Organic straw is a major input here at EEC Forest Stewardship. Plant stalks are a great carbon source for soil restoration, many people mulch with it in gardens or on spread it as a cover on recent soil disturbance sites (usually related to construction). But amending human and animal manure compost is its most valuable use at EEC. For the “nigh soil” compost system, the straw provides an amendment of carbon to neutralize the nitrogen high solid waste through breakdown with sawdust in a bin. That wonderful compost is then spread in the hedges along the edge of the property where no edible food touches the ground (orchard and shrubs). This is important to note- human waste can be some of the most toxic, due mostly to prescription drugs and poor diet (lots of preservatives). Heavy metals often accumulate in human waste, and so, the night soil is given a long time (2-3 years) to breakdown before it goes into the hedge.
The sheep get to enjoy straw as bedding, where it mixes passively with sheep poop and pee, creating a rich mesh of compost to be turned into healthy topsoil for native replanting. But when I started putting the straw into the barn stall for the sheep, they went to eating it, rather than sleeping on it, and this was distressing because then they were laying in their muck. I tried putting the straw down while they were enjoying their alfalfa, but they’d still take to it when done with the prime feed, reducing the bedding to less than adequate cover- especially in a deep litter system. I was at a loss, and tried many solutions from stomping all over the fresh straw to moving the girls in circles around the pen until they had stomped all over the straw with mucky feet- and they still nibbled here and there. Then one day, I had put the sheep out and spread the straw in the empty barn. When I brought the sheep in at the end of the day, the straw had been mixed up and moved around evenly across the floor with some old straw enough to keep the sheep from considering it palatable. At first, I was upset with the culprits- yes, my chickens, but then I saw that the bedding was left to do its work, and had been fluffed up, making it extra soft for the sheep to lay in, which they did.
Instead of fighting the bedding, the sheep, and the chickens to get my straw in just right, I let the animals do their natural thing, and find the solution is the problem- my chickens can glean the straw and fluff the bedding before the sheep come in to rest in the afternoon. The bedding does not look pristine, but it’s clean, and the sheep enjoy a good rest while providing great compost for the landscape. Eventually, the forest we’re restoring will have enough biomass to fully root into the ground as they grow- hopefully into old growth giants in generations to come.
Early Spring here at EEC Forest Stewardship are we’re taking a peek into the gardens to see what’s good eating in the lean times of cultivation. Indeed, right before the burst of new growth in the landscape, the last of winter’s grip challenges us to seek out what mother nature has left in the pantry. Special shout out to kale- being the most continually prolific green in our veggie patches in the coldest dark times, through even hot summer bolting- even self-seeding through the seasons to ensure continual productivity and edible leafy goodness. Our Purple Russian verity takes the cake, having sprouted from its self for going on eight years. It’s a sturdy brassica with the most tolerance for slug predation, aphid attack, and general human browsing. Hats off to kale for being the staple of our veggie garden year round.
A close runner up would be our garlic, bulb species that has a modest base in Spring, but lots of them in the ground, with fantastic flavor in the green stalks too. These wonderful perennials will reseed with ease, continuing to spread at will and with thinning, will mature into larger bulbs for a great late summer harvest of garlic heads.
While similar to the garlic, chives are shy in winter’s darkness, disappearing during the cold months, then peeking out again in early spring, like the chervil poking up in the Allium sativum. Chives are also prolific, and help deter many pest species, so I plant it around the edges of my vegetable patches. I’ve also found this herb is best preserved in the freezer, rather than drying it like many other greens. It’s easy to divide up the root ball of this plant when spreading it. I find that larger greens appear when there is ample space for growth, they can rival nodding onion bulbs in size if properly spaced. All of these Allium species produce flowers for pollinator species too, though we usually pinch off the scapes from our garlic to encourage bulb growth in mid-summer. One other species of Allium we’re happy to be propagating in our vegetable patch is Allium cernuum. This wild onion- called “nodding” onion because of it’s unique flower, is a native of Western Washington, and we’re hoping to transplant them into our forest and surrounding edge spaces as it establishes.
Camassia quamash or common camas, is an important eating bulb across the west coast, but many of the once abundant camas fields were demolished when colonial farmers took futile bottom land for pasture and crop production after First Nation’s Peoples were forcibly removed from the landscape. In rural wilderness, you can still find camas fields of purple in early summer, but to find them in Western Washington now, you’d best start planting them in your garden to support re-propagation. One of the most challenging aspects of propagating this native species, is the memory of other native species who are craving this once prolific plant- I’m talking about a lot of insects, which seem to find and enthusiastically devour the supple green shoots of this flowering food before it has a chance to eek out any flowers or seed pods. I’ve tackled slugs with beer traps, but the few camas bulbs I’ve established continue to barely scrape by, and we’re not seeing any successful propagation (as of yet). I’d put this species into a growing plan without expectation of any edible crop, sticking to long term recovery in the landscape as a goal.
A more familiar garden green we’re continuing to cultivate here at EEC year around is Chard. If left in a cold frame overwinter, you’ll continue to have good harvests through the dark cold months, but keep after the plants in late spring or you’ll have bolting to contend with. I’ve started saving seed and planting out new rounds every season to ensure they don’t all bolt before harvest. My other stellar late winter to early spring favorite in the garden is spinach. We have an amazing verity of self-seeding goodness which has continued to spread happily around our vegetable beds through the years and always comes up in the hardest part of winter when we really need fresh greens. It’s pictured below huddled in with the chard, and you might not recognize it as a spinach if you did not know what to look for. The leaves are narrower, and you harvest the whole plant to really enjoy a good serving. This hardy green will leaf out through late May, then bolt when things get hot, but by then, your other veggies will be established and thriving, allowing the spinach to seed out for future fall and winter crops. I love this prolific salad smasher, and appreciate it’s independent growing. I’ve had good success in saving the dry seed from this spinach as well, and hope to spread it into other planted beds as a good cover crop and edible feast.
