Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reclaiming the Climbing Tree Garden

Climbing Tree Garden ~ After

Climbing Tree Garden ~ Before

We're not finished yet. In fact, we're a long way from it. But, there are those who wanted to see what's happened in the Whimsy Garden (previously called the Climbing Tree Garden) over the last 5 days. This was a lot of raking, mowing, pulling, more raking, more mowing, and we were pulling weeds until the sun went down tonight. Tomorrow morning we'll be up an pulling more weeds, and getting plenty dirty.

In the after picture you can see pathways starting form, and where planting beds will be. A lot of that green stuff in the lawn area is horehound weed, not grass, so it has to go. Horehound is currently the bane of my existence. For those who don't know what it is, horehound is plant with medicinal properties for treating colds and coughs, but it's also one of the most pervasive and pernicious weeds I've ever encountered. Tumbleweeds have nothing on horehound. They are mere amateurs in the sticker-plant world. Horehound, on the other hand, is one of the queens. It's big round stickers cling to everything it touches, especially clothing and hair. Tumbleweeds you can pick up with gloved hands with no problem. Horehound is something you don't touch with anything but tools. 

To deal with horehound the best advice I can give is to mow it down first, then rake it up. Then, if you can, burn it, or mulch it with a lot of straight manure. Enough manure will kill both horehound and tumbleweeds. We're going to grind up the massive piles we've collected over the past five days and use it as organic material to fill a hole that's about to appear in the orchard. The hole will be formed when we take out the stump of an old dead apple tree we cut down today.

The Climbing Tree Garden isn't the only thing getting a make over this month. The entire orchard is.  By the time we're finished the Climbing Tree Garden will no longer be the Climbing Tree Garden. It will be the Whimsy Garden. As you can see in the after picture, the 'climbing tree' is in no shape to be climbed in right now. We had to cut off a lot of dead limbs, and we chose new sprouting limbs to cultivate to replace them. It will take a few years before those limbs are strong enough to stand up to kids. 

In the mean time we're going to hang potted flowers from the extension limbs which are normally used to hold up seats, swings, and tree houses. Whatever the kids' little hearts desire. This particular tree has hosted fun and fantasy for two generations of children so far.  It's time to give it a break and let it rest for a while. 

But, no fear! There are other trees in the orchard that are just right for climbing. In previous years these trees, an olive tree and an apricot tree, were too small for such antics. But now they're both quite large and sturdy. Grossmond has already tested their worthiness several times and given them both her seal of approval. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What a difference a mow makes

Have you ever heard those jokes "You might be a Redneck if..."? We find ourselves answering yes to a lot of them. Not all, but the ones that involve automobiles hiding in the tall grass or turning off the paved road... oh yeah. Point in case is today's topic: mowing.

We've been getting ready for the last snow of the year by putting down manure. It's good to fertilize your ground before a snow because melting snow carries it deeper into the ground than rain or watering does. We didn't have the money for manure last fall, so we missed out on using the 3-4 snowfalls we had this winter. Which is why it's important to take advantage of this last snow that will be hitting us in a few days.

But first, we have to find the ground!

You're probably trying to figure out what this is. That's okay, so were we! This is actually the rose garden side of The Oasis sitting garden just outside the front door. This is one of the places we needed to get manure put down. But, the problem was, we couldn't find it.

Believe it or not, there are several rose bushes and a few flowering apple trees in there... somewhere.

This next picture is of the walkway on that side, one of the many we have to widen, level, and repave to be handicap accessible. As you can see, the pathway is very narrow, marked by only a few pieces of natural stone. Since we're going to be widening the path from about 18 inches to 48 inches we don't want to fertilize everything that there. There's no point in wasting perfectly good cow poop on pathways that will paved over later.

Now, one thing you have to understand is that the tall grass is hiding more than just rose bushes and spoutling trees. We found all sorts of things in there. I had to go through with a gardening rake and carefully remove everything from the depths of the overgrowth. I raked while Grossmond removed everything I uncovered.

We found an old above-ground irrigation system that I think one of my aunts put in several years ago. One of those Odd Handymen who had worked on the property before we moved up was supposed to be taking care of it, but had decided to let the grass consume it instead. The result was a bunch of broken pipes that had to be removed before we could mow. There was also an old wooden flowerbed boarder that had long since decayed and been swallowed by the grass, decorative stones, an 8lb iron pulley, and many other smaller things. 

