Growing Yacon (Bolivian Sunroot)

In the United States, the crisp, sweet, crunch of yacon roots is a secret known mainly to gardeners. When I began to grow it, late in the last century, it was even less known, though it has been a popular food in its native South America for centuries.

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Yacon Leaves.             Credit: Pam Peirce

After I read about this plant in the book Lost Crops of the Incas, it took me three years to locate starts to grow. The low point was the first trip I took to a tropical plant nursery near my parents’ house in San Diego County. I had spoken to the proprietor on the phone. He assured me he had the plant for sale if I could pick it up, but when I got to the nursery, employees told me he was on a plant-hunting trip in South America. They were sure there was some yacon somewhere in the nursery, but they had no idea how to identify it, and I, having seen only a written description, didn’t either. So that was that.

 I tried again the following year. This time, a nursery worker told me the proprietor was somewhere in the nursery, but who knew where? I wandered amid the dense, tropical foliage lining the labyrinthine nursery paths, until I rounded a blind turn and practically walked into the man who could locate yacon for me!

Yacon is much easier to find now, so now many people enjoy its crisp, juicy roots. They are sort of like jicama, but more tender; sort of like watermelon, but a bit firmer. And their sweetness is from a sugar we don’t digest, so the roots are low in calories. Marketers are even touting yacon syrup as a healthful sweetener, though I’m sure the fresh, raw roots are even better for you, plus you get to enjoy their crunchy and juicy texture.

            This exuberantly large perennial plant, with its broad, furry, gray-green leaves, is, botanically, Smallanthus sonchifolius, a relative of sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and sunflower. (In the fall, the small orange daisies that bloom atop the tall plants show the plant family relationship.) Besides yacon, it has been called Bolivian sunroot, Peruvian ground apple, strawberry jicama, and, by teenagers who so enjoyed my harvest, simply “the root.”

In mid- to late fall, when the leaves start to die, you can cut the stem back and dig up the harvest. When you do, the first structures you will see are the rhizomes, which look like Jerusalem artichokes. You will save these to replant for next year. What you eat are storage roots that dangle from the rhizomes. They range in shape, from spindle- to globe-shaped, and from a couple of inches in diameter to 6 or 7 inches across. Under a thin brown skin, they are white inside. (The storage roots are delicate, so dig carefully.) They are said to be sweeter after a frost, or after storage in a refrigerator for a couple of weeks. I often eat roots as soon as I dig, and have found them variable in sweetness, but always worth eating.

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Yacon rhizome and storage roots. Pam Peirce

            Break or cut the roots from the rhizomes, wash them, peel them with a vegetable peeling tool, wash again, and slice them into pieces. I have found them welcome in lunch boxes and useful in salads. (For example, I have used slices of yacon in place of jicama in a salad that includes blood orange and avocado. The recipe is in Golden Gate Gardening.) They could, I suppose, be cooked, but I have never been inspired to do that.

            If you are cutting back several plants, leave a foot or so of the stems, so you will know where to dig later. Divide and replant the rhizomes by late winter, before they start to grow again. A full plant will grow from a small rhizome, so you may have extra to share with friends.

            This is an easy plant to grow. Other than an occasional nibbled leaf, mine have not seen pest damage. The plant is so big I thought it wouldn’t do well in a container, but it is so tough and productive that it has even produced a small crop of roots in a big pot. The fact it was in a pot made the roots easier to dig.

            Look for yacon propagation rhizomes in winter, when the plants are dormant, or in early spring. Annie’s Annuals (anniesannuals.com, 888.266.4370) carries them. You can also purchase yacon from the fruit nurseries Raintree Nursery (raintreenursery.com, 1-800-391-8892) and One Green World (onegreenworld.com, 1-877-353-4028).


Minestrone alla Genovese with New Zealand Spinach

In my last post, I gave a recipe for frittata that included New Zealand spinach. I have continued to look for new ways to use the plentiful New Zealand spinach that grows in my garden. Here is my most recent discovery. First, though, here is a photo of the plant itself. To harvest, I break off and use the top 4 or 5 inches of as many stems as I need to make the amount of spinach I need.

