Tom’s Garden

Growing by the Bay

Fresh from the oven. These were made with last year’s persimmons, pulled from the freezer.

pickled peppers

Quick Pickling Pasilla Bajio Peppers

This year we have several — well, four — pepper plants in the garden, all ready for harvest now that it’s September. In the past I have dried some of the peppers and cooked or eaten some fresh, but I also usually ended up wasting a bunch. So I decided to quick pickle some of the peppers.

I thought I’d begin with the mildest of our peppers, the pasilla bajio. According to Gardening Know How

This chili’s name in Spanish literally means “little raisin.” This is a slight misnomer, since the pepper is much bigger than a raisin, usually reaching 6 to 9 inches (15-23 cm.) in length and 1 inch (2.5 cm.) in diameter. It’s the color of the pepper, which turns a very dark brown when it matures, that earns the plant its name. Pasillas can be harvested green and immature to make sauces and salsas. They can also be harvested mature and dried. It’s in this form that they are used, along with ancho and guajillo chiles, to make the classic Mexican mole sauce. As chilies go, pasillas are not particularly hot. They have a Scoville rating of 1,000 to 2,500, which means they are equal to less hot than a mild jalapeno. As they mature and become darker in color, they also get hotter. They mostly have a rich, pleasant, almost berry-like flavor.

Quick pickling is simplicity itself. In essence you just cram everything in a jar and cover with a mixture of water and vinegar. Then eat in a day or two. Quick pickling is a great way to easily preserve produce.

Pasilla bajio peppers

I picked a batch of peppers that I thought would fill a twelve-ounce mason jar. I chose a mix of ripe and less ripe peppers. The greener ones add more crispness, the riper ones a bit more heat.

Chopped peppers

After rinsing the peppers (all our produce is organic) I removed the stems and sliced them. Slicing is optional, but it gives a stronger flavor as the slices soak up the brine better than whole pickles would. It turned out I had too few peppers for my jar so I added some more, ending up with about half a pound for the twelve-ounce jar.

I put the peppers in the jar and added some spices. This is a place to experiment. I used black mustard seeds, cardamom seeds, and garlic powder. My secret ingredient was a couple of dashes of Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. Since you don’t have these (I don’t sell them, but I do list the ingredients at the link), you could substitute angostura bitters, if you would like to try this. I think it adds subtlety and complexity.

Thank you to a twitter account called Feedspot Blogs for selecting Tom’s Garden as one of their Top California Gardening Blogs on the web.

It’s not much deserved since I have been largely inactive as a blogger for some time, but it’s still nice, and maybe will inspire me to be a little more active again. (In fact, I’m about to start a post about quick pickling pasilla bajio peppers–stay tuned.)

hop tree detail

Western Hop Tree

Western Hop Tree, Ptelea crenulata

Our Western Hop Tree is about three years old now and is looking good, getting ready to produce its many fragrant cream-colored flowers. They will be set off beautifully against its glossy deep green broad leaves. The plant is in the citrus family, and it produces light green fruits, which are said to be “acid” and “tonic” (I have not tested this). Las Pilitas calls its look “prehistoric woodland.”

Erigeron glaucus
Seaside Daisy, Erigeron glaucus.

Salvia elegans flower close-up.
Salvia elegans
Close-up of flower of Blue Marguerite, Felicia amelloides.
Blue Marguerite, Felicia amelloides
Viola Etain close-up
Viola ‘Etain’

Datura Pod

Datura pod.

Shown is the pod, or fruit, of Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii, a species native to California and elsewhere in the southwest and northern Mexico.

Eventually the pod will brown and harden. Then it will crack and disperse some hundred seeds in a wide area.

Nine Views of Point Pinole

Under “photography” over at I’ve posted nine recent photos from Point Pinole from the same shoot as the image below. Check it out.

Graptoveria 'Fred Ives'
Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’

Oak Titmouse

Oak Titmouse in Iochroma Bush

The Oak Titmouse is a common resident of Northern California Oak woodlands. Typically monogamous throughout its short (about five-year) life, it nests in comfy moss-lined cavities. It is vocal, and its songs and calls are often heard when one is walking in our woods. Birds of Northern California describes its call as a nasal tsick-a-dee-dee, but as you can hear at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, its sounds are more varied than that suggests. A bit high-strung, it can often be seen hopping about in search of insects, nuts, berries, and seeds (it also frequents feeders). Though not brightly colored or patterned, it boasts a jaunty head tuft (hard to see here), and all in all is quite the charmer.

The Nature of Plants coverPlants live their lives just as we do, surrounded by loved ones, competitors.and enemies; seeking to find harmony and health; and hoping to leave behind a legacy of well-adjusted progeny capable of carrying on after their demise. Like us, they have evolved complicated pathways and behaviors to accomplish this. We are not really that different …

The Nature of Plants: An Introduction to How Plants Work, by Craig Huegel

Please see my for a full review of this exceptional book about plants and gardening.

pak choy

Planting Pak Choy for Winter Harvest

Who doesn’t love pak choy (bok choy)? It’s a kind of Brassica rapa, a relative of turnip, mustard, cabbage, etc. In the past I’ve grown a variety called violetta, which is both beautiful and tasty. But this fall I felt I was a little too late to start a winter crop from seed, and I picked up some seedlings at a local nursery.

In our region we can grow cool-season vegetables as winter crops. Essentially there are two winter seasons, which are defined by the dormant months of December and January, when most plants shut down. There is an early winter crop, which can be planted in August or September and harvested in November (as a rule), and then there are others that take a little longer, getting started in the fall, shutting down in midwinter, and then maturing for harvest in February or March.

