Friday, December 17, 2010

Teen Gardener's Passion: Save the Planet

My Aunt first introduced me to gardening when she showed me her vegetable garden. After helping her, my passion about plants and the health of the planet grew. I was inspired to create my own garden; first a vegetable garden, and then of California native plants. I'm starting a tradition for my family of growing native plants, and of following in the Native American's footsteps. I am helping to keep their knowledge of medicinal plants alive by sharing it with others, by collecting seeds, and by giving seeds to my friend Zach to sow. I introduced Zach in 3rd grade to gardening. Even though he moved away in 4th grade, he took his passion with him. We both don't know anyone but each other who garden like we do. Last month I let the flowers on my native plants dry, then collected the seeds, and sent them in the mail to him. Now we both have native plant gardens...

Sophia's Lavender Bee Balm

Continue reading Sophia's story at our new "MV Green Gardener's" web site

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Call for Edible Gardens in Mountain View CA

Residents of Mountain View CA, I need your help!  I have been given the challenge of finding gardens with edible landscaping in Mountain View, for next year's Edible Landscaping Tour, 2011:
This year I volunteered with Common Ground as a tour organizer (see my previous blogs). This year's tour was a great success and a lot of fun, however, as a resident of Mountain View I was disappointed that we did not have homes on the tour in my city. The homes in this year's tour which took place on July 24, 2010, were mostly in Palo Alto with one home in Menlo Park. The previous year, 2009, there were a couple of homes on the tour in Mountain View, including my own. So for next year's tour in 2011 I'm determined to have Mountain View participants.  My colleagues on the tour team said it was difficult to find homes with edibles in the front and backyards south of Palo Alto- I would love to prove them wrong!

Photo: 2010 Edible Landscaping Tour: a recently remodeled backyard in Palo Alto; the photo above was taken in the Spring, the photo below is of the same bed taken during the tour in July. 

Therefore, I need your help in finding  homes with eligible gardens  that are willing to participate in the tour scheduled for July 2011. I enjoyed participating so much in 2009 that I became a volunteer with Common Ground. If you enjoy gardening with vegetables and fruit around your home, and enjoy talking to others about edible gardening then you will love this tour. The people who sign up to visit the homes are very appreciative to have the opportunity to visit home gardens to gather ideas for their own landscaping projects, and to learn from other gardeners. We have received enthusiastic feedback about the tour, and it has become a very popular annual event and fundraiser for Common Ground.

Photo: A home in Palo Alto with friendly chickens; several homes had chickens, and one had  bees (below).

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact me by posting in the comments field on this blog. I would be very happy to visit your garden if you would like feedback on whether it is appropriate for the tour. Features we look for are:

  • Edibles preferably in the front and side or backyard
  • Organic and/or sustainable practices (for example: composting, wise use of water, and other resources, etc)
  • A willingness to share your enthusiasm for gardening with edibles with visitors to your garden (the tour is one day only in late July, 11am to 4pm)
 Photo: A backyard in Palo Alto CA: artichokes, fruit trees and vegetable beds, with a chicken coop in the background.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you and meeting other gardeners in my community!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Our Summer's Bounty in Pictures!

It's September, and I'm posting some end-of-season pictures of our edible garden. The new beds we installed in the front yard are thriving. I'm simply amazed at how they filled out so quickly, even with our cool Bay Area summer weather:

The  "Stella Blue" Hokkaido squash in the foreground grew so big it's growing over our hedge in the front yard out to the sidewalk! And the bed on the other side of our front yard is just as lush with vegetables and flowers:

Out front we grew winter and summer squashes, Emerite string beans (bean teepee), Cranberry and Scarlet Runner beans for shell beans, basil, tomatoes, strawberries, Japanese eggplants (two types), Corni di Toro peppers, and lemon cucumbers- all in the beds you see here. Here's a pretty picture of a typical harvest for dinner (okay, I cheated- the carrots and Poblano peppers are from the backyard!):

I have to show a picture of the squash "escaping" from our front yard and out towards the street:

And here's a close up of the beautiful, blue-green, almost mature squash:

The  Stella Blue Hokkaido is a kabocha (Japanese) squash- I've never seen this type in the grocery store. You can bet I'll try saving some seeds!

I hope this convinces you that edible landscaping in the front yard can be attractive, as well as a provider of abundant, healthy food for your family and neighbors.  Besides sharing with my neighbors, I've been taking the extra bounty over to the Community Services Agency in Mountain View, which provides food for the needy in our area. I will definitely be planting extra from now on to share!

