Today’s Morning News Tribune included a small item on the White House garden. It is apparently flourishing throughout the icy Washington D.C. winter with the help of plastic fixed onto hoops. I immediately felt guilty for having abandoned my own 10’ x 6’ winter garden after the relatively minor setback of having my goats eat it down to nothing.

winter garden

The winter garden before the goat attack

After looking into the cost and effort of building a protective structure to keep the goats and frost at bay, I set my sights on rehabilitating the greenhouse. After a year of being used as a storage facility by friends of my father, the owners of the stuff finally cleared it away and I decided to take the opportunity to put the greenhouse back into service.

 greenhouse

 The greenhouse

Reminiscing on my Costa Rica experience and the lettuce box that I observed there, I have begun creating a similar setup.  My materials are simple and my methods easily replicated. Using scrap wood, a chop saw, and 1 ½ screws, I cobbled together three boxes about 18” wide, 8” deep, and 4’ to 5’ in length and lined each with clear, thick plastic using tack nails. I then set up two wooden crates that I’d acquired from a tile store, each of which was about 36” x 48” x 30” , and placed two 12’ x 6” boards on top to form a bench sturdy enough to support 200 pounds of wood and dirt.

 

 

 

 

 

greenhouse planter boxes

detail of planter boxMy next steps will be to fill the bottoms with a few inches of pea gravel followed by a loose mix of peat, vermiculite, and potting mix. Into this I’ll plant the veggies that I started last August in my winter garden:

Cabbage – Early Jersey Wakefield

Kale – Red Russian

Onion – Evergreen Hardy White Bunching

Radish – Relish Cross Daikon Hybrid

Beets – Boro Hybrid

At present, the greenhouse is unheated in part due to the cost of the electricity that it would take to keep it warm. I am contemplating low cost heating systems such as small wood or oil stoves that would maintain it around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the meantime I’ll probably insulate the plants with an additional cover of plastic. So far, the weather has been on my side with persistant rain and lows around 45 degrees.

The larger plan is to use the greenhouse to grow both winter vegetables and starts for the summer garden. Hopefully, with about 0.25 acre in cultivation I can produce enough for year ‘round home consumption plus extra for sale. I will also need to set up a propagation area to grow the large number of ornamental and native plants that I will need to acquire to complete my landscaping projects.

En route to the greenhouse, I passed my Helleborus foetidus with expectant green buds,

Helleborus foetidusand the three, six inch high Sarcoccocca confusa loaded with tiny white blooms, well worth getting down on my knees to smell.  

Sarcoccoca confusaThese small things do not yet fill my garden in the way that I wish they would, but then every journey must start with a single step.

With Thanks to the Obamas’ Winter Garden

  • January 16th, 2010
  • Posted in Landscaping
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I took December off and went to Costa Rica. It was my first foray into the tropics, and every bit as appealing biologically as I had expected. I took photos, hiked into exotic places, added about 40 new bird species to my life list, and basked in the warm humidity, far from the cold rains of the Pacific Northwest.

My Costa Rica Dream Yard

My Costa Rica dream yard (Hotel Villas Gaia, 20 km north of Palmar Sur, CR)

An additional and unexpected benefit, however, was a timely introduction to tropical permaculture.

During the cold, muddy season that comprises the typical Northwest winter, I’ve been studying landscape design and considering its applications both to my future career and the 20 acres I’ve been pondering since May.  Seeking a way to mix both agriculture and landscape design, I recently picked up two books on permaculture, Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway, and Permaculture:  A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison. Both have held be transfixed. At last, I’ve found the link between my studies of ecology and the more creative aspects of landscape design.

Permaculture, a shortening of the terms “Permanent” and “Agriculture”, is a way to apply a knowledge of natural processes and patterns to create an efficient and sustainable system for food production. I began looking to it as a way to help myself, as an individual of finite means and physical strength, to create a system for managing and maintaining a large property in a way that will produce food and recreate a functional ecosystem in a diverse, attractive setting.

The words and ideas enthralled me. Hydrology, soils, even pattern analysis all work themselves into a new way to design landscapes. More than just creating beautiful landscapes, I could build something that appealed to my more pragmatic side as well, and Costa Rica supplied me with abundant examples.

