Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April Pond & Garden Update

The wildlife is convinced it's spring.
First frog song started this week (about April 4th as I recall), so far it's more solo than chorus, but I think there are two now.   

Last night we had our first encounter with the annual March of the Salamanders. 

Herald of spring? or harbinger of spring cleaning?
They seem to be heading for the pond just N of the house.  Since our front door is on the S side, and the weather is getting nice enough to leave it open, they often find their way inside. 
They move silently and slowly until they encounter one of my salamander-alert traps, a carefully-strewn layer of papers and other rustly clutter at the base of the closets and office areas.  They sound like very clumsy mice, but don't chew or squeak.  Now that I realize what they are, we promptly re-direct them back out to the side garden, and freedom.

I am itching to get the garden going again, and trying to balance that against my promises to have the Builder's Guide out by the end of the month.  Electronic version, anyway.  It will likely be a draft, with the appendices unformatted.  We'll probably sell a few copies but more will go out to the folks who offered to help edit, for comments.  We may release the updated, smoother version a few months later for the autumn spike in heating interest.

 Lots of little things are greening up, especially those rosette-type plants with taproots.  Onions, rhubarb, horseradish, and catmint survived in the garden (yay!).
Here's the hugel bed in the sunny-slope garden for those interested:
Hugel bed-  N side

 It doesn't look like much, but zoom in near the middle and there's life peeking up:
Rhubarb starting to leaf out (yay!)
Southwest side of hugel bed
 Note that the soil is kinda thin, there are burrowy-holes all over, and the soil here is already drying out.  This means that Paul is probably right: it will need to be substantially bigger to be effective at holding moisture over the season from thaw through planting, let alone into the summer.  So I guess for now, this one is an 'irrigation-extender,' not a 'no-irrigation garden.'
Onions happily greening up - probably need dividing
I am trying a larger one in the front yard near the house (no deer protection).  It is not pretty - but it's an experiment to see whether a larger one actually works.  There were two piles of topsoil already here, so I filled in between them with duff logs and snow.  (The beanpoles on the L, and the concrete and A-shaped boat nose on the right, show the locations of the original dirtpiles.)
 The snowplow piles from the driveway end up right along this wall; should melt into this each spring, and/or be easily shoveled on from above.
Design by random assembly: 'huglacier' looking SW
 Yes, that is a little 'fireplace' on the left.  I do not forsee any time in our climate where an outdoor fireplace in this location would be safe or convenient.  The wind blows up the SW slope below us every warm afternoon/evening, and it would blow the smoke in anyone's face sitting in front of it.  Also the dry grass above it is obviously not be a good chimney material.  But since it was assembled there (to show the classic Rumford fireplace angles), there it sits.  Perhaps it will become a cold-facing thermal mass bed... a cloche.... or something?  I could add a reflector on this side and turn it into a warm planting bed maybe.  Or just remove it down the road and put the rubble to better use. 

The W side of hugel, looking SE
 Ice and logs go in, then dirt is piled on top, then mulch on top of dirt.  A lot of the dirt was taken from the piles on each side, resulting in a planting hole where I would like to put some trees... flowering ones probably, since they might rescue this ramshackle contraption when the in-laws reclaim this cottage in a couple years.  If I could manage to establish cuttings of the Mrs' lilacs, or some cherries / plums with nice blooms, the whole thing might just get to stay where it is long enough to see the experiment through.

The potatoes loved the north side of the one in the garden last year, and I hear rumors that deer don't like potatoes as much as they like beans... so sprouting purple potatoes got distributed all over this dirtpile for an early start. 
E side of 'huglacier' looking W
 The foot of the pile is where the moisture will be, so there's a ditch layered with old cardboard, bark, and a single layer of duff logs.  Then topsoil and some peat moss on top of that.
Mulch - barn muck and rotten wood
 This is a relatively hot and nasty mulch, pulled straight out of the horses' stall... but I have plenty of potatoes to re-seed if it takes them out.  Topped off with some brown cube-ish rock (possibly cubicle rot), in lieue of wood chip or other weed-suppressing mulch.

Transplanted some tulips and onions in there already, and layered some potatoes in with the mulch on top, so we'll see how it does.  Overseeded the top with clover, arugula, snow peas, and favas to build up some organic matter.  Some of that 'topsoil' was definitely not - chalky subsoil from the lower trenches went up there too.

We picked up some lovely trees and shrubs at the Conservation District's native  plant sale, so I am surveying for where they shall go.  My first choice, in the shade on the N side of the existing forest, turns out to still have permafrost (well, just subsoil frost; far from permanent).  So scouting other areas...

Here's a mini-tour of the place, for those interested.

Proceeding E from house (about 2 pm)

Turning NE in the woods by the house

Typical well-browsed forest floor, beside path

Looking N across pond
 The next few pictures were taken from inside the forest edge, to avoid disturbing a couple pairs of mallards and some Canada geese who seemed to be enjoying the pond.  But I will jump ahead and give you the view to the West across the pond (taken from down below the snowline in the picture above), so you can get oriented.  The canoe dock is on the WNW side of the pond, near the horse's path from the barn.

Horses' path (made by two elderly horses, one remains)
So the whole point of today's explore, aside from my guilt at disturbing the wildlife, is to scout out places for some new native trees and shrubs. We have aspen, ceanothus, Rocky Mtn maple, and a couple other shrubs to place in the next week or so. 
My guess is that the rose-type shrubs on the sunny (N) side, across the pond in these pictures, could probably handle some aspen in amongst them to fix nitrogen.  The neighbor has a stand on the N side of his residual wetland, but ours seem to have been destroyed during logging / bulldozing?  Or perhaps our slopes are different. 

(If I say "birch" I probably mean "aspen," we had a white-barked weeping birch in my childhood backyard and it has become the Type for all white-barked trees in my mind.)

I'm also working out a plan for removing the plastic around the pond.  It does remove itself / get punctured easily (it's landscaping plastic, not pond liner).
The plastic removal process, 'automated'
 The difficulty is those slopes.  You can see the bare, hard-packed beige where the plastic is slumping; how to get something established on that slope is a challenge.
Wary waterfowl, disturbed despite my discretion

N edge of the forest, S of the pond, looking west.
 The bare dirt (you can still see the tracks of the equipment if you look closely) is a recent disturbance; most of the snowy areas are the forest edge as we've always known it.  I think it might want some more shrubby stuff, since it looks better with an aspen/birch and some scrub:
A small amount of remaining 'forest edge' scrub

Moss, fungi, and browse at feet of conifers on N edge of woods
 Where there are no bushes or deciduous trees, the forest edge does have some nice moss and lichen and fungus in the ground, and some heavily-browsed shrubs.  We get a lot of deer traffic, which is lovely.
Swale on E edge of pond, with evidence of deer
 I will spare you the entire sample collection of deer-evidence, but they seem to congregate along this East side of the pond, in the swales (little dips) between the pond's 'crater' lip, and the fence and woods.  Neighbors to E and W have dogs, but we don't, and the in-laws' dogs to the W are well-behaved and trained not to run deer off.  Garden areas are fenced and don't get bothered much.
Cut on NE side of pond, looking SW
 The pond was re-shaped with a bulldozer maybe 10 years back, deepened out, with a crater-like rim.  Some other things happened too (firefighting helicopters, neighbors messing with the creek, more folks moving up here and putting in wells, etc).  The pond doesn't fill nearly as high as formerly, it used to be pretty stable at roughly the depth indicated by that canoe dock.
Canoe dock, showing current and "expected" pond levels.
   In the canoe dock picture, you can also see where I've been pulling up plastic.  I discovered some big round rushes, possibly tule? that poked their heads up through holes in the plastic, so I targeted that area to remove plastic  and spread a few of the clumps that loosened up into the newly-cleared zone.

