Sunday, December 13, 2009

A few cold frames

I was able to finish up a couple cold frames last week. I've been working on them bit by bit, as I get a chance and whenever I can stop by the lumberyard or hardware store.

These are pretty standard cold frames - based on Eliot Coleman's "dutch light" design from his very useful book, "Four Season Harvest". I salvaged 2 large double-paned pieces of glass from a set of french doors, then split the panes apart to get 4 glass pieces. I cut a 1/4" groove in 2x2 fir, mitred the corners and framed in the glass. The sides are 2x12 in the back and 2x8 in the front, with a 2x2 runner around the bottom touching the ground. This way, in a couple years, the 2x2 will rot out and can be replaced, instead of the sides degrading.

The frames end up about 28" x 68", and fit over my ~30" beds perfectly. I made two frames this size, and will use my two other glass tops together on one larger cold frame. The green oak leaf lettuce above is already benefiting from the protection - it's in the mid-20's outside.

Oh yeah, and today it started snowing, so good timing!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

2009 season

We finally had our first frost, which, to me, signals the end of the growing season. It came a month late, so I had plenty of time to prepare for it.

Only hardy crops left now. With a proper greenhouse or cold frame, I could protect more tender vegetables through winter. I have some lettuce, spinach, and arugula still going, so I hope to finish up a few cold frames to keep them alive.

Purple sprouting broccoli leaf showing off some frost (and some slug damage).

We had an amazing spring and summer this year. By far the hottest and driest since I've lived in Whatcom county. Up here, rain can be just as much an enemy as an ally. In a wet year, we fight mildews, molds, and early blights, and plant twice as many tomatoes and peppers as we think we need to make up for pitiful harvests. In a dry year, we don't complain - just water a bit more and enjoy the sun!

Frost free from March 10 - November 14; that's 249 days, or 8 months and 4 days, an extra long season for us. You can see that we have a pretty reliable wind, primarily a breeze from the SW in the summer. Note the change in wind direction from late summer into fall. We get our fall and winter "Nor'easters" (cold and powerful NE windstorms from the Fraser Valley in Canada) pretty regularly that time of year. In October and November, it's pretty clear that the spikes in average wind speed fall on the days of NE winds. Also of note is the rarity of rainfall this year - only 3 or 4 days of measurable (and it was barely that) precipitation from mid-May through mid-September.

For me, keeping track of the weather each year is crucial. I plan when to start my seeds in late-winter based on when our last spring frost will occur. I calculate at what date in summer I must plant fall crops in order to mature them before cold weather sets in based on our first frost date. The length of the growing season helps me determine which varieties of certain crops to grow, based on whether or not our season is long and hot enough. For a real farmer (one who depends on farming for their livelihood) favorable weather can mean keeping the farm and poor weather can mean bankruptcy. Yikes!

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Two weeks ago we had some friends over. We were showing them around the house and property and they wanted to see the pigeons. I opened up the door so they could look in the coop and out of NOWHERE, Buk (our dog) darted his head in and grabbed a pigeon! I grabbed Buk and he dropped it right away, and it flew up on the house. I caught it a day later. The strange part was that it was sitting in the front corner of the coop, where there is no perch, so I couldn't even see it there when I opened the door. Fast forward to a few days ago, when I was feeding them in the morning, I stuck my head inside and was surprised to see two yellow fluff-balls in a feather-nest in the corner! The bird was in the corner sitting on eggs!

These are about 4 or 5 days old, with eyes still shut. I thought the back one was not alive, but I watched and it rolled over. Unfortunately, it didn't make it for too long, and was still the next day. It was probably the second egg to hatch, and I read that the second, weaker pigeon of the two will sometimes not make it. So we will have one baby pigeon this winter.

The doting parent. I have nest boxes, but I didn't want to put any in until the spring, when warmer weather would make it easier on the chicks, but the birds were resourceful and made their own. I also read that I shouldn't put in a nest now, or move the baby into a nest, or the parents may reject it. So I'll just let them be. Exciting though!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cover crops

The cover crops/green manures are up in both the main garden and the field plot. They need to get established before it gets too cold, but they won't do a lot of growing through winter.

