Bulldozer of My Dreams

Actually, I think it’s this Bobcat.

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It’s small but mighty. It was time to pull up the rest of that darn concrete in the center of the garden. Last year, a man named Steve came to me and asked if I had some work for him. I handed him a dig bar and he pried out literally tons of concrete over a few days of work. Steve was real tall. He also liked poetry, a crow flew by one day and he recited a Mary Oliver poem about crows, “From a single grain they have multipled. When you look into the eyes of one, you have seen them all…”

Second best concrete remover is my friend Hilary, who runs Hulk Hauling. He told me years ago: “When you are ready to liberate that good dark earth from the concrete covering it, just let me know. I thought I was ready. All I had to do was watch, but it was still hard. There’s just something about a big machine driving into a garden. Hilary was really careful and no living thing got squashed, it was just somehow…exhausting. bobcat2action

An old man named Doc left a container to load the broken bits of rubble into. I was happy to hear the rubble will get smashed and reused to make more concrete, instead of going to a landfill. It only took a few hours for the concrete to get scraped up then loaded into the container. By the end of the day, Hilary said it was about 10 tons of urbanite hauled away. I know someone will say that you can build stuff with urbanite. To you I say: come get it. There’s still some left!! I had it surrounding some of my veg beds but frankly, I just don’t like concrete rubble. Weeds grow into it. Rats hide in it. It makes the place look a little messy. Still, come get it if you want some–just email me.

Here’s the hole that was left.
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I felt like I had given birth. There’s something about destruction, even of an annoying concrete foundation in the garden, that is mentally taxing. Next day I ordered a bunch of compost, dug out all the rubbley bits until I hit that sweet black earth underneath. Last year I tested the soil and it was all fine–rich even.
The pile of compost attracted my neighbor, Chao, who is a monk at the monastary across the street. When he came over and started helping, my daughter, who wasn’t that keen on loading up a wheelbarrow, suddenly wanted to help. Thank god for men of the cloth.
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Next up is to get some free woodchips! My friend Willow suggested putting in some apple trees along the pathway. Let me know what’s your favorite apple to grow! I’m thinking Hudson Golden Gems or Newton Pippins.

Fruit and Nut School

It’s basically springtime here in Californai! And if you’ve been wondering where I’ve been…don’t assume that I’m so busy out in the garden, weeding and prepping and planting I don’t have time to sit down and write a post. In fact, my garden is looking horrible. the chickens escaped and ate all my broccoli plants, the nettles have take over, the fava beans are only just starting to come up.
I blame it on Fruit and Nut School.
I was lucky enough this year to attend the UC Davis agricultural extension class called Principles in Fruit and Tree Nut Growth, Cropping, and Management.
The class is held up in Davis, CA at UCDavis, which was historically, the Ag school for the University of California, Berkeley–hence their name, the Aggies. It’s only an hour and a half drive from Oakland, but it’s a world of difference up there. Hot, flat, fertile. Perfect place for growing fruit trees. There are also bicycles everywhere. In general, though, the community is a bit more conservative than the flamboyant Bay Area. Dudes are wearing rodeo belts and driving big ol’ trucks. It’s farming, with lots of big ag. Some of the guys (there were about 8 women in the class of 50) were running 20,000 acres of fruit trees down in the southern part of the Central Valley. Me and my 36 fruit trees felt very small indeed.
Even though I’m small potatoes, I still wanted to learn as much as I could. Every day was a total mind meld, filled with fruit biology and tree physiology. For instance, stone fruit trees are actually making flowers at the bud level even when they are full of fruit. So that’s why in the summer you want to give them a burst of water to ensure good flower bud formation (when you don’t, you might get those weird double looking, Siamese twin fruit because stress sometimes causes double pistils). It’s all so intricate and beautiful.

I can’t go through everything I learned but I’m hoping I’ll be able to document some of the thinking I gained as I move forward with a big project in my garden this year: planting even more fruit trees on the lot! Totally inspired by the class and our field trips to places like Wolfskill and the UC Davis fruit orchards, I’m going to plant like a “real” orchardist, no more random trees in random places. First step: concrete removal.

