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.