Black Flock Down

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It’s happening! Our Ayam Cemani genes are showing up in force with the latest clutch of chicks here at Leafhopper Farm. These cute little babes are all downing out dark like their daddies and the markings are most striking. It’s exciting to see the shift in our flock appear almost overnight in one brooding cycle. I’ve posted a picture of the previous brood to compare.

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chicks enjoy UV brooder heat

These Spring chicks were a mix of all colors, but the black was starting to show up. Now the entire brood is black. It’s a sign of the dominant Cemani genes coming from the paternal line of this flock. We’re only breeding Cemani cockerels as an experiment. Leafhopper will continue to diversify the female side of our flock, including heritage breeds like our Delawares.

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Our young flock of dark layers, including the Barnevelder and Marans, will encourage even more genetic diversity at Leafhopper Farm. We’re working on healthy birds and funky colors; both in egg shades and plumage. Yes, there is some aesthetic fun in this flock! Some of our hybrids are looking very smart too.

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In the above photo, you can see our current breeding Roster “Black Jack” and a few of his hens in the laying flock.  On the far left is a Rhode Island Red, to the right, a Bard-rock hybrid, the white butt of a Delaware cross, a nice looking black Cemani hybrid hen with a copper neck in back, a Buff Orpington mix, and a silver laced Americana hybrid. It’s a rich mix, and they are all laying healthy eggs.

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Meanwhile in the bachelor coop, “Big Comb”, our other Ayam Cemani rooster, just finished a three week stint with the hens before switching back out with “Black Jack”. He is feasting on pasture with three other young roos including a nice red male I’ve taken to calling Chanticleer. These gentlemen get along fine without any hens around to kick up hormones, but the two white guys on the right are slated for the pot later this fall.

Our home flock is settling in, and we’re planning to build new housing to accommodate our numbers as we continue to produce more birds. There is a lot of pasture space available for chicken scratching and a portable coop big enough to house them is currently in the works. We’ll need the extended space when this black flock of chicks is fully grown. At that point, our flock numbers will crest 40 for the first time. At 50, we’ll hold numbers for a few years to see how our closed breeding has panned out. If the chickens are laying well and healthy in body, mind, and spirit, we’ll keep breeding on site and try not to introduce new stock from off site.

Deer Diary

Misty cool morning on Leafhopper Farm. The dew is thick again on the clover, bright sun pours across the landscape, revealing three familiar shapes near the pond.

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A Blacktail doe Odocoileus hemionus columbianus and her two yearlings are grazing in the rich pasture. One of the offspring is a young spike buck, and I hope to harvest him in the coming season. These deer are habituated to the area, browsing through the land without a care, even after I’ve chased them off multiple times and shot the .22 at their feet. They don’t care. It’s typical behavior of suburban deer constantly moving around human habitat.

Deer can destroy your carefully planted landscape, and carry diseases into your domestic animals on the land. I lost a young goat a few years ago to parasites picked up from our deer population. That was a hard lesson. My heart goes out to the wildlife in this area. Their habitat is quickly being gobbled up by human encroachment. In Duvall, over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of development along the hillsides of The Central Cascades, pushing resident animals like the deer out of their forest home ranges and into our highly managed yardscapes.

Leafhopper Farm is working to allow space for the deer to brows through without harming the vulnerable species of young trees and other native plants we’re trying to reestablish to mimic a more natural habitat. Once the plants are established, they can fend off the deer and invite a little browsing. That’s the hope. One day, we might even encourage the elk back up here, but that’s a far fetched dream in my lifetime, but I can at least set the intention.

So, how do I keep the deer from messing up my young plants? Bird netting, hedges, and other barriers to keep out the ungulates. The Chestnuts Castanea are growing up fast in the back pasture, thanks to stacked dead brush around the young tree which hinder deer from getting in close. Deer are lazy by nature, conserving energy when and where they can. If you can create barriers, they won’t push too hard to get in. On my kitchen garden, a strand of fishing line runs the top of the low fence. When a deer investigates the area, their sensitive nose hits the nearly invisible barrier. This confuses the deer and makes them wary of entering the space.

