Tom’s Garden

Growing by the Bay

Page 2 of 19

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

Plant Propagation System

Propagating seeds with heat lamp, rapid rooter plus, and LED grow lights.

Propagating seeds with heat lamp, rapid rooter plus, and LED grow lights.

Until I complete my greenhouse (still in the fantasy stage) I won’t have a lot of space for plant propagation. But I do have a small but effective system for germinating seeds and rotating them into the garden. The system consists of a flat, a 50-cell tray, a ventilated dome, a heat mat, and small LED grow lights. This is a much smaller system than the ones you often see for sale, but it’s enough to keep me busy potting up seedlings.

Rapid Rooter plugs.

Rapid Rooter plugs.

I’m using Rapid Rooter plugs, a soilless sponge-like planting medium from General Hydroponics. The plugs have a small hole on the top. According to the manufacturer, they are a “unique matrix of composted materials bonded together with plant-derived polymers. Rapid Rooter provides the optimal air-to-water ratio within the plug matrix resulting in explosive early root growth.” The plugs are said to be organic, and I hope that is so. A main reason that I like these is that they are clean and neat. My tray is in the kitchen, and I like that these do not create any kind of mess. In addition, they seem to germinate seeds more successfully and faster than other media. (They can also be used for cuttings.) The picture below shows the tray just a few days after planting. This tray mainly has Asian vegetables from the Kitizawa Seed Co.; I will have more to say about that later.

The main downsides of the plugs are that they are a bit expensive and can’t really be reused. Instead, once the plant is rooted the entire plug is put into the soil. Also, the plugs sometimes seem to sort of float up in the garden  rather than remaining level with the surround soil. I’m thinking about a way to improve that. (BTW, most of the information on the web about these is about growing cannabis. But that is one thing I do not grow.)

The plugs should be watered when they start to dry out. At first I was overwatering, and I started to get mold. Of course, as this is essentially a hydroponic rooting system, you never want the plugs to dry out.

Until the sprouts come up, I run a small heat mat to warm the plugs. It’s supposed to warm the rooting material by about 5 degrees over the ambient temperature. This is helpful for the majority of seeds. After the seedlings come up I turn off the mat.

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

I had a problem with the seedlings being leggy. This makes them floppy and weak at the base. It’s a sign of insufficient light. To solve this I purchased a small LED grow light. I knew I wanted LED for low heat and low energy usage. Even then the really strong systems are quite bright, large, and expensive (I supposed that’s what you’d want if you had a big operation growing cannabis or something.) For my purposes this little dual-head 10-watt desk clip grow lamp seems to be working fine. It costs less than thirty dollars. It emphasizes the red and blue ranges of the light spectrum because that is what the plants utilize best. As I understand, full-spectrum daylight grow lights, by contrast, are wasteful of energy.

I’m currently using little bamboo plant labels at this stage. For long-lasting labels in the garden I use zinc labels that react chemically with carbon pencils. Everything else eventually fades.

I find a book from the American Horticultural Society a good resource on plant propagation (I also have their excellent garden encyclopedia).

Ginger Beer Taste-Off: Bug v. Yeast

Ginger beer in flip-top bottle.

Ginger beer in flip-top bottle.

I love ginger beer — “vigorous reviving stuff with an edge to it,” in the judgment of Kingsley Amis. But the commercial kinds can be expensive. What’s more, home-made ginger beer is tastier. It’s wholesome and easy to make. Let’s make some.

What you need

Pur water purifier.

Something like this Pur water purifier, which lives in the refrigerator, helps to ensure clean water that will not impede fermentation.

  • Ginger (organic, or at least not irradiated)
  • Sugar
  • Water (chlorine removed)
  • A fermentation starter


Halved limes ready for juicing.

Halved limes ready for juicing. (I currently have three lime trees and am thinking of adding a couple more since I use limes often.) I got the squeezer at the neighborhood store; a larger yellow one is good for lemons. I purchased a set of three stainless steel funnels with a strainer from an Australian manufacturer. I use them all the time in making bitters and other things, and am happy with them.

  • Limes (my preference) or lemons
  • Spices (plenty of room for experimentation here)

About the ingredients

Organic ginger.

Organic ginger from CostCo.

