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April 2006
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June 2006

Fruit Tree Advice

I am a week in to answering questions for my new column in the San Francisco Chronicle, and notice that the largest single topic that people wonder about so far is fruit trees. Makes sense, in that they are a big investment in time and expense. They take 3 to 8 years to bear fruit, and what you do in that 3 to 8 years makes a big difference in whether you get fruit and how much. I see a lot of errors in growing fruit trees, mainly ones of omission. That is, the error of simply buying and planting a tree and then watching it grow without attention or care.

Every step in buying and caring for a fruit tree requires thought and attention if a tree is to be a good tree. Starting with choosing the tree. Some of the considerations are size (some are available as dwarfs), adaptation to your microclimate, and whether the variety needs a pollenizer (a different variety nearby to provide pollen). (I have discussed these matters in my book Golden Gate Gardening, Sasquatch Books, 1998, see sidebar of blog.)

Planting the tree requires thought, to be sure it is in a suitable place in your yard and planted in a way that allows soil to drain well if you have heavy soil.

And then ongoing care requires thought. If it is a deciduous fruit tree, most require pruning from the first winter after planting to insure that the limbs begin low enough that you can reach the fruit to harvest it and that the tree produces fruit-bearing wood. Ongoing pruning keeps the tree producing fruit by reducing unfruitful wood and keeping the branches from becoming too thick. You can learn this from illustrated books or hire someone to do it for you--worth the expense, considering the rewards.

Citrus needs little pruning, but does need careful attention to watering--deeply and not too often.

This is only a beginning, but with a little thought and care, a fruit tree will reward you for years, so its worth the trouble.

There is much information on fruit trees at and at the site of the California Rare Fruit Growers (don't let the name put you off, they are interested in all kinds of fruit), and information on growing citrus at

A riot of bloom in my garden

My back and front yards are full of flowers right now, finally. Many are among the wildly successful plants I wrote about in the book by that name. I have California poppies, which even the 7 year old neighbor girl knows are the "California flower." (A mother gave one to a toddler in a stroller as they walked by yesterday. OK with me as long as he doesn't eat it.) Then there are red and pink watsonias (in different areas), foxglove, columbine, nigella, Mexican daisy, hybrid English daisy, crown lychnis, calla lily, forget-me-not, nasturtium, and cineraria daisies in shades from blue violet through red violet, with many bicolored ones. The purple linarias are just coming into bloom, and the poor man's orchid (Impatiens balfourii) is starting to fill out.

Another of my favorites is nicotiana, and I have a white one that comes back year after year, though it is supposed to be an annual. I think the less highly bred ones are more likely to naturalize than the newer hybrids. Its blossoms open most fully evening through morning, and are lovely to see at dusk or dawn. A 'Cecil Brunner' shrub rose is in full bloom, covered with its pink rosebuds that open to fully double flowers about 2 inches across. And the Rosa chinensis is starting to bloom. This is a single (five-petalled) rose that opens peach, turns pink, and then, before the petals fall, they turn light violet. The effect is several colors on one plant. My plant is two years old, and just getting going. I have seen huge shrubs of it, but my plan is to keep it in a rather confined space with careful pruning. May be a foolish plan, but I have hopes of seeing it along the back fence, but not taking over the area.

So begins another season of watching the sequence of summer bloom in my garden and trying to introduce just a few more species each season. We are also enjoying the lovely warm weather of San Francisco's "May summer." (To be followed by colder June, July, and August, and then "September summer.") So we enjoy our warm days while we may.

My New Column

My big news this week is that I will be doing the garden question and answer column for the San Francisco Chronicle. It will be on Wednesdays, in the Home section, under the title "Golden Gate Gardener." I have started to write the first column, which is scheduled to appear on May 31st.

Of course, the biggest challenge is going to be writing answers that aren't too long for the space allowed. So if I have more to say about certain topics than I can fit, perhaps sometimes I will put some of it here. In any case, I'm off and running, and I think it is going to be fun.

