Most of us are familiar with the red-domed, black-spotted variety of ladybug, but there are black lady beetles, too!
Also known as black ladybirds and Forestier’s ladybird, Rhyzobius forestieri is a true garden hero when it comes to fighting scale insects.
Black lady beetle description
Black lady beetles are smaller than our common red ladybug. You could fit 5 or 6 of them across the top of a dime. If you look closely, you will see that their dark brown or black bodies are covered with tiny, short hairs. They have dark legs and tan antennae. If you were to flip one over, you would see that the underside is also tan. Adult and larval forms of black lady beetle have 3 pairs of legs and adults can fly.
Black lady beetle have the same alligator-like shape as common lady bug larvae but they are more grey. Pupal cases look a lot like tiny snail shells.
Black lady beetle lifecycle
Nearly microscopic eggs are laid next to, under, or up against scale insects. When the eggs hatch, they begin feeding on scale insects as they go through four developmental stages, or instars. Ultimately, they enter a pupal stage. When adults emerge from the pupal case, they mate and the whole cycle begins again.
The next time you see a tiny black beetle, make sure it’s not one of the Good Guys before squishing it!
Magenta Spreen may sound like a great steampunk name, but this edible annual weed is probably already in your garden!
Also known as purple goosefoot, tree spinach, and giant lambsquarters, this local weed can reach 8 feet in height and takes practically no care. The fresh growing tips provide the best flavor (and they look amazing in a salad) but even the larger leaves can be steamed, the same way as spinach, and the seeds are edible, as well. Like rhubarb, spinach, parsley, and chives, magenta spreen contains relatively high levels of oxalic acid, but not enough to worry about.
The magenta spreen plant
Believed to have originated in India, magenta spreen made its way to China and then to other parts of the world, where it has long been a food plant. [In the 1500’s, magenta spreen lost out to spinach in the popularity race.] Cousin to chard, beets, and quinoa, magenta spreen (Chenopodium giganteum) is a chenopod that tastes like what you’d expect from a cross between spinach and asparagus. Like other chenopods, magenta spreen has triangular leaves, somewhat akin to a goose’s foot. Overall, the plants are green, but they feature iridescent, hot pink growing tips and new leaf edges. Magenta spreen can grow equally well in full sun or partial shade. If allowed to go to seed and flourish, it can be used as both an edible crop or as a green manure. It has no major pest or disease problems.
How to grow magenta spreen
If you live in the Bay Area, you have probably been pulling this plant out as a weed for years. Rather than ridding yourself of this visual and edible treat, simply let it grow! You don’t have to buy seeds, unless you’ve never seen it in your garden. In that case, plant seeds 1/2-inch deep in succession, starting in early spring or late summer. If plants bolt, let them. The seeds will provide you and your family with even more plants. They transplant easily, in case you don’t like where they start growing, or if you’d like to share with friends.
Have you seen magenta spreen in your garden?
Floral symmetry refers to whether or not, and how, a flower can be segmented into mirror images of itself.
Angiosperms (flowering plants) use a wide variety of structures, colors, and aromas to attract pollinators. These non-reproductive parts of a flower are called the perianth. The perianth consists of the petals (corolla) and the green cuplike structure at a flower’s base, called the sepals, or calyx.
Looking at a flower from above, if you were to cut it in half, through the perianth, the two halves might be relatively identical, identical only along one plane, or not identical at all. These different types of symmetry are called radial, bilateral, or asymmetrical, respectively.
Snowflakes and apple pies have radial symmetry. No matter how you cut them in half, both halves look the same. Flowers with radial symmetry are called ‘regular’ or actinomorphic. Actinomorphic also refers to ‘regular’ star-shaped flowers that can be divided into three or more identical sections. Each section looks the same, no matter how you rotate the flower. Even though each half may not contain a complete petal, they are still considered actinomorphic.
Most people have bilateral symmetry. This means our left and right sides look very much alike, but our fronts and backs look very different. Some flowers, such as orchids and snapdragons, are the same way. Some flowers have only one line that can be cut to create a mirror image. These flowers are classified as ‘irregular’ or zygomorphic. Zygomorphic flowers have bilateral symmetry and that line is called the sagittal plane. Lavender, olive, sage, mint, nasturtiums, basil, and rosemary flowers are zygomorphic.
Simple v. compound flowers
Flowers can be simple or compound, but don’t let the names fool you. Simple, or primitive, flowers, such as strawberries and geraniums, are actually more complicated than compound flowers. Simple flowers usually have 3 to 6 petals, sepals, stamens and pistils. Compound flowers, called inflorescences, are made up of hundreds or thousands of flowers, each with only one or two sepals and petals. To analyze compound flowers for symmetry, you would have to look at individual florets from that inflorescence. While sunflowers and dandelions may appear to exhibit radial symmetry, the actual florets may or may not be symmetrical, depending on the species.
Go take a closer look at the flowers in your garden. What sort of symmetry do you see?
The fruits and seeds that we eat are plant ovaries.
Botanically, an ovary is the enlarged base of a pistil. Pistils are the female reproductive organs of angiosperms, or flowering plants. A flower’s pistil can be made up of one or more carpels.
Parts of the ovary
Plant ovaries have walls that surround small eggs, called ovules. Ovaries often have chambers, called locules. Ovules are found inside the locule(s). Some locules contain fruit flesh, while others do not. The number of carpels also determines the internal structure of a fruit. When you cut open a melon, you will see one locule, in the center, and four distinct sections, which were formed by the carpels.
Plant ovaries and pollination
When pollen lands on the style (stalk) and stigma (sticky knob) of a flower, the pollen grain ‘germinates’, sending a pollen tube down to the ovule. This is pollination. When that pollen grain merges with the ovule, fertilization occurs. At this point, three new structures are produced: seeds, pericarp, and the placentae.
