Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Purple Potatoes

Life is moving fast in the urban potager this week. During a routine morning weeding of the organic vegetable beds, I discovered that I must have left some purple potatoes in the ground when harvesting last year. I have discovered 4 new plants adding to my roster of volunteers for spring training. Now I need to research how to care for them. I've transplanted all four plants to one end of the bed in a deep hole that I will fill in as the plants continue to grow ever upwards. One of these days I want to try the barrel method of planting, where I start them in a deep container, fill in as needed with more growing medium, whether it be dirt or potting mix or both, and merely tip over the container when the potatoes are ready to harvest.

Chew Chew Cherry

Remember the old Kool Aid flavors? Choo Choo Cherry replaced the politically incorrect Chinese Cherry. I'm thinking about renaming my 3in1 cherry tree Chew Chew Cherry, because something is chewing off all the pollinated blossoms and their tiny, green cherries. It's chewing them halfway up the stems, leaving me with evidence that I will not be harvesting a bumper crop this year. That is politically incorrect too, leaving no fruit for the gardener who brought the tree into your habitat. I love the birds and am happy to share the bounty with them, but share is the operative word here! Still, I am providing them with a service and if eating my cherries will get them through another day, I should not complain.

When the blossoms started blooming, I noticed that the branches were lower on the right side of the tree. It worried me that the heavy fruit from last year had permanently lowered the branches, pushing them even closer to the potential for breaking one day, from the weight of the fruit. As the branches are more horizontal, the blossoms open earlier on the right side. The rest of the tree is now blooming 3 weeks later.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Alpine Strawberries

It was a delight to go into the garden and discover that the Alpine strawberries were in good shape after their first winter. The pots need a good weeding and a bit of fertilizer and then they'll be good to go. I'm already looking forward to tasting a few berries this summer. Their taste is headier and more perfume filled than that of a traditional sized strawberry and much more concentrated. I'm also looking forward to the photo of them after their much needed grooming. I wonder if they need to be divided?

Illusions Destroyed

Gardeners by their very natures are risk takers. Not to the level that a farmer is, as no livelihood is at stake, but gardeners risk failure at every planting and this is mine. I planted tulip bulbs too late in the season, December if I remember it correctly. Taking a photo to document the planting, I kept hoping that enough fertilizer (bone meal) and water would make up for the lack of time these bulbs would have to form strong roots. It didn't. I kept telling myself that since these were late season bulbs, they'd have some time to develop, but not enough time evidently as you can see by the spindly flowers that resulted. Our early February heat may have confused their timing.

Blushing Lady is the peach and yellow tulip with pointed petals. It was deformed in an other worldly way and I only hope it can survive until next year. The yellow tulip lasted such a short period of time, I barely remember it, and have completely forgotten its name. No matter, I only planted it because it was packed with the Blushing Lady. They both bloomed in early March ahead of schedule and were met with southerly winds that battered them about. My only saving grace for this bed was the fact that the daffodils were late to bloom and are now making an appearance to help me through this otherwise disappointing experience.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Volunteering, Alive and Well

The Swiss as a nation have had little need of an army in recent history, but Swiss (chard) volunteers have been lining up in the potager for duty all winter long. Especially, now in spring, their ranks have swollen to enormous proportions. I'm going to need more chard recipes this year to keep up with the volume. So far there have been many that needed transplanting to better locations, but others have been left on the borders of the raised beds to hopefully shade the roots of the tomatoes I've been planting. Tomatoes love cool roots so I usually mulch them. Oh, if only a soldier could polish his boots to the shine level of the yellow stemmed Swiss chard in the first photo!

Curiously, there is not a single lettuce volunteer this year...maybe their seeds need more heat to germinate. This is, so far, the only year I have not had hundreds of lettuce starts in the garden and I purposely allow them to go to seed, so I can have more the following year. I do have some radicchio.

I've recently been reading about Ligurian cooking and "bietole" is the term they use for a very thin stemmed Swiss chard. This Verde da Taglio or Erbette (the original seed I purchased was called Erbette) just may be that plant. I hope so as I have decided to make a bietole torta and am looking forward to a recipe for this specific plant. I may also plant a very wide stemmed cultivar called Monstruoso to use in a fried chard stem recipe that also sounds appealing to try.