Gardens are naturally giving: in beauty, healthful living, and in healing the planet.
The more gardens the better!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Our Edible Neighborhood and the Edible Landscaping Tour

The highlight of our gardening efforts was the summer of 2009  Common Ground's Edible Landscaping Tour, (see my first blog post: Transform your garden, transform your life) which inspired us to new heights in embracing our home as a microfarm. We participated by volunteering to show our garden, and so did our friend and neighbor, James. I highly recommend it! It's a one day event and benefits Common Ground, which deserves our support for the many positive benefits they provide to our community. (Full disclosure: as a result of the fun I had on last year's tour, I'm a volunteer on this year's tour team).

Photo: Enjoying the edible garden with tea time under the grape arbor.

The tour is now in its fourth year, and features ten homes in Palo Alto and surrounding cities (we live in Mountain View).  It takes place on Saturday, July 24 this summer. Last year, we went on a pre-tour so that we could see the other participating gardens and I was simply amazed at the creativity and variety of of the gardens. It was a lot of fun to talk to the gardeners about their experiences and vision, and to gather ideas. Many homes also kept chickens, and some had beehives. All used organic practices and composting. Additionally, some had systems to recycle gray water for the garden. I was thrilled that all of this was going own in our area, and the tour is a fantastic way to discover and connect with this community. I also really enjoyed showing our garden to visitors and telling them how our ideas evolved, and the special challenges we tried to design around (we have two large dogs).

Our friend James inspired us into action to grow fruit and vegetables when we began to plan our garden remodel. His method was subtle but high impact. My husband and I are foodies, and James began leaving a variety of freshly picked goodies from his garden on our doorstep: bunches of fragrant basil, lovely ripe tomatoes and tender summer squash. We had originally planned to  redo our front and back yards with native plants and plants that thrive in our Mediterranean climate. But James woke us up to the obvious- why didn't we include spaces for vegetables and fruit?

Photo: James and Claudine devote their front yard to growing fruit and vegetables for their family of five in Mountain View, California.

Photo: compost bins in the front yard provide fertilizer and soil amendment conveniently located near the vegetable garden.

I admired James and Claudine for their unapologetic approach to microfarming in our  suburban neighborhood, where at least 90% of the homes have traditional landscaping with lawns and ornamental plants. I admit I was hesitant at first to turn our front yard into a vegetable patch. We would have to install beds for planting, since the area our lawn once occupied is covered by a dense network of roots from our fifty year old magnolia tree. James successfully turned his yard into a lush cornucopia of edibles, but could we? I also hoped to promote creative solutions for landscaping without lawns by example, so we took time to plan the design around features, such as flagstone walkways and the planting beds as a  solution. I'm rewarded by the many compliments I get from passersby while I'm puttering around out front.

I'm now very excited about the changing aesthetic in suburban landscaping, which has to do with wise water use, reducing waste that goes to the landfill, and creating connectivity to what we eat. And did I mention I love gardens?

Photo: Our front yard with a planter for vegetables built with "green bricks"(Integrity Blocks).

The right side of our front yard (below) with new planting beds installed in June, and already yielding veggies in late July. A variety of culinary herbs and flowers have been planted around the flagstone path.

 In our own neighborhood in Mountain View there are increasingly more homes moving towards edible landscaping. I've posted some examples of front yards below that are within a few blocks of our home:

One of the Furuichi brothers (the brothers are co-owners of the Los Altos Nursery) has planted citrus, cherry and avocado trees, plus squash and tomatoes in his front yard.

This detail view of a side yard on the corner of our block has a mini-orchard with citrus, apple and a pear tree espalier.

Another corner house side yard devoted to vegetables and fruit. This one has planting beds.

As James once explained: his primary motivation for growing vegetables was an "evil plot" to trick his three young children into eating more vegetables (it worked). So if you are intrigued and or seduced by the thought of growing your own, go on and give it a whirl. Be the James on your block. You just may end up transforming your life and your neighborhood.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Our Flowering Native Californians

One of the greatest joys of our garden transformation is the diversity and abundance of wildlife it has attracted to our home. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful hills and low mountains with lots of preserved open space. The wildlife trickles down into the urban and suburban areas, especially where the right habitat exists. Growing plants native to our area is a sure invitation to the local fauna: different types of wild bees (plus honey bees), butterflies, many species of birds, lizards, and even salamanders. One of my special joys is the nesting pair of California Thrashers that moved in after we took out the lawn in the backyard. Bay Area residents all seem have their favorite stories about close encounters with raccoons, opossums, skunks. and deer (like the time we had a large fluffy raccoon walk into our house, and the possum living in our garage....).

