Day after day the fog variously seeps up the canyons, pours across the ridges, or just hangs across everything, dripping and drizzling. Droplets cover every plant, glistening. It is cool and damp, but the soil is still drying. The dust is subdued but the plants grow thirsty.
This weather has prolonged the spring bloom which is entering the moment of giant patches of colorful shrubs. Lavender bush lupines and yellow-orange monkey flowers are being joined by bright yellow lizard tail, each of these gentle shrubs has its own color place on the hillsides but intermingle in the interstices in a mélange of crazy color patterns. More subtle flower patches also claim their spaces – Phacelia, bee plant, and cudweeds are also in full bloom. It is a good time to go for a walk where the coastal scrub is near, especially the post-fire coastal scrub. The fire set us up for a very colorful spring.
Snakes and Such
The extended cool spring seems to have concentrated the snakes into piles to keep warm. Last Sunday, Pete Trenham visited the farm and helped catalog 19 snakes in one walk about, including four rubber boas under one piece of roofing tin: a grip of snakes! We found gopher snakes of all sizes, a few ring neck snakes, yellow bellied racers, and garter snakes along with southern and San Francisco alligator lizards and blue bellied lizards. Down in the creek, we found California newts guarding their egg masses as a California giant salamander swam about. Molino Creek was much rearranged after the dynamic winter- now there are pools and riffles along with many beds of fresh piled rock.
Farmers are planting seedlings. Baby onions are especially numerous in long rows. Adolescent sunflowers are getting bigger. Tomato plants are settling in nicely. The cool overcast weather makes for transition ease as plants move from the protection in the greenhouse out into the open air.
The orchards are lush and gorgeous. Apple trees have dark green leaves, a foot of new shoot growth, and oodles of tiny furry new fruit. Cherry trees are laden with clusters of fattening light green shiny fruit nested in curtains of deep dark green foliage. Avocado trees are perky explosions of new reddish leaves reaching for the sky with bolting new growth. Slower, the citrus trees are beginning to flush with shiny new baby leaves while buds break with stark white flowers and famously sweet scent. The grape vines have thousands of long clusters of buds nestled in bright delicate spring green leaves
More Scents and Sounds
The gentle breeze brings a faint smell of fire and a distant hum is the source: air curtain burners are disposing of hazard trees on the nearby land. That distant hum is joined by hours of closer noise: mowers! This spring in particular has called the mowers to work. Mow the 5’ grass to 2” and the next week it will be back quickly with 6” a week growth. The sweet smell of fresh cut grass permeates the air when the wind dies down. The Merlin bird app identifies the dominant dusk chorus: purple finch, song sparrow, and barn swallow fill the ears with song as the day grows dark and evening sets in.
The memory of sunny spring days slipped behind a fog bank. The muffled quietness is emphasized by mysterious pattering drips echoing from the hidden depths of the forest. A single flute-like song from a hermit thrush serenades the slowly darkening evening as it becomes night. The winds have died. All is damp and chill.
Somehow, the quail predicted this cold spell. Everyone has been asking where the puff ball baby quail are – this is the normal season, and they are late. The fluffy turkey babies are out, though. Passing carefully in our cars, they peep loudly after diving into the ditch, scared that momma will lose them. Mother turkey herds the children a bit, but not too frantically, not like the more fretful quail. The quail are in pairs and in a few small groups, the hens must be full of eggs awaiting the return of warmth. Wet grass is hypothermic to baby birds.
Bluebird parents dip and dive, scooping up caterpillars and bugs. Off they hurry to the nest box where squeaking kids beg noisily for food. Perched at the nest box opening, mother bluebird eyes the gaping mouths of her chicks, picks the lucky one who gets fed, and off she goes to find the next catch. Father bluebird returns with food, same story. They come and go all day, feeding the quickly-growing hungry young ones. In between parental feeding, the babies go quiet. A scrub jay perches on the nest box. Both parents alight nearby. It is a silent standoff for a few minutes until I scare the jay away. Nasty nest predators! Four of the five bluebird boxes have nests this year. Electric blue male bluebirds are quite the color show. We look forward to a menagerie of young in the not-too-distant future.
