Our Winter Exercise Plan

Our yearly pile of wood chips was delivered yesterday. This is probably about 20 cubic yards of shredded pine.

Tree companies have to pay a fee to dump their chips at local waste facilities; therefore, it makes sense to offer these free to homeowners. Usually I have no trouble obtaining wood chips. This time, it took a couple of months. I called my regular tree guy, twice, but he never returned my calls or emails. I found a website called Chipero and put my name in their database. I called all the tree companies that work in the neighborhood. Finally one (Traverso) said they'd put me on their 'list' - but that it might be two months before they had chips to give me. They said homeowners who have their trees trimmed or removed are generally now keeping the chips. This is new! And I wonder if the drought has something to do with it. As we all know, wood chips are a biologically and ecologically smart way to smother weeds, retain moisture, add tilth, improve microsystems in the soil, and get rid of lawns. Some people even grow gardens in wood chips.

Anyway, two months has passed and I got a call on my mobile yesterday - thank heavens I answered it, as I didn't recognize the number. Within 30 minutes the company was at our house, dumping the load.

So this pile of chips is destined to both cover the cardboard we've already spread over the remaining lawn...

... and also refresh the paths around my raised beds.

Only one side of the garden... there's three other sides to be covered, too

This will help me in my continuing battle against crabgrass and bindweed.

But, first we'll let the pile sit for a week and cook, and then we'll start to tackle it. It won't get done in a weekend, it'll probably take a month to get it all moved around, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow.

'Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row
Please bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down.
Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a spot to call my own
'Cause the time is close at hand.
Grain for grain, sun and rain
I'll find my way in nature's chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music of the land.'
                                                  -Pete Seeger

We've had some very nice family time this weekend, with jaunts to the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco for some delicious Italian food, out to see "The Good Dinosaur" (it's totally worth it, what a lovely film), and out on the Bay to Alcatraz. Good food has been a defining theme running through, which is how it should be during family and holiday time, as far as I'm concerned.

There's also been plenty of rest, which was very needed.

In between activities and weeding in the garden, I decided to get a sourdough starter going again; it's a simple process, and as long as you continue to feed your starter, you'll have enough for a baking anytime you feel like it. The idea is to put wild yeasts to work in your bread, rather than commercial yeast. This means exposing your starter to warmth and air and all the good creatures who live in your flour, in your kitchen and home, and on your body. (That last bit sounds weird, I know.) It's generally and erroneously thought that the wild yeast in the San Francisco Bay Area is superior, but in fact the yeast that floats wild around here is actually found all over the world! So you too can have SF sourdough.

Start with four ounces of warm water and mix it with four ounces of flour, keep it warmish and don't cover completely (since our house is chilly, I have it on the lowest setting of a heating pad; the top of your fridge would work, too). Each day, feed it four more ounces of both flour and water, and within a week you should have a fermented starter that smells ripe and faintly alcoholic. You just keep feeding it daily and use as you need it, or you can put it in your fridge for a week and stop feeding it, and when you want to use it, take it out, bring it up to room temp, then feed it. It should come right back to life. Apparently you can even freeze it for a time. I've never tried that, though.

Having just reread Michael Pollan's 'Cooked' and explored a little bit of the River Cottage website (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's place), I've been thinking a lot about flour. I'd prefer to use whole grain flour in all my baking, as it contains the germ and the oil of the wheat berry, both of which contain all the nutrition in the wheat. The problem is that once wheat is milled, it immediately begins to lose nutritive value and quickly become rancid. I've looked in to local mills here in Northern California. We visited one a year ago, the historic Bale Grist Mill in Napa. But that's a far way to go for flour, and the park is only open on certain days. We do have a neat place called Community Grains just down the road in Oakland, but they don't sell directly to the population, they only sell to large clients, and my Whole Foods doesn't carry their products. I could buy flour from them online, and I might yet.

