Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Your Property Ready for the 4th of July?

      You may be ready for the 4th of July festivities this Sunday...but is your property? Errant fireworks and barbecues may lead to wildfires scattered throughout the state this weekend, and the weather forecast isn't helping: sunny, temperatures in the upper 90's and afternoon winds.

     Hot, dry, windy weather combined with dead and dying brush create conditions that have led to conflagrations last year all over California, where wildfire season extends into October.

    Country dwellers and suburban residents whose yards may be ringed with overgrown weeds need to clear dry brush at least 100 feet away from their homes and other structures before the rocket's red glare begins Sunday evening.

The old standard was "30 feet of clearance". Now, firefighters are encouraging rural and suburban homeowners to remove weeds and other flammable material for a radius of 100 feet from primary dwellings.

    Some homeowners are listening, but not acting in a prudent manner. 
The start of many grass fires in California are attributed to sparks from a lawn mower or setting down a hot weed trimmer in flammable weeds. Those stories have already started appearing in local newspapers.

Some tips:
• Mow down dead grass and weeds early in the day, when the humidity is higher and the winds are calm. 

• Inspect the area before mowing, removing anything that may cause a spark to fly from a mower blade.
• Have a garden hose handy that can reach the entire area you're mowing.
• Don't leave hot equipment in the area while you take a break.
• Carry a cell phone or portable phone so you can immediately call for help if a fire breaks out.

    Although no plant is fireproof, there are many low-to-medium growing, high water content plants that, when carefully irrigated, could lower the risk of a spreading brush fire in future years that may threaten your home.

Besides a lawn, other good choices of high water content plants that can act as possible structure buffers for valley and foothill dwellers include
African daisy, agapanthus, aloe, dusty miller, gazania, ice plant, India hawthorn, yarrow and yucca.

     Avoid plants that can accumulate a lot of flammable, dead growth over a period of years.
Prime offenders are ivy, bamboo, pampas grass, fountain grass and coyote brush. Other trees and shrubs that should not be planted near structures include fir, acacia, cedar, cypress, eucalyptus, pine, spruce, the pepper tree, California sagebrush, hopseed bush, juniper, scotch broom and arborvitae, commonly called thuja. Palms, if their dried fronds are not removed, can also be quite a fire danger. If you have these plants already, get out the garden pruners and remove any dead branches and leaves.

    One more piece of advice from area firefighters for home owners in brush fire country: Many structures have a fence along one or more sides of the building that are less than 10 feet from the house. In order for firefighters to move easily through that area in an emergency, be sure not to block narrow pathways along the side of a dwelling with firewood or old household items.

Fire protection sprinklers for your property can be an investment that will increase the value of your acreage and out-buildings. There are many sprinkler design software systems available to help you do it right.

Two of the best resources for country dwellers, or anyone surrounded by fields of tall weeds who want to modify their landscape to keep their home fire-safe are the books, "FireScaping" by Douglas Kent; or, Maureen Gilmer's, "California Wildfire Landscaping".
And, check out Maureen Gilmer's website for even more "firewise landscape plants". 

Keep your pets and livestock safe this weekend, too. Loud fireworks may make them scurry through a broken fence, or out the gate and down the street. Keep dogs and cats indoors; repair and secure any fences and gates before the local outdoor shows begin Sunday evening. 

And if you are planning to enjoy the fireworks in another locale, make sure your home's automatic fire sprinkler system is working.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Single Malt Scotch: Short and (not) Sweet Reviews Updated

As I wrote earlier this year, it must be nice to be Jim Murray. In his annual series of  Whisky Bible books, Mr. Murray can wax poetic, on and on, about the aroma, taste and finish of single malt Scotch, without drooling on his keyboard.

I have discovered that I have a tough time translating all those sensory perceptions into flowery prose, especially if several different bottles are in, shall we say, "test mode" for the evening.

     For example, Mr. Murray says this about the Abelour 12 in his Whisky Bible:
"...just the right degree of spiciness. Silky, decisive olorosa again showing an uncanny excellence in spice; not a single off note."
My review? "Taste of farm tractor diesel."

Regarding Glenlivet 12, Mr. Murray expounds: "A surfeit of apples on nose and body. The malt is quite rich at first but thins out for the vanilla and thick toffee at the death."

