Sow There!: Tips for ripening green tomatoes, 10-16-17

Poppies grew in our school's raised bed garden last May.
Poppies grew in our school’s raised bed garden last May. Photo by Heather Hacking

I love to note the first day of “sweater weather.” The kids in my elementary school class arrived one morning wrapped in outer clothes. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those jackets and pullovers would be at the lost-and-found after the first noontime recess.

Layered clothing also means upheaval in my bedroom. At about this time, I haul the dusty bins filled with warm clothes from the back of the closet. Next, I sort through my summer and spring clothes to decide what to toss and what to save.

Typically, I dump everything on the bed and decide if skimpy summer clothes are no longer “age appropriate.” Usually I remind myself that I am “young at heart,” and hope I look younger next year.

Right now, I’m thankful I have clothing in three separate sizes. When I worked in an office I sat at my desk all day. When days were stressful, I ate mindlessly and filled out in the middle. As a student teacher, I rarely sit down. If I snack during recess, it is in between one of the millions of things a teacher does when the kids are racing around outdoors, losing their sweaters.

I’m also mindful that children notice what I eat. I want to model healthful eating, and place my green beans and sliced apples prominently on the edge of my desk.

(Never mind that when I get home I eat three bowls of ice cream).

The result has been that I’ve lost weight, and might even fit into some of those clothes I’ve unpacked, saved and repacked for the past 10 years.

SEASONAL CHANGES

For gardeners, the upheaval in autumn includes calling it quits on the summer vegetables. Last weekend there was a garden clean-up at the school. I was specifically invited to the event by the transitional-Kindergarten teacher. “I thought you would want to come,” she said correctly, assuming that my idea of fun is making dust and pulling weeds in a group setting.

She also knew that when seven adults and four children work for two hours, the job gets done quickly.

As is often the case when you hang around teachers, I learned something that day.

Before clean-up morning, our school garden included weeds growing between the bricks, a smattering of water-deprived green onions, dead sunflowers and a thriving cherry tomato plant.

With the help of several children, we picked a mound of ripe yellow, bell-shaped tomatoes. However, the sprawling tomato plant was still covered with green tomatoes.

I have the same problem with the tomatoes in my yard. Through the heat of that long, wretched summer I waited for tomatoes to arrive. Now it is cooler and I have more green tomatoes than I harvested from June through August.

Ever the optimist, I tend to wait and wait for those green orbs to ripen. As history notes, I leave the plant in the ground through November, then clean up tomato mush the day after the first frost.

This day at the school garden I was happily working to eradicate weeds, particularly the spotted spurge wedged between faded red bricks. When I turned around I noticed the transitional-Kindergarten teacher had lopped off about half the tomato plant and plunked the extra vines on a bench.

That’s the way to do it. If anyone wanted green tomatoes, they were there for the taking. There were plenty of green tomatoes remaining on the plant, likely destined for a fate similar to the green tomatoes in my back yard.

One of the parents explained that if the green tomatoes are taken indoors, they will continue to ripen (and won’t turn to mush one cold night).

TOMATO TO-DO LIST

Rodale’s Organic Life has some painstakingly thorough information for those who want to capture every last tomato, https://tinyurl.com/ripenIndoors.

Even though green tomatoes seem as tough as softballs, they should be handled gently. Even the slightest bruise can turn to ooze when ripened indoors. Another idea is to simply lop off the tomato vine, (as our T-K teacher demonstrated) and hang the vine in the garage. You can harvest the tomatoes over time, if they happen to ripen. You could also intersperse the tomato vine with holiday lights, for a festive look in the garage.

If you think about it, tomatoes that we buy at the grocery store are picked before they are ripe. The fruit partially ripens somewhere between the field, the store and our kitchen counter. You can also speed up the ripening process by placing the tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe apple or a banana, Rodale notes reasonably. The fruit releases ethylene gas which speeds the ripening process.

Of course, do not expect your cloistered tomatoes to be as sweet as the warm, red fruit you devour in mid-August.

Rodale also has some suggestions for a tomato tent, which they call a “floating row cover.” If the days are still as warm as 50 degrees, but the nights are chilly, a row cover might extend the harvest season until it’s time for trick-or-treating.

In the meantime, we had brisk winds this week. I’ve been worrying about a midterm project and completely forgot to water the tomatoes in my raised bed. Maybe I’ll ask those six adults and four children from the school to spend a few hours to help yank dead plants from my back yard.

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Sow There! Name eggplant whatever you want, it’s still mush, 9-28-17

Call it what you want, the eggplant is still just mush.
Call it what you want, the eggplant is still just mush. Photo by Heather Hacking

Fairly soon, I’ll be eating my words.