Costa Rica prides itself upon its green tourism industry, touting not only a large number of national parks and reserves built upon private and public partnerships, but also programs that encourage recycling, conservation, and even sustainability within the industry. One example was the resort that we stayed at for four nights north of San Ramon in the Canton of Alajuela. Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel, Spa, and Natural Reserve is a five-leaf award winner in the Certification Program for Sustainable Tourism.  Located adjacent to the private Los Angeles Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, the property offers cloud-forest tours on the premises, and has its own gardens, greenhouses, and composting sheds with which to grow and recycle food used in its kitchens.

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Villa Blanca Hotel and Spa grounds (top) and greenhouses (bottom)
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Drip irrigation system for greenhouse vegetables

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Protective shelter for lettuce in the outdoor garden at Villa Blanca.

I spent many hours walking the property and surrounding farm lands gathering ideas for creating and irrigating a low-till garden with associated animal pens, compost bins, and water supply. Since the mountains of Costa Rica experience a long rainy season, much like Western Washington, I found that many of the solutions for runoff management were applicable to home, and I carefully photographed and noted drains, swales, and gutters of stone, cement, and natural vegetation in hopes of replicating the same.

PICT5633   An intricate rock catchment system at Villa Blanca.

 Beyond the resort, I observed terraced farmlands practicing polyculture with a patchwork of different crop types shaded by trees. The rainforest has been substantially reduced by clearing, but it was heartening to observe that at least the smaller farms were adopting practices that reduced runoff and encouraged a healthier management of resources. Whether or not this is an old practice among the smaller farms, or fincas, or a new approach to agriculture I don’t know. I contrasted this, however, with industrialized farms further inland towards Arenal where acres of land had been shrouded in plastic to grow ornamental plants.

One of the more novel ideas that I observed was the concept of the living fence, which in the tropics can be easily achieved by simply placing green branches in the ground as fence posts and letting them sprout.

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One post in a living fence

I hope to achieve similar results using willows and plantings of entangling plants such as Rosa and Spirea to create my own livestock and deer barriers. I also took notes on the use of piling materials on top of harvest beds to enrich the soil and minimize tilling. Villa Blanca used an extensive drip irrigation system for both greenhouse and outdoor crops, and used several methods of composting, including Bokashi, a natural fertilizer comprised of manure, coffee pulp or rice hulls, yeast and molasses. The smell, however, might prevent my adoption of that particular technique.

Throughout the trip, and perhaps somewhat to my travelling partner’s chagrain, I snapped hundreds of photos and sketched out my revised garden plan which I shall share in future postings. Returning from my vacation, I felt a curious mix of both relaxation and exhileration. It certainly beats the way I used to feel when I returned to my ‘real’ job.

A Personal Permaculture Revolution

  • January 9th, 2010
  • Posted in Permaculture
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Lake - summer 09The Lake – Summer 09

 

I defected to Southern California this Thanksgiving to visit friends. The weather was warm, as usual, and I spent two days drawing and taking photographs at the Los Angeles County Botanical Garden in Arcadia, one of my most favorite places. Still, I was glad to return to this place where I was raised, where the sun never gets much above the horizon in December, and the ground is already saturated and muddy. Of course, it is wet, chilly, and above all, gloomy in winter. Yet looking beyond the human need for warmth and light, it is only just another place on earth with its own grace and beauty beyond what we demand of it. Peace can be found anywhere, and the tone that we set for own lives makes us flourish despite the weather.

My outdoor activities have slowed considerably in the wake of the heavy rainfalls. I have injured my shoulder, and the soil that I had hoped to place in my new rock garden is too wet and heavy to haul. Still, there are numerous chores requiring less endurance that await me, one of which is planning.

Between my design and business classes, I have sketched and schemed until I have the layout for my penultimate garden firmly fixed in my head. How to get it onto paper is a far different matter. A back issue of Pacific Horticulture featuring a man near Woodinville with a 30 acre garden surrounding two wetlands that he restored after years of logging gave me hope. If he can do it, so can I.

I need a landuse plan first of all, something that inventories what I have and where I want to go with it. I know what the final outcome will look like, now, how do I get there?

lake narrow  - summer 09lake and south shore

The Lake – Fall 09

 

My goals are as follows:

  1. House and three acres: A Northwest Naturalistic landscape (after Ann Lovejoy) that incorporates both natives and non-natives in a mix of perennial gardens, rock gardens, meadows, and rhododendron gardens.
  2. The rest: A natural woodland devoid of invasives such as ivy and blackberry, with a few trails that allow an easy walk around the lake and up through the back of the property to the house.
  3. Around the barn: A small permaculture-based agricultural section with a chicken house, blueberry field, vegetable garden, fruit trees, and potting area. Some of this is already in place.

