All posts by Jan Nelson

I am a landscape designer and consultant in the Santa Cruz mountains in California. I write a weekly gardening column for the Press Banner newspaper. I am also a Calif. Advanced Certified Nursery Professional and managed The Plantworks Nursery in Ben Lomond, Ca. for 20 years.

Put your Garden to Bed

 There’s a peaceful quality to this time of year.  Mother Nature is winding down for the season turning deciduous trees ablaze with fall color.  Cool season pansies and violas turn their little faces to catch the sun.  It’s time to put the garden to bed for a greener spring next year. 

 Here are some suggestions, but promise you won’t try to do everything on one weekend.  it’ll just seem like work.  Gardening should be something you enjoy. 

  • Build up your soil by layering the vegetable beds with 2" of leaves newly fallen from your trees.  Soil building worms and organisms will start their work right away.  In the spring, dig what’s left into the soil.  If you want the leaves to break down faster, run over them with a lawn mower, then rake them up for mulch.
  •  Prevent erosion of your precious soil by mulching with straw or bark.  Mulch used around perennials, shrubs and trees will help moisture percolate into the soil instead of running off into storm drains or creeks along with fertilizers.    Mulch also keeps the soil from becoming compacted by winter rains.  If you don’t have enough leaves to use as mulch try layering newspapers and cardboard and cover with straw.  3-4" of mulch around the base of trees and large shrubs will hold weeds down, too.  Be sure to keep mulch a couple of inches away from the base of your plants so trapped moisture doesn’t rot the trunk. 
  • Chop down leftover vegetable plants and spent annuals flowers and layer on the vegetable bed under cardboard to decompose.  Don’t do this with diseases plants such as squash plants with powdery mildew.   These can be put in the curbside yard waste can.  Hot commercial composting systems can kill disease spores.
  • Clean empty pots and store them upside down in a dry location.  That way you’ll keep any soil diseases from being passed on to next year’s plants. 
  •  Store any excess leaves to use next summer if you have a lot of deciduous trees.  They’re like gold.  They make great bedding for a worm bin and next summer you can use them in the compost pile when you have an abundance of nitrogen rich green material but little carbon-based brown stuff to mix with it. 
  • Leave a little debris for wildlife so beneficial ground beetles have a place to live and birds can snack on seeds left on shriveled flowers.  Coneflowers, ornamental grasses and crocosmia all attract birds to their seed heads through the winter. 

The bottom line is to do those fall clean-up jobs as you have the time and energy.  Cleaning up in increments leaves height and interest in the garden and feeds the birds, too.

What you should do first, though, is to bring indoors houseplants that  spent the summer out on the patio. Also bring in any plants too tender to survive the winter outside. Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off.   Sub-topical plants  like tree ferns and bananas benefit from extra mulch to help them survive the worst of the winter weather.

It’s not too late to reseed thin spots on your lawn or apply a fall fertilizer to an existing one and if you have citrus trees, rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias they’ll benefit from an application of   Citrus use it for flower bud development and fruit sweetness.  Rhodies, azaleas, and camellias need it when flower buds begin to form.  It also improves flowering and root development of any plant and helps plants resist diseases and cold weather damage. 

Let the Birds Control your Insect Pests

Looks like trick-or-treating for Halloween is as popular with my garden visitors as it is with kids.  No, I’m not talking about those four-legged twins with doe-eyes that look longingly through my deer fencing at my hydrangeas.  I’m referring to the many birds that flock to my garden to eat aphids, mealybugs, mites and spiders, keeping the insect population under control without me lifting a finger.   What could be more convenient and beautiful to watch?

Throughout the year there are many resident birds that help me in the garden as they go about their business of  nesting and raising their young.  Ladybugs and other beneficial insects also do their part but it’s the songbirds I depend on to really get in there and do a clean sweep.  As if that’s not enough I get to hear them sing and call to each other and enjoy their bright plumage as they flit through the trees.