  • CostCo sells a characteristically giant package of organic ginger at a good price. You want organic because supermarket ginger might have been irradiated, killing all the bacteria. Ginger beer is a living thing (and that’s good for your gut). Hard to get good fermentation if all life has been destroyed.
  • I have generally just used granulated white cane sugar, but I think you could use pretty much any kind of sugar, depending on your flavor and ingredient preferences, and the state of your pantry. (I will probably try turbinado sugar next time.)
  • Chlorinated water is another thing that is harmful to bacteria. If you use tap water you can either let it sit for a while or boil it. Filtered water is probably best. Here in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area we have pretty good water (except sometimes during extreme drought), but I still find the filtered water tastes better.

The starters

Champagne yeast.

Champagne yeast is a standardized starter. The alternative is wild fermentation. In this post I compare the two.

Ginger beer is essentially fermented ginger syrup. Fermentation can be divided into two types: wild fermentation and cultured fermentation. The former depends on bacteria present in the ingredients and the environment. Cultured fermentation seeks to get better control over the process through the application of standardized yeasts. (My biochemist dad developed and sold frozen coagulated starter cultures for use in making cheese and other products.)

To make ginger beer you have to add a starter to the watery ginger syrup in order to kickstart the fermentation process. You could use things like water kefir, kombucha, or whey as wild cultures, but I have always relied on a little guy who goes by the endearing name of “ginger bug.” It just seems the easiest and most natural way of going about it. I’ve also made ginger beer with a standardized culture, namely champagne yeast. What are the differences, and which is better? As a test, I made one gallon of each. I will describe the process and give my evaluation.

The ginger bug

Ginger bug.

Ginger bug.

A ginger bug is a simple and a complex thing. It begins as a more concentrated mixture of ginger, sugar, and water than will be used in the ginger beer itself. Grate or slice some ginger into a canning jar. Some remove the skin, but I leave it: what’s the point of removing it? Add sugar and stir. I use about two or three tablespoons each of ginger and sugar in one and a half or two cups of water. Exact quantities are not critical. Bacteria adore this stuff: leave it out on the counter, and in a few days it will be colonized and start to bubble. The exact amount of time depends on the season and local conditions. It could be ready in two or three days, or it could take a week.

The beneficial bacteria go to town on the ginger and sugar mixture so enthusiastically that you don’t have to worry about any bad little buggers elbowing in, as they will quickly get crowded out. A permeable cover lets the beneficial bacteria into the jar but keep insects out (maggots would be a serious turn-off, I imagine, notwithstanding Sandor Katz, who says they can just be scooped out). I put a coffee filter over the jar, held with a rubber band. Sometimes I have poked a tiny hole or two in the filter with a push pin, but this is kind of silly and not necessary. You could also use a cheesecloth cover. In fact, the bacteria will probably find their way in almost no matter what cover you use.

The bacteria break down the sugar into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. When we get to the ginger beer stage the CO2 will give carbonation, that welcome fizz. The process will ultimately reduce the sweetness from the sugar, converting it to (a small amount of) alcohol.

The ginger bug can, I understand, also be used as a base for home-made root beers and sodas. I haven’t tried this.

Feeding the bug

To keep the bug alive for your next batch of ginger beer you have to feed it. (Of course, you could just whip up a new batch, but that would involve waiting.) You don’t want to starve the bacteria, so you add maybe one or two tablespoons of ginger and the same amount of sugar every day. I try to stir the bug and feed it once or twice a day. After a week or so, when it is bubbling nicely, starts to smell fermented, has ginger floating on the top, and begins to show a white residue on the bottom of the jar, you’re ready to brew.

If you want to hold your bug a while before brewing and reduce the fuss, you can stick it in the refrigerator. This obviates the need for daily feeding, though you should probably add a teaspoon of ginger and a teaspoon of sugar about once a week.

Preparing the brew

Chopped ginger. This will get more finely ground in a bit.

Chopped ginger. This will get more finely ground in a bit.

To prepare the ginger concoction, I follow the procedure described in Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, in which half of the liquid is reserved and added later to speed cooling. This just saves time. I like my ginger beer spicy, and I tend to use about a foot of ginger root per two gallons of water. Some people might want to start with something like a third that amount and work up to taste.