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Creating a narrow space around your plants is also a good way to discourage deer. These graceful animals can jump high to get over a fence, but they won’t jump into a space they can’t get out of easily. In the hedge corridor below, there is a narrow strip of fenced space which a deer would not be able to get out of easily once they jump in (I hope). Time will tell!

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west fence hedge

Keeping deer out of your yard is a lot of work, but smart systems will pay off in the long run. I plan to create deer lanes, encouraging a brows line around the property to deflect the deer away from my veggie gardens and young tree plantings. Next year, I plan to have a young K9 in training to keep out unwanted guests like the deer and coyotes. My old pup Indo used to be great at keeping deer out of the zone 1 garden areas. I look forward to training up another dog to help me in keeping the boundaries strong.

Leafhopper Farm is improving other parts of the land as habitat for wildlife, like these deer. Down by Weiss Creek, we’re putting in a large stream buffer and planting it with native vegetation for our deer friends. The hope is this lush space will entice the Blacktail away from our gardens and back into a stable habitat of their own.

Red Sun

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sunrise

The forests are burning. It’s the longest drought in Washington State history. For the past few weeks, the sky has been reminiscent of Beijing, China. I know because I was there in 2012, just after the Summer Olympics, and both sun and moon were red in a sky full of pollution. Here at home, it’s smoke, the signal of poorly “managed” forests which are desperate to catch fire and regenerate, but the heat is more than these trees can handle, and so, the forests are burning to the ground.

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Pacific Northwest Fires (not including B.C. Canada)

The Jack Creek Fire is closest to Leafhopper Farm, a fire started by lighting in the Central Cascades. Lighting is responsible for most of these fires, but a few were human induced by careless people with no idea of the consequences. It’s a hard lesson for all. I’ve never seen anything like this, and people who have been here for 30 years are saying the same thing. A family member shared with me his experience of Mt. St. Helen’s eruption, and the ash that fell around Washington State. Well, it’s happening now, but there is no volcano, simply the forests burning away acre by acre, tree by tree, and we’ll be feeling this for decades to come.

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ash on the car windshield

Today my throat began to burn, and eyes water from time to time. Maybe I should put on a mask. The “officials” say to stay inside, no luck for farmers, or people without air conditioning. We have no filter on our air from outside. There is a strong smell of smoke in the house, and ash on the surfaces of everything, inside and out. The light is orange all day long. Our only relief is cooler temperatures because the UV can’t penetrate the smoke so easily, so we’re in the 80s instead of 90s. I am truly grateful the fire is not here.

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the sun at 2pm

When I look up into the sky, it’s disconcerting to see what looks like an overcast cover of nice clouds, but that’s not water vapor, it’s the acrid smoke from our beloved mountains as they purge overgrown fuel in a drought stricken rain-forest. I wonder, will we ever see blue sky again? Did you ever think a rain-forest could burn? Yes, in 2017, yes, and we’re paying dearly. While people brace for another hurricane in The Atlantic, Washingtonian residents wonder if we’ll ever feel rain again. There are whispers of relief by the weekend, but not in time to save our forests.

My limited camera cannot capture the full visual of smoke inundating the farm, but it’s noticeable, so noticeable in fact, that visibility is reduced in 1,000ft. My back field looks “foggy” from the house. You cannot see the mountains, you cannot see the hills, nothing but a brown haze all around. When the moon rises, she’s full and red, blood red, like a sand storm; it reminds me of Oklahoma in late summer, when the red dust kicks up at dusk.

Will this be our future? Ash and smoke? The loss of our forests? What will our beautiful Cascades look like this winter? We’re no longer The Evergreen State, but perhaps the Everablaze State. Leafhopper Farm will continue to steward the trees here, and give gratitude to Weiss Creek, which continues to flow, without rain, or fire, under the blood red moon and orange sun. Are these the Red Skies we were warned about? No, but the message is clear, change, ever present change, and we adapt to live.

