Try "Gigante" White Runner Beans

For several years I have been growing Gigante beans. These are big white beans that are really runner beans.. Like Scarlet Runner Beans, they are often perennial in the Bay Area. Mine come back year after year. Right now, in mid May, I have leaves and blossoms on plants that have come back from living roots and some living vines. 

Gigante bean blossoms IMG_2247 copy

As you can see, the blossoms are white, or pale yellow, instead of red. Not as decorative, I suppose, but still pretty, and hummingbirds may prefer red, they will feed at other colors. I would not have blossoms this early on plants growing from seed, though. (Sometimes the plants that survived from last year even bloom in April, but this year March was so cold that garden plants slowed down a bit.) 

So why bother with a runner bean that doesn't have red flowers? Because the dry beans are so delicious and useful. They are larger than those of red runner bean.  The name "Gigante" is the one they are known by in Europe. In Greece they are cooked and then marinated. You can do this yourself, for a delicious treat that is pricy to purchase (Maybe $5.99 a pound.) (I will add a recipe at the end of this post.)

Marinated Gigantes IMG_0452 copy

I have also used the beans instead of favas in traditional bean/vegetable soups, such as the ones in Clifford Wright's book The Best Soups in the World, such as Vegetable Soup (p. 154) or Sicilian Beans and Greens Soup (p. 152). In these soups, the large fava beans (double-peeled)  are backed up with an equal volume of small white beans, so that one has beans in the soup between bites that contain the large beans. 

Incidentally, you can also eat the young pods or Gigante white runner beans, which, like those of scarlet runner beans have a fine beans flavor. However you do have to catch the pods when they are very young, since once the beans form, the pods become tough.( Also, a plant that is forming beans will make fewer new pods.)

Marinated Gigante (White Runner) Beans © Pam Peirce 2023

1 cup dried gigante Beans—soaked             3 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

    and cooked until just tender                       2 Tbsp finely chopped sundried tomatoes

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil                          (If they are very dry, soak in water and drain, then chop.)

¼ cup Kalamata olives, chopped finely       2 tsp white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp shallot, finely diced                            1 tsp lemon juice

                        Chunks or crumbles of feta cheese (optional)

 

Drain the cooked beans and add the other ingredients. Put in a container with a tight cover and let the contents marinate at least 3 hours or overnight. Refrigerate them if you aren’t serving them right away. 

Serve them as an appetizer or just put a small bowl on the table during a meal to be shared as diners eat the meal.

Note that the ingredients in this recipe are flexible. If you lack one, just leave it out. 

Resource: Each winter I leave a few Gigante Beans at the San Francisco Potrero and Portola Branch Libraries, which have seed libraries. You really only need one or two plants for a few cups of harvested beans. Tell me (in a comment) how they turn out if you take some.)

 


Minestrone alla Genovese with New Zealand Spinach

In my last post, I gave a recipe for frittata that included New Zealand spinach. I have continued to look for new ways to use the plentiful New Zealand spinach that grows in my garden. Here is my most recent discovery. First, though, here is a photo of the plant itself. To harvest, I break off and use the top 4 or 5 inches of as many stems as I need to make the amount of spinach I need.

NZ Spinach IMG_2450

New Zealand Spinach growing in a San Francisco Garden in November.  

It is tolerant of both cold weather and hot weather. 

Minestrone Genoa Style with New Zealand Spinach

I started with a recipe for Minestrone Genovese on page 27 of the book The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, by Romeo Salta.(It is the cookbook that introduced American diners to Northern Italian cuisine.) I chose this recipe because I had harvested a very large leek and had some dried beans of various kinds and plenty of New Zealand spinach. The recipe called for kidney beans and common spinach, but I substituted. It also called for macaroni and for a little diced bacon, but I didn’t want to use them and the soup was delicious without either.

2 Tablespoons olive oil                                   2 Quarts of water or stock

1 Cup grated carrot                                        3 Cups of cooked beans

1 Cup chopped onion                                         (I used Christmas limas)

2 leeks (white and light                                   1 teaspoon salt

   green parts) sliced                                       Black pepper (up to 1/2 teaspoon)

2 Cups diced potatoes                                    3 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 Cups chopped New Zealand spinach           1/2 teaspoon basil (2 teaspoons fresh)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and cook the carrot, onions, leeks, potatoes, and spinach in it for five minutes. In a pot mix the water or stock, beans, salt and pepper and cook over low heat for one hour. In an electric blender, puree the parsley, basil, and garlic. Add this to the soup. Cook about 20 minutes longer. Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese.

I used vegetable stock I had made by cooking the leek tops and cutting celery stems and leaves with a bay leaf and some thyme, then straining out the solids and keeping the stock.

Beans just about double in size when you cook them—maybe a little bit more. To reduce the gassiness they can cause, either soak in a lot of water overnight drain them in the morning, add fresh water and cook them, or boil unsoaked beans briefly in a lot of water, drain them, and then cook them in fresh water.


New Zealand Spinach in a Frittata--Recipe

Frittata Made with New Zealand Spinach

Adapted from Beyond the Moon Cookbook by Ginny Callan

This is nice as a dish for breakfast or as a main dish for supper. If you have grown New Zealand spinach, you know it can produce quite abundantly and that recipes using it are rather rare. This frittata is a delicious use for it.  (It can also be made with regular spinach, but don't be surprised if diners like this version better.)

