As I sit down to write this note to you I can hear the rain hitting the roof. This is as early in the season as I can ever remember of us getting a meaningful amount of rain, so the question on everybody’s mind is, “How long into the fall do you think we’ll have tomatoes?”
If I could answer that question accurately, reliably, and consistently, I’d be a billionaire-shaman figure, not a puzzled dirt farmer.
I CAN tell you when we will plant the tomatoes; it’s always on April 15th, give or take a few days. By April 15th the danger of frost will have largely passed and the soil will have warmed enough to welcome tomato plants. Often, we will see tiny tomato weeds born from the seeds of last years’ ground fall fruit sprout on their own around this time of year. After we plant the first crop, we will usually follow up with several sequential plantings so that we can enjoy a harvest spread out of the whole season.
I can tell you when we’re likely to have our first fruit of the season. True, the weather being relatively cooler or hotter can push the date of the first harvest or retard it, but we always see the cherries first in late June, we see the first Early Girls in mid-July, as well as the first Heirlooms. By late August we see the San Marzanos. All of these crops are “indeterminate,” meaning that they can continue to flower and fruit over a long season. Tomatoes are tropical in origin, having first evolved as a food crop in Ecuador around 7,000 years ago. As long as the weather stays “tropical,” the tomatoes stay happy, but they succumb quickly to the elements when conditions become cold, damp, and wet. We have a tomato plant in our greenhouse that is several years old and at least 10 feet high, because the nighttime lows in the greenhouse never drop into the 30s.
We count on having good conditions for tomato production from April thru October. Sometimes a late frost or an early rain will set the crop back or stall it out early. I remember an April 16th frost that zapped our planting pretty badly, but the roots and stems survived and re-sprouted and it turned out to be an ok year. And one year we had a pretty major rainstorm on October 3rd. Later in the season, when the nights are longer and there’s less time for the plants to dry out, a drenching rain can give rise to leaf rot in the middle of the dense canopy of foliage, and the tomatoes will soon sicken and die.
A rain that falls earlier in the year, like the one we are experiencing right now, may not have a lethal consequence. If the days are still long enough or breezy enough for a tomato plant to dry out promptly a rain can be a good thing. Pest mites like the Two Spotted mite that happily chew on tomato plants thrive in dry, dusty conditions. Clean and humid environments favor their enemy, the Persimilis mite, which feeds on the Two Spotted mite. A quick, cleansing rain can encourage the beneficial, predatory mites, even as it discourages their prey.
If this year’s crop is not adversely affected by this passing rainstorm, then I’ll hope that we will be able to harvest thru October, and maybe even into November. As October deepens, anything can happen. And if the bounty is grand then we might even see a tomato on the Thanksgiving table, which can be a real joy.
If you aren’t a canner and you want to enjoy the Dry Farm Early Girls into the winter we have a limited supply — which is going fast — of already canned crushed dry farmed early girl tomatoes. And because one never knows, you should get your boxes and jars of tomatoes today! The Dry Farmed Early Girl Tomato Juice is also the perfect choice for the end of summer Gazpacho soup or a Bloody Mary during brunch next weekend.
Andy and the Crew at Mariquita Farm
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden
“Give me two reasons why anybody would want to live in Texas,” I said to cousin Weldon. I was probably nine at the time and I’d only passed through the Lone Star State once on a cross-country trip my family had taken three years before in the summer of 1966. We had a Volkswagon bus, and I’d been stuck in the back seat, sweltering, so I wouldn’t bug my sister, for the last 1,500 miles. Looking out the window of that VW, Texas had looked to me a whole lot like Bakersfield CA, except that it was a whole lot bigger- indeed, it seemed to go on forever. I wasn’t in love with it. But Weldon was, having had the good fortune to have been born there, and at 12 years of age, he had the maturity and confidence to answer me boldly and unequivocally.
“Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers,” Weldon said, without a moment’s hesitation, before reciting the litany of Texas’s endless charms and marvels; the coldest beer, the hottest women etc. etc. And while I’ve remained amused by the average Texan’s oversized pride of place, even into adulthood, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for Texas. Bottom line; despite the state’s insane politics, Texas really IS big, and it’s big enough to embrace a kaleidoscope of characters that defies any attempt to simplify or pigeonhole it. There’s Willie, of course, who I think is a truly great American, but there are a growing number of my own family members there, and I’ve had an opportunity to make some friends there over the course of a number of trips. Last winter, Starr and I passed through “miles and miles of Texas” on our way to visit my cousin, Elizabeth, in Houston, and we had an opportunity to visit my friends, the Arnoskys, at their flower farm near Blanco, up in the Hill Country.
I met Pamela and Frank Arnosky years ago at the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Convention, that was held that year down on South Padre Island on the gulf coast. Later, after a subsequent conference held up in Kerrville in the Hill Country, I had an opportunity to visit their farm. No farmer anywhere would ever suggest that the interior of Texas is the easiest place in the world to grow organic cut flowers, but they’ve done a magnificent job. I could write a whole essay about how systematically and generously they’ve gone about the task of growing flowers and the mission of creating community, but today I want to talk about just one flower; the marigold.
Frank and Pamela are not just good growers- they’re very thoughtful and innovative about marketing. They’d always grown marigolds and over time they developed a reputation for having beautiful, clean, sturdy, and affordable marigolds at exactly the right time for the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations that are a yearly tradition in the Hispanic community. The Arnosky’s flower farm is out in the boonies, but it’s more or less equidistant between San Antonio and Austin. So it wasn’t too long before the Southern Asian communities that have sprung up around Austin found out about them and began arriving in the fall to get their marigolds for Diwalli, the festival of lights.
When farmers get together we usually seize the moment to bitch and moan about the weather, the prices, the regulations, the cost of fuel, packaging and labor, but we will usually trade tips on what crops have been working. As we listened to Frank and Pamela talk about their experiences growing marigolds it occurred to Starr and I that we ought to give the flower a try. Our farm is in the middle of a very vibrant Hispanic community and there are large populations of South East Asians nearby and, besides, who doesn’t think marigolds aren’t beautiful. Plus, from an organic perspective, marigolds make a good rotation crop, since their roots create natural chemicals that tend to depress the populations of pathogenic nematodes.
There are any number of marigold varieties available, but Frank hooked me up with a seed company out of Thailand that has the best marigolds for sacramental purposes. The type I chose to grow- which he recommended- is called Chedi, and the orange color is exactly the hue of the orange robes you’ll see Vietnamese Buddhist monks wearing. He also gave me suggestions for the best dates to drop seed in order to make the Diwalli/Dia de los Muertos harvest a bullseye. Conversations our foreman, Fidel, had with local Oaxacan growers confirmed the dates that work best at this latitude and we made plans. But because I’d never grown Chedi before, I planted a series of small crops to have an opportunity to learn the crop. I ended up learning a whole lot more.
