An Alameda Garden: January 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Vegetable Garden Begins

This year I've decided to turn what was my strawberry bed into a vegetable bed. I'd cleared the space back in December before the weather got wet and wild, but hadn't planted anything in it. This bed is roughly 4' x 6' (maybe a bit bigger). In the middle is a small flowering cherry tree, but there's still a good amount of planting space around it and it gets almost full sun.

I've started some broccoli raab and bell pepper seeds indoors and some mesclun outdoors, but because I'm trying to do the 100-ft diet challenge, I wanted to get something growing faster. So yesterday I purchased three six-packs--one each of broccoli, beets, and spinach. It's not a lot, but at least it's a start. And at least I managed to get them in the ground yesterday during an ever-so-brief break in the rain.

The rain is driving me crazy. It's not that we're having an abnormal amount of rain for this time of year. But because so many of the last 25 years have been drought years, this much nearly continuous rain seems abnormal. I know we need it, but I'm so ready for it to be over with.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pumpkin Again--100-ft. Diet Challenge Meal #3

There still isn't too much growing in the backyard that's edible, so I'm continuing to explore the wonders of homegrown pumpkins.

This has been a busy week, so I kept it simple: pumpkin pancakes. Basically, I adapted a multigrain pancake recipe by leaving out the oil and adding in about 3/4 of a cup of pumpkin puree. With the addition of some pumpkin pie spice and some organic maple syrup, it made for a pretty tasty breakfast.

I'm looking forward to the time that I can start harvesting something else from the garden. I planted swiss chard seeds several weeks ago, but they are still very small seedlings. I've never grown swiss chard before, but it seems to me that they should be growing faster than that. I've tried giving them fish fertilizer, but it doesn't seem to have helped. Any advice on how to speed them up? Maybe I should dig them up and keep them in the mini-greenhouse until they're bigger?

As soon as we get a break in the rain, I'm going to head to the nursery and see what's available in six-packs. I'm not sure I want to wait for all my seeds to grow up before I add anything else to the 100-ft. diet menu!

Read about last week's meal here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Seed Time

The rain is back and it looks like it will be sticking around for the rest of the week, so it's time to do some indoor gardening. I've been sorting through the seeds I have left over from the last couple years, trying to figure out what is still likely to be viable and what needs to be replaced, what I can start now and what needs to wait.

I'm going to try soaking my seeds first this time. I've known that certain hard-coated seeds need soaking, but this time I'm going to try it with all of them. Some things I've read lately indicate that it can improve germination rates with just about any seed.

I'm also going to give Jiffy plugs one more try. I've used these before and have never had much success with them. But I found that I still had at least 50 plugs left, so I'm going to give them another shot.

I'm usually thinking about what seeds to sow much later in the season, but doing the 100-ft. diet challenge is making me anxious to increase the output of my vegetable garden much sooner. I can't eat last year's pumpkins forever!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Scion Exchange

The California Rare Fruit Growers held their annual scion exchange in San Francisco and I consider that a good enough reason to put up with Bay Bridge traffic to get over there. The number of fruit varieties represented in the piles of pruned wood at a scion exchange is a little staggering, but it's pretty fun to rifle through it all, searching for just what you need or for something new you didn't even know you want.

For just a $3 entry fee I was able to pick up nine scions from five different varieties: Black Tartian, Van, and Republican cherries; Santa Rosa plum; and Desert King fig. The cherry scions will all get grafted onto my dwarf Ranier cherry. The plum will be grafted onto a peach rootstock that I'd tried grafting onto last year in my class; the graft took at first, but then failed, so now I'll try again. The fig scion is not for grafting, but to try rooting.

My yard is small but I'd really love to see it filled with small fruit trees someday. These scion exchanges are a great opportunity to build my mini-orchard.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

100-Ft. Diet Challenge--Meal #2

This is week 2 of the 100-ft. diet challenge and meal #2 was Pumpkin-Kale Soup with Mushrooms. I usually hesitate to make soup because, whether I follow a recipe or totally wing it, I never seem to get it right. But for the next few weeks, I'm going to be depending heavily on my reserve of homegrown pumpkins, and pumpkin soup seemed like an obvious thing to try. I looked through a lot of pumpkin soup recipes, but in the end I decided to adlib it. It came out with a rich, thick (but not too thick) broth that was really delicious. Here's the recipe:

Pumpkin-Kale Soup with Mushrooms

Homegrown ingredients:
1 small pumpkin (approx. 2 lbs.), peeled, seed and cut in chunks.
1 1/2 cups chopped kale
4 small cloves garlic, minced

Purchased ingredients:
White wine (local)
1 c. crimini mushrooms, chopped (organic)
Olive oil (local)
1/2 small yellow onion, chopped (organic)
2 14.4-oz. cans chicken broth
1/4 tsp. thyme
sea salt
ground pepper

Melt butter in large saucepan, add chopped mushrooms and a splash of wine and saute a few minutes. Remove mushrooms and set aside. Add olive oil and saute onion and garlic. Add chopped kale and saute a couple minutes more. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add pumpkin and cook until tender. Add seasonings, then puree. Return to pan and add mushrooms and any liquid from the mushrooms. Simmer a couple more minutes and serve.

Read about last week's meal here.

One Gardener Planting Seeds for the Future

There's a really moving article in the S.F. Chronicle today about a Redwood City gardener named Catalino Tapia, who started a scholarship fund to help struggling college students. The Board of Directors is composed of other gardeners and they've solicited donations from among their clients. Since some national news outlets picked up on the story, more than $137,000 in donations have poured in, all of which will go directly to scholarships (the foundation is seeking grant money to cover administrative costs).

