Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making A New Garden: History and Soil

As compelling reading goes, the topic of soil isn't so hot. It's not sexy like big, fluffy floozie flowers, but it is what gives the birds and bees something to sing about. It is, we say, what makes or breaks a garden - without nourishing soil and good structure, all plants wither. With two acres of soil on my hands, it might be a good idea to find out a little more. So I did a bit of homework.

There is a fabulous website -- the Web Soil Survey, a joint effort of the USDA, and many local participants. It is a product of the National Cooperative Soil Survey. You can choose any chunk of land and it will give you more details about the soil than you can imagine. I did just that for our property and discovered it is made up of Cascade silt loam and Cornelius silt loam. I learned, for example, that Cascade silt loam is typically silt loam from 0 - 24 inches down and silty clay loam from 24 - 60 inches down. It is somewhat poorly drained and there is a typical depth of 18 - 30 inches to the water table. This type of soil makes up the northwest corner of the property while the remainder is the Cornelius type. This is nearly the same but is considered "moderately well drained'. Well, there's a relief. I have a mostly moderately, well-drained garden.

Hooray for all this knowledge. That only goes so far for me, though. I need to be hands-on, to dig in it and see for myself. Happily, this past week I've had a chance to do so as I've started planting a few larger shrubs and trees and have seen what this land is made up of.

It all began with the planting of my four Olea europaea 'Arbequina' or olive trees. I knew exactly where I wanted them so in they went. 

The first dig. Not too bad but, yes, basically clay. I dug really large holes for these and added lime and shovelfuls of compost. These olive trees are planted on the southern border of the property which has a gentle slope that continues down into our neighbor's property. It's a good spot for these as there won't be any cold air collecting here and the water drains right on down slope. It's also complete and total sunshine in this area.

The leaves are a gorgeous silver color. I can't wait for these to mature. They grow to between 10 - 20' tall and are hardier than most olive trees.

What a mess! But all four are snug in the ground, and I shall watch their progress with great interest.

Back to the topic of soil. See, it's easy to get sidetracked with such a thrilling topic. So knowing the soil is somewhat clay-ey and not wanting to do more work than necessary, I decided to sheet mulch sections at a time. Even this is incredibly laborious in a rain-soaked situation, but I have faith it will turn into fabulous soil as so many experts have promised. I am working my way from closest to the house outward a little at a time.

Guess what happened to all those moving boxes? Minus every little bit of tape and staple, mind you. Oy. That alone took me a few hours - tape removal.

Next was the organic bulk layer. All I really had on hand were leaves...many many heavy, wet leaves.

You can do this with many differing layers of material. The suggested one from the book Gaia's Garden, which is what I loosely based my quick and dirty method on, suggests layers in this order, bottom to top: existing soil, amendments, thin layer of manure, newspaper or cardboard 1/2 inch thick, manure again, 8 -12 inches of bulk organic matter such as hay or stable bedding, 1 - 2 inches of compost then FINALLY 2 inches of straw, leaves or other seedless mulch. WHEW.

Mine is more like this: some amendments, cardboard (minus tape), sopping wet leaves then sopping wet compost. I *might* add more leaves on top but, oh my, that's some heavy work schlepping saturated compost uphill. The leaves are bad enough. So the ideas is it all breaks down and the grass goes away and I'll have fluffy soil in no time thanks to many soil microbes, worms and such, plus it's a way to get rid of grass with no herbicides or digging. All of that organic material breaks down and adds nutrients. Now, I know I'm not doing it the "right" way but I also know that nature is forgiving and my muscles are sore. Whatever kind of soil ends up under there, I'm planting things in that science project as soon as I figure out what I want where.

Moving on. We are going to have a compost area soon, but until that happens we ordered 2.5 units (18.75 cubic yards) of organic compost and had it delivered. I've never ordered that much before so I was a little underwhelmed when it arrived. I pictured Mount Compost but instead I got speed bump of compost. Well, not that bad but....I was just surprised. I think the vast land beyond dwarfs it.

Aaaaand guess what I've been doing all week? The missing chunk represents a whole week of scooping up sopping compost and schlepping it up the hill past the sheet mulching experiment to another spot:

The berm on the north end of the house. This is a before photo from November.

Here it is as of the end of January. I know it's not that impressive but this represents over 50 loads up the hill, and I am still not finished.

This soil up here seems to be more of the "less likely to drain" Cascade silt loam. I adore the woman who used to own this property but I don't think she ever amended this soil. It is like a suction cup of mud which is unfortunate as there are so many plants in there that would appreciate good drainage. I have my work cut out for me. So the basic idea is this: Start by adding compost, any organic matter to improve soil structure now and let it do its work over the winter. I would also love to add quarter-ten gravel to the mix but that will wait until summer. The soil has to dry out more before I do much with it, this is just a first (hopefully healing) step. Plus, you just know I'm going to dig every one of those plants up and rearrange 23 times so I'll have plenty of opportunity to keep adding compost and gravel as I go. Compost and gravel -- my two best friends.

I have yet to get a soil test because I don't know where to start, that is to say which area to test first. When it comes time to deal with the veggie bed I think I'll get one for that area. For now I'm going with the mantra that you can never have too much compost to improve soil structure. It improves all types of soil -- sandy and clay. I guess we better start building that compost bin out back pretty soon!

With so much land to care for and only so much compost (and muscles and time), my strategy will be to use the remainder for new plantings and for the upcoming vegetable bed. I can't spread it everywhere, there isn't enough. Pictured here is my Cotinus 'Grace' near the gate to wow the neighbors with its fall colors someday. I hope they like it! As a side note, I have planted about 20 trees and shrubs so far and have learned that the soil in the "wooded" areas such as under the hazel thicket is fluffy and loamy. Really nice. It's the open grass areas that seem to be the worst.

This photo is from September, a sunny time for us. I include it now to suggest that you imagine this area covered in forest. That's the history part of this post (well, soil is history, too, in a funny way). We found out that it was a forested area not that long ago, covered in Douglas fir and I'm sure western hemlock and other ubiquitous trees from this area. It was cleared some years ago and has not ever really been cultivated.

At one time, the whole area was owned by a farming family. That home is just down the street. The land has been divided a few times until it is the parcel we see today. Apparently it has been owned by about five different people, five is about as far back as we can go. We are the third owners of the house, and we are honored to be caretakers of both for this stretch of history.

Soil is one of those things that isn't particularly fun to talk about because if you don't have good soil, it's a lot of work to improve it. I know I won't be able to have fluffy black soil everywhere but I will allow nature to do its thing and help me in creating good soil in most places. I think as I work it and continue to add both compost and plant material and let leaves and other organic matter fall where it will (even attracting birds to the land adds to the soil), it will improve in time. That's the hope and nature never fails to deliver.

That's what's happening this week at Chickadee Gardens at Blue Jay Lane - thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Making A New Garden: Mega Fence

Next up on our big garden adventure is a necessary evil: Mega Fence. While I don't enjoy the idea of all two acres of Chickadee Gardens being cut off from the world by a fence, it beats losing the entire garden to my deer buddies. 

Thus, in goes the deer fence.

And as far as projects such as hiring contractors, this was like butter. Fabulous. 

I'll start out by naming our fencing company of choice, Statewide Fencing out of Salem, Oregon. Ron the owner met us at the new home the day we took possession and walked the perimeter with us and gave us a reasonable estimate. After interviewing a few other fencing companies, we went with Ron because, well, we liked him and felt he could do the job better than others at a much better price. That meeting was in November. Fast forward through the wettest month on record in Portland (December) to now. Ron and his nephew Travis showed up bright and early from Salem (a few hours away) on a recent Monday morning. By Thursday afternoon it was complete, even in the driving cold January rain. They camped out at a hotel in Saint Helens and worked super hard to finish the job in a short amount of time. Here's the final product:

David modeling the new gate. Let's take a walk around the perimeter and see the final result.

The fence on the right encloses the southern edge of our property.

This is on the south-eastern edge looking north. Yes, those are tractor-tire marks in the mud. Ron was very concerned he was destroying my garden. But, to be honest, that's why I had him come in first, before plants went in the ground. I fully expected these ruts and open wounds, especially as it's been so incredibly wet. Some things simply cannot be helped.

We found out where the water flows on the property -- to the southeast corner. Here's basically a drain swale out there. Dry most of the time, but running well in wet weather.

Here's corner number two - the southeast corner. I really like the wood posts. I wish we could have gone for wood the entire perimeter but really, the metal posts are less noticeable.

Looking north along the eastern fence. They came in with the tractor and cleared all the land, thank goodness. It would have taken us 8 months to do this ourselves. Now that I can get back there I see a lot of native salal and Oregon grape or Mahonia. I'm thrilled about this.

Here is the northeastern corner. Mudsville.

Here is the northern border. Ron and Travis cleared several of those spindly Douglas firs that were planted in rows. This opens it up and gives access which, in the long run, is much more practical. The remaining trees will fill in and have a bit more light. I have noticed the many birds here love the downed branches and have kind of taken up shelter in them. Along with Mega Fence, we now have Mega Brush Pile and I think there must be 100 small songbirds living in it.

Here's the northwest corner. Ron had to cut through this berm to make way for the fence. What a job. This whole project had another positive outcome, we got to meet many of our neighbors when we went around to tell everyone about our project plans. Everyone has been so very welcoming and kind, it's a great community out here. We also learned a bit about the land and its former owners. For example, this berm went in by the original builder of our home to block out the rest of the world, so to speak. Well, it's cleared now and ready to be planted with some native shrubs and ornamental plants for wildlife value. Its days of blocking out the world are over! Here comes the sun! The blackberry is on its way out, snowberry on the way in.

We plan on doing a bit of cleanup and gravel spreading here. My oh my, what a mess. But it couldn't be helped. 

Here's a shot of the cleared out berm area. We can see our awesome neighbors to the west! It feels better opened up like this.

The worst of the tractor damage. Yikes. Ron was very kind in smoothing it out with the tractor - it was ditches and gullies of mud, now at least it's smooth.

A wider shot with mud alley in view. But no worries, we ordered 2.5 units of compost to help heal the soil (which needed it even without tractor marks).

I had them dump it right there to help cover up the mud. More on Mega Compost Pile later.

The old fencing, new fencing poles and a private dunny.

Parting shot of the eastern fence and the southwest corner.

It is important to mention we worked closely with the underground utility location folks to determine where power, water, gas and communication lines ran inside and outside our property. You might note the little flags in the middle of the photo just above. Very important to know where things are buried.

It's not always a straightforward choice - hiring others to help you with your needs and projects. We do much of the work ourselves but this was beyond the scope of what we could reasonably do in a short amount of time. The whole point of moving out here is the land and the garden, so we needed to protect it at the outset. Ron and Travis were fantastic, we are so grateful and love the fence. I haven't seen a deer since the day they arrived, which is good, right? I do kind of miss seeing them, but now that my plants are free to roam about the country I have forgotten about the deer. For now.

The quality of the fence seems excellent, the price came in ultimately less than what was quoted and they are just plain great people to work with.


Thank you Ron and Statewide Fencing. Job well done indeed! That is the report from Chickadee Gardens this week. Until next time, thank you for reading and happy gardening! 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Making A New Garden: Baby Steps

As qualities go, patience is not one I possess. I try. I really do. This whole moving thing has put me to the test. I want the process well under way, not a big chaotic mess riddled with delays. It is therefore a nearly spiritual practice to stop, breathe, wait, and tell myself "one day at a time, one project at a time, one box at a time." 

The garden has been something on hold for several months and I believe it's taken a toll. I knew that gardening is healthy in many ways, but I took it for granted that it was always there. Now it's not. I have to recreate it, and I haven't started at all. That's stressful.

Then I decided to simply do what I can. There in plain sight was the garden shed in a terrible state of chaos...a project that would at least get me outside on the few rare dry hours we've had this month.

This was the state of the shed after I took out the many many boxes moved and shoved into it a couple of weeks ago. It was worse than it looks.

 Here's a before shot with moving boxes mostly removed.

Trying to create a clean slate at least on the floor.

Four hours later. Sweet sweet organization. Deep breath.

Another after shot. Oh yeah...and I can fit both wheel barrows into that nice large empty space.

Everything has its place. See? That's Mason Bee Corner on the top right.

OK, so that was one baby step towards sanity. The next was getting the many hastily dug up plants from the old garden into a safer situation. They sat like this, chunks of soil thrown into pots for a couple of weeks during which it froze several times, and there was freezing rain and snow. Unprotected from the deer, too...simply covered up with a tarp during the coldest of the cold spell.

The green wheel barrow had plants thrown in as I ran out of pots at one point. They sat like that, potless, through freezing weather for longer than they should have.

So on a gloriously sunny January day this week I took another deep breath and found myself digging in the soil once again. Even though it is a temporary situation, it's a baby step towards the larger goal and it felt great. I got all of the above pictured plants into the raised beds of the former owner's veggie garden, home of what I affectionately call my plant prison. This is also where the many dozen never-been-planted nursery plants waiting to find their permanent homes at Chickadee Gardens live.

 There are six raised beds in all. I eventually cleared them of dead veggies and planted every square inch with my treasures . And yes, that's snow on the ground. It eventually melted, as did the semi-frozen soil. I had to wait for that to happen, too. Patience,'s killing me.

 Oh, it felt so so good to see my familiar friends safely snug. Although temporary, these raised beds provide better protection than they had.

Not only was every square inch in the raised beds filled with plants from the old garden, as I ran out of room there, I also planted a few larger perennials out in the open fields beyond the protection of the plant prison. How daring!

For some perspective: Every one of these pots had at least one plant in them that I planted this day. Some had several. No wonder I'm gulping down the ibuprofen, those are five-gallon pots on the far left for scale. As David says, I'd better get my farm muscles going on.

While tidying up around the shed I did a bit of sweeping up and discovered a brick annex to its porch under about 6" of oak leaves. Score!

The next baby step this week. The reason for my nonchalant attitude towards planting out in the open fields was this: I knew that Fence Day was coming the very next day. Check out those posts on the trailer!

Oh boy! Ron from Statewide Fencing and his nephew showed up Monday morning. They had two big trucks and this beast. They are not only building the fence but clearing the way to do so.

David Note: As much as I like being known as a beast, Tamara is talking about the orange tractor behind me! 

Super nice guys who are very hard-working. Here's Travis working on removing the old gate post.

Here's our new gate!

While these strong men work tirelessly on our fence in the pouring rain, I feel a sense of relief coming one push at a time. The land was cleared Monday, the posts went in Tuesday and they will continue with the posts and fencing the remainder of the week. Once the fence is up I feel freer to start getting to the Big Girl steps of designing my dream garden and digging in the dirt.

 The bittersweet ending to this post is that two deer have come daily to visit us, a pair that are less and less afraid of me with every encounter. Remember the old pumpkins I brought out from the old house? I left them in the fields for the deer and they enjoyed a pumpkin feast every day. Yes, it's true, I've become quite fond of the deer, the very thing this fence is designed to keep out. Well. Perhaps I can feed them through the fence someday. I hope they don't take it personally, for gardens must go on.

That's it for this week's post from Chickadee Gardens at Blue Jay Lane. Thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening (in whatever form works for you this time of year)!

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Welcome to Saint Helens, Our New Home

Three weeks have passed since we moved Chickadee Gardens from Portland to our new two-acre home in Saint Helens, Oregon. Now that we are somewhat settled (meaning all of our stuff has been moved from point A to point B save for a few plants and "staging" furniture) we thought it would be nice to explore our surrounds a bit and share our new town with you.

Saint Helens is about 45 minutes from Portland down the Columbia River. It is a small, humble town that I am growing to love more every day. The people are friendly and willing to say hello and are genuinely helpful.

It's only starting to sink in, i.e., "We live here now!" On a few rare moments when we weren't unpacking, cleaning, organizing, driving, loading or unloading we paused to explore.

On Christmas Eve we took a walk down by the old town right on the banks of the river. This is the Columbia River, a mighty one that I hope we explore more by canoe one day. By the way, we're looking for a used canoe if anyone knows of one. Here are just some of the many boats and houseboats found along this stretch of the Columbia.

 By the riverfront a tiny picnic area surprised me. I would like to visit this someday when it warms up, maybe on bicycle.

Much of the riverbank is fairly wild. The river is dotted by many islands, the largest of which is Sauvie Island, home of Cistus Nursery (yay!!). There are a lot of wetlands and birding areas, perfect for exploring by canoe.

 The old downtown has its charm. The Columbia Theatre is one I think we shall go see the new Star Wars movie. I mean it has a neon sign so it's got to be cool. I'm a sucker for neon.

 While window shopping along antiques row, a faux Tillandsia caught my eye. This is about as much gardening as I have experienced here so far, sorry to say. This will soon change.

The Columbia County Courthouse. A mighty building with a lot of character.

A polar bear spotted in downtown Saint Helens. At least he's in the holiday spirit. There were a whole menagerie of "caged" beasts dressed in their finest holiday outfits. Very strange but endearing.

Me thinks this is where Santa came to visit. I guess we missed him.

 A bit of gardening whimsy in downtown Saint Helens.

 A reclaimed area on the shores of the Columbia River where some kind of manufacturing plant once stood. A lot nicer now. It seems like prime birding land. I will enjoy watching this develop into a natural area as the years go by.

The town is named for the mountain in view, Mt. Saint Helens, which is actually in Washington State across the Columbia River. This logo shows the mountain in full form, that is to say before she erupted in 1980. Curious.

Speaking of mountains, we have a view of Mt. Hood from our home. This photo was taken at sunrise on New Year's Day from our back deck. Hood is behind the trees to the left.

Out past the deck into the field, a cold but beautiful view greets us.

Looking out towards the neighbor's horse pasture, the sun makes an appearance.

Very beautiful and moving. I find myself experiencing these moments in what is sure to be some of the worst chaos David and I have ever gone through. I really dislike moving for nesting is in my blood. I want to have a home and put all my energy into it and watch it turn into something magic. That's the hope, anyhow. Being ripped away from something I've invested my soul into was very difficult. Am I sorry I did it? Not at all. It was simply more painful than expected. Like ripping off a bandage very slowly rather than all at once. We've been going through this for 10 weeks now, longer if you count the days in September when David started packing.

We have been blessed (??) with snow three times in two weeks. It's not that Saint Helens is snowier than Portland, it's the luck of the draw. First of all, we moved in the rainiest month on record then once we were pretty much moved in the snow began. This day we decided to take a walk "to town" as we call it (really, people, it's only two miles down the road!) to the local Safeway. Not very country-like but we were going slightly crazy and needed fresh air. The trouble is this is not a walking town. There are very few sidewalks and people were out in force with their big, throaty pickup trucks. I was a little scared, to tell the truth. But we made it, our four-mile journey ended successfully save for a sore arm when David slipped on the ice.

Most of the homes here are of a typical suburban style. Every now and then you see something that says history -- this is one example that caught my eye.

Although it's difficult to discern where the gardens are in the middle of winter, I did see some hopeful signs.

This lovely sight is just across the street and down a bit from our home. We can't see it from our property, but I was quite delighted to see it today on our walk.

Upon returning home from our adventure, I noticed our deer friends in the east bramble. They run away from us usually but this day they did not. Their days are numbered in this garden as the deer fence goes in next week (hopefully), so for now they can enjoy what nibbles they find here. I do like them, I just wish they didn't like my plants. 

On a side note, our boy cat Hobbes saw his first deer through the window the other day. I encouraged it thinking he might get a kick out of seeing her and start chirping like he does when he sees a bird. Hobbes growled for the second time in his life, and it startled me. He then ran like hell and hid under our bed for a long time. Poor guy, that deer-thing really frightened him. 

Parting shot of our many Douglas fir trees.

It hasn't entirely sunk in that we moved because we're still in motion. When we slow down and don't have 29,000 things on our "must do now" list then maybe it will. For now I've kind of blocked out the outside world to save my sanity but I am looking forward to spring and the renewal of nature and of my connected-ness to this place. 

I have some fears about plants that I dug up from the Portland garden, too. There was never a good time to do so (too soggy, too cold) but I did it in a flash last weekend and the weekend before that. It was emotionally painful, I must say. But now that I have all these goodies dug up, the very next day we had below freezing temperatures. Now it's snowing like crazy and freezing rain. Will they survive? I didn't exactly pot them up carefully when doing so in the hundreds. Speed was the priority and quality was lacking. I will have to wait and see which of the plants survived. It's heartbreaking as this is the main thing I'm moving and I may have ruined it and have to start over.

Whatever the plant and weather gods have in mind for me, I'll just have to roll with the punches and wish for a bit of luck. When the ground thaws I plan on temporarily planting a bunch of them for a little more protection. I fear the worst, however.

Well, that is the report from Saint Helens this first week of January 2016. I hope to have some greener plant photos to share soon and some good news regarding the moving of the plants and the sale of our old home which, by the way, goes on the market this week.

Thank you for reading and for hanging in there with us. Until next time, happy gardening and seed catalog shopping!