Fall: An Epilogue

Perhaps this post should be entitled “An Ode to the Japanese Maple.”

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We are graced by some magnificent old trees, including this wondrous Japanese Maple, which has dazzled me ever since I first got to know it two falls ago.

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With this past weekend’s storm, most of the fall leaves are gone from the trees, which is a sure sign that Mother Nature is ready to usher in winter.

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Pear orchard across the road.
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Nearly naked walnut tree.
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Big Leaf Maple leaves carpet the ground.

Masters of D.I.Y. (with a lot of help from our friends!)

It’s not all sunshine and tomatoes all the time up on the homestead…

Here’s a peek at most of the projects that Mike and I have undertaken over the past six months. We are becoming pretty handy and make a good team 99.5% of the time  The other 0.5% accounts for me not accurately following directions – or maybe, Mike not giving clear enough directions.  Probably some of both.  Despite Mike’s constant concern about me not paying enough attention to what I’m doing, we have managed to avoid any grievous bodily injury in the process!

Pathway Maintenance

One side and the back of the house are paved with small gravel pebbles.  Over time, the pebbles drift out of the pathways and get moved around, creating muddy spots.  Over the past few months, we have made several trips to Granite Rock in Santa Cruz to fill our buckets to recharge the pathways.  Did you know you can get a HALF TON of gravel for only $15?  I am tickled by this.  We have spent so much money on projects over the past six months that this feels like such a good value!

We also created a pathway in between the house and the garage.  We’re finishing the garage to make a work space for Mike, so we want to try to avoid tracking muddy feet in there.

At Granite Rock, we bought this pallet of Arizona sandstone:img_9846

Before:

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During:

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After!  Thanks to our friend, Summer, for helping with this project.

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Asphalt Repair

An asphalt guy wanted to charge Mike thousands of dollars to fill the cracks in the driveway.  We didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on this project, so we did it ourselves!

We want to protect our investment of finishing the garage by making sure it is adequately weather-proofed.  So, Mike and our friend, Courtney, caulked every crevice on the outside of the structure.

Courtney also helped us paint our new shed.  Her two affenpinschers, Yoda and Mimi, supervised.

Kindling & Wood Stacking

Making kindling is a yearly affair.  But, Mike does it himself – so it seemed apropos to include it here.

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Same for stacking the firewood.  I do the manual labor of moving the wood.  Mike does the “skilled” labor of stacking it so it doesn’t fall over.

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Stump Removal 

Our friend, Summer, gets credit for this one – but, I thought it was worth sharing to illustrate the joys of mountain living.  There was an old-growth redwood stump in the back that wood rats moved in to and created a nest.  It had to go.

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Our friend, Summer.  It is safe to say that there is no way Mike and I could maintain the property on our own without his help.  He helps with everything from pruning the fruit trees to fire clearance to raking up all of the redwood debris that falls from the trees this time of year.  He is also a marvelously talented musician and a true gem of a human.  We are so lucky to have his help.  Photo by Mike.

Wood rats also made a nest in the shed that houses the water softener and water pressure pump.  We’ve had a big problem with wood rats this year.  Not only is it kind of gross to have them around, they have also eaten some of my plants, including seedlings and succulents in the greenhouse!  The greenhouse is very old and not sealed up very well, so they can wiggle their way in through open crevices – Mike caught one in the rat zapper, and we haven’t had a problem in there since!  They also make a mess by pulling the small wild plums off of the trees, eating part of them, and then leaving the pits all over the place.  Gross.

New Propane Tank & Gas Line Repair

Again, not a strictly D.I.Y. project, but we got a new, bigger propane tank installed so that we can have enough propane to power the gas in both the house and the garage.

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photo by Mike

The gas line to the house also needed some repairing.  To dig down to it, Mike got enlisted to help the propane guy with digging this trench.  FYI – this ground is very, very hard and has deep roots running through it, so I can’t imagine this was a pleasant task!  The propane guy said that Mike could have a new career in working for him…

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photo by Mike

Garage Remodel

Last but not least, our big project of the year – the garage.  We are creating more room inside the house by finishing the garage to become Mike’s office and multi-purpose space.

At the end of June, we moved everything out of the garage and in to a shipping container.

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Builders extraordinaire Kyrod and Jynelle, with the help of Kyrod’s friend, Jordan (and some sheet rocking guys), have worked magic on the space.

Video taken on November 3:

As of today, the floor is a work in progress.  Mike and Kyrod’s friend, Jordan, are “floating” the floor and insulating it – the cement gets really cold!  Once the framing and insulation is in, Mike will put particle board down on top.  His plan is to let the particle board settle (it might have some residual dampness) and then install bamboo tiles on top of it after a few months.

img_0254To be continued… hopefully after a restful winter during which we have time to enjoy our weekends.  🙂

Homestead, Fall Edition

November is my second-favorite month, next to the month of peak spring that spans the end of March and beginning of April.  What I love about November is how everything begins to get quiet and the natural world seems to take a deep breath with a long exhale before settling in for winter.