A less obvious over winter vegetable which is starting to establish in our gardens is collard greens. They were hopping through the winter into early spring and are the first to flower out- even with heavy frost on the ground. I must admit that our general culinary habits have not fully folded these greens into our weekly roundup of salad and stir fry menu, but after watching this plant evolve through the cold season, I’m hoping to save seed for next fall. Note that the cold weather varieties will eventually bolt (flower), often before you’ve got your first crop of typical warm loving salad greens. The best counter to this seasonal shift is planting a rotation of seed through the cool months so that you’ve always got young plants starting. I’m happy to see flowers out before April- it gives our pollinators a great starting food source when they awaken from winter slumber. These flowers make the leafy greens taste bitter, but in time, the flower will become seed for our plantings next fall. I could try for another round of collards now, but other more tasty spring varieties are coming online with the warmer weather, and our greenhouse will soon supply us with tender lettuces we’re all craving by winter’s end.
Neo-liberal capitalism and our cultivated consumer addiction is the root cause- are we ready to reinvent economy, society, and the very human soul? what an adventure! good luck to all!
I am an advocate of globalism, however- it will, in our present consumer mindset, cost us our environment, and ultimately will destroy humanity as a whole- even if only the top most economically wealthy nations continue to drive it. We have to care about the land (environment)- as one human race, not nation states divided by economic lies. Keep buying plastic wrapped individual comforts at the cost of humanity- this is where we are as a people, and yet, most of our actions to remain in “first world” privilege will destroy us and any hope of future civilization. The action to take involves shifting away from unnecessary comfort- to offer a little of our extra, to others in dire poverty.
Tomorrow, if we North Americans went fully electric, and think we’d be stepping away from oil and gas, we’re living in denial. The extraction of finite natural resources is a race towards death- but within one or two more human lifetimes, the generations will continue sustain this consumption, and continue to literally dominate in the top wealthiest nations- even during a pandemic. Look at our handeling of vaccine technology- let alone the shots themselves. While “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” vaccinates and brags about stockpiling, many nations with much higher vulnerability to COVID-19, are ignored and shunned- “shit hole countries” we are happy to defend when it’s politically convinent, and just as happily ignore when we are cutting to the head of the line in pure entitlement delusion. Are we ready to give up driving? Flying? -whenever we feel like it? Transportation could be solved quite easily, if we-the-privileged-people were willing to let go of impulsive independence. We have to see our environment as our survival. It also means we have to start making sacrifices, mostly of a spiritual nature right now. We have to mourn- not just the loss of life in a recent pandemic, but in the loss of our quality of life, and the ultimate degradation of our natural world, which the future generations will inherit. Our water and air are not safe, and the worst way we perpetuate this pollution is to continue living in overabundance, without thought or care.
If you think you are taking enough time on this reflection, you’re not- none of us are, because we are still living the same way (single serving relentless consumption). Our consumer needs drive the destruction of our species. Oh wait- we’re jumping in the car to drive somewhere- several times, every day. When this is the expectation globally, our air will be toxic to breath. We can’t have it both ways in the current systems of human civilization. Our consumer culture will kill us. Stop and think, soul search, and ask what you should do. It’s not just economic, but also sociological. There is more disparity today, than ever before, and more and more people are being born into horrid living conditions. Let’s support our convenience at the cost of our world as a whole. Living in this continued denial, and fatal disconnect is optional for those of us who can sit in front of a screen like this.
Top 5 changes privileged people can make right now-
1. stop daily driving and fly as little as possible
Along with these challenging changes, work on your mindset- recognize that the current global economic system is broken and look at new ideas for global governance, the UN is a start, but not the perfect solution. We do have to work with all people, how are you working to open your understanding of world scale? What does “think global, act local” mean? How deeply political are you- beyond watching shows about current issues? Are you privileged enough to “walk away” from consumption habits? Are you aware of what those habits are, and how you condone them through your purchases? Since money is the game, how do you pay it? For me personally, living lightly within a landscape slated to return to nature is my way of halting the madness in one lifetime. It is such a privilege to do this, owning land, having financial stability, yet even this is a moment in time, with much unknown yet to come. If there is one thing humanity has to come to terms with, it’s change- may we all put the best foot forward, wherever the path takes us. Please remember, we’re all on the road together, no matter our destination.
The other day while giving a farm tour, a good friend asked me how I name the sheep and then eat them. It’s a great question, and one that opens a door many fear to go through, mostly, for ethical reasons. We do not talk about ethics that often, which seems a real loss to the overall development of humanity. So, I’d like to take a moment now to address the above question, and delve into the ethics of food and farming here at EEC Forest Stewardship. This is my own interpretation of both my friend’s question, and an approach to raising livestock. I do not think this is the right or wrong answer, as though there are only two sides to any subject, but one of many ways to strive for better consumption awareness and action. Other opinions might strive for vegetarianism, as though the plant world and fossil fuel cartel running industrial agriculture are not still deeply attached to vegetable production and harmful pollution. But the real crux of my friend’s question, the ethical debate we often face, but do not want to address, is taking life to sustain our own.
We have to consume for survival. In this modern age, the military industrial complex runs our survival through economy, and those participating in the dominion over resources (financial service industry nations), adjusted to this routine frighteningly well, but the planet cannot support this structure for mankind globally. Until we’re ready to embrace new ideas about survival, playing within the confines of the current system’s legal framework seems a nessesity. Here at EEC, there is a great amount of privilege, offering alternative living for those who can. Within The US, economic disparities in food availability and affordability runs rampant, and because of Neo-liberal capitalism, the entire food web as we perceive it has been in tropic cascade. The cost of industrial food (the only way to sustain our world population and perpetuate it in it’s current form) remains hidden to most consumers. The world pays in agricultural subsidies, ecological collapse, and poor health due to eating food preserved with countless artificial additives. But when we’re faced with confronting our dietary habits, most of us don’t get past the whole meat vs vegetable debate.
