As soon as I pulled out the extravagant sweet peas, the Blue Lake pole beans were happy to take over that planting box, sharing with basil. The other box is empty, and I don’t seem to have time even to think about what to do with it — so, I guess nothing until next month. But I picked enough basil to make a batch of pesto, and now am starting to enjoy the beans.
Flowers are everywhere, too. The white echinacea and the Delta Sunflowers in the front garden are my favorites. Those sunflowers are amazing – For years I’d been seeing them wave their bright blooms in the hot winds of California’s Central Valley, on zero summer water. Even last week I took some pictures as I was on my way home from the mountains, showing how they love to volunteer and reseed themselves in temperatures over 100°.
Landscape Lady suggested that I consider them for the way they bloom over the whole season, last fall when I was talking about sunflowers in the front, and she offered to share some of the plants that make babies year after year at her own place. She gave me five, and all five quickly revived from transplanting and started growing like the weeds that they are at heart.
They naturally look a lot nicer here where they get a little moisture to their roots.
I’ve been gadding about too much to be an attentive gardener — that’s where it pays off to have this relatively low-maintenance kind of space that produces so much beauty to welcome me home in a new way every time I return.
Over Memorial Weekend I stayed with the majority of my children and grandchildren in a couple of cabins in the foothills near Yosemite National Park. One day we were all attending the wedding of my niece. The other days we explored in smaller groups, or hung out at the larger cabin with all nineteen of us together, cooking, eating, playing bocce ball or swinging on the tire swing.
On my drive in to the village of North Fork, near which our cabins were located, I saw lots of these recumbent white lupine plants along the roads. Just now, trying to identify them, I read that there are around 200 species of lupines. I can’t find any that look like these, so I’m giving up.
But those pinkish flowers under the lupines appear to be clover. It covered the dry slopes around our cabins.
We trust that Jamie will soon grow out of his love for his toy cell phone that he uses remarkably like silly adults. After all, it is always dead. His imagination obviously isn’t — but just what can he be imagining?
For a couple of hours Sunday Maggie and Annie played on a paddle board in Bass Lake while the others of us watched them, or watched Liam with his bubble wand. We might have rented a boat but they were all taken. Then we ate ice cream; it was hot!
In 2015 I was in the Sierra foothills south of here, and first learned of this plant below, called Bear Clover or Mountain Misery, Chamaebatia foliolosa. Back then we were in the same sort of dry terrain at a similar elevation, so I wasn’t surprised to see it again. Last week I couldn’t remember the name, but I recalled something about it being smelly.
A species of collinsia or Chinese Houses.
I had taken a big box of old maps up to the mountains with me, to offer to the family before I recycle them. Several people were curious, but Scout was most captivated by them and thrilled at the possibility of having some of them for his very own, now that he can read and decode them. His parents helped him sort them into categories, and eventually they let him take the whole box, to be more thoroughly sorted and culled later. He searched me out several times to thank me for the maps 🙂
One of the maps was called “Indian Country” and showed mostly the Southwest U.S. I don’t think it covered much of the territory that Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery explored, which was certainly Indian Country as well. One of the plants the Corps encountered was a wildflower called Arrowleaf Balsamroot or Balsamorhiza sagittata, and I believe Pippin and I saw it, too, on a walk near our cabin.
The flowers had not quite opened yet, but they were showing some yellow. In the Corps’ journal we read, “The stem is eaten by the natives, without any preparation. On the Columbia. Aprl. 14th 1806.” By the way, lupine seeds were also food to Native Americans.
Our group didn’t eat anything like that. Our big meals together were BBQ on Sunday night, and bacon and eggs on Monday morning before we departed for our homes. I fried three pounds of bacon and drove off with my clothes and hair still pungent a couple of hours later.
It was far from North Fork, but I will end with this photo of alfalfa fields I drove past — slowly, in holiday traffic — in the Sacramento Delta. In one field I saw they were mowing, so I rolled down my window and got a whiff of that.
