Archive for June, 2015

Hot, Hot, Hot . . . and Getting Hotter

Author: Meera, June 30, 2015

Is this the new norm? If I had any doubts that the planet was heating, I have abandoned them in the face of sweltering heat expected today.  Bay Area forecasters predict the thermometer to climb to 107 degrees Fahrenheit in some of the inland valleys around the San Francisco Bay.




Orchids love heat, maybe that's what I should be growing now

Orchids love heat




On the farmette, the heat will top out at 104 degrees. While breezes from the Delta in the late afternoon blow through, what we need is cool, moist fog. Breezes today will be like having a fan in a sauna.



No doubt about it, this heat is unseasonably warm here for any day in June. Not so, in Death Valley, an area of the state below sea level in California’s Mojave Desert. It holds the North American record for the hottest day on Earth.



In Death Valley, 125 degrees Fahrenheit is nothing to sneeze at. Back in 1913 in Furnace Creek, the center of Death Valley mining operations and ancestral home of the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans, the temperature climbed to 134 degrees.



To date, that 134 degree-temperature is the record for North American heat. As a species, we humans might have to think about how much heat we can stand, because it just might be the new norm. See,



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A False Swarm . . . Sort Of

Author: Meera, June 23, 2015

When I heard my neighbors banging on a pan with a wooden spoon, I sprang into action. It is what we do when a honeybee hive swarms.



Healthy bees on a frame

Healthy bees on frames



As it turned out, my bees had swooped from the hive with their queen into the front yard, past the plum tree and were circling above the blood orange. My neighbors, who were in their courtyard, saw it and began the banging to confuse the bees so they would alight close to their home.



I ran out and, with direction from my beekeeper neighbor, placed the hive near the orange tree. I’d already placed eight frames with wax and my neighbor brought over two with honey on the comb. All seemed to go as planned. We shook the tree and the bees dropped into the prepared hive.



My neighbor went home, and I went back to my computer and the novel I’m writing. Thirty minutes later, the bees were swarming again. I ran out and banged on the pan. They settled down. All seemed well, except for ants that had been in the orange tree and now were in the hive box.



Frames of honey, fresh from the hives

Frames of honey before the wax caps are opened and the honey is drained or spun out



Around nine o’clock at night, I sprayed the outside of the hive with Windex and wiped it with paper towels. I repeated the procedure around the perimeter of the box, replaced the lid, and carried the hive box back to the apiary believing all would be well. It wasn’t.



This morning, I ran out and suited up in my beekeeper’s outfit and gloves, opened the new hive box, and looked in. To my dismay, all the bees were gone.



My neighbor later told me over coffee that the bees had likely returned to their old hive as small swarms sometimes do.  So . . .  I suppose I may be repeating this whole scenario at some point in the days ahead. My neighbor reminded me that the weather has been strange, and the weather affects the bees’ behavior.



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Northern California Nut Trees in a Nutshell

Author: Meera, June 19, 2015

Take a trip into Northern California’s great Central Valley and you’ll notice how the landscape becomes dotted with nut tree farms along with vegetable fields, fruit tree orchards, and dairy farms. While Texas dominates the pecan tree market, California’s big three nut crops are almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. With nut prices on the increase, backyard gardeners might consider planting a tree or two if they have the space.



This backyard almond produces a bountiful crop

For it’s size, this almond in my neighbor’s yard produces an abundant annual crop


Some nut trees, such as almonds, require pollination assistance–a couple of different cultivars and honeybees will do the trick. For this reason, commercial almond growers pay beekeepers to bring their hives in to pollinate California’s early almond crop each year. Growing almonds is big business in California (it’s the third leading agricultural product in the state); the decline in honeybee populations is bound to affect this profitable crop.


The Central Valley has the perfect climate and growing conditions for almonds. It’s estimated that there are roughly 5,500 almond growers in the state. Many are commercial growers who capitalize on the rich, well-drained soil, and the hot summers and cool winters of Northern California. But California’s continuing drought is causing concern to almond growers since almonds require a lot of water. Backyard gardeners, too, must consider the water requirement of almonds before planting trees.


