Gold for the Garden

My dad, Fred, would have loved living out here. Fresh air, lots of space, a big garden with room to grow anything, an infinite number of things to fix or invent, and country smells.

As a child I remember that whenever he drove past a freshly-manured field, a pig farm or anything else that “smelled like the countryside” he’d wind-down the car window and take-in a good lung full or three of the rich, fragrant air…subjecting the rest of us to it! And he never passed-up an opportunity to scrounge a wheelbarrow-full of manure or compost whenever the opportunity arose – “Gold for the garden“, he used to call it.

Fred Cross

Fred Cross

Our sense of smell connects deeply to our emotions, and I imagine that the smells of the countryside when I was growing-up reminded him of his own childhood in a small village atop a hill near Manchester, England, in a house that is now The Hare & Hounds pub. It cannot have been an easy life; his father died when he was three and at 17 he abandoned a dream of becoming the goalkeeper for Stockport County Football (soccer) Club to fight in the Royal Navy in World War II. Here he is at 18 in his Royal Navy uniform.

Gold for the Garden

Before we bought our farm I knew nothing about gardening or farming, and it continues to be one, big learning experience where the anxiety of not knowing anything gradually transforms into a level of comfort, and then the confidence that I’m doing something right because plants are growing and I’m feeding my family.

This has involved a lot of trial and error, asking a lot of questions and reading many books on everything from gardening to repairing water wells. One author to whom I am deeply indebted is Eliot Coleman, an organic gardener with over 40 years experience, and whose books are a gold mine of practical information and useful resources on gardening using organic methods.

I smiled when I read of the value Coleman ascribes to compost and remembered my dad’s comments about the value of well-rotted poop. In The Winter Harvest Handbook and New Organic Grower Coleman recounts that at the turn of the 20th Century, up to 6% of the total land in Paris was used by market gardens and how heavily they relied on the abundance of horse poop and manure within their organic gardening regimen. His publisher describes the system in more detail and the history of the French Gardening System.

Our farm is about six acres of which I now garden (OK…I farm) about half an acre of vegetables, fruits, berries and hops. At the recommended rate of application, I would need to find about 16 cubic yards (about 21 tons!) of composted horse manure. We have just one horse, who cannot poop any faster.

I scoured our local Craigslist for a few minutes and found a local horse boarding facility with 28 horses that had about 10 times what I needed, composted and ready to roll. A day with a dump-trailer spent hauling this and I’ve now got all the compost I need, plus some additional, fresh horse manure in a separate pile that wasn’t quite composted. And I have an open invitation to collect as much compost as I want in future.

Looking out at our garden after my efforts, it appeared that I had created a scale model of the Cascade mountain range…in horse poo. My dad would have approved!

In the Garden

While I prepared the back garden for transplanting the vegetables I started in the greenhouse in February, Teeka went to hunt for over-wintered potatoes. I can never seem to remember where they are, and last year the piglets found them by rooting around.

Teeka Harvesting Potatoes

Teeka Harvesting Potatoes

This year Teeka felt up to the challenge, and here she is getting stuck-in.

An hour later she’d harvested about 20lbs of potatoes and I showed her how to make Leek and Potato soup, and Broccoli and Cheddar soup which – after a hot bath – was welcome following a day’s gardening in the bright, chilly, late winter sun.

Last fall’s organic garlic – we planted about 500 cloves – is growing well, and around May or June we’ll have lots of fresh garlic for our own use and plenty left to sell. While Teeka loves gardening and getting her hands dirty, our other daughter, Sequoia, is keen to open a little stall by the roadside and to “Meet and chat with all the neighbors“. Garlic will be her first item for sale and last year’s “Two cookies for five cents” has given way to a keen sense of what constitutes a profit and she is looking forward to earning her first “real” pocket money, and Teeka gets her pocket money as the grower.

In the Greenhouse

All sorts of things prove useful on a farm, and good pieces of wood are no exception. I recently gave new life to some scraps of wood and a couple of old sliding wardrobe doors by converting them into a planting and potting table in my greenhouse. This worked really well and I was able to start over 1,000 seedlings on this makeshift table. Late winter and early spring I start a new batch of seedlings almost every day – cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, squash, herbs, fennel, peppers, chilies, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, etc.

Many of these vegetable seedlings are now in the back garden and growing well, and in a few weeks I will till-in the cover crop I planted last fall – along with the horse compost – and our 13,000 sq. ft. (c. 1,200 sq. m.) front garden (the artist formerly known as “front lawn”) will begin its final transformation into a source of organic vegetables.

In the Kitchen

Bread: Ready for the Oven

Ready for the Oven

In a recent episode of The French Chef (Episode 3, #13) the girls were enamored with a video from the late 1960s of an old French bakery in a stone cellar with a wood-fired oven tended by a baker wearing only shorts and sandals; in the old days they didn’t add salt to bread dough…the sweat from the baker kneading the bread was enough.

We’ve made a lot of bread together in the last few weeks and I discovered a fantastic book by Master Baker, Jeffrey Hamelman, called Bread. So far we’ve baked various combinations of ciabatta, sourdough loaves and baguettes. There’s something very cathartic about making bread and the fragrance in the house is…sumptuous.

Sourdough Loaf

Sourdough Loaf

I’d heard that a pizza stone made for a better crust but after researching this more thoroughly I discovered that due to its higher coefficient of thermal conductivity (it gets hotter and retains its heat better), plate steel works better. My friend Dave is a metal fabricator and he found a spare piece of 1/8″ stainless steel plate and cut it to the size of our oven. The result is fantastically crusty bread with a deliciously chewy crumb.

All Work and no Play…

We live on the edge of the Mt. Hood National Forest and each morning – clouds permitting – we see The Cascades from our dining room, including views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. In less than 15 minutes we can be at 3,000 ft (1,000 meters) elevation on an old logging or forestry road and at this time of year there’s still plenty of snow.

One Saturday a couple of weeks ago I took the girls up to one of these logging roads and we went sledging. We found some deep tire tracks in the snow and these made for a pretty good track on which to sled. Here are the girls enjoying themselves in the snow:

Enjoy the spring…it’s a great time to start growing something!

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