Pink Daffodils

Nothing says springtime better than a daffodil and since they look far more like coral than pink, I'm jubilant at being able to include them in my little corner of the world. The flower pictured above is Salome, one of the first pink daffodils to hit the market. I have not gotten reliable blooms from them in the ground, so from time to time they get planted in large earthenware pots and I hope for a rebloom the following year. To make sure that has a better chance of happening next year, I'll add bone meal into their containers as soon as the flowers are spent. These little beauties may end up on the table as my Easter centerpiece.

This Coral Bark Japanese Maple is the only non fruit baring tree in the yard. Why? Because it provides another element important for good garden design. Now that I think about it, it provides 2 elements. The first is winter color. When the leaves turn color (yellow) and ultimately fall, the coral bark is quite vivid in color and makes a bright yet subtle contrast against the burgundy colored fence. The leaves are also a good texture with their jagged edged palmate shape, but most importantly, their chartreuse color contrasts nicely with the the blue green foliage of the iris plants and fescue that are planted near the base of the tree.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Color, Texture, and Fragrance

When trying to limit plants for a small garden, one can come up with a far ranging list of specific criteria. My personal choices came down to whether or not I could eat them, then to color, fragrance, and texture. Like a good floral arrangement, a garden benefits from a variety of texture. Sword shaped leaves, round leaves, heart shaped leaves all add to the texture of a garden and are important to juxtapose for contrast; just as important as planting trees, shrubs and flowers for different height. Can you imagine a garden with plants of only one height?

Since my primary reason for the garden was to create an urban potager, all my trees, with the exception of a Japanese maple, are fruit trees. Then came the color selections of coral, apricot or peach, and purple or lavenders. I love these colors together in a bouquet and they work well in the yard. Some of the fruit blossoms are pink, but they are my only concession to that color. They actually keep me from pulling tulips that have reverted to pink, since they both have a short season and manage to blossom together.

Fragrance is the last criteria I use to help limit plant selections for my small garden. If I can't eat a plant, and it is strictly ornamental or does not serve the purpose of enticing bees into the yard, I would always select a fragrant species. All my roses are very fragrant, as is the Wisteria, and lilac. Since San Francisco does not have enough of a cold snap to produce lilacs reliably, I was lucky to find a cultivar developed at Descanso Gardens in Southern California that flowers well in Northern California too. I look forward to its brief flowering each year.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tulip Season...Going, Going, Gone

It seems to me I can always count on the garden for my Easter flowers, so Easter must be late this year as most of the tulips are gone and the few that are coming up were planted too late (January) to be really healthy, in fact they have mutated to other worldly looking blossoms. Because I replant pots each year I'm not even certain of what kind is in the photo above. I was almost certain I planted Apricot Beauty, but this is not typical of that cultivar.
Perhaps the bulbs were mislabeled and the smaller of the 2 in this photo is an Apricot Beauty. I'd be content with a few pots of those, but potted tulips do not rebloom reliably each year. Still the coral color is lovely and I'm happy to have one at least.
This photo is quite beautiful for the color and if I'm not mistaken, looks very much like Apricot Beauty after all. It makes me wonder why these bulbs varied in color this year. Perhaps there is a virus in the pots, since I don't change the potting mix each year. As it happens the beautiful frilly, striped tulips known by the names of Rembrandt Tulips, Parrot Tulips and several other names are actually mutations caused by viruses that are soil borne. If you happen to notice tulips blooming or reblooming with broken colors or jagged edges, then you have a virus. It is advised to pull these tulips or they, in time, can infect other plants.
There are very specific color guidelines in the garden, a way for me to limit what I was buying (anything and everything) and pink is not a color I would readily choose. The tulips in the above photo are a prime example of bulbs that have been affected by a virus. They are called Carmella, and although I love them for reblooming for the past 5 years, it would be oh so nice if they could revert to their apricot pink color of origin. These are hard to find, so I may never get to replant them.


Every time I post a photo of a David Austin rose I say it is a favorite, and that goes for Cressida, a very pale peach colored rose that fades to almost white. The buds are plump and hint at the big blooms to come. The fragrance is one that seems so familiar to me. It reminds me of my grandmother's cold cream, that I never thought of as a rose scent, nor even associated with roses. This is not an easy rose to find, so I am grateful that it has survived in my garden. Ellen, another obscure David Austin rose, is a very deep peach rose that has not done well and this year, it has reverted to rootstock. I'm afraid it will be impossible to replace.

