For Indy

When I think about Indy leaving us, after all his wonderfully cuddly, quirky, agile years, the first thing that comes to my mind is how quiet homecomings will be.  I lived away from home for the majority of the time Indy was with my parents, and his welcomes and good mornings during my visits are a large pa1910107_505382218012_4632_nrt of what I know of Indy.  You could say they are seared into my aural memory.  The soft, low wooing that grows into a full-throated howl, which gives way to figure eights around and between your legs and ear-piercing cries of joy.  If Mom wasn’t around, we kids would encourage him, unleashing a tornado of yowls and yodeling and furious stump-tail wagging.  Coming home to silence must be heart breaking.  I hope Eowyn’s quiet wiggles and soft nuzzles are some comfort.

Apparently Indy’s reputation for vocal theatrics preceded him at agility trials.  But I’ll let you tell those stories. I’ll tell you about the quieter things.  And I’ll do it alternating between present and past tense… because it’s hard to let go.

Indy is very soft and makes a fantastic couch-potato cuddle buddy.  You bring the book or pick the show, he’ll keep your feet warm.  And your legs.  But be warned, he’s got a mean kick icanoeingf you try to tickle his foot pads while he’s snoozing.

Indy wasn’t a velcro dog.  He was more… poised.  A bit shy- aloof even.  I think part of it was his one cocked ear, like he was wearing a fancy hat and had styled himself just so, that prance in his step, and his dainty white paws that he always directed to walk around puddles, never through.  You got the impression that he was waiting to see how fun you were, or whether you could be convinced to give him a bite of your broccoli.  Once you had been judged “awesome” (as opposed to “meh”), the stump-tail wag would bubble up quickly, his chin would land in your lap, chest would press into your legs, one front paw and then the other would slink up onto your seat, and soon you’d have coy, doggie bedroom eyes and a wet nose inches from your face.

I remember being terrified of Indy’s sometimes overly-calm demeanor.  We’d be sitting on the stairs cuddling, him one step above me, our fsnowshoeingaces level.  He’d gaze at me lovingly with those eyes, then go absolutely still, focused intensely on my face. Before I knew it his tongue would be up my nose or my ear would be wet and lightning-quick nibbled, and he’d still have that damn placid look on his mug as I shrieked and wiped my face on my sleeve.

This is the same intense look that precedes a toy snatch, or a treat snatch.  However many dogs we had lined up to get treats, Indy always got the first one, whether you tossed it to him or not.  Sometimes you’d toss him the first to buy time to give another dog a treat, and he’d still snatch the second and third treats out of the air from what you thought was plenty far away. Nope. He’s got teleportation powers, that dog.

I also believe he had some Jedi mind trick skills going on- or at least thought he did.  Some dogs yelp and paw and jump to tell you they want to go on a walk or play fetch.  Indy just stared, head cocked. He’d look up at the toy shelf just outside the back door, then his eyes would drill into you, then he’d look back at the shelf, then stare intensely into your eyes- all silently.

And he can hear (or smell?) a banana being peeled from across the house.  I’d be in the kitchen, alone, crack open a banana, and .3 seconds later Indy was in the room.  How? Wha? How did..? Sigh… here, have a piece.  Kid loves raspberries too- Mom was lucky to sanddunesget any ripe ones to herself off the bushes in the backyard.  At my wedding, he helped himself to a rather large portion of the raspberry pie my cousin had made for my entourage.

He got in trouble one too many times for begging broccoli stems and pre-rinsing dishes as we cleared plates after dinner, and got banished from the dining area.  He would skulk out of from under the table as we stood up with our plates, slink out of the kitchen, and pout by the doorway until he was tossed a few veggie scraps.  Snap! Snap! his jaws would go.

