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Archive for September, 2009

Reasons for a Winter Vegetable Garden

Fava Blooms

Fava Blooms

Anita is teaching a class at Heather Farms about planting a winter vegetable garden and as part of the prep she asked me for a list of reasons to have a winter veggie garden. She’ll probably do the Socratic thing and get the class to come up with its own list, but I thought I’d post my list and see if anyone had other things to add. The winter veggie garden for us is loosely defined as the Oct/Nov planting and the Feb/March planting times with harvests starting in February and lasting into the summer or beyond.

  1. Favas!!!!
  2. The winter garden requires less time and effort than the summer garden — less watering, fewer pests (more slugs and snails, but fewer leaf miners, cabbage loopers, and marauding baby skunks), less staking & pruning? (peas need training and favas need some kind of support, but that’s compared to beans, tomatoes), onions and garlic and many other cool-season crops are ridiculously easy
  3. A few of those winter crops are specialty items — Favas turn starchy by the time they make it into stores, Mache (corn salad) can cost as much as $3/oz, I never buy Garlic Greens or Shallots but love them from the garden, you can never use a whole clump of store bought Parsley, Collards and other greens taste best with a touch of frost in them, I’m trying to think of other highlights of the winter garden?
  4. It makes for healthy soil and insect populations — nitrogen-fixing cover crops are fundamental, the winter garden provides food for the microbes and insects to keep those populations high, living mulch protects the soil from rain
  5. It looks better — it avoids that bare, bleak, abandoned look that a veggie garden can get
  6. Favas!!!!
  7. It’s productive — it takes advantage of our mediterranean coastal climate, we always get a warm spell in January, and February and March often alternate rain with sunshine in a way that many plants like, productivity is measured in bushels per acre, so get bushelling
  8. Fog belt tomatoes may be lousy but the early spring greens are world class
  9. You don’t stop eating food in the winter, so why would you stop growing it?
  10. It’s the easiest time to plant other perennials so why not edible perennials — strawberries and artichokes do best with late October planting, bareroot blueberries are available in February
  11. Have you seen the price of arugula at Whole Foods lately?
  12. It gives you something to blog about
  13. Snap Peas!!!!
  14. All the cool organic farms are doing it
  15. Did I mention Favas?
  16. Satisfaction — you have to temper your expectations, some things will fail, but it is conversely immensely satisfying to eat a home grown meal in early February

Also, I just think it’s good form. Please comment if you have other reasons that I didn’t think of.

The Late Show Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma

Stone Sculpture by Edwin Hamilton

Stone Sculpture by Edwin Hamilton

I have some photos from the Late Show Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma, the Bay Area’s new fall garden show, this past weekend. Cornerstone describes itself as “an eclectic collection of shops, wineries and a gourmet cafe set amidst nine acres of garden installations created by the world’s leading landscape architects.” LostintheLandscape has photos from a recent visit here and here. The Late Show Gardens, “the latest in design every fall,” is the new fall garden show hosted there. As they say in their tagline, the show is more about design than plants, and the demo gardens this year were all high-design, high-concept — a dinner table/water feature planted with edibles, a metaphor for global warming, corroded oil tankers and drums repurposed as planters. Garden Porn and Bay Area Tendrils already have photos up, and probably some other blogs, too. The demo gardens were all pretty interesting, but I was most impressed by the stone sculptures of Edwin Hamilton, a stoneworker whose work shows up regularly in books and magazines. Everyone always comments about how building rock walls is like putting together a giant puzzle, but his sculptures truly are put together like puzzles. Very tight.

Late Show Demo Garden

Late Show Demo Garden

Late Show Demo Garden

Late Show Demo Garden

Late Show Demo Garden

Late Show Demo Garden

This one started with a giant block of ice that melted and transformed the space into a reflecting pool, an unsubtle metaphor for global warming. It was pretty effective, actually, because of the cactus; it felt distinctly unsettling to see it in standing water. Kind of messed up to do that to a cactus, but I guess that’s the point.

We were checking out grasses for a couple of upcoming installs. I have photos of the grasses and some more sculpture by Edwin Hamilton below. (more…)

The Sagebrush Sea

Sagebrush Country

Sagebrush Country

Most of my time on the eastside, I was camped on the edge of the sagebrush sea that stretches from the Sierras across the Great Basin to Utah. It was a good opportunity to get to know that plant community. I’ve seen it and driven through it and even planted the namesake plant, Big Sage aka Great Basin Sage (Artemisia tridentata), in several gardens including my own, but I hadn’t really camped or hiked or spent an extended amount of time in it. It’s an interesting plantscape. Flat for the most part, with almost no trees, and the soil is loose and sandy and not for any plant that needs to be well fed or water-fat. The sun is strong, even though the actual temperatures stayed moderate because of the altitude, and there was almost always wind, especially in the evenings because I was at the base of a mountain. There were monsoon rains a lot of the time I was out there, storm clouds building during the afternoon and then briefly dropping rain somewhere on the landscape, frequently with a double or triple rainbow somewhere. Rains were still T-shirt weather, and the high desert smelled amazing afterwards. Sagebrush is one of those smells that evokes an entire landscape.

