Monday, April 1, 2013

Why I Drink Scotch: The Best of "Ask the Snarky Gardener"!


After hosting Get Growing on KSTE for the past 21 years and the KFBK Garden Show for 13 years,  I have developed an increasing amount of empathy for the nuns of St. Charles Borromeo elementary school in North Hollywood who made me what I am today: a snarky gardener, who is a master at genuflecting. 

And, because of the virtues of perseverance and patience that they taught us, I can usually sublimate the snark when it comes to answering garden questions from "long time listeners, first time callers" who are posing queries that they should know the answers to by heart if they had actually listened to the show. Any show. Any week.  

There is always the chance, though, that I might snap. Ask such a question on the air, and you risk a full-fledged snark attack, fueled by powerful radio station coffee and moderated only by the repeated pounding of my head on the console.
   
 
Of course, that snark is mostly in control at home, with the help of single malt Scotch. Even when I come across an email asking a garden question, for which the answer is either 
a) obvious; b) incomplete; or c) just plain whacky.

Thus, the source of my nun empathy. These Sisters of the BVM (order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Black Veiled Monsters…take your choice) would, for the most part, calmly repeat the obvious to us despite having attempted to drill the information into our heads, day after day, year after year. 


However, these nuns, because of their vows of poverty, chastity and alleged sobriety, had no outlet to relieve themselves of the frustrations of not getting a show of hands when asking, every year, Baltimore Catechism question #3: "Why did God make us?"

 (In defense of my corduroy-clad brethren as well as my sisters of the saddle shoe brigade, we would often, when pressed for a reply, co-mingle Answer #4 with Question #3)

As a result, there would be the sudden outburst of anger from the nuns, menacingly twirling their 50-pound rosary lasso attached to their hip.

"Are you deaf as well as dumb?!?" was the occasional cry from eighth grade instructor, Sister Mary Catherine Joseph.

"I'd rather be teaching in the most squalid ghetto in Chicago than you spoiled brats!" yelled 7th grade teacher and judo expert, Sister Mary Francis.


And yes, sometimes, the outbursts became physical. Sixth grade instructor Sister Mary Nativity would occasionally hurl a pile of test papers into the front row of students, while screaming "Can't you children learn anything?!?" By the way, Sister Mary Nativity was
so named because of her rumored age. Allegedly, she was so old, she was there for the Big Event. Sister Mary Nativity usually aimed her paper weapons at Michael O' Brien, who had the misfortune of occupying the seat closest to her throwing arm. After such a hurling display, he would sometimes exclaim, "What did I do?!?" She would usually ignore him. Except for the time he shouted "What did I do?!?", followed by slamming his desk lid and then muttering, rather loudly, "shit!"

And that was the last we saw of Michael O' Brien that day, who was excommunicated to the office of the principal.


And just as the nuns would repeat the basic information in the Baltimore Catechism, year after year, and either get no response or the wrong response ... well, I can feel their frustration, when the listeners of the radio shows have failed to grasp the basics behind Farmer Fred’s Four Garden Rules, which tend to get repeated on a regular basis. 

The Four:
 
4. Mother Nature bats last. No matter how much you try to control garden pests, especially weeds, they will be back. When it comes to garden problems, think "control", not "eradicate". Tolerate minor annoyances. That same advice applies to your children, no matter how great the temptation.

3. All Gardening is local.
When you moved here from Los Angeles or the Bay Area, you did not bring the mild summer temperatures or the pleasant sunny days of winter with you. Thus, the plants you grew there may be a challenge here. If you don't see it growing in your neighborhood, there's a good chance it can't.  


However, there is hope: you just might have the right microclimate in your backyard to grow plants that other gardeners struggle with in your neighborhood. I have witnessed, for example: 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.  And that brings us to Farmer Fred Rule Number 2:

2. If it works for you, fine.
You say you are harvesting Hass avocados in your Rio Linda backyard? Those marigolds next to your tomato plants are repelling tomato worms? Planting by the full moon has increased your vegetable harvest? Foliar feeding your plants has given you the lushest garden ever? The white paint on your tree trunks is thwarting sunburn damage ...
Despite the best (or lack of) scientific evidence? If it works for you, fine.


1. Bermudagrass is forever. Need I say more? Again, think "control" not "eradicate". Bermudagrass spreads underground by rhizomes, crawls along the top of the soil via stolons, and flies through the air to land on other sections of your yard via seed. A true, triple threat weed!

Actually, there used to be five rules I would expound upon. The former number one rule: Don’t sleep with anyone whose problems are worse than your own. But that seemed to elicit more shock and horror than laughter or nods of approval.
 

