Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Lazy Science

My farm (and we could insert several other enterprises here) seems to run mostly in crisis-management
mode.  The best laid plans (assuming that you have actual plans and not just good intentions) often go astray.  The Spring is too wet. The Summer is too hot.  The supply chain is slow and expensive…  It’s not like you have control over all these events.  The major impact is on time.  When you think about it, time is all you have.  Your time and attention are your life.  So, saving time turns out to be a big deal.  A good way to save time is to not do things that may or may not need to be done.

So how do you decide that?  The most direct approach is to not do something that you would, should or could do and see what happens.  We could call that lazy.  But hey. Lighten up. Let’s call it an experiment and throw it into the realm of legitimate science.

Supposedly, science involves a hypothesis, a study, a control group, statistics, a critical deciding factor on whether the hypothesis was correct and of course, repeatability by someone else.  Let’s get real.  Who has time for that?  We make decisions every day that have long term consequences.  Often, we don’t know what all the factors are or will be.  We could just roll the dice and accept the results.  But if we make an effort to learn from the situation, that’s pretty close to science.  The critical component is that you keep track of what you did – or didn’t do, and what happened.  You don’t have to publish the results, but you could share them.

For example, in the July edition of the North Columbia Monthly, I questioned whether it made more sense to compost the abundant greenery that I was mowing between the rows of the vineyard, or to let it lay and act as mulch.  Letting it lay was the lazy science approach.  What I did compost was one action, what I did not compost was lazy.  Let’s call it the “control group”.  The clearer answers will come next spring.  But I am leaning toward compost as better because dry mulch does not feed worms and just lying there it tangles up your feet.  The critical component is the compost having a lot of worms or not.

Regularly spaced grapes on last year’s long canes

Figure 1: Cane pruning spreads out the clusters

Another example is pruning the grape vines to leave only the longest canes (cane pruning) instead of pruning all the canes down to just a bud for the current year’s cane (spur pruning).  Some of my vines really like to send out long canes.  So, in several rows this year I let those long canes go whereas for most of the years of the vineyard I would have cut them back.  In this situation, the variety of grape seems to be the best indicator of how to prune.  But cane pruning is definitely looking good on several varieties.

More examples include thinning out all the small and lower canes to open up the center of the vine and cut down on the insects that like a dark cluttered habitat.  I didn’t do that on several rows and the results were bad.  Ignoring gopher mounds might seem lazy, but I check to see if the nearby vines are better or worse off before trapping.  Actually, I am not finding big problems with that and like the idea of getting the soil turned over naturally.  The mounds themselves are annoying, so I rake them flat.

Lazy or not, science itself can be annoying too.  Standard practices based on “scientific” studies financed by big corporations at corporate-funded universities have got to be suspect.  Recommendations based on field studies in some far-distant state with a different soil and climate, also have to be taken with a grain or two of salt.  Often, when practices on a farm don’t seem to line up with industry standards, a look at how those standards evolved reveals a very specific situation, limited resources, unrecognized assumptions, and primitive techniques in the original study where the “standard” was established.  What makes science work is that it continuously needs to be challenged.

I’m not saying that doubting all the standard advice will usually save you time.  Most of what I have learned has been through making mistakes.  That makes me more willing to make mistakes than most people, I guess.  But if you look at it as science, lazy or not, it sounds a lot better. 

Bummer Parade

When you take a trip or finish a project, and someone asks you how it went.  If it goes well, you just say “okay”, end of conversation.  Or you say, “That sucked” and immediately you are into a long tale of woe. Maybe it’s just a perverse twist of nature that pain, trouble, and bad things are more interesting.  Well, it was an interesting summer.

Just to be sure, I made lists of good events and bad events.  There were a lot of good events: I was more successful than ever getting grape cuttings to root; sales at the Northeast Washington Farmers Market were consistently good; biochar orders were healthy; we found plenty of morel mushrooms after last year’s fires; I had a couple big mapping projects; the new apple bin compost system is working; we have a new retail outlet for our wine at Colville Liquor and Wine; articles on canoes and salmon have been well-received; our new Internet service, Nuebeam, is working well; huckleberries were back; and our first load of firewood is in the woodshed.

Okay, that was brief and boring.  The more uphill battles included trying to replace or upgrade my solid ink printer.  In a way I am like the guy with an old car that knows it well and doesn’t want any new-fangled rig.  On the other hand, no printer company seemed interested in making a printer that works better and costs less to buy, maintain and keep in ink.  Without spending the rest of the blog on printer stories, let’s leave it at: “Always buy repair insurance when buying a used printer.”  I am very glad that I did. 

