Molino Creek Farm

Wrapping the Farming Season

It is a bit of a stretch to say that a farmer’s life ever allows for season breaks, but we are reaching the moment when things slow down. This is a rhythm derived from the Sun.

As the sun passes on its lower arc in the sky, the days grow short and the overall temperatures colder. Occasional blasts of cold air from the Dark North make for chill and fear of frost. Those winds push rainy storms our way, and we hope for atmospheric rivers. The bright white winter sunlight is often bracketed by the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Farm Scenes

We had a bit of rain in two storms, enough to make things green again here and there. The mowed areas are green, but the unmowed areas stand tall and brown, the worn out tall dead grass of yesteryear in stark contrast to the new growth.

Fall color unfolds across the landscape, each week a new show. Cherry Hill is a fire with orange and red-orange. Big leaf maples are so very yellow in the canyons nearby. In the orchard, hazelnuts and apple trees are turning color. The Two Dog vineyard is in peak fall color.

The walnut trees across the farm have lost most of their leaves, not so colorful anymore.

Final Touches

As orchardists, we finish the growing season by lightly harrowing the soil over cover crop seeds, by gathering up and stacking the tree props, and by raising the irrigation lines into the boughs of the trees…out of the way of the springtime mowers. We watch the sky for impending rain and hustle the harrow in front of the weather, allowing natural precipitation to germinate the bell beans, vetch, and oats in rows between the trees. We pull on gloves to avoid splinters and the sound of wooden polls clanking together into a neat pile fills the air as we stack a hundred props. We walk back and forth, pulling the 18” stakes with micro sprinklers, tugging the irrigation lines out of mulch and from the grasp of entangling weeds…then hoist the lines up into the tree branches. The rows are clear and blushing green, but at least the apple trees are a month away from dropping their leaves.

The Coming Winter

Community orchardists next gather in the orchard for Winter Solstice and then we Wassail to keep the tree spirits from snoozing too deeply. With any luck, we will burn less in the Solstice Fire this year. We have enough funding from apple sales to rent a big chipper to make food for the trees from the massive piles of fuel reduction biomass piled near the orchard and the bonfire space. Bonfire ash fertilizes and diversifies the mulch field. While making that ash, a great gathering of the network comes together with food, music, and stories to welcome the lengthening days. A while later, at the arbitrary date of Wassail, we formalize the ritual to celebrate and decorate the Grandmother Tree with ancient song and big noises. The work, however, waits until mid-February with a host of springtime chores…if we are ambitious, we’ll plant a few more bareroot trees in the few locations left in the orchards.

Wildlife

We have bobcats in the neighborhood! Sylvie spotted a juvenile bobcat near the entrance to our farm this past week…the first bobcat in a long while! She and others have also seen fox, not on farm, but nearby. There are so many rodents on the farm that any predators that do show up will eat well for a long while. Stand still anywhere on the farm and you can hear the rustling of small mammals…day or night…within a yard of you anywhere. With the moistening of the soil, gopher throws are getting bigger and more frequent. After a long hiatus, in some areas you can find vole runs again- the voles are recovering from a population crash more than a year ago. Mostly, there are several species of deer mice scampering about. There aren’t that many wood rats or rabbits, but a few of each, here and there. No racoon, few skunks, maybe a weasel, no badger, few coyote, no real lion sign, no coyote sightings but an occasional yip in the distance, and a handful of deer from time to time. There are moles and harvest mice for sure, but I haven’t seen them recently. And there are domestic (some quite feral) cats and dogs (mostly fierce) and maybe invasive rats and mice, too. Perhaps there are shrews but I never see them. That’s most of what I know about the furry creatures around Molino Creek Farm. I’m betting the many species of rodents are feeling the chilly air and the short days and are doing what they can to figure out ways to make it through the long winter. They line their nests with dry grass, shredded bark, thistle down, or leaves and fill food storage chambers with piles of hay or seeds. They burrow deep under rocky ledges. They engineer drainage systems to help water flow away from their sleeping areas. They grow thicker fur and some pile together for shared warmth.