(Below is a side by side of cattle feed lot and palm oil plantation)
Industrial meat is bad, and most commercial livestock production destroys the environment, the animals used in this production, and the workers (usually economically trapped) perpetuating it. Choosing to avoid industrial meat is a good step in wanting to help change the way food is produced, but avoiding meat all together still perpetuates industrial farming- soy, palm oil, corn, and sugar cane are just as destructive in their own way- it’s about economy, as I’ve stated earlier. Humans are designed to eat a wider variety of foods- and we should, we can, if we steward that food in a good way, with mindfulness. You are what you eat- and some are privileged enough to have access to mindful food- produced locally, organically, and whatever other ethical tag you’d like to put on it. But, it’s still only accessible to a few, and would not produce enough to feed the world- hence industrial ag- and there’s no way around it, unless we actively stop breeding like rabbits, or all start producing food. Mother nature is already stepping in with her plan, and it’s tragic for many. However, the current population consumes too much for Earth to support in our current state of evolution, so nature corrects.
At EEC Forest Stewardship, we are making our own correction to help restore balance. I am not reproducing- no future generation of consumer. That’s the greatest footprint you can leave as a privileged person, at this time on Earth. If you are craving kids- foster or adopt, and I know, that also takes a lot of privilege, but there are countless children in need of a good home. Source as much food as you can from local, small growers. When you do buy something at a box store- choose organic whenever possible. Choose to eat meat that is locally sourced from humane situations. Though EEC is not Humane Certified or USDA Organic (we are too small to afford such certifications) we follow standards of care for animals (domestic and wild), the environment, and people living here. We do not use any chemicals on our land and our animals are fed USDA organic feeds produced within our state. Our advertising is word of mouth, and farm tours are offered whenever possible.
Part of “standard of care” is relating and connecting with our animals. This is where naming comes in. The chickens do not respond or relate to their names, so we don’t name many, but the sheep do know their names, and it helps when working with them. Naming our food also helps keep track of the generations by using a different letter of the alphabet for each year’s lambs. Some farmers name their animals more abstractly, like “Thanksgiving” for a Turkey, or “Easter” for a lamb. Other livestock producers keep to numbers (usually ear tags), which seems a little too industrial for me. I name the sheep because they are beings with personality. At the same time, I do not think of these animals as pets, and do not cuddle and snuggle with them. Instead, I let the animals live as a herd- grazing in the fields and napping in the lovely dry barn we built for them. They are well fed, protected from predators, and together in an extended family unit. We strive to mimic wild ungulate action on the land and in the lives of the sheep.
These sheep have a great life on pasture together, and then experience one bad day before heading into the freezer to sustain our lives for the better. When I kill an animal for food on this land, I thank it for all its work, recognizing that I will sustain myself from its life, and that one day, my body will sustain the grasses and plants which will feed future generations. We are all connected, and the plants are just as alive and aware of their existence, though without fluffy faces we can relate to. Many people rank the importance of one species over another, and as a humanist, I would defiantly choose to save a person over a plant if it was momentary life or death, but in recognizing that one cannot live without the other, how am I to rank value? The plant, if living within an intact ecosystem, can survive without any outside inputs, and provides structure for a diversity of other species it co-exists with. Humans rarely do the same, and therefore, if we rank by productivity and sustainability, people are at the bottom of the list.
When humans are following their original instructions as stewards of the landscape they are deeply a part of, they tend to thrive and develop hand in hand with the nature they rely on. But in a world of scare resources due to over-consumption, and a push towards apocalyptic pulp fantasy with guns blazing, it’s hard to see a future of thriving humanity. Intact “native” living is often romanticized by privileged “developed” populations as garden of Eden situations. But nature is not all abundance and pleasure, she is often brutal, harsh, and demanding, which is why man has set himself against her and fixates on transcending Earthly form for yet another romanticized place like heaven. We have caste off our attachment to nature, cementing her down, and building palaces of opulent wealth upon her chest. Industry desperately digs into her body and continually takes from her for profit and power. I’d like to reflect on this abuse of life- all life. This is the root cause of suffering in our world today, and makes Mother Nature really look like a story book in comparison.
The rosy glasses are easy to look through when we become distracted by the naming. I don’t name my food to make it like me, nor do I shy away from relating to it by calling it something removed from my world view. I just want to remember each animal- and some do get names like “Freckles” or “Stripe”, which sound more pet like. For me, naming the animals is a simple way to track them, and I love getting to come up with new names each Spring. Our first two lambs born in 2021 were ewes, and I named them “Madonna” for the Arles Black Madonna (and the singer) and “Mariah Carry” for the singer. Their Mother, “Ubah Hassan” named after the Canadian-Somalian model, had a pair of boys last year which I named “Lenny Kravits” and “Louis Armstrong”, so I’m following my own tune- so to speak, with entertainment names. If you have not already picked up on the alphabetical track- 2020 was “L” names and 2021 is “M”. One gal last year came out with a swirl on her nose and I called her “Lickity Split”. I do not look at my sheep and feel any guilt for what’s coming. I look at how they are thriving on the land, adding long term fertility for the ecosystem, and keeping my dollar purchasing out of the industrial meat market. Thank you livestock!
We’ve got a new face in the flock here at EEC Forest Stewardship. “King” is a 2018 born St. Croix ram from Yelm WA. What?!- not a Katahdin? Well, the Katahdin breed came out of St. Croix genetics, so reintroducing them to our flock through this ram for a few years is a fresh boost of genetics to reaffirm certain standards we’re going for. King is still a hair breed sheep- meaning he sheds each Spring. He’s also naturally poled, like the ladies- we avoid horns for safety. Though I did embrace it with my goats, I’ve begun to shy away from such risks as I am usually handling my animals alone, and don’t want another potential hazard if I can help it. I’m not a fan of disbudding or docking– which seems counter productive to good old domestic selection. Luckily for me- the Katahdin and St. Corix are both naturally poled (no horns) and have tails which do not need docking. They are also naturally resistant to parasites and hoof rot. These are all great characteristics of a domestic livestock breed.
