Category Archives: gardening tips

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.

Low 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

Collection 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.

Late Summer Tasks for the Garden

It’s darker in the mornings now with the sunset coming earlier each evening. All that time I thought I’d have back in June to get things accomplished in the garden has vanished in what seems like a wink of an eye. Still the weather these days is perfect for being outside and pecking away at my to do list. There are also some late summer/early fall tasks that need attention.

Alstroemeria ‘Rock & Roll’

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like alstroemeria, agapanthus, coreopsis, iris, daylily, yarrow, rudbeckia, calla lily, aster and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart although they don’t always bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. Start perennial flowers seeds now so that they will be mature enough to bloom next year.

This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage and soil temperatures are still warm which creates an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new roots system should be well established.

Perhaps it’s time to remove or reduce lawn. Replant with more drought tolerant ornamental grasses or perennials.

Achillea millefolium

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or layer of compost. This advice doesn’t apply to California natives. They like compost only around the roots during the winter while they get ready for their growing season.

Roses especially appreciate a bit of fertilizer now, encouraging them to bloom another round in the fall. 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 flower bud to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6″ of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

Soil builder cover crop mix

If you aren’t going to grow vegetables in the garden this fall consider planting a cover crop like crimson clover, fava or bell beans after you’ve harvested your summer vegetables.

Cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

And whatever you do, enjoy being outside in this beautiful place we call home.

Troubleshooting Plant Problems

Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving. And whether it’s a car problem, your smart phone, an irrigation system or yellowing leaves on a plant the goal is to solve it and make the product or process operational again. When you eliminate the potential causes of the problem hopefully the solution restores everything to its working order. Sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would say and it’s sometimes easier said than done as we all have experienced.

sunburned heauchera leaves

A few weeks ago I received a text with pictures of some plants with brown spots and asked what I thought might be the problem with their plants. This was after the heat wave we experienced and after asking a few questions about irrigation, location and how long the plants had been in the ground, I determined that the plant leaves had been burned in a pattern consistent with the location of the beating sun. At this time of year plants are growing wildly and need a good soak moistening the entire root zone. The solution: Better to water deeply less often than lightly which might not reach all the roots.

The subject of how much fertilizer and what kind came up in another troubleshooting email thread between some fellow horticulturalists. The issue was whether to use another round of organic high phosphate fertilizer in order to encourage bud development on a notoriously short-season tree dahlia. After some lively discussion we decided that the early spring application of rock phosphate was sufficient. Sometimes adding too much phosphorus may actually hurt a plant by preventing the uptake of other nutrients which must also be available to the plant in order to prevent unexpected deficiencies to appear. A balanced fertilizer containing all three nutrients- nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-was recommended for the remainder of the season.

yellow leaves on lemon

Then there were some problems in my own garden. Well, it seems I am always trying to solve something with plants, pests or critters but this was with my lemon tree. At first I was perplexed when the older leaves of my lemon tree started turning yellow a couple months ago. The new growth looked fine so it wasn’t an iron deficiency where the young leaves display green veins along with the yellowish color.

It wasn’t a nitrogen deficiency either where the mature leaves slowly bleach to a mottled irregular green and yellow pattern, become entirely yellow and then are shed while the discoloration spreads to the younger leaves. I had fertilized in March with an all-purpose balanced fertilizer. Citrus are heavy feeders and require a steady source of nitrogen, the ideal citrus fertilizer having a ration of 3:1:1 (N:P:K)

After eliminating other mineral deficiencies or overwatering as the problem I decided that my lemon was simply dropping interior leaves which is normal after winter but I wanted to trouble shoot all potential causes to be sure citrus greening wasn’t the culprit. If it had been this deadly disease the leaves would have exhibited an asymmetrical pattern.

To quote Sherlock Holmes “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I’ll try to remember that when I’m troubleshooting my next problem in the garden.

A Walk on the Wildside: The Ongoing Saga of the Hillbilly Gardener

Fourth of July roses

Many years ago I was invited by a Scotts Valley resident to visit their garden. This was no ordinary garden I was to learn during my visit and each spring I look forward to seeing what’s new at Doc Hencke’s garden. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. I wore my walking shoes and we started talking about what changes he’s noted in his landscape the past few years of drought coupled with this winter’s rains.

Straw bale veggie garden with Joe Ghio bearded iris

First stop- the straw bale veggie garden. The soil in this part of the garden is blue hard sub soil so this above-ground method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place a couple years ago he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. Using a meat thermometer he determined by the internal temperature when fermentation was complete. He then soaked the bales with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. The straw bales are decomposing each year but he’s going to use them once more this season. His crop of kale, lettuces and chard looked robust and happy.

Nearby a bed of Joe Ghio hybrid bearded iris were in full bloom. “It’s been a great year for iris”, Richard said. Not so good for peach leaf curl. The rains this winter set the perfect stage for the fungus to proliferate. He joked that the birds get the peaches anyway.

Richard is redoing his pond this year. He’s tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

Succulent collection with blooming kangaroo paw

Last year a new succulent bed was planted along the back of the house and patio. His Sticks on Fire all died over the winter from the cold and rain but the aeonium ’Zwartkop’, echeveria ’Sunburst’, kangaroo paw and various sedums were filling in nicely.

Weeping leptospermun

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira were in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of Weeping Leptospermum. “Magnificent this year, just look at this plant. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like in another 15 years?”, he said. Pointing out the visual boundaries he creates with flowering vines growing up into the trees, Richard observed that some are going better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

Richard_and_the_giant_ China_Doll
Richard and his giant China Doll tree

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. His giant bird of paradise flower pod opened last week. I’d never seen their enormous blue, prehistoric-looking flowers before.

Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely with the aloe plicatilis blooming for the first time. Also the yucca he and his brother dug up inTexas is finally blooming. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughs.

There are so many stories that come with each and every plant in Richard’s collection. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

Pruning Roses- How, When & Why


Mixed rose bouquet
Mixed rose bouquet

In between storms I’m itching to get outside and do something in the garden. It’s too early to cut back the perennials as some frosty nights are sure to come our way between now and mid-March. But it’s just the right time to start pruning the roses. It’s best to prune your roses before they start leafing out or some of their energy will be wasted.

Last year, mine were looking just fine in January, thank you very much, so I thought I’d skip the pruning and removing last year’s leaves. Boy, what a mistake. Oh they looked great in January and February when there was no precipitation. Then some rain fell in March. I’m not kidding when I tell you that every single leaf got black spot and rust. My rose varieties are usually resistant to disease but they could not fight back against the fungal spores lurking in the soil just waiting to colonize those old leaves.

Yellow fragrant rose
Yellow fragrant rose

Roses give so much back I think they are worth the extra mulch and a little extra water to keep them producing those lovely blooms. There’s nothing quite as dramatic as a mixed bouquet of scented roses on the table.

I want my rose bushes to produce lots of roses on a compact shrub and not just a few exhibition size blooms so I prune my shrubs moderately. My goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. I’ll cut out canes that cross, saving the better of the two, prune spindly and diseased stems and dead wood. I’ll also prune canes that appear weak or broken. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Then I’ll cut back the remaining stems by about third. When pruning cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Slant the cut away from the bud to encourage growth outward. Clean pruners afterward to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.

Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Bouquet of mixed roses
Bouquet of mixed roses

Heirlooms roses such as David Austin, other old antique garden roses, and floribunda roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm. Keep this in mind and prune lightly. Old garden roses that bloom once in the spring should be pruned after flowering.

I got off easy this year as one of my roses was pruned and de-leafed by a deer who got inside the fence one night but the others are getting pruned the right way and at the right time. I know those old leaves will spread fungus spores and possibly infect the new growth so I’ll patiently pluck them off.  If you have a huge climber this might not be possible and spraying with fungicide may be your only option if you’ve had disease problems in the past. Rake up the debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant, coating the trunk, branches and twigs and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light horticultural oil in 1 quart water and spray every 7 to 10 days during the spring.

Pruning intimidates some gardeners but when you understand the reasons for making the cuts pruning becomes less daunting. The reasons to prune are for health, appearance and to control size.

Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading or cutting off spent flowers encourages plants to re-bloom. Every time you cut a rose bloom to bring it indoors or deadhead a fading rose prune the stem down to shape the plant at the same time. Prune to a spot that has at least 5 leaflets. Roses grow from the point where they are cut so consider the overall shape of the plant as you snip.

Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later. Roses are like redwoods -you can’t kill one- they’re the energizer bunnies of the plant world.

Keeping Gardening Facts Straight

I’ve gotten several emails lately requesting more information about something mentioned in a recent column. I also received a phone call from a reader describing a bad encounter with a certain common plant. She wanted to share her experience so it didn’t wouldn’t happen to anybody else. And a conversation about how bad the poison oak is this year triggered a discussion about how to dispose of the stuff. So here goes. All the news that’s fit to print.

Whether it was Joe Friday who said it or Dan Akroyd in the Dragnet parody. we all want “Just the Facts, Ma’am“.

ramial bark chips

In my column a couple weeks ago about garden planning for the drought, it was the last line “And don’t forget the… mulch (no shredded bark, please)” that caused a bit of confusion. It’s great that everyone has accepted the value of covering the soil with organic mulch. Organic mulches- such as bark chips, treated sawdust, straw or even grass clippings- keep plant roots cool, encourage earthworms and other beneficial organisms, conserve soil moisture, combat weed growth and protect the soil from erosion.

But is there an organic mulch that is better than another?

There are many types of mulch available. Nurseries sell different types of mulch in bags, building supply yards carry everything from bark nuggets in different sizes to treated sawdust to chipped bark and even shredded redwood bark. It’s the shredded redwood bark, also called gorilla hair, that does nothing for the health of your soil. If you have a very steep slope you may have to go with this type of mulch but that’s the only time I can recommend it. It will cling to a hillside without washing down in winter rains but treated sawdust would also work for this type of terrain and is much better for soil health.

Of all the types of organic mulches out there, recent studies have shown that ramial bark chips are one of the best mulches to improve soil health. Ramial chips come from trees and brush with branches up to about 3” in diameter with or without leaves. These chips contain a high percentage of thin young bark and young wood. This is what makes them so valuable to the garden. Young wood is a tree’s factory for producing protein, glucose, fructose, lignin and polysaccharides. It’s an important source of nutrients for living things at all levels according to a study by soil scientists, G.Lemieux and R.A.Lapointe. You can obtain these kind of chips free from tree trimming companies who are probably working nearby chipping roadside brush for PG&E.


About that call from a reader who had a terrible experience after pulling some plants in her yard that had gotten a little out of hand. She said she and her husband ended up with severe eye burn after getting some toxic sap from euphorbia in them. She said they really don’t know if some of sap became airborne while they were pulling stems or if they accidentally rubbed some near their eyes at some point in the day. They went to Urgent Care right away for treatment but the pain lasted for days. She described it as one of the most painful experiences she has ever had. Euphorbias are very deer resistant and drought tolerant and are being used more and more in gardens.

Many of us, me included, grow tropical milkweed or Asclepias curassavica to attract monarch butterflies. The milky sap from this plant protects the monarch from being eaten and can cause the same painful burning of the eye. I read of a case where a gardener’s clothes brushed some stems while she was tending the garden. Later she wiped the sweat out of her eyes and didn’t realize she had also touched her pants. She ended up with cornea burn causing temporary blindness and had to take strong pain relievers and steroids to elevate the pain.

Poison oak

Lastly, a fine crop of poison oak is growing this year so thick in places you can barely avoid it. The new foliage literally glistens with toxic oils. Many birds relish the white berries that form later in the season. 9 out of 10 people will get a rash if even one drop of urushiol oil touches the skin. And this oil has lasting power. It can stay active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years. Burning dead or dormant poison oak branches is especially dangerous as urushiol oils released in smoke can produce disastrous results if inhaled. So what to do with the stuff if you pull it out? Do not put it in your green waste can. It can end up being ground into mulch along with other green waste. Instead put it in your gray garbage can. Other plant matter that has to be put in the garbage can is pampas grass and bamboo. Don’t put them into green waste

So that’s the skinny on shredded redwood or gorilla hair, common plants with toxic sap and poison oak disposal. Be careful out there.