Seeds Held within the ovary of a seed plant, are ovules. Ovules contain the female reproductive cells. Seeds are fertilized ovules. Fundamentally, ovules are the same thing as animal ovum, or eggs. This is the embryo sac.
Pericarp Pericarp is the thickened ovary wall that we call fruit. Plants use fruit flesh to protect the seeds, furnish young seedlings with nutrients, and to encourage seed dispersal by herbivores. There are three different types of pericarp tissue: exocarp (outer skin), mesocarp (flesh), and endocarp (inner layer). The dominant pericarp tissue can become hard, as with nuts, or fleshy, as we see in peaches and avocados. In some cases, we eat the pericarp. In others, we eat the seed. When we eat the pericarp, we call it a fruit - but not always.
Placentae The place where the ovules and the pericarp connect is called the placentae. If you look inside a tomato, the seeds are growing inside the placental area. The placenta also has an outgrowth, called an obturator, that feeds and guides the pollen tube.
Plants are classified by where their ovaries are found within the pistil, relative to the attachment of the petals and sepals. This point of attachment is called the insertion point. Ovaries can be superior, half-inferior, or inferior, and their flowers are described as hypogynous, perigynous, or epigynous, respectively.
Inferior ovaries To say a plant has inferior ovaries is not a genetic slur. Instead, it refers to fruits in which the seeds are located below the other floral parts, within the hypanthium. The hypanthium is a cuplike structure at the base of a flower, that surrounds or is attached to the gynoecium. The gynoecium (‘woman’s house’) is the female part of a flower, or pistil. Pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, pomegranates, bananas, pears, and apples have inferior ovaries.
Superior ovaries Superior ovaries are no better than other ovaries, they are simply found above the insertion point. Legumes, such as peas and beans, true berries, and plants that produce drupes, such as blackberries, raspberries, and soapnuts, feature superior ovaries.
Half-inferior ovaries Half-inferior ovaries are surrounded by the receptacle, with parts equally above and below the insertion point. Some botanists take this classification to the extreme, by saying a plant has a “two-fifth inferior ovary” but I think that’s taking things a bit far. Peaches, nectarines, and crape myrtles are in this group.
Take a look at the flowers in your garden that are destined to become fruits and nuts. Where is all the action taking place? Can you tell?
There’s no mistaking the licorice flavor of anise.
Anise or star anise?
Before we begin, let me clarify that we are talking about anise (Pimpinella anisum L. – anise burnet saxifrage), and not star anise (Illicium verum). Anise and star anise are not related. They do, however, both contain anethole, an oil that gives them their strong flavors. In each case, people often mistake the fruits from these plants for seeds. Tiny anise and star anise fruits are schizocarps. A schizocarp is a type of fruit that splits in half when dried. The two halves of a schizocarp are called mericarps. Star anise has a distinctive star-shaped fruit, while anise fruit is oblong.
Anise plants are herbaceous annuals that start out as bright green mounds. Then, feathery leaves shoot skyward, much like fennel. Being umbellifers, these cousins of carrots, dill, and celery have flowers that are large, flat clusters of tiny flowers that pollinators and other beneficial insects love. Plants can reach 3 feet in height.
How to grow anise
Being native to the eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, anise is a warm weather, full sun crop. It prefers loose soil with good drainage, and a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.7, so it is better suited to raised beds in the Bay Area, unless you have improved your soil structure with plenty of aged compost. These plants have a taproot, so they do not transplant well. They can be grown in containers, as long as the pot is at least 8 inches deep and wide. Seeds should be planted 1/4-inch deep, at least two weeks after the last frost date. Thin plants to 12 inches apart. [Unless you really like anise, your family will probably only need one plant.] Regular irrigation is important, but an occasional top dressing is the only feeding these plants need.
Anise pests and disease
Larva of the wormwood pug, a small brown moth, will feed on anise foliage, but that’s about it. The oils that give anise its delicious flavor are the same components that most pests find offensive. Anise plants also have no major disease issues.
Anise leaves can be harvested as needed. Seed heads should be snipped while green and hung upside down in a warm, dark, dry location until they are completely dry.
Most people know that ‘deciduous’ refers to trees that lose their leaves each year, but there is more to the word and the process than meets the eye.
When a plant no longer needs a flower’s petals, those petals are allowed to fall away. When fruit becomes ripe, it is also allowed to drop. This act of ‘allowing to fall away’ is at the heart of deciduousness. Did you know that a deer’s antlers and your own baby teeth are also considered deciduous?
Pros and cons of deciduousness
Unlike evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs, and some herbaceous perennials, lose their leaves each year. This is called abscission. In the Northern and Southern hemispheres, leaf drop normally occurs in autumn or early winter. In tropical regions, deciduous plants lose their leaves during the dry season. In each case, leaf loss occurs at a time when having leaves is not in the plant’s best interest. For example, broad-leafed hardwood trees might collect too much snow or ice in winter, causing limbs to break off, leaving open wounds, while tropical plants are unable to maintain heavy leaf cover without rainfall. This annual leaf drop is believed to be a mechanism by which some plants interrupt pests and disease triangles. It also means a plant must have enough food stored to last through the winter and to begin growing again in spring.
Another benefit of abscission is related to something called cavitation. Cavitation refers to times when water tension within a plant becomes so great [think rainy season] that the sap vaporizes within the tree and the oxygen held in that water expands rapidly enough to cause a loud ‘crack’ - you may have heard this, if you spend any time in forests. The problem with cavitation is that it damages the xylem. Plants can usually repair this damage, but not aways. One way deciduous plants protect themselves against cavitation is by dropping their leaves, which, in turn, allows them to have larger xylem vessels. These larger xylems allow deciduous plants to take up more water than evergreens in the summer months.
The chemistry of deciduousness
During spring and summer months, deciduous plants are busy producing chlorophyll, a green pigment. Shorter days (or drought stress) trigger plant hormones (auxins) to reduce chlorophyll production and to start drying the connection between the stem and petiole of each leaf. In some cases, the plant also withdraws the nitrogen and carbon held in those leaves for use in spring. Lower levels of the green pigment are what allow us to see other colors. Some of these colors, the yellow, brown, and orange carotenoids are always present, while red and purple anthocyanins are produced in autumn, as sugars become trapped in the leaves. These changes are triggered by shorter days and cooler nights. In areas without those conditions, the leaves simply dry up and fall off.
Deciduous trees and shrubs
Common deciduous trees include almond, pomegranate, quince, apricot, nectarine, peach, olive, persimmons, plum, fig, pear, walnut, and apple. Your grapes, kiwi, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are also deciduous. In fact, nearly all fruit and nut crops occur on deciduous plants, citrus being a notable exception.
Winter is the best time to prune deciduous trees. [Except apricot and cherry, due to eutypa dieback.] The absence of leaves makes it easier to see the true structure of deciduous trees and shrubs, allowing you to see and remove dead, diseased, crossed, and poorly placed limbs. Winter is also the best time to apply dormant oil, to control many pests, such as scale.
Celery is a kitchen staple that you may (or may not) be able to grow in your home garden.
I say “may not” because it has thwarted me the few times I have tried it. Not that the plants didn’t grow, they grew quite well, through the cooler months, but they grew outward, rather than upward, and the flavor was very strong. Before we learn from what I did wrong, let’s learn the truth about this challenging crop.
A misrepresented edible
Celery plants have been misrepresented in elementary schools across the country for decades. The part we eat is not a stem, and the stringy bits that get caught in your teeth are not all plant veins. The familiar stalks, which are so well suited to dips and fillings, are actually the plant’s petioles, or leaf stems. Some of the differences between a stem and a petiole are:
Some of the indigestible strings of celery fame are vascular tissue, This is why, if you place a celery stalk in a glass of dyed water, you can see the dye move up, through the xylem. [Kids love this stuff!] The other stringy bits, however, are living structural components, called collenchyma. The tissues that make up the collenchyma are able to absorb water and behave much like a stiff gel, to hold the plant upright.
The celery plant
Celery (Apium graveolens) got its name from the Latin for ‘aromatic bee favorite’. As an umbellifer, celery is cousin to carrots, fennel, cumin, caraway, celeriac, parsnips, dill, parsley, anise, and poison hemlock. Celery flowers attract many pollinators and other beneficial insects, such as hoverflies. There are actually three different types of celery, each grown for a distinct crop: petioles, leaves, or roots. The celery plant originated in marshland - very unlike my hot, dry California summers, and only slightly moist winters.
How celery grows
Celery is a cool weather plant. It grows best when temperatures are 55 to 70°F. Grown in summer, it will bolt, or go to seed. This is fine, if you want to harvest celery seed for your spice cabinet. It is also a good way to end up with celery plants throughout your foodscape. Once a celery plant has gone to seed, the petioles will become very tough. [You can still use them to make soup stock, however.] Celery plants can tolerate light frost, but not consecutive frosts. Celery is a biennial, grown as an annual.
How to grow celery
While you can start a new celery plant from the base of a store bought celery, you need to be aware that those plants are certified safe to eat, but they are not certified safe to grow. Installing a store bought celery plant in your garden may be fine, and it may introduce a destructive virus or bacteria that may take years to overcome. It’s your call. Of course, you can always delegate those store bought celeries to indoor containers…
Celery is grown from seed. Seeds should be started 8 to 10 weeks before your area’s last frost date. You can also direct sow seeds in late summer for a winter crop. In either case, seeds should be planted 1/4-inch deep. Some growers recommend soaking seeds overnight prior to planting, to speed germination. Be sure to harden off your seedlings before planting them outside. Seedlings should be spaced 10 to 12 inches apart in the garden, containers, or raised beds, once they are 6 inches tall. If you have a particularly bright window, celery can be grown on a windowsill.
Celery needs lots of sun and it is a heavy feeder. You can protect and feed plants as they grow by top dressing around the plants with aged compost. Once petioles begin to emerge, you need to tie them together, to force them to grow upright. Celery needs least one inch of water a week to grow those crispy petioles. And they should be fed every 10 to 14 days. As the plants grow, gently build up soil around the plants, keeping the leaves exposed. This blanches, or etiolates, the stalks, by blocking light from reaching the chlorophyll, making them turn pale green to white. This also help prevent bitterness. You can get a similar effect by wrapping plants with straw, heavy fabric, or cardboard tubes, the same way you would with cardoons, to halt photosynthesis. Be cautious when watering, after you have set up your planting method. Water that sits on leaves and stems can lead to rot and other problems.
Celery pests and diseases
Celery is susceptible to aster yellows, bacterial leafspot, Phytophthora tentaculata, blights, mosaic virus, fusarium wilt, pink rot, and crater rot. Aphids, armyworms, earwigs, leafminers, lygus bugs, carrot rust flies, nematodes, whiteflies, treehoppers, cutworms, and voles will all take a bite out of your celery plants. You can sprinkle your celery plants with diatomaceous earth, to reduce many of the pests.
Like peanuts, celery is known to cause allergic reactions in some people. Contrary to popular wishful thinking, eating celery is not a 'negative calorie' experience. Digesting that celery stalk does not use up more energy than it provides.
Finally, did you know that celery flowers and leaves were used as garlands for King Tut’s tomb, some 3,300 years ago? I didn’t, either.
If you have citrus trees, you probably have citrus mealybugs.
Cousin to scale insects, these tiny pests are often overlooked. At first, all you may see is some sooty mold on a few leaves, an ant trail, marching up and down the trunk of the tree, or, finally, the telltale cluster of fuzzy white, tucked under leaves or in crevices. Left unchecked, mealybugs can scar fruit, and cause chlorosis (yellowing), early leaf and fruit drop, and poor overall tree health.
