Category Archives: beneficial insects

Where Have all the Bees Gone?

honey_bee_hoveringI received an email from a reader not too long ago who lives on a ridge top outside Scotts Valley. She wrote that her “flowering plums have no ‘buzz’ about them when she walks by. Even (her) rosemary is not a buzz. A Few yes, but not nearly the normal. Why is this year different?” Where have the honey bees gone?

Bees have been in the news a lot especially since 2006 when beekeepers started to report higher than usual colony losses. We depend on honey bees to pollinate everything from fruit to vegetables to nuts. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult or dead bee bodes but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. According to the US Dept of Agriculture no scientific cause for CCD has been proven. But I read about recent research that has discovered a link between a family of systemic insecticides and colony collapse. This got my attention.

Honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of problems from zinnia_with_honey_bee2deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources and now we are finding out more about the sublethal effects of pesticides.

Insecticide labels warn the user not to spray when bees are present or allow the spray to reach a water source. But what area the effects of systemic insecticides used to control aphids, mealy bugs, lawn insects, grubs, thrips, termites, scale, or leaf beetles on your roses, trees, shrubs and lawn? The makers of these products that contain imidacloprid, a common systemic, say their studies show that even if a product is highly toxic for insects, it is almost impossible that the insect will ever get in touch with this product and are not at risk.

But that’s not really the whole story. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, a systemic pesticide is taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues- the leaves, flowers, roots, stems as well as pollen and nectar.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of systemic insecticides that are especially effective against sap feeding insects like aphids. They are also being used to treat genetically engineered corn seeds. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through the plant as they grow attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of corn crop pests.

This is whoney_bee_pollen_sacshere the recent studies have shown that these pesticides do affect honey bees but not by outright killing them. After exposure to pollen from one of these systemics the bees navigational systems seemed to go haywire. and they were several more times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive. Another study has shown that these neonicontinoids can wreak havoc with the bee’s neural circuitry causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.

A Florida beekeeper sums it up by saying “The thing is, you don’t have to physically kill the bee. You just have to impair him so he can’t find his way back to the nest. “

Bottom line, protect our pollinators and improve honey bee survival. Plant more plants that provide nectar and pollen for honey bees such as bee balm, agastache, clover, catmint, lavender, yarrow, hyssop, aster, coreopsis, verbena and black eyed Susan. Natives plants that are good sources include California poppy, salvia, buckwheat, ceanothus and toyon. Use only organic insecticides and avoid applying during mid-day hours when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and only then if you can’t control a pest with any other methods including Integrated Pest Management techniques.

Help save the bees.

Gardening for Frogs and other Creatures

Pacific tree_frog_on_potReading about the new wetland pond construction at the Ben Lomond SLV Homeschool in The Press Banner this past October 31st has me thinking about a low spot in my own garden that becomes soggy during the winter. Most mornings and evenings I hear the resident Pacific Tree frog singing his heart out. Maybe I can encourage even more frogs as well as dragonflies, salamanders and toads by installing my own wetland habitat. There are a lot of landscapes that I encounter that also have a “problem” area with poor drainage and this would be the perfect solution. I’ve thought about building a wetland garden or bog garden for many years. This winter I’m going to do it.

The difference between a wetland garden and a bog garden is basically how long the water remains during the year. A wetland pond in our area is often seasonal, drying up in the summertime. A bog garden is damp even in the summer. A shady spot with a high water table is a good spot for a bog garden.

Wetlands are important to our ecosystem. One of the greatest wetlands in North America at Flame_Skimmer_dragonfiy-matingthe southern end of the San Joaquin Valley has almost completely vanished. There used to be almost 5 million acres of wetlands in the Central Valley and now only a small percentage remains. This habitat destruction is causing the disappearance of birds, frogs, amphibians and other wetland wildlife. You can help encourage these species in your own backyard and grow plants that are beautiful, too. Every little bit helps.

Most wetland plants don’t require standing water to grow successfully and will survive even in an area that appears dry most of the growing season. Many frogs including the Pacific Tree frog only need 3-4 weeks of water to lay eggs and the pollywogs to mature. Other frogs need a longer time to reproduce. The water need only be a little over a foot deep.

To create a wetland in an area that isn’t naturally moist and has heavy clay soil you will need to lay down a waterproof, nontoxic liner and cover it with soil. For a bog garden add decomposed plant matter and peat, Branches and logs can be placed around the edges as perches for birds and dragonflies and provide a spot for turtles to bask in the sun. Winter rains provide the best water to fill your wetland pond. Frogs and other amphibians are extremely sensitive to chemicals in tap water. Wildlife will be naturally drawn to your wetland. If you build it, they will come, I promise.

Blue_Damselfly-matingThere are many wetland plants that grow quickly when the soil in wet and then die back when the soil dries up only to return when moisture is again present. Species like cattails and rushes will do well being common in wetlands in our area. The plants you select depends on the amount of light, the length of time the soil will be saturated and the depth or water. Native trees like Big-Leaf maple, Red Alder and Box Elder are good companions for a wetland garden as are shrubs such as Snowberry, marsh baccharis and Yellow-twig dogwood.

Other native plants include Stream orchid, Deer fern, Horsetail, Cardinal lobelia, Twinberry honeysuckle, Cardinal Monkeyflower, Wood’s Rose, Blue Elderberry, Blue-eyed Grass, California Wild Grape and Giant Chain Fern.

Creating a mini-wetland in your own yard provides many of the same benefits that natural wetlands offer, providing habitat for creatures like butterflies, bees, salamanders, frogs and birds.

Gardens Change with Time

quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.

2014 Gardener’s New Year Resolutions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI plan to turn over a new leaf in 2014. I’m talking about gardening. The rest of my New Year’s resolutions are too numerous to list here!  I wish I could tell you that I’ll never put in another plant that might freeze during the winter. I wish I could tell you that I’ll really start that compost pile this year and duke it out with the raccoons. I wish I could tell you I’ll make more garden journal entries and not rely on sketchy memories. But the reality is gardening shouldn’t be so much about regrets. It’s about the delight we get from coaxing plants from the earth. A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree or a seed or a garden? I have viola_Etaingrown wiser as the years go by and although a few things froze this month, most will grow back come spring. Some might require a little more patience than others but by April or May most will be looking great. If there are some new transplants, for instance, that suffered because they didn’t have time to establish a strong root system before the deep freeze, I’ll look at it at an opportunity to fill that space with something even better.

I was able to visit some very unique gardens this year and see beneficial insects and beneficial plants at work. When I design a garden I now include even more pollen producing flowering plants to attract beneficials.  This way I keep the good guys around longer to deal with the bad bugs and aid in pollination. Knowing what the good insects look like is important in helping me identify a problem that may be getting out of control.

I’ve kept a garden journal since 1994. In the spirit of full disclosure, some years I do pretty good with it. I add photos and seed packets and lots of info about the weather and how everything did. Other years I’m more hit and miss with my entries. But without the journal most of what happened would be forgotten if not for these scribbled notes. Reading them over returns me to the quiet pleasures of mornings in the garden, of first bloom and the wonder of a hummingbird hovering at eye level.

This year record what does well in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden this year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.

Make notes about how productive the tomatoes and other veggies did this year. Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared last year – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water.

I wish I could tell you that I would die happy if I could grow a dry farmed Early Girl tomato next year that tastes like summer. That’s my fondest wish for 2014. Doesn’t sound impossible, does it? Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree with an ice tea next July. Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will be there tomorrow.

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.

Growing Cover Crops – Part II

Orin_Martin_bell_beansOrin Martin of the Alan Chadwick Garden on the UCSC campus is widely admired for his incredible knowledge and skills as a master orchardist, horticulturalist and teacher. I was lucky a couple of years ago when he visited a group of fellow designers and brought his favorite russet apples. Another time he brought a dozen different kinds of potatoes that we roasted, critiqued and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Alan Chadwick Garden was nothing but poison oak and chaparral in 1967 when Alan Chadwick first got his hands on it. Martin came to UCSC in 1969 as a literature major but was soon impressed with Chadwick’s work, preaching the gospel of treating the garden as a self-nourishing system. Together they worked the garden, building the soil and teaching others.

Now Martin runs the appreaster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048ntice program which teaches future organic gardeners and shares his knowledge in workshops like the Cover Crop class I recently attended.

Last week I wrote about how and why to plant cover crops. This is what to do next spring after they’ve done their magic in the soil fixing nitrogen.

Cover crops are plowed or skimmed off in late February to early April. Because it takes 3-5 weeks for the cover crop to break down so crops can be seeded or transplanted, it is often best to skim off the cover crop at the base of the plants and combine with straw or leaves to make compost. Previously made compost can then be applied to the surface. It is important to retain the roots and nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil. Take only the vegetative portion.

cover_crops_Orin_Martin.1280Another method is to skim the foliage with a weed wacker or mower chopping it into small pieces 1/4″ to  4″ long. You can then rototill this into the soil and allow it to decompose on its own. In about 2 weeks the material should be broken down to be unrecognizable as plant material before replanting.

If you are developing your soil to build organic matter and improve structure incorporate the cover crop at a more mature stage (half to full bloom) when it has a higher carbon content. The nutrients will be stored in the reservoir of humus and released slowly over a number of years.

On established soils where you want primarily to fertilize next spring and summers crops, incorporate the cover crop after skimming and chopping when it has just started to flower as it decomposes quickly at this stage.

The Chadwick Garden fertilizes its established fruit trees by simply cutting down the cover crop growing at their base with a machete at the 25% flowering stage. 4-6″ of wood chips are laid over the chopped up pieces and left for nature to decompose. That’s all their is to it. Martin explained that the garden used blood meal and the organic fertilizer, Sustane, during the first several years while the trees were becoming established.

Picking up a clump of grass sown just 2 weeks ago, Martin teased off the soil to show the vigorous, fibrous root mass. “This is why the riches soils of the world, the Steppes of Russia and the original Midwest prairies, are so fertile and are called bread basket soils”, he explained.

Plant a cover crop this fall and your soil will be richer for it.

Growing Cover Crops- Part I

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 3500 years ago also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. I learned this and also how to protect and improve my soil from Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at a cover crop workshop recently on the campus.

aster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048“It’s all about the biology of the soil”, Martin said. “You grow the soil that helps you grow the plants”. A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward, he explained. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume.

Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring lettuces_after_cover_cropping.1024before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

From late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil however as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

The Chadwick Garden, Martin explained, originally was heavy red clay. 35 years of soil building with bell beans and vetch cover crops and compost have established a level of fertility that now supports several acres of vegetables, fruit trees, berries and beneficial flowering plants. Fall-sown, spring ploughed-down cover crops are the sole fertilizer used for the better part of the last decade.

Soil_builder_cover_crop_mix.1600Martin explained that recent research now recommends planting a tandem of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch which are the best legumes for our area grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but no where near as efficiently as bell beans.  Crimson clover seed is also more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

A question came up about using inoculants on legume seed. Martin explained that our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

We all followed Martin out to the cover crop trial plots to see how the different types were growing. Bark chips will soon be applied to the paths. All of the gardens are mulched several times per year with wood chips. A 10 year study, Martin explained, demonstrated the amazing benefits of ramial chipped wood which is the type the tree service companies provide for free.

We watched him work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds were already cleared but Martin said this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area was raked again lightly 1-2″ down and covered with 3-4″ of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything, he said.  Water in lightly.

There are 3 ways to fertilize, Martin said. You can buy chemical fertilizer which is expensive and doesn’t do much for the soil. You can apply compost, which being carbon based, ramps up beneficial fungal organisms in the soil. Or you can cover crop or grow green manure which increases beneficial soil bacteria. Orin Martin has proof of the benefits of the last two methods.

The Sloughs of Watsonville

sambucus_nigra_berriesEach year I wait for them in my garden and so do the robins, varied thrush, jays, spotted towhees, grosbeaks and band-tailed pigeons. The fruit of sambucus mexicana, a California native plant, is relished by an incredible number of songbirds.  The creamy flower clusters in the spring are a favorite of bees and other beneficial insects. My Western Elderberry grows tall and gangly in the shade of a California bay tree, shorter and more compact in the sun. Their exuberance for life makes me happy just to watch them provide for so many other species.

We've all driven down Hwy 1 past the strawberry fields and seen the wetlands at high tide as their many fingers reach far up into the Watsonville area. At low tide the Harkins Slough is visible off to the west, grasses blowing gently in the wind. Struve Slough passes under Hwy 1 also but most of it is hidden. The Watsonville sloughs wind around farms, fields and low hills not visible from the highway.

California has lost over 90 percent of its wetlands and the Watsonville Sloughs are one of the largest remaining freshwater marshlands in the state's coastal zone. It provides a crucial resting place for many specie of migrating birds. This area covers about 800 acres adjacent to the city of Watsonville. The slough system has 6 interlinked freshwater sloughs fed by the waters of the Pajaro Valley watershed.

Many of the plants native to the wetlands will be available at a sale to fund educational programs put on by the organization Watsonville Wetlands Watch who's mission is to protect and restore the wetlands while educating the community.

The Native Plant and Backyard Festival will take place Saturday, September 28th from 10-2pm at the Fitzeriogonum_rubescens Wetlands Educational Resource Center building behind Pajaro Valley High School. It will be their second annual plant sale. Plants beneficial for backyard habitat gardens will be featured many which were grown in their own greenhouses. Natives like buckwheat or eriogonum as they are called are a mainstay of the slough ecosystem as well as our chaparral areas and several varieties will be offered for sale.

One of my favorite eriogonums is the Red Buckwheat for several reasons. In addition to attracting beneficial insects the flowers can be dried and used in arrangements. The roots are deep and will hold the soil and bring up subsoil nutrients to the surface. They are very drought tolerant. In the weeks to come the buckwheat's long nodding flower heads will produce a huge bounty of seed favored by migrating songbirds and water birds, some of which will spend the winter here.

Coast asters will also be available for sale and make a nice addition to any garden. They provide flower color in the fall and combine well with other perennials and grasses such as yarrow and Idaho fescue. They colonize easily and help stabilize slopes and banks and can also be used as an understory plant. They are very drought aster_chilensis2tolerant. Native grasses will also be for sale as well as plants of the coastal prairie and wildflowers.

Besides the native plant sale,  Watsonville Wetlands Watch will have workshops with expert speakers, an Eco Kid Zone, food, a marimba band, a raffle, live animals and local wildlife displays. Free habitat consultations for your own backyard, demonstration habitats, a wetlands wildlife photography exhibit and a tour or their new greenhouse.

For more information about the sale and this wonderful organization visit www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org

Your own backyard can make a difference for wildlife. Even a small plot of plants rich in nectar and pollen along with some water, rocks, stones and mulch can make your backyard come alive. Create your own backyard habitat by choosing the right native plants to attract butterflies, birds and other fauna and at the same time conserve water and help maintain the diversity of our animal population.
 

Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space

waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.

The Giants’ Garden

AT&T_Park 3A few Sundays ago I spent the afternoon at AT&T Park watching the Giants play baseball. It was kids day. Hundreds of Boy Scouts were attending the game in uniform. Kids were everywhere eating peanuts and wearing the orange and black team colors. Some were sitting with their grandparents, some very, very young fans in their parents arms being smeared with sun screen.  It was a beautiful day on the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, the team didn't get the memo that we were supposed to get another win against the Diamondbacks. Oh well, there's always next year.

A friend forwarded an article he saw in the SF Chronicle by Janny Hu recently about the Giants plan to create an organic garden behind the center field wall. The Giants Garden would be created between the left and right field bleachers in an area that is now concrete and an adjacent area where replacement sod is grown.

