Celebrating Autumn’s Bounty at Cloud Mountain

Cloud Mountain Farm Center’s Fruit Festival celebrates the bounty of fall.

Fall was in full season at the Fruit Festival this past weekend at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, a small town that lies right on the Canadian border.  Until a few years ago, the festival was known as the Harvest Festival and the place was a working farm and native plant nursery known as Cloud Mountain Farm.

My friends, Cheryl and Tom Thornton, owned and operated the farm for 33 years. Seven years ago, the farm was converted into a non-profit learning center dedicated to providing hands-on learning experiences to aspiring farmers, experienced farmers, and home gardeners, continuing the work the Thorntons have always done through the years.

A volunteer shows two youngsters how to press apples for cider.

The Thorntons still live at the farm but now they are joined everyday by as many as eight paid interns who participate in an eight-month educational program to learn the practices of good, sustainable farm techniques. They study plant propagation, tree fruit production, viticulture, market development, and vegetable production to prepare them to be farm owners, key farm employees or entrepreneurs and professionals involved in the agricultural industry or advocacy.

People from all over the region seek out Tom’s advice and expertise.

At the heart of it, of course, are my friends, Cheryl and Tom.  Cheryl handles most of the business and marketing side of the farm, as she has done for years.  Tom oversees the hands-on educational side, as he has done for years becoming one of, if not the apple expert in Washington state and maybe the region.  People from all over have brought their fruit and vegetable-growing questions to Tom and learned from his expertise through the hundreds of workshops he’s conducted for weekend gardeners and industry professionals.

My husband and I headed out to the farm yesterday morning, as we have done in many years past but not recently, to see what was going on. Although the day was cloudy (it is Cloud Mountain remember?) and chilly, the back field by the grape vines were already full of cars when we arrived shortly after it opened. Little kids were scampering down the road from the field to the festival area with their parents close behind.  Lines were already formed at the tasting tent where visitors could sample all the different types of apples, pears, cherries, grapes grown on the farm.

I stopped off first at the farm’s main barn to say ‘Hello’ to Cheryl, who was at the register checking out festival goers purchasing  five-pound bags of apples and pears. As she became busier, I wandered off to a hot-house where the band, Bridge, had begun to play.

The band, Bridge, entertained while festival goers sampled fruit.

Music has always been part of the festival and listening to Bridge reminded of the year that the band in which my sons and Thorntons’ daughter, Julia, performed at the festival. They were middle-schoolers at the time, all students of musician Ginny Snowe, a wonderful piano teacher who had put the band together in a summer music camp. The kids turned out to be so enthusiastic and good that they stayed together long after the camp to write music and play gigs at schools, festivals and other events.

While still middle schoolers, the band Switch played at Cloud Mountain’s Harvest Festival.

Known as Switch, their little band actually launched the music careers of some of the band members, including Julia who’s now a professional musical director and pianist; Jeff, who’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s best classical saxophonists and finishing up a PhD at the University of Michigan; and my son, Marshall, a drummer who’s plays professionally with several bands in Seattle one of them being, until recently the funk band, The Fabulous Party Boys.  (The band was a subject of another of my blog posts.)

Take a guess at the weight of the pumpkin and win a prize if you’re right.

Julia also grew pumpkins that she harvested each fall and sold at the festival to earn money for college. The pile of pumpkins is still there but Julia no longer grows them. Her sister, Cara, however, had brought her young daughters from Seattle for the day to help out and perhaps start another family tradition at the festival.

Sue swirls caramel onto an apple during the Fruit Festival.

As Bridge played, volunteers Sue and Burt Weber, twirled thick, yummy caramel around Cloud Mountain apples to hand to young customers. Cooks from Bellingham’s restaurant, Keenan’s, was serving up tasty snack dishes made from local products at the farm at another table. And another volunteer was answering questions and sharing material about the farm center at a third table.

I headed over to the tasting tent where Tom was slicing up pieces of pears for people. He handed me a slice of Rescue, a pair so named because, as he explained, a nursery grower near Vancouver, Washington (Buckley, WA. to be exact) found the species and saved the tree from being destroyed.  The fruit was sweet and buttery and nearly melted in my mouth.  Next, Tom gave me sample of the Seckel pear,that Tom said is considered native to Pennsylvania, maybe the only true American pears. It’s said to be named after a local farmer who found a “wild sapling” growing on a farm just outside Philadelphia late 1700’s, according to some accounts.  The small, reddish-brown pear has a creamy texture and a sweet taste.

Considered the only true American pear, the Seckel was found growing wild on a farm in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s.

My taste tests were interrupted by another pear sampler who had questions for Tom about her own pear trees. This is the kind of thing that happens to Tom all the time, no matter where he is because gardeners and growers locally know that he carries a wealth of agricultural information in his head.

I moved on to the cherry and grape tables before calling it a morning.  People were still arriving as we climbed back into our car with the carton of Cloud Mountain cider and a bag of  apples.  A visit to their farm is always special and welcome, but particularly went the Fall Fruit Festival is underway.  If you missed it this year, there will be another next year.  It’s a great way to start the season and to celebrate the beauty and bounty of this fabulous farm.

The Optimist’s Autumn Ritual

I must be an optimist.  What else could explain why, every year about this time I spend hours in my garden planting hundreds (yes, hundreds) of tulip bulbs?  I do this every autumn despite the fact that I know I will need to do battle with the voracious tulip-devouring deer that frequent my neighborhood.

Every autumn, I gather my gardening tools, my bulb food, my bags of newly purchased tulip bulbs and head out to my flower beds to spend an hour or two. I pull on my gloves and strap on my knee pads and begin  punching holes into the ground with a clever little cone-shaped tool designed to do exactly that.

I gather my tools, slip on my gloves and set out to plant my tulip bulbs.
I gather my tools, slip on my gloves and set out to plant my tulip bulbs.

After years of performing this annual ritual, I have finally developed a system. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Punch the holes, place the individual bulbs over each one, then twist and lift out a cylinder of dirt using my bulb planter. Next, I sprinkle a little bulb food or bone meal into the hole, stir it up a bit to mix it into the dirt, drop the bulb into place, then empty out the dirt from my tool back into the hole.  I do this for no less than 15 bulbs at a time as it seems to make the process go more quickly. Once I’ve covered over the planted bulbs, I poke a little red marker into the perimeter of the area  I’ve just worked so that I don’t mistakenly repeat it later.  (Took me a few years to figure that one out.)

In the spring, my hard work pays off with a display of red blooms.
In the spring, my hard work pays off with a display of red blooms.

Usually, I have fairly good luck with this method.  Doesn’t even matter if I accidentally slice in half an old bulb buried deep in the ground from last season because tulips left over from the year before rarely produce good flowers the second or third year. (Unless, of course, you go to the trouble of digging them all up and separate off all the baby bulbs.)

My tulips take over inthe garden just as the daffodils are at the end of their run.
My tulips take over inthe garden just as the daffodils are at the end of their run.

For that reason, I quit wasting my money on the fancier breed of tulips from the nearby tulip farms or ordering the tempting delights found on the pages of the full-color catalogs that  arrived in the mail. Now, I settle for inexpensive bags of 90 sold at a big box store because, as my husband never ceases to remind me, I’m just buying food for the deer.

They are so adorable, but my tulips are like candy to these two. It's not why I plant them.
They are so adorable, but my tulips are like candy to these two. It’s not why I plant them.

If I am diligent and start in February to discourage the deer from having dinner on me, I wind up with a pretty lovely display of color in the spring. If I plan carefully, this springtime show will last for a couple of months. I try not to leave home too much during late March and April, when the flowers are in full bloom, so that I can literally enjoy the ‘flowers of my labor.’ I still like to make trips to the local tulip fields, but I find my own much more gratifying.

So, today I once again don my gardener’s gear, collect my tools and spend some time digging in the soil, performing the exercise of the optimist.  Let me know if you’re an optimist too.

The bright blooms of my tulips pop against the iron dragonfly in my garden.
The bright blooms of my tulips pop against the iron dragonfly in my garden.



An Autumn Hike

Autumn is in full bloom here in beautiful Bellingham and the Pacific Northwest.  The season has made for some fabulous portrait photography settings for my high school seniors and family clients.  (Will share a few of those in a separate post.) I promised a while ago to share with you some of this year’s autumnal photographic treats from my personal portfolio and am finally taking a breather from my portrait work to do exactly that.

I have been itching to get out and take advantage of the gorgeous weather and color to take a photographic hike.   I decided this morning was the morning.  The fog was thick this morning but it makes for great mood.  I picked up a friend and the two of us went for a short hike nearby.  Just enough to quench my thirst for photographing some fall foliage.

The overhanging tree limb frames the leave-strewn trail.
The overhanging tree limb frames the leave-strewn trail.

I always think of the great nature photographer, Eliot Porter, when I’m on one of these outings. His work has long inspired me.  I have several books of his photographs in my collection and have been fortunate to see some of his work firsthand.  The composition, printing and color control of his images is masterful.

This has been a great fall for spider webs. They are such works of art. This one sparkled in the early morning sun.
This has been a great fall for spider webs. They are such works of art. This one sparkled in the early morning sun.

For most of his career (he died in 1990), he used a view camera, which is why his images have such depth and detail to them.  What he would have done with a digital camera one can only guess.  If you ever have an opportunity to see his work in a museum, gallery or work, I urge you do so.  Am sure you’ll be just as inspired as I am.

Often it's the smallest details that make the shot.
Often it’s the smallest details that make the shot.

One of the things that studying Porter’s images has taught me is to look for the little details, As a journalist, I did this all the time on my assignments. It’s those small details that can make the story or photograph.

The Pacific Northwest is so lush with vegetation that it's at times almost too rich for the eyes.
The Pacific Northwest is so lush with vegetation that it’s at times almost too rich for the eyes.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus in on the smaller details, especially when you are faced with such, rich, lush and verdant surroundings as we have here in the Pacific Northwest.  The question then becomes, for the photographic artist, how to take it all in? When do you include it in its entirety and when do you zoom in to limit the view to one significant aspect?  Those artistic decision become the fun, as well as the challenges to evaluating your images.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘virtual’ autumn walk in the woods with me.  And if you have, please ‘follow’ my blog for future posts and share them with your friends.  Together, we can have great photographic adventures!

So many spiders had taken up residence in this one area that I just had to made a visual record of their 'urban village.'
So many spiders had taken up residence in this one area that I just had to made a visual record of their ‘urban village.’

The turning maple leaves,  their edges polka dotted with dark spots, dramatically contrast against the morning's gray, foggy sky.
The turning maple leaves, their edges polka-dotted with dark spots, dramatically contrast against the morning’s gray, foggy sky.