Author Archives: Katharine

What’s All This Yellow Stuff?

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What’s the giant yellow plant that just appeared in the garden?

It’s fennel, also known as anise. And, yes, it’s the same fennel they sell for cooking.

Did you plant it?

No, it’s common all over California, although it’s native to Europe. It’s considered an invasive species due to the fact that it grows so easily and quickly here, and crowds out native species.

So why don’t you get rid of it?

Number one – it grows too fast for me to pull out, and I don’t use poisons in my gardens.

There are also many benefits to having it in the garden:

  • The bees love it
  • Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on it. (If you pick some, make sure to check for little black caterpillars before taking it.)
  •  It smells really good, a little like licorice.
  • You can use it in cooking (especially with fish)

Rainy Days Are Perfect for…Weeding?

DSC_7438It stopped raining for about 2 hours on Tuesday morning, and I was out pulling weeds as fast as I could.  Unfortunately, the rich clay soil in Palo Alto means that weeds that set in, stay in, even when you try to amend the soil.  When it rains late in the season, like this, it’s the perfect opportunity to pull weeds that set in long roots that are really hard to pull as the weather warms up and the soil dries out.

Although there are a number of great tools out there to use on weeds, I tend to use my bare hands (I could give you 100 reasons why this is a terrible idea – it’s a bad habit) and a digger (also called a weeder – a long, forked tool) or, in a pinch, a long flat-head screwdriver.

When the ground is soft, and the plant isn’t too big, feel down to the base of the plant either right above the soil level, or, even better, just below it (dig around the base with your fingers.)  Pinch the base of the plant with your fingers and apply a steady, strong force upwards.  Never jerk or pull too fast, this will break the root off, and then you’ll have to pull it again in a few weeks when it grows back.

If pulling isn’t an option, dig down right next to the plant with the digger, and then apply force downward, wrenching the plant, with the root, upwards.  Sometimes you have to do this repeatedly, moving around the plant until the roots are all pulled free.

My targets today were:

1)  Mallow

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I LOVE mallow, especially in its cultivated form “Cape Mallow.”  However, the variety of mallow we get in our gardens is usually “Common Mallow” or Malva neglecta (isn’t that an awesome name?)

While common mallow can be very pretty, it spreads really fast and is invasive.  The tap roots extend down sometimes more than twice the height of the plant above ground, and so they can be impossible to pull successfully.

2)  Purple Salsify

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I also love salsify, because it’s beautiful, but if you leave it in, you will be overrun, especially on your lawn (and your neighbors’ lawns, too.)

Just like mallow, salsify has long roots which are easy to pull in wet weather.  However, I find that it’s hard to pull the younger plants.  When they get 8 inches tall or more, it’s pretty easy to pull them up, root and all.  Smaller plants will break in the middle.

3)  Dandelions, thistle, and the like

Plants that look like dandelions (including the spiky thistles) are always on my weed hit list, but they’re easier to pull when it’s wet.  Unless the plant is small, I recommend always using a digger to help pull out the root intact.

WARNING:  If it looks spiky, it will probably hurt to touch it.  Please use gloves, especially because we also get stinging nettles in this area, and they leave a nasty burn that can take hours to subside.


See that nasty spiky leaf next to the bur clover?  Those little white hairs get stuck in your skin like splinters, and itch and burn ALL day.

4)  Bur Clover


(Bur clover hiding under other weeds)

Bur clover is always on my weed hit list as well, primarily because it, along with fox tails, can really hurt pets.  Early in Spring, you can catch them before the burs have dried and fallen off into the soil, to try to control it for next year, too.

Although they’re easy to pull, I recommend taking great care because they’ll drop the burs with any light tug.  Follow the branches down to the soil level, to pull the root directly – one root usually connects to many branches.  Because bur clover hides under other plants, you’ll need to pull it up gently, so none of the burs fall off into the soil.

The rule is that, if it’s easy to pull, then the plant is probably trying to trick you.  Pull it fast and you’ll end up helping it spread.

5)  NOT Poppies

Poppies look like weeds until they bloom, so be careful to avoid pulling them.  They look like carrots when they’re younger:


But bloom into beautiful orange jewels:

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Especially in the early Spring, they can be a good source of food for the bumbles.

Dirty Hands


Sadly, life got a little exciting last month, and so I missed my chance to grow a lot of plants from seeds. But fear not, it turns out that Summer Winds accepts kidneys in exchange for merchandise, so we’re all set for planting this week. (I’m kidding. Mostly.)

Despite the frequently higher prices, I like to go to Summer Winds to find organic options, as well as unusual plants. I’ll probably hit up OSH later this week, to see if they might have another variety of sugar snap peas, in addition to the Cascadia I found today.

Once I had invested the kids’ college money in plants, I came home to clear out the garden. In about 3 hours, I managed to get the plot mostly ready for planting:



Of course, it still needs a little work. I’ll work to get it finished tomorrow, and ready for planting (as long as it doesn’t rain too much tonight. Planting in really wet dirt isn’t good for the dirt or the plants.)


