Puddle Planting

Now is the time to plant your starts and young trees folks! That’s what’s been happening at Leafhopper Farm and we’re well on our way to having some new native plant habitat around the landscape.

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In the picture above, you have to look hard, but here are a few flora friends to find:

Gaultheria shallon, Acer circinatum, Pseudotsuga menziesii, Blechnum spicant , Adiantum aleuticum, Pinus contorta, and Malus fusca

This hillside is usually overgrown with Rubus armeniacus, our common bramble. It’s been a neglected hillside, producing fodder for goat browsing. The soil here is sandy clay, dug up and piled here during some earthworks back in 2014. Because the soil is so disterbed, tinacious weed species like reed canary grass Phalaris arundinacea spread rampantly, and the whole space was a sort of waste land; but, it’s also a fantastic micro climate!

The hillside is banked on the south side of the well house. The sun heat reflects off the dark green metal sheeting and keeps the space warm. The graveled turn around area just below the space also banks heat, especially in the summer. I’ve put the shore pines in the sandy clay bank, and mulched heavily with wood chips and straw. Other under-story species are dispersed nearby to help diversify and regenerate the space. 

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On this west facing bank below the well house, we’ve planted more under-story shrubs with a few young evergreen trees, which will be transplanted in a few years as the bank is reshaped with a retainer wall to stabilize the building foundations above. Another potential experiment would be to pleacher these young trees to encourage their root systems to stabilize the bank instead. There is a seepage here, and more water catchment will need to be designed in this area.

Below is an update on some water catchment design already hard at work. The recent heavy rains are pouring down our hillside, above and below the soil. This drainage ditch is sending runoff to a catchment basin on the left of that large log. You can see the pipe connecting this basin to another on the right out of shot across the road. In the lower left of this picture, you can see water actually shooting up out of the ground from old drain pipe.

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All this catchment is directed to the pond, and the gallons that flow through this landscape in the wet months does add up. Leafhopper is still working towards even more catchment, including larger roof catchment systems which would include a 23,000 gallon cistern. That will take some permitting and even more planning, but the building plan is drawn up and contact with the county regarding code has begun. The farm’s permaculture plan is build around water and terrain. We’ve set up earthworks, including swales to direct our 23,000 gallons into during the dry months.

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The pond is not designed into any agricultural irrigation systems on the farm, as its main purpose is to create habitat. The farm is utilizing four 800 gallon cisterns to catch roof runoff from four different buildings, but that’s not enough to irrigate personal gardens all summer. They are helpful in holding water non the less and are used throughout the year for a number of other needs. No water catchment is a waste; water is life.

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Other plantings on the land include a cover crop of fodder plants, including Raphanus sativus. In this bed, there are also a mix of onions marked by a few bricks. I’m tilling some areas in and leaving others to grow, harvesting the young radishes from time to time. Next summer, this soil will be ready to host a vegetable garden. In future, we plan to put another greenhouse in this space, so the soil here will be consolidated into raised beds before the new house is built.

Back along the drainage ditch by the driveway, I’ve set in a couple of fruit trees and a pine. The mulch of cardboard will keep the young roots well insulated and bank moisture. It’s also a great way to keep the weeds and grasses at bay. At the base of the established evergreen on the left of this picture, there is a bank of biomass building up along that corner where the drive makes a sharp turn along the north side of the property. Establishing a solid corner (a drainage pipe also enters here from the north side of the drive) will anchor the directional change and protect the embankment and pipe. The visual shape of the tree sets a marker on the flat terrain which is easy to see. On driveways, these physical markers are crucial navigation aids.

They can also be enhanced pockets of habitat on the landscape. I’ll be planting a few more low growing perennials around the base of the tree. In time, this entire edge space along the driveway will be a hedge of useful plants and habitat for wildlife.

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Where the portable chicken coop is located, our permaculture plan mapped out a large shed building to house our biomass (wood chips and compost), as well as a greenhouse on the south side of the building. The roof catchment from this building and the shelter for the ger would fill that 23,000 gallon cistern we’re planning. That’s the layering system at work for the benefit of the long term resiliency at Leafhopper Farm.

Pleachering Round 2!

In January of 2016, I pleachered some young cherry to begin laying out hedgerows on the property. Now, two years later, it’s time for another laying! Below is a woven chaos of living wood fence. In only two years, the bitter cherry Prunus emarginata is a perfect species to work into a living hedge.

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When I lay the cherry initially back in the start of 2016, my intention was to keep the lengths alive and sprouting along the trunks like nurse logs. This stand was nicely grouped along an old fence line where I would like to establish hedgerows. With some careful cutting, I lay the trees in a “T” shape. On the west side of the T, mushroom habitat and white pine plantings have been established along a habitat buffer zone where livestock will not be grazed regularly. on the east side of the T, goat and chicken rotation continues around a newly planted black walnut Juglans nigra, tree island will encourage under-story habitat with more good edge space for hedges and diverse brows.

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These comparative photos give me so much motivation! In just two years of coaxing and coursing, the biomass build is so noticeable. Now with the addition of native replanting and some intentional shaping, these living fences. In the picture below, the branches at the stools (cut stumps of the cherry) are over six feet high now. It will be interesting to see how the trees blossom out this year.

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Above is an up close of the freshly pleachered stools. These trees are actually the branches of a leaning cherry trunk which is struggling with canker. This is common in PWN climate. There are organic sprays that can help prevent and combat this infection, but it’s so rampant, I’d rather keep encouraging the tree while it’s able to thrive while planting new species and adapting the hedge against the canker.

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Along the cherry fence, new plantings of roses, crab-apple, twin berry, and white pine (to name a few) native plantings are going in to reinforce and diversify the hedges. P. emarginata is short lived in our evergreen forests. The trees are stressed by our poor soil and compacted glacial clay and will not reach full maturity. The Forester suggested cutting them down, and other cherries in this stand which are not convenient for the hedgerow will be bucked up and inoculated with rishi mushrooms.

The hedges as Leafhopper Farm are slow to take shape, and this living hedge is a great reward for all the shaping work done over the years. In future, the cherry will die back, followed by the natives planted this year, who will eventually establish and be pleachered as these cherries were today. The western white pine will not be pleachered, as pine do not “shape” well and prefer to be climax canopy species. Pines can also handle compacted clay soil, setting the stage for a successful mature stand of forest a few generations from now.

Stream Buffer Fencing

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The fencing is on here at Leafhopper Farm! After receiving a King Conservation District cost share grant and mapping out stream buffers, the fencing began. I’ll be installing 635′ of woven wire stock fence at roughly 150′ stream setback. This will go above and beyond in setting up strong ground water enhancement for Weiss Creek, our “2S” 2nd Class Saminoid (salmon bearing) water feature.

Right now, Leafhopper is not running large numbers of livestock on the landscape, but as the goat herd expands and sheep are reincorporated into our rotational grazing system, we’ll need to keep them out of our sensitive riparian landscapes which are concentrated along the creek’s banks. If the livestock were to graze down into the stream buffer, they would be defecating too close to the water and polluting the creek. Their browsing would eventually out compete many of the native plants, which cannot survive continual grazing systems.

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On the landscape, these new lines of fencing will greatly change the flow of energy on the property. Gates and wire mesh walls seem a little intrusive, but ultimately subscribe to county regulations regarding proper stream buffer construction for active livestock systems of agriculture. I’m glad to protect our native environment and, within the fenced buffers, cultivate native plant food and medicine for use on the farm.

Up till now, the rotational grazing systems at Leafhopper Farm have worked perfectly to remove blackberry and bring back the visual lines around the property, inviting back the more sensitive native plants who would otherwise be engulfed by bramble. Below is a shot looking south from the east fence line towards Weiss Creek and the wonderful wood and steel bridge put in by Wild Fish Conservancy. Just beyond that bridge, you can see one of the goats standing in the grassy field. The lush green growth is very much alive, even at the darkest time of year.

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The grazing systems of Leafhopper have been very beneficial for the rehabilitation of the under-story, including the reduction in invasive blackberry bramble, and the spreading of good nutrients back into the soil by livestock. Before the farm was in holistic restoration, there were previous agricultural management practices going all the way back to the 1960s when the land was clear-cut for a second time and then settled by the family, which homesteaded for two generations.

While setting the new fence posts, I got a chance to see the history of fencing on the farm. The original fencing used raw, split red cedar posts. When the land was surveyed in the 80s, the red t-posts went in as official boundary markers. What I looked at next were the old, porcelain fence insulators of early hot wire systems. Neighbors tell me the previous land owners ran pigs on the clear cut part of their land first, then a mix of cows and horses. The porcelain insulators are low on the fence posts, and look to have been only one stand of wire’s worth of insulation; all you need for a smart pig operation. The large red plastic insulators are for the 90s, and are set at a place of the posts at just the right height for cows and horses.

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Now there is a new post in the ground on this fence line. It’s a treated fir post, and it will be part of an “H” brace for the stream buffer cross fencing. This is the new ecological chapter for this landscape, and a step in the direction of restoration. I’ll continue to honor the agricultural energy cultivating in this soil, but with more intention of regeneration, rather than taking without giving.