Does anyone remembers the snap peas my class put in the ground way last February? They are starting to be ready to harvest now. It seemed to take forever, but they are climbing up the branchy prunings (pea sticks), bearing white blossoms, and ripening fat, sweet, juicy peas. Mmmm.

In other demonstration garden news, the fava beans are blooming, the scarlet runner bean roots have begun to grow after their winter dormancy, and the lettuce is full and beautiful. The Swiss chard is going to seed, but still tastes good. Since the chard is a biennial, and so will die after blooming, I am taking it out. We have so much that I took bags of lettuce, chard, and herbs to a senior lunch center last week, and the server who looked in the bags said ""Oh, this is the GOOD stuff." That's so true.

See This Movie

You may have heard of the movie called "The Real Dirt on Farmer John." I saw a shortened version of it early this month at the SF Public Library. The full-length version will be shown at the Red Vic on June 4 through 7. It is a wonderful film about a zany, thoughtful farmer in Northern Illinois who inherits management of the family farm and struggles to keep it going through the economic disaster that family farms have been faced with in the past few decades. It is advertised as a "humorous, heartbreaking, and triumphant true story." It delivers all that you could wish for and more. Go see it if you care about where our food comes from and how to get good food from nearby farms. Or see it for a wonderful story. (That is, if your partner or friend doesn't care about this stuff, she or he will love the film too.)

There is a website about the film and the farm at It seems that the showings info is out of date on the website, because the Red Vic showing is not listed, but the site has many interesting features all the same.

Sorry I missed Wednesday. Will try to stay regular. Good news is that I am planning to own a digital camera in the near future, so there can be Pictures on this blog. I can hardly wait. The semester ends this week, so more time to figure out the digital world for a couple of weeks until Summer School.

This summer, I am teaching OH50, which is the Introduction to Horticulture class required for a major in Horticulture at City College of San Francisco. You can learn more about it at Or send me an email through this blog, and I will answer questions.

SF Native Plant Tour Report

There were 25 gardens on yesterdays San Francisco native plant tour, and only 4 hours in which to see them. David said we'd see 5, I circled 10 on the list. We ended up seeing, sure enough, 5. It was a gloriously sunny, and really very hot day in the City, and we wished we had brought along some water, but a mid-tour stop for frozen fruit bars kept us from wilting before we finished.

My favorite landscape was a section of the Visitation Valley Greenway at Campbell and Rutland. This slice through a block has curving sidewalks wending through native grasses and other native plants to a children's playground at the bottom. There is tile work and beautiful welded metal gates. There are also areas where children have planted flowers. The feeling is spacious and luxurious. It is part of a 5-section greenway that wends diagonally through sections of four blocks and includes a plaza, a community garden, and an area in which to teach children about agriculture. The designer and organizer is Fran Martin, who has taken classes I taught at City College. She has combined community organizing, plant knowledge, and design skills to wonderful use in this project.

I was also delighted to discover the Living Library gardens, begun by Bonnie Sherk, one of which is just a block off of Ocean Avenue on Oneida, between Otsego and Delano. These gardens center around various schools that cluster in the area. There is a spectacular tile and mirror mural along the building that flanks a narrow lot, and whimsical tile pathways in the upper garden at the edge of a schoolyard. They just planted 200 native trees, a beginning of creating natural areas where the kids of James Denman Middle School and the San Miguel Child Development Center will be able to study, read, and play.

We also saw several private gardens. It always amazes me, on native plant tours, to see the variation of how people use native plants. Some sites are so natural they are really not designed, just planted, while others use natives in sophisticated designs. Some blend native and non-native skillfully, while others stick to the natives entirely. I was also pretty amused by the description of one garden that included the information that it had been overrun by Poison Oak before the gardener worked on it. Poison Oak is the native no one wants. It feeds California quail and other wildlife, but doesn't fit into our native garden plans for some reason.

I hope the Native Plant Society does this tour again, and perhaps adds an hour or two so we can see a few more gardens next year.

