Monday, December 14, 2009

Seed Gathering

Yesterday, I pulled out the nasturtiums, two big trailing plants worth of slimy mess, and threw them on the compost pile. The bare spot where they used to be was littered with their seeds. I couldn't help marveling at the layered poetry of earthy debris, seemingly dead but really a petrie dish of teeming life, mixed with newly sprouting life of forget-me-nots and stored life of nasturtiums. There were lots of locust tree pods mixed in and a few bits of redwood and eucalyptus, not to mention a couple of gooey remnants of nasturtium leaves. What a montage! (Click on the photo above to enlarge it and see the details.)

Today I gathered up the nasturtium seeds and brought them inside.

It's a simple matter to strew them on a plate and let them sit on the dining room table to dry. The fat green newly gathered ones are mixed with some dried up specimens from an earlier seed gathering foray.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Winter Bounty at the Table

Mmmmmmm, frost-kissed greens for dinner: mostly chard chopped up fine, with a little chopped kale for added character, sauted in olive oil with garlic and some canned tomato. I could eat this every night.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Winter Bounty

We had only three nights of temperatures in the twenties. By Thursday we were back to cloudy skies and predictions of rain, finally fulfilled today. All the winter-hardy plants are looking really perky now, coming into their own as their summer compatriots are reduced to limp brown rags, or, in the case of the nasturtiums, green goo.

This afternoon I went out in the rain -- accompanied by a wild-eyed, stir-crazed canine companion -- to do a little picking.

Pictured above, top row, left to right: Redbor kale, Blue Curly kale, a few leaves of dinosaur kale, right below the dinosaur kale some Red Lollo Antago lettuce, Rainbow chard, with some Bloomsdale spinach right below.

Bottom row, left to right: cilantro, Bronze Arrow lettuce, Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, arugula (a self-seeding volunteer coming up all over the garden), Forellenschluss lettuce.

A festival of vitamins and minerals!

The lemon tree seems fine. Some of its leaves have more of a yellow tinge than they did before the freeze, but that's all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Everything's Frozen!

This morning, a little before eight, the backyard was a California version of a sparkling winter wonderland. All the greenery was still green but with a new and silvery aspect, stiffened by rhinestones of frost. The water in the birdbath was frozen solid with golden locust leaves suspended in the ice.

A dramatic seasons end for the pepper plants, also finally for the cherry tomatoes. Nasturtiums and basil were already on the way out.

The lemon tree, however, looked fine under its boxy blanket. I took the box off during the day and for tonight have covered the plant with frost protection cloth. We'll see how that works. Tonight will be just as cold.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Frost Protection

We are having a cold spell, with night temperatures falling below freezing. Tonight is predicted to hit 27 degrees. Following advice in the San Francisco Chronicle garden section, I put a cardboard box over the little potted lemon tree. There are lots of big lemon trees in our neighborhood that seem to be thriving -- they are glossy-leaved and covered with lemons -- but our little plant is still young and vulnerable.

We acquired it last Valentine's Day by mail order from a nursery in southern California. It now has five very nice lemons just starting to ripen. Two are visible here, the others are tucked under leaves.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


There were plenty of intimations of frost before I went out to the garden this morning for the daily inspection. It was a genuinely cold night with chilly tendrils of air creeping in under the blankets. We leave the heat off at night and it was a relief to turn it on right away after getting up and to linger a bit by the heater. The first cup of coffee was a mini-spa, as the steam warmed my face.

In the garden only the nasturtiums and the basil showed noticeable effects. The basil was brown and blasted -- season definitely over without any quibbling about it. The nasturtiums were still green but completely wilted. The sungold tomatoes were still standing tall above the overhead trellis, but looking more bedraggled than yesterday.

Frost factoids: The water inside the plant cells turns to ice crystals and pierces the cell walls, killing them. Hardy plants must have some kind of defense against this.

