Three Years Ago We Bought A House

Three years ago we bought a house. If you’ve been a reader for a while, thanks for following along on this crazy adventure! If you are a new, here is a quick summary. My husband and I bought in 2013. The house was built in 1945 and we are the second owners. When the original owners passed away, it rented for a few years, the kids half-assed flipped the house with the cheapest materials possible, then sold it to us. The lot is a bit over a 1/2 acre, and had clearly not been touched in at least a decade. Since day one, we’ve been battling invasive weeds, no drainage, poor soil, and general disrepair in effort to create our urban homestead, to grow our own food, live sustainable and intently.

You can read about our first year accomplishment here, and year two here.

Here is what we’ve accomplished in year three:

The big project of this year was installing 3,650 gallons of rainwater harvesting systems. The 825 gallon Blue Barrel System is off the chicken coop, and a 2,825 gallon tank captures the runoff from my house. Right now we are just using a hose to fill watering cans and to slowly water the fruit trees, but soon I’ll get a booster pump and feed though drip. Both were filled from the first big storm, in January.

blackberries where compost is, then.jpgchicken coop, nowthe jungle, thenrain tank

Every year has been dedicated to fencing. Year 3 saw the completion of the fence on the West side of the property line. We also built the permanent chicken pasture fence, as well as the arbor for the kiwi and a double-swinging gate.

backyard from very back corner.jpgyard, now

On the garage side of the house, we started tackling the “jungle”: an overgrown mess of privet, blackberries, quince, rose, boxwood, wisteria and cranium lily. We built a side fence and gate with an arbor, which hopefully I’ll get the wisteria trained onto sometime this year. side of house, thenside of house

Another big project was getting the disaster of a concrete patio/weed maze broken up. You can read about that project here, and I have been slowly using up the pieces, like in the most recent planter bed and lining pathways. In the area now clear, I’ve established mulched paths and I started to establish planting beds, but haven’t quite finished. This area is a total mess, with uneven surfaces, partially sheet mulched, partially planted, and scattered chunks of concrete. But now I have only a small bit of concrete surrounding my well; permeable surfaces = happy Melissa.

patio, then

patio, nowThe garden continues to grow. Right now, it sees the transition between winter and spring. We just started to build the second row of raised beds on the East side of the pathway, which will hopefully be finished before the big summer plant out. With diligent pulling and sheet mulching, we’ve done some major weed control and soil improvement, but still battling with Bermuda grass (as we probably will be for life.)

garden thengarden nowPersonally, I feel the biggest accomplishment for this past year is that I’ve brought my soil to life. In the first two years, even with digging almost every day, I only saw maybe 10 worms. Now, I find several regardless if I’m digging in my raised beds or the native soil. I hold the 15 yards of horse manure, 40 yards of arbor mulch, 50 yards of compost, about a billion sheets of cardboard, and several plantings of cover crops responsible. I’ve also seen lizards, salamanders, butterflies and caterpillars, tons of beneficial insects, and of course, bees. Nothing makes me happier than to know my garden supports life.  IMG_3041 IMG_2445

One things that has not improved in the three years is the front. We’ve made it worse. Much worse. When we bought, it was a nice mowed lawn, albeit Bermuda grass. We neither watered nor mowed. We drove across it and have used it as a deliver zone. Now, its a mess of weeds in assorted heights, various naturalized bulbs, and suckers from assorted trees. The Blenheim apricot is 75% dead and we’ve got black drainage pipes and ditches from the gutters running all over the place. Plus, its perpetually the home to a giant pile of either mulch or compost. Honestly wouldn’t be surprised to hear if neighbors wonder about our mental state. Hopefully this year I’ll get out there and do something, even if its just sheet mulching the whole thing. front of house, thenfront, now

As we embark on year 4, my goals are to (successfully) keep bees, install irrigation, build a habitat pond, build the rest of the raised beds, and hopefully plant berries. Make sure to follow along!