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New Zealand Spinach growing in a San Francisco Garden in November.  

It is tolerant of both cold weather and hot weather. 

Minestrone Genoa Style with New Zealand Spinach

I started with a recipe for Minestrone Genovese on page 27 of the book The Pleasures of Italian Cooking, by Romeo Salta.(It is the cookbook that introduced American diners to Northern Italian cuisine.) I chose this recipe because I had harvested a very large leek and had some dried beans of various kinds and plenty of New Zealand spinach. The recipe called for kidney beans and common spinach, but I substituted. It also called for macaroni and for a little diced bacon, but I didn’t want to use them and the soup was delicious without either.

2 Tablespoons olive oil                                   2 Quarts of water or stock

1 Cup grated carrot                                        3 Cups of cooked beans

1 Cup chopped onion                                         (I used Christmas limas)

2 leeks (white and light                                   1 teaspoon salt

   green parts) sliced                                       Black pepper (up to 1/2 teaspoon)

2 Cups diced potatoes                                    3 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 Cups chopped New Zealand spinach           1/2 teaspoon basil (2 teaspoons fresh)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and cook the carrot, onions, leeks, potatoes, and spinach in it for five minutes. In a pot mix the water or stock, beans, salt and pepper and cook over low heat for one hour. In an electric blender, puree the parsley, basil, and garlic. Add this to the soup. Cook about 20 minutes longer. Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese.

I used vegetable stock I had made by cooking the leek tops and cutting celery stems and leaves with a bay leaf and some thyme, then straining out the solids and keeping the stock.

Beans just about double in size when you cook them—maybe a little bit more. To reduce the gassiness they can cause, either soak in a lot of water overnight drain them in the morning, add fresh water and cook them, or boil unsoaked beans briefly in a lot of water, drain them, and then cook them in fresh water.


An Appreciation of Tigridia--A Summer-Blooming Bulb

In my dry-summer  San Francisco garden, the spring bloom is wonderful, but not as much blooms in summer. So in July and August, when spring's show has faded, I welcome the dramatically large and vivid blossoms of Tigridia pavonia. I like the color they add to my summer garden and the fact that the dramatic flowers face upward, so I see the fronts of the flowers when I look down from an upstairs window or even when I am standing over the flower bed. Each flower lasts only a single day, but each plant has several flowers, so the show goes on for weeks.

Tigridias grow from small bulbs, which are frequently offered in nurseries. They also grow easily from seed, and often bloom the first year from a seed. though it might take two years for a seed-grown plant to bloom. Where winter temperatures do not drop below 30 degrees F, and if soil drainage is good, they are likely to come back year after year. 

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Tigridia flowers are triangular, on stems 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall. They are 3-6 inches across, typically 4 inches or more. They can be red, pink, yellow or white, usually with a contrasting, spotted center. As you might guess from the scientific name, it is sometimes called a "Tiger flower," though the typically spotted center looks more like a leopard or jaguar to me. Another common name is Mexican shell flower, reflecting the Mexican origin of the plants, which grows from Mexican lowlands to its higher elevations. 

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I saved seeds from yellow flowers only and grew an all-yellow planting in my front garden, where I avoid pink flowers, allowing only white, yellow, orange, red, and blue. I grew the seedlings I hoped would have yellow flowers in a container for the first year, and when I saw they were, transplanted them to the front garden. This was a successful experiment, so now I have a yellow selection in front, and another that is blooming in red, pink, or yellow in the back yard. 

Here is a close up of the center of the flower, showing the pistil and stamens. The tall pistil has a branched stigma on top. The lower part of the stamens appear to be pressed closely against the lower part of the pistil, with the 3 pollen-bearing anthers near the stigma. I have not seen what pollinates Tigridia, but clearly some insect does so, aiming for that dramatically spotted center. The plants bear many seeds, in a long pod. When the pod turns brown and the top opens, one can cut the pods and simply shake them upside down to let the seeds fall out.

