Sliding open the door of a deep pantry cabinet, a tousle-headed fellow in his mid-sixties reveals a neatly arranged cupboard brimming with canned preserves. With a hint of Oklahoma rhythm in his voice, he sets out the contents:
Let’s see, I’ve got all kinds of stuff: tomatoes, green beans, corn, dill pickles and pickled beets, applesauce and apple juice. I preserve gooseberries and currants, blackberries, strawberries, peaches, and plums. I also make my own hot sauce as well as every kind of jam in the world including kiwi and pineapple guava, which is made from a subtropical tree [Acca sellowiana] from Paraguay that I grow. It’s real cool; the flowers are like cinnamon cotton candy. I’d say I put up approximately 400 jars of fruit and vegetables a year. You see, I’m a maniac gardener. I really go at it.
A curious statement coming from a blues guitar legend, whom you would expect to be prowling the stage, punctuating his hell-raisin’ music with searing guitar licks at a blues festival or in a smoky nightclub. A founding member of the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band and with an extensive solo career of his own, Elvin Bishop is known primarily for music that has been called “sheer, unpretentious joy.” Less well known is his passion for gardening and his expertise as a prodigious grower of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
Like his music, Bishop likes his food fresh and tasty. He recounts that,
through the ’60s, I was living out of a suitcase, because I was on the road all the time and eating hotel and fast food when I couldn’t find anything decent. I kept thinking of all the appetizing food we had on the farm when I was growing up in the ’40s and early ’50s [in Iowa and Oklahoma]. Eventually, I bought my own place here in the sticks, because I wanted to be out in the country where I could raise my own food and be close to some good fishin’ places.
Since 1974—long before hundred-mile diets and locavores—Bishop has lived on his well-cared-for, three-quarter-acre parcel of land in western Marin County, just north of San Francisco. The region was once the home of the Miwok Indians; the county’s name may have been chosen to honor Chief Marin. It is a large peninsula of folded hills, rocky ridges, and valleys—the result of the slow collision of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates over millions of years. It’s a rural area of spectacular and wild beauty, consisting of grassland, chaparral, coastal scrub, and forests of oak, pine, and redwood, which provide the habitat for low-flying hawks, turkey vultures, bobcats, and mountain lions, and all the smaller critters they prey upon.
When he acquired his idyllic retreat, Bishop had plenty to contend with.
The dirt here is just hard clay, kind of acidified because there are all kinds of conifers around. If you go down six inches or a foot, you’ve got what they call fractured granite—if you’re lucky. In some places, it’s just bedrock. I began by building a 45° Aframe sieve out of 2 x 6s and some heavy duty, one-inch wire mesh. Slowly and painfully over the years, one shovel-full at a time, I put almost all of the dirt on my property through that thing and got rid of the rocks. Then, using a big heavy iron bar in the worst spots, I dug out holes for fruit trees—basically bowls of rock. At the time, I might get through an inch an hour with that bar. It would have been a lot easier if the electric jackhammer had been invented. None of my property is level so I also had to terrace the entire lot. Most of this hard work took place when I was in my thirties. But, from my perspective, nothin’ is work if you enjoy it. Now I’ve got over half-an-acre under cultivation. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s quite a bit.
I slowly developed a feeling for how good the dirt had to be and what you had to do to civilize it. The first thing I tried, since I didn’t know any better, was to amend the soil with a truckload of wood chips I was given. Considering the state that the soil was in at the time, even that was an improvement. I planted potatoes in it, and I actually got a crop. It seems that potatoes are pretty non-demanding.
As time passed, Bishop discovered that, when it comes to gardening advice, you can’t always believe what you read.
Most books recommend that you spread an inch of manure over the patch of soil you intend to plant. This may work if you’ve got Midwestern prairie soil, where grass has been composting for 50,000 years. But, for the kind of soil we’ve got here, you can till in six inches of manure and add another six inches and till that in, and it won’t be too much. Once I located a source of horse manure, I began to bring in at least thirty pickup-truck-loads a year. I still do. You have to shoot for the end product. It’s common sense that, when you pick up the soil and crumble it in your hand, you want to ask yourself if the roots can easily get moisture and air from the soil.
Bishop gardens in a region that straddles two climate zones. With the Pacific Ocean situated just eight miles away, he has to deal with profound seasonal changes in the weather: mild, wet winters with occasional frost and arid summers with warm afternoon breezes. He modestly explains,
I’m starting to catch on to the seasons a little bit. This area is a mass of microclimates, so the first thing you’ve got to do is to ignore about ninety-five percent of what you see on seed packets or in books, because much of it is written for the Midwest and the East Coast. For example, when they say ‘in case of drought’, around here we have nothing but drought between May and October every year. The most useful gardening book I have read has been out for over thirty years. It’s the classic written by Steve Solomon, the founder of Territorial Seed Company, called Gardening West of the Cascades.
Buying the right seeds helps, but the biggest key is timing. I start my seeds in January and February under grow lights in a room off my garage. When they are strong enough, I relocate them to my passive solar greenhouse, and then eventually outside. For a winter garden, you have to start setting seeds in July. The winter is one of the easier times to grow food in the Bay Area. With all the free water that falls round here, you can have vegetables all winter. But, if you’re going to raise a winter crop of anything in the cabbage family, you must have the stalks thick enough to contend with the possibility of frost in the fall.
With a dash of his well-known sense of humor, Bishop also queries the conventional wisdom of regularly turning his compost. He points out that,
in a different climate, it might work to turn compost, but here on the West Coast, when it’s warm enough to compost, it’s not wet enough, and when it’s wet enough, it’s not warm enough. I just let it take its time and decompose at its own rate. I only turn it in the spring, when I want fishin’ worms. I’ve got enough careers; I don’t need another one turning compost.
There’s a twinkle in his eye as Bishop stands (in well-travelled hiking boots, denim work shirt, and jeans) amid the myriad of geometric shapes, colors, textures, and scents of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. He amiably lists the range of fruits and vegetables he raises in the dominion he has founded on horse manure.
I propagate seeds for all the regular vegetables like peppers, potatoes, peas, squash, spinach, and thirty varieties of brassicas, from brussels sprouts to cauliflower. I also grow apple trees, gooseberries, currants, blackberries, raspberries, and all kinds of herbs. My wife is Japanese-American, so I cultivate Japanese vegetables as well, including gobo (Arctium lappa), Japanese cucumbers, naga imo (Dioscorea opposita), known as long potatoes, edamame (Glycine max), daikon (Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus), and mizuna (Brassica rapa var. japonica), which is a feathery, delicate salad green that is excellent in stir-fries. There’s komatsuna (B. rapa var. perviridis), apple pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), and chingensai (B. rapa var. chinensis), also known as bok choy. There’s also a range of mustards in my garden; they’re really good in salads, steamed, or in soups and stir-fries.
After a thoughtful pause Bishop continues:
I’ve got a few things in my garden that I don’t see in others but seem to be good ideas. I’m kind of proud of myself. For example, I removed the canvas cover of a metal-framed car shelter and placed the frame over one of my raised beds. In November, I cover it with plastic sheeting (four mils). It keeps the plants dry in the winter and prevents the rain from beating them down, splashing up mud, promoting rot, and attracting slugs and snails. All winter I grow green onions, lettuce, komatsuna, also known as mustard spinach, and Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa var. pekinensis) under cover. I’ve been told that you can’t raise daikon, a long Asian radish with a sweet, fresh flavor, in the Bay Area. You can if you grow it in a greenhouse. I plant daikon seeds in long vertical tubes filled with manure in my greenhouse. As a result, I get big radishes that are three inches thick and a foot long. They make really good pickles.
Bishop imports most of the seeds for his Asian vegetables directly from Japan and buys some from the Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, California.
Bishop’s world of Japanese vegetables is vast and varied. Captivated by the beauty of the script, he has even taught himself to read and write Japanese. After watching a program about the highly sought after culinary gobo on Japanese satellite TV, he devised a method of growing it in his own garden.
I took a section of four-foot-tall hog wire, formed it into a circle, lined it with black plastic, and filled it with last year’s light and fine potting soil. I grow the gobo plants in this bed and harvest attractive, long, straight vegetables. I use a similar procedure for growing my carrots. By using worn-out potting soil, I eliminate the problem of hairy carrots, which are the result of too much nitrogen in the soil.
Bishop also devised several creative methods to deal with common gardening dilemmas. His green-bean trellis is V-shaped, rather than the customary tee-pee shape, which allows for better visibility and easier picking. His corn patch is circular rather than rectangular, to provide for more even pollination. He uses pelletized carrot seeds to reduce the need for thinning. And, while his “road-doggin’ days” of performing 200 to 300 dates a year are over, he still makes it out to venues on weekends; while he’s gone, his multi-channel drip irrigation looks after watering chores.
Elvin Bishop may be rooted in the blues, but he is also deeply and happily rooted in his vibrant West Coast garden. As he sings it, “You can’t get me out of the country, and you can’t get the country out of me.”