Spring Bloom in Fall--It's a Problem

In today's SF Chronicle (January 1, 1917), I wrote about plants that bloomed last fall in San Francisco that ought not to have been blooming until spring, caused by continuing climate change.

While it's true that we typically have our warmest "summer" weather from mid-September to mid-October, this weather has been lasting longer than usual. Last fall, the warm days and mild nights lasted until near the end of November. We celebrated time spent outdoors in nice weather, but some of our garden plants reacted by blooming and leafing out as if it were spring. This is a problem for the plants, which put energy and physical matter into doing this, so that when spring really does come, they have less stored matter and food energy to do it all again. This weakens the plant, leaving it more susceptible to all kinds of setbacks.

Case in point is my apple tree, which has borne bountiful crops of delicious apples for 30 years. But recently it has been trying to bloom in fall. Then, because winters aren't quite cold enough, it blooms later than usual in the spring. And, because of the energy it used up in fall, it blooms more sparsely. Two years ago, it had practically no fruit.

Last year it did better, though not as well as it used to do. The photo below, which I sent to the Chronicle, but they didn't use in the paper, shows my tree last November, with a few last apples and last leaves till hanging on while blooms and new leaves opened all around them. Now, on January 1, all the new leaves have succumbed to cold, wasting all that effort.

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If you are growing other temperate plants in the Bay Area, such as cherries and plums (ornamental or fruiting), magnolias, lilacs, or azaleas, you may be having the same kind of problem. What's to be done to save our plants? Obviously continue to work against climate change, a movement in which California in general is doing well.  But we can also join an effort to record the changes, in which our regional data will provide extremely valuable evidence.

More data about how climate change is affecting plants in our region is especially important so that we are represented in a system that has so much more data from cold-winter regions.

There are two organizations that are seeking citizen science data. One is the National Phenology Network (www.usapn.org/), sponsor of the National Phenology Project. It studies both plant and animal species. Another, Project Budburst (budburst.org), is studying only plant responses. Phenology is the study of what plants and animals do in response to seasonal changes.

Sending records to these databases is easy to do online. Log in, choose a plant, and tell them what it is doing on various dates. Children can do it at home and school classes can do it. Both web sites have curriculum information to help teachers fit the work into classes. It teaches observation, appreciation of plants, climate science, ecology, and how science is done

So as our new, and rather unnerving, year begins, please help observe and record what is going on with nature. Your reports will be powerful.

A Shout Out for Nichols Garden Nursery Seed Company

               When I first arrived in San Francisco, many years ago, living in a rented flat, wanting to plant a few vegetables in a neighbor's yard. I discovered the Nichols Garden Nursery herb and rare seed catalog. They had everything I needed to try out my new climate and microclimate. They are still there, still carry old and new favorites, and now, of course, they are also on the web.  

               Located in Western Oregon, the nursery is experienced with cool summers, especially with cool summer nights. In their catalog I discovered many varieties that were to become staples over the years. They had purple-podded bush beans, which are your best bet to grow regular garden beans in near-coastal microclimates because they germinate well in cold soil. If those worked in a particular location, then I tried 'Roma II', a bush romano bean, the kind with broad, flat pods and a buttery texture. If the garden was too chilly for the purple bush beans, then I knew I had better plant Scarlet Runner beans, because they are, as the Nichols catalog states, "an excellent cool weather variety." If I had great success with the Roma II beans, it was time to try some regular pole beans, like 'Goldmarie', a yellow-podded pole romano or old standby 'Kentucky Wonder Pole'.

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Left to right: Scarlet Runner climbing bean, 'Royalty Purple-Podded Bush Bean, and 'Goldmarie' yellow-podded pole Romano bean.

               Nichols still carries all of these bean varieties, all open pollinated, all heirlooms, and many more. And they still carry 'Early Sunglow' corn, a variety listed at 62 days to maturity. It succeeds in milder San Francisco neighborhoods, taking 90 days due to the cool microclimate, but still allowing two plantings a summer--one in May and another in July. That second planting comes out in mid-October, right before the usuals start of the rainy season. The stalks are short, but bear 2 ears. The ears are smaller than supermarket corn, but worth it for the chance to eat fresh, fresh, corn-on-the-cob.

               They also still carry overwintering cole crops like 'Purple Sprouting' broccoli, the beautiful and the delicious 'January King' cabbage. And many kinds of kale, including two packets of kale mixes that let you see the wonderful diversity of this nutritious leafy green.

               It was also the place I first found 'Stupice' tomatoes, early and tasty in cool summers. They carry 'Early Girl', 'Green Zebra', and 'Oregon Spring', all of which have borne fruit well in my Mission District community garden. And they have kept up with the times, now the sweet golden cherries 'Sungold', and offering late blight resistant 'Jasper' cherry and larger-fruited 'Mountain Magic'.

               There are many other choice varieties in this catalog that I discovered since I first saw it. They have sweet, orange cherry tomato 'Sungold', reliable and early 'Snow Crown' cauliflower, the choice color-mix 'Bright Lights' chard, striped and ribbed heirloom zucchini 'Costata Romanesco', red-splashed and long-bearing 'Flashy Butter Oak' lettuce, and 'Bull's Blood' beets, the red leaves of which seem not to interest leafminers in my garden.

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'Bright Lights' Swiss Chard

               They have also kept up with the issues of the day when it comes to garden seeds. They signed the Safe Seed Pledge, which promises they will not carry seed that is transgenic or genetically engineered. They have also joined the brand new Open Source Seed movement, offering many of the varieties that are pledged never to be patented, keeping seed these open-pollinated varieties available for seedsaving and further selection by gardeners and farmers.

               The first page that attracted me to Nichols was the "New and Unusual Vegetables" page. Here I found the uncommon crop, the surprises, unusual varieties and little-known crops. Many unusual crops are also in the rest of the catalog. They have 5 varieties of hops roots, 4 kinds of potato starts, walking onion bulbs, seed for the exquisitely flavored herb, Shiso, 'Lemon Gem' edible marigold, 3 varieties of Quinoa, miner's lettuce, magenta-leaved orach, and Tromboncino climbing summer squash.

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Walking Onion is a scallion (green onion) that propagates by stem-top bulblets.

I have only ordered seed from Nichols Garden Nursery, but they sell many other products, from essential herb oils, herbal teas, and 2 kinds of sourdough starters to ingredients and equipment for making beer cheese and wine.

               Nichols Garden Nursery is a family-owned business founded in 1950 by Nick and Edith Nichols and run currently by their daughter Rose Marie Nchols McGee. They are located at 1190  Old Salem Road, in Albany, Oregon. At their brick and mortar nursery, they sell herb plants and seasonal seedlings, including many specialty plants they don't sell through the mail. You just missed their annual Plant Day, with the traditional serving of Lavendar/Ginger ice cream, but it is the Saturday after Mother's Day, in case you are planning a trip through Oregon next spring.

               The website of Nichols Garden Nursery is nicholsgardennursery.com. Pay it a visit and discover a treasure for our west coast gardens.

Some Resources for Waterwise Gardeners

This is not meant to be a complete list, by any means, but here are a few publications and links that will be useful if you are selecting plants for a waterwise garden.

WUCOLS stands for Water Use Classification of Landscape Plants. This project, sponsored by UCDavis, California Dept of Water Resources, California Center for Urban Horticulture, lets you find out the water needs of over 3,500 landscape plants in six different regions of California. The most recent version WUCOLS IV,can be accessed at the following address:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/   Click on "Plant Search" Or you can use this link: WUCOLS IV

For information on growing California Native Plants, check out the Las Pilitas web site, laspilitas.com, or use this link: Las Pilitas Nursery.

Here are links to two articles on the subject of watering trees during a drought that were recently in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Trees Out on A Limb

Watering Trees in A Drought

Finally, here is a short list of books that you will find useful as you seek ideas and plants for a waterwise garden:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Burnstein, Fross, O'Brien, Cachuma Press, 2005.Photos, text on garden uses and care.

New Sunset Western Garden Book. I think the most recent is 2012, and it does have all color photos, which are helpful, but the text of couple of editions right before this one were a little more thorough.

Plant Life in the World's Mediterranean Climates, Peter B. Dallman, University of California Press, 1998. Maps and charts show how the 5 mediterranean regions are similar and, importantly, how they differ, then explains the habitats to which many of our favorite plants are adapted.

 Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, East Bay MUD, 2004. Inspiring photos and useful information.

The Random House Book of Indoor and Greenhouse Plants, Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Volumes 1 & 2, Random House,1997. Despite the name, thiese two volumes cover mostly mediterranean and other subtropical plants that we can grow outside. The photos and text about the plants in their native habitats are very useful.

Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, Pam Peirce, Sasquatch Books, 2004.California garden history, plant origins, garden maintenance instructions, garden design, and a philosophy for a regional garden.

More on Early Blight of Potatoes & Tomatoes

(See photos in the previous post)

In my last post, I reported having seen some potato plants in San Francisco with what looked like early blight, a disease caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. I remembered from my research for the book Controlling Vegetable Pests, which I wrote in the early '90s, that this disease is not common here in California, but much more so elsewhere in the US. I wrote then that it is "less common in arid regions of the West, although overhead irrigation and frequent heavy dew promote disease in these areas." It showed up the week after we had an unusual June rain, and in a garden that has frequent fog. But the question is: Where did the spores come from?

My first thought was that someone had planted potatoes from the grocery store. These could carry the spores, even without symptoms, or could have had dark lesions with underlying brown or blacky corky rot from spores that grew on their surfaces. However, the gardener assured me that these were purchased at a nursery as certified disease-free.

So the spores must have blown in from a nearby garden or were carried in the rain. Then they landed on potato leaves that had some injury, at a time when the temperature and amount of hunidity were right for them to start growing, and the rest is history. The ideal temperature for early blight spore growth is 75-80 degrees F, but the symptoms develop fastest at 70 degrees. 

This disease can also infect tomato, and, occasionally, eggplant or pepper. Wild relatives of these plants are also susceptible. On tomato, the leafe symptoms, the bull's eye spots, are the same as on potato, and there may be sunken lesions on older stems. In additon, there may be excessive blossom drop (common here anyway due to cold nights) and leathery, sunken, dark brown lesions on the stem end of the fruits.

If this disease shows up in your garden, take the plants out of the garden. (In San Francisco, they can go in the Green Bin, since the municipal composting system will heat up enough to kill the spores.) If potato plants have formed tubers, eat them up soon, as they may decay in storage. Don't store them where you will kep other, healthy, potatoes later.

The spores can germinate in plant material from infected plants as long as it has not completely decayed, so pick up every bit of the plant and dig up most of its root. Do not save seeds from tomatoes that ripened on infected plants, as the spores can hide in the seeds.

Remove any solanum weeds that are growing in your garden, as they can harbor the disease. (They have flowers similar to those of tomato, but usually with white or pale lavender petals, and have clusters of small, inedible berries that turn black when ripe.)

Plan not to grow tomatoes or potatoes in the place where infected plants grew for two to three years.

When you do plant potatoes or tomatoes, provide your plants with adequate water and fertilizer and avoid getting water on the leaves of tomato'potato family plants. Start examining them when they are about a foot tall to be sure they do not have symptoms. Prevention is more successful than cure when it comes to plant diseases, but if you have had the disease, or if you see the first lesions it is causing, you might try the fungicide Serenade, which is based on a soil bacterium. Follow directions on the label, including repeated sprayings as it directs. (If you are spraying after seeing lesions on a leaf or two, pick off those first infected leaves before you spray.)

May early blight of tomato or potato not darken your door, or the leaves of any plants you are growing to produce food!

Some Plants Think it's Spring this November!

Well, we know they aren't thinking, and I guess that's the problem. When San Francisco has some cold weather followed by a period of warm days in mid-Autumn, some plants start growing, or blooming, as they would normally do in February or later. We see a few plum blossoms in fall sometimes, but this year I am seeing many blooming plum trees. I even saw a blooming crabapple tree yesterday, and they normally bloom later in spring than the flowering plums!

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Looks like spring, doesn't it. But look enlarge the image and you see the fake spiderwebs on that tree that remain from Halloween. This shot was taken on November 15, 2012.

In my backyard, I cut a bulbous iris and put it in a vase in early November. This is definitely a February flower, but three plants have bloomed and the rest are all and still growing.

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You can see one of the last ripe apples still hanging on our tree. Wrong time of year for iris, for sure.

