Erosion is one of the ways new soil is made from rocks. It is also a common way of losing valuable, nutrient-rich soil from your garden.
Erosion occurs when wind, water, and other natural agents move soil, rock, or dissolved minerals from one place to another. In the garden, this commonly occurs when irrigation causes runoff, wind blows topsoil away, or when plants are grown on a slope and gravity pulls the topsoil downhill.
There are many problems associated with erosion in the garden:
You can prevent erosion in your yard with these tips:
Crown gall is a bacterial disease that creates wooden baseballs (galls) on many woody and herbaceous plant crowns (including my roses).
Crown gall is caused by the Agrobacterium tumefaciens bacteria, which is commonly found in many soils. The crown gall bacteria enters healthy plant tissue through fresh wounds. As tiny as bacteria are, these wounds can be as small as a thorn poke, a squirrel claw mark, or those hand trimmers you keep forgetting to sanitize. Bacteria may enter at any location on the plant. When they do, they reprogram nearby host plant cells to start reproducing the bacteria, very much like a virus or a cancer. Galls may form on roots, stems, or even leaves.
How to identify crown gall
Roses, caneberries, sunflowers, and grapes are just a few of the plants susceptible to crown gall. Apple, pear, cherry, apricot, and almond trees are also prone to crown gall. When woody, ball-shaped growths are seen above ground, it is easy to diagnose. Since galls may form underground, it is not always easy to determine why a particular plant isn’t flourishing. Galls (pictured) are clusters of disorganized growth. They tend to have irregular vascular tissue and an enlarged cambium layer. All these distortions interfere with the flow of water and nutrients. Wilting and stunting are common early signs.
How to control crown gall
The crown gall bacteria can survive in the soil for 15 to 20 years. Heat is the only management tool available to combat the crown gall bacteria. Infected plants should be removed and disposed of immediately, and susceptible species should not be planted in that location for at least 5 years. To (temporarily) eliminate the bacteria from the soil, the application of 140°F steam for 30 minutes or solarization at 160°F for 30 minutes or 140°F for 1 hour has been shown effective. Tools that have come into contact with infected plants should be cleaned with 9 parts water and 1 part bleach. There are some genetically altered anti-crown gall bacteria available for purchase, if you want to go that route.
Personally, I hold fast to my policy of only growing (watering, pruning, feeding, etc) plants that are well suited to my microclimate, soil, and personal preferences.
Healthy soil is the stuff that allows us to grow lush fruits, crispy greens, and fragrant flowers and herbs. Without healthy soil, very little will grow. Soil is the Earth’s living skin.
To call someone ‘dirty’ is usually an insult, and there are many other soil slurs that demonstrate our careless attitude toward something so important, but the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a harsh lesson in the importance of caring for and protecting this valuable resource.
Soil stores water and nutrients, filters water, helps break down toxic wastes, and is a critical player in carbon cycling, nitrogen cycling, and, let’s face it, life on Earth.
So what is soil?
Many people assume that soil is simply ground up rocks, but this is only partly true. Soil is made up of organic matter (1-5%), minerals (45-49%), water (25%) and air (25%). Organic matter (humus) includes living things and the remains of things that used to be alive. The water and air that make life possible are found in the spaces (macropores and micropores) between chunks of organic material and minerals, called soil aggregates. The minerals are normally the ground up bits of local bedrock. Depending on how small the pieces are, they are called sand, silt, or clay. Obviously, you can see a grain of sand with the naked eye. A particle of silt can be seen with a standard microscope, but a particle of clay, being smaller than most bacteria, can only be seen using an electron microscope - clay is that small! There are 12 types (orders) of soil, depending on color, texture, mineral content, and structure.
Soil surface area
The surface of soil particles is where the magic happens. This is where the chemical reactions needed to move nutrients from the soil into plant roots takes place. Clay has 100,000 times the amount of surface area as an equal weight of sand. Sand is chemically inactive when compared to clay. The spaces between the particles is important, too. Being physically larger, sand particles have fewer, bigger spaces, allowing nutrients and water to leach out. Being the smallest, clay particles have many more, very tiny spaces. These spaces hold up to six times more water and nutrients, but the water moves more slowly and is harder for plant roots to access. Loam is considered the ideal growth medium for most plants. Loam consists of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay.
