Friday, November 26, 2010

Frost and foremost

Honest to God, you'd think it was the end of the world here.  The News has carried it every night in their headlines, urgent voices warning of the destruction that is imminent, and whilst it's not quite the end of the world, it has been the end of my zucchini, eggplant and pepper plants - FROST!

When I gardened in Ireland, I never held much hope for a winter crop.  I was too cold and too lazy to plant anything in the autumn, and when the freezing temperatures, hit I did not much mind what happened to the garden.  Springtime would come and I'd start again. 

Here it's different.  If I'm careful, I can have stuff growing all winter that I couldn't grow in Ireland.  But the question is, what will survive the frost and what won't?  I'm looking froward to the Master Gardeners program to get a more definitive answer to that question.

Last year, I took precautions when we had the one and only frost warning of the year in December.  I put bubble wrap over the lettuce, and they did really well surviving well into the hottest part of the summer before bolting. I'd heard that if peppers are protected from the frost they can be perennial, so I decided to wrap them in bubble wrap - some of them still had fruit on them.  I also wrapped up the egg plants too, more as an experiment than anything.

I also covered the little potato plants that had sprouted.  Notice the cherry tree growing in this plot.  I pruned this off a cherry tree that was dying and in the end needed to be cut down.  I used the cut branches as supports for peas and they blossomed!  It is still growing strong, and I'll move it, and three others like it, in Janurary. 
I had heard that you just need to cover the plant to protect it from frost, and that frost drops straight down. So I didn't worry about the pots that sit along the front under the eaves of the house.  I did experiment with other covering devices, like upturned buckets,
 and even garden chairs.
I made sure to cover the lettuce and bok choi. Only because they seem to me to be fragile, and therefore frost would make a difference - to be honest, I'm just guessing at this stage.
And so I went to bed content that I had done the best I could for my little garden. 

Why is frost and low temperatures so damaging  to some plants?

Well, when water freezes it swells, so if a plant freezes the water within the cells expands, bursting the cell walls.  That is why when the plants thaw out, they just flop over. 

The night before last the temperature dropped to 28F.  The zucchini wasn't covered and it bit the dust.

Where the basil was peeking out from under the bubble wrap, it got damaged, (right hand side of photo) but those leaves under bubble wrap seemed okay.

 The cilantro was very happy snuggled under its covers.
The bok choi were also well protected.
On close inspection the spuds were slightly damaged - you can see where the leaves have turned a darker brownish color.
 The leaves beneath seem okay and so my plan is to just leave these alone and hope that they recover to some extent.  I've also read that some other plants might recover too, and its best not to prune off the frost damaged parts.
Despite being covered, the peppers and eggplant took a a hit - that's how it goes, I suppose! I did however come across a website with great tips on frost protection (which you can read for yourself by clicking the link) that said to avoid covering with plastic - perhaps the bubble wrap was not as clever a plan as I had thought.

But the arugula was thriving.
 And the lettuce...

But wait a minute - I forgot to re-cover that patch of lettuce last night - so how did it survive the low of 29F?  After a garden fence clinic, (which usually occurs when I catch Al in his garden and quiz him on gardening matters over the fence) it transpires that, in fact, the lettuce is fairly frost resistant.  This was totally unexpected.  I turned to the internet for a second opinion and discovered that lettuce does survive a light frost. So, was all my nurturing in vain - those varieties that died were doomed - and covering those that were not susceptible, a waste of time?  

Not necessarily - the BBC website suggests covering lettuce when a frost is likely. Admittedly, British frost and Californian frosts may drastically differ, but if it does get cold enough, damage will be done. 

So, what makes a plant frost resistant? Apparently if a plant has a high content of salt in its cells, it is more frost resistant. This makes sense as adding salt to water lowers its freezing point. That why it is used on roads in the winter - not just to make them taste better for crazy people who may want to lick the road!
One thing I love about researching a question is that I tend to pick up lots of other useful titbits along the way.  From the same website I read,

"Growing tips

  • Winter salads traditionally have a strong, robust flavour that can sometimes be a little bitter. If you find that your salad leaves are too bitter for your tastes, try blanching the leaves by covering the plants with an upturned flowerpot.
  • Left like this for a few days before harvesting, the leaves will become paler and less bitter."

I'm going to try this with my arugula.

As for my kale forest - yummy - frost should sweeten the leaves!  A silver lining in every cloud.

