In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2001
Regional Report

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Mustard blooming between rows of grape vines adds color before the grape leaves begin to unfurl.

Napa Valley Spring

I came across a tree I used to care for the other day. It used to grow in a downtown parking lot in Napa, California, and I first knew it when I was a park gardener for the City of Napa. At the time, it had a garbage can chained to the trunk, and the surrounding soil was littered with cigarette butts. I removed the garbage and cigarette butts and brought respect back to this tree, a species I'd always admired. It had distinctive thick bark, a beautiful trunk, and a very pleasing shape.

Cork Oak

The cork oak (Quercus suber) is a variety of evergreen oak that thrives in our mild coastal climate. It's impervious to drought and neglect, and its waxy leaves are two toned - dark green on top and gray underneath. The light-colored bark has deep fissures and makes this tree a dramatic addition to any landscape. Traditionally, the bark is used in the making of wine corks. Although cork oaks can eventually reach a height of 70 feet, this particular tree was only about 25-30 feet tall. Luckily, vandals had not yet discovered how easy it is to carve in the soft bark.

My Oak Revisited

Well, talk about old friends moving up in the world. Napa has recently remodeled the entire downtown area, and instead of living in a dirty parking lot, this particular cork oak is now surrounded by a very chic downtown mall. Quite unlike most urban development projects, in this case the city did away with the parking lot and kept the tree! I must say, the tree looked fabulous, with white lights strung through the branches and a fancy brick cutout in the surrounding walkway. It's a real showpiece.

All About Napa

Napa Valley is California's premiere wine-growing region. When I was a young lassie growing up there, many pruning seasons ago, Napa was famous for plums and prunes. Fruit dehydrators were situated throughout the valley, and in the summer months, a pervasive perfume of heavy, ripe fruit filled the air. Prior to plums, Napa was predominantly a cherry-growing region. My Chinese friend Sing Fong said that when he was a boy, his family picked cherries in Napa. The remnants of these older crops can be found throughout the Napa valley. You will often see a long driveway lined with plum trees, or a single surviving cherry standing alone in a pasture.

Napa Valley Spring

These days, the vintners plant mustard as a companion crop for the wine grapes. The yellow-blooming mustard acts as a cover crop to protect and enrich the soil. They plow it under in mid-June, enriching the soil organically and ensuring yet another crop of mustard flowers the following year. This combination of flora is fabulous good luck for any visitor to the Napa Valley this time of year. Plums, mustard, and cherries all bloom at the same time, making spring one of my favorite times of the year to visit. An overcast winter sky completes the picture. Often, a hole in the clouds allows a single ray of sun to spotlight a section of the valley floor already bursting with color. The hills that frame the valley are covered with velvety green spring grass. Even in a dry year such as this one, it's unusually lush.

Napa Plantings

Another reason to visit Napa Valley is to inspect the handsome, drought-tolerant, landscaping that the wineries are putting in these days. One landscape in particular on the Yountville crossroad comes to mind. The vintners there used clumps of cushion bush (Calocephalus brownii) in combination with French lavender (Lavandula dentata) and large, round boulders extracted from the surrounding vineyards. The plant material was low, round, and gray and perfectly complemented the hundreds of variously sized boulders. A gravel mulch was used to complete the dramatic composition.

It's a beautiful area, well worth a visit - and if you come to Napa, don't forget to say hello to my oak friend downtown.


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