Fava beans are the broad beans seen in falafel and not seen in minestrone.
One of the only beans available in Europe until the discovery of the Americas, fava beans make an excellent ground cover and a delicious meal. Being a legume, like peas and other beans, fava beans are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen to feed themselves and their neighbors (until seed development begins). Fava beans are a close cousin to vetch.
Known as broad beans, Windsor beans, field beans, bell beans, and tick beans, fava beans look similar to lima beans and have been cultivated since prehistoric times for food, as a cover crop or green manure, and the seeds can even be roasted and ground as a coffee extender! These plants are prolific producers.
Fava bean plants
Fava beans can grow to 2- to 5-feet tall on erect stems. They have a taproot and large leaves. Fava beans can tolerate temperatures as low as 20°F. The seeds can even germinate at 40°F! They will grow better if you incorporate some compost into the soil before planting, but they can tolerate our heavy clay soil. The flowers are large and fragrant, attracting many different pollinators to the garden.
How to grow fava beans
Fava beans (Vicia faba) are a cool weather crop, so you will want to start your seeds in September or November, in San Jose, California, for a cover crop or green manure. Crops destined to be eaten should be planted in February and March. Fava bean seeds should be sown one or two inches deep, depending on seed size, and 4- to 5-inches apart. Rows should be 2 or 3 feet apart. Seedlings should be thinned to 8- to 10-inches after germination. Regular irrigation is necessary for full pod set. If it is a wet winter, no irrigation is needed. Mulching around the plants will help keep the soil moist.
Harvesting fava beans
Fava beans are harvested when they have reached full size but are still green. They can also be left on the vine until they have dried. They take 80 to 100 days to reach maturity. Like Brussels sprouts, fava bean plants mature from the bottom up, so start harvesting from the bottom of the plant and it should keep producing for several months.
Fava beans as cover crop
As nitrogen-fixing legumes with strong taproots, fava beans are well suited for use as a cover crop or green manure crop on heavy clay soil. Allowed to grow through their complete lifecycle, fava beans can prevent erosion and improve soil structure. If used as a green manure, which means cut down and left to lie where they fall, fave bean plants add nutrients to the soil for future crops.
Fava bean sensitivity
Some people are genetically predisposed to a sensitivity to fresh fava beans because they lack a certain enzyme. These individuals are generally men from southern Mediterranean and northern African regions. This condition is called favism. Symptoms include jaundice, back and abdominal pain, and dark urine. Fava beans also contain high levels of tyramine, so individuals taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors should avoid eating them. They also contain oxalic acid, so fava beans should be avoided by those prone to urinary tract stones.
Don’t let favism (or childhood nightmares of lima beans) keep you from trying fava beans in your garden or landscape. Do you have a favorite fava bean recipe? Share it with us in the comments!
Cling peaches. Freestone fruit. What do those words mean?
If you have ever bit into a sweet, juicy peach or nectarine, you may have discovered that the fruit practically fell away from the pit as you neared the center. Or, you may have had to fight for every morsel, leaving behind a ragged, fruit-covered pit.
When the fruit comes away from the pit easily, it is called freestone.
When the fruit clings to the pit, it is, you guessed it, a cling variety.
Freestone fruits tend to be more firm than clingstones. This makes them better suited for canning. The clingstone varieties are best for fresh eating, though you can certainly can them, or turn them into a delicious jam or chutney!
Clingstones are generally harvested May through August, while freestone varieties are harvested May through October.
If you are going to plant a peach or nectarine tree, take the time to decide which type you want before you plant. Of course, biting into a fresh, sweet peach or nectarine, you won’t care if it’s a freestone or a cling!
Dodder is too bizarre for words.
This plant doesn’t even look like a plant. It looks more like a fungi, or an alien!
Thin yellow, red, or bright orange threads emerge from the ground and start twining around and draping over everything in sight. Everything, that is, if you’re a plant. Dodder (Cuscuta) is a parasitic annual. It gets most of its nutrition by inserting a straw-like structure, called the haustoria, into the plants it covers. Some species of dodder can perform a limited amount of photosynthesis.
The dodder plant
If you look closely, you can see that dodder seedlings are rootless, leafless stems. As the dodder plant matures, it may produce small, triangular leaves that look like scales. Tiny, bell-shaped, cream, pink, or yellow flowers may also be seen, but it is the extensive web of threads that will really catch your eye!
Dodder in the garden
You will probably never see dodder in your garden or landscape, but it’s possible. Different dodder plants may attack marjoram, tomatoes, beets, melons, or asparagus plants from mid-summer through early autumn.
Getting rid of dodder is problematic. If you find it in your garden, ask for help from your local Master Gardeners. If you discover Japanese dodder ANYWHERE, contact your county agricultural commissioner. This new invasive is under a statewide eradication program.
DODDER UPDATE (1/8/2018)
A recent study conducted by Virginia Tech and Penn State have demonstrated that we are not the only ones involved with genetic modifications. Our instinctive outcry against GMOs may be a little outdated when we learn that plants, such as dodder, have been altering the DNA of their host plants for countless centuries. As dodder twines around a host and begins feeding, it inserts genetic information, in the form of microRNAs (miRNAs) and small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), that halt the activation of protective gene sequences. These alterations in the host's DNA make it harder for it to protect itself and improves conditions for the dodder invasion. If that weren’t strange enough, it ends up that plants have been using genetic modification to fight off nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and insects for a really long time.
Birds in the garden: boon or bane?
The answer: both.
The presence of birds in a landscape indicates a healthy biodiversity. They eat many garden pests and may even help with pollination. That being said, birds can be a Royal Pain. They destroy seedlings, devastate crops, and can carry disease. Bird management can reduce the problems while increasing the benefits.