For years I’ve been making fun of eggplant — that mushy fruit that seems to have little value except that it happens to be purple. Purple is one of my favorite colors.

Eggplant is mushy and needs to be deep-fried. To make it more palatable, we smother eggplant in garlic, hide it in stews or batter and deep-fry.

I’ve written so much about my disdain for eggplant, I thought I might never write about it again.

Of course, my Handsome Woodsman loved eggplant, which kept the joke alive — even now after he died.

Last spring I was at the downtown farmers market looking at the lush plants grown by Sherri Scott. On impulse, I bought a tiny eggplant and put it in the place where the Handsome Woodsman grew eggplant last year. I remember laughing at myself as I carefully carried the plant through the sea of flirting teenagers and actual market shoppers.

The plant grew, it flowered, it produced a single, faded purple, globe-shaped eggplant. I’m so glad it was such a terrible summer for growing produce, because I only have one eggplant to consider eating.

Perhaps I’ll smother it with garlic this winter, and mix it with stewed tomatoes, and maybe even deep-fry a slice or two. I could carefully carve out the contents, fill the eggplant with holiday candy and use the fruit as a piñata.

They dry well, as I know, because I have some dried eggplant that I grew and did not eat last year. I like to make holiday gifts. I’ll let you know if I choose to cover last year’s eggplant with decoupage.

More than likely, I’ll fry up a slice or two of this year’s sole eggplant and remember why I do not like eggplant.

The things we do for love.

NEVER AGAIN?

Another name for eggplant, as many of you likely know, is aubergine. Somehow thinking of this word makes the fruit more beautiful. I see a little girl named Aubergine, perhaps in the 1920s. She’s wearing a flowered dress, made by her mother, and riding a wagon filled with bushels of wheat. I smother my eggplant with garlic, I’ll think of Aubergine, and smile sweetly before remembering why I don’t care for eggplant.

If the word aubergine doesn’t make the purple mush sound more appealing, why not try on melanzana, which is how they say eggplant in Italian. In the West Indies, they call it “brown jolly,” and at times it’s known as “mad apple” in England. We could make up stories night and day about how those names came about. In Portuguese, it’s beringela, and in Perisan badenjan. If you use any of these names to hide the true identity of your eggplant casserole, you might be able to trick anti-eggplant folks into trying something new.

YES, A FRUIT

If you hiccupped when you read eggplant described as a fruit, that’s another fun thing to consider. Many of the foods we call vegetables are actually fruits. The technical definition of a fruit is the “edible reproductive body of a seed plant,” according to Merriam-Webster’s online info.

This category includes tomatoes, which are certainly sweet enough to make it onto a dessert plate. Pumpkins and squash count in the fruit category as well. While we’re talking fruit, I might as well mention avocado, squash, cucumber, peppers, okra and olives.

Maybe parents can use this information to improve the health of their young ones.

“Eat all the fruit on the plate, otherwise you can’t have dessert.”

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Sow There!: Jerry Mendon, passing along the know-how, 9-22-17

Experience horticulturist Jerry Mendon in the houseplant greenhouse at Mendon's Nursery in Paradise on March 13.
Experience horticulturist Jerry Mendon in the houseplant greenhouse at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise on March 13. Emily Bertolino — Enterprise-Record file

The students in my classroom are getting a lesson in disappointment. The first day of class we planted 27 containers with snow pea seeds. Two weeks later and we had 12 sprouts. There I am, in the front of multiple sets of eager eyes, blathering about proper growing temperatures, an extended heat wave and the sorry fate for most of our seeds.

Those kids wanted a sprout in every pot.

I have vowed to make it up to them. Right now I am attempting to grow stalagmites on my kitchen counter.

The weekend of the Great Disappointment, I hauled the sproutless containers home to do some real scientific investigation. I began with one boy’s plant, within which he had theoretically planted one or more seeds. I dug down slowly, lifting spoonsful of soil like an archaeologist. No seeds were found.

Could the seed have fallen away? Did he decide to be a joker and toss the seed in the bushes? Did worms eat the seed? (This was one of my questions, because I did encounter some tiny worms in the soil).

Hmmm.

I turned over a total of 15 four-inch pots and discovered much of the same, which means I discovered nothing. A few of the pots had remnants of roots, but the seeds had completely disappeared.

EXPERT ADVICE

Weeks and weeks ago I had a long chat with Jerry Mendon, of Mendon’s Nursery. We talked about a lot of things that day, including drip irrigation, calla lilies and house plants. I saved the notes, knowing that all of that advice would be fodder for future columns. In early September, I typed up some words based on Jerry’s advice about checking and double checking your drip irrigation systems.

