Saturday, December 22, 2012

New Year's Resolutions for Gardeners

Just as dependable as the January appearance of the fragrant, yet short-lived flowers on the winter daphne, some of the same New Year's resolutions keep blooming and fading, year after year. Learning a foreign language, cleaning the garage and mastering a musical instrument are a few of my yearly (unfulfilled) favorites. But, on a more realistic scale, there are some gardening resolutions that all of us can fulfill with a little effort in 2013:

* Stop the Bug Battle Before it Starts. Stressed plants attract pests and diseases. Keeping flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs healthy can ward off all sorts of problems, saving you time and money. Applying the correct amount of water and fertilizer, as well as planting in the right place, helps plants get off to a strong start. The Sunset Western Garden Book is an excellent reference for the "right plant in the right place."

* Pinpoint That Pest. Before you spray, know what bug you are spraying. Identify the pest, using a good reference book such as, "Pests of the Garden and Small Farm" or "Pests of Landscape Trees and Shrubs" from the Ag and Natural Resources division of the University of California. Both those books take an Integrated Pest Management approach, which can help lead you towards using less toxic pesticides in your battles against the bad bugs. A qualified nurseryperson or your local Cooperative Extension office can also help you identify the bad bugs. A list of the most common bad guys can be found here.

* Consider pesticide alternatives before spraying potentially dangerous chemicals.  Among your safest choices: a blast of water from your garden hose can dislodge aphids from the backs of leaves. Insecticidal soap can control a host of bad bugs (such as aphids, whiteflies and spider mites) without harming the good ones (ladybugs, praying mantis and honey bees). Other lower-toxicity choices include iron phosphate for snail control; Bt (mosquito larvae, caterpillars, cabbage  loopers) or Spinosad for cabbage looper, caterpillar, leafroller, codling moth, thrip control.

Choose the least toxic product. If all else fails and you decide to use a chemical insecticide, fungicide or herbicide,  Look for the words CAUTION, WARNING or DANGER in bold letters on the label. A product with CAUTION on the label contains slightly toxic materials; WARNING indicates moderate toxicity; DANGER signifies a highly toxic substance.

* Read all chemical label instructions carefully. Don't apply more of a chemical than what is called for on the label. Not only is it wasteful, but it's more dangerous for the person applying it.

If the label doesn't list the pest, it probably won't kill it. Many times, gardeners will spray just about any pesticide on a plant to control a suspected bad bug. The information on the label of a chemical pesticide will tell you which pests the product controls.

 • When using chemicals, employ a separate sprayer, either hose-end or tank sprayer, for different tasks. Use one sprayer for herbicides (such as Roundup or any weed killers); use another sprayer for insecticides and fungicides. It's not uncommon for gardeners to lose prized plants because they didn't rinse out a herbicide thoroughly from a sprayer before using the same unit for insect or leaf disease control. Rinse out the sprayer and nozzle after each use.

 • Use less water. Turn off your lawn's automatic sprinklers during the winter. Install drip irrigation or soaker hoses around outdoor trees and shrubs. In the summer, reduce your watering time so that sprinkler water won't puddle up and run off the grass. Tips for using less water? Check this out.

Water Wisely. It's been said that 90% of all plant problems can be traced back to a watering problem. Know how much water you are putting on your lawn and plants. Watering twice a week should be sufficient for most plants in the ground, including lawns, from April through October. Containerized plants on a hot patio may need to watered daily during the summer. Make sure the soil isn't too muddy or too dry the day AFTER watering. A moisture meter will let you know how wet the soil is at the root level of your plants.

 • Plan before you plant. Consider only those vegetables that you know your family will eat. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects (more info here). Grow several different annuals that will give you a succession of color through the year. Use water-stingy perennials and drought tolerant plantsfor a low-maintenance garden.
Ponder Some More Before You Plant. Is that tree or shrub you'll be thinking about buying for your yard a good choice? Is it meant for our area? Is there enough sun (or shade) as well as room for it as it matures? One common mistake people make when planting: transplanting an itty bitty tree from a small container to an area that is too close to the house or fence. In just a few years, that little specimen may be twenty feet tall and wide. Again, the Sunset Western Garden Book should be your go-to reference.