Crimson clover is in all the beds in the main garden. It's mainly a nitrogen fixer, but will make tons of growth in early spring and add plenty of organic matter when it's turned under before planting. You can see the winter crops that are left (not as much as I'd hoped with no cold frames).

The field plot cover crop mix is slower to establish, and won't put on much growth at all over winter. In spring it will start early, and grow into a thick, waist-high stand before being cut and turned under in late spring before planting summer crops. This mix contains Austrian field peas (nitrogen-fixer, organic matter), hairy vetch (nitrogen-fixer), cereal rye (deep, penetrating root system and tall stalks for legumes to climb), and canola/rape seed (organic matter). All four will decompose quickly (~2 weeks) after turning under in spring. During the winter, they'll help control erosion and runoff, and keep nutrients from leaching out.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fall weather finally arrives

It's not cold yet, but the rain is here. Tonight it is pouring, we are supposed to get half an inch. It's also very windy, with sustained 10 mph winds and gusts of 35 that are expected to reach 50 or 60 mph later tonight. This is normal fall weather for up here.

This picture was taken at about 5 pm a few days ago...

and this was the same time the next day. You could say the weather fluctuates.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Final fall work

Finally was able to finish winterizing the garden this weekend. Our first frost hasn't come yet, and it looks like it won't for a few weeks, so I still had time to get the cover crop planted in the last few beds. I cleared out the beds of beans, tomatoes, and peppers, the last remaining hot weather veggies.

This year my tomato seedlings got a little lanky. When I transplanted them I plucked off all the lower leaves and planted them deep and at an angle, with all of the stem buried to the uppermost leaves. I had read that they would sprout roots all along the stem, and they did! On the far right is the original root ball, with roots that grew all along the stem. I really had to fight these stems out of the ground, so the depth and spread of the roots for each plant had to be many feet.

This is from a few weeks ago, but I picked about this many green tomatoes off the vines as I pulled them.

The eggplant did awesome this year - we had way more than we knew what to do with. I picked the last of them and we'll just slice and freeze it all and try to use it this winter.

This is Hansel hybrid eggplant. Very sweet when picked small. I probably got about 20 this size and 20 half this size, from 4 crowded plants.

The remaining peppers. I will probably not do this well again with peppers unless I grow them under plastic - this summer was just too abnormally good. I picked a grocery bag FULL when I pulled these (I got 3 more bags full over the summer). I also hung two entire chile plants in the garage to dry the peppers - we'll see how that goes.

It's said that almost any veggie that follows a bean crop will do well, and I have to believe it. The beans left the bed in amazing shape - I can only hope the beds will be this nice again in the spring. I sowed crimson clover in these two beds, and filled in all the remaining bare spots in the other beds. Ideally, I would've had compost ready to spread and mix in the top few inches, but I'll just have to do that next spring instead. In the emptied pepper bed, I got my garlic in.

I put in about 125 cloves of Chet's Italian Red garlic. We eat about a head a week (we use a lot of garlic!) and I like to plant twice as much as I think I'll need, to cover losses, to make up for the smaller bulbs, and to have plenty to give away. I bought 2 lbs of organic seed garlic cloves from a local Deming, WA farmer. This variety is a mild softneck with good keeping qualities. Planting in fall after colder weather sets in will prevent the tops from growing, but will allow roots to establish over winter. They'll start growing earlier than if planted in the spring, will grow larger heads, and should finish bulbing by July.

