Here’s a note for my future self: expect tomatoes in August, not July.
In July, I was ready to throw in the towel on my tomato farming endeavors. The few fruits were green and not ripening very fast. The plants grew into a jungly mess and I had to prune off long straggly branches and haphazardly stake them to prevent them from collapsing. We had blossom end rot on several plants.
But, come August, things turned around. We got the blossom end rot under control by adding lime to the soil. Nature did her trick, and once the days became reliably warm, we magically started to have ripe tomatoes.
For having 9 plants, we have not been overwhelmed by tomatoes. We didn’t prune our plants when they were small. According to some wisdom, this makes the plants concentrate on growing foliage, not fruit. On the other hand, I know some people who have never pruned their tomato plants, and they are overloaded with fruit. Next year, I think I’ll try pruning the plants when they are young to see if it makes a difference in the yield of fruit.
And finally, an update on Mike’s giant Tahitian squash. You may remember that I pruned it back after the plant started to trail and strangle the tomato plants in the same bed. This made the plant very unhappy. But! Despite the savagery I unleashed on the squash to save the tomatoes, we still ended up with two giant squash. Mike is very happy with his twins.
Until two years ago, I thought that a prune was just a dried plum.
My mind was blown two summers ago when Mike started talking about his prune trees and his plum trees. Brace yourself for some history and plant nerdery – I’ll explain the difference! Unless otherwise cited, all information comes from here.
When we talk about prune trees and plum trees, we’re talking about related plants that came to California from different parts of the world. What we know as prune trees evolved from prunus domestica, which were brought to California by European settlers. In the 1850s, French horticulturalists Louis and Pierre Pellier brought what is now known as the “French prune” trees to California, first selling them from their nursery in San Jose. Prune production in the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s contributed to it being coined the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”
Prunes have a higher sugar content than what we know know as “plums,” which allows them to dry without fermenting around the pit. Since Californian prune production has declined in the last half-century, I believe that what are sold now as “pitted prunes” are mainly dried plums, as they don’t contain the pits.
What we know as plums are derivatives of prunus salicina, and were brought to California from Japan in the 1870s. Luther Burbank bred and introduced many of the most popular cultivars that we enjoy today, most notably the Santa Rosa Plum.
The plant genus prunus contains plums, peaches, cherries and…almonds! “Prune” comes from the Latin prunus. French-speaking friends (and Google Translate) told us that “prune” is French for “plum.” Going further down the rabbit hole, the word “plum” comes from the Old English plume. So, just like we have completely different names for the same things in modern language, the words “prune” and “plum” derived from Latin and Old English and are labels for the same genus of fruit.
I recently listened to the most recent episode of the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast, in which senior teacher Richard Freeman talks about how the human tendency towards labeling things can create confusion. In the context of that conversation, he was talking about different names for the same yoga posture. The same applies here to plums and prunes – they are simply different names for essentially the same thing.
I love the old prune trees that were likely planted on Mike’s land during the heyday of prune production in Santa Clara County. Though we’re up out of the valley, they remind me that we live in a place that was once dominated by agriculture, not technology. This land is a respite from the daily chaos that greets me down in the 21st century world. These old trees are a reminder that, though much changes over time, nature does her best to endure.
Though this year has been loaded with all sorts of new projects, we haven’t forgotten about the bees. Here’s a glimpse into what’s going on right now in our bee yard. We are hosting a lot of bees!
Winter Survival & Spring Beginnings
We started and ended the winter with two hives of bees. This was quite a success, as we had all sorts of problems last year. During winter, survival of a hive depends upon the bees having enough stored honey to eat, as they seal up the hive and don’t fly to collect pollen and nectar when it is cold (plus, there is not really much pollen and nectar to collect during the winter months). Through the winter, we also feed the bees with sugar syrup. Additionally, there need to be enough bees in the hive to keep warm in their cluster. So much can go wrong in winter.
Our post-winter hives were overloaded with bees, so Mike decided to split them. Splitting hives consists of creating new colonies by taking frames of brood, honey, and comb and putting them into new boxes with a new queen. The goal of splitting was to hopefully avoid a swarm, in which we may have lost half or more of our bees (last year, we had a hive swarm multiple times in a row, until we eventually found the boxes empty).
We drove to Vacaville one Saturday morning in April to pick up our new queens from Honeybee Genetics, as well as three packages of bees to start two new hives for Mike’s friend, Brett, and to start a colony in the experimental Layens Hive that Mike built to test out this year.
Home and commercial beekeepers generally use Langstroth hives. As I understand it, this type of hive box was developed in order to allow humans to easily manipulate the bees, move frames around, and harvest honey. There are vertical frames inside of the boxes, and bees use these frames to build their comb – where they lay their eggs and store their honey. This is not necessarily the most bee-friendly way of keeping bees.
Experimenting with the Layens Hive
Being interested in learning more natural styles of beekeeping, Mike decided to explore other hive designs that would more closely mimic a colony’s natural home. Wild hives of bees don’t live in boxes. Instead, they build nests in tree trunks and other enclosed natural spaces. After researching options, Mike decided to build a Layens hive.
Unlike the Langstroth hives, where the nest is broken up into multiple levels, the Layens hive allows a colony to build its nest in one open space, similar to what the bees would do in the wild.
Mysterious Queen Cells
During our inspection of the Layens Hive, we found that the bees had created two queen cells near the bottom of one of the frames.
There are two general reasons why the bees would want to create a new queen: (1) they are preparing to swarm, and need a new queen to take with them; or (2) they want to “supersede” the current queen, who may not be doing her job of laying enough eggs to ensure survival of the colony (no pressure!). Swarms generally happen in the spring, so Mike thinks that these cells may be supersedure cells. Time will tell…
On an ending note, here are some examples of other bee behavior:
Bearding: On a warm day, it’s not unusual to see bees cooling down by “bearding” on the outside of a hive box.
Burr Comb: Generally, bees build very organized comb inside of their boxes, in straight vertical lines from the top of the frame. Sometimes, they rebel (or, act according to their natural tendencies…) and build freestyle “burr comb.” This is fine for the bees, but annoying for the beekeeper – maybe they are trying to tell us that they don’t want us messing around with them?
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!
We’ve got wild plums, too!
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.
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.
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.
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
We added a giant squash (Tahitian) that Mike got through the 95033 trading network.
Started the day by pruning and staking this mess. Next year, I will try to prune the plants before they get so big…
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.
Before we get to June, here’s a picture of Mike & the redwood chapel, from May – before the grass was mowed down.
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.
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.
White sage buds
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:
And here they are on June 17:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.
Nasty stuff, but totally necessary.
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!).
We moved the soil from these beds to the new ones.
At some point, Mike realized that the wheelbarrow had a flat tire, which was the cause of much previous suffering on my part.
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.