Patience, patience. Don't assume that an entire plant was killed by a wintry frost or freeze. Many plants can  lose their leaves and top stems during cold weather, yet rebound from the base of the plant in spring, putting out new growth. Again, leave the damaged portions on the plant until late winter or early spring. Remember the "bend or break" rule: if a branch snaps in two under gentle pressure, it is probably dead. If it bends, it still has life. More info here.

Yank out your 2012 summer vegetable plants. If you live in an area where temperatures fall below 32 degrees, those peppers, squash and tomato plants are definitely goners, and won't be coming back to life. Instead, start catalog shopping for seeds for your summer vegetable garden in the weeks ahead. Here's a link to a vegetable planting calendar for Northern California.

Remove any sucker growth on citrus trees. Sometimes, a heavy freeze can damage your orange, lemon or lime trees so much that the tree sends out new shoots from the rootstock. These branches will produce heavy thorns and inedible fruit, if any. More info here on citrus suckers.
Remove any underperforming fruit trees now. Peach, apricot and nectarine trees that produce more sick leaves than fruit should be replaced with better deciduous fruit tree varieties, which are more compatible with our area. Nurseries are now getting in their shipments of bare root fruit trees; shop now for the best selection. Bare Root fruit tree buying hints here.

Take out any ho-hum rose bushes that produce few warm weather blooms. Garden centers will have a good supply of new, bare root roses in January. The best roses for California? Check this list.
Start a compost pile, compost bin or worm composting bin. Yard and kitchen waste that is put to use in the backyard garden benefits not only your soil but cuts down on the need for expanding (and dwindling numbers of) landfills. A good online source for composting basics can be found at

ENJOY gardening in the new year. Don't let the work (or failure of success) sour the experience. Remember what awaits you this year for your efforts: the late winter beauty of the first blooming tulip, quince or flowering cherry tree, the taste of a homegrown tomato and the bounty of a seemingly endless supply of summertime zucchini.

• Don't plant so much zucchini.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Persimmon: THE Edible Ornamental of Autumn

California's Central Valley is ablaze with the other orange fruit tree currently: the brightly colored persimmon. And it's not just the fruit.

Persimmon tree leaves can turn a brilliant hue of red before the first big wind and rain storm of late November washes them off their branches. 

What's left behind is the unpicked fruit, dangling like holiday ornaments during December. That's a feast for our well as a banquet for hungry birds.

Persimmons have adapted well to our California climate: warm, dry summers and mild winters. At least 500 different Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) varieties were brought to California during a major planting spree from 1870 to 1920. In 1877 alone, more than 5,000 plants in 19 varieties were imported from Japan. As a result, 99% of the commercial persimmon crop is grown here in California.

Persimmons are quite nutritious, as well, loaded with Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Fiber, and antioxidants such as Beta-Carotene and Lycopene. 

If you live in the Central Valley, Southern California, Bay Area or low foothills ... you can grow that! Bare root persimmon trees will be available at local nurseries during late December, January and February. 

360-degree mini-sprinkler from Dripworks

Give them full sun and a regular irrigation in the dry months for best production. Persimmon trees can tolerate partial shade.

Persimmons are usually classified as either astringent or non-astringent. For fresh eating straight from the tree, choose a non-astringent, self-pollinating variety such as Fuyu, Giant Fuyu, Yemon or Izu. Astrigent varieties, which need to soften thoroughly before they sweeten, include Hachiya, Chocolate or Tamopan. Those varieties are self-fruitful, as well.
A partial harvest from one, 7-foot tall Yemon persimmon tree

Persimmon growing advice from the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG):

Location: Full sun with some air movement is recommended for persimmon trees in inland areas, although they will tolerate some partial shade. Persimmons grown in cooler areas should have full sun with protection from cooling breezes. As an attractive ornamental the tree fits well in the landscape. It does not compete well with eucalyptus.

Soil: Persimmons can withstand a wide rage of conditions as long as the soil is not overly salty, but does best in deep, well drained loam. A pH range of 6.5 to 7.5 is preferred. The tree has a strong tap root which may mean digging a deeper hole than usual when planting (when on D. kaki stock).

