Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gardening - a great lifestyle choice

It sometimes blows my mind to consider all the paths in my life that have lead me to this place - not just physically here in California - though that is an interesting ponder, but also doing what I do. I was the kid in school who hated to write anything. That's why I liked maths. A number is much shorter to write that a word.  Yet now, I write out of choice.  

And the garden - well, I used to envy the attention my mother gave her garden.  My sister, in a teen-aged tantrum once accused her (unfairly, I hasten to add) of having more time for the garden than for us.  It seemed that way to me too. Now, we realize that she gardened for us - to feed us fresh, if not appreciated, wholesome food. 
Each week, as I sink deeper into the Master Gardener training program, I grow a more intense appreciation of that love of gardening that my Mum nurtured in me. I wish she had a Master Gardener Program to join.  Forty-nine states in America and four Canadian provinces have Master Gardener Programs.  I don't even know if there is a similar program in Ireland or Britain, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.  If you know of a  Master Gardener Program in your area please leave me a comment.  I'd love to see what happens elsewhere.  
Master Gardeners provide the public with scientifically researched advice on gardening.  In Santa Clara County, California, they offer free work shops and library talks.  They have a hotline that the public can call if they are experiencing problems in their gardens.  As an outsider looking in, (though definitely climbing over the wall to get in!) I can honestly say, without any bias, that these people, who volunteer their time in such a generous and productive way, are absolutely fabulous!  And if you don't believe me, Urban Farmer called them the "Superheros of American Horticulture" in their January/February issue.

And how do they fund all this great work? Every year, Friends of Master Gardeners has a Spring Garden Market in San Jose. They sell a huge variety of heirloom pepper and tomato seedlings, as well as a ton of other veggie and flower seedlings. If you live in the area save the date - 2nd April, History San Jose.  I will be posting reminders...

One of the things I love that I love about gardening is the people I meet.  Master Gardeners puts a great emphasis on building community.  Last year four of us met at a Master Gardeners library course on vegetable gardening.  We formed our own little club and have become good friends. Now we meet regularly to swap seedlings, drink wine, plant seeds together, eat nice things, and just last week, we went on our first field trip to Hakone Japanese Gardens in Saratoga.

I hope you enjoyed the photos of the Japanese gardens, and I'll bet you were wondering what on earth they had to do with what was written. Just like in the garden - everything IS connected!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Poor gardening grammar

If the gardening season were a sentence, (like what was learned us in school) Springtime would be the capital-letter that starts the sentence, and winter is the full-stop (period to Americans) at the end.  Californian gardens have bad gardening grammar. There are three Springs - a small weird one when the rains come in the autumn and the grasses grow, the hills turning from golden to lush green - or as lush a green as an Irish lass who hasn't been home in a while can remember.  After the hard Californian winter (snigger) there is another Spring that brings forth cool season veggies - that can happen any time from December to March.  Then there is the third Spring, when the soil temperature hits the magic number of 55F, and it time to rip out the winter veggies and put in the warm season veggies.  Except I didn't quite do that, and now it seems I have perennial broccoli and kale (two types). 

Instead of a full stop for winter, here we had a couple of nights of hard frost, really just a comma, where the garden briefly stopped for a breath, gave up its tomatoes, egg plants (I'll use the American name because aubergine is harder to spell!), peppers and squashes, and then trundled on still growing stuff - lots of stuff.

Right now, I'm reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  This is a book that not just every American, but everyone who wants to eat tasty, nutritious food, should read.  Kingsolver discusses eating what's in season.  She points out that the order in which food is in season is linked to the order in which the plant grows it. Hardly rocket science, but something I've never really noticed until it was pointed out.  Probably because we import foods out of season with that must-have-it-now attitude that modern society has engendered.  Never mind that the must-have-vegetable has lost much of its taste in being bred for appearance and longevity, and many of its nutrients have broken down as it travels the long journey to our plates from its exotic origin. 

But if we eat what is grown locally, and therefore in season, it goes something like this:

The first food of the year is the tender leaves - lettuce,
two kinds...
bok choi - minus the nibbles taken by the resident slugs...
And there are also the new sprigs in the herb garden:

Coriander/Cilantro - could the purple tinge be indicative of a phosphorous deficiency? I was learning all about that in Master Gardener initial training today!
The chive seeds I scattered from the seed heads have started to grow cute little chive plants...
Then, as the late spring blends with early summer, you have flower buds like broccoli.
This is followed by flowers and fruit-set such as peas.
And speaking of fruit... though orange is a winter crop really, but I just had to show these off. They are delicious!
Late summer sees the deep reds of fruits like peppers...