A newly formed almond on the tree looks like an unripe fuzzy peach because almonds are related to the peaches. Mature almond trees reach 20 to 30 feet tall. Some popular cultivars in zones 5 through 8 are Hall’s Hardy, Nonpareil, Peerless, and Mission. My neighbors have gorgeous, healthy almonds growing on their farmette.



Young Franquette walnut will provide shade and nuts for years to come

This young Franquette walnut will provide shade and nuts for years to come



The California Black Walnut and Persian Walnut (with cultivars of Franquette, Chandler, and Hartley) are valued for their stateliness, shade, bountiful crops, and longevity. Walnuts contain healthy nutrients. Cultivars of the English walnut are fast-growing and the nuts are thin-skinned and bountiful.


If a walnut is planted at the birth of an individual, and he lives 75 years, that walnut tree might could still be growing when the person breathes his last breath. The black walnut can reach 100 feet in height. The nuts have an thick outer hull that can blacken sidewalks and driveways with their stain; also, the tree also can be toxic to other plants.


In comparison to walnuts, filberts/hazelnuts are considered small trees (achieving heights of only 10 to 40 feet), they are often the nut tree of choice for backyard landscapes. DuChilly and Daviana are excellent pollinizers with Barcelona. Other cultivars are Bixby, Royal, and Hall’s Giant.


Pecan trees grow much larger than filberts, often towering 70 to 150 feet. Some cultivars include Major, Peruque, Stuart, and Colby. The cultivars of Wichita, Western Schley, and Cherokee are excellent pollinators for each other. Of all the nuts valued for their antioxidants, pecans rank the highest.


There is a pistachio tree growing a mile or so from my farmette. While pistachios love the Mediterranean climate of the Central Valley, in some places the trees perform better than in others. The nuts are highly valued by consumers. Growers have taken notice. Pioneer Gold, a varietal that’s been around since 1976, remains a popular choice. The trees are wind pollinated and require a male and female tree for a crop set.


If you have room in a backyard garden or on a farmette or field, consider planting one or more nut trees. You’ll be rewarded with shade and heart-healthy, nutritional snacks for years to come.





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Drying Fruits Naturally

Author: Meera, June 16, 2015

I love dried apricots, but don’t tolerate well the ones treated with sulfur dioxide(used to prevent oxidation and loss of color). With so many apricots on our property coming ripe at once, I have decided in addition to making jam this year to also dry some of the fruit.



Apricots are plentiful this time of year and easy to dry for snacking when the season is over

Apricots, so plentiful this time of year, are easy to dry and make great snacks when the season is over



Apricots dried but not treated with sulfur dioxide will turn a natural brown color. Some stores sell them this way. They are usually priced the same or similar to the treated apricots with the bright orange hue.


Besides apricots, other fruits that dry well include apples, bananas, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plum, rhubarb, and even strawberries. You can use a drying machine


Quick Tips for Drying Fruit


1. Choose to dry only the freshest picked fruits, without bruises, scale, sun scald, or other blight.


2. Spray nonstick vegetable spray on drying pans or trays to make it easier to remove the dried fruit


3. Lay out the fruit to dry in a single layer on trays. Remember to rotate the trays occasionally and turn the pieces from time to time.


4. Destroy any insects (miniscule or otherwise) by freezing or baking the fruit. Simply take the tray and stick it into an oven heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes. Alternatively, pack the dried fruit in freezer bags and freeze for at least 2 days.


5. Freezing dried fruit in resealable freezer bags will preserve its shelf life.

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What’s Eating the Chicken Eggs?

Author: Meera, June 6, 2015

Several times over the last month or so, I’ve traipsed to the hen house to collect eggs and found a broken egg or one with a hole in the shell and the egg otherwise intact.



Rhody with the rest of the flock of nine chickens

The rust-colored Rhode Island Red is the dominant hen in my flock




I wondered if one of the chickens had gone rogue and was pecking the egg that either she or one of the other hens had laid.


My flock is small and they usually lay their eggs during the morning hours, using the afternoon to free range and forage.


