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March 2006
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May 2006

Mediterranean Foods and Gardening

I have been giving talks entitled "Mediterranean Climate Food Gardening" in which I lay out a food gardening year that makes heavy use of the wetter half of our California year. I've been telling about our cool season crops, the ones that thrive into fall and winter or that can be planted in late winter, and explaining that so many of them are native to the Mediterranean Basin, where they were first domesticated. As wild plants, they began to grow with fall or winter rains.

Right now I'm reading the book Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen, by Sonia Uvesian, who grew up in Lebanon. She is writing about food in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in the area now occupied by Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. In this region, the time of peak rainfall is in winter, as it is in California.

In tonight's reading, two subjects struck me:

The first is that there was traditionally in this region many kinds of syrups made by boiling fruit juices. The word dibs  means a molasses made form grapes, pomegranate, dates, or carob. The author describes watching grapes being crushed and boiled. Whole villages were "infused with the sweet, irresistable scent of grape juice seething in huge copper caldrons (dists)." "Sitting under an indigo sky, diamonded with close-hanging stars, I would feel as if I were witnessing some mysterious ancient rite, so engrossed were the grown-ups in stoking the fires and stirring the boiling grape juice in the caldrons, their figures silhouetted against the flames."

From a nutritional standpoint, these syrups were, of course, better than purified sugar syrup, which has had all substances removed but the pure sucrose, or than the high fructose corn syrup we are  not being fed by the food industry, which is likewise pure sugar. I think that Italian sodas must have been made with such fruit syrups, and suspect they are now flavored cane sugar syrup.

I was also struck by a seasonal list of vegetables available in a market in the 18th century, when lack of rapid transport meant that fresh foods in the market probably came from nearby.

From November to the end of March: cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, Swiss chard, endive, radish, beet, carrot, and turnip. Cauliflower came in about the end of January and lasted till mid March. In April and May, came Romaine lettuce, fava beans, peas, artichokes, and purslane. Sounds very familiar to me, from what I can grow in my Central California mediterranean garden in fall and winter!


Frank Lloyd Wright Landscaping, Farmers Market

On Sunday, after I spoke at the Miller Avenue Sloat Garden Center in Mill Valley, David and I went to the Marin Farmers Market in the parking lot of the Marin County Civic Center. The market was lovely, selling everything from roasted chickens to organic strawberries, and including many booths that were serving lunch. Other items for sale were live plants, jewelry, and cut flowers. And I really liked a silkscreened tee shirt that read "I eat my vegetables" in both children's and adult sizes. You can see it, and other boldly decorated food themed tee shirts at the website: www.ninaandtom.com 

After we went to the fair, we hiked up a trail that led to an overlook between one part of the Civic Center Buidling and another part. This building, in case you haven't seen it, is worth the trip. Frank Lloyd Wright did it, and it is uniquely wonderful, with a clear blue roof, spires, and a futuristic feel that has endured through the decades. The garden we were hiking through zigzagged up, with a spacious circular concrete patio edged with a circular bench at each corner. It was warm and sunny, and I could imagine what a nice place each would be to have lunch while working in the building. At the top, we could look out at lovely hilly Marin from several directions and look down on parts of the building, on its blue roof and its huge skylights. The parts of the garden we walked through were nicely maintained and planted. There were redbud trees and native oaks in bloom, huge clivias in a tunnel through the building, and healthy looking nandinas along the walk. If you haven't seen this wonderful building and landscape, and are driving up 101 throgh San Rafael, look for the exit and check it out. It is on the East side of the highway, in the northern part of San Rafael. If it is a Sunday, you can go to the market too. During the week, parking might be more difficult, but then you could tour inside the building too, and see the extensive indoor plantings under the skylights.


Hunting, Gathering, Gardening

Today, in the process of researching newly developled blueberry varieties for parts of California with very mild winters and cool summers, I came across a link to a poem by Robert Frost on picking wild berries, specifically blueberries, in New England ("Blueberries", Robert Frost, from North of Boston, 1914). The link is http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/robertfrost/12073.

Frost gives us a picture of a rural area in which people, especially those with less income, collect wild berries to supplement their food supply. He also gets just right the coyness of a hunting or gathering person when asked about locations of treasured food sources. (Ever ask a fishing person to tell you how the fishing is going? Often it's something like: "Oh, it's OK, I guess. Could be better, maybe." End of discussion.)

And then Frost finishes with a paeon to the pleasures of picking berries, in his case, blueberries glistening in the rain. In my case, it has more often been blackberries shining in the sunshine with mockingbird song as accompaniment. But I recognized his description of wandering in the bushes, with birds nearby and the feeling of peaceful joy.

Furthermore, I often get the same kind of feeling while I'm harvesting from my garden. Even a 3 by 4 foot patch of red raspberries can do it, or a 4 foot long trellis of cucumbers. As I hunt for the fruits to pick, peering this way and that, I feel a kinship to all who have gathered. It is a feeling that goes deeply into the human psyche, that ties us to nature and lets us feel ourselves as a part of nature. This is one of the strongest reasons I know to garden.

Oh, and the result of my blueberry research is that the southern highbush variety 'Sunshine Blue' is a mighty good selection for coastal Bay Area gardeners. It requires only about 150 hours of winter chill (hours between freezing and 45 degrees F). A dwarf type, it grows to about 3 feet tall and is easier to grow in a pot than the ground. Plant 2 per person, locate where they will get sunshine and not too much wind, learn to prune them, restrict fruit for 1 to 3 years to allow the plant to get bigger first--then, mmmmm! Here is a link where you can learn directions for making a soil mix for blueberries and caring for them in a pot: http://www.davewilson.com/homegrown/promotion/bluecontainer.html


New Articles & Old, Community Gardens

Last night I used finely chopped wild onions (Allium triquetrum) in a pasta sauce that included sundried tomatoes, garlic, and basil. The wild onion was from my backyard, and the basil was from the African Blue Basil plant that is still bearing leaves (and flowers!) in my community garden plot. Gave me great pleasure to be able combine the wild onion, a winter grower, with the homegrown basil, which would ordinarily be unavailable this early in the spring.

The wild onion, which I described in detail in Golden Gate Gardening (see sidebar of this blog) is a native of the Mediterranean basin that is quite weedy in our area, so if you have it, be careful to pick off most of the flowers before they can produce seeds. It has a triangular flower stem bearing several white flared bell-shaped flowers, a strong keel on the leaves, and a strong scent of onion. The whole plant is edible, including the flowers, which are nice on a salad. (Don't eat your weeds unless you are sure you have positive identification, and if you have something that you think might be a wild onion but it doesn't have a strong onion smell, don't eat it!).

African Blue Basil is the only perennial basil, though plants won't survive winter if they are too cold. The one I have at home seems to be dead, but the one in my community garden, where the winter has been milder, is still bearing leaves and flowers. I wrote about this plant last year for the Chronicle, and you can find that article in their archives at www.sfgate.com . In addition to being perennial, this basil is a large plant and the basil that has the best chance of producing a crop in fneighborhoods with foggy, cool summes. You will be able to find it in local nurseries this spring, though maybe not quite yet.

At risk of circular information sharing, since I think some of you who read this blog in the past few days found it through the SF Chronicle, I should report, that I had 2 more articles in the Chronicle Home Section this week. You can find them at www.sfgate.com . Click on "Home and Garden." On Wednesday, April 19th they published an article called "It Poured Indeed." I interviewed several professional gardeners and an arborist about the effect of all of the rain we just had on their business and the gardens they attend to. It's been hard on them too!

Today, on April 22, they published an article I wrote about growing vegetables and herbs in containers, in which I share information I learned the hard way years ago when I lived in an apartment building and before I had a community garden plot. I went and gathered (sandy) soil from a vacant lot, put the boxes where I would have to carry water to them in a watering can, and put them in a notch in the building that maybe got a couple of hours of sunlight a day. Even worse were the ones I put on the roof, where wind helped to dry out my too-porous soil and I had to climb stairs to water! I hope this article will help readers do the best they can with what space they have, or, if there isn't an adequate place to grow in containers, to find a community garden.

Incidentally, to search for an available community garden spot in San Francisco, you can log on to www.sfgro.org, the new organization that has just been formed to help community and backyard gardeners. The acronym stands for SF Gardeners Resource Organization.

There are community gardens all around our area, in many cities and towns, so a little searching should turn up something near you. In exchange for a small fee and participation in keeping the garden running smoothly (both the physical area and the group interactions) you can get a plot of land, smaller or larger depending on location and plenty of help from other gardeners in learning what to do.

I am headed off to Marin County in the morning to repeat the lecture, with slides, that I gave in at the San Francisco Sloat Nursery on Sloat Avenue last week. The topic is Mediterranean Climate Food Gardening. This one will be at 10 AM at the Sloat Nursery at 401 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley. Their website is www.sloatgardens.com


Looking Like Spring!

Gardens are actually starting to look good out there. The sun came out today, which inspired me to drive around a bit and look at gardens. Cherry blossoms are blooming, along with watsonias, daffodils, California poppies, California lilacs (ceanothus). Its been a long time since the California poppies stayed open all day, since they close up with overcast or rain. Today, everything was bright and sparkly. Hope you got out to see it. If not, sounds like there are 2 more days to enjoy it. Take advantage of the later sunset to go for a walk after work and see what might be in bloom near you. As my little 8 year old friend said: "When you see a flower, you feel happy." By golly, she's got it!

On Wednesday, if all goes as planned, I will have another article in the Chronicle. It's a bit of reportage about how the rain has been affecting gardeners and tree workers.

My next lecture and slide show will be on Sunday, April 23, at the Sloat Garden Center at 401 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley, at 10 in the morning. For more information call them at (415) 388-0365. I will be talking about Mediterranean Food Gardening, or how to use our mediterranean year to get the most from our vegetable and herb garden. I will be giving out a planting calendar and some recipes that will help you abolish the Eastern US bias that haunts us in so many gardening books and magazines. Hope to see you there!


Eating Something New

I went to the San Francisco Farmers Market on Alamany Blvd. today, taking advantage of a rare Saturday not teaching and a rare hour free of rain. As I shopped, I was contemplating how we develop food preferences and how we learn to like new foods. I was also thinking about why we might choose to eat something new.

For my part, I have been trying to eat new foods that are better for me than others I might choose. Another important reason for me to try a new food is that I can grow it, in the space I have and in the San Francisco microclimate. Of course I have to also like it, but I am willing to give a new food a few chances if it meets first two criteria.

So, in the spirit of exploration, I have been trying out gai lon, or Chinese broccoli, a white-flowered relative of collards and Western broccoli. Several Chinese American students have brought it to class potlucks at City College of San Francisco over the past few years, prepared with oyster sauce. But I am a little slow to catch on sometimes, and it took a few times for me to get the point that it is a favorite in their culture and that I really liked it, and also to think: "Oh, we should be able to grow this here."

Last year I grew just a little gai lon, starting in midsummer, and the harvested leafy stems with flower buds were tender and delicious. Following my student's directions, I boiled them a minute, then stir-fried them, adding some oyter sauce to season them.

I have since bought them in the grocery (Sunset Super, which carries many Asian foods), and found the ones they carry less tender and flavorful than the ones I grew. So I have puchased seeds from Kitazawa Seed Company (http://www.kitazawaseed.com) and am growing two varieties, an open pollinated one and 'Green Lance'. They seem to be less susceptible to snails and slugs than bok choy, though they are susceptible to root maggots and cabbage worms. Like sprouting varieties of broccoli, you cut the tender stems and wait for more to grow, repeating your harvest until the plant is spent. I plan to try starting seed from February through August and see how it does in each month.

Today I bought a bunch of gai lon at the farmer's market, since mine is not ready yet. The stems of the farmers market product are thinner than the ones I bought in the grocery, closer to the size of the ones I grew last year, so maybe they will be more tender. Now to see how they compare. I have a feeling that gai lon is about to become a new favorite in my garden cuisine!


I'm in the Chron today, also, garden tours

I was pleased to be able to get a short piece published about my Dad's family at Easter. It was in the Chronicle, and you can read it online (on the sfgate website) at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/04/12/HOG17I6USL1.DTL.

Correction to the article: The box in which my Dad's family sold eggs held a dozen dozen eggs, that is it held 144 eggs. Proofreaders are made nervous by double words, so out went the second dozen. Sigh.

Also in the Chronicle Home Section today is the list of garden tours that will be held this spring. These tours are usually fundraisers, though the ones sponsored by city or county agencies encouraging Bay-friendly or water-conserving gardens may be free. You register and then get a map, so you can guide yourself from garden to garden.

I plan to go on the Mother's Day Native Plant Tour, which will be in San Francisco, 10 to 2 on May 14th. There have been native plant tours of the East Bay and the South Bay, and I think an SF tour has happened in previous years, but this is the first year that I have known about it. It is sponsored by the Native Plant Society. For information you can call (415) 841-1254.

An old favorite of mine is Gardens Galore, sponsored by the St. Joseph's Garden Club of Alameda. This is its 12th year, and if you have never been to the island of Alameda, you will be pleasantly surprised by the small town atmosphere and the charming gardens. This tour will be on May 21, 11 to 5. Tickets are $20 to $25. For more information, call (510) 864-8503.

Take tours to see how others solve garden problems, learn about new plants, and just for the pure joy of being in wonderful gardens in the spring. We assume that the rain will let up by the time of most of the tours, and sunny days will show gardens at their most inviting. Ah, something to look forward to!


Playing the Rain Game

I maintain a small garden with a small lawn. Best not to mow a lawn when wet, and, if your mower is electric, probably best not to mow when it is raining. The forecast for today was "Partly Cloudy, Chance of Showers." I called to say I would come, but my client said she heard that a storm was to arrive this morning with lots of rain. So I cancelled.

At 9:30 in the morning, it is sunny. I call and say I am coming. On the way, it begins to rain. I arrive at the door feeling foolish. I pull a few weeds in my raincoat, eyeing the lawn, which is too long, since there wasn't a dry enough day to mow it last week. It stops raining. I mow. Great gobs of cut grass accumulate in some places and have to be removed, rather than left on the lawn as clippings are normally. I have to brush the lawn with my hand here and there and use a hand edger to clip a few tufts that laid down rather than getting cut. I finish deadheading the flowers and weeding. It starts to rain again.

But after I leave, the sun comes out and stays out most of the rest of the day. If I had waited a couple of hours, maybe the lawn would have been dry! There is no way to predict and no right time to do garden tasks. This evening, it was clouded over and I thought it was raining. I had to check the pavement out the window to realize that it was not raining, and then it hit me that I have become so accustomed to looking out and seeing rain I tend to assume that if the sun isn't shining, it must be raining.

Another storm system predicted for next week. Houses are sliding down hills around here, and plants cannot be happy with the watersoaked soil. It limits the ability of their roots to respire, since there is less water in soil so wet. It can lead to roots being more susceptible to decay organisms, because they are so weakened.

Gardeners too, are suffering from the wet. I spoke to a friend who is a City gardener and she tells me that working in rain gear makes her all sweaty. In other words, gear to keep rain from gettng in prevents natural body moisture from getting out.  And then when she goes inside for a break, she gets a chill. So she got a nasty cold despite the rain gear.

But spring has really sprung, and I am seeing the purple clusters of wisteria blossoms on their vines and here and there poppies or other spectacular spring shows in gardens. Makes it easier to take than the rainy March, when the plants were not yet showing us their spring colors.


Growing True Seed Potatoes

When we grow potatoes, we usually say we are planting "seed potatoes." These are either potatoes that have been cut into pieces with at least one eye each, or small whole potatoes. Some years ago I bought some "true potato seed," as in "seeds made in a flower." I tried to grow them, but they were such delicate seedlings! When they all became elongated and fell over. I gave up on transplanting them. So this year it was with some trepidation that I purchased, and planted, Catalina true potato seed, from Nichols Garden Nursery. I now have some seedlings, some of them growing fairly well, so I might be able to plant them out this year and report on the harvest.