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This parting shot is my hope for the land. In 2015, we had record breaking drought, and a lot of Washington was on fire then. The flames took a place I loved very dearly, a place I knew well. In the picture above you can see the recovering ground to the left, and what it looked like after the blaze on the right. If you zoom in, you can see the tall standing dead trees, black pillars that bare witness to a fire that destroyed all the forest for several hundred square miles. It was brown, black, and ash for the Fall and Winter. But come Spring, things began to return, and now, two years in, the green is back, trees are returning, and the land is alive again. I have to remember the earth’s resilience, I have to remind myself that this is part of a large, living cycle. Mother Nature knows no limit, life will find a way.

One or One-thousand?

The Bullfrog population here at Leafhopper Farm has been kept in check this summer. Lithobates catesbeianus is a serious threat to our local frog populations, as well as other amphibian and reptile friends that are just too small to out-compete this monster of the blue lagoon.

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5.5″ frog

I’ve written about this predator frog before and wanted to update on the status of our pond management and what it means to stay vigilante. The Bullfrog is the second greatest threat to our freshwater native frogs; human encroachment through development is the first. I cannot control what other people do on their own land regarding wetlands, but I can enhance and steward my own.

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underdeveloped frog eggs

The large female Bullfrog had eggs in her. I’m so glad I caught her before those eggs went into my pond. Though they are underdeveloped in this stage, you can see that thousands of baby frogs can come from one mother. This is how catesbeianus continues to dominate our freshwater systems here in Washington, and across the rest of North America. These frogs were brought over from Europe by settlers who saw Bullforgs as an easy meal, and it seemed like a great idea to put them in local ponds and lakes as a snack in times of need. Even our trout were introduced for this purpose, something I only recently learned. Food is good, wild food is great, but tipping the balance of mother nature comes at great cost.

I’m treading on thin ice with this topic, because it could be a metaphor for human encroachment on native populations across the globe. Wetlands are considered sensitive areas on the landscape. I would argue that all land is sensitive, but I also steward domestic animals on the land, drive my truck around the land, and live here, in a house, with septic, and a drain field. People are a HUGE footprint on the land. You’ve probably camped for a week some where and seen the foot paths and trash left by those who came before. Even if your trash is going into a garbage can, it’s still headed to a landfill or incinerator somewhere to be dealt with. That’s why our modern throw away culture is so scary.

We are not frogs, and cannot be managed in the same way. However, we can take responsibility for our consumption and be aware of our impact. When we know, we can act diligently. Ignorance is no excuse when you reach for something on a shelf in a big box store and dismiss the consequences. Do you really need that? Can you pay more locally and save on gas? Can you see beyond your own budget and look at how your buying impacts everything else around you? This is not a guilt trip, but a thinking exercise. We would live better for it, I’m sure.

We are all just trying to survive, like the frog, but our brains and comprehension are vastly more advanced (at least, that’s what we’re taught) and so, action counts. Stewardship is a way of taking responsibility, first for one’s self, then one’s surroundings. Acting locally to support a healthier world does make a difference. Stopping one frog in the pond prevents thousands more, shifting consumption can greatly reduce demand, and slow down encroachment in the same way. When will enough be enough?

Plant Islands

Shifting away from grassy turf on Leafhopper Farm invites more diversity, better water retention, more fertility to the soil, and the mimicking of more natural habitat suited to a temperate rain forest. These layers of added “value” are what permaculture is all about.

This particular plant island project also included the establishment of a footpath and the restoration of the ground around a large Red Cedar Thuja plicata to protect its roots. Human movement in a community space is very important. Details like where the shortest distance between to points will quickly show in the worn down trails out feet carve out of the soil. Compaction over time will wear down the trail creating low spots where water builds up with no where to drain. In many instances, foot paths move around trees, exposing rootlets which in time, may hinder growth, and ultimately compromise the flora nearby.

