Therapeutic Cedar Rails

Not long ago we had to take down a big cedar in our yard. It had heart rot and had begun to split in two. Since it was a dangerous tree we had a professional take it down in 12 foot sections and planned to use it for posts in our chicken paddocks at the farm.

Having just returned from Kansas for a family emergency my boss graciously suggested I take the day. Getting into our damp forest has always made me feel whole again, somehow fulfilled, and today it made all the difference. Heart rot. Not far from the reason I went to visit family. Even more appropriate was taking this destruction and death and turning it into something useful. It is useful for us, and the time in the woods was useful for me.


Leap frogging the wedges and methodically following the grain of the log traced the tree’s growth over the years. From a sapling in crowded alder regrowth to the apex species and canopy dominator it truly is. The smell of it and the damp humus made me think of childhood adventures and the physical effort helped put some of the brooding from the previous week behind me.


I left my drawknife at the farm but my froe and a hatchet cleaned up the rails nicely. I thought of Abraham Lincoln splitting black locust for rail road tracks. My cedar would make someone from those days laugh if I called it much of an effort. Locust is dense and hard and this cedar splits so easily.

While these don’t look that pretty, they will do nicely for our temporary posts. A little rot is OK with me since in 5-6 years the black locust we are planting in the fence lines will be big enough to take over the burden. In the end making something from this mess, finding something positive in the cycle of destruction and rebirth seems fine too.

Posted in Chickens, Construction, Forest Management, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tools, Tree Care | 3 Comments

The Asparagus Guild

I grew asparagus from seed and planted it out in my raised beds here at home last year with the plan to dig the crowns and transplant plant them in a prepared bed out at the farm. Unfortunately I planted the seedlings out too soon last spring and it seems I lost most of them to a late frost.

I do have a wee bit of hope there will be more survivors after reading something Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, wrote about his early asparagus experiences. I can’t remember where I read it (maybe in his book?) or the exact details, but apparently he planted a bunch of asparagus – it didn’t come up and he wrote it off as a loss, but the following year – boom! – the asparagus came up in full flush.   I propagated 200 seeds – planted out at least 160 or more seedlings, but saw only about 20 -30 plants survive the frost. Keep your fingers crossed…

The plan is to plant them out in one of the contour beds in zone two we initially prepared a couple of years ago and grew potatoes in. We have since been building that clay soil up with compost, straw mulch and spoiled haylage, so I hope the asparagus will be happy in their new home. Having said that – with the mild winter and unseasonably warm temps in the last two weeks I may have missed my window of opportunity to dig them up while still dormant. Little spears are popping up everywhere. I can’t find anywhere in my research whether or not it would be a bad idea to dig them now or if I should wait until they go dormant this fall. Anyone out there have any advice for me? I wasn’t planning on harvesting anything for another year or so anyway.

The plan is to plant the asparagus amongst fruit trees and other plants in beds we prepared a few years ago and grew potatoes in. There are five of these beds on contour ranging 80 ft to 90 ft long.  I will be planting about five fruit trees in each. I want to design a guild of plants in this space that complement each other not only visually, but by their contributions to us, their companions and most importantly – the soil.  As we plant out the rest of the contour beds this will become more of a food forest.

M sketched this up for me while I prepared dinner the other night. It shows the different layers above and below the ground in the first bed we will plant. I wish I had his mad drawing skills…


