Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lawn Replacement Rebates Renewed

Succulents are excellent landscaping plants for our mediterranean climate 
The Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) announced that rebates for replacing your lawn with climate appropriate low water-using plants have been extended to June 30, 2015. (UPDATE: REBATES RENEWED THROUGH 2015)

This means that the current rates of reimbursement per square foot of lawn or pools removed will remain at the high rates of $2 for Mountain View and much of the county, and an enticing $4 for Palo Alto. Call the SCVWD hotline (408) 630-2554 for more information, or see their web page.

It's not difficult to qualify if you have an existing lawn and/or functioning swimming pool that you'd like to replace. See my previous post for tips and links to resources.

 Thymes and sages are approved plants for lawn replacement rebates

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Crimson Flowered Broad Beans or Favas

A special, old variety of fava, er, broad beans
Normally I call these fava beans, but with respect for this lovely bean's origins, I'm including broad bean in the title of this post. What we call fava beans in the USA are called broad beans in the UK. I was stopped in my tracks when I first saw them flowering at Seed Savers Exchange's (SSE) Heritage Farm in Decorah Iowa last summer. 

Crimson-flowered Fava Bean growing in SSE's diversity garden
Fava beans are one of my must-grow crops every fall to spring season. In the San Francisco Bay Area they're the perfect thing to grow over our mild winters. They can take our frosts, and if I plant them in the fall I can count on eating fresh fava beans in the spring around April. But I had never seen this gorgeous red variety.

The common fava flowers are white with black splotches  
Far from being a novel and modern cultivar, the crimson flowered fava was apparently saved from extinction by the Heritage Seed Library after receiving a donation of only four seeds from a gardener in Kent in 1978. 

I got my seeds from fellow SSE member Christina Wengar, who is the sole seed steward for this variety in SSE's member's yearbook, where members go to discover which seeds are available to request from other members. 

When I searched for other seed sources I found some in the UK and Australia, and those sources referred to the crimson flowered fava as being very rare.

My fava spring salad

I can't wait to try out the crimson favas in my favorite fava dishes. And yes, you can bet I'll be saving those seeds!

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Flip This Lawn - Don't Water, Be Happy

A newly installed front yard garden with gravel paths and a bocce court

If the California drought convinced you to replace your lawn (front or back yards) with plants that have lower water needs, you will want to take advantage of the rebates offered through the Santa Clara Valley Water District.  The rebate periods have been extend yet again in response to our extended drought.  Applications will be accepted if postmarked by December 31 (extended from October 31). UPDATE: REBATES HAVE BEEN EXTENDED THROUGH 2015

The rebate program is an incentive to convert water guzzling lawns or swimming pools into gardens that feature plants appropriate for our Mediterranean climate. Under this program plants are chosen from an extensive approved list. Rebates rates are $2 per square foot for most cities in Santa Clara County, and a whopping $4 per square foot in Palo Alto for qualifying lawns. Even lawns that have been let go dry may qualify.

Many California native plants are drought tolerant, like this Matilija poppy

Life Without a Lawn- Don't Water, Be Happy
What does a garden look like if there is no lawn? Letting go of the lawn aesthetic opens up many possibilities that can add to our quality of life. Now there is room for a butterfly and hummingbird garden, perhaps with a quiet place to sit with your morning coffee before starting a busy day.  A birdbath placed in view of a window amid greenery and flowers becomes a welcome refuge for neighborhood birds, and you get to enjoy the show. Concerned about the decline in bees and other pollinators? Choose from a long list of flowering perennials that provide food for them and beauty for you. Add simple paths with stepping-stones or a rock garden with succulents to provide interest and structure.

I find it extremely satisfying to include a kitchen herb garden in my lawn replacement projects. Several of our essential culinary herbs are approved low-water needs plants, including: rosemary, sage, thymes, and French tarragon. Once established they need only occasional watering.

Several culinary herbs qualify as low-water lawn replacements

Challenge yourself to brainstorm creatively about garden features that fit your lifestyle and interests.

