Playing Archaeologist and Detective

Last weekend, we broke a water line. Well, not broke, cut it in half with the sawzall. We were taking down the pump shed, and the pipe in question was coming out from the ancient pressure tank. Since said well isn’t working, and the pump has been pulled out, and the pressure tank is inoperable, we assumed it was an old pipe that hadn’t been used since the house was converted to city water. Clearly I was wrong. Why it wasn’t capped, I’m not sure, but since then, I’ve been reflecting on what it is like to own an old house whose history you don’t know.

demolishing the well shed
demolishing the well shed

It means you are constantly playing detective and archaeologist, picking up pieces and looking for clues to figure out what the fuck is going on. As anyone living in a house with any history knows, you are constantly wondering “why did they do that?” or “what was that from?” or, if it has seen remodels, wondering how things used to be.

I like old things, and I’m intrigued by the past. I like antiques, rocks, old buildings and old, gnarled trees. I like that they have a story, a history, and have stood the test of time and watched things pass by. I wanted an old house, not a cookie-cutter condo in a housing track for this very reason. Something with charm, as they say. And this charm could be in the form of high-quality woodwork, or in the form of shitty ass plumbing.

charm means beautiful oak floors, patched with plywood, then covered up with carpet
charm means beautiful oak floors, patched with plywood, then covered up with carpet

In the grand scheme of old houses, my home is not that old. It was built in 1945, which was one of the few things we knew when we bought it. From the title report, we know the property was bought in 1941, as part of a planned subdivision of large lots ranging from 1/2 acre to 1 acre. It was owned and occupied by a husband and wife, later by the wife and her sister. When they had both passed away, the family flipped the house, and sold it (to us).

I did some browsing of the Sonoma County Historical Society to find out more about the area, and found that Santa Rosa was established in 1854. By the late 1800’s, the city was a major center for processing and shipping produce and livestock. 3/4 of Santa Rosa residents labeled themselves as farmers. When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1934, industry grew. The city progressively grew, and saw its fastest growth and most changes in the 1940s. The 1940 census recorded a Santa Rosa population of 12,605 and increased to 17,900 by 1950. There was a huge housing boom following WWII, which likely included the building of my home.

as of 1938, it looks like my area was still undeveloped land
as of 1938, it looks like my area was still undeveloped land, map source: http://www.davidrumsey.com/rumsey/Size4/D5005/0994034.jpg

So far, we’ve deducted that the office was once the garage, and the current garage was added, clearly before permits and building inspections required. The house once had tongue & groove exterior siding, originally white, then possibly yellow. We’ve discovered the kitchen was at one point yellow and the bathroom was teal. We learned that when laying the pipes for city water, they simply cut the hardwood floor, worked from above, then patched with plywood. At one point, the bathtub did not go to the sewer main but somewhere else, either to the septic tank or was just piped out as greywater. We found a pile of rotting white painted wood and decorative metal fencing, so I’m assuming at one point there was a fence surrounding the front yard.

the kitchen was once yellow
the kitchen was once yellow

A pile of canning jar lids found in the pump house tells me that at one point it was likely used for storage. The tag on the pressure tank was from a company in Santa Rosa when only 3 digits were used as phone numbers. Google revealed the company had an advertisement in a Ukiah newspaper in 1939, and the owner was the president of the Lyons Club in 1936. Based on the age, I’m assuming its the original to when the well was dug.

the tag on the pressure tank tells me it was original to the house
the tag on the pressure tank tells me it was original to the house

I’ll never know what exactly this place was like before we got here. I can only observe and try to piece together the puzzle. We’ve been here almost 2 years, and we are constantly learning new things about our home, and constantly puzzled (and sometimes infuriated) by the things we discover. And does anyone know why there is a steel oval pipe that runs from under the house, though a wall that I think is the closet, and up through the attic and through the roof? I haven’t been able to solve that mystery yet.

What about you? Any awesome discoveries in your old house?

Its the Age of Asparagus

Its the Age of Asparagus, the Age of Asparagus, Asparagus, Asparagus!!!!!!!