  • Asparagus – perennial food source.  The stalks and ferns will die back to the ground providing organic matter and mulch for the soil
  • Globe Artichokes  – besides being another delicious perennial source of food I think they will help hold up the asparagus ferns later in the season. The dying stalks will serve as a “chop and drop” mulch in the fall breaking down and adding organic matter to the soil
  • Sunflowers – like the artichokes they will help keep the asparagus ferns from falling over, add beauty and provide a food/seed source. Being an annual, when they die back not only will they provide mulch material in the fall, the roots will also die out building organic matter in the soil. With its deep roots it is considered a dynamic accumulator drawing up calcium, manganese, iron and zinc from the subsoil
  • Lemon Catmint – mints are an insectary plant that attract beneficial insects. Its roots  accumulate potassium and sulfur. I have a lot of seed that needs to be used up and I think it smells great
  • Strawberry Clover – a perennial ground cover that will serve as a living mulch holding moisture in and fixing nitrogen as the plant cycles. It accumulates phosphorus. I’ve read the strawberry variety isn’t as invasive as red or white perennial clovers.
  • Rhubarb – another tasty perennial food source. I think the leaves will add a nice contrast to the asparagus ferns – the eyes gotta eat too – and when the leaves die out they will become mulch
  • Parsley – perennial, edible, herbaceous plant that is a dynamic accumulator of potassium, calcium, manganese and iron. Since you don’t harvest the roots, this should grow fine with the asparagus. Any deep rooted vegetables or herbs that have to be dug up to harvest are not a good companion for asparagus. You don’t want to disturb asparagus roots.
  • Strawberries – delicious fruits and a nice ground cover. I read somewhere that the asparagus ferns help camouflage the berries from the birds.
Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Sustainability, Tree Care | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Perennial Plantings

I just placed my order for more apple trees to replace those lost learning a hard lesson  and I am working up our schedule for planting them along with a bunch of native bareroot trees and shrubs I ordered a couple of months ago from our local Conservation District Plant Sale:

  • 25 Pacific Dogwood – these will be planted as understory trees to the Red Alder and Douglas Fir in our woodlot along the edges that can be seen from our future home

  • 20 Pacific Willow – these will be planted in the swampy area adjacent to the road as you enter our property

  • 10 Pacific Crabapple – these too will be planted along the road near the willows and may later be used as rootstock for future apple trees

  • 10 Blue Elderberry – my earlier attempts to propagate from seed failed so I ordered seedlings. Half will be planted near our silt pond and half planted along the west end of our curtain drain slope

  • 3 White Oak – just because I still dream of the oak savannah properties we looked at in Oregon years ago when we first started our farm quest.  They will be beautiful replacements for some of the many Douglas Firs we have dotted about the property which will be harvestable by the time the oaks need the space.  The oaks will eventually provide a pannage crop for pigs, albeit a long time from now.
    They will be underplanted with hazelnuts and raspberries – crops we will see sooner than acorns.


M sketched this up on a piece of grocery bag while he was in Palo Alto, CA last week for work. I’m glad he took a photo of it since he left the original in the airport!  I like to think someone found it, framed it and hung it up on their wall. I would have.

So if you do the math, that’s almost 100 trees/shrubs to dig holes for. It sounds like A LOT – and my back will tell you it is – but we have planted 200 trees at a time out there and it wasn’t even a drop in the bucket.  Scale gets us every time. It makes sense why a good permaculturist will tell you to focus on Zone 1 first and then expand out from there. We are trying to stick to that tenant but getting the perennials in sooner rather than later seems to override our common sense at times. I think it is because of our age.

On top of the trees that are going to arrive in the next two weeks I still have tons of potted trees, shrubs, vines and herbs I propagated from seed last year  waiting to be planted out at the farm. Well, at least I resisted the temptation of the zillions of tantalizing seed catalogs that filled my mailbox this winter… Which is good because I also just went through my saved seed inventory and realized I have a whole heck of a lot of seed that should be used before it is no longer viable.

Where am I going to put it all?  I need that greenhouse… and now that I think of it – it’s in Zone 1!

Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Tree Care | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Hard Lessons

This is one of those posts I’m loathe to publish because it highlights a failure on our part. Although it is embarrassing, it is part of “our journey” and the never-ending learning curve, so hopefully someone else out there reading about our experience will not make the same mistake we did.

One of the permaculturists we admire is an Austrian by the name of Sepp Holzer. He is rather outspoken and quite knowledgeable – a self-taught” permaculturalist. We have one of his books in our library, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture,  in which he discusses a home-brewed deer repellent he calls “bone sauce”. We brewed up a batch and blogged about it here last year as our fruit trees were being heavily munched by deer. The book describes it rather vaguely but it gets discussed ALOT on so we read through countless discussions to make sure we had the recipe and procedures down before we proceeded to whip up a batch.

I’m sad to report that the trees have not been doing so well. At first we didn’t attribute it to the bone sauce, but then read someone else’s later account on that if you applied it too late during the dormant season you could end up burning the emerging buds and so we thought maybe we had cut it too close on the timing.  When later in the year several of the apple trees had mushrooms growing out of their trunks, we knew something had gone very, very wrong.

Out of fourteen fruit trees we applied the bone sauce to at least five or six are dead and several others have a lot of dead branches. There is a glimmer of hope though as they appear to have new growth. Only time (and pruning) will tell if they are going to come out of it okay.


While recently listening to a Permaculture Voices podcast interview with Zach Weiss, (a permaculture consultant in Montana who works closely with Sepp Holzer) we learned that you definitely DO NOT paint it all over the trees or you will kill them. He advised that you “get your Jackson Pollock on” and just splatter a bit with a paint brush.

WHOA! What? We never read anywhere that a little dab will do ya.  We are not blaming anyone but ourselves for wondering how to apply it and just assuming you paint the whole trunk with it. Talk about a hard lesson, a bitter pill, sour grapes…. Blerg! Not only are we out a lot of trees, but now we have lost three years of growing time. Ouch!

If it wasn’t so painful for me, you’d see a picture of one of the poor, mushroom-encased dead trees in this space. The caption would read “Another example of why more is not always better”.

Another new piece of information [to us] was shared by Weiss in the podcast – use raw bones as it is the marrow that makes the sauce work. When we wrote our previous post we were under the impression cooked bones were better… Apparently more thorough  research needs to be done before attempting bone sauce in the future. I read today that someone else did share this information on, but noted it was posted several months after we had concocted our bone sauce.

Just goes to show you that you don’t know what you don’t know. The curse of the newbie…





Posted in Permaculture, Tree Care | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Roll Out the Mulch

West of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest farmers make haylage instead of hay. You’ve seen those gigantic marshmallow looking things in fields and stacked high in dairies. It’s wet enough that waiting for dry weather can be like rolling dice. Haylage is like sour kraut for cows, it gets pickled as the damp grass stays sealed over the seasons. It smells pickley too. Inevitably people miscalculate how much they need or some spoils and if you are lucky they might just give it away. We use them for mulch.

Haylage bales aka marshmallows

We scored two bales, all our truck could carry. One bale nicely covers a four foot wide bed and gives about 180 ft of coverage. Nice mulch if you can get it.

This bale was soaking wet and it took both of us to roll it out – but someone had to take the action shot!

We are happily taking truckloads of organic cow poo to the farm again. We chatted about business plans while pitching pies and mixing in carbon. No pic of that but you know the process. :-)

Posted in Gardening, Homesteading, Mulch, Permaculture, Preparing the land, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Small Flock Management



The Flock

Our chicken flock currently consists of twelve birds – one rooster and eleven hens. We started out with six each straight-run Buff Orpingtons and Barnevelders purchased from a local farm  about four years ago. We let one or two of the girls go broody every so often to hatch out a few new chicks and harvest all of our cockerels for the dinner table – except for one, our resident rooster Jose’. We’ve lost four of the original hens to predators and illness over the years, but somehow we have kept it at twelve birds. Currently we have eight  Barnevelders: Jose’, Dahlia, Phoebe, Hazel, Sweet Pea, Esme and Zippy (she’s super fast!). Buff Orpingtons: Miss Violet and Margaret Hatcher. Barnevelder/Buff crosses: Goldie Hen, Grace and Retta.

These birds live at our home and are a backyard flock. I do sell their surplus eggs to friends about eight months of the year which helps some with the cost of feed.  We have learned many lessons along the way and will have to develop new or at least modified systems once we start raising meat and egg birds on a larger scale at the farm. These are very spoiled birds. I enjoy their company immensely and hope to still be able to provide the same “standard of living” for our future flocks at the farm.


