Monday, April 24, 2017

Why Are Roses in Vineyards?


Quiz time:
The reason wine grape growers place rose bushes at the end of their vineyard rows:
a) To alert them to a powdery mildew outbreak;
b) To alert them to an insect infestation;
c) Red roses mark the rows of red wine grapes; white, the white wine grape varieties.
d) They're pretty.

 d) is correct. Different strains of powdery mildew attack roses. Insects that bother both would attack the grapes first. And if the color of the rose indicated the varietal, then an apricot colored rose would mean that they are growing grapes for Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine.

Sacramento County Farm Advisor and Viticulture specialist Chuck Ingels says the practice may have been tried in Europe a long time ago to detect powdery mildew early, but it doesn't work. The mildew species that attacks grapes is a completely different species from that of the rose powdery mildew; and, they have different temperature requirements. Also, roses are more prone to get aphids; grapes, not so much.

For those at home keeping score:
Powdery mildew species on grapes: Erisiphe necator.
Powdery mildew species on roses: Sphaerotheca pannosa


Viticulture instructor Andy Walker at UC Davis says that roses are planted strictly for aesthetics.

 

This practice probably started in the early 20th century and continues to today; the myths and the stories about it came along the way.

One blogger took a trip to the vineyards of Italy recently where the winemaker discussed the issue: 
"Singore Razzi explained how they grow the grapes for their wine. We wondered why there were rose bushes at the end of each row of grapes and found out that very sophisticated tests were done by scientists on the soil and after those tests, the rose bushes were planted to tell the wine master how the soil is doing. If the roses stay fresh and perfect they know the grapes are doing just as well...when a bush is 'sick' they know those grapes growing in that row are 'sick' also.”


No winemaker is going to rely on roses to tell them about the quality of the wine. But it certainly impresses visitors; and, they probably bought more wine because of this sophisticated-sounding yarn.

So, how do wine grape growers control powdery mildew? With a rather large arsenal of chemical weapons. And for a good reason. Powdery mildew can develop a resistance if the same product is used over and over. According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program:

"Alternating fungicides with different modes of action is essential to prevent pathogen populations from developing resistance to classes of fungicides. This resistance management strategy should not include alternating or tank mixing with products to which resistance has already developed. Rotate with fungicides that have a different mode of action. Research has shown that sequential sprays of products with the same mode of action can lead to the development of reduced sensitivity to the active ingredient(s). Some fungicides have two active ingredients and thus two modes of action. When using such materials, do not alternate with other fungicides that contain one of the same modes of action (i.e. they represent the same fungicide class)."

Home gardeners and organic growers have a more limited selection to control powdery mildew.
According to UC IPM:

"Powdery mildew is a perennial problem in grapevines. Sulfur, horticultural oils, neem oil, jojoba oil, and Serenade are registered for controlling powdery mildew in home vineyards.
Begin applying treatments when all buds have pushed. Thereafter, repeat at 10-day intervals if disease pressure is high; otherwise, extend intervals when temperatures are above 90°F until the sugar content of the grapes is 12 to 15%, which is when they begin to soften and approach ripeness and are no longer susceptible to infection.
You can measure the sugar content with a refractometer, if you have access to one, or you can see if sample berries sink in a 15% sucrose solution. (Prepare the sucrose solution by dissolving 8-1/2 teaspoons of table sugar in a half cup of warm water, then mixing in enough cold water to make the total volume 1 cup.)"

More information about these products:


Fungicides. Several less-toxic fungicides are available for backyard trees and vines, including horticultural oils, neem oil, jojoba oil, sulfur, and the biological fungicide Serenade. With the exception of the oils, these materials are primarily preventive. Oils work best as eradicants but also work as good protectants. The fungicides listed here are registered for home use.

Oils. To eradicate powdery mildew infections, use a horticultural oil (such as Saf-T-Side Spray Oil, Sunspray Ultra-Fine Spray Oil) or one of the plant-based oils such as neem oil (such as Green Light Neem Concentrate) or jojoba oil (such as E-rase). Be careful, however, never to apply an oil spray within 2 weeks of a sulfur spray or plants may be injured. Some plants may be more sensitive than others, however, and the interval required between sulfur and oil sprays may be even longer; always consult the fungicide label for any special precautions. Also, oils should never be applied when temperatures are above 90°F or to drought-stressed plants. Horticultural oils as well as neem and jojoba oils are registered on a wide variety of crops. 

