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So much new to report here, after a long hiatus from the blog.
We have a new name for the farm – Birdsong Orchards!
The orchards part is admittedly aspirational, but the daily birdsong that wakes me every morning has been one of the great joys of moving to the country.
We are now certified organic! That is a whole post unto itself, but thank you CCOF.
And we have tomatoes, OMG do we have tomatoes. Our experiment in planting 87 varieties of heirloom tomatoes succeeded beyond my hopes, and then some. We have harvested around 2000 pounds so far, and they keep coming. I will do a follow-up post on my favorite varieties, but for now, here are some pictures.
Berries. Delicious delectable berries. These incredibly delicious little morsels of flavor have lately been on my mind. They are sweet, yet packed full of nutrients.
Maybe more importantly to my little tale of planning and planting a farm, I happened to purchase acreage in what is known as the “berry basket” of the California Central Coast. The farms in my immediate neighborhood grow endless amounts of berries in the fields surrounding us. These berry farms range in size from the relatively small independent growers to huge national giants like Dole and Driscoll with 1000s of acres of berries.
Now, we simply don’t have enough land to profitably grow a single mono-crop at scale and make a profit. Not to mention, mono-culture, well, it’s kind of boring. However, the thought of growing berries has been growing in my mind as a way to use the obvious climate and soil attributes of the land we happened to purchase. Strawberries in neat plastic wrapped rows as well as endless fields of hoop houses filled with raspberries and blackberries are all over the hills and flats of Pajaro Valley. Berry growing obviously works here.
And berry shrubs are tough little bastards. They are relatively pest resistant, disease free, will grow in sun to part-shade as well as a variety of soils. Fruit tees, by contrast, can be really finicky, demanding, and downright wimpy. Fruit trees seem to be quite attractive to all sorts of bugs, blights, scabs, worms, moths and other forms of pestilence.
So, I have been researching unusual types of edible berries that should grow around here, and have come up with a short list (mmm maybe not so short list) of 25 or so varieties I want to try. The research has been a blast, because there are just a ton of weird sounding edible berries out there, and they all can be mine! Goumi, aronia, salal, chernika, goldenberries, gaulnetya, whortleberries – all these things to eat that I have never eaten before, how crazy exciting!
One part of the general grand scheme for this property is to plan and plant out a few rotating test gardens, where I carve out an eighth to a quarter of an acre, and plant many varieties of a theme, to see what thrives and what fails. Edible flowers, rare culinary herbs and a hop and grape trellis are all in the experimental plans. But I shall definitely be starting these plots first with a berry patch, probably as soon as next month, February. There just happens to be a circular area in front of the house dominated by a beautiful old Monterey Cypress. I think it should cast the right amount of filtered shade that some of these berries crave, and also generate the acidic soil many of them prefer as well. Also, it’s RIGHT in front of the house, and the ground is looking kind of barren and sad at the moment.
So, I am not going to bore you with the minutae of each of the 26 or so berries and cultivars I plan to order (for those interested in the nitty-gritty details, the planting diagram and full list of berries are listed below). Instead, I’ll just briefly describe the three with the most entertaining names – salal, adonia and whortleberry.
Salal is actually native to the American West, and I have definitely seen it on trail hikes and wondered, can I eat that and will it be yummy? Or will I die a terrible and agonizing death? Now, I know – eat it. Both the berries and the young leaves are edible and supposedly tasty. The Latin for salal is lovely too, Gaultheria shallon.
Aronia is also known as chokeberry, but since that is a rather unappealing name, we will go with the latin. There are also often an astringent berry, but delicious when cooked or preserved. Aronia makes a for a pretty ornamental bush, and the berries themselves are lovely to see. The Wikipedia page for aronia also has some interesting factoids about their incredibly high levels of anti-oxidants and polyphenols.
Whortleberry , well, the name alone had me, is the single item on my list that has actually been somewhat hard to track down for purchase. It is originally from Nepal and is related to blueberries and cranberries. It’s supposed to be tasty, and good for butterflies and bees as well. Also known as Vaccinium nummularia for the purists, this berry is not available at either of two favorite nurseries for this kind of thing: Raintree and One Green World. However, a bit of deep searching led me to the quite charming Bovees Nursery in Portland, which has not only my elusive Whortleberry, but a few other edible vacciniums I have never encountered before. I think I will now add Red Bilberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), which they also carry, to my complete unusual berry ordering list below.
The little diagram below is a rough sketch of how I plan to lay out my berry patch. The actual planting will probably vary a bit, based on where we run irrigation, but I did want to at least make sure my planned orders would make sense.
And this is my complete ordering list with links to their sources. If anyone else plans to order these berries, or other varieties, please let me know so we can compare growing notes.
FOR THE SHADE
plant in shade 4 ft apart
8′ feet apart
FOR THE SUN
plant 6 feet apart
full sun 4-6 feet apart
full sun 7′ apart
7′ apart in full sun
PART SUN PART SHADE
full to part sun, 8-10 feet tall
order 4 plants
Currants, Black Red, Pink & White:
4′ feet apart, sun or partial shade
sun or part shade, 3-4′ apart
10′ feet apart in sun or part-shade
part shade, 3-4′ apart
3′ apart, 1/2 day to full sun
Chilean Wintergreen (3 varieties):
2-3′ apart, part-shade in hot climates
6′ apart, full sun to part shade
3′ apart, part-shade
Early Blooming Honeyberry:
4-5′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north
Late Blooming Honeyberry:
4-5′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north
1′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north
Part shade, 1′ apart
Part shade, 4 ft apart
I am slightly obsessed with persimmons. They never really registered in my consciousness before I moved to California. Turns out there is a native variety in Indiana where I grew up, but I didn’t notice the trees as a kid, only the ubiquitous and delicious persimmon pudding made from them. But those Midwestern natives are a different tree entirely from what I encountered when I moved to California. Here, people grow Japanese persimmon varieties which produce gorgeous orange globes in late November, hanging from otherwise bare trees in a late and exuberant showing of abundance.
As many of you probably know, there are two basic varieties of persimmons, astringent and non-astringent. Fuyu is the most common non-astringent variety and is delicious just eaten raw like an apple or cut up in salads. A fuyu, pomegranate seed and walnut salad with fresh greens is my definition of late fall farm-to-table delight. And then there are the astringent varieties of which Hachiya is the best known. The astringent varieties are a bit harder to consume. They have to ripen just to the point of being over-ripe to become truly sweet and lose their mouth puckering astringency. Quite frankly, by the time they are perfectly ripe, the texture of the fruit resembles, well, snot.
However, I had once sampled a Japanese treat called Hoshigaki, which is an ancient method of turning these astringent problem children of the Fall harvest into the kobe beef of dried fruit. I had to try it. The process of making hoshigaki is not for the faint of heart. In short, you peel unripe fruit, hang them delicately from a bit of the remaining stem and calyx, then massage them gently every day or so for 4-6 weeks. So very Japanese. My neighbors who have a lovely and old Hachiya persimmon were kind enough to gift me with two dozen persimmons to try my hand at making Hoshigaki. And so, I started out with a few gorgeous fruits hanging in our windows to dry.
Well, when I told our neighbors how much fun I had making my first foray into Hoshigaki, they got excited too. And gave me, oh, about 200 more persimmons. Yeah, 200.
Two hundred persimmons; that’s a crazy amount of persimmon. So I went crazy too, and started hanging them all over the house. You have to duck to get into some rooms of our house right now, no joke. And I *still* had fruit left over. To make Hoshigaki, you really need to start with completely unripe fruit, and after a few nights of peeling and hanging, some of my gifted persimmons had started to go mushy on me. So in desperation, I looked for some other persimmon recipes, and stumbled upon a few for persimmon fruit leather aka fruit rollups. Genius! So, I converted a dozen or so of the riper persimmons into these little morsels, and they turned out quite well. Very tasty, and rather pretty in the morning light as well.
Here is the very simple recipe for persimmon fruit roll-ups I settled on by the third and final batch.
Spiced Persimmon Holiday Roll-ups
- 4 very ripe hachiya ( or any other astringent variety) persimmons
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
- Blend pulp of persimmons with spices until smooth, just a minute or so.
- Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- Divide spiced pulp in half and pour onto prepared baking sheets.
- Spread into an even layer with a spatula.
- Bake for 3-4 hours until mostly dry and slightly cracked around the edges.
The hoshigaki are mostly dry now, and are beginning to taste tasty! I think I need to massage them more rigorously the next time I try this particular form of food preservation. I have not gotten the promised bloom of powdered sugar on the outside either. I think it might be too dry in our house, but the fruit I hung outside just got moldy in a few days. I will need to wait another week or two for most of them to be fully dry, and since I finally have a break in my work schedule, I plan to give them a bit more attention.
The other persimmon fun I have been having is selecting the varieties of the trees we will plant in our orchard. This is the list of what I wanted, but alas, one of these growers is in Florida and cannot ship to California. If any friends outside of California, care to order them, plant them, and let me know what you think, that would be most awesome. The final item in the list is a Black and Blue persimmon from Korea. It looks so exotic and enticing, but I can’t have it. Drat.
All of this earth moving we have been doing is to get ready to plant our winter cover crop. We are late in doing this, but the winter rains are late in arriving, so the fates are smiling on us in a weird sort of way.
Cover crops are essential to organic farming for a few reasons. The basic point of a cover crop is to plant seed, not for harvest, but to improve the soil. Cover crops are generally planted and then just tilled under a few months later. This process adds organic material to the soil, fixes nitrogen (an essential nutrient for plants), and prevents erosion. We had originally planned to plant a mix of vetch, legumes and oats, but when I spoke with the guy at the seed store, he highly recommended we just plant organic cayuse oats at first to crowd out competing weeds.
So, right now, we have 750 pounds of cayuse oat seeds sitting in our barn. It’s a lot of seed, not particularly exciting in some ways, but it is the first thing we will actually plant on this property, which makes me do a little happy dance of joy. Before we actually plant this seed, the nicer guys with big machines will disc our property with this amazing looking machine:
The point of discing is to open up the soil for oxygen and water penetration and till under any existing weeds.
Next, they will rip our property with this even more impressive machine.
Ripping is hopefully and probably not something we will have to do often. But right now, there is a clay pan, essentially a hard layer of impenetrable clay, sitting right under our 6-12″ of topsoil. This clay pan will make it hard for tree roots, water or nutrients to penetrate down deep into the ground unless we break it up first. So ripping is a specific farm implement and process for braking up this clay pan.
It’s funny, before we actually moved here and started getting more knowledgeable about soil workings, we were all excited to buy a tractor. And we STILL might buy a tractor. But we have quickly learned that we are surrounded by folks with Serious Machines, and it is easier and cheaper just to rent these machines and operators. It would be silly for us to acquire all of this machinery for our little acres and just use them once or twice a year. Again, I am so glad we moved to an area when agriculture has been a way of life for 100 years.
If you are interested in learning more about cover crops, I found these resources useful:
It’s been a busy week at our farm to be. It seems that every time we need help in a specific expert kind of way, the right person just appears to help us. When we were leaving Santa Cruz, a neighbor introduced me to Art Morales, who is a local irrigation specialist. Art, in turn, introduced to Antonio who I shall now always think of as the Man with Big Machines. We originally called Antonio to help us plant our cover crop for the winter. However, this man, well, he and his crew can do it all. He walked our property and immediately suggested we rip out the arena, to return an acre or so of land to farm production and put in a ditch to open up the lower field to potential perennial production. He also offered to tear down our crappy shack and remove some intrusive trees. All for an extremely reasonable price. When I saw his quote, my response was simply, HELL YEAH. So, it’s been a week of earth moving and big machines. And for those of you who love big machines, here are some pictures to enjoy.
One of the great mysteries of this property is our “irrigation system.” We have a great well, that produces 60 gallons of water a minute from a large natural aquifer right underneath us. In a drought state like California, that’s pure gold. We also have the remains of a once burly and functional irrigation system. We have found valves and spigots and knobs all over the place. If feels a lot like a game of Myst, if you remember that. A typical session of play goes something like this: let’s see, if I turn this valve on, and this electrical switch on (even though it looks like it will kill me), and turn off this other valve off, maybe those spray heads on the arena will turn on? Yes! wait, No! Only half of them turned on … WHY WHY WHY?
The entire irrigation system is full of similar mysteries in a myriad of baffling ways. Lots of water, but not actually flowing through all the pipes, or at least the pipes we have managed to find. There are pipes running underground all over these 8 acres … but we are not exactly sure where they all are. A blueprint you say? Hah! No such thing exists. And before we ask some serious guys with serious tractors to go ripping and discing and other mightily destructive sounding practices on top, we really need to know where these pipes are underneath.
So, we hired some experts. Thank all the gods of agriculture for agricultural experts. One of the great benefits of moving to a town where a lot of people still make a living from farming is that we are surrounded by extremely knowledgeable neighbors, and the many businesses and business owners who service this community.
It’s odd being a total newbie again, and oddly exhilarating. I have worked in technology for over 15 years, and hey, it’s great to be an expert, but at the same time, a bit sad to realize there isn’t that much more to learn, patterns repeat, change is incremental. As far as knowledge about farming on this scale goes, however, I have only deep passion, fairly good instincts, lots of book learning and some very foggy childhood memories. Without the physical local community, and some excellent online communities as well, this farming adventure would be sooooo much harder.
Jason and I love to learn, but some subjects like industrial agricultural irrigation take more to master than a few hours of web surfing. I did buy a college course textbook for irrigation, and quickly realized I needed several semesters of study, or even better years of experience, to have any sort of clue about such basic questions as: what size pump do we need? What width of pipe in which material goes where? How much pressure do we need to get to the top of our hill? What filtration does drip irrigation require? And this is one that really scares me: what questions that I don’t know to ask should I really be asking?
As I was saying, I give thanks to experts, especially the extremely friendly ones we keep meeting.
Hey, we live on a farm now, and it’s rather cool!
After a few long tedious months of remodeling and moving, packing and unpacking, we are now actually living on the farm – whew. It’s, well, it’s wonderful. We wake up to birds singing, cows lowing, tractors on the horizon. The weather has been hot and dry, not ideal from a farming perspective, but a warm welcome to country living nonetheless.
Our farming neighbors have been dropping by to say hello and welcome us to the neighborhood as well. I find some comfort in being surrounded by old farming families who have worked this land for generations. So far, none of them have mocked our newbie farming plans, at least not openly, but rather have been full of genuinely helpful advice, recommendations and contacts. Pascal took off on an unsupervised romp around the neighborhood a week or so ago, almost giving me a heart attack, but ended up visiting the nearby Gizdich Ranch. The extremely nice owner Vince and manager Linda caught him for me, so we have been patronizing their delicious pie shop, perhaps more than we should.
Now, after almost a year of thinking, planning and plotting, it’s time to truly start farming. Our very first challenge is, we bought 5 acres or so of dirt, but dirt is not soil. To transform our dry brown fields of clods into healthy rich soil is going to take no small amount of work and time.
We have been talking to folks far and wide about the best course of action to increase our soil fertility before planting, and this is our current plan. First, we need to cut down the weeds and break up some of the clods, which is accomplished through discing. Discing, for the uninitiated (like myself, just a month or so ago), involves a tractor with a serious attachment of steel ‘discs’ that break up the soil and till in weeds.
Next, and as soon as the winter rains begin, we will sow a cover crop for the winter. Cover crops are nifty, and a basic element in organic farming. The basic idea is to grow a mix of fast growing annual plants, then till them under in the Spring, to add nitrogen and organic material back to the soil. A cover crop also prevents erosion and further nutrient leaching by winter rains and run off. We will probably be planting a mix of lana vetch, bell beans and cayuse oats, a seed mix we can purchase ready to for just this purpose.
After we till our cover crop under in the Spring, we will then do something called “deep ripping.” This is another tractor technique to break up compacted soil. Since our fields have a clay base, years of tractors and other heavy machinery have created something called plow pan, which is a layer of hard compacted soil right under the surface. We will need to break up this hard pan, so that our tree roots can get down deep to water and nutrients. Then, another cover crop next Fall, another round of discing, and in the Spring of 2015, we will actually be ready to plant our orchard.
We also collected soil samples last week, and sent them off to the lab for analysis. We are hoping to learn about the general chemical composition of our soil as it is now, the Ph, and amount of organic materials. This will help us decide what kinds of organic fertilizers and other soil amendments to use when it does come time to plant.
Patience, definitely not my forte, so originally I was a bit disappointed to learn we are more than a year out from planting an orchard. Thinking about it a bit more though, I have to admit I am relieved. We now have far more time to decide exactly what tree varieties we want to plant and where. We also have more time to work on that other crucial part of the puzzle, our irrigation system, which is such a mystery of confusion, I am saving it for a whole ‘nother blog post. And in the meantime, I can plant a small veggie bed in the spring, once the first cover crop is tilled under, and I am very much looking forward to it.
Next up … Pipes are Not Water
We were back at the farm on Thursday to do the requisite inspections before closing escrow. After writing large checks to the building, termite, septic and well inspectors, we learned, quel surprise, there is a lot of broken to fix. Not shocking when buying a 50-year-old farm-house, but, sigh.
Here are some more pictures of the place I took while we were there.