Squeak Squeak!

-this is the last of my 2022 farm blogs from the Molino Creek Farm website stay tuned into 2023 for my next posts.

Green Hills, Bare Trees

A good friend from Back East (USA) once told me that they had a hard time getting used to California’s “seasons” where “winter is the time that the leaves fall from the trees, and the grass turns green.” Here we are, in our rainy season once again.  And, unlike Back East, we are planting things: cover crops. The first bell beans we planted have cracked their seed coats, shooting a white root down into the moist soil; leaves have yet to emerge. The nights have turned so cold that the crickets stopped singing. The moon is big and the nights long, bright, and silent. The last few days, 3+ inches of rain soaked our farm. There are puddles everywhere.

Farm work

The pace of harrowing is the rhythm of the moment. I pull on gloves, hearing protection, a dust mask and hat then turn the key to start up the BCS tractor. Backing it out of the garage, the racket of the engine distracts wildlife from their otherwise peaceful times. Shifting into high gear the machine lurches forward and I pick up my pace, steering it down the road towards the orchard. I park it and then go get the heavy bags of cover crop seed: vetch, oats, and bell beans. Full bags are difficult to pour into the bucket and seeds spill onto the ground. Half full is heavy enough, and I take off down the rows, tossing seeds as evenly as I can, just where the harrow can scratch. Scoop, toss, swish…scoop, toss, swish. I sew bell beans at 3 seeds per square foot, oats at 10 and vetch at 5 per square foot…at least that is what I aim for. The seed spread is never that even and the resulting cover crop is patchy with one species growing more lushly than the others, different species in different places. The bucket empties quickly though I’ve covered good ground – back to the emptying bags for a refill.

After the Seed

After the seed is spread, I fire up the tractor and the heavy duty work begins. I put back on my hearing protection, hat, gloves and dust mask. The BCS is a bear to turn, but turn it must…at the end of every row it’s an about face. Back and forth the harrow scratches, sometimes bucking when it hits particularly hard soil. The harrow sometimes digs into one side or the other, pulling the heavy tractor sideways. I heave-ho to straighten it, tilt it back to clear debris, and then its back to harrowing long rows, pulling and weaving to miss the tree branches. After just 2 rows, I’m soaked with sweat. After 6 rows, I’m beat and its dark. Tractor in high gear again, off it goes to cover for the night. I haul the heavy seed bags back to the barn. The bucket gets stowed for the next cover cropping session. This BCS cover cropping takes us around 15 hours each year just for the orchard areas. The resulting lush growth gets mowed in the spring and raked under the trees for mulch and fertilizer.

Laughing birds poop

The blackbird cacophony is loud, a hundred birds calling from the skeletal branches of a big dead fire-scorched Douglas fir close to the orchard. They alighted there, flushing from a part of the orchard that I had planted in cover crop a week before. I walk up the hill and take a look where they had been: 3” tall fresh bright green oatgrass sprouts have been pulled up and messily scattered, but they left the bell beans alone. Soon, enough cover crop will be coming up all over the farm to more than satisfy the blackbird maw, but for now the early cover crop plantings bear the brunt of bird hunger. Bicolor and Brewers blackbirds strut and peck shoulder to shoulder. I reflect that they are leaving behind bird poop that would otherwise cost us a bunch if we were to import chicken manure: thanks, flock!

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

Waves and Cold Rain

First, there was the roar of big waves. It was mild weather, so I left the windows open a crack for fresh air. Open windows are also a treat for outdoor sounds, but something wasn’t right. What might have been the noise of a commercial jet was too consistent, lasting far too long. The air was trembling, the low noise slightly alarming. The waves were back! It has been a long time since the farm vibrated from big waves. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if it is just noise or if the earth itself is shaking. Radio stations warned of sneaker waves. Looking down towards the coast, there were big rolling corduroy ocean patterns.

