California is famous for its wine grapes, but did you know it is easy to grow your own table grapes at home?
Not only will you get sweet, luscious grapes, but the vines can be trained over a patio or pergola, providing a nice shady spot in summer!
How to grow grapes
Pruning grape vines
The variety of grapes being grown determines which of two pruning methods to use.
Grapes are either spur-pruned or cane-pruned. This is because different grape varieties produce fruit on different bud spurs.
‘Thompson Seedless’ and ‘Concord’ are cane-pruned grapes. Cane-pruned grapes should be pruned so that 2-4 horizontal arms (‘bilateral cordons’) can be trained along each of the horizontal trellis wires. One cane-pruning method is called the Four Arm Kniffen method and the University of Maine offers an excellent how-to video here.
Spur-pruned grapes are more productive so it is necessary to limit their crop to only two canes per wire. ‘Flame Seedless’, ‘Tokay’, and ‘Ribier’ are spur-pruned grapes.
In either case, you will want to trim each cane to have no more than 14 spurs. Otherwise, all the plant’s energy will go into vegetative growth, rather than producing grapes.
While most of a grape vine’s roots are in the top 3’ of soil, some of those roots can go down as much as 15’ deep! Grapes perform best when they are watered deeply and allowed to dry out between waterings. The amount of water needed depends on the type of soil, the depth of the roots, and the weather. At the peak of summer, grape wines may need 8-10 gallons of water per day, if a drip system is being used. On average, a deep watering every 2-3 weeks, during summer, is adequate. During cooler or wet weather, little or no water is needed. Once your vines have bloomed, it is important to water regularly, rather than allowing the soil to dry out. As fruit develops, erratic watering can lead to water-stress and cracked fruit.
Feeding grape vines
If grapes are being grown in rich soil, nothing needs to be added. Too many nutrients can reduce or eliminate fruit production. Remember, in the plant world, it’s all about reproduction. Grapes are the reproductive part of the vine. If the plant doesn’t feel the need to reproduce, it won’t.
Assuming your soil isn’t perfectly rich, nitrogen and potassium can be added before berry set. (‘Berry set’ is when the grapes are 1/4” in diameter.) Zinc should only be added before the vines bloom. The only way to know if these additives are needed is to have your soil tested by a reputable lab.
To reduce the chance of pest problems, harvest grapes as soon as they taste ripe. Unripe grapes will not ripen off the vine. Grape clusters should be cut, not pulled, from the vine, and then cooled after being harvested. Do not rinse grapes off before storing them. Do that just before eating.
Pests & diseases of grapes
Spider mites, aphids, mealybugs, cutworms, thrips, click beetles, leafhoppers, branch and twig borers, and ants can infest grape vines. Diseases such as Eutypa Dieback and Pierce’s Disease can infect grape vines and powdery mildew is a common problem. Birds and rodents can also wreck havoc on your harvest. Monitor grape vines regularly for these pests and diseases to ensure timely control. Contact your local County Extension office for information specific to your region.
While grape vines take some time to become productive, an established grape vine can produce fruit for 50-100 years! Only one or two vines are needed to provide a family with an abundance of grapes.
Get yours started today!
The bright orange flesh of butternut squash is a primary ingredient in rich, creamy soups, substantial casseroles, and delicious pies! This winter* squash can be stored for a surprisingly long time, plus, it’s easy to grow! This plant is a no-brainer. Once it gets going, you can pretty much ignore it until harvest time.
Butternut squash lifecycle
Butternut squash is a member of the cucurbit family. Cucurbits are unique in that they produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. Insects, especially bees, are attracted to the large, showy blooms. As these beneficial insects travel from flower to flower, pollination occurs. Female flowers can be identified by the immature fruit seen at the base of the flower. Male flowers have a ‘beard’ at the base that easily breaks off. (Male flowers can be deep fried, stuffed with cheese and baked, or sautéed in an omelet!)
How to grow butternut squash
Butternut squash grows best in full sun, though I have grown abundant crops under well-pruned fruit trees. You can use seeds from a butternut squash bought at the grocery store or buy a packet. This is a deep-rooted plant, making it well suited to areas experiencing drought. Butternut squash does not need particularly fertile soil and it can go weeks without watering. If larger leaves start to wilt, water deeply. There is no need to fertilize butternut squash.
Pests & diseases of butternut squash
Butternut squash is prone to root rot, so avoid overwatering. Seedlings are susceptible to damping off disease when the soil is too cold or too wet. Slugs and snails, caterpillars and cucumber beetles will attack young plants. Later in the season, aphids, spider mites and whiteflies can cause problems. Powdery mildew and other fungal diseases are common, but they rarely kill the plant or harm the fruit.
This is one of those ‘partly true, partly myth’ situations in the garden. Traditional folklore warns gardeners against growing squash, cucumbers, and melons near each other. The claim suggests that cross-pollination will occur, affecting the taste of the produce. Since pollination can only happen with pollen of the same species, this cannot really happen. What can happen is cross-pollination between varieties of the same species. Cucumbers and melons are a different species, so they will not cross-pollinate with each other or other members of the cucurbit family.
Summer squash, pumpkins, gourds and some winter squash, all being members of the same family, can cross-pollinate. This pollination will create viable fruit identical to the mother plant. The genetic changes can only be seen in the seeds that are produced. If you save seeds like I do, this may result in something really unique growing next year. Sometimes it will be edible and sometimes it won’t. Butternut squash will cross pollinate with pumpkins, so you’ll want to keep them as far apart as possible. Oddly shaped fruit and poor taste are usually the result of over fertilized soil, too much irrigation, or damp weather, and not weird cross-pollinations.
Harvesting & storing butternut squash
The more often you harvest the fruit, the more fruit the plant will produce. In the plant world, reproduction is the name of the game. Fruits can be eaten right away or allowed to dry out, or cure, for later use. Fruits can be allowed to cure on the vine or removed and stored in a cool, dry location.
*Squashes are classified as either ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ varieties. This has nothing to do with when they are grown, Rather, it relates to when they are eaten. Winter squashes have thick, heavy duty skins that allow you to store them for several months. (I’ve stored some successfully for nearly a year!)
Basil is one of the easiest culinary herbs to grow, indoors or out.
This member of the mint family may not be as rugged as many of its cousins, but you’ll be glad you planted basil when it’s dinnertime!
Basil seeds are used in Thai cooking and the leaves are used to make many amazing dishes. Aromatic basil leaves, julienned with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, make a delightful summer Caprese salad, and what would pesto be without basil?!!?
