Category Archives: gardening

The hope of rain

Today they promised rain; they sent warnings of flooding and potential mudslides. I look to heavy clouds upon the mountains over the city with anticipation. We have been so dry, for years now, counting each drop. Might this year restore some balance to our water supply?

How often they say rain will come— several inches, beware of flooding! Then the storm shifts away and we are left without even a tenth of an inch to savor.

I walk through the orchard. Yesterday we planted three new bare root fruit trees, two apples: a Sundowner and a Gordon, plus a Babcock peach. That brought home to me how dry the earth under its mulch actually was, a sobering realization.

Our neighbor Jaime has been hauling manure from the stables to our property for some weeks now— it saves the stables haulage fees, and I know how to value such largesse. But I’ve had so many other ideas and plots and plans over Christmas and New Years, that now I see the promise in the sky and realize I have a lot of work to do. You can’t just dump mounds of manure and stable sweepings all over your orchard, because it mats and repels the water falling from the sky. So I determine that I’ll do my best to move the majority of the manure sweepings under the canopy of certain trees. Not under the bare-branched fruit trees like the peaches and apples and plums, but under the citrus who are green all year and shelter the ground with their leaves anyway. The sweepings can be tucked under and no harm done, so long as you keep the base of each trunk free.

The rest of the best manure, with the least of shavings and the most of ‘horse buns’ need to be shoveled into my wheelbarrow, then taken and scattered over the main garden bed. I have visions of broccoli, escarole, summer eggplants and tomatoes, string beans and fava beans, all sorts of happy plants reaching green in my imagination.

I know most gardeners don’t work in skirts these days, but I much prefer it. Superior freedom of movement, and even though sometimes my skirts are moving in one direction and I in another, that’s just because I don’t like to move slowly. Skirts don’t bind in such circumstances. So I do the dance of the manure this afternoon, shoveling and raking at the fastest pace I can to clear the way for the rain. 

A hot shower later, here I sit in a glow of accomplishment, listening hopefully to the soft shift and whisper of raindrops through the leaves outside. May it be a long rain and a deep one.



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Ice Cream Bananas, and other Fruit

I ate five bananas this morning. I know that sounds piggish but truly, they were the size of your little finger, if you have small hands. They came from one of our plants in the yard here, our second variety. We’ve been ripening the fruit on their stem for a month or more, and today we had a few for breakfast.


Living here in Southern California means you can grow an amazing variety of fruiting plants, from bananas to apples (and don’t let anyone tell you it’s too warm for a good apple here. I grow Granny Smith, Pettingill, Fuji, Harrold, and Gordon in what Sunset calls Zone 24.) The first banana we purchased from the Banana people in La Conchita, wonderful gardens now long gone, has no label left. It’s a chunky, reasonably good producer, best cooked, because it has a starchy not so sweet flavor. Whatever its name, that banana grows like a weed and I am kept busy chopping off its unwelcome advances into other parts of the yard.

A friend gave us a slip of the Ice Cream Banana, and it has taken years to nurture. My feeling is that it is delicate, more prone to frost than the first variety we grew. (We frost for one to two weeks of the year, enough to burn leaves, and these nights are not in a block but scattered through the winter, usually ending by March 1. You should see our yard on those nights, with plants shrouded in old blankets and sheets to protect them.) Several times Ice Cream attempted a stalk of bananas for us, and various accidents played their part in frustrating our expectations. Replacing the in-ground gas line was one of those events–not an episode of ‘delicacy’ on the part of the banana. Another time, the wind knocked down the bearing stalk before the fruit had sufficiently matured. But do remember that we are gardeners who ascribe to the survival of the fittest school, so when you look at our yard, it’s a jungle out there.

When the banana stalk has ceased to set new fruit, it’s time to cut it down. Hang the stalk in a cool dry place and wait for the bananas to ripen, which they will show by a quiet transition to a yellowish hue marked with brown or black. Then you can cut off the hands of bananas, so they are convenient to handle. As you see by the photo above, this stalk was a short one– I had already cut off about three hands to give away before I thought to take a photo to share.

The first taste of Ice Cream Banana was rewarding. A very firm, acidic and sweet banana, it reminds us of the standard Cavendish from the grocery store. Familiar, but better. Stronger in the acid, fragrant and possibly sweeter as well. But tiny—it reminds me of the bananas we used to call ‘Lady Finger’ in West Africa, which were charmingly miniaturized. If you are in the right zone, I strongly recommend it. But if you are undecided between growing a cherimoya or a banana, grow the cherimoya. You’ll gain higher yields than a banana, which only fruits once per growing stalk, and our perceptions say that the cherimoya is far more rewarding in flavor than any banana we have yet met. I have had good results with Booth cherimoya but there are many varieties. Some folk have been daunted by the idea that cherimoyas need hand pollination, but we have not troubled with that and in season have more fruit from our tree than we can eat by ourselves.

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Last Comment on All For Pie

concord grapes in box

I must share with you the final tally in our effort to save our concord grapes from the rats. We put up eighteen pies’ worth of concord grapes in the freezer– this is seventy two cups after stemming. So yes, it was worth the labor and the invention of rat proofs!

Grape Pie

Oven 400 F

9″ unbaked pie shell


3/4 c flour

1/2 c sugar

cut in 1/3 c butter until crumbly

Filling: Combine these three ingredients thoroughly.

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

dash of salt


1 Tb lemon juice or more

1 Tb melted butter

4 cups concord-type grapes

Slip the skins from the grapes and put the sugar combination with the skins in a bowl. Simmer the grape innards until very soft, soft enough to easily press through a sieve to remove the seeds. I have tried other methods but none work as well as this one. Mix the now seedless grape pulp with the other filling ingredients including the melted butter and lemon juice. Pour into the pie crust and scatter the crumbly topping over the top before baking for 40 to 50 minutes. Best served at room temperature, not hot.

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All For Pie–The Sequel

concords in ratproof

We have been harvesting the concord grapes and my little rat proofs have worked. If you try it, I have a couple of observations.

One, simply having these strange objects in the vines will decrease rat activity. It won’t stop the little brats, but there will be less damage. Two, a trick I learned over the past week is that if some bunches ripen and you take then out, re-use the rat proof, and the moving about of these containers will also dismay the rats. Every day that I made such changes, the activity of rats decreased markedly the following night, and then increased again the night after. Last of all, we were right to say that some grapes might ‘cook’ in the plastic containers– but this only affected grape clusters out in the full sun. All of this said– we have four baskets of grapes and I plan to initiate processing tomorrow to freeze up the makings for a passel of grape pies for fall and winter!

basket of concords

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All For Pie!

Grape pie and Porthos teapot

I am done with these rats. Traps do not suffice, poison feels unethical and gives a horrible death, the tricks of radios and deterrents are fantasies. Plus, I refuse to have an outdoors cat because of traffic, coyotes, parasites, and the mass slaughter of birds and my delightful lizards. But these rats are eating my Concord grapes– even before they ripen….

Of course I must backtrack and say that if you have been reading this blog for recipes, you will have seen my post about the wonders of Concord grape pie, complete with instructions. We love that pie. Consider therefore, our dismay this spring when I reached for two of my frozen Concord grape pie fillings and could only find one bag. I could have sworn I had at least another couple stashed in the big chest freezer. Our dismay inspired a defrost– it was time anyway, but still after a complete clean-out, only one little pie’s worth of grape filling remained in hand.

So these are desperate times, and despite our drought I have had it in mind that this year’s harvest of Concords will be carefully husbanded for future grape pies.

Now, enter the rats. No not the ones you are thinking of, these are our lovely little Neotoma fuscipes, the dusky footed woodrat. also known as the Trade Rat, Roof Rat, or Pack rat. A charming elegant creature fond of climbing in trees, indeed, with some habits that might make you think of tree squirrels. This is the fellow who is known for filching treasures from campers and, in the old days prospectors and miners, leaving treasures in apparent exchange. (Thus ‘trade’ rat.) They have a fondness for bright, shiny, or odd things– in fact I may have already mentioned that I found a nest in my studio that contained many pink, white and blue plastic beads, a cheap wristwatch, a number of nuts and pebbles, plus forty three (yes, I counted them,) clear-head plastic push pins. The mere idea of the rat carrying these in his or her mouth makes my lips hurt.

But the bad news is that Neotoma likes fruit. Thus I have the little fellows gracefully scampering through my orange trees and hollowing out the sweetest fruit, and they even eat my tomatoes. No gardener is going to take that without a struggle. The tomatoes put me into the red zone, so to speak, and I started trapping. But Nature is infinite and hates a vacuum, so you can trap rats all you like, yet in a drought year the sources for new ones are infinite.

I bring you to the morning I step out, brimming steaming coffee cup in hand, to see the tell-tale signs of knocked-down grapes on my side patio by the kitchen garden.

Rage. Council of war with my spouse who is possibly even more fond of grape pie than I … maybe. Possibly not.


If you cannot take out the enemy, take away access. Cheap plastic food containers, drilled to accommodate the stem,

snipping the box

cut so that you can open and slide the stem in,


setting the box 1


setting the box

then cap with the tight fitting lid.

lidding the box

Try not to have these hang too much in the sun because you don’t want pre-cooked grapes.

final image


Triumph. A solution for the pie hungry family!



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Drying Fruit

fruit at market.jpg

When you are flooded with fresh ripe fruit in summer, what could be better than to dry the produce? (We aren’t much for jams and jellies in this household.) In drying you transform the food into a form that keeps better and takes far less space. However I have some tricks and warnings to suggest.

Harvest Maid makes a fine circular dehydrator for drying fruit, such as apricots and tomatoes. It’s notable how often I have seen unused machines priced ridiculously low in thrift stores. Rectangular and square dehydrators do not circulate the air as evenly so I far prefer this type.

I rarely use the higher temperature settings. Lower temperatures take longer but keep a better more complex flavor. I don’t use ascorbic acid or other preservatives because I care nothing about the color of the product, only the flavor. If you want to worry about the color, ascorbic acid simply adds another simple step tor processing fruit such as plums and apricots.

Apricot and plum season comes soon– my apricots are showing a touch of color today.. I use a knife to remove the plum pits before lightly flattening the halves between my fingers. Then I set them on drying racks that have been spritzed with an unflavored oil. The fruit pieces should be barely touching, cut side up. I dry these until the surface is dry enough to turn them face down to continue dessication until they reach a leather-like texture before packing them into zip-locs, pressing as much air out as possible and storing in my freezer. The feel of a piece should be flexible, not breaking at being bent. You can under-dry–the fruit should not be wet or squashy, but more like a prune, and I feel this makes a better product. With apricots I don’t bother to use a knife–I am always trying to do things faster. I tear apricots apart with my fingers, toss the pit out, flatten each half slightly between palm and fingers and set out on racks as I described with plums.

Dried plums, you say, isn’t that the same as a prune? No, not if you use a plum like a Santa Rosa. We take our dried fruit on our long driving trips. One of these dried Santa Rosas will wake up more than your taste buds– they are an explosion of sour and tannin with a little sweetness and even the illusion of a slight saltiness in your mouth. Santa Rosas dried are almost as good as caffeine to keep you alert upon the road. But like strong coffee, don’t take too many on an empty stomach or they might upset it.

These dry fruit are super substitutes for jam fillings in cookies– any apricot jam bar cookies, apple-raisin filling cookie or fig filled type, can be stuffed instead with these dried fruit gently simmered with some water until tender. You will then have a less sweet cookie that explodes with flavor. My one caution is that dried plums will need some honey to mellow their tannin-strong bite and acid. Taste while the simmered fruit are cooling, and modify to your preference before putting them into your cookies. I don’t think apricots need any sugar, treated this way.

Peaches? Never had luck drying them They come out hard and rather tasteless and I have no clever recipes for them that take advantage of their characteristics. Apples? Ditto. I suspect that if I were willing to take the time and try out various preservatives I could get around this harshness, but I’ve been too impatient to date.

For drying tomatoes, you wash then dry them on a very clean towel, core, quarter them, discard the seeds and jelly (or most of it) flatten and place on the drying racks. Lightly salt the pieces with kosher salt before drying them in the dehydrator until each is flexible like a raisin. If you do not salt, you may have a bacterial infection start in on the moist areas– a most unpleasant spoilage of your work. Once you get such a contamination the whole lot is only good for the trash.

Tomatoes are best done in later summer, so I would wait until then when the sugars are at a height. I always store the dry or semi-dry tomatoes in the freezer because they are prone to mold if there’s any moisture left in the pieces. DO NOT STORE IN OIL. Oil creates an anaerobic culture medium for the cruel and usually fatal delights of botulism. If you want a grisly tale of what happens when you ingest botulism, you can check on the government sites, or read Berton Rouche’s charming tale “Family Reunion”, (I have it in his volume entitled Annals of Epidemiology, a book that is a tremendously good read.)

If you want these frozen tomatoes to taste like the oil-packed form, simply saute the half-dried ones in some olive oil and herbs (herbes de Provence type mixes are fine) until warmed through, and use the same day either over pasta or on pizza. Remember they are already salted, so taste before you add any more salt. These have none of the preservative taste that commercial products can bear. I find them infinitely superior. I suspect one reason is that at home you can leave your tomatoes on the vine to full ripeness while commercial growers must harvest far earlier in the life cycle of the fruit.

Because I’m on the subject of drying fruit I will digress to autumn and talk a bit about persimmons. For drying persimmons you need the fat pointed kind– Hachiyas, which you carefully peel with a vegetable peeler or fine knife, needle a string through just under the stem and hang in any good drying place. Gently squeeze and massage them every day (I wear nitrile gloves) to even the drying process. When they are a consistent texture, a bit like leather, with a whitish ‘bloom’ of sugars on the surface, they are done.

If you use our kind, the Fuyus, you have to slice them thin and they will be like sweet potato chips, but thorny, even perhaps a little unpleasant. I have never liked them dried this way.




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IT IS RAINING! Not a lot, a gentle sound of little feet in the trees, but this is April and we are normally past hope of rain — way past, so my heart bounds to thoughts of manure in the garden and wet shovels and rakes, and little plants putting up green hands.


By the way for those who want more of my free novel the 21st chapter is up at

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