Monday, May 31, 2010

Winter Citrus Problems Showing Up in Spring

     One of the problems of answering gardening questions on the radio: a lack of time to fully explore all possibilities. For example there was this exchange on a recent show.

Cross Section of Rootstock Citrus

Bill asks:
"My young citrus trees (Santa Teresa lemon and Valencia orange) had their first crop this year and the fruit was near worthless. The rinds were very thick and the flesh contained very little juice. In addition the oranges were nearly tasteless. I fertilized them with organic fertilizer according to package directions. I live in Elverta (Sacramento County) and have a sandy clay soil. What might I have done wrong?"

Fred responds:
"It sounds like rootstock fruit. If the fruiting wood goes in decline and the suckers take over from beneath the graft, one of the byproducts is fruit that fits your description: thick rinds, little juice and fairly tasteless. One way to make lemonade out of these lemons, so to speak, is to use the thick rind as a zest.

In his excellent book, "Citrus", citrus grower Lance Walheim explains the importance of growing citrus varieties on different rootstocks. The advantages of citrus rootstocks include keeping the overall height of the tree smaller, offering disease resistance, imparting more cold hardiness as well as better soil adaptation. 

But if that rootstock takes over, possibly if the top part of the tree is killed in a freeze, watch out. Besides inedible fruit, citrus trees that grow from rootstocks such as Flying Dragon and Trifoliate orange have thicker leaves and many more thorns along the stems. 

When you see those sprouts beginning below the bud union, cut them out.

Bill responds:
"No, no this is not root stock. I carefully removed the sprouts of rootstock which was some sort of trifolate orange and I had the trees protected from frost."

Fred responds (while looking anxiously at the clock):

"If it is not rootstock growth, then you may want to take a sample branch or a sample of the next fruit harvest to a good nursery for a positive I.D. Or, take those samples (or pictures of the tree) to Harvest Day at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center on Saturday, August 7. There will be representatives of  there who can help identify it."

 I would never claim to know all the answers. One big advantage of my job: access to people who do have the answers. I forwarded this question to Mary Helen Seeger, one of the principals of wholesale citrus tree growers, Four Winds Growers.

Mary Helen provides another possible culprit to Bill's dilemma:

"This year, a lot of citrus fruit was damaged during the freeze," she explains. "It is especially noticeable on young trees as there is not much canopy to provide some frost protection.  During a hard freeze, the vesicles burst and then, over time, they lose their juiciness, leaving the fiber of the vesicles. Lemons are more thin-skinned when they first turn yellow and are usable.  During the winter, the fruit grows larger and the rind gets thicker. Oranges do that as well, but not to the extend that lemons do (in my experience.)

Anyway, don't give up on the trees yet.  It has been a challenging year for plants with the wild temperature swings. Keep amending your soil with compost and organic matter to balance the clay.  Keep amendments  away from the trunk. Check out for more tips."

And Mary Helen adds:

"Fred, remember to tell people to make sure large citrus trees in the ground are deeply watered and fertilized this time of year, to prevent "June drop". That's when temperatures rise suddenly, often accompanied by winds."

Consider it done, Mary Helen.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tomato Report Card

Still shopping for tomato plants? Late May-Early June is not too late to put them in the ground, especially with our unusually cool spring here in Northern California.

Here is our garden report card for tomatoes from last year, 2009. 

Remember, though, every year is different when growing tomatoes. And your results will vary, guaranteed. That Celebrity which seems to perform well each year? It could suddenly take a nosedive, for no apparent reason. And with the wacky weather we have had so far in 2010...all bets are off. But if you are undecided, consider the ones here that have passing grades. Or, flip a coin.

Note: the letters "V" (verticillium wilt), "F" (fusarium wilt), "N" (nematode), "T" (tobacco mosaic virus) and/or "A"(alternaria root rot) refer to the disease or pest resistance of some of these hybrid varieties.

Sweet Gold

FT Hybrid. Vigorous vines produce abundant clusters of 1/2 oz. bright yellow-gold cherry tomatoes with delicious sweet flavor. These tomatoes are naturally sweeter than red cherry varieties with a fruitier taste. Indeterminate. 60 days. Our favorite cherry tomato from 2007. Sept. 2008 report: Our favorite cherry tomato of 2008! Productive and tasty. Backyard visitors couldn't help but munch them straight from the vine. Can Sweet Gold Three-Peat in 2009?