In this area, average first frost is late November, so we are actually pretty much on schedule. For the record: In 2009, first noticeable effects of frost occurred on December 6.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December Blossoms

We have had no heavy frost yet. I think there were some light frosts in the last few weeks because the basil has dark spots on it. But the nasturtiums and other plants that don't usually survive being frozen are thriving.

The morning glories have started blooming again and there is actually a red ripe cherry tomato on the still growing volunteer plant. I've seen big green and red tomatoes in neighbor's yards.

The sungolds are showing another spurt of growth. I can't remember when the heavy frosts hit last year, but this seems late to still have a garden full of summer-blooming plants.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Quiet Corner

Trudy's final resting place is a quiet corner next to Fluff Mama. H. helped dig the hole. We put plenty of heavy rocks on top to discourage scavengers like racoons and skunks. I planted a little rosemary seedling on top. Fluff Mama's salvia plant grew to more than twelve feet in height, like a lush tree with countless tiny red tubular flowers beloved by hummingbirds. It finally toppled over from sheer gargantuousness. It's nice to have another plant there. I hope this one lasts.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Goodby Trudy

R.I.P. Trudy the Cat, November 20 2009

We don't remember when she first showed up. It was a few years after we moved into this place in 1992 -- so maybe around 1995. Suddenly there was a big grey square-jawed feline hanging around with the other backdoor cats. We don't know when she was born or where she came from.

We thought she was a male because of her size and large head. We called him Intruder, a real misnomer because he was shy and amazingly gentle, didn't hunt like the other cats or even chase bugs. Just stayed close, but not close enough to touch. It was a complicated process getting him to the vet -- setting out a rented Humane society cage with goodies inside, then watching anxiously from the window until he nosed his way in and sprang the trap, hurrying out to throw a towel over the whole rattling kaboodle of cage and cat.

When the vet informed us that "he" was a spayed female we changed her name to Trudy. Eventually she allowed me to stroke her fur, purring softly and stretching her neck. But that was not a signal that she could be picked up -- no undue familiarity was tolerated. She was simply Always Around, following me into the garden, sitting up when my car pulled into the driveway, circling an emply food bowl patiently. Her version of close companionship was to walk just in front so there was no room to put down the next step, or to sit nearby in an unobtrusive spot, sharing the quiet splendor of simple existence.

It won't be the same without her.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First Big Storm of the Season

As promised, a major storm gusted its way through the Bay Area today. With remnants of a Japanese typhoon amping up its wind and rain power, there are plenty of stories of blocked roads, downed trees, and power outages. My tour of the backyard showed only minor local effects, however. A small branch of one of the white locust trees fell onto the leaf pile.

The hollyhocks were flattened. I'm sorry to see them go, but they have had a nice run. This is the second batch after the first round grew so tall they fell over all on their own. I had to cut them down; then this junior varsity team took their places. Now the season's really over.

The wheelbarrow was almost filled by what were evidently record breaking downpours.

The Red Sails lettuce was also flattened. I'm hoping against hope that they will be able to stand up again. I might try to prop them. Lettuce season is not over! We need those leaves to keep our salads going until the new seedlings size up.

Here's what the Red Sails looked like before being cruelly struck down before their time: putting forth proud stalks with little florets just forming. And the leaves are still tasty.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Journey Round the Sun: September

The crystalline light of a lowering sun
Fills the valleys,
Gilds brown hills gold,
Makes every trembling leaf and blade
A tiny mirror.

Equinox: Earth rides its axis straight.
Night and day see eye to eye.
Morning has teeth: premonitions of frost.
Noon blares hot.
Light and dark are in fleeting balance
While temperature see-saws.

Knowing the portents,
Birds flock for fall flight,
Swallows are gone,
Long-necked geese mark the sky
With directional signs, all pointing south.

We who enter a private autumn
Hear their fading cries
And remember the
Hurrying arrow of time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tomato Extravaganza

By Labor Day, last Monday, the tomato situation was getting critical. It was quite clear that soon there would be tomatoes tucked away onto bookcases (which has happened before) and in the bathroom cabinet (which has not happened so far). The photo above shows everything on hand on Monday afternoon -- mostly Better Boys, lined up from ripest on the left to just-picked, still-slightly-orange on the right.