Irrigation: Persimmon trees will withstand short periods of drought, but the fruit will be larger and of higher quality with regular watering. Extreme drought will cause the leaves and fruit to drop prematurely. Any fruit left on the tree will probably sunburn. Some 36 to 48 inches of water are needed annually, applied gradually in spring and tapering off in the fall. Hot inland areas may require 2 or 3 applications weekly, while coastal areas may need watering only once every 6 weeks, depending on the soil. If a drip system is is used, the emitters should be moved away from the trunk as the tree matures.

Most trees do well with a minimum of fertilizing. Excess nitrogen can cause fruit drop. If mature leaves are not deep green and shoot growth is less than a foot per year, apply a balanced fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 at a rate of 1 pound per inch of trunk diameter at ground level. Spread the fertilizer evenly under the canopy in late winter or early spring.

Pruning: Prune persimmon trees to develop a strong framework of main branches while the tree is young. Otherwise the fruit, which is borne at the tips of the branches, may be too heavy and cause breakage. A regular program of removal of some new growth and heading others each year will improve structure and reduce alternate bearing. An open vase system is probably best. Even though the trees grow well on their own, persimmons can be pruned heavily as a hedge, as a screen, or to control size. They even make a nice espalier. Cut young trees back to 1/2 high (or about 3 feet) at the time of planting.

Pests and Diseases: Persimmons are relatively problem-free, although mealybug and scale in association with ants can sometimes cause problems. Ant control will usually take care of these pests. Other occasional pests include white flies, thrips which can cause skin blemishes and a mite that is blamed for the "brown lace collar" near the calyx. Waterlogging can also cause root rot. Vertebrate pests such as squirrels, deer, coyotes, rats, opossums and birds are fond of the fruit and gophers will attack the roots. Other problems include blossom and young fruit shedding, especially on young trees. This is not usually a serious problem, but if the drop is excessive, it may be useful to try girdling a few branches. Over watering or over fertilization may also be responsible. Large quantities of small fruit on an otherwise healthy tree can be remedied by removing all but one or two fruit per twig in May or June.

Harvest: Harvest astringent varieties when they are hard but fully colored. They will soften on the tree and improve in quality, but you will probably lose many fruit to the birds. Astringent persimmons will ripen off the tree if stored at room temperature. Nonastringent persimmons are ready to harvest when they are fully colored, but for best flavor, allow them to soften slightly after harvest. Both kinds of persimmons should be cut from the tree with hand-held pruning shears, leaving the calyx intact Unless the fruit is to be used for drying whole, the stems should be cut as close to the fruit as possible. Even though the fruit is relatively hard when harvested, it will bruise easily, so handle with care.

Storage: Mature, hard astringent persimmons can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a month. They can also be frozen for 6 to 8 months. Nonastringent persimmons can be stored for a short period at room temperature. They will soften if kept with other fruit in the refrigerator. Persimmons also make an excellent dried fruit. They can either be peeled and dried whole or cut into slices (peeled or unpeeled) and dried that way. When firm astringent persimmons are peeled and dried whole they lose all their astringency and develop a sweet, datelike consistency. 

Yemon Persimmon

And we are in total agreement with the CRFG: persimmons make an excellent dried fruit, a great sweet snack or for use in cookies or breads!

According to our favorite book on dehydration techniques, "How to Dry Foods" by Deanna DeLong:

• Wash and remove the stem cap. Cut fruit in half and then into 3/8-1/2" slices.
• Place on a dehydrator sheet in single layers.
• Dry at 140 degrees for 1-2 hours, then reduce heat to 135 degrees for an additional 7 hours (approximate).
• When done, they should be tender and pliable, but not sticky.

At that point, you can either vacuum seal them in plastic bags for long term preservation, or store the dried persimmons in a canning jar for quick use.

