Sunday, June 29, 2014

Low-hanging fruit

When we moved here, we inherited a white nectarine and regular nectarine which were planted by the previous owners.  Both are commercially produced hybrids, meaning they've been selectively bred to produce an abundance of fruit.  I've never had much of a taste for nectarines, yet I have to admit these are pretty good, especially when eaten just this side of being ripe.  Turns out I love nectarines, as long as they are crisp, not mushy.

So the problem is not us eating the fruit.  The problem with commercial hybrids like these is that it's rare one family can put all the fruit they produce to producing that much is very hard on the tree, year to year.  Despite several rounds of thinning fruit, we have once again ended up with waaay too many nectarines.

I gave big baskets to the neighbors.  I gave bigger baskets to the kids at the winery.  And probably bushels to the birds.  And there's still more.

In another month or so it will smell like a country winery under those trees, as all the ripe, picked over fruit finally drops to the ground and begins to ferment and eventually, rot.  I will leave it there until cooler weather, when I will harvest the dried out fruit mummies and start all over again as the cycle goes around with the calendar year.  But I really do wish the previous owners had planted heirlooms, which in general have lower fruit yields than hybrids do.

Because one can only eat so many nectarines.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Spirit in the sky

Everyone sees different things when they look at clouds or contrails. Today I saw a benevolent being with its arms outstretched, as if to give a hug.

That's how I see the world, even though my sunny outlook is occasionally clouded over with disappointment or hurt, which is of course a universal experience.

Most of my universe is still good, and I'll take that hug to heart.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Off The Grid?

So I click on an article this morning that was titled "The Best Places to go Off The Grid," and when the article appears, it's actually titled, "The Best Places to Escape Civilization." It's a travel article about unpopulated vacation destinations.  Sigh.

You can't blame people, because most do not realize exactly what off-the-grid means. In an ideal world, your off-the-grid lifestyle would include close friends and neighbors as part of a vibrant, independent community, practicing the theory of strength in numbers, and bringing various individual strengths together to make a strong whole.  You cook, she cans, he forages, and those two over there fix things. Community.

But it can also mean a solo existence; living primitively in the wilds of Alaska, hunting and foraging for your food and building your own shelter.  Yet even those folks rely on the occasional visit from the bush pilot or snowmobile trip into town to replenish supplies.

So basically, "off the grid" is pretty easy to achieve, while "escaping civilization" is something we only do for short periods at a time, for periods when we need some solitude.  You can do that in your own house if you'd like, although there's nothing wrong with escaping to a place with room service or at least a good bush pilot at your disposal. Just don't call it "off the grid living," for heaven's sake.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


As I move along in life, more and more people I know have started to retire.  Realistically I know I will not be able to work at my tasting room job forever; at 52 I am already the oldest member of the tasting room staff, and at some point I will probably find the long hours spent standing behind the bar are simply too much for my hips and feet to handle.

But the other day I was in Pier One (armed with a discount coupon and looking for something fun to buy for a new a shelf we put up) and an elderly lady approached me and asked if she could help me with anything.  When I turned to answer her, I noticed she had on a nametag and a blue Pier One vest, meaning she was an employee.  She was probably between 70 and 80 years of age.

I later heard the manager reminding her to "check in" with all the customers on the floor, which indicated to me she was, in fact, a NEW employee.  I don't know the circumstances that brought her into new employment at Pier One at her age -- I only hope that it was a choice and not a decision mandated by survival.  

I see similar things going on at several retail locations throughout town, and I watch these older men and women seem to struggle a bit to keep up with the younger set, hustling around moving stock, mastering the intricacies of the point-of-sale system (cash registers as we knew them are gone from the landscape) and attempting to sell, sell, sell to a demanding and often harried public.  

I know my first few months at the winery were a challenge -- I felt like an old dog trying to learn new tricks, and they weren't coming easy.  Oh, eventually I mastered them, but I wonder how much harder it would have been had I been 20 years older, in a harsher, corporate retail environment.  Judging by how hard it was at 51 compared to 21 at the winery, I'm guessing it would have been a lot harder.

Anyway, these older workers are making minimum wage and doing physically demanding jobs at a time when our grandparents were already collected their social security. And I worry that they don't have a choice -- that something went wrong in their lives that necessitates them working until they drop.  I also worry that something could happen that would put me in the same position -- the position of having to work when my body is clearly ready for the rocking chair. 

