Sunday, September 27, 2009

Golden Years Gardening

     As we age, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weaker...when it comes to gardening. 

     Our enjoyment of growing fruit, flowers and vegetables seems to increase as the years fly by. Maybe it's because we've come to better appreciate how nature works; maybe it's because we enjoy doing things closer to home; or, maybe it's because plants don't talk back. 

     Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: we don't bend down into a flower bed, lift bags of fertilizer and pull weeds as easily as we used to. As a result, we know that a few hours working briskly in the yard may result in an evening of moving slower.
    Here are some tips for implementing an easy-care garden for the Golden Years, advice that can be summed up in three words: automate, elevate and eliminate.

Automate. Provide your garden with an automatic watering system. The efficiency of an automated sprinkler or drip irrigation system protects your plants from the summertime heat when you're away from home. And, a good drip system reduces water usage, unwanted weed growth and plant diseases. Install low-voltage night lighting, equipped with sensors, to automatically come on at sunset throughout the yard.

Elevate. Build raised planters for your flowering plants and vegetables. Not only do raised beds reduce the amount of stooping and kneeling that are a necessary part of gardening, raised beds provide better drainage for plants that don't like "wet feet". Built of wood, concrete or brick, a raised bed, 18-24 inches high, gives you a place to sit while weeding, pruning or harvesting. Make the raised beds any length you desire; but keep the width less than four feet across for ease of reaching into the middle of the bed. And lining the bottom of these beds with quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth will keep gophers from sampling the fruits of your labor.

Eliminate. Why waste time fretting over a habitually under performing perennial, shrub or tree? If it is growing awkwardly or is consistently pest infested despite your best efforts, bring out the chipper/shredder. Dig it out, chop it up and get another plant that will do better. Better yet, have someone else do the digging and chopping. 

Although the attempt to totally eradicate weeds is an exercise in futility, adding three or four inches of mulch, such as a walk-on bark, can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend pulling weeds.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cutting Edge? More like, "Crash and Burn Edge"

This post has little to do with gardening. But it has everything to do with getting you more "yard time" and less time dealing with vexing indoor computer issues. In particular, the time consuming hassles of updating the heart of your computer, the operating system. Be it a PC or a Mac, it is not uncommon for early adapters to operating system upgrades to go through computer hell: updating printer drivers, getting older programs to work properly, searching for missing files, making sense of new folders, labeled in gibberish.

This rant comes from the folks at Magic Mouse, makers of a fine, easy to use layout program, Discus. Originally Discus was intended as a CD labeling program. Now, it is much more. It simplifies photo and text manipulation to the point that those of us who are clumsy at programs such as Photoshop Elements can easily create photo laden documents with a few clicks and drags of the mouse. I use it frequently for designing my garden handouts, such as this (Hey, I never said I had any artistic design talent. I just want to do the basics!).

The folks at Magic Mouse recently sent out an e-mail to their customers talking about a flurry of tech support inquiries they had received in recent weeks about compatibility with Macintosh OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard); Windows users calling about Quicktime issues if they install I-Tunes 9; and, (compatibility) information about the upcoming Windows 7 system. 

But what they also included is great advice that applies to all computer owners, especially those who are quick to purchase the latest operating systems, WAIT:

"We are old hands at computers, going back to the punch card era, and can state with authority that if you value your time and would like to avoid unnecessary  frustration in your life, we recommend that you NOT UPGRADE TO ANY NEW OPERATING  SYSTEM UNTIL SIX MONTHS HAVE PASSED.  

The trusting people who recently purchased Apple's Snow Leopard and immediately installed it were greeted with hundreds of terrible bugs.  It was reckless of Apple not to test their system more
thoroughly before releasing it to millions of paying customers.

When you immediately upgrade to a major new operating system version you are basically volunteering to be an unpaid tester for the supplier.  Unlike bran muffins, fresh operating system versions are not better;  they are more like wine, which benefits from age.  

Operating systems are among the most complex projects  ever attempted with hundreds if not thousands of man-years of work inside, and every major system shipping today went out the door with tens of thousands of known defects.  

Both Apple and Microsoft have a bug tracking system and the
managers at Apple and Microsoft know full well that their products are riddled with defects but market forces dictate that they ship on a fixed calendar schedule regardless of the consequences to the customer. If they waited until the product was flawless it would never ship at all.

Approximately 35% of the laptops containing Vista were downgraded to XP.  And this is after an entire year of Vista on the street.

There are two places you can be in the computer world - the bleeding edge and the trailing edge, and we recommend to all our customers to buy proven hardware technologies that are least two years old and try to stay behind in operating systems until you start to hit problems because you are too far behind.  

