S Is for Sue–G Is for Grafton

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If you are among the millions who have read the novels of Sue Grafton, you may have wondered if our alphabetical scheme for this humble blog owes a debt to Sue Grafton’s alphabetical scheme for her Kinsey Millhone series. Yes, of course. How could one know and love her writing and not be enchanted by the simple elegance of her overall design?

Sue Grafton passed away Thursday, Dec. 28, in her beloved Santa Barbara after a two-year struggle with cancer. I did not know until the next day that she and her husband, Steve Humphrey, had a kitchen garden on their estate in Louisville, Kentucky. (Sue was born in Kentucky in 1940 and had returned there for part of each year in the past two decades.)

Steve, I learned, is the gardener in the family, but his love for plants and dirt had sparked garden enthusiasm in Sue, and she helped him in the restoration of the formal gardens on the estate, which they bought in 2000. In an article in Kentucky Garden and Gun in 2014, she spoke of the kitchen garden:

“We have an asparagus bed, potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries….It’s all organic….We’re like little farmers.”   http://gardenandgun.com/articles/sue-graftons-kentucky-garden/

Now, if you read the Kinsey Millhone books, you won’t find much about gardens or gardening.  Kinsey, as you know, is all detective all the time. Even when she spends the rare minute or two on such domestic pursuits as cleaning her tiny apartment or making a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, she’s worrying about clients and clues. She always gets down and dirty with cases, but the only time she really messes with the actual dirt is when she’s looking for bodies or hiding in the underbrush on a stakeout.

Still, for me, there is much of the gardener in Kinsey, and that’s why I love her–and why I love her creator. Kinsey is everlastingly curious, in the gardener’s simple and dogged kind of way. She never tires of wondering what might turn up next, and she pays attention to the smallest details. She cares very little about how she looks, but she cares very much about recording the progress of cases bit by bit. Like the gardener out for the daily exploration of the premises, she’s always optimistic about the next encounter with someone or something she hasn’t seen before or the next conversation with a “person of interest.” It’s not much of a stretch to say that she likes to add a bit of “water” to a conversation in the form of an intriguing question, just to see what might pop up. She might even get to the root of the matter by enough careful digging.

So, in her own way, Sue and Kinsey were fellow gardeners with all of us who like to get our hands dirty. Alas that she will not be gracing us with the final “Z Is for…” of the series, but A through Y are all perennials, firmly planted in our memories. As long as we return to them, they will continue nourishing us in years to come.

As for that yet-to-be-born “Z,” I think many of the seeds that she planted are already sprouting in the minds of all of us who loved Sue Grafton, and they will appear like the first blooms of the California spring, each in its own surprising way. Live on, dear Sue.

W Is for Water


Raindrops in the birdbath early December


Wildfires rage in Southern California, with the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties having consumed 270,000 acres, threatening Santa Barbara city, and having already reached the coast. Higher than average temperatures, the annual Santa Ana winds, extremely dry conditions, and the buildup of fuels from last season’s heavy rains have combined for a record fire season. These SoCal fires come just two months after the record fires in NorCal that devastated wine country counties and parts of Santa Rosa city.

This horrific destruction has prompted Governor Jerry Brown to call what California is facing “the new normal,” making necessary new strategies for anticipating heightened fire risks, as the climate continues to warm and as the rains always expected this time of year become more unpredictable.

Returning to the drought?

The picture above is from last December, 2016, not now. If you’ve read these posts, especially “J Is for January,” you know that last Fall to Spring (’16-’17) we were in a historic rain season, the greatest in more than 35 years: 45 inches of rain, more than twice the average. This December? .03 inches–yes, point zero three. This is one of the driest Decembers on record. The Sacramento Bee knows what’s on everyone’s mind when they wrote this week, “Are we headed for a return to the drought?”

Yes, the 5-year drought that brought historic lows to the Sierra snowpack in 2015 (a mere 5% of normal) and that dropped reservoir totals by more than 60% of normal over five years. The drought led Governor Brown and the legislature to declare severe water restrictions across the state–restrictions that occasioned almost full compliance, such was Californians’ understanding of the seriousness of the crisis.

Ever since Jean and I came to California, I’ve obsessed about water. Jean is sick of listening to me complain and fret. But she was enthusiastic to honor the restrictions and to look for ways to lessen water usage. Our response has included

  • installing super low-flow toilets
  • taking showers for no more than five minutes
  • watering with rain collected in three large rain barrels
  • taking out all the thirsty grass on our property and replacing it with drought-tolerant plants on a drip system
  • consciously using less water for all household and garden purposes (more on that later).
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Sun-dappled rain barrel, back garden

She was sicker than I was to see pre-restriction practices in our neighborhood–and even on our own lawn–like sprinklers broadcasting precious water so that much of it fell on sidewalks and driveways, then ran into the storm sewer. Even with restrictions, too much of our lessened water flow would miss the grass and then join our neighbors’ sprinkler spray running in streams by the curb and into the sewer.

So taking out the grass was truly sensible. Happily, the state and the local authorities made it attractive, by offering a $1000 (later $2000) rebate on home conversions from grass to drought-tolerant plants on drip. Our front “lawn” is now a base of part small rocks, part larger rocks in a stream formation, part bark mulch, and part shredded mulch. The drip lines run underneath and nourish each of the more than seventy plants. In three years, our overall water usage is down about 70%–with a concordant drop in our water bills.

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Portion of our front “yard”–2 years post transformation

The rest of the neighborhood?

What is even more gratifying is how our neighborhood is steadily adapting to more California-appropriate landscaping. Each time we take an evening walk along nearby streets, we see more properties with the grass replaced in ways similar to ours, but with each family following their own design–different materials, plants, colors. More often, the grass has not been completely replaced; but the portion has been reduced, with the margins near the house and near sidewalks and driveways de-grassed and now covered with gravel or mulch, often with bushes and flowering plants varying the landscape.

California history–Water obsessed

My obsession is common among Californians–and embedded deeply in state history and policy. How many dams are there on California rivers? Answer: over 1400. How many California rivers are not dammed? Answer: one–the tiny Smith River in the far Northwest corner of the state. A popular joke (of which there are many) about Californians is this one:

“How does a Californian define ‘water conservation’?”

“Making sure that no drop ever reaches the ocean.”

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California water management at work, Dec. 2017: L. to R.: Yolo Bypass, irrigation channel, ship channel, and Sacramento River separating irrigated farmland from housing (C. Thaiss, photo)

Indeed, an evergreen topic in the state news is the fighting that goes on between environmentalists and anglers on the one side, and big farmers and municipalities on the other side, over the rights to use the water (for ag, industry, and other human needs) or to leave it alone (to keep natural flows to sustain wildlife and habitats in rivers, swamps, and estuaries).   Roughly 80%–yes, 80%–of California river water is cycled through irrigation of the massive farms and ranches that have made California the world’s largest producer of many fruits and vegetables. So environmentalists have a steep, steep hill to climb to have their message heard.

California history has no more dramatic a struggle than that over the diverting of water from the Northern and Eastern parts of the state to satisfy the many thirsts of urbanites in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Just mention “Hetch Hetchy” or “Owens Valley” to any California student of water, and you will get a long, tense lecture on wars that lasted for years, and to many still go on. Just mention “the twin tunnels” to any of us in the Sacramento area, and you’ll get a similar lecture about a battle going on as you read this.

Google any of these terms, and you’ll find much to occupy your time as you contemplate the preciousness of the ever-more-endangered fresh water around the world.

Water and one small garden


Most of the posts in this blog mention water and watering. Without some water, none of the plants would survive. Without the plants, the animals (including us) that depend on them would not survive either. So, in a water-challenged ecosystem the question is always “How much should I water?”

