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September 2006

Growing and Eating Zucchini

In the college garden, we are harvesting plenty of zucchini from plants over 3 feet tall. The first planting has been hit by the seemingly inevitable powdery mildew attack. I know there are those who would spray with a baking soda concoction, but it always seems simpler just to cut off any leaves that are covered with the white spores. (Have to do it while only a few leaves have spores, so that you have some left to support the plant.) Seems draconian, but once the spores cover the leaves, they can't photosynthesize anyway. As long as you keep ahead of it and the plant keeps making new leaves, the plants keep on bearing squash. We don't compost the leaves we cut off, since the spores can live through all but really hot compost, and we don't trust ours to be really hot all through.

The other problem we are trying to head off at the pass in this foggy, damp weather is the decay that starts at the blossom end of the squashes when the flower decays. The solution is to go in and find the forming squash and knock off the flowers before they can rot. If there is decay on the end of the squash under the flower, scrape it off with a fingernail.

The zucchini we are growing is a striped one, like Thompson and Morgan's Tiger Cross, with dark and light green stripes. It gets larger than most zucchini while still remaining tender and tasty. So it is at 9 or 10 inches as tender as most would be at 6 inches. I suspect that the one listed in the Nichols Garden Nursery Catalog and the Cooks Garden Catalog as Italiano Largo is similar in size, though not striped.

The trick to avoiding having too much zucchini is to pick 'em before they can get too big. But of course they hide under the leaves and get big before you see them, so constant vigilence is in order.

Nobody wants a two foot zucchini, but a 12 to 14 inch one is great for slicing in half lengthwise, scooping out the center, and stuffing. The stuffing can be vegetarian or not, as you choose. The one I gave in Golden Gate Gardenin is vegetarian, but with cheese and egg, and served with tomato sauce at the table. I think any recipe for a stuffed vegetable could be adapted. Or put them into a vegetable curry, a minestrone, a stir fry, even sliced with tomatoes and sprinkled with toasted pinenuts in a salad.

A Day at Copia

Our trip to Copia, in the town of Napa, doubled as a place to give a talk on Mediterranean Food Gardening and a chance to see the place for the first time. Copia is The American Center for Wine Food and the Arts. It is quite beautiful, and the garden is at its summer peak. When I opened the car door in the parking lot, I knew we were in for a treat. The little planted islands in the parking lot are planted in grapes--perfectly manicured wine grapes with, at this time of year, large bunches of ripening purple fruit hanging low on the plants. Ever been to an Italian restaurant where the plastic grapes hung down from a trellis over the dining room? Seeing the real thing in a parking lot is startling for somehow the opposite reason that the fake ones are startling in a darkened dining room.

The day (August 20th) was an Edible Gardens Festival, that included food booths, wine tastings, food demos, garden talks (including mine), crafts, children's activities, and of course, a chance to tour the gardens and the museum.

Colby Eierman, the director of the gardens, took us on a personal tour of the 3 1/2 acres of edible gardens. They are all beautifully laid out in large square plots with wide lawn paths between. I envied the size and productivity of his summer crops. There were lovely tall tomatoes and peppers, and huge gourds that were hanging down from the top of an overhead trellis. Malabar spinach grew  or 5 or 6 feet tall, on trellises. It is a tropical plant, very pretty and delicious too, but it won't thrive in cool weather. There were fruit trees, herb gardens, and demonstration plantings of several types of wine grapes. A children's garden includes chickens and rabbits.

A problem they have is symphylans, creatures that eat plant roots. They are 3/16th inch long, white or pale brownish-pink, very thin creatures with twelve pairs of legs. I had only read about them as a pest in Oregon, but there they are in Napa. The only organic way he has found to prevent them is to plant a crop of potatoes, after which the soil is clear enought to plant another crop that would otherwise have its roots eaten up by the tiny beasts.

They create the beautiful gardens with three full time gardeners, occasional seasonal help, and, yes, they do have an intern program, which you can read about on their website.

I tasted papalo (Porophyllum ruderale), new to me. It is a plant with a flavor similar to cilantro, sometimes used as a substitute. It is native to Mexico into South America and used there raw or at the end of cooking.

Another plant new to me was Hoja de Santa Maria (Piper aritium), a close relative of black pepper. The large leaves of this Mexican native are used to wrap fish, then the packets are baked with a spicy tomato sauce. We watched a cooking demonstration in their arena-like indoor demo kitchen, and noticed that there is also an outdoor demo kitchen in the gardens where they can give classes.

David liked the museum best. There is an exhibit on the kind of restaurant known as a diner, a permanent exhibit on various aspects of food and wine in culture and history, and other smaller exhibits. There are also a gift and book store and two restaurants.

You can learn a lot more about this place at It is definitely worth visiting more than once if you live in the Bay Area. They have events and classes thoughout the year. It is at 500 First Street in Napa, just west of the Napa River. Regular admission is $5.00 for adults, $4.00 for seniors and students with I.D., Free for children 12 and under. It is open daily except Tuesday, 10 to 5 (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Days and Christmas Eve). It took a little over an hour to drive there from the Golden Gate Bridge on a Sunday morning, travelling via Hwy 37, through the picturesque marshes.

Basic Gardening Class Starts August 19th

City College classes start this week, and I will be teaching 101, Garden Practices, which starts on Saturday, August 19th. The class meets Saturdays, 9 to 12, earns 3 units of college credit, and can be taken either for a grade or C/NC, which means "Pass/Fail." It is a truly basic gardening class, with plenty of info and hands on activities to interest intermediate gardeners as well. The lab is in a large demonstration garden, and we have full use of greenhouses and other facilities as well.

Topics include seeds and seeding, soil, compost, watering, climate and microclimate, growing annuals, biennials, bulbs, trees and shrubs, vegetables and fruit trees, container and house plants, plant selection, pruning, and managing pests in environmentally friendly ways. I often say a green thumb is learnable, and this is the class in which I teach how to have one.

If you are interested, you can learn how to enroll in this class by looking on the City College website ( You can come to the first class to get an add code (which you need to enroll), or you can get one by emailing me at Got questions? Go ahead, ask me, and I will try to tell you what you need to know to decide if this is a class for you.

Copia Lecture August 20th

My next public lecture will be on Sunday, August 20th, at 11 A.M. in the garden of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, in Napa, CA.

My subject will be Mediterranean Climate Food Gardening, how to use our mediterranean year to produce vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers all year. I will be providing a calendar and recipes.

My talk will be part of an Edible Gardens Festival, which takes place on that day from 10 to 5. They will have live music, cooking demonstrations, craft activities, a winetasting, activities for children, and a vendor's marketplace, as well as talks by experts all day long. In addition, you can tour their gardens and museum.

To find out more about this event, go to

A better arugula

Arugula can be a frustrating crop, sometimes making small plants and bolting to seed before you have eaten much. Sometimes the plants that come up from fallen seeds make the best, biggest plants--and these may come up even in the path where you think they will be scawny from lack of nutrients, rather than in your beautifully fertilized and prepared bed.

But last spring I sampled arugula that made uniformly big, thick leaves, as big as the biggest of my plants ever made. I asked where it came from, and the answer was from The Cook's Garden, a mail or internet order seed company ( 

You know how seed catalogs can make everything sound like the best plant ever? I once bought a broccoli of which catalog copy said "the best thing about this variety is its earliness." I think they spoke the truth. It grew small plants with loose heads that had large buds and it wasn't particularly delicious, but it was definitely early!

I reread the Cooks Garden catalog to see if I would have guessed it was such a good strain. It says they think it is "the best we've found for both flavor and heat tolerance. This large leaved selection lets you harvest young for maximum flavor and texture, and still get the high yields that make the most of small growing spaces." Well maybe, but I am so used to glowing descriptions, I would have though, maybe not.

In any case, have just ordered some garden arugula seeds. I should be able to report if they are as good as the ones I ate in the spring withing 30 days of the arrival of the seed.