Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Garden Interview with Barbara, Part 2 of 2.

Note that this is the second and final portion of my in depth interview of gardening guru, Barbara, who farmed one acre here in Boulder. She has since moved to Washington State. Part 1. of the interview is here.--K.M.

Above: Barbara's free range egg layers foraging in her garden.

Q: One of the charming things about your property were your free-range chickens and we loved getting eggs from you. Can you give people here some tips on raising chickens? Which chicken varieties do you recommend for egg-laying? Do you agree with Joel Salatin that chickens really help the soil and enhance the farms ecosystem?

A: Oh my gosh, do they ever help the farm. They were the reason my earwig menace disappeared. I loved allowing the chickens into the vegetable patch after the growing season was over and hated fencing them out again in spring – but of course they are quite destructive with most edibles.

Free ranging fowl are beautiful, as pleasant as flowers around your yard. I loved having them – but would not want hens if I had to confine them (unless it was a huge, huge pen) for the free movement was what made them interesting. Raising chickens on a small lot, that natural freedom would be difficult to attain. I have no plans to do so here in Washington in my new yard. My son’s family has 5 chickens but they are in a small area and I really feel sorry for them.

As to varieties, there are so many great ones. I tried lots of breeds but certainly don’t know even the majority. My faves for egg production were Black Star and Red Star. They are hybrids, smallish, don’t eat a lot and are excellent large brown egg producers. But for beauty, I’d chose the Americauna, the Buff Orpington and Australorps which are all good egg producers as well as lovely to look at. For kids, Buff Orpington are calm and good pets.

Q: You had a simple sign on your back fence that welcomed people to pick ‘n pay. Can you comment on that system and would you recommend it to other gardeners?

A: I am a lazy gardener and certainly don’t want the sort of commitment even a small CSA would entail. And the thought of spending time at a farmers’ market booth is dreadful. I’d rather be doing something fun like gardening! So since I had an abundance, I started giving it away to my kids’ families and neighbors. Then I enlarged the garden and planted more and found that others wanted some but felt they should pay in return – it just sort of happened. I really didn’t want to assign prices for pick-your-own veggies and it wasn’t that important that I get a certain amount of money. I was happy with anything and it seemed that others were happy to come at their convenient hours to pick the produce which couldn’t be fresher. It just seemed a natural evolution for someone who obsesses with growing stuff.

Q: You raised goats on the back part of your acre. Why did you decide to include goats on your little farm?

A: I got my goats because Sierra Club’s magazine introduced me to the concept of goat packing as environmentally sound. It was about 1995 or so and I had tried llama packing but found it to be problematic – llamas are truly wild animals and have absolutely no loyalty. When we moved to Colorado, I finally had a good spot for a goat pasture. That back section was weedy and full of bindweed and thistle and had a rundown loafing shed. My husband helped me fix that up and I went to Haystack Mountain Dairy to talk to them. There, I found two newborn males destined to be sent off to a feedlot barn and raised for slaughter. They were Nubians with beautiful long ears and I fell in love.

By this time I had read several books on goat packing and had learned that Nubians are not a recommended breed for that purpose. Undaunted, I brought them home that day, two neutered males, a few days old, and bottle fed them. What a joy they were. They ate the bindweed and thistle! Went back and got two more. Husband was getting scared but he came to love them too. My ninety year old mom was with us and how she loved bottle feeding them and holding the babies on her lap. There is nothing as sweet and clever as a kid. Sometimes she would just sit in the yard and watch them play for hours. If you remember our gigantic willow tree in back, you’ll recall that it had a huge sloping trunk. The kids would climb that tree and run up thirty feet or so to forage on the willow leaves there.

Anyway, I can see I’m getting carried away with my goat memories. The four boys grew into massive goats, each over 200 pounds and they were the BEST packers ever. We never had to lead them, they would jump in the trailer voluntarily, stand for loading their packs and cavort down any trail with great pleasure. They were amazingly fond of a campfire and once one even singed his long ears while he hung over the flames. They did long trips to The Holy Cross Wilderness, the Wind River Wilderness, other areas in Wyoming, and several trips around Breckenridge.

They also went on lots and lots of day hikes in the Boulder area. They attended a National Goat Packing Convention in Wyoming where goat packers from all over the west convened to camp and socialize. We did a work project jointly for the Forest Service and of all the goats there, mine were the biggest and most willing to carry large heavy weather station equipment. They willingly crossed streams and didn’t beg at mealtimes – all to the amazement of those goat packers who “knew” Nubians were lazy and unfit. And their photo was featured on the cover of “The Journal of the Working Goat” magazine! Such great goats. Finally, they grew too old to pack and retired to be pasture potatoes – which is when you knew them, I think.

So you see, I didn’t really pick them for their breed but I’d recommend them to anyone. The Nubian does are great milkers too.

Q: Tell what perennials, fruit trees, berries, and the like are worth growing and do you have any favorite varieties which you recommend?

