Category Archives: fertilizing

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

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.


Lindencroft Farm- a CSA part 2

Lindencroft Farm is a great example of a local family doing what they love and making a living, too. You can see it in the new crop of Necores carrots just sprouting and being watched over by the family farm cat that was sitting on the edge of the retaining wall. Linda explained this is one of her favorite carrots because she doesn’t have trouble with it forking and it isn’t bothered by summer heat. Every  crop that is grown on the farm is researched for best flavor and vigor.

Linda Butler  starts all her vegetables from seed, and grows year-round. Some are started directly in the beds while others are started in flats and transplanted later. Cole crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, would get eaten by bugs and birds would eat them as fast as they germinated so these are started in flats.

Walking around, I saw many Italian names as she specializes in Italian peppers. She gets seed from organic seed companies in this country, Italy and France.  Some of her favorite vegetables are Rosa Bianca eggplant as it is almost never bitter. She also likes Red Russian and Lacinato or dinosaur kale.

Tat soy and bok choy are favorites in the CSA boxes. She grows beans of all types– french filet, romano, shelling. Golden beets ( my personal favorite ), all kinds of potatoes- fingerlings, Russian banana, red thumb, German butter, red lasoda and other heirlooms. The beds overflow with life.

I tasted the last of the cherry tomatoes. Rosalita, a red grape type, was good but the white cherry tomato was the best. Herbs grow in several boxes and the farm can’t seem to grow enough asparagus to satisfy the demand.

Insect control is easy,  Linda said. If fungal diseases persist she plants a crop of beans and that seems to solve it. Occasionally aphids or spider mites get the upper had, but rather than spray even with organic soap she finds she has better results by monitoring the plants often and spraying with a hard blast of water or cutting or pulling out infested plants. For fava beans that seem to always attract big black aphids, she harvest the beans and flowers while very young before aphids get a hold.

The farm is entirely powered by 78 solar panels. Recaptured rainwater is stored in a rainwater basin that holds a half a million gallons and is filtered twice before using. They collect this from just 2-3 good winter storms. Water from their own deep well is used in the beginning of the year with the rainwater used in the hot summer months.

I asked Linda if the cool spring this year impacted her plants and she said yes, ‘"Everything is three weeks late."  Our early October rains caused her tomatoes to get fungal diseased so they had to harvest them all, while some of the squash now has powdery mildew and has to be pulled up early. As we were talking she told some workers harvesting squash in another part of the farm to cut out the growing tips so the remaining squash would receive all the energy of the plant to ripen before the weather turns cold. The sunflowers being visited by a flock of chickadees was looking a bit bedraggled, too.

We watched some workers putting up frames for plastic hoop houses that will protect peppers crops from the rains and extend the harvest this year. Even potatoes benefit from this cover as overly wet soil contributes to fungal diseases. Lettuces, chard, kale and other leafy greens would get tattered by the rains if not covered.

Walking and talking, Linda would reach down and pick a sprig of bronze fennel or hyssop for me to enjoy. it’s clear that she is gentle on the earth and a good steward of the land. The entire farm is surrounded by redwood forest and oak meadowland, teaming with wildlife. Her philosophy of farming is to gently coax the best produce by creating as natural an environment as she can. Each year, the farm is healthier, most robust and more beautiful than the last.

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.


Garden Tips for March

Spring is in the air. It’s always exciting to see the plants in the garden come to life. I’ve been invited to tour a  garden in Scotts Valley in April when many of the early flowering plants will be in bloom.  I’ve been to this garden before and there’s always an interesting tree, shrub or flower to enjoy.

One of my long term goals is to view the great gardens in the Santa Cruz Mountains. If you have a garden that you think others would like to hear about and you are willing to share it with me, please contact me. I’d love to spend time with you in your garden.

There’s so much to do now in the garden. If you are feeling overwhelmed here are some suggestions for the more important to-do’s.

* Check drip systems for leaks or clogged emitters. Flush sediment from filters and check screens for algae. You may need to add emitters if plants have grown significantly.

* Finish pruning and clean-up of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials. This includes fireblight die-back on pears, apples, hawthorn, pyracantha, photinia, crabapple quince and toyon., Prune out and discard diseased branches making the cut at least 6-8" below blighted tissue. Clean the pruning blades with alcohol or a 1:5 solution of household bleach to prevent spread of the disease. Also finish pruning and cutting back perennials and ornamental grasses. Go ahead and give grasses a 3-5" crewcut so fresh growth can emerge. Cut back old foliage of maiden hair ferns to allow new growth to take center stage. If you have Western sword ferns or another type that has winter or thrip damage, remove shabby looking fronds. Even if you have to cut back the entire fern it’s OK. It will regrow in just of couple of months.  Prune any other frost damaged plants when you see new growth begin.

* Spread fresh compost around all your plants. Good soil is the secret to 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 compost and or mulch on top of the soil and let it slowly decompose and filter down into the earth.

* 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 and more resistant to disease. 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 nitrogen. You can also spread a thin layer of composted manure over you lawn. Leaving you 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 phosphorus especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Wait until azaleas, camellias and rhododendron have finished blooming before feeding them.

* The most important to-do for March 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.

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.