RANCHOD: occasional reports from the laboratory garden at Rancho Deluxe

My friends, Richard and Judith Selby Lang, artists and environmentalists in the Bay Area, have a wonderful blog, “RANCHOD: occasional reports from the laboratory garden at Rancho Deluxe.

“Grandson Jude and King Midas,” courtesy of Richard and Judith Selby Lang

The Langs ran San Francisco Electric Works for years. I got to know Judith when she created the most marvelous artwork for my six-year traveling exhibition, The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces.

From the “ABOUT” page of “RANCHOD” —

The big joke was “Rancho DeLuxe” in its Ur-state was basically a tear-down. Once a cabin circa 1917, it became a hunting retreat and party house for the DiMartini family in the 1940s. After years of neglect, the house was composting itself and on its way down the hill. The basement came with a seasonal creek water-feature and three 20-yard dumpster loads of rotting rat-turd laden couches. Deluxe indeed!

Richard named it for the eponymous 1974 movie of modern day Surrealist tale of Montana cattle rustlers who plied their trade with a pickup and a chain saw. These days we simply call it the “D”.

On its way down the hill yes, but the hill is five acres, with an acre and a half of south facing pasture including a 1917 nine hundred square foot barn— funky but stabilized and re-roofed.

Nothing but charm, distant views and ample space to realize the counter-culture dream of “back to the land”. What we call the “’60s” was more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, more than liberation politics for the non-white non-male, more than the tsunami of gurus blabbering self realization. It was all that, for sure, but mostly the ’60s were about accepting the incumbency of your own life as you were called on to make your own reality in a DIY dream of self-sufficiency. The dream was if you did it yourself you could leave behind the tiresome denunciations of “the man.”


Judith’s journey of living an alternative life-style began in ’70s in the foothills of Napa where for three years she lived without electricity and running water in a hand-built “pod.” She honed her bio-dynamic gardening skills and had a goat named “Ergo.” All the while, she painted watercolors and learned to play Greensleeves on the recorder. Her simple back-to-the-land adventure got complicated by the vision of building a natural food store, so she found herself living in town and being in business. Fast forward to 1999 when she met Richard, a kindred spirit who shared her fascination with Helen and Scott Nearing as exemplars of the living the good life.

In 1974, Richard moved to Woodacre in the San Geronimo Valley from Wisconsin with an MFA degree in sculpture. The University of Wisconsin has a vibrant Ag School and so electives in soil science, vegetable production, the history of US farming were on the syllabus. What fun field trips! Finally, in 1992, Forest Knolls became home at the “D” where he had the luck and scant wherewithal to buy a place where we all can experiment to our heart’s content; to fool around with our own brand of Practical Biology, to see what the Earth could provide when you combine the notions gained from the peripatetic life of the artist, with the rigor of dirt, germ plasm and sunlight.

In this family we are all dedicated artists of varying brands, willing to fiddle around to see—just how does this life work anyway. This blog is a report of the ongoing fiddle. It is by no means a practical guide for anything save that fiddling which has it’s own strange music.

I’ve just been alerted to this blog and am following it with huge enthusiasm. Check it out. The Langs are amazing people — just who I’d like to be if I ever grow up. https://ranchodblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/04/midas-the-sunflower-king/

New Plants and Old Wives Tales

by Nita Hill

I’ve been trying to give away strawberry plants. I posted the giveaway on Nextdoor Neighbor. So far, I have given away almost seventy-five plants. I could give away another seventy-five easily. For some reason, I have three separate beds of strawberry plants. I guessing because they multiply so quickly, duh. My intention is to put in a Japanese garden in one of the beds.

Anyway, the point of this post is that everyone out here (Spokane) says thank you. I find it really bothers me. In the South, where I’m from, you never say thank you. It curses the plants. So, I went a-searchin’ on the Google and found this…

One theory on the origin of this saying is that if you do not thank someone, the devil won’t notice something wonderful has been given to you, and therefore won’t be able to kill it. Another is that the plants themselves prefer to be stolen, and think they will do better, so you shouldn’t tip them off with the words thank you. A variation on this, and probably closer to the origin, is that they grow better in order to make you feel as guilty as possible. There is someone who mentioned a friend who took this so far that they not only wouldn’t say thank you, but would make the giver turn their head while she pretended to steal the plant.

It warms my heart that plants are given volition. I believe, as I once read, that everything has its own share of consciousness (I think it might have been Schiller). If we regarded that as the truth, the world would be a very different place.

Monarch Heaven

by Mimi Hedl

About a week ago, two monarch butterflies appeared behind the wood shed, the earliest I can remember a monarch sighting. The common milkweed had just emerged from dormancy. It stood about 3 inches high, the leaves tightly wrapped around the stem. The females kept lighting on the closed leaves, as if by their presence they could persuade the leaves to unfurl and grow tall. They had no luck.

I had seen a couple more mature milkweeds in the path by the grape arbor, about 100 feet away. I had avoided mowing them, wanting every bit of food possible for potential larva. It seemed a little silly to skirt the mower around those few plants, as hundreds grew in the meadow, but with the monarch population in decline, my instincts told me save all milkweed. How could I tell the ladies to fly up into the northern meadow, where they’d find hospitable birthing leaves? I hovered around them as they did around the small milkweed. I worked away, pruning and trimming, constantly looking up to spot the monarchs.

After about an hour, they had migrated to the proper spot. I put down my shovel, and went up to watch as she laid I don’t know how many eggs. I knew they’d hatch in a few days, but I forgot about them until yesterday, when a couple of young friends stopped by for a visit. I showed them the milkweed plants, now more than a foot tall, and told them about watching the female lay eggs. I took them up to the site, for dramatic impact. Ann bent down to look, and said, “What’s that?” I looked down, and with great pleasure announced, “That’s a monarch caterpillar!” It was less than 1/16th of an inch long, so small my well-used eyes probably wouldn’t have spotted it. As we looked closer and at more milkweed plants, we saw dozens and dozens of small caterpillars. “Be still my beating heart.”

If anything could save me from the browning of the pasture, this sight surely did. Seeing the monarch potential helped me see the long-term good of converting fescue to natives, and lessened the pain of the process. Just imagine how many milkweed plants can grow on 25 acres!

Swallowtail on the Weigela. That shrub attracts oodles of

A visit

by Jennifer Heath

The bees first began swarming in my next-door neighbor Susie’s yard, but quickly moved on to mine, probably because it’s overgrown. So when I got Susie’s call and stepped outside, hundreds were swirling around the lilac bushes and hundreds more were clasped to the trunk of the plum-tree. The sound was loud…gorgeous…musical…generous. Years ago, my garden sounded like that every day, before the bees started disappearing, thanks to mites and pesticides.

All photos by Susie Chandler

It was dazzling. I stood among them (though somewhat to the side), while they danced, like little points of light. They were harmless, as bees are, unless you grab or step on them. They were European honeybees and they were house hunting. The old queen had died, and they were following a fresh queen toward a new place to settle.

I didn’t want to lose them, I wanted them to settle somewhere in my garden. But Susie had — no doubt sensibly — already called the Beekeepers Association. Two heroic women in those wonderful bee suits arrived and began collecting them. Beekeeper Julie climbed a tall ladder and gently scooped handfuls of those clinging to the tree (I wondered — is plum bark sweet?), then put them in her bucket, then into a bee box with slats. The bees were acquiescent. They didn’t attack, they weren’t apparently angry or disturbed, they just went right along, for Julie had got the queen and thus the hive did not mind following.

Turns out there might have been two swarms, but the second was lumped high in my Austrian pine and couldn’t be reached. The beekeepers thought they might join the others. They left the bee box in my front yard. The bees were lifting their little bottoms and fluttering their tiny wings sending out scent to beckon the others. We put out signs warning people to “bee careful” and also “bee respectful” (I’d been wondering what to do with some garden signs from an earlier project) and all of us went back to whatever we’d been doing before this marvelous adventure.

Late in the afternoon, I went out again to see what was what bee-wise and to make a library run. Susie had placed a bright orange cone on the sidewalk. She and three neighbors were watching another group of bees, hundreds now clustered on the sidewalk formed into in a perfect circle. Turns out they may have been killing a queen or watching her be killed or well…mourning her? Apparently, bees create more than one queen cell among their young. When they’re mature, the queens fight to the death for dominance over the hive. (Somehow it all seems so medieval.) Beekeepers were called again and this time, three arrived to sweep up the circle swarm.

