An Alameda Garden: August 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Gary Bukovnik Watercolor Exhibition at UC Botanical Garden

Vase of Roses
If you can get to the UC Botanical Garden in the next couple weeks, you can enjoy more than the garden's insanely large collection of amazing plants. Starting today and running through September 3rd, the garden is hosting an exhibit of floral watercolors by artist Gary Bukovnik. Bukovnik is a Bay Area artist whose work has been shown in major museums across the country.

If you want to meet the artist himself, you can attend a salon and reception on August 30th ($50/$40 for members; space is limited and you must register in advance. And if you've always wanted to explore watercolor painting, you can enroll in a day-long workshop with Bukovnik at the garden on September 3rd ($200/$175 members). You'll learn the principles of working with watercolors and benefit from the artist's unique perspective on seeing and representing plants in paint.
Spring Fever, Tumbling Composition

For details and to register for the salon or workshop, click here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

How to Choose and Site a Garden Bench

Have a seat! We're going to talk about one of my favorite elements in a garden--benches. Ever since I started going on garden tours and to garden shows, I've become a little obsessed with benches in the garden. They are an inviting way to add structure and style to your garden, as well as a way of establishing or augmenting a focal point.

Choosing a Bench

There is a seemingly endless range of styles for garden benches, from formal or traditional to funky and eccentric, as well as a wide array of materials. Before you try to select a bench, you should consider what role you want it to play in your garden. If your garden has a woodland style, you may want a bench that will blend with that setting, such as natural wood or faux bois concrete. In a traditional garden, a classically styled bench of wood or wrought iron will suit. Got a Bohemian garden? Then you can really push the boundaries and select a bench with color and flair.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Newsletter Launched!

I feel like celebrating a little! This week I finally launched the first issue of my email newsletter, "Time in the Garden." This is a project I've been wanting to start for a long time and it felt great to finally get it out there. If you haven't subscribed, you're missing out on one simple email a month that will remind you what gardening tasks you should be taking care of that month, as well as offer news, reviews, and recipes to help you make the most of your precious garden time. Click here to subscribe!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Cook This: Yellow and White Summer Succotash

I never even knew that I liked succotash until I had it at the Homestead Restaurant in Oakland about a year ago. Prior to that, the turnoff for me was that succotash was made with lima beans, one of the few beans I've never taken a liking to. But Homestead made a delicious fresh succotash with white beans instead of lima beans and served it with a poached egg on top and a side of fried sourdough bread. Yummy!

So with all the great summer corn available (alas! not from my garden, which is too small to grow corn), it seems like a good time to take Homestead's version of succotash and give it a little bit of my own twist. I did that by making it a strictly yellow and white dish--white corn, yellow onion, white beans, yellow bell pepper, and of course a sunny poached egg on top. I kept the seasoning extremely simple (just salt and pepper) so the fresh corn taste doesn't get overwhelmed, but if you want it more seasoned you could add some thyme. Couldn't be easier and it makes a nice light summer meal for brunch or dinner.

Yellow and White Summer  Succotash

2 ears white corn (about 1 1/2 cups)
Olive oil
1/2  yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper
1 yellow squash (such as 'Yellow Eight Ball'), diced
White wine
1 15-oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and fresh pepper to taste
4 eggs (1 egg per serving), poached (see Note)

Using a sharp knife and standing the ear of corn on its end, slice the corn kernels off of the cobs. Set aside.

Heat a large fry pan on medium heat. Add olive oil to the pan and saute the onion until translucent, stirring as needed to avoid burning. Add bell pepper and cook a minute or two before adding the squash. Add a splash of white wine and cover the pan for a couple minutes to steam. Add the corn. Cook another minute or two and then add the beans. Cook just until the beans are heated through and add salt and pepper to taste. Plate the succotash and top each serving with a poached egg and another dash of salt and pepper. Serve with warm or toasted bread on the side. Serves 4 generously.

Note: To poach an egg, bring a medium saucepan filled with water to a depth of about 3 inches to a simmer (so that you can see steam rising and tiny bubbles on the sides of the pan). Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. (You can poach an egg without vinegar, but the vinegar helps the egg white to set and hold together, which makes for a much better poached egg.) Crack and ease a raw egg into the simmering water. Gently nudge the egg around in the water a bit but be careful not to break the yolk. The timing depends entirely on how cooked you like your eggs, but 2 1/2 to 3 minutes in the water will give you an egg with the whites cooked through and the yolk still runny, which I think is just right. Scoop the egg out carefully with a slotted spoon, allowing as much water as possible to run off, then turn the egg out to drain onto a paper towel folded in quarters. Carefully turn the egg over onto the plated succotash.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Tale of 7 Mulches: How to Choose the Right One for Your Garden

If there is one business to be in during this stubborn drought, it might be the mulch business. Mulching your garden provides so many benefits, not the least of which are minimizing evaporation and suppressing water-stealing weeds, both important objectives in a drought. But there are many materials, both organic and non-organic, that you can use as as mulch. How do you choose? Following are the pros and cons of some of the best and/or most popular options.

1. Bark or Wood Chips

Among the most commonly used mulches, bark and wood chips are easily available in bags from garden centers but can also be obtained (sometimes for free) from tree services. Wood chips can be slow to deteriorate, but they can temporarily bind up nitrogen in the soil as they do, which robs nearby plants of needed nutrition. Bark chips can also be toxic to plants if they are too fresh. You can also buy bags of colored wood chip mulches (generally red, brown, and black).

