July: An Impatient Month.

I feel a little bit like the woman on those Mervyns commercials from the early 1990s.  Only instead of standing in front of the store saying “open, open, open,”  I’m staring at my tomatoes, saying “ripen, ripen, ripen.”  Mike assures me that tomatoes ripen more slowly on the mountain due to the temperature fluctuations, so I shouldn’t get discouraged by plants not meeting the “days to maturity” target.  But, I’m still impatient and anxious.  We’ve noticed blossom end rot on a few of our plants, which I hope we remedied by adding lime to the soil (which helps decrease acidity and allow for calcium absorption).

Our nine tomato plants, one giant squash, giant marigold & cosmos are overwhelming the space of our garden boxes.  Based on his past experience gardening in this space, Mike had no idea that our plants would grow so big.  By the time we noticed that the squash was strangling the cosmos and a few of the tomatoes, we couldn’t disentangle them.  I decided to cut back the squash to free the other plants, which may or may not have been a good idea…stay tuned for the fate of the squash.

We harvested some wild plums and I made some jam and chutney.  Our stone fruit yield this year is much less than the past few years.  We think that it rained at the wrong times in the spring – either the bees couldn’t pollinate, or the blossoms blew off of the trees.  We have a prune tree with fruit on it, and a dwarf plum that seems like it’s struggling to ripen.  We had apricots one one of our three apricot trees, but left them on the tree too long and they rotted from the inside – how sad!

Creatures of all kinds seem to be drawn to Mike’s property.  Maybe it’s because he doesn’t use chemical pesticides.  Maybe it’s the shade of the redwood trees.  Maybe it’s all of the places where little creatures can hide and feel safe.  Of all the creatures who call Mike’s place home, my very favorite are the California quails.  So, you can imagine my horror when I accidentally disturbed a quail nest a few weeks ago while I was cleaning up a few things.  The mom fled the scene in a flash and my heart sank when I saw a small clutch of unhatched eggs.  I covered it back up and worried.  This past weekend, I asked Mike to look to see what happened, fully expecting that the mom hadn’t come back and the eggs hadn’t hatched.  But, luckily, we found a small clutch of hatched eggs.  This has been a good year for quail on the mountain – we think that at least 3 clutches hatched on Mike’s land alone.  Seeing all of the baby quails running around after their parents is just about the cutest thing ever and never fails to make me smile.

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Bees of all kinds are loving the cosmos that we planted with the tomatoes.  We’ve not only seen our honey bees on them, but also native bees and bumble bees.  Here’s a bumble enjoying the pollen.

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Lastly, we (knock wood) haven’t had any fires nearby yet this year.  But, the smoke drifting into the area from other fires has been making for spectacular sunsets.  I say the only good thing about fire season is the beautiful sunsets resulting from the smoke in the air.  Sending up immense gratitude for the first responders who so bravely put their lives on the line to battle these horrific fires that have become the norm of late here in the western United States.

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Tomato Update: We’re Growing a Jungle!

This summer has been non-stop projects for me and Mike.  No surprise, my favorite of all of the projects are our raised beds.  I’ve been taking photos of them almost every week to track our progress and I am quite frankly amazed by the jungle of tomato plants that has grown up in seven short weeks.  Still no ripe tomatoes, but we’ve got some set fruit and lots of flowers…so, stay tuned!

Day One: 5/19/2018

5/19/2018 - day one, all plants in their places
5/19/2018

6/10/2018: 

We added a giant squash (Tahitian) that Mike got through the 95033 trading network.

6/16/2018:

6/25/2018:

6/25/2018: first fruit - Sungolds!
6/25/2018: first fruit – Sungolds!

6/30/2018:

7/8/2018:

Started the day by pruning and staking this mess.  Next year, I will try to prune the plants before they get so big…

7/8/2018 - overgrown plants
7/8/2018 – our plants have clearly outgrown their cages.
7/8/2018 - after pruning & staking
7/8/2018 – after pruning & staking

Here’s a shot from the same vantage point as all of the others, so it’s easy to see how much the plants have grown.  Every week, we are just amazed.

7/8/2018
7/8/2018

Fruit is coming!!!

 

Notes from June

Before we get to June, here’s a picture of Mike & the redwood chapel, from May – before the grass was mowed down.

5/6: A man and his trees.

The last two Junes have been the calm before the fruit storm of July, August and September.  On Sunday, I walked around the orchard to see which trees have fruit set on them.  Due to rain at weird times this spring that blew blossoms off and/or prevented the bees from pollinating, we don’t have nearly as much fruit on the trees as we’ve had before.  There are barely any apples and pears, which we’ll miss come September.  Stone fruit is also sparse, but we have fruit on a dwarf plum, the Italian prunes, and on two apricot trees – which we didn’t have last year.  And, of course, there are wild plums – there are always wild plums.  Though the wild plums have a sweet, deeply plummy taste, they are such a pain to process.  They are small with large pits.  I tried pitting them with a cherry pitter last year, but the wild plum pits are just a little too big for that to work well.

We’ll see if we can beat the squirrels to the apricots, which will be ripe very soon.  We don’t have any of our prized pluots or any other plums or the French prunes.  All of this is a reminder of how fickle mother nature can be — and gives us a much greater appreciation of farmers who live and die by weather cycles and pollination.

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Apricots

Plants are finally blooming in the areas that I’m trying to garden.  My favorites are the delicate red poppies that we grew from seeds we shook out of a seed pod that we collected in Mendocino last July.  The white sage is also about to blossom.  I’ve been waiting for that to do something for over a year, and can’t wait to see it in it’s full glory.

 

Our tomato plants seem happy in the garden beds!  We had one casualty – the Chinese Paste start didn’t want to grow.  We also overcame irrigation problems (solved by putting a pressure regulator on the hose).

Here are the beds on June 10:

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And here they are on June 17:

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What a difference a week makes!  We still don’t have any fruit on the plants…but where there are flowers, there will be fruit…

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Mike discovered this nest, which I’m sure has been abandoned since it was out in the open, and then got rained on this past weekend.  I hope that whatever laid these eggs learns to lay her eggs in a more secure location next time.

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To end on a positive note, Mike thinks that some California quail built a nest in the chipping pile, as he heard excited quail chirping coming from it on the day that the guy was supposed to come do the chipping – chipping has been postponed!  Never mind the huge pile of combustable material in the front yard…

AND, our limpy turkey seems to have survived another winter.  On the day the Loma fire broke out in September 2016, Mike was in England and I raced up to his house to collect valuables, just in case the fire started burning in his direction.  On that day, I saw a turkey with a limp pecking around the front yard.  I had never seen this limpy turkey before, and seeing it on that day only added to the bizarre apocalyptic feeling of seeing the mountain on fire in the background.  Every time we see the limpy turkey (who we have affectionately named “Limpy”), we think it might be the last time.  But, no.  Limpy is a survivor!  He (or she?) was limping around with 2 buddies last year, and now Mike has seen him/her with one other buddy this year.  Somehow, Limpy has managed to survive at least two winters, limp and all.

In this dark time for humanity, I’ve been taking comfort in the cycles of nature.  Noticing how things are the same as they have been, or how they’re different this year.  Thinking on the macro level of the millennia that the world has kept turning is keeping me sane and giving me comfort that we may just live to see the light at the end of this tunnel.

 

Building a Garden

On my first visit to Mike’s house, I saw nothing but potential. It was our second date, on a soggy, rainy January evening. He took me out on the deck, and through the mist, I saw open space dotted with fruit trees. I knew that I had somehow wound up in the right place. After living all of my adult life in apartments, I longed for a place where I could put my hands in the dirt and grow my own food. Here was the place.

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The view, March 2016. Mike’s land ends just beyond the fluffy redwood tree in the center. The neighboring land is a pear orchard.

Fast forward two years. I learned quickly that maintaining all of this land could be a full-time job if we had the time. I learned that we couldn’t put anything in the ground without considering whether it would get eaten by deer, squirrels, or gophers. My dreams of having a vegetable garden took a backseat to beekeeping, harvesting & preserving the fruit from the orchard, and other routine work. Not to mention that any vegetable garden on the property would have to be fenced to stop it from becoming a salad bar for the deer.

This being our third summer together, I feel that I’m getting the hang of dealing with the fruit extravaganza that starts in July and goes through September (stone fruit, pears, apples). I’m ready to take on the challenge of adding summer crops to the mix.    

When Mike bought the property seven years ago, it came with two small fenced areas that had two garden beds each. Mike gardened the beds, but stopped after he had problems with gophers. The beds have gone unused for at least two years, and the areas had become completely overgrown. We had bigger dreams of building a larger fenced area for a garden, but I decided that we should just start with the area that was already fenced, clear the growth, and build new beds. Luckily, Mike agreed to help me take on this project – my hero!

What follows is a recap the three-weekend saga of bringing my garden dreams to life.  

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Before: a jungle of invasive crap.

I find digging in the dirt very satisfying, so I actually enjoyed the process of clearing the space. The land in general has been taken over by invasive species, and I learned quickly that Oxalis bulbs will haunt my nightmares. I am now on a mission to dig up those pesky little bulbs wherever I see the misleadingly darling clovers…

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Existing beds, post-clearance. The soil is actually quite nice.

Once we cleared the space, we dug up the old, rotted beds and roughly leveled the area where we would build the new beds. To make things easier, we decided to build beds with the same surface area – 3’ x 8’. The old beds were buried in the ground and not very deep. We wanted deeper beds, so we elevated our new ones completely off of the ground and built them 18” deep. We got all of the wood cut to size at Home Depot. This video from Sunset magazine shows the general process for building raised beds (though we created more work for ourselves by building ours bigger and deeper – I think it will be worth it).     

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Cleared and leveled space, with the frame for the upper bed

Mike built the bottom levels of the beds and we moved them in to place. They were too heavy to build and move after completely assembled. Because the area is on a slight slope, we reinforced the fronts of the beds with redwood (which won’t rot) secured by steel posts.

Now, the real fun began. We used Mike’s pneumatic stapler to attach gopher mesh to line the bottom of the bed area. This process nearly did us in. The stapler was malfunctioning and the gopher mesh is generally unpleasant to work with. But, we persevered! After we (well, 99.5% Mike) finished attaching the gopher mesh, Mike attached the top level of the bed frames  

At this point, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the last big step was filling the beds with soil. We filled them with: the soil that we had removed from the former beds on that spot; soil we moved from other beds under an oak tree that drops too many leaves to reuse the space; 8 two cubic feet bags of organic soil; steer manure; chicken manure; and fireplace ash (to increase the pH of the soil – I never knew!).   

Mike assembled the irrigation and we were at last ready to plant our tomatoes. We decided to go big with 10 plants: Carbon, Japanese Black Trifele, Sungold (cherry), Fruit Punch (cherry), Green Zebra, Chinese Paste, San Marzano, Indira Gandhi, and Black Prince. All but the Carbon and Japanese Black Trifele (which were gifted to us by my friends Belinda & Bruno, via the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners) came from Love Apple Farm. To each planting hole, we added oyster shell, fertilizer, fish meal, bone meal, and worm castings. We also planted marigolds, cosmos, and calendula around the edges of the tomatoes.

Fingers crossed that we have more tomatoes than we know what to do with come August! We look forward to sharing the bounty with our friends, as one of the finest things that money can’t buy is a homegrown tomato.   

P.S. – Mike also got a Tahitian squash start through the 95033 trading network (in exchange for the wood/mesh packages that our new bees came in this year). I can’t wait to take a picture of him with the squash around his head, like this.

Why Redwood Chapel?

Here we are.  Redwood Chapel Homestead.  It sounds so official. Yet, it’s just a simple, small house on 5 beautiful acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.  By day, we’re a social justice lawyer and a software-writing wizard.  We dream of unplugging, slowing down, and having time to do ALL of the projects.  But, for now, we really only have the weekends – which I guess makes us part-time homesteaders.

So, why Redwood Chapel?

  • The original structure on the property was a chapel for redwood cutters in the early 1900s.  Original-growth redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains contributed heavily to re-building San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.  That original structure is now the living room of the house, which retains its original redwood paneling and brick fireplace.
  • The redwood grove behind the house is like a chapel made by mother nature.
  • A chapel is a place of worship.  We find a higher power in physical work, in nature, in the dirt, in the changing seasons, in the transformation of flowers into fruit, and fruit into preserves, in the flight of bees, and in the songs of the birds.  

This will be my third summer with Mike.  Our third summer of more fruit than any two people can really know what to do with.  My second summer of being his apprentice beekeeper.  Our first summer to finally clear a fenced-in space to grow tomatoes.  It’s time to start keeping an actual record of what we learn, build, grow, harvest, preserve & give away.  To note what happens when.  To remember what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s to hands in the dirt and connecting to the timeless rhythms of the Earth.