February 27, 2006

Weeks like this certainly illustrate changing weather! Some days past we had frost issues, which gave way to weather on Saturday so warm that I had to change into the tan Carhartts and sandals to keep on working (tan Carhartts are for 70F+, black Carhartts for cooler weather–in case anyone wondered). We knew the forecast predicted rain on Sunday; we thought at 3 pm or later. By noon the rain began, somewhat truncating all the things we’d hoped to do. The good news is that at our home, no matter what was planned, there’s always something else that needs doing that will fit into the change. For example, this is the time of year that tedious, close-up tasks yield the spectacular flowers that will come in 4-8 weeks. Two favorite flowers that we encourage are clarkia and heirloom sweet peas. We don’t grow them so much as herd them. They self seed, so that new growth comes up haphazardly. Both are very forgiving when transplanted under certain conditions. (And, "overcast with rain" would be those certain conditions.) I have special sharp hand tools, they let me easily excise unwanted grasses, stir up the soil, and then I slice under the little sprout (or substantial plant) which then moves into its new hole. I love work like this, it is the classroom of soil and botany. For instance, the sweet pea seed looks like a round ball, a little smaller than a pencil eraser. When many kinds of flower or vegetable seeds germinate, what will become the roots of the plant extend down into the soil, and then the two halves of the seed become the seed leaves (cotyledon leaves), the precursors to the first set of true leaves. But to my fascination, sweet peas don’t seem to do this. When the plant is dug up, the original "ball" is still to be seen as the junction of the roots and plant stem, even after there is significant tissue development. I have no idea what it adds up to on the grand scheme of things, but seeing the structural differences and understanding the unique properties of each plant doesn’t happen unless you plunk down on the ground and start scratching around. There is as much going on in any square foot of garden soil as on the entire property–you just have to look. And working in the rain isn’t something to necessarily avoid. The air smells rich and clean, and the only sound is the wind and patter of the raindrops–all the birds and usual daytime sounds fall silent. The soil changes texture in my hands as it moistens. It’s all good under my foul weather gear, purchased for keeping dry during long stretches outside. We also began setting up our seed-starting area indoors (there goes the dining table again!). I had hoped to have a greenhouse for this year, hopefully that will still happen in the months ahead. In the meantime, it’s time to get going on the tomatoes, etc. for planting in 4-6 weeks. I’ve already decided to roll the dice and plant early this year….remembering all the while that gambling requires illogical optimism.

On Saturday our field was dusted over with lime, and a pass with a scraper seemed to tamp everything down a bit. Our friend found a gopher snake which we sent down a rodent hole; we hope that fella has great dining in there. Best of all, we were given a whole trailer load of the best compost I’ve ever seen. I still can’t get over it. It was absolutely black, and smelled like a forest floor. It smelled so good I have to admit to accidentally snorting some while appreciating the bouquet. I’ve made compost like that before…..by the gallon or so. I spent the day in gardener heaven. Some for the vegetable bed, some for the roses, some for some of the fruit trees. Well, everyone has their idea of fun, and I suppose mine rests in a lovely pile of black humus. And speaking of fertilizer and healthy soil, I learned about something new called soil remineralization. Simply put, it utilizes powdered rock to restore an array of nutrients to the soil. In a way, it’s so obvious. How did our fertile valley soils come to be? If I remember fifth grade geography, it had to do with millenia of erosion of the mountains and other rock by wind and water. I am certainly willing to try this idea on my gardens, and see what happens by way of contrast to untreated areas. Aaaand, I finally found something else for which I’ve searched–a humane way to kill ground squirrels. It’s a product that takes advantage of some unique aspect of rodent metabolism to disrupt their cellular water absorption. No heavy metals or other poisons, no barbaric death, no risk to the poultry or cats. Just squirrels that slow down, conk out, and go to the Great Peanut in the Sky. All in all, a perfect weekend Smiley

February 21, 2006

This three day weekend contained bewildering amounts of activity. We planned to have special friends visit for the almond bloom, and woke early Saturday morning to get started on some good farm cooking. Still, our last shipment of trees was waiting for planting, so we went outside to prepare the trees and start a few other chores. Next thing I know, we were descended upon by an entire work crew, courtesy of our nearby farmer friend, to cut down sick, old trees. They sawed, they stacked, they felled. In five minutes entire hundred year old trees were gone. Tidy piles formed here and there. It was like watching a symbiotic unit go to work. Then as the day went on, the large backhoe came. An absolute heavy equipment artist sat at the controls, working the big shovel as though it were an extension of the human hand, dredging rotten roots and stumps from the ground as though it were child’s play. By the end of the day, everything looked completely clean and a monumental pile of debris stood ready for disposal. We still can’t believe what happened. Every problem we had out there is simply GONE. We have clean, tidy orchard space and now we can plant even more fruit and nut trees next year.

Our friends arrived, and among other things we had a glorious bonfire. It took a team effort, but we ignited that pile and all stood around enjoying the heat before dinner. The pile will burn for days. We had s’mores for breakfast the next day. And fresh squeezed orange juice from an entire sack of oranges off the tree, and a huge pan of scrambled eggs from the hens.

We collectively planted and painted all the new trees while enjoying two wonderful, sunny days. And best of all, our back field needed work still. A Caterpillar D-6 with ripper blades attached had been parked there, and with some encouragement and lessons from the owner, most of us spent some time on the machine. It’s hard to explain the sheer power of heavy equipment, or how much fun it is to grind along in low gear, unstoppable. Of course, it’s also sort of intimidating when you realize that you are sitting on someone else’s machine, and that it’s worth half your annual salary. I hope as time goes on we learn to use more and more farm equipment and machinery. We can at a minimum give our labor to the work happening on our property, especially when so much generosity has been shown to us. Of course, the downside to operating heavy equipment comes after those first few thrilling hours. Then the long lines of the field seem endless, the vibration rattles through your body, and even with hearing protection all you hear is the roar of the engine. And the whiff of diesel exhaust. But, it beats the hell out of digging up those stumps with a shovel!

And, on the heavy equipment note, I found an amazing website called HowItWorks.com, in which I spent hours learning about hydraulics, diesel engines, loader-backhoes, and even two stroke engines (don’t want the chainsaw to feel left out). I really liked this way to learn because there was no gobbledygook, just lots of good illustrations and clear explanations. Even though I use machinery, I’ve never been able to visualize the "hows" of the different parts. I feel this has given me a real insight into the proverbial Big Picture of how tractor attachments function. Okay, enough about that.

It has been really cold the past several nights. Flowers are blooming, and so far nothing has become irreversibly damaged. I am having to hand water a lot of plants, because it’s too dry from over 2 weeks without rain. It is supposed to warm up to ridiculous temperatures again toward the weekend.