Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tis the Season for Living Christmas Trees

So, there I was this afternoon, wandering around Green Acres Nursery in Sacramento, checking out the winter vegetables. Even though it's mid-December, lots of veggies can go in the ground now as transplants here, including asparagus, bok choy, corn salad, garlic, kale, leaf lettuce, onions and slips of white potatoes.

Then I overheard a loud discussion between a boy and his father off in the distance. "Dad, let's get one of these as our Christmas tree!" said the son, excitedly, fondling an incense cedar in a five gallon container. "No," replied Dad. "Let's go out front and get a real Christmas tree."

Out in the front of the store? You guessed it. CUT Christmas trees.

Junior had the better idea. Oddly enough, I kept my mouth shut. Until now.
If chosen wisely and treated correctly, a living Christmas tree can thrive in your yard for generations. The main thing to remember when choosing a living Christmas tree: pick a variety that will flourish in our area. Among the conifers available at local nurseries that will do well outdoors in most areas of Northern and Central California after their indoor holiday use:

Italian Stone Pine. A good choice for the interior valleys. Can take heat and drought when established. Has a moderate rate of growth to 60 feet.


Aleppo, Mondell or Afghan Pine. Also called Pinus eldarica or Pinus halepensis. These evergreens can take sun and wind. As an added bonus for those who own acreage, these pines are good for windbreaks and erosion control. Rapid growers, these pines with gray-green needles can get to 30 to 60 feet tall with a 20 to 30 foot spread. They aren't that thirsty, either; a deep, twice a month watering is all they require during the summer.

Colorado Blue Spruce. Can take sun, shade and cold, but is susceptible to spider mites. Likes most soils, as long as they're well-drained. This tree with the bluish needles is a slow grower that will eventually get 60 to 80 feet tall with a 40 to 50 foot spread.

Deodar Cedar. A tree that actually prefers clay soil, as long as there's no standing water. This evergreen can take sun, wind and heat. It's a rapid grower that will reach 50-80 feet with a 40-foot spread. Aptly known as, "The California Christmas Tree".


• Incense Cedar. Not a true cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), but this California native tree will truly perform well in Northern California yards. Although a slow grower at first, the incense cedar can get 80 feet tall, with a 15 foot spread at the base. IT can take our hot summers and poor soil, and doesn't require a lot of water. It''s best characteristic: the wonderful aroma on a hot summer day.

Coast Redwoods, 1991

Coast Redwood. Give this tree plenty of room in the yard. The coast redwood can get 70 feet tall with a spread at the base of 30 feet. It can take our sun, but needs frequent, deep watering.
Coast Redwoods, 2011

Some tips for caring for a living Christmas tree:

• Don't keep it in the house for more than a week.

• Keep it away from heating vents, wood stoves and fireplaces.

• Water the tree every day while it's in the house. A good way to insure a slow, thorough watering is to dump a tray or two of ice cubes into its container.

• Decorate it with the smaller, cooler, flashing bulbs.

• The tree can remain in a large container for a number of years, but you may need a furniture dolly to move it in and out of the house.

Marginal Living Christmas Trees:

Given a little care, the dwarf Alberta Spruce can survive as an outdoor living Christmas tree here. Give it afternoon shade for best results. 

Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis), native to mountainous areas, tend to revert to rounded tops as they age. The exception is the "Vanderwolf Pyramid" variety, which keeps its Christmas tree shape. 

Another one to be wary of is the Grand Fir (Abies grandis). This tree could soon overwhelm a small yard, reaching heights of 200 feet. 

Other borderline trees that may have trouble here in the Valley include the Tempelhof cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and the Blue Point Juniper (doesn't like too much water or slow draining soil).


At the top of Santa's horticulturally naughty list is the Monterey Pine, which is better for coastal environments; even in its native environment, Monterey Pines are in decline due to pine pitch canker. Here in the valley, the Monterey Pine is susceptible to pests, diseases and sulks in our summer heat.


Another Christmas-tree type plant that is widely available here is the Norfolk Island Pine. Known as the Hawaiian Christmas Tree, this is best planted Hawaii. Here, it makes a good house plant year round.


