In the shadows of an arduous winter compounded by socially distant realities, we embrace the fortitude of natures powers as its dormant roots awake from their frozen slumber and greet us with their vibrancy and hope.
One of the first bulbs to emerge from my autumn bulb project were these quirky
Katharine Hodgkin Dwarf Iris.
Also waking from its late autumn planting was a bit of frost kissed sweet spinach.
Followed by a slew of daffodil varietals that screamed warm weather is coming and the garden prep needs to begin!
With the raised beds resting in the garden I peeked to see this years garlic crop finally feeling confident enough to say hello and my energy moved towards planning for the 2021 season was sparked!
One success from the hard work of last year was the raised bed I removed due to being over run with brambles (see more in this post) seemingly worked nicely. No brambles have made it through the cardboard mulch layer and the ones that tried creeping in from the swarth still remaining were quickly eradicated by a shovel and some good ole gumption. Anyhow back to this year.... I wanted to get a head start on the spring growth and took to taking a shovel to the rest of the swarth with the hopes of getting to that first stump off in the distance, and hopefully all the way to the shed in the coming year or two.
It was grunt work for sure as the mixture of lots of field stones/boulders, tree roots and bramble crowns tangled with saplings and other overgrowth left me exhausted for a week or two and I had only covered about a 20' x 5' ft area that honestly still had some major stones and roots that I was slowly cutting and pulling out. Hazel was all about helping with the project especially when I told her my real reason for digging so much was to find dinosaur bones.
Here you see Hazel utilizing the steel crow bar I resorted to after cracking a shovel handle to remove some boulders that were much larger than the ones Hazel is working on!
After a couple weeks of grudgingly digging and following large tree roots and seeing if the top of this boulder was just the tip of the iceberg or a rock that could seemingly be moved, I took a pause. I remember it was a Tuesday afternoon where my mother was watching Hazel as she ran around the garden playing as I sweat and grunted trying to leverage a forearm sized tree root from a long rotted stump when my mom asked, "what are you doing?" I proceeded to explain my garden expansion and told her it might take a year or two but I planned on clearing this brush and bramble overgrowth to increase our growing area. She inquired why not rent a machine to help the process, my response was "it will cost too much money and then it turned into a mumble of me needing the exercise". Fast forward to two days later... waking up feeling like I had been hit by a truck that I decided, maybe just maybe I should call around and see how doable renting a machine would be.
Three days later Windham Rental dropped off this mini skid and I got to work!
Even though I had this wonderful machine to help with the process, running it for 12hrs straight was exhausting but the amount of work I got done in that time was so inspiring and rewarding. Hazel and Mom definitely kept thier distance and I only almost killed myself once along with popping the track off twice which gave me just enough time to take a break to chug a gallon of water and fill up the gas cans.
I unearthed numerous boulders that would have no doubt given me some serious trouble with a shovel alone and got large chunks of root structure unearthed especially around the most recently felled maples that we removed to increase our gardens sun exposure.
I had to make a couple pathways to excavate the roots and bramble crowns as far away from our growing space as possible and after an hour or so of working the machine I found the best results were to just dig up 4-6" of soil and dump it on a sloping hill in the woods. I felt bad disturbing the ground so much but in my head I knew that starting with a clean slate and using my increasing knowledge of native plants and biologically diverse ecosystems was indeed the best course of action at this time. I also left a few areas of brush on the fringes and will work on incorporating some of the wild blueberry bushes that were scattered throughout the landscape to save as "wanted growth" as possible.
I was on the clock all day trying to get as much done before they came to pick up the machine at 4:30. I started at 5am and my hope was to clear this whole area and then use the machine to help move some of the piles of compost/mulch and crushed stone by the end of the day. I ended up running into too many boulders that took some finessing to arrange and ran out of time to accomplish everything but I did move a dozen or so bucket loads of the crushed stone to the back of the house for the next project on the homestead, more on that in future posts.
Here you can see the progress. I couldn't believe the amount of space I had created, but then quickly realized that I had a lot more work to do once the machine was picked up. You see I did sway the battle of the brambles into my favor for once, but the wisdom I have gained as a gardener is that nature doesn't sleep...
I decided with the materials I had on hand, 5yd compost and 5yds of mulch, I wouldn't be able to turn the whole cleared area into growing space this season so I leveled out the backside of the project with a rake and covered it with a tarp. This one pictured is 16' x 20' but I've expanded it since with two more 12' x 16' tarps and I plan on adding leaf mulch to these areas in the autumn, then retarping for the winter and starting in on this area next spring when I can source good fruit/berry/grape stock from FedCo... yes my Christmas 2021 list is already starting!
After coming to my senses and realizing I wasn't going to have the time or resources to activate all the newly cleared space it was time to activate the space I was going to use this growing season! I quickly set the edge of the new area by cardboarding around the boulders, adding a 6"-10" trench that I then lined with cardboard and added a few wheelbarrows of crushed stone. The hope is that this bramble ridden area will not find its new environment so friendly, time will tell. It was right around this time that temps dropped back into winter mode and we proceeded to get a few winter storms that resulted in a few inches of snow. I decided to take this time to consider my options and really use the new found growing area with intent and purpose. I pawed through all my garden planning books, assessed our seed supply and began watching lots of youtube videos and listening to podcasts on no-till/raised bed garden planning. My main inspirations on youtube are Charles Dowding and Joe Gardener.
