Tag Archives: organic gardening

What’s in your Soil?

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
  Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
  so that new life can celebrate this day.”  -Betty Peck

Soil makes all the difference to the plants you grow. The biggest issue we gardeners face is the ongoing battle with soil. If yours is difficult to manage or just plain unproductive you’ll be disappointed like me with the performance of many of the plants you put in the ground. Even tough plants like California natives have soil preferences and they are not always what’s in your garden.

phormium_acorus_lomandraLow water-use plant responding to fertile soil

We live on ancient sea cliffs.  Soils in Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley consist of shallow, excessively drained weathered sandstone and shale. Felton soils were formed from shale, sandstone or mica schist. Those in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek had their beginnings from weathered sandstone or granite. Although these provide the necessary mineral component of our soil. organic matter or humus from decayed plant and animal material are necessary also for fertility.

Here’s why improving your soil will make a difference to the health of your plants.

Good soil-with both organic matter and minerals-helps plants grow by forming the food supply for soil bacteria that help make food available for plant growth. Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that drip out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zone. The protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

Down in the soil, if a plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts in the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACollection of perennials one year after planting in amended soil.

form or non-organic fertilizers. The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms and insects distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life?
• Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with 2-3” of compost, wood chips or other organic mulch.
• Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
• Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.

Feed your soil- not your plants.

Growing your own Food for Health & Happiness

I don’t grow enough of my own healthy organic food so I rely on the kindness of strangers and several friends. I do manage to harvest a few handfuls of my own strawberries and cherry tomatoes but that’s about it due to lack of sunlight. Fortunately I have the farmer’s market for other fruits and vegetables and friends that keep me supplied with their overabundance of delicacies like plums, guavas and persimmons.

veggie_boxes_july2016Veggie boxes- July 2016 All photos courtesy of Gaylon Morris

I enjoy reading about the gardening exploits of a Facebook friend as she keeps me posted on the progress of her garden. She’s an inventive cook so there’s no shortage of recipes and pictures of the meals she creates from her daily harvest.

Being involved with the food we eat is a sure way to the road to health. My friend Chandra Morris raises chickens in a coop she affectionately calls Fort Clux and includes eggs in many of her recipes. She and her husband Gaylon designed the coop to exclude any raccoons or other predators and it’s state of the art as far as chicken coops go. Then there’s the raised veggie boxes designed and built in an odd-shaped triangular section of their yard. Utilizing every possible square foot for edibles it’s downright inspirational.

blueberry_Pink_LemonadePink Lemonade blueberry

This is the second season for these raised veggie boxes. Healthy plants need good soil to grow. With this in mind the boxes were originally filled with an organic veggie mix from a local supplier in Aptos that included organic dairy and chicken manure, organic one earth compost, grape pumice, gypsum, organic 4-4-2 fertilizer and humic acid from molasses, seaweed and yucca extract and bentonite clay. The strong healthy plants that Chandra grows attest to the richness of this soil mix.

The progress of Chandra’s vegetables has been remarkable and I’ve been able to track it since May 15th when she posted a picture of the garden at 95% planted. After a couple weeks a picture showed up depicting an afternoon snack of 4 kinds of radish, cherry plums from her tree and a pea pod that “wasn’t ready but I couldn’t resist.” Then came the late June posts showing pea pods ready for harvest on a trellis, then in a colander on the kitchen counter for dinner that night.

tomato_Indigo_RoseIndigo Rose tomato

I asked Chandra what some of her favorite vegetable varieties are. She said she grows Pink Lemonade blueberry because it’s supposed to be more resistant to birds as it isn’t blue. Blue lake pole beans are a classic she likes but she also grows Royalty purple pod bush beans. Her very favorite tomato is Green Zebra. Runners up are Pink Berkeley Tie Die, a psychedelic-colored beefsteak-type. Chandra describes Chocolate Cherry as “the best cherry tomato I have ever had with a silky texture.” She also grows Indigo Rose so there’s no shortage of tomatoes on the Morris family dinner table.

corn_Calico_JulyCalico corn- a gourmet popcorn variety

I commented on the vigorously growing corn and was told it’s Calico Popcorn, a gourmet heirloom variety. In the middle of each corn circle she plants Christmas lima beans, a speckled butter bean with a rich, mellow chestnut flavor, winter squash and a 4th sister”- Bright Bandolier sunflowers. Growing three different crops in one space is a Native American tradition. The Iroquois coined the term The Three Sisters although they weren’t the only tribe to use the method. It’s a circle of interdependence based on giving and receiving.

