April chirps and sings
Splitting shells and seeds and blooms
April is a busy month in California gardens. With scorching summers on a not-too-distant horizon, flowers, weeds, and every other living thing are striding toward sunlight. Cool nights may hold this rampant growth in check for another week or two, but most gardeners have plenty of April garden tasks to keep them occupied.
Tree Trunk Painting
If you didn’t whitewash your tree trunks (and exposed branches) in March, there is still time to provide this valuable sun protection. Trunks and branches that get too much sun exposure can be damaged, causing the bark to split and peel. This provides pests and diseases with easy access to your trees’ inner workings. A simple mixture of half water and half white interior latex paint is all you need to protect your trees from sunburn this summer.
This is also a good time to replace last year's sticky barriers. The protection from crawling insects cannot be overstated. Sticky barriers block those crawlers (and slugs and snails) from getting up into your fruit and nut trees. This is especially helpful when it comes to ants, which will protect and farm aphids. Over time, the goo dries, making it ineffective. Also, the tape tends to pull away from the trunk, creating an easy trail for pests. Gently remove both the tape, inspect the trunk, and reapply the sticky barrier.
Codling moth larvae can devastate apple, plum, pear, and walnut crops. The larvae pierce the fruit and burrow into its core, where it then feeds on the fruit, making it inedible. On apples, look for tiny dimples with a small hole in the center. These holes are usually filled with frass (bug poop). Trees should be monitored every week for signs of infestation. Infested fruit should be removed and discarded, to break the codling moth life cycle. Pheromone traps can be hung in isolated trees, but you need to understand that these traps attract codling moths to the tree. The traps are really a population monitoring device, not a control measure. Fruit can be bagged for protection, but this is a very labor intensive method. Kaolin clay application is an excellent organic control method. Heavy infestations may require the use of pesticides on the moths, before fruit is affected.
As flowers begin blooming, you can increase production by removing spent blooms. Take a look at buds further down the stem and clip just above a bud that points in the direction you want the new growth to go. Deadheading can help the plant structurally and allow for good airflow, as well as stimulate new flower development.
As difficult as it may be for gardeners to thin out fruit and young plants, it really is necessary for the optimal growth of remaining plants. April is the time to thin fruit on fruit trees, such as apricots, peaches, apples, pears, nectarines, and plums. Crowded fruit doesn’t get as big as it could and it encourages fungal diseases. Close-quartered fruit also provides great hiding places for pests. The best fruit grows from strong flower buds in full sunlight. The basic rule of thumb for thinning fruit is to leave one fruit per spur, with fruit 4-6” apart. Apricots, nectarines and peaches are normally thinned when the fruit is 1/2-3/4” in diameter. Nut trees do not need to be thinned. Seedling plants should also be thinned according to seed packet or other reputable information. This allows each plant to reach its full potential and it reduces problems with pests and diseases.
Spring rains bring moisture that can cause many fungal diseases. Anthracnose, brown spot, powdery mildew, sooty mold, and verticillium wilt should all be watched for and treated. Many of these conditions can be avoided with pruning that allows good air flow and irrigation that does not come from overhead. Overhead watering splashes millions of fungal spores onto uninfected plants, spreading the disease (plus, it wastes water through evaporation).
Irrigation & greywater
As temperatures rise, irrigation becomes more important. Container plants will begin to dry out and need to be checked every day. If the irrigation system wasn’t inspected in March, be sure to do it now. Greywater, from sinks, washing machines, and rain barrels can be used to irrigate ornamentals and lawns. I use water collected from the shower, as it heats up, to water edibles.
To add nutrients, reduce weeds, and to help retain moisture, nothing beats mulch. Wood chips and aged compost both make excellent mulch. You can request free wood chips from local tree trimmers. To stop weeds from growing, the mulch should be at least 4” think. Be sure to keep mulch at least 8” away from tree and shrub trunks, to avoid fungal diseases, such as crown rot.