Happy spring!

End of the Season

All is quiet on the farm. I just harvested the last of the tomatoes–man, they were ugly but oh so tasty. I turned them into some yummy ketchup by cooking them with molasses and vinegar and mustard seeds all the rainy day. Tomorrow I’m going to plant the last of the fall starts–broccoli, kale, cauliflower; and some fava bean seeds and call it a day. Bring on the rain! This time of year is a good time to look back and reflect on what worked/what needs further development. Here’s my list…and plans for next year:
Working
Drip irrigation. Finally, finally, I took the plunge and installed a drip irrigation system. Of course after I hooked it up, I wondered why I hadn’t done it before. It actually took a visitor on the farm tour–a young lady who was a school garden teacher–who said, “You know, things would be growing better if you had a drip system.” Girl, you were right. Thanks for the nudge. It cost me about $400 and I installed it myself. So far, especially through the hot streak in October, the drip system has earned its keep. Everything next to an emitter line thrived. The citrus trees each got their own line and even the blueberries, notorious water hogs were happy. I saw the chickens drinking from the emitter line, too, which was an unexpected bonus. I think I always resisted a drip system because of all that plastic. But from what I’ve heard/seen, the lines can last many many years without breaking down.
Chicken Pull-It Shut Door. Lord, I am a lazy urban farmer! Besides my new fangled drip system, I have a chicken door that closes at night and opens in the morning. I love it! The chickens love it.
Chickens. I’ll say it again: chickens are the best weeders! Remember that unsightly patch of bermuda grass that had taken over the garden by the MLK street side fence? I sheet mulched it but it kept coming back. Welp, I moved the chicken coop over yonder and lo and behold: no much bermuda grass. Those girls are ruthless grass eaters.

Not Working
Fig tree. My enormous white fig tree. We got some really uneven ripening and the tree has gotten freaking huge. Gotta hack it back. Chickens do like to sit under it–but what am I, doing everything for the chickens? (As it turns out: yes).
Passion Fruit. So many flowers, so little fruit. There’s this hairy white stuff growing on the vines. Could that be a factor? This was its first year and the few fruits we did get were yummy. Won’t get rid of the vine because it is so cool, spreading really far along the fence and um, the chickens like to eat the leaves…
Minor problems!
OK, now onto the next phase of GT Farm…
Goals 2016 (hoping for 50% of these to actually happen but it’s good to dream)
1. Giant rain catchment tank. Like 5000 gallons. Plumbed from my neighbors roof. Gotta catch all that rain.
2. Break up the rest of the concrete. And install into more organized raised beds. Easy for harvesting.
3. Circular hang space/gazebo. Thinking a circle of fruit trees, seating area, vines growing all over the place. Maybe a guest yurt can go there in the summer months?
4. More flowers. I’m becoming an old lady! I want a cutting garden.
5. Nut trees? I’m taking a class through UC Davis extension all about fruits and nuts so will keep you posted.