Recently, I redesigned a front yard to include a bocce ball court at the client’s request.  They now enjoy this traditional family game together, surrounded by a mix of attractive flowering shrubs, gravel paths, and seating areas for visiting together. It was satisfying to watch the visiting grandkids playing in the court together. I don’t think they miss the old lawn.

How to Apply
First, make an appointment to get a pre-inspection survey. Water district representatives will visit your garden to determine if you qualify. They’ll take measurements of the lawn or pool, check irrigation, and let you know if you qualify. They will fill out a request for application form, and you will be sent the application package. Follow the instructions in the application package, which typically requires photos, a plant list and simple diagram (or description) of the garden design.

You can do this yourself or hire a garden designer to design the space and also take care of submitting the application for you. Or hire a designer on a consulting basis, if you’d rather do some of the work yourself.  A designer can help you find a landscaper too.

Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation Hotline at (408) 630-2554

Santa Clara Valley Water District Landscape Rebate Program

A version of this article appeared in the Los Altos Town Crier

Photo credits: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke
Bocce court garden installed by Jackie Marsey, Paradise Landscape and Garden

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Filling My Hands and Heart with Seeds

My Visit to Heritage Farm in Pictures
The few precious days I spent recently at Seed Savers Exchange's (SSE) Heritage Farm in Decorah Iowa will stay with me for a long time.  If you're interested in true heirloom and heritage edibles then a visit here is a must.  And even better, go during SSE's annual conference and campout held in July, and get an in depth tour of the operations on member's day.

Holly Hocks in co-founder Diane Whealy's garden
I'm so impressed by the incredible effort of this organization and their staff- they are all truly dedicated and enthusiastic about their sacred mission to preserve agricultural biodiversity, and along with it, the stories imbedded in seeds that are our cultural histories. 

I was also energized by meeting my fellow seed saving gardeners and farmers. We shared mealtimes and camaraderie, and I look forward to keeping in touch. 

Members were treated to special in depth tours with SSE staff
SSE staff member Tor Janson demonstrated seed cleaning equipment

The Dedicated Effort of Seed Stewardship
There is so much for a gardener to see at Heritage Farm: test gardens, the historic apple orchard, facilities for seed processing, storage, and even the machine that fills seed packets sold through the SSE catalog (yes, it's only one machine, below!). 

SSE's seed packaging machine

Saving seeds on this scale is a multifaceted effort that involves trial gardens, growing under isolation to ensure pure seed, evaluation of growth and culinary uses and characteristics, research and verification of origins, and long term storage, to name a few!

Strikingly beautiful Blue Podded Peas
Crimson Flowered Fava available through the members exchange
Geneva apples in the Heritage Orchard

The Seeds of Inspiration
Besides tours of the grounds and facilities there were several interesting talks and workshops, including one by Chris Schmidt of Native Seeds/SEARCH, another non-profit seed conservation effort. Their focus is on traditional native american varieties and those adapted to arid climates of the southwest. With the impacts of climate change these varieties are becoming especially important (just ask Californians currently in year three of a recording making drought).

As Chris put it
"No part of the country is self-reliant with respect to biodiversity."
We need to share and help each other, especially in the challenging times ahead for agriculture.

Chris Schmidt (right) Interim Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH

When I was considering whether to attend the conference I was trying to weigh the pros and cons of flying out to Iowa from California- the expense of flying and renting a car, driving out to the farm, finding lodging, and all of this on my own. Was it extremely self-indulgent of me, just for a conference on seeds? 

The wildlife-rich restored meadow near our camping area on the farm

I can say without hesitation that at no time did I feel that I shouldn't have made the trip.  Every minute was meaningful, rich, and memorable. I returned home with renewed determination and a deepened understanding of the task at hand.
                             Saving seeds fills my hands as well as my heart.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Saving Seeds with Our Hands and Our Hearts

"Institutions do not save seeds- humans with hearts do."
- Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, 2013 Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange

Recently I re-read the transcripts of speeches given by some of the keynote speakers from the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Annual Conference. I admit to getting particularly misty-eyed by Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan's speech.  It hit home how important it is to sow our seeds, save them, and pass them on to our family, friends, and neighbors, and to keep them safe for the next generation.  As he explained, it's not some retro, quaint activity and a hanging on to the past, saving seeds is about the future. And beyond the seeds themselves it's about our connections to our culture and our links as a community, and to the earth. 

