Caring fr your Holiday Poinsettia

Poinsettias are the traditional Christmas plant, and with the introduction of long-lasting cultivars during the past several years, its popularity has increased. Here are some tips on choosing and caring for your Poinsettia.
Selecting your Poinsettia: The plant you choose should have dark green foliage. Fallen or damaged leaves indicate poor handling or fertilization, lack of water or a root disease problem. The colorful flower bracts (red, pink, white or bicolor pink and white) should be in proportion to the plant and pot size. Little or no pollen should be showing oil the actual flowers (those red or green button-like parts in the center of the colorful bracts).
Caring for your Poinsettia:
  • Light: If you get a potted poinsettia for your home or office, place it near a sunny window where it will get the most available sunlight. A window that faces south, east or west is better than one facing north. If placed outside,any location should provide adequate light.
  • Temperature: To keep the plant in bloom, maintain it at a temperature of 65º to 70º F. during the daylight hours. If theplant is indoors, move it to a cooler place at night ifpossible. Since root rot disease is more prevalent attemperatures below 60º F., don’t put the poinsettia in a room colder than this. Poinsettias are native to semi-tropical climates, so plants located outdoors should be moved indoors or to another warm area whennighttime temperatures remain below 50º F. for several hours. Avoid exposing the plant to hot or cold drafts,(e.g. furnace air outlets or windy outdoor locations) which may cause premature leaf drop.
  • Water:Examine the soil daily, and when the surface is dry to the touch, water the soil until it runs freely out thedrainage hole in the container. The amount of waterrecommended in the following table for use in various size containers insures that enoughwater will be applied so that some will run out the drainage hole. If asaucer is used, discard the water that collects in it. Do not leave the plant standing in water. Overly wet soil lacks sufficient air, which results in root injury.

10 Poinsttia Facts

  • California is the top U.S. Poinsettia-producing state.
  • Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Botanically, the plant is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.
  • Poinsettias have also been called the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, due to the red color.
  • The showy colored parts of Poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The yellow flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
  • Poinsettias received their name in the United States in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the country in 1828. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He sent cuttings of the plant he had discovered in Southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. The word Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized because it is named after a person.
  • In Mexico the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that will grow 10-15 feet tall.
  • There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available today. Poinsettias come in colors like the traditional red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled and speckled.
  • The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and does about 50% of the world-wide sales of Poinsettias.
  • The colors of the bracts are created through “photoperiodism”, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. On the other hand, once Poinsettias finish that process, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
  • December 12th is Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.
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Avoid Pruning Apricots and Cherries in Cool Season

Author: Chuck Ingels, UCCE Sacramento Farm Advisor

Most people think about pruning fruit trees during the winter since the branch structure is most visible and winter is considered the traditional time to prune deciduous trees. Actually, pruning fruit trees mainly during the growing season is a

Figure 1. Oozing produced by fungal infection of a cherry branch pruned during a previous cool season.

good practice and with some species such as apricots and cherries, pruning between September and March in northern California could lead to detrimental canker diseases. Cherries, apricots, and a few related species are particularly susceptible to fungal and bacterial canker diseases, including Eutypa dieback, Botryosphaeria canker, and bacterial canker.

Pathogens can be spread by rain or tree wounds – such as pruning wounds – during wet weather; subsequent infections spread through the wood for several years and may eventually kill the tree. When trees are infected, limbs or twigs may wilt and die suddenly in late spring or summer with the leaves still attached. Bark may be darkly discolored and amber-colored gumming may ooze (Figure 1). Infected areas in the interior of the wood are discolored brown (Figure 2) sometimes in wedge shapes; with bacterial canker the cambial area will turn red or speckled red and then brown. To remove such infections, cut infected limbs at least one foot below any internal symptom of the disease, preferably during the dry season when infection risk is lowest.

The best practice is to avoid pruning these susceptible species during the typical rainy period from September through mid-March. Rains after March can still lead to infections although tissue susceptibility to disease decreases with warmer weather. However, it is best to avoid pruning altogether until at least late spring.

If growth is very vigorous, the first summer pruning can be done in late May or June, at which time many strong upright shoots can be removed to allow sunlight to reach lower fruiting branches. Doing the final pruning in July leads to excessive regrowth later that summer. The main or final pruning should be in August, but heavy pruning, especially at that time of year, may lead to sunburned branches, so leave spurs and some other shoots to provide some shade. Alternatively, whitewash west- and south-facing branches with a 50:50 mixture of interior, white latex paint and water to prevent sunburn.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

[Originally published in the November 2014 issue of the UC IPM Retail Nursery and Garden Center IPM News]

Figure 2. A cross-cut into the infected branch reveals a large fungal canker in the wood; the infection continues into the trunk.

