Monthly Archives: December 2007

Winter in Oklahoma

Last year we had a blizzard which is atypical winter weather in Central Oklahoma. Yesterday we had more typical severe winter weather: the Ice Storm. Temperatures started to drop below freezing early Sunday morning, then the rain started. We had very little accumulation, but the weather models were predicting a resurgence in the storm on Sunday night. We took advantage of the lull to prepare. We brought in lots of firewood, I got some baking done, and we filled the tub with water.

Rain fell again after dark and the accumulation of ice began in earnest. We were lucky that a lot of the rain came down during thunderstorms and didn’t have time to freeze, and the ground was well above freezing (that’s liquid water in our pond). By Monday morning an inch of rain had fallen but only half an inch of it had frozen. Our trees were holding up fairly well with only a few broken limbs. As we expected, we did lose power, around 5:30 AM on Monday, and was out for 12 hours. We faired rather well. The fireplace kept the living areas comfortably warm, and the water in our pressure tank lasted throughout the outage (using water judiciously). We toasted bread and boiled water in the grill for breakfast, roasted hotdogs in the fire for lunch, and had a full meal using the grill (even though the power had come on by then) for dinner.

Thankfully ice storms don’t normally last long but they do wreak havoc as they pass through. Mind you, we fared a LOT better than most in the State. The trees in town were devastated, taking down power lines as they collapsed. I expected the power to be out for days, but the linemen from our electric cooperative were out making repairs all through the storm, as we listened on the scanner. We heard them announce they were re-energizing the circuit at Hwy 9 in Little Axe (next “town” east of us), and on came the fridge. Woo hoo!

Today it continues to rain, melting all the ice, so I’m glad I took the opportunity to walk around yesterday between rainfalls and snap a few shots.

I was worried about our big Bradford pear. Even though the South side is still heavily leafed, the ice accumulated more on the North side giving the tree this splitting appearance. But the branches held and the tree is rebounding as the ice load melts.

The ground wasn’t frozen but everything above the ground had a thick coating of ice, like these grass leave. The splashing from the rain gave the leaves a coating of sand making me think of worms or noodles. I call these ice worms.

A lot of the willows around the pond bent their branches to the ground giving me this beautiful icy tangle.

Some of the branches twisted after the icicles had form, creating this weird candy cane effect as the icicles turned back towards the ground.

There were beautiful icicles on everything, no doubt considerably multiplying the weight of the ice on fragile branches.

Even the fencing was given a shiny coat of ice, looking like gem facets.

The most northern pine tree along the driveway was also given a heavy load of ice, lowering some boughs to the ground.

The framing of the boughs gave me an opportunity to take this pretty, but fleeting, wintry picture up our driveway.

Fleeting, because the rain continues to fall, the ice continues to melt and the boughs are returning to their upright position.


Making lasagna

I decided today was a good day for making lasagna. Not the conventional kind that you eat, but the garden kind, created by setting down numerous layers of mulch material in sheets to compost.

The first step was to gather all the tools and materials I’d need. Tools are simple: leaf shredder, wheelbarrow, garden rake, leaf rake, garden fork, spade, and hoe. The materials are varied but basically anything that can serve as a mulch except wood (branches, chips, sawdust or bark).

Once the material was gathered, I marked the site, in this case four feet by twelve feet. Four feet wide is the maximum width you can comfortably work the garden without stepping in it, and the goal here is to create fluffy, friable soil that’ll act like a sponge when it rains. The four foot width is also a good width for a chicken tractor, but I’ll talk about that some more in the future.

Once the garden was marked, I loosened the soil using a garden fork. I didn’t work it deeply, just enough to loosen some of the compacted soil from the passage of the tractor. This location is over the geothermal wells installed in October.

After turning the garden, I sprinkled the soil with an organic fertilizer; a combination of seed meal, dolomite limestone, bat guano, blood meal and bone meal. On top of that, I shredded leaves and some pine needles into the garden. Pine needles aren’t usually recommended but my soil is close to neutral pH, so a little extra acidity can’t hurt.

Then comes a layer of wet newspaper, fairly thick, 5-6 sheets, to serve as a weed barrier. I doubt that it’ll stop Bermuda grass, but it should stop any other seeds that were exposed when the soil was turned. On top of the paper goes the first layer of peat moss.

Over the peat goes the first layer of mulch. In this layer I’m using half a bale of hay I found at the recycling center. Hay, as opposed to straw, still contains a lot of nitrogen, so this layer will help feed the decomposers. Over the hay, another layer of peat moss (kind of like the noodles).

The next layer is straw. I had bought the bale earlier this year to contain my compost with the idea that as the compost was used for various purposes, I would use the now rotting straw bales for gardens. Again, a layer of peat moss on top.

The final “meat” layer is another layer of shredded leaves. The “cheese” layer is a thick topping of finished compost about two inches thick. It took four wheelbarrows full to top off the garden.

I should mention that I was watering each layer as it went down. Not only to add moisture to the pile but to keep the finer particles from blowing away. Which is another reason for the “cheese” layer, to hold everything down!