 

The information that I need to map so that I can develop a plan for where things should be placed will be:

  1. Gradient – I have a contour map in AutoCad that I can start with.
  2. Soils – based upon the web-based Natural Resource Conservation Soil maps.
  3. Vegetation – my own inventories of vegetation types, mostly upland Douglas fir with evergreen huckleberry, swordfern, and salal, lowland redcedar and red alder, willow riparian, and wetlands ranging from skunk cabbage marsh to seasonally inundated sedge and cattail wetlands.
  4. Exposure – based upon observations of wind and sun.
  5. Wildlife habitat – the deer bed in the lake, pileated wood pecker nests, barred owl nests, etc.

 future lakeside parks

 Future sitting area by the lakeshore

 I am fortunate enough to have already spent 10 years on the property in the 70’s and 80’s, so that I already know the lay of the land. Now, I view it not through the eyes of child, but as an adult ecologist, so I see it quite a bit differently now.

My rules to live by will be:

  1. No deliberately introduced invasives (including ivies and periwinkle (Vinca))
  2. Maintain areas of no non-natives, particularly around the lake.
  3. Maintain snags and wood piles for wildlife.
  4. Restore and maintain the original channels that feed the lake.
  5. Maintain soil integrity to the extent possible, which translates into minimal grading.

 

Each day, I observe the patterns of the sun, the shady areas, the wet areas, where the water flows in winter. I have noticed that the driveway has potholes in the low areas and have planned where the water bars should go. I’ve learned where the seeps area and planned how best to allow the water to cross the driveway and reach the lake. I’ve noted which Douglas firs are too spindly and close-set to survive and should be removed. I see the barred owl pair that peers at me in the thin light of dawn from an alder, and wonder where they nest. I mull over which snags the pileated woodpeckers prefer, and I see the Douglas tree squirrels moving to warmer quarters under my father’s shop.

My head spins with plans. It will be my challenge, both with this project as with my life, to take a deep breath, set my priorities, and find the strength and tenancity to see each one through to its conclusion.

Winter Planning

 

 

The drab moth had been on my bathroom wall for several days before I poked it to determine if it was really alive.  It was pressed flat to the tile, approximately 2 inches across, and marked with a distinct pattern of brown waves and scallops on its forewings with a thin white border of white on the edges.  The color and complexity of the pattern rendered it compatible with pine bark, but noticeably out of place on blue-and-white bathroom tile. Yet, I’d seen these kinds of moths many times before, and learned to call them ‘miller moths’ in accordance with my southern mother’s terminology.

 

I pulled out my thin paperback moth guide, Macromoths of Northwest Forests and Woodlands (Jeffrey Miller, Paul Hammond USDA Forest Service, FHTET-98-18, 2000) and flipped through the pages until I found something closely resembling the specimen at hand. It was, I concluded, a barberry looper moth (Coryphista meadii), with a caterpillar revealed on bugguide.net to look just like the gray and white loopers with red heads that I had observed on my Berberis thunbergii Crimson Pygmy planted in June shortly before it became a network of defoliated twigs.

 

It was an ah-ha moment. We had had no barberries on the property before this, and yet suddenly here was a moth that looked like one I’d seen all my life suddenly taking on a new aspect completely unbeknownst to me. I’d never even thought of what its caterpillars looked like, but now I knew its life cycle and suddenly, it affected me and my ambitions. Presumably there might be other plants in the family Beriberidaceae on the property that might have harbored them, or perhaps the eggs came in from the nursery supplier, for of the four plants that I bought, only this one was eaten by loopers.

 

I am reminded of the song about the hole in the bottom of the sea, where sat a frog on a log, with a bump and a wart and a hair and a flea and so on until the microscopic world had been achieved on that one frog. Then the kids singing the song gave up for lack of ideas beyond bacteria. How little did I realize when I was a child that I was singing a song that celebrated biodiversity.