Fred the future alcoholic sez: "Bland, dull, boring. On second try: no aroma, no taste, no finish. Pussy whisky."

(Taster's note: "whiskey" and "whisky" are technically the same. The latter, though, imparts an air of well-aged manure from barley-fed cattle in wood-paneled bars.)

Although lacking an alcohol-based thesaurus, I can slap together a few 140-character single malt Scotch reviews on my Twitter page, which features daily garden tips...along with the occasional whisky critique.

In 2009, these were the best single malts that found their way from my nose, tongue, taste buds, throat, esophagus, stomach lining, etc. to Twitter:
Macallan 10, Bunnahabhain 12, Finlaggan, Laguvalin 16. Alright...Top 4.

And here are the Twitter single malt reviews from the first half of 2010. And you can tell right away that an intervention isn't too far off:

January 2010

Single malt Scotch of the morning: Bunnahabhain 12 (40% abv). Toffee aroma with a hint of the Islay peat. The smoothest of the island.

Single Malt Scotch of the Night: Cragganmore 12 (40% abv). Aroma of medicinal fruit (banana-flavored iodine?) with an afterburn.
Single Malt Scotch of the Night: Bowmore 18 (43% abv). New to me. Ho-Hum. Faint aroma. Bowmore Legend is better. And much cheaper.

Single Malt of the day: Macallan Cask Strength (59.7%). Sherry aroma, smooth burn. To quote Reginald Van Gleason:

Single Malt Smackdown of the night: Lismore vs. Speyside 12: Another victory for Trader Joe's Lismore, delightful aroma, smooth going down!

February 2010

The saddest sound in the world: a full bottle of Bowmore Legend smashing against the tile floor.

Aroma of single malt Scotch on tile floor repels ants.

Saturday's Single Malt Scotch: Talisker 10. More spice than smoke or peat. Nice, but not in the same league with Laguvalin and Laphroaig.

Sat. Nite Smackdown: Laguvalin 16 vs. Balvenie 12. Not a fair fight. Like Mike Tyson fighting Woody Allen.

Single Malt Scotch of the Night: Balvenie 12 Double Wood (43% abv). Aged in two barrels, first oak...then sherry. Heavy sherry. Too heavy.

International single malt whisky battle: Connemara 12/Ireland vs. Abelour 10/Scotland. Conneamara wins for peaty aroma vs. overt toffee of Abelour.

Single Malt Scotch lists at restaurants are boring. It's mostly supermarket Scotch. Hey restaurants! Add more selections from Islay!

March 2010

Single Malt Smackdown: Macallan Cask Strength (59.3%) vs. Balvenie 12 Double Wood (43%). Spoon of sugar (Balvenie) beats vinegar barrel.

Laphroaig headache this morning? Finish your peaty experience with Ardbeg 10 and Caol Ila 12. Then, go to TJ's for Finlaggan.
Why is Macallan 10 Fine Oak so damn tasty? With a wonderful aroma? Please don't tell me it's that the barrels are near the bathrooms.

April 2010

After 62 mile bike ride, multi-single malt Scotch of the Night: Glenmorangie, Talisker, Finlaggan, Bowmore. Winner: Bowmore Legend.

Single Malt of the Night: Islay-based Kilchoman 3 yr (46% abv). Poured by it's managing director, Anthony Willis, tonight in Sacramento.

Single Malt Scotch of the Night: Macallan 12 (43% abv). Too much sherry, like the Macallan quarter cask. I'll stick with Macallan 10.
Great day on the bike! Now, a Bunnahabhain single malt soak. Then, back to writing angry, drunk diatribes. Apologies if I call you a dipshit later.

May 2010

Single Malt Smackdown: Bunnahabhain 12 (40%) vs. Ardbeg Udigal (54.1%): Can't beat the Bunna's smoothness. Ardbeg is too complex.

My goal: Finish off the mostly empty single malt scotch bottles. First up: Glenfiddich 12, Auchentoshan Three Wood. Wish me luck.

Single Malt Scotch of the Day: Laguvalin 12 (57.9% abv). Aroma: peaty smooth, but Yeow! Add water. Or die, a medicinal death.