But for the gardener, there are sound arguments for nurturing a diverse garden, instead of a monoculture of lawns (assumes no harmful sprays or other such chemical measures are used).  In our garden we are still in the process of bringing more natives in. The flowers are often spectacular, as shown below (our Matilija poppy shoots flowers skyward ten feet high!) and many of them require very little water or special care, so those attributes are a big incentive.

One of my new favorites we planted last year is a Fremontia bush, from the Los Altos Nursery. Here it is revving up with a profusion of lemon yellow blooms that last into the summer. The bumble and carpenter bees go nuts!

The growing instructions are music to a Californian's ears: don't give extra water in the summer- you'll kill it. Of course for this young bush we gave some additional water last summer, we'll back off this summer. Another newcomer is the ceanothus, "Dark Star", from the Yerba Buena Nursery in Woodside (they sell only native California plants). Here it is covered with blue flowers- a favorite of bees of different types.

Our beautiful California poppies are a "must have". They seem to find their way into the garden on their own and they will reseed, but this year I bought some seeds to encourage them to spread.

This photo shows our classic gold poppies from my backyard, but in my front yard I have yellow and red variants coming in, (sown from seed, below) truly lovely in the sunlight! I saw a pink variety in a garden recently for the first time; I'd love to get some of those.

These wonderful reddish types have really taken to our front yard, much to my delight!

We also have two California Buckeye trees, one in the front yard and one in the backyard. Here is our biggest one bursting into flower in the front yard:

The showy white flowers in spikes have a wonderful perfume. These trees bud out in February, and by late April-early May burst with flowers. They lose their leaves early in the fall, and have beautifully graceful silvery branches for fall and winter.

 As I mentioned, one of the best sources for California natives is the Yerba Buena Nursery.  You can't beat the variety and sheer number of selections, and they have a knowledgeable staff to help. It's a bit of an excursion to get there as they are up on Skyline Blvd. in Woodside, but it makes for a nice outing. When we go up we often stop for breakfast or lunch at the cozy and quirky Alice's Restaurant, right up top where Woodside Road meets Skyline:

The food is good, it's surrounded by redwood trees and it's a mecca for the weekend biker crowd- a must!

The nursery is south of the restaurant, so you take Skyline Blvd. south about a mile or more and look for their sign on the right. Then it's a good mile or two down the narrow road to reach the nursery.

Besides the nursery offerings, they have a garden shop with lots of great books, items for the garden and gifts. They also have a tea shop and host "Farmhouse Teas"on selected dates.

Above: Yerba Buena's extensive selection of California native plants.

Another big plus is the extensive demonstration garden- here you can see the natives in action. They have different areas of established plantings that showcase different habitat types. Check out the beautiful large manzinitas on the hillside (I wonder how old they are?). There is also a pretty pond near a patch of irises. We bought a couple of these to put in our front yard. I was surprised at the many colors to choose from. I am often pleasantly surprised that there are perfectly gorgeous alternatives to non-native plants for the garden! Although gardening with non-natives is not a terrible thing as long as they are not invasive (spread to wild areas via wind or birds) and water hungry, by gardening with species native to our area we provide much needed habitat and nourishment for local wildlife, and for

Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris

                                                     A patch of shade-loving Trillum.

that we are repaid a thousand-fold by being enriched by their presence around our homes, and by creating balance in the garden ecosystem. The garden then becomes truly alive and thriving!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring Starts

This year I tried starting my plants from seed. I've done that a bit in the past, but only with the really easy stuff- like string beans. I don't know why I thought it would be so difficult- surprise! It's not hard to do, for most of the plants I've tried so far. I have spent a lot of money buying seedlings in my lifetime so I thought it would be smart to save some money, plus I love growing things: I find it very satisfying and extremely addicting. Even though I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where the winters are pretty mild, we still get night temperatures into the 30's and maybe 20's, with frost. So that means even though we have a very long growing season and an early spring, most edibles are best started indoors if the night time temperatures are not reliably into the 50's (I just learned this). Since I don't have a green house or cold frame (do we really need these in our area you might ask?), I tried it out in the bay window of our dining room. As you can see in the picture, this is not very many plants, but it's a start- I ran out of room quickly! I used potting mix and an assortment of left over six-pack and other small containers saved from my purchases. The real secret to success is to keep the starts moist, and don't let them dry out (Renee's Garden web site has some tips with photos).

