Tag Archives: fertilizing

February To-Do’s for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Seems to me that I'm still waiting for winter to start. I look hopefully each week at the weather forecast hoping to see a storm developing. The birds in my garden are already starting to pair up, however, and call to each other. They know  a new season has begun. So, as promised, at the beginning of each month, here's your to-do list of what you should be doing in the garden.

Each year the weather is a little different requiring some tasks to be done earlier in the month when it's been a warm winter while giving you a little extra time when it's been cold. This year we've experienced very cold nights since December so plants are still mostly dormant but spring is coming. Be prepared.

Cut back woody shrubs. To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage, artemisia and butterfly bush cut back to within a few inches of the ground. Don't use this approach on lavender or ceanothus – only lightly prune them after blooming. Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring. 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. Revitalize overgrown or leggy hedges by cutting back plants just before the flush of new spring growth.

Cut back ornamental grasses to within 3-6" of the ground. If  you get very heavy frost in your yard wait until the end of the month. Grass-like plants like Japanese forest grass should have all the old blades pruned off, too. You can divide them, if needed, after pruning to increase the number of plants you have.

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.

Prune established perennials later in the month if you get frost that may 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.

Begin sowing seeds of cool season vegetables outdoors. If it's been raining, allow the ground to dry out for several days before working the soil. Plant seeds of beets, carrots, chard, lettuce, peas, spinach, arugula, chives kale and parley directly in the ground. Later in the month start broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. You can also plant starts of many of these vegetables and that stir fry will be on your table even sooner. Indoors, start seeds of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant so they will be ready to transplant outdoors in 8 weeks when danger of frost is past and the soil has started to warm up.

Fertilize perennials, shrubs and trees their first dose of organic all-purpose fertilizer for the season. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until the last flower buds start to open. Roses will get a high nitrogen fertilizer to give foliage a boost and later next month, I'll feed with a high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage blooms.

Feed chelated iron to azaleas, citrus and gardenias to green up their leaves. Cool soil makes the leaves of these plants yellow this time of year.  

Apply the last application of dormant spray. Spray with horticultural oil, lime sulfur, liquid sulfur or copper dormant spray. Do not spray 36 hours before rain is predicted. Be sure to spray the ground around each tree.

Soil Testing & Monterey Bay Master Gardener’s

Master Gardeners rock. I was inspired by the fabulous gardens that I saw on their 2010 Masters Garden Tour and even wrote a column about some of them. Attending the Smart Gardening Fair when it was sponsored by the Monterey Bay Master Gardeners at Skypark in Scotts Valley was always an educational experience. I also read the informative newsletters available on their website. So it was with the same enthusiasm that I attended  the quarterly Monterey Bay Master Gardener meeting earlier this month.

Held at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Watsonville and open to the public, the meeting lived up the the Master Gardener slogan to "Cultivate Knowledge... by extending research-based horticultural information". The speaker was Cliff Low, owner of Perry Laboratory in Watsonville. If you have ever wondered why your hedge is languishing despite your exquisite care you may need his services.

The lab provides horticultural advising and testing of soil, irrigation water and plant tissue. Cliff works with grape growers in the wine industry, strawberry and cut flower growers and organic farmers as well as home owners and landscape professionals. He can provide fertilizer recommendation for conventional or organic amendments based on soil tests for basic fertility, micronutrients, salinity and alkalinity.

Cliff combines his formal education with real-life solutions and shared some interesting tidbits of his horticultural  knowledge. Grapes, for instance, are prone to zinc and boron deficiencies and may need foliar feeding of these micronutrients. Excess sodium usually only occurs in clay soils. Mediterranean plants thrive in low phosphorus and slightly acidic soils.

I also learned that rose growers for the cut flower industry in this area now use coconut coir as a growing medium. Coir, which is the hair of the coconut shell, is also being used by gardeners as a substitute for peat moss. Although peat moss has natural anti-microbial properties, it is harvested from rapidly depleting peat lands and is not sustainable. Coir has similar properties to peat as a soil amendment and the high potassium chloride in coconuts may guard against garden pests as it does in coconut trees. The down side is the cost of shipping as most coir comes from Sri Lanka, Mexico and the Philippines. Also weed seeds are being imported in with the coir. Still it is the medium of choice for organic farmers.

If you have a well you already know this but it was interesting to me to learn that a well high in iron actually helps plants by providing this element that they need anyway. Slime bacteria that is associated with iron wells, however, is a dangerous health risk and the use of chlorine from household bleach to treat it counters this beneficial affect.

Much can be learned from a soil test provided by Perry Laboratory but If you choose to test your own soil for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, be sure your reagent powder is fresh, advised Cliff. Last seasons left over capsules are not reliable. Meters to measure pH are not very accurate either unless the soil sample is uniformly dry. You can contact Perry Lab at (831) 722-7606 or http://perrylaboratory.com

My thanks to Monterey Bay Master Gardeners who offer so much for the home gardener. You can call their hotline (831) 763-8007 for horticultural advice. Their next Master Gardener Training class starts in January 2012. Check out their fall newsletter for articles ranging from integrated plant management techniques for Light Brown apple moth control to the successes and failures this year in members own gardens to how bunny rabbits may be the cause of your plant losses.


Fertilizing – What, How and When

I have to chuckle when I see someone admiring a basket of blooming fuchsias. "How do they get them to bloom so much?", they say. I tell them you have to fertilize regularly like the growers do. "Oh, you have to fertilize?"
Yes, plant are living things with basic requirements just like us. Here are a few tips that can make it easy to have those lush, bountiful blooms you see in all the magazines.

There are lots of ways to fertilize and many kinds to choose from. Some plants, like established trees and shrubs, need little help from us as long as they exhibit normal leaf size, color and desired growth. Young plants and fruit and nut trees, especially those growing in infertile soil, may grow more quickly, however, after fertilization. is usually the only nutrient to which woody plants respond. Slow release fertilizers are better because a fertilizer that releases nutrients quickly can injure plant growth if applied too heavily or incorporated into the planting hole.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts ( non-organic fertilizers ). The salts kill the good bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix.  Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well. Rapid growth from excess fertilizer can cause bark to crack allowing entry of fungi. Too much fertilizer also promotes excessive succulent foliage which can increase pest populations that prefer tender new growth.

As a general rule, California natives thrive in nutrient-poor soils. You probably will not need to fertilize on a regular basis, even with organic fertilizer, unless your soil is severely depleted or if the plant you are trying to grow only occurs naturally in soils with much higher fertility.

If you decide to add nutrients to the soil around natives or established trees and shrubs, the best time is when the plants are actively growing. For natives this is late fall to spring. for other plants late winter to late spring is best. Choose from organic fertilizers such as compost, chicken manure, bat guano, blood meal, cottonseed, kelp, feather or fish meal. Organic fertilizer is also available in bags or liquid and usually contain humic acid and beneficial soil microbes. Most organic forms of nitrogen must decompose before being absorbed by plants and are therefore slow acting, remaining in the soil longer where they are stored until needed by the plant.

What about those fuchsia baskets- what is the best way to fertilize them? Containers that are watered regularly will need to have nutrients replenished as they leach out with each watering. Nitrogen especially washes out of the soil. A nutrient-deprived plant can’t produce flowers which is its whole purpose in life. The more flowers, the better chance to reproduce.

Fast acting inorganic liquid or granule fertilizers are like candy bars for a plant. Their nutrients are immediately available and this capability can be useful if a plant is stressed due to pest infestation or has lost leaves and vigor. Slow release fertilizers, like Osmocote, although inorganic are available to the plant over a much longer time. Their nutrients are released depending on soil temperature so as our days warm, the soil does, too, right when your plants are vigorously growing.

Perennials fall somewhere in the middle in their nutrient requirements. Drought tolerant perennials don’t require heavy feeding. A fresh layer of compost and a light application of organic fertilizer in the spring are all that they need. Other perennials will benefit from another application or two of fertilizer in addition to fresh compost. As the plant absorbs nutrients through its roots, it can’t ell the difference between an organic and an inorganic fertilizer. However organic fertilizers are less likely to burn plants, especially when it’s hot. They feed the soil and its microscopic organisms not just the plant and won’t contaminate the ground water.

Remember you can kill a plant with kindness so follow the directions on the label whatever type you choose.


Watering, Fertilizing and Weed Control

Whether you grow a full-blown vegetable garden or a few herbs and edible flowers in containers, celebrate this Fourth of July by serving a menu created with produce harvested from your own garden. It may be too early for your corn or tomatoes to be ready but peas served with a touch of basil would be delicious. A fellow gardener recently told me that she loves steamed baby zucchini cooked with a small pinch of lavender flowers. I haven’t tried this myself but it sounds interesting, maybe garnished some some edible nasturtium or viola flowers.

Actively growing vegetables and flowers need a boost from They use a lot of nutrients, especially nitrogen, at this time of year. Add water soluble fertilizer to your drip irrigation system or apply it through a hose-end sprayer. Sprinkle dry fertilizers over the soil around the plants or apply in trenches next to the rows. Water deeply afterward.

Remember that weeds compete with vegetables and flowers for moisture, nutrients and sunlight. Weeds can also serve as alternate hosts for disease and pest problems. You can prevent weeds from getting out of control by using the "half-hour" rule. Weeding for just half an hour every couple of days will save you hours of hard work in the future. By staying ahead of the weeds, you’ll grow more healthy produce and flowers.

If you battle dandelions and don’t want to use chemical weed killers around pets and children, get out the white vinegar from the cupboard. On a hot sunny day spray straight white vinegar directly on the weed. This method will kill whatever it touches so direct the spray carefully. If the dandelion is in the lawn, wait a week, pour some water on the dead spot to dilute any lasting effects of the vinegar. then pole a bunch a holes and drop in some grass seed. Sprinkle a bit of fertilizer where the seed is planted and keep the area moist. In three weeks you won’t remember where the dead spot was and the dandelion will be long gone.

Trees are the most important living asset on your property. They cool your house and offer shade and protection for your plants. They provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. Summer heat can take a toll on trees. Fruit trees, citrus and flowering trees need a deep irrigation every other week. Less thirsty established trees like Chinese pistache and strawberry tree need irrigation about once a month. Newly planted trees need water regularly. Gradually reduce frequency after a year or so.

There are ways to maximize the efficiency of the water you apply.  Drill several 4" wide holes about 24-30" deep around the drip line of the tree, being careful not to damage large roots. Fill the holes with compost and water.   Or you can use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water the tree.   Mulch heavily all planting beds. Do not use rocks or gravel as a mulch because hey add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster.

Happy Fourth of July.