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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Stinging Nettle Pesto

Tonight's dinner: Cabbage noodles with stinging nettle pesto, miner's lettuce salad with lemon-mustard viniagrette, and grilled grass-fed local beef with lime garlic rub...mmmmm.

About a year and a half ago, I embarked on a new food journey. I wasn't happy with my health or weight, and someone recommended the blog of Maria Emmerich, called Keto Adapted. I did some reading, and was very intrigued with her perspective, and the results her clients claimed. So I dove in, headlong.

The basic idea is to eat a high fat, moderate protein, and low-carb diet, and this is supposed to put your body in nutritional ketosis, a state where your body burns fat for energy instead of carbs. Maria's blog is full of delicious and delightful dishes, as well as keto-adapted takes on standards, such as stroganoff, or granola. It has totally changed the way I eat, and in general, I feel a lot better than I did when I began, and I lost about 15 pounds to boot. I've since then also explored the Paleo philosophy, and found a lot of really interesting reading about how humans are meant to eat and live.

Recently, my daughter Ella has become fascinated with natural history and indigenous living traditions. She is curious about edible plants and mushrooms, and interested in how to build her own bow, wants to hunt animals with snares, make fire with a hand drill, and build debris huts and live in the woods with only a knife and a pot. Drew and I are so thrilled with this development, because we are both very interested in the same skills, and have each, on our own terms, spent time in our lives studying the natural world.

Last year, Drew carved a trail through our unique and unusual swamp, that lies down the hill from the yurt. Before then, this area was impenetrable. Now, there's a quite pleasant little walk one can take, even with the kids. Yesterday, Drew and Ella did some woods clean up on part of this walk, and created the beginnings of a little wilderness camp, where Ella is planning to carry out her survivalist experience. Today, she wanted to go back down there to work on fire drills, and also harvest wild edibles. I'm always into that idea.

We collected cattails tubers and stems from the marsh (Typha latifolia), though I'm actually quite inexperienced in how to make use of this plant. We then collected a large bunch of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), and some miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) to use in our dinner. I also collected some chickweed (Stellaria media) because I wanted Ella to know the plant. While we were doing our walkabout, we managed to sneak up on some deer, who didn't notice us for a while, until our little dog dashed across the meadow!

Once home, I steamed the nettles to prepare my nettle pesto, and cleaned the miner's lettuce and added some sliced avocado for a salad. I cooked up some home-grown cabbage "noodles" for my low carb noodle portion (Drew and the kids had regular noodles), made some dressing, and we grilled some grass-fed T-bone steak that was grown across the creek on our neighbor's land. Now that's "paleo".

Stinging Nettle Pesto Recipe
~ 4 cups, loosely packed, nettle leaves, steamed
2 cloves garlic
2 cups walnuts
generous salt
olive oil

Mill the walnuts, garlic, and salt in the food processor until the walnuts form almost a paste. Add the steamed nettles, and pulse until well mixed. Add olive oil to create your desired pesto consistency. Add to the pasta of your choice and enjoy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Straw Bale Garden Continued

Today is day 8 of the bale conditioning process. I've been adding feather meal every other day for the first week, and then every day for the last two. They are damp, and sprouting their residual wheat seeds, and they stink like the feather meal. I installed the t-posts today, and two runs of wire, so we can put the mini greenhouse on once plants are in there.

We got a whole new pile of bales for the next round, too, and are deciding where to place them, and in what position. Even though it's going to be temporary, it's still difficult to decide. I want the yard to feel welcoming, and not cramped. I want the kids to have space to play, and yet still have the garden in our midst, AND have the layout naturally help shelter the other beds from the ubiquitous summer wind. In fact, we're having our first wind event today. It's blowing like it's summer out there, reminding me of how much that element affects our every design decision. Drew and I talked yesterday about planting a couple of rows of corn on the terrace above our yard, to help create a windbreak for the garden AND for our own experience of being outdoors. Our wind is so drastic that when it's happening, we can't really enjoy being outside.

Anyhow, if all goes well, we should be able to plant seeds into this first row of bales next week. We also planted our tomato, pepper, and eggplant plants. We also are waiting on germination of most of the brassicas, besides the bok choi, which is never worried about anything. Hopefully the broccoli and cauliflower and cabbage and such will catch up.

A Use for Scotch Broom

The stuff in the bucket is the scotch broom plant material after being cooked for dye, and the yarn above is the finished product.

Those of you who live close by know that we are slowly reclaiming our property from scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), an invasive plant that inhabits the west. When we bought our 50 acres, maybe 20 of them were covered in various-aged stands of this woody perennial. It can be anywhere from 3-15 feet tall, and each individual plant produces maybe tens of thousands of beautiful, brilliant yellow blossoms during it's season in April-June. Each flower produces approximately 10 seeds that eject from their pea-shaped seed pods once they dry out at the end of the bloom. In June and July, when the bulk of them explode, it can sound like a fire is crackling in the stand near our house.

