Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Snowfall

We have had another late rain storm, complete with gusting winds. The result is that locust blossoms now litter the yard with a spring snowfall of white petals.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I planted these bulbs about five years ago because they were small and I liked the picture on the package. This lush batch is the only group still coming up except for a few smaller ones on the shady side of the yard.

The name slipped my mind but in some cobwebbed corner of my brain were stored some lingering wisps of information -- it starts with an "i," it's a short word with some strong consonants like "x" . . . .

An online search of "ixta" yielded only Mexican volcanoes and New York restaurants -- very interesting but not what I was looking for.

"Ixtia" yielded a Guatemalan musical group (I think) and some obscure business just setting up its web site. Finally the Great Google took pity on me and asked helpfully "Do you mean 'ixia'?"

Bingo! A flood of information ensued about the South African Cornflower or Wand Flower or -- Ixia flower, including many photos in diverse shades, including the coveted ixia veridiflora, with its pale green to turquoise blossoms.

The species we have growing in our yard is called ixia acaulis, the White Emperor, an appropriately regal name for this stunning flower which I stop to admire almost every day.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Broccoli Flowers

Another member of the Cruciferae family has joined the bloom party! Out of six Romanesco broccoli plants, only one of them produced side shoots after the main head was harvested. I've let it stand and now it's putting out the four-petaled blossoms characteristic of its family.

Here's a blossom of Dinosaur Kale for comparison: same general cross-shaped design, with variations. The broccoli now joins the kale and the arugula for the family flower festivities.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Black Locust Honey Flow

It has been sunny and warm all weekend. Out in the backyard I noticed a low, steady hum that puzzled me at first. I knew it was the bees. But I couldn't see them. Where were they in numbers sufficient to sound like an electric power plant? The plum and pear blossoms are gone, and they didn't seem to be swarming the roses.

Then I realized that, high overhead, the locust trees are covered with their distinctive white flowers and the bees were taking advantage of what beekeepers call a "honey flow": lots of blossoms all in one place and long warm days to facilitate nectar-gathering. A good description of this weekend.

I did some internet sleuthing to find out more about these tall, elegant trees. There are two of them in our yard and more nearby.

First off, I've been wrong about calling them white locusts. Silly me, I was distracted by the flowers. They are called black locust because of the dark-colored bark, although I must say it looks like normal old bark, more grey than black. Maybe it's dark compared to other types of locust trees.

The black locust has unusual properties, most of which I was glad to learn about, but not all.

It is a member of the legume family, which explains why the blossoms look like pea and bean flowers. And, like other legumes, the roots have nitrogen-fixing nodules -- so it is self-fertilizing and enriches the soil it stands in.

It is a hardwood that doesn't rot and was traditionally used for long-lasting fence posts and rails. It was said that the posts would last 100 years in the soil. Abe Lincoln, rail-splitter, applied his famous ax to logs of black locust.

Black locust honey is one of the most highly prized. We are not honey eaters or else I would be wondering where that hive might be.

Now for the downside. Every part of the tree except for the flowers is toxic. Blossoms are in fact edible, but everything else, bark, pods, leaves, wood, and new sprouts alike, contains a chemical agent that has caused sickness and even death in livestock that ingest them. Farmers are warned not to pasture animals nearby.

This was a sobering piece of information since the trees tower over the backyard and, in the fall, rain down leaves and pods everywhere. I couldn't find any warnings that vegetables grown in soil containing the composted debris of these trees would be harmful. If they were, our family would have keeled over long ago.

I used to love the golden rain of tiny leaves in the fall. Now, only the spring showering of white flowers, which has just begun, will retain its poetic appeal.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Weed of the Week: Sticky Willy

This pesky, clinging, climbing weed grows abundantly all over the yard.

However, it turns out that the sticky little fellow is not only prolific but also useful. I will try to complain less when the myriad, minuscule hooks lining the stems and leaves attach themselves to whatever is available, including gardeners -- just trying to do a little weeding -- who find themselves caught in big tangles of the stuff.

Sticky Willy (Galium aparine), also called Cleavers, Goose Grass, Catchweed Bedstraw or Common Bedstraw (because a closely related plant was used in medieval times to stuff mattresses), and, in modern times, Velcro Plant (for obvious reasons), has numerous healing properties known to herbalists, and its seeds can be ground up as a coffee substitute (it is actually related to the Arabian coffee plant).

