Dear garden, you and me worked hard this year, and it was our first year : I’m proud of us! Here is a recollection of my discoveries and experimentations with permaculture, and also a little love letter to remember what we did together and share with you readers what the garden taught me. Thank you ❤
New things every day
okoru, tanabiku, mimizu izuru, fusagu, samushi
Did you know that Japanese divide the year into 72 microseasons? Each of them only lasts a few days and is a way to mark and celebrate the small changes in the natural environment. For example: from March 11 to 15th, the first peach flowers bloom ; from May 5 to 9th, frogs start to sing ; from July 7 to 11th, the warm wind blows. Etc.
This doesn’t describe the reality of each place and isn’t adapted to all kinds of climates, but it reminds us that natural variations are infinite and in constant evolution. Being in the garden everyday and observing what the seasons, the rain, the sun and the grass teach us is way better than watching a series 😉 Gardening is the best way for me to spend time outside while being both productive and at peace.
A first cycle
All those big and small changes provided me with a great dose of daily wonder. So here’s what happened in The Lavra’s garden season 1!
We first started working in the garden in September. It wasn’t from scratch, there were already a few fruit trees and a few cultivated garden beds. Our first mission and priority was to secure all the existing garden beds to make them gopher-proof (gophers are number one gardeners’ enemy in California). We dug all of them and replaced the hard cloth. We built 2 new garden beds using the Hügelkultur technique (when you bury logs and branches to build the soil, here’s the video of our process). We layered the beds using the lasagna technique (when you create a rich organic matter soil by piling different layers of materials that are going to decompose). In the orchard, we planted an apricot tree and a persimmon tree. We also had to install and program the automatic irrigation system.
We harvested and ate what was already planted in the garden: cherry tomatoes, peppers and kale.
The fall is pretty hot and dry here on the Central Coast: between 80 and 90° with almost no rain at all from September to December. We only get a few days of rain a year. Luckily we’re by the coast and benefit from the morning fog which provides plants and trees with some well needed moisture. The first rains came for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We celebrated them and I found myself grateful for the rain for the first time in my life!
Anne-Sophie, the goat we’re milking at the moment, gives us 1/3 of a jar of milk each day.
Artichokes, brussels sprouts, rainbow chard and marigolds: here are our first baby seedlings! We got them for free at a farmer’s event in Santa Maria (our neighbor Gary told us about it, he’s the best!) We were lucky to be surrounded by many talented gardeners neighbors who were willing to share their knowledge and plants with us who knew absolutely nothing (thanks Erica!). What a great way to learn.
Winter arrived but the bright sun was still here. We learned how to prune the fruit trees to give them strenght in the spring. We started building our Food Forest Prototype to test some soil building techniques and see which perennial plants do better here. We dug 5 cascading terraces, protected them with gopher wire and layered different organic materials (cardboard, horse manure, dead leaves, organic scraps, hay, etc). We let the layers sit and decompose for a few weeks before we seeded some cover crop to build a better soil. We planted fava beans everywhere in the vineyard and in the orchard to cover the bare ground and improve the soil quality as they fix nitrogen for the plant communities that surround or succeed them.
We ate some lettuce, kale, broccolinis, romanesco cabbages, beets, rainbow chard, leeks, cauliflower and green onions from the garden. We also discovered that a lot of the wild greens that grow in winter are edible and delicious. It’s free food that you don’t even have to plant and can forage for in your own garden! Mallow, Curly dock and Nasturtium are my faves. Some of them can be eaten raw -like Nasturtium flowers- and others need to be cooked, boiled or sauteed.
The weather was incredible all the time, and being a sun lover I loved it. We had a few more days of rain and it felt good. Anne-So reduced her milk production with the lower temperatures and less sunlight: she gives us between 1/3 and 1/4 jar a day. It’s not a lot for 2 people who drink milk every morning.
