An Alameda Garden: December 2009

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Garden Year Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Train Whistle

Every once in a while, even as I struggle to get through just the basic maintenance in my garden, I yearn to create something special, something magical in my yard--something with motion and sound that sparks imagination and ignites long-forgotten fantasies. I know it stems from memories of the garden of my childhood. Our home's previous owner left his mark in the back yard in the form of a moss-covered hill topped with a castle and ribboned with a stone-lined brook that ran down the hill into a moat-like fishpond below. It was a feature that appealed to both children and adults; everyone, it seemed, experienced a moment of kid-like fascination when standing before that small world tucked under a redwood tree at the back of the yard.

I don't remember having that kind of experience again until yesterday when I visited the Golden Gate Express Garden Railway at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. This second annual exhibit, created with the help of the Bay Area Garden Railway Society, transforms a collection of plants and a motley assortment of recycled materials into a miniature version of the city of San Francisco, complete with a four-car train and a cable car, each running on its own track.

Every iconic structure in San Francisco is there, from the Golden Gate Bridge with moving cars, to the Transamerica Pyramid and Lombard Street. The Ferry Building, constructed of corks and cutlery, is front and center. A row of colorful Victorian homes made of cereal boxes lines a hill, and mah-jong tiles and motherboards re-create Chinatown's Dragon-Crest Gate.

But this is a micro-world to experience, not just look at. Lights flash, bells clang, the ball-park crowd cheers. And twice a day, at 11:15 and 4:15, the ultimate San Francisco phenomenon occurs--the fog rolls in.

I try to imagine the attention to detail that garden railway devotees must invest in the creation and maintenance of little worlds like this. Beyond the tracks and the structures, every rock and plant is hand-picked and placed just so. Sound effects are recorded. Lights are programmed and timed. If regular gardening requires continual patience, what must a garden railway demand of its creator?

I doubt I'll ever know firsthand; I don't see a garden railway springing up in my own back yard any time soon. But for a little while yesterday I got to enjoy the magic and the wonder and remember that the smallest details that we bend to observe are the ones that can transport us the farthest.

The Second Annual Golden Gate Express Garden Railway exhibit at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park runs through April 18, 2010. The Conservatory is closed on New Year's Day, but otherwise open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:oo a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last entry at 4:30). Click here for details.

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It's Not Just Complicated, It's a Little Bit Fake

The LA Times has a story about how the amazing kitchen garden shown in the new Meryl Streep movie, "It's Complicated," actually came to look so amazing. Hint: Movie magic, it seems, can even extend to horticulture. And don't believe the somewhat mediocre reviews the movie is getting--it's absolutely hilarious!

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Anatomy of a Seed Packet

As I sort and sift through my box of seeds, gathering ideas for next year’s garden, one thing has become apparent—there is a lot of room for improvement in the packaging of seeds.

I appreciate that some seed companies are run on shoestring budgets, but I’m not sure that absolves them of the responsibility to provide adequate information about their products. And for the bigger companies, there’s really no excuse. I don’t know if there’s any way to gather this data, but I have to wonder how much money gardeners waste each year buying seeds that they prepare or plant incorrectly due to lack of information on the package.

So in an open plea to seed companies everywhere, here is a list of the essential elements I often find missing on seed packets:

  1. A photo. Yes, the botanical drawings are lovely and quaint, but I want a little more reality. And to be honest, I don’t want just one photo, I want two—a close-up of the flower or fruit, as well as a photo of the plant in situ. I’d settle for that second photo to be available on the company’s website, but the more you can show me right on the package, the more likely it is that I’ll be tossing that pack into my shopping basket.
  2. The full botanical name. Yes, Latin can be scary, but it helps. Really, it does.
  3. Germination requirements. It’s not enough to just state the planting depth and width and when to plant. If seeds require filing, nicking, soaking or chilling in order to germinate and that information isn’t on the packet, you’re inviting people to waste their time and money with your product. Let’s not do that.
  4. Harvesting information. I’d be more willing to try new and unfamiliar varieties if the seed companies would give me even the slightest clue when and how to harvest. It isn’t always obvious. What will the fruit or vegetable look or feel like when ripe? Can I expect multiple harvests from one plant? Come on, just a hint...
  5. "Best Used By" date. Every reputable seed company stamps their packets with a "Packaged for 20--" date. But it would be great if they’d also add a "Best Used By 20--" date to tell me that those 2009 lettuce seeds won’t last beyond 2011, but the 2009 tomatoes could be good until at least 2013.

It’s true that you can often find all this information on the Internet if you go searching for it, but not always, particularly for rare varieties. Call me silly, but I think it should be right there on the package. And who knows this information better than the people who are selling these seeds?