3 asparagus spears

Well, maybe not age, but it is the beginning of asparagus season. So why the big deal, to write a whole post about a vegetable being in season? Because in my garden this week, after a whole year of waiting, I was able to harvest some.

Asparagus isn’t difficult to grow, but they are an investment: that needs lots of space, time, and commitment. Once planted, it takes around 3 more years until you can get a decent harvest. Some justification for such a long wait? They are a perennial vegetable, which means they grow for multiple years, and a healthy bed can produce for 30 years. You can plant asparagus by seed, or by bare root crowns, which is what I did in January, 2014..

asapargus

The spears that we eat and are so familiar with are the stalks of the plant. If unpicked, they turn into tall and beautiful leafy fronds, will eventually flower, and if a female, produce bright red berries. Harvesting is so limited for the first few years because the plant needs the spears for themselves to grow and develop their extensive root system.

asapargus fronds

Other than the time investment, asparagus is actually quite easy to grow. We are quickly approaching the end of bare root planting season, which includes asparagus, so make sure to get them in the ground now if you want to start your asparagus journey! Start with well drained soil or in a raised bed, and dig trenches about a foot deep. Spread the roots of the crown out, and cover with soil but still leave the top of the crown exposed. As the crowns sprout, slowly fill in the trench, which should take about 6-8 weeks. Water regularly, and don’t harvest a single spear during this first growing year.

The second year, which is where I’m at, you can harvest spears for only 1-2 weeks, and only spears that are larger than a pencil. That’s it. Leave the remaining spears to leaf out and do their thing. In the 3rd year, you can harvest for 4 weeks, in the 4th year, up to 8 weeks.

harvesting

To harvest, cut spears that are 6-10″ tall, and cut just below ground level. Check your bed every day, because these things grow fast!  I only have a few spears or so ready at a time, which is hardly a meal, so I keep them in a jar of water on the counter until I have a small handful. Trim the bottom stalk off by snapping it where is starts to get stiff, then give a quick rinse. I ate the first of my asparagus brushed with lemon olive oil and roasted on a sheet pan.

roasted spears

Nothing screams SPRING! more than fresh asparagus.  And its funny, because up until recently, I actually hated asparagus and would never dream of dedicating space in my garden for it. Let alone give it 3 years of before I could eat any! I thought asparagus was gross, slimy and was on the short list of things I HATED as a kid. But then, about 8 years ago, I was shopping at the Healdsburg Farmers Market. At this time I was teaching myself how to cook and learning about local food. I stopped at the stand of Nancy Skall, of Middleton Farms, and I saw a small bundle of bright green asparagus spears. Tied with a string, they were standing upright in a tray of water, like a freshly picked bouquet of flowers.

window asparagus

They looked nothing like the giant, woody gray things that I had come to know as Grocery Store Asparagus, that was served steamed until slimy. They were outrageously expensive for my basically minimum wage budget, as most of Nancy’s produce rightfully was, but I bought them anyways. If I remember correctly, I lightly pan fried them, with only olive oil, salt & pepper. I ate them still slightly crunchy. They aren’t my favorite vegetable (artichokes hold that place), but they were a light year away from the gag- inducing grocery store asparagus of my childhood, and I enjoyed them!

If you’ve shopped at the Healdsburg or Sebastopol farmer’s markets, you’ve seen Nancy, and her amazing produce. Once I told her that I absolutely loved her peaches and I was enjoying them barbecued with a drizzle of cinnamon honey. I clearly remember that she responded with “I wish more young people would appreciate fine produce”. Nancy passed away last January. Other than the short shopping exchanges, I did not know her personally, but I want to thank her for introducing me to the wonders of how great fresh, local food can be. With her asparagus, I learned that you should always revisit things you thought you hated.

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The Anatomy of My Seed Starting Setup

I just upgraded my seed starting setup for this year, and I’m super excited to tell you about it!