Tastiest, sweetest of all the tomatoes. Excellent in salads. Very prolific all season. A+

Lemon Boy

 VFN Hybrid. The first lemon yellow, not golden, tomato variety. Extremely vigorous plants produce large harvests of attractive fruit that weighs 8 ozs. or more. Flavor is outstanding, mild and sweet yet tangy and definitely not bland.  Indeterminate. 72 days. Lemon Boy was very prolific, tasty and disease free in 2008 in our garden, so it gets planted again!

Very productive. Extremely flavorful. Great in salads. Started harvesting in late May! Some cracking, but tolerable. A


Dr. Wyche

  Heirloom tomato. Golden-yellow fruit is beautiful, unblemished and smooth, and varies from 10 ozs. to 1 lb. The shape is that of a typical beefsteak with very meaty interiors. Huge, vigorous plants produce well. Indeterminate. 80 days. New for us in 2009.

  SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: Very prolific for a large yellow tomato! Big and juicy, with a great, sweet flavor. Some blossom end rot, but tolerable. A

Bloody Butcher

Determinate heirloom. 50-60 days to maturity Medium sized, deep-red skinned tomato. Fruits generally weigh 3-5 oz. An impulse seed rack buy at the supermarket. I couldn't resist the name. Sept. 2008 report: Bloody Butcher was quite productive throughout the season. Rather juicy, so not ideal for canning. But quite tasty in salads.

Begun harvest in May! Very prolific. Juicy, rich tomato flavor. A

Big Beef

Ready for harvest 80 to 85 days after sowing. Vigorous, indeterminate plants produce 4 to 6 inch tomatoes which are crack resistant. Sweet, slightly acidic flavor. An All-America Selections Award Winner. Resistant to V, F1, F2, N, TMV, and ASC (Alternaria Stem Canker). 

Sept. 2008 report: Probably the best overall tomato in our garden in 2008. Big Beef was excellent either sliced or for canning. Easy to peel for canning. Productive early and often!

: Produced all season. Not that "big",though. Medium sized. Cracking, some blossom end rot. B+


Kellogg's Breakfast

1 lb., deep orange beefsteak heirloom tomatoes that are thin-skinned, meaty, and have a fantastic sweet, tangy flavor. Juice and inside flesh have the same bright orange color as orange juice. Indeterminate. 80 Days.

Not as productive as another big yellow tomato, Dr. Wyche. But very tasty! B

Zapotec Pleated

A prolific and exotic heirloom Mexican Indian variety. Deeply pleated, almost triangular in shape, pink-red fruit with hollow interior. Indeterminate. 85 Days. Tends to take its time to ripen, and then overripens quickly. Very good when used at its peak of flavor.

  SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: Lots of foliage, outgrew its cage three times. Didn't ripen until September, but a very good flavor! And, as before, tends to overripen quickly. Use it or lose it! B

Black Cherry

  A round heirloom cherry tomato, sweet yet rich and complex. Produced in abundance on vigorous, tall plants. Indeterminate. 65 days. New for us in 2009.

Nice looking and prolific. But for a cherry tomato, not sweet at all. More of an acid tomato flavor. Meaty. B-


Viva Italia

Vigorous plants yield an abundance of 3 oz. fruits. 80 days. A good paste tomato for soups and ketchup. Vigorous plants yield an abundance of 3 oz. fruits. Disease resistant. Determinate. Sept. 2008 report: Excellent for canning purposes. Harvested 30 pounds of this for August canning.

  SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: Productive, easy to peel, but a bit smaller fruit that usual. C+

Costaluto Genovese

Old Italian heirloom variety that grows 6-8 ounce large, meaty, semi-pleated red fruits in abundance. While it is not the prettiest of the tomatoes, it can be tasty. Grew this in 2007, and it was tasty...when it was producing, which wasn't long. Susceptible to blossom end rot.

: Mediocre production, smaller fruit than in past years. Some sunscald. C-

First Prize

 A VFFNT Hybrid. Exclusive release of Tomato Growers Supply Company, chosen for its high yields, good disease resistance, mid-early maturity, and flavor.  Indeterminate. 75 days. Sept. 2008 report: Good looking, meaty. Good choice for main season tomato.

Smaller than previous years, not productive until late Aug. C-


A 1984 ALL-AMERICA SELECTIONS WINNER. A flavorful, firm 8 to 12 oz. hybrid fruit on strong vines with good cover and outstanding disease resistance (VFNTA). Large clusters of consistently large, beautiful tomatoes. Determinate. 70 days. We like it so much, we plant it every year. A Farmer Fred Favorite. Sept. 2008 report: mediocre to poor production. Hoping for a return to glory in 2009!

  SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: WTF? This year's crop was late, erratic, with small fruit. Plant topped out at about three feet. Me thinks this was not a Celebrity! D

Super Italian Paste

Paste tomatoes shaped like banana peppers are about 6 inches long, deep orange-red and sweet with very little juice and few seeds. These tomatoes are all meat and supposedly make great paste and sauce. Heirloom variety. Indeterminate. 73 days. New for us in 2009.

Productive, but bland. Lots of blossom end rot. C-


Marianna's Peace

Marianna's Peace is a late season, indeterminate, heirloom potato-leaf variety (80-85 days) from Czechoslovakia that produces relatively lower yields of 1-2 lb., pink/red, beefsteak-styled fruit.

Sept. 2008 Report: Mediocre production, but the tastiest tomato in 2008, especially in salads. Worth another try in 2009.

  SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: Produced only one or two tomatoes. Blossom end rot. Pulled the plant in August. F

Giant Belgium

Developed in Ohio, this heirloom variety is distinctive for its fruit that averages 2 lbs., but has been known to grow to an enormous 5 lbs. Tomatoes are dark pink and solid meat. Indeterminate. 90 days. New for us in 2009.  PULLED OUT 7/14/09. Diagnosis: late blight. Plant was never the picture of health.

SEPTEMBER 2009 REPORT CARD: Produced one tomato. Pulled in July, due to extensive late blight. F


Four of the so-so or underperforming tomatoes - Super Italian Paste, Viva Italia, Celebrity and First Prize - all were planted in the same bed. September pH test: 7.0, so, it's not that. No tomatoes for that bed this year!

And to help you remember what's what, be sure to include tomato labels on your plants in the garden; back that up by writing down the names and performances of the plants in a pre-formatted garden diary, or something as simple as a blank daily calendar book or spiral notebook. We have used the same daily calendar book for our garden notations since 1990, providing us an easy memory jog for plant names and how they performed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hail Can Be Hell on Plants

     Yes, it's been unseasonably cool and wet here in Northern California this spring, vexing area gardeners. The temperature has yet to hit 90, a Central Valley tradition that typically begins in early May (or sooner). Another anomaly of our cool, wet, late spring weather in Northern California: the frequency of hailstorms. These short bursts of ice pellets falling from the sky is more of a March weather event here. That time of year, though, gardeners see less damage to their plants, simply because of less development of new stems, leaves and fruit.

But such a storm in late May? Such as the half-inch hail that pounded parts of Sacramento County on May 27?
Then, all hail breaks loose in the garden.

The most obvious sign of hail damage is tattered, torn, tender leaves. That, a gardener can usually live with. New leaves will probably grow in their place. However, another sign of hail injury to leaves is the grazing or pitting of the leaves. Don't confuse that with foliage diseases. One good way to figure out if it was hail or disease: hail injury will occur usually only on the upper portion of the leaf. 

Hail injury on other parts of the plant, though, may be trouble ahead, especially with soft fruit.

Hoticultural Snob Alert!
Cane berries, cherries and grapes, especially those in the post-veraison stage, can end up bruised and cracked by a hailstorm. "Veraison", by the way, is one of those 50-cent, snooty horticultural terms grape growers like to toss out in casual conversation, to make them look like snobby French wine experts. "Change of color of grape berries" is the literal translation. Veraison refers to the onset of ripening, when the berry is full grown and the color is changing.

After a May hailstorm, chances are you won't see damage on ripening grapes later in the summer, since most are small and hard at this point. 

But check out your brambleberries, blueberries and raspberries. Many of those are fully developed at this point (post-veraison. Use it in a sentence today!). Look for hail damage on the upper portion or the windward side of these fruits. Openings in the fruit can serve as entry points for certain fungal diseases, such as botrytis and other fruit rots.

If you see injured berries, it helps to pray for dry weather. Once you get up off your knees, though, help the fruit along by increasing sunlight penetration and air circulation by removing leaves around damaged fruit, being sure to remove those leaves that are touching the fruit.

Hail Damaged Apple
Maturing fruit on your other plants may look fine now, but those little hailstone scars can enlarge as the fruit grows. Both stone fruits and citrus are subject to this scarring. Again, look for damage on the portion of the fruit that is facing the sky.

