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.


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.


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.


Our little manzanita came back to life after being munched on by deer last year.


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
8/24: sherbet-colored wild plums
8/28: yellow pluots
8/28: yellow pluots
9/1: French prunes
9/1: French prunes
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!


Umami Revelations

love tomato season, but have always been a bit “meh” about Caprese salad.  I never spent much time thinking about why – probably because I’m perfectly satisfied to keep myself busy stuffing my face with ripe tomatoes sprinkled with a tiny bit of sea salt.

This week gave us our first two ripe Black Krim tomatoes.

But, I’ve had a recent revelation.  Last month, Mike and I went to a Spade & Plow + Manresa Bread farm dinner at the newish MB all day cafe in Campbell.  The standout dish was a bowl of burrata drowned in good olive oil with S&P Sungold and Atomic Fusion cherry tomatoes, some tiny fried fennel flowers and sea salt on top.  I was too busy enjoying the bowl and experiencing a mind shift to take a photo, but here’s one from S&P’s Instagram page.

As I savored the dish, I had a revelation.  What I love about perfectly ripe tomatoes is their deep umami quality.  For my palate, the balsamic vinegar that is often drizzled over a Caprese salad takes away from this.  The acid overwhelms the more subtle earthiness of the umami flavor.

My revelation is this: when I have perfectly ripe tomatoes, I am not going to overpower them with acid.  To me, their best accompaniment is a generous glug of olive oil and some coarse sea salt, or a herbed sea salt blend.  Maybe a few shreds of fresh basil if it’s available.

This morning’s most perfect breakfast.  Our homegrown Sungolds and Sweet Millions with fresh mozzarella, olive oil, herbed sea salt & toast.

Acid has it’s time and place with tomatoes – such as if the tomatoes are part of a larger green salad, or part of a simpler salad of tomatoes, cucumber & red onion.  But for me, from here on out – if I simply want to enjoy the umami of a perfect tomato, olive oil and sea salt are all I need.

Impatiently waiting for all of our non-cherry tomatoes to ripen.


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.


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.


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.



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.


This morning, I found one ripe cucumber!


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!


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.



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!


And ever-trusty cosmos.


Echeverias in the greenhouse keep on blooming!


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


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.


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!

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.