Monday, August 10, 2015

What to Do in the Garden in August


  • To get ready for the planting to be done in the fall, clean up your potting area and organize your tools, pots, and seeds.
  • Fall catalogs from nurseries are probably starting to arrive in your mailbox. Take some time to peruse them and order spring-blooming bulbs and other plants you want to add to your garden.
  • Are you ready for the final major harvests of the year? Make sure you're fully stocked on canning/freezing/dehydrating equipment to preserve your crops.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Talking About Vertical Gardening

Interested in finding out how to maximize your gardening space by growing edibles vertically? Come to the meeting of the Alameda Backyard Growers tomorrow night where I'll be talking about ways to get your edibles to grow up. The talk and the meeting are free and I'll be selling copies of my books, California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening and California Month-by-Month Gardening, afterward. Hope to see you there!

"Growing Edibles on the Up and Up:
Vertical Gardening Techniques for Fruits and Vegetables"

Alameda Backyard Growers monthly meeting
Rythmix Cultural Works
2513 Blanding Ave.
Monday, August 10, 2015
6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Photo: Heidi Hornberger

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Creating a Pet-Friendly Garden

It's not hard to make your garden a safe and fun place for dogs and cats, but it does take a little planning, and maybe some training.

You may want to create an enclosed area so that your pet is limited to one part of your garden and is safe from predators. Make sure that it includes a shaded area so that he has a place to retreat to when the sun is too intense. Make sure as well that there is fresh water always available and that it can't be knocked over.

Know which plants in your garden are toxic. Most animals seem to know what plants are poisonous and when they do eat the wrong thing, they usually spit it back up in pretty short order. But if you know what plants are toxic, you can take steps to keep your pets away.

There's a greater chance that your pet could be poisoned by fertilizers  and soil amendments than by toxic plants, so keep all containers of pesticides and fertilizers safely out of your pets' reach. Don't assume that even organic products are safe. Amendments like bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, and cocoa bean hulls used as mulch can smell very appealing but can make an animal very sick.

Use the carrot-and-stick approach in selecting plant materials. Use tall or thorny plants as barriers to keep animals out of certain areas and plants with appealing scents to lure them toward the areas that are pet-friendly. Cats dislike citrus scents but love catnip, catmint, and cat thyme. Dogs may be turned off by natural repellents like citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus) or some scented geraniums like Pelargonium 'Citronella'.

Keep other animals safe from your pets. Adding a bell to your cat's collar can make it harder for him to attack songbirds. It may also be necessary to keep pet chickens in a separate part of the garden or install a barrier to a pond containing fish.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Cat Grasses and Other Kitty Treats: You Can Grow That!

Cats (and some dogs) love to nibble at grass, but you may not want to encourage them to chew on the lawn, particularly if the lawn's been treated with non-organic amendments or pesticides. Planting a pot of grasses especially for your pets will encourage them to leave other plants alone (particularly housecats that sometimes nibble out of boredom). You can sow seeds of just about any annual cereal grass but many seed companies sell packets of grass mixes especially for cats. These combinations of rye, oats, barley, and wheat are very appealing to cats, especially when you fertilize them with a shot of fish emulsion.

Growing Annual Grasses

Choose a wide, shallow pot, such as a bulb pot, to sow the seeds in. Fill it up to about an inch from the top with potting soil, then sprinkle the grass seeds over the top. Aim to space the seeds about 1/4 inch apart. Sprinkle about 1/2 inch of potting mix over the seeds and press to get good contact between the soil and seeds. Water well and place where it will get at least a half-day of sun. Keep evenly moist and seeds should germinate within a week. Wait until the grass is a couple inches high before giving it to your cats to nibble. Water regularly and feed with a fish emulsion solution every couple of weeks. If you plant a container every 4 to 6 weeks, you'll have a steady crop of grass to keep your cats happy.

Growing Catmint and Catnip

While cat grasses are fast-growing and tasty (if you're a cat), they are annuals, which means you need to re-sow seeds in order to keep them continuously growing. Catmint (Nepeta mussinii) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) are herbaceous perennials, meaning that they will die back to the roots in the winter, but re-sprout from the same root system in the spring. They also both contain the organic compound called nepetalactone, which is known to attract felines. In other words, catmint and catnip are recreational drugs for cats.

Linus, the undergardener, looking for catnip
Catmint and catnip need full sun. Sow seeds in the spring or plant container-grown plants in the spring or fall. They will  grow into mounded plants between 12 and 18 inches high. Catmint in particular makes a nice groundcover. Both plants will develop flower spikes (catmint flowers are lavender and catnip can be white/pink/lavender). When the flowers fade, just cut them back and the plant will be rebloom. Although they tend to be hardy plants that will grow in almost any soil, they do best when fed every couple weeks with a weak organic fertilizer. With regular feeding they'll be better able to withstand the constant nibbling that they will have to endure.


There are several companies that offer seed mixes for cat grasses as well as catmint or catnip seeds. My favorites include Renee's Garden Seeds, Burpee, Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, and Botanical Interests. You can also use pre-seeded disks, available from Botanical Interests, which are more expensive, but easy to use and result in more even sprouting.

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