Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Love Them 'Maters

'Sweet Treats' and 'Punta Banda'

    It happens every year. We hover around the garden for weeks watching the progress of the tomatoes. As the fruits get bigger the scrutiny intensifies. Finally, a little red shows up on one or two. By now, there is an avalanche of tomatoes requiring picking twice a day to keep up with their frantic ripening and beat out the birds and rodents.
    Tomatoes are one of the catalog of foods that the Spanish found in cultivation when they conquered Mexico, took home to curious, and probably skeptical, cooks. Although they weren’t a big hit at first, they looked too much like European nightshades that were deadly, they slowly built a following along the Mediterranean, moving north into Europe gradually.
    They weren’t a huge hit in this country at first, but Thomas Jefferson grew them in his extraordinary 18th century garden at Monticello. Then around1879 a man named Heinz bottled tomato catsup.  That gave tomatoes a big shot in the arm and we have never looked back.
    I love all their names. Lycopsericum, the genus of tomato, means wolf peach. The French call them pomme d’amour, the apple of love and the Italians named them pomodora, golden apple. In  English the  Anglicized version of the Aztec name, tomate, took hold.

   Many 19th century American varieties were pleated, but the style fell out of favor as canning and shipping increased. I have ‘Tlacalula’ a pleated variety from Mexico in the garden this year. This is a big vine with large, wrinkled, odd-shaped fruit with firm, thick flesh that makes especially suitable for sauces. 
    Desert vegetable gardeners have long recognized that small varieties, called cherries, do extremely well here. There are numerous red varieties and two especially find yellow ones, ‘SunGold’ and ‘Yellow Pear’. This year I am growing ‘Sweet Treats’ which is purple-red, prolific and delicious. This type of tomato is a pop of flavor, making them especially delightful as a garden snack.
'San Marzano'


Italian gardeners took to tomatoes pretty quickly. The climate was great for them and this fruit dried and preserved well. The two crown princes of Italian tomatoes are ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano’ both of which grow well here. This year I have ‘San Marzano’ which are tastier to me than ‘Roma’. ‘Roma’ is a highly reliable variety for me, while ‘San Marzano’ is coy. Some years there is abundant fruit, other years practically nothing. Who would ever know why? Tomato speak in their own language, I just try to keep up. This year the ‘San Marzano’ are abundant and I am deeply grateful.
'Punta Banda'

    My all-time favorite tomato is the Southwestern, open-pollinated variety ‘Punta Banda’. This variety produces rambling, ground hugging vines with all the fruit under the leaves, almost on the ground. The fruit is a perfect, deep red orb with firm skins. These are the last tomatoes to give out when the heat sets in and year after year give over pounds and pounds of fruit. It was preserved from oblivion by Native Seeds/SEARCH and it is now a local favorite of many market farmers.
    I have grown a great many tomato varieties over the years, starting them in my unheated germination chamber at Thanksgiving. I always wonder why we are all so seduced by them, taking endless trouble with them, offering precious space in a small garden to them. In the end I don’t think it is romance, or cultural memories, I think it is because they just taste so darn good.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Springtime for Cholla

    I am enamored of cholla with their rugged beauty, shimmering spines, and breathtaking flowers and right now they are putting on a spectacular show in the front garden.
    For decades all jointed cactus were summarily lumped into one enormous genus, Opuntia. But not long ago, botanists woke up and realized there was a lot of variation in the group and began to split things up. The result is that our friends the prickly pears, those with flat stems (pads) are still in Opuntia, but the ones with cylindrical stems now reside in the clumsily named genus, Cylindropuntia.
    We have five members of the gang in the front; the cane cholla (Cylindropuntia spinosior), what I think is buckhorn cholla (C. acanthocarpa), teddy bear cholla (C. bigelovii) and pencil cholla (C. aciculata).
The cane cholla was here when we moved in over 20 years ago. It lives near the street, gets watered when we think about it or it rains and has the most spectacular flowers of them all. These blossoms are a deep, rich purple and in a kind of bonus round it retains its bright yellow fruit in long cascades for years.

The buckhorn cholla come in two color forms, which is not at all uncommon this species. We inherited a nice orange one and soon found that our neighbor had one with a beautiful deep copper flower. So one year, we swapped and now each of us have big, robust plants that bloom extravagantly in both colors. Ours are along the driveway and make returning home at this time of year even more enticing.
    Our pencil cholla also lived here before us and when it came time to build the wall for the front patio, it presented a tricky problem. It was closer to the proposed wall but with judicious pruning, and great care, the wall got built. For many year, this cholla housed the detritus collected in the name of a home by a pack rat family. But they must have died out because they have been gone for a while now. It could be my favorite among favorites, with its slim stems, shrubby habit and odd, yellowish flowers rimmed with brown.
    There are two teddy bear cholla out front; one on the caliche ledge that separates us from our neighbor, and the other just beyond the west opening of the patio. The one on the far reaches of the front is in full bloom with its lime green flowers perched atop its chubby stems. The other is more typical of this species and never blooms but does glow daily in the rays of the setting sun. Both are gaily spreading a carpet of discarded stems along the ground at their feet to make the cholla forest I dream about as they take hold.
    I count on our cactus to mark the fading of spring to summer, marking one of the finest season of our year. And once again, those snarly but beloved cholla have no let me down.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Three Bulb Champs

One of the things you have to accept about growing bulbs is that your reward, like the saint's, will be delayed. You purchase them as something that more closely resembles a desiccated puck, or something the dog left behind. You then plant this tidy packet in fall and watch while almost nothing happens for a couple of months. This is a gardening leap of faith, not unlike planting from seed, but the rewards are rolling in right now. The bulb blooming time is in full glory, and the rewards of those long ago plantings are stupendous and three of my particular favorites are showing off mightily.

Aril bred iris are a complex group of hybrids that long ago won my heart with their astounding upright blooms in exotic blends of purple, brown, chartreuse and gold. I have never been particularly successful with the lovely bearded iris, my yard is too dry, I am too lazy, and they just don’t care much for the place. But these arilbreds love it here. Arilbreds demand a long, hot, dry summer - no trouble providing that. They thrive in most soils, including the rocky, barely amended slope, on which I have them planted. What could be easier? To top it off, even during their winter and spring growth spurt they do not have excessive water demands.
Walker Ross

I got my first arilbred years ago at an Iris Society sale and promptly lost the tag. I still don’t know its name, but it has never failed me and has gently increased over the years. Last fall I went over to Ardy Kary’s wonderful yard and bought six more varieties. All are thriving, but‘Walker Ross’ has already bloomed making me happy, happy, happy.

The Freesia laxa has just begun to open its spray of sweet, white flowers. I grew this plant for sale at the DBG and was so fond of it I convinced a bulb loving friend to take some for his place. Then he regrettably died and I inherited or adopted a lot of his plants, one of which was a small cycad. Years pass, and I finally got around to planting the cycad up at the back porch and the very next spring, a shield of bright green leaves leapt up among its fronds. I had no idea what it was or where it came from - a common occurrence here - so I waited for results. Once it flowered, I was pleased to see my old pal the Freesia was back. That plant had waited either as seed or a bulb for a long time for good growing conditions and now each spring it jumps up to remind me of my long gone friend and the admirable habit of gardeners to give things to their friends.

Homeria is a genus of bulbs from South Africa and ours came from a set Gary found at Home Depot years ago. There are two color forms, yellow and orange. We first planted them near the stairs where the Arilbreds now live. As they increased we moved them around the place and now there are three sets; yellow under the big mesquite, orange by the bauhinias, and the original group. I think of them as cheerful, bright, open, and they continue to increase and thrive whether I pay attention or not.

And that is my greatest criteria for successful bulbs in my garden. They stay put, none of that lifting and chilling and treating; they come back year after year and bloom; and they like the conditions here without undue intervention on my part.

To get the most variety in bulbs you have to go mail order and there are dozens of excellent sources both here and abroad. To see or find out more about all kinds of iris, visit Ardy Kary’s home in Arcadia ( this month to see what you are buying, or go to the Iris Show at Baker’s on Saturday, April 16.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Little Perennial Garden

    Sometimes things just work out. For years we imagined a desert perennial bed in the front of the house. At first it was supposed to be a elliptical thing and we installed irrigation lines to help it along. These first steps were modesty successful, but somehow it just never took off. The penstemon (Penstemon parryi) were fine, but everything else seemed to just take against the idea. The remainders of that initial effort are few, but exemplary: the astounding Menodora longiflora that flowers repeatedly throughout the hottest part of the summer, the rampant black dalea (Dalea frutescens) that has gone through numerous prunings and companions, and all of it is still backed up by a gorgeous pair of red fairyduster (Calliandra californica) that have been here almost as long as we have.
    For the next round, we shifted to less needy plants and the irrigation system was left to become an archaeologic relic underground. The palo blanco (Acacia willardiana) grew beautifully and so did a few agaves, particularly A. victoriae-reginae and A. titanota (that splendid one known as Felipe Otero). But all in all it was a vague mess.
    Ultimately, we built a short wall. It was an instant improvement, settling the area, making it look real and important. Someday we hoped would become a nice place to sit.
    A couple of years later Gary wrestled the remains of other projects, broken concrete and slabs of flagstone, into a charming, irregular patio that in effect created small beds in front of the fairydusters. Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) threatened to take over, but we were ruthless and only let a few stay. A friend provided abundant penstemon seed and a small firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) which we nursed through the summer. A fall a visit to the nursery brought in a couple of Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and a pair of blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum).  There has never been a need to plant moss verbena (Verbena pulchella) in this yard, and one bed was permitted to be be run with it. A nice blue pot was filled with a handsome Agave albomarginata and the place began to look pretty keen.
    Now it is spring, and all our long-held hope for this area are coming to pass. For such a long time it was merely the whisper of an idea and here it is, a full blown patio with color, birds especially hummers, and a sweet view of the buttes to the south. A little wine, a few friends, and a reliance on patience and the long view, and we finally have the desert perennial garden we imagined so long ago. It is the little perennial garden that could.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Taking Off the Sheets

    Last week, I took off the protecting cloths that we had so arduously spread around the yard. It is like unwrapping presents all over again, with all the anticipation but little of the pleasure. The results were startling and sometimes interesting. I have never entirely understood the physics of cold and constantly wonder how one plant becomes deeply stressed and another from virtually the same part of the world sustains just a whisper of damage, often within a few feet of each other. Even more baffling is how one part of a plant is destroyed, while other parts are unmarked.
    We got home from holiday traveling just in time to prepare for this freeze. Instead of wandering around in the haze that I welcome after a long trip, we spent the day Thursday plotting, covering, arranging, moving and worrying over plants considered to be tender. Once the frost cloth ran out, we turned to sheets, and once they ran out Gary dragged out old pants and work shirts to cover up some of the columnar cacti in the front. Then we just settled down to keep warm and hope.

    It was ‘officially’ 29 in the yard (for three nights) meaning that was the temp where the thermometer resides under the African sumac. But a quick check told us that the lowest parts of the yard were down to 26. All of that is a slight improvement over the storied January 2007 freeze when it was two or three degrees lower than both of these locations.
     The Chinese lantern tree (Dichrostachys cinerea) gave us great concern. In the 07 freeze it froze to the ground, flattened like a smashed bug and took over a year to recover completely. It is now large, much too large to cover. It seems to have weathered this event better. It is clearly going to get rid of all its leaves, they get browner every day, but the stems look good and we hope it resists the dramatic flattening of the former freeze.

     The most disturbing looking plant is the firebush (Hamelia patens) that lives in one of Gary’s pot in happy congress with a small flock of birds made by the intrepid duo of Farrraday Newsome and Jeff Reich . It is the first thing you see when you come out the door, which is sad, but we are hoping that warm weather will cause it to shoot out new leaves.
     A darling, small hibiscus called ‘Itty Bitty’ is nestled right up the house, and was shrouded in frost cloth. Although many outer leaves look tired and weary, overall I judge it to be fine. Yet the equally tropical Mexican lilac (Duranta erecta) which grows more or less in the open, and was left completely uncovered shows not a speck of cold damage. Go figure, I certainly can’t.

        Down in the small wash the elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) was covered, but it must have not been quite enough. The outer and top leaves are now a rich brown and will soon be falling off, while the lower parts are deep rich green, full of water and look like nothing happened. A newer form with larger leaves, up closer to the house and also covered shows no damaged leaves.
     Also in the wash the pink anisacanthus (Anisacanthus puberulus) which hails from the Chihuahuan desert has that diminished tired look of minor damage with blackened leaves but no tip damage. This plant is typically deciduous anyway so maybe it just a got a push to drop all its leaves faster than usual.
    The emu bush (Eremophila maculata) that grows directly across the path from both of these is unfazed, in fact it was in bloom during the entire event and even the flowers are unmarred. The same was true for it in 07.
     Down in the palapa beds, we covered the Mexican oregano (Lippia suaveolens), Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) and a chiltepin we got a couple of years ago in Tucson. The oregano has lost all the leaves that are growing on any part of the plant over one foot from the ground, the lowers leaves are unfazed. Ah those physics once again, this is a common phenomenon with plants. You see the weirdness in the agaves, those on a palette on the ground look a little worn out by it all, those on the tables are fine.
    The marigold is handsome and still has all its leaves; the pepper is a little reduced but nothing to worry about. The artichokes and rosemary actually look energized and remind me of those crazed Russians who dunk themselves in cold to keep themselves fit.
    Over in the vegetable garden which is the coldest place we have, all was pretty much as expected. A lingering basil from Oaxaca that had no damage during the light freeze at Thanksgiving is toasted, smelling delicious as I pulled it out. Peppers that were still producing and hanging around melted, although the green fruit on the pimento pepper is perfect. A little chiltepin, grown from seed collected around Baffin Bay in south Texas, took it all in stride.

     All in all, we feel lucky. Just enough cold to get your attention and keep you alert, but not enough to bring on despair. No wholesale losses, as there were three years ago, and no large, treasured plants so ruined that it takes years for them to recover. And, best of all, perhaps as a weather apology for all the trouble, there was serious rain before it all began.