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.

 

Not a normal, modern life.

Yesterday, we were planning to spend the afternoon sorting through kitchen cabinets – thrilling, I know.

We were in the kitchen and Mike looked out the window and saw an unusual number of bees flying around.  Mike went out and discovered that one of our hives threw out a small swarm and they were landing on a redwood branch high above the garden.

 

 

It’s unusual for bees to swarm in August.  Usually, if they’re going to swarm, they’ll do it in the late spring or earlier in the summer so they have time to build up a new hive before winter.  We don’t really know why they swarm.  Mike suspects that the hive made a new queen to go into winter, and the old queen swarmed with a small group of bees.  But, we can never know for sure.

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So, we frantically set about figuring out how to catch the swarm.  Our friend, Summer, was here with some of his tree-pruning tools.  We thought we might be able to lower the branch down low enough to shake the swarm into a box.

img_2053But, the branch was too high and we didn’t think we could bend it down far enough without risking it snapping.

So, we didn’t know what to do.  All of our deliberating right underneath where the swarm was trying to congregate agitated it and it flew away.  We thought we lost the swarm, which was sad. But, on the flip side, it was a very small cluster of bees that we would have had to feed constantly to get it built up and through the winter.  We were kind of resigned to letting it fly off to it’s own fate.

But then, I was putting things away in the shed and heard very loud buzzing.  I looked around and discovered the swarm had landed on a different tree, down lower where we could more easily try to catch it.  I ran to find Mike and the ladder and we re-grouped.  We set up a box to collect them and Mike tried to scoop the bees into the box with his hands.  He was on a ladder and I was holding the box above my head – this is why there are no pictures of our swarm-catching adventure!  That wasn’t working and the bees kept trying to fly back to their swarm cluster on the branch.  We put the box on the ground and Mike sawed off the branch that the bees collected on.  Having the bees and the box on the ground made it easier for us to get the majority of the cluster in the box.

We left the branch with the bees on the ground in front of the box so the stragglers could make their way back into the cluster.

 

After sunset, when all of the bees that were going to go into the box had gone in, we sealed it up so we could move it to the bee garden.  We left it sealed up until morning because they were likely agitated after we moved the box and we didn’t want them flying out after sunset.  Not to mention, we didn’t want to be stung by a swarm of agitated bees!

Early this morning, Mike checked them and found the small cluster inside of the box.  He opened up the box and we put the branch that they landed on outside of the hive entrance to hopefully encourage the stragglers to go in.  Now, we’ll leave them alone and wait and see what happens.  Mike thinks we’re this swarm’s best shot of going through the winter because we’ll feed it after all of the bee forage is gone for the year.

Whew.  We certainly didn’t expect to spend our afternoon chasing after a swarm of bees.  We drove down to Capitola for a beer and dinner at Discretion.  We looked at each other and laughed about how we don’t have a normal, modern life.  Most of the time, I’m totally OK with that and enjoy the adventures of living in a funky old house in such an amazing place.  But, I do sometimes dream about living in a hermetically-sealed condo.

In other news, tiny tree frogs have been invading our bathroom for the past few weeks.  We don’t know how they’re getting in, but we suspect they’re somehow getting in through the plumbing.  We catch them and put them back outside.  Mike says we should start marking them to see exactly how many different frogs are coming in.  img_2029

The garden continues to grow.  It’s a much more well-controlled jungle this year.  We’re getting a small, steady harvest of cherry tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.

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There are a lot of green tomatoes on the vines.  Fingers crossed we have so many tomatoes we don’t know what to do with them come the end of the month.

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Improv

This year, I’m using the knowledge I gained from the lessons I learned from last year’s garden.  Instead of wire cages, I decided to use the Florida weave method of trellising the tomatoes.  However, the t-posts we had when I set up the trellis weren’t tall enough to support the tomatoes as they began to grow upwards.  So, I improvised by supplementing the trellis with some taller bamboo stakes, to which I tied branches of the plants to keep them upright.  Time will tell, but I think that this improvised system is going to work really well for giving the tomato plants the support they need.

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This morning, I found one ripe cucumber!

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One of the most foolish things we can do is see nearly-ripe stone fruit and say “we’ll pick that tomorrow,” and then say it again the next day.  By the time we think it should be picked tomorrow, it’s already too late.  I went out to pick the pluots a few mornings ago and found that they had been eaten, probably by squirrels.  The worst thing is that they don’t always even eat the entire fruit!

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To end on a positive note, I forgot that I planted this clarkia, and then found it blooming a few weeks ago.  I’m always pleasantly surprised when flowers bloom here – so many things we’ve planted have withered without regular water in the summer.

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Right on Time

Last year at this time, I was probably freaking out that the tomato plants weren’t yet setting fruit.  I learned to expect ripe tomatoes at 1,700 feet in August, not July.

With that knowledge in mind, everything seems like it’s right on time here at the end of June.  We’ve got baby tomatoes, squash & cucumbers!

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And ever-trusty cosmos.

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Echeverias in the greenhouse keep on blooming!

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And, it looks like we’ll have a decent crop of apples and pears this fall.

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Now, on to July!