Category Archives: edibles

Celebrate May in the Garden

Valthemia bracteata

May is the month for you if you make a note when your favorite plant starts to bloom. May is the month for you if you count the number of hummingbirds at the feeder everyday. May is the month for you if you’ve been waiting for the soil to warm enough to plant melons and peppers and winter squash.

A friend gave me a blue Hokkaido squash last fall and I saved the seeds. I’ve been waiting patiently to plant them. It’s one of the best tasting, beautiful squash you can grow. I’m looking forward to harvesting my own this fall. They store for quite a while, taste great and look stunning in a Halloween display along side orange pumpkins. I can hardly wait.

Plants are growing like crazy this month preparing to reproduce at their given time. The birds, bees and even those pesky tree squirrels are finding lots of food and nectar to feed their young. We know the dry months of summer are coming and are preparing by modifying irrigation systems to conserve water and mulching all bare soil. I think we deserve to set a little time aside between gardening tasks to enjoy the wonder of nature and our own gardens.

Honey bee collecting pollen

Here’s a task that requires no work at all but the benefits are huge. Set aside a small area of your yard, say 10% or so, and leave it uncultivated. Let it grow wild and see what native plants and wildlife show up. This would be a good spot to plant milkweed and let it self sow for the Monarch butterfly.

Don’t push yourself and bite off more than you can do in the garden at a time. Landscaping doesn’t have to be done all at once. Maybe choose a new tree or a couple low water use shrubs to plant and care for this summer. Choose something that looks good year round to provide interest. Or take one corner this year and another corner next year to redo or install. This won’t break your water budget or your back.

Food gardening is hard work. Maybe this year grow just those edibles that taste so delicious freshly picked from the garden. Edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, chard and arugula are ornamental, don’t take up too much room and are easy to grow. I was disappointed with the way my tomatoes tasted last year. They were OK but no where near as tasty as the dry-farmed Early Girls at the Farmer’s Market. This year I’m only going to grow cherry tomatoes. One of life’s simple pleasures is picking and eating your own fruit as you work in the garden. Beside my favorite Sungold I’m going to try growing local heirlooms like Chadwick’s Cherries, and Camp Joy.

Don’t get me started on the weeds this year. With those early fall rains everything you don’t want in the yard is going nuts. I have actually been gaining ground on controlling many of the annual weeds around my house. The soil is soft and the smaller root system is more likely to let go so as I walk around I pick a few or as many as don’t seem like work. Each plant can produce so many hundreds of seeds that I think of it as free exercise.

Azalea blooms

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune just before the plant blooms you risk removing that year’s flowers. If you prune several month after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune a bit each year to shape and thin the plant. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. There’s no need other than looks to deadhead old flowers.

It was great to get a bit more rain last week. Plants appreciate the moisture especially during spring. Come summer everything slows down to survive and that’s a part of our unique climate here, too.

A Little Slice of Heaven in the Santa Cruz Mountains

toolsOutside of the historical agriculture exhibit at the Santa Cruz County Fair I have never seen so many antique farm implements and tools. Vintage tractors and parts were tucked underneath massive black walnuts. The winding driveway was dotted with more equipment, tractor wheels and parts. A storage shed displayed a collection of vintage chain saws and other small tools. California poppies bloomed in small clusters. I was here to visit an old friend in the hills above south Felton near the Toll House resort to see if I could help with advice about his ailing plum trees.

Al HIley has lived in this idyllic location since Vista_from_house.2048he was a boy and that’s a long time as his 92nd birthday is this month. His father bought the 18 acres in 1906. The original house still stands shaded by a grape vine arbor that protects the door and windows in the heat of the day. He lives close by in another house where he enjoys a vista which includes Mt. Umunhum, the Summit and Boulder Creek. Al says he used to be able to see downtown Felton but the redwoods have grown since the late 1800’s when this area was logged.

I had to laugh that Al was asking me for advice. He’s been farming this land starting since WWII ended. His father pAl_Hiley_in orchard2.1600lanted the original walnut trees in the hopes of making a profit from his land but “he was no farmer”, according to Al. I glanced at the catalogs on the 12’ long redwood burl coffee table. You can tell a lot about a person from what they read. Strewn about were several tractor catalogs, Popular Mechanic magazines, Heartland cataantique_chainsaws.1600logs, miscellaneous tool catalogs and a book entitled ‘Chainsaws: A History” which touts to be the first book on the worldwide history of the chainsaw.

