Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spring Comes to Our Yard

We are finally getting some bloom in our own backyard -- several weeks after the neighborhood streets began to get festive with the new season. Perhaps we don't have quite enough southern exposure to allow for Valentine's Day blossoms. But the plum trees are making up for lost time, decked out in their dainty finery.

Overall, February is a back-and-forth month, mostly chilly, foggy, and rainy with a few glorious breakthrough days. Katherine Grace Endicott's Northern California Gardening gets it mostly right for our little niche: "February is a month of heavy rain and freezing temperatures in much of Northern California. The weather does not beckon gardeners outdoors. There are, however, usually one or two days of false spring -- days so gloriously bright and unseasonably warm that thoughts turn quickly to the garden."

We've certainly had the rain, if not the freezing temperatures. And we've had the glorious day or two of brightness and warmth that didn't seem false at all, and beckoned me right outside to plant a bed or two and admire whatever is in bloom.

The periwinkles are showing a bit of blue.

So are the forget-me-nots.

The arugula is growing like the weed that it is and starting to show off its white blossoms. It's still good for salads, though.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Purple Mutant Broccoli

The garden is a never-ending source of surprises. The latest head-scratcher is this unexpected plant pictured above. The largest by far of the Romanesco broccoli, it has put forth a head that looks like some kind of cross between Romanesco and Purple Sprouting varieties. You can see the separate, fractal-like florets, but they are much less sharply defined than in a regular Romanesco, where the little components look as if they have been etched out by a laser beam. And instead of a pale. luminescent green, it has a heathery, purple color. Not unattractive, but slightly weird. It makes me a bit nervous.

Here is Purple Sprouting broccoli, which, like the Romanesco, I've never grown before. But it looks like what I expect from the label -- lots of small sprouts, just starting to appear, that will hopefully go on producing for some time. Both sets of seedlings came from Cottage Garden Nursery. Could there be cross-pollination?

Just for reference, this is what Romanesco is supposed to look like. The mutant head is three times bigger than these delicate specimens. We'll see what it tastes like. But then maybe we will end up with alien lifeforms sprouting from our foreheads. . . .

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Buds Bursting, Birds Singing

Last weekend, C. and I took a walk through the nature area that runs through the center of a nearby subdivision. I was looking for signs of spring; he was running his own, mostly olfactory, survey. Here he is sniffing the breeze in the middle of a field of buttercups. If we could add little thought balloons to this picture, it would be: Me (off-camera) -- "Ooooh, buttercups. They weren't here last time we came by." C. -- "Four raccoons, six cats, and a dog who is smaller than me passed this way in the last 24 hours. Is this spot in need of marking? I think not."

The nature area is the site of a watershed restoration project. The creek is being brought back to its natural state. I was expecting lots of bloom, but perhaps these native plants have their own style, more subtle than the showy trees along neighborhood streets. Here's how the creek looks in mid-February.

The giant willow by the waterhole where the local kids like to play in warmer weather is starting to leaf out. A delicate greening is the main clue to the advancing season. I noticed lots of fat buds on several different types of trees.

After we got home, I took this photo out the back bedroom window of a robin gorging on ivy berries. There were several of them rustling around and whistling their happiness over a beautiful day in early spring.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Garden of Eatin'

Over the past week the harvests have been keeping us amply supplied with fresh produce, and still on track with our Eat the Yard Challenge. A basketful of chard and kale went into a big pot of minestrone, with plenty left over that's still in the fridge. Fortunately it keeps well.

Three little heads of Romanesco broccoli, lightly steamed, made Valentine's Day dinner festive.

And salad greens are reliable daily fare. Above, top to bottom: Red Lollo Antago lettuce, cilantro, Forellenschluss lettuce.

Above, top to bottom: Bronze Arrowhead lettuce, Miner's lettuce.

Above, left to right: Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, spinach (mixed Bloomsdale and Gigante d'Inverno), arugula.

For the record, here is the ongoing tally of eating something from the garden every day:

February 11: Minestrone with with winter greens (chard, kale)
February 12: Same
February 13: Same
February 14: Pasta primavera with garden parsley, Romanesco broccoli
February 15: Pasta primavera with garden parsley
February 16: Oatmeal walnut burgers with garden lettuce
February 17: Oatmeal walnut loaf, garden salad
February 18: Garden salad

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Earth Valentines

Happy Valentine's Day!

