A Year Later

It’s been a year since we turned the key on the new house in the Pacific Northwest, and as I looked outside to observe how the newest plants are adapting, I thought it might be a good idea to review the photos taken in the last 12 months.

When we arrived, the area was experiencing a record heat wave that had lasted beyond 30 days. The junipers were stressed, the grass was crispy and the fires in eastern Washington were sending so much smoke our way that our blue skies looked more like the ones in Los Angeles tinged with brown. We were barely in the house when we began encountering a number of surprises one isn’t prepared for. That’s why they call them surprises.

I recall our adjustment to slower Internet (though we’ve never quite adjusted to that), lost mail, back-ordered stock, which delayed the new floors and the actual settling in for over a month, and learning about an unusual religious sect in the area, which is home to their largest congregations in the nation. We’ve lived through power outages, downed trees, chopping our own wood, the wettest winter in two decades, Gary’s commute and waging a small war with Bambi and Thumper who, cute as they are, have had me rethinking my stance on hasenpfeffer and venison. I’ve begun to find the photograph of rabbit stew in Nigel Slater’s book Ripe rather enticing.

As the anniversary is upon us, I’m reminded of the sale in California, how we survived that final week in the house with an ice chest, air mattresses and two iPads along with the clothes we’d need for our journey. I recall the final morning in the house before we turned into vagabonds for three weeks.

After stopping in Santa Rosa to see Gary’s aunt and uncle, we received a message on the road, in the middle of nowhere, that the title company needed more documentation in order to close the sale. It’s never fun scrambling through an accordion folder, desperately searching for something that cannot be found until you stop to relax and think about it. Fortunately, I located what we needed, photographed the documents and sent them with a shaky Internet signal. The office was closed by the time I hit send, so I wouldn’t know until the next day if the transmission had been complete and if they were able to proceed.

To cope with the stress, I took the wheel and drove us into Oregon and wound us around darkened roads and invisible bridges until we could find lodging at 2:00 in the morning. We’d started looking around midnight, but there were no vacancies until that last stop, which had only drawn budget travelers and those whose vaccinations were current.

In the bleak early light, I awoke fully dressed on top of the sheets with the comforter tossed in the corner because even in the dark I’d sensed that it wasn’t a good idea to climb into that bed under those covers. The smell of chlorine was so strong that I dreamt I’d gone swimming with my clothes on. At least the sheets were clean. The late-night desk clerk had boasted about their continental breakfast. I still don’t know what continent she had in mind, but we skipped it and got back on the road a few short hours after arriving. Still no word that the closing had gone through and if we would, in fact, get the keys that afternoon—or ever.

Somewhere south of Portland, I received a text from our Realtor, and after a few stops and maneuvering what I would learn is Portland traffic, we walked into the house about 4:30 that evening. There again was the hideous blue carpeting and walls that would start to be painted within 24 hours. Completely empty with our possessions still miles away, we were home, and it felt wonderful. I can still remember the feeling; an awareness of the work to be done, knowing that we’d moved away from our friends, finding a home in the woods that no one we knew had ever seen, and being excited and apprehensive at the same time.

When I look back on it, the adjustments were minor in comparison to the joys we’ve experienced. Setbacks and disappointments simply required our rethinking in order to find workable solutions. We quickly made friends with Frank and Dave who live nearby, and in the course of a year, we’ve celebrated holidays, birthdays and changes of season. We’ve had visitors and/or dinner guests every month since last September.

The deceptively steep slope that was the back yard when we first arrived a year ago.

The deceptively steep slope that was the back yard when we first arrived a year ago.

One thing I tend to hear from guests is “You’ve done so much!” I suppose we have if you’re seeing the place for the first time and comparing the current view to photographs of how things were in the beginning. The goal is to tame a forest, meaning that we have to clear some growth that’s gotten out of hand. My personal first-year goal was to reclaim about two acres by thinning trees to allow better growth of the stronger ones, to eradicate the thorny invasive blackberry, to figure out the best spot for a vegetable garden and find a way to entice bees to Elderberry End.

I started on this “project” the second week we were here because the floors remained in limbo and I had gone as far as I could inside. I didn’t even have our better tools at that point, since much of what we had was still in boxes stacked in the garage. I had a new pruning saw and some loppers along with some quickly dulling garden shears. I started cutting back and taking care of neglected lilacs, Japanese magnolia, cypress and a number of other species I couldn’t identify. A few days into the work, I realized this is no small undertaking with quick fixes.

Very young plants, the asparagus bed to be surrounded by purple flowering plants, the short wall and the view after removing low branches and struggling trees. The sauna is visible on the left, and the "Yellow Garden" surrounds the bench. Those plants will eventually grow to screen the hot tub in the background.

Very young plants, the asparagus bed to be surrounded by purple flowering plants, the short wall and the view after removing low branches and struggling trees. The sauna is barely visible in the shadows on the left, and the “Yellow Garden” surrounds the bench. Those plants will eventually grow to screen the hot tub in the background.

