April in the Garden – What’s Up?

April in the Garden – What’s Up?

I haven’t been able to get out into the garden these last few weeks (my goodness, it’s been over a month since I spent any serious time there!). It’s due to a combination of factors including one that should be a warning to all gardeners and sun lovers. My dermatologist discovered a small carcinoma near the tip of my nose and I had surgery to remove it (successful), then plastic surgery to do some necessary reconstruction. My plastic surgeon cautioned me to avoid all heavy lifting and exercise for at least four weeks after the surgery. It seems that blood flow to my face could hinder healing of the incision sites.

All is well and my nose just looks like I forgot my sun screen on the ski slopes. So, wear your sunscreen and a big hat all of you gardeners. And, don’t do what I did as a young woman and use baby oil to get a sun tan. What we didn’t know in those days!

Amazingly, the garden proceeds to do its “thing” without me and chugs (mostly happily) along. Alas, not necessarily the veggie garden, where everything is bolting due to the warm weather. But much of the rest of my garden has self-sown itself from seeds planted years ago. Every year they come back in a place they like and I enjoy finding a poppy, or other flower, growing in an unexpected place. Sometimes they even skip a year, how does that happen? Spring is the most amazing time because plants are responding to winter rain and spring sunshine.

I am continually amazed by the resilience of nature and its beauty.





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Here’s a snapshot of the more ornamental part of the garden. The artichokes and cardoon tower in the back among the dahlias, butterfly bush, shrub roses, and Matilija poppies (also called fried egg flowers).

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I’m hopeful that I will have more time next month, the tomatoes and beans need to go in before it is too late and will likely come from seedlings purchased at the farmer’s market. With water restrictions, I need to develop a new strategy for water-loving plants in my raised beds. I’m considering removing some of the “used” soil and building a modified hugelkultur bed to conserve water and nutrients. Stay tuned for pictures.

The other reason for my neglected garden is a class I am taking at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, “Sustainable Vegetable Gardening”. We’ve been spending time at our cabin up on the North coast so I can attend the class. This is a three-month hands-on workshop program which takes place every other Saturday until the end of June. There is always more to learn and Jamie Jenson, who teaches the class, is a very talented gardener.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Last weekend we learned how to build a raised bed and the class actually built two. I had fun with the electric screw driver, my education with power tools has been sadly lacking. My Dad taught both my brothers wood working skills, and I learned to cook.

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If you ever get up to the North coast of California, make sure you make time to visit the gardens. It’s a fabulous place and well worth spending a day. Look for some pictures in future posts.

Thank you for visiting. What’s happening in your garden? Do you have any good strategies for cutting down on water use in the vegetable garden? I’d love to hear them.


October in the garden – cabbage family (broccoli and cauliflower)

October in the garden – cabbage family (broccoli and cauliflower)

On August 7th I planted seeds for several types of broccoli, cauliflower, beets, kale and chard. These are the staples (along with lettuce and onions) of my fall and winter garden. They were seeded in flats on my back deck so I could keep an eye on them. I covered them with a plastic lid to keep a constant moisture level. Once the first leaves emerged I removed the cover. You can see from the picture below that the seeding flats are recycled plastic containers from the grocery store. I punched holes in the bottom, then set them in a shallow pan with water or on part of a commercial seed starting system. I’ve used the APS system for seed starting from Gardener’s Supply. It includes a tray as a water reservoir, a rack, a heavy duty fabric capillary mat, planting cells, and a greenhouse cover. I’ve found the included planting cells are too shallow for most vegetables (ok for lettuce). However the other parts of the system are very helpful in maintaining the consistent moisture required for seed germination. They are especially valuable if you will be away for a few days or get busy and forget your seeds. Your baby seedlings are kept safe from pests and disease when they are the most vulnerable.


IMG_2016Once the young plants had a set of true leaves (the first leaves to emerge are called cotyledons and are not representative of the leaves you will see later), they were ready for the garden. I transplanted them into the garden at the end of September. They will do fine over the winter even with a light frost.

The broccoli and cauliflower went into one of my raised beds. Because there were previously tomatoes in that location, I added quite a bit of compost and organic fertilizer. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and deplete the soil of nutrients. Onions are good companion plants for the cabbage family. There are chives at one end of the bed and I planted some scallions between the young plants. Thyme and lemon verbena are at the other end of the bed, the aromatic herbs are reported to deter cabbage worms which have been a problem in the past. I tossed in a handful of yellow nasturtium seeds, they are a decoy for black aphids. I’ve noticed that black aphids like chives as well, maybe they will leave my broccoli and cauliflower alone this year!

