Autumn Colors

The last few days have been so beautiful in our back yard. The autumn color has come to us. The best times are when Margy and I curl up in the hammock together and just look at all we can see: the trees, the sky, the clouds, the birds, the orchard. When the dusk of evening falls, we see bats fly from the trees into the clearing, diving after insects.

It is raining today, but this past week of sunny cool days I felt some new energy to work in the garden. I am weeding and cleaning up scraggly herb plants under the fruit trees–who knew that oregano could get so so wild? Two and a half patches finished and two and a half to go. The plan is to clean them up, then plant a few garlic bulbs around the trees, then refresh them with more compost. I have already sifted some compost from our very root-laden pile and added it to the hazelnut hedge.

Also, what a difference a good hand held pruner makes! I treated myself to buy a really good one, a Felco #8, which arrived at the end of September. I love it! The pruners I had before never did a good job, no matter how much I sharpened them. Now pruning is effortless. I am using them to cut the woody oregano flower shoots. Our mulberry tree (our second attempt to grow one actually) didn’t do well again–we just got two long side branches, so I pruned off the lower branch and trained and staked the higher one to be a new leader–we’ll try again to help it grow next year.

I also finally cut off the dead flowers from the plants near the street. I should have been dead-heading them all along, down to the next leaves, but so it goes. I learned this from watching old episodes of “Gardener’s World” with Monty Don, now available on Amazon Prime. When I am too tired to do much of anything, I’ve been watching that show. I’ve learned a lot, despite the climate in Britain being so much milder than in Maine. For example, I learned that dead plant stalks can sometimes provide beautiful winter structural elements.

Despite feeling like I didn’t have enough energy for everything the garden demanded this year, I got caught up into a new idea. I blame Margy because she put a cedar raised-bed kit into our Amazon save-for-later list. Now that the fruit trees are so much larger, it hasn’t worked as well to grow kale or other veggies around the perimeter of their circular beds. So after some further research, we purchased a kit for a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ raised bed. (I know most permaculture people buy wood and build their own, but sometimes you just need a kit to make it happen. So it goes in our world.)

We are going to place it next to the hugelkultur bed, with a 3 foot path in between, leaving three feet on the other side towards the hazelnut hedge. I’ve marked the space, loosened the soil there with a garden fork, and the other afternoon, I just sat on the ground slowly weeding out the crab grass as evening fell. Not much energy required, and it felt good to have my hands in the dirt. I also ordered some hardware cloth to make a barrier below the raised bed against the many small tunnelers who seem to delight in our wood chip paths. Once everything arrives, we will fill the bed with layers of seaweed, leaves, compost, soil, and so on, giving it the winter to percolate.

Still too much to do in the garden, but I feel delighted by the autumn colors, and the opportunity to learn and plant and grow, and sometimes just to lay in the hammock as the days grow shorter.

Mushrooms Again

Wine Cap Mushrooms in our garden

What elements are necessary for me to experience joy? What if the forests are burning in the west? Can I feel joy here in the east where the forests are not burning? What if fascism has stolen the possibility of democracy? Can I smile and sing a song about humbling ourselves before the trees? What if migrant children are still locked in cages without their families? Can I steal a moment of joy in the morning when the mist covers the sun? When I know my beloved is asleep in our home?

Today there are mushrooms again in the food forest, wine cap mushrooms that we inoculated into our wood chips over a year ago in the spring. We started something, but we don’t have any control over what they now do. I don’t know what elements are necessary for the mycelium to decide, after these months of invisibility underground, now is the time for mushrooms. The mist in the morning? Only they seem to know, and only they decide.

Last night I fell asleep asking the question, “What elements are necessary for me to experience joy?” Or perhaps I was asking its heavy twin question, “How can I dare to feel joy while the earth is suffering, so many people are suffering, the nation is suffering?” How can I be permitted any moments of joy given the reality of our world right now?

I remember when I was part of the Women’s Peace Camp, a peaceful protest next to a nuclear weapons military base–we had many moments of joy–despite the serious nature of our witness: evenings full of music, exciting sexual liaisons, long talks planting seeds of friendship that have grown and endured through time, delicious meals. I remember our wild dance parties and Emma Goldman’s words we often paraphrased: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of the revolution.”

Someone commented on Facebook the other day that we need to prepare for a disaster–they were worried about the possibility of civil war after the November elections. But when this idea rolls around in my head at 3 in the morning, I am not even sure what disaster to imagine preparing for: no electricity? food systems cut off? hurricanes? loss of social security income? no water? no internet? people in the streets with guns? evacuation? There are so many possible disasters that cannot be “prepared” for.

