Tag Archives: edibles

Good Watering Practices

philadelphus_Covered_BridgeThe recent heat wave was one for the record books. The temps were not the highest we've ever had around here but as each day melted into the next I kept thinking that fog, nature's air conditioning, was surely on it's way. Even drought tolerant plants need a little help at these times.

Watering is crucial as plants are growing vigorously. Water makes up 90-98% of every plant we grow. It's needed for photosynthesis, as well as reproduction and defense against pests. Checking soil moisture and improving a soils ability to absorb and hold water should be a priority when you're out in the garden. Don't wait for plants to wilt and burn before correcting watering problems.  

There are ways to water more efficiently and ways to conserve that water. Now is the a good time to review some good watering practices and guidelines.

When is the best time to water? Watering in the morning is the most efficient whether you water by sprinkler, drip system, soaker hose or by hand. The water soaks deep in the soil without risk of evaporation. It bolsters the plant for the day and has dried from leaves by evening reducing the risk for foliar diseases like mildew. Plant roots are also more receptive to watering in the morning.

Is it true that water droplets will scorch leaves in the sun? According to a study published in New Phytologist, a journal of research in plant science, there is a slight risk of leaf burn on fuzzy leaved plants in the sun. The hairs can hold the water droplets above the leaf surface and act as a magnifying glass to the light beaming through them. The study also reported that water droplets on smooth leaves, such as maples, cannot cause leaf burn, regardless of the time of day.

I my forty years of gardening, my own observation is that the leaf burn on a fuzzy leaf must be very small, indeed, as I've never observed any damage. If you find a plant needs water midday, by all means go ahead and water it. Containers even benefit from the cooling effect that watering provides

Most plants need 18" depth of well-drained soil to thrive although trees and many vegetables roots grow several feet deep. More than an inch of water per week may be needed for their success and in the case of many trees and native plants, deeper but more infrequent watering is required.

You can easily measure how much water you are applying. If you have a sprinkler system, place a straight-sided container like a tuna can on the outside edge of the area being watered. Let the sprinkler run until one inch of water has accumulated in the can. When using a drip system or soaker hose, irrigate until a 3" deep test hole dug 1 ft out from the emitter or end of the soaker is moist. Moisture at that level indicates than an inch of water has been applied. The best way to determine how many inches of water your soil needs for a good soak is by digging down after the water has had a chance to settle. When watered well, the soil should feel cool and damp at the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels warm and dry you haven't watered long enough. You need to do this test just once to get a feeling for how much water your soil can hold and how deeply it's soaking in.

if you have a lawn, decide if you really need it that large and maybe not in the front yard at all.  Keep the mowing height high during the heat of summer.  Mow when the grass is about a third taller than recommended height. For common fescue, mow when the grass is 3-4" tall, with your mower set at 2-3 ".  Fertilize only when your lawn needs it to keep a good green color.  Over fertilizing results in quick top growth which needs more water and is susceptible to insect damage and fungus problems.  A good rule of thumb for watering a lawn is to water 1 x per week when the temperature is 70 – 80 degrees., 2 x per week when it's 80 – 90 and 3 x per week only when it's above 90 degrees.  Make sure the water soaks in encouraging the roots to extend  30" below the surface which will make your lawn more drought tolerant.
 
Consider replacing your lawn with a walk-on ground cover like woolly thyme or chamomile.  You can't play touch football on these ground covers but they will tolerate light foot traffic.  Another alternative is to plant low growing native grasses that require only a handfull of trims per year compared to a conventional lawn.
 
Water wisely in other areas of your garden.,  Construct soil basins and furrows to direct water to plant roots and increase this basin as the plant grows or use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water at the drip line of trees and shrubs. 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.

And above all, mulch, mulch, mulch.  Cover the soil with at least 2" of organic mulch such as compost or chipped bark.  The mulch holds in moisture as well as keeping roots cool and gradually decomposes and enriches your soil.  Keep it away from the base of trunks or plant stems. Don't use rocks or gravel as a mulch because they add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster.

Take good care of your plants this summer.
 

Blueberries for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Blueberries, the wonder food:  a powerhouse of nutrition and antioxidants. Kids and adults alike love them fresh off the plant, on cereal, in desserts.  And blueberry plants are beautiful in the garden. I often design these highly ornamental shrubs into a garden to provide edibles in the landscape that serve both as a fun food to nibble as you walk in the garden and to provide a colorful accent in the fall when the foliage turns fiery red, orange and yellow.

Under the branches of a large shade tree at UCSC Farm & Garden, I met with fellow blueberry enthusiasts for a  workshop recently to learn from the experts how to grow blueberries in the home garden. Liz Milazzo, field production manager, shared her personal top 8 varieties. She also told us how to choose varieties for different locales and growing conditions, how to select an appropriate planting location, prepare the planting hole or container, create soil conditions that blueberries need to thrive, how to pruning correctly and care for your blueberry plants to keep them productive.

blueberry_old_berries_new_flowers2UCSC Farm & Garden grows 1/10th of an acre of different kinds of blueberries.  As we walked between the rows of plants for the pruning demonstration I noticed many of them still had leaves and almost ripened blueberries. Liz explained that these berries were set last November and although they are ripening slowly their taste will be inferior. The best tasting berries will come from flowers set in March. You can choose early and late ripening blueberry varieties to extend your harvest. Berry size and overall yield are more important to commercial growers as are varieties that set in clusters making it easier for them to harvest. For the home gardening, taste is what we are looking for and it's easy for us to pick a berry here and another there as they ripen to perfection.

So what are the top picks of the Farm manager? Drumroll, please. Her #1 pick for the Santa Cruz area is Southmoon. This variety produces early, mid and late season and is a nice blend of acid and sweet.  Coming in at #2 is Jubilee, an upright shrub with sky blue berries. Liz also likes other southern highbush varieties such as O'Neill, Santa Fe, Sapphire, Windsor, Jewel and Misty.

Some of these are tall woody plants while others are more spreading. For containers, a tall variety like Windsor or Jewel would not work as well as a medium sized bush with an arching form such as Misty, Southmoon or Jubilee.

Blueberries need 6 hours of sun or more, regular watering and lots of mulch over their roots. They naturally grow in bogs. The year before the Farm planted their blueberry field, the pH of the soil was 6. Blueberries prefer more acidic conditions so after having their soil tested they tilled in redwood mulch and soil sulfur at the recommended rate. Striving to keep the soil at 4.5 – 5.5 pH they renew the mulch yearly in the fall and add vinegar to the water each time they irrigate to acidify the soil. The Farm uses a commercial grade vinegar but the home gardening can use inexpensive white vinegar at a rate of 1 tablespoon/gallon of water. Liz explained that this will bring city water down to a pH of 5 and blueberries love it.

The Farm irrigates the blueberries 2-3 times per week with 1/2 gallon per hour emitters on a drip line every 12". They place 2-3 emitters per plant.

Because blueberries require acidic soil rich in organic matter an easy way to supply this is to buy rhododendron and camellia ready made organic soil and use it in containers or to amend native soil 50%.  Renewable and sustainable soil amendments include cottonseed meal, feather meal and mustard meal which comes from crushed mustard seed. Pescadero Gold available at Mountain Feed is a good source for mustard meal.

A 3-4" layer of mulch over the roots is especially important as blueberries have shallow roots close to the surface of the soil. They don't have root hairs like other plants and depend on mycorrhizal fungi to absorb nutrients. Protect this active zone with a mulch of organic woody material such as wood chips, redwood compost, clean sawdust, pine bark, pine or redwood needles.

Blueberries deserve a little extra attention to their growing conditions. They repay you with scrumptious, nutritious berries.
 

Vegetable Tips for Late Winter

albrightsouza_chardNow's the time to plant  cool season vegetables from starts or seed like chard, snow or shelling peas, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, mustard and onions.  You can also sow seeds of beets, radish and carrots directly in the ground. Inside it's time to start your warm season vegetable seeds such as tomatoes as well as eggplant and peppers.  Usually you start them inside about 8 weeks before last spring frost. Counting back 6 weeks from when night temperatures stay in the mid 50 degree range also works to figure out when to start.

For those who enjoy container gardening, try combining some colorful chard with parsley, alyssum and some Johnny-jump-ups. In another large pot grow some kale, spinach along with Windowbox sweet peas. All stay compact and you can harvest healthy greens close to the kitchen door.
 

Happy New Year 2013 from The Mountain Gardener

It's a humbling experience to read some of my past columns celebrating the New Year. Once you write something down it's there forever. Like a social media post it can haunt you. Such lofty goals I've set for myself over the years. But now it's that time of year when I look around the garden and think about the good things I accomplished and some that didn't get done.  A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

We live in a rain forest. Easy to remember the past few weeks as gentle and not so gentle raindrops fall on the thick redwood duff beneath the trees.  Mushrooms of every color and type poke through leaves still bright with the shades of fall. Last year was pretty dry until March. Not that great for fungi but this year should be spectacular. All the better to continue learning about our local mushrooms. It's one of my favorite goals for the New Year. The fungus fair in Santa Cruz is coming up the weekend of January 11th and I want to be better informed before my volunteer shift as a basketeer arrives.

Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped.
Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work it's connecting us to the earth and to each other.

This year I was able to visit gardens in far away places such as Poland to learn about Eastern European landscaping styles and traditions. Some were very different than what we are used to here in western gardens. Gardeners, though, are the same everywhere-eager to show off and share. I also had the opportunity to visit Abkhazi Garden and the famous Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia during the summer. Nothing can prepare you for the wonder that can be created out of nothing. I came back overflowing with inspiration for my landscape designs.

Next I plan to visit Chihuly Gardens in Seattle and a green wall installation in Tacoma. There's no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring garden. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don't get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don't get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals. But there's always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It's good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don't worry if you don't get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It's all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would be plant a tree or a seed or a garden?

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.

Healthy Edibles to Grow from Bare Root

Make this the year you take advantage of planting blueberries, grapes, strawberries,  peaches, cherries and apples from bare-root stock. These crops are .

Because of all the rains that fell in December, the growers are late getting into their fields to dig up the 2 million bare-root plants they harvest and deliver to your local nursery. The Santa Cruz Mountains stay cooler for a longer period in the winter, allowing dormant trees, shrubs and vines to be available to the home gardener in bare root form throughout February, too. The early bird gets the worm as far as best selection goes so take a look around your property and decide which yummy fruit and berry you’ll be adding to your garden.

I love blueberries. They are low in calories and so good for you. They contain the highest concentration of antioxidants of all fresh fruit. They have lots of vitamins and help boost your immune system. The list or benefits goes on and on. On top of all that, they make beautiful hedges with stunning fall color.

One variety I’m dying to try is a hybrid from Australia called Brigitta.  This Northern highbush variety is sweet yet slightly tart. The grower says they possess an amazing shelf. They’ve stored this blueberry for over a month in the refrigerator and they were still crisp with a great taste. The berry is medium to large and ripens late in the season. The bush is a fast grower to 4-6 feet with deep green foliage and bronze tinted new growth. It is semi-self fertile but produces more  planted alongside Bluecrop. Try planting them each in their own wine barrel where you can control the soil, watering and sun exposure.

Apples-you know the saying "one a day keeps the doctor away". There are lots of apple varieties to choose from.  Honeycrisp is a large, scarlet over yellow apple with a well-balanced sweet tart flavor. The texture is similar to a crisp watermelon or Asian pear and is very juicy. They ripen in late September.

Another crisp apple to grow is the Braeburn apple. The skin is green overlaid with orange-red while the flesh is firm, crisp and juicy. It is mildly sweet tart with an excellent flavor, is a heavy producer and stores well. It ripens October to early November.

Love biting into a juicy peach in the summertime? Try growing Santa Barbara, considered the best tasting peach for homeowners. Flesh is yellow, freestone and red near the pit. It has a melting texture, delightfully sweet, combined with the delicious peach flavor. Peaches are self-fertile. This variety requires only 300 hour of chill below 45 degrees so is good for warmer winter areas as well as the mountains.

Your favorite fruit are cherries but you don’t have much room for a big tree? Then the Compact Stella cherry is the tree for you. The fruit is firm, sweet and dark red with good flavor and texture. It’s excellent for eating, canning and preserves while being self fertile and a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries.

There are other edibles available now, too, like figs, pomegranate, persimmon, apricot, pears, plums, asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, grapes and blackberries. They all sounds delicious.
 

New Year’s Resolutions for Gardeners

Last year I was brave and published my New Year’s resolutions– at least those that pertain to the garden. It’s now the day of reckoning. Let’s see how I did and which ones I’ll  keep for 2011.   In the garden, as in life, simple changes can make a big difference over a long time. I’m adding a couple new ones that are important, too.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning. I’m starting to learn about local mushrooms. They come up in the most beautiful places. I’m looking forward to the Fungus Fair in January.
Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.  Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.


Of the 16 gardener’s resolutions I made last year I can honestly say I achieved half of them.

I did pay more attention to the size that plants grow and believed the tag when it said "spreading habit". But I also found that pruning shears are life savers  when you just have to have that new foliage plant that just came out.

I started making garden journal entries in February instead of January as I resolved. But then I tried to make up for it in March, May, June, October, November and December.  I missed 5 out of 12 months. I get a "C-".

I added more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects which kept the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like.  ( That counts as two resolutions )

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it, not jumping up to rearrange containers. (This one was easy)

I applied to get my little garden certified as a wildlife habitat  with the National Wildlife Federation by making sure I provided food sources, water, cover, places to raise young and used sustainable gardening techniques.

I fertilized my perennials a couple of times this year with organic compost and fertilizer instead of just once and boy were they happy. The trees and larger shrubs really only need a light dose once a year so I was good there.

I wore sunscreen everyday. (My doctor wants a hat, too. Maybe this year I’ll wear one.)

The other half of last year’s resolutions are being recycled as they’re still good ones:

I will not buy a new flower, shrub or tree until I have a plan for it in the garden.

I will sharpen and clean my garden tools so they look spiffy and work better.

I will start a worm bin with my kitchen scraps and a compost pile for leaves and plant debris. (I have so many raccoons it’s like a party out there at night but I’m going to come up with a critter-proof solution.)

I will weed regularly- not waiting until they’re so tall they swallow up my gardening tools when I lay them down.

I will accept a few holes in my plants but tour the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and I need to break out an organic pesticide.

I will prune my maples, transplant my overgrown containers and divide my perennials when I’m supposed to.

I will plant more things to eat. Edibles anywhere in the garden feed the body and the soul. (This summer was so cold I didn’t have much luck in my partial shade.)

I will stop rationalizing my plant habit is better than gambling, clothes shopping or smoking.

I will do better to practice what I preach in this column.

Happy New Year in 2011 from The Mountain Gardener