There are many varieties of basil. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the most common, but you can also find these varieties:
How to grow basil
As a tender annual, basil needs temperatures ofe at least 70ºF to grow. Start too soon and you’ll just waste seeds. Basil loves hot weather, but may benefit from a little afternoon shade if your summers are really scorching. I plant mine slightly east of a small apricot tree and the basil does well there. If you are growing basil in a container, be sure to use one that is large enough to hang onto some moisture.
Start seeds indoors, 6-8 weeks before warmer temperatures are expected, to get a big head start on the growing season, increasing yield. You can also start basil from cuttings placed in a glass of water. This is an excellent way to make many plants out of a single plant!
Basil seeds should be planted 1/4” deep. The soil should be kept moist, but not soggy. In 5-7 days, seeds should germinate. It is easy to recognize basil seed leaves because they look like two capital D’s, facing away from each other.
Seedlings need 12-18” between plants to reach full size. A 2-3” layer of mulch place around the young plants will help retain moisture and reduce weeds.
Basil needs 6-8 hours of sunlight a day and it prefers well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-7.5. Depending on rainfall and temperatures, basil will need to be watered deeply every 7-10 days. Since basil is food, think twice about using any chemical pesticides.
(BTW, ignore basil plants for sale in the grocery store. They look lush and full, but what they really are is overcrowded and root bound. If you try to separate the plants, it will damage the roots too much. Leave them the way they are and they will simply choke themselves to death. Even if they survive, air flow problems can lead to fungal disease. I use organic, non-GMO seeds from High Mowing Seeds.
Basil pests & diseases
Aphids, spider mites, nematodes, cutworms, slugs and snails, mealy bugs, and fungal diseases can all cause problems on basil. Ensuring good air flow between plants and proper watering make a big difference in basil health. Too much water can cause root disease. Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Monitor plants for aphids, slugs and snails. Aphids can be dislodged with a strong stream of water from the hose. Slugs and snails can be handpicked or baited. Adding a ring of wood ashes around each plant can help protect them against cutworms and diatomaceous earth can reduce mealybug damage. Planting nasturtiums nearby can entice aphids away from basil. Aphids prefer nasturtiums, so you get more basil! Row covers can be used to protect basil from many of these pests.
Basil makes an excellent companion plant to asparagus, carrots, sweet peppers, and tomatoes. Apparently, asparagus beetles, carrot flies and tomato hornworms don’t share our love of basil. While there is no scientific proof, many gardeners believe flies, mosquitoes and whiteflies are also repelled by basil. Whether it works or not, I can’t plant enough of this delicious herb!
Snip fresh leaves any time they are needed in the kitchen. If more than a few leaves are needed, or if the plant is getting leggy, cut just above a pair of leaves to stimulate new branching. Regular trimming will keep the plant productive. The basic rule of thumb is to pinch a stem just above a pair of leaves as soon as a stem has 5 or 6 leaves on it. If basil is allowed to go to flower and seed, the leaves may begin to taste slightly bitter. (The bees will love it, though!) Basil flowers are edible and they look lovely in a salad or candied and used to decorate baked goods.
Basil leaves can be dried or frozen. To dry basil, cut the stems and rinse off any dust, insects or microorganisms. Then pat dry and hang the basil stems upside down until the leaves have dried out completely, just as you would with lavender and other herbs. Once the leaves have dried out completely, they can be removed from the stems by rolling them between your hands over a sheet of wax paper. Store in a dark, dry location. (I use spice jars that used to hold something else and that have been thoroughly washed and dried.) To freeze fresh basil leaves, rinse them off, pat dry and remove from the stem. Leaves can be frozen whole (not recommended) or pureed and then frozen in ice cube trays for easy portion control. My very favorite use for basil is pesto, which can transform everyday pasta, chicken, or pork into something truely delicious!
If you have a large container, you can create a lovely miniature herb garden by planting parsley, chives, oregano and basil together. The spiky chives, trailing oregano and bushy parsley and basil make a lovely arrangement that tastes even better than it looks!
Many people wish they could garden, but think they can’t because of where they live. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Container plants can grow on window sills and in sunny rooms without the addition of artificial light, assuming the area receives 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. Grow lights can also be used for even better growth. Growing edible plants serves many purposes: cleaner air, tastier food, less fossil fuels being burned, and, hey, container gardening is fun!
Window sill garden resources
Start your window sill garden by figuring out what resources are available with these questions:
Choosing plants for your window sill gardens
The next step is deciding what to plant. Being grown indoors, many of these plants will need to be hand-pollinated, but it's not difficult.
Window sill garden containers
The next step is selecting container(s). This is an excellent time to go outside and start walking around the neighborhood. It is astounding what people will throw away these days. Very often, the perfect container can be found just by walking around with an open mind and mindful eyes.
Just be sure to provide drainage for container plants. Overwatering and poor drainage kill more indoor plants than everything else put together. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a good idea to add rocks at the bottom of planting containers. Rocks take up valuable soil space and provide fungal spores with a great place to reproduce. Just be sure there are a couple of holes at the base of plant containers to allow water a way to escape. Place tuna cans, coffee canister lids or plastic packaging under plant containers to catch excess water. A few container possibilities include:
WARNING: IF A CONTAINER IS GOING TO BE USED TO GROW EDIBLE PLANTS, BE SURE THE CONTAINER IS SAFE FOR FOOD. MANY PLASTICS AND CERAMIC GLAZES CAN BE TOXIC.
Soil for your windowsill garden
There are several sources for soil for container plants:
Seeds & plants for windowsill gardens
It’s time to plant!
Plants are more likely to grow to their full potential if they are planted according to the directions on the seed packet. If the information isn’t available, Google it!
To get fruit from some plants, especially fruit trees, the flowers will need to be hand-pollinated. Just grab a small paint brush, Q-tip or something similar, and touch it to each of the flowers every couple of days until the flowers start to turn brown. This bee-ly duty will transfer pollen from one flower to another, completing the pollination cycle. Self-pollinating varieties don’t need this.
That’s all there is to it! The only thing stopping you from gardening now is, I have to say it, YOU!
Your tiny seedlings looked perfect yesterday, full of hope and promise. This morning, their stems are pinched and they are bent over, never to recover. What happened?!!?
Causes of seedling loss
There are many causes of seed and seedling loss. To prevent future losses, it is important to identify the culprit:
If none of these pests are killing the seedlings, you may be facing damping-off disease. Damping-off is caused by fungi and fungi-like organisms that clog the arteries of seedlings. Damping-off disease can also attack seeds and roots.
