Raised Garden Bed, Part 1

I have to laugh at myself. After hardly having enough energy to keep up with the garden all summer, I took on the idea of creating a new raised bed. It was a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ kit with eight planks of cedar and 4 metal poles to insert in holes at the corners, but I bravely decided to add hardware cloth underneath to protect against little tunneling creatures. (And on that note, I managed to catch a glimpse of a tunneler in the act–turns out to be a tiny star-nosed mole. It seems to especially like to burrow under our wood chip paths. But apparently they are not huge hazards to the garden, so that is good to know. They eat grubs and other insects, not roots.)

So everything arrived–kit, hardware cloth, staple gun, staples–and I started to figure out how to be able to assemble the 4 foot wide hardware cloth to the boards so it would go 5 or 6 inches into the ground to make room for deeper roots. After a lot of math, several scratches on my hands, and many staples, step one complete:

Hardware cloth stapled to cedar planks.

Margy helped me move the whole thing over to the 3 by 6 hole that I had dug earlier.

Hole dug in ground with dirt in two wheelbarrow on either end.
Hardware cloth and planks over hole.

I assembled the bed by bending in the corners of the hardware cloth so that the ends of the planks met, and then I secured the planks with the metal poles. But it didn’t fit into the hole I had dug–the hole was too shallow. So I tilted the whole assembly over to stand on its side, while I did more digging, piling the extra dirt on a piece of cardboard on the side.

Cedar planks and hardware cloth assembled and on its side next to hole

I repeated this step several times until finally everything fit. Hurray! I added the dirt from the cardboard into the cedar bed, and called it enough for one day. I still have to add the second tier of cedar planks, and all the contents–but that can be a new post.

Cedar bed in/on the ground

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of it all, I was happy to take time to collapse in the hammock with Margy. I am sore and exhausted, but it was a good day.

Two pairs of feet side by side in the hammock.

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?

Rest

 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Margy snapped a photo of me while I was reading in the hammock the other day. She couldn’t know that I felt so restful during that time that I almost wept. With everything happening in our country, and with my body so often exhausted by almost anything I do, there was something about that morning in the hammock that was so restorative, so relaxing. May you find ways to rest!

(I am going to stop here for now, because WordPress has changed its editing format, and I am lost in trying to find the simplest things, or how to get back to the earlier editing format.)

Pesto

This past week’s big garden project was making pesto. I’m not an expert on preserving food from the garden, but discovered that while oregano and thyme were easy to dry, things like chives and basil didn’t work for me to dry. But making pesto and freezing it has been great. We just finished using the last of our pesto from last summer, and it was time to make it again.

So here is my very loose recipe for anyone who might want to try it. First of all, cut big bunches of stalks of basil, parsley, and chives from your garden. And really, any combination of these will work, though I think of basil as the primary ingredient of pesto.

Basil & chives

Basil & Chives & Olive oil

Pinch the basil leaves off the stalks and place in a salad spinner–you can wash and dry them in the spinner. Do the same for parsley–I just cut the leafy parts off the stalks. Our garden is organic, but rinsing deals with any random bugs or dry leaves or other impurities that might be attached.

Parsley

Parsley in the salad spinner.

Chives can be rinsed briefly, and cut with a knife into couple inch lengths. Once these are ready, start with a blender. First, put in 1 cup of olive oil, and then reserve 1/2 cup for use as needed to keep the blender stirring easily. Add the basil and blend, add the parsley and blend, add the chives and blend. Or do this in any order you like. I also added 4 Tablespoons of lemon juice, salt and peper, 1 clove garlic, and some garlic scapes. I don’t do well with too much garlic, but you might want to add more if you like it.

Finally, I added one cup of raw hazelnuts. Traditionally, people use pine nuts, but they are more expensive and since we have hazelnut bushes, it seemed fitting, though our bushes haven’t produced any nuts yet. Later, when we use the pesto, we will add parmesan cheese.

Finally, I line a baking pan with wax paper, and put the pesto mixture on this paper in small lumps–like cookies. Place the whole pan in the freezer until the mixtures have frozen, and then I fold them up in the wax paper and store in freezer bags.

Pesto "cookies"

Pesto “cookies”

Through the winter, we take out the pesto cookies and use as many as we need with baked chicken, with zucchini noodles, with anything that could use a bit of bright flavor. I ended up needing to make two batches because I had so much basil. And the basil plants will grow back again, so we could make more later on. So much fun.

Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

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

Zucchini Plants!

hugelkultur jun 13

Zucchini plants June 13

This was our hugelkultur bed on June 13–the zucchini plants were coming up nicely. The green beans I planted never sprouted–must have been too old.  In the back you can also see a kale plant that is doing great.  And then, in the next two weeks, the zucchini plants just exploded with growth. Here below is a photo from yesterday, June 27. The plants are as high as the hugelkultur mound.

hugelkultur June 27

Zucchini plants June 27

In the background of this photo you might see towels hanging on the side of the deck–we went to the beach on June 26 for our first swim of the season. It was so great. We arrived about 4 p.m. and very few people were there–we never had to be closer than 20 feet from anyone else, though we wore our masks as we walked to the beach. Sand, water, wind, waves, and that restoration that comes from being in mother ocean. So needed!

