Sunday, September 19, 2010

Despite What Your Smart Phone Says, All Gardening is Local

     Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis passes along this conversation between a customer and a nursery employee. A conversation - or one similar - which is probably repeated in nurseries every day:

“It says here that fava beans are planted in the spring,” says the young man.
“Says where?” asks the trained nursery person.
“Here,” as he points to his phone.
He has Googled a web site about vegetable gardening.
Ah, the new technology.

All gardening is local. But to get local garden information online, one needs to limit their Google search. One tip we have passed along before: when researching a plant or a pest, include the initials of the closest agricultural-based university. Here in California, that would be "UC".

To use the fava bean example: an online search that only included the phrase, "growing fava beans" returns a blog page as the first result, which states: "Fava beans are cool weather crops, and should be planted as early in the spring as possible." A little detective work on the origin of that blog turns up the authors' location: the Netherlands. Not exactly local. Not exactly a climate that resembles Davis, California.

Now, Google the phrase, "growing fava beans UC". At the top of that list? Information from the UC Cooperative Extension's Gary Hickman, longtime Farm Advisor in the San Joaquin Valley (local!). So, when does a gardener plant fava beans here? It depends on your intentions. "The fava bean is a cool-season annual legume and is usually planted February and March in California for vegetable use and September to November for cover crops."

Now, an argument can be made that perhaps the customer at the nursery intended to plant fava beans for harvest. Usually, though, anyone inquiring about fava beans this time of year is thinking "cover crop". And fava beans are a very good cover crop.

Callers to the radio shows or questions to the Farmer Fred e-mail bag are no different. Someone is always trying to grow something that is not intended for our area.

     Roberta of Carmichael (Sacramento County) is trying to emulate Johnny Appleseed:
      "I have two Maiden Blush apple trees in my yard. They ripen in August (which isn't very good). Is there anything I can do to make them ripen later in the year? I grew these trees from seeds from apples off a tree that was on my family's homestead in Nebraska. They are about 15 years old. This year, they seem to have gotten worm holes and not matured as well. Are they prone to any pests or diseases? What about watering? They seemed to have done OK so far, but i want to keep them healthy and alive!"

Depending on your location, the Maiden Blush apple can ripen as early as mid-August or as late as mid- September. The Maiden Blush was introduced into commerce in New Jersey, in the early 1800's. It's a popular dessert apple in the Appalachian mountain regions.

According to fruit tree nursery consultant Ed Laivo, that tree may be producing fruit early because it is stressed due to our summer weather: hot and dry, which is quite different from the tree's original production grounds in New Jersey (humid and rainy in the summer, with a pronounced winter chill). 

"We nicknamed Maiden Blush 'Maiden Mush' ", says  Kevin Hauser , the owner of Kuffel Creek Apple Nursery  in Riverside, CA.

And a stressed tree is an invitation to pests and diseases. Sort of like the slowest antelope in a pack, being chased by a lion. Or an aging catcher trying to steal second base.

The right plant in the right place. Sacramento may not be the right place for that Maiden Blush apple tree: 100 degree days, 15% humidity, and winter chill hours that are far below what is required for many eastern apple varieties. Winter chill hours are the total number of hours at 45 degrees or less between November and February. The Central Valley of California normally gets between 800 and 1200 chilling hours per year. Coastal California gets far less, ranging from near 0 (41 at La Jolla last winter) to about 400. There are plenty of apples that do well here in the Central Valley: Fuji, Granny Smith, Spitzenburg, Pink Lady, Gala, Ashmead's Kernel and many more. Their common trait: a winter chill requirement of 800 hours or less. Of those listed, several are taste test winners with winter chill needs that are far less than 800: Pink Lady (300-400 hours), Gala (400-500) and our personal favorite, Granny Smith (400 hours).

This is usually a line of questions I get from Bay Area or Southern California transplants to the Sacramento area or the foothills. They wonder why their bougainvillea dies in the winter here or why they can't get their Hass avocado tree to produce in the valley.  All gardening is local, especially in California, which according to the Sunset Western Garden Book, has 24 gardening climates. 

Having said that, let me repeat: All Gardening is Local. Actually, All Gardening is Really Local: you just might have the right microclimate in your backyard to grow plants that other gardeners struggle with in your neighborhood: Bananas in Lodi. Jacaranda trees in east Sacramento. And yes, bougainvillea that live year round...if you have the right conditions, and a lot of luck. 

A good reference book with lots of tips and tricks for growing plants in the Golden State: California Home Landscaping, by Lance Walheim.


  1. Fred - I completely agree that California Home Landscaping, by Lance Walheim is an outstanding book. I have been using it for about a year now planning the landscaping for my return to Northern California after retirement in the not too distant future.

    Currently, I am in South Texas due to a job move and found they also have a book just like it for Texas Landsacaping.

    Love your show and website as it keeps me grounded in all things growing in California.

    Thanks again

  2. You probably know, but overlooked, this simple fact: apples cannot be grown true from seeds (they are not self-fertile). So, Roberta's trees are not Maiden's Blush, but the offspring of Maiden's Blush and another apple that happened to be nearby. This being the case, and accounting for growing conditions different from Nebraska, the growth habits of this new variety are bound to be different from either parent. She ought to be thrilled to have a decent apple grown from a seedling. It might not be exactly true, but orchardists say that only 1 in 500 seedlings produce a palatable apple, so congratulations, Roberta, you have your own unique variety!