Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This Blog is for the Birds

They're nice to look at, sing wonderfully and eat insects. 

No, we're not talking about the Dixie Chicks on a fad diet.

It's the gardener's best friends, a backyard filled with birds.

No, not Bill and Venus. Although they are accomplished gardeners/writers, the Birds, publishers of the Sacramento Vegetable Gardening blog, limit their insect consumption to whatever is inhabiting their harvested fruit. Or drink.

We're talking about the family inhabited by warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrates, characterized by feathers and forelimbs modified as wings.

Yes, real birds will nibble on your cherries and grapes (that's why there's bird netting), but birds can help control the bad bug population in your garden, especially tomato hornworms, cabbage loopers and redhumped caterpillars.

Birds also control the spread of weeds by eating the seeds of unwanted plants; bigger birds, such as owls and hawks, will swoop down and devour rodents.


Birds require little in return from you for their labors: trees and shrubs for shelter, perhaps some berry-filled plants (cotoneaster, pyracantha, toyon and more) and fresh water.

    Birds aren't too particular about their watering sites. All they are looking for is a shallow pan, about two to three feet wide and no more than three inches deep, with sloping sides so they can ease their way in, placed in an area away from fence tops and foliage where they can keep an eye out for their main predator, Mr. Kitty.

    A birdbath can be as elegant as a thousand dollar, terracotta fountain with a waterfall; or, as simple as an old metal garbage can lid placed on the ground.

    Here are some tips for keeping the thirsty birds happy:

• Keep the birdbath water fresh and filled during hot weather. On freezing mornings, adding hot water can help break up the thin sheet of ice.

• Clean out birdbaths with a powerful jet of water from the hose; or, use a plastic scouring pad.

• Do not add chemicals, such as bleach, to control algae. Do not add antifreeze to keep ice from forming. If you must use bleach to clean an algae-filled birdbath, cover it with screening for a few hours to keep the birds away. Empty and rinse the birdbath after that and refill with fresh water.

• Birds are attracted by the sound of gently moving water. A simple drip irrigation mini-sprinkler installed adjacent to the birdbath will be a popular addition. Hanging a dripping bucket in a tree above a bird bath can attract birds, too.

• An exposed rock placed in the middle of birdbaths with straight edges give birds a place to land and check things out.

• If the only area you can place a birdbath is near dense shrubbery, it is important to put the bath on a pedestal for their protection.
• Situate birdbaths in areas where you can enjoy them, near a faucet for easy cleaning and filling.

• Then, sit back and enjoy the show!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's Acorn Planting Time

It's been a "mast" year for acorn-producing oak trees. Acorns falling from the oaks are more numerous than in typical years. This fall is a great opportunity for gardeners with room for big trees to grab a bucket and start gathering. 

Acorns can be collected from the ground or harvested from oak trees, by shaking a branch with a pole. Generally, the healthiest acorns are those that are picked from trees.

Take the caps off the acorns and put the acorns in a bucket of water overnight. Keep only those that sink to the bottom. The floaters are probably damaged by insects or squirrels. 

At this point you can either plant the acorns directly into their permanent garden home, into one gallon or larger containers in a planting mix or store them for up to six months in a cool, dry place, wrapped in a bag with peat moss. A refrigerator is ideal.

Planting acorns directly into the yard now is best. Oaks quickly develop long tap roots; if allowed to remain too long in a container, the roots will quickly grow out the bottom of the pot. At transplanting time, these seedlings may die off if the roots are cut off. If you're starting oaks in containers, transplant them as soon as you see the first fully developed set of leaves.

All oaks like full sun; choose a planting area that also has good drainage. If planting acorns in the ground, loosen a wide area a few inches deep. Then plant the acorn either with the tip pointed down or sideways, about an inch deep. 

If planted now, normal fall and winter rains may be all the water that acorn seedling needs to get off to a good start. Water the new tree deeply but sparingly during the dry season, perhaps once every two weeks.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Snails, Slugs Update

The UC IPM Online Program has updated their information on snail and slug control in the garden. Here's the complete report. 

