Autumn Days and Anniversaries

It’s the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere, or in simpler terms, the first day of fall. It’s also our wedding anniversary.

Today (September 23) sees the 2019 autumn equinox, the moment when the planet’s northern hemisphere swaps with the southern hemisphere to become the one furthest from the sun.

Autumn is a good time to reflect, especially in the garden. While the perennials remain robust year-round, summer annuals are closing up shop.

We had a second year of disappointing tomatoes. Despite my best efforts planting the EarthBoxes with fresh soil and fertilizer, moving them to a new location and ensuring they got full sun, production was blah. My garden mojo took a hit.

end of season tomato Don’t be fooled. It looks juicy, but the sweetness has gone.

This stripey variety took months to set fruit. While they look interesting, I didn’t care for the thicker texture. All in all, one plant produced half a dozen tomatoes. Sigh.

stripes tomatoes A trio of Stripey Tomatoes

This was also my first season without pumpkins. We’ve relied entirely on the squirrels to plant them each year, even if their planting methods are unconventional. By the time I fully noticed, it was too late to plant on my own.

I had brief hope. After amending the mix in a planting box with heavy, sandy soil, a few pumpkin plants appeared. It seemed unlikely that they would amount to much, but while I was traveling in July they took hold. Alas, they didn’t establish in time. Although the plants became vines and proffered a few blooms, there was no time for setting fruit.

spent pumpkin vines Spent pumpkin flowers and vines along with other pruning debris

On a brighter note, I received this gorgeous yellow calla lily in a pot last year. Mike transplanted it for me in the front garden and it’s spreading its proverbial wings.

Yellow Canna lily, a thank you gift from FDC

It’s flowered twice and is now showing off its interesting seed pods as the plant goes dormant.

Calla lily seed pod Calla lily seed pod

Our garden is densely planted now, requiring careful thought when a new plant joins the mix. This calla lives in the shadow of the Magnolia tree, not far from the deck. I love the cheerful display.

Nepeta or catmint Nepeta going to seed

Nepeta, also known as catnip or catmint reseeds every year. It’s an herb, pleasing to cats, and humans alike. It produces a subtle scent in the garden unless of course, you’re a cat.

cat and nepeta Tessa enjoying the nepeta
white cat and nepeta Mouse the cat lounging on the nepeta

 

 

tuxedo cat in nepeta Lindy sleeping near the nepeta

Our cats become quite possessive of the plant near the patio, though Mouse likes to visit the plant in the side yard as well. We all have our favorites.

As for anniversaries, I married this wonderful man 24 years ago today.

Celebrating then and now (Went Brothers Winery, Livermore | Winchester Mystery House fundraiser, San Jose)

It was the first day of autumn that year as we wed on the grounds of Wente Brother’s winery in Livermore. The day went by in a blur, so I’m grateful for the photographs that help solidify the memories. I’m grateful for Mike every day and for our life together.

I’m grateful for you, too, dear reader, for continuing to show up and read my posts.

Temporarily Sidelined From the Garden

Campanula Serbian bellflower Campanula (Serbian bellflower) and hydrangea hugging the fountain

It feels good to be back in the garden. I did something to my back a few weeks ago and for a few days the pain was unbearable. It subsided and then my neck went out. Good grief, I am so over it! It’s spring for gosh sakes. This is no time to be sidelined from the garden.

I pulled a few weeds sitting in a folding chair, making it official: I’m an “old woman gardener.”

Last weekend, in between back pain and neck pain, we got things done. Mike hung the shade sails on both patios which we leave up for six months of the year. Shade sails make the San Jose sun bearable, while at the same time creating “rooms” in the garden. Once our shade sails are up we spend more time outdoors.

I repurposed a decorative shower curtain once again to cover the swing cushions. After sewing two or three replacement covers over the years, only to see them in ruin, I no longer dedicate any sewing time to a swing cover that is generally faded by the sun and gnawed on by squirrels at season’s end. It’s a decent compromise.

I hung a few mirrors from a local shop called Not Too Shabby along the back fence. I’ve always wanted to do something like this. It creates a focal point while covering up the boring fence. The mirrors are in the shade of the fruit tree and reflect different plants in the garden, depending on where you sit.

mirrors arranged on fence Patio and garden with mirrors on the back fence. (Pictured: Mouse and Lindy)
four mirrors on garden fence Your’s truly holding the camera for a closeup view of the garden mirrors

I planted tomatoes in my EarthBoxes® this year. Last summer’s crop was a bust, so I’ve moved the boxes into a more open space. Wind is more important for pollination than bees, so I’m hoping the new location on the gravel path pays off in delicious summer tomatoes.

pair of Earthboxes planted with tomatoes Pair of Earthboxes with tomatoes and red mulch

Astoundingly, this is the first time in ages that I don’t have any self-seeded pumpkins. That said, as the garden fills in, there is less and less room for the seedlings to take hold.  I’m going to plant pumpkin seeds in the front garden this year, so as the sweet peas die back in June, the pumpkins can fill in the space. It just doesn’t feel like a garden without pumpkins.

