Black Berry Blossom

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!

Rubus ursinus, literally bear blackberry…in full bloom right now

Wild Lilac

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.

Ridge Guardians

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.

The ridge to the North of Molino Creek Farm

Drying Out

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.

Green Manure

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.

Bell beans, oats, and vetch – ‘soil builder mix’ – a cover crop that conserves and builds soil for organic farms

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.

Warm Spring Days

From blustery and cool to only slightly breezy and hot. Today might have been 80F and tomorrow will be, too, but the nights will cool down so we can open the windows and cool the houses. Big big waves blown in from some massive storm way way out there; the beaches were swarming with daring surfers this evening at sundown.

Farm Critters

The crickets have been chirping for the last week or so. As usual, the black field cricket is the first to sing. Their brethren the grasshoppers have an early start with fat large adults flying around already.

On the land at Swanton Pacific Ranch today, just over the hill from Molino, I saw a 18” terrestrial garter snake, a 2’ gopher snake, and a 15” yellow bellied racer as well as fence lizards galore. Alligator lizards are around, too. April is always reptile month- and this time around is no exception. Time to see snakes! The gopher snake’s body was bulging in three locations- well fed and recently shed- very shiny new skin.

Real, honest to gosh birders are surveying the Farm these days. Storey La Montagne and Martha Brown were roaming around this morning when I woke up. They reported yellow rumped warblers (“getting ready to leave”) and had good words to say about the numbers of western blue birds. Storey’s been owling here and confirmed our regular farm friend the pygmy owl. When they were here this morning, there were just barn swallows. And then, when I went down to Swanton the day saw increasing numbers of violet green and maybe other types of swallows- from 5 to 50 over the course of the morning. Welcome back swallows, almost goodbye yellow rumped warblers and golden crowned sparrows! I neglected to discuss with them Maw and Caw who curiously had one of last year’s offspring visit them this evening: and then there were three, all friendly as can be.

Little to no predator poop- few bobcats, coyotes, or fox. Only very rare sightings of deer. A bunny here, a bunny there- not many. Dead woodrat in my yard- neck strangled, dropped…gone to the turkey vultures a couple (stinky) days later. Mowing is revealing a plethora of mice, including many of those most tiny and cute harvest mice- must be having a good year. Field mice are probably having a particularly good year for all of the gophers that erupted through the last year, after the population crash of voles. The voles are coming back- beware gophers! The first vole trails are getting mowed and populations are on the rise again.

Apple orchard in full bloom; still recovering from 2020 wildfire…how will they do?

Forage and Fruit

The apples are in peak bloom right now, as of the last 2 days- there’s a few more days of peak bloom left, including this Saturday’s gathering. Pink! White! And, if you get there early or late in the day, you can be tricked into thinking the apple blossoms smell like lupine as that scent settles through the orchard from not far away. Limes are getting ripe and the Orchard Collective members are up to their eyeballs in lime-i-ness: lime juice frozen in ice cube trays…limes peeled and sucked on by Milo…lime drinks…what more?? And, we’re eating pea shoots from the cover crop, but nothing really much more coming in from the fields just yet. In the eternal irony of farm life, the Spring is the time of food shortage, the longest time since the last meaningful harvest of Most Things. And so, we eat the canned things and forage on Spring Greens like miner’s lettuce and baby this and that volunteering from last year’s greens seed crops. Oh, and arugula.

Its not your eyes…the flowers are blurry and the foliage in focus! Sticky monkeyflower. Trippy monkeyflower

It All Happens At Once

On the hillsides around the tilled fields, the normally staggered blossoms of shrubs are all happening right now. Bush lupines, California lilac, sticky monkeyflower, lizard tail, oso berry…all blooming now. There’re not many lilacs of blooming age, just yet- most burned- but, the few missed by fire are weighted down with big wads of blue flower clusters that are quite magnificent. The bush lupines, too- what magnificent lavender displays! It would be delightful to be a bee right now- food everywhere.

