Archive | May, 2010

Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries!

22 May
Brooks cherries are sweet and early!

Our home in Morgan Hill is located in what was known for hundreds of years as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”. How beautiful is that? Well, here’s a little history, if you can stand it. The original colonial population of California, established in 1776, was descended from Spanish explorers, seafarers, and priests of the Franciscan order.

These original settlers found the Santa Clara Valley to be a hospitable and fruitful landscape and built ranchos, estancias and haciendas. The first citizen of the United States of America, Phillip Doak, settled here in 1822, marrying into the wealthy Spanish land grant Castro family. It has been estimated that in 1830 there were no more than 100 “foreigners” in the whole of California, at that time a Mexican territory.

Then came the the Mexican American War and the California Gold Rush in the late 1800’s. In 1846 the raising of the Bear Flag and the relatively bloodless conquest of California led to the first international boundary being drawn between the U.S. and Mexico by treaty. In the meantime, immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and Croatia had discovered the fecund Santa Clara Valley and had begun planting crops, orchards and vineyards on what had been primarily cattle-grazing land.

Incidentally, dry farming, a practice used by those early farmers in order to cope with our seasonal droughts, has recently enjoyed a comeback — particularly in the wine industry — due to concerns about dwindling water supplies and other conservation issues.

Our local “rare fruit” grower, Andy Mariani, is a descendant of Croatian immigrants who decided to grow the exotic heirloom stone fruit that was common in the days before cross-country shipping forced growers to cultivate  hybrids for pack-ability. When his father, Joseph Mariani, arrived in the Santa Clara Valley in the prohibitionist era of the 1930s, it was high “dry time”. The valley had, up until that time, been wine country; but Mariani noted the fertile land’s possibilities for growing fruit and set about planting fruit trees.

Andy has continued and elevated this tradition by maintaining one of the largest collections of stone fruit trees on the West Coast, employing “old world” techniques as well as new agricultural research to keep his orchard diverse and sustainable. For more on Andy’s determination and horticultural wizardry, check out this article in Gourmet Magazine.

Now we get to the cherry part. In addition to his mouth-watering plums, pluots,  peaches, apricots and nectarines, which we devour throughout the summer, we especially look forward to late May, when Andy begins harvesting his amazing array of cherries. Starting with the very early Brooks, our absolute favorite, we enjoy the Bings, Rainiers,  Black Tartarians, Lapins, Stellas and other cherry varietals that are only available in early spring. And, because Andy insists that his fruit be picked by hand and only when ripe, every piece of fruit is truly irresistible!

We visit Andy’s Orchard once or twice a week throughout the spring and summer. We taste, we talk, we walk, we ask what will be harvested tomorrow or next week, and we take home as much as we can eat, share, and preserve for a cherry pie, a clafoutti, a jam or a syrup. But, most importantly, we thank Andy for his perseverance,  his passion for maintaining the diversity of heirloom fruit, and for resisting suburban sprawl in the Valley of Hearts Delight.

Straw Bale Gardening

19 May

Place bales with stems upright and vertical, so cords don't touch the ground

Space plants as you would in the ground.

Eddie and I like to experiment with new plants and growing techniques. Last year we tried to grow “upside down” tomatoes, a concept that flies in the face of nature and turned out to be a dismal failure.

This year we planted a small Straw Bale Garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash and basil. A sort of raised bed method, this seems like a great idea for us folks who find it harder and harder to get down on the ground to seed, weed and feed. Actually, it’s not getting DOWN that is so difficult…it’s getting UP that hurts.

In addition to easy access, the straw bales hold heat, moisture and nutrients quite effectively, although they do have some special requirements. I did some online research and found excellent advice on how to grow a Straw Bale Garden. Here are the basics.

1.  Start with as many bales of oat or wheat straw as you want and arrange in any pattern you like. Be sure the straws are vertical with cords not touching the ground. Do not use hay as it has too many seeds and you’ll find yourself frantically weeding the bale.
2.  Soak the bales. They will heat up as they begin to compost. This “cooking” will last about ten days and then the bales should start to cool down enough to plant. Do not fertilize at this point or they will continue to cook.
3.  Once the bale has cooled you can transplant your vegetables or flowers by using a sharp trowel to dig out chunks of the bale…taking care not to cut the cords holding the bale together. In these openings, add enough compost or potting soil to surround your seedlings, add more soil to the top of the transplant and water thoroughly. Don’t crowd your plants…use the same spacing as you would in the ground.
4.  This method requires frequent watering and fertilizing. We installed a small drip system on a timer to water our bales for 10 minutes every day. Plants should be fed once a week or once every other week with fish emulsion, compost tea, or a balanced liquid fertilizer. I’m going to try Miracle Grow on mine…though its not technically organic.

Here are a couple of sites I found where you can read more about this space-saving, stoop-saving gardening technique.

Doug Green’s Beginner Gardening
No-Dig Vegetable Garden
Nichols Garden Nursery

I’ll keep you posted on how our experiment works out. Hopefully better than the “upside down” tomatoes!

Hasta pronto!