There are also bowls of Sungolds and the volunteer red cherry tomatoes for snacking and salads, and two demonstration Black Krims at lower right, just to show we are capable of growing heirlooms.

A plethora of Better Boys means it's time to go rummaging in the garage for the mighty Squeezo, the venerable Vittorio Strainer, veteran of many a tomato sauce session of Septembers past. It didn't take long to clean it up from its long hibernation and attach it to the dining room table.

The whole process is so simple. The ripe tomatoes are first rinsed and quartered. (Let the orangey ones sit for another week to ripen up.)

Then all you have to do is fill the hopper with tomato pieces, press them down with the mallet, and turn the handle to push the juicy mass through the screening funnel. Skin and seeds drop out at the end of the funnel while the luscious juice and pulp flows down the trough into a bowl.

The next step is to cook the juice down a bit and package it up in pint size freezer containers as a base for tomato sauce. Take some out in gloomy November or in chilly February and make it into sauce for a vivifying taste of congealed sunlight, a distillate of summertime itself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Farewell to August

The pink lilies which are the hallmark of high summer in our backyard and all over the area are faded now. But before all traces of this fruitful August, just past, disappear completely, here is a memento.

Journey Round the Sun: August

Sudden pink lilies on tall bare stalks
Leap from dead ground.
Ripe fruit thuds into hot dust.
Perseids streak the night sky,
Space gravel burning in air,
Silent and swift as Newton's thought.

Earth turns in its spiral dance,
Leaning into light.
Up, down, around,
We all move to the same music.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Harvest -- Fruits of Our Labor Day

Today is a holiday so I can get this post up on time for the harvest round-up at Daphne's Dandelions.

This week it has felt like the garden is slowing down because most of the plants look middle-aged, a bit like stressed-out parents with too many children. But bedraggled as the plants might be, their progeny is beautiful and plentiful. The peak harvest time continues.

We are pretty much keeping up day to day with eating lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, Black Krim tomatoes, an occasional pepper or eggplant. But the heavy producers that need to be processed for the freezer are accumulating. Counter tops are covered with Better Boy tomatoes and there are bulging bags of beans and zucchini in the refrigerator. Not to complain, of course. Abundance is not an obligation but a celebration!

Week of Sunday, August 30 through Sunday, September 6

Sunday, August 30 (This should have been included with last week's portfolio, but I got the days mixed up.)
Above, left to right: one Cochella zucchini; a handful of Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes; lemon cucumbers; volunteer red cherry tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans.

Tuesday, September 1

Blue Lake pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes; one lemon cucumber; one Black Krim tomato; Green Racer zucchini; Sungold cherry tomatoes.

Thursday, September 3

Red Sails summer lettuce; Better Boy tomatoes

Friday, September 4

Sungold cherry tomatoes; Better Boy tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans; one Japanese eggplant (first one -- yay!); three Pimientos de Padron; one lemon cucumber; one Black Krim tomato; Green Racer zucchini; volunteer red cherry tomatoes

Saturday, September 5

Better Boy tomatoes; lemon cucumbers; a surprise resurgence of Tavera French haricot beans; lots and lots of Sungold cherry tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans. Not pictured: another pile of Red Sails summer lettuce, picked before dawn because a certain canine companion just HAD to go out. Prime lettuce picking time.

The Kentucky Wonder beans have pretty much stopped producing -- nothing harvested since August 30. The spider mites got them. But that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Monday Harvest(s)

Another Monday has come and gone! Lots more portraits of gorgeous produce have been posted at Daphne's Dandelions. It's thrilling to see the lush harvests people around the country are bringing in.

To add to the collective cornucopia, here is a belated record of what has come out of our backyard in the past two weeks.