There are no simple answers to this question. Choices and compromises are everywhere. When we first moved to California, we rented for most of a year a newly-built house with no water system in the large back yard. Used to living on the East Coast, where plentiful rain meant that plants would just grow and grow, whether you wanted them to grow or not, and the basic question was how often you wanted to mow them or chop them back, I couldn’t get used to the idea that the unplanted California back yard would just stay sandy dirt–with a scattering of thorny thistles and dandelions when it did occasionally rain–if I (or our landlord) didn’t come up with a coherent plan to turn desert into a green Eden.

Like most Easterners who transplant to the dry West, I was not ready for desert (I must admit that my thinking is still in transition). In that first year, I was awed by the fact that every home in our rural/suburban environs had valves, timers, hoses, and various other gadgets hooked up mysteriously to civic water pipes to deliver water to topsoil, so plants could grow and look as if they belonged there in that spot. Not only that, but, as I quickly learned, in our region this life-giving water didn’t come from the clouds above us. No, where we now lived, the water came from two equally mysterious places.

One of these places we could see in the distance on clear days: the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, in the form of the snow that built up over the winter into a deep snowpack, which would gradually provide us water all year long–like a gargantuan refrigerator with a mammoth water-and-ice dispenser. So it wasn’t just the skiers who craved the cold white powder, but everyone, even those teeming masses who lived along the Pacific shores–where there’s lots and lots of water, but you can’t drink it.

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Sierra at Donner Pass–see, that’s our water up there. (C. Thaiss, photo)

The other place was equally strange to me–deep underground, in the aquifer, that buildup of water over many years as rain and river water soak into the soil and trickle down and down into vast lakes. Now, among things I’ve learned in the intervening years is that no one, even the best water scientists, knows exactly how much water is down there. What they do know, painfully, is that if the aquifer is not replenished at the same rate that humans are using the water, the top of the aquifer keeps getting deeper and deeper–and so resourceful humans have to keep digging deeper and deeper wells to reach it. Guess what–during the drought, farmers kept having to drill the wells deeper, so what does that tell you about the future?

Knowing where the water comes from–and knowing that we humans are using it faster than it’s being replenished–helps to focus the mind on the individual choices I make about how much water to use in my small garden. Sure, I could conclude that my use is so minuscule in the grand scheme of water use that I shouldn’t concern myself. But I can’t think that way. Fortunately, neither did the millions of Californians who complied with the water restrictions. That collective action makes a  huge difference.

Now that I’ve lived for the past decade in a home that has a water supply system, I have the tools to make those choices.

Most choices are obvious:

  • I didn’t need as part of the system the sprinkler heads that waste water. Too many transplanted Easterners, like me, try to maintain the fantasy that a “nice green lawn makes a place look respectable.” In Virginia, maybe, but not in California. I dug up the grass both front and back, and turned off the sprinklers.
  • Instead, my watering apparatus includes drip irrigation, with hoses through much of the garden spaces, front, side, and back, and drip nozzles at each plant. These plants include the fruit trees, the rose bushes, and all the new drought-tolerant bushes and plants in the front garden that used to be lawn.
  • .All the other plants, including vegetables and herbs in pots and potted flowers, are hand-watered, on an every-other day schedule in spring, summer, and fall. Winter veggies get water from me as needed. Most winters are rainy enough that these plants thrive with no additional water.
  • I emphasize native plants and other drought-tolerant varieties, which hold the soil and attract pollinators. Plants like lupine, coreopsis, and ceonothus (Western lilac) are beautiful in bloom and draw honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The lupine and coreopsis in the back garden thrived this summer with no  water.
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lupine with monarch

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coreopsis at top of frame, center

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ceonothus above calla lily

  • I’ve found over the last six years that I can cut back on water usage without harm to the plants. I used to handwater every day in the blistering summers, but now I do so every other day, around 10-15 seconds for each plant. The water cutback has been huge in terms of overall water use.
  • I’ve learned to be guided by the plants. If a tomato looks wilty at 2 PM in July, when the temp is over 100, I don’t immediately add water (which will just evaporate in the heat). I wait to see how it looks in the early morning, which is when I water so that the water will be used by the plant and not evaporate.. If the plant still looks wilty then, I may up the dosage temporarily. I also use the finger-in-the-soil test. It’s amazing how cool and moist soil can remain a couple inches below the surface even in summer. If I feel that coolness near the roots, I don’t worry.

Still, a question remains: “Should I garden?”

The really basic choice for me is to garden or not to garden. If I didn’t try to manipulate my environment at all, I wouldn’t use any water on the ground. I could, if I chose, let my property become like that desert-like yard we had in our first year in California. All over California there are huge swaths of land–the Sierra, the Mojave, Death Valley, and on an on–that barely feel the hand of homo sapiens. Right next to irrigated farmlands lie unwatered flatlands, hills, and mountains. It’s always a choice.

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Irrigated farmland next to waterless desert, Imperial County, Dec. 2017–always a choice wherever humans live. (C. Thaiss, photo)

Oh, who am I kidding? That kind of basic choice is long gone in this neck of the woods. The handiwork of humankind is everywhere and there is no turning back as long as humans are around. Where the wildfires rage in this state is mostly in those unwatered mountains and valleys–with most of those fires sparked by humans’ electric power lines downed in heavy winds. And when the fires come close to human estates and roads, all our resources of men, machines, and water go into action to stop the fire and smoke from reaching us. And even when there is not fire, there is the polluted air from the gas and oil burned in cities and on highways changing the chemistry of the mountains, valleys, and oceans. And each day more and more acres of forest around the globe are stripped so that plants can be grown and cattle fed to satisfy human desires.

So the only real choices are of “how” to use the land and water, and “how much” to use and “why” and “when.” We’re human–it’s in who we are to change our environment. If I didn’t build a garden, I’d use the land and water some other way.

So I’ve chosen to build a garden, and I use water, which I try to use sparingly, because I know it is increasingly rare for each of us. And I’ve chosen to want my small garden to be varied and beautiful. And I grow certain plants because I want the garden to attract some of the animals, like bees and butterflies and birds, that are becoming rarer as more and more pristine land is being turned into houses, shopping malls, mines, and concrete. And I’ve chosen to want this garden to produce fruit, leaves, and stems that Jean and I can cook into delicious and healthful food. These are choices I make, even as more and more such choices are taken out of individual hands by corporations and the governments they control. And a necessary tool of those choices is water.


Water-rich cherry plums from our tree become tasty jam every June.

V Is for

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Vegetables, of course.

I’m sure they were not my favorite food, growing up.  My mother had learned to cook during the Depression and would cook anything available.  I loved her meat dishes, even organ meats like tongue and liver.  She was Irish, only two generations removed from the Famine, and she loved potatoes.  Such a luxury to live where they were plentiful.  And cheap.  We had steaming hot potato dishes of all kinds, as well as delightful potato salads.

The potato fascinated me as a teenager because I was learning about nutrition in 4-H.  I learned that many vegetables are high in a limited number of nutrients but that the potato has low amounts of a much wider range of nutrients.  This is how the Irish could live on just the potato, if they could get enough of them.  No matter how comforting potato dishes may be, depending on just one food is not a good dietary strategy. But if you are truly starving…

My least favorite of her dishes was her vegetable soup.  There were too many questionable ingredients for a skeptical kid.  Sometimes it had rutabagas in it, and sometimes she served steamed rutabagas separately.  The smell would drive me out to the driveway and as far down the street as any friend’s house I could get into, maybe just to hang out in my friend’s bedroom while they had dinner.  My friends’ families were like ours, too many kids for the amount of income, and extra kids were not needed around the table.

I generally liked to eat, though, so I couldn’t avoid my mother’s overcooked vegetable dishes for long.  And my parents had strict rules at the table.  We had to eat everything on the plate.  They were not playing.  We ate them, even though we made gagging noises sometimes.

This struggle to acclimate kids to new foods, particularly vegetables, fascinates me today.  I have known kids who were picky eaters and got cancer.  We know one kid today in particular who may pick at something on his plate at the dinner table but almost never a vegetable.  Then he just disappears.  No requirement that he eat a certain amount, or that he ask permission to leave the table.  He’s a smart kid who likes to show off his knowledge in front of adults.  I’ve asked him to research the connection between diet, especially the consumption of vegetables, and three main killers–cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. I hope one of these days, he’ll be tempted to take a peek at some of these websites:




In the meantime, we all need to do what we can to try to educate kids, support them in their efforts to broaden their diets, and even trick them into eating healthy foods if we have to (pureed fruits and vegetables can be snuck into many dishes).

On the other hand, I’m not particularly enamored of vegetarians or vegans.  My apologies to actual vegetarians and vegans, of course, but I’ve known too many people who call themselves one of these “veggie” names, but who actually do not eat vegetables.  This label is often their excuse not to eat what other people are eating.  Instead, they may order what their ten-year-old, veggie-phobic self would have ordered, some kind of pasta with a creamy white sauce.

Learning to eat vegetables is an important part of growing up.  As Chris and I get older, we find that vegetables continually taste better to us, like we can feel the health benefits almost immediately.  The heavier, greasier foods are no longer so appealing as they once were.  Older and wiser? At any rate, veggies are staples of our garden–and of our kitchen. (See “E Is for Eggplant,” “G Is for Greens,” “H Is for Herbs,” “P Is for Peppers,” and “T Is for Tomatoes”–just some of our posts featuring veggies.)


Winter veggies in October, back garden

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Thanksgiving 2017, fruit salad, veggie casseroles, pork and sweet potatoes

But can I change the subject now?

I would like to segue from vegetables to vocabulary. The letter “V” is my favorite letter of the alphabet.  It is interesting and complex even beyond the subject of vegetables.  “V” words are some of the most fun, like “vacation.”

They include important, solid concepts, like:  vaccinate, valedictorian, valence, valid, value, valve, van, vanguard, vanilla, vantage, variety, vast, virtue…

They can also represent ambivalence or emptiness, like:  vacillate, vacuous, vacuum, vagabond, vagrant, vague, vain, vanish, vapor, variant…

V words are also frightening, like:  Valkyrie, vampire, vandal, varmint…

And V words are sexy:  vagina, valentine, vamp.

Those are just some of the ones that start with “va.”  I could go on and on through the alphabet for the second letters, like “venal,” “vermin,” “verdant”” or “venerable” for “ve,” “vigorous” or “vicious and vituperative” for “vi,” “vociferous” and “voluptuous” for “vo,”  “vulgar, vulture, and vulnerable” for “vu.”

These are some of the most colorful words in the English language.  So strengthen your body with color from beautiful vegetables, and strengthen your vocabulary with some colorful “v” words you might not use often enough, in place of bland substitutes.  Live a little!

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U Is for Untended

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Sometimes I overestimate how necessary I am to the garden.

For two weeks in the early fall, much of our garden was not watered, while we were away visiting relatives. The weather was still hot during the days, with high temps in the upper 70s to mid 80s, and little rain was in the forecast. Indeed, there was only just over a tenth of an inch during the entire period, all of which fell on one day. This is not unusual in our region in early fall, but it was rare for me not to be around to water..

I didn’t worry about the roughly 50% of our plants on the timed drip system; I knew they’d get regular water. But half of our plants are hand-watered, including all of the veggies and all of the herbs in pots, plus some of our roses and all of the potted flowers. Here’s what I imagined would happen during those two–untended–weeks.

The hardest hit would be :

  • the grape tomatoes, already near the end of their productivity for the season, would brown out and shrivel
  • the same sad result with the pepper plants in the raised beds
  • the same with the potted pepper plants
  • the vinca and marigolds, both summer annuals, would at best become dull and drooping, with no more blooms
  • the hebe bush, always water-needy, would brown out and lose leaves
  • the more delicate herbs–parsley, thyme, marjoram, basil–would be droopy dull, if not browned out.

More able to withstand the conditions would be :

  • all the perennial potted herbs, hearty year upon year–the sages, the Greek oregano, the chives, the lemon verbena, the lavender, the rosemary–would hang in there, maybe just a little the worse for the lack of water
  • the rugged roses not on the drip would still be healthy, but not in bloom
  • the sturdy perennial coreopsis, lupine, and mint, almost without a drop all summer–no problem!
  • the strawberries, perennial, would be hanging in there, but not fruiting
  • the potted perennials such as the geranium, the dwarf pomegranate, the dianthus, and the hibiscus, would be OK, going into their winter dormancy a bit early.

So when we returned, here’s what I saw…

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Oh yes, and even…

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What a pleasant surprise! None of the plants suffered the extremes that I had envisioned–and most of them had not skipped a beat, thank you. I can’t say what shocked me the most. Was it the vinca and marigolds still popping brilliant color and plump greenness? Was it the pepper plants–purples, shishitos, greens, and Thai hots–still putting forth new fruit in some profusion and looking not at all stressed?

Was it the grape tomatoes, still with red, ripe little gems and a cascade of new yellow flowers? It surely was not the pink and salmon roses, which always defy heat, or cold, or low water–how could I have doubted you? But it might have been the hebe (shown at the top of this entry), which rarely blooms, and here you were in your fuzzy pink splendor. Well, sure, it might have been the strawberries, which were putting forth fruit to provide treats for us and for the birds.

So how to explain the resilience?

I have three possible explanations:

  • The one day of a tenth-of-an-inch of rain was just enough to give the hand-watered plants the boost they needed in the hot weather.
  • Because of regular watering during the summer, the soil had enough residual moisture to keep the plants healthy.
  • The plants are just more resilient than I gave them credit for being.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, I’ll feel comfortable next year not worrying if we need to be gone for an extended period in the early fall. I guess my garden overall does a pretty good job of taking care of itself this time of year. But I do like to help out, OK guys?

November Postscript

Now that we are in the middle of fall and almost to Thanksgiving, the spring and summer plants continue to hold their own. The series of photos above were NOT taken when we returned at the end of October–they were taken just a few days ago, in mid November. In prior years, the tomatoes, peppers, and other veggies had given out in early October. So had the annual flowers. But as you can see, this year they continue to bloom and produce.

Most amazing is the one grape tomato pictured above with its yellow blossoms. This one plant has spread over more than seven months to wind its way through three tomato cages. It has produced hundreds of red oval fruit (as shown in T Is for Tomatoes). I have never had so glorious a tomato plant as this one.

garden grape tomatoes and blooms mid november 17 - 1

Moreover, the five pepper plants have stayed green and fruitful until today, when I pulled them out to make way–finally–for the winter veggies. But, guess what, two of the plants are still going, and I want to see how long they’ll keep producing new fruit.

The shishito (pictured above) and the Thai hot pepper (pictured beside it) still have new fruit growing. I’m speechless. Here is my little pre-Thanksgiving display of the pepper-tomato bounty, just picked today. What a year! Thanksgiving indeed.

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T Is for Tomatoes


Who doesn’t love tomatoes?