One night we were in the kitchen making dinner.  Someone had trouble opening a bag of frozen peas- the bag tore open, spilling quite a few peas right into the dogs’ water bowl.  Indy vacuumed up the peas on the floor, then slowly dipped his muzzle into the water bowl to retrieve the peas at the bottom. He did this very calmly, small bubblets of air trickling out of hiDog piles nose and blooping up to the surface.  He ate those underwater peas one at a time, each time sinking his snout slowly in, nearly up to his eyeballs.  We were mesmerized. We may or may not have tossed many more peas into the water bowl for Indy to snorkle up.

Despite his princely avoidance of puddles, Indy loved adventure of all sorts. Hiking (the king of running back and forth to check on the fast group and the slow group), creek swimming, and canoeing (much improved when he wore a life jacket), snowshoeing (moved through the snow like a porpoise!), coyote harassing, hide-and-go-seek with any toy, frisbee at the park.  Unlike Oscar, who deposited his frisbee at the feet of the nearest person, Indy would take his time selecting who amongst us would provide the best throw.  I often felt like I was trying to get the cool kid to sit next to me in the cafeteria. His catching style was more calculated too- Oscar would leap to catch the disc as high as possible; Indy would bullet to the exact point that the frisbee would come down, catching it 2 feet from the ground without breaking stride.

Indy wasn’t above being a total goof-ball- he’d wrastle with Oscar and let Eowyn take him down with a thud. If the other dog lost interest, Indy would lay on his back and curve his spine around like a cat so that he could bite his own back feet and kick himself in the face. He’d yip and yowl to entice playmates, who predictably went for his exposed underside.

Indy’s cutest feature (besides his coy face) may have been his backside.  That tail- not too quick to wag, so all the more special when it did, those glorious haunch feathers- brushing them required a spoonful of peanut butter to be held up at Indy’s front side, and those sproingy jackrabbit feet.  After sprinting hard to catch a frisbee, that jaunty high-kick running style was both relaxed and cocky, white feet flashing victoriously behind him as he slowed down in a big arc.

Indy was a true companion to both of my parents and a great friend to my brother and I.  An entertainer, a comforting and energizing presence.  My Dad walked the dogs every morning, and every day during lunch and after work my Mom would come home and immediately play fetch or do some training in the back yard.  I believe her order of operations upon arriving home was: blow nose, go to the bathroom, play fetch. Then they went to play frisbee in the park every night. Every night!  Most well-stimulated dogs ever!  

The greatest silence and absence will be at my Mom’s side. They were  -are-  attached at the hips of their souls.  I wish her strength and courage.  She has many dogs in her past, and many to come in her future, and I hope they are all as wonderful.

Been a while since my last post!!

I’ve managed to find a postdoc position that I love (using “systems immunology” approaches to research the role of CD4+ T cells in Lupus disease pathology), am getting to some teaching, and we have an adorable new kitten who has become Inka’s BFF.  The commute to my new job is shorter- bikeable, even!- so I can spend more time at home with the the hubster and critters, but still, it’s hard to keep up with the garden and all the projects I would love to do.

The garden is coming along, at times very slowly.  The veggie garden is entering its second year and we are losing the battle to massive quantities of uber-vigorous weeds and slugs. I learned the other day that many of the weeds probably came from the garden mulch we brought in- from now on I’ll stick to buying Cedar Grove compost, which is largely weed-free and helps close the city waste loop.  And the slugs…  hilariously, some nocturnal critter keeps slurping up the contents of my slug traps- beer-soaked slugs… like vodka soaked gummy bears at a college party?  We are excited to get ducks next spring- I’m confident they’ll solve the slug problem within an hour.

