Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Raised garden bed construction

Photo courtesy of Colorado State University

Several people have asked me about how we built our garden beds. It's not that difficult, and it's a great project for a person with limited carpentry skills (like me!).

So what's the big deal about raised garden beds? You get more bang for your buck with RGBs, in that you can produce more vegetables in a smaller area since you are not having to walk in between the rows of plants. Planting veggies so close together that the leaves touch can create a microclimate under the plants, keeping the plants warm and blocking out sunlight which discourages weed growth. RGBs will ensure that no one tramples across your garden soil, and keeps the dirt from getting compacted, making it easier for your plants to root. Above ground garden beds also stay warmer than the earth. Rodents and insects may have a harder time penetrating your crop -- some people tack up copper strips around the outside of the bed to keep out slugs. Plus, they are easier to work in since you are not bending over the ground -- the planting surface is at a higher, more ergonomic level. And last but certainly not least, you can fill up the beds with the perfect mixture of sand, loam, compost, and soil to give your vegetables the best possible start to growing their way into your kitchen.

The first step is planning out the layout of your beds. Where in your yard do you have the most south facing sun? Keep an eye on the area of your yard that you are thinking about building beds, and watch how the sun falls on it during the day. Does the whole yard get sun, or only one part? Is there plenty of exposure to the south, or is the neighbors tall fir tree or house blocking you out?

Once you determine where you want to put your beds, decide on what kinds you want to build. The width and depth can vary depending on what you intend to grow. For instance, the Colorado State University Extension Program recommends that tomatoes be grown in a bed only 2 feet wide. They recommend that ten tomato plants would be best in a 2 x 20 ft bed.

Most raised beds follow the 8 ft x 4 ft model at a one foot depth. You don't want your garden beds any wider than four of five feet. If they are wider than this, you may have trouble being able to reach the center of your bed from the outside, causing you to have to climb up in the bed to work in the middle of the bed, and in the process defeating the purpose of uncompacted soil.

The depth of bed determines on how deeply the vegetables you plant will root. Here are a few examples from the Clemson University Extension Program:

Shallow Rooted

Moderate Rooted
Summer Squash

Deep Rooted
Lima bean
Winter Squash
Sweet Potato

Also plan how much space you want to leave between beds and around beds. Experts recommend at least three feet in between beds so that you can comfortably get down on your knees or kneel between them when working with the plants. You may want to leave more room if you wish to be able to maneuver a wheelbarrow through them.

Once you decide how many beds you want, how big they will be, and how far apart, you can plan your layout.

Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Don't make the mistake I did -- I built the beds first, and then had to drag the heavy things into place. If I had to do it over again, I would have staked it out first, or at least where I wanted the corners of my beds to be. Mark where the corner posts will go, and dig out a one foot hole with a post hole digger. Build your beds in place, and simply drop the corner posts into their respective holes as you go.

When deciding what materials to use for the bed, you must decide a) how much you want to spend b) how long you want it to last c) how pure you want the wood

Hardwoods such as cedar will last a long time, but may cost a pretty penny if buying new. Other woods may degrade faster over time. Reclaimed lumber can be utilized too, but ensure that it is free of hazardous materials or chemicals. Likewise, try to avoid buying pressure treated lumber if at all possible, as many of them contain arsenic and other goodies that you won't want to leach into your soil and vegetables.

I used to use lag bolts to hold the beds together, but this requires more tools -- sockets, wrenches, drilling pilot holes .... save yourself time (and money) by using outdoor deck screws. I used 3 1/2 inch deck screws from Home Depot and they worked out great. The beds were nice and sturdy, and the tan screws blended in well. I think it gives the beds a better aesthetic, and we always shoot for a balance of function and beauty.

You can build a raised garden bed in any number of ways. Some people use bricks, some people use wood -- my mom recently used a kiddie pool with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, which seems to work well, too.

Regarding the wood construction, here is a diagram that I prepared for a class I recently gave to my Sustainable Food Systems and Education Farms class. It will produce an 8 x 4 ft raised bed that is one foot deep.

For the above model, you just need to buy six 8 foot 2x6s, one 8 foot 4x4, and box of deck screws. Too easy! If you wanted it an extra six inches deeper, just adjust the length of your 4x4 to 2.5 feet, and add another 2x6. Get creative and build more as you need, play with the dimensions and create exciting patterns in your yard!