Types of soil
Soil texture is a function of the proportion of sand, silt, and clay it contains. Use these steps to determine your soil texture:
Then, use the chart below to find where the three percentages meet to identify your soil type:
For example, a 10” jar has 1” sand (10%), 7” silt (70%) and 2” (20%) clay:
The way soil particles are held together into aggregates is called soil structure. Soil structure impacts porosity and permeability, water-holding capacity, and nutrient availability. Soil structure problems, such as compaction and crusting, can prevent roots from getting where they need to go. Good soil structure can help move water away from roots when over-watering occurs. Ideally, your soil should be made up of various sized bits that hold their shape under slight pressure. Follow these steps to determine your soil structure:
The color of your soil can tell you a lot about what it contains. Darker soil tends to hold more organic matter. Soils with red, yellow, or brown tints contain iron oxides. Yellow soil may also indicate a drainage problem. White soil contains gypsum, carbonates, and other salts. Blue-green and gray soils indicate continuous exposure to water, which can cause problems for most garden plants.
Soil texture and structure may be ideal, but if the soil pH is incorrect for the plants being grown, they will be unable to absorb the nutrients they need. Most plants prefer a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 to thrive.
How to create healthy soil
Healthy soil needs organic material to promote good structure, proper drainage, and nutrient and water flow. Soil creation is called pedogenesis. [Did you know that soil, water, air, and all living things make up the Earth’s pedosphere?]
Use these tips to improve your soil:
Top dressing is the process of adding compost, soil mixture, or sand to the surface of your lawn or other landscape area to improve the soil.
Unlike rototilling, double-digging, and other intrusive (read backbreaking) methods, top dressing is relatively simple and easy. Ultimately, the top dressing is mixed into the existing soil through natural methods of worm and plant feeding, rain and irrigation, and foot traffic, but it is merely spread around on top. Nature does the rest of the work for you.
Top dressing provides these benefits:
Materials to use when top dressing
Selecting the right materials for top dressing your lawn may be as simple as spreading aged compost or it may be a scientifically researched analysis of existing nutrients and soil structure. A soil test is always a good idea because there is no sense adding nutrients that are already in abundance. At the same time, you generally can’t go wrong spreading aged compost over a lawn or other growing area. The most common mistake made selecting top dressing material is to use fine grain sand to reduce compaction. The grains of sand end up clogging the tiny spaces between soil aggregates that allow for the flow of air and water, creating concrete. These spaces are called the macropores and micropores.
Also, thatch may create impenetrable barriers to roots if it is too thick before applying a top dressing. (Thatch is the layer of dead stems, stalks, and other plant material that can build up in a lawn.) A dethatching rake can break up this layer, making your top dressing more effective. A thin layer of thatch should not cause any problems as the top dressing and irrigation will help it to break down more quickly.
How to apply top dressings
Top dressing is handled differently, depending on the area being treated. To top dress an existing garden bed, the application of an inch or two of aged compost each year will significantly improve soil structure and fertility - just be sure to keep this mulch a few inches away from tree and shrub trunks to avoid crown rot. To successfully top dressing a lawn, follow these simple steps:
Tarragon is a lovely licorice-flavored herb that requires very little care.
Traditionally used to flavor fish, chicken, and omelets, tarragon is a must-have ingredient when making béarnaise sauce. It can also be snipped into salads, deviled eggs, potato salad and enough other recipes to make growing this easy-to-care-for herb an easy choice.
Types of tarragon
There are two types of true tarragon: French and Russian. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is the culinary herb, while the Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) has no flavor. In both cases, the plants will grow up to 24 inches tall and 12 inches wide, with slender leaves and tiny green flowers that never open. The Russian leaves are somewhat larger than the French. There is also a Mexican tarragon which isn’t really a tarragon at all, but it does have the licorice-flavored leaves so it can be used as a replacement for French tarragon. Mexican tarragon is related to marigolds. To avoid planting Russian tarragon by mistake (as plants are sometimes mislabelled), have a taste. Unfortunately, many seeds are mislabelled, as well.
How to grow tarragon
Tarragon requires nothing more than occasional waterings and good drainage to provide lush growth. It is easiest to buy seedlings or to take divisions from established plants. Follow these steps to divide an older plant:
Tarragon performs well in containers for the first year, but it needs to be planted in the ground after that. The container limits root growth so much that the plants lose their flavor. Regular watering is the key to the production of tenet new leaves. Tarragon tolerates alkaline soil, making it an excellent choice in the Bay Area. Tarragon can be grown in full sun in cooler areas, or it can be added to an area with dappled sunlight or a shade garden in areas with really hot summer days.
Voles are rodents that look like mice on steroids and they eat their weight in garden plants every single day.
Voles are related to lemmings and muskrats. There are 155 species of vole worldwide, with six in California. Two of those species are considered major pests:
Voles look a lot like mice crossed with gerbils. Voles are also known as meadow mice or field mice. Voles range in length from 5 to 8 inches, including the tail. Voles have a burly body, a rounded head, a short hairy tail, small eyes, and tiny ears. Their longer coarse fur can be blackish-brown, yellowish-brown, grayish-brown, or reddish-brown, with gray underparts.