Byddi Lee

Friday, November 19, 2010

Seeding is believing

When little cotyledons (first leaves) punch through the soil and unfurl to soak up the sun, I get a thrill from knowing that I turned a dormant seed into a living thing.  Well, oxygen, water and a little heat did, but I facilitated those conditions.

It has been even more satisfying to grow those seeds into a plant that has blossomed and produced more seeds.  As I harvested seeds and replanted them, I hardly dared believe that they would germinate.  It seems naff to call such a gentle process as germination exhilarating, but the success of my second generation seedlings has me on a high.

Many times a gardener is actually annoyed when a plant goes to seed.  Bolting lettuce means that the leaves turn bitter as their goodness (and sweetness) is diverted to seed making.  Producing seed is the plant's ultimate goal, and we gardeners often try to prolong the life of many of our plants by dead heading them to stop this process and channel the plant's life force back to blossom or root storage.

Around this time last year, I inadvertently bought and planted heirloom broccoli seeds.  At the time I didn't know what "heirloom" meant. During my Saturday morning classes, last year, I learned that heirlooms were a good thing.  If you saved the seeds from an heirloom plant they tended to grow plants very true to the type of the parent plants as opposed to hybrid seeds, most often used in agriculture, and which do not produce offspring true to the characteristics of the plant they came from.  So in summary - Heirloom = good seeds, non-heirloom or hybrid = not so good seeds.

If a seed is a heirloom seed, it will have heirloom written on the packet.

So, back to the broccoli; I started with twelve seeds and they all germinated. They grew really well and produced very tasty broccoli right through from about last January.    The  plants grew huge - nearly 7 feet high when I finally cut them down last week.

During the summer, we had to spend a few weeks in Hong Kong, and  by the time we got home many of the non-harvested broccoli florets had begun to blossom.
Normally, I would pick this then compost it, but I decided to let it grow into seeds.  In the meantime, I planted more seeds, from the packet, in another of my raised beds so that I would have broccoli when these were done.

Seed pods formed slowly but surely. It required patience and the ability to turn a blind eye to an unkempt look to this part of the garden.  But eventually there seemed to be seeds in the knobbly pods.
I cut the broccoli down and stored it somewhere dry to allow the seeds to draw the last of the goodness from the plant while they matured and and the pods dried out.
Once the seed pods start to dry out, it is best to put them into brown paper bags.  This way, if the pods splits and the seeds are spilled, you can catch them in the bottom of the bag.  I did this for all my seeds and labeled the bags (with the original seed packet if possible, so you can identify them and you have the planting instructions too.) By fortunate coincidence, my lettuce and arugula are also heirloom seeds, again bought before I knew what that meant.
The broccoli seeds are like miniature peas inside a miniature pod!

As are many of the seeds that plants produce. Here are some arugula seed pods.
The lettuce seeds were more like dandelion seeds, wind dispersed.
The lettuce seeds are tiny - each with their own little parachute.

So, I also had bunching onions in my garden which I had gotten as seedlings.  They flowered with big white showy blossoms.
As the flowers died back, I gathered up the dried heads and saw they contained little black seeds. 
We are still eating all other parts of these onions - the slightly bulbed root, the white stem and the green leaves.  Flowering did not seem to diminish the tase at all.  Even though these weren't described as "heirloom" I decided to plant them anyways.  What did I have to loose? It was another of my garden "experiments".

Likewise, my sweetpea blossomed gloriously in the early summer, and I allowed a couple of plants to go to seed, even though these are not heirloom either.
I gathered the little non-edible seed - how ironic is it that the variety you don't eat is the one that sounds tastiest?

Some basic rules about seed saving and germination
  1. Try to let the seeds ripen as fully as possible before you harvest them.
  2. If you find insects on your seed pods throw them out or use diatomaceous earth to destroy the critters. They'll eat your seeds if you don't, and possibly spread to the entire crop.
  3. Keep the seeds cool and very dry - use little silica packets (like the ones you get with new shoes) to help absorb water whilst storing them. This is a good use for your old jam jars - remember to label them with the year they were collected.
  4. Seeds will be viable from about 3-5 years.  You can test a sample for germination by putting them on damp kitchen roll to see what percentage germinate.
  5. Germination requires - warmth, oxygen and water. Very few plants require light (e.g. chamomile) to germinate.  Most are not affected by light and a few are prevented from germinating if there is light present.
So, I planted all my seeds and hey-presto, they all germinated - even the non heirlooms (though they still may not blossom nor bear fruit ).

