A Daffodil Tribute

Daffodils – a cheerful presence since January when their spiky leaves emerged in the winter garden, followed by buds and scattered early blossoms in February and a rush of brave blooms all March and April – continue to delight now, nearly May, as I carry weekly bouquets to the wee scholars’ librarian.

For the first couple of years I picked only blossoms blown over by wind, but this year I’ve filled glass vases from Goodwill with generous handfuls of the long-stemmed beauties to give away. Mellow yellow or acid yellow, it’s fun to watch people smile as they walk by them in the library. The young writer called daffodils “sunshine in my house.”

Daffodils danced and bobbed as they absorbed all sorts of nasty weather and never lost heart – perhaps that’s why their nature seems jolly and plucky to me. They grow happily here – melding so harmoniously with forest trees and newly leafed shrubs – in the front garden, the woods garden, and the bride’s garden. Daffodils ask for so little and give so much.

I have a garden writer friend who is a daffodil expert, she understands the descriptive divisions or classifications. I love to hear her pronounce the poetry of intriguing names of daffodils she grows. One evening at her house, daffodils in little vases with names like ‘Thalia,’ ‘Quail,’ and ‘Golden Echo’ lit up the center of her dining table. After she inspires me, I think that if I study them I will know my favorites and do a more selective job of ordering for the fall.

But in truth I love them all (even the ubiquitous grocery store daffodils with canary yellow blossoms which die with a butterscotch fragrance), and I enjoy the surprises that come with ordering by the hundred-fold.

Bulbs look alike before planting, but unexpected combinings result from the relationship of petal to trumpet in colors from vanilla white to egg-yolk yellow. Petal shape can be large or small, pointed or rounded. Cups can be tiny and flat, a two-inch trumpet or tiny trumpet trimmed in orange. Doubles happen – miniature ones with orange cups – even triples with dangling blossoms. A creamy-petalled daffodil has a coral-pink center. A standard yellow daffodil dresses fancy with interior petals shaped and ruffled like an orchid.

Part of my delight in the hundred mix comes from the staggered bloom time allowing such a long display. Perhaps the little fragrant ones I think of as jonquils are favorites. Their heady scent heralds the world’s quickening – through all our many months of spring.

The Pottery Fragment Frog

He’s back! Or I thought he was back – and he could be a she – but a distinctive heart-shaped mark on the back of its head identifies the familiar “pottery fragment frog.”

Recently I bumped one of the terracotta pots in the courtyard. Pathetic pots – containing only volunteers. Doug fir seedlings, a forget-me-not, and a piece of a plate occupy one pot, and every year for the last three a frog has spent its summer days behind the little chunk of pottery.

It is beautiful pottery, part of a plate from Spain, but more attractive must be access to flying food and a safe place from the wind. And familiarity. Maybe this first sighting, when I bumped the pot, came after a winter spent in nearby rocks.

Frogs are a sweet presence here with their spring singing, their freeze-in-place-at-the-sight-of-you attitude, and their beauty – electric-green or quiet-brown, and always the distinctive eye stripe of the Pacific tree frog. They range in size and color from many teeny, half-inch bright green ones to the two-inch variegated frog I found in a slatted wooden box full of garden clutter.

Plastic attracts them. A produce bag stuffed in an empty square pot became an overnight bivouac for a luscious green frog. A board must always cover the top of the watering can or frogs seek the water left in the can. Before rinsing a birdbath with water from the hose, I look – in mid-summer frogs also enjoy the water baths.

All one August a frog croak echoed from a gutter above the living room window, and we relocated to the garden the frog suctioned to an upstairs window on a stormy autumn night. Once I found a frog in the house, very brown and dry looking, under an old wooden box full of holiday dishes rarely moved – an immigrant through our lax screen door?

It’s tempting to associate the faded-looking khaki coloring with maturity. One of the wee scholars told me authoritatively that a brown frog is dry – but other experts say tree frogs can be either brown or green or a combination. And their color can change – perhaps with light intensity.

There are fewer slugs here than in early years, and I like to thank the frogs. I read that big frogs eat big slugs and small eat small. Each bed seems to have a resident frog or two, and hopefully they dine on the underage slugs, the ones not imbibing at my beer bar. This would win hero status for frogs in the garden.

