Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hugelkultur and Water

Last year I bought a stella sweet cherry tree from and planted in my garden. I saw it leaf out in the spring and then slowly die from the top down. What I learned later was that it was really dying from the bottom up. That is, the roots rotted in the waterlogged soil. This kind of tree does not like wet soil. Enter hugelkultur. Credit goes to Paul Wheaton with his article about it on, where I was introduced to the concept, and with the ongoing discussions, experiments and successes going on at the forums, I gathered enough information to recognize it as a potential miracle. Self fertilizing, self irrigating- and it also happens to be a kind of raised bed. Thus add self aerating to the mix. Just what I needed. Hugelkultur is basically a mound of soil on top of rotting wood. The wood acts as a sponge, holding water for much longer than in a regular garden bed, and it also acts as a substrate for beneficial fungi. There is a symbiotic relationship between plant roots and fungus mycelia- a sort of nutrient exchange that goes on between them. Some relationships are species specific, but I am taking a gamble that a more general exchange also happens, or that the bed creates the ideal conditions to facilitate the evolution of symbiotic fungal-bacterial-plant root polycultures. We'll see.

Gurney's nursery promises to replace any tree as long as your garden exists. So I e-mailed them and they were as good as their word. A new one was sent this past week. It arrived Saturday, on a rainy day. It came as a bare root and needed planting that day. So I had to construct the bed in mucky soil. Not the best day for excavation. First, I used an A-frame level to make sure I placed the bed along a contour. This is so it would receive runoff evenly. I removed the sod, then a little soil beneath it. Next, I added a layer of old, rotting firewood, then returned the sod upside down, followed by the last of the excavated soil. I dug another layer of the clay subsoil on the uphill side of the bed to create a small swale, packing the clay into the side of the bed at the bottom edge.  I added a layer of half finished compost to the top before planting the cherry tree and seeding the rest of the bed with oats, clover, snap peas and carrots. I will probably add a few strawberry plants as well.

Two days later it rained again and the swale filled with water. Extra water drained via the buried tile that runs under it into the pool on the far right. However, it is also full. Anyhow, the swale kept the water longer, and I am hoping it will function to recharge the buried wood in the bed during dryer times, capturing afternoon thunderstorm runoff, and reducing evaporation speed through it's simply being concentrated for a little longer in that space.

For more hugelkultur step by step photos, go here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Beside Vernal Pools

Living on the edge of wild has many advantages. Fresh revelations occur. Like vernal pools. I had always known there were some areas that filled with water during the winter and spring, but dried up in the summer. To my delight, I discovered that they not only have this lovely sounding name (vernal pool is so much more poetic than a puddle in a ditch), but they provide a unique habitat for certain types of amphibians to complete their life cycles, away from the hungry dwellers of permanent pond places.

Today my daughter led me on a delightful adventure. She and her sisters had been doing what kids do best- exploring places where there is mud and water. And she had found eggs. She related the discovery while we were finishing up some homemade cards for our church members' birthdays. 

"What were they like?" I asked

"They were white and shaped like this." She held up her fingers and thumbs in the shape of an oval. 

"Like chicken eggs?"

"They were under the water. They were bigger than chicken eggs, but harder than frog eggs."

My curiosity was aroused. Wild turkey eggs washed away by heavy rains, perhaps? I promised to go down there with her after we finished lunch. Here are more details about our expedition.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Snow Ice Cream!

It doesn't have any snow in it. We just used snow and slush to freeze it in the ice cream maker. We don't have an ice maker, so we make ice cream when it snows. Yum!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ain't it thrillin'?

Yesterday was a warm, sunny 63. Today it snowed. I think it is the first real snow we've had since the year before last.

Confessions and Superheroes

This is the post where I must be brutally honest about my shortcomings. I hate it when I screw up, especially when it might affect relationships with people I care about. Yesterday, I invited some good friends to come over and help feed the lambs, forgetting that it was the day I was to pick up a delivery for a food co-op I had ordered from. The call came one hour before they were to arrive, and the delivery was also expected at the same time! I frantically bumped my son off the computer and sent messages via facebook to my friend, Kelly, explaining the situation.

