We’re in the thick of that most enigmatic of gardening seasons, when very little is actually growing but everything is possible. Our imaginations are the main garden tools now – how gratifying and simple to picture that perfect tomato, warm and heavy as we pluck it from the vine. Our dream gardens are lush and healthy and never overrun by gophers or cucumber beetles. Our vegetables look just like the glossy pictures I think of as seed catalog porn. Whatever disappointments came with last year’s garden have faded by now – hopefully not completely, as we want to learn from them. Now is the time to plan strategies that will improve this year’s results. And now is the time to plan for seed saving.
If you’re new to saving seed or have limited available space, consider your favorite open-pollinated lettuce. A viable lettuce seed crop can be grown in 20 square feet, and you can eat the outer leaves right up until the plants begin to send up their flower stalks. Start by planting at least 40 seeds. Pull out any seedlings that are not totally vigorous. When the first plants bolt, pull them out too – you want to select for bolt-resistance, so be ruthless about it. A seed population can be as small as 10 plants.
The four-foot-tall flowering stalks have a ragged weedy beauty, and will attract beneficial insects to the garden. Tiny solitary bees and hover flies will visit the flowers but won’t be pollinating, as lettuce flowers pollinate themselves before they open.
After blooming, the flowers close back up to ripen their seeds. When they open again they will be tiny white tufts of feathery parachute stuff attached to the hard seeds. They don’t all open at once, and they tend to stay put on the plant unless there’s a strong wind, so be patient with them and wait until a majority have opened. Then cut off the stalks near the base – or pull up the plants by the roots, a better choice if you need to harvest a bit early to avoid rain – and place them upside down in paper bags to complete drying.
By saving the last plants to go to seed, you’ll be lengthening the edible life span of next year’s crop. The next generation will also be better adapted to your growing conditions. It’s amazing and humbling how quickly vegetables adapt to our particular needs just by our attentive selection. May we find ourselves as willing to adapt to a changing world.
All the elements were there, perfectly combined, for a winter seed cleaning day to remember. Four women, warm sun at the edge of a beautiful garden, and a bumper crop of Dark Star zucchini. Five wheelbarrow loads of giant hard-shelled zukes piled beside us. We used various methods to break the squash open – shovel, hatchet, and slamming them against the ground – and sat scooping seeds into a big tub of water while we visited. The activity clicked us directly into the lineage of seed-saving ancestors. We felt the tribal continuity, the beautiful necessity, the vibrant life force contained in the seeds. It was so much fun.
Lauren grew a 20-foot bed and managed to keep her housemates and guests from harvesting more than a few as summer squash. She’d grown Dark Star when she sold produce at the Willits Farmers Market in past years, so she already loved and appreciated the plant. She’d even been to Eel River Farms in Humboldt County and seen how Bill Reynolds developed the variety there. Dark Star keeps growing through light frosts, and handles heat and drought better than other zucchinis too. Reynolds selected ruthlessly as he dry-farmed them on his floodplain land, so these plants have a serious root system.
When we had all the seeds in the water, we strained them through colanders, poured them out onto old towels laid on a table in the sun, wrapped them up, and rubbed and rolled them. Then we transferred the clean seeds to screens indoors to dry. If you order Dark Star Zucchini from Laughing Frog this year, these are the seeds you will receive.
I’ve just finished my morning bowl of acorn mush, and is it ever way better than it sounds or looks – you do not want to see its photo, trust me on that. Here’s the method I used…
First I put my harvest in a pail of water to sort out floaters. I’d skip this step next time, as there was only one. Then I dried them in the sun a few days. I cracked the shells with a hammer – lots of acorns ricocheting around the kitchen – then switched to a regular nutcracker, which works fine. There were a few worms, and a few more that had begun to mold (perhaps due to the unnecessary immersion in water).
I put the shelled acorn meats through the blender with water – one cup acorns / three cups water. Then I poured the mixture into a quart jar and set it in the refrigerator. The next morning, the acorn meal had settled to the bottom, and the water was dark orange with tannin. I poured off the water and added more, screwed the lid back on, shook the jar, and replaced it in the frig. I did this daily for a week, by which time the water was only barely discolored. This is really easy, and takes no more time than it does to read about it.
I’ve used the resulting glop as a thickener for soup and pudding as well as a breakfast. The taste is mildly nutty, like chestnuts. Today I added raisins, pecan bits, cacao nibs, and just a taste of maple syrup and coconut oil, and heated it until it bulked up into the consistency of oatmeal. I poured it over fresh pear chunks. Satisfying. Warming. Divine.
There’s no denying it’s a bumper season for acorns in northern California, but there are many conflicting opinions on what this means. In casual polling, the majority view seems to be that the oaks are so stressed by the drought that they have made the supreme effort to produce masses of acorns this year. Some go as far as to say they believe the trees are dying, and this crop is their last desperate hope. Countering this are the few optimists who insist the trees know enough rain is coming to support the growth of new oaks.