Backyard gardeners who do a lot of drying are passionate about their choice of dehydrators. Some prefer the rectangular Excalibur dehydrator ; others (including our household) enjoy the circular Nesco American Harvest Dehydrator . Our largest complaint about the Excalibur: the fan blows from the back to the front, which can rearrange any lightweight herb leaves that you might be trying to dry. The Nesco American Harvest dehydrator's fan moves warm air from the bottom up, offering less disturbance to the drying crops. Still, the Excalibur is a good choice for most fruit and vegetable drying.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Innovative Controls for Peach Leaf Curl

It's November. Another cool, wet autumn has arrived in Northern California... 

...And with it, the eventual return of peach leaf curl in 2013.

 Peach leaf curl causes leaves of peaches and nectarines to discolor, thicken, pucker, curl, distort and eventually fall off. The fungus overwinters in these trees as spores, usually in the new buds. The rains of late winter and early spring 2012 splashed these spores onto the emerging leaves, causing more problems. Emerging shoots can die; fruit production can be reduced in severe infestations. Only rarely do reddish, wrinkled areas develop on fruit surfaces; later in the season these infected areas become corky and tend to crack.
         The good news is that a second set of leaves soon emerges and can develop normally when the rains cease and daytime temperatures steadily reach into the 80's. The bad news: too many years in a row (perhaps 3) of a serious peach leaf curl infestation can kill peach and nectarine trees.


 Studies at UC Davis have shown that nipping off infected leaves of peach and nectarine trees doesn't do much good.

The best thing you can do this fall and winter is to assist those trees through this stressful period. 

• Rake up any fallen leaves and pull weeds that are growing beneath the drip line of the trees.

• After cleanup, spread four inches of fresh organic mulch beneath those fruit trees. Organic mulches, such as compost, shredded branches or the fallen leaves of healthy shrubs and trees will help conserve soil moisture, hold down weeds and add nutrients to the soil as that mulch breaks down.

• Pruning in fall prior to applying any fungicides can reduce spore numbers overwintering on the tree and reduce the amount of fungicide needed. 

• If leaf curl symptoms occurred on your trees last spring, be sure to treat them now to prevent more serious losses the following year.
         The experts at UC Davis advise pruning infected peach trees in the fall before spraying with a copper ammonium complex product with 1% horticultural spray oil added to the mix.

    In the good old days of fruit tree sprays (2009), 50% copper concentrates were the recommended course of action. Not any more. Copper sprays, such as Liquicop available currently are weaker (about 8% concentration). Lime sulfur has been removed from the market. Bordeaux mixtures are expensive and wasteful...and potentially caustic.

And to add insult to injury: tests conducted at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center by Chuck Ingels, UC Farm Advisor, show that the older, stronger copper sprays that are no longer available (Microcop, for example), along with lime sulfur, did provide the best control.

The trial earlier this year involved treating (or not treating) individual branches on 10 different peach and nectarine trees

Still, that study did provide some good news about the future of peach leaf curl control:

The future of peach leaf curl control?
"Compared to untreated branches, Liquicop-treated branches averaged about 70% control," says Ingels. "Copper soap was slightly better at 80% control, Agribon (row cover material)  by itself was less effective at just under 60% control, and both Agribon + Liquicop and lime sulfur (late fall) followed by Microcop (late winter) resulted in nearly complete control.  Maxicrop (sea kelp) did not work at all and seemed to increase the severity on some of the branches."

The UC Davis Integrated Pest Management information on controlling peach leaf curl says, "Fixed copper products include tribasic or basic copper sulfate, cupric hydroxide, and copper oxychloride sulfate (C-O-C-S), but currently only liquid products containing copper ammonium complex products with 8% MCE (e.g., Kop R Spray Concentrate [Lilly Miller brands] and Liqui-Cop [Monterey Lawn and Garden]) are available to consumers. The most effective copper product, 90% tribasic copper sulfate with a 50% MCE (Microcop) is no longer available to retail outlets, because the manufacturer withdrew the product in 2010, although remaining supplies still can be sold."  

One of the reasons for that removal: repeated annual use of copper products over many seasons can result in a buildup of copper in the soil, which eventually can become toxic to soil organisms, and if it moves into waterways, can harm some aquatic species.

The removal of lime sulfur products was prompted by a rash of self-inflicted deaths in Japan in 2008 called "Detergent Suicides", which has since spread to the United States.