Benefits of birds
The image of a red-breasted robin tugging an earthworm from the soil is an icon of spring. Birds also eat crane flies, stinkbugs, armyworms, moths and their caterpillars, millipedes, spiders, slugs and snails, crickets and grasshoppers, inchworms, katydids, grubs, cabbage loopers, cabbageworms, and countless other garden pests. You may be surprised to learn that hummingbirds often eat spiders, gnats. flies, and ants, especially when they are raising young. Some birds eat the mosquitoes responsible for Zika virus, along with several other diseases. Birds facilitate decomposition by eating foods and then leaving nutrient-rich droppings behind. As birds eat the seeds of fruits and other garden crops, they help spread seeds for future crops.
Birds as pests
As birds devour garden pests, they will also eat beneficial earthworms, centipedes, bees, and butterflies. But crop damage is the real problem. Birds love seeds, fruit, and nuts. They will dig up seeds, devour seedlings, peck holes in fruit, and decimate nut crops. They are particularly fond of pea, bean, melon, and squash seeds. Birds can be major pests if you are growing hazelnuts, almonds, figs, pears, peppers, peaches and nectarines, apples, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, saffron crocus or other bulbs, sorghum, or tomatoes. They can wipe out amaranth and quinoa crops. Birds can also carry diseases, such as San Jose scale. Scrub jays will steal eggs from your chickens and kill young chicks. Birds can also be troublesome when it comes to soil solarization. As they search for grubs and worms, they may lift the fabric, halting and reversing the solarization process. Finally, woodpeckers and sapsuckers can effectively girdle a tree as they feed if the holes are too numerous and go all the way around a tree trunk.
Birds and mixed crops
Some crops, such as sunflowers and currants, can be used to support biodiversity in the garden while still providing a harvest for your family. Fruit from currant bushes, and the seeds and leaves of sunflowers, are popular foods for many indigenous birds, especially goldfinches. You can protect your crops by placing paper bags over flower heads and fruit clusters, or you can simply grow more than you need and provide food for our feathered friends.
Local bird dilemma
Many European birds, such as sparrows and starlings, have made life difficult to nearly impossible for many of our indigenous birds. They take over habitat and food supplies, and are less fearful of humans, so our native birds are suffering. Bluebirds, goldfinches, and several wrens are being pushed into marginal habitats by these interlopers. In addition to habitat loss, they are also facing chemical toxins, cars, windows, plastic garbage, and improperly used netting. Their young are also vulnerable to squirrels, outdoor cats, and other predators. You can help these birds by installing native plants, providing a water source, and constructing bird houses with very small (1” diameter) openings. Anything larger and sparrows will pitch the eggs, kill the young, and take over. Birdhouses need to be placed on poles to be appealing to our native birds. Birdhouses hung from buildings and fences will not be used because they are vulnerable to predation.
To reduce the damage caused by birds in the garden, tree cages can be erected around fruit and nut trees. These structures a much easier to build than they sound, and cost very little. You can also protect newly planted seeds and seedlings with row covers.
Birds are a mixed bag, but it wouldn’t be a healthy landscape without them.
Anthers are where pollen is made.
Male flowers have a reproductive part called the stamen. The stamen is made up of a stem, called the filament, and the anther.
Anthers are usually found in pairs called anther lobes. Each anther lobe contains two spongey pockets, called microsporangia. Within the microsporangia, microscopic pollen spores (microgametophytes) develop.
Anthers come in many shapes and sizes.
You can hand-pollinate many garden plants by removing the anther and touching it to several flowers. You can also accomplish this by taking a small natural bristle paintbrush first to the anther, and then to female reproductive organs within flowers, called pistils.
Plant labels often say ‘determinate’ or ‘indeterminate’, but what do those words mean and how do they affect your garden harvest? Let’s find out.
The botanical definitions of determinate and indeterminate tell us the science behind basic growth patterns. Indeterminate growth doesn’t stop. The main stem will just keep on growing. Think giant sequoias and other redwood trees. Indeterminate growth can also refer to sequential flowering that starts at the bottom and on the sides of a plant, and then moves in and up. Determinate growth is finite. It usually means the main stem ends with a flower or other reproductive structure. Flowering among determinate plant varieties starts from the middle and the top and moves downward and outward. So what does this have to do with your seed packet?
Genetic survival and ripe fruit
Keep in mind that all those fruits and vegetables that we love are a plant’s way of passing on genetic information. It’s survival of the species. Different plants solve the problem of genetic survival in different ways. In fact, the range of behaviors and adaptations goes beyond bizarre in some cases, but we will leave those stories for another day. Basically, in nature, some plants spread their bounty out over several weeks or even months (indeterminate), while others seem to ripen everything on the same day (determinate). In some cases, plants can switch from one to the other! Fruit trees tend to reach harvestable conditions on a determinate schedule. An overabundance of ripe fruit may attract more animals which then spread the seeds over a wider area. [I’m guessing.] Plants that spread their harvest out over a longer period of time may be improving their odds at favorable conditions for their offspring. [Still guessing.] Generally speaking, though not as a hard and fast rule, annuals lean toward the determinate side of the fence, while perennials prefer indeterminate growth. Which ever way they go, it’s a classic case of, “What works, is. What doesn’t, isn’t.” Plants that don’t reproduce successfully do not exist for long.
Since the Agricultural Revolution, we have been modifying plants for size, flavor, disease resistance, and time of harvest, among other things. In commercial agriculture, determinate plants are preferred because crops must be harvested by machinery, all at the same time. For the home gardener, 40 pounds of peas coming ready for harvest within the same week might not be such a good thing. [If it happens, you can always freeze or can your bounty.]
Bushes and vines
In the garden, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, peas, and beans are just a few of the plants that can be either determinate or indeterminate. Most determinate garden plants are labeled as ‘bush’ variety, though many of them don’t actually grow into bushes. Indeterminate cucumbers, for example, will use tendrils to climb as far as they want and produce the biggest fruit they can. Determinate, or ‘bush’ cucumbers, will still spread out, but they generally stay lower to the ground and will produce a set size fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow as tall as they can and continue to put out flowers throughout the growing season, whereas determinate tomatoes tend to focus their energy into bushier growth and producing their crop of tomatoes pretty much around the same time. This is helpful if you are making and canning your own tomato sauce, but it can be a problem if you prefer all of your tomatoes fresh from the garden.
Some crops, such as peas and beans, can be semi determinate. This means they tend to stop producing at a set point but can be coaxed to continue into a second or even third round of production by regularly harvesting pods as soon as they are produced. Remember, a plant is trying to pass on its genes. If they ‘believe’ they have not succeeded, they will keep trying, in most cases.
Ears: another form of determinism
Ears of corn can also be determinate or indeterminate. In this case, the variable is ear size. Ears of determinate corn will stop growing at a set size, while indeterminate corn has no set size and will reach maturity based on environmental conditions.
Pruning and determinism
Indeterminate plants can be pruned of unwanted shoots to direct growth and nutrients where you want them. Determinate plants, on the other hand, perform better if they are not pruned excessively.
Bottom line: if you want everything to come ripe around the same time, plant determinate varieties. If you prefer an ongoing harvest, plant indeterminate varieties.
Etiolation describes the way plants become long and white due to growing in too little light.
As seedlings first emerge from the soil, they tend to be white. Exposure to sunlight soon allows chlorophyll to be activated in photosynthesis, turning the plant green. That initial white shoot is etiolated.
Most of us have seen seedlings growing without enough sunlight, often on a windowsill. It struggles for sunlight, growing taller and taller, until it falls over, a pale version of what it might have been. The growing tips of all plants are attracted to light and will stretch out towards it. If enough sunlight is absorbed by the plant’s chlorophyll, photosynthesis can occur and normal growth will be seen.
You can use etiolation as a sign that plants are not getting enough light. You can also use it to blanch your own garden plants for more tender flavor.
Eggplant is a tasty member of the nightshade family.
Cousin to tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and tobacco, eggplant (Solanum melongena) grown in tropical areas is a perennial. Here in San Jose, California, it tends to be a large annual. Your eggplant bush can grow to be 5 feet tall, but most are closer to 2 feet tall.
Botanically, an eggplant is a berry. This is because it is a fleshy fruit, without a stone, that grows from a single ovary. Within that fleshy fruit are many tiny black seeds. These seeds taste bitter because they contain nicotine alkaloids. Don’t worry, though. You would have to eat 20 to 40 pounds of eggplant to get the equivalent nicotine found in one cigarette.
How to grow eggplant
People have been growing eggplant since prehistoric times. It’s that easy. Originally from Asia, eggplant needs heat. Seeds can be started indoors a month before your last frost date. The seeds are small, so do not plant more than 1/4 inch deep. With plenty of heat and moisture, your seeds may germinate in as little as 7 days. Be sure to harden off your plants before installing them outside. They will need a spot with plenty of sun and good drainage. Eggplant prefers slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5 to 7.0), so acidification may be necessary here in the Bay Area. Plants should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. They will need a lot of water and regular feeding. Reduce competition with weeds by mulching around plants. Eggplants are available in several different sizes, colors, shapes, and patterns, plus there are early maturing varieties. Give ‘em all a try!
Eggplant pests and diseases
Aphids, armyworms, thrips, cabbage loopers, flea beetles, nematodes, lygus bugs, and spider mites will all want to feed on your eggplant plants. Damping off, mosaic, root rot, tomato spotted wilt, foamy canker, and verticillium wilt are common eggplant diseases. Eggplants are also susceptible to a condition called ‘shoe stringing’. Shoe stringing describes the way leaves become thin and leathery, with a chewed up appearance. The cause is unknown at this time.
Your eggplants are ready to harvest when the flesh does not spring back when pressed. Do not pull or twist fruit to remove it - this can damage plants. Instead, snip the stem just above the fruit. Eggplants have the best flavor when they are eaten within 24 hours of being picked. And they are best left on the kitchen counter and not in the refrigerator.
According to 13th century Italian folklore, eating an eggplant can make you go crazy. That claim was repeated in 19th century Egypt, when it was said that insanity was "more common and more violent" when the eggplant is in season in the summer. (Wikipedia)
There are many theories about the insanity claim. Personally, I think it may have something to do with the abundance of food your eggplant plants can produce.
Cabbage looper larvae are common summer garden pests.
Nocturnal brown moths (Trichoplusia ni) fly in at night and lay tiny hemispherical eggs, singly or in clusters, on upper and lower leaf surfaces. Adult moths live 10 to 12 days. Females can lay 300 to 600 eggs in that time. Two to ten days alter, pale white larvae emerge and begin feeding on the underside of leaves of cabbage, broccoli, and other members of the brassica family. As the loopers grow, they move to the upper side of leaves and feed heavily, leaving large ragged holes. They also feed on tomatoes, kale, radish, lima beans, lettuce, peas, peppers, beans, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, potatoes, thyme, and collard greens, leaving behind clumps of dark green droppings.
Cabbage looper description
There are actually several different cabbage looper species, usually based on their favorite food. All cabbage looper larvae reach 1-1/2 inches long and end up pale green. They start out white but, as they feed, they turn green. They move in a classic ‘looping’ inchworm motion. The adult moth is brown.
Cabbage looper control
Unlike other inchworm larval forms, cabbage loopers are resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Luckily, they have many natural predators in the form of big-eyed bugs and parasitic wasps. Avoiding the use of broad spectrum pesticides can help these beneficial insects protect your crops. Hand-picking cabbage loopers can also reduce damage.
Bacterial wilt is a disease that causes members of the squash family to wilt.
Bacterial wilt is caused by a bacterium called Erwinia tracheiphila. It mostly affects cucumbers and muskmelons, but it can also infect pumpkins and squash.
Symptoms of bacterial wilt
Damage caused by bacterial wilt looks a lot like feeding damage caused by squash bugs. As the bacterium begin to multiply within vascular tissue (veins), they clog the xylem, which makes the plant wilt. The sap of an infected plant will be milky colored and able to create a viscous string. (Ew!)