June 2010

Cheap intro to good single malt Scotch, at Trader Joe's: Lismore and Finlaggan. Both under $20. (Not available in Arizona. Don't ask.)

Single Malt Scotch of the night: Glenmorangie Sonnalta (46% abv). Sherry aged, but not dominant. Good balance, but not citrusy.

Single Malt Scotch of the Night: Macallan Cask Strength (59.7% abv). Very sherry. Too sherry. ABV explains my rantings last night.

Twitter is over capacity. So is my single malt Scotch cabinet. Lonely bottle of Lismore sitting on counter, whimpering...

Bermudagrass ceases to be a problem after a couple of glasses of Macallan 10 Fine Oak. Getting out of the hot tub takes its place.


And the best of 2010, so far? Bunnahabhain 12, Macallan 10 Fine Oak, Lismore, and...may it rest in peace...Bowmore Legend.

But my favorite whisky Tweet of 2010 (so far) comes from the Fake AP Stylebook: "No matter how good the scotch involved was, the word "delicious" should never appear in a DUI story."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What are those bugs in my compost?

"A nice afternoon, perfect for floating in the pool," I muse. "But first, let's jam out a quick rant about those grubs in the compost pile that gardeners are always fretting about, specifically, the white segmented grubs and those big, buzzing flies, like the ones I have in my Can O' Worms composting bin."

The easy, fast answer about those critters, which are probably soldier flies: they're harmless. Let 'em be.

Ha! Easy, my ass. The sun is setting, and the more that I read about soldier flies, the more I realize that I have a lot to learn. Depending on the composting system, soldier flies and their larvae may be either good guys... or a major detriment. The pool will have to wait for another afternoon. 

Soldier flies do such a good job digesting your garbage, there are websites that will be glad to show you how to build a system to raise soldier flies.

 Soldier flies can be found throughout the U.S., wherever there is moist, rotting food.
The adults look like inch-long black wasps and do a fair share of loud buzzing when disturbed. But the soldier fly is you. They do not bite, they only live a couple of days, usually die soon after having sex and laying eggs on the tops of partially composted kitchen scraps. Some critters have a nice life.
The soldier fly larvae - the maggots - are also about an inch long, gray-white, and segmented. When exposed to light, they will scurry deeper into the compost bin, where they are voracious feeders on decaying, nitrogen-rich foods.

Those maggots are very good decomposers or organic material, helping along the process in your compost bin. According to the University of California, the soldier fly also inoculates the compost with beneficial bacteria from other sources.

It is their appetite that is a double edged sword for home composters.

In a regular composting bin, the soldier fly larvae are a welcome addition, speeding along the decomposition. 

Can O' Worms
But in a vermicomposting system - a worm bin such as the Can O' Worms - soldier fly larvae are competing with the worms for food. Plus, they consume so much material, they generate a lot of heat. And in the summer, that may be more heat than your composting worms would be willing to tolerate. Temperatures over 90 degrees will bring worm work to a near halt in a worm bin, or worse, unless you work to keep them cooler.

For worm aficianados, the University of California offers these tips if you want to remove the soldier flies and their larvae from your vermicomposting system:

• Make sure you have enough leaves, dry grass, shredded paper and other organic "brown" material in the pile to cover the nitrogen food sources by at least two to four inches. 

• Be sure to bury food scraps deeply in the pile and cover them well.  

• Put window screen over any holes in the bin and glue it down with a waterproof caulking (like an exterior household caulk) on the inside of the bin to help exclude the flies in their egg laying stage.

• Birds love soldier fly larvae so you can remove them and feed them to chickens or just toss them on the ground and other birds may find them.

The Tumbleweed
And now that my pool time today has been usurped by studying the soldier fly, I'll take out my revenge in the evening: remove the maggots and put them into another of my composting systems, my favorite, the Tumbleweed, which produces usable compost quicker than the Can O' Worms...but the Can O' Worms is more fun! Even with the maggots.

More information about small scale vermicomposting from the University of Hawaii 

A good book about vermicomposting: "Worms Eat My Garbage" by Mary Appellhof.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Early Summer Tomato Troubles

The cool, damp spring is still with us....even though it's 90 degrees, dry and officially summer. The harbinger of that recent past? The backyard tomato crop. Take a close look at those ripening red orbs that you planted during a drizzly April and early May.
Do they look like this?

