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.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Ruby Buckwheat

Last summer, I grew a cover crop in what was my garlic bed. After the garlic harvest, I planted Takane Ruby Buckwheat and California Blackeyed Peas to enrich the soil. I chose the colorful buckwheat because I thought it would be a pretty step up from the standard white buckwheat cover crop.

We just don't get enough hot days for the blackeyed peas to thrive, so though they germinated and grew a bit, they never made much of a dent against the buckwheat. The buckwheat, on the other hand, grew into a huge crimson-stemmed cloud covered with dark pink flowers. When backlit, the whole bed glowed like stained glass, the light warming up the semi-translucent red stems and lime green leaves. My neighbors asked me what the flowers were because they were so pretty. Buckwheat, really?

I saved seeds last year to plant again this year, this time around a row of black felt grow-bags. I hoped that the plants would grow and hide the ugliness of the bags, and perhaps shade the bags' surfaces later in the season, when it really warms up and plants' roots may suffer. They seem to be doing that job.

Buckwheat around black felt grow-bags.

This summer, I've had a bit of time to really sit in my garden. Right now, my favorite spot to sit is in a little corner of mulch, a giant catnip plant in bloom to my left, the cloud of buckwheat straight ahead, and just to my right, scenting the whole garden, a clump of naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna). There's a whole lot of pink in this spot, but more interesting than that, this corner of the garden is abuzz. Bees, wasps, hoverflies, moths, butterflies, bumblebees: it's a pollinator frenzy. If I sit still and just wait, I lose track of how many different insect species I observe. 

Hoverfly on ruby buckwheat flower.

Honeybee on ruby buckwheat flower.

I've also learned this year that the buckwheat makes a superb cut flower, lasting a long time in a vase and providing lots of visual interest with its contrasting stems, leaves, and flowers.

Could I harvest seeds (groats), grind them and use the flour? Maybe. I've read about it. That would take quite a bit of seed though, and I'm not sure I would ever have a large enough quantity to make anything. No matter. Without providing food for our kitchen, this plant still has plenty of purpose.

Young groats are just forming on these flowers.

Maturing groats.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Runner Beans

Three towers of runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) stand as showy exclamation points against the northern edge of my garden. The oldest tower is on its third year, because, in our climate, runner beans are perennial. The plants form underground tubers from which new vines spring each year. So far, the older the plants are, the more vigorous they’ve been in my garden.

The three-year-old tower is a mix of various dark-colored beans, mostly solid black. Most of the original beans were from a bag of Rancho Gordo Ayocote Negro, a couple from a bag of Ayocote Amarillo, and some purple-splotched beans were brought to me from Greece by a friend. All the vines on this tower have lipstick red flowers and the hummingbirds claim the tower as territory, zipping over the space in aerial combat. Last year, this tower alone gave us almost five pounds of beans, beans which were soups and stews through our winter.

The dark-seeded tower blooming right now.
The dark-seeded tower in October or so of last year.

The second tower in my garden is planted with white runner beans that my same friend brought me from Greece. The beans this tower produces are huge and creamy, delightful in soups, purees, or marinated. The large white flowers are lovely and elegant. The plants are less exuberant growers than the dark seeded varieties and stay mostly politely on their trellis, loaded with pods. Last year, this tower gave me three pounds of huge, dove-like white beans.

Early bean set on the white seeded tower.

I harvest the beans of both towers as the pods dry up. I shuck the beans and let them dry further on plates or trays. However, in the moist air of our city, it is hard for me to get the large beans completely dried out, so last season, I stopped trying. Instead, after letting them dry for a couple weeks on plates, though they weren't completely shatter-dry, I bagged them in freezer ziplocks, one pound per bag, and put them in the chest freezer. This winter, the beans I stored this way cooked so quickly, much quicker and more evenly than completely dried beans, and were stunningly delicious.

The third tower of runner beans used to be planted with the same mix of seeds as the first tower. However, after munching on young runners to eat as green beans in the last couple years and enjoying them as much or more than common green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), I decided to grow a variety specifically focused on pod rather than seed production. I chose British Pop, a genetic mix from Adaptive Seeds, because I liked that it would provide a nice mix of colored flowers and the pods looked promising. This tower has been incredible productive of long, tender bods that have been in piles of dishes so far this summer: blistered with soy and chile, slivered and sautéed with corn, steamed with garlic butter, blanched in salade nicoise, and so on.

Perfect eating size of British Pop—this is when they are juiciest, most flavorful, and still very tender but crunchy.

This British Pop is too mature to eat as a pod bean unless it is stewed slowly. It will be tough and the beans will be starchy. At this stage, save them for dried beans or harvest just before dried stage for shelly beans.

