Pruning Paradise

It’s a race to get the fruit trees pruned back before they start budding. Usually, I would do this earlier in the winter, but the weather, lambing, and covid-19 happened. The established orchard on the land is a hectic mess, being in serious rehab after almost a decade of neglect. The branches tangle in chaos, and I’ve spent the last seven years trying to address the overgrowth. After studying and observing these elders for a few years, I started hacking away with little awareness of how to really shape the trees. Now, after a few more years of observation and gentle regenerative care, I’m taking off the last of the larger branches these trees should not have to support.

Fruit trees are all about producing fruit right? Well, to keep a tree fruiting nicely year after year, you have to keep them pruned up, otherwise, the tree puts all its energy into branches, growing new wood instead of food.

The plum tree pictured above has been left to it’s own devices for a few years now, and the branches have gone crazy. We’ve had no fruit for three years now, and I’m ok with that, because this is a rogue plum, and I’ve got enough trees to tend as it is, so I let this one go for now. I can always cut it back into shape as it matures. That’s part of the beauty of younger trees, they bounce back. With older wood, you have to do a lot of slow removal to let the tree recover. A good rule of thumb is take no more than a third of the tree in one pruning.

Getting pictures of these trees so you can see the transitions is very challenging. In the picture above, I’ve just finished pruning. You can see a pile of woody material on the ground. It’s definitely less than a third of the tree’s mass. My finger is hovering over the height these trees used to tower at. Fruit trees tend to grow up and then shoot out a new level of branches. These trees were two stories high, and now they are one. You should be able to harvest the fruit easily from a ladder. If you can’t reach the branch to prune from the ladder, you won’t be able to pick the fruit either.

This frost peach is already blossoming out. I managed to prune it and put in another tie back to continue encouraging it towards the wall of the building (late espalier plan). Stone fruit trees can be pruned any time, but taking off branches after buds have formed is going to knock off a lot of your future fruit before it has a chance to develop. Be mindful of your timing. The apple trees were still dormant, and I caught my pears just before blossoms opened, though it was risky, and I might have deformed many of the buds any way. Fruit trees are most vulnerable as they are budding out, so always take care with late pruning.

This photo shows a better perspective of cutting off the second story level of these older apple trees. The tree on left is still sporting it’s upper canopy, where as the trees to the right have been reshaped to a single story. The tree far right is throwing up a tall leader branch, and I’m leaving that 1st year growth to give the tree a crown. All trees naturally reach for the sky, trying to be the tallest thing in the area to receive the most sun. Pruning forces the shape of fruit trees to human advantage, giving us easy reach and many more fruits. However, when you take an entire second story of branches off a tree, it’s natural response is to put up a lot of first year growth the next year, trying to reform a crown. By leaving one or two first growth leads up, I trick the tree into thinking it still has the upper crown started, and hopefully less first year suckers will shoot up.

What’s wrong with first year growth? Well, you don’t get fruit off newly formed branches (first year). Second year wood will produce flowers, but first year only produces new wood and leaf buds, no flowers. On a well maintained fruit tree, you’ll only have suckers (first year) and some minor shaping if larger branches are rubbing or damaged from extreme weather. Pictured above are two frost peaches that have not been checked for three years. They keep going up, not out, and the energy to put on any fruit is hindered by the continued first growth.

The apple tree pictured above has been maintained to produce buds. Suckers are pruned back, and the young tree is tied to maintain certain growth shape against the bush behind it. You can see many 2 inch stubs coming off the upper branches. These are flower buds, and will hopefully produce fruit again this year. Last year I enjoyed a modest crop of large apples from this heirloom verity. This year, I hope to enjoy even more. The rewards of stewarding fruit trees is worth it’s weight in gold. Only this month did we eat the last of our apples. It was the first year we saved enough to enjoy through the whole winter. Several more pounds are stores away as dried fruit too, but there’s nothing like biting into a crisp apple you grew yourself.

More Hard Lessons

Deaths on the farm are always lessons which stick, deep in my gut. Could I have made a change? Yes, and I will now. Did I know better? Yes, and the consequence makes it count. Guilt is natural, but not consuming. This mistake will not happen in this way again, but there will be more hard lessons, that’s life.

This morning was sunny, bright, and cool. The rain before dawn was soaked in, with beautiful diamond dew drops covering every surface. It’s one of my favorite sights here in The Pacific Northwest; forest glimmers, pasture lush with water and green. The lambs leaped into freedom, their wary mother’s braking away as ewes do, forming an undulating mass of herd momentum up the hill. My hens looked fat, plump little birds so generous with their labors. Both on the soil and in the next box; truly, this animal is indispensable to agricultural restoration.

The goats cry out in painful screams for breakfast. I usually feed them last, as they are on the far end of the stall block. I’d taken my time with the sheep, moving fencing into an upper pasture. As I walked back down to the barn, it was tempting to ignore the goats, become frustrated with their nagging, but it was also a pleasure to know they were soon to be fed, and that their hard work in bramble removal was priceless.

Though sunny and nice out, I had already decided to leave them in. Brawnwin, my youngest doe, was expecting her first kids, and had, along with the rest of the herd, not wanted to leave the comforts of the barn. This is typical goat behavior, and I was in no mood that morning to force her and the others on a long march to the far field, where they were currently working. It was a win win, with food and fresh water just a step away. So I threw hay, looked for eggs, and then spotted the horror in the corner of the stall.

