Garden Work- January in Northern California

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I always want to shout out to everyone- This is the time ! These are the moments to create everything you want in your garden for spring, right NOW ! What you do right now determines how your garden will do and look all year.

It is time to plant, and transplant new shrubs and bare root trees and roses. It’s also when balled and burlap conifers get shipped from Oregon and Washington. They are available right now in your nurseries. Think hard about how you want your garden to look this year. Are there plants you want to add ? Divide ? Is the winter form and structure pleasing in your garden ? Do you want more evergreens ? Are you happy with the shapes and heights of your plants ? Do you need help pruning ?

It’s time to cut back, prune, fruit trees, roses, all deciduous shrubs and trees. I’m planting and dividing perennials for spring and summer color and bloom. In our Northern California climate, growth usually begins in early February, seeds can be ordered for planting then. Mulching all the beds with a thick layer of compost ( amending the soil should be done at least once a year). I often put chips all over the perennial beds and this thick mulch, now too. Or if I have spring annuals in place mulch those beds too. Fruit trees benefit from a thick layer of compost, then chips just make sure the base is not covered. The compost helps decompose any fungus trapped in leaves on the ground. I also start putting out an organic all purpose fertilizer now. I like the California Organics 7-10-7 . I only need to apply it once a year because of all the compost I also add.
You might want to put in irrigation under the chips, so you don’t have to see the unsightly lines, that has to be done now too. If you’re really on top of it you can check irrigation, but I usually wait till March for that.

On our homestead, we do a lot of cleaning up with fires now. Areas where we fell trees for firewood, or trees just fell, can be handled easily this way.

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Climbing trees

When I was twenty I visited a garden and saw an older woman up in a large tree pruning. I vowed at that point to climb trees in my forties. Now that I’m mid- fifties, climbing bigger trees doesn’t feel so comfortable any more. I can’t believe I’m admitting this. Today pruning this twenty foot fig tree I’ve pruned for the last five years, getting up in the higher branches just didn’t seem like a good idea. I did most of it anyway.
I think it’s the first time in my thirty five years of gardening that I wondered why I never considered a desk job… That’s saying a lot isn’t it ? Maybe I just need to learn how to give over some tasks… But I can tell you gardeners, if you love it as an occupation now, you’ll love it even more as the years go on. Gardening has so much diversity and constant learning experiences . If you want to be challenged, it will do it.

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Apple Scab- winter work on orchards

This is the time of year that many things are done to achieve your garden goals for the following spring and summer Pruning , cutting back perennials and shrubs sets the garden for the coming growing season . Deciding on the sizes you want the elements in the garden to be is one way to look at pruning. It’s easier to access deciduous shrubs and trees when they are dormant,you can see the branching structure better. Look to where you cut them last year and how much growth they put on this year.Cut accordingly. Learning pruning is a lot about observation.

Transplanting and planting plants at this time is good as well,especially deciduous plants,shrubs,trees, even large roses can be moved. Really look at your garden as a whole, maybe even blur your vision to decide if you like the sizes things have become. You have the choice to prune shrubs whatever shape you want and they can live at. When you are learning pruning look at other peoples plants, shrubs and trees. Look at mature specimens. What size do you want to keep it? What size does it want to grow ? Even large plants can be kept small,but they will try to get to their normal size.Plant accordingly.

I’ve been doing a lot of research into apple and pear problems . Last year because it was so wet the apple scab really affected our trees, and others. This is a fungus which we are particularly susceptible to, living in a coastal environment. Fungus thrives in 50-80 degree weather, we typically rarely get higher or lower than these temps.

Preventative measures to take are to really clean up last years debris under the trees, for this carries the spores from the old leaves to the new leaves. So you rake, but look to see how much more there is to do to get it really clean, leaves not dropped or small dead apples. Then the best method to me seems to be a spray to start the tree off clean in the coming year. The more I research the more I think I’ll do a copper based spray at my house , mostly because I know my trees were infected last year and I think something serious needs to be done to clean them up. I’m going to spray an organically approved copper/ lime spray. With neem oil, another organic fungicide, but it’s also a spreader sticker( usually an oil which helps hold the spray on the tree even with some moisture). The spray needs to be timed to when the leaf shoot starts to come out. Then ten days ( five if it rains then) , and another ten days hopefully finishing with the petals off the new fruit. I want my trees to start off clean so I’m going to do one spray before that, early on in the next few weeks. Usually the trees should be pruned first before spraying, so it’s easier to spray, less to spray.