I started two kinds of sunflowers in February (too early I think), and these can be transferred outside soon. "Lemon Queen" is one I loved last year. It is a multi-branching type that gets lots of flowers about 5 to 6 inches across. They have pollen, so the bees love them too, in fact it is a highly recommended plant for attracting bees to the garden by the Great Sunflower Project (this is a volunteer participatory effort to gather data on bees). It makes a stunning addition to the summer garden. I'm trying "Chocolate Cherry" also, which has maroon flowers of the same multi-branching type, but sadly, no pollen.  I've also started some Roman chamomile, the herbal kind, not the ornamental ground cover. I bought a small plant last fall and I love the wonderful apple-like scent of the foliage, and it produces a profusion of flowers to harvest for tea. The seeds sprouted easily indoors in plain potting mix.

I recently bought some seed packets at my favorite garden supply store, Common Ground. The seeds are from Renee's Garden. She has wonderful special varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables, so I bought a bunch. This is Renee Shepherd, who also writes articles for gardening magazines and has a great web site. I was so inspired by her article on growing zinnias that I bought some of her zinnia varieties, and the couple I tried so far (Persian Carpet and Apricot Blush) have started just fine. She also notes how to collect and store the seeds for the next season's planting. The article is in a special edition magazine Starting from Seed published by Fine Gardening Magazine. It has lots of tips and how-to on seed collection and starting plants from seeds.

Other seeds I tried were her "Baby Mesculin Salad- Paris Market Mix". We are salad fiends in my family, and my goal is to keep a supply of salad greens in the garden all year round. (I was amazed to find that lettuce and other greens are not damaged by frost, at least where I live.) I sowed these directly outside in a barrel planter (covered with mesh to protect it from our bird neighbors).

The seedlings have already come up. This barrel has been great for some added space to grow lettuce and other greens that prefer cool temperatures. It sits under our silk tree, so it has some shade on hot summer days, and sun in the winter when the tree drops it's leaves.

To keep up the early spring spirit, I recently started some divisions of our beloved globe artichoke. It is in it's second year, and is actually made up of about 3 to 4 plants now. It produces twice a year, in spring and fall, and yields a surprising amount of artichokes, (which I tend to buy weekly when they are available). You can see my two starts in the picture below- one is for a friend, with whom we share plants and produce back and forth every year, and one is for my mother and sister's garden in Santa Cruz.

Speaking of sharing, another neighbor who lives down the street from us has a lovely place on the corner, and I always admired their gardens. They have a diversity of plants, minimal lawns, and a beautiful mini orchard on the side of the house (below). The picture shows how the young apple and citrus trees are leafing out. What a great use of front yard space! But they also have borage in the yard,

which I have been wanting to introduce into my own front yard. It attracts bees and it is said to be a beneficial companion plant, and may repel tomato worms (John Jeavons). The beautiful blue flowers are edible too. Since it self seeds easily, I didn't even want to spend money on a seed packet, so I asked our kind neighbors if I could take a small bunch from their garden. Of course they obliged right away, so I showed up with my spade and a bucket, and she grabbed a shovel and gave me a couple of big clumps (a liberty I was too shy to take in her garden!).  Here is a picture of her borage in full bloom below, looking lovely amid the irises and California poppies. The borage is the plant with fuzzy looking stems and small star-like blue flowers. She told me that she had brought home another plant from her mother's garden, and the borage came as a tag-a-long and established itself in her garden. We got to chatting and she ended up giving me a dozen eggs from her family's ranch in Monterey, where her family has lived for 150 years. It was wonderful to share our love of plants and passion for gardening.

What a great start to spring...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Garden Features We Love Living With

Two garden features we love are the pergola, which functions as an outdoor dining space, and the raised bed that we assembled from a kit for growing vegetables (dog-proof!).

Pergola (aka arbor):
The fellow who built a fence for us turned out to be the go–to-guy for building the pergola we envisioned (Peninsula Fence) :

Our ex-gardener (we no longer needed his services after we remodeled) laid the flagstone on sand, with some planting soil on top so we could plant wooly thyme in between (note: some types of sand are not compatible with planting).

