Monday, April 29, 2013

Static in the attic

I played this game today!

Today was one of those aggravating days when I ended up spending waaaay more hours than I wanted on the internet.  The day went like this:  I was reviewing the informal "one year" checklist Big Ag and I had talked about when we moved in, regarding things we wanted to repair and/or improve on our new home as soon possible after moving in.  

We did a lot of what we said we'd do.  We ripped out the cat pee stained carpet and replaced it with wood flooring.  We installed a pellet stove for more energy efficiency in winter.  But one thing had fallen through the cracks:  installing either a whole house fan or solar attic fan to help keep the house cool in summer.  And here we are, on the cusp of summer as we speak.

So I consulted that wondrous oracle known as Google, and began doing research.  I looked at solar attic and electric attic fans.  I looked at whole house fans.  And it soon became apparent, through research on both those things and some manual observation of our house, that we have a severely under-ventilated attic, which may be why our cold water comes out of the tap at about 120 degrees on summer afternoons (the pipes run through the ceiling).

And unless you have good ventilation, neither a whole house fan or solar attic fan will work....the former because you need to be able to vent the hot air out, and the latter because you need to be able to draw cool air in.

Well, crap, I thought.  Actually, this was not the word I was thinking of most of today, but it can be a tame stand-in for what I was thinking.

I absolutely hate when a simple project becomes complicated.  New Google search:  Why in the world would a home builder construct a house in California with almost no f**king attic ventilation? Oops, I didn't use the stand-in word that time.

Finally, Big Ag and I consulted this evening and came up with a solution -- not ideal but workable.  Install a whole house fan, coupled with an electric attic fan with a switch, so we can manually ventilate the attic whenever we turn on the whole house fan and begin pumping air up there.

I'll be talking to our contractor this week and discussing the feasibility of this idea, but until then, I remain hopeful that he'll say, "Wow, you guys are really smart to think of that."  Actually, as long as he doesn't say "Well, that's a stupid idea -- it'll never work," I will be happy.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Welcome summer

Things could change over the next several weeks, but I'm thinking they probably won't.  I believe summer is officially here.  Some years we have 4-month summers and some years, 7-month ones.  This year will probably fall into the latter category.

Oh well, I guess there are worse places to be for a 7-month summer. Once the spring crops are established, I foresee a lot of strolling-the-beach hours in my immediate future!

Not deterred, but determined

These are the starts of some new Pink Lady heirloom tomatoes, to replace the ones I lost in the windstorm a couple of weeks ago.  I bought some other varieties of heirloom transplants at the nursery as replacements, but was crushed to think I was not going to have any Pink Ladies on the table this summer, as they are the best tomatoes I've ever eaten or canned -- meaty, flavorful and HUGE.

But the grower at the nursery insisted it was NOT too late in the season to plant some more seeds and get my Pink Ladies back, in time for at least late summer picking, so last week I placed some seeds on a moist paper towel, covered them with Saran Wrap, and waited.  Even though these seeds are two years old, they still sprouted, faithfully! And yesterday I was able to take the seedlings and put them into some potting soil.

These babies are going to be spoiled and pampered, waiting until they are fairly large to go into the ground.  I'm not losing a crop again.  I'm not even particularly concerned with how many tomatoes they produce this year, only that I can again save some seeds from just one tomato and have many more Pink Lady tomatoes next year, when I will be wiser about waiting to place them in-ground.

In a related story, I was at a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting last week and spoke to our registrar, who is an avid gardener.  Her advice?  Put nothing in the ground before May 1.  She said between the possibility of frosts/freezes and windstorms, planting before then is a gamble.  The gal at the nursery said the same thing, so there seems to be some consensus there.

Well, I learned that one the hard way, but at least I did learn.  I am not so much deterred as determined.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Homesteading means a lot of things to a lot of people, but in my years of doing it, I can tell you one thing:  After the first few seasons, it is not so much about doing new things all the time, but rather getting better at doing the same things, over and over.

Some people might find this boring.  And the truth is, they'd be partially right.  

Your first year of homesteading is filled with the thrill of the new. Your first spring planting, your first clothesline, the first time you make a meal completely from what you gathered from your own property. It's tremendously exciting.  Add in your first livestock, your first big harvest, and your first winter of eating the stores you put up and it's, frankly, beyond thrilling. 

I remember watching our electric bill drop when we stopped using the clothes dryer and started hanging our wash.  Seeing the gas bill drop when we started using the solar oven.  We weren't off the grid, but we were less tied to it than ever before, and we had such a feeling of freedom and of pride about that.  Our neighbors would gape at us over the fence (some in an admiring way, others looking at us like we'd lost our minds) when they'd see us doing all those things, because at the time, we were the only ones doing them.

