Category: Gardening

My First Container Garden

I love to grow vegetables. I’m not necessarily good at it, but I get a lot of satisfaction from planning, preparing and planting the seeds and seedlings at the start of the growing season and then watching them grow over the summer. Back home, that whole exercise lasted approximately five to six months, tops. Here in Northern California the growing season never starts and stops. In fact, they have a saying here that there are only two seasons here: brown and green.

Fresh produce can be found in farmers’ fields, farmers’ markets and grocery stores year-round. There are certain times that are better than others to grow what might be referred to as “cold weather” crops and “hot weather” crops. Consider that in Toronto, Zone 5, cold weather crops constitute planting and harvesting lettuce, peas and radishes in early summer and warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are harvested during and after the heat of the summer, followed by root vegetables and squash as we move into Fall.

I think the same is true for Northern California, except the calendar starts a lot earlier–like, 2 months earlier–and you don’t ever stop planting–you can keep planting and growing vegetables, you just have to know what grows when in this zone, which happens to be Zone 10.

According to plantmaps.com, the first frost shows up around the beginning of December and the last frost is around the end of February. That’s a full 10 MONTHS of growing!!!

Many people here have fruit and even nut trees in their gardens–orange, lemon, lime, cherry, apricot, prune, grape vines, walnuts, even pomegranates. In fact, before this valley was turned into a bedroom community and tech hub it was covered in acres and acres of fruit orchards.

Photo of orchard in the Santa Clara Valley

I did the stereotypical thing and bought an orange tree within weeks of moving here. Even the woman at the nursery knew it–she said the firs thing people do when they first move here from a cold climate is buy a fruit tree. I guess I’m that predictable. It’s a dwarf navel orange variety, which means I can keep it in a giant planter.

Next I took out some books from the library on gardening in California and planting a container garden. They were good inspiration and helped me reel in my romantic images of a garden straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie set.

I decided to buy a bunch of light-weight containers, some cheap plastic ones, and a few more expensive resin ones. What’s the difference, other than the price point, you ask? They are both plastic, but true plastic is fairly flimsy and cracks easily, as I learned when one of them fell out of my car right after I bought it. The resin ones I got are a moulded plastic, equally light weight, but they seem to be a little more durable and sturdy. I made sure all of the pots had drainage holes in the bottom.

I also bought a few large bags of raised garden bed and planter mix, but it didn’t appear to have much if any soil in it. So I went back to the garden centre and asked. I was on the right track but needed to amend the mix with potting soil.

The helpful garden centre guy also recommended using some vegetable fertilizer. Boy did it stink something fierce! I added a small amount to the soil and mix combo before putting the plants in. I left the bag outside by my tools only to discover that some animal (possibly the four-legged one that lives in our house) got into it, and spilled its contents on the ground. It is so ferociously malodorous, I can’t imagine anyone or anything, enjoying something that smelly.

I know I might have gotten too ambitious with my plants, but since I don’t really have a garden to call my own here, I figured I could handle about a dozen pots.

Here’s what I got:

San Marzano tomatoes

Grape tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Shishito peppers

Strawberries

Chives

And here are the seeds I planted:

Italian flat leaf parsley

Sweet basil

Golden beets

Nantes carrots

Giant sunflowers

Heavenly Blue morning glory

Nasturtium

Oh! And lil guy picked out a gerbera daisy, so we got one of those too.

I still have three pots laying fallow waiting to see which kind of vegetable they will host. I wish I could grow sugar snap peas, but I fear I might be a little late starting them now because soon it will get hot and there will definitely be no rain. Lil guy also picked out sugar baby watermelon seeds, but there really is no garden to speak of with lots of sunshine where a vine like that could grow. The entire backyard, while large is mostly hardscaped or covered in ivy and tall trees that throw a lot of shade.

I’ve got my eye on one spot on the north side of the house that seems to get continuous sun throughout the day. It would make a good spot for a raised bed, but it’s super close to the house, which is probably not a good thing–someone told me there are things called fruit rats here and I don’t want to have any close encounters with those.

So here are some photos of my work-in-progress container garden (and one little bed). It looks a little sad right now, but once the foliage fills out, I think it will look pretty darn good, and those veggies are going to taste delicious!

My little container garden collection–and orange tree.
Seeds by the little garden bed where they were planted

 

 

Yes, it snows in California!

This morning I woke up to the site of snow in the not-too-distant foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and on the east side of the Bay, MORE snow on the Santa Teresa foothills, which are part of the Sierra Nevada. At first I thought I was hallucinating, that I was having some sort of Freudian episode, pining for my land of snow and ice (which, ironically, is having a bit of a warm spell right now). But it was real. Unfortunately it was too far away for me to snap a photo, but the newspapers and television stations covered it aplenty!

Here’s a photo of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, which is about an hour northeast of where we live.

Lick Observatory Mt. Hamilton
Photo Credit: Gary Reyes/East Bay News Group

Contrary to popular belief, it gets quite cool in Northern California during the “winter” months. I still haven’t mastered the conversion from celsius to fahrenheit (and I may never), but I can tell you it dips down to nearly zero celsius overnight and warms up somewhere between the low to mid teens by the afternoon. I have no complaints about the sunshine–there seems to be an abundance of it. But sometimes I like the variation in weather and don’t mind a rainy day or the sight of clouds hanging low in the foothills. Wet weather here lulls people into a false sense of security, because the truth is there is never enough water. I drive past reservoirs and they all look desperately low. I see trucks from the Santa Clara Valley Water Authority driving about with workers checking on the sluices of the creeks that run through residential neighbourhoods, but there isn’t much to check. The creeks are barely a trickle most of the time.

At this time of the year the hills and trees are a vibrant green, drinking up every drop of water that falls. The birdsong is a beautiful sound to wake up to in the morning. I am particularly fond of listening to the hummingbirds banter with each other. We also have many birds of prey and some of them like to perch high atop the tall pines that adorn our backyard. Their distinctive piercing cry drives the dog crazy and he runs back and forth across the yard growling and barking from his land-bound posting.

The vegetation is varied and interesting and I hope to snap some more photos to share with you. I have no idea how to garden in this climate, but I’m going to try. So far I’ve purchased a dwarf navel orange tree. The woman at the nursery told me EVERYONE who moves here does that, so I guess I’m not that original. I’ve planted it in a giant planter so that we can take it with us should we decide to move. I’ve also planted a tomato plant, some basil and chives. I’d love to grow more vegetables, but it’s early days. Spring doesn’t really start until March here, so I’ve got some time to do the research, plan and prepare a kick ass container garden.

With that I can now fade off to sleep dreaming about Meyer lemons, fresh figs and rosemary bushes that never die!!!

If you’ve got any advice on what vegetables I should try to grow here, I’m open to suggestions!

 

New Theme, New Year (almost)

I decided to give this little pet project of mine a bit of a facelift with a new look. It’s cute, dontcha think? Very girly, which isn’t really me, but it’s easy on the eyes.

I don’t actually have much to tell you about right now so I thought I’d show off the planter at the front of my house. I’m proud to say that I’ve managed to use the same birch logs, some branches and the white berries in the arrangement for the last three or four years. I wish I could do the same with the evergreen boughs, but they just don’t last. Yes, very frugal of me.

New this year are the little battery operated LEDs, which I love, but seem to be rather unreliable. But you must agree, they really do complete the look, don’t they?

Winter evergreen planter arrangement with LED lights
Winter evergreen planter arrangement with LED lights

Happy Holidays to you all during this unseasonably warm winter evening!

I Fall For Fall

Ah Fall! The most  brilliant time of the year in my opinion. Talk about sensory perception: there’s a crispness in the air that hits your cheeks and nostrils every morning. The smell of earth and leaves is pungent and foliage on the trees is visually stunning. And don’t get me started on the food. The FOOD! Squash, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, beets (gasp for air), lettuce, turnip, apples, pears, peaches, plums (tell me when my birthday comes!)….All I want to do at this time of the year is plant bulbs in my garden, cook stews and soups, bake pies and crisps, climb into a cable-knit sweater and cozy down for hibernation. No, I’m not a huge fan of winter, but I do love Fall. I have now grown pumpkins in our garden for the last three years, although only successfully two out of those three. This year was the banner year, by far. The pumpkin plant overtook the entire garden patch sending it’s prickly tendrils into every other plant growing–my poor sunflowers barely stood a chance. The plant reminded me of the one in the Little Shop of Horrors (remember “feed me seymour”?). It grew and grew and grew, and for all it’s effort it produced one brilliant pumpkin. The kids are thrilled and the pumpkin now sits proudly on our front stoop awaiting carving for Hallowe’en. And it sits in close proximity to my planter, which now houses some lovely mums, false cabbage and tall grasses. I really must say I can get into the spirit of the season, however fleeting it is.

