The Potatoes are Finally In the Ground!

I bought some Russian Banana fingerlings from Ronnigers Seed Potatoes  ( and have planted half at the college garden and half here at home.The ones at the college went in on February 20th, during a class, but it took determination to get the ones at home into the ground, because of my tight schedule teaching and giving talks to promote the book. (Their little sprouts were starting to form and I know if you wait too much longer they will grow themselves out without having the energy to make more potatoes!)

At both the college and at home, my first step was to tarp the area I intended to plant. That is, I tarped it every time it rained and untarped it when the rain stopped. This allowed the soil to dry between the storms to the point that it was OK to dig. (You pick it up and squeeze a handful, then see if it breaks apart easily. If so, it's dry enough.)

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Here's a photo of the tarped area, weighted with bricks so it won't fly away in a wind. There is a second tarp, a green one, in the upper right. I put upside-down five gallon buckets down the middle of the bed, and put the tarps over them, so that water would flow down and off of the tarp, rather than puddling in the middle. Between the two tarps are a yellow calendula (edible flower) and several plants of flat leaf parsley. They just came up there, from last year's fallen seeds, right in the middle of the long bed. I I couldn't bear to remove them, since they are pretty and I have been using them in cooking. (I use the Calendula "petals" in salads and the parsley in all kinds of dishes.) So I just tarped left and right of them and left them in the light (and the rain).

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So I weeded out all the other stuff that was in the beds, added soil amendment and fertilizer and planted the potatoes. I'm using a trench method. The potatoes are 4 inches deep at the bottom of the trenches. When they have emerged 5 or 6 inches from the ground, I plan to pull soil from the mounds over them, leaving an inch or so showing, and levelling the ground. When the plants have growsna few more inches, I will mulch the bed. The potatoes form on the part of the lower stem that is underground, while the plant is young, so gradually burying more stem will, hopefully, help encourage more potatoes to form.

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And there is half of the planted bed. It's the end where the green tarp was, seen from the other side. (You can see the calendula and parsley on the right.) In front of each of the mounds, I've planted a tiny lettuce seedling, for which I have great hopes. I should say that this whole area is still in winter shade. It will be interesting to see how far the potatoes are up when the sun is finally high enough to reach this bed. I'm hoping it gets there just in time to get them going. So far, however, not a trace of potato aboveground. But then, 4 inches is a long way to go and it has been rather cold. When they emerge, I'll take more photos. Estimated homegrown potato salad time: June 1st. (P.S. Have you checked out the potato salad recipes in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?)

Finding Golden Gate Gardening in December 2007

Larry wrote a comment after my last entry about the fact that he has been waiting for some weeks for a copy of Golden Gate Gardening from I called the publisher today (Sasquatch Books) and they told me that the book is definitely in print and in stock. The problem seems to be a new owner for their distributor. Books are being moved from one warehouse to another in a different state, and so are in limbo. The problem will be solved by early January. Sorry.

Although books aren't flowing into the Bay Area as they should be at the moment, I know there are plenty of them already in Bay Area stores. If you are having trouble finding the book, try local bookstores and nurseries. The San Francisco Sloat Nursery ( has a few, and they can send them to their stores in other cities. Flowercraft Garden Center in San Francisco ( is also well stocked.

The book would make a great holiday gift for anyone gardening in the Bay Area or from Mendocino to Monterey, since right at the end of the year is a great time in our area to be starting some seedlings for planting. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, lettuce, Florence fennel, and celeriac are the seeds I'll be sowing in the Christmas to New Year week or with my spring class in mid January. In February, I will be sowing radish, peas, mizuna, arugula, fava beans, carrots, beets, and a few other crops directly in the ground.

The Florence fennel and celeriac that we start inside early in the year will be part of an experiment to see if we can avoid damage by a most annoying garden pest. These crops and others at the college garden have been falling prey to some rodent. It has been eating off the roots, leaving the plant standing. When you pick up the plant, it has a gnawed base. Could be a gopher, but I suspect a rat, since I never see the aboveground mounds of a gopher and gophers are more likely to pull the whole plant into their tunnel.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_003_copy We have taken action. Students removed the soil to a depth of 18 inches from one of our raised beds. In the fall, we lined it with 1/4 inch mesh galvenized fencing (also known as hardware cloth). In February, we will plant that bed and the neighboring, unlined bed with Florence fennel, celeriac, parsnip, leeks, and parsley, all favorites of whatever is eating the roots. Then we shall see if the lining will stop the damage. When we emptied the soil out of this bed, we found a tunnel entering from the side of the bed that was wide enough to stick an arm in up to the elbow. It was just under the wood of the frame. Stay tuned to see if we can outsmart the critter this year!

