Saturday, September 28, 2019

October Garden Tasks

October is an outstanding time of the year for gardens and gardeners. The soil is still warm, but air temperatures are much more pleasant. New plants love the warm soil; gardeners love the 70-degree days. Here are a few garden tasks that are perfect for this month in the Central Valley, East Bay and low foothills of Northern and Central California.
Chinese Pistache

Gingko biloba
Early October:
• This is a great time for planting new trees and shrubs, especially ones with outstanding fall foliage for our area. Good specimens include the Chinese pistache, Washington hawthorn, Japanese maple and Amur maple for typical lot sizes; the "October Glory" red maple, ginkgo, red oak and scarlet oak for larger lots.
• Reduce the frequency of lawn irrigations to once a week. Turn off the sprinkler timer when it rains.
• Feed roses one more time to keep the blooms coming through the fall.
• Don't let your summer vegetable garden go bare. Plant a winter cover crop such as vetch, fava beans or clover to help replenish the soil with nitrogen.
• Vegetables to plant from seed now include radish, spinach, and peas.
•Dethatch, aerate and overseed bermuda grass lawns with rye grass to keep it green all winter.
•Cool season lawns, such as the popular fescue blends, are putting on a spurt of growth now. Mow often so that you are never removing more than a third of the total height of the grass blade.
•Nurseries have a good supply of winter blooming annuals in supply this month; also, select onion sets now for your vegetable garden.
•This is a good time to plant ground covers. This will give their root systems a chance to get established for their burst of spring growth.
• Dealing with the possibility of drought: Looking to upgrade your sprinkler control system? Choose one that will turn your sprinklers off when it rains. Also, newer systems will adjust the run times based on the season as well as soil moisture content.

Tomato Hornworm Cocoon
Lawn Aerator, Dethatcher

 • Tomato hornworms are going into hibernation in the soil beneath your tomato plants. Dig down about four inches and discard their cocoons, which resemble two inch-long, reddish footballs.
• Mid-October is your last, best chance to dethatch, aerate and overseed a sad looking lawn for the year.
• Despite the cooler temperatures, your lawn and garden still need about an inch of water a week. Unless the rains come, keep your automatic sprinklers operating.
• After you've cleared out the dying summer vegetables, improve the soil for next year's garden by checking the acidity/alkalinity with a pH test kit. They’re available at just about every nursery.
• Putting on a garden show currently: “Autumn Joy” sedum, with its reddish-pink, umbrella-shaped flowers. This herbaceous perennial gets about 18 inches tall and wide.

“Autumn Joy” sedum

Sasanqua Camellia

Late October:
• Scatter and plant tulip and daffodil bulbs outdoors for a more natural look.
• Add some indoor color for the upcoming holiday seasons by planting bulbs now in containers.
• Now in bloom: the sasanqua camellia. This variety can take more sun than the japonica camellia, which blooms in late winter.
• Protect rhododendron and azalea roots during the winter by adding two or three inches of mulch beneath those plants.
• Available now at nurseries: colorful winter blooming annuals such as violas, calendulas, stock, Iceland poppies and snapdragons.
• Temperatures dipping down below freezing can occur here in early November. Prepare for that possibility by moving frost-sensitive potted plants next to the house or indoors.
• Row covers, hot caps, and water-filled containers surrounding young vegetable seedlings offer these plants a warmer nighttime environment.
• Prepare for the rainy season by knocking down watering basins around trees.
• Wait until we get two or three rainstorms in a row before scattering wildflower seeds. In the meantime, remove the weeds in that area.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

This year’s Great Tomato Growing Experiment: is this small area (4’x16’), adjacent to a north-facing fence, truly the sunniest spot on the property?

After monitoring my entire full sun-deprived Folsom yard for nearly three years, this one spot, near the garage, may be the one area that gets more than eight hours of direct sun a day, perfect for growing tomatoes.

The dilemma (well, two dilemmas, actually): because it is a concrete surface, the tomatoes must be grown in containers; and, how do you avoid water stains on the concrete when the barrels drain?

Solution: use a big container (in this case, half barrels with five 7/8” drain holes drilled through the bottom) and place that container on top of a catch basin with several 3/4” holes drilled on the side rim on the back side, allowing the water to drain from the catch basin to the  12” wide gravel area along the fence line.


The prototype catch basin was at the suggestion of radio guest Lori Ann Asmus, who decorates Christmas trees professionally (you can see her work during the holiday season at various lobbies in public buildings, including the downtown Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel).
The catch basins were, in reality, meant for placing beneath Christmas trees to catch any water overflowing the tree holders. They are available wherever fine Christmas tree accessories are sold (such as Emigh Hardware, in December).

The barrel/catch basin combo have shims under the front side, allowing a gentle slope towards the fence, coaxing the water to go out the back side of the holes in the catch basin and into the gravel. So far, so good.

Regarding the container dilemma: when planting thirsty summer vegetables in full sun, try to use the largest containers, preferably made out of something that doesn’t allow heat build-up, such as plastic (it’s not unusual for the soil in an unprotected plastic pot in full sun to reach temperatures in excess of 140 degrees on a day in the upper 90’s). A wood barrel works perfect for that purpose. Plus, the greater volume of soil in a barrel (as opposed to a 15-gallon plastic pot) also helps the plant avoid stress from dried-out soil if you miss a watering during 90 and 100-degree days. And, more soil means more room for root development.

Because a container plant may need water every day in the summer, I’ve given these two tomato plants (a Champion 2 full size tomato and a very popular grape tomato I have never tried before, Juliet) their own watering system: a battery operated timer on a nearby faucet with a Y-adapter. Connected to the timer is a short, half-inch drip line run, going along the backside of the barrels.

Connected to the half inch line: quarter inch tubing snaked through a small hole on the lower backside of the barrel, and topped off with an adjustable drip bubbler/sprinkler in the middle, which sends out 6 or 8 even streams of water in a circle. Unfamiliar with drip irrigation systems? Entire kits are available, such as this.

Pro tip: run the quarter inch line in the barrel BEFORE filling it with a good quality potting soil. (By the way, “Pro Tip” = “lesson learned the hard way”).

The tomato cages are made from 4’x5’ sheets of concrete reinforcement wire, 6” mesh (for easy reaching of the tomatoes). Bend the sheets in a circle and fasten with plastic zip ties. Or, use your barbed wire tool (what? everyone doesn’t have a barbed wire tool?) to cut off the vertical 12-gauge wire ends on one side, and then bend the free horizontal wires around the opposite side.

Watering containerized plants is tricky, and must be increased or decreased more frequently, depending on the weather. Having a nearby faucet/timer/drip system in place helps ease those adjustments.

Fertilization can also be tricky. Because of the leaching nature and frequent watering that an easy-draining potting mix needs during the summer, fertilizers must be applied more frequently. Note that “frequently” does not mean “more fertilizer”. If, for example, the directions on your slow-release vegetable fertilizer package advises fertilizing with a certain dosage once a month, modify it to meet the needs of your container plant: cut the dosage in half, and apply every other week.
Don’t forget that topping that containerized plant with a few inches of a bark mulch can help maintain soil moisture on a hot day and also keep the soil temperature moderate.