Seeds and seedlings are very susceptible to this fungal disease. The fungal spores can survive in the soil for a very long time. As the spores enter, they migrate to the water-carrying xylem, where they are carried throughout the plant. Then they start reproducing at a mind-boggling rate, clogging the xylem and killing the plant. If you examine the stems of fallen seedlings, you will see a discolored, pinched area. This is a clear sign of damping-off disease.
How to prevent damping-off disease
Since infected plants and seeds are doomed, prevention is your only course of action. First, fungi and their cousins love wet ground. Obviously, plants need water, too, so there will be times when the ground is wet. You can reduce the likelihood of damping-off and other fungal diseases with these garden tips:
Protect seedlings from damping-off disease and other pests for a richer harvest this fall.
THIS PAGE HAS BEEN REMOVED IN LIGHT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY'S WITHDRAWN CLAIM THAT SOME COMPANION PLANTING CLAIMS ARE VALID.
AS SOON AS I HAVE TIME, THIS POST WILL BE REPLACED WITH INFORMATION ON INTERCROPPING.
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. This is especially true when it comes to water in the soil.
Heavy rains (or poorly managed sprinklers) can lead to water stress just as easily as drought. Water stressed plants quickly become susceptible to pests and diseases they would normally be able to handle on their own.
Root rot is a common result of over-watering and poor drainage, especially in houseplants. Once root rot occurs, the plant is doomed.
Symptoms of root rot
One sign of root rot is the presence of fungus gnats. These tiny black flying insects love to eat decomposing organic matter. Wilting is another common symptom of root rot. Leaves may turn red, purple, or yellow. You may also notice darkened areas in the bark at ground level. If you peel the outer bark away, you may see reddish-brown streaks within the inner bark.
Preventing root rot
Since root rot will kill your plants, prevention is paramount. These tips can help:
Water is a precious resource and there is no sense in wasting it, especially when it threatens the health of your plants. You may be surprised at how little water plants really need. In light of the current drought, our household has reduced water consumption to only 25% of what it was 3 years ago. I was still able to produce hundreds of pounds of food while maintaining the health of my landscape.
How do you conserve water in your garden?
Yet another member of the mint family, lavender has been used to sooth upset stomach, irritated skin, and bad hair days for over 2,500 years.
The essential oils found in lavender have sedative, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties and they smell wonderful! The word ‘lavender’ comes from the Latin verb which means ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe’.
Sachets, soaps, linen spritz, soup, and even frosting are all made better with the addition of lavender. Flowers can be candied and used to decorate baked goods. Teas, chocolates, and cheeses have all enjoyed the addition of lavender. At the same time, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not recommend lavender for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or to pre-adolescent boys, due to potential hormonal problems. For some people, lavender can cause skin irritation.
This easy to grow perennial can add color to practically any garden. Lavender can also be used as an insect repellent. Simply snip off a stem and rub the leaves on exposed skin - it smells a heck of a lot better than bug spray!
How to grow lavender
Being from a rocky Mediterranean terrain, lavender prefers hot, dry weather. If you live in an area that gets too cold or wet, lavender can be planted in a pot and brought it indoors for winter. A lavender’s root system is significantly bigger than the above-ground portion of the plant, so use a rather large container. Lavender can be grown from seeds, cuttings, layering or root division.
When selecting a site, keep in mind that lavender does best where there is plenty of air flow and good sun, and they can live for 50 years! Sites with poor drainage can cause root rot, black mold, and other fungal diseases. Aged compost can be added to heavy clay soil to improve drainage. Mulching around lavender plants with sand, white stones or oyster shells will reflect light into the plant and help avoid fungal disease. Lavender grows beautifully in rock gardens! Because air is so important to lavender, be sure to work the soil so that it is loose enough to dig into it with your hands before planting. Also, keep in mind the mature size of the variety. Some of them can reach 5’ across! Lavender prefers slightly alkaline soil, with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3, so the Bay area is a great place to grow it.
Lavender seeds take a long time to grow (up to 6 months to reach transplant size), and many varieties are not viable. If you want to start from seed, I recommend using peat pots filled with seed starter mix. The peat pots allows youngsters to be transplanted into the garden without disturbing their roots. Lavender seeds are very tiny, so only cover them lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Lavender seeds will not germinate below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so a window sill is a good place to start. As seedling emerge, they must be gently and gradually acclimated to outdoor temperatures. To acclimate young plants, put them in a sheltered area with partial sun for an hour, at first, building up to full days and full sun over the next two weeks. Water occasionally, but allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
Lavender loves to eat phosphorous, so bone meal is a good soil addition. Just sprinkle it around the plant and work it into the top inch of soil, or water it in. Mindful weed removal during the first 2 years of a lavender’s life will go a long way toward establishing a healthy, long-lived plant.
There are over 35 species of lavender, with more than 250 named varieties. Generally, they are categorized as either ‘hardy’ or ‘tender’. Hardy English (or Dutch) lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia or L. intermedia) are the most commonly grown. Both varieties are hardy to Zone 5. Tender lavenders include Spike, Wooly, Egyptian, Spanish, and my all-time favorite, French lavender. Tender lavenders generally cannot handle frost. If an especially cold period is expected, tender lavenders can be protected with a cloth cover for a time. Zones 1-4 are better suited to hardy varieties. When shopping for lavender, be sure to look at the label for the botanical name, so you know what you are getting.
Lavender should be harvested when the first florets open, after the first year of growth. Stalks should be removed just above new stem growth (see photo). Long-stemmed hardy varieties can be bundled and hung upside-down in a dark place to dry. Shorter-stemmed tender varieties, which tend to lose their flowers as they dry, can be threaded and hung in a pillowcase, so none of the flowers are lost (and the pillowcase smells lovely). I hang my lavender in the guest room closet. It stays dark and the aroma is soothing to overnight guests.
Lavender winter care & pruning
Many people think that their lavender has died over the winter, but that is rarely the case. In early autumn, simply cut back the green portion of the plants until only a couple of inches of green remain. This will help your lavender look nicer during the winter and it will stimulate lush growth in spring.
Some lavender plants fall open in the middle, a condition called ‘sprawling’. This happens when the weight of new growth is more than the plant can support. In the wild, this is a great behavior because it allows new shoots resting on the ground to generate new plants. In your landscape, however, it won’t look as nice. You can prevent sprawling by pruning back 1/3 of the plant in spring, then pruning back 1/3 of the new growth. This will create a nice shape and it will help the plant remain upright and full. You may see frothy areas on your lavender plants. These are caused by spittlebugs. Simply spray these pests off with a hose and prune your lavender plants for better air flow.