Sulfur. Sulfur products have been used to manage powdery mildew for centuries but are only effective when applied before disease symptoms appear. The best sulfur products to use for powdery mildew control in gardens are wettable sulfurs that are specially formulated with surfactants similar to those in dishwashing detergent (such as Safer Garden Fungicide). To avoid injury to the plant or tree, sulfurs should not be applied within 2 weeks of an oil spray, used on any plant when the temperature is near or over 90°F (80°F for caneberries and strawberry), and never applied at any temperature to apricot trees.

Biological Fungicides. Biological fungicides (such as Serenade) are commercially available beneficial microorganisms formulated into a product that, when sprayed on the plant, inhibit or destroy fungal pathogens. The active ingredient in Serenade is a bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, that helps prevent the powdery mildew from infecting the plant. While this product functions to kill the powdery mildew organism and is nontoxic to people, pets, and beneficial insects, it has not proven to be as effective as the oils or sulfur in controlling this disease.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tips for Golden Age Gardening

   As we age, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weaker...when it comes to gardening. The good news is: we have the experience and wisdom to garden smarter as we get older.

     Our enjoyment of growing fruit, flowers and vegetables seems to increase as the years fly by. Maybe it's because we've come to better appreciate how nature works. Maybe it's because we enjoy doing things closer to home. Or, maybe it's because plants don't talk back. 

     Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: we don't bend down into a flower bed, lift bags of fertilizer and pull weeds as easily as we used to. As a result, we know that a few hours working briskly in the yard may result in an evening of moving slower.
   
    Still, there's no reason why you can't enjoy the good exercise of gardening (burning up to 7 calories a minute!). Just get rid of those tasks that are monotonous or excruciatingly difficult. Here are some tips for implementing an easy-care garden for the Golden Years, advice that can be summed up in four words: automate, elevate, eliminate, delegate.

Automate. Provide your garden with an automatic watering system. The efficiency of an automated sprinkler or drip irrigation system protects your plants from the summertime heat when you're away from home. And, a good drip system reduces water usage, unwanted weed growth and plant diseases. Replace your old irrigation control system with a model that can control more valves with more flexibility. For example, the Hunter line of irrigation control systems automatically adjust water run times based on the season and the weather. And it will automatically turn off your sprinklers if it senses rain. 

Consider installing battery operated water timers at distant faucets to control the watering of garden beds. The better ones not only turn the water on and off, but offer extended run times (perfect for drip irrigation) as well as multiple cycles per day (perfect for watering container plants on hot summer days).

Install low-voltage night lighting, equipped with sensors, to automatically come on at sunset throughout the yard.



Elevate. Build raised planters for your flowering plants and vegetables. Not only do raised beds reduce the amount of stooping and kneeling that are a necessary part of gardening, raised beds provide better drainage for plants that don't like "wet feet". Built of wood, concrete or brick, a raised bed, 18-24 inches high, gives you a place to sit while weeding, pruning or harvesting. Make the raised beds any length you desire; but keep the width less than four feet across for ease of reaching into the middle of the bed. And lining the bottom of these beds with quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth will keep gophers from sampling the fruits of your labor.

Eliminate. Life is too short to put up with a problem plant. Why waste time fretting over a habitually under-performing perennial, shrub or tree? Why tolerate tree litter or plant roots that are upheaving concrete? If it is growing awkwardly or is consistently pest infested despite your best efforts, get rid of it. Purchase another plant that will do better.


Although the attempt to totally eradicate weeds is an exercise in futility, adding three or four inches of mulch, such as a walk-on bark, can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend pulling weeds.

If you really want to cut down on a monotonous garden chore, save money and time...get rid of the lawn! Mowing, edging, weeding a lawn can average an hour a week. Replace that ongoing chore with a garden area that is beautiful, uses much less water (with the right plants), and eliminates most weeding (thanks to several inches of mulch).

The area you see above was 1200 square feet of a bermudagrass lawn in nearly full sun. It was an area that was a lot of work to maintain and keep irrigated, and offered none of the benefits of a real garden. 


We replaced that lawn with what you see here: a fountain (that attracts birds and beneficial insects), dwarf fruit trees (such as the Garden Gold peach) and blueberries in containers, as well as native plants such as California buckwheat that attracts beneficials and pollinators. The best part? That area now uses 88% less water than the former lawn. And although it may sound heretical coming from me, there's nothing wrong with ripping out an underperforming turf area and replacing it with...an artificial turf putting green (top picture).

