In celebration of the Contra Costa Master Gardeners' 30th Anniversary, we came up with 30 (plus 1) signs that you might be a gardener.
Hope you enjoy them!
- Argues constantly that compost smells sweet.
- Delays vacation travel until after the harvest.
- Dirt! In your house, in the trunk of your car, under your fingernails and on your shoes, even the good ones!
- Every vacation has a nursery and /or botanic garden involved.
- Favorite color is green.
- Gets at least a dozen catalogs in the mail - and they send you into a state not experienced since teenage dating.
- Gives zucchinis to friends and co-workers (and sometimes the postal deliverer and UPS driver).
- Home Depot and nursery's know you by your first name.
- Mountain of plastic pots squirrelled away.
- Own one too many floppy straw hats.
- People share all their plant problems with you.
- Pruning clippers in your back pocket.
- Seed collecting materials, plant holders and coffee grounds from the coffee shop in the car.
- The yard is in better shape than the inside of your house.
- There are plants waiting to be added to your garden.
- Trays of seedlings on top of your refrigerator/Cuttings in the refrigerator.
- Use Latin words in public.
- When you tour a garden you first look for their composting set up.
- Won't let anyone else prune the fruit trees.
- You drive by any lawn and think, that could be a garden.
- You have more pairs of gloves than earrings.
- You live in your Carhartts.
- You look at vehicles based on how many tools and how much soil/compost/amendments they'll hold.
- You stop talking mid-sentence when you see a plant you don't recognize.
- You try to save every puny little plant that should have gone into the compost.
- You wake up in the middle of a cold night and wonder if you should go out and cover your succulents.
- You water other people's plants when out for a walk from your own water bottle if they look thirsty.
- You'd give up a movie to trim and weed the garden.
- Your fingernails are the shortest they've been since birth.
- Your own garden book collection rivals Barnes & Nobles.
- You're in a national park and you have to resist the urge to pull weeds.
I love this time of year and all of the promise and excitement that it holds. Secret plans are being drawn up, lists are being made, and visions of plum tomatoes dance in my head. Is it the cold, wintery weather that’s got me in a tizzy? No. Is Christmas and New Year’s festivities that have my heart feeling exuberant? While I do love the holidays, that is not it either. All of you vegetable gardeners know, don’t you? Yes, it is the season of seed catalogs.
I received my first one in the mail about a week ago, and it is an old favorite- The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Catalog. Wanting to postpone the bittersweet excitement of opening it (and eventually finishing it), I have just laid it reverently on my bedside table. Every night my eyes gently caress the cover as I wonder about the untold delights between its covers. Occasionally I will flip it open to a random page and gaze agog at the endless collection of eggplant varieties, but for now, I am holding off on reading it from cover-to-cover. Before long, the catalogs from Baker Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and the Trees of Antiquity will join the ranks on my bedside table. If you haven’t yet discovered the excitement of seed catalogs, then I suggest you treat yourself this season. I swear that wine writers have stolen a page from the folks who do the writing for these catalogs; each description contains such luscious descriptions and fascinating history that I am determined to try and grow the described variety (even if it requires climactic conditions quite outside the realm of possibility for the Richmond Hills.) Let me give you a taste! In the FIVE pages dedicated to different types of corn seeds, the writers describe the Floriani Red Flint variety of corn as follows: “[A] family heirloom from the Valsugana valley of Italy near Trento, via William Rubel. Originally brought to Italy from America, it evolved over hundreds of years to become the staple polenta corn of the valley….Cornmeal has a pink cast, and makes a polenta with a remarkably rich, complex flavor” (19).
The names alone of many of these varieties are enough to induce vegetable colored daydreams. Imagine being able to tell your gardener friends that you are not just growing garlic, but instead you have German Porcelain, Inchelium Red, and Nootka Rose varieties! And maybe you thought that bibb leaf and looseleaf lettuce were as much variety as you needed, but then when you flip to the lettuce section your mouth starts watering over the Yugoslavian Red Butterhead and the Drunken Woman varieties. Before you know it all of this dreaming leads to another favorite winter-time activity for gardeners everywhere- reimagining garden spaces.
Besides the seed catalogs that start to congregate on my bedside table, I also begin gathering graph paper, pencils and rulers at this time of year. As I think back over what did and didn’t work the previous year, and I drool over all the different plants I want to fit in the following year, I begin to plot out the new shape of my garden. Usually I am trying to squeeze just a little more planting space out of an area, or I am figuring out how to rotate my crops, but this year I am going for even larger revamping. I have drawn out a completely new bed configuration that will (hopefully) provide for greater ease of movement and more bed space. Now, I just need to get out there and move the soil around!
