It’s been so long since I’ve written about what’s going on at the homestead…time just really got away from me the past year. I also tend not to want to write unless there’s anything new going on, and since progress on land restoration work requires patience, I wanted to wait until I had several things to share. The last time I wrote, we’d just signed all the papers and the homestead was officially ours. Everything was new and a little up in the air, and we were still getting to know the land. After seeing it in every season now, it feels more like an old friend, and we’re slowly getting to know the nooks, bends, and bumps of the place.
The First Year in Seasons
We set up wildlife cams there last summer and let them run all year long. We had some really great elk sightings, saw some cute deer on multiple occasions, and captured a mature black bear last year and a baby black bear this spring (both times they were walking towards the natural water spring at the homestead). In August we camped out and watched the Perseid meteor shower, but true to Pacific Northwest form, the clouds rolled in and blocked most of the night sky. However, there was a small patch of clear sky near the horizon, and we got to see a few meteors pass in there which was really special. Then August came and went, and in September I got Jeremy a native Oregon white oak tree for our anniversary, and we planted it at the top of a hill at the homestead. Then autumn arrived, and the green foliage that had sprung up and coated the ground slowly faded to gold, orange, red, and then finally, brown.
At Christmastime we bought a living blue spruce tree and decorated it as our Christmas tree, and then planted it outside at the homestead once Christmas had passed. This ended up being trickier than we’d originally thought, because the earth is so dense and clay-like from the intense amount of soil compaction that took place during the logging process. Trying to dig in wet clay is a nightmare, it sticks to your shovel so every time you bring up some clay you have to scrape your shovel off. It took us a couple hours to dig a hole 3 feet wide by 18 inches deep, and I was *covered* with mud from slipping and sliding around in it trying to scoop clay out of the ground with my hands while Jeremy shoveled. We got the tree in and it is still thriving, but we’re definitely going to get a smaller tree this Christmas so we don’t have to dig a hole quite that large.
Over the winter there was a huge snowstorm that blanketed the frozen ground in a foot-deep bed of snow, and we couldn’t make it up the steep driveway to check on the homestead because the plow had dumped the snow off the highway and into our gravel driveway in an icy 3-foot high lump. So, we drove to the neighborhood that borders our land and peeked at it from afar. It was soooooo quiet, even more than usual, since there wasn’t much wildlife about and the snow muffled any sound. Even from a distance, we could see deer tracks in the snow around where we’d planted our blue spruce, like they were checking it out and investigating.
Once the snow melted and the earth thawed, we went up for another visit and got to see a couple beautiful shots from the wild life cam, one of some deer wandering about in the snow, and another of the crazy snowstorm in action (there’s usually the Columbia river and mountains in the distance but it was a white out from all the snow). Spring came again, and suddenly the land was alive again with birds, greenery, and all forms of earthly life. It was so heart-warming to see it in it’s first year of a full circle of seasons, I imagine it’s a lot like what a mother feels like after watching her child grow during its first year of life.
Our Main Task: Soil Restoration
As for projects, in the past year we had some biochar made at the property from the slash piles the logging company left behind. If you’re unfamiliar with slash piles, they’re basically huge piles of branches, twigs, pine needles, and other woody debris left over from the logging process. There’s probably about a dozen or so of them at the homestead, which means a lot of half-rotted wood to be utilized. Biochar is a great way to do this, since it burns wood low and slow to create a type of charcoal that can be used as an excellent soil amendment.
Biochar, like charcoal, is incredibly porous, so the idea is to mix biochar with compost, and spread that around on the ground to enrich the soil with nutrients. The biochar absorbs the nutrients from the compost, and then slowly releases it into the soil over time as it degrades. Whereas if you just put straight compost on the ground, all the nutrients are released at once in one big dose. So using biochar helps provide sustained and steady nutrients to the soil for a longer period of time. We have a good amount of it now, and are going to wait until we do a big compost spread to utilize it.
There are two areas that I want to actually landscape, and they total about 1 acre out of the 29. The rest of the land will be left natural wild forest. The two areas we’ll landscape will be a vegetable garden and an orchard, and this year we worked on some soil restoration work in those two spots in several ways. Before I dive in, though, I want to explain what soil compaction is and why it is so damaging. Good soil has little pockets of air in it. These air pockets make the soil lighter, and make it easier for the tender roots of plants to break through it and grow deep strong roots where they can stay nice and damp. Imagine the texture of a meringue vs a normal cake batter—it’s kind of like that.
Soil gets air pockets in two main ways: from insects like earthworms, and from beneficial soil bacteria. Earthworms wiggle their way through the ground, and help break it apart as they do so, leaving little helpful worm poops behind to keep the earth fertilized. Soil bacteria breaks down organic matter in the soil, like bits of twigs, leaves, and deceased bug/animal bits. As they break the organic matter down, they release gases in the process, which help create little air pockets in the soil, helping it stay light and fluffy.
When you have the incredibly heavy machinery needed to log a forest, and you have the weight of thousands of tons of wood being moved around on this heavy machinery, all the soil underneath that is crushed and so are all the insects and animals that live inside of it. And the beneficial bacteria in the soil are smothered, since they need some amount of air to live + function. The earth becomes a crushed cemetery, devoid of any life, and hard as a block of potter’s clay. This is what we are dealing with in these areas.
This year, we tried sowing some ground cover seeds in the autumn, but the soil was too poor for them to grab hold and sprout. So this spring, we ordered some compost and had it delivered to the homestead (we used Dirt Hugger and they were awesome), and spread the ground cover seeds on that…and they all sprouted and came up in spades! It was really exciting to see. We did a mix of clover and a fat daikon-like radish; the clover helps add nitrogen to the soil, and the radish helps break up the compaction by growing deep into the ground and physically splitting the earth. As for the compost, it is full of nutrients and it also is bursting with good soil bacteria, so when we spread the compost around we were basically giving it a ton of vitamins and probiotics in one handy dose. We did a small patch in each area, and this autumn I really want to try and do a larger area of ground to enrich even more surface area. We shall see!
We’re also in the process of building our first trail towards our favorite viewpoint. It’s been a lot of work loading bark chips from our driveway in Portland into the back of our truck, then driving it up to the property, unloading it, and dumping it along the trail site, but we’re about 3/4 done and it looks really great! And it feels so good and sponge-y to walk on, too. It will be such a wonderful feeling once it’s done and we can run up and down the trail no problem.
We had our amazing permaculture specialist, Resilience Design, come out this spring and they made a big dent in taking out the invasive species that had encroached onto the homestead. The three they targeted were thistle, Himalayan blackberry, and scotch broom—these three plants grow at an alarmingly rapid rate and crowd out the native plant species that the wildlife of the area relies on for food and shelter. It was SO great to visit again after they’d taken those out; seeing them piled up like that and knowing that they wouldn’t be able to go to seed or spread more this year was a big weight lifted. The last thing we want is to have 30 acres of uninhabitable blackberry brambles. It’s so important to keep plants from smothering the young douglas fir trees (there are a few thousand of them on the property) while they’re still so short. Once they get several feet tall, they’ll have a better advantage against getting shaded by other plants, but until then we’ve got to keep an eye out for the invasive guys.
We also installed a gate at the driveway entrance after dealing with some weird theft issues (someone stole a burn barrel we’d used to burn invasive thistle seeds, and a couple plastic tubs we were storing biochar in). Because the ground out there is so hard, we thought we were being smart and rented what’s essentially a giant drill that goes into the ground and digs a hole for you. Well, the ground was so full of rocks on either side of the driveway that it didn’t actually work, so we had to set the giant heavy drill aside and just dig it out slowly with a mixture of our hands and a shovel. Jeremy would shovel, and then I’d crawl over the hole and scrape all the rocky bits out with my hands (wearing thick gardening gloves, of course). It took a while, but we did it! And now the gate is up and everything is secure and safe while we’re gone.
That’s pretty much everything we’ve been up to. It didn’t feel like a lot, but seeing it all written out like that, we definitely made a LOT of progress in the past year. I’m really excited for all the things we’ll be working on the rest of 2019 and into 2020. Places like this, that are truly wild, really teach you to be patient and take things one season at a time. I can feel the change the homestead has made in me, deep inside. It’s calmed me, and at a time when I began to tire of wandering, it gave me a place where I could lay down my roots. I don’t feel the longing for travel anymore, I only feel the longing to be home when I’m away. Every trip is harder and more difficult. I really look forward to the day when I can be home, always, and never have to leave. It’s our little slice of heaven, and I can’t wait spend forever there.