Our friend, Jordan, who owns and operates Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, came by the farm to pick up a quantity of dry farmed early girls to can and she saw one of my experimental rows of marigolds. She was stoked. I didn’t know it, but one of my test plantings of Chedi was blooming just in time for two important celebrations; Balarm’s Presentation, and Krishna’s Birthday. She asked to get a large quantity of blooms for the temple she’s a member of up in Mountain View. It was a lot of fun getting all the blooms picked, and she sent us some great pictures of the garlands that the people in the temple created.
If you want to check out the farm in early October, come on out to see a handful of farms on the central coast, ours included, during the Open Farm Tours on October 8th.
Thanks again for all your support!
Andy and the Crew at Mariquita Farm
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos of locations in Texas and of Starr harvesting Marigolds at Mariquita by Andy Griffin.
Photos of Marigolds and Andy harvesting them by Starling Linden.
Photos of Marigolds at Temple by Jordan Champagne.
A “lollapalooza” is like a “humdinger” or a “doozy,” but different! And a “tomatopalooza” starts out as mild as a vegan humdinger, but soon rips and snorts like the bee’s knees. I jest, but not much. Here’s the lowdown:
Sometime back in the 1890’s the word, “lollapalooza,” was first recorded in print in the United States, and it meant something along the lines of “the best of its kind,” or “unusually impressive.” This “lollapalooza” rose up, dripping with excitement, out of our collective, cacophonic, verbal swamp, like a swaggering, bragging, carny barker of a monster. Nobody had patent rights to the “lollapalooza” and we have no such thing as an official “American Academy” that certifies the English vocabulary that’s fit to pronounce, the way that the French keep their language pure by following the rigorous dictates of their Academie Francaise. But purity isn’t much of a core American value, so nobody noticed, and everybody just used the word the way they felt like. Lollapalooza was not a word that Queen Victoria would have used, but its splendid vagueness served the likes of P.T. Barnum and, later, The Three Stooges. The noted American “inventor,” Rube Goldberg, named a cartoon character “Lala Palooza,” and at one point there was an exceptionally large lollipop marketed as a “Lollipalooza.” The Egyptians invented mathematics, the Greeks invented philosophy, and the Mexicans invented tomatoes, chilies, corn, beans, squash, cotton and chocolate, but we Americans invented a successful approach to mass marketing through hyperbole that blurs the fine lines between freedom, fantasy and fraud. Whatever else it is, the Lollapalooza is an American.
In roughly contemporary times the word lollapalooza became associated with a touring rock music festival of the same name. I have not attended any of the Lollapalooza festivals, but it was maybe during one of those shows that I was not attending because I was always picking and hustling tomatoes that I decided to do our first “Tomatopalooza.” Like the musical Lollapalooza, the tomatopalooza is a forum for diverse performers, so instead of a lineup of acts that go from metal to punk to pop, you’ve got tomatoes of every genre performing, from tomatillos, little sweet 100s and sungolds, up through the larger dry farmed Piennolo, and Early Girls, all the way through to the big, fat heirlooms. Next to hit the stage will be the headlining act, the “San Marzanos”. And there are always the side shows like the jalapeños, basils and herbs that go so well with tomatoes. We found out that our customers like flowers as much as they like tomatoes. We did our first “Tomatopalooza” of the year this past weekend in front of Alladin Nursery in Watsonville and it was a success. Starr and I want to thank Gustavo and his family and staff for hosting our event. We met a lot of neighbors, saw a lot of friends, and sent a lot of tomatoes and flowers out into the world. If you are ever passing by Alladin you will see our flower cart out front, it isn’t easy to miss the brightly “ice-dyed” roof and the cart that is filled this time of year with Dahlias and Zinnias. And definitely take a look inside Alladin, it is filled with many wonderful plants and gifts that you can enjoy.
As Starr was helping people gather up their purchases and I was bringing more boxes from the van to the booth I found myself thinking about my grandfather, my mom’s father. He had a little country store up in Applegate, in the gold country, and I remember the state building I-80 right through “town”, dividing what was already a tiny village into two, separate scraps of community. My Grandpa’s store was in the same building as the post office, and library, and it was down the only block from the bar and the “‘no-tell Motel,” so it served as a casual community center. Grandpa sold worms for bait, Wonderbread, beer, pipe fittings, toys, toilet seats, guns, milk, eggs, ammo- anything and everything you’d need to satisfy the wants of a rural life. And in his parking lot he hosted the Applegate Community Center’s Community Garden Market. Just past the bar was an old, red, one-roomed schoolhouse that mom had attended when she was a girl, and that was the OFFICIAL community center. They had a large garden that people volunteered in and grew veggies for the market wagon. It was a great big buckboard style wagon with rubber tread wheels that they’d pile high with corn and okra and zucchini and…..tomatoes! My first job in the produce industry was sitting up on the wagon, bagging people’s green beans and sweet corn and melons and….tomatoes! The smell of tomatoes in the summer is, for me, the smell of summer.
Tomato season almost always starts around the same time of year, because we plant on or around April 15th, which is supposedly our average “frost free” date. But how long the season lasts is anybody’s guess; an extreme heatwave, like we had four years ago, or an unusually heavy and early rain, like we had six years ago, can bring things to an early end. In our dreams we have a steady flow of ripe fruit all the way until November, at which point we begin wishing it would please rain so that we know we will have the water for next year. Keep your eyes on the newsletter for a tomatopalooza near you. It’s “so far, so good” with this season, and it looks like we have a nice crop rolling in. Tomatopalooza 2022 is coming. I promise you it’ll be a rip-snorting humdinger.
Thanks again for all your support!
Andy and the Crew at Mariquita Farm
© 2022 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin
The Islas Marias are an archipelago in the Pacific some 60 miles offshore of Nayarit that have served as a Mexican Federal Prison Colony. I’ve never been there, but when we pick tomatillos I’m prompted to think back on Tia Maria “Pistolitas,” because her husband served a life sentence there, having been convicted of growing opium poppies and making black tar heroin back in Jalisco. “Pistolitas” means “little pistols,” and I’m not quite clear on how Maria first earned her name, but I remember her as somewhat of a firecracker by nature; a curandera, or natural healer, a defiant and outspoken lesbian grandma, a farmworker, as well as being a part time “coyote” who brought people across the border deserts ahead of every strawberry season. She was Ramiro’s auntie, or “Tia,” and I lived with Ramiro Campos and his family here for a couple of years back in the early ’90s. Besides Ramiro and his wife, Amparo, and their two children, I shared the house with his big sister, Maria. Ramiro’s uncle Raul and his wife, Maria, were frequent visitors to the ranch, as was Maria Pistolitas, his Tia from the other side of his family. Having one Maria go by the moniker “Pistolitas,” was helpful in keeping all the Marias sorted out.