This year, the quiet settling of November has a different meaning because of the hard physical work Mike and I have been doing on the property over the last six months.  This past weekend, we finished up all of our major outdoor projects, which feels like a relief.  We’re closing in finishing the garage remodel.  Needless to say, we’re ready for a relaxing winter.

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End-of-October tomato beds.
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The last of the tomatoes with dahlias from Post Street Farm in Santa Cruz.
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The last of our greenhouse basil.
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Future flowers.
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Tulip & Daffodil bulbs, ready to be tucked in.

I successfully started romanesco, arugula, and Chinese cabbage in the greenhouse.  Wood rats ate the chard & the perpetual spinach seedlings, so I direct seeded some and covered the bed with fencing to protect the seeds from getting scooped up by birds.  We’ll see if they germinate.

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In a year when our stone fruit, apple, and pear trees didn’t produce their usual bounty, the Fuyu persimmon tree gave us more fruit than ever before.

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This coyote bush has gone to seed, producing a breakfast buffet of seeds for our resident birds.
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Searching for a place to make a cocoon and metamorphosize.
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What fall looks like on the floor of a redwood grove…don’t worry, we raked it.
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We put up lights to make the dark nights brighter.

Unexpected Grape Jelly

Mike has a grape vine in the front of the house.  For the past few years, the grape harvest has been negligible, so I haven’t come to expect grapes.  But, this year, we got enough grapes to do something with.  But, what?  Make grape jelly, of course!

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Mike can’t remember what type of grapes they are.  They are small, dark purple, and the seed-to-fruit ratio is high.  Their flavor is ultra-grapey and sweet.
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A respectable harvest!
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First, rinse the grapes and take them off of the vines. It doesn’t really matter that there are still bits of stem attached to the grapes because everything will eventually get put through the food mill.
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Simmer the grapes until they release a lot of juice.
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Then, put the mixture from the pan through the food mill. This separates the juice & pulp from the skin, seeds, and bits of stem. I think I used the smallest grate, as the seeds are small and I didn’t want them passing through.
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I wound up with 4 cups of juice/pulp to make the jelly. This is really the perfect amount of any fruit for a small batch. I have found that the easiest, quickest way to make any kind of jam (and now, jelly!) is to use Pomona’s Pectin and follow the instructions on the package insert. I put the juice back in to the pan with sugar & the pectin, brought it to a boil, and turned it off before ladleing it into the jars and processing them in boiling water.
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The finished product – about 2 pints of grape jelly.

When presented with options for jelly or jam, grape has never been my choice.  There is always something unnatural about the way that grape products (other than wine!) taste to me.  But, I can safely say that this jelly is so delicious.  The flavor is intensely, honestly grapey.  I now understand where the description “jammy” as applied to wine comes from.  I wish I would have videoed Mike while he was tasting the jam, as his reaction was the most earnest and delighted “YUM” I’ve ever heard him utter.

I always say that the fact that any preserved foods I make are good is not because of me, but rather because of the quality of the raw materials.  I’m learning that, in most cases, simple preparations without a lot of added flavors are best.

Expect Tomatoes in August

Here’s a note for my future self: expect tomatoes in August, not July.

In July, I was ready to throw in the towel on my tomato farming endeavors.  The few fruits were green and not ripening very fast.  The plants grew into a jungly mess and I had to prune off long straggly branches and haphazardly stake them to prevent them from collapsing.  We had blossom end rot on several plants.

But, come August, things turned around.  We got the blossom end rot under control by adding lime to the soil.  Nature did her trick, and once the days became reliably warm, we magically started to have ripe tomatoes.

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For having 9 plants, we have not been overwhelmed by tomatoes.  We didn’t prune our plants when they were small.  According to some wisdom, this makes the plants concentrate on growing foliage, not fruit.  On the other hand, I know some people who have never pruned their tomato plants, and they are overloaded with fruit.  Next year, I think I’ll try pruning the plants when they are young to see if it makes a difference in the yield of fruit.

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And finally, an update on Mike’s giant Tahitian squash.  You may remember that I pruned it back after the plant started to trail and strangle the tomato plants in the same bed.  This made the plant very unhappy.  But!  Despite the savagery I unleashed on the squash to save the tomatoes, we still ended up with two giant squash.  Mike is very happy with his twins.

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A Prune is Not Always a Dried Plum…

Until two years ago, I thought that a prune was just a dried plum.

My mind was blown two summers ago when Mike started talking about his prune trees and his plum trees.  Brace yourself for some history and plant nerdery – I’ll explain the difference!  Unless otherwise cited, all information comes from here.

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Prunus Domestica (European-origin plums)
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Prunus Salicina (Asian-origin plums)

When we talk about prune trees and plum trees, we’re talking about related plants that came to California from different parts of the world.  What we know as prune trees evolved from prunus domestica, which were brought to California by European settlers.  In the 1850s, French horticulturalists Louis and Pierre Pellier brought what is now known as the “French prune” trees to California, first selling them from their nursery in San Jose.  Prune production in the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s contributed to it being coined the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

Source: Cooper-Garrod Vineyard
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Source: SJSU Archives

 

Prunes have a higher sugar content than what we know know as “plums,” which allows them to dry without fermenting around the pit.   Since Californian prune production has declined in the last half-century, I believe that what are sold now as “pitted prunes” are mainly dried plums, as they don’t contain the pits.