When is a Christmas tree not really a tree? When it is a Rosemary plant, an evergreen shrub that's been pruned into a pyramidal shape. This herb is a great addition for its culinary and bee attracting qualities (blooms in the winter and spring), but would require constant shearing to keep it looking like a Christmas tree...uh, bush.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tree Tips For After the Storm

The day after a major rain or wind storm is not necessarily the best day for the backyard gardener to tackle the hazardous task of cleaning up the remnants of trees, shrubs and other plants that took a beating. If wind or rain is still in the forecast, the prevalence of slippery conditions and the chance of more falling debris should limit your cleaning chores to dragging broken branches away from the scene of the crime. It is not a good day to be climbing ladders or scrambling into trees while balancing a chain saw. Leave that to the professionals.

     Sacramento-based consulting arborist Analisa Stewart of Arbor Entities offers this good piece of advice for those surveying the fallen aftermath of a major storm: "Limb failure is largely a product of poor tree maintenance over time," says Stewart. "Take care of your trees, or they may take care of themselves in ways you won't appreciate."

     According to the University of California publication, "Inspect Your Landscape Trees for Hazards", a nice day in autumn (or winter, spring or summer, for that matter) is the time to take an inventory of any possible future tree damage before you, your house or your car becomes the next victim of a falling tree or branch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Hiring an Arborist.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Start a Rose from a Cutting Now. Or Not.

Lyda Rose

 If you want to be a confused gardener, start growing roses. Among the conflicting advice you might get from successful rose growers:

Feed roses high N-P-K fertilizers. I've heard more than one rosarian tout the Show-winning benefits of Miracle Gro 18-24-16 Water Soluble Rose Plant Food, applied weekly. One rosarian told me she just sprinkles the undiluted Miracle Gro granules around her roses, and then waters them in: "I have too many roses and not enough time to do all that mixing." (Kids, don't try this at home. You could easily burn your rose plants. But Miracle Gro, knowing you'll try anything that's easier, is now selling a shaker bottle of granular Miracle Gro plant food. Again, don't overapply the recommended dosages.)

Feed them low doses of a complete organic fertilizer (such as the Gardner & Bloome 4-6-2 blend of Rose and Flower Fertilizer, applied once every two months)

Feed them rabbit food pellets, aka alfalfa (the American Rose Society recommends this) 

Roses thrive with banana peels and a licorice root mulch (again, the American Rose Society)

Roses need lots of water

Roses become healthier plants with periods of drought.

Prune roses to 12 inches high  in the winter (that same website also says it's OK to leave them four feet's up to you).

Prune roses, hard,  in the spring.

Don't prune roses below your knee.

Leave only 3 to 5 canes after pruning.
Leave as many healthy canes as possible.

(note that both those recommendations come from the same website page. It depends on the rose!)

Fragrant Cloud

My conclusion about all this contradictory advice:  
Roses are the most forgiving plant in nature.

So, it is within that spirit of "If It Works for You, Fine!", here is one person's suggestions for propagating roses. That person is Charlotte Owendyck, consulting rosarian and member of the Sierra Foothills Rose Society and the Sacramento Rose Society. She presented these tips in the June 2010 Rose Bulletin of the Sacramento Rose Society. I am sure rose growers will leave critical comments about the advice mentioned here. After all, they have probably been growing roses successfully for decades - their way. And that's OK. The rose can take a myriad of gardening techniques...and come out looking great.

Here are Charlotte's tips for rose propagation:

Best time of year to take rose cuttings is in the spring—April, May and June. Fall is a close second.

1. Water the rose plant the day before you take cuttings—so the cutting is fully hydrated. 

2. Use a 5 gallon pot and fill it 1⁄2 full with a mixture of 60% peat moss and 40% perlite. 

3. Select a healthy plant to take the cuttings. Avoid leaves with diseases and insects! Looking at the plant, pick the best part of the plant. Choose a stem that is vigorous and healthy and is on a healthy and vigorous cane.  For softer growers— those with more pith (white inner portion of stem) use older part of cane since this type of stem has a greater possibility of rotting.

4. Select a stem where the rose has just cracked open to just fully open. At this stage, the buds along that stem will produce roots; increasing your success rate. Once the rose is spent, the plant is now telling the buds along the stem to begin producing a new flower. 

5. Cut just below the eye (bud) since this is the most active growing part of the plant.

6. Essentially the cutting only need two buds, one above the soil and one below. However, many prefer to use a three node cutting. Remove bottom leaf, since this node will inserted in the growing medium. The remaining one or two leaves will continue to manufacture food for the cutting. 