The shift is happening well beyond these fences. I would like to think I am part of a generation which can see the need for restorative stewardship of place. Our landscape has seen great change in the past century, especially here in The Pacific Northwest. Leafhopper Farm stands at the edge of that drastically changing landscape, as settlement continued to demand space and resources, rather than reaching further into the natural world, expecting limitless availability, we’ve reached a tipping point in the evolution of mankind. In this moment, the transition from consumption to restoration must happen if we are to survive as a species.

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This fence is a symbol of Leafhopper Farm’s commitment to good stewardship of the land, and nurturing the landscape knowing our outlook for the future of this farm is regenerative and bright.

Plant Medicine In Action

While trying to pull apart a partially split piece of firewood yesterday, my left thumb received some impact trauma. I’ve injured this thumb before, falling off a bike in childhood (a fractured metacarpal); so the pain I felt as my thumb jammed against the heavy wood yesterday was familiar. Now, I have a high threshold to pain, and even as a child, my thumb was not in a cast till over a week later when I finally told my mom I was having trouble holding a pencil to write my homework. I’d fractured the lower bone of my thumb, and the doctor had to “reset” the bone before putting the cast on. Here again, I opted not to get the shot to numb my hand before the setting, as shots are really not my thing. Biting down on a roll of gauze, I sat the resetting and wore a pink cast for six weeks.

An impact to the thumb again has luckily not resulted in a fracture of any consequence, and I’ve spent part of this rainy afternoon writing holiday cards without too much issue from the injury in day three of recovery. However, my treatment and care of the hand right after the initial impact trauma, greatly enhanced that healing process none the less.

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comfrey Symphytum poultice

I stopped prepping firewood as soon as the injury happened, then turning to my partner who also happened to be outside with me, I told him what had happened and we agreed that comfrey would be a good thing to go dig up out of the herb bed. Symphytum officinal has come up in these writings before, and it’s a key plant at Leafhopper Farm. I usually talk about it as a chop and drop to grow the fertility in garden soil, but it’s also a very powerful medicinal plant to put to use in your natural medicine first aid. The root is most potent, and in winter, the only part of the plant available, so we dug up a few and chopped them up for a poultice. 

Most herbal remedy books will recommend really mushing up the plant into a paste; but we have not had good success in trying to masticate the plant in machines effectively because the sticky balm, which prolifically sheds from the plant matter (the material you’re trying to get on the wound) gums up most machines. Chopping is quite effective, and you’ll quickly have more than enough “sap” leeching out of the root pieces for a good dosage to the skin once it’s wrapped on. I simply replaced the root with freshly chopped new root every half hour for about 3 poultice treatments. After that, I used a comfrey salve for the rest of that day and the next and found the injury to now be almost free of any pain. It’s still a little tender, but no where near the pain I was enduring after the initial trauma.

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root stock in water, salve on thumb

There was enough dug up root left over to plant back out in the medicine hedges. Comfrey is prolific, with a tenacious tap root, so plant in places with compacted soil. It will take over, so manage the spread with a lot of chop and drop. Any part of the plant is used for medicine, but only externally! I’ll say right now that I’m not a professional medical practitioner of any kind, but I do appreciate natural healing, and happily apply plant medicine in my life to my self. Learning about safe, natural remedies is fun and rewarding, especially when you can empower your own healing process with confidence. There is still a time and place for natural healing, and it’s not something to use in place of calling 911 in cases of emergency. But for bumps and bruises, sniffles, and feeling in the dumps, nature’s medicine cabinet abounds with healthy plant remedies you can grow around the house.

Farms=Food

Perhaps it is not often reflected, that food is a necessity to live. I would argue, that at least, in industrialized agricultural societies, food is not a focus. We have all been brought up to know that grocery stores are places to get food, and that the shelves are always well stocked. Maybe some of us have experiences a natural disaster in which scarcity of store bought items was very real. Many Puerto Ricans are experiencing this right now, and many other impoverished people throughout the world who are abused by first world industrialization taking natural resources for “first world” manufactured goods.

For example, the love of canned beverages, from beer and energy drinks to those flavored carbonated waters, demands water a the main ingredient. Many of the processing facilities are located in developing nations (because it’s cheaper), it’s also easier to bully small communities for their natural resources. Here in The USA, we think of our liberties, law, and freedoms entitle us to water, food, etc. That’s not how commercial development thinks, or corporations, which are people in the eyes of the law. This is beginning to chip away at our consumer rights, and abuse the very land we stand on. This story is nothing new, but in our backyards, in a world of ever expanding population which is growing exponentially. Finite resources are clearly lost in the capitalistic concept of exponential growth, which drives our military industrial complex.

Our economy has overrun the quality of life for our citizens and the government (which is for the people by the people, meaning us), is selling out to the highest bidder, making our democracy and plutocracy and taking the whole ship down with the crew, so to speak. Here’s how it’s playing out at Leafhopper Farm:

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Above is an agricultural land study recently conducted in King County where the farm is located. However, Leafhopper is not included in these maps in any informative way. What? But it’s a farm, it’s growing and producing food, is that not agricultural land? Well, ag land is stipulated in Washington State, by APD (Agricultural Production District). If your land is not within the district, your land could be developed and used for other purposes than farming. Land within the APD is restricted to agricultural production. This is because the land is considered the most fertile and productive for farming. It is also historically used as ag land, which assumes it’s been modified with drainage, tilling, and other management practices.

King County only has two major areas of APD land, and only one is represented in the maps above. Nearly half of the agricultural land in the county rests outside the APD boundaries, and that’s where Leafhopper Farm comes in. In the map below, most of the county is represented, along with all APD land. The red circles are farm land concentrations outside the officially recognized boundaries. All of this farmland in red below is at risk of development.

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Imagine if King County lost half its farm land. What part of the country grows enough food to feed it’s population without importing extra? Here’s a look at Washington State production. Note the millions in specific crops, not general food production for local consumption. Here’s a national map of food security.

For all the millions of dollars in agriculture produced in Washington State, there sure is a high rate of insecurity when it comes to actually accessing food. Our state also exports millions in food abroad, most of which is shipped from other states through ours to the ports. We’re the #3 food exporter in the US. Yet when you look at the food scarcity map above, Washington state is not such a food rich landscape for the local consumer.

Food security is often linked to poverty, including a lack of vehicle to get to a store, or even having a store around. It also relates to affordability, as most organic or nutrient rich foods are expensive, mainly because they are fresh, in demand, and are not subsidized like commercial agriculture.  Mass produces boxed, cheap, and non-nutritious products they pass off as food is what’s creating health crisis in our nation and leading to an overwhelmed healthcare system.

Now let’s look at national maps of agricultural production, crop value, and how it all relates to food security.

We’re growing mostly grains. Grains are usually not crops for people, but to feed livestock. The fruit, nut, and vegetable categories are all grouped into one color, which is very hard to sort from the soybean color. Hay and silage are the least economically strong, yet they feed the animals which represents value added livestock. However, we’re not clear on where the grains are going to support the value map below. Vegetable, fruit, and nut production look like the most value for land use, but that’s also misleading, because again, nothing in these maps actually tells us what crops are going to people to enhance food security.

When you reference the food security map over these crop and value maps, you see the agricultural production does not at all reflect food security. This is the wake up call for all of us who see big commercial farms as the salvation of our food. These industrial farms are not producing healthy food for people, but more often large mono-crops of grain for highly processed and additive rich per-packaged foods, which have a long lasting shelf life and can be shipped easily to our box store shelves. This industrializing of our food will be our ultimate undoing.

So, what to do? Start by growing something yourself. Get a grow light and a few plastic buckets, buy organic soil and some non-GMO seeds of things you want to eat fresh and start growing them! Take time to understand what goes into growing food and participate in enriching your diet. Research crops and find out what grows best where you live. If you have yard space, put in a garden. It does not have to be large, or contain everything you’ll need, but even kale is worth cultivating, and easy. By participating directly in your food, you’ll come to understand why fresh is best, and maybe you’ll spend more time outside, in the soil, and eating healthy food!

My grandparents lived through The Great Depression, and always had a small vegetable garden. They has known hunger and scarcity, but that wisdom is dying out, and our current generations are taking food for granted like never before. It will come back to haunt us, but you can take steps towards self-sufficiency and community reliance. That’s why King County is doing this agricultural land survey. They plan to use this map to find out what land is being underutilized, then set up support to get farming started in places that are neglected. They are also beginning to look at land once though of as unfarmable.

Places like Leafhopper Farm, which are in the foothills, will never be river bottom land, but the soil can be cultivated, designed with smart water systems for better irrigation and productivity, especially if we look outside current USDA models of what is considered a farm and start designing with food production and habitat restoration in mind. I talked with the county about mushroom cultivation, food forest growth, and earthworks to better retain water, preventing runoff and nutrient leeching out of the soil.

New farming techniques are popping up all over the world as people see the need to produce and conserve. We have to evolve our food systems to supply an ever growing population, while working within the limitations of our soil and climate. As any farmer can tell you, nothing is a sure bet in nature, and those limitations are becoming ever exaggerated by climate change. Tilled soil and row cropping is one of the most vulnerable ways to produce food. That in hand with mono cropping only a few species puts all our eggs in one basket.