With age and illness, Margy and I are more isolated now, though certainly not all alone. But I miss being at some sort of front line in community. I can say to myself–we are trying to live a dream of a life more in harmony with the Mother Earth–the downsizing, the solar panels, the food forest. And I don’t forget the importance of choosing to love a woman in the face of patriarchy. Imagining decolonization in the face of white supremacy. But I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of so many people and landscapes across the nation.

It is almost as if all I have to offer now is my profound grief.

So, is it still possible to find joy in this grief time? Is it hiding underground like mycelial networks? Can it spring forth like mushrooms when something decides there is room for it now? Is it me who decides? Can I fully honor the grief that our times require, and yet still find those moments of song, smile, lightness, beauty, gratitude?

Zucchini Bread

Zucchini Bread

Remember when I said I hoped we’d become those people who ask all their neighbors if they want some zucchini? It’s happening! In the last few days, I’ve picked a whole basket full of zucchini–time to start sharing. Meanwhile, today, I figured out a recipe for gluten-free zucchini bread using almond flour. I explored several recipes I found online, but none were exactly right, so I adapted to create one for my own tastes. I don’t think I’ve ever shared a recipe on this site, but this one turned out great, so here it is:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together:
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour (or you could use almond flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat together:
3 eggs
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
and add 2 cups of grated zucchini (skins on)

Mix it together well into the flour mix (it will be thick) and spoon into a buttered (or oiled) bread pan. Bake for about 45 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean when you poke it. When finished, take it out of the pan and let it sit on a baking rack for another 45 minutes before slicing.

(A few recipes said to squeeze the grated zucchini in a towel to remove moisture, but I found I didn’t need to do that.)

Meanwhile, the zucchini plants themselves are getting ever bigger, as you can see in the background of the photo. They now dwarf the hugelkultur mound, which had seemed pretty big beforehand.

I guess this sort of makes up for the sad news that our little baby peaches got burrowed into by bugs–likely plum curculio and/or oriental fruit moth, according to my research. I had been hoping that the first year of fruiting the bugs might not find them, but no such luck. Those bugs are so smart! Next year I will try coating the peach tree with Surround, an organic method to deter the curculio pests. Meanwhile, no peaches for this year. However, today, we picked and ate the first and only cherry on the Lapins cherry tree. Since I wasn’t expecting to find any, this one was a nice surprise.

If you live nearby, let us know if you want any zucchinis!

First cherry

Hugelkultur Planting!

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.

Hugelkulture planting

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.

hugelkultur Kale

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!

Sea kale

Sea Kale–a bit more pungent than annual kale, so I often mix the two for my own taste–plus sea kale also has little “broccoli” florets that can be eaten as well. This picture is from May 11th. It is best when very new, so we are almost already at the end of its season.

 

 

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

Squirrel Highway

Squirrel PathOne thing I love about the snow is how it reveals the lives of our animal neighbors. Here is a squirrel highway, a path between two mounds.  Now, I had actually helped to create that path the day before, before the snow.  The day before that, Margy got a call from a local arborist that he had some wood chips we could have.  For permaculture gardeners, wood chips are a boon, especially hardwood chips, especially lamial hardwood chips, which are from the small branches and leaves of the tree. They provide nutrients to help create the kind of soil that is best for fruit trees.

It seems ironic, because I don’t want trees to be cut down. But there is a circle of giving and receiving we humans have with trees, and when they are cut down, it feels so respectful to use their remains to feed other young trees and plants.  It had been a difficult year to get any wood chips.  The arborists we knew were mostly cutting diseased trees, which wouldn’t be good to introduce to the garden. So when Margy got the call, she said yes right away.

Wood ChipsSo the wood chips were delivered. The next day I noticed that where the big pile landed had kind of blocked off the pathway on the edge of the food forest.  Last winter, I had strung a small string across the edges of the food forest as a gentle deterrent to deer who might possibly wander through. We had seen deer tracks before, though we didn’t actually see any last winter.  But the idea was to leave one area free for them to traverse, hoping they’d choose that path on the way between the street and the back of the yard.

So what to do?  I went out with a shovel and cleared an area between the wood chip pile and the finished compost pile (covered with a blue tarp), shoveling compost back a little, and wood chips back a little.  That made the path.  I don’t know if any deer will use it, but it was fun to see that the squirrels got the message.

Pruning

Cherry Tree prunedFriday and Saturday I pruned and trained our young fruit trees.  I did a lot of research beforehand, because it seemed so sad to actually cut them at all.  But the Holistic Orchard book, and most other resources suggest that pruning helps them to grow into a shape that gives them enough support and sunlight for fruit.

Of course, after the research, I realized it might have been better to prune the cherries more drastically last summer, when we first planted them.  But all we have is now.  Here is a photo of the Black Tartarian Cherry with its central leader cut at the top–to promote another tier of scaffolding (outward facing) branches.  The small bud near the top should grow into another central leader.   If I didn’t cut the top, the next outward facing branches would have grown too high up on the leader.

