Today is Palo Alto’s First Frost Date…

….and I haven’t seen frost in the garden yet.

According to weather.com, our lowest temperature so far this season has been 34 degrees on November 9th. That was the morning I woke up to frost on our neighbor’s roof, but the garden seemed fine with no significant frost damage.

The average low temps in December and January are 38 and 39° F. I wonder if it’s possible that we’ll never get below freezing at night at all? I think I underestimated just how mild these winters would be. Could I have planted a winter garden here?

I have to remember that just because the plants won’t freeze, it doesn’t mean they will grow. Not only do plants need a certain amount of heat, they need sunlight too. In these winter months, we have less than 10 hours of bright sunlight, and my garden plot – which is already on the shadier side – gets even less light. I was out in the garden just before 1 PM the other day, and it was already in shade. The growth of my kale and mustard greens has, not surprisingly, essentially stalled.

So, what I need to do next year, is A) get the plants in the ground in early fall so they have enough time to mature before the dark winter days set in and B) pick the sunniest spot for my fall plants. That way, they’ll be guaranteed to get as much sunlight as possible in winter. Hopefully, since I don’t have to worry so much about a freeze, I can leave the plants in the ground and slowly harvest from them all winter!

Foliage Friday: Pointy Acorns of the Quercus agrifolia

I see pointy acorns dropping on the ground all over Palo Alto.

They must come from oak trees, but these oak trees aren’t ones I’m familiar with.

The leaves are small and shaped like holly leaves with sharp spines.

What is it?

It’s a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia). It’s in the oak genus (Quercus), but unlike the oaks that I know that drop their leaves in the fall, this Quercus is evergreen. How queer? It’s native to California, and as the name suggests, lives in coastal environments: mild winters and summer heat tempered by the ocean breezes.

The Coast Live Oak is a common sighting on the Stanford campus. In reading about Coast Live Oaks, I came across the Stanford “Tree Transplant Program” (proper title mine). For the past few decades, when large trees are in the way of a new construction project, rather than chopping the trees down, Stanford tries to transplant the trees to other parts of the campus. It seems like quite a massive undertaking. A Coast Live Oak that weighed 550,000 lbs (275 tons) was transplanted to make way for the new hospital. Isn’t that crazy?! Not all the trees survive, but some do.

Before moving to California, I assumed all oak trees looked pretty much like the giant one in the backyard of my dad’s home

I *think* the oak tree in my dad’s backyard is a Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra). It’s massive. This is a relatively common tree in Portland, OR, and according to portlandoregon.gov, “Old trees become huge in all aspects.”

“Huge in all aspects” pretty accurately describes this tree. These photos don’t do it justice.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I like cooking and eating and I love the intention of the holiday – a time to reflect on everything we are grateful for this year.

As always, I have lots to be thankful for this year:

  1. My health
  2. A place to live and a space to garden
  3. A stable income, job security, and great colleagues
  4. Everyone who campaigned and voted to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
  5. This blog – a fun side project, and an opportunity for growth
  6. And so much more I don’t have time to list it all.

This year, for Thanksgiving dinner, I will be cooking pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and a caramelized onion-butternut roast with chestnuts courtesy of the community garden and orchard in Seattle.

Tell me, what are you thankful for and/or what are you cooking today?

Organizing My Seeds for Next Year

Well, this past garden season was a bit mediocre, but I’m looking ahead and starting to think about what I’m going to plant next year. This coming year, 2021 will be the only full year that I will have in Palo Alto to garden. I’ll move again in July of 2022, so I’ll only have half of a garden season in 2022.

To start my garden planning process, I organized my seed collection to figure out what I had to work with.

Here’s what I’ve got:

Flower Seeds: Marigolds, sweet peas, zinnias, and echinacea (all self-collected)

I planted the same marigold seeds this past year. I didn’t think they were spectacular, but I might try them again in a different spot to see if different conditions might improve them. I also plant a couple of each of the of the sweet peas, zinnias, and echinacea to see if my seed saving was successful.

Herbs: basil, holy basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill

Of the herbs, I’ll plant the Italian basil and cilantro (both the store bought and self-collected seeds to compare). I also have Thai basil that I’m trying to winter over. The parsley didn’t germinate for me this year in any of my three attempts, so I think this seed is a dud. I really want parsley, though, so I think I’ll buy a new seed packet.

Greens: kale and mustard greens

I grew these this past year, and they’re still puttering along in the garden. I expect they’ll likely winter over and will hopefully take off in the spring, so I probably won’t have to plant more of these.

Tomatoes!

I have one store-bought tomato and four kinds of self-collected seeds (some of which are hybrid, and won’t grow true). I think I’ll plant one of each to see what works and what doesn’t in this climate.

Root vegetables: carrots and beets

I tried planting these this year, and they were a failure. The beets came up, but a critter started chewing on their leaves before they were barely 2 inches tall. I’ll need netting if I’m going to try beets again. As for the carrots, I think maybe one carrot seed germinated, but it didn’t last long. I’m not sure if this is because the seed is too old, or if I let the soil dry up and that killed their germination. I might try again in the garden boxes, which have better soil than the in-ground area.

Onions!

Onions! I plan to try a handful of white bunching seeds and three walla wallas. I’ll start these indoors and wait until they’re a substantial size before transplanting them outside.

Peas and beans; Snow peas, sugar snap peas, blue lake pole

I’ll try growing these again this spring. I also saved one pod of blue lake pole beans, so I can test my self-collected seeds against the store-bought seeds.

Squash and curcubits

I don’t think the Armenian cucumber seeds have ever germinated for me, so if I want cucumbers, I’ll have to buy a new seed packet. I’ll plant a couple of zucchini squash plants again this year. I’m also planning to save the seeds from the mystery squash I harvest last month (assuming the seeds are salvagable) and I’ll plant those. I’d like to also pick up a packet of acorn squash or some other tried and true winter squash variety.

In summary (What I plan to grow next year):

— Flowers: A couple each of marigolds, zinnias, sweet peas, and echinacea

— Herbs: Italian basil, thai basil (overwintered), cilantro, and parsley*

— Greens: hopefully overwintered kale and mustard greens

— Tomatoes: 5 different types of tomatoes

— Root crops: 2 kinds of carrots and 1 kind of beet

— Peas and beans: Sugar snap, snow peas, and blue lake pole beans (x2 kinds of seed)

— Squash: Zucchini, cucumber*, mystery squash seed, acorn squash*

*will need to buy seed packets

I’m glad that I’ll be mostly using seeds that I have this coming year. I don’t expect a huge success given how my garden did this past year, so I’d rather start with what I’ve got and learn a little.

Now, I have to make a plan for starting seeds (timing, direct sow vs transplant, etc) and figure out where everything is going to go in the garden space. Exciting! I love planning!

How To Turn Compost Into Electricity or Farmers Market Vouchers (+ the #SeedMoneyChallenge!)

I am playing around with the site design so you’ll notice some changes over the coming weeks. Feedback and suggestions are most welcome!

Yesterday I volunteered at a community garden in East Palo Alto called Collective Roots. I spent an hour and a half there, and my task was sifting compost.

This garden actually has a program where people can trade kitchen scraps, which the garden group turns into compost, for vouchers to the farmers market. Participants have to take a short training course (to learn what food waste can go in the compost bin and what food waste should not). The garden then provides them with compost buckets which they fill for food waste and return to the garden. I’m intrigued, and I’ll have to look into it further to see if I’d be eligible to participate. It might only be open to East Palo Alto residents.


In the house where I’m living, the kitchen waste is picked up by the city every Monday. My landlord used to have a compost pile behind the garage, but abandoned it when the city began its compost collection service. The city turns the compost into electricity.

A company called GreenWaste collects and processes compost from Palo Alto residents. Sherry Listgarten, who writes blog posts for A New Shade of Green, part of the online Palo Alto newspaper, wrote a very informative post on how our compost is handled back in 2019. I recommend you read her original post, but here’s my tl;dr version: The compost is put into large ventillated chambers and allowed to partially break down, at which point microbes are added that digest the compost and produce methane. The methane is collected and burned to form energy. The digested compost is then able to be used for agriculture or other landscape needs.

How much electricity does this process generate? According Listgarten’s article, “The plant generates 1.6 megawatts of electricity, as well as heat for the percolate [the fluid that contains the added microbes]. The digesting facility uses only 330 kilowatts, so 1.3 megawatts is sold back to the grid through a contract with PG&E. That is enough to power over 1600 California homes.” This sounds great, but I don’t think she specifies in the article how much compost input was needed to generate this much electricity, so I can’t translate our 96-gallon yard waste bin into kilowatts. Also, there are 26,000 “households” in Palo Alto alone (according to the US Census data), so “1,600 California homes” only amounts 6% of Palo Alto. I don’t mean for that to sound discouraging. Composting is great for our soil! And powering 6% of Palo Alto homes with clean energy from food waste is better than powering that same number of homes with coal or oil. I’m simply putting it all in perspective.

