The End of Fall Work and Into the Winter

The End of Fall Work and Into the Winter

I have been remiss in making blog posts as I try to finish Fall work and prepare for Winter.

The Palouse region has four-season weather, but as anyone who has lived here knows, those season lengths are not consistent. Around a month after it really came into being Fall, the weather is wintery already. We’ve already had a morning snow storm, and a few days of snow sticking around. There was a period of consistently freezing nights, though we’ve in a mildly warmer system currently. There will be little weather above the mid 40’s until March. It’s always a depressing thought.

There will still be some more weather you could call Fall, but the leaves are down and there is supposed to be consistent rain, wind, and ice. So if it isn’t fully Winter, it is still certainly the season of bad weather.

So now I enter my slow season, both in work and at home. I am entering Winter in a much better mindset this year. I’ve been going through some personal things, and I absolutely need to accept the slow season as a chance to relax. Still, I do need to maintain a productive mindset for the few nice days.

I got what is probably my last good full day of Fall working weather about a week ago, and though this has not been a good year in my gardens I am happy with what I accomplished and my plans for next year.

Things are looking good going into Winter- the beds are maturing and soil health continues to improve.

Vegetable Gardens

None of my gardens got cover crops on time this year. I was remiss in planting them, and with weather changes they sprouted from some unseasonably good weather just to be hit by snow and deep freezes. I decided to mulch almost everything heavily, as the Ruth Stout mulch has been making great soil. As much as I want to use cover crops as part of my ridiculous complex gardening system, I just don’t know that it is worth it in most instances on such a small scale and with such great access to leaves and goat muck.

heavily mulched garden bed
Ruth Stout mulch on three sisters bed

My current three sisters bed got the heaviest mulching, with a thick layer of goat muck, followed by unused hay, followed by a goodly amount of leaves (some might say excessive amount of leaves.) This is the garden that is Ruth Stout potatoes next year. I didn’t decide to do that on two beds until the Spring of last year. However, the potato bed had already received a heavy fall mulch instead of cover crops. Now, digging into the mulch covering the potato soil there is a rich, thick layer of compost and worm castings-  much more so than the bed next to it which was given a heavy mulch in Spring, but not last Fall.

The bed of potatoes this year is yet to be fully harvested, so it is yet to receive its new layer of mulch. This will be a brassica bed next year. For the time being, it is just getting a heavy winter leaf mulch. The Ruth Stout system is said to build adequate fertility that adding manure becomes unnecessary.

The current brassica bed, next year’s solanacea bed, is meant to get a good, over-winter cover crop because it has time to grow from September-May. In theory, it goes down a week or two before a healthy summer cover of buckwheat has been frost killed. This year, being my first year using heavy permanent mulch I made a mistake regarding watering for cover crops during the dry summer season. While the mulch keeps the crops themselves needing a small amount of water, the cover crops need a high volume to initially germinate, as the top layer of mulch remains dry most of the time and it takes a high volume of water to full wet the mulch. Nothing even tried to germinate until rains came, and everything I had planted was covered in brand new sprouts just in time for very cold weather. I reckon they have no chance of surviving winter that young, and will all need to be replanted in late winter.

In the future, I will remember this pitfall, because once they are growing at all there is a lot of moisture to easily reach just a bit down from the surface.

My last bed is the youngest, which was the solanacea bed this year, and will be three sisters next year. It is a seemingly promising location, having been a vetch patch where the water runs down the hill. I have had marginal results thus far, with this being its second year in full production.This is the only bed that has never been dug or tilled, so it holds a special place in my heart. Plus, its in an adorable location under the apple tree and next to the beehive and hugel bed.

I keep my solanaceas under black plastic, and used the opportunity to further expand this bed, as it had been the smallest. It is probably a quarter or a third again bigger. I did a poor job caring for my solanaceas this year. They especially suffered in terms of watering frequency. I also didn’t make any real effort to fertilize them (though this bed did get a good manuring last Fall.) Not a great tomato harvest. Also, I’ve noticed if I buy darker tomatoes I’m less likely to notice that they’re ripe! I decided to throw my almost finished compost on the bed in hopes of making sure the bed is mature for next year. The bed was also given all of the fire pit ash for an extra mineral boost.

The compost was in the slow compost phase, so it is certainly fine to be finished by the time three sisters is planted in early June. This bed will get a Spring cover. It would normally be Mighty Mustard. However, since I’m not having the nematode or other pest problems the mustard is meant to solve, and the brassica monoculture is drawing flea beetles, I will be using a general blend in the Spring. Or possibly just some vetch, I threw a bit of straw over it to reduce erosion on my compost, so it will already have wheat grass growing next year, which makes a great and fast growing cover.

Next year, I am determined that everything will align and I will have an amazing vegetable gardening year.

Fall Burning

I’m a big believer in the value of burning at least some yard waste. There is not always a use for branches and other waste, and I don’t like the fertility of organic matter to leave my property.

Unfortunately, The city I live in has ridiculous restrictions on burning, including a specific prohibition on burning for the purpose of waste disposal. Despite my best efforts to run for mayor and rescind the burn ban I am still living under a burn restricting regime.

However, my house is on the edge of town and if you keep it a smaller size it seems fine. If I do get guff for my small burns I am going to try out the argument that I am not burning for the purpose of waste disposal, I am burning to create fertilizer. Honestly, it would usually be easier to haul it off.

When we moved into our house 5 years ago everything was completely overgrown and neglected. Most of the lawn is surrounded by the wilderness of the hillside, and wilderness had overtaken the entire lawn. Over time, I have expanded the boundaries of our lawn. The area around our little fire pit has been mostly wild and had random piles of old wood, including some scraps that have been there since we move in, as well as brush I had dragged down in that direction, and some old cardboard.

It’s not impressive to loo at, but the wilderness had been within a couple of feet of the this garden bed.

I was actually planning on working for money the day I did my fire, but I looked at the forecast and decided it was going to be my only good day to burn. I’m very glad I did. The fire pit had been a bit away from the managed yard so it wasn’t a problem. However, with installing the garden bed under the apple tree, the hugelkultur beds, and the bees, it had become increasing inconvenient to have that area wild and filled with wood garbage. It was also visually worse to look at, since it was close to so many other things, and created the appearance of wilderness encroaching on my horticulture projects.

It’s not much to look at, but I’m damn glad to have finally have this area mowed after some five years, it makes for such better access to everything and the yard looks much bigger. There is also a satisfying feeling that comes from taming “wasteland” into more productive use.


I finally fully turned and stacked my massive compost pile. It had developed a tiny bit of heat since it as originally put together. It was a bitch of work. Took at least 3 hours. The first turn is always the worst, because everything is stuck together. Once it breaks down a little bit the fork can move it much more easily. I gave it 4 more wheelbarrows of goat muck, but I decided there was no good reason to add a high volume of leaves, especially as I was already worried it had too much brown matter. (There are some charts explaining the difference between “green” and “brown” items on my compost Pinterest board.) The pile did get a blanket of leaves on top to catch some of the escaping gases and encourage heat.

I flipped the pile, moving the whole thing. It is interesting to dig into a year of my work, remembering some of the jobs things came from. The bottom layer remained as dry and dead as can be, confirming my suspicion that without turning the dried bottom layer it would never really go. This made flipping it a bit more difficult, as I had to make sure to change the piles entire footprint.

massive compost pile ready for winter
My massive, hot, compost pile right after it was stacked.

It got off to a slow start, but now it is steaming away, some two weeks later. The heat has kind of moved to different pockets, but is clearly uniform in the very center. And it is hot enough to burn a person if you reach in, even just barely past wrist level at the right point. It is coming up in a steam stack one can see through the kitchen window. There has been a break from frost, but it should produce dramatic and beautiful images when there is a heavy frost. For some reason the southern side of it is not getting warm, but I will dig into it to place the kitchen scraps, which are full of coffee grounds and generally high in nitrogen.

There are few things that smell better than the steam coming off of a compost pile. I hope this thing cooks through the winter, it really keeps me sane and happy in bad weather. (Smelling proper compost has been scientifically shown to have anti-depressant qualities.) If it cools down I may separate it into two on an unseasonably warm day in December, but my hope is that it just keeps cooking and I will turn the outside into a separate pile and then turn the center when it warms up in February or March. I’m optimistic that when this cools down the center will only need one more turn and I will have generous compost for Spring planting.

Checking the Bees

My bees have not had a good year. As I detailed previously, I had a swarm that had to be put in a new home and then I had to recombine hives. I had been sugaring the bees, and had some optimism. They were taking greatly to the sugar on warm days, but they don’t like to feed even in their hive on cold days. I had been giving them as much heavy syrup as they would take, and they seemed quite active.

So I checked my bees on a nice day in late October. The upper chamber, which had originally been the lower chamber was beautiful. Not as full as it should have been, but close. Unfortunately, In the lower chamber the combs, besides the ones which came from the nucleus, were pretty much completely empty. Very light frames with no more than some wax. This means they probably don’t have enough food for the winter. However, there may be a silver lining to this situation. There is a small amount of brood in the lower chamber. In theory, this means that there are fewer bees to survive on that amount of honey.

Assuming my bees can stay warm enough, are scrappy, and economize they may make it. But it is supposed to be a long and brutal winter, and they will surely need feeding time to come early in the Spring. (That is to say, in late Winter before it is actually Spring.)

While it will be sad if I lose the ladies, it is less of a big deal than most non-beekeepers would imagine. You just do lose at least 1 in 10 colonies every winter in this climate, even if you do everything right. The thing that sucks is I will have to pay for more bees, as I don’t have a colony to split. However, the fortunate thing is that bees devote an extraordinary amount of energy to building wax, and so they will start this coming year on full frames. Even a new colony should be able to produce a good amount of honey next year, with their time freed from frame building. (Of course, they will have to draw out the comb in the new honey supers still.)

This winter I will be reading Langstroth’s Hive and The Honeybee again, hoping that I take in much more than I did reading it without having cared for bees. While I have learned a lot, I clearly need to greatly improve my knowledge to find success at this endeavor.

Planting Bulbs

My side yard garden continues to grow, though not at the pace that I would hope. I planted 100 more bulbs this Fall, which sounds like a lot but is not nearly as much as you would think. You plant them about 5 to a square foot, if not more. I didn’t develop any new beds, as my other little bulb beds are not filled out. However, last year the beds were carved out of the soil and covered with straw, which did not create a great appearance or lead to great results. This year, I took advantage of having finished compost giving the beds a much more attractive, black appearance, and hopefully increasing fertility and water retention.

I mostly planted tulips. I got a pastel mix from my mother as a gift, and also bought some Skagit County tulips from the local Boy Scouts; also got some double blossom daffodils, mixed hyacinths, and small fritilleria from my mother.

None of the new bulbs were put any particularly exciting use, but I planted some solid red tulips with a cluster of yellow daffodils in front of the house, added some double blossom daffodils in another yellow daffodil spot and also along the house, and then filled out my other two tulip beds. To be honest, it will be much better to just post result pictures in the Spring than trying to remember my planting strategy. What was exciting about all of this was seeing how huge last year’s bulb’s have become. I think I can expect much bigger and better Spring flowers than last year, which makes the Spring far more sweet. Hopefully, next year crazy swings in weather don’t lead to a short Spring bulb season. That may be too much to ask for, as it seems to happen every year.

Insulinde broken tulip
A true ‘broken’ Insulinde tulip. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens.

I also put clusters of the mixed pastel flowers along my bigger hugel bed, as it is supposed to be varied, permanent planting. Beyond which, it’s orientation will give some of the tulips full sun, and others a great deal of shade, extending my bloom season. However, more than that I need to actually buy and plant Summer/Fall flowers and shrubs next year, as my garden gets depressing quickly when it warms up.

The real star of this year’s planting are the small amount of heirloom bulbs that I got from Old House Gardens. Though it was a small order because of a lean year, I am excited to have my first true broken tulip, an Insulinde, which is sure to be stunningly gorgeous. I also ordered three brown Jules Favre tulips, because I could not resist the lure of a tulip with only 25 bulbs available in the US in 2017!

These fancy bulbs will be babied and will be dug up and stored for the summer after they come into blooms. I will absolutely have to give them deer fencing, and they will be brought inside before the flowers open, so we can get the full appreciation from their beauty. For the time being, they are in a little cleared area that mostly has summer pollinator plants (well, in theory have them, they didn’t really grow this year.)

I have been wondering where to carry out my ambitious tulip breaking project (which will hopefully soon be detailed

The slope where a retaining wall will be used to create an even surface level. It’s hard to get the slope in a photo, but it will need to be around to feet tall at its highest point.

on the heirloom bulbs page.) I need them next to the peach tree hugel bed so the virus can be transmitted.

I finally came up with a proper idea for an heirloom tulip bed. I am going to build a retaining wall where the the ground level drops, maybe around two feet away from the peach tree hugel bed. This is going to do great things visually for the appearance of the yard, and turn the unlevel, shallow soil to my advantage. I am undecided on how the tulip bed will be used in the off season (the tulips will be dug up every year when they are dying back.) I may well just fill it with buckwheat every year, as having a patch of white is quite attractive and it makes for good insect watching.


As I have detailed previously, my poor hugelkultur beds have greatly suffered from my use of clay fill soil for the top layer. This has put back the timetable for them developing into woring beds. I threw more compost on them, the fully finished compost on the peach tree bed and the less finished on the bigger hugel bed. I had planted them with the same cover crop mix, but they suffered the same problem as everywhere else of germinating too late for the weather.

hugelkultur bed ready for winter
The peach tree hugel bed put to bed for winter 2017.

The peach bed has been doing a good job of growing wheat grass after I added an earlier layer of compost and weedwacked the old wheatgrass. Unfortunately, the deer have found in the wheatgrass a face level snack and have kept it quite short. The old wheatgrass helps to actually hold stuff on the bed, though.

I’m hoping this will be enough to create a seed bed that things will actually want to grow well on and which will not dry out instantly.The old grass roots are crucial for waking the bed up, as it allows moisture to transfer down to the wood under the impermeable clay.

I threw another good layer of straw on both beds and planted some garlic for next year. I will be mighty disappointed if these beds are not in good enough condition to grow proper vegetables next year, because I am dying to use them.

Looking to Winter and Next Spring

It’s been a difficult year in my life. The weather was usually extreme, I didn’t believe anything was going to work, and I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by everything.

However, things are looking up, even as my wife and I come into Winter and my slow season in a worse state than I would have wished. I remain optimistic. I am trying to be mindful, take it easy, work on this blog, and look towards the future. Plus, we have a Subaru now, which will make the winter far less isolating than only having an RWD pickup like last year!

The beds and my plans are maturing, and though I think this every year, I’m confident next year is the year when everything will finally go very well, both in my gardens and in life.

But, the world coming back to life next year is far away. For now, I look forward to the depths of Winter when I can prune fruit trees and the ice is thick enough to fish through.

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