Wednesday, February 23, 2011


For some reason I get really excited to see the first crocus of the season. It reminds me of childhood spring times in Virginia, where one of the earliest harbingers of winter's demise was a few brave little buds poking through the snow.

We haven't had snow, but there's been plenty of wintry weather and, true to its kind, this exuberant bloom was waiting to greet me during a string of gloomy days we've been having. Unseasonably warm weather lasted through January and half of February, then shifted dramatically, thanks to a low-pressure system from the Gulf of Alaska bringing cold temperatures, pounding rain, and snow in the mountains.

The crocus is in the Iris family and one particular variety is the source of saffron seasoning. What we call saffron is hundreds and hundreds of deep orange stamens hand-gathered from crocus blossoms and carefully dried and packaged. That's why it's the most expensive spice by weight in the world. It takes a football field to make a pound's worth.

I don't know what variety of crocus has just bloomed in my backyard, but I'm really glad to see it, bright orange stamens and all.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Last of the Tomatoes

I used to marvel at Christmas tomatoes and make jokes about New Year's tomatoes. Then, as I learned more about how to extend the tomato season and store some dangling branches in the garage, I would marvel at New Year's tomatoes and make jokes about Valentine's Day tomatoes.

Yet here we are, post Valentine's Day, and there are still a few hangers-on, a little wrinkled but still cheerful (like me and my friends!), ready to spark up a salad. It's a marvel.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Plum Blossoms

The plum trees are in bloom! We've had a stretch of unseasonably warm, dry weather for more than a month, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.

The two photos above were taken on February 13, just in time for Valentine's Day. As usual, we are running behind the rest of the neighborhood where the dancing girls of spring in their lacy pink and white tutus have been lining the streets for some time now.

But we are running ahead of last year in this same backyard. Pictured above is the first plum blossom of 2010. The photo was taken on February 7, 2010. You can tell that I hadn't yet learned to use the close-up feature on my Canon Powershot camera! Oh well, it might not work as art but it will serve as evidence.

Here are the plum trees on February 12, 2010. Quite a contrast with this year. Each year tells its own story.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mystery Fungus

I was raking leaves in the front yard when I noticed this mysterious object amongst the leaf litter. My first thought, seeing it from a distance, was that the dog had chewed up one of my black socks and left it lying there (he does have a fondness for our well worn socks).

When I came closer it revealed itself as a strange growth, ominously alive.

Nothing stays mysterious for long in the internet age. I typed into Google Search the description of what it looked like to me: "wrinkled black fungus" -- and soon found a reasonably close photo and identification. The photo, taken on a trail side in Poland, is posted on TrekNature, a place for adventurous travelers to share their finds.

Adrian Szatewicz kindly provides the name and features, and Wikipedia fills out the story. This is an evil cousin of the marvelous and much-sought-after morel mushroom, called Gyromitra esculenta, or "brain mushroom." "Esculenta" means it can be eaten and supposedly, it can, if cooked properly, with all windows open to vent the poisonous fumes which have the same chemical composition as rocket fuel. In some parts of Europe it is sold in markets. But don't try this at home, kids! It can also cause illness and death.

I have never wanted to touch wild mushrooms since the time I read a newspaper article about the head of the local mycological society, who succumbed to an ill-chosen fungus. Even the experts can make mistakes.

The most interesting thing I learned is that some mushrooms, like this one, are mostly saprotrophic: they live on decaying organic matter. Others are mostly mychorrhizal: they send out thin white filaments which interpenetrate the rootlets of plants in a symbiotic exchange of nutrients, an important factor in soil chemistry. Having lots of mychorrhizal activity in your soil is a good thing for your plants.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lasagna Gardening: Gourmet Version

Although the winter garden has served us well, the plants aren't as large and sturdy as in previous years. Case in point: the rather spindly Bronze Arrow and Black Seeded Simpson lettuces pictured above. The vigorous volunteer Forget-me-not seedlings are taking over the bed.

The soil in all the beds is overworked, I think, because as soon as one crop comes out another goes in. I do add organic matter whenever possible but, clearly, it's not keeping up with the demand. What to do? Although there are now enough beds to let some go fallow and pile them with mulch for a season or two, I don't seem to be able to make time for that forward-looking task: the immediate gratification of planting and harvesting gets in the way.

Solution: lasagna gardening. As I understand it, this approach involves building what amounts to a mini-compost pile of layered materials -- hence lasagna -- with soil on top like a very thick layer of Parmesan cheese. The claim is that the plants grow just fine even as the various layers are slowly breaking down and enriching the soil.

It's certainly worth a try. Maybe it's the perfect way to have our vegetables and eat them too -- to build soil and grow plants all in one smooth operation, just the way Mother Nature does it. And there is the immediate gratification of planting right away.

So today I ventured out to the yard to turn one of the garden beds into a yummy casserole of nutrients for the hungry roots of some lettuce seedlings from Cottage Gardens.

The hardest part -- which required violating my no-dig philosophy in order to get a quick fix to the problem of declining fertility -- was removing all the old, overworked soil. Once that was taken care of, after lots of little weeding breaks to rest my aging lumbar vertebrae, the rest was fun. All it took was layering in the best ingredients I could find to make up a real gourmet masterpiece.

The first layer was some hand-selected, carefully-aged sections of newspaper gently moistened with the hose. It was not too thick, just one or two sections worth of newsprint. The worms love this stuff, so I hope the newspaper will draw them to the area and get them interested in turning all the undigested organic matter into the top grade soil amendment only they can create.

The second layer was an inch or two of well-aged, locally-sourced manure from Pt. Reyes Compost, self-styled "purveyors of premium poop." The version I used is cheekily called "Double Doody," a mixture of cow and horse droppings, and the bag is marked by an image, half cow, half horse that reminds me of the two-headed Pushmi-pullyu creature from the Dr. Doolittle stories.

The third layer was thick pads of organic alfalfa hay, sprinkled with some high quality general purpose organic fertilizer (Whitney Farms Tomato & Vegetable Food, with a 4-5-3 balance of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash).

Next came a layer of leaves, also locally sourced (just down the block) and organically grown. This layer, too, was dusted with fertilizer. In fact, all the layers were, starting with the bare dirt before the newspapers were laid down.

The last layer was shovelfuls of the original dirt from the bed. There was room for more than half of it to fit back in, so there should be plenty of room for the lettuce to take hold, right on top of the gourmet lasagna layers. I soaked the whole assemblage thoroughly and let it mellow a bit.

It was nice to find a fair number of earthworms in the soil. I sure hope some red wiggler worms will show up to start digesting the layers of organic matter.

The last step was to set in the lettuce seedlings -- Forellenschluss and Garrison. Hope you like my casserole, little guys. Enjoy!