Monday, April 18, 2022

Clarence and Easter Morn

My bearded iris began blooming yesterday, Easter Sunday. 

Their bloom date reminded me of another iris that belonged to another woman in another part of the state. I knew this woman in the early 2000s. and she was in her 80s, quick with a smile and to share an opinion. She was mad about iris. Beds and beds of bearded iris filled her front yard. While she had so many iris of so many colors, she had a favorite: Easter Morn. It's a simple iris, mostly white with a little gold veining near the gold beards. Its fragrance is spicy and sweet. I looked it up and discovered that Edward Essig patented it in 1931. Even though it's considered a historic iris, it was younger than my elderly friend. She claimed that no matter how early or late Easter fell in the spring, Easter Morn would always bloom on Easter Sunday. 

My iris is not Easter Morn. I'm pretty sure the variety I have here in San Francisco is the tall bearded "Clarence," patented in 1990. There's no storied history I know of attached to this particular variety. However, to me, it has a sweet provenance. I received the rhizomes as a passalong plant a few years ago from another elderly friend whose garden is full of color. She's in love with flowers, and each spring starts loads of blooming annuals from seed to go along with her flowery perennials. When I met this friend a few years ago, she had red colored hair, but she stopped dying her hair during the pandemic and it is now the shiniest, most incredible silver. Most of the time when I see her, she's wearing a pink jacket, red lipstick and her silver hair glows. She's beautiful.

I planted the rhizomes she gave me a few years ago in the late summer, and they promptly bloomed that fall. The standards are silvery almost white gradually darkening to a pale lavender. The white falls darken to a watery blue-lavender towards the edges. While the beards are white, the tiniest hint of yellow emerges from the center of the blossom. The individual cell walls are translucent enough to catch the light and each cell sparkles, as if the blossom is crusted with tiny gems. Amazingly, though the heaviest bloom is in the spring, it reliably reblooms in the autumn. In a previous garden, I've grown more unique and more colorful bearded iris, but I've never grown an iris as floriferous as this variety.

Last year, I divided the part of the patch that had grown dense and started a new stand. This morning, I counted 16 spikes in the original stand and 6 in the new clump. Clarence is indefatigable. I'll need to divide part of the origianl clump again this summer, and I hope to share rhizomes with my friends and neighbors.

Somewhere, in another garden sometime in the future, Clarence will bloom wildly for its new host, and that person will smile over the unstoppable nature of hope.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022


I stuck my hand in my pocket and found a loose piece of purple sprouting broccoli that I had harvested earlier, but that didn't make it to our dinner. I popped it in my mouth.

"Did you just pull a vegetable out of your pocket and eat it?" Scott raised his eyebrows at me.

Yes. This isn't an unusual experience. I live and eat and create in this space because of what grows in the back yard.

My garden drives my kitchen and much of my free time and it informs what I build at the pottery studio. What I build at the studio pottery shapes what I cook. It's all a tangle. I can't think of living in a home without also thinking about feeding the home and creating tools for the home. Because I once had an overabundant lemon tree, I began making preserved lemons, and now that funky salty flavor is often central to my greeen vegetable dishes. And since that flavor is central to my cooking, a lemon tree was one of the first fruit trees I planted here in San Francisco. Because Scott and I drink pourover coffee, I made us a pourover set that makes us the perfect amount for what we need each day: two cups for me and three for him. 

In no previous garden has sage grown as abundantly as it does here in San Francisco. I grow the Berggarten selection of culinary sage, which has broad silvery leaves and stays relatively low and dense. The gophers leave it alone. Light brown apple moths have annoyed it in the past, but it recovers quickly and seems to grow even better after an attack. I planted two plants that over the years have spread into dense 2'x2' patches of fragrant foliage. And, sometimes, the plants even bloom for me.

