Time for rest, chill December
Sever ties with old
Making room for new
With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is easy to put aside garden tasks for another time. We need to rest when we can, too, just as our garden plants do each winter. But December is an excellent time to prevent future problems in the landscape. With just a little bit of effort now, we can have bigger harvests and healthier plants next summer.
Bare root planting
December is an excellent time to install bare root plants in California and other warmer regions. Any of these bare root plants can be planted in December:
If you are growing blackberries, December is a good time to remove any canes that produced fruit this year. Leave up to 9 canes from each plant, which can be trellised in spring, once they start growing. To get more lateral, fruit-bearing canes, cut off the tips of canes.
Cool weather crops
Plant cole crops and salad greens now. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, and kale thrive in our California winters, along with lettuces, mustards, endive, Swiss chard, and spinach. You can harvest these crops continuously through the winter months with just a little bit of protection. Leeks and onions can be planted in December.
Be sure to monitor plants closely for signs of cabbageworm, slug and snail feeding. It is easy to handpick these pests. (My chickens love them!)
Occasional rains will help keep compost piles moist, but remember to turn your compost pile to incorporate the oxygen needed by helpful microorganisms. You may need to cover your compost pile during heavy rains to prevent losing all those valuable nutrients.
It might not feel like the holiday season without a crackling fire, but be careful about where you get your firewood. Several pests and diseases can make their way to your trees by hitching a ride on firewood. Invasive shot hole borers, polyphagous shot hole borers. and goldspotted oak borers are just a few tree pests that can carry fatal tree diseases, such as Fusarium dieback.
You can protect your crops by using the USDA Hardiness Map to determine your planting zone and learning when to expect frost to occur. I’m in Zone 9b, which means my first and last frost dates are November 15 and March 15. But those dates are not written in stone. This year, frost appeared on my lawn two weeks earlier than predicted.
For plants that may be damaged by frost, you can protect them by draping sheets, tarps, or other light fabric over and around them using poles and string. Do not allow the fabric to touch the plants. Umbrellas and old fashioned (not LED) Christmas lights can also provide some protection. Potted plants can be brought indoors or closer to protective structures. And be sure to water frost sensitive plants. Damp soil holds more heat than dry soil. Also, mulch can stabilize below ground temperatures. If frost damage does occur, resist the urge to clip away the damaged bits - they create a barrier against further frost damage. If it looks really hideous, leave it covered.
Garden bed care
As many annuals end their lifecycle, be sure to remove them from the garden bed by cutting them off at soil level. This allows valuable soil microorganisms the time they need to migrate to another plant and the roots will add nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Adding aboveground plant debris to the compost pile not only creates nutrient-rich compost, but it interrupts the lifecycle of many garden pests and diseases. If plant materials are already diseased, they should be thrown in the trash.
Holiday plant care
Poinsettias, Christmas trees, Christmas cactus, amaryllis, and many other holiday plants find their way into our homes in December. Most of these plants prefer cooler temperatures and higher humidity than our homes can provide. Keeping plants away from heater vents and misting them occasionally will help. Also, avoid overwatering.
Winter irrigation is largely dependent on the weather. December is a good time to turn off the sprinklers and monitor the soil with a moisture meter. Cooler temperatures mean slower growth but some water is still needed. Also, if an area becomes saturated with water, avoid walking on it. This prevents soil compaction.
If a tree branch is torn by heavy winds, you can help it heal by cutting the wound to make it a flat surface, close to the trunk, but not cutting into the branch collar. You do not need to paint the wound. Instead, allow the tree to protect itself. It will grow a callus over the area. You may, later on, need to provide the callus with sunburn protection. These other tips will also help your trees stay healthy this winter:
California Decembers are (hopefully) filled with much needed rain. The wind can certainly be a factor, too. With just a little care now, you can be sure your garden will get through winter for a better spring to come.
Happy holidays, fellow gardeners!
Potential for frost
Sudden rain and shorter days
Just as natural cycles cause plants, animals, and insects to draw closer to home, move around or grow less, and to retain resources, we can copy those behaviors to the benefit of our garden and landscape. While there is still time to plant onions, poppies, spring blooming bulbs, winter crops mentioned in the October notes, and cover crops, November is an excellent time to clean up and prepare for the holidays and colder weather.