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mulched pathway

Footpaths are inevitable. After working for a few summers in Central Park, NYC, I saw first hand the devastation wrought by millions of walking enthusiasts in a park setting. The foot trails told us where people wanted to go, and though there might have been a paved path near by, if there is a shorter rout, the feet will find it. We would sometimes have to fence off a corner, or put in a new sidewalk to prevent erosion and compaction. Here at Leafhopper Farm, we are not dealing with millions, or even thousands, however, even two people walking twice a day back and forth between bedroom and kitchen can carve out a trail. The easiest fix is mulching and guiding the path’s rout. In the picture above, mulch has been spread about three feet across on the old path, but the rout has been shifted slightly to the left, and rerouted using a blue barrel to block the old trail.

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I chose to create the plant island here because the cedar had a large root exposed on the surface of this space and because the shelter of the cedar would protect young evergreen trees and shade loving plants of the native under-story. To the left in the photo above you can also see a stumpery inspired by Highgrove Garden. Piling up biomass is a wonderful way to bank long term fertility in your soil. Of course, the soil will not be a flat sheet, but a bumpy, hilly mound of good organic matter full of micro climates.

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This mound was built up using fruit tree prunings, mulch, topsoil, and compost. On the trail side of the material, rocks hold the soil back from the foot path and a bench on the north side of the bank offers a respite along the way. The rocks are not stacked, nor are they set in expectation of holding long term. This island will sink, settle, and slide down hill over time. I’m fine with that, in the mean time, it hosts young trees and other shade loving plants that will cultivate a community of forest for the future. Eventually, these young trees will be dug up once more and moved into the actual forested area of the land. For now, they sit safely in this nursery space where deer are less likely to eat them in this vulnerable sate.

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trees, shrubs, and ground covers

The verity of plants in this island are quite special. The trees are small, but in time, they will be much like the Cedar towering above, creating more forest habitat. Red Cedars are the “climax species” in The Pacific Northwest. There are two young ones in this island. Two other tree species represented are Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii and Western Hemlock Tsuga heterophylla. Some Butterfly Bush Buddleia davidii is planted here and though it is considered a noxious weed in Washington, this cultivated space will be well tended to prevent the spreading. It is a great pollinator species. Sala Gaultheria shallon is establishing here. Though in most places Sala is common, we have NONE on the land outside this island. Hopefully, that will change in time, with the establishing of more plant island and transplanting. 

Nature takes her time, and we humans love to rush things. Establishing the plant islands allows me to mimic nature, bring in more native plants, and create much needed habitat while improving human access to the facilities and beautifying the land.

Planting and Pruning

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west fence hedge

The young hedge plants I’ve been establishing along the zone 1 west fence line is growing up fast. Deer have been the biggest challenge, so I lay a net over the young plants to keep them safe. Now, 2 years later, the plants are thriving and it’s time to lift the netting to create a fence. At the same time I set the fence, more plants went into the hedge line and pallets are backing the line to create a nice “hallway” for the young pants to grow without browsing predation. This hedge has everything in it, from willow to maple, daylily and comfrey. I lay a few of the larger big leaf maples, but the rest of the growth will need a few more years of established growth before the shaping of the hedge begins. I look forward to hosting a workshop around this craft as the plants mature.

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apple orchard pruning

It’s been a heck of a summer for the fruit trees here at Leafhopper Farm. Our frost peach gave her fruit generously, while the old pear tree spent this summer in an “off year”. This was probably due to the huge production last year. Pears are picky about how you prune them, and I’ve been hacking that tree back a lot these past two years. I was not surprise to see only one fruit on the tree this year. The apples are still in recovery mode too. I think along with this pruning, I’ll put extra compost around the base of each tree this fall to give them a boost.