Striped and spotted cucumber beetles carry this disease. The Erwinia bacteria that cause this disease can live in the gut of their carriers for quite a long time. The bacteria can be transmitted as these pests feed and through contact with frass.
Bacterial wilt treatment
Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment. Once a plant is infected, it is too late. Since the infected plant poses a health risk to its neighbors, it should be removed and thrown in the trash. Any tools that came into contact with the plant should be sanitized with a household cleaner, such as Lysol. To reduce the chance of infection, controlling beetle populations and maintaining healthy plants are your best bet.
Bright yellow pests on milkweed? It’s oleander aphids!
Many of us have planted region-specific milkweed plants to support Monarch butterfly populations. What we didn’t know, was that we would also be inviting a new pest into our gardens: oleander aphids. These pests can suck the life out your milkweed plants before the Monarchs ever have a chance.
Oleander aphid description
Like other aphids, this species is small (1.5 to 2.6 mm), pear-shaped and soft-bodied. Oleander aphids, in particular, are bright yellow, with black legs, wings, and cornicles. Cornicles are tiny spikes on an aphid’s back that can excrete defensive fluid. [My dog did that once, after he got into some old pork bones. It wasn’t pretty.] Actually, these defensive fluids are cardiac glycosides that the aphids take from their host plants! Cardiac glycosides are known heart poisons. Luckily, these pests cluster on new stems and are easy to spot. And those defensive fluids won’t hurt you.
As much as I dislike aphids for their plant-damaging and disease-carrying capabilities, I have to give credit where it is due. These soft-bodied bugs really are amazing. Female aphids (and almost all of them are female) are viviparous and parthenogenetic. Wait! Come back! Let me explain. Viviparous means that offspring develop within the mother, the way we do. Parthenogenetic means fertilization by a male is not needed to produce offspring. Not like us. Most aphids do not have wings. But, when they become too crowded, or when a plant starts senescing (dying), some adult aphids emerge with wings. That would be something like all human beings being born 40% smaller, simply because we start running out of room and resources. Hmmm… But I digress. Let’s get back to aphids.]
Oleander aphid management
If you’re not squeamish, you can squish the aphids between your fingers. Or, if you see a stray lady beetle wandering around elsewhere in the garden, gently scoop them up and show them where the feast can be found. If those are not options, you can use a strong spray of water from the hose to dislodge the interlopers, or use insecticidal soap. On plants with heavy stalks, you can interrupt support for aphids from ants by painting the stalk with a sticky barrier. This won’t get rid of the aphids, but it will make them more vulnerable to their natural enemies.
Oleander aphid damage
Like other sap-sucking insects, oleander aphids pierce plant parts to tap into the phloem of the host plant. Think of it as diabetic mainlining. This nutrient rich food source blows through an aphid’s body, creating a sticky sweet residue called honeydew. Honeydew is a petri dish for bacterial and fungal growths, such as sooty mold. Also, the aphid tendency to feed in clusters stunts growth and deforms flowers and leaves, crippling milkweed and oleander plants. Vinca, periwinkle, and frangipani are also affected.
Irrigation is what makes agriculture possible.
The history of irrigation
Humans started irrigating crops (on purpose) as far back as 6,000 B.C. Those early efforts were nothing more than redirecting the flows of the Nile and Tigris Rivers in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Twenty-five hundred years later, irrigation science led to the invention of the Nilometer. The Nilometer was generally a stick, or some stairs, that went down into the river to measure its changing depth. Priests would use that information to ‘magically’ predict the next flood. Another 400 years would pass before anyone thought to build actual canals and dams to redirect water into agricultural fields. It would take another thousand years before the Romans figured out concrete pipes. In fact, we owe a debt of gratitude to those same Romans for inventing indoor plumbing - yay! Two hundred and fifty years later, Hammurabi (the man responsible for the first set of written laws) instituted water regulations. Some of Hammurabi’s water regulations include:
55. If any one open his ditches to water his crop, but is careless, and the water flood the field of his neighbor, then he shall pay his neighbor corn for his loss.
56. If a man let in the water, and the water overflow the plantation of his neighbor, he shall pay ten gur of corn for every ten gan of land.
I have no idea what ‘gurs’ or ‘gans’ are, but you get the idea - we’ve been fighting over water rights for a really long time!
Good water management
Many years ago, while living in an RV and traveling the country, I stopped at a midwestern diner in the wee hours of the morning for some breakfast. The old men who filled the booths and sat at the counter had but one topic of conversation: rain. They were comparing notes on how many hundredths of an inch fell on their respective properties. It was not what I expected, but it made me realize how much science there is behind irrigating crops properly. Good water management means understanding the necessary timing, volume, and application method best suited to your garden and landscape plants.
Farmers deal with irrigation water in terms of acre-feet. One acre-foot refers to how much water is needed to cover one acre of land (43,560 sq. ft.) to a depth of one cubic foot. If you do the math, that ends up being 325,851 gallons of water! Per acre. Each week. You see why drought is such a Big Deal in the world of agriculture! Now, as home gardeners, we will never be using water at those rates. Instead, we have to look at our garden spaces as micro versions of the same calculations. Instead of acre-feet, we need to look at square feet.
How much water does my plant need?
One of the most common gardening questions asked is: How much water does my favorite garden plant need? And the answer is always: It depends. [This invariably irritates some people, but it’s the truth.] Water needs are a function of too many variables to give a pat answer. Soil structure and makeup, plant variety, microclimate, stage of development, life stage process, plant size, root depth*, and exposure to heat islands are just a few of those variables. In California, UC Davis recommends one inch of water each week during the peak of summer. To fill a one foot by one foot area with water to a depth of 1 inch uses 0.623 gallons.
For example, let’s say you have a 4’ by 6’ raised bed:
4 * 6 = 24 sq. ft.
