Four months in, still mostly at home.

Given all that is going on in the world, a post about our mostly-idyllic mountain life has seemed wholly trivial.

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Art by Rosanna Morris.

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.

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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!

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We’re growing Zeolights calendula for the first time, and it is so beautiful.  Almost glowing.

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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.

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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.

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This patch of wild Queen Anne’s Lace appeared after we broke up some compacted soil.

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I also can’t get over the brilliant hues of these strawflowers.

Last but not least, tomatoes are on their way…

Ode to our Vintage Greenhouse

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!

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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.

A Virtual Mother’s Day Bouquet

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.

Rock Rose

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Giant bumble napping on a daffodil.

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Anemone

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Scarlet pimpernel – it’s considered a weed, but I love it’s tiny pink flowers.

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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.

Scenes from Shelter in Place, Part 3: More Room to Grow

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.

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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.

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I’m excited to have a dedicated shady space to grow greens.  They’re enclosed in wire to prevent birds from snacking on them.

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We’re growing peas as well, also protected from hungry little birds.

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Strawberries, too!

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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.

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I wish you could have smell-o-vision to smell our lilac.

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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.

 

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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