Bordeaux mixtures, a combination of copper sulfate, hydrated lime and water, are effective in controlling peach leaf curl, but come with their own set of warnings. According to the UC IPM Guideline entitled "Bordeaux Mixture":  "When applying Bordeaux, be sure to wear protective clothing, including goggles, because the spray deposit is corrosive, can permanently stain clothing, and is difficult to wash off." They also recommend wearing a dust and mist-filtering respirator when mixing in the hydrated lime. And that mixture can discolor anything it touches, including buildings and fences.

Although you can purchase pre-packaged Bordeaux Mixtures, they are not as effective as the mixture made from the individual components, reports that UC IPM Guideline. And that brings up the cost and waste involved: copper sulfate and hydrated lime are usually sold in large quantities, much more than the average homeowner needs for the backyard peach and nectarine trees. Storage involves mixing the leftover individual ingredients separately in water and storing in their own sealed jars. That UC IPM Bordeaux Mixture Guideline warns: "Be sure to clearly label both stock solutions and store them where children can’t get into them, since these materials, especially the copper sulfate, are very toxic and corrosive."

The synthetic fungicide chlorothalonil is the only non-copper fungicide available for managing peach leaf curl in the backyard orchard. Although one fall application may help prevent a spring outbreak of peach leaf curl, a second application in January or February, as the buds begin to swell, can be beneficial, as well.

But be sure to read and follow all label directions if you choose to use chlorothalonil, including this
"This product is toxic to aquatic invertebrates and wildlife. Do not apply directly to water or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark. Drift and runoff from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas."

Or this:  "May be fatal if inhaled. Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through skin. Causes moderate eye irritation. Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing. Do not breathe spray mist.

Or this: "This product contains chlorothalonil which is a
chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer."

No matter which spray method you choose, several days of dry weather must follow for the products to work. And that was the frustrating part of the winter of 2011-2012: the weather was comparatively dry during December, January and February...perfect for spray applications. The wet March and April provided the perfect vector for peach leaf curl, splashing spores of the disease to those branches that were unsprayed or incompletely sprayed.
         There are peach varieties that are more resistant to peach leaf curl. The downside: they may not be as flavorful as you might like. Peach varieties reported to be more leaf curl resistant include Frost, Indian Free, Q-1-8 and Muir; among nectarines, only the Kreibich variety is resistant, says UC Davis.

And for those who want to provide a helping hand next fall and winter to their suffering peach and nectarine trees: there's always spraying Liquicop combined with a spreader-sticker, followed by covering the trees with a row cover such as Agribon or other medium weight row cover fabric during rainy weather. Be sure to remove any covers during sunny weather to avoid overheating problems.

Ingels does pass along this tip: "Agribon likely allowed some rain to penetrate to the branches. It may be best held up with a post in the middle to allow rain to run off down the sloped sides rather than having a flat surface on top, but it must be fastened securely because of strong winds."

Monday, November 5, 2012

National Fig Week? Homemade Fig Newtons!

According to Sacramento's main promoter of supermarket fruits and vegetables, Michael Marks, this week is National Fig Week. It seems a bit late in the fig season to be celebrating this under-utilized fruit, but what the heck...anytime is a good time to enjoy figs, fresh or dried! 

Fig images courtesy Dave Wilson Nursery

Figs are part of a heart-healthy diet. 3 to 5 dried or fresh figs provides 3.5 grams insoluble fiber and 1.5 grams water-soluble fiber. Diets rich in soluble and insoluble fibers, such as the fiber found in figs, help maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels.

 The fruit from the most popular home fig tree varieties are usually harvested around here in September and October. Still, some of you may have a few figs lurking on your backyard trees.

I enjoy fresh figs as part of a fruit salad. For those of you who want the occasional sweeter treat, eaten in moderation, you may enjoy this recipe for:

Homemade Fig Newtons

For the Filling:
1 lb. dried figs or 2 lbs. fresh figs
1 cup sugar
1/2 or 1 cup water (1 cup for dried figs; 1/2 cup for fresh)

Dice figs, soak in water 1 hour.
Add 1 cup sugar & cook on medium heat until it has a thin jam consistency.

