February always feels like a tipping point, a moment of transition in my California garden. It's too cold and wet to actually go outside and do very much. Walking around on my wet clay soil will only compound ongoing compacted soil problems. Working with wet leaves would only increase the chance of spreading the fungal diseases I know are lurking. So I must wait.
I have finished my dormant pruning and treated my trees with fixed copper. This week I will whitewash the trunks and exposed branches, replace sticky barriers, weed around my trees, and take some mostly aged compost from the chicken run to mulch around the trees. I won't need to do much else for the trees until it's time to feed them in March and thin fruit as it comes in. I want to make sure that this year I get the best crops possible.
Another aspect of my new beginnings in the garden will be making better choices based on what has worked in the past. It's too easy to get caught up in seed catalogs and marketing promises. Each yard is too unique for those generalized claims to be useful. On the contrary, they often make us feel dissatisfied and inadequate when our gardens don't turn out looking like images in magazines. For me, I know that the scorching summer heat of my fully exposed yard will make some plants very happy and others will bolt the moment they see daylight. There's no sense wasting water, time, and real estate on unsuitable plants.
I have one raised bed in the back corner of my yard that I have struggled with every year. The squirrels dig it up. I forget to water it. Life is hard for plants back there, so they don't thrive. Last year I moved my potato bed back there. I added aged compost, a few onion sets, and then covered the whole thing with netted panels. The squirrels were not pleased, but I wanted to give the whole thing some time to rest. Over the holidays, I received a lovely card that included some native flower seeds, so I sprinkled them over the potato bed. My hope is that the native flowers will reseed themselves each year, adding color that will remind me to water. And potatoes have a way of carrying on no matter what I do or don't do. And if you've never had fresh potatoes, you're really missing out.
By looking at each growing space as having a new beginning, I can do a better job of making sure it has everything it needs to grow well. I guess the same is true for us, eh? We all need the right amounts of food, plenty of water, enough sunlight, and a gentle environment in which to grow.
May you thrive in this new year.
Shorter days. Colder nights. Wet soil.
These are times of rest, for gardeners and their plants.
As our plants pull inward, shriveling their tops, harboring resources in roots, and producing little or nothing, it is easy to believe there isn't anything happening. But that wouldn’t be true.
Just as hens stop laying in winter, our plants are recovering from the demands of summer production. Our plants are collecting chill hours, orchestrating hormones, and ridding themselves of unwanted, outgrown bits. And they are resting.
Rest is just as valid as labor. Without rest, hens die, tempers flare, and plants falter. Taking cues from our garden, we are reminded that winter is a good time to curl up with a book, a seed catalog, or a pad of paper and a pencil. To think, rather than to do. By resting and thinking about what worked and what didn’t in the previous year, we can learn from our mistakes. We can do better next time.
Sometimes it is difficult to get rid of things we do not love or use. We have been conditioned by a multi-billion dollar marketing machine to buy and have as much as we can afford and more. But we don’t have to do that. We can look to our plants to see the ease with which deciduous trees drop last summer’s leaves. After putting every ounce of energy into producing fruit and nuts, our trees let the fruits of that labor fall to the ground (or our harvest baskets) without a second thought. Maybe we could learn something from that.
Last night, my husband and I watched AlphaGo, a documentary about a computer playing Go against world champions. Mostly, the computer won, which was a big deal. What we found most interesting was that the computer didn’t try to demolish its opponents. It simply strove to win by enough. Our plants live much the same way. They are greedy for sunlight and water and nutrients, but they rarely take more than they need. (There are exceptions.) How much stuff do we really need?
Winter is a good time to shed our own excesses. And there are plenty of people in need, who could really use what we have just laying around. Pull inward and reevaluate your own resources, rather than trying to force plants into unseasonable contortions.
Winter is a good time to note what you like about your garden or landscape, too. Is there a nice balance of colors or textures or shapes? Which crops or flowers seem to always do well in your yard? By noticing what you like, what does well, you will be more likely to build on those attributes come spring.
Our winter landscapes are good reminders that we need respite and quiet, too.
Stay on your path, give yourself time, and savor the season.
With the holiday season nearly upon us and shelter-in-place orders on the rise (with good reason), finding the right gifts for those nearest and dearest to our hearts can be difficult. For the gardeners on your list, this should help.