The land is lush. Wild oats are 5 feet tall, wild radish bushes 4 feet around, and wild cucumber vines hang heavily on our 7’ fences. A hike through the forest, even on trails has become a swimming breaststroke to part the tall, fast-growing post fire blueblossom bushes. The ground surface is buried under several layers of canopies, hidden holes hold worry for footfall ankle twisting. The native iris are already fading. Nuts hang from hazelnut bush branch tips. The live oaks on the edge of the meadows are dense with new growth and thick with leaves.
Apple flower petals have long since fallen and small fruit have formed. It is time to thin the fruit, to keep the branches from being too heavy, to make for bigger fruit, and to keep the trees from bearing only in alternate years. The first mow is behind us, but the regrowth is thick already wanting the next mow soon. Wide oat leaves and thinner leaved tufts of dark green weedy rye grass poke up from a thick mat of mowed material. A rich moldy smell permeates the air. Nearby, bell beans and vetch that we missed mowing the first round are vibrantly blooming and growing high. Between cover crop and understory weeds, patches of native strawberry are in fruit: the apple orchard’s first harvest! With the late rain, the strawberries are the biggest we’ve ever seen and oh so sweet!
Farmers are planting, and there are neat rows of seedlings nestling into freshly tilled fields. Onions and sunflowers as well as rows and rows of tomatoes are pushing roots into the soft brown soil.
Also, the mowers are mowing. As is too often the case, one of our BCS tractors went down and is off to repair just when we needed it most. Bob moved the sickle bar mower to the other BCS and off we went once again. Sheaths of grass are felled in neat rows, drying. The timing…as the thistles begin to flower and before the radish seeds get ripe. Earlier, regular we swiped the hay field with the mower to discourage nesting birds- those paths also add heterogeneity for swallow feeding, coyote loping, and skunk snuffling.
The weather has fretted with fog and drizzle then heat and back again, the flux of summer, accentuated over short periods of time. It has been long enough since the last rain that the soil is drying for the second time this spring, and it is time to water once (again).
We picked the very last of this season’s navel oranges, but our one Valencia tree might still have a few ripen and sweeten. Two young mandarins are producing a few sweet fruit each week. There were enough Persian limes to satisfy some of the orchardists, but those are almost gone. Such wraps up the fruiting season, and a bit of a dearth awaits us to be broken in July when the first cherries ripen. If we can get the gumption to net the trees, we will have those delicious fruit.
Rodent Explosions Past
Last year, everyone was talking about the plague of rodents. There were never so many gophers and mice as then; it seemed like not a foot of ground was spared the gopher till. Many winter squash were chewed, unsaleable. A bunch of our old hazelnut bushes fell over, roots gnawed off near the soil surface. A long, cold rainy winter no doubt took its toll on rodent lives. The voles began their rebound, zipping about and ousting gophers to their demise. Now, new numbers of fanged rodent patrols are on the prowl.
Either the long-tailed weasel population has skyrocketed or a handful of weasels are covering some ground. We are all seeing weasels. One weasel was trying to get in the house, poking its snakey body into every nook and crevice, even bobbing back and forth on its hind legs, looking up the walls for a place of better purchase. These weasels have dark red-brown hair and a big white heart spot on their foreheads. They are rumored to ‘run’ down gopher holes. May they control the rodent population!
The Buck Didn’t Stop There
A large buck, its velvet-covered antlers budding up to their first fork, ran hastily across the upper farm this past week. Otherwise, I haven’t been hearing much about deer.
The grass is 5’ tall, on average, in our hayfields. Mostly, it is European oat grass of the “bearded” variety (Avena barbata), but there are also sizeable stands of native brome grass as well as wild radish. When we can, we get to the barn and start up the clickity-clack Italian BCS walk-behind tractor with the sickle bar mower. Aim it at a long row of tall grass and keep it pointed in the right direction. It snicks off the sward at 2” tall, laying down neat hanks of hay that fall to either side. After a few passes, there are beautiful rows of neatly cut grass to cure in the sun before being pitchforked into the mulch cart for placement around the fruit trees. We cut about as much ground as the trees take up- just over an acre! At last calculation, we hoist and spread about 8 dried tons. To do this right, we’ll need to do that pitching before July 1, the magic date that allows the hay to start decomposing and moistening again in the irrigation so that it is less likely to burn very hot with the late summer fires.
From Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa, it is Peak Time for the Native Iris Bloom. Maybe the wet winter spurred such an epic show. The variation in color and petal shape in the plants near Bonny Doon is astonishing. Around 900’ there are patches of Iris douglasiana, but all are a creamy yellow. Just up elevation, they mix in a narrow band with Iris fernaldii, also a creamy yellow. The douglas types drop out at 1100’ elevation and then there are many more fernald’s. At 1700’ elevation, something magical happens. That blue that the douglas iris was supposed to have now seems transferred to the fernald’s, but there’s more. There are rosy flowers and sky blue, pure white and more deep yellow- no two fernald’s iris seem the same- it is a mystical array of a profusion of color.
The colors of iris isn’t all that is happening. The bush lupines and sticky monkeyflower are showing abounding colors. There is so much spring that it can’t be contained. Flowers are gushing brilliant color everywhere. It is time to get out and about!
Through late last week and into this one, waves of unseasonal rain kept sweeping across the sky: shower after shower, sheets of drizzle, or a splattering of only a few big raindrops. It was mostly cold rain, and any remaining heating firewood is gone – the longest, coldest, rainiest winter in memory. Wearing sweaters and hats inside, we wonder when the transition to summer will come. Perfectly reasonable people are now complaining about rain, even arguing with an emphatic, ‘enough!’ when reminded about the contrasting potential for heat, dryness, and fire. Some of us will never complain about rain again, but perhaps that’s just the indelible memory of dangerously close-at-hand wildfire.
The Scents and Sound of Weighty Fog
Is that fog now? The sky is still capped but ragged bright blue holes appear in the clouds by midday. The sounds of gusty winds mix with the echoing roar of big waves. The air smells sweet from vegetal spring mixed with salty ocean spray and dusty pollen.
At the end of the rainy period, before the winds, there was a still morning and both the canyons and ridges were draped in clouds. Dampness coated every surface, leaves glistening with droplets. I could hear the nearby waterfall song and a bit of the creek below. It was so peaceful. Then, <<CRACK, CRASH!!>> another big tree fell down somewhere near our boundary in the Molino Creek canyon.
Besides the spectacularly blossoming apple orchard, there are dots and pools of color popping out from the mostly grass-green landscape. There are striking large powdery blue patches of wild California lilac, both large shrubs that escaped the 2020 fire and a sea of smaller ones that emerged after that fire. Whorls of sky lupine flowers brighten shallow soiled nobs and ridges, aided by our firewise mowing. On the rare occasion that sunrays warmed their petals, California poppies open with their flame-orange shiny glow. It takes a curious eye and intrepid soggy walking to spot some flower colors: buried in the thick grass are hiding patches of blue-eyed grass, a miniature deep-blue-blossomed iris relative.
Standing up high among the tall grass, bright white patches of yarrow just started flowering. Like so much of the farm’s color, this one is a result of intention. In 2008, there was no native yarrow on the farm. But, there were a few patches of yarrow poking through the roadside shrubs nearby. In the dusty summer heat, we paced those roadsides, shaking yarrow seedheads into paper bags. Then, as winter rains approached, we shook the seed from those bags in the areas we were mowing for fire safety. Now, there is yarrow proliferating and butterflies alighting on their flat-topped pollen-rich platforms of white flowers.
Everyone who is anyone is controlling thistles. On hikes and impromptu field meeting strolls, we pause to pound our heels into the ground, trying to uproot invasive thistles. When we stroll through anywhere that hasn’t been mowed within a week, we get poked by needle-sharp thistle spines. Italian thistle is the main culprit, but there are also pokey giant lush leaves of milk thistle with which to contend (in the moister spots). If we wanted to wait a bit to mow, there can be no more waiting – there is an urgency about the timing. Seeds will soon be forming then taking flight on thistle-down gossamer parachutes, creating next year’s problems.
Baby turkeys, baby bunnies. The thick tall grass nearly hides the adults and completely veils their newborn young. Turkey young, too small to fly, struggle through dense forests of oat grass. They don’t have to venture far with tasty grass seeds presenting so thickly. They have already learned mother’s beak precision to pick individual seeds from grass inflorescences. At the boundary of shrubs and grass, tiny newborn rabbits are also gazing at their parents for lessons, from when to scurry from danger to what to eat and where. It is fattening time for coyote, fox, and bobcat.
The unexpected late soak changed the farming routine. We stopped our panicking irrigation setup, grabbed hoes and went to work on the easily removed weeds. The big field hoe pries giant radish roots from the wet soil. Glove protected hands yank clusters of grasses that grow too close to tree trunks for the hoe. Either way, hoe or glove, the spring has presented the opportunity for building forearm muscles and body core strengthening.
