billions of poppy seeds

I discovered when I packed up to move, back in December, that I had a vast hoarded supply of Hungarian Bread Poppy seed. Quart and half-gallon jars labeled 2009, 2010, etc. through 2013. I’d stopped offering the seed for sale when growers had trouble with germination. My subsequent experiments revealed a definite requirement for stratification – the seeds need to be planted out in the fall and go through a winter of rain and cold before they will germinate. I had the most success simply scattering seed in raked beds. Plants begin to flower here by May, and seed harvest is August into September.

I had accumulated so much seed because I’d kept harvesting but never found time for baking. Even though I had the perfect poppy seed cake recipe, developed by Laytonville master baker Tera Wood. Now I have time. Here’s the recipe:

Lemon Poppy Seed Cakepoppyseedcake
Heat to boil, then let rest: ¾ cup poppy seeds / 1 cup milk
Cream together: 2 sticks butter / 1 1/3 cups brown sugar
Add: 3 eggs
Mix together, add to above: 2 cups flour / 1 T baking powder / ½ t salt
Add: ½ t vanilla / 1 t lemon extract / zest of 2 lemons / poppy seed mixture
Pour into oiled pans: 2 loaf pans or 1 9” square. Bake 350/40-50 mins.

Heat ½ cup lemon juice and ½ cup honey, spoon over warm loaves.

I’ve made this enough times now to fool with it extensively. Gluten-free flour makes a denser but still delicious cake. To veganize the recipe, I’ve made these adjustments:
– 1 ¾ cups almond milk replaces 1 cup milk
– 1 cup coconut oil replaces butter
– delete eggs
– increase flour to 2 2/3 cups
– add ¼ cup lemon juice

These poppies reseed easily without ever reaching invasive status. Once they’re established, your job will be to thin the young plants in spring, enjoy the flowers, and harvest seeds later. You’ll be surprised at the substantial yield of even a small patch – enough for a year of cakes – or two or three years, depending how busy you are.

not gardening, but…

Onward into the (not) gardening year… I’m not gardening, but the tree-trimmers with the roadside electric-line contract delivered 2 ½ tons of chips to my driveway. The whole pile is shredded bay leaves, and the spicy scent surrounds the house. I’ve mwillowandpathade a path to the big willow in back.

Not gardening but I do have tiny seedlings of Merlot lettuce – more are coming up through the gravel where I cleaned the seed. Not gardening but I’ve also started Jaune Flamme tomato because somehow I didn’t end up sending this one out to any grower and my seed supply is low. And it’s a fabulous tomato. Not gardening but I did put some peas and beans in pots to see what they’ll do – two varieties from Adaptive Seeds: a tall snow pea called Green Beauty, bred by Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds, and Kew Blue pole snap bean, from England and therefore able to germinate and thrive in cool weather. Which is not exactly what we’ve been having – more like an early heat wave – but the nights are still mid-40s, and this morning a cloud hovers about 20 feet off the ground, dense and moist and stretching to the horizons. May it bring rain.

Not gardening but lots of people are, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying sending seeds out to gardeners who will grow out more seed. If you look through the Laughing Frog website and see any plant you want to take on as a seed project with the goal of sharing the seeds at the end of the season, I’ll send you the seeds free. Perhaps too late for tomatoes, unless you have late-season protection for them.

The Seed Underground

That’s the title of a book by Janisse Ray publiished last year by Chelsea Green. This is a great book, as in required-reading great, for new gardeners and people considering seed saving. Ray’s profiles of major-league seed savers show just how eccentric you’re likely to become over years of growing vegetables and saving seed. Inspiring! An endeavor in which quirky obsessive behavior in backyard gardens is responsible for rescuing the genetic treasure of our food plants from the teetering brink of extinction! Read this and you’ll be fired up to save seeds too. Plus you’ll know why you’re fired up, what the stakes are, and how important it is for you, personally, to do this. The book is inspiring for long-time seed savers too, and for anyone experiencing those feelings of fear or despair so often associated with the grim news of where we seem to be headed. Under the corporate radar, the seed revolution is growing the future. We’re going to make this transition.

March: Month of Winter Squash

I’ve been happily sending off seeds to gardeners around the county and slightly beyond, and if a quarter of them successfully produce seed crops to share this year we’ll be measurably closer to food security, even if only by a few small steps. It’s those first steps that matter. And yes! I still have seeds suitable for beginning seed growers – lettuces and beans and some modern open-pollinated tomatoes that can be grown right beside other varieties without crossing. I know some of you have foot-tall tomato plants by now, but it’s not quite too late to start more.

lastbiscuitMarch has had a winter squash theme for me. Getting the last of the seeds dried has also meant eating a lot of squash. Delicata boats stuffed with rice and dried Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes. Red Kuri with a drizzle of cream for dessert. Trombetta smoothies. Though I haven’t tired of winter squash, I have endeavored to incorporate it into more and different forms of food for variety.

Here’s my latest experiment: gluten-free Squash Biscuits. (The substitution of wheat would make a lighter fluffier result – these are on the dry side and much improved by a slather of butter. Or as with the last batch, a topping of pureed roasted Feherozon Paprika peppers that I had in the freezer.)

2 cups flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free mix of garbanzo/potato/tapioca/sorghum/fava
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
optional: any dried seasonings you want to add – I last used 1 tsp dried onion (those sweet Ailsa Craig giants) and 1 tsp thyme
Mix all this, then cut in:
4 Tbs cold butter
Then add:
1 cup pureed squash
½ – ¾ cup yogurt, until dough holds together but is still sticky
Drop by spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet, press down tops so they’re an even height (3/4 inch or so)
Bake at 450 degrees/8-10 minutes

I’m not quite through with squash, and would appreciate your recipes (add to comments on website). Thank you for growing food – and seed.

 

spring planting season

I have never been so acutely aware of planting season as in this year during which I am not planting. Seeing the most fabulous by-the-moon planting day come and go Monday left me anxious and jittery, to tell the truth. When that happens I back off one notch from literal and do something related but vicarious like sending seed to someone ready to plant or consulting with a new seed grower.

seedrackI dropped by Dave Smith’s back-corner post office at Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah to give him a printed-out list of the seed packets I brought in last week (That’s a picture of the homemade seed rack – another rack can be found at Weathertop Nursery in Laytonville). He took one look at the inventory list and said, “I guess you’ve got a lot of time on your hands now.” Dave carried Laughing Frog seeds at his now-retired Mulligan Books and Seeds, but somehow we managed without ever writing anything down. Usually at least one of us would remember what was what, and if not we laughed about it and improvised. It was lovely. As is this current phase in which I have time to make fabric seed racks and keep track of details like what tomato is the most popular (the answer to that so far this year is Greek Asimina, closely followed by Cherokee Chocolate).

For me the key to peace of mind this spring lies in accepting the gifts I’m being given, in bringing my attention back to those gifts every time I wander into the territory of loss. I love consulting with gardeners and farmers about growing for seed, I’m happy to be able to share the seed for great varieties I’m not growing this year – and, full disclosure here, I do have a tiny garden, right now mainly of transplanted Japanese Bunching Onion, and the year-old plants are sending up flower stalks this week.

If you’re reading this and want some encouragement or information about growing a vegetable variety for seed this year, you know I’ve got the time…

For the Birds

My closest and grandest new neighbor is an old weeping willow, winter home to a zillion small birds. I’ve seen half a dozen acorn woodpeckers on the branching trunks at once. Many LBBs (little brown birds) whose names I don’t know. And my favorites to listen to all day, the red-winged blackbirds. Not just early morning and evening singers, the blackbirds talk all day long in this tree, between synchronized murmurations across the fields.willowinwinter

Naturally I start thinking about feeding them. Not putting out feeders, but planting seeds of bird-food plants that can naturalize here, along the road or out back of the house. Food for years to come. I’ll wait for a time when rain is at least a hint of a possibility. May it be soon, as we begin 2014 sunny and dry after the driest California year on record. Good soil here in Potter Valley– what a place to be not gardening. I can just scatter seed, rake it, and stomp it.

My basic mix will be sunflower, sorghum, and millet, with fennel added for butterfly food. Sunflower will be the most likely to thrive with just the extra water that drains off the road. You’ve seen this sunflower or its close cousin along roadsides all over the West, tall and widely branching, many-flowered, cheerful and optimistic as all heck. I’m calling it (Mostly) California Native Sunflower in the interest of full disclosure. Black-Seeded Sorghum is also a vigorous reseeder, but wants more water to make a big seed head. Since I have lots of seed I’ll risk it – plus I can water it. Limelight Millet is less likely to naturalize, more likely to be crowded out by more robust species. Maybe I’ll plant a more domesticated spot for back-up – so ornamental, maybe right by the front door.

So you may more easily try a birdseed patch, here’s a For the Birds kit of seeds: double packs of sunflower, sorghum and millet. $12 (for seeds that would cost $18 if purchased separately). Still free shipping.

All these are also great poultry treats. The millet is tasty for humans (according to growers’ reports; I haven’t yet tried it), and the sorghum can be milled for flour (also an abstract bit of info). Leave the sunflowers for the birds, who have the equipment to shell them or to digest them whole.

New Year New Seeds New Beginnings

Here are the new seeds, all packaged up and ready to go into your hands and then into your gardens. New-this-year varieties of squash, peppers, lettuce (Red Kuri Squash, Candystick Dessert Delicata, Pimiento and Jimmy Nardello Peppers, Marvel of Four Seasons Lettuce), and fresh supplies of favorites like Piracicaba Broccoli and Trombetta Squash, plus tomatoes that deserve a comeback, like Mountain Gold and Tennessee Heirloom.

Two new categories: Useful Flowers highlights ornamental plants with culinary, medicinal, and/or cultural significance. Welcome Weeds invites reassessment of once-spurned garden invaders, starting with the formerly lowly purslane – now Tall Purslane, with the greatest concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy plant.

You may notice changes in the Laughing Frog Farm website. Simplified and streamlined, focused on seeds. This is because I am no longer living at the place called Laughing Frog Farm. I’m taking the year off from intensive gardening to help grow our regional network of seed guardians. Laughing Frog Farm Seeds will continue through 2014, and then morph into some other form. More growers, more diversity and resilience, to take us further into a future of food security and sustainability. That’s the plan. Meanwhile, enjoy these health-giving, delicious, vibrantly alive, locally adapted food plants.

tiny package of miracles

I’ve been doing seedy things this week in preparation for Sunday’s Laytonville Holiday Fair. That’s December 1st, 10-4 at Harwood Hall. The new seeds newseedpacketsand I will be at the Garden Club next door, which functions as overflow vendor space and also features Amanda’s great homemade bread and soup.

Seed cleaning has been my favorite meditation — why do I procrastinate? I even enjoyed cleaning lettuce seed — maybe because the Marvel of Four Seasons crop was large enough that I didn’t worry about losing some to the wind. Sifting it through screens, then winnowing with the steady breeze of a fan set on a chair, and finally spreading seed on a shallow pan and lifting away the last fine debris with puffs of breath. All out by the spreading oaks whose last stubborn leaves still hang golden in the thin fall sunlight. It reminded me how I exist to serve these plants, how they’ve lured me in with their exuberant growth and their vibrant tastes and the astonishing miracle of their seeds, tiny hard kernels that carry life into the future.

 

Seed Cleaning Opportunity!

When I heard the Laytonville Garden Club needed a speaker for its November meeting, I thought of all those vegetable seeds from this summer that I haven’t gotten around to cleaning. I thought of all the seeds I’ve gathered over the years that remained on their stalks in grocery bags until finally being tossed on the compost pile because I couldn’t quite figure how to separate seed from chaff, or didn’t have the right equipment to do it, or just wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about how simple it is now, with my collection of screens and tubs and fans. And about how elegantly efficient and way more fun it could be when accomplished by a group.

So that’s Wednesday, November 6th at the Garden Club – potluck lunch at noon, seed cleaning starting at 1:00pm.

Trombettas ready to become ravioli stuffing

Trombettas ready to become ravioli stuffing or pie or  creamy soup

Attendees will be able to take home seeds we clean, which will include Brazilian broccoli and Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce. Also, we’ll cut open Trombetta squash for seeds, making the trumpets available for anyone who wants to turn them into pies or soups.

One more also – if you have seeds to clean, bring them and we’ll do it.

 

eating color

Three months with not a word here! It’s been a summer into fall of transformative miracles in addition to the dependable botanical ones. Starting in June with knuckle-replacement surgery – all four knuckles of my left hand. Continuing with my mother Olga’s 95th birthday farewell party in August and her infinitely graceful death three weeks later. And those events feel like just the beginning. An incredible beginning, brimming with gifts.

Meanwhile the summer’s seed crops matured beautifully. The seeds are doing their last bit of drying, in bags and buckets and wrapped up in sheets, and most of the squash still in their beautiful fruits. They’ll be available here in December – or, let’s be realistic, January.

cropped-widepimientoabove.jpgMy current favorite – because I’m eating it every day – is the pimiento pepper. What a food plant! Each little bush produced dozens of thick-walled sweet fruits over the course of almost three months. Juicy and crunchy raw, smoky and rich in sauces, delicately complex sautéed, holding their bright red in any preparation. Most often I toss bite-size chunks in olive oil and roast them in the oven until they caramelize. Candy that’s good for you.

Here’s a recipe from Tera Wood for muhammara, a Syrian pepper spread, and another recipe for the little seed crackers she makes to put it on:

Muhammara: Combine 4 roasted peppers, a handful of toasted walnuts, 2 T olive oil, chopped garlic and lemon zest to taste, and a pinch of ground cumin in food processor. Add chile flakes and 1 T lemon juice and pulse until pasty.

Seed Crackers: 1 cup wheat flour / 1 cup all-purpose flour / 1/3 cup poppy seeds / 1/3 cup sesame seeds / 1 ½ tsp. salt / 1 ½ tsp. baking powder / 3 T olive oil / ¾ cup water. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and knead a few times until mixed. Cover and let rest 20 minutes. Roll out very thin and cut in desired shapes. Bake at 375 degrees F approximately 15 minutes.

Wish I had a picture of the spread and crackers, but they didn’t last long enough.

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this morning’s squash flowers…

redkuriNewly opened flowers look delicate and moist in the thick fog that rolled in from the coast overnight. Ichiki Kuri is the C. maxima we’re growing for seed this year. The Kabocha-type fruit is already brightly colored, and the plants grow so vigorously they stay ahead of the ducks, who nibble whatever they can reach.

delicataThe Delicata are climbing a hog panel fence down the center of their bed. The plan was for beans to climb the fence and the squash to fan out to the sides. But the beans froze, while the squash prevailed. This is the strain developed by inspired plant breeder Carol Deppe. It’s called Candystick Dessert Delicata to distinguish it from all others. I await ripeness eagerly.

gourdflwrcloseup                                                       I’m totally dazzled by these gourd flowers, grown from seeds of the largest gourd I’ve ever seen, from last year’s Heirloom Expo. This flower is almost enough to make me wish to be a pollinating insect.

 

 

 

of bumblebees and bolt resistance…

brocflwrsIt’s been two months since my last post with its picture of young broccoli plants in a new raised bed, and now those plants are in full flower. This is Piracicaba, aka Brazilian Broccoli. Lots more about it on its own newly expanded page. This planting is the current pollinator hot spot of the garden, humming all day long with honey bees, droning black bumblebees, and many varieties of the native solitary bees who provide such excellent pollination services in such quietly modest style.

This year’s variety trials started with early-May plantings of melons and Asian cucumbers. The varieties showed equal damage in the late-May hard freeze, with especially heavy cucumber losses. Still enough plants to gather information about yields and flavors, but not enough to be a dependable market item. The cilantro trial of varieties claiming bolt-resistance has a clear winner: Calypso, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is still producing broad rosette leaves, after two heat-wave periods of temperatures in the 90s, while the others have two-foot-tall flower stalks. Caribe, from Fedco Seeds, was the most initially vigorous – I’d grow it when quickness was the first concern. The one I’d been saving for years, however, was the first to bolt. I’ll toss my old saved seed into one of those garden-margin areas devoted to attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects, where quick flowering can be considered an asset.

Mendocino’s sustainable living information hot spot this month will be the Not So Simple Living Fair in Booneville on July 26, 27 & 28. I’ll be joining Andy Balestracci of Diaspora Seeds for a seed-saving workshop, and Lin will offer her popular Chickens 101.

Welcome!

Welcome to Laughing Frog Farm’s new web site! It’s taken months instead of weeks, mainly because the gardens call to me much more compellingly than the computer ever can. And ongoing global weirdness in this corner of northern California has brought weather in April that is at least a month ahead of previous years. The overall picture is disturbing – creeks are already low, summer fire danger will be high – but for now there’s the upside of early warmth. Our tomatoes and cucumbers went into the ground a month ahead of last year’s. The soil is just about warm enough for corn. We’re running with it – and keeping an eye on the forecasts, as temperatures are still sometimes going into the 30s at night.

