Category Archives: Gardening

Guinda, California: Full Belly Farm

County Road 43, Guinda, California. Website:

Sitting in the shade at a lovely, unpretentiously decorated picnic table, I looked out to a field in the distance to rows of blue, purple, red, and orange flowers. In the sunlight, the colors blurred together like an impressionist’s canvas. I sipped a lemon verbena tisane. People chatted on either side of me as we waited for our hosts to bring us our lunch. This scene, this lunch, this farm, aroused in me a nostalgia for something I’ve been missing. Now, here on this farm, I surrendered to the seduction of food, not Food.

Capay Valley’s Full Belly Farm, one of California’s oldest certified organic farms, reminded me that I do need to think about what I eat, where it comes from, and how it’s grown no matter how sick and tired I am of the subject of food. For the past year, I’ve been in search of simplicity: eating less, cooking less, cooking more simply. I eat more vegetables, simply cooked and have eliminated processed foods almost completely. More recently, I’ve given up my beloved refined grains. Sugar was never an issue: gone long ago. I am heartily fed up with the esoterica of gastronomy.

When the food writer Elaine Corn invited me to tag along to a lunch organized by the food group, Les Dames d’Escoffier, at Full Belly Farm, I had to work up the enthusiasm. Within an hour of arriving there, I was very happy I went. We were a group of about twenty that day.

One of the farm’s founders, Dru Rivers, met us in the parking area. The blue of her eyes pops out from her sun-beaten face. Her hands are working hands. She has a sense of joy about her that convinces you she loves this back-breaking life. She took us on a tour of the farm — 350 acres in total, of which ten to twenty are under cultivation at one time. The rest of the land is covered by fruit and nut orchards. One quarter of their farm goes to individual subscribers, one quarter goes to farmer’s markets and the other half supplies co-ops and organic grocery stores. They grow and mill wheat. They raise sheep for wool and meat. (Knitters, Dru makes beautiful, un-dyed wool available on the website.) There are over sixty people on the payroll. One of the people who helped devise the certification standards for organic farms in California, Dru says she now is looking for a way to describe another level of “organic,” a term that has become debased over the years. Her ideal new certification would comprehend labor relations, quality of workplace, as well as make clear where the boundary between mechanization and organic hand farming lies.

Back at the lunch tables, we sat down to wait for our food. Dru’s son, Amon, and his wife said a few words about our meal before they brought out platters. He trained as a chef in restaurants in San Francisco, where he met his wife. A year ago, they moved back to the Capay Valley. His mother was a tyrant, he said with a big smile on his face. Dru and her husband, Paul Muller, made all four of her kids work on the farm, and they hated it. Now that three of the four have finished college, they’ve embraced the life. The fourth child wants to return when she graduates. I think this testimony impressed me even more than the food. And the food was good! Little Gem lettuce salad dressed with balsamic, pomegranate syrup, and their own olive oil; egg tagliatelle with fresh cream and freshly-picked peas; herbed lamb roasted with baby Russian fingerling potatoes; honey lavender ice cream. Simple, simply prepared, and utterly delicious.

When I left, I felt reaffirmed in the approach to food that I have been evolving over the past year but I found again the joy in food. I want not to be mindful of how I eat without treating food and cooking like an expensive hobby. Food is life, food is friends, food is nourishing. But it’s not all there is to life.

Full Belly Farm welcomes people to reserve lunches for groups, weddings, parties.

Urban Farming: May

We take our gardening seriously in northern California (god knows what they do down south). My friend Spring Warren has her Quarter Acre Farm nearby. My friends out in Sloughouse will undoubtedly set the record again for the number of tomato plants one family can sustain. Sherry and Dan operate at a higher elevation in Amador County and so are only now, in late May, putting in their vegetables. And look at the difference less than fifty miles makes! My tomatoes will soon establish a diplomatic relations with the other vegetables in my garden to discuss terms of surrender.

Already a portion of every dinner I eat at home comes from my garden. Pretty soon most of it will. Eggplants, sweet red and green peppers, Italian peppers, red potatoes, corn, romanesco broccoli (only if it doesn’t suddenly get very hot), French haricot beans, rhubarb, artichokes (already two!), Kadota figs, Brown turkey figs, still lots of lettuce, Swiss chard, collard greens, butternet squash, watermelon, and herbs galore will figure prominently in my cooking for the next five to six months. I’ve got about six or seven varieties of tomatoes across fifteen plants.

The challenge will not be how I will consume it all. I will have a hard time melding the mission of Shadowcook with all the stuff in my garden. But I love a challenge.

Gardening: Starting Over

DSC04524 DSC04536

The summer of 2009 marks a turning point in my occupation of this house. My beloved high-maintenance Long-haired German Shepherd, Django, has passed on at the age of eleven and a half, leaving me and my pug, Sophia Loren, with a lot of space and time to fill. Now retired caterers to Django’s every need and want, we are both quietly traumatized, sad, and disoriented. It is a good moment to embark on a new project that will keep at least one of us very busy and give both of us a feeling of a new life beginning here.

The lasagna beds have also gone. So has the lawn. Although I’ve kept the organic material that I used to make  my lasagna garden, I have embarked on a project to transform my garden into a vegetable garden, or potager, a term I learned from Joy Larkcom’s Creative Vegetable Gardening. The idea is to create a vegetable garden that is pleasing to the eye as well as the stomach. I have hired a contractor, Jeff von Rötz, to put into action my plans.

He first had his crew removed the lawn and all the shrubbery along the fence. The next phase will involve digging and installing a large water-reclamation sump that will both collect rain water over the year and take from the city water system for the drip irrigation that will nourish my garden. A sump pump will channel excess water out to the sewer. Then Jeff’s crew will grade the yard and bring in soil to supplement the mulched lasagna garden organic material.

While all that excitement is taking place, I will be in London, where Ann, Jonathan, and I will sketch the arrangement of the raised beds that Jeff will build when I return in mid-July. Sophia the pug will remain in charge while I’m gone. I have in mind reserving the deck for sitting, creating a dining and grill area on the ground at the foot of the deck, and creating two crescent herb beds with a trellis portal between them to separate the dining area from the potager. I will have the raised beds arrayed in an attractive fashion and make the paths between them consist of some kind of golden straw-colored mulch. Larkcom’s book has given me lots of ideas.

The timing does not work for a harvest this summer, but when I return from the UK, I anticipate germinating seeds for my winter potager. In the meantime, my garden grows.

Updated, 6/11/09: Jeff’s crew have dug the pit for the reclamation tank. Why did I expect it to be circular?

Lasagna Gardening VI: Victory Garden in Retreat

dsc04359Wouldn’t you know it? Just when I’m making headway in my lasagna garden, interest rates drop. I suppose it’s a little narcissistic to begrudge the timing of our economy’s collapse, but still… As a result of refinancing my mortgage, I now have money to fix the myriad problems in my garden, starting with the drainage mess under my lawn. Over the next few months, our neighborhood contractor Jeff will orchestrate the removal of my lawn, the installation of a non-potable water sump pump in the old big, unused cistern underground, the grading of the ground, the addition of decomposed granite, the plotting out of paths, the construction of six 3X8 redwood raised beds, and the replacement of my faulty irrigation system with one that uses the non-potable water conserved by the sump pump underground. My garden will be utterly transformed.

It means, however, that, when the little bobcat — or whatever the minature earthmover is called — begins to tear up my lawn, I will have to have unmade the lasagna beds and have folded them away in the sheets of black plastic that covered them. Ah, gee. As you can see in the photo above, I have four fava bean and three borlotti bean plants as well as a flock o’arugula flourishing quite nicely in my nearly three-foot high beds. My only hope lies in Jeff’s usual delays. Undoubtedly, I will get at least one harvest of arugula before I undo my good works. The harvest of a few favas may be too much to hope for.

Nevertheless, I have a lot to look forward to. When Jeff has transformed my garden, it will be too late to plant tomatoes and egpplant, but I look forward to late summer when I can begin the chard, kale, and other vegetables that tolerate the cooler temperatures of fall and winter. And instead of lasagna beds, I will attempt square foot gardening. I think that’s what it’s called. Or maybe these gardening fads are no more useful than diet fads. Just do, manage it, and keep it under control.

Stay tuned…

Lasagna Gardening IV: My Victory Garden


I call it my Victory Garden because it represents victory over my near complete ignorance about gardening. This morning, I went out to remove the plastic sheets covering my lasagna beds. Now that we’ve had a couple of days of rain, I want the last downpours over the next day or so to give the beds a good soak before I cover them again. Every time I go out to the garden, I look to see if anything has sprouted in the one lasagna bed I’ve had exposed to the elements. I planted one fava bean, one borlotti bean, and — oh, lord, I’ve already forgotten what the other two seeds I planted were! Nothing has appeared until this morning. Suddenly, right there, where I swear nothing could be seen as recently as yesterday, appears a shoot of a fava bush bean! I nearly shouted for joy and jumped up and down — but I immedately started to worry. What if we have another frost? February is only half over! What should I do? Cover it at night?