It's not so much that way now.  Homesteading has become quite trendy, and yards once again have clotheslines and vegetable gardens.  And for us, since we've been doing it for several years, it's not quite as exciting as when we first started.

It's a little bit like your first year of know, when everytime you got into a car and started up, a little tingle would run up your spine and you'd think to yourself, "Hey, I'm actually driving Mom's car now!  Holy cow!"  That feeling only lasts for a little while. One day, you get in the car, start it up and head off to school, work, or wherever, completely unconscious that, hey, you're actually driving.  Driving becomes all about watching the road while making task lists in your head and changing the radio station.  It's just one more thing you do.

And so it is with homesteading.  This morning I had a lovely harvest of spring onions, lettuce, carrots, and three eggs from the hens.  Later I went outside and gathered a basketful of mustard greens, boiled them and put them into freezer bags, for omelettes and what-not in the coming seasons. Then I cleaned out chicken coops and loaded the waste into the composter.   
All those things are now just stuff that happens, in one way or another, most days here. And while I enjoy and appreciate it all, I no longer shout about it from the rooftops.  Maybe I should, I don't know.  The one thing I do know is that fact that its routine does not necessarily mean it's time to charge off in search of another all-consuming tchotchke related to the homesteading lifestyle.

Because I've seen people get to the point where they have several homesteading skill sets under their belt, who go on regular quests to find something new to do (which usually means something new to buy), like a horse cart, some llamas, or an expensive loom, which will become their new focus and give them the excitement of the new all over again.  And it seems to me that's just a crunchier form of consumerism and the need to have a constant stream of novel stuff in their lives, just like their hipster, urban counterparts.

There's nothing wrong with gaining a new skill here and there as you master others and they become less time-consuming.  But the simple tasks of growing, harvesting, and making things yourself should always be the chores that take up the most of your home time, if you're really doing the homestead thing right.  Otherwise you're sampling, dabbling, hobbying -- whatever you want to call it.  

And that's OK, if that's where you are at and you're happy there.  Just don't call it homesteading.  It's really another form of consumerism, the antithesis of homesteading.

The reason homesteading is difficult to do long-term is exactly the reason so many of our parents and grandparents left it behind for the suburban, modern life.... it can be mundane and repetitious at times. Many of our ancestors found more excitement and variety in the Convenience Lifestyle, where it was OK to purchase the latest thing and be part of the newest trend.  Homesteading only offers variety in terms of what can go wrong after the first year or so, and while that's a challenge, it's not, strictly speaking, fun. (It IS fulfilling, meaningful, comforting and gratifying, however.)

But the answer to the dwindling fun quotient should probably not be to start adding expensive new new cob ovens, or cart horses, or llamas to our property because we're bored with the usual farm or home work we do on a daily basis.  

Those chores may not be as sexy and trendy as having a llama in your front yard or a horse and cart, but they are the simple jobs that make a household run, and that, if nothing else, should give us a sense of real satisfaction and pride.  It seems to me that making a home or farm work is, at its most basic, what homesteading is all about.

OK, rant over.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Menopause, Sleep and Country Livin'

When I started trudging into that murky minefield known as peri-menopause, I was just planning on never sleeping well again. The onset of menopause was simply the current issue at the top of a very long list of things that I thought had kept me sleeping badly for years. I had an Ambien prescription for use after I'd had a couple of bad nights' sleep and needed some guaranteed zzz's, and I'd developed a variety of coping mechanisms to deal with my time spent on the Night Watch, even when there was nothing that needed watching.

I had always given excuses to my insomnia, even before I had the very legitimate excuse of coming into menopause, where lack of hormones play havoc with women's sleep cycles. (Ever wondered why middle aged women can be so short-tempered and grumpy sometimes?  You can get that way after years of no sleep.) But my insomnia excuses had started much earlier.  First, it was because I was just a light sleeper.  Then, because I was a new mother.  Then came the aforementioned peri-menopause, followed by menopause itself.  

The first night we moved into this new house, I slept with the shutters and windows thrown wide open.  I don't think I slept much, but that wasn't the point. (And I was used to that by this time anyway.) From the vantage point of my bed, I could see the Milky Way galaxy stretched in a line before me, rotating slowly as the night progressed.  I could see Antares, Scorpius and Sagittarius hanging low in the window.  If I looked towards the hills there were mighty oak trees, standing silent and silhouetted against the dry brush.

And so began my love affair for sleeping with the bedroom window open.  And after I became somewhat used to the idea that I could see a billion or so stars out of my window, I slept.  Well.  Extremely well, in fact.

This was a banner occasion for a long-time insomniac.  

