Pond Dig, part three

I had a helper yesterday for digging the pond. My friend Sylvia came by in the afternoon and the very first thing we did was drag the pond-liner in its box from near the house to back closer to the pond. (You can see it in the picture, behind the wheelbarrow.) That would have been enough help all by itself–so heavy! But then we took turns digging, hauling, and resting nearby. We got a lot done, and also enjoyed a rare COVID-time visit, walking around the yard and in the woods, looking at birds and plants.

Sylvia standing on the planting shelf, while digging in the pond!

So here is what the pond looks like now, in layers. The first layer down, about 8-10 inches, is for the planting layer. The next layer down, maybe 18 inches, is for a step layer–part of that I might take away as we go along, but some will remain to be a step into the pond going forward. In the middle, we dug to about 2 feet down, as measured with this string set-up I created. My aim is to go three feet down in the middle.

Pond layers dug out.

But then we came upon a problem that wasn’t mentioned in the Building Natural Ponds book by Robert Pavlis. Water started to seep up from the sandy soil. We are actually at the time of year when vernal pools abound here in Maine. We have a ditch way back behind the edge of our property and the properties next door that fills during spring rains. And we had an inch of rain last week, though generally it has been a dry winter. Does this mean we can’t go any deeper for a lined pond? Or do we need to wait until it is a bit dryer as the days go by? Will it mess up the pond to have water under the liner at the bottom? Or does it not matter at all? I am going to ask my questions in the Facebook group Building Natural Ponds, and see whether I might find some answers.

Water seeping from the soil in the bottom of the pond.

Maybe the pond just wants to be a pond so badly, that it doesn’t want to wait, lol. Meanwhile, I am going to rest today from digging, and more rain is coming tomorrow. So we will see. If you have any wisdom about this, I’d love to hear from you.

Pond Dig, part two

More on my adventures in digging a small pond! Yesterday I finished digging the first layer of the pond, down to the level of the planting shelf, about 1 foot. I checked whether it was fairly level after I was done. And then I did some math to figure out what 1/2 to 1/3 of the total surface area would be, which is the best size for the planting shelves.

For those who might wonder, here is how I worked on that: Using a website that computes circle area, I found that for my 11′ by 11.5′ pond, the total surface area was about 100 square feet. If I made a planting shelf one foot deep, the resulting circle would be 9′ by 9.5′, with a surface area of 67 square feet, meaning the planting shelf included 33 square feet. I was surprised that just 1 foot at the edge already brought it to 1/3 of the area. Doing two feet would leave a circle of 7′ by 7.5′, or 41 square feet, with 59 square feet for planting. So I took half of that, and decided to do 1 foot wide on one half, with 2 feet wide on the other half, approximately. Even though the math is exact, the actual pond will be less so, but it gave me an idea of what I was aiming for. I marked it out with white flour, including a spot for a step, that would be dug to 1 more foot down, to make it easier to get in and out of the pond center.

Pond layer one, with my rough markings for planting shelves and a step

Meanwhile, I’ve heard back from folks who have bits and pieces of carpet–I had asked for at least 2 feet wide, and the responses have ranged from 2′ by 2′, to a medium size carpet. I picked up some yesterday, and will do more today. It has been fun to have these interactions with folks, limited as they are–so rare for me in a time of COVID. Since I don’t have a truck, the smaller pieces actually work because they fit in the back of my car.

Meanwhile, the pond liner was delivered yesterday too! A very heavy box was dropped in our driveway by UPS. (I think I remember that it was going to be 138 pounds) Unable to lift it myself, or even together with Margy, she had the idea to roll it onto a larger piece of cardboard (which we always have in our garage for various garden projects) and then we could pull that cardboard together along the driveway to a better spot–and it worked. So it is waiting by the side of our house. It made me realize, though, that when I actually install the liner in the pond, I will definitely need help from a few friends.