They are all gone: bees, beekeepers and box. I’m sad. I’m wondering if I should get a beehive. I’ve been told it’s not hard to keep bees. The outfit is cute, too.

UPDATE! The swarm in my pine tree is indeed a separate group. They’re at least 25-feet up, and no one has a cherry picker and can’t get them down, although there’s a box stationed on Susie’s porch, full of honey and chocolate bars and martinis in case they get restless. They survived the rain, which was surprising to the beekeepers, but I’m not surprised. There’s a lot of growth up there, it’s dense, and I’m suer shields them. But now the concern is the cold. And it’s supposed to snow in the next two days. I want them to live and I want them to stay. But the queen is determined to stick to the pine tree.

Ancient Cataclysmic Floods

by Nita Hill

Piles of topsoil waiting to be de-topsoiled.

The last few weeks have been devoted to grass excavation. My sharpshooter shovel is dented, no more sharp edge. Too often when I shove the shovel I hit a rock. The recoil hurts my wrist and shoulder. There are sod chunks all over the back yard from where I am reshaping the borders. I throw and kick the sod around until all the top soil falls out and the remainder of mostly moss goes into the green can.

Speaking of top soil, the only top soil I have resides in the sod. After much digging around, I realize that all my soil is sand. I’ve never gardened in sand before. I can get as dirty as I want and no clay stains on my clothes, especially my socks since I wear Crocs.

Over the last sixty years, the grass has managed to create about 4 inches of topsoil. Clearing out grass is like a day at the beach if you were clearing out grass at the beach. When I’m not digging out sod, I work on the area that once was a patio. At the bottom of the lot someone carved out a level spot, rolled out landscape cloth, laid some flag stones and filled it in with small river rocks. When I lift the flag stones, the grass roots grow happily and it reminds me of tatting. I used to love to watch my great-aunt Stella tat: pure magic.

As for the sand, it is a result of the Missoula Floods or more lyrically, Ancient Cataclysmic Floods, that occurred periodically at the end of the last ice age. There was a massive ice dam on the Clark Fork River that created Glacial Lake Missoula. When it ruptured, it flooded east central Washington all the way to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon via the Columbia River. The largest flood discharged water at a rate thirteen times the Amazon and at a velocity of 80 MPH. Since we live above the river less than a half mile, we are blessed with the floods leavings, namely sand rather than soil and rocks which dull my shovel.

April 2017: Spring Revival

by Nan DeGrove

April will not be a dull month, with a cluster of planetary events arriving in quick succession: Saturn, at the end of Sagittarius, turns retrograde on the fifth, Mercury, in early Taurus, follows of the ninth, leading to the full moon in Libra on the morning of the 11th. Venus, retrograde since early March, turns direct at 27 Pisces on the 15th. Pluto in Capricorn turns retrograde on the 19th.

When planets change “direction” they appear, briefly, to stand still, magnifying their effect. Saturn relates to structure, long-range plans, far-seeing vision. Saturn is the “Lord of Time.” We learn patience, devotion to things that take time. But, Saturn’s dark side is autocratic, rigid and authoritarian. Mercury’s usual retrograde tricks may upset communication and render our thought processes more confused. Mercury retrograde always orders rest and repair of over-stressed nerves. Retrograde Mercury may be a catalyst for the more volatile Saturnian and Plutonian energies. These are times of danger and alarm. We are being led by a blind king. We need vision, not only in the “visionary” sense, but in actually seeing and responding to what is close at hand, to what needs tending and healing, and to the eternal generous beauty of nature.

There is a certain interplay with Venus that unfolds with the full moon: Mercury in Venus’ sign, Taurus, the moon in Libra, another sign of Venus, and Venus, now morning star, coming out of the retrograde cycle that began March fourth. These planetary phenomena coincide with the festivals of Holy Week, Passover and Easter, all based on stories of blood, sacrifice, oppression, redemption and resurrection. Religious traditions are, in many ways and places, in flux, as the Age of Pisces draws to an end, and we feel the stirrings of the Aquarian Age, the return of Cosmic Christ, rising from the tomb of the heart, not as a savior (though we might long for one), but as an awakening, a change in consciousness. In his book the Coming of the Cosmic Christ, theologian Matthew Fox envisions the Earth as Christ crucified in our time of environmental destruction, ecocide.