Then there is Windows 10.  For someone who never left Windows 7 because it would mean new hardware, new software and a touch screen, my tax software finally got me.  It would not support Windows 7 and I have to file taxes.  Now I am using this Dell laptop with its own camera and some software.  But I fell for the “One Drive” backup by Microsoft.  Suddenly my Internet usage went through the roof.  Evidently “One Drive” can’t tell when something has actually changed recently on a computer and backs up everything over and over.  Now I work off an external hard drive.  But I had one of those fail too.

Strawberry Time

Another hard lesson was crashed websites.  I try to maintain several, including this one.  One day I noticed that one of them was set back to an older version.  I have been good at getting backup software that works automatically.  But unbeknownst to me, several websites crashed, and my Internet provider restored them from older versions without letting on that they had crashed.  The automatic backup backed up the now older versions and thereby destroyed all my resent backups. 

Canoe Crossing

There were other difficulties like the local bear taking the rest of the neighbor’s cherries before I could finish picking them and our bank selling us out to another bank then having to switch over a bunch of payments and bills, not always smoothly.  But the real doozy was a trip to report on the Okanogan Tribe’s canoe crossing of the Canadian/American line on Osoyoos Lake.  I made it to the Canadian side of the lake and the huge PKMip campground where the canoe team spends the night before the 4th of July crossing so I could talk to them personally without any time constraints.  But they didn’t find room to camp for the first time in 20 years and quietly went to a camp across the lake.  So I never met them. I drove to the American end of the lake and arrived just before the canoes did.  A huge thunderstorm was going on and we all were soaked.  The baked chicken and watermelon were good, but I had to rush home.  I didn’t make it.  Our 1984 VW van with the newish 2001 Subaru engine choked up halfway back.  I managed to coast several miles downhill to a farm.  I “technically” have roadside assistance with Liberty Mutual but had no coverage.  The couple on the farm let me tag on to their Internet and I called Liberty Mutual.  After a lot of talking and waiting they informed me that they couldn’t find anyone to tow me. I was 100 miles from home.  But I was only 20 miles from my daughter April’s house.  She rescued me, got me home and helped find a tow truck the next day.

Our mechanic couldn’t detect the problem on the hybrid VW/Subaru computer system, but I suggested that it felt like a clogged fuel filter.  A new one fixed the problem.  Well, fixed it for more than a month.  It stopped dead last week a few miles from home and is still in the shop after a couple misleading times when it ran fine.

By the end of last week, I got Covid.  At one time I promised myself that when I got old, I would not spend time talking about medical issues.  My own anyway.  But I should mention that on July 21st, in the early morning, Cheryl got a crippling sciatic pain down her right leg and could not walk without walking sticks.  My daughter Bina and her children, Ovid (13) and Nala (11) were almost here coming from their home in Alameda, California.  April saved the day again hosting Bina’s Family early and bringing a walker for Cheryl.  That was 6 weeks ago.  Cheryl is driving, walking without the walker, and often sleeping without having to sit up in bed.  Now she has Covid.  But the sciatica has been gone for a week with chiropractic help and therapeutic doses of new supplements.

Bina, Nala, Joe, Ovid

It’s not too bad, like a mild flu.  I feel recovered and I’m sure Cheryl will soon recover too. 

I could complain about the weather since it was almost 100º again today after the hottest and driest August on record.  But why bother.  We are coping.  Opening the doors at night keeps the house and office in the low 70s all day.  We can work inside when it gets too hot to be outside.  Forest fires are increasing daily but are not like last year.  The grapes are coming around.  There will be a huge crop.  We need to get ready for them and keep up the farmers’ market for another 2 months.  Maybe I will find time to write another personal blog after that.

Grapes with chair repaired by Bina in the background

We’ll Be in Clover

“It’s a jungle out there.” That’s what I was thinking as I prepared to cut down the vegetation between the last two rows of my vineyard. Purple Vetch was draped from one side to another.  Yellow Sweet clover

grew taller than my head.  My feet were tangled in everything underneath.  This very wet spring has really the vegetation in overdrive.  Sure, the grass was tall and green, but then I began to notice the clovers.  If you are looking at the picture, you might be thinking “Whoa, those are not all clovers.”  Technically you are right. They are all part of the bean family Fabaceae whose name goes back to “faba”, the name of an old bean variety ( (I imagine that my father’s favorite, Fava Beans, goes back to the same word.)