• Delegate. Somewhere in your neighborhood, there is the teenager looking to pick up some spending money doing yard chores (I know, that's like searching for the Holy Grail!); but there may also be the guy or gal who has that tractor, front loader, chipper-shredder, backhoe or whatever that could accomplish in a fraction of the time what you are attempting to do with a shovel, small mower or saw. Ask your neighbors for recommendations for professional landscapers and arborists. Check your home owner's insurance for coverage...and then seek them out. Parceling out yard work to others is tough for gardeners; but grit your teeth, open your wallet...and save your back.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

How Can I Improve My (Expletive Deleted) Clay Soil?

From the garden e-mail bag, Gordon of Lodi writes: "I've about had it with clay/hard pan soil. The soil map for Lodi/Stockton says we are supposed to have sandy loam.  Give me a break!  I bought a 30 lb. bag of gypsum pellets and I'm willing to dig it in everywhere. But, how much do I use? I found an article online. It says to add 20-30 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. of garden area. I'm not going to work up 1000 sq. ft.!  How about a cup full in 10-20 sq. ft. every three years?"

Gordon, how about getting a soil test done first? California's Central Valley is made up of many different soil types, so yours may not be representative of what you researched. 

Gypsum is effective on soils high in salts; it does nothing to improve the permeability of our clay soils, most of which do not have a salt issue. Still, only a soil test can determine that. By the way, gypsum is very slow to work. It needs to be added (for that salinity problem) on a regular annual basis, not once every three years.

Usually, the reasons for the expletives used against clay soil include symptoms such as slow draining soil, difficult to dig soil, or hardpan layers.


This time of year, especially after a rainy winter, compaction of clay soil is not uncommon (quit walking on wet clay soil!).
  


Don't want to be a scientist? Then, build a raised bed and plant in that, using a high quality commercial soil mix. To improve water penetration, be sure to mix in some of the new soil into the existing soil base at the bottom of the raised bed.
Raised Beds, Fair Oaks Horticulture Center

If you want to improve the soil drainage and permeability of your existing clay soil, add quality compost, top the soil with several inches of mulch, and grow a cover crop. 

The Yolo County Master Gardeners put together an easy-to-understand chart of soil symptoms and possible solutions. More info is available in their online publication, "Using Soil Amendments in Yolo County Gardens."


A word of warning about one of those suggestions: adding sand, perlite or vermiculite to your soil may be counterproductive. According to retired college horticulture professor Debbie Flower, "I would not add those to my field soil: Too little sand added to clay = cement. Perlite is ugly (and it tends to rise to the surface). Vermiculite just compresses when soil is worked or walked on."

Elsewhere in that publication, they explode some of the myths about certain soil amendments: 

Myth #1. Gypsum softens clay or loosens compacted soil. 
Gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate) is effective in counteracting the effects of sodium, which in excess (in soil or in irrigation water) causes soil aggregates to disperse, sealing the soil surface and reducing water infiltration. The calcium in the gypsum replaces the sodium, making for more stable soil aggregates, which do not disperse and form a seal so readily. This process is the basis for the misleading claim that gypsum “loosens” the soil. Gypsum does not reduce or prevent soil compaction, dissolve hardpan, soften clay soils, or convert clay to loam. 

Myth #2. Gypsum lowers the pH of alkaline soils. 
In very high pH soils (pH > 8.5, characteristic of high- sodium soils), gypsum will lower the pH, but only slightly. At lower, though still alkaline, soil pH values, gypsum has little or no effect on pH. Chemically, calcium sulfate is a “neutral salt”, i.e., when it dissolves in water, it does not change the pH of the solution. If the objective is to lower soil pH, elemental sulfur, iron sulfate, or aluminum sulfate should be used.

Myth #3. Inoculating soil with microbes or microbial preparations, will improve “dead” or infertile soil. 
A wide variety of “microbial” products that contain (or claim to contain) microorganisms are commercially available for farm and garden use. A review of the claims made for such products is beyond the scope of this bulletin. Keep in mind that most soils, including soils that have been fertilized only with synthetic fertilizers, or have suffered years of abuse (compaction, erosion, loss of organic matter) still contain a great diversity of microbial species. To establish or re-establish a healthy soil food web, all that is needed is to apply a variety of organic amendments and ensure that pH and nutrient levels are adequate for plant growth.

