Monday, February 21, 2011

Market Day

Sunday morning, we woke up to snow that crept down the mountains and over the foothills. It was in walking distance, albeit a long, steep walk, but close enough to almost smell.

The snow that fell in the mountains came as waves of rain here, leaving everything sparkling clean; the wildflowers responded by beginning to bloom, the peas by reaching and glowing, and the rusty wheelbarrow, forlornly left out again in the rain, by reflecting beauty.

It was the third Sunday of the month, the day for our local market, the Altadena Urban Farmers' Market. Hosted by the owners of the Zane Grey Estate, the market provides a venue for local home-farmers, cooks, and artisans to sell their wares. It is an "underground" market. The concept allows for uncertified farmers and cooks to sell in an unregulated setting because customers sign membership forms at the gates, agreeing to "waive the protection offered by the government regulation of food and food safety and exercise [their] right to make [their] own judgments based on [their] knowledge and direct communication with the grower or cook" (

The Zane Grey Estate isn't just any old historic home. The owners have been turning it into a working farm. Grape vines twist up the back slope in front of the goat paddock. Hay stacks stay dry in the solarium. It is quirky. The fact that the market is quirky naturally follows.

In the front, arranged around raised beds full of garlic, spigarello, and pink-blossomed tobacco, home farmers and cooks sell their wares. There are fresh eggs and Italian heirloom vegetables, honey from various neighborhood flowers and homemade soup, amazing ginger granola, jams, jellies, cultured sodas, pickles, homecured bacons, sustainably raised fresh chickens and game hens, and more than I can recall right now.

I sell produce from my garden and products I've made with excess produce, heirloom seeds and plants, and homemade bread. This month, I had lacinato kale, purple sprouting broccoli collards, swiss chard, frisee, mache, and arugula. As well, I had homemade bread and, since it is bean-planting time around here, a stack of heirloom bean seeds from types that have grown well for me.

Also in front of the house is a free market and cookbook swap. I always have high hopes for the cookbook swap, but sadly haven't been terribly successful in my pickings. Others seem to have had better luck.

Behind the house, next to the goat paddock, are the craft vendors.

Lily, the goat with the under bite, smiles at everyone who wanders into her neighborhood.

Down here, you'll find hand-tooled belts and cuffs, pottery, clothes and pillows made from reused vintage fabrics, soaps, and herbal salves and tinctures.

On both sides of the house, the front and the back, you'll find happy people. This is a community event, and it draws from many walks. At the sale this weekend, it felt like the event finally found its stride, a good balance of vendor types, drawing from a wider and more diverse crowd, a relaxation that hadn't been there before. A friend and I shared a tent at this weekend's sale, and she said it perfectly, "We're so isolated from each other. But this, this community and relationship building, is very healthy."

I hope to see you at an upcoming market. I'm glad you're part of my community.

Uber-Local Upside Down Meyer Lemon and Poppyseed Cake
This recipe comes from the Los Angeles Times; I've modified it to include poppyseeds and Meyer lemons. I have a Meyer lemon tree that rains fruit and two quarts of poppyseed from last year's harvest. Even the eggs came from the yard: Smalls, our lone but not lonely Marans hen, is back in full production after a winter's rest. The lemons caramelize into a layer of bittersweet, buttery goodness that tops a course-crumbed, rich cake. It's easy, and it looks like a million bucks (much better than I and my poor skills with a flash can capture).

You will need:
4 small Meyer lemons
10 tablespoons of butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons poppyseeds

To make the cake:
Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slice three of the lemons crosswise into 1/8 inch slices. Grate the peel off the remaining lemon, and set aside the grated peel.

In a 10 inch cast iron skillet, gently melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Once the butter has melted, brush the butter along the sides to make sure the entire inner surface has a slick of butter. Add the brown sugar to the bottom of the skillets and stir it in the skillet to combine it with the melted puddle of butter. Once the majority of the brown sugar is moistened, you've stirred enough. Spread the moistened sugar as evenly as possible in the pan.

Starting with the center, arrange the lemon slices like overlapping scales over the brown sugar-butter mixture. I arranged in a circular fashion, but that is not necessary.

In a large bowl, beat the remaining butter until smooth. Add the sugar and grated lemon peel and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in one egg at a time, then beat in the vanilla extract.

In a separate, small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat half of the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Beat until well-blended. Add the milk and beat again. Finally, add the poppyseeds and the remaining flour mixture, and beat until blended.

Spread the thick batter over the lemons to cover as evenly as possible. Place the skillet in the oven and allow it to bake 30-35 minutes.

When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and let the skillet cool before inverting it. Give it a good five minutes to cool to a point where burning is not a threat. After five minutes of cooling, gently invert the skillet onto a large, flat plate. The cake tastes best when just warmer that room temperature.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What the Trees Teach

My sap has returned, my cheeks are blooming, and though I'm still fighting a cough, I'm bursting into spring. I'm no longer in bed, and that is very, very good. I learned this winter, no exaggeration here, how the flu could kill someone. And I am so happy not to be that someone. I also learned that I will never, ever go without a flu shot again.

When February hits Southern California, the fruit trees begin to bloom; thus, when I emerged from sickness, I stepped out of my house to find pink and white bee-buzzing boughs. It's been a year since I've written about the orchard I've been installing since we moved in, and now that the trees are so laden with springtime potential, I figured it would be a good time to reflect on what I've learned about my home orchard this year.

