As promised, this entry will be about some of the more experimental plants I have tried to grow this season in my garden. Since finishing my permaculture design course, I have been really interested in edible perennial plants. Although they take a bit more effort to get established, they often need less ongoing care than tender annuals. They usually have better established root systems so they are more able to access ground water and nutrients. They also typically have fewer issues with pests and environmental disorders (granted this is a conclusion drawn from just my own backyard observations). So, at a time of increasing awareness around issues such as fertilizer run-off, pesticide impact, and water usage, edible perennials seem like an interesting area to explore.
Most of the more exotic perennials in my yard I had to install as seedlings from a few local nurseries that have started to capitalize on the current edibles trend. Here in the East Bay, we are pretty lucky- Annie's Annuals, The East Bay Nursery, and Spiral Gardens Nursery all have an interesting selection of edible perennials. But, if you really want to have your mind blown, you MUST attend the Merritt College Plant Sale. This sale happens in the spring and fall--the next one will be held next month on October 1st and 2nd. The Landscape Horticulture Department’s head propagator, Anders Vidstrand, has an eye for the unusual, and as a result, I had a hard time staying rational in my plant buying last spring. I suddenly had visions of an orchard composed entirely of different guava varieties such as pineapple guava, strawberry guava, Mexican Cream, Beaumont Red, etc. But, reality impinged on my rosy, guava-colored daydreams and upon further contemplation of the size of my yard, I decided to narrow my selection.
I am always very excited about plants that yield sweet fruits, and as a result I have planted a number of different berries and guavas. I have a Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) planted in a shady, moist part of my yard that seems fairly healthy although it hasn’t put on as much growth as I would like, and it definitely hasn’t yielded any fruit. A couple of weeks ago while camping, I came across some wild thimbleberry plants that had a few berries. I, of course availed myself of them, and their yummy, slightly figgish flavor re-inspired my hopes for my small backyard baby. In addition to the Thimbleberry, I have also planted a Pineapple Guava (Feijoa sellowiana) and three Chilean Guavas (Ugni molinae) as my nod to the orchard of my dreams, a native Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), and a native Currant (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum.)
Thimbleberry (at center)
But in case those plants aren’t quite odd-ball enough for you, I have a few other wacky selections that might tickle your fancy. I am a lover of potatoes both because they are tasty and because I love digging them out of the ground. So, I decided to look into a couple of other plants that have edible roots or tubers. I tried Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) in my vegetable garden with its nasturtium-like leaves, and it looked good for awhile, but recently succumbed to a lack of water. In another area of my yard that receives more water (and lots of chicken poop) I have planted a Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) that is doing really well. In the winter after the first frost I will try to harvest some of the tubers.
Yacon with Chickens for Scale
I also planted a Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) and a Ground Cherry (Physalis pruinosa 'Aunt Molly’s'). The Gooseberry is about five feet tall, and has lots of small fruit that when covered in their papery calyx look like small, fairy lanterns. The Ground Cherry is much more prostrate than the Gooseberry, as one might expect of something with the word “ground” in the name, and its fruit is delicious. Some say it tastes like pineapple with hints of vanilla, but my husband swears they taste like croissants. I am currently trying to save enough to make some type of preserve, but somehow I just keep eating them!
As you can tell, I am hooked on edible perennials. I have run out of space and I haven’t even told you about the beautiful Scarlet Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) or the otherworldly Naranjilla (Solanum quitoense). I hope that you will start experimenting with some of these plants in your own yard. And, maybe I will see you at the Merritt Plant Sale in October!
Naranjilla in a Pot
Here in Richmond, July passed by in a whirl of bees and pollen. We have settled into our regular “summer” weather pattern here in the El Cerrito/Richmond area- low clouds and fog until midday when the sun beats back the gray and shines until sunset. This is great for lettuce, greens, and my beans, but at this rate I might have a ripe tomato in October.
But today I don’t want to talk about the same old patterns in my garden; I want to talk about what is new, exciting, and different! Yep, I want to talk about my chickens. First of all, you need to know that I adore chickens. From their cute little noises to their fluffy little bodies, I find them utterly mesmerizing. And the fact that they will provide us with manure for the yard and eggs for our table is just an added bonus. So, this year I decided it was time to add chickens to our household menagerie. We planned and built the chicken coop ourselves, and it only took us two months. It is the Fort Knox of chicken coops due to my husband’s tendency to overbuild things and my concerns about raccoons. With the coop done (or should I say done for the moment), we got ready for the next step- baby birds.
We got four precious chicks at Easter and then we just had to sit back and wait to see if any of them were actually roosters. Luckily, we are about three months in and none of my ladies seem like they are going to start, “Cock-a-doodle-doing.” I have two Buff Orpingtons named Wilma and Honey-Penny and they are becoming really large birds. I have one Dominique who is black and white checkered and named, well, Dominique. She is the cuddliest chicken I have ever known. The moment I sit down she jumps onto my lap and practically begs to be petted. Finally, I have an Ameraucana named Gwen who has beautiful brown and black plumage and a silly, puffy beard of feathers. Yes, she is our bearded lady bird.