New features on the web site: lots more seed information, especially seed-saving details. Chicken Yard Cards is a new experiment in commerce. The Chicken Coop pages are still in process, with more information being added. And check out the Ducks!

newbedHere’s a picture that shows part of a new raised bed inspired by Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – a garden-scale adaptation of the beds he creates with heavy machinery. On the bottom are branches and bark from a dead oak, with brush and leaves on that and a layer of soil on top. That’s a seed crop of Piracicaba (Brazilian broccoli) in the foreground (planted much closer than you’d plant an eating crop, so that I could fit 100 plants in the bed). The bright green at the far left and at the back of the bed is Divina lettuce.

First Harvest for Seed Growers Co-op

         Here’s a visual report on the first seed-sharing gathering of the Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op – at this point more accurately called the Laytonville Seed Growers Co-op, as that’s who came to yesterday’s event at the Laytonville Grange. It looked like a small group of gardeners – a baker’s dozen in all – until we got out our seeds. An altogether awesome collection, many with amazing stories and long local histories. By the end of the evening I was overwhelmed by the abundance of valuable genetic material, the breadth and depth of information exchanged, and the commitment to the future of food shown by beginning seed-savers and old-timers alike.
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         Here are someof the contributions, clockwise starting at the top: Crane melon, Bale bean, Orca bean, San Marzano tomato, hull-less pumpkin, Sweet Meat squash, Principe Borghese tomato, red mustard, Trombetta squash, Cannellini bean, Shintokiwa cucumber, Mache (aka corn salad). And in the center a flour corn that has been grown and saved in these hills over a decade.
         Some of the seeds will show up next at the Laytonville Garden Club’s seed and scion exchange, February 16 at 11am. A few varieties will be available this spring through Laughing Frog Farm seeds. For the rest – well, you had to be there. Increasing the amounts of seed available will be one of our goals as we grow.
         To join in the co-op’s 2013 season, email me for more info.

seed season

     Winter being all about the seed, I happily do my part. Baking Blue Kuri kabocha squash pies in order to extract the seeds and add them, after drying, to the big jar. Cleaning Divina lettuce seed, outdoors on a rainless day, pouring from one tub to another and letting the breeze carry off the downy fluff. Germination testing: four days in, and most of the seeds, old as well as new, have already sprouted, many at 100%. I feel wealthy with so much concentrated plant potential all around. 
BlueKuriSeed
Blue Kuri is a Japanese heirloom Kabocha squash
      Another cause for celebration is the arrival in print of a reliable and comprehensive seed growing textbook, finally: The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio (published by Chelsea Green). I’ll continue to use the Organic Seed Alliance’s handy booklet, A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers (for which Navazio is co-author), and beginning seed-savers need look no further. The Organic Seed Grower provides the hard-core next level of understanding for gardeners, farmers, and communities moving toward local and regional resilience and food sovereignty. It’s got both the macro – agricultural seed history, reproductive biology – and the micro – pertinent details for a wide array of vegetable crops.
     One thing I especially appreciate is the way Navazio debunks the myth of the strict separation between self-pollinating plants and cross-pollinaters, replacing it with the reality of a continuum that shifts according to changing conditions. He does the same with the myth of standardized isolation distances, leaving us with the need to pay close attention every step of the way – which sets us up as growers in a co-creative relationship with plant evolution. Just the way it used to be, the way we came to have all these wonderful vegetable foods in the first place. Here’s a passage from the book:
     “The fact that there is no such thing as perfect isolation can be intimidating to anyone seeking genetic purity in seed. But it can also be liberating once everyone involved in seed production realizes there is no such thing as absolute purity and that some genetic mixing is inevitable whenever seed is produced. It then becomes your responsibility to be much more involved in the process of determining the isolation distance based on the biology of the crop and the environment and topography of the location where you’re growing it. You must also get more familiar with each seed crop, realizing that your selection of off-types, outcrosses, and seed mixes is the only way in which the integrity of the crop will be maintained as it passes through your hands to farmers who will grow the crop now and into the future.
     “Knowing that genetic mixing and variation is inherent in the process puts us back in touch with our true role in the process. This is the same role that our ancestors who first domesticated these plants had. This is the way that we integrate these crops into our lives. The genetic integrity of the crop then becomes a reflection of our commitment and involvement in the process. The crops that we grow and use thus become woven into our communities and into the “culture” of our agriculture.” 

Winter Solstice Prayer

God of All Creation
We thank you for darkness, for the rain and snow and longest night.
We thank you for loss. With gratitude and forgiveness, we let go of everything no longer needed, of every part of the past that must go
in order for the new world to enter.
We forgive the past, all of it, and let it fall away as this cycle ends.
We turn to the light now with open arms.
We open our hearts in this new year and new world to the expanding circle of love that surrounds us.
We give thanks for our place in the web of life, and for the daily strengthening of our conscious connection with all living beings.
We give thanks for our community — both local and global — of like-minded souls, as together we renew our commitment to a world of cooperation, respect, and celebration of all life.
seeds2012 copy
clockwise spiral from top left: Feherozon Paprika, Japanese Black Trifele Tomato, Blue Kuri Squash, Haogen Melon, Dark Star Zucchini, Big Rainbow Tomato, Early Moonbeam Watermelon—some of these will be available through Laughing Frog Farm and some go exclusively to Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op members.

October 14

paprika The fall is so full of harvest and all the activities that follow bringing the crops in from the field that I feel my kinship with ant and wood rat and all the creatures who store food for the winter. Gratitude for nature’s bounty is the theme, and I admit that many times each day I get ahead of myself thinking on how much there is to do. Over and over I pause between breaths to adjust my attitude from harried or overwhelmed. Gratitude, like patience, is one of those full body experiences that deepen and fill the present moment to overflowing. The colors of the season help, all the warm bright orange to chocolate shades of the last tomatoes and peppers, the gold light of late afternoon, and especially the reds, like these peppers piled on the kitchen table ready for their seeds to be saved (Hungarian Feherozon Paprika) and their flesh dried for paprika powder. Like the preserved tomatoes, they’ll bring brilliant red to our diets all winter.

fall equinox

Here we are at the equinox, that small moment of balance between summer and fall when day and night divide the hours equally and half the summer garden is finished. I’m feeling the expansive generosity of summer’s abundance and the anxious urge to hoard for winter in equal measure, spiked by sudden washes of sadness at all the endings.
The weather has been combining summer and fall in equal portions for the past week – lows in the upper 30s, making early morning chores something to wrap up for (or postpone), while afternoons still reach at least the upper 80s. In the cool evening I make the rounds of the gardens retrieving layers of clothing shed during the day.
seedzukes copy
Dark Star Seed Zucchini, with one edible-sized zuke
While some of our summer crops are through for the year – melons, winter squash, corn, soybeans – others gamely continue to produce, albeit at a slower pace. Now is the time to assess the cold tolerance of tomato varieties – Japanese Black Trifele, Greek Asimina, and Black Cherry have barely slowed their pace, while others balk. Asian cucumbers keep on (with hoop house protection). The bulky Feherozon paprika peppers are finally moving through orange to red, after months standing pale yellow on the plants (the yellow stage is delicious, but we’re growing them for seed this year so all summer we’ve just looked).
This moment of balance at the equinox is spacious but brief – already it’s time to resume the harvest, make apple sauce and raisins and pie, water the fall garden starts – to fall headlong into the new season. It’s not called fall for nothing.

…home from the Heirloom Expo…

What did I notice first on arriving home from the Heirloom Expo late Thursday night? The velvety black sky with its scattered bright stars, and the thrumming song of a thousand crickets, summer’s counterpart to the wet season’s frog symphony. The moment the car engine and lights clicked off, the darkness and cricket song filled the world completely. “Welcome home,” they said. “Go to sleep.”
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Making the rounds of the gardens next morning was like meeting dear characters in a story I’d heard a hundred times – which was literally the case, as the expo days were non-stop conversation about these particular tomatoes and chickens and grapes and millet and tiny chorus frogs. The Japanese Black Trifele tomato patch was as robust and productive as the stories indicated. We had seeds for it at the expo as well as ripe tomatoes. We met many gardeners who are happily growing it this year and many more who had just heard about it from one or another of the hundred speakers at the expo. Our Trifele plants did not seem surprised to hear they had made more than one top-tomatoes list.
My experience of the Heirloom Expo this year came mostly through conversation at our booth, and my gratitude goes out to everyone who stopped to share. It was inspiring and fun and educational and overwhelming and it leaves me feeling hopeful about the big transition in which we are all engaged. I’m feeling more than ever how our relationship with food is at the center of this transition, and how fundamental and all-encompassing a change it is.
(See the previous post for a photo of Laughing Frog Farm’s booth at the expo.)

…at the Heirloom Expo…

Here’s Lin at our Heirloom Expo booth…

And here’s something to think about…
What is an heirloom human? What traits do we want to embody and bring forward into future generations?

Lots of lively and lovely answers to that question to be found walking around the Sonoma County fairground these past few days.

…going to the Heirloom Expo…

Tomorrow is the start of the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa. We’ll be there at the expo’s farmers market with apples and grapes and seeds and our latest farm product, a series of greeting cards based on great photos of our chickens, mostly taken by friends Kate and Azlon. Here’s Ocean, a fierce-looking Blue Marans hen as recorded by Kate Black:
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We’ll get the cards onto the web site’s farm stand eventually. Meanwhile, the expo is Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., at the Sonoma County fairgrounds. Lin will be presenting her Chickens 101 class at noon on Tuesday and 3 p.m. on Thursday. There are classes and speakers all day, tons (literally) of vegetable diversity on display, rare livestock breeds to meet, and if last year’s debut is any indication, a whole lot of the most hopeful, engaged and encouraging people you’re likely to find.

Smokiest morning yet

Smokiest morning yet for Laytonville, two weeks into a fire that has so far burned over 40,000 acres of forest and won’t be officially over until the winter rains dowse it. Fifty miles from the fire our throats and eyes feel scraped and hot. Smoke filters the sunlight, providing a gentle protective screen for the ripening garden plants and keeping afternoon temperatures below 90. We’ve been able to ease up on watering, an unusual blessing in the parched late summer.
Nights are dropping to 40 degrees now and early morning chores require jackets. Feels like fall, while meanwhile the exponential abundance of summer requires constant attention – grapes, apples, pears and blackberries, tomatoes beyond measure, watermelons that must be eaten immediately. We do our best.
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Here’s Lin at last Friday’s Mendocino Farmers Market

protection for pears

Repurposed plastic cups provide predator protection for pears. 
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Thanks to Viva for the idea and Pour Girls for the cups. They can be re-used as many years as the plastic lasts — we’ll see. I just covered the pears I could reach without a ladder, leaving the treetop fruit for the neighborhood rowdies — who came by last night for the first party of the season. Raccoons by the look of it — small branches snapped, two dozen pears on the ground, some whole and others partly eaten — “Eeww that’s not sweet yet, try another.” No damage to the fruit in pear protectors. The raccoons went after the Red Bartlett first of course — not only is the fruit red from the start, attracting attention, but it’s also the earliest to ripen (maybe three weeks off).

I was thinking more of thwarting the ravens, who last year pecked into almost every pear before I thought to harvest. Our orchard, gardens, and chicken yard comprise an adolescent day-care facility for raven fledglings. The parents show their youngsters how to watch for interesting chicken treats, how to steal eggs and irritate the dog, and then leave them, knowing the noisy teenagers will be safe and well fed. The pear protectors are for them as much as for the partying raccoons.
Will they work? I’m thinking of the study (can anyone cite it correctly? not me) in spatial problem-solving that showed ravens to be smarter than college students. We’ll see.

pesto again?

carrotsWe made our first trip to the Mendocino Farmers Market last week, with a new crop of onions, beautiful carrots, the first Dark Star zucchinis and Asian cucumbers, and an assortment of greens. Not a huge amount of vegetables, but I’m amazed we have anything, what with this year’s bumper crop of plant-eating insects, industrious gophers, and a gang of feral peafowl that removed most of the sweet pepper plants from inside the hoop house.

I’ve had to eat pesto constantly (darn, my favorite) since the basil was too cosmetically challenged to go to market after the cucumber beetles got to it. I’ve held off on using even organically-approved insecticides like Neem oil because so many frogs live in the vegetables. Instead we pinch any beetles we can catch and drop their squashed bodies onto the leaves like tiny narcomantas to the beetles. The plants have just about outgrown the insect damage by now, and the dog did a good job of scaring away the pea hens when we finally caught them in the act. The cats are eating gophers, but the supply is endless and so far we see no decline in the frequency at which vegetable plants are dragged down into the earth.

By the way, as a customer at another farmers market recently I talked with a purveyor of chicken meat — finally, a local couple raising chickens on pasture and doing the slaughter and processing themselves at their home facility — what a lot of legal hurdles they jumped through to be able to provide this commercially scarce product that is a world away from supermarket chicken. Just how different is it? She mentioned that they had an eager market for all the parts of the birds they don’t use — feathers, feet, heads, guts, all go to a company that pulverizes, cooks and dries the offal down to a powder — which is then sold to Foster Farms for use as chicken feed.

garden koan

basketwithberries

Q. How can it be that I pick and pick in the blueberry bushes and olallie vines, but by the time I get back to the house the basket is almost empty?
A. How can it be that I work and work in the garden but arrive back at the house feeling so full?

Every day I take a basket with me into the gardens, even when my intention is solely to water the lettuce or tie up tomatoes. There’s always something ready for harvest. Today, the first Dark Star zucchini. The plants are enormous at two months old. They are deep-rooted as advertised, going a week between waterings with nary a wilted leaf, and they sailed through a May frost without damage. The Dark Star debut marks that slow tipping point into abundance that comes faster and fuller as summer proceeds. Pretty soon I’ll need a wheelbarrow when I visit the zucchini.
Also in this morning’s basket, the border gladioli that are the stars of early summer bouquets, and calendula flowers to dry. These are ‘Resina’, a variety with copious amounts of the resins that make calendula such a useful addition to any kitchen garden medicine chest. Not that I’ve been making salves or ointments with these flowers, not for decades, but there is no reason not to include medicinal-quality calendula in any sunny garden. Sow it once and it reseeds forever, adding its cheery presence in a way that never becomes invasive. And there it is, should its healing abilities ever be needed.

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big Pink Beauties remain mild and sweet

Last Saturday we hosted the first farm/garden tour for members of the new Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op – lots of gardening info shared and progress compared, followed by a totally delicious potluck lunch featuring plants from each of our gardens — fresh turnips, kale, and lettuces, last year’s dried tomatoes and peppers, plus rhubarb pie. We also taste-tested the radish varieties and some of the lettuces from our current trials. Among six radishes the winner by a slim margin was Pink Beauty. The lettuces were even harder to judge, being almost equally delicious, but Mayan Jaguar (bred by Wild Garden Seeds) and Marvel of Four Seasons (from seed selected and grown by Julianne Ash of Anacortes, Washington) edged out the others. The variety trials continue, as we wait to see who holds their flavor and refrains from bolting as the weather warms.

The seed growers co-op enters its first season with lots of yummy locally adapted vegetable crops planted in 18 different locations. Growers range from veteran seed-saving market gardeners to beginning seed-savers with backyard plots. There are even a few politically motivated gardening newbies. Yes – rescuing the genetic heritage of our food sources from the jaws of Monsanto, one heirloom variety at a time, and just in time. The geographical hub of this activity is Laytonville – ideally situated for seed-saving with widely scattered gardens tucked in the folds of forested hills. There are also participating growers in Willits, Redwood Valley, Ukiah, Hopland, and on the coast.

Fifty summer vegetable varieties are being grown for seed by co-op gardeners. Among them are two notable pole beans that have both been saved in Mendocino County for many years: Rattlesnake, in Laytonville, and what we can call Cow Mountain after its Ukiah location on land once tended by renowned plant lover Carl Purdy (the Cow Mountain beans are being grown after ten years in a jar on the property – here’s hoping they do well). Two other already locally adapted varieties grown for the co-op this year are Crane (aka Eel River) melon and Shintokiwa cucumber. There are ten great squash varieties and a dozen tomatoes, including Malachite, San Marzano, and Japanese Black Trifele – and it’s shaping up to be a bountiful tomato year here like we haven’t had for the last two. Our hopes are up for tomatoes in July.

The co-op’s aim for this year is first to produce seed for member growers, with additional seed shared within our region via seed swaps and the newly forming Lake-Mendocino Seed Bank – and hopefully enough to offer the most successful varieties through Laughing Frog Farm seeds. You can participate – July is the time to plant fall crops. Email me with questions. And if you missed the info that jump-started this project, here’s a link to Why Save Seed.