Ramiro, Raul, Amparo, Maria, Maria, and I, were all sitting around the fire one evening in the yard, warming tortillas on a grill and sharing some beer and tacos. It was summer, so we had plenty of tomatoes, cebolla de rabo verde, or green-tailed onions, jalapeño peppers, and tomatillos. The women were making salsa by grilling the tomatillos, chilis and green onions over an open fire until they were slightly charred and softened by the heat, and then they’d mash it all together with a squeeze of lemon in their stone “molcajete” or mortar, using a stone “mano,” or pestle. With a lemon and limes hanging from the fruit trees growing not more that 20 yards from the fire, the smell of grilling jalapeños in the air, a handful of goats scandalizing just beyond the fence and peering through the woven wire fence at us, and with the Ranchero music playing low on the radio it was a very Mexican scene and a very pleasant evening. Ramiro was moved to philosophize: “You know, Andres,” he said. “This is really a paradise. We’re at the end of the road and the gate is closed, so we have all the privacy a person could want. With squash and garbanzo and corn and cilantro and chilis and corn growing in the garden, we’ve got almost everything we want.”
“What’s missing,” I asked?
“Tomatillo de Milpa,” Ramiro answered.
“These tomatillos are fine,” he said, gesturing to the big green tomatillos that were sizzling and popping on the grill. He and I both worked on Riverside Farms back then, and he’d brought the big, green tomatillos home from work where we had a big patch of them to harvest for our farmers market customers.
“But back home on our ranch in La Barca we’ve got the wild tomatillos growing all over the place. You don’t have to plant them, or water them, or anything; just send the kids out to pick them when they’re ready. They’re small, but they have less juice so they keep better, and the flavor is great, and they grill up well. The salsa is “mas autentica” con tomatillo de milpa.”
“Luckily,” he continued, “Mi Tia Pistolitas is coming up from La Barca next week to visit, and I’ve asked her to bring me a handful from the ranch so we can plant them here.”
That was thirty years ago. Maria Pistolitas came to visit and she brought up a small paper bag with a handful of small, half-purple tomatillos de milpa for Ramiro to plant. The “milperos,” as they’re called, did great. Amparo and Maria harvested some of them, and the squirrels and crows and mice harvested some of them. Milperos don’t need a gardener’s attention to thrive; they just do their thing, and now we have milperos growing everywhere on the farm, whether we want them or not. I have a milpa, or corn patch, and of course the milperos have popped up there. But they’re also growing in the zinnias, they’re growing among the roses and lemons and cacti, and they’re even showing up in the old water troughs I’ve filled with soil and planted out in Hoja Santa.
But the tomatillos in this week’s harvest share box are the milpero’s larger, domesticated cousins called “Toma Verde.” Toma Verde tomatillos are fine, and they are the backbone of the green salsa industry. They pick quick and cook quickly. The variety is reliably disease free and pest resistant for the most part, and the variety is familiar to most consumers. We will have the tomatillo de milpa later in the season when the plants are heavily loaded with their tiny fruits and all we have to do to “pick” them is pull up the plants and shake them.
And what happened to Ramiro? He and Amparo saved up their money when they lived with me and bought a house in San Juan Bautista. When the housing market was going through a periodic peak they sold their California home, moved back to Jalisco and bought a goat ranch. Ramiro started a small goat dairy. It’s a success story of sorts, but it’s not a simple “happily ever after” fairy tale because there are problems with armed gangs there that never was an issue in the past, and cartel violence casts a worry over everything. The last time I spoke with Ramiro he had taken to sleeping in his barn loft with an assault rifle, ready to fend off the rustlers who would steal his quality dairy goats to slaughter and sell for meat on the black market. I wish Ramiro and his family the success they’ve worked so hard to achieve. The Campos family is gone from here, but hardly forgotten, since their tomatillos de milpa have made themselves at home here.
© 2022 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin
Broadly speaking, there are two principal categories of tomatoes; “determinate,” and “indeterminate.” Once a determinate tomato plant has matured, it sets all the flowers it’s ever going to have in one big flush. A pollinated tomato flower is just an impregnated embryo dressed up in a skirt of petals. So, just as a determinate tomato sets all of its flowers at one time, it follows that the fully developed fruits all mature at once. I don’t have anything against determinate tomatoes, but I don’t grow them. Determinate varieties of tomato are best suited for large scale farming operations that mechanically harvest their crops. The machines that harvest the tomatoes make one pass through the field, mowing down the plants and shaking the fruits from the vines and they leave a tangled mess of thrashed vines in their wake. Machine harvesting is cheaper than picking the crop by hand, but if a farmer wants to have a series of harvests of determinate tomatoes they need to plant a series of successive crops. Mechanized harvests of determinate tomatoes make the most sense for farms that are big enough to afford the machines and have enough space for a series of plantings. Determinate tomato breeds find their highest purpose in producing the tons and tons of fruit that are needed for processed tomato production. Most tomato juice, tomato sauce, and canned tomatoes that are commercially available come from determinate varieties. The clockwork precision with which these modern, determinate tomato varieties mature on a schedule allows canneries to operate with production contracts that guarantee a steady flow of raw, cheap product into their factories. My farm is tiny and I serve a local community of home cooks who are doing their own canning, so determinate varieties are not relevant to our needs.
We grow indeterminate varieties of tomato. We are picking by hand and we have a small crew doing all the work so it makes sense for us to grow varieties of tomatoes that live for a long season and yield a modest crop of fruit week after week. That said, we usually make two or three separate plantings of each variety of tomato over a period of eight weeks so that we can be more assured of a steady harvest. And planting several sets of indeterminate tomatoes helps us guarantee that we will have a crop to sell, even if we suffer some problem in the field, like a destructive heat wave, a devastating fungal blight, a plague of pest insects, or an unseasonal heavy rain. At one time or another in the past we have suffered each of these environmental dramas. Luckily, this year, so far at any rate, the slot machine we call a tomato farm has been coming up cherries. In fact, since cherry tomatoes are small and they ripen fast compared to their larger cousins, they’re always our first tomato. Our early crop of cherry toms is kicking in now, and we’ll have two more plantings to pick after this first planting is slowing down. If we lived in the tropics where it never frosts, these cherry tomato plants would likely live for several years. Up here on the 38th parallel the cold weather of late fall will eventually kill them but, with any luck, we’ll have cherry tomatoes all the way to Halloween, and in an exceptional year we may even have a few baskets for Thanksgiving.