After the seed debacle, I needed Jerry’s big brain in a very big way. On a Saturday, I dialed up Mendon’s. His son John answered the phone. John is always helpful and knows his stuff, but Jerry had always been my go-to guy.

Yet, Jerry wasn’t there. His son John told me that Jerry had passed away Aug. 31 at the age of 87.

If you’re a gardener in this area, hopefully you’ve spent some time wandering around Mendon’s Nursery. You can spend all morning, or all morning and afternoon. I have often wondered why they don’t add a snack bar so people can linger and enjoy lunch.

If you arrive with a list of questions, there are people at work who know the answers. For decades, Jerry was the main guy.

He had a straight-forward approach to gardening that helped encourage novice gardeners not to throw in the trowel.

I recall one chat we had about feeding plants.

“Plants can’t read,” he said. When choosing plant food, look for the numbers on the side that clarify the amount of N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorous) and K (Potassium).

“About the mid ’50s, someone on Madison Avenue got the brainy idea that if we came up with foods for everything,” customers would buy more than one bag of plant food, Jerry said in the spring of 2016. Now we have bulb food and citrus food and snapdragon food …

Who has room for that in an overcrowded garden shed?

“When a person says what kind of food do I need, I ask them what do they already have,” Jerry said, possibly cutting into his business’ sales of specialty plant food.

When Jerry recently shared advice on drip irrigation, I realized that if he did not teach people to monitor their drip systems, more plants would die and he could sell more plants. Yet, that wasn’t his way. He wanted people to enjoy gardening, do it well, and buy more plants because they had become avid gardeners.

When I talked to Jerry’s son John on a Saturday, he stated the obvious, that his dad would be missed. Up until the end, Jerry had done all of the billing and payroll, working full time right up until the time he fell ill.

For John, and his son who also works at the nursery, and for all of us who love Mendon’s, it will be strange not to hear Jerry’s familiar voice or to see him cruising through the plants he knew so well.

Yet, just like his dad, John took the time to answer my questions.

NEW FOR MY STUDENTS

When I explained that we had a heat wave soon after planting seeds for snow peas, John agreed this was unfortunate timing. The seed contains a storage unit, used by the plant for energy to begin the growth cycle. Often, when a seed sprouts, you’ll notice an empty shell of that seed pod at the top of the sprouted stem.

When my seeds used up that energy, and then withered in the heat, the rest of the seed had dissolved. Thanks, John. And thanks Jerry, for teaching John all that you knew.

UPCOMING COLUMNS

Sometime in the next several months, I’ll be writing about calla lily bulbs and houseplants, and I’ll refer to the notes from my last conversation with Jerry Mendon. I think he would like the idea of his knowledge being shared after he is gone.

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Sow There!: Newfound joys of leaf blowers, 9-13-17

Toro, leaf blower, built to blast.
Toro, leaf blower, built to blast. Photo by Heather Hacking

Small accomplishments are easily overlooked, even when those small tasks have a way of adding up.

If you’ve ever caught your significant other doing an odd job around the house, give them some high praise. Chances are they’ve been busy when you weren’t looking.

I found the leaf blower in the shed this week. It’s a powerful tool that will blow a hole in gravel better than an overly-ripe salmon in Butte Creek.

Leaf blowers are bold and powerful. They’re also loud ­— 95-115 decibels for the operator, and 60-70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet. Our city prohibits their use from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

My guess is that these codified rules have more to do with preserving relationships among neighbors than protecting our sleep patterns.

When I fired up my leaf blaster, I not only made noise, I soon decimated the homes of multiple spiders. I zapped mimosa tree junk into towering drifts. I also learned that leaf blowing is a skill, a skill I lack.

I forgot to the close the bathroom window and later discovered soft dust all over the sink.

I can’t blame myself for amateur leaf-blower manipulation. Keeping the patio clear of tough loquat leaves and purple privet berries had been one of those tasks done behind my back. The patio was not “magically” kept clear of spider webs and piles of elderberry debris. The Handsome Woodsman fired up the rowdy machine when I was busy doing something else.

In fact, six years ago I would have vowed to never own one of those obnoxious machines.

DIVISION OF LOUDNESS

It’s funny how romantic partners make lists in their heads about what chores one person should and could do around the house. When the Handsome Woodsman was alive, I wanted recognition when I did the dishes. I also made a mental note that next time it was his turn to do the dishes. Sometimes I’d leave the dishes in the sink for several days, in case he didn’t notice it was his time to do the dishes.

Of course, this is silly, childish and totally not the way to give 110 percent in a relationship.

It gets worse.

