Anticipation of Fall

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In the midst of summer, under July heat and between berry-picking and trips to the lake, my mind always begins to move to fall. On chilly mornings, or when a breeze picks up and thrashes the plants out front, I feel it coming, though its arrival is still months off yet.

It’s always been at this time of year that I start knitting. Crafting for cold weather lets me channel the euphoria and creativity that the first chill and yellowing trees light in me. As I work I imagine the smell of rain and fallen leaves and pumpkin and roast chicken, and my soul leaps with excitement.

Now that we’re back in the Pacific Northwest I am overjoyed for the promise of cooler weather and rain.  The season will be rung in by my daughter’s second birthday. We’ll return to cooking inside and lighting the wood stove.

I’m not knitting my way through this summer– partly for lack of time; partly because my daughter would object– but instead I’ll be thinking ahead as I dig and plant our fall garden. I’ll be stacking firewood, storing potatoes, picking hazelnuts, and nailing siding up on the hay barn.

As always, there is more to do than there are hours in the day or energy in my body. But we’re moving forward, chipping away, and I’m feeling blissfully inspired.

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Homegrown Potatoes: A Worthy Vegetable

A few years ago, as my husband and I prepared to plant our first large garden, we poured over the colorful photos in seed catalogues and discussed what we wanted to plant. The gist of it: everything!

But we narrowed it down to a reasonable selection, based on the pursuit of superior flavor and nutritional value than what we could buy. (We did, however, fail to plant a reasonable quantity of each: notably three 30-foot rows of spinach for the two of us and something like 100 tomato plants.) We placed our order. In addition, I heaped several paper sacks with various potatoes at the local feed store.

He didn’t protest the potatoes until he had fulfilled his job of mounding the rows a few times. While we now layer in straw mulch, at the time he was heaving shovelful after shovelful of dry valley clay soil– backbreaking work. And he began to wonder aloud, why waste the time and effort with potatoes when they’re so cheap from the grocery store? They’re just a bland starch.

Then we harvested our first Yukon Golds. They were like butter– totally unlike supermarket spuds. They hardly needed anything but a pot of boiling water. Divine in every preparation.

Now we grow lots of potatoes: fingerlings, purples and blues, waxy and white. We’ve grown them in buckets, in trenches, and in circles of wire. We layer mulch and soil for easy mounding and digging. And they’re my very favorite harvest– have been since childhood. It’s like digging for treasure.

We planted purple potatoes in bins before the move with the intention of simply moving them with us. I didn’t want to miss potato season and the purples were sprouting. We also threw in some golds and reds. The plants shot up in the early warm California weather. Then before one of our weeklong trips with a load to the new place, I forgot to tell the student caring for our animals to water the plants. Many survived. The potatoes did not.

Disappointed, I shrugged them off with the intention to plant more in the new garden, which I did in March. Then as we prepared for the final move and I dumped the demised spud bins, out poured dozens of colorful marbles: young potatoes from pea-sized to ping pong balls. Delighted, I tossed them in a bag and brought them along.

Now at the new place, I prepared them to our toddler’s delight, simply boiled and tossed in a bit of butter and fresh parsley, served over a bed of peas. It was a hit that highlighted the finest of spring vegetables, even the ones some might not deem worthy of growing at home.

This weekend we’ll be digging fingerlings, and we’re as eager as we will be when harvesting the first tomatoes or berries.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

The May Garden

As May concludes, here finally is an update on the garden. We’ve been here two weeks, and it’s finally starting to feel real. The garden project is one of my most gratifying, although much of it seems to be two steps forward; one step back.

I’m continuing to plant, in the interest of a passing season, yet the fence has yet to be completed. (I won’t mention the oversight of the deer or roaming cows, lest I jinx myself, but…) The chickens have been persistently destructive, just as they were at our last place, so I will be attempting to wrangle and coop them. Meanwhile, for as long as the hose and grass occupy my toddler, I’ve been hanging wire one post at a time.

What have been spared so far by the villainous poultry are a row of peas; a pell-mell patch of radishes and leaf lettuce; a dozen heirloom tomatoes; and small plots of beets, kale, basil, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Until the fence is up and the chicken issue is resolved, I’m trying not to get too attached as I continue planting.

Two rows of fingerling, gold, and purple potatoes are thriving. The first row we planted in a trench months ago has been mounded with layers of mulch and soil to about a foot over ground-level; the other has spud leaves just emerging from the trench.

Beside the potatoes surrounded by nasturtium is the compost heap, onto which I layer kitchen waste, manure, and grass clippings with immense satisfaction.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors shared runners from their bountiful raspberry patch, most of which have taken to their new plot perfectly. The raspberries neighbor the two blueberry plants, which are too straggly to be called bushes. Evidently I should have pinched off this year’s berries to encourage plant growth, but now they are so close to ripeness, I can’t bear to do so, nor am I sure it would help at this point.

Two of the four apple trees we planted last month have apples; the other two do not. I’m not terribly surprised given the time of their planting, and I have plenty of hope for future years. Also, the old apple tree I cut from a tomb of blackberry brambles and ivy earlier in the year is thriving. Someone said it was a crabapple, but I was pretty sure its fruit were previously hindered by the tree’s neglect. That appears to be true, and I look forward to finding out what type of apples it yields.

The concord grape arbor I pruned for its first time in what must have been decades has likewise come to glorious life. Soon we’ll have the Adirondack chairs or a new bench beneath to enjoy on these warm, breezy spring afternoons. The beauty here is boundless and, thankfully, energizing.