Once you have the bed constructed, you may want to take it a step further. Before adding dirt, add a weed barrier which will significantly reduce weed growth once your beds get going. Place PVC pipes every four to six feet and arch them over the beds. Attach plastic sheets and transform your bed into a greenhouse. Or install drip irrigation systems or sprinklers to make watering easier on yourself. My good friend Ben recently came up and ran a drip system for me. It was cheap and easy and a Raindrip starter kit only runs about $30 from Lowe's.

Finally, decide what you want to do with the land around and between your garden beds. Some people cover the aisles with gravel, others choose to spread mulch or grass. Leaving a mulch bed can be an excellent way to discourage weed growth but encourage the presence of beneficial insects.

Here are some more resources that you can use for your project. Have fun!

Building the Ultimate Raised Garden Bed

Sunset Magazine's Garden Section

Mother Earth News

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Halfway house

CHICKEN update:

The coop has stalled at about 80% completion. I will post pics once it's all done, so I can have photos from beginning to end.

In the meantime, in just over a month, the chicks have more than quadrupled in size, and are now pullets. My folks loaned me a cage that they use to house feral cats and it's plenty big for them right now.

I put their waterer and feeder up on bricks so that it's high enough that they can reach but not kick bedding in.
I ran an extension cord out a hole in the basement wall and up around to the porch.

So they are covered, warm, fed, and happy. And growing more every day.

Nevertheless, I can tell they are looking forward to their ... dream home. Nothing a couple more swings of the hammer and a coat of paint can't complete.

Now I just need to find the time!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


One of the big problems facing urban composters is that the bins can serve as a smorgasbord for rats. Compost bins can attract large numbers of rats, and the neighbor next door might not be as jazzed as you are regarding your attempts to create humus out of table scraps.  

The other day I went to dump our recycle bucket into the large bin.  I opened the lid and was startled by movement amidst the rotting apple cores and onion skins -- a big rat!  I shrieked like a little girl and instinctively jumped back.

Moments later, my manhood back intact, I peered down into the ground cover next to the base of the bin to where the rat had scurried.  A tunnel entrance the size of my fist gaped at me. I had set the compost down on uneven ground and therefore the plastic bottom that is supposed to keep rodents out was not fully meeting the edges.  The rat's tunnel came up right next to the bin, just like a subway entrance comes out right next to Times Square.  Instead of hot dogs he was eating corn husks from my tamales.

I half-assed fixed the problem (I was too preoccupied with coop construction) by setting a large chunk of concrete over the hole.  I figured he'd move the tunnel entrance accordingly, but I wasn't that worried about it.  I thought back to one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, Charlotte's Web, and Templeton the funny rat who was always pigging out on the rotten garbage around the farm and later the fair. (As a boy I believed the voice to be Jack Nicholson, I later found out it was center Hollywood square Paul Lynde!)  I figured the rat had to have a name, so Templeton would work.  I wondered how many more Templetons there were.

Two days later I found Templeton laid out in the center of the lawn with tooth marks around his neck. I can only imagine that Cricket had done the deed, as he was in the open and there were no fallen anvils around him. I have a basic love for all animals, but I felt especially proud of my dog at that moment.

I buried the rat in the flower beds next to a tree stump that I had dug up.

The next night I struck up a conversation with my next door neighbor. Our chat drifted from coops to chickens to his Shar-Peis and their experience with previous chickens (messy), and how they killed three rats earlier that week.  I mentioned Cricket's score as well. He voiced support of composting but lamented that it brought rats.  

I'm going to do my part to churn my compost more often, add lots of carbon and other soils to speed up the breakdown, and to make sure that I level out the bin so there are no more backdoors!

As for Templeton,

"From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."

             -Edvard Munch

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Coop! Coop! Coop!

Marie wanted the chickens out. They were starting to stink, and they were kicking up huge dust clouds in the dining room. I promised her that they would be out by Mother’s Day weekend.

I ended up spending Friday and Saturday prepping the coop area and collecting supplies. Before I knew it, Saturday night had come and I still hadn’t swung a hammer.

She began to worry.