As trees drop their leaves, think before you rake. Fallen leaves make excellent compost or mulch but they will interfere with your lawn, if you still have one. Leaves should be removed from lawns and concrete (due to staining), but there is no reason that I know of for removing leaves from anywhere else. From my point of view, fallen leaves are plant foods and soil amendments that have been around a lot longer than us. The only exception might be leaves that are exposed to a lot of car exhaust. You might not want to add those amendments to your soil. Also, really thick layers of leaves, more than a couple of inches, can interfere with soil respiration. If you have that many leaves, it is a good idea to chip them, or chop them with your lawnmower to speed decomposition up a little bit.
Cooler temperatures may reduce the number of pests in your garden and landscape, but imported cabbageworms, brown marmorated stink bugs, and Harlequin bugs, along with ever-present aphids, will be doing their very best to wreck your cole crops. Cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli leaves should be checked frequently for imported cabbageworm butterfly eggs (tiny clear-ish white flecks on the underside of leaves), small (and some not-so small!) green cabbageworms, and clusters of drum-shaped Harlequin bug eggs. These eggs can simply be extermigated (brushed off) and the hatched larva will generally be unable to find their way back to the host plant. You can also use row covers, once you are absolutely certain that you have removed all the eggs. [Check every few days anyway, just in case.]
Fall clean up
If you haven’t already, this is a good time to discard any plants that are not thriving. Annuals and other garden plants that have completed their life cycle are best removed by cutting at ground level, rather than pulling. Pulling plants up by the roots disrupts microbe populations, which interferes with soil health. Also, by cutting plants off at root level, you may get a surprise next spring when that annual turns out to be more tenacious than you thought!
Fires can be devastating. Dried brush, dead weeds, and stacked firewood can speed a fire closer to your home than anyone wants, and can provide shelter for rats. Well-watered plants are less likely to catch fire. It is all too easy to think it won’t happen to you, but it can. Change the batteries in your smoke detector, have your chimney and/or furnace inspected, and look at your landscape with an eye for fire safe gardening.
It may be difficult to imagine frost in California, but Santa Clara Valley's first frost date is November 15th. Frost dates are statistical averages over time. They are not written in stone. I can tell you, speaking from experience, it is far easier and more comfortable for you to prepare your plants' frost protection against winter sunscald and frost cracks before it is needed. Old bedsheets, row covers, and even umbrellas can provide all the protection that's needed, just be sure to make it so that the fabric does not actually touch the plant, or you defeat the purpose.
Some California winters are wet and others are not. Until regular rains occurs, your plants will still need to be watered, though not nearly as often or as much as during the peak of summer. An inexpensive moisture meter can help you see which plants need more water and which do not.
You can stabilize soil temperatures, reduce weeds, and slowly add nutrients to your soil with mulch. You can buy different sizes, colors, and materials, or you can contact local tree trimming companies for free mulch. Wherever it comes from, be sure that it is disease-free and that it won't float away when the rains comes.
Sooty mold fungus
Remember those aphids, mealybugs, whitefly and scale bugs that tormented your garden all summer? Well, they left behind copious amounts of honeydew that create the perfect growth medium for mold. Sooty mold is common in San Jose, California, and is easy to recognize as black smudges on leaves and fruit. While the mold can be washed off food and eaten safely, it can be devastating to host plants. The mold actually blocks sunlight from entering the leaves, slowing or even halting photosynthesis. Ants carry the disease, so slowing ant traffic can be a big help. The easiest way to block ants is to wrap tape around the trunks of trees and apply sticky barriers to the tape. Also, trim branches away from buildings, fences and other plants, and use ant bait. While you are at it, November is also the perfect time to caulk your home against winter invaders.
Before the rains get started, this is a good time to look through stacks of materials to see what needs cleaning, repairing, sharpening, or discarding. Plant saucers and pots should always be scrubbed clean and then soaked in a household cleaner, such as Lysol, for ten minutes to prevent the spread of disease. They should also be stored upside down or on their edge to prevent water collection and mosquito breeding. I used the staves from a half barrel that fell apart to create a simple storage system for planter saucers. I just drilled screws in from above. It makes them easy to see and they do not collect water.
Cooling, shorter days
Succulent harvest abounds
Prepare now for cold
Harvesting the fruits of all that labor and preparing for winter keep the September gardener busy. Deadheading, clearing away debris, and composting spent annuals all help to prevent future problems with pests and diseases.
Many apple varieties are ready for harvest (assuming the birds have left any uneaten). Other apple varieties will need some colder weather to sweeten. If you notice small brown, corky areas under the skin, it is called bitter pit. Bitter pit, like blossom end rot in tomatoes, is caused by a calcium deficiency early in the spring. In this case, however, the condition can be treated on future crops by spraying the leaves with calcium nitrate just after bloom and again one or two months later. Use one tablespoon per gallon of water.
Carrots prefer loose soil, but shorter varieties perform well enough in heavier soils. The addition of compost can help aerate the soil and provide valuable nutrients. Carrots should be planted no more than 1/2” deep and plants should be thinned to 3” apart, to avoid forking and twisting. Water regularly but allow some drying to prevent cracking. Successive plantings provides an ongoing harvest. Carrots can be planted between landscape perennials for productive use of space.
Areas of the garden that would otherwise be left bare over the winter are better off mulched or planted with cover crops. Cover crops help maintain important soil microorganisms that will, in turn, support your spring and summer crops next year. Fava beans are an excellent choice in areas with mild winters.
If rose leaves are exhibiting neat round or oval holes in them, it is probably the beneficial leaf cutter bee and should be ignored. The sections of leaf are used to line brood cells, which are also filled with nectar and pollen.
Squash and cucumber plants are susceptible to a disease carried by aphids and cucumber beetles. Mosaic virus causes leaves to become mottled and stunts plant growth. Fruit may become white. Diseased plants should be removed and put in the trash. Do not add to the compost pile.
If leaf stippling and tiny webs are seen, spider mites are probably the reason. Spider mites prefer dusty conditions, so spraying infested plants with the hose can help. Using broad spectrum pesticides is not recommended because they will kill the spider mites’ natural predators. Heavy spider mite infestations can be treated with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Stink bugs and cucumber beetles are common this time of year.
As nights become cooler, it is common for powdery mildew to strike. Affected leaves should be removed and thrown in the trash, and overhead watering should be avoided.
Gnawed tomatoes, empty orange shells, and tiny black pellets are all signs of roof rats. These pests can infiltrate your attic, crawl space, garage, storage shed, and trees. Rat traps are an excellent way to remove resident rats. Keeping pet and livestock food sealed up and harvesting crops as soon as possible will help make your yard less desirable to the local rat population. Since rats can carry serious diseases and damage electrical wiring, it is worth the effort to get rid of rats. I use traps placed in a tunnel made with cinder blocks and baited with peanut butter or cheese.
Any yellow flowers produced by your tomatoes now will not have time to mature before temperatures cause fruit to turn mealy before maturing. Instead, remove those flowers to encourage plants to put all their energy into any fruit that is already on the vine.
September is the time to plant many winter crops, including artichoke, arugula, beets, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cilantro, collards, dill, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, peas, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and turnips.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor!
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 things going on in your garden!
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.
Now is the time to be on the lookout for codling moth larva. From the outside, an apple will have a small, scabby spot. If you cut (or bite) into the apple, you will see that this spot leads to a trail that heads toward the core. You can interrupt the codling moth lifecycle by collecting and removing any fallen fruit that would provide an overwintering haven. Unaffected apples can also be protected by bagging them or dusting them with kaolin clay.
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. [When I lived in Virginia, I used to pay the neighborhood children a nickel for every June bug they eliminated - it was very effective and the kids had fun and earned some money!] June bugs are clumsy fliers and easy to slap down with a net. Most beetles 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 larval grubs 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.
This drought tolerant shrub is a great way to attract pollinators. After it has bloomed, cut lavender plants back, close to the ground. This will prevent plants from becoming too leggy and it stimulates more flower development.
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 and shades the soil and helps retain moisture. You can even let it go to seed and save money on lawn seed in the autumn! Be on the lookout for masked chafers and southern chinch bugs.
This has been a particularly bad year for mites in my garden. 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.
Moles and voles
Underground ridges in your lawn often mean you have moles. Moles eat insects and worms, but their tunneling can damage roots and redirect irrigation water away from your plants. Voles will devour root systems. In both cases, trapping is your best control method.
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.
Green or brown shield-shaped stink bugs eat seeds, grain, fruit, vegetables, ornamental plants, legumes, weeds and tree leaves. They can also transmit tomato bacterial spot with piercing mouthparts. There are hundreds of different stink bug species, the most commonly seen in California are bagrada bugs, brown marmorated stink bugs, rough stink bugs, harlequin bugs, and uhler’s stink bugs. You may see white or yellow eggs on tomatoes, or tight rows of tiny grayish eggs on netting. Unfortunately, insecticides are ineffective against stink bugs. Frequent inspections and hand picking are your best control methods. If put in place early enough, row covers can prevent stink bugs from reaching your crops.
Leaf cover is a plant’s equivalent to sunscreen. Insufficient leave cover and/or irrigation can make plants susceptible to sunburn, or, more technically, sunscald. Tomatoes and peppers are especially vulnerable to sunscald. Rather than turning red and peeling, the way we do, the side of fruit exposed to too much sun will look bleached and brown and leathery. Insufficient nitrogen is a common cause for too few leaves, but you can provide shade cloth in extreme situations. Just make sure the plants still get the sunlight they need to grow and thrive.
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. Solitary 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. This is also a good time to check the sticky barriers and whitewashing on fruit and nut trees, feed citrus trees, and prune apricot and cherry trees. Unlike other trees, which are pruned when they are dormant, apricot and cherry trees are best pruned in summer. This is because they are susceptible to a fungus called Eutypa dieback, which can infect trees if rain reaches fresh pruning cuts.
August is an excellent time to start seeds for California's 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 in those pots.
Remember that your plants are not the only things that need extra hydration and sun protection in summer! You do, too! Be sure to drink lots of water, slather on the sunscreen, and wear that hat!
Greens bolt and wither
Searing heat and glare above
Seek shade and cool water
July can get 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 July 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 scorching summer heat and an extended drought 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 California live oaks - they are accustomed to hot, dry summers and watering them only makes them susceptible to disease.
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 structure, feeding 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. Be sure to water tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash consistently, to avoid blossom end rot.
During summer, 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. Also, be sure to get those containers up off the concrete. Even the smallest air space underneath can significantly reduce temperatures for potted plants.
If you still have a lawn, be sure to raise the blade on your mower. Taller grass shades the ground, reducing water loss and stabilizing soil temperatures. By the end of July, your lawn will probably be brown, and that’s okay. Keep watering it. The root system will stay alive, and green shoots will come back in the fall after temperatures go down. [I use water from my washing machine with no negative results and my lawn stays green far longer.]
Basil and other heat lovers
It is finally warm enough for crops such as basil, melons, eggplant, and peppers to really thrive. These are some of my favorite plants. You can train melons up a trellis or ladder, and you can never have too much basil. If you have more than you can use fresh, simply whip up a batch of pesto and throw it in the freezer. Come January, you’ll be glad you did!
Mulch and top dressings
Summer is an excellent time to mulch unused garden areas. As it breaks down, the organic material will improve soil structure and add valuable plant nutrients. This is particularly helpful if you have compacted soil. Until it does break down, mulch stabilizes soil temperatures, reduces weed competition, and helps soil retain water. In the same way, top dressing the plants in your garden or foodscape with aged compost is a trouble-free way to add nutrients to growing plants without applying chemical fertilizers.
Fire safe gardening
Summer fires can be devastating, but you can slow the spread of fire with fire safe gardening. Rural areas of California and other states are required, by law, to maintain a defensible space around homes. You can use the same ideas to protect your home and family:
And leave the fireworks to the pros.
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. Rising temperatures and strong growth increase the need for irrigation. Sowbugs and other pests seem to be everywhere. Fruits, flowers, and mulch are the name of the game when it comes to June garden chores.
Bees are everywhere you look, collecting pollen and nectar for their families (and pollinating nearly all of our garden crops). If you see a swarm, don’t panic. Swarming bees are surprisingly docile. Their bellies are full of honey and they are simply looking for a new home. Contact your local Bee Guild or Master Gardeners for information on swarm collection. Under no circumstances should honey bee swarms be sprayed with insecticides.
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.
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 also use traps to kill rats. It’s a bit disgusting, but it works.
Fruit drop and fruit thinning
Don't be concerned if your fruit trees suddenly drop a majority of their blossoms or immature fruits. This normal behavior, called June drop or blossom drop, prevents trees from producing more fruit than they can support. To help your trees create the highest quality and best sized fruit, this is the time to thin fruits.
