We are fortunate in the Bay Area to be able to have decent-looking gardens in January. Using native plants as the bones of the garden helps.
This January has been a good one, with pretty steady rains but few sustained very strong storms.
Stipa arundinacea is one of my favorite nonnative landscape plants for our area. I like its copper coloration, its fountainlike shape, its toughess, its low maintenance, and the way its graceful stalks sway in the breeze. Not fussy about soil, light, or water, and drought and deer tolerant, it grows to about three feet all around. It’s said to self-sow, but my mine have not shown much sign of that. The one shown above is growing in a fairly small container, and I’m planning to up pot it. The green bit on the left of that photo is dietes, the purple in the background is rosemary. Right is detail of another specimen, which has been growing in the ground in the front garden for several years and still looks great.
The small north garden has become a favorite bird habitat. The spiky foreground plants are asparagus ferns. The orange flowers are Iochroma coccinea, beloved of hummingbirds, and perching birds also favor the plant. The ground cover is probably oxalis, which I should remove before it takes over. The yellow grass is Stipa arundinacea, which is reliably attractive in our area. Against the fence on the right is Victorian Box (Pittosporum undalatum), which the birds planted.
Next up on our tour of seed catalogues is my favorite of all, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s, based in Winslow, Maine, is a large operation that was started in 1973 in New Hampshire by a 22-year-old named Rob Johnston. Back then it was briefly called Johnny Apple Seeds, but that name had already been taken. Now employee owned, Johnny’s is a member of the Safe Seed Initiative, pledging that it will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.
One thing I love about this catalogue is the wealth of information in it. It’s better than
many most of the gardening books I’ve got from the library. Growing guides are provided for many varieties of vegetable. Second, extraordinary comparison images show differences among varieties. And, finally, the photography is excellent. All three features can be seen in this excerpt from the bush beans section:
Returned to the Bay Area after a while away. I was worried when I heard about a local heat wave while we were gone, but fortunately a neighbor agreed to do some watering. Almost everything came through marvelously, and there are a lot of spring blooms (more on that later).
This California native mugwort, here growing in a container, is happy after this year’s wet winter. I acquired a couple of specimens last summer, and they looked pretty rangy during those dry months. Like many native plants, mugwort is pretty resilient, tolerating shade and aridity up to a point, but in nature it favors moist locations.
It’s an underappreciated perennial plant for the garden. While top leaves are whole, lower leaves are lobed in a sharply jagged cleft pattern. The evenly-spaced leaves are dark green above and silvery (and a little wooly) below. The plant is aromatic, especially when the leaves are crushed. It attracts butterflies and birds, and is said to be deer resistant. Stems grow erect from runners (which are not too difficult to control); some sources say they get to six feet tall, but I have never seem this plant above about three or four feet. Flowers (summer to fall) are insignificant.
Artemsias are in the Asteraceae (sunflower) family. Artemisia douglasiana is sometimes classed as Artemesia vulgaris var. douglasiana, but it is much more bitter and strongly flavored than the European mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) referenced in many herbals. (There is also a Korean variety, which is closer to the European than to this native California mugwort.)
Also known as Dream Plant, the leaves of mugwort contain some of the same substances (notably thujone and cineole) as those of another Atemisia, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). When smoked or drunk as a tea, they are said to produce vivid dreams, and to ward off the spirits of the dead. Native Californians sometimes wore mugwort necklaces for protection against such spirits. In the European tradition it was held that pillows stuffed with mugwort could reveal one’s future in dreams. One herbalist calls mugwort “ the star of any dream pillow.” A reference more to my taste is “The Natural History of Orange County, California and Nearby Places,” which cites several print sources.
Lots of new growth on the Donkeytail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) this mid-March. The new growth is bright green; older leaves are blue-gray. Also called Myrtle Spurge because the Latin word myrsinites alludes to myrtle (Myrtus communis), which the plant was thought to resemble, this is a succulent spurge native to Southern Europe and West Asia. It is a low-growing (to about six inches) evergreen perennial. The “tails” grow to about one to one and a half feet long, spreading radially. The bright new growth resembling flowers is actually a specialized leaf called a bract.