I feed them a locally grown, organic, non-gmo, soy and corn free layer mash. Although called a mash – it is mostly whole grains. Oyster shell and granite grit are offered free choice. They get all of the edible kitchen scraps and garden leftovers, as well as all of the wild berries (red and black huckleberries, salmon berries, salal berries) they can forage. I also grow fresh green fodder for them as we do not really have any “pasture” here at the house and very little grass. I call them chicken strips.  I was inspired by an ad I saw from Farmtek for the Fodder-Pro systems and thought I could do something similar but on a much smaller scale.

I use a cover crop mix (Austrian winter peas, wheat, ryegrain, ryegrass and crimson clover) to which I add flax seeds. I grow them with a couple of scoops of my compost in drip trays from a bunch of old plastic rectangular planter boxes.  In my propagation room I have metal shelves and lights set up for my seed starting so in the fall and winter when they are not in use, I grow the chicken strips in there. They take 10-12 days from start to finish.

After about 4 days

After 1 week


After about 10 days


Just “peel and eat”

I grow them all year since we are gone most weekends working down on the farm and I like to toss a few strips into their coop before we go.

They eat the whole thing – shoots, roots and un-germinated seeds. Super delicious and nutritious!

My plant propagation room is set up in our daylight basement mud room that also houses our deep freeze. The exhaust from the deep freeze keeps the room in the 55 – 60 degree range during the winter, so a lot of seeds germinate and grow pretty readily without having to add extra heat. I do keep a small oscillating fan running year around to keep mold and mildew at bay.  I also have heat mats but don’t need them very often for the chicken strips.


In the spring and summer I just grow them on the railing of my deck.

In the spring and summer I just grow them on the railing of my deck.

The Coop

We specifically designed the coop to be large enough to give the birds plenty of room to move around while we are down working at the farm. It is 8′ x 12′ with an open air design to allow them plenty of fresh air and ventilation.   The roosting area is mostly enclosed to keep them warm in the winter and draft free at night.

Never mind the bit of mildew on the roost doors – it IS the middle of our wet winter… Everything gets a thorough cleaning once the rains start to taper off. The logs to the left are still waiting to be split from the tree felling a few months ago. That is an old piece of decking material laying on top of the temporarily displaced logs.


The view from inside

The feeders hang from the ceiling in the event we ever have a rodent invasion.  It also keeps them from pooping in their feed or knocking the feeders over. The pie tins are there to deter any roosting on top of the feeders. The “poop-free” watering system  is accessible from inside (the black line from the white bucket on the right in the background) as well as outside (black line from the white bucket on the right in the fore-ground). The rolled up hardware cloth (center to the left of the ramp) allows me to close off a section of the coop when we have a broody with chicks.

We use a hamster waterer for the chicks since the “nursery” section doesn’t have access to the regular waterers, but it works the same as the chicken nipples and they learn right off the bat how to operate them. I can also easily lower and raise them to the appropriate height since they just clip onto the hardware cloth.

The water bucket and hoses are wrapped with heat tape and attached to a thermostat that turns it on when the temps get close to freezing. The hoses that hook up to the waterers are now wrapped with foam insulation and taped to keep the birds from pecking at the foam. This we learned the hard way…

The open air areas are covered in 1/4″ hardware cloth to provide lots of fresh air and it also does a good job of keeping rodents out. The foundation is several inches of gravel topped by several inches of sand and doubled up layers of chicken wire nailed to the framing. The hardware cloth also comes down and is folded over the framing to keep rodents from digging in from underneath. On top of the chicken wire is a couple of feet of straw that I “freshen up” every couple of days. Even though we live in a very wet climate nine months of the year, it is the driest coop you will ever encounter! It never smells bad either except when the birds kick their feed outside. When it rains hard, the smell of fermenting chicken feed – no matter how organic – is not the most appetizing smell.