We had above-average rain this year, so everything looks healthy and refreshed.

My favorite, self-seeding flowers are back this year including Nigella (love-in-a-mist),

sweet peas,

nasturtiums,

and our state flower, the California poppy.  I liberally scattered poppy seeds at the end of last summer and it paid off.

Front garden Front garden natives mix with annual self-seeded cornflower, California golden poppies, & sweet peas

For any of you royal watchers, here’s a bit of California poppy trivia:

To commemorate Meghan Markle’s Californian origins, Clare Waight Keller included the golden poppy in the coat of arms.
Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important plant in the garden each spring is the Nepeta. Nepeta, also known as cat nip or cat mint is briefly intoxicating to cats. Lindy likes to eat it, Tessa dives in head first and all three cats take turns using the plant as a lounge.

cat sleeping near cat nip Lindy snoozing between the Nepeta and the violets
native garde Back garden and patio. Lindy standing near the Nepeta
cat with nose in nepeta plant Tessa dips her nose in the Nepeta
two faced Tessa Tessa enjoying the garden

Spring. There’s a little something for everyone.

Hot August Melancholy

Hot August days invite a certain melancholy. As July comes to a close, an ancient grief rises to the surface and the more I swat it away, the more it demands my time. My nine-year-old self rises to the surface and reminds me of my terrible loss: the death of my father on an oppressively hot, early August day.

Dad was a horticulturist by trade, but his love of gardening came home with him as well. He built our Ontario garden from scratch, changing a mound of dirt into what felt like paradise.

Daddy's Easel

Daddy’s easel, hung on the wall of my crafting area. Photos of his model of the Golden Hind, Dad with a dog on someone’s porch, the flower shop he once owned with my Mum in Seaforth, Canada

If he were with me today, I would place my hand in his and we would walk through my garden together.

bee on chocolate mint

A bee gathers pollen from the chocolate mint in bloom

I once captured bees in a jar to show my dad I was brave. He explained in his kind way why I should set them free. They’re good for the garden he said. I was six at the time but for some reason that memory remains sharp and clear. Perhaps when memories are scarce, we hang on to what we can.

bee on chocolate mint flower

A bee travels the garden

We had a shorter growing season in Canada, but Dad was able grow tomatoes each summer. What fun we had harvesting the fruit and bringing it through the back door for our lunch.

curb garden tomatoes

Three green tomatoes, coming along nicely in the curb garden

tomato plant flowers

Tomato plant in bloom

Dad didn’t grow pumpkins in our Ontario garden. It would be especially fun to show off my beautiful specimen and to smile about the squirrels that most likely planted them.

tree rat with birdseed

A tree rat helps himself to some bird food late one night

Dad loved all animals, once rescuing a mouse from a group of boys on the street in his home town of Oldham, England. I too rescue rats and mice and though most people cringe, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Mouse curb garden

Mouse surveying the curb garden

Daddy would surely get a kick out of a different kind of mouse: Mouse the Cat. Mouse is a rescue too, in his own way.

I descended from a long line of people who rescue strays. It’s a wonderful lineage.

These hot days will pass and my mood will lift, but for now I’m making room for that ancient loss and grief.

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Garden Tomatoes: An Uninspired Tale

I’m not sure what to think about this season’s garden tomatoes. The expression “failure to thrive” comes to mind. Sadly, the basil and the corn in this box aren’t doing so hot either.

VegTrug with corn, basil, tomatoes

VegTrug planted with basil, tomatoes and corn. They’ve all remained small

Generally speaking, tomatoes are fairly easy to grow. The plant is part of the nightshade family, so their poisonous leaves remain untouched. The small yellow flowers attract the bees and before you know it (usually!) you have a vine of ripening tomatoes. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the production as they fruit all at once. That has not been a problem this year.

I planted half a dozen bedding plants in the spring. Some years I start from seed, but I didn’t save any last year so I went the lazy route. I put several small tomato plants in my raised VegTrug and three more in my vegetable box.

native garden and veg trug

May, 2017. Everything looked healthy in May. The nasturtiums surrounded the tomatoes, until the heat set in

I had one more plant in need of a home, so I popped it into the curb garden where it would get plenty of sun in the company of the perennials.

It’s taken nearly four months for three of the plants to produce.

orange cherry tomatoes

The first of the tomatoes

orange tomatoes in planting box

The first of the tomatoes in the planting box. They’re small but delicious

The plant in the curb garden never grew more than a few inches tall and the same goes for the plants in the VegTrug.

curb garden tomatoes orange

Tomatoes growing on the left side of curb garden box…all five of them!

I amended the soil, and watered faithfully once the rain stopped. The plants aren’t drooping or diseased and there is no sign of garden pests. They’re just small and sad and completely unremarkable.

Poor soil could be the culprit though I amended the soil with coffee grounds which I got for free at our local Starbucks. I kept an eye on the water and I know they’re getting full sun.

Since I really wanted at least one healthy tomato plant, I bought a larger bedding plant in a different variety and planted it in the curb garden. It’s too late in the season to start over with a small plant or from seed. All the perennials are thriving in the box so I know the soil is robust. The new plant looks healthy so far, no thanks to my mad gardening skills.

tomato plant curb garden

Newly planted curb garden tomato plant

newly planted tomato

Flowers on the newly planted tomato

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, fire season is upon us. Locally, we’ve seen three small fires, two in San Jose and one in nearby Saratoga. They were all extinguished within 24 hours. A fire in nearby Saratoga burned on the other side of the ridge from the camp where my son volunteers. That definitely gave me pause.  The emergency alert system sent out a text saying to shelter in place, but when I checked on my son he said all was fine. We learned the following day that the alert went out to everyone in the county!  I’m glad the system works, but the error unnecessarily alarmed a lot of people, including this worrywart of a mom.  The largest active fire is in Mariposa/Detwiler. It’s burned 76,000 acres so far, but crews have it 40% contained. My hat is off to these firefighters that work tirelessly under unimaginable conditions throughout the fire season.

2017 Detwiler Fire map

Source: Google Maps

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Tomato Swan Song

tomato harvest

This weeks tomato harvest

The heirloom tomato plants pumped out fruit all summer long. We ate them raw and in salads, sliced between sandwiches and Mike made the surplus into salsa. Oh yum.

Alas, tomatoes are a summer annual and they’ve come to an end. Here in the Northern Hemisphere,  fall is just a couple of weeks away. It’s time for the tomato swan song.

The plant is still pumping out fruit, but the lower leaves are browning and the fruit isn’t nearly as sweet.

tomato ripening vignette

Ripening vignette

tomato plant in decline

Tomato plant in decline

I collected a huge bowl earlier this week, washed them and popped them in the freezer. We’ll be able to enjoy them in another salsa or sauce. I harvested some green tomatoes as well, and put them in a paper bag. If green tomatoes have released a gas called ethylene then they’ll continue to turn red. Otherwise they’ll remain green. The bag simply traps the gas and allows nature to follow its course.

Here’s an excerpt from Garden Know How:

The main determiner in how fast a tomato turns red is the variety. It will determine how long it takes for a tomato to reach the mature green stage. Tomatoes cannot turn red, even forced by modern technology, unless it has reached the mature green stage.

Another factor  is the outside temperature. Tomatoes will only produce lycopene and carotene, two substances that help a tomato turn red, between the temperatures of 50 and 85 F. (10-29 C.) If it is any cooler that 50 F./10 C., those tomatoes will stay a stubborn green. Any warmer than 85 F./29 C., and the process that produces lycopene and carotene comes to a screeching halt.

Tomatoes are triggered to turn red by a chemical called ethylene. Ethylene is odorless, tasteless and invisible to the naked eye. When the tomato reaches the proper green mature stage, it starts to produce ethylene. The ethylene then interacts with the tomato fruit to start the ripening process. Consistent winds can carry the ethylene gas away from the fruit and slow the ripening process.

If you find that your tomatoes fall off the vine, either knocked off or due to frost, before they turn red, you can place the unripe tomatoes in a paper bag. Provided that the green tomatoes have reached the mature green stage, the paper bag will trap the ethylene and will help to ripen the tomatoes.

