Another Year in the Life of An Apple Tree

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Our apples at their best.

In the ongoing saga of our apple tree, a tree of unknown variety but good fruit and usually good production, another harvest is past. This year we finally got rid of the woolly apple aphids, after two years of spraying the insects with rubbing alcohol (right out of the bottle) weekly and 2 commercial canola oil sprays each winter on the dormant branches. Because the insects spend part of their time in the soil, we also used the canola oil pesticide as a soil drench twice each winter, watering before and after we sprinkled it on the soil surface (an off-label use the idea for which  I got from reading research reports about the pest in the East ).

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Woolly apple aphids make huge galls where they suck sap from the branches, as they have done here on this pruning cut (not on our tree, thank goodness!). They are reddish aphids, but are covered with a white waxy fluff.

 We also think it helped that we discovered the trunk had been buried a foot or so deep yea all these years, since before we bought the house, and unburied it. A buried lower trunk is really bad news for any tree.

But because we were paying so much attention to the woolly apple aphids, we forgot to spray sulfur to prevent scab, the disease that makes surface blemishes on the apples. We were also lulled by the dry early spring into thinking that scab wouldn’t be a problem this year. The early-setting fruit did fine—no scab. Then the spring turned wet, and the later-setting fruit was attacked by scab. (Our tree is borderline for getting enough winter chill, so sometimes it blooms over a long period.) Some of the later forming fruit was so affected that it was stunted and malformed.

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Some of our apples with scab disease. Note damage to leaves from the disease as well.

However, overall the tree became so vigorous (when liberated from the extra foot of soil and freed of the stem and root sucking of the woolly apple aphids) that we wanted to be sure to give it a summer pruning to curb its excess growth. But the summer was so cold and foggy that the tree seemed always to be wet. So we put it off, hoping for a dry day. That day came, Lisa pruned the tree, and boom, we had a heat spell. So some of the apples developed sunburn on their southeast sides—big round black sunken blotches.

 Then came October 15th, the usual ripening date, but most of the fruit was clearly not ripe. it was still green under the red streaks, very hard, and had its flat, starchy, unripe flavor. Now, in mid-November, it is finally getting ripe. Many of the fruits do have some scab, and a few (not as many as it once seemed) have the sunburn, which will prevent them from keeping well. But overall, there is more than we can eat, as usual, so it’s off to the Free Farm Stand (after our friends and neighbors have been given as many as they can use). And off to bake pies. I photographed the making of an apple pie and plan to put the photos, with recipe, on this blog in a day or two.


April Showers and Flowers (and Hail!)

April was so rainy that many people around here thought we were having an unusually wet winter, but I suspected it was about average for San Francisco, and it turned out I was right. After a few years of drought, average felt really wet! And, as is typical in March or April, we had hail, which is hard on the plants. This time the hailstones were only B-B sized. A few year's back we had hail the size of cooked chick peas, and that really shredded the plants.

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This is what last month's hail looked like. March 2010 009 copy 
Everything was left pretty much intact, but there were hail scars on the nasturtium leaves and on some succulents.

I ran out to move my potted tree peony out of the hail, but though it looks delicate, it is made of sturdy stuff. Here are three more images, showing the bloom opening and beginning to lose its petals.

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And that's all untul next year. Only one flower this year, but what a flower!

The potatoes are progressing too. Here are three shots. In the first, plants are emerging in their trenches. In the second, I've filled in the trenches, pushing soil up against the plants, which will encourate more tubers to form. In the third, I've mulched with straw, to keep down weeds and make sure the tubers don't get exposed to light.

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Finally, the apple tree bloomed. There are lots of flowers, and it has rained less since they opened, which is good news for fruit set and health. More bees will find the tree in sunny weather, and the tree is less likely to suffer from apple scab disease. The bloom is the first step toward our much appreciated crop of fresh, sweet, crisp fresh apples in October.

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Of Lawns and Artichokes--and the new editon of Golden Gate Gardening

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I just thought you'd like to see a lawn growing in a place where it is happy and watered by the summer rain, so unlike here in California, where a lawn is not natural, uses a lot of irrigation water in summer, and still struggles to survive. This lawn is in rural Indiana, which I visited last summer. I don't think they do much more lawn care than mowing there. The whole area is covered with fields of crops, forest, or lawn. This lawn with trees is the view from the back porch that you can see in the distance. In winter, the view is often of snow. Not a bad view, eh?

Here in California, I planted seed of 'Imperial Star' artichoke a couple of weeks ago, and seedlings are emerging from the seeding mix in containers on my windowsill. I've never grown artichoke from seed before. This is the one that is supposed to bear the first year from seed. They use it a lot in the Imperial Valley, where summers are probably too hot and winters too mild for it to do well as a perennial. They take it out and replant every year. Interrupts the life cycle of pests too. Gardeners in cold-winter areas also try 'Imperial Star' since the winter would kill the plants. Here in the near-coastal parts of the  Bay Area, it should be perennial, just fast bearing. It needs to to outside early enough to get a little chill before spring warmth, which should be no problem to achieve here in San Francisco, where our springs are long and chilly. I'll post some photos when the plants are a little bigger.

I am beginning a countdown to the publication of Golden Gate Gardening 3rd Edition (GGG3A), which should be in stores by February 1st, 62 days from today. Much new and updated info. Calendars for Zones 15 and 16. New recipes. New cover too.

Minnesota Container Gardens

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As promised, here are some photos from my trip. We were in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. In Minneapolis, in commercial districts, there were many really handsome container plantings. Nice combinations, well executed. When you remember how short the summers are there, you get the feeling that they put a lot of care into the plants as a special summer treat. The one at the left has coleus, purple tradescantia, an ornamental oxalis, creeping Jenny (Lysemachia nummularia), and a small-pink-flowered begonia.
     I am always struck, in Eastern gardens, by the plants that grow well there but not here. In San Francisco, in all but the most protected courtyards, it is too cold for coleus and probably for the tradescantia and the begonia.

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This one depends on coleus amd the tradescantia for color too. There is a purple corydalis in the center, some white-flowered begonia, and a trailing nasturtium. Nasturtium prefers our nice cool weather, so it is special in the East. All of these containers were on the north sides of stores, out of direct sun, so the nasturtium isn't as floriferous as it would be in sun, but I imagine that the shade helps keep it cool.


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This container planting gives the climate away. The big leaves are Alocasia, known as African mask. It wants warm temperatures and high humidity. It is sometimes sold as a houseplant, but our houses are generally too cool and dry for it. But in a Minnesota summer, no problem. (I'll bet it spends its winters in a greenhouse.) With it is English ivy, creeping Jenny again (chartreuse) and a purple leaved plant I can't identify (can anyone tell what it is?).

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And then there are the more common flowers, such as this pot that contained a Rudbeckia and some petunias, but very sunny and nice.

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In Indianapolis, in the several commercial neighborhoods we visited, the plantings were less sophisticated and not as well executed. This is the kind that were near the Monument Circle (the monument that is the center of town and has a circular street around it). In the center is a Ficus benjamina. Around it are flowers and foliage. I can't quite see what they all are. There were short zinnias in a lot of these planters, so maybe that's what the flower is. There is some creeping Jenny. Many of the containers in Indianapolis, though not this one, had the chartreuse-leaved ornamental sweet potato in them. You know, the one that barely grows in San Francisco, just making a couple of feet of big chartreuse leaves. Well, in Indianapolis it grows like crazy. In a lot of the planters it has clearly grown faster than expected, engulfing zinnias and dwarfing small corydalis plants that are in the center of the large pots. Again, warmer summers.

I am always struck, when I travel East, that they try to attain a tropical look using plants we struggle to grow here, houseplanty stuff like the Alocasia and the coleus, but they can't grow the really cool subtropical stuff that we depend on for a tropical feel, such as the princess flower, angel's trumpet, big tall shrubs of fucshia, melianthus (honey bush), tree ferns, etc. That is, they can grow them, but they have to go inside all winter, where they would prefer a cool greenhouse, but probably get one that is too warm for them. So they never look great or get really big.

I see magazine photos of Eastern tropical-look container plantings all the time. They sure look great and the the fact the magazines are being sold here, seems to imply the plantings are universally appropriate. But our climate is different. We need local advice and plant lists for our gardens! All gardening is local.   

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.

The Spring of the Year

2009 February-March 018 copy  Tulips aren't common in San Francisco, because they don't get enough winter chill to returm in subsequent years, but they are so lovely when they do appear that I can never resist photographing them.


Here is a flower that is much better adapted to our local gardens.