If you have Navel orange trees, the crop will be ripening in April. Oranges left on the tree too long will dry out and become inedible. Instead, harvest the entire crop by the end of the month and you can make my new favorites, Cardamom Orange Marmalade, Orange Cumin Chutney and Spiced Oranges. Once canned, these delicious condiments make lovely gifts. You’ll want to be sure to save plenty for yourself - it’s that good! Valencia oranges will ripen during the summer and they make excellent juice. April is a good time to add nitrogen for orange trees. One-year old trees will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen, while mature trees need approximately 1-1/2 pounds. These amounts should be divided into three different feedings in April, June and August. Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen, without all the fillers.
QUARANTINE WARNING: MOST OF SANTA CLARA COUNTY IS UNDER QUARANTINE FOR CITRUS, DUE TO THE ASIAN CITRUS PSYLLID. CHECK THIS MAP TO SEE IF YOU ARE AFFECTED. ALSO, BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR ORIENTAL FRUIT FLIES. IF EITHER PEST IS SEEN, PLEASE CALL THE PEST HOTLINE AT 1-800-491-1899.
Fennel, arugula, rhubarb, and asparagus provide many years of food production and April is a good time to plant. Fennel and rhubarb will take up a good amount of space, so be sure to keep mature sizes in mind.
Temperatures have finally reached the point when gardeners can plant most herbs, leafy greens, and other salad ingredients. Lettuce, spinach, bok choy, basil, parsley, cilantro and radishes can be planted every couple of weeks (succession planting) for a continuous harvest until temperatures get too hot.
Most vegetable crops can be planted in April, here in the Bay Area. Bush and pole beans, corn, cucumber, summer and winter squash, and tomato seeds put in the soil now will begin their journey toward fruitfulness. Be sure to read packet directions for planting depth, spacing, and sun requirements for the best results.
One of the most important April garden tasks is to get rid of those weeds. Since they can go to seed faster than everything else in the garden, pulling them out now will save you countless hours of work later on, in the summer.
Nascent roots and stems
Displace freshly warming earth
Chill nights slow their birth
Citrus pruning should not be started until after March 15th, but now is the time to seriously inspect for mummies. Mummies are those shriveled up, fuzzy gray oranges that house millions of fungal spores. When removing mummies, try to disturb them as little as possible, or cover them with a plastic bag before removing them from the tree. If a citrus tree shows signs of chlorosis (yellowing) on older leaves, it may indicate a nitrogen deficiency. Interveinal (between leaf veins) chlorosis usually means a micronutrient, such as iron or manganese, is needed. Our soil tends to be very low on iron, but you can’t know for sure without a soil test. After the danger of frost has (nearly) completely passed, on March 15th, give citrus trees a good pruning. Just be sure to keep a look out for nests. It’s that time of year!
Another common March task is to inspect and repair sprinklers, drip systems, and water collection systems. How do you know if you have an irrigation leak? It can be difficult to spot, especially if it is small. The most common indication is an area that gets and stays wet longer than everywhere else. Sprinklers should be aimed so that they do not hit tree trunks, walkways, driveways, or sidewalks. The former can cause fungal diseases and the latter creates wasteful urban drool.
March is also a good time to prune out dead branches and twigs from fruit and nut trees and ornamental trees and shrubs. It is easier to see the structure of each plant before it is covered with leaves.
If your roses haven’t already started producing leaves and blooms the way mine have, March is a good time to prune them for better airflow and structure. You can also start feeding roses in March, and you may need to spray for blackspot. Blackspot is a fungal disease that loves moisture. As dew collects on rose leaves, the fungus reproduces astronomically. You can use neem oil or baking soda with horticultural oil. Personally, I use a large fan on my roses in the early morning to speed evaporation of the dew. It seems to work well.
