3000 words

Since a picture is worth a thousand words…

A few pictures of my garden from earlier this year:IMG_20170508_184833Bottom center are a couple of my potted citrus trees, Oroblanco grapefruit and Moro blood orange. Right behind them are three of my potted figs. All of them have fruit now and it’s surprising to see the variety of colors, shapes and sizes of figs especially if you’re only used to store bought fresh figs which are likely Mission.

The roses are just coming into bloom, the two poppies – red and black Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’ and pink Eschscholzia californica ‘Rose Chiffon’ are in peak bloom, bordered along the front by blue Penstemon heterphyllus ‘Margarita BOP’.IMG_20170614_180432A pillar of pink dipladenia ‘Pretty in Pink’, blooming in shades of pink. The flowers have an unmistakable vanilla fragrance, which does not waft, but it’s there if you inhale deeply enough. Along the front of the picture leaves aglow in the sun is my pomegranate ‘Parfianka’. This tree is surrounded by heavenly smelling Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. The scarlet blossoms of the pomegranate are beautifully framed by the swaying wands of the lavender.IMG_20170508_184845My showpiece flower bed in front of the fountain in a riot of color with butter yellow fragrant Julia Child roses, tall and elegant magenta Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’, a short, inky dark iris ‘Wild Wings’ with velvety black falls, nonstop bloom machine Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Peach’, red geum ‘Blazing Sunset’, another prolific bloomer violet Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’ and tall white Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Amelia’.

The fountain behind the bed works, probably, but after the long, long California drought, we have resisted the temptation to fill it up and turn it on again. For the flowers, I didn’t start with a color palette in mind, which is obvious! I simply bought the plants I liked and made room for them. The beds are full to bursting now and most plants need drastic thinning but I haven’t had the heart nor the energy to do it.


Winter Quietude

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Don’t quite know what brought this poem, one of my favorites, to mind suddenly today. Maybe as I was enjoying the hush of a winter afternoon, I was reminded of a walk I took through a wood a decade ago, three thousand miles away in upstate New York. It had snowed heavily the previous night, and in the early hours of the morning, the snow was soft, pristine, sparkling. For someone like me, unused to snow, it was truly a winter wonderland. I took off for a walk by myself through a wood nearby and was awestruck by the utter silence – no rustling leaves, no snapping twigs, no small animals scurrying away. Even the waterfall waited frozen in place. The only sounds were of my breathing and footfalls sinking into the snow. Since then, I started noticing and appreciating how much quieter everything is in winter. And I have always loved this.

To more prosaic matters – weather in Northern California has been checking off all the right boxes. Adequate rain? Check. (More than adequate, some would say.) Sufficient chilling hours? Check. Respite from days of rain to allow restless, outdoorsy Californians to step out and bask in the sun? Check! I was out today spraying all the freshly pruned roses with lime sulfur. A cup of lime sulfur to a gallon of water. One year I made the mistake of waiting too long to spray and the roses had already leafed out. The result was white spotted leaves for the rest of the season. Short of individually scrubbing each leaf there was no way to get those damned spots out. (Hello Shakespeare!)

I also took the pruners to my relatively newly planted pomegranate. It’s a Parfianka pomegranate, and despite being about 3 ft tall it produced several pomegranates last year. It’s planted in a very visible location, right by the edge of the patio. So while productivity is desirable, a beautiful shape and balanced structure are more so. With some trepidation, I removed several trunks leaving two. I also pruned several of the branches to encourage more lateral branching. Let’s see how that works out.

My love of citrus has brought my count of citrus trees to fourteen, not including the in-ground lemon and mandarin trees. This winter, in a burst of citrus-lust, I bought a Vaniglia Sanguigno blood orange, a New Zealand lemonade, a Kishu seedless mandarin, a Trovita orange and a Rio Red grapefruit, all shipped from Four Winds Nursery. My usual haunts, Orchard Supply Hardware and Dale Hardware were all out of anything interesting.

Moro Blood Orange

My Moro blood orange produced several shockingly berry-red-fleshed fruit this year. I’d read in the GardenWeb forums that blood oranges hold well on the tree so I let them stay really long. The ones that had reached a truly dark red coloration tasted amazing – like an orange with a bit of tartness but also with additional depths of flavor. Some people describe it as berry-tasting. No matter how it’s described, I was really pleased with the flavor.

My Oro Blanco grapefruit produced far too many fruit for a small potted tree. I didn’t notice how many fruit there were on the tree until they had ripened completely. The fruit this year were not quite satisfying – I had a hint of how wonderfully sweet and fragrant they could be, but this was overwhelmed by strong bitterness. Not sure if insufficient heat contributed to this or other cultural issues.

Citrus Harvest Lineup – Oro Blanco grapefruit, Moro blood oranges, Bearss Seedless Limes 

The Bearss seedless lime has been very prolific. It produced more limes than I could possibly consume. We did have lots and lots of guacamole. And a squeeze of lime to a red lentil soup (masoor dal) or any lentil dish, heightens all the other flavors. Highly recommended. Especially for a cold winter afternoon.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Parfianka Pomegranate and Hidcote Lavender

The title of this post is from John Keats’ “To Autumn”.

