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Monday, January 27, 2014

California Gourmet: Making Flavored (Infused) Vinegars

The salad season is commencing a bit early in our part of S. California.  The warm dry weather has strongly influenced local gardens.  If you’ve supplied a little irrigation, you may have native greens that are ready to eat (or nearly so).  That means it’s time to think about greens: raw, sautéed, steamed and baked.   If you didn’t catch our earlier postings on native greens you might want to visit them:

One of the best uses for the milder greens like Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and the native clovers is for salads.  They add unique flavors and textures;   they can be used alone or combined with other greens, lettuce, etc.  And of course,  native greens are even more fabulous when dressed with a simple oil & vinegar dressing made with flavored vinegars. 

Flavored vinegars or infused vinegars are simply vinegars that have been infused with the flavor(s) of herbs, spices, nuts or fruits.   These vinegars are becoming more popular – in fact, some are now available in local grocery stores.   They are wonderful for salad dressings, marinades, sauces and in the traditional recipes of many cultures.  You can use the flavored vinegars for any recipe that calls for vinegar, remembering that the flavor should complement the dish.

Our native seasoning herbs also yield wonderful flavored vinegars.  Native plant- infused vinegars are easy to make; and they feature our unique California flavors in new and creative ways. They are a fun introduction to using native plants and make unique gifts for foodie friends.   A few words of caution: 1) use only garden- collected materials; 2) be sure to identify the plant correctly (one of the advantages of growing the plants in your own garden); 3) know what plant part(s) can be used safely; 4) do not use plants that have been sprayed with pesticides.  As always, use moderation when trying any new food.   For a complete list of native plants that can be used for flavored vinegars see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/flavored-vinegars
Black sage (Salvia mellifera) - a popular native seasoning herb

The easiest flavored vinegars are made from fresh/dried leaf seasoning herbs.  While many people use Mediterranean herbs (rosemary; thyme; etc.) our native Salvias (Sages), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), Wild tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) and other plants in the Mint family (Lepechinia fragrans; Mentha arvensis; Salvia spathacea) make wonderful infusion herbs.  They can be used separately, in combination or with the more common kitchen herbs.  Combining flavors takes a bit of experience, so we suggest you begin with a single ‘flavor’.  But there’s lots of room for creative exploration if you’re so inclined!
Infused vinegars combine the flavors of the infusion herbs with the flavor of the vinegar itself.  A mild or delicate flavoring herb will be overwhelmed by a robust vinegar like a balsamic, sherry or red wine vinegar. The flavors of mild herbs work best with the milder vinegars: champagne,  white wine and white Japanese rice vinegars.  Bolder infusion herbs – including native Salvias and California sagebrush - combine well with the bolder vinegars and even with plain old distilled white vinegar. You can download a table with a description of common types of vinegars at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/types-of-vinegars-for-making-flavored-vinegars

Below is a simple recipe for cold-infused herb vinegar.  You can download this and other flavored vinegar recipes at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/flavored-vinegar-recipes-leaf-spices

Herb-infused vinegar – cold vinegar method
1 to 1 ¼  cup vinegar
1 to 3 sprigs of fresh herbs (3-inch sprigs) or 2 to 4 sprigs dried herbs or ½ cup chopped fresh herbs
Wash jar in dishwasher or sterilize in boiling water for 10 minutes.  Invert jar on paper towel and let completely dry.  Wash fresh herbs and pat dry.  Measure vinegar and pour into sterilized jar.  Lightly crush or cut herb sprigs and add to jar.  Be sure that herbs are completely covered by the vinegar – if needed, add more vinegar.   If your jar has a metal lid, place a double layer of plastic wrap over the jar opening.  Screw on the lid/cap the jar.  Place in an area out of direct sun and let the flavors develop at room temperature.  Check daily until flavors are sufficiently strong (often 1-3 days for fresh herbs – up to a week or two for dried herbs). You can shake the jar to distribute the flavors better.  Once the flavors suit your taste remove the herbs.  Strain the vinegar through a jelly/juicing bag or a strainer lined with a coffee filter.  Re-bottle in a sterile bottle and store in a cool dark place at room temperature (about 1-2 month) or in the refrigerator (2-4 months).

