Sunday, October 18, 2015

Backyard Imu, Northwest Style

A jealous BBQ looks on as salmon roast over coals and the imu is unveiled.

When my kama'aina* daughter turned one, part of what fed the party was pork, taro, and sweet potato cooked in an imu, the Hawaiian word for an underground oven. In a little community garden on the flank of Pu'owaina (Punchbowl) in the middle of Honolulu, a group of Rotuman and Tongan guys helped me through the process, and the results were delicious.

The imu begins with a shallow bowl dug into the ground. I cannot explain the physics of it, but I'd bet that this shape turns out to be a very efficient one in terms of both heat loss and storing heat in the ground. Also, this shape can accomodate a few pieces of taro or a whole hog without a lot of adjustment.

But let's not get side-tracked. And really, what self-respecting Hawaiian would make an imu without counting on feeding a bunch of people?

An earth oven is a way to go whole hog, to cook hundreds of pounds of food if need be. You need a shovel, enough rocks to cook the food, and enough fire-wood to get those rocks red-hot. Besides the food, you need leaves or foil to wrap it, more vegetation to create the steam chamber, and some coffee sacks to cover that before the dirt caps it all.

The labor requirements are no more complicated than the materials. One person can handle a small imu (I just did a 65-pund pig solo), but a crew helps. Somebody has to know what's going on with the fire and the rocks, so that when it's time to cook, the rocks are hot and the coals are minimal. Somebody needs to know how much vegetation is needed and whether water should be added. Enough people have to be aroubnd at cooking time to assemble and bury the oven quickly, minimizing heat loss. Someone has to stick around long enough to spot escaping steam and ad more dirt.

In Hawaii, banana trees solve most of the vegetation issues. Smashed sections of trunk keep food off the rocks and provide a lot of moisture for the steam; meanwhile the leaves can wrap individual food packets or cover the entire feast. Ti leaves make even better food wrappers, and give a flavor that distinguishes anything I could cook there from anything I can cook here.

In the Northwest, people also cooked with earth ovens for thousands of years, back to when the ancestors of Hawaiians were sitting around their proto-Polynesians imus mulling over the prospect of open-ocean exploration. I've never been party to a purely traditional local earth oven, but did help do one to cook "black moss," a Plateau delicacy. Then this year a bunch of local archaeologists decided we would like to replicate an earth oven.

Our effort was hybrid. We cooked camas and taro (along with sweet potato and blue Peruvian potatoes), and of course pork. No bear meat was available, but we did roast some salmon outside the imu. We used some techinues I'd learned in Hawai'i, and some from here. But was this some post-Modern mash-up? Not really, plenty of Hawaiians came to the Northwest starting in the 1810's, meaning that we were about 200 years too late to be  doing anything unique.

One thing that makes it easy to cook underground in parts of the Northwest as well as some remote flecks of land in the Pacific is the presence of vesicular basalt in both places. I've seen other types of rock used here, but where basalt cobbles full of small air bubbles can be had, it's what people use first; I've even heard from Plateau tribes that areas with particularly good stone were special resources, and oven stones were traded to outsiders. Sweat lodges also use this rock. The vesicles help it withstand heating and cooling with fewer fractures and far less shrapnel than other kinds of stone.

Vegetation is a more difficult translation. Even here in the Salish Sea's balmy south, banana trees are not an option. In fact, there's no analog I can think of for the non-woody, water-filled, neutral-tasting banana stump. The largest leaves around come from the skunk cabbage, which I'm reluctant to use without knowing what it does to flavor. So, I looked at various books and in an ethnography of the Twano people (most of their descendants are now enrolled in the Skokomish Tribe, based not far from where I live), it mentioned big leaf maple as a staple of oven wrapping. This is what goes closest to the food; the big leaves sort out into layers laid immediately below and above the food. Below that: sword ferns. They don't have much moisture, but they make a cushion, a tangle-weave of springy midribs and leaflets that let steam circulate and hold the food above the charring coals and red rocks.

But that's once the fire has done its thing and the food is being placed in the oven. Before that, you've got to heat the rocks, which is more or less the same procedure anywhere on earth: burn hard wood until the rocks are red and hot. In Hawai'i, almost everyone now uses the exotic tree Kiawe, a big-ass mesquite introduced by a trader two centuries ago--so goddam BTUs packed into logs you cannot believe. Here, maple and its more flavorful counterpart alder are just fine. Burn your oven with evergreens, and your camas will taste a little like turpentine.

Building the fire, constructing a heap of rock and stone, requires forethought. The first thing I do is plant a pole in the bottom center of the imu. Then I lay a log or couple of two-by-fours from the base of the pole to the edge of the bowl. Then, stack kindling, covered by logs and rocks and rocks and logs until there's a heap around the pole. When the time is ripe to ignite, pull the pole and the log, put in balled up paper or your accelerant of choice, and fire it up. Air flows in from the rim and rises up the pole-void chimney. Pretty soon, you have a jet of flame shooting up and out of the wood-and-stone volcano.

