Sunday, May 27, 2018

Life is FULL and it has been raining A LOT!

I just pulled up the 10 day forecast - rain, thunder, rain, storms, showers, thunderstorms, rain and more rain. We came in awhile ago and I dumped our two younger gals in the tub as they had been having FUN outside in the fire ring and were messy. They played (mostly peacefully) long enough for Jason and I to stroll through the wet lush gardens, making a task list and taking pictures. Not that we will get to most of the tasks any time soon as it is going to be rather gooshy under foot for awhile.

Kali is away for a sleepover this evening and Alida was grieving her departure a lot today. She was pretty sure life would be no fun without her. I love how much they love each other and enjoy being together. That said the grief seemed a bit excessive for a 24 hour or less separation and I'll let you be the judge if Alida was having any fun in her absence. Even Jason joined in - though he is probably not all that impressed that I'm putting this out for the world to see:

While I'm exposing Jason to the world, this is another pretty uncommon scene. I heard about it when I got home from work the other day but only saw the evidence of Jason snagging a cat nap when I downloaded pictures this evening. The girls tucked him in with stuffed animals and then Kali grabbed the camera to get some proof. This man deserves a few cat naps - he has been working so hard! We've been pushing pretty hard to get seeds and plants in the ground and while the girls and I have tried to chip in here and there and help out, the bulk of the grunt work falls on Jason. He is pretty amazing with a wheel hoe. Just sayin'! We are really loving when we can get out and work together and a few times recently just Jason and I have enjoyed short gardening stints while the girls played together.
Jason is also out there a fair amount alone while I'm making cheese about as often as I can squeeze it in and the other food processing/preserving tasks are starting to ramp up. The spring spinach freezing has concluded and I've moved on to freezing lambsquarter and trying to start drying herbs (first round of oregano done on the one sunny day recently). I'm also often occupied with things with the girls - like our Saturday soccer morning! I even have proof that I was there this week as Terah had the camera for a good part of Kali's game. :) 
Ok, as is typical for us, it is 10 p.m. and I'm trying to get this blog post done and move towards bedtime routines and kids are starting to unravel. The difference is that Kali is not here to come to my rescue, so here are some pictures and a video for you to enjoy. This mama hen hatched out about 7 chicks and then Jason gave her 10x that many to foster. She has been tending/fostering about 70 chicks and it has been a sight to behold. As of today she has decided she is done so they are now on their own but she was one great mama for her first go round. I guess she didn't know anything different but Jason cracked up the other day when I noted that I wished I could give her a massage or something!

We did a partial family retreat day today and will do a second partial one next weekend. The day included picking strawberries this morning, enjoying nutty sweet potato waffles while playing the Farming Game, doing some music together and then making and enjoying fresh strawberry shortcake. As you will note, Terah was also taking a retreat from clothes today - but this happens for her much more often than quarterly!
 And now from our evening walk around!
I can't get enough of the clouds on the mountains. They are so beautiful!

Alida's garden

Garlic scapes here they come - who wants some?!?!
Rye and vetch before the rains

...and after

Will we get any peaches?

Nora's garden!

And another from Nora's garden. Love that spot!


Blackberry flowers


Yep, more clouds and Kali's ducks HAPPY in the drainfield - who knows what all they were finding but they were making very contented duck sounds!

And, last but not least, cute and crazy kids!

Potato Patch for our Grandchildren - guest post by Jason

While the clouds are being cracked open like eggs overhead, the rain slopping down onto the hot skillet of this valley floor, it is a good time to sneak in some writing!

We have been working hard to grow potatoes these past 5 or 6 years.  This soil is listed in the soil survey book I have as "not suitable for agriculture," and if agriculture means plowing and planting of field crops, I would be tempted to agree with that. It is rocky, the topsoil is shallow, the drainage is poor, it tends acid.  Hm.  Potatoes are not the first crop that comes to mind, since they like reasonable organic matter, excellent drainage, moderate pH, and rocks are a hassle when digging potatoes.

However. Through a variety of circumstances beyond the land's control, we have come to live here, we bring with us a drive to produce our diet from this place, and we like potatoes. So.

Knowing the problems of soil erosion in this culture, and knowing potato digging implies bare soil for a few weeks (an erosion risk), it seemed wise to us to select the site on our slope with the least erosion potential when choosing where to grow potatoes. That leaves two possibilities, one larger, one smaller, as places with no built or natural obstructions and of minimal natural slope. The larger of the two has been selected by us as our "root patch," and now that it's fenced in we can expand the variety of roots we try to grow there, since critters can no longer dine on our sweet potato vines and carrot tops.  It seemed sensible to us to group our crops that grow underground and require digging into one growing location, since the soil qualities necessary to promote their health share a lot in common and the erosion risks associated with them are similar.

