I spent four years trying to grow tomatoes in Richmond. This was in a neighborhood that was often fogged in when the rest of the Bay Area was sunny and warm. A long finger of gray would snake in through the Golden Gate, deftly avoid the coast until it found the outlet of Baxter Creek, and land in my backyard. Even if I planted tomatoes in early March, they ripened only in mid-September, just in time to rot with the onset of fall. Other warm-season vegetables languished as well. Basil balked, cucumbers crept, my peppers refused to put any pep into their fruit, and I think I managed to grow one tiny green eggplant the whole time we lived there. Reluctant to eat it, I put it on my desk for a month or so.
And then I moved to Pinole, a mere six miles away, where the fog reaches only infrequently. Here, tomatoes ripen before the end of June. Eggplants flourish, peppers develop a somewhat more-than-bell-pepper heat, and cucumbers fairly leap from the soil to clasp the trellis. And four weeks away from the first possible harvest of basil, we're still eating last year's pesto.
But all is not paradise here on the other side of Hilltop. In Richmond, I was able to grow great winter crops of lettuce, cabbage, chervil, and cilantro. Far from being hampered by the fog, they reveled in it. In Pinole, April is the cruelest month for lettuce, but February was pretty bad this year as well: It got warm enough that the plants bolted. Six miles' difference meant a huge change in what my vegetable garden looked like, in summer and in winter.
This isn't news to longtime East Bay gardeners. Our corrugated landscape and asymmetrical access to the bay make for a diverse collection of microclimates, and differing garden regimes in each one. Back East, gardeners fix themselves in space by following USDA climate zones, twenty of them, in broad east-west belts defined by average winter temperature. That doesn't quite work here. By the bay, it rarely drops below freezing, and the lowest recorded temperature is something like 23 degrees F. Just a few miles inland, temps drop almost ten degrees lower. The USDA lumps my foggy Richmond garden and its sun-drenched successor in Pinole into Zone 9a, along with Phoenix and New Orleans. Not too useful.
Sunset Magazine has a more useful system, dividing up the West into a couple dozen zones based on factors other than winter minimums: fog, summer high temperatures, wind, and the like. Drive from Lake Temescal to Lafayette, and you go through four such zones. Still, even at this finer granularity, the Richmond fog belt and sunny Pinole are assigned to the same zone as Brookings, Oregon, and Morro Bay.
So let's cut through the fog, or at least define it a bit. Imagine a spectrum of East Bay climate, with Treasure Island at one end and Tracy at the other. At the Treasure Island end, you have moderate winter temperatures, wind, and cool, relatively foggy summers, warming in September. At the Tracy end, things reverse: blazing, sunny summers that reach their peak in July; colder winters with fog. Corn grows only fitfully at the TI end; peas and fava beans don't grow in summer at the Tracy end. It isn't a simple progression. Topography, exposure, and the idiosyncrasies of air circulation mean Crockett is often foggier than Orinda.
In which part of the spectrum does your garden live? If you're not sure, you might try growing basil for a few years. If it fails to thrive, you're in the fog belt. If it flourishes, you're not. Or you can look at your neighbors' yards for hints. If they're growing crape myrtle, you live in a warm spot. Do they have tree ferns on the south side of the house? It's a foggy neighborhood. (A kelp bed means you're somewhere near the Farallones -- forget the tomatoes and try growing salmon.)
Once you've figured out what part of the East Bay spectrum you live in, it's time to start planning your garden. As a first step, rule stuff out that won't grow for you. The good news: It won't be a long list. The bad news: The single most popular garden vegetable might be on yours. As mentioned earlier, some East Bay neighborhoods are just too cool to grow tomatoes reliably. I'm not saying you shouldn't try -- there are a few steps you can take to mitigate your gloomy climate, such as planting against a bright, south-facing wall (to maximize solar radiation) or selecting fog-tolerant varieties such as San Francisco Fog and French Marmande. Just don't expect bumper crops. Sweet corn, Miss Congeniality among the vegetables, is another one fog gardeners shouldn't bother with unless they really, really want to.
Other problematic veggies for foggy turf include peppers and eggplant, which might as well be considered ornamentals west of Grizzly Peak. Likewise cucumbers and most melons. "Geez, what's left?" the Emeryville gardener might be asking herself. Be of good cheer: You live in one of the best climates on earth for growing peas, a year-round crop in your garden. And remember those nice fields of artichokes growing along Highway 1 south of Santa Cruz? They don't get much more sun than you do. You've got a couple dozen kinds of greens, broccoli and cauliflower, most squashes and pumpkins, potatoes, Florence fennel, garlic and onions, and any number of herbs. And don't forget the fava beans, which were staggeringly productive even in my foggy Richmond garden, and which you can till into the soil as fertilizer after harvest.
Lest you gardeners to the east start feeling smug, keep in mind that you have some plants on the "probably not" list as well. Yard-long beans, Asian cukes, jicama, and melon are a few of them: These like even more summer sun than you get in Brentwood. And while your friends to the west grow meal after meal of summer peas and favas, yours will need to contend with more frequent freezing temperatures in winter and excessive heat in summer. Rather than gloating over your tomatoes and bush beans, chile peppers, and corn, maybe you should carry some of your harvest to friends over the hills and swap 'em for summer snap peas.
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