Saturday, November 30, 2013

Water everywhere

It's been a long couple of weeks at Several Gardens Farm. A raccoon got into the yard and killed  some of our ducks. The second time it was there, I woke up to the sounds of it and ran out to catch it in the act. I should have just let it finish. Their instincts make them want to kill. Mine make me want to help, and this time there was nothing useful I could do but help the duck to have a speedy ending.

Before it happened I had already, sadly, acknowledged that I was not good with ducks.

They were messing put all the other animals' water. The soil was pocked with their bill marks and churned up into smelly mud.

I loved having them but I also hated and dreaded it. I had found a home for them a few weeks earlier, balked - but now I called them back and asked them to give the remaining ducks a safer and more adapted home.

Then I turned to the yard and started restoring it to its pre-ducky, dry, fresh smelling, state. Don't get me wrong. In rainy Seattle, its uphill work to keep a barnyard dry, and there are days in winter when the chickens and the goats stay inside, pooping where they are. It's worst on days that hover just above freezing, when the animals stare out at the sleet, and you can see their breath condensing on the nail heads in the walls. The humidity seeps in through the floors and the hay gets damp and droopy and the walls weep and the plywood roof develops a discolored spot where it's weakest and everything seems to groan and age beyond years.

But all of that is just the normal, sad winter mood. The ducks brought an extra layer to it - the smell of fishy wet poop and the frustration of birds that can't climb and are constantly underfoot with the goats. The ducks pulled the hens tails when they stuck out the the nest boxes. The seething, sexually insatiable drake hassled ducks and chickens alike, and the distress of the tiny rooster trying to ward him off and defend the flock. It made the goats nervous and the chickens frantic.

We got a glorious summer this year; with virtually no precipitation from early July until mid September. We had a gold and orange autumn, with crisp days, and sunshine enough to ripen a decent grape harvest.

But starting in November, a sort of amnesia kicks in. It feels like it never started raining and will never end. Now a sad calm reigns, but the wet smell of waterfowl lingers.

First off, even before we had ducks, the drainage in the barnyard was never ideal. The drip line from the sheltered feeding area always formed a muddy puddle, and the downspouts at each end of the barn created two more mud pits. Mud is anathema to goats' hooves. Imagine walking barefoot. In mud. Cold mud where you also had to poop. Imagine cold, grainy mud wedging not just between your toes, but up under your toenails, all winter long. This is exactly what a muddy barnyard does to the goats, until eventually it can cause foot rot, peeling hoof walls and all other manner of foot woes.

In winters past, we put concrete pavers out for them to tread on, but the ducks digging around in the mud would gradually work the pavers down into it so that they eventually buried them completely.

I've also added yards and yards of cedar play chips (expensive but great) and free arborist chips (free and sometimes worth it). Cedar decays very slowly but it, too, can get buried over time.

This year we decided to add real drainage.

The barn is at the top of a very gently terraced orchard, running down through a series of swales to the back, where a seasonal pond forms every winter and lasts till April or May. But while it works on a big scale, the ground gets pretty soggy day to day. Before there were animals, no one cared, but now we need something better.

Naturally, a tractor was involved in this project.

We set about adding drainage at the wrong time and in the wrong way. We planned to go out of town, leaving the house with the goat sitter. Instead of deciding it would wait till our return, we were suddenly seized with the need to get the place drained before the sitter got there. This meant we had a 24 hour deadline, which didn't include both of our jobs, feeding the kid, the animals being underfoot, etc.

So please excuse the pictures. There were a bunch of times when I just didn't feel right asking David to stop for a photo.

When I looked at my pictures later there were a lot of blurry action shots and a huge number of pictures of small rocks at night, or small rocks nestled into mud. You'll get to see some of them in a moment.

And there are no photos of me doing anything but I will vouch that I was down  in the trenches too.

