Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of personal reflections by Jewell on the challenges and rewards of making a new life for herself and her family in Sierra County. The artwork and photographs illustrating this feature are also by Jewell.
We’ve been here eight months, and it feels as though we’re still unpacking and have lived here forever—simultaneously. For the most part, we’ve been keeping to ourselves, with the exception of the occasional play date for Calvin and Daisy and an impromptu trip to Phoenix to escape the wind, visit the zoo, make some purchases from IKEA and pick up art supplies for mama. The trip entailed a lot of time in the car, considering we very rarely go anywhere, anymore, but besides a few carsickness incidents, we all seemed to enjoy the change of atmosphere.
My husband Nick, who I pictured would have a difficult time adjusting to the dramatic differences in climate and culture from our previous home in Virginia, is doing OK. He’s not overly ecstatic about his job. After years of paying his dues and climbing the ladder, he’s dropped back down several rungs. At least he has two days off a week (compared to one day in Virginia) and his stress levels here are practically nonexistent. He’s such an optimistic, happy guy, it’s just hard to see him less than thrilled.
The kids do need more playmates, and I’m working on that. For now, they do well being with mom all day, reading books, taking walks and hanging out in the garden. They help me water and can now identify some of the plants in our aspirational permaculture food forest.
Spring has sprung, and I’ve been working outdoors a lot. All of my living plants are in the ground, and nearly all of the seeds. Now we water and wait. The irrigation trenches for harvesting rainwater that runs in streams past our home in the historic district are mostly dug. We’ve also installed a laundry-to-landscape greywater system to help cut down on some of the watering needs of the front garden. I have a fair amount of work to complete before it starts getting too hot, but things are greening. Not only attempting to garden in the desert, but to do it using organic methods is going to be an uphill battle. It’s a journey I’m willing to take, though.
I went overboard on my seed purchases. I basically bought 70 percent of the fruits, vegetables and herbs that I thought I’d eventually want to try. In permaculture, which emphasizes the principles of sustainability and self-sufficiency, diversity is key. So I laid in a wide variety of both edible and non-edible plants and seeds, including tomatoes, potatoes, pole beans, onions, peas, spinach, kale, carrots, sweet and hot peppers, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, watermelons, moringa, amaranth, sage, comfrey and more! I have to remember to give myself grace and accept that this is only the first of many seasons to come. Some things are not going to work out initially, and I’m OK with that.
Last fall, I started testing different composting methods, including vermicomposting (worm farming with red crawlers purchased online), hot composting (in a Soil Saver bin with kitchen scraps, spent brewery grains and a variety of “browns,” such as leaves, pine needles and twigs), and, finally, trench composting, which is burying kitchen waste with wood chips and cardboard.
The last method produced a huge number of pumpkin volunteers, which actually works out perfectly, as I have begun transplanting them into my “Three Sisters” beds. Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash—the Three Sisters—together because they help each other survive and thrive. The corn grows tall and acts as a trellis for the pole beans; the beans (arguably) fix nitrogen, and the squash covers the ground to prevent weeds and maintain moisture.
I’ve also planted bare-root Granny Smith, Anna, Pink Lady and Fuji apple trees, as well as a bonanza peach and a rather sad looking pecan. Some of the trees were purchased online, but three of the apple trees were found at Walmart. They’re looking pretty happy now, but I’m doubtful they’ll produce fruit this year as some of the flower blooms have completely fallen off (or were blown off? The wind has been strong).
Each tree hole has been filled with a concoction I’ve developed from watching way too many YouTube videos. It includes native soil, homemade compost, biochar, coco coir and worm castings. In addition, I have placed PVC pipe into the soil on a diagonal with the tree to channel water under it to aid in deep-root development. (Over time, the taproot will hopefully reach the water table), Prickly pear pads to provide water in between watering, dead wood and mycorrhizal fungi completed the soil amendment. Finally, I covered each tree with a heavy heap of mulch. Once they are better established and it starts to get hotter, I’ll add more mulch to retain as much moisture in the soil as possible.
With each tree I’ve planted, I’ve also seeded a “guild” at its base, including some of the vegetables mentioned above and flowers such as sunflowers and nasturtiums. A guild is a collection of plants that help build soil, attract “good” bugs and, hopefully, deter “bad bugs.” When researching guild plants, I had to take into consideration hardiness zone for perennials, shade, placement, watering needs, etc. In Virginia, I just had a few things in pots. It was a lot easier to seem successful as my only real obstacle was keeping the birds and chipmunks from my berries.
So far, I’ve lost three strawberries to birds; they’re covered now. (We have also harvested a few and they were delicious!) A bunch of seedlings have withered due to lack of moisture. Although I water every day, I’ve learned that some plants can’t make it with one watering. I don’t want to baby things too much since I have so much else going on, and it’s so early in the season. I’d rather focus on plants that can make it through the heat now and later might require the help of shade cloth. If plants are dying now without shade cloth, I can only imagine how they would struggle through the hotter months even with shading.
Somehow, I’ve found time to stick my toe in the art scene here in T or C. “Mama and Child,” a collection of my painted, block-printed and digitally illustrated portraits, will be featured at the Desert Archaic gallery on Broadway this Saturday during Art Hop. These works have never before been displayed in public together, and I will be so excited to see them, especially in the company of my own mama on the day before Mother’s Day. Please be sure to introduce yourself if you come out to see the show.
Until next time, may your gardens be green, your home artful, and your heart happy.