Final harvest

1008131715_ed_lAfter 25 years living in my home in Oakland and 15 years of building a mini-farm and gardening in my backyard, this was one-half of my final harvest. (The other half was given to a friend, of course.) As I write this from Grass Valley, I’m eating the squash and tomatoes shown in the photo, part of a favorite summer salad.

I’m going to miss my mini-farm. But, I’ll continue gardening in Grass Valley, where I’m on the landscaping team with other gardeners from Wolf Creek Lodge. Perhaps the most important item in this photo is not the edibles in the basket, but the cuttings in the coffee cup from my blackberry plant. I will plant them here in Grass Valley and see how they do. They could mark the beginnings of something good here. My beloved blackberry in Oakland was from a cutting received about 15 years ago from a guy in Berkeley and it provided the beginning of my urban agriculture pursuits. Taking this cutting with me, I feel like I am part of a hundreds-year-old tradition of horticulturists who have carried all sorts of crops around the world, providing the basis for our current farming and gardening.

Garden salads coming to an end as summer ends

IMG_7362_ed_lFor over a month I’ve been enjoying my favorite summer dish, a tomato, cucumber and feta cheese salad. This year I’ve had more of these than usual, given the productivity of my tomatoes and cucumber. My Sungold and Indigo tomatoes have produced hundreds of tomatoes, enough for salads, sharing and dehydrating. Of course, in addition to tomatoes and cucumbers, I like to throw in whatever else I can from the garden. I forgot to put in some celery, but did include my favorite summer squash, trombetta, and a new string bean, Musica Romana. All in all, combined with some whole grain bread, this provides a delicious meal.

I should add that if you’ve never tried a homegrown cucumber, particularly an English or Persian style cuc, they are nothing like store bought. They lack the unappealing paraffin coating, are crisp and crunchy, and have a good cucumber taste. Grow some, or hie thee to a farmers’ market and buy some.

It’s tomato season!

IMG_7291_ed_lI’ve got a medium sized crop of tomatoes this year. Some varieties haven’t done much, like the Green Zebras in the photo, but others have been prolific, like the dark red Indigos in the photo. Of course, the bright orange and sweet garden-candy Sungolds, are tasty and prolific as usual. The yellow ones are Yellow Mortgage Lifters. This photo is of one tray of tomatoes about to be started in the dehydrator.

It’s nice to dry any surplus tomatoes I have, because I love having dried tomatoes during the winter. My favorite way to use them is in soups. I simply grab a couple of handfuls of dried tomatoes and throw them in a kettle of water. They soften up and the water leeches out a nice tomato flavor for the broth. Then I throw in whatever else I want, often string beans and summer squash from the freezer.

A beautiful new tomato variety

IMG_7285_ed_lI was tempted this spring by the name of a tomato I hadn’t grown before: Indigo. I was curious what these would look like. The plant produced fruit very early this summer, but the fruit are only ripening now.

This looks to be a good variety, as it is productive, tasty and pretty. On the vine, before the bottoms ripen and turn red, they are almost black in color. IMG_7283_ed_l_rotLeft

No, these aren’t jelly beans

IMG_7286_ed_lI’ve been experimenting with growing a few dry beans in the past couple of years, but this year decided to ramp it up and grow more beans and more varieties. Today, I picked about half of my crop and shelled them. Although they look like something from the Jelly Belly factory, they’re not jelly beans. I just like beans that look interesting.

I’m still not growing enough to provide a lot of protein, but it is a worthwhile experiment. Most gardeners grow only fruits and vegetables that don’t provide a lot of protein. So, this is one way to get some protein from my garden.

A plum of a week (and my first fig)

IMG_6876_ed_lThis morning I was excited to harvest my first fig of the season, and it was tasty! I then started my regular pass through the garden, harvesting what’s available today. My two BIG items for the day are my string beans and my plums.

The string beans are a new variety for me, a musica romana. These beans are huge! And the plants (about eight) are very productive. Since this is just the beginning of their harvest, I’ll have to make room in the freezer for lots of them. They provide a nice addition to my winter soups.