Rather than visiting the mall to pick out cards or buy flowers flown in from distant lands, it's a lot more fun to walk around the neighborhood to see what's in bloom. On almost every block are exuberant displays of lacy pink or white creations.

These are the same streets we were walking just a month ago, in the dark, admiring the Christmas lights that most people still had up. Gradually, one by one, the houses went dark. Now they are decorated again with a whole different theme -- just like the stores, although Mother Nature's marketing promotions are far more enticing.

Above, I believe, is a flowering quince bush.

My rule of thumb used to be that the trees with pink blossoms are flowering cherry and the white ones are plum.

This one, right across the street from us, has white blossoms, and our neighbor assures me it is a flowering cherry. So, it must be admitted that I really have no idea what all these graceful trees might be. But who cares on a beautiful spring day?

About a 15 minute walk from our house is another white-blossomed tree, venerable with age and surrounded by Indian paintbrush, in the yard of an abandoned old farmhouse house on the edge of town.

In our own backyard, I know how to identify the plum trees because we've eaten the fruit for many a summer. So far, there are only two or three white blossoms showing, with lots more to come.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Emergency Parsley

Parsley sprigs in a glass on the counter are a fail safe device for adding something from the garden to a meal when time is short and there is nothing on hand in the refrigerator. Last night we ran out of salad makings and winter greens and I didn't have time to run out into the yard.

But not to worry. A bit of chopped parsley sprinkled over the pizza at the last minute keeps alive the game of eating from the yard every day. And, it turns out, B. had already sauteed in some fresh rosemary with the mushrooms.

2010 Eat the Yard Challenge -- so far, so good:

February 2: mushroom sandwiches with garden arugula, garden salad
February 3: garden salad
February 4: chili with garden parsley, sauteed winter greens
February 5: garden salad
February 6: tacos with garden lettuce, guacamole with garden cilantro
February 7: spagetti with garden tomato sauce (freezer), garden salad
February 8: sorrel soup, garden salad
February 9: mushroom pizza with rosemary, garden salad
February 10: mushroom pizza with rosemary and parsley

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sour Grass Soup?

OK, it happened like this: B. read an article about Sorrel Soup, by our local food and garden writer, Michele Anna Jordan, who is always eloquent and interesting. The description was so tantalizing he felt inspired to follow through, even though his left wrist is still in a cast and two fingers on the right hand are bandaged. Must be that irrepressible springtime energy that keeps manifesting itself in the midst of rain and fog and cold and chill.

There is wood sorrel growing wild by the back door and out near the garden, a definite sign of spring -- the first yellow blossoms opened this week in our yard. I've seen lots of them along the roads and in corners of neighbors' yards for several weeks now.

Wood sorrel is a common weed also known as oxalis. It is known to California children as sour grass (at least to the California children of my acquaintance). Just as we East coast children knew for certain -- as irrefutable childhood lore handed down from no one knows where -- that you could make sassafras tea from the root of the sassafras bush, West coast children know that you can chew on the stems of sour grass for a nice lemony, tangy treat. But soup from sour grass? That, we didn't know. However, as adults, we believe what we read in the newspaper or on the Internet.

Michele Anna Jordan used red-veined sorrel, a different plant entirely -- not in the oxalis family but a Rumex species related to Rhubard. However, a little bit of Web sleuthing revealed that wood sorrel is just fine for soup. Here's the money quote from an article on culinate.com:

"California children love to chew the stems of a yellow-flowered wood sorrel, which they call sour grass. According to Patience Gray, in her book Honey from a Weed, the French once considered oxalis the best sorrel for sorrel soup, or potage Germiny, which even today bears slivers of French sorrel in imitation of tiny wood sorrel stems, for the stems didn’t break down with pounding as the leaves did."

Even though B. didn't follow either of the published recipes, the end result was very like what Michele Anna Jordan described seeing in a scene set in a Paris restaurant in the TV miniseries of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: "a pale green soup served in a wide pretty soup plate."

It was remarkably good -- no doubt helped along by mushroom broth, leeks, potatoes, and asparagus -- with just a touch of lemony tang. And, so it seems, humble backyard sour grass soup is actually the ancestor and inspiration for fancy French sorrel soup.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yard Chard

Sunday was so warm and delightful a day I got drawn into some unplanned garden tasks, merely as an excuse to be outside. (Hard to believe only two days later as I look out at a cold rainy evening.) There were volunteer chard plants coming up in various spots and raised beds just sitting there under their blankets of straw. Why not put the two together?

