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

 

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

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

Hugelkultur, part one & a half

Time to do the next steps for our new hugelkulture bed, but I wasn’t sure what kinds of materials to put on first. After doing more research online, many suggested that soil plus nitrogen rich materials like cut grass were next. But then I realized I needed to back up a bit. In order to stabilize the mound, it was recommended to put soil in between the cracks and crevices formed by the logs on the bottom. So I took off the smaller branches I had already placed on top, to expose more of the logs underneath.

Also, people had mentioned having a problem with the soil falling off the outer part of the mound, and one suggested remedy was to put lots of sticks angled out from the mound to help to stabilize the organic material and soil that will eventually cover it all. So after I took off the smaller branches, I started replacing some of them at a different angle.

hugelkutur sticks

Finding soil to put on the bed is no problem for us–in fact, it is a great help for our dream of a future pond, which we had included in our original permaculture design. One of the challenges for a pond is having some place to put all that dirt. So it has been on a way back burner. Today, I dug up about a half-wheelbarrow full of dirt–the dirt was very wet from recent rains, so that was actually the limit of what I could lift in the wheelbarrow.

Future pond soil

I brought it to the mound and started putting it into all the crevices, (after making sure to pull out any tiny red bittersweet roots.) The mound needs several more loads of dirt, but my own physical limits intervened. For some reason, lifting heavy things is very challenging for my chronic autoimmune illness, and triggers my fatigue response. So I sat outside in the sun for a while, but reluctantly came in after watering the mound with our garden hose. Tomorrow will be another sunny day.

It is hard to have an idea, a vision of this hugelkultur mound, and not be able to just go out there and get it done. Usually if I push myself one day, I have to rest on the next day.  And Margy has her own limits. So after moving all those logs yesterday, it was a stretch to do anything at all today. But I have been slowly learning to honor the boundaries of what my body can do, and take things step by step, in whatever timeline is necessary. It still feels so good to be outside in the garden.