The report reinforces much of what you already know about snails and slugs, as well as how to control them. But there are some interesting twists, including:

Copper Sulfate repels snails and slugs.
"Instead of copper bands, Bordeaux mixture (a copper sulfate and hydrated lime mixture) or copper sulfate alone brushed onto trunks will repel snails. One treatment should last about a year. Adding a commercial spreader or white latex paint can help the Bordeaux mixture remain effective for two seasons."

There are snail and slug-resistant plants!
"On the other hand, many plants resist snail and slug damage including begonias, California poppy, fuchias, geraniums, impatiens, lantana, nasturtiums, and purple robe cup flower as well as many plants with stiff leaves and highly scented foliage such as lavender, rosemary, and sage. Most ornamental, woody plants, and ornamental grasses also aren’t seriously affected. If you design your landscape using snail and slug resistant plants, you are likely to have very limited damage."

And these are the plants they enjoy the most: 
"Because they prefer succulent foliage or flowers, they primarily are pests of seedlings and herbaceous plants, but they also are serious pests of ripening fruits that are close to the ground such as strawberries, artichokes, and tomatoes. They also will feed on foliage and fruit of some trees; citrus are especially susceptible to damage. Look for the silvery mucous trails to confirm slugs or snails caused the damage and not earwigs, caterpillars, or other chewing insects."
"Some plants these pests will seriously damage include basil, beans, cabbage, dahlia, delphinium, hosta, lettuce, marigolds, strawberries, and many other vegetable plants."

Another reason to turn off the sprinklers and turn on to drip: 
"Switching from sprinkler irrigation to drip irrigation will reduce humidity and moist surfaces, making the habitat less favorable for these pests"

Shopping for snail bait? The advice remains the same: Choose iron phosphate over metaldehyde.
"Baits containing the active ingredient metaldehyde are most common; however, metaldehyde baits are particularly poisonous to dogs and cats, and the pelleted form is especially attractive to dogs. Don’t use metaldehyde snail baits where children and pets could encounter them. Avoid getting metaldehyde bait on plants, especially vegetables. Some metaldehyde products are formulated with carbaryl, partly to increase the spectrum of pests controlled such as soil- and debris-dwelling insects, spiders, and sowbugs. However, carbaryl is toxic to earthworms and soil-inhabiting beneficial insects such as ground beetles, so it is better to avoid using snail baits containing carbaryl."

"Iron phosphate baits—available under many trade names including Sluggo and Escar-Go—have the advantage of being safe for use around children, domestic animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife, making them a good choice for an integrated pest management program in your garden. Ingesting even small amounts of the bait will cause snails and slugs to stop feeding, although it can take several days for the snails to die. You can scatter the bait on lawns or on the soil around any vegetable, ornamental, or fruit tree that needs protection. Iron phosphate baits can be more effective against snails than slugs overall and more effective than metaldehyde during periods of higher humidity. Snails and slugs tend to hide before they die, so you won’t see scattered empty shells or dead snails and slugs as you would if treating them with metaldehyde."

"The timing of any baiting is critical; baiting is less effective during very hot, very dry, or cold times of the year, because snails and slugs are less active during these periods. Irrigate before applying a bait to promote snail activity, and apply the bait in the late afternoon or evening. Sprinkle bait around sprinklers, close to walls and fences, or in other moist and protected locations, or scatter it along areas that snails and slugs cross to get from sheltered areas to the garden."

Saturday, November 7, 2009


The following are highlights from a Fair Oaks Horticulture Center Workshop presentation by Master Gardeners Caroline Hathaway and Cathy Coulter. Also see the UC/ANR publication, "Frost Protection for Citrus and Other Subtropicals."

Before a frost:
1. Identify cold spots in landscape by monitoring with thermometers. 
2. Identify plants at risk: citrus, succulents, tender perennials, tropical and subtropical plants.

3. Have supplies ready: sheets or frost cloths, lights, wraps for trunks, thermometers, stakes or framework to hold covers off foliage.