Moving 50 Animals 600 Miles

We made it! We are officially here permanently. I can’t say that it feels so final in my mind– rather, the days are rushing by as if again approaching the long return trip to California. Without a set routine and with such a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, the past week has been a blur.

The process of packing and loading, of corralling the animals and worrying about how in the world we’d be able to move them all at once, is still haunting my dreams.

The two sheep, two goats, three rabbits, four geese, and dozens of chickens all rode in one trailer, neatly packed into cages and a makeshift livestock area. As stressful and challenging as the experience was, the actual trip was successful and undoubtedly quite the amusing scene for passers-by. We did try to track down a professional livestock mover or at least rent a proper trailer, for the record, but in the end, this was it. And it worked!

The animals seemed to travel quite comfortably, and their release onto acres of lush mixed grass was a happy one. The goats have managed to clear most of the blackberry brambles from under the hay barn. As soon as it’s cleaned out we can fence the area off to contain the sheep for shearing next week.

Between the numerous projects and good hard work, I’ve been voraciously foraging and experimenting with preserving the wild harvests. Posts and recipes will follow this week, along with an update on the beautifully expanding garden.

Home sweet home!

Planting Fruit Trees

We’re back from a longer-than-planned trip to the new place– the last visit, perhaps, that is merely a visit. The anxiety for change is mounting, as is the excitement, as is the stress, as is the sense of accomplishment for all that we managed to do in the past two weeks.

While we finally had the Internet connected after Week One, I couldn’t find more than a single moment to devote to any writing whatsoever, which does leave a vacant place in my heart that I’ll be working to fill in the next few weeks and in the new routine I will be developing.

Albeit a tad late, we planted four apple trees: a Gravenstein (deeply endeared to me in my upbringing in Sonoma County), a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a semi-dwarf Yellow Delicious, and an heirloom English variety of which I cannot recall the name (but I have tagged). We also planted a hardy Chicago fig, two blueberry bushes, rhubarb, and a long row of Russian Fingerling potatoes.

Getting the fruit trees was critical if we were to have any in this year. The soil is wonderfully soft and fairly loose, so digging is a piece of cake compared to the arid, compacted clay of the Valley. We amended the holes with lots of compost and mulched around the slight trunks with plenty of dried field grass. Our toddler enjoyed helping– and “helping.”

Two major threats to our garden and orchard frequent the land: deer, of course, and a notorious neighbor’s herd of ever-roaming cattle. The only solution, it seems, is to fence our entire acreage. In the mean time, though, particularly while we are away, each plant needs its own stronghold. We planned simple circles of field wire around the trees, upheld with a few posts. The wire was too flimsy un-stretched, however, so the construction took far longer than planned. They didn’t come out perfect, but more than satisfactory to me.

Best of all, we have met several neighbors who are more than a wealth of information: they are avid homesteaders and gardeners, active in the community, and as welcoming and generous as I could imagine asking for in new neighbors. For all of this I am boundlessly grateful.

The Garden: Winter Surprises

A rather magical part of our new home is that it was clearly once a well kept, well loved place with nurtured gardens. The overgrown brambles and fallen trees add some to the mystique as spring bulbs nod through. Grape hyacinth lines a path along the creek, and new clusters of its thin leaves promise more to come.

I had seen a small patch of this bulb above emerging in January and wondered if it might be irises or lilies. On this trip, more than 100 square feet of the angular green leaves lined the top edge of the creek bank, and a neighbor gave me the exciting news that they are all tiger lilies– thousands of them!

Daffodils opened on both sides of the driveway at the end of the bridge, one cluster beside a budding rhododendron and another shrouded in weeds and brambles. I spent an hour cutting out the latter group, pushing the blackberries back to the slope toward the creek. In their wake, I discovered many more lilies, more daffodils, lamb’s ear, and other plants just appearing.

In addition to the delightful surprise of long-forgotten bulbs, I was thrilled to see my own small garden taking shape as the garlic and shallots continued to push through the mulch.

While the spring will be a time of transition and continued trips up as the move stretches out over months of packing and hauling, and as the weeks in which I’d like to be starting seed and planting peas pass,  I’m satisfied to know that already a garden is thriving at our new home.

Starting the Garden

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Since we won’t be on the property full-time until spring, it’s critical that we time the garden prep right on our visits in order to have a productive summer. To that end, we have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that we already have a triumphant patch of garlic and shallots. My goal for our trip up near the first of the year was to prepare, plant, and mulch garlic to overwinter. This trip up I was thrilled to pull back the leaf mulch and discover two-inch green sprouts!

The bad news is that the soil– particularly in the sunny pasture area where our vegetable garden will be located– is solid red clay, full of rocks, and heavy grass that hasn’t had livestock on it in what I would guess is decades. Fortunately the land is slightly sloped, so I hope this encourages decent drainage. This photo is from up the mountain, but it’s basically what we’re working with:

So we will be importing as much organic matter as we can lay our hands on. The first order of business was cleaning up the leaves from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees, which greatly improved the neatness of the yard. With our toddler on my back or playing in the leaves, my husband and I raked and hauled a dozen or so trailer-loads of leaf litter to the garden site between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

We spread the mulch across the grass, eight or so inches thick. In several weeks, we’ll till them into the soil along with as much compost as possible, then mulch again. In the future, my intention is to avoid tilling at all, but I think the clay would remain a solid, impermeable barrier this year without significant amendment.

In the mean time, I’ll get some lettuce seed and other greens started here to transplant in the early spring. I hope that with enough coordination, effort and soil improvement, we’ll manage to yield a respectable harvest this first year.