Our cat Billie posing in the box for me, just for fun. (These are posted in the order in which I took them, as she moved around the box.)
Our cat Billie posing in the box for me, just for fun. (These are posted in the order in which I took them, as she moved around the box.)
Yesterday, I finished planting my hugelkultur bed! I learned some things in the process. It is very hard to water the whole mound–the water stays on the surface and slides down the sides. So I made small indented areas along the top of the mound in which to plant seeds so they could hold water: a round bowl-like indentation for a zucchini “hill,” and a square indentation for some bush beans. I put the first zucchini “bowl” near one end, so that the plant could drape over the edge. I alternated zucchini, then beans, then zucchini, then beans. I found some brown packing paper to use to help block weeds between the plantings, and put some straw in my seed areas for mulch. I used little twigs and stones to hold down the paper.
I planted three kale seedlings in the next area, then a “bowl” for cucumber seeds at the other end. I really could only plant in the very top across the mound, because nothing else was stable enough to water and keep the soil. I did tuck a couple of borage seeds lower into the side, in case they might grow there, since they are good companion plants for all of these. I tried to pick spots that had some support, and under where the beans would be. But it is very hard to water the sides without the soil sliding down. I imagine that if someone made a hugelkultur mound in the autumn, it might settle enough over the winter to be more usable on all of its surface area. But that idea of planting up both sides didn’t really seem feasible to me, though it was part of what appealed to me in the first place. Right now, planting the squash and cukes which like to spread out with a lot of vines seems the best idea.
Meanwhile, I planted other kale seedlings tucked into spots around the peach and cherry trees circles in the orchard, along with some lettuce and carrots. I love the polyculture feel of the food forest. I now have a total of 13 kale plants thanks to friends Mihku and Sylvia. I think of them as my tried and true veggie for the year–easy to grow, pick and eat, and freeze for the winter. So far, they have grown really well in our food forest.
Meanwhile, we also have sea kale, a lovely perennial kale that we have already been harvesting in early spring, along with our chives and oregano and thyme. The asparagus has been disappointedly spindly this spring so far. I had been hoping I might get a bunch to eat since this is its third year, but I only had a few spears worthy of snacking on. I guess they need more compost to keep them well fed. However, I am excited about these new zucchini, bush bean and cucumber plantings. Wish me luck!
Wow, it has been a month since Hugelkultur 4 when I last devoted a post to progress on our hugelkultur garden bed. I am happy to say that yesterday I planted the first seeds! It has been a slow process of adding more soil and compost, a little bit each day, plus another layer of seaweed to help keep some of it in place. I also added soil and compost to the area between the mound and the logs marking the path, so there is a lower level on that side as well as a higher level. That in turn provided support for something like a slope of soil on that side. We planted lettuce and broccoli and spinach in that lower area, which will get a little more shade than other parts of the mound. It is a bit late in the season for all of those, so we’ll have to see how they do.
I finally decided that it wasn’t really possible to get enough soil to stick to the other side to use that as a planting surface, at least for this year. I’m calling it done for now! But as the mound ages and settles year to year, I think it will continue to evolve and we can keep shaping it and adding to it. For now, I intend to plant zucchini and bush beans and maybe some cucumber and kale on the top of the mound, and the zucchini and cukes can cascade down the sides. Our last average frost date in Portland is May 24, so those will get planted soon.
Meanwhile, speaking of frost, we had three freeze-warning nights this past week, and we covered our blooming peach tree with a tarp each night. But yesterday, I witnessed the best thing ever. I was sitting in my chair and saw a flash of something out the window, so I looked up. There was a tiny hummingbird, the first of the season, visiting each of the peach blossoms looking for nectar. I can’t explain why it moved me so. All of the care given to the tree, all of the natural beauty of the tiny hummer. No way to capture it in a photo, but here is the peach tree in bloom.
I mentioned in an earlier post that an annual activity in the spring is pruning the cherry and peach trees–each year relearning it all over again and steeling myself to the task which seems so harsh. The peach had produced an abundance of branches, but I took out all of the ones growing toward the center, and those that were smaller than pencil size, in order to preserve a vase shape and to build a strong scaffold for future years. I was happy that I was able to leave some branches that were budding, and if all goes well we might get our first peaches this year.
Two years ago, when I found any stones in the asparagus bed I was creating, I threw them over to a place next to the garage, until there was a pile of stones there. Then, later, as I found more stones, I added them to the pile. This spring, the violets decided they loved the microclimate it created. So now this pile of stones has become a beautiful violet rock garden.
I woke today feeling so much fear that I was immobilized. If fear is heavy like a stone, if we accumulate all the fears and toss them into a pile, might something beautiful yet emerge? It was a particular kind of fear that arose in me, or it seemed particular to this society. It was triggered by my no longer being able to work. For me, this is not about social distancing and a closed economy, though it helps me to understand the people who are worried about that. For me, it is about chronic illness taking away my energy capacity to work.
Working signifies our ability to take care of ourselves. All our lives we have learned the American “gospel” of individualism–everything is on the individual. In some ways, this individualism freed people to become that which our families could not comprehend. Feminist. Lesbian. Activist. When women were free to work, we were free to make our own decisions about our lives.
But in other ways, it has meant we are flying without a net. If we can no longer work, what happens then? Despite its limitations, I am immensely grateful for the safety net that was created in the cauldron of the great depression–Social Security. In the midst of the heavy burden of individualism, it became a bright light of collective care for all of us. We each contribute and we all can benefit. It enables Margy and I to have our basic necessities in retirement. But this net is now in the hands of robbers and thieves, who would like nothing more to do away with it. And so I feel afraid, my heart heavy with stones.
When I read about how some countries are giving their citizens a monthly income during the pandemic–countries which also, by the way, have free universal health care–when I see what might be done, it makes me feel so sad and so afraid for all of the working people in our country. If people had a guaranteed monthly income, they might not need to clamor for businesses to reopen before this can be done safely. But instead, they are caught between a rock and a hard place–stay home and risk starvation, or go to work and risk death. It is that stark. And the fear becomes a trigger for violence, and the threats of violence. More stones.
I’m not at the stage of seeing any violets yet. I don’t know what beauty might come out of this. I am just throwing stones into a pile.
I did it! When I discovered a crack in one of the plastic fittings on my rain barrel, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to fix it. But today there was no rain in sight, so I dug through stacks of stuff in the garage to find the box where I’d put leftover pieces from when the rain barrels were installed back in 2017. I should mention that David Whitten from the Resilience Hub was the one who first designed and installed the rain barrels, with help from people at our Permablitz. They finished a few of them, and David came back and taught me how to do the rest of them. So this was community at work. Thank you! You can learn more about the whole process at my post from July 2, 2017.
Today, I was happy to see that I had another fitting–I don’t even know what it is called, but it is the black part (attached to the red barrel) of this spigot set-up. One half of this part is on the inside of the barrel, plus a rubber washer, and it reaches through to the outside, where it is attached, so that there can be a leak-free hole in the bottom of the barrel. The white part is taken out for the winter, during freezing temperatures.
I had to take out the spigot once again, detach the hose that tied the rain barrel to its companion, and unhook the wire that helped to hold the gutter spout in place. Then, I unscrewed the top part to make a bigger opening. I emptied the sludgy water from the bottom of the barrel, and while I was at it, rinsed it out with the hose. Now it was ready for the real repair.
I was able to loosen the fitting with a wrench, and unscrew the whole thing–the part on the inside fell away and I turned over the barrel to dump it out. The hardest part was next–reaching all the way to the bottom of the barrel with my head, shoulders and arm inside, to be able to attach the new fitting–one part on the inside through the hole, and then the other part on the outside. I think at the permablitz this was a job for the kids–they are tiny! This was also why I rinsed out all the sludge.
But it worked! I positioned the new fitting, attached its other part on the outside, and then put it all back together again. It is now ready to go for the next rain we get. (I tested it with water from the hose.)
I think I imagined at first that the rain barrels would just last forever–so when something had to be repaired, it was scary to me. I never learned how to do this kind of maintenance stuff when I was a girl. But as I grew older, I was always so glad to learn the things that might not have been thought of as traditionally “female.” That was part of the empowerment of such experiences like Women’s Music Festivals, and the Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980’s. Women were doing all of the carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and maintenance work in those places, and we learned we could do it. And that was a big deal. So it still feels thrilling to me when I am able to dive in (literally into the barrel, lol) and make something work!
And I so appreciate those people of any gender who teach and share their skills so we all can have more resilience in our lives. Now, back to the garden!
The last few weeks I have been outside a lot, but not writing a lot. I have been adding soil and compost to the hugelkultur mound little by little, and stuffing sod into the sides, but in photos it doesn’t change much. I created a new tool–a screen to sift compost that has become inundated with small roots. It is just two dowels, with a metal screen attached with staples and duct tape, but it fits over the top of the wheelbarrow, and makes it so much easier: I shovel compost from the pile onto the screen, then rub it back and forth with gloved hands to sift out the roots, and the usable compost falls through.
I also put spigots and drain hoses back into six of our rain barrels. They are designed to capture rain from the gutters, fill one barrel, and then overflow into the second barrel, and then overflow through a drain away from the house. The joy of these rain barrels is they can stay out through the winter as long as we remove the spigots and any long hoses. I had to go through the plastic drain hoses and cut off sections that had cracked, but luckily we had enough left to make it work. So I thought they were ready for rain again, but then yesterday as I checked them during our rainstorm, I discovered that one fitting had cracked–we’ll see if I can figure out how to fix that.
Our new mulberry tree from Fedco arrived on Wednesday. Our old one didn’t do well where we had first planted it–too much shade, and then after I transplanted it last year, sadly it didn’t survive. But most of the work was done, because I had prepared such a great bed for it last year–so all I had to do was pull back the mulch, dig a small hole, and place the new baby tree inside. Baby trees aren’t that photogenic, a brown stick with a brown mulch background, so here is a photo of her roots all tangled up and gnarly before I placed her in the hole filled with water. May our tree be blessed in her new home, and provide food for birds and us too!
Two springs ago, as I was preparing for retirement due to chronic illness, Margy bought me an early retirement gift–a hammock. Lately, after working for a while in the garden, I climb into that hammock and rest–so perfect! It feels a bit like laying on the beach in the sun, or floating on the ocean water. I can relax deeply, let go of trying to carry anything or do anything. It has been so healing in this time of existential stress and grief for our world. I rock as if held in the arms of the air, the birds singing, blue sky and greening trees surrounding me, sun warming me. It reminds me that we are held in the embrace of a larger Love, even when we feel so helpless in the face of the troubles that plague our country. May you also find ways to rest your spirit in this beautiful earth!
I haven’t forgotten about the hugelkultur bed we are creating (mostly me at this stage, since Margy’s back won’t let her dig or carry.) At times I wonder if it will ever be ready for planting, but then my spirit reminds me to stay in the process, enjoy the moments, rather than being attached to outcomes. So the other day, I came out and dug some shovels full of sod and wet soil from the center of the future pond, put them in a wheelbarrow, then brought it over to a chair in our fire circle. There I sat and I painstakingly pulled out all the tiny bittersweet starts. It helps that they are like hard little red sticks with orange roots, and very easy to differentiate from the soft moss and grass and other growth. I couldn’t get very much “accomplished,” but I loved sitting in the sun with my hands in the soil. What could be better than that?
Today I couldn’t continue doing that process because the future pond was actually full of water from the big rain. I don’t know if we will ever finish the pond, but days like this remind us what it might be like. I saw a bird drinking from it later.
Instead, I shifted to opening up one of our compost bins that has been sitting for a year, and adding more compost to the mound. I also had a little bit of sod from another spot that I turned inside out and added to crevices on the side. When the compost was piled high, I layered seaweed over the top–which also helped to stabilize it.
Here are the stages. First with compost.
Then, seaweed, which we had gathered from Winslow Park.
If it seems hard to see the difference from earlier photos, that is because it expands only by millimeters. But it is so beautiful out here today–in the 50s, sunny, birds singing, and one can feel the surging of green life that is almost ready to burst forth. I have observed that there is one week in spring when everything wakes up–maybe we are about to enter that week. I walked along the strip near our street that I had planted in perennials two years ago, and look!–the lupine planted from seed last year is already poking through the dead leaves. This year we will get flowers. I am trying to remember–notice the beauty, be present to the moment, be filled with gratitude for this very day.
I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar this evening, starring John Legend as Jesus. He is a wonderful Jesus! Each time I see it, it pulls me back to a time in my life that was so deep, so intense. I think of Lori and Tom, the best friends I met in my first week of college, and how the three of us were so in love with Jesus, and all he represented–a life beyond the ambition and greed of our society, something radical, something full of love, a life that let go of material things and chose a different kind of joy. We three were in love with all that. But we often asked each other, how can we follow Jesus’ way in this day and age? And so the song, “I don’t know how to love him,” touched something of that powerful confusion and desire in our hearts.
Now, Lori and Tom are gone, dying too soon, so I have no one with whom to reminisce; but the music calls to mind the idealism and passion we inspired in each other. I have very few pictures of us, maybe none from college. We were so young then. This picture was taken about a year or two after graduation I think, when Lori was making her vows as a Franciscan sister. (Francis of Assisi was another one who inspired our best dreams.) That was how she tried to love Jesus.