In some respects this spurge can be nasty. It projects seeds quite a distance and can overrun other plants. It is illegal to grow in Colorado, where it is classed as a noxious weed because of its invasive habit, though San Marcos Growers say this is not a problem in Mediterranean climates like ours (I would not recommend it in inland climes, except with caution and vigilance). In addition, like many spurges, it produces a sap that can cause fairly serious skin irritation in some people (and other animals); children are especially susceptible. You don’t want to get the sap in your eyes, that’s for sure. Finally, it is alleopathic, meaning it produces a substance that can prevent other plants from growing nearby. For these reasons I grow mine in containers and use gloves when repotting.
Despite all this, I am fond of this plant, as I am of most spurges (for an opposing take, check out the spurge haters at Dave’s Garden). Annie’s Annuals describes it as “an easy, tough, tidy groundcover that lends marvelous texture to rock gardens and is great trailing over rock walls.” I also have several Honey Spurges (Euphorbia mellifera). Both plants have not only interesting forms but also an almost electric brightness. You feel like this plant knows something. I just don’t know what.
Kitazawa, now based in Oakland, offers a two-color (green and black) catalogue printed on yellow paper and illustrated with line drawings. 2017 marks the company’s 100th anniversary. It was founded by Gijiu Kitazawa, an apprentice to a Japanese seed company who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in San Jose, where he sold seeds out of a downtown store.
During the war the Kitazawa family was forcibly interred into relocation camps, and the business had to be abandoned. Because of the internments, many Japanese-American farmers lost their farms, so after the war Kitazawa, having lost its local market, began a mail-order business.
The company features a range of Asian vegetables, not limited to Japanese. I would say that they have the most extensive selection of Asian vegetable seeds of any of the vendors I received catalogues from. Their descriptions are concise but informative.
Besides individual seed packets, priced at $3.69, the company offers packages of several seeds, called “Chef Specialty Gardens,” at a reduced price. I ordered the Stir Fry Garden mix.
I also ordered several other seeds from Kitazawa this year, and the company responded instantly: As I recall, the well-packaged seeds were in my mailbox the very next day! I was astonished.
In keeping with the family-oriented spirit of the company, their catalogue includes some recipes using the vegetables.
Orders can be made by phone, fax, mail, or via a secure web page: order info is here. This is one of my favorite seed vendors. Highly recommended.
After this extraordinarily wet winter, we had to remove some trees from our hillside lot. This gives us more of a view of the valley as well as more sun to the garden. It’s all good.
Speaking of the garden (which once was a swimming pool), looking at this photo I see some work that needs to be done. But things are certainly very green, for here.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that one of the delights of gardening is browsing seed and plant catalogues. I have a handful of vendors I usually buy from, but this year I decided to do a fairly comprehensive survey of vendors and their catalogues. I know it’s late in the season for this, but I think there is still value in comparing the catalogues, if only for preparing for the fall batch (though I still have some spring ordering to do). In subsequent posts I’ll discuss many in detail. For now, here’s a gallery of the covers, together with the location of the vendor, the trim size of the catalogue, and its length. Stay tuned for more (list of vendors below the gallery).
Trim size is approximate (the edges of some catalogues are rather imprecisely trimmed). Some catalogues have self covers and others have a cover stock around the inside pages. Most number the cover as page 1, but some omit the covers from the page counts. (One, Pinetree, actually numbers the inside front cover as 1, so that their versos are odd and their rectos are even. That’s dumb, and someone should have a word with them.) I have tallied up the pages as best I can, including the cover pages in the count.
Jalapeño peppers are an easy and rewarding plant for the garden. I grow mine in containers, and they do very well. In fact, the majority of my vegetable gardening is in containers now. This has the advantage of freeing up gardening space for ornamental perennials, and it allows moving the containers around to catch the sun as its path shifts over the growing season (or to move an ailing plant to a more sheltered location, since drought is our biggest summer threat).
The jalapeño is actually a fairly mild chile. It’s at about 5M Scoville, compared to 200M Scoville for a habañero. About middle of the road as hot chiles go. As it reddens it gets hotter and sweeter, so you can control those elements by when you harvest. In our area it might overwinter, depending on frost and drought.
Some growing tips:
I think of jalapeños in the kitchen as analogous to gentian in bitters. They have a kind of generic peppery quality. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want. I have a plan for cooking mine that
I haven’t seen on any of the cooking sites I’ve visited is a little like Elise Bauer’s approach at Simply Recipes. I’m going to slice them lengthwise to make sort of canoelike boats, which I will grill. These will be open-faced stuffed peppers. I’ll probably use some cotija chesse, maybe bacon, onion, cilantro, herbs —well, I’m I’m not yet sure what all. I envision the result as a sort of stuffed jalapeño tapa. I’m giving this a try this weekend, so stayed tuned for the results.
