Category Archives: Gardening

Lammas 2011: harvesting alliums and hoping for exotic tomatoes

It’s Lammas, traditionally a time to celebrate the first harvests of the year, and despite the seemingly endless coldwetwinterspring weather, we’re actually starting to have something to harvest.

Bees are enjoying the onions that have been allowed to go to flower:

I wonder what the honey will taste like?

It’s a great year for some things, like our tart state plant, the Oregon Grape:

It’s not actually in the grape family, but it makes a really delicious dry fruit wine.

Some year soon, we’re going to have to do a huge field of black oil sunflowers, which are a staple item for our goats and chickens. This is a volunteer, and a spectacular example; I lost count at 27 flowers on this one 6′ tall plant:

Most of the remaining garlic and onions were pulled this morning and now hang from the rafters in the living room:

I am not recommending this as an air freshener. Especially on a hot day when the windows are closed to hold in the cool nighttime air.

Tomato plants are finally setting fruit, and are overflowing the former garlic and onion beds:

We planted about 7 different varieties of tomato this year, purchased as small starts from Boondockers Farm, a great place for heirloom seeds and starts near Eugene.

Boondockers have been working with several obscure (to me, at least) tomatoes, fusing their goals of preserving heirloom DNA and finding varieties that thrive in our particular climate.

Evan, who owns the farm with his partner Rachel, was kind enough to spend an inordinate amount of time educating someone (me) who was only buying one tray of discounted starts. Several of the ones I chose from their almost overwhelming selection are of Eastern European origin, with names like De Barrao Black Ukrainian, Kosovo, and Malakhitovaya Shkatulka. The ones with less exotic names sound no less enticing – Chocolate Cherry, Black Zebra, Chocolate Stripes.

I carefully placed little tags next to each start so I could assess the varieties for future planting, but now there are a few mystery plants…the sometimes frustratingly persistent ink of a Sharpie marker has no UV resistance whatsoever =\

I also don’t know what variety of tomato these are; they popped up voluntarily in a compost bin:

The first round of potatoes is in, and the yield is not overwhelming but better than my previous efforts.

I did not know this before, but “potatoes,” like most of our roots and tubers, are things we plant and care for in order to keep the tunneling moles well nourished. Kidding, but not entirely; I’ll explain in the next post.

Growing big, healthy plants sustainably without breaking your back or the bank

6-foot-plus Tn-86 tobacco plant flowering
in raised hay-bale bed

Here in Western Oregon (temperate rainforest with brittle summers and 8-9 months of cool, rainy weather), the most respected gardening expert is probably Steve Soloman, founder of Territorial Seeds and author of the excellent books “Gardening When it Counts” and “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.”

I tend to follow his advice on most things, but he feels that raised-bed intensive gardening, lasagna/no till, and similar methods that leave mounds of material lying above the ground through the Winter are unsuitable for a climate that rarely gets cold enough to interrupt the life cycles of insects and fungi; piles of mulch can give them a place to pass the winter and get a big head start on the sort of fragile things we like to grow (ie, most domesticated plants.)

I have ignored this advice in parts of our garden for 4 years, and so far the non-tilled beds (I’ll describe my method below) have had the lushest growth and heaviest production, with no more insect damage and much less powdery mildew damage than the in-ground ones. I think the elevation of the beds and the fact that there’s no uncomposted garden refuse in or on them is responsible for the lack of powdery mildew ? which seems unstoppable here; top-water a squash 3 or 4 times and its days are numbered.


green zucchini and bush delicata squash
Zucchini and delicata squash plants in raised bed
(haybales hidden by the lushness)

Here’s how we got the big, lush plants pictured. Not exactly no-till, more like one-till and a little mixing. The items marked “optional” are things that I haven’t done in every bed, but which I think helped.