 

Vegetables:

2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil—or use no-stick spray oil

½ cup chopped onion

2 cups coarsely chopped New Zealand spinach

 (young stem tips--about 4” long—and the leaves that are on them)

½ teaspoon dried thyme or oregano

About ¾ cup chopped tomato (fresh or use canned petite diced, drained)

1/8 teaspoon salt

 

Eggs:

4 large eggs or 1 cup Reddi-egg

1/8 teaspoon salt

A shake or two of pepper

 

Cheese:

1 cup grated cheese (sharp cheddar is good)

 

Sauté onion in oil until it is soft—about 5 minutes. Stir in the New Zealand spinach and the thyme or oregano. Sauté about 3 minutes more, until spinach is just tender. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the tomatoes. Drain if it is watery, stir in salt.

 

Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper. Use no-stick spray in an ovenproof skillet or in ramekins, and then pour the eggs into it or them. Cook over low/moderate heat on the stovetop until the eggs start to set—4-5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add well-mixed vegetables to the top, being careful to spoon them evenly over the surface of the eggs.

Fritatta raw ramiken IMG_2273 copy

Here the vegetables have been spread over the partially cooked eggs,  in 2 ramikens,

Top with shredded cheese. Broil in an oven or toaster oven, setting the frittata about 3 inches from the heat, until the eggs have solidified, and the cheese is browned. About 4-5 minutes.

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The frittata has been broiled. Half has been removed to a plate and eaten. 

If you used a skillet, slice the frittata into wedges.

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This photo shows a double batch, made in a skillet to serve 6 people for brunch.

Serve warm.

For dinner, serve with sliced oven-roasted potatoes and a green salad.


Plastic in my Front Garden

I planted some midsummer flowers in my San Francisco front garden on Monday. In the 15 square feet of the garden where I was planting, I found 27 small pieces of plastic, from an insect sauce cup lid clearly marked as recyclable to a tiny bit of a white electrical cable. I am not in a particularly intensely occupied part of the city, either.

We are drowning the earth in plastic. It started out as a boon to humankind, but now it is polluting our oceans and land. The micro plastic bis enter our food chain and poison us. Please find out what you can do to become a part of the solution rather than the problem. 

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For scale this pile is 8 or 9 inches across. 

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Here is a close up of a small part of the pile. 

I pick up lager trash whenever I see it, but it takes a planting day for me to look closely and see all the tiny bits of trash that have landed in my  urban front yard. 


Golden Gate Gardening New Edition--August 1

 

Golden Gate Gardening_full cover

The cat is out of the bag because the announcement is now on booksellers' websites. Barnes and Noble and Amazon have even posted the entire new Introduction to Golden Gate Gardening 4th (30th Anniversary) Edition. It will be released on August 15, this summer. The book has been updated throughout, with current information on  plant varieties, seed and plant sources, resources, for gardeners, and suggested additional reading, There are also changes throughout to the latest information on gardening techniques, pest management, etc. The book has been updated to explain where we stand currently in the ongoing climate crisis. (While our change so far has not been as dramatic in terms of earlier springs as it has been in some Eastern locations,  it has become more chaotic, leading to more severe drought and more frequent wildfires. It already has caused disruption of our fruit trees' annual cycle, and has led to heat inland spells too hot for plant growth!)

This book has helped many gardeners get the most from our mediterranean climate. If you are concerned about drought, which we know will return despite this year's wet winter, you will be particularly interested in learning about growing food in the fall to spring season, which takes advantage of what rainfall we get, along with reduced sunlight, to grow many kinds of food, such as broccoli, lettuce, artichokes, and snap peas will little or no artificial watering. 

If you are primarily an ornamental gardener, you will appreciate the expanded list of ornamentals that bear edible flowers. Decorating a salad or a cake with flowers you can eat adds beauty and celebrates the joy of being alive! You will also like the new lists of cutting flowers that tolerate coastal cool weather and ones that tolerate summer heat.

You will be glad to read about the new Open Source Seed movement, which lets public interest crop breeders register their new varieties as unpatentable, avoiding the Monsanto-driven efforts to prevent such breeding by slapping patents on plant traits. And if you buoy seeds, you will be glad to find out where to buy these unpatentable varieties. 

New pest management ideas will improve your ability to escape pest damage. Notable improvements are newly available better root baskets to prevent varmint damage and new biofungicides to manage plant diseases on the plants and in the soil.

The new edition includes the same recipes, from an easy potato leek soup to a moist and delicious chocolate cake that includes shredded beets--a mystery ingredient. And it has the same great planting charts, to help you choose when to plant in 4 different regional microclimates, from coastal to hot summer inland climates like that of Walnut Creek or San Jose. (The inland charts have been reassessed by Master Gardeners in those regions, and have been slightly revised/updated.)

Above, I have posted the new cover, which I think it so much more inviting than that of the Third Edition. I hope you love the new GGG and that you will come to a book event next fall or spring and say hello. There will be books for sale at those events, and I will sign one to you or to some lucky person who will. get the book as a gift.  It will also be available at many of our region's  independent bookstores and at some nurseries and food stores. 

I will post information on all of my future appearances on the events page of this blog and also on my website, pampeirce.com.

 

 

 

 


New Biofungicides Pit Bacteria Against Garden Fungi

March 21, 2023 New York Times, Science Times, D5 announced the discovery of compounds made by bacteria that kill pathogenic fungi in both plants and animals by riddling them with holes. It has proven effective against Botrytis cinera, or gray mold, and against Candida albicans, a fungus that cam infect the human body.

            The Times story was about the naming of the new compounds keanumycins, after an actor who has held “many iconic roles in which he is extremely efficient in ‘inactivating’ his enemies, Keanu Reeves. (Mr. Reeves says he thinks the naming is “pretty cool,” though he thinks it might have been more appropriate to name the compounds after John Wick, the killer he plays in a recent film.) While the article contains no information to suggest that keanumycins are available in any commercial product at present, there has been much research in the area of biofungicides recently. However, some new products do protect plants against gray mold.

Botrytis strawberry IMG_2700 copy

The strawberry on the left is so badly infected with Botrytis, or gray mold, that it will never enlarge or ripen.

            This disease is common in humid locations, such as in a greenhouse or near the coast in and near San Francisco. You may have seen it on strawberry fruits, where it makes a very obvious gray mass. It also grows on leaves and flowers of susceptible plants such as tomato, rose, German primrose, and painted tongue (Salpoglossis). I used to tell gardeners that their best defense against the disease was to pick off all traces of infected plant material before it could spread spores. This is still excellent advice that you should act upon whether or not you have another tactic. You can also select plants for a humid garden that have smooth or waxy leaves and fruit that is not soft. (This is easy unless you have your heart set on growing tomatoes, roses, or strawberries.)

Botrytis rose 0020725-R01-025 copy 

Botrytis shows itself as colored spots on the petals of roses. To reduce its spread, pick up all fallen rose petals and deadhead spent roses. 

            However, you may also want to try products currently available that promise to kill Botrytis cinerea. The ones I know of contain the soil bacterium Bacillis amyloliquifasciens D747. One formulation that contains it is sold as Revitalize. You can get it as a concentrate or in a ready-to-use spray bottle. It can also be used as a soil drench to control a number of diseases that start there. Also on the label of products containing this bacterium are anthracnose, bacterial leaf blights, black spot of roses, various leaf spots, and powdery mildew. Those diseases are controlled by the product. Only suppression, not control, are promised for downy mildew, early blight, fire blight, and scab. In all cases, it is best to apply the product before the disease shows up or in its very early stages.

            The main point is that a considerable amount of research is taking place in the area of biofungicides, some that has resulted in products already on the market, others in the pipeline. So, it is a good idea to start studying the offerings of your local, environmentally responsible garden center and reading the labels. You will already be pleasantly surprised, and more, even better surprises are likely to come soon.


An Apple Tart--19th Century Style

Recently we attended a Dickens Dinner Party, sponsored by the Bay Area Culinary Historians (BACH). We were asked to make a dish for the dinner from a recipe that was in a cookbook of the era. I chose to make an apple tart, using apples from our tree. The following photos are from the making of my "test tart," the one I made in November, just to see how it would turn out. To see photos from the actual dinner, see the Facebook page of BACH, though for some reason they didn't catch an image of the two tarts I brought to the dinner. 

A tart is like a pie, but the crust often contains a little sugar, maybe some egg, and the tart is much flatter than a pie. You can make a "rustic tart" on a cookie sheet, by just flipping the edges of the crust over the filling all around, but a classic tart is made in a tart pan, which has a removable bottom. This way you can have a nice fluted crust. You can leave the tart on removable bottom after removing the ring that produces the fluted edge. I used 10" tart pans. 

The recipes I used for the crust and filling follow. They are from Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, also published as Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, Originallly published in 1861, British Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Managementhttps://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136.html

Finisned Test Tart IMG_0300 copy

Apple Tart

For making a Tart there were several crust, or “paste” recipes. I used the one titled “Another Good Short Crust” For the tart filling, she used the recipe for “Apple Tourte or Cake.” Recipes as they appeared in the cookbook follow, first for the crust, then for the filling, with my notes after each.

___________________________

ANOTHER GOOD SHORT CRUST.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of flour allow 8 oz. of butter, the yolks of 2 eggs, 2 oz. of sifted sugar, about 1⁄4 pint of milk.

Mode.—Rub the butter into the flour, add the sugar, and mix the whole as lightly as possible to a smooth paste, with the yolks of eggs well beaten, and the milk. The proportion of the latter ingredient must be judged of by the size of the eggs: if these are large, so much will not be required, and more if the eggs are smaller.

Average cost, 1s. per lb.

______________________________

To make a single tart of this crust, try:

½ lb. flour

4 oz. (1/2 cup of butter)

Yolk of one egg

2 T sifted sugar

1/8 pint milk (1/4 cup)

Notes: After spending some time looking for an equivalent between cups and pounds of flour, and finding that there is not an exact equivalent, I weighed the flour on a kitchen scale.

When I had added all the ingredients called for, I  found I needed to add a small amount of cold water, in tiny increments, to get the dough to form a ball and clean the bowl—being careful not to “work” the dough, which would develop the gluten, making the crust tough.

I would ordinarily make a pie or tart crust using Smart Balance margarine—better for you than butter.

Tart-Test-Crust IMG_0294 copy

I open a grocery bag into a large sheet of brown paper and cut it in half to use for crust-rolling surfaces two different baking events. In the above photo, I have rolled the dough and am inserting the flat bottom of the tart pan under the dough. I will slide it from several angles to free the dough from the floured paper, then center it under the dough, which I have rolled large enough to go up the edges of the pan all around. Then I will set the bottom into the ring and carefully set the extra dough into the ring. 

Tart-Test-Crust IMG_0296 copy

In the above photo, I have set the bottom into the rim and trimmed the extra crust by hand, to the level of the top of the ring. If you look closely, you will see s few patches in the crust, where I added a bit of dough to mend tears. If it doesn't stick, I have added a drop of water to moisten the place it has to attach, then pressed it in gently.

 

Filling recipe:

_____________________________

APPLE TOURTE OR CAKE.

(German Recipe.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—10 or 12 apples, sugar to taste, the rind of 1 small lemon, 3 eggs, 1⁄4 pint of cream or milk, 1⁄4 lb. of butter, 3⁄4 lb. of good short crust No. 1211, 3 oz. of sweet almonds.

Mode.—Pare, core, and cut the apples into small pieces; put sufficient moist sugar to sweeten them into a basin; add the lemon-peel, which should be finely minced, and the cream; stir these ingredients well, whisk the eggs, and melt the butter; mix altogether, add the sliced apple, and let these be well stirred into the mixture. Line a large round plate with the paste, place a narrow rim of the same round the outer edge, and lay the apples thickly in the middle. Blanch the almonds, cut them into long shreds, and strew over the top of the apples, and bake from 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 hour, taking care that the almonds do not get burnt: when done, strew some sifted sugar over the top, and serve. This tourte may be eaten either hot or cold, and is sufficient to fill 2 large- sized plates.

Time.—1⁄2 to 3⁄4 hour.
Average cost, 2s. 2d.
Sufficient for 2 large-sized tourtes. Seasonable from August to March.

_____________________________

I divided the recipe in half to produce filling for one tart:

5-6 cored and peeled apples in slices (these were medium-sized, not very large, fruits.)

Sufficient sugar to sweeten—see above (I used about ½ cup per tart--for 5-6 apples.)

Zest of ½ small lemon (I zested a lemon that was grown, without sprays, on our backyard tree)

1/8 pint of cream or milk = ¼ cup (I used Half and Half)

1 ½ beaten eggs (3/8 cup of egg—approximately, if you want to use egg substitute)

1/8 lb. butter (1/4 cup) (melted)

slivered almonds—I used the ones from Trader Joe’s 

Notes: I used homegrown apples that were sweet with no tartness, hence I used the lower amount of sugar suggested for an apple pie by the Joy of Cooking book recipe. Our apples are of an unknown variety, but may be Baldwin, which is an American variety that was first grown in 1699. While the recipe is British, if these apples are Baldwins, at least they'd be appropriate to an earlier era. 

I used real eggs for the tarts I brought to the dinner, but egg substitute for the single tart I made as a test, which was easier since I could easily measure a “half egg.” It didn’t seem to make a difference which I used.

Tart-Test-Custard IMG_0291 copy

The milk, egg, and sugar make a custard that you pour over the apples. The melted butter is not pictured here. I mixed the custard ingredients and then poured them over the apple slices and mixed them in. 

Tart-Test-Filling IMG_0299 copy

Then I arranged the apple slices in the crust and poured the rest of the custard recipe over them.

There is no oven temperature in these recipes, in keeping with the fact that the cook was probably using an oven fueled by wood or coal. I set my gas oven for 375° I baked the test tart for 45 minutes, and thought it was sufficient, but perhaps a bit longer would have been better. I determined to bake the  tarts for the party for an hour. After I had prepared the party tarts, I was short on time, so I set the oven for 380°. I baked the tarts for an hour and they were done, but had I baked them at 375° they might have needed a bit longer.

The recipe called for just cutting the apples up small. I sliced them into thin wedges and arranged the slices  in whorls, hoping for a more attractive tart, but the combination of the custard in which they are set and the addition of slivered almonds somewhat masked the design, so they could probably have just been cut small and spread without such care with satisfactory results.

I didn’t strew any sugar over the top when it was baked. It didn’t seem to need it.

The following link is to a half-hour video on making an apple custard tart—it is very helpful to watch someone actually make a tart. Two important tips I got from the video are:

  1. To get the crust onto the false bottom of the tart pan, slide the bottom under the crust.
  2. After the tart is baked, to remove the sides from the tart pan, place it on a wide jar or other sturdy object and carefully free the sides so the ring will drop off. (On the test tart, I used a small hammer to tap gently on the ring in order free the last part of it. At the party, I used a knife to help free the ring, which some of the custard had spilled onto and caused it to stick.

I found it particularly helpful to watch these two techniques being done.

https://www.joyofbaking.com/AppleCustardTart.html

In an earlier photos, I have shown how I slipped the tart pan bottom under the crust. The following photo shows how to get the ring off of the bottom. I used a small bowl. At the party, I was provided with a small straight-sided crock. 