Although we are working each year to decrease the prevalence of this noxious plant, I have found a verifiable use for it: dye! Scotch broom is closely related to French broom, also called Dyer's broom (Genista tinctoria). I suspected I could get a dye, using the same instructions, and found that YES! I can! I collect branches during the height of the bloom and strip the blossoms off, and then dry them, and I can use them to create a pale, slightly green, yellow color for my yarn. Now that's local!

Yarn in front is first dyebath, yarn in back is second dye bath.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Backyard Bird Count Results

Over the weekend, I submitted three bird lists to the Great BackYard Bird Count. You sign up, and then do a minimum of 15 minutes of birding at an area of your choosing, and report the results. This is a worldwide event, and ordinary birders are all submitting data, in the interest of tracking bird presence and absence in a wide range of habitats. Here's a list of birds we found at our place on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday:

  • American Robin
  • Scrub Jay
  • Red-shafted Flicker (Northern Flicker)
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • California Towhee
  • Black Phoebe
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Stellar's Jay
  • Song Sparrow
  • Western Meadowlark
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Raven
  • Mourning Dove
  • Anna's Hummingbird
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • California Quail
  • Marsh Wren
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • European Starling
  • Red-tail Hawk
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Varied Thrush

I also saw a rabbit and a western gray squirrel.

On my Mill Creek hike with Ella, we saw or heard:

  • Pacific Wren
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Red-shafted Flicker
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Varied Thrush
  • Raven

I believe you can view the GBBC data at the website, Great Backyard Bird Count. Check it out! You can explore results for any geographical area, though I find the Humboldt results to be most interesting.

Paying Forward Pays Dividends

Gardner drums on our giant head of winter cabbage.

Our winter garden didn't amount to much last year. We got everything in at the perfect moment, the plants did great, and then, the deer got into the garden a week later, and ate all the brussels sprouts, most of the broccoli, and half of the cauliflower, and then gophers consumed about half of the cabbage plants.

However, we still have some cabbage! These are an awesome winter cabbage called January King (from Territorial Seed Company). I love the winter garden for this reason. If you can thread the gauntlet of predators, storms, and frost, you come out in spring with fresh food, when nothing else is growing yet.

Here comes coleslaw!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Little Nature Walk

Today, Ella and I took part in the Great Back Yard Count, a bird-counting event that gathers bird data from all over the world for the same four days. We had a lot of fun on our all-day-long hike in Mill Creek Forest, and looking for birds in our yard. But before I even knew about this event, I went birding for the first time in forever yesterday, because my daughter was playing with a friend, and my son is away for the weekend with dad (yay DAD!). Here's what I wrote about my little walk:

Dropped right into owl eyes/deer ears meditation, immediately became very sensitive and seeing birds far away. First critter: red-shafted flicker at the top of a tree by the yurt, calling, another answers across the creek.

Moving on, moving slowly. Thought something moved in brush near spring trail. Couldn't decide which way to go, was called to marsh trail instead. Saw a bird dive at the entrance. Approached quietly. Noticed flying insects all over willow tree. Closer look revealed many small flies drinking nectar from new willow catkin flowers. A few varieties of flies. Who knew flies pollinated willows? Entered marsh trail. Pause. Sparrows in blackberry thicket by entrance, the one I saw before. Wait and observe. After a few minutes of stillness, they showed themselves to me, complaining: white-crowned sparrow. A pair. Waiting.

Suddenly, I see something. I turn slowly to look closer, a rabbit! Darting back and forth, as if it can't decide what to do! And then it dashes across the path ahead of me, down into the stinging nettle. Soon after, Poblano (my little dog) comes along sniffing excitedly. That rabbit gave him the slip! Smile and wait. Ahhh, this must be who is browsing on the marsh plants...many of them are clipped off, leaving a simple stem with no leaf.

I notice several cattail heads have their fluff all pulled apart (bird nest fluff?) Hear sparrow song up top, unknown species. Move a little farther in, and pause and wait. More sparrows. Watching a blackberry thicket. Wow, there's a bird moving in there, turn my head slowly, it's preening, maybe it doesn't see me, it looks sleepy, like it might just close its eyes and doze off. I am 4 feet away. It's some kind of wren! Maybe the marsh wren? I've never seen this bird before.

Moving on, I sit down for a few minutes. Pause. Up again. Notice 1 or 2 squirrel nests (?) in tall creek alders, and maybe a bird nest near to them, something flatter with lots of sticks in treetops. Walk a little further and pause. Wait. Minutes of stillness. A woodpecker. I had heard drumming. This little guy (or girl) downy woodpecker fed in mid-treetops, not too concerned about me. I take a good look in the binos. Then I move ahead, a good view down toward the creek to a flat with good cover for ground birds. Waited. Several minutes. Heard two unfamiliar birds companion calling. Finally got a look, not sure who? Ground feeder, hopping like a towhee, but not a towhee, a sparrow? Maybe hermit thrush? Around now, varied thrush also wanted to see what was up, so perched up higher to see me, then flew away toward the wolf tree.

