Hope Springs Eternal
I’ve got a counterintuitive tale for you. Several years ago, during the driest, dustiest, saddest period of the last drought, I was gazing out the kitchen window to the north, across the fields and towards the Santa Cruz Mountains. From the valley floor to the top of Loma Prieta and Mount Madonna the land was faded, tired, and sad. But the lone Live Oak in the middle of the field just below my house seemed particularly droopy, as if it were losing leaves. I wondered if maybe the Oak Moths were getting to it so I wandered down the hill to check it out. I drew close to the weeping oak and I was looking up into the branches, expecting to see a cloud of Oak moths fluttering about or a swarm of their caterpillar larvae eating at the leaves, when I suddenly sank in mud up to my ankles. The ground under the dying Live oak was sopping wet. In the middle of the drought we had a puddle in our field. I looked back up the slope towards our house and my gaze settled on our windmill that stood still and quiet…
We got electric power here on the ranch back in 1956 and my grandfather chose, at that time, to switch from wind power to an electric pump to draw our water from the spring box. The old windmill had worked fine to bring water to the surface and maintain an animal trough, but it couldn’t push the water up the hill to the house, and at any rate our field is sheltered and we don’t have a lot of wind. The old well isn’t deep either. My great grandfather, Marius Jorgensen, built it by digging a deep hole. He was a mason by trade, schooled in Denmark, and he did his work “Old School” style by laying a ring of brick around himself as he dug the hole until he had excavated a cavity 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep and lined it with bricks. Water seeped between the bricks and rained into the cavity until the well was filled. Of course, there were snails in there, and salamanders and god-knows-what-else swimming in the water, but we drank it. When I got married my wife, Julia, took one look at the well and said, “No Way. I’m Modern!” So we had a domestic well dug next to the house that was 250 feet deep, with a concrete collar around the well shaft to eliminate the danger of any surface water contaminating the deep aquifer.
The water seeping into our old spring box down the hill from the modern well is surface water- it seeps out from springs from a local and shallow Santa Cruz Mountain aquifer that rides on top of the deeper Sierra Nevada aquifer. If you look out across the valley from our place you can see stands of willow trees growing along the hills, all at the same elevation above the valley floor, marking where the land drops from this surface aquifer so that the native water bearing layer is exposed and shows itself as a series of springs and seeps. When Jack Edsberg drilled a new well for me in 1994, the tailings from under the bore hole showed us that the drill bit chewed through 200 feet of pure clay to reach the gravel beds and underground rivers of the second, deeper aquifer. Since we first started pumping from the new, deep, well for domestic use our water table has fallen at a rate of about a foot a year. This is not good news. We still have a standing column of water 100 feet deep to draw from, but at this rate we are game-over for water in a hundred years. But, paradoxically, our local watershed that overlays it is releasing more water through the springs on our property than it did in the recent past. The ailing oak tree was drowning in a drought.
Once we had our new, domestic pump to serve the house, I was free to use all the spring box water on my farming projects. I installed a 5000-gallon water storage tank at the top of the hill, to hold the spring water for fire protection and light irrigation. And for years I did grow a modest few beds of herbs at the home farm and I began planting citrus, roses, and cacti. Maybe it was one of our local earthquakes that moved some subterranean rock around and opened up some new springs to flow on our land. Since I clearly now have enough new water to drown an old oak tree I figured I could use another storage tank. We got the new tank installed this past summer. Now, with 10,000 gallons of water storage, I feel comfortable that I can maintain a much more serious effort at farming this land than I have in the past, and for the past year we’ve been gearing up our efforts at production here This year we were able to finish the labyrinth that we dug by hand and planted out with lavender. And in 2023 we get to see the first mature bloom set. And the remarkable thing is that the lavender, a drought tolerant crop, uses very little water.
Around the edge of the field with the labyrinth I planted a hedge of nopal cacti, interspersed with roses. I was fortunate, a few years back, to be gifted cuttings for 15 different kinds of prickly pear cacti by a member of the Rare Fruit Society. As they mature and begin to produce their fruits the range of colors of the fruits will become obvious. There are “prickly pears,” or “tunas,” in Spanish, that are purple, red, rose, orange, yellow, white, and green. The different varieties of nopal cacti yield their crops at different times of the year, and their fruits taste different and lend themselves to different uses. The purple cactus fruits are known to the Italians as “Fico d’Indio,” or “Indian Figs,” and they are much appreciated for their use in flavoring and coloring lovely granitas and sherbets. Purple cactus syrups are great for coloring drinks too.
There’s a logic to planting roses too. I’ve come to appreciate how hardy roses are. I like plants that can survive the sometimes-long stretches of time when I’m too preoccupied to pay much attention. Roses respond well to care, and sometimes they can benefit from a period of benign neglect. At present we’ve got about a 100 roses planted and It’s been nice to see these plants start to flourish. Starr has been harvesting fresh petals for a local aesthetician, Wild Beauty Cosmetics, in Soquel, and dried petals for the Dream Inn Romantic Room Package, in Santa Cruz. The fun thing about harvesting petals is that we get to enjoy the roses before we need to harvest them. Against the western edge of the field, which I feel is too shady for good cacti habitat, I switched from interspersing cacti with roses to planting a row of solid roses. But these are all climbing roses that can scale the young live oaks that border the field and, in time, provide a dramatic backdrop of color to embrace the labyrinth and milpa that take up the flat ground.
The lemons and other citrus that we’ve planted on the slope behind the labyrinth are greedier for water. Citrus trees are usually grafted trees; there’s a sturdy rootstock of a citrus variety that is valued for vitality and disease resistance, upon which are grafted the valuable commercial varieties of fruit bearing variety. When a citrus tree is stressed for water it has seemed to me that the vulgar, spiny rootstock responds by sending up new shoots and overwhelming the scion that’s been grafted to it. After three years in the ground I see the most recent citrus plantings starting to really thrive and it makes me feel good. We’re already getting lots of lemons, and now the limes are beginning to kick in, and there are Buddha’s Hands from time to time. Next year will be the year that the other varieties of citrus catch up and begin producing meaningful harvests. We’ve got yuzu, limequats, finger limes, Rangpur limes, and blood oranges planted- and flowering.
It’s raining as I write this note, and it makes me glad that we got our cover crop in just before the storm hit. Thanks to our hardworking volunteers Arnie & Linda for helping us scatter the seed across the tilled field, just ahead of the raindrops. Next year I plan to flip the planting scheme around so that the ground that had marigolds on it this year will have the milpa, and vice-versa. The milpa was a lot of fun, and productive. We harvested a lot of corn and squash. Next year I plan on milpa that uses Otto File corn, Rugosa squash, and Italian runner bean for a fun Italian spin on the traditional Mexican planting scheme- as though the garden were planted along the Oaxacan-Sicilian border.
We built a small greenhouse to grow seedlings in, and sowing trays of vegetables along with a larger focus on flowers in 2023. For now, the last crops of 2022 are getting harvested and the fields are getting put to sleep for the winter.
We hope you will enjoy the last of the fruit and vegetable harvest along with our great stocking stuffers of dried herbs, herbal “tea” infusions, lavender and rose gifts, herbal cooking salts, jars of marmalades, beets and curried cauliflower and all the other delightful items we have left to offer. And don’t forget you can send some of these wonderful items to friends all over the country with our gift packages or order them for pickup at your site making it a happy holiday filled with farm gifts for everyone.
Andy, Starr and the Crew at Mariquita Farm
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden