We're in Snowland this Week

This week we are visiting friends and relatives on the East Coast. We worried that Thursday's snowstorm would last into Friday and cancel or delay our flight, but the storm stopped just in time for us to fly in clear skys.

There are 10-12 inches of snow here in Natick, Mass., with more, or perhaps freezing rain, due tomorrow. Not much horticulture going on here right now, but our friend did tell us that she had sprayed the rhododendrons and azaleas with an antitranspirant. This will slow water loss through the leaves during the winter, reminding us that frozen soil creates a drought for plants as real as the one created by lack of rainfall.

Our down jackets are keeping us pretty warm, but a hike down to the frozen pond to watch children play at ice hockey this afternoon was enough to remind me that I have become a subtropical being, no longer willing to suffer frozen and aching toes in order to enjoy a "winter wonderland."

_dscsnowstairs39_copy I've been taking pictures of snow on gardens and in woods, and of the picture perfect Cape Cod houses with their holiday decorations and snow-covered roofs and garden. Californians will appreciate how exotic it feels to be here in the middle of a neighborhood that looks like this. Yes, I grew up in a snowy place, but to actually be in a snowy place when there is this much snow on the ground--that hasn't happened in a long time.

_dscsatsnow30_copy I took this picture Saturday, after the first storm. Taxus sorely taxed by a covering of snow.

_dscsundaysnow42_copy Sunday, it snowed again, dumping even more snow on that poor Taxus.

At home in San Francisco, our front garden is still abloom with yellow cosmos, red schizostylis, white paludosum daisies, steel blue cerinthe, clear blue Echium vulgare (the annual one), etc. Here, there is an occasional curled brown oak leaf clinging on a branch to remind one that the trees once had leaves, and snow everywhere--piled on evergreen yew, arborvitae, and rhodies. Quite a contrast.

End of Summer in SF Gardens

Summer is drawing to a close in San Francisco, even though the calendar clearly shows that it is autumn. We've been having our late warm weather, an echo of the heat of Southern California, though, thankfully, so far without the hot winds or fires. In our food gardens, at this time of year, we are harvesting the last of summer's crops still, and beginning to get the crops of fall.

October_07_066_copy  Imagine my surprise, when I was photographing in my community garden, when I found that someone in the garden has several large eggplant plants that are setting fruit. The plants are nearly two feet tall. This one is setting round white fruits, tinged with lavender.

October_07_065_copy And here is another with long fruits, green now, but probably they will turn purple. I have tried eggplants, and seen others do so, in SF, but rarely have I seen any fruit setting. These must have been blooming on particularly warm nights. The last one I saw with fruit had only a tiny fruit in mid-November!

October_07_079_copy Nevertheless, fall is indeed on its way. The cole crops I planted at the college garden in mid August are continuing to develop. This is 'Ruby Ball' cabbage. The head will be an ordinary red cabbage, but the hues of the leaves, which are blue green with lavender veins, are so lovely.

October_07_078_copy Another beautiful leaf is that of this speckled oakleaf lettuce. I don't know the name of the variety. It was part of a mix, I think. But it is tender and mild, despite the warm weather we've been having, and adds that certain something to our salads.

October_07_058_copy And, finally, one more shot of that giant, edible-podded Brazilian pea. I thought I should shoot it with my hand in it, so you could see how big the pod is. And also, I put in a flower, which really isn't red (roxa? someone help me with the Portuguese) but is lavender and purple.

Sunflowers in the Fog


Who says that sunflowers need the sun? While much of the nation has been dealing with a heat wave, our neighborhood in San Francisco has been having its usual gray summer. It has been mostly foggy for at least a month,


and yet this garden has a splendid display of sunflowers, along one side of the house, then wrapping around the corner to go partway down the other side. They seem to bring the sun even on a gray day.Thank you to whoever decided to plant them.


This shot sacrifices detail to show you the extent of the planting.

My Dad's Bananas are ripening!

Julyaugust07038forweb There they are, the bananas that ripened despite the frost that killed all the leaves on the stem they were on and much of the rest of the plant. This shot, taken on August 10, shows that many of the fruits are turning yellow nicely. As you can see, the weight of the fruit bent the stem over until it threatened to touch the ground, so my brother put a tomato cage in the ground and propped the bananas on it.

I cut a few of these, and we had them as refreshments after watching the video of Dad's 100th birthday party. They were pretty good. As Dad says, this variety of banana doesn't get that strong banana oil flavor when it is ripe. His friend, L., who is visiting says, "Oh, but I like that flavor." Dad says he doesn't, and I'm with him.