Cole transplants

Broccoli and cauliflower transplants

You can see the last of my tomato plants in the raised bed behind, I can’t bear to pull them out yet as there are still some green ones on the vines. Their time is limited though as that bed is scheduled to be planted with peas.

I need to protect my plants from deer that love to lunch in my garden (not to mention the birds and squirrels and the monster cat), I covered the young plants with some wire screening left over from another project.


It’s not too late for you to plant cauliflower and broccoli (or chard and kale) in Northern California; but you will need to buy the small plants at your local nursery as 6-packs. Avoid the ones with roots coming out of the bottom. And don’t bother with Brussels sprouts, see my note below. There will be more on chard, kale and beets in my next post.

A note on Brussels sprouts: you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned them yet, although they are one of my favorites. Brussels sprouts need five months from the time they are seeded to the time they are ready to harvest around December 1st. That means seeding no later than May 15th and planting in the garden by July 1st. In May they are not anywhere on my radar. And in July, I am enjoying the glory of the first tomatoes. My first thoughts of Brussels sprouts occur in October with Thanksgiving on the horizon. What to do? I buy those beautiful stalks at the farmer’s market. They are almost as good as home grown.

10 Kitchen basics to grow in pots

10 Kitchen basics to grow in pots

If you have a deck or terrace with some sun, you can grow the following 10 herbs and vegetables. Having a pot of these herbs near your kitchen will encourage you to use them regularly. The fresh ones are infinitely better than the dried.

Many of them are actually easier to grow in containers. The first four are Mediterranean plants often found growing wild beside a road or path in the warmer parts of Europe. They will grow without any attention on your part other than a slug of water every now and then. In fact, withholding water concentrates the oils and makes them more flavorful.

The mint is best grown in a container; given a chance it will take over your garden.


  1. Thyme
  2. Rosemary
  3. Sage
  4. Oregano
  5. Mint
  6. Parsley – will need to be periodically replanted, not too often if you keep it sniped
Thyme and mint

Thyme and mint


  1. Arugula
  2. Salad greens
  3. Radishes
  4. Scallions or chives

Yes, you can grow arugula and other salad greens in pots. They will need regular water to taste their best. Without it they will wilt, become bitter and generally unappealing. If you have to be away for a period of time, I have some ideas that will help keep your garden healthy until you return. Look for another post coming soon.

Having lettuce near your kitchen will encourage you to snip the leaves for wonderful salads. You can either pinch off the outer leaves when they are of the size you want, or cut the entire plant back about an inch above the soil line. The plant will come back for a second or even third time, it’s called cut-and-come-again. The salads from these greens are infinitely better than those from even the finest grocery store. Plus, you can grow exactly the type of lettuce you want. Those commercial mesclun mixes always have too many spinach leaves for my taste. Seed catalogs are full of beautiful lettuces and lettuce mixes. Cooks Garden is famous for their mesclun; take a peak at the varieties available in their on-line catalog.

Radishes are easy to grow, too easy! I find that I forget about them unless they are front and center. My first gardening failure was in my grandparent’s garden when I was 9. I was excited when my grandfather gave me some radish seeds to plant. However, I immediately forgot about them until they were overgrown, woody, and way too hot to eat. Believe me I’ve had lots of failures since! So, put them in a container where you can watch them every time you pass by and pull them up when ready. In France radishes are a favorite starter with a crisp baguette, unsalted butter, and flaked sea salt on the side. I particularly like the French breakfast variety.

Scallions or chives will grow well in a pot. Having them close to the kitchen will encourage you to snip a bit to use with eggs, or salads, or as a fancy garnish. You can grow chives from a transplant, or from seeds. Your plant may die back in the winter but will come back in the spring. The flowers, pulled apart, are beautiful added to a salad. Scallions grow from seed, or even easier, a bunch from the grocery store. Put a bunch, with the rubber band still around them, into a glass with about an inch of water. Change the water every day or two. Once you see the roots growing and new greens on the top, you can plant them into soil. Simply snip off the green portion as needed or pull one up.

Parsley and basil

Parsley and basil

If you have herbs planted further away from the kitchen, cut a few sprigs while you are out in the garden.  Put them close by in a glass of water (change it every day). If you are sure you won’t forget them (I would), you can cover the glass or jar with a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. I like to see them and they add a really nice herby scent to the kitchen, much better than those fancy infusers. I often have glasses of parsley, basil (in season), oregano, and rosemary on my kitchen table; ready to use when I feel creative.