Fall and Winter Greens

Here is a photo of a mix of greens for fall and winter gardens in San Francisco and nearby gardens that are being grown as a mesclun. I guess these are really both reds and greens--it's a mix of looseleaf lettuces, arugula, (spiky) mizuna, (spoon-leaved) tatsai, and red mustard. All of these greens are good choices for individual as well as mixed plantings. I started some in late September, but they might work sown now. If they struggle in the cold, try again in early February.

0318301r01032_copy This patch has been sown together for cut-and-come-again harvesting. You cut the plants an inch or two from their bases, and more leaves grow from the stub. You can usually cut them 2 or 3 times before they refuse to regrow. If you have a lot of weeds, it is best to grow mesclun in a container, in container mix, which is weed-free. This prevents accidental eating of inedible weeds that came up between your mesclun greens.

On next Saturday, November 17th I'll be lecturing about year-round food gardening at Ploughshares Nursery in Alameda. See previous post for details.

Early October in the Demo Garden

We are starting to feel the first chills of fall here in San Francisco, warm in the daytime, but brisk at night. The garden at the college continues to grow and bear food. We are having a potluck next week in class, and different students are using some of the harvest in dishes to bring. Among them are zucchini, leeks, and beets.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_023_copy Here are some of the beets. We planted them in the spring, and probably they should have come out by now, but we are looking forward to beet pickles.

In the long bed planted with cole crops, the little seedlings, all looking alike are beginning to show their differences.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_038_copy The cabbage is low and wide, with short stems on the leaves. This one is 'Parel' an early variety, rated at 50 days. In the case of these crops, you calculate the days to maturity from the date of setting out the seedlings, at about 6 weeks old. We set these out in the first week of August, so now, in the first week of October, we are a bit behind the promised schedule, but the central leaves are beginning to curl over the forming heads.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_037_copy_2 This is Brussels sprouts 'Vancouver' which is rated at 90-100 days. Notice how much taller it is and the long stems on the leaves. In another month or two, we should be eating little sprouts.

FInally, here is a mature purple kohlrabi, of the variety 'Kolibri'. We ate several of these in class last week. It is right on schedule, ready to eat in 60 days after transplanting. They were crisp, sweet, and delicious, but, alas, you lose the color when you peel these purple gems to eat them. Too bad, but still, very good.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_029_copy All of the cole crop varieties in this bed were grown from seed purchased from Territorial Seed Company in Oregon.

September in the Demo Vegetable Garden

My fall vegetable class at City College of San Francisco (111E) just started and the demonstration garden at the college stands at ready to demonstrate what you can grow in this season. Here are some photos so you can see what is happening there.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_005_copy I do this every fall. In August, I, with several student volunteers, planted 82 seedlings of cabbage family crops. Specifically, these are all the same species, Brassica oleracea, which includes brocoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. The seedlings look pretty much the same at this age, but as time passes, the plants will develop into the different vegetables. I'll take photos as this happens and post them from time to time. The plants right in the front are purple kohlrabi, which will develop purple bulbs on their stems. You can see the bulges just beginning to appear.Ccsf_garden_sept_9_013_ready

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_013_copy Meanwhile, however, the summer crops are still in full swing. This is scarlet runner bean, Phaseolus coccineus. It is a bean of the Mexican and Central American uplands, so it prefers cooler weather. That makes it ideal for San Francisco. If weather turns too warm, fewer pod set until it gets cooler. This is the second flush of pods this summer and there are dozens of beans. The plant is a perennial. Two plants came back from last year. One of them is at least 12 years old. I also put in a few more seeds, and got 2 new plants this year. The red flowers attract hummingbirds.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_020_copy And we are still getting zucchini. The plants suffered more than usual from powdery mildew this summer. I sprayed last week with baking soda, oil, and soap, after removing the leaves with the worst symptoms--the ones with many white fungal spots. I will probably have to spray again, but maybe I can stop the outbreak long enough to get a few more zucchs. The recipe for the spray I used is 1 heaping tablespoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon summer oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid soap in a gallon of water. I sprayed using a $10 plastic pump sprayer that holds 1 1/2 quarts of water, so I had to reduce the amounts of the ingredients for less water. (Summer oil is sold in nurseries for spraying plants to control various pests. It is sometimes based on petroleum products, but you can also find formulations based on soy or canola oil.)


