Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lawn to garden conversion - first summer

I can now say with confidence, our front yard is starting to happen.

Last fall we cut up the sod, stacked it into rows to form gentle terraces in the hillside, and mulched with shredded cardboard, burlap and wood chips.

We planted trees in the spring, and I broke up lots of established perennials from other parts of the garden and stuck tiny divisions into the wet, pulpy soil in the rainiest part of spring.

Some of them looked so sad, so ready to wash away. Some of them probably did.

But we are beyond the green shoot stage now. Some of these plants have found their roots and decided to grow.

A plant that goes straight from a pot into the ground can run into trouble. If its roots had filled up the pot, they may have stopped reaching out and started curving around the edge of their little universe. When they go into the ground, if the soil is too compact it feels like the edge of the pot. The plant has learned about limits and doesn't try to expand beyond them. Whenever you plant a potted plant, break up the roots a little - just massage them hard. Break up the soil all around the hole, and fill it with water. Water the soil in around the new plant so it fills the cracks you made in the root ball. This helps the plant discover all the opportunities outside the edges it's gotten used to.

On the other hand, bare root plants are in danger from not having any contact with the ground at all. You can plant them and walk away, and they can be surrounded with pockets of air instead of nice soil. Always water them well, even if it's raining, and stamp or press hard on the soil around them to bed them in.

But when your transplant works, it's amazing. If you watch a new transplant, day by day, you can almost see the moment when the new soil becomes home. The leaf buds it already had when you planted it are all open. Suddenly a tree starts to form new leaves, or a perennial pushes out  a second shoot from its crown. The plant is no longer drawing from its reserves, but making new food for itself from the sun, soil and water in its new location.

Red currant from this year's bare root. Purple penstemon from a garden division

Our currants are ripening. We have raspberries.

While the bushes and brambles are fruiting, the new trees aren't making fruit this year. If they did we'd snip it off. They need more time to form their shapes. But they are leafing and growing. Most of the herbs are transplants from elsewhere and look pretty scrawny, but they have passed the moment where they might die. I even succeeded in transplanting a very young fennel which I will probably regret when it turns into a thicket of stems taller than I am.

There are three rows of 'retaining walls' we built out of the strips of turf cut up from the old lawn.  Stacked up five or six layers deep, it's now broken down in to fine soil and forms a long row of raised area that slows the water flowing down the hill and traps if for the plants. I planted it with divisions from plants I already had - sedum, aster, artichoke, thyme and other solid performers that will spread their roots into the retentive soil and hold it in place in the many rainy winters to come (I hope; this is at least the plan). These raised areas are the champions.

Artichoke has not been watered yet this summer!
Neither has the sedum. Just residual water from the swale-like hill structures

The trees are doing well too. They were put in bare root and I was worried they wouldn't make good enough contact with the soil. But as far as I can tell they appear to be expanding their roots into the soil beyond where they started. I'm especially proud of this shapely little quince. The persimmon appeared dead but I had already been prepared for that. They need a certain amount of heat units before they wake up, and transplants are often the last to start their first year. Now it's starting to leaf out.

I always include a pineapple sage in every new garden I plant. They smell wonderful. The leaves are nice in desserts and beverages.  More important from my perspective as a gardener, they also wilt immediately when the soil even thinks of getting dry and days before any other plants start showing stress. The are like living moisture meters; very convenient if you keep an eye on them. Late in the summer this plant will be about waist high and will suddenly cover itself with bright red flowers beloved by hummingbirds and also useful as garnishes.

There are still wide open tracts of wood chips.  Last fall I sowed oats, which died over the winter, fava beans which were mostly eaten by squirrels right after their first true leaves appeared (here's one that survived) and crimson clover, which made a miserable show but at least gave it a try. Wood chips aren't a great place to grow unless you're a mushroom.

