Getting to Mow You…

“…getting to mow all about you”. While the diesel engine rattling along our grassy hills was hardly the Sound of Music it was nice to be able to knock down the grass and continue building our pasture without having to borrow or rent.

Since L had gone down a day before me to take delivery she also took it upon herself to break it in and begin mowing.

 

…and in 5 foot swaths it took 16 hours to do. Why mow at this great expense? Until we have animals on the pasture doing the job we want to maintain the pasture. Leaving 6 inches of grass in place ensures we don’t have much root shear and actually encourages grass and forb growth that evolved with massive herds munching them seasonally. It discourages plants like thistles and bear grass which really can’t manage getting hacked repeatedly. Cutting long grass puts down a decent amount of organic matter too, so it helps rebuild soil that has been depleted by years of haying.

It rained while we were mowing putting our fancy sun shade – rain shade to the test. It kept us surprisingly dry.

I also scythed several truck loads of canary grass to mulch our garden beds. We may be the only people in the world who see that tough invasive grass as a resource.

With all the mowing and scything, and pitching and spreading we were pretty tuckered out by the end. On the trip home we blearily discussed timing and order of our digging projects.

New tools mean more work.

 

Posted in Farm Machines, Mulch, Permaculture, Preparing the land, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Truck Unloader-ator

We picked up a new gadget at Harbor Freight the other day after a neighbor mentioned it. For the price, we figured it was worth a shot.

Worked great for chips, a little less so with our long canary grass which tended to wrap around the roll as it came off.  Logs need to be pulled away from the wheel well indents so they don’t hang up on the wheel wells. I am pretty confident it will work just as easily with gravel. We are keeping our fingers crossed for dairy cow poo which is a smelly, hour long and back breaking chore to get out of the truck bed. The hour long part might be made easier… smelly is just the price of high quality nutrient in our compost piles.

I’ll update this post with the poo video after the weekend, but I recommend you finish your lunch before watching. :-)

Posted in Tools | Tagged | 6 Comments

Does That Come in Blaze Orange?

Blue skies, 68 degrees, a beautiful day to weed whack around the fruit trees on the swale at the top of the hill. I was at the farm by myself  weekend before last as M needed to stay home to finish putting the Land Cruiser back together after fixing an electrical problem.

After I finished weed whacking, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and snapped a shot to text M. I like to keep him apprised of my progress lest he think I’m out here sipping mint juleps on the veranda [that we don't have yet].
As I walked down the hill back towards the camp trailer, I remembered there were some native lupines I wanted to make sure didn’t get cut down when we mow the fields (I’m saving the seed to sow in the food forests as they are nitrogen fixers). I traversed back and forth trying to remember where I had seen the lupines before the grasses took over. My how things had grown in just the last week! I found several lupines and whacked a wide area around each one so they would be easy to spot from the tractor [that we don't have yet].
I continued on down the hill, went straight to the shed and put the weed whacker away. I reached into my pocket for my phone to text M the picture and IT WASN’T THERE!
I could not figure out how my phone could have fallen out of my pocket – I was wearing cargo pants with super deep pockets and there were no holes. I went up and down that hill at least twenty times trying to retrace my steps. I also went back and forth along the swale and even retraced steps I was sure I had taken before I had snapped the picture. After two hours of searching, I jumped in the truck to find a neighbor so I could use their phone to call M at home and have him call my cellphone about a zillion times as I retraced my steps yet again.
No answer on his cell phone. No answer on the home phone. I left messages, but all I could hope for was that he’d get the message right away and start calling my phone as I didn’t want to stand in the middle of the field (it’s about 3 acres) wondering if he was trying to call or not. To add insult to injury – we have very poor cell reception at the farm, so even if he did call my phone might not even ring.
Can you see it?

Do you see it?

My neighbor didn’t have a cell phone, but said his wife would be back in about an hour and she had one. Not too long after that they showed up and we tried a few spots, but got nothing. They insisted on leaving their cell phone with me because they didn’t want me to be by myself without some way to call for help in the event of an emergency. It sure is nice to have good neighbors who barely now you [yet] and still care about you. After they left I retraced my steps calling my cell phone every 10 feet straining to hear that tune my phone plays. Nothing.
I finally got a hold of M later that evening and he said he’d try the cell phone locater feature. Once it locates the device it sends you an email.  By this time it was 930 pm, dark, I hadn’t eaten anything, and the neighbors cell battery was just about to give out. Luckily the phone charger we keep in the truck fit the neighbors phone. So I had to call it a night and hope that the phone locator service provided a location with enough accuracy that I could actually find it.
M called at 11:00 am the next morning when he received the cell locater email. It’s a satellite picture showing the location within 20-30 feet, but I can’t receive it so he has to describe it to me over the phone. It sounded like the area I had been focused on, so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled all over that area combing through the grasses. Still nothing. I hiked back down the hill and grabbed a rake. I combed through everything again. Nothing.
satellite image of phone location

objects may appear larger than they are

I hiked back down yet again and brought the weed whacker back up to cut a wider swath. I cut all the way to the ground. NOTHING!  aaarrrggghhhh. I also brought up a shovel and poked around in the swale (which has filled up with water from the pond overflow). Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Do you see it now?

Do you see it now?

At this point I’d spent the better part of the weekend looking for my stupid phone so I called off the search, returned the neighbors phone and got back to work.  Despite the unproductive time spent searching in vain, I shoveled out a truck load of cow manure building up 4 x 8 compost pile, emptied five 5 gallon buckets of chick manure into another compost pile, washed those buckets out, weed whacked all around the camp trailer and equipment shed (not to mention the weed whacking around the fruit trees that started this whole fiasco), sowed more seed on the hugels, peeled logs and scrubbed them down with a borax solution to kill the mold, and pruned the deadwood off of the fruit and nut trees.
******************************************************
The following weekend with M and the satellite picture in tow, we headed down to the farm. M is the finder of lost things. He has found rings on the side of the road that flew off of my fingers while pulling off a glove riding on the back of his motorcycle (more than once), so he was pretty sure he was up to the task.  Of course, within ten minutes he found it. and of course it was but a couple of feet from where I stopped the whacking and searching.  Talk about a bittersweet moment.  I was thrilled he found it as I, being the finance manager on the team, didn’t want to have to spend the money to replace my smartypants phone, but ding dang it – I spent hours and hours looking for the darn thing and it was literally right in front me.  What’s that saying – if it had been a snake it woulda bit me.
WP_20140517_006
M marched back down to the tool shed and a little while later presented me with this
I guess orange IS the new black

I guess orange IS the new black

He paints his tools with blaze orange paint so he can easily spot them in the grass.  Smarty pants.
WP_20140517_008
Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Tractor Factor

We have been hemming and hawing about getting a tractor for over a year. There are projects galore we could use one on. Rototilling, digging ponds and swales and trenches for water and sewage lines, turning our massive compost piles, moving drainage rock, and getting the last nine logs we harvested in September under cover. We need to mow now before it gets too tall to do it in a single pass.

We don’t have a flatbed trailer either which complicates things.

Risk of breaking down and the threat of another project has kept us out of used and inexpensive tractors. I don’t need another mechanical project, I have quite a few and they are no longer relaxing. They are gumption blockers that feel like emergency quick fixes and just add to the pile of anxiety and get in the way of getting things done.

I would love to have the time and mechanical skill to get an old Ford or Massey Ferguson. I would also love to convince myself that a subcompact 25-27 hp could do the job. We’ve been looking at 30-35 hp models with enough weight to pull a subsoiler and carry a 20ft log safely, the difference in price is significant, and that eats into money earmarked for home construction which I know we have underestimated.

The allure of a shiny new package deal is strong. Warrantied and cared for properly is a big deal. Buying used has the looming specter of a tractor that might look good, but was “rode hard and put away wet”.

Backhoe
Yeah we have a lot of digging to do. 600 ft of well line, 300 feet of septic line, ponds, ponds, ponds. Swales might be doable with a loader bucket but only with a bigger tractor. We could rent a ditch witch. If we stuck with a big name brand we could dig until we are done and sell the backhoe.

P1020082

Magpie at the “pondle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grapple
Having had a friend’s Bobcat with a grapple we have found it invaluable for limbs, logs, and turning compost. Given the amount of selective logging and small road clearing we will be doing for years to come, this has moved high on our must have list.

skidsteer

Loader
Dirt, back blading, cheater swale digging, gravel moving, feed lifting, and just to use as a counter weight with pulling a disc or plow or subsoiler. This is a non-negotiable integral part of the tractor for us.

Mower
Needs a stump jumper, and having enough cutting power to get through two inch debris is important. Clutches and shear pins help keep the shaft and moving parts from breaking when things get bogged down. We need to mow down to 6″ to drop grasses down to add organic matter to the soil and not damage roots.

Buying New
So not wanting another project and not finding a used tractor that was significantly cheaper than new, we started digging deeper into new tractors. We looked at Deere, Kubota, Mahindra, Branson, Jinma, and Bobcat. Evenings were spent comparing tractor specs and crunching numbers.

After more than a year we finally made a decision. The Kioti CK30. I wish we didn’t have to use a tractor, but I’m glad we finally have one.

Posted in Compost, Farm Machines, Homesteading, Preparing the land, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

You Say Raised Bed and I say Hugelkultur

You say tomato and I say tomater. Sing along with me now…

Since building the hugelkultur beds was somewhat of an unplanned event (we were trying to take advantage of having use of the trackhoe and skid steer), I didn’t have a planting plan for them. With it being the middle of winter they couldn’t be planted out anyway. And then before you know it early spring arrived and I still didn’t have long term planting plan worked out.