Creating the beds:

  • mark off a 2-4 foot wide rectangle (length is dictated by need, materials on hand, or time. width is determined by your height and flexibility ? you want to never, ever step inside the beds, because that would compact the nice fluffy soil you’re making)
  • put down a couple of inches of finished compost and a couple of inches of straw, alfalfa stems, etc.
  • put down some sand (optional ? done because we have heavy clay soil)
  • add any other amendments you want to use. layers of soil are good for texture and jump-starting the microbial life.
  • mix the above ingredients together a bit with a spading fork (optional; you can lasagna it, but I find just dumping and mixing it easier than doing lots of thin layers)
  • use spading fork to incorporate this mix into the top 12″ of soil (optional, worms and things will do it eventually)
  • surround the prepared area with old hay bales to make a rectangular bowl. Straw may last longer and be cheaper in some places, but contributes much less in the way of nutrients.
  • in the fall, when the rains are beginning, fill the box made by the hay bales with a good balanced mix of compostables (we use pooped/peed goat bedding)
  • mix the compostables with the spading fork on a schedule that lets the rain moisten the top layer (it’s amazing how much water you can pour on a pile of hay without wetting it more than an inch or two deep!) You could also just add thin layers, waiting for each to moisten before adding the next.
  • once it’s moistened enough to compost nicely (“like a well wrung out sponge”), cover with something to keep it from getting too soggy (tarps, sheets of wood or metal, etc)
  • check periodically throughout the winter to make sure moisture levels are good
  • turn compost every few weeks (optional, depending on climate, materials, depth, etc)
  • by spring, I have a nice fluffy, rich, well-drained bed with very few weed seeds


  • when finished harvesting from a bed or portion of a bed, remove all the stalks, leaves, etc. down to the soil level and send them to the compost. Make sure you have a really hot compost for these things!
  • spread a few inches of finished compost, and 6″-24″ of good compostables, and lightly mix (or not) with the fluffy soil
  • control moisture level through the rainy season with covers
  • a few weeks before planting, gently mix the new compost with the older stuff beneath it (if you haven’t been turning the whole thing periodically)
  • put in only plants whose family has not occupied that bed for at least a year or two. Longer rotations are even safer
  • eventually, the bales will break down into some nice compost. rake that into the bed and stir it in, and put a new bale down to hold the bed together

It’s not as complicated as I probably made it look there. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • lay hay bales to surround a rectangular area 2-4 feet wide
  • dump in a bunch of crap (literal or otherwise)
  • get it moist
  • cover it
  • uncover and give a stir a few weeks before planting
  • repeat add-crap-and-stir at the end of each growing season
  • rotate crops by family or pathogen/insect vulnerability

Caveat: this rich, fluffy stuff drains and evaporates moisture faster than our clay soil during our 2-3 dry months. It helps to plant close enough that there’s a good solid canopy shielding the soil from the sunlight, but these beds still need more frequent watering.

Figuring out how closely to space your seeds/starts can be tough, because things can get HUGE in these beds. Right now, we have a brandywine tomato plant at the end of one that’s about 6 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and very lush:


If I had used the “normal” spacing for that tomato plant, it would be the sort of hopeless tangle that our cherry tomatoes have beome in similarly rich soil.

These fluffy beds are especially good for potatoes and other things that struggle to grow in hard soil. There’s a new one waiting for November’s garlic planting, and we may try putting in some root veggies to overwinter, though it’s late for that.

Here’s a bed of canteloupe, delicata, and corn planted more conventionally, at ground level but with a LOT of compost mixed in:


It’s about as lush as the raised bed, but took several times as much effort, and is suffering a bit from the powdery mildew.

This Hopi red dye amaranth was grown in similar conditions. It doesn’t actually tell you a darn thing about the techniques I’m using, but it’s too beautiful to leave out:

DSC00153hopi Red Dye Amaranth


Rambling late Summer garden notes (with cute goats)

Hi. You’re probably here for pictures of cute goats.

Well, cute goats we’ve got:

Nikabrik 20100816

?but the news these days is mostly happening in the garden.

(There will be more cute goats later, promise)

Spring dragged on cool and rainy until well into June this year. Some plants loved it, and some plants not so much (“Tomatoes looks great for early July! Too bad it’s mid-August.”)

