March 27, 2006

Ignorance is bliss. When I was ignorant of how awful it was to plant a fruit tree on top of the rotting roots of a removed almond tree, it took about 20 minutes to plant said fruit tree. Dig the hole nice and big, pull out any obvious old roots, add compost, putter about where the new roots would lay, fill in a bit, putter some more, fill in more, and eventually tamp the loose soil with my feet. An enjoyable little job in the early spring sunshine. But now I’ve been enlightened, and have learned all about how those almond roots are the Source of Much Evil. So with a sigh, I knew I had to dig those old roots out before I could plant my impulse cherry and plum purchases. No problem, there ought to be what, 5 roots down there? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The work was hard, and for the illionth time I almost broke that poor fiberglass shovel in half, but the “root extraction” proved to be a great education. I found knots. And insect colonies. And oozy-yellow reddish slimy patches. I never knew how much was happening, three feet under. The roots in question seemed to occupy a  4’x4’x3′  area, so a very great amount of digging had to happen. Some of the roots had so much soil on top that we had to use the tractor bucket for extra digging power. After four hours, the little trees were happily tucked away; and for the future, I am so very happy to have a friend with a backhoe, because I don’t plan on ever doing that by hand again! 

March 22, 2006

I would laugh at what can happen in two minutes, except I was the one who had to clean it up. Let’s start at the beginning.

I have been trying to be productive in the evenings, as I emerge from the “winter doldrums”. Tonight’s agenda was some internet research, starting the weekend chore list, and reseeding peat pots that failed to germinate their tomatoes or peppers. The third task was done first, quickly. Good. The second task was done second, and the first task left for last….easy street. One of the items to be checked on were the growth requirements for Gunnera tinctoria, another of my projects. It’s a plant monster, which under optimal conditions will get about 8 feet tall with leaves that can measure 5 feet across. Oh, and it is covered with huge spines. At the moment, the future T-Rex is a hatchling, living in a pot on our bathroom. A lot of places double as the greenhouse we don’t yet have, and the bathroom’s south facing window currently houses 2 pawpaws, 2 rubber plants, a bucket of lemon grass, a pot of Stevia, some peppers that are flirting with death, a castor bean, 2 succulents, and the Gunnera. The sum of my learning was to confirm a vague memory that Gunnera is a bog plant. As in, get that pot into some nice water that won’t drain. That was easy, I found a large tupperware bowl, put the pot in, added more water, put it all back in its place, and sat down to do more research. In exactly 2 minutes, I heard a terrific crash. I didn’t even need to ask what had happened, I just knew it involved that Gunnera.

I turned on the light. I have been meaning to do a good cleaning on our bathroom for about 2 weeks now, but the sight that met my eyes was not what I wanted to see. The Gunnera pot didn’t just fall, it exploded. I could have brought in the hoe, because there was that much dirt on the floor. Except, it wasn’t really dirt because after all, I just made a little bog in the pot. Dirt on the mirror, dirt in the sinks, dirt across the counter, down the cabinets, in, on and around the bathtub, and oh most definitely dirt on the floor. I’d usually laugh this off, but I am already tired tonight and this just wasn’t what I wanted to deal with. But there it was. So I went out, and found a smaller pot, since now the nice one my mother gave me is in a dozen pieces. Forty minutes later, most of the damage was repaired. I think the only happy one in the bathroom was the Gunnera. I hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come with that plant….but likely, it is. I ask myself why I am attracted to these botanical aberrations….I guess I just like things to be interesting.

On another note, I have received some recent comments wishing that I might write a little more. So I’ve decided to add my sailing journals to this website. They are the link on the right called the Bilge Rat Journals. I hope you find them interesting, should you decide to read them.

March 19, 2006

I won’t claim that this weekend was the most productive, but it had its moments. Saturday blew with another of those north winds that is less than fun to work in (but better than rain anyday). I worked on the berries, a little. I weeded, a little. We executed squirrels, worked on equipment, did this and that. By midday I was feeling hopelessly unfocused, so I climbed into one of our big trees, lay back on a huge limb, and looked up at the new green leaves while the wind howled. That was nice. Then I dug up some nutsedge, troddled off into a grassy area, thought “why not?”, and decided to lay down on the grass. It doesn’t seem so windy, down on the grass. The sun feels warm. I saw some loose dirt and picked up a handful, it felt cool but not cold. Very crumbly. You could pick up a thousand handfuls of dirt and never have quite the same feeling twice, I’m learning that the soil composition varies more than I thought from location to location. For some reason all this brought up a memory about farmers testing the soil for planting by dropping their trousers and assessing the soil warmth the good old fashioned way….cheek power. I’m feeling rather done with winter, and I want to move on to other things. Like planting seeds and more berries. But it’s going to rain tomorrow, and the area for this summer’s garden lies empty, not even vaguely ready for planting. I’m impatient and I’ll just have to get over myself.