After assessing our amendment stock of 5yds of Organic Surf & Turf compost I decided we needed to increase our homestead composting system and have expanded my compost resources to include the addition of scraps from my workplace. Luckily being a produce manager and carrying 100% organic produce, its easy to bring home a large box of organic green trimmings everyday along with a couple pounds of spent coffee grounds which turn nicely with a mixture of leaves and bark from the homestead landscape. I am currently just using a plastic wrapped wood frame to cover the pile from getting too wet and to help it heat up quicker but my hope is to construct a larger bin system by the end of the growing season. I also decided to move the pile away from my growing area slightly as the amount of critters its attracting seemed smarter to put on the frindge of the forest than on the frindge of the garden. The old space I had constructed compost bins was right next to the shed which was basically a critters dream of dry shelter feet away from a daily replenished pile of food and I was constantly finding compost scraps strewn about in the shed that has no floor (another project coming soon). Im hoping the new system will suppress some of the pest (mainly chipmunks) pressure on the garden. I have also noticed a lot more voles around this year and Im wondering if they became displaced when the land across the street was developed this past fall/winter. Anyhow its mind boggling the amount of chipmunks chattering around the property these days after two years of heavy acorn shed. I am hoping they do not become too much of an issue this year as no amount of fencing or trapping seems practical at this moment. The good news is I've been noticing lots of fox scat around the homestead along with hawks seeming to be enjoying the new open space I have created as the past couple days they have been circling above scouting out a healthy meal. Ahhh I digress.
After getting a recent seed order from Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds to supplement our seed catalog of seeds from Pine Tree Seeds, Johnnys Seeds and High Mowing Seeds. Hazel and I started planning what seeds to start and what we should sow sooner than later as Hazel was getting pretty anxious to start planting.
I told her first thing that we plant every year is peas, which lit up her mood as snap peas are one of her all time favorites because one, they are fun to pick, two they taste delicious and three, they are easy to plant due to their robust size.
One trick we learned was to always soak your peas for 24hrs before planting to get those peas hydrated and ready to sprout. I also add just a touch of fish emulsion to the water solution for a little burst of nutrients.
We decided to use the same bed as last year to plant peas as we already have the pole supports for the trellis on there so we dressed the bed with a couple inches of fresh compost and I made a furrow right down the center as Hazel anxiously awaited planting her first seeds of the year. As I was putting my tools into the wheelbarrow I told Hazel to place the peas an inch apart starting at the end. She responded "Whats an inch?" all the while dropping each pea seed almost exactly in inch increments. The second she finished she instinctively went back to the beginning of the row and gently started coaxing the soil over the fresh sown peas and told them to enjoy their new home. I think a tear came to my eye as a proud dad watched his 4yr old retain last years lessons and work the garden like a pro. I remember telling her how proud I was and asked her if she knew how old dad was when he learned to plant peas... she ask how old and I told her 32 years old. She smiled and gave me a big hug and said "I'm only 4". These are the moments that make being a dad so rewarding and passing knowledge of the land onto my daughter is something I hope continues as she grows older.
Hazel also did a great job filling pots for our seed starts inside. We planted a good selections of our seeds but with a makeshift fluorescent light and limited space to accommodate a full scale operation we do plan on purchasing some seedlings from some of our local farmer friends. I am hopeful that with the now expanded growing space that a seedstarting/potting greenhouse will be constructed off of the current shed for next year, another homestead project to add to the list!
With a little downtime as I worked on planning out the growing space, Hazel and I spent lots of hours exploring the newly thawed forest and collecting interesting specimens. One of her favorites was the teeny tiny cones from the abundant hemlocks scattered amongst our landscape.
Still getting some weather here in the lakes region in the waning days of April but the coatings are always short lasting and sometimes followed by a 60 degree day and good for leaching some of that fresh compost into the raised beds.
After such a successful maple season, I decided to give a few birch trees a tap to see what I could come up with for a spring ferment this year.
I was quickly amazed at how fast the birch sap flows as the 3 gallon buckets were all overflowing by the following morning. You can boil birch into a syrup but its not very shelf stable and prefers a low temp light boil not a scorcher like maple syrup which is tough to regulate on an open wood fire. All these factors led me to think of alternative uses for the sap and my research led me to a wine concoction that I dreamed up while tasting my autumn ferments a couple days prior.
I added some winter thyme and citrus to the birch sap and warmed it slightly to dissolve a quart of maple syrup into it to increase the sugar content for the fermenting process. After setting that aside I pulled part of last years cider from the cellar and decided to bottle it up with a little maple syrup to bottle condition this sour funky concoction.
After bottling 2/3 of last years cider I dumped the birch sap/maple syrup blend on top of the remaining gallon of cider and put it in the basement to bubble away (left carboy). The other carboy I filled with just birch sap that I had brought to a light boil, added three pounds of cane sugar and left out to air cool and inoculate overnight (pictured right). Im not to sure how this project is going to come out but Ill keep you posted as it progresses. The clear one I thinking may see the addition of some dandelions as spring progresses.
Studio time has taken a bit of a back seat as the growing season gets going but I was able to put the finishing touches on a couple of new works.
Acrylic and Ink on Arches Paper
Acrylic and Ink on Arches Paper
Thanks for stopping in, and I hope you enjoyed this extended post... I will be updating the progress on the new raised beds in the next week or so as we plan/prepare and build our way into the 2021 growing season! The blog always seems to be about 2-3 weeks behind whats actually happening at the homestead but I have found it a great tool for myself to look back at previous years and projects to help me remember my successes and failures. I hope this blog gets you all inspired and energized by the goings on here at the LocalRootz Homestead!
Till next post.