More thoughts on the Back to Eden project (part 2)

I tend to farm the way I posted my thoughts in part 1. I meant to write an overview but got distracted by the details of the strawberries. It is who I am. I’ll try this again.

Young Provider Green Beans

Young Provider Green Beans in a Back to Eden Garden

Rototill the garden in the spring, burn leaves in the autumn. That is the cycle, that is how it has always been (always being as long as I can remember). Press seed into the soft loam and pray that somehow there are more vegetables then weeds. But once your children wise up and realize that there are easier ways to earn candy money you loose your labor force and it all becomes overwhelming.

When Ray and I moved back to the city it was supposed to be a temporary gig. We both worked in town and the one hour drive back to our mountain valley home just kept getting less enjoyable (to say the least). It really was not just the commute that brought us to Everett, there were multiple reasons. All of them connected with our work. With both of us in our 50’s we planned to work until retirement, sell the city house and get our red-necks back to the highlands where we belong. Apparently plans do not always play out as expected.

Food Forest full, what next?

Food Forest full, what next?

KC, the factory Ray had been working for, quit on Everett before we had a chance to quit on Everett. Suddenly, the passion I had for growing food was ramped up a notch. Salads and summer foods were not going to be enough. That was the easy part. I love growing good fresh food.

I had quite an investment in fruit trees that I keep in large pots. The same was true for blueberries and different lavenders. I even have a tub of mixed raspberries. When we thought that Everett was a temporary home I tried to keep my bigger investments ready to move when the time was right. Suffice it to say, I was reluctant to put roots in Everett.

March 2014. As a family we agreed that if we sleep here then we are going to live here. Without the income we once had from KC, it did not look like we could finance a move back to the mountains. For as long as God keeps providing for the mortgage payment, this would be our homestead.  That was the day the orchard was destined to move from mobile containers to city soil.

Through the garden gate, Back to Eden

Through the garden gate, Back to Eden

When we signed the book of papers on the Everett house, we vaguely remembered something about an HOA. It is important to Ray that everything looks domestic and tame in the front garden. He does a fantastic job of that. His personality is wild and untamed but his heart is orderly and artistic. It shows in the gardens he designs. Ray’s first collage education was in forestry with a minor in landscaping. The man know trees and how to design the bones of a garden. He takes my random thoughts and puts a plan together (instead of getting lost in the strawberries). Here is the other thing about Ray. He is single focused. I am the random one who takes pictures of everything, every step of the way for my blog. There are times that I get distracted while I am working because I am writing my blog in my head while the rest of me is at work with what is in front of me. I have to stop to think of how I want to communicate what I am doing and how to illustrate it (my camera is usually in my pocket, birds do not wait for me to run get it) Ray takes beautiful pictures when he is out to take pictures. He is not out to take pictures when he is working on a project. The first Back to Eden project happened while I was at school, so no pictures of the process. I came home and there it was, ready to plant.

Step 1 for BTE in the suburbs was to make a plan. Ray listened to my random dream of self-sufficiency in the city. They included a food forest for fruit, select perennial herbs, mostly lavender and rosemary, and the perennial vegetables I grow, asparagus and artichokes. I kept using the phrase “food forest”. He designed an orderly garden and framed it in with landscape timbers. He gave me a space where I can be as random as my heart desires.

Step 2 Kill the grass. Lawn in the maritime north-west can survive nearly anything. A biodegradable layer of lawn block must go down before the chips come in. Ray said that this was by far the most tedious part of the process. We have always used whatever we can recycle. When he ran out of newspaper he started using brown paper bags, cut open and laid flat. The difficulty in this step is the wind. Every little breeze sends the paper out of place. While working, the paper shouldn’t be stepped on incase it rips. Every rip in the paper, every gap between papers lets light in. Give a blade of grass a bit of light and it will  honor the creator by shooting through layers of duff to start a new colony on the surface. In Part 3 of this series I’ll tell you about our ah-ha moment and a much easer way to put down the paper base.