I grew up on a wholesome diet of romantic English poetry. While mostly forgotten, a line or two often float up unbidden, and so aptly describe my own thoughts, I can do no more than salute the poet.

For a gardener, Spring and Summer is when all the action is – hectic, lengthening days, a near over-abundance of color, and in California especially, brilliant blue skies and intense sun. I enjoy Spring and Summer, but lately I find myself savoring the “mellowness” of Fall more and more.

The air crisp, like a perfectly ripe apple, the sunshine softer, as if through a veil. I especially enjoy the feeling of finally being able to put down my tools – the shovel, the sprayer, the pruner (at least until rose pruning after Christmas) and sacks of fertilizer. This is partly an illusion of course: there are still bulbs to be planted which have been over-ordered, which is par for the course.

This year, I ordered three varieties of fragrant daffodils – Bridal Crown, Geranium and Golden Dawn, fragrant Pink Splendor lilies, indescribable-colored Eye of the Tiger Dutch Irises, and since I’m all about California natives this year, two Brodiaea varieties Queen Fabiola and Californica Babylon. All from John Scheepers. These are going to be my last but one plants to go into the ground this year. I have some seeds to sow as well, mostly California natives again – California poppies, Baby Blue Eyes, Clarkias, from Swallowtail Seeds.

This Fall our fruit trees outdid themselves: our Izu persimmon, now in its second year in our garden, our Garden Delicious (yes, you read that right) apple, Parfianka pomegranate and Black Knight passion fruit all produced generous crops of flavorful fruit.

The Izu persimmon suffered last year from being underwatered and dropped all of its young fruit. This year, I carefully watered the still relatively small tree adequately resulting in perfect, large persimmons. We had to share part of the crop with squirrels/birds/fruit bats/some other nocturnal animal which took bites out of some of the especially delectable looking fruit before I draped the tree with bird netting.

The Black Knight passion fruit was a new addition this year from Raintree Nursery. It’s a Passiflora edulis cultivar with large, egg-shaped, smoky purple-colored fruit. It grew strongly in a 14 inch. pot and produced a lot of flowers, nearly all of which have grown into fruit. The fruit has the most enticing perfume, a mix of guava and mango, with a sweet-tart taste of mango and mandarin.

Black Knight Passionfruit

The Garden Delicious apple, which is a genetically dwarf apple, as opposed to grafted on dwarfing rootstock, is perfect for small home orchards. The fruit is quite small, not the most visually appealing, but quite perfect tasting – a satisfying crunch, a good blend of sweetness and tartness and excellent flavor.

And finally the pomegranate with the exotic moniker of Parfianka. She (well, it has to be a she) was planted from a pot to the ground and rewarded us with about 10 pomegranates. Deciding on the right time to harvest was a challenge; we finally plucked the fruit when we started seeing pomegranates in the farmers market. The fruit is good, and as with any pomegranate, the aftermath of getting the seeds out is rather bloody – we still need to learn how to elegantly manage that.

And so that’s the story of our “mellow fruitfulness”. I’m looking forward to more chilly evenings with mugs of steaming hot chocolate, day dreaming about how next year’s garden is going to be, while enjoying the respite from the work it all entails.

How about you?

Sir Poopalot and Other Animal Tales

This morning as I headed off to work, I saw the cutest sight – a family of squirrels cavorting in a roadside plumbago bush. Until they saw me approach, they seemed quite carefree, the babies playing and nuzzling each other and just being cute.

Squirrel Family
Squirrel Family

This has been a year of an unusually large number of animal encounters. Remember the rhyme “For want of a nail…”? That has been the story in my garden.

California’s drought of epic proportions made for a rough winter for the birds, or at least that’s how I justified their actions. To get a jump on the growing season, I’d sown a few handfuls of fenugreek seeds in February in hopes of heartwarming dishes like chicken with fenugreek stew. The birds ate EVERY single seedling that ever emerged, leaving me with the heartbreaking sight of their neatly nipped nubs.

Being of the live and let live persuasion, I decided the poor birds needed nourishment too and ordered a gigantic (and expensive) bag of black oil sunflower seeds, touted to be the very best. Really, the descriptions were so good, I felt like perhaps I should consume a few. Anyway, the birds largely ignored the sunflower seeds, showing a marked preference for my seedlings along with plum blossoms and the California poppy seeds I’d sown.

The bag of seeds in the meanwhile was discovered by an inquisitive squirrel that tore a hole in the bag. For weeks he feasted on the veritable avalanche of sunflower seeds, chewing the insides and creating a mess of shells everywhere. I’d often find the squirrel sitting brazenly on the bag, working his way through the seeds, and he’d scamper away with a show of great reluctance when we approached. This continued for a while. Live and let live.