Plans for the edible garden include hydroponic troughs, concrete planters and living green walls which would supply produce for some of the parks' concessions, serve as an open air dining area and a community classroom during the offseason. If you're hankering for a nice kale and strawberry salad next season while you watch the game you're in luck. The Giants hope to have the garden ready for Opening Day 2014.

If the Giants can do it, you can, too. We all want the area around our homes to be beautiful, welcoming, productive, useful.  In designing landscapes for people I strive to integrate vegetables, herbs and fruit trees with flowering shrubs and perennials to feed the family while attracting hummingbirds and other wildlife. Not everybody has room for a separate vegetable garden and companion planting is a good way to avoid problems with pests and diseases.

Plants when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects. Perennials like agastache, coneflower, coreopsis, scabiosa and yarrow are rich in nectar and pollen and  irresistible to beneficials. Many herbs also attract beneficials.  Cilantro in bloom is one of the top insectary plants.  Caraway, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage and parsley flowers also attract beneficials and are easy to grow among your other plants. Allow your salad and cabbage crops to bloom.  Arugula and brassica flowers are much appreciated by beneficials.

Plants like lettuces, spinach and swiss chard look great in the flower bed and flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden.
Dahlias repel nematodes. Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers.  Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. A word of caution,  don't plant them by cabbage or beans. Nasturtiums act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids.

Herbs that help deter pests. Catnip/catmint repels mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. As a host for hoverflies and good wasps it increases productions of essential oils in herbs. Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen.  They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries.

If it's almonds you crave, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden. A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Planting flowers and edibles together makes sense and good use of your garden space.
 

Kids & Gardening

Flame_Skimmer_dragonflyIn the summertime, kids have lots of time to enjoy the great outdoors. What better way to teach them how our planet works than to let them grow something in their own garden. Share your enthusiasm for gardening by getting your kids or the neighbor kids interested, too. You'll find sharing your knowledge with a child particularly rewarding and you will have helped create a fellow gardener for the rest of their life.

It may be July but it's not too late to start. Make it enjoyable for everyone by giving kids their own section of the garden or yard to do as they please. I planted pansies as a child in my special area. I also had a couple of big pots filled with potting soil to start my own seeds. Size doesn't matter as long as you let the child choose what they'd like to grow.

Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.  Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

I remember when I was little and had my own garden patch how excited I was to see a dragonfly. My father was happy, too, as they are a great way to control mosquitoes and other pests. They're the top predators of the insect world. I was fascinated by their bright colors- some reddish orange, some blue, some purple. By  planting a variety of plants and flowers to attract them they would visit my little garden often. They seemed to find a water source to lay their eggs on their own.  I was amazed at how fast they could fly. I've read they can reach speeds of 30 mph.  They are an important part of my early gardening experience.

Edible flowers are also fun for kids to grow. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that taste like lemon.  Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds.  Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce.   You can also freeze flowers in ice cubes like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme. The blossoms of beans and peas can be added to a salad or sandwich or use them to decorate the tops of cupcakes and cookies.

Plant a pizza garden.  Use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice.  Divide the "pizza" into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil.  Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil.  By summers end you'll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza.
 
Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden.  You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a "door" that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown.  Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside.  Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.
 
Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds.  This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season.  In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts.  You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.  
    
Flowers that kids can cut
will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden.  Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies.  Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallow-tail butterflies.  Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn't pinched these to make faces ?

Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lime thyme, orange mint, chives, sage and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid's garden. Lamb's ears are soft and furry.  Get a kid interested in gardening and they'll be happy for a lifetime.
 

Camp Joy, Boulder Creek

Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes.  http://www.campjoygardens.org 

 

Gardening Tips for August & IPM

I go out into my garden and look around daily. I pick basil for tonight's bruschetta, parsley for the potatoes and a few Sungold cherry tomatoes that don't make it into the kitchen but are eaten on the spot. I count 10 hummingbirds around my 3 feeders, the Ruby-crowned kinglets are scouring the trees for spiders and other bugs and the Wilson's warblers have found the thistle sock.

Fuchsia flower
But what's this? Some of the fuchsia leaves and buds are curled, there are notches in the impatien balfourii and I see white furry things on the trunk of the crabapple.  The weather is hot one day and foggy the next. Better adjust my watering schedule, too. Whether you're seeing some of these same problems in your garden or have different issues that you don't know how to handle, here are some tips to help you decide what you can live with and what you can't.

Integrated pest management or IPM is a fancy name for common sense. By planting the right plant in the right place you can prevent most pest infestation. Pick your battles.Take action against insects only when they pose a significant threat to your plant.

Plants can usually survive with a little bug damage. Insects that are natural predators often will eventually arrive and handle your bug problem.  Picking them off by hand or spraying them off with water often works, too. Some vegetable plants may need to be protected with insect barriers or row covers. Simple traps for earwigs, slugs and snails are effective, too. Vacuuming is another method of controlling pests. Tilling the soil often disrupts the breeding cycle of insects like the rose slug. Encourage beneficial insects to visit your garden by planting a variety of plants. Use natural biological insecticides like Bt and nematodes that have minimal environmental impact.

If you feel you must spray for soft bodied insects like mites, choose insecticidal soap. This may sound strange but by not killing all the pests there will be some left in the gene pool that are not resistant to the organic or chemical sprays. Those left will dilute any resistant genes that appear.

Regular monitoring is the cornerstone of IPM. This is where that daily walk in your garden with a beverage comes in. You can see if a problem is getting out of control or not.

The fuchsia gall mite is one problem that I keep tabs on or the hummingbirds aren't happy. If your fuchsias aren't blooming and the leaf tips look curled up and deformed, your plants are infested with fuchsia gall mite.  First discovered on the West Coast in 1980 it is often mistaken for a disease because of the way it distorts and twists fuchsia leaves and flower buds.  The damage caused can be debilitating.  The leaves curl and distort so much that normal photosynthesis is disrupted and weakened plants fail to bloom  Infested plants usually recover if further mite damage is controlled.

Prune off all distorted foliage and buds.  This may be the best method of control as petroleum oil or insecticidal sprays need to be made every 4-7 days to disrupt the mite life cycle and will result in the mites becoming resistant. Neem oil is not recommended for use on fuchsia flowers.

There are several gall mite-resistant fuchsias, both hanging and upright, that are every bit as showy as the traditional fuchsia varieties.  if you have been plagued by fuchsia mites, try growing one of these instead. A list from Crescent City Fuchsia growers is available at http://www.ccfuchsia.net/ccfuchsia5.htm.

If you have a problem in your garden and don't know what to do, feel free to email me. I'm always happy to help a fellow gardener.

 

Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon

Hidden Garden in Bonny Doon
Enter the Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon with me as I preview several gardens that will be featured on the tour this coming weekend.  While some of our gardens have a few areas with a "wow factor" , the gardens I was privileged to visit have this element at every turn. I was amazed, impressed and truly honored to spend time in each of them.

First stop was a garden that took my breath away. Looking past the lush lawn, the view takes in all of Monterey Bay. It wasn't always this way, the owner explained. When she moved to the property in 1981, she didn't even know there was an ocean view. It was only after some judicious pruning that this stunning view was revealed.

We  ambled through the many paths that took us up close and personal with perennial beds overflowing with blooming iris, spirea, weigela, succulents, hardy geraniums, coprosma and coleonema to name just a few.

Rabbits are an ongoing problem in this garden. Seems they love her Angelina sedum, coprosma, and Rose Campion as much as she does. Little 12" tall fences surround several of the beds which looks comical but apparently works as the rabbits don't like to jump over them.

Stained urbanite has been stacked by the owner to make short retaining walls and the look is quite classy blending in the flagstone and gravel paths. She explained how easy it was to stain the broken concrete from the old driveway by slapping on some concrete stain. "Piece of cake", she told me.

Other flower beds she edged with Sonoma fieldstone, stacking them herself. At every turn you can see the personal touches that make a garden unique. An old rusty mailbox was tucked into one of the beds overflowing with blooming pansies and million bells calibrachoa.  I loved this garden.

A garden in Bonny Doon
Next stop was another garden 30 years in the making. You won't believe the "before" pictures when you see this garden now. I could barely see the potential in the old pictures but the owner could and started to build up the rock hard soil bed by bed. After many years she has created  an organic garden full of flowering rhododendron, roses, viburnum, herbs, vegetables, citrus, apples and a 5 year old  Staghorn fern that measures 4 ft across.

The owner explained that deer are not a problem because they won't jump the irregular picket fence. Seems the wide pickets confuse their eyesight. Unfortunately, the gophers have decided recently that after 14 years, her camellias are now on the menu and she has lost almost all of the original 40 in the past year. Instead of lamenting her loss, she sees it as an opportunity to add new plants. She has the optimism that all gardeners possess.

Chickadees nested in a box attached to the porch. Garter snakes and alligator lizards patrol the flower beds. A bathtub, sunk into the earth serves as "the poor man's hot tub". Old metal chairs are planted with flowers and ferns and other found garden art is sprinkled generously though out the garden. This is the garden of an artist whose studio is nestled back among the trees. At every turn you feel the peacefulness of this wonderful place. This is a garden to experience not just view.

Flagstone paths in Bonny Doon
The last garden I was lucky enough to preview, was an asphalt driveway just 6 short years ago. There are occasional unplanted spots that still show asphalt. What a transformation. With the help of lots of top soil and an auger this gardener has created a spectacular space.  "Everything grows like crazy here", she explained.

The front garden is open to deer and is planted with echium, leucospermum, arctotis, barberry, thyme, rosemary and New Zealand flax. One of her favorite plants is a huge variegated holly that buzzed so loudly with bees I thought the electrical line coming into the house was making all the racket.

In the back, a small orchard edged the fence. Blooming lilacs by the deck heavily scented the air. Succulents intermingle with peony, erysimum and gaura. This gardener explained she " she is one of those people who buys whatever she likes and then finds a place for it". Having had previous experience growing grapes and olives in Sonoma, she is a hands-on gardener who does it all herself. She's a self-described  "drip queen".

A ceramic artist, her sculptures are focal points though out the garden. There is a lot of other garden art in this garden, too.

Where do these gardeners find the garden art, water features and other items that give their gardens that personal touch? One explained, she is always on the lookout for estate sales as she drives around or sees advertised in the paper. "That's were you can really find the treasures", she explained. "Little old ladies have some great plants and other wonderful finds in the back of the garden".

The Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon Tour takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 19th and 20th. Don't miss it.
 

Terra Sole Nursery Trials New Plants

Cordyline
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to start your own little nursery on your property? What would you grow? How would you decide?  Over the years, I've been asked by home owners with a bit of extra property what would be good to grow. What is there a market for? So I decided to ask some friends who trial plants on their Watsonville property and operate a small nursery there how it all works.

Terra Sole Nurseries was founded in 2004 by John and Sherry Hall with the goal of experimenting and growing native, unusual and drought tolerant plants that are adapted to our dry summer climate. "We push the limits on water use in our test garden until we fall too much in love with a plant and can't bear to see it die with our tough love approach", Sherry said as we talked about the their operation.

Just back from attending the California Spring Trials,  Sherry and John were excited to share how they decide what to grow In their nursery. Their focus is to grow a large variety of native and unusual plants, some of which are old-fashioned, some are hot new introductions. What treasures did they find this year?

During the course of a week at the Spring Trials,  the world's prominent plant breeders, propagation specialists, growers, marketing professionals and plant enthusiasts share the latest and greatest at several open houses throughout California. The robust plant varieties of today are a direct result of the countless hours and decades of study from the dedicated professionals spending their time observing, testing and experimenting the new varieties that are more disease resistant, more floriferous, the best performers and are easy to grow in ordinary landscapes and gardens.  

How does a plant get from an idea in a breeder's mind to your local nursery? It all starts with the breeders who might cross pollinate thousands of plants to select maybe a hundred of the best ones. Then the growers buy an unrooted cutting or the seed or plugs of rooted plants and grow them onto a larger size. This is where the finish growers buy the plugs and liners to put into bigger pots growing them to retail or sellable size. Terra Sole Nurseries bought some of the newest plants on the market this year themselves.

What are some of the newest trends that we might see in our neighborhood nursery this year? The breeders of impatiens have developed a variety that appears to have a gingerbread man in the center. Called Patchwork this  impatien has a bigger flower and comes in six bi-colors.

Grafted vegetables, higher in antioxidants, are being developed. Non GMO vegetable varieties are grafted onto vigorous rootstalks to produce a plant disease resistant higher in nutrients. Tomatoes, basil, cucumbers. peppers and lettuce are just some of the vegetables being grown.

Biodegradable pots made from wheat are another of the new trends being offered for sale at the Spring Trials. The pots look like plastic yet breakdown after being used and can be recycled in your compost system. They hold up to the normal environmental pressures of heat, water and cold.

Sunset Western Gardening and HGTV are both offering their own branded plants that are available this year. Patented varieties coming out include a compact hardenbergia called Meena, two upright. compact nandinas- Flirt and Obsessive with bright red winter color and a compact mahonia called Soft Caress with non-prickly foliage. A cold hardy salvia named Amistad that has a very long bloom time will also be coming out soon.

To simplify choices for gardeners, better dahlias, calibrachoa, petunias and pansies are coming on the market this season. Several types are grown in the same pot so the buyer need only to plant one of these in a basket or container to get a combination that will look good and grow happily all season.

With so many plant choices which ones do Terra Sole Nurseries trial in their own garden and grow in their nursery? Next week I'll talk about what Sherry and John have their eye on, which plants they grow and the results of their own plant trials. You can find out more about the nursery at www.terrasolenurseries.com.

Happy New Year 2012

Another year has passed in the garden and this is what I've learned.

Frozen Cascade Falls, South Tahoe
  • Have a plan for how you want to use your garden. This is as important as selecting the right plants for each garden room. Allowing some empty places for new plants, transplants or garden art, makes your garden your own. Add whatever  makes you happy and your heart to soar when you're in your garden.
  • Pay attention to the size that a plant will attain. This will save lots of headaches later.
  • Pruning is free therapy. What better way is there to feel good than to improve the life of a plant?
  • Your garden journal chronicles your life as well as what happens in the garden. Making frequent entries, no matter how short, will make you smile when you read it again at the end of the year. Journal your successes and failures, making notes of plants that performed well and ideas to try next year.
  • Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will be there tomorrow.
  • Weed regularly. The 20 minutes you spend every week or so pulling or hoeing will save hours of back bending work later.
  • You, fellow gardeners, are unique. I can't imagine any group of people more diverse and feisty and independent than gardeners. Yet we have such a connection. We love and are fascinated with nature. We find our deepest satisfaction in coaxing plants from the earth, in nurturing their growth. We are enduring pragmatists.
  • Edible gardening offers more than just vegetables and fruit trees that feed the body. They are better than a whole medicine cabinet of pills.
  • Accept a few holes in a plant: Unless it is being devoured, share a little with other creatures.

Happy New Year 2012 from The Mountain Gardener

 

Warm Spells during the Winter

Everyone’s talking about the wonderful weather we’ve been enjoying the past few weeks. Spring is in the air. Or is it? Whether you like to putter in the garden or be out hiking, the warblers are calling to you. But is it unusual to have warm weather around here in January? Not at all. Just last year before the rains started we had several weeks of Caribbean-like weather. Back in 2009 during the first two weeks of January temps were in the 70’s and low 80’s. Don’t worry. Mother Nature knows how to adjust to changes in the weather- slowing down when it’s really cold and catching up when it’s mild.

Most plants will acclimate to a gradual return to more normal cooler late winter temperatures. We’re lucky here that we don’t get snow ’cause that’s when nature can really deliver a wallop to tender new growth and buds. If winter remains mild plants may bloom a little earlier. Lilacs, apples and grapes, for example,may flower a week earlier. Weeds can really become aggressive and pests and diseases that were held in check by the cold may become more of a problem. Lifestyles of beneficial insects may get out of sinc with the pests they help control.

Plants make the most of warmer weather. Lawns and other groundcovers, for instance, benefit from warm temperatures in winter. Root growth is encouraged in existing areas and young seedlings  planted last fall become established quicker. If temperatures return to winter norms, grasses will "harden off" and be fine in spring.

Fruit trees usually have no problems with a warm streak. A prolonged warm spell could cause low-chill varieties of peaches, plums and cherries to break bud and flower but these conditions are rare.

It’s a similar story for ornamental trees and shrubs. "Most woody plants have evolved to deal with a brief spell of unseasonably warm weather," says Nina Bassuk, woody plant specialist and director of the Urban Horticulture Institute. Buds won’t open during the first warm spell and then get killed by a return to cold temperatures because buds require a period of cold temperatures to break dormancy. Only some may begin to flower prematurely and risk losing those flowers but the long-term health of most plants probably won’t be affected.

Strawberries are oblivious to the weather. Blackberries and some raspberries are another story. Like some fruit trees, their chilling requirements may have already been met, their buds are swelling and they’re ready to take off. A rapid chill could freeze the buds and canes begin to die from the top down. But even if the entire cane dies, healthy new canes will emerge in spring. The early summer berry crop could be lost but fall berries will be fine.

Most bulbs and perennial flowers should come through a warm spell just fine. The buds of these plants are at or below ground level and often protected further by mulch or leaves. Even if temps return for below freezing, late winter cleanup of old stems will get rid of any winter dieback.

Enjoy this hint of spring. It won’t last for long.
 

New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Last year I was brave and published my New Year’s resolutions– at least those that pertain to the garden. It’s now the day of reckoning. Let’s see how I did and which ones I’ll  keep for 2011.   In the garden, as in life, simple changes can make a big difference over a long time. I’m adding a couple new ones that are important, too.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m starting to learn about local mushrooms. They come up in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January.
Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.  Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.


Of the 16 gardener’s resolutions I made last year I can honestly say I achieved half of them.

I did pay more attention to the size that plants grow and believed the tag when it said "spreading habit". But I also found that pruning shears are life savers  when you just have to have that new foliage plant that just came out.

I started making garden journal entries in February instead of January as I resolved. But then I tried to make up for it in March, May, June, October, November and December.  I missed 5 out of 12 months. I get a "C-".

I added more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects which kept the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like.  ( That counts as two resolutions )

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it, not jumping up to rearrange containers. (This one was easy)

I applied to get my little garden certified as a wildlife habitat  with the National Wildlife Federation by making sure I provided food sources, water, cover, places to raise young and used sustainable gardening techniques.

I fertilized my perennials a couple of times this year with organic compost and fertilizer instead of just once and boy were they happy. The trees and larger shrubs really only need a light dose once a year so I was good there.

I wore sunscreen everyday. (My doctor wants a hat, too. Maybe this year I’ll wear one.)

The other half of last year’s resolutions are being recycled as they’re still good ones:

I will not buy a new flower, shrub or tree until I have a plan for it in the garden.

I will sharpen and clean my garden tools so they look spiffy and work better.

I will start a worm bin with my kitchen scraps and a compost pile for leaves and plant debris. (I have so many raccoons it’s like a party out there at night but I’m going to come up with a critter-proof solution.)

I will weed regularly- not waiting until they’re so tall they swallow up my gardening tools when I lay them down.

I will accept a few holes in my plants but tour the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and I need to break out an organic pesticide.

I will prune my maples, transplant my overgrown containers and divide my perennials when I’m supposed to.

I will plant more things to eat. Edibles anywhere in the garden feed the body and the soul. (This summer was so cold I didn’t have much luck in my partial shade.)

I will stop rationalizing my plant habit is better than gambling, clothes shopping or smoking.

I will do better to practice what I preach in this column.

Happy New Year in 2011 from The Mountain Gardener

Bees as Pollinators

Does spring have you thinking about the birds and the bees? Good. As a gardener you need a variety of insects and other creatures to pollinate your plants.

Most fruits and vegetables, except crops like tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant, beans, beets and wheat, need bees to pollinate them. Honeybees are vital for the pollination of the rest of your vegetables and fruits.

Honeybees will pollinate a wide variety of crops throughout the growing season. Unlike other insects that might go from cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower when the honeybee leaves a hive in search of food, it will feed on only one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. That way, it picks up and deposits only one kind of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient at pollinating crops.

A combination of factors has caused the honeybee population to decline in the last 50 years. Honeybees aren’t native to the U.S. Colonists brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate the apple trees, provide honey and also wax for candles. For centuries their numbers expanded, but since the late 1950’s they’ve steadily declined. They die more easily when disease parasites strike and they’re less likely to survive a harsh winter.

One threat comes from varroa and tracheal mite, two parasites that can kill honeybees and decimate colonies. Another is colony collapse disorder, a disease that quickly kills off bees in large numbers. Scientists are close to figuring out the cause of the disorder which appears to be linked to a combination of nutritional deficiencies, pesticides, virus and other diseases. Entomologists hope that over time, natural selection will result in stronger bees and less threatening mites.

You can help increase the chances of the bee’s survival and ensure your own bountiful fruit and vegetable crops by planting flowers that they like and add more native plants to your property. Some of the plants that are excellent bee attractors include annuals like cosmos and zinnia that are a favorite of butterflies, too. Calif. poppies and sunflowers are also frequented by bees. Perennial plants they favor are Mexican bush sage, lavender, penstemon, asters, rosemary, Russian sage, coreopsis, gaillardia, echinacea, sedum and erysimum. Native plants that attract both honeybees and native bees include ceanothus, toyon, buckwheat, coyote mint, salvia, ribes and sambucus.

Since pesticides are another deterrent to their survival, look for non toxic ways of controlling garden pests.

Remember that the 1600 species of our native bees are also in decline mainly from habitat loss. They are solely responsible for pollinating many of our native plants. Being solitary they do not make a hive but make nests underground, one female per nesting hole and she lays her eggs there. Be sure to leave some unmulched areas near your flowering plants for her to burrow.

Honeybees and native bees need help to survive and we’re the ones who need to give it. Besides planting nectar and pollen sources you can help by buying local honey which support beekeepers.

Backyard Wildlife Certification

One of my New Year resolutions is to get my garden certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It will be fun for me and would also be a good school project for your kids. They can keep track of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, insects, mammals, lizards and frogs that come to visit your yard. Once your backyard is certified by NWF, you can order and display an attractive Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to convey your commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment and help spread the word to your neighbors.

All species of wildlife need the basics of food, water, cover and places to raise young. We can help conserve our natural resources like soil, water, air and habitat for native wildlife by gardening in an environmentally friendly way.  Here are some of the simple steps I’m doing in my small garden garden to reach this goal.

To provide food in my shady garden I plan to include Ca. native snowberry, pink flowering currant and mahonia for berries that attract birds.  Hummingbirds will find nectar from coral bells, western columbine and fuchsia-flowering currants. I also keep my feeders up year round for them.

Butterflies will like like Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum and columbine. Plants that will attract beneficial insects are Ca. rose, coast live oak and ceanothus. Although I try to plant natives for their beauty and toughness, I believe that finding the right balance by mixing natives with non natives can enhance benefits to wildlife.

Next, I provide clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction. I don’t have room for a pond but I do have bird baths that I keep filled year round. I’m also planning to make a puddling area for butterflies.

Wildlife need places to find shelter from the weather and predators. I keep some areas of my garden orderly but leave some less manicured. I plant in layers providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides a large range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites. Keep in mind, wildlife need to feel safe in their surroundings. They tend to steer clear of large, open spaces. I find most of the wildlife that visit my yard start at the wooded area in the back and work their way up through dense shrubs, wild berries, a dead tree and a small log pile.

Evergreens and deciduous trees provide nesting areas for birds. The rock wall and leaf pile are favorite spots for mice, sakes and salamander to lay their eggs or raise young. Butterfly larvae find food on host ceanothus, huckleberry, oaks, bleeding hearts, foxglove, sweet alyssum, ornamental strawberry, dogwood, viburnum, crabapple and red flowering currant. I’d plant a wisteria for them if I had more sun.

I conserve our valuable resources by doing simple measures like mulching, using drip and soaker hoses, planting low-water use plants like natives suited to this area, using organic pesticides only when necessary and using organic fertilizers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve created a beautiful wildlife garden. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at NWF.org to get started on your own certification.

Help Bees Help You

Bees are getting a lot of press lately, Most fruits and vegetables, except crops like corn, wheat, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans and beets, need bees to pollinate them. Of the 3 million hives in this country about 600,000 have disappeared. Our bees are at risk and research has not found the smoking gun for colony collapse disorder ( where bees leave the hive and mysteriously never return ). In the 1980’s a mite caused a huge die off but now researchers are looking to a virus from Israel that might causing a decline in the bee’s immune system, like AIDS for bees. Pesticide are also contributing to the decline. Maybe these interfere with the bees ability to find their way home. It may be that there are several reasons that are causing our bees to be at risk.

What can we do to help?  For one, we can attract native bees to the garden. Native bees are solitary, meaning they do not make a hive but make nests underground, one female per nesting hole, where she lays her eggs. Some of the things we do in our gardens, such as mulching, is good for the soil and deterring weeds but not helpful for ground nesting bees.  The key is to leave some unmulched sections near your flowering plants for them to burrow.

Native bees won’t sting you. It’s not that they don’t have a stinger, they just don’t use them on people. Also most of our 1,600 species of native bees are too small to be able to sting.  Native bees are solely responsible for keeping many native plants pollinated. To help bees and other pollinator insects—like butterflies—you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, and thus, through the whole growing season. Choose several colors and shapes of flowers, plant flowers in clumps and plant where bees will visit- in sunny spots sheltered from strong winds.

Native bees love Ray Hartman ceanothus and toyon, for instance. Also ribes, sambucus, penstemon, echinacea, sedum, salvia, Ca. poppy, buckwheat, willow, sunflowers, lavender, basil, agastache, marjorum, rosemary, erysimum, zinnia and aster.

All species of bees will benefit from these tips.  Let’s lend a helping hand to these vital pollinators.