Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Try a Pluot for a Sweet Smile

    The mild days of spring 2009 are starting to make this summer a great one for luscious, sweet, homegrown fruit. The cherry crop was excellent; apricot aficionados are very happy; the blueberries here in the Central Valley of California are the best ever (“ever” being about a decade, since the introduction to our area of the southern highbush blueberry, which is much more heat tolerant along with a lower winter chill requirement).
And now appearing at farmer's markets, some supermarkets and ideally in a backyard garden near you: the pluot. This plum-apricot cross is probably the sweetest, juiciest fruit you can grow. Pluots have predominantly plum parentage and smooth skins like plums.

     The sweet taste of homegrown pluots is preferred by many to the taste of the varieties available in stores. In other words, the pleasant taste of a store-bought pluot does not do justice to biting into one, freshly picked from the backyard orchard. And that is especially true for the Flavor Supreme pluot (right).

    "When people see a pluot for the first time, they think it is just another plum," says Ed Laivo of Dave Wilson Nursery. "Then, they taste it and their eyes get wide. The wonderful flavor catches them totally off guard."

     Yes, Ed is a salesman. But what he says about first reactions to a pluot only hint at the excitement that the initial taste generates. It’s always a treat to take a box of home grown pluots, especially the Flavor Supreme pluot, into the radio stations and wait for the feedback . My favorite response this year: when a couple of the female news reporters bit into the pluot for the first time, they had, we shall say, an “animated reaction”. How animated? An engineer came running into the newsroom exclaiming, “Who’s having an orgasm in here?!?” 

     People like the pluot. Better than sex? Well, it is safer, and more nutritious, with three grams of dietary fiber per serving (as well as protein, carbohydrates, Vitamin A and everybody’s favorite, 15 grams of sugar). Please, feel free to insert your own joke here.

    The pluot was developed by Floyd Zaiger, who began tinkering with Luther Burbank’s hybrid, the plumcot. According to the Zaiger webpage, each year the Zaigers plant tens of thousands of new seedlings, each tree the result of a controlled cross of two parent trees from their vast inventory of breeding stock. Parent trees for seed and pollen are maintained in movable containers, allowing the Zaigers to accomplish a very large number of crosses each spring.

     Besides pluots, the Zaigers invented apriums and the peacotum (peach/apricot/plum hybrids). Also under development: white apricots, flat peaches and nectarines, albino selections and fuzzy plums. Promising selections from the primary seedling blocks are advanced for further evaluation by propagating the varieties onto rootstocks in secondary orchards. The cream of the crop varieties in the secondary orchards are evaluated each week during the fruit season by a team comprised of Zaiger personnel, industry experts and Dave Wilson Nursery representatives.

     In the annual taste tests held at the Dave Wilson Nursery growing grounds in Stanislaus County, the Flavor King, Dapple Dandy and Flavor Supreme pluots are consistent Top Ten favorites among all their tree-grown fruit.

    Backyard gardeners can extend their pluot harvest season by planting those three varieties, along with several new introductions. The Flavor Supreme was ready in late June. The Flavor Queen, a pluot with green-yellow skin and an amber-orange sweet flesh, can be harvested in mid-July through August. That's followed by the Dapple Dandy, then the Flavor King. The fruit from those trees are sure to please your summertime guests. Other delectable pluot varieties include Flavor Delight (which has an early June ripening dates), Geo Pride and Emerald Drop (late July), Flavor Grenade and Flavorich, which can produce fruit after Labor Day.

    Because they can be trimmed to stand no higher than seven feet tall, pluot trees don't require much backyard space. A sunny spot and weekly watering will suffice. Pluots can be pollinated by another pluot or a Japanese plum tree planted nearby. For a season long harvest of pluot varieties, check out this harvest calendar at Dave Wilson Nursery.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bachelor Pad Houseplants

     The term, "Bachelor Pad Houseplants", is more inclusive than you might believe. These are not just indoor plant suggestions for apartment-dwelling guys who are spending most of their free time at the computer, pirating the latest volume of "Girls Gone Wild". These houseplants are for everyone who claims to have accidentally killed every green plant ever purchased. They don't require much water (perhaps once every 10 days in the summer) and can take low light as well as fluctuating temperature conditions. These indoor plants are great for offices, too, where lights, heat and air condtioning are turned off for extended periods.

These plants also pass the Farmer Fred Benign Neglect Houseplant Test: they get watered, and showered...once a month. They live in a room that has enough natural daylight to comfortably read. But frankly, they don't read much; perhaps furtive glances at the photo layouts in "Pistil and Stigma Monthly". Fertilizer? Nope. But they start their indoor life in high quality potting soil with a bit of an organic, slow release fertilizer. That soil gets changed every few years…if I remember. And, they don’t complain, unlike that whiny pothos on Twitter.

