SF Bay Gardening

SF Bay Gardening

Exploring everything green beneath the fog

Latest Posts

Ditch the Dish Sponge

Ditch the Dish Sponge

I hate throwing things away. I save every “nice” box or envelope that comes in the mail to use again some day. I compost or recycle everything that can be composted or recycled. I shop secondhand. It’s just my natural way of being, to try […]

Why Did My Seedlings Stop Growing?

Why Did My Seedlings Stop Growing?

When we start seeds indoors, we are trying to give them a head start before putting them into the harsh world of the out-of-doors. So, when our tender, baby seedlings seem to just pause, or stall in their growth, it can be very stressful. What […]

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 plum wine besides sipping it, cold, and enjoying that subtle sweetness and plummy taste?

As much as I love plum wine, it can be too cloying when you have had too much. Its sweetness can also lead to unpleasant hangovers.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered a delicious way to cut the sweetness with tonic water and bitters, making a new drink that I call a Plum & Tonic. It has that plum-tastic taste, but without the syrupy feel. And, the extra water will help hydrate you, making hangovers less of a certainty.

This tasty cocktail has only 3 ingredients

Plum and Tonic Recipe

Ingredients

1/4 cup Sweet Plum Wine ([homemade] or store bought)
6 oz chilled Tonic Water (half of a 12 oz can)
A shake or two of bitters (I like Sour Cherry Bitters)

Instructions

  1. Combine ingredients and enjoy!
Please drink plum wine responsibly 🙂
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” […]

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 do you do?

Give them Away

Give away tomatoes to your friends and neighbors. Cultivating that sense of community is always welcome. Of course, if you left the tomatoes on the vine a touch too long and you aren’t sure your neighbors enjoy flicking ants off overripe fruit, this may not be the best thing to do.

Can Those Tomatoes

I used to do this. I did. I spent the time parboiling the tomatoes to peel the skin and then added citric acid to each carefully-filled hot sterile jar and full-on pressure-canned many jars of tomatoes.

It’s a ton of repetitive, time-consuming work. And in the end, you get long-lasting shelf-stable tomatoes in jars…that are pure mush when you go to use them. Home canning does not improve on the texture.

Needless to say, I don’t can my tomatoes anymore.

Freeze Those Tomatoes

This is what I do now. It’s faster, easier, and needs less special (or, at least, less specialized) equipment.

A wonderful site–homegrown tomato sauce, ready to freeze for recipes for months to come!
  1. I stem and roughly chop (like into 4 pieces) the tomatoes.
  2. I cook them until they break down and the skins are mostly off.
  3. I run them through a food mill to remove the seeds and skins (my kids will not stand for tomato skins).
  4. I put them into canning jars, add lids, and then freeze.
My old-school food mill on the left has the skins and seeds. Not much waste, and over a gallon of smooth tomato sauce on the right.

A few things to consider if you want to try freezing plain, milled tomatoes:

  • There are plastic reusable canning-jar lids that work well for this and other Mason jar storage purposes. They have them seasonally at Target and you can also check out these leak-proof lids at MasonJars.com
  • Wide-mouthed straight-sided jars are recommended for freezing so that frozen material will not expand and break the curves of the rounded jars. I use both kinds of jars because I like to live dangerously! But also, I fill the rounded jars with less liquid and freeze them first in my normal freezer before adding them to our deep freeze.
  • A canning funnel (like my blue one below) is ideal for filling jars (go figure!)
  • You can also freeze roasted pumpkin if you have an abundance, which is great because you actually CANNOT safely can pumpkin at home (it’s too dense)
  • Dry-erase crayons are great for labeling jar lids–the writing stays unless you use some elbow grease, so they don’t get wiped clean by accident the way dry erase markers would
  • If you cook the milled sauce down and reduced it enough, you’ll end up with tomato paste, which can also be frozen. You should freeze it in smaller servings, depending on how you use tomato paste, like 4-oz jars or in an ice cube tray
Filling my storage jars with tomato sauce. Notice the small-mouth rounded-shoulder jars have less sauce inside than the wide-mouth smooth-sided jar.
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 […]

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 healthiest.

Why Grow Basil?