Before winter sets in, the plants store all their goodness in their roots - ready for next year...  Like these carrots snuggling into the soil.
 The turnips look as though they are peeking out, asking, "Are we nearly there yet?"
The most bizarre thing is that I took all these photographs in my garden TODAY! 

Just as the Irish weather can give you four seasons in one day, the dyslexic gardens of California jumble up their sentences and give you four seasons in one plot!

Though I have to hold my hand up to cheating with the pepper. It's in the sun-room and totally struggling!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't ditch those post-Christmas Poinsettias

Once upon a time a poor Mexican girl called Pepita walked with her cousin, Pedro, to the Christmas Eve Services.  She was sad and upset that she had no gift for the Baby Jesus.

"Don't be sad," said Pedro. "Even the most simple of gifts will be acceptable." (Why do men always think this in general?)  And so Pepita stopped by the side  of the road, gathered an armful of weeds and arranged them into a bouquet.

When they got to the church, she laid the weeds by the manger and they blossomed into flaming red flowers. Everyone who saw them exclaimed at their beauty, saying it must be a Christmas miracle - instead of photoperiodism!

And another thing - those aren't red flowers. They are modified leaves, or bracts to be exact.  The flowers are really quite tiny and nondescript.

But apart from that, it is a sweet story, and it is lovely to see Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, a native of Mexico, in their full glory at Christmas time.  The star shaped leaf pattern symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem and the crimson red, the blood of the crucifixion.

A couple of years ago, my Mum bought us a Poinsettia.  She drummed home the message (as only Irish mothers can) that I was to keep it out of drafts and not let it get direct sun or extremes of temperature, and water it - but not too much.

As only Irish daughters can, I ignored her, and set it by our patio doors and promptly forgot about it in the Christmas fuss so that it dried out. In the nick of time, I hastily watered it  Thus followed the second Poinsettia related Christmas miracle - it didn't die!  In fact, it grew and it grew, until by May it was a three foot high green leafy shrub.

In June we moved house.  The Poinsettia tree was accidentally left outside in the full glare of the Californian June sun as we renovated the house. Some of the leaves suffered sunburn, but I cut those off and back it came even stronger.  Was it another miracle? Or just a happy coincidence that that was roughly around the correct time to prune the shrub - a fact I found out only recently.

By September, we were immensely proud of the plant lasting nearly a whole year, especially given that my Mum had reckoned I would kill it within a month! I looked up how to get it to turn red again.

At the start of October the Poinsettia needs to be placed in a dark (completely light free) cupboard at night (take it out during the day as it still needs to photosynthesize) for at least ten weeks.  There are month by month care instructions at this website.

I was all set to do this when I noticed the leaves begin to drop.  Was it too little water?  I had just fertilized it... Then I spotted the problem - SCALE!  Overnight, it had become infested with a gross, yellowy scale and we were all out of miracles.  We were really sad to have to send our poor little (former) survivor to the bin... not even the compost bin, for fear of spreading the evil plague that had visited upon our household!

So, last November, my Mum bought us another Pointsettia.

"Keep it away from drafts..."

"Yes, Mum."

"And strong sunlight..."

"Yes, Mum."

"And no high temperatures..." (What happens in Mexico, though, don't they have heat and drafts?)

"Yes, Mum."

"And keep it moist..."

"Yes, Mum."

"But not too moist, they don't like their feet wet..." (She tells me this about EVERY plant, then over-waters everything when she visits as it's warmer here than Ireland, and she decides that the plants will be thirstier.)

"Yes, Mum."

"And inspect it everyday in case it gets covered in those scale things.  Now, that's really know what happened last time..."

"Yes, Mum!"

And really you have to agree - when it come down it, Mother knows best.  Let's hope this one makes it to next Christmas!
Before I sign off I'm going to hook into May Dreams Garden in the hopes that my poinsettias qualify for January's Garden Bloggers Bloomday!