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

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

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

Some terms you might hear:

Local frost: clear, dry nights; but, it usually warms up during the day.
Hard freeze: temperature inversion or Arctic front, can last for days/weeks, very damaging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds, Bees and Beneficials

One of my favorite blogs is Bill Bird's "Sacramento Vegetable Gardening". Bill is a jazzman with words. His blogs have a rhythm comparable to a Gene Krupa drum solo.

In one recent post, Bill waxed rhapsodic about a certain rose in his yard, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

      As I was reading this post about the trials and tribulations of growing this rose (and actually, the blog is more of a love letter to his wife, Venus), I was wondering how he was going to bring it back around to, if you will excuse me for being a stickler, "Sacramento Vegetable Gardening". 
     Bill did not disappoint. He tied into a neat little package at the end, exclaiming: "Our Lady of Guadalupe attracts a number of beneficial insects to the garden, including bees..."
     This is a subject we have tackled on these pages, as well: the benefits of having a wide variety of beneficial insect attracting plants in your yard to help you do battle against the bad bugs.  And, it's a topic covered more in depth at farmerfred.com.

    But Bill's apian accolade got me wondering: what other beneficial insects are attracted to roses? And, are there any beneficials that use roses for more than a source of food (housing, for example)? For that answer, the "go-to" guy has to be Baldo Villegas, an entomologist for the state of California, past president of the Sacramento Rose Society and Sierra Foothills Rose Society, as well as being a consulting rosarian.

     "Roses produce a lot of nectar, some more than others," explains Baldo. "Single-petaled roses are best for seeing what attracts insects both good and bad. Some of the best beneficials that I see are syrphid flies, tachinid flies, as well as numerous wasps, both parasitic and predatory. Among the parasitic wasps are the braconid and ichneumonid wasps and predatory wasps that are mainly those in the family Sphecidae. Then there are a lot of different types of bees such as honey bees, andrenids, halictids, megachilids (aka leafcutting bees), and anthophorids (including small carpenter bees). The only ones that use roses for housing and for prey gathering are two predatory wasps in the family Sphecidae. One of these wasps preys on aphids and the other one on flies."

For pictures and more information about these garden good guys, visit the UC Davis IPM Online Natural Enemies Gallery.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dog vs. Drip Irrigation

I'm not sure what the attraction is, but dogs and water find each other, wayyyyy too often. We've had more than one sprinkler mangled by our dog. Probably a combination of thirst, playfulness and boredom. Our sprinkler solution: put a tomato cage around the sprinkler head to keep a few inches separation between nozzle and muzzle.
     Les in Gold River has his own doggone water issue:
     "We are dog sitting my in-law's dog for awhile," Les writes. "I was thinking of re-doing my drip irrigation this year, but now my in-laws' dog has done my thinking for me by ripping up sections of the drip line. So before I try to put something back in place, is there something that you can recommend that I try that does not encourage dogs to chew it up?"
     You mean other than blame the psychoses of your in-laws for screwing up the dog? Nah, that's too easy. Other than burying the line, I can't think of any other deterrent; installing an enclosed dog run in another part of the yard, perhaps. You may want to check with the Dripworks website to see if they have any dogproofing ideas.

     The Dripworks catalog is a great resource for anyone tackling the problems associated with drip irritation...uh, irrigation. Just thumbing through the catalog can give you several "Aha!" moments for improving your own yard watering procedures. And the Dripworks online site has helpful tips and videos that can help beginner and pro alike solve their drip irrigation and yard watering woes. (note: I was not compensated for this endorsement, damn it.)

     And that includes a helpful staff. I sent a copy of Les' e-mail to Cathie Nicolaus at Dripworks. And she responded:
     "I experienced my lab puppy doing the same thing, she liked the emitters the best because of the water spraying out. I had to redo my entire system on the deck! Here is something to try: Get a spray bottle and mix cayenne pepper powder and warm water and spray on the area that the dog is going for. You may have to make a small offering of tubing for the dog to get the idea, but he should rather quickly. For squirrels, we have in the past recommended petroleum jelly and cayenne pepper mixed together if you need to have it last longer on the tubing. In retrospect for our dog situation, I would have used the petroleum jelly/cayenne pepper mix around the emitters (being careful not to plug any holes) and tubing, since the water from the emitters was attracting the dog."