When  you stay behind a bit you enjoy low prices, complete reliability, and lots of technical help."

Now, back to the garden...and its own bugs.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

You Have a Lot of Gall! Ask the Snarky Farmer...

Dear Farmer Fred,

Can you identify the pink and little brown balls growing now on our oak tree? I don't remember seeing these before.
Is it some kind of parasite? If so, what should we do? Thank you. We enjoy your weekly show very much.

Margaret of Shingle Springs (CA)

Yep, it's gall season in the California foothills! Galls are interesting creations of several variety of (usually harmless) wasps. No action is necessary on your part, except to enjoy the show.

The Integrated Pest Management Project at UC Davis says this about galls: "Most galls are caused by cynipid wasps and gall midge flies. The adult gall wasp is a small, stout, shiny insect with very few wing veins and a purple or black body. Adult gall midges are tiny, delicate flies, often with long, slender antennae. Galls are distorted, sometimes colorful swellings in plant tissue caused by the secretions of certain plant-feeding insects and mites. These unusual growths may be found on leaves, flowers, twigs, or branches. Most galls are not known to harm trees. Prune and dispose of galls if they are annoying. This may provide control of some species if pruning is done when the immatures are in plant tissue and before the adults begin to emerge."

State entomologist Baldo Villegas chimes in:
"Your picture of a blue oak tree have several types of oak galls made by several species of small, non-stinging wasps in the wasp family "Cynipidae". As an entomologist, we refer to the members of this family as "cynipid wasps". They are unique among the wasps in that they lay their eggs on plant tissue resulting in a distinctive plant gall encasing the egg/larva. Each cynipid wasp species make different and distinctive galls and one can identify them based on the gall type. Obviously, your blue oak sample had several types of galls and therefore several species of wasps. There is not much you can do to control these gall wasps. They are native species that co-evolved with the blue oaks in the area. The wasps are not killing the trees and they also don't appear to weaken them; so, my recommendation is to just let them be.

1) The most obvious are the "echinid galls" produced by the wasp "Dryophanta echina".  These galls vary from pink to bright red and have the spiny galls.

2) The second gall that you asked for was for the small brown galls that look like little brown balls? These are probably "jumping oak galls" caused by the wasp "Neuroterus saltatorius.

Thanks, Baldo!

Other interesting oak galls:

And here's more fun with jumping oak galls.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Farmer Fred Visits the State Fair

At the California State Fair, Sacramento, Sept. 3, 2009:

At The Farm, behind Buildings A and B. If only my garden was this pristine!
Baby Bacon!
One way to make your Japanese maple trees weed-whacker safe!
The near-extinct Phoenix carota 
Hmmm, have the Sacramento Water Police seen this?
Dinner afterwards in the Pope Room at Buca Di Beppo.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Yellowjacket Fun Facts!

             FUN FACTS!

• The Western Yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica, sometimes called the "meat bee,") is a major pest in California because it can develop large colonies, up to 5000 workers.

• Yellowjacket workers have been known to forage up to 1800 feet from the nest, but the normal foraging range is about 1100 feet. 

• Most yellowjacket species are beneficial to man because they feed on live insects (including webworms, crane flies, flies and caterpillars), animal carcasses, and food in garbage cans and picnic sites.

• It is a ground nester, usually in abandoned rodent burrows. But other protected cavities, like voids in walls and ceilings of houses, sometimes are selected as nesting sites.

• Never crush a yellowjacket. A dying yellowjacket worker releases an alarm pheromone that alerts its nest mates. In just a few seconds, you could find yourself surrounded by angry wasps.

• You can lessen your attractiveness to yellowjackets if you forego the use of hairspray, perfume, or aftershave and don’t wear bright-colored clothing, especially bright yellow, light blue, red, or orange. Good choices are white or light tan fabrics which are unattractive to them.

• Yellowjacket nests in East Texas have been unearthed that were over 6 feet across and contained over 1 million cells.

• The number of workers in the nest will reach its highest population level in late summer, then the numbers begin to gradually decline until the onset of significant rainfall.

• Once food is discovered by wasps, they will continue to hunt around that location long after the source has been removed.

• When a yellowjacket nest is disturbed, defending workers may attack in numbers and inflict enough stings to create a life threatening situation for individuals hypersensitive to the venom.

• If disturbed, yellowjackets can inflict multiple stings and will chase the source of the disturbance as far as 200 to 300 yards from the nest.

• Yellowjackets do not usually sting when away from the nest. Unlike honey bees, these insects have a smooth stinger and can sting repeatedly. 

• If you are stung, cooling the area with ice may be soothing.

• If chased by these angry insects, run away in a zig-zag pattern, and seek shelter in a building or automobile. Do not jump in water...they WILL wait for you to surface.

• If you do end up in an area where yellowjackets are present, don't swat them. This will only increase your chances of being stung.

• Try to remain calm and walk away.


• Reduce available water for nest building and drinking, by repairing defective spigots and promote drainage in areas where water can accumulate.

• When nuisance wasps are present in the outdoor environment, keep foods (including pet food) and drinks covered or inside the house and keep garbage in tightly sealed garbage cans. 

• Use a red light to locate the nest opening because yellowjackets cannot see red light. 

• If wasp nests must be eliminated, it is easiest and safest to call for professional help. In some areas of California, personnel from a local Mosquito and Vector Control District may be available to remove nests. To determine if this service is available in your area, call the California Mosquito and Vector Control Association at (916) 440-0826.


• Lure traps work best as queen traps in late winter and spring. In summer and fall they may assist in reducing localized foraging workers, but they do not eliminate large populations.

• Lure traps contain a chemical that attracts yellowjackets into the traps, but common lures such as heptyl butyrate are not equally attractive to all species. 

• Proteins such as lunchmeat can be added as an attractant and are believed to improve catches.

• During spring, baited lure traps should have the chemical bait changed every 6 to 8 weeks.

• In summer, change the bait every 2 to 4 weeks; change bait more frequently when temperatures are high. Meats must be replaced more frequently because yellowjackets are not attracted to rotting meat.

• If commercial lure traps contain live yellowjackets, freeze it for two or three hours before disposing of them. Then, clean the trap and rebait it.


• Water traps are generally homemade and consist of a 5-gallon bucket, string, and protein bait (turkey ham, fish, or liver works well; do not use cat food because it may repel the yellowjackets after a few days). 

• The bucket is filled with soapy water and the protein bait is suspended 1 to 2 inches above the water. (The use of a wide mesh screen over the bucket will help prevent other animals from reaching and consuming the bait.) 

• After the yellowjacket removes the protein, it flies down and becomes trapped in the water and drowns.

• Like the lure trap, water traps also work best as queen traps in late winter to early spring. In summer and fall they may assist in reducing localized foraging workers but usually not to acceptable levels.

• Another home made yellowjacket trap that some report success with: a one liter soda bottle. Directions here.

• Place any yellowjacket traps at the perimeter of your recreation area, preferably 30 feet.

• Keep screen doors and windows in good repair.

• Gather up ripe or rotting fruit that has dropped from fruit trees.

• Try to observe what food the yellowjackets are after and make it less available to them.

• Use garbage cans with tight-fitting lids and keep them closed.

• Wear shoes when walking through lawns.

• Keep car windows closed whenever possible.

• Be cautious when working in the garden or trimming hedges.

• Be careful when drinking from a can or bottle, as you may swallow a yellowjacket and receive a sting in the throat.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Now's the Time to Harvest Herbs

     Many area gardeners are in harvest mode this time of year, gathering tomatoes, peppers, pickles, grapes and other fruit for canning, freezing or drying. Don't overlook the herb garden when preserving your garden goodies.

    Great for art or craft projects such as wreath making and potpourri, creating oils and brewing tea, dried herbs from your garden are also a bargain for your kitchen spice rack. 
     Rose Loveall-Sale of Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville offers these tips for harvesting your herbs at the peak of perfection:
• Pick herbs during the morning, when the flavor and aroma are best.
• September and October are the best months for harvesting herbs. Although your herb garden will look outstanding all the way through October, the cooler weather of mid and late fall will diminish the herbs' potency.
• Harvest only from those plants that are healthy. Avoid drought stressed herbs.
• Prune herbs from the top of the plant, harvesting the younger stems and leaves.
• Don't wash herb cuttings until you are ready to use them. Or, overhead water the plants the day before harvesting to wash off the dirt.
• If using fresh herbs for cooking, don't damage the leaves before you are ready to cook. Cut whole stems, keeping the leaves intact.
• For drying, tie herb branches in one-inch bunches and hang upside down for about a week, out of the sun in a cool, dry place. Then, store the dried herbs in glass jars or plastic containers in a dark place. If using a dehydrator, use the lowest temperature setting.

    Loveall-Sale also recommends three culinary herbs for planting now, that will last all winter outdoors here in the valley, low foothills and Bay Area of California: 

salad burnet, winter savory and Italian oregano

The leaves of salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) have a mild, cucumber flavor and are often used in French dressings.


 The peppery flavor of winter savory (Satureja montana) is more intense than its close relative, summer savory, and is best used in soups and stews. 


Italian oregano (Origanum x majoricum), also known as Italian marjoram, is sweeter than other oreganos and is a staple for seasoning by gourmet cooks.