Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Back to Homestead Project Reporting

OK, Swine Flu out of my system, ready to report on the latest goings on...yesterday was my first full day home alone in almost three years, and I put myself to work on some larger-scale garden/homestead projects: constructing our first, true compost pile, and revamping our graywater system.

Compost Pile

The compost scene before all the work

The pile under construction, with a few layers of dirt, green stuff, and dry stuff

A layer of freshly pulled fava beans, aka green manure

The finished product, in view of the kitchen composter, solar panels, and orchard

Having a small child has altered my ability to put in garden time as I would like. Tasks that need to be completed always keep a to-do list full, and compost is no exception. For the nearly three years we've lived here, I have just piled weeds and such for compost without much attention. This technique does produce useable compost, though at a much slower rate than with concentrated effort. We finally had enough material to build a large pile, and we also needed a spot for the graywater sludge I was about to pull out of the stinky graywater pit, as well as the slowly increasing supply of chicken droppings.

So my first order of business was to consolidate the two windrow style piles I've made with last year's corn and tomato stalks, brassica remains, and this years grass and weeds I've pulled from beds I'm preparing for planting. First you layer some sticks or woody stuff, to try to create some aeration at the bottom of the pile. Then you layer dirt, green stuff, and dry stuff alternately until your pile is the size you want! Oh, and it is also important to water your pile as you build it, aiming for the moisture of a wrung-out sponge. I'm not sure how you test this, but keeping it moist helps the pile get active and rot faster.

Graywater System Overhaul

The beginning of new excavation and sod removal, with the stinky "before" mess showing

First layer of dirt removed, ready to move the lava rock gravel

The pit all dug out with the mound in the center for a tree. The bathhouse, source for a lot of graywater, is the boxy building in the background.

The newly created pit with woodchip mulch bottom and raised sides, looking toward the outlet pipe

Finished mulch pit, showing some of the plants that stand to benefit from the installation (blueberries, fig tree, garden bed, etc.)

After lunch, I took on our graywater pond. It's been in operation for about a year now, and within a few months, it's ability to digest all the particles of food from our kitchen sink was overwhelmed. It seems that the volume of water compared to the size of the "mulch pit" was too great as well. This represents a design error on our part. But after viewing a great graywater video interview with my friend Trathen Heckman of the non-profit Daily Acts about his awesome graywater system in Petaluma, CA, I got some ideas churning. This was helped out by Drew hiring our neighbor to make a giant pile of woodchips this past weekend.

I decided I would greatly enlarge the mulch pit area, and fill it with woodchips, constructing a much-improved, true mulch pit. This involved a lot of dirt and mud wrangling, hacking up a fresh part of the lawn, and rearranging the gooey water and gravel such that I could work with the space. After several hours of shoveling and hauling, I admired my work, exhausted! The idea of the mulch pit is to plant something in the center, like a fruit tree. I am going to wait and see how it performs, but just may add a plum or apricot, or some such thing, if the pit demonstrates its ability to process our bath, kitchen, shower, and washing machine water. I'm optimistic about a non-stinky location to recycle all that great water for garden use.

We also may cover the outlet, and fill up the pit further, so it's less of a pit, and more of a depression. Then we could use the space instead of avoiding it all together.

Amid Swine Flu, Life Goes on

All the swine flu buzz has me a little worried. I am an amateur epidemiologist at heart, tracking illnesses around our little community. For me this is motivated by my somewhat irrational obsession with trying to not get sick, and my anxiety around certain kinds of illnesses. But this virus floating around appears to be serious, and I wonder how much Mexico is keeping hidden from the public eye. With a global transportation network, I have no doubt that this illness is worldwide already, just as other flus travel around on airplanes, boats, trains, and then pass around in public locations like schools, restaurants, and offices. You don't have to be a genius to look at the numbers. Each infected person probably lives with other people. A global immune response, perhaps, all these flus? Why are people in Mexico the only ones dying? Have there been many more cases than reported? Many interesting questions remain to be answered in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bath House Finishing



Sean Nailing Recycled Redwood Tongue and Groove Wainscot

Window with Wainscotting

Door All Done Up

Sink and Medicine Cabinet, Cheezy I know, but hey...

I can't say we have a reputation for fully finishing things around here, and this project is no exception. After nearly three years of use, our bath house was still unfinished around the bathtub (with flashing paper flapping around and allowing water to hit the wall when toddler tidal waves hit unexpectedly), it didn't have door trim, it didn't have baseboard trim, it didn't have light fixtures, it didn't have a mirror or medicine cabinet, and it still doesn't have a finished ceiling. But with the visit of dear friends with a toddler in tow, we managed to accomplish a lot in that little space, making it so much more pleasant to use and enjoy! (Thank you so much, Sean, Jen, and Myrika!)

