As I write this blog entry the view out my window shows pendulous grey clouds and rain. Our first storm of the season has rolled in and dropped about ¾ of an inch of rain. Mother Nature’s timing couldn’t be any better- Merritt College’s Fall Plant Sale was last weekend and I went a little native happy. I purchased a lupine (Lupinus arboreus), a Mimulus hybrid that has multi-colored flowers, and a Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus) just to name a few. Happily, I got all of my natives in the ground before the first of the rain started to fall on Monday. I also transplanted four roses this weekend and I am sure they are appreciating the gentle watering this storm has provided.
Right now in my garden it is the season of in-betweens. Pretty much all of my summer vegetables have succumbed. My spindly beans were pulled weeks ago, and my squash vines have pretty much shriveled up. I have one sad little cucumber left on the vine, and my basil has given up the ghost. But my tomatoes have finally come into their own, and this week I set a new harvest record for myself of 15 pounds in one day! I planted twelve different types of heirloom tomatoes last April, and now I am floating in a sea of red. Sauce, dried tomatoes, frozen tomatoes, salsa, pizza, etc.- I am finding creative ways to include tomato dishes in every meal. Out of all of the heirlooms tomatoes I planted, three far outperformed the rest: the Chianti Rose, the Carbon, and the Paul Robeson. This is especially exciting to me because last year my tomato crop was meager. It was the first year I had planted directly into the ground (rather than raised beds) and the small yield reflected the poor preparation of my soil. After spending a winter adding compost, manure, and growing a cover crop, it is obvious that I have improved the macro-nutrient load of my soil.
So, while one season’s worth of crops is pretty much done, I haven’t planted anything new. There is a reason for this besides just the usual exhaustion that hits hardcore summer gardeners at this time of the year. I am not planting a winter vegetable crop this year. Whew, I feel better now that I have admitted it out loud. For awhile I felt guilty about this decision because it seems like such a huge waste of the Bay Area’s great extended growing season. But, I have come to understand that there is a certain wisdom in allowing things to lay fallow. Over the past couple of years I have experimented with different ways to take care of my soil- to feed it after it is done feeding me. I have grown favas, I have grown vetch, I have chopped and dropped and I have tilled into the soil. Last year, I took my cover crop practice to another level. I grew a mixture of legumes and oats, and rather than chopping them all down at once, I cut them down methodically. As I got ready to plant in certain areas, I would chop down the plants in that area, plant the seeds or plants and then use the chopped portions as a green mulch. In this way, I was able to stagger the nitrogen input into the soil, I allowed some of the cover crops to flower which attracted tons of beneficial insects, and I left my pest insects something to eat besides my baby seedlings.
As with any experiment, this method had its drawbacks as well as its benefits. By the time I got around to cutting back some of the cover crop, the stems had gotten very woody and as a result were slow to break down. Also, I was unprepared for how much the green mulch would shrink in the sun, thereby leaving many areas of soil uncovered. I am also curious as to what degree my vegetable seedlings had to compete with the established cover crops around them for sunlight, water, and nutrients.
This year I will be trying yet another approach. As I refine my technique, one of the important considerations is cost both for me and for the environment. While bringing in truckloads of compost can really improve the soil, it can be prohibitively expensive. Also, you have to consider questions about where the compost comes from and what types of microbes it introduces to your yard. So, this year I am keeping it REALLY local. I am bringing in free horse manure from down the street. I will be adding my own home-made compost. And, I will be allowing my chickens to have a field day with all of the yummy things they find in both the manure and the compost. I am not going to do a cover crop this year because I haven’t thought of a good way to combine chickens with this process. It seems to me that they would think the seeds I am putting in the ground are special treats for them, and then if any of the seeds managed to germinate, well, you know what would happen! If anyone has any information on how to combine chickens with cover-cropping I would love to hear about it.
That’s it for now. Best of luck with whatever your fall gardening chores are!
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.