Renewal pruning is a method that stimulates new growth while removing unproductive wood or canes.
According to some, renewal pruning refers specifically to plants that produce canes from the root system. I am going to use the broader definition above. The general rule of thumb for renewal pruning is to remove one-third of any older wood each year. These are thinning cuts that take branches back to the main stem or crown, depending on the growth habit. [When making thinning cuts, be sure to avoid damaging the branch collar.] Each species has its own characteristics, which need to be taken into account before you start lopping off branches. Some of the more common approaches to renewal pruning are listed below.
Renewal pruning of currants
Currants produce fruit on spurs that emerge from 2- and 3-year old wood. After that, those limbs are far less productive. Use the following pruning schedule on currants:
Renewal pruning of fruit trees
Fruit and nut trees produce fruit on spurs and on twig tips. Some species only produce fruit on new spurs, while others can use the same spurs for several years. For example, figs, grapes, persimmon, and quince produce fruit on new shoots and one-year old wood. Pears, walnuts, and apples, on the other hand can produce fruit on the same spurs for several years. UC Davis offers a chart of fruiting wood characteristics that can help you decide what to remove and what to leave for another year. Did you know that large, unproductive branches are called bulls? I didn't either.
Renewal pruning of raspberries and blackberries
Some varieties of raspberry and blackberry produce fruit on primocanes. These are fall-bearing varieties that produce the best fruit on first-year canes. While leaving them in place will provide some fruit the following spring, the quality and quantity are usually poor. For these berries, it is better to cut the canes back to ground level in late autumn. This gives the plant time to pull carbohydrates from the leaves down into the crown and root system. These nutrients will be used to grow new canes in spring. Summer-bearing floricanes produce fruit on buds from second-year canes, so removing them at the end of year one would be problematic.
Some trees and shrubs can become so out of control that they risk falling over, severe disease infestation, or they simply look awful. In some (but not all) of these cases, rejuvenation pruning can be used to give them a new start on life. These plants are cut to ground level and allowed to start over from an established root system. Before you try this method, be sure to research the plant to make sure this is an appropriate choice. Cutting back some plants in this way will kill them.
Whole tree pruning
Traditionally, trees that produce fruit in new growth, such as cherries, are pruned by removing selective branches. Another method being studied is whole tree pruning, in which all the major limbs are removed each winter, leaving only 12 to 18 inch nubs. This method is not for the faint of heart, but it is gaining popularity among commercial growers.
Don’t be afraid to prune your trees and shrubs. It is an excellent way to help your plants to stay healthy and productive. As you move around under the canopy or peaking into the center of your shrub, you may even discover a new pest or disease before it gets out of hand!
Fresh-from-the-garden, sweet, sun-warmed, juicy tomatoes are probably the number one reason why people start gardening. Be forewarned! No store-bought cousin will ever measure up once you have experienced the real deal!
Native to South and Central America, tomatoes have been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Prior to Halloween of 1548, Italy had no tomato sauce. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Now, as winter fades, many gardeners feel compelled to plant tomatoes. While starting too soon is a waste of time and seeds, tomatoes can be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date.
Commonly grown as annuals, tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are actually perennial plants, in their native regions. These members of the nightshade family, along with eggplants and potatoes, are self-pollinating. This means that honey bees and other pollinators can carry pollen from one flower to another, on the same plant, to cause a plant to create fruit. Of course, the more plants you have, the higher your pollination rates will be. Plus, you can never have too many tomatoes, right?
Shopping for tomato plants
Spring garden shows and plant sales draw gardeners like moths to flame. This is especially true about tomatoes. With so many varieties, colors, and sizes to choose from, we tend to get carried away. To be fair, who doesn’t want to try growing that new black, striped, pear-shaped variety with a nice citrusy aftertaste? So, we fill boxes, bags, and the backseat with countless new and old favorite tomato plants and head home. Very often, those store-bought tomato plants are root bound. If you buy tomato seedlings, be sure to handle the plants gently as you transition them from greenhouse city life to life in your yard. Also, as dreams of heirlooms and hybrids dance through your head, remember that tomatoes, like all other plants, can be vectors for pests or disease. When you bring new plants home, be sure to place them in a quarantine area until you are sure they are healthy.
What is your tomato type?
Tomato plants are classified as either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants, also called ‘bush’ tomatoes, look like 3 to 5-foot shrubs and all the tomatoes ripen within a 4 to 6 week period. This is perfect if you plan on canning your bounty. It doesn’t really work if you are growing tomatoes for fresh eating. Indeterminate tomatoes put out a continuous crop all summer and fall, providing a similar sized crop, but spread out over time. You can also check the UC Davis chart on tomato varieties, if you are growing in California.
How to grow tomatoes
Tomatoes are easily grown from seed or cuttings. They grow best in the ground, but can also be grown in containers or straw bales. Seeds should be planted 1/4” deep. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. As seedlings emerge, they can be hardened off and moved outdoors, as long as they are protected from chilly nights and strong winds. Germination of most tomato seeds usually takes 5 to 10 days in warm weather. Colder temperatures slow the process. Give your tomato seedlings a boost with fish emulsion. Keep weeds away from your seedlings, so that they can get a healthy start. As your tomato plants get bigger, you may want to provide some support with tomato cages or stakes.
Pinching your tomato plants
No, I don’t want you to be mean to them - well, maybe a little. Pinching back excess growth can make more nutrients available to whatever is left, plus it stimulates flower and fruit production. On the other hand, if you take away too many leaves, your tomatoes can get sunburned. Yellow or green shoulders on otherwise red fruit is also a sign of too much sun exposure. Pruning tomatoes is a balancing act between sun protection, fruit production, and disease prevention. Deficit irrigation can also be used to significantly improve the flavor and increase the sweetness of your homegrown tomatoes.
Prune your tomato plants so that they have two or more stems starting near the base of the plant. If you pinch your plants to make a central stem, they will produce fruit earlier, but at lower quantities.
Tomato pests & diseases
Hornworms and blossom end rot are the two most common problems faced by California tomato growers. Blossom end rot is caused by an erratic calcium supply, which occurs whenever watering is irregular. A regular watering schedule can reduce blossom end rot in tomatoes, as well as leaf roll, cracked fruit and catfacing, and citrus fruit split. Tomato hornworms are large and can devour an amazing amount of foliage before you even know it. Achemon sphinx moths look a lot like tomato hornworms, but they are mostly limited to grape vines.
Other common tomato pests include tomato fruitworms, tomato pinworms, Eriophyid mites, bagrada bugs, blister mites, green fruit beetles, Japanese beetles, nematodes, leaf-footed bugs, leaf miners, oriental fruit flies, stinkbugs, spider mites, whiteflies, treehoppers, weevils, cutworms, and voles. And squirrels. Always squirrels.
Tomato diseases include tomato ringspot, tomato spotted wilt, alternaria stem canker, fusarium wilt, tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), grey leaf spot, anthracnose, verticillium wilt, stem blight, and powdery mildew. Many of these diseases can be prevented with regular crop rotation.
Tomatoes grown from seed will develop a taproot. What is really strange is that tomatoes grown from cuttings will not.
If we ever meet in person, be sure to ask me about Wally's s****y tomatoes!
Seedlings are the young plants that emerge each spring as warmth and moisture help them to convert stored food (endosperm) into new growth. Learning more about seedlings can help you get the most from your garden. (You’ll get an awesome vocabulary while you’re at it!)
Factors of seedling growth
Seedlings are initially dependent on their stored food reserves. Once photosynthesis begins, things really get growing. Temperature, light, and moisture are the major factors in seedling development, but wind and other forms of physical contact (thigmomorphogenesis) are critical to developing a strong plant. Most seedlings need 14 hours of daylight to grow. Compacted soil can make it difficult for tender new roots to anchor themselves in the soil or to find enough nutrients. One way you can give your seedlings a boost is to feed them with fish emulsion. You can also apply mulch, which will shade the soil, add nutrients, and reduce competition from weeds. (Unfortunately, it may also attract and protect sowbugs and earwigs). Remember that any major, sudden changes can be devastating to a seedling. Erosion, in particular, can expose delicate seedlings to more stresses than they can handle.