King is showing great promise in another stellar feature of La Corix sheep- he’s got a chill attitude. Just watch how he handles hanging out with our Kangal (Anatolian Shepherd) Gill for the first time. Many sheep would panic and seeing such a large carnivore at their heels, but King takes it in stride, though he’s never been with an LGD before in his life. It’s amazing how quickly their instincts arrived at a mutual agreement to live and let live- at least for now. It is not recommended to introduce rams to young pups- in fact, it’s recommended that Anatolians not begin working with livestock directly until they are two years of age. If a pup gets introduced too early, he’s libel to rough house with the sheep, and potentially get killed by a ram who will not tolerate harassment of his harem. Timing is crucial with any introduction, and livestock are no exception. I’ve learned over the years to take new relationship building on the farm very seriously, especially inter-species socializing.
When King arrived Saturday afternoon, I started by putting a thick collar on him for safe handling, and then tested a tether right outside the house where I could keep an eye on him. Gill was alert barking from the barn down below, seeing a new animal on the land and showing good concern for the new animal. King has never been tethered before, but stood patiently, enjoying his fresh grass pasture and paying no mind to the barking. He was hesitant with my approaches, but I brought some treats and did not pressure him into an encounter, I let him come to me, sniff, lick, then allowed him to back away and return to grazing. Every time I engage with the ram, I remain facing him, use his name, remain respectful of his body language (when he backs away, I keep my distance to respect his space). Gill offered the same respect, and when he did start to come too close, King stamped his foot and lowered his head, sending Gill away. It was amazing to watch these two species pick up on each other immediately.
The introduction to Gill came on day three. Day two, King was invited into the barn, to his own small enclosure, to meet the ewes and Gill behind a safe fence. He was calm and curious, bright eyed and brilliant. The ladies sniffed and cooed over this new stud, and he was eager to meet and greet through the fence. Gill was relaxed and happy to be in his den, and got a good smell of King when he came in to know it was just another sheep in the herd. After a successful two nights of pen acclimation, we put King out with Gill on his tether with supervision. The ewes were let out on the other side of the fence, and you can hear the bell ringing nearby in the video above. Gill checked the area and hung out with King for a bit, then went about his business making the rounds of his territory while King enjoyed some Douglas Fir branch tips. St. Croix are browsers, like Katahdin. Yet another quality we’re selecting for here at EEC. Blackberry is not grass, so we need animals that like shrubs as well as grass. Most wool sheep are strictly grazers, so they would not take out blackberry on this farm- and we’d have to shear each spring.
These are still early days of introduction, but I have confidence in the characteristics of these breeds and what they are selected for- ease of handling, multi-purpose, and resiliency. King will most likely become more protective of the ewes when he is in rut, which is just the nature of breeding. When working with any ram, you have to remain vigilant. Rams got their name for the physical action of ramming others. It is a grave mistake to turn your back on a ram, even a gentle one, as they could intellectually charge for any number of reasons. By remaining face to face with the animal you are telling it that you are aware of his presence, and respectful of his “majesty”. In return, the ram will form trust with you, and be more at ease. I’m sure King will teach me many more lessons. He’s been a pleasure to work with so far, and I look forward to getting to know his personality and behavior with the ewes later this summer. For now, as a precaution, he’s being kept separate from the ewes who are still heavily pregnant and would not welcome a love sick ram on their backs. Stay tuned for lambing updates, and ram work ahead.
Towards the end of winter, the larder is emptying out, and many of the more adventuresome food stuffs are eagerly awaiting my culinary experimentation. Organ meats can be fun, but I think my favorite challenge this year has been a fungal friend. Laetiporus sulphureus is a wood eating mushroom, and in The Pacific Northwest, it prefers evergreen trees. The taste of spruce was certainly present in this mushroom, even through it’s texture was more like chicken. I wrote a blog last fall about processing and storing the “chicken”- cook the mushroom before freezing if you can’t eat it all in the moment. Often, you come upon many pounds of this species when it is fruiting.
Reaching into the freezer, I pulled out a gallon bag of the sauteed CotW to thaw out for a tasty winter meal. I had planned to pulverize the mushroom into a soup, and began cooking the fungus down in a large pot. Then I took my hand mixer and began transforming the fruit into mush. The “meat” mashed right up, but rendered into a mousse like consistency. I added a bit of milk, hoping to “soup up” the sauce. Instead- I began to have the feeling I was stirring a batter. The pancake inspiration came, so I added a few eggs. The seasoning already on the mushrooms was garlic and herb, so I pictured savory latkes. Because these fungal fruits had fed off an evergreen log, they had that slightly bitter taste of pine tree, so I knew I had to put a little more salt and oil in to cut that taste. Onion was also a great addition, though I used flakes to save time. I will caramelize some first before adding next time.
The cast-iron pan was hot, and I used some fantastic bacon grease to round out my savory pancake flavor. By now, I had enough mix to make a flock of cakes, so I planned to refreeze some for later. The consistency and flavor of my new food was fantastic! What a great way to offer up mushrooms. My partner loved them with our dinner, and the next day I shared leftovers with another friend who also gave high praise. A few weeks later I took out another batch of Chicken of the Woods and repeated the recipe- this time I left out the milk completely, and added less oil. The cakes were even more light and fluffy, and still held their meaty flavor. I still left out the caramelized onions, so I know batch number three will be the best so far. There’s still another gallon bag in the freezer for continued experimentation. I love the amazing diversity of mushrooms, how they are a food group, and what wonderful fungus flavors I have yet to discover.
