Celebrate May in the Garden


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Valthemia bracteata

May is the month for you if you make a note when your favorite plant starts to bloom. May is the month for you if you count the number of hummingbirds at the feeder everyday. May is the month for you if you’ve been waiting for the soil to warm enough to plant melons and peppers and winter squash.

A friend gave me a blue Hokkaido squash last fall and I saved the seeds. I’ve been waiting patiently to plant them. It’s one of the best tasting, beautiful squash you can grow. I’m looking forward to harvesting my own this fall. They store for quite a while, taste great and look stunning in a Halloween display along side orange pumpkins. I can hardly wait.

Plants are growing like crazy this month preparing to reproduce at their given time. The birds, bees and even those pesky tree squirrels are finding lots of food and nectar to feed their young. We know the dry months of summer are coming and are preparing by modifying irrigation systems to conserve water and mulching all bare soil. I think we deserve to set a little time aside between gardening tasks to enjoy the wonder of nature and our own gardens.

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Honey bee collecting pollen

Here’s a task that requires no work at all but the benefits are huge. Set aside a small area of your yard, say 10% or so, and leave it uncultivated. Let it grow wild and see what native plants and wildlife show up. This would be a good spot to plant milkweed and let it self sow for the Monarch butterfly.

Don’t push yourself and bite off more than you can do in the garden at a time. Landscaping doesn’t have to be done all at once. Maybe choose a new tree or a couple low water use shrubs to plant and care for this summer. Choose something that looks good year round to provide interest. Or take one corner this year and another corner next year to redo or install. This won’t break your water budget or your back.

Food gardening is hard work. Maybe this year grow just those edibles that taste so delicious freshly picked from the garden. Edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, chard and arugula are ornamental, don’t take up too much room and are easy to grow. I was disappointed with the way my tomatoes tasted last year. They were OK but no where near as tasty as the dry-farmed Early Girls at the Farmer’s Market. This year I’m only going to grow cherry tomatoes. One of life’s simple pleasures is picking and eating your own fruit as you work in the garden. Beside my favorite Sungold I’m going to try growing local heirlooms like Chadwick’s Cherries, and Camp Joy.

Don’t get me started on the weeds this year. With those early fall rains everything you don’t want in the yard is going nuts. I have actually been gaining ground on controlling many of the annual weeds around my house. The soil is soft and the smaller root system is more likely to let go so as I walk around I pick a few or as many as don’t seem like work. Each plant can produce so many hundreds of seeds that I think of it as free exercise.

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Azalea blooms

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune just before the plant blooms you risk removing that year’s flowers. If you prune several month after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune a bit each year to shape and thin the plant. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. There’s no need other than looks to deadhead old flowers.

It was great to get a bit more rain last week. Plants appreciate the moisture especially during spring. Come summer everything slows down to survive and that’s a part of our unique climate here, too.



A Little Slice of Heaven in the Santa Cruz Mountains


toolsOutside of the historical agriculture exhibit at the Santa Cruz County Fair I have never seen so many antique farm implements and tools. Vintage tractors and parts were tucked underneath massive black walnuts. The winding driveway was dotted with more equipment, tractor wheels and parts. A storage shed displayed a collection of vintage chain saws and other small tools. California poppies bloomed in small clusters. I was here to visit an old friend in the hills above south Felton near the Toll House resort to see if I could help with advice about his ailing plum trees.

Al HIley has lived in this idyllic location since Vista_from_house.2048he was a boy and that’s a long time as his 92nd birthday is this month. His father bought the 18 acres in 1906. The original house still stands shaded by a grape vine arbor that protects the door and windows in the heat of the day. He lives close by in another house where he enjoys a vista which includes Mt. Umunhum, the Summit and Boulder Creek. Al says he used to be able to see downtown Felton but the redwoods have grown since the late 1800’s when this area was logged.

I had to laugh that Al was asking me for advice. He’s been farming this land starting since WWII ended. His father pAl_Hiley_in orchard2.1600lanted the original walnut trees in the hopes of making a profit from his land but “he was no farmer”, according to Al. I glanced at the catalogs on the 12’ long redwood burl coffee table. You can tell a lot about a person from what they read. Strewn about were several tractor catalogs, Popular Mechanic magazines, Heartland cataantique_chainsaws.1600logs, miscellaneous tool catalogs and a book entitled ‘Chainsaws: A History” which touts to be the first book on the worldwide history of the chainsaw.

With his lab, Sonny, at his side, Al and I went out to the orchard to take a look at the fruit trees. Originally in the 1960’s he had about 95 fruit trees. He grafted different kinds of apples onto his father’s trees and planted peaches, and pears as well as plums and prunes. We passed the blueberry bushes which were starting to show some fall color. Nearby grew a fig with a gnarled trunk the likes I have never seen. Loaded with hundreds on hundreds of ripening figs he invited me back to pick some when they ripened.

Al couldn’t verify the exact variety of red apple that caught my eye. It also was  loaded with beautiful fruit. He red_apples.1600got me a bag to pick as many as I wanted to take home and they are crispy and juicy. He grows a yellow delicious apple also but after eating the red variety I didn’t think anything could rival them.

The plum trees weren’t doing as well. They all had some yellow leaves and golden colored sap oozing along the branches. This condition is called gummosis and occurs often in stone fruit trees like cherry, apricot, peach and plum. It can be caused by several very different things.

The tree may have gumming from a pathogen that invades and kills bark and cambial tissue through a wound such as a pruning cut, sun scald or hail. If you scrape the outer bark under the sap the dead phloem will appear cinnamon brown in color Prevention is the key to managing this problem. Keep trees healthy with optimal watering, mulching and nutrition.

gummosis_on_plum.1600Borers can also cause gumming. In a plum tree, weakened trees or places where wounds have occurred will be susceptible. Ooze is often clear. Management of these pests is difficult and may include bark sprays during the growing season.

If you are not sure that a pathogen is causing the gummosis, scrape the outer bark away. If the inner bark is still cream colored and healthy, the oozing is caused by non-living factors and there is nothing you should do. If the wood is tan to brown, it is dead, and was most likely killed by a pathogen.

For my friend, Al’s plum trees I determined that the gummosis was caused by excessive irrigation. Due to the drought, Al had tried to limit watering during the summer. When he saw the trees being stressed he deep watered several times in the past month or so. The apple trees loved it but not the plums. He is happily going to deep water much less often until the trees go dormant.

I left Al and Sonny with the promise that I’d be back when the figs ripened. I’m sure I’ll be needing a fresh supply of apples, too.



Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2


deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.



Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.

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