24 * 0.623 = 14.952 gallons
Your raised bed should receive 15 gallons of water during the peak of summer. In spring and fall, half that amount should suffice. Now, if you dump 15 gallons of water into that raised bed all at once, most of it will percolate down through the soil and disappear from the plants’ root zone*. It is far better to water every day during summer. This would mean adding a little more than 2 gallons to our example bed each day of summer.
* How deep do garden plant roots go?
Rooting depth changes, depending on the variables mentioned earlier, but you can use the information below from UC Davis for a general idea for mature, full-sized plants:
How to irrigate
You have several options when it comes to how you get the water to your plants. You can spray with a hose, use sprinklers, fill furrows, use soaker hoses, or install drip emitters. Each method has its pros and cons:
In each case, you will need to know how much water is being delivered. If your bed needs 2 gallons of water a day and you have a 2-gallon watering can, well, there you go. If you are using any other method, you will need to know how much water is coming out of the spigot. You can buy a gadget that is installed between the spigot and the hose for the easiest calculation, just be sure to avoid the cheap, plastic models. They are inaccurate and break very quickly. Also, you need to know that just because you applied the water does not mean it went where you intended. Soil can do funny things to water underground. Take the time to gently dig around plant roots after irrigating to see that the water actually saturated the root zone, rather than running off someplace else.
Irrigating compacted clay soil
Here in the Bay Area, we have heavy clay soil that is often compacted. That means we must be careful when irrigating. Irrigating compacted or clay soil too heavily simply compounds existing problems. Water slowly and gently, and do not dig or till wet soil. The smooth edges left behind can harden into an impenetrable barrier for tender roots.
Benefits of proper irrigation
Not only will plants receive the correct amount of water as they grow, but less water is wasted, pests and diseases are minimized, and plants will be more likely to reach their full potential. You can simplify irrigation by grouping plants with similar water needs.
When it comes to container plants, you generally need to give them more water than in-ground plants. Self-watering containers are an easy way to make sure that your container plants have the water they need.
Katydids are cousins to crickets, grasshoppers, and mole crickets, and you might not want them in your garden or landscape.
There are over 250 different species of katydid in North America (over 2,000 species worldwide). The name ‘katydid’ refers to the sound made by males when they are trying to attract receptive females.
Katydids can be difficult to see. It’s not that they are small, because they aren’t. Mature katydids can range from 1/2” to nearly 5” in length! The difficulty lies in their resemblance to leaves and the fact that they are mostly nocturnal. During the day, they hide out in trees and shrubs, blending with the foliage. They tend to have a bright green, blade-like body, with large hind legs. They look a lot like flattened grasshoppers, but with extra long antennae (or ‘horns’). Very often, the only notice you will get that katydids are present is the damage they cause and a male’s strident chirp.
Katydids (Tettigoniidae) start out as oval-shaped eggs that are laid in rows, at the end of summer, in the soil and in host plant stem holes. These eggs often hatch out looking like tiny adult katydids with big heads and small wings. Nymphs of some species of katydid mimic spiders or leaf-footed bugs in their early stages of development to avoid being eaten. As they feed and grow, they shed their outer exoskeleton and go through several instars before reaching adult size. As summer nears its end, males start singing to attract females. Females use the volume and fluency of a male’s chirp to judge his fitness level. In order to ensure a healthy pregnancy for the female, male katydids provide their (temporary) mates with a ‘nuptial gift’ of sperm and highly nutritious food.
Katydids bite and chew many different plant parts, including leaves, stems, seeds, bark, buds, flowers, roots… okay, pretty much every part of a plant is vulnerable to katydid feeding. The damage often looks like it was caused by caterpillars or grubs. Citrus, peaches, pears, blueberries, apricots, plums, and pomegranates are just a few katydid menu items.
These pests are super fast, and difficult to catch. I use a butterfly net to catch them, and then I feed them to my chickens, who are very happy to help reduce my garden’s pest populations. Commercial growers often use spinosad to control katydids. I have read that katydids can inflict a painful bite or pinch, but I never give them the opportunity. Apparently, in Uganda, people eat katydids.
Katydids as thermometers
If you hear a katydid, you can estimate the ambient temperature using Dolbear’s law. According to Amos Dolbear’s 1897 calculations, you can count the number of cricket chirps that occur over a 15 second period and then add 40 to that number for a reasonable estimate of temperature. If you are using katydids for this experiment, it is suggested that you add 37, instead of 40.
If you hear katydids in the garden, go get your butterfly net and start hunting! These suckers can reproduce exponentially!
Heat islands: tropical paradise or slow death for trees?
We’ve all seen it, but most of us don’t understand what it means. Naked upper branches of trees, singed leaves, neighborhood shrubs struggling to survive, our own garden and landscape plants growing less well than expected are all signs of heat island effect.
What are heat islands?
The term ‘heat islands’ refers to land that used to be soil, bushes, and trees, and is now concrete, asphalt, and buildings. Before all that development, natural cycles and the permeability of the soil kept things cooler and healthier for plants. All the impervious, manmade materials that now cover up 3% of the earth’s landmass absorb heat, creating a zone of higher temperatures called heat islands.
Do I have heat islands?
Unless you live in a tent in the wilderness, yes, you have heat islands. Driveways, patios, extended foundations, concrete paths and walkways, roofs, sidewalks, and the street in front of your home can all create their own heat islands.
How do heat islands impact landscape plants?
Plants installed in or near heat islands must contend with soil temperatures that can be 50 to 90° hotter than the air. This means, on a scorching California summer day, when the air is 95°F, your plants’ roots may be struggling to survive temperatures as high as 185°F! All this strain takes its toll. Most trees reach what is called a ’thermal death threshold’ at 115°F. Held too long at temperatures above this point and even the healthiest tree can die. Even if they survive, plants growing in heat islands have significantly shorter lifespans and are more susceptible to pests and disease. Also, things don’t cool down for these plants as the sun sets. While we may enjoy the lower temperatures of evening, concrete and asphalt hang on to all that absorbed heat, slowly releasing it into the immediate area, making evenings the hottest part of your plants’ day.
