Friday, September 24, 2010

Vintage Gardens: A Garden For Beneficial Insects in the Wine Country

Wine & Roses? How about Wine and Yarrow?

On a recent hot summer day, I escorted my daughter and a friend through Napa Valley so they could go wine tasting. Many of the wineries feature colorful garden beds to lure passing motorists, and it always interests me to see what the latest trends are in this fashionable district where cost, it seems, is no object in beautifying the grounds.
Zinnias are in. Beds that used to be planted in marigolds and petunias are now being filled with these colorful, gaudy flowers. Zinnias and asters were popular many years ago, before marigolds supplanted them in the 1960's and 70's. Petunias added a range of colors not found in other flowers, including vivid purples and true blue. But marigolds get spider mites and petunias get caterpillars. Zinnias don't get either of those.

Bed of zinnias in August at Turnbull Wine Cellars
Ok, you might not get this excited about a bed of zinnias. But the range of colors and abundance of bloom makes them ideal for eye-catching annual borders. Resistance to spider mites and caterpillars make zinnias a suitable replacement for marigolds and petunias in the summer border. While you are at Turnbull, check out the amazing collection of vintage photographs!

Zinnia flower at Mumm Napa, champagne vintners, Rutherford. (Click on any image for a larger version).

The recent popularity of succulents and ornamental grasses has led to a very different look in formerly formal garden beds. The grasses can look a little rangy without some grooming. Succulents such as Echeveria (Hen-and-chicks) and Sedum (Stonecrop) provide colorful foliage with compact, tidy growth habits. With the drought tolerance of both groups of plants, this is a positive trend.
One of the more interesting planting ideas I saw was at the upscale delicatessen in St. Helena, Dean & Deluca. Around the blazing hot walls they had placed two-foot long, one-foot wide aluminum irrigation troughs such as you would find at feed stores. These were planted with clipped boxwood hedges and assorted succulents. The mix of formal and southwestern plants in a rural "planter" was eye-catching, and the plants were thriving in the brilliant sun with apparently little care. Irrigation troughs provide considerable soil volume to retain moisture. You can find these at Higby's Country Feed store outside of Dixon on Currey Road.
Napa Valley has changed over the three-plus decades that I've been visiting. Disappearing are the Redleaf plums and roses that used to be planted along the edges of vineyards. Now you see olive trees in every niche along the roadsides. Aesthetically pleasing as this is (northern Italians must feel right at home), I can only imagine what it is like during allergy season: both grapes and olives are wind-pollinated.
A lot of the wineries seem more focused on their tasting rooms than on their wine. One that we stopped at, briefly as it turned out, seemed more concerned with the faux-Italian marble exterior and flooring, the fancy fountains, and the ornate formal driveway. My young visitors didn't even bother with the wine tasting there ("what is this, Disney does wine country?!?"). I was perplexed by the butchery of the old olives in the parking lot. Venerable trees had been stubbed off. Bah.

Sunflowers up the hill at Benziger
But another big change that is occurring gradually in the Napa Valley is the transition to safer, environmentally-sensitive ways of growing grapes. For many years grapes have been a heavily sprayed crop, treated with pesticides and grown in clean rows of bare dirt. The costs, tangible and otherwise, of these old techniques are becoming apparent to a new generation of viticulturists and vintners.
So we were delighted when we got off the main road a bit and found the Benziger Family Winery. The grapes are grown organically. The soils and vines are managed sustainably. The vineyard has certifications for sustainable practices and organic production. The vineyards are Demeter-certified biodynamic. "Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides we rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on our estate, to keep our vineyard healthy and balanced."
There are lovely gardens around the tasting room, of course. Sheep and goats graze through the vines (carefully). Horses draw plows. Owl and bat boxes abound, up on high poles. A large, rather scummy pond attracts birds and dragonflies. And most important from a gardener's standpoint, they have two display gardens devoted to attracting and retaining beneficial insects, including pollinators and pest-eaters.

Garden at Benziger Family Winery
This tranquil sitting area was buzzing with activity! I counted five different types of bees on nearby flowers. Syrphid flies and tiny beneficial wasps abounded. Dragonflies circled the water and perched on the horsetails. The key is the mix of water, shade, and sun, with a diversity of plants chosen to provide habitat, resting sites, and food for beneficial insects and birds.

So as the young ladies enjoyed the cool comfort of the tasting room, I wandered the grounds. Since the temperature at that moment was 104F, I had the place pretty much to myself. When Noel Coward said "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun," he might have added gardeners who spot distant flowers.

The purpose of the gardens was to provide for birds, bees, and beneficial insects. When you do that, you want to provide:
o cover for birds and lizards
o moving water to draw dragonflies, and upright-growing plants for them to perch on.
o still water with basking rocks for smaller insects to drink
o tubular blossoms for hummingbirds and butterflies
o tiny flowers in clusters for small beneficial insects to feed on pollen and nectar
o cool shade for toads and people
o tall trees or poles for birds, as well as the aforementioned bat and owl boxes.

Solidago (goldenrod) with Aster

The closest display garden featured a small pond with a recirculating fountain whose water splashed down a course of shallow bowls. Nearby horsetail (Equisetum) provided natural perching points for dragonflies, which are voracious entomophagous beneficials: they eat whiteflies. A large bed of ornamental sunflowers provided dramatic color and was very active with bees and syrphid flies (aka hoverflies; their larvae eat aphids). The combination that gained the most attention was toward the back of the bed: dark purple asters next to bright goldenrod (Solidago). Each goldenrod plant was swarming with hundreds of bees of varying species, hoverflies, and tiny parasitoid wasps that were feeding on the pollen or nectar.

Other plants in the garden include lavender, mallow, Russian sage, and tansy. Except for the annual sunflowers, all of the plants I've mentioned are perennials, easy to grow, and drought tolerant. None require special soil or attention. This is a garden where you mix plants with differing foliage textures and bloom seasons, groom them occasionally, and sometimes pop in a new one when something gets overgrown or untidy. All could get by with as little as a deep soaking once a month.
There are lots of other plants that attract beneficial insects. Many California natives, herbs, and flowering annuals make the list.
Here are just a few that you can plant now to make your garden friendlier.
Perennials and annuals:
Borage (Borago officinalis),
Daisies of all types,
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima),
True alyssum (Alyssum saxatile),
Yarrow (Achillea species).
Shrubs: California lilac (Ceanothus), Buckwheat (Eriogonum).
Herbs: fennel, cilantro, mint, mustard, rosemary.
Cover crops (plant from seed to build soil in your vegetable garden): soybeans (plant in summer), clover and vetch (plant in winter).

For more information about Benziger Family Winery grape-growing and wines, visit their web site at

Some plants for beneficials

click to enlarge

Achillea Red Beauty -- Yarrow

Borago officinalis -- Borage

Solidago -- Goldenrod, closeup of flowers

Written for the Davis Enterprise, September 23, 2010

© 2010 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616

Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.

Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cool Season Vegetables!

Food we plant in Fall

We have two complete seasons for vegetable gardening in the Sacramento Valley! September thru November are ideal for planting many leafy greens and root crops for winter and spring harvest.


    Broad or Fava -- Grown as cover crop and for edible seeds (snap/green beans and drying beans are Grown in the summer).
    Great for the soil! Deep roots break up clay, suppress weeds, and add nitrogen. Fragrant flowers. Some people eat the beans; some people are very allergic to them. Plant as late as December.


    Grown for roots and greens. Suggested varieties: Detroit Dark Red, Early Wonder, Chioggia, Lutz's Greenleaf; Cylindra (elongated)
    Beets are easy, very sweet, and store nicely in the garden. Best results when planted early in the fall, but can be planted as late as November, or in February.


    Grown for immature flower heads. One of the easiest winter vegetables. Sept. plantings may give heads by early December. Later plantings 'head up' in February.
    Romanesco is the pale green Italian heirloom. Broccoli raab is a related species grown for greens and immature flower heads. Sprouting broccoli is another variety grown just for the small immature flower heads.

Brussels Sprouts

    Grown for lateral buds on flower stems. Tricky; needs a long season. After July may be too late! Aphids are a hassle to manage. Many people don't like the flavor due to a genetic characteristic which makes them sensitive to bitter compounds in the sprouts; other people don't even taste that.


    Grown for leaves.
    Suggested varieties: Green Acre, Savoy
    Short season types are easier here. Plant in Sept.or early Oct. to give the heads time to form, harvest in February. Chinese cabbage is a different species, takes more space but cultivation is the same.


    Grown for roots.
    suggested varieties: Little Finger, Danvers Half-long, Chantenay; Orbit (round)
    Shorter, stouter types best unless soil is very loose. Very slow to germinate; pour boiling water over seed in a bowl, then sow it the next day. Or plant with radish seeds; by the time you're harvesting the radishes, the carrots are beginning to sprout.


