An Alameda Garden: 2012

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why I'm Voting No on Prop 37 Even Though I Support Labeling

Let me say up front that, in general, I support the idea of labeling food products and that more information is better than less.  Because of that I fully expected that I would be voting for Proposition 37, California’s ballot initiative to mandate labeling of genetically engineered (a.k.a. GMO) foods.

But there was a nagging doubt that lurked deep in my heart and it had to do with California’s initiative system. It is a terrible, broken, expensive system that tends to result in well-intentioned but  badly written laws that often lead to multimillion-dollar court travails or some truly nasty unintended consequences (such as overcrowded, expensive prisons due to a badly constructed three-strikes law, for example). When I finally sat down to read through the text and analysis of Prop. 37, I found that my nagging doubt was justified.

Prop. 37 mandates that all raw or processed foods that contain GMO ingredients should be labeled and that no such GMO foods could be labeled or advertised as “natural.” The law would be enforced by the Department of Public Health, but how they would do that is up to the DPH to determine. Who would be accountable for the labeling? What would the fines be for infractions? It’s all rather vague. 

The analysis by the independent legislative analyst included in the state’s official voter information guide says that “retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying.” That was a surprise. I’d assumed that manufacturers and distributors would be responsible.  But according to the analyst, retailers would have to have documentation for any unlabeled food that would explain why it is exempt. Although proponents of Prop. 37 say that there’s no reason it should lead to higher food prices, I can’t see how extra work and documentation on the part of retailers would not lead to higher costs to the consumer. Big retail chains may be able to absorb those costs (but why would they?), but my bigger concern is for the low-income areas that are already “grocery ghettoes.” Those areas, largely underserved by the chain stores and more reliant on small mom-and-pop markets, already pay higher food prices and will likely pay more if Prop. 37 passes. 

And for what? A warning label that doesn’t really have a clear warning. Because the truth of the matter is there are no good studies demonstrating a clear health risk from GMO foods. Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to be concerned about GMOs—concerns about their use in agriculture in ways that lead to increased pesticide application, about egregious corporate behavior on the part of Monsanto and others that have led to serious problems and litigation for some farmers, and about the lack of transparency surrounding the whole issue due to the protections that patent and trade secret laws have provided for the companies. The fact that Monsanto is one of the major donors to the No on 37 campaign is reason enough for some people to vote yes. But Monsanto’s opposition to Prop. 37 doesn’t necessarily make it a good law.

As far as I can tell, no reliable study has proven a health risk from GMOs. Proponents often point to a recent study done in France showing that rats fed a GMO diet exhibited hormone imbalances and developed breast tumors at a higher rate, but other scientists have been extremely critical of the methodology for this study. More and better independent studies are definitely needed—too much of the research done in this area has been done by agencies that already have a clear pro- or anti-GMO agenda. Those studies only muddy the waters.

With no proven health risk posed by GMOs, people would be better off opting for foods labeled “organic.” Organic foods not only cannot contain GMOs but they must also be grown free of pesticides, which have been proven to have clear health risks for those who consume those foods and even more so for the people who farm them. The laws regarding labeling foods “organic” are already clearly established and practiced, and organic foods are becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Shopping for the organic label is not only a simpler solution than a GMO label, it is a healthier solution.

Perhaps my overriding reason for voting no on Prop. 37 is that the anti-GMO campaign has over-stated its case against GMOs. Aside from stating that risks have clearly been proven when they have not, they imply that all GMO products are engineered to contain or be resistant to pesticides. They’re not. Although currently, most commercially grown GMOs have been developed for pesticide resistance, genetic engineering is also used to develop disease resistance. Have you eaten a papaya in the past 15 years? If so, it was a GMO papaya, since the papayas grown in Hawaii were wiped out by a virus and replaced in 1998 by a GMO disease-resistant variety. Without genetic engineering for disease resistance, the prospects for feeding an exploding world population become substantially more bleak.

