farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Gardening”

A zinger of a Zinnia Patch

Sorry, guys, but if you live near Woodland, Calif., you have no excuse not to give flowers this summer to your mom, wife, girlfriend, grandmother, or any other target of affection. Actually, ladies, that goes for us, too.

Sitting somewhat mirage-like off the side of a highway and behind a handpainted sign that says “Free Flowers/Flores Gratis” is a stunning sight: two acres of brightly colored zinnias …. free for the taking. It’s the vision of Zinnia Patch farmer Mark Mezger blossoming into view in bee-laden bursts of pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, whites, purples and fuschias.

Field of zinnias

So earnest is Mezger’s hope that people will not only come and enjoy this site, but also take some flowers for themselves and others who could use a brightened day, he has set out a table of empty vases for visitors to fill and take home.

Vases awaiting zinnias

The flowers are in bloom mid-June through September, and the patch never closes. (Picking zinnias by moonlight sounds pretty romantic, no?) There is a catch.  It’s really more of a request, as there are no “flower police” to enforce it, but it’s worth taking to heart:  He wants visitors to also pick a bouquet for someone who couldn’t come, preferably a senior citizen.

When my family visited a couple of weekends ago, I brought my senior citizen with me (sorry, mom, but it’s true!) … my mother. Isn’t she cute?

Mom picks zinnias

It was a hot day under the sun, and daughter Lily was pretty whiny in the heat, but it’s hard to be unhappy when you’re surrounded by a field of zinnias. (But darned if she didn’t try…)

Mother-daughter zinnia walk

What could have driven a man–and several volunteers– to plant two acres of zinnias and just give them all away? Was this some sort of love tribute, a la the Taj Mahal, farmer-style? Is he striving for the title of Patron Saint of Free Beautiful Flowers?

It turns out that Mezger started the zinnia patch three years ago after a farmers’ appreciation dinner and dance at a barn in nearby Zamora. Each table at the dinner had a bouquet of flowers. There were so many flowers that, when the party was over, the generous Mezger delivered more than 30 vases of them to retirement homes in Woodland. The delighted look on the people’s faces as he gave them their flowers inspired him to grow this patch so he could continue to give back in this way to the community. Now, every day, he has someone come out to pick zinnias and take them to retirement homes around Woodland.

bee on zinnia

Since our visit, the Davis Enterprise “scooped me” 😉 and wrote a nice article about Mezger and his Zinnia Patch. The Woodland Democrat also wrote about it in March, when Mezger was selected as Woodlander of the Month. But since not everyone in the world reads our local papers, I thought I’d share what was probably the prettiest farm visit I’ve experienced yet. Thank you, Mr. Mezger.

A Lily and some zinnias

To get to the Zinnia Patch from Davis or Sacramento, take Highway 5 north. Take the Yolo Exit off to the right. Turn right at the top of the offramp, then left on Highway 99W, running parallel to Highway 5. Drive about 2 miles to the zinnia fields on your left. Bring scissors.

Zinnia bouquet

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Born this way: Soil Born Farms

Across a field of potatoes, broccoli and green beans, came the crack of a bat and male voices hollering from a dugout. In the middle of a farm tour at Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, a baseball game was underway at nearby Hagan Community Park.

Urban farm meets baseball game

Across another field, this one filled with wispy asparagus, swiss chard and collard greens, bicyclists swooshed past along the American River Bike Trail.

American River Parkway cyclist

Both were reminders that this is an urban farm, one attempting to connect a bustling and active community to its agricultural roots, and getting them to grow and eat fresh, seasonal food along the way.

Soil Born Farms veggie signs

My family and I visited Soil Born Farms at American River Ranch for its annual Day on the Farm Celebration this past weekend.