Seedlingspot2_1 The directions for growing these seeds are quite exacting and my results so far have not been perfect. The package says germination is in 10 to 14 days, and will occur at 45 to 80 degrees. I started out on a heat mat, where only 3 of the 30 seeds germinated. Moved to against a south window, more began to emerge, so that now there are about 20. The directions also say that if days are over 13 hours long, the plants will stay prostrate (flat to the ground). I started on Febrary 21st, thinking to avoid this problem, since days are 12 hours long on March 21. But the growth has been so slow that I have begun putting the flat in my closet at night to avoid the artificial light (fine if I shut the door tightly enough that the cat doesn't paw it open!) At least so far, the ones that are up are growing upright.

The directions also recommend misting with dilute fertilizer every other day. I have done that once. Guess I had better get going!

So what is the point of this exercise? Well, for me it was mainly a challenge, but the advantages are listed as 1. Price: 30 seeds, so, theoretically 30 potato plants for $2.75, 2. Disease free, 3. Available when wanted as opposed to the tubers that are only usually available in spring. On a small scale, the price isn't as critical, but you could plant an acre of these with 2.3 ounces of seed, while it would take 2,000 pounds of tubers, so on a large scale, or, say, in a developing country, it could make a difference.

The package says I can harvest mature tubers about 100 days after transplanting. At the rate these are going it is going to be another month or more before I can plant them out, so in 4 to 5 months, I can report on production and flavor. Hmm, that's July or August. The package says they will be flat, oval tubers, brown skin, white flesh, good for boiling, mashing, frying, or salads.

I teach the first class of another 6-week vegetable and herb class tomorrow morning. We've had 2 dry days, so I tarped 2 beds. They have missed the rain that has fallen all afternoon and evening. If the stones hold, and neither of them has blown off, the beds should be dry enough to plant tomorrow.


Michael Pollan's new book

Went to hear a lecture by Michael Pollan today, the last lecture in a series of free lectures at the Goldman School of Public Policy, at UC, Berkeley. Pollan, the author of Second Nature and The Botany of Desire, has written a new book that tracks the sources of foods in several meals. It will be out next week, and is titled The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Ntural History of 4 Meals. Today, he spoke about corn in the American food system. It is subsidized in a way that encourages ever increasing production with falling prices. Sixty percent of the corn we grow is used to feed animals. Mr. Pollan has written in the past few years about the fact that corn disagrees with cows, so they are also fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Overuse of the antibiotics threatens to make them less effective in treating our own diseases.

But in addition to being used in animal feed, corn products are now used in an ever-increasing number of our prepared foods.High fructose corn syrup in particular is suspected to contribute significantly to the rise in obesity and diabetes.

I learned a new term today "the fixed stomach problem." This is the food industry's term for the fact that we can only eat so much, so how can they continue to sell us more and more food, and so grow, as capitalist enterprises must. Years ago, when I was reading about food technology, I learned the terms "acceptibility" and "mouthfeel." These were terms used to evaluate new processed foods they were creating. These terms made me feel that the food industry was thinking of us as livestock to be offered a new kibble. Would we accept it? Did it feel right to our mouths? Not was it delicious, nutritious, delightful to eat, a product of a sustainable food system, but was it "acceptible." Now the term "fixed stomach" makes me feel not even like livestock, but like a commodity. How can the industry gain greater access to my stomach?

I feel that I live in a world full of endless stuff I don't need, and among the things I don't need are most of the products of the food technology industry. Every time I make a salad from my garden, or saute some homegrown greens, or eat fresh produce from a farmers market, I am denying the big food industry access to my stomach, and taking charge of what goes into it myself. I hadn't thought of it so bluntly, but today I felt an indignant need to take my stomach out of their perview, thank you.

Meanwhile, I am growing potato from seed. Really, from seed, rather than from whole small or cut pieces of tubers. I tried it once before, years ago, and reported my lack of success in Golden Gate Gardening, but this time it is going better. I will post a photo of the seedlings and a report on their progress next week.