Tag Archives: edibles

Santa Cruz Co Fair

I was on my deck recently with a friend who commented that everything smelled so good that it must be nice to just sit and enjoy the garden. I thought to myself "What? How can I just sit when there is so much to do?" That's when it hit me, Why do we create gardens if not to enjoy them?  So as summer winds to an end broccoli_sweet_alyssum2celebrate what you've created and just sit and enjoy the fragrance, sights and sounds of your garden.

At the Santa Cruz County Fair last week there was plenty of inspiration to enjoy the fragrance, sights and sounds of a county fair.   Before I even arrived I stopped at a broccoli field bordered by sweet alyssum. The fragrance was lovely and I knew the beneficial syrphid flies were doing their job as predators of aphids that might find a broccoli plant irresistible.
zinnia_with_honey_bee2
At the fair I always admire the colorful beds of mixed zinnias. I didn't see any swallowtail butterflies looking for nectar but I know it's one of their favorite flowers. Lots of honey bees did find the zinnias to their liking. Next year I'm going to try my hand at zinnias again. They are one of those old fashioned flowers that are easy to grow. Kids love that they come up so quickly and develop a flower one can really be proud of.

At the Farm History display old food processing equipment and jars caught my attention. I could admire the apple boxes with their imaginative labels for hours. An educational poster of old pictures from the late 1800's showed workers spraying horticultural oil on apple trees to eradicate apple scab. When DDT came on the scene, it was used until banned in 1973 but it is still being detected in water and fish. Organic apple growers utilize integrated pest management techniques now.

I love seeing the poultry, lamb judging, dairy cows and cattle and pigs but it was the 3 day old baby goats that had the biggest audience. Naturally, I'm drawn to the horticultural exhibits. Who doesn't enjoy the dahlia competition with every color and flower type represented? A dark magenta cactus dahlia was my favorite. These mammoth flowers take longer to grow and fewer are produced by each plant but they are so worth it.

After the bonsai exhibit and vowing to do better with my own collection, it was the roses that I circled repeatedly smelling each to decide which was the most fragrant. I'm partial to the scent of my own lavender Neptune and baby pingiant_pumpkin2.1280k Falling in Love but the winners at the fair were outstanding especially the white JFK.

After the watercolor and fine art exhibit I pressed on to the agriculture building where apple pie and jams, beans, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, herbs and other fruit and vegetable entries are displayed. The pumpkin judges awarded first prize to a giant specimen but many were close in weight. I know there is an art and science to growing these behemoths. Maybe someday I'll try my hand but I like the smaller eating varieties that are so sweet.

Back at home, I'm tempted to prune the spent hosta flower stalks but I'm taking my own advice and am going to just sit and enjoy the scent of the last of the jasmine blossoms. The Iceberg rose sweetens the air with the scent of honey. The mophead hydrangea blooms have taken on that tawny dusty rose shade that will last for many more months. The Anna's hummingbirds visit the abutilons every hour sipping nectar and I can see buds forming on the Autumnalis Flowering Cherry getting ready for it's second show of the year. Be sure to take time out and enjoy your garden. You deserve it.
 

What to do in the Garden in September

I never want summer to end. Who doesn't love those long days and warm nights? The calendar might say fall is near but Indian summer is one of the our best seasons so I love this time of year, too. But then I get all excited when spring rolls around and everything is in bloom. It's all good. I have a check list of some garden tasks  I need to do at this time of year so I better get to them between hiking and trips to the beach.

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time if you haven't already done so last month. All shrubs, especially broad-leaved evergrimperata_cylindrica_rubrum2eens such as rhododendron, pieris, camellia, hebe, need to calm down, stop growing and harden off to get ready for the winter cold. Some plants have already set next year's buds.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in October. To keep them blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new rose to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves. You can always cut lower on the stem if you need to control height.

Deadhead flowering annuals and perennials in the ground as often as you possibly can. Annuals like zinnias and cosmos will stop blooming if you allow them to go to seed. The same is true of repeat blooming perennials like dahlia, scabiosa, echinacea and lantana. Santa Barbara daisies will bloom late into winter if cut back now.

These plants know they're on this earth to reproduce. If they get a chance to set seed the show's over, they've raised their family. Try to remove fading flowers regularly and you'll be amply rewarded. If you want to start libertiaperennial flowers from seeds this is the time so that they'll  be mature enough to bloom next year.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylilies and penstemons that are overgrown and not flowering well.  You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don't bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.  If you're on  a roll out in the garden, though, go for it now.

It's still a little hot to plant cool season veggies starts in the ground. They appreciate conditions later in September when the soil is still warm but temps have cooled. It is OK to plant seeds of beets, carrots, spinach, arugula, mustard, leeks, onions, peas, radishes and turnips.

If you aren't going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover after you've harvested your summer vegetables.  Next month I'll talk about how to go about doing this and how this benefits your soil.

Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit.  Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather.  Sometimes you don't even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling.  Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water.  Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides. 

Now that you've taken care of your chores reward yourself by  to your garden for color in late summer through fall. Take a look at the garden areas that aren't working for you and replant. Good choices include aster, chrysanthemum, coreopsis, and gaillardia. Abutilon also called Flowering Maple come in so many colors that you probably need another one in your garden.  Petite Pink gaura looks fabulous planted near the burgundy foliage of a loropetalum. Don't overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

One last to do:  Make a journal entry celebrating the best things about your garden this year. 
 

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.

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.