We hope you’ve been inspired to try making a batch of flavored vinegar.  We’ll talk about making fruit-infused vinegars in summer, when our fruits are ripe.  For more on vinegars and flavored vinegar making we suggest viewing our slide show:   http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/making-seasoned-vinegars-2011  


We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Designing Your New California Garden: 8. Your New Garden’s Style

If you’ve been with us from the beginning, you’re probably tired of background work – and ready to start planning your garden.  If so, you’re going to like this month’s activities.   If you are just joining the ‘Designing Your New California Garden’ series, we suggest you start at the beginning (July 2013 - http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/07/designing-your-new-california-garden-1.html) and work forward.  The monthly activities will help you design an attractive, functional, sustainable garden you’ll enjoy for years to come.
You’ve probably been collecting pictures of inspirational gardens as you’ve worked through the exercises.  If not, now is a good time to explore the garden design books in your local library or bookstore (or download same).  Get out in the community to explore local gardens.  Walk around your neighborhood; visit a local botanic garden or native plant garden.  Be sure to take your camera and notepad.    You’ll be surprised at the number of good ideas all around you.
One of the first things we notice about a garden is its overall appearance or ‘feel’.  Some gardens appear tidy and formal while others are more relaxed. Some may feel ‘right’ to you, while others don’t.  Take a minute to consider  the overall ‘feel’ you want for your New California Garden  -  assisted by a short questionnaire.  Access the Overall Look of Your ‘New California Garden’ questionnaire at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/the-overall-look-of-your-garden-worksheet   Come back when you’re done to find out what your answers reveal about your style preferences.
Many newcomers believe that native plant gardens must look like they were planted by Mother Nature herself.   While ‘natural style’ gardens appeal to some, this is not the only look that can be achieved using native plants. In fact, native plants have been used successfully in even very formal gardens. There is no right or wrong way to use native plants; but you need to determine your style preferences first.  Then you can choose plants that are suitable to your style.  
The ‘Overall Look’ questionnaire determines whether you prefer a more formal or more informal garden style or ‘look’. We’ve found that some gardeners are most comfortable if their garden has a formal appearance.  They feel downright uncomfortable with the ‘messy’ or ‘uncontrolled’ look of more informal gardens.  Other gardeners have no patience with the ‘cold perfection’ and ‘persnickety details’ of very formal gardens; they prefer a garden with a slightly wilder look. 
There is no right or wrong choice; your own preference may be very formal, very informal or something in between.   But understanding what makes you feel comfortable about a garden will go a long way in helping you design a New California Garden that suits you.
What was your total score on the Overall Look questionnaire?   If your  score was between 25 and 35 you favor a formal-looking garden design.   If your score was less than 15 you favor an informal look.    If your score was between 16 and 24 you could go either way.    The table below outlines some basic elements of formal and informal garden designs.   See how well your score corresponds to the type of garden you prefer.

Formal landscapes




·        Appropriate with ‘formal’ house designs (including modern)
·        Straight lines
·        Simple, geometric shapes
·        Neat, tidy appearance
·        Restrained  
·        Calm, static appearance
·        Brick, gravel and stone paths/patios (regularly shaped/cut stone), concrete
·        Gravel or fine grade mulches
·        Classical fountains, pots, sundials, sculpture as accents
·        Classical/simple garden furniture
·        Enclosures: hedges, formal fences around garden
·        Lawns
·        Plants with ‘old fashioned’ appearance
·        Clipped/pruned hedges
·        Shrubs in large pots
·        ‘tidy’ appearance
·        Evergreen shrubs
·        Limited plant palette (species and/or color)
·        Massed plantings
·        Plants planted in regular/ geometric patterns
·        Repetition/symmetry in plantings

Informal landscapes




·        Appropriate with cottage, bungalow, ‘ranch’  or modern homes
·        Curved lines
·        Complex, irregular shapes
·        Relaxed, informal feel
·        Lively, changing appearance
·        Organic; natural
·        Decomposed granite, ‘urbanite’, irregularly shaped stone, cinder block, concrete
·        Most types of mulch
·        Informal fountains (made from stone, pots, etc.)
·        Hardscape materials appropriate for local landscape
·        Plain, rustic or eclectic garden furniture
·        Rustic fences if any
·        ‘natural’ lawn, prairie or meadow if any
·        Informally pruned hedges (less regular)
·        Leaf mulch; leaf litter may be allowed to remain
·        May include summer/fall dormant plants
·        May be more varied plant palette (more species/colors)
·        Plants planted in irregular patterns (more like in nature)
·        Plants appropriate for local landscape (incl. CA natives)
If you prefer a more formal look, you may want to look at pictures of classic formal gardens for ideas.  The internet is a good place to begin.  Some keywords you might want to use are: ‘formal garden’, ‘parterre garden’, ‘renaissance garden’ and ‘classic garden’.   Many of the pictures feature large, very formal gardens; but the ideas can be applied to even the smallest S. California garden.   Look for the features of formal gardens (above table) in the pictures.  How might you apply these design characteristics on a smaller scale?   How do your pictures of inspirational gardens use the characteristics of formal gardens?   Be sure to write down ideas – they may be helpful when you begin to plan your garden next month.
If you prefer a more informal look, consider how you scored the last two questions.  If you assigned a high score (4 or 5) to the ‘natural look’ question, then search the internet for pictures of ‘natural gardens’ and ‘California native plant gardens’.  The pictures will inspire you with good ideas about plantings and hardscape.  If you scored the ‘lots of species and types of plants’ question highly, you might want to look at pictures of ‘cottage gardens’ and ‘rustic gardens’ for inspiration.    Think about how you might apply the features of these gardens to a design that includes California native plants.  Jot down or sketch out your ideas as they come to you.  Keep your notes and sketches in your Garden Notebook.
At this point you know quite a bit about the basic type of garden that makes you comfortable and happy.  But a good garden designer – one who is willing to work with you to design a garden that truly suits your family – will also ask you specific questions about garden features, colors and other characteristics.   S/he does this to be sure they understand what is important to you - the people who will live and work in the garden.
You may or may not decide to work with a garden designer.  Either way, it’s  a good idea to think ahead about how your new garden might look. You’ll likely find that giving yourself time – even months – to envision your future garden pays off in the long run.  Over many years of teaching California native gardening we’ve developed a set of questions that are useful for discovering and prioritizing garden features.   We’ve combined them into a questionnaire that’s both fun to take and useful to whoever designs your garden.   
Since gardens are a personal thing, we suggest that each member of the household (except the very young) completes a copy of the questionnaire. Have fun; and be sure to add your personal desires if they aren’t included in the questionnaire.  Compare your answers and decide on a final list of priorities for the garden after you discuss them as a group.  Access the Garden Style Questionnaire at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/what-is-your-gardens-style-worksheet-30049848
Next month (Feb. 2014) we’ll take all the background information you’ve collected and begin to design a garden.   Be sure you’ve completed all the prior exercises and filed your answers in your Garden Notebook.  Trust us – you’ll be needing them!  We’ll begin next month by designing the irrigation system and laying out the garden pathways, seating areas and other hardscape features.

We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Plant of the Month (January) : Bigberry manzanita - Arctostaphylos glauca

Two-year-old Bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca
Mother Nature's Backyard garden, Gardena, California

January is usually a transition month in local gardens.  Annual wildflowers are but seedlings and most of our shrubs and trees are dormant or waiting.  The few species that bloom regularly from December to February are a welcome sight.  Among the plants just coming into bloom in Mother Nature’s Backyard is our Bigberry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca).

Manzanitas hold a special place in the hearts of many Californians.  The genus Arctostaphylos has about 60 species, primarily found in western North America from British Columbia, Canada to Mexico.  California has the largest number of native species; in our state, many species are common shrubs within rather small geographic ranges.   Manzanitas are mostly evergreen and attractive year-round.   It’s no wonder they are treasured California natives.


Bigberry manzanita has an extensive range compared to many manzanita species.  It can be seen from the San Francisco Bay area south to the foothills of central Baja California, Mexico.  It grows primarily on slopes at elevations below 4500 feet in chaparral and woodland plant communities.  Locally, Arctostaphylos glauca grows in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. The picture above shows Bigberry Manzanita in a natural setting.

In the desert foothills – and higher elevations - Arctostaphylos glauca is often a medium-sized shrub.  In lower, milder climates, Bigberry manzanita is one of the larger manzanita species.   Mature plants are often 8 to 15+ feet tall and 12-15 feet wide.   Bigberry manzanita is really a very large woody shrub with an open branch structure and rounded form.  It can be pruned up to form a small tree.  Its open foliage provides dappled shade, the perfect environment for smaller plants that like a little protection from the summer sun.
Distinctive foliage of Bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca).  Photo (r) shows
 plant in Mother Nature's Backyard garden (plant is the gray-green shrub along the wall).

The foliage of Arctostaphylos glauca is an attractive gray-green that contrasts nicely with surrounding plants (see photo above).   The leaves are simple, evergreen, alternate and leathery; a waxy coating gives them their characteristic color.   While these features make the species drought tolerant, they also give plants a neat, attractive appearance.  Combine the unique foliage with dark red bark and you have a winning combination.    The characteristic red, peeling bark can be seen even in young plants (like our specimen in Mother Nature’s Backyard).
Flowers and flower buds: Bigberry manzanita
 (Arctostaphylos glauca)

Manzanitas generally bloom in winter or early spring in western S. California; Arctostaphylos glauca is no exception.  The small, white urn shaped flowers can be seen beginning in December or January in most years.   Flowers grow in fairly open clusters (panicles) and mature plants will be covered with flowers in a good year.  The flowers attract insect pollinators (primarily bees) as well as butterflies and hummingbirds.    Along with the native currants and gooseberries (Ribes species), manzanitas are an important source of nectar in winter and early spring.

Bigberry manzanita, as suggested by its common name, produces large fruits  (about ½ inch diameter) compared to other manzanitas.  The name manzanita means ‘little apple’ and the fruits of Bigberry manzanita do indeed superficially resemble small apples (see http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?where-taxon=Arctostaphylos+glauca   for some good pictures).  The fruits, which contain a large ‘stone’ formed from fused nutlets (pits), ripen to a dark red color in summer.  Bigberry manzanita begins producing consistently at about 20 years of age.  Production increases until trees are at least 90 years old and individual plants are known to live more than 100 years in natural settings.
Bark of Bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) is
red-brown. Insert shows bark on young tree.
The fruits of Arctostaphylos glauca are showy, but they are also edible.  Native Californians collected ripe fruits in summer or fall.  They were used either fresh or dried for later use.   Fresh berries were used to flavor cooked foods and for making ‘manzanita cider’.  We’ll discuss how to make this refreshing beverage in a future posting.   Dried fruits were ground into a meal and used for making mush or cakes/bread – or added to soups and stews as a flavoring/thickening agent.  Although we haven’t done so, manzanita berries can also be used to make jelly or a sweet syrup.   If you don’t use the berries, they won’t go to waste.  Fruit eating birds and small animals will take care of the surplus!

Bigberry manzanita can be a nice addition to the home garden – if you have the conditions it needs.  Like most manzanitas, Arctostaphylos glauca prefers a well-drained soil.   In nature, it often grows on sunny slopes with coarse, well-drained soils. If you have these conditions, Bigberry manzanita will need little care once established.
Mature Bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca)
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont, California
Growing manzanitas in gardens with clay or clay-loam soils can be more of a challenge.   We included two plants (Arctostaphylos glauca and the cultivar Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) in Mother Nature’s Backyard because local gardeners love manzanitas.  But we’re well aware of the challenges – and hope our choices succeed.   The trick will be to keep them free of the fungal diseases to which they are prone. 

We watered our Bigberry manzanita every other week during the first summer (2012) and only 2 times this summer (2013).   With a little luck, our Bigberry manzanita will get by without any supplemental water from here on out.  This is a tough species that likes full sun and tolerates heat, drought, cold and alkali and salty soils.  Whether it will survive our ‘junk yard’ soil remains to be seen.  

One trick if you have clay soils is to plant manzanitas on a 2-4 ft high mound or berm.  This will often provide shallow-rooted species, like Arctostaphylos glauca, with enough drainage to succeed, even in less than optimal soils.    So if you want to try a manzanita – but your soils are more clay than rocky - choose one of the more garden-adapted species/cultivars and plant on a mound or berm.    Then resist the urge to over-water once your manzanita is established.  Several cultivars of A. glaucus are available including ‘Los Angeles’, a natural variant from the Santa Monica Mountains and ‘Frazier Park’.  

The leaves and litter of manzanitas contain acidic compounds that inhibit the growth of some annual wildflowers.  You should be able to grow perennial grasses and plants near a manzanita if you wish.  If you have trouble with plants near manzanitas, consider growing understory plants in containers, which should alleviate the problem.

Bigberry manzanita has many practical uses.  It has hard wood which can be used for woodworking or burned.  Native Californians used the wood for pipes and tool handles.  The green leaves were collected in fall and dried for medicinal uses.   A weak tea (decoction) from the dried leaves was used as a diuretic to treat kidney and urinary tract diseases.  It should be used sparingly as it may be toxic in large or frequent doses.    The tea was also used externally to treat poison oak.    The leaves produce a lovely brown dye which requires no mordant.


For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/arctostaphylos-glauca

Bigberry manzanita in MNBY - 2015 (3 years old)
Bigberry manzanita in MNBY - 2016 (4 years old)



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com