When he didn’t read my mind, I shared my ideas about division of labor via a black felt tip pen and posted a “honey-do list” on the fridge. Sometimes I plastered a note on the exit side of the front door. The exclamation points were always implied.

Undone chores, expected household tasks, the unfairness of it all, can lead to high pitched laments and the waving of arms for dramatic effect.

(Dave, if you somehow can hear me or read my thoughts, I’m truly sorry).

He always forgot to put his clothes from the washer to the dryer. The result was wrinkled clothes, which did not bother him in the slightest.

“I can’t have you running around in wrinkled clothes,” I said while transferring his clothes from the washer to the dryer. “Gals will assume you don’t have a girlfriend and will try to hit on you.”

As a trade-off for the clean laundry, of course he should do such-and-such around the house. This such-and-such would be dictated entirely by my whim.

What I didn’t know, and what I know now, was that he was probably busy doing a lot of other things around the house when I wasn’t looking, including operating a noisy piece of machinery. I’m guessing that if I had asked Dave to wear a “boyfriend cam,” I would have noted a number of laborious tasks. He might have even been working while I was making lists to post on the refrigerator.

I can’t say I’m entirely happy I found the leaf blower in the shed. It made me sad really. A lot of things in that shed make me sad. I open the shed door and smell grease, which reminds me of him, which makes me sad, so I close the door.

I’ll forgive myself for not organizing the shed this summer. Besides, organizing the shed had always been his job.

Yet, I must admit I feel powerful with the leaf blower in my hands.

Last week — as my arms zigged and zagged — I cursed the mimosa tree, the worst tree ever. With the leaf blower, I could have blown mimosa gunk into the middle of The Esplanade.

Bagging the lawn debris is an entirely different, and far less satisfying task.

When I think about it now, it was at about that time in the yard duties when my guy would ask me for some help.

If someone has a chain saw lying around, let me know. I might want to see how that feels in my hands.

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Sow There!: When drip irrigation dries up, 9-17-17

General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.
General neglect, and not faulty drip irrigation, is to blame for the death of this hanging plant.Photo by Heather Hacking

Self-driving cars. Robot vacuums. Home air conditioning that switches gears with a zip of a phone app.

In so many ways, our lives are more hands-free and brain-free than prior generations could have ever imagined.

Yet, gardening is still hands-on.

Jerry Mendon, among the most esteemed nurserymen I’ve had the pleasure to meet, said he’s been fielding more than a few phone calls from folks wondering why their plants are doing poorly. Many times, and maybe even most times, the problem is that auto-pilot failed.

In particular, we’re talking about drip irrigation.

Folks with automated drip systems might go away on vacation and expect their yards to be just fine when they return.

Not so simple.

Even in the cooler seasons, these systems need to be checked, rechecked and calibrated again, the owner of Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise explained.

DROUGHT CONVERSIONS

During the drought years, many people decided that keeping a lush lawn was a losing battle. Bark replaced greenery, and select showy flowers were hooked up to thin black pipes.

The change can be jarring, especially at first. When the plants are small, surrounded by bark or stones, the look is rather bleak. Yet, time passes and those specially-selected plants grow into their own.

I personally love the silvery leaves of lavender and the billowy leaves of native grasses. There’s also beauty in cactus.

However, “little maintenance,” does not mean zero maintenance.

Jerry said the people who call him are perplexed about why their plants are on their death beds.

His first question is usually “have you checked your drip irrigation system.”

How long is the water running? What is the rate of the water delivery?

Most people don’t know, he said.

PLANTS GROW

If a plant was purchased in a one-gallon container three years ago, the magic of the life cycle predicts it will now be larger. That means it needs more water.

Emitters are the holes where water slowly drips from the black plastic pipes. Jerry calls them “spitters.”

As the plant grows, it probably needs a “spitter” on each side of the plant, he said, with a hint of exasperation. The water rate probably also needs some new math. The water rates were programmed by a contractor ­- a long time ago.

Jerry said some homeowners hire a “blow-and-go,” yard maintenance company. They’re working hard and are efficient at making the yard look tidy. Yet, the contract may or may not include a tune-up of the water delivery system. In most cases, this is the homeowner’s responsibility to reconfigure, or the responsibility of the homeowner to ask for extra service, Jerry noted.

“Unless the customer says something,” weekly yard guys will continue doing what they have previously been expected to do, the nurseryman continued.

CRITICAL TIMING

This summer was a harsh season. One day I mowed my lawn late in the morning and started to get dizzy. My first thought was that I was eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds. (I was, indeed, eating too much ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds). Then I realized the heat had gone to my brain.

It’s a bummer that the exact time we want to avoid going outdoors, we need to monitor drip irrigation systems at least once a month, as Jerry advised.