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The Pacific Bulb Society says that the exact origin of this plant are unclear because the Aztecs ate the bulbs, so they moved it around by cultivating it. (It is unusual for a member of the Iris family, the Iridaceae, to be edible, so I will not try to eat it until I learn more.) After it blooms, and I have cut any seedheads that I want to save, I will cut the stems low to the ground and let the bulbs remain dormant all winter. 

This is not a mediterranean plant, but, like Mexican hen and chicks (Escheveria) it is from a location that has summer rain, but is dry in winter. Still, like that plant, it can adapt to our gardens if it is given some water in our dry season and is growing in soil that drains well, like my San Francisco sandy loam. I don't water the plants after they bloom and they will become dormant over winter. 

In spring, the new leaves will emerge, pleated fans that look like palm seedlings. The plants are not very leafy, saving their energy for those dramatic flowers. If I have seed, I will sow it in late winter, indoors, probably on my little heat mat. I may grow the plants in containers for the first year or just plant them out in the garden and see what happens.


The Availability of Watsonia borbonica corms

Watsonias--Wildly Successful Plant of Late Spring

eaders cannot find the bulbs for sale. The most likely reason for this is that Watsonias are out of fashion. When gladiolus bulbs began to be actively hybridized, gardeners were dazzled by the variety of color, and bicolors that were being bred, so fewer people were interested in Watsonia, which blooms only in white, salmon, pink, and red. I grow Watsonia borbonica because I live in  a Mediterranean climate, similar to that of its native land of Mediterranean South Africa, where the mild rainy winter stimulates the leaves to grow and the dry summers allow the plants to rest a bit before fall rains start leafy growth again. Also, when I have tried to grow Gladiolus, they have suffered from a rust fungus disease. I have seen Gladiolus in nearby gardens that were damaged by thrips insects. Watsonias never seem to have diseases or insect damage. Gladiolus, nevertheless, is probably a bigger seller than Watsonia, rendering Watsonia bulbs, or corms, scarce in nurseries. There is also a second reason for Watsonia's lessened popularity. That is that there is an invasive Watsonia. It is called Watsonia meriana, a summer-dormant species described as bearing dull red-orange, purple, or white flowers in late spring. A variety of this species, W. meriana bulbifera, bears bulblets, or cormlets,  on its flowering stems that can reproduce the plant, giving it two means of asexual reproduction (the cormlets could roll away and start new colonies!). While this species is not on California Invasive Plant lists, it has been seen growing wild on roadsides and in fields in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It is also a pest in Australia, and may partly explain the difficulty of locating Watsonia borbonica corms for sale here and there, since nurseries may confuse it with this other Watsonia and be afraid to sell it. So the first point is that it is hard to find the corms for sale, probably for 2 reasons: Plants go in and out of fashion, and this one has been out of style, and also, the habit of just using its genus name has allowed it to be confused with another, potentially invasive member of the same genus. 

So, what to do if you long for this tall, beautiful, low-maintenance plant. I suspect that your best bet is to notice some growing in a garden in the spring and ask the gardener if you can have some corms when they are dormant in the summer. Since the plants you see were probably planted some time ago, when they were being sold, and since they become crowded and bloom less after they have grown in the same place for several years, chances are there will be plenty of corms to spare. I see Watsonias in a number of gardens in San Francisco, and have seen them in old gardens of Pacific Grove (next to Monterey). Probably in areas where they will thrive on the California west coast, you will see some in bloom this spring. Meantime, I can only hope that nursery propagators are listening.

You can read more about Watsonias and 49 more easy care, drought tolerant plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.       

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In April and May I look for Watsonias. I love these big, graceful plants, with tall stems of trumpet-shaped flowers. These easy-to-grow bulb plants are one of South Africa's best gifts to Bay Area gardeners. They are among the 50 plants I featured in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, as very well suited to our gardens and easy to grow. (See cover, at right) They thrive in cool or hot summer areas. I don't know of an insect pest or a disease that troubles them, and snails don't seem interested either. 

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The red one in the two photos above is a hybrid, one of several usually available in nurseries for fall planting.  

After you plant the bulbs (correctly, they are corms), the leaves begin to grow with the first rains. They usually don't need any irrigation beyond rainfall to mature and bloom. Even last winter, which was rather dry, I didn't water mine, though I might do so in a really, really dry winter. After weeks of glorious mid- to late spring bloom, they die back in early summer. You don't have to water them in summer either. These are truly drought-tolerant plants! If the soil is well-drained, they won't mind a little summer water, but if kept too moist, they won't bloom as well the following year.

            The reason Watsonias do so well here is that they are from the Cape Region of South Africa, which has a similar rainfall pattern to ours. The regions where they grow have poor, sandy soil, so our rather poor soils are not a problem, though they can take moderate fertility, if you want to dig in a little compost. They stand up to wind and cool temperatures. They thrive in foggy microclimates. Full sun is best near the coast, but half-day will do. If you garden in a hotter inland microclimate, they will appreciate the hot soil while they are dormant. The spring-blooming Watsonias described here are hardy to 10° F.

            It's best to cut the flower stalks after they bloom and, in mid to late summer, cut brown leaves to the ground, before new green ones start to grow, so that they won't distract from next year's show. The deadheading and cutting back is really the only annual care they need.

            Watsonias are grand at the back of a border, where their 5- 6 foot tall flower stalks will be seen over other plants. Another way to grow them is behind a hedge, so they stand above it when in bloom, disappear when they die back. Or mix them into a narrow border with other plants of similar height--shrubs or other tall perennials. In addition to ornamenting the garden, Watsonias make good cut flowers.

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            Most of the Watsonia plants I see growing are hybrids, with peach, pink, or red flowers, which are readily available at nurseries for fall planting. I also see the pink or white-blooming ones that represent the species, Watsonia borbonica, especially in older gardens.

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I think the pink one in the three previous photos is the species, Watsonia borbonica. It is described as having "violet" stamens, and these look violet to me.

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This white one may be Watsonia borbonica ardernii, a subspecies that was discovered in the wild.

            Plant the corms about 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. You can plant in a circular area to get a nice clump, or could plant in a row.

            While the plants will thrive with little care, if you have time, and want to groom your plants to keep your garden looking at its best, here is what to do:

            While the plants are blooming, remove spent flowers every few days. They will fall off in your hand at a slight pull. When the top flower of the central stalk of flowers has bloomed and faded, cut that stalk off where it joins a lower flower branch that still has buds or open flowers. (You will need hand pruners for this, as the stalks are tough). When all of the side stalks have finished blooming, cut the entire flower stalk short enough that the cut end won't be visible above the leaves.

            When all of the flower stalks have been cut, you can ignore the plant until all the leaves turn brown, or you can go out every couple of weeks and remove brown leaves. It is up to you. But when all the leaves are brown, cut them as short as you can. You will need sharp pruners to do it. Don't wait until the green "swords" of the new leaves push through in fall, or you will have a devil of a time avoiding injury to the new leaves!

            That's about it, until, a number of years later, you might see that the clump is blooming less, or only near the edge, or that it is a bit too wide for its location. Then you might want to go out when the plants are dormant, in summer, and either remove some corms near the edges to reduce the clump size, or actually dig the whole thing up and replant corms.

            Either way, you will have some corms to plant elsewhere or to share. Full sized corms are 2-3 inches across and will probably bloom the following spring. Smaller ones (cormlets) will take 2 or more years to bloom. If you dig the whole clump, you will probably have more corms than you know what to do with, and may want to discard the smaller ones. (Or maybe go into the Watsonia corm business.)

            One more tip. You can grow Watsonias in a big pot, say 15 inches across for a group of corms, but in a pot you will need to give them a bit more care. From the time the plants start to grow to when blooms are starting to fade, fertilize lightly from time to time, and water regularly. You don't want the mix to be soggy, but unless rain is keeping it wet, water when the top inch is dry.

Learn about 49 more easy, beautiful garden flowers in Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.