I’m happy and home and too tired to pull this all together somehow…. Oh, well, they are all things that I like, and/or think about. 🙂
When we were snuggling and chatting on the couch at her house last week, four-year-old Ivy introduced the topic of the faces of her grandmas. After we talked a while about red spots and wrinkles, she pointed to a tiny freckle on her wrist and said with pride, “This is my first brown spot!”
There was a good bit of cuddle time during my visit, because most of the family had colds and weren’t at their most energetic. One day in particular it was uncomfortably chilly outdoors, and snow fell off and on all day.
But my drive up the state had been mostly under sunny skies, which meant that I could stop and take pictures anytime I wanted — and I did want quite frequently. I had dragged myself away from home, wondering what had I been thinking, planning a trip when gardening and Lenten activities are legion. But as soon as I got away from my usual environment and wide views opened up to me, the spring-green leaves and plantations of wildflowers made me glad I was making a tour of points north.
I saw hundreds of these Western Redbuds along the highways.
And twice, I got close enough to discover a bee enjoying them, too.
So many kinds of wildflowers were blanketing the slopes in swaths of yellow, orange, blue and white. I only managed to get close to some lupines. I don’t even know what most of the other flowers were – except the California poppies. I was flying past them too fast!
Another bush I saw on my journey was unfamiliar to me. It grows along the creek beds, and when its foliage comes out it is needle-like. It’s a softer, orangey pink compared to the Redbud…
…and its flowers are like beads:
I love the almond and walnut trees when they are bare.
The California almonds have already leafed out,
but the walnuts are still pale gray and venerable:
That freezing cold day at Pippin’s, we celebrated Jamie’s second birthday. His Aunt Pearl and three of those cousins came up from Davis, too, to spend a day and half, which made everything more festive. Maggie helped Scout make a glittery poster to hang near the dining table, and several of us blew up a score of balloons. Cupcakes were baked and decorated. When Jamie finally figured out that he was the center of attention, and that he was the one to blow out candles, he was quite pleased.
I also received a late birthday present from Pearl, with orange blossoms attached to the package by way of decoration. I kept them by my bedside, and then next to the driver’s seat on my way home. One of these Aprils I will go back to the land of my childhood and just live in the scented atmosphere for a few days, for old time’s sake, and for the delicious sating of my olfactory sense.
The next day was a little warmer, and dry. We could take walks, pulling Ivy and Jamie in the wagon. The Professor took the four oldest children to a shooting range for a while – who doesn’t love an uncle who will do that? One day he worked at burning some of the huge number of branches that fell from their trees during the very snowy winter, and Scout helped by dragging them across the yard.
At different times during my stay, both Scout and Ivy asked if I would come outside to see certain springtime happenings in their world. Ivy loves the tiny violets that pop up all over the lawn, dark violet and lavender. I see from an old blog post that I had also discovered those many years ago, but I was sure in the moment that this must have been the first time.
When I found out that Scout (seven years old) knows the names of most of the trees on the property, I brought my notebook outside and jotted down as we walked around the house: oak, maple, hawthorn, red fir, spruce, Douglas-fir, Ponderosa Pine, locust, weeping willow… the ones I didn’t remember, maybe I will next time. He and I examined the thorns of the hawthorn compared to those of the locust.
The time went fast. Soon I was driving back, through the Central Valley that is heating up nicely and made me wish I were wearing something thinner than jeans. I thought about my future as regards expeditions in March. In the last three years I have acquired two grandsons whose birthdays are in March, so I think I better get used to this happy Happy Birthday routine. 🙂 Nothing could be sweeter.
I remember when I first learned in a practical way about microclimates, from my friend Rhonda who had a lovely cactus garden in our county. I also tried to grow a few cacti, but they all got waterlogged from rain and then froze to death in their first winter. Rhonda lived on a small mountain, where the cold air descending would usually keep rolling right on downhill so that the plants barely noticed it going by. That was her microclimate, so different from my back yard where the damp and freezing air would settle on my cactus and turn all their juices to ice crystals.
My friend Dick lives on a smaller hill in a generally more extreme climate zone, but a similar weather pattern holds sway so that frosts are often averted. There may be other factors involved in his microclimate that we didn’t discuss, but in any case, starting about 50 years ago, but more intensely in the last decade, he has been enjoying his freedom to experiment widely.