At Leafhopper Farm, we’re hedging our bets by cultivating diversity and holistic management. The farm is here as a recourse for others wishing to produce small amounts of food in a manageable way. The farm is not productive enough yet to compete with commercial farms, but it does have enough land to offer those new to farming opportunities to try out small gardens, see a cistern set up for rain catchment, and understand what it takes to properly maintain modest acreage for personal productivity and long term fertility.

December Harvest

There were a few chantrelles in the woods still calling, so a foraging we will go! It was a late season this year, also minimal. I’ve written more reflections on the weather and mushroom cycles in previous blogs. It was truly marvelous to find these fungi treasures!

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December is not usually a time of lush greens, but thanks to the cloche, there are a variety of succulent vegetable bliss. After such success with overwintering greens, I added other cold hardy crops like peas and chard into the mix. Kale seems to bounce back quickly after frosts, though I am cultivating some in the cloche.

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The one critical point about winter gardening this year is my lack of utilizing the greenhouse more efficiently. It’s a great growing space, but the cold temperatures at our elevation require heating to maintain growth. This challenge is easy enough to remedy using compost and animals, but I’ve not built a system yet, and am still questioning even the placement of the green house.

The front and kitchen gardens are wonderful, and the cloche design could expand. This takes the pressure off needing greenhouse space for the winter vegetables. Perhaps turning the greenhouse into a mini barn set up, complete with chickens (or rabbit), manure compost system; and raised start beds. That’s the kind of demonstration space for a small scale gardening systems Leafhopper Farm is all about.

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On a festive note-

Holiday greens are an old tradition in the dark winter times. Coniferous decoration brings color and pleasant smells into the house; along with light, from candles to electric string lights of today. There is indeed a celebratory feeling in decking the halls with boughs, or in this case, a young cypress tree. This cultivar will find its way into the farm’s tree nursery. Right now, it’s small branches are holding up symbols of goodness to brighten the cold nights and short days. Fungi and octopuses dominate; all decorations, which usually hang modestly above the stove in the kitchen. In this time of sticking close to the hearth for warmth and comfort, gratitude to all the gifts and thanksgiving we share.

Sunny Paradise

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Well, our wet winter is taking a break as the typical December high pressure system moves in to give us a reminder of why The Pacific Northwest is such a beautiful place. This panorama above was taken looking northeast from near the flint napping pit (blue tarp). The morning fog was finally burning off to reveal a sapphire sky.

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As the morning light filtered through our evergreen forests, the beauty of frost melting into glistening pearls of delicate damp. The goats were out in force with the sun taking advantage of the good weather to clear out some more blackberry. This winter will be the last chance to heavily graze within the future stream buffer fence line. Next fall, if Leafhopper Farm is awarded the CREP grant, we’ll have the entire stream buffer area cleared of blackberry and replanted through federal funding from USDA. After the plantings are established, the goats will be persona-non-grate.

This well deserved sun time ushers in a very busy work period on the land mostly focused around transplanting and tree felling. As part of the farm’s Forest Stewardship Plan, many of our 15-20 year old red alders Alnus rubra are crowded, and because of there lifespan, already reached crown height maximum and are now dying back as they shade each other out. To hasten their secession, I’ve taken the saw into my forest and begun felling in an upper grove to open up canopy space. The native plants purchased from Tadpole Haven are going in to diversify and “beef up” the under-story. I’ll also be transplanting other native plants from the nursery such as our native roses like Rosa nutkana.

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Today I also moved all the cardboard (it filled the back of the truck completely and towered over the back window too). This biomass was distributed in the freshly transplanted areas where alder have already been removed. The logs will be inoculated with mycelia for mushroom cultivation and then put back in the environment where they were harvested to replenish the landscape as they decompose. The cardboard mulch will keep back bramble re-establishing in the planted areas while boosting nutrients and the possibility of mycelia spreading along the breaking down boxes. It’s like rolling out a red carpet to the mushrooms!

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Across the pasture, our layer flock of lovely hens is hard at work in another bramble patch. Here I spread some scratch feed to encourage their earthworks. The lovely light pouring through a cedar grove in the background is another storybook vision. I expect to see faeries and gnomes dancing together in the woods beyond. Though winter is starting to set in with cold dark nights and gray days, the sun does occasionally make her self known and when she shines, all of Western Washington is alight. It is great to be working on the land rain or shine, but admittedly, it’s a heck of a lot more enjoyable when the weather is mild and clear.  Thank you sun!