And of course, there's always the lifespan factor.  With people living longer than ever, retirement must, by necessity, come later. When people retired at 55, they usually lived until about 65.  When we are all living to 80, does that mean we'll be working until we're 75?  Maybe.

But on the other end of the scale there is retirement, where we supposedly hang out contentedly, playing with grandchildren and getting senior discounts at our favorite dining establishments. But to me, retirement looks like the bus stop in life that comes right before death. After all, what other Big Thing comes after retirement?  There are, simply, no more big life events after it.  No babies born or careers started or changed -- it's just somewhere between one and thrity years of whatever you can afford and would like to do.  Which sounds great except for the open-endedness of it. So maybe retiring at 55 would be nothing but a colossal bore, especially if you're planning on living until 90.

Maybe Pier One is not such a bad option after all.

As I intend to keep homesteading until I'm put into the ground myself, I have no worries about keeping busy once I do retire, but something about that open-endedness scares me a little.  OK a lot. I should probably learn to live more in the present, but it does seem that our senior years are the worst time to have a lot of contemplative time on our hands, because contemplating what's up ahead can be a challenge, once there are no more career moves, no more babies to birth and eventual physical decline to anticipate.  

And maybe feeling as I do is the biggest sign I'm not ready to retire yet.  Perhaps there will come a day when that rocking chair will beckon and I will gladly sink into it, crocheting a blanket while my grandbabies play at my feet.  Or maybe you'll find me at Pier One, running the register and showing people the newest table linens.

Either way, I hope the circumstances allow me to have a choice.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Second (third, fourth....) Harvest

A few weeks ago, I cut away at my spinach plants, reaping a good harvest but leaving each stalk intact with a few leaves on each one.  Yesterday, I finally pulled the plants out and removed another big bowl's worth of spinach leaves. It was a marvelous second harvest of some plants most other gardeners would have removed after the first harvest, either because they didn't think they would produce again, or to make room for something else.

But many plants will come back again if you just harvest carefully, and leave enough leaves on the plant for photosynthesis to happen, with roots intact.

This cabbage plant is on its third season of production.  It was planted in winter 2012, and since then has produced no less than six heads of lettuce.  This started because I was initially too lazy to pull out the plant's roots, so I cut the cabbage head off and just left the rest of it alone in the bed.  Lo and behold, come fall 2013, there were another couple of heads to harvest from the same plant.  And now, in summer 2014, there are two more. The leaves may be bug-eaten and sorry looking, but the head of cabbage is still good.  Just in time for summer slaw.

And last summer, I again got lazy at the end of the growing season (if you're sensing a trend here, you're right) and left a few tomatoes on the vine, to ripen, fall into the dirt, and disperse their seeds.  And I have these volunteer tomatoes to show for it, every bit as big and lovely as the ones I painstakingly grew in the solarium this spring.

We talk a lot about the wisdom of recycling, but rarely do most of us think of allowing our plants to recycle themselves. 

For success like this, all it takes is being too busy to garden (and/or plain old laziness), some serious procrastination and some patience or just a willingness to look away for awhile while Mother Nature works her magic.

Monday, June 16, 2014


So it's officially been two years since we moved into our home here, and during that time we've done a lot of renovation and remodeling.  We put in wood flooring, renovated the kitchen, and painted about half rooms in the house.  Gone are the cat-pee stained carpets (belonging to the last owner), the over-painted kitchen cabinets, and ugly grey walls.

But there have been a few projects we put off, mainly because they were not important to the functioning of our homestead (not that paint is, but it's a chore best tackled before you have all your furniture moved in) or they also represented more money out-of-pocket spent at a time when we were doing other things. 

Some were luxuries, like artwork on the walls, and some were functional, like expensive but effective Vulcan Vents to replace the soffit vents we currently have in our eaves, which are no longer considered fire preventative by the State of California.

I'm happy -- and relieved -- to announce we tackled most of those projects in the last week, in one final push before true summer heat sets in.  Now we have more beauty, and more safety. 

Colorful barnyard

Art, for art's sake!

We bought and hung some pieces of artwork and moved some other pieces around.  I even bought several postcards of some paintings I liked at five dollars a pop, snatched up a "4 for $20" set of frames with mattes to house them in, and arranged them to form a single, bight splotch of country color on our entry wall.

And the last thing we bought was a floating shelf, to fill a spot over the television where nothing else seemed to work.  It looks great, and finishes off the living room, which has looked half-done for far too long.

Yesterday Big Ag and I put in the 64 Vulcan Vents that will help keep fire out of our attic in the event of a wildfire.  Vulcan Vents have special screens which makes it almost impossible for embers to get in, as well as a honeycomb material inside that closes off with exposure to high heat.  I hate to think of wildfires devastating this area, but I'd be in denial if I said it couldn't happen.  (Thank you climate change.)

Stay away, wildfires!

It's a huge weight off my mind to have all these projects done, and all of them finished before summer.  With the Vulcan Vents installed, I'll be less afraid of wildfires, should they crop up in our area, and the new artwork will help give us a beautiful space to live in when the garden and pastures become too hot to enjoy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Egg In the Hat Is Worth Two In The Nest

So with Red the Rhode Island Red chicken gone to the winery to live and doing OK there, I have had a chance to analyze how well Ellen and Portia are laying right now, and the news isn't good.  They are averaging only 2 - 3 eggs a week, between the two of them!

I have also been chicken-sitting for the couple across the way, and have found their 2-year-old hens are doing about the same, with the exception of their Americauna, who seems to lay almost every day. But since they started with more hens, at least they still have enough eggs to keep themselves in omelettes, if they wish.

For any chicken neophytes out there listening, is this the take-home lesson from my mistakes:  Add a couple of new hens to your flock every other year. Waiting until every third year will leave you virtually eggless during that third summer, when your old girls are barely laying but your new girls are still too young to lay. Oh, sure there are exceptions to the rule, but the fact is, by most hens' third summer on this earth, they have slowed down on the egg production considerably.

And since I'm currently on a kick of having Egg In The Hat for lunch every day, eggs are pretty important.

Haven't had Egg In The Hat, you say?  Here's the recipe:

Take a piece of your favorite whole-wheat bread, and cut a hole in it, using a small-mouth lid jar, the top to a can of PAM, or something else about that size.

Take one teaspoon of butter and melt it in a frying pan (I use a small Lodge pan).

Once the butter is melted and the pan is hot, place the bread with the hole cut in it into the pan.  After a couple of minutes, crack the egg -- don't stir it -- just let it fall into the hole and cook until the egg is almost done.

Once its almost done, flip it to cook the other side and, if there's room, add your circle that you cut out of the bread and brown it, too.

Your egg is done when the yolk is solid and the bread is a lovely browned color.

Add a little ollalieberry jam to the circle once it's done and you have a perfect lunch and mini-dessert!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Watermelon and other stuff

Here's a great recipe for a summer night....a nice, ripe watermelon, balled or cubed, and splashed with  1/4 cup of good, white balsamic vinegar and mixed well.  That's it.  

A lot of people will add some fresh spinach, mint and basil with feta cheese to make a meal, but to me just the watermelon and vinegar is fine on its own. You don't need the oven, you don't need the stovetop, just the ingredients and a place to cut your watermelon up!

Amazing how good quality balsamic vinegar makes things taste sweeter and not more bitter. And speaking of bitter, it's with no small pang of buttersweetness that I go back to work, after a week off from the winery.  I got a lot done around the house, including adding some fireproof venting to the attic, painting the chicken mansion, picking berries (this is winding down now) and doing some office work.

Today I will be doing an off-site wine pouring on a train heading down the coast, which is stressful (because I've never done anything like this and want to do a good job) but also fun because, hey, wine on a train, right?

Wish me luck!

Friday, June 6, 2014


A Pacific Tree Frog.  Found in the toilet.  This morning.

For all the times I rescued frogs from our old swimming pool and they immediately peed on me, let's just say there may have been some accidental retribution this morning.

The only thing I can figure is that he got into either our well line or septic system somehow.

No worries, he has been washed off and safely re-homed near a neighbor's pond.  And in time, his stories of his time in the mythical, Great White Porcelain Pond will become the stuff of legend in the greater frog community.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


One of the best things about working the land is that it gives you time to think.  Most of my chores around here do not involve any higher-level thinking activities, which leaves my brain free to ponder whatever it desires as I dig, churn, stir, walk or pick.

Something that occurred to me today is that there are a few things I'm "flinchy" about, meaning I flinch, emotionally, sometimes when thinking about them. Flinchy is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Lite ...  it's not traumatic enough that you can truly make the PTSD claim, but it's something that messed with your head nonetheless.

I have found, for instance, that I am flinchy about bosses, which may be why I love being my own boss as I work on our property.  I had a couple of truly terrible bosses in my past, and they've left me in the position of being at work sometimes and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop, and it's all going to go to hell.  

Petty tyrants left in charge of staffs of people will do a lot of similar things.  I've experienced all of them in my working life -- for brief periods -- before I (and in most cases my fellow co-workers) would inevitably make for the higher, saner ground of a new job.

There were Ridiculous Rules.  There were Reprimands for Things Beyond My Control.  There were Threats of Dismissal, Unrealistic Expectations, Useless Paperwork, and Morale-busting Decrees.

In my current job at the winery, I have no such issues.  The winery is, as the kids who work there like to say, a very "chill" place.  There are no demagogues, no bureaucrats, no politics, and no ridiculous decrees. The owner came from a corporate environment and seems to have figured out that if you give people what they need to do their jobs and give them encouragement, they will give you 120 percent and do it quite happily.  

But this does not stop me from occasionally worrying that I'm going to be called on the carpet for absolutely no reason other than the fact that it's a Tuesday and my boss hates Tuesdays.  Because I'm flinchy, you see.

I am also this way about friends.  I had a best friend dump me unceremoniously and suddenly about 20 years ago, and I carried the scars with me for a long time (perhaps even into present day).  Mainly, I sometimes manifest an uncertainly about making female friends, thinking they will, at some point, send me a letter telling me exactly what they think is right about their life and wrong with mine, and tell me they never want to speak to me again.

What happened with my ex-friend was a freak occurrence, having far more to do with her than me, and it never happened before or after that, with any friend. We've even since gotten back into contact and made some rudimentary stabs at re-friending each other, although there are walls up on my end that will probably not be completely surmountable (and maybe that's a good thing). Yet, even with friends I trust, I occasionally still find myself evaluating my behavior and asking myself if some decision I made about my work or personal life might render me unfit to be someone's friend.  

We all have some areas of life we are flinchy about, based on our past experiences.  Time on the homestead provides a wonderful opportunity to ponder these questions as one digs the pumpkin patch, churns a batch of soap, and picks the berries. 

For me, it also offers a literal point, standing on the physical terra firma, where I can take out my flinchy points, examine them, and remind myself they are in my past, and the ground beneath my feet is my present. As are the pumpkins, soap and berries in my hands.  They are real in a way the flinchy thoughts are not, and they ground me in physical reality, instead of the emotional traumas of the past.

When they say the land can heal you, that's no lie.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Time, transitions and tasks

I just realized I addressed a very similar topic in a previous post called "The Simple Life."  Forgive the repetition.  Obviously this is something on my mind a lot these days!

The other night I started reading a journal I kept during the junior and senior year that our sons were in high school.  It's been a very enlightening walk down memory lane, and coincides perfectly with the upcoming anniversary of my husband and I moving to this area and our sons going to college. 

Children leaving home is one of those events that you know is going to change your life, much the same as giving birth does.  And just like giving birth, what follows is a period of readjustment -- of schedules, lifestyles, and interests -- and one's general happiness depends on how well we transition.

It took a few years for me to make the transition, but I think it's safe to say now that I have successfully transitioned now and am no longer mourning the loss of my role as a hands-on Mom to a family, and no longer wondering what comes next. What comes next has been happening for some time now. In fact, I've noticed that my social calendar is more booked with work, dinner parties and events than it has been in probably 20 years.

But within that change, or any change we go through in life, for homesteaders the question can become one of integration.  For much as I learned how to integrate my homesteading activities with the kids' schedules when they were in school, I have now had to learn how to integrate them as a working, mostly-empty-nester.   

For me, it means I've had to learn to say "no" again. Frequently. Last Wednesday, for example, Big Ag and I were invited to a dinner party.  the same day, a family friend wanted to come up for a visit.  A group I'm active in scheduled a board meeting that night.  And a couple we like to socialize with came into town and wanted me to go wine tasting with them during the afternoon.

