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Call Me Farmer Lukas (My Friends Do)

9 Mar
I pose in the cornfield at near harvest time.

I pose in the cornfield at near harvest time.

If I had grown up in a more hospitable place, I’m confident that I would have been a farmer. I love growing food. I have turned my backyard into a garden. The front yard too. Even the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street is a garden – I have raised beds there that actually are my best place to grow food.

Seattle is absolutely friendly to growing your own food, especially with all the extra sunny weather we’ve been having lately. I’ve already planted several different veggies, some of which are sprouting – peas, spinach, and carrots.

Lukas watering cornfield

I’m carrying five gallon buckets of water in this picture to water in our cornfield. The cornfield hasn’t sprouted yet so the red dirt and barren landscape really comes through. This photo is actually a double exposure so you see my sister and her friend sitting on the ground (admiring my hard work, I’m sure). The windmill and the main structures that make up “The Land” are in the background.

It isn’t as easy to grow food in the arid, windy, and soil poor part of Northern Arizona where I grew up. We called it The Land. I’m not sure how it got that name, but it fits. It’s in the rain shadow of the San Francisco Peaks between Flagstaff and Winslow up against the Navajo Reservation. It’s extremely dry and windy. Nothing grows there except a scrubby, clumpy yellow kind of grass and saltbush. The soil is red and short on nutrients.

The fact that conditions were poor didn’t stop my family from growing food. We always had a garden – sometimes small, sometimes big. We never grew all the food we needed but we certainly supplemented our diets with a lot of healthy garden plunder, mostly greens like spinach and Swiss chard.

We also grew corn, squash, melons and veggies, especially corn. A few years we went big, and fenced off a large plot of land to grow the blue corn that the Hopi Indians like to grow on their mesas just a few dozen miles to the north.

Me and my brother Cedar swimming in the Big Tank. We lived in the tank all summer - it was the only way to stay cool. We also used it to water our cornfield.

Me and my brother Cedar swimming in the Big Tank. We lived in the tank all summer – it was the only way to stay cool. We also used it to water our cornfield.

The Hopi watered their corn with springs that trickled out of their flat topped mesas. We didn’t have such mesas and certainly no springs on the 80 acres of high elevation desert that my dad bought in the 1960s. We did have a well and windmill that would pump water into the Big Tank, our swimming pool and watering reservoir. The circular tank, which stills stands today, is 6-feet tall and about 15-feet across. We lived in that tank all summer long – it was the only way to stay cool.

My daughter Lola stands in front of the corn that I grew in my front yard in Seattle a few years back. The corn grew tall but ran out of time (cold wet fall comes too soon here) to fully mature.

My daughter Lola stands in front of the corn that I grew in my front yard in Seattle a few years back. The corn grew tall but ran out of time (cold wet fall comes too soon here) to fully mature.

We also used it to water our cornfield, which we smartly setup downhill from the big tank. And while here in Seattle I just turn on a hose to water my garden (not that I have to do that all that often with the rain), and boom, my garden is happily watered. Not so at The Land.

We used gravity and a long black hose to fill up an old bathtub that we set up in the middle of the cornfield. We scooped up buckets (5-gallon doozies) of water out of the bathtub (two at a time – one for each hand) and watered clumps of corn one at a time.

The corn was planted in clumps Hopi-style because that way it had the best chance of surviving with limited water (and let me tell you, water was limited). If I remember right, we dug a small hole for each clump, put a little soil in the bottom (not much), poured  a fair bit of sand on top of that (probably 6-to-8-inches), and then covered the very top with straw. The soil fed the corn, the sand held the water in reserve so the corn could slowly drink it up, and the straw helped keep the water from evaporating and kept the pests out.

Each clump got about one-fifth to one-quarter of a bucket. Pouring of the water was done very carefully as it would be quite a while before we got back around to watering again. And importantly, the windmill-Big Tank combo could only produce a limited amount of water that took a while to regenreate – you really had to spread things out and make sure you had enough for the entire field.

My brothers and sisters and I helped our parents plant the field, and more importantly, undertake their extremely labor-intensive job of watering. It was hard work – I can vividly recall the buckets banging on my legs, scraping the skin raw and sloshing water down into my shoes (when I wasn’t actually barefoot).

Growing a cornfield by hand like that was the hardest kind of farming I ever did. It’s all easy compared to that. I’m sure I complained at the time (not too much, I actually liked it even then). I think that work installed in me the desire to grow my own food as much as I can, and I think it did in my siblings as well. Most of them grow gardens themselves. There’s something about growing your own food that is really nurturing.

Spring in February?

13 Feb

The trees are budding, the crocuses are blooming, and the birds are fluttering – and it’s not even mid-February. I don’t know what’s happening here in Seattle, but it sure isn’t the deep freeze that has descended on the East Coast. My biggest fear is that everything will bud out and then we’ll get a big freeze. Either way, though, it’s time to plant some greens and peas – can’t hurt to get an early start on them. I guess it’s time to put my shorts on and go outside!

Stubbly carrots

10 Nov
Stubbly carrots

Stubbly carrots

My kids really love fresh carrots while mostly just tolerating others so this year I decided to go big on carrots. I gave them the sunniest patch of garden. I even thinned them out. And I left most of them into the ground until now to give them a little extra time to get big. Despite that (and unlike in past years), they all turned out to be super stubbly? Why so stubbly?

Time to seed my blog

18 Mar

The peas are poking through the ground, the spinach has squeezed out, and the overwintering broccoli that huddled there all winter has taken off since I transplanted it. The over Swiss chard is sprouting new leaves, and the kale is looking robust. Tiny carrots that I left in the ground are starting to grow. The tulips are about to flower. The plum tree (what limbs I didn’t prune off) are about to flower, and the raspberries are leafing out. Worms are looking for new places to  live (and getting stepped on). I even saw ants swarming in the middle of the sidewalk. Yes, spring is here, and what better time to bring my blog back to life.



28 May
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Installing a lawn

I added a lawn in the north end of my backyard over the weekend. I’d rather use the spot for gardening but the light is too poor and the family wants a lawn (I already took all of the other grass for gardening).

Why are there grow lights in my basement?

3 Apr

Ah, gardening in Seattle, that fun time of year when you have to plant in pots in your basement with an array of grow lights. Look in my basement window, and it looks like a mini marijuana growing operation. But alas, it’s just tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), and basil. Those are the things I like to grow that you can’t plant outside in Seattle until May.

So, I ask you, sun gold cherry tomatoes, please pretend that the five, slightly blue bulbs shining down at you 24 hours a day are the sun, and sprout upward with gusto. I need you to leap out of the ground and be strong enough for me to put in a greenhouse while I leave on spring break for vacation in a couple of weeks. Can you do it?


Would you eat cookie-cutter farm fresh eggs? Yum!!!!

10 Mar

When my eldest and I decided to make egg and bacon sandwiches for breakfast, it was an obvious move to trot out eggs from our chickens in the backyard (they have really started producing nicely again). What wasn’t so obvious was that we should cook our delicious packets of yum in cookie cutter shapes.

My oldest thought this was a grand idea and set about helping me make it happen. First she found cookie cutters for her and her sister. She chose a pumpkin and her sister got a star. She ladled our scrambled eggs into the cookie cutters while I pinned them down to the sizzling griddle (careful not to burn yourself and make sure you use metal ones!). Of course a bit of egg leaked out of the bottom, but most of it stayed inside and started cooking very quickly.

It took longer than usual to fry the eggs and I had to turn temp to low so that they didn’t burn on the edges, but pretty soon I was able to flip the eggs (still in the cookie cutters of course), cook the other side, and bam – we had pumpkin and star shaped eggs. Next we cut the toast with the same cookie cutters and broke the bacon into pumpkin and star shaped pieces (OK, we just wedged pieces of bacon in there).

And then the girls ate it all up. Mom and dad had regular egg sandwiches.



3 Mar

There are rats in our walls and it’s making Natalie threaten to move out so it’s an all out blitz attack this weekend.

Here’s what I’ve tried already:

  • Paying someone to come find all the holes in our house and close them off. That was last year. He must have missed a few even though he spent more than a full day on the job.
  • Old fashioned rat traps in the attic and the basement. This is ongoing and I catch them from time to time.
  • New electric rat traps that shock them when they go into the house to grab bait. No hits yet after three weeks.

Next up on my list:

  • Trimming trees near the house that the vermin may be using to climb up and down.
  • Searching for more holes that they may be using to get in and out.
  • As much as I’m against it, setting up special rat poison houses that only rats can get into.

If this shit doesn’t work:

  • Cutting a hole in the wall where they make their noises in the middle night and going after them commando-style.

So far they haven’t made it into the house (except for once when they found a way in under the kitchen sink and committed a bloody plum massacre all over the kitchen floor – I was able to find and patch that hole because they had tried unsuccessfully to drag a plum through the hole, leaving a bloody ring around the entrance.)

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My daughters express their feelings about the coming rat battle.

Covered wagon or greenhouse?

27 Feb

Rather than  buy starts, last year I built a greenhouse so I could sprout my own tomatoes, peppers, and basil. Calling it a greenhouse is being generous. I used some scrap two-by-fours to frame out a low-slung frame that’s eight feet long, four feet wide and three feet tall – or something like that. The only complicated part was to build and mount a door. Then I stretched plastic over it all, and voila, I had greenhouse.

It worked great – I wasn’t sure how it would perform, and I actually ended up with too many cherry tomatoes, lots of peppers, and even some of the finicky basil that I had never been able to start on my own before.

After I was done with it, I parked the greenhouse in the hidden area on the north side of my house and thought vaguely that I needed to do something about the roof. (Every time it rained, the water pooled heavily on the roof, which caused it to sag and sag some more each time it rained). I promptly forgot about the plastic-wrapped wonder until recently, when I started thinking about dragging it out so I can get some new starts going. When I went back to take a look, sure enough it was filled with water and rotting leaves. Yuck.

Seeing some of the PVC-like plastic pipes some people use to tent over their raised beds, I came up with the idea of popping out the top of my greenhouse with some PVC pipes. I just needed to figure out how to secure the pipe ends without tearing the plastic. I went to the hardware store, looked around, and decided 45-degree PVC elbows would likely do the trick. So I bought two 10-foot lengths of 3/4 inch PVC and six elbows, plus some basic brackets to hold the elbows in place.

From there, I estimated how long a piece I thought I would need by wedging a piece of PVC into the roof and seeing how far I could wedge in. I quickly made a mark, cut the pipe down to size, screwed the brackets over the elbows, and wedged the PVC pipe in one elbow, bent the middle of the pipe up until I could slip the other end into the elbow on the other side, and I was done. I did that twice more, and I suddenly had a pop-up roof and a greenhouse that looks just like a covered wagon.

Now it’s time to move it to the sunny side of the yard and see how warm it stays at night.

Really, Do I Have to Eat Greens to Get Better?

25 Feb

Natalie was really sick yesterday so I stayed home and made her garden soup for lunch – the surest way to get anyone better. First I went out and picked big piles of overwintering chard and spinach. I sliced the stems out of the chard and fried those up first with some pressed garlic. Then I added both piles of greens and stewed them down. Thanks to the garlic, the greens started to waft deliciousness right away. On the side, I was heating up some premade tomato soup. Just as it got hot, I dropped the stewed greens into two bowls and then poured the hot soup over the top. On the side, I melted cheese on corn tortillas and sprinkled more garlic on top (you can’t have enough garlic when you get sick). Natalie is feeling much better today. Not sure if the soup did it, but…

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