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 cut 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.

 


My Book Lists on a New Website

A new website shepherd.com asks authors to create lists of "five best books." I created two lists. One is a list for "The Five Best Books for Gaining Garden Know-how." Here is a link to it:

https://shepherd.com/best-books/gaining-garden-know-how

The second list is to "The Five Best Books for Understanding California's Mediterranean Climate. Here is a link to that one:

https://shepherd.com/best-books/california-mediterranean-gardening

Of course my own books, Golden Gate Gardening and Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California are good ways to learn both topics, but, though Golden Gate Gardening is shown, I was asked not to include my own books in the lists. Fair enough, but do check out these lists and consider the books for yourself or as gifts. 

 


Growing Yacon (Bolivian Sunroot)

In the United States, the crisp, sweet, crunch of yacon roots is a secret known mainly to gardeners. When I began to grow it, late in the last century, it was even less known, though it has been a popular food in its native South America for centuries.

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Yacon Leaves.             Credit: Pam Peirce

After I read about this plant in the book Lost Crops of the Incas, it took me three years to locate starts to grow. The low point was the first trip I took to a tropical plant nursery near my parents’ house in San Diego County. I had spoken to the proprietor on the phone. He assured me he had the plant for sale if I could pick it up, but when I got to the nursery, employees told me he was on a plant-hunting trip in South America. They were sure there was some yacon somewhere in the nursery, but they had no idea how to identify it, and I, having seen only a written description, didn’t either. So that was that.

 I tried again the following year. This time, a nursery worker told me the proprietor was somewhere in the nursery, but who knew where? I wandered amid the dense, tropical foliage lining the labyrinthine nursery paths, until I rounded a blind turn and practically walked into the man who could locate yacon for me!

Yacon is much easier to find now, so now many people enjoy its crisp, juicy roots. They are sort of like jicama, but more tender; sort of like watermelon, but a bit firmer. And their sweetness is from a sugar we don’t digest, so the roots are low in calories. Marketers are even touting yacon syrup as a healthful sweetener, though I’m sure the fresh, raw roots are even better for you, plus you get to enjoy their crunchy and juicy texture.

            This exuberantly large perennial plant, with its broad, furry, gray-green leaves, is, botanically, Smallanthus sonchifolius, a relative of sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and sunflower. (In the fall, the small orange daisies that bloom atop the tall plants show the plant family relationship.) Besides yacon, it has been called Bolivian sunroot, Peruvian ground apple, strawberry jicama, and, by teenagers who so enjoyed my harvest, simply “the root.”

In mid- to late fall, when the leaves start to die, you can cut the stem back and dig up the harvest. When you do, the first structures you will see are the rhizomes, which look like Jerusalem artichokes. You will save these to replant for next year. What you eat are storage roots that dangle from the rhizomes. They range in shape, from spindle- to globe-shaped, and from a couple of inches in diameter to 6 or 7 inches across. Under a thin brown skin, they are white inside. (The storage roots are delicate, so dig carefully.) They are said to be sweeter after a frost, or after storage in a refrigerator for a couple of weeks. I often eat roots as soon as I dig, and have found them variable in sweetness, but always worth eating.

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Yacon rhizome and storage roots. Pam Peirce

            Break or cut the roots from the rhizomes, wash them, peel them with a vegetable peeling tool, wash again, and slice them into pieces. I have found them welcome in lunch boxes and useful in salads. (For example, I have used slices of yacon in place of jicama in a salad that includes blood orange and avocado. The recipe is in Golden Gate Gardening.) They could, I suppose, be cooked, but I have never been inspired to do that.

            If you are cutting back several plants, leave a foot or so of the stems, so you will know where to dig later. Divide and replant the rhizomes by late winter, before they start to grow again. A full plant will grow from a small rhizome, so you may have extra to share with friends.

            This is an easy plant to grow. Other than an occasional nibbled leaf, mine have not seen pest damage. The plant is so big I thought it wouldn’t do well in a container, but it is so tough and productive that it has even produced a small crop of roots in a big pot. The fact it was in a pot made the roots easier to dig.

            Look for yacon propagation rhizomes in winter, when the plants are dormant, or in early spring. Annie’s Annuals (anniesannuals.com, 888.266.4370) carries them. You can also purchase yacon from the fruit nurseries Raintree Nursery (raintreenursery.com, 1-800-391-8892) and One Green World (onegreenworld.com, 1-877-353-4028).