“I’m just a little worried because you said it would be done by this weekend…” she started.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get up at the crack of dawn and –"

“That’s what you said this morning!”

“This time I’ll really get up early, and you’re gonna wake up and come downstairs and be like, 'Whoaaa! It’s beautiful! I’m really impressed! You did it!'”

She looked skeptical but said okay.


At 6:30 am the alarm clock buzzed. I got up and dressed, made a pot of coffee, and headed outside.

The night before, shortly after I assured Marie all would go perfectly, I envisioned myself amping up on caffeine, hauling out my power tools and radio, and playing some classic rock while I erected the perfect chicken coop. It wouldn’t take me more than a few hours. When she got up at 9:00, it would be almost complete. In other words, it would work out as seamlessly as a movie montage.

Instead, I would find myself with a bleeding, blown out index finger and Googling (with one hand) "how to hammer a nail."

The first thing that went awry was the music was all wrong. I couldn’t find any good yard work/construction music. I turned it to KMHD, one of my favorite stations, and one that has music instead of talking or commercials. With some scratchy crooning and clarinets in the background, I set forth. But it wasn’t exactly construction montage music.

I started to assemble four 2x4s into a square, but I couldn’t get a nail to go in straight to save my life. I wondered if they were somehow defective. For every one that I nailed in successfully, I had to pull three out. The hammer wouldn’t grab them and mostly just tore the heads off.

Earlier in the week I had hinted on my Facebook page that coop construction was near ("Tonight we sleep, tomorrow we build," I had boldly announced). One of my friends had become antsy. Checking my email before heading out that morning, I saw a request for pictures. It was followed the next day with simply “Coop! Coop! Coop!” Now, frustrated and wondering how the hell I was going to build it if I couldn’t even hammer a couple of damn nails, the words kept going through my head like a taunt. I closed my eyes and saw the black letters on white background – COOP! COOP! COOP!

I put things aside, and had a moment of reflection. I considered putting out a call for help, but realized it was Mother’s Day, and most people were probably busy. I decided that I couldn’t be that bad a carpenter, took a deep breath, and tried again.

With renewed confidence, I confronted those 2x4s. But I lacked a solid surface to work on and had to hold the boards between my knees, hammering at odd angles and elevations. I got mad at the nails. I hammered harder. I blinked. And when I opened my eyes I felt excruciating pain. I raised the finger to inspect it. Just in time to see dark red blood oozing out, the end looking like a squished grape.

After continuing unsuccessfully with a lot less vigor, I decided to rouse Marie. I prodded her gently with my good pointer finger and woke her up. “Happy Mother’s Day,” I whispered, so as not to awaken the sleeping baby next to her, while sticking my smashed and bleeding finger in her face. "I'm a terrible carpenter," I admitted. She agreed to help.

After that, things went relatively well; at least in relation to the previous two hours. I Googled how to effectively hammer (who knew that there were so many facets to it!). She found a decent hammer that a friend had forgotten (with the recommended waffle print on the head). I consulted a contractor friend via text message and found out that yes, you can cut a 4x4 with a skillsaw.

We cut a 4x4 into four pieces (legs) and nailed our 2x4s to them in the form of a square frame. Plywood was attached and another set of 2x4s to secure it. By the time we left for my mom’s house for a Mother’s Day barbecue, we had our foundation.

Driving to Salem, Marie erupted into a giggle.

"What is it?" I asked, looking at her in the rearview mirror.

“We worked for four hours and all we have is four posts nailed to a piece of plywood!”

We laughed the rest of the way to Salem, with “Coop! Coop! Coop!” echoing in my mind.

Another 2 hours were spent touching it up

*The Coop has since made serious progress. Pictures to come soon!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On the Fence

Building a straight 40-foot wire fence proved to be a lot more complicated than expected. V and I planned a simple low fence to divide the backyard into two sections: one area for our vegetables and the other for a brick patio. We wanted something that would keep Cricket from digging in the garden beds, but we wanted it to be unobtrusive.

However, our attempt to build one has magnified the divergent approaches that V and I have towards home projects.

I am a planner and a percolator. I like to do a lot of research and then consider all my options. I also like to talk it through. Sometimes all this planning means that I lose steam before I even get started because I am overwhelmed by possibilities.