More information about: 
The benefits of adding compost to the soil.
The benefits of topping garden soil with mulch.
The benefits of cover cropping.



 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Growing Your First Vegetable Garden? Some Tips.


If you're new to backyard gardening and want to start growing vegetables, here are some tips:
 
Location, location, location: Give the garden a sunny spot. Pick a garden location that gets at least six hours a day of full sun. Good drainage is key. That's why raised beds are so popular (that, and the soil in raised beds warms up sooner in the spring). Make sure a source of water is nearby. And, a location that is easily seen on a regular basis from a house window (esp. the kitchen), is a good reminder of what's out there and what needs to be harvested.

 
Know your soil. Do a pH test (which measures the relative alkalinity or acidity of the soil), or a full soil test. One of the best bargains for a complete soil test is the University of Massachusetts. They will analyze your soil for under $20 (at this writing). They also include an interpretation of what all those measurements mean to you. Or, purchase an inexpensive pH and macronutrient test kit, one that will tell you your soil's acidity/alkalinity, along with its needs for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.


• Amending the soil with a good quality compost is a great idea, if your soil has never been amended. Rototill in a cubic yard of compost for every 300 square feet of garden. That is a rule of thumb that I follow. After the first growing year, no rototilling is necessary. Just add a few inches of compost to the top of the soil; let the winter rains work the compost in.

• Fertilize the soil. I prefer to use low-dosage organic fertilizers, such as a mix of fish emulsion and sea kelp. There are plenty of great all-in-one organic fertilizers on the market labeled for use in vegetable gardens. Be sure to follow the label directions. If using a non-organic granular fertilizer (such as a 10-10-10- formulation), put a tablespoon in the bottom of the planting hole, cover with a couple inches of soil, and water in thoroughly. Don't let the sensitive roots of the tomatoes and peppers come in direct contact with the fertilizer. If you'll be using a water soluble, non-organic fertilizer on an every-other-week or monthly basis, use half the recommended amount for this first feeding.
Oregon Spring V

Good sources of information:


The UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center is a good website with more garden starting info.

For California gardeners, the Farmer Fred interactive Vegetable Planting Calendar is a good guideline for when to plant. Also, clicking on the individual vegetables brings up information on how to grow it.

That's the basics! What you plant is up to you and your family's appetites. 

Read on for more detailed gardening information for the first timer:


Peppers spaced 2 feet apart. They WILL fill the bed! Trust me on that.
For tomatoes and peppers:

• Plant tomatoes deeply. Pinch off the lower leaves of the plant and bury the tomato deeply, leaving only the top four sets of leaves above ground. New roots will form along this underground, stripped section. If it's a very tall plant, dig a trench, lay the plant on its side in the trench, and bend the top section up (carefully) to stand above the soil level; fill in the trench.

Tomatoes spaced three feet apart. They also WILL FILL THE BED.

  • Give tomatoes room. Full-size tomatoes grow on vines that can reach five feet high or more. Plant them three to four feet apart. Prepare a staking system now while they're still manageable.

  • Space peppers about two feet apart. According to horticulture professor Debbie Flower, peppers can be planted deeply, just like tomatoes.


 
Water. Don't let the soil dry out while the roots are getting established. During the warmth of summer, water tomatoes and peppers regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist. One common problem with tomatoes, blossom end rot (the bottom of the tomato turns brown and mushy), can be traced in part to irregular watering habits. Deep, infrequent waterings (once or twice a week) with drip irrigation or soaker hoses work great. An added benefit: drip systems and soaker hoses can be hooked up to a battery operated timer, watering these summertime treats while you're vacationing. Because raised bed plantings and containerized plantings will dry out quicker, they will need more frequent irrigations. 

Use a moisture meter to determine when the soil is beginning to dry out at the root zone to help you develop a watering schedule. Remember, that schedule will change as the weather fluctuates.

When deciding where to plant your vegetable garden, choose the best available location by keeping the following factors in mind:

When is the soil ready to plant? You may have little choice concerning the soil type available to you, but you can use a simple test to find out whether your soil is in good condition for planting. Squeeze a handful of soil to test for moisture content. If the squeezed soil forms a clump, the soil is too wet to work. If you work soil that contains this much moisture, it might form into hard, cement-like clumps, which can cause problems for the remainder of the year. If the soil crumbles easily when it is squeezed, it is in an ideal condition to work. However, if that handful of soil is bone dry, water the area thoroughly a day or two before working or planting the soil.



