Our constant work in the garden (which we sometimes refer to now as Versailles Farm) has kept us busy; so busy in fact, we haven't found the time to blog about our doings for quite some time now. Some of the highlights of note in the past 12 calendar months have been our expanding fruit tree harvests. The trees a friend bought and planted for us as a wedding present in 2004 have grown significantly and are making a big dent in our weekly farmers' market bill. For three years now, our Fuji apple tree has fed us daily from the beginning of September until the beginning of December. It's as big as we want it to get, so we'll have to continue pruning it to size so that it doesn't shade the rest of our small backyard where we sow annual veggies. You can get a sense of it's size in the photo here - a little more than twice the height of a six year old. 

After many years of impatient waiting (and much grumbling on Ann's part) our original apricot tree finally started bearing fruit in 2012. While we waited - and waited, and waited - for it to produce, we planted another apricot into a corner of our front yard. Because of it's location, it will always remain particularly “dwarfed,” but it gave us apricots before it's elder sibling. We are hoping production from both of them will multiply exponentially this next year.

This was our first fantastic year of citrus production from the mandarin orange and tangerine trees we planted in the spring of 2009. The mandarin produced wonderfully sweet, seedless snacks from the end of November until the end of January, just when the tangerines began to ripen. We were thrilled with four continuous months of fresh citrus ready whenever we wanted it. These aren't big trees - twice the height of our four year old - but it's amazing how much fruit they hold on them. The tangerine tree in the photo to the right produced over 320 tangerines that looked like Christmas ornaments hanging on a tree. We tended to peel and eat the mandarins in sections, but the seedy tangerines we used more often for tangerine juice that was as delicious as it was beautiful. After a couple weeks of drinking unadulterated tangering juice, Ann began blending the juice with some home-grown kale for daily green drinks. Those were delicious too, tasting exactly like tangerine juice that simply happened to be green. 

Our other fruit tree addition in 2012 was a lime tree in a pot on our back deck. It will never be a huge producer, but it is a treat to have fresh limes for recipes occasionally. 

We continue to be thrilled and amazed at just how much can be grown in a very small Bay Area lot. If we count the dwarf lemon tree and the standard size Santa Rosa plum tree that were here when Paul first moved in, our eight fruit trees, raspberry and blueberry bushes, and two grapevines provide us with fruit year-round. As Rachel likes to say when eating something from the yard: “Thank you, apple tree, for growing us these yummy apples.”

We've just finished hosting the third annual Alameda Backyard Chicken Coop Bicycling Tour that Ann coordinates. It was a blast, yet again. This year we had 280 people sign in, and of those, probably 95% biked or walked to our house. This year there were 15 coops on the tour, double the number of coops shown the last two years. With this new arrangement, people could visit just the ones in their proximate neighborhood or bike to the other side of the island to see ones further away.

It is so thrilling to hear how much our Alameda Backyard Chicken group is inspiring people to raise more of their own food. I talked for almost three hours continuously, answering questions about our bees while Paul fielded most of the chicken questions and we each answered some gardening questions. Many people left our yard and the yards of other hosts inspired to build a coop, catch a bee swarm, or plant some seeds. 

Madeleine and Rachel had fun selling chocolate chip cookies that they baked. Our eldest once again wowed people with her knowledge of all things chicken/bee/gardening related. At one point, a tourist was exclaiming about our "corn" plants, only to be informed by Madeleine that they were looking at onions, not corn. She was also overheard explaining to someone what a queen bee cell looks like. (I had found some in one of the hives recently and she was proud to take it to her kindergarten show-and-tell last week.)

Before the tour we had posted a list of an annual harvest from our small (700 square foot) but prolific backyard and added up the value of what we raised. From the asparagus to the raspberries, the tangerines to the eggplant, the eggs, to the honey, it totaled $2,782.50. Even we were amazed.

On a humorous note, today Rachel was shocked to discover that they sell asparagus at Safeway. For some reason, she found it to be very funny. "Really? They sell asparagus in a store?" she asked incredulously. For all she knew, our garden was the asparagus supplier for the world.

As Thanksgiving passes, most of our garden harvests have ended or are coming to an end. We've just picked the last fruit from the Fuji apple tree which friends gave us and planted as a wedding present seven years ago. It is definitely a gift that keeps on giving. The tree produced just over 100 apples this year. We started picking and eating them the first of September and it looks like the few we have left will get us through November. 

The Italian blood on both sides of our family means we all enjoy pesto, and this year we had a bountiful basil crop for the first time. Besides using it for various recipes, we made 27 batches of pesto to eat and freeze. We finally got a bit weary of it when the plants were still bearing at Halloween, but it will be a nice treat to find it in the freezer all winter.

Another notable garden success of 2011 was our first season of asparagus. Our small patch yielded a pound of asparagus a week for 16 weeks. At the other end of the vegetable alphabet stands the zucchini, of which we harvested 85 over a four month period this year. Unbelievably, we never had a chance to try all the zucchini recipes we have, although we did try many new ones. The girls discovered they like zucchini cut into thick spears, grilled outside, and dipped in ketchup like french fries.

Cherry tomatoes fed us almost daily from the beginning of August through our Thanksgiving salad. Ann's first experiment at growing three different varieties of dried soup beans was a resounding success (black turtle, white European Soldier and scarlet runners) so we should have enough to feed us through the winter. Carrots, salad greens, pumpkins, green peppers, winter squash, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, and plums all performed somewhere in the range from mildly to very well. We even scored two small bunches of grapes, five apricots, and 20 tangerines from our youngest vines/trees. We did a rough estimate and it looks like our produce saved us more than $700 at the farmers' market, and that's not counting the honey we harvested and the hundreds of eggs laid by our chickens.

Lest you think our thumbs are perfectly green however, we should note that our onions, garlic, broccoli, eggplant, and yellow squash failed miserably. There's always something to improve upon, right? For now, though, we're thankful the heavy workload is over for the year and we're appreciating a slower season in the garden.

A couple of months ago Lori Eanes, a professional photographer in San Francisco who has done photography for Utne ReaderThe New York TimesSunset Magazine, and Parenting Magazine, just to name a few, contacted us to see if she could photograph our family and garden for a project she's currently doing. 

She came out at the end of July and photographed us for two hours, snapping away as we planted seeds for our fall garden, harvested squash, pumpkins, beans, strawberries, and plums, and the girls tended to the chickens. She came up with some incredible shots. We were struck looking at them by how lush and fruitful our small (only 750 square feet) and not-so-perfect garden came off looking. It really is amazing how much food you can grow in a tiny space.

We just got the photos today, which you can view in the slideshow below (or click on it to see the photos larger).

You can see some of the other photos from Lori's in-progress "Backyard Project" on her website under Portfolio > Projects.  We hope to see her collection of urban farmer photos in a local publication sometime soon!

Since we picked our first strawberries of the season on April 21, we've been keeping track of how much the garden has been producing. Now, just over 3 months later, we've passed the 100 pint mark for strawberries. Yes, that's 100 pints of strawberries from our tiny backyard and they show no signs of slowing down for the season yet. We pick strawberries almost every evening, but when we're weary of the job we call our neighbors and tell them to come and pick at our "U-pick Farm." We eat them almost every single day. Believe it or not, it is possible to tire of fresh, organic strawberries, so we're traded some for other garden produce from a friend a block away, taken them to every potluck or backyard barbecue we've gone to this summer, and used them frequently as gifts.

Our raspberry crop has been amazing too. In the last 10 weeks we've reaped 55 cups of raspberries, though sadly, they are about done for the season. Our blueberries have been much fewer and farther between. In June, we picked apricots from Paul's parents' three trees. Our plum harvest has just begun (we've picked 46 so far), our apple tree has about 100 apples on it, and our grape vines have some promising bunches fattening as we write this.

What does all this mean? Besides the fact that we don't have to worry about getting enough fiber or vitamin C in our diets, our farmers' market bill has significantly decreased this summer. Our total fruit purchases this season have added up to about a dozen peaches and one cantaloupe.

On April 25th we had 540 people trek through our garden as part of the 7th annual Bay Friendly Gardening Tour. We spent six straight hours answering questions about our chickens, rain barrels, bat house, beehives, and greywater system, probably in that order. After that came questions about many of the 33 fruit and vegetable crops that we've squeezed into our small back and front yards. 

We got many comments about the enormous size of the strawberries in our patch as well as the prolific raspberry and blueberry bushes, and lots of questions about our asparagus and fava beans ("What is that plant? And what is that one over there?").

Many of the people on the tour are novice gardeners, and it was wonderful to hear their excitement as they noted what can be done in just a small space. We were gratified to hear so many people tell us that they were going to go home to put up a bat house, set up rain barrels, convince a spouse to let them get chickens or bees, plant a fruit tree, or build a raised vegetable bed. 

Overall, preparing for the Tour was a huge amount of work, but we are thrilled that the re-landscaping project we began a year and a half ago is finally finished (we think). Now that the weather is beautiful and we've begun to eat meals on our back deck, we can enjoy a yard and garden that is busy producing our summer crops without much effort on our parts.

(The top photo shows our Fuji apple tree in the foreground.  The photo below shows raspberries along the chicken fence, an apricot tree just in front and near the center, fava beans at the bottom and toward the center, and asparagus at the bottom and to the right.)

Our yard and those of three of our close-by neighbors will be featured on this year's Bay-Friendly Garden tour on Sunday, April 25th.  The free, self-guided tour is sponsored by StopWaste.organd includes over 40 gardens in Alameda County, grouped in geographical clusters.  Pre-registration is required.

Our yard is pretty well qualified, with native plants, rain water catchment, gray water, chickens, bees, food production, and landscaping with salvaged materials.  We've been told to expect over 500 people (and perhaps well over that, since registration has been particularly strong so far).  There's also a need for volunteers to help out, so sign up if you're interested.

Here's a fuller description of the tour from StopWaste: "The 7th annual tour continues to celebrate the diversity of Bay-Friendly gardens. Urban farmers grow abundant harvests of fruit and vegetables, and keep chickens and bees.  Native plant enthusiasts embrace the local flora. Salvaged material aficionados blend recycled art into the landscape. Bay-Friendly gardens offer something for everyone—come and discover ideas for creating your perfect haven.... Gardens range from professionally designed postage stamp-sized lots in Berkeley to exuberant one-acre market gardens in Pleasanton."

We're pretty excited, although we have a bit more prep to do over the next few weeks.

So last month we finally put up my Christmas gift from Ann: a bat house!  Hopefully some area bats will discover it, although we probably will have to wait until next summer.

Bat's are great... a single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes in one hour.  There are a lot of misconceptions about them and it's often difficult for them to find lodging in urban areas.  Being nocturnal, they stay in the bat houses during the day. 

We spent a lot of time trying to find the best location, as it needed to be placed where it gets plenty of sunlight to stay warm.  We ended up placing it along the roof of our old shed.  The bats enter from the bottom.

Some more bat facts:

  • Bats are not infected with rabies more than any other animal species, and they very rarely are aggressive when infected (unlike other animals).  Bats that get rabies usually become paralyzed, so you shouldn't touch a bat that is laying on the ground.
  • Bats are a protected species.  It is illegal to own, sell, or purchase bats.
  • Bats are not aggressive, and will not intentionally people or other animals.  They may bite if you try to touch them, though.
  • Bats can live up to 30 years.
  • About 70% of all bats are insectivores.
  • Bat houses will not encourage bats to roost in attics or attack people.
  • In our climate, bats hibernate to warmer areas from late Fall through early Spring. 
We'll keep you updated on the house's occupancy...

Now, I know this is a family blog and all, but this seemed like something that we needed to share here.  You see, Ann has been leaving bed in the early morning (at least for her) to have plant sex.

You'd think that having two bee hives in the immediate vicinity would be enough to get adequate pollination of our squash and zucchini, but Ann has been dissatisfied.  So, taking a cue from our next-door neighbor, she has been taking a small artist's paintbrush in hand and pollinating manually.

Squash, zucchini, and other vine fruit produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and pollen from the male flowers has to get to the female flowers for them to turn into fruit.  So the process is to "tickle" the stamen in a male flower and then "tickle" the tip of the pistil in a female flower.  This has to be done when you catch both of them open, usually requiring an early morning hour.

After she returns to bed, I usually only get a grunt in response to my query of whether it was "good for you."

The birch tree in our front yard consistently gets infested with aphids every year, and this year it was hit hard.  The aphids suck juices from the leaves and excrete a colorless sticky honeydew.  That attracts ants and causes growth of a fungus called "sooty mold" to grow on the leaves.  So we have ants marching up the trunk and when we walk across our lawn the soles of our shoes become covered with sticky leaves.  It's particularly annoying this year because we just got a little play structure for Maddy to play on under the tree.  The tree does not seem to be greatly stressed, but aphids could eventually kill it.

In addition to the ants and aphids, we noticed a whole bunch of other strange bugs crawling on the tree (as shown in the photo).  After some research, we found that these were lady beetles (also known as ladybugs) in a larva stage.  Wikipedia has some good pictures of the various stages (early larva, mid-larva, pupal, and adult), all of which we have seen on our tree.  They showed up because they are predators of aphids.

In addition to letting the lady beetles do their thing, we are doing our part to combat the aphids.  We borrowed a power washer and have been spraying the leaves with water from our rooftop and from the top of a ladder.  This knocks many of the aphids off the leaves, and seems to be washing some of the honeydew and mold off.  We tried adding a castille soap additive (which will kill aphids on contact), but we couldn't get the power washer to spray that with enough velocity for some reason.  While spraying a big plume of water into the tree from my rooftop with a pistol wand feels almost like I'm acting out a scene fromGhostbusters, it gets old pretty quickly (particularly when the wind starts blowing the water right back at me).  We've done it once a weekend for the last three weeks, and hear that six weeks may do the trick.

Now that we have a plan, we hope to jump on the aphids early next year and head off the problem before it gets bad.