Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Freeze Warning for Sacramento and parts of Bay Area

My citrus and tender ornamentals are covered for the most part. Even coastal towns will experience frost. I think this is a record breaker.

Aqua blue = FREEZE
Darker periwinkle blue = FROST

More weather info from the NOAA

My First Ever Tree Dahlia Flowers

10 feet tall.

A frost came dangerously close to nipping these in the bud, but the flowers managed to open for me. Ahhhhhhhhh.

Cal EPA Agency Officials are Vermicomposting!

As a fellow vermicomposter, this gives me the warm fuzzies.

Be sure to check out Bee reader comments. Juicy stuff.

Worm wranglers to the rescue

California Environmental Protection Agency officials have turned to some unlikely allies to help curb the amount of waste going into landfills from their downtown office building

By Edie Lau - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PST Sunday, November 26, 2006
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B1

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pondering the Perfect Potato

(photo from Wikipedia)
I wanted to share a recent revelation about the baked potato. All my life, I've been told "russet potatoes" make the best baked potato. Fine. All my life, I've thought a russet was a russet and the baked potato was a nice, bland meat accompaniment that is always improved with a little salt, pepper, sour cream, chives, bacon and cheese.

But when you're making an earnest (though not always perfect) attempt to avoid sour cream, bacon and cheese, that potato had better make an equally earnest effort to impart some flavor without having to get all tarted up for you. It took 41 years for me to find a potato that tastes delicious completely naked (the potato, not me, you perverts) and I want to shout it to the world!

Drooling with anticipation about where to find this earthy gem (that's a hint)? You need go no further than your local Whole Foods. That's where I found baked potato nirvana. On my last visit, pumped with endorphins from a ride on the bike trail, I mustered up the courage to ask the produce guy why their russet potatoes were so sweet and flavorful.

First, I pointed to the bin where I always found the special russets. I wasn't sure what exactly I was pointing at because they now had what appeared to be two different potato types in one stack. One was mottled looking with a smooth, glossy skin and the other had a dusty, netted brown skin.

He pointed to the dusty, netted one and said, "That's what you're looking for."

"Is there a special name for this type? Is it a particular variety of potato? Where is it grown? It's-so-sweet-I-love-it-Please-don't-ever-stop-carrying-it."

"It's called a netted gem and these are from California." He relayed that several customers had commented on the flavor, and that a group of elderly ladies told him it was "too sweet for mashed potatoes." I beg to differ, ladies, and I say that with the utmost respect. Still, isn't it remarkable that we're discussing the flavor of a potato and we haven't even gotten to the toppings yet?

I bought some, repeated the name "netted gem" several times out loud and not at all like a crazy person and finished my shopping.

Later that evening, I Googled "netted gem potatoes", which appear to be synonymous with Russet Burbank potatoes, and were discovered by a man named Lon D. Sweet. Ok, so, um, shouldn't it be named the Russet Sweet instead of the Russet Burbank? I mean, c'mon, he discovered it and it's so sweet and his name is Sweet.
According to Luther Burbank the Russet Burbank was originated by a man in
Denver, Colorado, who evidently selected a chance sport out of Burbank. Burbank
stated that, "These Burbank potatoes raised by Lon D. Sweet of Denver, Colorado,
have a modified coat in a way that does not add to their attractiveness. It is
said, however, that this particular variant is particularly resistant to blight,
which gives it exceptional value." Read more.
Oddly enough, I didn't come across any mention of the netted gem's superior flavor. Well, I have been accused of being a bit of a "super taster", so maybe I'm picking up this subtle sweetness when to many, russets all taste the same. But wait, remember the elderly ladies? They found the netted gem too sweet for mashed potatoes. I'm not imagining this! I'd love more people to try the potato and report back. Any chefs or potato farmers or foodies reading this?

This being a gardening blog, you're probably expecting me to encourage you to grow your own netted gems. Nah. You can't grow everything and potatoes seem like a lot of work. Is Sacramento lovingly referred to as Sacrapotato? No, it is not. It's Sacratomato. Live with it. Plus, the netted gem is reportedly difficult to grow in the home garden. Just buy them at Whole Foods and ask around for them at your local farmers' markets.

I'm also guessing there's more to this potato story than one produce man and Google can provide. If anyone is more up on their potato history than I, please feel free to comment. And were these potatoes really grown in California and not Idaho?

If you decide to make mashed potatoes out of netted gems, please let us know how you like them and what recipe you used. Can you taste the difference? Might want to test drive a batch before Thanksgiving. I'm betting your potatoes will be the talk of the table. Rats, I've been asked to bring green beans this year.

Dec. 13 edit: Check out the Cooks Magazine Potato Primer. It's a PDF download.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book...

... coming soon! Oh, the anticipation... I feel just like Steve Martin in The Jerk, when the new phone books arrived.

* Hardcover: 768 pages
* Publisher: Sunset Pub Co; 8th Rev&Up edition (February 2007)
* Language: English
* ISBN: 0376039175

Friday, November 10, 2006

November in my garden

A newly planted succulent bowl with babies from other bowls placed around the perimeter. Succulents root so easily that it's a shame not to take advantage of that fact. Even a single leaf dropped onto cactus mix will root and grow.

Another new bowl that I'll fill in with starts from my other bowls.

See the babies, i.e. freebies, near the outer rim?

It's sasanqua time!

This particular hibiscus has done really well next to the house, under a lath patio cover. It still has buds and flowers since we haven't experienced any frost or freezes yet.

My citrus has put on a nice flush of growth this fall.
I've got my frost-protection cloth ready to go if/when needed.

Still harvesting peppers... that's made it difficult for me to start my cool-season veggie garden.

Yep, still harvesting tomatoes.

Compact strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo 'Compacta') is looking festive

Mums are a great source of color right now.

Blanket of camellia petals and oak leaves on the Santa Barbara daisies... pretty.

Emily is not happy about the shift in the weather.

Despite the fact that I didn't plant any wildflowers this year,
I'm getting good germination from naturally deposited seeds.

Need to plant seasonal color in tired containers.

Poor man's orchid (Impatiens balfourii) still blooming

I really like the dark burgundy-brown of the ornamental millet. Adds some drama to the overwhelmingly silver-grey and purple background.

Looking forward to using the firepit.

Ornamental grasses really shine in november.
Roses are putting on their last show of the season.

My 'Eureka' lemon is looking a little snail bitten, but has put on a lot of growth.

We've had our first couple of real rains of the season, so the seat cushions are no longer tied on. They come in and out of the house, depending on the forecast.

'Medallion' and 'JFK' roses

My mini basil finally took off once the snail activity abated (mostly)

'Medallion' up close

Yes, I need to rejuvenate the chair planter with cool-season plants. This is the "before" picture.

I'm really happy with how nicely this succulent bowl is filling in. The plant in the lower left, commonly called "pork and beans" develops a wonderful blush on the leaf tips and is a great one to share with friends. Roots from a single leaf dropped onto the soil surface.

Slugs and snails are finally leaving my coleus alone.

I like the contrast between the decaying green, yellow and brown chinese ground orchid leaves and white lamium.

Dan loves his new toy, a stuffed duck.

He's going for the squeaker.

Nasturtiums are still doing their own thing. I started planting them a few years ago and now they happily return on their own.

No, this is not marijuana. It's a water hibiscus I grew from seed.

A baby gunnera leaf.

My salvia leucantha is a big, sprawling beautiful beast right now. My echium is getting big but still hasn't bloomed and my princess flowers are finally getting bigger and blooming nicely. They got hit pretty hard by frost last year.

Need a couple more plants to conceal my lovely irrigation system. The nifty bamboo ladder was a $20 score from Emigh Hardware.

I even like the decaying sedum leaves and seedheads.

Filling in with a little temporary color while deciding what this spot really wants to be when it grows up



Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Suzanne Ashworth's Del Rio Botanical Farm and Seed-Saving

Interesting article by Mike Dunne in today's Taste section of the Bee about local author/farmer Suzanne Ashworth's farm, Del Rio Botanical, and seed-saving mission--

Multicolored winter squashes carry the seeds of their future
By Mike Dunne - Bee Food Editor
Last Updated 5:56 am PST Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

New! 2007 Placer County Harvest Calendar

If you live in or near Placer County or need an excuse for a day trip, you might be interested in the new 2007 Placer County Harvest calendar. The UC Davis sponsored calendar is full color and lists hours, locations and offerings at the farmer's market, agriculturual fairs and annual festivals. What a great way to see what's available each month!