Bachelor Pad Houseplants (Purple Thumb Plants, if you prefer): 

   The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum, pictured left) is a small to medium sized plant, with oblong, lance-shaped leaves 6-9 inches long and 2-3 inches wide. Among all the Chinese evergreens, look for the "Emerald Beauty". Avoid the "Silver Queen" variety, It can't take temperatures below 50 degrees.

 The dracaena (Dracaena deremensis, pictured right) grows as a single-stemmed plant, sending out long, narrow leaves all along the stem. Of the dracaena varieties, choose the "Janet Craig" or "Warneckii". You can go two to three weeks between waterings with these. In fact, watering more often could be detrimental.

The ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia, pictured left). A Southern Hemisphere relative of philodendrons, the ZZ plant has been described as "a houseplant with an attitude".  The roots, stem and leaves all store water, making it drought tolerant. We have one here that thrives on neglect in a south-facing window without the benefit of cheap sunglasses. However, reports indicate it could do just as well in an east or west-facing window, and perhaps facing north, as well. Or in La Grange.

Other bachelor pad houseplants:
Dracaena fragrans massangeana - corn plant
Aspidistra elatior - cast iron plant
Aucuba japonica Variegata - gold dust plant
Brassaia actinophylla - schefflera
Chamaedorea elegans - dwarf mountain palm
Cissus rhombifolia - grape ivy
Crassula argentea - jade plant
Cyrtomium falcatum - holly fern
Dieffenbachia amoena - giant dumbcane
Ficus  elastica - India rubber plant
Ficus lyrata - fiddleleaf fig
Howeia forsteriana - Kentia palm
Pandanus veitchii - screw pine
Peperomia obtusifolia - ovalleaf peperomia
Philodendron oxycardium - heartleaf philodendron
Podicarpus macrophylla - Japanese yew
Sansevieria - snake plant
Syngonium podophyllum - nephthytis

Bachelor Pad Houseplant Care Tips:

* When choosing houseplants, avoid those with no identification tag or simply say, "tropical plant". If they don't know what it is, how can you get help when problems arise?

* Before buying, check the plant on the underside of the leaves and in the crotch where the leaf meets the stem. That's where bugs tend to congregate. Avoid plants with brown-tipped leaves; that's a sign of improper watering or poor drainage.

* The easiest way to clean and water the plant is to take into the bathroom with you, and shower with a friend. Or, in the case of the Kentia palm, shower with a frond.

* Use a container that has drainage holes. Keep a pan (such as a microwave dinner dish) beneath it, with a layer of gravel (or styrofoam popcorn) to catch the runoff.

* Don't fertilize the plant from October through March, let it rest. During the spring and summer, fertilize lightly, if at all. Coffee grounds, applied as a mulch once a month, are OK. Just be sure to remove the coffee filter, or your potential girl friend may back out of the room, slowly.

* If the plant is on a window sill, rotate it every few days so it won't start bending in one direction. Great excuse when checking out your hot neighbor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pomato? Totato? Ask the Snarky Farmer!

 It's Friday and time for a trip to Snarkville, via the garden e-mail bag:

Richard writes:
"Hi Fred, I was wondering if you have ever heard of potatoes and tomatoes cross-pollinating.
I planted a 'Yukon Gold' potato and I was looking at the vine the other day and it seems to have clumps of small tomatoes.  I double checked to see if there was a tomato plant growing with the potatoes. Nope. The so-called tomatoes are still green, but if they ripen up, I will send you another note."

A pomato! Or is it a totato? Actually, according to Iowa State University, that next note you send may be from the hospital emergency room:
"Occasionally gardeners are surprised to find small, round, green, tomato-like fruit on their potato plants," says Richard Jauron of the Iowa State Horticulture Department. "These fruit are not the result of cross-pollination with tomatoes. They are the true fruit of the potato plant. The edible tubers are actually enlarged, underground stems. Normally, most potato flowers dry up and fall off the plants without setting fruit. A few flowers do produce fruit. The variety 'Yukon Gold' produces fruit more heavily than most varieties. The potato fruit are of no value to the gardener. Potato fruit, as well as the plant itself, contain relatively large amounts of solanine. Solanine is a poisonous alkaloid. The small fruit should not be eaten. Since potatoes don't come true from seed, no effort should be made to save the seed."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Garden Lessons Learned the Hard Way

As Grandpa Wicka used to say while repairing the tractor at the family farm outside Wibaux, Montana: "Education Costs Money." And that includes your garden education, as well. Here are three tips that took awhile (and not a few dollars) for me to learn:

Buying a wheelbarrow? Replace that inflatable tire with a foam filled tire. Yes, that foam-filled tire/wheel combination may set you back an extra $50, but you will never again have to worry about a flat tire. Or purchase new inner tubes. Or buy that gooey "fix-a-flat" stuff. Or spend your first ten minutes in the garden each day with the air pump. This goes double for any gardener with an extensively thorny berry patch, where wheeling that barrow can easily cause punctures.