 

The other day, while removing the plastic clips that hold electric fence tape from a series of fence posts, I noticed that nearly every clip harbored a tiny, pale brown spider.  The little beasts were flattened to where they could lie almost two-dimensional on any surface, and apparently liked the narrow space of the clip designed to hold the polytape because of the shelter it offered. As I worked to pull the clips off one set of posts to move them to another, I witnessed a tiny arachnid paratrooper dropping from nearly every clip. Every other clip seemed to hold a small white package of spider eggs. I had created habitat in spite of myself.

 

Of course, both moth and spider were probably here long before I was, and my surprise was merely that of my own unexpected discovery. Still, everyday that we open our eyes to the variety around us, we are richer for it. From mushrooms, to moths, to spiders, I am sure that this property has untold thousands of species I’ve yet to discover. But they don’t need my knowledge of them to validate their existence. They have every right to go on, even if they encroach on my world now and then.

Private lessons in biodiversity

orange yellow shroomGardens generally don’t include a consideration of mushrooms. Nurseries offer a lush supply of perennials, shrubs, trees, groundcovers, bulbs and annuals, but I’ve yet to find a sign for the ‘fungi’ section. Mushrooms find you. They come with the territory for only they seem to know what conditions best suit them. Since I’m usually focused on the Plant Kingdom, my encounters with them are quite by surprise.  Today, for instance, I spied a large white mound in a place where I had nothing planted.  My radar registered it as garbage, until I got closer and realized it was a beefy-looking mushroom listing over on one side like a whale emerging from the waves. I don’t think it had been there two days ago, but here it was now, fully formed and even a bit past its peak, judging from the nibbles that had been taken out of it. Several others had also emerged from the leaves in the back ground forming a little white pod of ‘shrooms prancing through my developing woodland glade.

beefy shroom

 

 

Last week, I found what I believe to have been a shaggy mane mushroom that had emerged next the hose cache. There it was, already half-eaten, and I’d never even seen it before. Besides that, there were no others with it, just this four-inch tall white matchstick-shaped fungus jutting out of the earth. The following day I found but a fallen white stem that I would have mistaken for a stick except that I recalled the mushroom growing there from the previous day.

Shelter

 

Sometimes, as I’m weeding or planting, I’ll notice threads of white or yellow mushroom hyphae clinging to the soil particles for dear life. Fungal mycelia have invaded my pile of woodchips and bark pieces, now four months into rotting. In September, a cloud of little white button

red trio

 

mushrooms covered the back of the pile, then vanished, but when I dig, I find the bark pieces clumped together by fragile white fibers. Thanks to action of these fungi, the wood pieces break down into into a richer and more nutritious mulch than what I started with earlier in the summer.

angelic

I’ve seen at least 10 different types of mushrooms so far, starting as far back as August when a rainshower brought them forth from the ground. I’ve heard that fungi-loving gardeners can now obtain fungi plugs that can be placed into pre-drilled holes in stumps and logs to create a personal ‘shroom garden. Now, your own chicken-of-the-woods crop is within reach. Given my ignorance, I’m still a little gun-shy though. Photographing these ephemeral creatures in their many forms is enough for now.

gang

*** For those amateur mycologists who know mushrooms better than, please feel free to step foward and identify the ‘shrooms that I could not!****

Places to acquire edible mushrooms for cultivation: 

http://www.fungi.com/plugs/plugs.html

http://www.gmushrooms.com/Plugs/index.htm

http://www.thymegarden.com/site/561124/page/2353037

http://www.groworganic.com/browse_384_Mushroom_Growing_Kits__Plugs.html?welcome=T&theses=6244736

Mushroom Magic

OK, we’re not Vermont, but if you squint your eyes on a gloomy day in Western Washington, you can find color out there besides green. Anyway, with some artistic contributions to the garden, you can certainly make the best of it.

witch hazel

Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’)

cherry leaves

Cherry leaves

garden cherry trees

Eastern cherry trees in the garden

Salmonberry

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

  

 

himalayan blackberry

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) 

red dahlia

Red dahlias

 

pyrocanthaPyracantha koidzumii ‘Victory’

Japanese blood grassJapanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron)

maple leaf

Big leaf maple (Acer macrophylla)Campanula and maple leaves

Campanula and Japanese maple leaves

Woodland Rain Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This will be my first winter in WA in two years, and already my instinctive rainfall calculations are off.  My carefully planted woodland garden, intended in part to provide a buffer zone to capture driveway runoff before it reached house, has instead become a minature Mississippi. 

