Rainy Day Ruminations

It’s raining, and it’s Monday. So, it’s back to work finding things to do that are either: 

a) Indoor work (such as writing in this poor neglected Blogspace)

b) Outdoor work that’s worth getting wet for (like fixing a leaky roof)

Today I worked some Spring cleaning of my Beaver Den in preparation for the next phase of development–namely, putting a new roof on and reorganizing my covered space to be more efficient for what I want to use it for.

I also braved the sleet and snow-free drizzle to work on my latest sunken bed. This is Version 2 of what will eventually be an adaptable system for dry-lands agriculture. I call it the “Rutan Integrated Sunken Bed” for lack of a better name for it, and it combines hugelkultur and aquaponics, circulating as it will the wastes from a downhill pond through piled wood and soil. Fungus should grow to take advantage of the wastes, and hopefully enough bacteria to convert the ammonia and nitrites to nitrates accessible by the plans to be grown. We’ll see how it works and make changes for the next version. I still haven’t figured out for sure what plants to use for testing the system’s effectiveness. I’m thinking I might make it an herb bed with tall dry herbs (thyme, oregano) on the South side, water loving herbs in the center, and shade-appropriate plants on the North side. Any suggestions?

Rutan Integrated Sunken Bed V2.0

A photo of a picture — not as good as the picture itself, but what’ya gonna do?

I started digging the drain, which was actually made easier by the rain as I get a very clear visual of where the water wants to go without needing measuring devices. I also started puddling the bottom of the bed, i.e. stomping the wet clay so that smaller particles move to the top, creating a (somewhat) impervious layer to water flow. I’m adding straw and rotting leaves to the mix to form a cob-like barrier that hopefully will crack less and provide a nutrient rich layer for bio-films to grow in. The bed does not need to be water-proof, just to bias it towards flowing the water downhill to the pond — which I will probably use a liner for. This is more of an art-work in progress than a technology, a technique and a process rather than a perfect finished product. It’s possible that I would be better off by simply digging a pit and filling it with wood and say futz to all the complicated(ish) systems I’m trying to integrate. Well, I’ve got that bed–it was version 1. Time will tell whether one bed works better or worse than another, and honestly, I’ll never really know why.  Different positions, different orientations, different contents, different plants growing. This is a mani-variable experiment.

Integrated Bed V2

Woodpecker Tree!






I have not written in a while. Some of that is busyness, some of that is laziness. Although, honestly, I haven’t really felt like writing much. I’ve committed to being here for a year, starting sometime in early December of 2013. While I will definitely be here until next December, the question remains as to my remaining presence thereafter. I may find enough reasons to stay longer, and I am busily growing roots and forming ties to make sure that my year here is worthwhile. 

Below are some photos taken of my little homestead in the past few days. Mostly, I’ve been working on earthscaping my patch. This means digging swales, irrigation channels, and lowered beds.

First Swale

My First Swale!

Swales are dug along the contour of a slope to slow and capture water. This is especially important given the conditions of the field above. It is almost entirely devoid of ground cover vegetation and it slopes down towards the van. Also, storing the water in the ground is key given our extremely dry winter this year. In large rain events, the swale may flow over into an overflow channel at one end. I may use this water to fill a pond or dig another swale below this one on the slope.

Or I may use the water to fill a dendritic irrigation system like the one pictured below.

DendritesBranching channels ensure an even spread of water through the landscape with flooding induced in specific regions. Given the hardness of the clay rich soil, I first incised a small channel with a broad hoe, then filled it with water. As the water settles, the ground gets much softer, allowing the channel to be dug deeper. I repeated the process until I had the desired effect. In recent days, I’ve allowed the channel to run dry, as it is especially well suited to watering the root systems of plants in the forks of the channels. Until those systems have grown enough to take advantage, however, I’ve found surface watering to be more effective. Watering efficiently is pretty key as I only have about 20 gallons to use a day from our house-well. 
In an effort to maximize the effective use of water, I’ve built several garden beds. You’ll see two in the below image. 
Two Beds

A Tale of Two Beds

The background bed is one I built several months ago. At first I tried to dig down into the dirt to create a ground level hugelkultur bed, but wasn’t willing to wait. So I enlisted the family and piled a bunch of horse poop on there. I’ve been watering every couple days for a while now, and am waiting to see what comes up. I planted canna lillies, comfrey, and black radishes and have some grasses and alfalfa growing up. I’m hoping that rooting plants will help break up the clay below for future plantings. 

The foreground bed is designed to retain water and built somewhat like an old-school pond. I dug down a couple of feet over the course of a week or so — soaking, digging, soaking, digging, tarping up overnight to retain moisture. Then I recruited my cousin Gabe to help me “puddle” it. That is, watering until the dirt starts puddling, then stomping around, trying to build up a solid clay layer on the bottom and along the sides. I lined the bottom with sticks to break down over time (ala a hugelkultur bed) and layered horse poop and leaves, making sure to soak each layer. Cardboard placed on top serves as a moisture and weed barrier, and the top layer of manure and leaves finishes the lasagna. To reduce evaporation, a loosely placed brush structure over the top shades the bed and reduces the impact of hot dry winds.

I’ll be continuing to earthscape, water strategically, and expand my little garden.


Sorry. That needed to be said.



Let’s Get It Started

Almost two months again, my dad’s cousin’s daughter moved in to Tailfeather Ranch with her three kids. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. It is.
The official familial relationships are as follows: Keli (the Mom) is my 2nd Cousin; her kids are my 2nd Cousins Once Removed.

Keli came here from Costa Rica where she was slowly spiralling into the dark abyss of depression, loneliness, and a general lack of purpose. Whatever the reasons, when she and the kids visited us here in California in July she saw a glimmer of hope. That mere glimmer quickly turned into a major branch of new possibilities. And here they are, 2 months later, just in time for the kids to start the new year at school.

The kids are Gabriel (16), Gloria (14), and Peter (6), and they’re great. Witty, funny, caring, kind. Say what you want, the life they were leading in Costa Rica has sure formed them all into some pretty awesome people. Gabriel plays the guitar better than me and is slowly growing into his reinvention of himself.  Gloria loves the Beatles, has a wicked sense of humor, and watches out for Peter.  Who, incidentally, goes by Captain Scallywag when he’s wielding his sword, jacket, hat, and PJs — all thrift-store buys, by the way.

They’re here to stay. My dad is effectively signing over the house for the foreseeable future, contingent only on a small contribution to the mortgage, and a promise of working toward a common vision for this beautiful 10 acre spread. 

Keli and I have been spending a lot of time together, sharing visions of the future of this valley and this land, gleaning pine nuts and almonds out on Road 36, and moving horse shit with Petey. We’ve laid the ground for guild planting several trees in the small orchard to the North-East of the house — a cherry and an apricot tree.  We’ve gathered and started the process of rendering-edible 20 lbs of acorns from one of the many Valley Oak trees at Tailfeather Ranch. We’re planning the conversion of the front yard into a permaculture garden, lined with river rock and mushroom logs.  With Keli’s consistent enthusiasm and her children’s help, we’ve managed to do more than I’ve managed to get done in the last 2 years being in and out of this place.

And we’re just getting started. There’s much more to come. Wanna help?