Shopping for garden pruners? Buy quality pruning equipment, and shop at a store that also carries replacement parts for those pruners. And don't base your purchase on brand name alone. Felco, Corona, Fiskars and other manufacturers do make high quality (and high priced) pruners. But they also may produce inexpensive lines of pruners for the big box stores and chain stores. 

For example, that $2.37 bypass pruner by Fiskars may not have replaceable blades, a replaceable latch or even the ability to disassemble the unit for cleaning, sharpening and oiling. But the $34 bypass Fiskars do have a removable nut so that you can replace and clean the blades, as well as being a better design that may be more comfortable for extended use. The cheaper models might last a year; a good hand pruner by Felco or Corona can last a lifetime, with proper care. 

One other tip: for general pruning chores, choose bypass hand pruners instead anvil pruners. Anvil pruners crush the stem, and can leave a messy cut that may invite pests and disease if that branch is alive. Anvil pruners are fine for your cut flower garden (sealing the moisture in the stem until you get the flowers into a vase of water) or for removing completely dead branches.

When choosing your first drip irrigation system, buy it from a store that's going to be in business for a long time. That store will be your best source for add-ons and replacement parts for your particular system. An irrigation supply store is the best place to shop. Or, choose a reputable online irrigation store, such as Dripworks, based in Willits, California. 
There is no uniformity among manufacturers when it comes to their "half-inch tubing" sizes. The outside diameter of that half-inch mainline drip tubing can range from .620 to .710, depending on the manufacturer. Which means that shopping for fittings, such as couplers, can be a a daunting experience if you're shopping at a different store. The good news: there are universal couplers available that are adjustable to fit most half inch tubing. The bad news: in my experience, they break down after too many years in the sun. 

A tip: take a piece of your existing half inch tubing with you to the store, to make sure that the fittings (couplers, tees, elbows) you purchase will, indeed, fit. 

Another tip: note the color on the ends of the couplers, tees, and elbows that you already own and use. Buy the same color when shopping for more of those parts. Some couplings (as pictured above) allow you to join different sizes of half-inch drip pipe, or reduce from a three-quarter inch pipe to a half inch pipe. 

One more tip: Shopping for drip fittings and you don't have that spare piece of half-inch pipe with you? Let your finger be your guide. Stick your little finger into the opening of one of your existing couplers, tees or elbows. How far does your little finger slide in? Remember that point on your finger, and then you can shop for couplings by "trying them on". Another good reason to always carry hand sanitizer: it might help you get those couplings off your finger if they get stuck.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Horticultural Who's Who

When there's a bug sucking on your roses, when you're looking for just the right shrub for the north side of the house or when a new weed suddenly invades the vegetable garden, whom do you turn to for advice? 

Radio talk show hosts? Nursery employees? The Internet? Your neighbors? Each has its strengths and limitations. Advice from a radio garden show is just a phone call away, but the inability to see your problem is a distinct disadvantage. Searching computer web sites and newsgroups for specific information can be time consuming, confusing and frustrating. Nursery employees can help you out, providing they're knowledgeable about your situation and not just trying to sell you something you don't really need.

    The horticultural profession is populated with experts with varying titles. Here's a partial "Who's Who" of knowledgeable garden folks here in California:

* California Certified Nursery Professional (CCN Pro): a retail nursery person who has passed an exam given by the California Association of Nurserymen. Areas of expertise include plant problems and identification as well as landscape planning. Usually, every nursery has one on staff and is the one to seek out for answers.

* Horticultural Consultants: Provide on-site identification, diagnostic and cultural advice and recommendations. Usually have college degrees in Horticulture as well as experience in the field. Closely related specialties include arborists (tree experts certified by the International Society of Arboriculture) and pest control advisors (licensed by the state Dept. of Pesticide Regulation).

* Landscape Architect: Concerned primarily with the design, form and function of land areas. Must have a state Landscape Architect License. Suited best for helping you formulate and implement the overall picture for your yard.

* Landscape Designer: Can provide you with ideas and a blueprint for your yard. You, though, provide the manual labor.

* Landscape Contractor: Skilled in the installation techniques of plants, irrigation systems, fences, decks and patios.

* Master Gardener: a community volunteer who is trained, tested and certified by the University of California Cooperative Extension in plant science, horticulture and gardening techniques.  Locally, Sacramento County Cooperative Extension-based Master Gardeners provide free information weekdays on the telephone, at (916) 875-6913.

* The Internet. A few of my favorite horticultural reference sites.

And that picture above? A closeup of parasitized aphids. Those holes on the backs of some of those dead aphids is where the baby parasitic wasps emerged. A victory for the garden good guys! The picture was taken by a listener to the radio shows, Irene Isolde, who used her Olympus SP 550 UZ with the super macro setting selected. A victory for point and shoot cameras!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Nursery's Biggest Competitor may be a Warehouse in Nevada...