Snowberry, Bitterbrush, Sagebrush

Snowberry, Bitterbrush, Sagebrush

Most of what you see of the sagebrush in the photo is actually its bloom stalks. Sagebrush is wind-pollinated, so it doesn’t need a big, showy flower and it doesn’t care about attracting pollinators. The foliage is beautiful enough to make up for the lack of flowers, though. We made a tea with it one night and seasoned potatoes with it on another, and it smells nice in campfires or as smudge sticks. I usually think of silver foliage as an accent or contrast for green foliage, but silver is the dominant color in sage country and it is the greens that act as compliments.

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

A few other plants — Blazing Star, Prickly Poppy, and Sulfur Buckwheat — provided the showy flowers. The spiny, weedy foliage of the blazing stars and prickly poppies would probably keep them out of most gardens, but their flowers are fantastic.

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Blazing Star, Mentzelia

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Prickly Poppy, Argemone

Sulfur Buckwheat, Eriogonum

Sulfur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum

Sage at Convict Lake

Sage at Convict Lake

“The Sagebrush Sea (scientifically known as “sagebrush steppe”) covers approximately 110 million acres of the American West, making it one of the most extensive landscapes in North America. The heart of the Sagebrush Sea is shaped by the Columbia River Basin, the Great Basin, the Wyoming Basin and the Colorado Plateau.” More info, including details about conservation efforts and some cool maps, can be found at SagebrushSea.org.

Sagebrush Sea, from SagebrushSea.org

Sagebrush Sea, from SagebrushSea.org

September Blooms

Verbena bonariensis and Maximilian Sunflower

Verbena bonariensis and Maximilian Sunflower

I haven’t posted anything about our own garden in a couple of months, not since before I went out to the eastside, and yet it was great to see the garden after a month away. Really nice to come back to it. Though the garden’s looking a bit tired this month, to be honest. A few of the natives like the blue flax, the poppies, the foothill penstemons, and the woolly blue curls have a few token blooms, but they are basically hunkered down, waiting for the rains. This past weekend’s rain was a welcome surprise. Photos of plants, some native and some not, that are in bloom are below. (more…)

The Devil’s Postpile and Patio

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devil's Postpile National Monument

Probably the most striking geological feature on the eastside, an area full of geological features, is the Devil’s Postpile, one of the world’s best examples of columnar basalt. Columnar basalt is one of those natural elements that looks unnaturally geometric. It forms when it lava cools very, very slowly and evenly. The lava starts to contract and then crack, and because it cools so evenly the cracks form into hexagons, the most stable and efficient shape. As the Park Service page about the formation of the Postpile explains, “a hexagonal system provides the greatest relief with the fewest cracks.” (Bees use the same hexagonal system in their honeycombs because it forms a matrix with the most storage space for the least amount of wall.) Devil’s Postpile isn’t the only place where this has happened — the Wikipedia entry has links to many other columnar basalt cliffs, and pieces of columnar basalt regularly show up at stoneyards in the Bay Area –but the columns at the Devil’s Postpile are especially long and regular.

The Devils Talus

The Devil's Talus

The base of the cliff has the world’s coolest talus in my opinion. My crew was so well trained/indoctrinated that their first comment was how great these pieces would be for building steps. The park service doesn’t even let you climb on the talus, though, let alone build with it.

The Devils Patio

The Devil's Patio

Possibly the best part is that a glaciar carved off the top and made a natural patio.

The Devils paver pattern

The Devil's Paver Pattern

It’s uncanny how much they look like rough-cut natural stone pavers. Hexagons are stable because three joints come together at every vertex, making for a nice oblique 120 degree angle. The park service says that at Devil’s Postpile 55% of the pieces have 6 sides, 37% have 5, 5% have 7, and the remaining 3% have 4 sides or fewer. That’s a high percentage of hexagons compared to other sites in the world.

the Devils grading

The Devil's Grading

The grading is a bit extreme on parts of the patio.

Surprisingly Comfortable

Surprisingly Comfortable

Ahhh, nice, soft basalt. My crew never saw a flat surface that couldn’t be slept on.

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The Agnew Meadows Wildflower Mix

Sierra Lily, Lilium kelleyanum

Sierra Lily, Lilium kelleyanum

I was up in the east side at a great time for wildflowers. One area that really impressed me was at Agnew Meadows in Devil’s Postpile National Monument. In one place — a boggy meadow beside a stream — I counted a dozen different wildflowers in full bloom within a twenty foot radius, and I was impressed at how well the colors all complimented each other, purples and blues contrasted with yellows. I saw the same flowers growing together in various combinations at many of the other meadows and streamsides in the monument and in the national forest, but because they were all present at once in Agnew I started to think of them as the Agnew Meadows wildflower mix, as if it were a seed company’s wildflower packet. For a moist cottage garden at high elevation, I reckon you couldn’t do much better.
(more…)

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