Category Archives: spring

All Things Spring


We’ve been busy as our bees lately — as the weather warms and the days grow longer, it seems like everything happens at once! Tomatoes and beans to plant, fences to build, weeds to pull… even with the longer days, I’m often out in the garden until it’s too dark to work. But the cool air and soft evening light are becoming a welcome escape from the increasingly hot and sun-drenched days of approaching California summer.


The chickens and aforementioned bees are happy, too, foraging their wee hearts out! With everything so green here, we have to remind ourselves that we’re looking at a record drought year in California. (Here’s a good look at what that means for local farmers, and eaters, from Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm.) We’ve been trying out some tensiometers (soil-moisture meters) in our orchard to more closely monitor our soil moisture and accurately gauge when it’s time to water — it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on a foot or two below the surface, unless you want to dig holes everywhere, so it’s interesting to be able to chart how deep the water from rain or irrigation penetrates, and how quickly the soil dries out again. The tensiometers actually measure how hard plant roots have to work to “pull” moisture out of the soil. Cindy Fake, our local Farm Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, helped us install a pair of meters to experiment with — we check them out, library-style, spend a couple of months learning the ropes, and then the meters will go to another farmer to try. They’re not cheap, so it’s great to have this opportunity available to us to try before we buy!


Despite the dry weather, we did get a few mushrooms making appearances this year, including delicious Spring Amanitas (the edible, non-deadly ones!) and these beautiful blewits, our favourites…


Another springtime food, this one somewhat new to me — this was the first year I picked and cooked garlic scapes from our garden! The flowering shoot of hardneck garlic varieties, scapes are delicious sautéed with other seasonal vegetables, like the snap peas and green onions I used here. They’re a bit like a cross between young asparagus, green beans, and, well, garlic. When garlic goes to flower, it diverts its energy from making a bulb to making seeds; by removing the flower shoot, you concentrate growth back down to the bulb again. The shoots, or scapes, don’t look (or taste) like the likeliest delicacy raw, but they are delicious, and beautiful, cooked:

Spring wouldn’t be complete without a strawberry-rhubarb pie, this year made with my very own homegrown rhubarb! (And Grandma’s lattice-top recipe, of course!) The inedible leaves were big enough to double as umbrellas, and made a marvelous bouquet:


One more bit of fun — not exactly farmy, but definitely Springy — I’m delighted to be shooting a music video for my good friends Dylan and Bluebird and their fantastic band Lasher Keen! It’s exciting to dive headlong into video again, and to work with such creative people in such spectacular surroundings. Here are a few snaps from the first day of shooting, in a magnificent mountain meadow under one of the biggest oaks I’ve ever seen. A little inspiration to get outside and enjoy the beauty of Spring!




Filed under around the farm, spring

From Winter Into Spring


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.


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:


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

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.


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!


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!


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.


Filed under around the farm, making things, orchard, spring

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.


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.


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


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


Yellow in dandelion and mustard blossoms…


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


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


…and have I mentioned how blue the sky is!



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.”


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!


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?


Filed under around the farm, foto friday, orchard, spring

Springtime Mushroom Hunt (and Wild Mushroom Fritatta)

Springtime may be all about wildflowers and clover and, well, see that last post — but one of the things I look forward to the most when the weather warms is a bit less greeting-card-perfect and a little more… strange: the Spring mushroom season! Unlike the showy blossoms and greenery, mushrooms are subtle and secretive; they won’t jump out at you with a riot of skyward-reaching stalks and stems, with Technicolor hues on a grand scale. You have to look for them.They’re tiny, experts at camouflage. You could walk in the woods every day without the faintest inkling of the tremendous variety of fungi surrounding you.

I’ve been hunting for mushrooms for only a couple years, and I’m continually amazed by the diversity of species we see even right here on our little farm. Even more fascinating is the way a mushroom can look totally unremarkable at a glance, but then be so intricate and beautiful if you take the time to study it up close. I have to thank my friend Thea, mycology-expert and forest-sprite extraordinaire, for introducing me to the mushroom world, and to David Arora’s fantastic field guides (a must if you want to know just what it is you’re looking at). Here are a few of the many fungi that show up in our area — see if you can spot them next time you’re out wandering!

Left: A member of the Lactarius family is easily identified by the “milk” that exudes from its flesh when scratched or broken. (Which particular Lactarius it is, however, is a little more challenging to discern!)

Right: One of my favorite little mushrooms, Hygrophorus chrysodon. The name chrysodon comes from the Greek for “golden-tooth” — a wonderfully poetic description for the bright-yellow flecks that dust its cap and stalk.

The wonderful thing about mushroom-hunting is that you’ll be taking a perfectly civilised walk in the woods, and then next thing you know, you’re lying on the ground in the mud, not entirely sure of how you got there, nose-to-nose with this:

Such is the weirdly charismatic nature of fungi. This little guy is absolutely electric! I suspect it’s some kind of Hygrocybe, but I couldn’t bring myself to pluck it for a more detailed inspection. That parrot-green hue, by the way, is quite true to life!

Left: The convoluted, velvet-black cap of Helvella lacunosa, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. They’re quite common around here in springtime. Spotting them among the leaves is good practice for finding their delectable relative the Morel!

Right: another common one in our area, Laccaria laccata, known as the Lackluster Laccaria, which I suppose it is when compared to its violet cousin L. amethystina. Both have long, tough stalks, jaunty domed caps, and white spores.

Some mushrooms are wildly flamboyant, like these turkey tails; others are nondescript little dots in the leaves…

I love this particular copse of manzanitas. The bees are crazy about them, too — you can stand under the arching branches and listen to the most incredible buzzzzzzzzz overhead. When we open the hives this time of year, there is often a distinct manzanita-blossom fragrance that drifts out — nectar from the blossoms the bees have been so busily visiting.

Another devotee of the manzanita grove: the cheekily-named Cowboy’s Handkerchief! The moniker is an apt description of their slimy, snow-white caps. Hygrophorus eburnius is a more respectable name for these guys, but not quite as, ah, colourful…

My mushroom-hunting route follows a deer trail through a particularly damp, shady north slope of the woods: a perfect environment for fungi, as well as for lush mosses and lichens. Ferns, too. Oh, to have a good guidebook for each — but then I’d be lost in the woods all day, identifying everything in sight….

But, as much fun as it is to spot and study all these fascinating denizens of the forest floor, the best mushroom hunts are the ones that end with a basket of edibles! What a delight to stumble across this trove of blewits: Clitocybe nuda, a fabulously-hued and absolutely delicious wild mushroom that grows like a weed in the woods around here. I wasn’t expecting to find many this late in the season, so for once I didn’t bring a basket — maybe the Russian saying is true: Carry a large basket with you, and the mushrooms will see it and hide!

There are a few other purple wild mushrooms around here that could be mistaken for a blewit, but none have the distinct orange-juice aroma that these do. It’s funny — after a a while, you start to smell mushrooms in the woods. Or you develop a mysterious mushroom radar, telling you to look over there. And then, following your feet and nose and instinct, you’ll find a beautiful Amanita, or a prized Matsutake, or a whole basketful of these beauties…

And one of the mushrooms went immediately into this frittata for lunch!

Phyllis’s Wild Mushroom and Potato Frittata

Peel a large potato, cut in half lenghthwise, and slice into thin half-moons. Fry potato slices in 2 Tb olive oil in a 9-inch frying pan, gently turning the potatoes until they are just tender.

Add one sliced green onion, some chopped parsley, and about 1 cup sliced wild mushrooms (one large blewit mushroom). Sautee until everything is tender; season with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, beat 7 eggs with 1 Tb water, a dash of hot sauce or sriracha, and some salt and pepper.

Add eggs to pan; lift the potato-mushroom mixture around the edges with a spatula to allow the eggs to run underneath. Stir everything around a bit (being careful not to break up the potatoes) and smooth out the top.

When the eggs start to set, turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes. Then uncover the pan and slide it in the oven under the broiler — watch carefully and cook just until the top is set and lightly browned.

Slide the frittata onto a plate, grate some good cheese over the top, and serve!

If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone at first, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. As mentioned above, there are other purple mushrooms that could be confused with the blewit; make sure you know exactly what you are looking for and how to tell it apart from look-alikes! That being said, blewits are a great “first mushroom” to collect because they are so distinctive, and absolutely delicious as well…. happy hunting!


Filed under around the farm, foto friday, homestead how-to, making things, recipes, spring, wild foods

Foto Friday: When the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful…

We’ve been waiting and waiting (and waiting and waiting) for some serious stormy weather all winter… but now, finally, a big, drenching, delicious rainstorm has moved in! And with the rain comes a few rituals…


…like finding your coziest pair of boots and trudging out to stomp in some puddles and see how high the clover has grown…


….or just to admire the sudden flurry of plum blossoms crowning branches that were bare a few days ago.


Somehow, the camellias look just as lovely spilled over the grass as they do on their stems.


No bees out today — fingers crossed that these blossoms will hold on until the weather brightens up! But nothing is too gloomy for this sea of wild mustard…


And there are petals everywhere, like snow.


The orchard is especially beautiful this time of year, awash in green and gold. And it’s all connected: those weeds and wildflowers provide food and shelter for beneficial insects, pollen and nectar for our honeybees, and forage for the chickens. There are even tasty edibles for those who know where to look! (I’m always fascinated that so many people find their way to this blog via this post on horta, the greek-style wild greens my grandfather taught me to gather.)


And one more part of the rainy-day ritual: wander back home, set the soggy shoes and coat to dry, dust off my favourite E.E. Cummings compendium, and turn to this marvelous little rainy-day poem. Just perfect.



Filed under around the farm, foto friday, spring, Winter

Making Things: Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

It’s pouring rain today, but that won’t stop me from posting ice cream recipes! It has finally been acting like a proper summer here in the foothills… until today, that is, when we had a spectacular all-afternoon downpour that sent the chickens running for shelter and completely flooded the new duck pond I’d just finished building this morning (more on that later!) Of course, the rain is great for the seeds I planted, at long last, in my flower garden; and, really, it does cool things off ever so nicely. That’s the only catch: It no longer feels quite so much like ice cream weather — but in a few days things will heat up again, no doubt, and that’s where this recipe comes in!

So: my favourite new ice cream recipe, I think. Which is saying something, as I love love love making ice cream. My sweetheart gave me a super-duper electric ice cream maker a couple years ago for my birthday — boy, does he know me! — and I’ve been fascinated with the making of frosty confections ever since. Electric ice cream makers are genius, by the way; the old-fashioned hand cranked model has its nostalgic charms, sure, but how often do you actually feel like using the thing? Maybe once a summer? Fast forward to the ‘lectric version — just switch it on, toss in your ingredients, and let it do the rest. Et voilá: homemade ice cream whenever you like! On a whim! Got some extra strawberries? You know what to do!

Now, once you’re set up with your nifty machine, it can be tempting to go a little crazy with the ice cream thing. So many possibilities! But after a few rich, cream-heavy, custard based concoctions and complicated all-day recipes, you might be looking for something a little lighter — and simpler. How simple? Well, if you happen to have some lemon curd on hand, it’s just a matter of stirring together three ingredients and switching on the machine. No lemon curd? Don’t despair — it’s easy to make, and you can always buy a jar in a pinch…. but, if you have the time, absolutely do try making some from scratch! The recipe here comes straight from my dear friend Thea, who hails from the Magical Land of Lemons and Citrus, a.k.a. Penryn, California (a few short miles down the road from us, and a few very crucial degrees warmer in climate.) It’s absolutely heavenly folded together with whipped cream and dolloped on angel-food cake or with fresh berries, so by all means, do make extra. As Thea says, it lasts refrigerated for about a week — but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep everyone away from it for that long!

So, on to the recipes! The frozen yogurt is super simple and so addictive — it’s perfect for the summer party when you want to make something dressy for dessert but don’t want to turn on the oven or spend all day on it. And to top it off, it’s yogurt, after all; you could argue that it’s quite healthy. What are you waiting for? Whip up a batch and dig in!

Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

The measurements for this recipe are all pretty loose; no need to get out the measuring cups if you can eyeball an approximate 2/3 cup of lemon curd. I haven’t yet tried it with low- or non-fat yogurt, but I suspect it would work well with those, too. I do wish I had a better photo here, but as you can see, the ice cream was almost gone by the time I got out my camera!

• 3 cups (24 oz) Greek-style yogurt  (I use “The Greek Gods” brand, Traditional Plain style; you could use any full-fat Greek yogurt.)
• 2/3 cup lemon curd (see recipe below)
• 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar  (to taste, and depending on how sweet your lemon curd is)
• Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Stir together yogurt, lemon curd, and 1/3 cup sugar until smooth. Freeze in your ice cream mixer according to its instructions — it takes about half an hour to freeze in mine (an electric Cuisinart). Stir in lemon zest just before you turn off the machine (or stop cranking the thing, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned way!)

Scrape the ice cream out of the machine into a chilled bowl or container. Cover tightly and freeze for at least a couple hours before serving. For the best scoopability, remove the ice cream from the freezer a few minutes before serving. It’s lovely on its own, but if you’d like to gild the lily a bit, add a sprinkling of fresh blueberries, drizzle with honey and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Thea’s Lemon Curd

A very rich, tangy, egg-thickened custard great on toast, as a cake filling, etc.

• 4 egg yolks
• 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
• 1/3 cup granulated sugar (or to taste)
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• Grated zest of 1 lemon (if you like)

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a small saucepan or the top of a double boiler. The double boiler takes a little longer, but it’s safer – you’re less likely to overcook the eggs or burn the custard, both of which are easy to do!

So, in your vessel of choice, add the lemon juice and butter to the sugar and eggs. Cook it over low heat (if you’re just using a pan, use the lowest possible heat!), whisking until the butter melts to get everything mixed well.

After the butter is melted, I usually switch to a spoon to stir with, since it’s easier to get into the corners. Keep stirring, frequently with a double boiler or constantly with a saucepan. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides to keep it from sticking. The mixture will be frothy at first, but that will go away as the custard starts to thicken.

Cook it until it is thick enough so that when you lift a spoon out of it the back of the spoon stays coated, and you can draw a line through it with your finger that doesn’t go away. You don’t want it to boil at all (keep stirring!), but it often starts to bubble just about when it’s done. It will thicken more as it cools. You don’t want the custard to be lumpy, which happens if the eggs get overdone.

If you see a few lumps, you can pour the curd through a sieve. After that, add the lemon zest. If it’s not sweet enough for you at this point, you can add a little more sugar and stir it in too. Let it cool in a bowl with waxed paper or greased parchment sitting directly on the surface of the curd – this keeps it from forming a skin. Some people use plastic wrap instead.

Keep it in a jar in the fridge – it keeps for about a week, but it doesn’t usually stay around that long in my house!
Bon appetit!

Thanks, Thea, for the fabulous recipe!


Filed under making things, preserving, recipes, spring, summer

Foto Friday: bees and barns, in black and white

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Filed under around the farm, beekeeping, foto friday, spring, summer