This final image shows a late planted bush bean crop, just now blooming. If you plant a bush bean in mid-July, you should get a nice crop in September/October. This a bush Romano bean. It has nice flat pods that are deliciously tender when cooked. And such nice lavender flowers!

Training Fruit Trees for Ease of Harvest

I'm teaching a basic gardening class this fall. One of the questions I asked on a take-home quiz is:

List three important goals in pruning a deciduous fruit tree.

There are more than three good goals to aim for when you are pruning a fruit tree, but the one that has turned up on every paper so far is: Don't prune the lower limbs or you won't be able to reach the fruit.

It makes me happy to read this answer. I think of the fruit trees I've seen with lower limbs removed. There is the fruit, 10 feet up where no one can reach it. Useless. I am cheery when I think that these students won't do that.

Of course the other part of keeping fruit within reach is to train the tree when it is young so that it has a low first crotch. This is done by encouraging low branches when the tree is very young. If what you bought was a single, unbranched stem, you want to cut it just above a bud that is two or three feet above the ground. If it already has some branches, save the ones that are wide-angled from the central stem and well-spaced around the tree and from each other, remove the others, shorten the ones you have left to a few inches long.

The bottom line is that deciduous fruit trees, like apple, plum, pear, and apricot need training and shaping when they are young, or they won't be good, fruitful, easy to harvest trees. When you buy a young deciduous fruit tree, also buy a book with guidance on training and pruning it, with some nice line drawings to show you what to do, and you will be rewarded with more fruit and a stronger tree.

When I was a child we had a yard with 4 apple trees. In summer I spent a lot of time climbing into those trees, usually with a book. I always wondered why apple trees, in particular, were so easy to climb. Now I know. It's that low first crotch. Not only are the first branches within reach, but the low first crotch let's one climb up to get the rest of the fruit. Or read a book.

Creative Plant Staking

The usual instructions about staking plants refer to tying the plants to stakes to keep them from falling over. We might stake a gladious or a foxglove so it won't lean, for example. I do this, but I have been noticing how often I stake a plant for other reasons.

Yesterday I staked a little annual bush morning glory (Convolvulus tricolor) to keep the wind from blowing it over and breaking it. It is in a container, and consists of about 5 branches that start near the ground. In a strong wind, it was waving back and forth, threatening to break.

Today I staked a fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) to keep one of its thorny branches from reaching into the path and stabbing somebodies knees. Actually it was the second time I had staked that branch back. I often stake once, and then, in a couple of weeks, restake, with more pressure than the first time. The plant might break if you do it all at once, but in two stages, you can do it.

Last week I staked a viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder') to keep it from leaning onto a wee viola. I am always ready to referee between competing plants this way, staking one out of the way of another.

And all summer, I have been staking rose canes to make them take a better direction--for example, not reaching out over a lawn, not growing against another cane, not reaching into the neighboring rose. These are often twice-staking operations, since rose canes are rather stiff, and I don't want to break them. But by staking them sort of in the right direction once, then pulling the stake and resetting it to apply more pressure, I have gotten 5 poorly directed canes to straighen up and fly right.

Other gardeners must do this stuff, but you never read about it. Readers, have you been doing any creative plant staking lately?

Potting Mix Grew Mushrooms

The path to fine arugula may not be smooth

The tiny seedling arched its stem to push through the potting mix. It was still white, having not yet seen the sun, but I moved it to the bright windowsill in anticipation. But alas, it didn't turn green. Instead, the white nub emerged, revealing itself to be a tiny white mushroom. Soon there were more of them. The arugula and collard seedlings emerged, but remained stunted and with poor color. The mushrooms opened into tiny striped gray parasols and then collapsed. A new flush emerged. My seedlings languished.