The arugula:
The mixed leaf lettuce, where you can see two different types of cotyledons:

And just look at those broccoli grow:
Even the non-heirloom seeds have come up, and we've been harvesting the onions and using them like scallions - they taste great!
I'm still hoping that the sweetpea will blossom .
 Even if they don't I haven't lost anything by trying it.

That's the beauty of seed saving (especially heirlooms) - it saves you having to buy seeds every season and it means that the big seed companies and the government aren't the only ones with seeds.

In addition to this using heirloom seeds perserved genetic diversity amongst the vegetables and tend to taste better.  Heirlooms are typically better adapted to growing where they having been growing for some time and are thus more disease resistant, tolerate local weather conditions and repel local pests better.

It makes me feel weirdly attached to these little "children" of the plants that I grew.  It's great to see them growing happily in my garden, and I can't wait to eat 'em

Byddi Lee

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bulb Garden

They're in all the shops, being blogged about on all the gardening blogs and gardeners are boasting about how many they have.  Bulbs.  The promise of spring blossoms - or in some cases late winter blooms - is hard for us to resist.  When the nearby adult education center put on a bulb workshop for free, I decided that it was time to start the bulb garden.

I pictured clumps of tulips and daffodils and I'd planned to plant out bulbs that I'd been given in pots and that I'd saved to replant outside.  Some of these would produce lilies.  Add to that the Irises that badly needed dividing. They were beautiful last year - how much better will they be this coming summer with all the extra TLC they are getting.

After a quick trip to the garden center, (actually - there's no such thing as a 'quick' trip to a garden center) three dozen tulip bulbs and another five dozen daffodil bulbs later, I reckoned I'd have a great bulb population for my patch.

Hmmm - my patch. Taking advantage of a spare pair of green thumbs- my Mum is visiting from Ireland - I decided  to remove an area of the red lava stone that covers a lot of our property and work the soil beneath it.
But first I wanted to hear what the workshop advised.   It was given by a master gardener and I learned three very important things.  The first dismayed me.

1) Tulips don't grow well in California!

They need six to eight weeks in a cold place and should be treated like annuals here.  And I had three dozen of them.  It is recommended that they are kept in the fridge for six weeks.  During that time no other fruits such as apples should be stored in the fridge as they give off gases that kill the growing bud.  Even a warm up of half an hour will undo all your good work, so no taking them out of the fridge to make room for Thanksgiving!

When the time comes I'll post about how I plant them up.  I'll be using containers. So no tulips in the bulb garden, sadly.

2) Plant your bulbs three times deeper than the height of your bulb.  That is - if your bulb is an inch long you need to dig three inches down to bury it.

3) If an Iris rhizome has five or more leaves on it, it will blossom next season.

When replanting Irises it is best to think of a clock face about twelve inches in diameter.  Place around the clock at 12, 3, 6 and 9.  Orientate the leaves to the center and the rhizome outwards.  This part continues to grow under the soil.

Removing the red lava stones was a chore.  In places, there was black plastic beneath it, before we could even get to any soil.  In other places, the soil was churned up with the stones, so it wasn't a simple matter of just shoveling off the stones as we were losing half our growing medium.  Mum came up with the idea of sieving the stones with a riddle that we fashioned out of garden center 'flats' and bird netting.

A slow process but effective for the most part.  Here you can see the border between the lava stones on the left and the prepared bed to the right.  Inside the stone circle you can see my Gogi berry bush.  It's dormant - not dead - honestly!

Interestingly, the Irises had been growing in the stones and not in the soil below.  In some cases they had black plastic beneath them. 

We amended the soil with steer manure.  It cost $1.20 a bag.  We also added some old soil from pots that I had sitting about.  The soil was spent but we just needed to add bulk to the plot.  As it was, we were hard pushed to dig the bulbs in as deep as they should be.  Fingers crossed on that one.

To get a natural look with our daffodils we just scattered them randomly on the soil and planted them where they fell.  We clumped the lilies but are not sure if they even grow.  Come springtime I'm hoping for some nice surprises in this patch.  To deter the squirrels and other critters from digging up our bulbs, I sprinkled cayenne pepper over the plot, along with Sluggo of course.  I think I need to buy shares in the Sluggo company!

Finally two more points on planting bulbs. 

Plant them in clumps , not straight lines.  And the pointy end goes up!