To a gardener, seeds present a world of opportunity. And you can create a custom seed collection that won’t break your bank and is sure to delight the gardener in your life. You can create a seed collection around any theme. Here are just a few ideas:
Trees and shrubs
Winter is a good time to order bare root trees and shrubs. Fruit and nut trees provide a bounty for many years and your gardener friend will be delighted at your thoughtfulness. Just be sure that the tree or shrub you select matches the number of chill hours your recipient’s garden gets before you buy.
A basket of bulbs
A nice basket filled with saffron crocus, tulip, garlic, and onion bulbs can add color and edibles to your friend's spring and autumn garden.
Work benches, knee pads, and tool belts
As we get older, all that bending and kneeling can get difficult. Portable benches and kneelers are available with handy pockets for tools, allowing gardeners to sit or kneel more comfortably as they work the soil. Knee pads can provide relief and allow your gardener friend to stay at their hobby longer.
Moisture meters, soil tests, and other tech
I’d love to tell you that those bug hotels make great gifts, but they don’t. Not in the long run. As charming as they look online (and in the garden), they often end up harboring diseases and I do not recommend them. Instead, you can help your gardener friend attract beneficial insects with insectary plants or seeds.
Moisture meters are excellent garden tools and they aren’t expensive. Help the gardener in your life conserve water while ensuring that their plants get the moisture they need. [You may want to order one for yourself, while you’re at it!]
Soil tests are invaluable at helping gardeners provide for their plants, but those colorful little plastic tubes are not the way to go. Instead, reach out to a local (to your recipient) soil test lab and get a gift certificate for your loved one.
Solar lights add a nice touch to gardens, as do many types of garden art. Just make sure that you are not adding toxins to your loved one’s vegetable patch with your gift. Birdbaths and trellising make nice gifts, too.
Self-watering containers are great for areas with super hot summers, food-grade garden hoses and soaker hoses are always nice, and your gardener friend may even want to try their hand at raising worms! Or, honey bees!
For the children
Seeds and child-sized tools can be a great way to introduce gardening to the youngsters on your holiday shopping list. They will get a lot out of the experience (and your company!) as they plant their very own sunflowers, radishes, and peas, or create a storybook garden themed after their favorite bedtime story.
Shopping for gardeners is, in my opinion, a lot easier than shopping for tech enthusiasts. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about gardening to be able to pick great gifts.
What’s your favorite gardening gift?
Gone are the days of barn raisings and community grain harvests, which is unfortunate. But that doesn’t mean you have to do all your garden work by yourself.
Let’s face it - gardening is work. It’s work that we enjoy, certainly, but sometimes we need a little help. Knowing where to look and how to ask for help doesn’t come naturally to everyone. This should help.
For the big jobs, like irrigation systems and tree work, you are better off calling in the professionals. Tree work can be very dangerous. It requires special training and equipment. As a bonus, after an arborist works on your trees, be sure to ask them for a free load of wood chips. Arborist chips make an excellent mulch that retains moisture, reduces weeds, stabilizes soil temperatures, and ultimately feeds the soil and improves soil structure. Installing irrigation systems, ponds, and similar big projects require skills that many of us do not have. Ask friends and neighbors for local referrals.
If all you need is information, the Internet and your local library can be very helpful. Librarians are trained professionals who are very good at finding information and they can help you track down the books you need to become a better gardener. Most libraries currently offer drive-by book exchanges.
When conducting an online search for gardening assistance, it helps to be as specific as possible. “What’s wrong with my tomatoes” is too generic. Instead, try typing “tomato leaf black spots” and you are sure to get helpful information about the fungal disease, Septoria leaf spot, and its prevention: remove infected leaves, provide good air flow, and avoid overhead watering. Just be sure to avoid the sensationalists and track down science-based information.
Master Gardeners are another excellent resource. Many chapters offer helplines, by phone or online, to answer gardening questions. Master Gardeners are familiar with and knowledgeable about local plant pests, diseases, and other issues. Contact your local County Extension Office for more information.
When you need more than information and less than a project manager, don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors for help. All too often, we convince ourselves that no one wants to help us when, in fact, no one knows we need help. Simply by asking for a hand moving a heavy stone, digging a hole for a bare root tree, or figuring out a better way to trellis a grape vine, we might discover that that casual [masked] neighbor has shared interests and provides good conversation, along with help in the garden. Scouts, 4H, and other organizations may be able to help, as well. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Finally, there are literally billions of helpers just waiting to be invited to your garden. They are ready, willing, and able to eat aphids, parasitize hornworms, and pollinate your crops. They are the insects. And you generally do not have to buy anything to coax these autonomous helpers to your garden.
Planting flowers, leaving wild spaces, and minimizing garden clean-up is all it takes. If your landscape provides pollen, nectar, prey, water, and shelter, beneficial insects will find your yard and get right to work, without any future effort on your part.
Who are you inviting to be part of your garden?
If a global pandemic and a worrisome election weren’t problems enough, Colorado and many of the western states have been on fire for weeks, creating ominous yellow skies and a sense of foreboding.
While there isn’t much we can do about any of it, besides wearing masks, maintaining social distance, voting intelligently, and practicing fire safe gardening, knowing more about how our plants are being affected can help us take better care of them.
Many of us grew up with the old adage: Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Truth is, that quote comes to us from the Bible in a slightly different form, but for the same reasons: Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning.
In both cases, the redness of the sky is caused by particles in the atmosphere. Yellow, orange, red, and brown are longer wavelengths and they are able to pass through particles in the air. Blues and greens have a more difficult time. This is called Rayleigh scattering and it explains why sunsets are so colorful - the light has to pass through more of the Earth’s atmosphere, hitting more particles, so we get pinks and purples. But I digress.
According to the old saying, if there are a lot of particles floating around in the evening, clear weather is likely the next day. If the sky is red in the morning, it may mean a storm is on its way. But we don’t need old sayings or Spare the Air alerts to tell us something is wrong. Spending time outside this summer causes itchy, burning eyes, a raspy voice, and general ill ease, both physically and emotionally.
But what do these wildfire conditions do to your garden and landscape plants? Is it harmful or helpful? You might be surprised to learn that it can be both.
Not too long ago, forestry experts learned that controlled fires are an important part of forest ecosystem health. Some trees need fire to release their seeds. Fires kill pests and pathogens. They clear out dead and dying materials. Surprisingly, there are other benefits.
Smokey shade and photosynthesis
We all know that shade protects plants from sunscald. The smoke and other particles currently flying around in the air is providing similar protection for your plants. Of course, too much shade interferes with photosynthesis. Unless the smoke is really thick, rather than blocking sunlight, the particles diffuse sunlight, bouncing it around in more directions. This provides sunlight for photosynthesis to plant parts that don’t usually get enough sunlight to do much good.
Carbon and carbon dioxide
Many of the particles found in wildfire smoke are carbon-based. There’s more carbon dioxide in the air. Plants use carbon for food and carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. To that degree, the fires and smoke are good for plants, but that’s probably where the benefits end.
Since more than trees and grasses are burning in all these fires, we have to assume that pollutants are also coating our plants (and us). These pollutants come from burning furniture, vehicles, plastics, and other man-made substances.
Also, research has shown that many of the normal substances found in wildfire smoke can cause several problems for plants:
Fires and smoke can also result in atmospheric pressure changes and other conditions that cause plants to close their stomata. Stomata are, in essence, breathing holes. Fires also increase ground level ozone. Ozone is very bad for plants. Basically, once ozone enters a plant through the stomata, it is transformed into a reactive oxygen that breaks down cell membranes and damages the contents of cells. Symptoms of exposure to high concentrations of ozone include:
Further exposure can lead to chlorosis, early senescence, and necrosis. Put another way, many plants are holding their breath, suffering ulcers, and their cell phones have died. It’s tough being a plant right now.
If all that weren’t bad enough, stressed plants are more susceptible to pest infestations and infections. My perfectly healthy young lemon tree was inundated with leaf miners in just two days. I can’t help thinking it must have something to do with all the particulates in the air. I could be wrong, but it makes sense to me.