 One of my favorite blogs is Trey Pitsenberger's "The Blogging Nurseryman".  Pitsenberger, owner of the Golden Gecko Nursery in Garden Valley, California, waxes rhapsodic on the ups and downs of owning a small nursery in an out of the way location (Garden Valley, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California, is about halfway between Georgetown and Lotus...as if that is of any help to you who are not familiar with the area!). About an hour's drive away from Sacramento, along curving, steep roads, Golden Gecko Nursery serves a rural population whose closest shopping areas would include Placerville and Auburn.

In his blog of last week, Pitsenberger wrote about the increase in business for his nursery this spring, thanks to the renaissance of the backyard vegetable garden and his emphasis on organic fertilizers and pesticides. And the biggest favorable variable of all: the weather. Here in Northern California, it has been a fantastic spring. Not too hot, not too stormy, with mild nights, perfect for getting plants growing...and perfect for attracting customers to nurseries.

Gardeners will always want to "kick the tires" when it comes to plant selection. They want to see, touch, smell and admire any vegetable transplant, annual, perennial, shrub or tree before they buy it.
But when it comes to garden hard goods, especially pest control products and tools, more and more gardeners, especially rural gardeners, are shopping for price...and shopping online.

That's why I think it was a smart move on Pitsenberger's part to mention in his blog that his nursery's price for Sluggo Plus is the same as online retailing behomoth Amazon.com: $11.99.

Sluggo Plus is the latest advance in snail control from Monterey Chemicals. Sluggo's organic (and pet safe) active ingredient is iron phosphate, which is deadly to snails and slugs. Sluggo Plus has the added benefit of controlling earwigs due to the addition of a product derived from the naturally occurring, soil-dwelling bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa, commonly known as spinosad. And that, folks, is an unsolicited plug for a product that I use...because it is safe, and it works.

More nurseries should consider posting their prices for garden goods when they can meet or beat Amazon's.  And that might be easier than you think, if you dig a little deeper into their pricing structure.

Amazon has the advantage of not charging sales tax. By shipping from their Nevada warehouse and not setting up shop in California, Amazon does not legally have to charge sales tax at this time (that could change...soon, here in budget-busted California). And, although Amazon (and a few other online retailers) may offer free shipping for some of their product lines, it pays for nurseries to dig a little deeper into Amazon's garden offerings...because the hidden shipping fees that Amazon's partners might charge may be the tipping point to the favor of the small nursery.

For example, consider that $11.99 price point for Sluggo Plus that Golden Gecko and Amazon are charging. It is actually one of Amazon's vendor/partners, GreenSense, that is offering that one pound box of Sluggo Plus for $11.95 (as of 6/22/09). Go a little further into the online ordering process, and you find that there is a $5.89 charge for shipping! So, Pitsenberger is actually BEATING the Amazon price, even with the addition of California's 8.25% sales tax in El Dorado County.

Also consider the shipping delays when ordering online: three to five days before the product might ship (at the lowest rate). Shopping at a nursery, the customer gets instant gratification. Those snails and earwigs can do a lot of damage in a week while the online shopper is waiting for the Sluggo!

So often, small nurseries turn their wrath towards the big box stores. But their biggest competitor might be sitting on a desk in every gardener's home...the personal computer. But by picking out those products where they can beat their online competition on price...including shipping charges...and trumpeting those bargains in their store, nurseries can make gardeners think twice before ordering online, and bring them back into the nursery.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Garden Math Made Easy (yeah, right!)

Outdoor chores frequently involve mathematical calculations. How much mulch do I need for the garden bed? How do I know when I have applied an inch of water to my lawn? And most importantly, how much beer do I need for tonight's barbecue party? 
For those of us who are number-impaired, here are some quick tips:
Keep a few measuring devices handy in the garage. 
They include: a retractable tape ruler, preferably one that extends 25 feet or more; a small, battery operated calculator; a bathroom scale; a set of measuring spoons; a measuring cup; a small container that measures tablespoons and/or ounces, such as the ones that come with cough syrup; and, a two-gallon plastic bucket.
Since some of these will be used to measure garden chemicals, be sure to label each for garden use only.

For those of you with big bags of lawn fertilizer (but small lawn areas), use the bucket and scale to weigh out the amount of lawn fertilizer to correctly apply. To calculate how much you need: Divide the weight of the full fertilizer bag by the bag's listed coverage area (in square feet); multiply that answer by the square footage of your lawn.

For example: an 18 pound bag of fertilizer with a coverage area of 2,000 square feet; and, a 750 square foot lawn (this is why you need the calculator). 18/2000=0.009.  750 x.009= 6.75 lbs. Weigh out between six and seven pounds of fertilizer for your lawn, accounting for the weight of the bucket on the scale.