Precip

Then, there was the rain. The setup was telling. Those waves were followed by an odd hazey sky and then there were colorful sunrises and sunsets and different cloud formations drifting in from various directions. Obviously, the weather was changing. Forecasters at first predicted one-tenth inch, then maybe a quarter, and revised yet again to perhaps a half inch. Tuesday morning was the predicted storm and it occurred on schedule with what I call a ‘small raindrop contest’ – every raindrop trying to be teensy and spread out. Then, dawn brought a precursor shower that wet things pretty good. It wasn’t until mid afternoon when the sky dropped torrents for a short bit as a narrow band of rain swept in from the North. At sea level just downhill not even a quarter inch, but up at 900’ we got more: .81”

With the rain came the cold and a trailing bit of chilly showers. Gray threatening puffy clouds sporadically appeared next to bands and walls of mist. At times, all clouds disappeared and the sun shone or the stars brightly sparkled. It has been a dynamic beginning of the week!

Slow Birds

The cold makes the birds move slower. The hundreds of high cheeping dark eyed juncos are feasting on seeds along roadsides and hesitant to move away. When they do scatter, they play leap frog one over the next as if a slow motion windblown rolling wave of twittering bird confetti. The hawks perch on fence posts far too closely when you walk by. Quail wait, thinking they can hide and not have to move but then panic, flush, whir, and bounce off of fences and bushes in their chilled-brain bad aim haste. Before this rain wet the ground, the quail  were leaving oodles of the best foot prints on our dusty roads as they mopped up thousands of sprouting seeds and seedlings. They will soon be eating only salad. There are lots of quail around right now!

Chill

Burr. It’s cold! How cold is cold my back east father asked (Hi Dad!): well, it was 53F as a high today. It’ll be in the low 40’s tonight along the coast but frost is possible inland. Those temperatures are cold for us and will spur a whole new round of winter symptoms. The young grass will turn beautiful shades of red and purple at tips of their blades. The already changing grape leaves in the 2 Dog Vineyard will brighten to a better yellow.

Peent!

In prior blogs, I’ve commented on the winter vs. the summer birds and have before mentioned the red-breasted sapsucker saga, but I hadn’t thought too much about my observations that they are Molino winter birds. Audubon has a range map that shows their winter vs. summer haunts. The map is quite odd. They are mapped as very definitely only winter birds here, but there are areas to our far South and not that far North where this species lives all year round. Now…why would they leave here in the Summer?? Frequent readers with good recall may remember that we had a pair of these birds (they mate for life) but one got et, presumably by a Coooper’s hawk; the one remaining returned alone for a few winters. And then there were none. And now there are three. 3!! Bill Yates pointed them out, including a note that one was potentially a juvenile. Now we have a family of sapsuckers and an eruption of new holes in the bark of our orchard trees. Swarms of ants are drinking at those sapsucker bark wells. So are hummingbirds, which solves one of my mysteries about what the heck hummingbirds were feeding on this time of year, when there are no nectar producing wildflowers around here.

Orchard Stuff

Meanwhile, in the orchard…We still have apples! 2 Dog is selling our apples at Heart of the City and Alemany Markets and Roland is peddling our apples at the Wednesday downtown Santa Cruz Market. The Fuji apples are deservedly quite popular: crunchy and sweet. The Braeburn apples are even crunchier, though not as sweet- they have a more complex flavor. Those are the two varieties that are ripe right now and the last ones to go to market…for maybe two more weeks. It has been a long and productive apple season. You’ll want to get some of these late season apples before they are gone! It will be a long wait until next year’s Molino apple harvest.

I personally walked backwards steering the harrow for another 5 rows this week right before the rain, hoping that the additional predicted moisture would help along the germination. The cold will slow it down. A mixed flock of Brewers and bicolor blackbirds have been feasting on the seeds. So many have moved onto the farm that they now form murmurations, though I wonder if that term is reserved for starlings.

For the past many years, we’ve had to wait until January and beyond for citrus to ripen: not so this year. The harvest is ripening 2 months early and we’ll soon have the second citrus harvest of the year. The Robertson oranges are nearly ripe. The Persian limes are turning yellow, nearly ripe! Our first Improved Meyer lemons are getting tasty, too. Only the mandarins will not make a second crop this time.