In spite of beginning this with the spring appearance – now the frog is gone again. Another puzzlement, but I can’t help thinking, given the rich sounds of frog singing every night from nearby ponds (and another wonderment is how far a frog can travel), that froggy – he or she – went acourtin’. Uhhuh!


In “One Man’s Garden” Henry Mitchell wrote: “What we loosely call spring, meaning the season in which plants grow vigorously and come to flower in a time of nice skies and warm airs is partly imaginary.”

But we’ve had a few days of “warm airs,” Mitchell’s mythical spring moments, without wind, when it really is mild and fragrant, and birds sing, sun shines. Spring, as we dream it, is upon the land. When the afternoon thermometer rises over 70° in the sun, I sit in the shade of the little cherry tree, and can practically feel the soil warming up and plants growing.

Perennials are those growing plants. Washington offers many evergreen varieties – but I’m thinking of the completely-gone-in-winter-plants. Plants with lives so different from ours – each year is a new beginning, no matter the death in the fall. That’s known in some parts as a miracle, and the ability to go winter dormant and then resurrect into new life, even bigger and stronger does seem miraculous.

Returning perennials change the character of the garden for the coming season. Just in time their growth covers what’s often called “unsightly foliage” – bulb leaves completing their cycle for next year’s flowering. Beginnings of asters and rudbeckia reveal enough to say, “I’m alive!” And this month the real workhorses like nepeta and geranium grew from nothing to 18 inches of encouragement.

This garden is mostly about ordinary plants, but I have a few perennials from Far Reaches Farm that lift my heart in spring. (Far Reaches is a specialty nursery nearby, owned by two intrepid modern-day plant hunters who search the world over for unusual perennials. They raise plants from seed, and then offer them for sale, with the most literate and entertaining labels in plantdom. http://www.farreaches.com)

Seasonally damp and mostly shady spots present particular garden problems – or opportunities. In one corner of the courtyard a white skunk cabbage from Far Reaches – an Asian version of our familiar plant, but smelling good rather than bad – blooms in spite of a soaking for months on end in winter.

In the opposite corner, waterlogged from a downspout, the tall spear-shaped leaves of a variegated iris reappear next to Cardiocrinum giganteum – leaves already six inches wide and a foot long foretell the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk future of this lily.

Perennials returning is not a miracle gardeners take for granted (as if one could take a miracle for granted), survival is not guaranteed. Perennial plants re-emerging in the spring signal happiness with location, a willing acceptance of place.


Fiddleheads of bracken fern unfurl in imperceptible increments as their stems grow taller this month. I welcome bracken ferns as they open and by summer they cover, as my mother would have said, “a multitude of sins.” They act as transition thicket where they surround upright columns of Doug fir, decorate edges along fields, and complicate with pattern, patches of wild rose and salal. But I know bracken has an ambivalent reputation.

Gertrude Jekyll had patience with and fondness for bracken. From her I learned how it is I can see, from upstairs in the house, the unmistakable texture of bracken far back in a small patch of impenetrable forest. She writes: “The height to which the bracken grows is a sure guide to the depth of soil. On the poorest, thinnest ground it only reaches a foot or two; but in hollow places where leaf-mould accumulates and surface soil has washed in and made a better depth, it grows from six feet to eight feet high, and when straggling up through bushes to get to the light a frond will sometimes measure as much as twelve feet.”

Richard Mabey tells us in “Flora Britannica” that a 13-foot tall bracken was recorded in an English forest. For his cultural flora, a book not just about plants but about their use by people, Mabey listened to the stories of regular people, farmers and preachers who have lived with and used these plants all their lives. He devotes pages to bracken, quoting folks who employ it as bedding for animals, as mulch, or as packing material.

One of the first things the wordsmith said to me when we met was that gardeners in Washington often don’t like bracken, it can be as Mabey says “abundant and aggressive.” It would be hard to argue with what is a native plant here (and most everywhere in the world).

And impossible for me to argue with its beauty – either now with its head and arms offered up to spring sun, or in green summer, feathery finery trembling in a breeze (always green no matter the drought). Best of all, I enjoy the sienna-hued collapse of crispy bracken in the fall as it swoons over a stand of salal along the driveway, for all the world like a planned display.

Bracken is “toxic to all animals” according to Mabey – and he and Pojar are both quick to point out these are not fiddleheads to eat in the spring. But they are fiddleheads to admire.

Everyday Tacos – Carrots, Leeks, Tulips,too

Aah, the CSA is back! A brief hiatus in deliveries while winter ended and spring began (the farmer building and planting for a new season) led to a near breakdown in cooking here. Certainly led to a lack of inspiration.

I’ve become so gratefully accustomed to the regular routine of receiving what seems a gift box of food to organize meals. Without it, and always under the influence of trying to eat more locally, it’s been slim pickings. Those authors, like Barbara Kingsolver, who try to eat locally for a year, hit this low spot in April (as our ancestors did) – early for new crops and late for stored vegetables.

In the weeks without delivery, we’ve been reduced to a lot of everyday tacos – our staple, mostly pull-out-of-the-cupboard meal. It varies with what is to hand and includes the usual basics – beans, cheese, tortillas, lettuce – maybe frozen corn or peppers, leftover vegetables, salsa – an avocado from south of here, tomatoes in season. It’s a whatever, whenever sort of meal.

The blog’s bean project improved everyday tacos by leading to batch after batch of black beans (recipe compliments of Martha Stewart, of all people, sent by a friend and reader). It’s totally simple – an overnight soaking followed by cooking (sometimes for a very long, slow time) with quartered onions, smashed garlic, and a spoonful of vinegar (add jalapeno peppers if you want). The beans are such a treat – good that night and as leftovers – and it’s easy to freeze a batch for yet another night of everyday tacos.

I love and appreciate the localness of the food our farmer provides, but what I didn’t think about till this little break is how dependant I am on her energy, her stimulus to get me going, focus my meal thinking.

These first deliveries combine stored vegetables and brand new salad mix. They’ve contained leeks, potatoes, stir-fry greens, carrots (stored in the ground and sweet from winter frost) – and field-grown tulips. Often recipes the farmer provides catch my eye – like a recipe for Carrot-Leek Oven Pancake – not something I would have come up with on my own, but I’m eager to try.

I’m thinking the black beans would work with a carrot leek oven pancake.  With tulips on the table.

To Love a Garden

Besieged by a spring storm, which roared down the strait from the Pacific hurling fir cones at the house like rocks from a catapult, I watched the rain that followed and thought how I like rain (which is good). Wetness darkens the various grays of tree trunks, gravel, and rocks to the same value, and ties the garden and forest together.

It’s a dramatic but temporary moment – like when the sun lights up some one part of the courtyard. It’s not the high and full sun of summer now, but sun broken up by tree trunks. And light through tall trees, especially filtered by mist, looks like light streaming through high cathedral windows.

Looking from indoors at the courtyard garden, I wondered how many of the plants could have been found in medieval times. Not so random as it seems, I was asking myself if I could link this garden and permaculture to my fondness for medieval things – for a sheltered garden, an old garden. Also I wondered why I need to do that.

Here in this beautiful wildness, which might well be enough in itself, I need a way to justify a garden, a way to unite plants to the surroundings. Some gardens, like my old one, know their flavor, their kind easily – here, carving a little chunk from the bigger and more important natural world challenges me.

The fence between the Buffalo and the big house defines the garden – in art making you’d call it a restraint – and in a way it replicates exactly how gardening began, in enclosed spaces, protected places holding out the unknown.

The four-square shape came about in much the way medieval monks might have designed a garden – necessary paths crossing the garden divided it into four beds. Such gardens, in spite of their inherent formality, adapt well to permaculture design in part because each bed has distinct micro-climates – south-facing slopes and shadier backsides.

Now in spring, the beds are full of the flowers depicted up the sides of pages of Books of Hours. I can imagine the little fruit trees, hellebore, old tulips, quince blossoms and bluebells as part of a garden in castle or cloister. And flowers of rosemary, scilla, Spanish hyacinth, and forget-me-nots – are all the same blue as the madonna’s gown in a Piero della Francesca painting.

In this experience of writing and drawing for the blog, I am trying to figure out and understand my place here. “Her spirits rose…” is so much a record keeping of the moment, not the story of making a garden and living happily ever after, but exploring how to love a garden, how to make it one’s own.