Although they look different from each other, this family has a lot in common.  Above ground they are all very popular with bees.  At some point they are all good forage.  Most but not all of the “beans” are edible.  Underground they all host nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  As a green manure or mulch, they all bring nitrogen into the soil from above.  In concert with grass and other forbs, they very much contribute to the “jungle” effect.  Each however has its own personality.

Most noticeable this year was Purple or Hairy Vetch, AKA American Vetch (Vicia Americana). It is a perennial that thrives in both dry and wet conditions.  Obviously, it really likes the wet ones since it was climbing all over everything this year.  That makes it very useful in reclaiming burned or disturbed land.  Especially when mixed with grasses and grains, it provides good erosion control.  The seed pods are edible when they are young, but the seeds themselves are poisonous when dry ( When the pods dry enough, they burst open, throwing a pair of seeds far from the original plant.  I tried to figure out where “hairy” part of the name came from and almost gave up until I noticed that as the flowers are fading, they are covered in a white fuzz.  This is a useful and beautiful plant when it is in its purple haze faze, but as it dries out, it a brown tangled mess.

Although it was climbing over most things, the vetch seemed to leave the Sweet Clovers alone.  Not being able to resist tasting Sweet Clover, also known as Honey Clover, I found out that it is not really that sweet.  After further reading I learned that the sweet part is the smell, which tested out with a wonderful perfume.  Wikipedia says it grows to be 6 feet tall.  Many of those in the vineyard are well over 7 feet.  With up to 350,000 flowers per plant, the nectar and pollen is very attractive to bees.  Beekeepers love it.  Wildland ecologists don’t.  Evidently it is too prolific. It shades and out-competes native plants.  Also, the amount of nitrogen that it fixes into the soil changes the ecology of prairies and forests.  Actually, as a farmer, I like the nitrogen and have already drastically altered the ecology.  So, my only complaint is that sweet clover is too tough to mow down with a string trimmer.  Back to the scythe!

Under all the other plants is a ground cover of what I can now identify as Hop Clover or more technically Black Medick or Burr Clover.  I knew it was very hardy when I found it growing at a high elevation near Chesaw.  I brought home some of the small black seeds.  I’m not sure that is why it is everywhere now but feel that is a good thing.  Wikipedia suggests that those small black seeds are edible and can be made into flour or roasted whole.  (No, I have not tried that yet.)  The vetch and sweet clover dry up in midsummer.  But this species keeps on coming back if there is water.  It doesn’t get mowed out when the regular clovers and grasses do.  I love it.

Speaking of regular clover, I have two kinds, red (trifolium pratense) and white (trifolium repens).  Try googling red clover and you will be swamped with ads for food, extracts, perfumes, and tinctures of the stuff.  Obviously very edible and commercial, both species were imported from Europe and are now found all over the world.  Virtually every browsing animal from rabbits to elk eat it, making it ideal for building “wildlife bridges” to connect fragmented habitats (Wikipedia).  Ironically though, boiling is suggested before humans eat it.  For an added twist, “dried white clover flowers may also be smoked as an herbal alternative to tobacco” (more Wikipedia). Bees love it too.  Truthfully, it has a hard time competing with the taller plants.  It grows commercially in open fields.

When it comes to open fields, nothing outdoes alfalfa (AKA Lucerne).  This is an ancient forage crop grown around the world.  “Pliny and Palladius called alfalfa in Latin medica, a name that referred to the Medes, a people who lived in ancient Iran.”  It is a perennial crop that is sure to bring great prices per ton after this very wet spring.  There are a few patches here and there on our farm, probably from hay used as mulch over the years.  Although generally a good crop, too much alfalfa can be bad for horses and cause bloat in cows ( In humans, it’s often eaten as a garnish, and seems to prevent cholesterol absorption in the stomach (  Weirdly, alfalfa exhibits autotoxicity, which means that it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. But we seem to be getting pretty far afield here (pun intended).

 The final species in this octet of Fabaceae is Sweet Peas, Lathyrus odoratus. A native of Sicily (You have to love that!), the seeds of Sweet Pea can be toxic if eaten in quantity.  I did eat a young pod. It didn’t taste either good or bad and I didn’t get sick.  Despite the “odoratus” part, it doesn’t smell particularly strong either.  I gathered seed from the roadside years ago and now it seems to spring up wherever it wants.  Maybe I was following in the footsteps of Gregor Mendel, the “Father of Modern Genetics”, who used it to pioneer crossbreeding.  But more likely I was imitating generations of other isn’t-that-pretty wild seed gatherers who inadvertently spread invasive species around the world.  It really is a jungle out there.

The Grass is Greener

The Grass is Greener

With this very wet Spring everything looks especially green.  The green color is from chlorophyll, the molecule critical to photosynthesis, which turns sunlight into plant energy, specifically sugars.  Looking at the chest-high grass and purple vetch which has taken over the aisles between my rows of grape vines, I had to envy those farmers who could make great use of this abundance by running cattle or sheep on it.  I needed to cut it before it completely took over the vineyard so I could get in to do thinning and other operations on the grape plants. That green colored chlorophyll is rich in nitrogen, the fertilizer most often added to commercial fields.  Nitrogen turns a field’s color to a darker green.  It does not necessarily mean that the crop is more nutritious.  But to me this naturally rich green indicates high food value.

Not one to let that much nutrition go unused, I began thinking about its potential.  I remembered a neighbor we had when I was young.  He threw grass clippings over the bank behind his house and added a lot of coffee grounds to them.  That seemed strange to me at the time and I asked his kids about it.  They told me that their dad was an avid fisherman and that the grass clippings and coffee propagated earth worms, probably night crawlers that he used as bait.

I have been building compost piles in old apple bins with the bottoms removed.  Before I started using the bins, wild turkeys would tear apart my compost piles looking for worms, seeds or whatever bugs they could eat.  This was a big mess that I tried to prevent by covering the pile with wire mesh fencing.  Having the big compost pile served two purposes.  I wanted the compost and I wanted to have a place that worms could live during the winter without freezing.

It worked.  Now that there is plenty of warmth and water, the compost bins have taken on new life.  Mushrooms sprout from the top.  Worms show up underneath.  Deer browse on squash growing over the sides.  Deep inside the temperature is 120° F.  That is too hot for worms.  But they move to the sides and around the hot spots.  A worm’s digestive track is like a chicken’s gizzard.  Both need grit to grind up food.  Worms also really like mushy food. So a combination of food that will rot, dirt that has grit and sawdust or straw that has cellulose which is easy to crawl through works well for them.

Looking at the green grass and thinking about how it can enrich the soil I face a number of tradeoffs.  Contrary to intuition, grass really gets healthier if it is eaten or cut.  Grass has a huge root system compared to most plants.  In the “wild” it gets eaten, digested and turned into manure and urine, essential fertilizers.  Animals trample it, working those fertilizers into the soil and providing bare ground for new seeds.  That way clover and other forbs can grow providing food for bees above ground and nitrogen fixation underground. The grass springs back from its huge root system. The prairie lives on and the grass really is greener.

But that system depends on animals rotating in briefly to make it all work.  If I cut it, I need to take it away or leave it in place.  If I take it to a compost pile, it can rot and feed the worms.  But then I need to move the compost plus worms back to the vineyard which is a lot of work.  Left on the ground, the nutrients could leach out, dry out or just degrade in the sunlight, I needed some advice.  Since these were questions that people who make hay face all the time, I talked to friends with livestock about the nutrition in hay.

You would think that the nutrition in hay is just “cut and dried”, so to speak.  It’s not.  There are early grasses and late ones, alfalfa can be good for cows and bad for horses.  There are early grasses and late ones.  You might prefer the seed heads almost formed for more protein or green leaves and flowers, dry and still green.  Even just looking at hay doesn’t tell you everything.  The same crop cut late in the day will have more carbohydrates than when cut in the morning.  But with a short window to get it dried in the field, you might want to cut early.  Then there is silage, which adds nutrition during fermentation but needs expensive equipment.  So much for “cut and dried”.

There is a history of using animals in vineyards.  Sheep, goats, geese and cows have all worked to some extent.  One viticulturist, Kelly Mulville, found that by raising his trellis out of the reach of sheep and running them through the vineyard when the grass was up, he could eliminate the tractor labor mowing grass and the hand labor of removing suckers from the vines.  At the same time the biodiversity in his vineyard multiplied many fold and production was as good as or better than ever.  The same is no doubt true in orchards. 

Short of reworking my vineyard for sheep, falling back on doing my own testing and experimentation, seems like the best practice moving forward.  Sap testing shows that the grass is fairly sweet right now and the vetch is nearly as sweet though definitely juicier.  I will compost some of both and leave the mulch in some rows.  Time will tell which works out the best and where the grass really is greener.

Yes this is a website about our vineyard and we do sell wine from it. Typically the shipping charges cost as much as the wine, so we sell most of our wine directly from the winery, at the Northeast Washington Farmers Market, or through local stores: Meyers Falls Market, Ferry County Co-op and Colville Liquor and Wine. We also sell biochar and have another business, Map Metrics, that sells map books of Northeast Washington.

More important than wine for this website is that it displays blog posts about regenerative agriculture and personal posts about our life here. The latest is on top and a topic index is on the left site of the page. A printed compilation of articles, Nurturing Abundance, is also available from this website.

2022 As a Blur

When I was much younger I thought about becoming a writer.  But I realized that if I had in mind to write about everything that I experienced it would be like a huge version of “Kiss and Tell”.  Not wanting to contaminate my life with ulterior motives, I backed off from writing hoping some day to be older and know something.  Well, now I am older and every time I think I know something, I’m sure that there is a lot more to learn.  One thing I am certain of is that if I don’t write stuff down at least for myself, it fades into a blur.  With that in mind, I am recounting things that I did write down for the “record”.  In keeping with the blur theme, I won’t dwell on them.

  • It was a colder-than-usual winter and that seems to have carried over into the spring.  One odd advantage was that I was able to get close-up pictures of snowflakes and learn more about them.
  • A tough lesson was that circuit breakers wear out after 25 years.  Water heaters in the office started to trip the main breaker more and more often, leaving the whole office without power and me with fewer hot showers until I figured that out.
  • There are a lot of taxes and related reports for businesses in general and wineries in particular.  The clincher was that the annual IRS Income Tax software that I use stopped working on Windows 7.  I ended up buying a whole new laptop mostly to support newer software.
  • I finally assembled all the articles I wrote on regenerative agriculture into one book, Nurturing Abundance. Of course now the trick is to keep updating it as I write new stuff.  Full disclosure, I’m behind on that now.
  • Cheryl convinced me to get hearing aids.  That also involved removing ear wax first and getting a replacement hearing aid after I lost one removing a face mask in a parking lot and didn’t realize it until too late.
  • There is a tremendous amount of real estate activity in Kootenai County, Idaho.  Realtors there ordered a folding map of the county that includes two big metropolitan areas, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.  I did not have mapping data for either one but now I do and have been working on that map for months.
  • The Panorama Gem and Mineral Club held its first in-person annual Rock Show in a couple of years this spring.  It was a big financial success for Map Metrics and geologic atlases, but hard on my voice and throat, taking weeks of recovery.
  • With the snow finally gone, the Heritage Network is holding in-person meetings.  In my position as president and head of the project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile, THN is taking up a lot of time.  It also has led to some life changing lessons.  I encourage you to read my article about the culture wars that this involves, A River People.

The vineyard demands a lot of attention in the spring, first pruning last year’s canes, which also involves shredding them and adding to the compost pile.  It also ushers in a need to root hundreds of cuttings for the Northeastern Washington Grape plant business.

As the cuttings get roots, they need potting soil made mostly from compost.  Compost is also being spread in the vineyard to replenish the soil there.  Making and spreading compost will go on until the snow falls again.

My daughter, April, invited me to be a judge at the science fair she manages teaching science at the Curlew School.  That was fun and I eventually wrote another article about citizen science which included lessons from the fair, How Sweet It Is.

Another spring event is the return of making biochar.  I made some with snow still on the ground for my own use.  But orders are backlogged now for substantial amounts.  It takes parts of 3 days to make a batch; one to get the wood; another to start aerobic compost tea going and doing  the actual burn; a third to inoculate it with the compost tea, shred and bag it.

We did get to party a little; went to a Santana concert in Spokane on April 3rd and the next day went to combined birthday parties for daughter April and grandson James.

Speaking of family, we got to meet with my sister Anita and her friend, Francie, as they did a fast road trip through Northeast Washington, signaling an end to the lockdown.

The rock club has a lot of new members.  So I volunteered to give a presentation on many of the places we went to collect rocks in years past.  I also wrote an article on Earths Treasures for other local rockhounds.

  • Cheryl has plants growing under lights in the house.  It may stop frosting at night by the middle of May.  That will usher in even more spring chores.
  • There were a lot of repairs and maintenance along the way to keep these things going; new headlight bulbs for my car; continuing printer repairs and replacements; computer backups and restorations; and some more maintenance for Cheryl’s back.
Inversion Table plus cat

Enough already.  It’s not like we don’t have anything to do. 

How Sweet It Is

How Sweet It Is

The quest for evidence-based information is ongoing.  So are the efforts to dismiss it. As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out, science is based on the admission of ignorance.  With science, as soon as you think you know something new, other scientists are going to poke holes in your ideas and try the same things to see if they work all of the time.  It is an uncomfortable way to proceed. But it has given us all the major changes of the last 200 years.

So scientific methods are now taught in school.  I was given the chance to see how that works while volunteering to be a science fair judge at Curlew School near the end of March. (Full disclosure, my daughter, April, teaches science in Curlew and pretty-much volunteered me and many other friends.)  Each student displayed their project on little countertop cardboard kiosks.

Vice Grip grass crusher, scissors, PH meter and refractometer

The theories ranged from “younger kids are kinder” to soda pop taste tests.  The project that struck me as the most contemporary was one questioning where the most bacteria accumulated on common surfaces around the school.  The hypothesis was that keyboards would surpass bleacher seating, doorknobs and other sites.  After a lot of testing and culturing of cultures, doorknobs turned out to be the most unsanitary.  The variables were the different surfaces. The procedure was to swipe each surface in the morning and start a culture from the swab, then to do that again in the afternoon. After counting the density of microbes in the cultures, the conclusion was that doorknobs were actually the most unsanitary. 

Almost every experiment had a secondary conclusion that the methods and materials could have been improved to show more accurate results.  Therein lies another annoying characteristic of science, it consistently confounds the desire for simple solutions.  That tendency has confronted me with many annoying results. 

For instance, a key measurement of soil health is SOM, soil organic matter.  With an increase of 5% to 10% in SOM on earth’s cultivated ground, enough carbon could be sequestered in the soil to offset thousands of years of plowing up roots and burning fossil fuels. SOM is also a strong indicator of microbial life and healthy soil which produces stronger, more abundant and nutritious food.  Win. Win. Win! Right?  Just measure SOM on a broad scale and you have an index of the health of the soil, a little like measuring CO2 to get a simple measure of climate change.  Not so fast on both counts.

Turns out that the SOM variable is very variable from Spring through Fall as an indication of plants taking up nutrients to grow and releasing them again when they die. Percentages vary from one soil type to another reflecting different crops.  As a broad indicator it is very good.  Getting to that bigger picture takes a lot of study.  Often that work involves Citizen Science, annual bird counts or referendums on the most interesting objects in the universe. (Google VV 689 and the Galaxy Zoo Project.)  Thousand of citizen scientists contribute observations and opinions, a few scientists crunch the numbers and pick a result.

Meanwhile, down on the farm, how can we tell what is going on?  We still have theories, variables and procedures.  But our tests, conclusions and decisions just become management.  Actually there is some common ground.  Case in point: brix.  Brix is a measure of liquid density, usually an indication of sugar content.  Just as light bends when it enters water because water is denser than air, light bends more in liquids denser than water and you can measure that on a simple instrument called a refractometer.

As a winemaker, I measure brix regularly during harvest season to see when sugars are high enough in grape juice to ferment completely into a finished wine.  Plant scientists have begun using brix for a wide spectrum of reasons.

Within a given species of plant, the crop with the higher refractive index will have a higher sugar content, a higher mineral content, a higher protein content and a greater density. This adds up to sweeter-tasting, more nutritious food with a lower nitrate and water content and better storage characteristics. ( – which I highly recommend)

To measure brix in a crop, you need a drop or two of liquid sap to put on your refractometer.  With leafy crops like grass, that is not so easy.  I needed a tool that is essentially a pair of vise grips with a spoon lip makeover.  With a little experimentation and a few adjustments, I had some grass juice to put on the refractometer.  It’s sticky and very green.  My first sample came in at 8° brix, which is a good, but not a great number.  Again the variables are critical.  Brix is lower in the morning. Sugars are stored in roots at night and used up a little by morning.  They climb during the day.  Hay cut in the afternoon is generally sweeter and healthier than that cut in the morning – except if it rains, which happens regularly. To track progress you need a series of measurements at a consistent time of day under consistent weather conditions.

It turns out that brix as a one-size-fits-all plant health indicator is (like SOM) just too simple.  A more critical variable is PH and PH is a slippery slope.  It is measured on a logarithmic scale with each degree being 10x the degree below it.  So 9° PH indicate 100x the alkalinity of the neutral 7° and 5° PH are 100x more acidic than 7° PH.  The sweet spot  (so to speak) is 6.4° PH.  My grass was 6.0°. 

As PH gets more alkaline, the risk of insect damage goes up.  As PH gets more acidic, the risk of disease damage goes up.  As brix goes up, a plant’s resources to fight insect damage increase.  These are immediate test results than you can use to manage your crops in real time without waiting weeks for soil and other lab tests.  The common ground is that you can do the tests for your own crops and the professional scientists can advise you what the results mean and what to do about them on the internet.