Endosperm is the starchy material found within a seed that feeds a baby plant (and us). This is where all those carbs are stored! The wheat used to make bread and the barley used to make beer are both endosperm. The popcorn and coconut we eat are also endosperm.
When double-fertilization occurs, one male gamete becomes the baby plant and the other is used to create endosperm. This behavior is exclusive to flowering plants (angiosperm). Some plants, such as orchids, lack endosperm. (Maybe that’s why they’re so tricky to grow…)
Endosperm is mostly starch, but it also contains small amounts of oil and protein. Some seeds, such as sunflowers, contain a lot more oil than others. In some plants, like beans, the endosperm is completely absorbed as the new plant grows. In others, mostly grains and corn, the endosperm is stored. This storage occurs in the cotyledon.
As you begin planting seeds in spring, you can improve germination rates by using seeds that look full and undamaged, providing plenty of moisture, and waiting until temperatures are consistently warm enough. (I know, it’s hard to wait, but it’s worth it.)
In some cases, scarification is needed to initiate germination and the absorption of endosperm. Scarification occurs naturally when freezing temperatures or fire occur. These conditions damage the seed coat, allowing moisture a way to enter. Many wild plants require scarification, including indigo, wild roses and licorice. You can scarify a seed by nicking it with a sharp blade.
Does pollen make you sneeze?
Bees, beetles, and butterflies may love to eat pollen, but people can suffer mightily as flowering plants begin their rites of spring.
Pollen is the plant equivalent of sperm. These tiny, often yellow, particles fertilize the ovule to create seeds and fruit.
A flower can be male or female or both. The male stamen consists of a filament that holds up the anther, which contains pollen. The female pistil is made up of the receptive stigma, a tube-like style, and the ovary, at the base, which contains the ovule, or embryo sac. When all these things work together properly, pollination occurs.
But what makes pollen so problematic?
Many people mistakenly blame goldenrod for their allergies. I say mistakenly because goldenrod pollen is spread by animals. Most allergies are caused by airborne pollen, such as ragweed and grass. Many trees, such as oak, hickory and birch also cause allergic reactions.
The real problem with pollen is that it is incredibly sticky, and many varieties are spiky, too. That’s great if you’re a receptive female flower, but it stinks if you’re allergic. You can’t just wipe it off. At the height of spring, when airborne pollen is being flung to every breeze, it gets on everything: your clothes, your face, even your eyelashes! The only way to get rid of it is to wash with soap and water.
If you grow nothing else, grow herbs.
Herbs require minimal care and they repay your efforts in spades. Not only do they add flavor to food, but many herbs can be used to make excellent teas, fragrant sachets, insect repellants, and home decor.
Like other plants, herbs can be annual or perennial. Perennial plants keep coming back. while annuals tend to die off each year and must be replaced. Most herbs require a lot of sunlight. If you are growing indoors in containers, you may need to supplement light. Herbs are well-suited to container gardening, or they can be put in the ground. Below, you will find basic information for several popular herbs.
At my house, we can simply never have too much pesto, so basil gets its own raised bed. Basil is a bit more delicate that many other herbs, so don’t plant it outside until well after the last frost date. It grows nicely indoors, as long as it gets enough light. As your basil grows, you can pinch it off just above where two leaves are emerging to stimulate two new stems to grow and produce more leaves. Basil is delicious, but is also has some surprising health benefits. One-half cup of fresh basil provides 98% of your Vitamin K daily requirement and the oils in basil have been shown to inhibit several species of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
Snip, snip, snip and your baked potato is transformed! Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow. They make an excellent kitchen window plant or they can be grown outdoors. As a perennial, it will come back, year after year. The onion-scented flowers are edible and they add a nice color to salads. Chives should be planted 12-18” apart and you can expect them to slowly spread on their own. Water regularly and make sure the soil provides good drainage.
It wouldn’t be salsa without cilantro, and your body will thank you for adding this pungent herb to your collection. Cilantro has been shown to suppress lead accumulation and, if it goes to seed, you have coriander! Cilantro grows easily from seed and can reach a height of 18-24”. Plants should be spaced at least 10” apart and they make excellent companion plants to spinach, beans and peas. It repels (or distracts) aphids, spider mites, potato beetles and whiteflies. Cilantro prefers soil that drains easily and LOTS of sunlight, but the roots do not like being disturbed. This tends to cause them to bolt and go to seed.
Lemon balm is a lovely, easy to grow, flavorful perennial herb that can grow pretty much anywhere. Traditionally, lemon balm tea has been used to reduce digestive upset and restlessness. Run your hand over the leaves and you’ll see why. The aroma is calming and that’s because the oils on the leaves have sedative properties! Like other members of the mint family, lemon balm can spread. Mature plants can be 2-3’ tall, but some varieties grow more like a ground cover. Lemon balm can be grown in full sun or partial shade and it does best when it is cut back (harvested) regularly. Unlike many other herbs that increase and improve their flavor when dried, lemon balm is best used fresh.
Spearmint, peppermint, and chocolate mint love to grow in shady, moist spots in areas facing drought or extreme heat. Otherwise they can grow well in full sun. These plants will spread like crazy, so containers are a good idea. Also, mint tends to get leggy, so regular pruning will help keep it attractive. Mint has long been a popular culinary and medicinal herb. You may be surprised to learn that thyme, oregano, lemon balm, lambs’ ears, salvia, lavender, rosemary, sage, summer savory, anise hyssop and basil are all members of the Mint family (Lamiacaea)! You can start mint from seeds, tender new growth, or rooted stems that have touched the ground.
Another member of the mint family, oregano pairs perfectly with tomatoes. Oregano has been used for centuries to treat respiratory and digestive problems. Oregon can grow in some pretty awful soil, as long as the drainage is good and it’s not too dense. Generally, oregano prefers to be dry. Oregano grows easily form seed. Mature plants may reach a height of 12-18”, but many varieties stay close to the ground. Oregano makes a lovely hanging plant, as well. New oregano plants don’t have much flavor. It takes time and hardship for an oregano plant to reach their full potential. Leaves should be harvested only after flowers appear.