Because I have riches of sage, I have shared handfuls of it at each Seedheads meetup. I've also learned a few really good things to do with it:

1) Sage salsa verde: In a food processor, dump a handful of sage leaves, enough parsley leaves to equal triple the amount of sage leaves, grated lemon peel from at least one lemon, a garlic clove or two, a couple tablespoons of capers, a couple anchovies, salt, and pepper. Add a little red pepper if you feel like it. Start blitzing the mixture then drizzle in olive oil until it is the consistency you hope for. Sample it to see if it needs more salt or a squirt of lemon. It should be salty, sharp, and deeply umami-ish. Serve it with lamb or pork or even chicken. The next day, spread it on bread to make sandwiches with the leftover meat. You can also replace the sage with mint for a different flavor profile.

2) Sage bread crumbs: Grate frozen stale bread to make at least a third of a cup of bread crumbs. Grate the rind off half a lemon into the same bowl, and grate a garlic clove into it too. Finely mince 10-12 sage leaves and toss them in the bowl. In a frying pan over medium heat, add a glug of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the bread crumb mixture and begin frying the crumbs, stirring frequently. As they cook, sprinkle the pan generously with salt and pepper. Cook until the breadcrumbs are evenly brown and crunchy. Taste for salt and season as necessary. Use them instead of parmesan over simple spaghetti dishes or over vegetables or fish. They add not only flavor but also texture.

3) Brown butter fried sage leaves and walnuts: Each autumn, I make as many winter squash tortellini as I can manage in one day. The filling is simple: mashed roasted winter squash, parmesan, ricotta, egg, salt and pepper. I freeze it on trays, then bag it to keeep in the freezer for Scott and I to eat during the winter. When I cook a batch for the two of us, I get the pasta water going. When it is boiling, in a different pan—a frying pan, I begin melting a big knob butter. As it just starts to brown, I add sage leaves and chopped walnuts to sizzle in the butter and flavor it as it browns. This is about the perfect time to add the pasta to the boiling water; it doesn't take but a few mintues to cook. The browning butter infuses the sage leaves, which become crunchy and savory and release their oils into the butter. The same happens to the walnuts. I scoop the just-cooked tortellini from the boiling water into the frying pan, tossing everything around, and the tortellini fry together with the flavorful brown butter, some even gaining a browned, delicious crusty side. Just before serving, I taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. The brown butter fried sage and walnuts are also good with other pastas and over cauliflower.

The three recipes above are staples in my cooking now that I have befriended sage. But, I have so much that I want more ideas. Anyone have a good sage cocktail idea? What about using it with vinegar? I think there is an idea to suss out there that I haven't yet explored. Any preserving ideas beyond drying? Ideas to use sage with fruit? Bread? What about how it might appear in pottery? 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Garden Report: January of 2022

The oxalis comes in fast and green in January, especially when we've had rain like we had this autumn. I pull it out of the gravel paved stairs, from behind the compost bins, through winter-sad lavender branches. If I don't catch it in time, it starts to bloom, and even though Oxalis pes-caprae doesn't set seed, it sets corms along the root as the plant reaches bloom size. The more corms it sets, the more of it I'll have to pull out next year. 

On the other side of the oxalis spectrum, sweet candy-cane blossoms of Oxalis versicolor are blooming in the alpine tub right now. Also in the alpine tub, Iris reticulata spreads its blue carpet. First, a single spectacular blossom, as January progresses, the blue gets bigger.

Oxalis versicolor.
Iris reticulata blooming in the alpine tub.

Also blooming are narcissus, a single-out of season Anastasia passion flower, and a surprise Cyclamen coum. I have several patches of Cyclamen hederifolium that bloom in the fall and put up their tapestry of intracately patterned leaves in the winter to stand through the spring and early summer. Since they had grown well for me, I wanted to try another species cyclamen, so three years ago, I planted Cyclamen coum corms—fifteen of them, if I remember correctly. No leaves ever sprouted. Nothing happened until this week, when a single leaf and flower appeared where I had planted them so long ago.

Passiflora "Anastasia."
Cyclamen coum.