6011092846638667298_jpg

Not wanting the pasture grasses and weeds to take over, I needed to get something growing on them asap.  I had cover crop seeds I purchased last fall but was unable to get them sown when the barn construction was delayed, so in early March I sowed them in the zone 1 area along with Alsike and Ladino clovers, a mix of mustards, buckwheat and daikon radish. I sowed clovers, mustards and daikon on top of the hugels along with some fava beans.

Clovers coming in and a "creative event" (bird poop = phosphorous)

Clovers and daikon coming in plus a “creative event” (bird poop = nitrogen and phosphorous)

Since I had a lot of potatoes left over from the harvest last fall, I also planted them in the hugels in late March.

WP_20140329_001

What a mucky, messy job to do in the rain.

WP_20140329_002

I was surprised at how many potatoes I still had on hand as I originally only planted 40 pounds of seed potato last year. These are the varieties and yields from the harvest last fall:

German Butterballs – planted 10 lbs/yielded 65 lbs
French Fingerlings – planted 5 lbs/yielded 27.5 lbs
La Ratte Fingerlings – planted 5 lbs/yielded 57.5 lbs
Yellow Finn – planted 5 lbs/yielded 18.5 lbs
Yukon Gold – planted 5 lbs/yielded 22 lbs
Rio Grande Russets – planted 10 lbs/yielded 46 lbs

I started out with 40 lbs and ended up with 236.5 lbs. While not HUGE yields, keep in mind I used the dry gardening method (from Steve Solomon’s book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades) which yields smaller numbers of tubers but a much more nutrient dense potato than those grown commercially with lots and lots of water. You space farther apart between potatoes as well as rows. Since they are planted in spring when we get lots of rain, they get off to a good start, then they are on their own after that. Mulching after you are done hilling up really helps. If you think about where potatoes originated – in the Andes where it is a very dry, cool mountain climate -  they are able to forage for water quite well. Steve Solomon founded the Territorial Seed Company, sold it in 1985 and now lives in Tasmania where he continues to write gardening books.

I planted more seed potato in the hugels this year than I started out with last year AND I still have a lot of potatoes leftover, despite the fact we have eaten more potatoes this past year than ever before. Most of what was left at the time of planting the hugels were pretty shriveled and soft with lots of sprouts, but I have at least 15 pounds in pretty good shape that we are currently eating. They are quite surprisingly very flavorful even if they aren’t the most attractive potatoes in the bin. They beat a store bought spud hands down. Although I won’t be hilling the potatoes on the hugels or watering them, I expect to get enough potatoes to keep us in spuds until next spring.

To fill in the rest of the hugels, last week I sowed small sugar pumpkin, pink banana, sugar hubbard, crookneck and zucchini squash seed. With the two hugels being about 220 feet long combined and sowing the seeds at different levels on the slope, that works out to be 220 row feet of potatoes and 440 row feet of squash! Too bad I’m the only squash fan in the house.  I really just wanted to get as much coverage on the hugels as possible and since I had a lot of squash seed from previous years leftover plus saved seeds from the four gigantic pink banana squash our good friends S & J gave us last fall – I thought that should do the trick. If we have an over-abundance of  squash that actually ripen, we will donate them to local charities/organizations that could use them, give them to friends, share some with the chickens and I’m sure the wonderful lady we get our Tamworth pork from would be happy to feed some to her hogs.

The idea behind burying the wood in hugelkultur beds is that the wood will soak up moisture holding it in the soil and slowly releasing it as the woody material breaks down, providing the plants with long term access to nutrients and adding amazing amounts of organic matter to the soil.  This works well for us given we are only able to get to the farm on weekends and especially because the possums ripped out and chewed up our drip irrigation lines last fall. Those little rascals…

5926936348409591154_jpg

Posted in Crops, Gardening, Permaculture, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Deer-B-Gone

While doing our best to live with the wildlife it is still rattling to see our long term investment in fruit trees nibbled beyond recognition. In some ways it is our fault, our first swale and subsequently first row of trees starts in a deer path.  Had we spent a little more time observing the property before planting we may have noticed it.  We did pile up brush fences on the southern border to deter them and in some places it made a difference. We also liberally doused trees with Plantskydd with limited success. The new and somewhat noisy ram pump  is right where the deer come through the heaviest, and that and some mint might help too. I liberally “mark my territory” up there as well.

But now we have gotten out the big guns (not really, I am waiting for hunting season for that one).   Bone sauce is what I am talking about.

Following Sepp Holzer’s famous recipe, here is how it is supposed to work. Gather some bones. BBQ and cooked work best we are told, avoid raw and sun dried (no juice left in the dried). Magpie was happy to donate her ABC bones (“already been chewed”).

WP_20140322_008 P1010800

Cook them in a pair of cast iron dutch ovens sealing the lip with clay, the bones suspended in the top kettle using a piece of hardware cloth and a cup of water in the bottom.

WP_20140322_005 WP_20140322_004

The fire on top should roast the bones and steam from the water helps extract the nasty goo.

WP_20140322_009

They smelled about as good as they looked. yuck

They smelled about as good as they look. Yuck.

Mix with linseed oil and some fine sand then paint it on your trees. I added some cayenne pepper for good measure.

WP_20140413_012

We’ll see if it works. If not, it is time to fence.

Posted in Forest Management, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tree Care | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Respect Your Alders

There are lots of trees in the forest, but I have been having a growing love for red alder, alnus rubra. In the Pacific Northwest it is considered a weed tree. It is a fast growing pioneer, and one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers.

Soil:
Without a lot of help these guys will transform a soggy soil into something fertile enough for “real” timber growth. They lay down a thick layer of humus with fallen leaves and branches and can rid the soil of bad fungus by just growing and falling in place. Once the tree falls all those nitrogen nodules on the roots slow release fertilizer at the root zone for the next stage of the forest to take advantage of. Fallen trees soak up tons of water and keep the forest moist in the dry season.

We have a lot of uses for these on the farm and at the house.

Firewood:
Clean burning and fast curing I can safely drop a tree in spring and with a little care have bone dry firewood by the beginning of the season. They aren’t as dense as fir but don’t gunk up the chimney as fast with creosote. They look great in the wood pile too. Best of all they are super easy to split. I don’t even need to stand them on end save for the really big rounds. I can drop a tree, buck and split it with an axe in less than a day.

Freshly split and stacked alder

Chips:
Alder chippings are fantastic for orcharding. We save the thinnest branches for this and prefer to harvest them when they are just starting to leaf out. These ramial chips have a lot of nutrition that promotes soil health and good fungi. We use it to keep the pasture grass at bay around our plantings and it holds moisture incredibly well. We have filled our first swale with wind fall logs and branches to create a giant sponge effect near our precious fruit trees too. While alder doesn’t coppice well I have noticed that when a live tree falls the upward branches begin to sprout into mini trees and the parts that are in contact with the soil begin to change into roots. I think I can use this to our advantage to promote more of the little twigs and limbs we want without sacrificing entire trees.

You can see the mass of mycelium in the old chips

We plan on using the sponge effect in the bases of our raised beds too.

Bark:

I have always been drawn to the deep red inner bark that stains the logs orange, and then it occurred to me after it stained a shirt I was wearing while hauling out logs from a thinning project that it would make a great dye. Native Americans knew this and used it to dye their fishing nets. This year I pulled as much bark off as I could to speed the drying process and to leave some nutrients in place where the tree was harvested. I saved some to boil and make dye.

Dye from 3 gallons of inner bark, ready to use

Sap:
I have read that alders can be tapped like a maple and that the water is flavorful and once reduced makes a tasty syrup. This is on my list of experiments for next spring.

Woodworking:
Though not suitable for outdoor use or contact with water this soft hardwood is great for cabinets, interior doors and trim. It is easy to work with and it’s habit of self pruning in close stands makes for a virtually knot free wood. When it does burl it is beautiful and the few boards to have ripped with a chainsaw look very nice. We intend to saw some of the bigger logs for finish work in our future home.

Pollen:
This time of year everything is covered with a fine layer of bright green pollen. To us it is two things. Airborne nitrogen and bee fodder. A friend of mine gave me some alder honey and it is scrumptious. Luckily I’m not allergic to alder pollen, when the grass is in bloom it is another, sneezier story. You can bet that when we keep bees there will be a few hives in our alder stands.

Medicinal:
This falls under the “I don’t know, but I’ve been told” category. Antiseptic properties and tumor reduction are touted, but I’ll let you do your own research on that one.

Downsides:
Large trees are prone to splitting when felling. This is pretty dangerous but avoidable two ways. For trees I feel are at risk I use a bore cut and open notch to prevent a barber chair. Trunks can also be wrapped with logging chain.

 

 

 

Guidance for felling can be found on the OSHA site.

In a windstorm you want to be far away from alders. Large upper branches can rocket down like a spear. We’ve come across them believing they were small trees they had plunged so deeply in the ground. Tops snap off and whole trees can topple over.

When the crown breaks it is just a matter of time before the tree succumbs to heart rot. The wood gets punky fast, so I have been trying to salvage leaners and snapped top trees before they are too hazardous to take down.

All things considered, these “weeds” are pretty awesome.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Forest Management, Mulch, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tree Care | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments