Gardening through the Seasons

The Summer Garden

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We are already reminiscing the season as we enter these last few days of summer. Before we start swapping tomatoes for brassicas, we are taking a look back at some of our favorite images from the season.   Our Atherton project really came into its own this year — take a look!



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Photos by David Fenton.

A Year of Beautiful Gardens

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Whew! It’s been an amazing year — thank you for being a part of it.  Thought we’d share a few favorite images from 2013 as we reflect on all the new friends, gardens and even vegetables (myoga ginger!)  we have met and created this year.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Stef, Leslie and all the folks here at Star Apple

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Blend Flowers and Fruit


We were so excited to share our tips for including edibles in garden bouquets with Danny Bonvissuto of HGTV Gardens earlier this year. Here is an excerpt from the article, Mixed Fruit: Blend Flowers and Produce for an Arresting Bouquet.  The arrangement and persimmon wreath are from The Beautiful Edible Garden and one of the many  Studio Choo moments in the book.   Be sure to check out Jill and Althea’s recently published book, The Flower Recipe Bookfor more  inspiration on how to turn your garden harvests into beautiful arrangements.

market arangement

Reprinted with permission from The Beautiful Edible Garden by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Photo by Jill Rizzo.

Fruit and vegetables look gorgeous in the garden and even better on the plate, so why do we only think of flowers and leaves when it comes to floral arrangements?

“Your garden harvest can be so much more than your evening meal,” says Stefani Bittner, co-founder of Star Apple Edible + Fine Gardening in San Francisco and co-author of The Beautiful Edible Garden (Ten Speed Press). “When we look out at all the beautiful fruit and vegetables in our gardens, it’s easy to see how lovely they can be in an arrangement.”

Move over gerbera daisies: tomatillo branches are moving in on your territory. Here’s a seasonal snapshot of the beauties Bittner and partner Leslie Bennett use to create naturally notable arrangements:

Spring – “After a long winter, we are so excited to use flowering fruit tree branches like apple, pear and quince,” Bittner says. “Pea tendrils, artichoke, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, flowering herbs and mint are all stunning when combined with spring blooms.”

Summer – Bittner suggests mixing raspberry and blackberry branches with blooms, plus other stems of plants that break off in the garden. “There are times when vegetables get too big for a space or the weight of their fruit breaks a limb in the summer garden,” Bittner says. “Use trimmings from cherry tomatoes, pepper, eggplant and tomatillo plants in your vases, too.”

Fall – “Fig and persimmon branches are two of our favorite fall cuts,” Bittner says. “The large magnolia-like leaves of the persimmon turn a vibrant orange in the fall and make for a stunning seasonal arrangement.”

Winter – Bittner and Bennett like to include lesser known ornamental citrus in their winter bouquets, like chinotto oranges, kumquats and Buddha’s Hand citron. “If your climate doesn’t allow for citrus to live outdoors in the winter, you can still grow them in containers,” Bittner says. “Simply move them indoors during the colder months.”

The key to a successful arrangement with fruit and vegetables is a sturdy stem. “We love artichokes, fruit tree branches like fig, pomegranate and persimmons and annual vegetable stems like cherry tomato and peppers for this reason. They are so easy to use!” Bittner says. “Just as you would remove the leaves of your flowers below the vase water line, do this with your edible plants, too.

Bittner and Bennett love branching out with their vases as well. “Vintage tin cans, canning jars, harvest baskets and wooden crates are all fun ways to go from garden to table,” Bittner says. “And you don’t always need a container—wreaths are a great way to display your harvest and celebrate the season!”


Reprinted with permission from The Beautiful Edible Garden by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Photo by Jill Rizzo.

Persimmon Wreath


20 stems of seasonal greenery

12-inch wire wreath frame

Medium-gauge paddle wire

5–8 small-to-medium size succulents

5–10 pieces of 20-gauge 12-inch straight floral wire

15–25 small-to-medium size persimmons

10 berry sprigs

Start by cutting down large branches so that you’re working with pieces of greenery that are 5–10 inches in length.

Make small mixed bunches in your hand using 4–5 pieces of the seasonal greenery (we used bay laurel and privet berry).

Lay the small bunches on the wreath frame and wrap the paddle wire around the bunches of greenery and the frame two or three times to make sure they are securely attached.

Continue making and attaching bunches, one on top of the next, until you’ve worked your way around the entire wreath frame.

To add on the succulents, begin by cutting them from the soil, leaving a small 1- to 2-inch stump to attach the wire to. You may need to remove a few lower petals to make the stump long enough to attach the wire. Wrap a piece of the 20-gauge wire around the stump two or three times making sure you leave 4–5 inches to attach it to the frame with. Tie the succulent onto the frame and twist the wire ends in place. Add two or three succulents in the same area for a clustered look.

The persimmons can be added in the same manner as the succulents. To attach the persimmons, begin by wrapping your 20-gauge wire around the base of the persimmons, and tie them in the same way as the succulents to the frame. You can add persimmons in just one spot to create a focal area, or cluster several small persimmons together in various places to mimic the clustered look of the succulents.

Tuck the berry sprigs into the wreath.

– See more at:

Summer Garden

I feel like Leslie and I have been in a cave these past weeks.  Writing our first book is an exciting experience but not surprisingly, hard.  We just finished a major edit and had our first Sunday off in months.  I headed straight to the garden and for the first time in too long, did not rush.



photos from top left to right:

Apricot Nectar agastache with Posey thyme, Indigo Rose cherry tomato, Terra Cotta yarrow, anise hyssop, Tuberosa nepeta, rhubarb in landscape, cabbage, Apricot Nectar agastache, red onions (I grew them by seed!), arugula sprouts, Australian Finger Lime, Chinotto sour orange underplanted with Double Flower chamomile.


The Winter Garden

wintergardenblog7Just came in from a walk in the garden.  This time of year it is dominated by the reds and burgundies of the winter-blooming flowers.

‘Ruby Streaks’ mustards and chicories echo the blooms in the veg patch.  The fruit trees are just forming buds and favas are getting bigger.



wintergardenblog9‘holwayi’ salvia

wintergardenblog3‘tuscan blue’ rosemary

wintergardenblog4flowering quince

wintergardenblog5fava beans 

wintergardenblog6‘anna’ apple forming buds

wintergardenblog8‘ruby streaks’ mustard

A Choo Shower

We have now spent a year with Jill and Alethea, the gals behind Studio Choo, working on the book project.  There have been many great experiences and changes in our lives — but none so wonderful as the coming arrival of Baby Choo!  Last weekend Jill and Annabelle (their partner in The Prairie Collective) hosted a Lumber Jack Tie-Dye Baby Shower for Alethea!  A great time was had by all — here are a few snap shots!  And if you are in the city doing a little holiday shopping — make sure to stop by the Prairie Collective, located at 262 Divisadero Street, SF.

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baby clothes, pre-tie-dye

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Jill, the lumber jack tie-dye master!

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choo shower6Alethea with the lumber jack pinata!

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What’s in Season? Nuts!

Fresh off the presses — the Fall/Winter Edible East Bay has a great article on what to look for in this year’s nut harvest!


walnutsBy Barbara Kobsar with illustrations by Helen Krayenhoff

With the shortening days of autumn, the falling of the leaves, and the distant thunder of the holiday season, I’m reminded that it’s time to gather nuts. It’s not just about squirreling them away, however. Nuts in the shell are at their freshest and best only once a year, at harvest time in autumn. Many local nut growers are currently bringing the new harvest to our markets.

Of course, stored nuts can be good to eat throughout the year, but only if they’ve been kept properly, since nuts are high in fat and are prone to rancidity. When storing them, keep in mind that they’ll do better in the shell than out; better whole than chopped, sliced, or ground; and better raw than roasted.

I use the word “nuts” loosely, since a biologist’s definition would exclude every item in your typical cocktail-party nut bowl except the hazelnuts. Peanuts are legumes, and all the rest of the nuts in a typical mix are really seeds. Four of my favorite local “nuts,” almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios, are the seeds of stone (or drupe) fruits.

(“A nut in botany is a simple dry fruit with one seed (rarely two) in which the ovary wall becomes very hard (stony or woody) at maturity, and where the seed remains attached or fused with the ovary wall.” —Wikipedia)

The more important fact about all these, whether they are true nuts or not, is that they are nutrient dense and have always been an important food source for man and beast, providing protein as well as essential fatty acids. Walnuts in particular have been recognized of late for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. A recent study funded by the American Institute of Cancer Research and published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer showed a significant drop in the risk of breast cancer in mice when their lifelong diet included a modest amount of walnut.

California provides the U.S. with virtually all of its walnuts and almonds and then exports enough to supply 75 percent of the world market. Most of that production comes from large Central Valley growers, but there are also many small growers, who are often integrating nut production into a diversified business model that strives to keep workers employed year-round.


Walnuts are recognized as the oldest tree food known to man, dating back to about 7000 B.C. The English walnut, named for the English merchant marines whose ships once transported walnuts around the world, is the variety most common in culinary use. If you cross the Central Valley on any farming road, you’re likely to be passing orchard after orchard of English walnut trees that have been grafted onto the rootstock of the Hinds black walnut. The Hinds is a tall Northern California native whose hardiness makes it good as rootstock, but whose nuts are too small to be commercially viable.

Once in a while I find a pleasant surprise waiting at the markets. A couple of years ago as I was walking by the stand for Lone Oak Ranch, a certified organic farm in Reedley, I spotted some shelled walnuts that were so intensely red that they brought back memories of those red-dyed pistachios. This red gem is for real, however. UC Davis researchers developed it in the late 1990s, so it’s only in the last few years that a crop has been on the market. No genetic modification here—the Livermore walnut, as it is called, is created through traditional methods, grafting a Persian red-skinned walnut onto the larger, creamier English walnut. Livermore walnuts are pricey, since the trees grow slowly and the nuts must be hand shelled if the meats are to retain their redness, but they’re worth it for the beauty alone.

Besides Lone Oak, other growers bringing fresh harvest walnuts to East Bay markets include Barbagelata and B & B Ranch from Linden, McKeown from Danville, J & J Farms from Hughson (a little south of Modesto), Full Belly and Riverdog farms from Capay Valley, Kaki Farm from Gridley, and Zamora Farm from Brentwood.


In 2007, the USDA, FDA, and the California Almond Board passed a mandate requiring pasteurization of all raw almonds available in the USA, Canada, and Mexico in order to address possible salmonella contamination. The pasteurization is done by one of two methods: fumigation with propylene oxide (which is listed by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen) or application of heat (which raw food advocates claim devalues the nuts’ nutrients, enzyme activity, and antioxidants.) Fortunately, an exemption to the law allows direct sales of truly raw (unpasteurized) almonds from farmer to consumer through such outlets as farmers markets or CSA programs, and so many small growers are offering them. Some also sell almond butter, which is a delicious and versatile treat.

Home-toasted almonds are especially delicious and make an easy snack or salad addition. Start by blanching the almonds in boiling water for about 45 seconds, drain in a colander, and cool slightly under running water. Pop the skins off and spread out on a towel to dry. Then toss the nuts with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 2 teaspoons kosher salt (per pound of nuts) and spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake at 325º for approximately 15 minutes or until brown. Check the nuts every few minutes near the end of the cooking time since they can burn suddenly. Cool and use right away or store in an airtight container.

Note: Many people these days are soaking nuts (as well as seeds and grains) in saltwater overnight to neutralize enzyme inhibitors that are naturally present in these foods. “Nuts are easier to digest, and their nutrients more readily available, if they are first soaked in saltwater overnight, then dried in a warm oven (or dehydrator). This method imitates the Aztec practice of soaking pumpkin or squash seeds in brine and then letting them dry in the sun before eating them whole or grinding them into meal.” —Sally Fallon from Nourishing Traditions



California is a relative newcomer to pistachio production. Commercial planting began here in the 1970s, and since the trees need 15 to 20 years to mature before they produce a full crop, we are just seeing the beginning of what the state’s pistachio growers can do. The only real competition in the world market comes from Iran, but California’s potential to compete shifted drastically in the summer of 2010 when President Obama signed a ban on Iranian pistachio imports in response to that country’s nuclear policies.

Like almonds, walnuts, and pecans, pistachios are the seeds of a drupe fruit. The flesh of this fruit is very thin, and it’s usually removed during processing. As the seed (nut) inside dries, its tan shell splits open naturally. Pistachios, like many other nuts, are mechanically harvested. A machine clasps the trunk of the tree and shakes it vigorously so the nuts fall onto a catching frame.

The days of shelling pistachios are over for those that don’t enjoy the chore. Buying them ready shelled is a time-saving bonus when preparing dishes calling for shelled pistachios. When it comes to snacking I prefer to draw out the pleasure and open them one by one. Some are easy, but slightly split shells are a challenge. Save your teeth—insert a half shell from a previously opened pistachio into the split and twist to open.


One of the oldest native crops in North America, pecans are produced mainly in the southern states of Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. However, California has been gaining ground in pecan production, and there are a few growers in the East Bay. At the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market, you can find John and Joyce Calvin selling pecans freshly picked from their trees at Calvin Acres in Oakley. They offer half-pound and one-pound bags of pecans in the shell as well as shelled. At the Walnut Creek, Orinda, and Lafayette markets, you can find Jim McKeown, the backyard farmer of Danville, shelling pecans with his inertia nutcracker. Visit> Explore>Online Magazine>Fall 2006>Oh Nuts! to read our story about Jim and his nutcracker in the Fall 2006 issue of Edible East Bay.



The chestnut is the only true nut of this bunch, but with its high carbohydrate and low oil content, it’s often treated as a vegetable or grain. A plentiful food source in times of famine, chestnuts have been called “the grain that grows on trees.” Their starchy meat can be ground to produce a glutenless flour that has proven a boon to those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or wheat allergy. Lacking gluten, however, this flour won’t bake up into a light loaf of bread. The traditional Tuscan chestnut cake, castagnaccio, is a flat, dense concoction of chestnut flour, olive oil, fresh rosemary needles, pine nuts, and raisins. (See recipe below.)

Generally regarded in the United States as a winter holiday food, the chestnut appears on the table in soups and stuffings, and as the star of the proverbial roasting ritual. I like to treat chestnuts as an exotic vegetable, roasting them alongside winter’s root vegetables and squash or tossing them in a stew.

Chestnuts must be cooked before eating, and both the hard outer shell and the bitter inner skin need to be removed first. Roasting or boiling makes shelling a whole lot easier. With either method, first cut an X in the flat side of the shell with the tip of a sharp knife to prevent the nut’s bursting.

To roast, place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 425° for 20 to 25 minutes or until the X opens and the chestnuts are golden brown. Alternatively, place the nuts in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil for three minutes. Cool slightly but not completely before peeling, the nuts are much easier to peel when warm.

Chestnuts are quite perishable, so they should be stored inside a ventilated bag and refrigerated. If shippers and retailers do not store them properly, the nuts can become dry or moldy. For this reason, buying them directly from a local grower is a great idea, and we have three very nearby, Correia Chestnut Farm in Isleton ( ), Girolami Farms in Stockton ( ), and Solano Mushroom Farm, who sell at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.

Enjoy, and see you at the markets!

Writer Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles, she is behind her market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from farmers’ market produce. Contact her at cotkitchen(at)aol(dot)com.

Castagnaccio: Italian Chestnut Cake

⅔ cup sultanas, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes

4 cups chestnut flour

¼ cup sugar

Zest of 1 orange

Pinch salt

2½–3 cups cold water

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves

¼ cup walnuts, chopped

¼ cup pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 375°. Lightly oil a 12-inch round cake pan with olive oil.

Place the chestnut flour, sugar, orange zest, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to combine. Continuing to whisk, gradually add the water, a small amount at a time, carefully noting the consistency. You want the batter to be soft but not liquid. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the raisins, stirring until well combined. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Combine the remaining tablespoon olive oil with the rosemary leaves, walnuts, and pine nuts. Sprinkle over cake. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the surface of the cake cracks. Remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool.

Cut into 8 wedges and serve. The traditional accompaniment is a glass of vin santo.

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