October gardening chores

Garden Journal – end of September and October 2014 

Fall is my favorite season. I love the shift to stronger flavored heartier foods, braises, and roasted vegetables. The bright colors of autumn, the crisp days, and colder nights that call for thick quilts and duvets make me happy. This year I will love the rain, every drop of it. In Northern California we have Indian summer and the first week of October often has the warmest weather of the year. This year was no exception with temperatures into the high 80’s. Nevertheless, I feel and smell fall in the air.

It is time to plant my fall garden, but some of my summer veggies are still hanging in there and taking up garden space.

This past week I pulled out the cucumbers, pole beans and half the tomato plants to make way for my cauliflower, broccoli, chard and beet transplants (seeded on August 7). The raised bed intended for peas is still producing tomatoes; they have been so delicious this year that I can’t bear to tear out the plants. I’ll need to figure out what to do with the remaining green ones but maybe some of the Sungold cherries will ripen in time. I think I can wait another week or two and besides, my green bins for the city street side composting are full. The cucumbers and summer squash had powdery mildew and couldn’t go into my own household compost bins. The tomatoes went into the green bin as well. Composting tomatoes is not recommended. Both the plants and fruit are prone to carry disease, which can get into your soil and infect next year’s plants. (This is also why it is not recommended to plant tomatoes in the same place consecutive years.) Lastly the seeds are quite resistant to even a hot compost bin and can remain viable for years. I’ve spent a lot of time picking tomato seedlings out of the garden.

General garden chores in October:

  • Pull out any diseased or finished plants and vegetables
  • Refresh garden beds with aged compost and manure
  • Mulch paths in the garden in preparation for winter wet weather and mud
  • Seed winter and spring vegetables:
    • Peas, all kinds including those intended for ornamental flowers
    • Carrots
    • Radishes
    • Lettuce
    • Arugula
    • Cilantro
  • Put out transplants of:
    • Cauliflower
    • Broccoli
    • Chard
    •  Kale
    •  Beets
    •  Parsley
Cucumbers continued, part 2

Cucumbers continued, part 2

Here is another recipe for using the cucumbers harvested from my Oakland garden.

Idea 2: Greek-ish salad with tomatoes, avocado, and red onions.

This salad is very popular with my family in the summer. I can often come up with most of the ingredients after a quick trip into the garden. The avocado is my own addition, not really necessary or classic. But my personal feeling is that almost everything is improved with the addition of avocado (or goat cheese). My introduction to this salad was in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where there is a large Greek fishing community. My family used to go to Paul’s for boiled peel-and-eat shrimp with Greek salad. They didn’t use avocado in their salad but did serve it with a wedge of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, black olives, feta, and a single pepperoncini. Their dressing was heavy on the wine vinegar and dried oregano. I always gave my mother the pepperoncini.

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

The ingredients can easily be adjusted to what you have on hand, don’t worry about being exact. I used 4 tomatoes, 2 cucumbers, half of a thinly sliced red onion, some pitted Kalamata olives, and one avocado. Finely chop some fresh oregano and add it to 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar with a teaspoon of salt, whisk in about ¼ cup of olive oil. This is quite a tart dressing but the avocado adds it’s own richness to offset the vinegar. Taste the dressing as vinegars vary a lot in their tartness. Toss the salad with the dressing a few minutes before serving to let flavors meld. Add some fresh feta or goat cheese, yum!

4 tomatoes, cut into pieces

2 peeled cucumbers, halved, seeds removed if large and sliced into ½ inch pieces

½ red onion, sliced

1 avocado, sliced 

small handful of Kalamata olives, pitted and halved (about ¼ cup)

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano

optional: cubed feta or goat cheese

Variation…if you have some stale bread on hand you could tear it into bite sized pieces and toss with the other ingredients. If so you will need more dressing since the bread will absorb a lot, and maybe more salt. Taste as you go. You would end up with a panzanella, or bread salad, which could be an entire meal with some cheese on the side.

Variation 2…in the mood for gazpacho? Leave out the olives and avocado, add 1/2 cubed red pepper and 1/2 jalapeño (seeded and chopped). Pulse everything in your food processor till soupy. The tomatoes and cucumber should add enough juice but you could add a bit of water if needed. Check for salt and pepper. Serve with a few slices of avocado on top of each bowl.