This pak choy is a small variety, growing to five inches tall, called Toy Choy. It’s very early, being ready for harvest in just thirty days. So we will be harvesting this one in the late fall / early winter. Growing pak choy as a winter crop has advantages: less watering is needed because of rain and shorter, cooler days, and the plant is less likely to bolt since it’s not subjected to summer heat.

Limequat, a New Addition to the Citrus Collection


One pleasure of gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area is the ability to grow citrus. While we don’t get the heat that produces the bountiful harvests of Southern California groves, we do have mild enough winters that we can grow many types of citrus and get a decent harvest from them (where I am anyway, maybe not in the sun- and heat-starved city). And citrus trees usually do well in containers, which provides great flexibility.

The latest addition is a Eustis Limequat (Citrofortunella japonica, I guess, though there seems to be a lack of consensus about the plant’s botanical name). As the plant’s common name suggests, this is a hybrid of kumquat and lime, specifically Key (Mexican) lime. It typically grows to about six to eight feet. The hybrid was created by Walter Swingle in Florida in 1909, and Florida remains the main area of its popularity. But the tree should be grown more widely, because from its kumquat parent it inherits greater cold tolerance that most limes. According to Gardening Know How, “It can usually survive temperatures as low as 22 F. (-6 C.), and it can sometimes survive as cold as 10 F. (-12 C.).”


The brugmansia is having one of its moments.

Red-flowering Currant

Red-Flowering Currant

Red-flowering Current

The genus Ribes includes currants and gooseberries (the name is derived from a Farsi word meaning “acid-tasting”). Gooseberries bear thorns but currants are thornless. Gooseberry fruits are larger and sweeter, and more often eaten raw (though birds favor the small berries of currants).

Ribes sanguineum, Red-Flowering or Pink-Flowering Currant, is native to the Western US. It produces pendant flowers that are beloved by hummers, in late winter or early spring. This one began flowering in our garden around Groundhog’s Day, that is, the cross-quarter known as Imbolc in the druidic calendar, which is the beginning of our spring here in the Bay Area. The flowers are long lasting, hanging on through our dry summer. Small blue berries appear in the fall, to the delight of birds.

I think we purchased this plant from Watershed nursery in Richmond last spring. It is now about five feet tall in a large container. In the ground it would probably get to be six to ten feet. It seems to like part sun rather than full, and is said to produce fruit even in nearly full shade. It is drought tolerant once established.

Ribes sanguineum has a bushier shape than Golden Currant, Ribes aureum, which is almost vinelike and in our garden seems happy against a fence. The red-flowering variety is also more deciduous, although this one never went fully deciduous. But the new leaves are glossier and greener, while last year’s leaves are more mottled and tend toward yellow. In some situations the plant will produce excellent fall color as the leaves turn. The leaves are fragrant.

This is a great habitat plant for Bay Area gardens, and a real beauty besides.

Citrus infusions

Citrus infusions

These are a few of the infusions I’m preparing to be used in a new citrus amaro. I like the different colors. Left to right: Eureka Lemon, Satsuma Orange, Bearss Lime.

These are just infusing in vodka, so they will take a little longer than if I were using grain alcohol.

All of the citrus I use is from my garden and has not been treated with any pesticides or other nasties.

January garden detail

The January Garden

January Garden

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.

Senecio talinoides

After several years in the garden, the plant is starting to flower. Stay tuned.

wasp on sedum flower

Wasp on Sedum

Wasp on Sedum

This wasp, which I believe is Prionyx thomae (P. parkeri and P. canadensis are similar), seemed very interested in a flowering sedum. It appeared to be collecting nectar, though conceivably it was just watching for prey.

Fairly common in the western U.S. and south to Argentina, Prionyx thomae is a solitary wasp. The female kills prey such as grasshoppers by injecting them with venom, then carries the remains back to a nest where it can serve as a host for its offspring. Because the stinger is not barbed like that of a bee, it doesn’t break off in its victim, and the female can inflict multiple stings. (The male lacks a stinger entirely.)

If my insect identification skills were better I might be able to tell if this is a male or a female. Guidelines from Bohart, R.M., Menke, A.S., 1963, A Reclassification of the Sphecinae: With a Revision of the Nearctic Species of the Tribes Sceliphronini and Sphecini:

  • Male—Average length 12 mm; head and thorax black, gaster red, tergites rarely with darker markings; wing clear in cellular area, darker beyond; erect hair of head and thorax white; flagellum as in figure 103; sternite VII entire
  • Female—Average length 13 mm; pronotal lobe and vertex, scutal furrows, mesopleura behind pronotal lobe, and pleura above mid and hind coxae with appressed silvery pubescence; labial palpus generally not visible in museum specimens, much shorter than maxillary palpus

The female carries its prey, sometimes larger than itself, to a chamber it excavates at the end of a tunnel that it digs for the purpose, then lays its egg.

Bug Eric (my best source) describes such a wasp grappling with its grasshopper prey.

California Cleome

California Cleome (Peritoma arborea)

Many California native plants have been given unloving common names, and Peritoma arborea — best known as Bladderpod — counts among them. More blandly called Californea Cleome, it is notable for its unusual yellow flowers, which bloom year-round, and its globular fruits, which rattle when shaken. Native to Southern California and Baja California deserts, it is extremely drought tolerant, without turning gray or silver like many such plants, but instead remaining cheerfully green.

Pomegranate Flower

Pomegrante Flower

This is the pomegranates’ second summer here. They are growing in large containers. I think they were two years old when I purchased them. Now at last they are getting the large red flowers that presage fruit.

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