The cover crop we seeded in the Food Forest Prototype worked really well, we were so proud and happy! This picture only shows the young crops, but once they fully grew it was really tall and had plenty of flowers that bees particularly enjoyed. We cuted everything down in the Spring using the « chop and drop » technique. Once chopped, the organic material becomes a green compost and nourishes the soil. We planted our first perennial plants: goji berries, raspberries, nettle, artichokes and asparagus. Perennial plants are different from annuals in the fact that they come back every year so you don’t have to replant them. Lazy peasy you know 🙂
Tall grasses are good in some places but not everywhere… We spent a lot of time weed-whacking around the house for fire protection, because when they dry they can become a fire hazard, especially here in California where wildfires are becoming more frequent.
We also built 3 new garden beds, one we called « The Boat » (because it’s easier to talk about them this way!) We planted lettuce and plenty (too many!) tomatoes (note for next year: plant less because we had way too much). We added an apple tree to the orchard. We planted the Three Sisters, a traditional combination of beans, squash and corn cultivated together by the Native Americans. It’s one of permaculture’s favorite guilds: when plants help and protect each other. The corn provides a pole for climbing beans and squash thrives on the ground keeping the soil covered. We added some veggies and berries in the orchard (intercropping): raspberries, artichokes and squash. And we started designing our own aquaponics system.
We built a new goat pen with the precious help of incredible volunteers (you can read the article here). We also started our Mushroom Station to grow mushrooms out of oak logs. It takes several months to years for the logs to fruit, but it’s a very fun and easy process. You simply drill holes in the logs with a drill, and fill them with inoculated plugs, then you cover them with wax to seal them (we bought our plugs online from the Mushroom King Paul Stamets). Then you need to put the logs in the shade, keep them moist and forget about them for a while.
From the garden, we ate artichokes, fava beans (fava bean puree, fava bean curry, and all kinds of recipes since we had planted so many!), brussel sprouts, cabbages, rainbow chard, celery and beets. It was pretty chilly in March and April, then pretty hot at the end of April and very windy in May. Anne-Sophie started producing more milk: 3/4 of a jar each day. Her mom, Poe, had two babies born in April. We first named them Bonnie & Clyde, then decided they were Poppy & Dingle. During the first weeks, the babies would only nurse on the right udder, so we had to milk the left udder to relieve Poe (because it’s painful when the udder is not emptied.) She gave us one full jar a day! It was cheese season, we couldn’t drink all the milk so we made plenty of fresh goat cheese (chèvre) and goat cheddar.
Summer is the season of Abundance, the garden was giving sooo much it was ridiculous! The tomato plants went crazy and became giant monsters, growing branches in all directions like tentacles covered with green and red fruits all over. The tomato cages were a poor backup to try to contain them… On the Three Sisters section, the corn didn’t grow well (we learned afterwards that you have to plant corn closer to each other so they can pollinate each other, we planted ours too far), but the scarlet runner beans (the prettiest perennial bean with bright red flowers) did great and produced a ton of food in the Boat bed.
We ate tomatoes (again and again -we even ate some of our neighbors to help them as we all had way too many tomatoes), squash, tomatillos (one of my discovery this year, i had never had them!), bok choy, peppers, lettuces, artichokes, beans, cucumbers and new zealand spinach (but i don’t recommend, they’re pretty invasive and not really tasty). Fruits are harder for us still, we only got a few strawberries, raspberries, loquats (i love them!), plums and nectarines.
Summer is the least sunny season here because of the fog. People call it « June Gloom » here: the fog can stay for days. It’s because of the temperature difference between the ocean and inland. While inland areas warm up and get really hot during the summer, the ocean stays pretty cold. The temperature differential attracts the cold air from the ocean that stagnates over the coast. August and September are high fire seasons in California. They were really bad this year, I couldn’t even look at the pictures. We were lucky to be more than 100 miles away from the existing fires, but the smoke was still terrible here for a few weeks.
Fall feels like summer here. It’s the best time because it’s time to harvest all the summer veggies. It was incredibly rewarding to see how much we could get from just a few plants! We couldn’t believe the amount of produces we had 🙂
We ate more delicious tomatoes, more beans, rainbow chard, squash, raspberries and strawberries. We harvested a lot of Jerusalem Artichokes (also called sunchokes) that had grown really tall in the food forest prototype (they’re in the sunflower family and have pretty tall stems with yellow flowers). We tried out a bunch of different recipes with sunchokes, i think my favorite one is oven chips. We had way too many pomegranates and made a lot of high vitamin juice.