A new generator arrived and will provide backup power for our normally solar-powered well. The well has been mostly idle for months because of the rain, but soon will be running every daylight hour to keep up with irrigation needs. Should smoke shroud the sun with the onset of wildfire, we’ll need the generator to keep our fire fighting water replenished.
The sounds of powerful diesel engine tractor tilling, weedeater droning, and the lower growl of mowers fill the air most days. The early mornings and the longer evenings provide respites from farm noise. Then, the air is filled with spring bird song.
The warm spring sun began feeling prickly to my skin, and so it was sunscreen and sunhats to go outside. It had been a long time: a long cold, rainy winter. Suddenly, spring pollen dusted everything, everyone sneezing across the farm and into town, sneezes in parking lots, bike paths and in lines at the store. ACHOO!
Spring warmth triggered grass to bolting, really toweringly bolting grass flower heads arching and poking up high, waving pollen from dancing wands ladening the ever present breeze.
A Sudden Dryness
It seemed like the rain was over, as it normally would have been, but we were in for a surprise. Us orchardists hustled to get the irrigation set up, discovering mouse-chew leaks to repair, stuck valves, broken sprinklers – the perennial time-consuming setup always seems to come too late. The ground was DRY…very dry! Cover crop was wilting, bent over in the springtime heat. Digging weeds out from under orchard trees became a hassle, shovels and hoes striking hard ground, ringing metal sounds. It was dry not only on the surface but a foot down into the soil. Last Saturday, I asked my fellow weeder, “anyone discovering any soil moisture?” The answer was a disbelieving ‘No!’ Someone said, ‘It calls for rain.’ Yeah, right. It seemed somehow impossible.
Wind to Rain
The wind picked up strongly that evening and the next day it was blowing trees and branches down, hard gusts joining a steady stiff wind from the northwest. A little drizzle followed. Then there was a shower with quite big drops. A few hours later, another shower, that one longer, also with big raindrops. And then it poured on and off for many hours late through the night. Afterwards, still the soil is only wet about six inches down, but its moist down a foot. That much water will get used up in a few days when the sun shines again. And, it is enough to spur the grass growth (and pollen). What a surprise! At least it will be easier to weed for a few days.
The Resulting Flowers
The flowers are out. Poppies and lupines in peak flower. Cassandra reports binocular-spying a strikingly bright patch of solid lush orange California poppies high on the steep slope across Molino Creek canyon. The coast live oaks, tassels fading, are dense with shiny new leaves, a rich array of greens, each tree its own unique shade. On oak twigs, the tiniest of acorn babies have been born. Forest edge madrone trees display giant pom-poms of white flowers, a celebration of the moist winter. Big yellow blankets of post-fire germinated French broom sweeten the breeze but make my muscles tense with the stress of the seemingly hopeless weed invasion on our farm’s otherwise beautifully diverse hillsides. Redwood sorrel carpets the forest understory with strikingly pink blossoms. The wild iris has begun its colorful parade, trailside through the woodlands.
The return of rain also reawakens mosses and lichens. The black walnuts and oaks host a wealth of moss, growing thicker on the older branches and on the shady side of trunks. Summer comes and their thick green piles shrink and fade. Just as quickly, with dense fog (or this rain), they brighten and grow plush once again.
An adolescent buck with the faintest of felty nubbins jutting from its forehead warily considered me during a recent walk. At first, its giant pointy ears tilted towards me like satellite dishes honing in on my approach. Each time I get close to deer, I talk to them, gently letting them know that I am no threat. Generally, this slows their retreat, but this one was suspicious. It took off, energetically bounding with all four feet high in the air between pounces. Reaching a good distance, its ears were once again on alert, pointed at me as I tried urge it, ‘don’t worry.’ I looked down and up again. He was gone. Why so concerned, deer? This one was new to the neighborhood, maybe just passing through. People still hunt deer in these hills, so wariness is warrented.
