December 28th, 2012 § 10 Comments
When we first moved to the property that would become 46 North Farm, there was something not quite right about the landscape. I couldn’t have told you what it was exactly, it just felt…odd. Somehow blank. I had a hard time feeling connected this piece of land, which was weird for me. I told myself that I just wasn’t used to it yet, that I was exhausted from the ‘buying the farm’ ordeal, followed by the ‘moving the farm’ ordeal, in tandem with the ‘working full time while trying to restart the farm’ challenge. Certainly, all those things were part of the oddness, but it turned out that there really was something missing here.
As we slowly began to transform land that had existed as open pasture from tree line to tree line for probably eighty years or more, the occasional bird began to show up, perching on the few perennial herbs, flowers and vegetables that we grew that first year. And I realized: this farm is too quiet. Where are all the songbirds? Once, when visiting our old farm in Seaside, my sister Laura complained that the early morning bird symphony was so loud it woke her up. (And this from a woman who lives in San Francisco.) That first spring on 46 North Farm, I could hear birds, but they were way off in the distance. I would see them swoop in to investigate the new plants, but they didn’t stick around.
On the old farm in Seaside, when the lavender began to bloom in July it thrummed and vibrated with the busy excitement of thousands of bumble bees industriously working it for pollen. But that first year here in Olney, the lavender was mostly quiet, and almost every bumble bee we saw was cause for comment. I don’t think I saw any hoverflies that first year, and butterflies were rare.
In 2010, for the first time in decades, the pasture on our farm wasn’t grazed (except by elk and deer) nor was it really mowed at all, much to the distress of many of our Olney neighbors. There was a lot of head shaking at this neglect. Many people politely expressed concern that we were letting the wetland grasses, especially what is known around here as ‘bunch grass’ take hold. (The botany police would tell you that this plant is really called Juncus effusus, and is a reed, not a grass, if that sort of detail matters to you.)
That first summer, as the mix of pasture and wetland grasses, sedges and reeds bloomed and went to seed, dragonflies and skippers began showing up. The swallows that came back and nested in the barn and old chicken house played out a riveting WW2 battle scene, twisting and turning in unbelievable dives as they chased down the insects that thrived in the tall grasses and reeds that covered the soggy middle portion of the farm.
The thing that really kickstarted the wildlife explosion on 46 North Farm wasn’t a plant at all, it was the first elk exclosure fence we built in late spring of 2011. Suddenly, small birds had a place to perch as they flew from tree line to tree line.
Oregon junkos, House Finches and Song Sparrows would hang out on the fence wire, checking out the new plantings, occasionally swooping in to investigate for bugs or worms. Bright yellow Wilson’s Warblers and Common Yellowthroats would alight on the fence, thrilling us with their bright yellow colors and send us racing for our Sibley’s Field Guide as we tried to learn which bird was which. As Packy mounted nesting boxes on the posts, more birds began showing up, as chickadees argued with swallows for real estate.
Sometime in 2010, we had begun talking with representatives from the National Resource Conservation Service about various farm projects that they might be able to provide financial and technical assistance with. Two of our three elk fences are NRCS projects, as is the drip irrigation system we installed last summer. One other project on the menu of possibilities was the planting of native pollinator habitat. The NRCS encourages agricultural landowners to set aside areas where plants that flower and provide food for native pollinators can grow and thrive. Native pollinator populations have declined as the amount of available food sources–plants that bloom and provide pollen–has decreased in agricultural areas. The decline can largely be traced to the strategy of trying to use every last inch of land for farm production. I can understand wanting to maximize production, but also deeply understand the value that even a small boundary of native plants can bring to the ecosystem that supports a small farm.
For a farmer who wants to grow any vegetables, fruit or flowers, providing food and shelter for a healthy population of pollinating insects is essentially the same as providing food and shelter for vitally important farm workers. Without pollination, most commonly grown food crops would not produce food at all, so having a whole lot of pollinating insects around was a high priority for us. Song birds are also great for a farm’s ecosystem, as they consume vast quantities of insects each day. While some of those insects might themselves be considered beneficial, a good balance of the bugs getting chomped are the very pests wreaking havoc on our crops. The good that the birds do for the farm outweighs my annoyance when they hang on the fence watching me sow cover crop seed, just waiting for me to leave before they swoop in and have a feast. The junkos are particularly guilty of this, but I just try to sow extra, knowing that enough seed will germinate to do the job.
We don’t see them as often, but larger raptors like red-tailed hawks also make use of the fence, sitting atop the posts and closely watching the ground for sign of movement. Birds of prey like red-tailed hawks and the owls that nest in the large snags in our woods feed on many of the rodents who might otherwise be feeding on our vegetables. The key is to have the farm be part of a larger, balanced ecosystem where all the players are keeping each other in check, with no one population getting out of control. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re headed in a good direction.
Since it was something we had wanted to do anyway on the farm, we signed on to the NRCS pollinator habitat project, and agreed to set aside about an acre of land and plant it out into trees and shrubs that would provide food for pollinators–half of the land hugging the hillside where the farm borders Highway 202 and half where our property line meets that of our neighbors, the Wildlife Center of the North Coast. There was a specific list of native plants we had to choose from to ensure that there would be plants blooming in succession from as early in the season as possible to late into winter.
In the meantime, we continued to plant more perennial herbs and flowers among the annual vegetables, herbs and flowers we were growing. Populations of both beneficial and non-beneficial insects soared as they all showed up to investigate the changing landscape. Repeated outbreaks of annoying pests like aphids, cucumber beetles, cutworms and grasshoppers were unwelcome, but not unexpected as we shifted the plant community from straight pasture grass to a more diverse menu of botanical offerings.
Why is it that cabbage moths and the evil green caterpillars that spawn them show up in force as soon as you introduce a new plant to an area, but it takes ages for beneficial insect and bird populations to build up and start eating enough of the non-beneficials to get the whole system into a state of some balance? Nature is mysterious force, and somewhat annoying at times when I want to control her and she just thumbs her nose at me.
I found that I couldn’t get too mad this past summer when most of our fennel bolted during a hot spell. We found that not only were the flowers beautiful when mixed in to our farmers market bouquets, but the flowering fennel plants also played host to a gang of swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, which adore plants in the fennel family. I love these chubby, colorful caterpillars and the glorious pale yellow butterflies they become enough that next year I’m thinking we should plant some fennel along the fence line just to let it go to seed to keep these lovely creatures around.
By the summer of 2011, the lavender on our new farm had began to hum and vibrate with bumble bees again. Honeybees moved back and forth from flowering nepeta to the bright blue cornflowers, and all the bees began crawling deep into the squash and cucumber blossoms, coming out covered in thick yellow pollen, woozy and seeming slightly drunk.
Hummingbirds zipped through the farm, exploring our offerings of cutting flowers and vegetable flowers alike. Spring and summer mornings are once again noisy with birdsong, the chorus close enough to the house now that individual songs are distinctive, especially the dee dee dee of Black-capped Chickadees, one of my favorite morning sounds.
Late January of 2012, Packy and I were joined by a hearty crew as we spent the day clearing the hillside along the highway of the invasive cotoneaster, holly and blackberry that had established there. In May, wonderful farm friends planted the first round of native plants in the newly cleared area along Highway 202.
Making sure we had enough early, mid-season and late blooming plants to provide food over as much of the year as possible, we installed Hooker and Pacific willow, red-flowering current, twinberry, nootka rose, ninebark, snowberry, salmonberry, redosier dogwood, vine maple, evergreen huckleberry, and Oregon grape, with most of the plants grown by our friends Scott and Dixie from Watershed Garden Works over in Longview, Washington.
The NRCS aggreed to approve the use of biodegradable burlap squares as weed mat material so that we didn’t have to cover the entire acre with black plastic weed cloth, and then dispose of it once it had served its purpose. We spent many hours caging the plants so that the deer and elk who frequent the area wouldn’t chew the plants to nothing before they had a chance to establish their roots.
When we ran out of ground staples, Luke and Kati figured out how to reuse galvanized wire that had been stripped out of some old caging that was dismantled during the Chicken Palace remodel, fashioning buckets full of handmade ground staples that worked just fine.
May was really late in the year to put native plants in the ground, especially ones you don’t plan to water, but we just couldn’t get the project started before then. Winter is the preferred time of year for planting natives, because the plants are pretty much dormant. They spend the first few months of their life in the ground slowly establishing their roots while getting regular watering by the winter rains, so by the time summer rolls around and we experience some warm dry weather–really, it does get warm-ish on the Oregon coast–the plants are established enough to handle the stress of going weeks with no rainfall. We got lucky with this planting–in spite of a long warm dry summer, over 90% of those first plants have survived. Interestingly, the ones that didn’t make it were primarily the ones that didn’t get caged and got chomped too hard by the deer and elk. Lesson learned: cage everything.
I can’t really fault the deer and elk though. The woody and leafy plants we are installing–what’s known among wildlife habitat folks as scrub-shrub habitat–are all crucial to a healthy diet for deer and elk as well as good for pollinators and birds. People are used to seeing deer and elk grazing on grass just like cows, but grass isn’t very good for them, especially if it makes up the majority of their diet. Our friend Doug once explained to me that elk eating only grass would be like you or me eating only doughnuts. Tasty and fine enough if that’s all you’ve got to eat, but it’s not an ideal diet. Which is why deer are always so eager to eat people’s ornamental shrubs–in an urban setting, your hydrangea or tea rose is the closest thing to twinberry or nootka rose that there is.
Once the craziness of farmers market season wound down in early October, it was time to turn our thoughts to finishing the pollinator habitat project, but somehow October slid into November, and November sped past and suddenly the project clock was ticking loudly. We needed to get the rest of the plants installed in the final weeks of 2012, not just because it’s the better time of year for planting natives, but because our NRCS contract is up at the end of 2012, and if we wanted to get any cost-sharing on the project, we have to have it done by the end of December. The week before Christmas saw a planting frenzy as we worked to get the second half of the planting in the ground.
Luke and Kati joined us in the final planting push, and our good friend Britta–a very experienced native plant installer–stopped by and pitched in as well. The day was kind to us, shifting from ominous clouds in the morning to the most beautiful sunny winter day possible.
Fabulous farmhand Kelly was recovering from a bad flu and was just too sick to help with the planting, but she showed up mid-day with a delicious, hearty and restorative vegetable stew with dumplings for us all, plus a box of the most amazing holiday cookies that she and her boyfriend Sam had made. (Packy was especially taken with the Death Star and Tie Fighter sugar cookies.) Well fed and loaded up with sugar, we got the rest of that day’s planting installed in no time.
I spent most of Christmas Eve back on the planting site, mucking about in the mud and getting the final plants installed: willow whips that our friend Austin dropped off for us, Red elderberry cuttings from a plant that the birds had sown too close to the house, some highbush cranberry that we grew from cuttings our friend Doug gave us last year, and the last of the redosier dogwood, rooted from cuttings that Kelly and I took off some huge bushes near our farm on Youngs River Road.
It’s going to take several years before these plants we’ve installed in 2012 begin to take on substance and size. For the first year or two I think they mostly work on growing roots, and you don’t see a whole lot of growth up top. But once their roots are established they will really kick in and grow into a deep, beautiful thicket full of flowers and berries that will hum with insects and birds, and surround our farm with life.
As I walked back through the farm to the house late in the cold, wet afternoon of Christmas Eve, I thought about how satisfying it was that so much of our pollinator habitat consisted of plants grown or harvested by friends, and planted by friends. In that moment I felt more connected to this place, this landscape, than I have ever felt anywhere. I was covered in mud, had several new bruises, ached in places I didn’t want to think about and wasn’t sure I’d have the energy to get any presents wrapped that evening, but I couldn’t stop smiling. It was partly knowing that a hot shower and a strong glass of eggnog awaited me, but my grin was also due to knowing that not only was the farm surrounded by life, it was surrounded by love and friendship, one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.
p.s. I wrote this blog post especially for Packy. We were recently having one of those talks about feeling stressed out about all the things we feel like we should be doing (like shopping for Christmas presents when there is very little money or time to make it a fun experience) and about all things we really want to do but don’t because we don’t feel like we can spend the time doing them. I confessed that one thing I wish I allowed myself more time for was writing, as I truly enjoy it.
“Well,” he said, in that clever way he has of turning something to his advantage, “I want you to write me a blog post as a Christmas present. It costs nothing, plus you get to enjoy doing it!”
I have enjoyed it. The writing process has been great, but what I loved the most about looking back over our pollinator habitat project is the reminder of how far this farm has come in three short years. I am so fortunate to be surrounded not only by birdsong and the buzz of happy bees, but by truly amazing friends, wonderful and supportive family, and the best damn husband a crazy farm girl could ever hope to have. A couple of days late, but with a whole lot of love: Merry Christmas, Packy.