Citrus mealybug varieties
There are actually four different mealybugs that attack citrus in the Bay Area:
Citrus mealybug description
All mealybugs are soft, flat, oval-shaped critters with segmented bodies. The mealybugs that attack citrus are covered with a white wax that also creates spines (filaments) around the outer edge and the back end. Unless you use a hand lens, you probably won’t notice individuals, but mealybugs colonize areas, creating white, fuzzy egg clusters that are easy to spot.
Male citrus mealybugs are not needed for reproduction, but they are needed by long-tailed mealybugs. When mealybug eggs hatch, the 'crawlers' are pale yellow, with red eyes, and distinct antennae. Crawlers are not born with their protective wax coating. They begin to excrete it soon after hatching. They are called crawlers because they crawl to a feeding site, where they will continue to develop (and damage fruit) for a month or two.
Citrus mealybug damage
Each female mealybug can lay hundreds of eggs, and there are usually two or three generations a year, so infestations can become a problem. As sapsuckers, citrus mealybugs pierce fruit, leaves, and young stems, to get at the sap. They also feed on tender, new growth. As they feed, they leave behind a trail of honeydew that attracts protective ants, and creates the perfect growth medium for sooty mold. Citrus mealybug feeding near fruit stems also leads to fruit drop. Citrus mealybug feeding also reduces fruit quality. Trees fail to thrive and are prone to infestation by disease and other pests. In addition to oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit, citrus mealybugs also have a taste for ornamental plants, such as tulips, coleus, cyclamen, begonias, and dahlias.
How to control citrus mealybugs
The first step to controlling citrus mealybugs is to monitor your trees, especially in spring and fall, for signs of ant trails, sooty mold, and egg clusters. Since ants will protect and farm the aphids for their honeydew, apply sticky barriers to tree trunks to block ants from protecting the aphids against their natural predators. Those natural predators are your trees’ best defense against citrus mealybugs. Ladybugs, lacewings, and hoverflies will devour these pests, so avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides. For extreme infestations, you can buy an introduced predator, called the mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri). Insecticides are not recommended. Diatomaceous earth and insecticidal soaps can be used.
Mealybugs prefer dusty conditions, so hosing trees off can make them less appealing to citrus mealybugs.
We’ve all heard of cash crops, those garden plants grown as food, or to sell. But, what can you do with a growing area after a crop is harvested? Catch crops!
Whether you grow your edibles in the ground, raised beds, or containers, there comes a time when the crop matures and the plants are harvested. What’s left? Usually, bare soil and a bunch of stems, cut off at ground level. It’s not attractive, it’s not good for your soil, and it’s bad for the environment.
After a crop has completed its life cycle, the soil is probably a little depleted. The last thing it needs is exposure to eroding wind, sun, and rain. But that’s exactly what it gets. Without the supporting roots and shading leaves, topsoil is exposed to the elements, which can cause it to simply blow or wash away. You’ve worked too hard and too long in the garden to lose all that valuable topsoil, so how can you protect it?
Plant a catch crop
Catch crops are a combination of cover crops and succession planting. Rather than leaving the soil exposed and the beneficial soil microorganisms to starve, cover crops are used to maintain the relationships between plants, soil, and mycorrhizae that produce nearly all the plants we eat. Catch crops are fast-growing plants that fill in the spaces left behind a harvested crop. In commercial agriculture, catch crops are planted after a field is harvested. In the home garden, you can plant your catch crop before the current crop is even done, providing your soil (and your view) with year round protection.
Which plants make good catch crops?
The best catch crops grow very quickly. Radishes, rye, arugula, mustard, lettuce, endive, sunflowers, buckwheat, beans, barley, and oats are generally the best choices for catch crops. Research has shown that these crops help retain nitrogen in the soil, improve soil structure, and prevent erosion when grown as catch crops. Other crops, such as sorghum hybrids, do not make good catch crops. One sorghum-sudangrass hybrid (Sudex) resulted in 50 to 75% mortality of tomato, broccoli, and lettuce crops. This type of chemical warfare is called allelopathy. Stick with the plants listed above. Your soil will be better off, plus you can harvest the beans, sunflower seeds, salad makings, and grain, assuming you do not use your catch crop as a green manure. [If the catch crop is cut and allowed to decompose in place, it becomes a green manure, feeding the soil and improving soil structure even more.]
Benefits of planting a catch crop
In addition to preventing erosion and keeping your garden attractive, catch crops prevent important minerals [plant food] from being washed away. This reduces ground water contamination. It also improves the size and quality of the crop that follows! Research has shown that crop yields increase by nearly 5%, simply by being grown after a cover crop. Using catch crops and cover crops also increases biodiversity. We are not simply talking about plants and animals here, either. Biodiversity is also occurring at the microscopic level. Soils that contain a wider range of microorganisms and other living things is healthier. Healthier soil grows better food for you and your family. Catch crops also help block sunlight to weeds, competing with them for water and sunlight. This makes it less likely that local weeds will survive long enough to produce seeds that grow into future competition. This reduces the need for herbicides (or the number of hours spent weeding each year).
As your cash crops near the end of their normal lifecycle, be sure to plant catch crops!
Small living spaces do not eliminate your gardening options, they simply mean looking at what you have in a new way. Rather than tolerating a lack of space, you can look at it as a challenge to grow vertically!
Balconied apartments, duplexed mini yards, townhouses, and small properties are often seen as too small to garden, but this is simply untrue. All you have to do is look at the dandelions and other weeds pushing their way through concrete in a dank alley to see that plants can and will grow pretty much anywhere that isn’t completely dark or in the Arctic Circle.
What is a vertical garden?
A vertical garden may be nothing more complicated than strings attached to the top of a fence and anchored in the ground near climbing plants, such as peas and pole beans. It may be a collection of stacked cinderblocks, or large coffee cans screwed to a fence. It may be a cylinder of chicken wire placed on top of a half barrel or a planter, and filled with potting soil. A vertical garden may be an elaborate pyramid, hanging, or other store-bought vertical gardening method, or it can be something scrounged from your neighbor’s curb, or something repurposed from the garage or attic. Keep in mind, there are plenty of free options! The fundamental idea behind vertical gardening is that, rather than traditional, horizontal rows at ground level, a vertical garden makes use of several different methods to grow plants up.
Here are just a few fun and easy vertical container gardening ideas:
The point I’m trying to make here is that the only thing limiting your vertical garden is your imagination - and sunlight.
Sunlight is often the most limiting factor when it comes to growing plants in tight spaces or indoors. This is not a time for guessing. You need to know how much sunlight actually reaches each area. For the uninitiated, sunlight exposure is defined as:
If you try growing sun-loving plants in an area with inadequate light levels, the plants will get long-stemmed (‘leggy’) and weak. This is called etiolation. Often, these plants will look pale or bleached, and they usually die. For each space that you have identified, take the time to note when it receives direct sunlight, and for how long. This information can make or break your vertical garden.
You need to select plants that are suited to the available sunlight. Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers need full sun, while root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, and potatoes, can perform beautifully in partial sun, partial shade, or dappled sun. Salad greens and other leafy vegetables can grow very nicely in full shade or dappled sun. Herbs need sunlight, but they are a pretty tolerant bunch. Once you have identified how much sunlight is available, and the types of plants you want to grow, then comes container selection!
Choosing your containers
Different plants have different types of roots. If you want to grow plants with taproots, your containers will need to be deeper. Plants with fibrous root systems need more lateral space.
Note: There are countless images of amazing and inspiring vertical gardens online. Keep in mind that many of the plants pictured are not actually growing. Very often, they are well hydrated, cut plants, put in place just for the photo shoot. Do not use these images to guide you in your plant selection. Most plants need more root room than many of those images imply. Find out about the normal root depth of the plants you want to grow.
Manufactured planting containers are generally plastic or ceramic, with drainage holes and trays that are either attached or separate. Use these gardening container tips to help your plants stay healthy:
Trellises and hammocks
A trellis can be a sheet of lattice, purchased from your local lumber yard, a section of wood-framed chicken wire, a teepee of bamboo rods, a stock panel, or any other framework that supports your plants as they grow upward. If you are growing crops that produce heavy fruit, you may need to provide a little extra support. Melons, pumpkins, and squash can be held in place with net or fabric hammocks, attached to the trellis or fence.
As you go about your normal day, keep an eye open for unique, useful items that are often kicked to the curb by your neighbors. That unwanted pet staircase can be repurposed into a beautiful, space-saving tiered herb garden!
Brassica collars may sound like Elizabethan neckwear, but these simple DIY tools can protect members of the cabbage family from the dreaded cabbage maggot.
Cool season crops, such as broccoli, turnips, rutabagas, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, are all susceptible to cabbage maggots.
Also known as cabbage flies, root flies, or turnip flies, cabbage maggots start out as tiny flies (Delia radicum) that are about half the size of a housefly. These pests lay up to 300 eggs in the soil, around the crown of host plants. When the eggs hatch, the larva (maggots) begin feeding on fibrous roots and burrowing into taproots. This feeding facilitates entry by pathogens that cause blackleg and bacterial soft rot. Heavy infestations can kill a mature plant. Infested plants should be removed and thrown in the trash. They should not be composted.
How do brassica collars work?
A brassica collar is simply a flat piece of plastic, thick cardboard, felt, rubber, or heavy fabric that covers the soil around the base of a plant. Brassica collars protect members of the cabbage family from cabbage maggots by making it difficult for the fly to reach the soil closest to the plant stem. This forces the fly to either lay its eggs elsewhere, or to lay them so far from the plant that the eggs dry out before they can hatch, or causing most of the larva to starve before they ever reach the plant.
How to make a brassica collar
While you can certainly buy brassica collars for your plants, these simple tools are just too easy to make at home with materials from your recycling bin to not try at least once. Personally, I prefer cardboard. It is easy to work with and will ultimately decompose. Just follow these steps to make your own brassica collars:
If you are worried about damaging the seedling, you can cut a line from the outer edge to the center hole and wrap the brassica collar around the seedling that way. You will then have to staple the cut edges together for the collar to be effective. Just be sure that the collar opening can be enlarged as the plant grows.
As an added benefit, brassica collars also block weeds and they help keep the soil temperature and moisture levels stable
Warm winter days and glossy seed catalogs lure many novice gardeners into starting seeds too soon.
Okay, it’s true. Veteran gardeners are vulnerable to the same overly idealistic behavior. Most of us, however, have learned that starting seeds too early nearly always leads to damping off disease and seed rot. And it’s a waste of good seed, since both conditions are nearly always fatal. If the plant isn’t killed outright, it will always be stunted and fail to thrive.
What causes seed rot?
Cold and wet are a recipe for disaster for most seeds. Seed rot occurs when seeds are placed in soil when temperatures are too low and moisture levels are too high. The moisture softens the tough outer seed coat, allowing fungi, such as Achlya plebsiana, Fusarium, Pythium, and Rhizoctonia to enter. These are not the beneficial mycorrhizae that help your plants find food. These fungi are out for blood. Okay, not blood, but they will suck the life out of your seeds and seedlings.
Seed rot symptoms
Planted too soon, seeds may plump up and then turn to mush. They will often develop a white, fuzzy growth. This growth is one of the aforementioned fungi. The fungi form a halo around the seed, and work their way inside. If that weren’t bad enough, within just a few days, several different algae will begin to colonize the fungal growth, turning it green. In both cases, the seed is being sapped of the strength it needs to grow.