Four years ago, when I was planting my first garden, I tried starting seeds in pots on a windowsill. But because I didn’t have a window that got 14 hours of direct light, my plants were spindly and sad looking. Then, I went to a beginning gardening lecture at the Baker Creek Seed Bank, and learned how there are full-spectrum florescent blubs and heating mats that make starting seeds way easier. I was aware of grow lights (after all, I am from Santa Cruz and live in Sonoma County), but thought they were only for people growing pot, and you could only get them from those sketchy hydroponic stores.

starting under light

But the Seed Bank carried stand, a light, and heating mats that were especially made for vegetable starts, called JumpStart, made by Hydrofarm, along with the plastic seed trays and covers, and I bought it all up. The second season I bought a second stand & light system, which are also carried at Harmony and Friedmans. I love my lights, but the stands are a bit clumsy and take up a lot of space.

janky seed starting setup
previously used janky seed starting setup

Whenever I needed to start seeds, I’d have to forfeit my kitchen table, or concoct some super janky space so I could set up the system. Such as two chairs, for example, or dedicate a kitchen counter. None of which my 1000ish square foot homes have ever been able to easily give up. Relinquishing them to the garage or some other remote space wasn’t possible- I knew if they were out of sight, they would be out of mind and I’d forget to water them.

Enter, (drum roll please)…..my new setup!

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I got a 5 shelf wire unit from Target, and put it in the kitchen between the sliding door and the kitchen table. I created three spaces for seeding trays by spacing 4 of the shelves 18” apart. I abandoned the stands that came with my lights, and instead used S-hooks and chain to anchor the light to the shelf above it, which gives me the option to adjust the height of the light to accommodate for the increasing height of growing plants. I wanted to have a third light, but I couldn’t find it sold separately from the stand at either Friedmans or Harmony, so to avoid having to troll the grow shops, ordered one off Amazon this morning. I have heat mats on two of my shelves, but will leave the 3rd without to accommodate seeds that need cooler soil, or for seedlings once they are “grown up” and transplanted into 4″ pots.

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Ideally, seedlings need 14-18 hours of light, with the remaining hours in darkness. Because no matter how much I love to garden, I’m not waking up at 5am to turn on my grow lights, so I have them set up on a timer. Because I don’t have a plug near my rack (epic fail, I should have thought about this when the kitchen was being remodeled) from the timer I then have an extension cord with a power strip attached with the lights plugged in. The heat mats don’t need to be on a timer, but should be on at all times while the seeds are germination, so I have both of those hooked up to another extension cord plugged into the wall. (Disclaimer:  I’m assuming this setup isn’t 100% safe, so if you do the same thing and you blow something up, don’t blame me). To get a handle on the cords, I have them fastened to the rack with zip-ties.

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I’ve also put together a container with a Sharpie, my plant labels (cut up mini blinds that I salvaged from a dumpster) and a chopstick that I use to poke down seeds, so everything is handy when I’m seeding. A spray bottle filled with water that I use to keep the soil damp also has a spot. The soil I use for seeding, and my collection of 6-packs, 4” pots, and flat trays live outside on the porch. I keep a towel nearby so I can set it down on the kitchen table as a work surface to keep things clean.

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Once all my plants have moved outside, I’ll move the rack into the garage, or hopefully one day, the garden shed. Obviously, it’s a bit awkward in the middle of my dining area, but I’m glad to have my table open! I’ve capitalized on it being there, and added some hooks and hung up the rain jackets. I’ve also got a tray of potatoes on the very top tier, to let sprout before planting out in March. I started off my seeding season today, and planted peas and lettuce. I’m feeling positive about my new setup, and feel it will be a good gardening year!

Understanding Frost Dates and Knowing When to Seed

Come June, there are hushed whispers floating around. “Do you have tomatoes yet? I heard so-and-so got one last week.” Which then turn into “CRAP, really? I only have flowers!” when the answer is affirmative. Because there seems to be an unspoken contest amongst gardeners, to see who can be the first one with ripe tomatoes. Who got the timing right on planting out in optimum conditions. Because after months of greens, we want color and someone thing new!

the first tomato of 2014, picked June 30, seeded February 24
the first tomato of 2014,  seeded February 24 & picked June 30

