The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Samhain of our Lives October 28, 2018

Just last week, we had our first hard frost. After homesteading for a number of years, you grow to be vigilant for the signs of the first frost. The air smells different somehow in the two or so weeks leading up to it. The bird and wildlife patterns change.  The nights have a crisp bite to them that they didn’t even a few days before. And then, just like magic one day, the frost is there, glistening in the morning light. The garden radically changes overnight–even for those things you covered–the entire landscape lies in disarray.

 

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

I could feel it on the air, and for the last few mornings, have been going to to see if it had arrived. That morning, I turned the corner and first saw it first on the strawberry patch–white and glistening. The frost is beautiful, magical, and yet, destructive. While the garden was growing powerfully the day before–with the last harvests of our remaining tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, and gourds all ripening and growing abundantly–this morning, frost covers all.  By mid-day, the garden of yesterday is but a distant memory. The garden of the frost is a disaster zone for summer crops–the tomatoes are wily, the half-ripened crookneck squash spongy on the top where the frost hit, the eggplant fallen over in sadness.  By the second day, the leaves of these plants are withered and dead, former husks of what they had been less than 48 hours before.  The first time you see this destruction, its really something to behold.  It is shocking in how the cold can do so much damage in such a little time period by a temperature difference of only a few degrees.

 

Samhain is certainly here, and already, my garden has gone through increasingly hard and bitter frosts. The temperatures continue to plummet, the leaves drop from the trees, the animals and birds fatten up, hibernate, or fly south–and winter sets in.

 

This year though, this Samhain, it seems a little different. Maybe its the general collective despair and demoralization present right now, at least here in the US, which is affecting so many (and what I was responding to in my post a few weeks ago). Maybe its the latest UN report that suggests that–if we are lucky–we have about 12 more years to stave off the worst of climate change, but only if we act now. Maybe its reading that report and knowing that action, at least in my own country, won’t happen.  And, knowing, I will have to live to see the results of inaction, results that will irrevocably harm the live and lands I hold sacred. Maybe its the growing open conversations I am having with my new college students about their own futures and their fears.  I’ve been teaching college for over a decade, but it has only been in the last 1-2 years that I’ve heard my college age students start to openly discuss these things and their impact on their futures.

 

This Samhain, the changes in the landscape and in my garden, seem to reflect the changes going on culturally.  We’ve had more than a few hard frosts.  We’ve had bitterly cold days.  Some of our favorite summer plants are dying off. I think a lot of people are asking–is this a sign of things to come?  Are the darkest times, at the Winter Solstice–still to come?

 

Kale loves the frost!

Kale loves the frost!

In my frosted garden, I turn my eyes away from the summer crops, the eggplants, squash, and tomatoes that cannot handle even a 33 degree night with cover. Instead, I look to the carrots, onions, spinach, lettuce, celery, kale and cabbage that we had planted in late July. These plants are much more resilient, and all of them are doing fine despite the glistening of frost on their leaves. Some, in fact, had been enhanced by the frost–the cabbage leaves are more succulent, the kale more sweet. Rather than harming the plants, the frost had simply made them better versions of who they already were. This, too, seems to be a powerful lesson, both for the garden and for our larger culture.

 

It seems that I’m not the only one smelling frost on the air more culturally, and processing what to do about it. A few days ago, I saw a new thread on a permaculture forum written by a 22 year old girl who was asking serious questions: “Given the state of the world, do you really think permaculture offers us what we need to save the world?  If the older leaders refuse to act, can individual action save us? And if you are using permaculture this way, how do you stay focused when all of this is happening around us?” It was a good question, a reasonable question, and had a range of useful responses. One of the most powerful responses was from a man who had seen a world war, had worked industry, and had retired to a little one-room cottage in the woods. He shared some of the things he had seen in his life and said, “Its the cycle of life. The reason we practice permaculture is that it gives us hope. This is a season, others will come and go. I always ask is how do I respond.  And my response is to hope.” I wonder, too, if that’s why so many of us practice druidry.  It gives us connection, it gives us peace, but most of all, it gives us hope.

 

The practice of druidry, of living by the seasons, helps me process the inevitability of the crisis of climate and culture that seem to be bearing down at present. Samhain is in the air, both for us this year, but also for us culturally.  It might be that this time will pass and spring will arrive quickly.  Or, it may be that the world will have to endure the difficulties of winter, for some time to come.  Most of us think, or already know, that we are in for the latter, but I must remind myself of all that I learned as a druid gardener, all that I learned from celebrating the wheel of the year is present here this Samhain.

 

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

As a druid homesteader, I respond to the frost–and the incoming winter– by good planning and good design. The “problem” of winter  becomes a “solution” if I simply plan accordingly. I choose my plants more carefully for the fall and winter season–knowing some are resilient and designed for the cold, and others, like the tomato, fall at the first brush with frost.  I start these plants in July, when summer appears to be endless.  But soon enough, the fall will come, and these plants will thrive.

 

Using shelter and layering, the plants can survive much more than a bit of frost. Our little greenhouse will have a third layer of protection this wee, and our spinach, lettuce, bak choi, and arugula will be able to be continually harvested till January or later. Carrots and potatoes will stay in the ground waiting to be unearthed anytime the ground is unfrozen enough for us to do so. The greenhouse itself, combined with a second inner hoop house and then a thick floating row cover offers shelter. Embedded stones and a back covered wall allow the design of the greenhouse to be even more resilient, pulling in the warmth into the stones when the sun is out. The stones radiate that heat into the soil in the cold nights. Nothing will succumb to the frost or cold in that greenhouse unless it goes considerably below freezing. And if it does, we will make our final harvests, put wood on the fire, and wait till mid February or early March when the soil to warm enough to plant again.

 

Further, as a druid gardener, I think about the “problem is the solution” from the permaculture principles.  With the right plants and planning, we can thrive and grow.  Our world *needs* to change. The current course of our society is radically unsustianable, and every bit of communication from this wonderful earth is letting us know that with in creasing frequency.  Finding new ways to live, to be, to inhabit this world will require us to adapt to the harsh realities that Samhain brings.  We can’t be tomatoes in the coming years to come: we must be kale, cabbage, carrots, tatsoi, arugula, spinach–all of the plants that can withstand the harsh winter and still offer abundance.

 

As a druid, likewise, I have many lessons that help me think about and process this difficult time. I have celebrated the turning wheel of the year and the seasons for many, many years. I know that looking to my ancestors and honoring the season in the moment brings me quietude and peace.  I also look to my ancestors to re-learn how to live more sustainably and simply, in line with the living earth. I know that winter is coming, and it will be dark, and harsh, and cold.  But somewhere in my bones, woven into my DNA, I know my ancestors got by with much less than I did, and they thrived–if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.  I also know of the beauty of winter when it arrives; I know of the freshness of the snowfall and the cold nights where the stars glisten.  And most of all, I know that spring will come once again.  The maples will once again begin to run, the crocuses will once again bloom.

 

 

In the meantime, I’m going to shore up this greenhouse and plant more kale.

 

Garden and Homesteading Update – March 31, 2014 March 31, 2014

The Spring Equinox was a mere week and a half ago, and today, for the first time, it felt like spring.  The snows are melting and the warmth is coming.  I think its been a long, hard winter for many of us, and not just because of the weather.  It was a dark time for many, myself included, and I am very happy to see the sun and feel the warmth again. This post provides an overview of the garden in its current state (March 31st) as well as the surrounding landscape.  I’ll conclude the post with some of the things I plan on covering on the blog in the coming year.

 

The Broader Landscape

 

The snows are not yet melted, and the lakes and ponds are still frozen over.  Here’s an image of the spiral labyrinth I’ve been walking on my pond all winter–its still there, and the ice is still quite thick.

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral

I visited Lake Huron with a few friends yesterday, and likewise, the Great Lakes are still encrusted with ice.  Here’s a shot from yesterday at White Rock, on the Southwestern edge of Lake Huron.

Altar by the Lake

Altar by the Lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake (March 30, the garden shots below are from March 31!)

Even with all of this ice, however, the land and lakes are slowly thawing.