1) An ounce of prevention . . .
Two years ago, when I planted the first trees, I was careful. I whitewashed the trunks to protect them from sunburn, and I built hardware cloth cages to protect the young trees from damage from rabbits and other small animals. I'm glad I did that. I so wish I had done that with all the trees I planted last year. It turns out that rabbits and other critters are minor dangers to my trees; I'm the biggest threat.

This is Howard's Miracle plum. Last year, soon after planting, I dropped a shovel against its trunk, and knocked off a nice slice of cambium. Argh. The wound, likely aggravated by sunburn, became infected and grew. The edges are beginning to look healed now, but I'm not sure I haven't given my own tree a fatal bacterial infection that will become more malignant each year. We'll see. I'll baby the tree along this year with lots of worm tea and compost and hope for the best. If I lose it, I'll start again with another Howard's Miracle because, gershdarndit, I really want that plum.

Had I built the protective cage and whitewashed the tree, I wouldn't have to be worrying over losing it.

2) Graft wisely . . .
So much of me wanted to push luck and nature and grow a green gage plum here in Southern California. The history of green gages is just so deep and fascinating, and they taste like candy, drying so well and so sweet, but I knew I was hoping for fruit that would happen rarely, if at all. The winters here are just too mild. But I tried anyway, and trying even harder to ensure fruit, I grafted a couple scions of my friend's Italian prune on to the gage for cross pollination.

The grafts took beautifully. It's amazing to watch a graft heal and grow into the host tree. It feels like I performed some kind of magic; it feels like something I shouldn't be able to do.

But, though those grafts took off beautifully, they sucked all the vigor from my on-the-edge green gage. The green gage never broke dormancy. This is the tree in July, leafed out and growing happily from the grafts while the main tree is naked and sad. In short, I learned not to graft a much more vigorous tree onto one that is limping along if I ever want the limper to run.

I pulled the tree out this winter and replaced it with a Mariposa, a local heirloom plum. I did try some more grafting this year; for example, I've started two scions of Black Velvet apricot on the host Goldkist apricot. Goldkist is a vigorous, healthy tree, right at home in my yard, so I think this combination will work if the grafts take.

3) Be nice and roll with nature . . .
The majority of my orchard I installed a year ago. This summer, my baby White Tiger Nectarine set fruit. I know, I know, I shouldn't let such a young tree fruit, as it is hard on its development, but it was just two and I was so hungry for success in my orchard that I kept the fruit around. (It is worth pointing out that the tree paid for my choice; it clearly grew less vigorously than its brothers and sisters last summer.) As the fruit matured, however, I started to worry. Look at the picture below. Do you see the problem?

My White Tiger Nectarine had set two peaches. I wanted to grow this nectarine because it is a hard-to-find heirloom, and because it is an heirloom white nectarine that would fruit in my low chill climate. Heirloom + white + nectarine + low chill is an unusual combination. So, I emailed the vendor, the fantastically helpful Trees of Antiquity, with pictures of the tree and fruit.

Within a day, Neil, the owner of Trees of Antiquity responded:
Surprisingly, nectarines (and peaches) will produce a few fruit on occasion which is a peach (or nectarine) since a nectarine is simply a fuzz less peach. That said I’m not confident this is the case. This problem can also develop when collecting the grafting wood from peach and nectarine trees. On an occasion the bud will be the opposite of the dominant fruit on the tree. There are a few options to pursue. We can send out another tree (any tree preferred) next year or simply refund for the tree. This is a variety which is grafted by one of our contracted nurseries which I’m forwarding the e-mail so they can reassure me this tree simply an anomaly. Thank you in advance for your understanding and let us know how you would like us to proceed. Hope you have a nice weekend.
I accepted the offer of the replacement tree, but I hadn't given up home on the fruit of my perhaps misidentified tree. When it ripened at the end of June, I cut it open.

Oh, it was delicious: superbly sweet, yielding, freestone, fragrant. Perhaps it was "throwing" a peach and will, this year, revert to nectarine. I doubt it. It doesn't matter because it is a tree worth keeping, whatever it is. This tree has been nice to me, so I'll return the favor.

4) Layers are probably a good idea . . .
I'm using a high-density planting approach to my orchard because I don't need huge trees, and I want a lot of diversity. Several readers have expressed concerns about this approach; they've worried that it will be too water intensive and too hard on the trees themselves, as they'll compete so fiercely with each other for nutrients.

These are concerns I've considered thoughtfully, and, I turned to other gardeners I know to see how they dealt with these potential problems. I visited some gardens, talked to folks, and read a lot. Looking at all the possibilities in my climate and area, I decided that frequent applications of mulch, sometimes quite rich mulch, will be the best way to deal with both drought and nutrient needs. To see how if this is successful, I set out to convert part of the orchard.

This past November, we dug an edge to the mulched bed and lined with with local stone. To make sure that water goes only to the trees and nowhere else, we switched the sprinklers out to a drip system. Then, in order to burn out the grass and enrich the soil, we covered all the existent grass in the area with hot manure. After spraying down the manure, we covered the entire surface with a double layer of cardboard, sprayed it down again, then a laid down a four inch layer of wood-chip mulch. This is how it looked the day after we completed the project.

This is how it looks this week, after the trees have been pruned and are blooming. In this picture, both the mulch bed and non-mulch bed trees are visible.

If I find the orchard robust this year, I'll finish the project in other parts of the orchard this upcoming fall.

5) Dream big . . .

These pictures tell the tale. I don't need to say any more.

(Royal Lee Cherry)

(Blenheim Apricot)

(Desert Delight Nectarine)