You can see from the picture above that I’m really cutting the orchard back. People might be shocked to see me pruning in late summer, well, I have some time right now, so I’m taking advantage and shearing back the branches to allow more light and air into the crown. It looks rough, but I think they will respond favorably to being thinned. The risk in doing this late in the summer, is stunting new growth and stressing the tree. These trees are old, established, and overgrown to begin with. Though they might try to put on new buds as winter comes, the ultimate shaping will help the tree in the long run.

Pond Perseverance

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So, we broke our dry streak this summer and still, our little pond held! The “rain” we did get on August 12th was 0.02″. That’s all we’ve had and it’s now the end of August and believe me, none of the gardens would be alive without intense watering. It’s a different story around the pond. Not only are the fish alive and well under the surface, but plants and other fauna abound in this critical micro climate created during our earthworks project.

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After the initial dig, I spend the winter carefully raking the disturbed soil and sewing cover crop seed around the earthworks to prevent erosion from rain. Happily, most of the crops sprouted and formed a blanket of green fodder for the goats and chickens. People have also been harvesting from the cover crop, most notably purple clover Trifolium pratense flowers. I harvest them and dry the flowers for tea, but do not drink it myself due to its effect on estrogen receptors. This means if you have a family history of breast cancer, you should not drink the tea often. Always do your research before taking an herbal remedy. What works for one body may not be good for another.

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Purple Clover around outflow pipe (far right)

Other plants have been shoving their way into the moisture of our pond. Phalaris arundinacea is aggressively stealing the limelight in the picture below. Reed Canary Grass was brought into Western Washington as a fodder for cattle. It would grow in standing water and made pastures more productive. Well, because it loved water, it found its way into all the wetlands along the coast and is now moving inland. There were already stands of this grass established on the land when I arrived and I have to work diligently to keep it in check by cutting it back by hand and making sure the animals brows it down before seeding can happen.

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One native friend, Salix luscida, or, Pacific Willow, is a welcome plant volunteering all around the rim of winter water mark. I’ve been uprooting these baby trees and setting them in my western fence line hedge. They will be a great pollinator in early spring, then creating the matted growth which is perfect for keeping livestock in. They can brows the fence and not put a dent in established willow stands. While it’s nice to have a native willow on the land, I’m not so excited about letting it establish in the pond. The pond was designed to be accessible. Allowing the willow to grow here would crowd out other smaller species and make it hard to walk down to the water’s edge. Rooted trees in the pond banks would also compromise the berm holding the water in and eventually leech out all the water on down the hill. That’s an important detail in your pond planning!

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There are bulrushes in the pond now, but I’m not sure what kind. Scirpus microcarpus might be a good candidate. There’s a great up close of the Pacific Willow in the picture above, along with the bulrush and our old red cedar Thuja plicata stump sits high in the water. This habitat is usually completely submerged through the wet months of fall, winter, and early spring. If you look extra hard in the photo above, you’ll see two bullfrogs Lithobates catesbeianus enjoying the pond. I am still working to keep them out of the pond, but my travels this summer left a window for them to flourish. I’m looking forward to delicious frog legs!

It’s been 4 years now, and the pond is still holding water, though not as much as the design allows for with proper sealing. Though I have been adamant about not using plastic or clay to finish the job, there are other options, and I will keep researching opportunities. It takes mother nature thousands of years to establish wetlands, so I’m not rushing this transition. However, it would be nice to have a full pond through the summer months, and with all these 90 degree days, swimming would be a real treat.

We’re looking at taking on some pigs this fall to help out a friend who can no longer have animals. If the young pigs come, I’m going to try them out on the pond as a natural sealer. Their wallowing compresses the pond edges, while the fecal matter mixed in with the clay creates a sort of plaster which helps hold the seal. It was a technique used back in my home state of Oklahoma, where clay was abundant in the soil. It is here too, but the glacial till consisting of large pebbles acts like a sieve. The next big addition to our pond will be a few small floating islands of vegetation to create shade for the fish.