Tag Archives: gardening tips

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.

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. 

Early October to-do’s

Early October to-do’s

If you have planted cool season veggies like cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli or brussels sprouts be on the look out for small holes in the leaves, which are signs of cabbage worms or diamondback moth larvae.

Cabbage worm adults are the white butterflies frequently seen around cabbage plants in the daytime.  Their yellow, bullet-shaped eggs, attached to the undersides of leaves, hatch into 1 1/2" long green worms with a light stripe down the back.

Diamondback moths fly in the evening.  Their larvae are tiny 1/4" long green worms that feed on the undersides of leaves and when disturbed, wriggle rapidly and often drop from the plant on a silk thread.  Adult moths spend the winter hidden under plant debris.

Clean up after harvest and cultivate the soil thoroughly to expose and destroy overwintering moths and the pupae of cabbage worms.  In the meantime, treat your current crops, when leaves show feeding damage, with organic BT while the worms are still small.

Happy October. 

 

Things to do in the garden in August

Here are some reminders of things to do in your garden in August.

  • Cut back  berry vines that have produced fruit.  Canes of the current season should be trained in place.
  • Spider 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 insecticidal soap, switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides. 
  • Start cool season veggies seeds now so they are ready to put in the ground in 6-8 weeks when the  weather is cooler.  You can start broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, lettuce and spinach seeds in containers.  Carrots, onions, peas, beets and radishes can be sown directly in the ground. 
  • One last to do:  Make a journal entry celebrating the best things about your garden this year

Garden coaching

Right plant-right place

Lately I’m getting a lot of requests for garden coaching. The economy probably has something to do with it. People want to know what plants will thrive in the different areas of their gardens or why something isn’t working. Who can afford to waste $ on the wrong plant in the wrong location?  When I make house calls there are several problems that seem to keep cropping up. Maybe one of these tips will help make your garden grow.

  Poor soil
If your soil looks like a sandy beach, amend it each time you plant something new with organic matter like compost or planing mix. Then be sure to mulch the surface to preserve precious moisture and soil structure and keep roots cool. Yearly, add organic mulch around existing planting keeping the immediate area around the crown of the plant open. If your native soil is just a little on the sandy side, you may not need to amend the soil much before planting but don’t forget that all important mulch. Crushed gravel or cobbles uses as a mulch holds in moisture the same way as bark or compost.

Those of you who live under redwoods may have the opposite problem- heavy clay soil, dense enough to make pottery. Surprisingly, adding organic matter to these soils solves this problem, too. The key is preserving the soil structure fterwards by mulching so it doesn’t pack down every time you water or during the winter rains.

 Not watering deep enough or watering too often
Sure there’s a period of time when you first plant something that you need to water more often until it’s established but even then watering every day is rarely needed. As a rule of thumb, water a new 1 gallon plant when the top 1/2 " – 1" is dry. A newly planted 5 gallon container will need watering when the top 1 1/2 – 2" is dry. A tree or large shrub planted from a 15 gallon container needs watering when the top 2-3" is dry. Hot days as well as shady locations vs sunny sites will all affect how long you can go between waterings.  When you do water apply enough to water the entire root zone deeply. If the water doesn’t penetrate 1-3 ft down, depending on the plant, it will suffer and even die. Drip systems are great if you have them set properly. Don’t waste water by having your timer set for 10 minutes every other day. If you have 1 gal/hour emitters that’s less than 3 cups of water each. How deep is that going to penetrate? Set your system so that each zone gets enough water for long enough to really count. This applies to established low-water use plants, too. They need a deep soak every 2-4 weeks.
One last tip on drip systems: make sure the emitter isn’t right next to the stem or trunk. Plants need water applied at the drip line where the feeder roots are located, not drowning the crown. Move it out as the plant grows and the dripline enlarges.

  Gopher baskets
If you need to plant in gopher baskets, make sure you eliminate the air pockets between the root ball and the side of the basket. Many times I’ve dug around a plant that is not doing well only to find big air spaces down the side of the basket or the planting hole where the soil was not properly tamped down. The roots on that side of the plant will die under these conditions and possibly the whole plants will be killed.

  Right plant-wrong place
Become familiar with the sun patterns of your property during the growing season- spring through fall. Many of us don’t have winter sun and lots of plants can adapt to this but they are more exacting when it come to light requirements during the growing season. It gets pretty hot around here so a spot with sun in the afternoon is fatal to a plant that is not a sun lover. For those optimists out there, those delicate rays that filter through your trees do not constitute a sunny garden. You have bright shade and there are lots of great plants that can provide color and texture in your shady garden. Make sure you follow tip #1 in both spots so your plant isn’t fighting crummy soil on top of everything else it has to handle.

Hopefully, these tips will help make your garden grow better.