Bright white citrus blossoms unfold sweetly while cherry petals drop to reveal shiny fruit. The apple orchard has entered peak bloom. The freshly clipped understory, not long ago was ugly stubble, but now it’s turning green, resprouting through the mown mess. The faint rose smell of apple blossoms is temporarily overpowered by a rain-fetched dank compost smell, hints of the bitterness of rotting chopped up weedy mustards and radishes. At the base of the apple flowers, furry hints of apples to be. Down the hill from the apples, fruit grows fast in our stonefruit grove- mostly various apriums and pluots, a hybrid swarm that also includes the parents, plums and apricots. Those fruits are mostly silver dollar sized, hard as rocks and green. The wild hazelnuts of our hedgerow have set fruit, bracts swelling. Elderberry flower clusters are a curious near-black, their buds forming.
Barn swallows have formed pairs, their mates arrived sometime in the last couple of weeks. They dive and swoop right past my face, closer than ever, as I mow the orchard. Maybe these are my porch swallows, and they are comfortable with me, and so the proximity. It seems I can feel their wingbeat wind on my cheeks they swoop so close.
The band tailed pigeon flock is back to its more normal farm size: 18 (ish). There were many more last week, but some moved on. As always, they scare easily from the walnut trees where they feast on catkins. Their clapping wings send them quickly skyward where they wheel about in a flock that eventually alights in a tall tree awaiting a safer moment to glide back down to their feast. How many times a day do they make this circuit? Sometimes, we hear them cooing deeply, at times answered by the higher, more sad sounding mourning doves that strut on the ground in pairs across the moist freshly tilled farm soil.
In the understory of the orchards, there are bunches of sharp-billed robins.
Somewhere nearby, there is the call and response sing-song of grosbeaks. In the woods, a flycatcher serenade joins the flute-like Swainson’s thrush song.
There are many other birds making lots of noise. Such is spring on our beautiful, diverse, wildlife friendly organic farm. We are so thankful.
-my weekly blog for Molino Creek Farm simultaneously published here.
Wild blackberries are blooming big time. Their brambly tip-rooting canes are sprouting new leaves and are festooned with bright white five-petalled flowers. In rare years, they make tasty, juicy berries, but mostly the weather turns hot and dry, and the fruits are seedy/not-so juicy. Currently, they are making pollen and nectar for the emerging bumble bees, while we dream of the tasty fruit. Wild blackberries are the dominant wildflower right now on the farm, creating hedgelets along all the fences ‘cause that’s where we can’t mow them too much. They arch out from there onto our fence-side trails: trip hazards!
Soon, there will be more wildflowers – spring is on the verge of letting loose! Nearby, on south-facing shallow-soiled spots, the poppy displays are epic splashes of orange, bigger than any recent year. Across Molino Creek, on that steep south facing slope, a large patch of poppy orange has erupted where before the fire there had been shrubs. I’m looking forward to the woodland iris displays, though they are getting overtaken by post-fire shrubs like blue blossom (Ceanothus), which is starting to blossom as well. In about 2 weeks, there will be miles of blue blossom shrubs blooming about 5 feet high across at least half of the 85,000-acre burn footprint of the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Imagine a sea of powder blue, framed by glossy light green leaves…thousands of acres of rolling wild lilac scent wafting headily, luring you to just stand still and gaze.
More than a few of the noble ridge-line tree skeletons have fallen, but many remain silhouetted on the ridgelines. The redwoods have enjoyed the rain and are recovering from drought and fire with luxurious new growth; the ones that burned hotter sprouting from only their trunks…others from their branches…and all of them from the base of their trunks with 5’+ tall sprouts sprinting skyward. And everywhere, between it all, so very green and lush, but the ground is getting drier.
Even with all the rain, the ground is starting to dry out. Once the rain stops, even for a little while, the long days and the strong breezy days we’ve been having make for quick dry soil. The upper 2” of soil is dry, dry, but below it is still pretty moist. Gophers are awaking and their soil throws are starting to appear, moist piles burying the surrounding lush grass. Roots pump moisture from deep in the earth and plants grow quickly to blossom and seed before the last moisture is gone and the long dry summer sets in.
The most proud bolt is in cover crop land. Thick bell bean stalks sport rows of big white flowers and flapping succulent leaves. Twining ferny leaved vetch climbs up those stalks. Pert sharp leaves of oats grow in thick forests through it all, promising tons of tough stems for future spongy soil organic matter.
Along Come the Mowers
Back and forth, hither and yon, the mowers must mow. Behind the machines, dense mats of sweet-smelling chopped up vegetation, either to be tractored into the soil or left on top as mulch, protecting the earthworms from sunburn. We rush to mow the farm fields and the orchard understory to keep the plants from sucking up the soil moisture, to keep the water for the crops to delay irrigation for as long as we can.