How to "Know Your Onions"

 

Old farmers would say of a farmer they admired: “He knows his onions.”

Old farmers are few and far between these days, as is any urban gardener who knows his/her/their onions. In addition to the basic knowledge needed, producing globe onions (also called bulb onions) in California Bay Area gardens is complicated by our many microclimates. But with a little planning, we can harvest the big, sweet and pungent globe onions that we see in grocery stores.

Before you start, there are two factors to understand: The first is why you shouldn’t plant too early. Onions should be planted in fall or winter. But if by December, the stem of an onion plant is thicker than a pencil, the plant is likely to flower in the spring, and thus form no bulb. (In fact, it won’t form much that is edible, and then will produce seed and die. Not what you had in mind!)

The second factor is that onion plants start to form bulbs in response to the day’s length. At our latitude, even the longest day, June 21, is not long enough to stimulate a long-day variety to form bulbs, so avoid planting them. Short-day varieties start forming bulbs as early as the third week of January. Chances are the plants will be so small when they get the “bulbing signal” that the resulting bulb will be rather small.

So what are we to do? The key is to look for varieties labeled “intermediate day” or “day neutral” (such as 'Candy' or 'Red Candy Apple'). Then plant seed as early as you can (more on this below) without letting any seedlings grow to have stems thicker than a pencil in your garden in our coldest months, which are December and January. Not every seed source tells the day length adaptation of their onion varieties. If you are not sure, ask the supplier.

In the previous paragraph, I wrote “as early as you can.” That sounds vague, but it is determined by your microclimate and you can learn it quickly by trial and error. If you are inland, the colder winters will slow the growth of onion seedlings, so you may be able to start seeds in the fall and have them still be so small by December that they will form bulbs in the spring rather than bloom. Try September. Near the coast, with a milder winter, the seedlings might grow bigger, so the safest idea is to wait and plant seed at the start of February.

Alternatively, in any microclimate, you can plant out onion sets or transplants. Onion sets are little bulbs that have been forced into dormancy and then are sold in packages at the nursery. (If you buy them in advance, store them at room temperature to avoid providing the cold that would stimulate any that are already thicker than a pencil to bloom.)

You can grow your own transplants, starting seeds a couple of months before you plant them in your garden. If you grow them indoors on a windowsill, they will not get the winter chill they would get outdoors, so when you plant them out, in February, even if they have pencil-thick stems, they should form bulbs instead of blooming.

You can also buy bundles of bare-root seedlings from a nursery (local or mail order) to plant at the right time.

Green onions (scallions) are the same species as globe onions. You can pull any young onion plants to eat as green onions before they form bulbs. Some gardeners sort the sets, then plant the smaller ones to make globe onions and use the larger ones — which might be big enough to cause them to bloom — to grow green onions. (If you know which you plan to harvest as green onions, plant them a bit deeper, for a longer white base.)

While correct variety choice and planting time will take you far toward success, make sure the soil is fertile, keep weeds down (the narrow onion plant has little defense against shading by weeds), water regularly until the bulb is formed and lower stem begins to flatten, then stop watering to reduce the chance of decay.

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When the stems near the ground allow it, bend the plants over; this will help the plants go dormant, so the onions will last longer in post-harvest storage. When the stem and leaves are all brown, dig the bulbs and keep them in a cool, dry place.

May you “know your onions,” and may they be big, juicy and delicious!


Try Growing a Pawpaw, a Hardy Fruit with a Tropical Flavor

I’ve heard about pawpaws all my life, but only recently had a chance to taste one. I knew they were a delicious wild fruit one could find in Midwestern woods near where I grew up, if one knew where to look. When I finally did taste a pawpaw, I understood what all the fuss was about. It has sweet, soft, fragrant, pale yellow flesh similar to that of white sapote, or custard apple a tropical fruit native to Mexico. Since the pawpaw I tasted was from a tree grown near San Francisco, I wondered why this delicious fruit was not anywhere to be found in Bay Area markets. 

Pawpaw3Pawpaw fruit ripening on a Bay Area Tree

The book “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit,” by Andrew Moore (Chelsea Green, 2015), explains why. First, pawpaws do not ship well. They bruise easily and become soft when ripe, so the source needs to be near the market. Second, they have a very short season, so unless an eager public is waiting for them, they may all spoil before they’re sold. And because they are still unfamiliar, only the rare aficionado notices that it’s pawpaw season.

Moore’s book traces the history of this largest fruit native to the U.S., and explains how to grow it. Moore also tells about the dedicated researchers who have been breeding superior varieties and about efforts to promote and sell the fruit. 

Where does the name pawpaw come from? Europeans, or possibly African slaves, who had come to the mainland from the West Indies, first called them by this name, a variant of the word papaya. They apparently simply didn’t choose a new name for pawpaw fruit, just used one they had used for a rather different one they had eaten on the Caribbean islands. 

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) taste tropical, but are hardy to about 20 below zero. They grow along rivers in much of the eastern U.S. — from southern Michigan and Pennsylvania west to eastern Kansas, south to midway down the states of the Old South and then up the eastern coast. They were relished by many native American tribes, who ate them fresh or dried. George Washington liked chilled pawpaws. Lewis and Clark ate them when passing through a region where they grew. American settlers sometimes removed the trees in favor of planting cornfields, but many wild groves remain, and many a child or adult has delighted in finding them.

Pawpaws were recently sold at the Ferry Plaza Building Farmers Market, but the one nearby farm that sold pawpaws couldn’t make a go of the crop, so took it out to expand other crops. Still, pawpaws make a handsome, easy-to-grow garden fruit tree, so many Bay Area gardeners could be enjoying the fruit while we wait for solutions to the marketing problems.

The tree can reach 35 feet, but might reach only 10-15 feet where summers are cool. Its leaves, up to a foot long, give the tree a tropical look. It’s dormant in winter, then bears small, maroon blossoms before leaves return in spring. The fruits, up to 9 in a cluster, ripen in late August or September. They are 3-6 inches long, weighing 5-16 ounces oz

Gardeners are growing pawpaws in San Jose, Los Altos. Berkeley and Walnut Creek. The trees have few pests. Deer, rabbits, even goats, are rarely interested in nibbling the strong-tasting leaves, though raccoons, squirrels or opossums do like the fruit, so could be a problem in locations where these pests are active. The tree needs well-drained, fertile soil, with a slightly acidic pH (5-7), and a site out of strong winds. The best time to plant it (a potted seedling is best) is in spring, just before it leafs out. See the website of the California Rare Fruit Growers for more growing tips https://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pawpaw.html.

You can purchase plants from Raintree Nursery, (800) 391-8892, raintreenursery.com, or One Green World, (877) 353-4028, onegreenworld.com, or try local nurseries. 

Added in the spring of 2021: 

There was an article about pawpaws in the New York Times on October 21, 2020. Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/dining/pawpaw-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=1

The only source offered in that article was the Kentucky State University nursery and trying to find plants or seeds through Facebook fan clubs, Nextdoor, Craigslist, or Etsy, but the two nurseries listed above still carry trees as of spring 2021. In fact One Green World has 4 varieties and a 4-in-one tree. The article mentions Moore's book and lists a second one too: For the Love of Pawpaws: A Mini-manual for Growing and Caring For Pawpaws--From Seed to Table, by Michael Judd. 

And on November 5, 2014, the New York Times printed a recipe for Pawpaw pudding.  This recipe makes a pudding that you can cut in pieces to serve. Correspondents to the Times found it good, but used less sugar and liked it better. We used to make a pudding from American persimmons that grow in the Midwest, but this pawpaw pudding seems to be firmer, capable of being cut in squares. Here is the link:

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016961-pawpaw-pudding?searchResultPosition=2

 


Daffodil Aftercare

    Daffodils thrill us with cheery yellow, white, or bicolor flowers in February, or even January. They often do naturalize in our region, coming back to bloom again year after year.

