One of my favorite parts of Permies is watching other people's projects develop. It's always a pleasure to take a gander at what Joseph, Evan, Jesse, Kai, and dozens of others are doing. For me, it's an enjoyable consumption that takes my mind off the chaos of my world.
So I decided it's probably time for me to start documenting my own adventures. I've been lurking here a while without properly introducing myself, so hi everyone!
I've been semi-retired now for three years this July. I spent my teens working with my dad with construction, my twenties going to college for Civil Engineering, and my late twenties working in technology. For my 30th birthday, I quit my ridiculously stressful job and moved up to the mountains to help care for my dad. I now split my time between caring for my dad, working on my ranch, and noodling with software now and then. Physically, I'm split between South Lake Tahoe (where I live), the ranch (near Kyburz), and Dunsmuir, where I own a house with my parents.
I say semi-retired because while I don't have a job, I do work on many longer-term investments. I started out with 6 months of living expenses runway three years ago, and now I have another 5 years in the bank. So far it's working.
My house in Dunsmuir is on 0.75 acres of river front property with pretty typical California Foothills weather. Mild winters with lots of water and some snow and hot dry summers. Soil is almost non-existent. Our property was cut down about 4' from the road, so our yard is about 2-3" of clay and then rock rubble.
My goals thus far have been focused on building topsoil and harvesting water. Since I'm not here on a regular basis, passive irrigation strategies are especially interesting. Longer term, I'd love to have a nice kitchen garden and small food forest.
South Lake Tahoe
This is where I spend most of my winters and any time during the summer I'm not at the ranch or exploring elsewhere. I have a normal house with a fairly forested backyard. It's a small house with a decently sized backyard in the middle of a conifer forest (fairly typical for Tahoe).
Leaping Daisy (The Ranch)
Leaping Daisy is my main affair June - October. It's 250 acres in the High Sierras around 6400'. Completely off-grid, bordered on all sides by National Forest. It used to be an old summer cattle camp and has a few older buildings dating back to 1922. This will be my second year with the property, so I'm still in massive learning mode. The property is a mix of hilly, rocky pine forests and a big meadow with deep soil and a creek running through the middle. It's snowshoe/snowmobile only from December - May, depending on snowpack. The land has been logged a few times in the past (selective), light grazing (cows have access to 80k surrounding acres), and even grew the state capitol's 1987 Christmas Tree.
I'm working on several layers with Leaping Daisy. Immediately, I'm working on forestry-related income — timber and Christmas Trees. Next will be private camping / group activities (weddings, yoga retreats, backcountry ski huts, etc). We really are just looking to find a way to make a living from the property in some manner. I've also got some non-business related experiments with growing food going on. I'd love to have fruit trees and friendlier berries than the Sierra Gooseberry to snack from.
Longer term, I secretly hope I can turn my previous life's stock into real money so I can transition the property into non-profit that's something in between Krameterhof and an ecological resort for kids.
I think that's about it for now. I'm really itching to get back to the ranch. This year was an epic snow year and I'm still waiting for the roads to melt off. This time last year, I'd been able to drive out there for 3 weeks. My last trip about a week ago revealed snow drifts up to five feet along the road. Right now I'm contemplating hiking out with a battery charger, get the backhoe started, and try to clear about 2 miles of snow-filled road so I can drive out there again.
I have a garden bed down below my deck that's pretty separated from the main garden. For the past couple of years I've had a drip system setup on a timer sourced from a rain barrel ~20ft above. It "works" but results haven't been very impressive. The pressure change from a full vs. empty water barrel make it very difficult to get consistent irrigation, and those little spigots get clogged all the time. I've been meaning to experiment with ollas, so I'm trying a different approach to self-watering this year with a little experiment.
I bought 4 clay pots at the local hardware store, a miniature float valve from Amazon, and ended up needing one more connector to connect my 1/2" drip tubing into the float valve. All told, I spent about $15.
Step 1: Seal the bottom of one clay pot, turn the other upside down and glue it on top. I then glued a little drip-tube filter that I had in a box of random drip-system stuff.
Step 2: Install the float valve near the top of a 5 gallon bucket (inlet) and a 1/2" barbed connector on the bottom (outlet).
Step 3: Bury the ollas and connect everything up
In theory, this setup has a lot of advantages over a drip system. It'll be a lot more water efficient, it won't consume water if it's recently rained, it should be much tougher to clog up, and I don't have to worry about batteries on my timer. If this works out, I'd like to try a similar strategy in the kitchen garden next year. We get a LOT of water in the Winter/Spring, but very little water and high temperatures throughout most of summer. I'd love to get to a place where all watering is "automatic" (no intervention required) and sourced from rain barrels. The biggest downside is that it does require digging up the ollas in the winter (so freezing doesn't kill them) and re-plant them in the spring.
Do report back on how the ollas with the floats go. I'm on my second year of simply sealed clay pots with a lid. They worked great for me last year and really cut down on both plant loss and wasted water.
My last trip out was about three weeks ago, and at the time there was still 3-5ft of snow on the ground, and more importantly — on the road. I drove out there today to check on things and see the state of things. Color me surprised that almost all the snow has melted! There was only one 20ft section of road with about 2ft of snow on it, so looks like it's game on for the season! Of course I forgot my chainsaw and the keys, which meant I still had to hike a ways in on foot. I'm planning on heading back this weekend to plant some apple trees and cover crops.
Last fall on our last trip before the snow, we started on our "barn garden". It's the area in front of the barn that used to be used for horses and temporary cattle storage. I don't have plans to ever have horses, and the fences have basically completely rotted — so it seemed like as good a place as any to start planting things since there's a hose hookup there and it's close by the main cabins. We managed to dig out a pond, get a liner installed, and build a small hugel bed on the north side of the pond. I plan on planting the apple trees behind that hugel, and building another hugel to the North of the trees with some large boulders mixed in on the south side. The goal here is to leverage the thermal mass of the pond and boulders to reduce damage from early/late frosts, use the pond's reflections to get more sun to the trees in our short growing season, and build soil with the hugels on either side of the trees.
I wanted to plant the trees much sooner, but it just wasn't logistically possible this year. So I have them in 20gal fabric pots in my backyard right now and will see how they deal with transplanting so late in the season. I'll probably plant some more this fall and see how everything works out after the winter. I have six trees ready — 2x Cortland, 2x Honey Crisp, 2x Arkansas Black Spur, all on M-111 (semi-dwarf) stock. I've also got a large bag of mustard, lupine, field peas, oats, and hairy vetch that I plan on seeding over the hugel this year. The area isn't fenced in, so I'm focusing on building soil rather than getting a ton of plants in.
Not a huge update this time, but finally made my first drive all the way out to the ranch on Friday. Brought along my apple trees, which all seemed to survive the ride. This trip was mostly cleanup after a long, hard winter. Overall, I'm impressed all the structures and such managed so well (we probably got close to 40ft of snow this year). The most unfortunate casualty is the water. Looks like the hose into the spring got clogged as it's no longer flowing into the tank. So I get to learn a bit more about tapping into springs before I can get my showers back. Can't say the roads are in great shape either, but it's mostly superficial damage, and my truck can make it out no problem. Another thing to learn — but improving the roads was already one of my primary goals for this summer.
While I was waiting for batteries to charge, I limed and seeded my hugel with cover crops. I wasn't planning on liming it, but I accidentally picked up the wrong kind of ag lime for my worm bin (hydraulic lime), and the soil does tend acidic up there (pine forest). My little herb spiral I built last year still had some parsley after the winter, and it looks like some cilantro might be sprouting. Managed to get one of my Apple trees in the ground with the time remaining. I'm experimenting with "deep pipes" here to encourage deeper root growth (in hopes to better withstand the winter). I took a 10' long 2" PVC, cut it into 2' sections on my chopsaw, then drilled some 1/8" holes along one side. The top will be covered with screen and ziptied (to keep out critters). After installing the first one, I think it might be a good idea to block the bottom a bit — it drained super fast. I don't think the side holes had any effect. I'm hoping to get the rest of the trees in the ground this week. Right now I'm digging out a square hole, putting the tree in with about 1/2 it's potting soil (peat / compost / vermiculite), pruning about 1/3rd of the foilage, and mulching it with some "wood chips" aka shovelfuls of cubicle rotted logs. If anyone has advice on strategies to encourage hardiness, I'd love to hear it.
Since the water isn't hooked up, I'll be watering by hand for a little bit. Pretty thankful we got the pond in last year — it's already coming in massively handy.
Still got out for some disc golf, attempted the flea market, and planted some more lettuce seedlings at home. Gonna cover my plants tonight and hope the tomatoes make it through. Doesn't seem like it's going to go below freezing, but this is the mountains after all.
Just got back from another trip and it finally feels like summer is here! Tremendously happy to have our mild sunny days back. It's enjoyable to sit around a campfire again. Good news all around from this trip. The "broken spring" was really just some critters getting curious with our piping. Easy fix and no digging required. And just in case you were curious, I attached a picture of my water tank — an old WW-II (?) fuel/liquid storage tank. I enjoy that it's been spray painted RE USE CONTAINER.
I also retrieved one out of three of my temperature sensors and it made it through the winter! Bad news is, as you can see from the graph, it got buried in snow for a good chunk of the winter. It was also the one sensor I left exposed to the sun (because I was curious). And in retrospect, I should have made some GPS markers for the remaining sensors. Gonna take a while to find the others.
Another little 24-hour trip to the ranch. Primary goal here was to fully charge the backhoe battery and make sure it's still in working condition. Took all afternoon but it started up just fine in the end. Even dug myself a little buried wood bed with it while it was idling to finish charging up. Unfortunately bout 10 minutes later I managed to unmount one of the back tires. One step forward, one step back... sigh.
All this waiting around gave me plenty of free time to work in the garden though. All of my Apple trees are now "finished" — they're in ground, pruned down, each with two deep pipes, and mulched with wood chips. I'm not sure how I feel about the deep pipes as they are right now (they drain really fast), but I might shove some clay down there and see how that works. I have no idea how I'll measure their success since I didn't plant any without them. At least they make me feel better.
The cover crops I planted in the hugel seem to be doing great. The mustard especially so, but lots of little seedlings all over despite the squirrels taking their fill. Watering this thing by hand is getting really old. Hopefully I'll be able to get the water back up and running soon.
I wasn't planning on doing any more to the blueberries than shove them in the ground, but since I realized I needed to keep the tractor running I ended up burying one big tree and a handful of rotten firewood pieces. Since it looked so nice, I also planted a couple of elderberry softwood cuttings stripped of most their leaves. Not sure how they'll fare, but it only took me a few minutes. I'm hoping to take more cuttings this fall for next year's planting. Sprinkled in on top I threw down a bunch of lupine seeds I collected last year. This bed will be my acid-leaning section of the barn garden aka just the local soil.
Now that I've got all my planting related tasks done for the summer, I'll probably shift gears to fire hazard work, property maintenance, vehicle maintenance, and fence building. The good news is 'm thinking this is going to be an epic year for wildflowers. There's a tremendous amount of green all over the meadow and the first flowers of the season are just starting to open up. There is still a good amount of snow in the high country, so I'm expecting the water to keep coming.
Been a while since I posted an update — been busy with some (software) consulting and seemingly endlessly fixing winter damage to water pipes. After three days of digging following a water line uphill, I decided on a whim to walk 150ft up the hill and dig near a suspiciously chainsawed log in a wetland. Three shovelfulls later I found the spring box! That fixed the water -> tank problems, but now I've found more problems between the tank and the cabins. One step at a time…
I don't have a lot of pictures for the rest, but I thought I'd share some things I've learned in my adventures recently:
Cover Crop Seeding: My cover crop on my hugel has been disappointing at best. I knew that I'd planted too late (after the last rains had fallen), but I underestimated how fast the top layer of soil dries out. I also did not do a good enough job covering and packing the seeds, and the squirrels/birds got to almost all the bigger seeds like field peas. On the bright side, the mustard is doing great (smallest seeds), and established plants seem to be getting plenty of water with about 1" irrigation every two weeks. I got another 5lbs of a fall mix I plan on seeding around September when the rains come back.
Apple Trees: Are doing… great. Kind of surprised to be honest since I still don't have deer protection on them. Only one plant has had any damage, and it was light. The real test will be this winter when the winds/snow/voles come out in force.
Pond & Plug: Our property has historically been used for cattle grazing, and one of the consequences is a "gullied" creek channel (deep, steep banks). One of the USDA's strategies for re-attaching the stream to the meadow floor is called Pond and Plug. I thought it was a fascinating, very permie-thinking strategy — slowing the water velocity, increasing water retention time, raising the groundwater level, and increasing the springtime floodplain. Beyond that, it sounds a bit like a dream for me to have a series of ponds along the meadow, and it sounds like it may be possible to get grants to do this work.
Foresters: I finally found an RPF that's on the same wavelength as me, and he's down to help us out so long as he can come snowmobile in the winter and maybe take a buck during deer season. We spent a day wandering around the property and I learned a ton. Even found a huge healthy (bark beetle & dwarf mistletoe resistant) sugar pine in a droughty area of the property that's a great candidate for tree stock.
Jean Pain Composting: One of my projects this summer is going to be clearing out the lodgepole from the meadow, which is going to result in a good amount of slash I'll need to dispose of. I've been thinking about experimenting with some Jean Pain style composting and seeing what kind of compost I can produce. There's a lot of Mountain Whitethorn all over the property (regrows vigorously when cut to the roots), which should provide a healthy amount of N to balance out the pile. I've just started reading Another Kind of Garden (it's always been on my list) to get a better handle on his methods. I think there's going to be a lot to learn that's relevant to my climate (forest + fire management + hot dry summers).