One of our main crops of larger tomatoes are the Early Girl tomatoes, which we grow without using any irrigation- a practice called “dry-farming.” When you “dry farm” a crop, you plant it early in the season while the soil still has a lot of moisture near the surface. As the air temperatures rise and subsoil water level recedes, the tomato plants send their roots deeper and deeper into the soil as they chase the water down. Deeper soil typically has less humus in it and more minerality. Flavor in fruit and color in flowers doesn’t come from the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that promote vegetative growth so much as from the trace elements of various minerals available in the soil. Any wine grower can wax eloquent about “terroir,” but what they’re really talking about is flavor as an expression of local minerality. Fruit from the same breed of plant grown in different terrain will taste different due to the different spectrum of trace elements that the plants take up, as well as the consequence of varying local climatic conditions. Sicily has won wide fame around the world for the flavor of its tomatoes, and while Latin pride may account for a certain amount of bragging, there’s no doubt that the volcanic ash from Mt Etna has blessed Sicily with an amazing profile of minerals and trace elements that enrich the soil. We can’t compete with Sicily because we have no Etna nearby, but we are at almost the same latitude as Ragusa, Sicily, we enjoy a Mediterranean climate that is similar to theirs. When we dry farm our tomatoes we get their roots down past our super rich topsoil and into the mineral zone. Early Girls come “early,” and we’ll make our first pass through the field on Monday, but it will likely be a few more weeks until we see our first meaningful harvests.
Another crop that we dry farm are the Piennolo tomatoes. You may have seen Piennolo tomatoes in magazine articles about the food traditions of Italy. There is the custom of pulling the green Piennolo plants up by the roots at the end of the season when the cold weather approaches and hanging the vines from the ceilings of Italian kitchens and the green fruits will supposedly ripen within the reach of the cook’s outstretched arms during the winter. We got our seed from my friend, Annabelle, who manages Star Route Farm in Bolinas. As near as I can tell, this variety is very similar to the Principe Borghese tomato that we have grown in the past. Besides being useful as a fresh ingredient, Piennolo tomatoes are also much esteemed as the best crop for sun dried tomatoes. Being as we dry farm our Piennolo tomatoes, the fruits don’t have excessive moisture to begin with, and we plan on drying a quantity of ours and packing them in the local Belle Farms olive oil. We will have some dried Piennolo for sale late this fall, but we will have plenty to sell fresh too in case you want to dry or can your own. The crop looks great so far, but they are never “early,” and I imagine we’ll see our first good harvests by the beginning of August.
Our crop of San Marzano tomatoes are doing fine too. (Photo at top of unripe green San Marzanos). San Marzanos are much appreciated by consumers because their dense, sweet flesh makes for a wonderful sauce. You don’t see San Marzanos so often in major retail settings here because the “sauce niche” is typically covered by cheap, mass produced determinate varieties, but the San Marzano is an iconic Italian variety and you can see it’s distinctive, long, bullet shaped image on the labels of a million cans of imported tomato sauce. It could be that many US growers steer away from raising San Marzanos because the vines can be subject to various diseases. Since we’ve lost a crop or two over the years we take care to plant several sets of San Marzano each year in case we lose one. It’s so far, so good for our San Marzano crop this season, and I expect the first harvests by late July or early August. The heaviest harvests will fall through September and early October, but the first harvests are just around the corner, so buy your jars and make your plans now.
Our heirloom tomatoes are about to start too. The Cherokee Purples are always the earliest color to present itself in the spectrum, and we harvested half a dozen boxes last week, which is a good first pass. The Pink Brandywines, Yellow Brandywines, and Marvel Striped tomatoes will follow. We have lots of fresh basil planted, so Caprese salad is just around the corner too. We had a trial run on a Caprese salad in our own kitchen last night and enjoyed it with a bottle of wine from our neighbors at El Vaquero winery. They’ve opened up a tasting room with live music and trivia nights just around the corner from our home farm in Corralitos- and next to our friends at Alladin Nursery who are letting us set up our “honor stall flower stand” in front of their store. Thanks, Gustavo and Alladin staff. Starr has been making herb salt in advance of the harvest so that when the fresh crop comes we have some to sell. Herbed salt brings out a delightful taste in the tomatoes. She also has been preparing a wide range of dried herbs for all the canners out there, like oregano, thyme and marjoram. Get ready now while we have lots in stock. And stay tuned for an upcoming Tomato Palooza in an area near you. We’re also planning a U-Pick event at our home ranch this fall for our dry-farmed Piennolo tomatoes. Keep an eye on the newsletters for updates.
Thanks, Andy and the Crew at Mariquita
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden
Water witching works like a charm. Or not. Some people call the ancient practice “dowsing.” Others call it “magic.” It works like this; cut a young, but firm, forked branch from a tree- preferably a willow if you’re dowsing for water- and trim it so that it is shaped like a “Y” with each arm or leg about 12 to 18 inches long. Grasp your forked branch with both hands, palms up, each hand holding on to one of the outstretched arms of the Y, and with the leg of the Y pointing out in front of your body like the bowsprit of a sailing ship. Keep your willow “bowsprit” level in front of you as you walk around the area in which you are searching for water. If you are sensitive — and if there is a hidden water deposit below — the witching wand will dip down to point to the underground water source as you pass over.
Archeologists will tell you that people have been divining the presence of water in this way for thousands of years. There are images that depict these dowsers at work carved in the walls of Egyptian tombs and scratched down in antique Chinese etchings. Some people even swear by dowsing as a way to find other hidden resources, like underground veins of gold or lost cell phones. But other people think that dowsers are frauds, or worse. Over the years I’ve asked a number of professional well diggers what they think.
Jack Edsberg dug my newer well twenty five years ago. He was one of four different well diggers I sought bids from, and it was interesting to see how little they varied in what they all said to me. I’ll quote (or paraphrase) Jack and let him speak for all the well diggers I’ve met, because they seemed to speak like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. In fact, the only difference between what any of them said was the price they asked for their services. In the end, I went with Jack Edsberg, not because he was the cheapest, but because he’d also been a local farmer for many years, and I got along well with him.
“Andy,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if dowsing works or not. If you want an electric pump you’re going to have to dig the well near an existing power drop, because lawyers, guns, and money aren’t enough to get PG&E to extend a new line these days. You’d need lots of time for them to get that done, so if you want water in this life you’ll dig next to an existing power pole. And since the county has a mandatory setback of 25 feet from any property line for any new well, and since this pole is the end of the line for PG&E, you’re going to want to dig here.” And he pointed to the same spot, 30 feet from our property line, 20 feet from the power line, and 10 feet from my house that every other well digger had pointed to. “Also,” he said, “I charge by the foot, whether or not I hit water.”
Well diggers are careful not to promise that they will find water for you. But they’ll usually offer an informed opinion on what they think is going on under the ground. Here too, I found that the well diggers spoke in unison. “We’re going to get some water within the first 50 feet,” Jack said, “but we’re going to drill right past it. It’s just surface water, and we’re aiming for a bigger aquifer that’s around 160 feet down. It’ll have better water and more of it. It’s an aquifer that’s flowing down from the Sierras.” Our house is at about 38 feet elevation and we’re about three miles from the coastline, as the seagull flies, so I’d imagine any water flowing past under our house will seep into the ocean at about 140 feet under the waves. It was surprising- and sobering- to find out our water comes from the Sierra. When you think about it, my farm is pretty close to the end of the line for this underground river, and there are LOTS of pumps “upstream” between our fields and the Sierra snowpack.