Parsley is a kitchen mainstay and an excellent source of Vitamins A, B12, C, and K. Parsley is a biennial, which means it takes 2 years to go to seed. Parsley seeds should be soaked in warm water overnight before planting. Since parsley has a taproot, it prefers a rather deep pot. Once established, you can snip off bits as you need them - or snag a quick vitamin boost or breath freshener, as you garden. You can grow parsley in full sun or partial shade. They make great kitchen window plants, for easy harvesting!
This plant is a workhorse, indoors or out. Run your hand over its branches and the heady aroma expands around you and it stays on your hand for a good while. Rosemary is excellent on pork, beef, in soups, and chutney. According to WebMD, rosemary is also used to aid digestion, ease gout, eczema, and joint pain, repel insects, and it can help wounds heal more quickly! It’s supposed to reduce age-related memory problems, but I don’t remember how… To grow rosemary, get the smallest plant you can find, or take cuttings from tender new growth, put them in rich soil, and water lightly and frequently, at first, to help them get established. You can also get new plants from branches of existing shrubs, where they have touched the ground and put down new roots. Be forewarned, a mature rosemary plant can easy become 3’ tall and 5’ wide, with the right growing conditions. Honey bees and other beneficial insects love rosemary, but it seems to repel undesirables. (If you live near me and would like a cutting, just let me know.)
Turkey dressing, sausage, and some cheeses just wouldn’t be the same without sage. If taste weren’t reason enough, research has shown that consuming sage can lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels and improve your thinking process! Sage plants prefer rich clay loam and they can get pretty big. A healthy, mature sage plant can reach 3’ in diameter and in height, so plan accordingly! Sage needs plenty of nitrogen, so regular feeding with blood meal is a good idea. Be sure to harvest leaves before the plant flowers for the best flavor.
Tarragon has a shallow root system, so it makes a lovely container plant. It is a good source of potassium and it is said to be able to treat digestive problems and to fight certain bacteria. Tarragon is excellent on fish, vegetable dishes, egg dishes, in soup and white sauce. Once you get a tarragon plant established, you will have more of this herb than you will know what to do with. While it is growing, you won’t smell the distinctive aroma. It’s not until the leaves are harvested and oils become concentrated that the scent will become obvious. Tarragon can reach 2-3’ in height and it prefers moderate sun or a little shade during the hottest part of the day. Propagation is easiest through root division.
There are several types of thyme and they all smell delicious! There are upright and trailing varieties . This woody plant adds flavor to Italian dishes, marinades, eggs, and stews. Thyme oil is used to relieve stomach upset, sore throat, and as a germ killer in mouthwash. Thyme does not grow well from seed. You are better off starting with a young plant. Thyme prefers slightly alkaline soil, so it does well in the Bay area. Thyme is one of those plants that really does best if you leave it alone. It’s oily, woody stem, like rosemary, has evolved to hold moisture in and to repel pests. Interfering with its natural processes isn’t necessary. Thyme makes a lovely container plant. Mature plants can reach 12-18” in height and should be placed 18-24” away from other plants, to give it the room it needs to grow. Once a thyme plant is established, you can snip or break off branches as you need them, without harming the plant (within reason, of course). Since thyme grows slowly, weed control is important early in its life. You can mulch with straw to slow its competitors.
If there are any other herbs that you would like to grow, let me know in the comments section.
Many people assume they can’t garden because they live in an apartment, rent a room, or have a tiny yard. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nature finds a way to put plants everywhere except Antarctica and you can, too. Container gardening is an excellent way to work around space limitations (or grumpy landlords).
To container garden successfully, there are a few things to keep in mind: container selection, soil and nutrient needs, light requirements, and plant selection. You may also need to consider hand pollinating indoor plants.
This is where the fun really starts! Plants can be grown in practically anything that isn’t toxic. I have seen photos of toilets, trucks, and old boots being used as planting containers. You can hang a decorative net over a sunny window and plant climbing nasturtiums, peas, or beans in a nearby pot. Transform a bookcase into a vertical garden or put plants under a glass table top. You are limited only by your own imagination. All containers will need drainage holes. Also, if you will be moving plants indoors during winter, be sure they are not too heavy to lift, or use a plant stand with wheels.
WARNING: IF A CONTAINER IS GOING TO BE USED TO GROW EDIBLE PLANTS,
BE SURE IT IS SAFE FOR FOOD. MANY PLASTICS AND CERAMIC GLAZES CAN BE TOXIC.
Soil, nutrients, and water
Generally, there are two types of soil you can buy: planting soil and potting soil. You want potting soil in your containers because it is formulated to retain water and nutrients better than planting soil (which is for use in the ground). Avoid using soil that contains sedge peat - it interferes with drainage.
Over time, your container plants will use up nutrients in the soil. You can supplement with aged compost (my favorite), fertilizer, or changing out the potting soil every few years. That last one is pretty traumatic to root systems, so I don’t recommend it. Also, some plants will become root bound in containers. You can move these plants to a larger container or trim the roots.
Container plants need to be monitored closely for water stress. Overwatering is the biggest source of problems for container plants. It is important to let the soil dry out between waterings. At the same time, hanging plants and unglazed ceramic pots need to be watered more often in hot weather.
Most container plants need 6 or more hours of daylight each day. You may need to supplement with grow lights if your home, patio or balcony do not receive enough sunlight. I have heard good things about the Miracle LED 8 Watt Absolute Daylight Spectrum Grow Lite, but haven’t tried it yet. (If you have, please let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.)
Not all plants do well in containers. This is especially true for plants with taproots. If you are using containers to grow food, you’re in luck - most edible plants have fibrous roots that will do just fine in containers. Here are just a few delicious edibles you can grow in containers:
*A single packet of celery seeds contains up to 100 seeds. If you plant one seed a week in a window box, bucket, or a leaky hummingbird feeder, you can produce up to 200 pounds of celery over the next 2 years!
As long as you get a self-pollinating variety, you won’t need to pollinate by hand to get fruit. If hand pollination is necessary, simply use a small paintbrush and gently (with honey bee feet) touch the tip to each flower a couple of times every few days, until the flower starts to fade and fall apart. By doing this, you will take pollen grains from the anther and place them on the stigma. If you look carefully, you can actually see the pollen grains on the stigma! Sometimes, gently shaking self-fertile varieties is all you need to do to get the pollen grains where they need to go.
So, get out there and start gardening!
We’ve all heard about landscaping, but what about foodscaping?
Since our economic downturn of 2008, a surprising number of households have begun to grow some of their own food. Financial conditions aren’t the only reason. Heavy chemical use, monoculture, GMOs, and agricultural politics have also played a role. [How many hands and machines do you really want touching your food, anyway?]