We’ve had help from Dave, Frank, Brad and Ronald, and other visitors have gifted us with plants and money for plants like my parents, my sister and my cousin Gwen. Our friend Ginger brought us frames for the window boxes and Paula has brought us some culinary necessities. Gary’s sister provided gift cards that were turned into necessary tools, and all of these combined have helped us come a long way. However, there is still so much to be done, but I love every minute of the work, which will prevent boredom for decades. I haven’t quite finished my two-acre goal, but I’m pleased with the amount of work we’ve gotten done.

Elderberry End is certainly the most organic place I’ve ever lived, and we intend to honor the ecosystem that’s been in place for the longest time. Everything has a role to play from the tiniest spider to the coyotes that sing in the night. There’s probably a cougar to mention, but since we haven’t heard one or seen any tracks, I’ll simply acknowledge the coyotes and leave it at that.

Last week, I managed to get the last of the yellow garden planted, at least how it will be for the rest of this growing season. A couple of weeks ago I noticed the honeybees were darting here and there, and thanks again to my cousin, we have two mason bee houses to improve pollination. I’ll close this segment to take a walk outside. It’s been a great year.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Elderberry End

When we said goodbye to the house in Los Angeles County, there were two things I knew I’d miss more than anything though they could never entice me to stay. One was a distinctive pink bougainvillea, which I’d planted eight years before. It was a little thing when I dug that hole, but it flourished in direct sunlight and spread across the back wall to soften and conceal the sharp brick edges. The other object was a Eureka lemon tree, which provided an enormous bounty once everyone kept their hands off it and left its care to me.

Jessica Mitford once recounted how she and her first husband never paid their electricity bill in London when they lived there before World War II. She felt electricity should be free. I rather agree, but with a well and fruit trees have added water, lemons, apples and nuts to the list of things we shouldn’t have to pay for.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

It’s been a year since we first laid eyes on Elderberry End, the name selected by the previous owners. Not having an idea what an elderberry shrub looked like, I couldn’t answer the question when people asked me about the name. “Are there lots of elderberries there?” I didn’t know. So many of the areas were overgrown, and our August move-in days were filled with so much to do that I never got a good look around until Labor Day. I could only identify what I knew, and I realized there was much I didn’t know.

If there had ever been any clusters of berries dangling from these trees with their distinctive leaves, the birds had surely been the ones to explore the thickets and take advantage of the bounty.

We started clearing things out during the winter, and though we have years of work in store for clearing out more, I ran across the occasional odd tree. It rises from the ground with several branches, but there were no leaves in winter to know what it was. The bark looked similar to a fruitless mulberry, and the canes were easily cut to form arches in these clearings as I imagined people taking walks and stopping to admire this plant, which had me wondering if it were something tropical and invading this northwestern rain forest.

Ronald from Louisiana visited in May, and he is one of my friends who possess tremendous gardening knowledge, especially when it comes to edibles. He spotted the most prominently placed elderberry, and then I was able to show that they were everywhere. I finally understand why our place name was chosen, and I’m feeling no urgency to think of something new.

The bougainvillea in California, nine years after planting.

The bougainvillea in California, eight years after planting.

Ronald provided some tips on harvesting and using the elderberries if we can get them at the right time before the birds take them. I remembered I have a book by Nigel Slater called Ripe, which I highly recommend. It’s a companion book to his Tender, and both books provide culinary ideas for those who are planning orchards, vegetable gardens or just love reading and looking at photos of beautiful food. Ripe has several ideas for the fruit, including fritters of battered and fried elderberries dipped in sugar. I might consider lifting the frying ban to try them, but there are other ideas I can put to use.

One of the reasons I enjoy Nigel Slater’s books is his frankness (“No one should actually plant one of these trees.”) and his way of describing the simplest things: “The smell of the [elderberry] blossom is, like that of spreading lavender honey on hot toast, the essence of the English summer Miss Marple might have known.” I’m now anticipating these tart berries, and all the things I can do with them.

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

After Ronald, Bruce was among our next set of visitors, and having grown up in this region of the country, he reminisced about native plants, which he hadn’t seen for a long time. I asked him about a tree I couldn’t figure out, and he thought it might be some sort of nut. The leaves match the ones in my guide to native plants, and it seems we have a couple of hazelnuts, which had gone undiscovered until we removed some problematic trees in the vicinity.

Ripe has a few suggestions for the nuts “If you can manage to get them before the squirrels.” The apple tree, which produced only three mushy apples last year, received some special pampering, and the spring bloom was amazing. I can already see the apples for this tall specimen. Harvesting will require a long pole with a basket, but I’m looking forward to all the ways to enjoy the fruit. Like everything else, we’ll have to harvest before our friends in the forest take everything.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1