SF Bay Gardening

SF Bay Gardening

Exploring everything green beneath the fog

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What to Plant in September

What to Plant in September

Even as fall looms ahead of us, our warm September weather keeps the tomatoes, cucumbers, and gourds growing strong. And while the wild blackberries in full sun may have shriveled up, the ones in shady spots are just now fruiting plump, tasty berries. Here is […]

Have you checked out these Naked Ladies?

Have you checked out these Naked Ladies?

Don’t worry, I’m talking about the beautiful, fragrant, and totally weird flower that pops up this time of year, right after all its foliage had died back. The Belladonna Amaryllis (AKA Belladonna Lily, AKA Resurrection Lily, AKA Naked Ladies) is ablaze just about everywhere sunny […]

Mouse Melons: The Cutest Fruit

Mouse Melons: The Cutest Fruit

There are many beautiful fruits out there, and I’m sure you’ve grown some that you thought were drop-dead gorgeous. But would you say many of them were cute?

Let’s say you’ve got a plant that looks like the biggest garden fruit, i.e. watermelon, but is the size of a grape tomato. Voila! Cutest fruit around.

Mouse melons, or cucamelons, are relatively new to the gardening community, and images of handfuls of these tiny melons are showing up all over the internet. So small, so cute, so many adorable photo opportunities.

Bunny Calico Critter viewing the Mouse Melon harvest
Mouse Melons happen to be the perfect size “watermelon” for Calico Critters to enjoy.

Growing Mouse Melons

A tiny cucamelon and its flower. To show the size, the twine it is climbing is kitchen twine, less than 1/8 inch thick.

They grow a lot like cucumbers, just smaller (if you need more of a guide on growing them, check out my Cucumber Growing Guide). And when I say smaller, I mean like a bonsai cucumber vine. The leaves are so small, the vines feel very delicate, and the flowers are downright miniature. They would do well in a hanging basket or medium-to-large pot, or in the ground.

Cucamelon vines
This view shows you how little of my bamboo trellis the full-grown vines take up. That’s 3 vines growing at the far end going up the white twine.

You can trellis them, but be sure to offer them something very thin to grasp onto, like twine. Because of their tiny size, my bamboo trellis branches were too wide for it to grip. And, be sure to protect the vines from strong wind, or your fruit may go flying. I happened to plant them close enough to our grape trellis that the wind was blocked by grape leaves and my mouse melons thrived.

Where to Get Mouse Melon Seeds

Botanical Interests is where I obtained my seeds, and they sprouted and grew very well. 

Harvesting and Flavor

A nearly ripe cucamelon
An almost-ripe mouse melon. I would give it a day or two before picking, to let the green fade, so I get that yummy sour flavor.

So at first I was wholly unimpressed with the flavor of these little guys (even though popping a whole little fruit into your mouth and crunching on it is very satisfying). The flavor was basically “bland cucumber” (yes, that’s possible). I was picking them before they got too large (roughly large-grape-sized) thinking that, like cucumbers and squash, they would get less tasty when larger.

But, I find that if you harvest when they get a bit larger, more like a grape tomato, when the color fades a bit, they have a slightly sour taste that’s very interesting. Another name for them is Mexican sour gherkin, so that makes sense to me now.

I hope that I can get enough to pickle some, because I think that would make a great snack. However, I only have about 5 vines in the two mounds I planted, and sadly, that’s just not producing enough for a huge harvest. And huge for these little guys would be like filling a pint jar.

If you want to have more on hand than a novelty photo prop and a fun off-the-vine nibble, I would grow several more hills of them–at least 20 plants. Luckily, due to their tiny size, you won’t need that much room to do that.

Update September 10, 2019: So, it turns out my cucamelon vines were just getting started producing, and my two hills gave me more than enough fruit to make some refrigerator pickles. I used this recipe but found it is off on volume (it says the liquid you make is for 1 pint, but it’s actually double that). So, I have two quart jars with 1 cup each of mouse melons in them, but it means room to add more later, so I ain’t complaining!

