Election Section

An Out-of-Towner’s Guide to the East Bay’s Native Plants

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday August 21, 2007

A few years ago, Michael Pollan moved here and wrote about his new garden for the New York Times Magazine. Clearly conscious of who his purported audience was (and wasn’t), he said those boilerplate things about missing fall color and spring budbreak, and that California’s seasons are “all messed up.” He also had the wit to say this: 

“It’s a good thing that states don't license gardeners the way they do drivers, because if I had to take a written test to requalify as a gardener in the state of California, I would definitely have failed. … So little of what I brought with me as a gardener seems to apply. I'd be lucky to get my learner’s permit.” 

Too few people get that clue that fast: We’re not in Kansas any more. Pollan has since written about the virtues of locality and seasonality vis-à-vis food in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and has given other evidence that he’s got a handle on this place.  

He had some typical questions then: 

What month should you plant tulips?  

Buy them as soon as you see them for sale; keep them in the fridge for a month; plant them in October or when things start to cool down. 

What's the name of the tree with fruits that resemble miniature pumpkins?  

That would be Fuyu persimmon, the kind you can eat when it’s still crunchy.  

Will basil survive the winter outdoors?  


Should you stake an artichoke?  

No. And if you miss one when you harvest, you’ll get a spectacular flower to cut anyway. 

Is Mexican salvia an annual or a perennial?  

Perennial; not particularly edible. Hummingbirds appreciate it, though, and it’s tough. Prune it to almost ground level when it gets straggly. 

The next couple of months are prime planting time, when the soil’s still warm. If you have space for ornamentals, plant natives; go up to the Tilden Botanic Garden to see why. Birds migrate here, and you and they can enjoy each other this winter if you plant for them and the other locals. 

If you have, say, a windowbox or a few square feet of free dirt, you can have fresh greens and herbs PDQ.  

Lettuce, arugula, mache, chicory, endive, most salad greens do well in winter, especially with sun part of the day. If you plant them before the hot days of September and early October, they will probably bolt, so don’t rush. You can plant root veggies soon, too; carrots get weird in our clay soil, so try them in a box of potting soil for early spring eating. Cabbage relatives like broccoli (or better, broccoli raab), collards, kale, bok choy, and turnips (for roots and greens) grow all winter.  

Swiss chard, sorrel, purslane/verdolaga (which grows as a weed here), and other cooking greens love winter, and so does spinach, easiest in a box of loose, sandy soil. Radishes and scallions are practically instant gratification. Plant a chayote vine for lots of tasty weird squashlike fruit; fava beans for a spring harvest plus soil improvement. Snow peas, no surprise, are a classic winter crop. 

Herbs! Lemon balm is easy—it’s feral in Tilden Park. Winter savory wants sun; so do parsley and cilantro. Try any perennial herb, even lavender, now for a good start with minimal irrigation. You’ll have to can water until the rain starts, but many will benefit from still-warm soil temperatures.  

I like to plant some seeds and a few six-pack starts by way of role models. Some great places to shop are Spiral Gardens (Tuesday-Sunday Noon-7p.m. 2830 Sacramento St., 843-1307); the Longs Drugs (no kidding) at 51st and Broadway, Oakland; Yabusaki’s Dwight Way Nursery, 1001 Dwight Way, Berkeley (closed Thursdays; call 845-6261 for hours); Westbrae Nursery (1272 Gilman Street, north Berkeley, 526-7606); and for things you never saw before, The Dry Garden, across from Flint’s at 6556 Shattuck Ave., 547-3564.