March is an excellent time to start planting your summer garden. In the Bay Area, you can still direct sow many cool weather crops, such as beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, lettuces, spinach, bok choy, fennel, kale, mustard greens, parsnips, and turnips. And it's not too late to install that asparagus bed! March is an excellent time to add cilantro, dill, and parsley to your garden, but wait for warmer temperatures before planting basil. Potatoes and radishes can be planted now, and you can start tomatoes and peppers in pots, but only if you can protect them from nighttime cold. Otherwise, wait for April, when the serious planting begins! As you dedicate seeds to a specific location, make sure to read the seed package labels for things like mature size, thinning requirements, and sunlight needs, and be sure to use plant markers!
Slugs & snails
Our warming temperatures and moisture work together to create the perfect habitat for slugs and snails. These mollusks can devastate seedling in a single night, so be prepared. I urge you to follow the link to slugs and snails to learn more about the specific ingredients in different bait products. They are not created equally, and some can harm pets. Choose accordingly.
Walk through your garden in March and you are sure to see weeds coming up in every location imaginable (and a few unimaginable places!). Your Number One March garden task is to pull weeds. Since some weeds can go to seed in as little as a week, now is the time to yank them from the earth. Recent rains and busy worms have made it easier to remove weeds, roots and all, by softening the soil. Wait until later in the season and the ground will be hard and thousands of seeds will already be sown. Healthy weeds make great additions to the compost pile. Personally, I feed them to my chickens.
Enjoy the early blossoms!
Foggy mornings pale
Seared from sight by blazing sun
Nectarine juice drips
Aside from watering, August may seem like the perfect time to take a break form the heat, but there are still plenty of garden tasks to choose from!
While ants do help aerate the soil, they can also damage crops and spread disease. Fruit trees can be protected with sticky barriers. Boric acid bait traps can be an effective control method, just be sure the baits are placed where children and pets cannot reach them.
Unlike other trees, which are pruned when they are dormant, apricot trees are best pruned in summer. Apricot trees are susceptible to a fungus called Eutypa dieback, which can infect trees if rain reaches fresh pruning cuts.
This is the time of year when Japanese beetles, dried fruit beetles, and June beetles are the easiest to see (and eliminate). Japanese beetles will skeletonize many plants. These pests tend to cling to their favorite foods and are easy to knock into cans of soapy water. [I used to pay the neighborhood children a nickel for every June bug they eliminated - very useful in Virginia!] June bugs are clumsy fliers and easy to slap down with a net. Both can be fed to chickens. Dried fruit beetles and June bugs do not bite or sting and dogs can be trained to chase and kill them before they lay eggs in the soil. These eggs will later hatch and the larvae will devour lawn, ornamental, and other plant roots.
Just as in April and June, oranges and other mature citrus trees should be fed one-half pound of nitrogen in August. Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen, without all the fillers. Ammonium sulfate is another good source of nitrogen.
This is the time of year when all that hard work and patience really pay off. Keep plants healthy and enjoy the fruits of your labor by harvesting frequently. This reduces the number of places where pests and diseases can hide. This also prevents many plants from going to seed and ending fruit production. When harvesting tree fruit, be sure to keep a look out for mummified fruit. Remove mummies and dispose of them in the trash, not the compost pile.
If you have a lawn and it has not turned completely brown, allow it to grow longer than you would in cooler months. Taller grass protects the soil and helps retain moisture. And be on the lookout for masked chafers and southern chinch bugs.
Mite infestations often look like nothing more than light webbing around leaves and stems. This webbing is followed by leaf stippling, chlorosis, and leaf drop. Water-stressed plants are more susceptible, as are dusty plants. Mites are related to spiders. Adults have eight legs, but the young only have six. Spraying pesticides often backfires because mite predators, such as lacewings and pirate bugs, are killed. Often, you can use a soft-bristled brush to dislodge these pests.
By August, most rain barrels have run dry, making this the perfect time to clean out any debris in the remaining grey water, along with any mosquito larvae. West Nile Virus, Zika Virus, and many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes, so it is important to regularly eliminate any standing water. Mosquito dunks should be added to any standing water every 30 days.