BTW, the capsaicin in hot peppers is said to increase circulation and reduce cholesterol.
Some cooking tips:
TOM’S TIP O’ THE DAY
For a simple jalapeño salsa, just combine some seeded peppers with garlic, onion, and lime juice (you can figure out your own proportions, but generally one and a half to two times as many peppers as limes) and season with salt. Use pretty much anywhere you would use salsa. Accompany with a margarita enlivened with Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters. Oh yeah!
Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s Mexico: The Cookbook is a great source of traditional Mexican recipes in a handsome format
Finally, a general resource that is well worth checking out is Spotlight on Chile Peppers at Science Friday (hosted by the great Ira Flatow).
French Laundry reservations are notoriously hard to get, and if you do get in you will pay a bundle for your good meal. But if you enjoy gardens you can still visit the restaurant’s dedicated vegetable and herb garden, which is free and open to all. It’s located right across the street from the restaurant in Yountville.
It’s a pretty no-nonsense working garden. The layout is posted on a signpost across from the restaurant on Washington Street.
You might see workers shelling beans, harvesting crops, or working in the garden.
Chickens are kept in a tidy pen, where they are provided with a nice secure house and a patio umbrella.
Bees are kept as well in a couple of locations.
Many crops are grown in a large but simply constructed greenhouse.
Among the plants grown in the greenhouse are a large number of tomatoes (many more are grown outdoors). I was interested by the French Laundry Garden technique of growing their greenhouse tomatoes, which maximizes vertical space while minimizing horizontal sprawl. (Notice the string and plastic clips at lower right in this photo.) I will discuss this in a subsequent post.
Spaces between the gardens are covered with grass (which I found a little odd, but must provide on-going employment for the weeders). The garden is completely flat and easy to navigate even for those with mobility issues. So have a visit. You can sit and take in the scene on one of the benches and tables provided.
The iochroma is flowering, and that means the hummingbirds are back. I like to photograph them, in part because this particular iochroma is right outside my study window, and it makes a nice diversion from my literary work, and also because it’s challenging to freeze the speedy little hummers in photos.
But what kind of hummingbird is this? I’m not the bird identifier that Charles Hood and Jonathan Franzen (my companions on a Catamaran catamaran a while back) are. I get frustrated because bird books tend to feature adult males. I suspect this one might be immature, or maybe even a female. In any case, try as I might, I cannot find a reference to California hummingbird that has a yellow patch on its head.
Any birders out there?
Those of us who live in one of the world’s five Mediterranean climate areas can take cheer from the fact that these regions are home to some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. As an example, according to Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Gardening Handbook (translated from the French by Caroline Harbouri), 25,000 plant species grow in the Mediterranean Basin proper (about 10 percent of all the world’s flora), compared to just 6,000 species in all of non-Mediterranean Europe.
These plants have adapted to our dry summers in various ways and to various degrees. We need to recognize that there are many variant subregions within the Mediterranean Climate zone. In general, however, gardeners who regularly water native plants over the summer months will end up killing them. Turn off that irrigation timer!
Donald Trump’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, California has been in a multiyear drought. That is a fact, based on recorded annual precipitation. But for gardeners and farmers there is another meaning of drought—“physiological drought”—which refers to periods of hydric deficit. Hydric deficit occurs when plants transpire more water than they can take in through their roots. It is not just a function of water but of the relationship between water and temperature. This is critical for an understanding of Mediterranean climates.
We should not think of plants as either “drought tolerant” or not. Instead we should understand them on a scale of hydric deficit tolerance and seasonable adaptability, as this map from Filippi’s book suggests.
It is helpful to create a line graph that enables visualizing the extent and duration of physiological drought conditions in your location. Following is Filippi’s chart for Marseille, France. Note how the graph displays both duration and intensity of physiological drought. (Further below is the graph I have done for my garden.)
I have made such a graph for my garden (further down the page). Here is how to do it:
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to create a line chart in Excel with two different Y axes with different scales. So I had to draw the lines by hand, which is not a real precise technique but might be close enough for visualizing. If anyone can tell me how to do this in Excel, I’m all ears.
So there you go. The part of the year where the red line rises above the blue line is the period of hydric deficit. You can see that the duration of drought in my area is from May through September, and that August is the month when hydric deficit is greatest.
