An Alameda Garden: 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Another Change of Season

Today's the day when when we have the chance to change the season with no help at all from nature. The calendar may say it's autumn, but it feels more like the end of a long, dark winter. Be your own equinox. Please, vote.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Here Comes the Rain

We're having the first real storm in quite a while, and while I'm happy to be relieved of watering duties for the next few days, all I can think about is all the gardening tasks I haven't finished.

In the front yard, I still have quite a bit of weeding left to do, as well as laying down new mulch. The huge camellia at the side of the house still badly needs pruning. I was hoping to wimp out and hire someone to do that, but now I feel the need to be a frugal gardener, so I'll have to tackle that myself.

In the back yard, well ... oh ... my ... god! Where to start? More weeding, more mulch-laying. I need to move a rosa rugosa and a Mexican Limelights salvia, and I still need to get a few other plants I bought a while back in the ground. I've got bulbs to put in as well. Plus pruning the passion flower and jasmine vines, and relocating the clematis.

Unlike in other regions, in my Zone 9/10 garden there is no such thing as putting the garden to bed for the winter. Gardening is a year-round thing here, but I confess that I don't much enjoy it in the cold and wet. So I need to at least get things cleaned up and prepped for a bit of gardener goof-off time so that I don't have to face an even bigger mess in the spring.

From the way I'm grousing about my to-do list, you'd think I had a manor estate to look after instead of just a tiny city lot. But it's feeling a bit daunting right now because I never seem to be able to get my vision of what my garden could be to match what I'm actually able to accomplish. As small as my garden is, it could look terrific if I can ever get the vision to be borne out in leaf and flower. Eventually, I think I will. But the waiting is terrible and humbling and frustrating.

So while I wait out the rain, I make more plans and perfect the vision. The grunt work will have to happen another day.

Photo credit:

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fuchsia Madness

I hate to be asked what my favorite flower is, something I think is almost as bad as asking a parent which is their favorite child. But if forced, one of the top contenders on my list would have to be fuchsias. I can't say they are trouble-free. Some of mine have had issues when they've been transplanted, or they've been intolerant on the rare (but seemingly increasing) occasions when we have frost here. But for the most part, once they've settled comfortably into their pots, they bloom exuberantly and repeatedly, stay mostly pest-free, and seldom complain about much of anything. I currently have seven pots of fuchsias on my deck and expect to add many more over time.

One in particular has kept me in suspense, however. A year and a half ago I bought three small fuchsias in two-inch pots at the SF Flower & Garden Show. Two of them did great right away, filling out nicely and producing petite pink and white flowers on one, and purple and red flowers on the other. But the third, called Blue Satin, went code blue on me a couple of times and has had to be nursed back to health. In the last few months, it's finally seemed to gain a bit of vigor and I've waited almost patiently to see what its blooms would look like. The tag said that the sepals would be a bright white and the corolla would be indigo blue--but would it really be blue, or just another shade of purple as so often turns out to be the case with flowers that are advertised as blue? Today I got my answer:

It's gorgeous, totally worth the wait--but not blue! Ah, well. The quest continues.

And not to play favorites, here's a glimpse of a few of my other fuchsias that are presently in bloom:

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Friday, August 22, 2008


My garden (actually both gardens--front and back) look like crap right now. That's all. I just felt the need to get that off my chest.
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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Giving Ethel Gloves a Workout--Plus a 10% Discount for Readers

I've never been a fan of work gear that's been "prettified" in order to appeal to women. Whoever it was who decided that women would do more home improvement jobs if only they had a powder pink tool kit should be hit over the head with a pretty pink hammer. Too often product designers decide to go for "the pretty" at the expense of functionality--not a good trade-off for any kind of tool or gear you depend on to help you get a job done.

So it should be no surprise that I was skeptical about the new line of Ethel Gloves. These gloves are definitely pretty, in a variety of colors and patterns ranging from a hounds-tooth check to a fleur-de-lis print. But after a week or so of gardening in them, I have to admit that they're more than just pretty.

To start with, they fit really well. Having small hands, I'd resigned myself to the idea that if I wanted sturdy work gloves, I'd have to settle for something that was always at least a little too big. The small size Ethel Gloves fit me perfectly with just enough give in the stretchy fabric to make me almost forget that I'm wearing them. I also liked that in spite of the snug fit, the fabric seemed breathable enough that they didn't make my hands sweat.

