Saturday, February 18, 2012

our homestead: evidence of spring

Honeysuckle buds
Boy, has it been a blustery day today! And rainy. And cold. However, mid-February is an exciting time. Winter is just at its close and spring is right around the bend. My mom likes to refer to February as the "magic month": when it's time to start heading back out into the garden. February is the best time to prune and transplant fruit trees and you can start planting hardier bulbs. The soil is also easy to work and can be ammended with compost or other nutrients for later planting. Primroses make their debut and can withstand the cold well enough that they can be planted out in the garden and provide a show of flowers. Christmas Roses, also known as Hellebore, are in full bloom. Some later blooming heathers are just now unveiling their white and pink flowers, providing late winter nectar for the bees whenever a mild and sunny day might appear from the clouds. All around the garden, buds are appearing on spindly branches of once dormant plants and trees. These buds will slowly transform into leaves and flowers as spring draws closer. Daffodils, tulips, crocus and other spring bulbs are also beginning to pop up out of the ground. Yes, spring is coming. If you explore your garden, you'll see its subtle signs.
Tulips and poppies emerging
Our garlic is starting to peek out of the ground

Monday, February 13, 2012

trail setters: flying tomato farm blog

I'm starting a blog focused on my family's farm, Flying Tomato Farm (check it out by clicking on the link). I'm still developing it...deciding on what style and colors I'd like it to have. I'll also be setting up a website for them soon. It will be fun to track all of their progress this upcoming growing season and provide their customers with an outlet to learn more about them and their growing practices.

our homestead: bellingham adventure

Whenever my cousin comes a'visiting there never seems to be enough time to take her to all of the places I want to show her. This time around she will be staying with me until the end of February, so I had the opportunity to take her to the town we never had time to venture to together: Bellingham! My brother also lives up in Bellingham, so I thought we could take him out to lunch (two birds, one stone). My cousin and I hopped in my subaru with Banjo and headed out on our journey. About an hour and 45 minutes from Seattle, Bellingham sits up in north western Washington and is surrounded by farms and mountainous woodlands. Part of the way you get to pass through the Skagit Valley- so gorgeous! The trip up is just as fun as the destination.
The Skagit Valley
Once we passed a long stretch of trees, we came around the bend and made it into town and picked up my brother. I wanted to take my brother to a good meat-on-your-ribs restaurant, so we parked on Railroad Ave, fed the coin meter and walked over to the Boundary Bay Brewery. The brewery was bustling with people and there was a bit of a wait (what I expected for a Saturday), so we hung out by the Bellingham Farmers Market goat statue.
My cousin riding the goat cart
The Bellingham Farmers Market resides within a covered building full of windows and is partially year round. It runs "April through Christmas" on Saturdays from 10am-3pm. I was sad there was no market in session when we came to visit, but farmers need to vacation too and it's hard to grow things in the middle of winter. After about 15 minutes, we headed back into the Boundary Bay Brewery for lunch. I had the lamb burger served on a pretzel bun from a local bakery, my brother had their beef burger and my cousin went for their "great northwest pizza" which had pesto, smoked salmon, roasted garlic and chevre on it. All three of us also enjoyed their home brewed rootbeer.

To settle our lunches we went for a walk with Banjo up and down the rest of Railroad Ave, stopping at a vintage shop and a garden and feed store. I found loose gladiola bulbs at the garden shop and picked out an assortment of lime green, peach, pale pink and white bulbs to plant in my garden. I also bought a handful of crimson crocosmia bulbs. I tested Banjo's reaction to chickens as they had a trio of ladies clucking around in a pen outside the shop. He was skiddish of them at first and tried to hide behind my legs. He then became a little more curious and peeked his head out to smell them. Overall, Banjo had a fairly mellow first reaction to them (no "I-want-to-eat-them-birds" look in his eye). I hope he'll end up being a friendly bird dog. You never know.
Crocosmia bulbs (left) and gladiola bulbs from the feed store on Railroad Ave 
No stop to Bellingham would be complete without indulging in some Mallard Icecream, also located on Railroad Ave. They always have bizarre flavors and source a lot of ingredients locally. In the past they've bought strawberries and golden raspberries from the farm I work for. My brother had a scoop of their oreo mint icecream, my cousin had their chocolate coconut icecream, I had their their vanilla black pepper icecream, and Banjo met another puppy his age, also waiting outside the icecream shop. She looked to be some sort of golden retriever mix and the two of them played for a little while we enjoyed our cones.