The particular patch pictured above is on the path next to last year's chard bed. It consists mostly of seedlings of the coveted Bionda di Lyon variety. All I had to do was dig up the seedlings with a trowel and plant them right back into their ancestral home.

The soil in the bed was perfect: crumbly, dark, and full of earthworms. Several months ago the bed was covered with a layer of fresh horse manure -- earth apples that I get now and then by the bagful from a friend who volunteers with the Morgan horses at Pt. Reyes National Seashore -- and a protective layer of straw. Under the rotting straw there was no trace left of the manure. It was completely assimilated into the rich web of life that we call dirt. I'm expecting big things, literally, from this patch of yard chard.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Call of the Wild -- Hummingbird Style

Hummingbirds are regular denizens of our backyard habitat. I believe they are the local non-migrating Anna's variety, but I've never gotten a close look at any of them. All I ever see is a tiny silhouette at the highest tip of a plum branch or a blur and a buzz which is gone before it fully registers on the senses. (No birds are present in the photo above, it merely shows where they like to perch.)

Sometimes I can catch a fuller glimpse when one of them hovers for a moment at the salvia or hollyhock blossoms. For a second or two, the blur takes on wings and a beak and flashing color. Only Emily Dickinson could capture the fusion of motion and brilliance: "A Resonance of Emerald, A Rush of Cochineal." But these glimpses are not enough to see markings and to differentiate between Anna's or Allens, or whatever other type they might be.

I've often seen the mating ritual: the female is a tiny silhouette perched in a tree; the male is a blur, soaring high until he is swallowed up by the sky, plunging straight down in a dare-devil dive punctuated by a loud chirp as he pulls up and flies straight past the reviewing perch where his lady sits. I saw this display last week and added it to my mental list of "signs of spring."

Today -- a spectacular spring day, by the way, a true harbinger -- I was out in the backyard as any sane person would be. The task at hand was to lay down old newspapers on the paths to try and hold back the wild growth of weeds until I can cover them with leaves or wood chips. (A stack of newspapers near the compost bins comes in handy for this and many other uses.) While shingling soaked, muddy, moldy rectangles of newsprint over the burgeoning hensbit and mallow I noticed an article: "Secret of How Hummingbirds Chirp."

It was the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle from two years ago, almost to the day: February 8, 2008. Nothing for it but to enjoy this bit of serendipity, sit down on the bench, and try to read the damp prose enlivened by bits of mud and white threads of fungi.

Two UC Berkeley researchers studying the Anna's hummingbird had discovered that the chirp punctuating the male hummingbird's spectacular aerial display is not actually a chirp. The sound is made by air rushing through tail feathers. "High-speed video, at 500 frames per second, showed that the birds started their dives with their tails shut and suddenly spread them at the bottom, for one-twentieth of a second -- quicker than a blinking eye," wrote Patricia Yollin. This quick motion creates a musical note as the wind causes the inside edges of the ten splayed out tail feathers to vibrate like the reed of a clarinet.

There was lots of other lore about Anna's hummingbirds in the article, some of which surprised me as much as the tail feather news. It wasn't surprising that the male bird soars 100 feet or more and descends at 50 miles per hour. However, I was very surprised to learn that the mating season is November to May! So much for the sign-of-spring idea. Those mating flights must be going on right through the winter. Why have I never noticed them except when I expect to see them?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Romanesco Broccoli

I was wrong about the broccoli! The Romanescos are forming heads, as advertised: astonishing pale green jewels barely two inches wide, surrounded by ruffled brocade-like leaves. It's always thrilling to grow a new variety and see each phase of growth as it proceeds.

Up to now the the plants have looked like every other broccoli plant I've seen. But the heads are something new. They remind me of fractals -- the mathematical formations in which the whole is comprised of smaller instances of itself: in this case a cone-shaped spiral made of smaller cone-shaped spirals which are in turn made of even smaller cone-shaped spirals.