The reinforced and rubberized fingertips seem sturdy but aren't so thick that they leave you fumbling around. I was still able to get a really good grip on whatever I needed--tools or weeds or even delicate seedlings. I haven't tried using them around anything really thorny yet and I suspect they might not be sturdy enough to prevent piercing by your average rosebush.

Last but not least, the gloves clean up well. I've had other gloves that were not washable and very quickly ended up looking like some crusty old thing that had been excavated from an archaeological dig. Ethel Gloves are machine washable, however, and they didn't shrink in the wash either. As you can see in the photo at the right, they came out with a few sap spots still showing, but otherwise as good as new.

All in all, these gloves work well for me. If you'd like to give them a try, the people at Ethel Gloves are offering a 10% discount off the usual retail price of $18 for readers of An Alameda Garden. (When you place your order at, enter the discount code "Alameda." Offer good til 8/24/08.)

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Ones That Got Away

Every time I grow zucchini, I make the same mistake. I turn my back for a couple days and this happens:

Will I never learn?

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

My Other Car Is a Garden Cart

A while back the nice people at TroyBilt offered me the opportunity to review one of their products. They have an extensive line of power equipment for the outdoors, everything from mowers to tractors to snow throwers. Given the size of my property and the fact that snow is just an urban legend around here, I didn't think I'd find anything that I could really use and report on. But then I saw it on their web site--a beautiful red garden cart--and it was love at first sight.

To understand why I'd be so turned on by a garden cart, you have to consider that as a single person, I do an awful lot of solo schlepping. Piles of mulch, bags of potting soil, who knows how many big, heavy terracotta pots--I've lugged it all, and I have the chiropractor bills to prove it. I should have invested in a wheelbarrow years ago, but whenever it came down to spending the money on plants or a wheelbarrow, the plants won.

But following my request to TroyBilt, the cart arrived via UPS in a very large, flat cardboard box. There's a slight catch--assembly required. It's not too awful to put it together, although I did have to call the manufacturer (Agri-Fab) to send some screws that were missing, and there were also a couple of extraneous holes in the side assemblies, which I can only assume were put there to confuse me (it worked).

However, now that I've got the thing assembled, love is in the air again--and on wheels! It rides very smoothly and moves easily over mulch, concrete edges, and stepping stones. The product specs state that it will hold 300 lbs., and I believe it. It feels quite sturdy. It has two wheels and two legs, so it's much more stable than a wheelbarrow, but it still has the pouring ability of a wheelbarrow because the front end slides up and out, making it easy to dump loads of mulch or compost. It even has four slots on the front end to hold garden tools.

I'm very happy with this garden cart and if you think you could love one to, hurry over to Garden Rant, where they are holding a giveaway for five (5!) of these beauties. That's no small swag--these garden carts retail for $149.99. But don't wait because you have to enter by Monday, 7/7 at 5pm EST.

Selfish as it may seem, I'm keeping mine--first, because I really like it and it's a huge relief to my aching back, and second, because if the price of gas goes up much more I may have to hitch the cats up to it and leave my Beetle in the driveway.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy 4th of July from Alameda

Alameda is a bit of an anachronism in a number ways, but never as much as on the 4th of July. Alameda is about the only town left in the bay area that has a 4th of July parade and Alamedans seem determined to make up for all the other communities that sit out the holiday. The tradition that came of age here when Alameda was still a Navy town has grown and evolved into an event that strives to be both patriotic and at least somewhat relevant. Hence, this year's parade theme: "Clean and Green."

I have no parade pictures to post because, alas, I did not attend. (Horrible confession that reveals a questionable part of my personality: I hate a parade!) But the SF Chronicle has a nice write-up and it's worth checking out if for no other reason than that it features a picture of a woman dressed up as a compost bin. (And you were wondering how I was going to tie this in to gardening, weren't you?)
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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Farewell, Tasha Tudor

It's hard to tell how much the world will slow down to notice that a woman who felt no need to move with the times is no longer with us. Tasha Tudor, author, illustrator, gardener, mother, maker of dolls and dollhouses, and a women who just seemed to have the inside track on how to live a wonderful life with very little, died yesterday at the age of 92. The LA Times has a wonderful obit that fills in some interesting details of her life, but the most telling detail is in this quote from Tudor herself:
"I believe in moderation in all things, except gardening and antique collecting."
I wish I could have known her. I bet I would have learned a lot.

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Water Rationing

We got the word a month or so ago that EBMUD, our water utility district, was instituting emergency mandatory water rationing. Single-family homeowners were asked to reduce their water usage by 19%. Today an article in the SF Chronicle reports that water usage has only dropped by 4%, not the 15% overall drop that EBMUD was looking for. The article reports that there is a conspicuous lack of brown lawns in the bay area, indicating that perhaps people are not really making a full effort. (And keep in mind that this is the very environmentally-conscious San Francisco bay area we're talking about!)

It's hard to say why people might not be taking the call to conserve seriously. When the mandate from EBMUD was first issued, the Chronicle reported some people saying things like, "I'm not giving up my pool!" and indicating that they would probably just go ahead and pay whatever penalties they get charged with. I've heard of people in some of the posher areas of the east bay having water bills as high as $1000 (before water rationing or any penalties--that's just their regular usage). My water bill is typically about $52 every two months. A few times it's gone as high as $60. My usage runs from a low of 47 gallons/day on average during this year's rainy season, to a high of 84 gallons/day during last year's dry season. A 19% reduction would mean I'd have to bring my average daily usage during this dry season down to 68 gallons--not impossible, but challenging. But I have to say it annoys me to no end that I should have to scramble to cut back another 16 gallons when there are so many water-hogs who just can't be bothered with cutbacks at all.

Last year I smothered the front lawn and put in mostly drought-tolerant plants. I mulched and I've cut back watering to about every three days--about the most I can cut back given my sandy soil without plants really suffering. In the back, which is also lawnless, I hand-water about every three days, and for those plants that need a little extra (tomatoes, roses, and new seedlings) I collect water from the kitchen sink and bathroom to provide an extra dose. It will be interesting when I get my next water bill to see if this has had any impact at all.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bloom Day

Just a few shots from the garden:


Snail vine

Last of the sweet peas

Pumpkin in the vegetable garden

Baby zucchini


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Saturday, May 24, 2008

A New Look for An Alameda Garden

If you dropped by this site in the last few days, you may have caught this blog in the middle of a major redesign. What can I say? It was time for a change and I was lucky enough to catch a web designer friend with a little time to spare. Thank you, Mareev!

There are still a few changes to come, but the new look is now pretty much in place. Let me know what you think!

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Where Organic Gardening and Meditation Meet

Don't miss the New York Times article today about Wendy Johnson, one of the founders of the organic garden and farm project at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center across the bay near Muir Beach. Johnson is one of the pioneers of organic gardening in the U.S. as well as a Buddhist meditation teacher. As the article points out, long before Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver wrote about mindful eating and growing and the relationship between the two, Johnson was living it, growing organic produce for the famous Greens restaurant in San Francisco. I've just received a copy of her new book, Gardening at the Dragon's Gate, and will be reviewing it here next week.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Wrapping Up Propagation Month

After taking a couple days off from the trials and tribulations of trying to propagate something different every day, I thought I'd post some conclusions I've come to:
  1. Of all the different seed-growing methods I tried, one stood out as a clear favorite. If you're going to plant anywhere but directly in the ground, then soil blocks are definitely the way to go. Jiffy plugs suck. They really do. Forget about them. And sowing in flats is convenient for storing on a greenhouse shelf, but it makes transplanting the seedlings more time-consuming and traumatic for all the little roots. Seed blocks on the other hand make transplanting a breeze, plus you can control the soil mix, plus you don't have to worry about having a bunch of little pots or cell-packs laying around. More control, less stuff, happy seedlings. What's not to like?
  2. It really does seem that just about all of my seed-starting adventures would have been greatly helped if I'd had a heating mat or two. Heat can really make seeds pop.
  3. Those gel-rooting cups I tried to root salvia and catmint cuttings in? Don't waste your money. Every one of the cuttings got funky, and even though the package says you can just take out a cutting that isn't rooting and put in a new one, there's no point in putting a fresh cutting into what's supposed to be a sterile gel when it's obviously contaminated.
  4. Actually, I had a hard time with almost all of the cuttings I tried to root and I think the problem is that they just weren't staying hydrated enough. It's just so much easier to root cuttings with a mist house. I did some searching on the Internet and found a couple of sites describing small mist houses that people built for under $100 using a set of shelves, some plastic sheeting, and some inexpensive misters and a timer. I'd like to try putting something like that together one of these days.
  5. There are a couple things I didn't get around to doing that I still hope to get done. One is to air-layer the camellia at the side of my house (or maybe the really pretty white one at my friend Mark's house). The other is to do some budding on my cherry tree.
  6. Lastly, I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing all this propagating and I look forward to doing it again next year.
I'm afraid that May, however, will have to be Weeding Month. That I'm not looking forward to.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Propagation Month, Day 30: Rooting Sedum Cuttings