Too many plants in one place means none of them get enough of what they need. Overcrowding and undesirables used to be eliminated by simply yanking them from the earth. We now know that this isn't in anyone’s best interest. First, it damages neighboring young root systems. Also, it removes millions of beneficial soil microorganisms that help plants find the food they need. Instead of pulling, it is more productive to snip unwanted plants off at soil level. The roots will gradually die (unless it is a particularly tenacious weed), giving the microorganisms the time they need to migrate elsewhere. Weed seedlings can be eliminated with a nice thick (4” or more) layer of mulch.
Seedling pests & diseases
Seedlings often need protection from birds, squirrels, slugs and snails. This can sometimes be easier if you are using raised beds or containers, but the addition of trellising, row covers, and protective wire or netting in any garden location can help keep keep some of these pests away from seedlings. Since seedlings are so tender, they are favorite foods of many garden pests:
Nematodes and boring insects can also damage or destroy seedlings. Fungal diseases, such as Fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt, damping-off disease, and stem rot, as well as bacterial diseases, can block the developing vascular system of young seedlings, causing them to wilt and die.
Most plants produce an abundance of seeds for good reason: growing up is hard to do. Many seedlings never make it. They are eaten, desiccated, drowned, stepped on, chewed up, or try growing in a location that doesn’t work for them. As a gardener, you can improve the odds of survival for your seedlings by providing an environment rich in nutrients, moisture, sunlight, and protection.
San Jose scale sucks!
No, really! That’s how they feed. San Jose scales (Quadraspidiotus perniciosus) inject toxins into many of our favorite tree fruits in order to liquify our luscious fruits and suck them up. Twigs, leaves, and branches are not exempt.
While a single scale insect cannot cause much harm, a single female can produce thousands of offspring in a single season. Left to its own devices, a severe San Jose scale infestation can kill a mature tree in as little as two years.
San Jose scale symptoms
Scale insects often hide in the cracks and crevices of bark, making them difficult to see. Unfortunately, they are particularly fond of apples and pears, with plums, sweet cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and almonds a close second. San Jose scale also attacks nearby ornamental trees and shrubs, where pests can overwinter in relative safety. Often, the first visible symptom of a San Jose scale infestation is purplish-red halos on fruit, leaves, and young bark. A single apple may have over a thousand scale insects on it. When cherry leaves are infested with San Jose scale, they tend to stay on the tree well into winter. Those leaves should be removed and destroyed.
San Jose scale lifecycle
Female San Jose scales cannot fly. In spring, winged males mate with the females. One month later, tiny yellow crawlers are born. Each crawler has six legs and a bristly beak that is three times the length of its oval body. Crawlers will move around for a few hours before selecting a permanent location. Sometimes they are moved to new plants by wind, birds, people, and garden tools. Once they move in, they build a white waxy house over themselves. This protective coating is about the size of a pinhead, with a nipple-like bulge in the middle. The shell hardens to black and then gray, keeping away predators and pesticides, as they go through several molts. Often, the scale color is hard to see because it is often covered with sooty fungus. Underneath this private bubble, immature males have eyes, but no legs or antenna, and immature females have no eyes, legs, or antenna. The females stay in this house, while the winged males, once they reach maturity, will take wing in search of females.
San Jose Scale control
So, how do we get rid of San Jose scale? First, you have to make sure you have a problem. Pheromone traps can be used February 25 - March 1 to monitor for the flying males. If they are present, spraying dormant oil can suffocate the crawlers and unprotected adults, as long as leaves are not present. If leaves and buds have already emerged, horticultural oil should be used. Larger, older trees are harder to treat because full coverage is more difficult. Sticky barriers can be used to reduce the migration of crawlers to other trees. Sticky barriers will also block the ants that may protect and farm scale insects. San Jose scale have many natural predators, but these beneficials are generally not able to provide enough protection. Compounding the problem, San Jose scale was the first U.S. insect to show resistance to a pesticide. According to UC Davis, San Jose scale rarely occurs in organic orchards. Trees should be checked twice a year, in spring and fall, for signs of infestation. One method for determining the best time to treat for San Jose scale is called the Degree Day model. You can look up your local degree days using the UC Davis CA weather data (assuming you live in California). We will learn more about Degree Days in a later post. Generally speaking, in the Bay Area, crawlers begin to emerge between mid-May and mid-June, depending on weather.
Contrary to its name, San Jose scale originated in China. It travelled to San Jose, CA on a flowering peach tree in the 1870s. Within 20 years, this pest was found nationwide. Ah, yet another example of why buying local is better...
Luscious summer pears are one of the most difficult tree fruits to grow in San Jose, California, but the rewards, for many, are worth it.
European pears (Pyrus communis) actually hail from Western Asia and modern day Iraq and Iran. People have been growing pears for over 4,000 years and Bartlett pears have been the standard for over 200 years. In the world gardening and agriculture, that's pretty amazing.
Pears do require a cold rest period, called vernalization, each winter. Silicon Valley only averages 400 chill hours, while Bartlett pears need 800 chill hours each winter. You will need to identify a species suitable to your microclimate. Pears are categorized by the season in which they ripen. Summer pears have thin skins, ripen on the tree in July through September, and most are small to medium sized, and the fruit is fine-textured. Winter pears feature gritty textured fruit that ripens September through November. Below is a list of popular pears with notes, chill hours, and best zones for growing:
How to grow pears
Unless you select a self-fruitful variety, you will need at least two trees for a fruit set. Also, keep in mind that full size trees may take up to 20 years to reach full production, while semi-dwarfs take 5 to 8 years. Most bare root stock available in garden centers are 2 or 3 years old. Choose a site that can accommodate the tree’s full size and provide full sun. Pest and disease problems can be reduced by providing good air flow around each tree. Pear trees are best pruned into a “Y” shape. They tend to grow very upright and need trimming to create a healthier, more spread out growth. Pear fruits do not require as much thinning as apples. You can leave 2 or 3 fruits per cluster without problems.
Pear pests & diseases
More pests attack pears than any other fruit tree in the Bay Area. These pests include aphids, San Jose scale, mites, pear psylla, codling moth, redhumped caterpillars, Eriophyid mites, birds, and squirrels. Common pear diseases include fire blight (Erwinia amylovora), crown gall, leaf spot, pear scab, and apple scab.
Pear tree care
These seasonal chores can help keep your pear trees healthy:
If you allow your pears to ripen on the tree, you will probably never get to enjoy one. Pears are a favorite food of squirrels and birds. I once lost an entire season’s crop because the squirrels were willing to harvest the pears two days earlier than I was. Pears ripen from the inside out. The easiest way to tell if it is time to harvest a pear is to use the Cradle Test. To do this, cup one hand under a pear and use the other hand to swing the fruit from its 6:00 position to a 9:00 position, with a twisting motion. If the fruit falls, it’s ready.
Actually pears taste better if they are harvested when they are mature but not fully ripe. Then place them in the refrigerator for a few days, up to two weeks for summer pears, and 3 to 4 weeks for winter pears. After the fruit has been chilled, bring it back to room temperature and enjoy. Oh, by the way, don’t bruise the fruit at any point in this process. As I said, growing pears is not an easy process.
The sweet, juicy flavor of a fresh, properly ripened pear, however, is exquisite.
Currants are edible plants, native to the northern hemisphere.
Not to be mistaken with the tiny black raisins made from black Corinth grapes, currants are members of the Ribes family, along with gooseberries and jostaberries (a cross between currants and gooseberries).
Most Americans are unfamiliar with currants because they were banned in 1920. This ban was put in place because currants are co-hosts, along with white pine, to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). This fungal disease was devastating to white pines on the east coast. That ban was lifted, in 1966, as resistant cultivars were developed.
The small, pea-sized fruits can be red, pink, white, or black and are produced in clusters called ‘strigs’. Currants are tart, so they are not usually eaten fresh. They are more commonly used for jams, jellies, pies, syrups, wine and brandy. The flowers are also edible.
