Saturday, October 30, 2010

Growing Great Gladiolus

For the gardener with little time to spend in the yard, gladiolus are a colorful, easy care plant, perfect for borders and large containers. They make great cut flowers, too! Selecting a variety of glads and staggering their planting dates will produce a succession of height and bloom from spring through fall.

Most garden soils that will produce a good crop of vegetables or weeds will also grow good glads with little or no added fertilizer. Glads prefer good air circulation and full sunlight but will do reasonably well with a little high shade in early morning or late afternoon. Choose an area with good drainage. Glads don't like wet feet! Raised beds are an ideal solution.


Plant only clean, plump gladiolus corms (also known as bulbs). Here in the valley, foothills, and Bay Area, plant a few glad corms every week or two, from late January through early April. That way, there will always be a gladiolus in bloom throughout the warm weather months.

Plant gladiolus corms three to five inches deep and from four to six inches apart, with the tip side facing upwards.


 Water regularly while they are growing or blooming, perhaps once a week. Water twice a week during heat waves. 
Weed by shallow cultivation and hand weeding. A three inch layer of mulch of bark, straw, leaves, grass clippings, etc., between rows will discourage weeds and help conserve moisture.

To get the most enjoyment of glads as a cut flower indoors, cut off the flowering stalk when the lowest buds begin to open. Be sure to keep at least four leaves on the plant to allow the corm to renew itself for the following year.
At the end of the season, cut off the stem just below the lowest flower buds. This keeps the energy from the leaves flowing towards the corm, not to seed production.

Thrips are one of the most damaging insects to glads, especially in the summer. Look for silvery flecks on the foliage and silver or brown blemishes on the flowers and buds. You may also see their black droppings on the leaves.
These tiny (less than 1/20th of an inch long) creatures scrape away the plant tissue, suck the juice and lay their eggs inside. Control thrips with a blast of water from the hose or insecticidal soap. Healthy plants can outgrow thrip damage.


 Here in most areas of California, where the ground doesn't freeze in the winter, you may choose not to dig up your corms. However, disease brought on by too much rain and too cool of a soil, as well as eventual crowding, may reduce the amount and quality of next year's bloom.

It is suggested that you dig and divide your corms every couple of years in the fall, being sure to discard any damaged or diseased corms.

The plant should be separated from the corm as close to the corm as possible, either by hand breaking or cutting with pruning shears.

Store any lifted corms in a cool, dry place, in single layers in a flat or ventilated tray. Then, replant those corms the following February or March.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Frost/Freeze Season Approaches. Is Your Yard Ready?

 The typical Sacramento-area frost season (when temperatures dip to 32 or below for short periods of time) is fairly short: primarily, December and January.

However, November frosts do happen here with regularity. 

The earliest frost date for Sacramento was on a November 4, back in 1935, when the morning low fell to 30 degrees. The latest frost date recorded was on March 27, 1898, with a low of 32.

Last year, the first frost occurred on Nov. 17, when the  temperature at Sacramento Executive Airport dipped to 32. The last frost of the 2009-2010 season? March 19, when temps fell to 32 in Marysville and several other locations around Sacramento.

What is cold? Some definitions:
Frost: temperatures dip to 32 °F (0 °C) for short periods of time. Occurs with fair skies and light winds.

Freeze: temperatures at or below 32 °F

Hard Freeze: temperatures below 28 °F for several hours.

This morning (Oct. 27), temperatures here dipped to 38, cold enough to create frosty windshields. Which means that fruit-laden citrus trees could be threatened in the weeks ahead. Some tips for the upcoming cold mornings:

Before a frost:
• Identify cold spots in landscape by monitoring with a thermometer that registers high and low temperatures.
• Identify plants at risk: citrus, succulents, tender perennials, tropical and subtropical plants.
• Have supplies ready: sheets or frost cloths, lights, wraps for trunks, thermometers, stakes or framework to hold covers off foliage.

• Prepare tender plants: avoid fertilizing and pruning after August to minimize tender new growth. 

• Plant insurance: In September and October, take cuttings from frost sensitive perennials; keep cuttings in a sunny, indoor area.

• Rake away mulch to allow soil to warm up during the day and radiate heat at night into plant.

• Monitor weather forecasts and note how low temperatures will be and for how long. 


When a frost is forecast:
1. Move potted plants to a warmer spot next to house or under patio cover, especially on south side.