Byddi Lee

Friday, November 5, 2010

Yosemite National Park

The first time I ever visited California, I was amongst the ranks of the great unwashed - back-packing, low on funds and at the tail end of a two year long trip that took me around the globe.  I headed for my cousin who lived in San Francisco and had a brief telephone conversation with her before I arrived.  She said, " You really should visit Yosemite National Park."  It sounded to me like it should be spelt "Joe-samity" and so when I searched on the map for it I couldn't find it.  One place I do remember seeing, I pronounced in my head as "Yos-ee-might," and so I though - nah that can't be it.  It mustn't be that famous if I can't find it on the map....I won't bother!

I'm a fortunate girl that had the chance to retrace her steps and come back to this spectacular part of the world to see what I had  missed first time.  When I first met my husband and told him that story, he promised to bring me there, after he could breath again following his laughing fit!

Now I've been to Yosemite a total of three times and plan to return for more.  I'd put myself on the line here and say it is up there with those other natural wonders of the world I've visited, Niagara Falls and Uluru (Ayres rock). Yosemite is a world heritage site.

I'm hoping that this post will allow anyone planing to take a trip there to make informed decisions on where  to stay and how best to use the time that they have whilst there.

Where to stay

Accommodation inside all National Parks is expensive for what you get, and you need to book far in advance as they get filled up quickly, especially the lower priced options.  Its only advantage is that you are right there and have little driving to do.  There are many more reasonable (though still in the high price end) places to stay at just outside the gates of the park and as you get further from the park those prices get even more friendly.

My recommendation is, for the first night, after a day traveling from, for example, San Francisco or Los Angeles, stay outside the park, moving on to stay inside the park perhaps for a night or two, and depending on the time of year, you can cross the Sierra Nevadas and stay in Lee Vining for a night. Then make your way back through the park or travel on through to Death Valley and perhaps even Las Vegas!

The Yosemite View Lodge at El Portal, near the West gate comes highly recommend, and is about a half hour drive to Yosemite Valley depending on traffic (summer sees a lot of traffic).  Rooms here range from $104 per room per night in November/Early December (low season rates) to $174 for the same room at the height of the summer.  Again, you need to book early to secure the lowest deals.

Another option is to push back to Mariposa, where prices start at $50 per room per night on Expedia.  It's a hours drive from here to Yosemite Valley.

Oakhurst is really handy for the south gate.  We stayed in the Queen's Inn and I wrote about this in last week's blog.  Oakhurst is about twenty minutes to the south gate and about an hour and a half to the valley.

There is a wide range of accommodation inside the Park.  This website has all the accommodations listed and is great for comparison.  You can push the boat out and stay at the plush Awahanee Hotel for $500 a night.

Prefer to spend the money on hiking boots and gortex?

You can stay in the cabin tents in Curry Village for $120 a night.  Not much of a bargin but right in the middle of things.  I've stayed in these cabin tents on two occasions.  Once was in July 2005 and again in October 2009.  Both times the tents smelt fusty, and they are a pain in that you cannot have any food stuff in your tents because of the bears.  In fact, you cannot even have your toiletries in the tent for this same reason.  Don't leave these items in the car as bears will rip apart vehicles to get to them.  You must store all food and toiletries in bear-proof lockers located  beside the communal toilets (a few tents have them conveniently beside them, if you're lucky).

The wildlife do wander around the camp grounds.  Keep a sensible distance from them no matter how cute and tame they appear. This buck grazed the bushes outside the toilet block last October when I took my Mum to Yosemite and stayed in Curry Village.

Although the cabins  tents are similar I prefer the campgrounds at White Wolf.  This area is higher in the mountains and only open for the summer months.  If it is open when you want to visit, stay here and visit the Valley for a day trip.
These cabin tents have their bear lockers right at the door, and inside they have a little stove for heat.  You get a couple of pieces of wood, and though we were advised that would be plenty we had been so cold in the cabin ten in Curry village the night before that my Husband and I decided that we would buy a couple more logs.
A few hours later our tent was so warm we had to open the windows and doors.  I'm sure the camping neighbors where thinking "Those crazy Irish!"

There are also regular camping areas where you bring your own tent, but these fill up really fast and you need to make a booking as soon as you decide that you are going.

What to do

If you click the link in the subtitle above you will get a web-page with a very comprehensive list of activities in Yosemite.  I'll just comment on what I know.