Currant plants are thornless, deciduous shrubs that make excellent additions to native gardens. They are drought tolerant and provide food and shelter to many indigenous birds. Native Americans frequently used currants as both food and medicine. In particular, they used currant roots to treat menstrual and menopausal problems. Scientists have found that currant roots and seeds contain high levels of gamma-Linolenic acid, a chemical known to be effective for those same issues.
According to Wikipedia, there are black currants, red currants, and white currants. According to the University of Massachusetts, “Species are Ribes rubrum (most red currants and some whites), R. petraeum (white), R. vulgare (pink, white, and red), and R. nigrum and R. ussurienses (black). Native currants… belong to the species R. odoratum."
My order of Golden Currants (Ribes aureum) just arrived. Clearly, there is some confusion. Here’s the bottom line, as well as I can figure:
How to grow currants
Traditionally, currants grow in cool climates with fertile, well-drained soil, where they are found in full sun or partial shade. In areas with hotter summers, like the Bay Area, currants prefer heavier soil and more shade. Mulch can be used to keep roots cool and moist in summer. Most currant bushes reach 3 to 5 feet in height, but they can go as tall as 9 feet, under ideal conditions. Currents can be grown in large containers. Currants are normally purchased as bare root stock or young saplings that were propagated from hardwood cuttings. These young currant bushes need a lot of water to get established, but are very drought tolerant later on. Currents also need a lot of potassium. Our Bay Area soil tends to have plenty of that, so no treatment is needed around here. Most currant plants are self-pollinating, but production is significantly higher per plant with multiple plants nearby.
Currants can be pruned as shrubs or trees, depending on your preferences and the plant’s location. Currants should be pruned once a year in winter using a method called renewal pruning. Renewal pruning ensures that there are fruit-producing 2- and 3-year old stems each year. Use the following pruning schedule on currants:
Pests & diseases of currants
Aphids, mites, currant borers, and the larva of some moths and butterflies are really the only pests that bother currants. Problems are more commonly caused by mineral imbalances in the soil or improper irrigation. Rust, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and leaf spot can sometimes appear on currants.
Since currant flowers tend to appear early in the season, sometimes as early as February, they provide pollen and nectar to our earliest pollinators. This helps set the stage for a more productive year overall. Each bush can produce up to 10 pounds of fruit, so it won’t hurt to leave some behind for the birds.
Add some native golden currants to your California garden in early spring or late fall for many years of fruit and flowers!
Plum orchards once covered The Valley of Hearts Delight (what is now known as Silicon Valley). Many homes are still graced by individual specimens of these prolific fruit producers, and it is easy to add one to your landscape, as well.
Plums are members of the Rose family, in the Prunus genus. This makes them cousins to other stone fruits, such as peaches, nectarines, and cherries. One variety of apricot (Prunus armeniaca) is so closely related that it is actually a plum! Fruits of the plum tree are called drupes.
When deciding on a plum variety, keep in mind that plums can be sweet or tart, early or late blooming and ripening, standard size, dwarf, or semi-dwarf. Two varieties are commonly grown in California: Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) and European plum (Prunus domestica), but there are others. Some European plum varieties do not require cross-pollination, but all plum trees produce far more if there is a second tree nearby. Japanese plums bloom and mature earlier, but European plums tend to be sweeter.
Standard plum trees can grow to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide, semi-dwarfs can be 15 feet wide, and dwarf varieties rarely need more than 10 feet. Plums come in skins of many different colors, from yellow, to red and purple, to nearly black. The interior fruit can be yellow, white, red, or green. Commercially, plums grown to be consumed as fresh fruit are called “sugar plums”, while the remainder are grown to be dried and sold as prunes. Prunes are almost exclusively made from European plums. You can also find plum-apricot and plum-cherry hybrids!
How to grow plums
Plums love California’s mild winters and hot, dry summers. While they prefer more sandy soil than the Bay Area tends to have,they are pretty tolerant of our clay, as long as the drainage is good. They do need a lot of sun. Plums are best started from certified disease-free root stock. You can also start a tree from a friend or neighbor’s tree by taking one of the many suckers that tend to appear. Suckers root more easily if they are dipped in rooting hormones (auxins), but they will create their own auxins in a day or so. If starting from seed, plums should be planted 3 inches deep. Be sure to mark the spot so you don’t lose track of your new baby!
Plum tree care
Plum trees thrive here in the Bay Area. Trees do require the following seasonal care:
Plum tree pests & diseases
The most common plum pests in the Bay Area are aphids, mites, and San Jose scale. Other pests include Oriental fruit fly, plum curculio, mealybugs, redhumped caterpillars, green fruit beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), and mealy plum aphid (Hyalopterus pruni). Sticky barriers can reduce the impact of many crawling insect pests. Fungal diseases that affected plum tres include canker, brown rot (Monomania fructicola), and shot hole, also known as Coryneum blight.
One of the most common problems faced by plum tree owners is overproduction. Overproduction, or overbearing, can cause broken limbs, so it is important to thin fruit to no more than one fruit every 2 to 4 inches. Don’t be concerned if your plums have a whitish coating on them. This is a protective epicuticular wax known as “wax bloom” and is easy wiped off.
Add a plum tree to your landscape this spring for decades of delicious summer fruit and year-round jams and jellies!
The large floral disk of sunflowers, jam packed with seeds, hardly needs description, but there is a lot more to this cheery bloom than meets the eye.
Ancient history & sunflowers
Sunflowers are native to North America. Recent research has shown that they were also growing in Central America way back into antiquity. There are some interesting name exchanges in primitive languages that lead archeologists to believe there were far more cultural exchanges between the two regions than was previously thought. According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati, “sunflowers were domesticated thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart” making them an interesting topic in human history. More currently, sunflowers are one of the world’s top oil producing plants. Each year, nearly 45 million tons of sunflowers are grown worldwide!
The sunflower family
Sunflowers are part of a plant family called Asteraceae. The sunflower family includes asters, artichokes, dahlias, yarrow, marigolds, endive, dandelions, and Echinacea, just to name a few. Sunflowers can be annual or perennial, depending on the variety, microclimate, and growing conditions. Some varieties grow as a single fat, hairy stalk, while others grow several branches. There are eleven species of sunflower (Helianthus annus) in California. Some dwarf varieties are only a foot and a half tall, while others can reach twelve feet!
Benefits of sunflowers
If the happy blooms and tasty seeds weren’t reason enough to add them to your garden, sunflowers also attract many beneficial insects. Honey bees, lacewings, butterflies, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps enjoy the nectar, pollen, and prey insects found on and near sunflowers. Personally, I love the tiny finches that are so fond of eating the wide, spade-shaped leaves. Local squirrels and seed eating birds can become problematic, or you can simply plant a few extras near the fence line.
Heliotropism refers to a plant’s ability to track the sun’s movement and sunflowers are masters of heliotropism. Sunflowers use phytohormones called auxins and an internal circadian clock to follow the sun across the sky each day. During the night, they turn their west-facing blooms back toward the east, in anticipation of the dawn. Scientists were surprised to discover that bringing outdoor sunflowers indoors, with a constant overhead light source, the plants still went through their east to west cycle for a few days. It was also found that certain genes tell the east side of the plants grow more quickly during the day, while the west side of the plants grows more at night. As the plants mature, this movement slows, leaving most sunflowers facing east, rather than west. The reason? Scientists found that eastward facing flower heads (capitula) heated up more quickly than their westward neighbors. This added warmth attracted FIVE TIMES more beneficial insects, for better pollination and pest protection!
Sunflowers and children
Sunflowers grow quickly and often to impressive heights, which makes them an excellent choice when gardening with children. In fact, if you plant your sunflower seeds properly, you can create a fort, a maze, or a magic castle right in your own back yard! Or, to watch germination as it occurs, you can place sunflower seeds inside a clear glass with a dark colored sponge. Place the seeds between the glass and the sponge and add water. Before you know it, the magic happens! Then take your sunflower sprouts and add them to a salad or plant them in the garden! In either case, they make a healthy snack and provide your children with a sense of ownership.