It’s suddenly become a busy time around the Farm. I suspect the spring is revving everyone’s energy about now. Keep calm and plod forward!
-from my weekly blog also posted at Molino Creek Farm’s website.
Bare twigs are erupting from buds into clusters of flowers and whorls of spring green leaves. It is bud break. Unfurling walnut leaves are the subtlest green whereas apple leaves emerge more deliciously bright. Even evergreen coast live oaks have a flush of new spring leaves – some pinker, some shiny olive green. The really stunning eye-hurting green though is from the grasslands, which haven’t been this bright due to years of drought. The last two years, the grasslands greened by December only to brown again by March. This year, the amplitude of green keeps ramping up each week and today was so shimmeringly brilliant as to in contrast dull the sky’s pure blue.
All Weather in One Day
Sun, clouds, rain, sleet, wind, hail. We recently had a few days with everything possible in a day’s weather. The most striking part was the pea + sized hail, which pelleted the landscape, wave after wave for a long, long time…wide large storm stalling across the North Coast. The hail bruised miles of freshly emerged poison oak leaves, releasing its distinct pungent, acrid, sweet scent that soon blanketed the land, seeping through car vents and into homes.
For months, we’ve had storm after storm, but only more recently have we had truly ghastly wind storms. The latest storm dwarfed the prior. Giant trees toppled, shredding through the canopy sending branches flying far. Just across Molino Creek canyon, a half-acre of trees all pitched sideways at once, roots pitched, baring the slope like a landslide. Where we had just spent a hundred hours cleaning fallen limbs to buffer from wildfire…there is now another big project to tackle once again. The entire forest is so thickly strewn with 6” + branches, it is a wonder that any branches or trees remain; it is very difficult to walk anywhere in the forest even along the trail we used to walk to the creek.
When the weather clears, pent up bird song erupts. The birds are singing their spring songs. Song sparrow and house finch melodious jabbering dominates the sound scape, and the whole farm is enveloped in near frenzied mating song. Calling from nooks above the farm and echoing from the canyon walls: turkey gobbling. In the meadows just below the farm, there are huge groups of turkeys with a fair number of showy, strutting toms.
Raptors are calling, as well. The eerie screech of a barn owl reminds us that they are still around: bone-filled pellets stack up below the redwoods at the water tanks complex. In the recent profound breezes, the farm kestrel hovered and dove, over and over, little need to flap. The wind seemed to agitate the red tailed hawk into frequent screaming as it darted between tree tops.
Farm partners have been mowing the cover crop- the fields dried out fast enough with the wind so tractoring was possible. I wanted to follow to gather the scent of fresh-mown grass and also found a juvenile California red-legged frog hopping across the shortened sward.
There are only 2 barn swallows just yet and those two males wheel and swerve in constant play. How soon will their kin arrive, their mates?
The first sky lupines blossomed on the farm this week, tailing the first poppies by a few weeks. Bush lupines started blooming as well along with scarlet paintbrush and blue-eyed grass.
The scent across the farm comes from a series of blossoming plums, the first over a month ago but more blooming each week. Plum scent contains the highest of sweet notes and just a little low musk to add a bit of interest. The first cherry blooms also erupted this week, but more cherry blossoms are soon in store.
Quickening Farm Pulse
The greenhouse is stacked with young farm plants – Two Dog Farm’s seedlings are itching to get planted soon. Meanwhile, the fields are nearly already mowed, well in advance of nesting birds this year. Soon, the tilling will begin as it has in the brussels sprouts fields along the coast. This Spring, the plow contends with a huge hole that opened up in our lower field. That hole seems as close to a mini active sinkhole as anything we’ve seen: it is 3’ across and that deep, an odd crater that suggests a both a drain and the spigot for the artesian lake that we got twice this year.
The orchardistas must now hurry: three weeks and we’ll need to irrigate again. The soil quickly dries as the trees leaf out and the cover crop rockets skyward. The pruning is nearly done but young trees need propping! So much to do…
-shared here from my usual posts at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.
Rain and storms and wind and hail and thunder, and more rain keep buffeting the landscape around Molino Creek Farm. At the same time, we welcome the new moist spring and its seasonal phenomena: wandering cats, amorous coyotes and ravens, ribbiting ponds and puddles, roaring ridges, gushing creeks, re-leafing trees, emerging forest wildflowers, and smiling tree tenders returning to their work.