Our permaculture garden is largely now in place (David says, “We have a permaculture garden?”).  By that I mean we have planted most of the perennial fruit trees, bushes, and vines that will mature into our low-maintenance permanent garden:

–  Three apples, one of which is a grafted combination tree
–  Two plums – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  Two pears – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  A combination peach with four varieties that are supposed to do alright in Seattle… we’ll see
–  A mulberry tree for our future ducks
–  A male and a female kiwi vine
–  Three hops vines, which will provide shade for our BBQ area, and which my brother will use in his delicious home brew
–  Several varieties of currant and gooseberry
–  Many kinnikinnick and lingonberry bushes
–  And the two figs, table grape, raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, and blackberry crosses we planted last year are doing well.  –  The asparagus is doing ok…

In our annual veggie garden this year we have:

–  Overwintered kale, leeks, and garlic.  The overwintered cabbage froze to death, and the parsnips became woody.
–  Spring peas and radishes got mowed down by the slugs.  The beets might make it.   Looking forward to those ducks!
–  Just transplanted the summer veggies: Tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash and cukes, basil, corn, runner beans.
–  In late July, I’ll plant the fall and overwintering crops: more kale, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and “kalettes“- a brussels sprout/kale cross that I’m very excited about, carrots, beets, radish, more leeks and garlic.

This morning I moseyed around the garden with my morning tea, scarfed a few ripe berries, and snapped a few photos:

Makin’ suds

There seems to be a never ending supply of projects that capture my attention and obsession for various lengths of time. Some of them are necessary for the house and garden to operate without falling apart- fence dog out of garden, protect chickens from raccoons, plant garlic before ground freezes- and others seem to stem from necessity- how do we use up all this lard from our pig??- and then turn into the somewhat frivolous, put-a-whole-lot-of-extra-work-and-money-in, giant mess-making, kitchen- and basement-consuming tasks. This past weekend’s was making soap. Like, real soap. Like, with pig lard and lye and safety goggles!!

bars sliced and curing

bars sliced and curing

By chance I recently stumbled upon a couple articles in this blog about ditching commercial shampoo and soap and making your own. (Not really by chance- I read homesteading and DIY blogs). The author makes an aside about how she hopes to one day raise and render her own lard to use in her homemade soap– upon reading this I jumped out of my chair- Holy Crap!! That’s what we can do with all that lard in our freezer! Why didn’t I think of this before?! We’ve been attempting to use up the rendered lard from our pig frying eggs and potatoes and making stovetop popcorn- we’ve barely made a dent in a year and a half. (The story of our pig Knorr is a long blog post that I’m still gathering the courage and gentle words to write.)

So, forget all other projects on the docket and off to the store for coconut oil, avocado oil, lye, cinnamon and lavender and orange essential oils… Poor David- he tolerates so much. So much.

I used a few recipes online (here, here, and the one above) to settle on a lard percentage of 35%, with coconut (25%), olive (20%), avocado (15%), and castor oil (5%) supplying some better lathering and cleaning properties. Apparently you can make soap out of pure lard, water and lye, and you can also make soap out of pure vegetable oils, but a mixture seems to be what most soap makers online recommend. I found that lard was somewhat controversial, but its best inexpensive replacement in veggie soaps is Palm oil, which is not very sustainable/socially conscious. (Apparently most commercial, non-hippie-greenie soap contains beef tallow from factory farms/rendering plants, which I did not realize!) Without lard or palm oil, soaps can take a very long time to cure into a nice hard bar that won’t melt when wet- sometimes a year or more- compared to 3-6 weeks for soap with.

We decided on three varieties- David wanted cardamom paired with orange, and I went with lavender and rosemary oat, and pumpkin pie spice (inspiration). I won’t bore you with all the details- the links above describe the process very thoroughly- but suffice it to say that it was both easier and harder than I expected. The whole process was quite scientific- which I loved!- tweaking my recipe, calculating the exact amount of lye needed online, measuring out the lye and fat to the gram… Working with lye wasn’t too scary, but getting the melted fat and lye+water mixture to thicken took forever. I failed to realize that most people use a stick blender, which shortens mixing time by an incredible amount. Also, sometimes the combination of essential oils, and in this case pumpkin purée, can cause the mix to separate. So the orange cardamom and rosemary oat loaves set up well overnight, but the pumpkin began to ooze dark red cinnamon oil. It looked evil. Fortunately, the interwebs told me I could just melt down the failed loaf, oozing oil and all, mix it up really well, and pour it back into the mold. While doing this, I added some powdered milk to cut the now-fireball level of cinnamon fragrance coming outta that thing. Whew. Really hoping that mellows out!

I cut each loaf into bars after it sat overnight in its mold (tupperware and a loaf baking tin), and now they are all sitting on parchment paper in the basement, waiting to cure. I’ve gone down to marvel and sniff them at least three times a day so far, and I’ll turn them every week for 4-6 weeks until they’re done!

Now I am hooked and looking into making a vegetarian bar for my brother-in-law with shea or cocoa butter… they say soaping is a disease that takes over your life… and all available flat surfaces in your house for curing bars of soap.

Green tomato fail

The first few years we grew tomatoes in Seattle, we went to great lengths to ripen the loads and loads of green fruit still on the vines when the season was over. Come the October rains, the tomatoes begin to split and rot, the vines fall apart, and it’s impossible to find an unspoilt, red tomato still in the garden.

We tried harvesting all of them in their various states of ripeness and setting them out in the basement to ripen over the winter. We tried covering the vines with plastic cloche to protect them from the rain. We tried pulling up entire vines with green tomatoes still dangling, and hanging them upside down in the garage. Very few made it with any of these methods. Perhaps the most successful was stripping each vine of it’s flowers and leaves late in the summer- forcing them to pour all they had into their fruit (like Leslie Knope’s “going out of business sale”), but that still required foresight and willingness to admit the summer was nearly over.

Then, two years ago- and I can’t remember why- we used our green tomatoes green instead of struggling to ripen them. We made pickled green tomatoes (based on a combo of the basic pickle and garlic dill pickle recipes here), and they were the best thing ever. I loved them. David loved them. We barely had enough to give away over the holidays, and friends and family immediately demanded more. Thus we entered a new era and solved two problems: no more stressing out over un-ripe tomatoes, and no more need to to grow cucumbers (another thing we’d not had much success with, but after seeing Beth and Aaron’s huge, sweet cukes this summer I’m willing to try again!!).

Then, of course, we made things more complicated, and experienced near-total failure of all things green tomato over the next couple years.

The very next year, we actually selected a specific variety to leave green- a big, long roma type that could be sliced into spears like cucumbers. The first problem was that lots of them ripened before I could pick them green- they need to be totally green lest they get soft in the pickle jar. So I couldn’t keep up. Why not use them ripe? Because I was, at that point in time, opposed to saucing- something felt wrong about processing ripe tomatoes, even though these romas were pretty terrible slicing tomatoes. (I remember bringing my boss a quart of cherry and slicing tomatoes a few summers ago and being horrified the next day when he mentioned he and his wife had cooked them (GAH!) to have with pasta.) This year I discovered the glory that is homemade fresh tomato bloody Marys, so I can deal with ripe romas now.

The second problem is that, in our ever-tightening spiral toward Portlandia, we feel a need to live-ferment everything. In giant batches. Our first live-fermented green tomato batch went well- it produced delightfully savory pickles, the last few jars of which have managed to stay crisp and tasty in the fridge for a year now. The second batch turned out terribly, with white mold and a rotten taste that could not be washed off. This year I went back to vinegar pickling cherry tomatoes, but somehow they got squishy when processed in the water bath, perhaps because I used fruit from the volunteer plants. Very disappointing.

We’ve also attempted green tomato chutney two years in a row, both failures. The first batch was ruined by using brown instead of golden raisins, and my unwillingness to use as much sugar as called for. We canned it anyway, and it sits in our cupboard. The second batch, this year, I ruined by putting in lots of half-ripe tomatoes. It ended up tasting like ass-ketchup and didn’t even make it into jars.