It wasn't the peace and quiet, because as anyone who lives in the country can tell you, it's really not all that quiet out here -- day or night.  At night there are screech owls, coyotes, neighbor's dogs, the occasional car, and the dawn chorus beginning at around 4:30 a.m.  Nights are anything but silent.  

No, the sleep issue resolved itself once I finally started sleeping with the windows open and my room got cool -- downright cold, in fact.  I had no idea, but lowering the room temperature is the biggest thing most people can do to improve their sleep.  Studies indicate that a temperature range between 55 and 65 degrees is best for sleeping humans.  Yet how many of us who live in urban areas and cannot open our windows at night, or live in hot areas where it doesn't cool off to those temperatures at all in summer?  I know when I lived in the San Joaquin Valley, it was not uncommon on summer nights to find the temperatures hovering around 90 degrees at midnight, after a triple-digit day.  But that was only in the cities, where the concrete from the streets and sidewalks created a "heat island" effect from all those man-made structures still radiating the day's heat, long after sundown. 

Creating heat islands is just one more way we've over-civilized ourselves into a situation that's detrimental to our health and that of the environment.  After all, if you live in a heat island, you will probably do whatever it takes to cool off, like running your air conditioner all night long. Who could blame you? But that's not wise for either your electric bill or the health of the planet.

But since sleeping in the cool night air is something our bodies are biologically programmed to do, there's no getting around it.

We need sleep, and we need to sleep someplace cool.  Both things are just part of the basic operating instructions for owning a human body.

Here's a good NY Times article about this very subject:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Halcyon Day

Have you ever noticed how some days seem to have their own personalities -- as in, some seem out to destroy your peace and happiness at any cost while others, no matter what happens, still are lovely, mellow and sweet?  

It doesn't matter where you are; you can have a difficult day at home and a peaceful one at work, or vice versa, but sometimes it almost seems like you are just a part of that particular day's personality, instead of the day just reflecting off your own mood.

Today, for example, has been a halcyon day.  The temperatures are in the '70's, clear with a light, gentle breeze, my war with the pests in the fields seems to have come to a temporary truce with the addition of some diatomaceous earth out there, and everything outside is green and growing.  The laundry's up and drying as we speak.  I have everything on hand to make a delicious pizza for dinner. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket and see if my luck holds.

Days like this, where nature, time and luck are all willing and able to help grease the wheels to make everything a little more peaceful and lovely, are too rare on this earth.  We've had some cruel days this spring, but today is not one of them, and if I celebrate nothing else today, I will sit outside in the sunshine as the trees sway gently in the breeze, and celebrate that.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gophers, Squirrels and Insects. Oh my.

Those are the three things we're dealing with right now here at the homestead.  Some of my crops, namely my eggplant and basil, are under siege from a mystery bug that is chewing holes in their leaves.  Later in the growing season, a bit of munching won't hurt much, as the plants are bigger, but while they are small, being significantly defoliated will kill them.  So tonight I will head outside with a sprayer full of Bt (a natural insecticide) and see if I can bring things on that end to a halt.

I am also dealing with a significant gopher explosion, which is making holes everywhere, which are dangerous should you accidentally step in one and break an ankle.  And while they have not yet found the juicy potato crop I have planted, if I leave them be, they surely will. So Big Ag is bringing home some aluminum phosphide, an extremely lethal gas which you put down and gopher hole and which does the trick, quickly.  It has the advantage of killing the pest while NOT making its carcass poisonous, so if any gophers do make it above ground before dying and are eaten by something, the chemical will NOT harm the second animal.  That's important here, because we not only have dogs and cats, but also see turkey vultures, coyotes, crows and eagles regularly, which feed on carrion.

The squirrels are another story.  They don't hurt much, but will be a nuisance once our trees are fruiting, possibly ruining a fair portion of our crop by tasting a bite here and another there...on every single piece of fruit as it ripens! At least that's what happened last year. They will be humanely trapped using a Havahart trap and relocated in a wilderness section of Big Ag's ranch.  

Different pests, different solutions.  I hate the killing solutions, but sometimes that's all that's available and all that works.  This is one aspect of farming where growing in a suburban back yard is much easier than on is always possible to discourage and redirect pests from a small area. I've used ultrasonic devices with great success, and of course trapping and relocating as well.

But down the hill, it's a different story.  A country story, which seems, by nature to be tougher and harder all the way around.  But these are the issues you deal with when you choose acreage I guess.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Thought

Doesn't it seem patently unfair that just when we finally get a handle on knowing how to live well ... when we are too wise to get screwed at the used car lot, too smart to hedge all our bets on an untrustworthy lover, and when we completely know how to manage our money and our lives, we get old?

Imagine a world where we got younger as we spent more time on the planet. We'd have all those life skills at our disposal in our prime, when we have the most stamina and energy for life, rather than the other way around. We'd be wise and kind young adults. 

Most of us wander through our teens and 20's as clueless, self-centered risk-takers, with enough personal energy to light up Anchorage, if we were hooked up to a generator. Yet, once you're finally able to appreciate God or truly marvel at seeing something like the Acropolis, or just really understand -- and I mean really understand -- why it's sometimes best to put others before yourself, it's a good bet you're at least 50 and already in physical decline. Your energy might light up your house, if you're lucky.  Maybe.

Can you imagine a world filled with old and wise 20-somethings?  People with the wisdom to see the best path and the energy to make it happen? It could be heaven on earth.

I'm sure there's a reason for it to be this way, sometimes from my vantage point it just looks damn unfair, I'm tellin' ya.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin

I currently have several seedlings for this massive giant pumpkin sprouting in my greenhouse.  They will go into the garden in a couple of weeks, and from there.....who knows.

It actually always seems kind of strange to be planting winter squash when spring is in full tilt, but that's just how nature works. Things like pumpkins and butternut squash take a long time to form, so they need to go into the ground several months before they're actually needed. 

If I get two or three giant pumpkins, I will be thrilled....for no particular reason (Heck, if I get ONE I will be thrilled).  In addition to these massive Dill's pumpkins, I've also planted plenty of smaller, more useful Sugar Pie pumpkins as well, which I will can and make pies with next fall, but these gargantuan pumpkins serve no other purpose, except for fun.  I figure if they grow, I have several months to play Martha Stewart and figure out what creative thing I want to do with them.  Sigh.  My very own Pumpkinzillas.

It could be fun. And sometimes, farms, homesteads, and gardens should be fun.  We'll see if I can get a pumpkinzilla or two.

Friday, April 19, 2013

And now, a brief break from reality as we know it

So on Wednesday night, I had a dream about an old friend, a schoolteacher chum of mine.  Haven't seen him in years, haven't thought of him in about as long.  When people joke about having "office spouses," I always think of this friend.  We never had a romantic relationship and neither one of us would have wanted one, but we did have each others backs and each others confidences, through the bad and the good school years, as educators.  He actually felt, not like a spouse, but like a sibling.  My Office Brother.

But anyway, the point is that on Thursday afternoon, I walked into a luncheon and, there before me, was a guest speaker who was the spitting image of my teacher friend.  I mean, it was eerie how much they looked alike.  And had he not been a guest star in my dream the night before, I surely would have thought of my friend at that moment.

This sort of thing happens to me many times, in one form or another.  Before we moved here I kept seeing myself in little scenes which would pop into my brain -- sitting in a restaurant, standing in a field, driving in a rainstorm -- and in the vision, I already lived here.  This was at least three years before we moved, and whenever Big Ag would confess doubts about whether or not we'd be able to make the move, I'd tell him it was already a done deal.  In the future, we were already there.

According to Einstein, all space and all time are on one continuum -- everything we see that appears to be happening in a "first this, then that," fashion is actually occurring simultaneously along that line where space and time travel along -- from the moment of the universe's creation to its ending -- and the only variable is where our consciousness happens to be on that spectrum.

This means that, sometimes, I suppose it might be possible to stretch our consciousness a bit and see a little bit further up the line.  Or maybe our future selves are sending back images telling us what's going to happen. 

It's just a small reminder that 90 percent of our universe has not yet been discovered or understood by us.  We're just a little dot on that space/time continuum line.  But that doesn't mean there's all there is to things.

One thing I do know, is that reality is not even remotely what you or I think it is.  Isn't that exciting?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The First Year

We've now been living on this property for about 10 1/2 months, and I regularly have to remind myself that we still have not even been here a year -- and to be a little kinder to myself.  By kinder, I mean more forgiving and more understanding, not taking every failure personally, but instead to learn from the mistakes, so that next year is better.

I walk a fine edge with this, because there are people out there in the blogosphere (and in my own life) who I've watched make huge and irresponsible mistakes, and totally forgive themselves for it when they should have held themselves to accountability for what happened.  Situations where livestock was killed, where financial common sense was ignored, and where bad things happened to someone who simply should have known better.  

So I am reluctant to let myself off the hook too easily.

I have managed to keep all our livestock safe, despite coyotes and red foxes hanging around, by using common sense, for instance.  I no longer let them free range when our border collie is not able to guard them.  When she goes to work on the farm with Big Ag, the chickens don't leave their run, and my small Jack Russell Terrier doesn't leave the fenced, "backyard" portion of the property.  

Score one for me there.

But I've had less luck with our food crops.  The windstorm's devastation could have been avoided, for instance, if I'd just kept my seedlings indoors for another few weeks until they were larger.  I made the mistake of transplanting them outside when they were the size I would have transplanted them in the ground back home ... 120 miles away, in a different climate zone entirely. 