A few days ago we had our first sticking snow. Only about a 1/2" but it stuck around for about 3 days in the shady areas. Needless to say, everything's painfully beautiful around these parts right now with the Aspens/Oaks turning and the mountains with a fresh coat of paint. The last sticking snow was 6/11 so that gave us about 132 days of summer this year.
I didn't get nearly as much done this summer as I'd hoped. A combination of lacking help, repairs from a monster winter, and family obligations meant my gardening projects took a back seat. Lacking a fence, the apple trees took a beating from the deer. I'll be curious to see if they survive the winter after getting their leaves eaten off in the fall. This was all fairly expected, though. The garden is very much experimental until I get some more infrastructure in place.
I've spent the past couple of weeks prepping things for winter. The girlfriend spent her time moving a bunch of firewood from the wood shed to the porch to work as a snow fence. I'm hoping it slows down the endless torrent of snow in the winter, allowing me some porch room for an outdoor propane stove. Snow levels usually get up to the roof line, so it won't stop all of it. But maybe enough. I've been spending my time building a shed for the UTV. Always a bit challenging building structures that survive the snow load out here by myself, but it's coming along.
In the meantime, simultaneously stressing out about the coming winter and looking forward to snow season so I can take a break and get my snow toys out…
Yesterday (after driving 2hrs out of my way to get corrugated roofing due to shortages) I got a roof on the shed. Just in time for this weekend's forecasted 1-2ft of snowfall. In the past 2 weeks I managed to fully construct a 12ft high shed built for heavy snow (think 2x10 rafters @ 12' oc) pretty much entirely by myself (the girlfriend helped me raise the posts). And cleaned up the property for the winter (anything left out will be crushed). And got the snowcat running. And somehow managed 40hrs of software consulting in between. Needless to say, I'm beat. Depending on how the snowpack develops, I may try and get some real siding on the shed next week after my cousin's wedding. Otherwise I'm just going to staple up some fence wire and tarps for this winter and call it a season.
Feels good to have such a productive couple of weeks, but damn I'm looking forward to some rest time. In the meantime, still trying to enjoy squash season…
Had a little time to play around with a new toy and get a bit of footage of this silly beautiful little place I get to call home (well, one of them). The shed is wrapped up, next year's wood is split and in the woodshed, the water is turned off, snowmobiles are sleeping in the barn, and the snowcat is tuned up and ready to play. Now we just wait for the snow to pile up.
I've been quiet all during winter, but the sun is coming out, the snow has melted, and it's time to get back to work. What a weird winter. I haven't made it out to the ranch since the Fall because of it. We had one of the weakest winters on record up until March, and then had more snow fall in a week than we had Nov - Feb combined. Then we had some wet storms, some rain, some more snow. What it's meant is an extremely unstable snowpack. Because of that, I haven't felt comfortable out in the backcountry and have stayed close to town.
Which is good because… I bought a house in town! So me & the girlfriend spent a good chunk of our time moving, patching holes, and other non-permie tasks. This house has a very large heavily forested backyard on a ~15% slope. So now that the snow has been down I've been doing some defensible space / wildland fire protection work. A lot of people get very intimated by this work when they see professionals out there with chainsaws and heavy machinery, but it doesn't have to be so scary. I use my samurai ichiban pruning saw and a good pair of gloves.
The core principle with wildland fire management is to get rid of ladder fuels. Imagine a fire burning along the ground — that's great! It'll burn through quick and be out in less than an hour. What you want to prevent is the ground fire from finding ladders up to the crowns of trees. My strategy is simple:
1. Go through every mature tree and cut down any limb I can reach. For me this is about ~7ft high.
2. Thin the trees to a spacing of 10-20ft.
3. Do something with the brush pile you've created (chip, burn, pile away from crowns)
My city offers free chipping through the fire protection district, so once I'm done cleaning it up I'll call them over and they'll chip it with an industrial chipper for me and I can use it for establishing some blueberries & rhubarb I've got in containers.
Last fall, I went around and collected a handful of seeds from local perennials — lavender, mountain ash (rowan), elderberry, and non-grafted apples. I put them in some sand and left them in my unheated garage all winter. Some of these enjoy scarification, but since they were so small and I was curious, I did not do any scarification beforehand. A couple of weeks ago I put these sand containers in my germination station to warm up and kept them moist.