In my previous southern Californian garden, I stuck mostly to common beans, P. vulgaris. The green beans and dried beans of vulgaris varieties were very productive and liked the heat and could tolerate some drought. There, runner beans, P. coccineus, always struggled to get going for me, and when they did grow, it was usually too hot for them to set many pods. But here in San Francisco, the vulgaris varieties grow okay but not great. There’s less heat, less searing sun, and the cloud forest loving P. coccineus do much better. Plus, they’re loads prettier and bring the hummingbirds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Short in the Tooth

Head thrown back in deep laughter, I careened through the playground. A fireman's pole stopped me and knocked me on my butt. "Your tooth!" my friend gasped. When she looked at me in horror, I stopped laughing. My right front tooth had broken in half. I was ten.

My childhood dentist attached a wonky bottom half that lasted for years and years, but the tooth eventually died, and after college, I had to have a root canal and a crown. My young adulthood dentist was a few months from retiring and felt his experience qualified him to perform the surgery himself. He was wrong. About six months after the root canal, the front of my mouth ached, and pain crackeled up my face each time I bit down. The root canal had abcessed and I needed another one.

This time in an oral surgeon's chair, my head thrown back in discomfort, I sat through his exclamations. "Oh my god, there's so much drainage. That's a horrible infection." He brought in other staff members to raise their eyebrows over the puss that dripped from my tunneled tooth while I watched their faces react to my own pain. After the show, he packed up the canal and stuck on a crown. I lived with that crown for almost twenty years.

By 2017, age had lengthened my teeth or shortened my gums, whichever way you want to look at it, and the blackened stump of my root canaled tooth began to be visible, so it was time for a new crown. My current dentist sent me to a lab downtown behind a dingy door that opened to Italian marble and wide skylights. The lab technicians had already made a model of my tooth, and they fitted it in my mouth to double check the shade; when they weren't satisfied, they murmered to each other and painted on glaze, firing and fitting it several times, until I ended up with a lovely crown, as pearly and fitted physically and aesthetically to my mouth as one born to me. Finally, my front teeth gave me the smile I had missed for decades.

On Monday, February 24th, I treated myself to a dried peach for dessert. I bit down. I bit neither pit nor a particularly tough piece of dried peach. No matter, my tooth broke completely off anyway. I howled. Scott turned to check on me and visibly recoiled at my short black stump. That beautiful crown had snapped off, taking most of what was left of my root canaled tooth with it.

The next day, I met with my dentist. She told me the original tooth wasn't salvageable, and I needed a dental implant. She connected me with an oral surgeon specializing in dental implants, and we set a date for the surgery. In the meantime, she put together a makeshift stump on which to attach the old crown, warning me that I couldn't bite down on anything with the front of my mouth, but instead, I could only chew with the sides of my mouth. She told me I would be lucky if it held together until my surgery date, March 17th.

On March 16th, Mayor London Breed declared a Shelter-in-Place order for San Francisco. The dental surgeon called that afternoon and canceled the appointment until the order was lifted.

So far, the crown has held on. I eat everything with a knife and fork. PB&Js? Knife and fork. Celery? Knife and fork. Gorgeous homemade chewy-centered, crunchy-crusted bagels? Forget about 'em—too hard on my tooth even with a knife and fork. Pizza is less pleasant, salads make me nervous, and I don't even bother with chips.

My 12th grade students have watched their longed-for spring semester evaporate: no prom, spring break travel, last minute bonding, graduation trips. My neighborhood restaurants, bars, and shops may lose this battle against the virus and time. My husband sets his jaw each time he drives to work at the psych hospital; each day, more hospital staff tests positive. Members of my friend and family circle have filed for unemployment for the first time in their lives. Students and colleagues have lost family members to the disease. And in the larger community of those unknown to me, thousands of people are losing their closest family members without holding their hands through last breaths, unable to provide the comfort of love. The virus has snatched away what solace the communal grief of a funeral can provide. The economy no longer knows its ass from its pinky.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a blue adirondack chair in sunshine and birdsong, writing away part of my day, fretting about whether or not I will still have a front tooth by the time this is all over. Pretty small for a pandemic.

The impossibility to forget the minute concerns of one's life while being swallowed by a worldwide event, the psychological seesaw of petty and profound, that's the Poloroid of this moment that will end up in my album of memory.

What may also end up in a memory album but never an actual one: a picture of my mouth short a front tooth.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Alpine Tub

Nancy had held onto the cast iron tub for years, but she didn't know what to do with it. She considered refinishing it and using it in an eventual bathroom remodel. She thought about using it outside, maybe for a fountain. But her garden and house projects kept growing and changing, and the tub just sat in the back corner of her yard.

So she gave it to me.

About ten years ago, that old beat up three-footed tub came to live with me. In my former garden, it sat in the middle of the backyard and my ex-husband would bathe Indiana-the-dog in it. I always wanted to do something more with it, but hadn't figured out what it would be yet when we decided to move. I insisted we lug it north with us a for a future garden project. It sat upside down next to the rental house, waiting for that future garden. After my ex and I split up and I bought the house in San Francisco, it moved with me up here. I had the movers set it along the edge of the property while I wondered what to do with it.