If you look very close in the photo, or just jump to the next one, you’ll see that yesterday I also found huge yellow flowers inside the zucchini plants.

Zucchini flower June 27

Zucchini flowers June 27

And then, today, we could already see tiny zucchinis forming behind the flowers. I know that people joke about the prolific nature of zucchini plants. But this is my first time growing them, and it is truly amazing how quickly they grow and flower and fruit, and how huge and beautiful they are. Hopefully, they will stay healthy and we’ll be those people asking all our neighbors if anyone wants some zucchini.

Baby zucchini June 28

Baby zucchini! June 28

 

Small Days & Big Thoughts

Tending a garden focuses our attention on the here and now, the daily patterns and seasonal patterns. We have already begun to gather food–this from my lunch the other day: sea kale, asparagus, and wine cap mushrooms which sprang up near the carrots seeds I had planted in the food forest. (We had inoculated the wood chips with mushroom spore a year ago so we knew how to identify them.)

Food from Garden

But while I was not in the garden, I decided to re-read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I was inspired by watching an online presentation of  Toshi Reagon’s concert production inspired by Parable of the Sower.  A powerful dystopia first published back in 1993, Parable of the Sower follows the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, as she faces the destruction of society all around her from environmental devastation and a widening divide between rich and poor. Eerily, the novel begins in the year “2024.” Eerily, in the second novel, there is a dangerous president who is going to “Make America Great Again.”

For those who don’t know her, get to know her!  Octavia Butler is an African American feminist sci-fi writer, who died in 2006.  I think I have read and loved all of her novels.  Her own experience of oppression shapes the way she tackles complex issues, painful realities, and paradoxical truths. These two books fit into that realm of sci-fi which asks the question, “What if things keep going the way they are?”  When her family’s neighborhood is destroyed, Lauren Olamina sets out on a journey north, and creates a new religion, gathering a few followers as she goes. She calls it Earthseed, and there are excerpts of her Earthseed writings within the novel, starting with these words:

All that you touch, You Change

All that you Change, Changes you

The only lasting truth Is Change.

God Is Change.

When I finished Parable of the Talents, I wondered whether Octavia actually believed the Earthseed ideas, or whether it was a fictional exercise in imagining a modern founder of a new religion. I found an article that suggested that her journals reveal Earthseed did align with her own beliefs. I can find much inspiration in Earthseed, though parts of it don’t work for me. I’ve always experienced the divine as more personal and loving, rather than the impersonal force of change that Lauren Olamina elucidates.  But if I had had the experiences that Lauren had, that Octavia had, might I experience a different sort of divinity as well? Still, never to leave it simple, Octavia has another major character–Lauren’s brother–raise the same criticism and choose a personal God.

I cannot say enough how much I love Octavia’s writing, but it is also devastating to read. Somehow when the writing is beautiful enough, I can bear the challenge.  (Spoiler alert!) For example, in Parable of the Talents, Acorn, the first community of Earthseed, is attacked and the children are all taken from their families, and adopted away into “Christian” families. Later, when the adults in the community finally escape from their captivity, they search for the children, but mostly cannot find them. Parable of the Talents is narrated by Lauren’s daughter who was taken when she was only a baby–and she doesn’t meet her mother until many years later when she has become an adult. However, they never recover from everything that has happened in between. Devastating.

I think about the children of the Disappeared in Argentina who were stolen and adopted by the murderers of their parents. I think about Indigenous children taken from their families over many decades, losing their language and culture, traumatized. I think about enslaved African-Americans whose children were sold away, and how much they struggled to reunite when slavery finally ended.  I think about the migrant children at the border right now being separated from their families and locked in cages, deported alone, or adopted to others.

In this way, the dystopia of the Parables isn’t really a future danger, but a present reality.  Just as in the novel many people were walking along the highway trying to find a way to survive, migrant people are right now walking along the roads north, facing danger from robbers, murderers, rapists, and smugglers, and then at the U.S. border being locked in cages, their children taken.  Undocumented people have no protections other than what they can give to each other in communities.  All the while a semblance of “ordinary life” goes on for other people like myself (except for COVID 19–but we are safe in homes with food).  I find myself wanting to talk with others about all the ideas that Octavia Butler raises, so many more than I can even hint at.

In the story, the Acorn community for a while was able to live by the work of their hands. They plant a garden and harvest the fruit of the trees. They go day by day until they no longer can. Meanwhile, our cherry trees are forming their first few little green cherry starts. I am so awed by it. Day by day, we are learning to partner with the earth for food.

Cherry start

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.