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April 2009
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June 2009

Cineraria: A Special Flower

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This is cineraria, the glorious purple daisy that grows in Bay Area gardens near the coast. I let it have this bed that every spring for the mass of color it makes. It is especially nice on foggy mornings, radiently purple, white, pink, and blue.I also like the fact that the centers of the daisies are purple.  

When I first learned about this plant I had no idea how special it was to the Bay Area. Turns out that right here, in our foggy region, is the only place it is a perennial in the entire nation. The cool foggy days and the cold nights, the near lack of frost, and the dry summers remind it of home.

And where is home? On the steep north coast of an island in the Canaries, just off the northwest coast of Africa. Here, a cold ocean breeze blows most of the time, The place is foggy much of the time, has less rain than we do, and that only in winter, but rarely has frosts. It is called the "cloud zone."

Well, strictly speaking, the plants we grow don't grow there. The ones that grow there are species; ours are hybrids among several Canary Island species. The florists use them to make short plants with broad heads of flowers, used as potted gift plants. But when those plants make seed, they soon revert to the tall plants with many shades of flowers that we see in our gardens. The hybrids were first bred in the early 1800s. When they arrived in California, I don't know for sure, but probably as soon as the seeds hit the ground, they knew this was a second home.
2009 late may 003 copyLike many people, I really like the blue ones. I am always looking for clues in the leaves to guess which ones will be blue. But the truth is, I like all of them, so I don't try too hard.

I suppose, because they are so easy, they have a bad reputation as being a flower of abandoned gardens, but they can be reined in and left to make a spring garden glorious. They do make some seedlings. If I don't have enough where I want them, I dig seedlings and move them there. Some of them go into pots to move to the front door when they are in bloom. If a seedling is in a place where a spring accent would be nice, I leave it alone.

As these flowers bloom, sections of the flowers start to make seed. I deadhead these as they form, leaving the parts that are in bloom or bud still. When the bloom is spent, I cut the plants to the ground. They start to grow in the fall, and bloom again in April-June. Some people pull them out after they bloom, but they will get bigger with more flowers each year if you just cut them back.

If you don't have any, you can buy a couple of florist's plants in colors you like and leave them outside when the fluffy seeds form. Or you may be able to find the taller ones in nurseries as Cineraria stellata. Actually, the botanists want us to use their new botanical name: Pericallis x hybrida, but no one knows them as that.

This is one of the 50 historic California plants I wrote about in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.

Tomatoes Planted for Late Blight Trial

Today I finally planted the last of the tomatoes for the tomato late blight resistance trial. I have some at City College and some in my community garden. Three other people I know of are planting them together as a trial, one in Berkeley, one east of the hills in the East Bay, and one in Moss Beach. I'm wondering if anyone else who purchased the plants at the City College plant sale has logged onto this blog to read about the trial. If you did, please send a comment, so I know you are out there.

Now there is nothing to do but wait. Late blight is, as the name shows, usually late. That is, it will show up after the fruit has set and is ripening. To succeed in this trial, all the plant has to do is stay healthy. I will be taking pictures as the summer progresses.

For more on late blight, do a search in this blog. Try "tomato disease" for a link to some very good photos of the disease.

Lost Garlic Crop

2009 February-March 043 copyThis is the photo I ran a couple of months ago of the wonderful garlic crop developing in the City College garden. I was looking forward to teaching about garlic next fall from the harvested bulbs. But alas, we had a late rain and the whole planting collapsed.
The cause., as far as I can tell, is garlic white rot. I realized I have been putting off reporting this sad 2009 Early May 021 copy
news, but I did take the photos, so better get it over with.

This is how the plants looked last week. Just about dead. It isn't the normal drying off that the healthy plants begin about now and finish by the end of June. The plants just collapsed in a couple of days. Generally, the infection arrives on the sets, the little bulbs you plant. I got these at the nursery, which is about all you can do to try to avoid the disease. The rain caused the fungus to grow, but it had to have been there already.
So what does the UC IPM site suggest? ( and follow the links to garlic and white rot). They say the fungus can live in the soil for 20 years. Great!
To prevent it, one can try dipping the cloves in water that is 115 degrees, but you have to be careful, since 120 degrees can kill them. This would be one of those operations you carry out witha little bowl, an immersable thermometer, maybe a meat thermometer, and pitchers of hot and cold water.

2009 Early May 020 copy The other suggestion for organic gardeners, is to purchase a garlic extract product that you can apply before you plant garlic again. The fungus doesn't make spores, but tiny bits of itself harden into black dots the size of poppy seeds. If you wait a year after the infection, then treat the soil with the garlic extract, it can trick the black dots into growing, then, because there is no garlic to live on, the fungus will die.

That's a bit of a wait, but I don't see another solution on the horizon. Here is a pulled bulb of sick garlic. Not clear and clean as it should be, but covered with clinging soil, even though the soil wasn't overly wet, and you can see some of the white fungal growth.

