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.


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!


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.


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).
Quiche at Companion, accompanied by Cat & Cloud coffee
  • Chromatic Coffee: OG San Jose coffee roaster.  I so appreciate their San Jose pride.
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!


  • 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!

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!

2019: Back at it!

By the time the holidays rolled around in December, we were very much over the seemingly never-ending DIY that had consumed us over the prior 6 months.  Luckily, we got a good break after Christmas, and got away to Encinitas, just north of San Diego.  The weather was sunny and warmer than here – in the low 60’s, which all of the locals were complaining about as “so cold.”  Mike surfed and I practiced at the Ashtanga Yoga Center.  We ate out and didn’t have to do any dishes.  Best of all, we weren’t compelled to do work of any kind.

San Elijo State Beach

Now, we’re back.  And the end is in sight.

Before the holidays, we nearly finished laying down the garage floor.

We decided to stop for the year after the second time I accidentally squashed Mike’s finger with the plywood in as many days.  We were so close to being done!  But, we were tired and didn’t want to risk any actual injuries for the sake of finishing.

As of today, we’ve got the entire floor laid down and sealed up.


Our original plan was to put bamboo flooring on top of the plywood.  But now, we just can’t be bothered to do the work to take that step.  Instead, we are getting help to paint the floor with special floor paint, and we’ll call it a day.  Hopefully, that work will get done this week and Mike can start the process of moving his office and hobbies into the garage…and I can finally start making the move from San Jose up to the mountain.


Fall: An Epilogue

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


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.





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.

Pear orchard across the road.
Nearly naked walnut tree.
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





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


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.


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.


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.

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.

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…

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.


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.

End-of-October tomato beds.
The last of the tomatoes with dahlias from Post Street Farm in Santa Cruz.
The last of our greenhouse basil.
Future flowers.
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.


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.

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

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.
A respectable harvest!
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.
Simmer the grapes until they release a lot of juice.
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.
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.
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.




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.


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.



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.

Prunus Domestica (European-origin plums)
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
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.

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.

Source: Luther Burbank Home and Gardens
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.

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.

Mixed prune & plum jam.