Storm after storm, trees have been snapping off and tipping over, both live and dead, previously burned trees…trees on ridges and trees in valleys, young trees and old trees.
This most recent two-eyed cyclone had the weirdest winds! Automatic reverse 911 alarms rang out: “SEEK SHELTER!” They told us to go into the middle of our houses where no hurdling window glass would cause injury. But, hours before, the weather service told us it was ‘just another’ atmospheric river that would scuttle down the coast and mainly impact southern California. Suddenly, they changed their story, we tuned into radar, and saw a west coast hurricane spinning and spinning with its center(s) stalled right over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Three giant power polls out at the ocean overlook snapped off – PG&E technicians have seen those types sway widely back and forth flexibly under higher winds, but the latest storm must have had vortexes and twisters and the like. Silver dancing sheets of rain that normally come from one direction in storms are beautiful to watch against the dark redwood canyon background. But with this last storm, that changed: my eyes bugged out, I gasped, and I saw sheets of rain passing one another in opposite directions at high speed (>40mph) in just the few hundred yards across the farm. Such things had seemed impossible!
Lake Molino is rising for the second time and the farm is WET. Every low point burbles and flows with runoff. Even days after one of the storms, the ground bubbles and burps with muffled underground light-tinkling rumors of streamlets flowing through gopher runs. Footsteps go squish….squish…squish; there is no moving fast without slipping. Roadbed puddles splash, mud-spattered vehicles advertising our country living to the urban folks. Many, many young avocado trees are tipping over in the wind, but we are staking; their rhizospheres have been freed of drought-accumulated residual soil salts from irrigation – fresh soil for an era of vigorous fresh new growth.
Roots and a Moist Rhizosphere
Rhizosphere is a good word: it means the area of soil in the vicinity of plant roots. I envision plant roots doing a different kind of foraging for nutrients washed past them during the deluge. Biomimicry of this deluge foraging phenomenon would replace your walking down aisles of food at the market, with your plopping down on nice comfy padded benches instead: food parades past, and you grab what you want when it comes within reach. For plants, rainwater is washing nutrients through the rhizosphere, presenting the smorgasbord to each plant….slurp, gobble, and grab the next nutrient molecule….yum-yum-yum…what a way to eat!
Plants are leaping skyward so fast and lush and wet that they are toppling over like couch potatoes after a(nother!) gluttonous pizza fest. We’re going to have some nice cover crop biomass, even if it grows sideways a bit. Cover crops are all about enriching the rhizosphere.
Spring Animals’ Behavior
Here’s to all the humans with November and December birthdays! Spring was in the air….As it is now with All Beings around the Farm.
Maw and Caw are bowing and nuzzling, sitting closer together and eying each other amorously. The bigger burly white saddled male coyote trots happily behind the coy, lithe female on their head-tilting then pounce-filled rodent forays.
From spring wanderlust to mewsing about the treetops: whether from antsy fierce neighbor dogs or from slyer more untamed coyotes, a farm neighbor’s domestic cat spent some nights in a tree (since rescued!).
Swallows are Good Americans – emissaries seasonally crossing geopolitical boundaries of North and South America. Flocks of these graceful songbirds knit together cultures, carrying news between the geographies of Panhispanism/Bolivarianism movements and the (likewise proud but oft-repressed) anti-capitalist bird conservation movements in the USA. Pay no attention to the mist netters…
Last Friday March 17, barn swallows returned to Molino Creek Farm from Central or South America. Meanwhile, we watch for the return of the antagonistic cliff swallows, graceful tree swallows, and other species that follow this arc.
(BTW, Golden Crowned Sparrows do not yet dare venture North, meanwhile they gorge on forbs, fattening on rain drenched salads)
The gloomy drizzly weather helps the wildflowers stand out. Bright yellows and deep purples grace Molino’s well-tended wildflower ridge. In peak flower are footsteps-of-spring, purple sanicle (aka satellite plant) and buttercups. The first tulip-sized poppy blooms are emerging, opening for the (rare) hour(s?) of sunshine. In the woodlands, houndstongue is huge – its bright blue borage flowers keeping fresh with the abundance of rain. Forest understory milk maid flowers are attracting the large white butterflies that feed on the plants’ leaves as caterpillars and the same species’ nectar when adults: beautiful near flocks of white butterflies flutter around the forest! On another of our farm ridges, 2’ tall star lilies in full bloom! And then there’s the dreaded French Broom…just starting to blossom. A better shrub and one in the dark forest is the subtle, pendulous, deep-maroon-petaled woodland currant, currently in full flower. It’s a good time to get to the forest with its drippy mosses, flowing drainages, and tipped over trees.
