Monday, June 29, 2015

Shearing Day

Valley View Ranch on the Lower North Fork Mattole River, in Petrolia

Just before our vacation, I was called for shearing day at the Sweet family's Valley View Ranch. It takes a lot of hands to complete all the work needed to complete the annual clip. The sheep are sorted and gathered before the crew and shearers show up. 

Ewes gathered and ready to be sheared.

Brian shearing one of the 120 he sheared that day.

Brian, from Ireland, arrived without his shearing partner, who had had a livestock emergency and had to return home. Once he got started, we had plenty of people to keep up with the skirting, which is the cleaning off of the really funky and gross wool on the edges of the fleece: poop, brambles, insects, seeds, leg hair, and sometimes, even pieces of barbed wire. Shearing day this year was hot and dry, but it's fun work, full of a lot of teasing and camaraderie, as we wade through piles and piles of wool.

After skirting, the fleeces are bundled up in a baler that stuffs them into a bag for transportation to the wool pools, where they will be sorted and sold.

Brian single-handedly sheared 120 sheep that first day. Hats off to Brian!

Before the fleeces go to the market pile, if, as I'm skirting I find one I like the feel of, I pull it aside. I select fleeces that appear in good condition that also feel soft. It's a very qualitative process. Some of them feel coarse and dry, while some feel buttery and light, and these are the fleeces I want to turn into yarn. Next week, I'll begin working on the more detailed skirting, to prepare for sending the fiber to the mill.

Skirting fleeces in the shade.

Ewes finished being sheared. They always seem traumatized, but once they get let out, they frolic and jump,
and are so happy to be done and, I think, relieved to be free of their winter coats.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Planting Corn

Drew and Mimi planting corn. This view shows the house in proximity.
Gardner has been asking me since we first planted seeds this year, in February, when it would be time to plant corn. Each time we planted more seeds, he would ask me, "Is it time to plant corn yet?" Each time I would explain that we had to wait until the nights warmed up reliably, and there was no danger of frost. I said if we planted too early, we would risk the corn dying or not growing right. Finally, the nights are as warm as they get here, and we moved on this project today, so we could finish it before we leave on our Yosemite vacation.

In the spot where we once had a giant scotch broom berm and hedge, and where we subsequently re-contoured the land to create two terraces on the east side of the house, Drew tractor tilled the earth and added several scoops of manure and oyster shell flour to prepare the space for corn. We also planted sunflowers and bush beans, and I've also got a few extra pumpkin starts, as well as some marigolds I wasn't sure what to do with that will go in there.

The straw bale garden isn't well suited to crops like corn, which needs a lot of food and space to grow roots. Corn also likes being grown in a block, for optimal pollination. We've never had a corn bed this size that allowed for good pollination. The further benefit of placing corn in this spot is that, if successful, the corn patch will help block wind into the rest of the yard. I have a long-term vision of planting raspberries, blueberries, artichokes, and bamboo in this spot, so an annual vegetable project will give us an idea of what that would be like, to have a permanent terrace garden at about the same height.

For now, we hope the direct sow will be successful. We don't often grow vegetables this way, due to gopher pressure, symphylans (soil pest), wind, and cold nighttime temps which make getting started difficult. I usually start my corn in flats and transplant out once they are about 4 inches high. But this patch is too big for that. This is also the first time we've used a tractor tiller to prepare a bed. It sure did go fast! I could get used to that. 

This may pave the way for similar projects in the "old" garden area, which is now dormant. We've discussed doing some light tractor farming in that area, to grow cow food, or vegetables, or maybe we will convert it to almond orchard expansion. Who knows? We are committed to letting the land guide us, and inform our decisions. For now, an experiment has been started, and we're looking forward to seeing what happens!

Mimi and Drew planting three kinds of corn

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Power Spots

The Treehouse Tree at Athenian School

I'm feeling pretty under the weather today and I wanted to write a health-related post, something positive to channel my energy into. I started thinking about power spots, which are places where our inner self glows brightly, places (and times) from our past where we felt really energetic, centered, connected to the flow of life, and/or happy.

Last summer, I attended my 20th high school reunion at The Athenian School in Danville, CA. My time at Athenian was one of the best parts of my life. It was my first time away from my difficult home-life, and it was expansive, supportive, intellectually intriguing, and full of wonderful adventures in the outdoors. The campus is set at the foot of Mount Diablo, a Bay Area landmark, and State Park. The buildings are at the front of the property, while the back acreage is classic coastal oak and grassland hills and arroyo canyons. 

I moved to Athenian campus from Lomita, CA, a South Bay suburb of Los Angeles. My dorm room had a west-facing window that looked out onto a grandmother oak tree, and crickets would sing at night. Nearly every day after school, I would head into the hills with friends, to walk the trails, and explore the dry creeks. Not long after I arrived in the fall of my junior year, my friend Evan offered to take me to the treehouse.

We walked past the library and the meditation hut, and skirted the little creek. Then we headed up a wide-open grassy hill, following a rough trail through the brush. At the top, we picked up another little trail, a deer track, and continued up the spine of a hill. Eventually, we arrived at the tree, pictured above, which in those days had a wooden platform built onto the strong arms of the oak. To climb up to it, you had to get up onto a forked limb, inch along it, and the perform a curious little maneuver to arrive on the platform. 

I spent hours at this treehouse, with friends or alone, watching owls fly down canyon, watching the wind ripple the long grass in springtime, listening to crickets and birds, and just enjoying the beauty of the natural world. It was such a contrast to my life in L.A., and so full of real-ness, that I just loved it deeply and felt so very at home. 

When I graduated, I didn't realize how much I would miss it, until I thought of it again at my 10th and again at my 15th reunion, but circumstances at each prevented me from visiting. At my 20th, I wasn't going to let anything stop me! I set off after dinner in the evening, and arrived at sunset. There's now a more developed trail to the tree, and the treehouse was torn down for insurance purposes (go figure), but the place isn't any less special. I wasn't sure what I would find when I got there, but as soon as I sat down on the earth there, I could feel a very tangible sensation of energy borne of memory, and brought it fully into my present body: a power spot!

The Treehouse Tree at Sunset

These are places we return to when we are feeling down or sad, troubled, or overwhelmed, places that can fill us up from their well of goodness that we have cultivated with them. They fill our hearts and souls with happy memories, they are times and places where everything was "right". 

I recently rekindled another connection, with Catalina Island, a crazy intersection place of friendships and relationships and concepts that would affect my life for years to come. I had no idea at the time, but revisiting opened up another wellspring of connection that feeds my heart! 

I invite you to consider where these places are for yourselves, and fill up those empty spots in hard moments with the loving energy of the places that have most embraced you. The best part is that we don't have to physically visit these places to connect with them and have them help us. We simply have to remember ourselves there, imagine it, and see ourselves surrounded by it to enjoy the benefits. We can create our very own interconnected web of support.

Catalina Island

Friday, May 29, 2015

Straw Bales DO Grow Food

Wide Bale bed growing keeping onions. 
I took some photos of the straw bale garden yesterday. So many of my neighbors keep asking how the straw bale garden is going. I'm as curious as they are. Since I last posted, I transplanted out the rest of my tomatoes, the peppers and eggplants, the zucchini and the tomatillos. I'm not really sure what to say when people ask how it's going. I don't have any reference. On the one hand, the plants are alive, and aren't getting eaten by gophers (despite ample evidence of gophers around the bales). On the other hand, they are growing differently than they do when planted in soil, which until now is the only way I have ever grown vegetables.

I'm not sure if I'm seeing the kind of growth and flourishing I'd like to see. I'm getting the sense that some of the bales maybe aren't as decomposed inside as I would like, but I don't know yet if this is important or not. I can't tell if I'm overwatering or under-watering. Sometimes the plants look dry and the bales don't seem that wet inside, but some bales seem very wet and too cold inside. For now, I'm going with trusting that the bales and the plants will figure it out, even if I am making mistakes.

One thing I'm unsure about is our water line. The author of the straw bale garden book uses soaker hoses to water his bales, but I'm using half-inch drip line, with emitters every 9 or 12 inches (depending on when I bought it!). It's possible that this type of water line doesn't provide enough volume to saturate the bales. 

It also seems like the root balls would like an easier substrate to move through, and that some of our bales more than others are very dense, and even with the decomposition that has started inside, they are fibrous and tight. In the tomatoes, especially, it seems that the plants above ground are reflecting contained roots in a way they don't when grown in soil. Drew suggested it might be the heavy winds we get in the spring. 

All this to say that this method and my use of it are a trial-by-fire experiment, and I'm enjoying seeing the results. There are many aspects that ARE working well: no gopher damage, very little weeding, no trouble with symphylans (a soil-dwelling organism that nibbles on growing root tips, stunting the growth of the plants), instant garden in the front yard, easy access for harvest, built-in trellis and support for row covers, and no need to water, since everything is on a timer. We've already eaten bok choi, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, and peas. Stay tuned! Scroll down for some more photos.

Other Wide bed, with fresh lettuce starts and broccoli and cauliflower.

New broccoli on the way

The pea bed: sugar snaps, snow peas, and shelling peas.

Two of three tomato beds: sauce, cherries, early, and slicers.

Eggplant and pepper bed.

Zucchini and tomatillo bed, soon to add cucumbers.

One lone carrot that made it from the initial planting.

Buttercrunch lettuce. 
Shelling peas, first time ever growing!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pesky-But-Nice Scotch Broom

That pesky, pesky scotch broom, it's so pervasive, and abundant, and downright invasive. Here is a clue as to why this is so: if you direct your attention to "Exhibit A", above, you will notice that this small sample of scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) branch is literally covered in flowers. There are probably more than a hundred blossoms on this one little piece.

Each of those flowers forms a seed pod, which, given the general characteristics of plants in the Fabaceae (Pea) family, contains approximately 6-10 seeds. After the seed pods mature, they dry out with the cessation of the rain. On a hot summer day, if you listen carefully to a hedge of scotch broom, you can hear a crackling that sounds curiously like a grass fire. The pods burst apart, throwing the seeds away from the plant. In this small sample in the photo, if there really are a hundred flowers, this little tiny branch will make 600-1,000 seeds!

This may have something to do with why our property was about 40% covered in scotch broom when we bought it! We are now nearly 10 years into managing this invasive plant on our place, and are clear it will be an ongoing project throughout the rest of our lives.

Fortunately for us, there are a few redeeming qualities of the yellow scourge. For one, the plant fixes nitrogen, which is a great boon for our wind-deposited soil. If you don't mind all those seeds spewing forth, it makes a great windbreak, and this time of year, it's like sunshine on a gray and cloudy day. And I have also discovered that it makes a decent yellow dye for my yarn project, Lost Coast Yarn. Scotch broom is closely related to French broom, a traditional yellow dye plant. It doesn't take much material to create  a good yellow. Though I won't be harvesting enough to make a dent in the crazy quantity of broom all over our land, I am clipping the most flowery branches to dry and to use as dyestuff. Here's to turning our waste-products into resources! Cheers!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

First Edibles of the Season

I just returned from a week away, but I snapped these pics before I left so I could show off my garden, in case anyone asked. No one did, but now I get to share them with all of you! 

Bok choi is an amazing plant. It cannot be stopped. It just wants to grow, and get to the part about making flowers and seeds. They really embraced this strange, grow-in-a-bale-of-straw lifestyle. For a little while before my departure, we juiced bok choi with apples, carrots and lemon, and made stir fry (yum). Several years ago, when we were daily bathing our cells in phytonutrients, we would make a half gallon of fresh veggie juice every morning with these ingredients, and drink it throughout the day. It really is refreshing and delicious and so good for you. (If you want more info about juicing, check out

Moving right along, we have the row of peas, which finally seem to be taking off, though no flowers yet. This row also has arugula, radishes, spinach, and lettuce, planted underneath the peas. I don't think the nitrogen had mellowed enough for the radishes because when I pulled them up yesterday, they had 4-10 rootlets, and were not one nice round ball. This often happens with carrots if they have too much N as well. Note to self:  bales are maybe not for root crops? The book says it's fine, but I'm not so sure.

Next we come to lettuce, looking very nice. We enjoyed our first head as a salad on the night I returned home, and there's a lot more out there. We are finding, again, that lettuce does prefer the overhead watering, so we might get a few misters to water these babies, to keep them luscious and un-leathery, as well as un-bitter. In any event, home-grown lettuce is always far better than store-bought, and we have gone too long without it.

Lastly, here is the next round of bales! In addition to these, there are three more next to the pea row. Most of these are going to be for tomatoes, and other summer crops. They are almost ready. I messed up a bit when I planted my tomatoes too early this year. I used to plant in February, until I realized that the ground was never ready early enough for the February starts. Better to plant at the March new moon. But being a little out of practice, since we skipped a lot of gardening last summer, I forgot this very important detail. Our tomato plants have been ready to get out of pots for several weeks already, but the bales are only now just barely ready. Learn and forget, learn and forget. Sooner or later, we'll be experts, but not yet!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Straw Bale Garden Update

Transplants in the bale bed

My second round of bales have been ready to plant for a bit, and I finally blended bale readiness with plant readiness and plugged in my stuff over the weekend. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choi, and lettuce. You just poke a hole, and take out some straw if needed for the size of the seedling, and back fill with a little potting soil. I think the plants are looking rather happy. 