There are spots where you can see the burlap bags we put down over the lawn, and there are a couple of places where grass and hawkweed have pushed through the layers of cardboard, burlap and wood. Here and there, a plant struggles with compacted soil.

But in this hotter, drier than average July, none of the plants here are showing drought stress and the soil even a few inches below the wood chips is rich, damp and squishy. I think the plants are digging it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A complicated goat season at Several Gardens Farm

This post has some sad and some happy parts, and some very graphic birth parts.

Last November, we brought Meggie and Lightning to breed with two bucks, and last week was their due date.

Lightning's story 

Lightning was due during Spring break. This would give Noah a chance to be with her, and me an extra reason to take time off that week.

We invited a school friend of Noah's to be there for the kidding. I thought if anything it would mean more to him than to Noah. He is a very gentle, sensitive young man; a guy who goes to a nerf gun party to be the medic.

We checked Lightning every 3 hours until she started showing signs of being near her term. Lightning has always been skittish but it was hugely exaggerated now. She needed rest and couldn't settle down if she felt like we were checking up on her all the time, so we tried to be discrete.

Once it was clear she would kid within 12 hours, we started just hanging out with her for a few minutes every hour. We didn't need to elevate her stress level but we needed to know what was happening.

I sent the boys to get some shut eye, warning them they might be wakened at any time of night. I set my alarm to go off every hour, and lay down to rest. At midnight, she was just as before. By one thirty, she was looking more relaxed (I just peeked at her, didn't let her know I was there. At two thirty she was lying down, at three thirty she was sound asleep, her head hanging to the side. At four, I was wakened by a frantic sounding goat's bleating.  I sometimes complain about Lightning being loud, but this was not a goat being too talkative; something was up.

I went out to find her lying on her side, clearly in labor. I saw a little nose and a hoof.  There should be two;  one hoof was bent back inside. I hadn't encountered this before, but luckily I'd obsessed over the Fiasco Farm kidding information and knew exactly what to do; get on a sterile glove, reach in, straighten that leg so the baby could slide out. It went easily, just like the instructions said it would.

A few moments later, a gorgeous little baby doeling was born.

A few minutes later, Lightning passed the afterbirth, and a few minutes after that, she began to push another baby.

The delivery was very fast; it happened while Lightning was busy teaching her little girl to nurse and drying her off.

But instead of struggling to get moving, the second kid lay weakly. She couldn't organize her limbs, and couldn't breath correctly even after we held her by her hind limbs to let all the birth fluids out. As she got clean, we could see that she had a poorly developed upper jaw, and had some other issues with her facial development.

While I was working on keeping her airway clean and getting her dryed off and breathing, David was calling our friend Julie, who woke up immediately (4:30 am) and began walking us through the steps to get her going, clear any goo that was still in her mouth and lungs.  There wasn't much but I did it, hoping to help her feel better if nothing more. It didn't seem to be helping.

There's a point where it's clear that treating a situation as 'normal' isn't working. Noah's friend was upset, and asking if we should bring her to the vet. He was respectful but very persistent, a real advocate for the little goat. But it was dawning on me that she wasn't going to make it. Lightning was ignoring her.  Her breathing was getting less regular. She was getting weaker.

I wrapped her in warmed towels to keep her temperature up. Though it was a mild April night, I could feel her getting cooler and breathing less.  A few minutes later - sooner than we could have gotten her to a vet, she was gone.

We stayed with Lightning and her healthy girl till we were sure things were  stable there; then went in and sat at the dining table talking. Noah said he was very sad but didn't have much else to say. His friend said he had to figure out a way to think about it.

I told him I was very proud of how he handled himself. He stayed present, spoke up for the little goat and quite bravely stood for his convictions that she should be saved, when I was letting her go. He showed a lot of courage, especially in being willing to stay when it got sad, rather than stepping away.