The garden is a mess. Too much mud in an area where I suspect I’ve got an old unused, underground cistern. Later this spring I will have to confront that challenge. Meanwhile, I can’t resist putting more of the garden into action. Perhaps prematurely, I planted three small artichoke plants against the back fence. I’ll probably have to protect them, too, if we have another frost.

dsc04241But spring looks as though it has arrived. The luscious white camellia is coming into bloom. And, as you can see, the plum trees in the front of my house are in bloom. My neighbors say the magnolias, dogwood, camellias and other flowering trees and shrubs blooming around our neighborhood are too early. Maybe so. Still, when the sun is out, the pinks, whites, reds, and purples on branches make a canopy of delicate colors overhead. If only they had waited just until the end of the month to begin!

Gardening: Lasagna Garden III

dsc04120On Saturday, I drove up to my friends’ ranch in Fiddletown, CA, to shovel shit. Polly and James, the organic farmers from Portland, urged me to add lots of nitrogen to my lasagna beds to initiate in a dramatic way the decomposition that will, with any luck and a bit of sun, make planting possible in a month’s time. Shoveling shit is hard work. Fortunately, I proved so feeble at it that Dan stepped in to help. We half-filled six industrial strength plastics bags with chicken and sheep manure and quite a bit of already prepared soil. Even only half-filled, the bags required the two of us to hoist them into my trunk and on to the back seat of my Honda Civic. I got a headache from the amonia in the manure as I drove back — windows open a good crack in spite of the cold — into town.

Along the way, I stopped at the T’s ranch — where I’ve been harvesting summer vegetables for the past two years but no more! — for a dinner party. I was not properly dressed.

dsc04125I spent Sunday lay down the last lasagna bed and treating the ones already in place with the manure. Then I strew the rest of the manure on the top of the soil of the bed that runs around the perimeter of the yard. Everyone tells me that chicken manure is so hot that it can burn roots to death if applied too heavily. But I have no idea how much manure it takes to create too much heat. So, I’ve hedged my bet. I let the manure sit on the top of the soil, bathed it in a bit of hose water, and will hope that it breaks down slowly over the coming weeks. On the lasagna beds, however, I applied it liberally, since I have not yet planted anything and I really want to generate heat.

The suspense will kill me. One month from today, I plan on inserting the first fava bean and borlotti bean seeds in the bed that gets the most sun. Will the bed have begun to decompose? Will it germinate no matter what stage of decomposition the bed has reached, as the Lasagna lady promises? Have I added enough water to bake it? Or is it too dry?

Time will tell.

Gardening: Lasagna Gardening II

dsc04107In comparison with the weather prevalent throughout the country, I don’t have much to complain about. Nevertheless, the air is cold and the lawn is soggy. I have been neglectful of my garden. I have now three lasagna beds that I was counting on decomposing in time to grow at least some vegetables this spring. My friends Polly and James, farmers and proprietors of the CSA organic farm Pumpkin Ridge Gardens in the Portland, OR region, gave me some very good advice while they were here with their four teenagers over the holidays.

They examined my efforts, visible in the photo. “Nothing is going to happen unless you get more nitrogen,” was Polly’s verdict. At first, she recommended steer or chicken manure, but, on second thought, she advised me to lay on the chicken manure. It has a higher concentration of nitrogen and will jump-start the decomposition of my lasagna beds. Her prediction was that my first year would be valuable primary for the experience. In a year, I should have spectacularly fertile soil.

And at her urging I am going to start germinating some seeds sooner than I expected. For instance, towards the end of January, I will try inserting the first fava bean seeds in one of the beds. According to the book on lasagna gardens, I needn’t wait until the beds begin to decompose. But I think if I get chicken manure on the beds right away, I may have a chance.

By good fortune, my friends, Dan and Sherry Fields, have mountains of chicken manure mixed with grass hay. Later today I will drive out to their ranch in Fiddletown to collect large plastic bags of the stuff. I doubt I can fit as much manure into my car as the beds will need. But it will be a start. I’ll buy commercial chicken manure to supplement it.

In the next few days, I will lay out the last smaller bed.