Tomatoes are my favorite food, so growing them when I started my garden was an obvious choice. Almost every gardener I know grows tomatoes, and when gardeners meet it’s like a ritual to ask, “How are your tomatoes this year?” It’s part of the ritual to answer something like, “Well, it was so cool early in the season, I thought the Brandywines would never take off, but I can’t stop ’em now. But the Cherokee Purples were a disappointment. Lots of foliage, but not much fruit!” And the other person responds, “I’ve had good luck with the Juliets, but the real surprise has been the Celebrities this year. We can’t give them all away, there are so many. But don’t get me started on the San Marzanos. Not much to show, and they’re usually so reliable.”

So Many Varieties–What to Try This Year?

Because so many gardeners grow tomatoes, the number of varieties in the nurseries, or even in the garden sections of home stores, is wonderful. When you have a small garden like mine–maybe eight plants a year–you could go for several years just trying out varieties that are new to you. I’ve had as many as five different types in a given year, with no more than two of any type, and every year there are at least two or three new types for me. I’ll always have a couple that I think I can rely on from previous years, just in case the newbies don’t pan out. As much as I like to experiment, I always want to be able to take comfort in something that I’m pretty sure will produce.

Besides balancing the new with the tried and true, I also like to balance the larger varieties with the little cherry and grape tomato varieties. I’ve found the grape and cherry tomatoes to be overall more reliable and prolific. They start ripening early, in May, and they often keep producing into late September, with minimal watering and feeding. On the other hand, there’s nothing to match the pleasure in watching a bigger variety grow day by day from a tiny green beebee to a round ripe red beauty plump for slicing into a sandwich.

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Celebrity tomatoes, July 2017

The Season

In our climate, the ground is usually warm enough to start planting spring and summer vegetables in early or mid April, when the temps rise to the high 70s-low 80s. That includes tomatoes in all varieties. I’ve never had a tomato plant fail to thrive because of planting too early. I almost always plant from store-bought seedlings, when the plants are at least six inches high and leafing our nicely.

I plant them in various places in the back garden, and I like to experiment with different spots–which vary in the amount of sunlight they receive, because of the surrounding trees. I always plant at least two, and sometimes more, in the two raised beds I have, and I always use the beds for the larger varieties.  That’s just a choice, not a necessity. This year, 2017, I planted just two medium-size plants, both Celebrities, in one of the beds, as I used the other bed for three pepper plants (see P Is for Peppers). I planted an Ace tomato in a new spot for me, a quite shady spot almost under the peach tree, just to see what would happen. I planted the fourth medium-sized variety, an unnamed plant that I’d gotten at a plant fair, in another new spot, a very sunny patch between two rose bushes–again, just to see what would happen.

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An early crop–Roma tomatoes ripening in 2011

A Special Spot. The other two plants, two grape tomatoes, I planted in what has turned out to be the best patch in the garden, a ten-square-feet area next to one of the raised beds.  What makes this patch so special is that I rotate the tomatoes here with arugula in the winter. The arugula grows thick and tall in this spot for five months, then I pull it out after it flowers in late March-early April–and in go the tomatoes. In the two years that I have been growing arugula in that patch in the winter, the tomatoes the next season have been the most productive plants and the longest lasting. In early October this year, I was still harvesting from our two grape tomato plants as many as four dozen in a day. (See more about these plants in U Is for Untended.)

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A cluster of grape tomatoes, Sept. 2017

This is a real win-win, because not only does the arugula make the soil rich, but it is tasty and hearty throughout the winter months in our salads (see G Is for Greens).


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Arugula, Jan. 2017, growing in the same patch where I plant tomatoes in April

Watering and Soil

When I first planted the raised beds about six years ago, I layered bark mulch, compost, and top soil. Every spring,  I replenish some of each. In addition, when I dig the little hole for each seedling, I put in a little Miracle Gro garden soil as a starter, plus some compost and some organic tomato food. During the long growing season, from April to early October, I’ll add some tomato food every two-to-three weeks, no more than a handful at each feeding.


Unknown variety, from plant fair, early June 2017–a pleasant surprise

For the tomato plants outside the raised beds, I rely on the arugula (see above) to prep the soil for the grape and cherry tomatoes, but put in a bit of Miracle Gro garden soil and tomato food when I plant them, as well as some compost from the compost bin. I also feed these some of the organic food every few weeks during the growing season, a handful per plant.

For the tomato plants elsewhere in the garden, the soil is richly organic from leaf mulch, and I add compost from the bin, a bit of Miracle Gro garden soil (a few handfuls), and a handful of tomato food at planting, then a handful of food every few weeks.

Watering of tomatoes happens every other day, by hand, even during the hottest part of the summer. I water from the garden hose, about fifteen seconds per plant. This is not a lot, and, in fact, each year since I’ve started gardening, my watering has declined some each year.

Overall, I feed and water just enough to keep the plants green and supple, but I tend not to get a thick profusion of leaves, and I’m sure this spartan treatment keeps down the number of fruit on the larger varieties. But there are always enough of the larger tomatoes to meet our usual needs, and the amazingly prolific grape and cherry tomato plants give us enough fruit for five months of daily snacking and the occasional sauce for pastas and stews.

Tomatoes in the Kitchen

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Sauce of grape tomatoes, green peppers, goat cheese, and herbs

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The same sauce on angel hair pasta with garnish of basil and parmesan

No big surprises here. Just good eating. Tomatoes are versatile–whether as the basis for a hearty soup or sauce, as in the photos just above, or chopped into a salad, or sliced for sandwiches or for little bruschettas. We’ve cooked them down into enough marinara sauce for several jars to refrigerate or freeze, or we’ve blanched them to get the skins off, so Jean can puree them into the base for a variety of gazpachos.

Jean’s most recent tomato creation is her Spanish rice, pictured below. Sparked with just one of our tiny Thai peppers and paired with a Chilean sauvignon blanc, it shows off our sweet tomatoes at their best.

Bowls of grape tomatoes, like the one pictured below, keep amazingly well, two weeks or so, out on a counter, so I can snack on them as I pass by, or either of us can grab a handful to toss into scrambled eggs or chop in half for grilled cheese sandwiches. In mid to late summer, the harvest of these little guys is sometimes so good that I’ll bring in a dozen or two dozen a day to replenish the bowl.

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Still life with roses, tomatoes, green peppers, and shishitos, Oct. 2017

So overall...

It’s six years and counting since I started growing tomatoes, and I’m learning every day, because every day I keep an eye on them and give them a few minutes of  care. They really don’t require much, and they give back so much more than they need from me. The snails don’t attack them, nor do the birds–who like to perch on the cages I use to keep the vines from stretching everywhere. The tomatoes taste great, and they are so versatile in the kitchen. So what’s not to love? And there are still so many new varieties for me to try.

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S Is for Soups and Stews

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Cooking without Recipes?

Soups and stews are right up my alley because they are perfect for recipe-less cooking.  That’s not to say I don’t get inspiration from recipes, but I rarely stop there.  If we have some vegetables, herbs, or even fruits from the garden that I think would work, they are going in–like into the apricot chili you see above. If the recipe calls for something I don’t have or don’t like, it can stay out or get substituted with something from my pantry.  In this way, every soup I make is different and I am in a pickle if someone asks me to recreate their favorite.

I should note that I realize that cooking without a recipe doesn’t work for everyone.  My sister, for example, has done things like making pumpkin pie without sugar because she didn’t have any sugar.  That was not my favorite, although I do use less sugar in baked goods these days than most recipes call for.  The last time I visited my sister, she sent my nephew to pick me up at the airport.  As we drove to her house, he assured me (I was hungry, as usual) that she had made beef stew for lunch.  Sounded great.

As I settled down with my bowl of steaming “stew” a little later, I was chagrined to discover it looked and tasted like hot water with a little shoe leather floating in it.  Prison stew.  More gulag than goulash. No flavor to the broth, no savory vegetables, herbs, or starches.  The meat was impossible to chew.  I guess I deserved it because the last time I served her one of my soups, she asked how to make soup in general, and I was short with her.  I said that if she had wanted to make good soups, she would already be doing it.  It sounds terrible of me, but in the past she had begged many of my recipes, changed them in less tasty ways, and passed them off on people as my recipes.  Revenge is a dish best served hot perhaps, like prison stew, and ultimately she served me what she thought I deserved for not teaching her.  I just remember my mother trying to give her cooking lessons.  She said my sister’s cooking would improve for a little while after a lesson, but would soon slide back to what it had been before.  Perhaps if I had written the tips below years ago, her results might have been better…

Not Recipes, but a Few Tips

Anyway, I hope you get the point, dear reader.  I believe anyone can make great soups if they really care to keep trying to develop flavors and textures appropriately.  That can happen fairly quickly with some types of soups, but can take some time and care with others.  There are some ingredients I always keep on hand in my pantry to help me get started on a soup or a stew, or even just  sauce.  One is boxes of broth, whatever type you like–beef, chicken, vegetable, low salt, free range.  Buy the best you can get.  Stocks have more depth of flavor than broth because the meaty elements are cooked with savory vegetables and herbs to make stock, while broth is just water that the main ingredient has been cooked in.  Of course if you have time to make your own stock, the flavor will be even richer.  I love to take turkey bones after Thanksgiving or use the bones of a rotisserie chicken to make stock at home.

Sometimes you can find packaged specialty broths like pork or seafood, but you can make a lovely one with roasted pork bones or shrimp shells.  I am likely to use both if I have something to make stock with, but also a packaged broth to add.  I like to cover all my bases.  In some cases I might even add a can of prepared or condensed soup to add a flavor or texture that would be time-consuming to develop, such as a can of cream of tomato, mushroom, or roasted garlic soup.  Of course fresh mushrooms and freshly roasted garlic would be best; I’m just saying I’m not that much of a purist.

Getting the Flavor in

I’ll get flavor in there any way I can, given what I can get my hands on and what I have time to do under the circumstances.  Roasting almost any of your ingredients, including the vegetables, can add that extra layer of flavor.

Depending on the type of soup, there may be a variety of savory vegetables that are either part of the stock and strained out, pureed after cooking to make a thicker base, or added later for a little more texture and visual appeal.    These typically might include onions, leeks, celery, carrots, corn, potatoes, and/or tomatoes.  You might want to make a soup that features one vegetable and color, such as a pea, broccoli, or asparagus soup.  A soup might be spicy or it might be creamy.  I get hungry just thinking about them all.

Soups by the Season

Of course, you can respond to the seasons in terms of the temperature and style of your soups as well as the ingredients.  I always think of soups in the winter, when it’s the easiest thing to rewarm and dish up after coming in from the cold.  Or perhaps you started one in your crockpot early in the day and find it waiting and ready at the end of the day. when you’re too tired to fix anything else.  A hearty bowl of soup is often enough for our supper.


Herbs and veggies fresh from the garden are great additions of flavor to soups.

In the summer, though, soups can be just as inviting, as a way to use some of the freshest produce from your garden or the market.  We love cold soups as well as hot ones.   A favorite summer soup is watermelon gazpacho, perhaps with the addition of cucumber and fresh mint.  Since this is a fresh, uncooked soup, it would even work in the Paleo diet:

A Favorite Summer Soup: Watermelon Gazpacho

For five servings, blend in large blender:

  • 3 c. cubed, seeded watermelon
  • 1/2 to 1 whole cucumber, chopped (seeded if necessary)
  • 1 or 2 peeled, seeded tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 T. minced shallot or red onion
  • 1/2 to one jalapeno pepper if desired for heat
  • 2 T. red wine vinegar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. chopped herbs–dill, basil, parsley, and/or mint
  • salt and pepper to taste

As always, taste everything and adjust the proportions accordingly.  Use only the best-tasting ingredients you can.  I made the mistake in one batch of chopping in a cucumber without tasting it.  It was quite bitter and ruined the whole batch.  Taste first, last, and all throughout!  You could try adjusting the sweet/sour taste balance, depending on how sweet the ingredients are, with a little lemon juice and/or honey if something seems a little “off” or flat.  I recommend leaving the fibrous matter in the soup after blending, but you can also strain that out, leaving only a very flavorful, colorful but clear liquid.

A “Soup-erbowl” Party?

One of my favorite ways to entertain is with a “soup party.”  I have done this with particular success as an informal holiday party or something later in the winter like a “Soup-erbowl” party.  You need several crockpots and Dutch ovens to keep the soups warm without burning them.  Then think of an assortment of soups so that one or more of them will appeal to everyone in the group and you don’t have too much overlap.  You have to have a vegetarian option, which might be a minestrone without any bacon, pancetta, or sausage.  That could also be your Italian and tomato-based choice.  Or, you could do a creamed cauliflower, broccoli, or corn soup as vegetarian options.

To contrast with that, you could have a very meaty soup like a chili, white or red (discussed further below).  This would be your Mexican or Southwest flavor profile.  If that’s not your favorite, try Greek chicken-orzo or lamb stew, or perhaps a West African peanut stew.  Use whatever you know about the tastes, dietary restrictions, travel history, and so on of your guests to come up with a variety of pleasing options.

Even the simplest soups can be incredibly satisfying and savory, like the creamy cauliflower soup pictured below.  Some recipes don’t use a lot of cream, if you want to avoid the fat.  Most recipes derive a lot of flavor from the addition of other typical soup veggies like carrots and celery, plus herbs, such as these recipes: http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/rees-creamy-cauliflower-soup-0204577

Here’s the lower fat version.  Even if you think you don’t like cauliflower, it’s creamy and delicious: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/creamy-cauliflower-soup

kitchen creamy cauliflower w parley soup - 1


And for dessert…

Here is a dessert tower I put together to top off one of my soups-and-stews parties.  I always want to give lots of choices, and none of these were hard to make:  mocha cupcakes, lemon bars topped with lemon curd, apricot pistachio bars, key lime tarts, and mini-blueberry cheesecakes.


kitchen dessert display soup party sept 17 - 1

Chilis and Stews

Even more than soups, we love stews, which are total one-pot meals, not just appetizers or lunch portions.   We consider chili a type of stew, and it is probably our favorite type.  I don’t really have a recipe, because I make so many different ones, depending on what meat, beans, or vegetables I have on hand.  I particularly love a white chili, made with ground turkey, chicken broth, white or pink beans, and green tomatillo salsa.  Chris loves these–but he also loves red chilis, such as the one pictured below, since he loves tomatoes.

The chili below was not made with ground beef but with some small steak bits that were on sale, cut for “stir fry.”  They were initially quite tough, but softened nicely under the prolonged cooking I gave the chili while working on the flavors, plus leaving it overnight and serving it the next day.

kitchen beef tomato bean herbs chili soup party sept 17 - 1

Spice it up…but how much?

The real issue with chilis is how much spice to use, and I sometimes overdo it and have to put in more beans and broth to try to bring the heat down.  I have seen recipes or made up my own that use several different forms of chili peppers–fresh, canned, smoked, powdered and dried.  The combination of flavors is unbeatable, but when we get a burn in the back of the mouth that just won’t die, I wish I knew which of them I should have left out.  The answer is to take your time, putting in one of these at a time and tasting the results.  Give it a while, to make sure you are getting the full effect, before trying to add another. Chili peppers like the red hot Thai minis below need to be added carefully.  Chris finely chopped just one of these for the whole crockpot of the chili shown above, and it was enough, when mixed into the broth with the other spices I used.

garden red thai peppers full on bush sept 17 - 1

Still want deeper flavor?

Another way to deepen the flavor of chili is to add some deeper flavors to the broth, like some leftover brewed coffee, some dark chocolate, or dark beer.  Chris thought my last chili tasted slightly bitter when I added coffee…but by the next day it had mellowed just perfectly!

So whether you like to start with recipes or prefer to make up your own, don’t be afraid to experiment with good ingredients as you go along.

R Is for Roses

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Peace roses after rain back garden May 2017


Though this blog mostly features the fruits and veggies I grow, and the dishes Jean makes, our roses could be the focus of the blog–if I were as interested in nurturing them and experimenting with them as I am with the food plants. Of course, to say that I’m not as interested in them would be to ignore the fact that they actually take more of my time and regard than most of the other plants do.

After all, one can’t have a rose garden without spending time with the roses pretty much every day.

In our climate, the roses grow year-round. Oh, they’ll bloom little in December and  January; in the the July heat the brilliant flowers will fade more quickly–but there is never a time during the year when at least a few of the bushes won’t have buds and some blooms. So it’s not as if the plants will die if I neglect them.

In fact, to show their heartiness, I tried my best a month ago to pull out a bush in a corner of the back garden that was in pretty deep shade and had never bloomed much over ten years. Besides, its thorniness made it almost impossible for me to get at the wisteria and the Western lilac in order to trim back their lusty growth.

So I trimmed off all the branches, and I chopped off as much of the roots as I could reach, almost a foot below the surface. That was that, I thought. Then, two days ago, what did I see but a little six-inch shoot staring up at me.

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The Come-back Kid, July 2017

“Please, sir,” it said, ” don’t try to kill me again. You’d just be wasting your time.* So, like the soft heart I am, I’ll follow my usual pattern, and just see what happens. Two days later, it’s a foot tall and leafing generously. I guess I can let it grow for a while and then cut it back, after it blooms (if it does). But I won’t let it get between me and my wisteria trimming! I promise, plant: you hear me? “Thank you, sir. That’s all I ask.”

Our Roses: A Little History and Geography

Almost all of our rose bushes, about fourteen of them, were here when we moved in a decade ago. I’ve planted only two or three. Indeed, one of the plants that was here, a cute little pink variety by the back fence, the former owner took with him, because it had been a favorite of his mother, who had passed on. I still think of that when I see the space where it grew, currently the home of a tomato plant on which fruit is ripening.

When we moved in, I was already in love with the roses: their variety of color and size, their heartiness, their often prodigious growth. Because the design of the former owners’ property was to have a lawn surrounded by fruit trees and roses, I was able to keep all the roses where they were, as I gradually eliminated lawn in order to plant veggies.

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Rose bushes along the back fence, April 2017

Therefore, some of the rose bushes were along the back and side fences, while others hugged the house walls under windows. We didn’t think to ask at the time, but we’ve thought that part of this design would ensure that anyone who wanted to break into our home through some of our windows would have to contend with thickets of rose thorns.

But a pleasanter thought is that when we look out these windows, we have the splendor of seeing rose blooms most of the year.

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A thicket of blooms and thorns, May 2017

Rose Care: What I Don’t (or maybe once in a while will)

If you’re looking for detailed tips on insecticides or blight sprays or fertilizing schedules, you won’t find them here. After we first moved in, I did some spraying for black spot and aphids, but I always worried about what else I was killing, and I wasn’t even too keen on killing the aphids, especially when I saw ladybugs appearing and the aphids soon disappearing. So I’ve not applied any spray for about nine years on any of the plants. None of the plants has died yet, and the photos can tell you how well they are doing.

I will occasionally give some rose food to the plants that appear to need a boost, but a schedule? No. I may put down some rose food about once a year for some plants, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

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Two visitors to two white roses, May 2017

What I Do for the Roses

I make sure they are regularly watered during the dry months (May-September). Most are on a drip system; some I hand water. During the hottest months, the drip goes for 15 minutes twice a week. From mid-October to early May, the wet months, the roses get only what falls from the sky.

The most consistent work I do is dead-heading (trimming off the spent blooms). Because the plants are so many and so prolific, this is a weekly chore for me. Any given plant may need tending once or twice a month. Don’t hold me to a schedule. I do it as needed, by eye-balling the plant.

The dramatic work is trimming the vines. Now every plant is somewhat different in this regard, depending on how fast it grows and on what I want it to look like. For example, the massive yellow rose bushes (below left) I let grow early in the year until their first explosion of blooms rises to more than midway above the window sill. When the blooms fade after a few weeks, I deadhead the bushes, then I trim back the vines so that they are just above three feet high.  New buds appear soon and the cycle goes on.

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Yellow rose burst May 2017

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Pinks by side gate, May 2017


In contrast, the pinks by the side gate (right, above) live in a shade cast by the ceonothus (Western lilac) and so the plant regularly puts out a mix of buds not far from the stem, plus long, sun-seeking vines that often never bud. I cut off the long runners and let the buds bloom.

In further contrast, the thicket of tiny white-pink roses and large salmon roses (three panels above) is made up of five bushes that I let expand up and out in the large space next to the nopales (see N Is for Nopales). The salmon bushes can get up to 7 feet high before some blooms open, and that’s fine with me. But once the blooms are done, I chop them back to about four feet and the cycle starts again.

Meanwhile, when the clusters of white-pinks are done blooming, I chop back those bushes, and that cycle goes on….until January. In January, the big trim takes place. I chop all five bushes, both little white-pinks and big salmon, back to no more than one or two feet high, so I can clean out the space–and get it set for the big spring push. In January 2017 (see J Is for January), we had so much rain that the big trim was put off until early February. But no problem. With all that rain, the roses came back stronger than ever, with even (as you can see in the photo) the red root-stock roses blooming.

Why deadheading and trimming back?

Roses grow fast, and, in the years I’ve been tending roses, I’ve seen that the ones I have grow in a couple of ways, depending to some extent on the variety. One way is to send out new long shoots from the ground. The other is to send more shoots out from existing shoots. In either case, buds often don’t appear until the new shoot is several feet or more from where it started. This means that the plant rapidly expands in shoots, but this means there may be no new blooms except far out from the center of the plant. Only by trimming back the shoots once the blooms have finished can you keep the plant of manageable size–and keep new blooms coming out fairly close together.  The rose bushes you see brimming with close-together blooms in professional gardens only stay that way with lots of regular trimming back–and lots of tender loving care.

More TLC, alas, than my idiosyncratic methods allow. But I’ve been gloriously happy with how the roses have given us so much joy, fragrance, and color all year round. Enjoy the display below. (If there’s no caption, let your cursor rest on the image until a short explanation appears.)

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Multi-rose display, kitchen, April 2017


Corner display, Oct. 2015


White rose cluster, side garden, Oct. 2015


Buds, bee, and yellow rose bloom, Oct. 2015



Q Is for Quiet

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Boom! The North wall and upper floor of our house shook for a moment, as something large crashed–and startled us in mid conversation. Not knowing the source of the sound, and fearing that something upstairs had fallen or broken, I raced upstairs and found…nothing disturbed. Jean, meanwhile, had opened the patio doors and rushed around to the North wall, and found…that a massive fruit-laden branch of our neighbor’s peach tree had broken off high above and had crashed to the ground against our chimney. Dozens of unripe peaches still clung tightly to the many small branches that sprang from the large limb that had cracked off. But dozens more peaches lay along the path and by the fence between our houses. The limb itself had not broken the fence in its fall–a miracle, given the sound.