When I was a younger and less knowledgeable gardener I tried starting apple trees by planting seeds.  Johnny Apple Seed right?!  It didn’t go very well and I asked Larry Geno, who owned Bear Creek Nursery at the time about how to do that.  He laughed in my face and proceeded to tell me that virtually no fruit trees are planted from seed.  Seed allows whatever crazy genetics has come from other trees in the orchard to create trees that would probably vary from seed to seed.  Consistent trees are clones, pieces of the original tree that have been rooted, or grafted onto root stock.  Actually the root stock has a big influence on the size and resilience of the tree.

The same thing can be said of many other shrubs that you might want around your place.  Lilacs are particularly good at sprouting roots and sprouting from roots if you cut them down.  It is common knowledge that you can take a cutting from almost anything, stick it in the ground and it will sprout roots and grow sometimes.  And therein lays the rub.  Not every kind of plant will grow in every type of ground every time but sometimes they do.

With grapes you need to start with cuttings.  Since they are pruned every year, there are plenty to choose from.  I have noticed that the first few nodes on last year’s canes sprout the best.  They are thicker and the buds are usually closer together.  Even if you have some canes that are thick all the way along, they tend to have the buds spread further apart and do not sprout roots as well.  I put the cuttings in water immediately, even if I can’t process them for a few days.  But they don’t do well in water if left too long.

I bundle cuttings of one variety at a time together.  As I cut each one down to one or two buds, I dip them in water with mycorrhizal fungi spores in it.  Roots have a very beneficial symbiotic relationship with fungi.  The fungi get sugars produced by green leaves and in exchange bring water, minerals and other nutrients to the roots.  This effectively multiplies the access each root has to food sources by many times.  The fungi also seem to promote root growth.

This year I was looking on the Internet for a fancy acid that I had read promotes root growth.  Google suggested some related questions, one of which advised that the best stimulant to root growth was a tiny amount of vinegar, about table spoon per gallon.  So I used that in the water this year along with the fungi spores.

When gathering grape cuttings, I also gather some willow and soak those cuttings in buckets of water. When first encouraging the grape cuttings to sprout roots, I water them with that willow water because it has natural rooting hormones in it.  The willow cuttings never fail to send out lots of roots for themselves in the water.  But grapes don’t like to be too saturated with water.  So I put the bundles of grape cuttings in a mixture of sand and biochar.  The biochar holds moisture and microbes. The sand allows good drainage and some air flow.  It also makes it much easier to separate the roots once they have sprouted. 

I set the pots with the sand, biochar and bundles of cuttings on nursery heating mats.  The mats stay about 80° F and bring the pots up to about 60° F.  Warm soil triggers leaf and microbe growth, essentially telling the plants that spring has arrived.  That is nice especially when spring seems reluctant to warm up the ground itself.

The cuttings take 3 or 4 weeks to root.  They need to have moisture and warmth during that period.  Some growers advice keeping the above ground buds in the dark while the below ground parts are rooting.  I’m not sure that is helpful.  You will certainly get a lot of leaf growth even if there are no roots.  The debate is whether the leaves are pulling water that the cuttings can’t supply before they have roots, or if the leaves add sugars and energy to the cutting while it is trying to produce roots.

Not all cuttings behave the same.  You might get superb root growth on one variety and poor growth on another.  I conclude that I just don’t know everything about rooting cuttings.  I have experience, extensive reading and several You Tube videos to go on, still there are wins and fails.  Even after 35 years, this is an evolving process.  If you have questions to ask or experience to share, I am interested.  Like most science, it progresses once you admit that there is more to learn and work with others to share information.

Bigger and Better Biochar

The nearly endless month of Farch is upon us.  This winter feels like a little ice age.  But hope springs eternal… Spring being the key word.  With Spring planting and growing in mind, it is time to take advantage of our disadvantages.  The ground around here is still protected by snow and ice.  No growing is going on anytime soon.  But no forest fires, lawn mowing or many other distractions are going on either.  It’s a perfect time to make biochar. Biochar is just charcoal used to enhance the biology of the soil. It does not have additives to compress it into briquettes for grilling or other uses.

Northeast Washington is also a great place to make biochar.  People go on about how you can make it from almost anything: poor quality firewood, dead and down trees and brush, slash piles, orchard prunings, torn down building scraps etc.  I’ve used all of those things.  If you have a lot of them and reducing that waste is a big objective, go for it.  An advantage we have living here is lumber scraps.  I that is the fuel of choice.