For the past several years I have been raging at the climate-change deniers and creationists who have been pushing government policies with no respect for what science says on the matter. They’ve used ginned-up studies and fear-mongering to persuade people to deny the scientific proof that doesn’t fit their ideology. But if we only respect the science that validates what we already believe, then we’re not respecting science at all. I have to apply that same standard to the issue of GMOs. If more reliable studies prove a health risk, I will revise my opinion about them. But in the meanwhile, a labeling law that may prove costly, particularly to those who can least afford it, and does nothing to help people really understand the safety of their foods does not seem to me to be the answer.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A Garden That's Beautiful and Accessible

Check out this article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Yvonne Michie Horn on HolLyn D'Lil's garden in Graton, California. This garden would be intriguing just for its labyrinthine paths, butterfly chairs, and creative use of salvage alone. But the fact that it is designed to be wheelchair-accessible makes it even more remarkable. D'Lil planned the garden with themes and designs "honoring the body, mind, and heart" and she can tend it all from her wheelchair using long-handled tools. So inspiring!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Small Space Orchards Presentation at UC Botanical Garden

Are you looking for ways to grow more varieties of fruit and get higher yields from your small garden? I'll be talking about exactly that topic tomorrow (Sunday, Sept. 16, 11:00) at the UC Botanical Garden. Get ideas for choosing, planting and training fruit trees in ways that will give you the most fruit in the least amount of space. The hour-long presentation will include time for questions and answers, and copies of my book, California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, will be available for purchase afterward. Advance registration is required ($15; $10 for botanical garden members).

Remember, autumn is a great time to plant trees in the Bay Area, so if you're thinking about adding fruit trees, come find out how to do it right! 

Sunday, May 27, 2012


They may be prickly and a magnet for earwigs, but nonetheless I love, love, love artichokes! Debbie Arrington of the Sacramento Bee talked to me a couple weeks ago for an article she was writing on the subject and here it is, along with a mouth-watering selection of recipes. I missed getting a couple artichoke plants in the ground this spring, but they're definitely going in in the fall!

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Oh To Be in England Now That the Chelsea Garden Show Is There

Check out this video from the BBC about this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I particularly love that the gardens are actually outdoors--I don't know of any garden shows in the U.S. that aren't mostly indoors with really bad lighting. My favorite part of the video is, of course, the writer's hut in the middle of a garden but I also really love the Caravan Club garden that brings Shabby Chic outdoors. The whole show looks amazing and one day I really hope to be there in person.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Win a Free Copy of California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening!

All this great weather is making me giddy--seems like a good time for a giveaway!  Want to win a free copy of my new book California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening? You can enter to win at my favorite book site, Click here to enter. The contest runs through May 31. (Note: Although I love to get your comments, leaving a comment here does not enter you in the giveaway. You have to enter at to be eligible.)

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Elusiveness of Pink Daffodils

photo: Michigan Bulb Co.
The last of my daffodils are blooming right now and it is reminding me that yet another year has passed without a pink daffodil appearing in my garden. The only problem is: I planted pink daffodils--'Pink Charm', they were called. They were a gift from my sister and I was so looking forward to them. They've bloomed each year and they are very nice daffodils with a frilly, somewhat flattened cup, but they are definitely not pink. Peach, maybe. Almost but not quite salmon, possibly if you squint. But most decidedly not pink.

I know I'm not alone in my disappointment in pink daffodils. In my quest to figure out where I went wrong, I've searched through lots of forums and websites about the non-pinkness of pink daffodils. Many comments point out that the bulb companies all say that full sun will cause the color of pink daffodils to be washed out, but I noted that instruction before planting and put mine where they would get only morning sun. I thought perhaps it was a soil pH problem that was affecting the coloration, but I can find no information online that indicates that pH level will change the color one way or the other. Ditto for nutrients.

The only clue I've found was a number of comments noting that the color deepened as the bulbs aged. They seemed to become more pink in the third or fourth year. So I guess there's nothing to do but wait and hope that pinkness will come someday. Perhaps the growers should rename this cultivar 'Dum spiro, spero'--While I live, I hope (for pink).

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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

It's Here!

One copy of my new book, California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, is in the house! I have to say it is pretty thrilling to actually hold it my hands and realize it's real. Have you ordered your copy yet? You can get it from Amazon by clicking the link on the left side of the screen.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Opening Day at the SF Flower & Garden Show

There's nothing that will launch you more exuberantly into Spring than a visit to the SF Flower & Garden Show, which opens today. I'll be there this afternoon, and tomorrow, and Friday, and.... Well, we'll see. There are seminars I'd like to attend every day, in addition to checking out the display gardens, cruising the exhibitor booths, and, of course, buying plants. The show runs through Sunday and I hope you'll check it out. It is always great fun and very inspiring. Check back here later in the week for photos I'll be posting.

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Sunday, March 04, 2012

You Can Grow That!: Cymbidium Orchids

Garden writer and blogger C.L. Fornari has had the brilliant idea of initiating You Can Grow That! Day. The idea is that on the 4th of each month, garden bloggers will put up a post about a plant they want to encourage people to grow. What I like about this idea is that all of us have a secret list of plants that we really want to grow but think we won't be able to. But gardening really should be a fearless endeavor, and in that spirit, here is my first You Can Grow That! post:

My grandmother grew the most beautiful cymbidium orchids I've ever seen. In the late winter and early spring she'd bring us enormous sprays of orchids in shades of green and yellow and purple. I know now that she grew them under conditions that most professional growers would not approve of, but surprisingly she managed to give those orchids exactly what they needed.

Unlike many of the other orchids most people are familiar with, cymbidiums are semi-terrestrial, meaning they are happier in well-draining, loamy soil rather than in plain bark chips like the tree-dwelling orchids. A good mixture is loose potting soil mixed with perlite, small bark chips, and peat (for acidity).

Cymbidiums like bright filtered light (full sun in winter is acceptable). They can can grow well outside and are naturally suited to cold weather but must be protected from both frosts in the winter and full sun in the summer. Keep the plants moist but you can allow them to become a little drier between waterings when blooming. Apply a weak solution of a liquid balanced fertilizer every one to two weeks. The leaves should be a bright apple green; if they are darker, cut back a bit on the feedings.

Flower spikes will appear in the winter and last for several weeks. When the flowers are spent, cut the spike off at the base.

You shouldn't need to repot your cymbidium orchids until the pot has become very crowded or the potting mix has deteriorated. They like to be somewhat pot-bound so you shouldn't have to divide them for several years. When you do, take out the dried-up bulbs, but leave the green leafless bulbs attached. Those green bulbs won't flower for several years and the plant will meanwhile use the bulbs for water storage.

So that's the professional wisdom on growing cymbidiums. Now I'll tell you how my grandmother did it. She planted her orchids right in the ground  where they got full sun in the morning but were somewhat shaded in the afternoon. And everyday, she threw her used coffee grounds on the soil around them. With Alameda's sandy, fast-draining soil and moderate temperatures and the coffee keeping the pH level at a nice slightly acidic level, she managed to give those orchids the perfect home.

I've kept one cymbidium in a pot on my deck for the past few years and I've just bought another one. As soon as the blooms are spent, I'm going to plant them in the same bed where I'm growing some fuchsias and a big papyrus. And from then on I'll be caring for them grandma-style.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Somewhere a Hummingbird Is Snoring

Seriously. I knew that hummingbirds can actually be quite loud. In my garden they are second only to the crows in making a ruckus. But I never imagined that they snore. Or that if they snored, it would be this loud. I suppose it's no surprise that this little birdie is sleeping alone. The sound completely freaked out my cat. Birds everywhere are probably wondering when Breathe Right is going to make some strips small enough to go across those little beaks. Enjoy:

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

All the Edible Gardening News That's Fit to Pin

Want a great place to go to find an ever-growing collection of articles on growing edibles? Follow the Vegetable Garden Bloggers & Writers United board on Pinterest. With more than 20 garden writers (including me) contributing their posts on vegetable gardening, you'll discover a wide selection of topics and very solid information from people who never get tired of exploring the world of edible gardening.

I've written about the fun I'm having with Pinterest before. If you'd like to follow my boards, click the following button.

