Scenes from Shelter in Place, Part 2: The Wheels of Nature Keep Turning

We’re on day 23 of sheltering in place.  Being up here on the mountain, it’s almost possible to forget that the world is in chaos.  As someone who is usually much closer to the frontlines of suffering, this ability to slip into ignorance is disorienting and somewhat unsettling.  I am in a state of constant gratitude that we have this house & space, both of us still have regular paychecks coming in, we are healthy, and we are together with the cats.

Being home for such a concentrated period of time has allowed me to more closely observe nature.  These are some glimpses into things we’ve seen over the last month or so.

Our incredibly dry (read: not a drop of rain) February allowed for ideal pollination conditions for early stone fruit.  We have two trees full of tiny apricots, which is extremely exciting because we haven’t had apricots since 2017.

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No rain in February also meant ideal conditions for almond pollination.  Our one little almond tree has more fruit set on it than ever before.

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We let our mizuna (Japanese mustard) bolt, and the bees absolutely love the happy yellow flowers.

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The bees are also loving our blooming salvias, or sages.  Seen below are Black Sage and Cleveland Sage.  Can you see the yellow pollen on the Black Sage’s flowers?

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For the first time, I noticed Red Maids, a native wildflower, growing in a corner of our orchard.

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Our first poppies are blooming, coming back from seeds that were dropped last year.

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I’m experimenting with trying to smother weeds with native wildflowers.  I sowed some Baby Blue Eyes last fall, and they are beautifully doing the trick.  Plus, the bees and so many other pollinators love them!

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Speaking of the bees, we are starting spring with four pretty strong hives.  Mike is deciding whether to split any of them before they can swarm.  Once the weather stabilizes (we made up for a dry February with a pretty wet March and rain is in the forecast for the next handful of days), we can look in the hives and decide what to do.

If our current shelter in place order doesn’t get extended, we have 29 more days to do our part by staying home.

Scenes from Shelter In Place, Part 1: A Rollercoaster of Feelings

Mike always says he can predict the future.  I take a lot of what he says with a loving grain of salt, as I often can’t think beyond what is right in front of me or on the foreseeable horizon.  But, I have to give it to him this time: he predicted this.  Back when COVID-19 started spreading in China, then Iran, then Italy, he looked at the transmission rate and knew it would be difficult to contain.  He got worried, saying it was all about “the maths” (British for “the math”).  I shrugged it off, telling him I had actual life and death crises to deal with.  He wanted to stock up on emergency supplies.  After many eye rolls and protestations on my part, I gave in to the stock-up effort as the path of least resistance.  I am here to publicly admit that I was wrong and he was right.  And, I am glad that he made me go to Costco and buy toilet paper in the first week of March, before there was a run on it.

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, my employer sent out an email saying our office would close and we would work from home for the next two weeks.  Immediately after this email came, a client arrived for her scheduled appointment.  I told her and her case manager that they made it just in time, as we’d be closed for a few weeks.  It was strange and the sense of anxiety in our office was palpable.  How would we continue to do all we need to do to serve our clients if we couldn’t be all the places we needed to be?

Packing up and leaving the office that day was very abrupt and odd.  I tried to think of what case materials I might need for two weeks of work at home, thinking we would all be back at the office in short order.  I changed my outgoing message on my phone to say that our office would be closed, but I would be working from home and still reachable.  I packed up my casework and some office supplies in a box, put my laptop in my backpack, and left.  In the run-up to this, I kept telling Mike that I didn’t think our office would actually close – afterall, we are in the business of serving people who are hard enough to reach and connect with in person, let alone remotely.  A lot of our clients don’t have reliably working phones, let alone computers or video chat capabilities.  They check in with us by dropping in to the office.  And, part of our work requires us to be inside of acute psychiatric units and the jail – work that didn’t seem right or possible to do over the phone or by video.  It felt like a big deal that we were closing, but I left with relative confidence that things would return to somewhat normal in a matter of weeks.

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My WFH set-up in the “cat room.” I was having a hard time working at the kitchen table, which is a shared space with uncomfortable chairs. Mike had this extra coffee table in our storage container, which is now my makeshift desk. And, I’m finding sitting on the floor much more comfortable than our kitchen chairs.

Then, on Friday, the Santa Clara County Health Officer issued an order to cancel all gatherings of more than 100 people and restricting gatherings of more than 35 people.  This is when it finally started to feel serious to me.  On Saturday night, my emotions overflowed in the form of a really big cry – I thought of my clients who are vulnerable and don’t have safe places to be; my colleagues in community medical clinics who are on the front lines; my friends and community members who have small businesses who may not survive this; and on and on and on.

Restrictions on movement and gathering kept getting more severe.  On Monday, March 16, the six Bay Area counties issued three-week shelter in place orders and mandated closure of non-essential services.  Santa Cruz County, where we live, quickly followed suit.  Schools closed, turning working-from-home parents into homeschooling parents.  Then, later that week came Governor Newsom’s statewide shelter in place order, which doesn’t have an end date.

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Manresa State Beach, just down the hill from us. We saw a pod of dolphins on Sunday, and all seemed well in the world.

Meanwhile, the cases in Santa Clara County keep climbing and more people are dying.  I’m hopeful that all of these restrictions on movement and gathering “flatten the curve,” but I’m also realistic, knowing that we are probably far from the end of this.

I am grateful for so much right now.  Mike and I are in the best possible spot to be sheltered in place.  We have five acres to move around on, endless projects that we finally have time to dedicate ourselves to, a garden to plant, a well-stocked store around the corner, and lots of nearby outdoor places to walk.  Mike has steady income from his consulting job, and I have a supportive employer that continues to pay us, while also giving us the time to be flexible and gentle with ourselves as we adapt to this strange new existence.  We are well-connected to our local food system, which continues to provide us with locally-grown fruit and vegetables.  Our yoga community is joining together for practice six days a week via Zoom.  We are so, so lucky and I remind myself every day to not take all that we have for granted.

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Unsettled weather is making for beautiful sunsets.

I’m also trying to give myself permission to feel all of my feelings.  It’s easy for me to get stuck in a spiral of “I don’t have the right to feel worried, sad, mad, frustrated, etc. because so many people have it way worse than me.”  While it is true that I am in a much better position than most, it doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t valid.  I’ve decided that I’m not pushing or striving or having any serious work-related ambition for the foreseeable weeks.  I’m staying in touch with my clients and doing what needs to be done to push their cases along, but I’m giving myself some much-needed space and breathing room.  I have been pushing for the last 15 years, putting my work and clients’ needs before my own.  I can’t help but wonder if this will be the wake-up call I need to find more balance in my life.

 

 

Before the Pandemic: O Winter, Where Art Thou?

Hello, and welcome to 2020 – a year that is not even one quarter over, yet has had enough drama to last me a decade.  When I sat down to write about the projects we’ve started over the last week as we’ve settled into self-isolation on the mountain, I found a half-finished post about our winter before the pandemic.  I’ve finished it off below.  These days seem like a lifetime ago. 

Winter is always a slow and lazy time for us, with lots of time for walks in Santa Cruz and cozy time in front of the fire.  This winter has been especially dry, without a drop of rain in February.  It’s hard to not feel guilty for enjoying the warm, sunny days – when we know that they could mean a bad fire season is right around the corner.  Still, I’ll take the sunshine for now.

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Mid-winter is marked by the emergence of the first bulbs – daffodils & crocus.  I love these new daffodils I planted in the fall, from the amazing and inspirational Floret in Washington state.

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This year, we have a successful winter garden of purple mustard, mizuna (Japanese mustard) & white Russian kale.  We’re also trying our hand at growing a few artichoke plants, which I started from seed and are thriving.

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Our little manzanita came back to life after being munched on by deer last year.