So that will pretty much take care of the garden for this year. I didn't get my cold frames built in time for fall, so I don't have many semi-hardy crops to carry through the winter. I do have purple sprouting broccoli, cabbage, carrots, leeks, and Brussels sprouts, none of which need protection over our mild winters. I will build the cold frames this winter and use them next year in the early spring. I have some other projects for the winter as well, including repairing and restoring a few implements for the Gibson, getting to work on a chicken coop for next year, and getting some work done on my old truck I have stored in the shop...It will be a nice change of pace from all the hard work in the vegetable garden this year.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fruit trees in

Woke up to sunshine this morning and got the fruit trees planted. The orchard is expanding into the pasture, and I have at least one more row planned for the future...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Compost turnin'

Not my favorite activity. Every time I do it I wish I had one of those silly plastic compost tumblers (not really). Turning is the only way to know how far along the compost has come, as the outside of the pile generally looks about that same as when it was built. When rebuilding the un-composted parts go on the bottom and in the middle of the pile, and the more finished around it. Turning also serves to oxygenate the pile, allowing the soil microbe colony to continue to grow and feed on the uncomposted material as it is turned into the middle of the pile.

I have 3 piles right now. This is the core of the most recently built pile. You can see that the middle of the pile is fairly well composted, and the outside is still raw hay. This is mostly because I did not water this pile at all after I built it, so the outside dried and didn't decompose, while the middle broke down.

About half way done. Still some recognizable pieces in there, which means it isn't done yet. If you look closely you can see quite a few sowbugs in there - the pile was teeming with them, literally hundreds. That's good, cause they eat plant litter.

After rebuilding the two round piles, I wrapped them in some black plastic I had lying around in an attempt to keep them from drying out. Usually you wouldn't cover a compost pile, because it needs oxygen, but these piles are open on top and built on pallets for air flow from the bottom, so they should be fine. I'll throw the last bits of the garden on top, and let these sit until spring, when the finished compost will be spread in the garden.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ah nuts

Walnuts that is - and plenty of them. A few weeks ago the husks were still shut tightly, but this week they started to open up and release the walnuts from inside.

Got half a grocery bag full. Into the garage to cure...

End of summer work

Spent a few hours on Sunday cleaning up some of the exhausted summer crops, clearing out the beds to sow crimson clover.

Squash and zucchini plants are going south, with powdery mildew moving in pretty quick. Time to yank them and pick what's left. **Edit 10/15/09. I have since learned that in the NW, winter squash should be left on the vine until a hard frost takes out the plant. Our growing season is someimes not long or hot enough to fully mature some winter squashes, so they need to be left in the ground as long as possible to ripen up - right up to the first frost. **

A few overgrown zucchini (growing only 2 plants next year) and about 10 Delicata squash. I grew the bush Delicata's this year to save some space, but I think I'll try the full size plants next year in the field plot, along with some others, like spaghetti and acorn squash.

Last potatoes. They did great this year - a little but of scab and pest damage didn't have too much effect. Mostly I was amazed how 1 little seed potato smaller than a golf ball can turn into 8 or 10 full sized potatoes.

Wireworms! Oddly they were only in one plant out of the four I pulled. I read up on them and found they generally are more of a problem in later picked potatoes. I didn't have much problem with them in the earlier picked potatoes, so leaving them in the ground for too long after they are mature seems a little risky.

They chew their way inside and then the molds and rot move in, destroying the potato from the inside out. On many potatoes they will only do superficial damage and the bad parts can be easily cut out. Use the damaged ones first, as they won't keep well.

Still got a nice bag full! Still only enough to last us a few months, and we ate a lot of potatoes during the summer, so next year I will be growing twice as many plants so we'll have enough to last us through winter.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

New trees

We went to a fruit tasting festival at a really cool nursery in Everson, Cloud Mountain Farm, this Sunday. They had 200 varieties of apple, pear, cherry, grapes and other less commonly grown fruit (gooseberries and paw-paw!) for sampling, all grown on-site on their test fields, so guaranteed performers in our climate. Plus they had a buy 2, get one free deal going for their remaining fall stock of fruit trees. I have a list of fruit trees I'd like to add to what we have already, so it was a perfect event to try some of those varieties and maybe pickup a few.