 

The Garden and its Magic

 

Today I spent time out in the garden in the afternoon, and it was a really welcome and nurturing time.  I can’t believe how much healing one can gain with only a few hours in the sun and with the plants and soil!

 

First, the most important discovery–plants under my hoop houses survived.  I added an additional layer to their shelter, something called “remay” which is a spun fiber.  I added this in early December, after the cold really set in.  It goes under the main hoop and above the plants and helps give them one additional layer of protection.  This still typically only protects the plants to 5 or 10 degrees or so, however.  With the cold winter, and the evenings of -15 and -17, I thought there was no hope for my little hoops.

 

And yet…look what I found today.  You’ll notice in the first picture that the spinach only in the center survived–that’s because the ground freezes from the edges inward.  But I realized, as my hoops were covered with over 2′ of snow, that that snow itself must have provided a buffer for the spinach.  This likely means that my other zone 6 plants (like my pecan tree back by the circle) had a chance of survival.

Spinach Survived!

Spinach Survived! (And see all that snow, still?)

Hope returns to the world!

Hope returns to the world!

A small radish survivor!

A small radish survivor!

I can’t really describe to you the feeling of opening up that hoop house and seeing those living spinach and radish plants.  I had given up on them as the hoops had mostly caved in under the heavy snow and ice that I wasn’t able to remove, as the darkness set in.  I have always seen the garden as a metaphor for myself, and I’ve had so many cold, dark, barren months recently.  Seeing those spinach and radish plants renewed the promise of spring within me….something survived, and soon, it will be giving me further nourishment and strength.  It was a profound moment, there in the garden.

 

All of the fall garden preparation has paid off–the early spring beds are just filled with wonderful soil.  I am so pleased to see it, as I have spent years making this soil the best it can be. I moved my 2nd hoop house (the one that wasn’t protecting anything), prepped a bed of lettuce and carrots, direct seeded them, and covered them back up.

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

One of the other things I wanted to report back on was the effect of the cover crops.  With 2+ feet of snow and ice on the ground, all of the soil in the beds is very compacted–its probably 4″ lower than it was in the fall.  It appears the red clover died off completely….but the winter rye is the hardiest of plants, and it, of course, survived.  Not only did it survive, but it kept my beds covered in it mostly spongy and nice, instead of compacted.  The beds with the winter rye are a full 2-3″ higher than those with bare soil or just straw.

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

I began turning the winter rye under today–it requires a full two weeks of wait time before planting after you turn it under.  I’ll work to turn all of it under in the next few weeks–this is a laborious job and one that could be done with petrochemicals, but after the rather lazy winter months, I don’t mind the hard work :).   I also like to add some brown matter to the soil to help the bacteria break down the rye–I added some composted leaves (leaf mulch) as I turned.  A simple garden fork does this work beautifully (much better than a shovel, which I used to use before I discovered the fork).

Turning under the rye

Turning under the rye

Peas germinate at 40 degrees or higher and don’t mind cold soils.  I used the garden fork to aerate the garden bed, and reduce soil compaction. I just stuck it into the bed and tilted it a bit to loosen the soil.  Then I planted my first succession of peas (Early Alaska, saved from last year) and will plant another succession every two weeks for the next 6 weeks.  This will ensure a continual harvest into the early summer.  You can see my homemade trellises here as well (they move easily enough to the new bed).

Planting peas

Planting peas

I checked on the garlic I planted in the fall.  No sign of sprouting yet!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

The last thing I did today was make a new, large compost pile.  I had the pile started in the fall, but I pulled out all of the food waste I had stored in my tumbler over the winter, added it to the big pile, and added several layers of leaves, some of the old straw from the garden, etc.  The pile is now almost 5′ high and 8′ wide and 4′ long, so it should break down nicely as the weather warms.