Each time I heard a cackle, I sprinted to the chicken house to see who was raising the ruckus and whether or not she’d pecked her egg.


Finally, I caught one of my Silver-Lace Wyandotte hens on the nest. With her head twisted behind and under her wing, I could not tell what was going on. I slipped my hand under her, causing her head to jerk around. It appeared I had caught her in the act as her beak was covered with yolk.




Hawk spotted on a sign post near Dublin, California

Hawks are capable of carrying off a chicken



So I thought I’d solved the mystery. My solution was to remove each egg as soon as the hen laid it. If I removed the eggs, any temptation for the chickens to peck the eggs would be eliminated, too. But running for every chicken squawk became so time consuming, I finally stopped.


To my utter surprise, there were no more broken eggs. That didn’t make sense. However, during the whole ordeal with the broken eggs, I’d been smelling a skunk. When my closest neighbor said a skunk had been raiding his coop for the eggs, I began to think I had wrongly accused my poor Wyandotte.


Indeed, since my neighbor took care of the skunk (by trap, I believe), my hens are producing eggs every day and none have holes or are cracked. I’m now thinking the skunk was the egg robber.



One of three foxes that have been checking out the chicken house at dawn

One of three foxes we caught checking out the chicken house


That experience got me thinking about other predators that will eat chicken eggs (and chickens, too). The list includes opossums, weasels, rats, snakes, minks, foxes, wild dogs, coyotes, raccoons, hawks, and owls. So, even if I’ve got a nice hen house and a run with a wire roof, it seems that a predator motivated by a good meal with find a way in.




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Simple Strawberry Jam

Author: Meera, June 1, 2015

I visited the Clayton Valley Farmer’s Market on Saturday and picked up six baskets of large strawberries trucked up from Watsonville, about a two-hour drive from my farmette.


Of the various cities claiming to be the strawberry capital of the world, Watsonville surely must rank as number one because it produces tons of berries to support its claim–California produces eighty percent of strawberries in America. Many, if not most, come from Watsonville.


Those berries in the green plastic baskets at the farmer’s market were huge and delicious and sweet. Perfect for making into  jam. Strawberry jam, seemingly, is everyone’s favorite, and this year I’m making some extra batches.


The recipe is quite simple, with only five ingredients.



Each jar will sound a pop when it has correctly sealed

Each jar will sound a pop when it has correctly sealed







6 1/2 cups of washed, sliced strawberries (about 2 quarts, plus a little more)


1/4 cup thinly sliced lemon peel


7 1/2 tablespoons powdered pectin


1 tablespoon of lemon juice


6 cups granulated sugar



Directions for Preparing Jars:


Place nine jars in the dishwasher.


Simmer the rings and lids in a skillet on low heat.


Fill the hot-water canner with water enough to cover the jars by two inches. Bring the water to a boil.



Directions to Make Jam:


Slice the lemon peel off and remove any remaining white membrane from the peel.


Slice the lemon peel into thin strips.



Thinly peel lemon skin imparts its subtle flavor to the jam

Thinly peeled lemon skin imparts a subtle flavor to the jam



Place lemon peel in a small pan, cover with water, and boil for five minutes.


Drain the water off the lemon peel.


In a large pot, combine lemon peel, strawberries, pectin, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil.



strawberries (here, sliced, not crushed) marry with the lemon peel strips for flavor

The lemon peel enhances the strawberry flavor and helps preserve the intense red color



Stir in the sugar until it is dissolved and then bring the pot to a roiling boil.


Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly to avoid the jam sticking to the bottom of the pan.


Remove the jam pot from heat and skim off any foam as needed.


Remove the jars from dishwasher and turn upside down on a paper towel. Before filling the jars, wipe around the jar mouth to remove wetness and turn upright to fill.



The canning process last for 15 minutes boiling time

Steam rises off the jars during the 15-minute boiling period to process the jam



Ladle the hot strawberry jam into each jar, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe any jam spilled on the jar lip that might void a good seal. Then set the two-piece caps in place and screw tight. Process in the hot-water canner for 15 minutes.  Makes 9 jars.



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