Voles love the dense vegetation (and abundant food) of many residential landscapes, as well as agricultural fields. Unlike moles, who dig deep burrows edged with dirt mounds, voles spend much of their time running along paths (2 inch wide ‘runways’) found between multiple burrow entrances. These entrances are usually 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Nests are made out of clumps of grasses. Voles will often cover their runways with plant material or create them in places with overhanging vegetation. Voles also use freshly cut grass and their own green droppings (3/16” long) to line the entrances to their burrows.
Is it vole damage?
Voles eat plant roots, tree and shrub bark, and all sorts of bulbs, including garlic. They also eat seeds, flowers, grasses, and tubers. Celery, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, turnips and sweet potatoes are just a few of the garden plants enjoyed my voles. Cherry, almond, avocado, citrus, olive and apple trees may also be damaged by vole feeing, especially if low-hanging branches make it easier for voles to reach hop on (they are lousy climbers). Signature irregular gnaw marks, 1/8 inch wide and 3/8 inch long, indicate voles. These gnaw marks can cause girdling damage that can kill a tree.
Vole populations fluctuate based on several factors, including temperatures, availability of food, and predation. It boom years, several thousand voles can occupy a single acre of land, causing severe damage and plant loss. One female vole can produce well over 50 offspring in a single year, so it is better to prevent the problem in the first place:
If voles are present and these exclusionary measures aren’t enough, you can use standard mouse and rat traps, baited with peanut butter. Be sure to place the traps along existing runway paths. While baiting with poison can be effective, the risks to pets, children, and other wildlife make it an undesirable option. Some people have found vole repellant to be very effective, without causing risks to plants or animals. My dogs do the trick in my yard.
The adult Fuller rose beetle is known for causing distinctive scalloped edges to the leaves of roses, lilac, citrus, avocado, and many other landscape and garden plants.
Fuller rose beetles are also known as Fuller’s rose weevil. They feed on many ornamental and edible plants, such as carnations, begonias, lilies, persimmon, apple, apricot, strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry.
Identifying Fuller rose beetles
Adult Fuller rose beetles are grayish-brown insects with long snouts, similar to vegetable weevils (but with a more rounded snout) and harmless cribbage weevils (but with more widely spaced, bulging eyes). The beetles are approximately 1/3 inch long. The larva can grow to 1/2 inch and are white with a yellowish head and black jaws. The current scientific name is Pantomorus cervinus, but it has also been called Naupactus cervinus, Asynonychus godmanni, and several others, due to scientific debate and these pests being found in several locations.
Each year masses of yellowish, cylindrical eggs are laid on fruit and in the nooks and crannies of bark and covered with a white sticky material. When these eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground, where they feed on the roots for 6 to 10 months or more. After causing damage below ground, the larvae pupate for a couple of months in the soil before emerging as adult beetles, which then climb up and start feeding on the leaves, damaging the aboveground portion of the plant. All Fuller rose beetles are female and they reproduce without mating.
Damage caused by Fuller rose beetles
The most obvious damage caused by these pests is the scalloped edge seen on the leaves. While this damage is primarily cosmetic, it does indicate damage being done to the roots. The combined effects can reduce the overall health of affected plants.
How to control Fuller rose beetles
Since adult beetles must climb the tree or shrub to continue their lifecycle, the easiest control measure is to use sticky barriers to block that climb. Also, be sure to trim back any stems or branches that allow foliage to touch the ground. Beetle activity is highest in July, August and September.
Budworms - they're not just the bane of marijuana growers!
Budworms destroy flowers, buds, and leaves, and there are several types. All of them are the larval stage of certain moths. They are called budworms because they burrow into the flower buds of tobacco, marijuana, spruce, cotton, petunia, nicotiana, and geranium. After those resources have been exhausted, budworms start feeding on many other nearby flowers, such as roses, snapdragons, angelonia, and penstemon.
The budworm begins its life cycle as an egg. These spherical, flattened eggs are laid singly, usually on buds or leaves. The newly emerged larvae may be colored olive green to reddish brown, with longitudinal stripes and several rows of spines along the back. Depending upon the specific species of budworm and the food they are eating, the color may change to match the host food, making them difficult to see. Budworm larva go through several instars. After gorging on your flower buds and other plant parts for a month or so, adult caterpillars drop to the ground where they burrow down 4 to 6 inches and pupate into moths. There are generally two or three generations each year, in spring and summer. Each species has distinct descriptions and host foods. Two of the most common budworm pests:
Damage caused by budworms
Tiny budworm larvae burrow into small flower buds, where they feed and grow. As they become larger, budworm emerge from inside the ruined flower buds to feed on nearby mature flowers and leaves.
How to control budworms
Very often, budworm damage isn’t seen until flowers are open or the bud is destroyed. Monitoring buds regularly is critical for control. Check buds and flowers for small holes. Holes in buds will average 1/16 inch in diameter, while leaf and flower holes tend to be 1/8 inch. Handpick any visible caterpillars, which are normally most active during the evening and hide near the base of the plants during daylight hours. Chemical insecticides have not been found effective. Luckily, treatments containing Bacillus thuringiensis/Bt are effective when sprayed early and regularly enough. Rototilling or installing landscape cloth over affected areas during the fall may disrupt the budworm lifecycle.
The drip line of a tree is the best place to irrigate.
Tree roots have evolved to find water where it is most likely to fall after it rains ( as well as down deep, where underground waterways occur).
Tree drip lines are where the water would fall, if the tree canopy were an umbrella.
Artichokes are a ritualistic food that require patience, good conversation, and a nice glass of white wine to be truly appreciated.
Modern artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) have evolved from the cardoon, a plant still grown in Spain and Portugal as a vegetable for its stalks and immature buds, and as a source of plant-based rennet for cheese making. Artichokes found in grocery stores today tend to be larger and tougher than is ideal. Gardeners can enjoy a more tender and flavorful experience by growing these prehistoric-looking members of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family themselves. As a health benefit, artichokes contain more antioxidants than most other vegetables.
Artichoke buds & flowers
The artichokes we eat are actually spiny, immature flower buds. Each artichoke that we buy or harvest is made up of a cluster, or inflorescence, of hundreds of smaller flowers, protected by modified leaves called bracts. Once these flowers bloom, the meaty bracts and the base, or heart, are too tough to eat. The lovely purple flowers are nice to look at, however.
Do you have space for artichokes?
Artichokes can be grown practically anywhere, but they are large plants, averaging 4 to 6 feet across, so be sure to give them room to grow. They prefer cool, moist summers (or relatively shady spots) and mild winters. The majority of the commercial crop is grown in the central, coastal areas of California. While most artichokes are grown as annuals, the plants can actually be grown as perennials, producing edible buds for 4 or 5 years. Under the right conditions, you may be able to harvest as many as 30 artichokes per plant per year. To get the most out of your artichoke plants, it is important to provide light soil (add compost!), water in summer and improve drainage for winter.
Artichokes & temperature
Timing is critical when starting artichokes from seed and when selecting varieties. The heirloom varieties (‘Violetta Precoce’, ‘Green Globe’, or ‘Romanesco’) are very temperature sensitive and will not grow well in northern regions. ‘Opera’ and ‘Imperial Star’ are better choices for colder areas. ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Imperial Star’ perform the best in Santa Clara County.
Artichoke varieties & propagation
Artichokes are either green or purple. Traditionally, artichokes are a warm weather crop that can be propagated vegetatively or by planting seeds. Varieties that perform better through vegetative propagation include Italy’s large purple Romanesco, Spain’s medium green ‘Blanca de Tudela’, and Peru’s spend ‘Spinoso e Inguano’. Vegetative propagation refers to division and root cuttings. Division means separating the crown and roots that many herbaceous perennials produce on their own as a means of asexual reproduction and planting each separately. Root cuttings can be taken from established plants and placed in a favorable growth medium (moist soil) and allowed to create a new stem and become a complex, independent plant.
How to grow artichokes from seed
Many varieties of artichoke perform well when grown from seed, but it may take a period of vernalization before flowering begins. Green ‘Harmony’ or ‘Symphony’ and purple ‘Opal’, ‘Concerto’ or ‘Tempo’ can all be grown from seed. Since artichokes have deep taproots, they are not well suited to container gardening. Seedlings should be handled very carefully when transplanting. It is easiest to simply plant them in the ground where you want them to give the taproot the freedom to grow deeply, without interruption. Artichoke seeds should be sown 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep at a time when temperatures are expected to be in the 70 - 75º range for a few weeks.
Artichokes are heavy feeders. Using a side dressing (adding fertilizer next to plants, where it is watered into the soil around the roots, rather than digging it in), each mature plant will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen at the beginning of the growing season. Plants will also benefit from 1 cup of ammonium sulfate and 2/3 cup of ammonium nitrate during the harvest season. If you are like me and prefer a more natural approach, simply keep mulching the area around each plant with aged compost.
Artichoke pests & diseases
Aphids and slugs are an artichoke’s most common pests. At the end of each growing season, many pests can be thwarted by cutting the stems to ground level and covering with mulch. Artichoke plume moths can be a problem in perennial beds. Artichoke curly dwarf is a viral disease that causes stunting and dark, necrotic (dead) spots. To avoid this problem, use only disease-free stock. Botrytis is a fungal disease that occurs after extended periods of warm, wet weather.
