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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Under Attack

It NEVER ends – snails, slugs, earwigs, aphids, mites, spittle bugs, leafminers, powdery mildew, sooty mildew … I’ve fought against all of these and then some this year alone. Some battles were lost, some won, all are eternal. Since no one ever posts pictures of this sort of ugliness in their gardens, I often feel like a lonely warrior fighting a losing war.

I’ve been having a serious problem with snails/slugs and earwigs lately. I sprinkled the beds liberally with Sluggo, only to find them mysteriously gone in a couple days. We have birds in the garden constantly, and I suspect the birds have been eating the Sluggo pellets. They don’t seem worse off for it. The snails and slugs, in the meanwhile, are carrying on undeterred. Yesterday, I bought a bag of diatomaceous earth and liberally dusted the leaves of the especially delectable plants. Diatomaceous earth is supposed to be effective only for a day or two and loses effectiveness when wet. We are having a few dry, sunny, warm days in the Bay Area so I thought this might be a good time to inflict death by a thousand cuts. I handled the diatomaceous earth with bare hands, it felt exactly like flour but caused a slight irritation later. I have a nice night blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, that I recently pruned to a rounded bush shape and all of the fresh, bright green growth has been savagely chewed up. I can’t imagine snails crawling 3 ft. up to get to the leaves at night, but haven’t noticed any caterpillars either. So I don’t know what’s been causing the damage.

Chewed leaves on Night Blooming Jasmine
Chewed leaves on Night Blooming Jasmine, dusted with diatomaceous earth

I planted a few Shasta daisy, Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Amelia’ plants in late summer. They grew vigorously, forming tight, big rosettes of leaves. Right now the leaves look like someone went crazy on them with a paper punch – earwig damage. There are other perennials planted very closely with the Shasta daisies that are (relatively) untouched, clearly showing that the earwigs have a distinct preference for this particular plant. I don’t know about you, but I find earwigs especially frightening, they look vicious. Earwig damage is distinctive – small, round holes chewed through leaves and flowers. They can usually be found hiding very close to the damage. I’ve been known to spray them with jets of insecticidal soap and watch them perish with great satisfaction. One of the wins.

Meanwhile, our mature and productive clementine tree has a nasty case of sooty mold. Since the mold can be found growing on the “honeydew” secretions of aphids, mites or mealybugs, I quickly found the culprits underneath some of the leaves. It was an ugly sight. I don’t know which one of the bugs they were – some kind of fuzzy, white bugs. I crawled under the tree, since it’s a dwarf, and sprayed an entire bottle of insecticidal soap up onto the undersides of the leaves. I haven’t crawled back since to see if it helped.

Citrus Leaf Miner damage to top leaves of clementine tree
Citrus Leaf Miner damage to top leaves of clementine tree
Sooty mold on citrus leaves
Sooty mold on citrus leaves

And finally, I discovered today that my Arabian Jasmine Jasminum sambac ‘Mysore Mulli’ seems to be under attack from spider mites. Arrrgh! I sprayed the leaves quite thoroughly with water since they apparently don’t like moist conditions. If that doesn’t help, I’ll be whipping out the insecticidal soap – homemade this time using Dr. Bronner’s castile soap.

All of this has been in the last few weeks alone. Since I practice mostly organic fertilizing and pesticide practices, success is usually hard won, but longer lived. I feel good about that.

However, along with all this there is the good stuff too – the last few roses of the year, buds on the blueberry bushes, embryonic figs. Hope for the new year!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

Hope in the form of blueberry flowers
Hope in the form of blueberry flowers

A Fruitful Year

Visitors to my garden from other places are most enamored with the sight of perfectly ripe fruit hanging delectably within reach, a common sight in Bay Area backyards in the older neighborhoods. We already had a mature large lemon tree (variety unknown) and a dwarf clementine tree in our backyard when we moved in. We have since added one each of a plum, Garden Delicious apple, Lapins cherry and Elberta peach trees, all dwarf or semi-dwarf self-fruitful varieties.

This year I got bitten by a fruit tree (and bush and vine) collecting bug and acquired fruit trees that push the limitations of our 9B hardiness zone in both directions. From chill loving blueberries to tropical sapodillas.

To keep the tropicals alive, I bought a collapsible greenhouse, really a clear plastic tent, held down on our concrete walkway by bricks. On the nicer sunny days, the inside of the greenhouse is exactly like Hawaii – sunny, warm (feels like 85 degrees F) and humid. Very favorable conditions for tropicals, and as it turns out, fungus.