These four ladies keep me busy. They eat a lot and then predictably create huge amounts of manure for my yard. The only problem is that they are not particularly picky about where they place their rich deposits and as a result I spend a lot of time cleaning off decks, patios, stepping stones and the side of walls (don’t ask!) They also are prodigious bug hunters which is lovely, but it also means that mulch doesn’t stay neatly in place anymore. Oh, no- chickens have their own vision of garden design and it involves ankle-breaking holes and small mountains of soil and mulch.
But lest you think I am bitter because of the extra work they have created and that maybe, just maybe my fowl love affair is coming to the end, let me assure you nothing is further from the truth. Have you ever seen a chicken taking a dustbath? It is guaranteed to make you chuckle. They look like nothing more than a bunch of feather dusters gone wild. And I love listening and watching when one of them finds a particularly delectable morsel. The lucky bird will grab the tasty bite, make a bunch of self-congratulatory noises and then run off- only to be chased en masse by her feathered compatriots. As a result, our backyard sometimes looks like a race track with chickens running laps on the walkways.
Now we are starting to think about how to ready our chicken coop for the fall and winter. We want to add some type of roll-up tarping to help keep the exposed run portions dry during winter storms. We have put in a nesting box, but despite our premature hopes no one has deigned to use it yet. But we are ready for eggs, oh yes, we are ready.
Tune in next month as I share some of the odder fruits and vegetables I tried to grow this summer.
I am writing this blog entry from my home in the Richmond Hills where I spend the year watching the sunset move up and down the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais from my front windows. I am an avid foodie and gardener which means that I am more than a little obsessed with growing edibles. As part of my never-ending quest to know as much as I possibly can about gardening, I became a Master Gardener. And as a result of that, I thought it would be fun to share my personal West County perspective on gardening with the world. So, here we are!
My garden is currently in full-blown flower mode. After some lovely late season rains we have had a couple of weeks of warm temperatures, the combination of which makes gardeners rub their hands together in joyful anticipation. Clarkias, poppies, flax, lupine, nigella, marigolds, and sweet peas paint a picture of oranges, pinks, blues, and purples. This is the season where it takes a serious emergency to get me out of my yard. I want to sleep on my chaise lounge surrounded by luscious blooms. I want to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner on my deck so that I can watch the bees, hummingbirds, and finches zip around. Reading, email correspondence, surfing the Internet--that’s what they made wireless networks for, right? So I could sit under my jasmine arbor and watch clouds float by as I wait for files to upload? Too bad I haven’t figured out a way to rig up a bathtub in my yard yet…
As you can see, I spend a lot of time in my little personal Eden. This gives me plenty of opportunity to notice the small dramas that play out in the micro-ecosystems of my yard. It has been fascinating to watch the regime changes that happen practically overnight on my fava beans and lupine plants--it is like watching a remake of Dynasty where all of the overblown actors have been cast as insects. It always begins with a happy, thriving plant with rich, green leaves and emerging flowers. Then, the very next day, the plant is covered in a thick, suffocating cloak of aphids. Just as I begin to hatch plans involving spray bottles and clippers, I notice that the aphids have company. Voracious lady bug larvae and soldier beetles are literally swarming all over my aphid plants (although for the lady bug larvae it is a very slow “swarming”). I also notice that there are many aphids that have been sucked dry by some sort of parasitic insect. Do I feel remorse or sadness upon viewing such a massacre? Do I compose eulogies and play “Taps” for all of the aphids who met their end in my garden? Goodness, no. I do a little jig of joy and thank Mother Nature for predatory insects. And then I pull up a seat to see who will be next on the green stage of my garden.
- Author: Sharon B Gibson
By Liz Rottger, Contra Costa Master Gardener.
After listening to an informative and inspiring presentation on French bio-intensive gardening, which transformed not only the speaker’s garden but also her life, I was reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—A Year of Food Life, which recorded a similar transformative year in her family’s life.
Kingsolver’s describes her family’s year-long effort to grow their own food, to make everything they eat from scratch and to buy only food that is locally produced. It turned out to be a challenge that perhaps only someone with Kingsolver’s determination and experience could undertake because, as she points out, most people don’t even know what fruits and vegetables grow in their neighborhoods. “This knowledge has vanished from our culture.” Worse, we are now raising a whole generation of children who think that strawberries somehow ‘grow’ in plastic boxes!
Kingsolver’s book is both educational and delightful. Perhaps the most fun reading is the wonderful descriptions of her family’s experiences throughout this year of ‘going natural.’ Trying to decide when to start this adventure was troublesome. Would her family end up eating peanut butter sandwiches? She decides that when she can finally harvest the first asparagus will be their moment of truth.
But you can’t survive on asparagus alone, even as bounteous as this first spring perennial vegetable is. So on a windy, fiercely cold Saturday in April, she visits the local farmers market and finds to her great surprise green onions, baby lettuce, fresh eggs, black walnuts, locally grown turkey sausages and lamb, assorted jams and honey and—lo and behold—rhubarb! They will indeed survive until their own vegetable garden starts to produce. The canning orgy that takes place in her kitchen in August and her desperate efforts to prompt the procreation of her flock of heirloom turkeys are adventures described in her inimitable style.
But there is so much more! For example, her daughter, Camille, contributes many delicious sounding recipes and entire seasonal meal plans. Her husband, Steven Hopp, a professor of environmental studies, inserts informative sidebars on a variety of food issues, such as the growth in community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations, fair trade, the cost of food transport, the challenge of feeding the world and the urban agricultural movement. The book contains a detailed bibliography, along with numerous organizational references and resources for those of us who want to learn more.
More importantly, in the process of describing what she planted, harvested, canned, dehydrated, or froze, Kingsolver also tells us about our own food industry, the commoditization of agriculture, the increased consumption of processed foods and the marketing of the desire to have everything, always. She challenges us to not necessarily emulate her family’s lifestyle, but to think differently about what we eat and what choices we make daily when we walk into a modern supermarket. How we define “locally grown” is important.
“Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used.” A powerful statement! I looked in my own pantry and found, for example, Turkish dried apricots, Moroccan olives, Nicaraguan bananas, Hawaiian honey, and Mexican red peppers among other foods grown thousands of miles from my Bay Area home.
“A genuine food culture is an affinity between the people and the land that feeds them,” she says. This is a concept that certainly every Master Gardener understands and espouses. But there is much to re-think in how each of us develops a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of us will find Barbara Kingsolver’s book an inspirational guide to thinking about and making those complex choices.
- Author: Sharon B Gibson
by Liz Rottger, Contra Costa Master Gardener.
Since I’ve always prided myself on raising my own homegrown tomatoes (even in Richmond), I was a little embarrassed a couple of weeks ago to have to buy several pounds from Monterey Market, the renowned vegetable market in Berkeley, because for the very first time, I don’t have a single ripe tomato in my garden. Not one! How could that be?
It would be easy to join everyone else in blaming the gloomy, overcast weather we’ve been having this entire summer in West County, with temperatures hovering in the low sixties as a cold wind blows in off the Bay, day after day. While it’s true that tomato plants are tropical vines that particularly need warm nights (above fifty-five degrees) to set blossoms, it would be less than honest of me to offer this as the reason why I don’t have any ripe tomatoes. The cool weather has certainly been a contributing factor to my ‘crop’ failure, but I’m forced to admit that the real cause was my infatuation with a package of seeds.
Last January I was rummaging through the vegetable seed racks at a local nursery when I came across a package of “authentic Italian seed” for the famous San Marzano ‘pomodoros’—golden apples. I was smitten. These are the wonderful plum tomatoes that grow in a valley near Naples at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. Legend says that the seeds were given to the King of Naples in the eighteenth century by the Kingdom of Peru. But that’s probably a marketing myth.
What is fact is that some chefs consider San Marzano to be the best sauce tomato in the world. They are indeed legendary! Canned San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy can cost as much as $6 for a 28 ounce can at gourmet grocery stores! Even the cost of its seeds was jaw-dropping, but that didn’t stop me from buying a packet.
To think that I could have these lovely tomatoes in my own back yard! I immediately dumped my old lovers -- the faithful Green Zebras, stalwart Stupice, exotic Black Odessa and even loyal Oregon Spring -- and started hanging out with San Marzano. Like most love affairs, the beginning was blissful, as San Marzano did lead me on. Great germination rates, transplanting to small pots went equally well, and hardening off and setting out in the garden all progressed beautifully. I was ecstatic. This was going to be a perfect match.
Then, nothing! They didn’t seem to grow much. I thought that maybe they just needed time to think over their new location -- to get used to things. I waited patiently. But in my heart, I already knew the score - there was a problem in paradise. Two months later, I have to admit bitterly, they didn’t love me or my garden. They kept waiting for the kisses of that warm Neapolitan sunshine that never arrived and just got more and more homesick. They’re not much bigger now than when I first put them in the ground.
Like all jilted lovers, I first reproached myself. How could I have been such a fool? I should have known better. Then came insight: they simply weren’t my climate type. Chastened with the knowledge that just because it’s a seed doesn’t mean that it will grow and flourish in my garden, I’ll return to my old faithfuls next year. I know they’ll take me back.