It does happen, however (usually during periods of low single malt Scotch supplies) the scathing garden snarkiness is not muffled when I'm writing replies. Sometimes, the wise-ass retorts come in the form of the recurring Farmer Fred Rant blog series, "Ask the Snarky Farmer". And yes, I feel better after writing them. For example...

These are actual questions from actual people who probably are licensed to drive. You know that guy in front of you on the freeway who has his turn signal on for a half hour? Here they are, up close and personal:

     Robert and Lynn (from an undisclosed location) want to know: "Would you please suggest a retail nursery with a large selection of Japanese Maples?" 

  
Be glad to! Where the hell do you live?

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     Beth writes: "I'm looking for a rose. Can you give me any information on a thornless, fragrant, yellow, disease-resistant perpetual blooming, non-climbing rose? Thank you very much."
I am unfamiliar with any rose that might fit all those requirements. And, I do not know where you live, which can have some other limitations on rose growing. However, this may be a worthy substitute:

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Barbara hurriedly inquires: "I have lots of roses and want to fertilize them quickly. One rose expert told me to just pour the granular Miracle Gro fertilizer around the roses and then water it in. How many times a week should I do that?"

     After that question, please give me one moment, if you will. I am having a Macallan minute...



Thank You, I feel better now. 
     Please, Barbara, don't do that. Read and follow all label directions for any fertilizer before applying. Water-soluble fertilizers, although they may look like crystals that you could scatter around the garden, are meant to be dissolved in water before applying. You are risking burning your plant roots by putting that fertilizer around your roses in a dry form. If you are in a hurry, there are hose-end fertilizer sprayer attachments that can ease your feeding chores. And that would be even quicker than spreading out the fertilizer and watering it in.
 

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     LeeAnne of Rancho Cordova, CA (USDA Zone 9) asks: "What plants and flowers do well here?"

     LeeAnne: Pick a page, any page, of the 1,290 available:



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     Doug of Sacramento has a pipe dream: "I was wondering if you could provide any tips on growing tobacco in this area."

     First, you need the right tobacco seed (sometimes heirloom seed catalogs sell it), and you need to live where the soil is crummy,  the humidity is high, and the area gets about 40 inches of rain during the summer. North Carolina comes to mind! And that's the extent of my tobacco knowledge.

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     Jennifer in El Dorado Hills (elev. 1000 ft.) appeals for: "Help! I have a Banksia. I am sure this is not the proper zone for them but how should we care for it? We had it in direct sun and it did not seem to like it. So we put it in a pot and moved it to partial shade. It seems to like a lot of water, but it is just sickly looking. Should I cut it all the way back? Perhaps plant it in the ground in more shade?"



Jennifer:
     According to the Sunset Western Garden Book, Banksia (an evergreen shrub or small tree that develops flowers in cylindrical clusters) does best in Sunset zones 15-24 (coastal California, primarily) and Hawaii. Yep, El Dorado Hills (Sunset zone 9, with thin, rocky soil) ain't Kona, Santa Barbara, or Richmond for that matter. Good luck, you'll probably need it, here in the Sacramento area's Sunset Zones of 9 and 14.
This reminds me of my friend Lou, of El Dorado Hills (Sunset Zone 9). On a trip to Hawaii, Lou fell in love with the jacaranda tree (best in Sunset Zones 12, 13, 15-24 and Hawaii). Hell, it's a WEED in Hawaii! Lou had to have one. He got one. Now, his PG&E electric bill soars each winter, thanks to the large string of Christmas lights that festoon all the branches of the jacaranda in a futile attempt to keep the tree alive during the winter.




The foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern California  have witnessed an influx of new homeowners from the Bay Area and Southern California over the last decade. They brought their pets, sofas and gardening habits with them.
For all of you transplants, may I offer this piece of advice:


WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?!? LOOK AROUND WHERE YOU LIVE! DO YOU SEE ANY OF THOSE PLANTS THAT THRIVED IN YOUR OLD YARD  IN YOUR NEIGHBORS' YARDS? NO!


Thanks. I feel better now.


Having said that,  I do tend to use the word "probably" in most answers. Why? Because all gardening is local. Garden conditions not only vary from town to town, but also yard to yard. 

Sometimes you can fool Mother Nature by creating a garden space that consists of excellent, well-draining soil that gets reflected heat from west or south-facing walls in the winter, thus expanding the range of planting options in marginal areas. But that takes planning...and luck, such as the bougainvillea that survives in a walled, concrete Sacramento patio where there is lots of sun and reflected winter heat.

And it pays to shop at your locally owned nursery. These people stake their livelihood on selling you plants that will work in your area. If you don't see it at your neighborhood nursery, it probably won't grow there. And by the way, the term "locally owned nursery" does not include the big box chain stores.