I guess the only good news is that the disease is only of the garlic. The lettuce and arugula can't get it, or can the trial tomatoes (that are being tested for late blight resistance). And I can't catch garlic white rot.

Last of the 2008 Apples

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A few weeks ago I ran this photo of the last of the apples harvested from our tree in October of 2008. They were stored all winter in the fridge, in a loosely closed plastic bag. I have been eating them, mostly in plain nonfat yogurt with broken walnuts and a touch of honey, and they are still pretty good. Not quite as sweet as they once were, but it was worth saving them.

I said I would show last year's apples with this year's blossoms if there were any apples left by then, and

2009 Early May 013 copy by golly, there are! The other day there were 5 apples left, and the tree has been slowly coming into bloom. So there they are, three of the 2008 apples with some of the 2009 blossoms. Apples picked in the time of Bush, shown with blossoms that follow the first 100 days of Obama! With controlled atmosphere, I suppose a commercial apple storage place could do better, but I think we did pretty well.

Most years my tree makes more than we can eat. I store a bunch in the fridge, hand them out to students and friends, and take the rest somewhere that they will be eaten. Last year, we took the extras to the Free Farm Stand. Don't know about it? It's a stand in San Francisco's Mission District where fresh food is given away. They are always looking for fruit trees that need harvesting and will help if you need help getting the fruit picked. (Have you a plum tree that is about to be loaded with fruit? Get in touch with them.) Or if you or someone you know is out of work and in need of more fresh food, drop by. The Free Food Stand is held on Sundays, 1-3, at Harrison and Treat Streets in San Francisco. Read about it at the blog ( It's a really nice scene with friendly people, fresh vegetables, fruit, maybe bread.

So, in a few weeks, there will be little nubs of apples forming on our tree and we will be on our way to the 2009 harvest. Hope there is plenty to store and plenty to share.

Lady Beetles

2008 Early June 019 copy2 Here is a photo of a convergent lady beetle, shown on a flowering broccoli plant. The name "convergent" comes from the two diagonal white lines on their thorax (the part between the head and the wing covers).These beetles are native to California, and help quite a bit with pest control in our gardens. I never buy them, because they just show up hungry every year. They hibernate in the mountains and fly down our way in spring.

You can encourage lady beetles to find your garden by planting flowers they like. The adult beetles live on nectar and pollen when insects aren't available.They may come for the flowers, then, aphids or other pests start to build up, the beetle is there in your garden, ready to pounce.

It isn't hard to plant flowers lady beetles like, since they include many popular ones, and now is a good time to plant most of them. They like cosmos (especially white ones), coreopsis, sunflower, oleander, sweet alyssum, goldenrod, and tansy. I have also see them enjoying the flowers of African blue basil.

Watch for the little alligator-like lady beetle larvae too. They're charcoal gray with orange markings. If you see them, you know the lady beetles are breeding in your garden. And this is good, because the larvae can eat 100 aphids in an hour, compared to the 100 a day an adult lady beetle can eat. Big difference!


Seems like many gardeners are contending with rats these days. They eat vegetables and have been damaging citrus trees. They gnaw the bark off of citrus trees, or chew off twigs, or chew the rind from the fruit. As promised in this week's column, here is information that was in a recent column about rats, including links to two very good information sheets on the animals:

One reader reported good results from using an aluminum trunk band on a fruit tree trunk. Thsi can help if it is 12 inches wide and there is no other way into a tree. Repellent granules may also help. Traps are effective when used well, and pest-control professionals can be hired to set them. (One way to locate licensed trappers is through the Web site Rat bait is the worst idea, since the poisoned rats are likely to lbe eaten by cats or birds of prey, which will be killed by poisoned rats. 

It is important to understand that urban rats are a community problem, not necessarily solvable by one gardener working alone to protect one tree or one vegetable garden. Rats multiply when they can get into houses, have access to food (garbage, pet food, birdseed, etc.) and have cover (ivy on fences, heavy ground cover, trash). As the lemon rind story shows, if you have rats, your neighbor does too.

City health department inspectors will survey a property for possible attractants and habitats, and advise on how to remove them. They will also cite individuals with documented rat-attracting conditions who refuse to remove them. (To report a rat problem in San Francisco, call 311.) But perhaps a better approach is a community effort, such as a block party to seal up buildings, clean up and get a neighborhood rat problem under control. I found two downloadable rat information sheets that explain the tasks necessary to make a neighborhood rat-unfriendly. One is at the San Francisco Health Department Vector Control site (

The second information sheet ( is on the Web site of the Hungry Owl Project. This Marin County nonprofit helps Bay Area residents set up barn owl nests so these raptors can provide natural rodent control, and also offers good advice on other environmentally safe ways to control pest rodents.