People who don’t know chickens personally often don’t realize how smart they are, how precisely they manage to communicate, or how gallant roosters can be with their hens. A few weeks back we sold our blue Marans rooster Fog and three of his girls to neighbors Kitty and Ray. We’re making room for the younger generation – and truth be told, Fog never got along with our other roosters, who we expect to live peaceably together in bachelor quarters for much of the year. The next time we saw Ray and Kitty in town, they shared this story.
fogcrowing
Ray and Kitty had been gone for the day, and when they returned Ray went to check on the birds. Fog stood beside the almost empty water dish, glaring first at Ray and then at the dish. Ray didn’t pay much attention until Fog tipped the dish off its stand and looked back at him again. Then Ray refilled the dish, and Fog stepped up and drank, on and on. None of the hens came over to drink – which is when Ray realized Fog had gone thirsty all day so his hens could have all the water they needed.

Days in the 80s, nights above 40. We may after all be heading into that rare season with an early start. If so, we’re ready for those mythical July tomatoes. Just about all our summer crops are planted out, most in the ground a month earlier than ever. I’m still ready to cover everything in a freeze, but I’m beginning to think that may not be necessary.
Once in the ground the plants face new dangers, chief among them – so far this year – gophers. What about our newest hoop house, the one with a hardware-cloth liner for its raised bed, with seams carefully wired together and edges turned to climb the sides? Oh yeah, the “gopher-proof” one. Last week I found a potato plant pulled most of the way underground in that armored bed, only its wilted top showing. A line of dino kale along one side has lost half its number, unnoticed at first because the plants disappear so completely, leaving no trace but a small hole. So much for my vision of the dino kale as a row of miniature palm trees in the hoop house landscape. Not to mention so much for gopher-proofing. (My theory: the young apprentice rodent-hunter cats, playing with a gopher caught outside the hoop house, casually toss it up over the hay bale side, as it squeaks “No, anywhere but there, don’t throw me into that gopherless realm of the most delectable roots.”)
chard2peppers
Chard making way for baby pepper plants
The bonus in all this planting is the simultaneous harvest of winter crops to make room. The glorious nettle plants made the newest 10’ x 10’ compost pile more than a foot taller (nettles make for a fine-textured mineral-rich compost). Kale, spinach, and chard supply us with daily green smoothies, greens for friends and neighbors, and popular chicken feed. Yellow dock and dandelion roots (not purposefully grown as winter crops but encouraged around the edges of the gardens so there are always plants to pull from the beds) have gone into spring tonic teas (my favorite also has ginger, burdock, and licorice roots). Long days make all this activity possible – I’m on farmer hours now, up at dawn and (on ideal days) to bed by 9:30.
I promise an update soon about the progress of the Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op, which in my world is the most thrilling thing going, aside from the immediate and infinite thrill of the growing green spring.
Uncle Baxter: “Don’t look at me — I’m retired”

Is anything gained by starting vegetables early? Lucinda set up an experiment to answer this question some forty years ago. She planted seeds of various vegetables at one-week intervals, and charted their performance and yields over the entire season. Results across the board: no advantage in starting early.
“So does that mean you’ve never since tried to get a jump on the season?” I ask her. “Well, no,” she admits.
I too find premature planting irresistible in spite of all past experience. Last year our sweet peppers, started in early April and transplanted to the hoop house in early May, just sat there dumbfounded in the cold, unable to grow at all. Finally we replaced most of them in early June with younger more vigorous starts that had never known the chill of April. Did we start the peppers later this year? Yes, but only by a week. And I’m moving them to the hoop house tomorrow, when night temperatures rise into the 40s for at least a few days.
We’ve planted out forty tomatoes (half the total), and Lin direct-seeded half the Dark Star zucchini a few days ago. Its sprouts emerged yesterday – that’s a month earlier than I’ve ever planted squash here. We’ll see how Dark Star lives up to its reputation as cold-tolerant.
There’s always the slight chance that this year we won’t have a May frost – and the greater probability that when it comes, we’ll remember all the many plants to shroud in row cover or overturned pots or old sheets. We’re more likely to remember after last year’s hard freeze on May 15, which killed 30-some tomato plants, in the hoop house with a length of row cover folded up beside them, ready to use but forgotten.
I don’t insist on planting everything too early. I’m prudent with beans, corn, melons, and most squash – I know they won’t even germinate without warm soil, and once it does warm up, they’re fast growers. Tomatoes are tempting, though. A fresh swirly slice of Big Rainbow in mid-August rather than mid-September – that’s worth the extra trouble of covering and uncovering, of re-checking the forecast several times a day, of fretting in the night.
pinkpearl
Meanwhile apples and pears are blooming – here’s Pink Pearl apple

This year we’re progressing from “trying out new varieties” to “conducting variety trials” – same thing but with more attention to making growing conditions the same for each variety and keeping track of results. Since neither Lin nor I have the slightest tendency or training toward scientific rigor, we’re looking to the Organic Seed Alliance’s excellent booklet, On-Farm Variety Trials: A Guide for Organic Vegetable, Herb and Flower Producers (download here) for inspiration and instruction.
Here’s the gist: Plant in a location that will provide the most consistent conditions possible – not shady at one end, or different soil types. You want the differences that show up to reflect genetic variations rather than cultural ones. Include one variety you’re familiar with and have already grown. That way if the summer is cold and not one of your tomato varieties ripens until September, not even your old favorite that usually ripens by early August, you’ll know to blame the weather, not the new varieties.
Set up your trial bed with more than one block of each variety, arranging their order so each variety has a chance at an end and middle position to further rule out environmental variables. Plant the entire bed at one go, and care for it the same way – weed the whole bed at once, water every part equally, etc.
Make a list of traits you want to evaluate (actually, do this first so you can design your trial for the information you want to discover), and score your plants at intervals throughout the season, assessing each block separately, not just each variety. OSA suggests using the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s 9-point rating system: 1=poor, 3=fair, 5=average, 7=good, 9=excellent – with room for finer distinctions in the even numbers. In my spring radish trial, I want to evaluate for vigor, flavor, how long the radishes can stay in the ground without becoming tough and woody, and how well they perform both with frost and with hot days. I’ll plant a batch now to catch the cold nights, and a late batch to evaluate resistance to bolting in hot weather. Then I’ll grow the winner (or winners) for seed.
2012-04-09 11.10.30
Spring Radish Variety Trial Plan:
1=French Breakfast
2=Zlata
3=Cherry Belle
4=Pink Beauty
5=German Giant
6=White Hailstone
7=Red Head
I know what to expect from French Breakfast and German Giant, so they’ll help me evaluate the others.
That’s the idea; we’ll see how real life compares. Already I’ve had to abandon the perfectly planned early lettuce trial. Two varieties did not germinate at all (old seed), and two others, from new seed, germinated so poorly we’ve started them over, while meanwhile the other varieties popped right up and are already transplanted out. Looks like we’ll be trying new lettuces the old haphazard way – which still will provide plenty of useful information about flavor, vigor, and bolting tendencies, not to mention lots of great salads.

the sex life of tomatoes

moderntomato copy

 Do tomatoes cross-pollinate? That’s today’s burning question. Can you save seed from different varieties grown in the same garden? And how far apart do different varieties need to be? You’ll find as many answers as there are tomatoes, all contradictory, with the majority tending to the self-pollinating end of the spectrum, which is where I started when I first saved tomato seed. I did it casually, with no thought of isolation distances, and the first few times it seemed to work – the next year’s tomatoes were recognizably similar to the ones from which I’d saved seed.

Then I grew Big Rainbow, a beefsteak heirloom with swirls of red/yellow/orange inside and out, and so delicious I saved seed and eagerly waited for the next year’s crop. Which turned out to have the coloring of Big Rainbow, but a size closer to a cherry, and a taste so bland only the chickens would eat it.
heirloomtomflwr4 copy
There are two factors, it turns out, that contribute to a widespread belief that tomatoes do not cross-pollinate. The first is that sometimes it’s true. Modern open-pollinated varieties have flowers that are not capable of cross-pollination (as in the photo above). The pollen-carrying stamens are fused into a tube that encloses the stigma, which is the girl part that takes in the pollen and transports it to the flower’s ovary. You can grow these varieties right next to any other tomatoes and save the seeds with confidence. Mountain Gold is the only tomato seed Laughing Frog offers that has this kind of flower. It was developed twenty years ago by Dr. Randy Gardner at the North Carolina State Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station.
Older tomato varieties, the ones we call heirlooms – as well as all potato-leafed varieties – have flowers in which the stigma protrudes beyond the tunnel of stamens, making cross-pollination possible. Tomato pollen is a bit sticky, so even with this open structure the flowers self-pollinate unless they get some help. Which brings us to the second reason tomatoes still tend to be regarded as completely self-pollinating. In the 1920s UC Davis conducted what was considered the definitive study on tomato pollination, which conclusively demonstrated that all tomatoes self-pollinate. Word went out – an isolation distance of ten feet between varieties was sufficient. The UC Davis researchers used the most up-to-date agricultural practices, including regular applications of insecticides on their tomato test plots, thus eliminating insect pollination entirely. It took the resurgence of organic farming many decades later for anyone to think twice about how the study’s conclusions were reached. 
beesintomato copy
Any pollination of tomatoes requires a bit of shaking to loosen the pollen, and in the absence of insects wind does the job, but only enough for the plants to self-pollinate, and even then not as well. Studies show that native bees increase fruit set in tomatoes by over 40%. All kinds of native bees pollinate tomato flowers, but bumblebees have an especially effective technique. The bee lands on the steepled center of the flower, which droops with the bumblebee’s weight if it wasn’t already facing down. Hanging upside down and grasping the flower’s stigma with her feet, the bee then vibrates the flower by whirring her wings. Pollen shakes loose and falls onto the bee, who goes from flower to flower gathering this nutritious food and in the process transferring pollen. Gardeners without bees, say in greenhouse cultivation, have to get by with shaking the plants themselves.
So how far apart do heirloom tomato varieties need to be grown to safely save seed? The greatest distance I’ve heard is 320 feet – this would be in a flat open area with no hedgerows or other barriers, between very different varieties – like Big Rainbow and Black Cherry, where a cross would be noticeable and very unwelcome. Factors that can shrink that distance are physical barriers like buildings, hills, or tall plants. The shortest distance we use, with plenty of barriers, is 100 feet. If you don’t have space to separate varieties that much, consider growing one heirloom for seed with other modern tomatoes nearby. Plan to save seed from a minimum of ten plants. And when the flowers appear, get a bee’s eye view of that small but noticeable difference that makes the heirlooms so attractive to native pollinators.
If you have experience with saving tomato seed, please comment here.

rainy day garden planning

The first day of a predicted week of rain finds me awash in relief, and not only because we need it. Rainy spring weather has a wonderful way of narrowing down the to-do list at a time of near-hysterical over-activity. Building projects – the duck pen, yes, we’re getting ducks! – have to wait. Soil is too wet to mess with – though I’ll get out in a lull today to plant peas in ground already prepared, and we can continue planting in flats. I’m relieved too because a slower pace suits my present capabilities – I’ve had the cold/flu/cough that’s been making the rounds this winter, and now that I’m halfway recovered a bit of rain will keep me from overdoing it.
Here’s a rainy day activity – making a garden planting chart. In our case, five charts for the five separate garden areas. I’ll try a map for each garden, and stick up post-it notes with plans for each bed, and add dates and variety names as we plant. And don’t tell me a computer spread sheet would be more efficient. I’d rather do an activity reminiscent of kindergarten than sit at the computer another hour.
Uh-oh. Sun is out. Can I stick to my calm rainy day plan with sunlight sparkling the raindrops on every leaf and all the birds singing? Not to worry, plenty more clouds rolling in. I’ll just go plant a row of peas.

seed saving basics — before planting

If you haven’t saved seed from your vegetable garden, here are the basics you need to know before you plant. Some planning is required – you can’t reliably save seed as an afterthought.
First, be sure you’re starting with an open-pollinated variety rather than a hybrid. All the food crops we know and love were developed by countless generations of seed savers and will breed true to type from seeds you save – that’s open-pollinated. Hybrids are first-generation crosses between varieties – F1 crosses – that result in a very uniform set of characteristics (handy for mechanical harvest and for transport and sales) and a boost in robustness that is known as hybrid vigor. Save and grow the seed from your hybrid and the result (the F2 generation) will revert to a large range of characteristics, with most plants being unsatisfactory from an eater’s perspective.Hybrids were developed as a way for seed companies to create and hold a market – farmers and gardeners have to buy the seeds each year, and they cost more. Seed companies have to grow and save seed for both parent lines for each hybrid variety (exact identities often a well-guarded secret), as well as growing the F1 crosses each year – it’s not something any food-producing grower would find worthwhile. As hybrids came into vogue, traditional open-pollinated plant breeding fell by the wayside, with the result that today there are hybrids of many vegetables that outperform available open-pollinated varieties. This doesn’t mean hybrids are inherently better, just that hybrids are where the plant-breeding bucks have gone.
A short diversion about genetically modified crops: Monsanto et al have spent many millions spreading the lie that genetic engineering technology is just a modern extension of the kind of plant breeding that has produced F1 hybrids – no wonder many people are confused about the difference. As an economic model, yes, GE crops are indeed the next step – now growers are locked in not only to buying Monsanto’s seed but its herbicides – which are, after all, the chemical company’s main product line. More herbicide each year, too, as weeds quickly adapt. Does anyone see a problem here? How about Bayer’s proposed “fix”, an additional genetic modification so corn can survive applications of 2, 4-d?
Uh oh. Didn’t mean to rant. Just meant to point out that genetic engineering actually has much more in common with warfare than it does with plant breeding. GMOs=assault on nature. Plant breeding=partnership with nature.
Fortunately for the future of food, the tide has turned. We’re at the thin leading edge of that change, so new that we can still be mistaken for irrelevant hobbyists. But truly, all we have to do is do it. Every gardener can be part of the solution by saving seed. Everyone who eats can be part of the solution by choosing real food.
So back to basics. If possible, start with a plant you have already grown successfully, something you love, as you’ll have a lot of it when you grow it for seed. Start with an annual, a plant that lives its entire seed-to-seed life in one season. (Some vegetables are biennials, going to seed in their second year – carrots/beets/chard/cabbage for example.) You need to know a little about your vegetable’s sex life – how is it pollinated? – in order to determine the two important conditions for successfully saving seed:
1 – the minimum number of plants you need to grow in order to ensure genetic diversity, which will keep the variety’s ability to adapt to changing conditions
and 2 – the minimum isolation distance from other plants in the same family to avoid unwanted cross-pollination.
Some food plants primarily self-pollinate – you’ll find them referred to as in-breeders or selfers. Lettuce, peas, most beans, wheat, rice, barley, oats, modern tomato varieties – you can save seed from as few as 10 to 20 of these, and separate varieties by only 20 feet.
Plants that cross-pollinate – called out-breeders or crossers – require  larger isolation distances. Crossers divide into insect-pollinated species and wind-pollinated crops. Insect-pollinated annual food plants include cucumbers, squash, melons, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes. Wind-pollinated crops require the largest populations and isolation distances – 80 plants and up to 3 miles for spinach, for example. Corn, rye, sorghum, beets and chard are also wind-pollinated.
Organic Seed Alliance has great downloadable booklets for more detailed info – A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers is the one to start with; they also have guides to specific plants. Also I’ll soon be adding detailed seed-saving info about the particular seeds available at our Farm Stand.

 

planning for seed growing. squash especially.

We’ve spent the last week in the heady thrill of garden planning. The process used to be an orgy of seed catalog porn, but now we’re in transition to sustainability, so the first step was identifying the crops we want to grow for seed this year. That list included way more than we can grow ourselves, so we brought our favorite candidates to the Laytonville Seed Swap on Sunday and found growers for them from the ranks of the newly evolving Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op. The near future is looking good for local seed.

Here’s one example. Squash divide themselves into three main species (and a couple more minor ones) and within those species they cross-pollinate like crazy. Between species, no. Cucurbita pepo includes most summer squash, as well as acorn, delicata, and many pumpkins. Cucurbita maxima includes a long list of buttercups, Hubbards, turbans, bananas, and more pumpkins. The third, C. moschata, has the butternuts, cheese, trombetta – and yes, more pumpkins. A gardener without near neighbors can grow one variety from each species and confidently save the seeds without having to resort to hand pollination. Our only C. pepo this year will be Dark Star zucchini, the result of Bill Richards’ many years of breeding work on the Eel River flood plain. Delicious, prolific as the hybrid zucchinis, deep-rooted (Richards grows without irrigation), and cold-tolerant beyond the limits of other zukes.