Week of Monday August 17 through Sunday, August 23

Tuesday, August 18
Above, left to right: Lots of lovely, rustly, fragrant Genovese basil for pesto; Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Sungold cherry tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes; the last of the Tavera French haricot bush beans; Green Racer zucchini.

Friday, August 21
Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes, including a couple of green ones that fell off the plant (they have ripened on the dining room table); Sungold cherry tomatoes; Cochella zucchini; lemon cucumbers; Green Racer zucchini; Blue Lake pole beans.

Saturday, August 22
Red Sails summer lettuce; Sungold cherry tomatoes; Better Boy tomatoes. With the abundance of lettuce, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes, we are gobbling up garden salads every night.

Sunday, August 23
A Black Krim tomato! -- only the second one so far, but worth the wait; lemon cucumbers; Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans, Green Racer zucchini.

Sunday, August 23
Trombetta di Albenga Italian squash. The biggest ones are about three feet long and almost ten pounds in weight. B. suggested we honor his Irish heritage by making Shillelagh soup -- and indeed they do look like big cudgels. Ha ha.

Unfortunately, all but one of them started rotting from the bottom and ended up as biomass in the compost bin. The green, curvey, bulbous one in the middle has a hardened rind so I put it in the garage to see if it will last. I believe this variety can work as both a summer and a winter type. Meanwhile, there are several more growing. We will have another chance to actually cook one of them.

Week of Monday, August 24 through Sunday, August 30

Monday, August 24
The last of the pears. We never did get hold of a ladder, but, with B.'s help, I stood on a kitchen stool and managed to pick most of what remained in the upper branches of the little pear tree. What I couldn't reach we shook down into the ivy below. About a third of those were lost to nicking and bruising but we still ended up with plenty to set ripening in the garage, with a few set aside in the refrigerator.

When ripe they are absolutely delicious. For all these years we have been letting gourmet fruit rot away untended. Sometimes we regret this, but when sweet pear juice is dripping down your chin, you just want to live in the moment.

Wednesday, August 26
Kentucky Wonder pole beans; Better Boy tomatoes; Sungold cherry tomatoes; lemon cucumbers; Blue Lake pole beans; Green Racer zucchini.

Sunday, August 29
The biggest one-day harvest so far. Left to right: one overgrown Cochella zucchini; Red Sails lettuce; Genovese basil; Kentucky Wonder pole beans; nestled among the beans is one red cherry tomato from the volunteer plant growing amidst the morning glory vines; lemon cucumbers; Better Boy tomatoes; Blue Lake pole beans; Sungold cherry tomatoes; Green Racer zucchini. This represents pretty much all the vegetables in the garden except the Trombetta squash, oh, and also the peppers and eggplant which are not yet really up to speed.

It's really remarkable how productive an ordinary yard can be. I read a blog post recently that claimed there are 19 million acres of arable land in suburban yards across the county. And that's just the suburbs.

We are in a small city. I've noticed that more than a few people in our neighborhood have taken out their front lawns and replaced them with vegetable gardens. Who knows what is going on in the backyards.

Let the gardening revolution begin! Gardeners of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your counter space.

UPDATE: Another source states there are 30 million acres of prime farmland in the suburbs now being tended as lawns. Key quote:

Fortunately, in the United States, “suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime U.S. farmland. NASA’s ecological forecasting research group reports that the people living there already water about 30 million acres of lawn, three times the land planted in irrigated corn.

UPDATE 2: I found the original source for that quote.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

This Is the Week That Was

Tracking the harvest in photos: what a good idea! Hat tip to Daphne's Dandelions who has organized a Monday photo-share where gardeners in various locales can admire each others' garden output of the previous week. It's so easy to take veggie portraits before bringing everything into the house that it's become a new habit.

Here is a round-up of our harvest over the past couple of weeks.

Week of Monday, August 3 through Sunday, August 9

Above, garden gleanings for Tuesday, August 4, not quite two weeks ago:

Left to right: Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Sungold cherry tomatoes, Blue Lake pole beans, Green Racer zucchini, and two Cochella zucchini on the far right.