Shake Rattle

The last thing to report is the Earthquake from last Friday. It was a long roller with strength. USGS recorded it as a 5.1 on the Richter Scale, centered just east of San Jose – not that far as the raven flies. Pictures were askew on our walls, new hairline cracks in the drywall and stucco. But, nothing fell from the shelves! A reminder that we are in earthquake country. I wonder how many of the fallen apples were due to seismic shaking?

Be well and have a good rest of the week!

-from my regular posting at the Molino Creek Farm website

Stillness and Contrast

Stillness. The air barely moves, and each day darkens into hushed, unstirred nights. The still air phenomenon carries from one day to the next so that now it seems normal, almost beyond comment. It has been weeks since any kind of substantive breeze has blown across the farm. Fall leaves pile directly below trees. Dust hangs along gravel roads for long moments after a farm truck interrupts the windless tranquility.

Dark = Chill

Monday evening, the fog retreated offshore and bright stars twinkled by the billions in the suddenly clear sky. There had been days of fog, sometimes drizzly fog where subdued daylight was muffled by blankets of thick, low clouds. Downtown and at the farm, people stoked the season’s first wood fires to ward off the dank chill.

The chill and darkness combined with the harvest of many apples gifted us our first taste of reprieve from watering the orchard. Once trees lose their fruit, they aren’t as thirsty. This is especially welcome because we pump water with solar power, and there was no pumping potential with the days with such limited sunshine.

Solar powered well water – sustains our homes, orchards, and crops…so glad for good water!

Talon

How does the lack of rustling wind affect raptor hunting? The kestrel reels and screams. The Cooper’s hawk more stealthily turns acrobatically around trees and shrubs, sending our big quail coveys scurrying. Two red tailed hawks have little lift from updrafts; they sit on low perches hoping to pounce on nearby prey. The vultures haven’t been sailing by.

Placid nights echo across the landscape with many great horned owl hoots and barks. Owls scamper and hop on my roof through the night, scanning the rodent filled yard for their meals. Some neighbors suggest the rodent population has (finally!) started declining, but I’m less sure. There is a new, the first, bunny burrow nearby and a new bunny joined the last old and skinny individual remaining. Last year, there were 10 brush bunnies in that same space.

Ripening Harvests

Apples become ripe with surprising suddenness. We bite and compare: is this type ripe enough for harvest? Plewy- the arguments sputter! ‘That Braeburn is a week or more off!’ ‘No it isn’t’ ‘Here, try another one!’ ‘The skin is bitter and tough, its not sweet enough yet…look the seeds are still light brown’ We settle down and wait if anyone is adamant enough. Then, three days later, the Braeburn is indeed inarguably ripe. Same with the Fuji apples. Suddenly, when we thought there was a lull in the harvest and we’d have to skip markets…there are lots of ripe apples again.

Gone are the Gala, Jonagold, Wickson Crab, and Mutsu. Here come the Fuji and Braeburn! After those…we’ll get some rest: three more weeks of bigger harvests!

Meanwhile, 2 Dog Farm eyes its ripening dry farmed winter squash, increasingly coloring the fields. Squash with no irrigation?! Yes! Yummmm!!!

Two Dog Farm Dry Farmed Butternut Squash – the Very Best…and at the market soon!

Orchard Hygiene

A key to successful apple growing is keeping the orchard clean. Stand quietly in the orchard for 15 minutes even on these still days and…thump! There goes another apple falling from a tree. Quickly, the ground is covered with bruised windfall apples. Gophers drag the fruit nearer their holes, gnaw into the flesh, hollowing out the orb from below. Dwayne Shaw from Maine visited and neatly stacked the better windfalls in piles and we haul them to the press. He pitched the nastier ones into the wheelbarrow for disposal; soon, the barrow was teeming with yellow jacket wasps, which clean up the apples as quickly as possible. Those wasps also like to eat soft bodied insects, so mop up the apple pests, the core of the problem which spurs us to clean things up. Thanks waspies!