But what might be even better is to buy whole native grain from a local farm, and mill it myself when we need it. If we're going to be serious about making our own bread and becoming self-sufficient about it, this seems the logical place to go. So I researched grain mills, both hand-cranked and electric, and I've decided I'd like a Nutrimill and have put it on my Christmas list. We'll see if Santa brings it to me; it's rather a high-ticket item and I'm not sure how flush Santa is feeling this year.

Meanwhile I bought a couple of different flours at my local Whole Foods, and I'll put them in the freezer right after I open them.

These were not cheap, but good food really shouldn't be. (Let me put this another way: Americans seem to think that all food should be cheap, that we shouldn't have to spend a large amount of our budget on food. But now that I'm producing my own food, I see what kind of time and work goes in to it, and if I sold it, it would be a shame if I wasn't compensated correctly for it.)

I'm still not completely done with the idea of growing my own grain. I may not have room for it here at Poppy Corners, but surely someone has a field somewhere they're not using. Anyone? Bueller?

I mentioned that the house was chilly; we've had our first freezes, still nothing truly cold but enough to freeze the water in the dog dish and put ice crystals on everything. This time of year, I worry about the livestock - are the bees warm enough? the chickens? the cat and dog? Knowing that these creatures live all around the world in all kinds of crazy weather doesn't make me less worried. But the bees seem to be enjoying the warm sunny afternoons (as long as it's above 50, they'll come out to forage) and the chickens are doing just fine. I make them some warm oatmeal some mornings, and they seem to enjoy it. (Their absolute favorite thing to eat, hands down, in any weather, is fresh greens.) They nest two at a time in the boxes when it's time to lay eggs.

"Luna, I've got a serious crick in the neck.
Can you give me one more inch?"

We're still getting between 2-5 eggs every day from our five hens, and while they are losing slightly more feathers than usual, I don't think they are molting just yet.

On my hikes, I've been noticing the fallen buckeyes have slipped their thick skins and are littering the paths, always near or in creeks (which are still pretty dry).

I think buckeyes, and the trees, are pretty in all their forms, in all seasons. Ohlone natives would treat the seeds a lot like acorns, but they require even more leaching to remove the toxic aesculin. I don't think I'll bother.

Hope you all are having a both restful and productive holiday weekend.

Back Yard, Mushrooms, Bees, and an Intruder

Tom and I spent a good deal of time this weekend finishing up the sheet mulching in the back yard. We are not quite done; we ran out cardboard.

We realized that this has been the biggest sheet mulch area yet. Tom has blisters, even though he wore gloves, and we consumed a good bit of Ibuprofen the last few days. Now, we wait: To find more cardboard, for the rain to stop, for the mood to hit us again. It'll be good not to use the wheelbarrow for at least five days.

The rain showed up in earnest today. It's been interesting to see what kind of mushrooms come from this new pine mulch.

One day closed....

the next, open!

Remember those mushroom plugs we inoculated into logs? They've done absolutely nothing. But the mulch grows every kind of mushroom I can think of, with absolutely no help from anyone.

The rain made it through the row covers and into the raised beds just fine, and I really notice a difference in the size of the kale and spinach seedlings - they grew a lot just in the time those have been up. So they must be benefitting from the increase in temperature under there.

As for the bees: I went out again yesterday, before the rain started, to see if there was any hive activity. There are a few bees going in and out, but they act strange - sort of drunk. Loopy. Not quite making it in to the hive on the first try, falling down, rolling upside down. There were several more dead bees on the landing. I'm going to wait a week, and if there is no positive change, I will clean out the hive and store everything for winter. (I can't wait too long before harvesting the honey in the hive, or wasps/mice/wax moths will get it.) I'll try again in the spring with a new colony; I'm a confirmed beekeeper, now. However, I continue to be quite upset about this event. It's a bit like losing a pet. I really cared about the hive. I think about the beekeepers (like my dad, and many many others) who have lost hive after hive, the same way, and it hurts my heart.

To add insult to injury, as I was sitting at the hive, this guy came out from under the house.

Yep. It's a rat.

Argh. I've had it with nature, for a while. Time to get back in the work/school routine.

Hoop Houses

Guest post by Tom today, talking about the latest construction project at Poppy Corners Farm – hoop houses!


