The Horse Life

If These Boots Could Talk

I was inspired to write this post as I was packing up prior to our move last Fall from Roop Road, in the hills above Gilroy, to our new house in downtown Gilroy. We had committed that we would use this move to "purge" all of the stuff we had kept around since moving to Gilroy four years ago. I had gotten rid of most everything that wasn't needed anymore, or wasn't going to be needed in our new "townie" lifestyle. As I rummaged through the closet cleaning out my things, I came across these boots.

These Boots

My practical side was in favor of getting rid of the boots. I mean, look at them! There was a hole in one boot, from when Doc was still a puppy and needed something to chew on. The hole in the front of the other boot was from when Wiley was cutting his teeth.  I'd cut a hole in the back of that boot in order to get my foot in and out without pulling the insole out at the same time. But as I looked at the boots, I thought about the dirt, mud, and muck that had been ground into them since I put them on in those first days of living in Gilroy. And I realized that these boots could tell a story that I was feeling, the story of how my life had changed and how it was changing again, pointing me toward a future that wasn't at all clear.

My experience moving to Gilroy—and especially everything that happened thereafter—has had the feel of a dramatic movie. There were the early parts, mostly filled with the excitement of new beginnings, establishing new home and work routines, living with Sean and Danielle, learning (for me) about horses and how to be around them. That first summer was like the first month of living with new college roommates. The weather was warm, there was a pool to enjoy, and more than once we turned an afternoon swim party into an extended stay out by the artificial campfire, enjoying good wine and good company.

There were also the early signs of trouble. The title company failed to set up an impound account for taxes and insurance, meaning that every six months we were hit with a large tax bill, one we didn't fully factor into our many budget planning exercises. Each round of borrowing from the 401k seemed like it would be the last:  I kept thinking that things would settle down once we got past the moving-in expenses.  As it became clear that things weren't going to settle down, we took steps to reduce our credit card debt and attempted to modify our mortgage.  But, as this was before the economy fell apart, banks weren't too interested in helping proactively address their mortgage payments.

Then the crash hit. Eventually the company where I worked closed its doors, and I entered the ranks of the unemployed. The next nine months were filled with daily collection calls, endless loan modification conversations, and endless time spent looking for work. The mood wasn't grim, but it was nonetheless a time for cutting all unnecessary spending. Thoughts of buying a tractor to work the acreage changed to renting a tiller for a weekend, and eventually to taking a pick and shovel to the ground, determined as I was to start a garden. Along the way I discovered that I really liked working the soil:  it felt a lot more like farming than gardening. That led me to setting up a horse manure composting operation, which helped deal with the horse manure situation while also giving me the materials to amend the soil into stuff that could really grow things.  In short, I discovered my "inner farmer."

Once I did start working again, we were able to get the bank to agree to "piggyback" our months of missed loan payments onto the back end of our loan. But they wouldn't agree to restructuring the terms of the loan, reducing the interest rate to current levels or reducing the principal to something approximating the lower value of the house. So we went had to decide whether we wanted to try to stay in our house and wait for conditions to improve so we could refinance our losses, or cut our losses and move on. Our heads said "move!" our hearts said "stay!" In the end, logic prevailed over emotion and we told the bank they could have the house.

With that, we started looking into house rentals. There was a period of uncertainty about whether moving meant continuing to live with Sean and Danielle or not: were we looking for one house or two? How would we care for Sassy, Dandy and Tux? What about the dogs? Chickens? It was a stressful time for everyone. Eventually we decided to continue living together until we figured out what was next. After close to a year of sharing a house, Sean took a job working on a ranch in McCloud. That meant Sean would be moving soon, and Danielle soon afterward. The whole process happened quickly, and before I knew it I was helping Sean load Sassy and Dandy into a borrowed horse trailer for their move to McCloud. Seeing Sean say goodbye to Tux (he could only bring two horses with him) broke my heart.

Fortunately, we found a great home for Tux in a very short time. It was hard to say goodbye but we were really happy that he was going to a family that would love him and look after him.

And then, a few weeks later, Sean came back to pick up Doc and Wiley.