Soil Born Farm signs

The nonprofit, educational, certified organic farm pulled out all the stops, with workshops on everything from composting and raising chickens to seed saving and the importance of bees. Cooking demos taught new ways to tempt kids and adults to eat their veggies. Participants could meet the farm animals, tour the youth garden,

Soil Born Farms youth gardenas well as the farm,

Soil Born Farms tour

visit the newly constructed outdoor classroom,

Soil Born Farms, outdoor classroommake eco-friendly crafts, hear some live music, eat organic hot dogs and ice cream, and, of course, stop to smell the flowers.

Lily and the poppies

Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa began Soil Born Farms in 2000 as a for-profit farm, transforming it into an educational nonprofit in 2004. It has grown to operate two urban farms on 55 acres in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, with a focus on promoting urban agriculture, sustainable food systems and healthy food education.

The historical American River Ranch has been farmed since the 1840s. Soil Born Farms leased the land from Sacramento County in 2008.

On any given week, the farm may have a class or event intent on teaching people how to “grow your groceries.” Among the June class roster are topics such as weed management, the business of starting a small farm, and how to make herbal medicine.

But the owners, farm apprentices and volunteers here aren’t just teachers; they’re doers. They also operate a CSA program; sell at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and Midtown farmers market; operate a farm stand; and help Sacramento-area restaurants like Grange, Magpie Cafe, and Mulvaney‘s do the farm-to-table thing.

Soil Born Farms education coordinator Sarah Barnes, our farm tour leader, is in her third season with the farm. She began as an apprentice in 2011, when she spent the summer living in a tent on the farm. Before coming to Soil Born, the Connecticut native was a fourth grade teacher in New York City, who knew little about gardening, much less farming.

“The more I learned about how our food system works, the more I wanted to learn how to grow food myself,” she said. “I wanted to be on a farm that was not just commercial but also had educational programs. So here I am, on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California.”

On aphids, or Why I’d Make a Lousy Farmer

It was a tough choice: Visit a farm or use the weekend to put in my own home’s garden. The latter seemed a little more urgent.

I started the process two weekends ago but was thwarted by aphids. Awful little beasts. In March, I’d held hope that powerful sprays of water from my hose and some choice hand squashing would take care of those beginning to creep in on my fava beans. By month’s end they were devouring them. I took out the whole crop in a flash of anger and panic, hoping to salvage the neighboring chard.

But the other weekend, when I was getting ready to plant some starts, I looked more closely at my chard and saw that they, too, were fully overrun with black aphids. Past the point – at least in my estimation—of hose sprays, soap or pepper insecticide remedies. It became a total chard clearcut, a heartwrenching, demoralizing, humbling mass destruction.

Being the modern gardener I am, I immediately posted a photo of the carnage to Facebook …

chard ravaged by aphids

… after which my friends’ gave me advice like “bring on the ladybugs!” and a link to a magical concoction of mouthwash and tobacco to try.

All good ideas for the future, but too late for me: My beautiful, lush, green garden had become a lonely dirt patch, my only consolation the artichokes and two remaining chard plants that survived.

“It’s a clean slate,” my husband offered annoyingly helpfully. “A chance to start something new.”

My neighbor Chuck said, “The chard was probably about to bolt anyway.”

But all I could think of was, “Man, I would make a lousy farmer.”

While crop destruction for me can be a chance at starting over, it’s life and livelihood for a farmer.

There are a lot of romanticized notions about what farmers do—I’m guilty of holding a fair amount of them. But their job is more than glorified gardening and delicious dinners out by the barn. They keep us fat and happy while sparing us the details of pests, weather, weeds, and fickle markets. And they do it while keeping a vigilant eye on their crops—before it gets to the destructive stage.

Next time I’m visiting a local farm – and it will be soon! — or biting into fresh-grown Delta asparagus or (I can’t wait!) a juicy strawberry, I expect I’ll remember my epic aphid battle and be a little more appreciative of what farmers do.

For now, I’ve replanted my garden. New soil. New seeds. New starts.

Squash seedlings

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