So far every single one of the apples has sprouted! I'm not really sure what I will do with all of these. I ended up with around 30 seedlings in total. Some of them are living in my seed starting area (pictured), and some of them are living outside where it is still very much winter. My plan with these seeds was to see how difficult it was to germinate (turns out: not difficult at all), see if I can get some locally adapted rootstock, and give my hand at growing apples from seed with an eye toward animal protection. I did not select any of these for taste, most were crabapples or small, bitter fruits.
The jury's still out on the rest of the seeds… I haven't seen a single one germinate yet.
With the amazing weather we had this weekend, we took a little expedition out to the ranch. We ended up hiking the last 3 miles in due to snow on the road, but everything is melting fast. I suspect after the next two weeks of warm weather, I should be able to make the full drive. This is good, because I'm itching to get to work this year. I've got a lot planned this year, and even made arrangements to spend the entirety of July out there, which should be interesting. It's also nice to see that we are getting better for preparing for winter. This time last year there was about 7ft of snow on the ground (no joke), the spring/water line was broken in a dozen places, the internet satellite (only means of communication) was trashed, two structures collapsed, and none of the vehicles would start. This year things are going much better. We spent a few hours on Saturday getting all the vehicles out of their hibernation sheds (with some help from the snowcat) and verified pretty much everything is in working order. The water line isn't busted, but also isn't flowing — a much smaller task now that I know where the spring box is that feeds it (last year required 250+ft of manual trenching).
Spring is almost here, but not quiet yet. The meadow spiders are alive, the birds are singing, the crowns of corn lilies are just staring to peek out of the streams, the tulips and daffodils have pushed through the snow, but most things are still dormant and deep in slumber. I expect that to change real quick now that the temperatures have warmed up. I've come to see that due to the deep snowpack, spring comes fast in the mountains. As soon as the insulating layer of snow is melted, the soil warms up in a day or two in the warm sun and everything starts growing all at once.
Back at home, I've been busy cleaning up the backyard and figuring out where and if I can grow anything. There's one small spot that gets 5-6 hours of direct sunlight, but most of the yard gets a good 2-3 hours of direct sunlight and a mix of filtered sun and shade the rest of the day. I've spent weeks and weeks debating where to try put my growies. My method is kind of simple: walk around with Sun Seeker and try and figure out how many hours of sun I can get between June and October. Then I wake up and question myself all over again. But in all seriousness, I love Sun Seeker — it's helped keep me sane.
With all those weeks of debate, I decided to flip this around and give myself three challenges this year:
1. Learn to grow more shade-tolerant vegetables
2. Try and push the limit for shade-tolerant perennials (and accept more failure)
3. Experiment with row covers / greenhouses / other heat-increasing methods
Since I don't really know how well these methods will work, I'm not investing a lot of money into this. I put together a couple of terraced beds along the downslope of a drainage ditch in a fairly shady area of the yard. Most of the structure was built out of slash from defensible space work. Then I threw some chicken wire around the edges to keep out the bunnies. I've planted a couple of brussels sprouts, red russian kale, arugula, rhubarb, blueberries, and strawberries. If the blueberries work out here, I suspect I'll make it a bit more of a cage to protect from the blue jays.
In the only piece of sunny land I have, I made a bit of a terrace. I think this spot actually gets enough sun during the day, so I've gone a bit longer term. I've got some tomatoes in pots (our last chance of frost is usually around June, so it's good to have them portable until I build a covering), brussels sprouts in the ground, and a cover crop seeded to build up the soil in this area. I still need to fell the smaller tree in this picture, and I hope to eventually build a greenhouse here. This year I will probably try something janky with some scrap wood and some poly covering. If this works out, I'll spend some time designing a greenhouse that can survive the winters we get here.
It seems in a lot of the country the story is the same… winter stayed around too long, but spring came in like a freight train. We haven't had a freezing night in weeks, and it seems like we may just squeak out without one (our last frost is typically June 15). We spent the weekend out at the ranch and the weather has been incredible for the past couple of weeks.
One thing I'm most happy to see is my hugel finally covered in green! The fall planting of the cover crop definitely worked well. Seeds were able to take advantage of the snow melt to germinate and get a head start on the dry weather ahead. I've yet to decide if I'll let it go to seed this year or start chopping it down. Depends a lot on whether I can get a fence up and realistically get use out of it. Nevertheless, I planted a bunch of strawberries and rhubarb out along the north side. It's always a struggle to get perennials out to the ranch because most nurseries stop selling them by the time the road has opened up and spring is upon us in the high country. So I'm always looking for ways to keep plants happy for a few months, and I tried these things called deep roottrainers I heard of from Richard Perkins. They worked great — they're super easy to take the plants out carefully and force the roots downward (and thus away from circling themselves). I have a half dozen apple seedlings in another container I'll put out soon.