Then both boys asked for breakfast, and then went back to bed. I could tell they were so disoriented they were best off going back to sleep. I needed to be doing something. Fussed a bit with Lightning, did laundry (we went through a lot of towels and sheets). In the morning we had a funeral for the girl we lost, and the boys went out and marveled at Lightnings adorable little girl. I called our friend's parents and told them the night had been much more intense than even a normal goat birthing.

Meggie's story

Three days later, Meggie was a day past her most likely due date, and huge as a house. She was still her usual, quiet, somewhat detatched self, but maybe even a bit more quiet.

A year ago, over Passover at friends, we had committed to hosting a Seder that night. I thought, even when we bred the goats: 'What are the odds of her giving birth during a Seder?'

Yeah. The odds turned out to be 100%.

I was taking the day off from work. There wasn't really much to do with Meggie but distract myself and not drive her crazy. I checked on her a lot, but mostly to keep busy I got the dinner ready, set the table, and did other preparations for the dinner.

Yay, a pre-birth goat vulva!

I checked back on Meggie every hour or so.

Around 3:30pm, I saw a little clear fluid starting to leak out of her vulva.

I taped a sign on the back door asking Noah to come back and meet me when he got home from school at 3:45.

By that time she was pawing at the ground, frantically digging to make a deep bed. She cleared out the 5" of wood shavings to get down to the dirt.

Meggie, frantically digging herself a nest

Her back was starting to hunch up with a contraction. I asked Noah to time them. They were fairly strong, every one to three minutes, but very irregular. I don't know how often they should be. I mostly wanted something for Noah to focus on. He was fidgety and it was distracting Meggie.

By 4:00 there was lots of clear fluid, but no other progress for the next hour and a half.

It should happen any time now.

At 5:30, her water broke. More contractions. She was getting up and lying down, panting.

Then a bit of hoof appeared, only to go back in. At 5:30, guests began to arrive. Every time someone came or went, she got more freaked out. David went in to spend time with the guests and keep them out of sight.  Her contractions were weaker than half an hour earlier.

David started the Seder. Meanwhile, I was starting to freak out. I kept seeing one hoof, but no progress whatever, and Meggie was getting tired and losing interest. It was as if she had just decided to stop trying.

I called Julie and asked whether I needed to do more.

Yes. Reach in and grab both front hooves and start helping. "Like pulling a banana out of its peel" Julie told me. I thought it would be just like helping Lightning's baby with her hoof, but this was a whole different thing. The arm was pulled way back with one elbow tucked behind Meggie's hip bone. That goatling was going no where till the arm got unbent.

One hoof-tip. Kept showing and dissappearing.
My birth coach, when I had Noah, told me "no one wants to be the mom who asks for drugs or the mom who yells at people or the mom who poops while having a contraction, but you don't get to bargain and you don't get to choose."

I didn't want to reach into Meggie, but she not getting her kid out on her own.

David came out to hold her front end while I reached in and located the hoof, and started coaxing it forward. And pulled. And pulled. Whenever Meggie pushed, I pulled. I smoothed the head out through a cervix that was way too small for it. Meggie was not happy. She never makes noise but she was bellowing by now. I had no idea how hard you would have to pull. The diagrams don't really explain that part. And you have to pull at the right time - pulling when there isn't a contraction can hurt Meggie.

The kid wasn't being passive. It was pulling its leg back in as hard as it could. That was actually really encouraging. The kid was alive and healthy and had a mind of its own. I could do it!

I realized suddenly that "kidding" and "pulling my leg" are both synonyms for tricking someone. I wasn't sure if this made sense to me or not. It was just a turn of phrase I suddenly thought of at this moment.

Too bad there was no one to take a picture of the kid when his head first crowned. His eyes were open, he was looking around and as soon as I cleaned his nose, he was breathing. I must have snagged my finger in his mouth; he had a slightly bloody lower gum. But he looked so bright and curious, I knew he was eager to see the world.

Once his head was out, the rest of his very long, floppy body followed. He was HUGE!

And that was that. He was the only one in there.