Week of August 3 through August 9, continued

Above, quite a respectable haul on Friday, August 7:
Left to right: Blue Lake pole beans, Tavera French haricot bush beans, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Better Boy tomatoes and Sungold cherry tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, Green Racer zucchini.

Week of August 3 through August 9, continued

Friday, August 7 and Saturday August 8 combined:
Above are shown all the pears that could be picked standing on the ground or on a small table, minus about a dozen more that are stored in the refrigerator to stop the ripening process.

Week of Monday, August 10 through Sunday, August 16

Tuesday, August 11:
Clockwise, more or less, from top: One Yolo Wonder green pepper and a few Pimientos de Padron peppers (in bowl), Sungold cherry tomatoes (in bowl), Better Boy tomatoes, Cochella zucchini, Green Racer zucchini, lemon cucumbers, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Tavera French haricot bush beans (in bowl), Blue Lake pole beans.

Week of August 10 through August 16
, continued

Friday, August 14:
Clockwise from top: Blue Lake pole beans, Green Racer zucchini, lemon cucumbers, Sungold cherry tomatos, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Better Boy tomatoes.

Week of August 10 through August 16, continued

Sunday, August 16:
Clockwise from top: Red Sails summer lettuce, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, one Cochella zucchini, Sungold cherry tomatoes, Pimiento de Padron peppers, lemon cucumbers, Green Racer zucchini, Better Boy tomatoes.

Week of August 10 through August 16, continued

Sunday, August 16:
A few volunteer mystery tomatoes from a plant that has twined itself among the morning glories. They start out looking like the Sungolds but then ripen red and have a more standard cherry tomato taste, not the distinctive and complex flavor burst of the Sungolds that resonates across the palate. Quite tasty nonetheless. Some stray seeds from the compost got lucky -- and so did we.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Let Us Eat Lettuce

A week ago today, Sunday, I gave some much needed attention to the Red Sails summer lettuce: first a deep watering followed by a drenching with liquid seaweed fertilizer and then an application of a thick layer of "cool mulch."

What is "cool mulch"? It's a theory I have, as yet unproven, that light colored materials -- such as these locust leaves that fall onto our yard in a continuous rain -- make the best mulch for plants that like cooler soil around their roots.

I've read that heat-loving plants like eggplant really spring to life with a layer of black plastic that warms things up the way they like it. I haven't gotten around to trying that out yet, but it makes sense.

Wouldn't it also make sense that if the heat lovers love black plastic, the "cool kid" plants would like something that reflects back more of the sunlight before it warms the soil? I can tell that these lettuce plants like their little shade house -- old lace curtains draped over bamboo stakes -- so, I thought, maybe they will appreciate some nice champagne colored carpeting to go with the lace curtains.

Here's what they looked like early this morning, a week later. They seem to be happy.

And I was happy too. Picking lettuce is a great incentive to be out in the garden as early as possible. Our lettuce turns into limp rags unless I pick it while the dew drops still glint on the leaves. Today is a scorcher -- which, typically, I spent in the sweaty harvest kitchen making green soup and green beans for freezing -- but thanks to the lettuce I caught the garden at the height of its freshness this morning.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

More About Pears

Standing on this small table I was able to reach most of the mid-level pears -- enough to fill a small picnic basket. Aside from some leaves and twigs in my hair and a little bit of bark grit in my eyes (Note to self: wear wraparound sunglasses to pick pears!) it was easily accomplished.

There are plenty left in the upper reaches of the tree so it seems that using a ladder is unavoidable. We will have to borrow one.

Here is yesterday's batch set up in the garage for slow ripening. According to the information from the California Pear Advisory Board, ripening should happen at room temperature. It probably gets hotter than that in the garage, which is a simple, uninsulated, redwood shed with a cracked cement floor. It's going to go up to around 85 degrees today and more hot days are expected this week.

But this is just an experiment to see if we can rescue a few more pears than in previous years. I'll also put some in the refrigerator to see if that halts the ripening process for a while.