Hot weather means trees need more water. Trees planted in a lawn that is being watered regularly will still need a deep watering 2 or 3 times during the summer, or more, depending on the weather. Stand alone mature fruit and nut trees will need a deep watering every 3 - 4 weeks, while younger trees will need to be watered every 2 weeks. Ideally, there is an irrigation ring around each tree at the drip line.
August is an excellent time to start seeds for winter crops. Spinach, beets, lettuce, arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cilantro, bush beans, fava beans, leeks, radishes, and peas can all be started in small containers for transplanting after summer crops are done. This gives you a head start on the cooler growing season, just be sure to keep the soil moist. A thin layer of vermiculite can help retain moisture.
Greens bolt and wither
Searing heat and glare above
Seek shade and cool water
July in California is too hot to spend much time outside. Early morning and late evening make working in the garden far more comfortable, but leave most of the heavy work to the plants as they produce leaves, stems, and fruit in response to all that sunlight. The best things you can do for your garden in July is irrigate properly and monitor plants for pests and diseases.
Monitoring for pests and diseases
You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. Well, here are a few helpful ideas that work to prevent problems in the garden before they have a chance to get started:
It’s all too easy to forget about the trees in your landscape, but an extended drought like ours can be devastating. Trees are a big investment of time and space, so be sure to include them in your watering plan. The only exception is our CA live oaks - they are used to hot, dry summers and watering them only makes them susceptible to disease.
On scorching hot days, container plants may need a drink practically every day. Just be sure to avoid overwatering - a drowning plant looks an awful lot like a plant that’s dying of thirst. An inexpensive moisture meter ($10-15) can help prevent irrigation errors.
There is no fixed magic formula for watering plants in the garden. There are simply too many variables, such as plant variety and age, soil type, fertilization practices, sun and wind exposure, overall plant health and life stage - you get the idea. The best way to assure that your garden plants are getting the water they need is to learn as much as you can about the specific varieties and their water needs. This information will help you to provide them with the growing conditions they need.
If you still have a lawn, go ahead and let it turn brown over the summer. The root system will stay alive with very little water, and it will come back in the fall after temperatures go down. [I use water from my washing machine with no negative results and a lawn that stays green far longer.]
As you lounge in the shade with an iced tea, remember that July is an excellent time to consider what cool season crops can be added in fall!
Longer days of sun
Burst forth fruits and leaves
June is a busy month in the garden. Summer heat means irrigation and ants seem to be everywhere. Fruits and flowers are the name of the game when it comes to June garden chores.
Ants & aphids
The bane of all gardeners, aphids are in full force in June. You may see ant trails in trees or curled leaves. Ants and aphids have a mutually beneficial relationship that may not kill garden plants, but they can carry diseases that will. They can also make fruit and vegetables inedible. Monitor for ants and aphids at least twice a week. If ant trails are seen, wrap tree trunks with tape and apply sticky barriers. This sticky goo will prevent ants form protecting and farming the aphids and halt the spread of many diseases. Aphid populations can then be reduced with a powerful spray from the hose. Adding plants that attract beneficial insects will also curb aphid populations.
Armored scale are parasites that suck the living sap from shrubs and trees. In June, these difficult to control pests are in a crawler stage that is easier to defeat. Monitor plants for armored scale infestations. Apply horticultural oil (not dormant oil) every month in summer to affected plants.
Blossom end rot
Are there brown depressions on the bottom of your tomatoes? This is caused by not enough calcium or irregular watering. Since most soils have adequate calcium, watering is usually the culprit. Without regular watering, the calcium in the soil cannot reach the plant. Mulching can help. Water tomatoes regularly, allowing them to dry out between waterings.