7. Wash cutting with 1% bleach (one part bleach to 4 parts water). Use gloves! Wrap cuttings in a wet paper towel for 24 hours and place in a cooler. Cooler temperatures stimulate the formation of roots. 

8. Dip the bottom stem in rooting hormone, use a powder not liquid. (Indolebutyric Acid is the leading plant hormone used to promote the formation of roots in plants and to generate new roots in the cloning of plants through cuttings).

9. Plant at an angle up to the bottom leaf, but make sure that the leaf doesn’t touch the medium. Do not crowd the cuttings (Don’t forget to label your cuttings!)

10. Cover the pot with plastic and punch 3-4 holes for ventilation. 

11. Place pot on the east side of the house. Check once a week to make sure that it is damp enough. If you have a heating mat use it since it accelerates the process.

12. Pull off plastic in 28 days. Water with diluted liquid fertilizer; acclimate new plants. 

13. Cut back the little rose plant several times to build up roots. When they look sturdier, transfer to separate pots. This process takes several weeks. 


Thanks, Charlotte. And before you leave a comment, remember our mantra: 

"If it works for you, fine!"


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

'Tis the Season for Poinsettias

Sure signs that the holidays are approaching: Bob Dylan's "Christmas Island" is heard between announcements for deli tray bargains in the supermarket; Christmas tree lots pop up, seemingly overnight, on bare street corners; and everywhere you shop, rows and rows of that brilliant red holiday plant, the poinsettia, fill the front area of the stores.

Among the varieties available are poinsettias that expand your color choices, beyond basic red. New colors include peach, salmon, coral, white, rose, pink and variegated combinations of those shades. 

Here's what to look for when hunting for a healthy poinsettia:

• Avoid purchasing poinsettias from outdoor displays. Temperatures below 50 degrees can rapidly shorten a poinsettia's life.

• Choose poinsettias with fully mature, thoroughly colored bracts. The bracts are the red, pink, yellow or speckled modified leaves that catch your eye from a distance. Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges. 

• The true flowers of a poinsettia are the small yellow berries (also called the cyathia) in the center of the bracts. Make sure that the smaller bracts surrounding these berries are fully colored. If these secondary bracts aren't fully colored, the plants will quickly fade and lose color.

• Examine the plant's soil. It's best to avoid waterlogged soil, particularly if the plant appears wilted. Such a condition could signify irreversible root rot.

• Choose poinsettias with lush green foliage that is undamaged and free of discoloration. The foliage should be plentiful all the way down to the soil line, an indication of an active, healthy root system.

• Re-inserting the poinsettia into a large, roomy shopping bag will usually provide adequate protection for transporting the plant when it's cold and windy.

    The experienced shopper can find much more variety in poinsettias at the nursery or flower shops instead of grocery stores. "The poinsettia is a very versatile plant," says Paul Ecke Jr. of the Paul Ecke ranch, a San Diego area-based business that is regarded as the world's premiere poinsettia growing facility. "We can grow a poinsettia in a two inch pot, suitable for an office desktop, all the way to a poinsettia topiary tree several feet tall. In between we have hanging baskets of poinsettias, as well."   
    And there are now many more varieties beyond the familiar red-colored poinsettia, including pink, yellow, variegated and purple.

"The 'Plum Pudding' is the first and only purple poinsettia," says Ecke, whose growing grounds produce over a half million plants for sale each year. "It's a wonderful decorator color that fits into Victorian as well as contemporary color schemes."

    No matter the variety, a little care can help a poinsettia last well through the holidays. That care starts at the retailer. "It really gets my goat when I see plants not getting watered in the stores," says Ecke. "You want to buy poinsettias from a store that is taking care of them, which includes watering them and not displaying them outdoors." He advises choosing poinsettias that have medium to dark green foliage that extends to the bottom of the pot. Steer clear of poinsettias with naked branches or yellowing leaves.

"The best way to determine if a poinsettia is still fresh is to examine the flower," says the U.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Lori Ann Asmus. "However, the very bright, colorful part of the plant, which is usually red, pink or speckled, is not the flower. Those are modified leaves. The poinsettia flowers are the little, yellow bead-like parts between those modified leaves. If that yellow flower looks tight and waxy, you can be sure it's a young poinsettia plant, which will last a lot longer. If that flower, though, looks brown, bypass it; that poinsettia is past its prime. And if there is no yellow at all, move on. That plant is very old."