IMG_6877_ed_lThe plums have been ripening like crazy this week. This will be my biggest harvest ever (what you see in the picture is about 1/3 of the harvest so far this week) and I’m struggling to deal with all of them. They don’t travel well because they are so ripe and juicy, so giving them away is harder than my berries.  I started four batches of plum liqueur yesterday. I thought of making jam, but what I’ve been learning is that they are simply too ripe to make good jam. I’ll try to be very careful with them and take them for snacks to dance class tonight and tomorrow. And I’ll take lots of napkins. :-)

Summer harvest is underway

IMG_6810_ed_lJune begins my summer harvesting season, with berries and stone fruit in abundance. This was my harvest one day about a week ago–mostly blackberries, some raspberries and a few apriums. The blackberries and raspberries are slowing down now, but the apriums and apricots are in full harvest. I started harvesting my blueberries about a week ago and they are just starting to produce in quantity. In about a week my plums will be coming in. My figs, grapes and apples are other perennials well on their way, too.

My annual crops are already starting to come in. I picked a cucumber a few days ago, and I’ve got two kinds of summer squash that I’ll start to pick in a few days. This is the best part of the year, with all these fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, preserve and share. Life is good as an urban farmer.

Pomegranate patience pays off

IMG_6815_ed_lA number of years ago, I finished planting out my backyard mini-farm, with raspberries, grapes, blueberries and a pomegranate. I’ve harvested the berries for a couple years, last year was my first small crop of grapes (this year looks to be stupendous) and I’ve been waiting patiently for my pomegranate to produce. A week ago, I noticed these little red “things” on my pomegranate, evidence that this year I’ll get my first pomegranates. Hurray!

I say “things” because I’m not yet familiar with the persimmon’s flowering and fruiting habits. I don’t know if this is a flower bud that has yet to open or, if I missed the flowers and this is already fruit on the way. Does anyone know?

In any case, flower or fruit, I look forward to watching it do its thing and to eating pomegranate seeds later this year.

I still have one tree–a pineapple guava–that has yet to produce fruit. It has flowered in past years, one of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen, but has produced no fruit yet. So, I continue to be patient…

Tough love in the garden–thinning fruit

IMG_6709_ed_lA fruit tree covered with blossoms will eventually produce many small fruit. One of the secrets of getting larger fruit is to thin those fruit aggressively, removing 50-90% of small fruit. This allows the tree to concentrate it’s water and sugars into the remaining fruit, making them larger and more flavorful.

So, what’s the problem? For most backyard orchardists, thinning fruit is a difficult, even painful process. Taking off most of the fruit feels like killing your young. Every one of those fruits has the potential to grow into a tasty morsel. But, just as putting 30 children in a single classroom is not the best way to educate children, leaving all those small fruits on a tree is not the best way to grow tasty and healthy fruit. IMG_6824_ed_lHaving a small number of students in a classroom allows the precious time of a skilled teacher to be focused on a smaller number of children. And thinning fruit on your trees allows the tree to focus its resources on the remaining fruit. So, you must thin the fruit.

A quick how-to: Thin fruit so the remaining fruit are about six inches apart. Go ahead, just do it.  It’s painful, but you’ll be glad you did.


  1. The first photo shows the fruit thinned six weeks ago from my apricot and two plums that are planted next to each other.
  2. The second picture shows some of this year’s harvest, picked yesterday,  of apricots (left) and apriums (right). There are several small fruits among the apricots, suggesting that I didn’t thin aggressively enough on that tree. Next year I’ll have to thin more fruit. The apriums are all large and beautiful, letting me know I did a good job of thinning that tree.
  3. The third photo shows some of my nicely spaced (i.e., thinned) crop of plums that are coming along, which I’ll begin to harvest in about one week. Yumm!

Transplanting my potted citrus trees

IMG_6670_ed_lMy two citrus trees, a Mandarin orange and a Meyer lemon, could not stay forever in the half-wine-barrel pots. This year it became clear that it was time to replant them. The orange, in particular, was looking very weak. So, yesterday, after digging a couple of holes in my front yard, a friend came by and we moved them both.

IMG_6671_ed_lIt was an improvised process, but we figured out how to make it work without hurting either the trees or ourselves. Those ancient technologies of the wheel (in this case a wheel barrow) and the inclined plane (a 2×12 plank) came in very handy. Upon discovering that the bottoms of the pots had rotted out, we slid the trees down the plank off my deck, then tilted the barrels on their sides and pulled the trees out. IMG_6674_ed_lTilting the trees back upright onto the plank, we lifted them to the wheelbarrow then slid them off the plank. After wheeling them to the front yard, they slid neatly out of the wheelbarrow into their respective holes. Mission accomplished!

