Last weekend, we stopped at some friends’ house to pick up a bag of Meyer lemons from their tree. One of them mentioned that we hadn’t posted any updates recently. Mike and I looked at each other and shrugged. Mike said, “we’re just here.”
That’s it, really. We’re just here, alternating between doing our jobs and puttering around outside. The line between home life and work life has blurred, which has been a welcome change of pace after years of spending so much time driving around.
While I do miss a lot of things about being in an office with colleagues, I have never before had the time to go outside and observe the natural world on a daily basis. Now, I know that when California poppies are in bloom, bumblebees bumble from flower to flower. I noticed that newly-sprouted grape leaves have a shimmery sheen to them. I met our resident mole, which skims along the surface of the ground, almost as it is swimming through the dirt.
I have seen a multitude of other pollinators co-existing with us, grateful for the plants we grow with an eye towards sustaining them.
We grew garlic…
…and snow peas.
The real treat of the spring were these beautiful sweet peas. We weren’t sure whether we had the right conditions for them, so the fact that they thrived was a wonderful surprise.
Now, our tomatoes are planted and I’m eagerly spying baby fruits. Though summer is officially here, we probably have about six more weeks to wait for edible tomatoes. It’s the most impatient time of the year!
Ever the trickster, 2020 has unveiled surprise after surprise after surprise. Most of them have been objectively unpleasant.
However, one unexpected delightful surprise has been how spectacular our fall color has been this year in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Also, Mike has been trying to grow olives here for years. Olives are tricky – for pollination to happen, you have to have the right combination of trees to pollinate each other. This year, we had pollination success and Mike couldn’t be happier!
And lastly, I caught these two old cats snuggling a few weeks ago.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve traveled more than 20 miles from our house since March. We’ve been nervous about traveling; every possible trip seemed to carry risks we weren’t willing to take. But, we needed a break from being at home. Not only are we working from home, but being at home is also a lot of work because of the never-ending projects inherent to living here.
Somehow, after 20+ years in California, Mike had never been to Yosemite. A few weeks ago, we decided that this would be our escape. Given the weather is turning towards winter, we figured the crowds would be less. We found a nice, clean rental near Mariposa that met our requirements for cleanliness. Everything was great. Though the park was more crowded than I expected it might be, we were pleasantly surprised by how respectful people were with wearing masks and keeping good distance from others in more crowded areas.
Mike was amazed. We just missed Glacier Point and Tioga Road, which closed for the season when the first snow fell a few days before our trip. We’re already talking about going back when these higher-elevation areas are open.
I’m not going to lie – August and September were extraordinarily challenging months. The garden continued to be an essential place of respite from the oppressive heat, freak lightning, a 3.5-day power outage, nearby huge fires, friends’ homes burning down, worrying about our home burning down, interpersonal stress about all of these things, frustrated attempts to continue working normally amidst all of this with no office to escape to, and a non-stop news cycle bearing nothing but doom and gloom and chaos and confusion and rage and seemingly unanswerable questions about the state of the world.
I’m going to pass on recounting the extreme stress that we experienced during the first few weeks of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The fires burned through areas we know well, parts of our Santa Cruz Mountains home. My heart hurts for the hundreds of households who lost their homes to the fires, not to mention the land and the creatures whose worlds have also been upended.
At this point, our summer garden has come and gone. The major success of this year’s garden was our non-stop crop of cucumbers. Last year, our one cucumber plant produced a mediocre harvest. I tripled down this year with three plants. I got so many more cucumbers than I bargained for–way too many for a household of two, one of whom doesn’t really like cucumbers!
Given all that is going on in the world, a post about our mostly-idyllic mountain life has seemed wholly trivial.
It’s hard to believe we’re four months into the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to feel infinitely lucky to be in this space at this time.
The seasons spin on. Mid-summer is here, and the garden has come alive.
For the first time in a handful of years, we had a good crop of apricots. Apricots are tricky here. They flower in February, when it is usually very, very wet. This year, we had an optimally dry February that allowed for good apricot pollination. To me, apricots taste like summer. They are such a delicious treat, made even more special by the relative rarity of having a successful crop here.
We got a big piece of Monterey Bay king salmon from H&H Fish Market in Santa Cruz, and used our smoker for the first time. It was delicious!
We’re growing Zeolights calendula for the first time, and it is so beautiful. Almost glowing.
We have been eagerly watching our artichoke in anticipation of its bloom. I started it from seed about a year ago, never really having an intention of eating it. I’m much more interested in the spectacular florescent purple flowers.
We’re experimenting with growing honey nut squash (small butternuts) and cucumbers on trellises. The plants are happy, and they take up less room this way.
We’re also growing a Tokyo Blue Squash plant, which is a Japanese pumpkin. ONE PLANT. It has wrapped its way all the way around this 4’x’4′ bed, has an arm growing up the reed fence in front, and one growing along the back fence, almost halfway down the fence line. Every day, it puts on more growth. I wonder how big it will get by the time everything is all said and done. It’s amazing to think about this having grown from one small seed.