After the fires are gone
What about after everything gets back to normal? It’s all too easy to think that everything is okay once blue skies return, but that may be premature. Most of the pollutants and other particles that were floating around end up on the ground and on your plants. Rain and irrigation water washes those chemicals into the soil.
It’s a good idea to have your soil tested after a major fire episode to check for contaminants. It’s also a good idea to wash your produce even more thoroughly than normal. Just in case.
As for us mammals, just like our plants, we need to stay clean, hydrated, and protected.
Too many plants? How can that be?
There’s always room for that new variety of an old favorite, a gift plant from a fellow gardener, and all those seeds that beg to touch soil. How can a gardener say no? Is there such a thing as too many plants?
Many gardening enthusiasts (myself included) seem to collect more and more plants until it starts getting difficult to find a place with enough sunlight and soil. But there is more to the idea of too many plants than simply real estate.
A matter of time
We may enjoy tending our plants, but there are only so many hours in a day. For people who work and have children, those hours are severely limited. Personally, I’m a housewife under quarantine. I have all the time in the world - you might think. But there are household chores, meals, dogs, chickens, converting this blog into a book, ZOOMing with chorus and friends, and playing video games online with my out of state son. All of these things take time. And this week, some of my plants paid the ultimate price for my limited attention.
Seedlings I had just put in the ground didn’t make it. It was one of those I-thought-he-watered, he-thought-I-watered situations. After just one day of scorching heat, there were casualties. That’s a shame, too, because of the time, soil, and water put into getting them started. Of course, by the time July rolls around, I’ll be so busy canning and freezing zucchinis and other summer squashes, tomatoes, beans, and apricots, that I probably won’t even notice the loss. But time lost is never regained and that’s the whole point of this post. Having too many plants, or the wrong sort of plants, can take its toll on gardeners of any skill level.
The wrong sort of plants
Just as the wrong sort of friends can lead you down paths you wished you hadn't taken, trying to grow the wrong sort of plants means wasted time, money, and water. How much time do you invest in battling invasive weeds? Do you regularly prune shrubs that you don’t even like? Do you find yourself nursing along plants that never seem to thrive? And what about plants that are not suited to where you live? My blueberries know they really belong in Maine someplace, not in an open expanse of California heat. And when summer heat hits, how much time do you have to spend watering to keep everything alive and healthy?
Water, a limited resource
The water may come out of your tap or spigot easily enough, but we all know that it’s a valuable resource and that there are limits to what we can responsibly use. This is especially true in drought-prone areas, such as California. Installing plants that use a lot of water means spending time watering those plants. Do you have an hour every morning in summer to water your garden?
Limited real estate
Whether your garden consists of a strip of balcony or acres of farmland, there is a limit to the number of plants your space can handle. Cramming too many plants too closely together is an invitation to pests and diseases that will mean more work for you.
Stop fighting the same battles
If you find yourself fighting the same battles on a regular basis, try a new attack. If fungal disease is a problem in your garden, space plants more widely and water at ground level. If you can’t say no to that new plant, put some serious thought into where it will go while it is still in quarantine [not yours]. If specific pests arrive every year, make a plan of attack before they arrive.
If you regularly forget to water something that really needs it, create a routine. In our house, we use a bucket to capture shower water as it heats up. In summer, that water always goes to the raspberries. Making it a habit makes it easier to remember.
If you have too many plants, especially the wrong sort of plants, you may find yourself wondering why in the world you ever started gardening in the first place. Do yourself and your garden a favor and aim for just the right number and type of plants for you, your soil, and your garden with these actions:
Rather than feeling overwhelmed and exhausted because of too many plants, put your time, effort, and water into plants worth having.
People have been battling mosquitoes for a very long time and with good reason.
Mosquito bites are no fun. They itch like crazy, no matter how much you scratch (which you shouldn’t). Worse than that, mosquitoes carry diseases that can make you very, very sick, or even kill you.
Diseases carried by mosquitoes
Malaria and dengue fever certainly come to mind when you think of mosquito borne diseases, but they aren’t the only ones carried and transmitted by mosquitoes. Each year, nearly 700 million people around the world become infected with mosquito borne diseases and more than one million of those people die. In the US, over 3,000 people a year die from mosquito borne diseases, such as Zika and West Nile, as well as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and St. Louis encephalitis.
