a profusion of flowers > a plethora of pollinators

Two years ago, there were so few bees in the garden, I had to pollinate our pumpkins myself.  It was very satisfying work actually, kid-friendly too; I’ll share the how-to’s in a future post.  But the lack of bees was an absolute shame, a real concern, and I resolved to do everything within my gardening power to bring the bees BACK!

I’m working on a longer article on this now for WindowBox.com — check it out in a few weeks! — but I’ll tell you here what the difference-makers have been:

  • $10 of California native wildflower seeds, sprinkled randomly around our flower beds, and watered only very occasionally (or not at all).  The result — thanks in no small part to our surprisingly damp spring — has been masses of blooms.  Adiós, mulched-over garden bed austerity; hello, bountiful blooms and bees!
  • No more chemical pesticides.  None at all, for 3 years now.  The black widow is a garden-variety spider here in Encinitas, California.  I don’t love having them back.  But I won’t sanction the collateral damage that comes with spraying them away.

The bee action-shots above were taken this morning.  It’s such a pleasure to see nature at work… and so utterly satisfying to participate, positively, in nature’s pretty, perfect plans.

Blackberries for Beauty

I have a theory that eating blackberries makes a person more beautiful.

blackberry smoothie with bee pollen "sprinkles"

I cannot back this theory up with research or evidence, much less proof; it’s a feeling, a strong suspicion.  During a time when I was drinking lots of blackberry smoothies, craving them in fact, my skin improved noticeably.  Every single little bump on my skin… flattened out.  I have no before-and-after photos to offer; but even my husband noticed my smoothed-out complexion. (After I pointed it out to him. But still!)

Anyway, here is my favorite blackberry smoothie recipe:

1 cup blackberries (fresh or frozen)

2 tbsp. raw walnuts

1 cup cashew milk (or other non-dairy milk)

1 banana (frozen makes a frostier blend)

pinch of cayenne (optional)

1/4 cup ice (adjust depending on whether you used frozen ingredients above)

Place all ingredients in blender and blend from low to high.

Sweet and a little spicy, rich but not heavy, this smoothie will power you through any sort of a morning — beautifully!

PS.  Smoothie-style is pretty much the only way I consume blackberries; they can be so tart!  Blending them up with creamy cashew milk, antioxidant-rich walnuts, sweet banana, and a kick of cayenne means I’m finally able to enjoy the health benefits of these black beauties.

Peak garden

Our May grey has gone away, and June gloom has given way to abundant sunshine… and a profusion of blooms!  It’s late June, and it’s a glorious time to be in the garden; peak time, in fact!

The beginnings of real heat means the sun-lovers in the garden — tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkins — can really start to take off. But it means that the rest of my backyard — the grass, the wildflowers I’ve loved all spring, everything — will be forced into survival mode.  There’s only so much water I’m able — and willing — to give them.  We’re in a drought, and although I could increase my watering and still be in compliance with regulations (which are amazingly weak), it’s more satisfying to let nature take her course.  Brownish-green is the new green around here, and I’m getting used to it.

So I’m spending a little extra time outside today, not that any excuse is required; pruning back some overblown spring stuff, quietly putting Pippa’s sun-bleached mostly-forgotten plastic toys in the recycling (the less toys, the merrier for Mom)… and mostly, appreciating “peak garden”!

“Twiggy” tomatoes in Nashville

A friend based in Nashville, Tennessee planted her first garden this year, and asked if I had any clues why her tomato plants are still “like little twigs”.  After just a little back-and-forth, we came up with some ideas for her tomatoes, ideas which would apply to any tomato grower, anywhere.

Feed your tomatoes if you want them to feed you  Unless you have a healthy earthworm population in your garden churning out natural compost like crazy, then your tomatoes need to be fed.  Most new raised-bed gardens are not rich in earthworms, and in fact can be pretty sterile places.  My favorite, all-purpose organic plant food is Osmocote. It feeds slowly over time, and never burns.  Feed tomato plants every few weeks during the growing season, or as per product directions.

Consider intensive planting  Another recommendation for tomatoes; plant basil and marigolds all around them. Fill in any spaces with these companion plants. This “intensive” method of planting is really closer to what you would find in nature, which abhors a vacuum.  Filling all available space with plants that grow well with tomatoes will discourage critters, increase yields, and actually help plants use less water by decreasing soil surface heat and evaporation.

Tomatoes, underplanted with marigolds, parsley, basil, and some accidental potatoes left over from winter!
Tomatoes, underplanted with marigolds, parsley, basil, and some accidental potatoes left over from winter!