A mature cedar tree under which this area was planted  justified my refusing to add soil to elevate this part of the yard above the side yard that runs to the south side of the house. Once the front yard was done and the roots partly compacted on that side from the excavator back in June, I figured it best to leave the poor tree alone. Cedars have a network of shallow roots that are easily damaged, and I was concerned that the weight of a few more inches of sil might suffocate them.  Instead, I placed about two inches of much lighter mulched wood chips and horse manture  over the area and edged it with a low rock wall to hold the material back off of the side yard, which was about six inches lower.  These few inches, I felt, would absorb any surface runoff.

frontlawn2 6-09

Front yard with excavator, June 2009

However, even before full soil saturation was acheived, a hard overnight rainfall October 17 was enough to flood my little garden. What went wrong?  The amount of water collected over about 70 feet of open driveway at a 0.5% gradient combined with soil compaction and a lack of vegetation probably combined to overwhelm the buffering capacity of my short strip of mulch.  Although I had planted a lace-cap hydrangea, two Pieres ‘Mountain Fireand a few sword ferns, it was not enough to slow the surface flow.  Subsequently, both the volume and velocity of the water was sufficient carve a drainage through the rock wall and down into the back  yard where it disappeared into the septic drainfield.

runoff through side yardAs I stalked about the yard in the pouring rain with my camera, I pondered my options. I had been considering installing a small reflecting pond surrounded by vegetation in the path of the current flood. That, however, would not be sufficient to absorb the flow.  Digging out a small retention pond would be  infeasible if I want to protect the cedar tree. I tend to avoid berms as a way of delaying the inevitable (kind of like pushing rocks uphill, really), so I ruled out shunting the water further along the drive and into woods. Filling the area with vegetation will probably be the only way to baffle the flow and keep it stationary long enough to sink into the ground before it reaches the back yard and drainfield.  I need a rain garden.

According to a University of Rhode Island website on sustainable landscaping (raingarden.htm),  a rain garden “is a natural or dug shallow depression designed to capture and soak up stormwater runoff from your roof or other impervious areas around your home like driveways, walkways, and even compacted lawn areas…The rain garden is planted with suitable trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants allowing runoff to soak into the ground and protect water quality.” 

Planting dense grasses or multi-stemmed, creeping vegetation should protect the surface from channelization and the give the water time to soak in.  My observations the morning after the heavy rainfall confirmed that the soil quickly absorbed the water after the rain ceased, despite the relatively high clay content.  This may change as winter progresses and the soil reaches saturation, but experimentation with other temporary methods of water baffling, such as pieces of wood, may prove that slowing the flow will be enough.  Some calucations of slope, anticipated runoff volume, and soil absorption capacity based upon composition will aid my work if I feel like playing engineer for a day.  Things are far too wet right now for planting, but I’m already designing a plan for spring.

I think it’s the combination of problem-solving, geology, engineering, botany, and creativity that makes this enterprise sooo much more fun than my previous paying job!

The Rain Garden

  • October 23rd, 2009
  • Posted in Landscaping
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I came up with the idea of a winter vegetable garden while nosing about in the old barn where my father had dumped a random assortment of junk, including a box of books from which I’d gradually been extracting all of the most interesting delicacies. I had figured it was time to pack up the rest to donate to the library when I came across a little paperback at the bottom entitled WINTER GARDENING IN THE MARITIME NORTHWEST: COOL SEASON CROPS FOR THE YEAR-ROUND GARDENER by Binda Colebrook (Rev. ed. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1998). I read it over the period of a few days and was inspired. 

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The barn - a landscaping tale of its own and the site of the winter garden

 To date, I had always associated ‘winter’ and ‘garden’ with a drab mess of slimy plants moldering in the garden by about the beginning of October.  At that point, I would quit weeding and more or less give up hope.  But this book bespoke confidently of the possibility of tasty greens, crispy kales, and tangy beets. It even sounded remotely…cozy: growing and then picking greens in the dead of winter to feed the family fresh salads.  Determined to do it right, I took the rare step of planning my purchases in considerable detail and – not to skimp on just any seeds – I went to an online seed vendor (Nichols Garden Nursery in Salem OR – a most excellent choice for price, selection, and timeliness) and purchased one package each of the following:

