Free Compost?!

Last weekend, I was walking home from the grocery store, and I decided to take an alternate route. This was a very fortuitous decision, because I happened upon a public garden that I had never seen before.

And what’s more, I saw this sign:

Free compost? Huh?

There was a pretty large pile of compost and a woman was there shoveling compost into bags and putting them in the trunk of her car. Remember how the city of Palo Alto collects our green waste and turns it into electricity? I had assumed the “leftover” compost generated from the process was given to farmers, but the woman shoveling compost told me that that leftover compost actually ends up here, and yes, any Palo Alto resident is free to use it. The city restocks the pile regularly.

Well, gee. I’ve been bummed about the hard dry soil in the back of our house, so as soon as I got home, I found a bucket (an old garbage bin) and a shovel, and drove back over to the compost pile.

I filled the garbage bucket about 1/3 of the way full (that was all I could lift into my car).

Once I figure out the garden layout for next year, I’ll start spreading the compost so it has time to settle into the ground before planting begins. Hooray! I can’t wait to plant in better soil this year!

Foliage Friday: The Common Hackberry

The tree in front of the house, underwhich I park my car, has decided to drop all of its leaves now.

I usually have to brush them off my car’s windshield when I go to work in the morning.

I noticed that the yellow leaves and purple berries are actually quite pretty.

What is this tree?

It is Celtis occidentalis, also known as the Common Hackberry

This tree is similar to, and sometimes mistaken for, the American Elm. It actually used to classified in the Elm family (Ulmaceae), but has been reclassified into the Hemp (Cannabaceae) family (don’t ask me why). Unlike the American Elm, the Common Hackberry is resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that has killed off many elm trees in Europe, the U.S., and Canada

One way to distinguish the Elm from the Hackberry is their leaves. The Hackberry has three main veins that run from the base to the end of the leaf. The elm only has one main vein.

Hackberry leaf
Elm leaf (image from: source)

Although some people think the Hackberry looks like an Elm, the Hackberry tree supposedly gets its common name due to its similarity to the Scottish Hagberry tree, which has a similar fruit and growth habit.

The edible fruits are dark purple when mature and are edible. I read that they taste kind of like dates, so I decided I should try one.

Its flavor is, indeed, similar to dates, but the seed-to-fruit ratio is nearly 90% (the edible part of the fruit is really just a thin rind around a large hard seed), so I wouldn’t recommend these as a food source.

As seems to be the pattern with all of my Foliage Fridays, as soon as I decide to write about a particular plant, I begin to see it everywhere. The common hackberry is no exception. There are three I found on my block alone.

Starting My First Seeds!

On Sunday (Dec 6th), I planted my first seeds for the 2021 garden.

I decided to start with chervil and parsley to test out my seed starting set up. These are both cold hardy herbs, so if they outgrow the starter pots, they will hopefully be fine if I need to transplant them into the garden in January or February. Alternatively, I could put them in pots that I can bring indoors if the weather turns.

Also, I bought these seeds just a couple of weeks ago, and couldn’t wait to open the packages!

The chervil packet says it needs light to germinate, so you are supposed to press the seed into the soil surface. The parsley says it should be planted 1/4″ deep.

Here are my pots prepared with seed starting mix:

I used the smaller of the two sizes of newspaper pots that I made and cut the top off, so the pots are a bit shorter, to test out different heights.

Here’s the finished potted and labeled pots:

I watered them in and now…. I wait!

Mystery Squash Review

Last week I cooked up the mystery squash I grew this year!

I simply chopped it in half and roasted in the oven (at 350°F for 20 or 30 minutes).

It’s ancestor was definitely a spaghetti squash. The shell/skin is identical to spaghetti squash in color and texture, and the flesh was vaguely stringy and tasted exactly like spaghetti squash.

I added a pat of butter and some salt to one half to enjoy for dinner with eggs and greens beans.

With the other half, I made stuffed spaghetti squash using a recipe from Moosewood. The filling is composed of rice, onion, apple, orange, spices, and pecans. Yum yum! Very good!

And of course, I saved the seeds to plant next year! Fingers crossed they produce another squash…can’t wait to see what the next generation looks like!

My Seed Starting Setup

I’m about to start my first seeds for the spring! I have limited space and don’t want invest a lot in a set up that will be difficult to move when I leave California in a year and a half. So, here’s what I came up with:

I decided to use this tutorial to make pots out of newspaper. I used two different jars to make pots of two different sizes – small pots and large pots.

Here are the finished pots:

I made 15 small pots and 5 large pots.

I’m a little worried about the structural integrity of these pots, especially when they’re holding wet soil. I’ll be sure to report back on my results.

Here’s the seed starting soil I’m using:

It has peat moss in it, which isn’t great, but it was the only seed starting soil in the entire store.

As for light and heat, my room is the warmest room in the house, so I decided to set up a growing station on my dresser. I have a grow light (Thank you Nate!), which I hooked to my curtain rod. The light is plugged in to a timer, so it will automatically come on in the morning and turn off at night. I then had to bring the seed pots up to the level of the grow light, so I put my boards review books to good use!

The pots are sitting in a recycled lettuce bin to catch the water.

What do you think? I’m pretty pleased with my resourceful-ness.

Nate Makes Persimmon Bread!

I have a regular posting schedule of every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, but going forward, in addition to those regular posts, I’d like to occasionally post short little snippets here and there. This is one of them.

With some of the persimmons Nate took home, he made a persimmon bread!

He got the recipe from the Proportional Plate blog. He made a couple of modifications: he used Fuyu instead of Hachiya persimmons, and he didn’t use as much sugar (1/2 c instead of 3/4 c). He said it turned out ok, but he should have given it more time in the oven. Also, even after cutting back on the sugar, it was still very sweet. If he makes it again, he’d try making it without any sugar at all. The decorative persimmons on top are a nice touch, though. If you cut them horizontally, the have a pretty star pattern.

Foliage Friday: Kah-TONE-ee-aster

This is one of those plants that I see everywhere, but I never had a name for it. The red berries and green leaves are striking at Christmastime – similar to holly, but less poky.

When I was in the SF Botanical Garden, I came across one of these. There wasn’t a sign that I could see identifying the tree, but thanks to, I determined it was a Cotoneaster, probably Cotoneaster coriaceus

The name is pronounced kah-TONE-ee-aster, rather than cotton-easter. I know I’ve heard of this plant before, because the distinctive, non-intuitive pronunciation stuck in my mind. But for some reason I didn’t but two and two together – the image of the plant with its name – until now! I can now put a plant to a name and a name to a plant!

There are several different species of Cotoneaster. Some grow in a creeping habit, low to the ground, almost like ground cover. Others are shrub-like or (like the one above) grow like small trees. They can be evergreen or deciduous, and have distinctive, usually red, berries. Depending on the exact species, they can be hardy to zone 4.

Image from:

The particular variety I saw in SF Botanical Garden, Cotoneaster coriaceus, or “red clusterberry,” is evergreen with red berries. The word coriaceus means “leathery,” which, I’m guessing, refers to the leaves. I believe it is also known as Cotoneaster lacteus, or “milkflower cotoneaster” due to the milky white color of the underside of the leaves.

Cotoneasters are the in the Roseacea family, along with apples and roses. Unlike apples and rosehips, however, the berries of cotoneaster are not edible (at least, not to humans – birds can eat them with no ill-effects). Do not be fooled by the variety Cranberry Cotoneaster – it is still not edible! But they are pretty to look at a naturally festive at this time of year. Happy First Foliage Friday of December!

P.S. I found out last night that I passed my boards!! So excited and relieved!

A Visit To San Francisco Botanical Garden

Last Thursday (on Thanksgiving day), Nate and I took a trip to the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Our plans for Thanksgiving were: 1) Make a pumpkin pie 2) Make cranberry sauce 3) Make roasted butternut squash with caramelized onions and chestnuts, 4) Eat Thanksgiving dinner, and 5) Be thankful. We made the pumpkin pie the night before and the cranberry sauce the morning of, and it wouldn’t take all day to make the squash dish. The weather was beautiful (as always), so we packed a lunch and drove into the city.

Thanksgiving day is one of the SF Botanical Garden’s “free days.” There were plenty of other people who had the same idea as us, but it was still sparsely populated enough to allow for physical distancing.

I had high expectations, but I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed. It wasn’t bad, I just thought it lacked a certain specialness that I expect from a Botanical Garden. It felt like walking around in a park in California.

The park was arranged in regions that focused on plants of a particular area of the world (e.g. South Africa, Mediterranean, Chile). It’s a nice concept, but in practice… except for the redwood forest, the regions seemed to blend together. Plenty drought-tolerant, mild climate plants. There was no greenhouse… No rare/exotic specimen garden… Many plants were labeled, but not all. There was a duck pond – meh. The views were so-so. The landscaping was nothing special – just curved paths with plants along them plants. It was perfectly pleasant, but I wouldn’t put it on your bucket list. The Bloedel Reserve was definitely more worthwhile than the SF Botanical Garden.

Redwood grove

Perhaps the highlight for me was probably these “Active Coyote Alert” signs.

The possibility of seeing a coyote in the middle of San Francisco was exciting. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we did not see any coyotes.

I suppose I might not be giving it a fair shot. It’s possible that this isn’t the prime season for the SF Botanical Garden, and maybe I’ll need to visit again in the spring or summer. A walk through the botanical garden is a perfectly nice way to spend Thanksgiving day nonetheless. When we returned home that day, we made the squash dish and ate a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. And we were thankful the entire day.

A Fuyu Persimmon Harvest

Why did the turkey cross the road?

To get to the persimmon orchard!

This past Sunday, I volunteered for Village Harvest again, this time with one of their persimmon harvests!

We harvested Fuyu persimmons in a scenic private orchard in Gilroy, CA (the Garlic Capital of the World). The turkeys in the photo above were roaming around part of the property. They were a little camera shy and didn’t like people getting too close to them.

We were a small harvesting group this time – 10 volunteers plus two volunteer coordinators.

Most of the persimmons were high up in the trees, so we needed pickers or ladders to get most of them. The fruit doesn’t come off the tree easily. If we used a ladder, we could use hand pruners to snip the persimmons off of the tree. If using the pickers, we really had to twist and pull to get the fruit to snap off.

Once we got the fruit off the tree, we trimmed the woody stem as close to the fruit as we could, so the stems wouldn’t puncture other fruit while the fruit was packed in transit.

In the end, we harvested over 1500 pounds of persimmons!

And of course, volunteers took home any fruit that had fell on the ground or any fruit that had been punctured. This is my collection – 104 Fuyu persimmons! So good and sweet!

Fuyu persimmons are a non-astringent variety, so I can eat them as is. I also took home four Hachiya persimmons, which are astringent and need to be blet before I can eat them. I’ve never bletted persimmons before, but I’ve read that they should feel like a water ballon when they’re ready to eat.

I enjoy eating Fuyu persimmons just as is, but it could be fun to test out baking recipes that use persimmons. If you’ve cooked with persimmons before, send me your persimmon recipes!