V, on the other hand, just wants to get things done. Often this is wonderful because he accomplishes more in one day than most people do in a week. He usually has a list or a plan in his head, and he likes to stick to it. Problems arise, however, when he forgets to tell me what is going on in his head or I bore him to death with my over-analysis of minutia.

The other day, we put up some curtains on the window of the upstairs landing. The curtains were too long, and the fabric pooled on the floor ready to trip someone down the stairs. I wanted to take the curtains down, measure and hem them. V just laughed at me and suggested we leave them hanging and cut off the extra section. He knew I would take forever to figure out how short I wanted to make them.

I agreed.

The curtains are horribly crooked, but I have to admit that sliding the sharp blades along the silky fabric and hearing it rip was kind of fun. I am only slightly bothered by the raggedy edges that confront me every time I climb the stairs. That's because I know that I can always fix it. For now, I am enjoying the fact that our neighbors won't be able see us dashing out of the shower to the bedroom whenever we forget a towel.

The fence, however, is another story. This story involves me coming home one afternoon to find the fence posts spaced 5 ft apart on one side of the gate and 6ft apart on the other. It also involves a bit of shouting and stomping, and V insisting that I wouldn't have noticed anyway. The story ends with little cartoon light bulbs flashing over our respective heads when we realize what went wrong and some sheepish apologies to V's family who had driven from Salem to help.

So for now, the fence is on hiatus. We've decided to move on to the chicken coop first, even though we need a fence soon. The spindly starts are asking to be transplanted ASAP.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What's in your patch?

I really enjoyed the article Marie mentioned in the post below, "The Art of Self-Reliance." I didn't realize that there was a whole movement of backyard bloggers, but I suppose the more coverage of it there is, and the easier people view it, the more likely it is that people will realize that they too can do it.

Start small, and grow a couple of tomatoes and peppers in pots on your patio. That's what I did. I used to have a small apartment in Virginia, with an even smaller third floor balcony, not much bigger than a case of Bud. But I was able to grow vegetables in planters and hanging baskets quite easily. And I've been "cheesemaking" for years.

As far as a new name, I'm not sure what a better name would be. I have to admit that I, too, feel that calling what we are doing backyard "farming" is a stretch. And I have always slightly bristled at the term "homesteading." It makes me think of the Trail of Tears and blankets infested with smallpox.

I definitely like the word urban as part of it. "City" would be good, but I feel that that would leave out the suburbs, which sometimes can feel like they lie outside of the space that makes up the city environment.

So--no "farm," no "homestead." "Victory Garden" seems dated (especially since no "victory" seems to be in sight), and "greenspace" feels more like a city parks and recreation term.

I like the word "patch." It definitely alludes to gardening, beds, or a small tract of land. Urban patch is not at all catchy, and even sounds like some kind of city renewal endeavor--or worse...

What about Green Patch? Start your own green patch. You mention at a cocktail party, "I have a green patch." No, that might draw funny looks from your audience. Especially if you say that you your neighbor sometimes complains of the "fowl smells coming from your patch." Hmmm, a bit too English sounding maybe.

I challenge others to continue this chain of thought.

This may or may not require the ingestion of alcohol or mood altering drugs.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I'm for ___ ?

I was at the bookstore the other day, and I noticed a display devoted to urban homesteading. This term has really taken off recently, and it's everywhere. I love the ideas promoted by the urban homesteading movement: self-sufficiency, eating locally, sustainability, recycling, handmade vs mass produced, energy conservation, and enjoying the pleasures of a more simple life.

But, I have to say, I really dislike this term "urban homesteading." We live in a very different time from those who actually lived on homesteads. We have modern conveniences and amenities that they didn't. Let's face it. We're homestead-lite. We're just playacting at roughing it. It's the equivalent of going camping beside a hotel. If we are ever sick of sleeping in the tent, we can always get a room.

More troubling, the term "homesteading" recalls the kind of pioneering rhetoric that justified westward expansion and the clearing of Native Americans from their land. Urban homesteading romanticizes the past and erases the fact that the Homestead Act of 1862 was brutal to Native tribes. It essentially took Indian lands and gave them to settlers of European descent.

I recognize that "urban homesteading" is awfully catchy, and all movements--if they are to move people--must capture their imagination and speak to their aspirations. But do we have to resurrect a term that has left such a destructive legacy?