California lilac aka Ceanothus thrysiflorus in bloom right now, if you can find a mature bush left by the wildfire

The Work

Farm work means mowing and irrigating right now. All the fields are shorn except the orchard areas, which we are hitting post haste most days. In the vein of ‘it all happens at once’ we had to fix up irrigation a month early and just finished our first full pass of watering trees. It takes ~7 hours of microsprinklers to rehydrate the soil this year…it dried down too much before we started the watering. The solar pump is running constantly for the first time since last October. Soon, the farmers will put hoe to ground and start planting seedlings…

-this post copied from the original location at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s website

It’s Lupine Time

In the local prairies, it is an especially prolific lupine blossoming year. Do you have a favorite place to visit lupines? The most prolific, bright, large flowered annual lupine in our area is called sky lupine, because when it is in full bloom in large fields, it looks like someone turned the world upside down. The scent is heady- it smells purple. For those of us who grew up smelling purple in grape Kool Aid or various artificially flavored grape bubble gums, it makes sense that sky lupine smell purple. In good years, I am able to go to my favorite lupine patches at just the right time when acre upon acre are giving off that scent and making extensive mats of lupine colors.

Lupinus nanus, aka sky lupine, an annual native wildflower that grows best without grassy competition

Lupine Diversity

Lupines are pea family plants. Look carefully, and you’ll recognize that sweet pea shaped flower. Lupines typically have flowers in a spike of tightly packed whorls with older flowers turning to seed pods at the bottom and new flowers opening at the top. Lupine seed pods look like pea pods. Sky lupine pods explode on warm days pitching seeds far from the mother plant.

Sky lupine flowers and seed pods

Sky lupine isn’t the only lupine around, there are many lupine species in Santa Cruz County. It might make a good treasure hunt to try to see them all. According to Dylan Neubauer’s Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California (every naturalist in the County should have this), there are sixteen lupine species in our tiny county. Sky lupine is the only one to make a big show in the grasslands.

A very modest lupine, Lupinus bicolor, aka ‘miniature lupine’ another of the 16 species of lupines in Santa Cruz County, California

Who Eats Lupines?

Italians eat lupines! Strains of white lupine, Lupinus albus, have been cultivated for food throughout Europe. But you have to grow the right strain- some strains are very toxic! In fact, most lupines are toxic…

Here’s a challenge: find sky lupine leaves that are being eaten by a butterfly or moth caterpillar! In researching this essay, I explored the possibility that some beautiful butterfly larva fed on sky lupine. Nope! Lupines famously have some potent toxins. Some species of lupines poison cattle, though I’ve not heard that livestock owners are concerned about sky lupine around here. There are some butterflies and moths that feed on perennial lupine bushes locally, but none that we know of that feed on sky lupine.

Masses of Lupine propinquus popped up after the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire at Molino Creek Farm

Lupine Pollinators

It isn’t a burden to sit in a sky lupine patch to watch for pollinators. You’ll quickly realize that bumble bees love lupine flowers. And, if you look at those bumblebee legs, you’ll see the distinct yellow orange sky lupine pollen color – they collect big globs of it.

And yet, sky lupine doesn’t need a pollinator, it can self-pollinate. But sky lupine flowers make more seed if they get pollinated by bees. The species has an interesting adaptation- some tiny hairs that prevent self-pollination at first; these hairs wilt with time, allowing self-pollination if all else fails.

Sky lupine mixing it up with California poppy- a common combination and always lovely

Planting Lupines

You might be tempted to plant sky lupine- certainly expensive wildflower mixes contain this species and display its color on the fancy seed packets. However, its not that easy. Sky lupine seeds are tough and unpredictable to germinate. Friends have been sending me pictures from places they’ve never seen sky lupines before- the seeds have been in the soil for decades waiting for the right year to germinate! Check out the seeds, sometime- they are beautifully marked with a shiny, waxy seed coat. The seeds are hard as rocks, meant to last years in the soil.

There are many different types of sky lupine, each adapted to its own microclimate. So, if you really really want to get some sky lupines growing, get to a patch nearby and get local seed- collect the pods as they start to dry. Place the drying pods in a paper bag in the sun and wait. Soon, you’ll get to hear the pods exploding in the bag and you’ll know that you got some good seed. Make sure that the pods and seeds are nice and dry before storing them until next fall. As the first rain storm is predicted, cast the seeds around where you want sky lupine…rake them into the soil if you can…and wait- sometimes for years!

Lupinus albifrons, silver bush lupine, in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve- post 2020 fire flush

Lupine Places

Back in the early 1900’s, many regular Santa Cruz citizens would enjoy Spring wildflower trips to the North Coast grasslands to collect wildflowers. They would bring bouquets home with them and garland their hair and clothes with colorful displays. Now, with long mismanagement of many of those grasslands, there are few wildflower patches left. Anyway, if you do find wildflowers, you’re not supposed to pick them anymore. We ought to leave them for whatever remnant populations of rare pollinators might be around, waiting for us to figure out how to better manage the prairies.