Gardening is always one big gamble, and you are betting against Mother Earth. Some plants would grow no matter what, but many of them are picky, like Goldilocks, and will only grow if conditions are just right. Sow seeds or set out transplants too early and you run the risk of them getting hit by frost and melting away. If its not warm enough, the plant might just sit there, like a garden statue, not growing and taking up valuable planting real estate. Plant seeds in soil to wet, and they might rot.  If you plant too late, the first fall frost might hit and kill the plant before you could harvest. If it doesn’t receive enough daylight hours, it might stop producing long before you were planning it to.

frost tipped chard

The way to win at this high-stake game is to cross your fingers, hope Mama plays nice, and consult your projected frost dates. There are two frost dates, the first average frost, which happens in Fall, and the last average frost, which happens in Spring. This Spring date is what is used to determine when to start seeds for all the finicky summer veggies we love and crave, like peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, squash and melons.

calendar frost date

Once you know your frost date, you count backwards to determine when you should start your seeds. Tomatoes, for example, are started about 7 weeks before the last frost. Melons, 3 weeks. Johnny’s Select Seeds has an amazing and indispensable chart to help determine the timeline. If someone has an earlier frost date, that means you can start your seeds earlier, leading to planting earlier which means you’ll get fruit earlier. Which is why you may find yourself comparing yourself to the person you saw on Instagram who had ripe fruit IN MAY!

cherry tomatoes

But don’t do it, don’t compare! Everyone’s frost date is different, and even with that you can always take chances. Frost is looked at in percentages. There is a 90% chance there will still be frost, a 50% chance, a 10% chance, etc. In the game of gardening and frost, the lower your odds, the better. And because this is nature we are talking about, nothing is ever for certain.

frost tipped lettuce

Its super easy to find your frost date, just ask the interwebs “last frost date for [enter zip code or city].” Some sources, like Burpee’s Seeds or the Old Farmers Almanac, will give you only one date, and I avoid those. They are reporting a 50% chance date, and I don’t like to play with that much chance of frost. My favorite sources to determine data is either NOAA or Dave’s Garden, both which give a wide range of dates, letting the gardener determine what she feels most comfortable basing plantings on. I usually seed based on 10% chance, which puts Santa Rosa and the surrounding towns to be around April 10.

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But frost dates aren’t a code, they are simply guidelines. You can experiment, and you can try to push the growing season. Because we’ve had such a warm winter, I feel frost is less likely so I think I will base my calendar off of a date in late March. You can try planting out early by warming the soil with plastic or protecting your plants with cloches or a hoop house. My mom, who grows an amazing garden, lives in Sunset zone 1A, and has a last frost date of June 7. This makes her growing season only a few months, which doesn’t work for tomatoes. So she starts seeds inside the first week of February, progressively transplants them into larger pots, then when they start to flower in June, she takes them outside and plants them in the garden. She gets hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. So anything is possible!

frost tipped cabbage

Now that you know your frost date, start putting seeding dates on your calendar. You don’t want to miss the first opportunity to get your seeds started! Happy Seeding!


I’m watching it rain right now, and so overjoyed! I hope you are happy with the weather wherever you may be!

Understanding Projected Frost Dates, and how to use them

What to do in the Garden: February

We are now into the 2nd month of 2015 and we’ve seen little, if any, “normal” circumstances. We saw a big fat zero inches of rain in January, and very few days of frost (not actually complaining about this- I hate the cold). By the end of this month, we will have gained an hour of daylight, and I’m looking forward to being able to walk though the yard, maybe even do a few garden chores, after I get home from work. With this changing environment, its hard to know what to do when, but here are the general tasks for February.