Other handy garden formulas:
• To determine the area of your yard, multiply the length by the width (both in feet). The answer will be in square feet.
• To determine the diameter of a circle (such as a tree trunk): circumference divided by 3.14. To measure the circumference of a tree trunk, wrap a fabric tape measure (or a piece of string) once around the trunk, about waist high.
• To determine the area of a circle: 3.14 times the radius squared. When measuring the area beneath a tree, the radius can be calculated by extending the ruler from the trunk to the drip line (the furthest extension of the tree branches).
• Approximately one cubic yard of mulch will cover 100 square feet with three inches of mulch. A more exact formula: Area (in square feet) times depth of mulch or compost you want to apply (in inches) divided by 324 will give you the number of cubic yards to purchase.
• 27 cubic feet equal one cubic yard.
• Three teaspoons equal one tablespoon. Two tablespoons equal one ounce. 16 tablespoons (eight ounces) equal one cup.
Lawns in the Central Valley and low foothills need about an inch and a half to two inches of water per week in the summer, divided into two or three waterings per week. 

To determine how much water your sprinklers are putting out: 
• Position 6 to 10 flat-bottomed, same sized containers around your lawn. Use drinking glasses, Tupperware, tuna fish or cat food cans; containers with taller sides will keep the water from splashing out. Put some in the greenest areas; put some in the areas that are struggling. 
• Turn on your sprinklers for 30 minutes. Then, measure the amount of water in each container. There should not be more than a quarter-inch difference among all the containers. If there is, readjust or add to your sprinklers to hit those areas that aren't getting as much water. If, on average, you are getting a half-inch of water per container during that 30 minute test, then you need to water your lawn for two hours a week in the summer, to put two inches of water on your lawn. In this example, you would water your lawn twice a week, for an hour each time. 
• You may need to adjust this timing if you see water streaming off the lawn. In that case, reduce the amount of time the sprinklers are on at any one time. Then, add a second cycle a few hours later. 
• It is best to water with rising temperatures, which in the summer, is from about 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. Earlier is better.
And if you see a newspaper article that mentions acre-feet of water and household use, do the math to check them.

* One acre-foot of water represents the needs of about four average California families, in the home and landscape for one year (average daily usage in California is 192 gallons per family; in meter-resistant, hot-summer cities such as Sacramento and Fresno, the total jumps to 280 gallons per family). 

An acre-foot covers 1 acre of land 1 foot deep.
1 acre-foot of water = 43,560 cubic feet = 325,900 gallons
1 cubic foot of water = 7.48 Gallons = 62.4 pounds of Water
1 million gallons per day = 1,120 acre-feet per year

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Nectarines Taste Like Listerine? Here's When to Pick Fruit

Are your cherries making your mouth feeling less than cheery? Do your plums leave you with puckered lips? Then it's 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 and berries 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 - 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.
We'll cover citrus harvesting in a future blog. Promise. But if you can't wait, check out this citrus information from Four Winds Growers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: Ask the Snarky Farmer!

Once again, we delve into that land of garden mysteries, Ask the Snarky Farmer!

Mary of Sacramento wants to know:
Hey! Mr. Garden Master: I need a low maintenance ground cover for 500 sq. ft. 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? 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.

OK, I'm better now (thank you, Bowmore!). Bermuda grass needs to be mowed regularly, needs regular water in the spring and summer 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!

Here is some more info from my website about planting under oaks:
Oak trees that thrive here in the Valley, especially the native blue oak, coast live oak, interior live oak and the ubiquitous valley oak, are a definite plus in anyone's home landscape. Their statuesque beauty is complemented by the variety of tasks they perform, including providing screening, shade, protection from wind and serving as a wildlife habitat.

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 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. 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 (below, left), yarrow, California poppy (below, right) and lupine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Your Lawn and God

Imagine a conversation The Creator might have with St. Francis, after viewing this on his heavenly computer:

"Frank you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in California? What happened to the poppies, penstemons, lupines and oak trees I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracted butterflies, honey bees, beneficial insects and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles."

"It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The suburbanites. They started calling your flowers 'weeds' and went to great extent to kill them and replace them with grass."

"Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?"

"Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn."

"The spring rains and cool weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy."

"Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it. Sometimes twice a week."

"They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?"

"Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags."

"They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?"

"No, sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away."

"Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?"

"Yes, I am afraid so."

"Well, then, these Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work."

"You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, the Suburbanites turn on their sprinklers and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it."

"What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil for the trees and bushes. Plus, as the leaves are decomposed by the soil-dwelling microbes, they make nutrients to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life."

"You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and have them hauled away."

"No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and keep the soil moist and loose?"

"After throwing away your leaves, they go out and buy something they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves."

"And where do they get this mulch?"

"They cut down trees and grind them up."

"Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore!
Saint Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?"

"Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It's a real stupid movie about..."

"Never mind… I think I just heard the whole story!"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tomato Pollination Troubles

     Backyard gardeners are fretting these days about their long-awaited favorite summer crop, the tomato. Some are waiting for those green orbs to turn into the first juicy, red "love apple" of the season. Other vegetable growers would be happy to see any sort of fruiting action on their bare tomato vines. 

     Dennis e-mails us with a typical tomato concern this time of year:
    "I've got five tomato plants, and they are all doing very well, except that I have noticed that on at least a couple of them the flowers have fallen off. Does that sound like a pest to you or possibly a watering issue?"