I'd like to see a Placer/Yolo/Sacramento/El Dorado version of this calendar, but Placer County is a great start and hey, they did it first, I presume.

The calendar measures 9" x 12" and can be purchased for $13 at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 11477 E Ave., DeWitt Center, Auburn, CA 95603. It's $15 to have it mailed (includes tax and shipping). Please make checks payable to UC Regents and enclose with order.

This'll make a great Christmas gift for any local who... well, who eats... or who likes to promote local agriculture, or anyone who wants to venture out on the weekends for a little wholesome fun.

Note to self: Tulips

Plant them now because it's been 6 weeks since you stuck them in the fridge.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Garden

Oh, those crazy (and talented!) kids...

Special order fruit trees, vines and shrubs through Dave Wilson Nursery now!

Californians (and Hawaiians, Idahoans and Arizonans), you have until November 16 to special order fruit trees, vines and shrubs through Dave Wilson Nursery (DWN) and pick them up at local participating nurseries. For the last two years, I've missed the deadline and searched local nurseries for particular fruit tree varieties to no avail.

You can check the DWN website to see what your local nursery ordered (a very thoughtful service on DWN's part, I might add). If they haven't ordered that succulent pluot or plumcot or cherrot or plapple (ok, the last two were made up) you've been fancying to try, you can fill out the special order form, phone, fax or hand-deliver it to your participating nursery, and pick up your order in January-February!

The participating nursery for greater Sacramento is Capital and in El Dorado County it's The Golden Gecko Garden Center. Elsewhere in California, click here.

(Photo from Dave Wilson Nursery website)

Since I ended up ordering three dwarf plums and a cherry through Stark Bros. last year (a great experience, by the way), this year I'm thinking about blueberries. For years, I've wanted to try growing them and Dave Wilson Nursery provides a recipe for success, including the right container mix and the fact that the Southern highbush varieties do best in low-chill parts of California. Pretty sure Carmichael is medium chill... around 600-800 hours, but I believe I still want to be looking at low-chill varieties because they tend to be more heat-tolerant. DWN says 500 hours and under is considered low chill.

Nov. 6 update: Foiled again! So, this time I remembered to special order in time, but it turns out blueberries aren't on the the list! I wonder what BDC (Blueberry Defense Council) will have to say about that... Oh, nevermind.

Guess I'll have to hit my local nurseries and see which blueberry varieties they carry. Grumble, grumble. I'll look at mail order too. Still, if you're looking for fruit trees (apples, plums, peaches, cherries, etc.) or nut trees, try the DWN special order program.

For current and historical chilling data for different parts of California, click here. To give you an idea of how many chilling hours we typically receive, the Fair Oaks weather station recorded a total of 655, 1101 and 647 hours from 1997-1999 and 617, 819, 717, 647, 698 and 1103 between 2001-2005. So all you gotta do is get a ballpark figure for chill hours in your area and then pay attention to the minimum chill hours listed for each variety on the DWN website.

The other Sacramento weather station is at Twitchell Island. Anybody know where that is? Sounds Delta-ish. Hours are measured November 1 through February 28/29 and so far this season, the Fair Oaks station has accumulated, um, 0 hours. Go team! The point is, you can see there's variability from year to year and judging from the last few years, the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks can count on at least 600 hours and some years they'll even break a thousand. We Sunset Zone 14'ers closer to downtown may not experience quite as much chill.

I'm always a little confused about my burb because Sunset has placed it, in different editions of the Western Garden Book, in both chillier Zone 8 and more temperate Zone 14. With the upcoming edition, who knows? All I do know is that I want it to get cold enough for my plums but not too cold for my citrus. That's not too much to ask for, is it?

For those of you experiencing California envy, you'll be happy to know you can buy Dave Wilson Nursery offerings by mail order.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My tree dahlias have buds!

A few years ago, a friend in San Francisco mentioned he had pruned a "10 foot tall tree dahlia." I shot back in a know-it-all tone, "There's no such thing as a tree dahlia. That's insane. It must be some other genus that has dahlia-like flowers." One tends to become a skeptic after learning the hard way as a budding gardener that there's no such thing as an "air fern" or a "tree tomato". A quick flip of the Western Garden Book and I was eating tree dahlia crow. A tree dahlia really is a dahlia. Dahlia imperialis. It can grow to a whopping 12 feet. Who knew? Not even this someone who aced several plant i.d. classes in college.