In a previous post I mentioned how before that, he was one of the friends with whom I would ride bicycles all around the country roads and through the orchards connecting our little Central Valley communities. Many of them weren’t actually towns, and the primary one in my life was a shrinking town, even then. I think its population peaked at 100, which was the figure embossed on the town limit sign as long as I can remember.
We had a fire station with a volunteer fire department, but I can imagine that when an alarm sounded, it might have taken an hour for the firefighters to get to the station from out in the groves or fields, if they were close enough to hear it in the first place. In any case, it seemed that every year or two some old building would burn down. None was ever rebuilt. The gas station where we pumped up our bike tires and bought 8-oz. sodas didn’t burn, but when it went out of business, there it sat, to rust.
It makes me sad, all this decay of the man-made things, and the lack of prosperity that once was, in former times when people concentrated their energies and money in the local businesses and organizations instead of driving 20 miles to shop and go out to dinner. But I myself wouldn’t dream of investing there, and if I were like my brother and sister who do still live on surrounding farm property, I would be working hard just to keep my own family and property alive. Given the pervasive vandalism and theft, it would take a good deal of optimism to try to renovate anything.
But I do like to visit, and to smell the particular flavor of dusty air that was soft and mild when I was there earlier this week. October is a good month, between the scorching summer and the winter dampness that seeps into your bones, or manifests in tule fog, a driver’s torture to navigate through. But let me try again to stop describing the cons, and get back to all the things I like about my childhood home.
I’m sure I mostly appreciate it because of its nostalgic value, and because of my people living there still. One of them is my friend on the hill, who had gone away for decades and all over the world before he returned and was able to take over the ranch that had belonged to his parents. At least three generations of farmer-gardeners have been farming this particular property, cultivating citrus for commercial markets, and gardens of ornamentals and edibles for home use.
Dick is trying to grow every kind of mandarin orange that exists. These are mostly in the areas close to the house, where he does what he calls the “fun stuff.” Lower down in the flatter areas are the oranges and blood oranges he will send to the packing house. I think he is about ready to plant a section of mandarins for market, too.
He also grows at least three varieties of lemons, I know, because he sent me home with Eureka, Lisbon, and these striped Pink Lemonade varieties. If you count Meyer lemons, well, he has those, too. I just now cut into a Pink Lemonade to see if it is in fact pink inside, as its name would lead you to believe, and yes, it is:
No one in my family knows what variety of lemon my father raised, but from reading online I had guessed Eureka. Dick says that Lisbon is now the most common lemon grown commercially, but he also said with certainty that my father’s would have been Eureka. Did I tell you that both of our fathers were citrus farmers? Having Dick for a friend is like having another brother. I feel so lucky that both my real brother and my old friend-like-a-brother (not to mention my sister, who is the on-the-ground farmer in her household) are deeply planted in the world of citrus, and that through them I can grow this part of my connection to my father and to those trees that densely enveloped our house and put food on our table.
It was the movie “Ushpizin” that gave me any knowledge or appreciation for citrons. If you haven’t seen this wonderful film please consider my hearty recommendation. Apart from the ritual use of citrons, the interwoven stories of forgiveness, redemption and hospitality make it one of the few movies I wanted to buy for myself, and I did.
It is about Hasidic Jews in Israel preparing for and celebrating the Feast of Booths (in real life Jews are in the middle of this feast right now!), and every household wants to invest in the most beautiful citron they can afford. At the time of Sukkot, a truly perfect specimen – their word for citron is etrog – might cost you hundreds of dollars! This article tells about the history of that tradition, and addresses the question of what is to be done with them after the feast when they are no longer useful ceremonially.
But what is a citron, a fruit that seems to have little to recommend it as a fruit? It is believed to be “one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization.” It does appear to me that it might be an ancestor of the lemon….