CABBAGE – EARLY JERSEY WAKFIELD Heirloom

CORN SALAD – MACHOLONG

KALE – RED RUSSIAN Heirloom

ONION – EVERGREEN HARDY WHITE BUNCHING

RADISH – RELISH CROSS HYBRID

Carefully following the instructions in the book, I then selected the ideal site:  a spot protected from north winds, sunny in the morning, and not in a low area where the cool night air might freeze it.  The solution was a weedy area in front of  the barn-turned-studio where I laid out a simple 10′ x 6′ frame of untreated 2×12’s and added a about a yard of  5-way soil mix and rotted manure from a generous horse owner.  

winter garden

The winter garden as of 10/4/09

The seeds arrive in the mail around August 20,  and I had them in the ground by the second week of September. By October 4, they were up and growing strong – the largest leaves in the photo are the radishes, which got a quick start followed by the kale, corn salad, and beets.  In fact, I was rather surprised by the rapid germination, which may have been the result of lingering summer warmth and occasional light rainfall which produced a crop faster than I was able to get in early June (see ‘Yard as Garden’).

This would be a happy tale except that out of the blue, hoofed disaster struck. The goats, with whom I have been fighting a running battle to keep fenced out the yard, escaped as they often do and (sob!) swept through my garden.  The biggest and showiest got their attention, leaving me without radish or kale, unless a miracle happens and these tender annuals can regrow their missing leaves. Apparently goats have a knack for nibbling the tops of things without the tearing motion used by horses and cows that would otherwise uproot the entire plant. Thus, a goat-grazed plant usually retains a skeletal frame of stems without any leaves.  Of course, there is always reseeding and the hope of another quick germination before the frost. That same day, they also razed my new Virginia creeper in a gallon pot, again taking only the leaves.  The warnings of a poison ivy -like rash were unheeded by the goats, who survived with no apparent ill effects.  

In the aftermath of my loss,  I spent the better part of a day and a half repairing the fences necessary to contain the hoofed menaces, but for now must face the startling gaps in my winter garden.

My next challenge will be the frost, which will be coming soon I think. Saturday night was clear and a cold 38 degrees. Realizing the challenge to my carpentry skills, I’m procrastinating for a while before constructing a cold frame of wood and plastic. In the meantime, I’m keeping the goats occupied consuming blackberry leaves and their most favorite food, Douglas fir branches.

Winter Vegetable Garden

Soils Management

moss ground cover

The situation that I face here is somewhat unique in that the property immediately surrounding the house is forested. I am not, therefore, dealing with the concerns of imported, compacted soils that usually inform the decisions of the gardener on the urban lot. Rather, I am surrounded by disturbed native soils that have been cleared of native vegetation and allowed to grow all manner of invasives.

 

My decisions are thus: chop up the soil and add amendments to create a nice, smooth planting surface, or remove undesired species by hand and disturb only the immediate area necessary for planting.

 

As an ecologist, I identify strongly with the latter approach, particularly in areas where the soils have been allowed to settle and form a rich humus top layer. In many instances, the predominant ground cover is moss, through which small herbaceous plants grow protected from the damage of raindrops and the drying effects of the summer drought.

 

 

In other places, a dense layer of fir needles creates thin but effective mulch nurturing a community of microorganisms that keep the underlying soil moist and fertile. Often while I am installing plants near a natural border, I will take a scoop or two of the topsoil from an undisturbed area and place it in the hole in lieu of potting mixture. 

 

 

 

Removing non-native species, in particular Himalayan blackberry, while preserving forest soil integrity has become a time-consuming process, but it not without its rewards. In fact, I take a curious pleasure in wading into a thicket higher than my head armed only with gloves and bypass shears and clipping the canes down to the ground. Perhaps it is part of the simian nature to want to clip and pull things, much like chimps grooming each other’s fur. Whereas lawnmowing or watering are chores that quickly tax my admittedly limited patience, I can stand for hours complacently chopping briars.

 

The results in the areas where I have implemented this practice have been good. Leafy forbs such fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) and youth-on-age (Tolmiea menziesii) have emerged from areas once dominated by dense thickets of briars. Ferns appear to enjoy the light as well. Furthermore, as I trim, I do a plant survey of what lies beneath so that I can easily avoid anything that I want to preserve. Based upon my personal experience as a biologist, I recognize that the plant diversity here is quite low, and getting lower as more invasives enter areas that have been previously disturbed. There are, for instance, very few populations of fringecup left here, or of the few small clusters of coral root (Corallorhiza maculata) that I have located here. Finding and preserving them will be a big part of my personal conservation plan for the property.

 mushroom

Goats are another option, but these cute little cud chewers tend to prefer already open areas, perhaps a function of their innate desire to avoid predation in dense vegetation. They will not wade into a brush and blackberry canes unless constricted only to that habitat. Subsequently, I encounter them each day in their half-acre pen contentedly chewing their cud in a sunny dust wallow of their own creation while the briars threaten to take over the garden at the other end.