A native of Mexican jungles, the poinsettia will sulk if allowed to endure temperatures below 50 degrees or not get regular waterings. In the house, the best area for the poinsettia is where it can get plenty of light, out of the way of any drafts or heating vents. A southern facing window is ideal. "And there's no need to worry about displaying poinsettias around children or pets," says Ecke. "Poinsettias are not poisonous; but don't eat them."

And if you are inclined to nurse that poinsettia through the spring, summer and fall:

• If you haven't done so already, remove any foil wrap around the poinsettia's pot to allow for drainage, putting a plate or saucer beneath to catch any excess water. 

• Poinsettias do like water; but need excellent drainage. Be sure to drain off any standing water from the saucer. 

• Although the plant may look great sitting on your dining room table, the poinsettia will thrive where it can get plenty of light, out of the way of any drafts or heating vents. A southern facing window would be ideal.
• In late March or early April, cut back the plant so that two buds  remain, about six inches from the base. The plant may still look elegant before you start this radical surgery, but the pruning is necessary to help it look great for next December.

• In April, place the plant - pot and all- outside in a sunny, warm area; against a south wall beneath the overhang of your house or apartment would be ideal. Keep the poinsettia watered, pruning back the branches by a couple of inches in June and August to keep the plant from getting leggy. When the red color begins to show, start feeding the plant with a fertilizer that has a bit more nitrogen in it than phosphorus and potassium. 

• In October, before the first frost, bring the plant back into the house and keep it in a dark closet or room for at least fourteen hours a day. The plant will bloom only when it has had these long "nights". And by next Christmas, you'll again be able to enjoy the striking beauty of that same poinsettia plant. Maybe.

    If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. And the end result may not be as spectacular as the original plant's bloom. The good news: there will always be more colorful poinsettias for sale next holiday season.

And now...a song for the season:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall/Winter Houseplant Care

Toddler Jungle
 As the weather turns cooler, we begin to pay more attention to horticultural chores in the great indoors. Houseplants need a bit of TLC right now, as they adjust to the change of seasons. (Note: "TLC" = tender loving care. Do not place houseplants in front of a TV tuned to the TLC Channel showing "Toddlers & Tiaras" or "19 Kids and Counting"; their leaves will turn brown.)

 Houseplants tend to slow down their growth cycles now, so their food and water requirements are less.

Many houseplant aficionados won't even feed their houseplants now, and won't resume a monthly fertilization until next spring. And because houseplants use less water now, change your irrigation habits. 

Poke your finger or a moisture meter into the soil of a houseplant to make sure that the top few inches have dried before you add water. Another way to determine if your houseplant is in need of water: lift the pot. If it is as heavy as it was when you last watered, wait. When the soil has dried, that pot will be a lot lighter, a good sign that it's time to pour it on.

Dracaena 'Janet Craig'

During fall and winter, the sun is lower in the horizon. Help your houseplants cope with this lower level of light by moving them a bit closer to a sunnier window.


There are some indoor plant pests that may be moving into your house this time of year. Aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, fungus gnats and scale are among the pests that are taking up residence with you, especially if your houseplants have spent any time recently outdoors or are new purchases. A couple of good books about houseplants, including lots of pictures of plants and pests, are "The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual" by Barbara Pleasant and "Successful Houseplants" by Ortho Books.

        And one reader is wondering about how to control another common houseplant pest. From the garden e-mail bag, Cynthia writes: "I have an indoor coleus plant in my bathroom, which gets indirect sunlight. All was well until yesterday when I discovered little oblong or rectangular-shaped, white, fluffy somethings on the plant. What are they and how do I eradicate them?"

     Those "fluffy somethings" might be mealybugs. These soft-bodied sucking insects are about one-eighth of an inch long, and are covered with a whitish, cottony wax. They especially like to congregate on the backsides of the leaves of houseplants, where the leaves meet the stems.

        There are several steps you can take to control mealybug populations on your houseplants.

Step One: wash off the plant, especially the underside of the leaves, in the sink with a forceful stream of lukewarm water. Doing this once or twice a week for a few weeks may take care of the problem. 