Part of the loot that I brought home from the fertile hill in the Valley I arranged on a platter:
And there in the middle are the two strangest fruits that I was introduced to: A Buddha’s Hand Citron, holding a Finger Lime. The Buddha’s Hand has been around for a long time in the Far East, where it has symbolic value as well; it is valued primarily for its perfume, and typically doesn’t contain any pulp or juice, but can nonetheless be eaten in various ways. I guess I will leave mine out on the kitchen counter so that sometimes when I pass by I can pick it up and inhale its romantic and complicated scent. In that aspect I agree that it is more excellent than the lemon.
That wrinkly green fruit on the platter is a Kaffir Lime. I had been pronouncing it “keefer,” and its etymology is not simple. It came with a separate branch of Kaffir Lime leaves, which it seems are often used whole as a flavoring or aromatic, in a pot of rice or Thai stew, or in a hot bath, one leaf at a time. I’m still reading about them.
The little thing sitting in the place where the palm of Buddha’s hand would be, and still on the plant in Dick’s hand directly above, is an Australian Finger Lime, Citrus australasica. When we were standing next to the tree Dick picked one and slit it open with his knife — there were the tiny translucent pearls of juice popping out, ready to sprinkle on one’s tongue or bowl of ice cream — I wished we had brought a scoop at least down from the house. And then I wished that I had put him on Pause so as to snap that photo, with his scuffed leather work gloves as the backdrop. The culinary possibilities of finger limes in a world of Food Art are vast, as one can see with a quick search online, where I found my photo. I’m not ready to slice into my own little lime yet.
Some things I don’t have good pictures of are a 20′ tall wisteria shaped like a Christmas Tree, 40 avocado trees of eight varieties, and Sacred Datura, a plant in the nightshade family that is certainly exotic. Datura wrightii is sometimes used as a hallucinogen, but since it is not edible, and all parts are highly poisonous, I personally do not hold it in very high esteem.
I was amazed at how many shrubs and trees were in bloom in the fall, and at all the bees buzzing on the hill. But then, the nights are still mild in that area, and the daytime high was 80° every day I was there. Delta sunflowers such as I plan to plant in my front yard next spring are blooming enthusiastically – those plants grow without a drop of water all summer long along the highways in the Central Valley, so when they get even a few tablespoons of moisture in the heat they respond beautifully, as can be seen in the second photo above. Dick threw a dead sunflower plant over the wall and next thing you know, he had them growing in the grove below as well. He says that birds planted his original ones.
This photo reveals the rock I referred to when I said that the hill is a hunk of granite. The soil around the house is therefore very shallow, but obviously it has been lovingly built up over the last century so that the plants have the benefit of living organic material above and rich minerals below, in which to sink their roots. The kind of dirt found naturally in the area is called San Joaquin Valley Loam, and it is rich in granite but low in organic material.
Soil-building is a project that can never be neglected; even if you have a richer loam naturally, it will in time wear out. Dick raises earthworms whose castings contribute to the health of the system, and he is always adding organic materials of various kinds to his groves and to the gardens. He doesn’t want to be one of the farmers who thinks that “dirt is a place you park your tractor.” I don’t personally know any farmers like that, but he says they are too common.
Gardeners like me don’t have to make a living from our land. If we fail at growing something because we were too cheap to amend the soil, or we forgot to irrigate, or were too lazy to dig weeds, it won’t affect our lives much. The farmers who make a living by horticulture and agriculture have to be sure they are giving the plants what they need, and that means caring for the soil and the whole environment, which is not a simple task; but the rewards include a connection to the land and the weather and the changing seasons that so many people never get.
I am inspired by my farming friends and family to be a better gardener, and to pay closer attention to my work and the natural world around me. Then I will be true to the impulses that were bred into me as a child, and my closeness to the earth and also to my fellow farmers will grow.
This last picture I took as I was driving back from Dick’s house. I wanted to save the image of that golden hill behind the tiny town, one that we kids used to climb so we could enjoy the view. It doesn’t look very tall, especially from this distance, but it’s to the scale of the orange trees that also aren’t very tall. You can see a lot of sky in this country – Let’s hope and pray that those skies drop some rain on all our fruit trees really soon!