Happy Holidays to you and your garden!
In my little part of the county, winter weather is finally touching down. Just last week we started to drop into the lower 40’s at night and in the mornings everything is often covered with a heavy coat of dew. Rain is beginning to fall with more regularity, and the trees are becoming leafless skeletons against a backdrop of awesome October sunsets.
So, what’s a gardener to do? The soil it often too wet to be worked, and while the summer harvest is definitely over, the winter crops are still too young to bear much besides greens and baby lettuce. Might I suggest that you spend some time discovering a whole new kingdom of delights? May I introduce you to the exciting and colorful world of fungi?
This is the time of year to start learning about mushrooms. I am endlessly enchanted by Mother Nature’s sense of timing. Just when we are beginning to suffer from the ennui of late fall, she sends us something new and altogether different. Along with the first fall rains, mushrooms begin to fruit all across our lovely county. Amongst the eucalyptus stands, in the thick duff of bay and oak forests, and in mixed pine groves, mushrooms are poking their unique heads up from the ground. Most people are hanging up their hats and putting their hiking shoes in the closet at this time of year, but if you can withstand a bit of rain, there is a whole world out there that is just waiting to be discovered. And if you are a gardener, that whole world could be located within the confines of your own backyard.
Raising your own mushrooms is a trend that is spreading quickly amongst the urban homesteading, DIY folks. Fungi-philes order logs, boxes filled with chips, or sawdust that has been inoculated with mushroom spawn, and within a couple of months they often have their own edible mushrooms right at their fingertips. Last year at this time, I decided that I wanted to try growing mushrooms directly in my vegetable garden. From what I could tell, there were a couple of benefits to this idea. First, if it worked I could harvest edible mushrooms along with lettuce, greens, or whatever else I was growing at the time. Second, mushrooms help grow stronger plants. Fungi create large mycelial networks underground that help spread water and nutrients to their fruiting bodies (the actual mushrooms that we see.) Some of these mycelia form partnerships with the roots of plants thereby helping to secure additional nutrients for the plants.
So, I ordered three varieties: Stropharia rugoso-annulata (recently renamed Psilocybe ruguso-annulata), Hypsizygus ulmarius, and Coprinus comatus. Each of these three mushrooms needed a different type of strata. The Coprinus needed compost and manure, the Hypsizygus needed straw, and the Psilocybe needed hardwood chips. I got their respective beds prepared and mixed the mushroom spawn in. I allowed Mother Nature the honor of doing the watering over the winter and spring and then I sat back and waited. Sporadically, I received a few cute Psilocybe babies with their red wine colored caps, but besides that--nothing. I had hoped that this fall and winter I would be getting a lot more, but I suspect I will not. First of all I think that I did not keep the mushroom beds watered enough during the summer. I am really bad at watering things regularly especially when I can’t see that anything is happening (maybe this is why I have such a high seed failure rate!). Also, I realize now that two of my spots get too much sun. In general, mushrooms do best when they are part of an understory with shrubs and tree canopy above. I have very little shade in my yard, and so if I want to grow mushrooms, I will have to design a landscape that provides ample foliage cover. The last factor that I believe has contributed to the failure of my mushroom experiment is my chickens. I love them dearly, but with all of their hunting and scraping, they really disturb the top layer of the soil. Great for weeds and bugs, not so good for mycelial growth which typically happens, you got it, underground.
Nonetheless, it has still been a good year for mushrooms so far. A couple of our mushroom logs in the garage have started fruiting, and I am dreaming of homegrown shitake mushrooms as far as the eye can see. We have also had some luck with foraging mushrooms in the wild. While we haven’t found many chanterelles yet, we have harvested a number of King and Butter Boletes (Boletus edulis and Boletus appendiculatus respectively.) Boletes are commonly dried and known as porcini mushrooms for those of you who enjoy cooking with mushrooms.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoy mushrooms. I encourage you to start paying attention to the entire kingdom below your feet! If you are new to hunting mushrooms, you should be collecting them for identification purposes only, not for consumption. If you are interested in learning how to find edible mushrooms, you should take classes on mushroom identification though places like Merritt College or attend mushroom forays with the Mycological Society of San Francisco. Happy hunting!
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