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 mulch breaks down, it adds valuable nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. Just make sure that mulch is kept away from tree trunks and that it isn’t too thick. Generally speaking, a layer of 3 inches is just right. Too much mulch can interfere with gas exchanges.
If you haven't started already, June is an excellent time to plant those heat-loving cucumbers, peppers, squashes, tomatoes, eggplants, and melons. Also, you can create an ongoing harvest by succession planting radishes, beans, and other determinant crops.
Be sure to put on your sunscreen, wear a hat, and keep those tools clean and sharp as you enjoy the garden in June!
As busy as bees
We pierce the warming topsoil
With dreams of freshness
May is one of the busiest months in the garden. Temperatures have warmed enough for us to begin planting in earnest. Weeds, pests, and beneficial insects are out in force. And it's gorgeous outside!
Aerate the soil
Our San Francisco Bay Area soil is heavy clay. This means it can hold on to lots of water and nutrients, but it can be difficult for roots, earthworms, and soil microorganisms. You can hire a professional aerator to come in with their heavy equipment to punch plugs out of your soil. While the machine creates its own soil compaction, the plugs really do make a big difference in soil health. Or, you can do what I do, which is to contact your local tree trimmer and ask for a load of tree trimmings. It won’t be the pretty bagged variety, but it will contain chipped twigs, leaves, stems and branches that can be spread on top of the soil as a mulch that will profoundly improve your soil structure. In 2012, when we bought our home, the soil was more like concrete. Now, thanks to mulches of tree trimmings, my soil is rich and black, loose, and filled with earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. For free.
Bees are very active in May. There is simply so much pollen and nectar to collect! Sometimes, a honey bee colony may swarm. If you see a swarm, don’t panic. As in any other time when working around bees, remain calm, move gently, and give them their space. Contact your local Bee Guild or Master Gardeners to have swarms removed.
Bulbs and other flowers
If flowering bulbs were looking crowded during the recent bloom time, delay digging them up to separate until after all the foliage is completely dry. Bulbs pull important nutrients from these leaves to help start up again next spring. Bulbs that are dug up and separated can be replanted in a new location, gifted to friends, or stored in a cool, dry, dark location until fall. If you want fall blooms, plant now.
They are countless varieties of plants that perform well in containers. Do them all a favor in May and get them off that soon-to-be hot concrete patio. Creating even the smallest space under container plants can reduce the roasting effect, which means they will need less water. Speaking of water, warmer temperatures mean container plants will start drying out more quickly. Water as needed.
Many flowers are in full bloom in May. To encourage plants to continue creating blooms, remove spent flowers as soon as they are seen. This also reduces habitat for many pests and diseases. Pinch back borage, petunias, and fuchsias to prevent plants from becoming top heavy.
May is the time fireblight shows itself in the Bay Area. Fireblight is a bacterial disease that makes plants look as though they had been damaged by fire. It attacks apples, pear and quince, most often, but can also infect ornamentals, such as toyon and pyracantha. Very often, the growing tip folds over into a shepherd’s crook shape. Fireblight can kill a mature tree, so complete removal of any diseased tissue is critical. Sanitize pruners with a household cleaner, such as Lysol, between each cut to prevent reinfection. The final cut should be 8-12 inches below the diseased area.
May should be the time when fruit trees are covered with immature fruits. Thin those fruits now or regret it later. Too much fruit in one place means none of them taste as good as they might have. It also creates habitat for pests and disease. Apples should be thinned to no more than 3 fruits to a cluster, or one fruit for every 6 inches of branch. Apricots and other stone fruits need 4-6” between fruits for optimal growth, flavor, and sweetness. Also, be sure to check apples for codling moth damage.
If you still have a lawn, be sure to water it as early in the morning as possible. That way, the water isn’t lost to evaporation and the grass has time to dry out during the day, reducing the chance of fungal diseases. For the most part, I use water from my washing machine to water my lawn and it has been working very well. Check the lawn for weeds such as spurge, burclover, and whatever happens to invade your neighborhood. When mowing, set the blade height as high as you are comfortable with in summer. Taller grass shades the soil. This reduces evaporation and it makes the soil more comfortable for valuable earthworms and microbes.
