Friday, May 29, 2009

Ask the Snarky Farmer

Each Friday, we delve into the email bag of garden questions:

Doug from Lodi writes, "We have many photinia bushes that we use as a screening plant. This year, several are looking in bad shape. They all get equal water so I feel that's not the problem. Could it be grubs or cut worms in the ground? Are they possibly in need of fertilizer? Our soil in Lodi is fairly sandy, with no rocks or clay.
Doug, it's only fair to the rest of us that anyone with perfect soil must suffer through the occasional plant problem. For a positive identification of the cause of your photinia's illness, you may want to take a sample of an ailing photinia branch to a nursery that employs a CCN Pro or your county's Cooperative Extension office.
If t
here is spotting on the leaves, and the leaves are falling, it could be entomosporium leaf spot, a fungus that pops up during warm, wet spring weather. Entomosporium is a fungal disease that spots the leaves of plants in the Pomoideae group of the rose family, including apple, flowering crab apple, evergreen pear, hawthorn, pear, photinia, pyracantha, quince, Rhaphiolepis (pictured), and toyon. If that is the case, remove infected leaves from the ground and the shrub. Also, avoid overhead watering. Making sure there is room between the plants for good air circulation can help. If that is impractical, try removing some of the lower branches.
And, in a rare instance where mulch can be counterproductive, the experts at UC say to remove any mulch beneath the plant, which may harbor the fungus.
p.s. "CCN Pro" stands for "California Certified Nursery Professional"... not to be confused with John Fogerty, a CCR Pro.
Robert of North Sacramento wants to know: "I am getting ready to put in a garden and the soil gets pretty hard, possibly due to clay, and I was considering tilling in some ground bark to help loosen the soil. I have access to two types: cedar and fir. Which would be best? Is there something other than bark I should be looking at?"
You may want to check with Doug, maybe he has a spare hundred cubic yards of pristine topsoil that he might be willing to share. If that doesn't work out, try adding organic compost instead of bark into your clay soil to improve it. Bark takes quite awhile to break down when mixed into soil. Plus, it will tie up nitrogen that your existing plants need. Instead, add about one cubic yard of organic compost for every 300 square feet of garden area. Use the bark, either cedar or fir, as a four inch layer of mulch around your trees and shrubs or on top of your garden bed. This will help control weeds, conserve soil moisture and slowly feed the soil as the bark decomposes. The question you have to ask yourself: do I rototill the compost into the soil, or just let it rest on top of the existing soil? There are two very vehement schools of thought on this...a subject for a future blog!
And if your backyard looks like this, cracked clay in the summer, mud in the rainy winter...add four inches of mulch on all your walkways. It will improve the soil and keep you from sinking to your knees in the winter.

Maureen of Paradise wonders, "I'm baffled. What is 'hardening off'?"
"Hardening off" is one of those 50-cent horticultural terms that gardeners like to use to make them feel smarter than everyone else. Sort of like "acarpous" (sterile), "bipinnately compound" (a complicated leaf construction, e.g., the shape of a Chinese pistache leaf) or "File for Chapter 11" (what some nurseries do in a recession). "Hardening Off" simply means: let the plant get used to the outdoors slowly. It has nothing to do with Viagra. For example, if you have tomato seedlings indoors in early spring, you may want to place them outdoors in a shady spot for daytime hours for a week or so in mid-spring (bring them in at night). During the second week, let them spend the night outdoors, too, in a protected area (as long as no freezes are predicted). Then, during the third week, acclimate the plants to their permanent home. Plant them in their garden home, but place a row cover or hot cap or wall o' water around them for a couple of days. Then, let 'em grow!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Making a Home for the Garden Good Guys

Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects are important to your vegetable garden. Many crops such as squash, cucumber, tomato and eggplant won’t produce fruit or seeds without their help. These beneficial critters transfer pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower, resulting in the formation of vegetables. Bees are the most important pollinators because they spend their life collecting pollen. According to the California Master Gardener Handbook, bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. In addition, attracting pollinators also helps encourage other beneficial insects that can help control pests in your garden. The Sacramento County Master Gardeners offer these pollinator-attracting planting suggestions:

* Install a wide variety of plants that bloom at different times of the year with several species blooming at once. Pollinators are active at different times of year. In our yard, the bees gather at the blooming rosemary plants during the winter, when little else is flowering.