The recipes out there are endless- here’s one from a guy I’m a big fan of in the fungal family. Paul Stamets is the Pacific Northwest mushroom expert, and I appreciate the way he approaches mushroom learning. Note his advice about potential gastric intestine discomfort, which can come from under-cooking your mushrooms. There’s a lot to learn about identifying, harvesting, and cooking up mushrooms. In this blog, I try to stick to the safe species that are found locally in my area, but please, if you are new to mushrooming, please take a class and make sure you forage with someone who knows mushrooms well in your area. What I am sharing relates to Chicken of the Woods from Western Washington. There are eastern verities which look very similar, but might have very different properties. Mushrooming is a great adventure, please remain safe and do not explore the pallet of fungus without expert guidance, many species can make you very sick, and some might even kill you. Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, we love sharing our mushroom experiences and introduce our readers to new species, but this blog is not a mushroom teaching tool so much as an inspiration. Please be excited about mushrooms, learning about them, foraging, and, with the right mentoring- eating some of the most delicious, well kept secrets of the woods.
The weather has been wild and wintry this weekend. We had over 12″ of snow in a two day period, which required some roof shoveling and a lot of snow day enjoyment. We even had time to build a snow man or two. The sheep stayed tucked away in the barn with plenty of hay and water. Breaking ice out of water buckets was a constant task too- for the temperatures dropped into the 20s. But the snow was beautiful- soft, light powder- something we rarely see in these parts. Though this snow is “rare”, it will continue to grow in frequency for us, as the climate continues to shift. We’ve planned accordingly, building all new structures on the land with metal pitched roofs to shed the snow readily, so we won’t have to shovel them. The success of this design is evident in the picture below. While the double cabin roof is self-clearing, the house roof further up the hill, with little to no slant asphalt shingles, was hand shoveled by my devoted partner before we got another 3″.
This is the future of winter weather in The Cascadian Foothills. There’s an old homestead (over 100 years) near me, with the original farmhouse. It’s age is evident in the small, multi-pained windows, and very slanted roof pitch. Though historic in settlement, recent renovations of the dwelling added french doors off the mudroom, giving the early American settler image a tragic garage addition feel. One could transcend the nature of the refurbishment and recognize the complete destruction of forest and wetland thanks to colonialism. But I digress. The highly sloped roof is a reminder that about a century ago, it was much cooler in The Pacific Northwest. Heavy snow was a given in the winter time, and the build of this homestead reflects the winters that are starting to return.
The snow is a wonderful gift to our region, despite causing disruption of normal routine. It’s insulating coverage of young bulbs helps to encourage their survival and successful flowering later this Spring. Slow melt means slow, deep watering for the landscape, something our increasingly hard rains abate. In future, we’ll be grateful for more snow as a protector against Summer drought. We’ll also get more rain, but in a sheeting off the land sort of deluge- causing more erosion and less replenishment of our aquifers. These more extrema environmental changes are happening all around the world, so stay tuned! In another 50 years, Cascadia could be heading back into another Ice Age. However, the pendulum keeps swinging us into much hotter, more extended summers, so I don’t see the cool arctic air winning in the end.
Within the next few decades, there will be a continued threat of both horrific earthquakes, volcanic eruption, and fire. Drought already stalks our water table, along with more wells being drilled for private home development, and the clear-cutting of forest, which removes the protection of topsoil on our hillsides. This fertility loss is happening across the nation and around the world. Snow gives us an opportunity to slow some of that erosion and get an aquifer recharge. Shade from forest can also prolong snow on the ground. The pile formed behind our barn did not finish melting away for over three weeks. Part of that miraculous length of ice cold was supported by shade being thrown from a southern grove of Western Red Cedars. Life’s web of intricacies goes far beyond any human developed system of land management- that word, management- is part of the issue. We want to control, rather than cooperate with nature- steward what’s already in place, rather than augmenting it to perpetuate world consumption at an unsustainable rate. This shortsightedness has led to breakdown across the natural world, and humans are deeply reliant on these systems to survive.
Our best response to these changing times it to restore as much natural habitat as we can, stewarding place with the understanding that our lifetime is only one of many to come, and to have those future generations, we have to have a thriving environment for all to live. It’s such a simple concept, yet the balance has already tipped so far, we have a great shift in the opposite direction to look forward to- and severe weather is a herald of difficult times. While we experienced a few hours without power, other parts of our country experiencing this same cold front were left in dire straights for weeks. Many people, Americans, froze to death in their homes. Power grids failed, potable water was compromised, and many towns and cities found themselves stranded in what some called a living hell- especially when they received that month’s power bill. The weather extremes will continue to directly effect economy, as well as ecology.
After the snow subsided, we received thick coatings of ice across the landscape. This sudden refreeze can greatly affect budding shrubs and trees, not buried under the great snow insulation. The pear tree above is completely encased in ice, and this image will become a common occurrence, into Spring. With that, our increasing hail storms, bringing pea sized ice pellets to the ground- often covering the land in a strange white blanket of frozen grit. These weather events will also stray into Spring flower season, harming our ultimate fruit production and orchard health, no to mention the wild species that flower early in the season. Our native Anise humming bird, which overwinters in Western Washington thanks to human feeding over the decades, relies heavily on this species flowering in early Spring, along with Big Leaf Maple, which offers bees their first crop of honey. Hail will bruise and batter the flowers, knocking off petals and crushing delicate stamens. If the storm comes in Summer, your fruit will be bruised and perish sooner on the tree. EEC Forest Stewardship is planting a lot of fruit and nut trees on the land. The weather may put these cultivar species out of service, or at least render them less productive. Though are ultimate plan is to reforest the property in native growth, fruit and nut trees are still mixed in for human enjoyment and survival- should the grocery store shelves go empty during a cataclysmic disruption.
