Category Archives: organic gardening

What’s in your Soil?

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

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

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.

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

sunflower pollinator attractors
Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

UCSC Farm_Garden_crops
UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Growing your own Food for Health & Happiness

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

Veggie boxes- July 2016 All photos courtesy of Gaylon Morris

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

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

Pink Lemonade blueberry

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

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

Indigo Rose tomato

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

Calico corn- a gourmet popcorn variety

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

Four Sisters

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

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

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.

A Visit to the Brook Lomond Iris Farm

Aztec Sun
Aztec Sun

What do you get when you combine a world renowned pottery artist with a reformed corn grower? On California Street in Ben Lomond, the result is the Brook Lomond Iris Farm of Rick and Chris Moran. This fun, educational, inspiring couple recently invited me to admire this year’s crop of tall bearded iris grown with certified organic gardening practices as well as to share their organic vegetable garden, cactus and succulent collection and Chris’ unique pottery. They are getting ready for this year’s annual iris sale coming up April 30th as well as May 1st and 7th from 9:00-4:00 each day when the iris blooms will be at their peak.

Coiled pottery by Chris Moran

Upon arriving my eyes were torn between the colorful beds of iris on my left and the blooming cactus and succulent collection displayed on the flagstone entry garden on the right. I later learned Chris cut and laid the flagstone herself. Inside the house Chris’s fabulous coiled pottery vases, urns and jugs in their great room were so amazing I had a hard time tearing myself away to start the tour of the back garden and iris beds in the front. Cody, their new dog, was good company as I learned how the Moran’s came to start an iris farm.

When Rick Moran was 13 years old he worked at LoPresti tomato farm in Connecticut. “I hated it,” he laughs. Later when he was a student at UCSC he used to pass by the Chadwick garden and says he “got the gardening bug by osmosis”. After graduation the couple moved to Bar Harbor Maine where they started a community garden. Chris displayed the cactus and succulents she had moved there in a heated porch which was quite the talk of the town for neighbors passing by on a snowy day.

Organic vegetable garden

When they moved back to this area and found the sunny lot in Ben Lomond, Rick added nine yards of chicken manure mixed with rice hulls and planted corn. He had visions of savoring succulent ears of corn for dinner but quickly realized that the amount of water needed to grow corn was prohibitive. That was after the Chris’ succulent failure. He and Chris wanted to come up with a crop they could make a little supplemental income. She used to sell her cactus and succulents when they lived in Capitola at the drive-in in Santa Cruz many years before but after planting fancy succulents in the front yard and seeing them turn to mush in a Ben Lomond freeze they realized succulents weren’t going to work either.

Stepping Out

Enter “The Queen of the Garden” as iris are called. The Morans researched these stunning flowers and found them to be drought tolerant and deer and gopher resistant. Having a high water table Iris are the perfect crop. They require no extra water at all with summer being the plant’s dormant season. Chris worked for the City of Santa Cruz for 25 years and started their Home Composing program. They compost all garden waste and kitchen scraps using the compost as the only fertilizer for the iris beds and vegetable garden. They get 15 wheelbarrows of compost a year from their simple bins. Straw is spread as mulch to control weeds between the iris beds’

Tall bearded iris beds

The iris are starting their blooming cycle now. Some bloom earlier than others. By planting early, mid and late blooming varieties you can extend their colorful show for several months. Iris also make a good cut flower and many are fragrant. Chris told me that you can tell when an iris was hybridized from it’s shape. The early types are not as frilly as modern varieties. She pointed out a bed of Wabash Heritage which was first introduced in the 1920’s- simple with three falls. The lovely sky blue flowers of Striped Zebra iris smelled of Grape Koolaid. Chris explained that the flower scent develops as they sit in the sun. The aroma is not as strong when they first open.

Bearded iris closeip

The Brook Lomond Iris Farm is located at 10310 California Drive off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond. Just look for the tall flags waving in the breeze and bring your camera. Iris rhizomes for sale are chosen for hardiness in this area and the Morans are always on the lookout and adding the newest varieties available such as the deep purple Dusky Challenger. The Iris Farm is educational as well as beautiful- a place the whole family will enjoy.

Troubles in the Garden

Milkweed aphids

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

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

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

DDT ad_The-Home_Garden-Sept1945
DDT ad in ‘The Home Garden’ magazine published September 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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