With his lab, Sonny, at his side, Al and I went out to the orchard to take a look at the fruit trees. Originally in the 1960’s he had about 95 fruit trees. He grafted different kinds of apples onto his father’s trees and planted peaches, and pears as well as plums and prunes. We passed the blueberry bushes which were starting to show some fall color. Nearby grew a fig with a gnarled trunk the likes I have never seen. Loaded with hundreds on hundreds of ripening figs he invited me back to pick some when they ripened.

Al couldn’t verify the exact variety of red apple that caught my eye. It also was  loaded with beautiful fruit. He red_apples.1600got me a bag to pick as many as I wanted to take home and they are crispy and juicy. He grows a yellow delicious apple also but after eating the red variety I didn’t think anything could rival them.

The plum trees weren’t doing as well. They all had some yellow leaves and golden colored sap oozing along the branches. This condition is called gummosis and occurs often in stone fruit trees like cherry, apricot, peach and plum. It can be caused by several very different things.

The tree may have gumming from a pathogen that invades and kills bark and cambial tissue through a wound such as a pruning cut, sun scald or hail. If you scrape the outer bark under the sap the dead phloem will appear cinnamon brown in color Prevention is the key to managing this problem. Keep trees healthy with optimal watering, mulching and nutrition.

gummosis_on_plum.1600Borers can also cause gumming. In a plum tree, weakened trees or places where wounds have occurred will be susceptible. Ooze is often clear. Management of these pests is difficult and may include bark sprays during the growing season.

If you are not sure that a pathogen is causing the gummosis, scrape the outer bark away. If the inner bark is still cream colored and healthy, the oozing is caused by non-living factors and there is nothing you should do. If the wood is tan to brown, it is dead, and was most likely killed by a pathogen.

For my friend, Al’s plum trees I determined that the gummosis was caused by excessive irrigation. Due to the drought, Al had tried to limit watering during the summer. When he saw the trees being stressed he deep watered several times in the past month or so. The apple trees loved it but not the plums. He is happily going to deep water much less often until the trees go dormant.

I left Al and Sonny with the promise that I’d be back when the figs ripened. I’m sure I’ll be needing a fresh supply of apples, too.

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.

Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.

Favorite Fruit Varieties at the Farmer’s Market

fruit_from_Farmer's MktAt this time of year it’s easy to get the recommended 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. That’s the latest recommendation from the new dietary guidelines released by the Dept. of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The farmer’s market is brimming now with lots of locally grown produce. I find it nearly impossible not to overbuy, everything looks so yummy. At the beginning of the year I wrote about great varieties of fruit trees available to plant in your home orchard. From heirlooms to old favorites there’s nothing like picking fresh from the tree. Walking around the Felton Farmer’s Market the other day I thought I’d check out what the growers thought were the best kinds and why in their opinion.

Red, ripe strawberries first caught my eye. Jose, told me he grows Seascape Seascape_strawberriesstrawberries in La Selva Beach. His farm is on a well so the dry winter didn’t affect their plants but the recents showers did. The berries absorbed too much water at one time and are not as sweet this week as a result. Esther, a grower from Moss Landing, said she likes the variety Albion at this time of year because they are really sweet and hold up well. Her farm will start harvesting Seascapes later. She said her area didn’t get any showers recently but the March rains caused the berries to rot and the whole crop ready at the time had to be picked and thrown away.

The apricots next got my attention. I love apricots. These beautiful orange colored fruits are full of beta-carotene and fiber and are one of the first signs of summer. I found out from David from a farm in Sanger, California in Fresno County that apricot season only lasts for 7 weeks. His farm grows 6 different kinds including Red Ruby, Castlebright, Patterson, Queen Sweet, Royal Flame and Blenheim. He said his favorites are Royal Flame, Queen Sweet and Blenheim. After tasting some of the the delicious Royal Flame samples I am looking forward to his other favorites.

And then I was in peach and nectarine heaven as I sampled my way through the farmer’s market. David didn’t have to tempt me much with his aromatic samples of Saturn white peaches, which are his favorite. Another booth from a farm in Hickman featured White Lady peaches. Corona said his favorite, the O’Henry freestone, will be ripening soon. I was amazed to learn that this farm grows 100 different varieties of peach and nectarine. His favorite nectarine? Not surprisingly, it’s the Red Top, a yellow fleshed nectarine and the Arctic Rose, the white variety he just happened to have ready with samples available.