Every hour or so, push the coolest rocks into the flame, and add fuel. Add wood that will fuel the flame, wood that will insulate the most exposed rock, wood that will further the fire. An hour later, you do it again. Eventually, you feed more to the fire than you used to set it up in the first place. After three hours, you make sure to toss on the largest pieces. An hour before you end the fire, start feeding in the last fuel, tosing sticks onto the pile to keep rocks from losing heat. Your goal is to end up with a maximum of red rocks and a minimum of unburnt fuel. I think 5 hours is typical.

But you'll never get rid of all the coals. Shovel out what you can. Redistribute the rocks across the bottom of the pit, making as even a layer as possible. Because there will still be some coals, and because the rocks will be hot as hell, toss on some dirt. Seems like an inch give or take is enough; the goal is largely to keep from igniting the ferns you are about to toss on.

But before you do that, go find the four stout (2"-diameter if you can find them) ironwood sticks, and lay them at four "corners" of your pit, with one end touching bottom and the other extending out from the rim. This will be important to the Northwest no-banana technique you'll use later.

Sticks in place, you put in the ferns half a foot thick or more, spray them a little with the hose, and add maple leaves so they're few thick over the ferns. Then comes the food: a pig in foil-covered chicken wire (if the wire is new, burn it over the fire before this, to off-gas the galvanic coating or whatever other crap may be adhering), foil or leaf-wrapped packets of food, and whatever big root foods you may have handy. Biggest stuff in the hot center, smallest stuff on the periphery. Then, more mape leaves, and finally more ferns. If you got 'em, cedar boughs help weigh down the ferns, but if not, jump straight to wet coffee bags. Usually a half dozen will be plenty--they help make sure that dirt does not penetrate to the food.

Then shovel on a ton of dirt. No vegetation, if you can help it, include no stems or leaves that create channels for escaping steam. A foot or soil would be great, to insulate the oven beneath. Yank out any fronds or leaves sticking out of the pit. Tamp down the edges, especially around the four ironwood sticks emerging from the edge for the pit. Then, one by one, pull out those sticks, and pour a half-gallon of water down each hole. Shovel some dirt in the hole to seal it up, and move on to the next. If you can, put the stick back in the last hole and tamp it down instead of back-filling it; that way you can add water or monitor the sound/smell/temp of thelower oven if needed needed.

Then again, I've never added water or done much to monitor. So you could just seal it entirely, like I did last time.

When is it done?

I dunno, you might as well ask me how many kilos of rock or wood I used. Enough. I suspect that the cooking all happens in the first 10 hours, after which the oven just sits there being warm. All I can say is that is makes no sense to open the oven before you're ready to eat. Ten or twelve hours into it, the soil surface will feel warm, but the hottest of the heat has dissipated. If you had adequate vegetation and moisture, and if you managed to cover the oven so air cannot sneak in, nothing can burn. It just stays warm for a ridiculously long time until you are ready to eat.

Early in the summer, I cooked maybe 40 pounds of pork shoulder and root foods for 12 hours, and it was all well-cooked. Just the other day, with more rocks, I cooked a 65-pound pig for 16 hours, and it was well-cooked. I'm starting to get over the panic of wondering whether a couple dozen peopel will stand in judgment as I open a pit of undercooked pork.

In the aftermath of an earth oven, you have several interesting by-products. The dirt-lid you just shoveled off the pit has been steamed for hours; the part closest to the fire will have been sterilized, which makes for a good component of potting soil. There will be a fair amount of steamed/smoked leaves and ferns, all fodder for compost. And remember how you had to scoop out coals from the final fire phase? Well, you could partially bury those in back-dirt and let them slowly turn into charcoal, or you could let them burn into ash, or whatever. Whatever path, at some point you end up with

Kama'aina is a child of the land, a person born on the island. Since ancient times, the first birthday was the biggest celebration, which meant throwing by far the biggest party we new haole parents had ever attempted.


Four months since my last entry, so I guess we know how committed I am to this journal thing. So what happened:

Perle and Zeus had early big hops, but everything other than Hallertauer is a first year plant, and it's hard to say much. Flowering started variably, but all were in full swing by mid-July, and harvests began August 23rd (Perle) through mid-September. The north bed did not do well. I now toss all coffee grounds that way, will augment with compost and ash this winter.

A few big plants seems like a good way to go, but I need bigger cages/hothouses. Paul Robeson got blight earliest, Soldacki grew very well, but many (most?) fruits got end rot. Black Krim did best.

I'm pretty sure that I gave them too much nitro, and got impressive vines with small potatoes. I may have planted them too closely (8-10 inches) as well. That, and I don't think I kept track of which was which. Anyway, the one close to the house gave me about 5 gallons from 10 feet by July, and the further one just kept growing, but instead of feeding and embiggening the crop, was growing strings of marble-sized potatoes. They're cool for soup and stuff, but not much yield for the space and time consumed.

Beets and carrots in the ground now finishing up. A second planting of beets was stunted.

Green beans that remain are now destined to be dry beans, although I may have to pull them earlier than I want, simply because the sun is fading and clouds more frequent.

A handful of kale plants will try to survive the winter, and will be nice next spring if they do. Collards took a few hits during recent feastivities, but look great. Fava beans pushing 3' tall but I still think they'll just be biomass.

Speaking of which, I did two imus this year, contributing four big garbage bags of steamed sword fern and big maple leaves, a fair amount of ash and charcoal, two fish heads, fish and pig bone in various states of char, etc. into the 421 Turner ecosystem. Also, the imu depression has been dug and baked a couple of times now, and a yard or so of cover soil has been steam sterilized. Besides the imus, I've had fire frequently enough that there's a small flow of charcoal available for soil management.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June 15

Yesterday, I planted a bunch of Hawaiian tomato seedlings (and one spindly yellow pear tomato) in the garden south beds. One line and one ring. For whatever reason, most of them had purple on the undersides of the leaves. Pot growers would rejoice, but I find myself wondering what's wrong.

Also yesterday, I harvested the pak choi and began kim chi with it.

Over the weekend, I harvested 3 potato plants and got about 5 servings of potatoes. Sure, I was jumping the gun, but the number of tubers per plant is still disappointing. Too much nitrogen and too close spacing are my main suspects.

Gave the south hops bed a few more inches space on the south, and will do the same on the north soon.

For a couple of weeks, I've been adding to the weed heap, and finally this weekend Leah stomped it down to size. The plan continues to be to slowly migrate it west.

Begonia and geraniums are blooming, but I pinched the geraniums to encourage a bunchier habit.

The serviceberry fruit has mostly fallen to some ailment i've noticed before. A few become gigantic but weird, and most become covered with some sort of orange fuzz.

It is dry. Grass growing a lot less, and I need to water the garden regularly.

Poppies have flower buds, and cilantro is flowering.

Harvested some yellow bunch onions. Best I can say is that it's a building year. Will save what I got for planting.

Spent more time weeding, including time on the border, where morning glory and blackberry (nativ and Himalayan) encroach.

Carrots, beats, and radishes planted earlier have been up for a while, and are doing fine.

Harvested last fo the first round of Spinach. Bloomsdale variety. Bolted fast with low yield.

kale is coming along, but still a ways from even beginning to harvest.

Amaranth beginning to flower, but it's still small.

Blueberries never flowered much, but all seem healthy, and doing well with minimal water help.

Barley is growing, and is getting watered, but remains small.

Rhubarb has been in  state of suspended animation for a month or so. Did i harvest too soon, or did it just enter summer siesta?

Meanwhile, I have hatched a plan for a month hence. It will be an experimental archaeology feast. Ground oven with camas and taters and whatever else (OK, pua'a). Grills for fish and clams and again, whatever. I will also attempt to replicate what I believe to be the iconic dish of Kanaka-Salish quisine:  lomi lomi salmon. This will be the first gathering of the Olympia Archaeological Society outside of the Eastside Tavern. I hope it will not be the last, and am willing to be annual host of this event to make sure.

Monday, June 8, 2015

June 8

Nearly a month since my last post, mostly because I've been travelling a lot. Travelling a lot usually amounts to garden disaster, but this year I've got a daughter with a driver's license willing to do some watering in exchange for car access.

In early May, the hops all had sprouted and started climbing. In early June, Hallertauer is 14' tall, Glacier not far behind, and the rest of that row doing pretty well. I had to replace one of the Bush Homestead rhizomes that got fried (not sure if I mentioned these, but they're from George Bush, who homesteaded at Tumwater after Oregon said that blacks could not get land there; he was an educated and generous asset to the community). The Willamette-Cascade vine in the north part of the yard has reached about 20 feet, and Nugget is not far behind. Fuggles struggles to put on height, and generally has a more gracile demeanor, but seems healthy; it may be in poor soil, getting residual Roundup from the neighbor's spraying, or just be slower.

Mustard greens and now pak choi have bolted in the past week or so. Spinach is fully up and beginning to bolt even before I've harvested any. New spinach, carrots, beets, and some flowers have sprouted, and have not been knocked down by th heat yet.

Speaking of which, we've had a solid week of hot dry weather. Generally, everythign in Washington seems to be a month ahead of schedule this year, and the governor has already declared a drought. It will probably be a tough year on irrigation-dependent farmers, who can look up at the snowless mountains and see their arid future.

In the potato patch, the eastern type (purple flowers) has finally been caught up with by the western (white flowered) type, which is actually a bit taller. I've staked and twined around them to keep the vines upright, and can see little secondary sprounts everywhere. They all look healthy, deep green vines but not Nitrogen-overfed spindly. I have not watered these at all, and at this point probably won't. A single exploratory graffle yielded a nice purple tuber the size of a large goose egg.

Along the south side trench of the tater bed, I planted purple hull-less barley (couple of weeks ago?), which is now up. That does get water. I'll probably start beans on the north side trench this coming weekend.

Speaking of which, Lili planted some pintos from the 25 pound bag of dried beans, and they came up. Planted where they can climb the willow fence. They look fine.

Rhubarb seems to be in summer dormancy.

In the far north area by the hops, poppies are not numerous, but really kicked into high gear starting  week or two ago. Meanwhile, the cilantro went from 3-leaf directly to bolting, so I guess it will be a coriander year.

Thyme is going off and needs to be cut back, oregano OK but not as vigorous, tarragon & sage alive but not putting on much growth. Stevia slowly adding foliage. I moved the arnica from its original spot to the southern west wall of the house, and it's not yet thriving. Also in that area, I planted some Monticello seeds: Clarksia, swamp hibiscus. By the laundry room stairs, a rosemary plant seems fine, along with a potted bay.