Step Two: Dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and remove the mealybugs by hand. Tweezers can help dislodge the ones you can't reach  with a cotton swab. 

If those two techniques don't do the job, apply insecticidal soap or a narrow-range horticultural oil to the infested plant area. But be careful: make sure your plant won't be damaged by the soap or the oil by testing it on a small, out-of-the-way part of the plant first. The Marin County Master Gardeners also offer this advice: If you’ve got mealybugs on your houseplants, be sure to sanitize the entire pot and treat the surface of the soil.  Also manage for ants.

And yet another way to control houseplant mealybugs: According to Sacramento County Master Gardener Lori Ann Asmus of Emerald City Interior Landscape Services, scrape away and replace the top inch of soil in the potted plant. That can help eliminate future mealybug populations.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Snails, Slugs Love Autumn

 This time of year, many spring-flowering plants are a bit confused. The temperatures and day length of mid-autumn are similar to mid-spring. It's not a surprise that azaleas, alstroemeria, banana shrubs and magnolias might put on a bit of a flower show right now, here in Northern California. 


And showing up beneath those plants now? Snails and slugs....again.

The UC Integrated Pest Management Program has some great information on snail and slug control for your garden. Here's a link to 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:

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.

"Some formulations of iron phosphate include the insecticide spinosad to increase the spectrum of pests controlled (e.g. Sluggo Plus). Spinosad is an insecticide that will control earwigs and cutworms. These products can also be used in organic systems.

"Products that contain ferric sodium EDTA (e.g. Eliminator Snail and Slug Killer or newer boxes of Corry’s Snail and Slug Killer), work in a similar manner to iron phosphate but are somewhat faster, killing snails in three days instead of seven. EDTA is used to make the ferric (which is also iron) more available and, therefore, kills the mollusks faster. Products containing ferric sodium EDTA are not labeled for organic use.

"Molluscicides that have sulfur as the active ingredient (e.g. Bug-Geta Snail & Slug Killer 2) also reduce feeding damage caused by snails and slugs, but to a lesser extent than the iron-based products.

"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."

A nifty new addition to the UC IPM information: links to pages where you can compare the toxicity of all the recommended pesticides listed for that particular pest, entitled "Active Ingredients, Compare Risks". For instance, the page link to the controls for snails and slugs analyzes Bordeaux mixture, carbaryl, iron phosphate, Metaldehyde and tribasic copper sulfate in four categories: harm to water quality, harm to beneficials, harm to honeybees and harm to people and other mammals. With that chart, gardeners can now choose the least toxic chemical alternative first.

But as always, pest control in the garden begins with cultural, physical and mechanical controls. In the case of snails and slugs, that might include limiting the number and density of snail-attractive plants (cultural); handpicking (mechanical); or installing a copper barrier around vegetable seedlings (physical). By employing cultural, physical and mechanical controls first in your battle against bad bugs (and weeds), you're helping the population of the garden good guys - beneficial insects - help you do the dirty work.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It's Getting Chilly. Is Your Garden Ready?

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

However, November frosts do happen here with regularity. Freezes, too.

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

Last year, there was a 2010 Thanksgiving surprise: the morning low temperatures in the suburbs of Sacramento dipped into freezing territory. 28 in Elk Grove. 24 in Rancho Cordova. 23 in Folsom. The temperatures in Rancho Cordova and Folsom stayed below 28 degrees for 7 hours that morning. That's a hard, citrus-killing, perennial-punching freeze.
Freeze-Pummelled Pummelo

Not a Happy Hosta Thanksgiving

What is cold? Some definitions:

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

Freeze: temperatures at or below 32 °F

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

 Fruit-laden citrus trees could be threatened by very cold mornings in the weeks (or days) ahead. Some planning tips for the upcoming cold mornings:

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

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

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

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

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

Pipe Wrap: Cheap Frost Insurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Winterize your gasoline-powered garden equipment. Gas can go bad and screw up your engines if allowed to overwinter, unused. Drain the tanks or turn off the supply valve and run the engine until it stops. For containerized gas (or gas still in equipment) add a stabilizer. Run the engine for 10 minutes or so to make sure the stabilized gas is thoroughly mixed into the engine.