This year in our new garden, I picked 5 huge mixing bowls of green tomatoes at the end of the season, stashed them in the basement, and was super excited to make all sorts of things. And then…. life and laziness happened…. and much to my surprise, half the tomatoes had started to get ripe in the basement. Shoot!! I managed to make just 3 jars of fridge pickles out of the remaining green fruit, and the half-ripe fruit gets eaten when ripe or thrown out if it rots first. Sigh.

Lessons learned:
1) Triage tomatoes into ripe saucing (freezer), ripe slicing (eat), and totally green (pickle immediately). Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate with half-ripe tomatoes.
2) Be prepared for massive failures, which could possibly be reduced in scale by not growing so many damn tomatoes in the first place.
3) If we do happen upon a good batch of pickles/chutney/anything, brag about it but don’t give so much of it away.

I’ve not attempted to grow carrots many times, but this year we grew amazing carrots. Here’s how, as best I can tell:

1. In the spring, tear up lawn, add compost and sand, rototill, rake soil into foot-high beds. (Now that we have established beds, this step will just become: add compost, fork into soil.)
2. Leave bed all spring and most of summer because you are busy doing other gardening. Weed occasionally, but mostly just neglect the bed. (I actually think this is very important, unintentional as it sounds, for reestablishing good soil structure after such thorough digging and raking of the bed. Carol Deppe, who writes The Resilient Gardener, claims that a good soaking after tilling the soil really helps rebuild soil structure by settling the soil particles together, but time and worms do the same thing. Planting a cover crop would also do the same thing, long as you pull it out by hand before you plant.)
3. In mid-late summer, weed the bed and very lightly fork-separate it. What does that mean? Take your digging fork, shove it into the ground every foot or half foot and lift up the chuck of soil that rests on it. Don’t bust up all the clods or rake the bed into a fine fluff. This seems counter-intuitive for growing nice big, straight carrots, but it worked.
4. Make inch-deep furrows in the soil, line with fluffy seed-start mix, and sow your seeds.
5. Mulch around the rows with straw, and try your best to keep the seed bed and young seedlings watered in the dry summer.
6. Thin early and often, then forget about your carrots (except to water fairly often) until “Holy crap these are effing huge!!!!”

My grandpa sent us the seeds for the purple carrots- they turned out incredibly well. Quite pretty and tasty. We roasted some last night with lemon juice and garlic and the color ran like beet juice.

2014 Tomato Review

Not sure why I need the date- ‘snot like I do this every year…

Anyway- brand new garden with tons of space for tomatoes, and we got a ton of varieties at the Seattle Tilth plant sale to try out. I think most of them can be found through Territorial Seed Co. Growing conditions: each protected by a wall-o-water until it was 2-3ft tall, periodic deep watering, mulched with straw, pinched out suckers at the beginning of the season then let them go wild, fertilized with 4-10-10 at transplant and first ripe fruit. Here are my thoughts on some of them:

Sungold: Still my all time favorite. Most productive, tastiest, prettiest, earliest to ripen, etc etc. If you can only plant one tomato, plant this one.

Black cherry: May have even better flavor than Sungold- it’s more… complex. Not nearly as productive, but a good one to try if you have the space.

Austin’s red pear: great taste, terrible texture. All of these went into the bloody mary mix. Seemed a shame not to eat them whole/fresh because they are so cute, but the texture was mealy and unbearable.

Red grape: powerhouse producer, good taste, fruits hold up well after picked, don’t fall apart in lunch box or left overs. Good for both fresh eating and juicing/saucing.

Isis candy: beautiful, but really thick skinned and hard to tell when they are ripe- consequently, I don’t know how I feel about the flavor.

Gilbertie sauce tomato: I don’t have much experience with sauce tomatoes. Are they all mealy?? These plants were super productive, huge tomatoes, but they turned out kind of hollow or “foamy” and were prone to rot. I expected them to be solid slabs of meat. Then again, we got this variety to pick green and serve as a cucumber substitute for pickles, so…

Jaune flame: gorgeous and tasty and pretty productive. My new favorite orange tomato.