So I didn't get the pick of the litter, but it doesn't really matter since the first few years most of the growth is pruned off each spring anyway, as intial training requires. The tall one on the left is Frost Peach, a semi-dwarf, self-fertile, super hardy (zone 5) variety. It's the only peach that will grow in our climate. It can be finicky its' first few years and must be sprayed for peach leaf curl, but once established does well without much trouble. Next, in the middle, is Conference pear. This is a dessert pear (fresh eating) that also stores well. It can be kept in the fridge once mature for 3 or more months, and brought out to ripen as needed. This one will ripen after the Bartlett we already have, and keep through the winter. Last, on the right, is a Rainier cherry. It's one of our favorite varieties, and will ripen with our later black cherry.

I plan to add a few more trees in the spring or next fall and over the next few years, as we start to learn how much we need to be able to eat some fruit fresh, have extra to can, and some to make cider (and hard cider), without getting so many that they are a pain to take care of. But I think "having too many" is a problem I'll rarely have...

Friday, September 25, 2009


It's here. The corn stalks are ripped out, the squash and zucchini plants are rapidly succumbing to mildews and molds, and the slugs have returned in greater numbers than before. Lows for the next few weeks will be hovering around 40 - the temperature below which summer crops begin to struggle. Like last year, I've let fall creep up on me as if I didn't know it was coming. I started my fall crops too late, haven't built my cold frames, and wasn't mentally prepared for rain and cold fingers. My feed store shopping list includes muck boots and a full rainsuit.

But I do like fall. We have a week of rain ahead of us, a perfect time to get cover crops in.

This year I'm trying to grow crimson clover over the whole main garden, except for my 3 or 4 beds of fall and winter crops. I started them a few days ago, when it was sunny and warmer, so I used burlap row cover to keep them moist and help seed germination.

Five days ago..

Cover crop is up.

I also got my plow-down mix planted in the field. But I am behind in the main garden. The cucurbits are ready to be pulled before they spread powdery mildew around, the fallen down beans (windstorm took out the trellis) need to be yanked, and cover crop sown everywhere. Running out of time!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Breaking new ground

Part of the reason I got the tractor was to use it to expand the garden space. I decided this year that some crops would be more easily managed if they had their own space outside of the main garden. So, I spent a day or two getting the tractor implements cleaned, greased up, and operational and went to work making the field garden plot.

The first step is breaking up the turf a bit, so the plow doesn't have to work quite as hard to break the sod into strips and turn it over. A weighed-down disc harrow passed over a few times cut up the turf pretty well.

A few days later, after some rain finally came to moisten the soil a bit, plowing was next. Getting the plow and tractor set-up correctly and figuring out the technique took some time, but soon enough I was turning over rows nicely. Cut about 6-8" deep. My 50's era scanned copy of the "Plow Book" by Harry Ferguson (of Massey-Ferguson tractors) came in quite handy.

I'm was pretty happy with the plowing result. For being such a small tractor, the Gibson had no problem pulling the plow, after I got the hang of keeping the throttle up enough.

After a day of drying out, the field was ready to be disced until chopped up fine enough. I started with the two sets of disks in-line with each other, and gradually decreased the angle between them (more aggressive tillage) until I was happy with the tilth. It took probably 8 passes total over the whole garden.

The end result is almost as good as if I had rototilled it; about 6-8" deep, finely crumbled soil. There are still some small clumps of sod, which I am hoping will dry out and die, and then decompose over the winter and not re-establish as grass.

The next step is sowing the cover crop. I'll be using a "plow down mix" I picked up at the feed store, which is a mix of fall rye, Austrian winter peas, vetch, and rape. It's important that the ground isn't left bare over winter, when the winter rains will wash away soil and leach out nutrients to runoff. I have mentioned the benefits of cover cropping/green manuring in the past, here.

So for next year: crops that are exceedingly tall, require lots of space, are vining or sprawling, those suited for row-cropping, or ones that have a long growing season are all good candidates for growing in their own area. In the main garden (right off the house) I want the crops that I use most often, are the quickest to mature (so I can succession plant better, another goal for next year), and those that require more care or more frequent inspection. I'm thinking that the main garden will be spring/fall crops (2 or more plantings a season) and the field garden will be main season summer crops (1 crop per season). Then I'll switch them each year for a good rotation. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nuts update

After my nut tree update I read some more about when nut trees mature and how to harvest them. Filberts will fall from the tree when fully ripe, so all one has to do is come along and pick them up, cure them for a week or so, and store them.