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

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


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

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

4. For dish-shaped fountains: Turn off and let drain to the holding tank below ground. Remove any standing water in the dish.

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Is Your Garden Storm-Ready?

The folks at the Dirt Du Jour page remind us here in Northern California that it's time to prep the garden for the first big storm of 2011. And the National Weather Service, along with their highly-caffeinated, ALL CAPS style, chime in:






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

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

Hey, It Works.
• Secure, cover or remove patio furniture, bbq.
• Remove pads and umbrellas.
• Add compost to garden bed. Let the rains move it downward.
• Move plant starts to a safe area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

• The first storm of the season means downed tree limbs. 
• Does your generator work?
Do You Feel Lucky, Persimmons?
• Harvest heavy fruit (apples!) to keep branches from breaking. Pray for your unripe persimmons.

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

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

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

• Cover the pool and spa to keep debris out.

• Secure the spa cover. They will blow open!

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

Easy Entry for Possums!
• Replace torn tarps on firewood.

• Clean roof gutters before the storm.


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

* If it's the lawn area that's flooding, dig a trench and lay a drain line in the lowest area of the lawn. Don't do any digging immediately after a heavy rain, though; wait until the soil dries enough to avoid unnecessary soil compaction. 

 Be sure to slope the drain pipe, allowing at least a one foot drop for each 100 feet of length (one quarter-inch per foot). Dig backwards from where the water will exit the pipe, trenching back towards the source of flooding to help determine how deep to lay the drain pipe. Line the trench with a few inches of gravel, both above and below the pipe. For a lawn area, try to lay the pipe at least two feet below the surface.

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Make Your Own Planting Mix

Note: for all recipes, coir can be substituted for peat moss.


The Rodale Instute Mix (organic):
Finely screened compost  4 parts
Peat Moss  2 parts
Perlite  1 part
Vermiculite 1 part


Another organic mix (from the book, "Rodale Organic Gardening Solutions"):

shredded peat moss  1 bushel
perlite or vermiculite  1 bushel
ground limestone  1/2 cup
bloodmeal  1 cup
colloidal phosphate  1 cup
greensand   1 cup

(1 bushel = 1.24 cubic feet)

Container mix for herbaceous and woody ornamentals

Equal parts by volume of:
coarse sand
peat moss or milled pine bark 


Cornell University Modified Peat-Lite Planting Mix:(especially good for seedlings)
for large jobs (1 part=one full wheelbarrow, about 4.5 cu. ft.)
Peat Moss 2 parts
Perlite  1 part
Vermiculite  1 part
Dolomitic Lime (raises pH) 4 cups
Superphosphate (0-20-0) 5 cups
Osmocote or other slow release fertilizer (19-6-12)  8 cups

for small jobs (1 part= a 32 oz. coffee can)
Peat Moss 2 parts
Perlite  1 part
Vermiculite  1 part
Dolomitic Lime (raises pH) 1 tsp.
Superphosphate (0-20-0) 2 tsp.
Osmocote or other slow release fertilizer (19-6-12)  1 Tbs.


Note: when using peat moss, pre-moisten the peat moss to aid moisture retention. In a hose-end sprayer, put one tablespoon liquid dish detergent in the jar. Set sprayer to mix one tablespoon per gallon of water. Thoroughly water the peat moss with this solution before mixing with other ingredients.


Purchasing a commercial potting soil or planting mix?

• Select mixes high in bark, forest materials, or spaghnum peat with vermiculite or perlite.

• Thoroughly leach any potting soil before placing seed or plant material in the mix. Leaching will reduce soluble salts to acceptable levels in most mixes.

•Fertilize with a soluble fertilizer according to manufacturer's directions within two weeks after plants are growing in the new potting/planting mix or potting soil. This will replace leached nutrients and those taken up by the plants.


The difference between a potting/planting mix and potting soil?
There are no hard and fast rules. Ask 100 experts, you may get 100 different answers. Generally speaking, if the bag says "soil", it probably contains soil and sand, along with ingredients such as perlite, vermiculite, peat moss or bark.

When you buy a garden product with the word "soil" - especially at a low price - you are increasing the chances of buying someone else's problems: a package that contains weed seeds, nematodes, fungal diseases, heavy clay, sludge.
Your best bet, as stated above: choose a product high in bark, forest materials, or spaghnum peat with vermiculite or perlite.