But the diversification of subterranean crops in the root patch is just beginning with the planting of 70ish sweet potato slips and a few peanuts in the garlic beds this spring, so as far as edible roots from our root patch, potatoes are still where our focus has gone. And that's been challenge enough! With low organic matter, it's pretty hard to work up much soil, especially in shallow-topsoil situations.  Plus, soil working tools keep bouncing off the rocks!  Add to that the drainage problems causing the plants to crowd their tubers near the surface (increasing toxic greening of skins) and pH stress, and our yields of edible potatoes have been--I admit it--paltry.  We've always had enough to make a difference in our winter diet, but never as many as we'd like for this growing family.  Further complicating matters is the weed seed load which is still high in that soil and the fact that we've used potato planting as our excuse to bust the original sods and the sods of weeds that re-form; I'll concede the arduous-work to sweet-reward ratio has been less favorable than would be ideal.

On the horizon, however, I could always see that fair country wherein we trench the rows without incident, apply biochar to the floor of the trench, pull in some of the loose soil, lay in chunked seed potatoes, cover, wait for sprouts to appear, pull the rest of the excavated soil around the stems, wait another few weeks for rampant growth to surge, work up a few inches of light, rich topsoil to hill against thick, firm stems at the base of a broad top of wide, dark-green leaves (plucking the odd rock from the soil as it shows itself), then mulch with freshly cut grasses from the surrounding pastures. To top it off, we'd come back with watermelon seed to tuck into the rows here and there for an extra treat in August, and poke in a few handfuls of innoculated black bean seed as a companion crop, one row down each side of the hilled potato rows.

Friends, it is my honor to announce that after several years of hard work--sod busting, rock picking, soil working, row trenching--in that direction, that fine day has now arrived!  Friday's job was to do the last hilling on the potatoes, apply mulch, and try to get the companion crop seed sown before this weekend's rains.  This is the first year that we've actually brought potatoes back--after three years of absence--to a soil that had already had most of the rocks cleared from it, had had most of the perennial weeds eliminated, had had most of the woody roots removed, and had been cared for for several years with minimal tillage and cover cropping regimes that have built organic matter and soil tilth. I won't claim it wasn't a hard day of work, but the fact is it was doable and the results were visually rewarding.  I have every reason to think we'll get a much better yield, too!  The plants are bigger and greener than ever, the hills are higher, the biochar is fully charged and doing its drainage work...we are ready to roll!

Using hand tools for heavy gardening tasks like this yields many interesting insights.  One is a sense of how and where and in what direction force can most judiciously be applied to get the needed result.  Another is an extension of Fukuoka's guiding agricultural question, wherein he asks--instead of "What if I did this or that?"--"What if I didn't do this or that?" When your body is going to do it or it won't be done, you get in the habit of coming up with systems that require less intervention, which is better for the soil and the ecosystem in general. A third insight in this case was just how much difference "good" soil makes when gardening by hand.  The lighter, more friable soil we had to work with this time around was probably twice as easy on our bodies and the job took probably two-thirds as long.  Three cheers for Organic Matter!

In all ways, things seem to be looking up in the potato patch. I frequently tell Kali when we're working that soil together that she is going to be the only one of the kids who remembers how tough it was at the beginning.  For the younger ones, it will seem as if this potato ground has always been here, that the good soil was just waiting to receive their spud chunks each spring and couldn't wait to be pulled up into a rich, dark turtleneck around each of the thick, turgid potato stalks. Tubers rolling out of the soil by the bushel in September will seem normal to them (we hope!).  If this system continues on its current trajectory and is maintained by wise and responsible gardeners, there is no reason it shouldn't keep getting better and easier every year. If any of our children continue to choose this place for their home, it warms my heart to think of generations unborn coming to this same soil every spring and fall to trust it with their seed and claim their harvest. May the work we've invested benefit them as much as or more than it has us, and may their joy in using the patch match or exceed our joy in its development!

