Institutional knowledge & the trouble with Brussels Sprouts

Lorien, Anya and Elaine, walking through the streets of San Francisco. Photo by Lily.

The farm girls are traveling. Last week Lorien, Lily, Nina, Anya and I all dragged ourselves out of bed at 4am and headed North, making San Francisco our destination. Lorien and I both have sisters who live in The City, hers biological and mine of the heart. The girls were wicked excited and the days flew by with so much activity and fun we all fell into bed and had no trouble dropping off to sleep. 


 The Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park.

On Thursday, Lorien and Nina headed back to the farm and my girls and I headed South to visit a friend in San Jose and then reversed tracks to head deeper into the Northern world of California, settling into the quaint town of Grass Valley for the rest of the week. We're here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada's, taking it slow and easy and eating too much good food, made mostly by my lovely mother-in-law.


It's a huge change of pace. In San Francisco we walked everywhere and were on the go 90% of our waking hours. Here I look out the porch and see acres of trees and meadow and there's nowhere to go, really. We hang out in town at the coffee shop and sip steamers while riding the wifi, poking about online and feeling like sedentary folk. It's odd and I need to find some trails soon, so I don't go crazy with stillness.

Swinging at their Grandma's house in Grass Valley where the weather is unseasonably warm.

Last night Heidi (my mother-in-law) and I started talking gardens. She has raised beds here and has spent countless hours trucking in soil and amendments. The ground is solid, void of nutrients and acidic with pines. She feels like it's a constant struggle to get anything to grow at all. And she spent many years in Denmark where growing seasons are vastly different.  

"We planted Brussels Sprouts last Spring," she tells me.
"But those are a winter crop." I protest.
"Not in Denmark." She sighs, "We got hundreds of little sprouts but none of them grew up and made it to harvest." She tosses her hands up. "I just don't know how to work this soil!"
"Honestly, I don't know what I'm doing either." I assure her, "I only know about Brussels Sprouts because I have a Farmer Bill at our local nursery and I wanted to plant them."
"I need a Farmer Bill."

We all do, really. Having a local expert, someone who knows your region and can tell you, "I wouldn't try to plant those seeds just yet" is priceless. It's that institutional knowledge, so to speak, that I feel like so many of us are lacking. Seeking out and finding that resource, it's valuable beyond belief. And most places have a spot for just such a thing. In San Diego, where the our tiny farm is, we have City Farmers Nursery where the infamous Farmer Bill dispenses advice and humor by the handful. There are also local University resources such as the Seeds@City Urban Farm Program, which boasts a one-acre organic farm in the heart of downtown a and Sustainable Urban Agriculture program. We also have an outstanding Water Conservation Garden which showcases water-wise landscaping that is lush, beautiful and attainable in challenging climates. And those are only some of the resources available in town.

What about where you live? What kind of resources make your heart swoon? How do you find the people that help you connect to the dirt in a meaningful way?


Anya finding Oak Galls, the fascinating biology of wasp and Oak, about which she learned when we took classes at Mission Trails Regional Park.


lady beetle

So many things happening at the Farm, I don't even know where to start. Before we started this little experiment, I had days off from my "real job" and I would spend them reading the paper while sipping coffee and then I'd take a nap. Okay, so I'd actually spend the day fantasizing about that line up while getting chores and errands done, but at least it was at a leisurely pace.

Now my days "off" are UP AND GO GO GO GO! And it's not a bad thing, for sure, but sometimes I want to yell, "COME ON! I NEED A NAP!" And that's usually when I actually go take a nap, because when you're yelling at the chickens, it's time for a freaking nap.

But then.

Then there's the really wonderful part of all of this: Lorien and her family moved in. Granted, not to their forever home (still in permitting, people) but into a bitchin' sweet trailer we found on craigslist that comes from some fellow burners.

Full image of Trailer getting installed

We set it up, Mark & Lorien spent some time doing repairs and then they simply moved in. Amazing. We've held a knitting night there already, and in addition to being a cool place to hang out, it's giving us an idea what living in community feels like.

It feels awesome.

There's been many a shared meal, borrowing of things, laundry talk, gardening, kid care sharing, dogs everywhere and overall amazingness. So far, I'm totally in love with this.

