Author: Grey Hayes

Managing Pogonip

I recently came across my 1998 copy of the Pogonip Master Plan and was inspired to share with you some inspiration and interesting tidbits. I find Santa Cruz’ Pogonip Greenbelt an amazingly beautiful place that renews my energy, fuels my curiosity, and, each visit, shows me something new. It is so nice to keep going back to the same places for the last 33 years…to check out favorite trees, familiar meadows, patches of fleeting wildflowers that return each spring, and ancient woodrat houses. Behind this natural beauty is a web of relationships mediated by the City of Santa Cruz Parks Department and guided by the Pogonip Master Plan.

Our Pogonip Vision

In 1991, the Pogonip Task Force formulated the following vision statement for the Pogonip Greenbelt:

Pogonip is a place to be appreciated for its natural beauty, habitat value and serenity, in contrast to the built environment. Pogonip should provide the community with education and recreation opportunities that are environmentally and economically sustainable.

Weighing the Vision

Since 1991 and the subsequent adoption of the Pogonip Master Plan, how have we done with stewardship of this amazing 640-acre greenbelt? In short, we don’t know. There are no publicly available monitoring reports for anyone to understand how ‘habitat value’ has fared or whether people find ‘serenity’ by visiting there. The City’s Pogonip webpage for some reason posts a link to a private recreational organization’s article on the property, which suggests avoiding areas due to dangerous heroin dealers- that doesn’t sound serene to me. We do know that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ so judging whether or not that part of the vision statement has been realized is too subjective.

The second part of the vision statement emphasizes sustainability, but nowhere in the document are there any metrics for judging how sustainability might be monitored. One would assume that environmental sustainability metrics for recreational opportunities would include at least soil erosion, wildlife disturbance, and invasive species or pathogen spread.

Updating the Vision

Nearly 30 years later, in 2020 the City created the more recent and very poorly done “Santa Cruz Parks Master Plan 2030” which well reflects the changing nature of City politics…to business-minded anti-environmental politicians. This plan emphasizes Park ‘assets’ – trails other types of development potential of the property – somehow overlooking sensitive habitats that were clearly delineated in the Pogonip Master Plan. It does not provide an updated vision or any new data to help us understand how well Pogonip is faring.

Don’t Yell ‘FIRE!’

The Pogonip Master Plan rightly acknowledges the importance of managing the property for wildfire, prescribing an array of management activities. Search “Pogonip Fire” on the internet and you’ll be able to peruse the many recent fires in that greenbelt. Here’s a list of the 9 easy to find ones:

July 14, 2009 – unknown acresJuly 23, 2021 – ½ acre
July 13, 2015 – 3 acresOctober 15, 2021 – 2 acres
November 7, 2018 – ? acresOctober 16, 2021 – 2 fires, ? acres
June 20, 2020 – 2 acresJune 4, 2022 – ½ acre
November 8, 2020 – 1 acre 
Recent Fires in Pogonip’s Extremely Flammable Landscape

Pretty Neat Map

Here’s a map of from the 1998 Master Plan – it has a lot of interesting things on it. First, it illustrates the ways the City was planning on managing the property for fire. Along fire roads, every 10 years the City was going to thin and prune limbs. They were also going to do prescribed burns, mow and graze. They haven’t grazed or done any prescribed fire…and the mowing hasn’t been nearly that extensive. 

Pogonip Master Plan’s Interesting Map

It is also interesting to note that there are wetlands mapped in the Upper Main Meadow…right where leaders of the Homeless Garden Project have said that there weren’t any wetlands.

Pogonip and You

This greenbelt property deserves your attention. I advise you to visit and enjoy it – there is a lot going on with wildlife, views, and amazing smells of autumn. You can join the occasional volunteer days to help do restoration- one is coming up on October 29 (email me if you’re interested)! Also, why not ask your City Council members what’s going on with the studies in the Lower Main Meadow- the area slated for the Homeless Garden Project; there were going to be lead contamination studies and a development plan by the Garden folks. Also, you might ask the City what they are doing to assure that the property is safer for fire: why don’t they graze or do prescribed fire…what about more mowing? Finally, wouldn’t it be nice to get periodic updates from Parks on the state of our Greenbelt, including how environmentally sustainable recreation is being managed…and whether the habitat values are improving or degrading?

-this article reprinted from its original location at Bruce Bratton’s online BrattonOnline.com blog- a treasure for our local community…please subscribe, donate/support!

Foggy Harvest Time

Dawn slowly lights the sky, muffled by thick silver-gray drippy fog, draping across ridgeline trees, blurring distant shadowy shapes. Closer, water droplets bend newly emerged grass blades, not yet tall enough to soak your shoes. Fog muffles most sounds like snow, except somehow the sharp pitter patter of fog drips which fall from trees hitting dry understory leaves. The rain of those droplets have been the sound of early morning, before the birds sing.

Dawn Unfolding, Birds

Eventually, the golden crowned sparrows sing along with the juncos, goldfinches, and, louder, the spotted towhee. Then, the ravens’ barking calls announce the busier time of day, awaking the jays’ raucousness. This past week, the orchard started sounding with a single sapsucker’s whiny peet. This one has a bright red head and is especially shy. They mate for life, but the one that just arrived came without a partner. One sapsucker is enough – it is already opening up many holes in the apple tree trunks, creating sipping wells for many other birds…sap cider?  

The distinct yellow of Molino Creek Farm’s Black Walnut trees

Nutty!

