Notes from Windward: #69


Garden Notes

Lindsay's notes on what's happening garden wise

  February 4:

     We are already in early February with daytime temperatures rising into the 40's, so it is time to start thinking about this season's garden. Each year we learn more and more about methods that work well for us, our climate and soil. Prop-house is now in its second full year, enabling us to start seeds inside when outside conditions are not yet favorable for planting. When the sun is shining, temperatures inside prop-house reach up into the 80's, making it a pleasant place to work and a warm home for germinating seeds.


     The first plants to be seeded are those that
1) are more cold tolerant
2) grow slowly, and
3) prefer as much sunlight as possible (day-length sensitive) to grow properly.

     So we are starting with certain herbs and alliums (onions). Certain herbs and alliums are both frost tolerant, and slow growing; and onions are day length sensitive, meaning they want as much sunlight as possible to ensure a large bulb. So far, we have started sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, parsley and white onions.

a well mulched plum

     One of the fabulous qualities of community scale farming is that the waste generated from one activity can be used as fuel for another—closing the loop on our life-support systems. For example, a few times each year, we clean out the wasted hay from the goat and sheep pens which also contains a healthy mixing of their manure and urine; the combination of carbon (from the hay) and nitrogen (from the manure and urine) make for nutrient-rich compost that any gardener would be excited to have.

plum cuttings set to root

     Since modern farms, and even whole regions, usually focus on a single crop and do not have animals on site, farmers usually buy and truck in fertilizers for their fields—increasing costs, energy consumption, and in the case of synthetic fertilizers carbon dioxide emissions. By maintaining our life support networks at a human scale (with human distances), it all becomes much simpler.

stirring up some compost

     Today, I spent some time turning one of our piles of wasted hay and manure, allowing more oxygen to circulate through the pile and facilitating its decomposition. I also dug out some of the more-decomposed materials and used it to fertilize the fruit trees. With the rain, this additional nitrogen will seep into the ground to encourage growth this spring, and the added organic matter will increase the soil's ability to maintain moisture.

  February 13:

     Today we added to our collection of perennial plants rosehips and Jerusalem artichokes. We planted the rose in the herb garden, as the rosehips—an extraordinary source of vitamin C—can be used for teas and other medicinal purposes.

rose hips tucked in to wait for spring

     Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are a tuber that grows similarly to potatoes, though with a slightly sweeter flavor. Sunchokes do well in arid climates, so hopefully they will adapt well to our hot, dry summers.

Jerusalem Artichokes

  February 20:

Lindsay writes:

first tilling of the potato patch

     As we move into the second half of February, we have started seeding two other categories of crops: Solanaceae (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) and greens. While tomatoes and peppers enjoy the heat and sun, they also take a while to grow, requiring about 3 months of growth before being ready to transplant. So by starting the seeds indoors in mid February, they will be ready for transplanting outside by mid-May, which is when we begin our frost-free season here on our little piece of the plateau.

bonus! finding over-wintered potatoes

     Greens grow much quicker and many varieties can tolerate cool frosty weather. Cooking greens such as kale and chard as well as salad greens can be transplanted about 1 month after seeding. So by the end of March, when the weather is slightly warmer, we will have greens large enough to be transplanted outside. Even if there are still frosts in the evening come late March, which will likely be the case, we can protect the plants by covering them with remay or a light sheet. Part of the trick is that we can't know exactly what the weather will bring us in a few weeks, it could be sunny and frost free, or cool and snowy, or both. But we want to be prepared to take advantage of the sun and warmer temperatures when they come.

more plants getting started in PropHouse

     In the meantime, we keep the plants inside in warm, well-lit spaces, which mostly means the kitchen. So the kitchen is now filling up with little containers of tomatoes and peppers, kale and chard. We have planted some kitchen favorites including Brandywine and Cherokee Purple tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, Dinosaur kale, Mesclin mix and red beets.

tomatoes, peppers and eggplant getting started

  February 23:

     One of the challenges we face in our climate is being able to harvest fresh vegetables from the garden all year long. We are developing various methods of extending the growing season such as using black tires as raised beds so that we can plant earlier and harvest later. Another trick to harvesting all year long is choosing the right varieties of crops that are cold tolerant and can withstand a freeze. One crop that we have had success with over this winter is turnips. Planted in the fall in a black tire, the turnips required little work or tending to, and flourished. They have wintered over nicely as well, and with the ground soft, they are easily harvested for the kitchen or as a treat for the animals. It is always wonderful to find crops that require such little input and produce abundantly.

