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

Today we started the process of building a hugelkultur garden bed.  Here is the “before” picture, though I had already created a path, next to the asparagus bed at the side of our garage. I lined the path with logs from the land, leveled it, and covered it with wood chips. Ever since I created the asparagus bed, that slope has been a bit of a mess, from all the dirt that I moved around to do asparagus plantings.

Before hugelkultur

Hugelkultur means hill culture, or hill garden, and is one of the tools in a permaculture tool kit that we had never used before. It is a kind of raised garden bed, with rotting logs at the base, brush, leaves, and other organic materials over that, and soil over the whole mound. The logs hold moisture, so that eventually you don’t need to water your plants as often, and they contain nutrients that are gradually released to the soil. They also extend your growing season because their slow decomposition warms the bed. It also serves as a use for old rotting wood and brush that otherwise might go to the dump, and it sequesters carbon in the soil. Some folks make them 6 feet high, but ours will be smaller than that.

With everything happening because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we felt it would be a good time to increase our capacity to grow more food. So far in our garden, we’ve focused on cultivating fruit trees and bushes, and herbs and other perennials. The only annuals I have grown are snap peas and kale, in amongst the trees. So this bed will be for annual vegetables, like carrots, lettuce, and zucchini.

The first stage was to go around with a wheelbarrow and collect old logs that have accumulated on the edges of our land. Most of them were there when we arrived four years ago. I think this will be the hardest part. These logs were heavy! Margy and I both had to rest in between loads. But it has been a beautiful sunny day, so what could be better than to sit in our yard in the sun.Logs for hugelkultur

The next step is to arranged the logs every which way in the area that will be the bed. Some people might be more orderly than this, but it doesn’t really matter. It does matter what kinds of wood you use. Hardwoods are preferred, but not cedar, which doesn’t rot, or black walnut, black cherry, or black locust because of how they protect themselves in the soil. Pines have tannins, and might make the soil more acidic, plus they don’t last as long. We were also careful not to use any bittersweet cuttings, and to make sure no bittersweet roots had colonized the rotten logs. Margy spends half her time going around cutting back all of that.Logs layer hugelkultur

After the big logs were laid out, we filled in with smaller logs and long branches. And that was as far as we got today. I came in to have a cup of tea, and to write all about it. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to stay nice so we’ll do the next steps then, and I’ll do an update.hugelkultur branches

Oh, I should also mention that Wednesday Margy and I had a big outing–since we’ve been staying home for three weeks now.  We went out to Winslow Park beach, and gathered seaweed, and got to see the beautiful ocean. All that seaweed will go into the hugelkultur too. One of my favorite things about permaculture is that nothing is wasted–what we might think of as waste is passed along as food for another part of the cycle of life. So rotten logs, brush, dead seaweed, fallen leaves, cut grass, vegetable scraps–all of it goes back to help create fertile soil. That is something beautiful to perceive.

Gathering seaweed

Rituals of Spring

Cardinal on car – 2020The earth is waking up in our neighborhood, and all her creatures. I love the cacophony of bird song that I hear when I walk in the morning. The other day I saw this little red fellow pecking at the side mirror of an automobile parked in a driveway next to a long hedgerow of bushes. It is a common cardinal thing. When he sees his reflection in the glass, he thinks it is a competitor, and tries to defend his territory. If you look closely, you can see his reflection in the glass too, though most of the time, I see him pecking the side mirror, not the car window.

But what is so funny about this to me is that it has been the same cardinal, the same driveway, and the same car for the last three years.  Or it might be the same cardinal. They say they live about three years on average. If it is not the same cardinal, I am sure it would be the son of the previous cardinal, learning these important spring rituals from his father. I went back into my photos app to confirm my recollections and found these photos from the last two years.

Cardinal on car 2019

Cardinal on car, 2019–He had jumped from the side mirror just before I snapped the shot.

Cardinal on side mirror – 2018

Cardinal on car, 2018

As for me, I finally braved my spring ritual of pruning the cherry trees in our food forest. I am still such a novice about all things concerning fruit trees and each year I forget the whole process and have to relearn it, and then hope for the best. After reading all the entries on pruning in the Holistic Orchard book, I felt even more confused. So then I looked at several Youtube videos on pruning cherry trees. (By the way, there wasn’t one perfect one, or I would recommend it here.) Finally, I ventured out, and with a prayer to the trees themselves for help, I trimmed back wayward and unruly branches so the three-years-from-planting trees will have strong scaffolds, and lots of light. Next, I’ll have to venture to the peach tree, which has a totally different method for pruning.

I have also started a bit of terracing next to our asparagus bed near the side of the garage. There is a slope there that didn’t work to hold grass or clover, so our hope is to make a path a little lower than, and next to, the asparagus bed, with logs on either side to stabilize the soil. Then we might put in some sort of annual vegetable bed on the other side of that path. Most likely, we’ll do a small sized hugelkultur mound raised bed.  But more on that later. If we do it, I’ll write another blog post about it.

I hope you are finding time to get outside and observe your own spring rituals.

Planting and grafting and rain

Winterberry bushNewly planted baby bushes are not as photogenic as old trees, but this week I’ve been excited to be planting bushes that have been waiting for two weeks for the ground to thaw. We’ve had so much rain, that on the few non-rain days this last week, Margy and I would be outside for as long as our energy would allow.  So far I’ve planted four witch hazel bushes and two winterberries (that is one in the photo, with a mulch from its shredded paper packing material) and three of the spice bushes.  Two more of those to go.  Margy has been planting clover in the front yard where she did a major crab-grass clearing last summer and fall.

I also took down the winter protection circular “cages” for the orchard trees, and did their first seasonal nutritional spray–a concoction I had learned about from the Holistic Orchard book. (It includes Neem Oil, Karanja Oil, a bit of dish soap, molasses, Fish Hydrolysate, Liquid Kelp, EM-1 microbes, and water, and helps to strengthen the trees own disease prevention and growth.)  The orchard trees have their green tips poking out! I am also seeing new shoots of asparagus, sea kale, licorice, rhubarb, elderberry, and lots of chives.

I haven’t had a chance to mention the apple tree grafting workshop I attended at the Resilience Hub on April 7th.  I won a ticket to the workshop in a raffle the day before at another event, along with a grafting knife.  So, do you remember learning the story of Johnny Appleseed, when you were young?  He went across the land, supposedly, planting apple trees in every town and countryside?  It was news to me to learn that the apples we eat don’t come from trees that grow from seeds.  Rather, they are created from branches-“scions”-of particular varieties grafted onto various root stock.

I did feel pretty clear on the concept of apple tree grafting before I actually went to the workshop–mostly from ordering our apple tree last year from Fedco.  But it was harder than it seemed it would be–the actual cutting of scions and root stock, I mean.  The basic idea was to form a diagonal cut on the root stock, and a matching cut on the scion of the variety we wanted, and then to form a smaller v-shape cut on each of those bare wood parts to help wed them together.  We practiced on spare wood for at least 30 minutes before we started on the root stock and scions.  When the cuts matched (the green edges of the bark needed to meet each other), we’d put them together, tape them with grafting tape, and then cut the scion wood to leave just two buds to grow.  I am summarizing a bit here.

In the end, I brought home four apple trees that I had grafted, albeit poorly. My chosen root stock was M-111, a semi-dwarf variety, and my scions were Black Oxford and Blue Pearmain. I also learned that they could be grown in a kind of nursery bed, and transplanted to a permanent location next year.  So this week, I dug them into our newly designated nursery bed, the one unused circular bed in the orchard, in which I am also growing peas, kale and lettuce (in the photo, the bamboo and string framework are there on the left to support snap peas, and the four apple trees will go in the area to the right.) Now we wait and see if any of them grow!  And just for fun, I brought home some more scion wood, to try and graft it onto our ornamental crab apple trees–sometimes that works, and you can get edible fruit from the new branches. Now if it would just stop raining every day.Pea supports

 

Almost

Witch Hazel

Our bushes arrived from Fedco this week, and today we were going to plant them.  Last winter, we ordered four witch hazel bushes, five spicebushes, and two winterberries.  We wanted to expand our mini-forested edges in the back and on the side, and thus we needed species that grew well in the shade of other tall trees (which these do).  We hope they will enhance the privacy of our yard, and also provide food for pollinators, butterflies, and birds, as well as beautiful flowers and berries to see.

We had done some preliminary work before we ordered them, to decide where they might be planted, and today Margy and I went around to confirm the spots, to make sure each bush would have enough room when full grown.  We marked them with flagging and markers. We unpacked the box of young plants and were delighted that they were more than just sticks with roots. They looked healthy, and we stored them in dampened shredded paper.  The photo is our witch hazel bushes.

The land in our yard has been soggy and wet for the last week.  But, when I tried to dig holes, I could only go down about five or six inches before I hit a barrier of ground frozen solid.  I guess we aren’t planting these today!  Still, it was in the 60s out there, and it was marvelous to just be outside in the sun–and then it was too hot, so we pulled out our shade umbrella for our patio table.  We turned to other tasks in the garden, and listened to birds singing, and I dug up the old kale plants that had overwintered.  Before I came in, I noticed that the holes I had dug were now filled with water.  I am curious as to whether the holes I dug will thaw faster than the undug ground.  We’ll see.  We are expecting no freezes this week.

Disruptions of Spring

Turkey Tom display

Spring is here in its northern way, with unexpected delights and disruptions–the wild turkey toms proudly displaying in the midst of old snow and random automobiles–a flock of starlings taking over the trees in our yard—two ducks hanging out in the brook. A small group of us celebrated with ritual on the Equinox to welcome these disruptive forces into our lives, to undo the stuck places we’ve found ourselves, and make room for new growth, new movement. We used a frozen bowl of ice, in which we placed candles, to symbolize the thawing times.

We do still have snow or ice over most of the yard, but each day another small patch of brown grass appears; our neighbor was already out raking in her snow-free yard.  In the middle of this, two days ago, my car was rear-ended as I was driving the on-ramp toward the highway after grocery shopping in town. No one was hurt, thankfully, though my car is now in the shop waiting for the insurance bureaucracy to authorize repairs. I was able to drive it home from the scene, and take out the groceries, being careful to go through and watch for broken glass in the bags.

Still, it shook me up with the vulnerability that is life.  We never know which day might be the last.  And meanwhile I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called “Last Chance to See” which follows Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine as they make a journey in 2009 to visit endangered animals that were first documented twenty years earlier by Mark and Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Stephen Fry brings a comedic voice to their adventures as the urban klutz who doesn’t usually traipse about in nature. (I recognized his voice from the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide.)

But underneath that veneer of comedy is wonder and grief.  The final episode was originally going to be about the Yangtze river dolphin, but the dolphins were declared extinct in 2007.  So instead, they search for blue whales.  Mark tells Stephen that blue whales, the largest animals ever on the planet, have been here for forty million years.  Forty million years. And now they are endangered, along with so many others.

I was caught up in the awe Stephen and Mark experienced in getting up close to these majestic beings.  I was filled with amazement at the beauty of this complex interwoven planet that we have been blessed to inhabit.  And I tapped into the grief that has been haunting so many of us these days.  Grief for the demise of so many beings.  Grief for the losses that are being propelled by human activity.

I feel so powerless to stop this roaring train that “western civilization” has become.  Perhaps there is nothing we can do to save all that is dying.  All I could think to do was to let myself choose conscious gratitude and love–gratitude and love for the utter wonder of life on our planet.  Gratitude and love for the animals and plants that are our elders and companions.  Gratitude and love in the midst of grief.

Flock of Starlings

Starlings in the trees.

 

 

Quickening

At winter solstice, the sun begins to rise earlier each morning, but only by about one minute every couple days.  As we approach the spring equinox, the changes begin to quicken, each day the sun rises earlier by one or two minutes a day. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but I feel this sense of speeding up. This morning, I woke at 6, and found myself jumping out of bed, wanting to get outside as quickly as possible, so as not to miss the dawn.

Gang of turkeysI was not disappointed. First of all, there was the waning moon shining bright in the western sky.  Then there was the gang of turkeys marching down the end of my street.  Twenty strong, they roam the place like they own it, and they do, as much as we do. Around the corner, a neighbor walks her little dog: Sparkles is still a puppy and just can’t contain herself when I approach.  She is trying to learn not to jump.  But she jumps. So we say our good mornings with enthusiasm.

Cardinal with tuftsOn my own again, around another corner, I hear a cardinal singing. He is already looking for a mate, or marking out his territory. I can see him in the tree, his characteristic shape visible with its tufted head, even though he is too far away to see the brightness of his red feathers.

The streets are a mix of clear pavement and icy patches, so I make my way carefully, no rushing.  But I feel buoyant in the  early morning light.  Finally, I approach the brook, and look over to the east, where I catch my first glimpse of the sun rising through the thicket of trees.

I am a morning person, but I usually don’t like to get up before 6 a.m. Just before sunrise is my favorite time of the day, but if it gets too early, I have a hard time making it out of bed.  In this regard, I will be saved by Daylight Savings Time on March 10. The sunrise would have been at 6:03 that day, but we jump our clocks ahead, so it slides back to 7:03. Then we have all the days until April 15 before it approaches 6 a.m. again. Nonetheless, everything is starting to wake up now. Buds are starting to appear on the fruit trees. Birds are singing. They know.

Sunrise in trees

[True happiness is not in buying things, but in being thankful for all that we already have. You can ignore any ads that appear at the end of these posts.]

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies

With all my working in the garden, I didn’t have a chance to walk by the brook for a few days.  When I came back, I found these little beauties.  The woods is absolutely carpeted with Trout Lilies.  I even thought about transplanting some for our yard, but read that they take several years to settle in and bloom.  So why not just enjoy them where they are?

There is so much beauty everywhere I walk–singing catbirds and cardinals, flowering cherries and magnolias, even just the leaves opening up on the trees are so magnificent.  The ferns are stretching out, and swamp cabbage is green along the brook.  Violets, dandelions and wild strawberries are flowering in the lawn.  Meanwhile life is busy, but I have to steal some moments to stop and enjoy it all.

May Day in Maine

Daffodils in orchard

I arrived back home in Maine Monday night, and found Spring bursting forth with flowers, including all these daffodils around the fruit trees in our orchard.  I planted the bulbs last fall because the Holistic Orchard book suggested that they could be protective of the young fruit trees.  But they also create so much beauty as the tiny trees are waking up, and look so spindly and fragile.  But guess what?  If you look closely, you can see that the new peach tree has tiny pink flowers budding out too.

I think we’ve come to that week when everything seems to wake up all at once.  In years past, this has occurred in mid-April, but this year it is aligning with May Day.  As I took a walk around the block, the forsythias were bright yellow, the grass in people’s yards was green and exuberant, and the trees were budding out. I walked along the brook and the trout lily’s spotted leaves were poking up all along the path. Back in the yard, I noticed tiny asparagus stalks emerging from the trenches where I had planted the crowns!

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads – Version 2

Back in March, I had purchased an Ostrich Fern root at the Maine Garden Show, and kept it in the garage while it was frosty outside.  This morning I noticed that even the fern was already growing bright green, curled-up fiddleheads there in the dark, in its plastic bag, so I planted it next to the white pine tree.

Today the temperature is rising to 80 degrees, but hopefully it will even out again to the 50s and 60s that are our average for Maine in May.  I love this time of year!

May our hearts wake up, too, rising from the weariness of the long winter, into the joy and exuberance of this season of growth and life.