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.



Favorite Fruit Varieties at the Farmer’s Market


fruit_from_Farmer's MktAt this time of year it’s easy to get the recommended 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. That’s the latest recommendation from the new dietary guidelines released by the Dept. of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The farmer’s market is brimming now with lots of locally grown produce. I find it nearly impossible not to overbuy, everything looks so yummy. At the beginning of the year I wrote about great varieties of fruit trees available to plant in your home orchard. From heirlooms to old favorites there’s nothing like picking fresh from the tree. Walking around the Felton Farmer’s Market the other day I thought I’d check out what the growers thought were the best kinds and why in their opinion.

Red, ripe strawberries first caught my eye. Jose, told me he grows Seascape Seascape_strawberriesstrawberries in La Selva Beach. His farm is on a well so the dry winter didn’t affect their plants but the recents showers did. The berries absorbed too much water at one time and are not as sweet this week as a result. Esther, a grower from Moss Landing, said she likes the variety Albion at this time of year because they are really sweet and hold up well. Her farm will start harvesting Seascapes later. She said her area didn’t get any showers recently but the March rains caused the berries to rot and the whole crop ready at the time had to be picked and thrown away.

The apricots next got my attention. I love apricots. These beautiful orange colored fruits are full of beta-carotene and fiber and are one of the first signs of summer. I found out from David from a farm in Sanger, California in Fresno County that apricot season only lasts for 7 weeks. His farm grows 6 different kinds including Red Ruby, Castlebright, Patterson, Queen Sweet, Royal Flame and Blenheim. He said his favorites are Royal Flame, Queen Sweet and Blenheim. After tasting some of the the delicious Royal Flame samples I am looking forward to his other favorites.

And then I was in peach and nectarine heaven as I sampled my way through the farmer’s market. David didn’t have to tempt me much with his aromatic samples of Saturn white peaches, which are his favorite. Another booth from a farm in Hickman featured White Lady peaches. Corona said his favorite, the O’Henry freestone, will be ripening soon. I was amazed to learn that this farm grows 100 different varieties of peach and nectarine. His favorite nectarine? Not surprisingly, it’s the Red Top, a yellow fleshed nectarine and the Arctic Rose, the white variety he just happened to have ready with samples available.

Pluots have always been one of my favorite fruits. They are second generation hybrids of plums and apricots although they closely resemble plums. According to UC Cooperative Extension in Sacramento County  pluots are one of the best choices for backyard trees. The flesh is unusually sweet and juicy with complex plum-apricot flavors and the skin in without the bitterness found in the skin of regular plums. I’ll be looking for Dapple Dandy and Flavor Grenade as the season professes.

After taste testing my way through the various booths I came away with way with probably too much fruit and vegetables to eat in one week but I’ll force myself with a huge smile on my face. When I look and smell all the luscious produce I bought maybe those 9 servings per day aren’t so much after all. Just so you know, nine servings translates to about 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables every day.



How to Design a Perennial Border


rhododendron_occidentale2.1600When I visit my best friend’s house I park next to the perennial border that lines her driveway. At any given time of year there is something blooming, flowers filling the air with fragrance and juicy apples hanging on the tree for picking later in the summertime. She has some California natives as well as traditional cottage garden plants all mixed in together. Originally from Illinois, she loves a garden filled with lush green and color but has designed the space with plants that can use less water than you would expect and still look spectacular.

What makes for a successful border? You see DIY articles in the gardening magazines showing lovely combinations with rules to follow but they always seem to be for a different climate or location. We often have borrowed scenery from the mixed woods and some of their ideas just don’t work well here. Here are some tips for planting a terrific perennial border in our neck of the woods.

Some of the key players in my friends perennial border are natives like Western azalea, kerria_japonica2hazelnut and flowering currant. These are large, woody shrubs that add height, texture and year round interest. They provide the backbone or structure to the border throughout the seasons and even in the winter. She also has a weeping bottlebrush which is evergreen and provides nectar for the hummingbirds as does the flowering currant. An apple tree and a persimmon tower over all the other plants creating a canopy for the shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. You could also plant spirea, weigela, cornus and viburnums to provide structure to your border.

My friend’s border is planted so that there is something of interest every month during the growing season. The persimmon tree is the star of the late fall garden with bright orange fruit that hang like ornaments on the tree. In the spring I can’t take my eyes off the kerria japonica whose graceful shape is covered with double golden, pom pom shaped flowers. The vivid, new foliage of the Rose Glow barberry complements the stand of Pacific coast iris with similar cream and burgundy flowers blooming next to it.  Under the bottlebrush a sweep of billbergia nutans or Queen’s Tears is flowering with those exotic looking, drooping flower clusters. They make a great groundcover under the tree and also are long lasting in a vase.

ompholodes2.1600Mid-sized filler plants that thrive in this border include Hot Lips salvia, daylilies and polemonium to name just a few. Daffodils and tulips have naturalized throughout the space. Groundcovers grow thickly to shade the soil and prevent precious moisture evaporation.  Lamb’s ears like their spot under the flowering currant and the omphalodes have spread throughout the border. This little plant looks and blooms like the forget-me-not but the delicate deep blue flowers don’t produce those sticky seeds that plague both our socks and animal fur.

This border get morning sun and mid-afternoon sun until about 3pm. If you have a situation that calls for all sun lovers you could try asters, shasta daisy, grasses, coreopsis, achillea, echinacea, gaillardia, sedum, kniphofia, lavender, liatris and rudbeckia.  Perennials that work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds include monarda and my personal favorite, cardinal flower.  Both have long, tubular flowers in bright colors such as red, orange and yellow. it’s easy to have the birds and butterflies coming all season when you plant perennials with overlapping bloom times.

Perhaps some of these plant combinations would look great in your garden, too. Just don’t worry too much about the “rules” of perennial borders. Mix it up. You don’t want the border to look like stadium seating. The idea is to have fun and create a border that makes you happy.



What to do in the Garden in February


flowering_plum.1024The unusually warm January weather has made the early flowering trees and shrubs bloom even earlier this year. Actually it’s not so unusual for us to have a warm streak around here in January. What is unusual is the prolonged dry and stable conditions we have encountered. The high pressure system that blocks our usual winter rains does not usually last more than 2-3 weeks even in the heart of the rainy season. The persistent ridge has not behaved in a typical manner. We can only hope the ridge breaks down in the next few months and brings us more than a smattering of rain here and there.  What should a gardener be doing in February?

Prune fruit trees. Smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. quince_red.1280Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open. Do not spray 36 hours before rain in predicted. Be sure to spray the ground around each tree.

I recommend keeping winter pruning to a minimum and prune again in the summer time. Winter pruning is invigorating to fruit trees and there will be excessive vertical rebound growth, the witch’s broom-like riot of growth that emerges after a tree is given a haircut. Such growth is often dense and doesn’t bear much. A lot of the tree’s stored energy issued to produce all these unwanted branches, leaving much less for the production of fruit.

quince_red-closeup.1280Due to our unusual weather some low-chill fruit tree varieties like Fuji apples, many apricots, peaches, nectarines and pears such as Comice and Seckel, might break bud and flower earlier because of the winter freeze and then warm weather. Plants that flower prematurely risk losing those flowers if night temps plunge but the long-term health of the plant 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 the canes might 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.

Prune woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia cut them down to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim. You won’t be able to know for sure, until perhaps early summer, if the freeze killed plants like Coprosma, Echium, Tibouchina or lantana so be patient.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven’t already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kind to your soil and the beneficial soil microorganisms.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  Cut some branches during flowering to bring in for bouquets.

Prune roses and rake up any debris beneath the plant to eliminate overwintering fungal spores. Remove any old leaves that still cling to the plant. Spray the stems and bare ground with a combination organic horticultural oil and a dormant spray.

Prune established perennials later in the month if you might get frost that could damage new foliage. Giving your maiden hair ferns a haircut now allows the new growth to come out fresh. Prune winter damaged fronds from your other ferns.

Divide perennials before new growth starts. Agapanthus, asters, coreopsis, daylilies, shasta daisy and liriope are plants that tend to become overcrowded and benefit from dividing.

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.

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