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November 2007
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January 2008

San Francisco Winter Garden in Bloom

Midnov_07_054_front_garden_1copy So here is the garden I missed after a few days in the snow. This image was taken near the end of November, 2007, but some of my garden flowers are in bloom still, at the end of December. This didn't used to happen. This garden was often bloomless by Thanksgiving. I could keep flowers going till then from sometime in February, but by Thanksgiving, the garden would inspire my mother-in-law, who had arrived for the holiday to say "You should plant some flowers in this garden." So is it climate change? Hard to say. We still have frosty nights in December or January, but maybe the fall cools more slowly, allowing more plants to adjust and stay in bloom later.

In this photo are several plants from my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California. There is the annual paludosum daisy (Mauranthemum paludosum) (white flowers in lower left). These are still in bloom now. To the right of it is golden feverfew (Tanaceturm parthenium), which I keep for its chartreuse foliage, picking off any blooms that form. Around and in these plants is nasturtium, with orange blooms. You can also see the lacy foliage of California poppy, which still have a couple of orange blooms and will have more of them very early in the year and all spring.

The taller red flowers are Schizostylus coccinia, a nice South African bulb that blooms in the fall. It has about finished blooming now. It will spread in gardens kept very moist, but mine is on the dry side in summer, so it stays mostly in place. I think there is also a flash of red from the last of the California fuchsia (Epilobium californicum), which was huge and bright in late summer. The low red flowers are some dwarf snapdragons, which I pinched three times to keep them reblooming from mid summer until late November. They are quiet now, but who knows, maybe they will rebloom later.

The blue flower, spreading out to the right, is annual echium, a little brother of the big, showy Pride of Madeira. It's Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder.' I hear that this one is a pest in Washington state, Canada, and Australia, so avoid it in those areas please, but here, in dry summer California, I have found only light reseeding, and reports from other gardeners are that it isn't very hard to get rid of if you tire of it. It blooms a long time and provides pollen for bees.


Here are the other flowers I wanted to see on my return. These are cosmos, of an unusual pale yellow hue, that I grew from seed, though I'm afraid I have forgotten the seed company that sold the seed (I have that packet somewhere!). I asked our housesitter deadhead them, to keep them blooming, and they are still going! I like them because I know that pale-colored or white cosmos are the best ones for attracting beneficial insects. (This is the species of cosmos that is usually white, pink or magenta, not the one that is bright yellow or rusty orange.)

What blooms will the rest of the winter spare? We shall see.

From Snow to Frost

We are back from the snowy East, to a Sunday morning with frost on the housetops and in the cold center of the garden. Doesn't seem to be any serious damage, but I see that the lavender-flowered tree dahlia, so recently blooming, was burned by the cold. It is about 10 feet tall, in a container still, and looks like a blackened skeleton of itself now. The yellow cosmos in the front garden, however, are still blooming. A bit the worse for the wear from wind damage during last week's storm, but the parts still standing are still covered with the wonderful pale yellow blooms. (They came from a seed packet. I will look up the source and report it.) And I can see the china rose still blooming at the end of the garden. Winter roses are so cheery to see!

More photos soon. (I've had to give my Chronicle column priority since my return--that and wrapping presents.)

A Merry Christmas to all!

We're in Snowland this Week

This week we are visiting friends and relatives on the East Coast. We worried that Thursday's snowstorm would last into Friday and cancel or delay our flight, but the storm stopped just in time for us to fly in clear skys.

There are 10-12 inches of snow here in Natick, Mass., with more, or perhaps freezing rain, due tomorrow. Not much horticulture going on here right now, but our friend did tell us that she had sprayed the rhododendrons and azaleas with an antitranspirant. This will slow water loss through the leaves during the winter, reminding us that frozen soil creates a drought for plants as real as the one created by lack of rainfall.

Our down jackets are keeping us pretty warm, but a hike down to the frozen pond to watch children play at ice hockey this afternoon was enough to remind me that I have become a subtropical being, no longer willing to suffer frozen and aching toes in order to enjoy a "winter wonderland."

_dscsnowstairs39_copy I've been taking pictures of snow on gardens and in woods, and of the picture perfect Cape Cod houses with their holiday decorations and snow-covered roofs and garden. Californians will appreciate how exotic it feels to be here in the middle of a neighborhood that looks like this. Yes, I grew up in a snowy place, but to actually be in a snowy place when there is this much snow on the ground--that hasn't happened in a long time.

_dscsatsnow30_copy I took this picture Saturday, after the first storm. Taxus sorely taxed by a covering of snow.

_dscsundaysnow42_copy Sunday, it snowed again, dumping even more snow on that poor Taxus.

At home in San Francisco, our front garden is still abloom with yellow cosmos, red schizostylis, white paludosum daisies, steel blue cerinthe, clear blue Echium vulgare (the annual one), etc. Here, there is an occasional curled brown oak leaf clinging on a branch to remind one that the trees once had leaves, and snow everywhere--piled on evergreen yew, arborvitae, and rhodies. Quite a contrast.

Critters in the Community Garden

When I walk through my community garden these days, I notice quite a few critters have appeared. No, I don't mean pests, but examples of garden art. I thought you'd like to see a few of them.

Midnov_07_065_copy This small feline was hiding among some cabbages. Hunting some pressed concrete bunnies no doubt, though I didn't see any of those.