Why We Should Care
The loss of biodiversity of many types is a hot topic these days, and it certainly applies to seeds from our favorite edibles. As for me, I'm not willing to depend solely on seed companies as a source for the edibles I've come to love and count on and look forward to each season. And more urgently, our changing climate and other environmental pressures demand that we keep a pool of diverse food sources ready to meet changing growing conditions.

We don't have to settle for less, and we do have the ability to shape our futures.

The strikingly colored Christmas Lima, available from SSE

Seed Savers Exchange 34th Annual Conference and Campout
Pumped with these energizing thoughts, I'm really excited that I'm finally going to make the trip out to Iowa this year for the Seed Savers Exchange 34th Annual Conference and Campout in Decorah, Iowa.  The conference is July 18 to 20th, with a members only day on Friday. I can't wait to see the test gardens and the seed saving operations at Heritage Farm after reading about them for several years!

Maybe the best part is that I'll be spending hours and days with my people: like minded gardeners, farmers, and dedicated seed conservationists. No chance of boring anyone with lengthy conversations about seeds and their stories, or the nuances of various bean varieties, or the ideal isolation distances for lettuce, etc.

Flower: Little Lady Bird Cosmos; bean: Rattlesnake, a pole bean

We Can do Nothing or We Can do What We Can
Check out this nice graphic from National Geographic. It's sobering and even frightening. It illustrates the findings from a study done in 1983 that found a 93% loss of crop varieties since 1903 (of 66 crop types). 

They became extinct.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Thursday, July 10, 2014

8th Annual Edible Landscaping Tour

is coming right up! 
Saturday, July 19th, 2014 10 am -4pm
Palo Alto, CA

If you enjoy touring gardens or need clever ideas for your garden, then you don't want to miss this annual event! 

This is a critical fundraiser for my friends at Common Ground, a 501(c)3 nonprofit project of Ecology Action. Enjoy a memorable and educational day and show your support too!

Besides visiting ten beautiful gardens all with an edible landscape theme, you'll also see how these suburban residents practice organic and sustainable methods. 
For descriptions of the gardens on this year's tour go here

Veggies and flowers thrive together in this edible landscape

Tour Highlights
  • Water saving and efficiency techniques, including "Laundry to Landscape" (gray water system) 
  • Fruit trees, raised beds, and lots of vegetables
  • Chickens & coops, bees and beehives
  • Herb, flower & California native plantings, 
  • Composting 
  • Examples of edible front yard gardens
  • Tour the Common Ground education garden

Common Ground's Patricia Becker (right) with a garden tour host

This year the Edible Landscaping Tour is featuring lots of front yard edible gardens.  Gone are the days when vegetable gardens were considered inappropriate for the front yard. Come see a variety of gardens demonstrating that growing food is not just practical, but beautiful!

Veggie harvest, complete with fresh artichokes

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Friday, May 23, 2014

Build a Bean Teepee for Kids

My favorite way to grow climbing beans is on a teepee, that is, on four poles stuck in the ground and lashed together at the top. Each summer I have 2 or 3 growing in my front yard. But I've had a fantasy of making a big one someday, big enough for a couple of kids (and me!) to crawl inside. So recently, when I designed my friend Margie's gardens for her new home I included bean teepee for her son, my bean-buddy Alexander .

Building a Kid-Sized Bean Teepee
If you do a web search for bean teepees you can find a lot of versions on how to build one. Here's one I liked on YouTube made by Sustainable Midlands and City Roots. 