    Tomato blossom drop is fairly common in mid to late spring. Sometimes it's because the weather isn't cooperating. If it's too cool (night time temperatures below 50 degrees) or too hot (daytime highs over 90), those young tomato flowers will fall. This situation should rectify itself.

    But there can be other factors as to why those tomato blossoms are falling, according to Gary Hickman, University of California Horticulture Advisor.

    "One common problem is the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer, " says Hickman. "This plant nutrient keeps the vine vigorous and a nice dark green color. However, when in the vegetative part of its growth, the tomato plant does not produce flowers and therefore no fruit. The simple solution is to cut back on the nitrogen and flowering should follow."

    Another common mistake of some gardeners is to plant the garden in too much shade. "Since most producing vegetable plants do best in full, day-long sun, anything less will often result in less fruits and vegetables," advises Hickman. "Remember that a plant in the sun will probably need more water than one grown in the shade. This does not mean to water more often, but to water more deeply when you do irrigate. This will help prevent a water stress to the plant, another common reason for a poor tomato crop."

    There are several commercial hormone sprays available to improve tomato fruit set. However, if the problem is high daytime temperatures, even these sprays will not help. All you can do is wait and hope that the weather cools.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Good Vibrations Garden

     When the Beach Boys sang about "pickin' up Good Vibrations" back in 1966, they were harmonizing about their girl friends. But if they had been studying the Chinese art of placement - Feng Shui (pronounced Fung Shway) - they would know that picking up good vibrations could be as easy as planting the correct tree in a particular corner of the yard.

     Feng Shui, whose adherents believe that a harmoniously arranged yard and house can be beneficial, has been practiced in the Far East for thousands of years. Only recently have Westerners begun studying these teachings.
     In Feng Shui, the goal is to create peace and serenity, according to its believers. Good Feng Shui also can attract health, prosperity and harmonious relationships. It can create an environment to increase your success in life.

Some examples:

• An arbor over an entryway encourages the flow of positive energy (chi).

• Plant trees in multiples of three, a very favorable number. If you don't have room, then hang three bird feeders in a single tree.

• Tree leaves symbolize vitality; so, evergreen trees are preferable.

• Want to get the money rolling in? Plant a pine tree (three if you have the room) in your "wealth" corner; that's the left corner of the back yard.

• The right corner of the back yard is auspicious for marriage; plant a tree there to enhance your partnership in life or to get along better with bosses and fellow employees.

• Inside the house, large-leafed or round-leafed houseplants can be beneficial. Place three houseplants per room or three in the entire house.

• Stay away from narrow-leafed or spine-leafed houseplants which can direct too much energy through the room. In Feng Shui, this is known as "negative chi".

• According to the book, Basic Feng Shui: "Activate the dragon in your garden by creating curved pathways." (In this case, dragons are good. Normally, the only use for a dragon in your yard would be to light the barbecue).

• Don't have sickly plants in the house or yard. Cut down dead or dying trees and cover the stumps with ivy. Those dying plants, trees and stumps represent a life force that is going away.

• Troublesome neighbors across the street? Plant three trees between your house and theirs to keep the bad energy away.

• Properly placed water features, especially ponds or bird baths, encourage good chi. Moving water brings good luck. But not swimming pools. From the book, Basic Feng Shui: "Having a large body of water so close to the house can cause severe Feng Shui problems....if it is located in the South (portion of a yard), it will severely hurt the good name of the residents." As well as the back and shoulder muscles of middle aged people attempting to play pool volleyball.

 • From that same publication: do not live at the end of a dead end street. The bad chi has nowhere else to go. Do not live with your main door directly facing the road. High speed chi...not good. High speed Camaro: good.

Click here for more on Feng Shui gardening from CBS News.

Even if you think Feng Shui is a pile of crap (according to the Penn and Teller show, "Bullshit!"), it still makes good sense to plant trees, chi or no chi.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Men Prefer Gardening to Sex?

      Gardening, as we know, is good for the body and the soul. And, it may also have other natural enhancement benefits. A study from Europe suggests that gardening may be a cure for erectile dysfunction. But what good is that if Smilin' Bob enjoys irrigating more than fornicating?

      According to an article in the June 17, 1999 Sacramento Bee, men prefer gardening to sex. The study, funded by Home and Garden Television, found that 52% of male "home enthusiasts" prefer working in the yard, gardening and landscaping to having sex (47%).

Further research done by the Farmer Fred Institute uncovered 12 reasons why:
• Anytime of the month is OK for gardening.
• You're more likely to hear your wife say, "Good job!"
• Filling gas engine constitutes foreplay.
• Don't have to lie down in "wet spots".
• Gardening tools are more widely available than those other "tools".
• HGTV less expensive than Playboy Channel.
• Fondling flowers in public is OK.
• "Extra hands" in the garden don't require batteries.
• After gardening, you don't have to go get towels.
• It's the only way you'll ever see your wife wearing kneepads.
• Brushing dirt off overalls is easier than removing hair from mouth.
• Vibrating lawn dethatcher handles!

Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12: Ask the Snarky Farmer!

Fridays, we delve into the garden e-mail bag....Ask the Snarky Farmer!
     Ted writes: "I was out early this morning squashing snails. I understand that the snail eggs may still be able to hatch after stepping on them. I was wondering if small snails are carrying eggs as well?"
    Slugs and snails are hermaphrodites, meaning they all have the potential to lay eggs without the need beforehand for a dinner and a movie to get them in the mood. Only adult snails - about two years old - lay eggs. A slug reaches maturity at about five months of age. But they really get busy when it's egg-laying  time. Snails can lay up to 80 eggs at a time, and they do that six times a year. Slugs lay eggs in batches of three to forty eggs. And yes, those eggs may still hatch, despite having a squashed mama. Your best course of action when you find snails and slugs hiding under boards, leaves and that pile of black plastic garden containers behind the garage: bag 'em and trash 'em. Also, there are now pet-friendly snail control pellets available. Look for the active ingredient, iron phosphate.

     Nancy asks: "I have been listening to your 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.

     Natalie and Jay say: "Hi there Farmer Fred! Listen to your shows 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, the better...for citrus.
4. Fumes from the Atomic Cocktails.

Atomic Cocktail

It's the drink that you don't pour
Now when you take one sip you won't need anymore
You're small as a beetle or big as a whale-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

Splashes ice all around the place
When you see it coming, grab your suitcase
It'll send you through the sky like airmail-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

You push a button, turn a dial
Your work is done for miles and miles
When it hits-it's bound to shake 'cause it feels just like an earthquake.

That's the drink that you don't pour
When you take one sip you won't need anymore
You're small as a beetle or big as a whale-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

Atomic Cocktail: Slim Gaillard [1946]
Words and music by Slim Gaillard
Atomic, Inc. [ Hollywood, CA.] A-215-A
Recorded 12/15/45 | Length: 2:39 | 78RPM

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Garden Myths Quiz

     Why should your kids have all the fun this time of year in school? Here's your end of the semester, Garden Finals Quiz. All answers are true or false:

1. Vitamin B-1 aids in reducing transplanting shock for new trees and shrubs. 

2. Don't plant trees in the summer.

3. Landscape trees need annual applications of a nitrogen fertilizer to stay green and healthy.

4. You have to buy new seeds for flowers and vegetables every year.

5. The only fertilizer your new bulbs need at planting time is bone meal.

6. The mounds of dirt created by earthworms are harmful to your lawn.

7. Water your lawn every day in the summer.

1. False. University research has shown that Vitamin B-1, by itself, does not reduce transplant shock. It's the other ingredients in that container, the small amounts of fertilizer, that do the job. 

Save your money and just use a diluted, complete liquid fertilizer at planting time.

2. False. If you plant a tree correctly, water it regularly while it is getting established and use a mulch to conserve moisture as well as cool the soil, a summer-planted tree will grow.
3. False. In tests conducted by University of California Cooperative Extension agents, applications on newly planted and established landscape trees of quick release fertilizers or slow release fertilizer showed no growth difference compared to trees where no fertilizer was added. The key, though: start with a healthy soil before planting. Add compost throughout the area. Top with several inches of an organic mulch.
4. False. Stored properly in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark location (such as under your bed or in the vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator) most seeds can remain viable for two or three years, perhaps longer. Exceptions include high water content seeds, such as corn.
5. False. Bone meal is just one element, phosphorus. A better choice at bulb planting time: a complete, balanced fertilizer that contains not only phosphorus, but also nitrogen, potassium and necessary micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, manganese and iron.
6. False. Earthworms are actually improving your lawn. They aerate the soil and add nutritious compost via the castings (the mounds) they leave behind. If you find the mounds unsightly, just rake them down back into the soil.
7. False. Lawns only need to be watered two or three times a week in the summer. Just be sure to water deeply.
0-3 correct: Add these two excellent garden references to your reading list: the Sunset Western Garden Book and the California Master Gardener Handbook. (find out more about these books on the links to the left, "Farmer Fred's Brains in a Box: Recommended Garden Books".

4-5 correct: Your thumbs are well on their way to being totally green.

6-7 correct: You probably have the healthiest yard on your street!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Prune Tomato Flowers? No!

One question I have been getting a lot of lately: Should I prune off  (snip off, pinch out) the first tomato flowers that appear, in order to get more tomatoes later?

Those early tomato flowers, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate, will fall all by themselves, thank you. Your assistance is not needed.

Flower drop and tomato fruit set failure can happen in May and June for a number of reasons, including night temperatures below 55; daytime temperatures above 90; excess nitrogen fertilizer, too much shade, too much smog, plants set out too early in spring, or planting the wrong variety for your area (Beefsteaks and San Francisco is not a match made in heaven).