All of these things had to go. So, we spent almost an entire day carefully combing through the tall grass for lost treasure, then mowing, edging, and getting up into the rose bushes (once we found them) to clip the grass out with an old pair of sewing sheers. By the time we got the area cleaned up enough to lay down manure I was way too tired to do so. this is what the area looked like by the end of the day though. Compare it to the first picture up top to see the difference!

Last night Grossmond and I spent the evening working out the aches and pains we'd earned and just relaxing  a little bit in hot showers. This morning we went out and finished the job. Remember that pathway? we had to mark off where the new boarders will be before we could fertilize the flower bed. To do this we laid down some old 4x4s and adjusted them as needed until we found the position we wanted. Then we dug out a strip of grass a few inches wide and put other markers in to show us where the pathways would eventually be. 

No, it's not pretty, but it will be someday. Our goal at this point is just to get the manure laid down before the snow hits, and we have several other areas to work on. As if to remind us, Mother Nature sent us a hard cold rain about 5 minutes after we finished flooding in the manure. That was great timing. The flooding would have started the saturation which would help the ground absorb more rainwater as it came down. And plants love rainwater. On top of the manure, which the plants also love, it was a stoke of luck. 
But, the rain stopped a few minutes ago, and there's still a lot more work to do. So, it's time for me to get off the computer, grab the rake, and get back to work...


Saturday, April 7, 2012

101 Uses for Poop

The work is really starting to begin now! While still expect one last big freeze to hit, we’ve begun the heavy work for outdoor planting. We’re short on one key factor in growing a nice healthy crop or garden, but we both want and need food this year, so there’s only one thing to do.

We must adapt and overcome.

Our problem right now is that we’re short on manure. Yep, we’re short on poop; Vitamin-P. Specifically, pasteurized and aged herbivore poop. Since it needs to go into the ground now it needs to be something that is partially composted. Some people claim to keep cows or horses for this reason, the free poop. But, it in reality that’s just a happy side effect. It actually costs more to keep a large ranch animal than it does to buy manure. For the same price as a month’s worth of horse feed and care we can get enough manure to do the entire farm for an entire year, or just the crops fields for 3 years.

We do not, however, have the funds to get enough manure for the one field we’ve been working on for one year. We also have trees to save, and if those trees don’t get a good heaping helping of Vitamin P(oop) this year they will die. We can afford to do one or the other... but not both.

So, what’s a family to do?

As it happens, I’m somewhat of an expert (okay maybe not, but I  have experience) in suburban gardening. This is a whole different beast than farming. In suburban gardening containers and raised beds are king. Everything gets doubled up in those containers or sequestered beds as well. Deep root plants get paired with plants that have shallow root systems but similar nutritional requirements and soil Ph. This is most often seen the pairing of trees and flowers. Flowers that have similar nutrition requirements to a certain tree will be planted under or around that kind of tree. In Phoenix we saw a lot of Palo Verde trees surrounded by Lantana flowers. Evergreens were often paired with roses. In my backyard I paired Concord Grapes with shade loving herbs, like Parsley and Coriander.

The same can be done with the trees and deep rooted plants here on the farm. We choose to grow the majority of our herbs in the greenhouse, but things like tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, green beans & peas, and some of the cucumber plants can go out in sequestered beds strategically placed in and around the farm. We’ll still need to put in a small but official garden for growing Vitamin P hogs like squashes, but almost everything else can be paired with existing long-life deep rooted vegetation for the time being.

So, one of our tasks this weeks has been cleaning out from around the trees we to save. The climbing tree, the almond and pear trees, the big cottonwood that shades the Oasis (what Hippylady calls her rose garden), and the grapes along the front fence. We also have a massive pine tree beside the driveway we call Father Christmas.

Now, Hippylady has asked that I make it clear that food plants should only be paired with food trees. The reason for this is the additives you use for food plants and trees is often different than the additives you use for strictly decorative plants and trees. In a food garden, and that includes fruit and nut orchards, you don’t want to use anything that might be considered poisonous. While that seems like a no-brainer there’s more to it than chemicals or pesticides.

What kind of manure you use counts as well. For food plants and trees you need to use herbivore manure. Carnivore and omnivore manure can host parasites and other nasties that don’t fully die out in pasteurization. These yuckies can be transmitted into your plants, which can then wind up on your plate. Also, you typically give food baring plants different, more specialized plant foods. These plant foods are more expensive, or if you’re using kitchen compost, in shorter supply, so it makes sense to group your plants in the most efficient manner possible.

