Tomato Seeding Day Is Tuesday

Tuesday, March 16th is seeding day for my tomato trial. A class at City College of San Francisco will be sowing seeds for the reportedly late blight resistant tomato varieties along with a bunch more to sell at our spring plant sale and for use in a trial to try to find something that will resist tomato late blight. Scroll down to see a complete list of the varieties we are growing. As the date of the sale approaches I think it's May 7th), I'll write up a list of everything we are growing. There will be early peppers and eggplants, lettuce, gai lohn, etc.

I have been working on a big writing project, and will be turning in 2/3 of it tomorrow. Only 1/3 to go, and then more time to garden, blog, etc. 

Yesterday as I stood by my window, a mockingbird flew within a yard of the pane and into the neighbor's blooming pear tree. Mockingbirds are such dramatic birds, all full of songs, and when they fly, they open up gray wings and reveal a broad V of white. They are so floppy when they fly. It doesn't seem they would stay afloat. My friend tells me her mother taught her they were "trash birds," a concept I don't get, and if you explained it to me I still wouldn't get. I have spent many an hour in a garden working and listening to mockingbird song and they were some of my favorite hours. 

Happy spring! (Almost) 

Of Time and Blooming Trees

I often find the concept of time to be a challenge. Some of my happiest moments are ones in which I am not aware of time at all--when I am researching points of fact, happily following trails to dead ends until some of the paths lead to wonderfully satisfying answers. Or when I am gardening, pondering the nature of weeds, of soil, and the paths of the elements through living creatures. I wake to time when I am hungry or cold, and pick up with what the rest of the world is doing at that time of day.

I am aware of "little time", the time that passes from week to week, I am writing, teaching, gardening, and doing the things we all need to do to live. I know a lot of this "little time" has passed and has become "big time" when I know both of my parents have died, my dad at the age of 100 years. I know my father's 5 siblings are also gone, and that seems like the passing of an era. I have even lost cousins, three of them at last counting. But the reality that "big time" has passed doesn't always seem real to me.

The time that enters my soul most deeply, and makes the most sense, is the time shown by the passage of seasons in the plants and animals that I see and hear every day. When it is spring, as it is now in San Francisco, and I drive about and see the many flowering plums, I am clear that time is moving along, and that it has come again to the wonderful time when trees flower and the sun quickens the growth of so many plants. In our Mediterranean climate, it is a second spring, as it were, following the spring of the grasses, when the hillsides turn from gold to green. It is now the spring of the trees. Soon it will be the spring of the warm season annuals as they germinate and grow quickly into summer plants. Then we have summer, which, though not very warm here in San Francisco, does have plants specific to it--the ones that need the longer days and brighter sun it offers. Then we have a brief summer and fall, and then we are back to the spring of the grasses.

I am driven to have tea in the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park at this time of year, and mourn the years when rains fall on the days I could go there to enjoy the plum blossoms. I celebrate the return of the mockingbird. My friend tells me she was taught it was a "trash bird," but oh, when one sits on my roof and wakes me at 4 with its complex song, I can't really be angry, because it is telling me that the spring is here.

The blooming of seasonal wonders connects me to "big time" in all its aching reality and makes me value "little time" all the more.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough

And stands about the woodland ride.

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my three-score years and ten,

Twenty will not come again.

And take from seventy years a score,

It leaves me only fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodland I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

Go ahead, change the ages and the times in the poem--I hope I have more than 70 springs too--but the feeling is right, that we should relish the beauty of each season in each year. Go see some blooming trees. Take a walk on a hill and look for wild flowers. Visit the Tea Garden.

Rainy Day Greens

The gardens of the City are certainly green these days, but the gardeners are a bit blue, since it has been very difficult to find a dry day to work in gardens comfortably. It has been raining nearly every day for what seems like forever, but is really probably about a week and a half. And most of the rains have been really heavy, no misty days, just cold, driving rain.

Yes, we do need the rain. We are at 14 inches for the season now, 2 inches more than the average at this time of year, but don't we always want a more perfect arrangement? Maybe three days of nonstop rain and then four of sunshine each week until we reach the season's rainfall quota. That would be an improvement.