* Plant in clumps. Bunches of flowers are more attractive to pollinators than single flowers.

* Include flowers of different shapes and colors. Bees are particularly attracted to flowers that are violet, blue, purple, white or yellow. Butterflies prefer bright red or purple.

* Choose natives. Many California pollinators prefer native plants.

* Plant non-hybrid flowers. Many hybrids have had their pollen, nectar or fragrance bred out of them, making them less attractive to pollinators.

* Eliminate or limit pesticides whenever possible. Pesticides can be harmful to pollinators. When a pesticide is needed, use the least toxic one.

* Provide nesting sites and food sources, such as nectar for hummingbird feeders and salt licks for butterflies.

California native plants that attract pollinators include California poppy, California Redbud, Lupine, Rosemary, Sunflower, Toyon, Western dogwood, Wild rose, Wild lilac (ceanothus) and White leaf manzanita. Other plants that pollinators enjoy: Agastache, Basil, Borage, Cosmos, Dicleptera, Hyssop, Lavender, Marjoram, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), Mint and Pincushion flower (Scabiosa).

And a final hint: some garden references may advise you to cut off flower heads to enhance the beauty of the foliage plant (such as for lamb's ears). If your goal is to attract garden good guys, let those flower heads stay.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Easy Tips For Bigger Fruit

Looking to harvest bigger pieces of fruit from your trees and vines this summer? Now's the time to take action, mainly THIN YOUR FRUIT! Here are some tips from the experts at UC Davis:

For table grapes: Thin out the bunches so that there is at least six inches of space between each remaining bunch of table grapes. Cut off the "tails" from the remaining bunches at that same time. This is the lower one-quarter to one third of the bunch, where it begins to taper down in size.

This will send more energy to the remaining grapes on the bunch. The book, "The California Master Gardener Handbook" advises that fertilizer can be applied for each grapevine when the berries are about a quarter-inch big, usually in May. The same book advises gardeners to apply about 50 gallons of water per week per vine, during the hottest months (June through August) here in the Central Valley of California. Apply less (about 35 gallons a week) during May and September.

For apples, European and Asian pears, apricots, peaches, plums, kiwifruits, persimmons and pluots (pictured to the left, unthinned, and then thinned): space fruit evenly along each branch, with perhaps four to six inches between each piece of fruit. More importantly, be sure to leave the largest sized fruits on the tree or vine. The best time to fertilize these crops is in August, when the trees are setting their fruit buds for the following year. The UC home orchard specialists recommend applying either seven pounds of a 16-16-16 fertilizer or 70 pounds of steer manure per tree.

Because of their small size, cherries are not usually thinned from backyard trees. Also, nut crops, such as almonds and walnuts, are not thinned.

And this valuable tip from the experts at Louisiana State University: when thinning fruit, keep looking at the tree; don't look at the ground. Seeing all that fallen fruit may dissuade you from the task at hand.
Farmer Fred Attends a Fruit Tasting!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rose Deadheading: A Cut Above...Or Below

A sure-fire way to have repeat blooming, hybrid tea roses in full flower for your next big get-together at the house: deadhead them six weeks before the event. The problem is, the process of removing those spent rose blooms can vary, depending on which rosarian you talk to. For example, Jane emails us: "Would you please tell me the deadheading method recommended by the Sacramento Rose Society?"

         Many rose sources would offer advice such as: cut off the spent flower shoot down to at least the first leaf with five leaflets, preferably just above an outer-facing bud, to encourage growth away from the interior of the plant.

         Of course, when talking with rosarians, techniques may vary. Anita Clevenger, a Sacramento County Master Gardener and member of the Sacramento Rose Society who also helps maintain the historic rose bushes at the old Sacramento City Cemetery, has an interesting take on this process.

"It's still my belief that roses will rebloom quicker if you leave the leaves and canes," says Clevenger. "Nutrients are stored in them, and leaves are needed to produce the flowers.  If you deadhead down to the first outward-facing five-leaflet cluster, as is usually advised, you cut off quite a few leaves. The plant will first grow new canes and leaves before setting flower buds. A rose from which the spent flower has been snapped will also grow a new flower stem, but it will be shorter." 