Mulch and compost
Compost and mulch are two of the best things to add to any landscape. They add valuable nutrients to the soil, improve soil structure, and stabilize soil temperature. In our heavy clay soil, mulch prevents the baked concrete look we have come to expect in summer. [An important note about soil additives - while it may sound right to add sand to clay soil, to reduce compaction, it ends up creating concrete. Don’t do it!]
Slugs & snails
Slugs and snails can devastate young May seedlings. Applying non-toxic slug and snail bait lightly around new planting areas can save the crop. While there are more effective baits, those made with iron phosphate are not toxic to pets and wildlife and I have found they work well enough.
Before you start applying fertilizers and fungicides, collect a soil sample and send it out to a lab. [I use the UMass lab, but there are many to choose from]. The information provided in soil test results is invaluable. More often than not, your soil does not need more of all the nutrients found in a bag of fertilizer. It may only need some, or, in my case, it only needed iron because it held an excess of everything else. Simply adding more fertilizer can create nutrient imbalances that make it difficult for plants to absorb what they need. Get a soil test. It’s worth it.
This is the most welcome news of the season in the Bay Area. Nearly all summer growing plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, corn, and peppers) can be put in the ground in May. If you are using transplants, be sure harden them off gradually or they may lose much of their vigor and productivity. Hardening-off simply means placing them outdoors in a protected location for a few hours. Slowly increase the time over a couple of weeks. Be sure to stake tomato plants now, while they are small. This can be done in tandem with quarantining new plants. And add straw under melon, squash, and strawberry plants to reduce fungal infection.
If verticillium wilt occurred last year, it is important to plant members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant) someplace else. Verticillium wilt is a fungal disease that shows as yellowing older leaves, at first. Then, as the disease spreads, wilting occurs. Young plants nearly always die. Since the fungal spores can remain in the soil for 10-15 years, crop rotation is the best prevention.
California’s drought is continuing, despite the fair bit of rain we have received so far. The truth is, the Golden State has always been drought-prone and we would be wise to learn to live accordingly. When water restrictions were first implemented, I vowed to take meaningful steps to reduce our water consumption. As a result, we now use only 25% of the water we used to use! Surprisingly, my garden has not suffered and neither have we. These steps can help you conserve water while still caring for the garden:
Just as young garden plants are really kicking it into high gear in May, so are the weeds. Take my word for it, pulling them while they are small, and before the soil is baked, is much easier than later. Weeds take precious water and nutrients from garden plants. In most cases, the sooner they are gone, the better.
So, put on the hat and sunscreen and get out there in that May garden!
April chirps and sings
Splitting shells and seeds and blooms
April is a busy month in most gardens. With scorching summers on a not-too-distant horizon, flowers, weeds, and everything else seem to be 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.
It’s planting time!
Temperatures are nearing or have reached the point when gardeners can plant most herbs, leafy greens, and vegetables. Lettuce, arugula, spinach, bok choy, basil, parsley, cilantro, and radishes can be planted every couple of weeks in succession for a continuous harvest until temperatures get too hot.
In warmer regions, potatoes, bush and pole beans, corn, cucumber, summer and winter squash, and tomato seeds can be planted now. Be sure to read packet directions for planting depth, spacing, and sun requirements for the best results. [If you haven't already, email me for a customized planting chart based on your USDA Hardiness Zone.]
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 before fruit is affected.
As flowers begin blooming, you can increase production by removing spent blooms.This works equally well for roses and artichokes. 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 it allows for good airflow, as well as stimulate new flower development.
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. Containers and raised beds 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 also use water collected from the shower, as it heats up, to water edibles.
Before you get too excited about planting, take a few minutes to inspect your property for mosquito breeding grounds. Mosquito larvae can grow in as little as one tablespoon of water. Birdbaths, rain barrels, clogged rain gutters, and planter pot saucers can all harbor these pests. Mosquito dunks, also available as granular bits, contain a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bt.i), that is deadly to mosquito larvae but harmless against all other living things. You can also use Bt.i against fungus gnats. Mosquitofish can also be used to reduce mosquito populations.
To add nutrients, reduce weeds, and help retain moisture, nothing beats mulch. Wood chips and aged compost both make excellent mulch. You can request free arborist chips from local tree trimmers. To stop weeds from growing, the mulch should be 4" to 6” thick. I used to recommend a layer of cardboard or newspaper be placed underneath, but then I learned that these materials attract termites and voles. Cardboard also slows gas and water exchanges. Be sure to keep mulch at least 8” away from tree and shrub trunks, to avoid fungal diseases, such as crown rot and butt 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, rhubarb, and asparagus, as well as fruit and nut trees, provide many years of food production and April is a good time to plant. These plants will take up a good amount of space, so be sure to keep mature sizes in mind.