 Can't do that, and I learned that fact the hard way.

Got to get carrots in the ground earlier, tomatoes in the ground later.  Foxes will roam until about 10 a.m. in the morning and are almost always hungry. These are all lessons, some learned the hard way, and some learned by applying common sense.

I think I've done OK this year as far as acceptable losses, but next year will be better.  But I've still got six weeks to go before I get to that point, so until then, caution and common sense are the order of the day.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mustard Greens and Pasta

Today, I boiled some mustard greens to add to a sausage pasta recipe I like, which usually calls for spinach.  A few days ago I did a kind of test run with the greens.  One set I sauteed, and the other I boiled.  For creating a green with a mild flavor that could be used instead of spinach, the boiling method worked hands down.  It not only softened the texture of the thick, somewhat hairy leaves, it also toned down the flavor a bit.

Both Big Ag and Groceries had initially blanched at the idea of eating what they so delicately call "weeds" the other day, when I mentioned I wanted to start consuming the mustard greens in our yard.  So I told them tonight's meal contained spinach....until they said they liked it, at which point I told them the truth.  They were fine with it once they realized that, while it may be a weed, it did not taste "weedy." (Whatever that tastes like.)  I just had to get them to eat it with an open mind.  Hence the spinach subterfuge.  I should work for the CIA.

So the mustard greens meal was a victory.  I predict we'll be eating a lot more of it around this house from now on.

Beat up

For the last two days those scouring, in-your-face winds have returned with full force ... and when I went back into the house at about 5 pm yesterday, I discovered the weather dudes were calling for frost, which meant the crops that had survived being whipped about in the wind were now in jeopardy from the cold. Sigh.

Yesterday was a bad day, farming wise.  I've been suffering from a condition called Iliotibial Band Syndrome lately, which is basically a strained ligament.  It can happen for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones is walking or running on uneven surfaces, which is the exact condition of our hill.  But despite that, I still must dutifully be around down there all the time to check on crops, work on the irrigation system (which, Thank God, is done now) and pull weeds around what we've planted.

So I've been in pain, and as the winds seem to try and knock me off my feet most afternoons, this hasn't helped lessen the stress on that particular ligament.  I usually come back up from the hill cursing the wind, cursing the slope of the hill, and cursing anything else that gets in my way.  Somedays it's just tough to be positive.

So at the end of yesterday, when I got the report for the possibility of frost, it was the proverbial last straw for me. My leg was already yowling from working on the irrigation system and pulling weeds most of the afternoon, and when I heard the report for frost, I knew I'd have to go back down the hill, wrestle with some huge and heavy bags of organic mulch, and gently and carefully cover my potato crop to keep it from being frost-damaged.  And by that time the winds had picked up to gusts of about 40 mph.  I was so angry at the weather and at my own pain that I could have cried.  I almost did.

It was at that moment that Big Ag pulled up in his truck and came out to see how things were going.  And I'll tell you, that second pair of hands was a blessing.  We got the potatoes covered in no time, and the conversation and company we shared while doing it made it a much more pleasurable task.  I love that guy.

And once I got inside, I found that our son Groceries had returned from work and had a copy of "Anchorman," ready to be watched, one of my all-time favorites.  A good dinner, a glass of wine, a funny movie and an evening spent with family was all I needed to feel more optimistic this morning.

I know people who farm by themselves, but I, personally, could never do it.  I'd take on a roommate before going it alone.  Not only because of the physical demands, but also because having one person helping you can turn a painful, grim forced death march into a workday of jokes and giggles to go with any pain involved.

It may not take a village, but in my opinion it does take at least two if you want to farm and remain a sane and rational person.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I think we have a winner!

Bid number two for our kitchen came in today ... better quality cabinets for less, and more choices for quartz.  Same general features in the cabinetry, too, super susan cupboards for the corners, a microwave  cabinet NOT over the range, an appliance garage, and pull-put lower shelves on most cabinets.

Here's the cabinet style, color and quartz we chose:

In sunlight

and shade
I'm a little scared about how we're going to function without a kitchen for a few weeks, but I've heard it's a bit like being in labor...painful, but worth it in the end.  Hope so!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tourist Thing


One of the things I'm discovering about living here is what it means to live in a tourist town.  Paso Robles is considered a destination vacation for a great many people, mainly from Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as other large cities within a three or four hour drive.  There are also international tourists who stop here from all points on the globe as they travel across California on big vacations.  In short, during spring, summer and fall, it gets busy around here!

Mostly, our tourism comes from the wine business, which means those grapes not only produce delicious wines but also bring cash to area businesses and local government from restaurants, hotels and taxes.  But living in a tourist town is not always easy, I'm telling you.  That's because when you live here, you often find yourself working when the rest of the world seems to be playing.  