Why not come up with a new phrase, one that reflects our historical moment and its particular contradictions and ironies, such as my blogging about "getting back to the earth"? And I'm not the only one. (See, "The Art of Self-Reliance")

I like the term, "homegrown evolution," the blog name of a couple who are, ironically, the authors of a book titled, The Urban Homestead.

Another possibility is the term "urban farming," which has also become very popular. However, to call what we are doing in our 40'x 40' back yard "farming" might be an insult to farmers.

So, if you had to capture this growing shift in attitude towards our food- and eco-systems, what would you call it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm chicken

I always considered myself an animal lover. But having chickens has confirmed what I secretly suspected: I'm afraid of birds.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Baby Chicks Chase Fly

Chicks on inside. Fly on outside. Hilarity ensues.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Picking up chicks

April 10th, a busy day for sure. I got off work at 2 pm knowing that a full evening of surprise birthday parties and 80's night at the Crystal Ballroom was on the agenda. But first, there was one other important piece of business to take care of. Procurement of poultry.

We had decided to get chicks from nearby Livingscape Nursery, as a friend had given us one of their gift cards for the explicit purpose of buying chickens and chicken supplies. Checking Livingscape's website, finally there was a bulletin: they would be receiving a batch of day old Wyandottes on April 8th.

Why Wyandottes you may ask? My grandma, a veritable chicken expert, recommended Wyandottes for their friendly disposition and eggcellent laying abilities. Personally I was a bit partial toward Barred Rocks, since they reminded me of my childhood (I decorated our family fridge with a little poster of the breed having coffee at a streetside bistro, the Barred Rock Cafe), but my grandma is always full of wonderful and practical advice and I feel inclined to at least listen to her some of the time. Especially regarding chickens -- we have joked that she is St. Brigid, the patron saint of chickens, as her exploits at saving the species over the years are well known to many.

"Marie, I was thinking of getting Wyandottes ... what do you -"

She cut me off. "Listen babe. The chickens are ALL yours."

So Wyandottes it was.

We walked over to Livingscape and met with one of the staff members, Jennifer. A very friendly gal, she told us that we could pick up the baby chicks on our own if we felt comfortable doing so. Comfortable doing so? I'm the guy that used to have a pet chicken named Chicky Baby who I would hold in my arms, looking deep into her eyes, and give her long sweet kisses on the end of her little beak. Don't get the wrong idea. I was four.

A very sweet thing that Jennifer instructed me on was not to reach down from above to grab the chicks, but rather to reach down and then come in laterally. "Predators come at them from above, so we try to avoid doing that. That way we don't stress them out." I was touched. Chickens might not have half a brain, but I'm all about compassion for animals. On top of that, the chickens were in glass tanks so that they could "get more accustomed to being face to face with people." Very sweet indeed.

As I mentioned before, Portland allows three hens within city limits, and no roosters. Obviously, having a rooster in a residential neighborhood could cause problems. Our fake band has garnered one noise complaint in the past, but I could see a rooster racking them up on a daily basis! However, Portlanders can own up to six hens although a special permit is required. Not sure about the details on how to get one, but don't think we'll be needing that many hens. We did decide to push our luck and get four chicks, just in case one ended up being a rooster, since they're only sexed out to be 90% female.

We ended up getting two Silver Laced Wyandottes and two Golden Sex Links, also listed as being very good egg layers. The Wyandottes grow up to be very attractive. Check out what the hens will look like as adults here.

I selected a bag of feed and a bag of white pine small animal bedding. We ensured that the bedding didn't contain cedar, as that can be lethal to chickens. The fumes emitted can be downright lethal. With the right bedding and food, I was ready to take the babies home.

Jennifer informed me that she would rather I drive the little gals home to prevent them from getting too cold. I knew I had come to the right place to pick up chicks. Setting the dial to 89.1 FM KMHD (these were jazz chicks mind you, though I couldn't find any Chick Corea), the environment and temperature in the car were just right for chicken transport.

We got home, and set up a 50 gallon or so aquarium/terrarium, with heat lamp attached, that our friend David had loaned us. He used it last year to rear his four chicks. One of the chicks, Marilyn, ended up being a Marvin and in a pot of soup across town. David now raises three adult hens who produce eggs for him faithfully.