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Homestead Project: Urbanite Planter Bed

In between rainstorms, I’ve been working on a new project on the homestead: an urbanite planter bed. stacked urbanite wall

This has been a high priority project because this is where I’ve planned for kiwis to be planted. Fuzzy kiwis take about a billion years before they start producing fruit (ok, 5-9- basically a billion), so I wanted to get them as soon as possible. We got the arbor for the female kiwi built when we redid the chicken pasture last year, but just now started on the planter bed.

To prep the bed area, first I weeded out Bremuda grass by hand, then laid a thick layer of cardboard for further weed suppression. Under the area where the concrete was going, I used strips of cotton sheets, to act as further weed barrier and prevent the concrete from cutting up the cardboard (and giving the Bermuda an easy way in). Then, I pieced together chunks of concrete and the occasional rock I’ve hauled home from various adventures, to stack a perimeter wall about 1′ high. The bed isn’t completed, as I first need to MOVE the pile of concrete I’ve been pulling from (placement fail!!) but I’ve backfilled the area that’s created with purchased well-draining soil.drystacking the bedfilling the bedOnce we had the planting area prepped, we went kiwi shopping! In the pouring rain, we picked out the pair of fuzzy kiwis (you need both a male and female for fruit) and managed to load the tall vines into my Civic. They rode shotgun while Matt sat in the back. We planted the female fuzzy kiwi alongside the arbor, using twine to support the branches until it can twine itself. She’s “Vincent” variety, and her mate “Tomuri” will get planted on the other side of the bed to trellis along the fence. buying kiwiskiwis ride shotgun

We also planted one of our potted pomegranate trees into the bed, a Kashmir, and I’ve planted some prostate rosemary to trail down the rock front. I have plans for other plantings, including a handful of strawberries, additional herbs, and pollinator friendly flowering perennials. pomegranate kiwi urbanite bed

Why did we use urbanite, instead of imported stone? There are several reasons, the main being it was free. Last June, we broke up our concrete ‘patio’, yielding me with giant piles of urbanite. You can read about that project here. Reusing materials is an important aspect of ecological gardening- no new materials needed to be mined or transported, reducing the environmental impact of my garden. I also chose to use the urbanite because the stacked concrete and stone will create habitat for lizards and other invertebrates. It’s a multi-use function to create a usable space and a wildlife habitat. stacked rocks for habitat home

The bed still needs to be finished, but I’m glad one more aspect of the homestead has moved from “planning” to “in process!”reach for the sky

How are your spring projects coming?

Getting Rid of Crap

Like millions of other people out there, I have too much crap. Not to the point of being a hoarder, or needed storage sheds or storage units, but I have lots of stuff. I’ve been reading lots of minimalist blogs recently and watching TEDx videos, and really resonating with the concept of less stuff.

I love my wall to wall bookshelves, but its filled with books I don't need, games I won't play, and egg cartons that need a better place.
I love my wall to wall bookshelves, but its filled with books I don’t need, games I won’t play, and egg cartons that need a better place.

Overall, I think I have a good relationship with stuff. I regularly purge out clothes I don’t wear and I hate shopping so I rarely buy for the sake of “stuff’. Yet my house is cluttered, and because of that, its filthy with physical dirt and dust. I have no empty shelves or blank space. It doesn’t help that I use my 1000 square foot house for a potting shed, a greenhouse, a brewery, a cannery, a butcher shop, a craft room, a wood working workshop (there are no lights in the garage), and (two different) offices plus normal living day-to-day things.

embarrassing closet photo: there is clothes, bee suit, camping stuff, boxes of carded wool, purses, blankets and rain jackets.
embarrassing closet photo: there are clothes, my bee suit, camping stuff, boxes of carded wool, purses, blankets and rain jackets.

I approach free piles with glee, and can think of all kinds of useful things I could do with a particular item. A reflective shade from a giant grow light? I could take it apart and make a solar oven! Half dead vintage Christmas lights? I can wrap my non-existent lemon and avocado tree for frost protection! And into the garage they go. Like most homesteaders out there, I really struggle with getting rid of things because “I might need it one day”, both of inexpensive and expensive items. Some people might be able to just go buy something if they need it again, but that doesn’t work for our budget. A waste-not mentality equals accumulating things, and keeping things around. But something needs to change.