 2. Check that plants are well watered since dry plants are more susceptible to damage, and moist soil retains heat better than dry soil.

3. Cover plants with a row cover before sunset to capture ground heat radiating upward at night, but remove covers daily if it is sunny and above freezing to allow soil to absorb heat.

4. Add heat by using outdoor lights: hang 100 watt drop lights or Holiday string lights to interior of plant. Use the old C7 or C9 large bulbs, not new LED lights which do not give off heat.

5. Wrap trunks of tender trees if hard freeze is expected, using towels, blankets, rags, or pipe insulation.

6. Harvest ripe citrus fruit. Generally, both green and ripe fruit are damaged below 30 degrees, but there is some variation by species (refer to the chart in UC/ANR Publication 8100, "Frost Protection for Citrus and Other Subtropicals").

When a Freeze or Hard Freeze is Forecast (temperatures remain at or below 28 degrees for several hours)

1. Wrap any exposed plastic water pipes; cover outdoor faucets, as well. Turn off the water supply to outdoor irrigation faucets, if possible. Allow those faucets to drain.


2. Disconnect garden hoses and lay them out straight...away from driveways!

3. Adjust your pool, spa or pond filtration timers so that they are running when the chance of freezing temperatures is greatest, between two and nine a.m. Moving water is less susceptible to freezing.

After a frost:
1. Identify damage: dark brown or black leaves and twigs.

2. Wait to prune out damage until after danger of frost is past, and new growth begins in spring.

3. Make sure the backyard birdbath isn't frozen over in the morning. Daily fresh water for dogs and cats is also a good morning habit.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What to Do in Your Yard AFTER the Storm

   The day after a major rain and wind storm is not necessarily the best day for the backyard gardener to tackle the hazardous task of cleaning up the remnants of trees, shrubs and other plants that took a beating. If wind and rain is still in the forecast, the prevalence of slippery conditions and the chance of more falling debris should limit your cleaning chores to dragging broken branches away from the scene of the crime. It is not a good day to be climbing ladders or scrambling into trees while balancing a chain saw. Leave that to the professionals.
     Sacramento-based arborist Analisa Stewart of Arbor Entities offers this good piece of advice for those surveying the fallen aftermath of a major storm: "Limb failure is largely a product of poor tree maintenance over time," says Stewart. "Take care of your trees, or they may take care of themselves in ways you won't appreciate."
     According to the University of California publication, "Inspect Your Landscape Trees for Hazards", a nice day in autumn (or winter, spring or summer, for that matter) is the time to take an inventory of any possible future tree damage before you, your house or your car becomes the next victim of a falling tree or branch.

Leaning Trees: Are your trees not as upright as the result of recent heavy winds? Can you see newly upheaved roots or soil around those trees? Then, immediate action is required: call in a professional, certified, bonded and insured arborist to do an onsite inspection and offer a solution. Newly leaning trees are an imminent hazard. If you have a tree that has leaned for a number of years, that tree can still be a hazard during wet, windy weather. Taking periodic photographs can help you determine if a greater lean is developing.


Multiple Trunked Trees: This co-dominant condition can result in breakage of major tree parts during storms. Usually, these trunks are weakly attached. Inspect the point where the two trunks meet; if you see splitting beginning, call in an arborist.

Weakly Attached Branches:
Trees with many branches arising from the same point on the trunk are prone to breaking during wind storms. Prune out any split branches. Thin out multiple branches.

Hanging or Broken Branches: If you see storm damaged branches hanging from the tree, remove them as soon as possible. This includes removing any completely broken branches that may be resting elsewhere in the tree's canopy.

Cracks in Trunks and Branches: Measure the depth of any cracks with a ruler. If those cracks are more than three inches deep, call in an arborist to determine the best course of action.

Dead Branches: Branches that have completely died are very likely to fall off in a storm. Dead branches are most noticeable in the summer when the tree is in full leaf.

Cavities and Decay: Large, open pockets where branches meet the trunk, or at the base of the trunk, can mean big trouble. The presence of mushrooms on the bark or on exposed roots may indicate wood decay. Call in an arborist.

The Arbor Day Foundation website has this animated guide to proper pruning techniques.

Tips for Hiring an Arborist.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Here Comes the First Big Storm of the Fall

 The National Weather Service is ringing the meteorological alarm bell for Saturday night and Sunday, Oct. 23-24 for Northern California: lots of rain (over an inch in the valley, 6 inches in the mountains), lots of wind (gusts to 45 mph). 