Locked inside a healthy seed, safe under a hard shell (seed coat), the embryo and a store of starches (endosperm) wait for conditions to be Just Right. Once specific levels of heat, light, air, and moisture are present, enzymes within the seed are activated. These enzymes convert the endosperm into usable sugars and the embryo can begin to germinate. If conditions are not correct enough, the young plant will be at a disadvantage that can be fatal.
How warm is warm enough?
The minimum soil temperature for many common garden plants is listed below. Soil temperature is taken two inches below the surface, where many of the roots will be found. Keep in mind, the optimum temperature for germination is often 20°F to 40°F higher:
Until your last frost date has passed (It’s March 15, in my area.), the only way to safely start seeds any earlier is indoors or in a greenhouse, under grow lights, and on a seed mat that provides steady, controllable heat. [Do not use the same heating pad you use on your aching back - it is not designed for moisture and it will get too hot and can become a fire hazard.]
Preventing seed rot
While fungicides are frequently used in commercial farms to prevent seed rot, good cultural practices in the home garden can be enough to prevent this problem. Simply follow these three tips and your seeds should be fine:
As tempting as it may be to start earlier, waiting until conditions are suitable is one of the simplest ways to ensure a good harvest.
Of cabbages and kings….
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has always been one of my favorite authors, and cabbages and other cole crops nearly always have their place in a kitchen garden.
Where do we get the word ‘cole’, as it refers to cabbages and other members of the cruciferous, or brassica, family? I wish it were as simple as a variation on ‘cold crops’, since most of them prefer growing in cooler weather, but that would be a fabrication. The word ‘cole’ actually comes to us from a Latin word for ‘stem’. How they decided that the word “stem’ has anything to do with a head of cabbage is beyond me, but there it is.
The cabbage family includes broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, horseradish, Napa/Chinese cabbage, collards, turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, watercress, kale, radishes, bok choy, and mustard. Rapeseed (canola) is also a member of this family. The old Latin name, Cruciferae, is going out of favor and is being replaced with Brassicaceae, due to more accurate genetic information. Some scientists include capers in this family, but that particular DNA is still being sorted out.
Cabbage family stems and other parts
Also known as the mustard family, this group of plants has flowers with 4 petals and 4 sepals, arranged in what looks like a letter “H” or a cross (hence the old name, cruciferae). They also have 6 stamens, usually 2 short ones and 4 longer ones. These plants have a waxy surface (cuticle) that helps them retain water and a characteristic sulfur-like smell.
Growing cole crops
Cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower take up a fair bit of room in the garden, but they require very little of the gardener, once they are established. Here, in the Bay Area, one crop can be started in mid- to late-winter, for a spring harvest, and then a second crop can sometimes be started in late summer to early autumn, for a winter harvest. Mustard and canola both make excellent cover crops.
Many of these plants are biennial, which means it usually takes two years to complete their lifecycle. Our summer heat is strong enough to cause plants in the cabbage family to go to seed early, or bolt. Often, plants do not taste as good once bolting begins.
Stresses caused by too much cold, too much heat, not enough food, water stress, pest or disease damage, or mechanical injury can cause a condition called ‘buttoning’. Buttoning refers to the way all cole crops, except cabbage, produce smaller than normal heads in response to stress.
Cabbage family pests and diseases
Many moth and butterfly species use members of the cabbage family as food, including cabbage loopers, cabbage maggots, imported cabbageworms, diamondback moths, and inchworms. Some of these pests are developing resistance to commonly used pesticides, but I’ve taught my dogs to chase them away, and I use row covers. Other common cole crop pests include cabbage aphids, armyworms, bagrada bugs, wooly aphids, root maggots, millipedes, flea beetles, and cutworms. Voles can also cause problems. Bt and neem oil are effective organic controls, but not against voles. Cole crop diseases include ringspot, clubroot, blackleg, verticillium wilt, bacterial leafspot, downy mildews, and phytophthora root rot. Crop rotation is your best method of disease prevention.
Research has shown that eating fresh, steamed, or sautéed (not boiled) brassicas may reduce many types of cancer, so plant and eat your vegies!
The name nightshade conjures images of dark, hidden doings of dubious intent. And in some cases, you do have to be careful around these plants. Without them, however, there would be no pizza, lasagne, or ratatouille.
The nightshade family (Solanaceae), or tobacco family, is usually the first reason people start gardening at home. After years of tasteless, watery tomatoes, we long for the summer sweet richness of homegrown tomatoes. Welcome to the world of the nightshade family!
Nightshade plant description
Plants in the nightshade family share many common characteristics that make this group easy to recognize. These traits include:
The nightshade family includes many garden favorites, including tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, groundcherries, and potatoes. Tobacco is also a member fo the nightshade family, but I wouldn’t eat it! Petunias, datura, mandrake, Devil’s Apple, and belladonna (deadly nightshade) are also members of this family.
Growing nightshade plants
These plants prefer rich, damp soil, with lots of organic matter. Most of the edible nightshade plants tend to get large, so be sure to give them plenty of room. These plants can carryover certain pests and diseases, so regular crop rotation should be used. The most common diseases of nightshade plants include tobacco mosaic, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and blights. Nematodes, potato tuberworms, and hornworms are the most common pests.
Many members of the nightshade family contain toxic alkaloids believed to be defensive mechanisms against herbivores and insects. These alkaloids include the capsaicin responsible for chili peppers’ heat, and nicotine, which acts as an insecticide. Solanine and tropanes, two other alkaloids, can cause digestive upset at low doses and kill you at higher concentrations. The green skin sometimes seen on potatoes contains high levels of solanine. Be sure to remove and discard the green skin, if you want to avoid digestive problems a few hours later. The leaves and stems of nightshade plants should not be eaten or fed to pets, chickens, or livestock. It might not hurt them, but, then again, it might.