Cabbage has been one of the happy ones:

Cabbage August 2010

Peas did great too ? grew up over the top of the trellises, produced nicely, and helped keep us too busy to take photos of ’em. With the difficulty of picking each pod at the perfect moment and then processing them all, one by one each plant matures a hidden pod or two and starts dying down.

In the past few years, we didn’t shell and save so many peas, instead eating most of them fresh when they were half grown. Sweet and delicious, pod and all. The plants kept producing until we got tired of picking peas, and I suspect that we had a much better labor-to-nutrients ratio that way.

We’ve dabbled in small corn plots a couple of times, in heavy clay soil with fish juice fertilizer, with unimpressive results. This year we’re trying two plots that have copious amounts of composted goat stuff worked in a foot and a half deep. This one is popcorn (name escapes me, probably heirloom):

Popcorn August 2010

This one is a hybrid production variety of sweet corn. Not what I’d usually grow, but someone offered me a tray of 100 five-inch-long starts and I’m sure looking forward to seeing how fast it can get from the stalk to the grill to the butter.

Hybrid Sweet Corn 20100816

Both of those corn plots, assuming Summer doesn’t completely fizzle out early, should provide a few nice baskets of food, but we’re still getting a feel for growing grains so we’ve been doing small plots.

One of the grains that sounds less labor-intensive to harvest and process is amaranth, which bears its ‘fruit’ in big clusters, so we’ve planted a little experimental stand of Hopi Red Dye amaranth with tobacco bookends. It looks pretty happy:

Red Dye Amaranth August 2010

Our buckwheat patch is somewhat smaller ? one plant at the moment. I like it as a cover crop, so I’ve grown quite a bit of it, but I’ve never allowed it to grow over a foot or so before scything and composting it. This one volunteered at the end of a row?it’s a bit over five feet tall now:

Buckwheat Wholeplant August 2010

AND it’s making little buckwheats!

Buckwheat August 2010

These Calypso dry beans should produce medium-sized “yin yang” patterned beans:

Calypso Dry Bean August 2010

Their flowers and tiny beans-to-be:

Calypso Dry Bean Flowers August 2010

Another new one for us is sweet potatoes. This is two plants that have grown slowly but steadily for several months now without covering much area?I’ll be so happy if these work at all!

Sweet Potatoes August 2010

Some plants we’re feeling pretty competent with now, so we plant something approaching the amount we expect we can use. In the case of zucchini this means two bushes, but we’ve got four of them out there.

There’s a whole world under the zuke/delicata canopy:

Zucchini Delicate Forest August 2010

Tomatoes do fine here, though it’s sad in the Fall because they’re quite willing to keep producing right up until the first frost strikes them down. Here’s a beautiful Brandywine, the meaty heirloom variety we like for its hardiness, flavor, and texture:

Brandywine Tomato August 2010

We usually try to stick to heirloom varieties that we can propagate ourselves in subsequent years, but the hybrid cherry tomatoes are kind of irresistible, and produce an amazing amount of sweet little globes in a few square feet:

Sweet Million Cherry Tomato August 2010

Black oil sunflower seeds are a big staple food for our chickens and goats, and they produce multiple flower heads?I think I counted 9 or 10 on this stalk:

11 Headed Sunflower

Black Oil Sunflower August 2010

Fairy tale (miniature) eggplant, more of a late-summer treat than practical food source, but WHAT a treat they are on the grill with olive oil on top and applewood smoking them from below!

Fairytale Eggplant August 2010

This Summer’s “Perennial plant that the chickens have failed to destroy despite their tireless efforts to dig it up” award goes to the horseradish:

Horseradish 20100816


Calendula growing among the cherry tomatoes:

Calendula August 2010

and finally, as promised, here’s Drama Queen, who is full of little baby goats (due in about three weeks)

Drama Queen Pregnant August 2010

Salvage harvest

The first frost took us by surprise a few nights ago, so the next day we pulled in most of the remaining garden veggies before a really thorough freeze turns them to mush.