Italian or Genovese Basil is the main ingredient in pesto and an important flavor in Caprese salad (see my favorite recipes below). There are also purple and Thai varieties that have different flavor profiles perfect for different styles of food. Basil dries easily, so any excess (should you be so blessed) can still be put to culinary use.

Basil is also supposed to deter pests like aphids, and, while I haven’t done any scientific tests on that myself, my tomatoes are primarily pest free when I plant basil nearby. This year, I’ll plant them near my notoriously aphid-ridden kale and see what happens.

Types of Basil

The Basil I grow is the Genovese variety, also called Italian Basil. It grows large round leaves, and has a distinct strong smell.

Genovese Basil, bushy and fragrant, growing among my San Marzano plants

There are many other kinds of basil, such as Thai basil, which I find spicier, and is more appropriate in Asian dishes than Genovese basil, as well as milder forms of Basil like Purple Petra Basil, showy varieties like Cardinal Basil, Lemon Basil for a more stringent taste, and even Tulsi Holy Basil, known for the stress-reducing qualities when made into a tea. 

Sprouting and Planting

Basil is usually pretty happy to sprout. It likes heat and regular watering. You can start basil ahead of time indoors, and it should transplant just fine as long as you aren’t purposefully mangling the roots. You can also seed directly into the soil.

Basil sprouts are tiny, smaller than a dime when forming their first true leaves.

While basil may deter some pests, other bugs will happily eat it, which can be devastating to a seedling. As of this writing, many of my basil transplants are nubs and I’m waiting for newly-planted seeds to sprout.

Despite the diminutive appearance of basil sprouts, the plant can get quite large. With good soil nutrition, you can expect Genovese Basil plants to get to about 2 ft high and 1 foot wide. The full-grown size will vary depending on the variety.

You should know that basil seeds do not generally keep well over time, so if you plan on growing a ton of basil, sure, get that huge seed packet–just don’t expect those seeds to be viable for more than 2 years.

Harvesting and Increasing Yields

When it’s growing, basil will grow pairs of leaves along the stems. When you are ready to harvest some, you should pluck leaves at the point just above where you see two sets of basil leaves forming in the connection between larger leaves and the stem. This will accomplish two things: one, it will take new leaves instead of established leaves, allowing the plant to continue growing strong by keeping a large surface area of older leaves for utilizing sunlight. Two, at those stem points, each of those sets of two leaves will grow a whole new stem, causing the plant to branch and form more and more leaf notes, meaning a bushier plant and more yummy leaves for you.

A properly harvested basil plant with two branches growing up where one was cut. Like a Hydra!

Like most leafy plants, the best time to harvest is the morning, when the plants are full of moisture. And, it is best to pinch off flowerheads to get the tastiest basil. Flowering doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the leaves anymore, but the flavor will be less strong.

Recipes

Basil Walnut Pesto

  • 3 cloves of garlic (or more, if you just looooove garlic), peeled and stem-end removed
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Romano cheese, or a mix of the two (about 2/3 cups if finely shredded)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 3 cups of Basil leaves
  • about 2/3 cup olive oil, depending on preference

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse garlic until well chopped. Add walnuts, cheese, salt, pepper, and basil. Process until well mixed. With food processor running, slowly drizzle olive oil until mixture becomes less crumbly and more like a creamy paste.

Stop the processor and taste. Remember that if you will be adding the pesto to pasta or bread, the flavor will be diluted, so some garlic sharpness or saltiness is OK. If you will be eating it more directly (like, with a spoon), you may need to tone down the sharpness with some more olive oil or more cheese. Adjust based on your own preferences, and add more of any ingredient you need a little more of.

Makes about 1 cup of pesto.

Caprese salad from your own garden: such a simple & refreshing meal!

Caprese Salad

  • Ripe Tomatoes
  • Fresh mozzarella (not low moisture) or burrata cheese
  • A few sprigs of Basil
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Crusty Italian or French Bread

Traditional Method

Slice tomatoes and cheese about 3/8″ thick. Distribute alternating tomato and cheese slices along the curve of a plate. Cut basil leaves chiffonade style or tear by hand and sprinkle over tomato and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve with sliced bread.

Bruschetta Method

Chop tomatoes and mozzarella into half-inch cubes. Chop basil and combine with tomato and mozzarella in a bowl. Add in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. To eat, spoon mixture onto bread and enjoy.

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 […]