For the Pastry:
1/2 cup butter, room temp.
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Beat 1 cup sugar, butter, egg, milk & vanilla until well blended.

Then add these to the pastry mix:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 cup flour

Mix well and refrigerate for 1 hour.


Place 1/2 of the pastry on well floured dough cloth; knead about 6 times.
Roll out pastry to 1/4" thick. 
Line the inside of the 13 x 9" glass dish with the rolled pastry; cover that with fig filling.
Roll out remaining pastry, and cover the fig filling in the glass dish. Cut off any excess pastry dough.

Cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Let cool and cut into squares.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

November Frosts, Freezes Ahead? Probably.

 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.
In 2011, a surprise cold snap on the morning of November 5 sent some areas in Sacramento County to freezing.

 Two years ago, 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 citrus-killing, perennial-punching hard 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 the interior of the 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; use a cover for outdoor faucets. 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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Winter Color for the Gray, Wet Days Ahead

The weather forecasters have been teasing us for a couple of weeks lately, predicting the “chance of rain”. So far…not much. However, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a wet Thanksgiving. The publication, which bases its weather predictions partly on sunspot activity, says the November rainfall will be about three inches above our normal amount of two and a half inches. Overall, however, they are calling for a below-average amount of rainfall for the fall and winter months.

Predictions aside, the persistent Central Valley fog with daytime temperatures hovering in the 40’s is a regular winter visitor to our area. Now's the time to perk up your yard with colorful, easy-to-grow, cool season annuals for these cold, gray months ahead. All of these choices are available now at area nurseries:
Snaps, Iceland Poppies, white alyssum
Snapdragons. One of the best cold weather bloomers for sunny areas. Available with yellow, red, pink, or white flowers. A good choice for use as cut flowers. Come in sizes ranging from six inches to 36 inches tall.

Iceland poppy. These delicate looking flowers can withstand our harsh fall and winter winds. Iceland poppies get one to two feet high with flowers available in yellow, white, orange, salmon, pink, and cream colors. Needs lots of sun for best bloom.

Too Pretty to Whack

• Alyssum. This ground cover, which is in bloom nearly year-round, is an easy-to-grow perennial. Give it full sun or light shade, along with moderate water during dry spells. It can self-sow in adjacent areas without asking permission. It also thrives in poor, rocky areas (witness the alyssum that pops up on its own in the sand joints of our brick walkways).

Calendulas. Sometimes called the pot marigold, calendulas need lots of sun for their big, two to four inch blooms. Flower colors available include yellow or orange. Calendula plants get from one to two feet high, and make good cut flowers.

Stock. This fragrant winter annual comes in a wide array of colors including yellow, orange, red, pink, blue, purple, and white. A good flower for cutting. Varieties range from 12 to 30 inches high. Plant in full sun to part shade.

Violas. A large family that includes pansies and Johnny jump-ups. These do well in shady areas and grow six to eight inches high. Available in a multitude of colors, many violas will self-sow year after year.

Cyclamen. Technically a tuberous-rooted perennial, florists' cyclamen produces star-shaped, red, white, or pink flowers above deep green leaves during the winter. The plant dies back in warm weather, but resprouts each fall. Best in shady areas. Great in pots, in combination with summer bloomers such as impatiens or tuberous begonias.

Primroses. A perennial in milder climates, best treated as an annual here. The fairy or baby primrose and polyanthus primrose are proven performers for shady areas in the Valley. Primroses produce flowers on 12-inch stems in many hues, including white, pink, rose, red, and lavender.

Ornamental kale. As pretty as it is tasty, kale resembles a brightly colored head of cabbage. But it is the green leaves of kale that have the sweet, nut-like flavor. Give them full to part sun as well as regular water.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grow Your Own Oak Trees from Acorns

It's been a pretty good year here in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California for acorn-producing oak trees. Acorns falling from the oaks are more numerous than in recent years. This fall is a great opportunity for gardeners with room for big trees to grab a bucket and start gathering acorns, and start planting. Yes, You Can Grow That!

A word of warning: gather acorns only from oaks that are growing in your general vicinity; those are the ones most likely to succeed in your local climate and soil.

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.