Foodscaping, or edible landscaping, is a great way to make your yard more productive, while still being pretty. Rather than simply installing raised beds, container plants, and traditional rows to hoe, foodscaping uses food plants in place of more traditional (non-edible) landscape plants.
In practically every location, indoors and out, food plants can be grown in place of ornamentals. Before you transform your garden design, however, it is important to find out what you are working with, identify your microclimate, and decide what you will eat, using these tips:
Many landscapes feature boxwood hedges. Hedges add structure and privacy (once they become tall enough). Instead of boxwood, you can get the same effect while cutting your grocery bill with rosemary, American cranberry, natal plum, bush plum, blueberries, hazelnut, or pineapple guava.
Most landscapes feature ornamental shrubs that require regular pruning, feeding and watering. While they may look nice, they don’t produce food for your table. Instead of yet another arborvitae, barberry, or abelia, you can grow lavender, blueberry, raspberry, currant, gooseberry or bush plums.
Trees & vines
Fruit and nut trees are excellent investments in a foodscape. In addition to the shade, a single orange tree can produce 130 pounds of oranges each year, for 50-100 years. That’s a lot of citrus! Almond, peach, pear, nectarine, avocado, plum, cherry, fig, pecan, hazelnut, walnut, hickory, and apple trees can often produce more food than a single family can eat in a season! Luckily, there are plenty of ways to put food by, and friends and neighbors are usually very happy with gifts from your foodscape! If you have a pergola or apartment balcony, you can also grow grapes or kiwi.
Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. Once established, they generally prefer to be left alone. The oils that make them so delicious to us tend to make them less desirable to many garden pests. Rosemary, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano, lavender, bay laurel, sage, chives, marjoram, and dill can all be grown indoors or out and they make great additions to your culinary efforts, without costing a dime at the grocery store.
Depending on your local climate, there are many perennial food plants that can add shape and structure to the garden and put food in the pantry. Rhubarb, asparagus, lovage, ginger, horseradish, mint, Saffron crocus, and strawberries are just a few edible plants that will come back each year, providing your family with fresh food.
Many edible plants are not technically perennial, but can be regrown from uneaten parts. These plants include garlic, onions, leeks, potatoes, dill, fennel, peas, and yams. When harvesting fennel, simply cut off the portion to be eaten at ground level, leaving the roots intact. New plants will continue to emerge from the same root system.
Annuals are the mainstay of most gardens, but they don’t have to be limited to traditional garden beds. Lettuces and spinach can be used as colorful accent plants around trees, among roses (pictured), or in containers. Sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, celery, artichoke, and radishes make lovely additions to the landscape, transforming what was simply visual into something delicious and useful. A note on radishes and Napa cabbage: If allowed to go to seed, these plants can provide hundreds of delicious seed pods that work well in salads and stir-fry. The seed pods that fall to the ground can be allowed to grow, giving you an even bigger harvest next year.
Seeds & starts
Most seed packets contain far more seeds than you will ever need. Rather than allowing these potential food plants to go to waste, you can host a seed party, where guests are invited to bring a particular seed packet. Guests then swap seeds, so everyone ends up with the quantity and variety they need to get started. Many public libraries are now offering seed libraries, as well. Seed libraries allow people to take just a few of the seeds they desire, making the rest of the seeds available to other visitors.
While it isn’t recommended, due to the risk of disease spread, I have personally used the seeds from store-bought tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, pumpkins, squash, avocados, and mangos, without any problems. I also use potato eyes, scallion, onion and leek ends, and celery bases. Many commercially grown food plants are sprayed with growth inhibitors, to prevent sprouting in transit, but you can rinse these chemicals off in most cases. Some seeds, however, should not be used. Trees, such as apples, are grown on grafted root stock. The seeds from your grocery store apple will not produce what you want to eat.
You can transform your entire landscape into a foodscape, or you can slowly phase out ornamentals and replace them with food-producing plants. Whichever way appeals to you, I urge you to begin the process of providing your family with food grown by your own hands.
Most leaves have veins that are easy to see. The pattern these veins take can help in plant identification. These veins, like our own, can be found throughout plants, from root to tip. There are two types of veins: the xylem and the phloem. Together, the phloem and xylem are called the vascular bundle.
Function of the phloem
Plant veins carry water, sugar and other nutrients. These veins are called the phloem and the xylem. Water and dissolved minerals are brought up from the roots in the xylem. Sugars (sap), created during photosynthesis, travel down the phloem to the roots. In trees, the phloem is also the inner layer of bark. Water can also travel up the phloem, but it is primarily associated with bringing food down the plant. I remember which is which with this:
Water gets higher in the xylem, and food flows down the phloem.
Phloem cells make up the long, flexible fibers from plants, such as flax and hemp, that we use for clothing.
Potential for harm
Without the free movement of water, sugar, and other nutrients, a plant will die. The phloem is generally positioned closer to the outside of a plant than the xylem. This is why stripping the bark from around a branch or tree trunk (girdling) causes death. Without an unbroken line of phloem, nutrients cannot reach the roots.
Fungal diseases, such as stem blight, can plug up the phloem with spores, with similar results.
The word vernalization is Latin for ‘of the spring’ and it refers to a period of cold that stimulates growth and flowering. Many fruiting trees, such as almonds, need to accumulate a specific range of hours of cold temperatures in order to flower and produce a crop in spring. That range of hours is called the plant’s chilling requirement. Without enough hours of cold, vernalization cannot occur.
Many commercial growers use artificially generated vernalization to boost crop production. Most flowering bulbs require vernalization, to one degree or another, to reach their full potential. In the case of onions, the sets to be planted are stored at low temperatures to induce vernalization. Before planting the sets, they are devernalized at high temperatures to cause the plant’s energy to go into bulb development, rather than flowering.
Biennial plants are those that take two years to grow from seed to fruition, and then die. Many varieties of carrots, cabbage, turnips, beets and kale only grow foliage during the first year. These plants are normally harvested during their first year, so they never have a chance to go to seed. If left in the ground and exposed to enough cold during the following winter, these plants are stimulated to produce flowers and seeds. By harvesting only part of these crops, gardeners can create perennial foodscapes!
Not all herbaceous (non-woody) perennials require vernalization, but several varieties will not flower without adequate chilling hours. The need for vernalization is only loosely associated with hardiness zones, but the amount of light a plant receives each day plays a major role in stimulating flower production. This is similar to my chickens, when egg production drops off drastically in winter and kicks back in as daylight hours start getting longer in spring. Here are just a few plants that require vernalization to flower optimally:
Gardeners can get more and better flower and produce by selecting plant varieties suited to their microclimate. Rather than cooling plants in the greenhouse, let nature do the work for you!
If we say something is sustainable, we mean that it can keep going. Since agriculture and gardening are critical to our food supply, being sustainable is pretty darned important.
Until the 1980’s, food production was focused on the industrial production of single species (mono crops), using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, until the soil was exhausted. You can only do that for so long, before you run our of places to grow food. In 2002, at the International Society of Horticultural Science’s First International Symposium on Sustainability, it was agreed that sustainable agriculture and gardening were critical for the “well being of human societies”.
Sustainable gardening incorporates practices that reduce water, energy, time and chemical consumption, while producing food year-round and protecting the environment. These practices take the following issues into account:
Design for sustainability
Whether you already have a garden or are just starting out, you can design a garden or landscape for sustainability. Native plants are always your best bet because they put millions of years of evolution to work for you, conserving water, reducing the need for chemicals, and freeing up your time. Lawns are notorious water wasters and, quite honestly, most of us are not British aristocracy. Other plants, such as oregano, yarrow, or clover, make excellent, low-growing ground covers that use less water and rarely, if ever, need mowing.
These tips can help you create your own sustainable garden:
Recent heavy rains have brought much needed water to the drought stricken Bay area, but one of my fruit trees was not happy about it. Take a look at the photo below to see how water pooled around the tree.
The drainage around trees with irrigation rings was fine. I can only assume that it was the cement curb around the tree that was at least partially to blame for flooding my poor little nectarine tree. At the same time, the drainage pattern was so significantly different, that I will have to explore other possible causes and remedy them. Rainwater generally moves down, due to gravity, and sideways, toward drier areas. The curb prevents that sideways movement. All that standing water can lead to crown rot, root rot, and many other fungal diseases.
What is porosity?
Porosity, or permeability, in the garden refers to the ability of air and water to move through tiny pockets in the soil. These tiny spaces are called macropores and micropores, depending on their size. Soil that is rich in organic material tends to have a variety of macropores and micropores that improve its porosity. Porous soil allows roots to reach out freely to find water and nutrients. In the Bay area, we tend to have heavy clay soil that is made up of very tiny particles that leave few spaces in between. Porosity is measured as a percentage of spaces compared to the soil around them. Clay soil has a porosity of 40-60%, while sandy soils have a porosity of 30-40%.
What happens when it rains?
When rain starts to fall, or the sprinklers kick in, the soil is initially hydrophobic, causing runoff and urban drool. This is because the water is repelled, the same way a dry sponge allows water to run off the top, rather than being absorbed. Now, we all know that sponges are very porous. They have lots of holes that can hold water. That’s why we use them!
Once the soil becomes damp, like a sponge, it can then hold a surprising amount of water. When all the pores are full, gravity then pulls the water downward into groundwater, where it is taken to creeks, lakes and oceans. That’s why it is so important to not overuse fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. All those chemicals leach into our water supply!
Porosity & plant health
As plants become saturated with water, tiny pores, called stoma, open wide and the plant starts panting in a process called evapotranspiration. Just as we can see steam when we breath on chilly days, plants exhale moisture along with other gases. When there is no water to be found, and the plant risks the other side of water stress, the stoma close, to hang on to every bit of moisture possible. When the ground gets muddy, whether from too much rain or over-watering, roots cannot breath and the plant can drown. In the case of my nectarine, I used plastic tubing to redirect the standing water away from the tree. That’s not something I want to do every time it rains, so I will use these methods to improve the porosity around the nectarine tree:
If you see standing water after a heavy rain, these tips can help you improve the porosity of your soil and the health of your plants.
UPDATE (1/10/2017) After heavy rains, I was very happy to see that the soil around my nectarine tree is draining very nicely. It really is amazing how effective just a little mulch, compost, and cover crop treatment can change an area for the better!
Honey bees are pollination workhorses. It is estimated that honey bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of all U.S. agricultural crops, including herbs, melons, cucumbers, almonds, berries, butternut and other squash, apples, pears, and peaches. Honey bees are not native to North America, so there are no native plants that require pollination by honey bees. Just the same, most gardeners are very happy to see honey bees in the garden.
All bees are considered beneficial insects. Sterile female worker bees are either pollen, nectar, or water collectors. Water collectors are very important to hive health. Water is used to regulate temperature and in the creation of food. In winter, the water is used to dilute crystalized honey. If a water collector returns to the hive and is immediately relieved of her water, she will know that the hive needs more. If she must wait a while before an in-hive worker takes the water, she will know that demand is not critical and less bees will search for water.
As nectar collectors travel from flower to flower, drinking as much nectar as they can, pollen grains stick to their legs in cup-shaped containers. As pollen is knocked off these worker bees, a wide variety of crops and flowers can be pollinated. The workers then return to the hive, loaded down with nectar and pollen, which are handed off to other bees within the hive. The water in the nectar is allowed to evaporate and voila! Honey is made!
Honey bee taxonomy
Honey bees are distinguished from their non-stinging cousins by honey production and the creation of ongoing communal nests made from wax. Honey bees are members of the Apis genus. Their Asian and European ancestors have been around for 34 million years. The most commonly managed honey bee species is Apis mellifiera and it was the third insect to have its genome mapped! Of the 20,000 known species of bees, there are 7 species of honey bee, with 44 subspecies. The study of honey bees is called melittology.
Honey bee identification
Most people are familiar with the fuzzy brown and gold striping of the honey bee and a few of us have experienced the painful sting of a honey bee on the defensive! Unlike wasps and bumblebees, honey bees die after stinging. People who work with honey bees, apiarists, use smoke to calm and subdue honey bees. They also wear white, which decreases the likelihood of being stung. [To a honey bee, we look an awful lot like dreaded bears. Wearing brown around a bee hive is just asking for trouble.] There are also black and brown bees - Russian, carnelian and others, but we don’t notice them as readily.
Honey bee lifecycle
Honey bees hatch from eggs laid by a queen in wax honeycomb cells. Before emerging as an adult honey bee, larvae are initially fed royal jelly (a liquid produced in the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands of worker bees), and then bee bread, a paste of pollen and honey, as they go through several moltings. Then, they spin a cocoon and enter a pupal stage within the cell. Larvae intended to become queens are only fed royal jelly.