After our icecreams, we ventured to Boulevard Park. Bellingham has a large biking culture and you can pretty much get around the whole town on two wheels. Their main biking path crosses through Boulevard Park, which includes lots of grassy space to laze about, views of the bay, beach access, a boardwalk, one of the Woods coffee shops and a playground. We grabbed some coffees and walked along the boardwalk, watching the sunset over the bay. People were out and about, walking their dogs, pushing strollers or biking (or tricycling) on by. Banjo even bumped into his girlfriend he met at Mallard Icecream and they played some more. It was a very pleasant evening.
My cousin, Banjo and I on the boardwalk
We took some stairs down to the beach and Banjo had his first sand digging experience. As silly as it sounds, I like to always get my cousin somewhere close to saltwater whenever she visits me. She's from Spokane (eastern Washington), so it's not often that she has the oppurtunity to breath in a little ocean air. Likewise whenever I head to her side of the state I appreciate the lulling prairie hills, pine trees and sagebrush. Overall, we had a relaxing day in Bellingham and I'm happy I was finally able to bring my cousin up here and visit my brother.
My cousin on the beach
The sunset on the beach with my brother, cousin and Banjo

Thursday, February 9, 2012

our homestead: my seeds are hatching

The majority of the flats I seeded are starting to sprout. I'm still waiting on the Nicotiana flowers and the bell peppers, however, the broccoli, brussel sprouts, cherry tomatoes and sweet peas are all starting to appear. 
Broccoli sprouts
Another view of the broccoli sprouts
The first 'cherry falls' tomato sprout
A baby 'rubine' brussel sprout...check out that red color! 

Monday, February 6, 2012

our homestead: raised beds filled and gojis planted

My husband shoveling compost out of the truck
My husband and I planted our goji berries today. On Saturday, my husband built two raised bed frames out of pine boards for them, so all we had left to do to get the berries planted was to fill the frames with soil and compost. After breakfast, my husband and I set out in our truck to a family farm in our area that runs a compost business. When we arrived at the farm we were surrounded by steaming mountains of black compost. A worker came over to us and we told him to fill up the truck bed. He hopped in his construction loader, scooped up a big pile of compost and dropped it in the bed. We watched our truck suspension at work as the truck instantly dropped six inches down as it was filled with compost. We also saw the beauty of our V8 engine as we hauled the load on home.

Once we were back in the yard, my husband and I set about filling the beds. He shoveled compost into our wheelbarrow and then I would push the loads down to the bed frames (we put them near the bottom of our yard where they'll receive the most sunlight). It wasn't too hard to roll the compost down the hill as the weight of the wheel barrow and the tilt of the hill made for some nice momentum. Banjo also enjoying frolicking beside me as if he was racing me. Anyway, we ended up with some extra compost, so I spread some in the greenhouse and underneath the hardy kiwis and the honeyberries. 

Once the raised beds were filled, I dug three deep holes in them; two in one bed and one in the second. We're anticipating the arrival of three more goji plants in April from a different nursery, so we'll have to build another bed. Our plan is to plant two gojis per bed. I loosened the soil at the bottom of each hole and added lime (to raise the pH of the soil as gojis prefer alkalinity). The lime smelled very sweet...almost like  Lucky Charms cereal as weird as that sounds.  I then tossed in a few handfuls of compost, followed by soil and more compost and planted the gojis. I was starting to get a bit tired at this point, so I made a quick bamboo  pole and bird-netting fortress for the double goji bed and just tossed the extra bird netting on the single goji bed. I'm not going to lie...I did not enjoy working with bird netting. I seem to have a knack for tangling it. Hopefully it will keep the deer away from my vulnerable goji plants as they spend their first night in their new  home. I plan to build a more functionable enclosure for the gojis soon. I'm happy we were able to get them in the ground before they break their dormancy and I'm looking forward to seeing how they grow this spring.  Now I'm off to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea with honey and read about soil microbes with my sleepy pups at my side. Aww, the life! 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