Plum bud gall mite
As of January 2019, we have a new pest in northern California. Be on the lookout for abnormal growths, or galls, on almond, apricot, plum, pluot, and other fruit and nut trees. These tiny eriophyid mites are only 1/100th of an inch long. If you have a 20x hand lens, you may be able to see them. They can be translucent yellow, pink, white, or purple, with two pairs of legs up near the head. You are more likely to see galls on new shoots and fruit spurs that plants produce in response to these invaders. This new pest threatens tens of thousands of fruit and nut trees in California. If you suspect plum bud gall mites on your trees, please contact your County Extension Office right away.
This is also a good time to replace last year's sticky barriers. The protection from crawling insects that these simple barriers provide 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 the old tape, inspect the trunk, and apply a fresh sticky barrier. Just be sure that you do not use painter's tape to create sticky barriers. The moisture from the goo will cause the tape to disintegrate and damage the tree's bark.
As difficult as it may be for gardeners to thin out fruit and young plants, it really is necessary for the optimal growth of the 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 packets or other reputable information. This allows each plant to reach its full potential and reduces problems with pests and diseases. Rather than pulling seedlings out by the roots, snip them off at soil level. This reduces disruption to the remaining (delicate) root systems and leaves valuable soil microorganisms in place.
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.
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, removing them 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
March in California is the envy of the East Coast. Still bundled against blizzards, they hear about our sunny days and emerging blooms as they look out at a sea of snow. But don’t be fooled by all the new plants breaking ground.
My last frost date is March 15th, but we’ve already reached temperatures as high as 80°F! To tender young shoots and first leaves (cotyledons), a sudden drop in temperature can be deadly. As tempting as it may be to trim away frost-damaged plant parts in early March, it is a good idea to wait until closer to the middle of the month, just to be on the safe side. Fret not, however, there are many tasks to keep you busy in the garden in March!
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 lookout for bird nests. It’s that time of year!
Walking on wet ground causes soil compaction. This is especially true for areas with heavy clay soil. Rather than walking on wet soil, stay on paths, install stepping stones, or just wait for it to dry. Compacted soil is particularly difficult for young roots to move through, and it can cause drainage problems. Also, digging wet soil damages soil structure. The best treatment for compacted soil is a thick layer of free arborist wood chips. Amazing things happen under mulch!
Winter and spring moisture provide the perfect habitat for many pathogens. You can prevent diseases, such as fireblight on apples, pears, quince, and loquat, with fixed copper sprays. You can also reduce the chance of powdery mildew on grapes by applying sulfur at this time.
Feed young trees
As young trees continue putting out new roots, shoots, and leaves, they will benefit from being fed in March. Check the specific species of tree for more information on how much fertilizer should be provided. Since my soil tests indicate that everything is present in abundance, except for nitrogen and iron, those are the only two I add. Money saved. Environment protected. Check.
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 or green 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. The only exception is those trees susceptible to Eutypa dieback. Pruning grapes or stone fruits, such as apricot or cherry, before the rains are completely over can create an opportunity for infection. I know it's hard to wait, but you should.
Slugs and snails
Our warming temperatures and moisture work together to create the perfect habitat for slugs and snails. These mollusks can devastate seedlings 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. Be on the lookout for pillbugs, too.
If you have not conducted a soil test recently, now is the time. Find out what is in your soil before you start adding plants or fertilizer.. This will help avoid nutrient imbalances that can wreak havoc on plant health.
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 weeding. Since some weeds can go to seed in as little as a week, now is the time to cut them off at ground level with a hoe. Wait until later in the season 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!
We sever that which has passed
As new growth begins
In many parts of the country, winter snow still holds everything in thrall, but California is a different story altogether. Rains have brought us some much needed moisture (though we really need more!) and longer days are coaxing new shoots to emerge. This is the stuff of February gardens in San Jose.
