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An introduction to my garden

Friday, May 11, 2007

My garden is located at the back of our house, on a southwest facing steep hillside with a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay in the distance.  Our lot is near the top of the hill, at about 900 feet above sea level, making the microclimate somewhat cooler than the rest of Berkeley, and delaying our harvest seasons by about three weeks as compared to the neighborhoods below.  The site receives direct sun and a lot of "direct wind and fog" that sweeps in off the ocean on a regular basis, and bombards the plants with weather strong enough to wear away the paint on the back of the house three or four times as quickly as the protected front side of the house.

The backyard is approximately 50 feet square and is bounded by fences tall enough to keep out most of the neighborhood deer population.  It slopes downward, away from the house, and drops about 15-20 feet in elevation over the 50 foot length of the backyard. 

The hillside's native soil is solid clay--perfect for a potter's studio or cob construction projects, but a bit challenging for gardening.  It has been amended with a large amount of compost over the years, so the upper layers of soil now contain a lot of useful organic matter.  Still, in the heart of the dry season in early fall, unirrigated sections of the yard sometimes display deep cracks almost two inches wide as the clay soil contracts as it dries out.

The people who owned the house before us terraced the backyard hillside to create a patio surrounded by sloping garden beds and supported by a large number of boulders they brought to the site.  Their landscape architect filled the beds with a wide range of hardy (I would say, aggressive and invasive...) ornamental plants that grow and spread quickly, and need fairly heavy maintenance.  They also installed an extensive irrigation system composed of a combination of drip lines (which I like) and overhead sprinklers (which I don't).  The hardscape framework of the site is attractive and well thought out, with curving stairways and benches, and two, small cement lined ponds.  (More on the ponds in a future article...)

Since we moved in four years ago, I have been systematically removing many of the nondescript shrubs in the yard and replacing them with fruit trees, berry bushes, flowering plants, and herbs that we enjoy much more.  The paragraphs below describe these food producing plants in more detail:

Herbs:  The first season we lived here, I filled the spaces between the segments of the poured concrete patio with low-growing thyme, oregano, and chamomile, to add culinary variety to the extensive rosemary shrubs that are elsewhere in the backyard.  I have since also planted lemon verbena, several varieties of mint, tarragon, Vietnamese cilantro (a type of edible perennial "knotweed"), and savory.  Each spring and summer, I replant my parsley, cilantro, basil, shiso, and other annual herbs we enjoy.

Fruit trees:  Soon after we moved in, I purchased bare root fruit trees and planted them around the perimeter of the yard.  The nursery recommended placing them in closely spaced pairs and pruning the resulting paired tree canopies as a single unit, so I did that with some of the trees to increase variety and save space.  I have a pair of apple trees (Gala and Granny Smith), a Santa Rosa plum tree, Flavor Queen and Dapple Dandy pluot trees, a Fuyu persimmon tree (not expected to fruit until it is 7 years old! oops!), and a Frantoio olive tree.  We also have a mature but non-fruiting olive tree that was part of the ornamental landscape design--and now acts as a pollinator for our small olive tree.  The yard also came with a spectacular, mature Meyer lemon tree that I would guess is at least 15-20 years old.  We harvest its lemons year-round, and it is capable of producing about 200 pounds of lemons each year!  I also added a small Thai (kieffer) lime tree to the backyard, for the exquisite, aromatic flavor of its leaves, which we use in southeast Asian recipes.  In addition, our front yard has another smaller Meyer lemon tree, a small Bearss lime tree, and a very large rosemary bush (at least 8' x 8' x 8'!) that were all on this property before we arrived.

Berry bushes:  Berries are just one of those things that every urban gardener should try.  There aren't many things that are tastier than freshly picked berries, just seconds off the vine.  They are also perfect fruits for small hands to pick and are easy to share with friends who stop by.  I just don't expect them to make it upstairs to the kitchen very often!  They are the heart of the "foraging" and "grazing" aspect of the garden, and are magnets for my kids.

I have been adding berry bushes to our garden, little by little, over the last four years.  The first spring we lived here, when the clay soil had been softened by constant rain, I dug and terraced one of the lowest corners of our yard on the southwest side.  This triangular area now has three levels and the lowest one is devoted to berries.  I built a strong wooden trellis against our fence, and planted three large ollalieberry bushes in that location.  Since ollalieberries, like all blackberries, are notoriously invasive plants, I dug a deep hole for each ollalieberry plant, and placed the plant in a 5 gallon nursery pot lined with landscape fabric, and then put the whole pot into the in-ground hole.  The pot and fabric have (so far!) kept the plants in check for the four years they have been there, and they have produced well without spreading to my neighbors' adjacent yards.

The same planting area is also filled with raspberry bushes.  I did not treat the raspberries the same way, and they have spread somewhat this year--but they are easy enough to remove that this is not a big problem.  (Can you ever have enough raspberries?)  Most of the bushes produce red raspberries, but I have also branched out to include some golden raspberries as well.  They are sweeter and arrive earlier, extending our raspberry season nicely.

I also have a small number of strawberry plants, grown in small pots to discourage the garden's hungry snails, and 5 small blueberry plants planted on a rocky hillside.  The blueberries are not as successful as the other plants in the garden, so I'll need to work on that in the future. (I think they are not getting enough water.)  This year I also added red and black currant bushes, and red and green gooseberry bushes to the mix.  They are just getting started, but seem to be doing well.

The last type of "berry" in the garden are "cape gooseberry" or "ground cherry" plants.  They are related to tomatillos, and hang on the branches in little lantern-like packages that get brown and crunchy when the fruit inside matures to a bright orange color.  Ground cherries have a sweet-sour flavor that I think people either love or hate.  I really enjoy them, as do my children.

Vine fruit:  I am experimenting with fruits that are produced on vines, and have devoted the strong fences that surround the garden to these plants.  Along one fence, I planted two types of edible passion fruit vines.  One is an early season, small yellow variety, and the other is a late season purple variety.  This is the second year for both plants.  The purple variety seems to be much more vigorous, and produced about 20 delicious fruits in its first season last year.  Its vines now stretch about 20 feet in each direction.  The yellow variety is not doing as well (perhaps due to the shade from nearby trees?), and is starting to fruit this year for the first time.  I'm looking forward to a side-by-side taste test of each type later this fall.

This season I also planted a new "hardy kiwifruit" vine, and it is growing slowly up the fence on the opposite side of the yard.  When mature, it will produce 1" long, smooth-skinned kiwifruit (I hope!), about the size of large grapes.

Annual vegetables and other edible plants:  I also reserve part of the garden for planting a variety of annual vegetables.  This year, I have about 8 cherry tomato plants (started from seed by my 6 year old), a small number of cucumber plants, sunflowers, scarlet runner beans, a few potato plants, leeks and onions, sorrel, and a South American root vegetable called yakon.  Planting choices for our annual edibles change each season.

Edible flowers: We like to add edible flowers to our plates as tasty garnishes, but also put the petals directly into salads.  My children eat the edible blossoms right off the plants as snacks, and use them as play props for the games they play in the garden.  From early spring through mid-summer, one part of our hillside is covered with nasturtium vines and their bright orange and yellow flowers.  Light blue borage flowers appear in mid-summer and last through the early fall.  Rosemary and thyme flowers come and go as the weather warms up.  Lemon and lime blossoms, with incredible scents, sometimes get nibbled in the garden.  From time to time we also grow bright yellow and orange calendulas, edible chrysanthemums, and chamomile.  In the spring, we have a small patch of "sour grass" (oxalis) with bright yellow flowers and lemony stems that my children adore.  And we have just discovered the delicious lemony flavor of the begonias we have been growing in pots for years.

This wide variety of herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers keeps at least a small amount produce flowing into our kitchen nearly year-round, and provides endless snacks for my two adventurous kids and their friends. It is a pleasure to have herbs available on demand all year for the meals we dream up at the spur of the moment each night, and to be able to make special treats like homemade lemonade, lemon sorbet, and lemon jam any month of the year.  We look forward to each season as the year progresses, and are getting to know the "tastes" of each month. 

I still have more work to do to expand the harvest during the leanest time from January to March, but I'm sure our continued experimentation will fill that gap in the coming years.

All opinions expressed are my own.
Copyright 2007 Sharon Danks