There are lots of smaller round-rushes, and lots of kinds of grass.  But up on the sloping edges of the 'crater,' the plastic tends to dominate the 'understory,' with thistles, mullein, and crustal bryophytes (moss, lichen, algae) as next-most-dominant.  I did spot and save a few potentilla (silverleaf), both in the lower pond area and up on the slopes.

Orchard W of pond (peeking through deer fence)

 There are two nicely fenced gardens - one near the barn and greenhouse (above) on the west side, with a mixed orchard and some perrenial blueberries and strawberries struggling along under much TLC.  The orchard is about 8 years old now, the in-laws say to give a plant 3 years when the label says 18 months.

So my current questions:
- Where to put those trees?  I'm thinking:

   ---  mock orange along that forest track near the greywater outlet / garden taps, where we can enjoy it from the E-facing kitchen window.  But I have a bundle of 5; I can put a few more elsewhere.

   --- birch along the sunny N side of the pond - the dillemas are: do I plant some in that vernal bog / trough, or do I keep them further up the slopes?  Do I fill in the area to the NNE where it's just scrubby willow and something with rust-red tips, or leave it relatively open?  I may want to try to naturalize blueberries or other fruiting plants in here too, though I've been warned blueberries don't naturalize well in this climate.

   --- Maples: I am thinking they might be nice along that N edge of the forest, in the shade S of the pond, but maybe they want more water than that.

   --- Ceanothus: Probably staking out some of the middle of that empty pasture - Ernie says deer don't like it that much, and we need some shade out there if anything but grass is going to establish.

The only other one is 'shrubby penstamon,' a wildflower, and we might put some near the orchard to encourage pollinators.

- What to do about that pond margin? 
Do we need to take that crater back down so the pond can naturally collect water a little easier? 
Or will nature take care of that over time, and we are doing a bigger favor by keeping the pasture / meadow more moist and not re-disturbing the much-abused soils?

- Will any of the current trees be plantable where they could shade the pond?  I might try for some aspen up on that island.

- Should I hold off on my plastic-removal and reseeding efforts until autumn, in the hopes that the ducks might nest this year? Or just keep at it?  They do give me a good glare when I want to come putter around the pond in spring.  But autumn's a busy season for harvest and off-site workshops. 

Speaking of workshops, we have the last-saturday-in April, one-day, Intro to Rocket Mass Heaters coming up.  This year we're following it with a Builder's Week, to try out the new book. 

In fretting over the book (and the wildlife distractions) I haven't advertised these events as much as I would like.  Any help spreading the word is much appreciated.   We also have workshops scheduled for the fall in Montana, and possibly Illinois and upstate NY/New England.  But this April series is likely to be our main West Coast thing this spring.

We have been scheduling light this year to keep time open for Ernie's leg.  The latest news is he's not a good candidate for amputation (he would be weight-bearing on very sensitive scar tissue).  The surgeon put it bluntly: We have a lot of tools to get folks from "bad" to "OK."  But going from "OK" to "Good," we don't have a lot of tools to help people do that.  And where you were before the injury was far above "good." 
They do have a new high-tech, custom brace that's made to offload force like the athletic spring- or spoon-type prosthetics.  The program that developed them has been fitting active service and a few service veterans, calling it "Return to Run", and some of them are going back into combat deployment.  He is a good candidate for those, as far as type of injury and potential for improved activity level with the appropriate brace, so our sympathetic VA team is negotiating for him to get approved for a fitting.

SO: Thanks for all the kind wishes and prayers about Ernie's leg.  Please keep them coming. 
And please let anyone who might enjoy meeting some ducks, newts, and deer, and playing with fire before we get into the dangerous summer dry season, know that we are hosting workshops at the end of this month.

Many thanks,
Erica and Ernie