Free houseplants! I must take them all!!!!
Free houseplants! I must take them all!!!!

It seems that one of the basic guidelines to achieving the goal of less crap is to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a given time period. Sometimes its 3 months. Sometimes its a year. Because I live very seasonally, there are things in my house that don’t get used on a daily basis but are certainly crucial to homesteading. My food mill or canning pots or seed starting equipment are only used seasonally; certain tools might only get used a few times a year but make a project possible. So purging based timelines never resonated with me.

Super embarrassing picture of the garage. Its not this bad all the time, but it has its moment.
Super embarrassing picture of the garage. Like most Californian’s, we don’t park in the garage. I promise isn’t this bad all the time, but it has its moments.

A friend recently suggested that different categories of things get assigned a different time bracket. Clothes, 1 year. Tools and craft supplies, 2 years. Etc., etc., etc. This made sense, and made me excited to work on this project. There is rain in the forecast and I’m on spring break, so I’m declaring it spring cleaning, and I’m going to go room by room and purge out crap, clean, and organize the things I’m keeping.

Jewelry boxes and dressers:  black holes for things not needed.
Jewelry boxes and dressers: black holes for things not needed.

Here are the guidelines I’ve set for getting rid of things:

  • If it hasn’t been used in 3 years, it goes. We moved here almost 3 years ago, and undertaken every type of project we have the skill set for. If we have a tool or kitchen item that hasn’t been used yet, it won’t be used.
  • Clothes not worn for 1 year.
  • Books that I haven’t looked at, for reference or made something out of, for 1 year goes. I will not (GIANT CAPITAL LETTERS!!!) flip though the book to see if there is something interesting, then deem it “worth keeping”.
  • Fabric bits and other “things” (like scraps of wood) that I have no immediate and concrete project planned for. I will not spend time brainstorming how I can use it.
  • Anything broken or needs repair that I’m not actually going to fix.
  • Duplicates, or the old version of something that was upgraded.
  • Things will immediately be donated/freecycle listed/street free pile/recycled/landfilled. They will not get put in boxes and put in the garage to “do later”, which inevitably means it will sit there, taking up space, or worse- migrate back into the house.
  • Establish designated spots for the things “I need”. Put the item back to its designated spot when done with it! Novel concept, I know……
  • For projects half done or still in the “collection rest of materials” phase get an assigned time limit. Dedicate time to finishing the project.

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have a favorite de-cluttering tip, please leave me a comment and let me know!

Waiting

Mother Earth has her own timeline. She waits or rushes for no one. Gardening teaches patiences. Working along side nature is one big lesson on waiting. adopt patience

And recently, that is all I am doing. Waiting.

Waiting for seeds to come up.

Waiting for seedlings to grow large enough to harden off.

Waiting for the soil to dry up a bit so I can dig up the dock and arum that is invading my yard.

Waiting for the paths to change from puddles to firm earth I can push a wheelbarrow without sinking. Waiting to move the giant pile of (free!!!) arbor mulch that was dropped in my front yard. Waiting to move compost out of the back of the truck.

Waiting for standing water to evaporate so I weed whack and sheet mulch and build new beds.

Waiting for my well guy to replace the well pump. Waiting for the well to be functioning so I can run irrigation lines. Waiting for main lines to be run so I can run drip.

Waiting for a stretch of decent weather to coordinate with days off so I can finish the last section of fence.

Waiting.