Hope you all have a great holiday–see you in January

The Tomato Report

Ok, it’s really hot today, and I’m sure my tomatoes will ripen and ripen through October, but I’m feeling like it’s time to look back at the summer garden and take note of successes and failures in the tomato patch.
Sungolds
This is my favorite cherry tomato and I plant it every year. It’s an F1 hybrid but what a delicious pineapple-y treat. It must be a complicated cross because no one to date has stabilized this one. I practiced restraint and only planted one. Thank god, I’m still behind picking this orange cherry tomato, which grew to 7 feet tall. Every day I can pick a basket of them, and feel like I got away with something when I see them for sale at grocery stores for $6 a basket. When I’m not eating them fresh, I roast them in the oven with olive oil, then freeze this concoction in jars for the long Oakland winter (snicker snicker). Also dehydrated some and they taste like sour/sweet raisins. Yum.
Paul Robeson
A delicious black tomato, named after activist and actor Robeson. The taste of this kinda big but not quite beefsteak is incredible: meaty, rich, sweet. But the texture is just too soft. They are crushed by even a sharp knife. Very low yields this year–I think I’ll skip next year. Anyone have a fav black slicer to recommend?
San Marzano
These are just starting to ripen. I bought them as plants from a lady at the farmers market, and some of them are large and meaty but one plant is making tiny little mealy fruit. I really need to get some seeds from Vincenzo, Rosetta Constantino’s father. Every year he saves seeds from his San Marzanos brought from seed from Calabria in the 1970s. So good when split in half, drizzled with olive oil and some thyme, and roasted in a slow oven. God.
Early Girl v Dirty Girl
In 2005 Monsanto, the agro-company that makes Round-up, bought Seminis, a seed company that was the breeder of a beloved tomato called Early Girl. In California, Early Girls were “dry-farmed”, which produced an amazing flavor bomb that I loved to can away for the winter. But many farmers don’t want to buy anything from Monsanto. So, Joe Schirmer, of Dirty Girl Farm in Santa Cruz spent the last 5 years stablizing the hybrid. And now: I present The Dirty Girl. I planted four of these and four of the Early Girl. The Early Girl is the bigger one on the left. And no, I swear those aren’t rolling papers next to the plate of tomato.
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Besides a size difference, the tomatoes looked exactly the same, inside and out.
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As for the taste? Dirty Girls were just as rich, just as concentrated in flavor as the Early Girls. Which means that next year, it’ll be Dirty Girls all around! Go Joe; and thank you.

And what do I do with all these ‘maters? Planning to can some but right now fresh eating is all I can do. Had an amazing snack with them the other day: the tomato tops were cut off and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and bits of basil, then a Lebanese anise flavored alcohol, Arak, was poured over said tomatoes. Left to marinate for 30 minutes and then slurped up. The best new thing I’ve tried in awhile, especially on a hot day. More Lebanese canning stories soon. Stay cool….

Gone Feral Paperback Release Party

It’s kind of snuck up on me, but my memoir about my father is being released in paperback August 25! The book is a meditation about fathers and daughters, what it means to live outside of society, and how becoming a parent can change everything.

To celebrate, I’ll be doing a reading at A Great Good Place for Books August 25 at 7pm. Details here

I’m also signed up to do a bunch of fun events in the future:
-Sept 4, Claremont Branch Library in Berkeley 4pm
-Sept 5, Union City Library, 3:00-4:30. I’ll be teaching a memoir writing class!
-Sept 8, Book Passage SF, 6pm Ferry Building
-Sept 12, Urban Ag Festival in SF in the County Fair Building
-Sept 14, Napa Bookmine, TBD–probably food post-reading!
-Sept 26, The 20th Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival, 12-4:30 Berkeley Civic Park. Robert Haas and Malcolm Margolin are also speaking.

Hope to see you out there!!

Power to the Peachful

Ok, so I’ve struggled growing good peaches in Oakland. I had a Muir and one with a number from some field station. After three years, I got only 5 peaches. And the taste? Meh. A little bitter. A little mealy. Not the ecstasy that a peach should stir up. So I yanked the peach tree (I’m a bruiser), and sent it up to Chico, with a friend there, who might get better peaches in a hotter climate. But I did feel a certain…lack. Peaches, peaches, peaches–they are my favorite summer fruit. And so, I turned to adoption.

Yes, you can adopt a peach tree. I had read David Mas Masumoto’s book, Epitaph for a Peach, about his struggles as a family farmer trying to grow heirloom fruit that isn’t exactly “shippable”. And I was delighted to find out he and his family offer peach tree adoption. Now, if I’m going to adopt a tree, Masumoto’s is the place where I’d like to make that happen. It’s a solution for a problem they have as small-scale growers–we give them money up front for the chance to pick the fruit of a one of their trees.

The process required coming up with a name for our group–my buddy Zach came up with Power to the Peachful, and telling the family what we would do with the fruit. Our list included salsa, ice cream, peach liquor, canned peaches with rum. This all went down around March. The picking would happen in late July/early August.