How to grow sunflowers
Most sunflower plants are grown from seed. A few species also propagate using creeping roots, which makes them a noxious weed in some agricultural areas. Sunflowers need lots of sun, water, and nitrogen, but they are less picky about soil than many other plants. Seeds can be started in cell flats or other small containers and then transplanted, or they can be directly sown into the garden or landscape, after the last chance of frost has passed. Seeds should be planted one inch deep and watered daily until they sprout. After they have sprouted, plants will need an inch of rain or irrigation each week, depending on the weather. For optimal growth, space your sunflower 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. Dwarf varieties only need 6 inches. Seedlings often need protection from birds, squirrels, slugs and snails. Sunflowers can take up to 3 months to reach full size. Sunflowers need lots of nutrients, so adding aged compost to the planting area will help them to get a good start. They do, occasionally need staking.
Sunflower seeds contain a chemical that is toxic to grass plants, so you should harvest the seeds before they start falling on your lawn or near other members of the grain family (Poaceae), such as corn, millet, wheat, barley, or bamboo. You can also plant sunflowers much the way Native Americans did, using the Three Sisters Method, by replacing corn with sunflowers. The squash or melon leaves will shade the ground around your sunflowers and pole beans will climb the stalks and provide a nitrogen boost before they go to seed themselves.
Sunflower pests & diseases
Sunflowers tend to be sturdy plants that fend for themselves rather well. Keep a look out for ant trails going up the stalks that can indicate an aphid problem. Sticky barriers can be used to block the ants, which makes the aphids more vulnerable to their natural enemies. Other sunflower pests include dried fruit beetles, cutworms, carrot beetles, some foliage-feeding caterpillars, leaf beetles, spider mites, thrips, and the dreaded sunflower bud moth. Fungal diseases, such as crown gall, downy mildews, powdery mildew, rust, and Verticillium wilt can be a problem, but this occurs more in agricultural fields than in backyard gardens.
Once your sunflower head has reached full size, it will probably be bent over and surprisingly heavy. If you stroke the face of the flower head with your hand, dozens of tiny dried bits (pappus) will fall away. Personally, I give all my sunflowers a quick rub to dislodge potential pests and to remove these bits. Before removing the head from the stalk, use your fingernail to nick out a few seeds and open them up. Are the seeds plump? If not, give them some more time. You certainly don’t want to harvest a head of empty shells! Seeds have normally reached maturity around the same time the petals start to fall from the flower. You can protect immature heads from birds with netting or large paper bags. Once the seeds have reached maturity, cut the stem an inch or two below the flower head. Seeds can be allowed to dry in the head, or they can be rubbed loose over a newspaper or old sheet. Be sure to blow away any chaff that may harbor pests or disease. I always save several of the largest, healthiest looking seeds for next year’s crop. After that, allow seeds to dry out completely before storing in an airtight container. You can also salt and/or roast your seeds. If you suspect seed pests, freezing your sunflower seeds will kill off any eggs that may be lurking in the shells. Sunflower seeds stored in the refrigerator or freezer are good for a year, while raw seeds stored at room temperature are only good for 2 or 3 months. Roasted, shelled seeds have a shelf life of 3 to 4 months, and unshelled roasted seeds can last 4 to 5 months.
Sunflower oil can be used as a horticultural oil, but I definitely prefer it as sunflower butter on toast or in place of peanut butter in cookies. Yummy!
One variety, the giant whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was first seen in 1892. Then it was believed to be extinct until 1994 when it was discovered by Vanderbilt University student, Jennifer Ellis. The giant whorled sunflower is currently listed as an endangered species and is only found in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee - the birthplace of the sunflower species.
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadores banned the use of sunflowers in Mexico, believing that they were an aphrodisiac.
Add some sunflowers to your garden today! (No matter what the Spaniards said!)
Adding sweet potatoes to your garden or landscape provides many years of heat tolerant foliage and delicious edibles. Sweet potatoes are referred to as a ‘long crop’ because they take 3 to 5 months to produce, but this durable perennial is a good investment of your garden space. Did you know that the leaves of sweet potato plants are edible? Read on!
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed a baked sweet potato with just a little butter and salt. They are so sweet all on their own, they really don’t need much else. Others prefer them sprinkled with brown sugar, or, in the Turkey Day favorite, covered with a layer of mini marshmallows. What I didn’t realize until recently, is just how easy sweet potatoes are to grow, especially in the hot summers that frequent San Jose, California.
Sweet potatoes v. yams
Before we get too in-depth, let's make sure we know the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably never had a yam. Yams are from Africa and they can grow up to 6 feet in length and weigh in at as much as 150 pounds! Yams tend to be starchy and they need to be cooked before they are eaten, to get rid of toxins. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are an entirely different critter. Sweet potatoes are from tropical South America, they tend to be sweet, and are significantly smaller than yams. The whole sweet potato/yam confusion began in the U.S. because sweet potatoes have two different growth varieties: firm and soft. Firm sweet potatoes were sold first, then the softer variety arrived. To differentiate them from their firmer brethren, soft sweet potatoes were called yams. Nutritionally, sweet potatoes far surpass yams. If you are going to invest space, water, and time: grow sweet potatoes. Here’s how.
How to grow sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes love California summers. These herbaceous perennial vines need only 30-39 inches of rainfall (or irrigation) a year and they prefer temperatures in the 75 to 95-degree F range. Sweet potatoes prefer loamy soil with a pH between 5.0 and 6.2. This is more acidic than we tend to have in the Bay Area, but, like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes are easily grown in large containers, so soil pH adjustments are relatively easy. Simply add an acidifier to the soil mix at planting time. Sweet potatoes are started from transplants and vine cuttings. These cuttings are called ‘slips’. While it may be tempting to use grocery store sweet potatoes to start your crop, this is not a good idea. First, many growers treat store-bound produce with growth inhibitors. Plus, you have no way of knowing if your grocery store sweet potato is carrying pests or diseases that can compromise your soil for a very long time. It really isn’t worth the risk. Invest in sweet potato plants or bare root slips from reputable suppliers. The plants will last a long time and are worth the investment. Plants prefer full sun and should be installed in early spring. Plants should be placed in large containers or in hills that are one foot high and 3 feet apart. Cover the roots with soil but leave the stem above ground and water lightly. Mature plants only grow about a foot tall, but can spread 3 or 4 feet, so plan accordingly. Being highly frost sensitive, plants may need protection in winter.
Sweet potato pests & diseases
Like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes are susceptible to many fungal diseases, so be sure your plants never sit in water or soggy soil for long. Common diseases include crown gall, bacterial wilt, Alternaria, Anthracnose, Fusarium wilt, grey mold, rust, root knot, and root rot. Weevils, aphids, flea beetles, leafhoppers, and wireworms are the most frequent sweet potato pests.
Sweet potato trivia
Regular potatoes are underground stem tubers, while sweet potatoes and yams are actual root vegetables, like carrots and beets, in that they store reserve energy in root tubers. It doesn’t mean much in the kitchen or even in the garden, but botanists swear by these differences. In fact, if you have ever used beaters to whip up a batch of mashed sweet potatoes, you probably found a bunch of fibers wrapped around the beaters. Those fibers are vascular tissues! Also, like legumes, pineapple, mango, and sweet sorghum, sweet potatoes have evolved alongside a helpful bacteria (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) that fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to the plant.
Harvesting & curing sweet potatoes
Small sweet potatoes can be harvested and used at any time. Full-sized roots are harvested in fall. After carefully removing them from their hills (hopefully without causing them any damage), they should be placed in a warm, dry location for 8 to 10 days. This helps toughen the skin for better storage and heal any wounds. Stored properly, sweet potatoes can be held for several months.
You can find a nice read about sweet potatoes where "botany meets the cutting board" at the Botanist in the Kitchen.
White squiggles and cupped leaves may mean your plants have wooly aphids.