This year’s crop planted themselves. I call them ‘volunteers’, seeds unintentionally planted thanks to the wind or a bird dropping seed. They’re often the healthiest plants in the garden.  So while I’ve saved some seeds, I’m also lobbing the occasional tomato back into the veggie box, hoping they’ll plant themselves again next year.  Sometimes, a gardener just needs to get out-of-the-way.

tomato long view

Tomato Plants: the long view Dear Reader, I wish you were here! This is a recent shot of my tomato plants. I’ve been harvesting tomatoes all summer long and putting them to good use. If you were here we could make a salad together while we caught up on our news. Until recently, that ugly pipe was hidden with cherry tomatoes. Just behind the tomato plants are the recently pruned raspberry vines. Let’s catch up soon. Cheers, Alys

 

Basil: Round Two

In case you missed it, my first attempt at growing basil this season failed miserable.  The basil grew fine, but then the snails ate it to the quick.  Turns out basil is one of their favorites.

basil fail

Two tiny ‘sticks’, formerly known as basil, right

Today I planted more basil, but with additional precautions.  I bought a packet of copper tape and wrapped it around the planter bed. A small electrical charge will keep them from crossing the copper tape.  One package was just enough.  The new basil is now planted next to the tomatoes.  The plants do well together, so they already have synergy going for them. Last year’s basil grew close to the tomatoes and remained healthy all season.

Since snails are resourceful, I needed to take additional steps to keep them out of the bed.  Clippers in hand, I removed all the lower, over-hanging tomato leaves.  There is no sense wrapping the box in copper, only to provide a nice bridge into the box for tasty dining.

Snail bridge?  All Clear.

Snail bridge? All Clear.

With my gloves firmly in place, I ran my hand along the under side of the upper box, making sure any hiding places were clear.  You don’t want to box the snails *inside* the planting bed.  I’m going outside one more time around dusk to be sure I haven’t missed any interlopers.

Meanwhile the tomatoes, no doubt confused by our warm winter, are growing like weeds.  They volunteered in the planter box…

volunteer tomatoes

Self-sown (volunteer) tomatoes

in the gravel walkway…

tomato in gravel

I’ll just set seed here if you don’t mind

and they volunteered in the compost bin.

tomatoes in compost barrel

Tomatoes growing through the cracks of the composting barrel

No shortage of tomatoes this year.

On the subject of compost, I’ve stopped turning the bin for now.  I want those adventurous tomatoes  to have a fighting chance.  I scooped out handfuls of compost and used it to dress the tomatoes and basil.  I’m still amazed when I see the rich, black compost, knowing it came from dried leaves, twigs and kitchen scraps.  It feels like my own little magic show in the garden.

newly planted basil

Newly planted basil, dressed in organic compost, surrounded by copper barrier tape

Now that basil, round two is safely tucked in and the tomatoes are sporting a few flowers, I’ll soon  have the makings of a delicious caprese salad.

Meanwhile, check out this fabulous site All About Slugs: find out what really works to control the slimy menace.

We focus on reliable information and natural, tested solutions that really work. We never recommend anything that isn’t safe for children, pets, wildlife and the environment. You can control these pesky pests and still enjoy a beautiful, safe and natural yard and garden.

The site provides a list of slug and snail resistant plants, many of which already grow in my garden. Of course I’m trying to grow three of their favorites too: basil, lettuce and strawberries (the fruit, not the leaves).

For a chuckle or at least a guffaw, take a look at Slugapalooza. You’ll find clever poems, drawings and photos and (I kid you not) an ‘interview’ with a snail. Enjoy!

It’s all in the Timing

Great cooks make it look easy.  They pull together a variety of dishes and manage to have everything on the table at the same time.  It’s all in the timing.

For three years now, I’ve tried to plant the tomatoes and basil so that they’re ready to go at the same time as well.  I love caprese salad, and the novelty of growing two of the three main ingredients is fun.

Here’s one of our salads from last summer.

Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad

In prior years, the basil took off, and the tomatoes took a long time to catch up.  This year all the tomatoes self seeded in late winter, sending me scrambling for basil.  I purchased a small plant from the nursery, and planted it near the volunteer potato.  It was about the same size as the tomatoes when it went into the ground, so I patted myself on the back and figured a job well done.

Ha!

potato plant

Scene of the crime

Something devoured my plant!  I’m not naming names or anything, but their initials are ‘S’ and ‘S’.  Those slippery, slimy garden pests noshed my lovely plant down to the nubs.  Boo!

Now here we are three weeks into spring, the tomatoes are taking off and the basil is…well…gone.

basil plant eaten by snails

Once upon a time I was a Basil plant

I was chatting with my friend Kirra today and she mentioned planting her basil by mistake too close to the tomatoes.  Then it hit me.  Last year I planted the basil and the tomato side by side without any problems.  Since tomato leaves are poisonous, I wonder if the proximity kept the S’s away?  It’s worth a try.

Just before hitting the publish key, I searched the term ‘tomato companion planting’ and you’ll never guess what came up: basil!  Last summer was a happy accident.  So I’ll be headed to the nursery for another small plant, and now I know exactly where it should go.

tomato plants

Hearty Tomatoes

Do you have a favorite summer salad?