In the case of the nightshade family, as in life, you need to pick your garden mates carefully.
The sunflower family has been part of the human diet for a very long time. Ornamental varieties are just as popular. Let’s find out what makes the sunflower family unique.
Also known as the daisy family, or the aster family, this family has two scientific names: Asteraceae and Compositae. Compositae, an older, yet still acceptable name, means composite, and it refers the compound flowers common to the family. Asteraceae is the more modern name and it means ‘star’, which also refers to the flower.
If you look closely at a flower of this plant family, you will see that it is actually made up of many tiny flowers clustered together. This flower head is called a pseudanthium. The individual flowers are called florets. These flower heads are usually surrounded by a whorl of bracts, called an involucre. In some cases, these composite flowers look like a single flower with long petals. These specialized ‘sunray’ petals are long, strap-shaped ‘ray flowers’, while the tiny flowers in the center are called ‘disk flowers’. Because these flower heads are made up of hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny flowers, plants in this family normally attract many pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Along with sunflowers, this very large plant family contains some of our most familiar food plants: artichokes, lettuce, escarole, cardoons, chamomile, tarragon, chicory, and salsify. This family also includes marigolds, asters, dahlias, yarrow, dandelions, Echinacea, and daisies, just to name a few.
[Did you know that the word ‘daisy’ comes to us from the Old English words for ‘day’s eye’?
This refers to the way the flower petals open in the morning and close at night.]
Plants in this family tend to be shallow-rooted, though not always. Generally, they do not perform well in heavy clay, so be sure to regularly top dress the soil with aged compost. This will increase the macropores and micropores within the soil structure, add nutrients, and provide for the microorganisms that feed your plants. These plants have very few pests or diseases.
Which members of this plant family are growing in your garden?
The amaranth family got its Greek name from the word for ‘fire’ because of their flame-shaped flower clusters.
Also known as the pigweed family, this group of plants belongs to the order Caryophyllales. The Caryophyllales include ice plants, cacti, carnations, and many carnivorous plants. As different as all these plants seem, from the outside, their seed structure and photosynthesis pathway make it obvious to people who look that closely. We’ll just take their word for it as we learn about this particular plant family.
Amaranth family plants
In addition to amaranth, this plant family includes quinoa, lamb’s quarters, and pigweed. These plants have been used as vegetables and pseudocereals for thousands of years. Many people are allergic to the pollen of these plants, which is present late summer through autumn.
Recent genetic testing has shown that it also includes the goosefoot family, or chenopods. The chenopods got their name because the leaves look like a goose’s foot. Common chenopods include beets, sugar beets, California goosefoot, spinach, and chard. One interesting trait of this family is that perennial stems exhibit a thickening secondary growth, the same growth used by trees. Most monocots do not do this.
Overall, members of the amaranth family tend to be very drought tolerant, and they perform better in alkaline soils, making them a good choice in the Bay Area. Amaranth family plants can also grow in soil with higher salt levels than many others.
Amaranth family flowers
The attractive spiked flowers are what make this family popular as both edible and ornamental plants. If you grow members of the amaranth family in your landscape, and allow them to bolt and go to seed, you will be able to enjoy these amazing floral displays, plus, you will be able to harvest hundreds and hundreds of seeds for your meals or future crops. [I just learned that beet sprouts are delicious in salads!]
While members of the amaranth family are not poisonous, many varieties contain oxalic acid in their leaves, so the cooking water should be discarded.
Do you have any members of this family in your garden?
Have you ever been to a family reunion and wondered how that one cousin could possibly be related to everyone else? Well, it happens in plant families, too.
Learning about plant families can help you generalize about plant care, potential problems, and best practices. It also makes you sound really smart when talking with others about their garden and landscape struggles and successes.
If nothing else, learning about the basic edible plant families can help you make the best choices when it comes to crop rotation.
This list is, by no means, exhaustive, but it provides a good starting point.
How many plant families are growing in your garden?
Umbellifers are aromatic plants with umbrella-shaped flowers.
Commonly referred to as the carrot, celery, or parsley family, Umbelliferae (or Apiaceae) plants are one of the largest families of flowering plants. Many of them are edible, and some of them can kill you. Edible or deadly, it is the flowers that make umbellifers easy to recognize.
Umbellifer flowers are called umbels. Umbels are clusters of simple or compound flowers that grow from a central point. The overall flower arrangement can be flat-topped or nearly spherical.
In addition to the flowers, umbellifers tend to share other characteristics. These include hollow, ribbed stems, divided leaves, long, sheathed petioles (leaf stems), and two-sided, flat seeds. There are exceptions.
Umbellifer plants: the bad guys
While all plants use a variety of chemicals in photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth, umbellifers produce another set of chemicals that can be aromatic (good) or toxic (bad). These chemicals are believed to be used by the plants as defense mechanisms. Here, in North America, we have two dangerous forms of umbellifer: poisonous hemlock and water hemlock.
Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) is easy to identify, once you know what to look for. It has leaves that look like parsley, seeds that look like anise, and a root that looks like a parsnip. The telltale sign is purple or reddish young stems and older stems splotched or streaked with red or purple, usually on the lower half of the stem. This plant can kill you the same way it killed Socrates.
Water hemlock (Cicuta spp.) can also be fatal. In fact, water hemlock is the most poisonous plant in North America. According to the U.S. Forest service, “The leaflets of Cicuta can be distinguished from similar, non-toxic species in the parsley family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) by having veins that fork at their tips, with one branch ending at the tip of the leaflet and the other in the V-shaped sinus between adjacent leaflet lobes.”