Midnov_07_062_copy Among the irises, I found a pink flamingo that seems to have fallen on hard times. Times are indeed hard for lawn flamingos, since last I heard, the company that was making them had decided to stop doing it. Is there a patent, I wonder, or could someone else begin to make them? Surely demand isn't completely dead for this 20th century icon of the lawn or garden.

Midnov_07_063_copy And here we have a...a...well, it is art, don't you think? It is a multicolored monster reclining among the fading roses. How poignant.

Late_nov_07_016_copy In the college garden, the cole crops we planted in mid August are continuing to mature. One of my favorites is Romanesco broccoli. It has a unique color and form, and has a different texture than regular broccoli as well. All the ones I can find on the market these days are small-headed hybrids, but I used to be able to get heirloom seed that made huge heads. The smaller ones are probably better for the market, but for a home gardener, those big heads lasted a long time. The variety is from Northern Italy, where I'll bet one can still find the larger heads. I'm still hoping to find them again. In any case, it does best growing from late summer into fall. It ripens in November mostly, or early December. I once saw plants of it at the Rodale farm in Emmaus, PA, the Organic Gardening headquarters. The gardener said they didn't seem to do well with it. Makes sense. It is much better adapted to our mediterranean California climate. I think they were planting too late, treating it like a short-season broccoli, but it is more of midseason, meant to mature in a mild winter. 

Dad has passed away; his banana tree lives on

Vista_6507_004_5x7 I don't very often blog about personal news, but this news is important to me and to those who know that I gained an early education about plants and gardening from my father. His childhood on an 80 acre farm in Indiana gave him a deep interest in plants and nature, which he imparted to me, teaching me about starting seedlings, making compost, how plants grow, and the scientific names of many plants. He often drove me to high school on the way to work, and frequently we would stop by a tree that we were passing so he could teach me its name and features. I took this picture of him last August. He was a popular guy in town--cheerful and kind. At his 100th birthday party last January, the town proclaimed his birthday "Sheldon Peirce Day."

Dad, Sheldon James Peirce, died on November 9th, at the age of 100 years and 9 months. He died peacefully, of no specific cause, falling asleep the day before and never reawakening.

July_august_07_091_copy_2  Recently I have been blogging about his banana tree. He transplanted it from a part of the yard where it was suffering too much wind damage 4 years ago, when he was nearly 97. It has set two crops since then. Bananas, being a tropical plant, don't have a yearly cycle. They require 18 months to ripen fruit. Last winter, San Diego County suffered a heavy frost, killing the stem bearing the next crop of bananas. We were afraid that the stem would die and the ripening bananas would be lost, but apparently the frost-killed stem was able to get food through the roots it shared with other stems of the plant, because the fruit did ripen. We ate several raw bananas late last spring, and a bit later, my sister-in-law made banana bread from the rest. He enjoyed it all. At left is a photo of the banana crop of last summer. I don't know the variety, but the fruit is small and firm and doesn't get that "banana oil" flavor, as Dad would put it, that he didn't much like in ripe commercial bananas.

Midnov_07_045_copySo here is the banana tree, still standing tall, a week after Dad had passed away. The garden lives on. The dwarf avocado has a heavy crop. The guava he planted is 4 feet tall and blooming for the first time. The navel oranges are starting to ripen. And the green nubs of paperwhite daffodil leaves are beginning to push up through soil that finally got some rain last week. Life goes on, and spring is not so far away.

Basic Gardening Class Starts January 19th

The spring semester at City College of San Francisco starts in January and I will be teaching a full semester class on basic gardening. It starts on Saturday, January 19th, at 9 AM and meets 9-12 on Saturdays that aren't part of holiday weekends through about the third week of May.

You can learn more about the class on the website of the college ( It is called Garden Practice, or 101, in the department of Environmental Horticulture and Floristry. This is a gardening class for beginners. We cover all the basic topics, including tips on growing different kinds of ornamental and edible plants, and plant selection.

October_07_085_copy As part of the class, during lab, which is from 11-12 we will be starting seedlings in the department greenhouses and working in the demonstration garden. There are vegetables, flowers, and an herb garden. We will also be building a hot compost pile and tending a redworm compost bin. The class includes hands-on instruction in basic pruning of woody plants, too. (The flower in the photo is 'Alaska' nasturtium, which serves a dual purpose--it's pretty and you can eat both the leaves and the flowers.)

The construction class is building a fine, sturdy trellis this fall, which will become the focus of a new planting of edible and ornamental plants from the Central and South American highlands. The trellis will support a couple of chayote squash vines. Have you ever seen one? They will climb 30 feet given the chance, so we are putting the trellis at a distance from other structures so we can contain this monster. (I'll put photos on this blog, too, as this planting gets underway.)

City College is just west of the Ocean/Geneva exit of 280, easily accessible from that freeway. Take the Ocean part of the exit, west to Phelan, turn right at Judson (at the north end of the campus). The horticulture department is in a ranch-style classroom building behind a garden.

You can register for the class online. (If you haven't ever taken a class at CCSF you have to apply first, but this is not a lengthy process.) The default enrollment puts you in the class for a letter grade (which most people find inspires them to learn the most). You can also take the class Pass/Fail. To do this, you need to change from the default enrollment. You can also do that online. If you do this, please print out a copy of the form stating you did it and bring it to class, so I can see it.

Several readers of this blog have now turned up at workshops and classes I have taught. It has been fun to meet and be able to share gardening information.