I went through four pairs of work gloves and two pairs of pants. David even changed once. His insulated Carhartts got so heavy with mud he was actually finding them uncomfortable. That never ever happens and is testament to what a job this was.

I think what we installed qualifies as a French Drain. It is not a drain to save our basement or keep a structure intact so in one sense it was less critical, but we put a lot of work and a lot of pebbles into the ground so we did our best to build it to work.

First we dug a series of deep, long trenches, running from the spot where the water accumulated to a spot lower in the yard. We kept the trenches sloped so they would act as ditches to run the water away from the house. The tractor was very handy for this.

It is a good digger but it didn't have a way to level the trenches, so we ended up down in them, raking the sandy soil from one place to another.

Seattle has some pretty interesting geology. We have areas where glaciers swept the place clean, and areas where glaciers left rocks and debris, and one yard can have both. Luckily we had mostly sand with rocks the size of a tennis ball or smaller, so there was no really serious hauling of stone.

Our main concern was to have the trenches point downward along their run. The last thing we needed was for them to direct water back up toward the barn.

At the end of the trench we dug a dry well, a deeper area where extra water could go.

This is the despair photo. I seem to have one in every project, a sort of mid point where I regret ever starting and look around at nothing but devastation. Tractor tire marks in the grass. Cut up PVC pipe all over the place. Mud, muddy concrete and muddy water buckets for the animals. Despair.

At some point in the process, we hit a water line. We knew it was in there but it's not on any records anywhere so we didn't know when or where we'd find it. Alas, we found it by creating a geyser.

Luckily we have a very good hardware store fairly close to the house, and David is a very patient and resourceful guy who just fixes things instead of pitching a fit. He picked up pizza on the way home and we got a little break.

By the time we set the PVC pipe in place and added T's to get to the water along the concrete pad, it was completely dark and getting chilly.

Luckily we have a big overhead barn light to work with, but unfortunately I don't have a flash.

So believe me when I say we laid out filter fabric, poured a bed of crushed gravel into the trenches, and set the pipes on top of their nice bed.

Then we filled in the rest of the trench with more stone, placed more filter cloth on top and covered it all up with the excavated soil, which was by now soaking wet from the earlier waterline break and the gentle, bone chilling rain. 

In all we went through two yards of gravel, and could have used more if our truck had been up for it. As it was, it took two trips and we were pretty seriously dragging with each load.

 A very strange thing happened near the end of this stage.

When we refilled the trenches, there was not enough soil to fill them. This flew in the face of all math. We had dug out trenches and filled them with rocks and pipes. They should have been too full and formed mounds, but instead they were slightly sunken.

They were also, due to the huge amount of mud we had churned up, a worse mess than when we started.

Sometimes the solution to a problem really is to go to bed. By the next morning, the water had sunk down through the soil, leaving ordinary damp dirt without puddles. That night - our last before catching our flight - we filled in the top with lovely, fresh smelling cedar play chips, another two yards.

The yard is now safe for the foot of man and beast. The sitters appreciated the nice clean walking surface and probably the pleasant smell. When we get a chance we will add a few pavers and perhaps another yard of chips. All that will be icing. The big news is the yard will be free of puddles.

That's a pond in the corner, not a really big accidental puddle, BTW.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The gardener's shadow

Steampunk pteradactyl
I find Halloween week exhausting. We take our costumes seriously at Several Gardens Farm, but we don't usually make decisions till days before the event.

This year, we had something going on every night for over a week leading up to the great day.

We squeezed in costume making around the edges, but got it done at last. Noah and I walked the candy beat, while David stayed home to greet other people's goblins and fairies.

I knew in advance how wiped out I would by and took Friday off. A weekday off! A day without work, without family. A day without events.

Amazingly, there was no rain, either, and I decided to take advantage of what might be my last bright, dry day to do some tasks to put the garden to bed for the winter.

There is an old proverb that the best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow. In other words, however much I understand my garden in theory, it doesn't exist in theory but in fact, and I need to walk around it, learning how things stand, touching things, thinking about them and knowing them.