The queen is fertilized by multiple male drones from other colonies. The drones die after mating. Drones are produced by unfertilized eggs, while queens and worker females are from fertilized eggs. Each hive has a single queen, a few thousand drones, and tens of thousands of sterile female worker bees, depending upon environmental conditions.
During hot summer months, honey bees cool the hive with their wings. During winter months, they huddle together in a winter cluster around the queen, to protect her from the cold. Honey bees consume honey stored in the hive during the winter
Honey bee communication
Honey bees communicate the location of food sources through a complex figure-8 dance called the waggle dance. They also instruct receiver bees to collect nectar from returning foragers with a tremble dance.
Honey bee pests & diseases
Honey bees have not evolved with an effective immune system. Their primary food, pollen, contains antibacterial components (if you are a bee). Varroa, tracheal and tropilaelaps mites, foulbrood bacterial infections, chalkbrood fungal infections, Nosema disease, and sacbrood virus are common honey bee diseases. If that weren’t enough, beetles, ants, wasps and hornets, wax moths and dragonflies attack bees or their hives.
Honey bees are also facing colony collapse disorder (CCD). This condition has many causes and was held responsible in 2008 for the death of 60% of the world’s honey bee population. It is considered normal to lose 10% of a honey bee colony during the winter months. Losses attributed to colony collapse disorder have dropped progressively since 2008 to 31% in 2013-14. While losses due to CCD have not yet been mentioned in the 2014-15 season, CCD is still a problem.
How to attract honey bees
There are many plants that can be added to a landscape that will help you garner the benefits of improved pollination rates without raising bees. Of course, a small hive is simple to manage and fresh honey is amazing! Minimize the use of chemical pesticides and add these flowers to your landscape to bring honey bees into the garden:
Germination is the point at which seeds start to put out shoots and roots, after a period of dormancy. Germination can only occur when light, temperature, moisture, air and seed viability are exactly right. If one aspect isn’t correct, the seed will remain dormant until conditions change, improving the chances that the young plant will survive. Germination is activated by certain enzymes within the seed. These enzymes start converting starchy endosperm into energizing sugars and the miracle begins!
If preemergent herbicides are applied, this process can be halted before it begins. This may be a quick fix for defeating weeds, but it also puts chemicals into your food supply. Postemergent herbicides will not prevent seeds from germinating. Applying mulch is a far better method because it blocks germinating weed seeds from ever reaching the sun and mulch adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Even if weeds sprout in mulch, their stems and roots are not as well attached to the earth, so they are easier to pull.
Propagation & heat
Some seeds, such as peppers and tomatoes, need quite a bit of heat to germinate. They also need long growing seasons to reach full flavor. You can start pepper seeds indoors, on heating mats specially designed for seed germination, to get a head start on the growing season.
This activity is what turned me on to gardening many, many years ago. It is simple, inexpensive, and a lot of fun for junior gardeners (and the rest of us, too!)
1. create a tube out of the paper or foam and place it in the cup, allowing it to expand to touch the sides of the cup
2. curl the kitchen sponge so that it holds the paper or foam in place and touches the bottom of the cup
3. place each seed between the cup and the paper, making sure to point each one in a different cardinal direction and keeping the seeds separate from each other
4. add enough water to wet the sponge
As moisture is absorbed (imbibed) from the sponge into the seeds, they will begin to expand. You will need to monitor the sponge, making sure that it remains moist, but not soggy. Within 2 weeks, if conditions are right, tiny sprouts will begin to emerge! Encourage your child to draw pictures of how each of the seeds behaves differently and to measure the growth every few days. When the seeds have outgrown their cup, you can transplant them to a sunny location and watch them become giants in the garden!
It still amazes me, even though I now understand the chemistry involved, how each seed, regardless of its initial orientation, always sends the roots (radicles) down and the shoots (plumules) up.
No, we are not talking about naive carnival “marks” who are easily separated from their money.
In the garden and orchard, suckers (basal shoots) are new plants that emerge, not from a seed, but from meristem tissue in the root system or at the base of a mature plant. This is a form of asexual reproduction, also known as vegetative reproduction. The offspring created through vegetative reproduction are clones of the mother plant, or genet.
Suckers can be an excellent way to get new, identical plants, or they can suck the life out of a marginally healthy tree. Let’s take a look at suckers and see how they can be used and/or managed.
What causes suckers?
Suckers can emerge when a tree is water stressed or as a natural response to warmer weather and moisture. Over pruning can also stimulate a tree to produce suckers. At the same time, regular pruning can help a tree stay healthy without initiating sucker production. And sometimes, trees just put out suckers and we don’t know why.
Spring emergence of suckers
In spring, it is not uncommon to see a cluster of new stems emerging from the base of the tree, or several feet away from the trunk. Most tree root systems are approximately three times the size of the tree canopy. Suckers can emerge anywhere along that root system. If you are trying to create an orchard or want to gift a clone of your tree to someone else, you can use these suckers to your advantage. When removing suckers for propagation, be sure to get some of the root tissue along with the sucker. These baby trees will need lots of TLC to get started: rich soil, frequent watering and filtered sun will help the roots start supporting themselves.
How to remove suckers
Unless you are trying to propagate new trees, all suckers should be completely removed. Suckers pull energy and nutrients from the tree. Removing suckers diverts that energy back into fruit production and the overall health of the mother tree. Do not use herbicides to kill suckers. As long as they are attached to the mother tree, you risk poisoning both.
Unlike other pruning jobs, where a clean cut is desirable, sucker removal is best done by ripping the sucker from its attachment. By tearing, rather than cutting, the bud is more likely to be damaged, reducing the chances of it coming back. If you (or your neighbor) have a tree that you want to reproduce and no suckers are available, you can always try grafting a scion.
NOTE: Most fruit trees are actually two trees grafted together. Horticulturists take the root stock of a growth hardy variety and then graft it to a variety that produces a desirable fruit or flower. You get the benefits of both. The problem with suckers is that they emerge from the root stock and not the fruit-producing variety. This is true of roses, as well. Unless you know for a fact that your fruit tree is not from grafted stock, it is best to tear off suckers and graft scions instead.
Stolons & rhizomes
Stolons and rhizomes behave very much like suckers. Stolons are stems that grow on or just below the soil surface, while rhizomes are roots that grow in the same region. In both cases, adventitious roots emerge from nodes to establish new plants. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, potatoes and mint propagate using stolons.
I hope this information inspires you to grow more of your own food. You can ask your garden questions on my Home page.