While I was observing this, a western grey squirrel came along, traveling upstream in the trees. Downy woodpecker moved out of the way, then went back to feeding. Spent some time @ the wolf tree. Up hill to lower meadow. Startled more sparrows, and quail sentinel warned everyone before I emerged. I startled this covey last week during the storm on my dusk walk through the same location). I stopped and waited and hoped for a return to baseline, but a towhee dives out of a bush near me and flies away in a worry. Other birds too. On my way up the hill, another wren! 2 in one day!

Also, raven, turkey vulture, song sparrow, robin, stellar's jay, and red-tail hawk call. Deer tracks.

It's amazing how if you arrive in calmness, and settle and wait, in stillness, the forest comes back to life quickly, and amazing things happen. That was the single most amazing nature walk I've ever taken, by the sheer number of small successes, and the rewards of patience paying off.

Friday, February 13, 2015

It's Hand-Dyed, Natural-Dyed Farmstead Yarn

Yarn "cooking" in the dye vat

Since I've been away from the blog, a funny little thing has happened. I have become obsessed with fiber, yarn, and dye. I started buying local fleece, and turning it into yarn, and researching ways to transform that white stuff into lovely colors using natural and wildcrafted dye. It's turned into an actual thing! In November of last year, I officially launched Lost Coast Yarn with my own Etsy page. I'm pretty excited about it, and excited for the knitters of Humboldt County to have access to locally-grown and -dyed yarn.

Today, I was busy dyeing my first batch of my 2014 clip. This is a 75% wool, 25% alpaca sock or fingering weight yarn. Today's dye was made using black walnut hulls. My neighbors, Gail, Harold and Mimi, and Jane all gave me a collection of walnut hulls in the fall when they were harvesting their walnuts. I put the rotting brown outer shells into buckets of water, put a lid on them, and forgot about them, till yesterday.

I poured some of the fermented brew into my dye pot, and boiled for an hour or two, and then strained the dye. (I put the hulls back into the bucket to soak some more, there will be plenty more dye from them.) Then I added my washed and soaked yarn to the dye, and simmered at 170 degrees or so for about 90 minutes. The color came out a lovely coppery brown today. I was aiming for a little lighter, but hey! It's always an adventure with natural dye. I think it's quite lovely. 

 Skeins of Sock Yarn, Dyed with Black Walnut

Straw Bale Gardening

Well, it's been quite a while since I have added anything to my lovely little blog. Having a second child will do that to you! I just have not had any space to think of writing regularly. Maybe this won't have changed, but I'm excited about a new project that begs for blogging on California Homesteading.

I'm just getting started with a "Straw Bale Garden". After following one of those ubiquitous Facebook links to a page on the subject, I took about 10 minutes to decide to order the $20 book to find out how this is done. I've heard of growing things in bales before, but didn't know much about how.

Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten, a Minnesota gardener (, arrived within a few days, and I quickly saw great potential. Our gardens have been in a challenging way for some years. The size had grown large, and required more physical labor to prepare than I have strength and lower back health. We also live on a pasture, and our regular vegetation is grass, lots of it, several species of which are quite invasive, and difficult to remove for spring and summer planting. Our spring planting is often thwarted by wet soils and weather, and in the summer, gophers are a huge issue.

In Straw Bale Gardens, Karsten describes how to add fertilizer and water to a regular old straw bale to transform it into a warm, moist, bacterially-active growing medium, all above the ground at a nice height for working, while also creating a little trellis that you can use to create a mini-greenhouse, warmed by your cooking bale, to protect your young plants. Another added benefit for us is that these beds can be temporary, in that at the end of the season, all that's left is composting straw. We are still deciding what shape and form our garden area right outside our door will be, so the idea that we can create this garden and then tear it down if we hate the layout, is very appealing.

So the day after getting the book, Drew was going to town with the truck to get hay for the milk cow, and we also got a few straw bales. He was even able to find organically-grown bales. I procured the necessary amendments and hardware cloth underlayment from our friendly neighborhood nursery, and I started watering and amending them yesterday. Once they're ready, in about two weeks, we'll plant peas, radishes, arugula, and lettuce.

Gardner and I also planted lots of seeds that will be ready to transplant into our next round of bales. These will be our regular spring crops that I often can't get in the ground early enough: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choi, fennel, cilantro, lettuce, etc. It's almost the new moon, too, which means it will be time to plant the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

I'm so excited about our garden after an almost-complete hiatus last summer. The year of grief, after losing three friends in three months, seems to have left me now, and I am motivated again in the good things in life. I have missed eating our own home-grown produce, and am looking forward to piquant and fresh lettuce greens, and delicious fruits, grown perfectly for our tastes. Bon appetit!