          Clevenger also thinks that snapping off a spent rose flower, instead of snipping, can mitigate pest problems. "I believe that there are less cane borers as a result of this process," she says. "Borers invade a cut stem. It's also possible that there is less risk of spreading disease. I once ran across an article that claimed one got more and stronger basal breaks (new flowering wood) as a result of just snapping off the spent flowers. The theory was that the plant was stronger because it had more canes and leaves."

          Aesthetics may argue against this technique. "On cluster-blooming flowers, such as polyanthas and floribundas, the new growth will probably come from below the flower cluster, which will die and remain visible," explains Clevenger. "Some people think these dead clusters are ugly, but they don't bother me much, and I'm willing to go back and trim them off after the rose has decided where new growth will emerge. Another aesthetic objection can be based on the fact that a plant will grow bigger and taller.  If you want the plant shorter, deadheading decisively is a way to attain that. Also, if you want a long-stemmed bloom, snapping off the flower won't achieve that.

What you do can depend on the specific rose. "Some experts dispute the idea of deadheading, or pruning, to an outward-facing bud," says Clevenger. I have observed that the a rose will probably put out growth from two or three buds below the pruning cut, and often the second bud yields the stronger growth. Their recommendation is: prune to the height and shape that you want. Deadheading can be a form of pruning, so the same advice applies. Once you get to know your roses, and your preferences, you can figure out what works."

         And perhaps that is the bottom line: when it comes to deadheading what works for you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Joys of the Imperfect Garden

Tired of judgmental house guests sniping about your less-than-pristine garden?

Here are valid excuses for maintaining your yard the way you do:


When complaints arise about tall weeds:

It's  Western Meadowlark habitat!



 Dandelions got your guests in a snit?


 Dandelions attract beneficial insects, including lacewings and ladybugs!

More Plants That attract Beneficial Insects



 Complaints about low, unpruned tree branches that are not in anyone's way?

 Shade preserves soil moisture, helps prevent sunburn on trunk.



 Dead flowers on roses upsetting the in-laws?



 Rose hips build a stronger rose bush; and, great as a healthy tea!




Green, weedy areas beyond vegetable garden have relatives wondering why you are soooo lazy?


It's a grasshopper trap crop!

More on Grasshopper Control




 Lots of wrinkly noses, upturned at your spotted spurge?


 It's a low growing, easy care groundcover!

It's on the Internet, it must be true!



 Piles of tree trimmings attracting unwanted attention?




 It's songbird habitat. They control the bad bug population, including tomato hornworms.




 Pile of garden debris, way in the back, discovered by party guests?


 Tell them it's a passive compost pile!

More About Passive Composting




Low soil level in potted plants have parents making little remarks?



That low soil level allows more water to be absorbed without overflowing!




Weeds in lawn have the purists clucking?



 Weeds? That's clover, which adds nitrogen! Nature abhors a monoculture.

ahhh, lawn clover....let me count the ways...




Does that unkempt wildflower area have mom reaching for the clippers?

 It's bee food!




 Do those plants that are crowding out others have the neat freaks in a tizzy?



 That plant in the middle? It's deciduous. So, those outer plants "add winter interest."




 Did the local garden expert note that the citrus rootstock is taking over entire plant?


Thick rind on ugly fruit is great for zest!



Did someone point out that your rose bush is growing from below the bud union?




Tell them that you have always been fascinated by Dr. Huey! Dr. Huey has been used for years as a rootstock for Hybrid Tea roses. When the grafted rose dies, the Dr. Huey rootstock sprouts and thrives.



 Unsightly Tree Stump got folks trippin'?


 You're decomposing it the Amish way!





Does that collection of scraggly plants in a corner of the yard have neighbors wondering?



 It's your tax-deductible orphanage for unloved flowers!




Do all the feral cats in your yard have folks thinking your one step away from "bag lady time"?

 Gophers keep them fat and happy! (just don't overfeed them!)

Feral Cat Ranchers