So if I’m making two gallons of ginger beer I will add the ginger to one gallon of water, reserving the other gallon. My technique at this point is to chop the ginger and then blend the brew with an immersion blender. (Grating a lot of ginger is a real pain.) I have a Breville immersion blender that I love. It requires much less clean-up than standard blenders or mixers. You just stick this thing in a bowl, push a button, and go.

Immersion blending the ginger brew.

Immersion blending the ginger brew.

Bring the water to a boil, then gently simmer for 15–20 minutes. (This length of time works; I haven’t tested others.) Add sugar and stir until dissolved. I use about a cup and a half per gallon of finished ginger beer, but some people use twice that amount. Now add the other gallon of water to cool the brew. After adding the cool water the result will probably still be too warm for your bug (especially if you don’t transfer to a new vessel), so cover and wait until it’s about body temperature. (I use the baby milk formula method of dropping a little on the back of my hand to judge whether it has cooled enough.)

Ginger brew after application of immersion blender.

Ginger brew after application of immersion blender.

Adding the Starter

Carboys of ginger brew started with champagne yeast and with ginger bug.

Carboys of ginger brew started with champagne yeast and with ginger bug.

Okay, our brew has cooled to body temperature, so now it’s time to strain the mixture and add the starter. I strained through a sieve into another large pot, then strained again in filling the two one-gallon carboys. I used to always use carboys with airlocks to prevent glass explosions from the pressure of fermentation. They are handy to have, and they work. But increasingly I just let the brew ferment in the same vessel it was mixed in, covered with a kitchen towel. Once the brew is bubbling vigorously (from a few hours to a few days, depending mainly on the potency of the starter), it can be transferred directly to bottles.

Airlocks allow carbonation to escape while preventing undesirables from entering. Fill to line with water.

Airlocks allow carbonation to escape while preventing undesirables from entering. Fill to line with water.

For my starter experiment, I brewed one gallon using champagne yeast and another gallon with the ginger bug. What I found is that the champagne yeast fermented the brew more quickly, and it produced more sediment (I’m not sure to what extent this might be a dosage issue).

Tasters agreed unanimously that the ginger bug produced a drink with a fuller and more pleasing taste.

The bug will not tolerate too much alcohol, and it caps off at about 4 percent ABV (I think), while champagne yeast can survive up to more than twice that level of alcohol. In other words, the yeast version is potentially much more alcoholic. As a test, I let some of the yeasted ginger beer go for a while, and it became pretty alcoholic and remarkably dry, as the yeast efficiently reduced the sugar. The result is a sort of ginger country wine that is quite sharp and not to my taste.

You probably won’t get anywhere near the bug’s ABV cap, and the result will most like be only minimally alcoholic. (Commercial ginger beers are said to be around just 0.5 percent ABV, so they are not required to list alcohol as an ingredient.) If you want to minimize the alcohol content, bottle sooner; let it go longer for a higher ABV.


Once the brew is ready — this is determined by tasting — transfer it to bottles. Continued fermentation in the bottle produces the carbonation. It’s very unlikely that your starter has capped out, but in that case carbonation could be started back up through the addition of a pinch of sugar.

Sandor Ellix Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation, “active ferments sealed in bottles when they still have significant sugar to fuel continued fermentation can explode like bombs, with disfiguring and live-threatening results.” Consider yourself warned. Even if you were not in the line of fire when such an explosion happened, at the very least you would have a hell of a mess of broken glass and ginger beer to clean up, so take pains to avoid this. (Hence carboys.)

At this stage you have a couple of choices. Well, three, if you include using bottles that run the risk of exploding, but I think we can agree that it is sensible to eliminate that unnecessary risk.

  • Funnel into plastic bottles. Worst that can happen is you forget about them and pop a cap. Still, glass probably gives better flavor.
  • Funnel into flip-top (Grolsch style) bottles or other bottles intended to hold fermented beverages (such as prosecco bottles, properly capped). I like these amber 16-ounce Grolsch-style bottles. They come with replacement gaskets.

In funneling I have variously used cheesecloth, a gold coffee filter, and paper coffee filters, in combination with the funnel strainer. The first two are the best choices, as sensitive tasters are said to be able to detect the effect of the paper filters.

Even with the Grolsch bottles, it’s a good idea to do at least one plastic bottle. The point at which the plastic stops giving when squeezed is probably where you want the carbonation (adjust to preference).

Once fermentation is where you like it, refrigerate. The fermentation will be arrested. Well, slowed considerably: best to pop the top occasionally if you leave it in the fridge for a long time.

Ginger beer is best drunk young. Straight up is a fine way to go. You can also use it in cocktails — with citrus added these were historically called bucks or mules — such as the Dark and Stormy (add rum to taste) and the Moscow Mule (a vodka buck). You might also try the drink that Kingsley Amis, that accomplished tippler, rhapsodized: ginger beer, gin, and lots of ice: he considered this an improvement to the gin and tonic. “I would name this one of the great long [tall] drinks of our time,” Amis wrote in Everyday Drinking, “almost worth playing a couple of hours’ cricket before imbibing.”

Almost. In any case, imbibe.



Memorial for Richard Sims


A few days after the election, a young man named Williams Sims was murdered about a mile from my home. Sims, a musician, was well-liked in the community. Police have characterized the murder as a hate crime. One man is in custody and two more are still at large. The murder occurred in or near the Capri Club, a dive bar across from the public library. The library grounds are under construction, and an impromptu memorial has popped up on the site.

Consider donating to the family’s memorial fund at As of this writing, the gofundme page has raised $18,505 of its $50k goal.

Raindrops on Ficus religiosa (Buddha Tree) leaf.

Raindrops on Buddha Tree leaf


Raindrops on Ficus religiosa (Buddha Tree) leaf.

Raindrops on Ficus religiosa (Buddha Tree) leaf.

It’s great to get a little rain in these drought-stricken parts, even if the precipitation totals from this mild storm are likely to be modest. In the pale autumn light I was struck by the beauty of the raindrops on the Ficus religiosa (Buddha Tree).

“The rain falls equally on all things.” According to Jack Kornfield, that is a “Zen saying.” If so, it might have been inspired in part by a passage in the Lotus Sutra, which says that “The Buddha appears here in the world like a great cloud universally covering all things … like the all-enriching rain.”

The historical Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment when he meditated under one of these trees, also known as Bodhi, Bo, or Peepal Trees. The place where his enlightenment occurred is today an important pilgrimage site,  known as Bodh Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar.  It features trees said to be descendants of that one.

Though the rain may come down equally, regardless of what it falls on, some plants, of course, need more of it than others. The Buddha Tree is a kind of fig (it’s a broadleaf evergreen in the Moraceae family). It prefers hot, humid weather. Nonetheless, it’s doing pretty well in a container despite our cool dry summers (and despite the Sunset Western Garden book thinking it doesn’t grow in this zone). Not withstanding its preference for humidity, it is said to resent overwatering. This plant is maybe six or seven years old. I got it as a gift, as a seedling in a four-inch container. I continue to grow it in a container because in the ground it can reach a height of 100 feet or more.

In traditional South and East Asian medicine, the leaves and bark are used for a variety of ailments. But contact can cause an allergic reaction in some people.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, “The oldest plant in the world of known planting date is the Ficus religiosa tree called Sri Maha Bodhi which was planted at the temple at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, in 288 B. C. Today the bo tree is revered as a symbol for prosperity, happiness, good fortune and long life.”

Ficus religiosa in container.

Ficus religiosa in container.

Fallen persimmon leaves.

The exquisite colors of persimmons

Fallen persimmon leaves.

Fallen persimmon leaves.

Even the fallen leaves are superb.


Persimmon harvest

Harvested persimmons.

Harvested persimmons.

Generous persimmon harvest again this year. All from one tree.

I could get a couple more bins like these, but I think I have enough! Got to leave some for the squirrels and birds, right?

Persimmon-laden branch.

Persimmon-laden branch.


Classic Jack


It’s good to acknowledge the seasons.

San Francisco’s historic Hallidie Building

The Hallidie Building seen from Crocker Galleria Garden Terrace.

The Hallidie Building seen from Crocker Galleria Garden Terrace.