Another plant reacting badly is the Crocosmia 'Solfaterre'. It had its deep yellow flowers in September, then died back, and I cut it to the ground. Didn't expect to see it again until maybe March. But here it is again, with leaves popping up in November! (The leaves start out green, but turn a smokey brown by midsummer.)

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The problem, for these and other early growing and blooming plants is that they are using up all of this energy now, and will probably be forced back into dormancy by colder weather in December and January. Thus they will have less energy to grow and bloom in the spring.

Global warming may change what we can successfully grow here. Some plants that depend on just enough winter chill to rest and regrow, may not thrive if our climate shifts just enough to make them try to bloom twice a year.

The study of the relationship between climate and natural phenomena such as flower bloom time is phenology. We're going to hear a lot more about it as the earth warms!

I was out gardening today, making Black Friday into a green one. A peaceful day. I deadheaded the Cosmos, which are still blooming madly in both front and back yards, then cleaned up apple leaves under our tree, to get rid of apple scab spores. Tomorrow I'll put some composted chicken manure on the wild onion (Allium triquetrum) bed to help them get growing faster. I've been watching the madness at stores on TV and being glad to be home today.



Late Blight Sample Sent for Analysis

I sent my first specimen of tomato/potato late blight off for analysis this week. I found symptoms on a purple potato that grows in the City College of SF garden. I sent it to a lab in Oregon, as I described in my March 2nd post, to become a part of the usablight.org project. They want to know which "clonal lines" of this disease organism are causing the disease in various parts of the country. For my part, I want to know which ones we have here in the Bay Area. Once we find that out, we will be better able to predict which tomato or potato varieties might resist the disease in our region.

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This is the photo of the specimen I sent to the usablight.org lab. They want us to send leaves that are still partly green, like these, but clearly infected. The whitish stuff on the surfaces is, I hope, spores of late blght.

If you want to take part in this survey and find out more about your particular strain, or, more correctly, clonal line, of late blight, go to usablight.org and learn how to submit samples. The first step is to have them send you a copy of the permit that will let you ship your disease samples across state lines to be tested in a lab in Oregon. Do this soon, so you will have the permit in hand when late blight rears its ugly head in your garden.

If you have overwintering potatoes, you might see late blight soon. In last year's tomato trial, the disease showed up at the end of July. Gardens with cool, damp, foggy weather are more likely to be affected by this disease. Spores fly through the air from other infected plants, land on your plants, and begin to grow. Please see the March 11, 2012 post for more details.

Strange Winter Weather Shows in the Garden

We ate the last of the 2011 cucumbers on January 12th. This is a good 2 months later than I usually eat my last cuc. (see photo on post of December 30th, 2011). That's the good side of our continuing mild, sunny, San Francisco winter. But there are downsides too.

One downside is that leafminer flies have continued to fly, mate, and lay occasional eggs on my chard plants. The chard at City College has lost several leaves to their damage. By this time of year, the flies have usually died or are dormant pupae in the soil. It hasnt been so bad that there is no edible chard, as can sometimes happen in summer, but I am surprised to see ANY at this time of year.

     Another is that my apple tree had flowers on it in November into December. Not supposed to happen until April! (Ours is a late bloomer.) So that's energy the tree is wasting that it could be spending on making leaves, flowers, and fruit next year.

    And then there is miner's lettuce. Or, that is, there is no miner's lettuce. Usually by this time of year I have been making delicious salads from this California native plant that comes up freely in my garden. It is usually beginning to appear by November, and I have enough for the first salad in the first or second week of December. But this year, by mid-January, I have seen only a few very small seedlings

This is what I am usually seeing by this time of year:

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     This is a mature miner's lettuce plant, about 15 inches across and a foot tall. The mature leaves are round, with the flower stem coming from the middle of the leaf. The whole plant is delicious and replaces much of the lettuce in my salads from December through mid April.

This is what I saw today, January 15th, 2012:

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     There are only very young miner's lettuce plants like this one. They are about 4 inches across and low to the ground. The young leaves of miner's lettuce (on this plant nibbled a bit by a slug) are spatulate--sort of triangular. The mature, round leaves haven't even begun to show up yet, and it looks like there won't be any for a couple more weeks.