Is There a Seed Shortage?

Recently, as I browsed online seed catalogs, I noticed more varieties than usual listed as “Out of Stock.” In addition, some seed companies are warning that delivery may take longer than usual. Some are even shutting down periodically while they catch up on orders. I’ve wondered: “What’s going on? Is there a seed shortage?” At a National Gardening Bureau-sponsored panel presentation in March, I learned from seed suppliers what challenges they are facing and also their advice for gardeners.

Diane Blazek, Executive Director of the Bureau says that last spring, seed retailers were selling to 100-400% more customers than in previous years, and this year is headed in the same direction. Last year, the greatest sales increase was in vegetable seeds; this year, more people are also buying flower seeds and plants, fruit plants, and bedding plants.

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Packaging small amounts of seeds in small packets like these is more time consuming than selling seed in bulk.

The main reason for last year’s increased sales of vegetable seeds was probably insecurity—like the rush to buy toilet paper. Last March, people noticed food shortages at the grocery store and decided to take matters into their own hands. Then also, people were at home more, looking out the window at their gardens and imagining food growing there. (It’s telling that more time at home revived the urge to grow food, along with an inspiration to bake bread. It seems these enthusiasms are running just under the surface, only waiting to be daylighted by having more time to partake in them.)

            This year, many people feared that the mails would be slow, what with holidays and so much online shopping taking place, so they sent orders on early, in December and January. Meanwhile, seed companies are having problems filling so many orders while dealing with the pandemic. They have been struggling to keep employees safe—requiring temperature taking, masks, and handwashing; spacing workers farther apart and adding deep cleaning between shifts. Some of these policies slowed the processes of packing seed and filling orders, sometimes requiring work into the evening and weekend, or two shifts a day. If seed companies sought more workers, they found them hard to come by, especially in rural locations. Larger companies have automated filling seed packets, but smaller companies that can’t afford the expensive packaging equipment, are less able to increase seed packet preparation without additional workers.

            Add to this that very real Postal Service slowdown, the storm in Texas and the East that caused several FedEx offices to close down temporarily, a shortage of labor to unload container ships at ports, and a shortage of air transport, and you have a bottleneck that starts with wholesalers and then impacts retail customers.

            So is there a seed shortage? Seed wholesalers and retailers say mostly there is not. Seed retailers on the panel reported “Out Of Stock” situations for only 83 out of 2,300 varieties (Jung Seeds) and 136 out of 2,000 (Johnny’s Select Seeds). In some cases, the problem is just a lack of time to get the seeds out of cold storage and into seed packets ready to mail. In a very few cases, the seed has not yet arrived from a wholesaler. It could be in one of those ships waiting to be unloaded or could actually be not ready for to harvest. However, because seed production now is a worldwide business, and includes tropical and southern hemisphere locations, seed could be arriving soon to bolster the supply. While few shortages are expected this year, Jeannine Bogard, of Syngentia Seeds, said that seed of biennial crops, such as carrots, could be scarce next year because of this year’s high demand.

            Advice to this year’s wise gardener is to order seed well in advance of the date you plan to plant, avoid ordering more than you need or hoarding seed, and to read websites or catalogs carefully to learn how long delivery might take. (Don’t clog communication avenues by calling or emailing before this time has passed.) In addition, you may find, this year and next year, you’ll need to substitute a different variety for one that has been your favorite.

            It’s good news there are so many new gardeners, and especially good news so many of them are younger than the previous average age of Americans gardeners that they have lowered that average. There has also been more interest in organically produced seed—which is good news for the earth. Those of us who have been growing food a long time will have much help to offer new gardeners when they need it. Grow on!

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The harvest from my San Francisco community garden on one day in the early summer of 2020. 


Victory Garden 2.0

As we emerge from a winter of isolation and worry, I hope you are imagining the glory of next year’s garden. Seed companies are announcing new seed lists on their web sites and in print catalogs. Local nurseries are open, with seedlings and, if you lack space, attractive containers. Never underestimate the mood-raising ability of a single beautiful plant or a tiny harvest! Either can be immensely effective.

            Many started a “Pandemic Victory Garden” last spring. They found that having a nearby source of fresh greens or other produce, at a time when every trip out was fraught with caution. provided great comfort and a feeling of security. 

            But some surely had failures, pests that showed up, crops that didn’t grow well, overproduction that went to waste. In 1943 the New York times published a story for wartime Victory Gardeners who were about to begin their second year. “The first year is the hardest,” it consoled. This is so true! Soil prep, starting seed, learning what you will eat, what you won’t, and how much you will eat of each crop—this the first-year gardener learns. 