Their warning includes:





Yes, the National Weather Service is fond of using all capital letters.

And yes, we are weather weenies here in Northern California. Please bear with us as we...

Get Ready for the First Big Storm of Autumn!
A checklist:

• Secure, cover or remove patio furniture, bbq.

• Remove pads and umbrellas.
• Add compost to garden bed. Let the rains move it downward.
• Move plant starts to a safe area.

• Add gutter extensions.
To fertilize or not fertilize the lawn before a predicted rainstorm? Pros: fertilizer will be worked into the soil effortlessly. Cons: heavy rain could wash fertilizer off a lawn, especially if it is sloped, into the gutter. Synthetic chemicals in lawn fertilizers can damage creek life. Using organic fertilizer is one possible solution. Still, runoff from that can cause problems, as well. Do you feel lucky?

• Remove diseased, dying plants and fallen fruit. Rainfall can spread harmful fungal diseases.

• Low spots? Mark those overly wet areas with a stick and take action after the storm (see below for more).

• Turn off the automatic sprinklers. Reset after the storm or just water manually, as needed, between storms.

• Protect new plants in the ground with row covers. Heavy rain could uproot seedlings. Row covers will disperse that action.

• Move tools indoors. Cover or move lawn mowers.

• Turn over buckets, pots, etc. to keep mosquitoes from breeding.
• Do you use a sump pump during the winter to move water from unwanted areas, such as pool covers? Make sure it is working!

• The first storm of the season means downed tree limbs. 

• Does your generator work?
• Harvest heavy fruit to keep branches from breaking.

• Cover or move any harvested crops.
• Harvest whatever might rot from too much water, such as walnuts or popcorn.

• Do you have a covered area to feed outdoor pets?

• Do you have a shelter for your outdoor pets?

• Empty pool filters. The first batch of storm-driven leaves are on the way!

• Cover the pool and spa to keep debris out.
• The combination of leaf-heavy trees and storms means a high possibility of large branches falling. Move your valuables out of harm's way, including your vehicles. 

• Replace torn tarps on firewood.

• Clean roof gutters before the storm.


For Overly Wet Areas After the Storm (and after the soil has dried a bit):
* Dig a sump. A hole that is dug in the lowest portion of your yard, a hole that penetrates through all the layers of hardpan (usually 2-4 feet below the surface), can help drain away stormwater. Line the hole with a non-porous material (hard plastic sheeting, for example) to keep the surrounding dirt from falling back into the hole. Fill the hole with small rocks, about one inch in diameter.

* If it's the lawn area that's flooding, dig a trench and lay a drain line in the lowest area of the lawn. Don't do any digging immediately after a heavy rain, though; wait until the soil dries enough to avoid unnecessary soil compaction. Be sure to slope the perforated drain pipe, allowing at least a one foot drop for each 100 feet of length (one quarter-inch per foot). Dig backwards from where the water will exit the pipe, trenching back towards the source of flooding to help determine how deep to lay the drain pipe. Line the trench with a few inches of gravel, both above and below the pipe. For a lawn area, try to lay the pipe at least two feet below the surface.

* If it's the garden bed that's flooding, consider building raised beds this fall, lining the bed with 2X8, 2X10 or 2X12 redwood planks. Capping off the top of these boards with 2X6 redwood will give you a comfortable place to sit while harvesting vegetables and pulling weeds.

* If you haven't planted in a flooded area yet, consider creating mounds first, planting trees and shrubs on the top of the mounds.

* If you're still stuck with pools of standing water after heavy rains despite your best efforts, consider planting trees and shrubs that can take "wet feet". Water-tolerant trees for our area include birch, sweet gum, magnolia, tupelo and coast redwoods. Shrubs for wet areas include thuja and red twig dogwood.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who's Eating My Vegetables?

Now that we are in the "green" season - the time to grow leafy vegetables and fall/winter staples such as broccoli and cauliflower - more and more questions are coming in, asking: who's doing this?
The answer, most probably? This critter, the cabbageworm.

The cabbageworm started out as an egg, laid on the underside of the leaf.

Who laid that egg...and many, many more?  The small, white to creamy yellow butterfly with the black dots or splotches on the wing is the cabbageworm butterfly. This garden pest is busily hunting down locations on the undersides of plant lay its eggs. 