Living on a rather busy residential street, my boxwood hedges take a beating. Dogs marking their territory, car exhaust, dust… And sometimes that beating is more literal that figurative. July 2016, our house was hit by a car. The only thing that prevented the car from shearing off our gas main (and blowing up our home?) was the boxwood hedges that lifted the car above the main. The hedges have been replaced, along with the fence, but my peace of mind may never recover completely.] Checking on my hedges yesterday, I noticed patches of little white squiggles all over the place. The wooly aphids have arrived.
Wooly aphid identification
Wooly aphids (Eriosomatinae) protect themselves by creating white waxy filaments that look like cotton or wool around themselves. To their many predators, these waxy filaments are believed to look like nasty tasting fungal growths, so they are left alone. [Green lacewing larva and Harvester caterpillars do the same thing.] Adult wooly aphids fly from place to place, laying egg masses. The eggs hatch and the nymphs that emerge cluster together in large cottony groups.
Wooly aphid host plants
There are several different types of wooly aphid and most of them are host specific. This means they have a strong preference for one or two specific types of plant. Their names generally indicate their hosts of choice. Some of the more common wooly aphids include:
Wooly aphid damage
Like other aphids, the woolies are sap suckers. They have piercing mouthparts which they insert into leaves, buds, bark, and even roots to feed. As they feed, they leave behind a trail of honeydew, which feeds ants and creates habitat for sooty mold. Sooty mold covers leaves and prevents photosynthesis. Wooly aphids can also act as vectors for diseases such as powdery mildew. Wooly aphids will not kill a mature plant, but they can cause deformed leaves, chlorosis, twig dieback, and overall poor health. Since a single female aphids can produce 600 billion offspring in a single season, the damage can add up.
Wooly aphid controls
Aphids have many natural predators. These include ladybugs and their larva, hoverfly larva, parasitic wasps, green lacewings and their larva, and crab spiders. You can make your garden more attractive to these co-workers by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and by planting a wide variety of nectar sources. Aphids are also susceptible to many fungal, bacterial, and viral infections of their own. Since aphids are soft-bodied insects, a strong spray from the hose is often all that is needed to dislodge these pests from their hosts.
Nitrogen is the single most limiting factor in plant growth.
There is far more to tell about nitrogen than we have time or space for here, but I hope that this summary will give you a better understanding of what makes nitrogen so important in the garden, and encourage you to learn more.
What is nitrogen?
Nitrogen is an element, like hydrogen or oxygen. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, but it is in a form that plants cannot use. Nitrogen is the first number you see on a bag of fertilizer. It is the “N” of NPK. Since pure nitrogen boils away at -320 degrees Fahrenheit, you won’t be buying a bag of pure nitrogen at your local garden center. [If you’ve ever had a dermatologist “freeze” off a wart or precancerous area, they are often using nitrogen.]
How plants use nitrogen
Nitrogen is a fundamental building block for chlorophyll and plant enzymes and proteins, including a plant’s DNA. Without nitrogen, photosynthesis cannot occur. Some crops use more nitrogen than others. Cucurbits, such as melons and squash, are relatively light feeders. Heavy feeders include sage, artichoke, potatoes, onions, lemongrass, and corn. If you are growing plants in containers or straw bales, plants should be monitored closely for signs of insufficient nitrogen.
Not enough nitrogen
Stunting and chlorosis are the two most common signs of insufficient nitrogen. Nitrogen is highly mobile within the soil and in plants. Nitrogen deficiencies are frequently seen as a pale area down the middle of each leaf, with older leaves affected first. This happens because the plant pulls nitrogen from older leaves to feed newer leaves. Nitrogen deficiencies in peach and nectarine tend to show as red areas on leaves (where photosynthesis is no longer occurring properly). Nitrogen deficiency and sodium toxicity are common in San Jose, California. Our heavy clay also reduces nitrogen levels in the soil.
Too much nitrogen
Too much nitrogen can be just as bad as not enough. Excessive nitrogen is seen as darker than normal leaves and more vegetative growth than fruit or flowers. Too much nitrogen can burn plants, and it can cause erratic or reduced budbreak. Too much nitrogen can also stimulate new growth that may be vulnerable to cold weather, thrips, leaf spot, Verticillium wilt, aphids, and scale. This is why the timing the use of fertilizer is so important.
Types of nitrogen
The Nitrogen Cycle refers to the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into chemically reactive forms that attach themselves to other elements, creating ammonia or nitrate based fertilizers. Crops that prefer more acidic soil, such as blueberries and potatoes, seem to prefer ammoniacal nitrogen based fertilizers over nitrate based fertilizers. As plants absorb nitrates, they increase the soil pH, making it more alkaline. California soils are already more alkaline than many plants prefer. When plants take up ammonium, the soil becomes more acidic.
Nitrogen - a fleeting plant nutrient
Nitrogen is quickly used up by nearby plants. It also deteriorates rapidly and is leached out of soil by rain. This deterioration is largely a function of moisture and temperature. As temperatures rise, there tends to be less organic matter in soil. As moisture increases, so does organic matter. This is why it is so important in our hot, dry California weather to regularly add compost to our gardens and landscapes.
Native Americans used the Three Sisters Method of growing corn, beans, and squash together. Beans, being a legume, are host to bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms usable by plants. Planting them all together provided the corn and squash with extra nitrogen early in their growing season. Some tribes added dead fish or eels when planting, which provided even more nitrogen. Fish emulsion is a mild source of nitrogen. According to study by the Washington State University Extension Office, coffee grounds contain 10% nitrogen after brewing. Blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and feather meal are all good sources for nitrogen. Urea and urine both provide high levels of nitrogen.
Finally, if you are like many gardeners who plant marigolds to deter pests, you may want to plant them away from any legume crops. It is rumored that the same chemicals that make marigolds beneficial can also interrupt the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes, such as peas and beans, though I have not yet found any scientific proof.
Starting seeds is the joy of spring gardening. It reflects confidence in natural cycles, the self-discipline needed to plan ahead, and the patience to wait for results.
As an experienced gardener, it is all too easy for me to take some tasks for granted, having done them for so long. My husband pointed out the error of my ways last summer when, during my annual desert outing, the aboveground portion of our backyard lawn died. He protested, saying it wasn’t his fault, that I had told him to not water it. My (incorrect) assumption was that he would know the difference between watering for growth and watering for survival. The mistake was mine. In an effort to avoid the same problem for beginning gardeners, this set of instructions will walk you through one of my favorite spring gardening activities: starting seeds.
Before you can plant seeds, you need to figure out what you want to grow. You will also want to ask yourself if you want only organic seeds, open pollinated seeds, or hybrids. Browsing through seed catalogs can be intoxicating. Rather than ordering everything that looks good, ask yourself which plants are:
Some seeds can be planted directly into the ground. This is called direct sowing. While all growing areas will serve your plants better if they are fed with aged manure and compost, this is not particularly true for seeds and seedlings. Compost is swarming with microbial activity. Some of those microbes might cause problems for tender new growth. So can too many nutrients or, more commonly, nutrient imbalances. Simply adding nutrients on a schedule, whether as fertilizer or compost, backfires more often than not. Too many nutrients is just as bad as not enough. In some cases, it is worse. So get your soil tested by a reputable lab before you start transplanting or amending the soil. It will save a lot of time, money and effort later on.
Seeds are better off started in small pots filled with high quality potting soil or starter mix. You can also use soilless mixes. Do not use planting soil. Planting soil, also called topsoil, is formulated as a soil amendment to be added to the ground. Potting soil is a special mix of vermiculite or perlite, peat moss, and/or shredded pine bark that are added to the soil to make it easier for containerized plants to thrive.
Your seeds have a much higher chance of success if you use this information. I save seed packets for future reference. Some gardeners turn emptied seed packets into plant labels. I have found that the paper packets don’t last very long, exposed to sun and rain, unless they are in a plastic bag. Instead, I have a plastic bin with a tight-fitting lid that holds all my seed packets, empty and full, in alphabetical order, for easy access.