It's simple, and a lot like the smaller versions I put up in my garden, but with a few extras. Watch the video then read my steps below for more details and my modifications for building the structure so it's kid-friendly:

  • Use 6 very long bamboo poles; I'm estimating about 12 - 15 feet high, such that when you lean them together the space at the base of the teepee will be about  6 feet, or enough room for kids to sit inside.
  • Space the poles apart evenly, but leave enough room between two of them for the entry, or "door". Set the poles about 4 inches into the soil so that they are sturdy.
  • Lash the poles together with twine at the top. 
  • Prepare the base (floor) of the teepee by laying down sheets of cardboard in about 3 layers to suppress weeds and to form a level base. Cover the cardboard with 3- 4 inches of minbark or clean straw (not hay- it has weed seeds) to make a comfy seating area.
  • Take the twine and wind a few strands between the poles (see video) so that the beans will climb on them for support and eventually cover the sides of the teepee, but leave the door open and free of twine for easy entry (they forgot this part in the video).
  • Plant beans seeds along the outer edge of the teepee's sides, except the entry. Plant the beans about 1/2 inch deep, 4 inches apart in soil that you've prepared with some mature compost mixed with a small amount of organic vegetable fertilizer. Beans don't need a lot of fertilization, but they do appreciate nice loose soil with organic matter in order to grow strong roots.
  • Water the planted seeds and keep the soil evenly moist while they germinate (about 7 to 10 days). Note: beans like warm weather, so they won't germinate (sprout) unless the nighttime temperatures are staying in the mid-fifty degrees (F) at least, and the soil has had a chance to warm up.
Now for the really fun part, choosing which beans to grow. Since I have lots of favorite beans, I have to chime in.

Beans with a Bonus
You can't go wrong with runner beans (P. coccineus), such as Scarlet Runner or the lovely Painted Lady bean, both of which have showy flowers. You can eat them at any stage: flowers, pods, fresh shell beans and dry beans. A huge bonus is that in mild winter climates as we have here in the San Francisco Bay Area, runner beans die back with frost but will reemerge in spring, unlike like so called "common beans" (P. vugaris- pintos, black beans, cranberry, etc. see my post for more). 
Scarlet Runner and Painted Lady beans - ornamental and edible!

Colorful and Prolific Snap Beans 
My top pick for kids would be to grow some snap beans (aka: green beans, or string beans), and my hands-down-must-have snap bean is Emerite, an old French variety with pencil-thin tender beans that produce over several weeks. I discovered these through Rene's Garden, an heirloom and gourmet seed supplier, and I grow them every summer. You can also order a tricolor bean seed packet from Rene's that has yellow, green and purple beans for extra fun. Make sure you get pole beans and not the bush type!

Tricolor Snap beans form Rene's Garden seeds

Of Bees and Beans
Beans don't need to be pollinated to produce pods, but bees sure like bean flowers anyway. In my garden it's mostly large but docile carpenter bees that visit my beans. If you have bees in your garden and you're worried about kids getting stung by accident, then a bean teepee may not be a good idea. Or you might try fastening a barrier of cloth on the inside of the teepee up to about 4 feet or so. You'll have to decide if it's risky or not.

Acrobatic Carpenter bees love bean flowers!
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Swedish Pea in a California Garden- How Heirloom Edibles Survive for the Next Generation

This year's seed trial: 'Sweet Fall' squash and 'Swenson's Swedish' snow pea

In California we are in the midst of a record breaking drought that has put a sizable dent in what I'll grow in my edible garden this spring and summer. I'll focus on keeping my existing garden alive and forgo planting edibles in every available corner, but I decided to go ahead with my yearly seed trials for Seed Savers Exchange Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN), and Rancho Gordo's Bean Buddies Group.

The Mystery and Romance of Seeds
The last two years I tested lettuces through M-GEN that had been grown by families for generations until there was no one left to carry the seeds forward, and a unique variety risked being lost. That's a familiar story. This year when I opened my package from Seed Savers Exchange, I discovered 'Swenson Swedish' snow pea, and 'Sweet Fall' winter squash for my trials.