    Grown for immature flower heads.
    Suggested varieties: Early Snowball
    More vulnerable to weather and pest problems than other winter veg's. Slugs and aphids are a real nuisance, getting up in the flowerhead as it develops.


    Grown for enlarged stems.
    Weird thickened stem that you steam or boil. Plant early in fall to give it time to develop. Maybe buy one in the store first to see if you like 'em?


    Grown for leaf stems.
    Not difficult, but strong-flavored in the home garden since we don't blanch the heads.


    Grown for enlarged stems.
    Almost as weird as celeriac. Plant early in the fall to give it time to develop.

Chard, Swiss

    Grown for leaves and leaf stems.
    Suggested varieties: Bright Lights, Rhubarb (red)
    Pretty, easy, produces nearly year round. Cut back in spring when weather gets warm to keep fresh foliage sprouting. If you just let aphids go on them in summer, beneficial insects are attracted and help control aphids elsewhere in the garden.

Chicory, Belgian endive

    Grown for roots, leaves.
    Suggested varieties: Magdeburg
    Roots of this type are roasted and added to coffee (mostly in Louisiana).Witloof chicory is Grown for the edible leaves, which are an acquired taste; this one is grown in darkness in the last stages to produce the fancy blanched Belgian endive. A wild relative grows as a weed in this area, with pretty blue flowers and seeds which spread dandelion-like on the wind.

Cilantro, coriander, Chinese parsley

    Grown for leaves, used as herb.
    Tricky. Needs cool but not freezing weather; goes to flower right away in spring and summer (seed is coriander). Best planted in fall. Tastes like soap to many of us, due to a genetic quirk.


    Grown for leaves.
    Basically an open leaf-type of cabbage. Easy to grow; plant anytime late summer through winter, then harvest leaves from fall through spring.

Corn Salad

    Grown for salad greens.
    One of those trendy greens people put in salads. Also very ornamental for planting in mixed winter color bowls with pansies, kale.


    Grown for leaves.
    True watercress grows on the edges of streams in fresh, clean water and prefers consistently cool conditions. The other cresses are Grown as substitutes. Garden cress is faster, easier than Upland cress. Very fast, grows best in cool weather. Plant from seed in fall, harvest during fall and winter. Used in salads and sandwiches.

Endive, Curly; Escarole

    Grown for salad or cooked greens.
    These are Grown for leafy greens,similar to lettuce. It's tricky to blanch them--you have to tie the outer leaves around the interior and if the weather is wet the head will rot. But the leaves can be used in soup,much like chard. Belgian endive is a kind of chicory grown for the leaves.

Fennel, Florence

    Grown for fleshy stems.
    Slice thin in salads, or saute them. Easy to grow and will reseed. Leaves are a food source for swallowtail caterpillars in spring. Flowers draw beneficial insects.


    Grown for bulbs, used for seasoning.
    Plant disease-free bulbs in fall. Push over foliage, start watering less often in late spring. Harvest early summer.


    Grown for leafy greens.
    suggested varieties: Russian Red
    Very productive, easy, and really good for you. Too bad it tastes boring. Flavor is sweeter after we've had some frost. Plant anytime in fall or winter. Chinese kale is a similar leafy vegetable, also very easy to grow. Ornamental kale is also edible, though fibrous.


    Grown for enlarged stems.
    Weird cabbage relative with bulb-like stem, available in green or purple. Sept. plantings may yield in Nov.; later plantings in Feb. My dad loves this! The name means 'cabbage-turnip' in German.


    Grown for stems and leaves, used for seasoning like onion.
    Very easy. Can be perennial if you cut carefully, leaving 1/2 above the ground, so that it resprouts. Reseeds if allowed to flower.


    Grown for leafy greens.
    Suggested varieties: Bibb, Black-seeded Simpson, Lollo Rossa, Prizehead, Romaine, Tom Thumb (cute!)
    Plant all fall and winter; great in pots. Leaf types most successful here; tight head types (Iceberg) will rot in overcast weather.

Mustard greens

    Grown for leafy greens.
    Very easy to grow. Allow them to reseed around your veg garden and orchard, as the flower draw beneficial insects. Chinese mustard and Cabbage mustard are similar and also easy to grow. Mizuna is Japanese mustard, a fast-growing mustard with sweet, spicy flavor.


    Grown for bulbs (and leaves) used as seasoning.
    Suggested varieties: Stockton yellow, Stockton red, Early California red, Fresno White, Red Torpedo, Walla Walla, among many others. We can grow most varieties of onions here.
    Plant from bare-rooted seedlings (easiest) in Nov. - Dec., or from seed in early fall. Plants grown from bulbs usually try to flower, leading to hollow bulbs. Like nitrogen fertilizer in winter. Harvest May - June.

Onions, bunching

    Grown for leaves used as seasoning.
    suggested varieties: Welsh, Spanish
    Easy to grow; multiply but don't form bulbs. Japanese bunching onions are a type of multiplier onion like shallots, forming bulbs and increasing freely, but mostly grown for the leaves.

Oyster plant, Salsify

    Grown for roots, eaten cooked.
    How did someone figure out this was edible? White salsify and black salsify (scorzonera) form tap roots with mild oyster-like flavor.


    Asian vegetable, Grown for cooked greens.
    Very easy; harvest in just a few weeks from seed planted in early fall, or in spring from seed planted in late fall.

Parsley Root

    Grown for roots, eaten cooked, and leaves.
    Another weird one: this is a parsley that is Grown for the root, which looks like a white fleshy carrot. The leaves are edible, too.


    Grown for roots, eaten cooked.
    Plant in early fall to give the roots time to develop. Not very popular, but interesting sweet/nutty flavor. I sneak them into winter stews.

Peas: Edible-pod, Sugar, Snow

    Grown for green seed pods.
    Suggested varieties: Oregon Sugar Pod II, Dwarf Grey Sugar
    Timing is key for all peas! Sept. to mid - Oct. is best. Pre-germinate seed indoors if planting in late Oct.or Nov. Feb. may work unless it gets hot early. Snow peas are the flat ones used in stir-fry. Edible-pod (sugar) peas are eaten whole, shell and all, or can be shelled.

Peas: Shelling

    Grown for edible seeds, eaten green.
    Suggested varieties: Novella II, Maestro, Tall Telephone
    The old-fashioned shelling peas..Most peas need some light support. Novella is unique: leaves have all been replaced by tendrils, making a wiry mound that resembles a tumbleweed. Very productive.


    Grown for roots, eaten cooked.
    Suggested varieties: Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Red La Soda, White, lots of others.
    Easy, fun. Usually spring planted, but early fall plantings can be successful. HomeGrown potatoes are sweeter than store-bought! Plant in loose soil or raised beds, or stacked tires filled with soil. Water regularly until they flower, then gradually less as the plants decline. You can start poking around for potatoes anytime. Each start produces a couple of dozen potatoes of varying sizes.


    Grown for salad greens.
    Suggested varieties: Giulio
    Spicy, peppery flavor is not for everyone (bleccchh!). Easy to grow in cool weather, from seed or starts. Very ornamental addition to winter color bowls.


    Grown for roots, eaten raw.
    Suggested varieties: Champion, Plum Purple, Sparkler
    Easy, quick--ready in as little as a month from seed. Pepperiness (from mustard oil) increases in warmer weather. Daikon radish is a very large variety Grown for use in Asian cooking. It is also very easy, but takes several weeks to develop. Plant Daikon in fall for best results.


    Grown for large root, eaten cooked or sometimes raw.
    Need a long season; planting after July may be too late. My kids loved these sliced raw when they were young. For some reason, college students think this name is very funny. It is from the Swedish rotabagge; Scots call them 'neeps' or just turnips, and carve them into jack-o'-lanterns. They call the other turnips 'white turnips'. Americans call them 'yellow turnips' and call the other turnips 'turnips'.


    Grown for leafy greens.
    Suggested varieties: Bloomsdale, Olympia, Tyee
    True spinach is Grown in fall or early spring. Very easy, just plant seed or sprouts and harvest the outer leaves any time. New Zealand and Malabar spinaches are warm season plants grown as substitutes.


    Grown for roots, eaten cooked or occasionally raw.
    Regular turnips take 10 - 12 weeks to form, so they need to be planted by early September for your Thanksgiving dinner! Shogoin is an Asian turnip that is very fast, easy, with a kind of peppery flavor and nice texture.

Click here for a planting chart!

A harvest of winter vegetables! All can be planted in fall for cool season harvest Clockwise from bottom left: beets, baby pak choi, kohlrabi, parsnips, radishes, carrots, radicchio. Center: celeriac.

Click here for more information about cool season vegetables.
See also Winter vegetables

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© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles