Autumnal Acts of Faith: Planting Alliums for Food and Beauty

November 20th, 2015

PHOTO: The dense spherical head of the ornamental Allium ‘Globemaster’ in a home garden in Chico, CA.

I am planting bulbs, culinary and ornamental. A heavy box of hope and spring dreams arrived from the heirloom bulb supplier Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs arrived last week, and they are now calling me to get them in the ground in the next few weeks. The diminishing light and lowering temperatures of the season trigger certain built in responses from animals and vegetables, from trees and perennials. And from Gardeners.

PHOTO: Native wild onion, Allium amplectens, on a rocky slope near Chico, CA.

I’m compelled to tidy up, to tuck in for winter, and to plant. Especially to plant bulbs. Few things add to the sense of establishment and rootedness in a garden so much as the addition of perennial bulbs. They appear in spring from seemingly nothing, but in point of fact appear from fleshy masses of stored energy combined with a winter of sufficient chill, dark, moisture, nutrients. They appear from that age old recipe of time + faith + nature.

PHOTO: A swath of colorful wild onions (Allium validum?) enliven a high mountain meadow on Mt. Eddy, in the Trinity Range.

Planting bulbs is a perfect garden task for the winter breaks. Getting them into the ground as soon as you can once temperatures cool at night is best to allow for the longest establishment time before increasing light in spring cues them to begin growing up and setting bloom. In truth, though, as long as the bulbs themselves are kept cool, dry and well-ventilated, they can be planted as long as the ground is workable. I might have been known to be planting the last of my bulbs very close to Valentine’s Day, but that’s in no way ideal.

PHOTO: Edible and ornamental varieties of Allium make sculptural cut flower displays - fresh or dried. Shown here, dried garlic scapes, which flowered and then went to seed and dried in the vase.

In my box, a wonderful array of Narcissus, Fritillaria, Crocus, Snowdrops, and Allium fill paper bags little and big. Each variety comes to me with rich backstories from parents, grandparents, aunts, great aunts, friends, houses and gardens of the past. Gardening is after all a shared, pass-a-long sport/prayer.

PHOTO: attesting to the hardiness and drought tolerance of Alliums, this slightly more diminutive variety is a happy companion blooming with Salvia ‘May Night’ and coral bells in early May at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Denver, CO.

From the bags bearing the ornamental Allium – 7 different varieties in all – come the many scents of onion – sometimes bitter, sometimes musky, sometimes almost sweet. These ornamentals after all share a genus with the standard culinary onions, garlic, shallots, chives and leeks.

A gift from my mother-in-law to my new garden, the Allium are what I am perhaps most eager to get in the ground in this garden. When I first imagined parts of this garden, I could see the tall purple spired ones weaving a luminous path through wheat-colored spring grasses in the front dry garden, I could see the white and even deeper purple orbs brightening the early spring green of roses, myrtle and jasmine in the small, watered back garden.

PHOTOS: Garlic, onions, chives, shallots and leeks are among the most well-known culinary Alliums. Spring garlic is best planted in the North State in October and November. I generally source my ’seed’ garlic from local growers, nurseries or feed stores.

Alliums now comprise the genus Alliaceae, which includes upwards of 800 species, the most well known of which originate from western and central Asia. However, California is home to more than 40 native species. Linnaeus described the botanical characteristics of Allium in 1753, but the culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses of the onion family is noted as far back as 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Their ethnobotanical uses for food and medicine are well-documented in North America as well.

PHOTOS: California is home to more than 40 native species of Allium, which thrive in a wide variety of conditions from high rocky soil, to fertile meadows of the valley floor. Photos above include a mountain meadow and seep with a lush community of tall white, native alliums, the wind-adapted vibrant purple A. platycaule and another pink-streaked white variety, both of which hug the contours of the rugged landscape of the Warner Mtns. in the North Eastern corner of California.

Their multi-flowered umbels at the top of strong, leafless stalks are elegant – celestial, with names like Firmament and Globemaster. Even the dancing-twining necked culinary varieties of garlic in bloom, or the more open-headed nodding wild native onions that dot our spring wildflower meadows have a sense of rhythm, structure and architectural assurance.

Coming in a assorted heights and colors, Alliums should be planted in full sun in good to lean soil with the bulbs at a depth about 2 – 4 times the height of the bulb. Planting depth depends on climate, in colder climates, you will want to plant the most deeply. Water them in well after planting and winter rains should take care of the rest. The bulbs will be dormant for a good long time after blooming and do not need much water during their dormancy.

While it is almost always clear which side is up on an Allium, a symbolically reassuring thing about a bulb is that it knows its way. If you can’t tell which is the top and which is the bottom of the bulb, plant it on its side and it will take care of things from there - reaching for the light and rooting deeply down, blooming its heart out and then retreating to a season of dormancy and re-building its reserves in order to do it all again.

Life cycles. They never fail to inspire, amaze and give us things for which to be profoundly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.

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In a North State Garden is North State Public Radio ( and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on North State Public Radio every third Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.

A Lounge of Lizards: Upstanding Community Members of a North State Garden

October 31st, 2015

PHOTO: A Western Fence Lizard (Scleroporus occidentalis occidentalis)on my garden’s basking on a warm wall.

Each evening when I get home from work, I water my front south-facing garden beds and pots. It is a dry and sort of rocky landscape, which is cooked by the sun most of the day. Almost every evening, I am kept company by two resident Western Fence Lizards – one of which lives on the south (street) side of a low stucco wall edging my entry courtyard, and the other of which lives on the north (interior) side of it.

The south side lizard likes to hunt for food under the deer grass, salvia and manzanita and to bask on a round grey rock near the sidewalk. The north side lizard likes to hunt for food all along the stucco wall and in and behind overgrown foliage of a tall potted shrub rose. It basks in the sun on the stucco wall itself and along its stone cap. Read the rest of this entry »

Farm-To-Table: In a North State Garden NSPR Fall Pledge Drive Special

October 21st, 2015

Is the phrase Farm-to-Table just a marketing phrase? Where did the concept begin and where has it grown in the past 45 years? What does it mean to us today in the North State? Join Host Jennifer Jewell for a 1 hour interview special from 10 - 11 am for a colorful conversation with local food advocates, providers and eaters to discuss the state of Farm-to-Table in the North State. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Pomegranate Season!

October 10th, 2015

It’s pomegranate season here in the North State and I recently watched a friend demonstrate a new (at least to me) pomegranate cleaning device that looks a little like a flat strainer. You place the pomegranate cleaning device over a dish, place a halved and scored pomegranate face down on the device, cover the fruit with a paper towel - and then gently (or not so….) thump at the fruit with the back side of a wooden spoon all around the fruit. After a few (15?) thumps, the bright seeds have come free of their skin and landed safely in the plate below, with remarkably little loss of juice.

The demonstration reminded me how much my kids and I like to eat pomegranate fruit and drink pomegranate juice. Seemed a good time to re-visit a pomegranate interview I did a few years back. There are many wonderful pomegranate growers in our area (including backyard growers happy to share!) See one out and get yourself some pomegranate! Read the rest of this entry »

Late Summer Bloomers: California Fuchsias

September 19th, 2015

Late summer bloomers never fail to amaze and impress me - and perhaps this year more than most. What reserves are these plants drawing on after these many years of drought and heat? The shimmering late summer grasses, the deep purple asters, the goldenrods, the California fuchias – all catch my eye and turn my head. PHOTO: California fuchsia (Epilobium canum sp.). While there are many named cultivars of California fuchsia, even experts have a difficult time distinguishing between them and they are not reliably labeled at many nurseries. For best results choose plants by the habit and looks you are like, rather than by name. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of A Garden that’s Open to the Public

August 29th, 2015

I’ve spent a very enjoyable portion of my life visiting gardens – small and large – rustic and elegant – casual and formal – public and private. I’ve visited as a girl, as a daughter, as a student, as a writer, and as a mother watching my own kids roll around and revel and learn in all these same kinds of gardens. PHOTO: A broad late summer sweep of the Mary Wattis Brown Native Plant Garden at UC Davis Arboretum.

When I was younger, I actually had a list of goals for my own home garden in construction. These goals ranged from the superficial to the philosophic and included having a hand built dry stack stone wall, having a small fruit tree orchard, having the willingness to open my garden to the public one day, and to be able and willing to host events in my garden for the benefit of charitable endeavors my family and I supported. Read the rest of this entry »

Late Summer Beauty of Buckwheats

August 15th, 2015

It’s August. Drought or no drought, August is hot and dry in interior northern California and in most cases, our gardens are looking a little…worn, a little worse for the wear of our long, hot, dry summers. Every gardener I know, prefaces a high or late summer visit to their garden with the warning: “You can come, but you won’t be seeing the garden at its best, you know.” PHOTO: Native buckwheat(s) on the slopes of Mt. Eddy, 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

Fortunately: A Rich Resource for Gardeners in Times of Drought

July 25th, 2015

When my children were little among the books they loved to have read to them was one entitled Fortunately, first published in 1964 and written by Remy Charlip. The story goes something like this -

“Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.”

And it continues like this in a memorable do si do of good fortune being followed by less good fortune being followed by good fortune in the journey of this young man trying to make it to a birthday party – which turns out to be his own. PHOTO: California is home to a remarkable number of climate adapted plants. Unfortunately, this can be daunting and confusing when considering which ones to try in your home garden. Fortunately, California has plants native to almost every style, exposure and soil type. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting to Know a Familiar Face: Manzanitas of North America

June 20th, 2015

Today I am joined by Michael Kauffmann co-author of the new Field Guide to the Manzanitas of California, North America and Mexico, published this year by Backcountry Press. Michael last joined me in 2012 after the publication of his first book, Conifer Country. PHOTO: A Butte County manzanita in early spring bloom.

Studying conifers - their diversity in Northern California and the “compelling story” they tell about the world around us, past and present, was in fact part of what brought manzanitas to Michael’s attention. “When I first moved to California in the late 1990s, I knew we had manzanitas, but they were all just generic manzanita. As I studied and got to know the conifers, I began to realize that there were often manzanitas associated with them, and they were often very different.” PHOTO: A. canescens. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bisbee. © 2015

So 3 years later comes the publication of “Field Guide to Manzanitas - California, North American, and Mexico”. His co-authors on the book (and the adventure of finding, studying, and photographing) are Tom Parker and Michael Vasey, the book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Jeff Bisbee. As Dan Gluesenkamp, Executive Director of the California Native Plant Society notes in his testimonial on the back cover: “This book is more than just a field guide to manzanitas, it is a tour of California and an exploration of the diversity that makes this land wondrous and special.”PHOTO: Cover of Field Guide to Manzanitas. Photo courtesy of Backcountry Press. © 2015 Read the rest of this entry »

North American Butterfly Association Annual Butterfly Count, June 5 for Big Chico Creek Region, led by Dr. Don Miller

May 30th, 2015

On Friday June 5, nature enthusiasts will gather at 8:30 am at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve just outside of Forest Ranch to conduct the 9th Annual Butterfly Count for the Big Chico Creek Region, Dr. Don Miller tells us in an interview about the upcoming event. Dr. Miller is a Professor of Entomology in the Department of Biological Sciences at CSU, Chico, as well as being a butterfly expert and enthusiast.

For the past 40 years, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) has hosted the annual “4th of July Butterfly Counts” across the country. While many areas reach their peak butterfly populations around July 4, in our area the peak is a little earlier before extended extreme heat, so our region’s count is always the first Friday in June, explained Don. And EVERYONE IS INVITED TO JOIN IN AND HELP. Read the rest of this entry »