SF Bay Gardening

SF Bay Gardening

Exploring everything green beneath the fog

Latest Posts

How to Make a Plum and Tonic

How to Make a Plum and Tonic

If you, like me, love plum wine, you might have some to drink on occasion. If, like me, you make your own, you might have a gallon+ sitting around. And, if you are like me, you may be wondering what there is to do with […]

California’s New Composting Law Effective Today

California’s New Composting Law Effective Today

As a gardener, the new law that makes it mandatory for homes and businesses to separate food waste from trash is exciting to me. All that food and yard waste that was once going to a landfill (where it would compost anaerobically, creating methane) will […]

Bay Area Bees Don’t Need Special Winter Help

Bay Area Bees Don’t Need Special Winter Help

Just as many gardening blogs, books, and general advice focus on the majority of the country where they have this thing called “winter,” so do Social Media trends. I keep seeing posts and articles on LOCAL Facebook groups giving helpful advice on how to “save” bees in the winter’s cold.

This is one such post: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10159803672915742&set=a.10150339174890742

And this is a helpful article about bees in the winter (which, I repeat, most of Bay Area does not have): https://www.honeybeesonline.com/winter-bees/

So we shouldn’t help the bees?

I have nothing against helping the bees, but I know that our bees in the Bay Area have it easy in the winter. If the temperatures stay above 50 degrees F, as they usually do, the bees just do what they usually do: collect pollen and make honey. In fact, beekeepers here might get extra batches of honey versus keepers in less temperate parts of the country!

Google’s average high and low temperatures for San Francisco over the course of the year.

In our mild winter months, we can skip the sliced apples and other snacks (can you imagine the raccoon feast on night one of that experiment?), and our bees will be just fine.

How we can actually help Bay Area Bees?

Don’t use pesticides

When we try to eliminate pesky bugs that harm our food and flowering plants, we we need to also think about how they might affect other, beneficial insects like bees. Think localized and natural solutions rather than broad-spectrum and synthetic.

Plant & cultivate plants that flower in the winter or year-round

Some plants grow well or even best in our mild winters, and bees will appreciate the extra pollen. I imagine they get sick of the bottlebrush after a while!

Some flowers you might consider:

And don’t forget that many shrubs and trees supply blooms this time of year, like bougainvillea and honeysuckle, as well as the weeds that pop up like oxalis (sourgrass) and miner’s lettuce.

Buy honey from local beekeepers

The real heroes of bringing bees back from the colony collapse crisis have been backyard beekeepers. These are the folks you should call if you ever find a swarm of bees (NOT an exterminator!). They will–usually for free–skillfully remove that pesky swarm to a new home.

Eating local honey from those beekeepers closest to you is said to help with seasonal allergies.

Check out this video of my favorite beekeeper. She’s in Texas, but you can see how awesome beekeepers can be!

Too Many Tomatoes?

Too Many Tomatoes?

It takes what feels like a million years to get 1 ripe tomato, and then suddenly my vines are heavily laden with red, ripe beauties. Once you’ve had your fill of salsa, pizza, spaghetti, chili, and Caprese salad (or your heartburn needs a break), what […]

Thwarting the Fennel Menace

Thwarting the Fennel Menace

There are a few pleasures in gardening that really make it feel worth all the work. Harvesting a huge batch of fat, happy potatoes is one. Picking up a cured gourd and finding it whole and hard and ready to be made into whatever project […]

Preparing a Fall Garden Starts in August

Preparing a Fall Garden Starts in August

It seems like summer just started, doesn’t it? Everything is green and growing and it’s a waiting game in the garden. I haven’t even picked a ripe tomato yet this year! Still, I know from experience that it is already time to start thinking about the fall.

Starting in August, you could already be planting carrots, lettuce, and peas as seeds, as well as brassica family plants like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.

Even though it may seem like you should wait until November or December to plant such cold-happy crops, in our weather, that might be too late. The rains can invite more pests like slugs and earwigs, who will find your seedlings quite the dish. Starting now or in the next few dry months can give you a head start that means bigger yields. You can even plan on multiple harvests!

You can always check the Planting Calendar to see what to plant out and what seeds to get started, and you can use the Garden Planner to track your seeds and their planting dates for the Fall.

Starting Fall Seeds

Starting seeds when it is still hot out can be challenging, but there are some ways to increase your rate of success.

For small close-to or on-the-surface seeds like lettuce and carrots, you can start the seeds under a layer of burlap or similar material. The fabric will keep the seeds moist even in the sun, and you can remove fabric once the seedlings have sprouted. This same method can work for other kinds of seeds, but be sure to check daily so you don’t keep seed leaves too close to the soil (where they may become a tasty snack for pill bugs and earwigs).

And while you absolutely can start brassica seeds outdoors, for me, starting the plants indoors or in a protected area of my porch still yields the best results. Aphids, roly-polies, earwigs, and slugs love to eat seedlings, and their favorite seedlings are in the brassica family (at least in my yard). #aphidsarejerks

What to Grow

Looking for some fun new things to grow this fall? How about these?

Purple Broccoli (from Botanical Interests) This is a variety of broccoli that will tolerate those warmer weather streaks in the winter (unlike some others) and grows numerous side shoots after the main stem is cut off. That means you get an impressive plant with purple, tasty flowerheads all winter.

Toscano kale ready to be washed, de-ribbed, and eaten

Toscano/Dinosaur Kale (from Botanical Interests) My favorite kale to eat, hands down. It tolerates even the summer heat in Brisbane without bolting, and when it does finally seed, it will reseed, which I always love (being a lazy, but hungry, gardener). It does attract aphids like crazy, so grow enough for yourself and the pests or be ready with the neem oil spray!

Romanesco broccoli displaying its huge and showy foliage

Cauliflower (from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) Purple, green, traditional white, or the alien-looking romanesco “broccoli” variety, all are delicious and perfect for our cooler winter weather. Be sure to soak those heads. Not sure what to do with cauliflower? My kids love it roasted with olive oil, salt, & pepper for 35 minutes at 425 degrees, stirred halfway through.

Fava Beans (from Botanical Interests) These dangerously delicious beans love our weather, but if you want a few meals out of them, consider buying two seed packets and planting a few weeks apart.

A “Little Finger” carrot more than ready to be picked

Colorful Carrots (from Botanical Interests) Why do carrots have to be orange? Try a blend of multiple colors and figure out which kind you like best! Also, carrots are great for a lazy gardener, because they will just keep getting bigger in the soil over time if you don’t pick them, and their flavor is the same no matter the size.

Don’t forget you can also grow mustard, cabbage, radish, spinach.

Other Fall Crops

Some other fall crops you can start now include potatoes (which you can grow most of the year anyway), and now is the time to order seed potatoes to ensure you get the varieties you want.

September is the best time to plant strawberry crowns in the Bay Area, so if you’re looking to start a strawberry fields of your own, order your crowns from your favorite nursery as soon as you can. They will flower and fruit according to the type (June-bearing or Ever-bearing). You can also try growing smaller, sweeter, Alpine Strawberries. In my experience, the seeds take a long time to germinate, and they do not generate runners like other strawberry plants.

My garlic from November of 2020, ready to plant

Garlic, which doesn’t need to be planted until November or December, should be ordered soon as well if you want your choice of variety.

What will you be planting this fall?

Growing Basil for Fun and Pesto

Growing Basil for Fun and Pesto

Basil is one of those plants I feel like I can never grow too much of. I always start a ton of seedlings early and then plant all of them. This is unlike other plants, like tomatoes, where I only plant a few of the […]

How NOT to Build a Rain Barrel

How NOT to Build a Rain Barrel

When my husband and I first moved into our home in Brisbane, one of our first DIY projects was to install our own rain barrels. We looked up a bunch of online tutorials, took the advice that we found there, and after finding a good […]

Make Plum Wine from Local Unripe Plums

Make Plum Wine from Local Unripe Plums

I’m sure you’ve seen the “tiny” plum trees around in the Bay Area. Not tiny trees, but trees that produce tiny plums.

If you have one of those plum trees in your yard, or know of a “wild” plum tree somewhere nearby, you may have picked them, snacked on them, and even used them in jams in jellies. I know that here in Brisbane, we have many of these trees where the fruit is about the size of a small cherry, and the flavor is tart until it’s suddenly bland (when overripe). It’s definitely not a favorite fruit of mine.

Unripe green plums on a tree branch
Some of our plums, still green but full size and close ripening. It’s the perfect time to make plum wine!

Our yard has one such tree and I have struggled to make use of the not-great, tedious-to-use, annoyingly abundant fruit every year. I have made so much jam. My family doesn’t even EAT jam. All my mason jars of full of that useless stuff. I just hate wasting the fruit!

Thankfully this last year, I happened upon a recipe for Japanese plum wine. While we may not enjoy sweet jams, my husband, friends, and I enjoy sweet alcoholic drinks. The tangy, subtle flavor and almost syrupy mouthfeel of Japanese plum wine makes it a special treat (and, indeed, it should be consumed in small quantities unless you like hangover headaches). It’s also great in cocktails that let the flavor shine but add sparkle and/or contrast to those delicate plum notes.

Have you never had plum wine? If you enjoy sweet alcoholic drinks, like gimlets, port, sweet German wines, or mead, then I think you would love plum wine.

Traditional Japanese plum wine is made from 3 ingredients:

  1. Unripe “Umeshu” plums
  2. Shochu, a white, unflavored hard liquor
  3. Rock Sugar (think rock candy without the stick)

Last year, I experimented with a Bay Area recipe to make plum wine. I used:

  1. Unripe tiny green plums
  2. Vodka
  3. Rock Sugar

After about 9 months, we tested our wine, and it was sweet, thick, and delicious! The plums that grow so well here do just fine in flavoring the wine, so I made an even larger batch this year.

Plum wine on the day it was made and how it looked 9 months later
On the left, the day I put the 3 ingredients together. On the right, how the jar looked before it was opened, with sugar still settled on the bottom.

If you are looking for a simple, quick recipe to use up unripe plums, this is for you!

Local Plum Wine Recipe (Gallon-sized)

Plum wine ingredients and equipment, including Vodka, unripe plums, rock sugar, and a jar
Vodka, unripe plums, and rock sugar are the only ingredients in this tasty treat.

Ingredients

2 lbs + 2 oz green, whole, unripe plums
1.75 L Vodka or other clear, flavorless drinking alcohol
1 lb + 12 oz Rock Sugar (or less, if you prefer less sweetness. I recommend no less than 1 lb)

Equipment

A large, clean, glass gallon jar (I used a Costco-sized pickle jar)

Method

  1. Rinse and dry the plums, removing any that have bruises or are soft and almost ripe. DO NOT remove the pits!
  2. Starting with plums and ending with rock sugar, create 2 or 3 layers in the jar.
  3. Pour the vodka or other alcohol over the plums and sugar.
  4. Seal the jar, label it with the date, and place in a cool, dark place (not the fridge) for at least six months.
My gallon jar with 3 layers of plums and 3 layers of rock sugar.
My gallon jar with 3 layers of plums and 3 layers of rock sugar.

What if I want to make a smaller amount?
To make plum wine in a quart-sized glass jar, use these ingredient measurements:
1/2 lb green, whole, unripe plums
.4 L (about 15 oz) Vodka or other clear, flavorless drinking alcohol
7 oz Rock Sugar

Quart jars of plum wine being made
Quart jars work just fine.

Why Rock Sugar and not regular sugar?
Rock sugar will take longer to melt into the vodka, slowly adding sweetness just as the plums’ flavors are slowly extracted. While you can use regular sugar, it was not recommended by any recipes I found. Also, rock sugar looks cooler.

White Lump Candy or ROck Sugar
The Rock Candy I bought from Ranch 99 Market.

Where can I buy Rock Sugar?
Any local pan-Asian market should carry rock sugar. I recommend using the white variety, since it will not add additional color to the wine. I found mine at the Ranch 99 in Daly City (store website) labeled “White Lump Candy.”

Rock Sugar is available online as well, but is way more expensive. A pound of Rock Sugar from Ranch 99 was under $3, but online it is rarely under $5/lb and then you have to pay for shipping.

Can I just buy unripe plums?
There are Japanese markets that will seasonally (usually in May) sell actual Umeshu plums for making wine. These do require a bit more work, as they need to have their stem areas removed, but they are also larger plums.

Dated lid from this year's plum wine jar
See you in 2022, plum wine!
How to Start Gardening with Kids

How to Start Gardening with Kids

It is awesome when your child takes an interest is gardening, especially if it’s something you yourself are into. You want to give them every positive experience: the crunch of a freshly plucked sweet pea off the vine, that indescribable smell of tomato vines on […]