So, imagine my surprise just now in looking up fractals on Wikipedia, to discover that Romanesco broccoli is given as an example of a naturally occurring fractal form (scroll down a bit to find the photo). But that's not all. It is also an example of a logarithmic spiral -- like the iconic chambered nautilus seashell or like a spiral galaxy. Wow! That's a lot of powerful associations for a humble little broccoli plant. I never know what marvels will be revealed in the back-yard. "In the garden is the universe unfolding . . ."

I will have to grow this variety from now on just for its amazing properties.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Survey of the Winter Garden

Rain, rain go away. Oh well, I can't go out and play in the mud so I might as well use the time to record for posterity the winter garden of 2009 - 2010. These photos are from January 22, a couple of weeks ago. The plants look pretty much the same now.

None of the winter plantings grew as fulsomely as I had pictured in my imagination last fall. Perhaps I got them out too late (October), or perhaps they are just biding their time for a spring surge. At any rate, they have kept us in salads and winter greens all through the dark months.

Pictured above is a bed of Dinosaur and Redbor kale, slug-tattered but productive. We've also been getting nice kale from volunteers around the yard, Siberian and Curly Blue, I think. I was
given some seedlings a few years ago and now they come up on their own.

Romanesco broccoli (from nursery starts), which has been growing very slowly and has not yet formed heads. Around the edges of the bed are little cilantro plants (from gathered seed). Although still small, the leaves have spiced up many a salad.

The purple sprouting broccoli (nursery starts) also has not produced anything yet but broad gray-green leaves. Quite successful as an ornamental.

Sparse looking spinach patch (Bloomsdale and Gigante d'Inverno, from purchased seed). Every now and again I can pick a leaf from each plant to fill out a salad, but so far there is not enough to cook with. The California poppies are starting to grow here and could easily take over this bed.

Assorted chard (from gathered seed). The back row includes plants from last year that just kept going, re-sprouting from the base that died back in the summer.

Rainbow chard (nursery starts) surrounded by parsley that just keeps going from last season.

Assorted lettuce (from purchased and gathered seed), including a volunteer Black Seeded Simpson seedling that I moved here from one of the paths where it had sprung up. In front is some red chard that just won't quit.

Forellenschluss lettuce (from purchased seed).

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce (from gathered seed).

Bronze Arrowhead and Red Lollo Antago lettuce, ravaged by slugs but still producing a lot for eating -- eating by people, that is.

These beds have been in continuous use, summer and winter. It may be that I need to re-examine my soil building program to make sure they have enough fertility to sustain so much growing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

January Retrospective

Journey Round the Sun: January

The two-faced god of closings
And openings,
Of endings and beginnings
Hurries us through the portals
Of a new year.

At Perihelion
Things move fast.

Around the neighborhood,
Christmas lights still up,
Pale fingers
Of magnolia blossoms
Probe the split seams of their
Leathery casings. Out by
The coast, fields of
Mustard turn yellow overnight.

Suddenly, days are longer and the
Dive-bombing hummingbird
Doesn't care who knows about it.
A gardener wonders: "Where did
All these weeds come from?"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thirty-two Days and Counting!

So far in 2010 we have eaten something from the garden every day, if only a sprig or two of parsley or cilantro.

Pictured above is the very tasty dish of quinoa with winter greens from the yard and green beans from the freezer. Recently, B. found directions on the Web for non-mushy, truly fluffy quinoa, (thank you Andrew, wherever you are!) a discovery that is really going to improve our quality of life going forward. (Full disclosure: the photo is from several weeks ago and shows mushy quinoa, not new-improved fluffy quinoa, which disappeared too fast to be photographed.)

I've always been a quinoa fan because, even mushy, it tastes good, and also the idea of quinoa is so appealing: sacred grain of the Inca empire, a complete protein, cooks in 15 minutes -- what else could you ask for, little prizes in every box? But now the reality matches and exceeds the philosophy: the instructions for fluffy quinoa resulted in a dish so delicious we were both scraping up every little translucent seed left on our plates.

Update on 2010 Eat the Yard Challenge

January 22: garden salad
January 23: same
January 24: a bit of chopped cilantro in the quesadillas (yum) and garden salad
January 25: vegetable soup with winter greens
Janaury 26: side dish of sauteed winter greens
January 27: same
January 28: a bit of chopped parsley in the nut loaf
January 29: garden salad
January 30: quinoa with winter greens and freezer green beans
January 31: vegetable soup with winter greens
February 1: garden salad