A Year Ago We Bought a House- a look at accomplishments, failures, and the long way we have to go

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One year ago, we bought a house. Matt and I embarked on our first experience as home owners, and we began the first year of turning our newly purchased half acre and 1940′s house into a home and an urban farm. This is a reflection of the past years accomplishments, failures, and what I hope this second year will bring.

buying the houseThe house purchase it self was a huge accomplishment. Our fabulous relator found us this place after only looking for a few weeks, but the buying and mortgage process was horrible. If something could have gone wrong, I’m pretty sure it did. The appraisal fell short of our offer, making us have to re-negotiate with the sellers half way though. A loan we were counting on didn’t get approved, and we had only a few hours to come up with thousands of dollars or we had to back out. Our mortgage company was the biggest ass and would go weeks without returning our emails. When everything finally worked out, and we got the keys, we had less than 48 hours to move out of, and clean, the apartment. The first night we were in the house I got super sick, and spent the next day of trying to move and clean while throwing up and with a fever.

Our house had renters for a few years, until it was put on the market, and we bought it. During this time, and probably long before it, the half acre of land basically sat abandoned. Blackberries, weeds, and naturalized bulbs took over. Rose and fruit trees sprawled unpruned. Sheds rotted and leaked away. But the weekend we moved in the yard was beautiful, despite its neglect. The fruit trees had started to bud and everything was green. I looked past the flaws and saw the vast open space and visualized what the yard could become. Since then, we’ve cleared, built, removed, trimmed, and generally made a mess. Its a constant work in progress, and while I wish that magically it was “all done”, each day brings us closer to what we visualize.

backyard from very back corner.jpg
back of yard, now.jpgThe first big project of this first year was to eradicate the blackberries. They took up a significant section of the East side of the property. After months- MONTHS- of clipping and hacking and perpetually having scratch marks and puncture wounds, then digging and pulling up the roots, we had the main mass gone. Then we discovered we also had trumpet creeper, another super invasive plant. Easier to clip than thorny berries, but harder to dig out. In their place, we built the hen house and chicken run, knowing that the hen’s constant scratching would any missed sprouts at bay. We used the back wall of the run as the back for the compost piles. Now, particularly after the rain, we have a handful of blackberry sprouts that have emerged from missed roots, but we are able to dig them up with relative ease. The trumpet creeper is coming back with a vengeance, and needs significantly more work.

blackberries, then.jpg

looking towards house.jpg

path, then.jpg

path, now.jpg

Another big project was to put up a fence along the East property line. On this side, we have 3 neighbors. The front house has a nice, solid professionally done fence. The middle neighbor had a ridiculously old and janky ‘fence’ that was being held up solely by the blackberry mass. Once the berries were gone, the boards fell over. The back neighbor had a stretch of no fence, and then a section of older fence that was angled in from the property line, but it was standing. We built our fence continuing from the nice front fence back to the standing section of the back neighbors.

blackberries where compost is, then.jpg

compost bin.jpg

From the first weekend we moved in, I started the observation period. We had no plan to do any major permanent garden until I knew where the sun shined and the shadowed dwelled, ideally observed for a year. But I wasn’t going to wait a full year to have homegrown produce, so I put in a temporary garden. We dug holes in the ground, filled them with compost, planted our plants, and surrounded the area with straw to “keep the weeds at bay”. It was a complete failure. Turkeys ate or trampled any starts that managed to come up, the weeds overgrew everything, what food was produced with bitter or tough, and pests- like corn earworms- devastated crops. By August, we gave up.

