Spring Tasks for Santa Cruz Mountain Gardeners


tulips4You know spring is here when bleeding hearts and tulips are in full bloom. When baseball season begins and song birds start their families. Can you imagine our ground frozen 30″ down like it is in Chicago’s Wrigley Field? My heart goes out to those gardeners still dreaming over seed catalogs. Just yesterday I was in a rose garden in Scotts Valley. The Double Delight roses had already started to open and the fragrance was lovely. All of the roses were lush, healthy and full of buds. Just like all your plants should be. If you haven’t gotten to the following garden tasks now’s the time so your garden this year can be beautiful and use less water.

* Check drip systems for leaks or emitters clogged by dirt or earwigs. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly and move them farther away from the crown of the plant and out to the feeder roots under the canopy.

* Spread fresh compost or bark mulch around all your plants. Good soil is the secret bleeding_heartsto successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost of bark chips do.

* Transplant if you need to move any plants in the garden that have outgrown their space or are not with other plants of the same water usage  Now is a good time because plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it and allows it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant.  Organic matter, such as compost, planting mix and well-rotted manure, boosts nutrition and improves soil structure.

* Fertilize if you haven’t already done so. Citrus, shrubs and fruit trees just emerging from dormancy are begging for their first meal of the season. Lawns begin their spring growth now also and benefit from a boost of organic nitrogen. You can also spread a thin layer of composted manure over your lawn. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn will benefit it by shading the roots as it get warmer and as they break down they help feed it, too. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost or manure and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming before feeding them.

* Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Weeds rob your plants of precious water. Think of weeding as free gym time.

* Check for aphids. They are out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples.  A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them.   If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them.  As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun.  Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

Ants can also bring aphids up into trees and shrubs such as camellias, citrus and roses.  Ants feed off honeydew secreted by aphids, scale and other plant-juice sucking insects.  Ants also protect these pests from natural predators.  To keep them off, wrap trunks with a 1-2″ wide strip of masking tape and coat with a sticky barrier like  Tanglefoot.  Keep the barriers free of dirt and check them periodically for breaks.  Reapply when necessary

* The most important to -do for early spring is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.



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.



Growing Wine Grapes


Napa_Valley_vineyard.2048Prune orchards once reigned supreme in the Napa Valley. Pears, walnuts and fodder for grazing sheep were also grown where now 45,000 acres of premium wine grapes flourish. The crush is on in Napa County.  Mostly cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot are being harvested at night but back in 1928 the prune crop was worth twice as much as wine grapes.

We all have an insect or two that we have to deal with in our gardens.  I found out on a recent excursion to Napa Valley that all those acres of grape vines could possibly be lost if the European grape moth has its way. Believed to have been imported in vegetables from Europe it was first detected in Napa County in 2009. Back in 2011 Santa Cruz County was dealing with the same pest. With quarantine efforts and eradication of fruits and flowers near the area where they were first detected our county hasn't had much of a problem with them since.

Integrated pest management is the ecologically sound approach to pest control. In Napa County, I learned that the European grape moth is being well controlled in recent years by organic sprays such as spinosad and BT. Another very effective control method used is mating disruption with pheromones.

These techniques might not be as picturesque as planting roses around a grape orchard as an early cabernet_sauvignon_grapes.2048warning system for fungal diseases but they have worked for the grape moth. Roses are traditionally planted at the perimeter of vineyards as both they and grape vines are prone to powdery mildew and Downy mildew in our Mediterranean type climate. If powdery mildew appears on the roses, the vineyard can be sprayed with sulfur. Although sulfur does not cure powdery mildew, it will prevent it.

Downy mildew is another deadly mildew that attacks the green parts of the grape vine. Once Downy mildew is detected on the rose bushes, the grape vines can be immediately sprayed with a solution of copper sulphate and lime.

Many of the vineyards also plant lavender and rosemary to repel many harmful insects, provide habitat for beneficial insects preying on undesirable insects and add a pleasant flavor to the wine.

cabernet_grapes_ready_for_crush.2048Sitting outside on a tasting room patio planted with beautiful flowering shrubs and perennials it's hard to imagine the delicious wine in your glass doesn't come effortlessly on the part of the winery. Like our area that grows pinot noir grapes exceptionally well, the terroir of the Napa valley is expressed in the flavor of its wine. The qualities of the soil, geography and climate all contribute.

A vast array of soils of volcanic and marine origin coexist in Napa Valley. Half of the world's soil orders occur here with more than 100 soil variations all affecting the character of the grapes. Soils guide the grape grower as to which rootstock and grape varieties to plant.  Valley floor soils tend to be deeper and more fertile and produce vigorous growth so the crop must be tightly managed to produce concentrated grapes. On the hillsides the vine has to struggle to survive the spare, rocky soils and naturally sets a smaller crop, producing smaller grapes of highly concentrated color and flavors.

Walking among the vines, I noted drip irrigation in use. I found out that traditionally Old World wine regions consider natural rainfall the only source of water that will still allow the vineyard to maintain its terroir characteristics. Spain has recently loosened the regulations of the European Union Wine Laws and France has been reviewing the issue.

Grapes depend on a certain amount of water mainly in the spring and summer and so here in California as well as other summer dry regions of the world like Australia, the vines are irrigated starting in May or June. It's a fine line to determine how much and how often to irrigate to preserve the flavor of the grape and not just grow lush plants with high yields.

In our own gardens we can train a plant to put down deep roots decreasing the amount of watering it needs. So it is in grape growing where the vine receives sufficient water during budding and flowering but irrigation is then scaled back during the ripening period so that the vine funnels more of its limited resources into developing grape clusters.

I enjoyed the gardens of the Napa Valley as much as the wine tasting. White Japanese anemone, pink sasanqua camellia and oakleaf hydrangea are all blooming. The dogwood trees are budded for next year's show and the Japanese maples are starting to color.

It's interesting to know that one grape vine produces about 4-6 bottles of wine per year and in 1968 the nation's first Agriculture Preserve was established to protect open space and prevent future over development.

 



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.

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