We put a round tile-topped table with four chairs underneath the pergola. The roses were preserved to provide green “walls” with lovely flowers spring through fall, and grape vines quickly grew to start filling in the top. We’ve spent many a pleasant day since then having breakfast, lunch or dinner under the grape vines!

Modular Raised Bed Kit:

We needed a space safe from our lovely greyhounds for growing edibles. Maui and Zippo love to race around the backyard, which resulted in removal of the raggedy lawn we inherited with the house. They did us a favor and jump-started our backyard remodel, which included getting rid of water-wasting lawns, planting native and low water plants, and spaces for growing vegetables and herbs. We also added some young fruit trees and blueberry bushes.

We are not carpenters, and we both work during the week, so for us it was a great choice to order this kit from Gardens to Gro :

We liked that they are a mom 'n pop company, and that it would not have to ship too far (from San Diego to SF Bay Area). It came with wire mesh to lay down to foil gophers, and also with a watering system. It also has a cute gate, to keep out the pooches. We got the 20 inch high beds to minimize back strain while planting.

The beds have herbs planted around them, and they have provided fresh food year round. We are in our second winter with the beds, experimenting with what grows best and tolerates our frost, and we look forward to our third spring and summer coming up! By the way, we use no pesticides, and we are committed to keeping our yards free of that stuff- besides, we have found it's really not necessary. Common Ground, our local organic gardening center in Palo Alto, provided lots of inspiration and resources.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Transform your garden, transform your life

About a year and a half ago we finally started transforming our front and back yards from lawn dominant to low water, native and Mediterranean climate type of plants. Another focus was creating spaces for edible plants that were safe from our much loved greyhounds.  Here are views of our lawnless front yard, which now has a planting bed for edibles and flowers (above) , and the other side of the front yard (below) is planted predominately with herbs and native plants.

We feel fortunate to live on the San Francisco Peninsula, where even though it's definitely urban, there is so much natural bounty to enjoy: backyard wildlife, gardens of various types, and easy access to locally produced food of an enormous variety. And the climate, of course, is fantastic for growing food, from vegetables and herbs, to fruit.

On these pages I'd like to share our experience turning our traditionally landscaped gardens into prolific kitchen gardens and as a bonus, creating habitat for the numerous birds, bees, lizards and other wildlife that naturally inhabits our area. I'll tell you about our favorite resources and lessons learned, and I hope to hear about yours in turn.

Here is our story as written when we participated in Common Ground's "Edible Gardens Tour" in the summer of 2009:

"When we bought our home in 2001, we inherited traditional ornamental landscaping in the front and backyards, including over 20 rose bushes. We have gradually redesigned the yards with fruit trees, vegetable and herb beds, and native and drought tolerant plants. We both grew up in households where cooking with fresh basic ingredients was the norm (Thierry immigrated from Belgium, and Patricia from Chile), and we enjoy growing a variety of vegetables and herbs organically for daily use year round. Our love of nature and a desire to maintain a thriving habitat for wildlife of all types, has also been a factor in our approach to landscaping, therefore we do not use chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.
Initially we consulted with two different landscape design firms, but ultimately decided to create our own plans. Our gardener and his crew worked with us to implement our vision by doing the preparation, drip systems, installing flagstone and crushed granite paths, and building the planter in the front yard. Thierry put his computer skills to use by drawing up the designs using Google Sketchup which provided detailed plans for the workers. We researched, acquired, and planted all of the plants, and we consider our gardens works in progress, as we make new discoveries on our favorite edibles.
The front yard features a large and very productive Meyer Lemon tree and a thriving ten year-old avocado tree nurtured from a sprouted pit from the compost pile. A planting bed constructed from “green” materials provides additional space for seasonal edibles, including a kumquat tree as a centerpiece. A spectacular stand of Matilija Poppy, and other natives have replaced a side lawn along the driveway.

We eliminated all of the lawn in the backyard (above) with the help of our two beloved greyhounds, and redesigned the yard so that it is compatible with four-legged family members while providing spaces for vegetable gardening, wildlife habitat, and an outdoor dining area under the pergola. A key feature is the raised bed planting unit we built from a ready made kit which includes a watering system, trellis, and a gate to keep the edibles safe from curious canines (below). 

Young apple and pomegranate trees have been planted, as well as herbs for the kitchen. The pergola is framed by grapevines and is the perfect spot to enjoy the diversity of birds that share the garden. The shrubbery along the backyard fence was preserved as nesting habitat for them. An organically maintained rose garden supplies food for the soul (blueberry bushes have replaced some of the roses)."