A few early honeywort have just started to curl upwards with their purple bells against glacous foliage.

Blue honeywort.

This January, like the last few Januaries, we have leafy greens, luxurious as green velvet. Miners lettuce is everywhere, so much so that if it isn't pretty enough to eat, I drop it in one of our composters rather than sifting through it. The bitter greens—escarole, frisée, sugarloaf chicory—that I planted in the fall are still coming in, the kale is sweet, chard at its best, and purple collards at their sweetest. It is a good time to be a salad eater. In this month, I try to clear out a lot of the greens before they bolt with spring weather, and I start prepping the veg beds for spring and summer vegetables. Where there was a line of frisee, I planted parsley and cilantro seeds mid-month. I also started my year's peppers.

Diva escarole.

Dazzling blue kale.

At the beginning of this month, I pruned my fruit trees. Mid-month, I sprayed them with horticultural oil and the tiniest bit of copper to gird them against pests and disease. It's the only spray they will get other than a little bit of soap for critters or diatomaceous earth for pear slugs later in the season.

For the first time in this San Francisco garden, I'm trying to grow bulb onions. Over the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday weekend, I planted the seedlings, Candy and Red Candy Apple, that I purchased from Dixondale. Though I've never grown bulb onions in San Francisco, I've had a lot of luck with green onions, and the best bulb onions I have ever grown were for a client in San Carlos, not too far away. In her garden, I planted a ton of Red Candy Apple onions from Dixondale, and they grew fat, sweet, and succulent. We grew so many onions, her husband asked what to do with them all. Make magic, I thought to myself. Magic is what happens when onions join heat and fat in a pan.

The largest bed of onions. The twigs are there to keep the cats and other critters from digging in the bed as the seedlings are getting established. Purple sprouting broccoli in the background.

At the very end of January, I planted a ring of Oregon Giant snow peas, using the circumference of a cylindrical trellis as a guide. I watered them in, sprinkled diatomaceous earth generously over the surface to provide a little protection against slugs and sowbugs, and wrapped the whole trellis with a layer of ag fabric to keep the birds from pulling up the seedlings as they sprout. I also threw some annual flower seed around in flower beds to see what takes.

First pea planting of the year.
Sweet Tsuki guards against rodents. Here, she sits on a composter. 

Working in January means harvesting in June.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

On Pruning

I love pruning. Scott asked me why I love it so much. I told him that it is very satisfying to cut out branches that weaken the tree. When I prune, I think about how each branch produced and where I saw signs of illness the previous season, and I cut according to the plant's history. I tried to explain that when I prune, I have the past picture of the tree, the current picture of the tree, and a beautiful, healthy, and fruitful picture of the tree that I want it to be in my head. And that future picture isn't just for the year, it is for years and years to come. I get to imagine the tree that will be for a lifetime. The cuts I make literally shape its future. This is even more fun with the apples and pears that I am growing as espaliers against our north fence. Those trees take strategy. 

The first tree I remember pruning was a young olive tree my parents asked me to prune in the front yard of our house in the central valley. I couldn't tell you how old I was, other than somewhere between ten and fifteen. Olive trees in all stages are beautiful. When they are young, their branches are smooth and pale gray, echoing the silver backs of their gray-green leaves. The young tips of branches are almost white. As they age, they bulk up and become wise in their dark bumps and burls. But I didn't understand the future tree when I pruned that tree. I could only see the tree of now, and I didn't do a good job. I just kept cutting. I kept looking at the pale gray branches and delighted in their lovely shape at that moment. I focused on the branches, not the tree. When I was done, the tree was naked and sad, and though my parents didn't complain, I could tell that they didn't love the job I did.