I went out to check the trees and found quite a few on the ground, so I collected them and put them in the garage to dry out. It felt like a lot of the nuts were hollow, and when I broke a few open some were! It felt like about half of the nuts had no "meat" inside, so after they cure I'll have to weed out the bad ones. The trees are still covered in nuts so I will have a lot more to pick this fall.

The green walnut husks will open up when the nut inside is mature, which can then be easily picked. Only one was open, so they are later than the filberts. We have way more walnuts than filberts, so I hope they are good.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fresh fruit (and nuts)

I have been very happy with how all the fruit did this year - mostly because I was able to avoid mangling them too badly while learning to prune this spring. The cherries were excellent earlier this summer, as were the raspberries (even though many were eaten by deer) and blueberries. We have been eating the blackberries that line our property for a few weeks now, including a pie and cobbler!

Here's what I picked yesterday to test ripeness. The Asian pears (upper left) are ripe and very good, the apples are not quite ready, and the Bartlett's are mature and very good after a few days ripening. On apples and asian pears, a change in "background" color from green to gold and a slight give when a thumb is lightly pressed into the fruit indicate ripeness. Bartlett's are tougher, as they are picked "mature" but not "ripe". If any on the tree start to go yellow even in the slightest, then the others that are still green are likely ready to be picked. We ate one last nigth that I picked last week - it was delicious.

Italian plums (probably). Good for cooking, good fresh, and good to give away!

Gala apples are small. I should have thinned the fruit so the remaining could grow larger. These are not quite ready.

Walnuts. I have no idea when these are ready (or how this strange fruit becomes a walnut).

Hazelnuts are starting to color up. We have 3 nice big filbert trees out front - should have lots of hazelnuts so I'll have to read up on how and when to harvest nuts.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

New animals

A few months ago my Dad gave me his group of roller pigeons, along with their loft. We spent a few hours getting it unloaded, putting it back together, and getting the pigeons safely housed. About a half-hour later, I was behind the house and I heard birds flapping - looked up to see them all flying around. They escaped - not good! After pigeons are moved they need about a month of confinement so they can re-learn where "home" is (or more accurately, where the food is). So they flew around for a few days, wouldn't come back to their loft. Eventually I was able to capture two of them. Unfortunately, one was killed under mysterious circumstances a few weeks later (I suspect a weasel). So I had one pigeon, until now.

I got 7 pigeons from an older guy who was downsizing his flock. So now I have 8 (and I have built a proper locking door for the loft).

Here's a video of what roller pigeons do while flying - pretty weird.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Putting up corn

Well we ate as much corn as we could that last 10 days or so, and it is just starting to get over the hill. After it reaches full maturity (when kernels are easily punctured by a fingernail and they exude milky fluid), corn has a small window where it has the maximum sugar content in each kernel, after which it begins to turn these sugars to starches, resulting in less sweet and chewier corn. Furthermore, it does not sit ripe on the plant for very long, especially if you grow anything other than modern, hybridized "super sweet" varieties. These are bred to stay sweeter for longer on the plant, and to stay sweeter for longer after being picked. I grew a hybrid "sweet corn", but not a "super sweet". So it's time to pick the rest of the mature ears and freeze them for storage.

With about 20 ears, shucking them was the worst part of the operation. You want to freeze them immediately after picking - I'm not kidding, they get less and less tasty every minute you wait...

After cleaning, they go into a big pot of boiling water for 5 minutes. This stops from working the enzymes that are turning the sugars into starches. Then they are quickly cooled in an ice water bath to stop the cooking.

Cut the kernels off the cob, and into a freezer bag. I got two gallon sized bags from 20 ears. We'll have some tasty corn this winter!