Elizabeth had planted some winter crops, and while we're able to grow things in winter, we wanted to protect them from the frost we often get, and maybe cut down on our deer losses somewhat. Enter hoop houses – lengths of floating row cover fabric stretched over a frame over the raised beds.

Construction of the frame was rather straightforward and pretty inexpensive to boot. I picked up 10' lengths of 3/8" rebar and 1/2" Schedule 40 PVC pipe. The frames needed two lengths of rebar and five length of PVC for each of our 4x8' raised beds.

Next, I used a hacksaw to cut the rebar into 2' lengths. You only need to cut the rebar about half-way through, then you can just bend at the cut and it'll break off nicely.

Use gloves – it'll leave sharp ends. You can buy the rebar in 2' lengths to begin with, but you can get one 10' length for about the price of two of the 2' lengths. I didn't mind using the hacksaw.

Starting at one corner of the raised bed and proceeding about every two feet, I hammered the lengths of rebar about two inches out from the raised beds, and about even with the top. Next, I slotted one end of the PVC pipe over one piece of rebar, then bent it over and slotted it over the rebar on the other side of the bed.

As you can see, the tops of the hoops are around 4' tall. I could have tried trimming off some of the length of the PVC pipe to get a shorter hoop, but I was a little concerned about how much stress that would put on the pipe and the rebar.

A little more sawing, pounding, and bending, and the frames were complete!

This is really starting to look like a farm.
Elizabeth then stretched the row cover fabric over the frames, securing them with binder clips.

The hoop houses should let enough sun through for things to keep growing, as well as raise the temperature underneath several degrees. It should let rain through as well.


Elizabeth here. I'm very pleased with this project, and had several neighbors stop and talk about it and how it might help with frost and deer. I am so happy that folks are interested in what we do here. There's a group of older ladies who walk by every so often, and one of them found me in the yard yesterday and offered me her 1916 copy of "The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping," a still relevant and necessary book for beekeepers today. I was so touched. She said she wanted me to have it because she admires me! I was extremely proud and grateful.

I spent some quality time yesterday moving cardboard and mulch to a spot in the front yard that used to be grass, but now is mostly used as a path to get to the side yard, and so is quite muddy. I sheet mulched it as usual, without the layer of compost; I figure I don't really need to improve the soil here, since it will just mainly see foot traffic (although even cardboard and mulch will add a significant amount of organic matter). I put a fairly thick layer (6") of wood chips on top of the cardboard, because we've seen now from experience that it all compacts rather a lot as it decomposes.

Today I started on the back yard. I didn't get very far; we need a whole lot more cardboard. I'm always amazed how much this process requires, and also pleased at the amount of material we can take out of the waste stream and decompose here, naturally. So, I will have to go dumpster diving to find more. I did this before at a local recycling place, which has since closed! argh! But I got a lead on a dumpster behind a Rite Aid... I just realized how crazy that last sentence sounds. I'm getting nuttier by the minute!

Happy Thanksgiving, all, and Happy Gardening!

Let the sheet mulching begin.... again!

Here we are with a glorious week ahead of us. No school, no work, only a few rehearsals and performances, one important birthday (my mom's), one important holiday that involves a lot of cooking, but mostly.... blissfully empty. For us, this means only one thing: playing the new Kingdom Rush game! Well, okay, that.... and yard improvements!

This past week, a tree company delivered me a load (maybe eight cubic yards) of pine mulch, free. Then I ordered three cubic yards of organic compost from Sloat's Garden in Danville, which is the most expensive part of the process - that runs about $160 including delivery. I've been collecting cardboard boxes for several weeks now (thank you friends and family!), and we are ready for some sheet mulching!

Here's the section of yard we plan to SM (sheet mulch). A play structure used to live here, and the trampoline is very happy here now, and still gets a lot of use - but one of the legs is broken. It has very little time left on this earth. (This tramp has a nice story, actually. It belonged to the kids across the street, who then sold it to the kids around the corner, who then sold it to us. It's had quite a life and a ton of use, so it has really served its purpose quite well. Oh, and our old play structure? Given to us as a gift by Tom's family when Adam was diagnosed with leukemia and had compromised immunity, it lived happily in this space for many years and was a magnet for the neighborhood kids. A nice young man with a two year old came and dismantled it and transported it to his yard, for his son to play on. This is the best kind of recycling!)