Whatever the cause, it’s an accomplishment that flirts with the miraculous. Not only are there lots and lots of acorns, but they’re larger than in any year I’ve seen. Here’s one that Kristine Hill picked up near one of the younger Valley oaks that shade her Whispering Winds Nursery in Ukiah. Whoa. This would be the year to experiment with acorns as food – it will never be easier to harvest enough to make porridge or bread or acorn cookies.
My own harvesting – yes, how could I resist? – has been from one grandmother Valley oak I pass often on neighborhood walks, pausing just long enough to bend and fill my pockets. This tree is an ancient resident carefully encouraged by an iron support made for a massive branch that extends horizontally for 65 feet from the main trunk. Just standing nearby slows my pulse and encourages me to enter tree-time, a much more spacious, patient, generous state than is engendered by other activities of my day, like driving or using electronic devices. The gift of these big acorns is generosity piled on generosity.
With just a little tweak, our culture could properly venerate trees like this one. Think of all the places in the world where a tree like this would be a well-known shrine. It would have a name. Offerings would be left for it, prayers would be written out and tied to the little fence before it, pilgrimages would be undertaken. Mexico, Japan, Bali – or right here at home where native traditions have never abandoned connection with the earth and still acknowledge the wisdom of the tree people.
Unfortunately I now find myself unwilling to say exactly where this tree can be found. Big trees are vulnerable to crazy men with chain saws. I would like that thought to not even enter my mind. We are in the midst of the shift into reverence for the earth – everyone I know is feeling it and looking for ways to live it, but are we all there? Do we trust the people we meet to be respectful? When ancient oaks are still being cut to make way for vineyards, or highways, or bigger buildings, how do we live our appreciation for their sacred presence in ways that are contagious, that lead us into the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible? (Thank you to Charles Eisenstein for that resonant phrase.)
One way might be to harvest some acorns, and plant the most magnificent of them, and nurture them along. Another might be to harvest some for food. What a great school project or kids’ activity. A quick internet scan reveals many acorn processing methods. Here is the way I intend to do it, gleaned from a handful of sources:
1. Dry the acorns so the nut shrinks a bit in the shell, making it easier to extract (a cookie sheet in 150-degree oven for an hour).
2. Shell them – I’ll try the hammer method.
3. Acorn meats and water in blender (1 cup acorns to 3 cups water)
4. Leaching – very important step – pour blended mush into a jar and refrigerate. Every day pour off the water and add fresh, until the water is clear. Different species have varying tannin levels – Valley oaks may take as little as 3 days, while coast live oaks will take at least a week.
5. Strain through cheesecloth.
6. Dry if using as flour – in a dehydrator, low oven, or in the sun.
As acorn enthusiasts point out, this may sound like a lot of work, but it is actually far less than the effort required to grow, harvest, thresh, and grind wheat. One oak can easily drop a thousand pounds of acorns. A taste similar to chestnuts, some protein, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates, and gluten-free!
I’ll report on my processing and cooking results. And please share your experiences here, and your thoughts on the significance of this bounty.
What can I report from the National Heirloom Exposition last week in Santa Rosa? My experience there consisted almost entirely of talking with people at Laughing Frog’s booth. I’m a hermit by nature. I estimate I had actual conversations – interesting, often informative, and sometimes inspiring conversations – with around 300 people over the course of three days. And it was great! I came home encouraged, not only about my own seedy endeavors but about the future of food and the world in general.
There were lots of northern Californians, but people came from southern California too, and from North Carolina and Texas and Wyoming and Minnesota and New York and etc. The most popular Laughing Frog seed was Piracicaba, the Brazilian broccoli that produces forever and can still be planted this month in California. People shared pictures of their gardens, including several featuring that most photogenic of vegetables, the Trombetta squash in its loopy 4-foot length. Sunflowers, sorghum, and millet were popular with those who want to grow chicken treats, and one woman bought sorghum and millet to grow for her 18-year-old pet cow. Jaune Flamme was the #1 tomato, no doubt because it was the only variety of which I had samples. And the word is apparently out about the nutritional super-food status of purslane. Reaction shifted from the past – Why do you have this weed? – to the now – I want that.
I’ll be giving a free seed-cleaning workshop this Saturday, September 20, at the Ukiah Public Library, at noon. I’ll have tomato seeds for a demonstration of wet-seed cleaning, but most of our time will be spent on dry seeds. I’ve got lettuce and sorghum and maybe some beans. Bring your seed crops and we’ll clean them there.
Another opportunity, this one sponsored by the Lake and Mendocino Seed Bank: Seed Cleaning Party, October 5, Sunday, 1-5pm, at Ancient Lake Gardens in Kelseyville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
On the last day of August I’m appreciating the sunflowers I planted back in April. They are performing just as I’d hoped only more so – more wild beauty, more unflagging cheerfulness, more food for small birds, more screening from the street so I can sit on the porch and feel enclosed in a cloud of optimism. My first herbal teacher, Rosemary Gladstar, used to say that the way to receive the most healing and information from a plant was to sit with the living being out where it grows. The thing I like about these sunflowers in particular – okay, two things – they derive from a native California strain and embody a kind of exuberant independence that those big-headed domestic sunflowers lack. And their multi-branching habit means they keep flowering on and on. The goldfinches arrived for the first ripe seeds three weeks ago and come every morning to check for more. New flowers will keep blooming up until frost. And enough seeds will escape the birds and field mice to bring another flush of eight-foot-tall plants next year. They make me happy.
I’m also cheered by the patch of black-seeded sorghum that planted itself in the wasteland of gravel where I cleaned seed. In good soil these plants would have half-pound seedheads. Here the stalks are slender but many, averaging 30-40 per plant. I hadn’t realized how tough sorghum can be, or how attractive when stressed.
(Laughing Frog’s For the Birds mix offers enough seed to get a big naturalized patch going of both these bird-favorites plus Limelight Millet.)
I’m cleaning and packaging seeds like a Virgo fanatic – so much fun – in anticipation of the Heirloom Expo, September 9-10-11 in Santa Rosa. Last year my mother died two days before the expo, so I passed it by. I’m looking forward to being back this year and to talking with many of you. Please find me at the outdoor farmers market, probably the row near the east entrance to the fairgrounds.
Tomato season and here’s the reminder to go out with a hand lens or your best close-up eyesight and have a look at your tomato flowers. Only by looking can you know for sure whether your varieties are pollinating themselves or crossing with their neighbors. What you’re looking for is the central stigma poking up through the clasp of fused stamens – a cross-pollinator – or not poking out – a self-pollinator. But a picture’s worth a thousand words, and there are good ones at The Sex Life of Tomatoes, along with a more complete explanation.
The one variety I’m growing this year is Jaune Flamme, an apricot sized and colored French heirloom with a lovely fruity taste. Like most heirlooms it can cross-pollinate. The photo here shows the fruits that ripened over the course of three days on my ten potted plants, half of which are stunted by containers that are too small for them. Big producers, these Young Flames. I’m hardly eating them (avoiding tomatoes as part of my arthritis healing program), just squeezing out the seeds and cooking the remaining pulp into sauce for guests or to freeze. If you haven’t saved tomato seeds before, check any of the Laughing Frog tomato pages, like Jaune Flamme’s, for succinct directions. You can definitely eat your tomatoes and save the seed too.
Here’s a last-minute reminder for those of you in Mendocino County and adjacent reaches of northern California. This weekend is the Not So Simple Living Fair at the Booneville fairgrounds. I love this event for its profoundly DYI approach and its wealth of quirky, wide-ranging, and perhaps essential bits of information. Emergency goat medicine, blacksmithing, how to make hard cider, laundry soap, plant medicines, gourd bowls… things you’ve always wanted to know and things you’ve never imagined.
Even though there’s a lot on offer, at the NSSLF I always feel like there’s plenty of time, maybe because it’s so well organized. Maybe also because it takes place mostly outdoors under the cooling shade of redwoods. It’s a zero-waste event, too – bring your own plates etc – there’ll be a dish-washing station for you to use.
I’ll be there with a seed saving / seed cleaning workshop at 2 pm on Saturday.
More info at www.notsosimple.info
There is something about high summer – the period that begins with the solstice and deepens through July – that makes slipping into the timeless expansive present so easy. All the summer crops are in and growing like crazy. Harvest activities are not yet in high gear. It’s not quite time to start the fall food garden (though it’s time to plan it, definitely). The days are so long that even with a full day’s work there is time left over – well, let’s say there can be. I remember not feeling that way, in other summers. This year I’m all about the timeless present.
I’m aided by my token garden – a few pots of tomatoes, lettuce, and flowers (full disclosure: 43 containers), the tiny patch of transplanted perennials, the herbs and flowers out front, the California native sunflowers planted along the fence. Hand watering takes ten minutes every other day. Pruning, staking, weeding, fertilizing, fussing – another ten minutes max. The rest of the time I’m available for plant appreciation.
Fortunately plant appreciation can be done on any scale, and the smaller the scale the more time is available for it. I love the intimate relationship that develops with cultivated plants seen every day right outside my door. In the spring I visited Annie’s in Richmond and came home with starts for odd flowers I’d never grown (or seen, in the case of the Michauxia). I tucked them into pots with tomatoes and grapes and now I’m enjoying the astonishing results. Here are a few of them.
p.s.: I have a new crop of seed for Japanese Bunching Onion. July through September is a good time to plant it.
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 Cake
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.
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 made 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.
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.
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.
March 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
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.
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.
I 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…
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.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.
My 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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Newly 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.
The 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.
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.
It’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 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!
Here’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.
|Blue Kuri is a Japanese heirloom Kabocha squash|
|Dark Star Seed Zucchini, with one edible-sized zuke|
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.
|Here’s Lin at last Friday’s Mendocino Farmers Market|
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’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.
|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.
|Uncle Baxter: “Don’t look at me — I’m retired”|
Meanwhile apples and pears are blooming – here’s Pink Pearl apple
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
Broody 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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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.
September 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?
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.
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.
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.
sunflower/zinnia affair. The glads wanted a July wedding.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.