Spring Energy

The first dandelion of the season! We love dandelions and so do the bees.

Wow! It feels like spring is finally here. Last week was a flurry of activity in our yard, and I had the energy to do it! And it was warm and sunny! We had a timeline. On Tuesday, all day I was sifting the remains of the old compost pile, and putting it everywhere–in the new raised bed, on the hugelkultur mound, the asparagus beds, under many of the fruit trees, the old potato patch, and an area near the baby apple trees in which I hope to plant zucchini this year. We have had to sift the compost because roots had worked their way into the pile from the edges, including invasive bittersweet which we do not want to spread around the garden.

The goal was to completely empty the pile, because on Wednesday we were getting a new four cubic yards of composted manure from Wilshore farm. So I finished up Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon we got our delivery. Then Margy and I were using shovels and rakes the rest of the day to slightly move that pile so it was all situated on top of old carpet, with at least a foot of clearance around the edges–so no more roots.

Composted manure on old carpet.

On Thursday morning, I finished up with what was on the edges, and spread the remains over the nearby grassy areas. On Thursday afternoon, Dan from Blue Ox Tree Service was coming to cut down three Norway maples along the fence between us and our neighbors. While we hate to cut down trees, we also have been trying to remove invasive plants, and Norway maples are invasive here. They grow like crazy and spread their seeds everywhere. Both Margy and I each had a moment with those trees earlier, to apologize for needing to cut them down, and thanking them for the shade they had given, and say goodbye. We let them know that their wood would stay in our yard to benefit the other trees in the garden.

Dan up in the Norway Maple

It was amazing to watch Dan climb the trees and with a system of ropes and pulleys balance himself on the tree, and cut it from within. We really like Dan, who has delivered free wood chips to our yard many times in past years. He is very tuned into permaculture, and told us he has an arrangement to deliver wood chips to Cultivating Community gardens this summer. In fact, our whole intense timeline of last week was based on the fact that he was going to leave us a pile of wood chips from the trees, and once that pile was there, a truck couldn’t get through to deliver compost where we needed it to be.

Wood chip pile on the left, compost pile on the right covered with blue tarp.

So here are our wood chip and compost piles, all set up for soil enhancement and mulching for the season. The area along the fence has opened up to offer more morning sun to the orchard–you can see four somewhat scraggy spruce trees remaining, plus a skinny red maple and oak near the right which will have more room to grow.

Now, the growing season is fully begun. I was amazed that I was able to put in so many hours of outside work each of those days–I am thinking it has something to do with the surging energy of the earth in spring, the warmth of the sun, and also with drinking iced licorice tea while I was working–a great herbal energy booster. I am remembering how exhausted I felt last fall, how much work the garden was during the long summer, and yet, spring brings new excitement and new energy, even to me with my chronic illnesses that can get in the way. May it be that way for you too!

What’s Next?

Fruit trees with painted trunks.

Today I felt filled with an enormous dread, watching the attempted coup by a president who won’t acknowledge the results of a valid election, watching the followers who enable him to keep undermining the vote. I had felt relieved after the votes were counted. Perhaps we were back to more ordinary times and struggles–certainly the struggles were not over, but some semblance of a social order were on track to be restored.

But then I read an account by someone who had lived through a coup in their own country, Sri Lanka, who said that America is already having one right now, and I sank into a kind of terror. I won’t repeat their story here–you can read it via the link. Just to say that undermining faith in the results of an election can disrupt the very fabric of a fragile democracy, and is an invitation to ongoing chaos.

In my dread, I went outside–into a cloudy warm day–perhaps the last of these summer-like days–where Margy was working in the yard. She got in the hammock with me and I could just feel all the feelings of terror, but with the comfort of love, the comfort of the earth and sky. I certainly don’t have the answers for what we can do, what anyone can do, about this coup. I hope someone who might have the power and the answers is talking about it somewhere.

The other thing that, ironically, has relieved my anxieties about the election and the coup is a novel I have been reading about climate change. It is the latest work by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Set in the very near future, the title refers to an international agency that is formed to be a voice for future generations in the international arena. It’s a fragmented sort of novel, with each chapter a small piece in a larger fabric, and only a few on-going characters to help keep the thread going. Like in some of his other works, Robinson’s characters are trying out all sorts of ideas to turn around or mitigate the catastrophes of climate warming. Perhaps it will get more hopeful as I keep reading, but for now, it is sobering. So the terrors of a coup are replaced by the terrors of climate catastrophe–but those terrors are more familiar to me.