Chill Turns to Heat

With the clearing fog came a sudden heat. For weeks it barely crested 70F but today it was 85F. At dusk, toasty warm air wafted (slowly) in from the east. Crickets sing again this warm evening. Three days of warmth and it is time to water the orchard again. May the solar array help pump water once again!

The past 2 years have produced an October and then a November heat wave. The heat broke both years when the first real rainy storm soaked things on Thanksgiving. Will we wait that long this fall? It calls for sprinkles next week…fingers crossed! It would be nice to keep the grass greening and the fires at bay.

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.

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

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

Loud Crickets, Warm Nights

Ripples and waves of peachy color-brushed fog flows downcoast at sunset, cloud tops at 400 feet elevation, well below the Farm. As darkness sets in, it is one of the rare handful of warm night opportunities to immerse in outdoor sounds. There’s a fullness to the cricket chorus, with windows wide open all through the night. The crescent moon barely shines, a dull orange from high altitude smoke once again blanketing the West. There’s no wind tonight and it won’t get below 70F. Hooot Hoot hoot-hoot hoot hoot calls the great horned owls. Tiny animals make small curious noises as they scurry through dry leaves. All the night noises filter clearly indoors tonight.

Heat Wave

Maw and Caw the raven pair hop and pant, beaks wide open midday. They are trying to scare up grasshoppers around the farm fields, patiently pacing. Big black birds have a particularly hard time with heat waves. 

Today was the first of a predicted weeklong heat wave. We hope for the sometimes unpredicted fog to roll in and provide relief. Already, near mature apples have burned-bleached skins on the sunniest of fruit sides.

Fall Color

Grass and weeds have turned the dusty, tired gray-brown tint that is typical of late summer. Early bearing stone fruit – apricots prunes, and plums – have leaves that are turning fall color (yellow, orange).

Stone Fruit Fall at Molino Creek Farm’s Community Orchard

In the wildscape, poison oak fall creates bright red patches on the hillsides, its early fall with big leaf maple coloring creeksides yellow. The last flowers of summer have reached peak: silver-gray foliaged sagebrush holds up spires of tiny nodding green flower clusters…female coyote brush is also displaying –  furry flowers buzz with flies and bees, flutter with buckeye butterflies.

Last of the wild flowers…coyote brush, a female shrubs fluffy fur

Deer!

Momma deer still has her two small adolescent offspring. They are well fed plump but in good muscular form. She teaches her young not to panic when I walk by, sauntering relaxedly. ears alert, nibbling and walking to keep a little distance. There’s a long dark straight scar down her belly. The whole family has dark brown-gray fur, summer coats grayer than the blonde-tawny winter coat…or maybe they’re just dusty dirty- the color closely matches Molino Creek Farm’s soil.

Fox

The One Fox has become at least two…each time encountered on the uphill edge of our property, mostly with late night driving. Lower the headlight beams, give them time to find a way off the road that isn’t in the stickers. We beckon them to migrate further in…closer to our gardens and farm fields where their rabbit and mouse eating might help us with our plight. It is a Big Year for gnawing damage, crops and ornamental plants suffering.

Pests

Two Dog Farm workers draped rows of bird netting over their Chardonnay this week. The vines and their first dime-sized fruit hanging in sporadic thick clusters are now obscured by green netting, but birds still cheep and flit among the open rows, between the netted vines.

We won’t have to net the avocado trees, but they will be a few years before they bear much fruit. Nevertheless, the young trees look healthy and are putting on their second wave of growth.

2021 planted avocado tree…healthy and sprinting upwards

-this post originally from Molino Creek Farm’s web and facebook pages.