Two wet lumps lay motionless in a bed of straw. It was the kids. I could tell from where I stood that they were dead, the realization crushed me. Running around to the door of the stall, thinking they might have just dropped and need support, my mind was racing through solutions. The dry towels in the grain room, a heat lamp, the colostrum formula- then I saw the third little body, under the manger, and my heart sank. It was the oldest, a larger black mass, who she had been able to dry off. It was cold and stiff. As I gently lifted it, I knew all three were lost.

It’s the farmer’s fault, always, and anyone trying to say otherwise has not kept livestock. Without direct human care, feeding, watering, and healthy living environment, death will occur. So what went wrong? Where did I screw up? Usually, a mother to be in the ungulate family of domestics, like sheep and goats, should be given a separate space to birth in. I know this, and was practicing it diligently with my sheep already, who have been lambing for over a month. I knew my goat was pregnant, but had not been closely watching her progress.

First timers often struggle with birth, and can sometimes abandon their new offspring in confusion. Also, social dynamics in the herd can overshadow any mother baby bond. In this case, the dominate two does in the stall were probably upset by the new kids, and butted them around till they were dead. That was the evidence I soon confirmed with more handling of the little bodies. shattered bones and pulverized internal organs, a signature of death by ramming. What hell, and I had let it happen through neglect. It was a mistake, and the gentler side of my conscience knows this, but the inaction was inexcusable too.

So, the solution- cull larger, older goats from the herd. Then stick to small goats, and keep breeding in that direction. A few years ago we lost a new breeding buck because of an injury sustained while sharing a stall with a larger wether (castrated male goat). It was another size related mistake I’ve made in mixing large and small breeds. They can breed, but struggle to live together safely.

Goats have played a huge role in reclaiming ground from blackberry invasion, as a key part of the restoration of forest and pasture at EEC Forest Stewardship. Most of the larger plants have been pulled down by large goats, leaving the landscape about knee height in most places the bramble still persists. Between sheep and dwarf goats, we’ll be able to stay ahead of it from now on.

By culling our large stock, we invite easier handling of our animals- smaller is lighter. My current lead doe can pull me off my feet if she catches me off balance. It’s impossible to ask farm sitters to handle her, or my other large doe safely, so it’s time to cull them. This will make a lot more stall room for the two smaller goats, and we can even invest in one more breeding doe, for a core herd of three, which is perfect for the farm needs. Best of all, the dwarf goats we will now be exclusively working with, cannot jump the electric fencing, and can be released into pastures without tethering. This also adds additional ease of handling, and better quality of life for everyone.

Even though this was a tragedy of mismanagement on my part, and I have paid the price three times over, the lessons will bring good change in the long term. My only hope is that I can keep learning, but in a way that does not cost lives any more. Again, it was my responsibility, and I failed, but I will not let this happen again, and I encourage others to learn what they can from my own failings, to prevent similar mishaps. This year we will have no kids, and have to cull two goats, including the one I’ve had the longest. It’s never easy to slaughter, but I’d never want someone else to do it for me.

Another covenant I keep with my stock is raising them, and slaughtering in a clean and humane way at the right time. This is something I think all stock owners should do, for it would make factory farming impossible, and raise the standards of care for our animals. It would also take most meat out of the gross consumption market, and demand more alternative convenience eating, preferably choices that do not involve animal lives on mass scale. When you support fast food- you embrace animal abuse, and worker abuse too. Please know where your meat comes from. If you choose to indulge, support local small farms. If you live in the Duvall area, and are seeking pasture raised lamb or goat, you can contact this farmer- escocrain@gmail.com. I sell live animals on the hoof, and can help you with slaughter and butchering to fill the freezer with clean, healthy, and humanely raised meat.

Spring Gardening

What’s growing on in the gardens here at EEC Forest Stewardship? Yes, we do produce some small crops through the winter for use here on the farm. Garlic is up in our main planting space, along with kale, spinach, and wild mustard. In the purely aesthetic side, tulips are pushing through winter compost, and sedum reach for the warm stone walkway. On a sunny late winter day, as soil warms, I took time to establish walkways, berm up beds, and sew a few cold weather crops like beets, radish, and more kale. Right after planting seeds I got out the garden hose for a good watering.

The garden this year will demand a lot of attention, as we have an infestation of morning glory, which is a vigorous taproot structure that spreads through disturbed soil seeking nutrients and water as it webs through the dirt. The nightmare of tangled roots easily transplant with any digging, so no soil can leave the garden. which makes replanting from the native plant nursery I established here a few years ago nearly impossible without spreading the noxious weed.

While the “bindweed” is dormant, I’ve taken time to map out established plants and put a few seeds down to see if I can still eat from this garden through the summer. It also motivates me to keep after the morning glory through the summer. If you keep green leaves from shooting up, the roots eventually recede (I hope). A good cover crop of mustard, forget me not, and other perennial vetches have protected the soil through the hard rain of winter, and now, I slowly begin to turn the beds, weeding and prepping for new plantings. A marked colony of chives are greening up, a signal of Spring.

Any cold crop like Alliums and Brassicas are good to plant now in Western Washington. Carrots are also encouraged, through I find I loos most of them to slugs early on if I direct sew this early. We may think slugs aren’t out yet, it’s too cold. Oh no, they are out, and a lot are tiny offspring that recently hatched, so they are small terrors! I recommend beer traps (covered yogurt containers with slits to let the slugs in on the sides filled with cheap beer) they work to keep populations down and lure the slugs away from your lush greens. It works!

