Pruning Time

The next time we haul a load up to the property and get any work time in, it will be spring, so this trip was my last opportunity to prune the trees and vines before they begin to bud out.

The property has endured many years of neglect, and opportunistic ivy and blackberry brambles have consumed most of the trees. If you look closely to this top photo, you can make out the lichen-covered branches of an old apple tree, as if reaching out for air and sunlight.

Last year, we were fortunate to see the place at height of ripeness– otherwise I would never have known, or at least not until later this year, that this was an apple tree at all. But it was putting off some small, scabby apples, and I hope that with some care, the tree will be a good start until our tiny new orchard-to-be begins to bear.

The rescue operation took hours, using a saw, loppers, a rake, and oddly enough, a crow bar. The ivy vines, which are terrible parasites that will ultimately kill a tree, wound around the trunk and branches, digging into the bark with abundant wiry roots.  I was able to cut the thickest vines, with a massive three-inch diameter, into segments and pry most free with the crow bar and lots of sweat.

The pile that I removed made a towering heap. The tuft of ivy that remains will die, and then I will cut it off. Until I began working, I didn’t realize that the tree was planted on a steep slope that made work particularly difficult. The original trunk had been cut down and is now the home of some nesting animal. Three offshoots are now the primary trunks.

When we first saw the place last year, the Concord grape vines were also heavy with hundreds of pounds of plump, sweet fruit. However, they had clearly not been pruned in many, many years, if ever. By winter, it looked like this:

It turns out the primary vine boasts a 12-inch trunk! Some of the largest chunks are dead and decayed, but most of the main vines are more than an inch thick, some several inches. The trellis, fortunately, is in fantastic shape and sturdy.

The prospect of cutting the beast back was intimidating, and it took me two days with my husband’s help.

I was more timid than I know I should have been, and that I could have aggressively hacked off most of the woody vines. The photos fail to show the four-foot-high piles of snarled debris.

I attempted to propagate a half-dozen cuttings, but it was nearly dark when I got them in the ground and it was a haphazard effort. At the outset of the project, though, I did make several grapevine wreathes to update the décor on the front door.

I’m hoping that at least this will give a good start for future years and that we still get a significant crop this coming summer. I’ve got my heart set on Concord grape wine.


The Garden: Winter Surprises

A rather magical part of our new home is that it was clearly once a well kept, well loved place with nurtured gardens. The overgrown brambles and fallen trees add some to the mystique as spring bulbs nod through. Grape hyacinth lines a path along the creek, and new clusters of its thin leaves promise more to come.

I had seen a small patch of this bulb above emerging in January and wondered if it might be irises or lilies. On this trip, more than 100 square feet of the angular green leaves lined the top edge of the creek bank, and a neighbor gave me the exciting news that they are all tiger lilies– thousands of them!

Daffodils opened on both sides of the driveway at the end of the bridge, one cluster beside a budding rhododendron and another shrouded in weeds and brambles. I spent an hour cutting out the latter group, pushing the blackberries back to the slope toward the creek. In their wake, I discovered many more lilies, more daffodils, lamb’s ear, and other plants just appearing.

In addition to the delightful surprise of long-forgotten bulbs, I was thrilled to see my own small garden taking shape as the garlic and shallots continued to push through the mulch.

While the spring will be a time of transition and continued trips up as the move stretches out over months of packing and hauling, and as the weeks in which I’d like to be starting seed and planting peas pass,  I’m satisfied to know that already a garden is thriving at our new home.

Waning Winter

The first of the buds opened in January. Like a kaleidoscope of butterflies clinging to the silvery bare branch of the almond and plum trees, the blossoms arrived as a harbinger of the imminent spring.

It’s been warm here– unseasonably warm. Alarmingly warm. But at times, in the evenings while my husband throws the ball for the dogs and my daughter and I forage for salad greens, it’s hard not to enjoy.

On February 14th, a regular Saturday for us, we drove out to the local winery adjacent to a sprawling almond orchard, just for fun. Sipping glasses of pinot while our daughter toddled across the bare dirt, we walked out beneath the bejeweled branches. With each tiny wisp of breeze, showers of snowy petals rained down over us.

I was especially grateful that we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because that afternoon became, with no expectation or urging, a celebration not of a calendar holiday but rather of a unique landscape and a season of our lives. February won’t look quite like this next year, but I know it too will be breathtaking in its own way.

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

As the hillsides flare yellow with mustard flowers, we enjoy the delicious wild bounty of the season in numerous dishes. We saute the leaves with onions and dock. We eat the blossoms fresh and enjoy salad after salad of nutrient-rich wild greens.

Most delicious of all, though, we roast the flower heads with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Just as the buds are about to open or even after a blossom or two has unfurled, the flower heads resemble their near cousin, broccoli. The flavor is like other brassicas with a bit of extra spice, though roasting coaxes out a mellow savoriness. It’s a quick, easy, and spectacularly tasty dish.


I collect the top several inches of tender stem, picking off the larger leaves to add to a salad or saute. I toss the buds with extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and fresh-ground black pepper and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet. They roast in a 450-degree oven for about five to seven minutes, until the leaves have crisped up and darkened a bit, and the stems are just barely tender.

Served with mashed potatoes, these give my very favorite standard veggies a run for their money.

Rain Means Puddles (And Happy Toddlers and Waddlers)


In nearly four years, we’ve had few enough real rainy days that I can count them on my ten fingers. The drought has been aggressive and draining. But when it does rain here, the episodes are torrential. The clouds grow dark as they turn and flex. Then they open up abruptly and dump cascades onto the arid, tightlipped Earth.

California rain differs from Oregon rain. My hometown in coastal northern California accrues nearly as much annual rainfall as Eugene, Oregon, but in fits and spates relatively rare to the Pacific Northwest. The misty drizzle of so many days in Oregon is foreign to its southern neighbor. It’s that perpetual cooling dampness that draws the verdant abundance of the land, feeds the fantastic fungi, and soothes my soul. It also makes spring sunshine a worthy celebration.

Gathering Nettles With Help

Our crop of stinging nettles has grown exponentially over the past few years, and we covet the bounty. We picked a pound or so today for a batch of nettle wine (recipe to come; same basic procedure as with mint wine) with some extra to dehydrate for tea. Any work in the barnyard brings a troop of helpers.

The goats and sheep keep all greens in the field finely mowed, with the exception of the stinging nettles. Since goats happily munch roses, blackberry brambles, and poison oak, I doubt the stingers deter them, yet they ignore them nonetheless and instead keep them fertilized and without weedy competition.