This year I want to plant tomatoes beside the Climbing Tree, which is a really old apple tree. The apples it puts out aren’t very big, but it drops hundreds of them every fall. We have to cut it back for health reasons, so I don’t expect it put out as many. But, hopefully with all the love and attention it’s getting this year the apples is does put out will be bigger and a little bit sweeter. It makes sense to pair the Climbing Tree with something else that needs tons of love... like tomatoes!

Now, I was planning on posting pictures of the plans for the Climbing Tree Garden, which we have decided to rename the Whimsy Garden, but with all the hustle and bustle leading up to the holiday I wasn’t able to finish the sketches.

So, instead, I’d like to introduce you all to a blog called Cultivating The Wonder, which is written by an old friend of mine from high school. This week she has a how-to series up called The Square Foot Garden that’s really interesting and helpful. She’s provides lots of pictures showing how to make raised planters and some really great tips for doing things like mixing soil in large quantities. Enjoy!


Monday, April 2, 2012

Wind Storms, Cats, and Tree Branches

It's been windy. I mean really windy. This morning the entire house was shaking from the force of it. Trying to get anything done outside was essentially pointless since anything we did would be immediately undone by the raging winds. Da man and I even watched a cat blowing down the pathway earlier. It takes some mad wind skills to move a cat! But, there she was trying to head into the wind and getting knocked aside by it. At one point she turned to head down wind and got slammed into the side of a raised planter for her troubles. Her claws eventually found purchase on a tree root and she used it to scramble up under the porch. The next lull in the wind found her crying at the door to get in. The look on her furry little face upon crossing the threshold said "Don't go out there! We're under attack!"

This brings up the issue of what has to be done after a wind storm. There are the obvious things that people think of, like collecting up all the trash got blown all over the yard when the garbage cans get knocked over. But there are other things that have to be done on a farm. Like binding trees.

Most trees fare pretty well in a wind storm, but some of the more delicate fruit and nut trees don't. Evergreens also tend to suffer, even the more lush elasticy kind that seem to bounce back from everything. Topiary trees and bushes usually suffer the most.

What happens is that the wind hits the branches so hard that they end up getting bent and tangled up in each other. These branches have to be untangled and then tied to the branch next to them to stand up straight the way you want them until the bent sections become strong again. Sometimes they need to be propped up by braces. If you've ever driven past an orchard and seen wooden poles extending from the ground up into a tree this is what you're looking at, a branch brace.

We don't use branch braces here on our farm though. We tend to take a more natural approach. If a branch is so badly damaged that it has to be braced instead of bound we usually just cut it off. While this has a tendency to make a tree look a bit lopsided, it also helps shape the tree in such a way that is better suited to deal with the winds in the area in the future. Also, it takes a lot of energy for a tree to repair a limb that's been damaged that badly. It's better for the overall health of the tree if it's simply amputated.

We have a few topiary evergreens, specifically two giant arborvitae that create a tunnel near the back door. These tend to look very sad after a wind storm. It's almost like someone took a giant wedge and split them both down the center. While they usually look the like they are in the worst condition after a wind storm, they're actually the easiest to fix. The branches sit almost perfectly parallel to each other in the first place, so binding them together is really easy. They don't fight you like other tree branches do.

The pine trees, on the other hand, all look like sickly puff balls.  We have Ponderosa pines, which don't trim well, and the branches sit too far apart from each other to be bound. They tend to lose their tops in a really high wind too, so they end up looking a bit round instead of spear shaped like Ponderosas that grow in thick forests where the trees band together to protect each other. To make matters worse, our pines are on the southern edge of the property, so there is no wind break to protect them. They are the wind break. I don't know who decided to do that, but it was a bad idea. They put out beautiful pine cones though, which can be sold to city slickers over Christmas, and they do a pretty good job of protecting the fruit and nut trees in the orchard from wind, so we're going to keep them.

One of the things I like about a big wind storm in the spring is that the burdenning branches (dying branches) that have to be pruned off anyway, tend to weaken because of the wind and begin drooping towards the ground. It makes it easier to tell which ones have to go without having to wait for the mid-leaf cycle. In the mid-leaf cycle you look too see how thick the leafs are coming in. A branch that's still alive but struggling will only put out a thin greening of leafs, or only at the branch tips (depending on the kind of tree), while a healthy branch will put out a thick greening of leafs that go all the way down the branch. In a really strong wind storm these burdenning branches will weaken all the way down the branch, giving them a droopy appearance as opposed to a healthy branch that's just bent, which will have a kinked appearance. I wish I had pictures for that. Maybe I will by tomorrow!