Monsoonal Moisture

It poured down rain yesterday and thunder rolled across the sky. This was the third warm, wet monsoonal system to whoosh up from the south across Central California this summer: very unusual for this era of our climate. With the rain came petrichor, the complex sweet odor of freshly moistened soil. For a few hours, there was no more dust. Coincidentally, this storm came on the anniversary of the 2020 fire. The weather prediction centers know our memory and assured us that this system was not like the one two years ago. Nevertheless, many people watched the sky carefully. Fire spotting helicopters combed the hills. No fires have yet erupted, but sometimes they smolder for days after a lightning strike awaiting a heatwave…

Best Weather

Inland, it has been hot but cooler on the coast: several days were in the low 80s this last week at Molino Creek Farm, but the evenings were cool and so on balance the weather has been glorious. This is the longest stretch of the most beautiful weather we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Organic, Community Orchard Grown Gala Apples – weeks from ripeness, and growing sweeter/bigger by the day

Good Pears, Apples Coming

Apples like warm days and cool nights. The pears are ripening. After a sprint from small to medium sized fruit, apples seem to have taken a break in enlarging, but perhaps it’s our patience- it will be some weeks before they are ripe. On the other hand, we literally can’t wait for the pears now: it is a race to pick them before they get too ripe on the tree. Three harvests from the Big Comice, one week apart each: the first two picks have been delicious, but the third pick is sporting many ‘water balloons’ with overripe, brown and fermenting centers. It is an art to recognize the correct coloring of each type of pear in order to know when to pick them. Fruit separation strength should also be a clue that we might heed. Live and learn! Community orchardists can’t take enough pears home, so understory fruit fall critter feasting is heavily underway. Some homes are abuzz with dehydrators, others’ fridges are stuffed with pears, counters crowded with bowls overflowing.

Bowls of Bartletts

Future Fuels for Fires Falling

Today, there was a CRACK and an extended rushing crash: another huge burn-damaged tree fell on the hillsides above the farm. It is dangerous to walk in the forest. This one fell with no breeze, just a still warm late afternoon. The hundreds of fire-killed trees are starting to fall. Their crisscrossed trunks will pile up across thousands of acres awaiting the next conflagration, which will encounter this fuel and roar hotly, cooking the soil and all life nearby. No number of termites or unusual monsoonal rains will be enough to rot those downed trees before the next fire.

Wildlife Mysteries

The mother deer who had two young not long ago is all by herself now.

The Cooper’s Hawk is still terrorizing the birds. The orchard remains quieter than normal- not so many acorn woodpeckers and jays calling as they were constantly before. This bird killing hawk has been very effective at changing the tone of the birds across the farm.

Something is assiduously killing paper wasp nests. The huge one hanging in the pony trailer- torn apart and no more wasps. Three ground dwelling paper wasp nests dug up and dead as soon as the mower cleared around them. Its funny, we don’t smell or see skunks…maybe foxes do the same? What got the hanging one?

Flowers

For now, only the goldenrod is blooming in the natural areas around the farm. The bright yellow tall pointy clusters of fuzzy blossoms bow and sway on 2’ tall flexuous leafy stems…only a few, here and there- not a very common plant and not enough to help feed the hungry bees which now swarm onto rotten fruit and into the crop fields where tomatoes, squash, and peppers are loaded with pollinators.

These Still Nights

The silent night brings out the darkness creatures. Early evening is dark and moonless. And out come the nocturnal ants- big shiny ones with a bit of dark rusty brown…also tiny shiny ones all black and with elongated sections. A gauntlet of black widows still occupies gopher holes in the unimproved roadbeds. There’s a harvest mouse sitting in the dusty road, ducking silently into a gopher hole. Black field crickets. Brown crickets. Tiny cockroaches. A barn owl screeches overhead now close, then far away. The still cool night makes clouds when I exhale. Distant waves crashing, a rhythmic pulsing, though muffled in the nighttime air.

Hoping these still quiet nights bring peace to your restful sleep.

Dark Prunes A’Ripening

-This post originally published at my weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage and on that Facebook site

Bluebirds Now, Acorns Later

The bluebirds’ wet warbles call from fence lines, the birds swoop, scooping up grasshoppers from the dusty ground, picking off caterpillars from stalks of dry grass. Acorns fatten on the oaks, not yet ripe, not yet falling. The days shimmer from bright sunshine and a clear dark blue sky. It is nearly half way between the summer solstice and the fall equinox; the days are becoming noticeably shorter, the nights sometimes warmer, the cricket songs more diverse and louder. And, full moon is tomorrow.

