Sun clears tops of fir trees, starts hitting garden

THE OLYMPIANApril 24, 2011 

There are a couple of telltale signs that the garden planting season has finally arrived at Horsefeathers Farm.

Early last week, during one of its rare appearances this spring, the sun was high enough in the sky to clear the tops of the mature second-growth fir trees that create a wooded buffer along the farm’s southern boundary.

Finally, the garden plot is coming out of the shade. The soil is drying out and beginning to warm up enough to germinate cool crop seeds such as lettuce, peas, spinach, kale and potatoes.

I planted the first rows of peas and spinach a month ago, and they’ve just started to show signs of life – reluctant and slow, but growth nonetheless. Of the 50 onion starts I put in the ground at the same time, only about 30 remain. I suspect that slugs chewed the tops off the other 20. I also suspect the cool, wet spring is leading to a robust slug population as the growing season picks up steam. Just something else to fret about as I try to coax vegetables out of a garden plot that’s not ideally located.

Sure, I could cut down the trees that block my southern exposure. Then we could stare at the neighbor’s house across the fence line and displace brown creepers and other birds that use the trees.

Or we could selectively harvest and prune, leaving the remaining trees more vulnerable to windstorms. Undisturbed, the stately firs provide a useful wind break and seem to work in concert to resist damage from the winds.

I think you can tell: I don’t like either of those two options.

That leaves a third option: Move the garden to the back pasture, which has much more exposure to the sun. At the present, a temporary fence divides the pasture. The back half is occupied by the neighbor’s 30-year-old horse. Bueno does a good job of keeping the grass clipped, even if his teeth aren’t what they used to be.

The front half of the back pasture is alive with lush green grass that requires constant mowing. I’m going to stake out a proposed garden site big enough to meet our needs and perhaps support a small commercial berry crop, then track it to see how much sunlight it receives through the spring, summer and fall.

But for now – at least this growing season – I’m still stuck with a garden surrounded by fir trees.

I’ve started digging up the dahlia tubers I overwintered in the garden. So far, so good. Each clump has at least a tuber or two with eyes just starting to sprout. I usually replant my dahlias the last few days of April or early May, a time frame that is fast approaching.

The past few weeks I’ve been busy cutting, splitting and stacking wood for next year’s heating season. I just took down a half-dead alder snag this week to supplement this year’s wood supply, which we’ve just about burned through thanks to the continued cold nights.

I’d rather be spending more time in my sunlight-deprived garden.

Time flies, and cameras do, too. That was the message in the subject line of an email I received last week from Russ McMillan, whom I’ve known from his work as a sediment specialist with the state Department of Ecology’s toxics-cleanup program.

Turns out that one of McMillan’s hobbies for the past 40 years has been flying radio-controlled, battery-powered small airplanes. In recent years, he has equipped an ultralight plane with a small digital camera and formed a company called Aerial Images NorthWest ( Commercial or residential property, construction sites, businesses and natural reserves are among his subjects.

In a Soundings column two weeks ago, I lamented the fact that I couldn’t see the Percival Landing project from ground level. McMillan chuckled at my observation, then sent me digital images of the job site that he’d shot from the air. Now I can clearly see how the project fits on the lower Budd Inlet waterfront.

He launches the 30-ounce plane by hand and flies it at altitudes ranging from 50 feet to 200 feet. He just needs a small, empty parking lot or other open space to land the plane. Windy, cloudy days keep him grounded, so flight time is at a premium in South Sound.

Employed full time at Ecology, McMillan doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to his business – mostly nights and weekends. One of his current contracts is with Thurston County to monitor construction of the Yelm Highway project.

He puts the plane into a glide to reduce vibration when he’s photographing. He hasn’t had any serious crashes.

“I definitely have to watch where I’m flying,” McMillan said.

He surveyed the Horsefeathers Farm layout this week and concluded that the above-mentioned trees in the front of the house would make aerial photography – not just gardening – problematic.

But there’s always the little-used back pasture for both.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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