Harvest your artichokes when they are about the size of an apple for the best flavor and tenderness.
A funny side note about artichokes: the fleshy leaves contain a chemical, called cynarine, that inhibits certain taste receptors, making water and other things taste sweeter!
Armyworms are not militant red wigglers. Instead, they are the larval form of the Fall Armyworm Moth, which can wreck havoc on Bermuda grass lawns and several garden plants.
Until recently, armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda) were only found in South America, Florida, and southern Texas. Now this pest is found throughout North America. Warmer areas will have more of a problem with armyworms because northern populations are limited by freezing temperatures.
Armyworms go through complete metamorphosis. They begin life within a dome-shaped egg. Adult females lay masses of 100 to 200 eggs, with an average of 1500 eggs in her lifetime. Some overachievers lay more than 2000 eggs! These egg masses are often covered with a layer of grayish scales that make the cluster look moldy or fuzzy. When armyworm eggs hatch, the larvae, which grow to 1-1/2 to 2 inches in length, go through six stages, or instars, that feature specific characteristics:
Since pupation normally takes place in the soil, you may never see an armyworm’s reddish brown cocoon. Adult armyworm moths look grayish-brown at rest, with an average length of 1 to 1-1/2 inches. On male moths, you may be able to see white triangular spots at the tip of each wing.
Signs of armyworm damage
For the most part, armyworms eat the leaves of grasses and small grains. They have also been documented feeding on corn, peanuts, beets, apples, oranges, strawberry plants, peaches, and grapes. In the first instar, larva eat only one side of a leaf’s epidermis. By the second and third instar, they eat holes in leaves and they eat from the outer edge inward. Cannibalistic tendencies usually prevent complete defoliation (leaf loss), but not always. In some cases, large numbers of eggs hatch at the same time, creating an army behavior that can destroy an entire field within days.
How to control armyworms
Luckily for us, armyworms have many natural predators, most of which are parasitic wasps. Earwigs, soldier bugs, ground beetles, birds, skunks, and rodents all enjoy a meal of armyworm larvae or pupae. Pheromone traps can be used to determine if armyworm moths are present. If they are, it is a good idea to inspect susceptible plants for egg clusters and feeding larvae, which can be removed by hand in garden settings. Commercially, insecticides are applied (sometimes daily) to Florida corn to prevent armyworm damage.
I guess I'll have to start growing my own corn now, too...
Borers chew tunnels in woody plant material.
I found the pictured borers in one of my rose bushes. The bush hadn’t been performing well for a while, but I had neglected taking a really close look at it until it was too late. When I dug it up, the weakened main stem broke in half and I was able to see two rather large (1” long), creepy looking larvae. A little research helped me see just how little I know about borers. I am still not entirely sure which type killed off my rose bush, but now I have a better idea of what symptoms might indicate a borer infestation.
Which insects are borers?
Boring into wood provides safe habitat and food for several different beetles, moths and even some wasps! Most borers transform into pupa and then adult insects within this safe haven, only to emerge and start the cycle again. According to the Colorado State Extension (and a few other sources), the following are the most commonly found wood boring insects in the United States:
Flathead borers make zig-zagging paths under the bark, interrupting the flow of critical fluids in the cambium layer. You will not see sawdust expelled by these insects. Instead, the sawdust is crammed into the paths created by the larva. In trees, the upper branches, or crown, will thin first when a flathead borer is at work. Adults emerge from their woody home through a D-shaped exit hole. Metallic wood borers are a variation of Flathead borers and they can be recognized by their, you guessed it, metallic body. The adult Flathead beetle is a rough-looking, blackish beetles with grey splotches - thoroughly unimpressive, but very destructive.
Rose stem girdlers
Rose stem girdlers are the boring insects responsible for hollow stems. The larva tend to be fatter than the flathead borers, so I don’t think that’s what killed my rose bush. However, rose stem girdlers can kill raspberries and blackberries, along with roses, so watch out! The adult beetles is rust colored and it is related to the bronze birch borer. The fascinating thing about these particular pests is that the larva chew through the bottom of the egg they start out in and then into the cane of bramble fruits or roses, where they chew a spiral pattern into the cambium layer, killing off the branch.
Rose stem sawflies
Sawflies are cousins to wasps and bees and this particular variety saws holes in the canes of rose bushes in order to lay eggs. The adult sawflies are black or brightly colored, yellow or orange, with black wings. Adults have a narrow body and each variety has a signature method of feeding destruction. The bristly rose slug sawfly (How’s that for a name?) skeletonize leaves from the underside before chewing large holes all the way through the leaf.
