Our gradual transition into winter here on the California coast seems to finally be complete. Not all of the deciduous crops have lost their leaves, but the process is well underway, ushered along by several light, though not killing frosts. However, the true onset of the much-needed rainy season remains elusive. Back in the middle of October, we had five inches of rain here at the farm and as much as ten inches of rain in the surrounding coastal mountains in just 48 hours. At this point, it seemed that the predictions of a return of El Nino were quite accurate and that we would be lucky to get all of our summer crops turned under and cover crops planted in our annual effort to continue the cycles of fertility. Instead, we have had only .2″ of additional rain since that time and I am still out irrigating some of our last standing flowers: stock, rudbeckia, cerinthe and marigolds.  Soon enough, the last vestiges of summer color will be gone, but the stock successions should continue to produce stunning, fragrant pastel colors through the end of January. Summer on the coast comes gradually, sometimes reluctantly if at all, but once here, it tends to linger well into the rest of the country’s winter.

One benefit of the lack of rain has been that we have had plenty of time and appropriate soil moisture to complete our cover crop plantings and have been fortunate not to be burdened with an excess of weed growth, but after almost 7 months with no rain, the soils, the grasslands, the woodlands and all of our gardens are thirsting for the life-giving power of the rains.

On a different note, I just returned from a short trip to the coast of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Like California, Oaxaca has an extended dry season, upwards of eight months in most years. Despite the tropical climate, many native plants, in particular the members of the coastal forest community, Selva Baja Caducifolia, as it is known locally, have adapted to the rigors of extended dry season by way of having drought-deciduous foliage. While we normally associate deciduous nature with plants coming from northern temperate climates, in both Mediterranean climates and in the dry tropics, drought deciduousness is a fairly widespread and highly effective means of coping with water stress. While it was only the beginning of the dry season, and the forest was in full and lush canopy, the leafless, dry tropical forest is an arresting sight to behold at the end of the dry season in early May.

The markets were awash in tropical fruits: many varieties of bananas, pineapple, mamey, guavas and papayas, a feast for the senses. Of more relevant interest in the realm of floriculture, the markets were dominated by only a small handful of familiar crops: roses, carnations, lilies, gladiolus, mums and callas, all grown in greenhouses outside of Mexico City and trucked over the coastal mountain range to the local population centers and buying public. While the quality of the flowers was uniformly high, coming from the diversity that is represented in the cut flowers we collectively produce in the States, I was disappointed by the lack of specialty cuts and truly unique offerings. Perhaps I did not look far and wide enough. Perhaps the consumer tastes really only seek out these standards. Perhaps there is a market for US growers who want to balance the flow of product heading North and South.

On previous trips into the mountains of Oaxaca I encountered several exquisite species of Salvia, common in the ornamental landscape in California, but here as natives thriving wild and abundantly on the margins of cornfields and amidst the open oak woodlands. On this trip, I was amazed to see three familiar American garden plants again growing in their native habitat. The common morning glory, Ipomoea purpurea, a weed to many, but surely a beauty to all, can be found throughout the coast of Oaxaca, climbing and sprawling across the landscape and ranging in color from soft blues and pale lavenders to deep purples. Also abundant, in fact nearly omnipresent, was the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, growing along roadsides, in the maturing corn fields and in nearly every clearing in the coastal forest. While most of the plants lacked the intense orange that we associate with cultivated varieties such as ‘Torch,’ this was more than made up for by the sheer abundance of the flowers and the incredible beauty of the several species of butterflies attracted to these prolific nectaries.

I also came across many a stand of Zinnia elegans, certainly one of our easiest and most popular summer cuts, growing wild in disturbed soils and even in the dunes near the beach. Like the Tithonia, these wild populations lacked some of the color vibrancy and size we associate with the Benary’s ‘Giants’ and some of the other popular strains, but I was again awed and thrilled to see familiar species in their more original and unselected states, thriving without fertilizers, irrigation, pest control and other forms of human intervention. Perhaps, over time, I will have additional opportunity to chance upon our more friends in the world of specialty cuts and have an even greater window into the hand of growers and breeders and the amazing work they do with our wild heritage.

I look forward to working with everyone in the ASCFG at the upcoming planning meetings, preparing for next year’s National Conference in Tulsa and here in the West at our spring Regional Meeting. At present, I am planning to follow Brenda’s expert advice and continue to utilize venue of the California Trials as the container for West Regional Meeting, but I am wide open to feedback on how to create a gathering that is accessible to everyone, an avenue to connect and share stories and that provides an opportunity for exposure to new varieties and growing practices. Any thoughts folks from out West have would be much appreciated in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if the rains ever do come, I will be taking time to continue to refine our flower growing practices and curriculum so that we can better equip new and aspiring flower growers to produce high quality specialty cuts after they graduate from the UCSC Apprenticeship Program. 

Christof Bernau

UCSC Center for Agroecology

Christof Bernau UCSC Center for Agroecology Contact at [email protected]