It is not uncommon for the big box stores to ship the same tropical plants throughout the state, especially bougainvillea. Bougainvillea may survive year after year in the Bay Area or Southern California. But here in the Central Valley and the foothills, if you don't have the right microclimate...just grow it and enjoy it as an annual. Buy it in April...compost it in December.
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Mary of Sacramento wants to know:

Hey! Mr. Garden Master: I need a low maintenance ground cover for 500 square feet under two large oak trees. Must be hardy, drought resistant, no (or little) mowing. I'm thinking maybe some type of Bermuda grass. I know it can be invasive, but will it thrive if not watered? Does Round-up work on Bermuda grass? I would like to find it in sod form, and one that stays green most of the year. Hope to hear from you soon. Grandkids are coming this summer and there is nothing there now but DIRT. Love your radio show! Don't always get to hear it for various reasons.


(long pause)


OK, I'm better now (thank you, Bowmore & Friends!). Bermuda grass needs to be mowed weekly from spring through summer, needs regular watering and fertilization during the growing season to stay green, yet it will turn brown in the fall and winter here in the Central Valley of California.
I think the best "groundcover" for beneath that oak tree might be a few inches of an organic mulch, such as ground or shredded bark, which is now available in several different colors!



Because native oaks have adapted to our environment (especially in our hot, rain-free summers), oak trees have root systems than not only can go deep to find water, but also extend out beyond the canopy of the tree just below the soil surface. This sensitive root system is vulnerable to overwatering and physical injuries such as planting or tilling beneath the tree. At most risk: those old oak trees that predate the surrounding homes. Old stands of oaks that are now part of housing developments may be threatened because of extensive plantings of thirsty shrubs, perennials, annuals and lawns -especially lawns - beneath them. Frequent waterings encourage root rot and root fungus in oaks, causing death by disease or by toppling in a heavy storm.
To maintain healthy oak trees, keep them out of the range of lawn sprinklers and lawns, don't use plants beneath oaks that require a lot of water, don't pave the area beneath the tree and don't compact the soil under their canopy by using tillers, shovels or trenchers.
There are, though, several plants that can be utilized in an oak tree-dominated landscape. Plant these (by hand) at least ten feet away from the trunk; plant them sparingly, as accent plants. Using containers for those plants is an even better idea. Among the non-thirsty specimens that need watering once a month or less (when established) in the summer: manzanita, ceanothus, toyon, California buckeye, dwarf coyote bush, California buckwheat, creeping thyme, yarrow, California poppy, and lupine.


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     Nancy asks: "I have been listening to the podcast of your KFBK radio program this morning for the first time. It won't be the last, believe me! One man talked about feeding all his squirrels.  I have a lovely garden next to my house with two bird feeders.  I get lots and lots of yellow finch and doves (when I put ground feed on the sidewalk).  Occasionally I see a squirrel eating the black sunflower seeds on the ground.  But every time I see the squirrel, the jays come and scare the squirrel away.  How can I attract more squirrels and discourage the jays?"
  
Ohhhh, Nancy: That's like hoping the German army leaves Poland so that the Russian army can move in. If you leave enough food around that the squirrels can easily get to, it will attract more squirrels (and perhaps raccoons, skunks, etc.), despite the presence of scrub jays. Mockingbirds discourage scrub jays...but again, the cure may be worse than the problem.

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     Natalie and Jay say: "Hi there Farmer Fred! Listen to Get Growing on KSTE on Sunday all the time. My husband and I are big into the fifties thing. We are (slowly) remodeling our house to look like a 50's Atomic home. Along with the look, we are also into making our own Atomic Cocktails. We grow our own mint for Mint Juleps and Mojitos and have a lemon tree and lime tree for various drink recipes and garnishes.
The lime tree is doing quite nicely. It's planted in the ground close to a fence for some freeze protection in the winter. The lemon tree, however, is planted in a whiskey barrel, and although it has quite a few lemons growing on it, the leaves are starting to become yellow. They aren't turning brown, but just look a pale yellow, as if there isn't enough access to nitrogen. We add coffee grounds, citrus food, Ironite (only once!), and we mulch with bark. Any ideas on why it's not greening up?"


     First of all, I will answer your question if you promise to send me your recipe for the atomic cocktail. Thanks in advance. 



OK, why citrus leaves turn yellow in containers:
1. Not enough nitrogen (N gets leached from containers easily due to all the watering they need). Feed containerized citrus regularly (perhaps monthly or every other week with a diluted mix).