We’ve hauled in a big load of green tomatoes from the truly dead plants, but the area that I over-planted and didn’t trellis still has green leaves in the matted lower layers, so we’re leaving a bunch of fruit on the off chance it might ripen on the vine. (See, this was not neglect, it was a frost survival tactic!)

Unlike the tomatoes, the squash plants are completely done. This was a huge zucchini plant just a few days ago:

There were still flowers on some of the wilted zukes, and I couldn’t help messing with this one in Photoshop a little…

We hauled in the last of the delicata squash, even though many are far too young to finish ripening inside:

These poor little infant delicata went straight to the compost:

…as did their vines:

Cabbages are still going strong:

And so are the aphids on this half-forgotten kale plant (rather, they were until a few minutes after this photo was taken):

Basil seed is plentiful:

and tobacco is pretty in a red sunset. The leaves turn yellow from the bottom up, and are harvested continuously as they turn…picked green, they’re unlikely to ever cure into a mellow smoke.

Finally, the flowers that I hope will provide seed for next year’s tobacco plants – and a little friend:

Man makes plans, nature has a belly laugh

We post lots of beautiful photos on here of all the things that go well…but we want this website to be a resource for other people making similar changes in their lives, so it’s only fair to acknowledge some of the things that don’t go well.

This shouldn’t be discouraging to anyone setting out to grow/can/brew/etc; with so many projects going on, many of them first tries, these “learning opportunities” are inevitable, and far outnumbered by the successes.

Some notable failures in 2009:

  • two 5-gallon batches of undrinkable beer. The prime suspect is over-hopping with a hops rated at several times the bitterness of what I normally use
  • 3 out of 4 bottles of Oregon Grape wine, and 1 bottle of blueberry wine exploded during aging. Likely cause: bottled too soon, before the yeast had eaten all the sugars, and/or reusing corks and hammering them in with a rubber mallet instead of getting a corker
  • potato yield this year looks to be only about twice the weight of the seed potatoes I planted in spring; plants grew well for a few months, then started yellowing and dying. A few survive, but are weak. Possibly underwatered out of fear of creating a moldy mess in the straw mounds, possibly a fungus. Next year, all taters will be planted on the other end of the property, just in case.
  • About 1/3 of the biggest, healthiest onions have disappeared. Varmints are supposed to stay away from such strong-smelling plants, but not our little moles/gophers/whatever the little @#$%ers are, oh no, they devour the entire onion and you find the onion tops protruding from a hole in the ground
  • blueberry bushes: 2 near-dead, 2 totally gone. Moral: if you want to plant small blueberry bushes, don’t do so where your chickens are hanging out; the mounded, mulched earth is apparently irresistible for scratching.
  • 3 of the 4 goat babies have scurs (irregular horn growth after unsuccessful removal). We went with the popular wisdom for this first batch, which is to dehorn (“disbud”) them while very young. Basically you sear and cauterize the little bumps that would become horns. It’s a few seconds of pain and then they’re back to bouncing around, so it it worked flawlessly we might continue to do it, but when it doesn’t work you just get small, deformed horns, and we’ll probably let future generations keep their natural headgear. It’s likely that I was too worried about burning the kids’ heads and didn’t do a thorough enough job of it, but I’ve seen plenty of goats disbudded by far more experienced goat keepers that still have scurs.
  • 1 baby chick taken by rats. I poured a couple of inches of concrete for the chicken coop floor, but I left enough of a gap in one corner that rats managed to squeeze in and steal a chick.
  • You’ll notice we haven’t posted about our honeybees in a while. they’re gone, and it’s still kind of sad. maybe next year
  • liquid cheese – I was making a batch of quickie-faux-mozzarella recently. All was going well; it was almost done when I @#$%ed it up. One of the final steps is to soak long pieces of the half-finished cheese in 170 degree brine and stretch it like taffy. It started firming up a little sooner than I wanted, so I grabbed the teapot and splashed in just a little boiling water. The cheese immediately dissolved, and no amount of straining, cooking, etc. could make Humpty Dumpty edible again.

I’m sure I could find plenty of other screw-ups and strokes of bad luck, but this could get depressing…I think I’ll have to go sample one of the wines that DIDN’T explode…

Where’ve you guys been hiding out?