Pluots have always been one of my favorite fruits. They are second generation hybrids of plums and apricots although they closely resemble plums. According to UC Cooperative Extension in Sacramento County  pluots are one of the best choices for backyard trees. The flesh is unusually sweet and juicy with complex plum-apricot flavors and the skin in without the bitterness found in the skin of regular plums. I’ll be looking for Dapple Dandy and Flavor Grenade as the season professes.

After taste testing my way through the various booths I came away with way with probably too much fruit and vegetables to eat in one week but I’ll force myself with a huge smile on my face. When I look and smell all the luscious produce I bought maybe those 9 servings per day aren’t so much after all. Just so you know, nine servings translates to about 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables every day.

The “Chicken Palace”, Shade Veggies and UCSC Arboretum Visit

aster-like_flowers_UCSC_arboretumWe humans used to be mostly foragers and obtained our nutrition before the end of the last ice age by being hunter-gatherers. According to David Christian in his book ‘This Fleeting World’, agriculture arose independently in multiple, unconnected areas of the world in roughly the same historic timeframe. Foragers, he says, lived comparatively leisurely lives with good nutrition, working just a few hours each day, while those in agricultural communities toiled almost ceaselessly and had comparatively poor nutrition. What happened to make us the agricultural society we are today?

Christian points out that the end of the ice age occurred at the same time that foragers migrated around the globe. Warmer, wetter and more productive climates may have increased populations in some regions with increased population pressure. It may explain why, in several parts of the world, beginning about ten thousand years ago, some communities of foragers began to settle down.

The rest is history. Many of us are returning to growing and producing our own food whenever we are able. Even on a small scale, a garden, a few fruit trees, a chicken or two or three, all help to put healthy, nutritious food on our table.

The other day I was in a garden I helped create and saw the results of her edibles mixed chicken_palace.1600in with ornamental plants and fragrant flowers that attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden. Her “chicken palace” would be the envy of every chicken in the county. Annie, the dog, was more than happy to show me how it was made with boards from the old barn, new corrugated iron siding along with some new wood. Their palace keeps the chickens safe from predators and sheltered from the elements. The best feature is the roosting spot near the top which can be easily accessed from doors that checking_for_eggs.1600open at deck level to check for eggs. On this morning two of the girls were “working” so we didn’t disturb them.

Earlier in the week, I visited a garden where the only place available to grow vegetables was a little shady. Huge cottonwood trees shaded much of the area and even when thinned the trees would always block some of the sun. We decided she could grow cherry tomatoes that ripen even in part shade on the east side as most of the sun that reached the area fell from mid-day on. Also she likes green beans, so a bush variety would conserve space and not block the sun to other vegetables. There are so many bush beans available. She’ll pick from 8 different organic varieties available from Renee’s Garden Seeds. With mouth-watering names such as Royalty Purple, Tricolor Bush,
the favorite of gourmets, Nickel Filet, and the French yellow Roc D’Or she’ll have a hard time deciding.

Other vegetables that will produce without sun all day long include spinach, bush peas, kale, chard, lettuce and root crops like beets, carrots, potatoes and radishes. They may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.

I rounded out the week by visiting the UCSC Arboretum. Regardless of the time of year, Fremontodendron_californicumwhenever I pass by this jewel of a garden I always stop by to see what’s blooming and what the birds are up to. I had dropped by in February before the rains came and was a little concerned that the December freeze compounded by the lack of rain had stressed the plants. They were in survival mode and it didn’t look like they were going to be putting on their usual spectacular spring display. It was happy to see that the rains came in the nick of time and everything was now blooming away. Vivid lilac, aster-like flowers absolutely covered some low shrubs.

California flannel bush or fremontodendron californium were covered with bright yellow flowerss in the California Natives garden. A low growing species that may have been Pine Hill from the Sierra was also in full bloom.  All daisy-like flowers_UCSC_arboretumwere breathtaking.

Before I left I also enjoyed a stand of arcotis-like pink daisies that bordered the South African and New Zealand gardens.  With no name tags to help me identify them I could only enjoy their beauty but then isn’t that what it’s all about?

What to do in the Garden in February

flowering_plum.1024The unusually warm January weather has made the early flowering trees and shrubs bloom even earlier this year. Actually it’s not so unusual for us to have a warm streak around here in January. What is unusual is the prolonged dry and stable conditions we have encountered. The high pressure system that blocks our usual winter rains does not usually last more than 2-3 weeks even in the heart of the rainy season. The persistent ridge has not behaved in a typical manner. We can only hope the ridge breaks down in the next few months and brings us more than a smattering of rain here and there.  What should a gardener be doing in February?