So what company comes closest to achieving excellence in seed packaging? Without a doubt, it’s Renee’s Garden. They don’t usually include the botanical name and they use illustrations rather than photos (although their website includes plant photos), but their packs are well-written and informative, so much so that they even add an extra flap to contain the additional details. They often include general notes of interest about the plant as well as tips for using or cooking the harvest. Their 2009 seed packs include a “Sell By” date in addition to the “Packed For” date—useful for the retailer, not so much for the gardener. Still, the amount of information they provide on their seed packs far exceeds that of any other company I’ve seen.

I understand that Baker Creek is in the process of upgrading their seed packs, going from generic packages to variety-specific packs with photos and more details, to which I say “Amen.” Let’s hope that other seed companies will be following suit.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Seed Heaven in Petaluma

What’s a gardener to do in these damp, drippy days when you actually have a bit of free time to garden but the weather is not cooperating? It’s a time for planning next year’s garden, and that means seeds. And now, thanks to Baker Creek Seeds’ opening of their Petaluma Seed Bank, it means road trip!

It’s a 45-minute drive up Highway 101 to Petaluma, a town once known as the “Egg Capital of the World” that has never completely shaken its aggie beginnings. North of San Francisco and south of the wine country, Petaluma is what would have happened to Mayberry if it had been taken over by ex-hippies, foodies, and antique dealers. Needless to say, it was the perfect spot for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to set up shop.

Filling an old corner bank building in the quaint downtown area, the Baker Creek Seed Bank is a new experience in seed shopping. Racks and racks of seed packets run the length of the old bank. When I was there earlier this week, manager Paul Wallace and his staff were busy replacing all of the 2009 packs with the new 2010 packs, assuring the freshest seeds possible. And of course, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill seeds, but rare varieties, many of which you won’t find anywhere else. The number of tomato varieties alone is a little overwhelming.

And therein may be the problem. The selection is far greater than any I’ve seen in a nursery or garden store and I wasn’t there too long before brain lock started to set in. I suggest getting a catalog to peruse before going, but you can also pick up a copy at the Seed Bank and relax at a table there while you flip through pages and make your shopping list.

In addition to the staggering selection of seeds, the Seed Bank carries gardening and urban farming books that you're not likely to find at your local bookstore. They know their clientele and don't bother with the Sunset magazine-style garden porn. These are books for people with dirt under their nails. But that's OK, because on the other side of the store you'll find shelves of home-made soaps, along with beeswax candles, honeys, and herb products. But particularly appealing was the line of Clarington Forge garden tools from England. You usually have to get tools of such high quality by mail-order, so it was nice to be able to handle them and check them out in person, and had I not been financially wiped out by Christmas I would have been happy to leave with a new shovel.

In the end, I left with only five packs of seeds, just enough to get my 2010 garden plans cooking. But I suspect I’ll be making the drive back to Petaluma come the Spring. Seed heaven beckons.

The Baker Creek Seed Bank is located at 199 Petaluma Blvd. North (take the Petaluma Blvd. South exit from Hwy. 101). Hours are currently 9:30 to 5:30 Monday-Friday and 11:00 to 5:30 Sunday, but call ahead to confirm before making the drive (707-509-5171).

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It May Be California's Oldest Plant But Is It a Native?

There's a fascinating article in the LA Times about the discovery of a Jurupa Hills oak that researchers believe is about 13,000 years old, a good 3000 years older than the mighty redwoods.

One of the most interesting parts of the story, however, is this:

"But the Jurupa oak, researchers reported today in the online journal PLoS One, is unusual in that it is well out of its normal environment, which would be high in the mountains. It took seed at its current location near the end of the last ice age, when the climate was cooler and wetter. As its brethren died out because of climatic change, it persisted.

"If you planted a seedling there now, I doubt very much whether it would grow," said plant scientist Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra of UC Davis, lead author of the paper by UC Davis and UC Riverside scientists."

In other words, while this plant would certainly meet the criteria of just about any definition of a "native," if it were being planted in the exact same spot today, it would probably not survive. Hopefully, this will give native-plant purists a moment of pause. The whole native plant issue is just not that cut and dry. (I hate to say I told you so, but...)
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Children's Garden at the SF Public Library

Check out this article in the SF Chronicle about a children's garden that's been installed in an unused patio of the Mission Branch of the public library. As public libraries continue to transition into a more interactive, educational role, this is exactly the kind of thing that should happen. What a great way to make the whole books-learning-life connection seem real and relevant for kids!
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Monday, December 14, 2009

9 Places to Shop for Alameda Gardeners Without Leaving the Island

I hate to say this but there are only six more shopping days until Christmas. If you're feeling the time crunch, I can offer you one big tip for saving time while you shop: Don't leave the island! Although I often hear Alamedans (mostly newbies) complain about the shopping options here, there really are some great places to find what you need, especially if you're shopping for gardeners. Check out these spots for gifts, gear, and goodies for the Alameda Gardener on your list:
  1. Encinal Nursery: In addition to the usual plant selection, Encinal Nursery is well-stocked with Christmas trees (including living trees in pots), wreaths, garlands and other greenery. They also have bulbs still in stock, ivy topiaries, and some nice bonsai plants.
  2. Thomsen's Garden Center: You'll always find a great plant selection here, but they also carry lots of great garden ornaments and pots. They still have some bulbs in stock as well as seed potatoes (something not many of the local nurseries seem to carry). While you're there, stop upstairs at Vines cafe and gift shop, where you'll find great gift-y things and excellent lattes.
  3. Ploughshares Nursery: In addition to knowing that you're supporting a great nursery that helps train and put people back to work, Ploughshares is a good place to find California natives. Right now they also have a large selection of fruit trees and citrus trees from Four Winds (talk about a gift that keeps on giving!), as well as lots of plants on sale for 50-75% off. Note: Ploughshares is open this weekend and probably only half a day on Wednesday before the holidays, so shop early!)
  4. Japan Woodworker: Shop here if you want to find the kind of gardening tools that make gardeners drool. They have amazing gardening tools from Japan at reasonable prices. You'll find everything you'd need for aesthetic pruning, or just some cool gear that will make you feel like you know what you're doing.
  5. Pagano's Hardware: This is the place to find the more pedestrian but nevertheless essential garden tools, some garden ornaments, and fertilizers. A gift card for Pagano's would bring a smile to any gardener's face.
  6. Books Inc.: Although there isn't an extensive selection of garden books at this otherwise terrific bookstore, they do carry some titles specifically related to gardening in the Bay Area and Northern California. Definitely worth a look.
  7. Wilmott's Books: This used bookstore is the real deal and they stock a good variety of gardening books, from the practical to the literary. Stop by for a good browse.
  8. Urban Forest: Follow the stream of bubbles into this little shop on Park Street to find a wide array of wind chimes, as well as some very cool fountains and garden ornaments.
  9. See's Candies: This one's self-explanatory.
Happy shopping!

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Here's the Winner!

The winner of the garden stool is Rachel (with the yahoo e-mail address). I've e-mailed Rachel to get her mailing address. If for some reason I don't hear from her, I will draw another name.

Thanks to everyone who entered!

Update 12/17: I didn't hear back from Rachel, so I randomly drew another name. The new winner is greenTXmom. I've sent an e-mail asking for her mailing address. Hopefully, I'll hear back soon!

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Garden Stool Giveaway Ends Tomorrow

There's still time to enter the garden stool giveaway! Just leave a comment with your name and e-mail address on this post. The giveaway ends tomorrow (Monday) at noon PST. I'll post the winner's name tomorrow night.
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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Another Great Gift Idea for Gardeners--The SF Flower & Garden Show

The people who took over the SF Flower & Garden Show this year seem to be bringing some really fresh thinking to the operation and so far at least, it's looking very promising. For starters, they're offering advance ticket purchases--I mean, really advance ticket purchases! Which means you can wrap up tickets for the perfect Hannukah gift or stocking stuffer right now. That's brilliant!

And here's the second bit of good news. The prices are fantastic. An advance puchased adult ticket gives you entrance to all five days of the show for only $16. I can't recall exactly what prices were this past year, but this seems like a steal. Because the show is now in San Mateo, an entrance ticket that's good for all five days gives me that much more incentive to keep going back.

Check out the show's web site, where they've already posted the schedule of seminars. This show is shaping up to be something really promising.
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Monday, December 07, 2009

Win a Great Gift for the Gardener in Your Life (or for You!)

Just in time for the holidays, I'm giving away this garden stool/tool tote (tools not included) to one lucky winner. The stool, courtesy of, seems very sturdy and is rated to hold up to 200 lbs., and the detachable tote is water-resistant.

To enter, just leave a comment on this post with your name and e-mail address. You can enter multiple times, but only one entry per day. I'll hold the random drawing next Monday morning (Dec. 14) and post the winner. I will ship the product to arrive by Christmas time. (Sorry, I can only ship within the United States.)

Good luck!

Update 12/14: This giveaway is now officially closed to additional entries. I will post the winner of the random drawing later tonight.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Green Shoots of Autumn

I'm not so sure I see any "green shoots" in the economy like Ben Bernanke claims to see, but one of the rewards of autumn weeding is uncovering the green shoots of spring-flowering bulbs.

So far I've exposed the first tender tips of the hyacinths as well as countless slender spikes of freesias and dutch and german irises. I never have one of those moments of discovering bulb shoots buried among the weeds when I don't relive that scene from The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) when Mary experiences her own gardener's epiphany. It's always wondrous, and a fitting reward for pulling weeds on a cold, damp day.

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