Tag Archives: orchard

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


orchard walk

kicking things off with a wander through the orchard

Last-last weekend was our annual Harvest Party — the seventh one, and now a bona-fide tradition here at the Ranch! Each year, after our harvest and market season is over, we round up a bunch of friends for an afternoon of celebration (and potlucking and farm-touring and homebrew-tasting and campfiring and…) We say it every year, but this year’s party really was the best one yet!


Left: friends Paula, Tony, and Adolfo. Right: Mikail (in his BH Ranch t-shirt!) and Phyllis 

My dear friend Antonio De Lucci  took these gorgeous photos of the festivities, and I’m so glad he did — I never manage to snap enough! He perfectly captured the afternoon, drenched in golden sunlight.


And look, real honest-to-goodness Polaroids! At left: the tipi presides over the gathering (with a giant woodpile at the ready for campfire time when it gets dark). Right: yes, we really did haul out the gigantic vintage punch bowl for pear-pomegranate punch, made with our own pear juice. Who says you can’t be fancy just because you’re out in the orchard?


Tom, leading the tour

Punch bowls aside — the orchard, of course, is the real star of the party! Everybody finds a glass of something and heads out for a tour before dinner.  I always feel like the farm just loves having all these people wandering around, admiring the Arkansas Black apples still on the trees, tasting grapes under the arbor, and taking turns to duck into the little wine cellar.


And then it’s time for dinner — a fabulous potluck! One of the things I love most about this party is that it’s a rare opportunity to bring together all our friends from various spheres… farmers, musicians, beekeepers, radio DJs, artists, teachers, foragers, endurance runners, and homesteaders all sit down together with homemade food and drink, and it’s such fun to see all the unexpected connections and conversations that come up!

Somehow, no matter how many people show up, there’s always the perfect number of haybales to sit on, and the big table magically expands to fit every last delicious dish.

 Above: our neighbour Elizabeth brought pear marmalade and pear butter that she made from our fruit!


Clockwise from left: photographer Antonio De Lucci; heirloom-variety table grapes under the arbor; last rays of sun in the orchard.

T and J

A sweet photo of my dad and me (with an impressive array of home-brewed libations on the table — in addition to the pot-luck, there’s always a hearty brew-luck going on!)


Come dusk, I did manage to get out my camera and snap a few photos of the campfire. Marshmallows appear, Tom produces a bundle of fresh pear twigs perfect for toasting sticks, and everyone gathers around the crackling flames as the crisp chill of a fall evening settles in.


It’s been another marvelous season, with great farmer’s market days, wonderful customers and friends, some of the most beautiful fruit we’ve ever grown, and yet another fantastic party to celebrate it all! Thanks to all of you for supporting our “little family farm that could” — we’re so grateful to have you as our community. Wishing you all a bright and beautiful Autumn!

Many thanks to Antonio De Lucci for the photos! Check out more of his work at antoniodelucci.com.


Filed under around the farm, autumn, foto friday

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

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

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!


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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Filed under around the farm, beekeeping, chickens, farmer's market, honey, orchard, spring

Organic Codling Moth Control Made Easy

Today’s post is written by Tom Harper, “orchard-meister” of the B H Ranch.

Do you have worms in your apples or pears from your orchard?  Then you have codling moths!  If you live in the Foothills and you want to get rid of them, now is the time to start doing something.

Codling Moth Life Cycle in 200 words or less (whew):
A codling moth begins its life as a very very tiny egg, laid on a leaf or the base of a fruit blossom.  It will hatch into a tiny caterpillar, and in very short order will chew its way into your fruit, tunneling towards the core.  Safely inside the fruit, it will feast until it’s time to pupate.  Then it will chew its way back out, pupate, and later emerge as a moth, to begin the next generation.  We usually expect three or four generations per season, from April through September.  The codling moth spends the winter in the pupa stage, hiding typically in the rough bark of pear trees.  When Winter turns to Spring, and sunset temperatures approach the low 60s, the over-wintered moths emerge and begin to fly and mate with other moths, and the cycle repeats.  The codling moth is most vulnerable in the very short time between when it hatches, and when it enters the fruit.  Once it’s in the fruit, it is safe from the outside world.

The hatching of the first generation is dependent on temperature in two ways:

  1. Warmer sunset temperatures will cause last year’s overwintered moths to begin flying, mating, and laying eggs.  The date this begins is called the biofix.
  2. How long the eggs then take to hatch depends on how warm the subsequent days are.  If temperatures are warmer, the moths will hatch sooner.  In a cool year, it will take longer.  We use degree-days to calculate when the eggs hatch.

the wormy ones…

Establish Biofix
We start our codling moth management program in early April, before the trees are blooming.  We begin by setting out pheromone traps, usually three spread throughout our two acres of pears.  We check the traps daily, and record the number of moths caught in them.  Tracking how many moths are caught every night and maintaining daily trap counts lets us know when the moths begin flying, and we can determine the dates of maximum moth activity.  The first date we begin to catch moths consistently is called the biofix.  That date is the starting point for our spray-timing calculation.

Accumulate Degree-days
We also need a measurement of how warm the weather has been to predict when the eggs will hatch.  This is provided by tracking degree-days.  Degree-days are accumulated based on the maximum and minimum temperatures for every day.  We used to track these with our own maximum-minimum thermometer, but have since discovered we are located near a state-run station that provides this information over the Internet: http://wwwcimis.water.ca.gov/cimis/welcome.jsp (that’s the California Irrigation Management Information System, hosted by the Department of Water Resources; they also provide temperature information to help us irrigate — your tax dollars helping farmers to feed you).  The University of California Davis (more tax dollars at work) provides a codling moth degree-day calculator that we use with these temperatures to predict when the eggs will hatch, and when we need to spray.  When 250 to 300 degree-days have accumulated, it’s time to spray.

Organic, microbial control of codling moth
The spray we use is a  microbial virus that targets only the codling moth.  The virus attacks the moth’s digestive system.  No other insects are impacted.  That’s good because beneficial insects like bees or ladybugs or lacewings are free to go about their business of eating the aphids and leafhoppers and caterpillars that can cause damage.  We spray this granuovirus six times throughout the three generations of codling moth.  Altogether, we use one quart of spray, about six ounces per 150 gallons.  Because it a biological — not synthetic — control, it’s organic.

Let us do the spray-timing calculations for you!  We’ll post on our Facebook page when we are spraying, in case you live near us (at the 1,200 foot level, in Auburn).  Usually we start in mid-May.

In a home orchard, you can use an organic spray, such as spinosad, to control the codling moth.  Follow label directions, and be careful not to spray on any blooming plants, because it can kill honey bees and other beneficials.

UC Davis provides additional recommendations for codling moth control in home orchards.  These include organic methods like trapping, using parasitic wasps, and fruit bagging, if you don’t want to or can’t spray. www.ipm.ucdavis.edu

lovely, worm-free apples!


Filed under homestead how-to, orchard, spring