The Northern California & Sonoma County February Checklist:

  • Plant flowering shrubs & vines. Now is the time to get jasmine, azaleas, daphne, hardenbergia, lilac, clematis, roses and the like in the ground.
A butterfly bush, hydrangea, and jasmine- needing to find a place in the garden. And photobombed by the elusive Gale.
A butterfly bush, hydrangea, and jasmine- needing to find a place in the garden. And photobombed by the elusive Gale. She disapproves. As always. 
  • Prune summer blooming hedges & shrubs. Rejuvenate summer bloomers, like butterfly bushes, by cutting back woody stems.
  • Plant summer blooming bulbs, like dahlias and gladiolus.
  • Mulch before weeds take over. The warm weather and somewhat still-wet ground is prime weed conditions. Use sheet-mulching to prevent weeds colonizing on bare ground, or to kill current weeds.
  • Feed. Give fall-planted perennials, established trees and shrubs a boost with a 10-10-10 fertilizer. Nourish citrus with special formulated citrus formula. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons have bloomed to give them an acid loving formula.
  • Plant spring flowers. Seed or plant starts of early blooming plants, like poppies, calendula and sweet peas. Kings Nursery has a great selection of sweet peas right now.
For May bouquets, plant sweet peas now!
For May bouquets, plant sweet peas now!
  • Divide perennials on summer and fall bloomers, like agapantha, aster and Shasta daises before spring growth starts.
  • Watch for frost. With our mid-70 degrees we are having, its hard to imagine we could get frost, but we could! Despite the Spring-like weather, we are still technically still in Winter, and February can be one of the coldest months. Technically.
  • Water if needed. Normally, February gets inches of rain, but so far 2015 is not looking good. Its sad to say this, but without rain, it may be necessary to water. Consider capturing water from the bathtub or from washing veggies to supplement irrigation. I’m watering the asparagus and strawberry bed, about once a week, but holding off on the brassica beds because they are almost finished. But I have faith, my birthday is at the end of the month and it has rained on 90% of my birthdays. And, the forecast also says we have a chance for later this week!
  • Buy seed potatoes, for planting out in March. Buy locally from Harmony, or order online from Peaceful Valley for the best selection. Fancy varieties sell out fast, so as soon as they are available, stock up! Don’t try to plant potatoes from the store, as they are sprayed with an anti-sprouting agent, but ones grown last year or from an organic vendor at a Farmers Market are probably safe.
shopping for potatoes
shopping for potatoes at Harmony Farm Supply, Feb. 10, 2014
  • Plant Spring veggies, like lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach and peas, by either seed or starts.
  • Start Summer veggies from seed inside. Perhaps the best part of February is starting seeds of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers! Most veggies need to be started around 8 weeks before the last frost, which for my area, is the middle of February. Later this week I’ll post a complete timeline & countdown on when to start seeds for the correct pre/post last frost date.
starting tomato seeds
February started tomato seeds, 2014

Personal homesteading tasks include taking down the exterior Christmas lights (don’t worry, they aren’t still ON!), continuing working on the fence, continuing on weed control, getting gutters on the hen house, and preparing a space for rain barrels. I’m also accepting birthday wishes and drinks all month long!


I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eyes or to please my soul, to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience, for novelty or for nostalgia, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow. – David Hobson

gardening checklist, february

Shopping at Costco, for Cardboard!

Earlier this week, I told you about the weed control efforts I’m working on. Today I wanted to share my secret source for cardboard: Costco!

When sheet mulching, any cardboard will do. In the last garden, we mulched with beer boxes salvaged from liquor store dumpsters and boxes scored off freecycle. But using random boxes like that is a pain in the ass, because you have to flatten them, pull off any tape or staples, and then seriously overlap because of all the flaps. The ideal cardboard is big, flat and has no tape, glue or fascinators. Even better if the box isn’t printed on or has text, in case the ink is toxic.

Enter, Costco! Every pallet ships with a flat square sheet of cardboard. In the soda section, there is a sheet between each layer of drinks. On a busy day, there are TONS of cardboard sheets unearthed by shoppers. Which is why we go to Costco every few weeks. Occasionally we’ll buy some beer, sugar or Alvarado St. bread, but my card is used almost exclusively for stocking up on cardboard.

cardboard on cart

The first thing we do is grab one of the big flat carts, like the ones crazy people or the restaurants use, then head to the back corner of the store where the bottled water and soda is. The staff totally doesn’t care if you pilfer the cardboard, but I always ask someone working in this section if I could grab some. And, since they know what I’m doing, they often drag sheets over to me and help.