Armed with this data you can select plants that are optimized for your region.
It’s taken me a long time to complete what was meant to be a quick survey of the garden after returning from a trip. These photos are now a month old. I’m starting to feel like Lawrence Sterne.
Last time I looked at Gruss-an-Aachen and Citrus Burst roses, Senicio talinoides ssp azoides, Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’, Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’, Datura wrightii, and Papaver glaucum. We left off with the poppies, so let’s continue with the above view of the same plant (it can also be seen in the banner atop this blog). This is our best year for these poppies ever.
Some of the edibles are looking good. The limes are a couple of years old, and this one is producing fruit quite well (the other one is recalcitrant for some reason, though it appears healthy). I’m growing them in containers. Limes are, of course, essential for the cocktail garden — more on that soon.
This lettuce didn’t seem to mind being left to its own devices for a while.
Butterknife Bush, Cunonia capensis, is one of my favorites. I lost some in our long drought. This one is starting up in a large container, and it’s looking beautiful. This plant is sold at Annie’s Annuals, where it is also called Butterspoon Tree (personally, I use a knife with butter). Most things at Annie’s are sold (either at the nursery or online) in 4-inch pots, but Cunonia grows quickly.
Though Cunonia, native to South Africa, is a little exotic, we’ve been growing a lot more natives recently. I’ve always been put off by the moralistic anti-immigrant tone of some proponents of native plants. (I’ll bet they don’t mind apples and tomatoes.) But I love them for their practicality. Appropriate natives are easy to grow, have a very high success rate, and in our area can be quite drought tolerant. Each spring here in the East Bay Bringing Back the Natives hosts a garden tour, which is well worth joining. Above is Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage, which is doing great, and the hummingbirds really do love it. It spreads by runners, so I will have to keep an eye on it. By the way, one of the best sources of information about California native plants is Las Pilitas Nursery, which is in SoCal. Our local Watershed Nursery, in Point Richmond, is also good, though it generally provides less detailed information. It’s where we buy most of our natives.
Another native I like is Plantago subnuda, Coastal Plantain. I has veined basal leaves and puts up interesting tall stalks. The plant in the container behind it is Crassula muscosa ‘Petite’, another South African native. It loves our Mediterranean climate, and I will have to uppot it soon. I like to intersperse container plants throughout the garden.
Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia, Beach Primrose, another native, is a favorite of Carol’s. It grows in coastal dunes, so I made a soil mix for it with a good bit of sand. I see that Annie says it is showiest in loamy soil though. I’ll have to propagate a couple of cuttings and experiment.
I could go on, but let’s leave something for another time.
May Day: Not the distress signal, more like the traditional Northern European folk festival marked by bountiful “May Baskets.” I think the festival developed out of Floralia, the Roman celebration of the goddess of flowers. (I remember dancing around May Poles as a kid. I doubt that’s done anymore.) Anyway, having returned home from a couple of weeks away, I did a quick survey yesterday — May Day — to see what was going on in the garden after our time away (any excuse to practice my garden photography!).
The first thing I noticed was that the Gruss-an-Aachen roses are looking good. That’s a key sign, because it means the deer haven’t breached the permimeter. If they broke through they would eat the roses practically down to the ground.
The Citrus Burst roses are putting most of their energy into new growth. They’re clilmbers that can reach 12 feet high.
Although they do still have some nice-looking flowers.
They’re not the only plants reaching for the sky. The always reliable Senicio shows off its architectural quality and interesting color.
Speaking of succulents, aeoniums are happy here. This batch is a type called ‘Blushing Beauty’. They are easy to clone by snipping off a branch, hardening off the cut for a couple of days, and then rooting. It would be easy to have hundreds.
The brugmanisa is also expanding profusely. It currently is bearing a record number of its large flowers. (Bottlebrush in the background.)
The Sacred Datura (a native) will have similar trumpet-shaped flowers (white ones). It seems to be getting established okay as undergrowth beneath the brugmansia.
I’ll stop there for today and post a few more tomorrow. For now let’s call it a (May) day with this splash of poppy:
It’s April, and the northeast is covered in snow. But here in the Bay Area a heat wave is starting up, with temperatures today projected to be in the 8os. And the roses are flowering! This one is a Grüss an Aachen.
It’s a floribunda (Latin for “many-flowering”) rose – at least, it is for all practical purposes, but rose enthusiasts like to quibble over classifications. Floribundas are a type of rose created by crossing hybrid teas with polyanthas. From the polyanthas floribunda roses take profuse flowers, while the teas provide them with interesting flower color and form.