It is nut time. Jays and acorn woodpeckers swoop back and forth from the oak trees, one acorn each trip. The woodpeckers fill granaries- they have lots of dead trees to choose from. The jays land here and there, furtively glancing around before jamming acorns into the ground, a couple last rakes with their beaks for burial. If they catch you watching, they unbury the nut and take it elsewhere, beyond sight.

Walnuts, too, are ripening. Ripe English walnuts easily split from their shells, beige-orange nuts set in baskets to cure. Black walnuts drop heavily from trees, thudding on the ground: hundreds await someone who wants to deal with them. We run them over with our cars and birds follow in our wake to pick the tasty meat from shards of thick shells. The ravens and juncos are especially ‘on’ it.

AppleLandia

Wildlife are active at the piles of apple culls and spent ground apples from the cider pressing. The deer move slowly away from filling up on fruit. Coveys of quail somehow find the piles enticing.

Since the second week of September, Community Orchardists have harvested and sent to market over 1,000 pounds of apples: we might be half way. Mike and Charity used their country Tesla to haul another hundred or so pounds of apples to the Pacific School recently- and, we’ll keep sending them with more.

For the past 3 weeks, it has taken gatherings three harvests a week to keep up with this year’s apple crop. Besides the Saturday afternoon gathering, we get together Tuesday and Thursday late afternoons to harvest for farmers markets as well as for Pacific School (and some go from those to cider, too).

Part of the Apple Orchard Insectory: Salvia ulignosa- feeds hummingbirds right now!

Here’s the procession of apples from early to just now: Gravenstein (we ate them all)…then Gala (we harvested them all in the last 3 weeks) then Jonagold (all enthusiastically purchased) and Mutsu (half harvested), then just last week- Wickson Crab, Harrison (cider), White Winter Pearmain (tasteless!), and Golden Delicious (yummy!). Next up…Braeburn and Fuji, but we might have a lull in production before those get ripe enough to pick. It looks like we need to plant a few apple trees that get ripe at this point in the midseason.

With the short days, we are harvesting, packing, and pressing until dark.

Fall!

Last Thursday, as I was finishing the harvest cleanup, I heard geese approaching. There was just enough light to see 100 geese in their V formation flying south right above Molino Creek Farm. Later, in the real dark, I heard more. Recent late evenings, the same sound of echoey goose laughs have been brightening the soundscape. The sound of geese…the changing color of trees…the chill nights…fall is really here!

Another not-used-much fall fruit: prickly pear….towards the end of its fruit season

-this post originally published at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.

Comparing District 3 Supervisorial Candidates’ Platforms on the Environment

In the past, you may recall I urged you to vote for the environment…first and foremost. We are soon to be faced with a vote for District 3 Supervisor between Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson: what are we to do if we vote primarily for the environment?

Published Platforms

You might turn to the candidates’ webpages for what they suggest are their environmental platforms.

Shebreh’s website has a single note about her environmental stance: “As a Santa Cruz City Councilmember, Shebreh is a leading voice for today’s most pressing needs” and then a list of those ‘pressing needs’ that includes the phrase “environmental stewardship.” That’s it!

Justin’s website has a lot more mention of the environment including:

  • his broad suggestion that he will “help us forge a sustainable path forward for our environment”
  • and a few specifics where he says:
    •  “We will put climate change mitigation at the forefront, continue working to reach net zero CO2 emissions, and mitigate the negative human impacts on our forests, beaches, and ocean habitats.”
    • “We will fight to protect our neighborhoods from over development, which means we will need to fight State efforts to strip local communities of land use planning decision making.”

Endorsements

It is worth perusing the candidates’ websites for endorsements by leaders in activism for local environmental protections. On the whole, it appears that Justin wins strongly.

Peter Scott as well as Alec and Claudia Webster endorse Justin; there are just a couple of names that stand out on Justin’s endorsement list as having been on the wrong side of environmental issues. On the other hand, there are no local environmental activist leaders on the list endorsing Shebreh…but, there are quite a few names that have been strongly on the wrong side of environmental issues. For what it’s worth, according to Justin’s website the Sierra Club has apparently endorsed him, though their website has no confirmation as such. Curiously, Sam Farr who accomplished so much for the local environment as congressman, has endorsed both Shebreh and Justin. None of the board members of local environmental activist organizations (Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, Valley Women’s Club, and Save our Shores) endorsed either candidate except Alli Webster, Chair of the local Surfrider chapter who endorsed Justin.

Other Means of Vetting Environmental Records

We can sleuth a little about the candidates from things they’ve said or done. Here are some comparisons:

Housing

From what I can find published, Shebreh would represent a big change for what the District 3 Supervisorial representative has meant for supporting carefully planned development in the rural areas of Santa Cruz’ North County. Justin appears to represent more of the history of this position…proceeding cautiously and focusing growth closer to the already more densely built areas. Items that stand out are Shebreh’s worrisome stridency that you ‘can’t build anywhere’ and Justin’s ludicrous notion that the cement plant should/can support a significant amount of affordable housing. I do like Justin’s stance that we should fight the State’s efforts to override local control on development: not sure how that would work, though…and he doesn’t detail that.

ShebrehJustin
  
She describes the County Planning Department, thus: “entrenched culture that is very outdated”He suggests that maybe we can redevelop the Davenport cement plant to include affordable housing  
She wants to “Change Zoning ordinance” to allow “expediting and removing barriers to building backyard ADUs.”  He has said that we need to “protect our neighborhoods from over development, which means we will need to fight State efforts to strip local communities of land use planning decision making”  
She has said that “we can’t do any kind of development anywhere.”   
She has defended her record by describing herself as a “100% yes” vote on housing projects that have come before the council.   

Climate Change

Both candidates have strong histories of supporting measures to address climate change. Shebreh has repeatedly noted her support for the local Climate Action Plan as well as specific support for renewable energy. Justin says that we need to put “climate change mitigation at the forefront, continue working to reach net zero CO2 emissions.

UCSC

The candidates vary on addressing UCSC growth. You can find evidence that Shebreh has focused on reducing traffic to UCSC whereas Justin says he will “continue working to hold the University accountable for its growth and impact.

Other Things

Cannabis Cultivation

I worked with a committee on the cannabis cultivation ordinance for the County and will emphasize for the record the importance of Shebreh’s support for that committee’s recommendations, which resulted in District 3 receiving the best controls for cannabis cultivation of anywhere in the County. She was articulate, hard-working, and a good listener during that process. Some of the concerns were environmental, so she scores well on this front.

Parks and Land Management

Justin has promised to work “to address the impacts of Cotoni Coast Dairies Monument,” an increasingly important issue, though one which is not isolated to that particular open space: given his education, it is surprising that he singles that one spot out when visitor use to parks and the associated issues are much broader. Shebreh then is perhaps better, though too vague, in saying she will focus on “maintaining our county beaches, parks and open spaces.”

I will note that both candidates cast very troubling votes in favor of developing the main meadow at the Pogonip greenbelt into a farm program, including parking lots and buildings – despite those developments being prohibited by a lengthy environmental review and related long term plans. This was particularly troubling coming from Justin, who should know better.

Now to November

Given my summary, I hope that you will help draw out more environmental platforms from these two candidates. There is scant information from either candidate- especially scant in the specifics of what they can and will do to protect species, wildlife habitats, clean water, and open space for future generations.

-this article originally posted in Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com, where you can read more good stuff and even subscribe

Moderate Clime, Harvesting

Across the farm, people are awake before dawn, lights winking on while the stars still shine. We pull on our clothes, make coffee, eat a snack, and prepare to head out as soon as there is any light at all. I mosey across the farm, turning on water valves…that freak early rain was so far in the past that it is time for the once-a-week soil soak again beneath the orchard trees. I pace back and forth down each row of trees examining the micro sprinklers and irrigation tubing to check for any leaks. Mice, rabbits and gophers sometimes chew the lines: I mostly listen for gushing leaks, but sometimes I see them before I hear that awful sound. Leaks repaired, water on, I head to my paying, indoor job. Other farmers keep going as farming is their mainstay.

Midday Work

We still pull our sun hats from the peg next to the door before heading out to work the farm when the sun is up. Sun heat prickles bare skin though the air temperature is perfectly moderate. It is harvest time. Crews pick apples twice a week for markets: we navigate ladders high into trees after the ground picking crew has finished what is reachable. Shoulder-slung bags full of fruit get dumped into sorting bins and the sorters go to work: bad apples to the compost, barely okay apples to the cider press, almost perfect apples gifted to the Pacific School food program, perfect apples to 4 different farmers markets.

Apples off to Market

Farmers load, haul, and set up displays of boxes of beautiful, community-grown apples where people gather for produce at local farmers markets: Saturdays at Palo Alto and via 2 Dog in San Francisco at Alemany the “People’s Farmer’s Market” and then again on Wednesdays via 2 Dog at Heart of the City (SF) as well as Molino Creek Farm’s stand at the Wednesday market in downtown Santa Cruz. We are selling 400+ pounds a week, more than twice what we ever sold before- post fire resilience and the fruits of many people’s labor.

Evening Glow

As the sun sets, we begrudgingly wind down. There are not enough hours of light to deal with the harvest, so we often have to make lists of work to be deferred until the next morning. Harvest bags get packed into mouse proof bins, I check that gates are closed against the evening’s marauding deer, I give a final twist to shut off irrigation valves and update the watering log book, and then I clean and put away the tools. Brushing off the dust and dirt from my work pants and stomping off my boots, I head home as darkness sets in. The first crickets are singing, and an owl begins its nighttime hoots. Cold clean-smelling air settles into the low points on the farm, the higher points are still warm and smell resiny from the last sun warming the coyote brush.

Deer, No Bobcats

The male deer are sparring, and one has cracked one of the points on its antler. Three male deer, one larger, are strutting around, following the four or so does that frequent the farm nowadays. The larger buck and the larger doe are frequently at the cull apple pile in the evening: that will help them bulk up for the cold, rainy winter!

Where is bobcat, coyote, and fox? The plethora of gophers fills us with consternation. Nearly every square foot of ground has been tossed and turned. I find fresh moist subsoil piles at 100’ intervals every day. The hawks scream and reel, crisscrossing the fields. A kestrel eviscerated a gopher on top of a stump next to my office window midday the other day…he plucked its fur off as much as he could before getting to work tearing apart and swallowing the better food.

The raptors are not enough, and the snakes and lizards are slowing down. We need the mesopredators! Two foxes traipsed along the road down from the farm the other day. I haven’t seen a bobcat in a year. A wave of canine distemper is reportedly still raging across our region, which might explain why there aren’t many fox or coyote, but feline distemper hasn’t been a big issue…so why aren’t there more bobcats? They would be so well fed!

Green or Freshly Tilled Fields

The rain two weeks ago germinated millions of seeds and now seedlings are greening the landscape. Where we didn’t get to raking the last harvest in the hayfields, the grass is the tallest, growing through the thick mulch. We took advantage of that early germination to weed the fallow farm fields- disking the crop of weeds into the soil, preparing for planting the cover crop. The farm has beautiful contrasting patches of brown and green.