After accepting defeat and letting the hens take over, I tested our soil, and I realized we were lacking nutrients. So in the Fall, we built some temporary raised beds from fence scraps and miscellaneous bits, in the location I thought we would do our permanent beds, and filled with compost. I planted garlic bulbs and a variety of winter veggie starts. Except then it never rained, and I didn’t water, so our crops of cabbage, garlic and broccoli never took off. Garden failure, round two. We finally got some rain, and our cover crops and veggies thrived. The broccoli has long bolted, but we’ve been eating off the spinach, kale and chard for the past few months. In January, we planted bare root trees and started building our permanent raised beds. Our temporary, short fence board beds are still here and are planted, but we will eventually replace with taller, permanent beds. We got the permanent asparagus bed up and planted, and another permanent bed made that currently has with potatoes growing. I’ve also got carrots, peas and salad crops, plus calendula coming up. In the next few weekends, 2 more permanent beds will be built and filled with compost to plant tomatoes and the other summer veggies.

APRIL start of garden, no fence.jpg.jpg

garden now.jpg

august.jpg

garden.jpg

We’ve mowed down most of the cover crop, which was a huge success and significantly improved the soil. Before, I could barely sink my shovel into the ground and I didn’t see a worm for the first 8 months. Our soil still isn’t ideal, but I can dig and I’m finding worms in every turn of soil that I make. The 25 yards of compost we’ve brought in, plus a truckload of horse manure, have helped a lot. There is another 20 yards of compost delivered yesterday in my front yard right now that’s awaiting to be wheelbarrowed around to the back.

The most recent project was to take down a shed that sat directly behind the house. It acted as the temporary chicken house until we could get ours built, but it was super ugly, old and not worth saving. Based on what I have been able to glean from the random construction and things left in it, I think in the past it was used as a hen house, a tool shed, and then a laundry room. We already have a garage for storage, so it wasn’t worth trying to make water tight. So down it went. I’m still working on sorting what boards are salvable and pulling out the hundreds of nails that held this thing together since the 40′s. I’ve also been working on chipping away the concrete patio. This shed has a smaller brother right next to it, the well pump shed, that is equally as ugly and rotting away. As soon as I’ve got the wood sorted and cleaned up from this demo, that one will be coming down as well.

shed.jpg.jpg

shed now.jpgAnother accomplishment I’m proud of has been getting to know our neighbors and establishing relationships in our new community. I’m a firm believer that you should know your neighbors, and it pays to invest the time to be friendly. It’s always worked out for me before- I’m still best friends with my next door neighbors from where I grew up, and we regularly still visit and talk with our apartment neighbors from Petaluma. To get to know people, as soon as I moved in, I knocked on doors or simply introduced myself as people walked by. Stella now has 2 regular play-dates, I can greet people by name when I see them, I’ve got a few egg customers, and I know who I can ask to borrow a lemon or some sugar.

So what does the second year of our urban homesteading adventure have in store? I desperately want to paint the house. I HATE the 1000-island-dressing-apricoty color. I’m in process of picking out the perfect gray, but having a hard time finding the right shade that doesn’t look washed out in the full sun that beats down on the front South-facing side. The hen house still needs a bit more work- I need to finish putting up trim and painting it whatever color we paint the house. Right now their rain cover is a janky concoction of sheet metal we hauled up from the apartment’s coop, propped up on limbs and scrap wood, so thats also on the to-do list. We desperately need to re-hang the gutters on our house. We are hoping to add a rain water catchment system, both from the hen house and ours. The garden is in constant development and hopefully we can do some landscaping in the front. I’d love to get bees and rabbits to add to the flock of creatures.

The first year was aimed at planning and starting the garden. The second year will continue that, but our main focus will be to work on the house. It was sold essentially flipped- the original owner had passed away, and one of the kids gutted and replaced with Home Depot’s cheapest and most boring everything. While I wish- WISH- there was still the original 40′s kitchen and interior, I’m thankful all the windows were replaced and a central heating system installed. Our list includes upgrading the electrical system, installing an instant hot water heater, and the biggest thing: reconfigure the kitchen’s interior walls to make it larger, add a walk-in pantry, get a working dishwasher, remove the god-awful tile countertop, and OHMYGOD get better kitchen lighting that the current one boob-light.

Thanks for joining me on the second year adventure!

The Ladybugs are Back!

