SF Bay Gardening

SF Bay Gardening

Exploring everything green beneath the fog

Latest Posts

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 […]

Last Year’s Garden Results & 2021 Garden Plans

Last Year’s Garden Results & 2021 Garden Plans

As the rain pours down on a dreary afternoon, I find myself longing for those warm, dry days when going into my garden didn’t feel so muddy and gross. Remembering the extremely tumultuous–and hot–summer and fall of 2020, I can reflect on what worked and […]

2021 Seed Catalog Reviews

2021 Seed Catalog Reviews

I’m not gonna lie: Seeing the mailbox packed with color seed catalogs is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.

What is more hopeful, positive, and bursting with potential than a listing of plants and flowers you could grow? And from tiny seeds, no less? Retail therapy, indeed!

Obviously, I don’t get every seed catalog available delivered to my home. I get a small pile of ones I tend to purchase from regularly, and each has its positives and negatives. This is my take on this year’s offerings from my favorite seed suppliers.

Botanical Interests

This is always my go-to company for seeds for my garden, and their catalog this year is reflective of why that is.

Botanical Interests 2021 Seed Catalog
Illustrations and attention to design make the Botanical Interests Seed Catalog a delight to read.

Instead of photographs, they use drawings for each variety of seed. That means you usually see the fruit and the plant in its most desired form. The drawings are dead-on and perfect. No bad lighting or weird camera angles will make you unclear about the exact variety you are choosing. And, each and every variety gets a picture in the catalog.

The info on each variety is clear and concise, just like their informative seed packets. When I just want to choose seeds and buy them without much fuss, Botanical Interests is the way to go.

They give extra attention to the new seeds for the year on the first spread, making it easy to find the most exciting items first. There’s helpful information throughout about various subjects. This year, they explain the difference between Conventional and Organic seeds.

The paper catalog can be requested via this link, or you can view it online: Botanical Interests Catalog

If you’d rather shop locally, I know that I found a huge selection of Botanical Interests seeds at Golden Nursery in San Mateo and FlowerCraft in San Francisco, but it has been a while, so I would call them to check before you head over!

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

When I am actively avoiding the cold, wet weather of the Bay Area’s winter, I love to curl up under a blanket with a hot cocoa and the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. Something about the long, historically-minded seed descriptions and bizarre random family photos make me feel like I’m living on a homestead in the wilderness and not trapped in a Covid-fueled never-ending-family-only-hellscape.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed 2021 Catalog
Unusual seeds and weird content make Baker Creek my favorite seed catalog this year

This catalog is not for a quick perusal. Get your reading glasses and plan to learn first-hand why professional graphic designers try to avoid having too many words per line in a paragraph. Some of the descriptions are only a few sentences, and some are half-pages of text about the history, uses, and cultural significance of a particular type of Chinese Cabbage or Amaranth.

It’s perfect to have these long descriptions because unless you already get the catalog every year, you might not have heard of many of these plants. The descriptions make you want to know these plants–to try them and grow them and look half as happy as the children in some of the pictures.

Baker Creek Luffa Gourds Spread
Mixed in with the harsh rectangular images of plants and descriptions are beautiful pages like this one, for Luffa Gourds

Something unique to Baker Creek’s catalog, besides the hard-to-find and new-to-America seeds, is that they do not separate vegetables from flowers. Partly, that’s a brilliant way to convince those of us on one side of the fence or the other to experience the incredible lure of the other. And partly it’s also because the line between food and flora is a thin one. On at least half the plants I’d call “flowers,” Baker Creek talks about the number of antioxidants it contains or explains how to use it in smoothies or baked goods like the Hopis used to.

Garden porn indeed
Some fellow gardener friends call this catalog “seed porn,” and I think I’d have to agree

The 2021 Catalog isn’t all that Baker Creeks puts out–they also have a Whole Seed Catalog for which they charge $13. It includes even more amazing photos and seed varieties. To request the catalog, view it online, or purchase the Whole Seeds Catalog, go here: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

When Covid is less of a threat, be sure to make your way to the Petaluma Seed Bank to buy seeds and gawk generally at the amazing collection in person.

Territorial Seed

Territorial Seeds 2021 Catalog
Territorial seeds offers a well-organized and robust collection

With a massive collection of seeds, it’s amazing they can get it all into one book. So much variety for every vegetable and flower, plus the option to purchase 1 oz of seeds or 50 lbs of some seeds, makes it worth a look.
The quality of seeds is great, the diversity is amazing, and the extras, like gardening supplies and fertilizers they also sell are great. It’s just…the catalog is very utilitarian. It reminds me of Burpee catalogs.

As a company, I think they cater to more serious farmers along with home gardeners, so this makes sense. But for an escape into the dreams of a robust garden in the spring, it lacks imagination.

You can request a 2021 catalog here: Territorial Seed Catalog Request Form

Peaceful Valley

Peaceful Valley 2021 Seed Catalog
Beautiful artwork and a succinct seed collection make Peaceful Valley a great catalog for beginner gardeners

With a focus on only organic seeds and a huge collection of other products, including garlic, potatoes, and fruit trees depending on the time of year, I always look forward to the many focused catalogs from California-based Peaceful Valley/GrowOrganic.com.

Like Botanical Interests, Peaceful Valley uses drawings of their offerings, but the drawings are more artistic: think clever camera angles. I prefer the scientific precision of Botanical Interests over these drawings for seed purchasing, though I do appreciate the art. The variety of offerings is sufficient for most home vegetable gardeners, but if you’re looking for something new and exciting, this may not be the catalog for you.

One awesome thing to note is that Peaceful Valley offers free shipping for seeds if you buy at least 5 packets. If you’re looking to stock up for spring with organic seeds, this would be the place. They also occasionally offer free seeds with larger purchases of gardening equipment or materials.
And, while I might not love their seed catalog offering, I will be waiting excitedly for their 2021 Bare Root Catalog–I’m thinking this may be the year to get that Persimmon Tree!

View all catalogs online: Peaceful Valley/GrowOrganic.com Catalogs

What’d I Miss?

Is there an awesome seed catalog you love to comb through every winter? Please tell me about it in the comments!

This Year’s Garden Planner Printable

This Year’s Garden Planner Printable

About this time every year, I start to get super excited. The evenings get dark earlier, the air is a bit cooler, and it’s that time of year when the garden gets quiet. Time to start planning for next year’s garden! I’ve planned my gardens […]