It’s probably not the contractor’s fault, Jerry said. Most likely explanations were given at the time the irrigation system was installed. However, there was probably a lot going on right then, like the writing of a check.

Expect to upgrade

Cars need regular tune-ups, and we should expect to upgrade a drip irrigation system at least once a year, my garden buddy said. In addition to seasonal changes, those little pipes wear out. Rodents aren’t shy to chomp into a source of water to find a better slurping spot. Tree roots can move piping out of place. Plastic can deteriorate in the hot sun.

LIFE CYCLE

Other times, plants just die after a few years. That’s what’s known as the life cycle. Jerry and his knowledgeable staff have more plants ready to go into the ground. When you swap out a dead plant for some fresh foliage, be prepared to give it another “spitter” when the time comes.

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Sow There!: When weather makes your crops wither, 8-31-17

There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.
There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.Photo by Heather Hacking

This summer was not an especially delightful time for my squash plants. When I returned from Costa Rica I found two zucchinis the size of small ballistic weapons. Perhaps these big beauties robbed the soil of calcium. After the tremendous zucchini achievements, the plants became duds. Many fruits looked promising, but shriveled like carved apple dolls.

Last year the same thing happened and I learned that a lack of calcium could have been the culprit. Earlier in the year I added lime granules to the soil, lime being a source of calcium. Later I learned its best to add granules in the fall.

For another opinion, and because I like the vintage place, I stopped by Northern Star Mills and chatted with owner John Growdon. He returned with a bottle of calcium concentrate in liquid form. The little bottle promised everything I wanted to hear, including “correction of calcium deficiency on tomatoes, peppers, apples and other crops.”

John suggested a foliar feeding, which means I dumped a few ounces of the calcium liquid into a two-gallon watering can. Next, I doused the big squash leaves with the mixture.

The next week, I harvested two zucchinis and one crookneck squash.

Is that proof that the elixir cured all my problems?

No, because there many other variables.

When I saw my squash shrivel, I also started pollinating each new flower by hand. This was also the week when the weather was just a bit cooler. Bees like it better when it’s not blazing hot.

We could also do a cost/benefit analysis. The bottle of calcium was $10. I used about $2 worth of product. According to my value system, two zucchinis and one squash from my own garden is worth two bucks in the bottom of my purse.

SUMMER SEEDS SOWN

In case anyone was wondering, my seed planting lesson with third-graders was a resounding success. As of last week, I am a student-teacher at a local elementary school. To introduce myself to the class, my magnanimous mentor teacher suggested I show the class how to plant seeds.

Students learn from their mistakes. In this case, I learned a lot.

I was too excited and “taught” too much. I should have never asked 8-year-olds to read the fine print on a seed packet.

Yet, wearing the white lab coat for the science lesson was a huge success. The science outfit was my teacher’s idea. However, the kids don’t know that. Instead, they can remember me as the super cool student teacher who pauses for a costume change.

NOT TOO LATE

We planted Oregon Sugar Pod II seeds, also known as snow peas. The plants go from seed to harvest in 68 days. Students had a huge decision to make. Would they plant one seed, and risk that their single seed did not grow? Or would they plant two or three seeds, knowing they would need to choose just one to grow to maturity.

I was proud of their thoughtfulness.

With the leftovers, I raced home and planted as many as I could along my cyclone fence. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a good harvest before Halloween.

August certainly is not the traditional season for planting summer vegetables by seed. However, some plants are so fast growing gardeners might squeeze out one more harvest before the days become extremely short and cold.

Read what the SF Gate has to say on this same topic: http://tinyurl.com/PlantItNow.

If you like planting seeds, another option is to wait until mid-September or October to sow lettuce, spinach, kale or broccoli.

TIP FOR TOMATOES

During the peak of summer, tomato production will slow because everything slows down when it is miserably hot. The same goes for squash, cucumbers and the sale of electric blankets.

Now that the days are shorter, it’s still miserably hot. However, the days are shorter so the plants are miserable for fewer hours each day.

In my yard, this means I have a big batch of tomatoes on the way.

If you find yourself with too many tomatoes, you can easily freeze them. You do not need to remove the outer skin. When you defrost the tomatoes for eggplant stew or tomato sauce this winter, the skin will easily pull away.

HORNWORM HAVEN

While you’re on the hunt for tomatoes, don’t overlook the hidden hornworms.

So far, I’ve had the pleasure of killing two hornworms with my pruning clippers. Tomato hornworms turn into sphinx moths, which are amazingly beautiful creatures, four inches across and furry like a small animal. Yet, those sphinx moths lay eggs, which could mean more hornworms next year.

There’s no need to douse your plants with chemicals for hornworm control. Simply locate the dark green globs of hornworm droppings on the leaves of tomatoes or other plants. Next, look in that general area for leaves that have been nibbled down to the stem. You’ll need to look very, very carefully because hornworms are the exact same color as the leaves of the plants.

Now that I am looking more closely at children’s books, I can’t help but consider the similarities between hornworms and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” The reason they do not have a children’s book titled “The Horrible, Humongous Hornworm,” is because that particular story would end badly, at least in my garden.

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Sow There!: More than nine lives for a grapevine, 8-24-17

The once fruitless grapevine has produced itty-bitty grapes.
The once fruitless grapevine has produced itty-bitty grapes. Photo by Heather Hacking
The first bunch of the grape harvest this month.The first bunch of the grape harvest this month.Photo by Heather Hacking

Despite my worst efforts, there are tiny green grapes growing along the cyclone fence. My respect for grapes grew tenfold with this near-miss experiment.

The Thompson grapevine was a gift from my Auntie Pat years ago. When I say years, I mean years. I don’t even remember how many. The plant looked vibrant and about to bolt when I took it home in one of those tiny, almost triangular pots used to mass produce things like pine forest seedlings.

Any plant-respecting gardener would have transplanted this soon-to-be grape vine into a one-gallon pot. However, this was back in the days when my romance with the Handsome Woodsman was new. After work, I would drive up to his house in Paradise, where he had more than an acre of land with a creek running east to west.

Somehow, I kept the grape-vine alive through summers and winters, making sure there was just enough water in the tiny plastic torture chamber to keep the grape from drying into a stick.

Did I mention this went on for years?

Looking back, I wasn’t planting anything in the ground. I was looking for a house to buy and wondering where the future would lead with Dave. I kept the grapevine alive in case I found another sunny location where it could live and thrive.

When I moved into a new rental, I figured it was now or never for that grapevine. Let’s say this was 2½ years ago, because frankly I don’t remember. Once that vine hit some real soil, it grew like it had been storing up the will to live since the ice age. Vines stretched wide across the cyclone fence, grasping for life like a shipwrecked sailor.

I don’t know what the rootstock was on this baby, but it was ready to grow.

I wasn’t disappointed that first year when it bore no fruit. I deserved to be punished with a fruitless grapevine after the little I had given the plant. That first year I just let it ramble, happy to have some life clinging to twisted wire.

Then a reader invited me to harvest some Concord grapes from his back yard. These were small, as backyard grapes often are, but so delicious I wanted to eat them until my teeth turned purple. If I wanted to have my own delicious grapes, I needed to become a better viticulturist.

Pruning. That’s what viticulturists do.

Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, but I vaguely followed some directions, http://tinyurl.com/yckrprtj, that clearly stated the biggest mistake of first-time grapes growers is not pruning enough of the plant sometime between January and March.

Pruning seems counterintuitive. We’re told that if we trim our hair on a regular basis it will actually grow more quickly. Huh? I pruned my vine just a little bit that first year, and I received no fruit, so there you go.

Earlier this year I cut off all the dead vines, closed my eyes, and snipped off about 12 feet of this plant. I also added compost at the base and let the winter rains water it deeply. I also put a note on the fence dividing my yard from the neighbors, asking him not to spray weed killer near the fence line.

This year the plant finally forgave me. I have itty-bitty grapes. A lot of itty-bitty grapes.

Here we are in August and I harvested my first grapes this week. This does not count the grapes I have been nibbling to test whether some of the clusters were ripe and ready.

I’ve read a lot along the way: http://tinyurl.com/ycfndd8b.

Another grape information source used words like “tensiometer” and “divinator.” I’m just trying to eat some grapes here, not earn my master’s degree at UC Davis’s school of viticulture.

From what I can gather, the grapes need to be watered, and watered deeply at least twice a month.

For a very technical explanation of grapevine anatomy, check out this link from the University of California. After I read it, I realized why I did not become a plant scientist: http://tinyurl.com/y9nz4g3m.

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Iris division during a dry fall, October 2, 2014

Author: Heather Hacking hhacking@chicoer.com @HeatherHacking on Twitter
This drought is making garden choices more confusing. From what I’ve read, we don’t know if we’ll get small, medium or no rain this fall and winter. Even if the sky suddenly gushes forth with boatloads of rain, it may be a long while before our overdrawn aquifers rebound.

Will I need to write about drought gardening for another 10 months? Will Sow There ! Need to shift to hydroponic gardening tips?

What about lichen? Would readers relish reading about foliose and fructicose (types of lichen) instead of water-grabbing hydrangea and impatiens?

I was in such a quandary I called my buddy Bob Scoville, at the Master Gardener program over in Glenn County.

Bob has also been dwelling on drought, so much so that we had a short, yet spirited conversation about his dead lawn.

New digs, old drought

This will be the first autumn in my new house, which is 15 feet from the house where I grew a garden for the previous 18 years.

With not much going on in my new yard, I’m getting a bit itchy.

My new yard, by the way, contains weed plants like privet, wild viola and a giant mimosa tree.

The previous tenant also had two pitbulls with mean voices. They ran the perimeter of the yard, barking at passing school children. The dogs also loved to dig holes.

If I was more optimistic, I could view the mostly barren yard as an “empty palette.”

A dozen years of irises

For example, if I look over at my old house, I see at least 100 irises.

I planted six deep-purple bearded irises about 15 years ago.

The thing about irises is that they are designed to be shared. In fact, if you don’t divide irises every 3-5 years, they won’t bloom.

When I look at those 100 iris plants, just over yonder, I see my years of dividing and dividing. Every few years I filled black plastic bags with irises and dumped them in the lunch room at work.

People who don’t have lunch rooms probably drive around town finding random, barren yards in which to dump bags filled with irises.

Clearly, it’s time to divide the irises in my old yard because I clearly need something to fill those dog-beaten spots in my new yard.

Drought questions

I asked Bob at Glenn County Master Gardeners if I have any business planting things in the middle of the drought.

Would I be a bad person for planting something new, something that would inevitably require water?

Bob didn’t have an answer to that.

However, UC Cooperative Extension literature clearly states that irises should be divided in the fall.

Decision on division

Even I am not intimidated by dividing iris plants.

If you look among the pointed leaves, you’ll see the rhizomes at the top of the soil. These look something like carrots.

Under the carrot-type things are roots extending 4-6 inches into the soil.

Sink the shovel into the mass of plants and dig down as deeply as you can.

If you chop off some of the rhizomes with the shovel, don’t fret. There are so many it won’t matter.

Lift gently with the shovel and get down on your hands and knees.

Now you should be able to gently separate the plants, being careful to keep as many of the roots a possible.

Leave enough plants in the ground so you don’t have a giant bald spot.

The recommendation is to space plants 12-24 inches apart, but I rarely follow directions.

Many people trim the leaves of the plant down to about four inches. Tammy Cripe, another helpful Master Gardener who gets to spend time with Bob, said she has personally never trimmed the tops. Yet, people who take the time report that the plants do well, she said.

The link below recommends watering so that three inches of soil is wet after planting, then as needed.

I can’t speak for all iris varieties, but mine are virtually indestructible. When they are watered, they bloom well. When they are neglected, they somehow survive.

For far more helpful cultivation tips, check out the American Iris Society info. here: http://goo.gl/MmBt3h

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Sow there! – Switching the fall veggies, the bugs will change as well, Sept. 23, 2016

September 23, 2016

If you’ve had a successful growing season, you might be looking at your summer vegetables with a bit of sadness. Squash and tomato leaves are turning crisp at the edges.

In my yard, the cooler weather means another (and maybe the last) flush of cherry tomatoes. We finally have yellow squash because we have become adept at hand fertilization.

What’s next?

Jerry Mendon, at Mendon’s Nursery in Paradise, said it’s not too soon to make the switch to winter vegetables.

Lettuce, spinach and chard all grow well through the winter months. They slow down as each month gets colder, then leap upward as the weather warms in spring.

Right now, while the air is still warm for germination, seeds can be planted each week for a staggered supply.

Potted veggies

If you don’t have a black plastic truck bed liner filled with soil, you can grow loose-leaf veggies in pots.

I’ve been extremely happy with Tuscan Baby Leaf kale the past few years. You trim off the leaves several times a week, and the plant responds by providing more leaves.

Just like most vegetable plants, the bugs will find you. Yet, pests usually don’t get unmanageable until the end of the plant’s normal life cycle.

When damage is light, I’ll flip over the leaves and look for clusters of eggs. Sometimes I’ll spray the plants with a bottle filled with water and half a tablespoon of dish soap.

If I’m eating my vegetables with my eyes closed, for fear I will watch myself eating bug eggs, it’s time to yank the whole plant.

The squash, for example, is reaching its critical bug mass about now.

The new growth is covered with colonies of squash-sucking bugs. I spray with soapy water and am hoping to get a few more squash before Halloween.

Jerry Mendon assured me there will be a new batch of bugs that love fall vegetables.

Cabbage butterfly, for example, will land in the yard like Mary Poppins taking a ride on an east wind.

“As soon as a plant goes in, she is there,” Jerry said of the female cabbage butterfly.

These are the small, papery white butterflies, which often come in twos and threes. They dance delightfully in the yard, spreading cheer (and dumping eggs on anything edible). Like most caterpillars, these will gobble up leaves of Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, as well as kale, Jerry confirmed.

If it gets too bad, Jerry suggests Sevin dust (an insecticide). However, my plot of veggies is small enough I can usually spray and hand pick.

Greens and cold

Winter greens should be able to survive all but the coldest of cold.

Kale and lettuce seeds can also be tucked in among other plants. Just make sure you don’t plant some obscure exotic salad mix. You could yank the lettuce and throw the weeds in salad.

Cool season ornamentals

On the topic of Kale, Jerry just couldn’t say enough about ornamental winter kale. You could technically eat these plants, but they’re on the bitter side. Their beauty, however, is in bright winter color.

I told Jerry that winter kale had been a disappointment because they plants became a gathering spot for slugs.

The solution to this, Jerry said, is to mulch with cocoa bean shells. The shells are sharp and would do serious harm to a slug (or snail) silly enough to cross the cocoa bean shell terrain.

Another bonus, the mulch smells like chocolate for a little while. A bag is about 10 bucks.

By the way, Mendon’s has their seasonal sale, 40 percent off from Oct. 13-22.

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Sow there! – Lessons in growing cool-weather vegetables, Oct. 7, 2016

October 7, 2016

Yes, it’s time to plant spinach, kale and other cool-weather crops.

Tuesday was World Teacher Day, which was perfect for a visit to the garden at Sherwood Montessori school. Several of the students showed me their tall, taller and tallest green, leafy vegetables, planted in a series of raised beds outside their classroom doors.

They put the plants in a few months ago, and there was enough for many a salad.

However, I got the impression these 9, 10 and nearly 11-year-olds were so proud of their garden talents, they would rather look at the plants than eat them.

During my visit, the kids were digging holes near the drip irrigation recently installed by garden helper Burt Levy. Next they carefully transferred small plants of spinach, kale and broccoli, with the patient guidance of my friend Luisa Garza.

I almost overstepped my boundaries as I instinctively reached to pluck the flower from a 2 1/2 foot tall, red lettuce plant.

If that job is to be done, it’s a job for the children, Luisa said.

That’s a bad trait of mine. When I attend a backyard barbecue, I pull other people’s weeds.

No help needed

Wednesday was picture day at the school, and groups of students decided to dress in costumes. Our class had chosen Harry Potter, and many of the children had lightning bolts drawn on their foreheads. Others wore men’s ties.

I asked one boy about a plant with some particularly large leaves. My guess was that this was chard. It was broccoli.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I grow broccoli it might double in size before winter sets in. Next, my broccoli plants stall in the yard, waiting until one spring morning when I’m not paying attention. Then, the plant suddenly bolts and I get flowers and no food.

For the school garden, these plants were put in the ground at the beginning of the school year, one child informed me.

The best time to plant seeds is in July, according to the UC Davis planting guide.

If we want spinach in March, now is the time to put seeds in the ground. Or we could plant small plants, as was the case this week.

Also, sow fava beans now for an April harvest.

Extra touches

While we were talking, Luisa encouraged me to pet the small marigold flowers. These were signet marigolds, which have a citrus scent. The flowers are also edible. What fun to sprinkle some colorful (and citrus-smelling) petals on ice cream or in a salad.

However, it is the French marigold, and not the signet marigolds, which repel nematodes in the soil. The University of California Integrated Pest Management folks have more information on this topic at http://tinyurl.com/zf2j42 v.

Fruits vs. veggies

Another lesson on Luisa’s plate this week was knowing which foods are fruits and which are vegetables.

We generally consider cucumbers, squash and beans to be vegetables, while the true definition has these foods as fruits.

As the children sat around an outdoor picnic table, Luisa explained that fruits grow from a flower and have seeds. The fruit category includes avocados, cucumbers, mangoes and tomatoes.

The list of veggies includes the parts of the plant that we eat, including leaves, roots, stems and buds.

After my confusion with chard and broccoli, I searched online and learned that broccoli leaves are indeed edible. Some people cut out the center ridge, then add the rest to a stir-fry, just as you would prepare spinach or bok choy. The flavor of broccoli leaves is like broccoli florets, only mild. The leaves also are packed with similar nutrients. One raw ounce of broccoli leaves packs 90 percent of your Vitamin A needs, 43 percent of Vitamin C, and even some protein.

Just for fun, I clicked a few more times online and learned that many people will also sauté squash leaves.

Careful, of course, because the leaves of some plants, including tomatoes, are toxic.

One more lesson

One more thing I learned Tuesday is that some of the best teachers, like Luisa, are those who are having the most fun.

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