Dark-Eyed Junco

The parents of my best friend in high school taught us to sing out “No bears, no bears, no bears!” as we walked down the trail to their lakeside cabin in Alaska. (I learned other things, too, in those summer days at the cabin: like the pleasures of a stack of old and musty New Yorkers, dollar-size sourdough pancakes, and reading a book while drifting in a rowboat.)

I hear echoes of that bear warning when I call out “No birds, no birds!,”  as I open the door to the courtyard to let Frances out.

Birds rarely come in the Quad garden, but juncos like to use our structures for their purposes. Our first year one nested against the house in a hose reel. We yellow-taped off the area and watched her feed tiny babies with always-open mouths.

When they hear my warning, juncos scatter with a flash of easily recognizable, fanned-out white tail feathers.

The bears must too.

Bewick’s Wren and Marsh Wren

When asked to name her favorite bird, a young ecologist friend once replied with a smile: “All wrens!” I begin to understand her affection.

Coming home in the early morning, we saw (figured out from the bird book) a Bewick’s wren pulling fibers from the front door mat. Often I attach cat and dog fur, harvested-from-brushing, to the ribes and elderberry, mostly as deer deterrent but available as nesting material.

This time I stuck some in small tufts around the edge of the doormat. A little later I spotted both the Bewick’s wren and (another I had to look up) – a marsh wren. The fur quickly disappeared.

According to “Birds of the Puget Sound Region” (well-used and always sitting by the binoculars), the marsh wren male builds “multiple spherical nests.” The female chooses just one, to line and lay her eggs in.

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

We’ve been lucky with the windows here – such a hazard for birds. When we get a bird flocking event – a fluttering noisy convention of all sizes and sorts – I try and shut the shades to keep them from mistaking window for sky. That’s a mistake the golden-crowned kinglets seem most likely to make.

Often they are only stunned. Russell Link in his book, “Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest,” says to hold the bird in cupped hands for five minutes, and putting a stunned bird in a box or paper bag in a sheltered spot allows recovery time.

On a stormy winter night a kinglet, knocked cold, spent what was left of the night in a box in the downstairs bathroom. In the morning, when we (with trepidation) opened the box outside, the bird flew vigorously away, filling the so-much-bigger humans with joy.

Once I found a male (crown more cadmium orange than cadmium yellow) breathing heavily and looking perplexed on the upstairs balcony. I carried him with my hand inside a paper bag, downstairs and outside. He grasped my finger the way tiny babies do.

We sat together for a while, me peeking in the bag, him breathing. Finally (realizing I was not a twig?) he flew out of the bag to the safety of shrubbery nearby.

White-Crowned Sparrow and Song Sparrow

Song sparrows live here year around. When the white-crowned sparrow arrives they share territory, ruling bluff thicket and fence, incorporating fence wire and posts into the rituals of song and flirt.

Song sparrows hop side-by-side along the wire, jump to a post-top, then sink together to disappear into a private bower of rose and salal.

The white-crowned sparrow sings (oh-so-often) a melody familiar to me from mountain hikes above Anchorage: “Oh me, pretty pretty me.”

He begins to sing in April, and sings from the top of an ocean spray shrub wavering in the wind against the immensity, compared to his size, of the strait.

Spotted Towhee

Birds – a week of birds – field notes from a beginner birder, your blogger. Drawing and painting the birds for this week’s posts (some of the full-time residents here), I’ve realized what any bird painter could have told me quickly: sometimes you need more than one photo to try and capture a bird’s likeness. (A new page to the right lists the generous photographers who allow me to use their photos for reference.) I’m grateful to the blog for the pleasure of attempting these portraits.

Spotted towhees for starters, the most familiar of our bird neighbors, they particularly relished the straw berm days – skritch, skritching like chickens – tossing straw off the beds and strewing it in paths.

The always-together couple – he has the darker hood, hers slightly grayer – speak in an unmistakable conversational, rising-at-the-end call.

Beautiful, with an odd red eye and careful sprinkle of white polka dots, towhees are a daily presence enjoying dirt baths and water baths. They forage in the front garden beds, and retreat to their quarters in the near forest.

Slug Pubs

Slugs appreciate damp straw and cardboard (both often part of sheet mulching), they relish the dark, damp habitat. The first year, emerging tulip leaves showed telltale holes. Slugs are mostly a spring phenomena here – they like the winter-wet but not the summer-dry part of our weather equation.

