Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Plants For Dry Shade

One of the more vexing situations for gardeners: those sun-loving perennials and small shrubs that you put in years ago...when the surrounding trees and shrubs were much smaller...may be rather stressed these days, thanks to all the shade that they now have to tolerate. Add to that the modern Golden State requirements for a more water-efficient garden. The new question is: which plants don't require much water...but can thrive in the shade here in Northern California?

Out at UC Davis and at locales throughout the state, the California Center for Urban Horticulture has been conducting plant trials for over ten years, to find out just how little water a wide assortment of perennials, small shrubs and grasses can tolerate and still thrive. They've conducted tests on both sun-loving plants and shade lovers (growing plants beneath a 47% shade cloth). They've trialed plants, including California natives and hybrid varieties, from many sources, including the UC Davis Arboretum All-Star collection.
 Master Gardener Pam Bone (left) rates the Sunny Knock Out rose in the sun garden at the spring 2017 trials held at UC Davis, with UC Cooperative Extension Environmental Horticulture Advisor Karrie Reid.

The plants are judged on a variety of criteria before, during and after being subjected to varying amounts of water over a two-year period. Criteria includes judging overall appearance, health, foliage and bloom.

Here, then is a handy list of....

Low Water Shade Plants 
2013-2015 trials, conducted at UC Davis.
(links contain plant lists for both sun and shade, as well as pictures)

From the 2013-2015 executive summary report: "In these trials, perennial landscape plant species were evaluated for overall performance on a range of reduced irrigation levels in clay loam soil in the hot interior Central Valley of California. All plants were grown in-ground for 2 years. Planting in October 2013 was followed by an establishment period of irrigation at 80%-100% of reference evapotranspiration (ET0) and 25% management allowable depletion through April 2015. Plants were then subjected to 1 of 4 different levels of reduced irrigation at 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80% of ET0 during the dry season through the first week of October 2015. During the deficit irrigation season they were evaluated across treatments for growth, health and vigor, overall appearance, flowering, pest tolerance, and disease resistance. From these assessments, irrigation recommendations are made for their use in the landscape."

For these shade plant test trials in 2013-2015:
80% = 4 irrigations, May through August (once a month)
60% = 3 irrigations, May, July September
40% = 2 irrigations, June, September
20% = irrigated only once (September)

16.6 gallons of water applied at each irrigation, via drip irrigation. Two methods were used: 2 gph button emitters on either side of the plant; or, 1/4" inline drip emitter tubing encircling the plant (4, 1/2-gph emitters, spaced 6" apart).

Correa pulchella ‘Pink Eyre’
"This small Australian shrub cultivar was a consistently high performer on all irrigation levels in our trials. There were no significant differences in growth or overall appearance ratings between treatments with all levels achieving an average overall appearance of 4.0 (very good) or above. What is significant to note is that the lowest irrigation treatment in the shade received no irrigation until almost the end of the trial period on September 27! They reached an average height and width of 36.5” x 57” (93 x 146 cm). Since flowering for this species occurs in the fall through winter, the flowering during the trial period attributable to irrigation was only evident in October, when the fascinating result was that the 80% treatment had 3 plants in bloom, the 60% treatment had 4 plants in bloom, the 40% treatment had 5 plants in bloom, and the 20% had all 6 plants in bloom. The flowering ratings are not included in the quality ratings table, since all the plants had very few blooms open and were mostly in bud, which would have resulted in a universal rating of ‘1’. The pink, bell-shaped flowers were an attractive feature for a long period of time in the fall and winter preceding treatment and would be an asset to the low-water shade landscape."

Dianella caerulea ‘King Alfred’
 "Another Australian native cultivar, this was a lovely, lush, grass-like plant with pale violet blue flowers on long stalks which were followed by bright purple berry-like fruits. Flowering was not dense enough to be the major feature of the plant, however, and the stalks, which came up straight beginning in March, had a tendency to lodge toward the southeast by May. We attribute this to our prevailing winds from the northwest in spring. In a more protected area, or even with higher solar radiation (potentially yielding shorter, stouter stalks), this may not be a problem. Any apparent differences in growth between treatments were statistically insignificant; average height and width at the end of the trial was 43” x 61” (111 x 154.5 cm). A moderate mealybug infestation appeared late in the trial period in September. While one plant on each of the highest treatments had some level of the pest, the two lower irrigation treatments had two (20% ET0) and 3 (40%) plants seriously affected. For this reason, the 40% ET0 treatment had significantly lower pest tolerance and overall appearance ratings (Table 14). There seemed to be some field-position related effect, but the difference couldn’t be completely correlated to that. Due to the double stress of the pest pressure and lower irrigation level, the overall appearance of the two lowest levels in October was really unacceptable. Our recommended level of irrigation for this cultivar is 60% ET0, which for us in a moderately heavy soil was a deep soak every 6 weeks, or three times during the summer."

Lomandra ‘Lomlon’
 "We will note here that this plant’s genetics are controversial, and it is currently marketed under both the names ‘Lime Tough’ and ‘Lime Tuff’. We previously evaluated this cultivar in full sun when it was being marketed under the name ‘Bushland Green’, and it received high marks, especially on the lowest irrigation level. The American patent holder wanted to see how it would perform in shade as well. The most notable difference was that the form became less stiffly upright and more relaxed and fountain-form in the shade, while the color was also a somewhat deeper lime green (Figures 13a-b). The plants consistently received high overall ratings scores on all treatments, with the lowest irrigation level once again scoring marginally highest. No significant differences in size between treatments were found. The ability to thrive in sun or shade on any irrigation level makes this Lomandra one of the most adaptable plants to the landscape that we have evaluated."