Impact of heat islands on water use
Plants growing in heat islands need as much as 50% more water than the same plants grown elsewhere. Since a mature tree can use up to 250 gallons of water a day during the peak of summer, that percentage can translate into a lot of water! Also, if you re growing edibles, such as cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, broccoli, or cauliflower, in a heat island, the stress can cause these foods to turn bitter, or bolt.
How can you help plants in heat islands?
City managers are working toward reducing the heat island effect and you can. too! Use these tips to help your plants survive the heat island effect:
Since plants that are growing in heat islands are already under a lot of stress, be sure to monitor for pests and diseases regularly, so that you can apply treatments right away, before things get out of hand.
Reducing heat islands on your property
There are many steps you can take to reduce the number of heat islands on your property. Not only will this help your plants to be healthier, it also reduces energy bills (if you use A/C), water consumption, and emissions from energy production. Here are just a few of the ways you can reduce the number of heat islands on your property:
Help your plants and the environment by eliminating heat islands around your home.
Brussels sprouts: prehistoric weapons, baby cabbages, or healthy garden addition?
Many years ago, my mother showed up for a Thanksgiving dinner armed with what looked like a medieval weapon. Having never seen the unopened flower buds still attached to the stalk, it confused me, at first. If you have never seen Brussels sprouts growing on a stalk, you are in for a surprise!
A little history
Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea) were first grown as far back as the 5th century throughout the Mediterranean. The Romans liked them, so they moved around quite a bit. They were widely grown in Belgium, back in the 16th century, hence the name Brussels. These plants prefer cooler, coastal weather, so they are a winter crop in California. Lucky for us, a touch of frost actually makes Brussels sprouts sweeter! In fact, California grows Brussels sprouts on several thousand acres each year.
How to grow Brussels sprouts
Brussels sprouts seeds can be planted in the Bay Area in July and August, and transplants can be put in place as late as September. Brussels sprouts and other cole crops love growing in raised beds, with their nice loose soil with plenty of nutrients. (It makes weeding a lot easier, too!) These plants do not perform well in poor soil. Each plant will need an area 2 to 3 feet square, so thin accordingly. Seeds should be planted 1/2 an inch deep and watered well. Keep the soil moist until germination occurs. A nice light mulch can help keep that moisture in place. If you are placing transplants, be sure to dig the planting hole large enough to accommodate the root ball plus the stem, up to the first set of true leaves. Mud them in by watering thoroughly, to eliminate any air pockets, and water every day for the first week. After that, allow the soil to dry out between waterings to prevent fungal diseases.
Pests and diseases of Brussels sprouts
Like other members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are host to many different pests: earwigs, cutworms, flea beetles, beet armyworms, crickets, cabbage aphids and cabbage maggots, whiteflies, loopers, imported cabbageworm, harlequin bugs, nematodes, slugs and snails, thrips, wireworms, and diamondback moths are the more common pests here in California. Brussels sprouts diseases include downy mildews, powdery mildew, bacterial leafspot, bacterial soft rot, while mold, verticillium wilt, phytophthora root rot, clubroot, and ring spot (black blight). Clearly, with so many fungal diseases threatening our Brussels sprouts, moisture is a factor. Brussels sprouts should be on a 2 to 4 year crop rotation to break these disease triangles. Research shows that intercropping Brussels sprouts with fava beans has been shown to reduce pest damage significantly.
Caring for Brussels sprouts
As your plants grow and start to produce buds, break the lower leaves off, over a period of a few weeks, starting from the bottom of the plant. Brussels sprouts are susceptible to sunburn damage and will bolt if temperatures get too high. You can help prevent these problems by covering them with a 50% shade cloth or a double layer of row covers. You can also plant them in a location that is protected from direct sun in the hottest part of the afternoon. This isn’t much of a problem as we get into winter.
One of the most common reasons people dislike Brussels sprouts is because of the way the plants have been handled. Overcooking Brussels sprouts makes them grey, mushy, and bitter. Fresh Brussels sprouts are sweet and tender.
Try adding just one Brussels sprout plant to your garden this fall and share the rest of your seeds with family and friends!
Biochar is being touted as an environmentally friendly way to remove carbon dioxide from the environment, while amending your soil, but is it as friendly as proponents claim?
What is biochar?
Biochar is charcoal made from plant matter burned in a low oxygen environment. You know those big chunks left over in your fire pit? That’s pretty much biochar.
How does biochar act as a soil amendment?
Biochar is said to increase the fertility of acid soils (low pH). Here, in San Jose, California, our soil is more alkaline (high pH), so biochar wouldn’t be a good idea whether it works or not. It is also claimed to act as habitat for many beneficial soil microorganisms. This may or may not be true. How many living things do you find in your fireplace?
How is biochar supposed to help the environment?
Enthusiasts claim that burning vegetation and burying the resulting biochar will sequester tons of carbon in the soil. Of, course, it’s not that simple. The initial burning, alone, releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Bottom line: not enough research has been conducted to prove the claims being made about biochar.
My suggestion: stick with mulch and compost, and drive less.
Echeveria are succulents native to Texas, Mexico, and Central America.
While most stonecrops are not edible (my plants of choice), these plants serve well in gardens and landscapes, protecting areas that would otherwise go unplanted. They require very little care, are drought tolerant, and easy to propagate.
It can be difficult to distinguish between different types of succulent plants. They nearly all grow in a rosette shape, have thick, rubbery or waxy leaves, and tend to have hairs or spines. They also tend to spread, self-propagating wherever conditions are favorable. Echeveria, in particular, tend to reproduce by generating stalked offspring, called ‘offsets’, that appear from underneath in a behavior frequently called ‘hen and chicks’. Echeveria are polycarpic, which means they can produce flowers multiple times. In winter, many echeveria plants lose their leaves, though not all.