I write about this now because I’ve been thinking about the quiet of the garden. Right now I’m listening to the summer breeze gently percuss the green leaves of that same peach tree outside my window. I watch the branches play hide-and-seek with the afternoon sun. This is a quiet breeze today, the kind that makes me feel cool, as if I were outside in the shade of the tree and feeling the soothing touch of the wind on this 90+ degree July day.

Quiet in a garden does not mean without sound.

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt absolute silence in our garden. Would I want that? I don’t think so. No, the quiet of a garden is that mix of soft sounds that together bring quiet of the mind.  The gentle waves of wind in the trees, bumble bees in the lupines, honeybees in the roses and orange blossoms, the tick-tick of the hummingbirds and the whirr as they scoot past, the three-note cooing of the collared doves, the constantly changing soprano arias of the morning mockers and warblers, even the skree of the grumpy rock jays, and even the crunch-crunch of the mulch and leaves beneath my shoes.


We do not live in a quiet place, even though it is quiet-ER by some standards. The interstate is only a mile away, and its waves of rushing sound never disappear, night or day. The street right outside too often serves as a fantasy strip for motorcyclists and teenagers in over-powered pickups or old coupes. Freight and commuter trains come through our town hourly night and day, and their engineers conscientiously blast their symphonic horns at every intersection. On weekends, some of my fellow DIYers use table or chain saws as their tools of choice, while gas-powered trimmers and leaf-blowers are also always popular.

I’ve lived in louder places and quieter places, city apartment buildings vs. suburban cul de sacs far from freeways, factories, and freight rail. In the two places in my life where I have been fortunate to have a wooded, green space, I have relished the soft concerts of birdsong and breezes in the trees. Only in my current space, so late in my life, have I had the luxury to build a garden, to watch it change day by day, year by year; to attract the skilled musicians who can put a morning concert together extempore and make it always fresh, always soothing–despite the surrounding noise.

The garden is not silent, but it is quiet–garden-quiet, a kind of quiet not like anything else. A quiet that can even include the winds that blow down fences in January (see J Is for January) and even the occasional crashing branch of a peach. On summer mornings like today’s, it sounds pretty much like the following. Give a listen.



P Is for Peppers



((NOTE: See July, August, and October updates, at end of entry))

The great thing about hot peppers is that a little goes a long way. Which has been fortunate for me, as I’ve not found some peppers to be especially easy to grow in profusion.  This may be less true of the hot varieties, because we now have bags of Serranos and Red Chilis keeping their heat dormant in the freezer. But I’m not pleased about the lack of volume in the mild peppers that I’ve tried to grow each summer for the past few years. (But see our August and October 2017 updates!)

As the photo above shows, every year we have a fine display of red hots in roomy pots, and we’ve put them to use in chili dishes, frittatas, soups, sauces, and stews. Some of these little fellas are so potent that Jean needs only one or two per quart or two of the dish to give us a nice warm mouthfeel per spoonful. We chop the rascals up into bits to spread in the dish, or sometimes she will put them whole into the slow cooker to spread the heat gradually. Pictured below are Chris’s tomato and green veggie sauce with serranos for spice, and Jean’s tomato, zucchini, and herbs stir fry, spiced by red chilis. Almost all ingredients come from our summer garden.


Tomato and green veggies sauce


Tomato, zucchini, herb stir fry

We both like a good number of dishes to have a forceful kick, but neither of us is into competing for a fire-eating prize, so we don’t try to up the ante by throwing in more chilis.

To save the rest for later use, Jean’s favorite method is to bag them for the freezer, It’s been remarkable how they keep their potency even over several years. Part of last year’s crop of inch-long red chilis I couldn’t resist displaying like this:

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They loved showing off, and didn’t mind being bagged for the freezer:

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We promised them they’d be liberated eventually so they could do their picante thing, and we’ve kept our promise, chili by chili.

I promised Jean this year that I’d not add to the freezer population by growing more hot peppers. But, alas, I like the look of them so much in the summer garden that I snuck in one more plant, a Thai variety. Here it is in late June, next to a mild purple variety. Both are popping out white blooms, and should be producing green fruit in another week or two.

garden thai chili and purple pepper jun 17 - 1

In Ground or in Pots?

Meanwhile, I’m experimenting this year with growing three pepper plants in the ground in one of the raised beds, Whereas the hot varieties have done great in the pots for several years, I’ve been less happy with the performance of the mild varieties in the same medium. I’ll typically get about six green, yellow, or purple milds per plant over a summer, but they tend to be much smaller than the large beauties you can get in the store. I figure the pots–which are valuable for keeping away the snails and for their portability–restrict the growth areas for the plants, and so I’m hoping the in-ground plants will grow taller and wider, and produce more and larger fruit. We’ll see.

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Right now, in late June, here (above)  is the trio–(R to L) one shishito, one medium-size green, and one “Big Bertha” green. The “Big Bertha,” which I planted earliest, in mid-April, is already much larger than any of my pepper plants in earlier years, and has three green fruit heading toward decent size (see below). The shishito, planted in mid-May, has four small fruit in process. Equally good news: no sign of snails.

garden pepper big bertha green jun17 - 1

I’ll keep this entry updated as the summer proceeds. As with all the other residents and visitors in our garden, every day brings its changes to the peppers. Here is a shot of two pot-grown pepper plants, a serrano and a mild green, from October 2015, to show something of what may emerge, as summer moves into fall.


July 2017 Update

As promised. It’s only three weeks since I posted the entry, but there have been peppery developments. It’s been a hot July, with many days over 100 and none below 90. I’ve been trying to stick to my regimen of every-other-day watering of the veggies, despite the scorching heat, with mostly positive results. The Big Bertha green pepper plant has been a steady producer of large fruit, and the shishito (below) is brimming with fruit. The potted Thai is thick with tiny green firecrackers, a couple of which have turned red. All in all, a successful experiment, with lots left of summer.

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The Big Bertha and the shishito contributed to my latest stir fry (below). along with some of the grape and cherry tomatoes that have been getting red by the dozens each day in the garden. I toss in several of the varied herbs that have also been thriving in pots (thyme, marjoram, chives, Greek oregano, purple and green basil, sage), and we’re ready to go.

kitchen chris's tomato peppers garden herbs stir fry jul17 - 1

August 2017 Update

This summer has been my best ever for peppers so far–with a good month or more still to go. The in-ground experiment has paid off, with all three plants producing beyond expectations. Meanwhile, the Thai chili may be my most productive hot chili ever (see just below). More freezer bags to be filled!

garden thai chilis aug 17 - 1

All four mild plants have been steady producers, with late July to now in late August showing their increasing productivity, even as the temps have slightly fallen (now high 80s to low 90s) and the daylight hours have diminished.  Moreover, no slugs or snails or other pests have appeared.  The Big Bertha green is giving us the largest peppers we’ve had from one mild plant, and it keeps generating new fruit, over a dozen in total so far. (Below.)

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The shishito (the first of these I’ve grown) began producing mature fruit in July and has more than ten at a time growing on the plant (below).

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Meanwhile, the most pleasant surprise of the summer has been the potted purple pepper, which did not produce mature fruit until late July, but which now steadily is giving us gorgeous-hued medium-size peppers that start out sherbet-lemon in color and then turn royal (as shown below). By the way, these are delicious when roasted.

garden potted purple peppers aug17 - 1

October 2017 Update

The temps are now in the high 70s and low 80s, so the peppers have slowed, but not yet stopped producing. The Big Bertha still has four little ones growing, but they may not mature as the weather cools. The in-ground plant was going strong through mid September, though, as the temps stayed in the 90s. The shishito still has many white flowers and several fruit still on the bush. We’ll see how they fare in the coming autumn days and nights.