Byddi Lee

Friday, January 7, 2011

The pleasures of pruning

'Tis a soft day - thank God.  You don't get to say that often here in sunny California, where the sun splits the trees most days - aye, splits them but doesn't prune them!
This morning the hills were gone, wrapped in a blanket of white mist.  It reminded me of walking to primary school with my Daddy.  Saint Catherine's Primary School  was (and to my knowledge still is) an imposing red brick building set atop a hill and surrounded by high walls.  It could have been a fortress, dominating the town below as it did.  
Dad taught in the high school across the road from it and he walked us to school each morning, his big hands wrapped around our wee cold fingers, striding with his longs legs so we'd practically have to run to keep up.  On winter mornings we'd tell him "Look, we're smoking!" We'd pull our fingers from our mouths and exhale, our breath materializing as white puffs of vapor in the frosty air. We'd giggle at that, mimicking the grown ups in their filthy habit.  

As we'd come out of Castle Street and crest the top of our hill, we'd look across at the schools' hill.  If it were foggy we'd see nothing. And sure as the nose on your face, every time with out fail, Daddy would stop in his tracks and say, "Oh my God the schools gone!  We can't go."  Though we'd heard it a gazillion times we'd still laugh, hoping against all hope that maybe just one day he'd actually turn back and we could all go home to play.  As we grew up he'd continue to pull that line out of the bag and amend it as necessary (the church, the shops, or horror of horrors, the disco hall!)

So, it's the time of year for grey days in the northern hemisphere.  It's also the time of year for pruning fruit trees here.  My wonderful neighbor Al and his wonderful wife Karla (who, incidentally, is my wonderful neighbor too - Just making it clear to those of you who have already inquired - yes - Al is married!) came over to help me prune my fruit trees.  "Help" exaggerates my participation in the activity!  But I did look and learn.  Al had a huge job prunning the old fruit trees I discovered in the garden when I cleared out the privets, oleander and ivy. In the photo you can see where he has done the left hand side and is about to do the rest.  Here he is in action.
Karla in the meantime, not wanting to be idle, began to weed the patch of weeds that I'd been blogging about recently but had not made a huge deal of headway with, due to heavy rain and Christmas festivities!  Too shy  let me take her photo for the blog, here are some of the weeds Karla had pulled.
Shamed in to helping her, (weed my own garden) I joined in and by the time Al had finished pruning the big tree we had ALL the weeds cleared - Ta-da!
On both sides of the path!  Happiness is having a neighbor who loves to weed - Thanks guys.
Now all I need for a perfect world is to find someone who loves to clean my house!

Here are the grafts that took from last year (As Meatloaf says - Two outta three ain't bad!).  This is the cherry tree that Al grafted, to show me how.   
Here is the one graft that I did which took - it's an apricot onto a nectarine - I think!  I didn't write it down believing that I would remember it as we only did three...ho hum - lesson learned.
They both now have two branches and lots of little buds. Al was disappointed at the amount of new growth though, and advised me to fertilize it. Yesterday, at my first Master Gardeners class, (Woohoo!) I asked about that.  I have been using Dr Earth organic fertilizer, which Al was worried wasn't strong enough (he's a miracle gro guy- well, no-ones perfect!) But my mentor at Master Gardeners reckons that there may be a problem with the roots. That makes sense because I may not have dug a big enough hole when I planted them.  The ground was really hard.  If it felt hard to my spade then how much harder would it seem to wee baby roots?  I'm hoping all the rain this winter will help soften the ground She also recommended mulching with compost to encourage worms to help aerate the soil. And contine with the fertilizing regime I'm on...Dr Earth fruit tree fertilizer.

So what did I learn about pruning:

  • Pruning cuts should be about a quarter of an inch above a bud and (though not done in the picture above) slightly angled away.
  • Remove all dead, weak diseased and insect infested limbs.
  • Take out all low and broken branches.
  • Branches that cross other branches or grow downwards or  grow through the middle of the tree should come out.
I pruned my Crepe Myrtle bush into more of a tree shape as it was bushing out into the path too much.  I removed all branches below about three feet high, to show off the beautiful gnarly trunks of this tree.  All branches that grew out over the path were also taken off.  The blossom is beautiful but not when its poking your eye out!
For more details on pruning I recommend looking at this presentation "The Backyard Orchard - Prunning", by Allen Buchinski, Santa Clara County Master Gardener. It takes a minute or so  to download, but be patient - it is well worth the wait.  There are other links for pruning roses, and an general overview on winter pruning.

Between the huge text books that Master Gardeners gave me for the course, and all their online resources I wonder will I ever open my Sunset Western Gardener again?