With the 50 gallon tank on the dining room table, a nice layer of bedding in place, the heat lamp installed, and a little water and feeder dish, their new home was ready. We put them in and ... they seemed happy, I guess. How does one gauge whether a chick is happy? I'm not sure, but I think I saw one of them smile.

Making the bed

At first Cricket didn't pay them any mind, but then I made the mistake of directing her attention to the tank, and now she is VERY interested. Our hope is that by handling them, taking them out of the cage and letting her smell them, and spending time watching them grow up, that perhaps she'll get over any urge to eat them. But we will have to be vigilant for sure.

Alani got into them, too! We took turns holding her up, and she peeped into the tank and made funny sounds and waved her arms and jumped up and down, so I'm pretty sure that she approves.

Getting to know one another

After a few adjustments of the heat lamp and changes to the water dish, we realized we had a good setup. We change their water regularly, and most of the time the chicks are happy in their cage. They will be there for about a month and half, until they get a bit bigger. Once they are semi-grown teenagers, they are called pullets. I am going to build the coop within that time frame. I need to have it completed by the time they are ready to upgrade from their studio loft to their foursquare style house on stilts.

For now, the girls are happy. They sleep in a pile together under the lamp, and sometimes extend their little wings out to soak up the heat. I toss them an occasional clump of grass or clover, and they have also devoured worms and even dead flies that I hunted down for them. They are growing at an alarming pace!!!

Body heat

I will post more pictures of the chicks as they get older, and possibly even some video.

In the meantime, please join me in welcoming Dolly, Minnie, Rosemary, and Loretta to the world.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What once was

Our yard will never look like this again. The glorious blooms and lush green lawn. The carefully laid bricks that curve this way and that.

I tell myself that we will are not destroying beauty, but that our vegetable garden will offer new kinds of magic.

But for now, I am a little sad and nostalgic.

The Spring Break Project

At the end of March, I decided to take a week off of work so that I could focus on getting our backyard ready for growing vegetables, to include designating space for a chicken coop with run.

Time was of the essence! There was so much work to be done, and although I had a week to do it, it felt like so little time. I wanted to get started right away, on Monday morning, so that I wouldn't turn around, find out that it was already time to go back to work, and lament all the time I had wasted.

Before I chronicle what happened in that whirlwind of a week, I should show you a Before photo:

English Garden?

The first thing we had to do was cut down that beautiful, blossoming plum tree.

Spring Break Breakdown

After heading down to Salem for some early morning grub, I borrowed ma's chainsaw and invited over a couple of pals, Trevor and Adam (who delight in going by T & A), who knew I needed some help cutting down the trees in the backyard. They're the types who are always eager to wield a chainsaw, as you can see from the picture below. Using rope to guide the trees in ways in which we wanted them to fall, we were able to maintain control while we felled the trees. The only casualties were the ornamental flowers and shrubs below that we should've transplanted before the tree cutting portion of the operation.

StumpTown USA

It was truly with a tear that we cut down the plum tree (center), the jasmine tree next to the house, and the nameless tree next to the fence. We reasoned to ourselves that the plum was diseased, its bark having turned black in places. Besides, it hadn't bore fruit the year before, so it was on its way out, right? Later, I found out that plums only bear fruit every two years, so 2009 probably would have seen a whole lotta plums. But I don't feel that bad, because after we chopped it down I was able to dig out rotten chunks of the trunk with my finger, and that can't be good. Right???

I spent the next day digging up the bricks that had once decoratively served as edges to the garden and paths. Much to my dismay, whoever had put them there put them two layers deep! I also removed a large pile of river rocks that had been around the base of the plum tree, and I transplanted a large spread of pea gravel into a pile by the house. Don't know the best way to use that yet. A friend said pea gravel is great for chicken runs, cuz the poo runs down through the rocks, absorbed into the earth.