There are several other wood boring insects, which we will learn about later. One in particular, the Emerald Ash Borer, may result in the loss of nearly all ash trees in the U.S., if effective counter measures are not found. This invasive pest came from Eurasia and has spread across most of the U.S. on infested firewood.
How to prevent borer damage (before it's too late)
The best way to prevent borer damage is to keep plants healthy in the first place. Healthy plants are better able to defend themselves. This means proper irrigation, sunburn protection, and the removal of diseased plants. Using sticky barriers can reduce beetle migrations, but it can't do much about moths...
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is the popular breakfast sausage and turkey stuffing herb.
Since ancient times, sage (a member of the mint family) has been used to ward off evil, improve fertility, combat the Plague, sooth bug bites, cure snake bite, and calm nervous conditions. Whether it actually does any of these things is beside the point, once the smell of sage emerges from your kitchen.
Sage is a perennial culinary herb that can be grown outdoors in any area with a Mediterranean climate (and indoors everywhere else). It grows very well in containers. Sage is a rugged, forgiving plant. It has a long growing season and, being an evergreen, can withstand colder temperatures than more delicate herbs, such as basil. Unlike many herbs, sage leaves retain their flavor even after the plant flowers.
There are several varieties of sage. Some can grow as large as 2 feet in all directions, while other cultivars are more compact. Some varieties have a more spreading character, making them a fragrant ground cover. You can even plant pineapple sage, which really does smell like pineapple! Sage leaves are normally grayish-green, but they can also be yellow, purple, rose, or cream colored. Leaves are somewhat crinkled (rugose) on top. The underside of the leaves is nearly white and fuzzy. Sage flowers can range in color from purple and blue to white or pink. These edible flowers make nice additions to salads and they can be candied as cake decorations.
How to grow sage
Sage can be grown from seeds, cuttings or layering. Growing sage from seed is a slow process. It can take up to two years to reach full size. It’s a pretty plant, if you are not in a rush. Seeds should be planted 1/8” deep and the soil kept moist until sprouting begins. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings once the true leaves appear. Sage can also be propagated with cuttings or layering. Layering simply means tipping an established stem downward until it touched the soil. Instead of growing new leaves, roots should begin to appear at each of the buds.
Like most herbs, sage prefers a sunny location with excellent drainage. Too much water is really the only threat to sage plants, as most insects find sage’s aromatic flavor distasteful. Sage prefers a pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
Mature plants should be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart. Planting sage near carrots and cabbage can be beneficial by deterring cabbage loopers and cabbage worms. Also, the flowers attract pollinators and the plants themselves make lovely additions to the landscape, whether you enjoy the flavor or not.
Row covers are a chemical-free way to protect many plants from insect pests.
Floating row covers are made from extremely lightweight synthetic or woven material that allows light and water to pass through, while protecting plants from pests. The fabric is so light that it “floats” on the top of your plants. If enough slack is made available when first placing row covers, the plants can push it up as they grow. The edges of the fabric need to be held down on all sides by dirt, wooden boards, or some other measure that prevents openings. Some growers use PVC or other material to create hoops to hold the material above the plants.
If you are growing cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, bok choy) or members of the cucurbit family (squash, melon, pumpkin), the cabbage moth may be a major pest. Using row covers can stop cabbage moths from laying eggs on the underside of leaves, preventing the leaf loss that occurs when those eggs hatch and ravenous caterpillars (cabbageworms) emerge. Leaf miners, cucumber beetles and many other pests are also halted by row covers, and vulnerable strawberries and bramble fruits enjoy protection from hungry birds and squirrels.
Row covers are generally available in rolls that are 5 or 6 feet wide. These rolls can be as long as 375 feet and the material can be reused for several years if handled gently.
The only downside to using row covers is that overwintering pests, such as tomato hornworms and flea beetles, among others, may find themselves borne into a Nirvana of abundant food stuffs and an absence of predators. The best solution in this case is to rotate crops each year.
Row covers are an inexpensive, organic method of pest control that will make your job as a gardener easier and more productive.
Wheat is the staff of life for many of us humans. This cereal grain (which is technically a fruit) provides a higher protein content than other grains, such as rice and corn, and wheat has been farmed for over 8,000 years.
What is wheat, really?
We all recognize wheat in the form of bread, pasta, pancakes and pizza crusts, but this amazing plant has more to it than meets the eye. While most domesticated plants have two sets of chromosomes (diploid), wheat (Triticum) is also found with four sets (tetraploid) or even six (hexaploid)! There are currently hundreds of wheat cultivars available, some of which were produced through mutation breeding and the application of gamma x-rays, ultraviolet light, and harsh chemicals. Before you get scared off, however, consider wheat as a viable option as a cover crop that can provide natural aeration, weed control, and, oh yeah, food.