Broccoli in the Winter Garden
 The Year-Round Garden. In California, there are 3 to 4 seasons, depending on your location, in which vegetables can be grown. Yet, many gardeners grow only summer crops. By planting a spring crop, a summer crop, and a fall crop, a gardener can get 3 crops from the same space.

 

Level ground is best for growing vegetables. It is easier to prepare, plant, and irrigate than sloping ground. If you must plant on sloping ground, run rows across the slope, not up and down, to keep the soil from washing away during irrigation.





Preparing a Garden Plan
It is best to plan on paper before planting your garden. A well-planned garden can provide fresh or preserved vegetables for use all year.  











Plant perennial crops, such as rhubarb and asparagus, to one side of the garden so that the plants are not disturbed by preparations for future crops. Plant tall crops, such as corn and pole beans, on the north side of the garden so that they will not shade low-growing crops.




Trellising and staking. Do not grow horizontally what you can grow vertically. Twining crops, such as tomato, squash, cucumber, and pole beans, use a great deal of space when allowed to grow along the ground. Trellises, stakes, or other supports minimize the ground space used and increase garden productivity. Support materials can consist of wood, extra stakes, twine, or a nearby fence.

 



For the beginning vegetable gardener, choose more hybrid seeds than heirlooms. Hybrid vegetables are bred to have more disease and pest resistance, as well as larger yields. Heirloom varieties have more unique shapes and flavors, but can be problematic for the first time gardener. Sure, buy some heirlooms for the flavor; but for your first garden, plant mostly hybrids. After that, you may prefer the flavor of the heirlooms. I still plant a mix of both.

Succession planting consists of sowing seeds of a given crop at 1- to 2-week intervals to produce a continuous supply of vegetables. Corn, beans, lettuce, turnips, and beets are well suited to this practice.

Intercropping involves planting early-maturing crops between the rows of late-maturing crops to increase production in a small area. For example, beans, radishes, green onions, spinach, or leaf lettuce may be planted between rows of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, or corn. The quicker-maturing crops will be harvested before the others become very large.



What to Plant
Plant enough of each vegetable crop to meet your family's needs for fresh, stored, and preserved supplies. When choosing vegetable varieties or hybrids, consider such factors as disease resistance, maturity date, compactness of plant, and the size, shape, and color of the vegetable desired. Refer to the individual vegetable links on the Farmer Fred Interactive Vegetable Planting Calendar for variety recommendations.




Tools
You only need a few, good quality tools for a small home garden:


Trowel. One of the handiest garden gadgets, it is useful for transplanting and for loosening soil around plants.

Shovel. Use a round-edged shovel for digging.
  
Spade or spading fork. Use to turn the ground, to turn under organic matter, and to break up large clumps of soil.



Rake. Use to smooth out the soil after spading and after preparing the seedbed. You can also use it for clearing up rubbish and removing small weeds.

Hoe. Use to remove tough weeds and to cover seeds after planting. When turned sideways, you can also use a hoe to dig a V-shaped row for planting.



Following these simple guidelines will keep your tools in good condition:


Clean tools after each use. A putty knife, jet nozzle on a hose or a wire brush is good for scraping off dirt. If tools get rusty, soak them in kerosene for a few hours, then use a wire brush or fine sand to scrub off the rust. Oil them with a light lubricant after cleaning.


Keep cutting tools sharp. The basic sharpening tool for hoes, pruners and shovels is an 8" mill file.
 

Keep tools in a dry place to prevent rust.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tips for a Great Tomato Garden







If this is the year for you to grow terrific tomatoes, follow these tips:
 
Choose suitable varieties. California's Central Valley weather is most noted for its hot, dry summers. 
Lemon Boy
Good choices for this climate include Ace, Ace 55, Better Boy, Burpee VF Hybrid, Celebrity, Lemon Boy and Early Girl (all main season tomatoes).

Beefmaster



Beefmaster, Big Beef, Supersteak and Whopper (big-fruit varieties).


Viva Italia
Juliet, Roma VF, Viva Italia and San Marzano (paste tomatoes).



Sun Gold



 Patio Hybrid, Sweet 100, Sweet Million, Sun Gold and Sun Sugar (small-fruit varieties). 

All of these varieties were taste test favorites, in trials conducted by the Master Gardeners of Sacramento County and here at Hoffman Gardens. 

Heirloom tomatoes, varieties that were around before the 1950's, are gaining popularity. Although they may not have the built in disease resistance or high production of modern hybrid varieties, they make up for it...with outstanding taste! 
Among the heirloom varieties you might want to try: Brandywine, Old Brooks, Arkansas Traveler, Dad's Mug, Anna Russian, Aunt Ginny's Purple, Dr. Lyle, Dr. Neal, German, German Johnson, Mortgage Lifter, Pruden's Purple and 1884. Two good performers for me the last couple of seasons have included Striped German and Orange Jubilee.

Among my all-time favorite heirloom tomato varieties:
Kellogg's Breakfast
Dr. Wyche

Costaluto Genovese
Marianna's Peace
Zapotec Pleated



Bloody Butcher

 










Catalog seed sources include the Tomato Growers Supply Company  and Totally Tomatoes.

Using home-saved tomato seeds. If you want to save seeds of a particular tomato variety, remember that many varieties are hybrids; they may not necessarily come back with the same traits as the tomato you enjoyed last season. Open pollinated or heirloom tomato seeds are fine for saving, as long as they are grown at least 30 feet away from any other varieties.  For best results: save the seeds from tomatoes that are overly ripe; rinse off as much of the flesh and protective gelatinous coating from the seeds as is possible. Then, soak the seeds in a jar of water for a couple of days to remove the rest of the coating. The seeds will sink to the bottom, the gel will float. Discard the gel, remove the seeds and let dry on a paper towel. Then, store in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.

Start seeds in late winter. February and early March are the best months for starting tomato seeds. This will allow 8-12 weeks for the plant to get off to a good start in a warm, sunny place, such as a south or west facing window. It usually takes 7-14 days to germinate tomato seeds. To test for viable seed that you've been saving: moisten a coffee filter, and place a few seeds in the filter, with space between the seeds. Place the filter in an old yogurt container, cover it, and place in an area out of direct heat. Check every few days to see if seeds have sprouted.

Give seeds a healthy start.
Use a light, quick-draining potting mix. Commercial seed-starting potting mixes are available; or, mix your own, using 4 parts compost, 2 parts peat moss, and 1 part each of vermiculite and perlite. Any small container with drainage is OK for starting tomato seeds. Fill containers about 3/4 to the top with the potting mix. Water, let drain. Plant seeds shallow, no deeper than 1/4 of an inch. To hasten germination, use a heating pad designed for seeds, such as a propagation mat. This will warm the soil to 70-75 degrees, which tomatoes need to germinate. Keep the soil mix moist. To prevent emerging seedlings from bending too much toward the sunny window, rotate the pots a quarter turn each day. If you are using grow lights, position the seedlings about 6 inches from the light source; keep the lights on 15-18 hours a day.

Movin' on up. When two or three sets of true leaves develop on the tomato seedling, you can transplant it to a bigger pot. This is especially helpful if you started your seeds in a flat or in a small peat pot, or the young stems are bending toward the light at a sharp angle. When transplanting to a bigger pot (preferably a 4-6 inch pot, but no larger than a one gallon container), prepare the new pot the same as before. However, don't fill the pot as full. Place the tomato seedling, with as much of the original soil as possible to avoid disturbing the roots, into a 1/3 to 1/2 filled pot. Then, add moistened soil mix all along the stem, up to the bottom set of leaves. If you are growing tomato seedlings in a flat, thin them out so that there are six inches between plants. This will lessen the chance of root entanglement and damping off, a fungus disease that kills young seedlings. Help your tomatoes develop a strong stem by running an oscillating fan nearby, on low, for about 10-15 minutes a day.

Timing is everything. Acclimate any indoor-grown tomato seedlings slowly to their new outdoor home; this lessens the shock to the plant, allowing it to grow at a quicker pace. About 10 days before setting out into its permanent garden home, place out during the day in a shady or semi-shady location; bring plants in at night.
Wall O' Water
Mid-Spring is Tomato Planting Time. Plant tomato transplants when the soil has warmed enough to keep the plant actively growing. In most of California, mid-April through early May is the optimum time to set tomato plants outdoors, unprotected, in a garden area that gets full sun. If you can't wait that long, protect those tender young plants with hot caps, row covers or "Walls of Water" - plastic, cone shaped enclosures that are filled with water which collect heat during the day, slowly releasing the heat at night. One criteria for determining when to plant tomatoes outdoors: wait for the overnight low temperatures to be consistently in the 50's.