Fruit Cracking
Or this? 

Or like this?
Solar Yellowing

Soon... they may look like this!

Blossom End Rot

The first two conditions, fruit cracking  and bacterial speck, you can blame on the cool, wet spring weather. 

That third condition, solar yellowing, is just what the name implies: too much hot sun, too soon.

That fourth ugly example, blossom end rot? A combination of weather, irregular watering, and lack of calcium uptake.

Another weather related malady: lack of tomato fruit set.

FRUIT CRACKS are tomatoes with deep ridges, radiating from the stem. When a wet spring suddenly turns to summer, those hot, sunny days may deplete more soil moisture than you anticipated. Radial cracking can occur during alternate rainy and sunny periods, such as what we had in May. Fruit exposed to the sun may also develop cracks. Maintain a uniform water supply. Mulches can help maintain that uniformity. A full leaf canopy will also help protect fruit from the sun and reduce cracking.

BACTERIAL SPECK: Hits during rain or overhead irrigation early in the season, during cool weather. Retards growth, reduces yields up to 25%, fruit spots, leaf spots. Leaf spots are near the edge of the leaf, dark brown with a yellow ring. Can spread throughout the leaf margin area. Common in cool coastal areas of CA. Solution: plant later in the season; avoid overhead watering.

Blossom end rot. According to the University of California, Tomato plants with blossom end rot show small, light brown spots at the blossom end of immature fruit. The affected area gradually expands into a sunken, leathery, brown or black lesion as the fruit ripens. Hard, brown areas may develop inside the fruit, either with or without external symptoms. Blossom end rot results from a low level of calcium in the fruit and water balance in the plant. It is aggravated by high soil salt content or low soil moisture and is more common on sandier soils.  Too much nitrogen fertilizer can also be a factor. Improper soil pH may play a role; tomatoes prefer a pH range of 6.0-7.0. To reduce incidences of blossom end rot, make sure that the root zone neither dries out nor remains saturated. Follow recommended rates for fertilizers. Some varieties are more affected than others. The disease is not caused by a pathogen. Although UC says there are no pesticide solutions, some gardeners believe that calcium sprays intended for this purpose offer some relief. My solution: avoid varieties that have betrayed you in the past, especially paste tomatoes.

SOLAR YELLOWING. According to the  UC Davis, Vegetable Research and Information Center , the reason for the yellow or yellow-orange color, rather than the normal red, is that the red pigment (lycopene) fails to form above 86 degrees (F). This phenomenon was first described by researchers in 1952 and was later confirmed by others. When lycopene fails to form, only carotenes remain for fruit color. An orangey-red color results. In production areas where temperatures do not exceed 85 degrees (F), much higher red color develops.

Failure to Set Blossoms. If you're lucky, your tomato plant has more to it than this picture right now. Among the reasons your tomato plant may look healthy, but lack fruit and blossoms:
Night temperatures are too low (below 55);
Day temperatures are too high (above 90);
Tomatoes were planted too early in the season; 
(late April-mid-May is best tomato planting time here in the valleys, foothills and Bay Area of Northern CA);
Too much nitrogen fertilizer;
Plants are in too much shade;
Tomato variety isn't adapted to California's hot summers;
Early season blossoms are not good fruit setters.

What's an impatient gardener to do about a lack of tomatoes?

Hormone sprays, designed to help deter blossom drop on tomatoes, is more effective at improving fruit set if the reason is low nighttime temperatures. According to the University of California, those sprays will not help in high temperatures. 
Another strategy: hand pollinate your tomatoes. When you see open tomato blossoms, gently shake or tap stems during mid-morning, three times a week. This can help fruit set during the late spring and early summer.

To avoid too much nitrogen fertilizer, choose a vegetable or tomato fertilizer that has relatively low amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (as represented by the three prominent numbers on the front of most fertilizer containers). Choosing an organic fertilizer for tomatoes and vegetables, such as a 5-7-3, is a safe bet. Read and follow all label directions, no matter which fertilizer you choose.