I had never heard of the last two before, so I had to look them up. Chikungunya [chicken-goon-ya] showed up in the Americas in 2013. It causes joint pain, headache, and fever. If you get St. Louis encephalitis, you might feel nothing, or you may experience fever, headache, nausea, tiredness, and vomiting. In both cases, you might die. COVID-19 is not believed to be carried by mosquitoes, but canine heartworm is.
Different species of mosquito tend to carry different diseases, but I can’t tell them apart. I do know that if I get bitten, it’s by a female mosquito.
Male and female mosquitoes both eat nectar, but female mosquitoes need blood for their eggs. They get that blood from mammals, from us. When a female mosquito lands on you, she drools numbing, anti-coagulating spit on your arm before inserting her mouthparts. That’s why you often don’t feel the bite until it’s too late. And that saliva can contain deadly viruses. What’s a gardener to do?
Interrupting the mosquito cycle
Mosquitoes need standing water in which to lay their eggs. Unfortunately for us, mosquitoes can lay those eggs in as little as one tablespoon of water. That handful of water might be found in rain gutters, planter saucers, old tire swings, or a trowel that was left behind in the yard. Eliminating all of those potential egg-laying locations goes a long way toward reducing mosquitoes in the garden.
What about ponds, fountains, rain barrels, birdbaths, and pet water bowls?
These water sources can also be used by mosquitoes for egg-laying, but adding one simple ingredient eliminates the problem: mosquito dunks.
Plants that [supposedly] deter mosquitoes
You may have heard that there are plants you can add to your landscape to deter these pests. The lists and descriptions certainly are enticing and convincing. Sadly, research has not held up those claims in the field. It’s one thing to smear yourself with a concentrated mix of essential oils in a laboratory (assuming you aren’t allergic). It’s something else entirely to stand 30’ away from a patch of citronella grass or a rosemary shrub and expect significant results.
Will these plants deter mosquitoes? Probably not enough to make a difference. But maybe, if you plant enough of them, and you rub your hands through them every once in a while as you enjoy your garden, it might help. If nothing else, these plants look and smell lovely in a landscape, and many of them are edible:
Sorry for bursting any bubbles out there. I think that these plants do provide some help, just not as much as many sources claim. The only exception I could find was oil from the lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora syn. Corymbia citriodora) plant, but few of us are able or willing to grow this 60-foot tall Australian herb in our yards.
To safely repel mosquitoes while outside, the CDC recommends using EPA-approved repellents that contain at least one of these active ingredients: DEET, picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the US), IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. They also suggest applying permethrin to clothing.
And get rid of any standing water.
Happy May Day!
I decided to try something new today and give you a walking tour of my garden.
The video is 10 minutes long, so you might want to grab a cup of something before starting.
The chickens and other birds are making a bit of a racket in the background, with it being spring and all.
This is my first attempt at a walking tour, so bear with me. There were a couple of errors. I called my sago palm a saguaro and then I called the beans in my patio strip peas. The sound isn't always consistent, but I think you'll get the idea of what I'm doing.
I hope you enjoy this tour of my daily garden!
I got a peek at the baby doves this week. They are growing fast, but I still haven’t heard a peep out of them. Now that the babies have some feathers, mother and father doves are able to leave the nest and spend some time together. It’s clear they enjoy each other’s company.
This week, I saw another fascinating insect. At first, I thought it might be a blister beetle, but there were no stripes or spots on its wing cases. And, as far as I know, there aren’t any lightning bugs west of the Rockies. That’s when I realized it was a soldier beetle. One of the Good Guys. Soldier beetles eat aphids and the eggs and larvae of many moths, beetles, armyworms, and other pests. I was happy to let it go where I it, among the forest of borage plants that appear each spring.
Another insect has me baffled. I collect insects when I find them and try to identify them. Until I know what they are, I keep them in clear plastic containers. In this particular container, I had a piece of netting covered with what I thought were stink bug eggs, a butt-less honey bee I came across while collecting honey, and a cottony cushion scale egg sack. Early this week, a bunch of tiny black flies appeared in the container. I assumed they were male scale insects but then learned that those are much smaller than these flies. I still don’t know what the flies are, but I did get some photos of the male scale insects, so that was exciting.