Tags

, , , ,

Now that the days are warming back up, ladybugs are returning to the garden!

ladybug

Ladybugs, also known as Lady Bird or Lady Beetles, are the cover girl of beneficial insects. Known for their ferocious appetite for aphids, they are a welcome sight to any gardener. Ladybugs are not a true bug, but belonging to the beetle family, and there are over 450 species of ladybugs found throughout North America. Not all wear the characteristic red-and-black spots- some are brown, yellow, cream, orange, black, gray or pink. The can have lots of spots or no spots, and stripes, or bands. When the ladybug first emerge from pupation as adults, they have no spots at all.

crawling on hand.jpg

After 4-10 days, ladybug larva, that look like mini alligators, will emerge from yellow eggs.  During its larva stage, it is completely carnivorous- eating up to 40 aphids in an hour. After 2 weeks, it then pupates in a shell and emerges as an adult a week or two later. Ladybugs reach maturity at about 4-7 weeks and live for about a year. Up to 2,000 eggs will be laid in one’s lifetime- but not all eggs are fertile. Some are laid with the sole purpose of acting as food for the newly hatched larva, if needed.

ladybug eggs

larva on grass.jpg

Most species overwinter, cued as days get shorter and temperatures fall. They hide in bark, under leaves, in natural crevices, or structures. Some species, such as the native convergent lady beetle, migrate and then hibernate in mass on mountaintops in the American West. These are the type that are for sale in garden centers, and are harvested by the bucketful during this hibernation. The invasive Asian lady beetle is known for its annoying habit of overwintering inside of houses. Then, once the days start to warm up again ladybugs emerge from their hibernation spots- which is why I’m suddenly seeing so many.

lady bug on chard

ladybug on black-aphid infested chard

During its lifespan, a single ladybug can consume up to 5,000 aphids. However, most species are generalist predators- consuming insect prey such as scale, mites, mealybugs, whiteflies, larva of pests, mites and, of course, aphids. But adult ladybugs are actually herbivores, also needing pollen and nectar in addition to pests.

ladybug

Ladybugs find pest infested plants by either the pheromones of the pest or by “help me” signals some plants put out. But to encourage ladybugs to stick around, you need a diverse plant habitat. Make beneficials happy with an assortment of plants to feed, shelter, and provide a place to reproduce.

on grass.jpg

Right now, most of my ladybugs are found in my cover crops. Cover crops help see many beneficials thought the winter by providing shelter. What I don’t have is an herbivorous source for them. Some of the plants that provide nectar and pollen for the adults include anise, chamomile, coriander, cosmos, daisies, dill, feverfew, goldenrod, heliopsis, laceflower, lovage, and yellow cornflower. In order to encourage these lovely beetles to stick around, I’m in process of getting some of these started.

lady bug larva

And why called Ladybugs? Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, crops in Europe were plagued by pests. The farmers began praying to the Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary. Soon, the farmers started seeing ladybugs in their fields, and the crops were miraculously saved from the pests. They associated their good fortune with the black and red beetles, and so began calling them lady beetles.

In which I Re-phrase the Problem, Explore Vernal Ponds, and Create a Plan

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

David Mas Masumoto’s “Epitaph for a Peach” was the first books I read that made me start thinking about local food. Since the first time I read it, which was sometime in junior high, I’ve re-read it often. Each time I read it again, and take in his lyrical words, I’ll pick up a new detail that I missed before. Yet regardless of the time that passes between opening the book back up, there is one line that stays with me. When discussing his battles with the native grasses, flowers and weeds, he writes:

But now I have very few weeds on my farm. I removed them in a single day using a very simple method. I didn’t even break into a sweat. I simply redefine what I call a weed.