Two years ago, I saw... and touched... and photographed... my first tree dahlias in Mendocino, CA. On a coolness scale of 1 to 10, tree dahlias are a 10. I had to have one.

Last December I put out a query on GardenWeb re: tree dahlia sources and on whether or not anyone grew them in hot-summer, cool-winter Sacramento. Towering tree dahlias, with their striking pink (or white) blooms, are not common in the Sacramento area. In fact, I've never seen them for sale at a local nursery and I've never seen one growing and about to bloom in a local garden. Until now. In my garden!

A generous gardener from Calistoga offered to swap with me. He got starts of my 'Tropicanna' Canna and I got hefty stem cuttings of pink Dahlia imperialis. I was encouraged by the fact that Calistoga gets nearly as hot in the summer as it does here and if this man's tree dahlias thrived despite summer heat, then they stood a chance in my garden. I found a sheltered spot in the yard where they'd get sun most of the day but would be spared in the late afternoon. Because they were up against the house on the south side, they'd also be protected from strong north winds.

A previous attempt to grow tree dahlias from cuttings shortly before my GardenWeb exchange was a failure. A dear friend and fellow plant addict with the most kick-ass garden on the planet gave me a couple cuttings from her brother via a friend in San Francisco. For some reason, I decided to start my cuttings in my greenhouse, in sand. Not successful. My friend planted her starts in containers using regular potting soil and her tree dahlias are now in their second season and are neck-achingly tall, but with no flowers yet. All I can guess about why hers haven't bloomed yet is that the cuttings she started with were small compared to the whoppers I got from Calistoga. Or... is it divine justice for all the flowers blooming in her yard that aren't in mine?

Nah... probably just

Bigger stalk cut closer to the base = more nodes rarin' to grow

When I saw buds on my plants, I figured it'd be a good idea to apply some Fox Farm Tiger Bloom since I couldn't remember the last time I fed them. In fact, I probably hadn't, at all, ever.

Stem cuttings of tree dahlia resemble bamboo. I was instructed to plant them horizontally in containers. Shoots arise vertically from horizontal nodes on the stems. My plants are still in 5-gallon containers but when it's time to cut them back in December, I intend to plant the potted tubers in the ground and will stick a few new cuttings in pots in case my soil proves to be too heavy for good in-ground growth.

I hope to be able to share cuttings with friends and family who haven't yet been invited to join the church of the tree dahlia. I always find myself saying, "This plant is so cool. You have to grow this." Plant evangelist, yep, that's me.

If you want to try growing tree dahlias in northern California or beyond, check your local nursery; Kudos to any nursery carrying collector plants like this. You might also try your local dahlia society, and I certainly recommend online plant swapping through GardenWeb's Plant Exchange or Dave's Garden! Annie's Annuals sells the double white form and the pink form, by the way. In fact, tree dahlias might not be considered such a big deal in the bay area and other parts of the coast. Still... a dahlia... up to 12 feet tall? Dang!

Just came across the following link while doing a search for photos of the stalks. It's an ebay dealer in San Francisco that sells all kinds of strange wonderful things, including Dahlia imperialis. Hey, guess what the business name is? They have a great photo of the base of a mature tree dahlia plant. Also, they say a tree dahlia can reach twenty feet! OMG.

Ok, here's the official Sunset Western Garden Book entry on D. imperialis--

D. imperialis. TREE DAHLIA. Zones 4-6, 8, 9, 14-24. Multistemmed tree grows each year from permanent roots to a possible 10-20 ft. tall, 4-6 ft. wide. Daisylike, 4-8-in.-wide lavender flowers with yellow centers bloom at branch ends in late fall. Leaves divided into many leaflets. Frost kills tops completely; cut back to ground afterward. If tree dahlia were longer blooming or evergreen, it would be a valued landscape plant, but anual dieback relegates it to tall novelty class. Available from specialists; seldom sold in nurseries. Grow from cuttings taken near stem tops (or from side shoots) in fall; root in containers of moist sand kept in a protected place over winter. Or dig root clump and divide in fall. Give full sun or partial shade. D. excelsa, D. maxonii are similar.