I said no to all of those lovely happenings except the dinner party, because there is only one of me and only so much time in a day.  And more than just having things that I also needed to do here, there were things I wanted to do here...things that I consider part of the good work and the good life we live.  And I wanted to be here doing those things more than I wanted to be doing any of the other things (although make no mistake, all of the aforementioned social activities would have been fun.)

So, for me, the biggest lesson I've learned is that if I want to keep growing my own food and doing all the other homesteading activities I enjoy doing, I have to give it priority scheduling, which means turning down other things.  Unless I want to be making soap at midnight, or canning at dawn...slogging through chores during times I'm sure to not enjoy doing them.  

We choose our friends.  We choose our work.  And we also get to choose how we spend our time.  But in choosing the homesteading lifestyle, sometimes we have to choose our own homemade soap over a day of wine tasting, or a morning spent watering and weeding over coffee in town with a friend.  

These may not be easy decisions, but if you value what comes out of your kitchen or your garden, they are necessary.  And they carry with them a peace, a mindfulness, and a tangible reward that is extremely satisfying.

Because saying "no" to one part of your life can often mean saying "yes" to another.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Peep Show

We came up with a new chicken run design that will allow us to keep a few more chickens than we had previously thought.  So after a lot of jotting down numbers, estimating lifespans and laying years,  Big Ag made a trip into town last Saturday to catch the local Farm Supply's shipment of just-hatched chicks.  It was their last shipment of the year! We got an Australorp, a Silver Wyandotte, and a New Hampshire Red.  They will join Ellen, Portia, Cleo and Chloe in a couple of months, once they are bigger.

In other news, Red, our Rhode Island Red (who had been so aggressive with Cleo and Chloe) has now gone to live at the winery with about 10 other adult hens.  She will no doubt get on better there, as there are no youngsters for her to torment.  

She was particularly good friends with Ellen, and already Ellen has been looking around for her friend, but hopefully in a day or two everyone will settle down, the three babies in the brooder, our two juvenile pullets and our old golden girls in the new chicken house and soon-to-be-built new chicken run.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Berries and Mastodons

This week I came down with a weird summer cold, which I caught from my other son when he came to visit last week.  Much more of a chest cold than a head cold, but the main symptom which laid me out for a couple of days was a total, aching fatigue -- the kind that puts you into bed for at least a day, and on the sofa for at least another one after that.

While I was convalescing, Big Ag took over all the crop watering and berry-picking, which proved an interesting test to our marriage.  For while I was grateful for all the help he provided (which he did in addition to his own farm chores) when he returned the first evening after berry- picking, I was mortified to find he'd picked at least a pound of unripe berries, which would now be useless for anything.

I wanted to shout at him and then just cry when I saw all those beautiful, unripe berries in that big basket.  But instead, I just quietly threw them in the compost when he wasn't looking and thanked him for standing out there and picking all my berries after an already long day of work. I didn't shout or cry, because it would have been unkind and undeserved.

In the end, the over-picking actually worked out well, since it gave me a couple of days to convalesce without having any berries ready to pick at all, since anything close to being ripe had already been picked off.  And by the time I went back down to our rows of olallieberries, raspberries and blackberries three days later, there was a decent enough harvest that the ones we threw out won't matter in the end.

But this does prove my theory once again that most men are well-suited for big picture, stalking-a-mastodon-off-in-the-distance kinds of tasks, and most women are better suited to fine detail work, such as berry-picking or something like embroidery.  I don't understand how he could not tell the difference between the ripe and unripe berries -- both by sight as well as by the feel of the berry itself when you grasp it between your thumb and forefinger. But then again, sometimes he doesn't understand why I can't visualize a big-picture plan he has as well as he can.

This is not an across-the-board assessment, of course.  There are some men quite gifted at fine-detail work, so please don't think my theory holds out in all instances.  I'm the first to tell you it doesn't.  But in general, I have found it to be true ... perhaps 75 percent of the time?

Now Big Ag has my cold and is simply working through it -- perhaps because his big-picture mind doesn't focus on the fine-detail aches and pains of his ailment as much as I did when I was sick, and he's therefore better suited to soldier on, despite his discomfort.

But it also proves out another theory -- that opposites attract for good reason.  And whether you're picking a life partner from the opposite sex or your own, finding someone with a different skill set than your own is wise for many, many reasons.  

Not the least of which are berry-picking and mastodon hunting.