Check your water  When they’re just taking off, tomatoes need plenty of water (as well as very good drainage).  Water plants deeply, every couple of days — allowing an inch or so at the surface to dry between waterings.  As the summer progresses, you’ll actually want to pull back on the water.  The tomato vines will start to look scraggly and brown, but the tomatoes will grow super sweet — by withholding water, you’re concentrating their flavor.

Prune axial growth  There’s no need to prune tomatoes that aren’t really taking off; but once they do, it’s advisable to help plants keep their shape and channel growth optimally by snapping off the axial growth — “suckers” — that will send your plants’ life force growing in all sorts of crazy directions.  Here’s a visual how-to:

Pruning tomatoes is my absolute favorite gardening “chore”, for kind of a funny reason: I love the aroma that’s released when those branches are pinched off! It’s the freshest, zestiest, summeriest smell possible. So next time you’re out there pinching back your tomatoes’ axial growth, do yourself a favor and smell your fingers afterward!  (Is this weird? I don’t doubt it. It’s a well known fact that gardening cultivates eccentricity; or maybe it’s the other way around?)

Tomatoes are the highlight of the summer garden in many ways, and there’s so much the gardener can do to foster them along.  Hopefully this little bit of a primer helps my friend get her Tennessee tomatoes back on track, and is useful to you, too, wherever you and your tomatoes may be!

“Grape” expectations!

About 4 years ago, we bought a grapevine and planted it in a nice rustic half-barrel, surrounded by a variety of herbs.  It was a Thompson seedless — yum — and with “grape expectations”, we watched it grow… and grow… and grow!

The original arrangement — grape surrounded by mint, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, I think there was some basil in there too — looked lovely at planting time. But as that grape vine grew, it lost its pretty, balanced shape and was no longer a fine anchor at the center of the arrangement.  I also found that it was not easy getting the half-barrel pot watered evenly and thoroughly.  Though care had been taken to ensure adequate drainage, that huge pot stayed pretty wet.  Not a great situation, and the bottom line was — no grapes.  I could deal with a big droopy vine, but grapelessness was unacceptable!  (It does take a few years for a new vine to reliably set fruit — but I wasn’t inclined to wait and see —  and had a new, better idea…)

So when winter came and the grapevine went dormant, we dug it out and replanted it at the base of a big new trellis archway.   The trellis came from Armstrong Gardens in Carlsbad — strong, but light, and scaled just right.  This created an archway entrance to our little garden.  That grape vine loved having its roots in terra firma, and over the next few years climbed up, around, above and beyond that trellis!  Each winter we’d snip off any vining branches that chose not to follow the trellis’ shape; the more we cut, the more robust the rest of the plant.  It wasn’t until this year, though, that we finally figured out how and when to prune to encourage maximum fruit.

Here’s how to prune a grapevine, for shape and for fruit:

Prune the vine back hard in the winter, when it’s dormant and leafless, leaving just a few long branches that go where you want them to go;

In the spring, let the new vines emerge and watch for them to bud.  Once buds appear, prune away any additional vine that grows above the fruit.

Budding Grapes, April 2015
Budding Grapes, April 2015

Then, start cutting off any vines that grow more than a few feet long without giving rise to buds.  Cut them off right at their bases.

As the spring / summer progress, the grape buds will flower, and grapes will begin to grow.  Once the grapes are set (by mid-May around here) remove all new vines and tendrils.  Remove any additional growth beyond the growing grapes.  This will channel as much of the plant’s energy into fruit growing as possible.

Watching the grapes grow! May 2015
Watching the grapes grow — May 2015

If you don’t prune at this point, the grapevine may continue budding. However, buds that appear too late won’t mature in time.  Grapevines have their own internal clock, they don’t produce year-round like many other perennials do here in San Diego.  At least, this has been our experience.

This is a very simple, but adequate-for-backyard-grower-purposes approach to pruning grapes — a pastime which has been refined to an absolute art by grape growers, over the millennia, around the world.

By the way, there’s a reason the Thompson seedless grape cultivar is the most widely grown grape in the world.  The grapes are delicious, thin skinned and of course, seedless; and now that we’ve got that plant planted in the ground (and our pruning system down), it is producing lots of grapes.  I’m pretty sure the kids have tasted some immature (very sour) grapes already; but the grown-ups are content to taste them with their eyes, until harvest time.

Buono appetito!

Jen.