Mr. Masumoto did something that brings great peace to a gardener facing a daunting problem: he just rephrased it and suddenly life seemed more manageable. For me, its not the battle to maintain a sterile field like Masumoto battled with, but the fact the lake that is still present in my yard. But few days ago, while trolling permaculture and gardening forums in search of a solution, I came across a new concept to me: vernal ponds.

flooded grass

My vernal pool, minus the awesome wetland creatures

A vernal pond is a type of seasonal wetland. Also known as ephemeral, seasonal or temporary wetlands, they are a naturally occurring feature once a common feature on the landscape. They are a low area that fills up with heavy rains, and then dries up. This wet-dry cycle prevents fish from becoming established, which allows critical breeding habitat for amphibians, crustaceans and insects.

Vernal_pools_lg

Naturally occurring vernal pool in Missouri. photo source: http://www.fs.fed.us

Suddenly, the fact that my garden was flooded wasn’t the problem. It was simply that I was trying to garden in the middle of a seasonal wetland!

a landscaped vernal pool photo source: http://www.frantzlandscape.com

a landscaped vernal pool photo source: http://www.frantzlandscape.com

While this may or may not be 100% true, as I am lacking the salamanders and the  cattails, it seems logically enough to me. Plus, it made me feel better that my issue had a name, “vernal pond” sounds much fancier than “a giant puddle”, so I’m going with this. The solution is now not to battle Mother Nature (because we know she always wins), but to work harmoniously and expand on what she was trying to do in the yard.

vernal pool

natural occurring vernal pool in a Virginia woodland, photo credit: http://www.loudounwildlife.org/

Now having an end goal more concrete than “get all this damn water out of the yard/into the ground/anything but the current situation”, we have come up with the steps necessary. I even had a landscaper come out and confirm this was the best idea. Once the ground dries up, we will rent a small tractor and excavate a deeper depression, about 4′ deep in the center and graduating out to a shallower depth to create a 15′x20′ish vernal pool. A series of swales (another fancy word- pretty much means a ditch) will direct water from other areas of the yard into the pool area. This will then overflow to a less deep depression in a different part of the yard, and then overflow from that though a serpentine swale. Marsh and native wetland plants will be established around the margins. Hopefully, I can recruit some salamanders, frogs and dragonflies to make their home here- they would do wonders for pest management in the garden.

flooded yard

these naturalized bulbs are most prolific in the vernal pool area

Until the ground dries, there isn’t a lot we can do but plan. So far, we’ve used sticks to mark out possible locations of the main pond, and chart the swale paths. There are two locations that are the deepest, and seem to dry out the slowest, making them the logical location.

staking area for pond

Stella helps walk the staked out swale area

What about you? Have you ever had a problem that you re-phrased to make more manageable? Do you encounter vernal pools in your area?

The Garden is Growing & Patiently Waiting for Spring!

Tags

, , , , ,

If I was a plant, I’d be confused as hell on what season we are in. One day its beautiful and 75 degrees. Then suddenly its pouring rain (and consequently flooding the yard. again) followed by crazy blustery winds. We still have months before our last frost date, but the yard is pushing ahead, right on schedule for spring! Things are growing, grass is green, and despite the looming fact that half our yard is a lake, I think its looking like a thriving garden!

Here’s some of the happenings in my little corner of the world: 

In early January I planted 5 artichoke starts, probably a bit earlier than I should have. However, they are doing great and have tripled in size. This particular plant is the Opera variety.

artichoke

The section of the cover crop where we planted the fruit trees has started to flower or go to seed. Since the mass of it as already tilled under when we planted the trees, I’m leaving whats left and allowing to flower. It is attracting tons of lady bugs, and hopefully lots of other beneficial bugs!

ladybugs and covercrop.jpg

All of the fruit trees that we planted as bare root have budded out! Which means I didn’t kill any of them! YEAH!!!! The Santa Rosa plum even has a solitary bloom.

flowered plum.jpg

The strip of fava beans, planted for food, have flowers.
fava

In the garden beds, the recently transplanted bok choy, kale and celery are doing well. Garlic that was planted in the fall was slow to start, as it wasn’t watered, but is now thriving. I’ve also got some lettuce, mustard and arugula seedlings hardening off, and recently re-seeded some peas (since the first flood washed away the first round of pea starts). The potatoes should be going in tomorrow. Half of the asparagus crowns, which I planted from bare root crowns a few weeks ago, have speared (branched? budded? whats the right term for asparagus?) out, but the other half are still appear to be dormant (or dead- I’m keeping my fingers crossed they are just slow to wake up).