Today on the Prairie Home Companion, on National Public Radio, I heard Garrison Keeler talk about how the lakes in Minnesota were finally frozen solid so the ice fishers could fish safely, and how glad everyone was for the single digit temperatures. Well, I would prefer double digit, myself, and mostly above freezing, but I do have reasons to prefer our normal winter weather.

Tonight it is colder than it has been for several weeks and rain is predicted for next week, so maybe our wait for winter is at an end. But does the weather so far mean a shorter miner's lettuce season? Hope not.

Are any plants or pests acting differently due to the mild winter in your garden?




Cucumbers in December?

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If you have any doubts that this has been a mild fall in San Francisco, consider this: I shot this photo of a plump cucumber in my garden on December 23rd! Although the leaves are dying, a few are still green and the cucs, though small, keep coming. They are also deliciously tender, crisp, and sweet. They received rave reviews in a large Christmas salad we made for a potluck.The plants tell us about the weather as surely as do the thermometor and the rain guage. I think the reasons for this ongoing success are both the mild temperatures and the lack of rain.

How unusual is this late harvest? I've been growing this variety of cucumber, 'Burpless Tasty Green', in the same San Francisco garden for maybe 30 years, and this is the first time they have borne this late. Usually, I pick the last of them by early to mid-November. This year, not only did I pick 3 cucs on December 23rd, but 2 more small ones on December 30th!.

The harvests from a winter garden always seem like special gifts. Hope yours is providing some for you as well--and Happy New Year!



Dramatic Tree Dahlia Success

In November, the big news in our home garden was the success of our tree dahlia. It began to bloom at the end of October and still had a few blossoms the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was so tall the flowers were at the level of our second story window. This is such big news because the tree dahlia we had previously, a single-flowered white one, was such a failure.

The white one grew tall all right, and it bloomed too. It's first buds opened just at Thanksgiving and there were plenty of buds. However, at the end of November or the first week of December, there was usually, seems like always, a big wind that lasted 1-3 nights. At the end of it, the flowers and buds were mostly gone and most of the leaves had also broken off. Then all we had was a blackened skeleton until we got tired of looking at it and cut it down. Such a disappointment.

But this one not only begins to bloom a month earlier, but also, when the wind howled three nights in a row last week, the leaves survived! So we had a glorious month of lavender flowers and now the plant is still rather attractive as it soaks up the last bit of sunlight before its annual cutting back. March is the suggested month for cutting back, and we are grateful to have an attractive plant to look at until then.

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So the moral is that all tree dahlias are not the same. This plant, native to South Mexico and Guatemala to Colombia, is Dahlia imperialis. The species has white, pink, or lavender flowers; single or double. (Because it is a composite flowerhead, "double" means that it has more than one ring of showy ray flowers around the small yellow disk flowers.) Are all white-flowered ones earlier and more delicate in wind? What about double ones? I have no idea. But I'm glad we found a way to enjoy it in our windy garden.


Frost and Hail in SF on February 25th--But Not Quite Snow

On February 25th, we almost had snow in San Francisco, but not quite. We saw some flakes falling past the TV camera on Twin Peaks, not enough to make me want to run up there and look. I taught the next morning and when I got up there was a good frost in our back yard, and some hail embeded in it. I've seen hail here, and frost, but not both together.

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Here are some beets. Very frozen, very dry surface, still in shade.Hail particles are frozen into the frosty surface.

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This is a creeping campanula. Same thing, hail in the frost.

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This is the windshield of my car. A good icing, with hail embedded and bunched up at the bottom. I started to scrape, using my little rubber scraper. It's great for raindrops, but not so much for ice, so I was glad to have a different car, one that had been indoors overnight, to load up and drive instead. But by the time my husband got up and read my note, the frost was gone from the outdoor car. Nope, he said, no frost at all.

At City College, I began final prep for teaching, but had to run out to the garden to grab a few shots. I love the look of a frosted cabbage plant. This one is 'January King', one of the most handsome varieties.

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I love the way frost accents the edges of leaves.

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Morning light on the frosted wood frame of a garden bed.The plants are borage.

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Everything pictured here is fine now. No damage on these plants. The only damage I noticed at the college garden was to nasturtium. In my back garden, the shrub impatiens (Impatiens sodenii) are damaged--the young leaves are partially dead. I think I will just cut them back, since there are nice green leaves at the bases of the plants, protected by weeds and the uppper leaves from the falling cold air.