Indoors, some old (one batch about 3 years, another maybe 7) Hawaiian tomato seeds have sprouted. They're in 4-inch pots, and I've thinned twice. Will plant them (some in a cascading basket?) next weekend.

I tried using 12-gallon fermentation tubs (white, translucent-ish) as greenhouses, but suspect tht I mostly managed to breed early blight. This is one area where a part-time plant watcher cannot compensate for out-of-townness. Some have already been ripped out.

Last I wrote, I was about to help with the school plant sale. I ended up buying some herbs, tomatoes (50% gone now), and some other stuff. Four geraniums and a scarlet begonia now live by the cider area, getting full sun through the morning; these have not grown a lot, but are beginning to flower.

Service and blueberries seem fine, if not producing much this year. Grandma's hostas look OK.

About 3 weeks ago, I got lacinato kale starts and spread them in various places, including the mustard and pak choy beds where they'll succeed the bloted plants.

Snap peas are over a foot tall, and beginning to attach really well to the forest of dry willow sticks I poked in among them.

The house-front rose is about done now, but provide a good 3 weeks of heavy blooming. More or less the same story for the NE corner hibiscus.

Onions and garlic began flowering in earnest this first week of June. Weeds are emerging ever more quickly from the pine straw mulch, and both egyptian Walking and Yellow bunch onions are flopping over.

Buttercup and morning glory continue to be the most difficult weeds, sprouting from seeds and from un-dead remnants. Consequently, the weed-heap grows. Without a kid to stomp them for the past couple of weeks, it is not breaking down as quickly, and is sprouting a mantle of mornign glory. Several of those and some other weeds are popping up also in the gravelled-in area by the house--I may use boiling water and salt on those, since I do not want to keep digging up the rock.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

May 10

Yesterday, Saturday, was my younger daughter's school plant sale. They have a farmer who grows a ton of plants for them, and the neighboring "alternative" hgh school kids grew a bunch as well. In other words, I didn't have to grow anything, which swas easy. instead, I made signs and fliers, and placed them around town. I also showed up early to unload plants and make a second run to the greenhouse, and at the end of the day to put leftover plants back on the truck and then cruise around un-signing the town. My daughter contributed with her first semi-pro gig as a sign dancer.

One result of all that was: four tomatoes, two stevia, two tarragon, an amaranth, four geraniums, one scarlet begonia, two blue fescue,...and maybe other stuff I forgot. The farmer got a little, and the school got some. A good day.

So today I planted most everything. One exception is a yellow pear tomato that will probably end up as a potted plant, and one fescue sent to Nancy to be a potted plant at her place.

I also went to the old community garden and retrieved some hops planted by George Bush, one of the first Olympia non-Indian settlers (he was black) in the 1850s. I put one rhizome in the ground, and to others in pots. Meanwhile, the other hops are mostly to climbing stage, although Chinook, Newport, and Northern Brewer lag. Maybe one more hop plant could squeeze in on the east pole, but otherwise I've got a full line-up of (from west to east) Newport, Perles, Zeus, Chinook, Glacier, Hallertauer, and Bush Homestead. Just west of these, on the willow fence (from East to West) are Northern Brewer and another Glacier. At the north end of the yard, climing lines to a tree-hung block and tackle, are Fuggles, Nugget, and Willamette/Cascade. The latter is also back on the north fenceline, in between raspberres that are blooming as we speak.

The block and tackle hops are in a small area between the willow tree and the gate on the north side of the yard. Crappy soil and full sun led me to plant a white sage, tarragon, and fescue there today. It's wild and herb country. Meanwhile, some of the poppy and cilantro broadcast way back are starting to get beyond seedling stage.

O, and one of the heaps is gone! The soil dug from near the house, mounded for atleast a month, contributed to hilling up taters, after which I went through removing weeds and putting the rest of the soil into the cart. I then dug up about half the soil-heap substrate, into which went a couple of the new tomato starts. Sorting and digging exposed more weeds, which went to the weed heap, looming just behind the hewly cultivated ground. The soil heap was on cardboard laid down over grass and weeds, which mostly seem dead now that they are re-exposed. We'll see if they revive; if they don't, I should be able to just turn over the soil instead of sifting through it all to remove the roots and shoots and rhizomes that could grow back.

I also worked around the big pear tree. As in, digging a 2 foot radius around the trunk to remove blackberry, morning glory, etc. In the loose soil, I put the smaller clump of grandma's hostas. Radially further out, I started putting 'sod' (any dug-up turf 50% or more comprised of grass or moss).

That;s probably about it.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

May 3

Spring has quickened. Some rain and some sun, today clear and it had to be over 70.

I've worked through some of the heap o dirt resulting from digging out next to the house, de-weeding it while feeding the weed heap. Some of the cleaned stuff went to hilling up potatoes.

But before that, and increasingly often everywhere else in the garden, weeding. Mostly with the crescent-bladed shuffler hoe that I cut from an old spade; the new handle is a camellia branch, a little gnarly and heavy to be ideal. Anyhow, it's worked pretty well in the tater bed, which was greened over with buttercup sprouts. It's also pretty good in the paths, where all I'm trying to do it decapitate weeds, not remove them.