            You have learned so from much last year’s successes and failures. Dream again! Plan an even better garden next year, more beautiful flowers, a sparkling and colorful edible harvest. Try new varieties, looking especially for ones that resist any pests you had last year. Create critter excluders, or buy some. (Check out the crop cages on the web site gardeners.com.)  Plan to build or purchase a better trellis to support climbing crops. Invest in a headlamp for hands-free night snail and slug hunts. If you are watering with a hose, put a timer at the faucet so it will turn off automatically and prevent the waste of water.

            May the beauty and productivity of your 2021 garden reflect your high hopes for the coming year!


Apple Pie Recipe Repeated

Apple Pie--An illustrated recipe

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Our tree with ripe apples. They are starting to ripen now. I plan to post a entry soon about the recent heat waves that caused some apples to be sunburned, but decided first to repost an older post that has become hard to find--for apple pie.

Start by peeling and cutting up 6 medium-sized apples. (Of course if they are from your tree, they may be different sizes, so you may have to do more or maybe fewer.) I have tried not peeling them, but our particular apple has a kind of tough peel, so I am back to peeling. I quarter them, then peel the quarters. I cut into the inward side of each peeled quarter-apple in a broad V, to remove the core. Then I slice the quarters crosswise, or, if they are wide, I may cut each quarter in half before I make the final cuts. To help remember how many apples I have prepared, I set the part of the core with the stem attached aside for each--one stem = 1 apple.

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Here you can see the little row of core sections with stems attached, the bowl for peels and cores, and the bowl of finished, chopped apple.

I used the 1953 Joy of Cooking when I first made apple pie. It's recipe suggests mixing the apples with 1/2 -2/3 cups brown sugar, 1 to 1 1/2 Tablespoons of cornstarch, and (optionally) 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and/or 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg. Joy of Cooking authors, writing at a time when many more people were cooking from their own tree, and more kinds of apples were being sold. They are clear that apples vary. "Only very tart apples need the larger amount of sugar, only very juicy apples require the larger amount of cornstarch." "If the apples lack flavor, sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice."

In my case, I usually add the lower amount of sugar, the cinnamon, extra cornstarch (maybe 2 Tablespoons), and a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice, since my apples are sweet, juicy, and don't have any acid tang to add to their flavor. In any case, add everything you are going to add, toss well, and set apples aside.

I think making pie crust requires a very personal interaction of cook and recipe. I tried several recipes before I found the one that makes good crust for me, and offer you the one I chose, but you may find another is better for you.

My father's mother used lard, baking several pies at a time for her large family. Lard didn't appeal to me, but her crust was quite delicious. I used to use butter. Now I use Smart Balance Buttery Sticks, a vegan, no trans fats margarine, and it works fine. The recipe I use is 1 1/4 cups unbleached white flour, 1 stick of the margarine, and a few tablespoons of icy water (2? 3? something like that).

The first step is to cut up the margarine and put it in a bowl with the flour.

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There's the flour with the cold margarine cut up in it. Next to it is a quarter cup, with some water and an icecube or two. And behind that is 1/2 of the paper from a large brown paper grocery bag, laid out for a surface on which to roll the crust, and the rolling pin, at ready.

Next, I crumble the margarine into the flour, using my thumbs and fingers to rub the two materials together.There's nothing tricky at this point, as long as you do it while the margarine is still relatively cold.

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When the mixture looks like coarse meal, it is time to add the cold water. I pour a little in and begin immediately to try to form a ball of dough. This is the sort of tricky part, because you don't want to actually work the dough. No kneading in this recipe, or the gluten will begin to develop and the crust will be tough. Just push the stuff together, getting it all moist until it will form a ball that isn't sticky but will clean the bowl if you dab it on the unattached pieces.If you run out of water, add a tad more to the cup with the ice and pour from it, a bit at a time.. Then smear some flour on the working surface, and set the ball on it.

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OK, now the fun begins. Roll the crust, gently at first, then more firmly as you begin to develop the round think shape you need. Roll from one direction and then another. Change directions if the shape isn't round enough. Make it pretty thin and rather bigger than your pie pan, which should be standing at ready on the table by now.