Follow Me on Pinterest
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Can Your Soil Pass the Acid Test?

I've been clearing out a bed this week that I intend to plant with a mix of ornamentals and edibles, the main feature of which will be two or three blueberry bushes. Blueberries, like a great many other edibles, are acid-loving plants and I wasn't sure my sandy soil would measure up (or down, as the case may be). It was time to do a little testing to see what the pH level of my soil is.

Don't get scared off about soil tests and pH levels. This isn't rocket science--it's not even as hard as high school chemistry. pH is simply a measure of acidity and alkalinity using a scale that runs from 0 to 14. The midpoint, 7, is considered neutral. Below 7 all the way to 0 indicates increasing acidity. Above 7 up to 14 indicates increasing alkalinity (also called basicity). The soil pH level matters because essential nutrients in the soil are most available to plants when they are in the proper pH environment--with 5.5 to 6.5 being the most commonly appropriate range.

Testing your soil's pH level is a simple and inexpensive process. I purchased a soil test kit produced by Ferry-Morse at my local hardware store for $4.99. The kit tests pH level as well as macronutrient levels (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), which I'll test separately at a later date. For the pH test, all you have to do is take a small sample of soil from 4 inches below the soil line, put it in the test tube with the green cap, open the green capsule and pour the contents on top of the soil, then fill it with water, cap and shake, and let sit for a minute. Very quickly, the soil settles in the tube and the water on top of it turns a color that you can match to the color scale on the package.

It doesn't show very well in this photo but my soil tested somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0, indicating that the soil is quite a bit more alkaline than the range that blueberries want (4.5 to 5.5). These simple home test kits don't give you a very exact reading, but it's enough to head you in the right direction in terms of how to amend your soil. If you want a more exact reading, check out the standard soil test you can have done by mail at the University of Massachusettts for only $10. (2015 Update: This test now costs $15).

Most edibles prefer somewhat acidic soil. Here's a sample of some of the acid-loving fruits and veggies you may be growing that might need some tweaking of their soil pH:

Brussels sprouts--5.5-6.5
Sweet potatoes--5.0-6.5

In addition, ornamentals such as roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, begonias, and most bulbs are just a few of the flowers that like acidic soil.

So once you determine your pH level, what do you do? If you need to make your soil more alkaline (or basic), the amendments that are most commonly added are agricultural lime and wood ash. If you need to make your soil more acidic, most people add peat, but pine needles, pine sawdust, and coffee grounds will also do the trick. It takes time to measurably adjust the pH level of your soil, but providing the right pH environment should make a noticeable difference in the health of your plants and the harvest that results.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gary Oppenheimer on "Changing the Way We Eat"

On January 21st in Manhattan, Gary Oppenheimer, founder of, spoke at a TEDx event on the subjects of our food system, hunger in America, and the difference that a home gardener can make. Give a listen to this inspiring and thought-provoking presentation:

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bringing Back the Blogroll

Sometime in the past couple years, the blogroll I used to have here that linked to my favorite garden blogs disappeared. I think I took it down with the intention of updating it and bringing it back, and well, it just stayed down. But it's time to bring it back. There are some great blogs out there that have amazing ideas for your garden and lots to say (sometimes with lots of attitude) about gardening in general. So check out my new, updated, two-part blogroll--one part listing California blogs and one part listing blogs from everywhere else. (You'll find it located in the middle column.) I guarantee you'll find some great writing and lots of inspiration to keep your garden exciting and always evolving.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wrapping Your Valentine in Nature

Whatever you're giving your valentine this year, wouldn't it seem more special if it came wrapped like this? 

These lovely wraps come from designer Justina Blakeney, who has taken the idea of compostable gift wrapping one step further.

Maybe it's time to put the quick-and-easy gift bags away and harvest your wrapping paper and ribbon from the garden.