Speaking of apples… it does seem that most of my trees survived — all but two have leaves coming out now (and those two may just need a few more days). The voles did try and girdle one tree under the snowline but above my hardware cloth, but it doesn't look like they ate too far into it. Now I just need to protect them from the deer, because last year they stripped every last leaf from these poor little trees.
Guess it's time to get to work. I've been making good progress getting the property back in shape and I believe I've gotten everything back to 100% functioning, which means this year can be spent IMPROVING the place instead of fixing broken stuff… what a concept.
Oh, and whatever allium that I have growing here https://permies.com/t/77809/allium-told-wild-garlic. It LOVES growing in the dappled light of my woods. It died in my garden (I planted it under fruit trees=died. In the garden bed=died. In the woods=thriving!)
Thanks for that list! I do know for certain that strawberries grow well here. A couple of weeks after I planted a couple bare-root strawberries in an area I thought might be likely, I found a huge patch of strawberries poking through the straw… I'm excited to see what kind these end up being when their flowers & fruits come up. For now in addition to my blueberries, strawberries, and rhubarb I've planted several brussels sprouts, lacinato & red russian kale, butter lettuce, romaine lettuce, arugula, spinach, leeks, snap peas, artichokes (a stretch), and chives/thyme/mint in three different light-level areas of the back yard. Now I just need to wait for time to pass and see what kind of production I can get from these. Growing all these shade-tolerant things is still pretty new to me, and it's difficult when every seed packet says that it seems to want a sunny, mild place with well drained fertile soil. So much of my life was lived in the valley (hot dry long sunny summers) that I always think back to tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers in a garden. It seems silly, but it takes a lot of effort for me to remember what things I eat that I could grow in a cooler / shadier environment.
As an aside, moving into a new house is always so interesting. We bought this place from an investment firm who bought it from a bank who had foreclosed on a delinquent owner who was using the garage as a grow house… which means we just don't have any information about the previous owners at all. Everything was "as-is", and we bought it in the middle of the winter. Now that the temperatures are warming up I'm finding all kinds of bulbs and other perennials with top-growth that dies back in the winter popping up all over the front yard. After years of owning land in places I don't live in and renting the places I do live in, it's massively refreshing to be able to build a permanent garden just right out my bedroom door.
What a beautiful spring it's been up in the mountains. We haven't had a hard freeze in about a month, which is crazy, but sure makes for pleasant mornings. I've made a lot of progress out at the ranch. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement — I managed to fix every thing that had been frustrating me since I bought the property and learned a few new skills along the way. Reseated my first tractor tire with some ratchet straps and an air compressor, cleaned out a blocked hose spigot with my air compressor, built up the hugel (layering more dirt on top of the cover crop), installed automatic irrigation, and even managed to fence off my remaining apple trees. The real work season (June-September) has barely even started.
As usual, I set up my yellow jacket traps. They may have pretty little stripes like those friendly bees, but don't get confused — they're assholes. This year I went for a few slices of apple mixed in with sugar, water, and vinegar. Seemed to be working great! Until the bears found them… so I guess now I've got a bit of repair to do on the buildings where I hung them. Oops.
There were tons of these huge mushrooms popping out of the road. When I was there last I didn't bring my battery, which meant to internet to identify them. But now that I'm back, these look at awful lot like Porcinis. Any experts know? If so I'm bummed I didn't grab a few and throw 'em in my bag!
Oh, and here's a couple bonus pictures from my timelapse cam I kept at the ranch all winter just to appreciate the snowpack we get. Ignore the dates, they're nonsense.
My personal theme for the past few weeks has been practicality. I admit, I often get a little lost in the purity side of permaculture at the expense of making progress. Which is a bit funny given that in a previous life one of my mantras was always practicality beats purity. The thing is, I get a bit lost when I look at my piece of land and the immense resources available and think of what all could be done. I see the trees that could be felled, milled with solar power, treated with fire, and assembled into a bed to sleep on. But this path requires a tremendous path of dependencies. I need a mill to mill the lumber. I'll need a winter storage area for the mill. And solar power to power it. And maintenance of all the parts. And new blades as the old ones go dull. And a place to put it, time to calibrate it, and learn it… or I could just go to the lumber store and buy some 2x4s.
So instead, I went to the lumber store and built myself a bed. I've desperately wanted a new bed. The one that was in my cabin was from the previous owners and instantly turned into a taco the moment two people were in it. It's just a small thing, but part of a bigger theme.
At this point I feel as though I could speak for hours on the necessity of irrigation in the arid west. I avoided irrigation for a long time — building a hugel in the fall to capture the snowmelt, experimenting with swales and other water features. My results were depressing (see: last year's cover crop experiments). But this year I admitted to myself that things are different out here. It was cute to see Richard Perkins talk about a historic drought of two weeks without rain (and even then, he considered a quick rainstorm to not count as rain!). We get closer to four months without rain. But more importantly, we have close to 0% humidity. Mulch is fine for trees and other deep-rooted plants, but everything else needs irrigation. So I bought myself some 1/2" irrigation tubing and drilled some holes in it, hooked it up to a battery powered water timer… and holllllllly crap. My hugel's cover crop has grown to 3ft twice so far. And it's only June. I have dozens of squash, beans, radishes, and all sorts of plants I'd hopelessly planted earlier that never germinated happily growing. All of this is fed from my spring, so it's doubly silly that I avoided it for so long.
Anyways, I'm going to continue with this theme. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in what's possible that you often forget what can actually get done with the time you've got.
I am constantly impressed with the resiliency of plants. Back in the fall, I planted a handful of comfrey root cuttings around the garden. A few in the hugel bed and a few in the plain ground. When they didn't come up in the spring, I assumed they didn't make it through the winter (either voles or cold or too long of a dormancy). But then a couple of days ago, I spotted a couple leaves that looked familiar… comfrey! The tiniest comfrey, and sure it sprouted in July, but perhaps this will give it enough energy to bounce back faster next year.
Next up is an Apple tree I planted last spring. The winter before that was a crazy huge winter, so it didn't end up getting planted until the wet weather had left us and the warm weather had arrived. On top of that, I never got around to protecting the trees and every single leaf and new growth got stripped clean by the deer. But this summer it sprouted all kinds of new growth, and seems to be quite happy.
Last up on our list is a blueberry I picked up for dirt cheap at the nursery in the middle of the summer last year. Root bound and planted in the dead of summer without irrigation, it was doing okay… for about a week until the deer found it and stripped off every single leaf. Miraculously, it's full of leaves this year.
We've been getting the tail end of monsoon moisture blowing through the past couple of days, and it's been producing some incredible sunsets. Maybe we'll even get a thunderstorm or two! So far it's just been a couple thousands of an inch of precipitation. But those sunsets…
I'm nearing the end of my month long break from computer work to work out here at the ranch. Overall it's been an extremely fulfilling break from the real world, and I seem to have gotten both more done and less done than I anticipated. The weather has been incredible up here, with highs in the mid 80's and lows in the mid 50's at night, spectacular thunderheads over the mountains, and smoke from the Ferguson fire in Yosemite floating in and out as the winds change.
The garden area is really coming along. My UTV and me have been busy collecting rocks from the road to line the pond and I'm pleased to finally have that project done. The plants are doing great — strawberries, rhubarb, green beans, cucumbers, and squash all seem to be very happy as well as a mix of cilantro, daikon, comfrey, and various cover crops. I've been cutting back the vetch every week or so and it seems to grow about 2ft during that time. The surface is now completely covered in 3-4" of chopped plant material. I've also installed an old fire pit (like the kind from campsites with the fold-over grill attached) at the edge. It looks out to the meadow, which is a great place to start or end the day watching the hummingbirds enjoy the rose thistle in the adjacent meadow.
I've been spending most of my time building a skiddablesolar shed to house our solar setup. I've got it all put together and water-tight. Now I just need to become an electrician and figure out how all the bits and bobs come together. It will be incredibly nice to get rid of the hum of the generator. I've been working up here with a little GoalZero Yeti 150 (150ah) and a generator for a few years now. With the addition of a bunch of Dewalt FlexVolt tools (including a battery-powered 12" miter saw!) it has been doable, but usually means at least 2hrs of generator time a day.
In the meantime, it's been nice to spend time on creature comforts, like my little cooking station I built to fit in the cabin's porch. It really does feel like things are accelerating faster and faster as I spend more time building up infrastructure. Which I guess is the point, but after 3 years out here, I guess it's just nice to feel progress.
