An Alameda Garden: March 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

Just in Time for Easter: A Super-Easy Strawberry Dessert Recipe

I spent some time this week transplanting my everbearing strawberry plants. For the past three years I've had them in a bed surrounding what was a very young, small flowering cherry tree. Well, that tree is now a good 10 feet tall and it casts more shade on the bed than strawberry plants can take and keep producing. The bed has also become a favorite place for my dog to take a nap and I think that accounts for a number of the plants dying. So I dug up all the remaining plants, put most in a tall strawberry pot and the rest in a hanging basket. With any luck they'll start fruiting by May.

All these strawberry thoughts brought to mind a strawberry dessert I tasted a couple years ago when I was out wine-tasting in the Livermore Valley. The Amphora Nueva company had samples of their olive oils and vinegars to taste and they also had a simple dessert made with fresh strawberries, angel food cake, slivered almonds, and maple balsamic vinegar. It was delicious. The following recipe has only a couple changes, such as using pomegranate balsamic vinegar (which is easier to find) instead of maple, and adding a topping. The measurements are very approximate because this is something you can really just throw together to taste. It's soooooo easy and very yummy. Enjoy!

Strawberry-Angel Food Dessert

2 lbs. fresh strawberries, sliced
3 or 4 slices angel food cake, torn in bite-sized pieces
Pomegranate balsamic vinegar, approx. 1/4 cup
slivered almonds, approx. 1/2 cup
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp. brown sugar

Put the sliced strawberries in a mixing bowl and sprinkle with 1 or 2 tbsps. of the vinegar. Let rest for about 10 minutes. Add the angel food cake bits and almonds and toss to combine. Sprinkle a little more vinegar over the mixture, but not so much that the cake pieces get soggy. Spoon into large wine glasses. Mix the sour cream and brown sugar and top each glass of the strawberry mixture with a dollop of the sweetened sour cream. Serves 5.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

All the Garden's a Stage: Choosing the Best Performing Plants for a Sustainable Garden (Book Review)

By Jane C. Gates
(Schiffer Publishing, 2012, $29.99)
It was a sad moment the day I realized that I didn't have the "eye" to be a great, or even good, garden designer. Although I'm comfortable designing interiors (to suit my tastes, at least), I think garden design is much more challenging than interior design. After all, when you pick out living room furniture, you don't have to worry that the sofa will grow so big that it shades out the coffee table until it withers and dies.

So I long ago set aside any dreams I had about designing gardens. But now Jane C. Gates' new book, All the Garden's a Stage, has come along and rekindled the thought that maybe I can put together a pleasingly designed garden after all--or at least one that pleases me. Using the analogy of staging a theater performance, Gates breaks down all the elements involved in garden design. She begins by covering basic plant needs, so that even beginning gardeners will be comfortable moving on through the rest of the production. In the chapter titled "Bringing the Characters Together," she introduces the concept of plant communities--grouping plants that are well-suited for each other and have similar needs. In "The Show Must Go On" she covers maintenance issues like watering, lighting, and sustainable gardening methods. "Putting Together  the Show" really brings design issues into focus and offers simple design tips that even a non-designer like me can grasp. Gates then wraps it all up by introducing the "cast"--profiles of desirable plants grouped by settings such as "Mountaineers," "Tropical Beauties," "Beach Babes" and more.

Compared to so many garden books that present their topics in more or less the same fashion, All the Garden's a Stage is a fresh, new take on planning a garden. It's basic enough for a beginning gardener, but can also guide a gardener who's experienced with growing plants but needs help in putting together a cohesive garden plan. The tone of the book is light-hearted, right down to the charming illustrations by the author, but the information is solid and usable. I'll be referring to this book again and again as I continue to try get my garden show in shape.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Follow, Follow, Follow

Just a reminder that if you're finding information here at An Alameda Garden that you find useful, there's an easy way to have that aforesaid useful information delivered right to your email inbox: Subscribe! Click here to go to the Feedburner page to subscribe.

And while you're in the following mood, you might also consider following me on Pinterest, Twitter, or the Facebook page for my book, California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening. It's quick. It's easy. It's free.  Why not?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Scenes from the 2013 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

In case you weren't able to get to the show this year, here are a few shots of the display gardens from the 2013 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. I have to say I thought the gardens were pretty disappointing--probably the least inspired or inspiring display gardens I've seen at the show in all the years I've been going. The ones that looked nice--the kind of gardens that people might actually want to live with--seemed like the kind of thing we've already seen over and over again. And then there were the gardens that were more performance art than garden. And the Weeds garden? I don't even know what to say about that. An interesting concept perhaps, but not very well executed. Oh well, here are a few shots--judge for yourself:


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Save Your Seedlings! 7 Ways to Prevent Damping Off

We've all had it happen: You sow a tray of seeds, use a good potting mix, keep it watered and warm, and then rejoice to see the little seedlings emerge from the soil. They grow up and up, stretching for the sun, and then--disaster! You awake one morning to find them stricken, stems discolored, leaves wilted, perhaps an entire crop of seedlings collapsed on top of the soil. You've just encountered the dreaded "damping off" disease.

In fact, damping off is not one disease but a general term applied to the affliction of any of a number of fungal diseases, including Botrytis, Fusarium, and Phytophthora, that affect seeds and seedlings. For a look at how damping off affects seedlings--in nature as well as in greenhouse settings--check out this video:

There's no cure for damping off, so prevention is best course of action. If you want to give your seedlings the best possible odds of avoiding damping off and surviving those tender early days, here are 7 tips to follow:
  1. Start with as sterile an environment as possible. That means using a sterile potting mix; cleaning pots or seed trays with a diluted bleach solution; treating tools like trowels, soil blockers, hand seeders, and labeling stakes with disinfectants; and using seeds that have been properly stored in a cool, dry, air-tight container.
  2. Improve the drainage of the potting mix by adding perlite, vermiculite, or clean horticultural sand.
  3. Avoid overwatering and if possible, avoid watering from above. A better approach is to set the pots or trays in a tray of water long enough to moisten the soil completely. Then empty the bottom tray of excess water.
  4. Do not add fertilizers to the potting mix when you sow the seeds. Excess nitrogen can encourage growth of fungal diseases and besides, seeds can't utilize it. Seedlings will not really benefit from fertilization until after the first set of true leaves has emerged.
  5. Good air circulation is necessary so putting a fan on a low setting over the seed trays can be helpful. A light breeze on young seedlings can also strengthen the stems.
  6. Proper light from above and heat from a heating mat below will also keep moisture under control and encourage healthier seedling growth.
  7. Avoid touching seedlings unnecessarily, especially when wet, as that can spread fungal spores, if they are present. But once you seen signs of damping off, dispose of any affected plant material as well as the soil right away before it spreads further.
With these precautions your young seedlings should have an excellent chance of growing up strong and healthy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fairy Gardens: A Guide to Growing an Enchanted Miniature World (Book Review)

By Betty Earl
(B. B. Mackey Books, 2012, $21.95)

What is it about miniatures that so capture our interest and imaginations? Seeing tiny settings and landscapes seems to instantly unlock a door to the childmind within all of us, creating a pathway to the kinds of play and whimsy that are so often lacking in adult life.  I have long had a fascination with elaborate dollhouses and in the past year or so I’ve noticed the emergence of a gardening trend that stirs my heart as a gardener and awakens a memory from my past—fairy gardens.
Betty Earl, author of Fairy Gardens: A Guide to Growing an Enchanted Miniature World has written a charming and detailed guide to the world of fairy gardens. The book manages to provide helpful how-to information about creating these gardens without crushing the magic behind them.

Starting with a discussion of the lore and mythology, Earl provides a glimpse of the fairy world, taking no firm stand on the contradictory views of fairies as benevolent vs. mischievous or even malicious, and then goes on to provide tips for attracting fairies to your garden. From there, she moves on to the details of assembling your fairy garden--choosing a location, selecting a fairy house, gathering accessories, and choosing the best plant material. Options are detailed and the book is heavily illustrated with full-color photos that will inspire and delight.

Earl offers tips for creating fairy gardens with children, but she makes it clear that the gardens are for people of all ages to build, plant and enjoy. She also makes it clear that it’s no matter whether you truly believe in fairies or not. Fairy gardens are meant to be taken at face value and appreciated for their charm and style if not their fairy habitability.

I've loved fairy gardens since I was ten years old, when my family moved to an old house with such a garden in the back yard. In the shade of a tall redwood tree the former owner had built a moss-covered hill about 4 feet high with a fairy castle at the top and a stream that ran down the hill to a fishpond moat below. Sprinklers piped throughout the hill created a light mist around it all, keeping the hill mossy and adding to the ambiance. I'm sure the fairies loved it, and I love remembering it. Betty Earl's book brought it all back to life for me and left me itching to create something similar (although perhaps not as grand) in my own garden. That is the best recommendation I can give.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Let's Talk Tomatoes at Evergreen Nursery!

Are you ready to dig in and get your spring vegetable garden going? Before you do, come join me at Evergreen Nursery in San Leandro this Saturday, March 9th, at 1:00 p.m. I'll be focusing on organic growing tips for everyone's favorite edible to grow--tomatoes!--but there will be plenty of time to discuss other warm-season veggies as well as some of the cool-season crops that you still have time for. The talk is free and I'll be signing copies of my book, California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening afterwards.

Evergreen Nursery, 350 San Leandro Blvd., San Leandro, 510-632-1522

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Deadheaders' Garden Gala Benefits Oakland's Marcom Rose Garden

Want to get a sneak preview of the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show and lend much-needed support to a public rose garden? Check out the Deadheaders' Garden Gala, given by the Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland.

The event on Tuesday, March 19, 6 to 9 p.m. is being billed as Woodstock to Rootstock/Tie Dye to Black Tie/Opera to Rock--in other words, anything goes. Enjoy the music of the SF Opera Singers, dance to the tunes of the Sycamore Slough String Band, and bid on a silent auction while you enjoy free champagne, a no-host bar, and hors d'oeuvres.

Tickets are $100 in advance, $125 at the door, and they can be used for entry back into the show for the show's duration. Purchase tickets here.

If you haven't been to the Marcom Rose Garden (located on Jean Street, one block off of Grand Avenue), you should check it out. It's a lovely spot to spend a quiet afternoon and enjoy 7+ acres of beautiful gardens in the midst of a busy urban center.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Swiss Chard: You Can Grow That!

Of all the greens that I can grow in my garden, there's no doubt that Swiss chard is my favorite. The reason is simple: Not only do I like to eat it, but it's easy to grow and works as a great addition to any garden, even amongst ornamentals. The stark white or bright yellow, orange or red stems against the dark greens make it a lovely filler plant tucked into flower beds, and if I only harvest the bigger, outer leaves, the plant will keep growing in my garden for more than a year.

You can plant starts from the nursery but it's very easy to grow from seed. Although mature plants can tolerate light frosts, it's best to wait until after the last frost date to set out seedlings or direct-seed. Swiss chard can grow in full sun or partial shade and prefer cool, mild conditions. They also work great as container plants. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep in rows or broadcast over a bed. Seedlings can be thinned when they reach a few inches and the seedlings make a great addition to salads.

Plants should be kept evenly moist and mulched. Fish emulsion or compost is really all the fertilizer you need, but don't fertilize in the winter if soil temps get below 40 degrees. You can start harvesting leaves in about 50 days. You can cut the outer leaves just above the soil level and leave the younger, inner leaves to get bigger, or you can cut the entire head off at soil level (it may or may not re-sprout from the roots if you harvest the entire head).

Swiss chard is rich in vitamins and minerals and very versatile. You can use it in salads, stir fries, or the same ways you'd use any other greens. My favorite way of eating it is to just chop up stems and leaves together and throw them into a pot of simmering chicken broth along with some frozen tortellini. In a flash you've got a healthy, delicious soup!

For more on growing this and other edibles in California gardens, check out my book California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening (also available in a Nook edition at

This post is part of the You Can Grow That! monthly blog series. Check here for more posts by other garden bloggers on how to grow all kinds of edibles and ornamentals. 

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