I have found that starting seeds in small containers is the easiest. Placing one seed into each small container allows tiny roots to develop unchallenged. It also makes transplanting less stressful, since you don’t need to pull entangled roots apart from multiple plants. [Leeks and scallions are the only exception. They prefer sticking together and it doesn’t hurt them to be planted in this way.] Personally, I hang on to those plastic seed starting pots, called “cell flats” whenever I buy seedlings. It is important to clean and disinfect them each year to avoid spreading pests or diseases from one year to the next. Old cell flats should be soaked in a household cleaner, such as Lysol, for 30 minutes to eliminate pathogens. Once I have used up all of my cell flats, I turn to seed starting containers that can be planted directly into the ground, once the seedling is strong enough. The following biodegradable seed starting containers can be made or gotten for free:
.You can also buy biodegradable seed starter pots made from peat moss, shredded wood, or paper, or sterilized manure (for extra nutrients). Many people save take-out food containers, with clear plastic lids, for seed starting. The plastic covers keep warmth and moisture in. Just be sure to remove them as the plant gets taller!
I’ll bet you thought I’d never get to it! Just like painting, planting is far more about preparation than the actual name implies. Once you have your seeds, containers, and potting soil, I strongly urge you to collect a pen or marker and a bunch of popsicle sticks or other material to use as a plant label for each cell flat or other collection of starter pots. Please believe me - I speak from experience. It really stinks when you forget to do this because many young plants are very difficult to tell apart until they are long past the transplanting stage. I have a container that we use to collect popsicle sticks throughout the year. Come spring time, they are very handy.
Follow these steps for successful seed starting:
As difficult as it may be to wait for warmer temperatures, seeds planted too early tend to grow into spindly, less productive plants. Using the seed packet information is to your advantage.
Now your seeds are started and the waiting begins! Use this time to prepare garden beds, raised beds, containers, towers, and other planting areas so they will be ready when it is time for transplanting!
As kids, we called them mosquito eaters, mosquito hawks, skeeter eaters, and mosquito lions. Unfortunately, crane flies do not eat mosquitoes. Instead, they can be lawn and garden pests.
Spindly legs and quiet demeanor have probably protected more crane flies than deserve it as they cling to our walls and ceilings. Frequently allowed to remain in a home or on a patio because they were believed to eat mosquitoes, most adult crane flies don’t eat at all. Those that do, generally only eat nectar. Their offspring, however, are another story all together. There are two types of crane fly found in California: the marsh crane fly (Tipula oleracea) and the European crane fly (Tipula paludosa). Globally, there are over 15,000 different types of crane flies.
Crane fly lifecycle
Like most flies, crane flies have a multi-stage lifecycle that goes from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult. Crane fly pupa do not feed. Instead, starting around May, they lie under the surface of the soil as an adult develops within. In late summer, adult crane flies emerge. Adult females mate and lay eggs within 24 hours of emerging from their pupal stage. Eggs are laid in the soil, underneath lawns and pastures, in late summer and early fall. Those eggs hatch, releasing crane fly larvae into the soil. Crane flies are often found near creeks, streams, and leaky sprinkler systems.
Crane fly larvae
Crane fly larvae are much tougher than most other larval forms. They are so tough that they are called leatherjackets. Leatherjackets feed on the roots, root hairs, crowns, and leaves of your lawn and other members of the grass family (Poaceae or Gramineae). This includes corn, wheat, barley, millet, lemongrass, oats, sorghum, and rye. Feeding continues through the fall until winter arrives, weakening plants and making them susceptible to other pests and diseases. During the coldest months, crane fly larvae hibernate in the soil. As soon as temperatures start to rise, they take up feeding again. During the day, the larvae mostly feed underground. On warm, damp nights, they may emerge to feed on the aboveground parts of your grass plants. Lawn damage is most commonly seen in March and April as dry patches.
Crane fly controls
Crane flies have many natural enemies, such as birds and predatory ground beetles. Heavy crane fly populations can be treated by drenching the infested area with Steinernema feltiae nematodes. These cultural controls can help reduce the damage caused by crane flies:
Crane flies are not a big problem in most backyard gardens. That being said, I can’t help cringing when I hear people share misinformation. While a stream side crane fly larva may end up eating a mosquito larva, crane flies, as a group, are not the Skeeter Eaters of our childhood.
Pheromone traps use chemicals to trick insect pests.
We all know that smell is a powerful trigger for many species. Smell is why we are drawn to freshly baked bread, why we are soothed by lavender and vanilla, and why we wear cologne and perfume. The chemicals that stimulate these and many other responses are called pheromones.
Pheromones are chemicals that stimulate a response within a species. Since most insects only live for a single season, reproduction is critical to species survival. Insects frequently use pheromones to find each other. Pheromones are categorized according to the response they stimulate:
Most over-the-counter pheromone traps are of the sexual variety. They use synthetic female pheromones to attract males. Chemical signals loft into the wind and are picked up by sensory receptors on a male insect’s antenna. He follows the trail in search of love. What he ends up finding, in most cases, is a paperboard tent lined with a deadly stickum, right next to a little tab of luscious pheromones. In other cases, he may find a tray filled with powdered female pheromones. He joyfully rolls in it, finds nothing, and flies away - smelling like a female. Alas for him, in either case.
What pheromone traps can and cannot do
Pheromone traps interrupt mating. They do this by confusing the males with all the extra aromas and by trapping them on the sticky goo. Contrary to packaging claims and popular opinion, pheromone traps are not effective at eliminating a specific type of pest. In fact, they can do just the opposite! Your lone apple tree may have skirted a codling moth disaster until you hung a pheromone trap in it. Suddenly, every codling moth on the block wants to party at your house!
Proper use of pheromone traps
To be effective, pheromone traps are used to monitor specific areas for invasive or particularly destructive pests. Pheromone traps to help you to determine the best time for particular treatments.
How to use pheromone traps
Since pheromone traps are species specific, you must first identify the pest you are trying to monitor. Next, you need to learn the best time of year to employ pheromone traps. These tips can help you make the most of pheromone traps:
As the number of trapped insects changes, you can see become more aware of the rise and fall of breeding populations. This provides you with the information you need when deciding on which insecticide or other treatment plan is best suited to your garden or orchard. [If you feel like getting really technical, you can also calculate degree days for more effective information.]
Insects monitored using pheromone traps
Since reproduction is so important to short-lived species, pheromone traps continue to be an effective monitoring device for a large number of insects. Some of the most troublesome Bay Area insect pests that are monitored using pheromone traps (during specific time frames) include:
Crops best suited to pheromone trapping
Pheromone traps do not provide benefits to all crops. The most common applications of pheromone traps include:
Don’t be put off by this shift from quick-fix solution to data collection and informed decision making. The extra knowledge and effort can spell the difference between hosting a party of undesirables or producing an abundant crop of delicious food.
Light brown apple moth (LBAM) is certainly more than one garden word, but these Australian invaders have been on California’s agricultural radar since they were first seen in 2007. You can protect apple and many other crops across the nation by knowing what to look for as you play in your garden.
A quarantine is in place for the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana). You can track down a map of your area, if you live in California, at the CA Dept. of Food & Agriculture Boundary Index Map. If you live outside of California, you can contact your local Cooperative Extension Office for more information.
Damage caused by light brown apple moths
It’s hard to get motivated to add one more thing to your to-do list, I know, but here are some good reasons for becoming aware of this particular pest:
So, as soon as your plants start producing, light brown apple moth larvae start causing problems. As with other invasives, this pest has no natural enemies.
Light brown apple moths look similar to other leafroller moth (Tortricid) species. According to UCANR, they “hold their wings over their abdomens in a bell shape when at rest and have protruding mouthparts that resemble a snout.” Adult moths rest on the underside of leaves during the day. At night, females emerge and lay eggs on the tops of leaves, near the edge. Eggs are laid in masses of 50 to 150 and they look like overlapping fish scales. At first, these clusters are covered with a greenish slime, but this dries up and sloughs off as the embryos grow and become darker. Larva emerge after 1 to 2 weeks. They reach a length of ½ to ¾ inch and are pale green, with a yellowish-tan head. Just behind the head is a greenish-brown area. Webbing may be seen on shoot tips as larva spin nests, using new leaves and flower parts as protection. As they approach maturity, larva feed heavily on leaves, creating the rolled leaf marker common to the tortrix family.