Looking Ahead

To conclude this post, I wanted to share a few more of the things that I’m planning on doing more this year:

  • Bees! Perhaps the most important news is that this year I am going to be a beekeeper for the first time :).  I have the hives, the bees ordered, and the rest of my supplies (suit, foundation, etc) are on their way! I’ve read every book on the subject I can find, joined a beekeeping association, found a bee mentor, have a friend who wants to learn as well, and feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ll have a blog post (or three) on the bees soon.
  • Garden expansion: I’m adding about 700 square feet of growing space (plus pathways, etc) to the garden this year to accommodate new vegetable and plant varieties.  In the fall, I added in numerous additional herb gardens in the front yard, and have seeds started for many new herbs.  The big job here will be fencing, and since fencing has been a struggle, I will share some of my experiences!
  • Herbalism course. I’m starting Jim McDonald’s four season herbal intensive course this upcoming weekend–expect even more posts on herbalism in the coming months.
  • Fermentation and foods: I plan to make my own miso, make more dandelion wine, make other kinds of krauts and fermented foods, and share those processes with you this year.
  • Sacred Trees: I’ll keep posting regularly on my research on sacred trees native/naturalized to the Midwest/Great Lakes area.  I think this is important work, and I am certainly learning a lot more about the trees as part of this series.
  • And lots more! I expect to engage in more natural building, foraging, and many other wonderful sustainable and spiritual activities this year–and I’m excited to share them with you.

 

I also have some very tragic news on the homesteading front.

  • Chooks. In late December, when I was out of town for the holidays, all of my hens passed on to their next life; they made a good meal or two for a hungry raccoon.  My beloved rooster, Anasazi, did survive (he has many lives, clearly) and is living at a friend’s house till I can raise more hens.  This was a combination of an ice storm, insecure living arrangement, loss of electricity, impassible roads, and a bunch of other things.  I have mourned their loss and miss them terribly.  But, I look forward to new hens later this year.

 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful spring–I’d love to hear about how you are enjoying the warmer weather and melting snows and what plans you have for projects this year.

 

January Garden Updates January 13, 2013

I really love January. The bitter cold, the winds, the snow–there’s something so magical about being out in a snowstorm.  Where most people lament for the sun and hot summer months, I welcome all of the cold, the wind, the ice, the snow.  It stirrs something within me–it says, “embrace the darkness of this time, go into hibernation, rest, and when the time is right, emerge into the light!”  The latter part of December and January brought the wonderful snow storms and cold.  We had about 8″ here on the ground for several weeks. Unfortunately, the cold has broken and the snows have melted. Its January 13th.  More winter must come.

But since the last few days have been warmer, I was able to open up the hoop houses and take some photos of what’s going on in the garden.  Its amazing to see that we still have so much produce available, even in the midst of the harshest of the winter months.  Here are some photos from yesterday (Jan 12th).  Zone 6, South-East Michigan.

Lima Bean eats Rye

Lima Bean eats Rye

The chickens continue to enjoy the winter rye I planted as a green manure/cover crop.  Its a great crop for them to get their greens all winter long–since little else stays green, they are often at the rye when its not covered with snow.

Lentil digs worms.

Lentil digs worms.

The chickens continue to forage the land every chance they are able. They’ve been out in our pole barn during the heavy snows (they don’t like walking on it) and so when the weather cleared up a bit, they were so happy to be out to peck and scratch again.  And have a clean coop, since I was unable to open their back door that had frozen shut to clean it for a few weeks!

Hoop House!

Hoop House!

Second hoop house!

Second hoop house!

Here are photos of my two hoop houses.  They are doing amazingly well for it being January.  The first hoop house has minzua (which has fared less well than the rest of the greens), arugula, spinach, and kale.  This one was planted later than the first–in late September–so the spinach is still pretty small, but its good.  The tricky thing about hoop house gardening is anticipating how long you can get crops to the “harvest” state, that is, when they are ready to harvest and keep them there.  This is important because hoop houses in the coldest months of the year extend the *harvest* season and not the *growing* season.   If they go dormant before they are too large, then you have small greens to eat.

The second hoop house was planted earlier in the year–mid August–so it has nice sized kale, a few leeks (which were planted in May), cabbages, and more spinach.  My rooster, Anasazi, is checking out the cabbage :).

Here are some close-up photos of the lovely veggies still growing in the hoop house.

Leeks

Leeks

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Cabbage

Cabbage

Baby spinach

Baby spinach

Arugula

Arugula

I’ll leave you, dear blog readers, with some photos of what winter is *supposed* to look like!  These were taken last year.  I didn’t get shots of the snowstorm here because I was in PA visiting my family.

