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April 2007
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June 2007

Wildly Successful in Pacific Grove

We're taking a few days off in Pacific Grove, CA. It is a small city west of Monterey. When we have been here in the winter I have been charmed by the many tree aloes in bloom in a park that runs along the Monterey Bay. They are huge plants, with spikes of orange flowers on top. At this time of year, they are out of bloom, but I am seeing many other Wildly Successful plants here. There are Watsonias in many gardens, in pink, white, and coral. There are 'Brilliant' scented geraniums and many kinds of old regal geraniums. There are 'Rose of Castille Improved' fuchsias, an English variety from the 1800s that survived the Fuchsia gall mite. And Pride of Madiera, foxglove, Mexican sage, calla, agapanthus...

In fact, there are so many of the plants featured in my book, that I have, in previous visits, sought a bookstore or other store that might want to carry my book here, but, though there are several used bookstores, I haven't found a new bookstore, nursery or other outlet in town that would be appropriate. I'd love to come down and give a talk about the plants in the book. Does anyone have a connection that might lead to that?

I am seeing many lovely gardens here. And there are old coast live oaks in the neighborhoods, hanging with moss (lichens). I even saw an edible fig tree draped in moss today, a startling sight!

Being near the sea, we are near to wild nature. We walked along the sea yesterday, where there is much restored dune native plant life that is very beautiful. We watched gulls and cormorants along the coast, and rocks that came to life when the seals that were on them flicked a tail. (The seals are about the same color as the rocks, so you have to look carefully to see them.) While we were sitting outside this afternoon we listened to owls calling and responding in the tall trees. There are deer all over the west end of town, too, but they don't seem to bother the more inland gardens.

Soil Temperature and Organic Methods of Gardening

Last week the soil temperature in our garden at City College of San Francisco finally reached 60 degrees F, warm enough for reasonably quick germination of summer crops such as beans and squash.

The beans we put in are Purple Podded Bush beans, which are reputed to be able to grow in slightly colder soil than other garden beans. We put them in about 3 weeks ago, when the soil was in the mid fifities. The first leaves started out tinged with yellow around their edges, which looked like they had some kind of disease, but I knew that it was caused by inability to get enough nutrition in the cold soil. This week they are looking almost completely green.

Cold soils are the Achilles heel of organic gardens. My cousin, who raises organic seedlings in the Midwest each spring, in an unheated greenhouse, and then sells them to gardeners, says that they suffer more from chilly weather than they would if they were being grown with synthetic fertilizer. Why? Because organic fertilizer needs some action from soil bacteria to release its nutrients, the simple, water soluble elemental compounds that plants can use for growth.

Synthetics are manufactured to provide the compounds without any bacterial action, but at a cost to the earth. First, they require considerable petroleum energy to create. Second, they are so water soluble that the plants have to catch what nutrients they can while the fertilizers are on their way through the soil into the groundwater. So you have to apply more. Synthetic fertilizers that enter groundwater will pollute it. If they run off they pollute nearby bodies of water. If you can get your organic fertilizer from nearby sources, or make compost from wastes found on site, you can save the petroleum needed to transport your fertilizer. (Think twice before you decide you have to have bat guano from South America.)

So maybe my seedlings get a bit slower start, but I'm sure they catch up, and I feel good knowing that my garden is less of a burden on the earth.

Summer & Fall Classes

Summer is coming up and I will be teaching OH50, which is the intro to Horticulture for those considering a carreer in horticulture at City College of San Francisco this summer. It begins on June 12th, ends on July 26th, and meets every Tuesday and Thursday night inbetween from 5 to 10 PM. The first part of each evening's class is a lab in which we practice basic horticultural skiills. It is an accelerated class in summer, since it meets twice a week instead of the once a week it meets in the regular school year, so it's kind of intense, but come on over if you want to get a start in horticulture. You can read more about the course and the program at It is in the department of Environmental Horticulture and Floristry.

In the fall, starting the Saturday after Labor day, I will be teaching 111E one of my 3 6-week classes on vegetable and herb gardening. The topics of 111E are soil prep, compost (including worm composting) and the fall and winter crops we can grow. The class meets 9-1 on Saturdays and includes a lab in our demo garden. The dates are September 8 through October 13.

In spring, I probably will be teaching 101, called Garden Practices, which is a beginning gardening class for nonmajors. We cover all the basic topics, including tips on growing different kinds of ornamental and edible plants, and plant selection. It also meets on Saturdays, from 9-12. (The spring semester is not yet scheduled, so this is only a tentative plan.)

Battling a Swiss Chard Pest

Every year, the leaf miners ruin my Swiss chard all summer. Maggots in the leaves, with their accompanying frass (bug doo) render it rather unappetizing. In past years, I have sprayed with summer oil every week, or as often as I can remember to do it, but the improvement has been only slight.

I have been reading about a new product, called Spinosad, and have finally tried it on my Swiss chard. About a week and a half after the first spraying, there seem to be fewer new injuries. I also sprayed spinach that was being damaged, with similar results. Tomorrow, I will clean up the plants and spray it again.

Spinosad (also sold as Bulls-Eye), is made by fermenting the bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. Two of the metabolites of this bacterium (that is, products of its metabolism) are highly toxic to a number of insects. It is said to stop susceptible insects from feeding in one hour, and remain toxic to newly arriving insects for the next week or two. It is also said to spare lady beetles, lacewings, and minute pirate bugs, all creatures that eat pest insects in our gardens. It breaks down in sunlight and does not persist in soil. The amount of time to wait after spraying before you harvest varies, but for Swiss chard and other leafy greens, it is one day. It is OMRI, meaining approved for use by organic farmers.

At this point, I don't know every detail about this material, but if the leafminers desist from mining in my Swiss chard leaves, I will find out the ones I don't know yet and report them. It is also said to kill thrips, caterpillars, sawflies, and a number of other pests. (A critter called a rose slug is a sawfly larva. I see it on San Francisco roses often. Summer oil is relatively effective against it, but for serious infestations, Spinosad may be just the ticket.)

By the way, the leafminer in the chard and spinach is the larva of a fly (therefore it's a maggot) that eats out the inside of leaves, causing ugly blotches.The fly lays eggs on the leaves of chard and spinach; the larvae hatch out and enter the leaves. When they have eaten their fill, they drop to the ground to pupate. When they emerge from the pupae, the flies breed and lay eggs again. This goes on in the warmer part of the year here in San Francisco, from late March until mid-October. (Chard and spinach growing October to March are safe, but you have to start them earlier than mid-October for good winter production.)

The fact that the pupae live in the soil means that beneficial nematodes watered into the soil might help as well. I am thinking of getting some this year. These microscopic creatures that you can purchase are only effective when the soil is warm, so I will wait a few more weeks before adding them.