In the meantime, Margy and I seize the opportunity of our own strange weather to replenish the soil in our little part of the earth–another visit to the beach to get more seaweed, more sifting of compost (to get the roots and stones out) to put near the fruit trees, raspberries, bushes in the back of the yard. As much compost as I can sift, I put it somewhere. As much seaweed as we can collect, we put it somewhere.

For the fruit trees, also, a few weeks ago I painted their trunks white. There is a whole story to this. I had read about painting the trunks of trees white to protect them from sun damage in the winter, to protect from insects burrowing. But when I first read about it, people were talking about using latex paint, and that didn’t feel true to the spirit of organic permaculture.

Then, this fall, searching the web for another project–looking for food safe paints–I came across milk paint. This is the old-fashioned white wash that Tom Sawyer used, that most people used before the modern age. It’s made of natural ingredients: milk proteins, lime, and pigments. It has no VOCs to emit, no scents to be allergic to. It came in a powder that I mixed with water, in the amount I needed for the trees. The powder will last a long time, but the mixed paint only a couple weeks. So I painted the tree trunks. You can use it for lots of things, not just trees. Finding resources that cause no harm to the earth–that help the earth–these are like little miracles that never cease to delight me.

Raised Garden Bed, Part 2

After putting in the structure of my cedar raised garden bed, I have been gradually filling it with layers of compostable material along with the soil I had taken out. This is called “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening” and is a great easy method to enrich the soil. In its most complete form, sheet mulching includes laying down cardboard or newspapers on top of whatever is growing on the ground (lawn, etc.) without any digging required. But since I wanted to have a deeper root zone in this raised bed, I did weed the soil and dig down deeper. Autumn is an excellent time to sheet mulch because the bed will have all winter to decompose and be ready for planting in the spring.

This is a form of composting in place, so you alternate layers using amendments rich in nitrogen (called “green”) or carbon (“brown”), but it also depends on what you happen to have in your yard. A basic permaculture principle is that waste is just nourishment for another part of the life cycle. So we are taking “waste” and giving it a chance to grow food next year. We have lots of leaves in our yard, so that is an important source of “brown”, and we also live within a half hour of the beach, so we use seaweed gathered at the shore as a source of “green.” I had a chance to go to Kettle Cove on Sunday to gather a bunch.

Kettle cove beach with seaweed.

Here is my list of layers from the bottom (5 inches below ground level) up, with some photos along the way:

  • soil from the site
  • rock dust: I added some handfuls of rock dust, which adds trace minerals (I had collected a bucket-full a few years ago from a local quarry.)
Rock dust over soil in raised bed.
Rock Dust over soil
  • a bit of old seaweed, collected earlier this year.
  • leaves mixed with a little bit of grass clippings, from Margy’s leaf collecting.
  • a few branches (I remembered this from my hugelkultur adventures) These are good for water retention, slow release of nutrients—I just added a few, and then buried them in the leaves—I could have done a lot more, but also didn’t want to limit the roots.
leaves, branches
  • more soil
  • After my trip to the beach, I added more fresh seaweed, a generous layer of it: seaweed is a great source for nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium, and many trace minerals. Note, I also added the second layer of cedar planks to bring it to its full height of 11 inches.
Seaweed in the raised bed.
  • more dried leaves with a little bit of grass clippings
  • composted coffee chaff (which was in a barrel we kept next to our compost bin to add after kitchen scraps: after a couple years it composted itself!)
  • more soil
  • a couple inches of composted manure: we have a pile of it from last year, but we have to sift it because it has become full of roots.
  • green cuttings from garden cleanup.
Garden cuttings over compost.
  • leaf mould from leaves left in a barrel for a couple years
  • more leaves to top it off.

And today it is complete! The rest will be done by winter, and soil creatures and time.

Hugelkultur 5 & Peach Blossoms

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.

Hugelkultur done for now

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.

Hugelkultur May

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.

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.

Peach blossoms

Garden work & rest

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.Compost sifter

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.