Prune fruit trees. Smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. quince_red.1280Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open. Do not spray 36 hours before rain in predicted. Be sure to spray the ground around each tree.

I recommend keeping winter pruning to a minimum and prune again in the summer time. Winter pruning is invigorating to fruit trees and there will be excessive vertical rebound growth, the witch’s broom-like riot of growth that emerges after a tree is given a haircut. Such growth is often dense and doesn’t bear much. A lot of the tree’s stored energy issued to produce all these unwanted branches, leaving much less for the production of fruit.

quince_red-closeup.1280Due to our unusual weather some low-chill fruit tree varieties like Fuji apples, many apricots, peaches, nectarines and pears such as Comice and Seckel, might break bud and flower earlier because of the winter freeze and then warm weather. Plants that flower prematurely risk losing those flowers if night temps plunge but the long-term health of the plant probably won’t be affected.

Strawberries are oblivious to the weather. Blackberries and some raspberries are another story. Like some fruit trees, their chilling requirements may have already been met, their buds are swelling and they’re ready to take off. A rapid chill could freeze the buds and the canes might begin to die from the top down. But even if the entire cane dies, healthy new canes will emerge in spring. The early summer berry crop could be lost but fall berries will be fine.

Prune woody shrubs  To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia cut them down to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim. You won’t be able to know for sure, until perhaps early summer, if the freeze killed plants like Coprosma, Echium, Tibouchina or lantana so be patient.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven’t already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kind to your soil and the beneficial soil microorganisms.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  Cut some branches during flowering to bring in for bouquets.

Prune roses and rake up any debris beneath the plant to eliminate overwintering fungal spores. Remove any old leaves that still cling to the plant. Spray the stems and bare ground with a combination organic horticultural oil and a dormant spray.

Prune established perennials later in the month if you might get frost that could damage new foliage. Giving your maiden hair ferns a haircut now allows the new growth to come out fresh. Prune winter damaged fronds from your other ferns.

Divide perennials before new growth starts. Agapanthus, asters, coreopsis, daylilies, shasta daisy and liriope are plants that tend to become overcrowded and benefit from dividing.

Mother Nature knows how to adjust to changes in the weather- slowing down when it’s really cold and catching up when it’s mild.

Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part II

Easter_Buerre_pearGrowing fruit in your garden or home orchard may be even more important in the future than ever before. The lack of rainfall last year and this winter will probably raise the price of fruit at the market. If the water farmers rely on is rationed during this years growing season, fruit production will also suffer. You can start growing your own fruit by planting a bare root tree now and this is how to do it. It only takes a few years for a young tree to start producing. By using lots of mulch and perhaps installing a laundry to landscape gray water system, trees require a fraction of the water as other landscaping.  Just imagine eating fruit off your own trees.

One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally in the ground. They are dug while dormant. When the trees are handled well the root system is left intact and the tree has a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted.   Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and the garden soil.  Bare root trees are also less expensive to ship because they have no soil on the roots making them much lighter and easier to handle.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant.  Once leaves emerge Janice_Seedless_Kadota_figor flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing their new, permanent roots in their permanent home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock.  Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy.  Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.

What is the proper way to plant a bare root tree? Select a spot with at least 6 hours or more of summer sun. To test for drainage if you have heavy soil, dig a hole about a foot deep. Keep the organic top soil from the top of the hole separate from the soil you dig out from the bottom of the hole. Fill the hole with water. If the water drains within 3-4 hours, fill the hole again. If it takes longer than 3-4 hours to drain on either filling you will either have to find another spot,  build a raised bed or berm or plant in containers.

If you are happy with your location, dig the planting hole 24″ wide x 24″ deep again keeping the organic matter separate from the sub soil. Ultimately, trees must grow in the surrounding soil. Don’t amend your soil unless it is very sandy. If you amend the slow draining native soil around the tree the hole will just fill with water killing the tree. Adding organic amendment to extremely sandy soils, however, can help retain moisture in the root zone.

Place your tree in the hole and start filling in around the roots with the sub soil first, then the organic top soil. Wiggle your tree as you fill in around it to settle the soil. Tamp down the soil lightly with your foot when the hole is half filled and then top off the hole with the organic top soil.  Stake the tree low and loose for the first couple of years. You want to keep the root zone stable in the wind while it is becoming established but allow the top of the trunk and branches to move with the wind. They will grow much thicker faster. Water in well and again the next day. You should not need to water again until the tree there is new growth of several inches.