I’m very excited, because I’ll be trying a few new varieties this year. For example, I’ve never grown celery, and I’m really curious what it looks like in the ground, and, with the increased interest in kale and other dark greens, I thought I’d throw in a few of them as well.

First Winter Clean Up

DSC_8412I finished the first Winter Clean up this afternoon – I filled 3 large yard waste containers in just under 3 hours.  I’m feeling a little guilty for muttering about being too hot when most of the country is suffering record low temperatures, but at least I got a good start on a little color in my cheeks.

I put out a box with avocados today.  I’ll try to continue to fill it as avocados come into season.  Although I’m not particularly fond of them, I know a number of folks in the neighborhood do enjoy them, so please do take a couple if you happen by.

Happy 2014!

It looks like it’s going to be a warm, dry Spring, so it’s time to get thinking about planting.  This morning I ran across the Old Farmer’s Almanac seed-starting guide, and it’s great.  Unfortunately, it means it’s time to get my tail, and garden, in gear – I need to be ready to plant those delicious peas in just a few weeks.

This year I’m planning to start some plants indoors as well.  Although the weather doesn’t require it around here, the bugs and critters do – especially for tomatoes.  With any luck, I’ll have more than enough plants to bring outside in March.

As I start adding to the garden, I’ll update the web page, too, so you’ll be able to identify all the delicious additions.

Happy planting!


Today I took a field trip down to Almaden Valley Nursery, down in South San Jose, and they had sugar snap peas!

I picked up a couple pony packs and got them in the ground this afternoon:


(As you can see, Hapuna was supervising.)


In addition to the peas, I put a couple more tomatoes in the ground (Mortgage Lifter and more Sweet 100s)

and added some thyme to the herb pot:


You might have noticed the blue tomato cages that I added to the garden.  I found them at Home Depot for only $6 each.

Finally Planting!

Today I finally got to the work of finishing the last of the weeding (in the veggie garden) and putting beautiful little plants into the ground.  The weasels and I went to Summer Winds (which will always be Woolworths in my mind) and picked up some old favorites and new surprises.  I started with their organic planting mix.  Every year, I add 3-4 bags to the garden to fertilize the plants and attempt to try to win over the clay soil.  Over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve tried EVERYTHING to amend it, but it simply refuses to budge, so I’m hoping that, at some point, I will have finally replaced all the clay with softer stuff.

When I am a grownup it is my solemn promise to 1) be more consistent with adding compost and 2) learn to amend clay without simply replacing it.

However, today is not that day, so I did my best to make sure the plants had a good bed to grow in at least, and the weasels did their best to find lots of worms for the new planting boxes.  The plants I put in the ground today were:

2 Super Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes (organic)

1 Brandywine Tomato (organic)

1 Thai Hot Pepper

1 Ashley Cucumber

6 Camarosa Strawberries (organic and in a new rectangular box)

6 Blue Lake Beans

Oregano, chives and chamomile (in a new box)

It’s late in the year already, so I didn’t find any sugar snap peas (around here they want to go in in mid-March.)  Fingers crossed I’ll find some tomorrow – I’m afraid they might all be gone, and I’ll need to try them from (gasp!) seed.

Summer Winds had some beautiful painted tomato cages.  They come in lots of colors, but purple was my favorite by far:


They’re thicker than the usual cages, and I’m hoping the slightly more expensive investment ($10, vs $4 or $5 for the regular galvanized steel ones) will give us cages that last longer than a year.

(Apparently life on the side of the road isn’t for the faint of heart.)

It’s always hard to admire the garden right after planting.  True, the weeds are (mostly) down to a low roar, but the plants are all so small and a bit shocked from the move, so it looks a bit like it got a bad haircut.  It’ll grow out, I know, but still…


As soon as I put one of the cages into its pot, this little ladybug decided this was HER tomato plant, and she stayed put through all the noise of weeding, moving, planting, tamping, sweeping and radio listening.  (Of course, it’s possible she simply enjoys NPR, too.)  She was a bit shy when it came time to take her picture, but sat still long enough for a decent shot.


I had the privilege of talking with a couple of folks who walked/jogged by and stopped to admire my work.  (Or perhaps to offer to administer CPR, as I was breathing rather heavily with all the bending over and trying to yank out weeds with my digger.)  Much of the time, I’m working by myself in the garden, so it’s wonderful to hear from people who enjoy it.  After one conversation with a neighbor who loves native plants, it occurred to me that I should add scientific names to my list of plants, especially for the ones that are native to California (like “carmel creeper” which is also known as Ceanothus griseus and is an easy, beautiful shrub to use in our area.)  I’ll add that to the list after planting the rest of the plants tomorrow (including a snapdragon who’s seen better days that Weasel #2 fell in love with,) and weeding the rest of the garden, and planning another bulb garden, and the rosemary for the slope, and…

Springtime – a beautiful time of year to enjoy, assuming you survive all the to-do lists.