Another important part of prepping the garden for Spring is turning the compost. I keep kitchen waste in a bin compost system in the garden. weeds, grass clippings (from the scythe) and cardboard add a rich mix for the worms to feast on. When the waste has sat for many months, stack another bin on and keep composting. Then, in late winter, when things warm back up. I pull out the bottom bin and see dark loam full of worms and good organic fertilizer for the gardens.

Since the main two kitchen gardens are full of morning glory, I really don’t want to put this fine compost there, so I opt for a less formal bed where currents and a cultivar crabapple are planted. This soil could use a boost, so I flip the layered chocolate cake over in the bed and walk away. It’s that easy! What about spreading it? Well, why spend such effort and physical labor myself when I have a flock of fine bird who will love doing that work for me, and getting some worms in the deal too. The soil will not go far, and my hens will have a fun treat, a win win for all of us.

The kitchen composting system is modest, but efficient, and low maintenance. I’ve put my hand on the bottom (now top) of the pile to show you the fantastic layer of black gold from food and yard waste, which will now enter the ecology of this planted space, boosting nutrients and moisture to this bed. The trees, shrubs, and dirt in this area will thrive on these additions, and it was all freely compiled through smart organic waste management. There could be a few weed seeds in this mix too, so I usually mulch a place soon after the compost is spread. This prevents the unwanted seeds germinating. But if you wish to take advantage of the prime germination station, plant right into it to ensure the plants you want coming out on top.

In the rock gardens, our herb spiral begins to reawaken, with thyme and lavender overwintering happily, along with sedum (which needs to be pruned back) and a little weeding to free up the established plants. Grass continued to hassle from the edges, and I do spend time hand pulling a lot through the growing season- but it goes right into the nearby compost to further next year’s planting. I also chose to plant strawberries around the base of these beds, and we get fruit throughout the summer, but there’s another side to strawberries- they take over!

The keyhole garden has been the most difficult to defend from the fruit runners. YOu can already see an assault in progress, even at the beginning of March. I have to be careful about weeding back the strawberry too much at this time, as the current growth will produce the fruit, and if I pull it all now, the plants will not ripen with berries until next Fall. I tend to wait till after the first flush of fruit before culling them back a bit. By then, I’ll see flowering parts and avoid pulling them.

This keyhole may look a little patchy right now, and that’s to be expected, as that large open patch is where my horseradish grows. Like many large leafy plants, it goes dormant in winter, and disappears from the surface of the soil, but just like the tulip bulbs, there is a living plant with established root systems living just out of site. It’s helpful to keep updated maps of your planted spaces to remind you of where all those hidden gems are sleeping. Yes, I have dug up bulbs and roots accidentally in winter, forgetting I’d planted there the year before. Stakes and cages also help in keeping spaces protected.

If you do get a chance to start your garden before Spring, and I hope you do, remember to be patient with new seeds. It’s still winter, and the cold frosts will come till the end of April at our elevation, so any expectations should be retrained till after the first planting dates in Late April, early May. On a side note- you can start plants inside, and without a greenhouse, many of your seeds should be sprouted indoors under a grow light if possible. I don’t do this, because my success rate has been so low, I gave up and rely on my greenhouse, which should be completed by May. I’ll most likely buy tomato starts at a local valley farm, where a devoted vegetable cultivator has tones of greenhouse space, and the setup to mass produce a good crop of hot house plants. It’s worth the investment and saves you a lot of time and frustration as a gardener here in our wet, cool climate.

At EEC Forest Stewardship, gardening is not a main focus, but it is an important way to cultivate a selection of native and cultivar food to supplement meals. It also keeps me connected to growing things, tending space, and paying attention to what’s growing on around me. What pests are around, what beneficial insects are helping out, and how the weather is affecting the living world through each season. It’s also a place of pride on the land where I can teach about edible landscape, what grows easily in our bio-region, and how to set up low maintenance systems to feed yourself. There’s nothing like getting your hands in the soil, and later picking your own asparagus, peas, and lettuce for the perfect home grown salad.

Stream Buffer Replanting

In less than 4 hours, a busy team of contracted tree planters came to EEC Forest Stewardship as part of our stream buffer restoration project. Thousands of native plants- from Western Red Cedar to Mock Orange was systematically planted from root stalk across the landscape. Tall protection fence sleeves guard young evergreen trees from deer browsing. Other less appetizing greens, like cascara and red elder were left in the open following a grid structure to keep the planting well spaced and easy to monitor. It’s been almost three years since this project began, with a little fencing and some long hours of alder thinning and firewood hauling to boot. After site prep, site check, and two treatments of herbicide to knock back the blackberry overnight, the new plantings are finally in, giving this landscape a new lease on recovery.

The abundant numbers of new plantings, along with a well prepped site to establish, gives these new allies to the forest a chance at establishing a native under-story. Only a quarter of the root stalks will survive, luckily, the springs rains are here to give a good watering to all. Many of the young plants are already leafing out, like the Cascara pictured above. There is little of it’s kind already established on the land at this forest site, but the tree is a crucial part of native forests in Western Washington. It’s great habitat for wildlife, and an important forage for species like band-tailed pigeons. Because it is not a great commercial wood, Cascara is not found in timber operations. It was therefor not often selected in replanting projects until more recent decades, once it became accepted that mono-culture forests were not ecologically stable or productive.