One day I came home from work and found the entire garden dug up! Some of the newly planted plants were completely uprooted, mulch was pushed away from the base of the bushes and scattered on the pebble paths. This couldn’t be the work of just birds who occasionally like to dig around a bit in the mulch to look for insects (when they are not nibbling my seedlings obviously). It wasn’t gophers – there weren’t any holes, just the mulch untidily pushed from the base of the plants. I concluded the nighttime marauders were raccoons. I’d never encountered raccoons before and a little bit of reading around indicated that they tend to go to places where there’s accessible food such as open trash cans or (Eureka!) birdseed. So, the raccoons showed up for the seed and decided they needed something a bit meatier to go with it and ripped up the beds in search of bugs.

Of course I quickly got rid of the bag of seeds. I scattered a ridiculously expensive jar of what really amounted to some pepper and garlic powder and covered only about a fifth of the garden AND needed to be repeated every now and then. This worked for a few days. Then I scattered blood meal here and there; raccoons are supposedly repelled by the smell. I can’t speak for the raccoons, but I was certainly repelled. Instead of jasmine, lily and rose, my nose was assaulted by the unmistakable animal smell that pervaded the garden.

Next I bought a Predator Guard – a solar powered plastic board with two flashing red LED lights intended to mimic the eyes of predators. I had high hopes with this. Until the raccoons stopped by, and I imagine laughed amongst themselves, and in a classic show of one-upmanship dug right in front of the Predator Guard, literally under the very nose of supposed predator.

I wondered how someone with the best intentions i.e. me, could end up the hapless victim of so many herbivorous animals. A line I read somewhere stuck – “It’s not personal”. I finally decided to let it go. Oh, I’ll still scatter some red chili powder and blood meal, perhaps soak a few rags in ammonia and scatter them all around, but for now, I’m just going to live and let live. Mostly live.

Oh and if you were wondering who Sir Poopalot (of the title) is – it’s the name my new bunny should be called, but he goes by something a little more cute, if not quite as apt. I’ve started using his pellets (or poop to be clear) in the garden. Results pending.

It’s all Greek to me!

A colleague asked me recently, “Does your garden look like that?” This was like being asked, “Does your body look like Gisele Bundchen’s?” “Uh… no!” Not by a long shot.

Where I work, landscaping companies come over every few months and give our surroundings a complete facelift. Little hills of compost are raked over planting beds and arrays of perfect perennials are planted in precise rows by an army of professionals.

Recently they have started building these beautiful enclosed kitchen gardens in unused spaces – high raised beds of wood or tastefully rusted iron planters surrounding a gravel-laid courtyard, Adirondack chairs, canvas umbrellas, a gurgling fountain, and the most lush, delectable vegetable plants punctuated here and there with a flowering plant in full bloom. Not a single bug-ravaged leaf, snaking hose or seedling pot is ever in evidence. Sitting there is to lose oneself in a warm, languid summer day in a European country of your choice. “That” was one of these gardens.

I don’t know about you, but my gardens never have and likely never will look like that. Our resident snails are indestructible and although I never see them, I have a feeling if I stayed out too long in the evening, I would find pieces of my body missing. I plant seeds, eagerly wait for the seedlings to emerge and the very next day find them mowed down to a pitiful nub.

I work hard on the garden but the proofs are everywhere – our wrought iron chairs jostle bags of compost and poop of different animals that I am usually too tired to put away. Our fountain stayed dry all of last year because of the drought. Seedlings are slowly emerging in extremely uneven rows. Two brilliant green hosepipes proudly declare their existence. It’s not a picture-perfect garden, but its a happy one. Much like my body.

Now, there is one plant that would make any busy/tired/novice gardener look good. Sadly, most people have never heard of it, certainly never seen or tasted it. Still, it is super easy to grow, delicious and nutritious, with an impressive resume of health problems it can cure – from digestive issues to dandruff, and also good for nursing mothers.

So what is this plant? Fenugreek! Botanical name Trigonella foenum-graecum

Fenugreek seeds Image Source: Savory Spice Shop
Fenugreek seeds
Image Source: Savory Spice Shop

Bunches of fenugreek leaves, which look a lot like clover, and the seeds, which are used as a spice, can both be found in Indian grocery stores. The leaves are too pungent to be eaten raw as in a salad, but cooked they have a warm, hearty flavor which enhances anything you might add it to, much like truffles. It plays especially well with spinach; substituting a third of the normal quantity of spinach with fenugreek leaves in a soup or a casserole will kick its taste up several notches.

Fenugreek leaves Image Source:
Fenugreek leaves
Image Source: Come For What

I first grew it when a kindly relative sprinkled a handful of seeds over my spent tulip bed. Within weeks, I had a lovely green bed of fenugreek that I harvested for weeks, since it doesn’t bolt easily. I have been growing fenugreek in my garden every year since. Germination rate is very good, irrespective of weather, snails for the most part leave it alone, and especially important for us Californians, it is quite drought tolerant. An all-round super-plant.