So when I told David I wanted to give the falling leaves a light spray of fish emulsion, and he offered me the use of his pressure washer to spray them down, I declined. We have done this before, and it can create a nice fine mist that doesn't hurt the plants. But I didn't want to work in noise and the smell of gasoline, and I didn't want to wear ear protection. I wanted to be outside, looking and listening to my surroundings.

Reinactment - I don't really dress like this to spray fish emulsion!

So I hitched on my backpack sprayer and went around Several Gardens Farm, spraying a mixture of fish concentrate and neem oil on the fallen leaves of the apples and pears, and on the trunks, bark, twigs and remaining leaves on the trees.

This year's apple crop was badly infected with apple scab, a fungus that leaves dark spots on leaves fruit and sometimes actually cracks the skin or deforms the symmetry of the fruit.

Apple scab overwinters on fallen leaves in the orchard floor. In spring, when the temperatures rise, the rains cause the fungi to ripen spores which are released into the air and infect the newly growing flowers and leaves. A tiny apple that has just lost its petals can already hold the start of a new round of infection. It's sad to think of.

Fighting apple scab can go in a number of directions. Some varieties are much more resistant to it than others. Unless we are desperate for a certain variety for some other reason, when we get a new tree we choose it for its resistance.

But our old trees didn't get the memo. Some of them are very scabby, and if the scab is bad enough with them, it can overcome even the resistant varieties.

Besides, I want to see our old apples at their best.

But I'm not wild to spray fungicides on the trees even though some of them are organic. Sulfur and Copper are both organic, but they are both also nasty. They also both have to be applied at specific times in spring, to keep ahead of the rain that washes them off at the same time it activates those spores. I can't  plan my life around having a day off on the right day to spray my trees, and having it miraculously not rain that day. Seattle beats that kind of nonsense out of a person after time. Besides, I will need my emergency days off for baby goats!

Our beloved mushrooms
Most importantly, Several Gardens Farm is not just home to apple trees.

We have found eight varieties of edible mushroom in our one acre farm.

We do not want to create a place that is hostile to fungi, if for no other reason, a pound of wild mushrooms is worth a lot more than a pound of apples!

For every problem fungi, there are dozens of harmless or beneficial ones.

The fungus in the soil helps it hold nutrients and partners with plant roots to maximize growth.

Many beneficial fungi also, given a chance, will outcompete scab in the soil and on the trees.

We love our fungus. Why kill it off?

So instead, we are going to try getting the leaves to be gone by the time their scab spores would activate next spring. This is a two stage plan.

Uncomposted leaves - hotbed of scab!

Step one is to encourage them to decompose.

Leaf meal, 1 year later - no scab!
Leaves break down into wonderful, sweet smelling, rich textured loam all on their own, but it takes a long time.

By adding nitrogen and trace nutrients I hope to start the process sooner and have a goodly portion of the leaves already decomposed by next April.

My pictures of lovely leaf mold never look very good but trust me it smells like the sweetness of the earth itself.

Meanwhile, we will collect up as many fallen leaves as we can to compost in one, hot pile to make extra sure the spores get knocked right out of commission.

Just past 50% leaf fall Nov 1
The problem is always time and timing. Not every apple tree is the same, even in the same garden. On November 1 our orchard ran the gamut from fully covered in green leaves to nearly bare.

I want to hit the trees when they are about half bare. My best chance of hitting leaves is while they are still on the tree - so I don't want to wait till they have all fallen. But if they haven't started to fall yet they may still be feeding the tree. A shot of growth-stimulating nitrogen right now would be very bad timing. The tree would want to grow just as winter sets in.

Here is where the gardener's shadow idea comes in. If I were the perfect gardener, I would come back each day, assess the trees and get each one at the right time. If I were not observing, I would just get them all. I fall somewhere in the middle. I waited a bit too long due to work and school obligations, and all but one of my trees is somewhere between 60% and 80% bare.

