Saturday, December 16, 2017

3 Tips for Easier Gardening

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

Buying a wheelbarrow?  Replace that inflatable tire with a foam filled tire. Yes, that foam-filled tire/wheel combination may set you back an extra $35-40, but you will never again have to worry about a flat tire. Or purchase new inner tubes. Or buy that gooey "fix-a-flat" stuff. Or spend your first ten minutes in the garden each day with the air pump. This goes double for any gardener with an extensively thorny berry patch, where wheeling that barrow can easily cause punctures.

Shopping for garden pruners? Buy quality pruning equipment, and shop at a store that also carries replacement parts for those pruners. That is also true when choosing any sort of garden cutting device, including needle-nose nippers (for cut flowers, fruits, vegetables), pruning hand saws, bow saws, loppers and chain saws. And don't base your purchase on brand name alone. Felco, Corona, Fiskars and other manufacturers do make high quality (and high priced) pruners. But they also may produce inexpensive lines of pruners for the big box stores and chain stores. 

For example, that $10 bypass pruner by Fiskars may not have replaceable blades, a replaceable latch or even the ability to disassemble the unit for cleaning, sharpening and oiling. But the $50 bypass pruners from Felco do have a removable nut so that you can replace and clean the blades, as well as being a better design that may be more comfortable for extended use. The cheaper models might last a year; a good hand pruner by Felco or Corona can last a lifetime, with proper care. One of my favorites is the Felco F-7 (pictured below, on the left). It has a rotating handle that eases the strain on the fingers and hand during a long day of pruning.

One other tip: for general pruning chores, choose bypass hand pruners instead of anvil pruners. Anvil pruners crush the stem, and can leave a messy cut that may invite pests and disease if that branch is alive. Anvil pruners are fine for your cut flower garden (sealing the moisture in the stem until you get the flowers into a vase of water) or for removing completely dead branches. For more information (and some rather stern opinions from local gardening experts), here's a link to more about Anvil vs. Bypass pruners.

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

A tip: Not sure what size fitting you need for your drip line? Take a piece of your existing half inch tubing with you to the store, to make sure that the fittings (couplers, tees, elbows) you purchase will, indeed, fit. 

Another tip: note the color on the ends of the couplers, tees, and elbows that you already own and use. Buy the same color when shopping for more of those parts.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Living Christmas Trees: The Good, The Mediocre, The Pretenders


Looking for an alternative to the annual holiday household display of a decorated dead evergreen?

Consider a living Christmas tree instead. If chosen wisely and treated correctly, this Yuletide addition 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:

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.


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


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".

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. 

Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). 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, probably more water than our wallets should spend on plant survival. During the last decade, many coast redwoods have been suffering from crown rot diseases, with extensive dieback, usually starting in the upper canopy of the tree. Our area's propensity for years-long drought conditions may be causing the coast redwood to be a poor choice for a long life here.

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.