            If they are growing in pots they are unlikely to bloom the following year, and are probably best discarded after you enjoy the flowers. If the daffodils are growing, instead,  in your garden, you have a good chance of getting them to naturalize.

Your first post-bloom task is to remove any stems that bore flowers. This keeps the plant from wasting energy on them, especially should the spent flowers form seeds.

Your second task is to care for the post-bloom leaves. They need water and unshaded light until they start to die back, but not fertilizer. (Add fertilizer as you plant the bulbs in fall and work a little into the soil in future autumns.)

Do not tie daffodil leaves in knots. I don’t know how this common practice began, but it limits the plants’ ability to photosynthesize, so they can’t make good bulbs to bloom the following spring.

Finally, keep the soil where daffodils are planted relatively dry in summer. Daffodil ancestors are from summer-dry Mediterranean regions. The bulbs may decay in wet summer soil.

Gardeners experience two problems in following this advice. They are: 1. unsightly leaves after bloom and 2. Finding a place where daffodils will not be too wet in the summer.

If these problems seem insurmountable, you could treat the bulbs as annuals. Just dig them out, as you would non-naturalizing tulip plants, discard them, and buy new ones in fall.

To hide the leaves as they decline, you can use companion plants. Good choices include many small flowering annual plants, including nigella, viola, sweet alyssum, or, my favorite, the pink and lavender-flowered Virginia stock (Malcolmia maritima). Taller plants, such as California poppy or nasturtium, must be managed so they don’t over-shade the daffodils.

While daffodils can take some summer water, don’t try  to naturalize them in a bed you will be watering amply in summer. Make sure nearby plants are somewhat drought-tolerant, and if you use drip irrigation, make sure you don’t have an emitter right next to a daffodil. You can put daffodil bulbs among other summer-dry plants, such as succulents, for a fresh and attractive combination.

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I took this photo in the wonderful garden of Harland Hand, in on a west-facing hillside in El Cerrito, some years ago, when he was alive and tending his own garden. It changed the way I understood daffodils. They are well adapted to a climate with wet winters and dry summers. So are the Babiana bulbs blooming in the lower right. The succulents in this small bit of garden are adapted to low moisture in general, but can tolerate our winter rain if the soil is well-drained. 


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.


Peppers Leafing Out After Winter

In the post I wrote about Peridot pepper, I said it was not leafing out again in spring, and that I thought it would not be a perennial plant in San Francisco. But perhaps I spoke too soon.

As background, I should say that even common garden peppers, the ones in the species Capsicum annuum, are perennials in a tropical enough climate. I have overwintered them in San Francisco. They lost their leaves, but did leaf out moderately well and bore a small crop the second summer. They were not as productive as in the first summer, and since in San Francisco, they weren't hugely productive the first year, I decided overwintering them wasn't worth the trouble.

One species pepper is fully perennial here. That is the rocata pepper, in the species Capsicum pubescens. It keeps almost all of its leaves over the winter, and, with moderate pruning of damaged branches, keeps right on going in the spring. The peppers are usually very hot, though some varieties have fruit that is milder when it is green. Plants are  shrubs, up to 6 feet tall in milder parts of SF.

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This is what Rocata pepper looks like. It keeps most of its leaves all winter, just needs light pruning in spring.

Peridot peppers are in the species Capsicum baccatum. They grow in the lower elevations of the Andes, where nights are cool, so they can bear a crop in cooler Bay Area sites. And they are a sweet pepper, with only a flash of heat now and then. (See earlier post on Peridot pepper for more photos and details.)

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Peridot Peppers bear in September and October then lose most of their leaves in winter.

I also grew a second variety of C. baccatum last year, which had long fruit, similarly mild, that ripened to orange. I thought it might be Aji Amarillo, the hot pepper often used in ceviche in South America, but apparently not. (Aji Amarillo seems to be a shorter pepper, in addition to being fiery hot.) From looking at web descriptions of C. baccatum varieties, I think I grew Peru Long Orange. The fruit reached 7 inches long, the plant was five feet tall, and it bore very late, into November and December. (It was great to have peppers in winter.)

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This is the one I call Peru Long Orange, before the fruit turns orange.

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Here is how it looks in winter if you leave it on to ripen. Notice the leaves are becoming yellowish.

So now its spring. I left the plants in, to see what would happen. First, a fine, deep green shoot emerged at the base of the Long Orange plant. Then little shoots appeared here and there on that plant as well as on the Peridot. The best, most vigorous, shoots were often lower on the branches, not at their ends. I began a careful pruning program, cutting branches back just above strong shoots. That is, I was letting the plant leaf out first, to guide me as to where to cut. I also worked some aged manure into the soil near the plants (I had turkey manure.) to give them a boost.

By May the Peru Long Orange plant has become quite leafy, lots of big, dark green leaves. It is a foot or two shorter than it was, due to my pruning, but growing nicely. The Peridot shoots are not quite as vigorous (and I don't have a good photo of it yet). Perhaps the fact that Peridot bears fruit earlier in the season is related to its being slightly less able to recover from winter. However, it is too soon to tell whether either plant will bear a good crop this year. I'll let you know.

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Peru Long Orange leafing out in the second year, shown in late April.

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Close-up shot of Peru Long Orange leaves in second year, showing their healthy size and color, and a pruning cut (center)

I must say, however, that plants in a friend's garden are not leafing out as well. The Long Orange in that garden was cut back heavily, before it began to grow new leaves, so perhaps this was an error. The Peridot in that garden was allowed to hold onto much of its ripe fruit through the winter, so perhaps it used up too much energy ripening seeds to have much left for regrowing. (I ate most of my Peridot peppers green, finding the flavor nicer than when it was red, and took off the last fruits in about December.)

I have put in new plants of each, next to the old plants, and will be comparing their performance, to try to decide it is worthwhile to overwinter these plants.

Annie's Annuals anniesannuals.com, grew both kinds of C. baccatum this spring, and even offer Aji Amarillo. If anyone grows any of these plants and has new info to impart, please send a comment.


Peridot Pepper--A Mild Pepper for Coastal Gardens

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This week's Chronicle column, the one that ran on February 6, 2016, introduced Peridot peppers, a different species of peppers than the common garden peppers. Most of our peppers are Capsicum annuum, but Peridot peppers are Capsicum baccatum. These are South American peppers, and some of them are from higher elevations, in the Andes. At these elevations, the day and night-time temperatures are lower, so the plants are better adapted to our region's cooler summer temperatures. Peppers in this species range from mild to very hot, and share a flavor that is called "fruity, almost citrusy."

A famous Capsicum baccatum variety is the Aji Amarillo. a very hot pepper that matures to an orange color. Annie's Annuals offers plants of this variety. It is traditionally used in ceviche, a raw fish salad.

Peridot is not so hot, in fact it is quite mild if you remove the seeds and internal white ribs. Though I use hot peppers, I was delighted to be able to grow a mild one in SF. I enjoyed the flavor they added to a mixed salad and also used them in a Southwestern corn salad.

The fruits of Peridot are of an interesting shape, oval, but with several wide wings that make the pepper wider than long. The plants reach four feet tall, are V-shaped, or flaring, with 30 to 50 peppers per plant. They set late and ripen into fall. Because the plant is so large, it would be stunted by all but a very large pot, say 18" deep. My plant has survived into February, but does not look as though it will be able to recover and bear fruit a second year. That is, unlike Rocata pepper, Capsicum pubescens, I don't think it will be perennial here.

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 Annie's Annuals should have plenty of Peridot pepper plants this spring (2016). They sell at their nursery as well as by mail order from anniesannuals.com.

I didn't locate any commercial seed source for Perido peppers. I found seed for two varieties that are C. baccatum, and have similar-looking fruit, but both are probably hotter and they seem to grow on plants with different habits than Peridot. The seed I found was for Christmas Bell Hot Pepper, from Reimer Seeds (they say the plants grow to 20 inches tall) and Brazilian Starfish, from Baker Creek Seeds (said to grow on a weeping, almost vine-like plant).