snow-dug turnips grown in a construction tire

     In Vermadise, the bunnies have been busy at work generating compost. The compost beds beneath the rabbit cages have filled up again with the wasted hay and manure that falls through their cages.

rabbit-filled compost beds

     So we recently rotated the rabbits to a set of empty compost beds, first laying down a fresh layer of woodchips. The urine and compost first act on the woodchips, inviting bacteria and fungi to help break them down. Then the wasted hay and manure add additional carbon and nitrogen material for even more compost. Sometimes, we have to add a little more moisture and nitrogen (chicken manure) to the beds to achieve an optimal ratio. With the temperatures still cool, these beds will take several weeks to decompose, and in the mean time the bunnies will continue working to make more compost. Thanks bunnies!

adding a base of pine chips

  March 7:

Creating a Retaining Wall in the Upper Garden

     The day time temperatures have been consistently in the 40s over the past few weeks, with occasional freezing temperatures overnight. While winter has not yet entirely passed us by, the soil has been thawed for some time. And with the soil moisture so high, which makes digging easy and smooth, the digging season has officially begun (by mid-summer and through early fall, the soil becomes very hard, slowing digging considerably). We have been working steadily on terracing the main garden, which lies on a southward facing slope. Last fall, Oana laid out a plan to terrace the garden to reduce irrigation runoff downhill and try to maximize the amount of water that soaks through the soil and reaches the plant roots.

digging the footing for the retaining wall

     The first step was to turn over the beds, allowing the organic material (hay used as mulching in the previous growing season) to decompose before planting. In the process of terracing, we are also widening and lengthening the beds to use more of the enclosed garden space for growing vegetables instead of grass. With the new addition, the bed space is about 80 feet long. As we turned over the plot where we grew potatoes last year, we discovered some treasures that escaped the fall harvest, which we welcomed into the kitchen.

Camille and Oana with their stack of short ties

[Walt: One Fall, shortly after we settled here, they tore out the train track that used to run alongside the Klickitat. First they removed the rails and then the railroad ties which were in prime condition. Then they brought in a huge bulldozer with a pair of ripping teeth on the back to tear out the remaining ties. The two ripping teeth were about 40 inches apart, so when the dozer ripped through the ties, it created lots of short pieces of railroad ties. Before winter came we were able to gather and haul home lots of "short ties." Even if we didn't know what we'd eventually use them for, we knew that they'd come in handy for something.]

the old old pig pen

     Next, we had to get out the surveying tools, to determine how much we wanted/needed to terrace the top bed to make it level. Eventually, we would like to have the beds level on both the north-south axis and east-west axis. To determine “level” east to west, we strung a line between the fences and used a string level to adjust the heights at either end. For the north-south axis, we used a hand level and a meter stick. Once we knew the height differences for the top terrace, we started to dig a level line (east-west) in which to place the old railroad ties that will function as the retaining wall for the top terrace. Since the eastern end of the top bed is so much higher than the western end, we needed to dig out a trench in which we can lay the railroad ties. As the trench continues west, it gets shallower and shallower, and eventually disappears as the railroad ties will sit at ground level, and the soil will be built up behind them.

disassembling the old pig pen

     Now as with many things here at Windward, re-use is a guiding principle in sourcing the materials for various projects. It turns out that in order to fall a dead tree near the power line, it will need to fall onto the old pig pen which is made of railroad ties and rebar. In order to maintain the integrity of the tree for lumber, we've decided to deconstruct the pig pen, which will free up the pen's rebar and short railroad ties for the garden retaining wall. It provides a great joy to be able to get multiple uses out of single materials, reducing waste and consumption. So the other day we started the deconstruction process, removing the short ties one at a time, and carting them down (thankfully it is downhill!) to the main garden.

Camille and Lindsay remove another tie

     With about an hour and a half of work, we managed to take down approximately half of the pen. While we were working, under blue skies, hardly a cloud in sight, it started to snow. We do not know where the snow was coming from, but it was surely falling. With a good portion of the work complete, we then found ourselves stretching and doing yoga on a soft bed of needles and grass, under a blue sky and falling snow.