The other row of bales, where I planted seeds, are not doing as well. I direct sowed a selection of spring crops: mostly peas, but radishes, carrots, beets, spinach, arugula. The peas have done ok, though the germination was spotty. The spinach seed apparently wasn't any good, because none of them came up. A few beets and carrots, have emerged, and the arugula has also, but it doesn't seem to be growing. I'm not sure if this is the bales, the weather, or the mechanical difficulties with the floating row cover and how the wind can whip that stuff around and maybe bother the seedlings. This method is supposed to allow covering your bale row with greenhouse plastic, but I think our wind is too strong for this. Anyhow, I'm interested to see how all this goes. 

I also stuck a strawberry crown into the side of one of the bales, as an experiment. Our strawberry bed is ready to get torn up, and the crowns need to be thinned anyway, so I'm hopeful that they will love growing in the sides of the bales, and I can grow them all around the edges.

It's been several years since I successfully grew a spring brassica garden, so I'm hopeful and excited to see how this all turns out.

The direct-sow bed, with peas growing

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Pumphouse Stucco

The pump house with a coat of stucco

We've been slowly building this cute little pump house and water tank roof for many months now. This little structure is set to become our first true and permanent utility infrastructure on the property. It kind of began with an accident. During our first wall concrete pour, we overestimated the concrete needed by 1/3. That is, we ordered 1/3 more concrete than we needed, which translated to about 3 extra cubic yards. Oops!

Drew asked me, "Can you think of anything we could do with that much concrete?" I thought about it a few moments, and then said, "How about a water tank pad?" And Drew said, "Brialliant!" Our crew, with Karl at the helm quickly formed up a 16 foot by 16 foot pad, and poured within 15 minutes.

For several years, the tank slab has had nothing doing. Finally, this last fall, we decided we needed to upgrade our water system, to meet fire and residential code. The pad will hold three, 3,500-gallon water tanks that will be plumbed appropriately, the little attached shed will house our pressure pumps so that they can no longer freeze in cold weather, the roof will collect rainwater into our agricultural and fire-water tanks, and the roof of the structure will hold our solar panels once we permit our solar-grid intertie system. It is also home to our new PG&E meters, and will be the future home of all the guts of our electrical system and our generator. Now that's stacking functions! As an added bonus, it's also much more centrally-located than our current water tank and pump setup.

Drew spraying on stucco

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Planting the Straw Bale Garden

 Gardner pours potting soil onto our straw bales

Last Sunday, which was a gorgeous sunny day, Gardner and I got busy planting seeds into our straw bales. As per instructions, we put a layer of potting soil on top of the bales, laid down our water line, and planted away. We planted shelling peas and snow peas, arugula, carrots, radishes, and beets. You can see what a big help Gardner was. He has asked me every day since we started conditioning the bales if it is time to plant yet.

Gardner planting pea seeds

I put bird netting over the bed, because the little winter flock of dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, and scrub jays are very interested in the spare wheat seeds in the bales, and little birds often like to scratch up newly planted areas, or eat pea seedlings, especially. We are tearing down our big greenhouse, because it is in a bad location, and the plastic had torn, so we're cutting it up into pieces to use for our straw bale garden. I tried using one of these pieces, but that first night we had some of our infamous wind. It didn't want to stay put, and I was worried all the flapping might disturb our newly planted seeds. So I dug out our row covers, and that works much better, though I'm not sure it will provide much of a temperature buffer for the plants. We'll see. We have had frosty mornings the last few days.

The finished, planted bales, with bird netting and greenhouse plastic

Looking forward to spring food, fresh stuff from the garden! I also started two additional beds of bales this weekend. They are lined up in the other direction. These two new beds are a total of 16 bales. I plan to plant all the brassicas, lettuce, and onions I planted in the cold frame a few weeks ago, plus potatoes. I'm feeling excited about our garden this year.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cochineal Dye Day

When folks see my dark burgundy red-colored yarn, they want to know what I used to dye it. They are then usually surprised when I tell them that the dye material is bugs. But that's really what cochineal is. Cochineal are scale insects that feed upon the prickly pear cactus fruit, which is dark pink. They are collected by hand and dried, and then sold in the form you see below:

Dried cochineal insects

To make the dye, I boil the bug bodies in several changes of water and strain them out. Once they're boiled, they look like so:

The resulting dye bath is dark red. I should be getting a true red from my cochineal when I use the alum mordant, and I'm not totally sure why mine comes out like raspberry sorbet. I'm guessing it must be our water. With its pH, I would expect to get a true red, but there are likely dissolved minerals, which may alter the outcome. One of these days, I'll try it with distilled water or rainwater, and see if I get different results. I have also seen instructions that recommend grinding the cochineal before extraction. I wonder if this would yield more red? I'm not really disappointed though, because this shade of purple-red-raspberry is one of my favorites. 

Cochineal-dyed fingering-weight yarn