Since DNA testing is required for proper identification (and since this pest has the potential to cause so much damage), any captured moths or larva should be taken alive, if possible, to your county agricultural office for identification.
How to control light brown apple moths
These pests can be treated the same way as other members of the tortrix family. This means:
Maybe we need to create a series of Old West style wanted posters for all these garden pests. Any interested artists out there?
Native Americans relied heavily on winter squash, such as pumpkins, corn (maize), and climbing (or pole) beans for both food and trade goods for several hundred years. This successful growing method spread west and south to what would become Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Mesoamerica.
Benefits of the Three Sisters Method
Planting these three sisters together allows them to benefit each other in several ways:
In some areas, a fourth plant was added to the mix. This was usually a flowering plant used to attract pollinators, such as honey bees, to increase yield. Just as the three plants benefit each other as they grow, eating them together provides fatty acids and the eight essential amino acids needed to form complete proteins.
Planting by the Three Sisters Method
Rather than planting in rows, the Three Sisters Methods calls for flat-topped mounds, 12” high and 20” wide. Several corn seeds would be planted in each mound. In some areas, rotten fish or eels would be added at the same time, to act as fertilizer. Some areas planted all three types of seeds at the same time. Others would wait until the corn was 6” tall before adding squash and beans. Seeds would be alternately planted around the corn. Two types of beans were used: common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius), which are more drought tolerant.
You can create your own Three Sisters garden design using the same companion planting concepts. Since corn has higher pollination rates when planted in blocks, rather than rows, you can set aside an area of the yard, or a raised bed, as your very own Three Sisters garden.
The corn will grow up, the beans will climb the corn and add nitrogen to the soil, while the squash protects the ground with its wide leaves. Come autumn, your family will be able to enjoy a high protein meal of beans and corn with a side order of baked or steamed squash, with very little effort on your part.
Give it a try this growing season and see how well it works for you!
Clusters of grayish-white, oval, soft-bodied insects on the underside of stems and leaves can mean a mealybug infestation.
You will probably never see a male mealybug. They are simply too small to notice. Orange or yellow egg masses are laid in cracks and crevices of bark and in the calyx (flower end) of fruit, and hatch in June in San Jose, California. Oblong crawlers, or nymphs, which emerge in spring, can be red, yellow or white, and they may or may not have the hairlike filaments seen on adults. Nymphs move from the bark to the base of new shoots or fruit clusters. As they mature, they turn purple and then gain their characteristic white powdery wax covering. They look like scale insects but without the armored covering. There are different mealybug species, including citrus, longtailed, obscure, golden, and pink, among others, along with the dreaded vine mealybug. Adult females are only 3/16 of an inch long, but they tend to congregate in large groups which makes them easier to spot (and more devastating to their host plants). Mealybugs are often mistaken for wooly aphids, and with good reason. Take a look at the images below to see why.
Cousin to aphids and whiteflies, mealybugs are sap eaters. They feed on new buds, shoots, and leaves, causing erratic or reduced budbreak, slowed growth, and twig dieback. Mealybugs are frequent pests to basil, grapes, stone pine, pomegranate, chamomile, apple, plum, pear, peach, ferns, orchids, and, well, quite honestly, pretty much everything growing inside or outside of your home. Mealybugs produce honeydew, which provides the perfect growth medium for sooty mold. They can also carry bean mosaic.
Prevention is, as usual, much easier than eradication. Placing new plants in quarantine areas can prevent the spread of mealybug infestations to the rest of your garden or landscape. Mild infestations can be tolerated by healthy plants, but water-stressed or otherwise unhealthy plants cannot. Mealybugs have many natural enemies, such as hoverflies, mealybug destroyers, pirate bugs, ladybugs, and several parasitic wasp species, so encouraging these beneficials can make your job easier. Globe allium is a good choice for attracting these natural helpers.
Heavy infestations can be treated with neem oil or insecticidal soaps, as they provide effective organic treatments against mealybugs. The trick is spotting these pests before they drain your plants of too many nutrients. Chlorosis and early leaf drop are common signs of mealybug infestation, but you will want to check underneath leaves regularly as a normal preventive maintenance.
Designing a garden before planting can make your work easier and help you get the most out of any garden space.
You don’t have to be a landscape architect to put the basic elements of garden design to work for you. Use the information below to start creating a workable garden design for yourself. And remember that most plants are very forgiving and your garden design should reflect you, rather than a textbook. When I am designing a space in the garden, I use a “Perfect Enough” mindset. Perfect Enough means exactly how it sounds. It will work, I like it, and that’s good enough. It does not have to look like a glossy magazine photograph. Garden design is part science, part art, and part whimsy. So, grab some paper, a pencil with an eraser, and a rough sketch of your garden area, and let’s get started!
Whether you are working with a balcony, a small rental yard, or a more substantial suburban backyard, there are always options for gardening. The first thing you need to ask yourself is:
What do you want out of your garden?
Some people garden for fresh tomatoes, melons, and herbs. Others garden as a means toward self-sufficiency, while some garden out of necessity. Some gardens provide a sense of sanctuary, while others are working kitchen gardens. Keep your unifying goal in mind as you read through these principles of garden design to create a satisfying garden. The next question is:
What do you have to work with?
These are physical properties of your garden and landscape location that directly impact plants:
Principles of design
Professional landscape architects use specific principles of design to help them make good decisions, and you can too. Below, you will find a description of each principle, plus questions to ask yourself about your own space.
The limits of your property certainly create boundaries, but you can use garden beds to build boundaries within boundaries. You may be surprised to learn that the human brain has a certain affinity to specific ratios. These ratios are described by the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Numbers (below). Research has shown that we feel more comfortable with shapes and patterns that follow these two principles. In fact, that’s why credit cards are the shape they are! Many plants grow in patterns using these numbers, as well. As you create boundaries within your garden, see if you can put these numbers to work for you, to create spaces that feel “right”. You can also use boundaries to keep chickens out of the salad patch, nosy neighbors from seeing in, or to hide equipment. Identify the boundaries you have and those you want to add.
Golden Mean refers to a ratio (1:1.618…) in which adding the measurement of one long side plus one short side and dividing that total by the long side equals the measurement of the long side divided by the short side. Don’t panic! For example, if you have a garden plot that is 61.8 feet long and 38.2 feet wide, you have the Golden Mean. Here’s how:
(a/b = b/a+b)
Fibonacci Numbers occur when you take two numbers in sequence and add them together for the next number in the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …
What’s really amazing about these two mathematical tidbits is that two consecutive Fibonacci numbers come very close to creating a Golden Mean! Let’s try it and see! We’ll use 5 and 8.
13 / 8 = 1.625
Lines are visual cues that pull our eyes along a certain path. Lines can be straight, curved, vertical, or horizontal. Buildings, fences, pools, existing plants, and paths all create lines. A row of tall sunflowers will draw your eyes skyward. A curving stone path quietly invites you in to explore. Look at the lines that already exist in your yard and see how each of them makes you feel. Do they fulfill your goals? If not, how can they be changed?
Imagine walking through a garden on a concrete sidewalk. Now imagine walking through the same garden on a path made of wooden planks, or wood chips, or cobblestones. The feel of the entire space changes. Do the current surfaces in your garden allow for proper drainage? Are they durable? Are they comfortable or safe to walk on? Do they match your Dream Garden?
Form, or shape, has a big impact on how a space is perceived. Shape is the two-dimensional view, of say a circle, while form is the three-dimensional sphere. Geometric forms, such as circles and squares, create a more formal garden. Natural forms, such as those created by meandering streams, create a more relaxed atmosphere. When shopping for plants, keep their mature form and shape in mind, as well as size. What shapes will create the feel you are looking for in your garden or landscape?