Among the historic buildings of San Francisco is the Hallidie Building, located at 130 Sutter Street, between Montgomery and Keary Streets in the Financial District. It was listed as a Designated San Francisco Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Though named in honor of Andrew Smith Hallidie, the early promoter of the cable car system, for whom Hallidie Plaza is also named, the building was designed by an equally notable San Franciscan, architect Willis Polk. Completed in 1918, it was Polk’s last major work.

Kenneth Frampton, in Modern Architecture, 1851 to 1945, called the building “the first application of a pure curtain wall to any building in America” (in a glass curtain wall, the glass is hung beyond the structural elements) and a structure of “extraordinary precision and lightness.” While the first claim is disputed—though certainly at least it is among the first—the second should not be. The seven-story facade, traditional in composition and gothic in gold-painted cast iron detail, remains a triumph.

Street-level view of Hallidie Building, showing ornamented fire escapes.

Street-level view of Hallidie Building, showing ornamented fire escapes.

The building was restored for safety reasons in a two-year project that was completed in April 2013. The firm of Page & Turnbull writes of the restoration,

The deteriorated ornamental metal on the 130 Sutter Street façade was of prime concern at the Hallidie Building, which features the first high-rise glass curtain wall assembly in the United States. Deferred maintenance had taken its toll on the façade, and several components were deteriorating, causing water and air leakage, thermal variation on the interior, and an unusable means of fire egress. With the rehabilitation, repairs were made to maximize retention of the historic fabric. This landmark was made new again, including its original blue and gold color scheme, initially selected for its building’s patron, the University of California, Berkeley.

On the same website, Page & Turnbull also provide some stunning photos of the result of the restoration. The building was originally an investment property of the Regents of the University of California.

Detail of Hallidie Building facade.

Detail of Hallidie Building facade.


poppy flower reproductive organs close-up

Anatomy of a flower: the poppy

Reproductive system of poppy flower.

Reproductive system of poppy flower.

This close-up of a poppy in Tom’s Garden clearly shows some of the components of the reproductive system of a flower, as well as some of the ways poppies are distinctive.

Crepelike petals account for the red background. In the center of the petals is the stigma, which is the outer element of the pistil, the female reproductive organ. (You can remember this by thinking of the yin/yang dichotomy: pistols are yang/male whereas pistils are yin/female.) The stigma is where pollen germinates.

Supporting the stigma is the style, which grows out of the flower’s ovary. The ovary is a melon-shaped element that forms before petals emerge (when it is covered with sepals, not shown). After fertilization the ovary swells. In opium poppies, this is where the latex is produced that, when dried, becomes raw opium. The stigma, style, and ovary together compose the pistil.

Surrounding the pistil are stalklike stamens (the stalks are termed filaments), capped by lozenge-shaped anthers. The anthers are where pollen is produced. These are the male organs. After pollination, they fall away, together with the wilted petals.

The stalk that supports the entire flower is technically called a pedicel.

Poppies are unusual in usually having just two sepals (many flowers have five) and in usually having four petals (again, more common is five). Likewise, while the most common number of flower stamens is again five, poppies are spectacularly immodest and produce dozens. The disklike structure of the poppy stamen is also distinctive.

Unsurprisingly, given the sedative properties of opium, in the Western tradition poppies are associated with peace, sleep, and death (but also rebirth). But in China, according to Terese Tse Bartholomew in her Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, the poppy is associated with wealth and honor. In part this is because one Chinese word for poppy, jinbeihua, which literally translates as “brocade blanket flower,” evokes the brocade (jin) that was often worn by ancient Chinese officials.

For this photo I was mainly interested in capturing some of the beauty of the flower in extreme close-up.


Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art
by Terese BartholomewTrade Paperback
jalapeño peppers

Jalapeño peppers in the Bay Area garden and kitchen

Jalapenos peppers at Tom's Garden.

Jalapeño peppers at Tom’s Garden.

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.

Jalapeño peppers at Tom's Garden.

Another view of jalapeño peppers at Tom’s Garden.

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:

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).


Lettuce beds at French Laundry Garden

The French Laundry Garden

The French Laundry Garden, Yountville

The French Laundry Garden, Yountville.

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.

Working the French Laundry Garden.

Working the French Laundry Garden.

Chickens are kept in a tidy pen, where they are provided with a nice secure house and a patio umbrella.