Pretty much the whole garden used to be a neglected raspberry patch, full of buttercup and morning glory, plus rhizomatous grass and an undending seed bank of dandelions. Most of the raspberry is gone, but pretty much everything else is a reproducing population at the moment. The beds are clearer than the rest (although plagued by baby weeds), but  it'll take years to get the uper hand.

Blueberries are leafed out nicely, and seem happy with the conifer mulch. Not much flowering yet, and the plants are scraggly. I've pruned some, but need to brace the branches out vs up. The row next to the fence, even more beat up than the others, is alive and OK, but not what I'd call thriving. Blanketflower and hostas are tucked in that bed as well, and both look great.

Mustard and bok choy are starting to add on enough to notice; snap peas and spinach (I  hope, or maybe just more weeds) have sprouted.

Haven't mentioned the onion bed, so here goes: Egyptians are already walking, garlic looks good (and not overgrown, so late planting worked out well this year), Naneum onions are blooming, shallots seem good, as do the other bunchers. I've left the pine mulch on them, and despite seeing some slugs and weeds when I peek underneath, there does not seem to be a problem so far.

The lawn is pretty much a mat of the weeds aforementioned, and so it grows well as well. Mowing is in order, and the cheap mower i got last year seems to have acclimated. So far, I've been bagging it, using it in berry and hop beds. Seems like 2 loads per episode. The front lawn is where I attempt a facade of normalcy, and keeping it mowed to within a few inches of the neighbors is the main way I achieve that. May as well do the back while I'm at it. The lawn will shrink over the years, so I'm just enjoying the 20th Century ritual of walking behind a gas-drinking eater of grass while it lasts.

Other than that, not a lot happening. I continue to cut and cycle through branches. Gunnar dropped off a few wheelbarrels of cedar branches, which along with the raspberry cross-pieces means I have a heap o burning to do.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

April 19 Weekend

Yesterday, I harvested worm-heap compost and fed it to the hops. Woke up this morning, and dug postholes for the hops set-up. Then laid on sunny grass with the dog. Then cleared the deck, literally, so we could paint signs for the school plant sale. My job was to prime everything, and the kids did the lettering.

We also headed to the friendly neighborhood Urban Farm Store to put up a plant sale flier,...and get some corn gluten (anti weed-seed), cottonseed meal (give the hops some nutrients), a rake, and a couple 6-packs each of mustard greens and bok-choy. Unfortunately, they didn't have anything good for hops poles.

Back home, I rigged up a handle for a shuffle-hoe I made from an old shovel. A big camellia branch had just the right curve. Then I sliced weeds in the main garden paths, and raked them onto the weed heap.

With the early afternoon shade on the south beds, it seemed like a good time to plant mustard and choy, so I did. I few cottonseed to the hops and yesterday's (or Friday's?) plantings of snap peas and spinach, and spread corn gluten where I dont want weed-seeds sprouting. Watered it all in, and gave the blueberry/hosta/blanketflower row some water as well; same for the hops and the south fence plantings (blueberries and hops). Not sure whether I mentioned the hosta before, but it's a small kind that Grandma Smith grew. It's the only ancestor plant I have going now, and luckily it seems pretty healthy after transplanting last weekend.

Then it was time to decide what to do about hops supports. All I had were 8' 4x4s and various 2x4s. I finally decided to goto Home depot and get 14' 2x4s, which I carriage bolted to the 4x4s, which were then planted about 3' deep, so that the entire 2x4 is above ground. Each has an eye bolt scfrewed in the top end, through which passes a brand new hemp rope. Each hop plant will get it's own line running up to that one. There's plenty of extra to let out the slack for harvest and adjustment. I planted the posts splayed out, so that when the top line is taut, there's tension. I tamped the hell out of the dirt around the posts (maybe that's why I'm tired, playing piledriver with an iron bar...), but didn't add gravel or cement.

Anything else? Not that I can remember at the moment.

Meanwhile, several days of clear warm weather. Blue and serviceberry transplants all look fine. Raspberries ripped from the patch, crowded into a single pot, and transplanted a little late along the north fence look good and are setting flower buds. The big feral Cascade/Willamette hops is climbing vigorously, followed by Nugget, with Fuggles not yet hitched on the line. However, the three lines arcing up to a tree-mounted block pulley looks pretty cool, even bare.

All of the other hops are at least peaking out, with the exception of Northern Brewer, which is in an isolated spot. Glacier is begining to climb, Hallertauer is vigorous but only in a bushy way for the moment, and the others are just getting started.

Potatoes of one kind continue to outpace the others, and I don't know why.

Weeds are generally happy. I've been keeping up with the morning glory etc in the onion patch, but a peek beneath the pine straw mulch reveals hundreds of little buttercups waiting to be freed. I cultivated amongst the potatoes, where thousands of weed babies were teeming.

That's it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


This journal has shaped up to be pretty cut and dried, focusing on what I am doing to get this piece of earth more to a happy prductive state.

But on many days, I do nothing. The birds and bugs-and-bees and slugs-and-trees do their things. Squirrels scurry in-n-out.

Sometimes (or maybe most times) after work, I sit down by the dining room window, a big sliding door onto what is now a deck. Afternoon sun, angled down into the yellow spectrum, pours into the yard: along the willow fence, through fresh pear leaves, underlighting fir boughs. Sunbeams spotlight insects as they streak, float, and cloud their way through the evening air. The evening air blues, sun-glare fades orange, light stops pouring over the fence, and the evening air blues some more.

And this week, it keeps happening that the afternoon is clear, but it never really warms up. I've brought in the white sage, but left the bay in its pot outside.

Potatoes are up, but mostly just on variety (which happend to be the one with most sun); they are not so purple anymore.

I ended up with a couple of branches of serviceberry left over when I planted that one. One cut branch ended up in the ground next to the main transplant, and it looks alive, but not as happy. The other is in a pot in the shade and doing fine.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Second Week of April

Once again, I traveled this week, so there's not a whole lot that's new. Did some more cleaning--to the point that there's no plastic crap in sight from the house--and finally broke down the raspberry trellises. Rotting 1x4 crosspieces nailed to chemical-treated 4x4s, they looked like little utility poles. Now the posts are out of sight and the cross-pieces are on the kindling heap. (I't's good when you travel, and get to finish your work week early and tackle somethign like this before the weekend's officially underway).

Through a combination of girl stomps and worm tunnels, the weed heap really does seem to be shrinking. I did not add to it this week.

The rhubarb is ready. I'm amazed at that a few hacked up crowns are producing already, at about 2 months in the ground.

One of the things about getting a yard with long-untended trees is that you end up bringing a bunch down: deadwood, moribund-wood, cross-branches, unwanted withes,... Mostly, I try to neither bring in nor remove biomass, so it's important to be able to deal with a lot of it. Because so much of it is woody and not readily compostable, it begins to eat up space.

I feel like I'm getting into a pretty good flow now. Part of it is pacing. Not every bad branch needs to come down today, and doing a few at a time pulse through the system without the hang-ups that a yard-full of branches can create. Generally, here's how it breaks down:
  • Branches, cut-end first, are dragged to the SW corner, between the pear and my willow fence. 
  • Conifers get the machete shave, removing flexible boughs with foliage and strewing them around the pear where the ground is muddy.
  • Any branches that would make good stakes are pulled and cut, with the small stuff usually going onto the brush heap.
  • Bigger wood is generally destined to be firewood, and I bring it north, near the shed and under the fir, where it gets hacked and sawed down. 
  • Pear and other fruit-wood is separated for cooking only. The general wood-pile is more or less twigs at one end and pieces awaiting final sawing at the other. 
  • The fir carpet will, as the weather dries up, shed the needles. Twigs will then go into the firewood stream. 
 The other thing I did on my early start weekend was buy about 65 bucks of plants at the farmers market.  Now I have a couple of lavendars at my doorstep, and the bricked corner of the south bed is now home to some oregano, thyme, and rosemary. I also got some bay and white sage, which will live in pots.

By virtue of travel, I also had some bulb planting to do. I've been looking at areas affected by wildfire, and gathered what I believe to be camas and some other kind of lily. Since I don't know exactly when they'll bloom, much less guarantee that I'll make it, I dug up a few and planted them here. Having slightly expanded the onion bed and added some presumed wild onions in part of that space previously, the new bulbs went there.

That seems like about it, so far.

Monday, April 6, 2015

First Weekend in April

Apparently, it was Easter this weekend.

The rhododendron crucified earlier in the week has not yet arisen.

Its limbs and that of the bog corner rhody were hauled to the city's green-waste yard. Unfortunately, they will not take bindweed/buttercup/ivy in muddy matrix, so all I could do was tell my 10-year-old that she was welcome to stomp the hell out of that heap.

I cut some more dead branches from the pear and plum, and a few more live and dead from the NW corner fir. The, spent a fair amount of time reducing said branches to firewood size, all with a bow saw. My neighbor eventually offered a chainsaw, but  there's sopmethign satisfying about the cut of meat-driven saw-blades cutting through wood. Rhythm vs noise, my bones strengthened rather than just shook up. ZZZZh!-huh ZZZZh!-huh, ZZZZh!-huh.

Then, a lovely bonfire.

No new planting this weekend, but I did notive potatoes coming up, blackish purple leaves peaking through the palm-prints where I'd pressed them down a couple weeks ago, like vegetative stigmata.

I also widened the bed around the blueverries, and dumped on another half yard or so of old fir needles and cones.

There was also a fair amount of reduction. Big camellia boughs became stakes and twiggy pre-compost. Fir became a carpet of needly branchlets and firewood. Pear became another carpet (twiggy, but with lichen instead of needles) and future cooking wood. The 'carpets' are spread behind the big pear where foot traffic will break them down and separate the ephemeral from durable (which will find its way to the fire pit as it dries). Stacks of willow stakes and cedar arches went up against the fence. In the end, more space to walk and use, and less clutter.

A mass of weedy sod is growing near the center of the south fence. Not sure what I'll do with it. At my last house, I had a 'grouch' (a grass-couch) around the fire pit, but that's not what I need here.

Weather has been less rainy than usual for this time of year, yet everything is nice and green.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

End of March

For almost 4 days near the end of the month, I was away, but the weather cooperated and everything was fine.