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I planted this flower in my front garden to give me winter blooms, but there it is, still blooming in spring. It's called Tagetes lemmonii, or copper canyon daisy. Mine is maybe 3 1/2 feet tall, but they can reach 6 feet. The plant has a strong scent when you brush against it, which Sunset describes as a mix of mint, marigold, and lemon. Some love it; others hate it. It was the favorite scent of one of my students, while someone just told me they were violently allergic to it. Who can say? But mine isn't where it would get brushed against much, so I won't find out which visitors love or hate it. This is a frost-sensitive plant, and may not live many years, but I am enjoying it so far. It has four or five branches in various stages of bloom, and when a branch has bloomed out, I'll cut it back. Wish I could put the scent on screen so you could see what you think, but the technology is lacking, alas.

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One of the best food crops in a San Francisco garden in spring is one that comes up wild if you let some seed drop the previous year. It's the native plant miner's lettuce, which is Claytonia perfoliata. The perfoliate part refers to the fact that the stems grow out of the center of the leaves. The little flower stems elongate and then seeds form, but the leaves are nicest in a salad when the first flowers open. They are crunchy and mild, a real treat. These are wet from one of our last rains, but we aren't having any rain now.

It has been sunny the past few days, and today the wind has been blowing hard all day. It is weather like this, in the spring, that will catch local gardeners by surprise and cause them to lose a few plants. The sun and wind will dry the ground quickly, and plants will wilt. Have you checked your garden for water lately? 

Chayote Report

In posts of last spring and summer, I wrote about starting chayote squash from the fruits and planting them on a trellis. I haven't shown photos for a while, but the plants covered the trellis and are beginning to set fruit, and I thought you'd like to see.

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As you can see, the plant on the right, which is the east, is thinner at the bottom than the other, but both did pretty well. I think the soil on the right needs a little more work. I have added extra fertilizer, but will add more compost and fertilizer to both sides in the spring.

To the right of the trellis, you can see the yacon plants. This is their first year in this location, and they didn't get as tall as they were where I had them before. These are South American mountain plants with edible roots. I will be digging them soon and will show photos.

2008 December 035 copy  Here is what happened to the chayote due to the hail we had recently in San Francisco. The leaves, especially the ones on the top of the trellis, were shredded. I took this photo the next day, but now, a week or so later, the ones with the worst damage have begun to shrivel. I guess I will have to pull some of them off, since they look awful and aren't helping the plant any. However, it has begun to set tiny squash fruit. Photos soon.

Keep sending tomato late blight reports--see last two posts--I want to figure out how bad the problem is in the Bay Area.

Heat, Wind, Rain...

Here in San Francisco, our weather reporters make much from small changes. Tomorrow, they may say, will be clear after morning fog, with slightly cooler than average temperatures. The next day will be the same but maybe a little breezy. The past few weeks have given them a little more to talk about. First it was hot. This happens a few times each spring and summer, but the first heat spell of spring is the plant killer. The days are almost at their longest, the plants that grow most in in the spring have lots of young, tender growth, or maybe they are covered with flowers. And the soil is drying. This spring the soil was particularly dry, since we have had no rain for some weeks. Then we had those hot days. Was it only two? I witnessed a beautiful rhododendron, in a shady site on the north side of a house, with beautiful balls of pink flowers go from that to a plant covered with sad, withering flowers, in the course of one afternoon. My own cinerarias suffered, with some, in a part of the garden that was driest, wilting so that the purple daisies never recovered. I watered all afternoon.

Then came the wind. It was so windy last week in the College garden that I thought better of transplanting the chayotes (finally) into their spots by the new arbor. OK, I'll do it next week. They are looking good, though, waiting in the wings, in the lathe house, but I think so much wind would have caused them to wilt.

And then, last Saturday, rain! What a surprise, after many dry weeks. We had only a little rain in San Francisco, but maybe there was more in other parts of the Bay Area. The snails stayed out in full view in the morning rain, allowing a very good snail hunt. The lettuce and arugula were nicely crisp. The garden seems to appreciate a rain more than a watering. But the bigger surprise is the snow in the mountains. Ten inches in the Sierra, at the end of May!

Today we are back to seasonally mild weather, followed by a foggy evening. A good day for gardening.

I don't know if it is due to the dry mid spring, or to what, but I am seeing more lady beetles than usual this spring. I rarely garden for more than a few minutes without seeing one or maybe more. And in my camera is a photo of a soldier beetle, another aphid eater. I will try to get it into the next post.

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!