French Laundry Garden chicken pen.

French Laundry Garden chicken pen.

Bees are kept as well in a couple of locations.

French Laundry Garden beehive.

French Laundry Garden beehive.

Many crops are grown in a large but simply constructed greenhouse.

French Laundry Garden greenhouse.

French Laundry Garden 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.

Greenhouse tomatoes.

Greenhouse tomatoes.

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.

Table and benches.

Table and benches.






Video: San Francisco in the late 1930s

This somewhat cheesy video from the late 1930s catalogues the tourist attractions of the city. It’s a pretty thorough survey, and there are a lot of great clips included. The Bay Bridge had only recently been built.

At least the narrator can pronounce Kearny (rhymes with “carny” not “gurney’).

Limantour Beach, Marin County

Bioregions of the San Francisco Bay Area

Clickable screenshot, Biomes of the San Francisco Bay Area

Clickable screenshot, Biomes of the San Francisco Bay Area

The screenshot above links to my page on Bay Area bioregions. The content was produced quite a while ago, but I’m gradually updating my pages to be more mobile-friendly.

I’m teaching myself Bootstrap, which allows you set different breaking points for different device sizes. It’s not too difficult in its general principles — it’s a little similar to the 960 web approach I used on some pages at — but it’s certainly a new approach compared to the old-school webwork I began with, and there are still some features I don’t fully understand.

I started the redesign with the homepage, and I’m continuing with the more popular pages on the site. Apart from the blog, this page on “Ecological Subregions of the San Francisco Bay Area” still gets the most hits.

All my texts and photos of the example biomes. Maybe later I will link the images to larger versions.

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters.

These turned out great. Most of the mole bitters recipes I could find (there aren’t a lot) were, I felt, too simple. That goes against the spirit of what mole is, which is a complex mix of many flavors. For my mole bitters I infused cacao nibs, vanilla bean, cinnamon, ancho chile, coriander, cloves, and allspice. I was pleased that the chile calibrated exactly right: not too hot, but not too timid either.

Some of my mole bitters ingredients

Some of my mole bitters ingredients.

I’m working on a second batch now. This time I think I will try gentian rather than wormwood as the bittering agent. Or come to think of it, reduce the wormwood and combine it with gentian. I will have to ponder the portions. Fortunately, I enjoy bitter flavors—wormwood is said to be the second most bitter drink, though I don’t know how scientific that appraisal is. It’s bitter, for sure.

In making bitters I cut the grain alcohol with another spirit to reduce the proof and round out the flavor. The result should be about 50 percent ABV. (Some people do this with a watery mash cooked up from the infused solids. This is hard to fathom. I believe Mark Bitterman, who says that this water extract “tastes bland at best.”) This time I used a light rum, which I thought would be the most versatile, but I might experiment with other spirits. I’m tempted to try sake.

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label.

I’ve started using woozy bottles rather than two-ounce dropper bottles (though those are great for airline carry-on). So for these larger bottles I used Avery 5164 labels.

The macaw image was taken in Antigua, Guatemala. Maximon is a Maya folk hero/deity (he’s pretty cool). Read about Maximon here.

I endorse this recipe!

2 oz tequila (I have silver, but reposado might be better)
Some maraschino liqueur (maybe a teaspoon)
One or two dashes of Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters
One or two dashes of Tom’s Citrus Bitters
Sweeten to taste with agave nectar
Shake with ice and strain.
If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a twist of lime

BTW, I don’t sell Old Tom’s Bitters (nor does anyone else). To execute the recipe you will have to make your own.


Mystery hummingbird

Hummingird in iochroma

Hummingird in iochroma.

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?

The Farmer’s Daughter, South Kingstown, Rhode Island


The Farmer’s Daughter is a fifteen-acre farm and nursery, founded in 1998 and run by Sarah Partyka, that is located in a rather upscale, mostly rural region about forty minutes south of Providence in Rhode Island. Heavily forested and low in elevation, this area is located in climate zone 6, with distinct maritime influence from Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  (It’s quite close to the eastern tip of Long Island, as the crow flies.)