Japanese black trifele: Um… these didn’t ripen until the season was over. Those three tomatoes were pretty tasty though!!

Momotaro: beautiful strong vines, perfect-looking tomatoes, good meaty flavor, and really split resistant when the rains came- this plant still looks perfect now when every other vine looks post-apocalyptic. Moderate production.

Mortgage lifter: produces humongous photo-worthy fruit. Quite meaty and tasty. Have prepared myself multiple dinners that consist solely of one of these beastly tomatoes. Moderately productive. Vines and fruit totally fall apart come rainy season.

Volunteer tomatoes: these came up in the patch where we dumped the worm bin as fertilizer. We let them go wild- no watering, no fertilizer, minimal trellis support. They all turned out to be cherry-size and they were amazingly productive!!! They are seeds from last year’s plants, which were all grown from Territorial Seed. I think 2 of the 6 plants made tomatoes tasty enough to eat fresh, the rest were mealy and watery. However, I picked a bazillion green tomatoes to pickle, and I’m sure those will turn out great because they have good, firm texture and cute shapes.

A blank canvas

Though a normal-sized lot for our neighborhood (7500 square feet), our yard appears to be huge because the footprint of our house is only 600 square feet. Amazingly, the entire yard was lawn when we moved in- I can’t wrap my head around why someone would have such a huge yard and no garden, but whatevs- just means we have a blank canvas to shape into whatever we desire!

Weeks before we closed on the deal, I had drawn up a garden plan and our first order of business upon moving in was to tear up half the lawn in the back to put in a veggie garden. We cut sod, we brought load after load of sand and compost to fix up the clay-heavy soil, we rototilled (which we won’t do ever again- now that the grass is out and compost is in, we’ll let the soil structure repair itself and switch to no-till gardening), and then raked up raised (but unframed) garden beds. With half the lawn removed, we still have a green space bigger than our whole yard at our old house in Phinney. …and my commute is much longer… oh well.

Initially we piled the sod up on the hill to serve as fill dirt for the fruit tree terraces we’ll build over the summer. However, when my parents came to visit, my dad suggested we use some sod strips to outline where the retaining walls would go- just to see where we’d want them. Somehow that exercise turned into us actually building three whole walls out of sod, behind which fill dirt from the dry well went, and now we have terraces. Just like that. Currently they are gawd-awful ugly, but I sprinkled them with nasturtium and california poppy seed and soon they’ll be draped with yellow and orange. We may put stone walls in front of the sod for aesthetic reasons, but the sod itself is quite strong and has weathered several rainstorms already.

Now to plant seeds, seedlings, shrubs, vines, trees, flowers, cat poop! Wait, is that what happens when you have a giant, uncovered patch of fluffy dirt in your back yard, cat poop? Yes, yes indeedy.

What a little tank!

Amelia survives raccoon attack!

I’ve been lazy lately and don’t always close the coop door at night. This is partly because I forget, and partly because I once forgot to let the ladies out in the morning- they spent the whole day cooped up and I only realized an hour before dark that they hadn’t been out all day!

Anyways- my vigilance has been renewed after this morning’s events. Inka and I awoke to terrified squawking at 3:30am and raced out the back door to chase off the aggressor. In my scramble to grab a flashlight and my glasses, I missed what happened- it appeared that Inka had chased whatever it was off, but whatever it was had dragged Amelia and Agador out of the coop and still had Amelia.

Agador was missing some tail feathers. I put her back in the coop. The run was covered in swaths of Amelia’s grey and white striped feathers, some of them clumped together with what I assume was raccoon slobber. I heard no more clucking, and assuming Amelia was a goner, went back to bed feeling sick to my stomach. Random chicken death (where you find them keeled over in the coop one morning) is one thing, which may or may not be your fault, but terrifying death by sneaky, dexterous paws and sharp little teeth is another thing entirely, and was my fault.

(Conversely, when I did mouse experiments, if a mouse died accidentally I felt terrible, but if I killed it in purpose with good technique, that didn’t feel as bad. But I guess it’s all about suffering: good technique in animal husbandry, slaughter, and animal experiments minimizes suffering, while shitty technique (not locking the coop at night, a poorly aimed bullet, not being able to stick a vein) results in suffering, stress, and nausea for both of you.)

Magically, Amelia reappeared in the morning in the back yard. I was amazed and immediately mixed up some yogurt/cereal/flax seed glop for the ladies for breakfast to celebrate and help them recover from the stress. I didn’t have a clue as to where Amelia spent the rest of the night until I left the house to catch the bus- there were feathers in the front yard, too! She’s missing most of her tail and looks like her head was in someone’s little jaws, but seems ok. I’m hoping she doesn’t die of shock…

Suspected Raccoon: 0
Amelia: 1 (minus lots of feathers)
Sara: Lesson learned.





Christmas in May!

Thanks Aaron and Beth for the lovely greenhouse and Nicole and Isaac for the awesome compost tumbler! There ain’t much we love more than free-cycled stuff!

David managed to assemble the greenhouse in less than a day (he did this in the rain) and our newly acquired seedlings from the Seattle Tilth Edible Plant Sale got to spend the night in the greenhouse instead of the basement. (Usually I like to grow our starts from seed under a grow light, but since we just moved and haven’t set up yet, we decided to take advantage of the plant sale, at which I always spend too much money.)

I’m super excited about the greenhouse. Like, so so so excited. It’s only 6×8 feet, but it has a work bench running the length of each side that triples the grow light space I had in our old basement. There’s plenty of storage room under the benches, or room for drums of water to soak up and moderate heat from the sun. Plus, the greenhouse will allow seedlings to get quite tall before we have to move them outside. I imagine we could keep one or two finicky heirloom tomatoes in there in pots if we can vent it well enough during the heat of the summer, but I’ll mostly use it to start seeds in the winter, spring, and fall.

David and I are both pretty excited about the new composter too- this one is a horizontal rolling barrel that’s both bigger and easier to turn and load/unload than our end-over-end barrel composter. We’ll use this one for chicken manure and bedding, as most of our food scraps already go to the chickens or worm bins.

Whoo hoo!!




A really long post about digging a hole in the backyard.

This past weekend David and I had a few people over for a yard work BBQ party. It was really fun, and we got a lot accomplished!! David and I started working around 9am on Saturday (well, mostly preparing to have people over to help- filling up water pitchers, mixing up lemonade, setting out sunscreen and work gloves, picking up a load of compost from Pacific Topsoil). Friends and family trickled in all day to join in the work, starting with my brother, who is always on time whether you want him to be or not. Dave and Kate brought baked goods for mid-morning snack, we had a sandwich bar for lunch, then around 6pm grilled up some sausage and bratwurst to eat with the carrot-cabbage-radish-broccoli stem sauerkraut I had been tending over he last two weeks, and a fantastic salad made by Chris. It was a great day. Pictures at the end.

We were working on a couple different tasks. We had already removed the sod from the area that will become the garden and now needed to empty several loads of compost there to mix in with the soil. The major project, however, was digging a big hole for a dry well, then moving the garden shed on top of said dry well so that the area where the shed was could become part of the garden, it being the sunny SW corner of the yard. Beth busied herself painting our old wood-frame couches to waterproof them- just in time- and kept me company while David went to load up on gravel and Dave, Eric, and Aaron went to Dave’s mill yard to pick out timbers to make the foundation of the shed. She and I came to two conclusions: that our respective men-folk were wonderful, and that we should hang out together without them more often.