Jimson weed aka Datura aka thorn apple: a sacred native plant that is ‘weedy’ in our fields

Late Season Flowers

Amazingly, the bees have forage. It is ironic that it is harvest time for the humans and the bees might be hungry. Fall and early winter are starkest times for pollinators. Hummingbirds and bees flock to irrigated salvias in our gardens. But still, the coyote bush is in full bloom- but there are only a few old enough to flower- the fire spared ones are abuzz with diverse flying pollinators: flies, bees, and wasps. Evening brings the hawk moths to the jimson weed aka Datura and evening primrose, wildflowers that are also taking advantage of the garden irrigation for late season blossoming.

Early season rain helped germinate weeds, allowing us to decimate the seedbank by discing

Fall Color Commences

Each year, the obvious harbingers of fall are our many black walnut trees. Descendants of the Mother Tree in the Yard, the younger walnut trees turn lemon yellow starting from the highest, driest trees and ending with the Mother Tree. It is a count down clock to winter. The last trees to show fall color are at the very lowest elevation- in the north apple orchard, on the steep north facing slope of Molino Creek Canyon. Those apple trees turn yellow in late December and early January…slowly dropping leaves into February.

Fall color from black wa’nuts

We hope you are getting out to the fall colors of our area, in the shadier canyons where the big leaf maples, roses and hazelnuts are starting to show.

-this is from my near-weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website

Golden Crowned Sparrow and Germinating

Two weeks back brought the Fall Equinox, a surprising germinating rain, and the return of golden crowned sparrows. In such a short time, the season has shifted between summer and fall and all around us nature is transforming accordingly.

Fall Equinox

In case you don’t follow such things…a little about the significance of Fall Equinox. The first day of Fall was September 22, 2022. The very moment that the sun was shining directly above the Earth’s equator was at 6:04 pm that day. After that, the sun has moved south of the equator, and the days have become shorter than the nights. This week, daylight is shortening 2 minutes and 23 seconds each day. Here are sunrise and sunset times for Monday October 3rd through Wednesday October 6th, so you can see what’s going on:

DaySunriseSunset
   
Monday 3rd  7:07 am6:52 pm
Tuesday 4th7:08 am6:47 pm
Wednesday 5th7:08 am6:46 pm
Thursday 6th7:09 am6:44 pm

Germinating Rain

That equinox week, an unusual storm brought much of our area enough rain to germinate annual grassland plants. Three-quarters to an inch of rain is all it takes to green up the grasslands. In the forest, redwood sorrel perked up, a newly lush green carpet under the towering redwoods. Curiously, I didn’t catch the ‘petrichor’ smell this round.

First Rains – What Next?

The shift to the rainy season demands attention. Our rainy season coincides with shorter days and a decline in average daily temperature. Cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers are what typify the rare Mediterranean climate regions like where we live. The wisdom of this area suggests that we must be prepared for the onset of stronger rains by October 15th, the average date of the first rainy storms.

Slow it Sink it Spread it

We prepare by making sure that things don’t runoff. “Slow it, sink it, spread it” is the rainfall mantra for our dry climate. Our job is to slow down rainfall so that it has time to infiltrate into the soil. We build raingardens to help sink the rain into the soil. Where we can’t sink it in small areas, we spread the flow out onto larger areas to give it more chance to slow and sink…and less chance to erode the precious soil which is impossible to replace, and which can pollute streams.

First Flush

Rain isn’t the only thing that runs off with the advent of the rainy season: the first flush of rain carries with it a whole summer’s worth of accumulated pollution. The first flush, as the runoff from the first rainfall is called, is the most polluting runoff event of the year.

A Legacy of Runoff Monitoring, Disappearing

There used to be a program led by the Coastal Watershed Council that organized volunteers to sample the first flush runoff from municipal drainages from many cities around the Central Coast, including Santa Cruz. That ‘First Flush’ program gradually degraded and then apparently disappeared – one wonders if the very concerning data were the reason.

In the early years, the program actually sampled the first flush, but it later curiously shifted to sampling in summer months. What continued was something the group calls ‘Snapshot Day’ in early summer, after one would expect that rains had cleansed drainages and runoff declined; curiously, even that program found many areas of polluted runoff concern.

The First Flush monitoring program highlighted high concentrations of pollutants, especially phosphorous but also zinc and copper, which are toxic at the concentrations they documented. In 2003, the First Flush monitoring report suggested that all the sites had runoff that was toxic to mussels, the indicator species used to assess water quality. In subsequent years, that measure was excluded, and the reports became more and more difficult to interpret. Then, the program gradually declined in scope, and reports after 2016 are not in evidence on the Coastal Watershed Council’s website.

The Return of the Golden Crowned Sparrow

I have written another essay about golden crowned sparrows, but want to give you a synopsis and a few more interesting facts. I also hope that you will welcome the return of this species to your neighborhood. This species has a very distinct call that will help you to recognize them. I woke last Wednesday morning to the smell of fresh rain and to that distinct song. Flocks of golden crowned sparrows had returned to my yard! They had flown all the way from Alaska. Bruce Lyon at UCSC has shown that the birds have a good survival rate to return to the same shrub patches that they occupied the prior winter. I keep hoping that I can find the time to get to know the behavior and color patterns of enough of the 40 or so birds that flock around my house to recognize them when they return.