My garden is not very big.  I have a small birdbath to provide water for drinking and bathing. Several hummingbird feeders supplement the food supply when they are feeding their young and to help them through the winter.  The plants I grow provide foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts for all wildlife ( except those deer, sorry ) that visit my garden.  Shrubs provide hiding places and shelter for birds and other wildlife to raise their young, avoid predators and get out of inclement weather.   In return, they keep my garden healthy.  I’m getting a good deal, if you ask me.

Just this morning I was happy to welcome my resident flock of Chestnut-backed chickadees who proceeded to scour every perennial, shrub and tree like acrobats looking for insects and seeds.  They are quite tame and friendly and easily attracted to feeding stations.   At the same time, a group of brilliant yellow and black Townsend’s warblers arrived to survey the scene.  The prefer our cool fir and redwood forests in the fall and spring and also find food in oaks, madrones and bay trees.  These little birds are so bright you can see them from quite a distance.

Hopping about and scratching the ground to expose beetles and worms, a couple of American robins were doing their share of insect control. They also love the leftover blackberries still hanging on the vine.   Back up in the trees, the acorn woodpeckers were working on beetles and grubs hiding under the bark.  These are just some of the feathered help I have visiting my garden.

What can you do to encourage this free labor?  In addition to oaks and madrones, plant trees like crabapple, hawthorn, loquat, dogwood  and fruit trees for colorful fruits and berries.  Native shrubs like oregon grape, toyon, coffeeberry,  California wax myrtle, snowberry, coyote brush, manzanita and elderberry all have berries that attract birds. Ceanothus are among the most valued shrubs as a food source attracting bushtits, finches, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, quail, thrashers, thrushes, towhees, warblers, white-crowned sparrows and wrentits.  Other shrubs to include are Japanese barberry, roses and junipers.

 Hummingbirds do their share of spider control when they have young and need extra protein.  Native plants like salvia, sagebrush, buckwheat, flowering currant as well as garden favorites like flowering maple, fuchsia, coral bells all provide nectar for them and butterflies, too.


 *  Avoid using chemical insecticides.   Most birds eat insects and spiders.  If you spray your plants with chemicals, you’ll create a sterile wasteland for protein-eating birds. You’ll also kill butterflies or their larvae.  Spray organic pesticides only if you absolutely have to and then direct the spray carefully. 

  *  Be unfastidious.  The best wildlife habitats are not overly manicured.  The less often you rake under bushes, the better it is for the birds.  Accumulated duff gives a place for insects and other creatures to breed and live.  When possible, leave small brush piles in out-of-the-way places.

If you’d like to identify the birds that you’ve attracted, you can get a free check list of the birds of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park from their gift shop.  Many of those birds will be in your garden, too.  They also sell a beautiful laminated color chart of local birds of Monterey Bay area.  Fun to have by your kitchen window for a quick reference when you see a splash of yellow fly by. 

What to do with Green Tomatoes

With night temperatures dipping down into the 30’s,  you may be thinking your tomato vines are done for the season.  But what about all those green tomatoes just hanging there?   Don’t let these underage beauties go to waste.    There are lots of ways to use them.   Opportunity is hanging on the vine, ready to be picked.
When fall frost approaches,you  can pick unripe, mature green tomatoes to ripen indoors. A mature green tomato has a glossy, whitish green fruit color and mature size.   Taste one by taking a 1/4" slice of a medium-size tomato and sample it.  Your taste buds will register a firm, fresh fruit with an immature tomato flavor and a hint of sweetness similar to a zucchini.    Select fruits only from strong healthy vines, and pick only those fruits free of disease, insect or mechanical damage.  Remove stems to prevent them from puncturing each other and if dirty, gently wash and allow the fruit to air dry.

Store your tomatoes in boxes, 1 to 2 layers deep, or in plastic bags with a few holes for air circulation.
If you have a cool, moderately humid room, simply place them on a shelf but out of direct sunlight.  They may be stored in the dark also.

