apples

Dusk

– this another post from my regular weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

A fleeting breath of the gentlest breeze brushes through the few remaining walnut leaves, so slight and brief as to barely rustle, plucking only one leaf to add to the fall. Then it is still again.

We inhale the moist air, walk on wet ground and change our clothes to the wavering between balmy and slightly chilly days. The air is thick with winter scent – the smell of fungus and fresh grass. The farm is becoming quieter with the shortening days and the winding down of harvest clamor. The still night silence is rarely broken and then mostly by startling echoes of owl hoots that soon abate – even the night birds are hushed.

The Muffling

The early, warm and ample rain sprouted millions of seeds, now a green blanket everywhere where just a month ago there was bare dirt or straggly dry dusty dead plants. This lush living cover muffles sounds like snowfall and allows my eyes to soften and relax, as I breathe easier for the cooler, cleaner air and the now distant fear of smoke and fire. We are all relaxing into the wet season, the down time.

The moon will soon be full- the bright nights might be adding to the stillness and quiet as critters hunker down in fear of being spotted by Great Horned Owl or Coyote. Great wings outstretched, the perched owls swoop in low arcs lit well by moonlight. Coyote is more frequently yapping and slinking around on the hunt.

The bright days have begun with fog here or below the farm. This late fall fog is not normal. Varied patterns of high clouds take turns with a clear cloudless sky. The sunsets have often been magnificent.

Chittering-chat

The cacophonous whistle, click and squeak of a sixty-strong (and growing!) mixed flock of blackbirds has grown into high entertainment. Like a mysterious whirlwind of blown leaves, the fluttering flock scatters 50 feet up and then settles again on the lush ground. They strut and chatter, shoulder-nudging one another or stab at things on the ground. Our attention is drawn to this great and complex social milieu – yellow eyed Brewer’s blackbirds and larger red-epauleted bi-colored blackbirds mixed and awaiting the arrival of some straggling very rare tri-colored blackbirds. The bustle moves across our farm fields; their departure returning the quiet and stillness as fast as their arrival had quickened our breath.

One of Molino Creek Farm’s many majestic black walnut trees

Yellowing Leaves

The 2-year-old vineyard is also showing that muted yellow fall color as the leaves slowly drop. There might be a few dozen apples left on the trees with leaves also quickly changing yellow. The orchard cover crop we sowed 2 weeks ago is two inches high, vetch unfurling tendrilly leaves, the oats poking up single thin-rolled leaves. The morning dewdrops hang on the tips of these sprouts well into the day.

Chardonnay Vines: a second Fall for 2 Dog Farm’s Vineyard

Winter Fruits

One of the Farm’s greatest ironies…just when the cropping seems done – the citrus ripens! Our 6 Persian lime trees are hanging heavy with large green fruit, the spikey Lisbon lemon trees also are bearing. The navel oranges are further behind and less fruitful this year. The tangerines are far behind but growing quickly as are the Meyer lemon trees. Citrus Hill is filling in with the 20 trees we planted 4 years ago joining some larger, older plantings by Chuck and others.

Persian Limes will be ripe in January

RAIN

-this from my weekly post for Molino Creek Farm

Tuesday, most of the day, it was sunny but noticeably cooler. There was a breeze and then it started getting colder after noon. It was 1pm and I glanced towards the ocean and was surprised to see thick fog down there. Another look at 3:30 pm- clear at the beach but a deck of clouds suddenly obscured the whole sky. It smelled like rain, but the rain didn’t start for hours. Sometime in the early dark hours of Wednesday morning, I awoke thinking a coyote was lapping water in the birdbath, but it was the pitter patter of rain dripping from my roof into the rainwater catch buckets. It’s been raining on and off all day, raindrops vying to be the teeniest of them all: a small raindrop contest! Mist was so thick it stuck to everything on all sides, wafting in from all directions. Then some bigger drops pelt down for a bit, then misty drippiness returns, again. Everything sparkles with droplets under a silver-gray sky.

This “first significant” rain started a month earlier than the past two years, when the first real rain was at Thanksgiving…following uncomfortable lengthy hot spells. What a welcome difference! Tomorrow, we’ll have petrichor, the smell of the freshly wetted soil, which takes a bit to emerge.

Thus far, Molino Creek Farm might have had a little over a half inch of rain, judging from the rain buckets and the amount of soil wetting. Our soil is ancient- more than 300,000 years old. It is hydrophobic once dry, so wetting it takes some time…droplets scoot down soil pores or sit on the soil surface or reluctantly soak in. Once the soil starts accepting water, it takes 1” of rain to saturate 1 foot of soil. If we get the expected 4” of rain between now and Sunday, the soil will be gushy four feet down!

Ten Pound Mud Boots

As one neighbor remarked, farmers must now reluctantly stop working, though there is much to do. If we steal off to try to harvest something…and there is much to harvest…we’ll end up with “ten pound mud boots.” Farm field mud is so sticky that each step adds more globs onto your shoes, making huge hunks of mess: you are quickly 4 inches taller walking on mud platforms that stick out 3” in every direction. Lifting your feet makes your pant legs muddy, very muddy.

Boots that weigh ten pounds are good if you want to exercise without moving far, but practically speaking, they are an absolute and unarguable hinderance to vegetable harvesting. We must wait for things to dry, and that’s going to be a while. “Luckily” the show goes on…we rushed and harvested enough prior to the rain to go to market, so off to market we go. Boxes and boxes of late season delicious tomatoes, glowing piles of beautiful winter squash, piles of shiny red ripe peppers will soon grace our sales tables.

Two Dog Farm’s Beautiful and Even More Tasty Red Kuri Squah

The rain has put a stopwatch to the end of the tomato season. The wetness means melt down. Already, a wave of russet mites seriously damaged the Molino Creek Farm plants. Patches of plants started turning a characteristic russetty-brown that you can see half a mile away…the patches spread quickly in all directions, vibrant deep green healthy plants folding over to this vicious pest. And now, the rain. Thousands of tomatoes remain on the plants…

Molino Creek Farm’s Dry Farmed Tomatoes…nearly end of the season

Ravens Back to Normal…and other birds

With the advent of the rainy season, Maw and Caw are back to their normal selves. Everyday inspections of the farm reveal just these two Farm Ravens without their rowdy children or their rowdy children’s proud new mates. Once this past week there were three other ravens, Maw and Caw talking loudly to them, spinning up to meet them high above the farm. Do our two friends feel they must chase away their kids to protect their territory, now? Are the playful windy days of spring the only days they feel comfortable to reunion with their more extended families? Oh, to know the dynamics of Raven Society. I love these two, they are such good friends, and I’m so happy to see them each and every time (especially when they are hopping up and down with their characteristic wing flicks).

We have a kestrel back on the farm and a (single!) sapsucker returned. The kestrel seems to be scooping up Jerusalem crickets these days, sometimes with a few accidental grass stalks. Its plumage is particularly vibrant and so seems very healthy. Why do we only ever get one individual kestrel…and only once did another show for just one week…?? Speaking of pairs, there is, once again, only one sapsucker. So, this second widow(er?) will linger how many winters in this territory before we get another year or so with none and then a pair shows again- that seems to be our story. This got me to thinking that sapsuckers might not have that large of populations…how well are they doing?

At dusk…gliding, prowling, and perching…great horned owls: easy to see around the farm right now.

No Till Orchard Crops

Back to the mud boots…are lack thereof. As we do not till our orchards, we can walk in those, still, to harvest and to harvest some more. We are 1,000 pounds into our expected 4,000 pound harvest. Almost all we have been harvesting has been Gala apples- the old trees our forebearers planted in 1998. They were laden with the most beautiful glowing red fruit, now all boxed up or as fermenting juice for next year’s cider.

You, yes YOU can get these incredibly sweet, crunchy, and beautiful Gala apples at the Food Bin, right on the main drag…Mission Street (and Laurel) in Santa Cruz. Support us Community Orchardists and go buy a bag of these gems. An apple a day….does what? (and have you done it?)

Next up…Fuji apples. In fact, we are sending Fuji, Mutsu, Gala, and Golden Delicious apples with Judy to the Palo Alto market this Saturday. So, if you are over that way…more diversity, more deliciousness. Plus, this is the run up to the last tomatoes of the season- we might not be at markets after another 3 weeks (or sooner for the mud boots).

For internal use only, us Community Orchardists are sharing the prized quince fruits. The legendary addition to apple sauce…the quince jam…the quince juice…the smell and beauty of this novel and ancient fruit. The test this year: do we need to plant more, or is 4 bush/trees enough for our needs? Already, people are suggesting we plant more, but they sit at the markets, unmoving.

Quince! Beautiful.

Sweater Weather

The fall see-sawing between heat wave and chilliness continues, a pattern we’ve become used to through even the more typically hotter summer. This past week, the farm warmed for a few days into the mid-80s – unusually warm for us – with nights down to the high sixties. During the days, the lush carpet of white flowering clover in the orchard understory folded its leaflets, hiding out until cooler times and the apples rapidly brightened towards ripeness. Cricket song vibrated through the comfy nights. Then, yesterday, high thin clouds blew in, barely obscuring the sun and the temperature dropped – the arrival of fall “sweater weather.” Banter turned to expectations of rain. “I saw the tarantulas come out” I heard someone remark on a visit to San Luis Obispo – people believe this to be a sign of upcoming rain. A Bonny Doon person remarked that ants were moving inside…yet another sign that rain was imminent. No rain around here, though…but, it did rain in northern California a few days ago and there was a good downpour in LA recently. We’re stuck in the dry middle of the state with confused invertebrates feeling the weather fronts that don’t quite get here.

So, for the farm, dust season continues. The natural world looks drier and drier. Our last rain was months ago. Even in the areas that burned in the summer of 2020, the ground is covered by regrowth. Brown, dry thistle heads rattle across the hillsides in afternoon breezes. Resprouting coyotebrush presents deep green patches in the understory of the thistles – it reached a foot or so high this summer and will recover a closed canopy across many hillsides next year. The dust comes from the humans – it blows from our roads and fields in great arcs coating surrounding vegetation…redistributing nutrients across the landscape. It is the same through the more extensive agricultural landscapes – trucks running down dirt roads in the wide Salinas Valley create huge plumes of dust that carry for miles. “There goes our soil!” I’ve tried covering some of our farm roads with hay cut adjacent to the road, and road gets slick, hay quickly ground up by the many farm worker vehicles…maybe it helps? Soil is very, very slow to create and I fear wind and water erosion deepening the road ruts, making for bigger maintenance projects in the future.

Black walnuts are plentiful on our farm, Joe Curry grew these seedlings from our mother tree

 Fall color progresses. The many black walnut trees that dot the farm have yellow leaves, falling. The orchard’s prune trees have yellow-orange leaves starting to turn and the cherry leaves are changing to a distinct orange-red. Across the nearby slopes, poison oak has been turning crimson since August. In the moist canyons below the farm, big leaf maples are turning bright lemon yellow alongside similarly colored hazelnut bushes. During our cool spells, the crisp air smells like dry leaves and clean air from the North.

Lapins cherry trees, survived the fire, starting to drop colorful leaves

On one of my midday work-break irrigation hikes (turning off water, checking that the tanks were filling), I heard a frantic truck horn beeping. Luckily, it wasn’t the three long beeps that signal an outright emergency. Patterns of horn beeping can tell you a lot. It was evidently a less worrisome issue. Judy’s sky-blue Toyota pickup – her commute vehicle – eventually caught up with me. “The foxes are eating the cat food!” she exclaimed.

My farm neighbors have mixed reports about foxes. Some revel in the frequent sightings; for instance, a few neighbors report (with delight!) an adolescent fox at all times of the night at the ‘hairpin’ turn on the road closest to the farm. Others complain…chicken killing, cat food eating, fruit (or sandwich) stealing…etc. I was opposed to the introduction of “barn” cats onto the farm, but one picks one’s battles. People were unwilling to tend traps enough to reduce ‘problem’ rodents in the barn and believed cats would take care of the matter with less human effort. I cite the millions of songbirds needlessly slaughtered by domestic cats across the nation. Now, we have cat problems: how to feed the ‘feral’ cats without feeding the wildlife! The next bit of fun will be getting said cats to the vet for their routine vaccinations. Meanwhile, its foxes vs. cats – the ancient dog vs. cat battle continues on center stage at Molino Creek Farm. There are cat people…and there are dog people…and we’ve got both!

On the avian front, there are two bird songs making a crescendo: male quail calls and golden-crowned sparrows. After tentative quiet half-calls the past two weeks, this year’s new male quails are settling into more certain and loud ‘Chicago!’ calls…repeated all day long from whatever brush areas remain on the farm. They are filling out their puffy bodies, displaying elegant top knots from their heads, strutting and herding their coveys. These wild chickens have had a strong year of increasing their flock size with plenty of seeds to eat. Sprinkled across quail territory, the golden crowned sparrows are dense across the whole farm. It seems they landed just here on our farm two weeks ago as a staging area before moving farther south. Just 2 miles farther on (Back Ranch Road), they haven’t yet arrived. In prior years, it has taken them a month to arrive at the Elkhorn Slough, 25 miles south. Here, it took them a week after arrival (Sept 21) to start singing their characteristic winter song: “poor will-eee!” Now, this is the most constant bird song across the farm. If I had to guess, I’d say we have a thousand of these cute little friends. Another sign of coming winter: our tribe of Brewer’s black birds have returned. I’m saying ‘our tribe’ on suspicion…I don’t know for sure. But, for years they were shy around me and in Spring 2020 I spent some time hanging out with them…talking to them, answering their odd ‘click’ calls, and gradually getting closer and closer to their feeding flock. The flock that returned looks me in the eye and isn’t so quick to flush, so I think they still know me, so I posit this is the same flock.

A bit about the harvest. There are cases and cases of tomatoes ripening in the barn, tags on each stack noting the date of harvest. Two Dog Farm had a great big winter squash harvest, now curing in boxes awaiting sale. As I loaded two boxes of beautiful Gala apples into the van destined for the Santa Cruz farmer’s market, I spied many buckets of beautiful sunflowers. There are onions and peppers, and so much more coming out of the fields with very full tables at all of our markets – this is the season!

Apples! Ah yes…it is almost peak harvest time. The early apples, Galas, are at the height of their ripeness. We were debating the color of the flesh at last Saturday’s working bee: is the flesh a pure white…or is it creamy white…or….?? Please weigh in on this important debate. The skin of our Gala apples is red-streaked with a peachy yellow background with a bush of russeting. Our team also debated ripeness of other varieties. What appeared to be ripe with tasting suggests another week or so…we await Mutsu, Braeburn and Jonagold. Fuji apples are far behind. The slow ripening and benign weather is allowing us a great non-hectic prolonged harvest season. If you want a whole-case discount (~20lbs/25$) of almost perfect apples, let us know…we were eating schnitz for a year and suggest you consider making those – an excellent snack and easy to rehydrate for cooking.

Community Orchardists have well stewarded these gorgeous gala apples