Grüss an Aachen means “greetings to Aachen” in German. Aachen is a town in western Germany near the border with the Netherlands. Charlemagne had his court there, and it was a coronation site for later kings. It was the location of the gardens of rose breeder Philipp Geduldig, who introduced this one in 1909. Many sources consider it the original floribunda. But according to the Rose Society of South Australia, it should be seen more as a precursor to the floribundas:
Grüss an Aachen has interesting parents, namely the seed parent white Hybrid Perpetual Frau Karl Druschki and its pollen parent, the forgotten Hybrid Tea, Franz Deegan. However, Grüss an Aachen has never accurately fitted into the Hybrid Tea category. This rose bush resembles a neat shrub-like Floribunda and even though it predates the Floribunda class by decades, it is often classified as a Floribunda rose in modern reference books. Some experts regard Grüss an Aachen as “an early precursor of the popular David Austin English roses”, but regardless of the category or classification, this superb heritage rose has over a century of history and many devotees.
It’s a vigorous, compact, bushy rose. The foliage is deep green and a little leathery. Ours was severely damaged by deer but is recovering now that we have fenced off the whole back area. It’s a great rose for us because it does well in shady areas, and we have it naturalized in a part of the garden that receives shade from Victorian Boxes. (Nearby are salvias, penstemons, yarrow, and Shasta daisies, among others.) Online I read on some sites that it gets to two feet high, but ours is more than three feet and nearly as wide around.
The flowers are more or less flat, a bit more than three inches in diameter. The color of the flowers varies on the same plant from slightly apricot, salmon, or pink to nearly white. Sometimes it has some yellow undertones and reddish highlights. I think the color variation might be the result of changes in sunlight and temperature. (There is also a consistently pinker version sold as Pink Grüss an Aachen.) Whatever color they start as, they eventually fade to white. The flowers are sweetly fragrant, and they attract butterflies. The plant blooms profusely in the spring and then just slightly less profusely several times over the summer. This is the very beginning of its bloom season. The flowers pictured are the first this year.
I give it a little food once in a while, more or less alternating organic rose food with worm castings and crushed crab shell. It doesn’t need much. During our dry summer I give it a little drip watering. Beyond that it doesn’t require much attention. I’ve never had problems with pests, other than deer. It’s a pretty tough rose. And a handsome one.
At the Watershed Nursery in Point Richmond we picked up several California natives that we will be trying out in the garden. We also got a few nonnative plants from the nearby Annie’s Annuals. Stay tuned for updates on how these do. Here the new plants — in the black containers — are in an area near the house that gets the most attention. (The large ceramic containers contain three kinds of figs.) The new plants (nonnatives marked with asterisks) include:
Artemisia douglasiana (Mugwort)
Asclepius cancellata (Wild Cotton) *
Atriplex leucophylla (Beach Salt Bush)
Camissonia cheiranthifolia (Beach Primrose)
Cunonia capensis (Butterknife Tree) *
Datura wrightii (Sacred Datura)
Fraxinus latifoloa (Oregon Ash)
Malva assurgentiflora (Island Mallow)
Mimulus aurantiacus (Sticky Monkeyflower)
Monardella villosa (Coyote Mint)
Plantago subnuda (Tall Coastal Plaintain)
Ramnus California (California Coffeeberry)
Salvia melliflora (Black Sage)
Salvia spathacea (Hummingbird Sage)
Sambucus nigra (Blue Elderberry)
Scrophularia california (California Bee Plant)
Stipa pulchra (Purple Needlegrass)
Tanecetum parthenium aureum (Golden Feverfew) *
The Watershed Nursery, a cool place specializing in California Native Plants (reasonably priced), is located near the intersection of 580 and Richmond Parkway:
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Our garden lies in what Sunset calls “one of Northern California’s finest horticultural climates.” We are located in an area of wet mild winters and dry mild summers — a Mediterranean climate zone. It’s a region with unique challenges and opportunities. I love gardening here.
Approaches to gardening are strongly determined by scale. Our garden is a small family garden. Its core was formerly a swimming pool. Often we might be growing just a single plant in a container, or a handful of plants, where a larger-scale gardening operation might be planting long rows of crops. Over time we have adjusted to find the right balance for our home garden.
All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even
Watch it sprout.
A mind like compost.
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