Next, I cut the ends of the first tier of scaffold branches, because they were too long and leggy and uneven.  On this cherry, they are also rather low to the ground, but the only way to remedy that would be to cut them all off, and I couldn’t do that.  I tied them back to encourage them to grow at a better angle to the central leader.  I did this for both cherry trees.  (We had also done this last summer, and took off the ties for the winter)

I also pruned our new young apple tree by making a heading cut on its central leader to promote scaffold branch growth.  For the peach, I did a more drastic cut on the central leader, to create a “vase” shape, where there is no central leader, but four or five main branches, which is the form most recommended for peaches.  Some sources recommend that for cherries too, but we had started with a central leader form last year.  After I was done with all this cutting, I said a prayer to the trees–I am so new at this, that I barely know what I am doing–so please forgive me for that, and grow and thrive anyway!

Funny to think that plants can thrive by being cut back so drastically.  Is there a message in that for humans too?  That the most difficult experiences of our life can shape us for greater beauty and fruitfulness to come?

I took a cut branch with cherry blossoms from the Lapins Cherry, and put it in a cup of water on our deck.  Maybe the bees will still want to visit them.  For now, it is a sign of the years to come, when we can let the flowers bloom and hope for fruit.Cherry Blossoms

The Visitor

Woodchuck hiding under woodpile

Our neighbor mentioned this little woodchuck (aka groundhog) had eaten her flowers when she planted them, and now she or he has been visiting our yard.  When we saw him the other day through the side window, he was eating something in the grass between our two houses.  I went outside to take a photo and he lumbered over to hide below the neighbors woodpile.  So cute.  But the next morning, some of my kale plants had been eaten. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Ever since we’ve been planting trees and making new garden beds, we’ve had many more birds and other critters come into the yard.  So mostly that is a wonderful thing.  But we are hoping to grow food!  So I will be searching the internet for natural ways to repel them.  Have any good ideas?

Woodchuck

 

Training the Cherry Tree

Training the Cherry TreeToday was a day for food forests! My friend Mihku and I went to a tour of Edgewood Nursery in the morning, and then later she showed me how to train the branches of the cherry tree so that it will grow into a good shape for growing and picking cherries.

Aaron Parker of Edgewood is so knowledgeable about perennial fruits and vegetables, and also has so many great permaculture plants to taste and buy.  I fell in love with Turkish Rocket, a perennial vegetable that tastes somewhat like broccoli.  More on that in a later post.  But I also got to see a grown up cherry tree, and get a sense of what they might look like and how they are shaped at maturity.  Back at home, Mihku and I used kite string and tent stakes to bend three branches on each tree closer to the ground, so they grow into a stronger shape–which means developing a wider “crotch angle.”  One branch was left in the center as the leader.  I am so grateful that Mihku and others are willing to show me how–it is so much easier to see it done, than to try to figure it out from books.

After that, because our new garden fork had arrived in the mail, I started aerating the soil around the trees–or I should say, I got 1/3 of the way around one tree–it was a lot of hard work.  Our soil is very compacted, so this is important for soil health, but my whole body is aching now.  In order to feel a bit more accomplished, I focused on that one section, laid down some thick newspaper sections over the soil, added compost on top, and then planted 14 (annual) kale plants, a patch of thyme, some chamomile, and a sweet cicely plant.  These were all plants we got at the plant swap, and the kale were getting pretty leggy.  I added a bit of mulch.  Still much more to do tomorrow.

Finally, I put together a holistic spray that I learned about from The Holistic Orchard book, but was presented in a simple recipe at Fedco Seeds.  Fedco actually sells all the ingredients, but before I knew that, I had searched around and got Neem Oil at Lowes, and ordered two more ingredients on Amazon.  I didn’t have exactly what they recommended, and I didn’t “activate” the EM-1, but as I understand it, this spray will help to colonize the trees with helpful microbes so that they can resist pests and disease, just like probiotics for humans.  Margy had already purchased a sprayer for other yard uses, so all I had to do was mix it up, and spray all over our new trees; and then I also sprayed what I could reach of our ornamental cherries which have been very neglected for years. Here are the important ingredients of this tonic:

Fish Hydrolysate: Feeds soil and arboreal food web.
Neem Oil: Contains Azadirachtin compounds that deter pests and disrupt their life cycles. Neem also is said to stimulate the tree’s immune system, give nutrients to foliage and feed the arboreal food web. …
Liquid Kelp: Promotes growth and helps trees adapt to stress.
EM-1: A probiotic inoculant that colonizes the branches and fruit with beneficial microbes to promote fruit growth and disease resistance. Click here for info on fermenting, or “activating,” EM-1.

Cherry with new underplantings

[Cherry with branches trained, and thyme and chamomile below, plus if you look closely, you can see kale at the very bottom.]