But we also have seed of the delicata rehabilitated by Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seed in Oregon – another C. pepo. I used to love delicata, but in recent years have found its taste underwhelming. Other gardeners have reported an occasional bitter squash. Turns out all the seed was being grown by one company, and a wild C. pepo near its field cross-pollinated with the delicata, turning all commercial delicata seed into something less than desirable ever after. Morton found someone with older seed and used that, reselecting the best plants for several seasons until releasing it commercially this year. Lucinda, neighbor of the far hills, has agreed to grow this delicata as her only C. pepo – in exchange for a steady supply of Dark Star zucchini.

This week we’re engaged in the more difficult garden planning task of deciding where to plant all these fabulous foods. Halfway through, we’ve already realized we need two new garden beds to make room for the Dark Star and the sweet corn – the first open-pollinated super-sweet corn, in fact, called New Mama by its co-creators at Adaptive Seeds. I’m such a sweet corn snob that until this year I’ve insisted on the Japanese super-sweet hybrid Mirai and nothing else. So for me 2012 marks the beginning of a new era – local, sustainable, and sweet.

Why Save Seed?

Why Save Seed? Here’s the Big Picture view from last week’s Laytonville Garden Club meeting…
Agriculture began as a partnership between people and plants. Every plant we know as food was co-created, sometimes over a thousand years of growing seasons, by the equivalent of a backyard gardener in partnership with the plant. Someone started selecting the best teosinte seeds from that wild Mexican grass, planting and nurturing them with special care. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, indigenous gardeners in partnership with teosinte had created 7,000 distinct varieties of corn, some of them adapted to thrive as far north as New York.
This is plant breeding. As William Tracy (dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison) pointed out at the Organic Seed Growers Conference in Port Townsend, Washington in late January, plant breeding is not a science but a technology. “Plant breeding is working withplants – the breeder selects, and the plant creates solutions.” It’s a process ideally suited to small ecological farmers and home growers, whose success depends on close observation and careful selection. Every discerning seed saver is a plant breeder, as long as they pay attention to two important conditions: the minimum population necessary to ensure the particular species’ genetic diversity, and sufficient isolation from related species that could cross-pollinate with undesirable results.
Where does our seed come from today? The exponential curve of seed industry consolidation is the same curve shown by wealth consolidation, or population growth, or ice cap melt, or any dozen other catastrophic global trends. It doesn’t seem so bad at first – a few seed companies buying smaller ones, and dropping seed varieties that are not big sellers – but pretty soon it’s chemical companies buying large seed companies and here we are, at the dizzy peak. Monsanto now controls 90 percent of all crop seed; Bayer and Dupont own most of the rest. As industrial monoculture spread, bioregionally adapted varieties were abandoned in favor of seeds dependent on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, the real profit-makers for the companies now in control of seeds. No wonder 96 percent of vegetable and grain seed varieties are no longer available to farmers and gardeners. Genetically engineered crops up the ante further by contaminating the DNA of whatever neighboring crops they cross-pollinate, a problem especially critical to wind-pollinated plants like corn, canola, and sugar beets.
Here’s why I find this scenario completely encouraging. Though things are utterly messed up in every direction, in many aspects of life it’s difficult to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Transportation for example – I often find it necessary to drive a car. I try to minimize my carbon footprint when I can, but that’s not enough and I know it, which is why there is so little satisfaction to be found there. Growing seeds of the foods we eat is not mitigation or damage management – it’s the solution, pure and simple. It’s something anyone with even a rooftop garden or a back yard can do with at least one crop. It’s satisfying on so many levels at once – better nutrition, better tasting food, better health, secure localized food system that is not dependent on oil, etc. — plus the deep joy that can be found in an ongoing creative relationship with nature.
Though many crop varieties are extinct, many more have been squirreled away in seed banks and on the cellar shelves of home gardeners. The up side of globalization is that seeds saved by gardeners and plant breeders are quickly finding their way around the world, where they can fill missing niches and add resilience as regional varieties are re-established. A handful of seed can be enough to rehabilitate a variety. According to Bill McDorman, also at the conference – who should know, with thirty years’ experience in service to bioregional seed systems – “We’re going to grow it back – I think we have enough.”   There is enough genetic diversity in our remaining seed stocks that, in partnership with the plants, we can grow back a vibrant healthy cornucopia of future food. We can grow back a healthy world.
Another thing I like about our dire situation is that the solution only works on a community-wide or regional level – and it can work in every bioregion. It’s not global, and it’s not individual. Seed crops take up more space than other vegetables, and isolation distances require garden-planning coordination among neighbors. Growing seed is not a survivalist go-it-alone strategy — it’s the beginning of a more satisfying way of life. Every distinct bioregion on earth can reclaim and reinvent food plants that suit its particular soils and climate, and we can swap seeds with other regions as the climate continues to fluctuate.
Here in Mendocino County we have three particular advantages. One, we have a hard-won county ordinance that bans the cultivation of genetically modified plants. Two, we currently have no large agricultural tracts other than vineyards and orchards – this provides room to expand, say for grain production, and also gives us a break from the industrial-agriculture interests that can easily skew local priorities. Three, and I think this is the key, we have a rural population of expert gardeners scattered through the coast range – ideally isolated plots in a wide range of microclimates, perfect for growing food crops for seed, with knowledgeable organic growers already in residence. When I spoke at the garden club last week, community activist Jon Spitz spontaneously passed around a sign-up sheet for a Seed Growers Co-op, and we’re off and growing. Email me if you want to join in for this summer’s growing season. Beginners and experienced seed savers equally welcome.
Next: Selfers and Crossers, the organic advantage, and basic garden planning for growing seed (the rest of my talk, plus online resources for way more information).

Organic Seed Growers Conference (after)

 January 25. In the week I was away this place made its yearly transformation to chorus frog paradise. Last week: dry partly frozen ground, frogs quiet and hiding. Ten inches of rain later and I could hear the chorus from several hundred yards down the road as I returned Monday evening. The low corner of land I walked along last week lies under enough water to allow the dog a good swim. A feeling of celebration fills the evening air along with the sound (to hear it, and read more about the chorus frogs, click HERE). The cloud cover broke the spell of cold, too, bringing on a growth spurt in the winter hoop house greens, while the rain released all the scents that make up this fecund spring-in-winter season – astringent oak leaf compost, citrusy fir needles, the promise of mushrooms.

The Organic Seed Growers Conference was a completely over-stimulating mix of equal parts inspiration and practical learning, with hundreds of seed people who traveled through weather the Seattle forecasters dubbed “Snowmaggedon” to converge in Port Townsend, Washington. I met seed growers from Idaho, North Carolina, and Ireland (as well as many from the Pacific Northwest), organic plant breeders from Wisconsin and New York along with many from Washington and Oregon, community organic activists from Los Angeles, Iowa, Hawaii, and South Korea. Lin stayed behind nursing a cold but managed to attend electronically via live-broadcast webinars of many workshops (also attended by hundreds more people all over the world).
Now we’re spending the winter evenings reading out loud from our notes and planning our 2012 gardens. I’ll be speaking about the conference next week at the Laytonville Garden Club (Feb.1st at 1p.m.), and you’ll hear more too as we proceed with early spring plantings. I’m only beginning to digest what I learned, but I can say it was just as transformative for me as the big storm was for the chorus frogs.
Big Picture summary of the moment: The situation is dire (96% of food crop varieties extinct, a similar percentage of the world’s seed controlled by Monsanto) – and the opportunity for creative effective action is immense, and fun, and available to everyone. In partnership with plants, we can grow it back.
Occupy our food supply!

seedy enthusiasm runneth over

Laughing Frog Farm’s new re-organized Seed Pages are up, with new varieties added from last summer’s growing season. In the heirloom tomato realm, check out smoky Cherokee Chocolate, the prolific apricot-sized-and-colored Jaune Flamme, and the low-acid Lillian’s Yellow. We’ve got the reddest lettuce, and a recipe for positively addictive kale chips. Thank you Sharon Jokela for elegant web design and a shopping cart feature that works.
We’re about to go from our seedy gardens to seedy heaven – the Organic Seed Growers Conference sponsored by Organic Seed Alliance, this year in Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. A long day’s bus tour of organic seed production farms, followed by two days packed with workshops on every topic from basic seed production to breeding for positive microbial interactions. Plus speakers, a trade show, the seed swap of seed swaps, and even a dance with music by the Pheromones.
This year’s theme is Strengthening Community Seed Systems, and I’m looking forward to learning ways to organize more seed growers in this little pocket of paradise. Everyone knows rural Mendocino County is full of gardeners. So many scattered patches of cultivated land, ideally suited to saving seed without concerns over isolation distances. Some gardener can take on saving and improving Painted Mountain corn, say, and provide seeds for others, and in the same season be able to trade with growers of other varieties and have sweet corn to eat. Or something like that. I hope to hear how different communities are approaching this issue. And I’m sure we’ll come home with a few (dozen) amazing varieties to try out this year.

possum tale

 January 6. Polly O’Possum moved into the garden in late fall to glean apples. Every evening, there she’d be, nosing around under the trees. Chaco the dog started by barking and trying to chase, but opossums don’t exactly sprint away, and soon he switched to making friends, always his true agenda with any creature other than bear (run away), raccoon (give the appearance of being willing to fight viciously forever), or mouse (swallow it).

Even in the beginning Polly understood that Chaco was no real threat and never resorted to the defense of “playing possum”, an involuntary loss of consciousness like fainting that includes lips drawn back in a frozen snarl, foam around the mouth, and for a final touch, the release of an extraordinarily rank fluid from the anus. Polly just shares a nose-sniffing moment with the dog and goes back to foraging.
Now that the fallen apples are cleaned up, the opossum has shifted from her normally nocturnal schedule in order to eat chicken feed. At night the feeders are locked up along with the chickens (still accessible to mice, but that’s another story). We often find Polly chowing down at midday, or sometimes catching a nap in the rice hull bedding. (Opossums eat chicken eggs, but ours are safe in tall barrels she can’t reach.) She doesn’t “shoo”, and a push with the broom on her behind only makes her dig in, bracing her feet against the floor (all four feet have opposable thumbs, making this a surprisingly effective maneuver).
 I’ve taken to just picking her up and carrying her out the back door. From there it’s a long opossum trek back to the chicken feed – she won’t show up inside again until the next day. Meanwhile she’s combing through the garden for over-wintering insect larvae and filling our opossum niche with her gentleness. For an animal its size, opossums have very short lifespans, only 2-4 years, which makes me appreciate her odd presence even more.    

the afternoon chicken yard break

 December 30. The living skin of the planet in our little bioregion is happy today as the rains return. We’re at half the usual, which makes people and frogs nervous. The frogs have been all but silent, and just this morning as the mist turned to soft rain a few more spoke up hopefully. The cloud cover is just like my down quilt, holding in our warmth so nights are suddenly 40 degrees instead of 20. So much easier to stay warm.

I pass through the chicken yard a zillion times a day, as it lies between my house and most of the gardens. By their eager attention to my passage the hens remind me to bring along my kitchen scraps going one direction and vegetable treats from the hoophouses when I come back the other way. Often in the late afternoon I pause for a chicken yard break. It’s the most peaceful time there – hens have finished laying for the day with all its accompanying drama (“You’re on MY laying spot!” “No that’s mine!” “OMG I just laid a big one”). Lots of gentle contented talk, feather preening, digging here and there for a last snack before bed. And hey the camera was in my pocket when I sat down in one chair and put the bunch of carrots I’d just pulled in the other.
When I divided the harvest with the chooks, they were sure they’d gotten the best part of the deal with the carrot greens.
 

Usnea

 December 16. One measure of the special nature of this corner of the world is that at least half the time I mention Usnea, people  know what it is. I think of late fall and early winter as the season of Usnea, so I’m noticing and appreciating it now.

Worldwide, there are 600 species of Usnea. Our Pacific Northwest species is sometimes called Old Man’s Beard for its wispy dangling habit. It looks a lot like Spanish Moss, that constant companion of southern oaks (which is not actually a moss but a bromeliad). Usnea is not a moss either, but a lichen. And lichens, I love to remember, are formed of symbiotic relationships between fungi and algae, two very different life forms that come together to create a third totally distinct being.
Usnea anchors its pale green filaments to tree bark, here especially the twigs of deciduous oaks. When the trees are in leaf the Usnea remains unnoticed. When the Black Oaks drop their leaves, the trees are revealed not as skeletons of bare branches but as fully clothed Usnea scaffolds, pale fuzzy branches highlighted against the darker firs growing among them. Here’s a picture of the transformation in progress. 
Usnea is both an indicator and maintainer of air quality, declining in vigor as it traps pollutants. It has strong antibiotic and antifungal properties, making it ideal for dressing wounds. Not that I’ve ever used it in that capacity, but good to know. As an internal medicinal it’s even more useful, especially through the winter months, as its antibiotic properties focus especially on upper respiratory infections. As a winter cold preventative it functions as an immune system tonic. The sudden appearance of whole trees of Usnea reminds me to make a batch of tincture (the convenient way to take it, though a tea works also). Winter storms prune dead twigs and branches from the oaks, and these provide plenty of Usnea for medicine, with some left over to use as kindling, and plenty to leave for the deer to eat.

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germination testing

 November 24. I’m germination testing the laughing frog seeds of past years, using the method my favorite garden scientist, Carol Deppe, outlines in The Resilent Gardener. Layers of sopping wet paper towels, seeds placed in rows at one end, the whole rolled up and placed in a zip-loc plastic bag. I’m using a heat mat to keep them in the low 70s, a temperature range my house does not attain in winter. Specks of Hopi tobacco, tiny round mustards, the pale disks of pepper seeds and sorghum like shiny chips of obsidian. Every morning I unroll the paper towels to check on their progress (and give them some oxygen). As soon as the seeds swell I wring out the toweling and keep it just damp.

It’s entirely fun, like a junior high science fair project without the angst of competition or judging. I look forward to each day’s viewing and thrill to the miracle of the plant’s emergence root first from the husk of the seed.
Two-year-old Osaka Purple mustard seeds were the quickest, with 100% sprouted in the first 24 hours. It’s been a week now, and most varieties are finished. Excellent results for all but a few. Trombetta squash lags with only four vigorous sprouts out of 20 seeds, though others are still swelling as if they may yet germinate. Nothing at all from the stinging nettle, and I’m wondering if my methods are to blame rather than the seeds themselves. Do they require some condition I’m not providing? In the hoop houses the nettles reseed on their own, coming up by the thousands every fall when the summer crops are cleared away. More information needed, and further experiment.
The Laughing Frog seed pages will soon be reorganized to include the germination results. Trombetta and maybe nettles will be discontinued, and new varieties from this year added. Awe-inspiring fun, those seeds.
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gardening with petroleum

November 12. A few days ago I had a chance to meditate for hours on the subject of my conflicted relationship with our petroleum-centered way of life – while driving a tractor for the first time. Neighbor Martha (of Harvest Moon Farms lavender) offered to show me how to operate her Kubota, and she chugged it over to the giant pile of finished compost on Lin’s driveway. A 30-second lesson and I was on my own, using the tractor’s front scoop to carry three wheelbarrow-loads at a time out to the far hoop house. At first I was horrified at the diesel smell and the engine roar, but once I added hearing-protector muffs to my outfit I began to enjoy maneuvering the thing. A few hours later I’d moved more compost than I could ever have managed in a week via shovel and wheelbarrow.

Now that I’m in my sixtieth year – and it’s been forty years since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – I find I need to be more careful about overdoing physical labor. An hour of any one repetitive action – shoveling, raking, weeding – and that’s it. More, and the pain that follows is not the good ache of tired muscles but something more lingering that feels like damage. So I was thrilled to reach the end of the afternoon pain-free and with ten cubic yards of beautiful compost delivered to various garden spots, ready to spread on raised beds.

That’s more compost than we can create here in a year from the farm’s own materials. It was made fifty miles away, using gasoline-powered tools – chipper and backhoe – and transported here in a diesel dumptruck. I think about that as I drive the tractor, about how we’re using industrial-scale petroleum inputs to create the infrastructure – raised beds, greenhouses, deer-fenced areas – for what we intend ultimately to be a people-powered food-producing locally sustainable garden enterprise. Much of the forty cubic yards of compost purchased this year goes to filling new raised beds. Meanwhile we’re making more of our own compost each year, and banking that whenever we stop adding new planting areas we’ll be able to maintain fertility with cover crops and our own compost. The end of oil-dependent inputs is in sight. Whether we’ll be able to maintain all this just with our own diminishing physical capacities is another story. I’m hoping to attract a few young gardeners before long.