Plant deeply. Place the tomato deep into the soil, clipping off the lower leaves and leaving only the top leaves and branches exposed. This will cause more roots to develop along the stem, speeding development.

Mulch? Yep! Surrounding your tomato plants with three inches of an organic mulch beneath the plants helps moderate soil temperature, reduces water evaporation, controls weeds and helps to feed the soil as it breaks down. Some gardeners use red plastic mulch beneath their tomato plants. A couple of university studies have shown that this can produce an earlier, bigger crop of tomatoes. Other studies indicate that the reduction of light spectrum that results with the use of red plastic mulch may stress the plant into producing most of its fruit earlier in the season, with reduced production in the late season. Your call.


Stake, stake, stake. Supported tomato plants produce more fruit and are subject to fewer problems. One of the best tomato support systems that can be used repeatedly for a number of years include "cages" made from concrete reinforcement wire. A  50-foot roll of this six-inch mesh, five feet-high wire can be cut to make about a half dozen tomato cages, each with a diameter of two to three feet. The six inch mesh allows for easy access at picking time. Stake and tie the cages to the ground, with one stake on either side of the cage.

Water carefully. Tomato plants like water on a regular basis, deeply, once or twice a week. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation work best. Regularly scheduled deep watering reduces plant stress, one of the causes for that mushy, black or brown discoloration on the bottom of tomatoes, called blossom end rot.

Fertilize regularly, but sparingly. Lightly feed the plants every other week with an organic fertilizer that lists vegetables on the label; or, use a synthetic, low-dosage balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or less, for example). Use half the recommended dosage when applying the fertilizer twice as often as the suggested intervals. This light, but more frequent feeding is especially beneficial for tomato plants in containers or quick-draining raised beds, where fertilizer tends to get washed out more often.



Pick, pick, pick. Don't let the fruit overripe on the vine; pick when fully firm and red. Hand picking is also the most potent control for mature tomato worms. If using chemical products, make sure the label states that hornworms are controlled by the product. Also available for hornworm control: a bacterial insecticide containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). If you spot a tomato horn worm with a patch of white on its back, let it be. Those patches of white are the eggs of the parasitic trichogramma wasp that eventually will do the dirty work, eating away at the host tomato worm.

The Tomato Dictionary.

Determinate: Tomato plants whose vines make little or no growth once fruit is set. Most of the fruit develops at the same time. A desirable trait for those wishing to can or process their crop. 

Indeterminate: Vines keep producing new shoots, blossoms and fruit throughout the growing season. 

V: A tomato variety with this letter listed after the name is resistant or tolerant to verticillium wilt. 

F: Tolerance to fusarium wilt. 

N: Nematode resistance.

T: resistance to tobacco mosaic virus. 


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Blueberries Grow Well in Containers



At our former residence, the blueberry harvest from our six plants was outstanding; there was plenty for us, as well as the birds (note: add netting). The six southern highbush varieties that we planted there included Sharp Blue, Jubilee, South Moon, Blue Ray,  Sunshine Blue and Misty. 

That was about 10 years ago. Since then, we've moved. However, there will always be room for blueberry plants in our yard. Now, we are in the process of choosing newer or preferred blueberry varieties. Time and experience has refined our blueberry taste buds and we are developing a more functional approach to blueberry culture (that's fancy talk for saying, "We want bigger blueberries. They're easier to pick!").


The development of southern highbush blueberry varieties is a boon for Central Valley gardeners, who must cope with hot summers and low chill winters.
According to the UC Cooperative Extension, rabbiteye blueberries grow in the southeastern part of the country and thrive in hot, humid weather but are not cold hardy. Lowbush blueberries grow in the northeastern states and Canada. Northern highbush blueberries grow from Florida to Maine and the northern tier states and have a high chilling requirement that limits their adaptability.  

Southern highbush blueberry varieties have a low-chill requirement and are heat tolerant. Although they are self-pollinating, blueberry fruit set will increase and berries will be larger if two varieties are planted together. Most varieties grow 4 to 6 feet tall here. A few, such as Sunshine Blue (3'), are more compact.

A UC Master Gardener variety trial in Santa Clara found that the following varieties grew the best, produced the biggest crops, and had good to excellent flavor: ‘Reveille’, ‘Misty’, ‘Sunshine Blue’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Georgia Gem’ and ‘O’Neal’ (a large berry variety). Other varieties that may also work well include ‘Blue Ray’, ‘Cape Fear’, ‘North Blue’, ‘Ozark Blue’, and ‘Sharp Blue’.