But, back to the dry well- why did we need one? In conjunction with it’s lovely southwesterly slope, our lot is situated such that most of the rain water from our half of the block runs off the street and right between our and our neighbors’ houses (the Italians with the pizza oven who handed us fresh-baked bread over the fence during our work party. Rock.) Our street has no gutter and no storm water drain to prevent this, and when I wrote the city to inquire about possible solutions, I was informed that the city doesn’t have money to rebuild the street and we’d have to take care of it ourselves (which is about what I was expecting).

So, a dry well is essentially the opposite of a regular well- it is a hole filled with rocks or gravel that you channel water into so that it will seep slowly into the ground and disappear. Generally people build them as a way to draw rain water away from their foundations or to improve drainage in swampy low areas of their yard. Usually there is a gravel-lined trench (aka French drain) with or without a drainage pipe leading from the soggy area to the dry well, and the dry well itself may either be a gravel pit or an actual trash can-sized container with holes in it that is half-filled with rocks and then covered with soil and sod. The spaces between the pieces of gravel provide ample room for the water to collect and flow (unlike clay soil) and eventually the water will seep out of the dry well into the surrounding dirt, ideally keeping the whole yard well watered but not soggy.

For our dry well, we dug an 8×10 foot hole, one foot deep and a deeper, trash-can sized hole in the downhill corner. The 8×10 hole served as a level foundation on which to put the shed and the floor of this square hole was graded (magnificently by Dave and Aaron) toward the deeper hole. Amazingly, we hit sand at the bottom of the deep hole after three feet of clay-rich soil- I’m hoping that leading the rain water to this layer of sand will solve all our problems!! We lined the hole with landscape fabric- this prevents dirt from moving in and clogging the gravel- and filled the deep hole with big rocks and the rest with “drain gravel” from Pacific Topsoil. We needed more than we expected- 4 cubic yards was barely enough, plus a few wheelbarrows-full of rocks scavenged from the yard. We dug a short channel from the uphill side of the hole to capture the little stream that forms between our and our neighbors’ house when it rains, then noticed a couple days later that the downspout from our neighbors’ roof is only one foot away on the other side of the fence. We will ask if we can hook their downspout up to our dry well. With street runoff and roof runoff going into this gravel pit instead of the back corner of our yard, and because we have built raised beds, I’m hoping that next spring our SW corner will de-soggify quickly and our veggie garden plantings won’t be delayed. We shall see. If that corner is still swampy next year, we will talk to our two back fence neighbors down the hill (who also have swamp problems) and see if we can jointly dig a French drain (aka gravel trench) through the border of their properties to empty into the storm drain on their street. Except today I walked along their street and there was not a storm drain in sight. Huh.

I had the superb chance to observe our dry well in action (and failing miserably at first) this evening when I got home from work. It was raining quite hard and sure enough, water was racing down between the houses and surging out of the neighbor’s downspout. The backside of the shed/gravel pit quickly became a river, and I realized that the landscape fabric, though water permeable, couldn’t handle this much water at once and was keeping most of it out of the dry well. I dunked my arms into foot-deep water at the shed foundation and cut two holes in the fabric- one under the uphill corner at the base of the channel we had dug leading to the pit- I propped the fabric open with a hollowed yogurt container and the pooled water drained instantly- and one midway down the shed where the neighbor’s downspout stream was hitting- which also drained the stream instantly. Needless to say I felt like an action hero while doing this. Sadly, by this time the paths in the garden past the shed had already filled with water. I noticed that water was actually flowing out from under the shed on the downhill side as if the well had already filled and wasn’t draining quickly enough. I was a bit dismayed… but it was raining awfully hard. Were I to build this over again, I wouldn’t have lined the very bottom of the deep hole with landscape fabric, just the walls and floor of the bigger 8×10 hole. I don’t quite have a plan for limiting the amount of sediment that flows in at the entry points… but Aaron, a trained geologist, swears it will take a long time to clog that big gravel pit with sediment. Amazingly, 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the puddle in the gravel had disappeared- the water had drained. The true test will be whether the raised beds dry out quickly.