No photo of me and the tractor – you’ll have to imagine it.

last farmers market of the season

November 3. This time when the rain returns I feel ready, even relieved. Not ready as in all the garden beds cleared of summer crop skeletons, or the two dozen outdoor spigots (yes, I just counted) crowned with insulating caps for winter – those jobs go on and on. But I’m happy to be indoors by the fire, to feel at one with the inward turning of the season. It’s the past few weeks of Indian summer that did it – frost most nights, but afternoons in the 70s, and I’ve managed to be outside most of those sunny days. I no longer feel that “No, wait, not yet” reaction to the shorter days and the storm system settling over northern California.
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Last week was the final farmers’ market of the year in Mendocino village, and what a beautiful day for it. Sunny and warm, and we brought more condensed summer packed into the last sweet peppers – thick-walled Carmens, bright Tangerine Pimientos, twisty red Jimmy Nardellos, along with all the immature green peppers so tender in stir-fries. Plus the first fall crops – carrots, cabbages, kale and chard. We’ve loved coming out to the coast to participate in this small but very lively market, and are brimming with gratitude for our customers and for market managers Andy and Winnie who made us feel so welcome and appreciated. Chaco the farm dog loved market day too, and was more than willing to sit in the car for 5 hours each Friday before his chance to run on the beach and fetch sticks from the surf.

…misty dawn after rain…

dogatgate

October 6. Misty dawn after rain – lots of rain, at least 3 inches. There’s the newest hoop house with a raised bed edged by straw bales. We lined the bottom and sides with hardware cloth to make this one a gopher-free planting space. Lin has already planted garlic, and plans to fill the rest with shallots and some of our multiplying border glads. The deer fence is pretty much invisible, but you can see the old thornless blackberry canes woven into the stock gate. Minimal but effective.

Now back to harvesting for tomorrow’s Mendocino Farmers Market. The sky has cleared so temperatures going down tonight. Forecast says 35, so I’ll bring in all the basil, which would blacken at the thought of such a dip.

last day of summer

September 22. The last day of summer is giving the season a standing ovation at its departure. Ninety-six degrees, not a whiff of breeze, and the summer crops just galloping along, ripening so fast you can almost see the peppers redden. I’m happy to arrange the whole day around harvest, coming inside occasionally to cool down (we didn’t name this the Anti-Solar House for nothing).
So far: sweet peppers, eggplants, squash, cucumbers, melons, red noodle beans. Inside, I finished a batch of tomato sauce for the freezer. Still to bring in as the afternoon sun cuts a steeper angle and the breeze stirs: apples, grapes, tomatoes. Tera continues to keep the dehydrators going, with raisins, tomatoes, and more squash chips resulting.
Lin just found a single peach on the ground beneath the tallest of the peach trees – unbruised, unbitten by bird or rodent, and perfectly ripe. The peach harvest is in! (We’d seen fruit early but it had disappeared long before ripening, thanks to the Gang of Five yearling ravens for whom our home is their home.) So we’re pretty excited about this peach, and will eat it with much fanfare very soon.
Peach verdict in: A brilliant peach, says Lin. Best peach of the year, I add.

Heirloom Expo

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Here are some photos of our exhibit at the National Heirloom Exposition.
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What an event! The words I heard people use most to describe it, over and over, were Amazing, Awesome, and Inspiring.
expo2011b
We’re thrilled to have been a part of it, and especially to have been able to represent Mendocino County with our combination of Laughing Frog Farm, Roots to Fruits, Harvest Moon Farms, and carpenter/artist Dennis Curl.
expo2011c
Glad to be back home today, with the comparatively restful activities of harvest. Grapes to raisins, apples to sauce, basil to pesto, more dried squash.

“planning” for the Heirloom Expo

September 10. Back in February we heard about the National Heirloom Exposition being planned for Santa Rosa September 13-14-15. It sounded folksy and fun and we offered to participate. The Baker Creek Seed Company sponsors said great, and that was the last we thought about it until three weeks ago when suddenly everyone we met was planning to go, along with all their friends and family. A glance at the Heirloom Expo website revealed an event shaping up to be so huge it could mark a cultural shift point into that vital, lively, sane future we’ve all been dreaming about. Or at least the expo’s confluence with the full moon, not to mention the tenth anniversary of 9-11, gives it that weighty feel. We’d better start planning our booth, I thought, and I called to see what size space we were allotted. “As big as you want” was the answer, and that’s when life got significantly busier around here.

We invited some of our friends and neighbors to participate in our exhibit, and on Monday we’ll be in Santa Rosa at the fairground’s Hall of Flowers setting up an indoor space bigger than our strawbale house.  Our partners are Harvest Moon Farms with their lavender, Roots to Fruits nursery with lots of interesting medicinal and edible plants, and artist/carpenter Dennis Curl who is providing a gorgeous entry gate and essential building expertise. Lin wrote stories about all the principals and is at this moment working on a giant scarecrow with an eggplant nose and sunflower branch arms. Sharon Jokela converted our writing and photos into elegant display panels – as well as designing a Laughing Frog Farm t-shirt that will debut at the expo. My favorite part so far has been arranging all the details into an architectural plan that relies heavily on straw bales and hog panels. My hope is that the exhibit will communicate some of the joy and wonder we feel living in partnership with plants (and poultry – there’s a lot of fun chicken info too).

Meanwhile summer is blazing toward fall, 101 degrees at midday, zero humidity, grasses crunchy underfoot. Then night comes, sooner every day, and the temperature drops to 42. How do the garden plants manage that extreme daily shift? Some, like the squash, struggle in the heat, wilting daily. Others, like the tomatoes unfortunately, are slowed down by the cold nights. We have yet to harvest a ripe tomato from many of our plants; they’re full of big green fruit. Tera of squash tortilla fame has elaborated on her squash chips, making a ruffle-cut lemon-seasoned batch that I’ve hidden away so it can be rediscovered in winter. She’s also helping out with watering so Lin and I can focus more hours of the day on the expo – and she’ll be here to care for it all when we’re in Santa Rosa next week.

in praise of (thornless) blackberries

September 1. I love watching guests’ faces as they wade into the blackberries and realize there are no thorns. That moment of disbelief followed by grateful relaxation.

In Northern California we’re all used to fortresslike stands of Himalayan blackberries that have made themselves at home, and we know the more modest but still prickly native blackberries. We planted thornless varieties – Triple Crown has the biggest berries, Chester extends the season two to three weeks past the rest – along our first orchard’s deer fence ten years ago. As the gardens have expanded, so have our berry plantings. We eat them every day while they last, and freeze enough for an abundance of winter pies.blackberries

Here’s the berry crisp I bake most often, as it is practically effortless and fits my summer cooking requirement of ten-minute-maximum prep time.

–Toss 5 cups berries with a tablespoon of flour and mound into pie pan.
–Mix together a scant cup of flour and 1/3 cup brown sugar.
–Cut 5 tablespoons cold butter into flour mixture until the largest pieces are pea-sized.
–Spoon this over the berries.
–Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until top starts to brown.

It’s a toss-up which is most popular: still warm with vanilla ice cream, or with yogurt for breakfast.

the annual ode to summer squash

August 20. I feel the annual Ode to Summer Squash coming on. We’re at that stage when zucchinis pump their way from demure to Oh-My-God overnight. Even checking every day there are surprise gigantics. Chicken squash is what we call it around here, and the chickens love it right up until the season of melon rinds, at which point squash becomes just all right. I do my best to incorporate squash into at least one meal per day, most often steamed or stir-fried with pesto. I’ll never tire of squash as long as there is basil. I have also done my duty these ways: zucchini pancakes, grated squash salad, squash stick snacks (to dip in pesto). A couple of zucchinis of the Almost-Got-Away size are waiting to be stuffed and baked. I’m considering squash smoothies.

Tera, one of our neighborhood’s food artists, has taken on the challenge of dehydrating excess squash so we’ll have it for winter soups. If it lasts that long – the crunchy rounds are surprisingly tasty as squash chips, prompting Tera to make rosemary-salted zucchini chips and a lemon yellow squash version. Her next project involves grinding the dried slices into flour for squash/corn tortillas. All this bounty from just seven very happy plants.

It’s still early enough in the season that non-gardeners receive squash gifts with open arms, and we sell whatever we bring to the Mendocino farmers market (part of the incentive for recent squash creativity is that we haven’t gone to market the last two weeks). I confess that in the distant past I have been among those late summer gardeners to leave anonymous squash gifts on the doorsteps of strangers. Now there are the chickens, and I’ll be grateful for them next month when tomatoes have my attention and I don’t check the squash for several days and then find enough big ones to need the wheelbarrow to make a delivery to the chicken yard.  A good enough reason to keep chickens, if anyone needed another reason.

another year without drip irrigation

buckeyecuke

August 4. Every spring I talk as if I’m about to set up drip irrigation, and this year was no different. But I noticed I made no move to actually do it, even when help was offered. Even though I have boxes of timers, pressure regulators, and other fittings, not to mention rolls of plastic tubing with drip emitters built in. (All from the year I did get around to it. And yes it did save time, but was it worth the aggravation of accidentally stabbing the line with a spading fork, or having to hand-water areas that needed more than the rest of the bed, or finding, late in the season, that emitters had gotten clogged just enough to stunt plants, though not enough to wilt them and alert us to the problem?) There was also a disincentive in the way we garden – rows are rare, curves are common, most beds are patchworks with plants at different stages of growth and needing varying amounts of water, and everything gets rotated from year to year so my original dripline arrangement was quickly outdated.

Every year when I don’t get the irrigation lines in place by early summer (after that it’s too late, as plants are big and already mulched with rice straw), I think I’m some technophobic lazy person. It suddenly occurs to me, right now – I water by hand because I like it. I like it way better than I like dealing with drip irrigation. I love looking at each plant as I deliver the water it needs. I love noticing how each plant has grown. I note where gophers or undesirable insects have appeared, what plants need to be tied or staked, where ripe cukes are hiding. I notice the buckeye butterfly on the cucumber plant and even pause to take a photo. I compose mental lists of things that need doing soonest. I sing to the plants and compliment them. It may take longer but it’s time well and happily spent.

My breakfast reading this week is Carol Deppe’s newest book, The Resilient Gardener, subtitled “Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.” Deppe is such a rigorous scientist in her approach to everything that it’s a stretch for me, as an intuitive type, just to read her. Always worthwhile though, and this morning I come to a section called “Why I Hate Drip Irrigation.” Deppe is a plant breeder with a Ph.D. from Harvard, and when she hates drip irrigation she can say so in a list that goes on for several pages. Yes. I note that my intuition is working just fine; it’s the self-judgment that’s got to go.

gardening in climate-changing times

July 2. My strategy in these climate-changing times is to try growing a lot of everything. Something will thrive – you just can’t know what ahead of time. We started peppers and cukes and melons on heat mats in April. When we planted the stout little plants in the hoophouses in May the weather was so cold the youngsters just sat there mortified, not daring to grow a single leaf. Most of them just curled up and died. Fortunately we also planted peas and lettuces that have been happy with the unseasonable cold. Now that summer weather is here – July 1st marked the start of a projected succession of 95-degree-days – the remaining peppers are unfolding from their cowering stance, all the heat-loving plants are looking happy – and lettuces are beginning to bolt, peas have probably flowered their last.

merlot?The pea that produced the most in its short season was Blizzard, a snow pea from Alaska. These peas were so sweet and tender they never made it to a sauté pan; we munched the whole crop raw. Also in this extended cool season we grew the reddest lettuce I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been trying them out for a few years now). It’s called Merlot, and if I can get on top of the wild lettuce weeding by the time it flowers I’ll save seed.

Every gardening year has always been unique, with its own challenges of weather or pests and its particular star crops that do better than all the rest. But lets face it, from here on out conditions will be more erratic, with wider and more sudden swings between extremes that we may never have experienced. Tornados? Floods? We had snow in Laytonville on May 15 this year.

My plan is to keep starting plants for a wide range of conditions. And appreciate every plant that successfully navigates whatever weird weather comes to pass. Right now I’m appreciating tomatoes. They were started at the same time as the peppers, planted out in the soggy cold—and they sat out the dreary weather stoically, not growing but not succumbing either. Every slightly warm day they’d grow a little, and now they’re galloping along. (For seed this year, we’ll have Cherokee Chocolate, Jaune Flamme, and Lillian’s Yellow).

spring tonic

April 28. Spring tonic time for humans and chickens, courtesy of garden weeds. The raised beds drain well enough to tolerate weeding this week, so loads of cress, plantain, dock, and late brassicas go to the chicken yard. The yellow dock roots come in to be pared into thin slivers for tea. Miner’s lettuce makes elegant salads.

The first frogs have arrived in the gardens from their tadpole pools nearby, tiny and perfect, staring wide-eyed at the new world. The fenced gardens function as frog refuges all summer, off-limits to chickens and to the neighborhood wild turkeys and feral peacocks, all of whom love to eat little frogs. (More on the native  chorus frogs, if you haven’t read about them yet.)

3s a crowdBroody is the word in chicken world. The Shamo hen has month-old chicks; all day they forage under the protective cover of the manzanitas, moving together as a little unit among the larger flock. Starlight the blue Sumatra diligently guards a clutch of eggs, and Fiona the turkey is setting on an ever growing number of eggs, over two dozen at last count. Her nest is a popular laying spot for Edna, the other turkey hen, as well as for many chickens. Here’s a picture that’s a little hard to decipher. Fiona and Edna are both in the box, tails up and heads down, while one of the Ameraucana hens has settled in on top of them to lay her egg. Not an unusual sight around here.

spring gratitude

 April 19. I’ve never been so thankful for dreary weather. The cold drizzle slows time just enough to allow for planting flats of lettuce, basil, greens, tomatoes, peppers – and then there’s the luxury of weeding carrot and beet beds in the hoophouse to the patter of tiny raindrops on the plastic roof. Not to mention truly winter activities like reading. …I stop writing this long enough to get a savory custard into the oven. Another boon of the season is the surplus of eggs too dirty to sell, trampled in the nests by muddy hen feet, so I’m experimenting with custards. This one features mushrooms gathered yesterday in the fallow beds of the cathedral (the biggest hoophouse). Some kind of Agaricus, substantial and delicious and producing all winter. By the time I’ve sautéed them, and beaten the eggs and cream and fresh oregano I dig out from under the fallen tree debris just outside the door, actual sun is streaming in the east window. Dawn’s solid grey sky has opened into a patchwork of blue and white, with the clouds looking more innocent and poofy by the minute. Stepping outside, I can feel the warmth already.

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Maybe it comes from the raw open-hearted state that is the core of grieving, I don’t know, but this year I feel the shifts of the season with no mediation. My emotions are the weather. The sun is out, so I make a joyful pilgrimage around the farm, checking on the budding Trillium under the oaks, the buttercups beginning to open in the still-waterlogged meadow. Fritillaria meleagris, the improbable native checker lily, planted four years ago from bulbs started and encouraged by Dorothy, has truly naturalized and has more blooms than ever. I stop to take even more photos of it, on my way to the hoophouses to crank open their sides before too much heat gathers inside. 
By the time I get back to the house the clouds have closed up the sky again. What a relief to feel slightly more contained, to eat custard and sort through flower seeds to plant.

March 24. When I started pruning fruit trees, I loved the instant gratification aspect, seeing the plant’s ideal shape emerge from the tangle of suckers and crossed branches. The longer I do it, the more I feel the slow thrill that comes as the trees mature into shapes that take decades to fully express themselves.

We planted the first apple and pear trees ten years ago, even before moving into the house, in the parking lot of the former azalea nursery, chosen for its slight elevation above the vernal pools that make the place a winter frog heaven. It took a pick axe to break through the compacted rock surface for the nine trees. I dragged all the dump-worthy junk that came with the property into a heaped ring around the trees to keep deer from nibbling the new shoots until we built a fence. I could hardly bear to lop off the slender growth but did it almost as cruelly as all the experts advised.

Since then, we’ve grafted more trees from our favorites (Pink Pearl apple, especially), added peaches to the main garden (an iffy prospect here but worth it for fruit every third year or so), and added another orchard in an area with barely good enough drainage, planting the trees in raised mounds. Oh, and the chicken yard, formerly a driveway – we dug one-foot-deep holes through the rock, broke up the soil and added gypsum, placed big pots with extra drainage in the holes, and planted apples and pears. Scraps of deer fencing fitted to the pot interiors keep the hens from damaging the tree roots. Not the most beautiful arrangement but the trees are happy, as are the chickens.

Buds are swollen but our winter weather continues, keeping the trees from bursting into premature bloom and allowing me to finish up the yearly pruning at this late date. No grafting this year, but we did manage grape cuttings from our most vigorous and delicious table varieties. That would be Flame for red, Perlette for green, and deep blue Glenora, whose quarter-inch fruits pack a concentrated wallop of taste. Also some seeded but nevertheless fabulous Muscats, New York and Golden. We’ll have rooted plants for sale in the summer.