Because we are having such a warm, dry winter, we might have a very early bud break. Usually bud break is end of January for the earliest trees , early Feb. This will help keep the spores in check too, especially if it’s this dry ( I hope we get more rain soon though)

Spraying needs to be done on a dry day with no possibility of rain for 24 hours . Then sprayed on a sunny , windless, morning that’s when the plants stomatas are open and they will take in the most.

Bio-Intensive Gardening- July


My garden beds change constantly, so half of them look empty right now, or they have very small plants. I’ve recently read that bio-intensive is the traditional way the French and Italians would garden in their small farms, as well. There’s always a bed getting harvested, composted, then dug and replanted in the next crop. A constant rotation of crops, giving a lot of choice in the selection of food. Eating primarily out of a garden and eating what is in season is fun but cooking has to get creative. Fresh herbs and constant rotation of plantings help this out. Try to plant many things even if it’s a herb like thyme edging a bed or chives.

Lately we’ve been harvesting garlic and purple onions, red and russet potatoes. Favas will be finishing up and coming out next. I hope I’ve grown enough garlic this year to keep us through the year. I was so hungry for garlic by the time it was ready because we ran out about December. Also it’s hard to judge the quantity to grow of potatoes although easier here because they can be grown year round. Many other types of beans are going into these empty beds. Also more onions; I’m planning two 35×5 beds since I love onions and I’m a firm believer in starting any cooking project with an onion. Zucchini, crookneck, pumpkins, delicata, and acorn squash all are in and planted now. I’ve always thought that squash cross pollinated and that you had to spread them out very far away from each other. But I’ve recently realized that this only affects saving the seed. It will not come true to variety. But since I’m not saving squash seed… I planted a lot !

I’ve just been harvesting the last of the artichokes, then they get cut back, all the large stalks cut to the ground, then mulched with a thick compost layer, then they grow and produce again later this year.
This is one artichoke that I cut back a few weeks ago-trying so hard to produce more fruit.

These are my baby fruit trees that I grafted last January. Thirty three out of thirty six “took”. Mostly apples and a few prunes, one plum. I also have 42 olive trees I purchased last fall as rooted cuttings. They are also fun to watch grow. It’s so satisfying to see the abundance of nature in rooting or starting your own plants, not to mention a cheap way to get more plants and trees.

Otherwise summer on the coast of Northern California is not that different from what you can grow here most of the year. Cold season crops. I have a small couple of rows of tomatoes, the squash, cucumbers and beans are the exception that will make it during our summers. Otherwise we are still growing lettuce, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, onions, potatoes, favas, peas.

Most of my garden beds have flowers growing on the sides of them. Most are volunteers. I sell some of these weekly to our local florist.

Why do I farm?

Last night eating a particularly wonderful fish chowder, fish caught by my daughter’s boyfriend, potatoes gently dug from under the plants, fresh purple onions, green garlic, parsnips (some of many currently), chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Then accompanied by one of our brick oven baked naturally leavened breads ( we baked 80 loaves yesterday), and followed by a slightly tart rhubarb pie ( none of those sissy strawberries). I think how rich my life is .

Then my husband pushed around some burn piles ( yes, it’s still raining and wet in California in June !) with his backhoe for our neighbors, and came home with some fresh salmon ! Yeah !

The abundance is arguably coupled with a lot of hard work, but I feel so proud when I look at those peas climbing up the trellis and the rows of growing veggies. But yes, my love of good food also motivates me. Thanks to all the good cooks I know who have inspired me.

As the garden here slightly matures and the very small plants I’ve put in as permanent or perennial shrubs and trees mature and fill out, it feels easier like some momentum has been gained. My roses, started from cuttings are beginning to cascade on the fence. The artichokes started from seed are producing quantities. The asparagus started from seed was harvested for the first time this year ( three years before the first harvest) . The rhubarb is getting to be a big plot, helped out by lot’s of compost and did you know rhubarb love LOT”S of water ? Some of the fruit trees have quite a few fruits on them and are starting to look like trees !

Sharing this with others, getting invited to come see my 90 yr. old neighbor’s boyfriends garden who sends us over glorious cauliflower, while we drop off bread.
Feeling a sense of community and tradition. As my great and wise girlfriend who grew up on a dairy farm told me , “school was never the most important thing”. It was the family, the farm, being a part of that, having an identity in what a farm really means to a community. Farming is a passive revolution. Bringing back rural America and collaboration instead of isolation as our material world has fostered. Interdependency , compassion, neighborliness, sharing, all these things are why I farm.

Thinning fruit trees

When I took a fruit tree pruning workshop last fall, the organic commercial growers there described their maintenance regime. One thing they emphasized, was thinning fruit about 6-8 weeks after bloom when the fruit is very small . Thinning down to one per cluster.

This produces larger fruit that they believe are much more marketable. Also that it creates less stress to the tree than a huge bumper crop. Thereby making it more likely the tree will produce every year instead of a huge crop one year, then skipping a year the next.
For all of you with fruit trees May/ June is the time to thin here. It might already have passed this opportune time for you.

Whew, I’ve got most of my garden in


As the garden matures and perennials divide and spread, it becomes harder to just rototill through a bed. I find myself forking more and more of the beds this year. I think only three out of twenty, forty foot rows were rototilled by my husband this year. The rest had compost moved by wheelbarrow, spread thickly, then forked in each long row.
Planting is the anti-climatic easy ending to lot’s of work. The first few years of our garden here, the soil was so bad, since we started with forest soil, that we had very few weeds. Now as the soil improves, the weeds , really grass( since we have animals, have to remember it’s fodder), have been giving me and my hands a run for my money( any?) . So first was lot’s of weeding, then compost, then forking, then planting, irrigation, and fertilizer.

There are beds of onions, tomatoes, garlic, leeks, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, peas, fava beans, one of some small olive trees( 26), one of newly grafted fruit trees(34), rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries, boysenberries, strawberries, another of garlic(didn’t have enough last year), red potatoes, russet potatoes, yukon gold potatoes, lettuce, basil, zucchini, spaghetti squash, banana squash, french beans, lemon cucumbers, mescalin mix. Then there’s a few just full of flowers bachelor buttons, sweet william, roses, nigella(love in a mist).

Down by the house I plant more cutting flowers caliopsis, cosmos, sunflowers, foxgloves, alstromeria, bearded iris, and more flowering shrubs that we will be able to cut for the flower industry some day.


I need to try to keep everything healthy and sequentially plant more, lettuce, beans, cauliflower maybe another row of potatoes and one more type of squash( crookneck) and sunflowers. Since were on the coast it doesn’t get hot enough for summer plants, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are a struggle. Then I need to keeping up with weeding and harvesting then processing.
I look around and when I see everything blooming and growing well, I know more needs to go in, to keep the bloom going, the harvest going.

Farming 2011

Front yard May 2011
As this year shapes up for us, we are finding ourselves working hard to finish infrastructure development and to do it with a cash flow problem. TRADE has become our middle name, maybe our surname . We are trading for carpentry help to install our outdoor kitchen. So we can stop making dough and loafing in our tiny cabin kitchen, then hauling up to sixty loaves up to the oven to bake. Just the paraphernalia to produce the bread is overwhelming to store . Soon , soon we shall have a outdoor space !! Dance, sing, oh joy.
The other big infrastructure project is more fencing. Combining the two veggie gardens together by fencing the middle area. This means making new soil in the new area so lot’s of compost. We are happily mucking out stalls and the chicken coop. This new area will be home to more orchard trees planted close together and kept short, mostly espaliered . The 36 fruit trees I started by grafting rootstock to scion wood are doing well, thirty four took , two I will have to redo the graft on later. The fifty fruit trees already in, are growing, mostly mulched, mostly weeded, getting bigger . Our vegetable rows will be longer . The new fence area will provide a place for a Livestock guardian dog so our chickens can free range in that area without getting picked off by bobcats.

Last week I tried baking the bread in a commercial kitchen, we had such big hopes of this large mixer that was going to make the batching so much easier and the commercial dishwasher to help clean up afterward. We did get a great group of women and I felt all my hopes of bringing together community around food was beginning to work. Anyway the kitchen had this tiny mixer that was broken and no dishwasher that we could find ! Still it was fun to mix the doughs.

Our food expenditures and monthly expenses have been growing much smaller due to our severely reduced income. I think we are getting closer to what we can really live on. Maybe we can finally afford to farm. Since we rarely buy any groceries but milk and dairy products, and we are not growing that much fruit yet, fruit has become this mouth watering fantasy item. Tonight my daughter was talking about how delicious our salad would be with a apple in it. The strawberries are almost ripe and we all are checking them daily. Seeing the baby fruit forming on the trees means more to me this year than it ever has before, it’s what we will be living on for the next year.

My hope was that we would be farming and selling our produce this year, also bread and eggs; is to only be on a small scale again like last year. Until the infrastructure is in and paid for and my new jobs gardening for others becomes more reliable, we won’t be able to live on such a small income as we would make from small scale food production. But we are getting there and I can see the other side of the mountain. We are well on our way to building a small farming business. Hopefully we will be able to dawdle around and prune and harvest the fruit trees until we are quite old.

What have we done so far this year?

One of the things I’ve learned along the way, was to look back periodically at what we’ve accomplished . This helps when facing overwhelming tasks, a list of chores and new projects that never quits. Developing bare land is like that, just never ending. So many things you take for granted when land has been developed.

My husband and I are trying to go slower this year, having gotten really burned out the last five years building this place. But as I walked up to put the chickens to bed and feed the horses, the full moon, huge, was just coming up over the trees. I always think of full moons as endings of cycles, so I thought about what we had done so far this year. At first I thought not much, but then things started to occur to me.

1. We moved twenty two, large, three year old fruit trees to start a new, larger orchard. Added six other fruit trees purchased from the rare fruit growers exchange. Learned to graft ( hopefully!) and have thirty six newly grafted trees planted in one of my vegetable beds. This is a very cheap way to get new trees and unusual trees not commercially available.

2. Have gotten some great support and positive feedback from friends and new people coming by and baking bread with us.Even helping building websites, thanks Dave! and some new beautiful photos, thanks Freda ! Also found I could trade bread for gelato! and for goat meat. Eggs are good for credit towards all kinds of trades. The abundance of farm life is hard to put into words. Always working with something ” homemade”.

3. Have six forty foot beds ready for spring vegetable planting. Plus we have 15 other beds already planted with potatoes( two 40′ beds), kale, onions( two 40′ beds), Artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus( starting to harvest this year, I started from seed ) , strawberries( 60′), swiss chard, parsnips, mixed beets, large double bed of mixed greens(spinach, mizuna, older chard,lettuce,parsley,radiccio) . I have five more beds to get ready and a lot of compost to move. Wait let’s not get into the what needs to be done list.

4. Cleaned up huge storage mess corner and sorted out supplies. Made lot’s of burn piles for sticks and stumps and some dead trees we took out. Managed to have fun and cook out at a few of them.

5. Re-did a 50′ perennial border near house for flower sales. Planted bearded iris, peruvian scilla, bachelor buttons, columbine. Either from saved seed or from friends divisions.

6. Planted 60′ hillside with more floral industry shrubs and herbs. All from cuttings , divisions or from friends.

Now that isn’t really that much, but I also lost my job and have been working hard to reestablish myself as a local landscape gardener, after thirteen years at the same location. I was hoping to farm full time but not enough of our infrastructure is in yet and this costs!

Step by step, enjoy what we’ve done along the way!.