For more information about growing oaks from acorns, check out this University of California webpage, "How to Grow California Oaks"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Garden Tasks To Do, and NOT Do, This Fall

Columbus Day, Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas. The busy holiday season awaits. OK, maybe you aren't going to get dressed up as the "Santa Maria" and march down Main Street on October 8, but there are still enough other tasks to accomplish this time of year to dissuade you from the garden. The good news: here are some yard chores you don't have to tackle this time of year.

Don't deadhead your roses. Many Northern California rosarians are now advising rose growers to let those fading October flowers remain on the plant. This will force the rose bush to form hips, which helps the plant slow down in preparation for the January pruning season. Because cold winters are not a certainty here, roses have problems entering complete dormancy in our area. Not pruning roses now tells the plant, "Time to take a nap!"

Don't prune your shade trees until the last leaf has fallen. Then, it will be easier to gaze up into the canopy of the tree to decide which branches need to be trimmed or removed. Good reasons for pruning trees include removing or cutting back branches that are rubbing each other or the house. Low branches that impede foot traffic or suckers emanating from the base can be removed at that time, too. If you think you won't remember the dead branches that will need to be removed when all the leaves are gone, go ahead and mark those branches now with ribbon or green tree tape.

Don't Prune Citrus Trees. Lance Walheim, author of the books "Citrus" and "All About Citrus & Subtropical Fruits", says early fall is the one season to avoid taking a saw to your orange, lemon, mandarin and other citrus trees. The soil is still warm, which will push out new growth wherever you made a pruning cut. And that new growth will be more susceptible to frost damage during the late fall and winter.

Don't Prune Apricot and Cherry Trees. Apricots and cherries are susceptible to Eutypa dieback, a disease which kills branches. Infection occurs on wounds made during wet weather. You need six weeks of dry weather after pruning. Prune these trees after harvest in late spring or early summer.


And now, for you masochists, some autumn garden tasks to add to that growing list on the side of the refrigerator.

• Clean up the summer vegetable garden. Many garden pests overwinter in fallen fruit and twigs, too.

• After you've cleared out the dying summer vegetables, prepare for next year's garden by checking the soil pH. Test kits are available at just about every nursery.

•  Tomato hornworms are going into hibernation in the soil beneath your tomato plants. Dig down about four inches and discard their cocoons, which resemble two inch-long, reddish footballs.

• Feed your bare garden soil during the winter with a cover crop of clover, fava beans or vetch. This will add nitrogen for next year. 

Chinese Pistache
 • This is a great time for planting new trees and shrubs, especially ones with outstanding fall foliage for California. Good specimens include Japanese maples, Chinese pistache, tupelo, red oak and scarlet oak.
• Vegetables to plant from seed now include radish, spinach, fava beans, carrots, swiss chard, corn salad, leaf lettuce, onions and peas.

•  Despite the cooler temperatures, your lawn and garden still need about an inch of water a week. Unless the rains come, keep your automatic sprinklers operating. How much water is an inch? Here’s how to measure.

•  Cool season lawns, such as the popular fescue blends, are putting on a spurt of growth now. Mow often so that you are never removing more than a third of the total height of the grass blade.

 • Dethatch, aerate and overseed bermuda grass lawns with rye grass to keep it green all winter. At a loss of how to start? Here’s how.

•  This is a good time to plant ground covers such as low growing manzanitas, verbena and carpet bugle. This will give their root systems a chance to get established for their burst of spring growth.

• Scatter and plant tulip and daffodil bulbs outdoors for a more natural look.

• Add some indoor color for the upcoming holiday seasons by planting bulbs in containers. Your favorite local nursery has a good supply right now.

• Feed and protect rhododendron and azalea roots during the winter by adding two or three inches of mulch around those plants. More on the benefits of mulch.

• Available now at nurseries: colorful winter blooming annuals such as violas, calendulas, stock, Iceland poppies and snapdragons.

 • Temperatures dipping down below freezing can occur in many of the interior areas of Northern and Central California in early November. Prepare for that possibility by moving frost-sensitive potted plants indoors or against a west or south-facing wall.


Row covers, hot caps, and water-filled containers surrounding young vegetable seedlings offer these plants a warmer nighttime environment.


