For the first time this week, temperatures in the house climbed above 68F when the sun shone on the southeast side most of the day. The tiresome little midwinter demons in my head that began their mischievous dance somewhere after Solstice finally retreated to their dark corners as the days lengthened. Today, I got out in the garden and began pulling up weeds in the raised beds, taking care not to step on the still moist soil. The fava beans, planted last fall, are beginning to bloom, and I can already imagine the bittersweet taste of the first pods, shelled and eaten raw standing in the sunshine. The apple trees still show no leaves, but bright pink blossoms punctuate the bare branches and attract large woodland bumblebees. The stark spires of my frost-burned hydrangea are showing collars of bright green from top to bottom. Now that I can no longer delay bud burst, I will remove the skeletal remains of the autumn blossoms caught by December’s first hard frost.
A few weeks ago, I donned alien garb; rain pants, a hooded sweatshirt, rubber boots and gloves, goggles and a breathing mask, to spray the olives and the apples with the copper sulfate required to keep the fungal diseases at bay. Here alongside the redwood forests, our high humidity and moderate summer temperatures bring out the worst in leaf curls, fungal blights and peacock spot. As much as I hate spraying the iridescent turquoise liquid on my beautiful trees, I feel an obligation to keep them healthy and strong. I made amends of sorts by flushing the ground beneath them with lots of clean water afterwards, making it safe again for the little dog and the other animals. In another week, if the weather holds, I will be up in the apple trees with a ladder and my trusty camel hair cosmetic brush, assisting the scarce honeybees with the annual task of pollinating the stubborn Gravenstein. How this apple survived all these years is a mystery to me, as they require yet another species of apple, usually Jonathan or Jonagold to pollinate. As a home farmer, I am often required to go above and beyond in order to obtain a harvest. We just don’t have the space to add another apple, which ironically, would require yet a third variety to assist with pollination and fruiting.
The olives will get their first dose of nitrogen soon. The new leaf tips at the end of the branches are pale yellow and appear far more tender than they actually are. The winter winds have left a many of the thinnest lower branches bare of leaves. These will need to be trimmed up or removed to allow the trees to process as much of the filtered afternoon sunlight as they can absorb into new growth and, eventually blossoms. We grow on the jagged edge of the climate map for these trees, but I am determined to nurse them through their adolescent years until they are stronger and stouter, like the trees I observed along the northern Tuscan coastal hills. The ones at the bottom of the garden are the most lush, as they receive the runoff from the raised bed and all the nutrients it contains. The two at the top of the hill are more leggy, fighting to draw nourishment from the heavy clay soil.
Plans for this summer’s vegetables have begun to solidify in my head. In participating in the winter CSA at Noyo Hill Farm, I have spent many a Friday afternoon conversing with John about what grows here, what thrives, and what merely survives. Last year’s chard is still producing, though the leaves are smaller and tougher than the summer’s pickings. The Italian salad greens have begun to bolt, and I will have to pick the remainder of the leaf lettuce and pull out the roots in order to replant the spring rotation. To that, I will add a couple staggered plantings of arugula, which have to be replanted every month or so, as they bolt quickly in the warmer days. There is still too much of a chance of late frost to plant head lettuces, at least without the cover of the hoops. I will pull the remaining spring onions and replant that bed for summer, and the artichokes are starting to send up new shoots around the base of last year’s blackened stalks. The rosemary in the bottom bed has become far too large, and is beginning to crowd and shade the onions, so it will need to be trimmed back drastically. In another month, it will be warm enough to add the tomato seedlings, long after the favas have been picked and the tough vines dug back into the soil to enrich yet another cycle of seasonal plantings.
The next big chores that must be started before the ground hardens for the summer are the new retaining walls. The largest will be on the east side, where we cleared all the brush during last year’s fires. If we are able to level this slope while not interfering with the drainage, I will be able to place a greenhouse there, in one of the sunniest places in the meadow, even in winter. The next most difficult will be parallel to the deer fence at the bottom of the property. This year we will level a 16 foot length, plumb the drip system along the timbers, and hope to build a multi-layer raised stone bed for herbs and flowers at a later point. The bed will be in full view of the back deck, and will be a playground for the tiny goldfinches that inhabit the redwood grove behind it. The last, and shallowest wall will be on the west side of the property, just above the ravine, and will establish a sunny run along the deer fence for roses, providing a beautiful view from the guest room. Piece by piece, we are carving out a garden from the forest.
The landscape plans began to take shape last spring, just as the economy slowed to a crawl. They remain an ongoing effort, one small segment at a time, as time and money permit. Yet unscheduled are the re-grading and filling of portions of the front yard, a seasonal watercourse to replace the dry streambed drainage across the middle of it, complete with a re-circulating pump and a lower pool for the birds to bathe, and a front walkway made of free-form concrete blocks with an embedded mosaic of old tile pieces, blue glass and river stones. The grading will involve deepening the existing dry streambed, and establishing berms and swales to slow winter runoff, allowing water to soak into the soil rather than ending up at the bottom of the ravine, taking our almost non-existent topsoil with it. The apple trees are in their second year of dry farming, with the exception of occasional deep hose soakings at the end of the summer. This year we will remove the wire cages around their thickening trunks, and the wooden supports that now perform no real function. The raspberries along the front fence are spreading, promising to take over the wild bed of naturalized Jupiter’s Beard and Rose Campion that guards the new canes from the inquisitive rooting of the little dog.
I am still waiting for the last marker of the spring season to come, the blooming of the soft pink wild Rhododendrons that surround our meadow. They are always foreshadowed by the flash of hot pink buds hidden among the greenish-yellow leaves, usually in spots that catch the most sun. The Trillium is already popping up between the huckleberry bushes, and tiny, vibrant yellow Viola Sempervirens dot the bright green new grass. The early daffodils are spent now, their drying stalks recharging the bulbs for another year. It is always fun to see where they pop up, as crafty squirrels dig up the bulbs, and hoard them away in holes all around the leach field, hoping for a midwinter meal, but yet unable to locate quite where they were hidden the previous spring. The Pacific Coast Iris clumps are sending out new green stalks and leaves, but none of their purple-blue flowers yet. They too will join the rainbow of colors on parade as the forest welcomes yet another spring. The March winds whip the slim redwoods back and forth, and the air still retains the morning chill, but the warm sun reminds us that no matter how we humans choose to occupy our time, the seasons march on in their ancient progression, and another winter here passes.