Umbellifer plants: the good guys
Umbellifers tend to be highly aromatic plants and many of them are a regular part of our diet:
Most umbellifers prefer cool weather, which makes them excellent late fall, winter, and early spring crops in the Bay Area. Planting in winter, and again in early autumn, can produce two crops a year. These seeds tend to be very tiny and should be planted 1/2-inch deep. Pests and diseases vary by species, so you will have to look up individual plants to learn more.
Benefits of umbellifers
In addition to being delicious and nutritious, umbellifers provide other benefits. Many pollinators and other beneficial insects are attracted to their flowers. Apparently, umbellifer flowers are easy to find, and they make easy landing and launching pads. Plus, they provide pollen, nectar, and a good hiding place, depending on which insect you are talking about. Many beneficial insects drink the nectar of umbellifer flowers, while their offspring, in larval form, feed on many common garden pests, including hornworms.
Which umbellifers are in your kitchen and garden?
If you like your food spicy, chili peppers are a garden necessity.
Hot pepper plants are small shrubs with striking red, orange, or yellow fruits, depending on the variety. These plants look great in a landscape and they can provide you with peppers all summer long.
Why the heat?
The reason chili peppers are hot is because they contain capsaicin. Capsaicin is found, in varying degrees, in nearly all peppers. Sweet bell peppers contain little to no capsaicin. Powerfully hot peppers are used in Africa to keep elephants out of gardens and other crops. Birds, on the other hand, do not have those particular pain receptors, so they are largely responsible for the spread of wild pepper plant seeds. Before we learn about different varieties of hot pepper and how to grow them, a word on Scoville heat units.
How to grow hot peppers
These plants need a long growing season to reach full flavor. Seeds are usually started 6 to 8 weeks before the weather is warm enough for them to be outside. Peppers need nighttime temperatures that are at least 50 to 55°F, to prevent blossom drop. Start with clean, disinfected pots that are 2 to 3 inches deep and that have drainage holes. You can disinfectant old containers by washing with a household cleaner, such as Lysol, and allowing them to air dry in the sun. This is an easy way to prevent future disease and pest problems. In the same vein, use new potting soil, rather than dirt from your garden. Seedlings are much more delicate than your mature plants, which may be strong enough to withstand existing pests or diseases. Also, use seed designated with a letter “V” - this indicates resistance to verticillium wilt.
Fill containers 3/4 full of moist, nutrient rich, organic potting soil. Seeds should be placed 1 inch apart and covered with 1/4-inch of soil or vermiculite. Wet the surface without disturbing or uncovering the seeds. You can use plastic food trays to hold your pots - the clear plastic covers make it easy to maintain moisture levels and the bases protect your furniture. Plastic wrap held in place with a rubber band can also be used. Once seeds germinate, remove the covers. Be sure to label your pots - popsicle sticks work well and they decompose in the garden later on.
Since chili plants are generally started when it is colder than their seeds like, you may want to invest in a seed heating mat. [Put aside the temptation to use that old heating pad - they get too hot, are not designed to handle moisture, and can be a fire hazard.] Sprouted seeds will need full sun or a grow light. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
Caring for seedlings
As the first set of true leaves emerge, thin plants to 2 inches apart or up-pot into larger containers. Water every other day, to avoid hydrophobic soil. Pick up your pots to make sure they feel heavy from the water. Check seedlings regularly for signs of aphids, mites, or snails. These pests can be hand-picked or wiped off with a wet paper towel. Continue to up-pot until outdoor temperatures are warm enough for your chili peppers.
Transplanting hot peppers
Prepare your seedlings to be transplanted by watering them to the point of run-off. Then, place one hand over the soil, with the plant stem between your fingers, and flip the pot upside down. You may need to jiggle or tap the pot to break the soil loose. If roots have really taken hold of the pot, use a sharp, clean knife to cut along the sides of the pot. Seedlings should be planted in a sunny location, 10 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety. If watered regularly, chili peppers perform especially well in heat islands.
You can improve the plant’s root system by removing any growth from the bottom 1/3 of the stem and burying those nodes below the soil surface, the same way you might for tomatoes. These nodes will produce roots, giving your plant access to more water and nutrients. Water deeply, right away, to help the soil settle, removing air pockets, and keeping the roots moist. And be sure to label your plants! All peppers are self-pollinating, but crops are significantly larger when other pepper plants are nearby. Note: if you plan on saving seeds from your hot peppers, be sure to keep different varieties away from each other, as they will cross-pollinate.
Caring for hot pepper plants
Pepper plants benefit from a thick layer of organic mulch placed around, but not touching, each plant. Use a hose to water your plants thoroughly, at first. This will help the soil settle and keep the plants well hydrated. Once the roots take hold, you can use drip irrigation or a soaker hose. Plants should be side-dressed with nitrogen about once a month for healthy leaf growth. In August, you can increase feedings to once every two weeks. As fruit begins to mature, you can increase their hotness by only watering once a week and allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Harvesting hot peppers
Each pepper has a color that indicates it is ready to be picked. Read your seed packet or check online or at your local library to learn more about your specific varieties. Many peppers are harvested while immature, the flavor actually becomes sweeter as the fruits mature.
Pepper pests and diseases
Pepper weevils, cutworms, aphids, armyworms, flea beetles, leafminers, corn earworm, leafrollers, nematodes, weevils, thrips, spider mites, tomato psyllids, and whiteflies can all become pepper plant pests, though I have rarely had any serious problems here in the Bay Area. I have found that birds are more likely to become a problem. Most pepper diseases are of the fungal variety: powdery mildew, crown rot, root rot, verticillium wilt, and tomato spotted wilt are common with improper irrigation. Also bacterial spot, several mosaic viruses, blossom end rot, and curly top may occur. Sunburn, or sun scald, can also be a problem on pepper plants with insufficient leaf cover. Personally, I have had excellent results growing pepper plants under my fruit and nut trees.
Make a little space in your spring planting schedule to start some chili pepper plants for yourself and your friends!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!