I think of Venus, now morning star (before dawn) at Easter, emerging from the retrograde time, as Mary Magdalene seeing the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene is thought by some to be the “missing Venus” in Christian theology, the lost bride, outcast and defamed as a prostitute by the early church fathers. In pre-Christian mythologies, the dying and resurrecting god was consort to the goddess. There is a story that Mary Magdalene carried a basket of eggs with her on that morning when she went to the tomb of Jesus, and that the eggs turned red when she encountered the risen Christ. This charming tale reveals the link between Easter and the fertility festivals of earlier cults.

The beauty of nature and the renewal of life in spring are sacraments we may all share, a communion that transcends religious belief.

Sweet Woodruff

So much going on in the garden, there’s no time to write about it. But my friend and fellow Loreblogger, Nan DeGrove, was waxing poetic the other day about how the sweet woodruff is beginning to bloom and I suddenly remembered that a few years ago and for years before that I made May wine, a practice that was begun in the 13th century, no doubt by monks. In Germany, sweet woodruff is called Waldmeister, or “master of the forest,” and is considered a “humble, shy” herb because of the way it hides in shade and creeps along the ground. Yet it is so spectacular, so beautiful, so welcome as new green, it’s hard to imagine that sweet woodruff is in the least bit bashful (maybe just coy).

Maiwein is simply made by infusing the woodruff leaves in a Riesling, leaving it for anywhere from an hour to a week, then mixing the infused Riesling half and half with German sparkling wine called Sekt, champagne or Proseco, tossing a strawberry into the glass and garnishing with the pretty little woodruff flowers. You drink in the fragrance of fresh-cut hay, trimmed with the scent of vanilla. Chilled.

It also makes a lovely, aromatic tea, but who needs tea in the Merry Months of Spring?

When you’re not imbibing for the fun of it ─ or while you are ─ you can make wreaths and sachets with sweet woodruff, as the Elizabethans did, or you can use the herb medicinally as a calmative (mix it dried with water, not wine), a diuretic, diaphoretic and antispasmodic. Good, they say, for heart and liver, combating jaundice and healing wounds. What more could we ask of any plant?

Oh, there’s this, too: sweet woodruff’s stems and leaves, mordanted with alum, make a tan dye, while the roots make a red one.

I’ve been in the garden for two days straight — no time at all compared to others, I know. I’ve been weeding, working on the borders, and adding trellises I found at the recycling place made from old window panes (for hops, maximillion sunflowers, woodbine and roses mostly). I’m neglecting everything I can possibly ignore about the rest of my life.

And watering. In mid-April. For which I feel horrible. Despite being a woodland creature, trying to garden in Colorado, on the high, dry plains, I like to “obey” the weather and the seasons and avoid overusing water if I can. If there are dry patches, so be it, they customarily have not lasted too long (if you don’t count the ten-year drought that ended ten years ago).

Not that I don’t water. I absolutely do. Nevertheless, I try to be modest about it and I’ve noticed that many of the normally water-hungry plants in my garden ─ even hosta and vinca ─ have given in and become more or less xeric. I have no lawn and the grass I do have on the paths gets nothing but the runoff.

Alas. Global warming is upon us. The hottest recent years on record. And getting hotter. There’s been so little water and almost-summer weather since February. It is indeed “pleasant” (as so many like to say to my utter irritation). It is also deeply disturbing. The plants are gasping with thirst and I’m afraid at least one of my roses has expired, while a couple of others seem alarmingly desperate.(Nan also notes that one should never give up on resurrecting roses!)

Off now to get that comforting Reisling.

Moral Ambiguity

by Mimi Hedl

Late last summer Jeremy told me they wouldn’t need hay anymore. The price of cattle had gone way down and they would focus on raising sheep. He said he’d help me find someone to take care of the pasture, and he would cut the hay until I found someone. A dormant light exploded, spontaneously, I said, “How about if we turn the field into a short grass prairie?” (Secretly, I had waited for a moment like this. For the last fifteen years, I’ve thought about establishing a short grass prairie on our pasture.) Jeremy felt ecstatic. He hunts. He knows how the prairies attract quail, turkey, deer and other critters. He told me to go for it, “awesome” and other happy words.

–Photo courtesy of Missouri Prairie Foundation

I contacted one of the state’s private land conservationists. Sure enough, they still had funding. Seth said he’d write up a contract and we’d start the process. We’d have to have the first spraying done by 1 June. That would give Jeremy time to fix his sprayer over the winter and get organized for the project in the spring. Oh yeah, spraying…

For those of you not acquainted with establishing a short- or tallgrass prairie, once so common all over the Midwest, you have to eliminate all vegetation. You have to have a clean slate, an empty canvas. You can’t do this by mowing, burning only sets the grasses back for awhile, then they grow with renewed vigor. You can’t overgraze the land, weeds will simply appear. That leaves spraying. With poisons. Like Round-up. Yes, I know…

For native grass and flower seeds to germinate, they need bare earth without competition. The growth takes place underground for the first few years, just the opposite of how we grow domesticated plants, with all the growth on top, and not such a rich root system. A two-year old seedling can have a 3-foot root system, explaining why native plants can survive droughts.

After this initial spraying, you spray one more time before you sow the seed. Then in the winter, because native seed mostly needs to go through a cold/wet period, you drill or broadcast the seed into your bare canvas. And seed costs a great deal. For my 25 acres, it will cost almost four thousand dollars. I’ll have a minimal out of pocket expense, the Conservation Department will pay the lion’s share. Still, you want to ensure good germination by eliminating as much competition as possible.

People in the conservation world who I respect convinced me that killing off the fescue made our only choice. They encouraged me. We had serious philosophical conversations: “Does the end justify the means?” I couldn’t reckon using poisons when I called myself an organic gardener. How could I say I could use poisons, but not the fellow spraying his driveway to keep down his weeds? I kept listening, reading and talking. Whenever I attended an event hosted by the native plant folks, I asked this question. People shook their heads, even hung them, and said, “We have no choice.”

Jeremy sprayed the 25-acre pasture on the 6th of April with a chemical like Round-up. I’ve accepted my decision. wherever you see a tall- or shortgrass prairie, established in the last hundred years, poisons made it possible.

Right and wrong, good and evil, don’t fit easily into categories. Maybe in our youth we made moral judgments easily. Now every situation demands close attention and thought. Situational ethics have never made more sense. I have no idea how future environmentalists will view the movement to take grasslands out of hay production and into prairies. They may judge us harshly. They may say the creation of the prairies did not mitigate against the use of chemicals.

I wish we had better rules and regulations for dealing with our land. When people own land, they think they can do whatever they choose with the land. A good steward sees the land as something humanity holds in common, to share, to take care of, to pass on in better shape.

We have serious problems in central Missouri with invasives: Bradford pears, bush and vine honeysuckle, autumn olive, multi-flora rose, Hollis’ thistle…Every part of the country has its list. We cannot own a piece of land without having responsibility to maintain its health, to keep the invasives under control.

So many of our land practices have created monsters. Every time we turn over a piece of earth, we have accepted responsibility for that piece of earth. Once we interfere in the system, it becomes wild no more, but another part of man’s tampering with the environment. We reintroduce weeds long dormant, we disrupt the ecosystem. How do we teach this to young gardeners with stars in their eyes, who simply want something pretty or good to eat and have no idea about the ramifications of their actions?

I’ve done my soul-searching, using more poison in 3 hours than we ever thought of using in the thirty-five years on this piece of earth. I feel responsible for the future of this land. I want to see more insects, more birds, more critters of all kinds making it their home.

Over the next week, I’ll watch the pasture turn from an emerald-green to a brown. Jeremy insists it’ll just look like a plowed field. In a way, it’ll be my shame. Instead of wearing the scarlet letter A across my chest, the brown field, barren of life, will follow me until next spring, when the native seedlings begin to appear.

I dressed Our Lady of the Flowers in her spring gown. Later she’ll have a hat, for now, she wanted the wind to blow through her, loosening the cobwebs from her soul. At least she looks pure and innocent. I bow to her for direction.