I was sitting by the fire this morning, watching the snow out the windows, when I heard a deep groan from the earth. Then the biggest old oak near the woodshed began to tip toward the house. It came on slowly, regally, until it crashed across the deck and the corner of the roof above my chair. Knocked the stovepipe askew, disassembled a teak deck chair, uprooted another tree so close it shared the same root ball (that one fell across the driveway but missed my car), and provided firewood for all next year and maybe the year after. Not to mention the Usnea bonanza for the four does who browse this meadow every morning.

yummy stinging nettles

March 7. ‘Tis the season to sing in praise of nettles. Delicious, nutritious, vitaminious, prolific, carefree. They come up on their own in the hoophouse and by February we’re harvesting. They keep producing tender leaves until the weather heats up at the end of May. I leave a plant every six feet or so to reseed the bed when I plant summer greenhouse crops, and they wait quietly to begin again when winter comes back around.

The serrated leaf tips have tiny needles filled with formic acid. When these edges bump straight on into skin, the acid is injected, raising little welts and accounting for the stinging in the name. Brush along the flat surface and feel no pain—or wear gloves, no big deal. Some people recoil even from the sight of our nettle seed packets and wonder why we’d want to proliferate such an unpleasant weed. They haven’t tried them lightly steamed, or stir-fried in olive oil with garlic, and they’ve certainly never had nesto.
I was introduced to nesto by my extraordinary cousin Jane Bell during her years on Alaska’s Kenai peninsula, where nettle-eating was an eagerly anticipated rite of spring. (See Jane’s website for her flower essence formulas and classes.) Her recipe, approximately:
         2 T. sunflower seeds lightly sauteed in garlic oil or ghee
         3-6 cloves minced garlic
         2 c steamed nettles, drained
         3T parmesan cheese
         olive oil to cover and create the consistency you want
I do it now with fresh uncooked nettles; blending the leaves breaks open the formic acid pouches and the acid is neutralized.
On her regular trips to the Bay Area, Lin delivers our nettles to Phoenix Pastaficio in Berkeley. Here’s Eric happy to get a bag. He and Carole offer nettle pasta and ravioli. The ravioli, stuffed with Eric’s mixture of cheeses and nettles, are also on the menu at Green’s Restaurant in San Francisco.
I also dry nettles for calcium-rich tea, and make a beautifully bright green vodka tincture. The old plants go into compost tea to supply garden plants with minerals. All in all, totally worth the occasional sting. (And don’t forget we have seeds…)

rearrange your DNA? what chorus frogs can do…

February 9. It’s a chorus frog extravaganza beyond any we remember. Rain early and often has filled the vernal pools so the frogs know they have the time needed for production of the next generation. Every night they sing together in celebration – party, worship, call for mates, whatever you call it, the sound penetrates the thick straw walls and closed double windows like a high-pitched tribal drumbeat. Open the door and it’s a wall of sound, solid and insistent and loud even though the big pond is a hundred yards away. Walk out into the dark and the sound engulfs you, echoes inside your cells, rearranges your DNA. Or something like that, some radical wild nature atunement.I’m experiencing the wrap-around frog chorale several times a week when I can come home for a respite from elder duty. Yes, it’s the winter season of elders passing. Aunt Jean on November 28, and now I’m staying with 96-year-old step-dad Bill as he approaches the end of his time here with good humor, boundless curiosity, and a willingness to share his experience as it unfolds. This may explain the hiatus in farm news. Plus, at the turn of the year I moved from the strawbale cabin Lin and I built into the older house at the other side of the property. Another pond, smaller than the back pasture main stage but big enough for a damn good show, lies close to this house. On my occasional nights in Laytonville I can hear the chorus all night at soothing lullaby decibel levels.

(This post actually written January 17, which I mention for anyone who may be interested in the finer details of chorus frog life. That was the peak of the season. The nightly songfest is still the main attraction, but it’s no longer so overwhelming.)  

winter is the season of the seed

November 20. I’m sorting, cleaning, and packing away seed saved from the summer. Here’s what I’ve got: Trombetta squash, still in its beautiful snaky containers. Brazilian broccoli, a.k.a. Piricicaba, on its long stalks, wrapped in a sheet. Black-seeded sorghum, Limelight millet, Japanese bunching onion, Hopi tobacco, Hungarian bread poppy, nettles, Ammi, Cupani sweet pea. And the tomato seeds: Greek Asimina and 3 kinds of cherries – Katinka, Black Cherry, and Sweet Baby Girl.

Outside there’s a storm coming on, gusts of wind and rain blowing gold and orange leaves to the ground, the sky a thick slate so dark I have a light on even as I sit by the south-facing windows. A fire in the woodstove, 38 degrees outside. The times as well as the season are full of endings and big changes, in my small life as well as in the life of the whole planet. I’m often anxious, and sleep can be elusive. Seeds are the promise of a new beginning, and the essential thing to remember about winter. I dance on the bedsheet of broccoli – Cajun music on KMUD – to release the seeds from their dry pods. Then lots of pouring through screens from bucket to bucket. I’m grateful to align with the season this ordinary tedious way, right now, as the rain picks up and the sound on the roof shifts from ping to roar.madroneberry

I make a song of sorts to accompany my work:

The year ends and begins with winter/
The seed is the end and the beginning/
Winter is the season of the seed.

what I love about fall

peachleaves

November 7.  We are in the week of the most colorful leaves, and in the main garden the brightest star is the O’Henry. The leaves of the peach beside it have barely yellowed while O’ Henry’s have achieved unanimous dazzle. As I watch, a gust of wind sweeps through and scatters handfuls of curling parentheses across the grass, leaving the tree noticeably less clothed. I can see the slender skeleton of brown-pink twigs that will soon be the tree.

This is what I love about fall – the mixture of ephemeral and flamboyant that wakes us up to beauty in one moment and blows it away in the next. Perfectly appropriate preparation for winter, to feel this astonished wonder as we dig out the long johns, stack firewood, and begin to turn inward along with the peach trees.

In other ways, fall is the beginning – especially, with so much early rain this year, it’s a promising start to the fungi season. Already I’ve seen some of the mushrooms I know, like rosy Russulas and tasty little puffballs, some I need to look up to remember, like the noble Stropharia ambigua, and many in the l.b.m. (little brown mushroom) category I don’t even try to identify. Last night I sautéed a lovely fat Agaricus campestris to add to dinner. One more rain and perhaps the boletes will fruit. When I walked over to the woods yesterday to check likely spots, I encountered the rising vernal pond, fallen Oregon ash leaves dappling its surface, eager chorus frogs at its edges. Another beginning. 

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inside the hoop house in the rain

 
October 29. Suddenly we’re swimming into winter. The first frost a few days ago, and now we’re 36 hours into this particular shower without pause, about 4 inches so far. Suiting up in a raincoat is part of going out the door – rubber boots, not yet. My Crocs can handle water an inch deep, and that’s how it is all the way across the solar garden to the big hoophouse. Inside the hoophouse the sound is an uplifting roar, like being inside a taut drum as it is tapped in quick quirky rhythms by a million fingers. The earth is drinking in all this water, but rain is falling faster than the solid clay soil can let it through. The underground aquifers are filling; the creek went from a trickle to 3 feet deep overnight. Some time in December the water table will rise so high that vernal pools will appear where the meadow meets the woods. The low corner of the farm will become a pond deep enough to make a yak swim (now there’s a story), big enough to host a huge winter gathering of Pacific chorus frogs.bestfrogyet

The frogs are waiting alertly in their usual summer haunts – everywhere we use water, from gardens to toilet bowls – and a few are beginning to warm up their singing voices with gritty throat-clearing calls. As the water rises they’ll congregate out there in their hundreds and thousands and start the party.

after our last farmers market of 2010

October 4. I love the sound of ravens’ wings, close overhead, like scissors cutting silk. I’m lounging on the deck couch, notebook at hand, in the perfect Indian summer 11 a.m. temperature of 76 degrees. Never mind I’m only sitting down because I’m under the influence of a migraine headache – it still counts as both lounging and writing. Whatever it takes, and at this point in the harvest season it takes a migraine, apparently.
There are 8 flats of tomatoes tucked around the living room in various stages of under- and over-ripeness, baskets of cosmetically challenged apples, a refrigerator full of peppers and squash – and that’s after another Mendocino farmers’ market at which I pretty much sold out what I brought. It may have been my last market for the season; even though we’re buried in tomatoes and peppers, that’s about it for marketable items. Not enough variety.
This time at the market I had equal amounts of sweet peppers and hot, and the hot Anchos are giant and a gorgeous red. I sold all the sweet and almost none of the hot, I think because at previous markets I’ve had mainly sweet and customers are coming back for more. I also had an eye-catching display of twisty Trombetta squash, some of them hanging from the basket handle.  Many people came to my table just to see them up close, many commented and asked about them, but all day only one person bought any. I said encouraging things – nutty flavor, firmer texture than other summer squash so they hold up well in a sauce – but that wasn’t enough. The Pink Pearl apples were another story. Three or four people who knew Pink Pearl bought them all, picking through the more numerous Gala to find them. I’d sliced one in half to show the pink interior, and ended up giving even that to a man who arrived just a minute too late. Those who know, love. I’m not giving up on the Trombetta – I’ll have seed packets for sale by December.

Laytonville tomato tasting

September 22. I wouldn’t have gone to this week’s Laytonville Farmers Market except it’s the annual tomato tasting day. Marbry the market goddess supplied a table, shade umbrella, cutting board, toothpicks, containers, and a big stand-up easel for the list of tomato varieties where tasters could cast their votes. All the vendors who had tomatoes contributed samples. I set up my produce next to the sampling table so I could keep track of both at once. We set out containers of tomato chunks with name cards and an intact example. I forgot to take photos.
frogoncherrytom
The first person to stop by said he already had a favorite, Black Cherry. Marbry and I looked at each other like, Is he crazy? We’d both brought Black Cherry, but she’d debated whether to bother, and so had Lin, who picked ours. I grew it in a privileged seed-worthy spot this year but have been so underwhelmed with its performance and taste that I’d decided not to save the seed after all. Were we surprised when taster after taster added stars by its name on the voting chart so that by the end of the afternoon Black Cherry was far and away the winner – along with Striped German, which was not such a surprise, as it is such a big beautiful odd tomato, striped rose and yellow outside and all the way through, and with a flavor tasters tended to lapse into wine-speak over – a hint of pepper, with a hickory smoke aftertaste, etc.
It was the Monday after Earthdance, held just a few miles up the road, so 5,000 hung-over and/or still tripping urban tribal mainly white people with dreadlocks and arty tattoos and scant bits of handcrafted faux-postapocalyptic clothing were passing by, heading back toward the Bay Area or wherever. Many of them stopped. Many tasted tomatoes. Besides the winners, we had Tennessee Heirloom, Asimina, Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee Chocolate, Jaune Flamme, Mountain Gold, Sungold, Sun Sugar, Chadwick Cherry, and Sweet Baby Girl. Every tomato was someone’s favorite. Marbry theorized that once Striped German and Black Cherry accumulated a few more votes than the rest, the power of suggestion boosted them into the superstar realm. How else to explain Black Cherry? By now even I am persuaded – maybe I’ll save seeds after all.
That Pacific chorus frog is perched on one of the winning tomatoes – yes, a Black Cherry, only a bit over an inch across. 

Mendocino Farmers Market

origamitomatoSeptember 14. I’ve been out to the coast to sell at the Mendocino Farmers Market the last two Fridays. Sunny but cool, a delicious breather from the inland midday heat, a beautiful little street market at the edge of the most picturesque town in the county, and don’t forget the winding drive through redwoods and along the thin ribbon of Hwy. 1 over the Pacific. Is this any way to earn a living?

The answer so far is no, but the process is so enlivening and satisfying in other ways that I want to tweak it into economic feasibility. All my free time Thursday harvesting and getting ready – that includes making origami boxes for cherry tomatoes from sheets of newspaper – and then this morning the hour and a half drive to Mendocino, an hour to set up, two hours for the market, etc. I don’t actually know how much money I took in because I didn’t count the money already in my pocket – I switched it to an unused pocket before the market but soon found myself stuffing bills into that pocket too – but let’s say it was around $150. This doesn’t make sense even just counting the two days of prep and market and the gasoline to get there, yet that part is just the culmination of months or, in the case of the grapes, years, of gardening work. When I look at it like that it makes me laugh at my foolishness. It only works in some other than economic realm, so far, even though it’s all about buying and selling.
Last week’s carrot buyer is sniffing around fifteen minutes before market opening, swooning about the taste of those carrots. When I unveil today’s carrots (wrapped in a damp dish towel) he lunges for them and holds a ferny bunch to his chest. The woman next to him, with her eye on the 3 big Cherokee Chocolate tomatoes, says “You can’t get them yet.” He says “I can hold them.” Her fingers are twitching over the tomatoes, so I tell her she can go ahead and pick them up now.
The woman says she bought basil last week at the supermarket and it had no smell and not much taste. “This is the real thing,” she says, inhaling the bunch, and as she does another woman steps up with the same complaint. The first one hands the basil over – “Smell it.”
The man confides that today is his birthday. As he and his wife look at the grapes, they have the idea to ring his birthday cake (a 5-inch circle of something gluten-free, he tells me) with grape clusters. They get a pretty selection of Flame, Perlette, and the tiny deep blue Glenora.
The origami boxes sell a lot of cherry tomatoes – easily twice the amount we sold last week by the pound (and at a slightly higher price, as a box holds about 14 oz. but sells for the same price as a pound). I made 20 boxes, at 4 minutes each, so go figure that into the economics of the situation.
Here’s something to remember, though – many sellers are making a go of it. I’m not the guy next to us last week who said he’d just sold 150 pounds of lemon cucumbers at the Ft. Bragg farmers market. No refrigerator truck. No canopy. I’m out here with two card tables in front of my Toyota station wagon, the one with 275,000 miles on it. I’m experimenting with this, and liking it. Would I like it so much if I were growing enough produce to stock a bigger stand every week, enough produce to actually call it an income? I might like the opportunity to find out.

heaven is a melon like this

arava.jpgSeptember 3. As I eat this slice of Arava melon (an Israeli hybrid) I think about how we or our children will need local sources for our seeds (not to mention what we grow will be what we eat). Arava, of the brilliant green flesh and a taste that could be described as ecstatic, is so far the best-tasting and the most productive, in our low humidity heat and cold night summers, of any melon we’ve tried. That cool green sweetness as the wet fruit slides onto your tongue, followed by the realization, as the green sweetness multiplies and merges with taste receptors you didn’t even know you had, that here is a melon of transcendental proportion. A few bites and your habitual resistances to happiness dissolve and you think, Life is Sweet, whatever else is happening, in this moment I’m eating the most delicious melon and life is sweet.

Chickens love the Arava rinds, but that’s not saying much as the chicken list of favorite foods is a very long one. This morning, along with melon rinds, the chickens got Trombetta squash, Asian cucumbers, and reject strawberries (that means previously sampled by bugs or rodents), all cut into pieces a chicken could grab and run with. Strawberries perhaps surpass melon rinds in popularity, but the whole bucket is welcomed enthusiastically. That’s why I never give them anything with mold on it – some chicken may very well eat first and ask questions later, by which time it will be too late.

Arava’s taste and productivity could be stabilized into a new open-pollinated variety over several years with a sprawling measure of land and irrigation water allocated to it. It’s not a home-garden-scale project. But what if hundreds of home gardeners each found one food plant to lovingly obsess over? The Arava melon breeder would have it tough – all those melons, each one needing to be tasted. I’m already thinking how there’s space in the solar garden but a big melon patch so near ground squirrel town would need a live-in protector. A little terrier perhaps. Please – somebody else do it – don’t throw me into that melon patch.

the fabulously floriferous wedding

August 28. Well, the wedding. The fabulously floriferous wedding. Five months after planting the first seeds, the day arrived.
6:30 a.m. – Lin and I are out harvesting, filling 5-gallon bucket after bucket (warm water inside) with clouds of Ammi and Nicotiana, dark Moulin Rouge sunflowers, the tail end of the gladioli (not hundreds like a month ago, but many dozens).
flwrsnvan.jpg
9:30 a.m.—The bride’s father arrives to pick up the flowers, accompanied by amiable fellow wedding-gardener Kofi, whose five buckets of flowers are already tucked into the back of the mini-van. Lin and I leave an hour behind the flowers, stop to eat along the way, and arrive at the wedding grove (Nelson Family Vineyards near Hopland) at…
12:30 p.m. – The setting is a bowl of lawn shaded by old oaks, with a view out onto the vineyard. A brisk wind flaps white tablecloths held in place by stacks of dinner plates on a dozen big tables. A minimalist arbor of manzanita branches, constructed by the groom, frames the view of the vineyard and serves as the backdrop for the ceremony. All the buckets of flowers, including more from Lauren, the other participating gardener and also one of the bridesmaids, stand ready in the shade beside a work table. Lauren’s contribution includes lots of surprises: Rudbeckia, Gallardia, Cleome, and lots of heavily fragrant Oriental lilies. We see the vases for the first time, after hearing rumors about them for months – tall, modern, crystal, with the look of flowing water, bought at a department store sale by the bride’s mother and shipped out from Iowa last week.
12:50 p.m. – We’ve organized the buckets and vases, procured water for them, and set to work. We’ll have Kofi’s help for 2 hours – then he must go back to Ukiah to buy thrift store wedding clothes (his one suit not yet cleaned after another wedding last weekend). He keeps busy on prep work, stripping stems. Our other flower-arranging team member has not arrived.
1:30 p.m. – We hear that our other volunteer overslept and won’t be here in time to help at all. Gusts of wind sweep all the flowers to one side of the vase as I put them in, so I keep adding more until each vase is so full the stems are locked in place.
2:00 p.m. – The first arrangements I made were the largest two, using the tallest stems, for the base of the arbor. I set them on the lawn in the lee of the bar so they’d be out of the wind, but that wasn’t enough. I watch from across the grove as the wind catches one and then the other and they spill across the grass in slow motion. The vases are fine but only a few flowers survive. I find a pair of short vases and make a couple low bouquets to replace the tall ones. Our work area is a heap of discarded flower parts, and the ordered line of buckets has disintegrated as we shift them around to keep them shaded as the sun moves.
2:40 p.m. – The florist in charge of the bride’s and bridesmaids’ bouquets arrives with her perfect creations. “This is so interesting,” she says as she looks us over – “It reminds me of a project I did where I had homeless people come in and help arrange flowers.”
3:10 p.m. – Jenelle, Kofi’s gardening partner, arrives and sends Kofi off with her truck. She steps in long enough to make a couple dramatic table arrangements before she must adjourn to the little cabin at the edge of the grove where the bride and her maids, Jenelle among them, are stepping out of their everyday country clothes and into elegant wedding silks. The wind has become a spritely breeze; no more vases have fallen.
3:30 p.m. – Lin moves over to the arbor to bulk it up with grape branches we cut this morning. The bride’s grandparents come over to offer encouragement and assistance as she fastens flowers among the grape leaves and ties a vase to the foot of each arch just to be sure they stay upright. The grandparents drove from Iowa and are camping in a nearby state park; he is the minister officiating today.
4:05 p.m. – A generous arrangement of flowers is on each round dining table. Lin is working on the arbor, finding a use for the single-stem water holders she bought at the Oakland Flower Mart last week. I trot up to the head table, a long one on a rise facing the rest of the gathering, sloshing along several buckets of flowers, 2 low bowls, a scrap of hardware cloth, and a pair of tin snips. I fashion little frogs for the bowls to hold flowers in place – couldn’t do it ahead, since we hadn’t seen the vases, but all those library books on flower arranging had shown us the necessity. Lin has already been here with the grapevines, twining them along the front of the table, connecting the two long low arrangements I make in the bowls.
4:35 – Lin appears, huffing “Stop – we’ve got to stop doing flowers and clean up.” I surface from flower-arranging trance and look down at the grove, now filling with clean people in their best clothes. Many are moving from table to table looking at the flowers. Everyone is smiling. “In a minute,” I say. “I have to finish.”
4:45 – As we gather up our gear, load empty buckets into my car, and put the flower debris in a tidy pile that will disappear during the ceremony thanks to the caterers, guests greet us in a tentative way as they take in our disheveled, old-dirty-farmhand style. We don’t stop to chat. One friend – thank you, Lucinda – sees the situation in a glance and asks if there’s more to do. Plenty of flowers remain, and more vases. When I tell her we could use a couple more arrangements – for the gift table, the bar, the music table – she steps right up, finishing the job while Lin and I go change clothes in the porta-potty.
4:55 – We arrive as guests. It’s beautiful. The wind has calmed completely and the scent of Lauren’s lilies pervades the grove. Guests are taking photos of the flowers, which is why I can share these pictures (thank you, KC Chamberlain and Carolyn Brown), since Lin and I have finished with doing anything but enjoying a sweet celebration.

instant chicken teriyaki

August 12. We started a total of 200 chicks this spring, which means dealing with way more cockerels than we’d want to eat in a year. My favorite strategy has turned out to be the Willits Chinese Buffet. No, Bob isn’t serving them in the restaurant – too many regulatory complications for that – but he loves birds, is an expert cook, and has a nice set-up way out back for his chickens and pigeons and quail. We dropped off a batch of boys a couple months ago and in due course received a succulent meal of the biggest one. Then last week we took in 16 more – 15 from the youngest batch plus a one-year-old Orloff we’d been saving as a back-up rooster in case our main Orloff died suddenly. The replacement guy was nice enough but small, and one of the new chicks, from a slightly bigger gene pool, is turning out to be a gigantic handsome fellow, so when Bob’s wife Susan asked if we had a full-sized bird she could immediately turn into a medicinal soup to aid her recovery from the flu, the yearling’s number came up. Bob and Susan knew when we were coming, so they got busy. As soon as we unloaded the birds, they handed us a big tray of teriyaki chicken – two more of the first batch transformed. It was a dizzy moment, to go from rowdy teenage cockerels to savory meat instantaneously.

cubalaya-feathers
Cubalaya feathers

My relaxed rule for myself is that I only eat animals I knew personally or am convinced had a good life and were humanely killed. Around here that means it’s possible to eat beef, buffalo, pork, and lamb, even in some restaurants, with a clear conscience. The economics of meat chickens remain mired in factory production, though. Especially this year we’ve had people want to buy ready-to-cook chickens from us, but the labor and costs involved would put the price of a fryer higher than we want to go. Plus butchering is intense, prayerful, focused work for me, and I want to keep it that way by doing it only very occasionally. Last year I arranged for friends who also raise chickens to slaughter our meat birds and return half of them to us plucked and cleaned. That worked. Tasty healthy meat that was not recognizable as a particular bird we’d gotten fond of but couldn’t keep. Of course, this time of year it gets easier to decide to slaughter them, as the volume goes up on the crowing and the testosterone behavior kicks in.

By the way, the varmint who gnawed the heads off a total of five 3-month-old chicks turned out to be a skunk. Not the big fellow who snuffles around for cat food crumbs but a dainty creature a third his size. We cornered her on two occasions and set up the live trap so she’d have to go into it – we thought – only to come out in the morning to an empty trap. Disgusted with the evidence that we had been outsmarted, twice, by a very small skunk, I set the trap aside, still open but not baited, and forgot about it. The next morning Lin noticed the skunk, caught, curled up in a nest she’d made of grasses she’d pulled into the trap. Not a snarl nor a whiff when we carried the cage to the back of the truck and transported her to a new home, a lovely spot on the bank of a creek far enough from here. I left an egg for her – one last meal from Chicken World to start off her new life.

here’s to useless beauty

July 29. When I started gardening, if I couldn’t eat it I wasn’t interested. The first flowers I grew were edible (Johnny-jump-up, nasturtium), and I was many seasons in before I grew a flower just for beauty’s sake. Even here in Mendocino County, Lin has been the one to buy bulbs in the fall, and 4” perennials from Annie’s, and to add flower seed packets to our winter catalog orders.
glad
It’s not like I’m oblivious to flowers. I’ve spent lots of time with them, listening, writing about them, painting their portraits – in fact I prefer the company of flowers to that of most people. Especially non-hybridized species flowers with their more complex and quirky personalities. But with gardening I think about food first, so this year is a continuing revelation.
zinniajuly
It’s a super-abundant flower year anyway due to all that late rain – every native wildflower blooming in stands spread to twice their usual area, garden perennials like the roses solid with flowers – but growing the wedding flowers really puts it over the top. Two weeks away, and half the glads have already bloomed, bronzy red sunflowers just starting, zinnias going strong, stock over, Nicotiana cut back and sending up more spikes. I hear that other wedding gardens are a little behind ours, and that the snapdragons are just beginning, so it may be shaping up to be a 
sunflower/zinnia affair. The glads wanted a July wedding. 
glads
Every other day I harvest a packed bucket of glads, a handful of zinnias, a few more sunflowers than the time before. Can’t keep up with the billowy clouds of ammi, though attempts are made. Lin brings library books about flower arranging and we practice. Flower bouquets have taken on the role zucchini plays for most gardeners –who else can we give one to? – well, they may be zucchini to us, but the recipients seem more pleased than anyone would be with a squash. I spent 2 hours yesterday arranging flowers after an especially thorough harvest– a happy and relaxing activity aside from the stabs of guilt I felt at engaging in such a “useless” pastime while so many real chores called. Amazing how deep the wellsprings of work-ethic severity. Fortunately many more flowers to come. More flower arranging practice. More useless beauty.

 

 

when summer is young…flowers and chicks

july4weddingflwrsJuly 5. Wedding flower update: The Nicotiana are beginning to flower, way ahead of schedule, but it’s just as well because flowering early is the least of their problems. All but four of the plants are the wrong variety, a pale color Baker Creek offers as ‘Lime Green’, not the rosy-pink mix we bought as ‘Scentsation’. If the color was an eye-popping chartreuse it might do, except for another feature: the green-flowered plants have absolutely no scent. And with six weeks to go before the wedding, we can’t quite start over.

Ammi and stock are beginning to bloom too – we can only hope that obsessive deadheading will keep flowers coming. The border glads planted at two-week intervals have equalized their growth so now there is no discernible difference between them. I don’t want to see flower stalks for many weeks. Sunflowers way behind but now established and growing fast. Zinnias, the totally foolproof flowers of my southern California childhood, are offering themselves as the sacrificial bug magnets of the hoophouses. It looks like the damage cucumber beetles do, and neighbors report unusually heavy infestations this year, but our cucumbers, growing immediately adjacent to the zinnias, are untouched. I have yet to remember, during the nighttime, to go out with a flashlight to search for the culprits in action.

Maybe I haven’t remembered because I’ve had other culprits on my mind. We lost four of the 2-month-old chicks a few nights ago to a weasel-sized predator that tunneled in at a corner where the buried wire had rusted away. We set a cement foundation for that corner the next day, have locked the chicks inside at night (some were roosting in their covered outdoor pen, which we had assumed was safe), and are taking the fierce Poobrador out on nighttime patrols of Chicken World’s perimeters. The animal has been back to sniff around and do a little ineffectual digging, but with no further meals available will probably move on soon. We’ve been fortunate with chicken predation for a good long while– this is the first loss in four years. 
chicksondeck
      On a happier chick note, the Delaware pullets and cockerel we’re keeping told me their names yesterday – Dinah, Delilah, and Denny. I’m not surprised they’re the first to reveal this information, as they’ve been very socially assertive and confident from the beginning. We’re also trying two other breeds that are new to us: Buff Chanteclers, roly-poly Canadian winter layers, and Sicilian Buttercups, perhaps the prettiest of the crop with their stripy russet  coloring and cup-shaped combs. 

gopher appreciation

June 22. I was in the chicken yard the other day when Baxter slipped over the fence from the orchard with a fresh-caught gopher. Baxter is a tabby cat of feral ancestry, born under a storage shed here to a mother who appeared in the neighborhood only days before giving birth. When he sees a mouse he purrs. He’s our complete rodent control program. Before Baxter, ground squirrels had their own tunnel entrances into each enclosed outdoor chicken pen. They lay around in the grain bowls, flipping their tails in the face of any chicken who tried to eat. On Baxter’s watch, the ground squirrel village has relocated 100 yards from the chickens and we only have to concern ourselves with their forays into the big hoophouse in the pasture, which is a little beyond Baxter’s range. Before Baxter, if we went into the chicken house at night we were sure to hear the scurrying sound of mice running up the walls as we opened the door. Now Baxter asks to be locked in there for the night once every couple weeks, and we never see a mouse.

The hens, especially the Spangled Russian Orloffs, who are good mousers themselves in daylight, understand and appreciate Baxter’s talent. They keep an eye on the cat, following him closely in order to be ready to steal away his catch. (How does a chicken eat a mouse? She first holds it by the tail and bangs it on the ground to tenderize it, then swallows it whole, head first.) So why would Baxter bring his gopher into the chicken yard? He laid it on the ground under the manzanitas and gazed at the plump body for a few minutes, then started on the head. At the first little crunch, an Orloff hen ran over to investigate. Baxter ate the whole gopher, quickly, while she watched with great interest. Just showing off?

gopherlunchOkay, one more gopher story. For my birthday Lin and I went to San Francisco to the Academy of Sciences. When we parked, a great blue heron stood nearby on the lawn. I walked up to within ten feet of the bird and we stood there a while. Suddenly the heron cocked her head, crouched, and folded her neck the way they do when about to grab a fish in shallow water. Then, so quickly I could hardly believe what I was seeing, she stabbed the ground at just the angle she would have used fishing in a pond, inserting her long beak six inches into the crumbly soil, and came up with a gopher, dead on impact. She spent five minutes tossing it in the air and catching it, banging it on the ground, and generally enjoying her good fortune, before tossing it one more time, catching it head first, and swallowing. 

 

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chicks and butterflies and breeze — it must be Spring

June 8. So much activity around here it’s taken a migraine to slow me down enough to write a note. Thank you headache. I’m sitting with the youngest fifty chicks, getting them used to a human. They’re just over a month old now, and they’ve only been outdoors the past week. Not how we like to do it at all. That last unexpected chick shipment has been a bit stressful for poultry and people both. These chicks had plenty of room indoors but not enough light to see us coming. Small high windows, electric lights hanging 3 feet off the floor. From their bright little world, the chicks would see our giant shapes swoop down out of the darkness above them like raptors. Now they’re scratching and eating and preening around me, making little satisfied chick sounds and all is well. Until a raven flies over, low, at which they rush under the ramp and freeze there, turning their heads so one eye can see straight up. Now that they’ve seen real predators they’ve switched people into a different category.

We’re having what, for here, is an uncharacteristically gradual transition between wet season and dry. It’s an actual springtime, 76 degrees this afternoon, invigorating breeze, flowers ridiculously luxuriant. From here I can see a wall of azaleas at the far side of the garden, and the Fantin Latour rose I love for its fragrance even though it’s pink, and California poppies like foam on the waves, blooming across the garden on their own initiative. The azaleas are natives too, but planted in a forty-foot row some thirty years ago by Jim Garver, former proprietor here of a native nursery specializing in azaleas. These are his mother plants, started from cuttings gathered in wild locations from Mendocino Co. up into southern coastal Oregon, from particular plants more colorful or scented or floriferous than anyone else around them. He propagated from these plants via tissue culture in what, in his day, was a sterile lab attached to his shade greenhouse. As I’m looking at them I spot the first swallowtail of the season at its favorite nectar source.
 
Wedding flowers: Nicotiana, Ammi, and stock are growing happily in the flower house. Zinnias wish the nights were warmer – I planted the rest of them in the main hoophouse for that reason. Sunflowers may be too far behind – I have starts in a flat, waiting to go into the earth at the turn of the moon, which hopefully will coincide with completion of a new rooster apartment that will mean no roosters in the garden. They don’t damage any established plants, but they pecked a row of tomato transplants down to stumps. Yes, I’m talking about Fabian and Diego. The new apartment is not the Rooster Folly in the chicken yard woods planned by Lin, but a much simpler arrangement that uses an existing roof and wall, appropriates space from the garden but opens into the chicken yard. It will be quite a demotion for Fabian and Diego, but they’ll still be able to commune with girls through the fence, and that’s what matters most, after all. Plus we’ll be able to plant the garden.

 

let it rain

 June 2. Spring has been an occasional day or two of balmy sun between unusually long stretches of cold rain. Nobody around here is complaining, exactly – after a dry early winter, we’re just now approaching normal rainfall for the season. Still, with soil too soggy and cold to plant, some people have already given up hope for summer crops. If it weren’t for the hoophouses we’d have no garden started yet, either.
The new flower house, 12×24’, is filled with wedding flower starts and some cucumbers and lettuce. We’re eating from the main hoophouse (20×48’) right now – peas, Brazilian broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, strawberries, artichokes. Yesterday we harvested the main garlic crop in there and planted the remaining peppers. Most of the warm-season seeds started indoors in April on heat mats are planted now in the hoophouse: cucumbers, the climbing Trombetta squash, basil, and more of the wedding zinnias, which so do not want to be in cold soil. The other big hoophouse, which we call the cathedral (30×48’), has one tomato variety we’ll save for seed (Persimmon), some winter squash and onions, and all the melons. Poor melons, completely in shock from the cold, not yet growing a bit.  
     