Step 3 Add a thick layer of green chips. Green chips means that the wood run through the chipper is full of pine needles or leaves. This is important. Bags of garden mulch will not be the same because they are too dry and lacking in the green material that will turn it into healthy soil. Ray put an eight inch layer of chips over the paper. It is beautiful.

Step 4 Plant. Some of our potted orchard had been in those pots for five years producing a nice selection of hard to find varieties of local heirloom fruit. We are espically fond of our Orcas Pear from a homestead on Orcas Island in the San Juan’s. There is a 5-kind grafted pear tree and a 5 kind sweet cherry tree. As Ray was heeling in the last tree, it hit us. We did not trim the root ball. We have raised potted trees for years. We started with little meyer lemon trees while we lived in the mountains. About every three years, potted trees need a root trim. These had been in their pots for five years and looked root bound when we planted them. We were tired after digging the holes for the trees. It is difficult to sink a shovel through eight inches of chips after a long day. Nothing can be done about that now. They seem OK, but next spring will give us a better idea of how they are doing.  Note: just after the fruit had set in the spring, a blacktail doe came and stripped the leaves and most of the fruit from the trees. That is why it is difficult to see if the trees are doing well or thriving. After 25 years in the mountains, we never had any deer damage in the gardens. Who knew that would be an issue in the city?

Blueberries, artichokes and lavender all went into the food forest. We love the look of it, the taste of it and we love that it does not need to be watered. Seriously! The summer of 2014 was hot and dry. That is a rare occurrence in western Washington. But the food forest did not need watering. We occasionally dug down to check the moisture levels. It was soft and perfectly moist under the upper layers of the chips.

Bosc Pears from the neighbors tree and a BTE Bartlett pear. There was only a fence and a pile of chips between them.

Bosc Pears from the neighbors tree and our BTE Bartlett pear. There was only a fence and a pile of chips between them.

Does Back to Eden really make a difference? We have only come through our first season. It is too early to say for sure. But we like what we know about it so far. No watering. That is important when you are living on a hyper-reduced income. But is it worth the effort?

When you find an add for “free woodchips, you shovel and haul away,” what it means is, you have to drive out to the place, probably multiple times if you have a pick-up or small utility trailer. You have to take the number 2 shovel (Ray’s not so affectionate term for a garden shovel after running a back-hoe for years), fill up the truck or trailer, bring it home, unload it and go back for more before someone else is able to get your treasure. It means not letting the pile sit long enough to bother the neighbors. A family with chickens and a compost pile does not want unhappy neighbors. Nor do you want a dead lawn from letting the pile sit too long. It means doing all the steps above. Like I said, it is still early, but we think it is well worth it. In this picture of pears, it may be difficult to see the worth so let me tell you what you are looking at. The rental next door has an overgrown pear tree. Since Ray has been raising mason bees, that poor tree has been covered with pears (before Ray’s bees, the only reason we knew it was a pear tree was because of the ONE pear it would produce every year). That tree is right outside our dining room window. We asked the landlord if we could pick the fruit if we gave him half. He invited us to take it all and bake him a pie. We ended up making fruit leather out of all the fruit we could salvage. We had hoped to can it. The tree was stressed after the long dry summer. The fruit was hard, there were multiple splits in it from the few times it was watered over the hot summer. Many of the pears were a nice size but the majority of them were small.

By chance, as we came home with those pears, we noticed that the deer left us one Bartlett pear. When I put my hand under it and tilted it up for inspection it fell into my hand. Bartlett pears are not like Bosc pears. Even so, the difference was dramatic. Smooth skin somewhere between silky and waxy. Just by holding it I could tell it was juicy, heavy for its size. No sign of insect damage.

A week later we checked on the ripeness of our pears (in case you have not raised pears before, you pick them green and let them finish ripening off the branch). The bosc pears were still rocks. But our Bartlett was fragrant and had some give to the touch. Ray and I cut it up and had it for a snack one evening. I am not exaggerating when I say it was the best pear we have ever eaten!

But wait, there’s more! We still had a mountain of wood chips to take care of, come back for part 3.

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One response to “More thoughts on the Back to Eden project (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Back to Eden (part 3) The back 40 (feet) | The Toy Box Suburban Farm

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