Locally, two places to visit sky lupines come to mind. It used to be that the Glenwood Preserve in Scotts Valley had good sky lupine displays, but I haven’t had a report this year. A little drive to the south, and spring always brings great sky lupine displays in the grasslands and oak savannas of Fort Ord National Monument. There’s something particularly appealing to me about the large patches of sandy grasslands full of lupines surrounded by gnarly short coast live oaks at Ft. Ord. Those sky lupine patches are frequently large enough to get that lupine smell, experience that upside down world with the sky on the ground, and thousands of bumble bees bopping around the flowers.

-I originally published this post at Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Blue Skies, Bursting Blossoms

Right on time, the first tulip-sized California poppies have opened. Unusually, and a month early, the sky lupines have started blossoming, as well. The habitat areas, field margins, the hedgerow, and the orchard are starting to fill with Spring blooms. We hope for the return of rain before Spring’s beginning date arrives.

Lupinus nanus Sky Lupine Too early, but still nice

For a few nights, the air has carried a winter scent, like snow; frost decorates leaves in the grassy areas and wild radish leaves wilt from cold damage. We check the margins of avocado and citrus leaves to see if they are damaged. But, its only been evaporative frost- we still haven’t hit critical freezing temperatures! The cool temperatures are helping some fruit trees to sleep well, but others are waking up. The Santa Rosa plum popped into bloom – it only needs 250 accumulated hours of temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Other stone fruit trees are budding and/or blooming in the orchard.

Juicy Santa Rosa Plums start with brilliant flowers

The semi-cacophony of blackbirds continues, and other birdy things are happening, too. The blackbirds mostly gather in one tree but as you look around, the party has outliers as bicolor blackbirds court one another away from the crowd. I watched for a while as one outlier male bicolor blackbird did his thing: the trilling scree song while bowing slightly, wings shrugged out, flashing his bright red wing patches. A few feet away, a female watched in rapture…it was just this pair alone at the top of an isolated tree, though they kept glancing towards their flock in the tree nearby. Buzzing by, not entirely oblivious to the blackbird antics…hummingbirds, up to their own shenanigans.

Somewhere, I heard that the blossoming of the flowering currants triggers estrous in hummingbirds. Allen’s hummingbirds returned with those blooms from somewhere Way South. I’m not sure how the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds like them. Bright flashing throats and aerial sparring is constant around our yards and up and down the hedgerow. Flowering currant isn’t common in the wild around here, though you can find other, less showy species in that genus in the forests surrounding the farm- the hummingbirds like those, too. With the early nesting of hummingbirds under way, it is time to closely inspect any brush we are clearing before chopping it down. There never seems to be enough time to cut out brush for fire safety, especially when being careful with nesting birds.

Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, pink flowering currant – hummingbird food!

The farm fields are sleeping…the cover crops have slowed down with so little rain. The soil surface is dry, road traffic makes dust again. Limes are ripe, tangerines and oranges have color but no sugar, yet. Meyer lemons are hanging heavy and ready to go into lemonade or pie.

The Molino Creek Canyon has changed so much since the fire of August 2020. Big trees and many burn damaged redwood branches have crashed down across the hillside around our farm’s beautiful wintertime waterfall, which is flowing and noisy still. It is difficult to hike there, but we’ll open up the paths again soon with chainsaws and muscle. I’ve been exploring Molino creek, which was heavily scoured by the big rains in December. Now, it is so much easier to walk by the creek- no vegetation and a rocky sidewalk of a path alongside the clear running stream. There are potential dunking holes for the summer and wide rocky beaches. The large expanse of sandstone bedrock has accumulated a covering of redwood seeds. Last year, the redwoods made an Epic Cone Crop, with cones much larger than anyone had seen before. The branches were heavy with cones. For the last month, those seeds have released from the opening cones: dropping and scattering onto the ground. Now there is a red-brown scattering of the delicate seeds. In moist cracks, the seeds are germinating: a new crop of redwoods, just as their mother intended- a rare sight as redwood seedlings only ever get going on bare ground following a fire.

-I published this at my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.