Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A living playhouse made with willows

Ever since I planted willows on several farm properties while working with an environmental organization back in 2007, I've been fascinated with them.  We stuck bare little sticks in the ground and then these amazing shrubby trees grew; the farmer coppiced them after about 3-5 years, right to the ground, and then they came back!  They were super plants!  Plus they're beautiful.  Then I helped work on a "fedge", or a living willow fence/hedge that was planted on a property in NS I visited while working in another job.  When I saw that you could plant young willow branches and tie them together to make a living playhouse, I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried it myself.  It took me about three years, but I finally did it.

Note: mine does not look as pretty, woven, and perfect as those you may find if you google a willow dome house.  But I'm really happy with it.  And this is how I did it:

In early April, I gathered about twenty-two or twenty-three willow branches that were about 2-3 seasons old and about 8-10 feet long, that had grown up from a coppice (they'd been cut to the ground and allowed to regrow from the stump, so there were many stems growing simultaneously from the same plant), rather than ordering straight cut lengths from a willow nursery, so mine are a little rustic, slightly less flexible, and a bit more branchy.  I convinced my younger sister to help me round them up and borrowed our dad's truck to get them home.  Thanks, Bec!  Once I got them home I trimmed off the side branches from each main stem and set them aside.  I didn't take pictures during this whole process, sorry!

I cleared an area in a perennial bed in our front yard, near the veggie garden so that the littles could play in the shade nearby while I garden.  Using a big 10-inch spike/nail thing with a string tied to it to measure the circle's radius, which was roughly 3-4 feet, I poured a trail of flour around the circumference of the circle which would be the eventual walls of the dome.  My students could tell anyone that I am horrible at drawing circles, so that string really helped me have a proper circular shape for the base.  Then I used that same spike and a mallet to pound holes into the ground every 30 centimetres or so (switching between imperial and metric like only a Canadian can!) in order to open up a hole for the branch.  I pushed the cut, bottom end of the branches as far as I could into the holes and as I made it around to where I had begun, I left the space between the first and last willow pole just a little larger to act as the door.  I lashed the branches together at the top to form the dome's roof, and then took the larger of all the side shoots I had cut off and planted them in between the larger branches to help fill in space, and so that I can weave them through eventually to reinforce the dome's walls.  You are supposed to put two to three between the structural willows and weave them through in an almost basket-like weave, but I didn't have enough so I am planning to do it with shoots coming from the established branches as they grow.

However, the top of my willow dome was really unattractively tied, due to the fact that at that point I was exhausted and wanted to go inside and sit down!  I left it like that for about a month, hoping against hope that the branches would take.  Ideally, I would have had them buried more deeply, covering more of their length in the soil, but the ground was still partially frozen and I had a hard time getting them in.  I wanted to do it while they were still dormant, and with work it has been hard to set aside much time for this sort of project, so I just sort of jumped at my chance that weekend and hoped for the best.

Then this weekend, I untied the tops and retied them, and I feel that it looks a lot better.  Not perfect, but more rounded and less embarrassing to have so close to the property line! Next, I put down a layer of mulch as the "flooring", and to finish it up, I planted scarlet runner beans that we started in my classroom at the base of every structural pole to climb up and help fill in the space as it gets established this year.  I'm really pleased that with the warm weather this weekend, the yard is greening up and I was rewarded with buds bursting open on each of the main poles and all of the small branches as well, showing me that (at least for now) our living playhouse really is alive!  I'm very hopeful that I can keep it that way, and as I have willow cuttings that I planted last fall coming up in other parts of my yard, the materials to "renovate" or fill in gaps that may not make it will be much closer at hand next time. :)

Here are some photos from this weekend.  I still plan to put a small outdoor rug in with outdoor cushions to make it cozy.  It's hard to see the little door, but in the first photo on the left it's the little arch toward the right of the dome.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Garden update : 2016

This past year has been an extremely busy one, with me going back to work teaching science and math in a French school about 82 km away from where we live, and Craig working full-time but also doing a placement for his social work program.  Our homesteading activities have been rather limited, compared to where I had hoped to be, but life sometimes makes the decisions for us and we do the best we can while we pursue other responsibilities and try to just spend time together as a family when we happen to all be together.  I intend to write a few posts over the next couple of weeks to bring any followers up-to-date on where we are currently find ourselves.

Food and Garden

  • I planted a perennial herb garden last year in a small garden bed outside our side door.  I dug up hostas, spiraea, and a few other plants and shrubs that were the original occupants of the bed and planted Hidcote and Munstead lavender, French thyme, Italian oregano, lemon balm, peppermint, chives that I found in the backyard (yay!), tarragon (which I am rather unconvinced has made it through the winter), echinacea, as well as rudbeckia and monarda to fill up some space and attract and feed pollinators.  Today, I went out early in the morning and gathered some chunks of sandstone to make a path throughout the herb garden so that the kids and I (and the oil man) don't compact the soil too much when walking through.

  • In the fall of 2015, I used every leftover cardboard box we had from the move to this property and laid them out over a perennial bed in the front yard along the front path.  It was a little sad to cover up the perennial bed, because it was beautiful out there, but it's the only really truly sunny part of our yard, the soil was quite compacted and heavy with clay, and tomatoes are first priority!  I borrowed my father's truck to go fill the back with horse manure from an old school bus friend from when I was little, and spread that all over the cardboard. I continued piling on compost from our backyard compost pile, raked up leaves, and threw over it all random chunks of veggies, coffee grounds, and eggshells and whatever odds and ends that I found that seemed as though they would make some decent soil after having time to break down.  This spring, I can see that the volume of the material has really decreased, and I intend to continue building the soil throughout the growing season and especially next fall. I still see the odd worn-out looking avocado pit and there's one still-huge brussels sprout stalk, but it broke down really well over the winter.
    • The one problem I had to deal with is a really resilient and determined patch of astilbes that had broken through the cardboard and compost to raise its little leafy heads.  I wasn't able to dig those out before putting down the sheet mulch because the root mass so was strong, so I spent much of Saturday afternoon going through all the soil and digging it all out.  I was really pleased to see that being under all the sheet mulch had weakened the perennial root masses enough that it was a lot easier to dig them out.  It was also good to see that the cardboard had really broken down, I wasn't sure about how that would work and was worried it would remain intact for a long time.
This bed doesn't look like much now, but I'll update as I like to believe it will be positively teeming with life in a few weeks!
  • I have a few plants already growing on the windowsill in my classroom and am a little late getting others started but have planted a few with the kidlets, and will probably just buy seedlings for this year.  I'm focusing this year on the most important plants for our family : tomatoes, basil, garlic, and yellow beans but will be putting all sorts of other things in as well to fill up space and experiment.  I'd like to continue building the soil in the front bed and fighting weeds and other perennials that are still fighting to keep their sunny home, and plan to expand the veggie garden next year.  We have perennial beds lining the whole perimeter of our front yard so there is no lack of work to be done!
  • Our fruit and nut plantings to date include two female and one male hardy kiwi vines, a pear tree, two hardy pecan trees, two hazelnut shrubs, three pawpaw trees, and a red currant bush.  At some point I'd like to get raspberry plants in along the border between our house and the house next door That might happen this year but I'm leaning toward next year for those.  We still have the two plum trees out front, but they didn't really bear anything last year.  I was told by an acquaintance that they alternate between heavy fruiting years and sparse fruiting years, so I'm hoping for a more plentiful harvest from them this year.  One fell over during an early winter ice storm this past winter, but the trunk and roots seem intact so we've already started shouldering it up and I hope it will make it.  It seems to be doing well from what I can tell, and is budding so hopefully that "every second year" rule will work in our favour.  Yesterday I planted ten Ozark Beauty strawberry starts in a small patch near our herb garden.  They were just tiny sad-looking crowns and roots stored in soil, and looked rather like minuscule dead octopi, but I will keep my hopes up to see signs of life in the next few weeks.
Flower buds forming on our little four-in-one pear tree that we planted last year.

Our hardy pecan trees look pretty good this spring as well.

These are the buds on the plum tree that was knocked down, keeping our fingers crossed!

  • Finally, last month I harvested a bunch of young but long willow branches and took them home to attempt making a willow dome playhouse for the kids.  You can read more about that in my next post. :) 
  • Because of our rather uninspiring vegetable gardening effort last year, I continued to be a part of an amazing organic veggie CSA that we've subscribed to for a few years now.  Additionally, we were thrilled to find out that there was a new veggie CSA opening up through the winter months that included eggs and locally made cheese.  That was a really bright spot in our winter as the selection was surprising considering the winter months.  I expected a lot of rutabaga and cabbage and carrots but there were greenhouse-grown tomatoes and cucumbers and there were sprouts and all sorts of great yummy items!
Yay for Island-grown, nutritious food.  Hopefully I'll make progress this year in growing more of my own, but I love the awesome veggies we get from our super farmers too. :)