Another point I found interesting from her article was this graph showing the breakdown of waste in each of our curbside waste bins (one for trash, one for recyclables, and one for compost).

https://www.paloaltoonline.com/blogs/photos/44/2754.jpg
Image source: Sherry Listgarten

People are actually doing a pretty good job of sorting their compost and recyclables! It’s also encouraging to see that “problem materials” (i.e. garbage?) only account for a small fraction of overall waste.

The soil here is quite hard and dry, and I wish we were making compost, but I think my landlord is perfectly happy giving his compost to the city, and doesn’t want to deal with the extra work of maintaining a compost bin. C’est la vie.


On a completely different note:

My former community garden group in Seattle is participating in the #SeedMoneyChallenge, which is a 30-day fundraising challenge for community gardens. The community gardens raise money from individual donors and compete for a chance to win additional grant money (up to $600) from SeedMoney.

There are 470 community gardens doing the #SeedMoneyChallenge. Our garden is the Meadowbrook Community Garden and Orchard (MCGO). They’ve already surpassed their initial fundraising goal of $800, and are thrilled with that! They’ve created a new stretch goal of $1500. With the money, they’re hoping to build a garden shed and install irrigation to both the fig orchard and the apple and pear plantings. The 200 gardens that raise the most funds will get an additional $100-$600. The competition is running from Nov 15 – Dec 15. IF you are so inclined to donate, the link to donate can be found here or by clicking on the image above.

Foliage Friday: Cyclamen

I passed by a house in our neighborhood this week and saw a bunch of pink flowers. Several of them had been freshly planted by landscapers. They looked very spring-y, and seemed a little out of place amongst all the fall leaves.

These flowers are familiar, but I couldn’t remember their name….

They’re cyclamen! (Thank you Google.)

Cyclamen are perennial flowers that tend to lay dormant in summer and then bloom sometime between fall and late winter or early spring (although some varieties bloom in the summer). So, they’re not completely out of place to be blooming in late November, and, in fact, some people use them as Christmas decor. Although I don’t think pink flowers fit with a Christmas scene, I do like the variegated leaves, and a white-blooming version could be pretty for Christmas.

Image from: Farmer’s Almanac

Cyclamen grow from round or pancake-like tubers. This is actually how they get their name (cyclamen comes from the word for cycle or wheel). A single planted in the right spot can live for hundreds of years.

Image from: cyclamen.org

(But just in case you were thinking, “Doesn’t that tuber look tasty?” be aware that the Cyclamen tubers are poisonous if eaten raw.)

The right place to plant cyclamen tubers is in a temperate climate. Cyclamen are native to the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel, etc), and thus like hot dry summers and mild, wet winters. They are, in fact, Israel’s national flower. Cyclamen is רקפת in Hebrew, which, I believe, is pronounced “rakefet”… I went down the rabbit trail and found a Hebrew song about cyclamen.

(Here’s a version with English subtitles.)

There are even cyclamen dances to this song…. enjoy.

When are citrus “in season”?

I always thought citrus where in season in the winter. Apples are in season in the fall, berries in the spring and summer, and oranges in the winter, right? When I was a kid, my mom’s aunt and uncle, who lived in Florida sent us a box of grapefruit and oranges every Christmas.

Then I moved to California in July.

Meyer Lemon: July 2020

The Meyer lemon tree in our backyard was full of ripe lemons. Huh?

I’ve never lived in a place where citrus grew outdoors before, and I hadn’t really thought to consider why citrus’s peak season should be in the winter….or if that’s even true….maybe it’s all a marketing ploy to get people to buy oranges in the winter?

What I’ve observed in the few months I’ve lived here:

  1. The Meyer lemon tree in our backyard had ripe fruit when I arrived. We’ve picked a lot of the fruit, and there doesn’t seem to be new fruit growing. Unlike plum or cherry trees, which drop their fruit when ripe, the lemons stay on the tree for a very long time.
  2. The lime tree started with no fruit in July, produced flowers and then ripe fruit pretty quickly thereafter. The fruit was ready to pick in October.
  3. The navel and blood orange trees started with no fruit on them in July, and have since grown several oranges that are nearly ready to harvest – possibly ready to harvest in December.
  4. Most fruit on citrus trees in this area seem to be ripening now and will be ready to harvest in the coming weeks. However, in just about any month, I could usually find at least some sort of citrus (lemons, kumquats, etc) somewhere in Palo Alto.

According to google, it’s true that oranges tend to ripen in winter, but that doesn’t generalize that to all citrus. Each type of citrus – lemons, oranges, grapefruit, kumquats, etc – has it’s own unique growing requirements, bloom time, ripening time. Some citrus can even produce fruit multiple times a year, or all year round.

Blood Orange: November 2020

Let’s take Meyer lemons: Different sources give slightly different information. One version says that they have two main bloom times – early spring and fall, and the fruit can take up to 6 months to ripen. Another take on the Meyer lemon is that Meyer lemons are really only available Dec-Feb. (I know this not to be true based on my experience this summer.) A third source said Meyer lemon trees can produce up to four crops per year. And lastly, another source says they can flower and produce fruit all year round. So, in summary, Meyer lemons may or may not have “a season.”

Eureka lemons, on the other hand (which I learned about back in March), are known to produce lemons all year round. This is one of the reasons most of the lemons you find in the store are Eureka lemons. Eureka lemons are, thus, always “in season.”

Similar to Meyer lemons, I see conflicting references for limes. Some sources say fall (August – December), while others say summer (May – October). I’m inclined to believe the first source (based on my limited experience).

Grapefruit and oranges, however, according to nearly all sources, have one main crop each year, which typically ripens in the winter-spring (December-ish to April-ish).

I found this chart from Friend’s Ranch that I think is helpful to visualize when different fruit is in season. It’s odd however, that, according to this chart, grapefruit is a summer fruit. Hmmm…. As my experience with Meyer lemons has taught me, take these dates with a grain of salt.

* indicates seedless fruit
Y indicates a great juicer
z indicates an excellent peel flavor, choice for zest

Whatever their true seasons are, I’m lucky I get to experience living in a place where citrus is grown locally and abundantly.

Doing A Little Garden Catchup

Boards are over! Hooray!! I procrastinated some garden things while I focused on boards, so now I get to catch up with gardening. 🙂 Here’s the short list for today:

  1. Cut back marigolds.
  2. Plant rooted Thai basil
  3. Plant sprouted plum seeds.


First on the list is cut back the marigolds. I did this in the morning before work, so I would have daylight. I initially planned to cut the plants all the way down or rip them out entirely, but I they are still blooming, and I don’t have anything planned for this space, so….

…I decided to just cut off the dead blooms. I hadn’t deadheaded at all over the summer and fall. I actually don’t really mind the spent blooms, but I’m not the only one who lives here, and I recognize it can become a bit of an eyesore.

Here’s the after:

Not all that much better (I missed a few blooms, plus the camera angle is off in the second image). These marigolds live to see another day!


Next up: Thai basil!

These Thai basil cuttings have grown long whiskery roots, so it’s time to pot them up.

Done. Easy peasy.

The Thai basil in the garden is actually still alive, so maybe I didn’t need to do this at all…maybe Thai basil is hardy enough to overwinter in our climate outside? I’ll let you know in April how it fared.


Lastly, plum seeds:

I believe I told you last week that two more plum seeds have sprouted

Well, the one on the left has since rotted. C’est trop tragique. But the one right is still growing.

And now it has been potted in dirt.

Ta Da! Here is my mini window container garden. The plum is in the middle, Thai basil on the right, and the jade plant cuttings are on the left.


All this only took maybe 20 minutes all together. I just couldn’t muster the energy or courage to do them amidst boards and work. All I needed was to make a list. Nothing beats the satisfaction of crossing tasks off a To Do list!

During my walks…

I don’t really have any garden updates this week. I spent most of my time studying and sleeping, but I did happen to take more walks during the day this week since I was at home rather than at work. The fresh air and exercise make for good study breaks. The fall foliage is just about peak here in Palo Alto, and I took some photos of some particularly nice trees I came across.

Already moving on to Christmas (do you spot the Christmas ornament?)

Foliage Friday: A Fern

Today is Friday the 13th. I took part 1 of my pathology boards earlier this week, and will take the second part on Sunday. My brain is fried, and I can’t wait for Sunday evening to come.

I went for a walk through Gamble Garden yesterday and decided that this is the plant I want to learn about:

The humble fern.

Ferns to me are the opposite of cacti. Whereas cacti make me feel hot, tired and thirsty, ferns make me feel cool and comfortable. Cacti say, “Stay away!” with their thorns. Ferns say, “Come and sit a while.”

Image from tripsavvy.com

I really like ferns, but I’ve never owned one ( as a houseplant) or intentionally bought one for a yard, and I don’t really know anything about ferns.

What I’ve learned for Foliage Friday is that ferns are a diverse group of non-flowering vascular plants. The reproduce via spores, rather than seeds, since they don’t have flowers or fruit. Spores are single cells found in clusters on the undersides of fern fronds. Ferns can also spread via underground rhizomes. The dreaded horsetail is actually a fern. The fern in the above photo is in the Dryopteris genus, more commonly known as Wood Ferns.

That’s your (very brief) foliage lesson for the day. Now back to human pathology.