 

I will be the first to admit that this approach to soil conservation is slow, and as I do my six-month progress review with my camera, I feel as though I have achieved very little. In many areas around the house, the weeds still encroach, the areas I have landscaped have not reached maturity, or some of the plants have not met expectations and will need to be moved.  Meanwhile, I struggle to assimilate the principals of design and apply them to my unplanned, off-the-cuff ideas. In many ways, I am more comfortable when I step off into the back 20 leaving behind the world of the manipulated landscape and entering the forest ecosystem that I know and love.

Soil Management

 

Chloe - registered Oberhasli doe
 Chloe – registered Oberhasli doe

Here is where I come to realize that reading and comprehending are often further apart than one might think. Believing the stories that goats make excellent ‘brush hogs’, I acquired two on September 7 with the idea that I could use them to graze back the Himalayan blackberry thickets that pervade the back 20. Prior to getting them, I read selected websites written by experienced handlers who spoke of the differences between sexes, what vaccinations are necessary, and what they should and should not eat. A price was paid for the goats, and the associated accoutrements, including durable rubber tubs, goat feed, loose salt, leads, collars, and a galvanized bucket for milking the doe that had recently weaned a kid. Money and time was also put into a shed my father built, and a fence that we worked to put up as a small holding pen. 

 

The first day, one crawled under the fence. The second day, they learned to jiggle the latch and open the gate. By the end of the first week, I had learned why people told me that staking out was not such a great idea for goats. Tied to tires, tree trunks, or fence posts, together or separately, it mattered not. Within the hour, slender legs were hopelessly entwined with rope or cable, or the ropes were wrapped a dozen times around tree trunks, pallets, or clumps of fern. Every few hours I was out disentangling them.

 

Daisy - Oberhasli/Boer doe

Daisy - Oberhasli/Boer doe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trying my hand at goat psychology, I let them run loose. Given 19 acres of woods and blackberries, they chose my garden spread by the house every time. They nipped off the dahlia heads, peed on the sidewalk, and tumbled pellets in the driveway. Perplexed, I went back to staking them out for partial days after I’d finished my morning work. One morning as I walked out to feed them, I was greeted by the site of a goat eating my newly planted blueberries by the garden. Eagerly they bolted towards me, and as I opened the gate to the shed saw the hole that they had hammered out of the side. One goat gave me a quick tour of her escape route by nimbly re-enacting her escape. They seemed altogether pleased with themselves.

So, I paid for a fence, about 1,000 feet worth of three-strand ½ inch polytape electric fence. Yesterday when we hooked up the charger, I was elated. The charger ticked. The goats stood looking at the strands from a safe distance, then proceeded to graze their new area without further investigation.  At last, I could again focus upon my landscaping without spending half of the day chasing or untangling goats.  No sooner did I pronounced the design a success then Daisy took a run at the three – strand hotwire gate and ran beneath it brushing the wire with her back without incident. Giving her a sample shock on the fence yielded only temporary results. They respected the fence until feeding time when they again filtered through the fence to return the pen.

This might all be worth it if they were indeed the non-discerning little brush eaters that they have been made out to be, but they’re not. They eat a bit like a bored teenage boy; a bit of this, a bit of that, move on leaving the rest unfinished. They like blackberry leaves but not the stems, ignore thistles and huckleberries, adore Douglas fir branches, and eat grass only sporadically. Much of the afternoon is spent lying about cud chewing.

 

My father, gazing out over an area of tall grass and briars suggested leveling it out with the excavator. Avoiding the tendency to roll my eyes and slap my forehead, I patiently explained that the reason for buying the goats was to avoid undue soil disturbance by letting them graze through those areas. Not that I’m convinced anymore by the argument. I have visited the isle of Crete and saw the vegetation leveled by goats. But that took legions of the hoofed animals and hundreds if not thousands of years of human occupation to accomplish. With these two attention-deficient animals, I may not even get a single paddock cleared.

Goats for landscape management