Pruning olive trees (pruning any trees, really) is so important that Italy holds olive tree pruning contests. Looking at this article about the winners of the 2016 contest makes me marvel at how young some of them were. How could they hold all those ages of the tree in their head as they pruned? A few years ago, I read an article about a man who prunes ancient olive trees on Lake Garda, and I've been thinking about it ever since. The article profiles Sergio Cozzaglio, an olive pruner and esteemed olive oil maker. In his work on the trees of Lake Garda among the 2000-year-old ruins of a Roman estate, he's discovered several scraggly plants that weren't originally identifiable. The article's author asked him if one of those trees could be as old as the ruins: 

“Not this exact tree,” he said. “There was a great frost here in the early 18th century. Even the lake froze. Everything died.” But the roots of olive trees, Cozzaglio pointed out, are extremely resistant to cold, which means they can send up new shoots even after the wood has died. It was well-known that the Romans kept olive trees on their rural estates, using the oil to fill lamps, soften their skin, and feed the household. The Villa Romana variety’s genetic profile suggested we were looking at a descendant of trees that stood here in the first century. [...]

Cozzaglio had turned his back to me, and was dreamily caressing the branch of a small tree with some tiny olives on its lower branches. “I don’t know what variety this is,” he said. “Six years ago, when I discovered it, it was a bush, it was nothing.” After several seasons of careful tending, it had started to flower and bear fruit. “Now it’s grown into a tree. This is the part of my work I love. To help give birth to a plant.” 

Cozzaglio is ensuring the past makes it to the future. 

I wonder who will someday place a hand on a sturdy horizontal branch of one of my pear trees. Will that person wonder about the gardener who chose to set that branch at that angle? Will that person wonder about the gardener who anticipated each blossom and hoped for each fruit? With that person prune for the future?

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Peppers in the City

People don't really think of San Francisco as a pepper growing paradise. Even in the sunny districts, it's not very hot for many days of the year. There are, however, some peppers that have grown really well for me and that prove the naysayers wrong. I love proving naysayers wrong.

Capsicum annuum: Chances are, when you think of a pepper, hot or sweet, you are thinking of a C. annuum. This is the species that contains red bell peppers and Aleppo peppers and jalapeños, serranos and New Mexico and pimentos. 

From this species, last year, I planted out four Liebesapfel plants. This year, I'll plant even more. Though the fruit was slow to ripen, the first coming in early October, it consistently produced all fall into December. Scott felt the fruit was a little too crisp, but I loved the scalloped red peppers, and they made it into my daily lunch salads at work. 

Liebesapfel in hand.

Liebesapfel in the garden.

I ordered my seed through Adaptive Seeds, but I saved a lot of seed last fall and am listing them currently through Seedsavers Exchange.

This year, I'm adding Gernika, a basque pepper, to my C. annum lineup.

Capsicum pubescens: C. pubescens live up to their name. They're hairy plants. They also have black seeds that are almost shocking if you aren't expecting them. While they're very hot, they also have thick flesh like a bell pepper, but the flesh isn't sweet, even when ripe. Instead, they have a rich, very spicy, very paprika-y flavor. In San Francisco, the plants are perennial bushes that I have written about before. I have a large fruited, deep red manzano and a smaller fruited, bright red rocoto. Both are plants that I purchased and are now well-established as bushes in my yard, and from which I've started seeds and shared the seedlings with others. In my yard, the fruit of this species begins ripening in the fall and continues through the winter. 

This year, for the first time, I'm trying my hand at using some of the fruit in a fermented hot sauce. The fruit mash is fermenting right now, with garlic and salt, in a pickling crock. Will it be a wash, or will it mean our days of buying hot sauce are over? 

A pile of rocotos.

An experiment: fermenting rocoto and manzano mash.

Capsicum baccatum: For flavor, this is my favorite species. They're the delicious, fruity and hot-sweet peppers that often have funny shapes like bishops' hats and starfish. When you hear a pepper referred to as an aji, it is usually referring to this species of pepper. In my current garden, a few of these have grown well for me, especially those with smaller fruit. Sometimes, they overwinter. I have a two-year-old Criolla Sella plant that produces spicy-citrusy yellow pinky fingers and another couple Aji Ecuador Orange plants that produce crisp, delicious top-shaped fruit that are very flavorful but not very hot. I hope to offer seed for both varieties in next year's Seedsavers Exchange listings.