Wheat can be classified by when it is grown (spring or winter), its protein content, gluten quality, seed hardness, or grain color (red or white). Within the United States, wheat is classified into these categories:
How to grow wheat
Wheat is a self-pollinating plant that is sown in swathes. Wheat makes an attractive border or wide row plant in nearly any landscape or garden. Winter wheat is planted 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep, 6 - 8 weeks before any chance of freezing temperatures. This gives the plants time to develop a strong root system before temperatures drop and dormancy occurs. As soon as temperatures begin to rise, the plants resume growing. Spring wheat is sown 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep, as early as the soil can be worked. In either case, tamp down the soil once seeds are in place to create good seed-soil contact. Wheat production can be significantly increased by rotating wheat crops with legumes. You may find it difficult to buy small quantities of wheat seed in garden or farm supply outlets, but many pet and grocery stores offer wheat in their bulk foods.
Wheat pests & diseases
Wheat can be attacked by powdery mildew, stem rust, Fusarium head blight, leaf blotch, and several fungal seed diseases. Crown rot and root rot may also occur. Crop rotation and proper irrigation can minimize the likelihood of these problems.
How to harvest wheat
One of the main reasons agriculture has moved toward the use of machines is that it is very labor-intensive work. Wheat is no exception. Wheat is cut when the heads are dry, heavy, and bent over, and the stalks have turned yellow or brown, usually 110 to 130 days after planting. Winter wheat is normally harvested in midsummer, while spring wheat is harvested in late summer or early fall. The best way to tell if your wheat is ripe is to eat a few kernels. If the grains are soft or chewy, let them grow. If they are crunchy, it is time to harvest. Harvesting wheat involves a multistep process of cutting, bundling, curing, threshing, and winnowing.
Wheat stalks were traditionally cut with a scythe, but small plots can be cut by hand. Lay the stalks so that the heads are all pointed in the same direction. After the wheat is cut, it must be bundled into sheaves. Each sheaf is simply a bunch of stems that you can hold in your two hands. These bundles can be secured with string, baling wire, or green wheat stems. Now, the grain must be cured. Stack your sheaves of wheat upright in an area that is dry, well-ventilated, and safe from seed-eating critters. Allow the sheaves to cure until the grain is hard to the point that you cannot dent it with your fingernail.
Threshing separates the grain from the straw (stalks) and chaff (husks, hulls). Threshing can be done by flailing or beating. Flailing is a bit tricky. Basically, you attach a 3 foot piece of wood to a 2 foot piece of wood, using a rope or leather strap, and beat the bejeezus out of the wheat heads. In half an hour of flailing, you can expect to thresh 4 or 5 pounds of wheat. An easier method is to use a large, clean metal trash can and beat the sheaves against the side of the trash can. This method is faster but it creates more debris and many seed heads end up mixed in with the chaff.
Winnowing is the way all that chaff is separated from the grain. Traditionally, grain was poured from one basket to another, allowing the wind to blow away the lighter bits of straw and chaff. Electric fans can be used to speed the process.
Planting 9 square feet of wheat should provide 4 cups of finished flour, enough for a single loaf of bread.
Neem oil is a horticultural oil harvested from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica tree in India.
Neem oil toxicity
As with most other pesticides, neem oil has its drawbacks. Neem oil exposure may cause abortion or lead to infertility, and it may cause liver damage in children. Pesticides containing neem oil (Azadirachtin) are banned in the UK.
Using neem oil
Neem oil products are sold at varying concentrations, so it is important to follow package directions exactly. These safety precautions should be used any time pesticides are used:
Petal blight is a type of fungal disease that attacks rose, azalea and camellia blooms. Petal blight can occur after a rainy season or when overhead irrigation is used.
Fungal diseases are difficult to manage. A single fungi can produce 60,000 spores on a piece of plant tissue smaller than a dime. A single spore is all that is needed to infect a plant. It’s a numbers game and the odds are in favor of the fungi - unless you implement good cultural practices.
Camellia petal blight
Camellia petal blight is caused by the Ciborinia camelliae fungus. Symptoms begin as brown lesions that darken at the centers first. Petal veins may darken and blossoms drop prematurely.
Azalea petal blight
Azalea petal blight is caused by the Ovulinia azaleae fungus. It first shows as small brown water-logged spots that grow larger and slimy. Within 2-3 days, flower petals are limp and icky. These fungal breeding grounds will dry out but remain on the plant. Remove infected sections of the plant carefully and remove from the site.
