Gardening and the senses

Why write a gardening blog when gardening is so much about all five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste – think dark purple plums with the dichotomy of their tart skin and juicy, sweet flesh. We are just wrapping up plum season and getting impatient for peaches.

Google does this amazing thing where it sends a collage of selected images from this day several years ago. It recently sent me pictures taken in the garden six years ago. We had just moved in and hadn’t gotten to working on the outdoors yet. It was interesting to see how much the garden has changed, grown, or overgrown as my husband would insist, in just six years.

While the pictures help recollect what the garden looked like for a moment in time, the memories of what the garden felt like are forgotten. I can now only imagine what must have been my great delight when I saw and smelled for the first time the rose borders in their peak May bloom. Or discovered the perfection that are our mandarins once I had figured out the right time to pick them.

The mandarins on our tree start looking perfectly ripe long before they attain a corresponding perfection in taste. I couldn’t resist having a mandarin straight off the tree first thing in the morning as they glowed enticingly in the crisp spring sunshine. But what a shattering disappointment – they tasted terrible! My frantic search for the fertilizer, supplement, soil test or other magic elixir that would make my mandarins taste as good as they looked was a definite indicator of my growing obsession, but no one was paying attention.

I discovered that a chemical in toothpaste, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), makes orange juice taste bitter if you have it right after brushing your teeth, which is what I was doing with the mandarins. And that if you have enough fruit to spare, then tasting a mandarin every week to critically judge whether it’s time is good practice. And once the time has arrived, then oh joy! Baskets and baskets of fruit to be picked, and happily and proudly shared with neighbors and friends.

I often wonder how long we will live in this house. The owners before us stayed 7 years and we are approaching that mark. If we ever do move out, this blog and its sporadic entries will serve as a diary of my thoughts and experiences as I slowly built up the garden and made it what it is today.

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?

Ripe – An Inspiration

The book recommendation algorithm at our library is surprisingly good; recognizing my interest in edible gardening, in particular fruit, it suggested “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard” by Nigel Slater. If I were to ever write a book that combines my three loves of gardening, cooking + baking and photography, this is the kind of book I hope it would be. The prose is as delicious as the recipes, the photography rustic yet elegant.

Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater. Image Courtesy:
Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater Image Source: Eat the Love

Apples “… their skins a tapestry of moss green, sage and amber, their flesh crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character.”

and “The trees will be loved too, for their lichen-encrusted branches, tissue-frail blossom, and quiet benevolence.”

Side note: I have ordered my hardcover copy, this is a book to be lovingly held and lingered over.

There are no pictures in the book of shapely, perfectly colored apples tumbling out of artfully arranged baskets. Instead they suggest that the author just stepped into his garden and lovingly captured images of his harvest, endearingly ugly in a jumble of colors and sizes. For me this is especially heartening. You see, I have a 3 year old Garden Delicious (yes Garden, not Golden) apple tree. This is a genetic dwarf, developed by Zaiger’s Genetics of Modesto, California. The tree has only produced a grand total of 8 apples in the two years we have had it. The apples have been rather unattractive – small, green and yellow striped, with just a touch of red and somewhat lopsided. The flesh however was surprisingly good, “crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character”. I used to worry about how the fruit looked, being so used to the waxed perfection of grocery store apples. However, after reading about apples described with so much love, and all the delights you can make with them, I am happy to brush aside such concerns.

Cherries “bring with them a certain frivolity, a carefree joy like hearing the far-off laughter of a child at play.”

And when reading of a cherry pie “with soft sugar-dusted pastry and a river of unpasteurized cream running slowly over its warm crust” who can help being impatient for cherry season to arrive so you can bake such wonders.

Figs, blueberries, pears et al have been treated with the same love, respect and awe. The meat and fruit recipes, to be honest, I will probably not attempt, particularly the ones calling for pheasant, guinea fowl or rabbit. The dessert recipes are all tempting and simple.

In the meanwhile, the clementines in my backyard are ripening nicely. Every day their color seems to be a shade more orange. Last year, I started picking and eating the clementines in early January when they looked perfectly ripe and tempting. However, they all tasted bitter. After some frantic Internet research, I learned two things – one, don’t have citrus fruit immediately after brushing your teeth, a mouth freshly rinsed of toothpaste and citrus juices don’t combine well. Two, even when appearing to be perfectly ripe and coming off the tree easily, citrus fruit continue to increase in sugar content over time. So a few weeks later, the fruit had ripened properly to the sweetness and wonderful flavor I associate with our backyard clementines.

Ripening Clementines
Ripening Clementines

My potted Violette de Bordeaux fig, which I bought as a tiny twig last year with a couple of leaves, outgrew the pot it was in and now has 10 or more figs on it. It has been in my plastic greenhouse most of the fall and I intend to keep it there through the winter. Also, I got carried away and now have 5 more figs in pots or scheduled to arrive in the spring – Petit Negri, Celeste, LSU Purple, Peter’s Honey and Mary Lane. All of them I chose for a diversity of flavor and texture e.g. Mary Lane is also called Jelly fig, because it is seedless, Peter’s Honey figs are supposed to be as sweet as honey, and so on.

Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse

Among the flowers, Clematis Niobe has produced a huge off-season bloom. Winter-blooming jasmine is starting to form tiny buds. We have it growing around one of the supporting posts of our patio, and for a far too brief period in late winter, it perfumes the entire patio with its delicate fragrance. Hyacinth shoots are just beginning to poke their heads out of the ground.

Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Winter blooming Jasmine Jasminum Polyanthum in bloom last year
Winter blooming jasmine Jasminum polyanthum in bloom last year

The brisk air and mellow sunlight of winter is lovely, but I am impatient for longer days and for the garden to be bursting into life again.

A Seedy Story

I grew up reading about strawberries and cream, a delectable treat reserved for super special occasions. Enid Blyton, of course, could make boiled eggs sound grand, but the tantalizing descriptions of strawberries and cream stayed with me over the years.

Never having seen, much less tasted an actual strawberry before I came to the United States, imagine the shattering disappointment of first trying a store-bought strawberry – under-ripe, extra-large, and sort of … just bland.

Recently, I chanced upon alpine strawberries online. In my quest for the perfect dish of strawberries and cream, and again led along by luscious descriptions, I bought packets of red and white alpine strawberry seeds from The Strawberry Store.

Here’s what I gleaned:

1. Alpine strawberries are naturally much smaller than their store-bought cousins. But also more delicious, with a real strawberry taste – along with essences of rose and pineapple. Who could resist that?

2. Alpine strawberries are cultivated strains of wild or woodland strawberries and at one time were the only type of strawberries people ate. Enid Blyton was clearly writing about these.

3. They can be grown from seed, although this can be a frustrating experience. Also, seeds need to be preconditioned by keeping at freezing temperatures for 3-4 weeks.

The collection of red varieties I bought included Mignonette, Alexandria, Regina and Ruegen, and the yellow/white varieties included Yellow Wonder, White Soul, White Solemacher and Pineapple Crush.

The seeds are extremely small and light as you might expect. I prepared an 8×9 cell seedling tray with a sphagnum peat moss and perlite growing medium (Black Gold Seedling Mix), moistened slightly. I sprinkled the seeds, 2-6 in each cell. The instructions on the packets suggest germination is best at temperatures of 65-75 F, growing medium kept moist at all times and that light aids germination. Our home is kept between 65 and 70 F at all times, the seedling tray is placed in front of a bright window and since I won’t be able to help checking on the seeds everyday, I plan to mist the medium when I see it drying out. Germination can take anywhere from 7 days to a month or longer.

Alpine strawberry seeds, red and white varieties, in seedling mix.
Alpine strawberry seeds, red and white varieties, in seedling mix.

The hope is that by the time spring rolls around, I’ll have a few sturdy seedlings to plant outside for a steady supply of authentic strawberries year-round.

Continuing my quest for home-grown tropical fruit I also started Hawaiian papaya seeds yesterday. The three varieties I planted are Red Lady, Hawaiian Solo Sunrise and Hawaiian Solo Sunset from Aloha Seed. The Solo varieties bear single-serving sized pear-shaped fruit early on and Red Lady is a medium sized F1 hybrid, which also bears early.

Papayas need warmth to germinate and do not like root disturbance. Most mail order stores shipping papaya plants caution about this. I planted two seeds each in 4 inch pots filled with the same seed starting mix, all pots placed on a heating pad, which delivers a nice, steady warmth. I covered the pots with Press’n Seal wrap to maintain humidity. Germination takes 1 to 2 weeks.

Papaya seeds on heating mat
Papaya seeds on heating mat

So, this is where I am at – dreaming of a perfect bowl of strawberries and cream (or, vanilla custard with a few strawberries on top) and backyard-ripened papaya with a dash of lime, and pots of seedling mixes, seeds and hope crowding my dining table!

Week Three: Frost and the Guava Tree predicts frost tonight for all of the San Francisco Bay Area. When I checked on the garden this morning, some of my less hardy plants were showing signs of distress already from the cold: the leaves of the magnificent Charles Grimaldi brugmansia were droopy; its pendulous, trumpet-shaped flowers collapsing inwards, as if huddling for protection. My guava tree, which I kept potted so it could be moved to the garage when the worst of winter weather arrived, has its leaves turning purple. I don’t know if either of these plants will survive and flower and fruit next year.

I bought a frost protecting sheet from Dale Hardware just in time; but the cold has kept me indoors. I’ll have to brave the chill and give the poor guava a blanket; it was a gift for my husband who loves guavas. Guava trees are hard to find, even here in zone 9b. So, when I found some healthy trees being sold by Lowe’s at reasonable rates, I quickly picked one up. It didn’t flower at all this year, though it grew well. Our neighbor has a mature guava tree which doesn’t seem to be much affected by the cold. Although, since I have never seen it produce any fruit, I can’t be certain.

I have two potted unnamed tropical hibiscus and the amazingly colored ‘Spin the Bottle’ hibiscus in the ground, all of which turned to black mush by spring this year. I pruned the branches that were obviously damaged; for the rest, I scraped the woody surface until I found firm, healthy green tissue underneath and pruned back all the damaged parts above this point. Both the potted hibiscus recovered well, bloomed all through summer and most of the fall. ‘Spin the Bottle’ didn’t fare too well – it produced very little new growth, leaves stayed pale green and there was just one measly bloom. If it loses too much tissue this year, I’ll have to get rid of it. It’s situated in prime real estate surrounded by dahlias that grew to be as tall as me! I think a stand of ‘Tropicanna’ cannas would complement the dahlias beautifully!