With the stumps gone and the wood piled and waiting to go to its owners (Trevor and Adam had also agreed to assist the wood cutting endeavor in exchange for the wood), I had to dispose of the rest of the smaller debris -- the branches! I hadn't counted on this. I imagined chopping down the trees and being left with just a neat woodsy stack of logs. I didn't realize that there would be an even bigger stack of sticks, twigs, branches, and every other word synonymous with tree segmented pain the ass. Needing to get rid of the pile sooner than later (it was taking up the right hand side of the yard), I bailed on my plan to take it down to ma's burn pile in the back of her truck (I had it for the week) and instead thought to rent a chipper. I had the option of renting it for two hours or five. I thought I would only need it for two. Half hour of driving back and forth and maybe 45 minutes of chipping -- after all, there wasn't that much to chip. Then again, all I knew of chipping was derived from that infamous scene in Fargo. My buddy Chris D. volunteered to come over and help chip. Besides he had a small pile, too. Marie advised me to pay the extra bucks and rent it for five hours. Just to be on the safe side.

Four hours after we began we just got through with my meager pile. It turns out that chipping doesn't go as smoothly as I had imagined. Apparently a lot of things weren't like I imagined. Nervously, I pulled the rental receipt for the chipper out of my back pocket. How would I tell Chris that I had to return the chipper when he had spent the past four hours helping me? And I still had to load it, gas it up, and drive twenty minutes to return it? Luckily the guy had listed the return time two hours later than my time limit, instead listing the store's closing time. We got Chris pile chipped also, and the unit returned just in time. But at least we now had chips to lay down in the garden paths! It was time to move on to the next phase.

Smiling amid chaos

With the stones, bricks, and pebbles removed, and the trees cut, we began to transplant the many wonderful plants that the previous owner had carefully arranged. You would not believe how many bulbs there were. At first, we found just the right spot for bulbs in other parts of the yard. We decided to make the walkway to the garden next to the house a garden path, with shrubbery and flowers on either side of a brick walkway. The later bulbs ended up being buried in mass graves next to the house. Others still lie in buckets strewn around the yard, miraculously sprouting and blooming in containers full of their naked roots.

Not burned out yet, and with some time on his hands, Chris volunteered his services yet again, this time to help me build the garden beds. I was perfectly capable of doing it myself, of course, but four hands makes less work than two! Plus, we had a good time building them together, drinking beer, and listening to KGON! At one point, while Dutch rock band Focus belted out their one hit wonder, "Hocus Pocus," yodeling filling the yard faster than the raindrops, Marie suggested out loud, "WHAT are we listening to? Can't we listen to something else?" "Like what?," I asked. "I don't know. NPR?" she wondered, eyebrows raised. "Come on, babe! This is outdoor work. We can't listen to talk radio. We need Classic Rock! KGON, baby!" I said, squeezing the trigger of the skill saw. Rock and roll!

Led Zeppelin album cover?

While Chris and I assembled the garden beds, Marie refused to stand idly by. As she had been doing all week, with baby strapped to her back, she toiled away, transplanting shrubs and pulling out weeds. Alani was just along for the ride. And making Marie's job 20 pounds more difficult! (nightly massages were in order, I think she got two?)


Chris and I made short work of the garden beds, and we opted to use tan deck screws rather than lag bolts. Structurally, the beds are just as sound, and I think it turned out better aesthetically.

Two cracks are better than one!

With the beds assembled, we positioned them where we roughly imagined them being. But before we could decide for sure, we needed to get rid of that stump ...

There's a stump in the way!

Removing that seemingly small plum stumpt took about five or six hours of digging combined with the using an axe, maul, sledge, mattock, and two chainsaws. As the adage goes, stumps are like icebergs. Only 20% of them is above ground. Much thanks to my other friend Christopher for coming through with the tools, know how, and helping out with the labor, too! While Marie bounced two babies at once on her knee (his little one is only a week younger than Alani), we were able to synchronize our chops, getting into a rhythm, taking turns wielding the axes and mauls inches from each other's face. Maybe next we will develop a swim routine! But by the end of the day, the stump was out! We placed a couple of 2x4s in the hole and rolled the 300lb stump up and out on them. It all felt very medieval, using leverage against mother nature. We rolled the stump out to the front yard and later, into the back of mom's truck, a nice present for her when I returned the truck! (I rolled it out and into her burn pile)

I then measured out the garden beds so that they were equidistant from each other, and most important (and difficult) of all, so that they were level. I used a posthole digger to secure the 4x4 corner posts while keeping the beds level and in place.