I was thinking that the stems of the banana plant had to be connected underground to each other through their rhizomes, so the frozen stem would get some energy from the other, less damaged, stems. Looks like I was right.

I took more pictures in Dad's garden, which I will prepare and send in coming days. We also went to Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas (www.qbgardens.org), and there will be more shots from there. We took Dad, in his wheelchair, and he sure did have fun there. He likes to remember times when Mom was still alive and they made hundreds of jars of jelly and jam to be sold at the holiday sales. They used fruits from their garden and neighbors' gardens, mostly subtropical.

Quail gardens have a big planting of subtropical fruit plants, including a walkway with different banana varieties on either side for about 60 or so feet. (All the banana plants were nice and green, though search as I might, I found no bananas, unlike on previous visits.)

Back to the City, where it was sunny in our neighborhood on Sunday and Monday, but today we are back to mostly fog.

Soil Temperature and Organic Methods of Gardening

Last week the soil temperature in our garden at City College of San Francisco finally reached 60 degrees F, warm enough for reasonably quick germination of summer crops such as beans and squash.

The beans we put in are Purple Podded Bush beans, which are reputed to be able to grow in slightly colder soil than other garden beans. We put them in about 3 weeks ago, when the soil was in the mid fifities. The first leaves started out tinged with yellow around their edges, which looked like they had some kind of disease, but I knew that it was caused by inability to get enough nutrition in the cold soil. This week they are looking almost completely green.

Cold soils are the Achilles heel of organic gardens. My cousin, who raises organic seedlings in the Midwest each spring, in an unheated greenhouse, and then sells them to gardeners, says that they suffer more from chilly weather than they would if they were being grown with synthetic fertilizer. Why? Because organic fertilizer needs some action from soil bacteria to release its nutrients, the simple, water soluble elemental compounds that plants can use for growth.

Synthetics are manufactured to provide the compounds without any bacterial action, but at a cost to the earth. First, they require considerable petroleum energy to create. Second, they are so water soluble that the plants have to catch what nutrients they can while the fertilizers are on their way through the soil into the groundwater. So you have to apply more. Synthetic fertilizers that enter groundwater will pollute it. If they run off they pollute nearby bodies of water. If you can get your organic fertilizer from nearby sources, or make compost from wastes found on site, you can save the petroleum needed to transport your fertilizer. (Think twice before you decide you have to have bat guano from South America.)

So maybe my seedlings get a bit slower start, but I'm sure they catch up, and I feel good knowing that my garden is less of a burden on the earth.

Frost Arrived Last Night

In our back garden on the north side of a hill and in the shade of a house, frost painted the ground white last night. A thermometer registered 31 degrees. In front, there was ice on the cars, but the front garden showed no frost. I suspect the difference is that the back yard is protected by houses and fences from light winds, while the front is open to the street. Where air can circulate a bit, even circulation caused by the passage of cars on a still night, this will often be enough to mix warmer air with the coldest air near the ground. And with the temperature just below freezing, maybe that was enough.

I looked out the front window, while I was fixing the blinds, and there was a young woman looking at the garden, probably as surprised as I am to see the Erysimium 'Apricot Twist', the Convolvulus tricolor, the yellow and red violas, and the Gaillardias still in bloom. She looked up and smiled; I smiled back. Flowers on a frosty morning are special.

Frost on the Way

As I write this the temperature is dropping, with frost predicted tonight and tomorrow night. Gardeners in cold-winter parts of the country have a different relationship to frost than we do, I think. In Indiana, where I grew up, frost happened, and then we had several months in which the only green outside was the dull, dark green of wintering needleleaf evergreens--the spruces and the pines and the like. If you wanted to see a flower, you could go to the florist's. (And I often did, to get even a single rosebud and bring it home to draw or paint.)

In Indiana, where the temperature was generally well below freezing for several winter months, you might try to save some annuals if the frost was early in the fall, but once winter was underway, plants lived or they didn't. I suppose there might have been horticulturists somewhere who wrapped slightly too-tender plants in burlap and tried to get them through the winter, but no one we knew did any such thing. We grew plants we knew were hardy enough to survive, even if they died back to roots each winter, we let the frost do its work, and we waited for spring.

But here in the Bay Area, our average winter low hovers a few degrees above freezing or a few degrees below freezing. We dabble in plants that can take just a few degrees more cold than we get in most winters, but not as much as we get some winters, and then, when a big frost is predicted, we worry over them. Which makes sense, considering that if we can get them through these very few nights, we will probably have them for years to come.

So if you have planted stuff that can't take frost, tonight will probably find you out there with bedsheets or floating row cover, draping your plants. It is a good idea to use plant stakes to prop cloth covers away from plants. Cardboard boxes make good covers too, since they form a firm chamber that doesn't touch a plant.

Should plants frost over, and they are important to you, preventing morning sun from hitting them until the day warms them a bit will help them thaw more safely. Don't prune plants that are damaged for awhile. You may find that parts you thought would die will return to health in a few weeks.

The Plants Say The Winter's Mild So Far

We are launched into the new year. So far I have written 2008 accidentally once, rather than 2006. A forward-looking error, at least.

Last night my husband asked me if the winter is unusually cold so far, and I said that the plants were telling me that it was not. I think what I am reading from the plants is that the fall was not very cold, or possibly that the fall cooled so slowly that they had plenty of time to adapt. I have annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris) fully green, 3 feet tall, and blooming. It should be dead by this time of year, not looking pretty. In the front garden I have an annual Convolvulus tricolor that is still blooming. Should also be dead. A gaillardia looks really good, still blooming well, but it should have quit blooming. Sure, we had a couple of frosty nights, and we had a couple of days of tremendous wind, but we haven't had a long cold period. I think it has been in the 50s or above in the daytime more often than in the 40s. I haven't been taking temperatures, but this is what the plants say.

My husband says: You always get back to plants. Yep, I guess that's so, but they have so much to say.

The Furies of a Windstorm

What a wild storm we had last night and this morning in San Francisco! There was heavy rain last night and the wind blew hard all night and half the day. Our lights went out twice, and a friend tells me they were out in San Mateo part of the day as well.

I had to drive acrosss the city early this morning, and had to dodge the many garbage and recycling bins that had blown into the street. Most of them were near the curb, but there were a number right in the line of traffic. Some had spilled and the contents were blowing all around. 

In several yards, Christmas ornaments had fallen over. And whereever there were trees, the ground and road was covered with a mulch of small branches and fallen leaves. Even Geary Blvd, a 6 lane road, had big drifts of pine needles up to several inches thick.

When I returned home, I found that my front garden had become a major trash trap. Junk often circles around between our hedge and the neighbor's porch and gets caught in my plants, but today was the worst! There was lots of crumpled newspaper, several plastic bags, styrofoam, junk mail, kids' schoolwork, shopping lists, napkins, and unidentifiable white stuff. I cleared it 3 times, and I will still have to reach under and through the plants to remove the last bits of detritus tomorrow.

And, ironically, the wind tore up our white tree dahlia. I say ironically because the plant usually blooms near the end of November, and a wind storm often hits it right before it blooms and tears off most of the leaves and flowers. Happens about 2 years out of 3. This year, the flowers were about a month late, and it was unharmed by wind before last night. So once again, the winds hit it just as the first blossoms were opening. Every year I think I have to get rid of it, since it so rarely gets to bloom, but then a year comes along that it blooms beautifully...  Well, it wasn't this year.

Tonight it is calm and clear. Not even very cold. Tomorrow I will tour my gardens and assess the damage. 

Alcatraz Gardens, Frosty Nights

Early in December I went to Alcatraz, the famous prison island, in the San Francisco Bay, with members of the Mediterranean Garden Society. We toured with one of the people who are renovating the historic gardens there--both the ones from the Victorian era military base and the ones from the prison era. We went places the general public can't go yet, I took digital photos with my new camera.

On Monday and Tuesday of this past week, we had frost in my neighborhood. There was frost on the ground in our backyard and on all the nearby roofs. In the front, the cars had frosted windshields. At the City College demonstration garden, there was spotty frost. The chard looked untouched, as did the broccoli. The cabbage had a bit of visible frost. Among the plants covered with ice crystals were lettuce, radish, cilantro, miner's lettuce, and some of the arugula. I took photos, both film and digital. Then I went back yesterday and shot the same plants recovered. We lost maybe a leaf or two of lettuce, otherwise, everything seems fine. These winter crops are tough, but I was relieved when we didn't have a third night of frost, as that might have caused some permanent damage.

So where are the photos? Much is going on behind the scenes. I have to upgrade my windows version to transfer the images to my computer. I now have the (legal) disk. Sigh. I think after Christmas I will figure out how to get it on the computer, then put the camera's software on too, and...

Yes, stay tuned for photos!

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate same.