Petal blight of roses
Roses are particularly susceptible to Botrytis Blight, also known as Gray Mold. Stems, canes, leaves, buds, and petals can all be affected. Similar to Azalea petal blight, symptoms begin as small soggy spots. These spots may have a red border. Petals can become stuck together, preventing buds fro opening. As infestation spreads, infected areas become covered with a gray fuzz that is a fungi’s vegetative state, called mycelium. African violets, grapes, and many other plants may also become infested.
Petal blight control
Fungicides are generally ineffective against petal blight, so it is best prevented with good cultural practices. These tips can reduce fungal spore survival:
Phytotoxicity refers to the damage caused by the misapplication of chemicals to plants.
Obviously, herbicides are supposed to be toxic to plants, but sometimes beneficial treatments can have a negative affect.
Signs of phytotoxicity
Plants affected by phytotoxicity may show any of these symptoms:
What causes phytotoxicity?
Phytotoxicity can occur using old chemicals in new ways, new chemicals in the wrong way, or the right chemical on the wrong day. Some plant species are sensitive to certain chemicals, and some life stages are vulnerable to any type of treatment. Water stressed plants are more vulnerable to phytotoxicity. Phytotoxicity is frequently caused by the following:
Even the most benign treatment can become phytotoxic if too much is used. This is why it is important to learn about individual plants and read labels thoroughly before products are applied. This is especially true for treatments that contain emulsifiers and solvents. Do your plants a favor and follow the directions.
Plants affected by phytotoxicity will generally recover, but not always. Provide phytotoxic plants with a little TLC, an extra drink of water, and be sure to remove the cause whenever possible.
Did you know that a group of rats is called a mischief? Rats can be destructive, disease-carrying pests. They can also make fascinating pets. This post is not about rats as pets.
Do you have a rat problem?
Rats can cause significant damage, transmit disease, and contaminate food. Recognizing a rat problem more often involves seeings signs than an actual rat. Rats are good swimmers and can even enter a building through the toilet. Common signs of a rat problem include:
Rats as disease carriers
Rats and the fleas that feed on them are vectors of disease. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists 11 diseases directly transmitted by rodents, including plague*, and 15 diseases, including Typhus and Hemorrhagic Fever, indirectly caused by rodents. “Plague is a disease that both roof and Norway rats can carry, but in California it is more commonly associated with ground squirrels, chipmunks, and native wood rats,” according to Wikipedia. These diseases are spread through handling live or dead rats, handling food contaminated by rats urine or feces, or coming into contact with surfaces territorially marked with rat urine. If rats are present, infection is possible.
Common rat species
There are dozens of different types of rats but the two most common to California are Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) and roof rats (Rattus rattus). They are also called brown and black rats, respectively, but these names are misleading (see photo below).
Roof rats are medium-sized with a tail that is longer than the head and body combined. Roof rats prefer attics, trees, mature shrubs, and power lines. Roof rats prefer nuts, berries, fruits, snails and slugs, avocado and citrus. A roof rat will hollow out an orange or eat the peel off of a lemon or a lime, leaving the fruit hanging on the tree in each case. A female roof rat can produce up to 40 offspring each year.
Norway rats are larger and they prefer to burrow. They are often found in sewers, next to building foundations, and under trash containers. Norway rats prefer meat, fish, nuts, grain and some fruits. A single female can produce up to 20 young a year.
How to get rid of rats
It is far easier to control a rat population while it is small. Rat control includes monitoring, sanitation, exclusion, and trapping:
Rhizomes are stems that grow underground, putting out lateral shoots and adventitious roots as a way to regenerate a plant’s genetic information and to expand its territory.
Plants use rhizomes to store foods, such as protein and starch, to carry them through bad weather conditions and to generate new plants using suckers and new other new shoots. Many grasses, such as bamboo, can invade an area using rhizomes. Other plants that use rhizomes to propagate include poplar trees, asparagus, bindweed, blackberries, iris, rhubarb and most lawns. Ginger and turmeric are also rhizomes.
Rhizomes vs. stolons
Rhizomes are modified stems that grow underground, whereas stolons grow at or just below the soil surface. Botanically, there is also a difference in the spacing between nodes of stolons and rhizomes. Rhizomes have shorter internodes than stolons. Potatoes and other tubers are starch storing stolons.
Pros & cons of rhizomes
The good thing about rhizomes is that they make it easy to propagate new plants from pieces of an old root system. A piece of ginger root can be broken off, placed in good soil and a new plant will start to grow. This ability also makes getting rid of certain weeds far more difficult. Simply pulling it up rarely works because there is almost always a tiny piece of rhizome left behind. From this tiny sample of genetic information, new weeds can emerge. When trying to remove rhizomes, it is a good idea to use a shovel and dig around the entire root system.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!