More Late Summer Bloom for San Francisco

I've been writing about flowers that bloom in my garden in late summer and fall. This time of year is always a challenge, because the summer is dry and so many mediterranean and California native plants bloom earlier in the year. I have the further problem that my garden is in a foggy and cool part of the city, and the backyard goes into shade in fall and winter. This results in outbreaks of powdery mildew diseases and gray mold. So I am writing about plants that resist these diseases.

The photo below is of pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, which provides reliable color, from September into November. The photo was taken on October 15th. November 15th, it was still in bloom. The spot where it is planted is in sun from April until September, then in open shade, so it gets the sun it needs to prepare to bloom.

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This plant attracts hummingbirds and offers a whiff of pineapple to gardeners who brush against it. The edible flowers are attractive in salads, especially in a fruit salad. The leaves have such a tantilizing scent, but unfortunately, do not hold the scent when they have been cooked.

In winter, pneapple sage loses most of its leaves. In spring, I cut back any bare stems, and new, leafy ones grow to replace them.

Another late-blooming flower with tubular red flowers is the California fuchsia. (It used to be called Zauschneria californica, but has had a botanical name change, so it is now to be called Epilobium canuum.) I grow it in a place that gets sun all year, but it could handle winter shade, since it is mostly dormant in winter. You wouldn't want it too near to a pineapple sage plant, in any case, since one small, red tubular flower in a small space is enough.

California fuchsia blooms from July onward into autumn. This year, following our spectacularly mild November, some parts of the plant are still blooming at the end of December. It has no scent, however it does share with pineapple sage that it attracts hummingbirds. It has no scent. The other morning when I went to pick up the paper, a hummer was taking its breakfast in the California fuchsias. 

The main drawback I have found to California fuchsia is that the plant is very brittle. If a cat fight happens in it, or you have to reach through it to get to other plants, the meter reader has to push it aside to read a metor, damage will occur. Pieces will break off and have to be discarded. So be careful where you put it.

After California fuchsia blooms, it looks pretty ratty and you will want to cut it back. Maybe the first year just cut back partway, but  I cut my established plants to near the ground and it comes back fine.

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For some bright yellow in late summer and autumn, grow goldenrod. There is a native species, Solidago californica, which I think is the one in the photo. These plants are about 3 feet tall and were covered with bees--honeybees, bumble bees, large and small native bees--they were all having a feast.

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Here is a big bee, probably native, not a bumblebee.

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This one was a wee little bee, probably another native. After goldenrod blooms, cut it back partway. It is a semi-evergreen perennial. And, by the way, it is falsely accused of causing hayfever. Apparently it is the ragweed that blooms at the same time as Eastern goldenrod species that is the culprit.

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Coming up: Some flowers for winter color.

Email as an Aphid Managment Tactic

I planted broccoli in my community garden last fall, and this spring, as it neared bearing age, it was overrun with aphids. The worst was the largest plant, which tipped over in a winter storm. (It is often the case that a plant with damaged roots becomes most attractive to aphids.) What to do?

I began by crushing as many aphids on leaves as I could find, and washing the leaves with the hose as I went. I looked over the plants carefully, checking the undersides of leaves and in curled over leaves.

When a leaf was heavily infested, I sometimes broke it off and took it away to a green bin (our municipal composting container here in San Francisco). As it began to bear heads, I removed them too, as they were so full of aphids I didn't want to try to get them clean.

I also noted that there were many lady beetles (ladybugs) on my African blue basil plant (a perennial that was coming back from winter), so I assume some of them were eating aphids on the broccoli, though I never saw one there. And, some of the aphids were turning brown and puffy, since they had been parasitized by the miniwasp that preys on aphids.

But after 2 weeks, with the problem not going away, I used a different pest management tactic, the email. I sent an email to a gardener in an adjacent plot to say that there were so many aphids on the Russian kale in that plot that it was certainly inedible, and so many that they were surely flying over to my broccoli in search of more to eat.

I think this tactic turned the tide. The next time I looked, the infested kale was gone (thank you!) and within a week, the infestation of my broccoli was much lower. I still searched and found pockets of aphids on inner leaves, but it was so much better.

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Then, in a couple of weeks, presto, clean broccoli heads! I have been enjoying them ever since. I like to steam a few lightly and refirgerate them to cut up and put on a salad!


Cold Summer Bean Blues

This past summer, as you noticed if you were in San Francisco, was miserably cold and foggy. Of course tomatoes were later than usual, though with so much late blight in play, tomatoes aren't something I grow very much these days. But in the City College garden, even the beans were uncooperative.

The romano beans (Italian flat pods) didn't set any beans. I didn't think that would matter, since what you eat is the pod anyway, but the unfertilized pods were short and curved and they weren't very broad either. Late in the summer, when we had a little warm weather, some more pods set that were fertilized (had some immature beans in them) and they were longer, straight, and wider. Mind you, the little, empty, curved romano pods were tasty enough, but you sure had to pick a lot of them to get much to eat. I planted a few pole romanos too, and they had very poor pod set, with the few that formed being curved and narrow, without beans, like the bush romanos.