Citrus Hill, now with oodles of new avocado trees growing up fast

The Silence of the Birds

The jays and acorn woodpeckers are more silent. Most of the birds have quieted considerably. Cooper’s hawk is terrorizing the entire range of bird life, but the quail are its favorite game. It is everywhere: flying through the apple orchard, winging around corners of buildings, soaring above the fields…full of the energy of the hunt. The northern harrier is more surprising, returning for stints and then disappearing for a day or hours – its hunting ground extends beyond Molino Creek Farm. Two red tailed hawks are constantly but less energetically hunting, sometimes soaring, often perched, watching, waiting. The night brings the barn owls’ metallic screech; these are as commonly calling as the great horned owls- the fire may have favored the return of barnies because there is less of the great horned’s favorite dense tall forest cover. There’s even a barn owl baby calling in the San Vicente creek canyon just over the ridge. I worry, though, since there are great horned owls…when will we find a pile of barn owl feathers in the field- that’s a repeating pattern: the great horned owls always seem to win.

Sunflower Show

 Judy’s sunflowers are making quite a show. What skill to keep a batch always coming into bloom through the entire farming season, making bouquets for farmers’ markets each week. Bright yellow cheerful sunflower heads…the dominant cut flower in the irrigated field alongside onions, zucchinis, cucumbers, and pole beans. She grows a lovely small patch of diverse market crops.

Sunflowers – for sale at local farmers markets

Apples A’ Hoy

Meanwhile, in the apple orchard the burgeoning crop of fruit is unbelievably large. Almost every branch of every apple tree is bent with full weight of fattening fruit, props holding them from breaking or resting on the ground. The frequent zipping by of the hawks have substantially decreased bird damage to apple fruit. Gala apples are always the winners: last to set and first to ripen. We recalled that the second week of September is the week of gala, but it might be early…

Oranges at Molino? Moooo

On Citrus Hill, near the Barn, we have been plucking cara cara oranges from the two trees we planted a few years back. The first substantial crop of cara cara has been wonderfully juicy and sweet: Score! Cara cara navel oranges are crosses between ruby red grapefruit and navel orange. Its flesh is redder than normal oranges. We are very very stoked to be able to grow a tasty orange: the others we’ve tried make okay juice, but they aren’t that good to eat just plain- cara cara oranges ARE good.

The view downhill of Molino…down Molino Creek Canyon to the coast

Night Walks

Shorter, hotter days create conditions for night watering of the orchard, leading to late night walks to turn off irrigation valves. This leads me to unavoidable opportunities for nurturing the nocturnal naturalist in me. Tonight’s observation: black widow spiders aka Molino farm road median lurkers. Over and over again I witnessed (for the first time!) black widow spiders busily building web networks 4” or less from the soil surface on the unimproved road median strips, emanating from web encrusted gopher holes that must be their lairs. Another nocturnal roadside observation: the emergence of many brown field crickets, now evident in the chorus from various areas. Also, slender shiny dark brown ‘night ants,’ tiny cockroaches, big greasy looking black field crickets, and a myriad of different spiders. No mammalian eye shine gave something away with my bright headlamp, darn.

Rodent Fiasco

The fact that this is an epic Rodent Year still is in force. Mark Jones reports hundreds of rodents fleeing the path of the mower. Every inch has been rototilled by gophers. Farmers are losing crops. Orchardists are seeing girdling, making for more urgent trunk clearing. Every storage shed reeks of mice. A family of 10 mickey mouse deermice greeted me when opening up the small orchard tool storage shed. The bunnies have proliferated in areas, as well. And that fox which we had been seeing down the road a bit…well, its moved onto the farm! Prints in the dust, leaping fox scattering to hide: welcome back Gray Fox!

Hoping you get some warm weather basking!

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