This weekend Ken was at long last able to repair our flail mower, it is back in business. So within a day, he managed to run over a piece of wire fencing hidden on the ground. It was my fault for leaving the wire there, so I made it my problem to fix the mower. The mower weighs I would guess about 600 pounds. (A flail mower is different than what most people envision as a mower. The part that gets the job done is a long shaft that runs horizontally under the cowling of the mower. Lots of little metal pieces that look something like upside down number 1 s hang in rows on the shaft. A belt spins this shaft at very high speeds, and the grass is cut by the flailing action of the metal. So if you run over something long, like twine or wire, it’s the same as vacuuming shoelaces or cord with the rotary brush of the vacuum cleaner, just ever so much harder to undo) Even lifted as high as it can go, the tractor can only get the mower about 14″ off the ground. We put big pieces of wood under the edges in case the hydraulics decided to fail. The next 90 minutes were spent with cutting tools (we have been loaned a good wire cutter for reasons unrelated to this episode, and it’s a good thing, because there was NO WAY this would have been possible without it) while I was on my back in a truly uncomfortable position, with you-name-it falling on my face while I tried to cut and work that mess out of there. To top it off, the mower had taken up some baling twine, so that was wrapped around the wire fencing as well. Another farm lesson: if you notice something should be taken care of, and you ignore it, your choice will be rewarded down the road by causing you at least twenty times the work of the original task. And you’ll have no one to blame but yourself!

I called Pamela, a fellow turkey breeder on Oregon today, having found myself in the upsetting situation of having to turn away an order for turkey hatching eggs on account of….the turkeys are being turkeys. I needed to turn my customer over to Pamela for assistance. She told me about the rain and the snow, and I thought I detected a hint of surprise and annoyance that our birds are actually sitting on eggs already. I have to remember that in most places that are not California, it’s not even close to the time to think about warm weather activities. Our birds are rapidly going outta control. Nests are popping up everywhere, turkey hens are hissing like dragons, and even our loose tom Ishmael has gone off the deep end. Ishmael has it in for our neighbor, Drew. Ishmael just hates him, and will seek him out like a bee to a flower in order to harass him. It’s embarrassing, we have a mentally unstable turkey. I’ve studied a lot of avian behavior, and this one has me baffled. I am just hoping that his hormones are getting the better of him and that after breeding season, he behaves a bit better. I petted him today, there’s a lot of nice breast meat there…. Egg production has begun, I will be moving 4 flats of eggs (that’s 120 eggs) out tomorrow. I think we are at about 35 eggs a day…this is what happens when you order 25 chicks.

Our seedlings indoors are doing okay. On one hand, I think we finally have the lights set right this year. The tomatoes are putting out their first true leaves, and the stems are less than 2″ tall. A new record! However, I’m disappointed with these tomato seeds so far, as a group. I bought from a different provider, and the germination rate is not what I’m used to. I will likely replant the pots that aren’t showing anything by midweek. I am really pround of an idea I tried, that appears to be successful. I’ve been reading a lot about capillary mats for starting seeds. The idea is, you purchase this mat, which is made of a special fiber. The seed pots/trays are placed on the mat. The end of the mat sits in water, below the level of the pots. Everything is moistened at the start, and then the surface tension of water acts to draw the water into the little seed pots as the plants need them. The plants are kept at just the right state of moisture, since seedlings they can’t be dry or too wet. I thought about it for a long time, and wondered about using pretty much any fabric with a decent moisture absorbing property. I have lots of these things they use at vet clinics, they are disposable barrier pads with cotton on one side and a plastic backing. I laid them out in a tray of aluminum foil and trimmed them so that the cotton surfaces had contact with each other. I set one end into a tray of water and….it works. Nearly as good as the real stuff, and totally free. I would like to get the “real stuff” at some point, but I like proving to myself that all those expensive things in the garden catalogs can be done without.