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If your dough has the right amount of water in it, it won't stick too much, but be ready to add a little more flour to the surface, or even lift a corner of the dough after you begin to roll it (using a knife to lift it if needs be) and add more flour. Also, if the dough is correct, you can mend it where it tears or cracks just by placing one piece over another and rolling it, or by moistening both sides with a little water and then rolling.But hopefully, you will have no problems with either, or only minimal ones.

When you get a nice large round, fold it in half, lift it carefully, and place it in one half of the pie pan. This one is a Corningware pan. It looks small, because the sides are vertical instead of at an angle like most pie pans, but it holds the same amount of stuff. I know because I filled it and a regular pan with water, and they held the same amount.

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Now carefully lift the folded over half and ease it into the pan. You have to kind of push a little from near the edge inward to get the crust to fall into the pan without tearing. That is, don't try to stretch it, as that won't work. Next you will make the crimped edges that make the pie pretty. You fold the crust under about 1/2 to 3/4 inch above the edge of the pan, and use your fingers and thumbs to make the fluting pattern. Any extra crust, extending below the crimps, on the outside of the pan, cut off with a knife. At any low places, where there isn't enough dough to make the crimp, use water to glue on more rolled dough from the pieces you cut off elseshere, and use that to make the fluted edge. (The crimp, or flute, is made to the measure of your fingers, a very individual form, unlike that of a machine crimped crust.)

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Here I'm making the fluted edge. You can see that there will be some extra crust to cut off in this part of the edge.

I like to cover my pie with a Danish apple pie topping. I put any extra bits of trimmed off crust into a bowl and add a little brown sugar (1/3 cup?) some margarine cut into bits (3 Tablespoons), a little flour (2-3 tablespoons?) and maybe 3/4 teaspoon of cinnamon. This recipe isn't exact, because it depends on how much crust dough was left over to use and how much topping you want on the pie. I crumble the ingredients all together with my thumbs and fingers.

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I put the prepared apples into the crust and then crumble the topping evenly over the apples.

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In baking the pie, I follow the recipe in my old edition of Joy of Cooking. First bake the pie at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes, or a little bit longer, to let the crust brown a little bit. (If you are going to let it go for longer than 10 minutes, keep a close watch on it.) Then turn the oven to 350 and bake until done, from 3/4 to 1 hour total. To tell if it is done, you can insert a knife in an apple to see if there is any resistance .

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Ta dah! The finished pie. Hope yours turns out to be delicioius!



Growing Good Food in Bad Air

It is Thursday, October 1st and the air in SF is filled with smoke again today, as it has been, off and on, for weeks. While I am glad not to be in the path of a fire, the smoke pollution is disturbing. Most of news coverage of the pollution concerns its effect on human physical health, which is, of course important. Air pollution causes lung inflammation and reduces our lung capacity. It is particularly dangerous for older people and children. Now, as the coronavirus is on all of our minds, and some of us try to go out less to reduce the chance of infection, the smoke is more disturbing than ever because it reduces our chance for outdoor exercise. For more on human health effects, see Washington Post on air pollution harm to health

While we need cloth masks now, due to the coronavirus emergency, I have learned these do not protect against air pollution. The only protection is an N95 mask or an N95 respirator mask, which most of us do not own.

Gardeners have special concerns. First, we are hesitant to garden in this bad air. I wanted to check apples for ripeness and harvest some that are ripe today, but may not do it as I look out the window and use online sources to confirm what my eyes tell me. Last month I was two days late in watering my community garden. (Fortunately, I didn’t lose any crops, but some of my lettuce was starting to droop.)

I have also had two questions concerning the plants I am growing. The first is what air pollution is doing to them, the second is whether they are safe for me to eat. The answer to the first question is that the effects of air pollution are not good—more on this in a minute. The answer to the second question is one of the only bright spots in my research: pollution does not affect healthfulness of a crop. If the food you harvest has ash or grime on it, wash it off. For good measure you can agitate it in a tablespoon of vinegar in 6 cups of water, then rinse it in plain water. (White vinegar is fine—no need for anything fancy.) You can’t wash off other smog, but plants damaged by it are perfectly safe to eat.

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White ash on tomato leaf in late September of 2020. I washed it off to let more light in. (Tomato leaves, which are not edible, are hairy, so they trap more ash than smooth leaves would, or than the smooth-surfaced tomato fruit.)

Back to the effect on plants. Days of smoky air and falling ash will result in a coating on upper plant surfaces. The main effect of this is reduced photosynthesis, since less sunlight can reach the chloroplasts. This will reduce growth of the plant. After a bout of smoky air, it’s a good idea to hose down your garden plants to knock the stuff off of them.

Worse for plants is the more common components of smog, such as oxides of nitrogen or lower atmospheric ozone. (Unlike the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, ozone near the earth surface is harmful.) These and other polluting gases can enter the chambers in leaves where the plant carries out photosynthesis and interfere with the chemical process. Ozone is particularly harmful. At best, pollution damage will slow the growth of plants. They will make fewer leaves, and will have a smaller root system. This means our food crops won’t produce as much food or as produce it as fast as they would in clean air. At worst, susceptible plants will show symptoms, starting with tiny dead spots on leaves and progressing to dying older leaves. Susceptibility varies among crops and varieties of specific crops. Peas and beans and leafy crops are generally most susceptible, and one study found summer crops more affected than cool-season crops.

            (Please note that we are here thinking about pollution of the air, not the soil. If you are worried about soil pollution, you should have it tested for lead and cadmium, and follow the lab’s instructions for what you can grow in it. Also, don’t grow food in a garden that is immediately adjacent to a busy road, especially where vehicles often brake.)

When it comes to air pollution, there is another concern that we should be aware of. When air pollution prevents a plant from photosynthesizing, either by blocking sunlight or interfering with the chemistry of the process, it will reduce the amount of CO2 that plant is removing from the air. This means that pollution-challenged plants are making our excess atmospheric CO2 problem just that much worse. It means that air pollution creates a negative feedback loop, making global climate change happen just that much faster.

Happily, we can safely eat and enjoy any food we succeed in growing in our gardens in polluted air, and are probably not so dependent on our garden that the little bit less production is a problem, but remember agricultural production is also threatened. Our understanding, as gardeners, of what increased air pollution means, not only for humans, but for plants, gives us an early distant warning, and more reason to act, and encourage others to act, to reduce the pollution of our air.

Where and when is air pollution a problem?

Large urban areas across the earth have bad, sometimes chronically very bad air, but it is also a problem in many places we think of as “pristine.” So, for example, Denver has a problem, but so does Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the worst pollutants is lower atmospheric ozone (O3). It forms when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interact in sunlight. The warmer the day, the more ozone forms, so it tends to be worst in afternoons and later in the summer season (just when we are counting on harvesting summer crops).

Where do the components of air pollution come from:

--Well, obviously from fires. And one of the scariest results of recent fires has been the understanding that when modern structures burn, not only is it a horrid loss to the owner, but some of what is released into the air is toxic compounds from the many synthetic materials we use today in building, furniture, and other objects in our homes.

--The biggest other sources are electricity generation (if the plant doing the generating is coal or petroleum-fueled) and gasoline-fueled transportation.

--Agriculture and industrial processes add some to the mix. One study, in Colorado, found that plants making fabrics added significant pollution, because it used petroleum as a fuel and because polyester is a petroleum product.

--Volitile organic compounds (VOCs) come from products like paint or paint thinner, asphalt, oil and gasoline.

What can we do to reduce air pollution:

--Drive less, keep your car well-tuned, keep tires inflated properly, and buy automobiles that burn less gasoline—fuel efficient, hybrid, electric.

--Avoid idling car motors unnecessarily.

--Avoid using other gas-operated motors as much as possible—for example by using an electric lawn mower.

--Avoid using products that add VOCs to the air. Check paint cans and labels of other suspect products for an indication that they are VOC-free.

--Avoid toping off of gasoline tanks when filling them at a gas station. (When you smell gas, it is going into the atmosphere.)

--Do yardwork that might add to pollution in the evening, so pollutants can dissipate before the warm part of the following day.

--Try to reduce the amount of petroleum-source materials you use in your life, for example plastic, polyester in clothing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Eliminate their use if you can, reduce, reuse, and recycle if you do use them.

--Spread the word about what causes air pollution and encourage others to reduce their contributions to it.

Here are two links you can use to learn more:

To check air quality: purpleair.com. Zoom in on specific locations using their world map.

To learn about ozone gardens that assess damage to plants, watch a video on ozone pollution and a lecture by a researcher who studies ozone damage:  Ozone Gardens and Ozone Pollution


Redworm Compost in the time of Covid

Faced with continued store closures and shortages, and anxiety about going shopping, some people have been growing a sourdough starter in their kitchen. As a gardener, in the same spirit, I decided to start up a new redworm compost bin. I’m glad I did so, since the redworms are happily eating away at a portion of our household’s food scraps, though the process has also been a reminder of the patience required to depend on nature to do its work rather than being a consumer who can drive out and buy what you need after somebody else provided the patience. I will tell you how to create and tend your own bin to make worm casting compost, though you will have to provide the patience.

            To start the bin, you will need: ½ to 1 pound of redworms (a special kind of earthworm, of the species Eisenia fetida), a container, a handful of soil, some bedding, water, and food scraps. The worms will eat the bedding along with the scraps, producing a batch of compost every 2-3 months. The redworm compost can be added to your soil or to potting mix where you plan to grow vegetables or flowers. It’s a good soil amendment and a high-quality fertilizer.

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A worm bin can be kept indoors, with a drip pan beneath to catch extra liquid (which is also good fertilizer), or it can be put outdoors in a shady spot. If winter temperatures drop below 40, move the bin to a shed or garage, but in milder parts of the Bay Area it can stay outside all winter.

Start by learning if you have a friend with a worm compost bin who will share some worms with you when they next renew their bin. Redworms are also available from several online sources, which may also sell them as red wrigglers or composting worms, at a cost of $25-50 for a pound. (These are not, by the way, regular garden earthworms, but a smaller species that thrives in a compost bin, but would die out in garden soil.)

            As a container, one can purchase complicated, several-tiered bins, but all you really need is a shallow (10 to 16-inch deep) box with a lid and a few drainage holes in the bottom. Because I was committed to using, as much as possible, what I already had, I repurposed a large plastic storage bin by drilling a few holes (only ¼ inch, so rodents can’t enter). If you have the wood and tools, you can make a wooden bin. One common plan requires a single 4 x 8 foot panel of ½ inch plywood, as shown on this information sheet from Washington State University: http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/wormbins.htm. Or you can make a smaller one from a half sheet of plywood using this plan from the Alameda county StopWaste web site: http://www.stopwaste.org/at-home/home-gardening/all-about-compost/backyard-composting/build-or-buy-a-compost-bin/two-person. In either case, a prop stick is handy to keep the box open while you work in it. A wooden box keeps best if you can paint it inside and out with food grade mineral oil, but this step can be skipped or postponed.

            Next, add bedding. Good options include newspapers or brown cardboard torn or cut into strips, dry leaves, hardwood sawdust, or straw (but not glossy paper). Fill the bin about ¾ full of bedding, then moisten it to wet but not dripping, using a spray bottle or sprinkling can and fluffing it to moisten throughout. Mix in a handful of soil, which the worms use in their gullets.

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            Tuck the worms under the bedding surface and add just a few kitchen scraps. Eventually the worms can process about a pound of scraps a week for each square foot of surface area, but they can only eat a little for the first few weeks, so don’t overfeed them. They can eat vegetable and fruit trimmings and peels, crushed eggshells, tea bags (minus the staple), coffee grounds, and small amounts of rice or torn up bread. Avoid oily foods, meats, or dairy products. Cover the bedding surface with a piece of plastic sheeting to keep in moisture and reduce the chance of fruit fly infestations. Remoisten lightly if the top of the bedding is dry—check especially in warm weather.

            When you see the process is near completion, move the contents to one half of the box and add fresh, moist bedding to the other half. Put new kitchen scraps only in the fresh bedding. Most of the redworms will migrate to it in a few weeks, and then you can harvest the finished compost. (If you put little piles of it in bright light, any remaining redworms will hide in the centers of the piles, where you can find them and move them to the fresh bedding.)


Gardening in a Crisis--Resources

If you have a food garden these days, while we are sheltering in place, I know you are grateful for whatever it produces. I am harvesting lettuce and other salad greens (including miner's lettuce and some mesclun), Swiss chard, collards, parsely, cilantro, wild onions, and still have some maggot-free radishes too. I have on the way: globe onions, carrots (still tiny seedlings), mustard greens, snap peas, peppers, and tomatoes. 

One issue for many gardeners right now is where to find seedlings and soil products. I have just discovered that the Garden for the Environment has a new blog and one of their entries is where to get garden supplies. They have information on hours, curbside pickup and delivery for several nurseries and hardware stores. It was posted on March 25th.

https://www.gardenfortheenvironment.org/growing-gardeners-archive/2020/3/25/garden-supply-delivery

There are other useful topics to explore on this blog. 

Hope your garden is going well and that you are staying safe!