I ran out on Saturday afternoon and trimmed some of the plants in my front garden under a sky that looked threatening, but didn't drop any rain for several hours. The garden doesn't look wonderful even after that work, but I know it will look better for it in a few weeks. It is mostly a study in green now, from the chartreuse of the golden feverfew, through the gray green of California poppy leaves and the grayer green of bush morning glory. The white paludosum daisies are blooming, steel blue Cerinthe and clear blue Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder', and an occasional red Schizostylis (crimson flag). But, already the watsonia leaves are about 2 feet tall and the sparaxis leaves are a foot, which means they will be sending up flower stems soon.

Today I sowed seed of collards, Florence fennel, and celeriac indoors and I have lettuce and leek seedlings in the windowsill. My Saturday class sowed all sorts of flowers and vegetables, which are in the greenhouse at the college. Can spring be far behind?

Birds in my Community Garden

The other morning I was out with my camera in my community garden in San Francisco, and was able to catch photos of some of the birds that spend time there. They are enjoying flowers that are seeding and the active insect life in the garden. While I see birds often while I am gardening, I have never attempted to photograph them, but they are very bold, so it proved easy to do.

Aug_2627_07_026_copy Here we have what I think is a grackle, sitting on a trellis made of weathered wood. This guy also was enjoying very much a bird bath that has been set up in one of the garden plots.

Aug_2627_07_024_copy_2 A pair of mourning doves were feeding on the ground. They moved around behind plants to try to hide from me, and I followed, silently,until I moved around a plant and found this one standing practically at my feet.

Aug_2627_07_022_copy_2 And there are always little flocks of sparrows that fly up when you come upon them. You usually don't see them until they fly. They fly to nearby, higher, places and look at you as if to say, "What are YOU doing here?"

In addition to these bird species, we also see robins, mockingbirds, and there has been an oriole's next a couple of times. And green parrots, in the palm street trees. I feed the robins earthworms or wireworms sometimes. I toss them and the robins run over to pick them up. I love to hear the mockingbirds singing their ever-changing songs. Recently, a noisy mockingbird stayed a few feet from me, perched first on my rasperry trellis, then on structures in neighboring plots, then back to my plot. It scolded loudly for maybe 15 minutes, until I noticed its fledgling hopping about in my 4-foot tall African bue basil shrub, which I was pruning. The baby was trying hard to stay out of my sight. And I thought the parent mockingbird wanted me to go away so it could eat some of my raspberries!

Plants to attract Native Bees

Last night I attended a talk about the native bees of the Bay Area and garden flowers that will attract them. The program was one of the San Francisco Natural History Series that take place once a month at the Randall Museum in San Francisco. (It's at, click on classes, lectures, and Natural History series, but the site is not up to date, so you may want to call for info.) The speaker was supposed to be Gordon Frankie, who is studying native bees at U.C. Berkeley, but he sent a graduate student in his stead, and I am afraid I have forgotten her name.

However I didn't forget what she said about bees and garden flowers. More than once I have had a discussion of this matter and ended up, with others, wondering whether the flowers that attract these pollinators were only California natives, or if they include other flowers. This talk had the answers. So far, they have found that many non-native flowers attract one or more of the approximately 300 species of bees found in the Bay Area, and that many natives do as well. You can see a list at as well as a wealth of information on the bees and ways to make their life easier so they can thrive and help domestic bees pollinate our crops.

August131507043ready So what is the photo? This is an Eryngium, or sea holly, in bloom I know, it looks unnatural. But this is the right color, vibrant blue flower heads, bracts, and stems. It is a non-native garden flower, a perennial, that attracts many kinds of bees, from tiny ones to larger. Surprisingly, Eryngium is in the same plant family as celery and carrot, though it isn't edible. It is a sturdy, moderately drought tolerant flower that doesn't require rich soil, making it ideal for Bay Area gardens.

Besides eryngium and cosmos, other common nonnative attractants are Gaillardia, Bidens, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, sunflowers, and all sorts of mint family herbs like sage and rosemary. Among natives, there are coyote brush, ceanothus, several native buckwheats, California poppy, gumplant, and matilija poppy.

A final tip is that you should try to leave at least half of your soil unmulched, since most of these bees are solitary, putting their eggs with a store of pollen underground. (They are not aggressive, since they don't have a group nest to defend.) They can't dig under organic mulch, and can't get through plastic mulch either.

I have seen some of the bees shown on the website, and look forward to seeing more. Has anyone else watched a leafcutter bee cover her underground nest with the circle of leaf she has removed from a rose? It is a nest roof!

The Rapture of the Bees?

In yesterday's Science Times, the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times, I found an article (Bees Vanish; Scientists Race for Reasons, bu Alexie Barrionnuevo) on the mystery of our disappearing bees. It's a progress report on the study of bees, trying to figure out why 25% of U.S bees have disappeared, as in, never returned to their hives.

My favorite line is the one which say that among the rather fanciful theories held by members of the public is that it is due to "the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven." (Persons allergic to bees, take note, they may be there too!)

In any case, the scientists studying the problem are focusing on the three prospects they think are most likely: a virus, a fungus, or a pesticide. They have been collecting dead bees and carrying out autopsies and genetic analysis.

Here are some of their findings, as reported in the article:

--bees in declining hives have many abnormal microorganisms, as if they had weakened immune systems

--they don't seem to have any more of known hive enemies, such as the varroa mite.

--known symptoms of poisoning from feeding on Bt corn (a genetically modified crop), such as blood poisoning, haven't shown up.

--gamma ray irradiation of empty bee boxes seemed to be safe for new bee colonies (implying maybe a pathogen that the radiation killed?)

The research that continues includes more bee autopsies, to search for known pathogens; study of genes, to see if there are active genes reacting to a toxin or pathogen (they had already sequenced the genes of bees, just finishing last year); and screening for 117 chemicals.

Among chemicals, a prime suspect is one called imidacloprid, sold as Gaucho, which is a neonicotinoid. I assume this means it is a synthetic compound based on nicotine, which is one of the most poisonous of natural plant extracts. Imidacloprid was banned in France in 1999, accused of harming their bees. However, French bees haven't recovered as fully as expected, so perhaps this wasn't the cause, or at least not the only cause.

So we wait and see. I spent the afternoon watching bumblebees work a patch of phacelia, contemplating our dependence on honey bees for so much of what we eat.

Spring Fever--Too Busy to Garden!

I have been busily preparing to speak at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show at 11:15 tomorrow on How to Choose a Plant: Avoiding the Heartbreak of Falling in Love with the Wrong Plant. Finally wrapped it up and off I go in the morning.

It will be nice to be done and have a little time to get into my gardens, though now I think we are due for a big storm. When the days were warm, I was writing columns and lectures! Our one sheared hedge needs shearing, the back yard needs weeding, my windowsill is full of seedlings for the college garden and the community garden, some of which still need to be potted up.

A sad discovery this year is that my favorite cucumber, 'Burpless Tasty Green' isn't available to the seed sources I usually use. I bought 'Sweeter Yet', which I am told is similar. Well, maybe it will be better! My seedlings look healthy, and I have my fingers crossed.

My apple tree is starting to bloom, and I am hoping that some bees turn up to pollinate it. There are plenty of bumblebees in the honeywort (Cerinthe) in the front garden, and there are many fruit trees in backyards on my block, so I hope the bees have been tending to the plums and pear and then stick around for the apples.

I still have a very few of my apples in the fridge from last year. They smell a little refrigeratery when you take them out, but after you wash them thoroughly with soap and water, they smell fine and taste fine too. About half of the ones I kept this long are kind of rubbery and need to be tossed, but the good ones are really good. I call that a good keeper. We harvest in mid-October. And no, I don't know what kind they are, and neither did two apple experts who examined the fruit and leaves.

Happy spring!

What is happening to the bees?

This week I've been listening to reports that bees are disappearing from their hives. Every year, many hives travel around the nation, following the bloom of the crops that need pollinating. Beekeepers transport the hives in trucks, unloading them next to an orchard or a field in bloom, then move on to a different field. But this year, up to 90% of the hives of particular beekeepers have simply emptied out. The bees set forth, and didn't return.

Beekeeping is, by all accounts, a difficult way to earn a living, and a beekeeper whose bees are disappearing is in a precarious position indeed. Scientists have come forth to try to determine what has happened. They say that they are keeping an open mind, but one of the things they have been investigating is whether the pesticides that beekeepers themselves have been using for the past few years to killl the mite that was killing bees in their hives. They will also be looking at pesticide use on crops, presumably for any changes in the ones used or how they are being used. Some people have asked if the pollen of bioengineered crops could be killing honey bees, but we simply don't know what is doing it yet.

While the scientists work on this puzzle is a good time to contemplate our general situation vis a vis the bees. There are 4,000 native bee species in America, 1,500 of which occur in California. Most have no colonies or small ones, so aren't easily amenable to "domestication." The honey bee is a bee of the "Old World"--of Europe and other nearby lands, brought here by Europeans in the 1600s.

Our agriculture has become dependent on monocultures--large acreages of the same crop. If the crops need pollination, they are mostly dependent on a bee monoculture--only European honey bees. So when this species is threatened, so is the pollination of crops like almonds, citrus, melons, strawberies, cotton, apples, pears and plums.

Articles in the SF Chronicle on May 21, 2005, when the main concern was the mite that was killing bees, are instructive. There are s(.everal, including one about maintaining bees in San Francisco, but check out the one by Deborah K. Rich about the native pollinators, and what farmers will/would need to do to get more help from them (

Because many native bees plant their larvae in shallow holes in the ground, unplowed areas help. Also areas where native hedgrows can grow, since these provide attractive pollen and places for other bees to nest. One native bee, the orchard mason bee, can be attracted by paper tubes or wood in which the right size holes have been drilled. But it is all a matter of how much help, how much land to natives, how many tubes to hang. UC Davis scientists have begun to research these matters, and the article mentioned above tall some of their findings

Meanwhile, the bumblebees are very peased with the Cerinthe growing in my front yard. It isn't much, but I hope that they, or some other bees, find my apple tree when it blooms next month. And I hope that someone figures out what is getting the honey bees, since I certainly do like a little honey in my yogurt with walnuts and home-grown apple!

Habitat Earth and Our Gardens

An editorial in the July 3rd New York Times under the heading "The Rural Life" is about observing birds. The author, Verlyn Klinkenborg, has begun to notice that birds occupy certain "spacial dimensions" as they live among us. That is, the redwinged blackbird lives in the marsh, the meadowlark hunts from the fencepost, the phoebes hunt bugs low to the ground, the barn swallows higher up, the catbird in the thicket at the edge of the lawn. He (I think the name is masculine) is struggling with the concept of habitat, that a bird can't choose to live a certain place, the way a human chooses to live in a particular city.

I quote: "It takes an act of will on our part to remember how profoundly, and how beautifully, bound to habitat all the other creatures around us really are."

I am struck by more thoughts than I can record. One is that most people indeed, may not understand habitat, and the chain of eaters that make up an ecosystem. I saw a Nature program on KQED Public television a few weeks ago that illustrated the concept beautifully by showing how a fig tree growing in the wild, in Africa, served as a host for many many creatures who depend on it for food. And then some of the creatures on the tree are eating others on the tree. There were the wasps that breed in the figs, pollinating them, the creatures that eat the emerging wasps, the creatures that eat the ripe figs, and the ones that hunt them, ones that eat the leaves of the tree, and so forth. And of course there is all of the life related to other food chains in the same place, and all of the invisible life in the soil and of microorganisms. If this ecosystem is disrupted, some of these creatures will not be able to survive in it. Unlike humans, most creatures are slow to adapt to new conditions and simply die if their accustomed food isn't available.

We think of our gardens as nature, and of course they do contain many of the creatures of nature, but they are highly disrupted nature. They are anthropocentric, human centered, selections from nature. They are not wild ecosystems. Even our native plant gardens are not the same as wild ecosystems. We select what we want in our gardens. We do not invite the poison oak (a major food for the California state bird, the quail) or the rattlesnake. We don't encourage bumblebees to make a nest in our small urban gardens. We want the birds and the butterflies, but not the skunks and the cougars. And humans have also inadvertently brought to our gardens nonnative eaters, like European species of snails, that don't have much in the way of predators native to our gardens.

(If the fig tree of the Nature story were in a garden, along with all of its many eaters, the human would become just one among many eaters, competing for the fruit. And the tree would not be beautiful, but mangy and eaten. Humans would even be in danger of becoming the prey of a larger animal.)

Because we eliminate some of the links in the chain in our gardens, and introduce new creatures, we then have a different proportion of the remaining creatures than would exist in the wild. Because of this disruption, sometimes we have a huge population of eaters that are destroying something we really wanted to enjoy looking at in a perfect state, or that we wanted to eat up ourselves. Here our options are to let the critters have the plants (though if the habitat were completely undisturbed, some other creature might not let them eat as unmolested as they are in our garden), or try to reduce the population of eaters.

Integrated pest management is the best strategy yet devised to deal with the situation. It entails, first, a decision whether the pest damage is intolerable. If not, let it be. If so, you begin a careful logical progression of possible solutions, starting with the ones that are least likely to harm natural predators. If you can't find a way to solve the problem without more harm to natural predators than you want to cause, you can stop short of a solution that might save your plants but might also kill something you want to spare. But often you can find a less draconian solution.

Some people choose to garden following "organic" principles, which means using few or no chemicals.Using IPM logic is a great help to them as well, giving them many many tools that manage pests in ways that improve the balance of the habitat.

Birds are indeed habitat dependent, and a story in the July 4th SF Chronicle by Environment Writer Jane Kay, says that bird extinctions are on the rise. Some birds can use our gardens as habitats, if we plant something that feeds them, like native berried bushes, or use few or no pesticides, so the insects they eat won't poison them, but other birds need marshes or forests, or African fig trees in the wild, so the problem is wider than our gardens.

In the final analysis, we ourselves are not really free of habitat limitations. We have learned to use many different natural habitats, and to ship materials to house, clothe and feed us so we can live in cities and other habitats that don't provide our basic needs on site, but our habitat is the planet earth, and if we make it inhospitable for ourselves, we will not be able to make a living on it.

Not so cheery, eh? But gardening is a way into understanding this stuff, and knowledge, as they say, is power.

Eating the Weeds Creatively

I have recently purchased Paula Wolfert's book Mediterranean Grains and Greens. It includes many recipes that contain wild leafy greens that I have in my garden. I am still mostly in the "browse and wonder" phase of reading it, not quite to the "assemble some ingredients and make a recipe" phase. But tonight I am browsing at "Summer Harira with Purslane and Spices," a recipe from Morocco. And since there is a wide patch of purslane in my garden right now, I am thinking of weeding and cooking. The main ingredients of this recipe are lamb rolled in a spice mix, lentils, parsley, onion, tomatoes, rice, coriander, and 6 oz. of chopped purslane.

Or maybe I will serve Purslane and Baby Greens with Cucumber and Shredded Cabbage, a recipe from Israel. This is better, since it uses 3/4 lb. of purslane.

Purslane is eaten in many parts of the world, from Mexico to Pakistan, including many places around the Mediterranean. Paula Wolfert says it was a favorite food of Gandhi. It is a slightly succulent, slightly tart, actually rather tasty green that is high in vitamins and is one of the few vegetable sources of 3 Omega fatty acids. I have eaten it for years, but am still rarely able to eat up even what grows in my small garden plot. I put some in salads or make it as it might be cooked in Mexico (saute some onion, add chopped purslane, a little tomato sauce, and a small amount of chopped jalapeno pepper, cook till purslane is tender). Then I run out of ideas, but not out of purslane.

I am always impressed by the slowness with which we can change what we eat. Having a perfectly good food in ones garden, grown intentionally or allowed to grow because you know it is an edible weed, presents you with a fait accompli. There it is, so eat it.

The answer starts with cookbooks, continues with planning and resolve. I will, in the next couple of weeks, attempt to eat up the purslane, but I may end up helping to solve the problem by giving some away. Or, if all else fails, there is always weeding and composting (before the seeds form).