Jack did hit a modest flow of water through a vein of gravel about 25 feet below the surface and then the drill bit into a deep and dense layer of clay. He poured a plug of concrete around the well shaft to keep any of the surface water from draining down into any deeper aquifer. At around 160 feet below the surface he hit the first trace of the water he was looking for and he stopped drilling at 250ft. With the pump installed I was drawing twenty gallons a minute from 160 feet, with a 70 foot column of water below. Everything went just as every well digger had projected. They get around, and an old well digger, like Jack, has been to many, many wells over the landscape and over the years as they do their work digging or repairing wells, and they keep notes. Sometimes talking to them can be eye-opening.
During the last drought I had an emergency with my newer well, and I feared I’d run out of water. Jack had passed away, but the well digger that took my call could have been his brother. “It’s a pump problem,” he told me after some preliminary tests. “You’re looking good water-wise with about 10 gallons a minute, pumping from 180 feet down.”
That didn’t sound so good to me since we’d been pumping twice as much per minute from 20 feet higher twenty years before. So our water table had dropped considerably. I was telling the well service guy all about my worries, but he put a hand up and told me to relax.
“I just came from a job off of San Miguel Canyon, where it comes into the Valley by the railroad, and the fellow there said his pump had burned out. The pump was fine but his well was dry- and they were pumping from 750 feet.”
That was alarming news. I have farmed out in that neighborhood, and that area used to be a wetlands, crawling with crawdads, frogs, and turtles. It’s my understanding that those wetlands were drained for farming by the Slavic immigrants who came into the Watsonville area in the late 1800s from the Adriatic. The flooded land was cheap because the Gringos didn’t want it for their cattle pasture and it didn’t have redwoods for logging, so the Slavs bought it, drained it, and were rewarded with some of the richest farmland you can imagine. You still see the Slavic names all over town; Scuritch, Marinovitch, Matulich, Pavitch, etc. Their ancestors laughingly call themselves the “Sons of Vitches”, and quite a few of them are still farming.
In 1990 I was farming out in that neighborhood and our farming neighbor across the road was a very successful conventional grower named Bukonovitch. His label was “Boogie Woogie,” and his cartons had the outline of a saxophone printed on the sides. But “Boogie,” as he was known, lost all his jazz cool when he found out that we were growing vegetables organically right across the road from him. “You can’t do that,” he hollered at us, all red-faced and agitated. He was worried that we’d “infect” his crops with all the pests we were breeding and harboring. Boogie thought that organic growing couldn’t be done and we were dirtbag hippies for even trying. There was no reasoning with him. “But we’re doing it!” we replied. Nowadays organic farming is widespread across the Pajaro Valley. But clearly water supply is a looming problem, even if the crisis is underground and out of sight.
It would be good if everybody learned more about the security and stability of their own water supply. Now that I know my water table has dropped by a foot a year I’m certainly more aware of water and how much I’m using. We are not going to have enough water in the future for everybody in California to do what they like, so controls are inevitable and hard policy choices will have to be made. Does it make sense to use the state’s scarce water resources to irrigate alfalfa for an overseas market? Or, why should we, the public, watch as the water table in the Central Valley is drained to grow almonds for export by a few large landowners, when that water might be more equitably shared among numerous interests, including communities and wildlife? Or, have we ever looked honestly at what the impact is on our environment of turning so much “water into wine.” In a future newsletter I’ll tell you a counterintuitive and happy story about our older well.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photo by Starling Linden
If a prominent plant family were ever to be cast for one of Hollywood’s full-on “franchise treatments,” with a series, some movies, then spin-offs, with prequels and sequels and endless branding and merchandising opportunities, then certainly the Mints deserve consideration; consider the family’s sweeping cast of characters with their aromatic flair and drama:
The mint family is now properly known as the “Lamiacea,” and there are over 230 different genera within it. The family was once called the “Labiatea” until the taxonomists changed everything around to make botany fun and challenging. Think of the present day English royal family, which used to be the “House of Saxe Coburg and Gotha” until the First World War made a German surname unpalatable to the English Monarch, so he changed the family name to “House of Windsor,” renaming his dynasty after their principle castle of Windsor. The mint family- or Lamiacea– even have royalty in their blood. “Basil” even means “regal,” and basil is in the mint family, and they are worth a miniseries all on their own.
Basils are richly scented with evocative, spicy perfumes. They are reputed to be good in the kitchen and in bed. One of them, Tulsi, is even a Goddess. There are many branches in the mint family, but a common thread that almost all the distant cousins share is that they are fragrant. When I was reading up on the mint family I was surprised to even find that the teak trees are mints! I wonder what their foliage smells like? Then I remembered that when I helped a friend with his basil farm down in Todos Santos, we had a Genovese basil plant at the edge of the field that escaped getting turned under by the disk at the end of the season. When next spring came that plant had grown a trunk as thick as my arm and was as tall as I was. And I read that wood of Tulsi basil is carved into prayer beads.
Then there are the so-called “mints,” themselves, those aromatic herbs that have lent their common name to the family Lamiaceae. There’s Peppermint to clean up your breath, while Pennyroyal mint is known for being a folk abortifacient. Spearmint takes you to the horse races for a proper mint julep and Applemint tea soothes your jagged nerves. Mints come from all over the world and influence all the cuisines that they touch. The Mints could carry a travel-the-world cooking show all by themselves. From Vietnam to North Africa to England mint just keeps popping up on menus in fancy drinks and herbal tisanes, in stews and salads, and in rubs, jellies, and marinades.
Lavenders are mints too. Like their cousins, they’re fragrant. And, as with other mints, their stems are square. Lavender plays a “walk-on role” on the dessert menu, and it shows up in fancy cocktails and in candies, but it’s a full-on megastar in the perfume business. And it’s one of those rare plants whose name is synonymous with a color and an attitude; remember the Lavender Panthers?
People aren’t the only creatures that appreciate mint. There are mints for cats, like catnip, catmint, and cat thyme. And there are mints to attract bees, like Bee Balm, and mints to repel fleas, like Rosemary. Sages are mints, and many of them are extremely attractive to birds. Pineapple sage leaves makes a nice calming, herbal tisane for a human but the Hummingbirds come to the plants to tank up on sugary nectar from the plant’s long red flowers and they get a sweet rush that gets their tiny hearts pumping up to 1,260 beats per minute. Culinary sage is revered as an herb for roasting game birds, but it’s also synonymous with wisdom, and a “sage” is a wise man.
