Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elvin Bishop Stays Tuned to the Seasons

Elvin Bishop loves to garden. And though perhaps best known for his gold-record Rhythm-and-Blues classics like "I Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” he's been cultivating a medley of flowers, vegetables, herbs, berries and fruits around his Marin County, California home.

Besides the art of the Blues, Bishop has mastered something few San Francisco Bay Area gardeners even attempt—the art of year-round food production. His floral kitchen garden even continues to produce through winters which, though moderate in temperature, can reach a low of 15° F and drop over 40 inches of rain. Working this flourishing half-acre has become a grounding note in Bishop's life, a steady rhythm anchoring life’s more unpredictable melodies.

A plain passive-solar greenhouse furnishes ornamental and edible transplants year-round; in summer, it shelters crops of trellised Japanese cucumber, melons and ‘Naga Imo’ (Diascorea sp., a Japanese root-crop in the yam family). In winter, it protects bok choy, various Chinese mustard greens, lettuces, diakon and mizuna from frost and battering rains.

Bishop's interest in Asian vegetables was initiated by his marriage 14 years ago to Cara Wada, whose Japanese-American heritage and traditional cooking style brought more far-eastern vegetables into her husband's diet, then into his garden. “Cara's family made me aware of different tasty Asian vegetables. I figure if it tastes good, then it’s worth growing. Besides, it’s nice to have vegetables to give away to the family.”

Many Asian vegetables are members of the cabbage or crucifer family (Brassica sp.) and thrive in moderate weather. In the Marin-County "Mediterranean" climate, winter gardening makes good sense; plenty of winter rain keeps things moist and, after temperatures drop, the cold keeps most pests (including the aphids and root maggots which can thwart summer plantings, but not, unfortunately, slugs and snails) at bay.

The secret to a garden which can be harvested from mid-winter through the following spring is timing, and Bishop’s sense of the rhythm of the seasons is finely tuned. His brief recipe for cultivating Brassicas : choose seed for early-, mid- and late-season crops to spread the harvest. Seed everything on June 1st in six-pacs, using sterile potting mix. In two to three weeks, transplant deeply into four-inch pots. Set out into the garden at the beginning of July. Shade for several days if the weather is hot. Water till the rains begin. Weed as needed and harvest when ready.

In addition to its other rewards, Bishop's garden offers an abundance of produce; each year he personally puts up about 300 jars of beans, corn, pickled beets, dill pickles, applesauce, apple juice, peaches, plums, pears, tomatoes and various jams, including kiwi.

Elvin Bishop may sing the blues for a living, but in his garden, life is sweet.

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Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

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