Nepatella...Wild Mint

Last year I was lucky enough to find Nepatella at a local nursery. I had been trying to grow it from seed with little luck. The year before that I had found and planted another one, but the flavor didn't seem minty enough, so I only keep that plant for its foliage. This cultivar is minty enough with a very different flavor that is prized in Italy for culinary use. It is most often paired with artichokes and I plan on combining them this year for the first time. This plant was cut back hard this winter and its progress so far is very satisfactory.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another Tomato Experiment

After years of testing tomato cultivars in my San Francisco garden, I am well aware that cherry tomatoes are the most successful and rewarding type for our climate and foggy summers. But this is yet another attempt to try to grow a beefsteak tomato in this coastal climate. I shutter at the thought of buying plants at "big box" stores because I know full well they often offer plants that are inappropriate to our area. Still, when I saw 2 foot tall tomatoes at Costco, I just had to give them a try. They were selling 3 different varieties for under $10 per 3-pack (a penny under...who's fooling who?). Even though one was Early Girl, a tomato I don't even think is worth buying, I bought a pack for the other 2 types that were included, a beefsteak and Black Krim.

My thought is that if I can plant a tomato this early in the season, that is already that mature, it may be my best shot for a cultivar that usually takes 85 to 90 days to mature. As you can see, they are already too big for my makeshift cloches after 2 weeks, but the weather is starting to warm up and I remain hopeful.

I've Been Robbed!

Wasn't I just delighted beyond belief when I found this strawberry ripening in my very own garden in early March? The answer is yes, indeed! It was a thing of beauty and I couldn't wait for it to ripen fully for that first of the season, heavenly scented, berry to pass through my parted lips into my mouth for a burst of flavor in what still seems like winter weather. Not in the cards. It disappeared, like so many fantasies, when I woke up and noticed it was missing. This strain of strawberry is really working well for San Francisco. It's called Diamonte and grows very large, very healthy plants that die back during winter, but reappear in spring. I'm hoping to find more.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Within what seemed like a short span of time, I lost both my aunt and uncle, my last living relatives in San Francisco. When their house was placed on the market, my cousin asked if I would like to take a few of their orchid plants as a memento. I'm not a big orchid fan, but my connection to these dear people was strong enough to overcome my indifference to cymbidiums. I took a few of them into my garden. With very little care they thrive and multiply as if to thank me for taking them in and helping them to survive. Each year they change just a bit, so I never know what to expect. This year they are particularly beautiful, but reminding me of departed loved ones is what I treasure most about them, as we were all orphaned by our loss. I also grow "flags" an old fashioned, fragrant iris from my mother's garden in Pasadena, and oregano from my grandparent's garden in San Francisco.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Royal Blenheim and Katy Apricots

It's very early March and both apricot trees have bloomed just before we are forecast for heavy rains. As in years past, I hope that they are pollinated before the blossoms get knocked off by rain or heavy winds. Since I'm still eating apricot sauce and jam preserved last year, I suspect that a smaller "crop" will not be such a disaster. The number of blossoms seems fewer this season than last. I have my small muslin bags set aside to test out my theory about sparing the apricots from being foraged by birds and roof rats. This year, after the fruit is set but still green, with just a blush of color, I'm going to cover each one individually. They will be hiding in plain sight from the critters, being able to ripen on the tree. The small draw strings of the bags will be tightened, keeping each fruit from view of hungry beasties who have the audacity to take one bite before going to the next ripe apricot.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Negrita is about as black a tulip as you can get, which means it is really a very deep burgundy color. It's also supposed to reach 18" tall and I'm not complaining when I say that these beauties exceeded that by 2" this Spring. Actually it was still Winter, but all our January and February heat made the bulbs think it was Spring. Since I buy 50 pack bulbs from Costco*, occasionally I plant bulbs that were not necessarily wanted, in order to get 25 of my first choice selection. I don't recall what other bulb accompanied Negrita home, but I'm glad they were paired together, because this one is a keeper and lasted for weeks in the garden. During a particularly blustery day, I cut them down for the house, because they didn't stand a chance outside. In the house they lasted over a week. For mid Spring bulbs, these preemies put on quite a show. They were planted in November, so had some time to develop strong roots. As is my habit, they were stored in the refrigerator for 8 weeks before planting with a tablespoon of bone meal for each bulb. I also stored late Spring tulips that I fear will not do so well, as some were planted in early January. I suspect I will learn a hard lesson this year.

*Although I do not think supporting big box stores is a good idea for gardeners, they do have some seductively low prices on bulbs. I fully support my local nurseries for trees, perennials and vegetable starts (with one exception concerning tomatoes that I will explain in another post). Big box stores bring in plants grown in locations that may not be suited for our climate, so I recommend supporting local nurseries that bring in items you will surely have success in growing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Excellent Timing for Carnival

Just as Lent approached and many cultures embraced and celebrated carnival, this stranger reappeared in my garden. I planted several pots of them a few years ago, but no reappearance the following year made me believe that potted tulips don't get enough cold to rebloom. There is always the consideration that they may also get too much water and rot before being able to strengthen the bulb for the following year's bloom. It would be a wise course to simply dig out the bulbs from the pots each year because they do not necessarily look good popping up from under other plants. In this case the bulb was not near the edge of the pot where the sun would have heated it too much. I also make a point to only plant shallow rooted annuals above any bulbs that may be in pots, although some of them come back a second year, as did some loebilia this year.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Magnolia Denudata

Loving the scent of magnolias, it was a no brainer to plant one in the garden, but which one. There are so many cultivars to choose from that it makes for quit a lengthy decision process. Blossom colors go from the traditional white to yellow, then pink to shades of purple. How does one choose from such a broad selection? Size may be a determining factor, since these plants can grow as small as a bush to very large trees. Ultimately my decision was made by visiting the Arboretum to see what was successfully growing in San Francisco, and at the nursery to find what was locally available. I selected Magnolia Denudata, the Yulan magnolia for its medium sized blossoms and smaller leaves. Grandifloras have very heavy leaves that did not appeal to me and the trees themselves grow much larger than my garden could handle. I knew I wanted it as a patio tree, so the Yulan is an appropriate size, at least for the first 10 years. I cut back the header to hopefully keep it small. We shall see.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ambridge Rose and Medallion

This has been another oddball Winter with a warm February that has thrown the garden into a frenzy of rapid growth, just to be zapped by the cold that is still to come. Case in point, this lovely David Austin Ambridge Rose. This should be blooming in late Spring, but it's jumped the gun and is showing off a fine display now, even though it was pruned back in mid January. The color is a bit off too, appearing more pink than the pale apricot it usually becomes. Below is a photo taken last year of this same rose with its more characteristic apricot color.
Medallion, on the other hand has it's traditional color and was not pruned back this year...mostly because I couldn't get to it through the Bermuda grass! Both roses have lovely fragrance and I look forward to more of them when the weather warms up again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

When Life Hands You a Lemon....

....make lemonade, right? Not this time. It seems my Eureka lemon tree has had a midlife crisis and made a pact with the Devil to become a grapefruit tree. Last Winter I noticed a branch forming at the base of the Eureka on the root stock. Curious about grafted plants, I decided to leave it alone to see what it would do. It became a branch that produced several small grapefruit. Of course, they never developed any sweetness and remained sour due to the lack of heat here in San Francisco. The fruit eventually fell off and I didn't give it another thought. Perhaps that was the time to cut off the rogue branch. Perhaps it was my failure to prune that branch back that gave the root stock the idea it could just take over the entire tree. That's exactly what it did this year. The blooms were profuse this year and I looked forward to a nice crop of lemons, only to notice that the small fruit looked rounder than before and their characteristic pointed end had not yet appeared. Upon taking a closer look, it was obvious that every branch on the tree had reverted back to the grapefruit root stock. The lesson in all this is to cut back suckers. It works for roses, and hopefully for citrus.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What Ever Happened to That Mesclun Mix?

Most of it didn't even get eaten, except by insects, but went to seed. The red mustard and arugula bolted very early on. Part of the duty of every home gardener is to make sure what is sown is nurtured until it meets an untimely death in the kitchen. Sometimes that just doesn't work out, but I did manage to transplant the Russian Kale and it had a chance to overwinter and thrive in the Winter garden along with some Swiss chard. Not wanting to see it escape yet again, I gave some to friends, because if the truth be known, I've never cooked kale before and really don't know what to do with it, beyond adding it to a soup.

Monday, November 17, 2008

No Head for Cauliflower

This was my first attempt at growing cauliflower...an abysmal failure at aesthetics. However, once the leaves and "flower" were chopped and sauteed, it was not the disaster it appears to be. If you're gardening for a small amount of food production, you have to put your pride aside and accept that people are not born with green thumbs, but develop them through trial and error. Since eating is the primary purpose of growing vegetables, this first attempt at cauliflower was a small success. Next year I try for a later planting date since I jumped the gun on this one. The cultivar I chose to grow was Cheddar, a yellow orange cauliflower that is said to have a higher protein level than any other cauliflower. It's probably negligible since cauliflower, along with most vegetables, is packed with carbohydrates. Still, it's pretty (or should be) and I developed a soup recipe for it.
Here is the way Cheddar should look. After posting this originally, I went to Civic Center Farmers' Market (January 2009) and photographed cauliflower that was being offered for sale. Look what I found! Even professional growers can have their cosmetic challenges.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Portrait of Graham Thomas

It's no secret that I love David Austin roses, and own quite a few of his cultivars, but the most surprising attachment I have is to his yellow Graham Thomas. I have always disliked the color yellow; in the garden it reminds me of weeds. Practically every weed on record has yellow flowers...that must signify tenacity in the plant world. Why did I plant it...for sentimental reasons. My husband would bring me single yellow roses every time he saw me when we first met. He loves them and I love him and so I capitulated when he requested that I plant one. Perhaps it was King Alfred daffodils he wanted (he still has to wait on those), but I did plant a yellow flower and it was Graham Thomas.

When I shopped for our very first rose bush, I was told there would be no success with roses of more than 20- 27 petals in San Francisco. I looked at the lesser endowed roses and found very few attractive or even very interesting. Having little experience in the garden, it would seem logical to take professional advice, especially about plants I had never been familiar with growing up. I saw a Graham Thomas and tossed logic aside, bought the plant and placed it where it would get the most sun year round. It flourished and is seen by neighbors several gardens away from mine. This little 3 foot bush grows to 7 feet in San Francisco without much care at all. Every year I gather its honey scented petals to layer with sugar for use in preserves and baking. It's a "honey" alright!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Radicchio Flowers

When I first planted this radicchio from a small 6 pack I found at the nursery, I had great hopes for adding it to salads. By the time I harvested it, it was too bitter even for the most stalwart Italians who cultivate it specifically for the slight bitter bite it offers to salads and soups. I tried pulling them out and decided to forgo the pleasures of this particular plant. Evidently, their roots go all the way to China, because they popped up again this year, even though I had cut the roots down to 6 inches under the dirt. I like the way they emulate a rose in this photo and the speckles of burgundy color lend a cheery element to the lettuce bed, like confetti at a parade.

Not one to hold a grudge, this year I allowed them live and then die naturally in my garden. What I discovered during that process was their lovely blue flower, a rare and welcomed color in the garden. The plant went to seed after my harvesting of several flowers for salad. They offered just a hint of bitterness, that turned out to be an excellent counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the tomatoes; the bonus, unanticipated eye appeal. If they ever bolt faster, I can have a red, white and blue salad for Fourth of July.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Weeds Are Sometimes a Matter of Perception

It never fails to amaze me that many plants we consider pests are actually edible. These dandelion greens were sharing space with my potted Eureka Lemon, and since I know they are perfectly edible, instead of ripping them out when they first appeared, I waited for them to grow. With a little patience and a tolerance for weeds (only if I can eat them) they turned into a nice element in a salad. Miner's lettuce, purslane, dandelions, and mustards are easily available to forage in our city and I intend to use what lands in my garden. Now, if I could only eat Bermuda grass and oxalis..... Here's a photo of my dandelion and lettuce salad with some wild arugula thrown in for good measure. The arugula was originally planted but often seeds in undesirable places. I cut it down to the roots after I am able to harvest some leaves for salads.