There’s also a sage called Salvia divinorum, the “Diviner’s sage,” that can bring on hallucinations and other altered states of consciousness. The New Riders Of The Purple Sage were a drugged up country rock band back in the 70s in the Bay Area, whose songbook emphasized mescalito and marijuana but, oddly, not the psychedelic Diviners’ sage. Their band name alluded to the dime store western novel “Riders of Purple Sage,” by Zane Gray. Ironically, the Great Basin desert’s sagebrush that Zane Grey romantically infused with his purple prose is not a true sage, or even a mint family member, but actually belongs to the Artemisia clan. But what family drama would be complete without some interloper trying to seize the family’s inheritance?
Oreganos and marjorams are mints that typically enjoy sunnier, drier, and more well-drained conditions. We speak of “Italian oregano,” “Greek oregano,” and “Sweet Marjoram,” and “Za’atar,” or “Syrian marjoram,” but, as so often in life, once we leave the precise, library-like confines of taxonomy behind and go out into the field, we encounter a more confusing family dynamic. The oreganos and marjorams grow wild, as well as in the garden, and they interbreed willingly. They’ve been carried by gardeners and traded around the world to the point where precise origins and genetic makeup of any particular plant are blurred with time. It’s probably more correct to think of the different types of oregano/marjoram as being “points along a spectrum,” or salient characters from a hybrid swarm. There’s drama there, but if herb makes your red sauce piquant, it’s all good.
Thyme to end…Thymes are mints too. We’ve got “regular” thyme in our gardens, and Lemon thyme, Silver thyme, creeping thyme, and Lime thyme. In fact, many of the mint family members grow well here, and Starr has been drying many of them for use in the kitchen, bath, flower or in the teacup.
Throughout the season we can offer:
English and French Lavender wands, loose Lavender florets, and Lavender bath salts
Za’atar, or Syrian Marjoram
and Plenty of Thyme
Plus we’ve got garden Sage planted and on its way, and of course we have Lemon Balm and Lemon Thyme to keep our Lemon trees company. And we even have Lemon Verbena, which isn’t (at this moment) technically a mint, but there are taxonomists who would like to put it in the Lamiaceae. If anybody can make taxonomy sexy, spicy, comforting, or hallucinatory, it would be the mint family.
Everyone take your places…Ready…Camera…Action!
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin & Starling Linden
When I think about the desirability and feasibility of a farm saving its own seed, my mind turns from considering the actual mechanics of how to go about maintaining and reproducing healthy seed stock to reflecting on the high cost of rent. A look back at the business practices of The Beatles is illuminating, as well. Yeah, yeah, yeah! So here’s my perspective:
The first thing to bear in mind is that a seed crop inevitably takes a lot more time to realize its potential than would the harvest of the same plant grown for the consumer. Take lettuce, for example; if a romaine lettuce seed can sprout and grow into a plant that is the ideal size for harvest in 60 days, then the same plant grown for a seed crop would still have to grow until it is mature enough to flower. After flowering, the seed grower still has to wait for the pollinated lettuce flowers to set seed and then dry down to the point that the seeds can be easily threshed and collected. By now, you’re talking about almost a year of time invested by the farmer in a seed crop of lettuce. Crops other than lettuce might take even longer to produce. Celery can grow a whole year before it bothers to send up a seed stalk, and the celery plant might only produce the mature seed after 18 months. The time that a seed crop takes to produce is a very important consideration because “time is money” and, if you’re renting the space you’re growing on, then rent exercises a constant force of gravity on your decision making process.
I’m farming within several miles of the ocean near Santa Cruz, with one rented parcel and one field I own. The landowners are not managing most of the farmland around here. Maybe the owners’ grandparents were farmers, or their great-grandparents, but the present day owners are often/usually the descendants of the historical farmers and they are the beneficiaries of family trusts that rent the land to the contemporary farmers. The Monterey Bay Area is a very pleasant place to live so there’s constant market pressure on landowners to develop rural land into housing. If you see a large tract of ground being farmed around here anymore you can assume that it is such good farmland that it is worth keeping in agriculture. Out along San Andreas Road, for example, within sight and sound of the waves breaking on Sunset beach, the farmland will rent for at least $2,500/acre per year, and in some cases even more than that. That land is great for strawberry production. If you’re a landowner with a 40 acre parcel there you’d be a fool to be a farmer. Forty acres rented for strawberry production yields $100,000 to the landlord with payments due on the first day of the year. You’d be super lucky to realize that kind of income actually growing crops on that ground, and you’d be subject to every vulnerability and liability that every grower faces. There are hardly any crops other than strawberries that can hope to cover the upfront costs of such expensive land and seed crops definitely don’t “pencil out.”
Further up the Pajaro Valley, away from the ocean, where the conditions for strawberries are not quite so perfect, the price per acre may fall to $2000/acre by Murphy’s Crossing Road or even to $1800/acre out by the county line. By the time you get to Hollister, where the land is not cool enough for strawberries, land rents may only total $700 or $800/acre, which is cheap enough to allow production of cheaper crops, than strawberries, like summer squash, broccoli, sweet corn, or peppers, but the land is still not cheap enough to make the costs of managing the land for most seed crops. There actually are a number of seed companies located in the Hollister/Gilroy area, but they are mostly focused on the breeding and development work for new crop varieties. Not only is the Hollister/Gilroy area a great environment for growing a wide range of floral and edible crops, the neighborhood is also a pleasant (if expensive) place for the seed scientists to live and do their work. But once a target crop has been “improved” under “laboratory conditions” by the plant scientists, then the actual bulk seed production is farmed out to a grower in some other part of the world. Seed companies look for places where the climate and environmental conditions are acceptable, but the cost of land is low and the cost of labor is cheaper than dirt. Here’s where the Fab Four are worth remembering.
When The Beatles were starting out as teenagers they got their chops down by playing all night long in the strip clubs along the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. They played loud and they played covers of other artists’ music, emulating their heroes, like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or the Isley Brothers. But by the time they were recording their third album, A Hard Day’s Night, they’d learned that they’d make the most money if they composed and performed their own songs. Critics could listen to their music and hear echoes of all the influences that they’d absorbed. “Cultural appropriation” you could say, if you listen to “Back in The USSR,” for example, and hear Chuck Berry. But unlike some of their contemporaries who signed their names to other people’s work, the Beatles themselves were always clear about their admiration of the musicians that inspired them and keen to give credit where credit was due. If you want to look at glaring examples of “Cultural appropriation” look at the behavior of the big seed companies.