P.S. For the garden geeks, here's the system: The patch is on a four-year rotation (which I won't describe in detail here...ask if you want to know!). 96 feet long and 12 feet wide, nestled between planting strips that hold or will hold a variety of perennials anchored by grapes and blackberries and with insectary plants mixed in.  Historically we've used wide rows laid out on a three-foot increment (two feet for planting, one for walking paths) for the 12-foot width, but we've just gone to a 4-foot increment (three feet for planting, one for walking) with the potatoes this year.  A trench is dug roughly four inches wide, and as deep as doesn't feel ridiculous or unearth gobs of subsoil (a little is desirable...we're trying to deepen the drainage and eventually the topsoil layer, but don't want to overdo it in any one year). An A-frame level is used to ensure that the bottom of the trench won't puddle water but will allow for a gentle flow from one end to the other.  We use a slope of 1.5 to 2 inches per six feet for our average. Biochar that has been acting as the effluent filter under our Humanure compost pile for two and a half years or so is added to these trenches in a roughly two inch layer. Loose soil from the trench digging is pulled in until the biochar is covered, then potatoes are seeded about one per foot in the row, pressed into the soft soil slightly. More loose soil is pulled in to cover the propagules, but the soil level is still about two inches below original most places.  After sprouts appear and are about 6 or more inches high, we pull the remaining loose soil around the stems to support them as they take off. If the char is charged well, take off they will! Then when the vines are about a foot above that soil level but still upright and stiff, it's time to loosen soil from between the rows and hill it up against the plants in a long hill. We use a wheel hoe with ripping point (we contrived this one) and garden plow attachments for the bulk of this work, which was accomplished this year in two rounds. For each round a hand hoe was used to pull stray loose soil from out of the paths and do the detail shaping of the hill and tucking soil around the stems where there were voids.  

Scythe-cut hay grasses from the pastures were then used to mulch in a 4-6 inch layer in the paths, tapering to zero at the tops of the hills. This pattern combined with the four-foot increment permitted all mulching to be done with forks instead of hands, avoided any detail mulching around the plants (they make their own shade), and allowed the addition of watermelon (experimental) hills every six feet down the middle row, plus two Black Turtle bean seeds pressed about 3/4 inch deep between each potato plant on each side of the hill just on the shoulder of the hill before steep sloping begins. To clarify, this means roughly 4 Black Turtle seeds per foot of potato row, the beans sown in a double row (10-12 inches apart?) that straddles the potato row. We used maybe one cup of beans for the whole patch. The bean plants are purported to repel potato beetles, and potato plants are purported to repel bean beetles. I won't vouch fully for the bean beetle reduction, but using this system we've had extremely little potato beetle pressure. Could be the mulch, could be the beans, could be diligent scouting and smooshing in years past has reduced the population...I don't know. Black Turtle has emerged as our favorite bean for this polyculture, since the upright plants help support the potato vines, which is supposed to increase yield. Plus, the pods of this variety are not often found against the soil at harvest time, reducing mildew and moldy bean issues, which means less sorting for us! They also thresh out wonderfully by hand. Pinto works ok, too, but the vines are more floppy.  Tongue of Fire is an intermediate option, but the heavier beans sag the plants even though they start more upright than Pinto. We don't know our potato variety, which we got from a friend once, but it is an ordinary white potato such as Kennebec. There you have it!

Friday, May 18, 2018

20 years and counting and we're wading through chlorophyll around here!

20 years ago today, Jason and I were driving back from Ohio where we had been together with those we spent a year with in Bolivia. Following a period of silence in the car (and many many months of holding it in) Jason asked, "Janelle, if I would ask you on a date would you say yes?" to which I replied, "probably." He followed that with, "Well then I think I may!" And that was how it all began. Here we are 20 years later. It's been a wild ride and one I would would not change for anything in the world!

My mom and I often think alike and the morning of our 19th wedding anniversary (May 15) I sat down and tried to write a highlight of each of our 19 years of marriage, something she suggested might be fun in the card we opened shortly after I finished. Each year could have many more highlights, but here's what I noted in my brief reflection in the wee hours of the morning while the funny cake pie I was making in honor of our anniversary baked.

1999 - Jason graduated from college 3 weeks before our wedding, we moved to Hamlet Dr
2000 - Jason full-time construction; me full-time student
2001 - I graduated from EMU; Jason started working part-time at Hickory Hill Farm
2002 - I was working full-time at CJP; we were thinking about starting a family!
2003 - we moved to our first home on Wolfe St a few months before Kali's birth; Mom's transplant
2004 - our only full year in town (adjusting to parenthood and already feeling antsy for land)
2005 - moved to Fruit Farm Lane in Keezletown
2006 - deep in home renovations
2007 - Nora's birth
2008 - Nora's death (we started the tradition of donating blood together)
2009 - Started our Encounters with Sustenance blog soon after the 1 year anniversary of Nora's death
2010 - Building Mom and Dad's in-law quarters onto our home
2011 - Alida's birth
2012 - Started working some from home; hosted first blood drive that fall
2013 - Grew our first peanuts; huge strawberry harvest; Jason donated his hair
2014 - Bathroom remodeling; 1st Biochar burn
2015 - Terah's birth at home!
2016 - Ivy's birth; 1st year with pigs
2017 - Jason's 40th birthday Sandhill Crane migration trip; Samuel's death
2018 - 10th anniversary of Nora's death (return trip planned to Cape Charles this summer)