And things are growing in the garden! Which, you would expect if you've ever been successful at gardening before. Let me assure you: I have not. Not really. Never. Things THRIVE when you pay attention, people. This is shocking to me, though my parenting should have tipped me off that it works universally.

My last post (almost a month ago, *ahem*) was about the putting together a garden bed. NOW LOOK AT IT:


Seriously, nobody could have predicted that. Except for all people who have ever gardened before, but we're not counting reasonable people in that statement.

Speaking of, does anyone have any idea what this is:

what is this?

It's taking over the garden bed and does not appear to be cabbage. Or at least, that's what Lorien says. But the seed packet that I believe it came from claims it's a Nikki Chinese Cabbage. Anyone have experience with this stuff? I clearly don't.

Lots of other things are popping up too:

growing beans radish

apples! peas

Oh, and after several bee hives gave us the middle finger and swarmed off for greener pastures, we finally have a hive that's staying put. Interestingly enough, this hive came from the school, where it had attempted to make a home in the bushes between the art class and the Jr High. Our friend Alex extracted it and brought it on over and they've been very happy ever since. We may even get honey some day!

It's super exciting, ALL THE THINGS happening. And it's keeping us busy, my friends.

What's keeping you busy?

Why I need to live in community

Growing 3/27/13

I try to take a walk through the property daily. Doesn't always happen, mind you, but I try. I really don't know how else to get myself in the habit of paying attention and so far it's helping me not kill things. It helps that Mark is focused on the seeds and doing his part, but well, he travels for work sometimes and that makes it my job to focus, something I'm not always so good at.

I carry my phone with me, set on camera mode and ready to capture what I can. I'm also using a garden tracking program called Folia which allows me to note down milestones and will then give me a timeline as to when I should expect sprouts or should aim to transplant or fruit may appear. I'll be thrilled when they finally have an Android App so I can update from the field.

It amazes me how ignorant I can be about plants, though.

seed starts - pumpkin

"Look!" I'll show Lorien, "The pumpkin is sprouting!"
"That's not a pumpkin sprout." She'll reply.
"But that's what the package said." I insist, as though good hard observation cannot possibly win over a seed package.
"Maybe it will still sprout, but that is something in the brassica family." She calmly insists.
"But I want it to be a pumpkin." I pout.

She all but pats me on my sweet stupid head.

I know I can learn, it just seems remarkably slow to sink in. But for now, I think everything is beautiful, even the clumps of nasty aphids I found clustered on a weed stalk in the canyon, or the creeping vine that keeps tying to take over everything.

Growing 3/27/13 Growing 3/27/13

OK so the aphids are gross, but there's a beauty to them too, all huddled together, just trying to survive in the wilds. And the way the vine wraps around the dead stalk of a tree it probably killed?

Poetry, I swear.

This is why I need to live in community: ignorance, I have it in spades.


Learning to be ruthless

emerging peaches and their party hats

Over the weekend I was sitting in the orchard, chatting with my mom on the phone.

"I'm having a disagreement with Mark* about the peach tree." I tell her.
"Tell me about it." She prompts.
"He keeps telling me to leave it alone, but it has so much fruit emerging, I don't know how the tree can manage it all."
"Oh, hon. You have to remove two-thirds of the fruit or you could damage the tree. I know it's hard to do, all that promise, but you have to. Leave about an inch between fruit so it has room to grow. If you don't you could lose a limb or end up with a ton of misshapen, small fruits."
"So be brutal?" I ask.
"Ruthlessly so."

And so, with my game face on I plucked at it, feeling horrible about all that promise I had to remove.

Growing 3/27/13

I still can't force myself to throw away the culled fruit, though it has no reason to live. It's beautiful, though, in it's little bucket.

On advice from my uber smart mother

But man, just thinking about a globe of warm peach, fresh from the tree, large and sweet and sticky and...

I need to sit down for a moment.

But seriously, learning how not to be so sentimental is a huge part of figuring out how to run a small pseudo-farm. I'm figuring it out, it just might take me a while.



*Later, when I showed Mark what I'd done to the tree he had indicated I should leave alone, he was all, "Yeah, I've been meaning to do that." Merp. Turns out we sometimes suck at communication.