Awash in Plums

The harvest has begun. Haphazardly and thank God for grocery stores or it would be a very strange winter ahead. The one fruit tree that was absolutely loaded was the juice plum, I think it may be a Santa Barbara but I’m not an expert. In any event the branches are bent down with fruit and just as they started getting pink I found the deer standing around eyeing them with the same considerate look as me. I hung some sheets on the lower branches and that did the trick. The deer have gone to someone else’s yard and 80% of the tree ripened in 3 days. They are so juicy they can only be eaten over the sink which is fun for one or two but… So I steam them into juice and there is now a gallon in the freezer and 10 pounds of plums making wine in a bucket.

Other than that, there is 5 pounds of rhubarb in the freezer and yesterday the Excalibur 2000 (the dehydrator) came down from the top shelf for the first picking of salal berries. Everything else is hanging back waiting for it to warm up. The slugs are not hanging back and I’ve taken to donning gloves and a flashlight when I let the dog out at 1 am. I go slug hunting while she’s busy and we both go back to bed content.

More plot twists than reality TV

purple bouquet

Fruit cliff hangers

I’m glad I’m not a professional farmer, and I think my DNA still remembers the uncertainty my ancestors faced with dread. I’m particularly glad this year because the cherry crop is a bust, worse than last year which wasn’t good. They flowered, they were pollinated, they made tons of little tiny cherries. I had visions of cherry crisp at Christmas. Then it got cold and they dropped almost all of the little tiny cherries leaving me with about two cups of big cherries from eight trees. But the only real consequence is the quality of my morning oatmeal next January which will have to rely on something less exciting to pep it up. Maybe next year… On the bright side, the peach and apple trees are feeling optimistic and there are TWO little nectarines on the young tree I planted two years ago. Will I be able to get to the ripe peaches in August before the deer? Stay tuned.

The dirty no-dig secret

I am still attempting to follow along with no-dig vegetable gardening. Even though I hit a serious snag. My compost isn’t commercially hot. Which isn’t a huge problem except that all the seeds survived the process. I knew better than to put grass in there but the tomatoes and other things went in to the heap, I mean that’s what compost is for, right? Except now I have baby tomato plants everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. And they’re cute, and you can never have too many tomatoes. And so my beds and pots are overcrowded (again) because I find it hard to pull them out and put them back in the compost. I’ll feel vindicated if the freezer is full of tomatoes this winter but it’s too soon to tell.

New cast members

On the wildlife front, Short Meadow is now complete. There were two things I desperately wanted when we moved here: frogs and quail. The frogs showed up almost immediately, requiring no pond and no maintenance except to avoid chemicals and move things slowly. The quail remained a dream. I looked into rearing them but how street smart is a quail raised by humans going to be? Exactly.

Then it happened about two weeks ago. Little bobbling heads in the driveway and later their calls echoing across the orchard. Whether they’re living here or not, they’re definitely nearby and visiting, having children that will need their own homes. So as long as some of them can avoid the coyotes and the owls, quails should continue to be part of the community.

In summary…

Meanwhile the flowers are coming on strong and (mostly) not being eaten by the deer. Everything new has come from cuttings and seeds this year. There’s a certain joy in raising a plant from ‘birth’ that doesn’t happen from a nursery purchase. I am behind on weeding. I am always behind on weeding.

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Plum Coffee Cake

plum coffee cake

(generously serves 12)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

½ c butter

1 c sugar

2 large eggs

1 ts vanilla

½ c milk

2 c flour

3 ts baking powder

½ ts salt

12 – 24 Italian plums

 

Topping:

1/3 c flour

½ c sugar

½ ts cinnamon

¼ c butter

 

For the cake, blend the butter and sugar together until creamy in a mixer or by hand. Add the eggs and vanilla and incorporate. Stir in the milk and then add the dry ingredients; flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat until the batter is smooth.

 

This is a farm house version so I’m usually trying to use up plums and therefore go with a larger surface area (2 9 inch cake pans) but the original recipe called for a 8 x 12 baking pan.   Either way, pour the batter into a greased pan.  Halve the plums, removing the pit, and place skin side up in the batter. Since I’m trying to use up the fruit I put them as close together as possible but if you don’t have that luxury then try for two plum halves per serving arranged evenly.

For the topping: stir the dry ingredients together: flour, sugar, cinnamon. Gently mix in the butter with your fingers until just incorporated and the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over the batter. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until a knife comes out clean from the middle.

 

A note on plums:  Italian plums work for this because they are meatier and don’t have as much liquid (they’re the long, purple ones).  Juicy plums probably won’t work very well.

How an impulse buy changed everything

It all started with a high-tech weight loss gadget featured on the news - one that required no physical effort. I went to the crowdfunding site to check it out - you would too, admit it. As I went to leave, the site flashed in my face - “LAST DAY!!!” for a self-tapping bee hive from Australia. I paused. I clicked. I bought.

I was seduced

by the Flow Hive 2. Partly it was the technology, promising no mess honey collection and happier bees but it was also because it was just so darn pretty. The bee hives I’ve seen in fields or in the rare backyard are ugly boxes, functional but as unattractive as Soviet concrete architecture. This was a garden feature. The irony that it was coming from Australia made from the same western red cedar native to my own backyard wasn’t lost on me either.

Bees were on my farm list for well, someday. Maybe five years down the road? Or later, when everything was else was done. Now I had a bee hive arriving in months. So either it collected dust or bees moved to the top of the list. Luckily I had some time as it wouldn’t arrive for several months and new hives are a Spring thing. All was good.

When it came time to assemble it, I saw that it was worth the money. IKEA could learn a lot from them on how to do flat packs - everything was perfectly labeled and fit together like a dream. Time to find some bees.

I quickly figured out that beekeeping has more rigid opinions than politics. Do it this way, no that way. People that do this regret it. People that don’t do too. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is don’t start by yourself, find a group. So I searched for local groups. The bee costumes put me off. I decided I’d be doing this on my own.

Bees have to be ordered in advance. I had three clear choices when it came to acquiring a starter set of bees, pick them up in a parking lot on a designated day. Drive several miles to a person who stated this would be their last year in business or drive even further to someone that would be doing this next year. I opted for continuity.

The big pick up day announced

The weekend before I placed the hive in my chosen spot, in the cherry orchard beneath a tree that isn’t edible (the root stock took over from the graft). I leveled it. I re-leveled it. I put out a welcome sign. (Really, I did.) Then it was suddenly bee day. I did some last minute reading before heading out.

The trip and bee acquisition went smoothly. Except that I was going to have to do a process with the queen that nobody had mentioned on the internet. A different kind of queen box than I had learned about. I got home and let the bees rest for a bit in the shade before suiting up. It’s a funny thing about this step for a newbie - you’re scared to do it but if you don’t they’re all going to die. So you do it. Mostly it went okay, for the proletariat bees anyway. The monarch, not so good. She may have been weak anyway or I did something wrong or both. She was kinda alive when I put the hive back together but I think we both knew it wasn’t looking good.

The queen is dead, long live the queen

She didn’t make it. Another trip would be necessary to collect a new queen. I made the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile the rest of the bees got increasingly anxious. I know this because one stung me on the cheek when I was just standing by the hive. Like the first scratch on a new car, it’s good to get this over with.

It’s a long journey to the source of bees and involves the city stuff that I gave up three years ago. The longer I’m away the more I hate going back. So I plotted an itinerary that would get some other errands done before my agreed pick-up window. This would take me down the other side of the lake. On a side note when the highway department introduced a toll over seven years ago to cross the lake on one bridge (but not the other) I vowed to never pay the toll, not out of any higher principle but just because it irritated me and I don’t much care for automated systems tracking my license plate. This wasn’t a plot to commit a crime, just a plan to not use that bridge for approximately 50 years. So I planned to meander my way down to the free bridge and then back up the other side, adding about 40 minutes to the journey but when you’ve been going strong for seven years you’ve clearly got a commitment to the cause, or something.

I break the vow

You knew this was coming. I learned I didn’t have a very big window at all. I thought I had several hours but it turned out to be only about one. I could get there in fifteen minutes if I just paid the toll. The long way would be at least 45 if traffic cooperated (does it ever?). For the sake of the queen and the other bees I gave in. It’s an ugly bridge but I got to my destination on time. $5 and some pride is a small price for a happy hive.

The new queen went in without a hitch. I innovated based on my own circumstances to make sure her cage didn’t fall until the bees freed her. When I checked she was out and trying to stay out of the light, generally acting like a queen should. (I think.) I need to check on them all again soon but they’ve already taught me so much. A lot of it is applicable to starting a business:

  • There is no master plan, or secret blueprint, that guarantees success

  • Research is great but doing it is the only way to learn it

  • Bees die and mistakes happen, if you do your very best for others it will come out all right in the end

  • Follow your instincts and intuition. You don’t have to hang with people in bee costumes if you don’t want to.

  • Start before you’re ready, see bullet points above 😊

French Breakfast Radish Toast

Radish Toast

Radish Toast

This might not even count as a recipe but I get enough flack in my family for it that I decided it does – mostly so I can build my tribe of people who also love it!

Serves 2

  • 2 slices of whole wheat bread – the grainier/nuttier the better

  • Butter or olive oil

  • Fresh French breakfast radishes

 Toast the bread – like you normally make toast and spread generously with butter or olive oil.  Slice the radishes about 1/8 inch thick lengthwise and arrange over the toast covering as completely as possible.  That’s it.  Radish toast makes a fabulous breakfast with cottage cheese and of course, dark coffee!

Let me know what you think in the comments (and don’t forget to tell your Mom you ate a vegetable for breakfast!)

April on the small holding

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April on a small holding feels like the Christmas rush in retail - absolutely everything needs tending! And things look hopeful for a bountiful fruit harvest later in the summer. Last year a cold spell stopped most of the trees from setting but so far so good this year. I’m even crossing my fingers that the baby nectarine tree (only about 4 ft tall) might make at least one.

Seed starting is the top priority

The green house benches are full and I’ve got a rotation schedule for the heated mats in the mudroom. Slowly but surely the pile of seed packets is getting lower and more and more things can be planted out into final position. At the moment that means cabbages and beets are planted (except for the Savoys that I forgot!) Lettuces and mustards are out and within easy reach of the kitchen. Peas are going in this week and the all the squashy relatives will get going in the seed trays too.

Letting go of guilt

I hate putting seedlings on the compost pile. It seems like such a waste of potential, not to mention effort. And strangely giving them away seems to create a sense of obligation in the reverse direction ‘fine, if I have to I’ll take one off your hands’. So I’ve stopped doing that, too. Bottom line is in the past I’ve crammed too many in, too close together and had the miniature results that this produces. I’m working hard to break this habit; improved this year if not perfect. The remaining seedlings hang around until I either need them, use them as micro greens or feed them to the chickens.

The big excitement

By far the biggest event in April will be the arrival of honey bees. The hive is ready, the location picked and the bee suit is on standby. Now we just wait until the end of the month when I can go pick them up, convince them I’m going to be a great bee mom and hope that they don’t mind a short trip on the ferry to get to their new home. There won’t be honey (for me) until next year, but I’m eagerly awaiting that as well.

A new gardening season is upon us!

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The greenhouse and cold frames are already beginning to fill up with seedlings. This year - unhampered by any broken bones (yeah!!!) - I’m trying to follow along with Charles Dowding’s No Dig. We’ll see, it’s early days yet but my goal is to grow all my own fruit and veg for the year excluding any tropical stuff. Seeds are germinating and there is a pile of new covering and netting just waiting to be laid out over tender plants. I can’t resist growing flowers too, so those are sprinkled in with the veg.

I try to be efficient and sort the seed packets by the month and then by the temperature required so I can group them on the heat mats. It more or less works out.

This year’s major addition to everything is honey bees. The hive is constructed and waiting in the shop so nobody else moves in. My new bee suit is hanging on its own special hook and the bees have been ordered and registered with the state. Some time around tax day I will head over on the ferry and bring back my very own bees! I hope they like me…

Cold frames and chipmunks

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It’s always amazing when one of those non-essential but important projects, that somehow lingers for years, finally gets done. Top of the list were these coldframes. The delays were numerous, from running out of screws to being too cold or too hot. The broken ankle didn’t help either. But now they are done, and I’m willing to look past the gaps and uneven corners!

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The location was mostly out of convenience, next to the greenhouse where there is still space to walk. This puts them under the pine tree which also has the birdfeeder on the other side. I installed the lids in situe on a rather windy day so I wasn’t too surprised to see Sarah, the chipmunk zipping around between her woods and the birdfeeder. I was amazed, though when she stopped and turned around on the fence to come back to see what I was doing. She didn’t mind the drill or big windows being moved just feet from where she was gathering seeds. In all she seemed to understand about needing to get things under cover and ready for winter.

Sarah draws the line though as cell phones with cameras- then I instantly became a suspicious character and she refused to come close until we negotiated for a few brief portraits (and yes, I then went away and left her in peace.) The wind seemed to work in her favor as it kept most of the birds away - which aren’t really a threat, but their constant motion makes her nervous. I put down a fresh handful of seeds to make sure she could make the most of the day.

Very little of my work at Shortmeadow goes unsupervised and its always nice to have a friendly face to talk to!