We stopped watering the grass in this area when drought hit, so it's looking pretty grim, though with our recent rains, it's greening up. There's little actual grass, lots of a very tenacious crabby sort of thing, another kind of weed that spreads by sending out tendrils and putting down new roots (vicious stuff), bindweed (or jimson weed) which is just terrible; in other words a smorgasbord of awful weeds. But the SM, if we do it right, should smother all of it. That is the beautiful thing about this process. Several times this past summer, if I saw an area of weeds I wanted to control, in any part of my garden, I'd put down a piece of cardboard or burlap, and cover it with organic matter. I have a pile of horse manure six inches deep over old burlap bags under the peach tree, because the weeds had gotten so bad there. So far, so good - no regrowth.

The only place I have trouble removing weeds is when they are in concrete - such as in the cracks of our patio, or the cracks in our driveway. You can't SM there! Most of the weeds die in the heat and dry of our summer, but in winter they are prolific, and I don't want them to set seed. I constantly weed by hand, but if that doesn't work, I will boil water and pour it on. Other times I will go out in the dark of night and spot treat with herbicide. In that case I use as little as possible, and only after dark when the bees are in the hive for the night. But I haven't had to do that in a long time. Boiling water really helps, especially if you add liquid soap to the mix.

Back to SM! This back area is also where our fruit trees are. I had the quince removed, but we still have an apple tree, as well as the peach.

We also have a tiny fig tree, which is hidden by the trampoline in the photos. I'd like to put in a sweet cherry where the quince was. The trampoline will stay here on the SM until spring, or until it gives up the ghost, whichever comes first, and then we'll build more raised beds. Probably six of them. I think this will be where the tomatoes, peppers, and melons will be planted, as this area gets more sun than any other part of the yard.

Truck dumping compost, next to the mulch mound

The most finicky part of the SM process is removing all tape and labels from the boxes, as those won't decompose like the cardboard will. I spent several hours today removing tape. The stuff Amazon uses is the devil itself - it has threads in it, so it comes apart when you try to remove it. ARGH! The plastic stuff at least comes off in one long strip! Amazon, if you're reading this, you need to change your tape for the .0001% of your customer base who sheet mulches!!!!

The boxes also need to be cut so that they lay flat. Once that's done, it's just a matter of moving materials. That's a job, and a blog, for later this week.

Tomorrow, I head out to the farm for our pastured turkey. I'll report on that experience, as well as my turkey prep, as I'm trying something new.

I'm enjoying the leaves on my walks.

 Mushrooms are enjoying our recently wet earth, and popping up all over the place. These tiny yellow beauties are in our yard:

I spread red clover seeds all over the one remaining area of grass in our yard, and they are going gangbusters.

I'm hoping they bloom over our mild winter, and provide forage for the bees.

Speaking of the bees, both Tom and I have noticed a strange thing on the landing board of the hive. Every so often, maybe 5 times in the last month, there's a white dead thing there. Here's a picture of it.

I think it's dead larvae. But why is there dead larvae on the landing board? I did some searching around, and there are several explanations. One, there's mites or disease in the hive. The last time we opened it, though, everything looked great, no sign of anything amiss. Another reason could be the sudden change in temperature. It might be that this particular patch of brood got chilled and therefore isn't viable, or for some reason just stopped developing. The bees might also be culling larvae for some reason. Whatever it is, I'll need to keep an eye on the hive for the next few weeks. The bees are flying in and out as normal, whenever it gets over 50 degrees outside. They seem to be bringing in pollen and nectar. I'm anxious about this new development, but not overly so.

Yum, Tom's making a Jamie Oliver recipe of Thai spiced rice noodles with chicken, butternut squash, and broccoli, and it smells amazing. I'm off to dinner!