Category Archives: orchard

From Winter Into Spring

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It’s been a curious and disconcerting winter here in the foothills of Northern California — little rain, barely a dusting of snow, and only maybe two proper capital-s Storms all season. We’re looking at a record drought year. Farmers are scaling back their crops, people are getting nervous about their ponds and wells, and even city-dwellers are getting ready for cutbacks in their household water. Last year, our orchard was an expanse of golden-blooming mustard; this year, the grass is still dry and brown.

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But no matter how strangely skewed the seasons may be, there are still signs of Spring popping up all over, great and small… like the spectacular cotton-white clouds and delicate manzanita blossoms of a February afternoon:

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Jars of beet-infused sauerkraut fermenting away, and garlic sprouts emerging through their warm blanket of straw mulch:

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And it’s time for grafting. Here, Tom carefully splices a twig of an heirloom El Dorado pear onto a young tree. The scion wood came from Pat and Pete Enochs (of Lattitudes fame), from one of their favourite trees. If we’re lucky, the graft will take, and we’ll have a crop of our own in a few years. At right, some of our trusty grafting tools are at the ready on a makeshift table; the half-moon blade and tiny wooden mallet belonged to Papu, my grandfather, and have those worn edges and softly polished handles that only come from many decades of use and good care.

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And speaking of nearly-forgotten skills… I’m thrilled to be taking a blacksmithing class! This is one of the things I’ve wished for years that I’d learned from Papu — he could make anything from wood, metal, or spare sundry parts, but I was always especially fascinated by the wrought-iron scrollwork that decorated my grandparents’ kitchen. I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of the skill, but already I can see why he was so good at it — for every bit of strength and speed, it takes an equal measure of careful thought, precision, intuition.

Our first project was a drive hook, which looks simple at a glance but combines a wealth of basic techniques — tapering square and rounded points, shaping angles and curves, even some decorative elements like a bar twist and scrolled finial. (The right-angled point acts like a nail, and is driven into a post or beam.) I haven’t decided yet whether to hang it in the barn, the wine cellar, or the chicken coop!

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And, speaking of grandparents — yesterday was my Grandma Mary’s 91st birthday! My aunt and cousins came to visit from Boston, and we all had a lovely birthday dinner together, swapping bits of Harper family history and listening as Grandma told stories about growing up in the little town of Fort Morgan, Colorado. At 91, she’s still writing newspaper articles, chronicling the goings-on of family, relatives, and friends, and keeping very busy indeed — as she says, she has “all her buttons!” (She also encouraged me to start writing this blog in the first place, to tell the story of our little farm and share it with readers near and far… and of course it was Grandma Mary who taught me to knit, sew, and invest in stocks. She’s quite a lady!)

grandma91st91! Happy birthday, Grandma!

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And onward, Spring! Now if we could just have a little more rain, please… but in the mean time, I’m certainly enjoying the contrast of pink plum petals against blue-and-white sky. Yes, we’ll worry about the drought and make plans for the long dry summer ahead, but sometimes, for a few minutes, a tree full of blossoms and blissful buzzing bees is simply everything you need.

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Summer In The Hedgerow

Hi there! Long time, no blog! It’s been a busy summer around here — school tours at the Farm, cooking demos at the State Fair, some exciting news coming soon for the Homestead Radio Hour, and now the getting-ready for farmer’s market season — not to mention all the sundry regular business of farming…. so, in celebration of all that is Summer, I thought a visit to our new hedgerow would be a nice way to ease back into the Blogworld!

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Clockwise from top left: Pomegranate, Myosotis, Perennial Sunflower, Buddleia

So, what’s a “hedgerow,” anyway? The world conjures up bucolic English country lanes, lined with damsons and sloes, the kinds of thorny shrubbery whose obscure fruits inevitably end up in jellies, wines, or gin. All fine and well, but what’s it got to do with a sunny California fruit ranch?

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Borage, an all-time favourite with the bees, of both the honey and bumble sort!

