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Halloween From the Garden

So many pumpkin varieties to choose from for decorating and eating.

Halloween is just around the corner and besides deciding what you or the kids are going to be this year, it’s time to bring in any plants that you plan to overwinter in the house. Whether they’re the houseplants that you put out on the patio for the summer or frost tender plants that you want to save, this is the time to bring them in and here’s why.

Although our nights are still above freezing, plants need to acclimate to the indoor environment before you start turning on the heater regularly. Be sure to wash them thoroughly and inspect them for any insects that may have taken up residence while they were vacationing outside. Usually you can dislodge any hitchhikers with a strong spray of water but if that doesn’t do the trick, spray them with a mild insecticidal soap or one of the other mild organic herbal sprays like oil of thyme.

Another tip: Fall is not a good time to prune. Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease. As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming. Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or late spring after leaves and needles form. To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.

If you want to decorate for Halloween there is a plenty of plant material you can harvest from your own garden or nearby woods. Manzanita branches can often be found on the ground and make great arrangements combined with nandina or other berries. Some of the trees have started to turn color and their leaves can also be used for wreaths. The leaves of New Zealand flax last a long time and add fall color in bouquets.

Classic mums, pumpkin and Blue Hakkaido squash at my doorstep.

Mums are the classic fall flower. They come in nearly every color except blue and the flowers have many shapes from daisy to spider mums. They are perennials and make good additions to the garden. Best of all they make excellent cut flowers.

Several years ago a friend gave me a Blue Hokkaido winter squash to decorate my front entry and eat afterwards. It was delicious. This year, a good friend grew the Cinderella pumpkin (Rouge viv d’Etampes) which is said to have been the inspiration for Cinderella’s carriage. This French heirloom pumpkin was very popular during the 1880’s and will be tasty in pies and savory dishes later this fall. For now, the glowing orange-red color contrasts magically with the very pronounced lobes and flattened top.

A giant Cinderella pumpkin with a “friend’.

Many gardeners feel the Cinderella pumpkin is the very best pumpkin to grow in your garden. It’s the first to set fruit, first to ripen and is mildew resistant. Their bright orange creamy flesh is perfect for baking. Oven roasted they produce a pumpkin puree that is neither watery or bitter. Delicious in pumpkin spice muffins, pumpkin soup, or with vegetables and sausage. I even found aa recipe for pumpkin mac n’ cheese baked in a pumpkin. I’m so excited.

Pumpkin was a staple food for the early pioneers. It was easy to grow as a few seeds dropped into a shallow hole grew into a mature fruit. Yes, technically they are a fruit not a vegetable along with summer and winter squash and gourds. Their thick rind would allow them to be kept almost indefinitely.

Cinderella pumpkin in progress.

If you decide to grow the Cinderella pumpkin next year, you can start inside in pots or wait to plant in the ground when night temps are 55 degrees or over. In the garden, group them with other deep rooted plants that grow rapidly and need lots of water such as corn, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes.

Fall Color in Your Backyard

Quaking aspen

Soon I’ll be hiking in the Sierra among the native dogwood and hoping I”m not too late to see fall foliage. Last year I enjoyed the display of Quaking Aspen near Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4. Did you know that a massive grove of 47,000 aspen in Utah is one of the largest organisms on the planet? They all share the same genetic material and a single root system. There is a contender for this renown in Oregon where a honey mushroom measuring 2.4 miles across lives in the Blue Mountains. Interesting stuff.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple

Around here I’m just starting to see some trees and shrubs put on their coat of many colors. In my own yard, I have a Bloodgood Japanese maple that has been in full color for a couple weeks now. None of my other maple varieties are showing any color but that’s okay as I’ll be able to enjoy the upcoming show for many months. That is, if strong winds don’t dry out the leaves prematurely. I’ve watered well hoping this won’t happen. Weather conditions play a major part in the intensity of fall color. The time of year is nearly consistent but some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing nights.

Crape Myrtle

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

Forest Pansy redbud

California native, Cercis occidentalis (Western redbud) turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

Trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Easterm redbud, Chinese flame tree (Koelreuteria bipinnate), ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

Why Plant Cover Crops?