The extensive nursery includes several greenhouses. There are plants in flats or small pots as well as good-sized trees and shrubs, along with a large selection of garden decor. Fresh produce such as raspberries and heirloom vegetables are also offered.

We didn’t intend to buy anything, but of course ended up carting off a bunch of plants for our Pawtucket property. While I strolled around, I took a bunch of (cell-phone) photos, shared below (click for somewhat larger — 723 px — versions). I am not providing botanical information, because my interest was in design — color, texture, pattern — and particularly in juxtapositions of plants that happened to be located adjacent to each other.


fame un spritz video capture detail

Fame un spritz!

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for a refreshing spritz, the signature drink of northern Italy. And while we’re at it, let’s repost this fun video, Fame un spritz (Make me a spritz) by Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451, which I originally posted over at back in 2010.

At that time, also at rightreading, in a post titled “it’s a small world apertol,” I also posted some early thoughts about spritzes, along with with the simple basic recipe.

I’m reminded of this by an article by Robert Siminson in today’s New York Times food section. In the print edition it’s called “The Spritz: It’s All Built on Bubbles.” The online version is called “Bitter and Bubbly, the Spritz Evolves.”

So fame un spritz!

mediterranean zone map detail

How to Make a Climate Summary Graph Showing Duration and Intensity of Hydric Deficit

Mediterranean climate zones, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook

Mediterranean climate zones, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook.

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.

Mediterranean drought map, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook

Mediterranean drought map, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook.

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.)

Marseille climate diagram, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook

Marseille climate diagram, from Olivier Filippi, The Dry Gardening Handbook.

I have made such a graph for my garden (further down the page). Here is how to do it:

  1. Acquire monthly precipitation and high/low temperature data.The chart is based on sixty-five-year averages of temperature and precipitation. This data is not available for my location because we don’t have a weather station that has been keeping track of this data near enough (currently there are some nearby Weather Underground stations, but their data is only from recent years). Unfortunately for the present purpose, conditions vary quite a lot across short distances here. So I acquired data from Richmond, Berkeley, Orinda, and Martinez (google “climate summary [you location]” and look for results from the domain, and estimated my data using those.
  1. Average the high and low monthly temperatures by adding them together and dividing by two.
  1. Convert from Fahrenheit to Celcius with the formula (F-32)/1.8.
  1. Convert precipitation from inches to millimeters by multiplying by 25.4.
  1. Create a graph with two Y axes. P is precipitation in millimeters and T in temperature in Celcius. T-axis intervals must be twice the P axis intervals, so that, for example, 80 on the P axis corresponds to 40 on the T axis. The X axis is simply the months of the year.

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.

  1. Draw lines connecting the data points. Conventional is red for temperature and blue for precipitation.
Climate map of Tom's Garden, showing duration and intensity of summer hydric deficit

Climate map of Tom’s Garden, showing duration and intensity of summer hydric deficit.

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.


Garden, May 2016

May Day Garden (part 2 of 2)

Garden detail, May 2016

Garden detail, May 1, 2016.

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.

Papaver glaucum, May 1, 2016

Papaver glaucum, May 1, 2016

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.

Limes, May 2016


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.

Leaf lettuce

Leaf lettuce.

This lettuce didn’t seem to mind being left to its own devices for a while.

Cunonia capensis, Butterknife Bush

Cunonia capensis, Butterknife Bush.

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.

Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage

Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage.

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.

Plantago subnuda and Crassula muscosa 'Petite'

Plantago subnuda and Crassula muscosa ‘Petite’.

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

Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia, Beach Primrose.

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.

Garden detail, May 2016

Garden detail, May 2016.

Mayday garden detail

May Day Garden (part 1 of 2)

May Day garden detail: California poppies, sweet alyssum, camissonia cheirauthifolia (Beach Primrose), senicio talinoides ssp azoides (large kleina)

May Day garden detail: California Poppies, Sweet Alyssum, Camissonia cheirauthifolia (Beach Primrose), Senicio talinoides ssp azoides (Large Kleina).

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!).

Gruss-an-Aachen roses

Gruss-an-Aachen roses.

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.

New growth on Citrus Burst Roses.

New growth on Citrus Burst roses

The Citrus Burst roses are putting most of their energy into new growth. They’re clilmbers that can reach 12 feet high.