Washington’s famous and huge native slugs, decomposers of dead wood, I relocate to the forest or leave alone. Small field slugs and others introduced by gardeners like me do the real damage. All gardeners come to terms with slugs, and develop personal strategies.

Traps – slug pubs – are a start. That first year I made traps by cutting slots in the rims of plastic containers. I buried them almost to bottom of the slots (slugs will climb up but ground beetles and other beneficials hopefully will not) and poured in the cheap beer. (I read some study revealing that the cheaper the beer the more dangerously alluring to slugs.)

Mostly I have tough, resilient plants now. Handpicking helps with new plants. Fragile things I plant in a pot or window box, theoretically out of slug reach. But one April morning, after a warm rain, I picked a slug off a clematis bud – four feet off the ground. And in a quick walk around the Quad garden I noticed the day lilies.

Other people’s day lilies seem sturdy and robust, withstanding all sorts of insults. Here they act as a trouble magnet. Last summer I moved them from deer reach, and this day, they’re a page from a slug catalogue, all sizes and shapes: small dark, medium gray, and bigger.

Ominously two of mismatched size, one on each side of the day lily’s well-chewed leaf, belly-to-belly, promise more slugs if left to their tryst. I took them, along with the too-many-to-count who festooned, adorned, slimed their hungry way over the leaves, and carried them down the driveway. I dumped them on the gravel, hoping the mail truck might come up the driveway, and turned my back on their disarray.

Such a clustering of slugs signals time for traps. This year, I could just clean out containers now weathered with age – lids faded and sides crumpled but intact. Last summer’s leftover sludge smells rich with bacteria.

May the beer entice slugs to slither over their brethren to slug paradise.

Seeds and Seedlings

On a perfect pea planting day – 42°, downpours alternating with intervals of bright sunshine when wooden chairs and porch rails steam and leaves and buds glitter – I pressed sweet peas into the soil at the edges of beds, and in pots here and there in the courtyard. Knee-high plants, they ramble rather than climb.

Snap peas go in a barrel, under a rebar tripod with plastic mesh for the peas to climb. They provide tasty crunch for many nightly salads. Easy and forgiving, they’re the sorts of seed I can handle.

My clever friend with both greenhouse and a greener thumb brought me seeds she’d started in eggshells. The tiny leaves each in their eggshell reminded me of Celia Thaxter. In her book “An Island Garden,” first published in 1894, Thaxter tells of starting seeds in eggshells to transport to her garden on Appledore, part of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire.

Peas planted, and another rain squall begun, I read Thaxter as she describes the steam tug Pinafore carrying her to the island on the first of April, “hurricane deck awave with green leaves and flowers.” She writes: “All the boxes of sprouted seedlings are carefully packed in wide square baskets to keep them steady, and the stout young plants hold up their strong stems and healthy green leaves, and take the wind and sun bravely as the vessel goes tossing over the salt waves out to sea.”

My copy is a 1988 reprint, and I’ve studied it over and over to look at the artist Childe Hassam’s “pictures and illuminations” as the book’s paintings are called. As a flower painter, I’m awed by Hassam’s impressions of poppies; as a gardener, I’m curious about Thaxter’s seaside garden with sandy, salty wind.

This time I notice Thaxter declares love the most important ingredient in a garden, and she questions writing a book about such a small garden (a rectangle 15 feet by 50). She pleads for seed makers to put advice on the packets (which we take for granted), because to “learn these things by one’s self takes half a lifetime of sad experience.”

While her language is sometimes flowery as her garden of annuals, she is practical (and tough, she also had three children and the island’s hotel to help run). I imagine her seeds exactly spaced (a little guiltily after just tangling with slippery, muddy from inoculant pea seeds which wanted to clump together in my fingers).

Thaxter protects young plants from a succession of enemies she calls out in vivid prose: birds, slugs, weeds, disease, windstorms. Thaxter despairs of plants attempting to “kill each other” if left to grow thickly – so she thins, leaving two, just in case. She doesn’t like the “pulling up and throwing away of the superfluous plants.” (I love her tale of potting those up and paddling across in her little dory to deliver them to friends on nearby islands).

Like some other things with good end results, starting seeds and growing them is fraught with uncertainty. But I’ll accept Thaxter’s assurance that “By and by, when comes the happy time for setting them out in the garden beds, the shell can be broken away from the oval ball of earth that holds their roots without disturbing them, and they are transplanted almost without knowing it.”


In winter rains when last we saw those workers in straw – microorganisms, earthworms, shiny-black and iridescent-green beetles, many spiders, and a mouse or two looking for bedding – they were focused on transforming straw and compost berms into rich soil for garden beds.

You can plant a sheet-mulched bed right away, either by topping with a layer of compost or soil and sowing a cover crop, or by digging holes to fill with a little potting soil and a plant. I resisted, but on an autumn visit I planted species tulips in the northwest bed.

The earliest tulips to bloom, species tulips are hardy relatives of wild tulips found on rocky shores throughout the Mediterranean and Central Asia, arriving in Europe in the 16th century. I chose Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Shakespeare’ and mixed bag of T. Greigii.

Species tulips are champs. Short and sturdy, brave and tireless, neither wind nor rain nor surrounding straw keeps them from beauty and color. About the time even my good-natured husband, who rarely asks about such things, inquired if we’d always have a yard full of straw, tulip leaves, pointed ends held wide, emerged.

Plump buds rose on thick stems, followed by dazzling flame-orange and red tulips. They close tight in rain and wind, but open wide to pollinators in sun, powered it seems by some strong stretching muscle.

That first spring Frances lounged on the straw, sun on her flank, in the midst of a blaze of colorful tulips. And five years on, in a spring rainstorm, descendants of the first tulips (true to their reputation for persistence and ruggedness) color the courtyard.

Straw and Compost into Gold

The tracing paper drawings for this garden are crinkly now from being folded up wet in a file, so they seem ancient. It’s good to look at such beginnings – a reminder of how relative everything is.

In the earliest pictures, the garden is all straw piles edged by random chunks of concrete – but that was an improvement over the end-of-construction weed-covered dirt pile, slimy straw, and mud. A later picture, tucked into one of the books I talk about here, shows the patient younger son, hoodie obscuring most of his face, pitchfork in hand, while nearby the dog stands equally patiently, but uncomfortably, on crushed gravel. I’m geared up in wool hat and windbreaker to direct the addition of more straw and more compost to shape what I hoped would be a larger garden bed.

The day a guy handy-with-a-backhoe (a little puzzled by my requests but game), looked at my drawing and shaped the four-square garden, thrilled me. He bladed the dirt from the foundation hole into four, unequal rectangles as I added straw and compost (clearly a four-square garden of historical lineage to me – I think a case of “whatever” for him). He and an assistant lifted broken concrete and pavers, left from the previous owners’ attempts at paths, to contain the piles.

After I showed him pictures in Ann Lovejoy’s book “Organic Garden Design School,” he built a sturdy wall out front out of chunks of concrete, salvaged from another of our contractor’s jobs, laid one on top of another. He poured load after load of crushed gravel into paths and a zone three feet out from the house. We felt better by the end of the day for having some structure.

Toby Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden,” was the other recipe book forever to hand. There is mud on the page of my book with his picture of “the ultimate sheet mulch.” And sheet mulching in all its miraculous forms built all the beds here. No topsoil – but plenty of compost and straw layered and mixed with the foundation hole dirt (it’s full of clay here – but clay is full of nutrition).

Hemenway’s book makes permaculture, despite an uninspiring name, the gold standard of sustainable gardening (living really). Hemenway describes the kind of garden that first caught his attention:

“These are true backyard ecosystems – not just disconnected fragments – that are as resilient, diverse, productive, and beautiful as those in nature. They are not merely flowery showplaces or ruler-straight arrays of row crops. Yet they are also not the brambly tangles that identify many wildlife gardens. They are places where conscious design has been melded with a respect and understanding of nature’s principles.”

Lovejoy, author of many books about beautiful gardens, explains how to do the “conscious design” in any size garden. She is utterly realistic now about available time and energy and doesn’t spend it in fruitless tasks. Her advice about making good dirt, plant choice, clustering plants with like needs, “sandwich plantings,” wise water use, pest control, compost, mulch, and conserving the gardener’s energy – all permaculture principles – sustained me.

This was the summer the house was finished, but we weren’t able to live here yet. So we topped the beds with a layer of straw and left the soil-making alchemy to eager microorganisms and winter rains.