Four years ago, the pond was part of our original plan for our permablitz–when twenty-some people came by and helped us with all manner of garden projects. (If you are curious about that, you can find more here.) It was such a humbling and gratifying experience to be gifted with the energy of so many to begin to create this permaculture garden where we live. With everything else going on that day, it was decided that the pond would be too much to attempt. But it is wonderful to remember how community enables us to live better with our land, how the gift of each other’s time and energy enriches all who participate. With COVID we’ve been on our own so much, and yet even so, we rely on the help of others–delivery people, for example, and neighbors who have picked up needed items in stores. It has brought us closer together with our neighbors actually. We are so programmed by our society to try to be self-sufficient. It is hard to be reminded of our need for each other–and yet that need is a blessing.

Meanwhile, it was also a blessing to be digging on my own, outside in a beautiful sunny day. Squirrels were playing, birds singing, daffodils shining bright yellow, and the cherry and peach trees are beginning to blossom. I started on the next layer of the pond. Our soil is very sandy and compacted–we had an inch of rain fall on Friday, and none of it stayed in the depression that I had already dug. So the recommendation is to slope the sides as we go down so it doesn’t collapse. Step by step, and with a little help, I think it can be done.

Digging begun on second level.

The Little Pond

In our permaculture design for our land from 2017, we included a little pond, about 11 by 12 feet round. Every so often, I would dig in it a bit, and find a place to put that soil. Finding a spot for what is dug up is actually a major issue in digging a pond. Some of the topsoil made its way into what is now a bed for blueberries. But mostly, I didn’t have the energy to take on another big project.

The future pond, as it looked with what I dug out before this year.

However, this spring I felt a burst of energy each time I went into the yard, and I felt the future pond calling to me! So I read once again Robert Pavlis’s book Building Natural Ponds, and made a list of everything I would need. I talked it over with Margy. The biggest expense is buying a pond liner, recommended 45 mil EPDM rubber. For our size pond, with the deepest part 3 feet deep, we’d need a 20 by 20 foot liner. (Formula: width plus 2x depth plus 2 feet for edge, times length plus 2x depth plus 2 feet.) Other needs include old carpet strips to lay over the ground under the liner, to protect against roots and rocks–and we’ve got bittersweet roots, so this might be essential. It will need lots of stones to line the planting shelves and the edges, and then a number of pond plants, to serve to clean the water, and of course to look beautiful. This kind of natural pond does not have any mechanical filters–just plants. So 1/2 to 1/3 of the pond is made up of planting “shelves” that are only about 8-12 inches deep.

Why include a pond? One reason is that it brings more water into the landscape. For some sites, ponds are a way to store water, but that won’t be as big a need for our site. We have rain barrels for that. We can use water from the rain barrels to fill the pond, and refill as needed. For us, a pond will mostly be for wildlife, like frogs and birds. We are told that if you build it, the frogs will come. And for us, another reason is to be able to look at the beauty of the water and water plants, when we are sitting in the yard. What a good reminder of the sacredness of water.

The biggest amount of work to make the pond is the digging. But we finally figured out a place to put the dirt. In the back corner of our yard, some former resident dumped a pile of concrete and metal demolition junk. We’d thought about trying to haul it away, but that would be a huge job, and cost money to take away. Most years, it has been covered with wild raspberries that don’t bear any fruit because it is too shady. This spring, I pulled out much of the raspberries and some invasives, and got a good look at the junk underneath. Concrete, metal, demolition debris.

Old demolition debris in the back of the yard.

So this is where we will put the sandy under-soil I dig from the pond. Then I’ll put cardboard over the resulting mound (to rein in the invasives), put down some compost and other soil on top of the cardboard, and then plant some shade loving plants on the mound. Another project.

A few days ago, I started an overflow spillway, an area on the edge of the pond that is 4 inches lower, so if the pond gets too full, the water has a place to go. I figured out, from the book, that it didn’t have to go very far, maybe 8 feet away or so, where the water could sink into our sandy soil. Then, the last few days, I have been slowly digging out the first layer, to the depth of the planting shelves. Here is how much I was able to finish by today.

It’s hard to tell that the depth of the pond is now about 1 foot, except for the part in the center that I didn’t finish to that level yet.

I shovel out the dirt into a wheelbarrow, using a level to try to keep the pond surface level–which will be important–then I bring that dirt over to the demolition pile, and dump it there. It doesn’t actually look like that much, but I hauled away several wheelbarrows full just in the last couple days. I don’t know what the former residents did with this part of the yard, but it seems like there are some ashes and charcoal buried in the future pond, along with a very rusty sandy soil. Oh, and here is what the junk corner looks like now.

Junk pile beginning to disappear under dirt piles.

So, yesterday, I ordered a pond liner. I was able to find a liner, with an underlayer, for $438. I also posted on “buy nothing” and “freecycle” pages requesting old carpet strips. I’ll keep you updated. This is going to happen!

“Ghost” Trees

Peach (in front) and cherry trees treated with Kaolin clay.

Yesterday, I prepared a mix of kaolin clay and water, and sprayed all the branches of the peach and cherry trees in our little orchard. This is an organic solution to curculio insect pests, among some others. Now they are totally white and look like ghost trees. The leaf buds are starting to open on the cherries, and flowers will be here soon. Last year, our peach tree produced many peaches, but they were almost all destroyed by pest bugs. We got to eat two peaches. (They were delicious by the way.) We had somehow assumed that it might take at least a year for bugs to find them, but bugs are smart. So it was a useful lesson in observation. But this year, we hope to actually eat some peaches.

I have been committed to figuring out how to protect them organically. This spring I started reading once again The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips, which has been my guide during my fruit-tree food forest adventure. Each spring I forget what I did the prior year, having only a few trees and a few times to do any part of this project. This time reading, a few more ideas stuck further into my brain, and I found a few new ideas too. First of all, which I didn’t forget, was to try to make sure they have all the nutrients they need in the soil. Phillips had a section about how to interpret soil tests, and last fall, Margy did a soil test for the peach tree bed. Since the fall, I have added more compost, seaweed, some rock dust and green sand which are all long-term nutrient boosters. I also ordered some potassium sulfate of potash because the soil test said the soil was low in potassium, and some alfalfa meal to add some extra nitrogen which was also low. I will add those once the trees are more in flower.

In prior years, I have done the holistic sprays that Phillips recommends, and now I am trying to create my own timeline for which ones come when, so that I don’t have to figure it out each time all over again. I love this book, but it is not well organized for beginning orchardists. Vital information is scattered across various parts of its 400 pages. It is the book of someone who knows way too much about all aspects of orchards for a beginner to have much of a chance. His primary focus has been apples, and other fruits each have their own sections. Still–re-reading it each year seems a good way to go.

I do have to laugh though, because I found the key piece of information I needed for my peach and cherry trees only in a footnote–a footnote! And that footnote said: “Massively coating stone fruits [cherry and peach are stone fruits] with multiple applications of refined kaolin clay for curculio is less than ideal once fruit begins sizing in earnest. Cherries bloom before apples, and with far less leaf showing initially. Surround [brand name of kaolin clay] applied at this critical juncture on the just-about-to-pop flower buds delivers a message to this pest to move onward to other prospects. Curculio makes its way by crawling, particularly early on when temperatures tend to be cooler. The main route to developing fruit is by way of the limb highway, and thus the reason for thorough coverage on the branch structure of the tree. Two applications going into bloom will do the trick in a warm spring, with an additional application as soon as petal fall begins probably necessary in a cooler season.

See what I mean? But yesterday, as the buds on the cherry were just starting to open, I sprayed it with kaolin clay, and then I repeated it once that had dried. Now they are white, and I hope they are protected for now.

It was lovely to be outside. In between applications I did some raking and some lying in the hammock, and eating my lunch under the patio umbrella. What a great way to celebrate Earth week.

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.

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

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