Citrus Burst Rose flowers

Citrus Burst Rose flowers.

Although they do still have some nice-looking flowers.

Senicio talinoides ssp azoides

Senicio talinoides ssp azoides.

They’re not the only plants reaching for the sky. The always reliable Senicio shows off its architectural quality and interesting color.

Aeoniums, possibly canariense

Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’.

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.

Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi'

Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’.

The brugmanisa is also expanding profusely. It currently is bearing a record number of its large flowers. (Bottlebrush in the background.)

Sacred Datura

Datura wrightii.

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:

Papaver glaucum.

Papaver glaucum.


Grüss an Aachen flower

Grüss an Aachen Rose

Grüss an Aachen flower

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.

Gruss-an-Aachen rose


Bitters and health

bitters on desk

Bitters and tinctures on my desk

While we’re on the subject of bitters, it’s worth taking note of their health benefits, which include moderating blood sugar, improving digestion, and I think immortality–though I understand not all alternative health sites are 100 percent reliable, so I’m not certain about that last one.

Here are three sites on the topic that seem pretty good:

Andrew Weil: Why Bitter Is Better
“America is still probably the most sugar-philic and bitter-phobic culture the world has ever known…. But there is an appealing logic to consuming bitters for health….”

The Weston A Price Foundation: Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor
“Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture—from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets….”

Jim McDonald: Blessed Bitters
“I am a firm believer in Bitter Deficiency Syndrome; a notion that posits that much of the health woes faced by modern folk has at its root a lack of bitter flavor in the diet; and that many of the digestive problems for which we see bitters as a “remedy” are actually symptoms of deficiency of this flavor….”

Delicious and good for you, with ingredients straight from the garden — how can you go wrong?

herbal bitters detail

Herbal Bitters Recipes

Tom's Herbal Bitters

A selection of Tom’s Herbal Bitters

For my next two batches of bitters I followed a base herbal bitters recipe from Mark Bitterman. He uses three bittering agents in his herbal bitters: I tsp gentian, 2 tsp quassia chips, 1 tbs hops, together with 2 tbs double strength simple syrup. He combines Everclear grain alcohol and botanical gin in the ratio of 4:1. No doubt it’s best to use the highest-quality herbal gin, but that stuff is pretty expensive, so I just used Rangpur Tanqueray, which seemed to work. To this base he simply combines fruit pieces and fresh herbs in fairly hefty quantities. I used basil and dried cherries in one and cilantro and lime in the other. These and other recipes can be found in his Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters 40 Amari 123 Recipes for Cocktails Food & Homemade Bitters (Andres McMeel, 2015).

I stopped infusing after 5 days. After that point the tannins start to dominate, and I didn’t want to lose the fresh herb and fruit flavors. I put the canning jars full of ingredients in a dark place and shook them several times a day. I strained the mixture through a gold coffee filter, and then through a funnel with a double layer of cheesecloth into two-ounce amber bottles with droppers. I chose the two-ounce bottles because I want to be able to carry some with me on airlines to give away. (I washed the bottles first with soap and water and then dried them as best I was able.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Bitterman says that herbal bitters are especially good in cooking. A few drops of cherry bitters might be interesting with maple syrup buttermilk pancakes, I imagine. But I prefer them for savory cocktails using spirits like tequila, whisky, or gin. The cilantro lime bitters should work well with Mexican menus. The Bollard has some suggestions for tequila cocktails, and you can get some ideas from Yummly too. And there’s a Cherry Basil Collins recipe at Cocktail Puppy. Generally you have to be a little creative, since older recipes presume Angostura are the only bitters you can find (unless you’re in New Orleans and can get Peychaud’s). Now there are hundreds of commercials bitters as well as more people like me making their own.

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Happily, my limes seem to have survived our stretch of frosts. I don’t grow cherries, and I used dried cherries from the supermarket. I bought the dried herbs I didn’t grow myself from Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley — highly recommended.

I make my labels with 2 x 4 in. Avery labels, using InDesign template 5163. I size the background image first in Photoshop. The font is Garamond Premier Pro, the same I used in 1616: The World in Motion; River of Ink: Literature, History, Art; and many other books.

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Some rights reserved 2017 Tom’s Garden. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via