Samsung Galaxy 179

The one constant through all my life changes had been walking one dog or another. At first, it was Henry and Doc, and later Doc and Wiley after Henry passed away. I walked the dogs with Danielle every morning, and sometimes walked them again or let them out to run in the fields behind our house when I needed a break from job hunting or wanted to clear my head.

And then, a short time after moving his horses, Sean returned to take Wiley and Doc to McCloud.  I was happy that they were going to be with Sean full time again, but I knew that I was going to miss them. A lot.

Our household had, in the space of a month, gone from four people with three horses and two dogs to one that held two people (and Danielle on an occasional basis) with no dogs and no horses.  At least we still had our chickens.

With Sean now in McCloud (and Danielle soon to follow) and with my looking at a job that might involve lots of travel to Europe and Asia, Crystal faced the possibility of spending significant time alone in our house in the hills. This wasn't an attractive option, and she had a desire to try living "in town" vs. out in the dust and dirt of the countryside. We found a nice Victorian to rent pretty quickly, but it meant giving up the idea of getting a dog while we were renting, as well as finding a new home for our chickens (Gilroy doesn't allow them within its city limits). My life had gone from caring for horses, dogs and chickens, and working several rows of vegetables, to… none of that.

I almost got rid of the boots.

Why would I need them? I didn't see myself owning a place or living somewhere where I'd be establishing a garden anytime soon. Horses weren't in my future; neither were dogs, at least while we were renting a house. The chickens would be close by at the Hubners, but visiting them wasn't going to be the same as seeing them every morning and evening. (Update: the chickens enjoyed their time at Hubner Hallow, but were eventually discovered and dispatched by a local fox.) This whole moving to the country experience had seemed like a grand experiment that had gone up in smoke.

I knew where I had been. And even though things hadn't worked out the way I had expected, I liked my lifestyle. But, like it or not, my life was changing. What was it going to be like? And how would I like it? As I stared at those boots, all I knew was that I couldn't go back; I could only go forward.

The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,

You can't let go and you can't hold on,

You can't go back and you can't stand still,

If the thunder don't' get you then the lightning will.

--The Grateful Dead, The Wheel

After some time in my new environment I was able to realize that things had worked out. Maybe not the way I had imagined, but in a positive way nonetheless.  Sean had realized his dream of working as a horse trainer on a real, working ranch.  Danielle had developed sufficient skills in health education and non-profit management that I knew she was going be just fine. (And she has adapted well to life in McCloud, lining up multiple jobs and connections with the local education/non-profit community.)  Brian had done an amazing job learning how to network his way into a job that paid reasonably well and provided a lot of satisfaction. And he was successfully living on his own in another part of the country, one (as we saw on our recent visit to Washington, DC) that suits him perfectly, at least for now.  Crystal left the CPA firm she had been at, and moved into medical practice management for an oncology practice in Monterey.  On the day I was literally reviewing a job posting for Dutch Harbor, Alaska an old friend called to see if I wanted to do some consulting for him.  That turned into a full-time position doing some very interesting stuff.  And Crystal and I had worked diligently to reduce our expenses to a minimum, so that once I was working again we'd be able to meet our expenses and see the light at the end of our debt-reduction tunnel.

We've learned to enjoy living "in town" and being able to walk to dinner and the farmer's market. I'm able to ride my bike or walk to the train station. And I've channeled by gardening energy into helping set up and run the "Hubner Hallow" garden.

I'm glad that I decided to keep those boots. They still come in handy when things get mucky at the Hubner garden. And they remind me of where I've been, and what we've all accomplished. All in all, they've been a great investment. They hold a lot of stories, and they're not done telling their tale just yet.

Now Growing in the Garden

So now that Spring seems to have beaten back the last of the rain (so far), it's been time for more planting, thinning, seed-starting, weeding, scheming, and dreaming about fantastic veggies.

Yesterday I planted the first round of tomatoes, following Cynthia's advice on planting, right down to the fish heads I put in the bottom of the hole.  Here's the result.

May 10 001 

BTW, that's Doc tracking down a ground squirrel.  And the orange netting surrounds the asparagus, whose fronds get blown around quite a bit in the wind.

I've finally learned to not get greedy and space my tomatoes out properly--three feet apart.  It seems excessive now, but in a month or so there won't be any space between the plants.