The new trees this year that were planted in the ground – Izu persimmon, Shinseiki Asian pear and Flame red seedless grape were purchased from God’s Little Acre Nursery in San Jose. The others, which all are and will probably continue to be in containers –  blueberries, figs, slightly unusual citrus, tropical fruits such as guava, lychee, sugar apple, sapodillas and Surinam cherry, and pomegranates (to be shipped in Spring 2015), and some newly sown papaya seeds.

Choosing and ordering the varieties and vendors involved intensive research, sizable chunks of money and lots of hope. I am amazed at the wealth of knowledge among members of the amateur gardening community and their generosity in sharing it. Impressive also are the efforts of gardeners in far less favorable conditions that mine, growing and consuming fruit from their container grown tropical trees.

The Violette de Bordeaux fig that came in January this year, and was no more than a tiny twig with a couple of leaves, grew vigorously and produced a couple of small but sweet figs, with several more on the way. The kiwis on the other hand were attacked so viciously by bugs, that they failed to thrive and eventually I had to pull them out.

You win some, you lose some.

New Fruit Trees

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

I had the day off today and spent a good part of it puttering about in the garden. The garden is just coming to life again – shoots from bulbs are poking their conical tips out of the ground, the honeysuckle I worried was dead has buds slowly opening into tiny green leaves, and the stone fruit trees have fattening buds which will soon open into beautiful blossoms.

New leaves on honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum var. serotina Florida
New leaves on honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum var. serotina Florida

I bought a few fruit trees from Hirt’s recently – a female and male pair of kiwis and a fig. They were cheap, $25.57 for all three with shipping,  packaged well and shipped fast.  The kiwis, with friendly monikers Anna and Meader, are the smooth-skinned, small-sized Actinidia arguta variety and are supposedly easy to grow, and Anna apparently produces intense-flavored fruit. I’ll have to wait awhile to find out since the plants are yet mere babies and it might be 10 years before they produce fruit.

New fruit trees - Kiwi pair and fig
New fruit trees – Pair of kiwis Actinidia arguta Anna and Meader (middle and right), and Violette de Bordeaux fig

The nice thing about buying plants cheap is that you’re not afraid to experiment with them. I saw this picture on Margaret Roach’s excellent gardening blog, ‘A Way to Garden’, of espaliered kiwis and am very inclined to try it.

Espaliered kiwis Source: A Way to Garden
Espaliered kiwis
Source: A Way to Garden

And then there’s the more interesting aspect of watching your plant grow, not unlike bringing up a child. When it matures and starts producing fruit, it’s nice if you’re still around to harvest the first fruit, if not, your legacy will be enjoyed by someone else. There is a young citrus on our lot which for the first couple of years was a mystery. We knew it was a lime from a half-faded tag which said ‘   Lime’. Then it started producing strongly fragrant, extremely weird and wrinkly-skinned limes – Kaffir limes they turned out, best known as an ingredient in Thai food to add their characteristic aroma to soups and curries.

So, back to the new arrivals. They have been potted up in planting mix, with some handfuls of chicken manure and earthworm castings thrown in and watered with a diluted solution of Superthrive (1/4th teaspoon per gallon of water). For the last two years, I have been potting up plants in potting soil, until I watched this Container Gardening 101! video by Annie Hayes of Annie’s Annuals, where she says that potting soil is primarily for indoor plants, and outdoor plants should be planted in good quality planting mix. Now, if you’ve been following my blog, you know I keep going back to Annie’s for most of my fun flower purchases. And her annual beds are so swoon-worthy, I’m ready to trust her quite blindly! As for Superthrive, it’s one of those things where unless you’ve done a controlled experiment, it’s hard to know if it’s a miracle drug or a fantastic example of marketing success. I justify my purchases of Superthrive with the thought “It can’t hurt” and keep giving my plants expensive water.

The only figs I ever ate growing up were the dried ones which came as part of a dry-fruits-and-nuts gift box usually exchanged during the Indian festival of Diwali. On my evening walks here, I came across a fig tree in our neighborhood, with fruit-laden branches tantalizingly at eye-level. I bought some figs and loved them fresh, so I bought a Violette de Bordeaux, touted to be the best-tasting variety. They fruit well in pots and I’m all out of space so Violette’s going to have a contained life.

With the fig and kiwis, and the passionflowers which will ship in spring, I am now up to 12 different varieties of fruit in the backyard!