Monday, March 5, 2012

This week in the garden

My house turns 80 this year.  While unimpressive anywhere in, say, Europe or Asia, or even New Hampshire, that's pretty good for California.  80 years - it's practically ancient!  Why, think of all the earthquakes it's survived! As it turns out, 80 year old farmhouses, and in particular, the lands surrounding said 80 year old farmhouses, come fully equipped with eight decades worth of expectation.  Obligation.  Cultivation.  Agriculturability.  This is not something they advertise in the real estate sales brochure.  "One 80 year old farmhouse.  Heaps of charm, needs a little love, bad carpets throughout, upon purchase you will be overcome with an intense need to hyperactively grub in the dirt and raise chickens."

That would be truth in advertising. We hadn't been here three months before someone mentioned chickens.  And not just one person, but heaps of people.  The neighbors downhill have chickens: "Oh, raising chickens is so easy, your land is perfect for it.  We'll give you all the information you could want.  It's fun.  You can get chickens who lay colored eggs."    Our kids see the neighbors' chickens:  "Mom, can we have chickens? Pleeeeease???  Little baby chickens???"   One of my best friend, also encumbered with that same sense of expectation on her land:  "Our kids looove our chickens. They carry them around in their arms and call them in the mornings. Chuckchuckchuckchuckchuck."

We don't have chickens.  Yet.

But that sense of "must do. something. with. land."  She is growing heavy.  Our garden, I'm certain, will be a 10 year project, minimum.  It's not quite an acre, but there's just so much of it, to a city girl's eyes.  And so many bits and pieces.  The patio.  The kitchen garden.  The top slope.  The deer woods.  The place where I want to restore the creek (now culverted under my neighbor's yard).  The kid's garden. The patio hill, the house hill, the vegetable patch, the flower beds, the redwood patch.  It all needs love and recovery.  So, in the spirit of long-term egging self on, I think I'll add a regular blogspot to document the good, the bad, the new, and the improving.

Inaugural photos.  This week, in the garden: Late February and early March are all about the first signs of spring. 

Tiny, lovely, blue-purple irises

Grape hyacinths popping up under the kayak tree

Someday this hill will be thick with hyacinths

Wild plum bursting into bloom above the driveway

Navel oranges are finally turning orange

And one of the lemon trees has found its calling

We just planted this Santa Rosa Plum

And a Flavor King Pluot which will crosspollinate with the plum

A new blueberry bush, perfect for the shady spots in the kitchen garden. We'll have six varieties starting this year.

The chives popped up in their beds - I had no idea they'd come back on their own

Daffodils volunteering everywhere

I wish I could remember the name of this gorgeous, thorny, twisty, architectural shrub.  It's suddenly woken up from winter and covered itself in buds, and a few early blooms that look like tiny wild roses.  And it's no relation to a rose.

My mother insists we have a pair of gardeners come twice a month, to sweep up all the leaves (there are a lot of leaves) and do a bit of pruning. Which is all well and good, but I keep restricting the poor guys.  With the previous owners they cut all the hedges into giant walls and boxes of green.  I want all my hedges to grow wild. So first I forbid them to trim the hedges except for the juniper hedges.  And then recently I began ripping out the juniper hedges (nasty non-native, rat-housing fire traps that they are).  So the poor gardeners are clearly beginning to feel redundant, and like they need to prove themselves useful. This week I glanced out the window to see one of the gardeners walking down the steps with a big plastic white tank attached to a spray nozzle, about to start spraying some undisclosed chemical in my kitchen garden.  To say I scared him is probably an understatement.  He doesn't speak English.  I really don't speak Spanish.  I mean, I can count to ten with the best of them (diez!), but "what the heck is that/are you kidding me/ I EAT those plants/ there are KIDS living here/ we don't use that craziness on this land" is a bit beyond my rudimentary skills.

Nevertheless, when a very short woman comes rocketing out her kitchen door, and launches herself bodily straight at you, waving her hands in the air and shouting "No no no no NEVER NEVER NEVER NO NO NO"  you get the general message.  He backed up fast, eyes wide, and put the tank back in the truck.  Apologizing rapidly. Also repeatedly.  Poor man.

My local water agency puts out  pamphlets in Spanish about low-chemical healthy gardening.  I think I'll order a copy or two.


  1. Our gardeners don't spray anything. Or weed. They Mow, blow, and go. We hired them because the neighbors were starting to complain about the state of our front lawn. But then, we don't live in the country.

    I need to figure out cross pollination with our greengage. Also, next fall, please remind me to put in daffodil bulbs. Also, you NEED Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen. NEED. There's a chapter on foraging! Also, on raising chickens, natch.

  2. Adding to my Amazon wishlist, thanks!

    You're concerned about your new peach tree, yes? UC Davis ( says that most peaches are self-fruitful, meaning (I'm sure you've gathered) that they don't need another peach around in order to produce fruit.

    My pollination man, told me that even though my "self fruitful" plums and blueberries would set fruit even if I only bought one, they'd have a much thicker crop if I added a cross-pollinating variety of each. I don't know if the same is true of peaches, but they're quite closely related to plums, so it might be worth popping a second peach into the ground, if you can. Or checking with the pollination expert at your nursery,looking it up in Sunset, etc.

  3. There are two peaches right now -- the problem with both is not fruit set -- they both have quite a big crop of fruit, so I assume it's not a pollination issue. The problem is that the fruit never ripens. It gets to be about the size of a walnut, stays green, softens, then falls off the tree. My aunt is a landscape architect and she thinks it may be a varietal problem.

    The greengage is also self fruitful, and quite young, but I really want to encourage it, even though we probably don't get quite enough chill hours. I might put in a damson -- apparently other European plums will cross pollinate it.

  4. Oh man, I am not the person to ask about plants. Plants are absolutely my achille's heel. I've got a few botanists around the office. They're more into things like serpentine soil endemic species and rare vernal pool wildflowers than agriculture, but they might know about nonripening fruit. It's worth asking. I'd probably defer to your aunt, though. She's got the on-the-ground knowledge with your trees/soil/etc.

  5. I love the grape hyacinths when they emerge in the spring. We have thousands here. Their foliage is a spaghetti-mess, but the blue is so intense that I forgive them the untidiness round their feet. With the pale-butter yellow of narcissi and the clustering rosettes of primroses, they see off the winter in a blaze of hope.

    I have a one-morning/afternoon-a-week gardener to help out, particularly necessary when we're so overburdened with work that the garden would otherwise languish. And like you, I see our surroundings as being an ongoing project, probably never to be completely finished. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming responsibility, and I feel that I'll never have time to sit on the benches we sprinkled around the place to take our leisure on. But on a good day, when the sun shines and I come across some forgotten treasure newly sprung up, there's nothing quite like it!