our homestead: It's seed starting time

The collection of seeds I've managed to build up already

It may still be winter, but I've been planting seeds just the same...indoors. A lot of seed packets mention the alternative option to direct sowing as starting the seeds "indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost". That's now. I've had different experiences with plants as to whether they do best started early on the windowsill or sown in the garden bed. And again, starting plants early inside means you'll have a mini-plant to transplant out instead of having them sprout out of the soil. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons are nearly impossible to grow for harvest in the Pacific Northwest unless they are started indoors. I haven't had luck with starting kale and winter squash indoors...both seemed to be stronger and grow faster when grown outside and even eclipsed their seed-flat brothers. I was always told that sunflowers weren't good to start inside, but I did notice they "took off" last year just fine. I've bought carrot and celery starts from the farmers market which did very well. My brussel sprouts and marigolds started inside did great once transplanted out: I still have sprouts to munch on and my marigolds kept producing a vibrant show of  flowers the entire summer.
My seed starting lair
So far, I've seeded out in flats the following: "Little Bells" sweet peppers, "Rubine" brussel sprouts, broccoli, "Cupid Pink" sweet pea flowers, "Lime Green" nicotiana flowers, "Cherry Fall" tomatoes and of course, the tomatoes I started about a month ago. I've been using a fold down table in my basement to seed my flats. I fill each flat with organic starting mix and then drill an equally spaced series of holes in each, depending on the required planting depth of the different seed varieties. I carefully place each seed in its spot and then gently cover them. 
Creating planting holes for my seeds
"Little Bells" sweet pepper seeds all in place
I've moved all my seed flats upstairs next to the sunniest windows (either south or east facing), except for my sweet peas which are down in the dark basement pantry to germinate (their special requirement). I'm keeping them well watered everyday and I'm looking forward to seeing more little "green noses" peeping out of the soil soon.
Two brussel sprout flats hanging out by the dining room table
Nicotiana flowers, broccoli and evergreen and brandywine tomatoes in the livingroom window
My seed shangri-la in the front bedroom
Cherry fall tomatoes, the peppers and more brussel sprouts and brandywine tomatoes here

Saturday, February 4, 2012

our homestead: berries on my doorstep

Something special arrived on my doorstep a few days ago: a tall cardboard box full of...berry plants! 
Left to right: lingonberries, goji, kiwis and honeyberries
About a month or so ago, I sent out an order for some intriguing berry varietals from Burnt Ridge Nursery of Onalaska, Washington. My husband and I are starting up some berry patches this year. Our order included five lingonberry plants, three goji berry plants, a male and female hardy kiwi and four honeyberry plants. I wasn't quite sure when the plants would arrive (Burnt Ridge holds them until they are safe to ship weather-wise), so it totally made my day when I saw the UPS man pull into my driveway. 
Lingonberries are low-growing evergreens with little red berries that taste similar to cranberries. They thrive in very acidic, woodland soil (a pH of 4.5 does the trick) with lots of peet. I have a pretty large tree and a healthy rhododendron (both acid loving) as well as peet-rich soil in my front yard, so I dug up a bed for these lingonberries in the sunnier part of the front, working in some organic matter (like twigs and leaves) along the way. I look forward to making my own lingonberry compote for Swedish Pancakes...that is if I can win the battle against whatever creature's been chewing on my baby lingonberries. I went out this morning and noticed that two of the plants had been "pruned" down halfway. My suspicion is a rabbit or a deer is the bandit at large.
I haven't had the chance to transplant my three goji berry plants yet, so currently they are camping out in my greenhouse. Today, my husband and I did head to the hardware store and built two raised bed frames for them though. The goji plants don't really need raised beds but I want to get them off to the best start possible. I plan to fill the raised beds with some choice topsoil and compost from a local soil company and then I'll add lime to the soil as these plants prefer a more alkaline pH. Eventually they will probably outgrow their raised beds. Goji berries, which produce orange tear-drop shaped berries with a flavor similar to persimmons, can grow to be 8 to 12 feet tall, but I plan to keep them pruned to about 5 feet.

Male Hardy Kiwi
I planted my two hardy kiwis down near my firepit. I want to build a trellis system encircling my fire pit area with one trellis supporting hardy kiwis and the other trellis supporting the untrained grape that flourishes in summertime in my backyard. Anyway, hardy kiwis are delicious! They taste just like regular kiwis except they are smaller (about the size of a little strawberry) and are without "fur" so you can eat them skin and all. To produce fruit, you have to have a male and female plant. One male can pollinate up to eight females. I imagine I'll be investing in more girls once we get to trellis building.
Blue Velvet Honeyberry
Honeyberries are native to Japan and Siberia and are a member of the honeysuckle family, though they are more bush-like and less viney. Their berries resemble long blueberries and often arrive before strawberries hit the market scene. Honeyberries require at least two different varieties to produce fruit, so I ordered two Blue Velvet and two Kamchatka. My husband and I dug a nice big bed down next to my greenhouse for them.
Our honeyberry bed
It's a little bit hard to tell in the picture, but our plants are in there. It looks like we have room for two more plants, and we might expand this bed depending on how well the honeyberries do. Working the soil here was so much fun. We are blessed with really rich, dark, fairly loamy soil loaded in fat earthworms.

Our honeyberry is right at home
I decided to line the honeyberry bed with some old rotted logs which were too water-logged to make good firewood. I found a strip of bark from one of the logs which will be serving as a "toad" house as it has a perfect little knothole. I built it right into the side of my honeyberry bed. Perhaps a toad will inhabit it this summer.
The toad house