March 8th

     This afternoon, we gathered again at the old pig pen to finish the demolition. With three people working, we were able to take out all the short ties and rebar and bring them down to the main garden in a few hours. Now, the dead tree has space to fall, and we have a pile of rebar and railroad ties down at the garden waiting to be placed along the base of the top terrace.

down to the last tie

  March 9:

Observations from the Plateau


     February and March are months of transition here on the plateau, transition between the cold and dormant winter and the excitement and potential of spring. Over these past few weeks we have been at the margins, at the edges of both winter’s chill and spring’s vitality. Back and forth, up and down, we go, with rain, snow and warm sun all in one day.

Mt. Hood in the distance

     The edges of things are always an exciting place to be. In a landscape, the transition zones between one habitat and another are often the most abundant—a forest along the banks of a stream, the margins between a meadow and a grove of trees—where plants and animals from both habitats can be found. When I am traveling, or moving to a new place, those first few days or weeks, when a place is still new to me, when I am still adapting to its rhythms, there is clarity in the contrasts between new and old, here and there.

trees floating in the clouds

     Similarly, being at the edges of the seasons, without a strong foothold, creates a beauty in its own right. Snow, which can loose its novelty by the end of January, becomes once again stunning against a bright blue sky. And the sun, which is everyday and expected come July, takes us by surprise when its rays burn through early morning fog. After days of clouds and rain, when then the clouds lift just enough to reveal the Ponderosa pines cast in the light of sunset, it is an event enough to merit gathering outside to watch it all unfold. Life at the edges is exciting. It allows us to marvel at the mundane.

March 28:

Starting an Asparagus Patch

     Every year we try to expand the garden a little more—experimenting with a new crop or starting perennials that will come back every year. One of the new additions this spring is asparagus. We ordered 30 one year old roots, and Leah and I spent part of yesterday afternoon planting our new asparagus patch. We decided to plant them in one of the permanent beds in the spiral herb garden, which is a little shadier than other garden spaces. While asparagus enjoys full sun, the summer sun here can be quite oppressive, increasing water stress for the plants. Hopefully giving the asparagus some sun relief will slightly reduce the need for watering.

Leah puts the crowns in place

     A few days ago, Oana, Camille and Andrew turned over the beds in the spiral garden, adding a nice layer of compost too. In the newly prepared bed, we dug two trenches each about 6 inches deep and 12 inches wide, into which we laid the asparagus roots. We placed each root crown about one foot apart, spreading the roots out in the trench. We then covered up the roots entirely with soil and watered them. Before planting the roots, we let them soak for about one hour in water, so they could be fully moist during the transplant.

Planting Peas and Carrots

     While the nights are still cool here, sometimes reaching below freezing, there are tell-tale signs of spring poking around each corner. The daffodils are up, though not yet blooming, and we have lilies and other wild flowers coming up throughout the grass.

lots of young seedlings waiting for spring to arrive

     The kitchen is filling up with little green seedlings stretching for light. We set up a grow light and heating pad to help the peppers and tomatoes grow, which will only germinate if there is enough heat. I planted 3-4 seeds per container since tomatoes rarely have a 100% germination rate, but now a few containers are a bit too crowded. So yesterday Leah and I transplanted tomatoes so that there is now only one tomato per container.

an eager young tomato

     Its been at least one month since the first of the salad/cooking greens were seeded. Many of them have now developed one or two sets of true leaves, a sign that they are almost ready to be transplanted outside. These plants have been inside, in a warmer, more protected area since they germinated, so they need to be “hardened off” before they are ready to go into the ground. While many greens are frost tolerant, they do need to acclimatize to cooler conditions. So I have moved the greens and onions out into prop-house, which will provide some buffering from the cool nights, until they are ready to go into the ground.

     Out in the main garden, we have begun to direct seed some of the frost tolerant plants including peas, carrots, turnips, radishes and parsnips. I hope to plant the peas in succession, every week or two, so that we have a continuous supply for the kitchen. We planted the radishes in with the carrots as a companion planting; radishes are quick to germinate and mature, while carrots can take several weeks to germinate and take much longer to mature, so by planting them together we can maximize food production and minimize weed growth.

     This is a difficult time of year for the grazing deer, and we have already lost some leek tops to the deer, so I am a little concerned that they will find their way into the garden to nibble on the seedlings once they germinate. But hopefully, over the next few weeks, the deer will be able to find more and more foods in the forest and will be less interested in what we have here.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69