a look at your trees to make mental notes about where you'll make your cuts and what you have to do. To recap, you'll be looking to thin and control the size of the tree with heading and thinning cuts on or right after the summer solstice, which is the twenty-first of June. Next winter you'll be evaluating your trees to see where you should be encouraging growth, and pruning to help shape the tree.

I am giving myself several days to get this all accomplished, because with eighteen trees to prune, I'll be pretty busy.  The good news is, this time I'll really know what I'm doing.






Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Love Big Beets And I Cannot Lie

Beets: it's what's for dinner

These are Chioggia (key-OH-ghee-a).  I don't know if it's the variety or just because they're homegrown, but they are exceptionally sweet and delicious.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Have An Idea

Today and tomorrow are the two best days of the month for planting root vegetables according to the phases of the moon, so if you're planning a winter garden, now is a good time to get that stuff in, especially parsnips.  July would be the only other month for winter roots.


You see that?


No, I mean THAT.


That's a pac choi.  I found it the other day as a huge surprise, because it seeded itself. Well, I'm not sure about that.  All I can say is that I've tried unsuccessfully for the past two years to grow pac choi so I gave it up and threw out the remainder of my seed.  But here it is, all on its own as a giant surprise.

This bed is one of several in which I've planted all manner of things in the spirit of permaculture guilds, and in which I've allowed to grow most things that sprout on their own like lettuces, cucurbits (they all look like cucumbers, unfortunately- oddly, I was hoping for zucchini), and this pac choi.  The lettuces have been a bit of a revelation, actually. New, baby lettuce plants keep coming up all over the place where I've spread compost as a mulch, which was obviously not finished and definitely not hot enough to kill seeds.  This is important, because I haven't had to succession plant any lettuce this summer.  Between the waves of new lettuce growth and the serendipitous pac choy, I have an idea.

Next year as an experiment, I'm going to mix several different seed varieties into some mulch (probably compost again) and spread that over one bed in late winter or early spring and see what happens.  I'll probably do lettuces, maybe pac choi, onions, carrots, kales, summer squashes,  possibly green beans, and anything else I can think of between then and now that I think would work.  My reasoning is that you have to thin some crops anyway, so if it all comes up too thickly, I'd just thin it.  It would take much of the guesswork and labor of succession planting out of the mix because plants would come up when they are ready and conditions are favorable.

If this idea sounds intriguing and you want to try it as well, I'd be very interested in knowing how it worked for you.  In any case, I'll report back how it worked for me.