Tuesday, April 12, 2016

2016 Fire-Wise Around the Home and Garden

Here comes the sun. Spring is here in full force and summer will be around the corner shortly. This is your friendly reminder that now is the time to begin assessing your property for fire hazards. Continuously keeping your property manicured and well maintained is an endless, thankless task but is part of the price we pay for living in such an amazing setting. There is never a better time than now to begin plugging away at all of those fire-wise projects that tend to pile up over time.
One of the first jobs of spring is to start cutting back old brush and removing it from around your home and property. Remember that last year’s dead growth is this year’s kindling. Many of our native plants grow from the ground up each season leaving behind a plethora of dried-up sticks, leaves and stems. A hedge trimmer is a great tool for cutting back old, dead growth. This will also allow new growth to flourish. After trimming, the plants look tidier, giving your forest a more manicured and ‘park-like’ appearance….an added bonus.
Next, it is worth walking around your home with an eye out for potential hazards. Trim back any branches that are touching the house or the roofline. Ideally, you will have at least 10 feet of space between larger bushes and trees and your house. Mature trees within 30 feet of your home should be limbed to a height no less than 6 feet off the ground (15 feet is even better!). Also, move any firewood at least 30 feet away from structures whenever possible. Clean away any needles that have accumulated in gutters, roof valleys or along decks and foundations.
Assess the type of landscaping you have installed. Are the plants ‘fire-wise’? Plants that make a good choice for around your home are those that contain succulent leaves or have a low volatile oil or resin content. The Pacific Northwest Extension (a collaboration between Oregon State University, Washington University and the University of Idaho) has a list of plants that are appropriate for fire-wise landscaping. Their brochure can be found for download at https://sjcmastergardeners.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/fireresplants_oregon-list.pdf.
Consider removing ‘beauty bark’ and replacing it with small rocks or river stones. Bark can act as an ignition point for flying embers; a common occurrence during large fire events. Rock is a better landscaping choice around structures.
If installing a new deck, consider materials that are fire resistant. There are several manufactured products available that are both aesthetically pleasing and less combustible than cedar or pine. If you already own a wooden deck, make sure it has been painted or stained. A treated deck is less likely to ignite than one left untreated.
Become familiar with the Zone Concept of property management. Information on creating zones around your home can be found at www.firewise.org . This site also contains a whole host of additional information that can keep you informed and up to date about what you can do as a land owner to minimize your risks during a fire event.
Finally, make it fun! Take this opportunity to get to know your neighbors. Have a discussion about what you can do as a community to work together to protect yourselves and your structures from fire. And remember, fire-wise landscaping is still landscaping. Many choices exist for both plants and hardscape materials that are attractive and functional. Make your yard beautiful while working toward a more fire resistant home. Happy Gardening!

2016 Monitoring Soil Temperature

Over the last few weeks, it has been fun to watch the snow recede back to higher elevations and to see soil present itself once again on the valley floor. My personal Facebook feed is filled with photos of friends who, like busy little bees, are working continuously on planning and planting their future gardens. It is so easy to be taken in by the warm, sunny days of early spring. It makes a gardener antsy to get their hands dirty. We take off our sweatshirts and let our pale skin soak in the warm rays; retiring to the comfort of our house when the sun begins to set and the temperatures again dip down to near-freezing at night.  However, the seeds that we sow outside in this early season do not have the luxury of finding warmer accommodations once the heat of the day dissipates and it is often easy to forget that, even though we are comfortable and warm while working in the yard, the soil in our gardens is often still very cold, damp and unpleasant for seedlings. For this reason, I thought that it would be good to write a brief reminder about the importance of monitoring soil temperature as part of your gardening routine.
When sowing seed in the spring, a gardener should monitor the temperature on the top 3-4 inches of garden soil. This is the zone where germination and root development will be taking place.  Although most seeds are sown within the top ½ inch of soil, the first 3-4 inches will be were root development occurs. This is also the depth that will start to indicate the overall warming profile of the entire soil column. In the spring, we oftentimes have days where the upper-most layer of dirt will feel warm and comfortable to the touch. However, by digging in just a little deeper, it is easy to feel that the earth below has still not warmed and is holding on to the residual cold of winter.  If we allow our excitement to outweigh our rational thoughts we will oftentimes plant seed a week too early and many of our efforts will be wasted due to fungus, rot, damping off, and poor or delayed germination. For those seedlings that do germinate, their growth can be permanently stunted and will oftentimes be overtaken by seeds planted even a week or two later. Best to practice a little patience and diligently monitor soil temperature before planting.

Checking soil temperature can be incredibly easy to do and does not require special equipment. Although a person can purchase specialized thermometers from garden supply stores, a simple meat thermometer will suffice for probing the upper zones of garden soil. Like probing a turkey during roasting, a gardener only needs to stick the probe end of the thermometer down into the soil and then wait for the instrument to calibrate. With a black sharpie and a ruler, it is possible to make markings in 1” increments on the probe of the thermometer. The thermometer can be moved up or down so that temperature can be measured throughout the 4” column of soil. This time of year, you will see a drastic change between surface temperatures and deeper measurements. Wait until the soil has reached at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit at depth and 60 degrees at the surface before sowing cool weather crops. For warm season crops, the soil profile should be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit at depth as well as at the surface. This simple technique will help increase your germination and over-all gardening success. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

2016 May Edition of the Good Life Magazine: A Sail in the San Juans

**This article was written for the Good Life Magaine, May 2016 edition**

I started to fall in love with sailboats during middle school. In art class, I would spend hours painting watercolors of sloops, schooners and colonial trading vessels. I would sketch small figures in striped shirts manning the decks and would imagine that it was me. My art teacher told me that, in dream psychology, boats represent a desire to escape and be free. That revelation couldn’t have felt any closer to my own personal 13 year-old truth.  This was also about the time when my family acquired a small, single-sailed Sunfish. During the hot summer weekends, my dad would load the small craft into the back of the truck and would take us sailing on Crystal Lake. On windier days, we would race the little boat as fast as possible to see how far she would lean before catching water in her sails; eventually swamping or flipping. Over time, our family dynamics evolved. Weekends of taking the little sailboat out on the water made way for pre-college employment and other teenage distractions. The Sunfish was eventually sold and my sailing days came to an end. However, in the years that followed, I found myself gravitating toward the water now and again, if only to admire the beautiful sailboats that were moored along every coast that I have ever visited. I kept having this urge to jump aboard the deck, throw the lines loose and sail away on some epic deep sea adventure….but it never happened; until recently.
Robin Kodner has been my best friend since college. She is a take-charge kind of woman and her adventurous spirit never ceases to amaze me. During grad school on the East Coast, Robin found herself leading multi-week sailing courses for Outward Bound during her summer vacations. After graduation, she crewed for a private family and spent time sailing around the Canary Islands and various other exotic locations. For years, we have joked about running away and becoming pirates; two women on the high seas with wind in our sails and salt in our hair. So it came as no surprise, when she found herself permanently residing in Bellingham that she would end up as a partner in a 3-way boat share of a 38 foot sloop named ‘Arpege’.  
Peg is a beauty. Built in the 70’s, her interior is composed of impeccable mahogany with sleeping space for 5 people, a small kitchen and an even smaller ‘head’ (bathroom). Her lines are classic and graceful and her previous owners showed obvious care for her (including all new upholstery and a full engine rebuild). Although a financial stretch for a single, professional woman, Robin couldn’t refuse her and drained a good portion of her savings to both purchase the boat and pay for moorage. During the first months of ownership, Robin defaulted to her more experienced boat partners and never took Peg out in Bellingham Bay or the San Juans without a few additional crew members to help out with the lines and the rigging. But when mid-summer arrived, I could tell that Robin was itching to become the captain of her own vessel.  I talked her into taking me out on an overnight sail as her only crew member. Just the two of us, like we had always imagined.
My summer work schedule is hectic. I am often limited to trips that can happen within 36 hours or less from door-to-door. I knew that taking on an overnight sailing trip in this amount of time was pushing the limits of what was logistically possible coming from Leavenworth. But the idea of taking Peg into the San Juans with my best friend was too good to pass up. I was in my car by 10 AM on a Monday morning in July. By about 1 PM I was at Robin’s house. By 2:30 PM we were loading up the boat and throwing off the lines. The weather was sunny and bright with a variable wind of 5 to 10 knots. The water was flat and glassy; a perfect afternoon for sailing.
We tacked our way across Bellingham Bay and crossed Lummi Channel with a favorable wind. Peg glided through the water at a reasonable pace and we only needed to tack one time while shooting through the narrow channel between Lummi and Eliza islands. We set ourselves on course for Vendovi Island, a remote private island that is now held in a preservation trust. We reached Vendovi without incident and went on a quick hike around some of the most amazing, pristine forest I have ever visited. All vistas on Vendovi looked out over the water and the multitude of small islands that dot the Washington coast. Vendovi closes to the public at sunset with no overnight moorage available, so we hopped aboard Peg and motored our way back over to Lummi Island where we spent the night anchored in Inati Bay. We entered Inati just as the sun was sinking into the water; the heavens ablaze in oranges, reds and purples. The night entered the sky clear and calm, with the stars in full array across the horizon. I fell asleep to the gentle swing of the boat on its bow line as Peg swayed back and forth with the surging tide.
In the morning, we awoke to an unforeseen bout of weather. Although Inati Bay was calm, we could see that the Lummi Channel was surging with five to six foot swells and a wind blowing a steady 20 knots in the wrong direction. Feeling slightly out of my league as first mate, we motored across the channel and only raised the sails after passing into calmer waters, coasting gently back to Bellingham.

True to plan, I was back in Leavenworth by Tuesday afternoon having completed my first overnight sail with one of my favorite people. This summer we plan on sailing together out to the Sucia Islands. It’s our practice trip for when we really do run away and become pirates. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

a springtime garden

Today I entered my garden
I did not know what I was looking for
I did not know what I would find
Kneeling down, my hands touching the ground
My heart stretched open
and accepted the sun as her companion
The birdsong of complex melodies
became the playlist of my peace
and the smile I knew was lurking
spread across my face.