A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Saturday, May 30, 2015

By the shovelful

    This past month we have done a lot of digging and planting. This seems to be a theme of spring for us as every other year here we have planted a lot of trees and this year is no different! Well, I suppose the difference is that this year we also planted our first garden here, thus making this our most digging-est year yet. Yes, our backs are sore but with all of our earth moving behind us, I have to say I am glad that we did it. Our home is feeling more home-like surrounded by cultivated green spaces and not just overgrown fields. And this year will hopefully be the first of many logging hours puttering in the soil around the house.

     First things first, we borrowed a friend's rototiller to loosen up the soil in our plowed garden area, and Mike spent one hot and frustrating day pushing it around the garden patch. Once that was done, we set the posts for our perimeter fence (thanks to a work party of folks who helped us dig holes for it!) and stapled up wire fencing, leaving a few openings for gates to go in. Then came the work of actually shaping beds, which we had determined should be "raised" because we are working with such a wet, water-logged site. The advantage to putting in a garden lower down in our creek valley is that the soil in our garden seems really decent: it tends toward clay consistency, but a very dark brown-almost black color and full of earthworms (and now a few half earthworms... sorry guys).

     Anyhow, that "raising" of beds took some muscle, for sure, and I especially got rather absorbed in the process of prepping beds and starting seeds in them. Gardening is a whole new frontier for me, despite almost a decade of fumbling attempts at trying to coax life out of containers and occasional small plots. There is such a lot to learn about soil fertility, plant timing, spacing, companion planting, diseases and pests and so on. I have spent much of my spare time in the past month with my nose to my large stack of library gardening books and I can tell this is going to take some time to get the hang of. What is most exciting is knowing that finally we are at a place where we can really invest time in improving our soil and that each year it will get better. That being said--low expectations for this year since this is the no-amendments-made starting point and what we have mostly planted this year are hand-me-down seedlings and starts from our neighbors (on the runty side, the seedlings not the neighbors). On the bright side, we have plenty of mulch material thanks to last year's extra straw, so hopefully that will give us a leg up on the weeds!

      I spent probably too much time building our garden gates and learned one valuable lesson in the process-- it helps to have square straight fence posts where your gate is going to go. For some reason we put our most curvy posts there, making for one tricky carpentry project. Hopefully the rabbits won't notice the gaps around the sides and stay politely outside. Also, we are finally appreciating the virtues of having unlimited gravity-fed water from our pond! It is nice to be able to easily water in small plants and seeds. Okay, more garden reports to come, for sure!

     Vegetables are not the only thing we have been planting... As per our usual, we ambitiously ordered quite a few trees this year. I don't think we quite realized how many until boxes started showing up in the post and we were pressed with getting everything in the ground. Mike headed up this endeavor for the most part, and all in all we planted something like 75 trees and shrubs. You might be thinking if you regularly follow this blog, "didn't you already plant everything you possibly could plant last year and the year before that?" But that is the rabbithole of horticulture for you-- the more you get into it, the more excited you are to expand into the new things you are learning about! There are so many interesting fruit varieties out there, such as honeyberry (the first blueberry-like fruit to bear in spring), quince (a lemon-tasting apple? Yum!), high-bush cranberry, sea buckthorn, asian pears and plums, currants and gooseberries, oh, and chestnuts! We organized a community chestnut tree order and planted 20 ourselves.
     Many of these tree additions were made to our hugel-swales (scroll back to a year one post for more on building these). Now that we are in year four of our swales, our "food forest" concept is much further along! We have been mixing plantings of upper-story things like edible trees with shrub layer and herbaceous understory layers. Each swale has an edible perenial groundcover developing and several special plants called "dynamic accumulators" (in the permaculture world) as they bring up extra nutrients and make it available in the soil once they are trimmed back. In the photo to the left you can see bushy comfrey plants thriving in the foreground. This is another project we are glad we started year one, because now we can just keep popping in more plants as we get the whim, knowing their root systems will be well nourished by the mycelium-rich logs underneath.

    Okay, take a breath, because we are not done planting yet! The last frontier here has been the pond. We finally got around to ordering some aquatic plants for the edges of our pond, which will be critical to establishing a pond ecosystem. Our pond is full of water and has been for about a year, so we felt comfortable plugging in things like "sago pond weed" and "sweet flag" around the perimeter, to their preferred depths. They will be able to adjust up or down in the pond as they need with the slowly rising and lowering water level. In another year, once the plants are further established, we can add in small fish that will thrive in the reedy shallows and build up the food chain from there to the fish that hopefully one day we can catch and eat, like large-mouth bass! Until then, the frogs have the reign of the pond, and they are singing its praises every night.

     Last but not least, our latest endeavor involved renting a mini-excavator for the day to dig a large pit for our house's water cistern. Mike did an amazing job maneuvering the awkward beast around to dig a cubic hole roughly 15 ft. long, 7 ft. deep and 10 ft. wide (maybe "cubic" is a bit generous for the final shape, but with a little honing, it will get there!) He then used the excavator to spread out and compact the soil to the east of the house, where we have always had a sloped hillside. Now we have something more like a level patio next to the house. He was also able to level out an access route to the house on the hillside behind it, effectively terracing it. With a little filling in of low spots by hand, it should all be ready to get wood chips and a small retaining wall built. Yes, it probably sounds like a lot of work that we are taking on, but with the help of the right machine for the day and a few gallons of gas investment, most of the work is done in short order. Building a cistern out of cinderblocks and concrete is going to be its own project for another day, but a very necessary one for us to have year-round water in our house.

      In case you have gotten this far in the post and are wondering what is going on with the actual construction end of things, fear not, we are transitioning to that end of things as I write. I have our orders in for a front door, porch decking wood, and oh, about a thousand bags of cellulose insulation. If all goes well, the coming week will bring all the prep needed for insulation to happen, and then I am hoping that Mike's family and friends who will be visiting in a week will feel up for helping us get fluffy with the cellulose. Oh, and this coming week our piglet is arriving! Lots to stay tune for!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Back in the land of milk and honey

Welcome back to this blog and happy spring!

     Mike and I have had a very busy and full winter working out east, squirreling away resources for this final season building our house in Missouri. And now, after one long and harrowing journey back west with our modern-day covered wagon (Subaru station wagon with attached U-Haul trailer), we are once again in the land of milk and honey, NE Missouri.

     The other day as I was greeting some neighbors here, an industrious swarm of bees looping around their hive caught my eye and it suddenly occurred to me what a perfect description "the land of milk and honey" is for this place because it is quite literally abounding in milk and honey of all sorts. Our neighbor's cow just gave birth to a lovely calf, Mayapple, and her udder is so full of milk that her teets won't stop dripping, even spraying milk! We are being gifted everyone's farm abundance left and right: jars of cow and goat milk, last year's extra sorghum honey, jams and jellies, last year's sweet potatoes and cans of tomatoes, and of course, legions of fresh eggs as nobody seems to be able to keep up with their chicken's bumper spring production. Since we have no food production of our own yet, I feel extra grateful to be the recipient of the overflow. Our only abundance to share at the moment are wild spring greens, which Mike forages and whips up into tasty dishes like, "wood nettles sauteed with wild ramps pesto".

Baby chicks getting their daily dose of adoration from the neighborhood kids

Wild greens salad

Setting up camp.... again!
     On top of all the beautiful and miraculous signs of life unfolding once again around us, we have been enjoying sweet reunions with many friends, with our stray cats who survived the winter, and with our home, still standing and in very nearly the same condition we left it in! In fact, our unfinished house is where we first moved back into when we arrived two weeks ago, as our arrival coincided with a weekend of rain and storms. We put our mattress on some of last year's left over straw bales and set-up a make-shift table and chairs for dining. Our first few nights back were spent dry, safe, and unwoken by the clashes of thunder and lightening and howling wind as is the usual in our tent. Funny how something I have taken for granted my entire life--shelter--now feels like such a miraculous blessing to have. What a difference from camping in the elements! Still, we decided to move back out into our old tent platform for one more summer after we made a few improvements to it, since living inside the house we hope to be soon working in would definitely slow us down.

     In all seriousness, the beginning of this year feels different. Our goals are shifting as one major project will be coming to an end and our focus is expanding to other parts of Giving Tree Homestead. Am I getting ahead of myself? Probably. Would it be prudent to put all of our energy into finishing the house alone? Yes, definitely. But instead we are throwing a few more balls into the air at the same time-- starting a large vegetable garden, ordering dozens of sapling fruit and nut trees, planting and stocking our pond, adding a new driveway to the house, perhaps starting work on our outdoor summer kitchen, and even thinking about getting some poultry, pigs, and bees going on our land! (Okay, I said thinking...) Although it is a lot, I think we can accomplish all this AND be moved in to a mostly finished house by the time it gets cold this year, with a wing and a prayer! Having my aunt Jane visit briefly this past week, I was reminded of her first visit here where she and my parents spent several days helping us fill foundation holes with gravel (see blog post #1), and it really hit me how far we've come.

Our friend Sarah singing opera music at a campfire get-together.
 Her future house in the background is almost complete!

     As we embark on our homesteading projects this year, I am cognizant that for the first time we are finally fully living here, year round. To anyone who has ever lived a split life, with half of one's possessions, friends and livelihood in two separate places, it feels really good to unify those halves into a whole life, somewhere. And that somewhere is HERE, in this magical world where red tail hawks shoot by like rockets soaring into the sky, where we are woken by the gobble of wild turkeys nearby, where turtles and tadpoles swim in our pond, and coyotes yip in our woods, and our neighbor's children can tell us where every new songbird nest is hidden in the trees and grasses near their house. It is truly an amazing world we live in, and for the moment I am blessed to have eyes that still see it. Pretty soon as construction gets under way, I may just be seeing my to-do list as I look around, but for now, spring is abounding!

My favorite spring neighbors have returned-- tree frogs!