Being mindful of our location in foothills, with The Pacific Ocean not far, the arctic just a Canadian Provence away, and climate change continuing to rev up, EEC will keep evolving to pair well with the seasonal swings. Ice and Snow, drought and fire, wind and hail, all these elemental shifts give our environment crucial signals of adaptation. As a whole, our species is incredibly adaptable to environmental change, as so, people will survive the big shifts. But as nations and cities, we will have to redesign entire infrastructure, and at least here in America, we are refusing to see the writing on the wall. Even with the extinction of fossil fuel, our demand for a stable grid with 24 hour electrical consumption at extreme levels will topple- in a day, week, or even months, but more like brown-outs rolling into black-outs, seasonally, like Texas in the winter of 2021. Grids will come back online, only to be lost again in another extreme weather event yet to come. Through this slow destabilization, humanity will be forced to reckon with its limitations, and plan within the finite resources of Earth.
On a small acreage here in Western Washington, we are privileged to heat our home with wood, hold deed to property with a spring fed creek and recovering forest, with livestock, adequate shelter, and enough food production to give minimal support in chaotic times. Every small piece of the survival puzzle you can be aware of helps. Even recognizing the weak points in your basic survival needs can prepare you for when they fail- if you already have time and resources to devote in this thinking and planning- many more people do not- as they are already just barely getting by. We played in the snow, enjoyed the work, and knew it was a short lived weather event. Gratitude to this land for keeping us warm, fed, watered, and stewarding. Appriciation to weather for continuing change in our day to day lives and offering subtle, and not so subtle hints about our evolutionary process and adaptation.
It’s time to flip soil in the gardens to get ready for spring planting. I’ve already set up a cold frame and planted arugula, cabbage, beets, chard, and a few wild flowers. Spinach is up, and our kale, chard, and borage overwintered nicely. I’ve found some delightful potatoes, and the rhubarb is already unfurling small leaves. All the seasonal bulbs are poking up out of slightly warmed soil, but we won’t see them flowering for another couple of months. Though we’re in the middle of winter on the calendar, here in the temperate rain-forest, warmer Pacific fronts dominate the region, preventing long hard frosts from setting in. Snow is in the forecast, but a cold frame in early February is usually enough protection for cool weather crops. We’ll also be getting the greenhouse back online- as I’ve been missing the abundance of a well tended vegetable patch.
After several years of experimenting with the zone one gardens, I’m making some major changes. The classic consequence of having so much space around the buildings to plant brings too much tending time. Weeding is out of control- especially when morning glory established its self. However, the rich composted soil these larger spaces have cultivated are perfect for some larger shrub species, and some root stalk roses I planted a few years ago are now establishing bush like structure, and I’ve stool and layered them, shaping the future hedge, which will protect the gardens from chickens. After tearing out all the old chicken fencing- which had been slow buried over time as more compost entered the garden, the chickens came right in to help glean and clean the soil. It made a mess of walkways and the driveway, but denuded the soil of harmful bugs. I would not encourage the chickens to be in the food gardens during the growing season because of fecal contamination issues.
With all the fertility mounting in our garden, a lot had spilled out, onto the driveway, which surrounds the house and cultivation space. I took a 4 pronged pitch fork and slipped it right under the sod, pulling up the layer of turf, then flipping it up into the hedge layered roses to form a planting bank. I then shoveled up the underlying soil, piling it on top of the sod and roses, revealing the driveway and cutting a satisfying edge around the gardens. I’m planning to establish thimble berry in the bank pictured above. Further back along the edge, you can see the roses and continued bank of turned turf. I will be covering the turf mounds with an organic, slow decomposition, weed cover sheet, which will prevent the grass from re-establishing. The plan is to plant squash into it later this summer.
Mulching is a big payoff in our cultivated spaces around zone 1. Cardboard is the best material for this practice, especially if you are establishing trees and shrubs- as the plantings will establish within a few years, shading out the weeds. Some species, such as lavender, cannot fight off the turf encroachment, and must be mulched every few years, along with diligent hand weeding during the growing season. Hopefully, once the twin berry and crabapple establish, these lavenders will be large enough to hold thier own. This area pictured below is also a compost location (black box with yellow lid), and we’re slowly building up this mound to create another hedge. Banking the fertility- literally, gives all these perennial species a head start on developing healthy root systems in a collective effort. Companion planting is a great way to bring diversity into your gardens, invite the complex system of plant neighborhoods to thrive, and reduces the need for human management.
Vegetable gardens demand a lot of sunlight and watering. Then you’re contending with a lot of weeds. It’s a big part of my personal struggle with gardening on a large scale- there’s no over-story. Without shade, all the bramble species and grasses fight to get a foothold, as this environment is usually temperate rain-forest canopy, which does not allow the weeds and other invasive to take root. With an intact forest, you’re not going to cultivate carrots and squash, so a cleared patch is maintained, and a never ending fight with nature persists. Sure, we could put everything into raised container beds, requiring more water and tending in other ways. The bottom line is- gardening will always require a lot of work and inputs to remain productive. It’s a luxury, and not the main mission of EEC, but veggies are nice, and self sufficiency, even partial sufficiency, feels compelling. We’re also eager to demonstrate alternative cultivation practices. Since gardening is a gateway to land stewardship- EEC will keep hosting gardens, as well as forest restoration.
Building good topsoil takes thousands of years in a non-human altered environment. Watching the fertility building in these gardens over the years gives me hope that the land can heal and regenerate faster with holistic help. Our original human instructions are to tend the landscape- assisting in regeneration and expansion of health in the ecosystem, which in turn, feeds and nurtures us. How did humankind drift so far away from this mantle of responsibility for the environment? That’s a story for another day. For now, we’ll keep tending the soil, forest, water, and life here at EEC Forest Stewardship. Look for more garden updates in Spring, as we’ll be checking in on the cold frame plantings and getting more seed in the ground.