Seeds sprouting, one crop bolting

The past week of warm weather has finally made the plants in the college vegetable garden look like they are glad to be there. The soil has clearly warmed up into the mid to high 50s (we'll check tomorrow). I can guess the soil temperature by the fact that a planting of purple podded bush beans is up, even a zucchini seedling is peeking aboveground. The first green shoots are beginning to appear on the large overwintering roots of our scarlet runner beans, which are perennials, but don't start to grow till the soil is pretty warm.

The gai lon, or Chinese broccoli has grown quite a bit in the past week. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a disappointment in that it is all bolting. This means that is blooming, though the plants are rather small. Since much of what we eat of this plant is the top part of the stems, the harvest will be small. Usually, one cuts the top with its leaves and flowerbuds, then the plant makes lower stems, also with flowerbuds, and one cuts and eats those too. These plants are so small that there will be only a handful of edible stems from the first cutting of about 20 plants, and even less from later cuttings.

The directions said to plant gai lon in late spring or late summer to early fall. I don't know for sure what stimulates bolting in this plant, so I wanted to test different planting times to see what would happen. I have more seedlings ready to plant out tomorrow, and will sow more seed tomorrow, indoors, too. Will the next planting be the one with big, fat stems, or will we have to wait till mid summer? Garden suspense!

Native Plant Garden Tour in SF

The Mothers Day Tour of SF Native Plant Gardens is this Sunday, May 14th. It is a self-guided and free tour of 25 gardens in San Francisco that feature California native plants. For a list of gardens and descriptions, you can go to the website of the San Francisco chapter of the California Native Plant Society, at and go to info on the garden tour. There is a map showing the gardens, which are clustered 2 to 5 to a neighborhood, so you can just see the ones near you or range more widely. Some are public gardens, some are private. At one, the HANC Recycling Center, you will be able to buy some plants. I'll be going to some of the gardens and will report what I see.

Exotic Fruit that We Can't Grow Here

If you live near the coast, and are thinking of putting in some fruit plants, you may be tempted by exotic sounding plants you've never heard of, but which are described in such glowing colors in nursery catalogs that you want to believe you can grow these lush growing shrubs with masses of colorful berries. And besides that, you could be the first on your block to grow them, since no one else knows about them! No, I'm not talking about tropicals, but about arctics--plants that hail from the cold north and require more winter chill than we have here.

I have been reading about Seaberry or Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) because a coaching client asked me if it would be a good choice to grow near the coast here. The answer is no, because, though this plant grows well in sandy soils, windy locations, and is tolerant of salt spray, it requires a cold winter to bear well. It can be grown successfully in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and in regions with colder winter than that.

Another fruiting shrub that needs more winter chill than we get is honeyberry (Lonicera kamchatika or maybe it is L. caerulea edulisI ). In any case, it bears teardrop shaped blue berries that are similar to blueberries, though not as sweet. And the catalog I am looking at says it isn't fussy about soils or climate. But alas, without sufficient winter chill, like that in milder intermountain areas east of the Sierra, it isn't going to thrive.

And here is one more, the Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa). This native of Central Asia is popular in Russia, but again, needs more winter chill than our area can provide.

Fruits that gardeners in the areas of Central California with the coolest summers can grow include some kinds of low chill apples and pears, Asian pears, plums, trailing blackberrries, raspberries, citrus (lemons and limes nearest the coast), strawberries, Alpine strawberries, currants, gooseberries, maybe avocados, maybe hardy kiwis.

Snail Control, Seed Swap

Where is Wednesday's blog you ask? Lost in cyberspace. I was writing late at night in real time and lost the connection with most of the unsaved blog. Too tired to start over.

What I was writing about was snails. Snails that were, a week ago, devouring the flowers on one of my Pacific Coast Iris hybrids. We were having a dinner party, and I was looking forward to showing it to the guests, so I knew it was time to begin serious snail hunting. I went out twice after 10 at night, twice early on foggy, damp mornings, and once in midday. I don't have an exact count, but I think the total catch was between 50 and 75. The flowers looked nice for the guests, and I have congratulated myself on hunting now, because later in the year these snails would have had offspring.

Snails live several years, breed during warm weather, and, because they are hermaphroditic, they all lay eggs (an average of 86 eggs per snail!). At this time of year, I am finding almost entirely large snails, but later, after the year's snail eggs have hatched, there will be many smaller ones. And the young ones are both a lot more trouble to hunt and eat more of your plants for their body weight than the adults.

The new snail bait based on iron phosphate is also a really good way to get snails to leave your garden alone. A common brand name for this product is Sluggo, sold by Monterey Lawn and Garden (the label is at ). It consists of tiny pellets that you spread at a rate of a level teaspoon per square yard of garden. Snails and slugs eat it and stop feeding immediately; they die in 3 to 6 days. They crawl to hidden places, so you may not realize how many you have killed with it, but it is effective, and remains effective after watering or rain. I think they work better now, on the adult snails, which more often crawl on the ground than later, on the young ones, which may stay up in plants for several days at a time.

To see if a bait is of this type, read the "Active Ingredients" in fine print on the label and look for Iron Phosphate, or Ferric Phosphate. This should be the only active ingredient. The inert ingredients in this product are mainly wheat flour.

I spent some time yesterday and today trying to figure out if Sluggo was permitted to organic farmers. When California had its own list of permitted substances, one could read it online, but now that the list is federal, seems like you have to request the list in print and have it sent to you. Because I was impatient, I finally decided to call the manufacturer. I spoke to Tom Thompson of Monterey Lawn and Garden, in Fresno, who told me that Sluggo is not on the list of allowed substances at present, but is being considered by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), and Monterey Lawn and Garden thinks it will be approved. The OMRI is currently studying a "binding agent," that is present in miniscule amounts.

So the question is, is Sluggo organic? Well, organic has two meanings. In the sense the chemist understands, the flour part of the material is an organic substance in that it was once a living thing (wheat), and the iron phosphate is an inorganic chemical compound. In the sense meant by the organic farming laws, Sluggo is not approved at this time as a pest management method for use by organic farmers.

I feel strongly that Sluggo will be approved for organic farmers, since its ingredients are not harmful to the environment or to creatures other than snails and slugs. In time, the active ingredient becomes a fertilizer, since plants need iron and phosphorus. For gardeners who have been using metaldehyde bait it is a far better choice, since Sluggo isn't toxic to pets, and is applied so thinly that pets aren't likely to even notice it. I suggest that noncommercial gardeners who consider themselves "organic" go ahead and use Sluggo now, assuming it will be approved.

And, while I had a dinner party to think of last week, and needed the certainty that only a snail hunt could provide, now that the emergency is past, now I think I will go sprinkle some Sluggo.

In other news, the Garden For the Environment, in San Francisco, is starting a seed library. They are looking for home saved seeds and are also currently accepting donations of packaged seeds to get the project going. For more information, see the website or call 731-5627. They are planning their first seed swap on June 24th, 5 to 7 pm, at the Garden for the Environment, 7th and Lawton. This will also be a Solstice potluck barbeque party.

Spring with traces of winter still

Its finally looking like spring in the gardens I keep. In my front garden, California poppies are blooming like crazy, in the back there are purple cineraria daisies; foxgloves are beginning to shoot up their elegant spires, and columbines are opening their delicate blossoms. The fava beans are over a foot tall; the peas are starting to bloom, and on Saturday, we put in bean and zucchini seeds.

The damage from March's  frost still appears in the occasional torn leaf or, in some cases, as reddish scars where the hail hit. There have been two major losses. I cut up and tossed a large potted Aeonioum hawarthii. It is a succulent covered with small rosettes on bare, branched stems. I saved some for propagation, but the plant was too ugly to keep. The other badly damaged plants are three dendrobium orchids I have had for many years. They have long canes with widespaced fleshy leaves and small flowers. None were in bloom, but the hail broke off leaves, damaged the ones left on the plants, and actually broke the canes. I am watching, but at best, will be cutting them up to make cuttings, and at worst may toss the entire plants.

We have yet to see the full effects of the storm, but so far, the cabbage butterflies, parents of the cabbage worms, are late arriving. We searched for their eggs today on the Chinese broccoli, but there are none yet. Which pests will be delayed or fewer? Which predators will be decreased by the long rains and cold? We shall see.