Well, for easy care, xeric perennials are great. I always grow Rudbeckia triloba which is a lovely black-eyed susan with miniature flowers. Thomas Jefferson grew these. Another he loved was Alcea nigra, the black (really dark, dark red/purple) hollyhock and I find these so striking. I always grow lavender, any hardy variety. Gaura is so elegant and needs no care – it is one of my best perennials and kids really enjoy seeing the butterfly flowers bobbing around. And one of my standbys is Centranthus ruber (Jupiter’s Beard), another is the hardy geranium, Rozanne. All these plants can handle zone 5 or lower and need very little care.

Fruit trees are not my forte, but the sour cherry Montmorency is nice to have for pies and jam and I do love figs, which overwinter in my new garden. I’m an advocate of Mara des Bois strawberries, a day neutral variety. Elderberry is a lovely shrub that produces berries very useful for making medicinal syrup – I’m growing the variety Sutherland Gold and it’s as pretty as a Japanese Maple with its airy deeply cut leaves.

Photo of White Salmon, Washington by Sam Beebe, Ecotrust via Flickr CC.

Q: You have started a new adventure in your life by moving to White Salmon, Washington, to be near your grandchildren. You are just beginning a new and smaller garden there in a climate and with soil much different from the 1-acre garden you had here in Boulder, Colorado. Please tell us what your priorities will be in your new garden.

First priority is an extensive vegetable garden and it is half done, to be completed later this spring. Although the soil here is not as rich as my last garden, it is fine and already the worms are growing big and healthy so great soil is sure to come. My priority now is really to have fun and to really enjoy the garden at all seasons. Although it seems silly, I never quite realized how much I took the garden for granted. But now that I have a very finite number of growing seasons ahead, I vow to treasure each one.

It’s about 10 months since we moved to this sweet town of White Salmon, Washington, population 2,500, elevation 700 feet, sitting above the Columbia River across from the town of Hood River, Oregon. But it took until May to get into our house and therefore the garden had a late start. We’re on a double town lot, about a third of an acre with only two trees blocking the sun. One is an ancient oak – circumference of 12 feet (and very tall) and the other a weeping crepe myrtle tree about 20 feet high. There are a lot of rhododendrons and azaleas used as foundation plantings (the house was built in 1949 so most things are mature). The back of the house has a long line of gigantic bushy hydrangeas and there was way too much lawn to care for now that I’m “retired”! Before even unpacking everything, I peeled up the sod running all along the west side of the yard into an area about 75′ long and 25′ at the front and tapering down to 10′ wide at the back (the lot is not square).

That was enough sod to remove for a start and I planted right into the bare soil, no roto-tilling or turning over the soil, of course. I’ve been mulching pathways and around plants and the soil which is clay has been improving already. All seems to be growing well and I’m very pleased with the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant especially. I do miss the greenhouse, but it’s warmer here, so I can manage until we get time to build a much smaller one. A friend gave me some cuttings of her very tall and hardy rosemary and I managed to root so many plants that I have a 25′ rosemary hedge 2′ high already. I hope to enclose the entire garden that way over time to keep out the dogs in a pretty way.

Since I had so much peeled up sod when I cleared the garden area, I piled it up into a huge 5-foot high mound in another part of the yard and planted the winter squash on top. It’s become quite impressive and rather mysterious with the vines running everywhere and big warty squash peeping through. After frost, I’ll disassemble the mound which should be nicely rotted and add it back to the veg garden. After this first summer of growing, I can already see the planting space is too cramped for me so I’m now doubling the vegetable garden using my usual cardboard/hay technique to kill the grass, and extending my vegetable garden around to the back yard. It will be ready to plant in spring after spending the winter under a thick blanket of leaves.

All in all, it’s been so much fun starting a new garden. Tomatoes and other tender plants are going strong still and I’ve just cut another huge batch of basil for pesto. How I love this long growing season. Thanks to the gods above, there is no bindweed here! Do you believe? And no slugs either! No mosquitoes, but there are lots of rattlers in the woods and trails. I have stones and large rocks in the garden area, so all is not perfect. Rains have yet to commence and that’s a mixed blessing. The glorious sunny days are great, but everything is dry, dry, dry. Several fires have broken out in the hills and mountains near us so we all are hoping for some rain soon. And for snow in the mountains too – although our Mt. Hood view to the south shows plenty of snow there still left from last winter.

Photo of Huckleberries by waferboard via Flickr CC. Note that various huckleberry varieties can range in color from red to dark blue.

(Barbara appreciates and forages for edible berries as is evident in this note..."Right now we’re picking wild blackberries for the new freezer and before, it’s been strawberries, cherries, and blueberries from local u-pick farms. Soon we’ll be on the Pacific Crest to harvest the wild huckleberries which are abundant up there. Busy, busy, busy out here but I love it!")

Q: I always had the impression when visiting your property that you were super-human in your ability to accomplish so much on such a large property while keeping it so tidy and neat, too. My understanding is that you did most of your own labor. Please comment on the time involved in “farming” one acre and if you have any secrets about labor-saving techniques, please share them with us.