Tapia, who only got as far as the sixth grade, is particularly touched by the donations sent in by children:
"The gestures of these children are going to tear out my heart. They have such goodwill, and they have parents who are teaching them hacer el bien sin ver a quien," said Tapia, quoting an old saying of his native Mexico, which translates roughly, but not as poetically, as "do good, even if you can't see who will benefit."
If you'd like to learn more or make a donation, go to

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Through the Eyes of Experts

There was a great piece in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday by columnist Leah Garchik about her experience with having a garden consultant evaluate her garden. It sounded painful-- wrenching, actually--and I can well imagine how I'd feel in hearing a garden "expert" dissect my very imperfect garden. It's one thing to look at your garden yourself and come up with your own long list of problems. It's quite another to have someone come in with the veil of authority, survey your lovingly if erratically tended plot, and see only the disorders and disasters.

We all want to have a beautiful garden. And experts can be very useful--on a problem by problem basis. But I think it's best to see the big picture through our own eyes. Deep down, I know there's nothing wrong with my garden that a ton of compost, several hundred dollars worth of new plants, and a jackhammer couldn't fix. But to get that prescription from some so-called expert would be devastating. Who needs it?

Like Garchik, I think sometimes you need to ignore the experts and just keep gardening.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Winter Storm Beat-Down

A quick tour of the back yard between storms yesterday afternoon indicated that I'm going to need to do some clean-up of the not-so-lovely effects of all the wind and rain we've been having. The Kangaroo Apple in the back corner, now about 7 feet high or so, is leaning ominously, but fortunately it's leaning away from the fence rather than into it. I'm going to have to cut it back severely as soon as the rain lets up, and I'd be more upset about that if it weren't for the fact that I recently decided to get rid of it altogether. The potted dwarf cherry tree, which is awaiting transplanting into the ground, has managed to stay erect, but most of the smaller plants really took a pounding and seem a little woozy. There's a lot of debris around, including a large piece of trim that blew off of my carport (although I can't figure out from where!), and the only things that seem really happy about so much rain are the weeds. They are having one hell of a party out there!

Monday, January 07, 2008

The 100-Foot Diet Challenge

The good folks at Path to Freedom have launched a fun challenge to anyone who wants to participate. They are calling it the 100-Foot Diet Challenge and the premise is pretty simple: the challenge is to eat at least one meal a week from your own garden.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the 100-mile diet concept and I've read two books recently about the experiences of some intrepid locavores (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Plenty by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon). The 100-foot diet seems to me both simpler and more complex. Simpler because the minimum challenge is just one meal a week. More complex because, in my garden at least, the pickin's are currently slim.

I thought at first that I wouldn't be able to start this challenge for at least a few weeks, until I could get a crop of salad greens going. Then I remembered that I had at least one ingredient already harvested: six small pumpkins that I picked in November and early December were still sitting on my buffet in the dining room. And a walk around the garden this afternoon in between rainstorms brought up another few options, although none of them were looking particularly yummy. I planted some broccoli rabe this fall, but the plants came out spindly and they bolted quickly. I'd be lucky to get a handful out of it that was edible. There was also some kale and some nasturtium leaves that could be used for a salad. I also remembered that I'd harvested a small amount of garlic a few months ago and still had some on hand. Giving my weedy garden one last scan, I realized there was plenty of another edible that I hadn't actually planted--dandelions. Not a feast, to be sure, but enough.

So here was Meal #1 for my 100-Foot Diet Challenge: roasted pumpkin, and rabe and dandelion greens sauteed in garlic and olive oil, followed by roasted pumpkin seeds for a snack. The only purchased ingredients were salt, pepper, and olive oil, and the olive oil was locally produced in the Livermore Valley. The meal was actually pretty tasty, although I wish the broccoli rabe had been a more successful crop--it was delicious but there was only a little bit of it.

I'm feeling inspired now to get more cool vegetable crops going. I have a couple packs of mesclun and spinach seeds to sow, and I may have another go at rabe. I'll have to figure out what else I can start this early.

Whether or not you want to participate in the 100-Foot Diet Challenge, check out the Path to Freedom website. I think they're very inspiring.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Happy New Year

When I said in my last post that I was very behind, I wasn't kidding and things didn't improve all through December. Once Christmas was over with, I kind of hibernated for a week and did almost nothing but nurse a sore back and read. Now I'm ready to get back into the garden, but one hell of a storm has just blown into the bay area and we're expected to get about 3 inches of rain over the next 24 hours. The winds are pretty fierce as well and I expect that I'll have a lot of clean-up to do in the yard when the weather clears. Or maybe the mess will all have blown somewhere else--I'll have to wait and see.

So while I can't be gardening right now, I am thinking about the garden--mostly about what I was able to accomplish last year and what I wasn't, and what I'd like to get done this year.

I did do a major overhaul of the front yard in 2007, getting rid of the lawn and replacing it with three dwarf citrus trees and lots of drought-tolerant plants (details to come soon in a separate post). I successfully grafted two apple trees that will be espaliered against a fence in the back yard. And I learned a lot about propagation--all kinds of propagation.

For this year, I will still need to develop the front yard after I see how things look when they fill in in the spring. I hope to fill in a lot more in the back yard, especially since I moved some plants from the back to the front yard, leaving some conspicuous holes in the back. I'd like to develop more structure in the back and also plant more edibles. I plan to replace the volunteer Kangaroo Apple and its very messy berries, which are edible but not exactly desirable, with some kind of dwarf fruit tree--maybe a plum. I want to expand my fledgling collection of fuchsias on the back deck and try cross-breeding some of them. I'd like to figure out some kind of watering system for the back yard that I can actually afford. And I hope to spend more time sitting back and enjoying my garden this year, not just working it.

So happy new year to all. Here's hoping 2008 is an excellent year in and out of the garden.
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