This is also the story of two superheroes. Kelly immediately volunteered to stay with the kids so I could go get my order. She arrived with her four kids and one of her nieces a few minutes later, and I took off with Jude, leaving her with 9 kids, 18 chickens, 7 cats, 2 dogs, 2 lambs and 2 pigs. All but the pigs were running around together in one mass of unpredictable movement. Except for the one glued to the computer. Add to that swings, slides and an assortment of wheels, and just about anything could happen.

 I had no worries. I was only sorry to miss all the fun. Kelly did not just step in and pick up the muddled pieces of my poor planning,  she also took pictures!
photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

Did I say two superheroes?
I arrived home shortly thereafter to behold a glorious sight. 9 children, fed and happy, playing in the afternoon sunshine, including the one stuck to the screen. Kelly had managed to pry him loose, and his brother. We had a lovely visit, and they left awhile later with some freshly milled flour and yeast. As they were piling into the minivan, whether or not they belonged, (ahem, Hardings, please come out of their car!), and Kelly and I were exchanging goodbyes, Seth waved and wailed desperately, "Mama, let me tell you something!"

"What is it, Seth?"

"Um-uh-I was stuck and Lindy saved me."  So we ran over to thank Lindy before they left.

That makes two superheroes in our story today.

photo courtesy of Kelly Hawkins

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two Lambs and a Baby

Death and Hope

    I missed the Ash Wednesday service yesterday because I had to bury two of my young chickens. And find a place for a wounded third. I came down to their shelter to put in dry bedding and noticed a lot of feathers on the ground. I looked for my little flock, and saw only a small cluster of five hiding in the woods. A few yards from them was the first dead one- a young rooster that one of our hens had hatched out. Our two little dogs ran up to me then, barking because they had not seen me come out and thought I was an intruder. Were they the killers? I do not know. Sparkle looked to be in heat and the girls had seen the neighbor's little fellow over here this morning. Perhaps he started it and the primitive pack instinct overrode everything I'd been teaching them. Ah, the thrill of the chase, the call of the wild. I understand. I eat meat, too, and there is something about domesticity I do not love. But now was time for communication. I moaned, expressing my grief freely. The dogs became quiet, and led me to a spot in the woods where another was expiring. Sorry, little girl. Sorry that I wasn't here to protect you. I'd had an errand to run, and trusted the dogs to continue their good behavior as chicken guards, not chasers. I thought we had an understanding. Maybe it wasn't them.
   The girls came out to see why I hadn't returned and joined the search for the missing pullets. There were still seven unaccounted for. I dreaded what we would find. My husband, Luke, drove up the next moment and joined the search. He and the girls combed the thickets at one corner of the field in front of the house while I walked around the backyard and circled back up the driveway. I turned to look again at the front yard, and there were six more, running to meet the others, followed by the old red rooster, who had taken it upon himself to protect my young brood even though they were not yet grown into hens. I shouted the good news to the others and ran to count them. Old Red looked at me and I nodded my thanks. Poor fellow, though, he had some wounds on his legs and was missing some feathers. The kind a small dog might cause. But he seemed okay.
   That left only one still missing. We abandoned the search, thinking she had probably met the same fate as the other two, when I heard some clucking behind me. I turned around and saw Diamond trotting behind the missing pullet, barely visible in the tall, dry grass. She sat back down so I picked her up and stroked her. She was wounded, but her eye still bright and head still perky. The girls ran over as I examined her, and I found a  bloody gash in her side. Miriam informed me that Virginia had asked Diamond to find the chickens. "Virginia can talk to animals". she explained.
   "That is a gift." I said in agreement.
   Diamond sat patiently and comfortingly beside the hurt chicken while I stroked both of them. Sparkle had gone to lie down with the kittens and the girls wondered why she was acting so sad. One dog hides, the other helps.
   We washed the pullet's wound and set her up in a safe place. She seemed to be drooping after this, and I will be surprised if she makes it. I buried the two dead in the compost. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. However, soil is full of life, and the energy will be regenerated into other forms of life. When I die, I want to buried on my land, and a tree planted over me so my descendants can eat the fruit.
   The sun had come out after the day's rain, washing the breaking clouds and sky with intense pigments of orange and blue. I'd come upon disaster, but in the midst of it were moments of hope. Moments of compassion we creatures shared together that would not have happened otherwise. And it was not as bad as it could have been. Easter is coming.