• Prepare for the rainy season by knocking down watering basins around trees.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Could a Cherry Tree Tent be the Answer?

 We've posted before about a huge threat to backyard cherry trees in our area: the cherry maggot, also known as the Spotted Wing Drosophila. SWD is responsible for the little worms that backyard gardeners are starting to find in their cherries, and to a lesser extent in raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. An experiment conducted at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center this past year by Sacramento County Master Gardeners may provide an answer to this growing problem throughout the West.

This was originally published in the Sacramento County Master Gardener Newsletter of Sept. 2012.
The problem: Spotted wing drosophila (SWD), is a gnat-sized fruit fly first found in 2008 damaging fruit in many California counties. Unlike the common vinegar fly that attacks rotting and fermenting fruit, the SWD infests ripening, undamaged cherries as well as ripening raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, and strawberry crops – especially in coastal areas.

Prior to 2011, no SWD damage was found on the multi-grafted cherry tree at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. In 2011, the early varieties escaped damage, but the later varieties were totally infested. In an attempt to prevent fruit loss in 2012, and to demonstrate to homeowners a possible cultural means of preventing infestation, the orchard group decided to tent the tree.

The tent: Mary Kay Ryan and Patty Peterson designed a structure to cover the tree while still allowing the harvest of seven varieties of cherries ripening at different times. The tree was pruned to just under 10 feet. Mary Kay and Patty used 1” schedule 40 PVC to create a large box frame anchored to the ground at the corners. The tent itself – 13.6 feet wide, 13.6 feet long, and 10 feet high – was sewn by Patty using 30-weight Agribon row cover and included a 110” sleeping bag zipper to allow easy entry. Diagonal guy wires and PVC clamps ensured the tent would not slip or be pulled due to winds. The bottom edge of the tent was weighted down. The tent was erected 4 weeks prior to the first harvest. The cost of the tent: approximately $200.

Traps: One SWD trap was placed outside the tent, and one trap inside the tent to monitor activity. A few male SWDs (with distinctive wing spots) were found in the outside trap during the season, but an exact number of SWD males was not determined, as there were many similar small insects in the trap. No SWD males were caught inside the tent.

Temperature observations: Because we were concerned about heat build-up in the tent, two recording thermometers were placed in the canopy of the cherry tree at 6 feet height under the Agribon from May 14 through June 19. Two additional thermometers were placed at the same height in an uncovered fig tree of similar size.
The low (nighttime) temperatures were on average 3 degrees cooler in the tree under the Agribon than in the uncovered tree (see graph). The high (daytime) temperatures under the Agribon were on average 2 degrees warmer than the uncovered tree. On days over 90F, temperatures under the Agribon were still only 2.5 degrees warmer, but during one 3-day period, temperatures averaged 8 degrees warmer.

Harvest: While harvest was a bit challenging (quickly entering/exiting the tent as well as moving ladders during harvest in a cramped space), overall it was a success with a full crop of undamaged, delicious cherries!
Other issues/drawbacks: The size of the tent required a number of us, with ladders, to assist in its assembly. The tent did suffer some damage near the bottom – we believe from a raccoon or similar creature. Several tears appeared overnight but were quickly repaired. Additionally, the tent suffered some wind damage along the bottom edge. We originally used 2’x4’s to secure the tent bottom, switching to soil to prevent further tears. On the plus side, we were able to disassemble the tent relatively quickly and store the parts for next season.

Conclusion: While our experiment was certainly not scientific, we do think of it as successful in that we avoided fruit damage of any kind on a fairly large tree with varying harvest periods. It does provide another option for homeowners who may be dealing with SWD. Although expensive initially, the cover should be reusable for possibly several years. In January 2013, we will espalier a cherry tree, and when the tree begins bearing we will secure row cover over it in the spring. This will provide demonstrations of both training and pruning on a trellis and a practical method of controlling SWD, since covering an espalier tree should be much cheaper and easier than a large tree.
—Tracy Lesperance, Cathy Coulter, and Chuck Ingels

For more information about the Sacramento County Master Gardener Program, including links to their wonderful 2013 Gardening Guide and Calendar, click here.