The best times of the year for blogging are also the ones when it’s hardest to find the time…but here’s a quick update on happenings around our homestead.

In the garden

Fairytale Eggplant – delicious, 3″ beauties:

Blue Lake bush beans are starting to flower:

The tobacco experiments are going better this year. The tallest of these is about 5′ now, because it’s in the raised hay-bale bed filled with pure composted goat bedding/poo:

Watermelons are enjoying the poo-bed, too:

Here it is from the end…zucchini closest to the camera, with 2′ long leaves:

…but even in rather poor soil, zucchini plants just keep cranking the food out like nothing else we grow:

Lemon cucumbers are struggling a bit, but producing well despite whatever I’m doing wrong:

Our little fig tree is going strong:

Delicata squash – one of my favorites. We saved seed from our Wintergreen Farm CSA boxes last year, I’m really glad they grew:

The peas have been wonderful this year, making new pods as fast as we can pick them for months, and are just slowing down now:

Summer is nothing without tomatoes…we have probably about 50 or 60 plants, mostly Brandywine red, seen here:

Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes break our no-hybrids rule, but they’re 6′ tall and LOADED with fruit:

Although 1 good zucchini plant is enough for a small family, we have the two giant ones int he pure poop, plus a few more seen here keeping the cantelope vines company:

Beets are about ready to harvest, and we’re planting more. We both love beets, they store well, you can make dye from them, and if all else fails, they’re good goat food:

Black oil sunflower seeds are great livestock feed…they’re scattered here and there, but next year we’ll probably plant a large field of them:

Finally for this segment – apples! Many of the trees lost their buds in a late freeze, but for some reason this tree is as apple-y as ever:

Infrastructure report

The construction never, ever stops. The goats are now enjoying another 1/4 acre of pasture that I’ve fenced off, and we’ve enclosed about 1500 sq ft around the chicken house so they can still enjoy some freedom on days they don’t have the run of the whole property.

They’re perfectly capable of flying over the fence, as one does every morning to lay her egg in our woodpile, but so far they haven’t figured out that the flying over the fence trick works in both directions. Chasing and flapping ensue.

Since we started milking our goats this spring, we’ve been doing it under a rickety “just for today” tarp arrangement that’s not much fun when it rains:

…but soon, we’ll have a nice, snug 8’x8′ milking shed:

The big old red truck has some problems that I don’t have the time to deal with, and 8mpg isn’t very good even for something that only goes on the road a few times a month. A friend gave me a nice deal on his old truck, a much more reasonably sized Mazda b-2000. Only the perspective makes them look similar in size.


No blog post would be complete without a goat picture…here’s Drama about to eat my camera:

Learning to grow tobacco in Oregon

Tobacco isn’t easy. The seeds are minuscule and take a long time to germinate. The seedlings are fragile, and grow fairly slowly for the first few months. Properly preparing the tobacco after harvest is an art, and requires an area that has the perfect temperature and humidity naturally or is climate controlled.

Sherazi tobacco curing in 2007

In 2007, I impulse-bought a packet of Sherazi tobacco seeds, and this hardy Turkish variety survived my bumbling first year of outdoor gardening, growing to five feet tall. Inexpert curing left this already very strong variety almost unbearably harsh, and the part that turned out best was only smokeable mixed in with some American Spirit. Most of it ended up getting mold on it as I shuffled it in and out of the house in the late fall, when the outside humidity is about a zillion percent and the inside humidity, thanks to the wood stove, is pretty much a negative number.

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Signs of spring everywhere

(images below are scaled-down; click each one to see full size
or click here to expand them all)

The Asian Pear tree has leaves as lovely as any other’s flowers.

Cover crops of clover and cereal ryegrain are so pretty it’s almost a shame to till them in when planting the next crop. In some places, I’m experimenting with just opening a hole in the clover cover and planting into that, cropping the clover surrounding the transplant to let in light. Might mean less weeding, which is always a good thing.