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Before the holidays, I started pottery classes at Blossom Hill Crafts in Los Gatos.  It’s been fun to try something new and I am really enjoying it.  As someone who can have an anxious mind, it’s nice to have something to do that requires my full attention.  I’ve also enjoyed the creative aspect of it, as I’ve never really thought of myself as a creative person.  The process of learning this craft is allowing me to use parts of my brain I didn’t know how to use before.  As a beginner, I’ve had my fair share of disasters – yesterday’s disaster becomes today’s succulent pot!

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The first round of fruit blossoms has just peaked.  Wild plums, apricots, pluots, Asia-origin plums and the almond bloom first.  Then come the nectarines, peaches and prunes (Europe-origin plums), and finally the apples and pears.  With such a dry February, we’re hoping for excellent pollination on the early fruits.  I have my fingers crossed for a bumper crop of apricots, which we haven’t had any of since 2017.  Apricot pollination happens in February, which has been wet and cold the past few years.  Watching these trees gives me such tremendous appreciation for farmers who stake their livelihoods on Mother Nature, who can be so fickle.

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Last but not least: we are making our first foray into citrus!  It can get too cold here to reliably be able to grow citrus outside.  We found a cold-hardy (to 28 degrees fahrenheit) Japanese mandarin-lime hybrid called a Sudachi, which we purchased from Four Winds Growers in Watsonville.   Here’s hoping it thrives!

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More than Prunes

First things first: we survived the great PG&E “Public Safety Power Shutoff Event” of October 2019!  In actuality, it was really nothing more than an annoying inconvenience to be without power for a day and a half.  But, the chaos and lack of concrete information leading up to it only served to reinforce a feeling that the world is falling apart.

The warm weather is winding down and we are definitely ready for the break that comes along with shorter days and cool weather.  Though our crop of prunes stole the show this summer, we had luck with a lot of other things as well.

From mid-August through mid-September, we had reliable harvests of tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.  The cherry tomato plants are still producing, and I expect they’ll continue to do so until it freezes or we pull them out.

I feel like we made some good improvements to our tomato support system this season.  We used a combination of the “Florida weave” and bamboo stakes to support the super-tall cherry tomato plants.  IMG_2405We also had a pretty good harvest of grapes from our porch grapevine, which got turned into grape jelly.

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Cosmos continue to be our favorite flower – and the bees’ favorite, too!  They’re easy to grow, beautiful, and very prolific.  I plan to grow more varieties next year.  They are still blooming, which is good for the bees because there aren’t a lot of sources of pollen for them this time of year.

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We were lucky to be able to harvest a lot of honey from one of our bee hives.  When people find out we have bees, they always ask us about honey.  Mike’s philosophy of beekeeping is that the bees make honey for themselves, and we only take if there is clearly going to be enough left for them if we do.  So, we don’t harvest honey every year.

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Our apples and pears have also been prolific this year.  We’ve picked so many for ourselves, invited friends to pick, given them away, and there is still so much fruit left on the trees.  As with the prunes, conditions for pollination this year must have been right on.

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Now, onwards towards fall and winter.  The leaves are changing colors and the days are growing short.  The sun has moved over towards the place on our horizon where it sets in the winter months.  I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m complaining about having to go outside in the rain to collect firewood.  But, for now, I’m looking forward to the quiet of the cooler months.

Tomato Preservation for Tired (or lazy) People

For us, peak tomato season hits at the exact wrong time in late summer.  Peak tomato is usually some point in early-to-mid September, by which point we are tired.  Not to mention it’s usually too hot to have a huge pot of hot water boiling all day in the house to process them for storage.

This year, we had a very manageable harvest of tomatoes from our 5 plants – just enough for us to have as many as we wanted to eat fresh, and some to give away to friends.  Last year, our paste tomatoes were by far the least successful of the plants we grew, so we didn’t grow a paste tomato again this year.  So, what to do about processing tomatoes for winter?  Not having tomatoes in storage is no longer an option for me now that I’ve seen the light.  So, here’s what we did.

Strategy 1: We are so fortunate to have a wonderful organic farm down the hill from us in Soquel – Everett Family Farm.   So, I bought a flat of canning tomatoes from them and spent an easy morning making tomato puree to freeze.  One of our best purchases this year was a chest freezer, as it has increased our capacity to store food without having to process jars in hot water.

Making tomato puree is super easy.  First, cut the tomatoes into chunks and cook them down until the skins separate easily.  Then, pass the cooked tomatoes through the food mill.  Fill the jars and put in the freezer for future use.  Easy!

 

Strategy 2: I bought a flat of San Marzano tomatoes from our CSA, Spade & Plow.  Since we got out the dehydrator this year to dry our prunes, I decided to try drying tomatoes to see if they would come out similar to sun-dried tomatoes.  It worked really well!  We now have a quart jar of dehydrated tomatoes in the fridge, waiting to add umami goodness to our food for however long they last.

It might be too easy to declare this, but I may never preserve tomatoes any other way!

Year of the Prune

The most common thing I’ve found myself uttering over the past month or so: “so many f*ing prunes!”

We have a variety of stone fruit trees (plums, pluots, apricots) and a handful of old prune trees.  Yes – prunes and plums are…same same, but different.  This year, our apricots were sickly.  The plums and red-skinned pluot bore a moderate amount of fruit.  But, we were lazy and didn’t pick the fruit in time before it could be stolen by critters.

We had the most incredible prune crop to make up for it all.  A good crop of fruit is dependent on rain at the right times during the spring – enough to give the roots of the trees a deep watering, but at the exact right times to allow the bees to fly to pollinate, and not so hard to cause the blossoms to drop off.

This year, pollination worked.  The pictures of the harvest tell the story:

7/30: wild plums
7/30: wild plums
8/21: yellow & purple Italian prunes
8/21: Italian prunes
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8/24: sherbet-colored wild plums
8/28: yellow pluots
8/28: yellow pluots
9/1: French prunes
9/1: French prunes
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9/8: more French prunes

I have given away prunes to anyone who will take them.  I made so many varieties of preserves: wild plum chutney; yellow prune jam; yellow pluot jam; halved yellow prunes in syrup; yellow prune & wild plum jam; mixed prune jam; wild plum & pepper jelly; prune chutney; dehydrated pitted prunes.  I feel a bit like Forrest Gump and his shrimp!

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Umami Revelations

love tomato season, but have always been a bit “meh” about Caprese salad.  I never spent much time thinking about why – probably because I’m perfectly satisfied to keep myself busy stuffing my face with ripe tomatoes sprinkled with a tiny bit of sea salt.

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This week gave us our first two ripe Black Krim tomatoes.

But, I’ve had a recent revelation.  Last month, Mike and I went to a Spade & Plow + Manresa Bread farm dinner at the newish MB all day cafe in Campbell.  The standout dish was a bowl of burrata drowned in good olive oil with S&P Sungold and Atomic Fusion cherry tomatoes, some tiny fried fennel flowers and sea salt on top.  I was too busy enjoying the bowl and experiencing a mind shift to take a photo, but here’s one from S&P’s Instagram page.

As I savored the dish, I had a revelation.  What I love about perfectly ripe tomatoes is their deep umami quality.  For my palate, the balsamic vinegar that is often drizzled over a Caprese salad takes away from this.  The acid overwhelms the more subtle earthiness of the umami flavor.

My revelation is this: when I have perfectly ripe tomatoes, I am not going to overpower them with acid.  To me, their best accompaniment is a generous glug of olive oil and some coarse sea salt, or a herbed sea salt blend.  Maybe a few shreds of fresh basil if it’s available.

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This morning’s most perfect breakfast.  Our homegrown Sungolds and Sweet Millions with fresh mozzarella, olive oil, herbed sea salt & toast.

Acid has it’s time and place with tomatoes – such as if the tomatoes are part of a larger green salad, or part of a simpler salad of tomatoes, cucumber & red onion.  But for me, from here on out – if I simply want to enjoy the umami of a perfect tomato, olive oil and sea salt are all I need.

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Impatiently waiting for all of our non-cherry tomatoes to ripen.