Closer to home, blueberry trials and taste tests done at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center by the Sacramento County Master Gardeners produced these 2015 results:
 (X** = taste test winners)

The southern highbush blueberries will thrive in containers, as long as you keep a few basics in mind:

• Plant blueberries in a good-sized container. You can start them off in five gallon containers, but a 15-gallon or larger is preferable. At our old place, we used galvanized steel watering troughs from the local farm supply store. The best paint to use turned out to be tractor paint. Blueberries need good drainage, so be sure to drill holes in the bottom and along the lower sides. Raise the troughs an inch or so off the ground to improve drainage. Use the holes along the lower sides to run drip irrigation tubing to water the plants with in-line emitters or microsprayers.



 


• Give the blueberries acidic soil. Use a one-third mix of potting soil intended for camellias and azaleas, 1/3 peat moss or coir, and 1/3 small landscape bark, along with a handful of soil sulfur. This will give the blueberries their ideal pH growing range of 5.5-5.8.

• Blueberries need consistently moist soil, but be sure the pot has good drainage.


Blueberry flowers
• Because containers can heat up here in the summer, place them where they can get some afternoon shade.

• Feed blueberries with an organic fertilizer. Apply during the blueberry-growing season, late winter through summer.
Organic fertilizers such as blood meal, cottonseed meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal can be applied at a rate of 1 pound per plant.

• Having several containers with different varieties will improve pollination and give you an extended harvesting season. If you want a sure choice, go with Sunshine Blue. Although a smaller shrub (about three feet tall, with small berries), it has very low winter chill requirements and tolerates higher pH soils better than other varieties.
Ripening Dates for San Joaquin Valley (source: UC ANR)


The University of California advises growers of blueberries in containers to replace the soil with fresh potting mix as well as root prune the plant every 3 to 4 years.

Pruning Blueberries. Even though most of the blueberry bushes intended for here only get about five feet tall, they would benefit from some judicious pruning. According to the American Horticulture Society book, "Pruning and Training", blueberries should be pruned in late winter, when the fruit buds are readily distinguishable. Prune back the shoots growing horizontally and any weak growth, cutting to an upright shoot or low bud. Prune out the oldest and weakest wood near the base of the plant to encourage strong new growth and remove any growth spreading out toward the ground. Cut out no more than a quarter of the bush annually.

However, as we know, all gardening is local. That pruning advice is intended as general guidelines for a nation of blueberry growers. What about the blueberry gardener here in the Central Valley?

Ed Laivo, of Four Winds Growers, has some different ideas, based on his own experience. "For our area, the southern highbush blueberry varieties are best," says Laivo. "Most advice refers to the northern highbush blueberry. The southern highbush blueberry is more tolerant of our heat and lower humidity, doesn't require as much winter chill and has been bred to be planted in the ground in full sun here."

Blueberry branches have a limited number of productive years, perhaps two or three. Laivo says to remove them after Year Two. "For major pruning, I wait until February, before the buds open," advises Laivo. "Then, I'll prune back the plant lightly after harvest to keep the plant in bounds."

Contrary to the advice in the American Horticulture Society book, Laivo says that the winter pruning can be as much as 50% of the plant. "But try to remove totally any branch that is over three years old. Those won't be very productive. By pruning those out, you'll spur new branch growth at the base."

And if a blueberry planting is in your future garden plans, Laivo says to get more than one. "Blueberries will yield a much bigger crop when paired with another variety," he says.
        
 

Laivo also advises planting blueberries in large containers, not in the ground. That way, you can give the plants the exact soil they need. "The trick is the soil mix," says Laivo. "Blueberries like a low pH around 5.5. And they like to grow in actively decomposing organic matter."



That's an important point for those who plant the southern highbush blueberries in the ground. Blueberries benefit by incorporating well-decomposed organic matter into the soil. And the best organic amendment? Compost. Blueberries are in the same family as azaleas and rhododendrons (Ericaceae); wherever those plants are thriving in your yard is probably a good location for the southern highbush blueberries.

In a year or two, your biggest concern after planting these shrubs may be: what can I do with all the fresh blueberries? You may want to invest in a vacuum sealer and a bigger freezer!


Sources for southern highbush blueberry information:
Dave Wilson Nursery