Echeveria pests and disease
Rot and frost are problems for echeveria. Frost, particularly after a rain, can kill most succulents. Leaves that have begun dying off should be removed to avoid spreading fungal disease throughout the plant. Mealybugs and aphids can be troublesome.
Nearly all succulents, or stonecrops, can be propagated from a single, healthy leaf. Simply break it off and lay it on loose soil and water regularly. Once roots develop, you can plant it wherever it will receive plenty of sun. You can also break off an offset and transplant it where you want it. Non-hybrids can also be started from seed.
Growing conditions can cause extreme variations in shape, size, and color. If you can’t grow food, grow plants that take as little care, food, and water as possible. Echeveria certainly fits the bill.
Aeoniums are a genus of plants that take little to no care and look better each year.
While I generally prefer edibles, sometimes you have a space in the landscape that you just can’t find the right plant for - aeoniums might be what you need. And while they may not be a familiar flavor, many aeoniums are edible. You have seen these plants many times before, but you may be surprised to see just how lovely they can become, given the chance.
Aeonium [ay-oh-nee-um] is a group of succulents known to the Greeks as aionos, which means ageless. They earn this name because they are monocarpic, meaning each rosette produces only one flower and then it dies. Originally from the Canary Islands, Morocco, and Ethiopia, these rugged succulents can thrive in the hottest weather. They perform well in containers and can be grown indoors if they receive enough light.
Most of the aeonium plants you see today are hybrids and they can look very similar to other stonecrops, such as sedum and echeveria. The biggest difference is that aeoniums often have fine hairs or spines on the edges (margins) of the leaves. Also, the leaves, which can be rounded or pointed, tend to be somewhat thinner than echeveria. When aeonium produce a flower, it is actually an inflorescence (a cluster of flowers) on a stalk that can reach 3 feet in height. These flowers can be very striking. The surface of aeonium leaves may be fuzzy, sticky, or smooth, and the stems can be scaly, smooth, hairy, or fissured. Plants stressed by drought or sunlight may exhibit red or purple highlights. This is not a concern. It is just what they do.
Types of aeonium
Most aeonium are classified as either low-growing or large. The large varieties include A. arboreum, A. holochrysum, and A. valvredense. Low-growing varieties are A. smithii and A. tabuliforme.
Caring for aeonium
Being tropical, these plants need strong light, good drainage, and watering only after long periods of dry soil. They do need protection from freezing temperatures so some sort of cover should be provided between the first and last frost dates. Too much rain can also cause rot.
Pests and diseases of aeonium
Aphid and mealybug infestations of the plant crown (where the stem meets the roots) can often be spotted by the presence of protective ants. Since many of these plants are edible and they contain a lot of water, many herbivores will feed on them, including squirrels, tortoises, and rabbits.
Being succulents, aeonium are easy to propagate from a leaf. This is best done in autumn, when plants are actively growing. Simply take a healthy leaf from the plant and place it in good soil, in bright shade, and water occasionally. Aeoniums readily self-seed, if they are in a good location.
The range of shapes, textures, and colors make these plants easy to play with when creating a rich visual tapestry in a landscape.
Pollinators are animals that carry pollen from flower to flower. This pollen then fertilizes female flowers, allowing plants to produce fruit and seeds.
Without pollinators, we would be in a bad way. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture tells us, “Of the 100 crop species which provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 crops are pollinated by bees.”
Fruit set failure often means there are not enough pollinators. Insufficient pollination can also lead to blossom drop, crooking, and poor harvests. Today, we will find out who the pollinators are and how to attract more of them to the garden.
How does pollination occur?
Some plants have the ability to self-pollinate. If pollen grains can be moved from the male (anther) to the female (stigma) within the same flower, it is called autogamy. If pollen grains are carried from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another flower, while still on the same plant, it is called geitonogamy. When the pollen must be taken to the stigma of a different plant it is called cross-pollination, xenogamy, or allogamy. In some cases, self-pollination occurs before the flower even opens! This is called cleistogamy, but it has nothing to do with pollinators, so we will leave those flowers to themselves - which is what they seem to prefer anyway.
How do pollinators move pollen?
Even in the case of self-pollinating flowers, something is needed to break the pollen loose from the anther so that it can stick to the stigma. Note for those with allergies: pollen is very sticky. Rubbing or rinsing with water will not remove pollen. Soapy water is needed. So, as pollinators land on a flower, pollen sticks to them. Walking around on a flower knocks pollen loose to fall on the stigma and to stick to the body of the visitor. Next, that visitor flies, walks, or crawls away, carrying that pollen with them. When they visit the next flower, pollen is knocked loose from the anther and the pollinator’s body and the chance of fertilization starts going up. Some pollinators end up looking like Charles Schultz’ Pig-Pen, a walking cluster of pollen grains. Others have evolved with pockets on their legs! Honey bees and other apid bees have a pollen basket, or corbicula, on their legs that hold pollen wetted down with nectar. Other bees have a pollen basket called a scopa, on their abdomen. Whether they carry it on purpose or not, pollinators are drawn to flowers for several reasons.
How flowers attract pollinators
Plants have evolved with specific characteristics that attract the best pollinators for their needs. In some cases, the relationship is very specific. Figs are only pollinated by a fig wasp. No fig wasp - no figs. In most cases, plants go for the hard sell to attract as many pollinators as possible, using several different characteristics:
Installing a wide variety of plants is one of the best ways to attract pollinators.
Who are the pollinators?
There is far more to pollination than just the 1,000 different species of native, mostly non-stinging bees in California (4,000 nationwide; 20,000 worldwide). Bats, flies, moths and butterflies, beetles, birds, wasps, even lizards and monkeys can be pollinators. For that matter, so are we! As we walk through the garden, pollen attaches to our skin and clothing, to be deposited on the next plant we approach. We have also been known to hand-pollinate plants on purpose. More often, pollinators co-evolve in mutually beneficial relationships with their nectar and pollen food sources.
