Noe Valley Voice March 2005

A Bounty of Gardening Tips from Expert Flora Grubb

By Corrie M. Anders

Noe Valley's micro climate is the envy of most other San Francisco neighborhoods. The weather is often warm and sunny and seemingly makes for a hospital environment for growing luscious vine-ripened tomatoes and other foods in the back yard.

But growing a vegetable garden in Noe Valley can be a challenge. Even with its mild climate, the neighborhood simply doesn't get enough hot days to produce the same bountiful crops that many East Coast and Southwest transplants remember from their youth.

Don't despair. Local gardener Flora Grubb has a wheelbarrow full of tips and planting choices that will help residents sow a home garden that will survive and thrive.

Grubb gets kidded a lot about both her surname and her first name, which honors the Roman goddess of flowers (and which she inherited from her grandmother). If divinity doesn't suggest her gardening expertise, her background does. She runs a landscape contractor business, owns a local garden nursery, and periodically dispenses gardening advice on KFOG radio. Her on-air segment is called "In the Dirt with Flora Grubb."

Not many vegetable plants were in stock during a trip in February to Grubb's Guerrero Street Gardens nursery, which celebrates its second anniversary next month. Only a few plats of herbs were on display in the otherwise plant-crammed lot she shares with the Palm Broker at Guerrero and 23rd streets.

Here Comes the Sun

However, the inventory will grow as the spring gardening urge kicks in--and Grubb already is starting to field questions about when, what, and how to plant.

The key to a successful garden is sustained exposure to the sun, ideally five hours a day, says Grubb, who moved to San Francisco from Texas.

"It's all a matter of sun," she says. "You have to find your sunny spot and put your edibles there." If your garden area doesn't receive enough sun, Grubb suggests growing plants in dark-colored pots which will hold heat. Some dedicated gardeners rotate their potted plants from the morning to evening sun, says Grubb.

She strongly urges home gardeners to avoid planting any edible foods directly into the soil, which is full of heavy metals--particularly lead that has flaked off from lead-based paint on exterior walls.

Planting directly in soil might be okay "if you're just doing a little herbing," says Grubb. "But if you're really farming in your back yard, it might do you in."

Think "Early" Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the most popular backyard vegetable by far, and you can start planting them now. "They're easy to grow, and go well in a large variety of meals," says Grubb. But as many a disappointed gardener has discovered, tomatoes have a keen dislike for cool, foggy weather--the kind that often takes up residence in San Francisco.

The solution is to plant a variety known as "early" tomatoes, which are tolerant to cold and disease. Early tomatoes only need a short, warm growing season, and "ground to harvest" takes as little as 52 days. If your crop fails for some reason, Grubb says, you still have time to start with a new planting in May when the days are longer and generally warmer.

Grubb has her favorites among the early tomatoes. The best are heirlooms, including the "Black Krim," "Stupice," "Glacier," and "Maule's Earliest of All."

Herbs--the Spice of Life

Tomatoes and basil go together on the tables of San Francisco foodies like red beans and rice in the South. Grubb says you could put together a nice little collection that includes spicy basil and Thai basil, purple ruffled basil, and lemon- or lime-scented basil.

Basil won't reach the waist-high levels in Noe Valley that it can in other parts of the country, and it tends to mold, because the neighborhood "doesn't get quite hot enough." Try a sweet basil varietal from Oregon's Sweetwater Nursery that was bred for foggy, coastal conditions. "Just plant more of it and don't expect as much out of it," says Grubb.

Some gardeners plant basil in March and April, she says, or they wait until June if it's chilly.

"You buy basil as a little plant, and after a few weeks, you start pulling the leaves off as you need to cook." Fresh herbs "improve your cooking so much. It just makes everything taste better," says Grubb, who grows sage, Italian parsley, cilantro, and six kinds of thyme in her Bernal Heights home garden.

Parsley and cilantro love cooler weather. "So it's best to plant them early in the spring," says Grubb. Add some chocolate-scented or pineapple-scented mints to your herb garden, and dinner guests may believe gourmet chef Alice Waters resides in the kitchen.

Artichoke Overload

Also plant lettuce, kale, spinach, and other leafy greens during the cool days of March and into April. "I really think those are quite as satisfying as herbs and strawberries" in a small garden, says Grubb.

If you've got the room for plants to really stretch out, try artichokes and vine-crawling squash and cucumbers. Don't go overboard at the nursery on artichokes. A single plant can produce "more than you want to eat in a single season," says Grubb. Artichoke plants can double up as a lovely landscape plant.

Squash and cucumbers may not overrun the landscape as aggressively as kudzu in Georgia, but they do love to send out leafy runners in all directions. Plant them at the end of March or in early April, making sure they have room to roam.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry plants are a mainstay in many Noe Valley gardens, delighting kids and adults alike. "They're so much fun and so beautiful," says Grubb. Gardeners have two choices: plants that give a single bountiful crop, usually in late June, or plants that bear one or two berries continuously throughout the season.

"I think it's really fun to [plant] the continuous berries and go out to the garden and grab some," says Grubb. Opt for the one-crop berries if you want them for cooking.

Grubb says novice gardeners have a tendency to overfertilize and "end up with one big strawberry plant and no strawberries." Feed the plants lightly when they start to grow, if they are June bearers. Continuous bearers should get a light, twice-a-month feeding.

The Meyers Lemon Obsession

People everywhere love citrus fruit trees; perhaps it's the subliminal message of tropical warmth. Lemons, limes, and kumquats all do well in Noe Valley. They can be planted at any time of the year, says Grubb.

The Meyers lemon is everyone's top choice. Meyers, which produce prodigious amounts of fruit year-round, were crossbred with tangerines. The hybrids are less acidic than other lemons, and have a sweet, tangeriny flavor. "People are obsessed with them. I call them the official lemon of San Francisco," says Grubb.

"Buy a dwarf tree, and it will live happily in a pot on your patio," says Grubb.

Another patio candidate is the columnar apple tree, which you have to see to believe. The tree doesn't have branches. Instead, it is little more than a stick-straight trunk with normal-sized apples growing from little spikes. "It's just a form that's different," says Grubb. "It's perfect for a tiny garden," and can be planted any season.

Peaches struggle in Noe Valley. So do watermelons, honeydew melons, and cantaloupes. "It's just not hot enough here," says Grubb. "In general, we don't get enough heat for all those fun things you loved growing" in the South and other places with long, hot growing seasons.

Yet, Grubb occasionally hears stories about gardeners who can get even the most tropical, sun-worshipping plant to flourish in Noe Valley. One man claims he can grow bananas and pineapples. Grubb, however, says she is still waiting to see his garden.