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? Will 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.