2. Poor drainage. Use a moisture meter to determine if it's too wet at the root zone. Or, dig down and feel that soil near the bottom of the barrel. Too wet soil can cause leaves to yellow and drop off. Mulch is a good thing, but it can keep the soil too moist. You may have to decrease your watering.
 
3. Not enough sun. The more sun, the better...for citrus.
4. Fumes from the Atomic Cocktails.
  
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I usually appreciate it when the email question is accompanied with a photograph. Usually.

Roberta of Garden Valley writes: "Perhaps you or your guest this weekend or next can identify these large bushes. I pass by this house everyday and this time of year these lovely blue flowers cover these rather large bushes. I’ve also seen them planted by the freeway paired with Redbud that blooms at the same time. I’d love to plant some, but need a variety name. I hope you can help."
 
I'm guessing here: ceanothus, also known as California Lilac. Hard to say what variety of ceanothus it is without seeing a closeup of the leaves, as well as a location and when the picture was taken (picture caption says May). When sending a photograph, send several. Closeups and a long shot. If it is a photo of a leaf or a bug, position it next to a reference for size, such as a coin or a ruler. And try not to take the picture from a moving car. Thank you!

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One way to bring out my snark on the air to the person sitting next to me: if the guest insists on showing off their vast horticultural vocabulary and do not bother to explain what the hell they are talking about to the 99% of the listeners who have stopped listening in order to ask themselves, "what the hell are they talking about?"
So, I have a soft spot for you listeners who call or write for an explanation. It serves as a constant reminder that gardening is a spare time hobby, not a passionate avocation, of the majority. Which is why I will sometimes interrupt a guest to say, "Please explain pH".
For example, the following email arrived after an on-air discussion of getting tomato plants ready for outdoor planting.

Maureen of Paradise wonders, "I'm baffled. What is this 'hardening off' that you two are talking about?" 


"Hardening off" is one of those 50-cent horticultural terms that gardeners like to use to make them feel smarter than everyone else. Sort of like "acarpous" (sterile), "bipinnately compound" (a complicated leaf construction, e.g., the shape of a Chinese pistache leaf) or another commonly used term in the horticultural community: "File for Chapter 11", which is what some nurseries do in a recession. "Hardening Off" simply means: let the plant get used to the outdoors slowly. It has nothing to do with Viagra. For example, if you have tomato seedlings indoors in early spring, you may want to place them outdoors in a shady spot for a few daytime hours for a week or so in early April and then bring them in at night. During the second week, let them spend the night outdoors, too, in a protected area (as long as no freezes are predicted). Then, during the third week, acclimate the plants to their permanent home. Plant them in their garden home, but place a row cover or hot cap or wall o' water around them for a couple of days. Then, let 'em grow!

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And sometimes, the snark attack hits the road, such as this exchange at a Museum last summer.

Today, our report is from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, home of the new California Academy of Sciences. It's "an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof ," according to their PR department.
For gardeners, here is what I learned:
Butterflies like pretty flowers, especially if they are inside a $488 million, climate-controlled rainforest dome.
Here is an actual conversation last summer with a California Academy of Sciences docent at the South African Penguin Exhibit, filled with the waddling wonders from the other side of the world:

Me: Do you adjust the environment in that enclosure to give the penguins "seasons"?


Docent: Yes, we turn down the temperature at night.

Me: But beyond that, do you attempt to replicate seasonal changes to reflect the environment in South Africa?


Docent: Yes, we give them more light now because it is summer in South Africa.

Me: I think it's winter there.


Docent: Oh.

Me: Do you know if the caretakers reduce the intensity or angle of the light on a seasonal basis?


...long pause…


Docent: See those three penguins on the rock? Two of them are females, they are sisters, and they are battling over the other one, a male. I have seen him mating with both of them. His name is Brendan. It's a regular soap opera!

Me: Thank you.



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4 comments:

  1. Dang it. The sisters should be proud of your talented presentation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi! I’m new follower of your blog and would like to invite you to join me at my weekly Clever Chicks Blog Hop:
    http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2013/03/clever-chicks-blog-hop-28-easter-peeps.html

    I hope you can make it!

    Cheers,
    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

    ReplyDelete
  3. I see that Mormino hit your blog as well. About the only thing I have to say is this: calm down, Freddo, before you blow one of them repaired gaskets. Everyone is going to ask you stupid questions, including yours truly, because you have slowly built this wonderful reputation of the "Knower of all garden things." I think I stopped after asking you the conversion rate on that nice Norwegian seaweed fertilizer for the tenth time. The last time, I actually wrote it down. Thank you. And, yes, the new Southern Highbush Blueberry planted in a raised half-barrel filled with a special acid mix is doing just fine and dandy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I loved it the first time and I love it again here!

    ReplyDelete