It’s Spring – What do I do?

Yes, we need more rain but the recent sunny weather has been good for both people and plants. I remember many years ago when we had "The Miracle March" as a local meteorologist called it. It rained for 30 days straight. This was great for the watershed but drowned new emerging roots, starving them of oxygen and causing lots of fungal problems.  Let’s hope Mother Nature spreads out the remaining precipitation keeping everyone happy.

Spring begins today. This year, especially, think of gardening as therapy.  Every moment you put in your garden is paid back with fresh vegetables and fragrant flowers.  Think about it- stir up the soil, plant some seeds and you have flowers and vegetables in a few months.  The satisfaction you get from cultivating living things is priceless.

Get started on this free therapy by tending to your garden this week:

Plant low water use plants in place of those that have been struggling. Use your precious time, space and sun to grow the plants you most want to look at, pic or eat.  As a reminder, never work with soil that is very wet and keep off your lawn the, too, as this can compact the soil.

Cut back deciduous shrubs and vines except those that flower now in the spring. Don’t prune rhododendrons, camellias, or azaleas until the last flowers have started to open and green growth has started.
Prune frost  damaged shrubs if you can tell how far down the die back goes otherwise wait until growth starts in the spring.  For your shrubs, test bark for viability by scraping with a sharp knife.

If you are interested in being less of a slave to your lawn, consider reducing the size. If you’ve decided that you don’t need a traditional grass lawn anymore at all, replace it with a sustainable alternative.

Check for early aphids and blast them off with a hose or use no-tozic sprays like horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Check for snails and slug damage and apply organic iron phosphate bait. Earwigs and sowbugs can be controlled by organic spinosad. Reduce their numbers by eliminating hiding places.  Clean out leaf litter and garden debris and use organic iron phosphate bait.  Copper pennies in your containers can also deter them.

Get weeds out of the garden early and you’ll save yourself a lot of digging later. Weeds rob your plants of precious moisture and nutrients.

Plant cool season vegetable like peas, chard, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, onions and other greens.  You can also sow seeds of beets and carrots. The soil is still too cold for tomatoes and other warm season vegetables. 

Grow the sweetest strawberries this year by planting them in a bed that receives at least 6 hours of direct sun at midday.  Don’t water too much.  This can dilute their flavor.  You want the soil to be moist but not wet. Don’t apply excess nitrogen fertilizer which causes overly lush growth at the expense of berry production. Also keep beds free of weeds and space each strawberry plant about a foot apart.

Plant a spring flowering tree such as a flowering cherry, dogwood, crabapple or plum or a native western redbud to welcome the new season and make your spirits soar.
 

Planning this Summer’s ‘Staycation’

Picture yourself this summer with your family outdoors  during your  "staycation" – relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard.  Now is the perfect time to plan while the yard is still a bit bare and you can see the space for what it really is.  Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable in the hot summer. We usually get a heat wave in May so be prepared early.  National Arbor Day in the last week of April but each state sets its own day of celebration. California celebrates this week, March 7-14, as the week to plant a tree.

There are so many good choices for our area.  First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions.  Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak.  Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple.  If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, with brick or pavers?  If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden.  Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

After you’ve planted your tree and planned your hidden getaway take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden .  Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Spread compost, manure, or organic fertilizer to help plants get off to a strong start.  If you need to move any plants in the garden, now is a good time.  Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Think of weeding as free gym time. The last frost of the season is approximately March 15th.  Spring is on its way.
 

Planning the Garden

As you plan this year’s garden, whether it’s a new vegetable bed, un-thirsty perennials,  shade trees , or anything in between, think of how they will affect your surroundings. Will they take up less of the earth’s resources and not too much of your own time and energy? Changing weather patterns make it smart to find new, more sustainable ways to garden.  Downsize your garden’s neediness without sacrificing beauty or productivity.

Start with a smart design.

  • Does your garden utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers that help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water?
  • Have you considered installing a rain garden or small, planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite?
  • Have you grouped plants in your garden according to their water needs? Do you have some plantings that can survive on rainfall alone after their second season? Have you chosen plants that are locally grown and adapted to our climate?
  • Do you have an irrigation system that is efficient without being wasteful?  Do you water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff? Do you water in the early morning or evening to maximize absorption?
  • Do you have deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter? Do you have trees and shrubs to clean the air of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide? Trees also breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.
  • Does your garden feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do you have perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds? Have you planted flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects? Do you use organic pesticides?
  • Do you make your soil a priority by adding compost each year? Do you mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water?  Do you use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil? Do you compost the green and brown waste your garden produces-fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables?
  • Do you stay ahead of weeds , pulling them before they set seed and spread?

       
Take steps to make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.
 

What Zone Are We?

Spring is coming. Like me, you’re  probably anxious to get started in your garden. We’ve gotten some much needed rain and hopefully there is more to come. As you’re thoughts turn to gardening, though, make sure those new plant choices are the right ones for your area.

Notice how much sun or shade an area gets during the growing season- from April through September. Knowing  also which Sunset climate zone you are in is equally as important to make sure your garden thrives. Every year I get asked which zone the areas of Scotts Valley, San Lorenzo Valley, Bonny Doon are in. It’s confusing in Sunset Western Gardening Guide as our area has many microclimates and their map is not detailed enough to reflect this. They even show Felton as being on a ridge top instead of on the valley floor. Here are some tips to help you determine in what zone you garden.

Zone 7  has the coldest winters in our area.  Very high ridge tops like the Summit area and the most northern portions of Bonny Doon lie in this zone.  My records show average winter lows ranging from 15-25 degrees based on 20 years of input from gardeners in these areas.  This does not apply to other areas of zone 7, just those around here.   Record lows have occurred during freezes in 1990, 1996 and 2007 but as gardeners we rely on average highs and lows to help guide our planting times.  Spring weather comes later in this zone with the growing season mainly from April – October.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area.  Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call "a cold 15".  Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. Often there is damage to the tips of oleanders and citrus while gardenias and tropical hibiscus need extra protection.There are warmer parts of this zone, though, where the growing season starts in March and ends in November.  These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this "banana belt". Pasatiempo also falls in this thermal zone.  Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay above freezing. Lucky you.

 

How and Why to Mulch

We never stop learning. No matter how much we think we know about a subject, there is always more to learn. 


Take mulching, for example.  Mulching is simply covering the soil around plants with a protective material, organic or inorganic.  This helps maintain moisture in the garden, decreases soil compaction, modifies soil temperatures and adds nutrients and humus to the soil as they decompose. 

It’s that time of year to mulch existing perennials, shrubs and trees. While a little chicken manure is good worked into the veggie garden, composted horse manure works better as a mulch for the rest of the garden.  Chicken manure is high in phosphates and too much can inhibit beneficial microbes in the soil.  It also feed the weeds.  They love it.  A better method would be to cover a layer of compost or  composted horse or steer manure with a thick 4" layer of wood chips.

Wood chips offer additional benefits: They’re local, free from arborists, and affordable from the transfer station in Ben Lomond  . Any disease in the chips doesn’t transfer to healthy plant roots, as long as you don’t dig the chips into the soil.  You can also buy clean chips from landscape supply yards or in convenient bags from nurseries.

To make the most of , learn what kind of soil you’re working with.  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst  ( www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/ ) offers a basic standard test for $9.  It includes  pH, buffer pH, extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), extractable heavy metals (Pb, Cd, Ni, Cr), and extractable aluminum, cation exchange capacity, percent base saturation. 

Our local soil testing laboratory in Watsonville, Perry Laboratory, offers a comprehensive test.  Their web site is  www.perrylaboratory.com.  The landscape package they offer includes basic fertility, micronutrients, salinity, alkalinity, texture, organic matter content and lime content. The main difference between the two labs is that Perry’s  will give you  specific recommendations based on your results to improve your soil. 

Make sure you get fresh mulch spread over your garden plants soon.  You’ll be amazed at the difference in your garden this season.  A mulched garden is a happy garden. 

Start your cool season veggies

Plants and trees know when it’s time to bloom and begin growing for the season.  Driving around our area I’ve seen the huge flowers of the saucer magnolias starting to unfurl. Many plum trees look like pink clouds they have so many blossoms. It’s time to start planning and planting the vegetable garden.
 
Towards the end of this month start your tomato and pepper seeds indoors so they are ready to transplant outdoors in 6-8 weeks. Meanwhile, begin sowing seeds of cool season vegetables outside. Prepare the soil by amending with compost and plant seeds for carrots, peas, spinach, beets, chard and lettuce. You can get a jump on your spring harvest by setting out starts of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and green onions.

If you don’t want to wait even that long to start eating your own healthy vegetables, try growing micro greens inside your house like houseplants. It’s similar to sprouting alfalfa, cress, sunflower and buckwheat seeds in a jar and eating them before the second set of leaves emerge. Micro greens, however, can be grown in soil, sprinkled on sponges or fine textured fabric. Because they won’t be around long enough to flower or fruit, they don’t need much light. . It takes about 30 days for micro greens to set their first leaves and be ready to harvest. When the first leaves appear they are at the peak of their nutritional concentration.

What do they taste like? Well, carrot greens, after they set their first true leaf, taste exactly like a carrot. Emerging radish leaves are spicy, cabbage is mild, while sunflowers are nutty. The first swiss chard leaf tastes like spinach, beets have an earthy flavor and kale is slightly sweet. The most intense flavor comes when that first leaf opens as they begin to manufacture energy from light.  Think of them as chia pets you can eat.

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