Grandma Hadley's lettuce was part of the M-GEN trials in 2013
I love the mystery of getting a package in the mail with a special and precious cargo every spring, and I admit I revel in the romance of their stories. Stories carry our collective histories and our favorite foods speak volumes about who we are and where we came from. 

'Swenson Swedish' was brought to the Minnesota by a Swedish immigrant around 1876, then handed down through the family who developed favorite recipes, among them is a creamed Scandinavian dish that I'm anxious to try. (Seed Savers has requested the recipe.)

Preserving Our Stories Through Seeds
Non-profit Seed Savers Exchange has a seed historian, Sara Straate, whose mission is to verify and uncover the stories behind their seed accessions:
In 1987 long time seed saver and SSE member, Will Bonsall, received the seeds "out of the blue" in the mail after the elder Swenson (Alvin) entered a nursing home. Alvin's son Charles Swenson had sent them from Iowa after reading about Bonsall, who began offering it in the Seed Savers Exchange member's yearbook. Charles still grows them, but he thinks he may be the only family member left doing so. 
Through the M-GEN team the peas will be spread throughout the continent and beyond, and no doubt become a favorite of families once more. 

For a map of M-GEN participants click here.

If you are interested in joining the the M-GEN team, contact: 

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Creating A Healthy Garden Ecosystem

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) is a favorite of hummingbirds and bees
In a previous post I wrote that by adopting certain gardening practices you can take advantage of “ecosystem services”, which provide pest control, healthy soil, thriving pollinators, and more.  The goal is to strive for a balanced system where natural processes are encouraged and thrive.

Why bother? In a healthy garden diseases and pests are minimized and you are contributing to the health of our environment overall. Here are my favorite tips for creating a thriving ecosystem in your garden.

The Basics: Food, Shelter, Water
To keep it simple think of it this way: an ecosystem is made up of living things and all living things need the basics: food, shelter (a home, i.e., habitat) and water.  In my garden a combination of California natives, ornamental plants (non-natives), and edibles make up a triad that buzzes with life. The native plants encourage wild pollinators and provide habitat and food. A careful selection of water-wise ornamental plants (a must in California) do the same. Edible plants are a diverse group that includes trees, herbs, perennials of many types, and annuals, which include many of our vegetables. In an ecosystem these plants have multiple roles. 
Scarlet Runner Beans have edible flowers that bees love 

Traditional Lawn Centered Gardens are Low on Diversity
Most traditionally designed gardens in urban areas do not have all of the three components above. The typical lawn-centered garden that is overly manicured with nary a leaf out of place is generally not very biologically diverse. Urban and suburban gardens are often designed to minimize leaf litter and emphasize a significant monoculture of lawn space. All lawns are not necessarily bad, it's the practice of using weedkillers and synthetic fertilizers that do the most harm to the ecosystem, in addition to wasting copious amounts of precious water. 

Furthermore, the flowering plants in these traditional gardens are usually not allowed to form seeds, and they aren't selected for their value as food for wildlife. In fact, some hybridized flowers don't produce pollen (sterile hybrids), which is considered a messy drawback for cut flowers brought into the house! 

In short, the traditionally landscaped garden is low on diversity, and a healthy ecosystem is just the opposite.

Transforming Your Garden 

The Big Three: Edibles, Natives and Ornamentals
In my garden, a combination of California natives, ornamental plants (non-natives), and edibles make up a triad that buzzes with life. I didn’t follow a formula to arrive at this combination- it happened naturally during the process of redesigning our yards. The native plants encourage wild pollinators and other beneficial insects, and provide habitat and food. A careful selection of water-wise ornamental plants (a must in California) do the same, as do edible plants.   

 Chamomile is a lovely ground cover with a delicate apple scent
Among my edible plants I’ve included a variety of perennial culinary herbs that insects love. These herbs have low water requirements: oregano, sweet marjoram, sage, rosemary, winter savory, lovage and different thymes. Allowing them to flower is critical. Not only do they attract pollinators, they are essential for cooking (the flowers are edible too), and can be cut back periodically after flowering to renew their foliage.  With these attributes they are popular in gardens for Mediterranean climates like ours in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Herbs are planted around my raised vegetable beds as permanent companions to seasonal vegetables to maximize pollination and bring in beneficial insects.

Flowering herbs and edibles ensure that my front yard is buzzing with life
Trees and Shrubs
A mature tree is extremely valuable and not readily replaceable. They provide us with numerous benefits that we take for granted at our peril.  A mature tree is an entire ecosystem that contributes (at a minimum) habitat for wildlife, shade, food, organic matter through leaf litter that feeds the soil as it decomposes, they transpire moisture into the surrounding air to regulate the local temperature, and their extensive root systems are part of the ecology of the soil food web. 

In keeping with my strategy of using natives, ornamentals and edibles, here are the trees in my garden: avocado, Meyer Lemon, a Blood Orange, Pomegranate, Santa Rosa Plum, a Pluot, a multigrafted apple, California Buckeye (Aesculus californica), Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), and Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). 

Our shrubs provide a dense screen along our backyard fence and they are a favorite nesting place for local birds. They enjoy foraging on the ground where wood chips have replaced the lawns, and I provide water in two birdbaths for them.

A Morro Blood Orange
You can build your ecosystem over time as you learn more about the best plants to include for your climate zone.  It’s a lifestyle choice and gradual process of discovery. Select plants that have flowers and seeds attractive to the local wildlife.  

Birds enjoy hunting for bugs in my lush artichoke berm 

Remember that a healthy garden is lively with activity!

Related posts you might enjoy:
Maximize Free Ecosystem Services in Your Garden
The Rewards of a Seedy Garden
Your Garden as Wildlife Habitat
An Inspiring Talk by Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia's Garden)

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fresh Winter Herbs for Tea

At a recent dinner party I delighted my guests with fragrant, soothing cups of fresh herb tea (a.k.a. herbal tisane, or infusion) served with their dessert and picked from my garden only moments before. We had eaten a filling meal, it was late and no one wanted caffeine- perfect! my herbs are always at the ready to pop into a tea pot.  It was gratifying that they enjoyed it so much- a simple pleasure from the garden that I’m especially grateful for.

Use Both Fresh and Dried Herbs 

In my view, herbs are essential workhorses of any garden and many are easy to grow and undemanding. It’s winter but in our zone 9 climate I’ve still got mints, bronze fennel, and Yerba Buena, plus sage, rosemary, oregano and sweet marjoram for cooking. 

In the fall I watched diligently for the first predicted frost so that I could harvest branches of fresh lemon verbena for drying. It's frost sensitive and goes dormant for the winter but the fresh leaves (before frost damage!) dry quickly and store well in an air-tight container. It's my favorite lemon scented herb, and potent too! 

Lemon Verbena dries in a few days in a warm room
An Winter Herb Tea Recipe
I often steep a tea bag or two of chamomile with herbs from my garden. I like to use it as a base to add more body to the infusion. Don't be afraid to add typically "culinary" herbs such as sage, rosemary or thyme. Sage adds a surprisingly pleasant and mild spice to the tea when you add just one or two leaves per pot. 

Clockwise from top: sage, bronze fennel, dried lemon verbena, and basil mint
For a medium sized teapot (holds 2 1/2 to 3 cups of water) use:

2-3 sprigs of fresh mint, any kind (2 to 3 inches long)
1 sprig fennel, any kind (2 to 3 inches long)
1 - 2 leaves fresh sage (the culinary kind)
3 or more leaves lemon verbena, fresh or dry

Optional: 1- 2 tea bags of chamomile

Rinse all fresh herbs with water and shake them dry. Add to the teapot with stems and leaves intact, add chamomile tea bag. Pour boiling water (or just about to boil) over the leaves and steep for 5 minutes before serving in pre-warmed cups. Offer honey as a sweetener. 

Have fun experimenting with herbal combinations and enjoy using what's available seasonally.

Tip: when making herbal infusions steep the herbs while covered to capture any volatile compounds. The herbs in this recipe are known to aid digestion.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke