Building a Garden

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.

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The view, March 2016. Mike’s land ends just beyond the fluffy redwood tree in the center. The neighboring land is a pear orchard.

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.  

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Before: a jungle of invasive crap.

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…

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Existing beds, post-clearance. The soil is actually quite nice.

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).     

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Cleared and leveled space, with the frame for the upper bed

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.

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!).   

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.

Why Redwood Chapel?

Here we are.  Redwood Chapel Homestead.  It sounds so official. Yet, it’s just a simple, small house on 5 beautiful acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.  By day, we’re a social justice lawyer and a software-writing wizard.  We dream of unplugging, slowing down, and having time to do ALL of the projects.  But, for now, we really only have the weekends – which I guess makes us part-time homesteaders.

So, why Redwood Chapel?

  • The original structure on the property was a chapel for redwood cutters in the early 1900s.  Original-growth redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains contributed heavily to re-building San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.  That original structure is now the living room of the house, which retains its original redwood paneling and brick fireplace.
  • The redwood grove behind the house is like a chapel made by mother nature.
  • A chapel is a place of worship.  We find a higher power in physical work, in nature, in the dirt, in the changing seasons, in the transformation of flowers into fruit, and fruit into preserves, in the flight of bees, and in the songs of the birds.  

This will be my third summer with Mike.  Our third summer of more fruit than any two people can really know what to do with.  My second summer of being his apprentice beekeeper.  Our first summer to finally clear a fenced-in space to grow tomatoes.  It’s time to start keeping an actual record of what we learn, build, grow, harvest, preserve & give away.  To note what happens when.  To remember what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s to hands in the dirt and connecting to the timeless rhythms of the Earth.