More tomato growing info for the home gardener: UC Davis, Vegetable Research and Information Center

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fruit Harvest Timetable

Do your nectarines taste like Listerine? Are your cherries making your mouth feeling less than cheery? Do your plums leave you with puckered lips? In that case, your fruit has been plucked from the tree and sampled before it's ready. 

And now is the time of the year when the enticing sight of fresh fruit in the garden can give you the uncontrollable urge to pick, eat and wince. How can you tell when fruit is ready for harvesting?

One way is to download the fruit harvest chart from Dave Wilson Nursery. The problem with relying on that chart: your location, and weather conditions, can vary from the suggested harvest times on that chart. You are still the best judge of when that fruit is ready. 

Here's a picking guide that uses your senses for determining the best time to harvest the most common deciduous fruits, berries and citrus grown in backyard gardens. Suggested dates apply especially if you live in the low-lying areas of Northern or Central California.

Apples - Harvest varies from July to October; look for bright red color or a delicate blush overlaying the yellow base. Fruit should release easily from tree with the stem intact.
Apricots - Mid-May through early July; color changes from dull greenish-orange to bright yellow-orange; Flesh is tender and yields to gentle hand pressure.
Blackberries - Mid-June to early August; color changes from red to black; berries release readily, are soft with tender skin and are easily damaged. Place in refrigerator as soon as possible.
Cherries - Mid-May through mid-June, depending on the variety. Net the trees at the first sign of birds eating the fruit. Sample a cherry every few days until they pass your taste test. Keep the stems attached when picking to avoid damaging the fruit. Snipping instead of plucking will keep next year's fruit spurs intact.
 Figs: two harvests, usually: mid-summer and early fall. Harvest figs when their necks wilt and fruits droop.
Mulberries: Information from the California Rare Fruit GrowersWhite and red mulberry fruits (and hybrid fruits) are ready for harvest in late spring. The fruit of black mulberries ripen in summer to late summer. The fruits of white mulberries are often harvested by spreading a sheet on the ground and shaking the limbs. A surprising quantity can be gathered from a comparatively small and young tree. Black mulberry fruits are more difficult to pick. As the berries are squeezed to pull them loose, they tend to collapse, staining the hands (and clothing) with blood red juice. Unwashed the berries will keep several days in a refrigerator in a covered container. The ripe fruits of the black mulberry contain about 9% sugar with malic and citric acid. The berries can be eaten out of hand or used in any way that other berries are used, such as in pies, tarts, puddings or sweetened and pureed as a sauce. Slightly unripe fruits are best for making pies and tarts. Mulberries blend well with other fruits, especially pears and apples. They can also be made into wine and make an excellent dried fruit, especially the black varieties.
         Nectarines - June to September; most common skin colors start out as yellowish-orange and mature into an orange, red or reddish-pink color; flesh is usually yellowish with red tinge near the pit. Cool immediately.
         Peaches - Mid-May to September; same conditions as nectarines. Newer varieties may be bright red in color with an orange tint.
         Pears - July to October; ready when fruit is full size but still green in color.  Ripen harvested fruit in a cool place (50-70 degrees) until color turns light yellow-green.
Plums/Pluots - June to September; color may be solid or mottled red, dark-blue or purple. Flesh is firm yet yielding to gentle hand pressure. Cool fruit immediately.
         Raspberries - June to September; color is red to black, depending on variety. Flesh should be soft, aromatic, juicy; should release easily from cap.
         Table grapes - August to October; Fruit turns from green to reddish-amber, black, bluish, or golden yellow depending on variety. The berries will tend to crush easily and shatter when ripe.
  Citrus - Mary Helen Seeger of the  California-based citrus operation, Four Winds Growers, offers this advice: "Keep in mind that all citrus fruits only ripen on the tree. The best way to determine ripeness for oranges is to watch for the color to change to orange, then check for a slight softening of the fruit. Sometimes a opaque sheen will develop on the skin. Lemons are ready when yellow, and generally hold the tree for months. Limes are smaller and ready when green; again, watch for a slight softening."