Stream buffer replanting is an important part of restoring the environment, especially for private land owners who might have land that was cleared before water protection laws came into effect. At EEC, our stream had a minimal 25 foot setback, which is the minimal requirement for a class S2 stream (meaning salmon bearing). This minimal buffer is not sufficient to support the larger ecological success of the stream, being little barrier to agricultural runoff, erosion, or forest restoration with any real wildlife habitat. By adding about 100 feet of extra protection on both sides of the creek, we volunteered to make the buffer 4x the minimal size on each bank. This generous strip, running right through the middle of the property, now offers a large wildlife corridor to documented species like bear, deer, coyote, bobcat, and all the smaller critters like insects, birds, and all that make use of the stream too.

Moments like this, when the land gets a big boost in biomass, invites long term vision. This living matter, which will continue to grow and expand into what will one day become an intact forest, protecting the stream and creating abundant habitat for all. I can see it as a gaze across the fields with a grid of little sticks poking up out of the grass. This space, which was once a muddy field where little was happening, will now transform back into a rich forest of thriving bio-diversity. If nothing else, this replanted buffer will last as a testimony to restoration long after my death. For now, I steward these young plants, and tend the start of a healthy forest.

Wild Edibles

Spring is here, and with the covid-19 pandemic happening, many of us have been social distancing and self-quarantining. Outside is still a safe place to be, if you have access. For most of us in Western Washington, the landscape is available, even cities have parks (if they are open). If you can drive out of the city to take a hike or walk in wilderness, I would highly recommend doing so. While you’re out- look for wild edibles all around. They are popping up now!

Is a wild edible safe to harvest? Well, where are you? If you are curb side of a busy road, don’t harvest. If you are in a sensitive bio-region with little diversity or plant numbers, don’t harvest. If you are in your own backyard harvesting is ideal. If you are in a park or wilderness area, check to make sure chemical management is not used, and always stay away from roadsides. So- what to look for. Right now (March 21, 2020), stinging nettle is out, and that’s a sure bet for good nutrition and abundance in most places. It’s a great green that has been leafing out here since January, but really only just took off this week with the great sun.

Spring is the time to harvest young leaves from this common plant. I take the top two leaf terminals when the plant is about 4-6″ high. You can harvest earlier, but I recommend letting the greens pork out a bit first to give the plant a head start. I want my nettle to keep growing, for a second harvest of leaves, and then in late summer, I’ll harvest seed for eating and dispersing too. Note I am picking barehanded, but it’s better to wear gloves to avoid stinging. I plucked this plant as demonstration for the photo. I would definitely wear protection when mass harvesting. You can dehydrate, freeze, or eat fresh after steaming. I usually dehydrate to use during next winter after eating fresh till I’m sick of the flavor.

Another great edible treat popping up at the moment is knot-weed. This rhubarb substitute is also an invasive, so eat up! Knot-weed spreads through a tenacious rhizome, so no matter how much you consume, the roots will keep putting out more. Young stalks are ideal, steamed up or baked. I chop it up right into stir fries or bake in pies with other fruit to add unique sweet and sour flavor. This plant is often treated with chemicals in parks and alogn streams so be very careful about where you harvest. Note the glossy red/brown pigment of the young leaves. The stalk will be green with red lines. If you are not sure, don’t harvest.

Some plants may not be ready to harvest yet, but are still good to pick out on the landscape for later use. This very young red elderberry is just leafing out, and may even be a few years away from producing any berries. But I’ve noted it’s location on the land and will drop by to check on it’s progress another time. Elder flowers are edible, and the berries can be cooked into cough medicine. However- blue elder, which grows mostly on the east side of The Cascades, is anti-viral. I make the trip over the mountains each fall to harvest these precious berries for medicine. We’re taking a daily dose at the farm these days to help support out immune system against the virus.

Sometimes looking for wild edibles can seem a challenge, but when you start breaking apart the wall of green, seeing plants as individuals, you begin to see food and medicine, materials for shelter, comfort, and self–care. When the forest becomes a place of familiar friends, you’re empowered to wild from within. There’s a great wild edible in the picture above, can you guess who?

Taste can make or break your wild edible plant experience. If you’re used to a diet with sugar and salt (most of us) then wild plants are going to taste bitter, bland, and generally lacking. If you take salt and sugar out of your diet, taste will return, allowing a better appreciation for the subtle flavor found in wild foods. Still, salt was once valued like gold with good reason. The osoberry is similar to cucumber in taste, through bitter. You can eat the leaves and flowers, which are abundant right now throughout the forests.

Most young growth of plants is edible, and now is the time to taste. In the picture above you can also see salmon berry leaves- edible, blackberry buds- edible, even red alder buds. One could easily gather enough blackberry buds right now to make a great salad. Add in a few other faces like osoberry and some nettle and you have a real medley of flavor. Still, you’ll want salt, and butter. Wild edibles really make you appreciate the common household ingredients we all take for granted now.

Flowers are another great wild food source in Spring. These red current blossoms look yummy- just remember, if you eat all the flowers, there will be no fruit. I like to let these plants keep their flowers to feed our humming birds, and later, feed everyone, domestic and wild alike, with juicy berries. Always ask yourself what stage a plant is in before you start harvesting. Timing is everything, harvest at the right moment to capture a plant’s energy. Spring is a time for greens, and flowers, during the summer, most plants are putting on food for the fall, like fruit and nut trees. Summer is a time to catch fish, look for berries, and eat a generally lighter fair through warm weather months. This allows time for plants to put on good growth for the lean times. Fall is harvest- grains are what most of us think of, but in the wild world, grasses offer little nutrition. You’ll be digging roots, as plants are going dormant and putting all their energy into the ground. Fruit is abundant too, and if you have good heritage verities, you’ll be able to store them away in a cool place to use throughout the winter. Learn to harvest within these natural cycles and you’ll harmonize well with the abundance of nature.

