Category Archives: plant care

Why Prune in the Summertime?

Pruning is a good way to spend a couple of hours in your garden. I’m not talking about trimming plants into little balls but the kind of pruning that makes for a healthier and happier plant.

Sango kaku Japanese maple- summertime

If you grow Japanese maples now is the time to remove dead branches and train your tree to look like one of those specimens you see in the magazines. Thinning cuts build your ideal tree limb structure. If yours is a young tree, though, don’t be tempted to head back long branches too soon. As these mature they give your tree that desirable horizontal branching.

This principle is important to keep in mind when you train any young ornamental tree. Lateral buds grow along the sides of a shoot and give rise to sideways growth that makes a plant bushy.

Summer pruning of fruit trees controls size by removing energy-wasting water sprouts. Summer is also a good time to remove leafy upper branches that excessively shade fruit on the lower branches. Winter pruning is meant to stimulate the tree. Summer pruning uses thinning cuts-where the branch is cut off at its point of attachment instead of part way along the branch- and these cuts do not encourage new growth but control the size of your tree making fruit harvest easier.

Summer pruning also can control pests like coddling moths, mites or aphids. Just be sure to dispose of these trimmings and don’t compost them.

Espalier apple tree

If you have apricots and cherries, summer pruning only is now advised as they are susceptible to a branch killing disease if pruned during rainy weather. Prune stone fruits like peaches and nectarines after harvest by 50%. They grow quite rapidly. Apricots and plums need to have only 20% of their new growth pruned away.

Be sure to thin the fruit on your trees. That’s another good reason to keep them smaller so you can more easily reach the branches. The best time to do this is when the fruit is still small. Thinning fruit discourages early fruit drop and improves the quality of the remaining fruit. It helps to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load. Also it stimulates next year’s crop and helps to avoid biennial bearing. Left to their own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year and then light or not at all the next year. Some types of fruit trees like peaches and Golden Delicious apples are likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.

While I have the pruners out I’ll be shearing back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. And I’ll add some more mulch to areas that are a little thin. I’ll be checking the ties on my trees to make sure they aren’t too tight and remove the stake if the trunk is strong enough to support the tree on its own.

Also I’ll be looking for any pest problems so I can do something about them before they get out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide. I also inspect the tips of my fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on them due to the hummingbird activity.

Most importantly, enjoy your time outdoors. If a task is too big to do at one time, break it down into smaller sessions. As they say, take time to smell the roses.

 

Troubleshooting Plant Problems

Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving. And whether it’s a car problem, your smart phone, an irrigation system or yellowing leaves on a plant the goal is to solve it and make the product or process operational again. When you eliminate the potential causes of the problem hopefully the solution restores everything to its working order. Sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would say and it’s sometimes easier said than done as we all have experienced.

burned_heuchera_leaves
sunburned heauchera leaves

A few weeks ago I received a text with pictures of some plants with brown spots and asked what I thought might be the problem with their plants. This was after the heat wave we experienced and after asking a few questions about irrigation, location and how long the plants had been in the ground, I determined that the plant leaves had been burned in a pattern consistent with the location of the beating sun. At this time of year plants are growing wildly and need a good soak moistening the entire root zone. The solution: Better to water deeply less often than lightly which might not reach all the roots.

The subject of how much fertilizer and what kind came up in another troubleshooting email thread between some fellow horticulturalists. The issue was whether to use another round of organic high phosphate fertilizer in order to encourage bud development on a notoriously short-season tree dahlia. After some lively discussion we decided that the early spring application of rock phosphate was sufficient. Sometimes adding too much phosphorus may actually hurt a plant by preventing the uptake of other nutrients which must also be available to the plant in order to prevent unexpected deficiencies to appear. A balanced fertilizer containing all three nutrients- nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-was recommended for the remainder of the season.

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yellow leaves on lemon

Then there were some problems in my own garden. Well, it seems I am always trying to solve something with plants, pests or critters but this was with my lemon tree. At first I was perplexed when the older leaves of my lemon tree started turning yellow a couple months ago. The new growth looked fine so it wasn’t an iron deficiency where the young leaves display green veins along with the yellowish color.

It wasn’t a nitrogen deficiency either where the mature leaves slowly bleach to a mottled irregular green and yellow pattern, become entirely yellow and then are shed while the discoloration spreads to the younger leaves. I had fertilized in March with an all-purpose balanced fertilizer. Citrus are heavy feeders and require a steady source of nitrogen, the ideal citrus fertilizer having a ration of 3:1:1 (N:P:K)

After eliminating other mineral deficiencies or overwatering as the problem I decided that my lemon was simply dropping interior leaves which is normal after winter but I wanted to trouble shoot all potential causes to be sure citrus greening wasn’t the culprit. If it had been this deadly disease the leaves would have exhibited an asymmetrical pattern.

To quote Sherlock Holmes “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I’ll try to remember that when I’m troubleshooting my next problem in the garden.

Pruning Roses for Bloom & Vigor

rose_pink_cabbageIn the spirit of practicing what I preach I set out to do a little pruning around the ‘ol homestead last week. Since I cut back the hydrangeas pretty hard last year this time round I did only a bit of shaping. The fuchsias haven’t gone totally dormant this year but as they bloom on new wood I cut them back by a third. Then I looked at the roses. I have a few climbers and several shrub roses. This is how I’m going to get the best rose show ever this year.

I want my roses to produce lots of roses on a compact shrub and not just a few OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAexhibition size blooms so I prune my shrubs moderately. My goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. I’ll cut out canes that cross, saving the better of the two, prune spindly and diseased stems and dead wood. I’ll also prune canes that appear weak or broken. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Cut back the remaining stems by about third. When pruning, cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Slant the cut away from the bud to encourage growth outward. Clean pruners after every use to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.

rose_Hot_Cocoa.2048Heirlooms roses such as David Austin and other old antique garden roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm.

Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

My roses still have many of last years’ leaves and are pushing new growth rose_Icebergalready. I know those old leaves will spread fungus spores and possibly infect the new growth so I’ll patiently pluck them off. If you have a huge climber this might not be possible and spraying with fungicide may be your only option if you’ve had disease problems in the past. Rake up the debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant, coating the trunk, branches and twigs and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light horticultural oil in 1 quart water and spray every 7 to 10 days during the spring.

Pruning intimidates some gardeners but when you understand the reasons for making the cuts, pruning becomes less daunting. The reasons to prune are for health, appearance and to control size.

Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading, or cutting off spent flowers, encourages plants to rebloom. Every time you cut a rose bloom to bring it indoors or deadhead a fading rose, prune the stem down to shape the plant at the same time. Prune to a spot that has at least 5 leaflets. Roses grow from the point where they are cut, so consider the overall shape of the plant as you snip.

Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later. Roses are like redwoods -you can’t kill one- they’re the energizer bunnies of the plant world.

Smart Irrigation

dry_river_bed2.1280Several years ago I was invited to tour a beautiful garden in the hills above Scott Valley High School. Robby Frank was more than eager to share his techniques for gardening in deer country. He was also in a personal battle with gophers and moles and I affectionately bestowed upon him the title, serial mole killer. I am happy to report that Robby has won the war on all fronts. His garden is more lush than ever and with that comes the ongoing dilemma of saving water in the landscape especially in this time of drought.  He solved the problem by installing a Smart Irrigation Controller and has been so pleased with the results he’s on a Smart Irrigation crusade to educate fellow gardeners. Here’s his story.

We all know mulching is one of the ways to conserve water in the landscape. Robby has long been an advocate of composting and regularly renews the mulch in his garden. He even calls himself  “Mr Mulch”. He has permeable paths and a dry river bed that allow rainwater runoff to soak into the soil slowly. He keeps his plants pruned in a naturalistic manner because “smaller plants use less water'”. But all this wasn’t enough. His 3 “dumb timers”, as he calls them, were using too much water. That’s when he started researching weather based smart irrigation timers.
drought_tolerant_plantings.1024
“To me it seemed like an easy way to conserve water and it’s better for the plants as well”, Robby said. “It will increase the irrigation times if the weather is hotter and dryer than usual,  decrease if it’s colder and turn itself off if it rains”. Robby was already familiar with the Rainbird brand of controllers although there are many other companies that offer them. That’s why he eventually chose the “Simple to Set” Smart Indoor/Outdoor Irrigation timer or Rainbird SST 1200s.
Rainbird_Smart_Irrigation_Controller
Scotts Valley Water District offers a Landscape Rebate program for weather based irrigation controllers and has a list of acceptable models on their website. Robby paid $165 online for his controller as he couldn’t find a local store that stocked them. Since then he has convinced the local Ace Hardware to carry them.  It replaced his 3 old controllers and he received a rebate from the SV water district for $100. San Lorenzo Water District has a similar rebate program.

To qualify for the credit, he arranged for someone to come to his house to take pictures of his old watering_schedule.1280controllers. After installation they came again to see the new controller and he completed the necessary paperwork. The rebate credit which can vary from $75-$100 doesn’t cover the cost of the controller or installation labor and is determined by the type of controller installed. You can’t go wrong with saving water, money and getting a rebate, too.

The best part of the new system is how it saves water and is better for the plants.  The controller is never turned off. You enter your zip code and the watering schedule you prefer and the controller adjust the amount of water either up or down as needed. For instance, when it was dry before the December freeze, the controller watered his landscape at 20-30% of normal so the plants were not totally dry during that week and were better able to stand the extended freezing temps.

Likewise, the sensor can trigger the controller to irrigate 130% of normal if it’s exceedingly hot and dry. The controller, also called a timer, comes with 10 years of historical weather data for any US ZIP code and includes a rain and temperature sensor.

Robby showed me how amazingly easy it is to set up and program the controller. It’s called the Simple to Set irrigation timer and I agree. Because he propagates most of his succulents himself from cuttings, it’s easy for him to add a bit of extra irrigation on a one-time or sort term basis until they become established. He couldn’t do that with his old timer. It had to water the whole area on a valve the same. Now he has 12 zones that he easily programmed for just the right amount of water whether it’s several times a week or once a month.

Robby Frank is on a crusade to save water and Smart Irrigation is the way to do it. If you want to read more about how he battles deer and moles you can access the story I previously wrote about him on my blog by searching Serial Mole Killer. He would love to find other local like-minded gardeners to share stories.

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.

Frozen Plant Care and Plants that Don’t Freeze

toyon.1600Early on one of those freezing mornings I came across a large stand of California native toyon shrubs, every branch covered with juicy red berries. Dozens of songbirds were enjoying the feast loading up and bracing for another cold night. You couldn’t ask for a more Christmas-y plant. Bright red and green- the Christmas colors.  I made a note to put toyon on my list for gift ideas.  What would be better than to give my loved ones something that feeds the birds and the spirit?

Toyon is a hardy shrub in our area no matter how low the temps drop. Many of the plants in your garden may not be so lucky after the multiple nights of freezing weather we recently experienced. Even if you covered sensitive plants a hard frost can nip plants that normally would be fine in a light frost.  Here’s how to deal with frost damage.

Don’t be tempted to rush out and prune away the damaged parts of  plants.  This winter will have more cold weather and the upper part of your plant, even if damaged, can protect the crown from further freezing and provide protection for tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year. This applies to citrus trees, too. If a perennial like Mexican sage froze to a gooey, black mess, cut the plant down to the ground. It will re-grow come spring from the root system.

Remember If you have plants that need covering in another frost later this winter, use a frost blanket, light towel, sheets, burlap or other type of cloth and not plastic.  The cold will go right through plastic and damage the plant.

Getting back to my Christmas list, everybody loves color in the winter garden. Besides toyon berries to feed the birds and other wildlife, Strawberry trees have fruit for much of the winter as do crabapples, beautyberry,  pyracantha and nandina if the robins don’t get them first.

Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers  would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful.  Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.

For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.

If the idea of sitting under a beautiful shade tree in the summer would appeal to the gardener on your list, flowering cherryyou might consider giving them a Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn that’s covered in masses of rosy blossoms in the spring and colorful berries in the winter.  October Glory Maple is a great tree for shade and gorgeous fall color. Autumnalis Flowering Cherry blooms twice a year giving you double the show.  Mine is in the middle of its fall blooming cycle right now.  It’s a welcome sight. A smaller Southern Magnolia like ‘Little Gem‘ with huge fragrant white flowers would also make a nice gift.

These are just a few of the shade and ornamental trees that would make a valuable addition to any landscape. Visit a nursery to look for those plants with berries and winter color for other gift ideas.