For a long time, I thought it was going to be a pond, and I spent a lot of time researching how to make an old bathtub into a pond. The longer I thought about it though, the less right that seemed for this tub in this yard. After Scott and I met, fell in love, and he moved in, we dragged it together to different parts of the property. It eventually ended up at the top, next to our upper patio. It was the right place for it, but my nextdoor neighbor teased me: "I don't want you taking a bath out there! I can see the tub now from my room!" I assured her there would be no bathing.

Last May, Scott, the kids and I went to the San Francisco Botanical Garden big spring plant sale. My stepson fell in love with the strange, matted plants in the alpine section, and I'm a sucker for all kinds of dianthus and the tight low growing ones made me grin. The kids and I oohed and aaahed over the hypertufa troughs in which the low growing plants embroidered together to make tapestries of green and silver. I was hooked. And, I figured out what I would do with the tub.

I bought bags of cactus soil and gravel, and collected a small pile of flagstone from other garden projects and pretty rocks that the kids and I had collected on camping trips. I also ordered plants through several sources, and picked up a few at a local nursery. I tried to focus on matting plants and bulbs, with the hope that eventually the surface of the tub would become blanketed with strange alpine foliage, some of which would bloom extravagently in the spring, and bulbs would poke through the thick blanket. I even chose some California native plants that seemed to fit the alpine garden requirements: low fertility, gritty soil with little summer water.

To keep the soil from spilling out of the drain and plumbing holes, I wadded them with balls of scrunched up chicken wire, then filled the tub. In the deeper end of the tub, I positioned the flagstones vertically, to make tight crevices, similar to what you might find in high places, where the earth has twisted what was once flat into mountains. I positioned the plants and bulbs where I wanted them, placed soil around them, then covered the surface with gravel and stones.

This is what the tub looks like this morning:



Here is more information of what's planted in there (with links to sources):

Campanula betulifolia This should form a bright green matt with white flowers. It is healthy, but very tiny right now.

Calochortus uniflorus "Cupido" Calochortus is a native California lily. There are many species, all of them beautiful. This selection supposedly tolerates garden conditions a little more easily than other varieties. We'll see how it does hanging out with its crew in the tub. Right now, it is hitting peak bloom, and the flowers are lovely, silky-lavender with blue stamens.


Dianthus "Tight Blue" I bought this last year at the SFBG plant sale and I don't know another source, nor do I know what the flowers will look like, though one of the two small matts looks like it will begin blooming soon. It has pleasing, very low growing blue foliage. I hope it spreads and mounds over stones.


Dichelostemma ida-maia This is another California native bulb. It is just beginning to send up flower stalks now. I may feel that it's too tall for the tub once it's up and blooming, but I couldn't resist the unusual, beautiful flowers. We'll see.

Iris reticulata "Pixie" These bloomed in February. They're quite pretty little flowers, and I had planted many of the same in other parts of the garden, too. However, they really shine in a tub like this because you can focus on them. In the rest of the garden, they're so low and small, it's hard to notice them. The flowers are only 4" above the soil line. This photo is from February 1st.


Helianthemum "St. Mary's White" I put two of these in along the edge of the tub farthest from the patio. Two will probably be too much, and I'll need to edit. If so, no worries. This is a beautiful, drought tolerant plant I wouldn't mind growing in other non-irrigated parts of the garden.

Monardella macrantha "Marian Sampson" This grows in rocky screes in California and seemed suited for an alpine tub. I hope it eventually spreads and tumbles its scarlet flowers over the edge.

Narcissus "Oxford Gold" A short, hoop-skirted narcissus, this bloomed all late winter. Here it is on February 29th.


Saxifraga "Lutea" I bought two of this variety from Wrightman Alpines, but they no longer have it listed on their site. The Saxifraga genus are incredible. Mounding, tiny foliage and spectacular flower shows. They grow directly on rocks in mountains, so Wrightman grows them on pieces of tufa and sends them, stone and all. I "planted" these by burying the bottoms of their individual stones in the tub. I took these pictures this morning, and while the flowers are mostly faded and beginning to seed, the flower branches are still so lovely and colorful.



Silene baumgarteniana I love the ballooning flowers of silenes, and this particular alpine variety looked wonderfully weird, so I had to try it. So far, it's growing well, and just about to start blooming. Here is a picture of it this morning, tucked up against Elfin thyme.


Vitaliana primuliflora v. cinerea I tucked this tiny plant in between the flagstone crevices. It has grown well, but no blossoms yet. It's another one that I hope forms a tight matt that fills in and mounds up against the stones in the tub.

Two more species form patches of the tub's quilt: Thymus serpyllum "Elfin" (pictured above) and an unknown plant, a scrubby, scappy, silvery creeper. I purchased one of the unknowns from the alpine section at the SFBG plant sale last year, and another identical one in the half-price section of a local nursery, and in both cases, they were missing their tags. So, I don't know what it is. It is, however, growing very well, spreading into firm-textured puddles of silver. Can you identify it?



The alpine tub has become a spot in my garden where I spend lots of time just looking. Since all that grows in it is miniature and the focus of the landscape so limited, every leaf is a miracle. I've read that bonsai originally began as a meditative practice, and the alpine tub helps me see how that could be true. Growing it is growing the art of noticing.