Ribes viburnifolium ‘Spooner’s Mesa’
 "Having previously evaluated the species in our trials, we were curious to see what differences this cultivar might display. The straight species tends to send out long new stems with leaves scattered somewhat far apart, so the most notable difference of ‘Spooner’s Mesa’ was the shorter internodes, making the average size somewhat smaller, and the overall appearance more dense, uniform, and appealing. The pleasantly herbal fragrance the foliage emits when brushed up against also seemed more pronounced. There were no significant differences in growth between treatments. Quality ratings were unaffected by irrigation level and were consistently very good throughout the summer, making this a great candidate for the low-water shade garden (Figures 11a-b). As with the straight species, this cultivar did not flower during the two years of the trial. The average height and width at the end of the trial was 28” x 70” (71.5 x 178 cm)"


2011-2013 Plant Trials  (link includes plants for both sun and shade)

Plants for Shade:
Berberis aquifolium ‘Compacta’ (Compact Oregon Grape)
 "The 40% treatment (irrigated twice during the summer) yielded consistently the highest quality ratings. Native species can be slow to establish."

Festuca californica (California Fescue)
"When visiting our trials field, Ellen Zagory, public horticulture director for the UCD Arboretum, remarked that our specimens were the best looking she had ever seen. Its first year in the ground it was the victim of some rabbit damage during the winter, but once the holes in the fence were patched up, most plants recovered well. This California native grass really performed beautifully in 50% shade, producing well-formed plants with good flowering and an attractive overall appearance even on the lowest irrigation treatment of 20% (no summer water). The 60 and 80% irrigation treatments (watering every 5-6 weeks and 2 weeks, respectively) unsurprisingly yielded the largest plants, with the 60% rate being favored somewhat throughout the season. However, if the overall appearance ratings are averaged for just the months of irrigation (rather than the entire year), the highest ratings are the 20 and 40% treatments! So, at least for this species, bigger is not necessarily better."

Neomarica caerulea (Walking Iris)
"The walking iris is a little grown plant, but with potential for dry shade gardens since its foliage is tall and striking throughout the year. The only notable difference in size between treatments was a slight advantage of the 80% over the 20% during the last two months of summer. The significance of the difference faded , however, with the first fall rain. As with the Festuca, the highest overall appearance ratings did not go to the largest plants but to the smallest on the 20% treatment. This is understandable when you take into consideration that taller more succulent leaves are prone to bending over in the breeze and creasing. The 80% treatment did have the highest flowering rating, but the flowers, though beautiful, are small, very fleeting, and not the main feature of this plant.
Both Ventura and Orange County recommended the iris for their area as a tall striking plant for dry shade."

Sollya heterophylla (Australian bluebell creeper)
"The Australian bluebell creeper turned out to be one of the favorites in our irrigation trials with its year-round fresh green foliage and dainty blue flowers in summer. There were no differences in growth attributable to irrigation levels, and the quality ratings were very close."

More plants for dry shade from the 2011-2013 trials: Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Iris ‘Canyon Snow’
Dianella tasmanica
Cordyline ‘Festival Grass’
Cordyline ‘Purple'
Abelia ‘Sunshine Daydream’
Ligustrum sinense ‘Sunshine’


From the UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars Collection (
Very Low Water Use Plants for Shade 

(only two irrigations per summer)

Aristolochia californica - California pipevine
California native plant; leaves provide food for pipevine swallowtail butterfly larvae; versatile plant that can be used as a climbing vine or a groundcover.

Calycanthus occidentalis - western spice bush
California native plant; maroon-red flowers attract pollinating beetles; leaves have a sharp, clean fragrance and turn yellow in the autumn, adding seasonal color to the garden.

Cyclamen hederifolium - ivy leaf cyclamen
Scented rose-pink or white flowers bloom in late summer and early fall before the leaves emerge; ornamental silver-marked foliage sparkles in dry shady gardens; tolerates a wide variety of soil types and can also grow well in containers.

Cyrtomium falcatum - Japanese holly fern
Evergreen fern with dramatic, dark-green glossy fronds that resemble holly leaves; provides a lush look in dark shady areas of the garden; can tolerate high-mineral irrigation water.

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ - winter daphne
Shiny variegated leaves are attractive all year; requires little maintenance; intensely fragrant flowers perfume cool winter air.

Helleborus argutifolius
- Corsican hellebore
Long-lasting, pale-green flowers brighten the winter garden; needs little maintenance and tolerates dry shade; stiff, gray-green foliage adds sculptural interest to the garden year round.

Heuchera ‘Lillian’s Pink - Lillian’s pink coral bells
California native plant; bright pink flowers attract bees and hummingbirds; excellent groundcover for small shady areas or borders.

Heuchera ‘Rosada’ - rosada coral bells
California native plant; one of the best flowering perennials for dry shade; introduced to the nursery trade by the UC Davis Arboretum.

Heuchera maxima - island alumroot
California native plant; a good informal groundcover for dry shade; tolerates heavy clay soils; frilly green leaves look good all year.

Neomarica caerulea - walking iris
Accent plant with arching, sword-like leaves; produces clusters of gorgeous, intricately-patterned, violet-blue flowers; blooms repeatedly in partial shade during the hottest part of the summer.

Ribes viburnifolium
- evergreen currant
California native plant; good shade-tolerant groundcover under native oaks and in other dry, shady areas; shiny and fragrant foliage looks attractive all year; attracts hummingbirds and beneficial insects. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Why Are Roses in Vineyards?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about these products:

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tips for Golden Age Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Growing Your First Vegetable Garden? Some Tips.

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

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

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

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

Good sources of information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep tools in a dry place to prevent rust.