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Here is a close up of the test tart. I used sliced almonds for this one, but for the party I used slivered almonds, as directed by the recipe. Slivered almonds are cut into  square strips, while sliced ones are in thin slices. (I suspect that sliced almonds were not available in the mid-1800s.)

When I was finished making the two tarts for the party, I had some crust dough and apples left over. I made a 7” “rustic tart” in a pie pan, folding the edges of the crust over the apples, clafouti-style. It had less of the custard liquid in it, since I had poured most of that into the tarts, but the apples were coated with some of the custard, and the results were tasty all the same.

Modern cookbooks are more likely to give recipes for “tartlets,” small individual tarts. There are even very small false bottom tart pans made for this purpose, or they can be made in muffin tins, or on a flat pan, simply with pinched corners to keep the filling in. I rather liked making larger tarts, which were beautiful, and which result in less crust per slice and more fruit filling.

 

 


An Appreciation of Tigridia--A Summer-Blooming Bulb

In my dry-summer  San Francisco garden, the spring bloom is wonderful, but not as much blooms in summer. So in July and August, when spring's show has faded, I welcome the dramatically large and vivid blossoms of Tigridia pavonia. I like the color they add to my summer garden and the fact that the dramatic flowers face upward, so I see the fronts of the flowers when I look down from an upstairs window or even when I am standing over the flower bed. Each flower lasts only a single day, but each plant has several flowers, so the show goes on for weeks.

Tigridias grow from small bulbs, which are frequently offered in nurseries. They also grow easily from seed, and often bloom the first year from a seed. though it might take two years for a seed-grown plant to bloom. Where winter temperatures do not drop below 30 degrees F, and if soil drainage is good, they are likely to come back year after year. 

Red Tigridia IMG_1522 copy3

Tigridia flowers are triangular, on stems 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall. They are 3-6 inches across, typically 4 inches or more. They can be red, pink, yellow or white, usually with a contrasting, spotted center. As you might guess from the scientific name, it is sometimes called a "Tiger flower," though the typically spotted center looks more like a leopard or jaguar to me. Another common name is Mexican shell flower, reflecting the Mexican origin of the plants, which grows from Mexican lowlands to its higher elevations. 

Yellow Tigridia IMG_1521 copy3

I saved seeds from yellow flowers only and grew an all-yellow planting in my front garden, where I avoid pink flowers, allowing only white, yellow, orange, red, and blue. I grew the seedlings I hoped would have yellow flowers in a container for the first year, and when I saw they were, transplanted them to the front garden. This was a successful experiment, so now I have a yellow selection in front, and another that is blooming in red, pink, or yellow in the back yard. 

Here is a close up of the center of the flower, showing the pistil and stamens. The tall pistil has a branched stigma on top. The lower part of the stamens appear to be pressed closely against the lower part of the pistil, with the 3 pollen-bearing anthers near the stigma. I have not seen what pollinates Tigridia, but clearly some insect does so, aiming for that dramatically spotted center. The plants bear many seeds, in a long pod. When the pod turns brown and the top opens, one can cut the pods and simply shake them upside down to let the seeds fall out.

Yellow Tigridia IMG_1521 copy4

The Pacific Bulb Society says that the exact origin of this plant are unclear because the Aztecs ate the bulbs, so they moved it around by cultivating it. (It is unusual for a member of the Iris family, the Iridaceae, to be edible, so I will not try to eat it until I learn more.) After it blooms, and I have cut any seedheads that I want to save, I will cut the stems low to the ground and let the bulbs remain dormant all winter. 

This is not a mediterranean plant, but, like Mexican hen and chicks (Escheveria) it is from a location that has summer rain, but is dry in winter. Still, like that plant, it can adapt to our gardens if it is given some water in our dry season and is growing in soil that drains well, like my San Francisco sandy loam. I don't water the plants after they bloom and they will become dormant over winter. 

In spring, the new leaves will emerge, pleated fans that look like palm seedlings. The plants are not very leafy, saving their energy for those dramatic flowers. If I have seed, I will sow it in late winter, indoors, probably on my little heat mat. I may grow the plants in containers for the first year or just plant them out in the garden and see what happens.


The Availability of Watsonia borbonica corms

Watsonias--Wildly Successful Plant of Late Spring

eaders cannot find the bulbs for sale. The most likely reason for this is that Watsonias are out of fashion. When gladiolus bulbs began to be actively hybridized, gardeners were dazzled by the variety of color, and bicolors that were being bred, so fewer people were interested in Watsonia, which blooms only in white, salmon, pink, and red. I grow Watsonia borbonica because I live in  a Mediterranean climate, similar to that of its native land of Mediterranean South Africa, where the mild rainy winter stimulates the leaves to grow and the dry summers allow the plants to rest a bit before fall rains start leafy growth again. Also, when I have tried to grow Gladiolus, they have suffered from a rust fungus disease. I have seen Gladiolus in nearby gardens that were damaged by thrips insects. Watsonias never seem to have diseases or insect damage. Gladiolus, nevertheless, is probably a bigger seller than Watsonia, rendering Watsonia bulbs, or corms, scarce in nurseries. There is also a second reason for Watsonia's lessened popularity. That is that there is an invasive Watsonia. It is called Watsonia meriana, a summer-dormant species described as bearing dull red-orange, purple, or white flowers in late spring. A variety of this species, W. meriana bulbifera, bears bulblets, or cormlets,  on its flowering stems that can reproduce the plant, giving it two means of asexual reproduction (the cormlets could roll away and start new colonies!). While this species is not on California Invasive Plant lists, it has been seen growing wild on roadsides and in fields in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It is also a pest in Australia, and may partly explain the difficulty of locating Watsonia borbonica corms for sale here and there, since nurseries may confuse it with this other Watsonia and be afraid to sell it. So the first point is that it is hard to find the corms for sale, probably for 2 reasons: Plants go in and out of fashion, and this one has been out of style, and also, the habit of just using its genus name has allowed it to be confused with another, potentially invasive member of the same genus. 

So, what to do if you long for this tall, beautiful, low-maintenance plant. I suspect that your best bet is to notice some growing in a garden in the spring and ask the gardener if you can have some corms when they are dormant in the summer. Since the plants you see were probably planted some time ago, when they were being sold, and since they become crowded and bloom less after they have grown in the same place for several years, chances are there will be plenty of corms to spare. I see Watsonias in a number of gardens in San Francisco, and have seen them in old gardens of Pacific Grove (next to Monterey). Probably in areas where they will thrive on the California west coast, you will see some in bloom this spring. Meantime, I can only hope that nursery propagators are listening.

You can read more about Watsonias and 49 more easy care, drought tolerant plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.       

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In April and May I look for Watsonias. I love these big, graceful plants, with tall stems of trumpet-shaped flowers. These easy-to-grow bulb plants are one of South Africa's best gifts to Bay Area gardeners. They are among the 50 plants I featured in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, as very well suited to our gardens and easy to grow. (See cover, at right) They thrive in cool or hot summer areas. I don't know of an insect pest or a disease that troubles them, and snails don't seem interested either. 

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The red one in the two photos above is a hybrid, one of several usually available in nurseries for fall planting.  

After you plant the bulbs (correctly, they are corms), the leaves begin to grow with the first rains. They usually don't need any irrigation beyond rainfall to mature and bloom. Even last winter, which was rather dry, I didn't water mine, though I might do so in a really, really dry winter. After weeks of glorious mid- to late spring bloom, they die back in early summer. You don't have to water them in summer either. These are truly drought-tolerant plants! If the soil is well-drained, they won't mind a little summer water, but if kept too moist, they won't bloom as well the following year.

            The reason Watsonias do so well here is that they are from the Cape Region of South Africa, which has a similar rainfall pattern to ours. The regions where they grow have poor, sandy soil, so our rather poor soils are not a problem, though they can take moderate fertility, if you want to dig in a little compost. They stand up to wind and cool temperatures. They thrive in foggy microclimates. Full sun is best near the coast, but half-day will do. If you garden in a hotter inland microclimate, they will appreciate the hot soil while they are dormant. The spring-blooming Watsonias described here are hardy to 10° F.

            It's best to cut the flower stalks after they bloom and, in mid to late summer, cut brown leaves to the ground, before new green ones start to grow, so that they won't distract from next year's show. The deadheading and cutting back is really the only annual care they need.

            Watsonias are grand at the back of a border, where their 5- 6 foot tall flower stalks will be seen over other plants. Another way to grow them is behind a hedge, so they stand above it when in bloom, disappear when they die back. Or mix them into a narrow border with other plants of similar height--shrubs or other tall perennials. In addition to ornamenting the garden, Watsonias make good cut flowers.

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            Most of the Watsonia plants I see growing are hybrids, with peach, pink, or red flowers, which are readily available at nurseries for fall planting. I also see the pink or white-blooming ones that represent the species, Watsonia borbonica, especially in older gardens.

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I think the pink one in the three previous photos is the species, Watsonia borbonica. It is described as having "violet" stamens, and these look violet to me.

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This white one may be Watsonia borbonica ardernii, a subspecies that was discovered in the wild.

            Plant the corms about 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. You can plant in a circular area to get a nice clump, or could plant in a row.

            While the plants will thrive with little care, if you have time, and want to groom your plants to keep your garden looking at its best, here is what to do:

            While the plants are blooming, remove spent flowers every few days. They will fall off in your hand at a slight pull. When the top flower of the central stalk of flowers has bloomed and faded, cut that stalk off where it joins a lower flower branch that still has buds or open flowers. (You will need hand pruners for this, as the stalks are tough). When all of the side stalks have finished blooming, cut the entire flower stalk short enough that the cut end won't be visible above the leaves.

            When all of the flower stalks have been cut, you can ignore the plant until all the leaves turn brown, or you can go out every couple of weeks and remove brown leaves. It is up to you. But when all the leaves are brown, cut them as short as you can. You will need sharp pruners to do it. Don't wait until the green "swords" of the new leaves push through in fall, or you will have a devil of a time avoiding injury to the new leaves!

            That's about it, until, a number of years later, you might see that the clump is blooming less, or only near the edge, or that it is a bit too wide for its location. Then you might want to go out when the plants are dormant, in summer, and either remove some corms near the edges to reduce the clump size, or actually dig the whole thing up and replant corms.

            Either way, you will have some corms to plant elsewhere or to share. Full sized corms are 2-3 inches across and will probably bloom the following spring. Smaller ones (cormlets) will take 2 or more years to bloom. If you dig the whole clump, you will probably have more corms than you know what to do with, and may want to discard the smaller ones. (Or maybe go into the Watsonia corm business.)

            One more tip. You can grow Watsonias in a big pot, say 15 inches across for a group of corms, but in a pot you will need to give them a bit more care. From the time the plants start to grow to when blooms are starting to fade, fertilize lightly from time to time, and water regularly. You don't want the mix to be soggy, but unless rain is keeping it wet, water when the top inch is dry.

Learn about 49 more easy, beautiful garden flowers in Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.


On Eating from a Garden--A Manifesto

When you grow food, you have made food exist in the world. The earth did not previously include that food. From here several things can happen to the food you created. It can show up in some delightful meal you serve yourself and maybe others; it can be donated to someone else who will want to eat it more than you do, or it can sit in your garden until it is no longer delicious but instead is tough and seedy or even rotten. When I have grown some food, I see it as my responsibility to aim for one of the first two destinations for it, and avoid the third as much as possible.

            It feels bad to me to waste food I have created, but neither do I want to feel bad because I am trying so hard not to waste it that it ruins my fun in growing it. Here are the ways I try, without causing myself distress, and without making eating from my garden feel like a responsibility, to avoid wasting what I can grow.

Perhaps most important, I try to grow what I will actually want to eat. If I grew something, but didn’t eat it, I figure I either didn’t want to eat that crop or didn’t plan how much I would eat very well. I sort of like parsnips. One came up uninvited in my garden a few years ago. I roasted it with some other root crops and ate it. It was good, but truly, I could do without it. I'd rather buy a parsnip for the one or two times a year I might decide to roast mixed vegetables.

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Root Vegetables to Roast--Including Homegrown Carrots and a Volunteer Parsnip

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Roasted Root Vegetables: Golden Gate Gardening, page 378

Same for beets. My husband actively dislikes them. A couple of times a year, I like to grate one to make a lovely shredded beet salad, in which the sweetness of the beets melds with the sourness of the vinegar, and the flavors of onion, dill, and olive oil add to the deliciousness.

But in truth, I don’t need to grow either one to enjoy them once in a while. On the other hand, I will harvest all fall and winter from a big bed of carrots. They will become “carrot coins” in soups and stir fries. They will get cut into sticks to eat raw with hummus. They will get matchsticked with celery, cabbage, and green onion to go into a delectable Vietnamese vegetable dish, flavored with a bit of fish sauce, topped with some dry roasted, unsalted, crushed peanuts.

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Vietnamese Vegetables Cooking (carrot, celery, Napa Cabbage, Wild Onion)

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Vietnamese Vegetables--ready to serve, with crushed peanut toping  (Recipe in an earlier post on this blog)

And parsley! How I delight in having plenty of parsley plants all year long. I will add a tablespoon or two to French or Italian dishes, a quarter cup or more to North African and Middle Eastern dishes. I will mince it with a mezzaluna (curved blade) in a wooden bowl and freeze a little extra to have on hand. When the plants bloom I will cherish the syrphid flies that feed at their flowers and use the umbrellas of tiny pale yellow blossoms to back up larger flowers in a bouquet.

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Parsley in my garden.

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Chopping Parsley with a Mezzaluna

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Parsley in Bloom

In the places where I could be growing some crops, but don’t, I enjoy watching hummingbirds sip at abutilons, fuchsias and other flowers, I grow Alstroemerias for bright, long-lasting bouquets, enjoy the exuberant flowers of Tigridia from my window in July, and wonder at the variety of forms succulents can take.

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There are plenty of flowers to enjoy in the areas I don't use for food. The hummingbirds love our abutilon.

            I gave myself a few years to decide what crops I would eat, and therefore where I should put my food gardening energies. While I was exploring that, I watched what grew well that I want to eat, and what grew well that I have not eaten in the past. In both cases, I begin to collect recipes. I have found that having shortlists of favorite recipes at the ready to use crops I grow greatly increases the chance I will eat them. (This is why I put some recipes in Golden Gate Gardening.) Collecting recipes is a personal matter. You may not like the ones I collect; I may not like the ones you collect.

            It used to be that hunting for a recipe that used a particular vegetable or herb was difficult. Even if you had the cookbooks, in our meat-centered food culture, the index often did not tell you if a dish includes, say carrots, or parsley. But now there are two improvements. First, as our diet has become more plant-centered, recipes including specific crops are much more often identified in an index. (And there are more books on cooking from a garden—I will list some in a future post.) Second, of course, is the internet. In fact the internet is so easy to search that many cooks probably depend mainly on a search for a recipe that will use what they have on hand. But even with these ever-so-handy improvements, I encourage you to do a search, try some recipes, print or copy a short list, try them out, and choose favorites to keep for use with specific crops.

            Look for recipes that either use a crop you like and can grow or one with which you are less familiar but can grow well. For example, I found that with good care and timing, I can grow beautiful, large, fennel bulbs. I had not eaten fennel often, and, in fact, am not fond of its anisey flavor when it is raw. But I tried a recipe for it cooked, and found that the anisey flavor disappeared, leaving a quite pleasant and distinctive taste. (See recipe: Sweet lemon-braised fennel, below). So I have been collecting recipes for cooked fennel. A second one I have enjoyed is in the soup Sicilian Beans and Greens. This soup uses other crops I can easily produce, and is a wondrous addition to my repertoire. (I will put it up soon.) Now I am about to try a recipe for a sheet pan dinner with pork chops, fennel, potatoes, onion, tomatoes. If it works out I will have three recipes, probably plenty since I only have room to grow about a half-dozen fennel bulbs a year. But what a lovely contribution they make! I like them so much that I have to buy a fennel bulb now and then to fill in when I have none ready in my garden!

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Fennel Bulb Growing in the Garden

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Cutting up a Fennel Bulb. I will cook the slices on the plate in the rear of the photo.

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Sweet Braised Fennel--recipe at the end of this post

When you are looking for recipes, look for ones that include the vegetable in question, and also represent cooking methods you like—such as roasting, stir-fry, braising, or sheet pan dinners. Also give points for seasonings that sound good to you--curry, middle eastern, tomato-based sauce, whatever. Give extra points for recipes that include more than one crop you can grow and harvest in the same season.

            A small garden will always have an unsteady harvest. At the beginning and end of the harvest period for any particular crop, there will always be wee bits to harvest. And in a small garden, you may never have more than a wee bit of some crops. To deal with the wee bits, what you need is recipes that combine just a little of this and that. The world’s cuisines, many of which started in a garden, offer numerous possibilities. There are omelets and frittatas, salads, stir-fries, soups, and many undefinable options. Keep your eyes open and you will find them.

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A colorful winter salad, made when I had only a tiny bit of this and that. I used chard stems and a bit of purple cabbage as bright vegetable confetti. I parboiled the broccoli before I chopped it for the salad.

In the middle of its season, there may be a glut of a crop. You can always tell what gardeners of the past, in particular cultures, had a glut of in midseason. You will need recipes that can use large amounts of those that came in all at once or in midseason profusion. To find them, look to cuisines of places where the crop is most easily or commonly grown. You will find recipes for gratins of summer vegetables, lettuce wilted with sweet and sour sauce (GGG, page 233 Wilted Lettuce) zucchini fritters (GGG, page 377). You may also want recipes for preserving the glut, such as by freezing canning, making relishes and jellies, or pickling. (That’s when the watermelon rind pickle and the sun-dried tomato were born.)

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Gratin of Summer Vegetables

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Zucchini and Cottage Cheese Fritters

Or you may say hell no, if there is too much of something, I don't want to preserve the extra. I just want to grow less of it next year. But for the immediate situation, do find your extra harvest a kitchen in which it will be eaten. Start with family and friends, who might be delighted for a bag of something you grew, or even a small regular sample, or, you may ask yourself: “Is there somewhere I can donate all this food?” Yes indeed, there probably is. You only need a bit of local research to turn up answers. In San Francisco, there is the Free Farm Stand, in the Los Niños Unidos park on 23rd Street between Treat Avenue and Folsom, on Sundays. They are currently bagging food at 10 AM, due to Covid, but will probably return one day to distributing produce from boxes at mid-day, letting people choose what they want to take. Another option is the local food bank. Just be aware a little asking around will certainly turn up places delighted to receive some home grown produce, including herbs.

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We give away hundreds of pounds of apples every fall.

Fruit trees are a special case, in that one tree typically bears more fruit than a family can eat up in a timely manner. You can hunt for recipes, make preserves, give fruit away (look for gleaning organizations that specialize in harvesting fruit to give away). A separate kind of solution is to prune to keep your tree or trees small, so they won’t produce more than you can possibly eat. This is best done from the beginning, when you first bring home a sapling fruit tree, but it can also be done when a tree has grown larger. Use the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree, by Ann Ralph, Storey Publishing, to guide you. It tells you what you need to know simply and clearly.

Sweet Lemon-Braised Fennel

Adapted from Fresh From the Garden, by Perla Meyers, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1996.

One large or 2 small fennel bulbs                   Juice of ½ lemon (or more, to taste)

3 Tablespoons butter or margarine               salt and pepper, if desired

1 Tablespoon olive oil                                     ½ cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, or bullion

½ teaspoon sugar                              

  1. Trim the root and leaves from the bulb(s), leaving only the pale green and white “bulb.” Cut each bulb in half or quarters if it is large, then cut into narrow slices, with some central stem holing each slice together. Try to make the slices under ½ inch at the wider, outside, edge. If some pieces get separated from the core, save them to use as well.
  1. In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter or margarine (such as Smart Balance) with the oil, over medium heat. Add a single layer of fennel and brown it nicely. When one side is brown, use a fork to turn the pieces over. When they are done, place them on a plate and add more slices to the skillet until all are browned. Reduce the heat to medium low, return any pieces you have set aside to the skillet, and sprinkle with the sugar and the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, if desired, turn gently with a spatula once or twice to mix the ingredients. Continue to sauté until the fennel is glazed and brown.
  1. Add the half cup of broth and braise, tightly covered, for 10 minutes, adding more broth if needed. When the fennel is tender, but not falling apart, transfer it to a serving dish.
  1. (Optional) if you want to, you can add another half cup of broth, more lemon juice, and some extra butter, heat through and serve with this extra liquid poured over it. I don’t do this, so can’t report the result.