If civilization collapses we can live off the backyard, at least for awhile.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Second Potato Sprout

The Yukon Gold potatoes are now visible. Yay!

Even though slower to sprout than the Russian Fingerlings, they are billed as an early season variety, 70 to 90 days to maturity -- at least according to Territorial Seeds.

The Fingerlings are late season, 105 to 135 days. They have grown a lot in the past week and despite the classifications, appear to be well ahead of the Yukons.

I've been trying to find out exactly what is meant by "days to maturity" and there does not seem to be a clear consensus. In general, it means from planting time to harvest time, although some sources seem to count from germination to harvest. For tomatoes, eggplant, and other plants that are generally put out as transplants, it means from the time they go in the ground until harvest.

And the measures are not precise because they are greatly affected by growing conditions, which can vary wildly. I guess the main point of it all is to allow general comparison of different plants and varieties for better planning.

So I'm anticipating a Yukon Gold potato salad in early June, ten weeks from planting time in late March, and, about five weeks later, in mid-July, one of B.'s fabulous potato pizzas made with Russian Banana Fingerlings.

Now that's a plan!

A Habitat Garden

In honor of Earth Week and the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22, 1970 to April 22, 2010) here is a survey of our habitat garden, which is officially registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a place that provides the four basic habitat elements: food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

If you are an organic gardener, it's not a big deal to get an official certification. I filled out a form affirming my earth-friendly ways and the presence of the needed wildlife support elements and mailed it in (it can be done online also). Registration was free at the time I signed up and a metal sign to put on the house cost $25.00. The sign seemed like a good way to assure the neighbors that the overgrown, Little-House-in-the-Big-Woods atmosphere of our yard was intentional.

A couple of years ago the roof was being repaired and the roofing contractor, noting the sign, politely asked if it was OK to proceed. Perhaps he thought he was in an endangered species zone and was going to run afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency. The notice does look quite official.

I didn't tell him that it's just part of an educational outreach program of the NWF. They will sign up a balcony or a windowsill with potted plants where insects can take refuge, and have done so for thousands of "habitats" across the country. Every little bit helps.

Our "habitat" is a one-sixteenth of an acre yard at the end of a dead-end street with a redwood grove nearby and a seasonal creek running through the redwood grove. The creek is not in our yard so it doesn't qualify as a water source. But four birdbaths in the backyard do the job quite well.

The birdbath pictured above is shallow so insects can use it.

This one is for birds -- and dogs. I suspect that deer also take a sip in the dry summer months, thought I have never caught them at it. There is another birdbath similar to this one (not pictured), and a fourth (not pictured) which is set low to the ground. The cats use that one, and, I believe, the raccoons because it gets muddy awfully fast. I picture them washing their dapper little paws in the seashell shaped bowl.

As for food, the yard is replete with flowering, seeding, and fruiting plants of all kinds. At this time of year in particular it's abuzz with countless insects hovering over the blossoms.

The rose thicket provides plenty of cover. I've seen raccoons run into the base of it; a deer curled up at the back of it against the fence; and birds diving into the upper reaches of it, which forms a green canopy tree-top tall, mingled with ivy and draped over one of the plum trees.

Here's a close look at the raccoon passageways into the inner depths. As far as I know, no mammals have tried to raise their young in there, although it seems like a good place. Perhaps it's simply not big enough or sheltered enough, being only about ten feet wide and its edges well patrolled by the resident dog-on-duty.

But, higher up, I have seen hummingbirds buzzing in and out in a way that suggests nesting.

One year I think a house finch made a nest in the ivy on the back wall of the house -- again, judging by the constant traffic back and forth. Sometimes from the bathroom window I've noticed a hummingbird gathering the spider webs that dangle from the ivy, most likely to line its nest with.

All in all, in my opinion, we are justified in posting our sign. And it's nice to know we are part of a network of informal refuges across the country.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Chardus Giganticus

We are getting some mighty tall chard these days, leaves that are twenty inches long and more. You could carry them in a parade like banners or use them as fans or shellac them and use them as decoration. (If you were so inclined.)

What with the bountiful chard and the lush stand of kale and the ever-sprouting purple broccoli, it was clearly time for a green soup session -- "the Green Zone," said B. warily. There are now several quarts on hand, ready to go into the freezer.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Backyard Bouquet

Updated below

There are enough flowers blooming in the backyard to allow for bouquet making: nothing fancy, just a simple nosegay to commemorate a friend's birthday or brighten a convalescence. I really should try to find out what the striking red and yellow mystery flowers might be. . . . .

Update 4/19/10: A generous commenter (or commenters) has supplied a name for the mystery blooms. (Thank you, Three Sisters!) They are Harlequin flowers or Sparaxis tricolor. Having a name enables an internet search so I was able to learn that they are prolific, drought-resistant South African natives in the Iris family. They come in many different bright and showy colors and usually have yellow centers. Here is a photo of the variety that grows in our yard.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weed of the Week: Henbit

Henbit is one of the most prolific spring weeds. At first I'm glad to see it as it is one of the earliest blooming backyard plants and the little pink tubular blossoms are a welcome sight. According to Wikipedia, honeybees also love them and they help get the hives going. A spring tonic for all concerned.

It's a member of the mint family, as its appearance would suggest: square stems, opposite leaves, tubular flowers. As a soil indicator (one of the beneficial features of weeds) it signals moist, rich soil -- which makes sense to me because in our yard it grows densely around the raised beds. It is said to be edible but we have not experimented with it.

After the forget-me-nots start blooming around the beds I begin to pull out the henbit because it can easily take over whatever spot it favors.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Weeds Gone Wild

Late rains have added a burst of energy to the already luxuriant weed growth. This photo shows the main garden path in mid-April: a jungle of arugula, mallow, henbit, burr clover, miner's lettuce, grasses, sow thistle, sticky willy, bindweed and other upstarts I haven't learned to identify yet.

I left it to grow unchecked because of the preponderance of arugula -- the tall plants with white flowers. We eat the flavorful leaves in salad almost every night so it seems a small sacrifice to have the main path, which is usually wide enough and more for a garden cart to pass, reduced to a barely visible trail through the undergrowth.

In this close-up I can see fennel, forget-me-not, gopher weed, burr clover, and what I think is Queen Ann's lace. Since reading Michael Pollen's chapter on weeds in his early book, Second Nature, I've come to have a grudging admiration for these entrepreneurial pioneers that move in wherever we gardeners disturb the soil, unwittingly creating the conditions these plants are looking for. Our common garden weeds are not representatives of wild nature into which our cultivated patches are inserted. They appear as a result of our efforts to clear and dig. It seems their job is to cover up bare ground, which Mother Nature avoids as strongly as she abhors a vacuum.

So I take a fairly laissez faire approach to the garden paths -- letting the "good" weeds grow (forget-me-nots, poppies, arugula, miner's lettuce, Queen Ann's lace) and letting the "bad" weeds grow along with them until it gets to be time to get serious about the summer garden.

In a few areas where it was mostly "bad" weeds starting to come up thickly back in February, I covered the ground with lots of folded newspaper before they got tall. Unsightly but useful, the newspaper made a good base for collecting the mounds of weeds that I did manage to pull up. (You have to keep your wits about you walking around this garden in the spring: threading through jungles, avoiding piles of decaying greenery.)

Last week, when I thought the rains might be done for the season, I pulled up the newspapers to clear the paths. Above is a scenic view of a cleared path. During the long dry season it will be a hard-packed track where only bindweed and some hardy grasses like to grow.

And here is a not-so-scenic view in the back corner: the half-composted newspapers make a good layering material for starting a new brush pile. Over several years, the pile will decompose and transform the heavy black clay beneath it into fluffy soil.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

First Potato Sprout!

In the lower right quadrant of this photo is the first tiny furl of potato leaf: a sprout of the Russian Banana Fingerlings planted on March 28, two-and-a-half weeks ago. They are a 100-days-to-maturity variety, but I'm not sure when to begin counting. From planting? From sprouting?

The other green fragments must have blown into the planter basket and -- judging by the chomp marks -- are providing fodder for the sow bugs. Lets hope they stick to the odd green fragment and stay away from the sprout. Back away from the sprout!

There is another sprout in the basket that hasn't unfurled yet, it still has that charming shepherd's-crook bend as it forces its way through the soil into the light.

So it begins.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cilantro Tastes Like Soap??????

Who knew? To some people cilantro has an unpleasant taste, akin to soap. Julia Child herself avoided this delectable herb. Fortunately, no one in our family suffers from this affliction.

But it is an important issue in our society, evidently, as evidenced by the #1 "most emailed" ranking of an article in today's New York Times that explains the controversy and details the chemical underpinnings of some people's aversion. There are fat molecules called aldehydes that form part of cilantro's complex flavor, but that also show up in soap, lotions, cosmetics, and -- adding weight to the pleas of the cilantro-avoiders -- some insects such as bedbugs. So let us be understanding and back off when someone eschews the guacamole and tells us: "It tastes yucky." All the more for the rest of us.

The photo above shows the current status of our cherished backyard cilantro, which has bolted and is putting out tiny blossoms.

The plants are two and three feet tall. They were grown from saved seeds and it looks like there will be plenty more to save.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beets, Spinach, and Peas: A Confession

Despite repeated attempts, I've never gotten a good crop of beets or spinach or peas -- noble vegetables all, which I hold in the highest esteem and like to eat in all manner of dishes. (Does any California restaurant that doesn't serve roasted beet salad with arugula and goat cheese really deserve it's business license?) I keep trying to grow these three because the boutique samples I've been able to produce are a delicious incentive.

Above is this season's entire crop of chioggia beets, harvested this morning. Only a couple have the rounded shape you expect in a real beet, the rest look like hot pink horseradishes. I wasn't scrupulous about thinning the seedlings when they sprouted last fall, and no doubt it was simply too crowded in the old wicker laundry basket that served as a planter. The greens look gorgeous, though, and shouldn't go to waste.

The spinach is going to seed and is looking lusher than it did at any point since being planted out last fall. I think this is the Gigante de Invierno, not the Bloomsdale. The California poppies have taken over the planting bed.

Throughout the winter months and until just recently there were enough spindly little plants to supply leaves for adding to salads, but nothing that would count as a real crop. I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that spinach just doesn't size up in the San Francisco area, so maybe that's the problem. The recommendation was to plant the large leaf varieties -- and it's true that the Gigante did better than the Bloomsdale.

These Caseload Shelling Peas were planted as seeds on March 19th, and represent the most promising set of pea seedlings so far, but were probably planted too late in the season. About half managed to make it to this stage. I think the rest got chomped because there are some tell-tale green stubs. Some of the ones that made it show signs of damping off: thin brown stems at the soil line.

Last fall I planted out two entire packets of two different varieties of shelling peas and NOTHING came up.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Salad Accoutrements

There is always something interesting growing in the yard to add to a salad.

Lately, one of the featured items has been calendula flowers. It's easy to pluck out the petals and sprinkle them into the bowl, where the little orange flecks make the various hues of green seem greener and more variegated. They don't contribute a noticeable flavor, but add eye appeal, and are reputed to have value as a medicinal herb with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Another salad accoutrement free for the picking are the blossoms and blades of the wild onion. The little white flowers add color and they both add a subtle oniony tang, just the right amount for a hyper-sensitive person like myself who weeps when there are raw onions anywhere on the block, or so it seems. As the plants mature, the blossoms stop being delectable when hard seed pods form at their base, but the tender tips of the blades are still quite good.

These flowers and seed pods on the miner's lettuce signal that their season of perking up our salads is about over. It's been a long run, but now I will stand back and let them sow seeds for next year. The pods are forming along this stalk, like tiny green coin purses filled with a wealth of even tinier round black seeds.

Even though I regret seeing the miner's lettuce go to seed, it's a fascinating process. First the heart shaped leaves become round -- I have no idea how they manage to do it. Then they launch a sub-leaf from the center of the main leaf. This smaller version of themselves hosts the flower stalk, along which the seed pods will eventually form.

The mainstay components and added features of our salads vary from week to week and month to month. Right now the miner's lettuce, arugula, cilantro, spinach, and Black Seeded Simpson lettuce are winding down and the Red Lollo Antago lettuce is long gone. But there is plenty of Forellenschluss and Bronze Arrow lettuce, along with whatever accoutrements can be found here and there.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

First Freesias

Updated below

The freesias are late this year, at least compared to last year, which is the only data point available. And only the yellow ones came back.

The ways of bulbs are mysterious to me and I am sure there is something I should be doing to keep them from slowly declining. But somehow the lack of care increases the sense of wonder and surprise when they do manage to bloom. And I am in awe of freesias, which hardly seem to belong to earth, they are so intimate with light.

Regardless of how they got here, these sunny blossoms are a haiku-worthy wonder.

Yellow freesias shine,
Gold candles of light arrayed
like candelabra.

Update 4/12/10: Improved version by person recovering from a cold, not coming down with a cold:

Golden freesias shine,

Glowing cups of light arrayed

Like candelabra.

Also a better photo has been substituted; one which shows how the blossoms are arranged on the stalks and how they seem to be a source of light.

Last year the pink freesia appeared first, around March 21, while the plum trees were still spilling petals everywhere.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Baby Plums and Pears

The plum blossoms are gone and the only remaining traces of the rain of white petals are occasional brown spots on the chard and lettuce where petals landed and decomposed. Now, in the inevitable course of events, the first little plums are starting to form.

On the pear tree, the blossoms were battered by several days of rain. I find this photo unexpectedly poignant, with one last petal clinging to a leaf as the first minuscule fruits are revealed. It's a visual haiku.

Pear blossoms in rain,
Petals scattered by cold wind.
The tiny fruits are revealed.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Cold, Grey, Rainy, Windy Easter Sunday

The blooms are out there, but there is no incentive whatsoever to put on an Easter bonnet and go out to admire the floral displays. It's another cold, rainy day in a series, with more predicted. I looked at the forecast and discovered that all the days I will not be home this week are supposed to be lovely while rain is expected for all the days I will be home. Is this fair?

I will console myself with photographs of flowers. These photos were taken over the course of the past several weeks.

Above is the Lone Poppy. Poppies have been blossoming all over the neighborhood and by the roadsides for the past two weeks, but not in our backyard. The same thing happened with the plum blossoms. We must have a micro-climate that is a bit colder and shadier than nearby front yards and roadsides.

Shown here are lavender, forget-me-nots and calendula, along with the mystery bulbs that were here when we moved in and come up every year without fail. Some year I will find out what they are called.

At first they were only in the front yard but I've been unwittingly transferring them to the backyard by raking up the live oak leaves in the front and using them to cover garden paths in the back. The little bulbs get raked up and carried along. They are a welcome addition, popping up all over with jaunty assurance.

Another front yard mystery bulb. These don't tend to grow near the live oak so remain sequestered in the front yard.

And still another front yard mystery bulb. Just a few of these appear.

A showpiece of the backyard is the Sleeping-Beauty-sized thicket of Cecile Brunner roses, which forms a privacy wall along the southwest edge of the property and provides habitat for all manner of creatures. One year a deer used the thicket for afternoon naps.

Also known as the Sweetheart rose, it starts to bloom in early April. Here is one of the first specimens. There are only a few so far, dotting the dark green wall here and there.

Some volunteer violas, descendants of the 'Lemon Sorbet' I planted several years back. They look ready for the Easter parade. Sorry, ladies. Better luck next year.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Some Things I Thought Were Dead That Aren't Dead

The killing frosts in December left a lot of blackened sticks behind that used to be sturdy perennials: salvia and sage, geraniums and fuschias. They all looked as dead as dead can be. But I know from experience that a plant that is a certain goner can fool you. So I let them sit there through the winter. Now, along with the rest of the burgeoning growth that is filling the backyard, these plants are reviving. Dead sticks are festooned with green. Above is Salvia elegans. The common name is Pineapple Sage and this particular one is Freida Dixon, a cultivar with pink blossoms.

This one is Salvia chiapensis. At its peak it has stunning bright fuschia blossoms, long and hollow the way hummingbirds like them. Evidently there are hundreds of salvias, some called sages, and all members of the mint family. (Factoid of the day.)

This is another Pineapple Sage, which will eventually have bright red tubular blossoms. It's sprouting from the base. The blackened sticks are about three feet tall and a few have some festoons. It is also festooned with a lady bug, for contrast.

This is a geranium, I don't know what kind.

Another geranium, with a friendly volunteer viola to keep it company.

A fuschia bush coming back strong.

It's not quite time to prune back the damaged parts of these plants. We are not out of the frost zone. I keep reading in the paper about local vintners who are watching their budding grape vines nervously, worried that one of the cold nights we've been having might encase those delicate buds in ice.

There is not as much at stake in our yard of course, but it's still wise to wait.