The Wonder of Manure Tea

There’s nothing like the long days of summer to get you thinking you could really get used to this. The plants are blooming, the veggies are finally producing and it seems summer will go on forever.

For many, gardening is a way to recharge their batteries. Planting, mulching, pruning or weeding- they are happiest with their hands in the soil.  For others, maintenance is a prison sentence. I fall somewhere in between. Spring finds me out in the garden planting till dark, but now I’m ready to sit back and enjoy the garden more.

Here’s a tip that’s easy enough even for me to tackle this time of year and will make all my plants ever so happy. A drink of manure tea is just what the doctor ordered.

Manure tea experts start with well composted manure because fresh manure may contain E. coli bacteria. If you buy composted manure or sufficiently compost your own, the E. coli should be long gone. Manure from animals raised organically usually do not have e. coli or salmonella in their gut. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association recommends that manure tea be applied 60 days before harvesting vegetables and 120 days before harvesting root crops just to be sure.   Cow manure is the most common type used but composted horse, rabbit, chicken or sheep manure can also be used.

To get started, you need a 5 gallon bucket, a generous shovel full of pure manure and water. Put the manure in the bucket, then fill with water and mix vigorously. Allow to sit covered for three days, stirring once each day. This allow time for nutrients to infuse the water and all the solids to separate. The result is a liquid enriched with all but the organic matter from the manure. At this point, it may be too strong to apply to plants. Thin it with fresh water until the color is like ice tea, then you don’t have to worry about it burning any of your plants. You can work the residual organic matter into the soil or add it to your compost heap.

For a large garden make your manure tea in 50 gallon drums. Keep the drum in the garden all the time adding manure and water as you use up the current supply. With such a large container, you can dip a smaller bucket to water down the strong stuff. Another way to make large quantities of manure tea is to use a 40 gallon trash can. Fill a burlap bag with about 8# of manure and place it in the water filled can. Raise and lower it occasionally. Always cover your containers to keep insects out.

As the growing season rolls along, you may find your vegetable garden slowing down. This is because the original organic matter and fertilizer you tilled in have been used up. Manure tea is the perfect way to refuel your garden so it’s geared up to take advantage of the cooler fall days. If well fed, you can coax many plants, especially greens, to put on enough growth for a second harvest season.

Manure tea makes a fine transplant solution when diluted 3:1. Diluted tea can also be used on potted plants, shrubs, trees and perennials.

Remember organic fertilizers of any kind are beneficial to the soil. They build up the organic content which improves its drainage and structure. By improving a soils structure you also increase its ability to hold and release nutrients.


Historical Landscaping in San Lorenzo Valley

The history of our area is fascinating. Being a gardener, I’m especially interested in the landscaping and plants that surrounded homes in earlier times. A friend of mine lives in a home off Hwy 9 in Ben Lomond. Her house was built in 1960 replacing the original cabin-style home from the turn of the century. In a tour of the property I learned some of the history of this beautiful area.

Pictures of the property from 1937 show grapes, fruit trees, a pampas grass and flowers bordering the clearing for a flag pole. One of the original Gravenstein apples is still producing. A horseshoe pit figures prominently in the yard. You can see the sparsely forested  Ben Lomond mountains behind the house.

Fast forward to 1960 when the present ranch style house was built. According to a neighbor who’s family has lived in the area for decades, The Bird of Paradise was one of the prized plants installed at that time and has survived many a winter, blooming spectacularly this year. Other plants that have lived in the garden for over 40 years are Cecile Brunner roses, camellias, daphne, Atlas cedar, hawthorn, yew and interior live oak.

The current steward of the property is a fellow landscape designer and has created a personal arboretum. She took me on a tour pointing out favorite trees and other additions she has made since 1987. I’ll start with the trees.

In full bloom is a 20 ft Himalayan flowering dogwood which has sported its huge white petal-like bracts for over two months now. Each flower is over 3" across and makes quite a show. The fruit is edible for birds. Another prized tree is her Fernleaf Fullmoon maple, which at 25 ft is tall enough to be underplanted with red flowering currant and hydrangeas. Sweet violets cover the ground along with a large stand of omphaloides. Resembling forget-me-nots this groundcover doesn’t reseed itself from those pesky, sticky seeds that used to stick to her yellow lab Banjo and cat Toby.

In another corner of the garden grows a Drimys winteri, commonly known as Winter’s Bark. This evergreen, slender tree has aromatic mahogany-red bark and leathery 5-10" long fragrant leaves. Small clusters of jasmine scented, creamy white flower appear in winter and spring. Underplanted with a black calla lily, columbine, coral bells and mimulus it makes quite a statement.

Two clematis, a burgundy Ernest Markham and a purple jackmanii grow over the arbor framing a white picket fence. A woolly blue curls blooms happily in a barrel along the driveway. The veggie garden, complete with a well-dressed scarecrow, guards the ripening San Marzano paste tomatoes as well as boysenberry, blueberry, artichokes and citrus.

On the way to the frog pond, we pass her collection of lacecap hydrangeas, fuchsia, foxglove, more omphaloides, ribes, campanula and a large butter-yellow flowering kerria japonica. A 22 year old native western azalea also claims a spot in this border next to the hachiya persimmon.

Back at the pond, the Pacific tree frogs are mostly quiet this time of year. Mating season is over and there is little reason to attract the attention of potential predators. She informed me that the frog population varies from year to year and has noticed that 10 years ago the frog chorus started about March but now mating starts earlier-about Christmas time.

Surrounding the pond are native stream orchids, appearing mysteriously here and there in the garden, ferns, blue oat grass, loropetalum, hellobore, polemonium and fuchsia thymifolia. Anemone, aucuba, ribes and a yellow rhododendron contribute color and texture as the season progresses.

We ended ours tour at the back garden. A border of Chinese ground orchids, spice bush, wax myrtle and rhododendrons surround the red fescue lawn allowed to grow long gracefully. Sitting at the table, nibbling on bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes and enjoying a glass of wine, we speculated what it might have been like to garden back in the early 1900’s. From the pictures it looks like it was very different than gardens today.


Herbs – Harvesting & Saving

I’ve been reading a book called "Green Thoughts" by the late Eleanor Perenyi. She lived until the age of 91 passing away in 2009. Her 72 essays on gardening will live forever. She’s a hoot and her writing is delightful. I’m currently enjoying the essay about herbs. Her insights couldn’t come at a better time. My small herb collection is growing like crazy and I need ideas about how to use more of them and preserve the extras.

It’s easy to find space to grow your herbs.You don’t have to have a traditional knot garden for them. Make the most of a small sunny garden by tucking them between established plants in a border or perennial bed. One of my favorite color combinations is purple and gold so Tricolor or Purple sage mixed with Golden oregano is right up my alley. Variegated lemon thyme is another colorful herb that would also fit right in.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. . You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine and "these assuredly would be fatal to a bouquet garni" , according to Eleanor Perenyi. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste, too. There are so many kinds available now, both upright and creeping, all originating from different stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer when they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in the water.

Gather herbs in summer and preserve them for the rest of the year so you’ll always have some for flavoring.
Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom. That’s when the leaves are at their peak flavor and oils are strongest. Harvest on a sunny morning after the morning dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height also just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

Some herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Dry other herbs by hanging in bundles or laying on a shallow basket or screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils, so don’t do that until you use them.

The five herbs I consider essential in the kitchen garden are basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary and thyme. I also grow lemon verbena for tea, potpourri or in sachets for my closet and drawers, I grow lemon grass which has citronella oil to help ward off mosquitos.

You may choose herbs for salsa or tea or Italian dishes. Herbs can by used in cosmetics, natural dyes, crafts, potpourri or medicinally. Herb flavored vinegars, tea, honey, butter, cheese, salt or sugar are great ways to use your herbs. I like them all.


Blue Flowers in the Garden

Nature’s favorite color is a washed out magenta. It’s the original shade of many plants and the one hybrids will revert to if they go to seed. Petunias, garden phlox, sweet peas, nicotiana and foxgloves, for example, will all revert to this shade. The favorite color of many gardeners is firehouse red, the winner among tulips, zinnias, dahlias, salvia, impatiens and begonias by a wide margin. Orange and yellow come next, then pink, with blue and white, both comparatively rare in nature, last on the list. 

So naturally, come of us gardeners want the elusive blue flower in our garden. Call us garden snobs. Or maybe we know that cool colors recede. When placed around the edges or at the back of a garden they make the space appear wider or deeper.

True blue flowers are rare. We use words like cerulean, azure, cobalt, sapphire, turquoise, electric blue or steel blue when describing blue flowers. Hybridizers have tried for years to produce a true blue rose or blue daylily. Because blue plant pigment is hard to manipulate, Donald Wyman, author of Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia explains "Blue, since it occurs in the daylily as a sap-soluble pigment, will be difficult-perhaps impossible to segregate. Lilacs, purples, orchids, mauves we have; and working with them we may eventually get near blues, but pure blues probably never." Recently, some companies have found a way to insert some blue in the center of their daylily flowers but a totally blue daylily has never been produced.

Rose hybridizers striving for true blue have come close by crossbreeding lavender hybrid teas in order to produce offspring having optimum amount of cyanidin, . The results have been more of a silvery lilac or mauve. A blue rose is still in the future although labs in Australia and Japan are genetically modifying the pigments from petunias to produce a blue rose. Their results are not yet perfected and these roses are more of a lilac in color and can not survive conditions outside the lab. It is apparently very difficult to isolate the pigment cyanadin. Delphiniums have a monopoly on it and so far aren’t giving up any of their secrets.

The color blue is calming and tranquil. It is the color of serenity and peace and is said to slow down the metabolism and reduce the appetite. When brightened with white or combined with yellow or orange in a complementary color scheme the results of blue in the garden are breathtaking. The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll liked to use plants with golden leaves or clear yellow flowers to spice up blue gardens. Just remember that blues and purples are the first flowers to fade as darkness falls so be sure to have those whites and yellows to carry your garden into evening.

There are many blue perennials as handsome as they are durable that we can enjoy in our gardens today.
Some of my favorites are old fashioned hydrangeas and campanulas. Both are valuable in the shade garden along with omphaloides and brunnera. The blue spikes of a long blooming peach-leaf campanula just go together with the white and green variegated foliage of Jack Frost Siberian bugloss ( where do they come up with these names )?

In early spring we are dazzled by our native ceanothus which bloom with deep blue, sky blue or electric blue flowers.  Emerald Blue phlox subulata carpets the ground in spring with deep blue flowers that top creeping stems. Penstemon Blue Springs, a California native hybrid, carries dense spikes of bright blue, bell-shaped blossoms.

Coreopsis for the Garden

If you’re like me it’s fun to be out in the garden planting, tending and watching the garden grow. I love to add a new plant to a container or perennial bed. Planning, choosing and finally bringing home a new addition are all part of the fun and there are so many low water use colorful perennials to choose from.

Members of the sunflower family, coreopsis attract butterflies and bees and bloom all summer. In addition to the favorite Early Sunrise, try the dark-centered Tequila Sunrise with variegated cream and yellow foliage. Their foliage has touches of pinkish red in spring and deeper red in fall. Then there are types with finely divided leaves like Moonbeam and new varieties such as Mango Punch. Rusty orange flower with hints of yellow cover these low growing perennials. The color is rich and blends with many color schemes. Or try coreopsis with coral pink flowers on yellow green lacy foliage. Add one of these deer resistant perennials to your garden and make the butterflies and bees happy, too.





Drought Tolerant Olives

Summer has finally arrived. Took a while- a long while this year- but now we can enjoy nice weather and our beautiful gardens. The extra rainfall has allowed many trees, shrubs and perennials to grow lush and full like never before. As summer heats up think about adding drought tolerant plants especially in areas that are hard to water.

Plant an olive tree. They take the heat and are drought tolerant once established. Olives are easy to care for. They require little pruning and have few serious pests. Their grayish foliage and graceful, billowing appearance are a welcome accent to an all-green garden. The attractive gnarled branching pattern is also quite distinctive and they can live for 500 years.

For ornamental purposes or next to paving, choose a fruitless variety like are old favorites. Olives can be traced originally to southern Turkey in about 3150 BCE. The spread of the olive tree to the Mediterranean areas of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal probably coincided with the trade of wine, date palms and figs. They were introduced to California mission gardens in the 1700’s for the oil their fruit produces. Many of the missions still have the original olive trees. Underplanted with drought tolerant perennials like sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, yarrow, lamb’s ears, mimulus, Santa Barbara daisy or agastache they can be a focal point in any garden.