However, by removing those flowers once they are in a situation where they can be pollinated successfully, what is accomplished by removing those flowers? FEWER TOMATOES! And, unless you are trying to stop production, it would be counterproductive to your ultimate goal: shoving that beautiful red orb into the face of your non-gardening neighbor on the Fourth of July, singing, “Nyah, nyah, nyah!”

Wow, where did this fallacy begin? One caller to the radio show offered a clue when he prefaced that question with, “Last night, the local TV Weatherman said…”

Bad move, taking gardening advice from a person who guesses for a living.

Still, that piece of  poor advice must have some historic legs to it. And sure enough, there are many people at Internet gardening forums who are passing on this wrong-headed notion. And as far as I can tell, it’s the result of one gardener reading a piece of university-based research on tomato pruning, and mangling the retelling of that research.

For example, Texas A and M University offers these tips for tomatoes:

"Greenhouse/Hydroponic Tomato Culture (winter)
Single crop rotation-seeded in July or by early August.  Transplants set in greenhouse within 10 to 30 days of seeding.  Harvest begins from 85 to 100 days following date of seeding and continues into June or early July.  Cessation of pollination is six weeks before  termination of the crop.  Growing point is allowed to grow for at least five to seven leaves  above last fruit truss to help prevent sunburned fruit.  Remove flower buds above last fruit  truss to assure no additional fruit set."

Gardener A reads this, and then retells the story to Gardener B, omitting the fact that these were WINTER tomatoes grown in a GREENHOUSE, HYDROPONICALLY. Gardener B then tells Gardener C: “Pruning tomato flower buds is recommended by Texas A and M.” Gardener C then goes online and writes: “Remove flower buds on tomato plants to increase the number of tomatoes.”

Or something like that. And another digital gardening virus is born.

When and how should you prune tomatoes?
Very little, only when necessary, to keep the plants within bounds. If you grow your tomatoes in cages (recommended), you would only need to remove those branches that escape and are threatening to wrap itself around a nearby pepper plant.

If you grow your tomatoes using stakes for support, you may need to do some pruning, according to the University of California:

“Staked tomato plants usually require pruning to a few main stems. At the junction of each leaf and the first main stem, a new shoot will develop. Choose one to three of these shoots, normally at the first and second leaf-stem junction, for the additional main stems. Once a week, pinch off most of the other shoots, called suckers, with your fingers, to keep the plants from becoming to large for their support.”

And, it should be pointed out, that if you follow those pruning guidelines for staked tomatoes, you are sacrificing about 25% of your eventual tomato crop. Yet another good argument to cage, not stake your tomatoes. Cages can be made from sheets or rolls of concrete reinforcement wire with a six inch mesh (the six inch opening makes it easier to reach those tomatoes). The sheets are usually 42” by 84”. Snip off the vertical bars on one of the 42” ends, bend it into a circle, attach the horizontal arms from the snipped end around the other  42” side and you have a tomato cage that’s 42” tall and about 27” in diameter. And it will last for decades. Want a bigger cage? Turn the sheet sideways, snip one of the long ends, bend it into a circle, and you have a cage that’s 84 inches tall and about a foot wide. But I would only do that if I am trying to grow tomatoes as per the instructions of a square foot garden.

Cornell University says hacking back your tomato plants is not necessary:

“…you can grow perfectly fine fruit without pruning your plants. But if you want to prune, here are a few guidelines. For determinate types, there is no need to prune at all. For indeterminate types, allow one, two, or three suckers to grow from the base of the plant. Each of these will become a main stem with lots of flowers and fruit. Prune off all the others suckers and provide the plants with strong support. Research has shown that the best time to remove suckers is when they are about 3 to 4 inches long. For the semi-determinate types, limit your pruning. When the plant is 8 - 10 inches high, look carefully and observe the first flower cluster on the stem. Remove all the suckers below the flower cluster except for the one immediately below the cluster. You may have to go back and give these a second pruning 7 to 10 days later. Remove no more than that or you run the risk of pruning too much. The amount of pruning among these varieties to produce optimum yields varies. Some varieties would do better if you left 2 suckers below the flower cluster. Experiment and see which works best for the variety you are growing.”

The book, 
“Ortho’s All About Tomatoes”, puts in more succinctly, quoting the late Dr. Phillip Minges of Cornell: “Tomato yields per plant may be lowered by pruning. Removing the leaves or shoots does not conserve food for the crop, it tends to reduce the total food supply…use training methods that require little pruning.”

A final hint when searching for garden answers on the Internet. Be leery of advice from gardening forums, unless that advice is linked to a study or research that you can also access. When using a search engine, include the words to identify a prominent agricultural school where the advice is reviewed by multiple parties before publication: UC (University of California), WSU (Washington State), Cornell, TAMU (Texas and M), etc.
For example Googling the phrase “tomato worm UC” will lead you to the University of California Integrated Pest Management website first. If you were to just enter the words, “tomato worm”, well…good luck.

Now, if only I could figure out how to (on my Mac, using Firefox) move the images in Blogger to where I want them....