First, let’s start with a bit of background. Simply and broadly put, a hedgerow is a planting of shrubs, trees, and/or herbaceous plants, for a reason. They’re typically dense, hence the “hedge,” in a linear layout, the “row,” and serve a purpose other than decoration or simple food production. In fact, hedgerows of any description play multiple roles: sure, they’re attractive, and can include plantings of edible and useful shrubs and plants, but their utility goes beyond mere ornamentation.

The earliest known hedgerows date from the Neolithic Age, and were used to enclose fields for growing cereal crops. A hedge would have served as a living fence, marking field boundaries, keeping animals and livestock in or out, even providing defense against attack. On top of that, hedgerows would also provide wood, food, and shelter for for game and wildlife. Their utility kept them in regular use through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the industrial era, and up to the present day; although barbed wire and modern livestock fencing offer easier and more convenient ways to fence fields, hedgerows are still in use in Great Britain and much of the world. Though many historic hedges in the UK were neglected or destroyed to make way for modern field systems and food production, the hedgerow is making a comeback worldwide as  an important element in sustainable agriculture — which brings us to the B H Ranch! Continue reading

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Filed under around the farm, homestead how-to, orchard, organic, summer

Foto Friday #2: All Things Autumn

For your Friday… a sampling of Fall photos from around the farm!

Ok, I’m definitely growing this gorgeous heirloom Indian corn every year now. It grew ten feet tall, produced beautifully, and the colours were stunning — turquoise, lavender, mauve, periwinkle, neon yellow, brick red… I can’t wait to grind it into cornmeal for “homegrown” corn bread!

The heirloom apples practically pose for pictures. As do these little pears…

Everything is picked by hand… we’d have it no other way!

Auntie Maryann takes the farmer’s market seriously! (Not too seriously.)

The ladies on the veranda:

Cosmic Cosmos!

The Black Arkansas apples are almost ripe… yep, must be Autumn at last.

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Foto Friday: Rainbow

Sometimes it feels like our little farm here is at the middle of everything — as though all the different aspects of our lives, all the different things we do, meet somewhere in the heart of the orchard.

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I teach Greek language classes for kids at the Annunciation Greek School in Sacramento. The other day, a girl in my class asked me how to say “rainbow” in Greek. I’d never run across the word “rainbow,” so we looked it up: ουράνιο τόξο, ouránio tóxo — “sky arrow.” Isn’t that the loveliest picture?

Then, as I was out in the orchard yesterday, that word popped into my head — ouránio tóxo. And, looking closer at the grass around me, I saw that it was as though one had fallen to earth.

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Red in the peach blossoms, and in this sow-thistle stalk, where a tiny village of ants and aphids have made their home…

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Orange in the calendula flowers that spring up around the little house and the garden…

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Yellow in dandelion and mustard blossoms…

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Green everywhere! — but especially in the grass that the chickens are so fond of…

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…and in the cover crop of fava beans and vetch, scrambling across the dormant garden…

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…and have I mentioned how blue the sky is!

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Sky-blue here, too, reflected in the tiny blossoms of wild speedwell. My grandfather calls this flower by its Greek name, μάτια της Παναγίας: mátia tis Panagías, “eyes of the Virgin Mary.”

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And purple, of course. This is another of my favourite tiny flowers, the kind you have to look closely to see: henbit, a relative of both nettle and mint. The long-necked purple flowers have fantastically speckled tongues, and if you pluck one very carefully and blow air gently through it from the the end that was attached to the plant, it will emit a teeny, high-pitched whistle!

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Isn’t it marvelous how a question can lead to a word that can lead to a whole new way of looking at everything around you?

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Foto Friday: Comice Pears

These Comice pears looked so lovely, lined up on an upturned lug box, catching the golden afternoon light, that I had to go fetch my camera before the sun sank an inch further. (Then they went promptly into a batch of pear bread pudding!)

The nice thing about pears is that there are so many varieties — we begin the season with Bartletts, bright and juicy, then wait for heirlooms like the breathtakingly beautiful Conseiller de la Cour, and finally harvest the late-season varieties like Comice and Winter Nellis. According to my grandfather, the winter pears used to be carefully packed for storage in wooden crates, nestled in straw. I just might try that this year with a few of the “Nellies” we picked yesterday…

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Into the 21st century, bit by bit…

Ooooh, boy. Things have been crazy around here lately! Excavation, heavy machinery, trenches and huge piles of dirt everywhere…

But, after 90-plus years, we’ve finally moved into Modern Times. Well, at least in the irrigation department. Sort of.

That’s the pond, where all our irrigation water comes from. Nothing’s changed there… just the rest of it! We’ve always watered the orchard with a system of open ditches that run down the rows of trees, which is quite lovely and picturesque when it works but a major problem when it doesn’t. Rusty pipes, gopher holes, twigs and grass blocking things up — it’s an all-day project, tending the ditches, cleaning them out and making sure the water is running where it’s supposed to. And every generation of kids to grow up here at the ranch has gotten in trouble for making a barefoot muddy mess of the ditches at least once a summer!

So, this revision has been a long time coming. A couple years back we started the grant-application process with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which funds projects like ours. The new irrigation system will be much more efficient and effective than the old one, but it’s something we probably wouldn’t have taken on without funding and resources.

Not to mention the help of our friends!

Trench-meister Dan!

Mr. D, concrete whiz!

And, finally, the trenches have been filled in, the dirt raked back into place, and it’s possible to walk across the orchard at night without risking life and limb. I did enjoy getting an under-the-ground look at the different types of soil we have here, though — thick red clay in one spot, brittle yellow rock in another, rich blue-gray soil down by the creek. There’s a blog post in the making from all the many, many dirt photos I snapped!

And the ducks just love the new micro-sprinklers in the orchard; apparently that pond water is quite delicious. I will miss the old ditches, though… I’m campaigning to run them at least once a summer, for tradition’s sake. It’s nice to have things back to normal around here, and to kick back and relax (a bit) after all that work — it won’t be long ’til it’s time to harvest honey, then fruit… ah, time for a nap!

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Filed under around the farm, history, orchard, summer

Where We’ve Been Lately

…not blogging, obviously! I have to admit that the many and varied pursuits of glorious Springtime have been distracting me…

But, first news of all, our little farmer’s market stand is starring in a film!

Long story short: local filmmaker Raphael Hitzke needed a honey stand at a farmer’s market to film a scene for his new short film, BEE. And so, we found ourselves watching on a blustery April Saturday morning as camera and sound crews, makeup artists, and actors swarmed around our wee tent and table, filming scenes while fending off the market shoppers who desperately wanted to buy the honey we no longer have in stock. You’ll have to wait ’til July, folks; it’s up to the bees, not us!

(Funny little aside: the actor playing the beekeeper actually started making up astronomical prices for the jars of honey we had on display, and a few people apparently were ready to hand over $43 for a one-pound jar… don’t worry, we’re not getting any ideas.)

Then we raced home to get ready for company — our family and friends were making the pilgrimage from the Bay to the Ranch for Easter the next day!

Greek Easter, that is… a veritable Feast!

(Psst — it’s all about the German egg dye. Super brilliant colours, nothing like the wimpy pastel stuff we get in the grocery store here. For the traditional Greek red eggs, we usually go with the kind made in Greece — a harmless-looking little paper packet filled with harmless-looking powder that immediately stains EVERYTHING a very permanent crimson. No, really; if you let the steam out of the pot, you’re liable to end up with a pink spot on the ceiling. But for the multicoloured eggs, the German-made dyes are dynamite — and check out the wonderfully folk-psychedelic package on this one! Mushrooms! Toads! A rabbit in a bow tie! They claim to be non-toxic, though I’m not so sure… but it’s only once a year, right??)

Then it’s back to work. But even tilling and raking the garden is a happy task this time of year — especially when you have a flock of cheerful chickens that are only too eager to help…

…and everything is green green GREEN! Luminous!

The all-important task of sorting seed packets… I always end up with far too much of something. This year, we’re accumulated something like eight packets of zucchini seed. And don’t even get me started on the basil. Still, necessities of life, right?

The bees are foraging mightily, their wings dusted with this striking golden pollen — but that’s another post in itself. More springtime stories from the Farm forthcoming!

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