My perennial beets have started to produce flowering stems. The first time it happened, it really surprised me. Beet stems get pretty tall and then they hang, willow-like. They are very pretty and I will collect seeds when they are mature.
Speaking of seeds, I’ve lost count of how many varieties of tomatoes, beans, and peppers I started this week, along with carrots, chard, and basil. There were arugula, cabbage, and sunflower seedlings to transplant and the lettuces and chicories are thriving.
Every year, my asparagus harvest gets better. The first year, nothing looked like it was going to grow. The second and third years, all I got were skinny, ferny growths. But now, I am getting some delicious, fat, juicy, purple asparagus shoots that never make it into the house.
Finally, I rigged some netting around my young pear and apricot trees. I have no intention of losing any of those crops to squirrels and birds!
I hope that you are staying safe and well and are able to spend more time in your garden.
Remember, you may have neighbors who could really use some of your extra produce during quarantine. Let’s keep shopping trips to a minimum.
Six weeks into quarantine and I still have plenty to keep me busy in the garden. In fact, April is usually pretty busy and this year is no exception.
Temperatures are slowly rising and I have started more beans, a batch of tomatoes and peppers, and even some melon seeds. I’ve discovered a new pest, there’s something odd happening in my corn patch, and my nectarine tree isn’t doing well. The big news this week was my first honey harvest.
While many beekeepers are struggling to keep their hives healthy and productive, mine came through the winter healthy enough to swarm a second time. My friend, John, came over to collect the swarm and he helped me swap out heavily laden frames from one super and I added a new super on top. The bees were pretty calm about the whole procedure. Some of the honey had crystalized, but I ended up with 27 pounds of honey and 6 pounds of beeswax. I guess I’ll have to try my hand at candle-making.
Corn crop quandary
After caging one of my raised beds and planting corn, lentils, and yellow watermelon, I noticed one half of the corn is coming up beautifully and the other half doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all. It may be that they are different varieties, but, more likely, it has to do with the fact that the corn planted on the right was from last year’s seed. It may make it and it may not, but the corn on the left is doing well. If you look closely at the photo, you can see peas growing along the back, which I had thought failed, and, in the middle, you can see new growth on a broccoli stalk I had cut back to soil level. These plants never cease to amaze me.
Potato crop rotation
I decided to move my potato crop from a raised bed close to my patio to the bed farthest away. Once potatoes get established, they don’t need a whole lot of attention or protection. They had been growing in the same bed since 2015 and crop rotation is a good way to disrupt potential pest or disease problems.
Digging up all the potatoes and potato plants, I discovered dried fruit beetle grubs and wireworms. Wireworms are the larval stage of click beetles. They are bright yellow and a little more than one inch long. They have hard bodies and they burrow into root crops and stems of peas, beans, and melons, so I’m glad I decided to move my potatoes. My chickens were happy about it, too, but for different reasons.
Something bothering my beets
Speaking of soil-dwelling pests and being bothered, I discovered a new one in my beet patch. Harvesting a couple of beets for dinner, I discovered that the roots were significantly smaller than they should have been and that some very tiny, white centipede-like creatures were crawling around on the surface. Dang it. My beets have symphylans. Also known as garden centipedes, these tiny, fast-moving pseudocentipedes are not really related to centipedes at all. They are their own thing and they are a pain in the garden. Their presence explains why nearby kale seedlings never thrived. The only thing I can do is remove vulnerable plants, till the area a few times, and hope the symphylans don’t migrate into other areas of this 25’ long raised bed. Since these pests frequently burrow down 3-feet into the soil, chemical treatments are rarely helpful. I’ve read that beans aren’t as vulnerable, so I’ll plant beans there and see what happens.
Warty leaves on my nectarine tree
Once again, my nectarine tree has been infected with peach leaf curl. Our recent heavy rains made applying fixed copper ineffective and provided the perfect medium for fungal growth. Hopefully it won't lead to other problems, and I still have plenty of nectarine preserves from last year.
I’m not sure, but I think the Barbary dove eggs have hatched. There was much cooing back and forth between the parents a couple of days ago, though I haven’t seen any frequent feeding trips yet.
I hope you are all staying home and well, and enjoying time in your garden!