On weekends, for instance, the wineries and downtown streets are fairly bustling with out of town guests -- families, groups of women doing "girls' weekends," and of course couples.  And sometimes it's hard to farm, knowing that there's so much fun going on so close by.  Sometimes, in the evenings, we can faintly hear the music from the events held at a winery just to the north of us, and it feels a little like we're missing out on the party, as we sit in our living room watching an episode of "House Hunters" after a long day of working outside.

That's because there's an unwritten law of living in a tourist town: Just because you live in a tourist town, it does not mean you can party all the time.  Well, you can, there are certainly enough parties around to do that, but then you'll never get anything else done. 

Bacchus lives here

The same thing goes for wine drinking.  When you first move here, you wake up every morning astonished that you do, in fact, actually live in WINE COUNTRY (your first incentive of the day to open a bottle and celebrate).  You drive past vineyards on your way to, well, anywhere.  And tasting rooms abound in Paso Robles the way slot machines abound in Vegas -- they are everywhere.  The first time I went to the supermarket here, I saw people wine tasting, in the supermarket ... at 8 a.m. 

Truly, you could drink every day and night here and still never manage to taste all the wonderful wines made in this area, but, when it comes right down to it, you shouldn't, in the same way you shouldn't be at the Factory Store everyday if you happen to live next to the Hershey's Chocolate Plant.  

But, I won't lie, living in this environment is always a tempting proposition.  The compromise we've reached so far is to enjoy downtown on weeknights, when it's mostly locals, and enjoy events at the winery we belong to and, very occasionally at others.  We have to limit ourselves, or we'd just never get any work done.

And if I sound like I'm complaining, I most certainly am not.  It's just that, after living for 20 years in a place where there was never anything going on, living in a place where there's always something happening has been an adjustment, because it involves sometimes just saying "no thanks" and staying home.

And while home is a great place to be, sometimes when I hear that music down the hill, I realize I could get carried away into the Land of Bacchus, the God of Wine, a little too easily.  And it's then I plant my feet on my hill and turn my eyes to the simple bounty of the trees, plants and flowers that come from our own earth.  And open a bottle of wine and celebrate that.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bring in the replacements

Last week's windstorm took out a full third of my tomato seedlings, and half of my spinach seedlings.  While it's now too late in the season to start new spinach, I was able to head over to the local natural foods store, which has a large nursery filled with heirloom tomato seedlings.  I picked up three new San Marzano tomatoes to replace the seedlings of that type I lost, and on a whim bought one "Homestead" tomato. That still leaves me short quite a few seedlings, but I have a few spares still in the greenhouse so I will be OK.

 I have no idea what the "Homestead" tomato will look like, but it's worth a bit of ground to find out.  Why not? While I'm sad that my original seedlings were snapped off in the wind, I will still have plenty of tomatoes to eat and preserve once summer comes.

And since I have an abundance of wild mustard growing around the property, tomorrow I'm going to try cooking it to the wilting point and see if it can double for spinach in some recipes, like casseroles and omelettes.  We shall see.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kitchen Tales

So the time has come to remodel our kitchen.  We have an appointment on this morning at the local home improvement store, where they will take measurements and figure out how to do what we want to do within our budget.  

For me, it's like Christmas with construction dust.  I can't wait.

 I'm looking at quartz countertops (tough and low maintenance), natural wood cabinets, PANTRY SPACE,  and pull-out shelves on all lower cabinetry since I am 50 and can no longer contort myself into a pretzel to reach back into the rear area of cabinetry in search of pots and pans.  

I also want a warming drawer for proofing bread and keeping food at a good serving temperature, and want to install a proper range hood over the range, instead of what we currently have, which is a pathetic little fan installed under the microwave oven, which sits directly above said range, and was obviously designed by someone who never had a spouse who wanted to re-heat his coffee while he/she was using the cooktop on the range, or who cooked anything that made much steam or smoke.  

We're also going to look into ripping up the tile on the floors and acid-washing the concrete underneath, to further eliminate the need to clean the grout I so often stain with tomato, strawberry and pomegranate juice while I'm canning.  It will hopefully not only look good, but be easy to care for and not too fussy as far as spills and stains.

I can't believe that soon I'll be saying goodbye to all this whiteness, and hello to something not only more practical, but less blinding in the sunlight.  I'm tired of wearing sunglasses to cook.

Goodbye, cruel, white kitchen!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Here around the homestead, there's always a fair amount of kidding we do with each other about being Luddites.  The real Luddites lived in the late 1800's and fought vehemently against the rise of technology and machinery in their world. They argued that the world made by hand was better, and closer to the world God had envisioned than the machine-driven one that was in the process of taking over the textile industry most of them worked in.  I can see their point, but like any other good idea, it can be taken to an extreme.