Farmers can do one thing on these early spring days when the ground’s too wet to do anything with the soil: pruning! The Two Dog Farm chardonnay vineyard is as tidy as can be: pruned up and weed-whipped down. The Community Orchardists have spent too few, but quite energetic sessions pruning many a tree: we’re half way done increasing the tidiness that we have been moving towards, together, for many years. We have taught each other pruning and the orchard reflects that loving care.
This past week, screaming gusts and roaring big waves transformed the North Coast into a less-than-hospitable world replete with flying tree debris, whirling eye-stinging chunks, and ocean spray whipped a mile inland. The wind carried frigid air from the north with sleet and snow even down to the beaches. This morning, thousands of our neighbors along the coast woke to the rare sight of white-covered ground. Inches of snow above 1200’ and, at the Farm, a thin and gravelly crunching of rice sized hail. As the day progressed, massively tall patches of billowy clouds, dangerously dark gray at their bases, peeled across the sky dumping big wet drops mixed with sleet and hail. Patches of blue sky allowed roving beams of bright sun to briefly illuminate vibrantly green meadow terraces and silver hillsides of moist sage scrub.
There had been enough dry weather for vehicles to start making dust again along the roads. The last two years the rain stopped early and everything got dry and brown in the middle of what would normally be our rainy season. So, the return of some rain, however cold, has been especially welcome. If the wind dies, we’ll be able to burn some more brush. Meanwhile, the recent dry weather allowed for big machinery to take care of some of the fuel problem another way.
There are these agile caged tractors with brush eating drums which are designed to make chips from standing biomass. It’s a a good time to chew up brush- no nesting birds and its wet enough not to start fires if the machinery makes sparks. This past week, one such piece of machinery made a lot of brush on the Farm into tiny chips, even somewhat mixed into the soil in a few spots. The person artfully managing such transitions is Kenny Robinson, a welcome new operator in fuels management. Much of that stuff he was chipping was dead from the 2020 fire, so it was very dangerous fuel for the next wildfire. Thanks a ton, Kenny!
Year by year, we are transforming the Molino landscape back into the grasslands we see in photos prior to the 1980’s. This also makes it less dangerous for wildfire. A broad swath downhill from the barn has been our main focus. There, the forest is turning more park like- redwoods and oaks limbed up high with a carpet of sorrel and brambles 6” tall. New chip-scapes make it possible to drive around and pick up firewood and new camping spots are becoming possible.
The orange-tipped small adult coyote snuffles and scoots between patches of weeds approaching its own height. Nose not far from the soil, it mixes nonchalance with intensity but is always on the move. We don’t have a name for this newish resident, but it has become a consistent neighbor.
The vole fiefdoms are spreading. Each week, new areas get converted from gopher strewn barrens to vole trailed fiefdoms. I pity the sleeping gophers, cuddling in their carefully crafted dens when the bug-eyed ear-nipping marauders zip in and evict them. They must squeak and complain, retreat to a less dry and comfy tunnel, shiver, starve, and perhaps die with these cold nights. Voles have been multiplying quickly but the next gopher breeding season is a bit further off. The population war is on.
Forest and Fields: Flowers
As we steward roadside oak shade, oak understory herbs are moving in. Drive through hounds tongue patches are coloring the entry. Milkmaids are also in full bloom. Deeper in the redwood forest, redwood sorrel is increasingly flowering. On the trail to the creek…checkerlily and false solomon’s seal are swelling in bud. In the meadows, the earliest poppies are blossoming alongside wild cucumber. We even have a patch of footsteps of spring- splashes of bright yellow like spilled paint signaling that the floriferous season has begun. The first buttercup blossoms have burst open. Leafy whorls of rosettes of only a few lupines suggest that this won’t be such a great lupine year. In the orchard, more plum flowers are emerging and the hazelnut catkins are waving in the wind.
-this is from Molino Creek Farm’s website, my weekly blog posted there first and then here
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.
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.
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.
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.