Prune the central leader and branches of your new tree 1/3 to 1/2 to a plump bud facing the direction you would like the new growth to grow. Mulching is especially important to bring back the beneficial organisms in the soil. Bioactivity reduces fertilizer requirements. Mulching keeps the ground cooler in the summer and retains moisture. After your tree is established you can fertilize with an organic fertilizer. Keeping the nitrogen low but the phosphorus and potassium higher will help control the size of the tree making it easier to harvest that delicious fruit.

This year I have my eye on an heirloom French butter pear called Easter Beurre that ripens in December with tender, sweet, melting flesh. Also I want to try the Janice Seedless Kadota fig with it’s incredibly sweet flavor. It’s said to have better flavor than Black Mission. I think they should have named this fairly new fig after me spelling it Janis but it’s too late now.

Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree to your garden this winter.

Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part 1

bare_root_fruit_treesIt’s bare root season again. There’s something magical about a small leafless tree with bare roots that will produce mouth-watering fruit when it grows up. Even ornamental shade trees, flowering shrubs like lilacs and vines like wisteria start out looking like twigs. Buying a new addition for your garden or home orchard in bare root form is economical. They establish quickly and are easy to plant. Every year there are more types available including delicious time honored heirloom varieties as well as modern favorites. It’ll be hard for me to decide which ones I’ll recommend for edible gardens I design this year.

A visit to Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has me inspired. They specialize in edible plants and trees as well as all things related to harvesting and preserving them.  Renee was eager to share with me her favorite fruit tree varieties.  Many of these delicious heirlooms are locally grown here in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Tierra Madre Farms who use organic farming practices to keep the trees and the soil healthy. I like the idea that this small farm is dedicated to promoting and preserving our world’s crop diversity.

When May rolls around I’ll be anxiously awaiting the first cherries, apricots and peaches. Then the early nectarines arrive, sweet and juicy followed by the plums that ripen next. Later in the summer apples, figs and pears make their debut as well as late ripening plums and peaches. With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year.

I’d never heard of some of the bare root heirloom varieties I saw buried in tubs of sawdust so I did a little research to find out what all the fuss was about. Why had they passed the test of time and then disappeared off our store shelves? By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness.

Who doesn’t look forward to the first cherries of the season? Plant an Early Purple Guigne cherry and you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. This heirloom has been grown in this country since the early 1800’s and figured in a court case in San Jose in 1884. Seems a Mr. Bassford  bought 300 of these bare root trees in December of 1897. When they fruited several years later he found that the cherries were quite different from the variety which he had paid for. Court records show that he claimed the cherries were inferior in size and appearance to the Early Purple Guigne that he had wanted and were nearly valueless to him on the market. He sued but lost his case after testimony revealed and Judge Spencer ruled that the name Early Purple Guigne applied to different types of cherries in different localities and the original bare root trees were not fraudulently sold.

Another early ripening cherry to try is the classic Governor Wood which produces beautiful sweet and juicy, golden-yellow fruit with a red blush. Introduced in 1842 this cherry is still prized for its abundant crop of delicious fruit. How about a sour cherry like Montmorency? This heirloom dates back to 300 B.C. but it was the French colonist who first planted cherry pits along the Saint Lawrence River in the 1600’s. Michigan produces over 90,000 tons of this bright red cherry with yellow flesh and clear juice.

Here’s a win-win growing tip for cherry trees.  Birds love cherries as much as we do but if you prune your tree when young so it branches low on the trunk, you can harvest the lower cherries for yourself and let the birds take the fruit from the upper branches.

Apricots also ripen early and heirloom varieties that I recommend are the classic Blenheim and one Oldmixon_Free_peachcalled Hemskirk which is considered one of the very best apricot varieties with bright orange, rich and juicy flesh. An excellent heirloom peach to consider is the Oldmixon Free. in 1807 cuttings of this peach were sent to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. It’s stunningly beautiful while in bloom and the juice of Oldmixon Free peach is candy sweet.

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter.  What does that mean?  Well, many fruit trees, lilacs, and peonies need a  certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less.  You can give the plant more cold in the winter and it’ll like that just fine but not less.  Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious.  We can grow both.

Next week I’ll tell you about more luscious tasting plum, apple, fig and pear varieties you’ll want to grow. I’ll also give you tips on how and where to plant your new tree.

Growing Cover Crops – Part II

Orin_Martin_bell_beansOrin Martin of the Alan Chadwick Garden on the UCSC campus is widely admired for his incredible knowledge and skills as a master orchardist, horticulturalist and teacher. I was lucky a couple of years ago when he visited a group of fellow designers and brought his favorite russet apples. Another time he brought a dozen different kinds of potatoes that we roasted, critiqued and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Alan Chadwick Garden was nothing but poison oak and chaparral in 1967 when Alan Chadwick first got his hands on it. Martin came to UCSC in 1969 as a literature major but was soon impressed with Chadwick’s work, preaching the gospel of treating the garden as a self-nourishing system. Together they worked the garden, building the soil and teaching others.

Now Martin runs the appreaster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048ntice program which teaches future organic gardeners and shares his knowledge in workshops like the Cover Crop class I recently attended.

Last week I wrote about how and why to plant cover crops. This is what to do next spring after they’ve done their magic in the soil fixing nitrogen.

Cover crops are plowed or skimmed off in late February to early April. Because it takes 3-5 weeks for the cover crop to break down so crops can be seeded or transplanted, it is often best to skim off the cover crop at the base of the plants and combine with straw or leaves to make compost. Previously made compost can then be applied to the surface. It is important to retain the roots and nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil. Take only the vegetative portion.

cover_crops_Orin_Martin.1280Another method is to skim the foliage with a weed wacker or mower chopping it into small pieces 1/4″ to  4″ long. You can then rototill this into the soil and allow it to decompose on its own. In about 2 weeks the material should be broken down to be unrecognizable as plant material before replanting.

If you are developing your soil to build organic matter and improve structure incorporate the cover crop at a more mature stage (half to full bloom) when it has a higher carbon content. The nutrients will be stored in the reservoir of humus and released slowly over a number of years.

On established soils where you want primarily to fertilize next spring and summers crops, incorporate the cover crop after skimming and chopping when it has just started to flower as it decomposes quickly at this stage.

The Chadwick Garden fertilizes its established fruit trees by simply cutting down the cover crop growing at their base with a machete at the 25% flowering stage. 4-6″ of wood chips are laid over the chopped up pieces and left for nature to decompose. That’s all their is to it. Martin explained that the garden used blood meal and the organic fertilizer, Sustane, during the first several years while the trees were becoming established.

Picking up a clump of grass sown just 2 weeks ago, Martin teased off the soil to show the vigorous, fibrous root mass. “This is why the riches soils of the world, the Steppes of Russia and the original Midwest prairies, are so fertile and are called bread basket soils”, he explained.

Plant a cover crop this fall and your soil will be richer for it.

Growing Cover Crops- Part I

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 3500 years ago also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. I learned this and also how to protect and improve my soil from Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at a cover crop workshop recently on the campus.

aster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048“It’s all about the biology of the soil”, Martin said. “You grow the soil that helps you grow the plants”. A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward, he explained. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume.

Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring lettuces_after_cover_cropping.1024before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

From late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil however as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

The Chadwick Garden, Martin explained, originally was heavy red clay. 35 years of soil building with bell beans and vetch cover crops and compost have established a level of fertility that now supports several acres of vegetables, fruit trees, berries and beneficial flowering plants. Fall-sown, spring ploughed-down cover crops are the sole fertilizer used for the better part of the last decade.

Soil_builder_cover_crop_mix.1600Martin explained that recent research now recommends planting a tandem of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch which are the best legumes for our area grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but no where near as efficiently as bell beans.  Crimson clover seed is also more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

A question came up about using inoculants on legume seed. Martin explained that our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

We all followed Martin out to the cover crop trial plots to see how the different types were growing. Bark chips will soon be applied to the paths. All of the gardens are mulched several times per year with wood chips. A 10 year study, Martin explained, demonstrated the amazing benefits of ramial chipped wood which is the type the tree service companies provide for free.

We watched him work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds were already cleared but Martin said this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area was raked again lightly 1-2″ down and covered with 3-4″ of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything, he said.  Water in lightly.

There are 3 ways to fertilize, Martin said. You can buy chemical fertilizer which is expensive and doesn’t do much for the soil. You can apply compost, which being carbon based, ramps up beneficial fungal organisms in the soil. Or you can cover crop or grow green manure which increases beneficial soil bacteria. Orin Martin has proof of the benefits of the last two methods.

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.

The Giants’ Garden

AT&T_Park 3A few Sundays ago I spent the afternoon at AT&T Park watching the Giants play baseball. It was kids day. Hundreds of Boy Scouts were attending the game in uniform. Kids were everywhere eating peanuts and wearing the orange and black team colors. Some were sitting with their grandparents, some very, very young fans in their parents arms being smeared with sun screen.  It was a beautiful day on the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, the team didn't get the memo that we were supposed to get another win against the Diamondbacks. Oh well, there's always next year.

A friend forwarded an article he saw in the SF Chronicle by Janny Hu recently about the Giants plan to create an organic garden behind the center field wall. The Giants Garden would be created between the left and right field bleachers in an area that is now concrete and an adjacent area where replacement sod is grown.

Plans for the edible garden include hydroponic troughs, concrete planters and living green walls which would supply produce for some of the parks' concessions, serve as an open air dining area and a community classroom during the offseason. If you're hankering for a nice kale and strawberry salad next season while you watch the game you're in luck. The Giants hope to have the garden ready for Opening Day 2014.

If the Giants can do it, you can, too. We all want the area around our homes to be beautiful, welcoming, productive, useful.  In designing landscapes for people I strive to integrate vegetables, herbs and fruit trees with flowering shrubs and perennials to feed the family while attracting hummingbirds and other wildlife. Not everybody has room for a separate vegetable garden and companion planting is a good way to avoid problems with pests and diseases.

Plants when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects. Perennials like agastache, coneflower, coreopsis, scabiosa and yarrow are rich in nectar and pollen and  irresistible to beneficials. Many herbs also attract beneficials.  Cilantro in bloom is one of the top insectary plants.  Caraway, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage and parsley flowers also attract beneficials and are easy to grow among your other plants. Allow your salad and cabbage crops to bloom.  Arugula and brassica flowers are much appreciated by beneficials.

Plants like lettuces, spinach and swiss chard look great in the flower bed and flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden.
Dahlias repel nematodes. Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers.  Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. A word of caution,  don't plant them by cabbage or beans. Nasturtiums act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids.

Herbs that help deter pests. Catnip/catmint repels mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils. Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. As a host for hoverflies and good wasps it increases productions of essential oils in herbs. Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen.  They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries.

If it's almonds you crave, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden. A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Planting flowers and edibles together makes sense and good use of your garden space.

Kids & Gardening

Flame_Skimmer_dragonflyIn the summertime, kids have lots of time to enjoy the great outdoors. What better way to teach them how our planet works than to let them grow something in their own garden. Share your enthusiasm for gardening by getting your kids or the neighbor kids interested, too. You'll find sharing your knowledge with a child particularly rewarding and you will have helped create a fellow gardener for the rest of their life.

It may be July but it's not too late to start. Make it enjoyable for everyone by giving kids their own section of the garden or yard to do as they please. I planted pansies as a child in my special area. I also had a couple of big pots filled with potting soil to start my own seeds. Size doesn't matter as long as you let the child choose what they'd like to grow.

Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.  Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

I remember when I was little and had my own garden patch how excited I was to see a dragonfly. My father was happy, too, as they are a great way to control mosquitoes and other pests. They're the top predators of the insect world. I was fascinated by their bright colors- some reddish orange, some blue, some purple. By  planting a variety of plants and flowers to attract them they would visit my little garden often. They seemed to find a water source to lay their eggs on their own.  I was amazed at how fast they could fly. I've read they can reach speeds of 30 mph.  They are an important part of my early gardening experience.

Edible flowers are also fun for kids to grow. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that taste like lemon.  Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds.  Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce.   You can also freeze flowers in ice cubes like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme. The blossoms of beans and peas can be added to a salad or sandwich or use them to decorate the tops of cupcakes and cookies.

Plant a pizza garden.  Use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice.  Divide the "pizza" into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil.  Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil.  By summers end you'll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza.
Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden.  You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a "door" that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown.  Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside.  Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.
Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds.  This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season.  In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts.  You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.  
Flowers that kids can cut
will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden.  Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies.  Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallow-tail butterflies.  Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn't pinched these to make faces ?

Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lime thyme, orange mint, chives, sage and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid's garden. Lamb's ears are soft and furry.  Get a kid interested in gardening and they'll be happy for a lifetime.

Camp Joy, Boulder Creek

Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes. 


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.

The Best Bareroot Varieties for your Garden

Imagine biting into that first apricot of the season. The juicy, sweet flesh the color of an orange sunset. Maybe a rich dark burgundy plum, sweet but slightly tart, makes you think of those summers when you picked them off the tree in your parents backyard. And then there are cherries, pears ,apples, peaches and nectarines to look forward to. Now is the perfect time to plant some of your favorite fruit trees while they are available in bare root.

plumsGrowing fruit trees in the backyard has come a long way in recent years. Even in season those organic peaches from the farmer's market are expensive when you load up a big bag 'cause you just have to have a couple of each variety after trying the samples. Starting a home orchard or adding to your own edibles during bare root season is the way to go.

With a little planning you can have a prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space. Maximize the length of harvest by choosing varieties with different ripening times. Then train those fruit trees to stay small by pruning them in summer (winter pruning tends to invigorate trees), plant them close together or you can even plant several in the same hole. Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net and harvest than large trees.

The hard part is choosing which will be your next fruit tree. I've talked to several experts about their favorites. Here's what they told me.

Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and Garden loves apples. His highest praise goes to Cox's Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, American Golden Russet and Mutsu. Plant these varieties and you could be eating apples from August through October. Did you know that at one time in American history russet apples were the most desired and wages were actually paid in cider made from russet apples?

Sheila from ProBuild told me she has seen a lot of interest in new introductions such a Pluerry, a hybrid she described as plum meets cherry. Bella Gold Peacotum has also been very popular since being introduced last year by Dave Wilson Nursery. This peach x apricot x plum fruit has slightly fuzzy skin like an apricot but with a mildly sweet flavor all its own.

Flavor Delight aprium has become a favorite because of its resistance to brown rot. It's 3/4 apricot, 1/4 plum with the clean tang of an apricot boosted by the sweetness of a plum. This variety is also recommended by Orin Martin.

Spice Zee Nectaplum is another hybrid that is getting a lot of buzz. I've heard it described as being "just about the tastiest fruit… ever eaten- very sweet, with an indescribably rich taste and aroma".  Being a gorgeous tree with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer makes it ornamental in the garden as well.

Chris and Dave from Mountain Feed like many of the heirloom fruit trees. If a variety is older than 50 years it is classified as an heirloom. Does that apply to people, too? In addition to apples, Chris told me about his favorite pear, Belle Lucrative, which he described as an amazing French butter pear. This classic variety of 19th century France has a juicy, syrupy melting texture.

Plums are also high on his list of favorites. Luther Burbank varieties such as Elephant plums_on_the_treeHeart, Beauty, Inca and the ever-popular Santa Rosa are easy to grow and need very little care once established.

Bare root trees need to be planted while they are still dormant. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put into the ground soon. You want your tree to start developing its new permanent roots in its permanent home. Fruit tree like pears and apples will be dormant for a while longer so you can wait a bit longer to plant them.

Take advantage of bare root season to add more edibles to your landscape. A smart design can make your garden look beautiful while feeding your family.

Happy New Year 2013 from The Mountain Gardener

It's a humbling experience to read some of my past columns celebrating the New Year. Once you write something down it's there forever. Like a social media post it can haunt you. Such lofty goals I've set for myself over the years. But now it's that time of year when I look around the garden and think about the good things I accomplished and some that didn't get done.  A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

We live in a rain forest. Easy to remember the past few weeks as gentle and not so gentle raindrops fall on the thick redwood duff beneath the trees.  Mushrooms of every color and type poke through leaves still bright with the shades of fall. Last year was pretty dry until March. Not that great for fungi but this year should be spectacular. All the better to continue learning about our local mushrooms. It's one of my favorite goals for the New Year. The fungus fair in Santa Cruz is coming up the weekend of January 11th and I want to be better informed before my volunteer shift as a basketeer arrives.

Each year I pledge to plant more things to eat. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. They are more than just vegetables and fruit trees. When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You can connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped.
Growing edibles is more that time spent doing healthy physical work it's connecting us to the earth and to each other.

This year I was able to visit gardens in far away places such as Poland to learn about Eastern European landscaping styles and traditions. Some were very different than what we are used to here in western gardens. Gardeners, though, are the same everywhere-eager to show off and share. I also had the opportunity to visit Abkhazi Garden and the famous Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia during the summer. Nothing can prepare you for the wonder that can be created out of nothing. I came back overflowing with inspiration for my landscape designs.

Next I plan to visit Chihuly Gardens in Seattle and a green wall installation in Tacoma. There's no better way to recharge your creative batteries than to see an inspiring garden. Even a walk around your neighborhood can give you ideas for your own garden. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a huge boulder and wished I could magically transport it to my own yard.

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don't get hung up on achieving everything you would like. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don't get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues and future meals. But there's always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It's good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. So don't worry if you don't get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It's all in the baby steps. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would be plant a tree or a seed or a garden?

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.