Early in the burn process

But first, let’s revisit the last article I wrote about making biochar in 2019, Backyard Biochar.  In that article I advocated making a little oven of cement blocks or something similar because you could extract the biochar from the fire and use the left over still-flaming wood pieces to kindle another load, making it a continuous process.  That was a good idea as far as it went.  But although the cost was virtually nothing, it was still a lot of work for not much biochar.

Biochar has become a very familiar soil and animal feed amendment. A simple Google search for “biochar” yields 4,750,000 results in 0.65 seconds.  People have caught on to the fact that biochar is good for the soil, the atmosphere and your crops.  There is no need here to elaborate all the good things about it.  There is plenty of information out there. Check out for a great rundown. If you want to make some for yourself however, experience is in short supply. 

I’ve learned two important production lessons since 2019:

1) Dry flat pieces of lumber work best and

2) As long as you keep feeding new material into a fire from the top as it burns down, the lower charcoal does not turn to ash and become ruined.  Let me explain.

Wood needs to be dry to burn efficiently.  The basic process heats the wood driving off resins which burn as yellow flames.  When the flames are blue and the coals are red, it is time to quench the fire and save the charcoal from turning into ash. Wet wood uses up a lot of the heat to dry the wood before the resins vaporize.  It is smoky, inefficient and leaves partially burned material.  Wood also needs to be of a fairly uniform size and shape.  Sure dead limbs and prunings can make a great fire and even after a time be efficiently dry.  But you end up with the small stuff burning up quickly, dropping to the bottom of the fire and turning to ash while the big stuff is still flaming and not nearly turned to charcoal all the way through.  It is literally a hot mess.

This is where the local lumber mills make Northeast Washington such a great place.  Webley Lumber has a big pile of dry pieces that you can load into a truck and cart away for free.  But it is far from the only source of dry scrap lumber.  I can think of several neighbors who have their own little sawmills.  Running a little sawmill creates a lot of scrap wood and slabs.  It is usually too uneven to build with and not thick enough to hold a fire for long in a wood stove.  But it is perfect for making biochar because it dries out quickly and uniformly.  You can stack it tightly and cut it into short pieces easily with a chainsaw.  But remember that part about it burning up quickly in a wood stove?  That’s where lesson number 2 comes in.

Many kinds of containers can hold a biochar fire.  I use a big metal box once used to ship diesel engines.  There are many other ideas at  A big ring of sheet metal sitting on the ground works.  So do old tanks cut open in different ways.  The common denominator is that you start a fire in the bottom and add fuel from the top.  The fuel burns down to hot coals in the bottom.  If left alone the coals will combine with oxygen, burn into CO2 and leave only white ash minerals.  This is exactly what you want to avoid.  You want to be able to get that nearly pure carbon charcoal into the ground where it will do wonderful things to promote growth and last for centuries.

By adding more fuel on top of the red coals as soon as the previous load has combusted, you heat the new fuel driving off resins which burst into yellow flame and suck up the oxygen before it can get to the red coals.  Timing is everything.  I use the timer part of the clock app on my cell phone to remind me every 25 minutes to add more fuel.  If you add more fuel too soon, it buries the previous load depriving it of oxygen and leaving parts unburned.  If you wait too long, coals turn to ash.

You can add a lot of fuel, up to the top of the container each time.  As long as it is of an even size and air can reach the escaping gases, it will burn all at once and be ready for the next load.  I usually start a fire in the morning and keep adding batches all day until the container is full of coals or it is too dark outside to work safely.

Quenching it is another story.  Theoretically you should be able to cut the air flow into the fire and it will cool below combustion point.  You could also pour a lot of water on it.  Both of these techniques have drawbacks.  Even when cool, charcoal is a natural insulator.  After being quenched and sealed, I still find hot spots in the embers the next morning.  This means that I need to dig through the coals and spray water on them if they are still burning.  The other drawback is too much water.  Charcoal soaks up water like crazy.  It can become very heavy when wet and holds on to that moisture.  Also, too wet charcoal creates black goo that plugs up the screen on my shredder when I break it into smaller pieces.  Big pieces won’t expose much surface to soil biology.  Powder-size biochar won’t hold much water.

I put water or snow on the red coals until they turn black.  This involves digging through the coals to expose and drench hot spots.  I want the vapor that comes up to smell like steam, not smoke. 

So spring is in the air, but not so much in the ground.  Seize the moment and make biochar. At least it is a warm project.