After a couple of unseasonably cold and gray days that warranted warm socks and a sweater, we’ve returned to hot (+90F) and sunny again. I return to monitoring my one barrel of rain water, which is about 1/5 full (empty). The couple of rain storms we’ve had and the one night of drizzle failed to fill the bin, let alone my array of four 275 gallon bins. One can have all the storage one wants, but one can’t make the rain fall.

DSCF8121The garden was getting on parched yesterday so I watered with the precious rain water, adding a half cup of fish emulsion and a cup and a half of compost and comfrey tea to each watering can. The tea I had started four days ago: dropping comfrey leaves into the bottom half of a five gallon bucket, adding about two gallons of rain water, then putting about ten cups of fresh compost into a cloth bag and submersing it. Put lid on, put in dark shed, let bubble away. It smelled sweat, going on yeasty, with the typical comfrey smell that I’ve not been able to describe – something like molten rubber? Anyway, it was ready. Though even hotter today, the plants, even the usually droopy tomatoes, look great. I hope the calcium rich comfrey will combat the blossom end rot I’ve spotted on some of the squashes.

Looking west of the garden, here’s an update of what’s going on with the front of our property.

DSCF7053_smallIn February we had a landscaper come with a track hoe to excavate the weeds, brambles and vines that we had combated year in year out – pulling, digging up, covering with cardboard and wood chips – losing the battle. In four hours he had dug them up with the big scoop and put them on one big pile. Then he churned up the massive leaf and wood chips piles that my neighbor had been depositing on our property for years. It looked like a lot of fun, like stirring a massive pot of soup with a massive ladle. This mix he deposited on the newly bared earth, at about a foot deep.

DSCF8032On the slope I sowed white clover, which took really well and is now feeding the rabbit population. I am not sure this is a good idea, but on the other hand, I haven’t had rabbit herbivory in my garden at all this season. Also, it is fixing nitrogen, out-competing most weeds and stopping erosion very well.

Down at the bottom, the hardiest weeds returned slowly, but our neighbor keeps dropping off wood chips and every other weekend or so DH and I go down and pull and cover, pull and cover. The excavation wasn’t a silver bullet that took care of it once and for all, and we never expected that, but our work now is much more manageable, and pleasant. It looks like this now:

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Notice the new pile of wood chips in the center.

The idea is that the micro-organisms need all the nitrogen available to burn up the carbon in the wood chips – leaving less or even no nitrogen for the weeds. That’s how woodsy mulch works. An extra weapon in our arsenal is the deployment of fungi. Most of the weeds we’re fighting are invasive greenies. I’m hoping that aggressively running mycelium in the wood chips mulch will suppress them even more. So I started wood chip fermenting. I learned about it from Paul Stametz in this short and informational video:

It’s an intriguing idea: you basically cultivate a herd of anaerobic bacteria, then you harvest them by killing them by exposing them to oxygen, then give them to the (aerobic) fungi as a meal. It’s like growing fodder for your livestock, only your fodder is bacteria and your livestock is fungi!

Here are my barrels, filled to the brim with a mix of soft and hard woods and tap water that sat out in open buckets in the sun for several days to dechlorinate. I’ll drain the barrels in a couple of weeks and we’ll spread the fermented chips and start a new batch. Hopefully, we’ll have great mycelium running soon!

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A whole crowd of us went picking at a local horse farm, where the farmers a decade or so ago had the foresight of converting a paddock into blueberries. This year will yield a bumper crop and the picking, in the drizzle, was wonderful.

This was the same field where two years ago we picked with our friend Rebecca, who died in February. I spoke about her to a friend and, when I found myself alone, to her as well.

Then, of course, one comes home to the follow-up work. Two hours of picking, seven people = 14 quarts of berries and heaps of fun. One hour of sorting, four people and also fun, lots of tasting. Then six hours of crushing, cooking, measuring, ladling and canning, by one person (me) = not so much fun, but 36 8 oz. jars of blueberry jam.

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some of the pickers, drenched

 

DSCF7979My two kombucha Continuous Brews (one with a spiced Indian chai, the other a more subtle Earl Grey) are growing vigorously, the mothers in them giving birth to more SCOBYs (scobies?). They are starting to fill up the jars. Time for a special hold-over vessel: the SCOBY Hotel. I learned about this from the Big Book of Kombucha by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory of Kombucha Kamp, both of which (the book, the site) I am liking very much.

First photo: Earl Grey kombucha with sour cherry concentrate flavoring for second fermentation. Nicely fizzy! We like the flavors of fresh fruits better though, and those also create an explosive buzz. The sweet cherry and the watermelon flesh flavorings were more of a hit, but not as colorful.

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Separating the older (bottom one) from the newer mother.

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SCOBY motel with four mothers, so far.