Excellent reference books about growing your own backyard fruit:
"The Home Orchard" by Sacramento County Farm Advisor Chuck Ingels.
"Citrus" by Lance Walheim. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Right Way to Water Your Lawn and Garden

Improper watering is the number one cause of plant failure. Knowing how wet the soil is at the root level can help you keep your plants healthy

Keep in mind: different plants have different watering needs. Learn those needs, then group plants together with similar watering requirements. The Sunset Western Garden Book is a good source for that information.

Signs of not enough water at the root level of plants: 
Wilted leaves in the morning.
Red-brown margins of leaves.
Premature fall color of leaves.
Growth reduction.
Leaf drop.
Branch dieback.

Signs of too much water (also called aeration deficit) at the root level of plants:
The soil has a foul smell, like rotten eggs.
Soil is a blue-gray color.
Yellowing, wilting and/or dropping of leaves.
Limited new growth.
Small, corky outgrowths on the undersides of leaves.

Be warned, though: sometimes, symptoms of overwatering and underwatering can be the same (such as leaf wilting). And, symptoms of soil water problems may actually be another problem...that was caused by the watering problem! Root rots, for example, thrive in saturated soils.

Frequent, light watering leads to shallow rooting, increasing the chances of plant problems.

To determine the amount of water at the root level:

• A day or two after watering, dig down 8 to 10  inches with a trowel or small shovel, near the drip line (outer canopy) of the plant. Doing this in two or three spots would be more helpful.

• At that depth, grab a handful of the soil. Squeeze that handful. If it is muddy and watery, reduce your watering for plants that require regular (but not frequent) irrigation. If it is so dry you cannot form a clod in your hand (it turns to dust instead), increase your watering (for those plants that require moderate amounts of water).

• If you can form a dirt clod in your hand, yet break it apart with a little effort, that is probably the correct soil moisture for your plant.

• Steve Zien, owner of the Citrus Heights-based organic landscaping consulting service, Living Resources, recommends the use of a soil sampling tube to determine the moisture at root level. "Just press the tube down six to eight inches into the soil after you are done watering," says Zien. "When you bring it back up, the open slot along the side of the tube will let you see if the soil at that depth is wet, moist or dry. Adjust your watering time so that the soil sample is moist, not too wet or dry."

• An easier, but more unreliable way to measure the water content of the soil: purchase an inexpensive (under $10) moisture meter. Test its accuracy by putting its probe into a glass of water. If the probe does not read "wet", choose another. Expect it to function for only a year or so.

• Battery operated moisture meter probes may set you back a few more dollars, but in my experience - with proper care (clean them after each use, don't leave them outdoors) - they will last many years.


• Extended, infrequent, slowly applied irrigation is the most efficient watering method. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems work best. Here in the Central Valley, foothills, and Bay Area, run them for 3 to 6 hours at a time, twice a week, in the summer. This is only a guideline to get you started. Adjust that timing to your particular soil type and plants.

• And, don't forget: add more drip emitters and drip lines as the plant grows, especially for trees and shrubs. Make sure to get water to the outer canopy of the plant (and beyond) where the roots travel.

How much water does your lawn need? 
Some tips from the UC Integrated Pest Management Website:

• Avoid planting turf species that require frequent watering, such as bluegrass or ryegrass.
• Design your landscape to minimize water runoff onto hard surfaces and into storm drains.
• To reduce runoff, install non-irrigated buffer areas, which include water-efficient plants or permeable features, next to sidewalks or on slopes.
• Aerate heavy or compacted soils, so water can easily move down to reach grass roots.
• Install an irrigation system that you can adjust to properly water areas of your landscape that have different requirements.
• Water only when your lawn needs it.
• Water requirements vary according to turf species, location, and month of the year.
• Most lawns need water when the top 2 inches of soil have dried out.
• Shady and sunny areas and different soil types will have different water requirements.
• Deeper, less frequent watering is best for most lawns. Water only 2 to 3 times a week.
• Make sure your sprinkler system isn’t producing runoff, especially on slopes. If you see runoff, use shorter watering times and repeat the cycle to allow time for the water to move into the soil.
• Water early in the morning when evaporation and wind are minimal.
• Adjust your watering schedule seasonally, and shut off your irrigation system during rainy weather.

And, the video: How Much Water Do Your Plants Need?