May 17, 2006

As of this weekend, it was official. Four of our chestnuts were dead as a stone, and at least that many more were struggling to push out their leaves. The rains in the spring took a heavy toll on these trees that won’t tolerate “wet feet.” Admittedly, if we knew four years ago what we know now, we would have planted them soooo differently. And, this is the stuff that I shake my head at when it comes to the world of gardening. It’s not like I haven’t read a gardening book (for every finger and toe that I have) on how to select, plant, prune. I clearly remember the little diagrams of how to measure where and how in the planting hole to place the tree, how the hole is to be dug, filled, watered in, you name it. The problem is, that information obviously wasn’t quite right for where we are. Or, was not applicable to all circumstances. I find as I go along that a great deal of what I’ve read in horticultural books wasn’t………….quite right. It’s almost like someone should write a book called “Misinformation for Gardeners–Here’s the Stuff You Really Need to Consider Ignoring.” Back to the tree-planting issue, we’ve had Drew over here for months talking about the need to plant trees with their crowns up high above the soil level. It felt pretty odd, but this year I dug holes and made what looked like small Mount Shastas of dirt, and somehow got the little tree jammed in there. When I was done it looked like…well, pretty funny, and it was hard to keep the chickens from scratching the mounds to ruins. But now several weeks have gone by. What seemed like overly large mounds have imperceptibly sunken away. The trees don’t look like toothpicks sticking out of a cupcake anymore. And had we known to do this in the first place, the chestnuts might not have drowned. Well, we’ll do better next time. Seven new ones are on the way!

Speaking of drowning, I had another epiphany last night. We had been allowed the use of a Caterpillar 950 front-end loader. After 2 evenings of making some headway digging out roots and taking out dead trees, Drew came over and finished those tasks. (Since his skill level with the loader is several orders of magnitude beyond mine, the progress sped up considerably. But the machine was still a lot of fun to operate!) One particularly large scoop of earth was removed in an area that we had irrigated for about 48 hours. I have to digress a moment here…..I am an irrigation offender. I have had an inability to believe that that one tiny drip emitter sitting on the ground is actually watering a large area of soil. Visually, that one little wet patch surrounded by all that hard, dry soil doesn’t register. (I have noted that this perceptual issue seems to be predominantly found on the XX chromosome, but I won’t go there). So it seemed easy to justify running that water….way too much of the time. And then, I saw the soil in that hole. The waterlogged, icky, boggy soil in that hole. After the water had been turned off for at least a day. In the 90+ degree heat. A picture really is worth a thousand words. I think I am no longer wondering why four trees died, I am wondering how any of them survived our watering habits. The wet weather pushed them over the edge, but I now question how much I may have done to help them not be at their best. Well, the lesson just may have sunk in finally, no pun intended.

Now, back to the front-end loader. (If you want a visual, go here for a picture: http://www.viking-international.com/images/loader.jpg). I found myself driving this…large object…after a few minutes’ lesson. Admittedly, all these types of diesel equipment seem to operate basically along the same lines, but I still wasn’t sure how I ended up assigned to drive it about 2 miles to my house. It doesn’t really want to track a straight line, and at what seemed like a top speed of about 20-25 mph it extra didn’t want to go in a straight line. So there I was, trying to stay between the lines on the road. You don’t dare look behind you, because in the few seconds needed to turn your head, you might find yourself regrettably outside the lines on the road, and there is the phenomenon of oncoming traffic. You can’t hear traffic behind you on account of the engine noise; not until they are rushing past you do you realize a car or truck is there. You see the oncoming cars and really REALLY focus on staying on your side of the road (most of which you are occupying anyway, on account of the size of the thing). You debate trying to be polite and move a bit over to the right side against the presence of the imposing ditch on the same right side. You contemplate how much of a Honda Civic could accordion into the bucket in the event of a collision. It feels safer to go a bit slower, in second gear, but it’s a long ride. I am not 6 feet tall, so if I lean my back against the metal bar behind me, I really can’t hold down the throttle enough with my foot. So as the backache sets in, third gear starts to look really good, in spite of the fact that it’s like trying to keep a Cessna lined up in a crosswind. I realize that it’s natural to feel a bit tense when doing something like that for the first time. Still, my little adventure has me giving a “hats off” to people who operate equipment for a living. Like so many things, it’s harder than it looks.

The turkey situation is rapidly spiralling into “outta control”. Poults are everywhere. Hens are acting like toms. Toms are acting like toms. Little disagreements and aerial maneuvers are constant. Feed disappears at an alarming rate. Peeping noises and gobbles haunt my dreams. And we really don’t have that many turkeys. My other local turkey cohorts seem to be suffering from the same condition, so Ill just chalk it up to “small time breeder’s syndrome.” Oh, and we’re picking up something like 17 more poults this weekend.

The berries of all kinds are plugging along, either flowering or developing their fruits. We should have the first mulberries within a week.

The earwigs have returned in full force as the hideous pests that they are. I have recently started going out at dark with a flashlight, so as to enjoy squishing them as they are caught in the act of making lacework out of my flower leaves. Sometimes I drown them in soapy water for variety. Everyone needs a hobby…….

With my gardens in two different locations now, I have begun walking for more exercise. I walk all the time on our property, but it’s at a pace I jokingly call the “farmer’s plod”. Not exactly aerobic. So I make it a point, about every other day, to walk the distance to where my tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are at Drew’s terraced garden. I think the distance one way is at least a half a mile, maybe more. Anyway, I can walk or run or some combination thereof through fields or orchards. And walking at night lovely, under the canopy of stars and the moonlight. I love living in the country, there is so much of the outdoors to enjoy.

Tomorrow our solar system installation begins. Stay tuned!

May 12, 2006

The weather has steadily been in the mid 80s for some days now. We have been scrambling to create an adequate way to water our gardens and orchard, as well as create new pens for the turkeys. Because of the impending installation of the almond orchard, our watering system is disorganized. There is no point really in fixing the existing setup, because the "new improved" version is coming soon. Yet, I can verify that driving around with a tractor bucketful of water to pour on newly planted trees is something I’d really rather not be doing. Our water from the county will be metered and filtered from here on out, I can’t wait. When I think of all the unspeakably gross things I’ve done trying to unclog drip emitters that are silted shut……..yeccccch. In case anyone wonders, I’m talking about sucking on slimy irrigation parts to try to free blockages. What’s worse, success or failure? Success equals spitting and making faces for 5 minutes…. We have been given a really large amount of needed supplies in the form of compost, irrigation sundries, and help in general. I’ve been shovelling a lot of compost, trying to improve garden beds. I am almost ready to plant flower seeds. The front yard looks great, really colorful. Sweet peas, clarkia, roses, snapdragons, wildflowers….everything is just perking along. We continue to learn about the larger side of farming. I have begun to learn to use Drew’s loader backhoe, and in my short session really enjoyed the complexity of the controls. I am trying to dig out roots from removed trees. Our field in back has been worked on with an implement called a tri-plane, not the kind that flies in the air. Basically this is a large scraping device which planes down the earth; low spots are filled and high spots are shaved down. For the first time ever I can actually walk the length of the field and enjoy it–it’s that smooth and nice. A side benefit is that we have a wildlife census. I have been tracking the prints of a fox, some canid larger than a fox, and assorted smaller animals. The fox has been coming quite close to the house lately, at 2 am yesterday I was outside on account of it barking. Barking doesn’t really describe the sound, which lies between a bark and a scream, but I don’t know what else to call it. Some of the chestnut trees are barely alive, and many of them are suffering setbacks. The heavy extended rains were possibly too much for them. Of course, the affected ones are the oldest trees which are just coming into production….. The market garden is doing very well, with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers and basil growing. I think I am still 4-6 weeks from actual tomatoes making an appearance, we’ll see. As of tonight about 40% of the tomatoes are flowering. If I’ve learned one thing about growing heirlooms, it’s that all bets are off until they are in your bacon and tomato sandwich. We have 21 turkey poults, I think, from the first hatch. I will be taking something like more than a dozen Royal Palm poults from a friend in Zamora. We have been generously given a large supply of wheat, which will allow us to "stretch" the premium commercial feed I am planning to start purchasing. We use about 200 pounds of feed a week right now, and this will rocket up as the poults grow. Going to the feed store 2 and 3 times a week is getting old; it’s time to think about bulk purchases. The weekend jobs will be irrigating, controlling weeds around orchard trees, applying a special liquid fertilizer I was given, planting flower seeds, placing compost in many places, cordoning off parts of the orchard so the solar installers don’t run over my fruiting shrubs, pinching the grapevines, thinning fruit (unfortunatly, not much to do there), placing more soaker hose, laying out irrigation for the large garden, and who knows what else. I asked a young man I work with at the univeristy what he planned to do this weekend. "Oh, just hang out." Wow, being able to say that has faded from memory!