SF Bay Gardening

SF Bay Gardening

Exploring everything green beneath the fog

Latest Posts

What to Plant in March

What to Plant in March

The winter rains slow down, the air smells fresh, and you’re itching to get into the garden. What can you plant in March, inside or outside, in the San Francisco Bay area? March is one of the biggest months for planting in the San Francisco […]

Cats in the Garden

Cats in the Garden

Our cat is indoor-only, but our neighbors have a couple of active kitties that we often find napping or hunting in our garden. We usually enjoy seeing them and maybe offering them a pet, but sometimes I wish they would stay away. You can love […]

Distilling Water for Finicky Plants

Distilling Water for Finicky Plants

When I wrote a while back about the Carnivourous Plants Store in Half Moon Bay, I mentioned that we took home a sundew for ourselves. Our cool little plant monster happily enjoyed some fruit flies and ants as snacks, and we kept the dish below the plant full of water to resemble a sundew’s naturally swampy lifestyle. What we didn’t know then, was that the water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (which supplies Brisbane as well as San Francisco with drinking water) contains lime, and lime is bad for bog plants.

My plant was starting to flower–a LOT–and look a little sickly, so I deduced the water was to blame and started using rainwater instead. Rainwater is great, when it’s raining, or, if you have a good system for storing it, but I know that when the rains stop in late spring, I’m going to need a new way to get water for my sundew. And, in our home, buying bottled distilled water is not something we plan to start doing: too much waste and travel go into bottled water, distilled or otherwise. Nor do we plan to buy a filtration system that uses a reverse osmosis method, since they are expensive.  So, I decided to go for distilling water myself.

Water distillation is actually very simple, and understanding it is great not just for getting water for carnivorous plants: it’s also a survival skill. When I was researching how to best achieve it, most of the videos I found were from doomsday preppers and survivalists. Distilling can turn the dirtiest of liquids into clean, drinkable water, and that may be important if any kind of disaster strikes.

To distill water, you need to heat water into a vapor, and then collect that vapor when it condenses back into water. There are a few basic methods you can do easily at home with equipment you already have.

DIY Stovetop Distiller

You’ll need:

  • a large pot
  • a smaller heat-proof vessel that fits nicely inside the pot
  • a lid, preferably with a handle
  • ice

Fill the pot at least 1/3 of the way up with water. Place the smaller vessel in the pot, either on the top of the water or resting on something that keeps in place inside (this item must ALSO be heat-proof). If it is floating on the water, make sure that even if it moves around that it always covers the center of the pot.

Turn the lid over so that the handle is above the smaller vessel. The handle will help channel the condensed water into the center, and therefore, into the vessel. Add ice to the upturned pot lid. Turn on the heat and let the water simmer.

You will end up with melted ice, which you should remove carefully, as it may be boiling hot. You should get a good amount of water in about an hour. New ice will melt very quickly, so this method is more for a quick surge of distillation. You can keep the heat going, as the vapor will still condense and drop into the vessel, but beware boiling away the distilled water, too!

This method gets you a lot of distilled water, quickly

DIY Passive Solar Distiller

You’ll need:

  • a large, clear container, preferably glass
  • a smaller container that fits completely inside the larger container. A heavy container is best, so it will not need to float on the water.
  • a clear lid with a handle or knob, or plastic wrap
  • a small rock or weight, if using plastic wrap

You will set up the smaller container inside the larger container much like the stovetop distiller. Add water to the large containr. If your smaller container will not stay put once you’ve added water to the larger container, you can put something under the small container to prop it up and keep it still in the center.

Wrap the plastic, if you are using it, tightly around the top, and place the small weight in the center to direct the vapor down into the smaller container. If you have a lid that has a knob or handle, turn it upside-down so it serves the same purpose as the weight, directing the water to center.

Place the distiller in full sun for the day. After a few hours, you should see some water droplets on the top. This method is slower than the stovetop method, but by being passive, it saves your time, and uses the free, renewable resource of sunlight!

This method is much slower, but uses only solar energy. Using larger containers and better materials will yield better results.

I store my distilled water in a mason jar and refill as I collect more filtered water, and I only use it to water my sundews. Luckily, they are small. If I had many bog plants that needed distilled water, I would probably need to up my distilling game to something larger-scale, like some of these reverse osmosis filtration systems (warning: they are not cheap).

Happy growing!

Start Seeds in Pots You Already Have

Start Seeds in Pots You Already Have

When we think about starting seeds, images come to mind of those flexible black plastic packs, peat pots, and professional seed-starting flats. All those things work great, but so does just about any container that can hold dirt. If you’re serious about gardening, you know […]

A Different Kind of Winter Harvest

A Different Kind of Winter Harvest

Snow is not a normal sight in the Bay Area, which is why it’s quite common to trek up the mountains to Tahoe. The white stuff is quite fascinating to my kids, who had never seen it (or played in it) before. To me, a […]

The 3 Essential Gardening Tools

The 3 Essential Gardening Tools

Gardening, as you may already know, can get prohibitively expensive–but it doesn’t have to be. There are tools you need and tools that are nice to have. For most gardens in the Bay Area, these three items are the bare minimum you can expect to need to get started seriously gardening.

A Trowel

A shovel you can rely on is important to every gardener, and depending on the size and scope of your gardening, it can be the only “tool” you really need. You can use a trowel for digging out weeds by the roots, transplanting, scooping soil and other materials, and even to fluff up packed earth before planting.

Trowels come in all sorts and sizes, some are larger, metal, and heavy, which can succumb to rust if left wet. My preference actually came to me by accident: I bought a trowel for my son to use in the garden. Instead of buying a “children’s” tiny, flimsy shovel, I got a regular one, but made of plastic. Why buy kids tools that won’t last them very long? In the end, I started using his. I love its lightweight feel, comfortable handle, and that when he or I leave it out in the garden by accident, I don’t have to worry about it rusting. Plus, it’s made by Fiskars, a company I already know and trust for my sewing tools, and they offer a lifetime warranty on most of their products.

I recommend: Fiskars FiberComp Trowel

If you prefer metal tools, or just want to check out bundles, this is a great link.

Gloves

You can garden bare-handed, but I don’t recommend it. Gloves make it easier to grab those wet weeds, transplant your baby plants, and extract snails from your plants’ leaves. 

Waterproof

The very basic gloves required are waterproof on at least the palms, but they can be fully waterproof as well. These will get you through most gardening projects while keeping your fingernails clean–black soil under your nails and in the wrinkles of your skin is NOT a good look outside of a farm.

I recommend: Wonder Grip Latex Gloves

You can also find packages of gardening gloves, usually with a waterproof palm and fabric back, at Costco or hardware stores in the spring. I buy these, as I end up ruining gloves just by using them so much. These are often a great deal.

Garden Safety

If you, like me, have a problem with blackberry brambles and thistles popping up in your garden, you may wish to go ahead and get yourself some Rose Gloves. These are longer, like gauntlets, to cover the tender part of your arms and wrists. They can be leather, goatskin, or microfiber.

I recommend: Professional Rose Pruning Thornproof Gardening Gloves with Extra Long Forearm Protection

Pruning Shears/Clippers

Clippers/shears are what you’ll need to harvest those prickly cucumbers from the vine and to cut the stems of woody weeds you can’t just pull out of the ground. Make sure you pick a good brand of clipper, and take good care of your pair. You want the blade edges to stay sharp, so never rinse with water, which can rust them, but clean with rubbing alcohol.

I recommend: Fiskars Steel Bypass Pruning Shears

The Fiskars choice above is both from a good brand and offered at a low price. If you are looking for something more hefty, check out the full list. I do think it makes sense to start with inexpensive shears and then upgrade later when you’re sure you will stick with gardening and when you know what you like and don’t like.

That’s It!

Of course, you’ll need seeds and compost and pots and other items as you create and grow your garden, but with these three you are ready to tackle most of what gardening requires. What are you waiting for? Get Gardening!

5 Things Absolute Beginner Gardeners Should Know

5 Things Absolute Beginner Gardeners Should Know

Gardening is a huge subject, and the volumes of knowledge you can attain over time are immense. You can read, you can try and learn by your mistakes, and you can get advice. And, you can be totally overwhelmed by something as simple as figuring […]

Green Your Holidays with Fabric Wrapping Paper

Green Your Holidays with Fabric Wrapping Paper

The holidays are always an exciting time around here, but I always hated the waste of the season—especially wrapping paper and bows. Now, each year we have our gifts under the tree without any wrapping paper, tape, or plastic ribbon: we use fabric! When my […]

Why Grow Dent Corn?

Why Grow Dent Corn?

Reviewing your seed catalogs in the (finally!) rainy autumn, you see the beautiful colors that dent corn can come in–blue, red, even rainbow “Gem”–and you don’t know why you’d want to grow corn you can’t eat fresh. What’s the point? Why colorful cornbread, of course!

Dent corn varieties are grown to be consumed dry, not fresh. Popcorn is similar, in that it should be dried, but not all dent or flint corn can be popped well, just as not all popping corn would make good meal or flour. Dent corn is used for cornmeal and polenta, others work best as flour. Blue corn flour is even considered more nutritious than yellow corn flour!

Grinding Dent Corn by hand
My son grinding Bloody Butcher corn for our cornbread.

We have a Victorio hand-crank mill, but there are attachments for mixers or even for blenders to make the job a lot-less time consuming. For our family, we don’t grind corn often, but when we do we delight in the fun colors and different flavors of home-grown corn meal. My kids also loved the opportunity to watch the corn turn into meal as they turned the crank.

Bloody Butcher skillet cornbread cooked and ready to go into the oven.

We made skillet cornbread for Thanksgiving this year from Bloody Butcher corn (such an awesome name!). The final product is not pink, unfortunately, but is definitely a different tone than ordinary cornbread, with dark crimson flecks.

I’ve never seen cornmeal for sale in any color but yellow, so I find grinding our own colorful meal to be a fun benefit of growing our own. And, since we keep the kernels whole in storage, they will keep indefinitely, so one harvest will keep us in Bloody Butcher cornmeal for years to come!

Predatory Plants, Half Moon Bay, California

Predatory Plants, Half Moon Bay, California

Amongst the drool-inducing nurseries along Route 92 in Half Moon Bay is a sign that seems almost out-of-place between the more trendy, Sunset-style stores. Succulents, Native Plants, and…Carnivorous Plants? If you venture inside, you will find no Little Shop of Horrors, but a sparse space […]