Something I hadn't gotten around to trying in all my propagation adventures is succulents, although I've heard they can be pretty easy to do. The basic process is to remove an offset or a leaf, leave it in the open air for a few days to callus over, and then place it to root on a well-draining medium. When I was at the IPPS conference last year I even heard a speaker talk about rooting sedums for green roofs by just chopping up a bunch of plants, sprinkling the pieces over a layer of soil and then, once they had rooted, they could roll it all up like sod and transplant it.

Working on a much smaller scale than that, I pulled off a handful of little "beans" from my Pork & Beans sedum plants to try rooting them. I left them to callus for about five days, then today I potted them up in a 50/50 mix of perlite and potting mix. I moistened them just a bit and covered the pot with plastic wrap. They should start to root within a couple weeks.

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Propagation Month, Day 29: Sowing Amaranth Seeds

Last year I bought an amaranth plant. I can't remember what kind it was, but it was sold as an edible. It never got more than about 18 inches high, but it had great red leaves and tassel-like flowers. It also re-seeded freely and I've got a number of new sprouts already growing.

But I got some seeds a couple years ago for the old-fashioned Amaranthus caudatus, better known as Love Lies Bleeding. I tried sowing them but nothing came up, and once again I'm suspecting that it's because I didn't keep them watered well enough. So I'm giving it another try. I'm planting them against the south fence, where I think they'll get enough sun. The seeds are very tiny and I sprinkled them about with a pretty liberal hand. Hopefully, something will grow. I love that this plant is both ornamental and edible. Double-duty is a very noble thing for a plant to do.

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Propagation Month, Day 28: Planting Garlic

While I wasn't looking, a bulb of organic garlic decided to sprout on my kitchen counter. I think August is actually the best time to plant garlic around here and I hadn't really planned on planting garlic anyway, but sometimes opportunities just present themselves. I grew some garlic last year, but the bulbs came out very small--perhaps I didn't water or feed them enough. Time to give it another try.

I only planted the cloves that had sprouted (about nine of them) and I planted them at the same depth you would normally plant bulbs--about three times the height of the bulb.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Propagation Month, Day 27: Scaling Daffodil Bulbs

Most people know that daffodil bulbs will "naturalize," meaning that they will multiply in the ground, each bulb adding one or two more each year. But there is another way to increase your bulbs--a process called scaling in which you slice the bulb into sections that will then form bulblets. Bulbs produced through scaling will take two or three years to flower, but you can potentially produce more bulbs through scaling than through naturalizing.

To scale a bulb, begin by clipping off the roots, taking care not to damage the bottom of the bulb, which is called the basal plate. Using a sharp paring knife, cut off the stem tips of the bulb. Then, starting your cuts at the basal plate, cut the bulb into sections lengthwise. Depending on the size of the bulb (I'm using the small tete-a-tete daffodil bulbs here), you can usually cut them into quarters or eighths. Make sure that each piece has some of the basal plate attached. If the basal plate becomes detached, throw out that piece--it won't form bulblets without it.

Pull out the center part of the bulb section--this is the actual flower stem and it will be discarded. Then, using the knife, separate the remaining part of each bulb section into two-scale sections, each with a piece of basal plate attached. If the scales are so thin that you can't separate all of them, that's probably OK, but you want to get as many two-scale sections as you can. The bulblets will grow between the two layers of scales.

Put the scales into a Ziploc bag filled with moist vermiculite. Gently distribute the vermiculite around the scales so that they're well-covered. Seal the bag and put it somewhere warm. You'll need to check it every so often for rot--if any of the scales look funky, discard them. The bulblets should form in about 8 to 10 weeks. The bulblets can then be potted up with each scale tip just above the surface. The bulbs should leaf out the following spring, but will need another year or two to flower.

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