Seeds, like songs, used to be passed from one generation to the next. Who wrote “Shady Grove” and when did they do it? Who saved the first Scarlet Runner bean seed from a wild plant to sow in their garden? With music, the folk tradition guarded and honored the roots of the music even as successive generations of artists reinterpreted the melodies and themes of the songs they’d grown up with. With agriculture, the different varieties of crop plants were selected for over generations by tribal people you’ll never hear of, and women probably did most of the work. When a seed company takes a traditional, open pollinated crop like corn, which was nurtured out of wild nature by the indigenous people in the mountains of Central America, and they “improve” it, they can get a patent for their creation and start earning money. They don’t have to share any of the profits of their work with the people who did 99% of the historical work of selecting from the raw materials of nature. Just as the Beatles chose to focus on recording their own songs, however derivative they may have been of other artists’ music, the seed companies can choose to focus on producing and selling the “improved ” varieties of trusted, traditional crops that they hold patent rights on. The more successful seed companies buy out the less successful ones that were selling traditional, un-patented seed and close them down to gain more control of the market, or they may keep the brands alive but replace the open pollinated seeds with their proprietary varieties. And the price of seed to the grower goes UP, UP, UP!
Yes, because seeds are like songs, a grower can make their own music and produce their own seed. If a seed variety gets expensive enough, maybe it even becomes worthwhile to produce it on rented land in the first world. But besides rent costs, there are also other management issues that complicate seed saving. With some crops that are pollinated by the wind, like corn, it can be hard to find a spot that is isolated enough so that the seed crop is not negatively affected by being cross pollinated by another crop. With crops that insects or bats pollinate there can be isolation problems too, but they can be managed by tenting the mother plants with a system of screens. All in all, saving seed can be fun and interesting, but it can be a distracting hassle if the income of the farm is primarily derived from the sales of food crops. At Mariquita Farm I can’t really afford to save much of my own seed for the reasons outlined above, but I’ve always done it when driven to it by scarcity or frustration. Take the Scarlet Runner bean that evolved in Central America that I’ve alluded to as an example:
Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Scarlet Runner bean made its way by donkey back and sailing ship from the mountains of Oaxaca to ports of Japan. Japanese farmers took the culture of this bean up and in time selected the largest beans to replant until they’d achieved an absolutely giant bean, which they called the “Akahana mame.” Because the cool, coastal conditions on my farm in Corralitos mimic the original mountain conditions where the runner bean evolved, I know I can grow good Akahana mame here. For years I’d been getting the seed from Kitazawa Seeds, an Oakland based seed company that traded in Asian crop varieties. Their seed was good, but expensive, so I began saving my own seed and, boy, am I glad I did. Last winter Kitazawa Seed got sold to a larger company, and I just went on the new website to see about getting some more Akahana mame seed. I’ve got a few blank spots in the beds that I could fill out and I’ve planted all my own seed. But the new owners want- get this!!!- $92.88/pound for their runner bean seed! Ninety-two dollars and eighty- eight cents per pound! Peaches H. Christ! Here’s the link.
So yes, I’ll be saving more Akahana mame seed going forward. Luckily for me, I own a patch of ground that is only suited for small-scale production, and rent is not an issue. My field is isolated, so I don’t face difficulties with cross pollination, plus I’m crabby enough at the seed companies to make the work of sorting and selecting seed a satisfying task. Here are some pix of our Akahana mame beds. A bean we can all get excited about.
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
Basil, the backyard gardener and amateur ethno botanist from Basel, took a step into the basilica of St Basil’s Cathedral, clutching a bunch of basil in his right hand. He glanced around, to the left and to the right, hurriedly, uneasily, and frequently, before advancing to the altar, as though there might be a basilisk lurking in the shadows. But why was Basil so timid and frightful? He, of all people, should have known that he was both armed, and armored, by the little bunch of herb in his hand.
Basil is not just an aromatic herb in the mint family. A lot of people don’t know this, but basil is the only cure for the bite of the basilisk. True, basilisks are extremely ferocious and cruel magical reptiles, ready and able to kill with just a glance, and they spread a wave of toxic venom in their wake, but they are helpless in the presence of basil in the same way that vampires can’t cope with garlic. The word basil in ancient Greek meant “monarch” or “Kingly.” But just as the basilisk earned its name and reputation as the “King of Serpents” by virtue of its deadly and uncanny powers – and because of the crown shaped crest on its head- so the most royal and powerful of herbs got named “Basil.” Basil, the good herb, trumps the basilisk, the evil serpent. And basil isn’t only good at counteracting the effects of basilisk venom. All manner of evil creatures are repelled by basil, from the common housefly to the Prince of Hell and the Lord of Flies, Beelzebub himself.
Basil the gardener reached the altar and placed the bunch of basil from his garden next to an open Bible. When it came time the Priest could choose to use this herbal offering as a tender and aromatic wand with which to sprinkle holy water on the gathered worshippers. With the orthodoxy of the Greek Orthodox in mind, Basil had brought the tiny-leaved, sweet scented Greek basil to the basilica, not the muskier, more clove-like Tulsi basil that is revered in Hindu tradition as a manifestation of the Goddess Tulsi.
Basil grew many kinds of basil in his garden back in Basel because there are many kinds of basil with many different uses. All basil varieties originally evolved in Southeast Asia, and in a warm tropical climate they can all be short-lived perennials. At home back in India, Tulsi basil can grow to be quite large and woody and those woody stems are carved into prayer beads. In ancient Greece and Rome there were basil varieties that were used in the manufacture of perfumes that were used by kings to mask their royal odors. Meanwhile, in a more Italian context, history tells us that vases of fresh basil were used by the romantically inclined as gifts to express the tender feelings they have for their lovers.
Basel, in Switzerland, does not have the most appropriate climate for growing basil. So to grow his basil in Basel Basil used a greenhouse setup to get his plants through the cold winters of Central Europe. Besides the Tiny leafed Greek Basil, he also grew Purple or Opal basil, Lemon scented basil, Anise scented basil, and Genovese basil, but all under glass. The Swiss city was named Basel because it was once a Roman city, and the center of power in any Roman area was the basilica, where the monarch or king held court. Basil, the gardener, should have known that he too came into this world endowed with the name, meaning “kingly,” yet he fled the basilica of Saint Basil’s Cathedral like a thief, once he’d left his little bundle of basil on the altar. Why?
I can only speculate, but perhaps Basil was fearful because he was a Western foreigner in Moscow, in Red Square, in the belly of the beast, so to speak. The original Saint Basil had been called “A Fool for Christ” and “The Wonderworker of Moscow” because he shoplifted to feed the poor, he went about naked in the streets, and he chastised the autocrat of the day, Ivan the Terrible, for being so terrible. The Moscow church that, ironically, was built by Ivan the Terrible became the most iconic structure in Russia and was named after Saint Basil to honor him for his humane instincts. But times have changed in Moscow and there’s a new Ivan the Terrible in town.
We’re all going to need a lot of basil going forward. Luckily, I’ve planted basil and this week we can enjoy our first harvest. With the onset of warm weather we should soon have a lot, but if you’re going to have a lot of something it might as well be basil. It’s such a useful herb; the mere scent of basil is uplifting. Basil can attract lovers and repel demons and flies. Basil is useful in religious ceremonies and may, in fact, be divine. Oh, and the Italians make pesto with it.
