Winter & Wildfire Prep on the Homestead

The blur of the autumn harvest and winter prep is over this year.

Winter is coming and while it’s not the dreaded 10 years of winter from Game of Thrones, winters in the Cascade foothills can be challenging at times. La Nina weather patterns are wetter and colder which translates to snow – lots of it. Snow is another form of water and welcomed as it recharges my water table and well.

The transition from late summer to early autumn is always a bit of a blur – so much activity is happening and at times feels a bit overwhelming. But knowing that I have an abundance of healthy homegrown food and herbal remedies in stock for the winter gives me a genuine sense of security and gratitude. There is also an embarrassingly high level of pride as I announce with each meal what was grown in the garden, whether others care or not.

Garden Harvest & Cleanup

At this point, I have harvested everything except the lettuce in my protected lettuce bed. About half of the sunchokes were not harvested and are now frozen in the ground until spring. The process of replacing the nine rotting wooden-raised beds has begun. It’s a lot of extra work at the end of the growing season, shoveling all the soil out of the old bed and shoveling it back into the new bed. Three are done and the rest will be done in the spring, summer, and probably the fall.

A recycled glass patio door & wooden shipping box became my protected lettuce bed.
A recycled glass patio door & wooden shipping box became my protected lettuce bed.

I am trying out mini-greenhouses over two raised beds as a way to extend the growing season. I am not sure how these will hold up to heavy snow. I got a late start on fall plantings but have leeks, fennel, bok choy, and celery root undercover. Won’t be much growth during the short light days of winter but I look forward to late winter/early spring harvest and planting while there is a foot or two of snow on the ground. I purchased two new varieties of garlic that were planted in October in one of the new metal beds. For the first time in a decade I will have to buy garlic for cooking until next summer, thanks to the #!%$ gophers.

Unharvested towering sunchokes in the background (on the right), two mini-greenhouses, & a new metal bed for herbs on the left.
Unharvested towering sunchokes and nettle stalks are in the background (on the right), two mini-greenhouses, & a new metal bed for herbs on the left.

The milkweed has yet to split open its seed pods which is quite odd. I want the seeds to release so I won’t prune the stalks yet. The raspberries need to be pruned and the irrigation system needs repair but it’s cold so I can only work for an hour at a time. I want to provide a winter habitat for insects so I will cut the stalks halfway, leaving various lengths of stems for native bees, wasps, and insects to take up residence in.

Straw mulch on the garlic bed. There are always seeds in the straw that require weeding later in the spring.

Despite my vow to not use straw mulch (because of the seeds), I purchased a bale of straw to mulch my beds. I didn’t have the energy to shovel 3 inches of aged compost into each of the beds this year. Mulch is necessary to prevent the soil from experiencing freeze and thaw cycles.

Seed Saving & Herb Harvests

My project room (the former master bedroom) is a mess right now. My work table is filled with labeled grocery bags, temporarily storing seed pods and dried herbs that need to be garbled (separating leaves/flowers from the stems) and stored. I have a big basket of foraged dock seeds that need to be roasted and ground for use as flour. Organizing this room is my top project to tackle this week as I have herbal oils, salves, and creams to make.

I foraged dock seeds (Rumex crispus) that can be added to baked goods either ground or as seed. Saving some of the seeds to plant on the outside of my vegetable garden.
I foraged dock seeds (Rumex crispus) that can be added to baked goods either ground or whole. Saving some of the seeds to plant on the outside of my vegetable garden.

Food Preservation

I am thrilled with my efforts! This has been my most productive year: my upright freezer is packed with pints and quarts of: 

  • marinara sauce 
  • vegetable chowder base (see recipe)
  • tomato soup concentrate (see recipe)
  • salsa verde
  • minestrone soup
  • apple butter

And many packets of: 

The small chest freezer is filled with many bags of blueberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries. No huckleberries this year; August’s extreme heat must have hurt the yield considerably as we found none on the day we went to harvest.

In the make-do root cellar (unheated guest bedroom) I have 10 lbs of apples purchased from my neighbor, six pumpkins, four butternut squash, two celery roots, and many pounds of Yukon and red potatoes. (Not a good year for winter squash.) The last of the green tomatoes are slowly ripening but they are only good for tomato sauce at this point.

I have pints, quarts, and half gallons of dehydrated vegetables and fruits. These are primarily for hiking and camping but come in handy when I need a vegetable for soup or stew. 

Each year, I say I want to can more and each year, I don’t. It takes more time than I seem to have. Truth is I don’t like canned vegetables and I don’t yet have a pressure canner so I am limited to the water bath method. I did can dill relish, jalapeno salsa, and apple sauce this year. Raspberry jam is the only jam I make and I will get around to it soon.

I experimented with fermenting, mostly pickles and lacto-fermented salsa. I’ve already eaten most of what I fermented, reminding me that food is to be enjoyed, not just preserved!

Herbal Medicine Making

A great year for elderberries so I have a quart of tincture and two gallons of cordial steeping and many pounds in the freezer (see elderberry profile.) I dried a quart each of elderflowers and elderberries for cold care tea and syrup (see Winter Remedies). I have harvested and dried tea and culinary herbs throughout the growing season. The last of the calendula flowers are drying and will be infused into oil for topical products.

I made several pints of herbal honey (see Medicinal Herb Honey) to soothe inflamed throats. A quart of Fire Cider oxymel (see recipe) is steeping, and I have several herbal syrups to make (see recipes) this upcoming week. It’s not too late to make these effective remedies!

Pruning, Dividing & Planting Perennials

I moved several medicinal herbs to my new herb bed in the vegetable garden and planted several gooseberry divisions gifted to me in my cultivated hedgerow (see hedgerow article). I didn’t do much with the hedgerow this year because of a planned logging project on the homestead. 

Large Tree Removal & Wildfire Prevention

One of the reasons why I fell in love with this property was because of the many tall conifers that lived here. It had the feel of a sanctuary and created a natural fence for privacy (see an aerial view of my homestead in my slideshow). But the now annual threat of wildfire requires a more practical consideration of how structures (my home, well house, shop & barn) can be best protected.

Several of the larger trees were also showing evidence of dying – a fungal root disease is to blame. Eventually, they would fall and my house was in one potential pathway. In the middle of my circular driveway were six Douglas firs, two of which were leaning toward the house. And behind the house, 20 feet away, there is a young mini forest of Douglas firs that has now become a potential hazard to the house.

The remains of the six Douglas firs in the middle of the circular driveway. I am excited to design a native plant garden.
The remains of the six Douglas firs are in the middle of the circular driveway. I am excited to design a native plant garden.

This week, a logger began the work of cutting and removing what will likely be 25-30 trees. It was difficult to listen to the crashing thumps of big trees falling but it is the necessary work of co-existing with nature.

I am able to sell these big trees to a local mill and that money will go back into the land, replanting the now empty spaces. My gardening brain is already excited about landscaping ideas for these new spaces. It will be a challenging design project: native plants that are resistant to both deer and fire.

Gutters cleaned out 

I was surprised to learn that dried conifer needles in gutters pose a primary wildfire threat to homes. Removing the trees closest to the house should greatly reduce the wildfire hazard of dropped conifer needles.

Firewood Cut & Stacked

As much as I love the radiant heat of a woodstove fire, there are more reasons to not regularly use wood to heat than there are to use it. Exposure to indoor pollutants can increase respiratory problems, especially among children. Wood burning contributes to overall air pollution more than we realize; one study indicates that it contributes more than the pollution emitted from a car. My rural region periodically gets air quality alerts during the winter because of increased woodstove use.

In the PNW, two-thirds of our energy is hydropower, produced through a series of dams on the Columbia River. The remaining one-third is generated through a mix of natural gas, solar, wind, and coal. The PNW has some of the cheapest electricity rates in the US. Five years ago, I replaced my 20-year-old heat pump with one that was far more efficient. We spent one winter using only wood heat and it was a lot of work and messy. I don’t have the spirit or energy of a pioneer woman and I love my heat pump! Writer/activist, Bill McKibben, offered a simple plan to solve several of the challenging problems in today’s world with this essay on heat pumps.

Still, we put up about 3 cords of wood each year because we will have a few weeks of very cold temps and the heat pump loses its efficiency when it’s that cold. More importantly, we experience power outages that may last several hours or longer. And my second winter here, an ice storm shut down my region for a week; we had no electricity for five days and our woodstove kept us warm and fed. 

This year's firewood was cut from three Douglas firs that suddenly died this summer. Foresters say it's likely from the random thaw and freeze cycles happening in the winter.
This year’s firewood was cut from three Douglas firs that suddenly died this summer. Foresters say it’s likely from the random thaw and freeze cycles happening in the winter.

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