When you enter the park it costs $20 for a pass that lasts you a week, and you get a newsletter with a schedule of all the ranger led walks and talks.  These are free and very informative.  My Husband and I did the bear hike the first time we were there in 2005.  A bunch of about eight of us met the Ranger in the car park and he pointed up a tree.  High up in the branches sat a black lump. (Just below center in the photo)

When it moved, we realized that it was a bear.  The ranger told us all about bears and bear safety and that was the hike!

My favorite Ranger talk was the one I went to at Glacier Point for sunset when I was there with my Mum in 2009.  We watched Half Dome, the iconic mountain of the park, change through a repertoire of colors like a Diva changing costumes, while the sun set.
The Ranger was a good story teller, enthusiastic about his work and very entertaining.  This was where I heard about the fire-fall for the first time.  We were able to plan our schedule around these talks and learned lots from them that enhanced our Yosemite experience.

You can hire bikes, take horse back rides and bus tours through Yosemite but by far the easiest activity is hiking.  It's a fabulous way to feel part of the grandeur that is all around you.  There are many trails.  You could spend a month here hiking alone.  One of the most talked about trails is the hike up Half Dome, however, these days you need a permit for it.  A much easier hike and one that is great if you only have a couple of days in the park is the hike to the top of Sentinel Dome.  Here it is as seen from Curry Village.
But you can drive a good ways up before you start the hike.  Take the road to Glacier point, and look for a parking area and a trail head for Taft point about 13.5 miles on the left hand side.  There is also a restroom here - not that you want to rest too long in it - its a long drop - whew!

The hike is an easy to moderate 2.2 mile round trip with a bit of a scramble to the top of the Sentinel Dome.  From here you can see a 360 degree view of the Yosemite National Park.  It is truly spectacular.

We did the short hike to Bridalveil Falls in July 2005.

Mariposa Grove near the South gate is about an hours drive from the valley.  Here you will see absolutely massive Sequoia Trees.  Where Redwoods take the crown for being the tallest tree, Sequoias are the biggest trees by mass.  Here is definitely the "Little House in the Big Woods" - is there an Laura Ingalls Wilder book theme going on here?

You can take a tram up through the groves for $25 per person or save that for a pair of good hiking socks and walk up through the groves.  We went all the way to the Fallen Tunnel Tree.  This was the original tree that had a tunnel carved through it for cars. Obviously, not that good for the tree.


If you want to see Yosemite and not have to pay top dollar nor battle through the crowds, the best time to visit is any time other than the summer months, June-August.  During the winter, the mountain passes are closed and the highest areas, like White Wolf, are in accessible.  Glacier Point road is closed beyond Badger pass road once the snow comes, but then there is skiing at Badger Pass, which I have yet to try.

I've been twice during fall and once during the summer.  The August 2005 trip was cold and wet when we were there.  The 2009 fall trip was cold and there was snow at Glacier Point but not enough to close the road and just last month the temperature was a glorious 70F and sunny, even though it was two weeks later in the year.  So Yosemite weather is pot luck for the most part - you just have to take what you get!

What to do if you only have:


Take a drive through the Valley in the morning, visit the falls and have lunch at the Awhanee Hotel - not because its that good but because you just have to see that hotel!

After lunch, if it is summer time or you are a fast walker, take a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome. Or you could wander the valley floor some more then catch sunset at Glacier point. Allow an hour to get there from the Valley.

Spend a day as above then another day at the Mariposa Grove.


The first two days as above then on day three go to Hetchy Hetchy Resevoir and hike to Wapama falls.

Weather permitting stay at White Wolf. Then on day four get up and go through the Tioga Pass.

This breath taking (for more an one reason!) 9943 ft. pass takes you over the Sierras to the town of Lee Vining.  Stay here for the next couple of nights (at least).  

You can rent kayaks and explore the tufa but make sure you catch the sunset at Mono Lake.  

Take a day to explore the Ghost Town of Bodie. A town that grew rapidly out of the gold rush, and declined even faster.

Homes and businesses were abandoned, as if in mid breath.  Everything has been preserved as it was left...
You can look through the windows of the building but are only allowed to enter some of them.  Again - attend the Ranger talks - they are fascinating.  A real flavor of the Wild West!

From Lee Vining you can continue south then east to get to Death Valley - a blog post in it's own right.

If you have to return to the Bay Area you can go back through Yosemite or take the Sonora Pass. Beautiful and less traveled than the Tioga Pass, it's a good option of you still want to see more new things.  Of course, if you do take the Tioga Pass, you can always sneak back up to Glacier Point for one last view of Half Dome.

Byddi Lee