I'm barefoot because I got so much bedding and straw in my shoes. And it's a warm April evening.

As soon as she saw him, Meggie's whole manner changed completely. She started licking him, stamping the ground, calling him, and looking for some water to drink. It was like nothing happened, and like he appeared magically instead of through several hours of hard work.

Her backside must have hurt like crazy. But she was happy as a lark to be with her new son.

This is what I bargained for when we got goats. Somehow the first few times we dodged any complications, and it seemed like the easiest thing on earth.

"goats have instincts" we thought "they just have their babies, no fuss, no problems. We try to be there so they will bond with us, not cause the mom needs us".

In Lightning's case, there was nothing we could do to help. We lost a kid, and Lightning and her other kid were never in any danger.

I think Meggie and her kid would have been in trouble on her own, though. I won't take this process for granted any more.

One thing I heard a number of times - first from the parent of the boy who stayed over for the kidding, then later David said something similar, is that this was very 'real'. The whole week of beekeeping and goat care and hosting events that don't go as intended has been very much about things right in front of us but often hidden.

Part of me thought 'well, isn't everything real'? But I know what they were talking about. Sitting in a pile of wood shavings at night helping a goat have a baby, and letting it die while I held it, did feel very close to things as they really are. We aren't full farmers - our lives or livelihood don't depend on the animals we take care of, though once in a while it's clear that they are interwoven.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Why I love winter pruning

More than baby goats. More than harvesting the first big tomato. More than serving a meal of 100% farm raised food. I. Love. Winter. Pruning.
A bright, sunny Seattle winter day and a tree ready for pruning

This may sound like an unusual farm chore to be passionately attached to, but it's true. It is my hands' down favorite. I live just outside Seattle. Our winters are not very cold - sure, it freezes sometimes, but it's never unbearably cold. This year has been comparatively dry, bright and sunny. Enough to worry about next summer's water, but also enough to draw everybody outside. A dry day is a beautiful day and it's a pleasure to be out in it.

A tree in summer. Form obscured by leaves

A tree in summer really does resemble the lollipop drawings we did as kids.

It has a stem, and it has - well - a blob of green, leafy stuff on top.

And what is going on under those leaves is anybodies guess.

It's when the leaves fall and the branches are revealed that you know what works and what needs correcting.

But mainly I love winter pruning because it's all about the discipline of decision making. Every step and every cut is a decision, but the rules are simple, rational, and they set you up to make the right decisions most of the time.

The Safety rules: follow all of them all the time

If you cut off a thumb in a pruning accident, your best hope is to have a trained surgeon sew it back on. Medicine is wonderful, but it's better not to have that happen.
  1. Always know where your fingers are and where the sharp part of your cutting tools are. Keep them separate. If your hands are cold, don't count on your sense of touch alone. Your hands may be cold enough not to notice if a saw blade nicks them. LOOK at your saw and your fingers when you start to cut. 
  2. Use correct ladder placement. I use an orchard ladder with three legs. I always maintain a strong angle between the pole and the fixed legs, and never climb so my waist is above the top step. Whatever ladder you use, use it safely and move it as needed instead of extending your body weight away from the center.
  3. Know your tools and check them often. Keep pruner and saw sharp, clean, and if they fall, know where they landed. Check ladder before using. I wear gloves every time I prune.
  4. Quit when you get tired or too cold or when the sun starts to set. Have someone come check if you aren't good at calling it a day. Every time I have hurt myself, this is the rule I was breaking. Eventually I learned to obey it.

Pruning rules: follow them in order

Plants do have the  potential to replace severed limbs, provided their trunks remain intact and can carry nutrients back and forth from crown to roots. So if you make a mistake while pruning a branch, don't despair - next year, give the plant an opportunity to regrow the branch you wish you hadn't cut.

However, plants are sensitive until their wounds seal over. If you cut a plant the wrong way, it is left wide open for bacterial infection. So always prune to leave a collar - the ring of cells where a branch meets the next larger scaffold. The tree will grow a cover of bark over the cut starting with the collar cells you leave behind.

Always cut on a slant to let water shed off the surface. And if you have any reason to think the branch you cut was diseased, disinfect the blade between cuts using 10% bleach or rubbing alcohol.

Water shoots, inward branches, overly long or weirdly positioned branches, on a shapely tree
  1. Remove all dead branches. You may have noticed they were dead when the rest of the tree leafed out and they didn't, or you might notice now because they are light in weight, brittle, or their skin isn't green beneath the bark. Follow the branch down to living tissue, and cut to leave a living collar . Don't leave a projecting stump, just the collar. 
  2. Remove all diseased branches - ones with blistered, discolored or split bark or bark that is oozing sap, or branches where you noted unusually weird leaves over the summer. Disinfect the cutting blade with bleach or rubbing alcohol after each cut on diseased wood.
  3. Remove all damaged, broken branches as above. Our neighbors have a huge poplar that sometimes randomly drops branches. They can fall quite a distance and often break the limbs of our trees. So we do a lot of this one.
  4. Look for branches that rub against each other. One of the two must be removed or they will rub each other's bark right off. Keep the one that is stronger or better positioned. A well positioned branch points outward from the center and is held at about a 45% angle. 
    A branch rubbed bare by another branch crossing it
  5. Now for another decision. Find branches that don't make sense. Branches that point back in toward the center of the tree, or that hang downward, or point straight up, or are otherwise inharmonious. Remove them to their collars. Some trees make a lot of these, others seem to follow all the rules all on their own.
  6. You may have already done enough major pruning. But remember your goal is to allow light and air into the tree. So walk around it and see how much light comes in. Imagine the branches in full  leaf. Are branches crowding each other in one area? Will moist, fungal air be trapped among the leaves, spreading disease? If so, remove the branch that is least well positioned.
  7. Nearby tree shows stubby cuts. Tree in background shows water sprouts that turned into giant upright branches
  8. Now you can use your hand pruners to cut back water sprouts. These are young growth that points straight up. Usually you get a cluster of them around a severed branch. The tip of the tallest sprout sends a hormone down the branch that encourages lower branches to grow outward and bear fruit instead of competing to go up. So if you remove all the water sprouts, the tree will stop getting that hormone, and new sprouts will form. Ideally you choose 1/4 of the sprouts, in the best position, and train them to be future branches. They will replace the dead, diseased, damaged and funny branches you take out in future years.
  9. But how to choose? A well positioned sprout points outward and is strong but flexible. Your goal is that when it makes fruit, their weight will help pull it downward into a 45 degree angle. That's a strong enough angle not to break under the fruit's weight, and unlike a totally upright branch, it gets signals telling it to be fruitful.
  10. So do your best, take out most of them but leave some. Cut the ones you remove down to the collar, as usual. For the ones you are leaving, cut just the three or four buds on the tip, ending with an outward facing bud.
  11. Now look at your more established, horizontal branches. Remove those that have gotten much below the horizontal - those that are hanging down. Apples and gravity, ya know - they go together. Too many fruit on a branch can break it right off.
  12. You may see spurs on your trees, recognizable by their many knobby bunches of fruiting buds. Over time, they will grow side twigs with so many buds they make small, feeble fruits. At that point, remove the smaller, thinner twigs leaving only strong thick ones.
  13. Then walk around the tree again. Again ask if you missed anything. Or not. You can always prune again next year.

Being out under the sky, surrounded by bare branches that hide next summer's embryonic apples and pears, knowing that what I am doing will open the trees up to the flow of sunlight and fresh air, is a great feeling. It's time spend alone with my thoughts, but thoughts have a way of pruning themselves too - dropping the unnecessary, the loud, the worried and fidgety, and leaving nothing but clarity and space.

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