kale, celery.jpg

bok choy.jpg

The broccoli bolted, but I haven’t pulled it out yet and left it for the flowers. On sunny days, I’ve seen bees foraging on it. Plus, it adds more color to the yard!
bolted brocolii.jpg

Inside the house, I’ve got the grow light and heat mat set up and the tomatoes are just starting to sprout. There are 3 cells each of Cherokee Purple, San Marzano, Chadwich Cherry, Marmande, Striped German, Sun Golds, Principe Borghese, Bush Roma, Stupice and the Dutchman. With almost 100% germination success, I’m pretty sure many of the starts will get pawned off on friends :)tomatoes.jpg

“Weather means more when you have a garden. There’s nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans.” – Marcelene Cox

So We Got Some Rain, aka I have a Lake in my Backyard

Tags

, , , , , ,

One of the basics of permaculture is to observe your site before doing anything, for ideally a year. It is advised not to build or do major plantings until you are familiar with your surroundings. To create and foster a permaculture garden design, its important to note the sun patterns, feel which way the wind blows, see where water puddles in your yard, etc. And in true permaculture fashion, I’ve done all that, for the past year. I have pages after pages of sketches of shade patterns. I’ve noted when the birds and the bees visit the yard. I’ve watched my prayer flags flutter in the wind to see which way it blows in from. The only thing I have been missing was seeing were the water flowed. Because for the past year, we had no rain.

Until now. The 8 or so inches, that we miraculously received over 72 hours, gave me a serious crash course in observing how my yard behaves in the rain: It floods.

rain

Now this isn’t a huge surprise. When we bought our house the realtor told us non-chalantly that the back yard doesn’t drain well. It was disclosed that under the house stays wet. We were told by ever person we’ve ever met in our neighborhood that in the winter, the yard turns into a lake. Based on digging, I already knew that our solid clay soil didn’t drain quickly.

So I was expecting a few puddles that maybe took longer than normal to drain. I figured I would expand them and turn them into catchment basins.

I was not prepared for this.

flooded yard

75% of our yard has a lake of about 4-6″ of water deep. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that ducks will show up.

double dug bed

The section of cover crop that I so back-breakingly dug up a few weeks ago in prep of creating a raised bed and planting is a swamp.

floating stella

he gnarly mill ends that we were going to use to build our raised beds, which are each about 16 feet long and weigh close to 70 pounds, are floating around the yard. Stella hangs out on top like a boogie board.

flooded flower bed

My temporary raised bed that I was planning on planting sweet peas is now nothing more than a border of flooded compost. 

beds

floating monkey

this is what happens when Stella sneaks an inside toy outside

cabbages

The wood chips that we so painstakingly laid over cardboard to sheet mulch our pathways has all floated away.

artichoke on mound

Thankfully, the artichokes and my fruit trees that are planted on mounds stayed above water level.

flooded coop

The poor chickens also go a lake. Luckily the hen house didn’t leak, or float away.

 

So what do we do now? We wait for the water to go down, then dry out, then get to work. First step is to build a better outdoor roof for the hens, and rise the soil level in their run. In the garden, we will continue to plant cover crops and amending with compost to increase drainage. There will be some some serious earthworks of digging swales that feed to catchment basins. Plants will continue to be planted on mounds and we will slowly raise the soil level.

And yet despite the thousands of gallons of water standing in my yard, we are still in a drought. This storm helped out, but we would need a storm like this every weekend for the rest of our rainy season in order to get back to normal levels.

I alternate between finding the situation dire and desperate to ridiculous and hilarious. After all, in some situations that you can’t control, all you can do is laugh. And pull out your rain boots and splash around!

cover crop

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers