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.

DSCF1859

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.

img_2032

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.

img_2043

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.

DSCF1823DSCF1822DSCF1826

This morning, I found one ripe cucumber!

DSCF1821

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!

DSCF1836

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.

DSCF1829

 

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!

DSCF1654DSCF1650DSCF1660

And ever-trusty cosmos.

DSCF1662

Echeverias in the greenhouse keep on blooming!

DSCF1636DSCF1643

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

DSCF1670DSCF1668

Now, on to July!

Ready, Set, Summer!

A running theme of this blog seems to be: “Wow, I can’t believe it’s already XYZ time of year!”  But, that’s exactly how I am always feeling.  We’re now less than a week away from the summer solstice.  It was a quick transition from a cold, rainy May to a pretty brutal heat wave in the first few days of June.  Here’s a peek of what we’ve been up to over the past month or so as we have prepared for our summer garden.

I planted carrot seeds back in December.  This was when I was still in my idealistic “I’m going to grow food year-round!” phase…before the cold, wet winter set in and the last thing I wanted to do was go outside and thin the carrots.  Well, the result was a bunch of carrots that didn’t really grow because the seeds were too close to each other.  We wound up with a few short, stubby, perfectly edible ones.  I’ll probably continue to leave my carrot supply to the professionals…

 

We planted our “summer crops” – tomatoes & squash – on May 26.  This might seem late, but we had to wait until the cold weather was safely out of the forecast.  In an exercise of restraint, we planted 5 tomato plants: Japanese Black Trifele, Sungold, Sweet Millions, Black Krim & Hawaiian Pineapple.  As we did last year, we got our plants from Love Apple Farms.  JBT & Sungold were our best performers last year, so we’re hoping for repeat luck with those plants.

DSCF1608DSCF1615    6-11-2019, Day 15

I started squash & cucumber seeds from Row 7 Seed Company.  Mike and I first learned about them at a Spade & Plow farm dinner last summer, where we were served the most delicious squash, a hybrid between a butternut and Japanese pumpkin.  From Row 7’s website: “We are a seed company grounded in the notion that deliciousness might just change the world. A seed company built by chefs and breeders striving to make ingredients taste better before they ever hit a plate.”  SOLD.

img_1646

To create irrigated, fenced space dedicated to growing flowers, we put in three new raised beds.  Our friend, Summer, helped us build them and we’re now on our way towards hopefully having a flower garden.  I say “hopefully” because some insect ate all of my zinnia seedlings, and the garden’s success now lies largely in the germination of other types of seeds.  Always learning…

 

On a final note, we’ve had some new additions to our usual range of animal life around here.  A cottontail rabbit has been hanging around, and we’ve named it Bun Bun.  It seems pretty friendly, so something tells us it’s not too long for this world.  On occasion, we also find scorpions in the house or in the yard.  I found this one while I was moving around some piled-up sandstone pavers, and it stayed still long enough for me to get a good photo before it slinked back into a dark crevice.  From top of head to end of tail, it’s probably no more than an inch and a half long.

 

Here’s to a fruitful summer!

IMG_1641
Hot nights make for gorgeous sunsets.

 

In Bloom

It’s been a cold and wet spring here on the mountain, but our flowers have brightened the days.  I’ve been on a mission to increase the blooming plant life around here.  That’s not an easy task because deer eat things they’re not supposed to and little birds eat things they are supposed to (ex: California quail eat California poppy seed pods – go figure!).  Plus, we don’t have good irrigation infrastructure for the dry months.

Nonetheless, I keep at it and am learning to pay attention to what works well: bulbs that flower in the early spring before the deer get hungry; heavily fragrant salvias; proteas & other similar Australian plants.  And of course we’re surrounded on all sides by the most magical fruit trees.  This year, we’re adding three new small, fenced garden beds that we will irrigate and allow us to expand our selection of summer flowers.  This prospect makes us and the bees happy.

These are some photos of what’s been blooming around here over the last few months.  I’ve been especially delighted by all of the intricate blooms on our succulents in the greenhouse.