The exception is the enormous King apple which dominates the orchard. It is still completely leafed out. The last thing on earth I want to do is stimulate new growth in this behemoth. I would rather have scab. So I leave it unsprayed. I will monitor and if I can do it, I'll either spray it when it actually starts to denude itself, or I'll pay some boyscouts to clean up every leaf once they fall.

Giant King apple, fully leafed out when everyone else is bare

As I spray the trees I ponder how much of scab resistance in apple varieties depends on timing. Leafing out a few days later must protect the tree from some of the spores. The trees all have their own schedules. I've also noticed the apples with a lot of natural waxy cover (like the King apple) or with heavy, russetted skins seem to do better. And certain trees grow branches in crazy directions, like pointing back into the tree's crown. This winter, I will do a story on pruning the orchard to let in air and light.

Walking around, quietly spraying nutrients into bare trees, feels like a form of active meditation. I feel the weight of my sprayer. It digs into my shoulders but it doesn't really bother me. I keep my back square and my posture good. I note the bark on each tree. The goats have favorites, which they gnaw on. They dislike pear, and they prefer the bark of the same apples whose fruit we like. There must be more sugars in their sap and later in their fruit. After applying fish spray I will go back and paint those trunks with a mixture of lime water and hot pepper oil to deter chewing.

Celia just wouldn't stand still for this picture! But trust me there's a hole in her foot.

The ducks are not bothered by the smell of fish.

They waddle over and I notice the hole in Celia's foot web is healing nicely.

I don't know how she got it but duck feet appear to be suitably tough and resilient.

Poor Nuiki is taking forever to regrow her feathers.

Chickens molt every fall and get nice new feathers. Imagine a feather growing through your skin! It can't feel good even though they are coated in a protective sheath.

I give her a good rub to break up the papery covering over new pinfeathers.

It must be very uncomfortable; she loves being scratched.

Cosmo and his little friend seem to be incubating a huge duck egg.

The messy, wallow-like "nest" a duck makes is like a giant crater for a couple of bantam chickens, but they seem ready for the challenge.

Lightning was very noisy and obnoxious when she saw me come out, but she settled down and is happily resting on her day perch now. She is getting less jumpy around people.

The quiet and mysterious black cat is never far away, and the backyard crow follows nearby.

A V of geese is calling up in the higher layers of air, scarily close to the landing patterns of the runway. I know the airport does everything it can to keep large birds out of its flight zones but this time of year must pose extra problems. I know a biologist at the port - I make a note to ask her.

I scoop up leaves from the huge old maple and and berries from the Madronas that overhang our driveway. I use a snow shovel, and toss them into the rolling trash can. The neighbor comes over to offer me his leaf blower but again - the noise! I want peace.

Anyway, I want to roll the leaves out to the barn and fill it up with them.

The goats quickly eat their fill and go back outside.

Then the chickens start kicking around looking for the odd Madrona berry.

Leaves are fun for the animals to play with - just as they are for us.

The bees are very active today - all but one box. It has some activity but it's ominous.

The bees are flying in high and fast as if they have nothing to contribute. Signs of robbery.

Below the hives, yellow jackets wrestle drones to the ground, chew off their wings and carry off their living victims to feast on in private. But their numbers are thinning. I see a bunch in the wasp trap and plenty more lie dead on the ground, probably normal fall die off for them.

My paper wasp nest is long dead; somewhere under bark on a tree, the next year's queens are hiding.

What I am doing today is husbandry. To husband ones strength or ones resources means to use them carefully.

Husbandry is the keeping of things through active care and through constant observation.

It is a meditation and a job. When two people of either or both sexes marry, they really should both become husbands of each other and of their marriage.

And we should be husbands of our surroundings, near and far. Keeping an eye out on things is meditative but it also calls for action. I enjoy this quiet day on the farm and try to use it to recharge to go take action in other parts of my life later.

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