 As tomatoes ripen, they naturally release ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening. To slow ripening, sort out ripened fruits from the green tomatoes each week. To speed up ripening, place green or partially ripe fruits in a bag or box with a ripe tomato. Green, mature tomatoes  stored at 65-70 degrees, will ripen in about 2 weeks. Cooler temperatures slow the ripening process. At 55 degrees, they will ripen in 3-4 weeks. Storage temperatures below 50 degrees will slow ripening, but results in inferior quality.

If tomatoes  are stored where the humidity is too high the fruit molds and rots. If humidity is too low, the fruit shrivel and dries out. Since homes vary in humidity levels, you will need to learn by trial and error what works best.

 Tomatoes ripened indoors are not as flavorful as vine ripened fruits. However, compared to store bought, you will be delighted with your own home ripened tomatoes.

 If you have peppers still green on the vine, they can be ripened in the same way as tomatoes.  

Another way to take advantage of your late tomatoes is to use them green to make a culinary delight in the kitchen.  Again your green tomato must be of mature size.  Avoid the small ones.  They will have a bitter taste and can ruin your recipe.  Core a green tomato before use.  Unripe tomatoes often have a woodier stem and a unique core piece.  This hard, white core section is not always continuous with the stem, so you have to look for it.   It’s small, about the size of a pea and sits in the tomato somewhere within the top inch of where the stem attaches.  You can see and feel a hard white piece that’s different from the test of the fruit if you slice a tomato in half. 

We’ve all heard of fried green tomatoes made by coating tomato slices with seasoned flour, then an egg mixture and finally with panko bread crumbs.  Be sure to lightly press the slices between paper towels to remove excess moisture  before coating.  Then fry the coated slices in about 2" of oil, turning once.  Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with kosher salt.   They’re especially tasty if you brown a little crushed garlic in the oil first and then remove it.  

Another way to use them is to .  Golden-brown, carmelized green tomatoes produce a deep, rich flavor that is perfect with sauteed nectarines, peaches and apricots.  Even when baked, they hold their supple but firm texture and develop a delicate sweetness similar to an apple. 

 Extend your harvest and don’t let anything in the garden go to waste.

Erosion and You

 Now that we’ve had a bit of rain, it’s time to get serious about planting wildflowers for spring color and to attract bees,   cover crops to renew your soil,   and erosion control seed and plantings to hold your slope during the winter rains.

 Let’s start with the fun stuff- wildflowers.  Picture your meadow or garden filled with beautiful wildflowers, attracting all sorts of songbirds, hummingbirds, dragonflies and other beneficial insects.  If this is your goal, first get rid of existing weed seeds that in the soil and can smother out the slower growing wildflowers. The rains earlier this month will have germinated those pesky weed seeds so you can hoe them off now.  Be careful not to cultivate over 1" deep or you will bring more weed seeds to the surface.

Next, choose a site with at least a half day of sun.  Rake the soil lightly and spread the seed at the recommended rate.  It helps to mix the tiny seeds with 4 times as much sand or vermiculite so you don’t spread the seed too thickly.  Rake the seed very lightly into the soil and tamp it down for good soil contact.  Then you can wait for the next rain or water the area by hand.  It’s important to remember that after your wildflowers have germinated they must remain moist.  If mother nature doesn’t cooperate , you will need to hand water a for a while- a small price to pay for all that beauty in the spring.

What’s a cover crop?  These are grasses or legumes that grow during the fall and winter and then are tilled into the soil in the spring.  They help prevent erosion when planted on slopes and energize the soil when planted in the garden.   Preserve you topsoil and nutrients by planting a pretty cover crop like crimson clover. 

Crimson cloverCrimson clover has beautiful magenta glowers, but its primary benefit happens below the ground- the soil gains nitrogen, a better structure and greater biological activity.  Growing a legume, like clover, will "fix" nitrogen in the soil.  You can reduce the amount of fertilizer you use in the spring by 1/3 to 1/2,  especially in areas like the vegetable garden that need a lot of nutrients to produce all those good things to eat.   If you’re going to be growing peas or beans as the garden’s next crop, though, don’t use a legume cover crop in these areas.  You may end up with all vine and no peas or beans to harvest.  Heavy feeders like corn or squash will really respond to the extra nitrogen.

How do they do this?  Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose in the garden bed, that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed the leafy growth of other plants.

 Besides reducing erosion a cover crop like crimson clover  can reduce soil compaction and their tap roots break up clay soil.
    To plant, rake the bed, sow the seed by hand and rake again.  Water to help germination if rains don’t do it for you.  Next spring, chop them down when they begin to flower.  Early spring is the best time to dig the clover into the soil because that dose of green manure is at it’s peak before the plant matures.  After a few weeks of decomposition, you energized soil is ready for vegetable seeds and starts. 

 Another way to prevent erosion is to plant native grasses, herbaceous and woody plants.  If you haven’t started planting a steep slope yet, you may need to use jute netting to stabilize the slope while the permanent plants are becoming established.  Santa Cruz erosion mix is a quick growing grass especially suited for our conditions.  You can also plant crimson clover under jute netting.

Whatever you choose, take steps now to prevent . 

To do or not to do in October

This weeks to do or not to do:SterlingRed Cyclamen

Wait to prune all your trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form.  Fall is not a good time to prune.  Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease.  As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.

Plant cool season annuals and perennials for fall, winter and spring flowers.  The sooner you get them in the ground, the faster they get established.  Planted too late, they may just sit until spring.  Good choices for this area are cyclamen, primroses, calendula, pansies, violas, Iceland poppies, snapdragon, stock, chrysanthemum paludosum, ornamental cabbage and kale, alyssum and English daisy. 

Planting Fruit Trees in the fall

 We all know fruit is good for us and it tastes so yummy, too.  I love it when a plan comes together !  I’m still enjoying juicy, late nectarines, plums and pluots in addition to newly ripening apples and pears.  Can persimmons and pomegranates be far behind?

Trees are an essential part of every garden so why not have some that produce something good to eat, too?  A large apple or plum can serve as a shade tree if you prune the lower branches so you can walk under it.  A dwarf fruit tree would make a good focal point in a garden bed.  Consider adding a fruit tree now to your garden.  The trees available now are now more mature that those sold bare root in January.  Many are already producing fruit.  

If you have fruit trees in your garden already, look to add late ripening varieties that can extend your season.   Goldmine nectarines ripen in late summer where most other varieties mature earlier in June and July.  Their juicy, sweet white flesh has excellent flavor.  Needing only 400 hours of chilling in the winter – this refers to the # of hours below 45 degrees during the dormant season – they are good for mild winter areas like Pasatiempo.  A great late peach ripening in August is Late Elberta.  You’ll love its large, delicious yellow fruit.

And many apples, like my favorite, the Fuji, ripen in the fall.  With firm, crunchy white flesh Fuji apples can’t be beat for eating right off the tree.  They also keep well and bear in mild winter areas.

So what should you be doing to keep your trees healthy?

  • Water:  A trees network of roots generally extend to the drip line, which is as far as the branches spread from the trunk, so set your sprinkler or soaker hose to cover the entire area.
  • Fertilize one last time for the season to replace the potassium and magnesium that have been leached out of the root zone.
  • Weed:  Young trees especially will benefit from careful weeding around their trunk which can be a hiding place for rodents in the winter. Girdling can be fatal for a tree if the bark is chewed away. 
  • Cleanup:  Practice good sanitation by cleaning up fallen fruit , especially if it has signs of pests and diseases that can come back to haunt you next spring.

It’s too late for light summer pruning and too early for dormant pruning.  However, there are a couple of things you can do now before leaves drop.  Assess the tree.  A main pruning goal is to allow light into the central part of the tree so the lower branches aren’t shaded by those above.  Also look for weaker branches, those with fewer leaves or less fruit.  You might even put a piece of yarn on those branches to mark them for later pruning. 

If you have a fruit tree that is just too large for your space, despite pruning, consider replacing it with a smaller variety.  Many types of fruit trees are available in dwarf varieties as well as semi-dwarf.  It depends on the root stock.  Remember: right tree, right spot.