Today was firewood day! I've always heard a saying that firewood warms you three times — once when you cut it, once when you split it, and once when you burn it. That seems like a saying from someone who's only imagined processing firewood. In my experience, it usually warms you up when you don't need to be warm (like now) and it warms you up about nine times. Once when you fell the tree, once when you limb it, once when you buck it, once when you move the rounds to the splitting station, once when you split it, once when you stack it to dry, once when you re-stack it for storage, once when you bring it in to burn, and again when you burn it. Alas…
The real reason today was firewood day was we had a friend coming up who wanted to swing an axe something desperate. Whenever we've got free labor, we like to take advantage of it. We ended up taking down three trees — all dead or imminently dead from bark beetle. If you have ever seen what appeared to be a totally healthy evergreen suddenly turn orange, it's most likely bark beetle. This first tree we felled was actually later than we should have noticed. Ideally, you take them down when top-death is visible (second picture) as that indicates the tree will be dead next year. This constitutes the majority of forestry work for us as of current. There are a lot of bark-beetle infested trees throughout the property as a result of the 2005-2010 drought. Bark beetles cannot live in dead trees on the ground, but they do live in dead standing trees. The good news is this produces a good amount of trees suitable for lumber and firewood along the way.
Another thing I like to do every time I fell a tree is take some time to examine the stump and improve our felling technique. The third picture shows what you want — about 4" of hingewood (the uncut splintered portion) in an even band across the tree, starting about 1/3 the diameter. This one was pretty good, although one of the ends was a little shallower than ideal. I'm hoping to rent a chipper here soon to turn the branches into woodchips for the garden, and a stretch goal would be to rent a lumber mill before the end of the year to turn some of the better wood into lumber for a new deck. But for now, we've got another cord of firewood stacked and drying for next winter.
Question: What's the difference between an irrigated garden and a non-irrigated garden?
This garden patch's irrigation failed while I was away and didn't get water for a week and a half.
This garden's irrigation did not fail.
Without a doubt, this was the year I fully leaned into the idea that water is my limiting nutrient. I still have the hugel at the ranch and will continue to experiment with water-saving techniques, but irrigation is absolutely vital in this low-humidity drought summer climate.
In any case, my tomatoes and tomatillos are jammin' — I'm stoked. We don't grow tomatoes here. And these have been out since the beginning of May! I'm pretty happy with this little greenhouse setup though — this garden is actually in my front "yard" (you're looking at the whole of it). What it lacks in soil, it makes up for in having a south-facing concrete wall that insulates the plants. It does mean I have to grow in pots (below the greenhouse is mostly concrete footer), but that is actually pretty good for frost-sensitive plants here. I usually start about 3-4 of these pots worth of tomatoes and leave the most vigorous in here. This year I've got a Cherokee Purple, a Glacier, and a Tomatillo — my first time growing them. And of course some basil, cillantro, mint, snapdragons, thyme, rosemary and all kinds of other stuff nearby tucked in the bits of soil surrounding.
Well, thus concludes this year's garden at the ranch…
As they saying goes, you can garden 'till the cows come home, but then if you didn't build a fence the cows will eat literally every single thing including your irrigation, solar lights, and mulch.
The surrounding National Forest here is leased out to ranches who send their herds up to high country in the summer to graze. It's still a little crazy to me — suddenly there's a herd of cowbells ringing and out pops a cowboy riding his horse with a couple cattle dogs in tow. Feels like something out of the 1800s, but I guess it's still a profitable way to get grass fed cattle. Unfortunately, that also means they invade my land, eat everything in sight, and leave a metric ton of shit. So I did what any reasonable person would do: picked up two wheel-barrels full of cow shit around the cabin and started compost pile.
I really need to get building a fence. But hey! They did leave two plants: a watermelon and a squash.
It really was quite defeating to drive up to a garden that was a lush forest a week and a half ago and see bare dirt. I can't believe they ate my mulch! But such is life. I really need to build a fence for next year if I want to keep any of my produce.
OMG, I'm so sad for you. What a bummer!! (And since I have a sick/dark sense of humor, appreciate your forays into that.) It's great that you're focusing on the compost opportunity (free! delivery included!) and the remaining crops.
Sonja: Thanks for the sympathy vote. To be honest, I was mostly disappointed I didn't get my green bean dinner! I had a good twenty or so plants that had just set fruit last time I left. But all this is kind of expected right now — this whole garden was planted with a ton of old seeds I had lying around. I figured it'd take me five years to build up enough infrastructure to have a productive garden out at the ranch, and next year will be my fourth year owning this place. If I manage to build a snow/mobile proof fence this fall, I'll have conquered the biggest barriers (water + cow/deer pressure). And hey, they may have smashed my apple tree fences, but they didn't get to the trees!
Awesome projects and beautiful land. This year cows ate our compost pile too. They also ate the water plants in our little Koi pond, scared the crap out of the fish. This is one of the reasons I want to divide some of the pasture up so I can have more control over them.
Nice timber hinge indeed. Although it looks like beavers were working on your wedges!
"People get out your way, when you're on fire". Richard Prior
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