Blackened twigs & branches
If twigs and branches are turning dark or burnt looking, you have a problem. Generally, the damage starts at the tips and moves toward the body of the plant. This can either be dieback or fireblight. In either case, all you can do is remove the damaged tissue, cutting well below the visible infection and cleaning your clippers between each cut. Take a close look at the cut to make sure healthy tissue is visible. To reduce the chance of these fungal diseases attacking fruit trees in June, be sure to halt watering during the bloom and avoid adding nitrogen. Nitrogen stimulates new growth that is especially vulnerable to infection.
In California, most soils contain adequate nutrients for citrus growth, except nitrogen. One-year old trees will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen, while mature trees need approximately 1-1/2 pounds. These amounts should be divided into three different feedings in April, June and August. Blood meal is an excellent source of nitrogen, without all the fillers, or you can purchase a balanced product that contains zinc. Spread the fertilizer evenly over the entire root area and water in.
QUARANTINE WARNING: MOST OF SANTA CLARA COUNTY IS UNDER QUARANTINE FOR CITRUS, DUE TO THE ASIAN CITRUS PSYLLID. CHECK THIS MAP TO SEE IF YOU ARE AFFECTED.
Container planting is an excellent way to garden in small spaces and to add art and color to the landscape. However, June’s high temperatures can dry out containers very rapidly. To make matters worse, frequent irrigation can also leach out nutrients. It’s a dilemma. Gardeners can reduce these problems by not using unglazed clay pots, which dry out even faster. Dark plastic should also be avoided because it can get too hot and cook the roots. Good drainage is important, but you can help container plants hang on to water and nutrients by using potting soil, rather than planting mix.
June usually provides an abundance of fruit. If damaged fruit is seen, take a closer look. If the fruit looks chewed on, it’s probably rats or squirrels. Personally, I use Bobbex-R to deter these destructive, disease-carrying pests. My dogs enjoy helping out, too! I used traps to kill half a dozen rats when we first moved in, but I haven’t seen signs of any since. It’s a bit disgusting, but it works.
Does the fruit show stab marks? That’s usually birds. The only way to keep birds out of fruit trees is with netting or a tree cage. The netting is a royal pain to put up and take down, but it’s surprisingly easy to build a permanent tree cage. Most birds will only take a bite or two out of dozens of fruits, ruining a crop. Netting placed directly on the plant does not protect fruit near the netting. I also discourage birds by hanging old CDs in my fruit trees. Breezes cause them to spin and reflect light, which seems to alarm the birds some of the time..
Spent ornamental flowers should be removed to stimulate new growth. When deadheading, don’t clip just below the flower. Instead, look down the stem for a leaf connection that shows bud growth. June deadheading is also a good time to prune for improved shape, structure and air flow.
Another common pest, earwigs are second only to slugs and snails in garden destruction. Even though they eat aphids, the damage they cause doesn’t balance out. Trap earwigs in moist, tightly rolled newspaper or cardboard tubes. Earwigs will gather in these bundles after their nightly feeding and you can toss them in the trash in the morning.
If you haven’t already, June is a good time to check irrigation systems for leaks. Drip systems should be flushed and emitters checked for clogs. This is also a good time to test to see where, exactly, sprinklers are spraying and where they are not. There’s no sense in wasting precious water in urban drool and the spray should never hit tree trunks.
Mulching is one of the best things you can do in the garden, especially in June. Mulching stabilizes soil temperatures, reduces weeds, and helps the soil retain moisture. Aged compost, placed on top of the soil, is mulch. Tree trimmings make excellent mulch and they can be acquired for free from tree trimming companies!
As roses give us their lovely June blooms, they may also put out suckers. Most modern roses are actually grafted onto hardy root stock that will not produce those lovely flowers. If new growth is emerging from underground, rip them out. Desirable canes, on the other hand, will grow out of aboveground buds and should be allowed to grow (assuming they won’t result in crossed canes or poor air flow. Blackspot, rust, and powdery mildew are common fungal diseases of roses. Proper pruning can reduce the chances of these diseases occurring. Diseased leaves should be removed and discarded.
Be sure to put on your sunscreen, wear a hat, and keep those tools clean and sharp as you enjoy the garden in June!