Radishes…fast and reliable, they really lift your spirits when you’re looking at everything else you planted and wondering where the heck it is. These were planted from last year’s seeds. Several radishes were allowed to complete their whole cycle undisturbed, and when they died in the fall it was an easy matter to strip the seedpods off into paper bags. I crushed the pods in the bag with a beer bottle and sprinkled some of the resulting mixture here about a week ago. The greens, being early and abundant, are almost worth more to us than the spicy little radishes themselves.

Turnips and Kale are having a riot in the cold frame. We’ve been taking several large helpings of kale every week, along with some turnip thinnings – the greens are a little sandpapery when raw, but wonderful steamed.

Purple flowers by the house…this is our third spring, and I’m not sure I ever saw these in that place before. There are always surprises waiting here!

This is a close-up of pollen settled onto the Letsgo…for a few days, everything had a yellow haze around here.

Random decoration from a previous tenant.

Garlic plants are looking great!
We have about 26 hops vines going, thanks to a friend who let me dig some rootstock from his patch. An essential beer ingredient, we are currently paying about $4/ounce for the dried flowers, so this may be one of our more practical plantings.
There was recently a 2,200% tax increase on the tobacco I like…these TN86 tobacco seedlings are my response to that. It’s a shame; of all taxes I pay, a sin tax that is largely spent on medical care is one of the most palatable, but with close to half my salary going to taxes, tolls, and other government fees, I don’t feel the urge to pay more.
Ahh, spring!

Signs of spring

The daffodils are up!

And so are the dandelions…

…and these tiny little purple flowers that are everywhere…

…and the snowdrops have already come and gone (this photo is a few weeks old).

The trees are budding…

…and the Indian Plums already have flowers.

And in the garden, we’ve planted pea starts…

…the garlic we planted last fall is thriving…

…last year’s kale in the cold-frame is going crazy…

…and there’s more starts in the greenhouse waiting to be planted (from left: blueberry, onion, and more peas; not pictured: another type of onion starts we planted last weekend, our new rhubarb plant, dormant asparagus roots, and seed potatoes, also all waiting to go into the ground – not to mention our large box full of saved seeds from the last two years and our enormous seed order on the way from Victory Seeds).

Snail sex, I think…

A dog enjoying the sunshine (complete with fresh gooey turkey poo stuck in his fur – he loves to roll in the stuff – it’s the black stuff on his neck on the right side of the photo)…

…and the cat with the biggest eyes ever, enjoying her own patch of sunshine.

Finally back into the garden

What passes for Winter here is losing its hard edge now, and I’m starting to spend time in the garden again…here’s a rather disjointed post about some of the current projects:

This is going to be a raised bed with straw-bale borders. The inside is filled with old goat bedding and other compostables. Soon I’ll remove the tarp, letting water in to start the composting process. The plan is to put a layer of soil and finished compost on the top and plant into that, hoping that the warmth of the compost action beneath it will help get early plantings off to a good start.
Straw Bale Bed

Yesterday, our neighbor and I planted a hundred baby fir trees along the property’s roadsides, to eventually decrease traffic noise and provide privacy. They come in a bag about three feet long:

BabytreeI expected the trees in there to be tiny, but they were mostly about two feet long, and very healthy looking.

This kale is actually the remains of last year’s that got harvested, then eaten down to stubs by goats, then transplanted into the cold frame, where it’s thriving.
Kale Feb 2009

Turnips are starting to sprout in the cold frame as well. It’s not the ‘right’ time of year to plant them, but with the mild climate here it seems worth trying.

This garlic we planted a few months ago is looking well:
Garlic Feb 2009

…as is this garlic, which we planted about a year ago. It died down pretty young and I never dug it up, but it’s returned as a volunteer. (since everything is so green out here, I removed color from everything but the garlic plant to make it visible)
Volunteer Garlic

Pregnant goats!
Obers Feb 2009

Here’s a 55-gallon steel drum (used once, to transport maple syrup) set into the ground to serve as a root cellar. We haven’t experimented with putting food in it yet, but the thermometer I have in there seems to stay in the 40s no matter what’s going on outside.
Steel Drum Cellar