IMG_6675_ed_lTransplanting these two trees marks a watershed moment in my gardening. Up to now, my back yard has been for food production and my front yard a drought-tolerant ornamental garden. For the first time, I have planted a food crop in my front yard. The primary effect of this is that I will now have to begin doing some irrigating in my front yard. With these trees making a beachhead for food crops, I have to wonder: Will I soon be growing other food crops in my front yard?IMG_6676_ed_lIMG_6677_ed_lIMG_6679_ed_l

About time

Maybe there is hope for the honeybee. Despite all the benefits it provides modern agriculture, it has been devasted by Colony Collapse Disorder. While multiple possible causes have been implicated, and it is likely due to a combination of them, the standout problem was identified several years ago. It is the widespread use of a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. This is a persistent (long lasting), systemic (travels throughout a plant, including into pollen), and non-selective insecticide. In short, it takes no prisoners; any insect coming into contact with it is threatened.

European nations began outlawing this class of insecticide a few years ago. The EPA, unfortunately, always sensitive to the complaints of Big Ag, has been reticent to do anything. In short, this shifted from being a scientific problem to a political problem several years ago.

Finally, this problem is getting the attention it deserves, but only because the California almond crop (basically the U.S. almond crop) is severely threatened this year, due to a crippling shortage of bees used for pollination.

So, why am I hopeful? Because the New York Times has finally opined about this with a strong editorial, blasting the EPA for its tepid response to date. (As often happens with articles on agriculture, the Times doesn’t get the technical stuff right. Please ignore their confusion between “systemic” and “persistent”, two quite different characteristics of pesticides.)

Read more here.

The lawn police are at it again

Every year at least one local jurisdiction decides that growing tomatoes in your front yard violates someone’s sensibilities.  The year has just started and we already have a new contender in the My Lawn is Prettier than Your Tomatoes nonsense. Mark Bittman of the New York Times has a column discussing some of the bigger issues, highlighting a town in Florida that is harassing gardeners for growing food in their front yard. I’m so glad I live in Oakland where so many people have taken out lawns and replaced them with drought tolerant and food producing plants.

Great article on vermicomposting

I’ve been vermicomposting for 10-12 years, feeding all my vegetable and fruit trimmings to my worms. I just throw the vermicompost into my regular compost bins and don’t do anything special with it. But, this article from the NY Times has me thinking I should do with worms. From now on, as my compost piles cool down from their initial high-temperature level, I’ll be throwing in a handful of worms to raise the quality of the compost.

I only have one small nit to pick about the article. The author mentions Charles Darwin’s interest in worms, but he makes a big error here. Darwin was writing about earthworms, whereas the article is about red worms, often called red wrigglers. There’s a big difference. Earthworms are good for soil. But vermicomposting is done with worms that don’t live in the soil. They live in the leaf litter on top of the soil. So, if you’re going to do this, make sure you use the right kind of worms!

Irrigating with rainwater in a Mediterranean climate

IMG_20121205_164919It’s a common belief that using rainwater for irrigation in a Mediterranean climate is not practical, because most rains come in the winter and most usage comes in the dry summer. The argument is essentially that you can’t store enough water to irrigate for an entire summer. While this weather pattern is a problem, it doesn’t mean you can’t–or shouldn’t–use rainwater to irrigate. Following are some thoughts on rainwater for irrigation in the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate as well as my experience for the year Oct 2011 – Sep 2012.

Four factors mitigate the problem from a seasonal rainfall pattern:

  1. There is some overlap of the rainwater collection period and the irrigation period. That is, in warm spring weather, especially with newly planted crops, some irrigation is necessary. But, some rains also come during the spring. So, you can be using stored water during the same period you are using it. What this means is that you don’t need to have storage capacity equal to all of the irrigation water you will use during the year. You can get by with considerably less, as my data below show
  2. The benefits of rainwater collection can be obtained from partial irrigation with rainwater. Any rainwater saved for irrigation is water not sourced from regular sources, and thus a savings. Even if only 25% of irrigation water for a year comes from rainwater, the savings in water and energy used to pump or transport water is saved. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
  3. Urban farmers are likely to be more efficient with water than large-scale rural farmers. In addition, it’s easy for urban farmers to collect and store rainwater. Residential roofs will collect much more rainwater than can be stored. Thus, demand can be lower and supply higher in an urban area.
  4. In a sense, the problem is being able to store sufficient water given the supply. This is being made easier by newer designs of storage containers, as shown in the photograph above. The containers shown each have up to 300 gallons capacity, yet have a footprint only two-feet deep, making them ideal to sit next to a house under an eave. Here they are next to my house but do not block my neighbors driveway. Earlier rainwater storage tanks were typically round and difficult to find room for, especially if they had a large capacity.  See a previous post here, with photos of my four 65-gallon barrels, ie, a similar capacity as the 300-gallon tanks shown, but with a much larger footprint. The eight garbage cans, again with the same amount of storage, take up an even larger footprint.

For the year Oct 2011 – Sep 2012, I had four 65-gallon rainwater collection barrels, plus eight garbage cans for secondary storage, which doubled my capacity to 520 gallons. I bumped this up somewhat with a dozen or so 5-gallon buckets, bringing my total storage to about 600 gallons. During this period, however, I used a total of 971 gallons of rainwater for irrigation. We had a warm spell from January to March, during which I used irrigated exclusively using rainwater. We then had a series of storms in April and May, during which I topped off my storage containers. So, this overlap period in which I both irrigated with and collected rainwater increased my actual usage of rainwater by more than 50% over my actual storage capacity.

In total, I used 1611 gallons of water for irrigation during the year. Thus, 60% of my irrigation was with rainwater. I irrigated exclusively with rainwater from October through June. The warmer months of July through September were with city water.

I have now doubled my storage capacity, to slightly over 1000 gallons. I believe with this total capacity, I may be able to irrigate my garden exclusively with rainwater this year. The experiment continues….

Still getting summer produce…

I’ll admit to having cut back on my gardening time this year, to not having planted my summer crops with enough soil prep, to not having tended to the garden as much as it wanted. Nonetheless, Nature is a wonder and she keeps producing for me. It’s after Thanksgiving Day and I’m still getting a few squash and tomatoes! Thank you, my neglected friend.

Thank you Mark Bittman for supporting Prop 37

If you know good food, you know Mark Bittman of the New York Times. He recently wrote an informative column on California’s Proposition 37 that is worth reading. I’m a scientist and I’m glad he mentions one of my pet peeves about  research on the effects of genetically engineered foods:

You cannot, for example, analyze or research genetically modified seeds without express permission from their creator.

Bad science makes the news. Again.

I hate bad science. It’s hard to do good science, but science is only effective when it is good science. This isn’t a rant about the bad science of genetically engineered foods (which certainly deserves a post of its own) but about a recent study published by Stanford scientists about organic food. You’ve probably read about it in the news, but if you haven’t you can do so here. The main point of the study was to test organic foods to see if they were more nutritious and safer to eat than non-organic foods. They found that organic foods were not more nutritious than non-organic foods and not any safer regarding E. coli contamination. Lower levels of chemical pesticides were found.

Why is this bad science? One of the points made to my cohort of graduate students was that getting results, even statistically significant results, is irrelevant if the questions being asked aren’t relevant. A corollary was that you need the right measures to test the questions you are asking. In this case, asking about nutrients is irrelevant because the organic standards aren’t about nutrition. They are standards for producing food without using artificial pesticides and herbicides. So, studying the nutritional value of organic foods is simply the wrong question. The correct question is whether organic foods have lower level of chemical pesticides and herbicides on them. This question was asked, and the researchers found that organic foods did have lower levels of these chemicals. But, this was not the emphasis of the study. Instead, they focused on nutrients and on E. coli levels. The latter was one of their metrics of healthy food, and they found no significant difference in organic vs. non-organic foods. Such results make for great headlines and lots of food industry punditry, but they are irrelevant and therefore bad science.

For further information and commentary on this topic, read this post by Marion Nestle (always a good source of scientific information on food issues), and a fuller commentary with multiple viewpoints here. Of the six commentators at the second link, I think Marion Nestle is the most succinct and accurate, based on what I know about organic foods from my many years following food issues.

It’s going to be a very good year!

This year looks to be my best yet for growing food. The warm winter, followed by a wet spring, resulted in blossoms galore and lots of soil moisture for my plants. Following is a sampling of fruits and veggies on their way, in various states of growth. Enjoy this beauty from my garden that I get to enjoy every day. As always, you can click on any photo to see a larger version.

Baby plums


Beet sprouts

Baby apples

Apriums–only my second year of these sweet-tart taste bombs.

String bean sprout–first time I’ve been on the ball early enough to plant these from seed.

Blackberry vine–my old standby.

Baby grapes. This is my first year to harvest grapes after several years of growing out the vines. Looks like I’ll have a bumper crop!

I’ve got a good crop of spiders, too! I think these are the orb weavers that are all over my garden later in the summer.