Harvested Mouse Melons
My huge 2-cup harvest!
Cooking pickling liquid
Creating the flavorful pickling liquid using home-grown jalapenos, plus garlic and bay leaves.
Jar of cucamelon pickles in the fridge
My cucamelons in the fridge, just starting their flavorful journey to pickledom.
What to Plant in August

What to Plant in August

In the heat of the summer, spring-planted crops like tomatoes, peppers, corn, and cucumbers are going nuts. It’s hard to believe it’s already time to start thinking about fall planting! Cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale need to be planted now or in September […]

Gardening Without a Yard

Gardening Without a Yard

Space is tight in the Bay area, and many of us, even those who love gardening and growing things and all things green find that we do not have the vast open space that we would like for our gardening. We are lucky in that our […]

What to Plant in July

What to Plant in July

Depending on your microclimate, the days can get pretty hot, which some plants just love. Corn and peppers are really thriving, and you may be seeing some teeny-tiny mouse melons (also known as cucamelons) (squee!), but if you’ve got your eyes on a fall harvest, it’s time to get baby brassicas in the ground or start them indoors.

This list is based on my planting calendar, which is a great reference when you are choosing what to plant and what to prepare for each season. I’ve included sources for each plant and some notes to better help you in planning your garden this year.

Fava Bean

Sow seeds outside in FOGGY AREAS only.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Snap Bean

Sow seeds outside. This is the last recommended month until April to plant.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Beet

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Broccoli

Plant seedlings outside or start seeds indoors and plant outside in July through September.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Brussels Sprout

Plant seedlings outside or start seeds indoors to plant outside in July through September.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Cabbage

Plant seedlings outside or start seeds indoors and plant outside in August through September.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Carrot

Sow seeds outside in FOGGY AREAS only.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Cauliflower

Plant seedlings outside (FOGGY AREAS) or start seeds indoors to plant outside in July (FOGGY AREAS), or August through September.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Celery

Plant seedlings outside or start seeds indoors to plant outside in July (FOGGY AREAS) or August.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Collards

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Early Corn

Sow seeds outside. This is the last recommended month until April to plant.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Kale

Start seeds indoors to plant outside in August.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Kohlrabi

Plant seedlings outside or start seeds indoors to plant outside in August or September & October (SUNNY AREAS ONLY).
Sources: Botanical Interests

Lettuce

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Mustard

Sow seeds outside in FOGGY AREAS.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Parsnip

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Potato Tubers

Plant outside.
Resources on growing Potatoes: Grow Potatoes from your Pantry
Sources: Peaceful Valley

Radish

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Spinach

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Summer Squash

Sow seeds outside. This is the last recommended month until March to plant.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Swiss Chard

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

Turnip

Sow seeds outside.
Sources: Botanical Interests

What to Plant in June

What to Plant in June

Summer is here! Some of those springtime plants might be producing already, but it is still a great time to plant in the garden. It’s also not too early to start prepping for your fall garden plants. This list is based on my planting calendar, […]

What does “Hardening Off” Mean?

What does “Hardening Off” Mean?

If you are new to gardening, you probably know that getting some seeds started indoors is a great way to ensure your plants get a healthy start where disease, weather, and pests will not hinder their beginnings. While this is true, there is a real […]

Guide to Growing Hops

Guide to Growing Hops

Do you brew? Home brewing is a great mix of cooking and socialization, great for shy folks (like me!) who need an excuse to invite people over. And what’s more fun then making beer while also drinking it, with friends?

If you brew, you know about hops. They have all sorts of interesting names, like Willamette, Cascade, and East Kent Golding. Each hop variety is known for certain aspects of its flavor (e.g. grassy, spicy, floral, citrusy), and those aspects are different depending on when you use the hops in your Brew. There’s hops added for bittering early in the boil, for flavor later in the boil, and for aroma at the very end of brewing. You can even add hops to your wort after it has cooled, usually sometime during fermentation, known as dry hopping. These imbue an intense flavor and aroma of fresh hops into your beer.

So, if you brew with hops, why not grow your own? 

Benefits of Growing your own Hops

Hops are not expensive if you brew infrequently. But, if you brew a lot, or, if you make the same recipe over and over again, you might find that $2-$5 per ounce of hops is a bit steep, especially if you use a lot of hops in your beer (IPAs, I’m looking at you!).

Growing your own hops, you can expect a few ounces of hops flowers in your second year, and, as the rhizome grows, more and more hop vines will grow you more hops. 

Hop vines are also fairly easy to grow, require little to no attention or fertilizer, and grow quickly (up to a foot a day). They’re not too picky about soil as long as it drains well, so if you have a nice sunny spot in the Bay area with enough room for the eventually wide root system, you should succeed. 

How to Order Rhizomes

Hops are grown from rhizomes, which are like a small piece of root that is starting to sprout new stems. They are sold at one time of the year each year, between February and May, which is conveniently the right time to plant them in the Bay Area.

While I have started to see hops available from some planting companies, sometimes they do not even identify the variety of hop, which makes it completely useless for brewing since hop flavor aspects vary so much. Be sure you know what kind of hop rhizome you are buying, and track where you plant it in your garden.

The one garden distributor I would recommend is Territorial Seed Company, which even offer a four pack of hops that will give you a good range of flavor for your beers.

Brew supply companies are probably the best supplier of hop rhizomes.

More Beer, located in Los Altos, will take orders early in the spring and call you when they are ready for pickup.

Northern Brewer, online, will also sell hops seasonally, with a two-rhizome minimum order.

I’ve purchased rhizomes from all three of these suppliers and have found the quality to be excellent, the instructions that they come with to be perfect, and really can’t complain about any of them.

If your hops arrive and you are not quite ready to plant them outside yet, you will need to store them in your refrigerator. Please make sure that there is a small amount of moisture inside the bags that they came in before you put them in the fridge. If you need to leave them there for a very long period of time, make sure that they do not dry out, and that they do not start to grow mold.

How to Plant

Rhizomes need to be planted in healthy, well-draining soil, about 4 in below the surface. You can mix some general fertilizer into the soil before you plant, but do not overdo it. I like to just mix in some compost.

When choosing the space for your hops, consider the following: hops need to set up a significant root system (after a few years), so small pots will not work long-term, but larger ones, or a half barrel, should do fine. The area should be in full sun. And, hops need something to grow on, like a fence or trellis. They can get really long, but die back completely in the winter to the ground.

My Cascade rhizome next to the hole dug for it in a half-barrel planter.

Ideally, you will lay the rhizome horizontally in the soil, with the shoots facing upward. If the shoots are sending roots in a different direction, you can also set it up in a different arrangement to make the shoots point upward, or still go horizontal because the shoots will change direction as needed. 

Detail of the hop rhizome showing the shoots facing upward. It is being planted horizontally.

I recommend protecting the area you planted your rhizomes in from digging creatures like raccoons and cats, by placing something over the soil like bird netting, a tomato cage, or forks sticking up out of the soil. I’ve lost two rhizomes in my time, once to a curious child (not my own), and once to some curious raccoons. Now, I don’t take chances.

Forks surrounding the rhizome planting area to protect ithe newly turned soil from digging critters like raccoons and cats.

Keep the area you planted the rhizome in watered, don’t let it dry out completely, but don’t soak the area too much. You should see green shoots as soon as the weather is uniformly warm for a few days in a row.

Detail of hop vines sprouting. These are second-year vines, but new vines will look similar.
New hop vines from my Cascade hop rhizome.

How to Care for Hop Vines

Keep them watered by watering frequently and lightly, make sure the roots have room to grow, and give them something to climb. 

In the the first year you plant, the vines will get to be several feet long, but you will see no flowers. In the winter, the leaves will die, and the plant itself will disappear into the soil. Don’t freak out! This is normal, and your plant is still there, and still alive, beneath the soil. 

In the spring, you’ll start to see tiny shoots appear again, like miniature asparagus. Soon, you will notice that you have more vines when you did last year. Some ill be second year vines, some will be first year, as your rhizome has getting birth to more vines than before.

Second-year hop vines growing quickly up to the trellis.

On your second year vines, you will see the telltale little hop flowers, called cones, in the fall. They’ll be green, and tender, until they are ready for harvest.

Harvesting and Storing Hops

You will know it is time to harvest your house when they have opened slightly, and you can see the yellow powder, called lupulin, coming out of them. They will also be lighter, and more papery, than they were when still immature. Some will even lighten in color on the vines.

You can harvest by snipping the cones from the vines. Then, you need to dry them fully using your favorite food-drying method before storing them.
Once dried, store them in a plastic zip-topped bag in the freezer and only thaw when you are ready to use them. I recommend weighing your hops and writing the hop variety name, date, and weight on your bags to make it easier to use in your recipes.

Resources

More Beer’s Guide to Growing Hops
A good reference for growing and dealing with issues with hop growing.

The Homebrewer’s Garden by Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher
A comprehensive guide to growing all the ingredients you use to brew.

Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer
A fantastic book for any brewer with a great chart that gives hops flavor profiles, as well as delicious recipes for making your own brews at home without a kit. Makes it easy to make the beer you want, and experiment with flavors and changes to get to designing your own recipes. I love their Belgian Blond recipe especially!

What to Plant in May

What to Plant in May

As we get closer to summer, all those warm-loving plants need to get into the garden. If you live in a foggy area, you still have some time to plant some more cool-weather brassicas and fava beans. This list is based on my planting calendar, […]