Now I’m a bit of a literalist. I thought I would be sent images of baby fuzzy peaches, and given gushing reports about my tree’s health (I also thought the money I sent to Heifer went straight to that goat for a family, but that’s another story). In reality, I found out we would be adopting a tree, and then I promptly forgot. Then July hit, and we got word that picking would happen July 18 and July 25.

The farm is outside Fresno, picking started after orientation, one at 7:30am, another at 8:30. Our posse decided to camp outside of Fresno the night before. (Kelly’s Resort, check it out next time you are on the 99). The Masumoto’s had told us to be early because it’s hot in the Central Valley, and that we would be given boxes and brunch. Yay!

We drove in two separate cars because we needed a car to take home all our fruits. We were on our way to the farm at 7am. Our pals were driving behind us, following us to the farm, when we suddenly heard a giant explosion. I looked back and saw our friend’s car moving in a weird way, and the stuff we had just touched–a coffee pot, a lantern–shattered onto the busy street, and then cars ran over them, making a huge racket. Somehow their car was up on the median. I jumped out of our car and ran toward our friend’s car. The car was totaled. Mangled. And it was one of those heavy metal cars that don’t injure easily. The semi-truck that hit them was up the road a bit. I said the thing everyone says in this situation, even though it is moronic: Are you ok? They nodded and got out of their car. At that moment, seeing my friends alive in all that twisted metal was the best thing that had ever happened to me. We got them out of the car and onto the sidewalk. Strangers stopped to give them water. The cops came. Ambulance and firemen. I went to the car and got everything out of it. We would never see this car again, I thought. It would stay in Fresno. I got my friends purse, eyeglasses. Cowboy coffee had spilled everywhere in the car. I got all the cassette tapes out of the glovebox and popped the tape out of the radio. I worked methodically, it calmed my nerves, which were screaming: they almost died!! They are ok! They almost died! they are ok! Picking up the wreckage made me feel like I could at least do something while they gave the policemen their report. “You should buy a lottery ticket,” the cop said, “because you should be dead. Today you are very lucky.”

And I’ll admit it, my brain also thought, besides worrying about my friends: all those peaches. We would go home. We had to just go home and not pick peaches. But after the car was towed away, and we packed all their salvagable stuff into our car, my friend looked at his watch: “We can make the 8:30 orientation! Let’s go!” And so we did. And the farm was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, not because it was actually physically beautiful (it’s neat and the trees are lovely, and they are peach trees full of fruit but it’s pretty flat and non-descript) but because we were alive, goddamit and we were there to pick the peaches. The Masumoto’s were also the most beautiful family I had ever seen–so giving, so kind and concerned about our friends and our group.

And so we picked. It turned out we had twins. The peaches were Elberta’s. Heavy and yellow. Dense. Golden. We got to climb orchard ladders and get every last fruit off those trees. We picked 16 boxes. A kindly man told us he would take our peaches to Berkeley, where he lived, and we could pick them up later.

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We ate a delicious meal in the orchard. We were alive, laughing and talking. Then all the groups who had assembled there were told that the Masumotos were throwing in an Le Grand nectarine tree into our adoptive families. So we picked another dozen boxes of nectarines. They tasted like mangoes and sunlight.

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Another truck said they’d drop the nectarines at my place in Oakland. We were blessed. There are only a few times in life when such grace can happen, when you feel like yes, you are special and lucky, and that was what that day felt like.

Now, back at home, I’ve just started the fruit processing odyssey. So far, I’ve made nectarines in syrup, nectarine and mulberry jam, peach ice cream, peach pie, and dehydrated peaches. As I slice the peaches, I think of my friends, who are bruised but happy, and I think they are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. When I asked them, “why did we go pick peaches after that accident?” They explained, “We didn’t drive down to Fresno to get in a car accident and go home; we drove to Fresno to pick peaches.” And ain’t that what life is all about?

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Speaking of amazing people, there’s a movie about the Masumoto family! It’s showing at SPUR this Wednesday, August 5th. I’m told it’s sold out–so let’s ask SPUR to have another screening!!

Hope the rest of your summer is peachy: next up is an blogpost about my field trips of the hacked version of Early Girl tomatoes, called Dirty Girls. I’m going to do a side-by-side taste test.