Texture refers to a plant’s bark, foliage, flowers, and overall structure. Texture can be coarse, medium, or fine. Coarse-textured plants attract attention and delineate space, while fine-textured plants sooth and create openness. Buildings, paths, and other design components also have texture. You can create a sense of space by putting finer textures around the edges, medium textures within that perimeter, and one or a few coarse textured plants closest to the house. The opposite effect can be created by reversing those plantings. How many different textures do you currently have in your garden? Do those textures create the feel you want from your garden? If not, what can you change?
If everything in your garden was green, it would eventually get boring. What colors occur in your garden during each season? Are there times or spaces that need help? You can use a color wheel and color schemes to add balance and contrast to your garden design. The color wheel refers to the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), three secondary colors (green, orange, and purple), and so on. Color schemes can be monochromatic (all one color, in addition to green foliage), analogous (any 3 to 5 colors that are next to each other on the color wheel), or complementary (colors opposite each other on the color wheel). Keep in mind that the buildings, paths, and other existing features of your yard are part of this color factor, too. What colors already exist on your property? Are there places you can alter to create a more pleasing experience? Since colors have a big impact on mood, you can create the feel you want with these colors:
Garden furniture & art
Most gardens offer a place to sit, to relax, to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Patio furniture, awnings, yard art, pergolas, picnic tables, fire pits, wood boxes, and all the other manmade elements of your space have an impact on the overall feel of your garden. Looking at what you already have, ask yourself if those items fit in with your overall design, color scheme, forms, and textures.
If time will be spent in the garden or yard at night, lighting can provide safety and atmosphere. Solar lights are a popular choice for illuminating a garden at night, but keep in mind that some plants, like some people, really need the lights out to sleep well. Lighting can be used to shine on paths, doorways, and seating areas without distressing plants.
Your garden is your own. There is no right or wrong way, as long as the needs of your plants are being met and you enjoy it. If you are unsure about how to start, consider these common garden designs:
Plant selection is similar to painting a room. You know what you want the end result to look like, so you go out and buy your paint. A week and half later, you’re still sanding, spackling, and taping. Adding the plants to your garden or landscape, like the paint, is the very last step in a process that takes time. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to plan and prepare properly. After analyzing soil, sunlight, and surfaces, lighting, lines, and location, boundaries, form, and furniture, color, texture, and art, you can finally decide which plants will suit your purposes and your microclimate.
When deciding which plants to put near each other (and which ones need some space), you may want to consider intercropping, or companion planting. While there has been a lot of false claims and propaganda about companion planting, there are some scientific facts that you can put to work for you, such as the Three Sisters Method, used by Native Americans.
As tempting as it is to immediately install your new plants, it is a far better idea to place them in a quarantine area until you are sure that they are pest and disease free. This can save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
When installing plants, be sure that each location will provide the correct sunlight and wind protection. It is nearly always a good idea to install larger plants first, starting with trees, then shrubs, then perennials, and finally annuals and ground cover. Not only will this plan help you to stay focused on the design, but it will also protect smaller plants from being damaged as larger plants are brought in.
I know this sounds like a lot of information. That’s why many people hire professionals, but don’t let that stop you from trying. A printed out Google maps image of your property is an excellent place to start. Heck, print a few of them! Then you can explore each of the design principles, adding what you already have and trying out new ideas without picking up a shovel!
Take some before and after photos and let us see what you have accomplished!
A reader asked me about dried fruit beetles in their compost and worm bin, so let’s learn more about these pests to see if we can help him and prevent the same problem for ourselves.
Dried fruit (or driedfruit) beetles, along with sap beetles, are members of the Carpophilus family. They have been California pests since the mid 1700’s. You can even read an excerpt on these pests that was written in 1758, and re-published by the Entomological Society of America in 1915!
Dried fruit beetle description
These small black or brown beetles are only 1/10 to 1/5 of an inch long. They have clubbed antenna and some specimens have light yellow spots on their wing covers. The larva is a small white grub with a brownish head, three pairs of true legs, and two tiny horns at the back end. Larvae will try to hide when disturbed. The pupae look like tiny white packets.
Dried fruit beetle lifecycle
Female dried fruit beetles (C. hemipterus) lay between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs in their lifetime, usually on ripe and rotting fruit. Eggs hatch rapidly, in as little as 1 to 5 days. The larva cause significant crop damage as they feed. When they have eaten their fill, they burrow into the soil (or compost) to pupate. As soon as they emerge, they mate and egg laying occurs within 1 to 8 days thereafter. These pests can have a new generation every three weeks! They can live for over a year, but most individuals live for 100 to 145 days.
Damage caused by dried fruit beetles
Dried fruit beetles enter ripening fruit through naturally occurring openings, such as the eye of a fig, or through entry points created by other insects or physical damage. If their presence wasn't bad enough, dried fruit beetles can also carry bacteria that make fruit rot or turn sour, which then attracts other pests, such as naval orangeworms and vinegar flies. Dried fruit beetles can be found in stored beans, bread, sugar, honey, cornmeal, nuts, and cereals. In the field, they attack a wide range of plants, including:
Preventing dried fruit beetle infestations
Prevention is key here (Sorry, David). Dried fruit beetle life cycles can be interrupted in the field by ensuring that fallen fruit is removed regularly. This is especially true for citrus fruit, since dried fruit beetles seem to prefer laying their eggs in fallen citrus fruit. Be sure to harvest ripe fruit right away. By eliminating the food supply, these pests can generally be kept under control.
Dried fruit beetle controls
Many gardeners have had success using funnel traps baited with fermenting fruit and water, or yeast, sugar, and water. High moisture levels are needed for these pests to thrive. Removing excess moisture can cut the dried fruit beetle lifespan in half, reducing the number of potential offspring. Low humidity significantly increases the time it takes for larva to develop. It also interferes with egg-laying (oviposition).
In commercial environments, severe infestations are treated with fumigation. Generally, these pests will not harm the worms in a worm bin, but they tend to indicate sanitation issues elsewhere on the property (or on nearby properties, since the adult beetles can fly).
Phytohormones are chemicals used by plants to regulate growth. Since we all want our plants to grow, phytohormones are pretty important. Let’s learn how we can use phytohormones to our advantage in the garden.
Unlike our glandular bodies, each cell within a plant is able to produce its own hormones. These hormones dictate flower, leaf, and stem formation, the timing of leaf drop, seed growth, flowering, flower gender, and, the really Bog One, fruit development and ripening. These chemicals also tell which tissues to grow down (roots) and which tissues to grow up (stems), and even how long a plant will live.
Appropriately enough, the word hormone comes from a Greek word that means to set in motion. Phytohormones, more commonly known as plant growth regulators, or PGRs, trigger certain cells to respond only at certain stages of the cell’s life. New, undifferentiated meristem tissue produces a lot of phytohormones. After the cells have used all that they need, any remaining phytohormones are moved to other locations within the plant where they are needed, or they can be inactivated and stored for later use. In some cases, phytohormones are cannibalized for their various parts, or chemically destroyed within the plant.
What do plant hormones have to do with gardening?
For one thing, it means that every time you prune out a branch or stem, you are altering the hormonal activity within your plant. The auxins that prohibit bud development further down a stem are mostly found at a growing tip. Remove that tip and hormone levels change, allowing more buds (read fruit) to develop further down the stem.
Secondly, upright, vertical stems tend to produce leaves over buds, because they contain a phytohormone called auxin. Bending a vertical stem into a horizontal position suppresses auxin development, allowing several flower-bearing buds to develop that otherwise would have remained dormant. Bottom line: more fruit.
Also, some bacteria create the plant hormones auxin and cytokinin, which can result in tumor-like crown galls.
Classes of phytohormones
There five basic classes of PGRs. Please don’t let the chemistry scare you off. After reading the descriptions, you will find a handy poem at the bottom to help you remember:
See if the poem below can help you sort all this information out:
Germinate with gibberellins, then ethylenes break ground
Auxins push them higher, abscisic acid slows things down
Cytokinins make them longer, keep them young and stronger
Always working in the garden, in flowers, shrubs and trees
I wish there was a cytokinin made especially for me!
Okay, so it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. How about trying your hand at creating an easy pneumonic and share it with the rest of us in the comments section!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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