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The bush purple pod beans did OK, as you can see from this photo, which I took in July. The pole purple-podded beans, though very late (just started bearing just a few weeks ago) are forming nice long, straight pods. The filet beans did fine, but then you harvest them when they are still tiny, before they have a chance to be fertilized, so they are bred to be shapely at that stage.

Even the runner beans behaved badly. These, a different species, with red flowers and large pods, had a nice early crop that was over by early summer, and then practically nothing. Not the usual late summer second crop. Only a few stray blossoms here and there. And this is a bean that is usually undaunted by our cool summers.

Beans don't like hot weather, being fine with 70 or 75. But they didn't like last summer any better than I did. Fall is here, and I still want a little bit of summer! Well, maybe we'll have better luck next year.


Syrphid fly in my backyard garden

Last week I was out early in the morning when a spiderweb hanging between a chair and a columbine was still decorated with crystalline dewdrops, each one a rainbow. I was checking what was coming into bloom, when I noticed a handsome sryphid fly on a potato plant. It was still sluggish from the slight morning chill, so I thought maybe I could get a photo. I ran up to bring down my camera with a close up lens, and lo, it was still there. So here is the my best shot.

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I am always glad to see a syrphid fly, because their larvae eat aphids and other soft-bodied insects. This particular syrphid fly is a bit smaller than a honeybee. It looks kind of like one, but those markings are just to fool a predator. You will see syrphid flies hovering around plants, like little helicopters. Because of the way they fly, they are sometimes called hover flies, and because they hover around flowers, they are also sometimes called flower flies. They may be striped or may be single-colored, and may be much smaller than this one, but by their hovering shall you know them.

Look closely at the insect, and you will see that it has only 2 wings. That is characteristic of flies, which are in the insect order Diptera (di=2). Most insects have wings, and all the other ones have 4. 

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at a garden club in the East Bay. It was outdoors, in a garden, so instead of bringing a show of photos, I brought some vegetables and vases of flowers, some edible, others to attract beneficial insects. As I was talking, a syrphid fly came along and checked out the flowers. It considered seriously the collard flowers in the bouquet of edible flowers, but rejected them and settled on the parsley flowers in the vase of flowers to attract benificials. Point well made.  

Lady Beetles

2008 Early June 019 copy2 Here is a photo of a convergent lady beetle, shown on a flowering broccoli plant. The name "convergent" comes from the two diagonal white lines on their thorax (the part between the head and the wing covers).These beetles are native to California, and help quite a bit with pest control in our gardens. I never buy them, because they just show up hungry every year. They hibernate in the mountains and fly down our way in spring.

You can encourage lady beetles to find your garden by planting flowers they like. The adult beetles live on nectar and pollen when insects aren't available.They may come for the flowers, then, aphids or other pests start to build up, the beetle is there in your garden, ready to pounce.

It isn't hard to plant flowers lady beetles like, since they include many popular ones, and now is a good time to plant most of them. They like cosmos (especially white ones), coreopsis, sunflower, oleander, sweet alyssum, goldenrod, and tansy. I have also see them enjoying the flowers of African blue basil.

Watch for the little alligator-like lady beetle larvae too. They're charcoal gray with orange markings. If you see them, you know the lady beetles are breeding in your garden. And this is good, because the larvae can eat 100 aphids in an hour, compared to the 100 a day an adult lady beetle can eat. Big difference!

Insect Helpers

Early May 2008 047 copy Recently I promised to show a photo of a soldier beetle. Here it is, cleaning up the pahids that were eating my Rosa chinensis. This is the first one I have seen in my San Francisco garden, though I have seen them several times in the East Bay. A colleague at City College tells me that they are often in his Noe Valley garden.

There are over 100 species of soldier beetles in California. The larvae feed under bark or in soil litter on eggs and larvae of butterflies, beetles, moths and other insects. The adults of some species eat pollen and nectar, but the adults of other species eat aphids and insect eggs and larvae. In this case you can see the shed skins of aphids on the stem of the rose bud, but I think the soldier beetle ate up all the aphids and was just wandering around hoping for more. As soon as I saw the soldier beetle, I ran back in the house for my camera, and when I got back it was gone. I was sure it had flown away , but I waited, and soon it wandered back into view.

You can recognize soldier beetles by their narrow shape, and by their soft black, gray, or brown wing covers and often a red, orange, or yellow head and abdomen. All these details are from the Natural Enemies Handbook, by Mary Louise Flint and Steve Dreistadt, Statewide Integrated Pest Management Project, 1998.

Soldier beetles are just one of many naturally-occuring helpful insects that show up when you avoid the pesiticides that kill them along with pests. You don't buy soldier beetles, just give them a chance to help you.