Our perfect plump pumpkin
Our perfect plump pumpkin
Fall Foliage
Fall Foliage

Buzz Off!

Last night friends of our came over with their kids for dinner. We were going to eat inside, but the kids decided to run around in the garden before the pizza arrived and the weather was actually perfect for dining al fresco. While the waning days of summer are ideal for outdoor dining, they are also rife with ornery bees just looking for their next fix. And let’s face it: no one enjoys having a yellow jacket hover over their food. They may be harmless, but they’ve got a bad rap for hanging around where and when they are least wanted. So we moved all the necessary acoutrements to the table on the deck but before a single crumb of food left the house I insisted on rigging up our bee catchers. My mother-in-law hangs these out on her deck and I’ve seen them at several restaurants. I finally snagged a couple at the Superstore in late winter in the clearance aisle for some silly price (in our house we call these a “deal of the ‘centch'”–as in century) and by gosh, they work! You simply fill it up with a bit of juice (we used orange) and the bees fly up the centre, the cork at the top prevents them from flying out and within seconds they start doing the backstroke in the juice! They are worth the investment–a whopping $1.79 I think it was–if you enjoy taking your meals outside.

Glass bee catcher
Glass bee catcher

Summer Harvest: Tomatoes & Herbs

All that rain and cool weather we were complaining about just days ago seems to have disappeared and been replaced with….how do you say it? Oh yeah, summer. And now everyone is complaining about the oppressive heat and humidity. But not my vegetable garden. No sirree! In fact all this heat is finally making my tomatoes blush. And all that rain? Well it made my herbs go haywire. As such the garden resembles more of a jungle than a cute backyard veggie patch. The sunflowers are towering over the tomatoes almost ready to burst with yellow blooms the size of dinner plates. The tomatoes look like something out of the Little Shop of Horrors–scratch that, the pumpkin plant has taken over and wended it’s way across the patch, over the deck stairs and back down into the grass (can you say, “Feed Me Seymour?”), and if it’s possible, my parsley, sage, thyme, basil and chives are producing too much! One should only be so lucky, right? So I had the pleasure of going out to the garden first thing this morning and while the kids munched on their breakfast outside on the deck. To my delight there were tomatoes aplenty to pick! I actually made a tomato and cucumber salad tonight, simply tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When the tomatoes are this fresh, there’s no need to dress them up. The freshness speaks for itself. Ialso took cuttings of the herbs into the office the other morning to share with my co-workers. I’m not sure everyone likes cooking with fresh herbs, but they are there for the taking. Might as well share the wealth.

Yellow & Red tomatoes from my garden
Yellow & Red tomatoes from my garden
Herbs from the garden
Herbs from the garden

Spring Bounty

Despite the below seasonal temperatures of late, the recent days of rain have given my garden that extra incentive to burst forth with blooms aplenty. Not only is my veggie patch beginning to show signs of life–the sage, thyme and chives are ripe for picking, and the radishes are coming up nicely–but the flower beds are filling in. It gives me such a sense of pride seeing all the vegetation growing so well…as if my hard work had anything to do with it (this is highly unlikely). There’s something novel about Spring gardens. Maybe it has to do with coming out of our winter slumber and hungering for the look and smell of greenery, but the work involved in maintaining a backyard garden is a welcomed task. The cutting of the grass, the pruning of the shrubs the weeding of the beds, the planting of the seeds. Gardening is one of those activities where you literally see the fruits of your labours. It isn’t for everyone–for one, you need to like getting dirt under your fingernails. You also have to be willing to let nature dictate what you can and can’t grow.  And you need to absorb every ounce of gardening knowledge that you can from the people you know. Although I was too young to recognize the value of that knowledge at the time, a lot of it came from my grandfather. I have fond memories of my grandfather puttering around in his backyard–I can picture him standing at the top of his backyard surveying the lay of the land, as if he were a king overlooking his kingdom with pride. He would walk me around the perimeter of the yard pointing out the various plants and flowers (“forsythia,” wigelia,” “begonia….”) as well as the vegetable patch up near the house that was teeming with mint right under the staircase and the wild raspberry forest that he tried so hard to tame from year to year. I’m proud to tell you I now have those very raspberry plants from his backyard growing in my backyard. I remember showing up at my grandparents’ house in the Spring and summer, and my grandmother was usually in the kitchen listening to the radio and preparing a meal. If it was late July she would say with glee “have some razzle dazzles(raspberries), I just picked them!” My grandfather was usually outside, garden hose in hand, watering his flower beds or vegetable patch. He did this very methodically and unhurried. His backyard truly was his escape. When my grandparents moved into their condominium, it was clear my grandfather would deeply miss his backyard. If memory serves me correctly, he even said so. But he tried to continue his love of gardening, transforming his small balcony every Spring into his little patch of gardening paradise.There are days I wish he could see my garden and it would be me giving him a tour of the beds, showing him what I was trying to nurture and grow. If nothing else, he left a very strong legacy of gardening within me. And now I get to share that legacy with my family….and all of you.

Columbine blossom
Columbine blossom
A bumble bee visits the rhododendron
A bumble bee visits the rhododendron
Mounds of sage and thyme
Mounds of sage and thyme
Chive blossoms
Chive blossoms
Radish seedlings
Radish seedlings

In Bloom Now

Another day spent toiling in the garden, creating a new flower bed next to the path I carved out of  the front lawn and tending to the existing beds. Whether it was reseeding the bare patches of my lawn or planting carrots and basil, it was a productive day. And when I looked up to survey what was growing in the garden I was astonished to see so many plants in full bloom (or very close to it). I still feel as if it’s too early in the growing season for plants to be flourishing. Particularly with the temperature dipping so close to the freezing mark at night. But today we had optimal Spring weather–the temperature hovered around 20 celsius and the sun was out all day. I was pleased to see my native plants, Jack-in-the-pulpit, red trilliums and bleeding hearts thriving. One of the rhododendrons was also beginning to show its soft pink blossoms. The lilac is bursting with blooms as is the purple sand cherry. The show stopper has to be the clematis sitting growing beside my garage. It got blown over in the hail storm we had this past weekend, but this plant is a fighter and once I staked it, all the crimson blossoms opened up. I’d love to see some pictures of your garden, so send them to me if you get a chance!

My "work-in-progress" front garden
My "work-in-progress" front garden

 

Red trillium
Red trillium

 

Jack-in-the-pulpit
Jack-in-the-pulpit
Bleeding heart
Bleeding heart
Purple lilac blossoms
Purple lilac blossoms
Purple sand cherry
Purple sand cherry
The showstopper clematis
The showstopper clematis

Early Bloomers

As I write this post, my 5-year-old son is sitting on my lap. He’s home sick today–woke up with flushed scarlet cheeks and a fever, followed very soon after by a bout of, well, there’s no better way to put this, vomiting. So it’s been a low key day around the house. However I did get a chance to wander through the garden to see how everything is growing after a good soak last night from a heavy downpour. This time of year always reminds me of the story of the Secret Garden–a book I intend to read to my children one day. Peaking out beneath the remnants of last year’s vegetation are the delicate shoots and buds about to burst forth in full bloom. For me, an avid amateur gardener, this is an exciting time. And now there is further evidence my garden is waking from its winter slumber. The early flowers of Spring are in full bloom: daffodils, fragrant hyacinths, muscari or grape hyacinths, hellebores and one of my favourites, Snake’s Head fritallaria, which are a relative of the tulip. This flower gets it’s name from the delicate pattern on the petals, which are reminiscent of a snake’s skin. I tend to gravitate towards flowers in the blues, purples, pinks and whites in my garden as you will see from the pictures below.

I’d love to continue the conversation about my garden right now, but the 43-pound child on my lap is becoming restless, and it seems watching me type and click the mouse is less than thrilling for him, so this conversation will have to continue at a later date.

White and peach daffodil
White and peach daffodil
Snake's Head Fritallaria
Snake's Head Fritallaria
Close up of fritallaria blossom
Close up of fritallaria blossom
Muscari
Muscari
Hellebore
Hellebore
Hellebore blossom
Hellebore blossom

Chestnuts, Brownies and Snowdrops

I feel like I’m having a bit of an identity crisis. I’m eager to get into my garden as I see the first signs of Spring have sprung in the form of crocuses and snowdrops. But I’m a cautious optimist. Unlike friends and neighbours who have already raked up the remnants of Fall’s leaves and collected dead branches and dried up plant stalks in anticipation of the Spring bloom, I’m waiting to see if Old Man Winter has really left the building. While I’d like to be out in the garden getting everything “ready,” there’s a voice playing in my head saying, “ready for what? Have you read the long range forecast lately?” And so I continue to exercise restraint, choosing instead to pay my respects to the last vestiges of winter by baking the ultimate comfort dessert, super chocolatey brownies and throwing together a pot of puréed chestnut soup.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops
Crocus
Crocus

I attempted a new brownie recipe this weekend from a book given to me by my brother and sister-in-law. It’s simply called “Bars & Squares” by Jill Snider. I’ve casually flipped through the book and thought about attempting a few of the recipes. I thought there were only a couple of brownie recipes in the book when I first started assembling my ingredients. Well, had I been paying closer attention I would have noticed the book has an entire section devoted to the brownie. In my haste I began putting the ingredients together for the “Brownie Overload” recipe, which calls for an astounding 2 1/2 cups of coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate. Then I notice the recipe calls for nuts and dried cranberries. Yuch! That’s not a brownie! So I start flipping pages only to discover I have 23 brownie recipes to choose from. But I have to stay the course, because I’ve already measured and mixed my dry ingredients and chopped up most of my chocolate. So, about an hour later I end up with a 13 x 9 pan of ultra-rich brownies. I think I over baked them a bit much, but all I need to do is throw one into the microwave for 11 seconds and it is absolutely heavenly. Perfect for an early Spring day to fight off a chilly breeze.

bars & squares by jill snider
bars & squares by jill snider
Mmmm....brownie
Mmmm....brownie

And finally, before the weekend concluded I promised myself I’d get around to making the chestnut soup recipe that my close colleague and friend, Susan Bishop was kind enough to share with me. She gives credit to New York Times cooking columnist and author, Mark Bittman, for the recipe. And true to Susan’s words, this was a very easy recipe to make. The hardest part of this recipe was finding the main ingredient, because fresh chestnuts are out of season. So I decided to do like Susan and buy the package of roasted and peeled whole chestnuts. A simple enough task, no? No. Upon inquiring as to the whereabouts of said chestnuts, not a single grocery store clerk had any idea what I was talking about let alone where in the store I might find said chestnuts. But I persevered and eventually after visiting grocery store #4, I found them in amongst the dried fruit and nuts. I was pleasantly surprised to see several brands available. In the end I opted for two different size packages because I wasn’t sure how many came in a package or how many I’d need. The recipe essentially involves sweating chopped onions and celery in olive oil with salt and pepper. Add 10 large chestnuts (I didn’t really measure this out) and cook in 4 cups of chicken broth for roughly 30 minutes. I let it cool and then threw it all in a blender. Susan says she likes to garnish the soup with shitake mushroom caps sliced and sautéed in butter until crisp, but I didn’t have any. And after the hunt for the elusive chestnuts I didn’t really want to venture back into the grocery store. As for the soup, it has a nice, light nutty sweet flavour and because it’s cooked in a chicken broth and there’s no cream added, it’s not a heavy soup. No doubt great as a starter or on it’s own with a good piece of fresh baguette for sopping it up.

Peeled chestnuts
Peeled chestnuts
Chestnut
Chestnut


So there you have it. A weekend spent looking forward to the impending Spring with a nod to the passing winter, which no doubt will have its final day of reckoning before we can safely put away our boots, jackets, gloves and hats. In the meantime I’ll be happy slurping my soup and nibbling brownies.