Yes, I really believe that NOT tilling is the very best way to minimize your garden chores. Of course, you need to disturb the soil a bit when you plant seeds or starts, but minimize the disruption. Less weeds appear from year to year if the ground is undisturbed and mulch is applied continually. That is work, of course, but I considered it feeding the hordes of microfauna that will flourish underfoot and I find it very satisfying.

And walk through your garden as often as you can – every day, every evening, whenever! If you’ve deeply mulched, you can do so without fearing soil compaction. Getting up close to the plants lets you commune and observe small events like weeds sprouting. Getting them while they are tiny means little effort. A good mulch also means less watering and of course, less need to fertilize as the mulch breaks down into nutrients.

Q: Shortly before you left, a cute little self-service local produce shop opened up a few properties away from yours. Can you tell us if you were involved with that or how that project developed?

I wasn’t really that involved although I did sometimes take extra produce down the street for sale there. But it was very encouraging – the concept was such a great one. Every neighborhood should have a green grocer again – and folks should feel comfortable about putting up a stand to sell their extra fruit or pumpkins or whatever. We used to have those informal stands all over the countryside. It is such a convivial way to share your surplus and I hope we see it happening a lot more in the future.

Here in Washington, our town’s farmers’ market encourages folks to bring any garden goods they’d like to sell to a community table (no commitment, just do it if and when you want to).

Q: You had a cute country kitchen which was very unconventional by today’s standards. You no doubt did a lot of food processing and preserving in that kitchen. Which foods do you think are most worthwhile to dry, preserve, freeze, or can?

Drying tomatoes, usually cherry tomatoes like Juliet is a seasonal event. We also freeze large tomatoes a lot, chopping them but never peeling as cooking dissolves the skin and we usually make pasta sauce or soup with them. And those dried Juliet tomatoes thicken up any watery tomato sauce so nicely.

I always freeze vast quantities of basil chopped in olive oil with garlic and salt. It can be used for pasta pesto or just as a sauce – yummy over bruschetta or mashed potatoes or in soup. Every surplus fruit goes into the freezer (we have a very big one) or is dried to be relished in winter. Sometimes I make jams but canning is so labor intensive that it doesn’t get done at our house. We mostly just freeze and dry, very simple to do.

Q: The first time I ever visited your garden I thought of Tasha Tudor, the barefoot artist grandma who raised goats and parrots and gardened beautifully in Vermont. Earlier in my gardening years, I had a fascination with Tasha and bought her books and calendars. Do you see yourself as a Tasha Tudor?

Oh, I would never presume to be in her league. She had a natural beauty about her and everything she touched seemed to reflect that. She was such a purist about living simply. I have read every book about her many times and I suppose that I do adopt some of her love of beauty when I create my garden. But I could never be the talented artist she was. I don’t see myself as an artist but perhaps as an artisan, a craft person.

Q: Some longevity experts recommend gardening because gardeners tend to live longer. Maybe it just keeps us up and moving around instead of sitting, which is so bad for us. Many Midwestern farmers live very long lives on diets of beef and potatoes and rich desserts and I suspect it is because they remain active all of their lives. Do you think that gardening keeps a person young?

Absolutely. I hope to garden for at least 20 more years (I’m 70). Bending, stretching, using so many muscles – yes, that’s great. But the zen of garden immersion is the real key, I think. It is such a good way to decompress by enjoying the garden, and I think our psyches need to have that peaceful time of dealing with simple basic things like dirt and roots and buds and bugs.

Q: You are a small, trim, and fit woman who grows your own food. How do you choose to eat?

I’ve been a vegetarian for 57 years and a vegan for the last two. It is the only way I could possibly want to eat, both for the good of my body and for the good of the planet.

Q: There are two schools of gardeners on dirt. Are you in the one that likes to feel the dirt as you work, or do you wear gloves when you work?

Over and over I try to wear gloves to protect my hands from scratches, sun, etc. but they always seem to get left somewhere and before I know it I’ve got my fingernails nice and grimy. I guess that feels best to me. It seems there are bacteria in the soil that trigger serotonin-releasing neurons and therefore, we get a nice boost in our spirits when we get personal with the soil. Sounds fine to me.

Q: Are there any favorite must-have gardening tools that you would recommend?

I love the hoe called Winged Weeder and have used it in many ways for years and years. I wouldn’t want to be without it.

Q: Who are favorite gardening gurus and which are your favorite gardening books?

Ruth Stout is the goddess of mulching and I enjoy all her books (hard to find them now), simplistic though they may be. She was so influential to me in the 1960’s, the popularizer of our modern deep mulch movement . Back in the 1970’s, my dear aunt introduced me to One-straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka and I love to reread that from time to time. Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway has the best description of life under the soil – a great read. And Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running is another favorite of mine.

Q: Which are your favorite garden spots in the world?

The Mediterranean countries. Simple gardens are everywhere, the colors seems so clear and there is magic in them.

Q: Do you have any favorite quotes or principles that guide you?

One who plants a garden, plants happiness. (Chinese Proverb)

Q: Anything else?

Keep growing in every way.

Thanks so much, Barbara, and best of luck to you.

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