How to attract pollinators
First and foremost, get rid of the toxins that kill these beneficials. Broad spectrum insecticides, herbicides, and pesticides, even when they claim to be safe, should be avoided. They cause too much of an interruption in the normal, natural cycle of things. Yes, it means a few more pests in the garden, but it also means less toxins and more pollinators.
Second, pollinators need fresh water. While you do not want to create mosquito breeding grounds, bird baths, fountains, and other water features make lovely additions to the garden while providing water for pollinators.
Third, you need to provide adequate food and shelter for pollinators. Now, before you go out and buy one of those new fangled bug hotels, know that research does not show they are effective. In fact, these artificial clusters end up being breeding grounds for pests and diseases of pollinators! Most native bees are ground-dwelling, so they wouldn’t use them anyway.
You can certainly install a bat house, but most of the shelter you provide will be the same plants you install to provide pollinators with food. Use these strategies to provide shelter:
Plants that attract pollinators
Plants can be divided according to the pollinators they attract:
Butterflies also benefit from access to your compost pile and a patch of mud. They use the mud as a source of both water and minerals, and they enjoy eating rotten fruit.
Going native through the seasons
Since evolution is a really slow process, one of the best ways to attract a wide variety of pollinators to your garden is to install native plants. Native plants already provide for these beneficial insects and birds. You will also want to ensure that there are flowering plants available throughout the year. Not only will this help the pollinators, it will make your garden and landscape look better! Perennial natives, such as manzanita, make the job of attracting pollinators far easier. Here is a list of some California native plants that attract and provide for pollinators:
Video of male carpenter bee (Kate Russell)
Let it go to seed
All too often, we sabotage ourselves at the end of each growing season. Rather that pulling (never pull!) or cutting (better) spent plants, leave them in the ground (best) to go to seed. Not only will this provide for local pollinators, but it can also give you seeds for next year’s crops! I always let things go to seed. Now, as the seasons change, I find lettuce, escarole, cosmos, carrots, and more, growing where I never planted them, but where they can grow without any help from me.
Other causes of low pollination
Sometimes, pollinators are not the problem. Other causes of low pollination rates include:
For region specific planting advice, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s interactive tool. Simply type in your zip code and they provide valuable information about suitable plants that will attract pollinators.
As a child, I detested cauliflower above all vegetables.
It probably had a lot to do with the evening an encyclopedia salesman arrived just at dinner time. My single parent mother was bad at telling people to go away, so our already overcooked cauliflower sat on our plates, congealing, for nearly an hour. We didn’t have a microwave, so we had to eat it at room temperature. My mother’s rageful mood didn’t help our appetites.
Since those days, I have come a long way in my view of cauliflower. Apparently, so has the rest of the world. The peppery flavor of this cruciferous treat now grace menus in every meal. Grilled slabs of cauliflower are used as burgers, pureed cauliflower provides a low-starch replacement for mashed potatoes and potato pancakes, and the list of cauliflower recipes is getting longer every day. If that weren’t reason enough to add cauliflower to your foodscape, here’s another reason: you can grow cauliflower twice a year in some regions!
When we eat cauliflower, we normally assume we are eating a flower, but we’re not. That is only true if you are eating broccoli. The part of a cauliflower that we normally eat is botanically known as ‘inflorescence meristem’. This plant tissue is a cluster of undifferentiated plant cells that form a ‘curd’. You know, the stuff Little Miss Muffet ate, sitting on her tuffet. Okay, she was eating a dairy product, but the appearance is similar.
How to grow cauliflower
As a cool weather crop, cauliflower seeds can be started in January, February, and March, for an early summer crop, and again, in September, for a winter crop in regions with hot summers. If you are organized, you can also install cauliflower plants in August and October, but that means getting your seeds started beforehand. Cauliflower cannot survive scorching summer heat, so don’t waste your time with late maturing varieties. Seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep in small containers and then transplanted when they look sturdy. Each plant will need an area 1-1/2 to 2 feet square to reach full size. Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea) uses a lot of water, so frequent irrigation is critical. As heads mature, protect them from sun damage by folding leaves over the flower.
While normally white, cauliflower varieties now come in purple, yellow, green, and orange. In my family garden, the best varieties are Snow King, Snowball, and Snow Crown.
There is also a crazy, spiky looking hybrid, Romanesco, that you may want to try.
Cauliflower pests and diseases
Cauliflower is susceptible to the same pests and diseases as other cole crops, such as broccoli and cabbage. For this reason, it is a good idea to avoid planting these crops in the same location, year after year. Crop rotation can break the cycle of many pests and diseases. This is called breaking the disease triangle. Row covers are very helpful when growing cauliflower. The most common pests of cauliflower include:
Powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, phytophthora root rot, clubroot, and damping off are common cauliflower diseases. Cauliflower plants are also subject to blindness, buttoning, and whiptail. Blindness describes a plant that never grows a head. Buttoning occurs when several days of excessive cold hit, causing plants to rush to create flowers that end up being significantly smaller than normal. Cute as a button doesn’t really fly in the world of cauliflower - though individual minis might look amazing on the Thanksgiving Dinner table! And whiptail refers to the strap-like leaves that occur when there isn't enough molybdenum in the soil. Excessive salt in the soil, competition from weeds, and insufficient water or nitrogen can also cause problems. Basically, if the plant thinks it's on the verge of death, it will panic and produce tiny heads, rather than no heads at all.
Leave your cauliflower heads to mature fully before harvesting. When it is done growing, it will be fully open. Cut the plant off at soil level and leave the below-ground portion to feed the soil, worms, and soil microbes.
Slow and steady is the name of the game when growing cauliflower. Many people say that cauliflower is not easy to grow, but I have not found that to be true. These plants need nutrient-rich soil, regular irrigation, and the protection needed to develop into substantial plants before flower production begins. I grew my first cauliflower plants in a narrow bed against my house, where I had processed my compost for a couple of years. They came up beautifully.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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