What’s Happening To My Plant? Bolting Explained

If you are new to gardening, you may notice some of your veggies are taking on a new appearance. Leafy greens are growing tall and lanky, cauliflowers and broccoli heads are no longer dense and clustered, root crops are getting hairy. Fear not, your plant has not been abducted by aliens! It’s simply going though part of its life span known as bolting.bolting kale

All vegetable plants go though a cycle: seed germination, grow leaves, flower, bear fruit/seeds, die. Depending on the type of plant, we eat them at different stages in their life. Spinach, for example, get eaten in the grow phase. Tomatoes are the fruit/seed stage. Plants grown for their leaves (or in the case of broccoli and cauliflower, undeveloped flower heads) will bolt.

bolting spinach
bolting spinach

You can tell when a leafy plant is starting to bolt because first they lengthen in height, with individual leaves growing farther and farther apart, then flower heads appear, eventually bursting into bloom. You can sometimes delay bolting by breaking off the flowers or the lengthening stalk.

Cavolo nero kale starting to flower
Cavolo nero kale starting to flower

Some will bolt when it starts getting warm. Some when it gets to cold. Some simply because they have been alive for a lot time. Some plants bolt quickly after planting (like bok choy), some take forever (like red russian kale). Most commonly, plants that were planted in the fall will bolt when spring approaches. In my garden, that’s right now.

bolting parsley
bolting parsley

Although the plant is still edible during bolting, it usually isn’t very good. Energy is going into flower and seed production, so the plants get bitter, stronger tasting, and generally not very palatable. Now is usually the time to pull the plants, add to the compost or feed to the chickens, and make space for new plantings.

hauling away bolted radishes
hauling away bolted radishes

However, if you have the space, I strongly advocate to leave the plant and let it flower. Bolted veggies, such as arugula, broccoli, radish, carrots, cilantro, and parsley produce lovely flowers for some early color in the yard, and they are excellent for bees and beneficial insects. On my bolted broccoli alone, I’ve spotted bumble bees, honey bees, carpenter bees, tiny native bees, and ladybugs.

bolted radishbee on broccoli bolted arugulamating carpenter bees

Planting Seed Tapes & How They Grow

A few weeks ago I posted about my DIY Seed Tapes, but I wasn’t actually sure how they would grow. It isn’t quite time for me to plant carrots, which were the tapes I made previously, but I was curious to see if they worked as well as I had hoped. So I decided to do a quick experiment, and I whipped up some radish tapes. Now radish seeds are significantly larger than carrot, so therefore not as much of a pain in the ass to seed, but you still have to deal with the straight rows, the washing away of seeds, and the hunched over the bed issues. Because they grow very quickly, they make the perfect subject for my experiment. I’m happy to report that the tapes are a success!

I made one tape of Pink Beauty from Baker Creek, and one tape of Cherry Belle from Botanical Interest.

planting seed tapes

To plant the tape, I simply scraped aside a layer of soil to the depth I wanted (1/2″), and laid down the tape. Then, I pushed the soil back over until the paper was covered.

planting seed tapeFor comparison, I planted a row of direct seeded next to the tape seeded, and labeled accordingly. I was wondering if the tape affected germination rates.

comparing seed tape to direct sowing

Then, I watered as normal, and waited about 6 days. Comparing germination

Between the two varieties, I had about the same germination rate. Between the tapes and the direct seeded, I had about the same germination rate, with a slight gain in the tapes. This could be because some of my direct seed was too deep, a rolly-polly munched it down, or a numerous other reasons. But if you look closely, you can see that the tape seeded row has a significant advantage: the row is perfectly straight. This doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things, but I like my root crops to be in straight rows. Even though I direct seeded straight, seeds inevitably move with watering.

growing radishes

Now that I know this is a viable solution, I’ll be making many more! It will be the perfect gardening project to undertake during this forecasted 10-days of rain.

How Does Your Garden Grow? Different Gardening Methods Explained

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

In today’s world, Mistress Mary might have a hard time describing exactly how she gardens. Silver bells and cockle shells aside, if you look at the gardening section of your library or bookstore or search the interwebs, its easy to get overwhelmed by all the different styles and theories and methods. Square-foot gardening, intensive gardening, organic gardening, permaculture, native, gardening companions….so many ways to garden!  If you’re wondering what they mean and what would work best for you, read on!

Different gardening methods explained

Here’s a basic breakdown:

Organic Gardening can be summed up to not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (things like Round-up or Miracle Grow). Organic gardening can apply to any type of landscape, edible or not. It is a huge umbrella term, acting as the foundation of many other methods of gardening that take the concept further.

Instead of chemical fertilizers, in my organic garden I grow cover crops. I encourage beneficial insects to keep pests in check.
Instead of using chemical fertilizers in my organic garden I grow cover crops. I encourage beneficial insects to keep pests in check instead of spraying pesticides.

Permaculture Gardening is a holistic design approach and has been touted as “extreme organic gardening”. Permaculture gardens consider systems (water, energy, food, etc.) and utilizes techniques to live sustainably. Permaculture has a fundamental understanding of ecology and nature, such as concepts of niche, biodiversity, climate, soil, and watersheds. Designs follows listed guidelines (ranging from 4-40, depending on the publication), and include things like choosing elements that have multiple functions, design for resilience, and mimic nature.

There are many ways that permaculture principles can be implemented into the garden. On my homestead, some of the permaculture concepts I’ve utilized include earthworks, rainwater catchment systems, sheet mulching, tree guilds and growing perennial edible crops. Other common principles seen in residential scale are building with cobb (a natural clay/straw medium), spiral gardens, food forests, keyhole gardens and anything that “stacks functions”.

An example of stacking functions: my chicken run roof both collects rainwater and shades my curing garlic.
An example of stacking functions: my chicken run roof both collects rainwater and shades my curing garlic.

Biointensive Gardening is a method that maximizes yield while increasing fertility of the soil. This is achieved by a very specific technique of soil preparation called double-digging. This concept, sometimes also called the French Biodynamic Method was brought to the US by Alan Chadwick, and made popular though the amazing Chadwick Garden at my alma-mater, UCSC. Biointensive gardening also implement plant rotations, close spacing, and compost, compost, compost. Biointensive methods are often used in smale-scale sustainable agriculture, but can work in a home vegetable plot just as well.

In my mom's garden, she gets immense yields from her double-dug beds that are regularly amended with compost.
In my mom’s garden, she gets immense yields from her double-dug beds that are regularly amended with compost.

Square-Foot Gardening is relatively new to the gardening method club, and was invented by a civil engineer. It follows a very specific technique of using a 4′ by 4′ raised bed and the planting space in specific 1′ by 1′ areas. A variety of plants are then grown, but each has its own square, within the bed, and spaced according to the method’s guidelines. You can find out more about square-foot gardening on it’s website here. While I have not used the square foot method exactly, I do plant close together, and grow multiple varieties in one space.

multi crops in one bed
Last year’s summer garden beds were a mix of closely planted sunflowers, zinnia, dill, squash, beans, tomatoes and nasturtium. Pretty sure there was some basil in there, too.

Three Sisters, Companion Planting, & Planting Guilds are all very similar methods, and are based on the theory of beneficial relationships amongst plants. The Three Sisters is a well known one: beans, corn and squash are planted together. The beans fix nitrogen, the corn provides a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash shades the ground to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Another common example is growing basil with tomatoes, to improve the tomatoes’ flavor and help ward off diseases.

Marigolds are a popular companion plant, as they are believed to discourage nematodes.
Marigolds are a popular companion plant, as they are believed to discourage nematodes.

Ecological Gardening may not be an official gardening method, but its what I use to describe how I garden. I mix and match practices from all sorts of gardening styles, but always under one theory: my garden is as much for me as it is for the nature and the earth. I let seed heads and “dead stuff” stand for the birds. I plant flowers for both bees and insects, and let veggies bolt for flush of flowers. I keep water available for the birds, the bees and the bugs. I keep piles of rocks and sticks for insect habitat. As a result, I’m surrounded by nature at all times, which makes my heart sing and my soul nourished. sunflower headscosmomantis on sunflowerbee on radishsunflower seeds

Is there a gardening method that I forgot? How do you garden? Please leave me a comment below! Remember, you don’t need an account, just an email to ensure you’re not a robot. I love hearing from you!