The “piece-de-resistence”, or if we continue with the lasagna metaphor the sprinkling of “parmesan cheese” on top are some worms. There weren’t any earth worms in evidence when I turned the soil. When I searched another spot in the yard where I had found them before; they were hiding. So, I bought a few night crawlers (sold as bait locally), to seed the soil. Hopefully they’ll earn their keep and start turning all the raw material into lovely soil.

Otherwise I’ll just leave the “lasagna” to cook slowly in the sun and let all the flavors blend together and next Spring I’ll have a garden ready to plant with anything.

The fruits of labor

Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs. The nurseries all have good sales; the weather is cooler, so there’s less stress on the trees; the trees are dormant but they’re still growing roots, so the new trees get a good head start for the Spring. I was going to wait until next year to start our front yard orchard, but then I realized it would take that much longer before they bore fruit for me. So when I got my Stark Brothers Nursery catalog with a 20% off everything sale, I decided to go for it. Stark Brothers was the closest online nursery I knew of, at the time, to my growing zone. Since I’ve ordered the trees, I did find another nursery in Texas (I’ll order other things from them in the future).

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’re aware that we had some trouble with runoff this year (see runoff flooding in the labels to the left). The best way to control runoff is to slow it down and allow it to soak in. To that end I have begun digging swales. Swales are like long narrow ponds dug along the land contour to catch the runoff. They’re usually one to two feet wide and one to two feet deep, sometimes more depending on the type of soil, and dug about 20 feet apart, depending on steepness of the slope and the amount of rainfall. The soil dug from the ditch is piled into a berm on the downhill side. The ditch eventually fills with mulch aiding the absorption of water. This swale is already filling with fall leaves, preventing an important resource from blowing off our property.

The trickiest part of digging a swale is making sure it’s dead level, following the land contour. So, I built myself a four foot wide A-frame level (there’s a bubble level taped to the crossbar), that we walk along the ground leaving a marker at each end.

I thought I’d have to bring in a tractor for the swale digging but for the most part our soil is soft and I can hand dig 100 feet in about an hour. Smoothing and widening takes a little longer. It’s good exercise, doesn’t burn fossil fuel, and doesn’t compact the soil. Win, win, win.

The best way to control the erosion of the downhill berms is to plant them, so that’s where most of my new trees and soft fruits are going. In all I have seven nut trees, two pecans (besides our three native ones), an almond, a heartnut, and three hazelnuts. The new fruit trees are four varieties of apple, a peach, a plum, an apricot, an Asian pear, and a cherry. The soft fruits are two varieties of blackberry, two varieties of raspberry, loganberry (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid), black raspberry, and 3 varieties of southern highbush blueberry.

I bought dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees, to save space and allow for more varieties. I still have room for more. Each tree has it’s own deer fence and will have daffodil bulbs planted around the base to discourage gophers from nibbling at their roots. Finally the berms will be seeded with a variety of wildflower seeds to encourage pollinators and beneficial insects. I found an online catalog of wildflower seeds and, for the most part, chose seeds of plants that are in the neighborhood but that I didn’t find growing on our land this past summer. I figured with all the rain we had, if it didn’t grow this year it wasn’t here.

If I’m lucky I might get a late fruiting raspberry or two next fall. Otherwise, in two or three years time my labor this fall will literally bear fruit in a veritable cornucopia of produce.

Winter gardening

It’s December first and I still have produce in the garden. Granted we do live in the South, but we’ve had some killing frosts, temperatures hovering near 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and I still have produce.

This is thanks to the moderating influence of our stone wall and eaves, creating a microclimate suitable for growing late season spinach, lettuce and snap peas. A little further away from the wall, across the path, I have scallions, hardy herbs, rosemary, thyme, sage and Greek oregano, and alpine strawberries.

There’s something almost sinful about having a fresh garden strawberry in late November. Alpine strawberries, or fraises-des-bois, are everbearing and love the cooler weather. They don’t produce runners, so they make pretty border plants. The fruit are small, about three quarters of an inch long, but they’re packed with wild strawberry flavor. Yum!

I have another section of southern exposed stone wall, that I’m also going to turn into gardens. Right now, a couple of rose bushes are using the space, but they would do better elsewhere, away from the scorching sun. So in the Spring, I will move them and use the space to grow a fig tree. Fig trees usually need a lot of winter protection, but this location is ideal, sheltered on two sides from the wind and warmed by the stone wall. I can’t wait to taste a luscious fresh fig picked from a tree outside my back door.

Our geothermal installation left a wide space for more vegetable gardens and winter is an ideal time to get garden beds ready for Spring. I’ll be building two four by ten foot beds just North of our mature peach tree. The soil is terrible, having been turned subsoil up by the back hoe, but it’s a great opportunity to try lasagna gardening. Lasagna gardening is simply sheet composting to build garden soil, putting down layer after layer of good stuff left to decompose in place over winter so that you have a ready made garden by Spring. The problem with the technique is that you need a lot of material on hand to compost. I was lucky enough to find a couple of straw bales left out for the garbage man, and threw them in my truck, my neighbor has horse manure, I have lots of fallen leaves now, still have a big pile of finished compost, and organic soil amendments, all the ingredients for a lasagna garden. I haven’t decided what vegetables I’ll plant in the Spring but the options are practically endless.