 

 

 

 

DSCF1573

 

DSCF1313

 

img_1308

The Brilliance of Spring

Somehow, we find ourselves at the end of March.  Spring always seems so fleeting.  We wait through the rainy winter, she teases us with a few blue sky days before raining again, and then it’s brilliant and bright and green for a few weeks before the grass starts to turn towards the golden hue of summer.

The magnolia tree burst into full bloom, as she always does during the sunny days that inevitably come during the first weeks of March.

Of course, the stone fruit trees came into full bloom during the rainy days sandwiched in between the bright sunny days.  This makes us worry about our stone fruit pollination: Did the rain prevent the bees from flying to pollinate the flowers?  Did the rain knock off the blossoms?  Will we get more rain that knocks off the tiny fruit before it can fully set?  Time will tell…

We had a quiet winter, which seems to have passed by all too quickly.  With each year on the mountain, I’m learning that precious downtime – weeks and months when there’s not a lot of work to do, or can’t be done due to rain – comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

During our winter “downtime,” I enjoyed tending our growing succulent collection.  I never really thought I’d be a succulent collector.  But, now that I have a place to put them, I find them somewhat irresistible.

I also learned that I am not a winter gardener.  I have this idea of myself becoming a small-scale hobby farmer, growing food year-round.  To this end, I planted a winter garden of brassicas, carrots & onions.  As the days grew dark, cold, and wet, I couldn’t be bothered to trudge out to the garden beds to tend them.  And, even though we have had a lot of rain this winter, it hasn’t always been consistent enough to water a vegetable garden without some supplemental irrigation.  So, my winter garden went largely ignored and has become overrun with weeds and my nemesis, oxalis.  Somehow, one head of Chinese cabbage managed to thrive.  For the foreseeable future, I think I’ll stick to summer gardening and leave my winter vegetable supply to people hardier than me.

I’ve been increasing our variety of bulbs, which has led to the joy of cheerful flowers blooming from the end of January onward.  If you’re into bulbs, check out Floret, a flower farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley.  In the fall, I ordered and planted some of their anemones and daffodils, and they are turning out to be just spectacular.  I’ll definitely order from them again this fall to fill in our empty spaces.

Speaking of flowers, our original plan for this spring was to build some more fenced & irrigated garden beds and fill them with flowers to bloom all throughout the summer.  Then, Mike had shoulder surgery, which has put him out of commission for building projects.  Nevertheless, I tried my hand at starting a bunch of flower seeds in the greenhouse.  I’ve had the most luck with a variety of cosmos, which are our – and the bees’ – favorite.

DSCF1259

I’m truly loving using these self-watering seed pots from Orta.  They really take the guess work out of watering seedlings.  And, they are good for lazy winter gardeners like me who don’t especially like going out in the cold and rain to water the seedlings!

DSCF1256

I sowed a bunch of other seeds a few weeks ago.  But, a tiny mouse decided to come and dig for a seed buffet a few days after I sowed them; we (sadly) zapped the mouse and vowed to get a better greenhouse that can actually be sealed up and mostly animal-proofed.  Since then, the zapper has caught two more tiny mice!  I really hate zapping the mice…but, I guess it’s part of rural living.

We unfortunately lost 2 hives of bees over the winter.  One was the Layens hive that Mike built last year.  We think that the space was too big and the cluster was too small for them to stay warm.  The other one is a mystery – Did they starve? Did they have a weak queen?  We’re left with 2 boxes of comb/wax and 3 hives of bees.  Crossing our fingers that the bees don’t swarm.

DSCF1234

Last but not least, we finished the garage!  Mike has moved into it and is working in there, and I’ve moved into the house with my cats, Penny & Jack.  We are all adjusting well and looking forward to this next stage of our adventure together.

 

The Cost of Food

This isn’t about the homestead per se, but is related because my values about food are directly related to my desire to be more self-sufficient.

It’s no secret that I am a fervent supporter of local, small-scale food producers.  I am tremendously lucky to be privileged enough to follow my values and prioritize buying food that has a smaller travel footprint, but may come with a higher out-of-pocket cost.

Recently, Mike and I were at a social gathering with people who we had just met.  As you do at such a thing, we were making small talk with a few people when the topic shifted to a local bakery that had recently opened in the area.  One of our fellow party-goers was shocked to discover that the bakery sells loaves of bread for $8 each.  She seemed almost offended by the idea that a loaf of bread could cost so much – what on earth could be so special about a loaf of bread that could make it be worth $8?

As a frequent patron and huge fan of this local bakery, I quite honestly found this woman’s commentary annoying.  Taking a step back, I realize that her viewpoint is formed by our society’s assumptions about what food should cost; our ideas about the value of food to a consumer, and not the costs associated with all of the steps that it takes to get our food from it’s starting point to our plates.  For example, a loaf of bread from a small-scale local bakery is worth $8 because of these costs:

  • Renting or buying bakery & retail space in the greater Bay Area, and paying the associated ancillary costs such as utilities;
  • Paying bakers & retail employees enough money to somewhat survive in the greater Bay Area;
  • Purchasing (and in some cases milling their own!) organic flour from California farmers;
  • Purchasing other high-quality ingredients (dairy, fruit, etc.) from other local purveyors;
  • Purchasing equipment and implements needed to prepare and bake the loaves;
  • Purchasing vehicles and gasoline to deliver the goods to third-party sellers;
  • The reduced carbon footprint of the loaf;
  • Other things that I’m not readily thinking of at the moment.

Taking all of these factors into account, doesn’t it feel good to support a local business and local people by paying $8 for a loaf of bread?  Again, I realize that I am lucky to be in a financial position to prioritize this kind of spending because it is important to me.

I also don’t claim to be a perfect locavore.  I am human and swayed by sales, random impulse buys at Trader Joe’s, bulk items at Costco, and other questionable purchases. But, I am glad to say that the majority of my day-to-day staples come from local producers.

If you’re feeling inspired, here are some of my favorite local purveyors in San Jose and Santa Cruz:

  • Spade & Plow: I get a weekly CSA box from S&P and could not be a happier customer.  Every box is full of beautiful, delicious veggies and fruits.  I love being able to directly support the Thorp family and all of the good folks who work for the farm.  They have also recently started partnering with the Midwife and the Baker to provide a bread add-on.
  • Everett Family Farm: This farm is just down the hill from us in Soquel, on the Santa Cruz side of the mountain.  They are also known for their cider!
  • Companion Bakeshop: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I think this is my very favorite bakery around here.  Their bread is generally just how I like it (not too “crusty”), their pastries are amazing, and I LOVE their quiche (you may know my affinity for savory pie!).  They have shops in Aptos and westside Santa Cruz, and also sell their pastries at Cat & Cloud (see below).
img_0231
Quiche at Companion, accompanied by Cat & Cloud coffee
  • Chromatic Coffee: OG San Jose coffee roaster.  I so appreciate their San Jose pride.
img_0795
Chromatic Cafe, downtown San Jose
  • Cat & Cloud Coffee: My favorite coffee on the Santa Cruz side of the hill.  Mike and I call them the “happy hipsters” because they have such good vibes.
  • Camino Brewing: Taproom just outside of downtown San Jose – with tacos most nights!

img_0796

  • Humble Sea and BruxoIf you find yourself in westside Santa Cruz, just go.  You will not regret it.
  • Discretion Brewing: Best bet for beers and delicious small bites on the Capitola side of Santa Cruz.

Does it seem like I only care about veggies, coffee & beer?  They are good gateways to the local food producers!

IMG_9759
Mike is so happy to support local food at a collaboration dinner with Spade & Plow, Bruxo and Camino Brewing!

I’m super inspired by Andrea Bemis of Tumbleweed Farm in Mt. Hood, Oregon.  Last summer, she did a “Local 30” and blogged about it.  Once we’re settled and done with our big projects, maybe Mike and I will endeavor a Local 30 this summer!