cardboard on aisles

Wander around this section of the store and you’ll see cardboard everywhere. There are sheets stashed between pallets, and available up and down the aisle. You can move the last case of the juice and grab the cardboard from underneath. Conveniently, this section is also right next to the baler, which is where the staff drags all the sheets to. Check for some leaning against the wall, and grab those too. But don’t be greedy, and use common sense- the stuff IN the baler is off-limits.

cardboard near baler

If you hang out in this general region of the store, you can quickly stock up within a half hour or so. Pile it on your cart, grab the few shopping items you needed, and roll thought checkout. After loading it into the truck, tie it down so it doesn’t fly away or use a case of beer on top to weight it down. Bringing it home, and now your on your way to faster, easier sheet mulching!

cardboard in truck

So know you know the best source for cardboard! But don’t tell anyone, I want to keep it a secret!

Natural Weed Control

Weeds are considered undesirable because they steal water, space and nutrients that would otherwise go to plants you intentionally want to grow- like edibles or flowers. Many weeds actually useful, like dandelions, purslane or plantain, are highly nutritious, a useful medicinal herb, or may provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. But some, like Bremuda grass, are invasive and will easily take over.

On my half acre farm, I have lots and lots of weeds. In general, I have a pretty nonchalant attitude towards them, and they don’t bother me to much. The roster of weeds that I’ve identified in my garden include blackberries, foxtail, bindweed, burclover, dandelion, dock, ground ivy, groundsel, mallow, plantain, purslane, sow thistles, spotted cat’s ear, a variety of grasses, which of course, includes Bremuda grass. Because I’m essentially starting from scratch on my land, I don’t have the time, money, or strength to create all the garden in one swipe, so I’m working in sections. I let weeds do their thing until I start working in that area, then declare war and give my best effort to eradicate.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on clearing the area around the fruit trees. With the epic drought we are in, I don’t want to share any precious water with greedy, weeds. In a conventional garden, one might just spray the whole area with Round-up or some other herbicide to clear the weeds, and call it done. But I use a different, healthier approach: chickens, cardboard and lots of mulch.

chicken
hen on fresh weed pasture

The first step to my weed removal is to release the chickens. Using a concoction of chicken wire sections and bits of old rusty hog wire, I create a super janky fence enclosing a weeded area but exclude the fruit trees and the handful of plants that I’ve established in the area. By blocking off the tunnel which normally directs the birds to the back half of the yard, I can direct the chickens inside the weed enclosure. After a few weeks of their eating, scratching and dust bathing, the area is pretty much cleared of weeds.

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chickens hard at work, ready to be rotated to new space
chickens hard at work, ready to be rotated to new space

After removing the fence and setting it up in the next area, I lay down cardboard over the now bare dirt. Making sure the pieces are overlapping and there is no exposed soil, I then cover the cardboard with a layer of wood chips.

laying down cardboard rake mulch

Normally we buy wood chip mulch by the yard from Sonoma Compost, and used it on our garden paths. Its cheap, but its a pain in the ass to drive out there, but the other day, I noticed Davey Tree trimming the trees under the power lines down my street. After a friendly hello and a quick conversation with the crew, I ended up with a pile of mulch in my front yard. These chips are a great mixture of shredded leaves and wood pieces, which I think are more desirable to the woody chips we get from Sonoma Compost for mulching around the trees.

wood chips
pile of free mulch

This process is known as sheet-mulching. While it isn’t a 100% method, it drastically reduces them. The layers of cardboard and mulch block the weeds from receiving light, and therefore kills them. The cardboard will break down in a matter of a few months, and eventually, in a few years, the mulch will break down and be absorbed into the soil. Double bonus for me, as I’m on the constant mission to amend my soil with organic matter to increase fertility and improve drainage.

Honestly, I prefer the lush green of the weeds over the brown layer of chips. I’ve left some of the larger clumps of grass that the chickens weren’t able to decimate, because I didn’t want to cover up all the habitat for the ladybugs, who are slowly arriving. Hopefully, next year, after the sheet mulching has eradicated most of the weeds, I can add a layer of soil and plant cover crops and flowers to create a bank of habitat for beneficial insects.

sheet mulched
newly sheet-mulched area