Four_SistersFour Sisters

The three plants work together. Sister Bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air. Sister corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine. Sister Squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain a healthy soil environments as well as deterring animals invaders with it’s spiny stems. The fourth sister can be Sister Sunflower or Sister Bee Balm. This sister supports the beans, lures birds from the son with her seeds and attracts insect pollinators.

Besides eating fresh from the garden, Chandra is also a good cook and posts lots of good recipes to go along with her harvest. From sauces, to peppers to pickles to soup the list is endless on all the ways she utilizes her harvest of organic fruit, vegetables and eggs in a healthy diet.

Troubles in the Garden

Milkweed_aphidsMilkweed aphids

Some of us enjoy sitting in our gardens, relaxing and watching birds and other wildlife. Others grow fruit and vegetables and know their way around the kitchen. Whatever you like to do sometimes pests get in the way.

In my own garden recently I discovered my butterflyweed covered with yellow milkweed aphids. They’re not interested in any other plants just this one. Oleanders get this same sucking pest also. I’ve washed them off twice with a strong spray of water but must have missed a few as they are back. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any monarch butterflies to help me with this problem. I’d rather not even use an organic pesticide to control the outbreak. It would harm any monarch eggs that I’ve overlooked.

With pest control on my mind this week, I received an email from fellow Press Banner columnist, Dr. Terry Hollenbeck. “I thought of you when I found an article in an old gardening magazine”, he wrote. “It’s ‘The Home Gardener’ and was published in September, 1945.”

DDT ad_The-Home_Garden-Sept1945DDT ad in ‘The Home Garden’ magazine published September 1945

Dr. Hollenbeck scanned the pages from his own magazine and sent them to me. Terry goes on to note that the editorial about the new wonder insecticide DDT warns readers in 1945 to proceed cautiously with it. Then later in the magazine on page 99 in a half page ad there appears an advertisement for DDT, the “Army’s sensational insect killer that gardeners have been waiting for…that is absolutely safe to spray”.

There has been a lot of research now on DDT and it’s effects on our bodies and that of wildlife. I was surprised when I Googled DDT that it’s still being used in the world and also found a published study debunking it’s adverse effects on raptors. Guess one can find statistics to support any argument if you look hard enough.

Here is what I found out about current use of DDT that I found interesting.

Back in 1972 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issued a cancellation order for DDT use in the United States based on research showing adverse environmental effects to wildlife and potential human health risks. Studies have continued to show a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans and as a result, today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and International authorities.

India is the only country now producing DDT. China and North Korea having discontinued production in recent years. 12 countries still use DDT for vector control of mosquitos and protozoa – the parasitic diseases of malaria, dengue and black fever which kill more than 800,000 people each year.

Many organizations are now promoting an integrated approach to mosquito and protozoa carried diseases. It’s not a DDT or nothing solution. Some of these organisms are developing a resistance to DDT and other chemicals. Like in our own backyards, you have to look at the whole picture. Successful programs to educate communities about non-chemical methods of control mosquitos are underway in many countries such as Vietnam.

DDT is known to be very persistent in the environment. It accumulates in fatty tissues and can travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. Because of its persistence, there is still concern for residues in the U.S.
Today nearly 40 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. we continue to live with its long lasting effects. According to the organization Pesticide Action Network, USDA found DDT breakdown products in 60% of heavy cream samples, 42% of kale greens and 28% of carrots. These breakdown products of DDT were found in the blood of 99% of people tested by the CDC.

Something to think about when I see all those mustard yellow aphids on my asclepsias. Maybe I’ll get the hose out one more time or rub them off with a gloved hand.

Garden Planning for the Drought

hellebore_orientalishelleborus orientalis

In these times of drought you gotta have a plan. There are lots of plants that require very little or no water after they become established. When advising clients or designing gardens I am keeping my go-to list even more in mind. Yes, it takes a couple of seasons for a plant to grow a large enough root zone to be able to withstand the dry conditions of summer but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can still have a garden that birds, butterflies and people can enjoy.

The past couple of years have really been a good indicator of which plants can survive without irrigation. Some do better than others growing despite the tough conditions while others kinda mope along waiting for the rainy season. This is where that 3” of mulch is vitally important. This protection holds in moisture, keeps roots cool and allows the mycorrhizal fungi to do their work.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with plants enabling them to extract nutrients and hold onto water in very difficult soil conditions. In effect, the fungus provides a secondary root system that is considerably more efficient and extensive than the plants own root system. Disturbing the soil by tilling and even hoeing reduces the number of mycorrhizal colonies as do chemical fertilizers. You can create a truly sustainable environment for your plants by encouraging these fungi as well as other soil microorganisms by using organic soil amendments and mulches.

salvia_Bees_Bliss_closeupsalvia ‘Bees Bliss’

In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation. One is Bees Bliss Sage. a native California shrub that grows low to the ground. Mine is only 8” tall and several feet wide but it can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant on my drought tolerant plant list is a salvia called California Blue Sage or salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last until early summer. It survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering it looks more attractive.

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. Although they are not long lived their deer resistance makes up for this shortcoming.
The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia fuchsia

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistable.

Other plants on my no water or little water list of include shrubs like cistus, bush poppy, ceanothus, fremontodendron, ribes, manzanita, rosemary, sambucus, santolina, Wooly Blue Curls, echium and prunus. Grasses like aristida or Purple Three Awn, Blue Gramms, muhly and nassela make good additions to the truly drought tolerant garden, too. Perennials that are successful in these conditions include Bears Breech, artemesia, helleborus, monardella, diets, echinacea, buckwheat, penstemon, romneya, watsonia and crocosmia.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden, too. Although they can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and mulch ( no shredded bark, please ) to encourage the soil microbes.

Where Have all the Bees Gone?

honey_bee_hoveringI received an email from a reader not too long ago who lives on a ridge top outside Scotts Valley. She wrote that her “flowering plums have no ‘buzz’ about them when she walks by. Even (her) rosemary is not a buzz. A Few yes, but not nearly the normal. Why is this year different?” Where have the honey bees gone?

Bees have been in the news a lot especially since 2006 when beekeepers started to report higher than usual colony losses. We depend on honey bees to pollinate everything from fruit to vegetables to nuts. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult or dead bee bodes but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. According to the US Dept of Agriculture no scientific cause for CCD has been proven. But I read about recent research that has discovered a link between a family of systemic insecticides and colony collapse. This got my attention.

Honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of problems from zinnia_with_honey_bee2deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources and now we are finding out more about the sublethal effects of pesticides.

Insecticide labels warn the user not to spray when bees are present or allow the spray to reach a water source. But what area the effects of systemic insecticides used to control aphids, mealy bugs, lawn insects, grubs, thrips, termites, scale, or leaf beetles on your roses, trees, shrubs and lawn? The makers of these products that contain imidacloprid, a common systemic, say their studies show that even if a product is highly toxic for insects, it is almost impossible that the insect will ever get in touch with this product and are not at risk.

But that’s not really the whole story. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, a systemic pesticide is taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues- the leaves, flowers, roots, stems as well as pollen and nectar.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of systemic insecticides that are especially effective against sap feeding insects like aphids. They are also being used to treat genetically engineered corn seeds. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through the plant as they grow attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of corn crop pests.

This is whoney_bee_pollen_sacshere the recent studies have shown that these pesticides do affect honey bees but not by outright killing them. After exposure to pollen from one of these systemics the bees navigational systems seemed to go haywire. and they were several more times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive. Another study has shown that these neonicontinoids can wreak havoc with the bee’s neural circuitry causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.

A Florida beekeeper sums it up by saying “The thing is, you don’t have to physically kill the bee. You just have to impair him so he can’t find his way back to the nest. “

Bottom line, protect our pollinators and improve honey bee survival. Plant more plants that provide nectar and pollen for honey bees such as bee balm, agastache, clover, catmint, lavender, yarrow, hyssop, aster, coreopsis, verbena and black eyed Susan. Natives plants that are good sources include California poppy, salvia, buckwheat, ceanothus and toyon. Use only organic insecticides and avoid applying during mid-day hours when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and only then if you can’t control a pest with any other methods including Integrated Pest Management techniques.

Help save the bees.

Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2

deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.