Critter-proofing my rainwater barrels

I’m fortunate I don’t have too much of a problem with the larger pests–racoons and deer–that many people in my area must contend with. However, something around here has been thirsty and has discovered my rainwater barrels. I’m guessing it is racoons. They’ve been ripping off the mosquito screens from the top of my rainwater barrels and I’ve been searching for a solution. I did buy a handful of stainless steel screws to put more screws around the edge of the screens, but I wasn’t optimistic about this approach. If it is racoons, they wouldn’t be put off by a few more screws.

A few weeks ago, someone was touring my garden and suggested I put a ring of some sort around the edge to hold it down. Liking the idea, I headed off to a local warehouse home store with my tape measure and a mental image of a 7 inch ring. As luck would have it, in five minutes I had found what I needed and it is perfect for the job: rings used in some way to install toilets. The size was perfect, as well as the number and location of screw holes.

Now installed, my rainwater should be protected from night-time critters and from breeding mosquitoes. Problem solved!

Last of the cauliflowers

Me holding the last of this year's cauliflowers.While I wait for my summer crops to come in (the perennials are well on their way) or to be planted, I’m harvesting my winter crops. Today I harvested the last of my cauliflower, which was a new crop for me this year. Five of the six seedlings I planted survived and produced large heads of cauliflower. I’ll definitely be growing more of these in the future. They’re good raw, but I’ve been cooking them and eating them hot as a side dish or chilled and put in my weekly salad. Either way, they’ve been a successful addition to my list of garden crops. I like them for the big heads as well as being able to harvest a half dozen or so huge (fiddle-sized) leaves, which are also great.

First out of the blocks this year: Apriums

With a very warm winter, everything has been blossoming early. But, nothing beats my aprium tree, which had a profusion of blossoms in January. It is now loaded with young fruit about the size of a quarter. I had my first apriums last year and they were delicious–tangy like an apricot, sweet like a plum. They’re especially good as an accent to hot or cold cereal.  I’m looking forward to more of these flavor bombs this year–and very soon, by the looks of it!

Rain water and earthquakes

My deck, tilted down in the corner.A few weeks ago, I moved rainwater from my catchment barrels to secondary storage–some new garbage cans on my deck. I’ve been storing rainwater this way on my deck for a couple years, now, but these were new barrels in a new location. Apparently, that part of my deck, right next to the house, wasn’t as well supported underneath as the other place. When I first put the water there, there was no problem. But, a few days later we had an earthquake. The next day I noticed a marked tilt to my deck. Live and learn! Four garbage cans of water weight slightly over one-half ton. The combination of that weight and an earthquake has left me with a new project–repairing my deck! The water has now been moved to a new location, on solid earth.

In other good news, this weeks storms have refilled my catchment rain barrels and every five gallon bucket I own. I’m now at my total capacity of over 600 gallons of water. I’m very curious to see how far this amount of water will get me into the summer as I irrigate my garden.

My Five-Dollar Fuchsia

For some time, I’ve been looking for something to put in the raised planter in the middle of my yard. Although my backyard is my mini-farm/orchard/vineyard,berry patch, I’ve always wanted to have a pretty ornamental in the central planter of the yard. I thought I would put in a small Japanese maple, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. A week ago, I was reminded that a local nursery was getting out of the retail business and had an 80% off sale. I figured it was a pretty good time to use the $25 gift certificate I had picked up at a fund raiser several years ago, so I went to the nursery in search of the perfect Japanese maple. The nursery didn’t carry Japanese maples, but as I was walking around with one of the staff members, I asked about the pretty pink fuchsia in the five-gallon pot. Five minutes and five dollars later, I was loading the fuchsia in my car.

Knowing a storm was coming up at the end of the week, I planted the fuchsia on Wednesday week. I look forward to learning more about this plant and having it’s lovely flowers grace my garden in the coming years.

Water for my garden!

Rain gauge at 2.5 inches from yesterday's storm.

Rain gauge at 2.5 inches from yesterday's storm.

That was a nice storm yesterday, the first good one since early October, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve been watering my winter crops with rainwater from that early storm, using about 200 gallons so far. It’s unusual to need to irrigate in the winter, but I’m glad I’ve got my rainwater collection system.

Yesterday’s storm (with a few drops from Thursday) totaled nearly 2.5 inches. That was enough to completely fill my rain barrels, giving me another 260 gallons of water for irrigation.

A side note about the rain gauge: I put this up a month ago, as part of dealing with leftovers from my parents’ home. This was a Christmas gift to my dad many years ago and I’m happy to provide it a new home. It took me a while to figure out where to put it, since I didn’t want it to be “influenced” by trees or buildings. The only good place I found is on my grape trellis I installed in 2010. Now, it’s very accessible and a welcome addition to my garden.