For more information- especially here on the west coast of Washington State- check out these other great reads.

Plants of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon
This is the intro guide to plants of Western Washington, easy and user friendly

The People of Cascadia by Bohan
A more in-depth book by Heidi, an amazing ethnobotanist who specializes in Pacific Northwest first nations practices- from fishing to foraging, wood crafts to clothing, she maps out annual cycles of daily life to demonstrate how people once thrived on the landscape here.

Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants by Kloos
For more advanced learning- Scott takes you through each plant step by step, preparing correct dosages and explaining the potential health hazards of these medicines if you have preexisting conditions- so helpful!

Lambing Season

The first two lambs dropped in late January and we’re off! Once one ewe starts labor, the rest get the chemical signal and domino into action. The first lambing gave us a week to test our lambing setup and all has gone quite smoothly, even through massive rains with heavy flooding. Luckily the barn stays dry, and with a little ditch digging to redirect surface water runoff, we’ve kept the lambing stalls clean and ready. I was psyching myself out every evening at feeding, looking at swollen bottoms and thinking it was happening! Of course, the ewes will not be rushed, and they are still taking their time.

In mid February, we were at 7 lambs (four ewe mamas), with the most sheep on the land ever. Our stall systems are fully adapted to the numbers, and we’re quickly moving animals around to accommodate the new youngsters. Fresh straw works, but it’s not my first choice for lambing, as ewes eat the stuff as roughage, especially when they are hungry milk producers. I’ve switched to pine shavings and now retain enough bedding to keep things dry. Muddy stalls will lead to infection, illness, and parasite nightmares in your animals. Idealy they are out on pasture as much as possible, but when we get two weeks of flooding, everyone remains stuck in the barn, which means extra bedding and hay.

Our biggest challenge has been the weather, with major flooding in the valley and our hill farm catching a deluge of runoff, we’re thankful for our hydro catchment systems and all the good use we’re putting that water to. The grass is also green and lush, which will be great pasture for the youngsters once the rain lets up. And indeed, by early March, the sun is out again and we’re putting the flock back outside! With another addition, bringing us to 8 lambs. Even with good weather, a new born lamb should stay in a few days with mom to bond. Luckily, a mother ewe is less interested in being part of the herd while she’s nursing a new born. It’s one of the few times you can separate a sheep from the flock without stress.

Back in the field, these amazing animals are thriving on the fresh green grass. It’s still a few weeks away from Spring on the calendar, but in sheep time, it’s been spring all winter, as the grass has kept on growing. Now with more sun and warmer weather on the way, our pastures are exploding with new lush life. Both the animals and plants are revving up reproduction. Flowers have begun pushing up through the mud and little lambs frolic across the landscape. So much gratitude for new life, warm sun, and the soft touch of new growth.

Hyrdocalypse

We’ve had a deluge in the past week- the typical hard rain that’s been the new norm here at EEC. In this case, the hard rain came down for 48 hours strait, after a month of rain before that. With the ground already saturated, water is now sheeting off every surface, ganging up into raging torrents as it rushes towards the swollen rivers.

The Snoqualmie is over her banks again, and like all rivers in flood stage, she is reeking havoc on bottom land farms and causeways, which connect our small town to the city. Traffic in and out of Duvall has been stressful, and backups throughout the county began to expand as the waters rose. We’ve been in major flood stages twice this week. Mudslides are also taking their toll on major throughways. Transportation backups and inaccessibility will continue to challenge our social normality going forward. Weather dictates all, and we’re in for continued wet deluges and more and more flooding in the years to come.

Our catchment pond is almost to the outflow pipe. It has not crested yet, and may not- but we installed a Pegasus unicorn to bring the magic. Seeing the water collect so brilliantly across the property, preventing any major sheeting, is very rewarding. At least our work and living spaces remain dry. In the woods and along the creek, things are flowing in wild torrents, and luckily, we have a creek to direct flow into, rather than our driveways, though some were still water parks during the worst flooding.

Major weather events are a time to really observe your landscape. At EEC, we’re taking notes on areas of erosion, flooding, good water directing and catchment, as well as seeps, springs, and seasonal creeks. The flooded road above is rare, but would be mitigated by a culvert. The property above is mostly lawn, which created the sheeting water abundance at the bottom of the slope, where my road comes across, creating a dam. At a horse property I work at, the same lake build up is happening for the same reason.

Planning direction for high flow events here in Western Washington is mandatory. Though many people are unaware of the county’s legal requirements for proper surface water retention and redirection. It’s a novel and a half, so I get why most people in King County are clueless about the laws. BUT, they are there, and addressing surface water runoff ensures less flooding in your neighborhood. Imagine if all that water in the flooded arena above burst through the causeway holding it back- thousands of gallons would suddenly flood into an already taxed stream nearby, ushering a flash rise in the already flooded lowland, perhaps causing additional damage.

Another major issue in heavy rain events involves erosion. In worst cases, landslides happen, causing massive soil movement, usually in a down hill direction, incurring the loss of stable slope and degradation of hillsides. If you live up hill of these disturbances, you’re likely to experience future failures in your own slope. Sometimes smaller erosion problems, like washed out roads, plagues land owners. Pictured above, you see a minor surface water cut in our access road through the property. This stream comes with flooding, and goes away quickly, but with each passing storm, through the years, I’ve been watching this cut deepen, and if I don’t address it soon, the whole road could be compromised. Like any water issue, it starts as a drop, then seep, then torrent. Fix these little issues as they form, preventing massive soil erosion in time.

With all this heavy rain The Pacific Northwest is becoming more and more flood prone. Weather systems like The Pineapple Express, from Hawaii, are dumping atmospheric rivers, like the one pictured above. Where there was once a few inches over a few days, you now experience inches in hours, with 8-10″ in a weather event like this, and they are happening more and more frequently. This storm went for a week straight, and I was counting 2-3 inches a day at EEC Forest Stewardship. With more water on the way, I’m upping my gutter design to all metal, heavy gauge for torrential rain, with added strength to withstand the snow too. Our major flow routs are mapped, with good flow direction encouraged using catchment basins, sturdy culverts, and unimpeded swales, which guide water into the pond, or retain the excess in cisterns.

The 20,000 gallon tank above is designed to hold a winter’s worth of rain from the nearby green roof. Right now the roof catches into a much smaller green cistern, about 400 gallons at a time. Then we will use a portable pump to push the water from that tank, into the larger blue pillow. In Fall, 2018, the tank was filled from the well, and reached capacity easily in a few days without overtaxing our pump. Because we lucked out with a mild summer, I’ve saved the water for the upcoming summer of 2020. By then, we hope to have s pump system from the upright cistern to utilize all our rain water catchment, and with ran like we’ve just had this winter in 2020, the 20,000 gallons will be easy to retain.

Since the storms, we’ve continued to study the landscape as waters recede. And plans to put in a water bar across our access road will mitigate future weather erosion. The valley below is back to normal, with traffic still backing up, but not for hours with only one road in and out of town. However, landslides have left two major access routs to Duvall compromised, and shutdowns for emergency construction will continue into the Spring. Rains in the past few weeks have been lighter more Seattle like, gently misting across the landscape, catching on cedar branches and dampening fresh grass for the sheep to enjoy. I’d rather have too much water, than not enough.

Temporary Structures

After 7 years of good seasonal habitation, our Mongolian ger is taking a much needed rest. These hand crafted mobile homes are designed to be packed up and moved frequently, allowing occasional refreshing and reshaping with each new setup. On a migration in 2011, I had the opportunity to live and tend a ger through a fall drive in northern Mongolia. We packed the two 16′ diameter yurts up in about half an hour in the morning, packed onto yaks for a day of migration, then back up again in the evening with the help of about eight people per structure, in about 45 minutes- including fire in the wood stoves and dinner cooking. For a ger to spend 7 years in one spot is quite a feat.

Migration would be a challenge here in The Puget Lowlands, but the ger still offers great accommodation for seasonal help on the farm, students of wilderness living, and people in search of alternative living. Because of the wet weather our region experiences throughout much of the year, we constructed an additional roof to shelter the canvas structure, preventing dampness and rot setting in. As we began deconstructing the ger this fall, we found settled signs of insects like spiders and beetles habituating between the layers of canvas and felt batting, which insulates the structure. This only happened because the yurt was left standing for so long. Normally, seasonal refreshing of the structure will prevent invasive roommates.

As climate change continues its evolution in our region, snow has become a much more present companion of winter months, and the load on some of our temporary structures has become too much. In February 2019, EEC Forest Stewardship received 18″ of snow in a week, followed by a month of below freezing temperatures, which ensured the blanket of white cold stayed with us into March. During the “snowpocalyps”, our 5 year old greenhouse, which had endured 60mph gusts of wind and many inches of snow in previous years (including a first collapse which fractured many of the structural supports), finally crumpled to the ground for the last time. In the picture below, you can see the collapsed structure, with the cabin roof in background, pitched properly to shed the heavy snow load.

The Elements dictate all future building at EEC, and with good planning, roofs will stand the test of heavier snow to come. Temporary structures are a way to test design and then improve upon them in future builds. The farm acquired a new greenhouse frame, recycling a neighbor’s metal carport frame, which will be the bones of a new greenhouse coming in summer, 2020. Our old design was simple PVC hoops braced with wood beams. The arches sagged over time, preventing snow from sliding off the sides properly. Our new frame is a pitched roof with higher walls. We’ll be adding additional beams of support to the roof, ensuring snow sheds quickly, preventing another collapse.

Resurrection of older temporary structures is ongoing at Leafhopper Farm, especially a row of old sheds we converted into livestock housing and a solid grain room. It had been an aviary for chickens and peacocks, along with a hay shed and run in for cows and horses. With a little creative building, using mostly scrap wood, the sheds were structurally reinforced and converted into additional stalls for sheep and goats. The old coop remained to house our laying flock, and the hay shed continued to shelter our winter fodder for the animals. The chickens also enjoy using the fallen hay for additional nesting space, especially during the colder winter months.

Sheds like these are temporary, though extremely durable and well used. They are shabby and rickety, but cheap and more than enough dry shelter for the animals. Our future plan is to build a real barn, one building, with stalls, grain room, and an attached living space for a farm caretaker to reside in. Below is a rough proposal for the building. This drawing also indicates our current grey water system, which the future building would tie into. We’ll keep designing and drawing for now, thankful that the current structures will continue to serve until a solid plan is thought out.

Yet another temporary structure on the property to point out is also pictured above; our 20,000 gallon pillow tank (large blue square in top center of pic) is another thought out movable space. Though only a tank, it’s current placement is to support a young orchard, which, once well established with full canopy, will not need so much watering. We can then choose to move the tank to another part of the land, offering support to future nut groves and young plantings on other parts of our ten acres. One of those future groves is slowly establishing on our “back 40”. This savanna field has played host to another temporairy structure on the landscape- a wall tent.

This seasonal structure is the habitat of a current resident. Allowing someone to independently live off the grid at EEC Forest Stewardship did not happen overnight. It takes a very capable person to thrive in this rustic accommodation, and the person who does has been experimenting in wilderness living for a few years now. Light foot living is key to a thriving environment, especially when resources are limited. In our comfortable modern homes, we often forget how much energy it takes to maintain such luxurious standards, and the rest of the world wants these accommodations, at the peril of our environmental survival.

While packing away the Mongolian ger, taking care to protect the natural fibers from hungry rodents, we marvel at the simplicity of the structure, and how quickly it collapses into neat piles. Each part of the structure can be carried by an individual, or piled into the back of a pickup in one go. The entire building is about 700lbs of material. Imagine how light our impact could be if we thought more openly about temporary construction. This is not a call to manufactured housing, but the tending of more mindful methods of creating space.

In closing, a special shout out to the farm house here at EEC Forest Stewardship. Our 1973 Port-royal double wide is also a temporary structure. There’s a title for this home, and it’s up on blocks, no foundation. The structure will ultimately end up in a land fill because of hazardous construction, but it’s lasted 50 years, which is certainly impressive. May it continue, with our good stewardship, to provide safe, dry, warm shelter. May we all have such luxury, whatever the construction.

Whiteout

This morning we woke to a thick blanket of snow. The winter wonderland began a few days before, but the real accumulation arrived Monday. It was so great to see this weather arrive, but with frozen water comes a lot of chaos. In the forest, tree branches drooped heavily to the ground as ominous cracking echoed through the dense canopy. Much of our snow was the light feathery kind, which gently drifted off the treetops in light breezes. It would have been another story if high winds had picked up. Where was the gale? Upon yonder Cascades, where I ran into the storm before it struck home up on Steven’s Pass.

I was able to safely take this photo at a stand still up on Rt. 2, just over Steven’s Pass ski mountain. The wind blowing powder off the trees created whiteout conditions along the highway. A few times the loss of site came unexpectedly, and more than once I threw on hazard lights as I slowed to a stop on a road where in normal conditions, I would be flying along at 60mph. More than once I watched someone try to speed up and pass, only to fishtail along and slide back into line. Driving is never a good choice in a storm- especially a snow storm on a mountain top.

Back at EEC Forest Stewardship, the silence was deafening, thick snowflakes fell on and off for several days. I watched the heaviest dump I’d ever seen in one sitting fall that Monday. Rarely do we get such light fluffy stuff accumulating more than a few inches, but this storm felt like something out of The Rockies, Colorado. Cascade snow is usually wet and heavy, turning to cement faster than you can get a fresh set of tracks down the mountain. I did not ski this champagne snow, but I did have a lot of fun running around in it with my pup. The livestock are not fans of snow days, so they held up in dry, warm stalls.

The ewes are due to lamb very soon, I was really worried they would drop in the storm, but luckily, everyone held on through the cold spell. If they had, we might have been hosting sheep in the garage with heat lamps for the first time. If the climate continues to offer heavy snow, the livestock operations will have to be enhanced to cope with the change. Temperate rain forest might just be heading towards sub-alpine winter conditions. Hauling water and breaking ice is never fun on a farm, but future barn design will incorporate more stable water systems.

After large snow events, floods follow, and the small salmon stream at EEC, Weiss Creek, has begun to build flow as the snow starts to melt. The snow offers good tracking- the sign of animal tracks in the fresh powder. Another inhabitant of the land found coyote prints cutting across the land in the stream buffer. We love to see evidence of wildlife traversing the habitat cultivated for them across the landscape. Snow events are a challenging time for the ecology of this region. Extra care of livestock is also required, with more frequent water checks and feed to supplement a lack of pasture time.

Seeing the world in a white cloak gives new perspective, as well as a chance to study flooding across the property as the cold melts. Puddles and surface flow mark areas of more extreme runoff across already saturated soil. Erosion can happen in the blink of an eye, and even after less than a foot of snow, our creek banks have been reshaped well over a foot by recent runoff in the fast melt. The valley below is in it’s third major flooding this season, and with a week of rain to follow, we won’t be getting much reprieve before more water falls. The Cascades might sometimes be shrouded in snow, but the flowing waters continue in the foothills below.

Evergreen State

Mt. Si from the east

Yes folks, it’s winter- but here in Western Washington, spring seems to begin. This is part of that secret world we west slope dwellers prefer everyone else outside The Pacific Northwest didn’t know- we’re a truly temperate climate! The end of fall brought temperatures maintaining the 20s for about a week, but the freeze quickly thawed, and now it’s a balmy 47 with light rain and grey skies. That’s a heavenly winter season norm, and the grass will keep growing.

As a farmer, I thrive in wet warm temperatures, though such cultivation comforts come with other struggles, like mold and hoof rot. Muck is a constant companion in the barn yard. One of my house plants just showcased a strange mold growing on the surface of the potted soil. I’ve cranked up the wood stove, not to keep us warm, so much as dry in this rain-forest.

This year, I hatched an experiment of winter chicks, which have thrived quite well in our crisp fall days. I’ve been impressed with their hardiness, and the subsequent bulk they have gained with forage and organic starter feed. Last week, part of the young flock was moved into the coop with our layer hens. Their free range diet across the landscape includes grass, herbs, insects, and other microscopic creatures which enrich the birds’ eggs. The pasture is still green, even after heavy frosts, which began on the last day of September this year (2019). Our sheep just had two sunny days grazing, in early December. In New England, The Rocky Mountains, and central Great Plains, winters are brutal, often windy and well below freezing. Here in Western Washington, being outside in a cotton long sleeve t-shirt and jeans at the start of winter is a real treat- not to mention a lack of pesky frost-bite, frozen water buckets, and snow.

Winter does signal a slowing down in production. Our hens are laying at about 40% normal rate, so we’re averaging 1/2 dz. each day. With the introduction of more layers, we hope to operate in future at a dz. each day in winter, for neighborhood orders, and we’ll sell our warm month production to Cascadia Cooperative Farms. The sheep keep eating, putting weight on, and are hopefully also growing lambs in their bellies. It’s amazing to me that during winter, most animals in the grazing world are gestating next year’s offspring. They have great fresh food, and additional alfalfa hay in the barn on colder or wetter evenings.

Both my goats and sheep are expected to produce a “crop” of young, and need lots of good hay, pasture time, and other minerals to develop healthy babies. Evergreen pasture helps a lot with keeping pregnant stock fed, but supplements are still necessary- including trace minerals like iron, copper, and iodine. Western Washington soil is low in these important inputs, so a “range block” sits in each stall of my barn for both sheep and goats. Note- sheep cannot have copper, where as goats can’t live without it, so the mineral blocks of each animal should be matched appropriately. A soil sample from your pasture sent in for analysis will tell you what you’re short on, and that can change from field to field so take many samples if you can.

Fighting muck in temperate climate is never done. Anyone with livestock in wet weather can tell you about how hard it is to keep the ground from eroding into a mud pit. Some of the ways we cope at EEC Forest Stewardship include resting pastures by fencing them off. This is important, especially in winter, and will pay back in spades once the ground is solid again in warmer months. Managing stock around the barnyard is crucial to preventing much buildup. I use hog fencing to direct animals along corridors from the barn to pasture space, making sure to rotate access fequently to prevent degradation. Right now the coop space looks wretched, but that’s due mostly in part to the cedar grove that was recently harvested. Cedars don’t let other under-story plants establish easily, and even after a spring and fall seeding, we’re still waiting for more breakdown of the tree resins in the soil. The picture above shows that bald spot by the stumps.

Some farms have what they call “sacrifice space” where animals are confined to a smaller paddock to save the greater pasture space beyond. I’ve put my sheep in a smaller pen space this winter, but it’s still managed to keep grass on the ground. I put the sheep in their stalls frequently in winter to prevent erosion in the paddock. I’ve also got enough pasture space to accommodate the sheep, even in winter. Sheep are far less destructive on the soil compared to horses or cattle. It’s food for thought when you are thinking about stock in wet spaces. The larger the animal the heavier the impact on the land. Small stock are light footed, and can move over wet ground without sinking in. In this evergreen environment, smaller is better. I’ve already written about horse impacts on the land in an earlier article, but I will reiterate- western Washington is NOT a horse friendly environment for most of the year.

Another important aspect of having a temperate winter is all the water. Landscapes in Western Washington change dramatically in winter. While there is little snow in the lowlands, frequent flooding and swamped ground abound. A pasture which serves beautifully in summer can turn into a standing lake through the wet winter months. Lazy brooks turn into raging streams, and dirt roads become wallows. Access to certain parts of the farm in winter are blocked off, and will not be solid again till summer. If you own land in the area, take time to study the seasonal changes, mapping wet spots in winter so you don’t end up planting them with intolerant species. Take careful planning in structure placement, choosing the high ground whenever possible.

Where there is no ice, there is mold, and it will spread into your home if you don’t keep the environment dry. My truck sat for a week this winter while I was on a trip. When I got home I discovered a wet blanket had been left in the dog kennel, inviting mildew and the smell of molding cotton in my vehicle. I’m sill blasting the hot air every time I drive around, and the smell is almost gone. Know that temperate wet weather is a thriving environment for pathogens, fungus, and decomposition- and it shows up where you least want it, from leaf mold in the garden, to thrush in livestock’s hooves. Bugs also manage to stay alive and active through the winter here, so keep the compost covered and mind your greenhouse overwintered vegetation. Slugs do go dormant, but scale, flies, and gnats live on, and will infest where they can.

With all the struggles facing us here in Western Washington, I would still pick here above all other places I’ve lived in The US as home. It’s amazing to spend a late December day happily romping on a beach with the pup. I can gaze far off into the distance and see the snow covered peaks of the peninsula and feel such gratitude for our Pacific temperate zone. The Puget Sound Lowland remains green and vibrant, with many winter flowers blooming right along the cost. Even here in the hills, Hazel catkins are coming on, and blackberry buds sprout from entangled briar patches across the landscape. The rain keeps coming, but it brings warmer temperatures, moisture to the soil and good drinks for all the large trees, wetlands, and the fauna within. What a magical place to live and grow!