Here at EEC Forest Stewardship we spend a lot of time and energy restoring the landscape. This action takes many forms, but the most recognizable and immediate solution is replanting. In our forest, there are a lot of neglected edges, which have been the focus of restoration projects. Our stream buffer along Weiss Creek is one example (pictured above), replanted with native varieties in 2020. In a temperate rain forest environment, covering soil surface with layers of vegetation is imperative to prevent topsoil erosion and landscape degradation through nutrient loss. Often people thing putting a lawn down is enough, but in a place with heavy rains and sloping hills, grass doesn’t cut it. “Lawnscape” also invites invasives like blackberry to come in, which is actually another way nature is trying to heal the soil surface, but blackberry makes it harder for other over-story species to take root.
Blackberry grows into head height surface cover, protecting the soil and preventing erosion. Old cane dies back each year, providing a great soil amendment to enrich the topsoil with carbon through the organic breakdown of plant material. When I cut back blackberry, I find a dark fluffy debris pile under the plant- ideal for planting into with native growth- provided I keep the blackberry at bay until the new trees and shrubs establish. Once the canopy returns, blackberry retreats due to the lack of sunlight. Many of the pasture spaces at EEC were overridden by bramble when we arrived, and we used goats for several years to cull back the canes. Now that the blackberry is manageable, we’re planting the landscape quickly, encouraging that new over-story to take shape.
Some of our plantings still live along side blackberry, but eventually, the trees will overtake the forest floor and provide a new habitat of more stable vegetation, also inviting diversity in new species to regenerate the land. Our introduction of Garry Oak (pictured above) will provide drought tolerance to the forest, something to start planning for as the climate shifts. While our water dependent hemlocks continue to die back as summers get hotter, the oaks will thrive in the more extreme temperatures, and provide acorns for wildlife and people. We’ve also mixed in big leaf maple and hazel to provide great leaf mulch to amend the oak’s tannin, and a better diversity of deciduous trees for the forest. Eventually, evergreens will be planted in, after the other established native growth overshadows the sun loving oaks.
This succession planning allows us to evolve our restoration methods with the regenerating forest on a more natural timeline. EEC Forest is currently farming focused, with a need for pastures, fruit and nut trees, and sunny places for people to enjoy. In another 60 years, the older trees will tower over this modest acreage, blocking out the light that many of these cultivar species rely on to survive. By then, there will be enough fertility on the ground to provide good foundation for more evergreen plantings, which will be introduced after the oaks and maples get in a good run. However, if climate continued to fluctuate, the evergreens may struggle to remain drought resistant and die off like the hemlocks. Then we’ll be very glad we implemented a wave of oak and other nut trees which can handle the dryer conditions.
Our back 40 already had a small grove of hybridized chestnut varieties established and thriving. They are pictured above, with our other major fertility contributor to the land- sheep. Because of all the topsoil erosion which followed two major logging operations over the past 100 years, the current soil cannot provide enough stability, or fertility to a developing evergreen forest. Teenage Douglas Fir trees take up HUGE amounts of nutrients from the soil. In it’s current state, our land could not support the trees through this development into old growth forest. To speed up the restoration of soil fertility, we’ve implemented animal systems to mimic the original elk and deer populations which would have been contributing manure and under-story vegetation management. Here’s the scoop on sheep poop.
The nut trees are an in between species, a luxury food for our farming production, and great deciduous trees, which will put a lot of great leafy debris into the soil with the sheep poop to offer complete nutrients into the growth cycle for future biomass. To be clear, all these systems are based on a well managed holistic plan that involves moving the animals around in concentrated grazing cycles in line with pasture recovery and improvement. The sheep are not allowed to graze as they please all across the land. They are stationed in moving pastures for short periods of time so that the landscape can rest and regenerate before another round of grazing comes through.
Our other major player in regeneration through animal systems is the birds. Chickens and sheep go hand in hand. Sheep graze the grass and poop nutrition across the landscape. Chickens follow behind gleaning pest insects out of the manure and also put down more fertility with their own fecal contribution. There is also a collection of poop out of the coop, which is folded into gardens and into reforestation planting to give trees and shrubs a concentrated boost in fertility from the moment the roots take hold. Our hens cannot get to the back field, but the sheep are not in the back field for extended periods of time, allowing longer recovery and proper manure breakdown before more grazing commences. If you don’t rest your fields between grazing, your land will not have a chance to recover this is why so many fields end up destroyed by overgrazing. A detailed calendar for grazing in western Washington can be found here.
If we had to remove all our animals tomorrow, the recovery of the land would continue, though at a slower rate. What you choose to plant on the land will have a lasting effect on restoration and recovery in your bio-region. If we simply put in nothing but evergreen trees at EEC, the lack of diversity would cause stagnation in forest growth. By layering the plantings with under-story, as well as over-story vegetation, we are regenerating the intact nature of our temperate rain-forest by providing all the species specific contributions in complex ecosystems. But if you are not wanting to return your landscape to a climaxed old growth forest, there are still ways to enhance and regenerate the land, especially along your edges.
At EEC Forest Stewardship, there are some areas of our landscape which will continue to provide open space for an orchard and gardening, near the living space, where people spend most of their time. Along the edges of these areas, blackberry pushes to take advantage of open sun spots, and rather than fighting the bramble in an endless battle, we decided to put up a wall. We started with a physical boundary built from pallets, which also keeps out the deer who want to eat our crops. We then established a hedgerow of native species. After five years of slow going, we are finally seeing the results of our hedge beginning to take shape. In the winter of 2021, we will lay this hedge over for the first time, constructing a living wall which will continue to thicken and diversify along our edges. Edge space is a transition zone, usually teaming with more life and diversity of vegetation because of its in between state.
This edge on our eastern property boundary, gets great morning and early afternoon sun, plunging into shade by late afternoon, thus staying cooler during the hot summer, and allowing more sensitive plants like ferns to have a chance at reestablishing. We’ve put a mix of under-story plants like elderberry and day lily along with trees like river birch and red alder in- though these trees will be pleachered to discourage vertical growth. If the trees grow up, they block out the sun for many of the edge species, which utilize both sun and shade to thrive. Maintaining this balance, while regenerating a diversity of plant growth, enriches the landscape and maintains the boundary while producing a verity of fruits and flowers for people and wildlife.
Biomass is the main key to regenerating a landscape. Topsoil takes a long time to form on its own. By layering woody debris and livestock bedding with nitrogen rich dung (mostly made up of pulverized and digested plant matter), we invigorate the degraded soil quality with organic inputs. There are many ways to do this, but the absolute key in any composting mix is carbon. If you take fresh “hot” manure, and dump it in concentration (aka- years of muck from your horse barn/chicken coop) right onto the living soil, you’ll kill the biology with too much nitrogen. This is common practice in industrial farming, though they use chemical fertilizers, which then run off into wild water sources, polluting drinking water across the world.
Woody debris, such as tree clippings, aged wood chips, and fallen branches create great carbon sources for compost. At EEC, we commonly pile large branches, then cover them with livestock bedding- a mix of straw (more carbon) and manure (hot nitrogen), and cap that with cardboard (more carbon). The wood pulp of the boxes keeps water off the hot nitrogen, which will have time to slowly compost in with the branches in rich breakdown of nutrients for the soil over time. In the picture above, we are piling biomass for more than just compost- the red cedar is free standing in an active living space, and food production zone. Before our stewardship began here, the area was lawn. The cedar’s roots were exposed at the surface around the base of the tree where active foot paths, and a lack of any forest debris could collect. In time, the roots would be damaged, causing failure and inevitable dye back of the tree’s root system. We’re rolling out a protective carpet for this cedar, while tending the foot paths, and allowing a cushion of topsoil to return.
Whatever steps you can take to help regenerate the landscape around you is good. If you don’t have a forest, but want to learn more about how to regenerate the living world where you are, start by learning about your bio region and what kind of plants and animals tend that space already. If you’re in a cement jungle, and/or don’t have a lot of time for stewarding land, tend a house plant, and learn about keeping a “micro-biome” alive. Having close contact with soil and plants, as well as animals, invites us to better connect with our own living environment. We notice more about living systems, health, and general quality of life. When we ignore life, it tends to disapear- and that’s what’s happening to our planet’s living systems, right now. Please look to landscapes that are left, and try to support them with your time and energy. Restoration is possible, but it takes active participation for all people who share this rare and precious place.
For years now, we’ve been working hard here at EEC Forest Stewardship to restore a buffer of dense, native forest around our salmonid stream. It’s the largest investment in restoration on the land so far, including many days of hard work fencing to keep livestock out. Even with six foot woven wire field fence, we can’t keep every threat at bay. Last week, I noticed soap suds in the water. Earlier that day I had also seen a neighbor washing her car in her front driveway, near the headwaters of our creek. There were too many suds in the water to have come from just the car washing, and after a chat with county water experts, we decided to take a sample to find out what’s in the water.
My concern was the volume of soap running in the stream. I’ve seen suds once in a while during major runoff periods, but nothing like this on a normal flow day. The most likely culprit- inappropriate tie in of laundry facilities too close to the stream. It’s one of the most common hazards to wild water in our county. So much bad runoff like this occurs, that the county will not make an official report until summer, during the driest period of the year, when there is little runoff to track from the creek back to the source. My local water ecologist said it was not enough runoff to address with legal action, but what about a formal site visit to fix the runoff? Nope, not without serious concern. It was hard to hear this, knowing more laundry would be draining into Weiss Creek.
Mindful design can prevent this pollution, but people often overlook ecological sensitivity when developing. Here in Western Washington, water is abundant, on the surface, and reflects the health of our ecosystem in plain, often painful sight. In Puget Sound, where this creek water will eventually end its journey to the sea, orcas are going extinct, wild salmon populations have crashed, and shellfish regularly test positive for methamphetamines because of the high concentration of sewage overflow into wild waters. Last month, we had major flooding in our county, and millions of tons of sewage poured into Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Local beaches were closed, and shellfish harvesting put on hold, actually, it was already on hold because of toxic algae blooms that have started happening in winter as well as summer due to warming ocean currents in The Pacific. People, it’s getting bad, and our pollution has been expanding, along with population.
What can we do? Be aware- of the limits our ecosystem can endure. Think about where your water is going after it disappears down the drain, or down the street. One huge action you can take right now? Stop buying toxic soaps and cleaners. I get sick walking down a cleaning isle in the supermarket- the smell of highly concentrated chemical compounds is noxious. Why these chemical agents are still legal is beyond me. Since we live on a septic system here at EEC, all products must be biodegradable. We do have a couple of grey water catchment systems- with limited use, and discharge stations into properly engineered catchment basins with sand and gravel filtration. They are also set back far away from any major water sources, from our well to the creek.
There is soap in our wild water at EEC right now, because someone is operating laundry facilities right next to the creek, with no awareness of ground saturation. The runoff is minimal right now, but over time, will lead to alterations in the creek’s chemistry, affecting our endangered fresh water muscles, salmon, trout, and any other living cells which rely on clean water to survive. This single laundry source will not kill off everything, but it’s the first of many to be found along this water’s path to the ocean. By the time this water reaches Puget Sound, its got a long list of possible pollutants which can be found here. Needless too say, our small part in keeping toxins out of wild water makes a difference. Hopefully, this sudsy mess clears up, but until the laundry being run upstream moves away from the creek, these bubble troubles will continue to persist.