 

 

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I tried again to capture those Indigenous Micro-Organisms, again in the leaf mulch pile, and again I got mostly yellow, pink, blue and predominantly black. It smelled sweet, though, so I decided to make a batch of IMO II, adding 1:1 brow sugar. This can be kept indefinitely in a dark, cool spot.

To plant some stinging nettle plants that a new friend – new, but he understands me all too well already! – brought for me, I went into a seldom-visited patch of our property. While digging the trench, I found the soil there to be super soft and hyphal, especially around an old beech tree. It may be that the indigenous micro-organisms are all the colors of the rainbow, not snow-white, but I may try one more time under that tree. I will have to brave some fast growing nettles to get there. Might as well harvest some of the tops and make a nettle tea…

 

 

I visited the two buckets of FAA today – they’re nicely tucked away in the cool, dark basement. Amazing how it doesn’t smell awful or even fishy at all, since it’s just fish and sugar, and some apples. The apple smell dominates, along with a sweet fermented smell. The top of one had a lot of mold, which I just scooped up and fed to my compost bin buddies.

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Underneath that layer the liquefying action is well and truly happening. Basically, only the big fish heads are left. This is what it looks like after a stir:

 

 

 

Meanwhile, outside, this, in case you too were wondering where some of those sumptuous ripe peas went (click to enlarge):

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Four times 275 gallons. The two closest empty as yet. Peas in front.

From the beginning (2008), I have gardened organically – better than “organically,” actually. For instance, I always refused to use the hose, that is, tap water, in my gardens. Even as the garden grew larger and more labor intensive, I insisted on watering with buckets and watering cans. Some relief came when I installed drip in my big vegetable and berry gardens two years ago. And whenever I ran out of rain water, earlier and earlier each year even as I added more and more catchment, I still refused to use that tap water. That is because, in our town, the tap water is full of chlorine and fluoride, which are detrimental to the life in the soil.

And so, year after year, usually in August, I “lost” my gardens. Vegetables didn’t grow so lush, fruits didn’t ripen, berry bushes stayed small, hunkered down. But I insisted: the soil is more important than the plants that grow in it, because the soil is the long-term bank account, the wealth of nutrients, life and diversity that makes the plants possible in the first place.

I realize that I have the luxury of other food sources (our CSA, mainly) that make this attitude possible, and I am well aware that such a situation can make a body complacent.  Truth is, I’d rather be a good tender of the soil and a good farmer/gardener, to triumphantly raise a handful of dark, thick, sticky soil shot through with worms and mycelium and a plump, juice, deep-red bell pepper or even a five pound water melon.

My first concern (but only for starters) was water. Our droughts have been getting worse and none of us expect it to get any better. So a friend and I arranged for another order of those second-hand 275 gallon IBC totes ($75 each), and soon other gardeners, schools and churches got in on it. One day a month ago a big trailer pulled up to my house and we shoved no less than twelve of those massive, ugly totes onto my driveway (the neighbors are used to it.) We rinsed out the left-over vegetable oils and then they were picked up, one by one, till I was left with four. We installed two of those next to my original two, making for 1,100 gallons of water storage. I plan to add a couple more smaller rain barrels in several places. As for the other two totes, the idea was to use one as a watering tank, the other as a dunking tank for mushrooms – about which later – but the mushroom inoculation season escaped us while we waited for logs to become available. I may hook them up into another tower in the chicken yard… One can never have enough rain water stored away!

{UPDATE 5/28} One can have as much storage as one wants, but first of all it needs to rain! Since I wrote this post, no rain has fallen, and I am down to 1/8 of the first lower barrel. Tomorrow let’s dance for the rain gods.

 

 

A commenter asked if things are growing. Are they ever! Winter ended quite suddenly, with feet of snow melting away in a matter of days. So it was time to get growing.

Here are the seedlings in the basement:

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If necessary (I’m also growing seedlings for friends and school gardens), I can add an extra shelf below.

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Some are hardening off on the porch:

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In the garden, the sorrel was the second to look all alive and ready to go:

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First were the onions, overwintered. They looked so dreary and slimy emerging from the snow, but then:

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I’ve got gardening nails again:

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As our trusted reader(s?) know, we grow all our vegetables from seed, and now that it is spring (on the calendar at least) the time nears to sow the seeds. We do this in the basement, where we have a large “seedling bank” of lights and a heat mat.

But most of my plastic trays are pretty beaten up, and I didn’t feel like buying more flimsy plastic. So we decided to make our own seedling boxes out of wood. They’ll be sturdy and long-lasting, made of biodegradable material (mostly), and I was able to design them so that the containers that I use most often (the plastic boxes that mushrooms and berries come in) actually fit well in them.

Amie helped me shop for wood and nails at Home Depot, helped design the box, then helped saw and hammer and glue the sides together and cut out the bottom. She had the most fun hammering the bottom on, then sinking the nails in.

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