Get a bottle of our Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil grown from Belle Farms in Aptos, CA., pine nuts, a nice lemon and a fine loaf of sourdough bread and you are set for next week.
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
Oh, my God, the violence lay hidden in their hearts! One little old lady said she kept a loaded rifle by her sliding glass door so that if she saw one she could open the door… and open fire. Another woman said she connected a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of her husband’s Cadillac so that she could gas them to death.
I’d been invited to speak to a local Watsonville ladies’ garden club about the principles of organic agriculture but it turned out they were more interested in murdering gophers than they were in hearing about cover crops, beneficial insects, or mulches. “How do you fight gophers?” they asked me. So I told them about my black cat. That was years ago, and since that time, that cat and several others have come and gone from the farm, but I’ve loved and appreciated all of them. Here are their stories:
I was still working on Star Route Farm in Bolinas in 1983 when my first cat came to me. Two Israeli women were working on the farm at the time, Estee and Mirav. They’d been front line nurses in the Israeli Army during the Lebanon War, and when their tour of duty was finished, they came to the San Francisco Bay Area to unwind and recuperate their spirits by working on an organic farm and playing at being hippies. Estee and Mirav missed the Summer of Love by 16 years, but they enjoyed the tranquility that Bolinas had to offer, and since they’d grown up on an agricultural kibbutz they had lots of prior farming experience. After work they liked to take a stroll around the farm, and one summer evening they passed by the trailer where I was staying. I greeted them, and Mirav had a question for me.
“You have a pot?” she asked.
Mirav and Estee spoke Hebrew amongst themselves, and they were fluent in French, but their command of English was still charmingly erratic. “You want to borrow a pot?” I replied.
“No, no, what you say?” Mirav asked. “You have a little pot?”
“You want to buy pot?” I asked.
“No, no, no,” Mirav laughed. “You have a little pot friend?”
“A pet friend? I asked.
“Yes, yes, a pot friend!”
I told them that maybe I did. I’d noticed that somebody had come in through my trailer window when I was gone and licked the corners off a cube of butter that I’d had on the counter. So I put out a dish of cat food on the floor and left the window open, and soon I had a friendly black cat sharing my trailer- and hunting for gophers on the farm. Obviously, his name was “Pot Friend.”
I was surprised a few weeks later to hear a horse snorting outside my trailer, and when I opened the door, a nude woman riding bareback confronted me. “You stole my cat,” she said.
“No, I didn’t!” I said. “A black cat showed up here and I fed it.” Pot Friend came down the trailer steps and passed us by, paying her no mind. But he stayed with me, even when I moved to Santa Barbara to work on Winchester Canyon Ranch, and then again when I moved up to Watsonville and worked on Riverside Farms. Pot Friend’s black coat was salted with white by the time my kids were born and I was farming with Julia, but he was Mariquita Farm’s first official Farm Cat.
Our second cat, Taco, came to me by virtue of a tragic accident. A fellow who worked for us had a brother who was killed in a drunk driving accident. The whole family picked up and left with the body for Mexico, and on their way out they dropped a litter of kittens off at a farm field we were leasing. The kittens were tiny, and terrified. They hid under a pallet of cartons and survived by licking the grease off the tin foil the farm workers had wrapped their tacos in. I caught one little kitten and brought it home. He was a lovely, long-haired cat with Siamese “points” and I named him “Taco.” Taco survived and eventually thrived. He became Pot Friend’s gopher hunting companion and was the first cat my kids can really remember.
Sarah and Clara came next after a neighbor’s cat had a large batch of kittens. Sarah and Clara were more pets at first than “farm cats” and they played with the kids. I think pets are important for kids because they can teach a child how to express love and kindness. And, until “The lion lies down with the lamb,” it must be noted with sadness that pets can teach a young person how to deal with loss. Besides our “official farm cats” we also have our fair share of predatory wild cats, like Bobcats and Mountain lions. Yes, we have lots of coyotes too, and since they make so much noise they end up taking the blame for most disappearances, but I’m convinced that the Bobcats are often the culprits; it’s just that they come and go with such stealth. Sarah and Clara did grow up to be hunters, but we lost Clara.
Sarah lost a leg to cancer, and she became a full-time house cat. Sarah liked to sleep on my Fender amplifier when I played my electric guitar, and since I play an orange Gretsch 6120, like Duane Eddy and Poison Ivy, I called Sarah my “Rockabilly Hep Cat.”
After Sarah passed away Starr and I adopted two kittens from the local shelter and she named them “Samson & Deliah,” after the Reverend Gary Davis song that was popularized by the Grateful Dead. Samson is still with us, and he’s as beautiful and lordly as an apricot blonde male cat born under the sign of Leo can be. But Delilah tended to wander into the forest where the wild things are, and one day she didn’t come back. We felt sad that Samson didn’t have company so we kept our ears open for kittens. When our friends, Todd and Jordan, who have Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove and who put our farm’s produce in jars for us, bought a place in upper Carmel Valley, we were gifted two matching tabby kitten twins. The rural property that they purchased had an unruly tribe of feral cats on it, so they set about catching them and spaying and neutering them and finding homes for the kittens.
The two kittens showed up early in the whole Covid drama, and they very much lightened the mood for us. They were small and wild, but proved to be very sweet and tameable. We initially named them “Cachagua & Tassajara” after landmarks in the neighborhood they came from, but Starr shortened the names to “Casha and Tassa.” The sisters are not quite identical, but they can be hard to tell apart from a distance, so they are often known as “This and That,” as in “this cat” versus “that cat.” This and That have turned into good hunters, and they’re helping Samson to keep the ever-present population of gophers in check.
Because we love our cats and appreciate their efforts, we have planted plenty of catnip around the farm so that they can pepper all their hard farm labor with moments of euphoria. Catnip is in the mint family, but it tolerates relatively dry conditions. We have it planted on a sunny slope and it’s thriving. Catnip is one of those plants that could become a weed if we let it, but we clip it and dry it before it goes to flower. Catnip dries well and remains pungent. It’s spring now, and the plants are growing fast so Starr has been keeping the dehydrators working around the clock.
If you want to treat your cat to a whiff of locally grown, aromatic, organic catnip, now is the time to get it. Or maybe you want some for yourself. Catnip is usually thought of as a cat herb, but people do make aromatic herbal infusions from it that are reputed to be good for treating colds, fevers and flues, and dried catnip is used as a seasoning in some cuisines. I offer it to my restaurant customers and I’ve noticed that the places that focus on Italian food buy it. I need to ask them how they’re using it. Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, has a scent that is not unlike its cousin Nepitella, or Calaminta nepeta, also known as “Roman mint.”
Tassa likes to hang out when we garden. She is Mariquita Farm’s “spokes cat” and social media influencer. She enjoys and endorses our catnip products and personally oversees the harvests. Check out the shop store, we are harvesting today!
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starr Linden