A few days later, out pops the cabbageworm, a garden pest of leafy crops that will begin chewing irregular holes in the leaves, while pooping below.
According to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website, the cabbageworm larvae (caterpillars) are green and very hairy, with an almost velvetlike appearance. Older larvae may be up to an inch long and often have one faint yellow-orange stripe down their backs and broken stripes along the sides. 

Compared to other caterpillars, cabbageworms move slowly and are sluggish but they feed voraciously on both the outer and inner leaves, often feeding along the midrib, at the base of the wrapper leaves, or boring into the heads of cabbage. But it's not just cabbage. It's all the cole crops, including broccoli and cauliflower.

After 2 to 3 weeks of feeding, larvae pupate attached by a few strands of silk to stems or other nearby objects; pupae are green with faint yellow lines down the back and sides; there is no spun cocoon. 

The adult cabbage butterfly is white with one to four black spots on the wings; they are often seen fluttering around the fields. They have a wingspan of about an inch and a half.

The whitish, rocket-shaped eggs are laid singly on the undersides of leaves. The cabbageworm is active throughout the year in California.

In the fall and spring, when you see those butterflies flitting about, check the undersides of the leaves of your cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard). In the summer, look for this pest on the leaves of any leftover greens that may be on their last legs: chard, spinach, lettuce.

A similar pest that does the same kind of damage is the cabbage looper. It, too, is a greenish caterpillar, but with a distinctive looping movement in which they arch the middle portion of their body to bring the hind legs forward to meet the front legs.  

According to the University of Florida, the cabbage looper feeds on an even wider variety of popular fall and winter garden vegetables. "As the common name implies, it feeds readily on crucifers, and has been reported damaging broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, mustard, radish, rutabaga, turnip, and watercress. Other vegetable crops injured include beet, cantaloupe, celery, cucumber, lima bean, lettuce, parsnip, pea, pepper, potato, snap bean, spinach, squash, sweet potato, tomato, and watermelon. Additional hosts are flower crops such as chrysanthemum, hollyhock, snapdragon, and sweetpea, and field crops such as cotton and tobacco."

Tachinid Fly
The best control for either of these pests? Handpick the larvae and the eggs. Avoid harsh pesticides as they will do more damage to the "garden good guys", the beneficial insects, who are also going after the cabbageworm: trichogramma wasps and tachinid flies.

Another active "green eater" this time of year: snails or slugs. Their damage, however, is more ragged looking, and they are much more voracious, decimating young plants overnight. Look for their slime trails to help I.D. this garden glutton. Control with a product that contains iron phosphate.

Row covers, placed over newly planted cole crops or seedlings, can also offer protection until the plants are large enough to overcome any damage caused by these caterpillars. Generally, you don't want more than 50% of any plant damaged by the cabbageworm or cabbage looper; too much damage and heads of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower may not form.

Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis offers another organic cure: "Cut off and discard the infested leaves of green leafy vegetables, but keep the crown of the plant intact. The plant should grow back."

If you must use a spray pesticide, choose an organically acceptable biological insecticide, such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis. After ingesting the Bt, the cabbageworm larvae cease eating and will die within a few days. Bt works as a stomach poison on leaf and bud-feeding caterpillars.  Larvae of desirable butterflies will not be injured if their food sources are not sprayed. Few desirable butterflies feed on vegetables.

Another naturally derived insecticide that is effective on chewing insects, including caterpillars, is spinosad. When using any pesticide, be sure to read and follow all label directions.

A good reference book with great pictures for battling garden pests safely yet effectively is the UC Agricultural and Natural Resources book, Pests of the Garden and Small Farm. I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What is Biodynamic Compost?

"Biodynamic" means different things to different people.

It's not a laundry detergent ingredient to bring out dazzling fabric colors.

It's not the kid in the high school Biology class who aces all the tests.

Nor is it a member of the Justice League of America who just came out of the closet.

To graduates of the Rudolf Steiner college, "biodynamic" refers to: " agricultural method developed in 1924 in a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner. It laid the foundation for a new way of thinking about the relationship of the Earth and the formative forces of Nature. Biodynamics became the first organized organic approach to farming. The ideal is for a Biodynamic farm to be a self-sufficient organism, enlivened by the biodynamic practitioner through the use of compost and spray preparations in cooperation with natural rhythms. The results of biodynamic agriculture are found in the quality of the produce, the health of the land and the livestock, and the independence from damaging modern agriculture practices with their use of herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides."

A good book that explains biodynamics in easy to understand terms is the John Jeavons classic, "How To Grow More Vegetables".

Slowly, biodynamics is graduating from the organic farm and extending into commerce.
Biodynamics is the underpinning for Malibu Compost, available in California and soon in Oregon and Washington.

According to Malibu Compost founder Randy Ritchie, "We windrow our compost on the farm (in Fresno). We let everything decompose naturally 100%. Which is why it has such a nice humus smell to it."

The compost is comprised of organic dairy cow manure and more. "We use biodynamic preparations which include different forms of composted herbs including chamomile, dandelion, valerian, stinging nettle and other ingredients," says Ritchie.

Malibu Compost passes the three tests I give every compost:
What does it look like?
What does it smell like?
What's the pH?

Unlike many inexpensive composts, you can't tell what it is comprised of. No chunks of redwood, no pebbles, nothing that is recognizable. Well-aged compost should have a fine brown/black consistency, which is what Malibu Compost looks like.
As noted earlier, there are no off-putting aromas to Malibu Compost...just a rich humus-like smell. I've smelled some composts that have an aroma resembling an overflowing urinal at Candlestick Park during the 4th quarter of a 49ers game. That's a lot of burning urea that could harm plant roots, if not allowed to age further.

And the pH? I brought along one of my pH test kits to sample Malibu Compost, unannounced, using a random sample. The result? A pH of 6.9-7.0. That's neutral; not too acidic or alkaline, perfect for most fruits and vegetables.

Listen to the full interview (6:26) with Randy Ritchie to find out more about Malibu's biodynamic compost:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fruit or Vegetable: UC Good Life Garden Cooks Up the Answer

If you ever hear me on the radio using the word "fruit" or "vegetable", please understand that there is, at the same time, several voices in my head shouting at me: "It's not a fruit, it's a vegetable!" or "How can that be a fruit, it's a berry!"

The voices get particularly loud when I talk about tomatoes, for example: "To see if a green tomato will eventually ripen, cut the fruit in half..."  all of a sudden, it's quite loud in here. 

This time of year, if I start talking about harvesting pumpkins and say something along the lines of: "this vegetable is fully ripe when..." Hey! Shut up in there! I know it's a berry!" I think.

At first, I turned to the Dictionary of Horticulture to assuage the denizens of my cranium. That book's definitions:

Fruit: "In common usage, any product of vegetable growth useful to humans or animals. In a more limited sense, the reproductive product of a tree or other plant...In a still more limited sense, an edible, succulent product of a plant, normally covering and including the seeds..."

Vegetable: An herbaceous cultivated plant used for food, such as turnips, potatoes, spinach, peas and beans."

Berry: "A simple fruit in which the entire pericarp (inside) is fleshy, except the outer skin or epicarp; for example, banana, tomato, grape, and currant."

So, now you understand why the inside of my head during radio shows resembles the McLaughlin overalls.

 However, the UC Good Life Garden blog page recently arrived at the logical conclusion (if I may paraphrase a Maria Muldaur tune): It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion. That blog pointed out the insightful reasoning of Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:

"...for culinary or 'common' purposes, fruits are what we typically think of - apples, peaches, cherries - the sweet things we can eat right off the tree or put into pies.  So technically, green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, corn kernels and peppers are fruit.  But chefs consider them vegetables.  Why is this?



"It turns out that this culinary distinction has to do with flavor, which is a result of the basic makeup of the plant.  Fruits are engineered to be appealing to animals because it benefits the plant if animals eat the fruits because it helps to disperse the seeds.  As McGee says, 'they are one of the few things we eat that we’re meant to eat.' They usually have a high sugar content, complex aroma, and they soften themselves; all characteristics which add to their appeal.

"On the other hand vegetables are not meant to be eaten, and sometimes even have chemical defenses that are meant to keep animals from consuming them. (Think of the strong flavors and aromas that raw onions and cabbage have!)  Vegetables also remain firm and have either a very mild flavor or a very strong one and usually require cooking to make them palatable."

Thanks Good Life Garden, for clearing that up. But I guess we didn't need to go to UC Davis to find that out. 

We could of asked any five year old at dinnertime. Perhaps parents would have more success if they said, "Eat your fruit!" Or served vanilla ice cream with beans for dessert.

p.s. if your child with the finicky palate replies with, "But Farmer Fred says vegetables are not meant to be eaten!" ... um, I don't know what they're talking about. They're confusing me with something Bob Tanem said.