You can see the Brazilian broccoli –Piracicaba – against the hoophouse wall on the right, and beside it a row of ‘Music’ garlic, slower to mature than our main crop of ‘Spanish Roja’. The tub holds border gladiolus for the August wedding. The spicy fragrant Dianthus in front are best known as Cottage Pinks (on the right) and Cheddar Pinks (left). Both are from Annie’s Annuals, my favorite nursery for perennial flowers (I’m likely to start annual flowers from seed, but go to Annie’s for dependable and unexpected repeat performers).  

Outdoors, whenever the soil dries out enough, we pull weeds and dig in compost. A third of the garden beds are ready but too cold for the seeds we want to plant. Another third are weeded but need compost, and the rest are too wet even to pull weeds. We’re resorting to starting seeds in flats indoors that we would rather plant direct – corn, wedding sunflowers, millet and sorghum.

I have to admit I’m experiencing all this not as a hardship but as a welcome organizer and pace-slowing device. Weather can be great that way – there’s no arguing with it. I remember that last year, with a more normal headlong spring, the hoophouse was neglected while we readied garden beds. This year it’s pretty fabulous, like the greenhouse of some other more fastidious gardener, while the orchard, for instance, still features five-foot-tall grass blocking the paths. Even the hens are having trouble getting beyond the entrance. 

the wedding flower project

May 12.   I’m beginning to see that the wedding flower project may substantially change the look of our gardens this summer. As usual I hadn’t really thought it through, but in this case the unforseen result may be a surplus of beauty. Probably not a dearth of vegetables, since we’ve also increased our growing areas.

It started with Megan renting the other house on our place, soon joined by her boyfriend Scott, both of them transplanted Midwesterners, reliable and resourceful as they come, and young enough to be making a home together for the first time. They managed to buy their own ten acres nearby and just last week moved into the yurt they put up there. On August 14th they’re getting married – a big outdoor wedding in an oak grove at Nelson Family Vineyards near Ukiah. We volunteered to coordinate growing the flowers for the wedding.

Mid-August is not an easy time for flowers here. We’ll have our last rains in May, maybe a last shower in June if we’re lucky. Then the humidity drops and the dry heat settles in, still with cold nights (if it’s 90 in the day, it will probably get down to 40 that night). We chose a range of flowers we think are likely to bloom on cue if our timing in growing them is right, in a range of colors that features soft rosy shades, whites and lime greens for bright spots, and deep burgundies to match the bridesmaids’ dresses. Megan and Scott and many of their friends are skillful gardeners, so we’ve spread the risk among half a dozen growers, with every variety being grown in 2 or 3 locations. To help with timing, seeds have been started in batches at weekly intervals.
The dress-matching blooms are sunflowers ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Velvet Queen’, along with ‘Wine’ zinnias. We’ve also got white sunflowers ‘Moonshadow’ and ‘Itammi,stock,zinniaalian Green Heart’, the ‘Art Deco’ mix of zinnias and the bright ‘Lime’ zinnia. Ammi provides lacy white bouquet filler. Upright stalks of Border Gladiolus come in lots of vivid color combinations and will be a more useful height than the taller regular glads. ‘Flamingo Feather’ Celosia adds deep pink spikes, Gomphrena ‘QIS Formula’ has little globes in all the rosy shades, and ‘Rocket’ snapdragons add their old-fashioned soft colors. ‘Lucinda’ stock and ‘Scentsation’ Nicotiana provide perfume.
Of all of them, I’ve only grown sunflowers, zinnias, and glads, and never have I tried for a particular bloom date, so it’s all a big experiment. The first seeds were started early April on heat mats indoors. Lots of them will be transplanted outdoors soon after May’s new moon.

folly x 50

May 4. For days the word “folly” has been rolling around on my tongue. As in the folly of this web site endeavor as an act of commerce, not to mention the folly of this little farmstead. Webster defines folly: “any foolish and useless but expensive undertaking”. Well there you go. I can’t help but like the word. I want to turn it inside out, like the Tarot card of the Fool, which I find thrilling and auspicious though perhaps not for the faint of heart.

The Fool is the beginning card of the Tarot, that transcendent springtime act of creating something new, aligned with the exuberant green energy of the season. It’s about wonder and curiosity. Stepping confidently off the cliff, eyes wide open, ready to fly or tumble to new ground. No fear.

Lin is threatening to build a new rooster abode separate from the chicken house. Actually she’s gone far beyond threat; she’s assembled most of the materials and is waiting for a slight lull in garden-planting and chick-rearing activities. The new rooster quarters will be a folly too, though unfortunately not one of those Victorian gazebo follies we’d turn into poultry housing in a minute if we had such a structure. It would be lovely to house the Sumatra and Cubalaya roosters in a folly out in the manzanita forest part of the chicken yard, and give their current quarters over to hens. Lovely folly.

Meanwhile in the garden, more rooster folly. I woke to thuds and scrabbling sounds,


but it took a while for me to remember: last night I moved the Ameraucana rooster into the garden. Here’s the scene at 6:30 a.m.: the Ameraucana already owns the place. Diego the Catalana is sopping wet from running through tall dewy grass, with his own loose feathers stuck to the blood on his wattles. He has retreated to the deck and is anxiously peering in the windows looking for reinforcements – which I admit I’ve provided several times already, jumping up to chase the Ameraucana off the deck so Diego at least has that bit of territory. Fabulous Fabian has taken up a position as far from the Ameraucana as he can get, up against the deer fence on the wild side of the garden. All three roosters are crowing incessantly, Diego while staring me in the eye.

The reason for this rooster drama is a phone call I received yesterday afternoon. “Your chicks are in the mail.” I knew some of the chicks Lin had ordered earlier hadn’t arrived in Sandhill’s first two batches, but Lin had told them never mind until next year. Never mind that – “how many?” was all I could say. Fifty.

The Ameraucanas have been living in an indoor/outdoor apartment of the chicken house so we’d have fertile eggs to hatch, and not incidentally because their mister is ridiculously aggressive with other roosters. The timid Marans rooster moved in with his hens when we converted the main hen apartment to the chick room – the Marans took over the outdoor portion while the chicks were too young to go outside. Incubation of the resulting Marans eggs revealed Jean-Marie to be shooting blanks, so when the first batch of chicks were feathered enough to go out, the Marans, including Jean-Marie, joined the main flock. At least he doesn’t have to encounter the Ameraucana thug.

Today the Ameraucana hens will join the flock. Fortunately yesterday Lin made a pullet/hen delivery, so some roosting spots are available. I’ll move the oldest chicks, who no longer need a light and begin to go to new homes tomorrow anyway, into the Ameraucana space. The second group, still on the heat lamp but feathered enough to spend days outside, can replace the older chicks on the side of the chick room that opens into the outdoor covered pen, and their place will be available for the 50 chicks who will arrive tomorrow. The youngest chicks here now are the Ameraucanas – 19 of them hatched in the incubator only a few days before the in-the-mail chicks, so we’ll be able to combine them once the new ones recover from shipping. Just a few hours of cleaning, and of course the process of catching and moving 93 fast chicks, and I’ll be ready for tomorrow’s 8 a.m. arrival.

The Ameraucana chick compartment has a surprising feature. I put in a big rock to

hold the divider in place, and the moment we transferred the fuzzballs from their bathroom box to their new quarters they ran to the rock and climbed up. It’s their favorite place.

It’s folly to celebrate nature’s beauty and bounty and wisdom with so little thought to making a buck. Deliberate folly. Necessary folly, as we restructure our world in order to support what truly has value – something to think about as I scrub in the chicken house.

peeps from the incubator

April 27. When I came in for the evening I heard peeps from the incubator. Lin couldn’t remember – well, I couldn’t either – when she started this batch, but thought they had another week. When I looked, I saw no movement or cracked eggs. But so far this morning there are 3 tiny Americaunas. I’ve set up a box with a heat lamp in the bathroom.

Rain all night, over two and a half inches, and still coming down. Big gusts of wind waving the flowering crab apple branches and setting off the wicker rocker on the deck. The next moment sun shines through and the green of everything becomes suddenly almost unbearably vivid. Gone the next moment though, and then a renewed torrent. Ah, spring.

Animals get attention before plants, so some days it seems like it’s all chickens around here, but of course the plant world carries us all. We still have 15 flats of baby tomatoes, peppers, and flowers going outside every morning and back into the living room each night (sounds like they march in and out on their own), another 10 flats in the main hoophouse (some nights with row cover for a few more degrees of protection), and I just started 6 more flats: cukes, melons, squash, and zinnias. I’m hoping for seed crops of my new favorite watermelon, Cream of Saskatchewan, and for Trombetta squash. I don’t often like white fruits or vegetables. In fact Cream of Saskatchewan may be the first I like so much I intend to grow all I can eat and save seed to sell. The pleasure of eating it last summer made us groan, and its northern heritage allowed it to ripen in this climate of nightly 40-50-degree temperature drops. And Trombetta, my favorite summer squash for nutty taste, firm texture, and the most extravagant climbing vines. The zinnias are part of the wedding flower project, about which more later.

chicken appreciation



April 19. Spring is hitting its dazzling irresistible stride, rebirth and bloom everywhere you turn. My gardening to-do lists get longer, with more starred items meaning Must Do Right Away, and when the Must Do items far exceed the hours in the day it sometimes sends me over the top. That’s when chickens perform their vital attitude-tweaking service.

3-week olds outside

All morning I putter in the house, feeling oppressed by the long lists of things to do immediately, and anxious because I’m not doing any of those things, but unable to proceed because Where to begin? It’s a pathetic kind of suffering, I think, thereby adding guilt and judgment to my condition. I can hear a background of chicken talk and at one particularly raucous crescendo I go out to check on them.

As usual, I can discern no cause for alarm. In fact, chicken world seems a contagiously happy place. At the sound of the gate opening, hens come running from all over the yard to see if I’m bearing treats. Edna the turkey too, and then she settles into a trance at my feet. How can I resist the glad-to-be-alive ambience?

Fiona in grain dish

I look into the chicken house. Fiona, the yearling turkey hen, is still wedged into the grain dish where she spent the night. She’s been laying an egg every few days since February, and now she’s broody, but she hasn’t yet gotten the part about mating.  As I pass by, one of the Orloffs who favors that particular dish for her eggs jumps up and hassles Fiona. After talking about it in an agitated way for a few minutes, the Orloff starts squeezing into the dish on top of the turkey.

It’s noon – I haven’t been out here since I set them up for the day at 7:30, cleaning up, changing waters, replenishing grain, distributing the big tub of weeds I pulled yesterday from a garden bed ready to come out of hibernation. Now there are 3 eggs in every popular laying spot – in the barrel with the Shamo hen still trying to brood (the Tragedy of the Turkey Eggs, stillborn, has not weakened her resolve), in the tall bag of shavings, in the Ameraucanas’ box, and of course in the very attractive grain dish overflowing with Fiona. (No eggs in any of the built-in laying boxes – I don’t bother looking there). Gathering eggs is a satisfaction that never fades.

Polish – 3 weeks old

In the inner sanctum of the chick room, I practice moving so slowly their tiny but well-developed alarms don’t go off. Even without a hen to show them, the chicks know to flee from large animals overhead. Most are asleep now, scattered about in flat downy heaps. Except one Cubalaya in the young-chick side of the box who flies up to the top of the water container to peer at me. She’s just a little too big to belong with the week-old chicks. When I pick her up to return her to the other side, she’s so relieved she forgets to struggle in my hand.

As I come back out to the garden, the sun comes out, and then a little breeze picks up. The sun is cheering but not really warm – which is good, making me realize there is still plenty of springtime left before the dry hot summer. The breeze is crisp and cool enough to be bracing.  Plenty of springtime still to come. Plenty of time.

one hundred chicks

March 29. We’re in the calm few days after two batches of mail order chicks have arrived and all our incubator chicks have hatched and everybody’s settled in. Chicks are easy at this stage, the way babies are easy – they don’t take up much space and as long as their very definite needs are met they’re happy. Lin even delivered two chick orders already, to Sonoma County and to Berkeley, leaving us with a mere one hundred chicks at home.

The day before the first chicks arrived, our new Farmtek hoop house was delivered while we were away. We came home to find the giant box at the side of the road by our driveway. We had to empty the box into the truck to move its contents, all the sectional poles of the framework and the roll of plastic to cover it – and what remained, the 8-foot-long, 40-inch wide cardboard box reinforced with 2x4s, was perfect for the chicks. It just fit into the newly emptied and cleaned hen pen (even though I spent the time it took to drag it there complaining that it was too big). It will keep the chicks out of dark corners, and separate them from the broody Shamo hen on the turkey eggs in a corner of the same room.
On Wednesday we picked up the first batch (from Sand Hill Preservation Center) at the post office at 8 a.m. when the truck pulled in, 80 chicks in a loudly cheeping box. The chick nursery was ready with newspaper carpet, chick feed (grain ground into smaller pieces than the adults get), waterers (too shallow for drowning), and 2 heat lamps on adjustable chains set at 18 inches from the floor. We unpacked the chicks one by one, dunked each one’s beak in the water and watched to be sure they swallowed, then set them down under a light. One chick was dead on arrival and one more died within an hour. The rest, after a few minutes of amazed gazing, began to rip around the box like tiny maniacs, and kept it up all day. Every time we’d look, three out of 80 would be trying to sleep, only managing a few seconds at a time before a chick ran them over. Finally when I looked in at 10 p.m. the ratio had reversed, with three chicks kicking up the grain, running to the water and then zigzagging full speed across the pen, while all the rest lay in a solid mass of feathery pelts in a circle under the light.

That night the first incubator chick peeped all night, and the next morning another box of chicks arrived (Ideal Hatchery). By that night the incubator sounds were so constant I remembered why I refused to do the incubator last year. Apparently it takes 2 years for the memory to fade to the point that I don’t object. In this case harmony and sleep were restored simply by moving the incubator into the bathroom and shutting the door. Brilliant.

No losses in the Ideal chick order, but one severely spraddle-legged chick. Lin located excellent directions for making an assistive device from a band-aid to help the chick pull her legs together. She was immediately able to stand up with the band-aid in place – now we’ll see if she’s able to recover, or if there are other problems, as is sometimes the case.
Between chick care and starting the summer vegetables like tomatoes and peppers  (in flats on heat mats, on the floor beneath our south windows) on top of the usual farm activities, we’re a bit on the exhausted side, so chick TV is totally absorbing. If only we could fit a comfortable chair into the chick nursery. Watching chicks run across the pen and make a flying leap for the center of the circle of chicks who are trying to sleep, landing on top and then quickly burrowing down into the warmth of the fluffy pile. Earnest gatherings around the water. Chicks in the food tray, already kicking with the vigor of full-grown hens. From morning to evening, seeing 3/4 inch of wing feathers emerge from the fuzzy down. (Wing feathers grow in first, so even as tiny puff balls they’ll be able to fly. If they had a demanding mother, say a Sumatra or Ameraucana, she might make them fly up to roost within 2 weeks of hatching.) Plus with 2 dozen breeds represented in our 100 chicks, we can spend hours trying to figure out who’s who.

3 roosters are living in the garden

Three roosters are living in the garden this winter. It started with Fabian, out of desperation. Never mind he’s the lightweight of the roosters, he never let up. He fought with every rooster, either losing repeatedly to Mr. Sumatra and bouncing back for more, or hassling Jean-Marie Maran, the biggest but least aggressive guy. We tried him in the lathe house with the turkeys, but at the end of the day I found him wedged between two straw bales, only his tail showing, flattened and barely able to breathe. The turkeys didn’t like him. Finally we threw him into the garden, which for a chicken is much like Brer Rabbit and the briar patch. Plenty of tasty vegetables to eat, a fence on one side offering prime hen viewing, and on the other a covered deck with big windows offering the entertainment of what we usually call chicken tv. Humans eating breakfast, etc.
I tacked up a roost high under the porch eave of the chicken house building – at least it’s not the eave of our house, though it’s only ten feet away from the house – and hoisted him up there the first night. Soon he learned he could get us moving sooner in the morning – time to let out those hens, don’t you think? – by coming up to the window glass to crow at dawn. When Jean-Marie failed to hold his own with the other roosters, he joined Fabian, who magnanimously deigned to share his spacious deluxe quarters with his former tormentee. The trio was completed with the addition of Diego the Catalana. Fabian occasionally chases them, but with plenty of room to run things settle down quickly. When we plant the garden beds, we’ll cover seedlings until they grow taller than a rooster. They’ll eat low-hanging tomatoes and any tender new leaves, but they won’t inflict as much damage all summer as the hens would do in twenty minutes. It’s the scratching and digging of hens that really tears up a garden, and roosters just don’t.