I forgot to take a before photo that showed the underneath of the tub structure without a cover at all. I did take one that shows the walls surrounding the tub mostly uncovered with wainscotting.

So this weekend, we installed that wainscotting, installed the door trim, baseboards, two light fixtures, a medicine cabinet/mirror unit, and covered up the area under the tub. It really does look fabulous. The last thing that will make it so very nice will be to sheetrock, plaster, and paint the ceiling. Not sure when we'll get to that, but I hope pretty soon! Enjoy the images.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The CHICKS Have Arrived!

I took my first solo town trip since Ella was born last Friday. I had a doctors appointment, and our chicks were scheduled to arrive at a local feed store.

While I was waiting to be seen at the clinic, I got a call from the feed store...they said, "The hatchery shorted us 20 chicks, so we're calling everyone to come as soon as you can, and it's first-come, first-served at this point." **ARG** Well, I'd already been waiting a half hour, so I asked at the window when I would be seen. The surly desk attendant phoned to the bowels of the clinic, and nodded, and hmmmed, and uh-huh'ed, and hung up. "It's going to be at least another half hour". Well geez. I decided to go pick out the chicks, lest they get snatched by someone else.

When I got to 3G's, they still had 17 of the 25 buff orpington hens we had ordered. I then randomly chose seven more birds from the mixed breed brooder box. Two of them are roosters for sure, but the other five are anyone's guess. Hope they turn out to be hens. I picked pretty looking ones, it will be interesting to see what they turn out like. While I was choosing them, the phone rang again, and the clinic receptionist told me "They're ready to see you now." It had only been 12 minutes.

They had quite a wild day, driving all over the county, culminating in a trip over the Wildcat on their way back to the ranch here. They took it all in stride, and though it probably wasn't a very good idea, I couldn't help but hold a few of them while I was hurtling down the highway at 65 mph.

All but one are doing really well. It's kind of like having newborn around, just a little. They need a constant temperature of 95, and continuous supply of food and water. We've been experimenting with lodging and lights, litter, trays and hot water bottles. We doubled their brooder by attaching a second box, with a door cut through it...now they have a bedroom with a warm light, and a living room with the food and water. They are really fun to watch! They already scratch in the food, and peck at specks that they think might be bugs, and they zip around unexpectedly when spooked. My favorite is when one of them falls asleep in the food dish, just lays down and droops it's head, and closes its eyes. There is sure to be more chicken writing in the months ahead. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter Egg Hunt

I'm sitting here typing this evening while Ella's friend Nick, who is a few years older, and Ella are peacefully building lego spaceships, and reflecting out loud how they are sharing the Legos together. Ahhhh, sometimes I am so very present to how much we have arrived at older-kid-dom.

Easter Sunday was a fun-filled day, with early-morning-tearing-into-presents (thanks, Grandma Shirley!) and our usual pancakes for breakfast, followed by a walk through overcast skies and bird-song filled forests to our neighbor Quinn's house for the long-awaited Egg Hunt. Ella has been begging to go for days.

We were the first kids there, and we played on the swingset while awaiting more hunters and for all the eggs to be hidden. When everyone arrived, we posed the kids for the usual group photo, and then sent them running, rummaging through grass and shrubs, irises, garden hoses, decks, potted plants, and along fences, searching for the rainbow-colored eggs. The hiders did a phenomenal job, placing an egg the exact color of a garden hose in among the coils, for example. Well done, ladies! While the kids scrambled, the adults milled about on the porch, imbibing cinnamon rolls, muffins, quiche, coffee, and tea.

Once the kids were all finished with finding the eggs, the scavenger hunt began, where the kids are sent all over the property in search of more clues, for example, "When you climb the wall, you're very tall, and can see it all." The clues eventually led to the side door of the house, which opened into a room full of easter baskets with a stuffed animal, some candy, and a balloon. My favorite part of the scavenger hunt is how the kids take off like a herd of spooking deer once they read the clue and realize where they need to go!

After a little more chatting, we began our journey home, easter baskets, hard-boiled eggs, and demolished sheep cinnamon rolls in tow in the bike trailer, and were graced with the amazing view of our flat, what with a cloud-mottled sky and rich, green, velvety hills. Spring is amazing, and every April, I am reminded of why this is the month that first inspired me to live here someday. Magic magic magic.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Preparation at the Homestead

Purple Cabbage, Water, and Vinegar, for Making Blue Dye

Putting Onion Skins Around the Egg

Wrapping the Egg

Tying the Cloth Wrapper

Unwrapping the Onion-Skin Dyed Egg

Onion-Skin, and Onion-Skin-Nettle Dyed Eggs

The Whole Dozen (Minus Two for Snacks) All Made With Natural Dye

A Delighted Ella

What a perfect follow up to my post about chickens!