Thus did I fail at my first attempt to grow the superior Cook's Garden arugula strain.

When I returned the half-used potting mix to the nursery, I brought along a flat of arugula sporting a mushroom or two for them to observe. The clerk opined that perhaps I had kept it too wet. I replied that there should not be live mushroom spores in bagged potting mix, period. He exchanged it for a (hopefully) mushroom-free bag, and wrote on the exchange form "grows mushrooms."

Now I know that there are seeding mixes made to start seedlings, and I use one at the college, in a large greenhouse, because I know it is less susceptible to problems caused by the inevitablely less attentive care than seeded flats would get in my window at home, 8 feet from my computer.

Seeding mix has smaller particles, and more air and water holding capacity than potting mix, and lacks fertilizer, which can encourage water molds and decay bacteria that can take hold in overwatered containers. I have always succeeded with potting mix at home, since I can pay careful attention to water here. I gave some thought to whether I had introduced mushrooms, but decided if I had introduced spores somehow, it wouldn't have been in all 6 flats, which had different histories before reuse.

So now I have some really nice 3-inch seedlings of the arugula in the ground outdoors and some tiny new ones in fresh, mushroom-free potting mix in the windowsill. One of these days I will get to harvest some of that arugula. Gardening is all about patience, right?

When I do, I plan to make my pasta and arugula special. I like the tang of raw arugula, but I also like the milder flavor it has when cooked, as in this dish. For each diner, I mix a cubic inch of soft goat cheese or feta cheese with water to make a smooth, creamy sauce. Then I boil some pasta and, at the same time, saute some onion in a little olive oil. When the onion is done, I add a bit of minced garlic and saute it for about 30 seconds. Then in goes a big bunch of arugula leaves, cut up coarsely. When the arugula is cooked, I add the cheese mixture, the pasta, salt, pepper, and a bit of grated Parmesan, toss it all and serve it hot.

Butternut/Moschata Squash--Yum!

A comment to my last entry contains a question about growing butternut squash in San Francisco. This is one of the best winter squashes to grow in California, since it is in a species of squash that is relatively resistant to powdery mildew. When you are looking in a seed catalog, or on a seed packet, look carefully to find the scientific name of the squash variety you are considering. Look for the name "Cucurbita moschata." It may be called butternut, or could have a different name, but it will share the powdery mildew resistance trait.

I don't have space to grow many winter squashes, so don't grow them every year, but if I were looking, I'd start with some seed sources I trust, and see what they carry. I'd look at,, and

Most butternuts have the typical bottle shape, but there are other shapes. Territorial has a round one called 'Long Island Cheese' and, which sells only heirloom varieties, carries a round one called 'Kikuzu'. Both of these companies also sell 'Futsu Black', a squat rounded type from Japan.

Another C. moschata is tromboncino squash, one that is eaten most often as a summer squash, when it is very young. It is long and pale green at the stage you eat it, a bit firmer than a zucch.

All of these squashes can be trained up a tall trellis. They may try to twist away from the trellis and so have to be tied to it as they grow, but will usually attach with at least some tendrils. If you intend to grow the winter squash types, you may need to hang the fruits in a soft cloth sling as they ripen, since they will get pretty heavy. Old nylons are often recommended, if you happen to have them, though old tee shirt material should work fine too.

My experience is that the coldest, windiest parts of San Francisco are a challenge for these crops, but in the parts of the City that get more summer sun and in wind-protected garden locations where heat can build up a bit, they can be reasonably productive.

For winter squash to have time to make mature fruits, best to plant in May. I was very late last year getting in tromboncino--not till mid July. Even in the Mission garden where I grew them, this was pushing it, but I started them inside, and then planted them in large bottomless black plastic pots full of potting mix to keep the soil as warm as possible, and got a few fruits before the inevitable fall decline. Don't recommend starting so late though.

You need bees for pollinization of all of these squash. Planting some borage or cerinthe will attract them. Both reseed and can be a bit pesty, but at least they are pretty. And the flowers of the borage are edible, tasting like cucumber, so they can be welcome in salad or floating in iced tea.

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.