Flat Mountain Dispatches

“mountain flesh, mountain bones”

. ᚢᚦᚼᚱᚼᛒᚼᛊᛒ .

One last push and the saw meets the top of the hatchet blown wedge. A short, sharp crack tells me that the tension in the centre of the heartwood has released.

I dash back a safe distance and watch as the tree twists and sways, unwilling to succumb to the pull of gravity. One second stretches out. Eventually the trunk cracks loudly and gives way, the two cuts creating a fibrous hinge that directs its fall to the Earth.

The sound of the splintering tree echoes through the quiet forest. Accompanied by the snapping of branches as it strikes neighbouring canopies, clearing off the dead and the weak, out-shaded wood. Finally it crashes to the ground with a blunt force that rattles my ankles.

Looking up I can see the sky, its light no longer obscured by the spillage of spruce monoculture. Soon the sun will stir the forest floor to life, awakening the struggling saplings and the dormant seed-bank.

‡ | #journal #forest #restoration

Nuthatches dart up and down the trunk of the pine, sharing the tree with a pair of woodpeckers whose drumming on the thick sections of dead wood echoes through the garden.

The forest edges are all bare branches cascading lichen. Frozen falls of pale green. The only hint of seasons past are the beech saplings that cling to their golden leaves all year round. In the snow they are the sole splashes of colour. Sculptural copper laced structures marking up the understory.

The top few centimetres of soil have thawed again in our first kitchen garden space, the one that soaks up the earliest of the Spring sun. This weekend we're digging into its beds, harvesting ever more of last years crop of parsnips and artichokes.

I wonder if we'll ever eat all the parsnips. I wonder how many can possibly be left in the ground? Most of all I'm impressed that they've lasted so long, enduring the many frigid Winter months.

Nettles push up between rocks and scrubby grass, growing around the foundations of the earth cellar and the edges of otherwise empty food and flower beds. A hardy and reliable plant, always ready to be gathered for cooking and tea.

So we make parsnip soup and nettle pie, and it's good soup and good pie. And I think about how lucky we are to have found this little slice of land that keeps us fed and watered and asks so little in return.

‡ | #journal #growing

It's high time for an update on our no dig potato and cabbage patch, first documented back in my May 12th, 2021 entry.

In the first year, 2021, neither of us were especially impressed with the performance of this bed. The non-porous structure of the cardboard did exactly what I had feared it would do, creating a hydrophobic environment in which water ran off the surface, causing the soil beneath to dry out at a faster than average rate.

The roots of the potatoes, planted parallel to or just above the surface of the cardboard — as recommended in several sheet mulching guides — failed to penetrate deeply into the soil.

As a result, the crop didn't perform as well as we had hoped. The yield was a little underwhelming even after taking into account the blight induced early harvest.

By the second year, 2022, the cardboard had still not completely decomposed. We filled the bed with a thick layer of manure from a local horse owner, then added our usual cover mulch of straw and hay. Later we planted onions and cabbage varieties here.

As in the first year, the remaining cardboard constricted valuable water flow through the soil. This exacerbated the difficulties caused by the hot, dry summer we experienced that season.

Our cabbage crops especially struggled in this bed. When we dug up the most underperforming plants and moved them to a part of the bed where the cardboard had completely decomposed, the plants responded quickly to the uncovered soil and began to develop more healthily.

In both years, weeds appear to have been suppressed, but we can see that there are plenty of roots tangled and thriving and ready to grow back. This is of course not to be considered a report of a serious study. We did not proceed with any sort of control group, nor did we document the myriad variable conditions with an eye to repeating the experiment.

To reiterate from my original post, this bed was very quick and very easy to construct, and it did produce a crop in both years. If you're short on time or have health problems that prevent you from digging and performing heavier work, this could be a great option for growing food with minimal manual labour. As it uses waste material that you may already have on hand, it can be considered a form of recycling. It may also require less initial input than other no dig methods that use thick layers of woodchip and coarse organic matter. Although I would always advocate for these where they are an option.

I maintain that the biggest disadvantage of sheet mulching is its well documented potential to restrict aeration of the Earth below, which has effects that are difficult to measure from a general garden level observation. It's also worth noting that — in contrast to our drought problems — the sheet mulching barrier has been shown to prevent adequate evaporation and drainage on wet or poor draining soils.

These are interesting points considering that the method is part of a philosophy which attests to not unnecessarily disturbing the soil microbiome. Apparently adding a synthetic barrier that deprives the Earth of oxygen, inhibits natural drainage, and interferes with root growth, does not count as a meaningful disturbance.

There are changes we could have made to help water, oxygen and root penetration, and I have encountered some of these in the intervening years, but this highlights one of my recurring problems with the popular permaculture market. Even the simplest practices can be poorly defined, with a range of conflicting opinions and personal anecdotes offered between sources.

I cannot over stress how important I believe it is to maintain a critical, science backed approach to your farms and gardens. At the very least this will help you to avoid sinking time and resources into ineffective methods, and may steer you clear of unintentionally harmful practices.

That said, we may well repeat this process in a few other small areas this year, as we have a lot of spare cardboard lying around in the barn, and it may aid us in quickly expanding the kitchen garden. I just won't be expecting any particularly notable results from it.

‡ | #journal #growing

I finally sketched up some very, very rough planting plans for our 2022 kitchen garden. If you can read my tiny scrawl and care about such things.

This year we'll try and produce more detailed CAD maps, showing exactly where things were planted and at what times.

Space 01.

Space 02.

Space 03.

‡ | #growing

All posts become about the weather, which isn't entirely unexpected. The routine of mountain life is dictated by these patterns, and little changes until the seasons have shifted. When outdoor work can begin anew.

Right now we're in that transitional period where the persistent Winter is being pushed out, the hopeful Spring squeezing in to fill the cracks. It's by no means a linear process. This week the overnight temperatures plummeted to -20℃, with Northern Lights shimmering under clear skies and a fresh fall of deep, powdery snow.

This is often the way at this time of year. During the day it can be bright and warm, with the temperatures hovering in the plus degrees, but as soon as the sun sets it drops back into the minuses.

So I keep writing about the weather as a way of recording for myself, to keep a less impersonal record of the seasons and the annual conditions. It may feel redundant to keep repeating roughly the same observations, but over time and years these notes build up into a useful body of reference.

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“Above Pentecost the cedars, like great charcoal drawings, suddenly began to expose their structure, the layers of flat foliage rising tier above tier, their edges ribbed with sunrise.

Pentecost turned his back upon the castle and made his way through the cedars, leaving in his wake upon the glittering blotches of the dew, black imprints of feet that turned inwards. As he walked it seemed that he was moving into the earth. Each stride was a gesture, a probing. It was a kind of downward, inward search, as though he knew that what was important for him, what he really understood and cared for, was below him, beneath his slowly moving feet. It was in the earth—it was the earth.”
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (1946).

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Sitting in the garden thumbing through books, basking in the warm reach of the sun. The micro-climate around our original growing space thawing and greening. The land is now split clean in two, halved Spring and Winter. The ground still frozen and snow-covered in the shade. The forest holding back the early bloom, standing guard cool and dark.

‡ | #journal

Vårvinter arrives. Literally translated as Spring-Winter, this is a period more loosely defined by its character than by its month.

Vårvinter is an interstitial season that most agreeably falls between late February and early April, when the daytime temperatures climb steadily above zero. When the rising sun casts a bright but uneven light. Reflecting crystalline off the icy ground. When the deepest snows melt in the warmth of the day, freezing back into solid sheets in the cold of night.

The first signs of Spring appear as the days begin to lengthen. The receding darkness reveals the earliest patches of blooming snowdrops. Cautious birds build their chorus as small insects hatch and stir. On the bare trees soft buds glisten in the morning dew.

For the first time in months my back is warmed as I perform my daily firewood ritual. Rays of sun reach across the garden, driving the phantom mists before them. A soft lantern light pools on the red barn walls.

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I shadow through the meadow and loom through the wood. An inky Mervyn Peake skeleton. The mountain a ghostly heap of bones.

My feet low in fresh snow soft, softly, softest. I squint at the single tentative beam cleaving through cloud. The sun edging higher. The stubborn Winter refusing to budge.

This long January exhausted at last.

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Clouds of red crossbill's swarm the tops of the tallest spruce, lit by the lazy shimmer of a late January sun. Emerging from Winter hibernation and rising hesitantly above the horizon.

The colourful birds pull spruce cones into their crossed beaks, evolved to strip the outer scales to reach the seeds inside. When finished they drop the emptied shells to the ground.

Through the forest sounds a rain of clattering cones, knocking and bouncing between evergreen branches.

‡ | #journal