Besides, I came back with 4 more hops varieties and planted them. Seems to me it was Zeus, Northern Brewer, Newport, and maybe Galena? Anyway, they're all in the ground, and have had a mix of sun and rain since. Like all the other hops, they're in 18" diameter holes carved out of the sod, with a few shovels of worm-heap compost in each. I'll eventually strip the interstices of grass to make a long bed that will luxuriate under a blanket of mulch. This weekend, I'll cut some young cherry trees at Brown Street to be poles.

After returning, I also cut back the camellia, working inside-out, taking off a few feet up top and giving the house more breathing space, but not making it look different from the road.

On a roll, I hacked down the small (about 5' diam) rhododendron in front of the office window. It was crowded up against the camellia and the house, harboring trash and weeds, and producing no food, material, or aroma. Even though I have not dug out the base and all the weeds yet, it looks better to me.

Next, I headed around back with a ladder or two and cut a bunch of dead crap out of the big pear. At one point, I climbed up with the long-handled cultivator and was hooking branches. A lot of lichen-covered dead-twigs came down. At another point, the long-handled cultivator was stuck up there, but eventually I got it down.

I've also been working on the south beds. Got the SE corner done, maybe 4' x 6' in area. Then peeled back dirt previously dug by th house down to the underlying cardboard, and started another bed. That's as far as I got, and we keep getting afternoon rain that makes it less enticing to go out and shake dirt and sort out weeds. Eventually, though, it could be about 4 of that size.

Oh, and next to the house, I filled the north 4 feet of the future outdoor kitchen with gravel from the Mission Creek screening. A few brickbats are in place to keep the gravel from migrating, but it's compacting nicely and so far, so good. Prior to this, I'd worked the dirt (which at this depth is redder and less loamy than the A horizon) to almost level, canted slightly away from the house and stomped as compactly as my frame and patience allow.

Hmm. What else? Raked up a lil heap of fir needles and cones, which I'm using as blueberry mulch.

This weekend, I'll waive the usual No Biomass Leaves This Place rule to get rid of some of the trimmings piling up around here. I'm running out of space, and rhododenron is the worst compost material, so something has to go. Also, this will spur me to have at the big rhody about 12 feet diameter), which is crowding the house as well as the only way to get a truck in back. And as long as I'm at that, there's a bunch of weedy crap on that end of the house that would be good to get rid of.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

March 19-22

The previous weekend may have been a wash, but I did get back in the wong of things this week, beginning with a rare weekday afternoon off, during which I expanded and then planted the potato bed, planted some old wild onion bulbs (maybe no good, but better in the garden than in a cabinet), planted some bulbs found during fieldwork that I am pretty sure are camas, and consolidated various weed-contaminated heaps. Oh, and I dug holes for hops.

This weekend, I transplanted Hallertauer, Glacier, and maybe Chinook (pretty small and weak) hops into holes along the south side of the house. Both Glacier and Hallertauer were already going off, a foot or more of bine already climbing; I separated off some of each, planting th Glaciers and potting the other. The south side hops bed gets pretty good sun and is between my house and the neighbor, where air flaw seems pretty decent. I have 3 of six holes filled there, and can probably expand later. Meanwhile, the hops planted previosuly along the north fence are peaking out of their pine needle blanket, and I set the climbing twines (they run up about 20 feet to an old nautical block attached to a tree, then down to a railroad spike low on the trunk--the idea being that when they're ready, I cut the lines at the spike and the bines come down for easy harvest).

I also transplanted a serviceberry, blanketflower, and about 5 scraggly blueberries from Brown street. The blueberries are along the south side willow fence (as is the extra Glacier hops), about 5-6 feet south of the first row. My plan is to remove any grass in between and use coniferous mulch (plenty of pine needles will fall here anyway). I'd like to sneak in an understory of strawberries or something native, but that's not urgent.

I did water all the new plantings today, but the timing for planting was close to optimal anyway. A few weeks ago might have been better, but neither hops nor berries were really leafed out prior to planting, and nothign really seems to have been shocked. Weather was cool and overcast most of the week, and the ground moist without being super-saturated.

It looks like poppies have sprouted, or else I have a bumper crop of some sort(s) of weeds coming on.

Not really sure what I'll do with all the sod being generated by making and expanding beds. Most of it has dandelions and buttercup, so it's not really great for grass. I'll probably use some to mess with micro-terrains so that any surface runoff heads into the blueberry patch, but then again maybe not. There are really no areas where there's no grass now that it's needed, and ultimately sods may go into the weed-soil heap.