Hail Damage on Citrus
The excellent book, "Abiotic Disorders of Landscape Plants" from the University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources Division, also point outs these other hail damage symptoms:

Twigs may be broken.

Bark may be bruised, broken or scarred. Hail wounds on bark are usually elliptical and vary in length from a fraction of an inch to four inches or more. 

Hail wounds occur on the upper side of the branches and on the side of the plant facing the storm. Those bark injuries may serve as entrances for decay-causing fungi.  

According to the University of California-Davis, anthracnose lesions on small grape branches may be confused with hail injury; however, unlike hail damage, the edges of the wounds caused by the anthracnose fungus are raised and black. In addition, hail damage generally appears on only one side of the shoot, whereas anthracnose is more generally distributed.

And, hail that gathers on tender, low growing plants may cause low temperature injury. Chances of that happening in May, though, are rare in California.

So, what's a gardener to do? 
Keep treating your plants right. 
Improve the vigor of hail-injured plants with proper irrigation and fertilization, if necessary.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How To Grow Giant Pumpkins...If You Dare!

Photo: Bernadette Durbin

The unusually cool days we are having this late in spring is a great opportunity to extend the planting season for pumpkin seeds. The mild weather (yet warming soil) gives the seeds a good chance to germinate. After all, the instructions, "keep the seed bed evenly moist" is much easier to accomplish when the high temperatures are in the 70's. Typically, late May-early June highs are closer to 95.

For most families, growing pumpkins that top out at 18-20 pounds is perfect for display or carving. If this is your goal, good varieties include Cinderella, Fairy Tale, Magic Lantern, Sorcerer, Jack-O'-Lantern, Connecticut Field, Ghost Rider, Orange Smoothie and the white Lumina.

Photo: Bernadette Durbin
But for you masochistic, large-space gardeners with a yearning to grow pumpkins that are of ugly, hernia-inducing size (not to mention time-consuming), here are some tips for growing giant pumpkins:

Buy fresh seed.
Giant pumpkin choices include "Atlantic Giant", "Big Max", Howden or "Prizewinner". Most will average 100-200 pounds when mature, except Howden, which maxes out at 40-50 pounds. If your local seed rack doesn't stock these varieties, other possible sources include Lockhart Seeds in Stockton (209-466-4401) as well mail order seed companies Burpee, Territorial Seeds and Harris Seeds. Expect to pay more for these seed varieties; for example, 15 Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds from one catalog costs $2.75.

Choose the right location.
 Plant these giant pumpkin seeds away from other pumpkin varieties. Cross-pollination could inhibit your giant pumpkin's growth potential, so isolation is necessary. For maximum growth, plant in an area sheltered from hot, dry winds. 

Use lots of aged steer manure.

Work at least one shovel full into each mound; rototill in at least a dozen shovels full of manure surrounding the mound because every place the vine touches the ground will result in more roots. 

Plant on raised mounds, three to five seeds per mound.
Thin each mound to the two most vigorous plants after they are a couple of inches tall. Space the mounds twenty feet apart to allow room for the vines. Plant in late May. 

Feed each plant every ten days
with a diluted fertilizer solution containing a 5-20-20 or a similar formula that encourages fruit formation, not leaves and vines. 

Water plants at first sign of wilt
in hot weather, that could be as much as every day. Don't overhead water; wet leaves encourage disease. 

Control squash bugs and beetles by hand-picking or with a portable vacuum. 

As the plant grows, cut off most of the vines except the one with the first (or the most vigorous) fruit that appears.
Do this for each plant. Tie off the amputated vine ends with string to prevent insects from entering the vine. Remove all blooms regularly to prevent further pollination so that the plant directs its energy to the one remaining pumpkin. 

Place a board under the pumpkin
to help avoid rot. 

Invite several strong friends over in October to help move your masterpiece. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Joy of the Imperfect Garden: Redux

Today is the one year anniversary of the Farmer Fred Rant...a perfect opportunity to revisit that first post...especially since I am staring at sooooo many chores that need to get done, soon, around here.

If I recall correctly, this first post, "The Joy of the Imperfect Garden", was a tongue-in-cheek response to another blogger's entry, rationalizing the messy parts of the yard. 
My sincere thanks to all of you regular readers. And to you irregular ones...may I suggest prunes?

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!

 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!


 Lots of wrinkly noses, upturned at your spotted spurge?
 It's a low growing, easy care groundcover.

 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!


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.


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!)