March 17, 2006

Tonight’s topic is….stuff that annoys me.
Our farmer friend (let’s just call him Drew, as that is his name) loaned me the UC Davis Weed Bible. For two nights now I’ve been ogling the glossy color photos, alternately glad that I now know the name of this-or-that, or wondering how many of these things actually plague me, because it seems like rather a lot of them are yanked, flamed, smothered, sprayed, hoed or otherwise killed on an ongoing basis. Then I thought, “why wonder?”. So here’s the list, ready? Dovefoot geranium, common vetch, perennial ryegrass, black nightshade, common catsear, roughseed buttercup, spiny sowthistle, vinegarweed, buckhorn plantain, mustard, three kinds of filaree, common mullein (which I’ve been encouraging as a “pretty flower”, just great), cattail, wild radish, field bindweed, yellownutsedge, bermudagrass, johnsongrass, California burclover, prostrate pigweed, turykey mullein, dock, common chickweed, witchgrass, feather fingergrass, hare barley, littleseed canary grass, large crabgrass, yellow starthistle, prostrate spurge, common purslane, common lambsquarters, russian thistle, malow, panicle willowweed, henbit, horseweed, pineappleweed, desert rockpurslane, prostrate knotweed, shepherd’s purse, fiddleneck, sowthistle, groundsel, and prickly lettuce. I left out several grasses that I couldn’t be sure of, and a few others like California poppy and yarrow that I grow deliberately and don’t care what others think of them. I stopped counting after forty, but I can now at least quantify why I often seem to be losing the weed battle around here. In spite of my resources, I’m outnumbered. However, I can now curse each one by its proper name. That makes me happy!

Next peeve: Solenopsis xyloni, or, the Southern California fire ant. Lately, I’ve found far too many fire ant nests. Usually they embody one of the plagues of summertime and warm weather. The ritual goes thus: I stand in one place, busy with whatever I’m doing. I wear sandals in warmer weather. Suddenly I feel a burning sensation on my feet, ankles and leg. I ignore the first one because I’m distractd by my work, but then the sensation registers, and I look down. I have about 20-30 ants on me, and they’re all biting and injecting their venom in concert. Jumping hard on the ground and moving a few feet away shakes many of them off, and I frantically slap off the rest. Then I have to stop, go in the house, and look for some topical antihistamine. If I can do that within 5 minutes, I’ll squeak by. If not, in 8 or so hours the welts will start to itch intensely, and it all goes downhill from there since I’ll scratch until my feet are a bloody mess. Can’t help it, IT ITCHES. Last weekend while working in the asparagus, they were far from my mind and this time they got me all over my hands. I use a borate bait I make up at home on them, but the amount of ants I’ve seen so far isn’t a good sign. This time of year they are sluggish from the cold, but are working to reproduce and build the numbers up in their colonies. I’ve looked online at various baits, and am in my usual paralysis about trying anything that looks remotely toxic to vertebrates. Borates work…with time and if you can bait every nest. I’m worried I will miss many nests, since the happy discovery usually occurs during tilling and other soil preparation work just prior to planting. Once a big colony is in a garden area, it’s tough. I had a 10 foot patch of tomatoes last year that I had to stay out of for a week, because you just couldn’t get near them without the ants swarming.

And speaking of ants, let’s move on to carpenter ants. They get into every tree and shrub. I have seen masses of 30 or more of them sitting on a rosebud, gnawing it into shreds. They infest the ripe peaches, apricots, figs, nectarines, etc. Tanglefoot stops them for a time but is almost as problematic as the ants. If it’s harvesttime for the almonds, they fall by the droves out of the trees (and onto your head) when the branches are struck. And if they have a mind to, they’ll happily sink their relatively large jaws into your skin. Hours of internet searching and I’ve been unable to find any meaningful help at controlling them. Maybe I should check for pet anteaters in the yellow pages.