Jesus Christ Superstar had debuted on Broadway the year of my high school graduation. We were lucky enough at Aquinas College to have as a professor a Catholic priest, Fr. Philip Hanley, who brought it into our theology class. He said that Jesus Christ Superstar asked all the questions that people had been asking for centuries about Jesus. And that was what theology was all about. Fr. Hanley is dead now, too, but I still remember how he encouraged us to ask all the questions, how he opened up our minds and hearts.
Lori was a nun for most of her life. Tom worked for the church–it was complicated because he was gay. But eventually he was working for the church and living with a long time partner, so that was a blessing. A few years after that photo, I found the Catholic Worker movement, the best example I knew of people trying to actually live the values of the gospel in our day and age. Radical, and a different kind of joy.
Then, in the midst of our peace activism, I found feminism and needed to launch on an even more radical journey that brought me out of the Catholic church, and into a spiritual movement with women becoming free. I came out as a lesbian, and named myself a witch, and eventually became a Unitarian Universalist minister. All of that brought me far from the paths that Lori and Tom had traveled, so we were not as close in later years, though I visited Lori when she was dying from cancer, and our love for each other went beyond all those differences.
The thing is, that idealistic and passionate young woman is still inside, however the years have transformed me. And listening to the musical this time, when Jesus/John Legend sang, “then, I was inspired; now, I’m sad and tired…” it resonated. We had such hope for changing the world, back then. It is hard to see the fruits of our labor as the backlash against social change movements rocks our nation. I don’t know if my life has lived up to the hopes and dreams I held in those days. Did it all mean anything? Yet Jesus asked those questions too, in Jesus Christ Superstar.
And it is complicated for me now, sorting out where Jesus fits into my life as a witch. But he hasn’t gone away. I remember him encouraging me as I set out on my feminist journey. I am still wondering how to love him. Still wondering about that radical way of living and loving. It brings tears to my eyes, even as an old tired woman.
Continuing to build a hugelkultur garden bed, yesterday, we added some brush to the top and sides of the mound, over the cut grass layer. Margy pounded some branches into the ground on the side as stakes for further stabilization.
Next, today, I covered it all with dried leaves, one full wheelbarrow plus a big garbage bag full, saved from last fall.
Finally, I added about 3 wheelbarrow loads of yard waste compost, and watered all of it. But this stage of adding compost is going to need many more loads before it is finished. I should be adding several more inches of compost. The mound is about 15 feet long, and will be 4 1/2 feet wide when complete. I had one of those moments when I thought, “Why did I make it so big?” I think this stage is going to take a while.
Meanwhile, I was pondering the fact that I often feel anxious when I am trying new things in the garden. I was realizing that my parents and grandparents were urban or suburban people. My dad wanted to get back to the land, and was a cowboy for a while, but mostly he worked as a draftsman for the auto industry. His parents tried to homestead in Wyoming, but that fell through and they came back to Detroit. My mom’s parents came from Linz, Austria and Quebec near Ottawa, Ontario, and lived most of their lives in Detroit. She had flower gardens while I was growing up. So I didn’t learn how to grow food from my family. It has only been as an adult that I’ve tried to learn about food gardens, off and on as circumstances allowed it.
The more I learn, the more aware I am of how much I don’t know. Each plant is like a stranger to me, then perhaps an acquaintance, and I hope in a while it might be a friend. It is hard to believe that we could be relatives to each other. (Well, except for kale–kale already feels like a relative, since I have grown it for a long time.) But I try to remember to embrace this beginner’s mind, to be present and attuned to the process. It is good to be outside, to feel the spring, to forget for a while the grief and fear that this pandemic is unleashing.
Continuing with our hugelkultur garden bed creation! This morning was bright and sunny, and I had new energy to go out and add more soil, and then grass clippings (from last fall) that Margy had gathered into a wheelbarrow. Hugelkultur works in a similar way to composting–in fact, it is a kind of composting–you have to have a mix of carbon and nitrogen. The logs hold lots of carbon, and while beginning to rot they can draw nitrogen from the soil around them. Most of these logs have already been laying around for a while, so it might not be a big deal, but we want to make sure.
Since we hope to plant our mound this spring, we’ll need to add sources of nitrogen to be available for the plants. Thus, grass clippings. Another great source of nitrogen that I’ve seen other permaculture people talk about is urine. It is free, readily available, and it reminds us that we can all give back to the earth.
Before I came back inside for some other things I have to do, I watered the bed again–it needs a lot of water at first, and then the logs hold water to give back to the plants as they need it. I was delighted to see these little rainbows. May something bring you delight today!