We’re growing potatoes for the first time. It’s interesting to see how their flowers are similar to tomato flowers – they’re both in the nightshade family.
We and the bees are loving these Lemon Queen sunflowers.
This patch of wild Queen Anne’s Lace appeared after we broke up some compacted soil.
I also can’t get over the brilliant hues of these strawflowers.
I started this post in February 2019 – I don’t know why I never finished it. Seems apropos to post it now, seems how we bid farewell to this old greenhouse as part of an emergency septic system replacement at the end of May. We have a new Climapod, ready to assemble. While it will be bigger and more air/water tight than the old glass one, it won’t have nearly as much charm.
I love greenhouse work. As a volunteer in the early days of Veggielution, I became de-facto greenhouse manager for a short time. There, I learned the magic of starting plants from seed. I came to understand how each seed is a meditation on life and perseverance – all of the energy that a plant needs to grow starts with the power stored in a tiny seed. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it. Greenhouse work is detailed, quiet, mindful work. For a person with an anxious mind, this is the best kind of therapeutic work because it asks for complete presence in the moment.
How lucky for me that Mike’s house came with a greenhouse!
It’s a rickety, old, glass structure that has been on the property for who-knows-how-long. It was probably put up by long-time former owner, Mrs. Disher, who was reportedly an avid gardener. There are missing panels that we keep meaning to fix with the plastic paneling that is leaned up against the side, but other projects keep getting prioritized. It’s not impervious to all plant predators. I patched up the areas with missing panels with fencing to keep birds from flying in and eating seedlings. In the fall, a wood rat got in and used the plants as a personal salad bar. Generally, it seems like it is one earthquake away from falling down.
In the winter, it doesn’t really stay very warm and/or dry.
We dream of building a bigger, geodesic greenhouse in which we could maybe grow citrus! But for now, this is the greenhouse we have, and I love it.
Originally, I was going to entitle this post “Pollinator Party.” We’ve had some success with figuring out how to grow more flowers to increase our pollinator population. This year, we have seen more different types of pollinators on our flowers than ever before. I feel like we’re creating a haven for small creatures here, and watching these tiny life forms flourish has given us both a lot of joy.
But, then I realized that tomorrow is Mother’s Day. All of these flowers are my virtual mother’s day bouquet for all the moms. My mom, my grandmothers (one of whom is still with us at 90 years old). All of my friends who are moms of young kids, who are holding their families together in this extremely trying time. People who long to be moms, but whose life circumstances haven’t taken them down that path. I salute you.
California natives: blue flax, tidy tips, lupine, red & yellow monkeyflower, a variety of California poppies, and phacelia viscida.
Giant bumble napping on a daffodil.
Scarlet pimpernel – it’s considered a weed, but I love it’s tiny pink flowers.
There are a lot of iris plants randomly scattered on this property, all of which pre-existed Mike. They don’t bloom regularly. This year, we have more of them blooming than Mike’s ever seen before. They are stunning.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had plans to increase our gardening space this year. Each of the last two years, we’ve added new raised, fenced beds on the side of the property that gets warm afternoon sun. This year, we wanted to make more space to grow things that can’t take hot afternoons, so we decided to create a fenced space on the side of the house that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.
Here’s a “before” shot of the space.
We started with a delivery of 5 cubic yards of “excellent blend” and composted chicken and mixed horse/cow manures from Aptos Landscape Supply.
Over the course of a month, we turned the blank slate into a beautiful, functional space. We pulled the oxalis and other weeds, fenced the area, and made pathways out of wood chips and sandstone. You’ll notice that we scorched the outside of the raised beds, which we constructed from douglas fir. This is a Japanese method called shou sugi ban, which makes the wood more waterproof, and also protects against insect damage. We decided to try this instead of building the beds out of more durable, but more expensive, redwood.
I’m excited to have a dedicated shady space to grow greens. They’re enclosed in wire to prevent birds from snacking on them.
We’re growing peas as well, also protected from hungry little birds.
Bush beans, in different states of emergence.
We’re hardening off our tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers before we plant them in our sunny-side beds. Nighttime temperatures have not been reliably warmer than 50 degrees, so we’re watching the forecast and waiting patiently for optimal planting conditions.
I wish you could have smell-o-vision to smell our lilac.
Finally, the succulents in the greenhouse are showing a lot of color right now. Here are some of my favorites.
Given our new public health orders, we’ll be home until at least the end of May. Again, I have nothing but gratitude to be in this place, where we have lots of space and so many ways to pass the time.
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.
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.
We let our mizuna (Japanese mustard) bolt, and the bees absolutely love the happy yellow flowers.
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?
For the first time, I noticed Red Maids, a native wildflower, growing in a corner of our orchard.
Our first poppies are blooming, coming back from seeds that were dropped last year.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.