View from backyard

View from backyard

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Our front road

Our front road

Embrace the cold and snow, my friends!

 

Shelter and Growth: Hoop House Gardening April 19, 2012

Throughout ancient sites in the UK, where Druidry originated, we find barrows, underground tunnels, and chambers hidden deep within the earth.  These “protective places” are sites sheltered from the elements, the bitter cold and frigid winds, where people could find nourishment and strength.  We see similar sites being used throughout the world, some permanent, and some temporary (like Native American sweat lodges that could be moved from place to place).  Even today, entering one of these places, and the shelter they provide, allows us to grow and develop greater spiritual insights.

Closed hoop house with greens growing inside!

Closed hoop house with greens growing inside!

What do these places have to do with gardening?  As gardeners, we can use this idea of shelter–both for what it gives us and for protecting the plants that we grow.  Sometimes, a little shelter allows us to grow faster, and better, than being exposed to the elements.

For the last eight months, I have been experimenting with hoop house gardening, which has allowed me to use small, movable hoop houses to shelter my plants and extend my growing season.  The following are some observations about hoop house gardening as well as directions for creating and using your own hoop house.

I only keep my hoop houses closed if the weather is below 40 degrees. Leaving them open means you don't have to water them by hand (and you can overheat the veggies!)

Hoop House Gardening

On March 1st, 2012 I started my hoop houses (after giving them a break in January and February).  As a test, I planted the same set of seeds outside the hoop house as compared to inside the hoop house.

Here are the photos of the test garden vs. the hoop house.  Planted in both plots were Spinach (American and Purple Passion); lettuce (two kinds), arugula, and leeks).  All of these are cold-resistant varieties that are meant to do well and handle frost.  I should add that I did cover the non-hoop house area with straw to help keep out the elements.  It didn’t help, lol.

I should also mention that half of what you see in the left hand photo below are probably weeds.

The key for my hoop houses is that they are movable, so that as the weather changes, I can cover and uncover various parts of my garden (which are all 4′ wide, the same width as the hoop house).  Although typically you can’t plant tomatoes here until the last frost date (May 27th), some of my tomatoes will go in 5 weeks early and be placed under one of my two hoop houses (at this point, the greens that are under them will be able to withstand the cold temperatures because they will no longer be going below 25 or so).  This means that I’ll have tomatoes earlier than anyone else!

In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Elliott Coleman (who is a fabulous gardener and writer) describes the technique of using movable hoop houses on a larger scale.  As he writes, hoop houses used in the fall allow us to extend the harvest season–but not necessarily the growing season.  When it gets bitter cold, the plants go into dormancy (I experienced this last December with my kale and arugula).  This means that you want your plants timed so that by late October (at least in my zone) they are done growing.  The shelter of the hoop house allows the plants to be protected, however, and you can continue to harvest through at least the winter solstice.  (Even in our Zone six climate in South-East Michigan, I was able to harvest greens for Thanksgiving and Yule dinners!)

I learned this lesson the hard way.  I planted some onions in late July and eventually covered that area with the hoop house.  The onions were 100 days till harvest, and needless to say, were only a few inches high when January hit.  I ignored them in their hoop house through the frigid months, and when I opened up the hoop houses two months later, there they were–and now they are almost ready to harvest in mid-April!  You can see them in the photos above :).

Hoop House Construction

Hoop houses are really quite simple to build–and you can probably do it with mostly re-purposed/recycled materials (I reused plastic drop cloths and some lumber scraps in my design).  The hoop houses that I am using are 7′ long and 4′ wide, with hoops made from PVC plastic that are about 2.5 – 3 feet high.  I wanted to make them a little longer (8′, but 7′ boards were all I could fit in my car, lol!)

I used pine boards for the base (but you could use Cedar for better rot protection).

Building a hoop house is really simple–its a wooden frame (screwed together) with “hoops” (I used PVC plastic pipes) and covered with plastic stapled to the frame.  The hoop houses I made cost about $20-$25/each.

I have no idea what these little fixtures are, but I used them to attach my PVC to the frame and they worked really well. I found them near electrical equipment :).