Rain barrels setup

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!

mulberry roots

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!

hammock

Hugelkultur 4–Moments

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.

future pond with rain

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.

hugelkultur compost

Then, seaweed, which we had gathered from Winslow Park.

hugelkultur seaweed

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.

lupine coming up

 

Hugelkultur, part 3

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.

hugelkultur Margy stakes

Next, today, I covered it all with dried leaves, one full wheelbarrow plus a big garbage bag full, saved from last fall.

hugelkultur leaves added

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.

hugelkulture Tuesday

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.

Hugelkultur, part 2

hugelkultur grass

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!

hugelkultur rainbow

Composting the Ministry

shredded paper for compost

It is January, and I am finally feeling the urge to clean up files and books in my basement office.  It took a while.  Many of these I had brought home after cleaning up my office at the church when I retired last summer, but even most of what was already here is from my work as a minister. Cleaning up the files is one way to make space as I discern who I am in this next chapter of my life.

I got a big boost in motivation when I learned that shredded white paper can be composted.  That’s right! I don’t even have to send it to recycling, I can add it to our composting right here. Composting works with a mixture of nitrogen sources (“green” for short) and carbon sources (“brown” for short.) Paper counts as a carbon source (brown), like the dead leaves or coffee chaff that we are already using.  Each time we bring out kitchen waste (green) to the outdoor compost bin, we also cover it with a pile of carbon sources (brown.)  (Usually, you want more volume of brown sources to green source, maybe about 3 to 1, but the exact ratio isn’t something to worry about.)

I don’t like the idea of throwing things “away,” which just clogs up landfills–since there really is no “away.”  So it makes a big difference that I can compost paper.  Somehow it seems so fitting to compost the remnants of my life as a minister into substances that can rejuvenate the earth. Not that I’ve stopped being a minister–but I will be a different sort of minister from the minister who led a congregation.

As it happens, on the same day I decided to start in on the basement, Netflix released a season of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up show.  I like her guidance to hold each item, and if it “sparks joy” keep it, and if not, thank it and move it along.  What a beautiful idea, to thank the things that have served us in the past!  I think she also mentions asking, “Do you want to bring this into the future with you?”  (Please don’t quote me on the details–I haven’t read her book.)  Watching the shows provide another boost of motivation.  For me, the process of tidying up my files and books in the basement is about imagining what I will need for the future, what I want to “archive” from the past, and what I no longer need to keep.

(And if by any chance you are worried that I would compost the books–no, no, no–most likely, I will donate books I no longer need to the library, or to friends and colleagues that might want them.)

By tidying up and reorganizing my papers and books, I hope that a spaciousness will be created in which the future has room to be born.  May it be so.

 

 

Asparagus Drama

Asparagus Crown

Asparagus Crowns positioned

I am trying to catch up on my blogging about all the garden excitement last week, but then we had some more drama this week.  On Saturday, I was able to plant the second asparagus bed, along the side of the garage.  (Sylvia and I had planted the first bed last Wednesday and then started digging the trench for this one.)  Saturday, I finished digging the trench–which also involved pulling out lots of big and small rocks.  Then I added compost and a bit of rock phosphate and wood ashes.  I positioned the crowns on little mounds, spreading out their roots in a star shape around the center.

Asparagus Crowns buried

The part I couldn’t photograph was me trying to lean over the big pile of dirt on the side, to actually reach into the trench to position all those crowns.  It was pretty funny.  After that, I covered them with more compost, and then soil.  As the spikes emerge, you are meant to keep covering them so that only a couple inches show, until the soil is even with the ground again.  So this next photo is rather boring, just a trench of dirt really.  But now you know what is hiding underneath.

 

THEN, on Monday night we had torrential rain here in Maine.  Tuesday morning, when I woke up, this next photo was what I saw out my window.  The rain barrels and their foundations had toppled over.  I had extended the trench a couple feet beyond the garage wall, along the side of the rain barrel, thinking that the asparagus would be lovely next to it.  And all might have been well once the trench was filled in again.  But when the rains came pouring down, the soil was weakened, and the barrels were at their heaviest.  The cement block near the edge must have sunk down, destabilizing the balance of the barrels, and the whole set-up collapsed.  The cement blocks fell into the trench.

Rain Barrel calamity

I was able to pull out the blocks, and move the barrels, but will have to wait until the ground dries out a little to set them up again.  I guess I had better fill in that end of the trench before I do it too.  Margy always is reminding me that mistakes are a part of this process–that I am learning as I go along.  Yep–don’t dig a hole next to your rain barrel foundations!