Bare Root Trees
There is still time to plant bare root trees. Many of these plants have been sitting in nurseries for a few weeks. Soak them in a bucket of water for several hours after trimming off any damaged bits. Dig a hole that is shallow and wide. There is no need to amend the planting hole. Spread the roots out horizontally for the best growth. Be sure that the crown is a few inches above the ground to avoid crown rot. The crown is where the trunk meets the roots.
Rather than tamping the soil down, mud in your new tree with water. This eliminates any big air pockets that might dry roots out while helping them stay upright. Speaking of supports, only provide tree supports if absolutely necessary and remove them as soon as they are not needed. Water regularly, unless it’s raining. Avoid fertilizing until 6-8” of new growth appears.
Harvesting citrus fruit is a common February garden task. Citrus trees tend to produce heavily every other year and February is normally harvest time. If you don’t harvest your oranges, other things will! Squirrels, snails, and rats can make a mess if fruit isn’t harvested. Heavy rains can cause fruit splitting. These fruits attract pests and diseases and should be removed from the tree and composted or discarded. If your tree produces a bumper crop this year, try making orange marmalade!
If pests or diseases were a problem on your fruit or nut trees last year, February is a good time to apply dormant and delayed dormant sprays of horticultural oil and/or fixed copper, depending on the tree species and the problem. Horticultural oil will suffocate pests such as aphids, mites, and scale insects before they can cause damage. Fixed copper is used to reduce the likelihood of many fungal and bacterial diseases, including fireblight, peach leaf curl, and bacterial blight. Be sure these treatments are applied before buds begin to open.
Rain also creates countless habitats for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are a vector species that can carry the Zika virus, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus and many other nasty conditions. Walk through the garden and look for potential mosquito habitats. They only need about one tablespoon of stagnant water to start reproducing. Adding mosquito dunks to rain barrels, fountains, and birdbaths goes a long way toward eliminating the local mosquito population.
Peppers and tomatoes
To jumpstart a garden, one February garden chore is to start peppers and tomatoes indoors, in a greenhouse, or under a protective cover. I use my pumpkin ladder draped with shade cloth. Hot peppers, in particular, need a long growing season to develop the best flavors. Seed heating mats, designed for seed starting, can keep pepper seeds warm enough to germinate. As they grow, transplant seedlings into larger pots until it is warm enough to move them outside. If your seedlings get too leggy, in a condition called etiolation, they are not getting enough light.
If it didn’t get done in January, you can still improve the structure and productivity of fruit and nut trees for the upcoming growing season. by pruning unwanted branches in February. This way, trees will put all their energy into what’s left. Remove drooping (decurrent), crossing, or diseased branches. This is also the perfect time to rub off unwanted tree growth. Simply rub your hand over the buds and they fall off.
For better fuchsia and hydrangea blooms this summer, remove any frost damaged tissue now. Since both species bloom on new growth, cut back some of the longer branches. Leave two or three leaf buds below the cut to promote lateral growth and more flowers. Prune roses now for structure and air circulation.
Sticky barriers prevent pests from crawling up the trunks of trees, roses and shrubs. As temperatures rise, ants, aphids, and other pests become more active and destructive. Apply tape around the trunk and slather the tape with whichever sticky barrier substance you opt to use. This can significantly reduce pest infestations. It’s one February garden chore I never skip!
Lawns may look green, but is it the right kind of green? Weeds grow more quickly than many garden plants. Take a look at what it is actually growing in your lawn. This is a great time to pull weeds - before they go to seed and while the ground is moist, making it easier to pull them up by the roots. Plus, the disruption provides loosened soil for the spreading roots of more desirable grass species. Pull weeds from around perennial plants, as well. They will need all the nutrients they can get for spring growth. Pulling weeds now is one of the most productive February garden chores you can do.
After pruning and spraying your trees and applying a sticky barrier, you should protect them against sunburn damage by painting exposed areas with a mix of one part water and one part white latex paint. Do not use any other type of paint, as many of them can interfere with your trees' ability to breath. Whitewashing reflects the sun's damaging rays away from the bark, helping it to stay intact. Bark is an important protective barrier against many pests and diseases.
February is the perfect time to encourage worms in the garden. Worms will do more good than pretty much everything else. Worms aerate the soil, break down organic material, and their castings are full of valuable nutrients. Spreading coffee grounds, aged compost, or mulch around the garden is often the only thing needed to encourage worms to make your garden their home.
Put on your sweater and get out there in the garden!