Of course here at home we make soap, crochet blankets, cook from scratch and grow a lot of our own food, so I suppose the Luddite jokes are inevitable.  If I light a kerosene lamp to create some mood lighting, one of the kids will make a Luddite joke.  It's as predictable as morning.

But the fact is I am really NOT a Luddite....but I am related to one. 

And my relative's Luddite ways are creating problems, as she prepares to make her yearly visit from London to the states.  This is a woman, you see, who lives in fear of all things technological, and on some level is (I believe) quite angry that the world has moved on from where it was when she was 30.  She does not own any credit/ATM cards, and refuses to learn to use them.  She will not own (nor does she know how to use, despite numerous people offering to teach her) a computer.  She refused to learn to drive, and still does not know how.  She does not own a cell phone. This is just a partial list.  Basically it comes down to this:  If it was not invented in 1960, she would rather not be bothered with it.

But this creates huge problems.  She can no longer fill out her State Department application for a tourist visa -- it's all done online now.  She cannot pay for her shuttle fare from the airport to my godmother's house when she arrives, several hours away from here -- you need an ATM card to swipe once you're on the bus -- they don't take cash.  I can't print tickets for her electronically and email them to her because she has no computer.

Luddite fear and loathing
I'd like to help, but there's not much I can do from where I am, both geographically as well as era-wise. You see, I live in this century, and she still lives in the last one.  

See, there's being a Luddite and then there's being a reeeeeal Luddite. Our own nuclear family, while choosing to live as simply as reasonable, is actually fairly awash in computers, ATM cards, cell phones, and all the other gadgets pretty essential to modern living.  There are just times when we choose not to use them.  Mostly we pay cash instead of swiping.  But we can swipe if need be.  Sometimes we mail a letter instead of an email, but if email is the only option we're good.  But it's always a choice.  We know how to live in both worlds.

The Amish are actually fairly good at doing this, although some claim it's hypocritical.  They don't own cars, but will hire or barter a car and driver if they need to.  They don't own tractors, but can rent or borrow them.  They may not have phones in the house, but will gladly use your cell phone if needed, and if you offer it.  They resist technology, but stay familiar with it. But I suppose you could make the argument that if you're using the technology,  it's rather selfish to always rely on someone else's goods, imposing on others, when you could just as easily get your own and use it sparingly.

Anyway, to fail to keep up with technology as it advances is, I have realized, done at your own peril.  

I love the handmade life as much as any Luddite, but understand that as the times change, we must adapt and change with them.  I only wish I could convince our relative of the same thing.  Things don't have to be so hard, if you just make an effort to keep up -- not with the latest gadgets, but with the things that have been around for a decade or more and which look to be here to stay.

If it's peace of mind you're looking for, I'd say your best bet is to know how to use the "off" switch on the gadgets you own, and not hesitate to power down, rather than forego the whole device, thinking you're keeping things simple. Because eventually the life you thought you were keeping simple becomes unbelievably complicated, once you're at the point where you're living in a different century than everyone else.

Going "Solo" in an Emergency

So the wind blew yesterday.  Boy did it blow.  Had I known we were in for this, I never would have done transplanting over the weekend; everything got battered in those stiff, punishing 40 mph gusts (some higher).

Solo cups at a tomato party
Sometime in the early afternoon, I ventured outside to see how everything was doing, and I was dismayed.  5 of my heirloom tomato transplants were gone, all snapped off at the base by the wind.  The beans were looking like they would be the next to snap, and all the ground was dry as a bone, scoured and removed of any water at all by the same culprit...the blowing, arid, unrelenting wind.

So I came inside and noodled on the problem, then went into my husband's old Boy Scout camping supplies for the solution -- the Solo Cup.  I cut the bottoms off and placed each one around my remaining tomatoes, then secured each with a rose stake.  The cup effectively protected the seedlings from the wind, and the stake held it in place.  Voila.  Happy baby tomatoes, once again.

Happy baby tomatoes
Having never lived on a hilltop or tried to farm there, this year has certainly been a steep learning curve for me.  But now that I know what I'm facing, I can keep these cut up cups around, and use them in years to come, knowing the winds will return.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Howling Out There

The wind has been howling all night and is not letting up, even with the day beginning.  It's weird, because right now the marine layer is hanging low, making things look quite cloudy and grey, but the winds on ground level are just whipping.  We were forecast for the potential of 60 - 70 mph winds, and I think we may actually see that later today.  

It's extremely unusual for us to have morning winds at all, so at this point I'm ready for anything later on, when the wind speed usually picks up significantly over whatever slight breezes have kept us company through morning.