The medium green and the royal purple have a few white buds, but no fruit. And the miraculous Thai red hot gave me its bounty of at least 100 little zingers, and they are ensconced in their snug baggie in the freezer.

What a summer for peppers! The best in our garden so far. The experiment with in-ground plants worked, and the pots came through in stellar fashion.

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Thai mini red hots produced like no potted pepper plant I’d ever tried.

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Shishitos, greens, and royal purple peppers share space with the season’s last eggplants and almost-last tomatoes

O Is for Oranges


Bowl of lemons and oranges January 2017


(At end of entry–see updates for Dec. 2017 and March 2018)


While I was wary of the nopales when we moved here a decade ago (see N Is for Nopales), I was really looking forward to having an orange tree. What could be more California than fresh oranges from your garden? Well, if I’ve come to be a friend of the nopales over the years, I’m even more in love with the orange than I was at first sight.

Unlike the Meyer lemon that I grew from a seedling seven years ago, the orange tree was here when we arrived, and with a few late season oranges still on the branches.  The variety is the most popular in California, the Washington navel, which derives from a mutation of the Selecta orange that occurred between 1810 and 1820 in Bahia, Brazil. Cuttings from the mutation were brought to the US in the 19th century, specifically to Washington, DC, hence the name. The Washington navel came to California in 1870, to Riverside, where the California orange industry was born.

What makes navel oranges special is that they are seedless, as you probably know. By being seedless, the tree is sterile, and new trees come about only by grafting onto rootstock. That means that all navel orange trees are clones from the original tree in Brazil.

The “navel” of the navel orange is actually a small second orange attached to the larger orange. The stem attaches to this navel, which in some oranges can make up to a third of the entire orange, as you can tell by slicing the orange in half and observing. In other navel oranges, the navel makes up just a tiny portion inside the orange.

A Year-round Season

As with so many of my plants, our orange tree has taught me much. Among the most amazing features is that the season for each orange may last more than a year, with the new buds appearing while some of the previous year’s oranges are still ripe and luscious on the tree, as the photo below shows, taken in March 2016.


New buds, with “old” oranges still on the tree, March 2016

The oranges move from bud to blossom to tiny green fruit over about a month–from March to April in our region–then enlarge through the summer and into the fall, staying a deep green.

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Honeybee in orange blossom, April 2016

Into the fall, the color changes from green to yellow and finally to the orange we know so well, by early December.

The early December orange oranges are edible–more tangy than sweet–but I’ve learned that the delectable sweetness of these navels gets more and more intense through the Northern California winter, so that by February they are at their peak of flavor.

But miraculous to me is that the oranges left on the tree into March and even April can maintain their sweetness and juiciness–even as the buds for the next year’s crop are popping forth all over the tree. I love to contemplate the silent, complex chemistry of each brilliant globe, which, even as the months grow warmer, can keep the juice and sinews inside supple and cool and steady. (See the three pictures below for the stages of the fruit).

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New green fruit, April 2016

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Green orange with peaches in background July 2016

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Laden orange tree with nopales early December 2016

And then there’s the two-year cycle…

Early on in our life in California, I attended some classes on caring for orange trees, and I learned, among other things, that oranges will not grow on the same spot on the tree two years in a row–in effect, each area of the tree has a two-year cycle, one year on, one off. Which means that a bumper crop one year will be followed by a meager crop the next. In 2014-15, for example, we had a very large crop–two hundred oranges or more–despite our having had a very poor rain season that year. In 2015-16, with a better rainy season, we nevertheless had far fewer oranges–fewer than 100–and elsewhere on the tree than in the previous year.

Then, in 2016-17, my expectation of a large crop was dwarfed by reality. The size of the crop is indicated by the pictures above, especially by the pic of the new white buds in March 2016. The tree was covered by white in March and then by many hundreds of tiny green fruit in April.

The Rains of January. Then, in late fall of 2016, with hundreds of now orange fruit on the tree, the rains began (as I’ve recorded in the entry “J is for January”), by far the heaviest in our years here, and the highest in the region sine 1982-83 (45 inches for the ’16-’17 season, more than twice the average). By January 2017, our daily effort to bring in ripe oranges was competing each day with rain-pelted oranges falling to the mushy ground, where they would rot with amazing rapidity. Nevertheless, we enjoyed at least 200-250 delicious fruit, as described below.


Our one-tree orange grove, January 2017

The upshot? Well, following the pattern of year on, year off, the 2017-18 season promises to be a very light one indeed, given the 2016-17 bumper crop. As predicted by the very meager showing of white buds in March, the next year’s crop may be our smallest in the years we’ve been here. One year on, one year off.


Ripe navel orange clusters in December, 2016

A Tip on Pruning. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that our orange tree grows between the dangerous nopales and the friendly peach tree, with some branches of the orange and peach intermixing. Early on in our California years, the orange tree grew more heavily toward the nopales side (Eastern exposure), so much so that, when laden with fruit, the orange branches on the heavier side hung almost to the ground. I used notched wooden slats to hold up the branches.

By pruning the tree substantially on the nopales side, I was able to coax the tree toward balance between the sides, and I’ve had no need for branch support in the past four or five years–even as the tree has grown larger overall.

Also, during the summer, when the tree puts out new leaves and the branches extend, the gap we need for walking between the orange and the risky nopales narrows. Fortunately, trimming back the new growth on both plants poses no risk to either plant, so the walk can stay open.

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Fresh squeezed March 2017

Oranges in the Kitchen

With oranges and meyer lemons in abundance from December through March, our citrus needs are fully or substantially met, depending on the size of the crop. Our major use of the oranges you can see in the photo above, and there’s nothing tastier than fresh orange juice, fresh lemonade (with sugar added), or the two mixed together.

But oranges just off the tree, sliced in quarters and devoured, are great, too. Besides, what’s more warming than a sunny display of freshly-picked citrus in the winter kitchen?


Update: December 2017

Until the end of November, the tree looked as if there were no new oranges for this season, as I’d predicted when I did not see any blossoms this spring. But as has happened in some earlier years, after bumper crops the season before, the late autumn shows us that, yes, there are oranges on the tree. This November, just after Thanksgiving, I saw two oranges–huge, at least six inches in diameter, on the ground, in the jasmine ground cover beneath the tree. They were bright yellow, about average color for late November, and I figured that they had fallen because of their size before fully ripe. So I brought them in and hoped they’d ripen more over the next week or two.

Then a third appeared on the ground, and then over the next few days, I spotted about ten more, all monsters, and all in the higher and back portions of the tree, where I couldn’t see them while they were still unripe.

They are still on the tree as I write this, but now, in December, they are bright orange and ready. I’ve opened two of the fallen trio and they are deliciously sweet and juicy, having benefited from the extra time indoors.

Am I surprised by this year’s bounty? Yes–but I shouldn’t be. There have been oranges every year. Always in spots where they didn’t grow the previous year. Further, I should have expected them to grow there they did, because the higher and back parts of the tree face South, our best sun direction. I didn’t see them because that part of the tree is along the fence. So my neighbors saw them growing fat and mammoth, but we didn’t.

I won’t doubt the tree again, and am looking forward to a bumper crop again next year.

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Still life: Jumbo navels, tiny shishitos, apples, green peppers, Dec. 2017

Update: March 2018

Sure enough–here  (below) came the new buds on the orange tree after our small winter harvest. As predicted and hoped for, we’ve never had so many. I’m hoping most of them will slowly turn into tiny fruit. Stay tuned.

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Orange tree bursting with new buds