With the roosting area doors open you can see the nest boxes and roosts. The roosts themselves are made from branches with the bark peeled off, offering them a more natural grip.

There are LED rope lights hung about the coop and set on a timer to provide extra lighting. Not necessarily to keep them laying all winter (which most of them don’t) but mainly because we have VERY short days in the winter and we are very shaded under those 100’+ trees. The rope lights work great because they aren’t a glaring light, the fire hazard is minimal and the lights don’t get caked with dust, not to mention the energy savings.

The coop is sited under a couple of cedars, so even in the summer it stays pretty cool, but the window over the nest boxes gets propped open on those rare hot summer nights. It too is covered in hardware cloth so no one can sneak in at night.


I keep several inches of wood chips all around their coop to keep the mud at bay. Daily I clean the bedding under their roost and pick up anything I happen to see in front of the entrance to the coop. This helps to keep the eggs cleaner.  The nest boxes are accessible from outside and the two large doors on the side make cleaning under the roosts a breeze.  I fill empty feed bags (they are heavy duty paper bags) with the soiled bedding and haul them down to the farm to toss into a large compost pile I’m building near one of the planned gardens. The bags are biodegradable so I can just toss them wholesale onto the heap. Once a year I take out about 75% of the bedding material from the coop and add it to our compost piles or spread directly in the garden.

I rake up leaves or collect bags of them from neighbors and toss them into the run. They love to scratch around in the huge piles. They do a nice job of shredding them, which then eventually gets scooped back up into the wheelbarrow to add to the compost heaps. Ideally – and we will definitely do this at the farm – they’d have ready access to compost piles from their run so I wouldn’t have to haul so much around, but our property here at the house is sloped and winding, plus heavily wooded making it more difficult to fence or to have good access to flat areas where this would be ideal.


The coop is enclosed with electronet fencing that we run on a solar charger. Solar conditions at the house are not optimal so I do occasionally have to plug it into an outlet in the tool shed to charge it back up during the winter months when the sun makes a very brief appearance over the tall trees surrounding the house and coop.


Their run is a nice woodland setting for them to hang out in, but when I am home (which is most of the time except for weekends at the farm) I open up the electronet and let the chickens forage in the forest edges and my gardens when they are dormant.  When I am growing veg I have to get creative about blocking them from accessing those areas. Magpie (our dog) does an excellent job of making sure the chickens are (1) safe from any would be predators lurking in the woods, and (2) that they stay together. She gets pretty upset when any of them stray and chases them back towards the flock. She will not accept no as an answer. She runs the perimeter of our property the whole time they are free-ranging to ensure their safety. Magpie takes her job pretty seriously.

We have a lot of scaling up to do once we get to the farm, but in the meantime we are collecting ideas and planning out how to manage more birds more efficiently, all the while managing other livestock, orchards and the market gardens.



Posted in Chickens, Compost, Crops, Dog, Homesteading | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Have a Nice Day

I’m not being sarcastic. Humanity may have a little hope yet and good things are happening, small but meaningful gestures seem to be popping all around.
Last night L mentioned that she went out of her way to give a hot mocha to the woman who sits in a little shack at our local garbage transfer station.

She sits in a 5×8 box at the dump all day and is cheerful, polite, and keeps a bag of dog treats on her own dime for canine passengers. Our dog Maggie loves to go to the dump.

She was delighted and L clearly enjoyed doing something for her, and we still don’t know her name.

This morning I was late for my bus and was enjoying a brisk jog when a guy pulled over and offered a ride. I took him up on it more as out of respect for the offer than to make it on time.

It turns out he had been driving the opposite direction and had turned around to make his offer. We had a delightful chat on the 3 mile drive to the ferry and I learned where he was from and shared my background. As I said goodbye there was a palpable sense of goodwill in the air between us and I hope the rest of his day will have the same sense of well being I am currently feeling.

Our true humanity seems best measured by the small stuff. So I wish you “Have a nice day” from the bottom of my heart.

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