One of my new experiments this year has been artichokes, which also need lots of room.  I may have planted these early, but they don't seem to be getting bigger in the seed pots, so what the heck.

May 10 002 

That little thing next to the brick should grow into a three-foot high plant; we'll see! 

Yukon Gold potatoes were a big hit last year, so I've planted another crop of those.  And, to make use of the bed space, I've run another drip line down the middle and planted red onions and shallots.  The onions and shallots are already sprouting, and the potatoes are beginning to poke through as well.

May 10 005 

I had Asian Greens at a dim sum restaurant the other day, which got me excited again about our greens.  They've survived attacks by the flea beetles, and (along with the bak choi) are getting close to harvest-size.

May 10 006

Finally, I've gone back to first principles with the lettuce and spinach (those noticeably empty spots below), re-tilling the soil and replanting.  The arugula is doing well, which suits me just fine!

May 10 007

I tried growing radishes and carrots last year, without much success.  This year, the radishes are looking good, and with all the rain the carrots are just beginning to sprout.  I'm thinking I should feed the first carrots to the horses--kind of completes the circle, if you know what I mean!

May 10 008

Garden Update

Spring is here (at least, according to the calendar) and that means I get to move my obsessive-compulsive gardening addiction beyond pulling weeds and turning compost into the soil.

Here's a picture of my "nursery".  For a number of reasons, I found myself starting more vegetables from seeds this year, vs. buying plants.  In addition, I expanded my vision to include flowers (those things you can't eat) as well as vegetables.

Mar10 008 

I won't detail all of the plants here, but there are tomatoes (some I've grown from seeds, many bought from Love Apple Farms), peppers (sprouted today, yeah!), artichokes, lavender for the front yard, and other flowers and herbs.  It's going to get crowded when I have to replant some of these veggies and flowers into larger pots!

I've also been busy upgrading the garden.  I reconfigured two of the raised beds, installing drip irrigation with emitters spaced every six inches (vs. eighteen).  That means I can plant more greens than last year, since they don't need as much spacing as plants like tomatoes.

Mar10 009
After just a few days, I'm already seeing sprouts in the beds--lettuce, spinach, bak choi (pak choi east of the Rockies, as they say), Asian greens.  And those two spots of green? Last year, I had potatoes in these beds.  Apparently I failed to harvest a couple of potatoes, and they've re-sprouted.

So you may want to show up in early May with some vinaigrette dressing and a bottle of white wine :)

Chickens Update

I posted a photo earlier showing our new chickens, Milk Chocolate and Dark Chocolate.  Actually, all our chickens pretty quickly get names like "Big Girl" or "New Girl" so don't expect the naming silliness to last much longer.

At any rate, they've grown by leaps and bounds and have now joined the aforementioned Girls.


The new Girls are on the left.  They're separated by a fence so that everyone can get used to one another before we try mixing them.  It took them the better part of a day to get up the courage to leave their cage and wander outside.  Of course, the free veggies helped!


Confessions of an Obsessive-Compulsive Farmer

IMG_1083 So Sunday (the 15th of March) was a big day.  I really wanted to go skiing, given that the Sierra's had received seven feet of snow in the past week.  But I was OK staying at home given that the near-constant rains of the past month had let up and we were looking at a perfect weekend.  I spent Saturday making raised garden bed frames for our anticipated shipments of potatoes and asparagus.  Both are perennials and need lots of sun, so making new beds in the center of the garden was easier than trying to move the two beds we have to a new location.  At least it seemed that way when I got started.  I got the plans for the raised beds from Sunset; here's a link to their plans: Sunset Raised Bed Plan

So after constructing the beds on Saturday, I was ready to place them Sunday and begin filling them with dirt.  Thanks to our recent Livestock and Land project, I have a huge pile of dirt and rocks to work with, but there's a lot of effort involved to sift out the rocks and get dirt that's workable for garden soil.  And since our soil tends to get compacted when it gets a lot of water, it needs to be amended with a fair bit of compost.

As is my custom, I started the job of filling the beds with dirt and compost by doing something else... namely, turning the piles of horse manure I've been composting since last fall.  As I stripped off the plastic covering the piles (to warm them and keep them from getting soaked by all the rain) I was excited to see that the first pile was ready to be used as compost.  How did I know?  I didn't really, except that as I worked the pile it smelled, looked, and acted a lot more like dirt than horse manure.  As my old Nortel colleague Fred Manus would have said, it passed the "duck test".

You're correct:  it's the sign of farmer geek-ness when you get excited about a pile of horse shit.  I'm OK with that.  I see it as another step toward a biodynamic farm--one where the farm and ranch wastes are recycled into nutrients for the next round of crops.  Sounds pretty cool to me!  It responds to my inner desire not to fill up landfills and my inner cheapskate--I don't have to pay to haul away the manure, and I don't have to pay to buy more compost.  It's a win-win!

So I was able to start the new beds with a layer of compost from the erstwhile horse manure.  Then I added compost from the pile of leaves and branches that is what our overgrown wysteria plant became.  After that came calcium.  Our garden muse, Cynthia Waters (aka "the tomato lady" and grower for Manresa Restaurant) recommends crushed crab shells, but given our family affinity for oysters, we opted for crushed oyster shells.  After that will come more dirt, sifted out of the giant dirt and rock pile that, Doc has discovered, has become home to our resident ground squirrels.

Last year we started with three beds, about four by twelve feet each.  These dimensions matched what we had set up in our Ben Lomond property.  But while they seemed huge in that location, seting them in the middle of a 100 x 100 foot field made them look puny.  Still, they were a start.  And, since I had dug them by hand using a pick-axe and shovel in 95' weather, they were plenty of work.

But, as we set our sights on a greater amount and variety of vegetables (recall the OCD reference above) we wanted to expand.   I started our original beds right in the ground because we couldn't afford materials for enclosed beds.  Since then, I've developed a liking for working directly in the ground--it feels more like farming than gardening.  So while I was happy to accommodate the OCD chicken rancher in our household with more raised beds, I was hankering to expand the in-ground beds as well.  Happily, all the rains have softened up the ground considerably, so I discovered (after one go with the pick-axe) that I could turn the soil over using just a shovel.  You may say "what's the big deal", but I invite you to come over and try turning over a shovel full of dirt once it warms up and the ground starts to dry out.

So I was able to extend each of the beds about another eight feet, and then amended them with compost and oyster shells like I did with the raised beds.  Of course the chickens thought this was great--I'm now their worm-producing god, as they would run from one spot of freshly turned soil to another, looking for earthworms to eat.  Hey, keep it biodynamic!

Now the beds are nearly ready for planting.  Our asparagus and potato starters are being resent from the seed company we use in Maine, Johnny's Seeds, since the original shipment got held up in that bad winter weather in the East.  We got tomato starters this past weekend, and have started some from seeds (my brother has outsourced his tomato growing to me, since he doesn't get enough hot weather to make it work).  We'll be getting various greens (arugula being my favorite) in the ground soon, with peppers, tomatoes, beans, and other goodies to follow.

Check out the photo album if you want to see the beds in their various stages of progress.  And if you're in the neightborhood, stop by for some free compost!

Greening our Ranch

One of my biggest concerns when looking into moving to Gilroy and taking up the rancher lifestyle was what we were going to do with all that manure.  I imagined manure piling up faster than snow in Buffalo.

Well, it turns out that Sean discovered a program through the USDA(the Livestock and Land Program)  that teaches and encourages "best practices" for livestock and land management.  We were fortunate to be selected for a demonstration project, and used it to take care of manure and runoff from the barn roof.  

We're very interested in "biodynamic" farming, where you try to create a "closed loop" system using plant and animal waste (after appropriate composting) as inputs to soil preparation.  So the idea of building a facility where we could store and compost horse manure for our garden and horse turnout areas was very appealing.  And, since the soil on our ranch turns to mud pretty quickly, we wanted to do what we could to divert rainwater from the barn by channeling it to a drainage ditch and drain field.

Here are some before and after photos...

The beginnings of a drainage diversion on one side of the barn.


Rainwater will now drain into a covered drain field, instead of running out into the horses' turnout area.


Here's the manure/compost bunker.  It's lined up with the fence line and front of the barn.  It's quite deep (25 feet) to allow for setting up and managing compost piles, vs. just storing manure for removal.