Weeds and ants, nature’s way of helping make sure you don’t bother buying a hammock…

March 13, 2006

This lovely weekend was highlighted by visits with special friends. A longtime best friend brought his third-grade daughter along, which always means watching a child have a few great experiences. She may seem a typical young girl on the outside, who loves her pink clothes and Barbie. But I see in her a little seed of a future nature lover, and who knows, maybe someone who will want her own life in the country someday. But back to the pink…little “girly girls” are everywhere in this world and I tend to think of them as not liking dirty hands. But this gal loves to get down to working outside! I had a big, messy and not entirely fun chore this weekend, shovelling tractor-bucketsful of compost onto the asparagus bed, and then anchoring it with some truly rotten hay. In addition to mastering the art of assisted tractor driving, she dove right into that tractor bucket to fix any compost problems. She took out every stick and broke up every clod with her bare hands, and discovered the assorted compost worms and grubs that live in such places. Things that were not earthworms she delivered dutifully to the nearest hungry chicken. Later on she helped process the fresh eggs, and we had philosophical conversations about the nuances of medium versus large versus jumbo eggs. Not all children take to rural activities, but when one does, it’s a joy to see their minds wrap around How Things Are Done. And, to expereince their creativity. We spent some time reviewing gourd varieties when she discovered our last season’s gourds drying next to the sofa. In minutes she had assembled a gourd family out of spinning gourds, with names for each one. Let’s say it hasn’t occurred to me to play with gourds in that way, ever, and it’s fun to see someone who does.

Other activities for the weekend were planting fava beans, more roses, more asparagus, cleaning the chicken coop, cooking piles of berry scones, weeding, planting flower seeds, planting trumpetvine roots, all in the blustery weather. Ken repaired the roof of the turkey house, which the overly hefty toms have managed to partially collapse. Saturday a frost occurred in the early morning, in which the temperature went down to 28 degrees at our house. The local farmers call helicopter pilots to overfly the orchards when this occurs; under the right conditions, the rotors can mix in warmer air aloft and raise the air temperature. The few degrees of difference can stave off damage to the almond crop.

I created a huge chore for myself by not controlling some unwanted berry vines in the late fall, so I spent a lot of time digging out vines that have rooted everywhere. Some of the vines rooted in the white yarrow, a pretty wildflower. However when I dug these, the root system of the yarrow proved almost impenetrable….like piles of tough spaghetti in the ground. Timing is everything when one grows plants, and if I had done my job four months ago I’d be saving a lot of time right now. That and, maybe I need to think about curbing the amount of white yarrow running loose!

Speaking of invasive plants, I even created a probable nightmare for us in the future….I have become obsessed with unusual bamboo plants. I have now placed not one but two running bamboos in my poultry pen. One is black bamboo, very pretty. The other is Moso, the timber bamboo of Asia. It’s supposed to get up to 70 feet tall. Years from now I will doubtless remember this day and say “WHY did I do that??”  However a garden should include adventure, not certainty and safety (not to mention a supply of free poles). I’ll just hope this particular adventure won’t require a backhoe and gallons of undiluted Roundup to rectify.

Our turkeys are all in various stages of flirting with reproduction. Many are halfheartedly nesting. We almost have a mind to take this batch of eggs away, since the weather is really too cold for chicks yet. We are not eager to repeat the scenario of last year in which some chicks died in these cool weather conditions. Still, it’s good news to have all the turkey hens laying eggs and thinking about incubation.

Lastly on the speical friend front, we had a lovely visit with our farm neighbor. Everyone else’s junk is my treasure, and this gentleman has some of the best junk I’ve ever seen. Wonderful miscellaneous metal objects were brought over for creative use, and I didn’t even have to jump in a dumpster. Now we just need to find the spare time needed to churn these objects into yard art!

I feel too that everything seems easier lately. The work goes on unabated, but being able to confer with a (very patient) professional farmer about all the little questions and problems we face has removed a lot of stress. I worry less lately about how matters will turn out or how we will get everything done on time. Ken doesn’t worry about anything, but he loves having someone knowledgeable to converse with as well. Either way, it frees my mental space up for what I love the most, dinking with plants. Our heirloom tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are germinating now in the house. I love fussing over the little pots, and marvelling at how each little half inch plant holds the promise of a summer filled with delicious, unique vegetables. Yes, it looks to be a great season ahead!

March 7, 2006

Last night after days of much rain, a cloudy foggy blanket settled in. A large halo ringed the half moon, and the humidity seemed to dampen most sounds. Hundreds of frogs and other night critters sang their chorus in the nearby stand of trees. A noisy silence, if you will. Looking out on the garden in the pale moonlight, I am reminded that the same landscape I work in mostly by day has another aspect which I rarely visit. Sometimes I’ve gone out very late at night to check on our poultry and make sure they are safe. I stop and pet Ishmael, one of our toms, who always perches with his head regally pointed at the night sky. He sees all the changes of the day and the seasons. Who knows, maybe the turkey knows much more of our world than we do….