The next day, we received six cubic yards of potting mix from a local fuel company. The dump truck deposited a mountain in the street, where I had placed some tarps to receive it. Chris D. came out once again, and with his help, we were able to get it transfered to the garden beds that first day. I ended up doing it well into the evening, using only the streetlights and stars to illuminate my work. But finally, I was done.

Alani enjoys her inside/outside space

At long last! The beds are filled with dirt, the sun is shining, and we're ready to move on to Phase Two! Planting, fence construction, and chicken coop erection. No, wait! I didn't mean that to sound so fowl. Whoops!

My beautiful babies

Looking forward to a greener future!

Not a nature girl

If you told me five years ago that one day, I would be happily married to a country boy almost seven years younger than me, that I would house chicks in a fish tank on my dining table, that I would be contemplating cycling to work--I would have thought that you were high. I would have told you that have mistaken me for my organic-eating, home-birth advocating, clog-wearing twin from an alternate universe. Back then, I was still caught up in the on-again-off-again love affair with my pack-a-day nicotine habit. I didn't leave the house without lipstick, and I over-dressed for every gathering I attended. The life I had envisioned for myself involved an electric and cosmopolitan city like New York, London, or even LA, lots of strappy heels, cocktails, and academic discussions enlivened by flirting; I was biding my time till I could move.

Fast-forward five years later:

V and I have been planning our little plot in the back for months now. The weather has finally turned a corner, and I am giddy about the sun and the longer days.

It’s an understatement to say that being married and raising a child have changed my outlook on life. With the current economic downturn and the resurgence in “victory gardens,” I am taking stock of how I live, what I consume and the impact my habits have for my family and for future generations. As a parent, I want to give my children the skills and the space to grow into their best selves. And gardening is an important part of that equation. Knowing how to transform a seedling into sustenance is profoundly empowering, and if I want my daughter to become self-reliant and independent, I need to teach her how to tend a garden.

But, first I need to learn how to do it myself.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Farm boy in the city

Even though I now call NE Portland my home, my thoughts often drift back to when I was a kid. I grew up in Salem, Oregon -- but always just on the outskirts of town.  My mom and grandma had horses and goats, so our places always had a barn, lots of pasture, and usually a big garden. I was definitely a farm boy, with my earliest memories taking place in little rubber boots and overalls.  

Growing up, my chores included the typical farm activities of milking goats, collecting eggs, grooming the horses, spraying the duck crap off the driveway, feeding the horses, and every few weeks, cleaning the stalls.  Most of the laborious stuff I did with a twisted face, but my grandma was strict, and the work was divided among my two cousins and I.

Once I joined the Army and began galavanting all over the U.S. and the world, I thought of home often.  I never really found a place that seemed more suitable to call home than my beautiful Oregon, a place that I regularly talked up and sometimes defended against my fellow soldiers who often knew nothing of it.  The only place that really stole my heart was Spain, but we have to save some exotic locale for retirement, right?

My eighth and last year in the Army I began thinking about where I would live when I came home.  Part of me thought about moving into a small country town, where I could have my own private place (with chickens!) and garden.  A place I could invite friends over and make lots of noise, but mostly a place that would be reminiscent of the farms that I had spent my formative years on.  Instead I moved close to downtown, and spent the next years enjoying all that city life had to offer -- exploring all the restaurants, taverns, bars and clubs that I could, on a nightly basis.  

I met Marie and we embarked on a whirlwind romance that had not been seen and is likely not to be seen again!  She laughed at the country twang that sometimes permeated my conversation and the wacky expressions that constantly punctuated my stories.  We didn't have a lot in common from the outset, but we found that we were very similar at the core.

Not long after I moved in, I began floating the idea of having chickens.  I had heard somewhere that Portlanders could have three hens within city limits.  We laughed at the idea, but kept talking about it.  Pretty soon it became a reality.  Why not have a coop and a couple of hens to give us eggs?  

We recently bought a new house, one large enough to accommodate our expanding family. Now Marie and I, along with our baby Alani and dog Cricket, are ready to make our dreams of urban farming a reality.  With Marie's enthusiasm, interest, and willingness to read up on the best way to do things (along with directions) -- combined with my can do spirit, elbow grease, and farm background, we think we're ready!