Easter in Petrolia is kind of an institution. There is an egg hunt for the kids every year, at a neighbors house. We bustle about and make our eggs for delivery the day before, and a crew of diligent and creative people hide them the morning of the hunt, in the crooks of trees, next to rocks, along fences and porches, and inside random pieces of rural trash (i.e. dead cars). After the hunt, the older kids participate in a scavenger hunt, at the end of which is an easter basket for each child, complete with a stuffed animal and some candy. Ella sort of got it last year, but THIS year, well, she is really excited for tomorrow. All day, she has been begging me to go to the hunt. I tell her it's not happening until tomorrow, and she then asks, "But WHYYYYY, momma?"

This morning, we dyed our eggs. I sent Drew for supplies last week, and he balked at buying those silly little commercial kits. He came home instead with beet powder, and suggestions of using turmeric for yellow dye. Hmmm. Not what I was thinking, but I began researching online, and found several recipes for natural dye using such materials. So this morning after breakfast, we started cooking up homemade dye. Water, beet powder (available at our natural food store, who knew?!), and vinegar for red; Water, turmeric, and vinegar for yellow; water, red cabbage, and vinegar for blue. I boiled each of the concoctions for a while, and then strained the turmeric potion (through a coffee filter), and the cabbage, through a strainer. And we did a few in Drew's mom's traditional way, using yellow onion skins held on tight to the egg with a piece of fabric. You just hard-boil them in that little cloth package. We laid a stinging nettle leaf on one of those, and wow, did it come out a beautiful, natural shade of green.

If you are interested in exploring these websites and recipes yourself, check out these two: one with lots of natural dye recipes for various colors, and another for making Chinese "Tea Eggs", where you crack the outer shell of the hard-boiled egg before you dye it, leaving the shell-crack impression on the finished egg. They look like china ware in psychedelic colors, so cool.
Who knew natural eggs could come out so beautifully? Who needs Paz? Not ME, anymore!

Monday, April 6, 2009


I can't believe I haven't announced that we will be the proud parents of 25 Buff Orpington chicks beginning April 17th. (Check out the link, if you don't know what this kind looks like). We have long wanted chickens, not only for eggs and meat, but also for their garbage-disposal tendencies. And besides, what homestead is complete without chickens?! They like to eat the yummy compost, aphids off of your culls, and they scratch and scratch in the dirt, cultivating and incorporating their manure. The Buff's are a good dual-purpose meat/egg bird, and they also make great mothers. They are prone to getting broody, meaning we could potentially raise our own chicks next year.

We won't be seeing any eggs until sometime later, but within a few months, the other chicken benefits will begin to roll in, provided we can keep hawks and other critters from eating them. We plan on building a movable coop so we can spread their effect over a larger area within the garden. Keep posted to see photos of our little babies in a few weeks!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bird Happenings

Yesterday, Ella and I were working in the garden, and heard a ruckus of hawk calls in the forest right next to the garden fence. The calls were coming closer, but the hawk was remaining just out of view behind the trees. It stopped right near us, still out of sight. There was more than one bird, at least two, maybe three. We waited quietly to see if we could SEE them, but they flew away before we caught a glimpse.

Today, while I was again working in the garden, I heard it once more, and had visual confirmation of at least three individual hawks. They were flying fast, up and down the riparian corridor, just below the treetop line. I believe it is a pair or single parent teaching juveniles to hunt. I had limited time without Ella, so I didn't want to go get my binoculars, but I finally succumbed to the temptation just before I left. I was assuming they were Sharp-Shinned Hawks, or Cooper's Hawks, with their tree hunting strategy, and though I hadn't seen them very clearly, I had noticed a striped tail. By the time I was standing with the binos, the hawks were down canyon by the old oaks, below my line of sight. I decided to take my binoculars with me, in hopes of getting a better view.

I have also been hearing woodpecker drumming down in the creek lately, and I have been wondering which woodpecker is working on drilling holes. As I dropped down the hill, I heard a very loud drum, and saw the birds flitting around the large, old willow along the creek. I got a good look at at least four of them, seemingly arguing over territorial issues.

