Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sunbow Riverteeth

It’s Winter Break and I’m in Greenhouse number two, cleaning out last year’s tomato plants, prepping the soil, and planting the greens I will be eating in May. Outside, it’s raining—not a Winter Mist, like we usually have—but a real rain with wind and dramatic clouds. Inside, I’m down to a tee shirt and wooly hat, flannel shirt and sweatshirt in a pile by the door. I’m alone, working peacefully. Occasionally, a gust of wind ripples the plastic and it rains inside.

When I run out of compost, I sigh…the compost pile is on the other side of the barns. I wrangle the deep wheelbarrow between the last glorious ruby chard, so beautiful that no one can cut it down—although it has contributed to several dinners—and the sawhorses holding seedlings. Push it out the door and across the plank which keeps it out of the mud. Past the mazy toolshed/farmstand/crop storage building, the old hoophouse turned comfrey patch, and housing for apprentices to the pile of decomposing leaves. It has stopped raining for the moment. I shovel compost into the barrow, pause, look up. Huge grey clouds race across the sky, wind whips through my hair and tee shirt, the air smells of earth, and ocean, and forest all at once, and Mary’s Peak looms over all.

It’s been a good summer for help at Sunbow. There has been a couple from Australia living there for several weeks and they like to get going early in the morning. When Mark and I arrive, the greenhouse work has already been done and we are heading out to one of the big back fields to weed and mulch. Harry is out at the back leaf pile with the tractor. We gather five gallon buckets, shovels, water bottles, hats, and head out past the quiet rustle of the wheat field, green gold in the July light. Five of us move down the rows, pulling the weeds, freeing the plants. They stretch towards the sun. Once the weeds are gone, we move in with buckets of leaves, piling mulch around their roots. We talk quietly to the plants, encouraging growth, and to each other—about the task at hand and the meaning of life and growing things. The sun slowly climbs in the sky. Time passes.

When the sun is overhead, we stop. The entire field is weeded and mulched. On the right, rows of leeks raise lavender globes high, producing seed for the next year. Further on, the wheat is ripening. Harry nods, pleased with the morning’s work.

“Imagine,” I say, “if we always had this many people—what it would look like.”

“We did, once,” he replies. “When we did all of the markets…there were ten or more people working every day.” I see, in his mind, all of the fields clean and producing food for the valley, and nod.

We have just been out to Summer Lake and we spent one night at a campground around a warm spring. “This is sacred ground” a sign by the entrance read. I looked around —piles of old farm trash, no potable water, slimy warm spring—who were they kidding? Just putting up a sign does not make your land “sacred.”

Two days later, I bike out to Sunbow. Warm June morning…I rattle in on the dirt drive between the eight foot high pampas grass clumps. On one side, the purple house buried in roses, on the other, the front field, filled with yacon, beans, corn, tomatoes, and, of course, weeds. There are weeds everywhere. In the corner, an old geodesic dome is slowly returning to the earth. Out back, wheat and garbanzo beans are growing. I hear a few chickens conversing in the pen as I park my bike by the high leaf piles and hunt for Harry.

“We’re weeding the tomatoes today,” he announces cheerfully. Okay. We walk out to the front field, push aside the pigweed, and find the plants. There they are, growing lustily in old leaves. I drop to my knees to weed. Sun on my back. Earth under my hands. Scent of tomato in the air.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking Stock

It is about time to take stock of supplies for the winter….
We have:

50 pounds or so of potatoes (not a good year)

Four long garlic braids

Five huge Boston Marrows and two smaller blue Hubbards

Two trays of Long Keeper tomatoes, which we’ll eat until Solstice or beyond

Greens still growing in the garden along with a few climbing zucchini, some huge leeks, and three cabbages that Hennie the Leghorn did not eat.

Almost a gallon of honey

15 quarts of grape juice

60 half pints of roasted tomatoes

3 quarts of dried tomatoes

12 jars of salsa (Sunbow tomatoes and Bina’s peppers)

12 pints of applesauce

4 quarts of dried apples

6 pints of blueberries

3 quarts of dried blueberries

8 pints of cherries

3 quarts of dried cherries

9 pints of blackberries

12 quarts of peaches

4 quarts of dried peaches

14 pints of various plums, canned

10 half pints of plum jam—it was a good plum year.

5 quarts dried plums

12 quarts of pickled plums

6 pints of pickled beets

4 quarts of dried zucchini

Lots of jams and chutney backed up from last year.There’s also dried figs and fig jam from last year—the season never warmed enough for figs this year.In a few weeks, we’ll add oatmeal and wheat berries, flax seed and carrots, onions all purchased in bulk from local farmers.

And today, the cycle started all over again as I planted garlic cloves—one for each week of the year, plus a few extra—and yellow storage onions in the first garden bed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What I love about Fall...

Once I have resigned myself to the end of summer, and sun, and long days of hiking and staring into space, I love fall.

I love putting the coop back on a garden bed and the ladies back to work, fertilizing and aerating the soil.

I love hanging our beautiful hand-made by Mark Meyer wooden storm windows around the house, how the inside becomes more silent and the outside picks up another layer of color.

I love the smell of apples in the larder, the glow of Boston Marrows in the shadows, the milkcrates of potatoes, the shelves of jars of canned and dried goods and tins holding grains—there is food stored throughout the house for the winter.

I love the muted colors of the bigleaf maples against doug firs and the way the clouds come down and sit on the hills that surround our town.

I love fires in the evenings and the piles of wood, sorted by size, in the basement.

I love how the grass is green again from the early rains.

I love wearing wool sweaters or heavy sweatshirts in the mornings—and a t shirt in the afternoon, when the sun comes out.

I love the weight of winter blankets and the cool breeze from the open bedroom window at night.

I love having people over for potlucks or pie, sitting around the dining room table telling stories.

I love empty campgrounds and trails.

I love the way school settles into a rhythm after the first month—papers in, papers out—and everyone knows the rituals of the room.

I love the first hard rain of the season and how loud it is on the skylight in my classroom—the rush to look up in the center of the space.

I love seeing the bare lines of the garden beds and the trees, spotting the branch that needs to be trimmed out, rethinking the position of a planter.

I love how the cats move inside and search out laps once more.

I love baked winter squashes and roasted potatoes, lasagna and flan, baked beans and brown bread.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall Fires

The rains have settled in early this year and the entire house feels damp—is damp, to be honest. The bathroom towels never completely dry out. So, on a misty rainy night, we had our first hearth fire of the season and autumn officially began.

I start by choosing the wood carefully from the tottering pile in the basement—the proper balance of laurel log, rosemary twigs, purchased fir from Mr. Bush, and old garden signs of snappy cedar, plus a candle end to get it all started. Then I build the fire pyramid; Mark mutters that I have become a pyro in the last few years, and I do take the set-up seriously. You need air circulation for a good fire. Then it’s time to rearrange the chairs, pulling the old rocker and sixties wooden armchair close to the hearth. I find the folding table rescued from a student dumpster and shift the light to between the two chairs and we’re set. Time to make dinner.

While the soup heats up, I light the fire and Mark checks the s’mores supply—marshmallows, graham crackers, and Hershey’s chocolate, all in a Christmas tin in the hallway, out of reach of ants. The cats wander in. Kayli the Sun Kitty makes loving eyes at the flames. Lucy tries out both seats. I spread an old fuzzy directly in front of the flames for Kayli and she purrs contentedly. Mark hunts down his notebook, reading material, and suduko puzzle. We have new library books. Water glasses are filled and covered by a napkin to discourage Lucy from drinking. She tries anyways.

After dinner in front of the fire, Mark cooks the marshmallows for four s’mores. Cats settle on laps. Kayli stretches out on her back, paws towards the fire, for a blissful tummy rub. We read, write, stare into the flames. The house grows dark around us—we have become a small circle of light in the universe, focused on the hearth at the center of our tiny house…I remember Wallace Stevens and “the cry of the peacocks” turning in the wind. The night feels late. The flames slowly die into the glowing coals, throwing off heat into the room. Some nights, we move the couch over and sleep there, others, I shift the laundry rack covered in jeans pulled of the line when the rains began in the late afternoon, taking advantage of the dry heat.

The next morning, I clear out the ashes and spread them on the garden beds, clearing the space for another fire, returning the laurel and rosemary to the earth. We will miss the sun—it’s warmth and dryness—but the fireplace begins to compensate for that on the long winter nights.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Most Useful Object...

I’ve been thinking about the weird tools that I use every day—things that don’t look fancy, but I cannot imagine doing my job without. At school it could be the biggest binder clip, or the ancient staplers—we go through more staples, thousands of them, than I ever thought possible—but I think it is the tiny screwdriver I confiscated from a kid who was thinking about dismantling a desk in class. (Don’t laugh—a famous wild child with Mark’s last name’s parting shot was to unscrew at least ten desktops on his last day. And he liked me.) I use it all the time to unjam said staplers and pop lead out of the electric pencil sharpener, among other things. Once in a great while, it is pressed into service by a ninth grade boy who needs to repair his finger skateboard.

Here, at The Urban Homestead, there are several contenders. There’s baling twine taken from the hay bales that I use to tie up everything because it does not rot in half a season. And it’s often green, a nice touch. There’s the staple gun, which attaches said baling twine to the fences and garden beds, as well as plastic to the cold frames and many other such things. Love the staple gun—do not love how it always runs out of staples right when I am precariously balanced in a garden bed with a bramble sticking into my back. I’m pretty fond of those tiny nails called brads that hang pictures and kitchen equipment inside and can be used to build hazelnut branch trellises outside. Canning jars are ubiquitous. Holding all sorts of food besides jam and pickles, they are our version of Tupperware and they can pop in to the microwave without off-gassing.

But the most useful thing in our house—even more than the milkcrate, which is not so important now that I have bookshelves and do not move every year—is the five gallon bucket. I prefer the shorter, squatter version, because it is easier to carry when you have short arms, but any will do. We use it to haul and store apples and pears and potatoes at harvest time, move compost in all of its forms from extra trimmings during the Grand Peach Canning to finished and sifted mulch, carry greywater and pompost to the back forty… It sorts and totes tools of all sorts, keeps bailing twine in order, stores lime after the bag rips open, and, with a few holes in the bottom, functions are a planter or a watering funnel. Mark sits on one and weeds into another when he goes on a false dandelion rampage in the front yard. With a good lid, it can hold wheat and oatmeal for the winter or rabbit food in the shed. In the winter, an abandoned five gallon bucket becomes our rain gauge for the season. It has to be the one most useful object in our garden shed. And I wonder, how do people garden without them….are they forced to buy those fancy plastic tubs in decorator colors? What a waste.