Tips & tricks
-What worked well: a lot of gardeners and permaculturists focus on the soil, because that’s where all the nutrients come from. Building the soil before planting allows us to grow healthy plants that don’t need artificial fertilizer. To build your soil and naturally improve its quality, you can use hügelkultur (we explain how to do it in this video), lasagna beds, chop & drop technique (using cover crop as a green manure), and adding any type of animal manure (we use our chicken and goat manure, plus we get infinite amount of horse manure from the ranch next door). One of the permaculture principles is to stack functions: so when we clean the animal’s pen, we also harvest free fertilizer. Using nitrogen fixer plants like fava beans is also a great way to build your soil.
We also used seaweed because we’re next to the ocean. Rinse them and soak them in a big tank of water. The tea that results from the seaweed macerating can be used to fertilize your plants. The remaining seaweed can be added to your compost pile.
It’s also really good to plant flowers everywhere, in between veggies and fruit trees. Wild and native flowers don’t need much irrigation and provide food for the bees and the hummingbirds.
-What’s still hard: we really struggled with starting seeds, we had very poor results and ended up using seedlings that we bought. Using artificial lights and heated pads help a little bit, but having a greenhouse is the key. Taking care of fruit trees is also challenging. Some had diseases (curly leaf, etc) and each of them needed a different type of pruning depending on where they bear fruits.
Unfortunately, the few fruits we got (3 apricots that looked so good, and a few nectarines) were eaten by the birds or stolen by the ground squirrels 😦 We need to do a better job at netting the fruit trees! We also learned that we need to stake our tomatoes early on before they get too big and too crazy. It’s worth spending time building treillis and cages to optimize the production and harvest.
-Savings : We are far away from being self-sufficient, and it’s not our goal here. But there are a few products that we almost never have to buy from the store: eggs, milk, bread (we make our own sourdough), greens (but sometimes we get bored of what we have and buy some different kinds). We also trade products with our neighbors and farm friends, especially avocados and oranges. We also save on gym membership, as working on the farm everyday is a free and really good workout for the whole body!
Seeds of magic and natural packaging
“When people don’t use plants, they become rare. They need to be used to come back. All plants are like that. If you don’t harvest them, talk to them and care for them, they will die. » -Mabel McKay, basket braider and elder of the Pomo people of Cache Creek (in Starhawk, Quel monde voulons-nous?)
My biggest discovery this year is how fascinating and resourceful plants are, throughout their life cycle. Working with them connects me to a timeless living lineage and to all the humans before me who cultivated and cared for those plants.
Seeds are truly magic. They’re all so unique and beautiful. Too often we think about a seed being a small little marble, but their shapes, textures and colors are way more surprising and diverse. It just moves me! They go from small multicolored feather dusters to micro rocky crystals. Every time I discovered new ones, I wanted to make jewelry out of them. Beyond their aspect, their propagation strategies are also amazing.
With the poppies, the heart of the flower dries up to become a small rattle cleverly surmounted by a star-shaped stamp that looks like pyrography. The rattle is filled with tiny seeds ready to blow out. With the sweet peas, the pods dry and open into a swirl shape making a small slide for seeds to roll out. What can I say: some plants just have more fun than others 😉
Some veggies age and decompose with so much grace. The young tomatillos look like pale green paper lanterns, delicate Japanese looking. When they dry out, they become a crinoline dress of golden lace (the finesse of the details is Gothic style!). The young scarlet runner beans have green, soft velvety pods that become hard as cardboard when the beans are ready to harvest.
Still life in my kitchen
I’ve always loved the still life paintings: ultra-realistic depictions of tables or countertops filled with food and other natural objects. They always picture incredible lights rendering and exotic displays mixing flowers, vegetables, insects, shells, and other mysterious natural artifacts. I never quite understood the reason for these displays. They seemed so fabricated and too arranged to be true. But today, when I see how the abundance of food looks like in our kitchen, I understand why flies and butterflies come with berries and nectarines in those paintings ❤
-sing to learn permaculture principles! #1 « Look around » is my fave 🙂
-various ways of building Hügelkultur
-all videos on youtube! “Youtube Academy” is real when farming (the sky is the limit)