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Asian “plum” and European “prune”

What we know as plums are derivatives of prunus salicina, and were brought to California from Japan in the 1870s.  Luther Burbank bred and introduced many of the most popular cultivars that we enjoy today, most notably the Santa Rosa Plum.

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Source: Luther Burbank Home and Gardens
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We’ve got wild plums, too!

The plant genus prunus contains plums, peaches, cherries and…almonds!  “Prune” comes from the Latin prunus.  French-speaking friends (and Google Translate) told us that “prune” is French for “plum.”  Going further down the rabbit hole, the word “plum” comes from the Old English plume.  So, just like we have completely different names for the same things in modern language, the words “prune” and “plum” derived from Latin and Old English and are labels for the same genus of fruit.

I recently listened to the most recent episode of the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast, in which senior teacher Richard Freeman talks about how the human tendency towards labeling things can create confusion.  In the context of that conversation, he was talking about different names for the same yoga posture.  The same applies here to plums and prunes – they are simply different names for essentially the same thing.

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The pits and the flesh of the plums and prunes are quite different.

I love the old prune trees that were likely planted on Mike’s land during the heyday of prune production in Santa Clara County.  Though we’re up out of the valley, they remind me that we live in a place that was once dominated by agriculture, not technology.  This land is a respite from the daily chaos that greets me down in the 21st century world.  These old trees are a reminder that, though much changes over time, nature does her best to endure.

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Mixed prune & plum jam.

The buzz on the bees…

Though this year has been loaded with all sorts of new projects, we haven’t forgotten about the bees.  Here’s a glimpse into what’s going on right now in our bee yard.  We are hosting a lot of bees!

Winter Survival & Spring Beginnings

We started and ended the winter with two hives of bees.  This was quite a success, as we had all sorts of problems last year.  During winter, survival of a hive depends upon the bees having enough stored honey to eat, as they seal up the hive and don’t fly to collect pollen and nectar when it is cold (plus, there is not really much pollen and nectar to collect during the winter months).  Through the winter, we also feed the bees with sugar syrup.  Additionally, there need to be enough bees in the hive to keep warm in their cluster.  So much can go wrong in winter.

Our post-winter hives were overloaded with bees, so Mike decided to split them.  Splitting hives consists of creating new colonies by taking frames of brood, honey, and comb and putting them into new boxes with a new queen.  The goal of splitting was to hopefully avoid a swarm, in which we may have lost half or more of our bees (last year, we had a hive swarm multiple times in a row, until we eventually found the boxes empty).

We drove to Vacaville one Saturday morning in April to pick up our new queens from Honeybee Genetics, as well as three packages of bees to start two new hives for Mike’s friend, Brett, and to start a colony in the experimental Layens Hive that Mike built to test out this year.

Package of bees.

Home and commercial beekeepers generally use Langstroth hives.  As I understand it, this type of hive box was developed in order to allow humans to easily manipulate the bees, move frames around, and harvest honey.  There are vertical frames inside of the boxes, and bees use these frames to build their comb – where they lay their eggs and store their honey.  This is not necessarily the most bee-friendly way of keeping bees.

Commonly-used Langstroth hives.

Experimenting with the Layens Hive

Being interested in learning more natural styles of beekeeping, Mike decided to explore other hive designs that would more closely mimic a colony’s natural home.  Wild hives of bees don’t live in boxes.  Instead, they build nests in tree trunks and other enclosed natural spaces.  After researching options, Mike decided to build a Layens hive.

Exterior of the Layens hive. Mike built it!

Unlike the Langstroth hives, where the nest is broken up into multiple levels, the Layens hive allows a colony to build its nest in one open space, similar to what the bees would do in the wild.

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Inside the Layens hive.

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Mysterious Queen Cells 

During our inspection of the Layens Hive, we found that the bees had created two queen cells near the bottom of one of the frames.

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Queen cell.

There are two general reasons why the bees would want to create a new queen: (1) they are preparing to swarm, and need a new queen to take with them; or (2) they want to “supersede” the current queen, who may not be doing her job of laying enough eggs to ensure survival of the colony (no pressure!).  Swarms generally happen in the spring, so Mike thinks that these cells may be supersedure cells.  Time will tell…

Bee Behavior

On an ending note, here are some examples of other bee behavior:

Bearding: On a warm day, it’s not unusual to see bees cooling down by “bearding” on the outside of a hive box.

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Burr Comb:  Generally, bees build very organized comb inside of their boxes, in straight vertical lines from the top of the frame.  Sometimes, they rebel (or, act according to their natural tendencies…) and build freestyle “burr comb.”  This is fine for the bees, but annoying for the beekeeper – maybe they are trying to tell us that they don’t want us messing around with them?

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