That being said, I'm heating the house with the pellet stove while I can, and doing some wash (no reason not to take advantage of a gale for some free clothes drying). I should be watering trees and cleaning chicken coops, but if it keeps up like this those chores may be postponed or at least truncated -- a quick cleaning and quick spritz of water for the crops before high-tailing it back to the house.

 If we lose power later on, it won't be a big deal.  There's plenty of reading material, food, and a safe haven from the tempest going on outside within the walls of our home.  I have the luxury of being able to sit by a window and watch it happening without a hair on my head being moved if I so wish. I can even bring the chickens into the garage if it looks serious. 

When push comes to shove, if you're out of the wind and able to eat, entertain yourself and care for those under your charge, you're OK.  It's a luxury many in this world do not have, and I hope I never fail to appreciate it or be thankful for it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Day In the Fields, A Night At The Winery.

Yesterday was a big day here at the homestead.  We bought transplants to supplement our seed crops, put dirt into the last raised bed, and worked on the irrigation system which will water our lower field.  We planted heirloom tomatoes, Ichiban eggplant, beans, squash and pumpkins. 

But at about 5 p.m. all work stopped so we could shower and change, because it was time for the twice-yearly Pick-Up Party at the winery.

Most wineries offer two options for getting your wine shipments when you join the winery -- you can have the wines shipped to your home or come by in person to pick them up.  For the people who live locally (or are willing to travel to the winery) they get to attend pick-up parties, where a casual meal is served, wine flows freely, and at the end of the night you take home your six or twelve bottles. 

So last night found us sitting under the stars out in the huge, softly lit garden area with a plate of fresh, make-them-yourself grilled chicken tacos and glasses of sparkling grenach√© (followed by several glasses of Mouvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon and I can't even remember what else).  We hung out with our dear neighbors, David and Ray, as well as another couple we met at a previous wine dinner, and some new folks, too.  There was a band, dancing, plus cookies and coffee served inside the winery for whenever you decided you'd had enough partying.  

It was the kind of evening where everyone I walked by smiled and said hello, all in fine spirits, relaxed and happy.  Wine will do that to people, but so will feeling like you're within a community and among friends.

A day in the fields, a night at the winery.  That, to me, is the perfect blend of a life.  Work hard during the day, then enjoy friends, great food and wine in the evening.  If it gets better than that in this lifetime, folks, I certainly can't imagine it.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Carrot Harvest

Ready for the chest freezer in the garage

We're about halfway through harvesting and freezing the carrots we planted last fall, and they took a loooooong time to come to maturity.  I'm not sure if this is normal for the area, but next year I will be more realistic about expecting fresh carrots by Christmas. Not gonna happen.

There are about 6 bags of sliced, blanched carrots here, and we'll probably put up another 12 bags next week totaling about 20 pounds or so.  With these in storage we will be able to add carrots to stews and soups and other dishes all through next fall and winter. Some we will leave fresh, for carrot cake or in salads (notice I listed carrot cake first, once again indicating the place of honor anything sugary has in our household).

 Bu preserving at least some of them at home, my family can experience something few people will ever (sadly) ever know the deliciousness of:  pulling a bunch of carrots out of the ground and getting them blanched and in the freezer within an hour of harvest.  Truly, when these carrots are thawed and put into dishes, they will still be crisp and sweet, much better than the supermarket's frozen or even supermarket "fresh" carrots. (After all, if they're in the store now, when were they picked/harvested?  A week ago perhaps, maybe more?)  As for the ones we eat fresh, well, those are also incredibly delicious.  But there's something especially nice about pulling up a spring or summer crop, freezing it, and then enjoying a taste of that season in late fall or winter, when the days are short and a little spring on your plate can remind you of warm, sunny days to come. 

Carrots are one crop I would recommend making room for, if you have room to garden.  They may be slow to mature, but the result is worth it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Photo Dispatch From Around the Homestead

Wild lupines

Mounds of rosemary

Boysenberry blossoms

New Spanish lavender is growing well

Potatoes are pushing their way up

Yup! Just another day in paradise

Scream of the Red Fox

I was reminded, for about 40 minutes last night, that we do indeed live in an area of true ecological diversity.  At night I hear hooting and screeching owls, coyotes, and now this strange noise:

Whomever our fox is (the one above is just a clip from YouTube I found) I assume he or she is lookin' for love, as it's spring. Plus it went on far too long to be a cry of alarm, and it was a fairly regular call, happening about once every 5 seconds or so.  

But on the downside, by the time it stopped it had brought me into full, wakeful consciousness, unable to go back to sleep. But I still consider it a treat to have been able to hear this in real life. I've seen red foxes around the neighborhood, but this is the first time I've heard their call.