By the time I arrived at the neighbors, I now had two bird questions. Jeremy is a skilled birder, having spent at least one summer doing bird surveys as a biologist, and his 7-year-old daughter has begun collecting her "life list". Maple brought me her Peterson's Guide (and her lens cleaner for my binoculars), and I first looked up the woodpeckers. At this moment, I remembered the difficulty in distinguishing the Downy (Picoides pubescens) vs. the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which have the same markings, except for the fact that one has a larger bill, and one is larger in overall size than the other. Without this knowledge in my mind while observing, I don't think I can say which bird I was looking at!

The hawk proved equally difficult, as the mind has a tendency to fill in blanks inaccurately once you are looking twenty paintings in a bird guide showing the underneath plumage of soaring birds. As Jeremy and Deva were inquiring about details, I realized how quickly I make assumptions when dealing with the birds. Their line of questioning was getting at the general classification, buteo or accipiter for example, (an important distinction!), whereas I went right to thinking it was a particular bird. None of the pictures suited my memory.

At last, while I was crossing the first field behind their house on my way home, I caught sight of one of the hawks again, noisily calling about. I realized quickly how large it was, ruling out Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Looking through my binoculars, I could see the striped tail, mottled wings with a white bar running front to back of the wings, and, oh yes, I see a rusty red head. But as I explore my Sibley Guide, I still am not sure which hawk we are looking at. I will need to continue observing, looking for details I keep missing, like what color is the leading edge of the wing? I'll keep you posted.

Lastly, I heard a mystery bird while at the outhouse at dusk a few nights ago. It was reminiscent of a Varied Thrush, but it was different. Not sure what it was, but certainly curious to find out.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Home Alone

Drew is away in Seattle for an Aikido seminar. It's the first time since Ella's been born that I've held up the homestead alone for more than overnight, let alone for the five days total he'll be gone. It's really not so bad, but what does stand out is the incessant list of chores related to cooking, cleaning up from cooking, feeding animals and children, tidying, laundry, watering plants, keeping a fire when it's cold, answering and returning phone calls, pumping water, and monitoring our new slab. Even with one less person around, it's still rather full. Ella has acquired our habits, when she bustles around the house building "alligator gates" and saying "I'm really busy, buildin a alligatow gate". I mean, life in the country is supposed to be peaceful, bucolic, and relaxing, right? With all this, when is there time for enjoyment?

Though it is difficult to break away from the chores, Ella and I did manage to go on a hike today, with friends, up to the top of the hill. It always feels like such a mini vacation to go up there. Maybe it's the metaphoric wide-angle view of reality, since you can see all the way to the ocean, up the Lower North Fork a-ways, and off to King's Peak, along with most of central Petrolia. Or maybe just the lack of human-made intrusions, other than 4-wheeler roads, and cattle fences. No phones or power lines, just grass and trees, springs, brooks, and edible spring foods, and happy dogs. A gratuitous pause at the summit, reclining in the grass, tossing pebbles, and shooting the breeze. Contemplating reality, or life. It kind of feels like what country life is supposed to feel like, taking that walk up the knoll. I think I'll do it more often.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

And Life Moves On

My Little Babushka

Sitting on the Step Between the Living Room and the Music/Office Space...Pallets of Wall Block Stacked Behind

Our New Horse Trailer, in Trade for "Little Car" as a Parts Car

Cloud Reflections in Slab Water

Ella and Drew Leaving the House Through the Master Bedroom Door

Ella Running Through the Massage/Guest Room

Accomplishing a big project, a slab for example, can have a little bit of a deflating effect. I felt so excited about the slab, and rightfully so, as it is such a significant moment in the sequence of our house. But now, the open road of endless construction tasks stretches out ahead of us again, and daily life intervenes to temper the pace of progress. Drew is leaving for five days to go to an aikido seminar, the garden calls, desperate for moon-appropriate action, taxes are due, and the yurt needs regular cleaning. So we breathe for a moment, inhaling perseverance to continue the one-step-at-a-time movement toward our distant goal, relaxing the desire for immediate gratification in the form of a fully constructed house.

Yesterday, I replanted all the seeds I so lovingly sowed almost a month ago. We lost all the peas to gophers, and the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants got nipped by a small critter who thought they would taste yummy just as soon as the poked out of the soil. I changed my trajectory, moving the hot weather crops into the yurt in hopes of speedier germination, and planting peas in a flat, covered with wire and bird netting. I'm going to try giving them a head start before transplant. I also transplanted out approximately 80 onions into the raised beds, and began preparing the bed that will contain the newest rounds of brassicas, carrots, beets, lettuce and spinach...spring garden!

Enjoying the longer days, and slightly warmer nights...