These sparrows are grazers, though when they arrive from their journey south they mainly eat seeds for a bit. Their grazing helps to create big barren areas at the edges of shrubs adjoining grasslands; the taller the adjoining bush, the farther out the bare patch extends. Golden crowned sparrows also graze my vegetable garden: soon, I will have to cover up anything they like, a drastic switch from the summer. I will guard my winter greens crop – kale, collards, chard, arugula, and lettuce – until early April when they depart.

For a while, I thought the golden crowned sparrows would leave at Spring Equinox just to keep things simple. After all, if they always arrive at Fall Equinox, why wouldn’t they leave at a similar time?  I haven’t kept a good logbook of their departures, but I’ve been tricked several times when they stopped calling right around my house. It turned out that the flocks move out to graze the deep lush cover crops in the farm fields nearby before taking off for Alaska and British Columbia where they spend their summers.

In Closing

Although we’ve had a germinating rain, we don’t know what the future holds…the past 2 years have had curious weather phenomena: rain followed by hot drought, grasslands drying out and then regreening. This year, there is a strong La Niña in effect – in recent years, this meant drought. The last two years had heavy duty heat waves right up to Thanksgiving when the first big rain occurred.

So, we may get some more time to prepare for the First Flush and the onset of the rains. Do what you can…create or maintain your raingardens – water them if you can to prepare them to filter runoff.

While the golden crowned sparrow friends are around, I hope you will say hi to them and appreciate their rainy season song.

Welcome the Fall!

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton in his infomative BrattonOnline.com weekly blog: check it out!

Drippy Fog and Fall Color

The fog rolled in thickly, the second drippy session of the season. Most fog has been ‘dry’ this summer- an unusual phenomenon not previously broadly recognized as ‘normal’ in our culture. For two mornings, the whole world went gently pitterpat, rooflines and gutters a constant spatter. Then the sun started winking through in silvery streaming rays lighting droplets on leaf tips, sparkling. The fine breezy dust particles stuck together and the wet smell of fall let us breathe deep and clean air once again.

Fog makes leaf tip drips on our hazelnut plants

Bird Friends

We wake each morning to the high shrill peeps of black phoebes, insistent and fierce. Peep, PEEEEEP, peeep! …. flutter, Snap! They nab flying insects expertly out of the air. And then they perch on the roof line, their glistening knowing dark black eyes gaze back at me when I say my hellos. Off they go, flitting arcs from many perches hunting.

The quail have done well this year. The smaller clan coveys have melded into massive tribal gatherings. Seventy plus birds thickly dot grassy hillocks and across fallow farm fields. Three and four birds peck shoulder to shoulder, others only a couple feet away. They must be finding lots of food as these groups don’t move far, satisfied to stay put for an hour or more. When startled, the whir of those many wings is loud and invigorating.

The Brewer’s blackbirds returned en masse, fluttering like fallen leaves from high in the sky. Now their staccato chips, squeaks, and trills brighten the farm soundscape. They strut proudly forward unidirectionally in flocks herding and frightening ground bugs to supplement their diets.

fog streams in above Molino Creek canyon

Ripening Time

In the lush forest of fruit trees, it is apple ripening time. Galas are peak flavor and earnestly moving to harvest bags. Also, Jonagold apples, the tastiest crop, arrived at their best this week – off they went to market, too! Next up…Mutsu and Golden Delicious. After that, Braeburn apples are in line for ripening…and there are quite a few big, beautiful apples on those trees. It is interesting to see the fruits of our labors: bigger apples hanging low on the trees ‘cause that’s where we could most easily reach to do the fruit thinning!

On the ground where Two Dog Farm has been cultivating dry farmed winter squash, the vines are withering and revealing and understory of acres of big yummy squash. The pale yellow of butternut squashes dot the ground on the undulating rich soil of our Roadside Field. The dark green acorn squash are all sidled up against their bushy main stems high up in Vandenberg Field.

Fall Color

Fall color is erupting all around the farm. The big bushy walnut trees are brightening to pure yellow. Poison oak, resprouted after the 2020 fire, is 3’ tall and startling crimson and violet. Wild roses are also turning towards the yellows in the understory of the forest where the fire burned. There is more fall color to come- our apples wait until December or even January to change color!

We hope you are having a spectacular fall enjoying bountiful harvests of healthy organic food raised by small farmers taking great care of their wildlife filled land.

-from my weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage

Earth Management Without Data

“I don’t need to know anything more. I know all I need to know.” This is how most of the key people around us approach Earth Management. Is that frightening?

Santa Cruz County has a lot of conservation lands, and those lands are critical for our prosperity. 20% of Santa Cruz County is conservation land. We rely on those lands to provide us water, clean air, and geologically stable slopes. Conservation lands also support recreation, giving County residents reprieve and healing. Open space supports life that is intrinsically valuable and will sustain an elevated quality of life for people on this planet for generations to come. Natural area parks attract tourists, fueling an annual $1 billion income for businesses and supporting 14% of local jobs.

Does Park Management Matter?

It matters how conservation lands are managed. If natural areas recreation is mismanaged, studies have shown that wildlife will disappear, degrading parks visitor experience and the quality of life for county residents. In the long term, collectively these declines endanger the future of humans. Poorly managed recreation also makes for less safe and less pleasant parks user experiences. Mismanaged conservation lands result in eroding trails, increasing safety risk for visitors, reducing the water holding capacity of the land, and degrading habitats including filling wetlands and waterways with sediment. When conservation lands managers mismanage fuels, many are endangered by increased fire risk. If they don’t correctly manage timber operations, livestock, or farming on conservation lands, there could be increased fire risk, more spread of pathogens and weeds, erosion, and degradation of plant and animal life. Problems originating on conservation lands are a burden to surrounding landowners who are threatened by fire, weeds, reduced water quality, trespass, and poorly managed wildlife. Conservation lands were often targeted for acquisition to conserve rare species, but if those species aren’t well managed, they will increasingly deserve State or Federal endangered species status; this increases the regulatory burden of private property owners whose land has habitat for those species.

So Little Data…

Very few people make the decisions about how to manage the County’s conservation lands…these folks don’t have the necessary data to inform their decisions…and one wonders whether they want more data. There are fewer than 30 people in decision making roles for all of Santa Cruz County’s conservation lands. None to very few of those people have formal training in conservation lands management. When the folks planning the North Coast section of the Rail Trail were gathering data for recreational use of North Coast parks, they discovered that there were no reliable data for the adjoining 45,000 acres of conservation lands. They couldn’t find data about how many people were using parks where or when. They found no data on the repair status of the infrastructure (parking lots, trails, restrooms, etc) supporting those parks. Of the dozens of rare and endangered species on that landscape, only a handful have been regularly surveyed so we have no idea of the health of most species’ populations. There are no data on what visitors hope to experience versus what they actually encounter. This leads me to ask…do conservation lands managers want more data…how would we know?

The Elusive Need for Data

The first place one would expect to find conservation lands managers’ expressed data needs is on the web pages of their agencies. For example, California State Parks maintains a statewide ‘natural resource management’ webpage. On that page, the agency curiously notes: “California State Parks…supports scientific studies by universities and other researchers who use state parklands as sites for conducting studies designed to help us understand the ecological health of a park.” Note that this verbiage avoids stating that such research could help inform management. Nowhere on the webpage can you find out how Parks supports science. I have not been able to find a publicly available list of prioritized data needs nor science plans that would help to guide data collection prioritization for any conservation lands managers in the County. The Bureau of Land Management, managers of a sizeable conservation property, Cotoni Coast Dairies, apparently does not intend to complete a science plan, which is mandated for all such National Monument designated lands. With a region rife with research institutions, why would conservation lands managers not outwardly seek assistance with data collection and analysis?

The Few, The Proud

I am reflecting on the many conversations I’ve had with conservation lands managers about their priorities, or lack thereof, for data and analysis to inform their management. Many lament the need for more financial resources to support research within their agency; many have also shown suspicion about research that they do not tightly control. In the most recent conversations, two conservation lands managers told me that they had all the information they needed to manage thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County land. Their swagger suggested that they were experts and that they would notice if there was something awry with their management; if they needed to make any changes, they would know what to do. A few years ago, when another manager claimed something similar in a group with which I was a part, a wise colleague responded that humans have thought they knew the right thing to do for thousands of years only to be eventually proven wrong as science progressed. This know-it-all attitude is reflected in reports and programs such as this publication and another one from a central support organization for State Parks, where it is supposed that it is merely necessary to disseminate ‘best practices’ or to train parks employees to implement ‘tested approaches for management.’

Twisted Logic

Try to make sense of the following logical framework, which local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation lands management leaders have publicly stated. Although BLM has sufficient information to inform their management…the questions they might have for researchers…whatever they might be (not stated/published)…are not expected to overlap with the interests of researchers. But, even if they could find some overlapping interest, researchers would likely not produce information that would be salient for BLM’s management.

A Beacon of Hope

As a stand-out exception to these trends, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of lands managers working throughout the region, recently completed a data-driven climate adaptation project. But it is not clear if any particular land management agency has officially adopted the project’s findings, which largely either contradict current management or suggest the need for much more study/work before alternate management actions might be considered. So, perhaps there is some hope…

Support What’s Right

Meanwhile, how can we help advocate for better progress with scientific approaches to stewarding the precious conservation lands of Santa Cruz County? Your most likely leverage point is through advocacy organizations. Don’t support an organization that doesn’t align with your values. For instance, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has a mission that purportedly supports ‘thriving’ parks and ‘conservation’ – support them only if you find that science-based land conservation is a priority. It would be great if other groups were able to help State Parks with their stewardship issues. The California Native Plant Society has a great reputation as having a science-based approach to assisting with conservation lands management through advocacy and partnership. Occasionally, Audubon California will help with such issues. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader helping other conservation lands managers to be more science-based and data driven with their stewardship work.

As always, please vote for the environment. Ask candidates about how they will help conservation lands managers be more scientific with their approaches to stewardship. These issues touch on elections at every level: city, county, state and federal candidates should all have clear environmental platforms for conservation lands assistance. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County depend on smart practitioners of Earth Management! Let’s help move that forward.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Returns to Central California

GoSp

Bold markings on this golden crowned sparrow indicates a ‘powerful’ individual.

Weary Willie’s distinctive call is waking up our neighborhood for the first time in five months. Last week, following an unusual big early storm sweeping in from up north, the first Golden Crowned Sparrows arrived here in Davenport from their migration to British Columbia or perhaps Alaska.

Nicknamed ‘weary Willie’ for their call – “I’m so weary,” – this sparrow is our wintertime friend here, with ~20 bird flocks returning to exactly the same small shrub patches they inhabited last year here at Molino Creek Farm.  Well, at least SOME of the birds return, and some of those with their young which were born perhaps as far north as the ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.’  Way up north, the a male feeds his mate as she incubates eggs.  Between flying back and forth, making a nest, feeding each other, fledging and raising young, they’ve been very busy since they left.  I’m fascinated with them because of their social structure and their tendency, like me, to be ‘home bodies.’

Bruce Lyon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz has been studying flocks at the UCSC Arboretum.  He finds up to 50% (or more!) of the birds returning in fall migration.  He has confirmed what many have noted – ‘high site fidelity’ – with the Arboretum birds.  Bird banding makes all that possible; I wish I could recognize individual birds well enough to do that from memory.

Individual birds are recognizable, and their plumage can tell you how high on the pecking order they reside.  Lyon has also noted that the size and color of their golden crowns, the patches of yellow on their heads, varies with their status in their flock.  The bigger and more striking the yellow, the more dominant the birds…including yellow patches on females that are dominant over duller males.  Taking the time to distinguish and even name individual birds in our flock is fun and helps me to understand a little of what is going on in the yard.

In past years, I have noticed that the birds ride the first winter cold fronts around Fall Equinox, perhaps taking advantage of the winds to help carry them.  I also wonder if they migrate more during the darker moon phases that intersect with those cold fronts, though last year they arrived during Full Moon.  I understand that many birds migrate mostly at night to avoid predation.  A small group of us sometimes place bets on first rain date as well as first golden crowned sparrow arrival dates.  This year, they came right on time…

Welcome back Golden Crowned Sparrows!

I’ll keep track of arrival and departure dates (with a few notes) from various years here, starting this fall:

Arrival: 9/21/15- first posted this post on that date.

Arrival: 9/21/21, full moon, day before Equinox, directly after N Cal atmospheric river event

Arrival: 9/20/22, right after a big unusual winter storm swept down from up North and brought the first significant rainfall to our area. Moon phase: waning crescent.

Apples

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apples and want to share a bit about what I know about this wonderful fruit.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Apples are in the same plant family as roses. When you are eating an apple, you are kind of eating a rose hip, only sweeter. Check out an apple flower and you’ll see a wild rose – five petals and a big bunch of stamens. An apple orchard in flower gives off a dusty rose smell. We’re lucky apples don’t have thorns. Other fruits are in the rose family, too: cherries, apricots, plums…

Apple Blossoms with Honeybee

Apple Lore

Wild apples are found in their genetic birthplace in southern Kazakhstan in the Tian Shan mountains. Apples were domesticated at least 1500 years ago from the wild species Malus sieversii. Bears and people spread that wild thing around far and wide and then folks started messing with it to make better fruit. The result was a cultivated variety with different species names, such as Malus pumila, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis or Malus domestica. If you don’t have a favorite variety of apple, there are plenty to try. Worldwide, there are 7500 varieties grown. Locally, you can try more than 70 varieties at the annual apple tasting at Wilder Ranch. This year’s tasting is on October 8th and hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Gala Apples – a favorite!

Our Region and Apples

Our region is famous for its apple cultivation. Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple cider has its history in Watsonville. There are still around 2,000 acres of apple trees in the Monterey Bay area and almost all of those apples go to Martinelli juice, which is made primarily of the apple variety Newtown Pippin with some Mutsu (aka Crispin) mixed in. With the many juice taste tests I’ve participated in, Newtown Pippin wins easily, but Mutsu is a close second.  Martinelli is now offering organic apple juice, reminding me of one of the reasons organic agriculture got its boost.

Organic Foods Movement and Apples

One of the earliest boosts for the organic foods movement was due to apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a peer reviewed scientific study demonstrating the carcinogenic danger of Alar, a synthetic spray used on apples and found on apples in the store. The news show 60 Minutes caried this story in 1989 and the public quickly stopped buying apples. Lawsuits followed and Congress passed legislation, and then the organic food movement got a big boost.

Growing Apples

It’s not easy to grow any apple for profit but growing organic apples is even more difficult. The labor alone is a wonder. I figure that an organic apple is handled 6 times before you pick one up at the market.

  1. The first touch: fruit thinning

Touch one: fruit thinning. If the farmer is really good, they only touch the fruit a single time when thinning fruit. There can be up to 6 flowers per cluster, and it is best to thin that cluster to one fruit or there are all sorts of problems. Lack of thinning makes for smaller fruit, not a problem if you want juice but a big problem for sales. If you don’t thin enough, there’s too much weight for the apple branches and branches break. Also, without sufficient thinning the tree makes more seeds using more nutrients that then don’t get invested in the next season’s buds. So, you get a tree that bears every other year: aka alternate bearing.

  • Touch two: harvest

Someone has to harvest the fruit from the tree. These apples go into harvest bags that have to get hauled to the sorting table.

  • Touch three: the sort

Apples need to get carefully sorted. You make sure that any insect damaged fruit doesn’t go to the store and that the right sizes are in the right boxes.

  • Touch four: the boxes go into the truck for delivery
  • Touch five: the boxes go off of the truck at delivery
  • Touch six: the apples go on display

Apple Soil

Many of us believe that the key to success in apple growing is good soil stewardship. Apple trees grow best in close association with soil fungi also known as mycorrhizae. The tastiest fungal associate of apple trees is the famous morel mushroom, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully and purposefully grown morels and apples together…it’s a dream. Mostly, the fungi that collaborate with apples don’t make tasty mushrooms but they can help the apple trees absorb nutrients and water. There is also evidence that apple trees are healthier if they are aided by their fungal associates. I’ve learned lots about apple growing from the author Michael Phillips. He swore that placing piles of hardwood chips made from the fine branches of trees was key to a healthy orchard as fungi love that kind of wood and, in turn, feed the trees.

Well-thinned Mutsu Apples: good for cider or sale of large apples

Growing Apples and our Climate

The native habitat of apples is not at all like California, so we have to think carefully about how we manage apples in our climate. One major issue is that California has a hot, dry summer. Kazakhstan’s mountains have moist summers, so either we irrigate apples or plant trees where their roots reach moisture deep in the soil throughout the summer. Full sized apple trees have roots that reach 20’ down; dwarfing rootstock is smaller. Full sized apple tree also try to reach their natural 40 feet height, so despite the deep roots the height of the tree can be a real problem. Shorter trees and dwarfing rootstock means more thirsty trees.

The other problems with growing apples in our region have to do with heat. Many apple varieties need enough ‘chill hours’ to be healthy; a chill hour is one hour less than 45 degrees while the tree is dormant. We don’t get a lot of those right around here (especially with warming winters) and areas south of us on the coast are nearly impossible to grow many types of apples because of that. The other temperature issue is hot roots. Apples don’t like warm roots- too warm and the trees aren’t as healthy. The answer is to keep the understory watered and mulched.

Apple Friends

If you grow an apple tree, you are bound to attract critters. There are always birds wanting to eat the fruit: I get acorn woodpeckers, California scrub jays and Steller’s jays pecking away at fruit. Fallen fruit feed gophers and mice. Gray fox harvest fallen fruit or fruit right from the trees. If you are in town, you might also get opossum, rats, and raccoons doing the same. One of my favorite butterflies raises its young on apple leaves: the California sister. But, there are many other species of butterflies and moths that do the same. Finally, you need to watch an apple tree in blossom to appreciate the number of pollinators that celebrate apple blooming season.

Your Apple Tree

I hope you can appreciate the apple tree a little bit more and maybe you’ll be inspired to help care for one. If you don’t want to grow one yourself, perhaps you can help care for one through many of the community orchard projects happening all over town. At the very least, when you see that apple at the market, now you may appreciate the life that it had before it made it to the sales display table. Each fruit has its own story, but apples have a special place in our local history.

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton on his extraordinarily useful BrattonOnline.com weekly blog

Heat Breaks, Monsoon #4

Heat fades. Cool nights. Cloudy, muggy days. Clouds scatter northward – tattered remnants of Hurricane Kay make for spectacular sunsets and less intense sun. This was the fourth odd monsoon of the season.  Most years we have no monsoons. Global weirding.

Apple Love

We were so proud to last weekend to pick up a whole season’s fallen and thinned apple fruit, ~700 pounds. But the heat wave triggered mass fruit shedding. Big fruit now litter the orchard floor. So, we must go again – only ~300 pounds this time. Perhaps we will save these windfalls for pressing. And, perhaps we will add Molino’s first hops to the juice.

The cool nights should help the Gala apples get sweet and floral, so that we can send the harvest to markets next week. Two Dog Farm will be carrying boxes to their markets for the first time in a long while…we have a big crop.

Each apple type is coloring up with varietal distinction. Braeburns are deeper red, mutsu medium apple green, fuji – grayish green-red, cheery red and yellow striped gala, maroon esopus spitzenberg, cheery red and green wickson crabs, and so on, and on….we have so many varieties. The colors of help gage (subtly) ripeness…in the right light. Apple growers benefit from expert color memory. There are plenty to taste test.

On Cherry Hill, Around the Avocado Bowl

A similar heat wave ushered in the CZU Fire in 2020, destroying our cherry orchard and one big block of older, bigger avocado trees. In 2021, the California Certified Organic Farmers organization sponsored their employee Drake Bialecki to take a sabbatical to work at Molino Creek Farm helping us with fire recovery. Drake’s steady hand, nurtured by years of fine pottery, graft-healed the cherries and avocados, patching buds onto cherry stems, matching new shoots to avocado root sprouts. A year later, we have 6’ tall, big bushes of avocados and 4’ tall vibrant starts of recovering cherries. Phoenix orchard blocks. We envision dense cherry tree shade sheltering families with giggling children raking in UPick sweet fruits in just a few more years.

A big bush from a 2021 graft: phoenix revival of burnt up avocado trees

Return of the Cool

Cool nights in the upper 50s, contrasted with heat wave nights in the upper 70s to mid-80s. Waves of low clouds, like a wall over the near ocean, send occasional arms inland and wisps of fog lick treetops.

The nocturnal cricket chorus is much muffled and seems more distant. Owl hoots less frequently. Everything needs rest after a week of extreme heat stress and all the work that entailed.

Wildlife

Some critters appear, others disappear. Each week there is change. I frequently encounter a huge antlered buck sometimes near the female and her young, sometimes alone. He holds his head high, three points on each side of a big set of antlers. Some bucks with these many points are barrel chested and bulky; this one is more graceful but still strong. He bravely moves only a little bit away from people. Deer always seem to be browsing.

For a long while, I could spot fresh snake trails every day. Seeing gopher snakes was normal. Now, no snakes and few snake tracks. Where did they go?

Sky the kestrel is back to being always around the farm, as is the red-tailed hawk. There were for a moment two Coopers hawks: we hope both stay – one is normal. The kestrel fusses at the others, screeching and dive bombing them.

Blue bellies and alligator lizards are easy to find. Baby blue bellies- 2” long- are commonplace, nervously scurrying to the lips of gopher holes as we walk by.

-originally published in my blog for Molino Creek Farm