Photo credits: Justina Blakeney

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good Morning and Welcome to Your New Zone

Did you feel a shift in the cosmos yesterday? A slight bending of the time-space continuum? Well, perhaps it wasn't that cataclysmic, but there was a notable change in the gardening world: the USDA released its long-awaited revision of the Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The new map uses 30 years of weather data and does show generally warmer temperatures shifting northward. So, many people will find that their zones are now a notch higher. Here in Alameda, for example, we've moved from Zone 9b, with low temps from 25 to 30F, to Zone 10a, with low temps from 30 to 35F. That sounds about right to me since getting below 30F here is quite rare. If you want to find the new zone for your specific area, click here and plug in your zip code.

So what does this new zoning mean for you? Nothing radically different. It might justify venturing a little more into the world of tropical plants. Maybe you'll want to try growing your own bananas, which require Zone 10-11 temps. But keep in mind that this "new normal" means that we might have fewer chill hours (hours below 45F) in the winter that some plants require for flowering and setting fruit.

But rather than getting too caught up in zones and average temperatures, the best approach is to get to know your own garden. Identify the warmest spots (probably against a south-facing fence or wall) and the spots most vulnerable to frosts. Take notes and plant accordingly. Take more notes. Pretty soon you'll have more accurate data to work with than the USDA will ever be able to provide you. And then you can name or number your zone anything you want.
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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Book for Beginning Gardeners

My friend Katie Elzer-Peters has a new book out that is tailor-made for any newbie gardeners out there. Beginner's Illustrated Guide to Gardening has over 400 full-color photos and illustrations that take you step by step through the gardening techniques you'll need to keep your garden and lawn in top shape. There aren't nearly enough books out there that are truly aimed at the beginning gardener and this one fills that very big need. If you are a beginning gardener, buy it. If you know a beginning gardener, buy it for him or her. (That way, they can save their money for plants!)

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Half-Off Discounts on UC Botanical Garden Memberships

 Last year I took advantage of a great bargain on Groupon: a huge discount on memberships to the UC Botanical Garden. Now the offer has come around again and you shouldn't miss it. You can get a one-year individual membership for only $22 (a $45 value) or a one-year family membership for $32 (a $65 value). For that small investment you can have access to 34 acres of amazing plants from all over the world, and discounts to many of their programs, concerts, and plant sales. The Bot is a place with year-round appeal--there's always something incredible in bloom.

Click this link to take advantage of this Groupon deal. (Disclaimer: I will receive $10 for every person who takes advantage of this offer from this link.)

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alcatraz: The Garden Show

Did you catch the new show "Alcatraz" last night? I watched a bit but I confess I was much more impressed with the actual place than I was with the show. But it reminded me of the tour I took of the Alcatraz gardens a couple years ago. The gardens are in the process of being restored and the tour of the open gardens, with their spectacular views, is a lovely contrast to the creepy, oppressive setting of the prison itself. So here is my own little "Alcatraz" show--the garden version.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

How Bad Economies Lead to Bad Trees

San Francisco is putting in place a policy regarding the maintenance of street trees that I fear other communities could soon pick up on. In an effort to save approximately $300K per year in maintenance costs, the city is transferring responsibility for pruning and maintenance of street trees to individual property owners. For trees that run 20 ft. or higher, pruning can cost between $300 and $1000. I can easily foresee that cash-strapped homeowners will either forgo the necessary pruning, leading to hazardous tree conditions that could endanger lives and property, or they may attempt to do the pruning themselves, in which case we can expect to see a lot of badly pruned trees and injured amateur tree-pruners. This policy has, to some degree, been in effect for a while, but a new round of notices have been sent to lucky homeowners notifying them of the transfer of responsibility.

This kind of policy raises all kinds of interesting questions. If a homeowner doesn't want to be responsible for pruning a street tree every year, can they just have the tree removed on their own? Could we see streets stripped bare of trees because homeowners decide they're cost-prohibitive? How much is it going to cost the city to police the trees to make sure they are being kept healthy and safe? What impact may poorly maintained and potentially hazardous trees have on already devastated property values?

Property owners are being advised that they can appeal the transfer of responsibility for the trees, and if this were happening in my town, I would certainly do so. I understand that municipalities across the country need to cut their budgets but this is a pretty good example of a short-term fix being turned into a bad long-term policy.

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