Cover crop mix

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese increased their soil’s fertility and protected it from erosion by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 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. Planting a cover crop is another way to improve and retain your soil.

A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward. 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. Growing a cover crop also increases beneficial soil bacteria.

Cover crops are called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before 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.

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.

Orin Martin shows the extensive root system of bell beans

Recent research now recommends planting a mixture 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 nowhere near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is 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.

You don’t need to use innoculants on legume seed. 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.

Work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds should be already cleared but this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area should be raked again lightly 1-2 inches down and covered with 3-4 inches 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. Water in lightly.

My 700th Post: Stories from the Past

Since writing my first column in October 2005 I have shared with you, my good readers, many a gardening tip, confession, aspiration, resolution, success story and utter failure in my garden. We live and learn from our mistakes. We gardeners love to swap stories and sometimes I learn as much from you as you do from me.
Gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Just one of many, many chipmunks that visit me daily.

Right now I’m suffering from the too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. No, I’m not talking about an overly productive zucchini or plum crop but my chipmunk population. I feed a lot of birds and try to grow as many plants that attract wildlife as I can. But it’s just possible that between this year’s abundance of rainfall and the resulting explosion of seeds and nuts from conifers in our area that the chipmunks have produced larger litters this year. Don’t get me wrong. I love my Merriam’s chipmunks. If you are interested I can email you the very short list of ornamental plants they don’t eat. At this point it consists of lantana, lewisia and loroptealum. I can tell you they love basil and parsley but who doesn’t? I’ve covered those pots with upside down gopher baskets secured with shish kabob skewers and so far it’s working.

With Guatemala and Honduras in the news I recall my trip there in 2007. On Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras, I noticed plants growing in washing machine baskets. I thought it was a clever way to re-use old appliances but wondered why there were so many old washing machines on a tiny island. A local laughed and told me the baskets protect their plants from the big blue crabs that come out at night. Seems the crabs will sever the stem right at ground level and drag the whole plant into their hole. Also the baskets protect the plants from the iguanas who will eat anything within two feet of the ground. And you thought deer, gophers and rabbits were a problem?

Tom Miller in 2017 with his Mountain Gardener column collection.

I get emails often from readers asking for advice. I’m happy to problem solve anyway I can. Text me a picture and if I can help, I will. Over the years, Lompico resident, Tom Miller, has reached out many times with gardening questions. Several years ago he posed with his collection of The Mountain Gardening columns that he cut out of the paper and saved. Sitting on his deck with all the clippings and flowering pots, it’s quite a testament to his loyalty. So Tom, are you still saving my columns now that I’m up to 700 of them or have you run out of space on your desk?

I have to give you an update on my moss-covered retaining wall that I started several years ago. With the rainfall this year and the year before last, the moss grew nicely during the winter and spring. This is despite my dog Sherman licking most of the moss starter slurry off initially. I still remember looking back at the wall after painting on the moss/buttermilk mixture ala Martha Stewart’s instructions and seeing him licking it all off. Even adding hot sauce to the mixture didn’t slow him down but I guess enough moss spores survived as the wall looks pretty good during the wet season.

Young bobcat watching me from outside the window. He was so curious.

So between watching the quail and their walnut-sized babies on legs and the recent visit from a young bobcat watching me at my drafting table, I’ve managed to write 700 columns for The Press Banner. Hopefully, I’ve addressed your particular gardening problem but if not, send me an email like Helen of Spring Lakes did this winter and I’ll get right on it.

Staycation Tips

Although I’ve taken several mini-trips around our great state this year I’m staying close to home this summer. With so many wonderful places to enjoy around here what’s not to love? Well maybe I’m planning on a bigger trip next year but for now I have so much beauty and wildlife right outside my window, I’m content.

Picture you and your family this summer outdoors during your “Staycation”, relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard. Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

DIY gazebo

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable. Whether it’s several umbrellas that provide the shade, a handmade gazebo, a tree or a combination , no one wants to bake in the sun. Plus your beverage gets hot if left in the sun.

If you decide you need a shade tree in the yard, there are so many good choices for our area. First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions. Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak. Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple. If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, brick or pavers? If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden. Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

Memorial Day Cornhole Championship. Pictured with me and Sherman is Joy Souza

And what outdoor living place would be complete with a cornhole game? Friends of mine take this bean bag toss game everywhere. Camping, the beach, poolside or on the patio – it’s fun for everyone. Even a rookie can toss, slide or airmail the bag directly in the hole while pushing his opponent’s bag off the board or, as often is the case, pushing it in the hole along with your own. It’s a fun game for all ages and you can easily make a DIY board if you want. I had no idea it was America’s favorite backyard game. There’s even a Pro Cornhole Championship on ESPN. Who knew?

After you’ve planted your tree, planned your hidden getaway, set up your corn hole game and sat around the fire pit in the evening, take advantage of the rest of the summer to enjoy your own piece of paradise.

Shade Gardening Ideas

Some of us garden in shade. We may live under the trees so that shade is year round. Maybe most of your shade happens in the winter. Maybe your garden is morning shade but in the afternoon it gets a blast of hot summer sun. What’s a gardener to do? The choices for sunny locations are many but for those of us who garden in shady or partially shady places we have a tough time finding good, reliable plants. Looking back over the years,

Daphne odora ‘ Maejima;

Looking for shade tolerant flowering shrubs to cut for bouquets? Fragrant daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with blooms that smell like apricots in winter. For summer fragrance grow Carol Mackie or Summer Ice daphne.

Plants to grow in dry shade areas include bergenia, mahonia, nandina filamentosa and fragrant sarcococca. Clivia, Viburnum ‘Mariesii’. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets and the leaves turn red in fall which is an added bonus.

Chinese Ground Orchid ( bletilla striata)

Chinese Ground Orchid ( Bletilla striata ) is another of my favorites plants for shade. A natural companion for ferns and wildflowers, this plant is tougher than it looks. Vivid, magenta blooms resembling small cattleya orchids emerge on long stalks for about 6 weeks in the spring.

Queen’s Tears

Every spring I look forward to the unique flowers of my Queen’s Tears billbergia. This pineapple relative makes a vigorous, deer resistant groundcover under trees without becoming invasive. Exotic looking rosy-red spikes are topped with drooping pink, blue and green flowers that look like dangling earrings. Insects never bother them. Give them a little water now and then and forget them. They’re that easy to grow.

Lobelia cardinalis

California native Western Wild Ginger and Pacific Coast Iris grow well in shade also as do Western Sword fern and Woodwardia ferns. Coral Bells, columbine, lewisia, lobelia cardinalis, ribes, salvia spathacea, fragraria, dicentra, calycanthus, philadelphus or Mock Orange and carpenteria to name just a few.

What veggies can you grow in shade? Without much sun, plants photosynthesize less and produce less sugar. On the bright side- no pun intended – shade does offer some benefits. Gardens in the shade don’t have to be watered as often and weeds don’t grow as quickly.

Root crops and leafy plants can tolerate more shade than fruiting crops. Beets, carrots, celery and turnip will grow quite happily in partial shade. So will shallots and bunching onions, cilantro, garlic, chives, kale, leeks, parsley and thyme. Leafy plants can tolerate partial to light shade because their leaves grow larger to absorb the sunlight the plants need. In very light shade areas concentrate on leafy green like Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes and tarragon.

Shade tolerant vegetables for your brightest spots – the partial shade areas – include beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash and early maturing tomatoes like Early Girl, Stupice, San Francisco Fog, Isis Candy as well as other cherry tomatoes. Corn and peppers will be lankier and bear later and only modesty in partial shade.

Shade can be decidedly helpful to some crops. Leafy greens will be more tender and succulent, without the bitterness they tend to acquire when conditions are too hot. A combination of a bit of afternoon shade and an abundance of moisture will help cut-and-come-again crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and celery stay in good condition longer in hot weather.

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all.

Sure, every garden is different- different look, different soil, different degree of shade, but it’s surprising how often one of these plants plays a starring or supporting role in a vignette or border

Those of us who live under the trees know a shady garden is a pleasant place to spend time on a hot summer day. Be thankful for what you do have.