Criolla Sella plus dog nose. 

Aji Ecuador Orange.

Getting my peppers growing: I used to start my peppers on a heat mat under lights, but I've found a mini-greenhouse method works best for the cool-weather adapted peppers I grow here. I use old milk and juice containers, punch some holes in the bottom with my trusty old awl, and cut them open along three sides to make fliptop greenhouses. I fill them with soil, place seeds on the soil surface, gently add another loose, very shallow layer of soil, water it all in with a gentle spray, then duct tape it shut and label it. I keep the lids on until the days start warming up, at which time I remove them to prevent overheating the seedlings. I keep peering in through the lid until I see true leaves; when I see those true leaves, I open up the cartons and pot up the seedlings. After putting them up, I use a very large tupperware placed upside down as a cold frame to help them along for a couple weeks until they're big enough and the weather is warm enough for them to harden off and go into the ground. I like this system better than grow lights, a heat lamp, and a fan: I end up with healthier plants and I don't have to use energy other than the sun.

Holes punched, three walls cut.

A sunny spot for my peppers to get started.

Today, I started Liebesapfel, Gernicka, and Criolla Sella. That means, this autumn, I'll be bringing in the red and gold.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

20,000 miracles a day

In the past two years, I haven't known what to write because it feels like there is only one conversation: the virus. 

The conversation hasn't felt like a virus. It has felt like a fungus, releasing its spores, infecting us all with fear or anger or too much caution or too little caution. It's trapped us in corners with webs of its social media filaments, along with other people with the same fears and angers, netted together. 

In the past, I've had little phrases that niggle at my brain that I can't get out until I write them down. I would awake in the early parts of the morning and the phrase or idea would be there, waiting for me. But, that hasn't happened for a couple years. I still wake in the early parts of the morning, but there's nothing there. My brain isn't capturing words and ideas.

Recently, though, finally, a thought keeps coming back to me. I keep thinking about breathing.

I was on a plane not too long ago, and though wearing a very good mask, I thought about everyone else wearing masks, and our breaths, filtered through those masks, gathering together in the cabin and mingling. And then we would breathe again. Our masks may do the job; they may not. A few days later, I was at a retreat, and several times through the course of the retreat, our leader would guide us in our breathing to help us quiet our minds. Breathe in, wait. Breathe out, wait. We were all breathing together. My body would quiet, but my mind wouldn't.

This makes it sound like I'm frightened and anxious. That's not the right way to explain my feeling. I'm not frightened of breathing. This act that keeps me alive might make me sick; however, I know that I will recover. I'm healthy, I'm boostered, I have a safe and comfortable place to wait out my sickness. I will breathe my way through it. 

We do the best we can to keep the world moving. I go to work and wear my mask and my students wear theirs and we breathe and learn together. Some of them have lost family members. Some of my colleagues have, too. We test after notification of exposure. I go to the farmers' market and smile with my eyes over my mask at the farmers who bring us their best goods, and breathe with them. I take Indy for walks on the hills and breathe hard, unmasked, and chat outdoors with my neighbors when we run into each other. We laugh. At home, I watch the steam my breath moves over my coffee cup. I kiss my husband when we say goodbye in the morning and when we greet each other after work, and our breaths mingle as we embrace.

So, I'm going to keep breathing, and I'm going to start writing again, but may the breath from my lips reach God's ears: let this be the only post about the virus.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

San Francisco Cloud Forest

One day in our neighborhood in early January, we hit 66F right around 3pm. Yesterday, June 7th, we hit the same temperature around the same time. In January and now in June, the sky greys out in the west, and from the top of my yard, I can watch the fog erase the lower elevations of the city until a few hills and the SalesForce building are all that poke above it. This is my neighborhood weather: warm sunshine followed frequently by cold and grey, and lots of wind. Most evenings, the fog doesn't make it all the way up our hill, but it sometimes does, and then the house and garden feel like they are floating somewhere outside of space. Sometimes, in the winter, we get a little frost, but it's rarely much. Sometimes in the late summer and early fall, we get extreme heat, but we know it won't last long. The air is temperate and moist, but it doesn't rain a lot except in the winter. Foggy days feel rainy under a tree, though, when the condensation forms huge drops that always seem to target the very center of the top of your head. A cold, wet explosion of surprise.

With weather like this, it's no wonder that food plants that hail from cloud forests perform very well in our San Francisco gardens.

Here are a few cloud forest transplants in my garden:

Ugni molinae: Ugni berries taste like zingy strawberry candy, the flowers are fragrant pale porcelain bells, and the whole plant smells kind of like wintergreen. It's a pretty, tough in our climate bush, with small shiny leaves and a slow but nicely shaped growth habit. The only problem I've had with it in my garden is spider mite attacks when I let the whole plants get a little too dried out. I have two plants along my back fence under the edge of the old apple canopy, and they have given me a few flowers and fruit each year. This spring, however, they're loaded with flowers. I've never seen Ugni berries sold in any produce market, so to sample fruit and decide whether this is a plant you want in your own yard, you'll have to do a little exploring. If you go at just the right time in the fall to the cloud forest in SFBG, you can find the bush that is loaded with fruit each year and sample them yourself. There is also a huge bush on the north side of the house at Filoli, near the gate that usually has a pretty good crop in the fall, too. Don't tell anyone I told you.

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus): I've written about runner beans before. I grow them for their beauty and for the food they produce. So much goodness in a plant.

Pepino dulce (Solanum muricatum): If you have a pepino dulce plant, your neighbors can, too. These plants grow so easily from cuttings. Despite their name, they are not cucumbers, and their round purple flowers place them firmly in the Solanaceae camp. The fruits are zeppelin-shaped, creamy yellow striped with purple, and thin-skinned. The fruit inside tastes like a cross between a cantaloupe, a cucumber, and a banana. So far, my favorite application for them is fresh salsa. I peel and dice them with red onion, garlic, chiles, cilantro, a little mint, salt, and lots of lime juice. 

Rocoto and Manzano chiles and other Capsicum pubescens: I have one three-year-old red Rocoto and one two-year-old red Manzano in my garden, and they are both healthy plants. The Rocoto is unstoppably productive, producing hot chiles all year except spring, but the Manzano is more elegant with larger, prettier fruit. The thick-walled fruits are like miniature bell peppers, but very hot when raw. When cooked, however, I find the heat tempers quickly. The plants are productive, but I find the older branches get ugly and sad, so regular pruning out of old branches keeps the plants happier and much prettier.

Tamarillo: I grew out several plants from seed last year, kept one and gave the rest away. I planted mine in a pot, where it languished. On the other hand, a friend put the seedling I gave to her in the ground, where it has grown mightily and is threatening to overshadow her semidwarf orange tree. Inspired by her success, I recently moved my tamarillo from a pot to the ground, where it has taken off. There is a beautiful specimen I pass on one of my walking routes through Vistacion Valley, and another very healthy one I've seen in a front yard of an Outer Sunset home. Both have a healthy crop of fruit each year. We'll see how long it takes for mine to reach fruiting size. I haven't had much experience eating tamarillos, so I'm not even sure I will enjoy the fruit mine provides. If I don't, I'll pull it out. In the meantime, it is a fun experiment.

I'm finishing my morning coffee right now, sitting in my east facing room where the morning sun streams in. Looking west through my kitchen, I see the sun hitting my sloping garden. Farther to the west, the sky is leaden. The fog that will haunt the ocean-side of the city today will likely sneak up on us tonight. If it does, my cloud forest plants will welcome the cool blanket of damp.