We started our anniversary morning out with one of my favorite traditions - a hot drink and some Wendell Berry Sabbath poems. The very first one we read that morning seemed fitting for the day, and believe it or not we happened to be reading his 1999 poems (the year we got married):

We travelers, walking to the sun, can't see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
The blessed light that yet to us is dark.

Before I get too far into our anniversary, let me not forget to introduce you all to the newest Tangly Woods members alluded to in the last post: two Red Roc piglets! I imagine some of you are thinking, "Don't Jason and Janelle have enough going on?" Well, you see, this is what happens when my mom clips out articles from magazines for us to read. She passed one on to us about someone raising/breeding pigs in WV, Jason was intrigued and emailed the guy, they started corresponding and before you know it we find ourselves in the car headed to Shepherdstown, WV to buy two. So now we have 6 and plan to butcher 4 in December as planned and keep 2 females to breed - yep, we are that excited about pigs (and piglets!!). We had a really fun visit to Creekside Farms and are enjoying the new additions. And I think (now that they are fully recovered from their trip), they are enjoying Tangly Woods as well! We also came home from this trip with a few hatching eggs from a breed of chickens they have that mirror closely a project Jason was working on. So we'll see what all comes of our little trek to WV and back that day...
One other pre-anniversary treat I didn't want to forget to mention was the girls' cooking night on Monday! It ended up feeling a bit like a mother's day dinner, in part because my girls made it together for us and because Kali gave me a sweet card with coupons enclosed that I'll be enjoying for weeks to come! I believe it was Terah who brought "girls cooking night" to a family meeting, and all agreed it was a fun idea. What I love is that they decided to make "three sisters" for their meal - so the meal centered around squash (roasted), corn (made as polenta grits) and beans (refried pintos that we grew). Delicious as always and kuddos to Kali for managing to pull a meal off with both little sisters in tow. That gal is getting quite the education!!

And now catching up to the present. Our anniversary morning was right up there among my favorite kinds of mornings. We were home all day together and Jason and I got to work out in the gardens all morning (with happy kiddos around). It's as if we now have a "rainy season" around here, as it has been cloudy and rainy or stormy for days now. So we have been looking for ANY and ALL pockets of calm weather to try to get things in the ground. Thankfully that day was a fun and productive one, getting in tomatoes, some peppers, squash, dill, cilantro, basil, and more things I'm likely forgetting! Jason then transitioned in the afternoon to weeding the onions and friends arrived in time to finish it off right before the next drenching rains started! But let me not sound too disparaging about the rain. It's really wonderful to have good moisture in the soil, the sky and clouds on the mountain have been beautiful, and we just feel like we are wading through paradise around here. Plants are truly amazing. If Jason can't mow soon, though, he may have to scythe the whole yard!!

We did take a break midday on our anniversary to enjoy a special lunch of potato crusted spinach ricotta cheddar egg bake, a corn cheddar paprika quiche, roasted sweet potatoes with garlic and sauteed garlic and asparagus. Yep, it's the time of year when I'm likely to start photographing our plates again! Here's a few other fun pictures from our day together! I neglected to get any of us actually together on our anniversary!
Looking at these pictures again has me itching to get outside and pick the remaining 1/2 of the spinach since the rain is supposed to start up again a bit later this evening. 3/5 of the family is out mulching with the hay that Kali and Jason cut yesterday, and as soon as I wake the 1/5 that is sleeping we might just go join them! I'll end with a few final tidbits!
It's about time for the first comfrey cutback. It's at its prime right now and is about to flop on us!
Kali has a broody duck - hoping for ducklings in a few weeks!
The irises in Nora's garden are stunning - this is the one that Jason is pretty sure he got from Kali's school the day Nora was airlifted to UVA. 
Yep, there is LOTS of peeping in the background as I type. 20 more hatched and headed to their new home this evening. Things will be a bit quieter in here again.

This gal is silly! Enough said!!

The first strawberries were a big hit. The slugs are likely to enjoy them as they rot if we don't get some sunshine soon!

I love our spinach freezing system. Plowed through this this morning and hope to head out for the second round soon...