Weekend Chores

Any time a job involves a shovel, I know it's gonna be hot and sweaty work. Saturday was 'turn in the cover crops' day, and it turned out to be harder than I thought.

I'd spent a good amount of time researching how to turn the buckwheat in, and it all sounded fairly straightforward - just spade it up, and turn it over. In reality, it wasn't quite that easy. My buckwheat was tall - three feet - and when I turned it over, several feet of green stuck out sideways. So then I decided to first 'scythe' (read: large clippers) the plant and collect the clippings; then I would turn it over. This proved more fruitful. I put some clippings in the compost, and some in the flower garden as mulch.

Turning over the soil wasn't nearly as hard as my digging project a couple of weeks ago. The dirt, first fully composed of purchased compost, then amended with horse manure, then planted with the cover crop, was simply gorgeous. Dark, loamy, and smelling good, it was a pleasure to spade up and turn over.

Again, I was happy to see lots of fat earthworms. Also plenty of white mycelium, and pill bugs, who always like to be a part of the decomposition process. I did a fair amount of chopping the roots of the buckwheat, and mixed everything around.

As I was digging, many bees and butterflies hovered around, as if to say, "Hey, buddy, why are you messing with our food?" I've never seen so much insect life as I did when the buckwheat was flowering.

I also pulled out the tomatillos. They were a great experiment for me, I just couldn't possibly eat as many as were produced. They also apparently self-seed readily, so I was worried that they might already be doing that. I harvested the rest of the acorn squash and watermelon, then pulled up those plants.

The watermelons look right on the outside, but when I cut in to them, they weren't quite ripe. This melon experiment was also interesting. I think they need just a touch more sun. This week, we're having a tree guy come and trim up our trees quite a bit, so the sun problem will be fixed, and I might try melons again next year. It's Adam's favorite fruit, so I'd like to be able to provide it!

I've left the tomatoes and cucumbers in for now, also the butternut squash. I'll probably pull those next week.

I was pleased to open the compost bin and find a good six inches of black gold at the bottom.

I dug out four huge bins worth and added them to the beds.  It's beautiful stuff.

Kate likes to have her own garden. She planted some pretty stuff in the spring, but now the lantana has taken over.

I like it, and it provides nectar for insects, but Kate is unhappy that her flower garden has turned into a lantana garden. So I told her I would provide her with large containers, and she could move her garden around wherever she wanted. However in order to provide her with those containers, I needed to transplant the strawberries that had been growing in them.

We love strawberries, and I'd like to have a lot of them, and the plants spread and root themselves, so we could possibly have a lot if I plant them in the ground. They are perennial, so they last year after year. Those plusses causes a bit of a problem, though - who has the space for long-lived plant that continues to spread? I finally decided on a place back by the water feature, between a California Buckeye and a Chinese Pistache. It gets dappled sun, and high heat in the summer, and if the berries spread, it's mostly okay.

This is a spot where I used to grow corn, before the trees got so big. I also used to grow sunflowers here, so I expected the dirt to be fine. It wasn't. Here are some the clay clods I pulled out to throw in the green bin.

I hate our dirt. I need a special budget just for soil amendments.

Anyway, Kate was ready to plant her garden.

We went to a special sale at a nursery near here. The sale was part of the fall event schedule of Bringing Back the Natives, a great foundation that sponsors spring tours and all kinds of educational events. The sale we went to was at Markham Arboretum, a neat little place in the heart of Concord. Kate chose a few natives, like buckwheat and milkweed, and a few other pretty things that are drought tolerant:

I bought some interesting new plants, for sunny areas:

After planting all of that, I decided to saw down a small Ash tree, which was in the middle of my main flower bed. I planted it years ago, when we wanted more shade. Well, it hasn't grown at all, and now we don't want more shade, so out it went. I sawed it into pieces and will use the slender trunk in the garden. As I was sawing, I was sat amongst the flowers, just an idyllic spot, with bees and butterflies visiting, and birds swooping through. If I squint, I can picture I'm in a meadow somewhere in the country, instead of in crowded suburbia.

In other news, Adam had his first San Francisco Opera rehearsal in the War Memorial Opera House yesterday, and I was there as a parent monitor. We were up on the 5th floor, while a performance of Handel's Partenope was in progress down below. It was so fun to hear the announcements: "Places, five minutes, ladies and gentlemen," and watch the action on monitors all over the building. Our accompanist for rehearsals is also a native Italian singer, so he was helping with pronunciation and singing the main parts, while the Studio School teacher took notes nearby, and the boys sung their hearts out.

Things can only get more exciting, as this week Adam has a costume fitting, his first day of Studio School (required by law for child performers), and his first staging rehearsal on that massive stage. I'm not sure the boys realize how cool this all is, but I'm in geek heaven, wishing I had gotten this experience when I was in 7th grade.

Tom made vanilla extract this week, I'll let him explain his process here:

Making vanilla extract is about the simplest thing in the world. There's just three ingredients - vanilla, some kind of alcohol, and time. I read about making extracts online, and most agreed you could use any kind of alcohol (vodka being the most neutral, whisky or bourbon imparting some of its own flavor). While I'm personally partial to bourbon, it seemed risky to experiment with some Knob Creek or Maker's Mark, so I went with Absolut Vodka. Rather than pay exorbitant amounts for supermarket vanilla beans, I ordered in bulk from Amazon.

I used three split vanilla beans to about a cup of vodka, and put them in bottles in the cabinet:

It's been about five days now, and the extract is taking on a brown tinge and smells more like vanilla than vodka now:

Most places said I should wait a month or two before using. I'll be curious to see what kind of final color I get.

And a final note from our weekend: If you haven't seen Food Forward on PBS, follow the link and you can watch online. We've really been enjoying it.