Speaking of which, the warming and lengthening days are waking up weeds in said heap. This week, it went from brown to splattered with green as dandelions, bindweed/morning glory, and buttercups began growing again. No sign of composting within, and a lot of these weeds are likely to just keep sprouting, even after turning and burial and so on. Options seem to be:
  • getting them off the property (rids me of weeds, but also worms, loam, and nutrients)
  • put it into black garbage bags, tying them shut, and waiting for everythin inside to die (retains the material, but the outcome is slimy and may house slugs, but few worms)
  • keep moving the heap around, killing weeds each time, getting rid of them through attrition (retains the material and leaches nutrients into the ground below, but also increases risk of weed propagation and uses up space for a long-term proposition)
  • shovel a little bit into the fire every time I have one (should really kill the weeds, mixes them with charcoal and ash, but also kills worms and micro-organisms, and will take a long time).
  • spread it on the driveway in the summer heat, letting the sun do the dirty work (lose a parking space, risk weed propogation, and kills worms and micro-orgs)
  • screening (takes a very long time to get all the weeds out, and is not totally effective)
 In the end, it may be a mix of methods. Quick and easy as it would be, I'm loathe to cart away a couple of yards of soil and organics. Although it retains all the soil and biomass, the death-by-black bag method means having heavy-ugly, slug-ridden bags around til the Fall. So yeah, it'll probably be a mix of the other approaches. May as well throw some in the fire, or screen a batch for potting soil or compost, and keep the pile moving (I keep finding mega-worms in places where these weed-heaps formerly resided)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Last Weekend

Nope, I didn't do anything on the list. It rained like hell, and I stayed inside.

Been in the field in Eastern Washington this week, so there was not St. Patricks Potato Planting either.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Coming up this weekend

Here's an idea: post about what I'm gonna do this weekend, and then check back next week to see if it actually happened.
  1. Volunteer at my kid's school garden
  2. Dig a hops bed south of the house.
  3. Transplant hops from wendell berry garden
  4. Consolidate the buttercup and bindweed-contaminated heap
  5. Extend the north bed so I can plant potatos on st paddy's day
  6. ...maybe that's enough.
  7. But I'll at least make an effort to clean up a few things
If I were energetic, I'd put up hops supports, but I don't even have the right poles. Or maybe dig up some front yard. Or prune the hydrangea or rhody, maybe lay waste to the camellia. Or any number of things. If I even finish the numbered list, a nap is in order before taking on more. Seems like I'm caught up enough.

After a couple weeks of sun, we got a little rain yesterday, and may get a bunch on Saturday, but the weather's supposed to be warm. Pretty days are nice, but it's freakish to look at at the un-snowy Olympics, or to think about how little it rained this winter.

Friday, March 6, 2015

First weekend in March

What I'd like to do is complete the fencing this weekend. There's enough willow to cover the back gap, but I need some more in front, and gates on both sides. Hoping I can just get an 8 or 9 foot gate for the north, and hang it on the post that's there. No idea how to transition from willow to gate.

Re. Blueberries: the south line of 7 all came from pots. 6 were about 3-4 year plants in 3 gallon pots since I dug them over a year ago; they were just about to leaf out, and did burst when I planted them. The 7th ans easternmost was in a larger pot, given by neighbors; it seems to be a small variety, maybe a couple of years following being pruned to the ground. In addition, they gave me another one in a large pot, looks like a 2-3 year plant and was already leafed out. I put that one at the house end of the north bed, and it seems fine.

Weather continues to be clear, barely (or not even) freezing at night, 50s or even 60s in the lengthening afternoons. Looks good for St Patty's Day potato planting in the north bed, which I'll probably extend more before planting.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The New Place

Circa March, 2014

I'd pretty much left this blog for dead.

But now, it comes back as a way to keep a garden journal of the newest tabula rasa, as seen in the above abode, wherein I now abide. Instead of .rtf or .doc, klunkily entering dates, I'll ill-advisedly put my trust in the web to preserve this journal. Because it will bother with the entering-of-the-dates.

So anyway, time for some catching up:
  • Bought the house last August, and since then the main things I've done are
  • Prune deadwood etc. from plum
  • Rasa-fy (I guess that would just be "erase") a tabula of raspberries hogging the middle of the yard.
  • Just got around to re-planting the best berry canes along the north fence.
  • In mid-Feb, chopped down rotten trunk of willow. Since then, I
  • Made a willow withe weir across most of the south boundary, but not before
  • Chopping Howard's fir branches shading the south central yard.
  • Also, some dead branches from my fir.
  • I dug out the bed from back porch to deck. 
  • I dug out the north strip bed
  • Somehow, I made a big pile of dirt on the south strip bed (future site)
  • Removed roses
  • I raked and corn-glutened the north bed
  • I rigged a hops block and
  • Planted Fuggles and Bullion and Willcadia hops to climb yon block
  • Planted poppies next to the hops after digging out tree-base ivy and holly, not to mention a bunch more cinder bricks 
  • What with all the erasing and digging, I created various piles of dirt laden with buttercup and bindweed. I'm trying to segregate and consolidate.
  • Established the south-back as compost and brushlandia. Doing a creeping worm heap of scraps-browns-grit, and it seems to be going well. Consolidating and burning the brush where I
  • Made a fire-pit. Needs slight expansion and a few more imu stones.
  • Exposed brick edging L, basis for the back beds. 
  • Inside the L will be th south strip, maybe with a cold frame
  • South of the L will be a grass strip
  • South of that, in an existing low spot, I just planted 7 blueberry bushes. 
  • The current heaps are these: worm-scraps, fine willow, willow-withes, willow stakes, fir foliage, future firewood, various rocks and woods, ...
Maybe (probably) there is more. But that's the main points. Another urgent task is to get hops in south of the house. There's good sun and circulation, but fairly tight space, and the neighbor is planning on a new roof soon.

Well, it's 11:11 now, so I think I'll head to bed. More later.