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Growing to Love Radicchio

Radicchio in the garden

Radicchio is a cool-season vegetable beloved in it’s native Italy but not widely consumed in the U.S. It looks like a grapefruit-sized cabbage with burgundy leaves and white veins, but with a bold flavor. It comes in many varieties, all named after cities in Veneto, the region of Italy where they were first cultivated in the 15th century. The cabbage-like Chioggia varieties are the most common in grocery stores, though you can sometimes find romaine-shaped Treviso.

To grow radicchio, find a place in full sun with well-drained soil. Sow seeds ¼” – ½” deep. They should germinate after 7-10 days. Thin to 12” apart. Their root systems are shallow, so watering will need to be more frequent, but be sure not to drown them. Keep them consistently moist to prevent excessive bitterness. Feed once every 4 weeks with an organic, low-nitrogen fertilizer (too much nitrogen encourages bolting).

Radicchio takes a long time to reach maturity, about 90-100 days. This makes late summer the best time for us hot valley-dwellers to plant (August or September). Radicchio should mature when the air temperatures are in the 60s to prevent bolting and increase sugars. The inner head should be harvested when firm but before a hard freeze.

Radicchio di Chioggia

Your garden will benefit from the ornamental value of radicchio; it is especially attractive in a perennial border (radicchio is a perennial that will come back after harvesting the inner head). The shallow roots make it a great container plant, a boon for those of us with poorly-drained soil. An 8” pot for each will do the trick; adding other ornamental greens to the pot makes a nice presentation.

Although planting time has passed, now is a great time to pick some up at the grocery store and give it a taste. It has a pungent, peppery, bitter flavor that can take Americans by surprise; the key is to think of radicchio as a contrast to more familiar flavors such as creamy, salty, and sweet, adding complexity to many dishes. Raw radicchio, for instance, is great in salads, but should be counterbalanced with a sweet element such as fresh fruit, or a dressing containing honey or a sweet vinegar (e.g. balsamic, sherry). One of my favorite radicchio salads  is Frisee, Radicchio, and Persimmon Salad with Dates and Walnuts.

Cooking radicchio mellows the bitterness a little bit, and is a perfect foil for salty, umami-type flavors (yes, it’s bacon and cheese time!). Here is a simple recipe for baked radicchio:

Radicchio alla Pancetta
6 heads radicchio, ¼ lb each
2 T extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
6 slices pancetta
balsamic vinegar for drizzling

1. Preheat oven to broil. Place oven rack 4” underneath broiler.
2. Brush oil on each radicchio and place on a sheet pan. Broil, turning once, for about 2 minutes on each side.
3. Preheat oven to 400° F. Move oven rack to middle.
4. Wrap pancetta around each head of radicchio and place on an oiled sheet pan . You can use the pan you pre-baked radicchio on (the pan needs to be oiled to keep pancetta from sticking). Bake radicchio until pancetta browns, about 10 minutes, turning once. Serve with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Include Wildlife in Your Water Budget

‘Tis the season for giving, which finds many of us bargain-hunting and searching for the best deals. Getting the most bang for your buck isn’t just about buying discounted, single-use gewgaws to fill closets with clutter and guilt. Items maximizing outputs while minimizing inputs are the best deal of all.

Lawns are the single-use trinkets of the garden world. Costly in water, chemicals, and labor, turf is a monocrop offering little shelter or food for the insects, birds, and mammals needed for a healthy, diverse ecology. While cement or fake turf avoid inputs, these inorganic alternatives offer even less to wildlife (lawn, at least, has worms for birds).

Providing space for these small creatures is very important for the health of our planet, but habitat gardening can be a challenge for the novice when it comes to knowing which plants offer the most food, shelter, and nesting material for the least amount of water. Luckily there are many plant lists out there, and one of my new favorites is called “The New Front Yard”, compiled by the folks at the UC Davis Arboretum (The front yard is a great place to get started, as most lawn-related activities happen in the backyard).

This handy buyer’s guide lists 40 plant species; almost all are California natives with low or very low water requirements (a few are exotic and/or require moderate amounts of water).  These plants are hardy in the Central Valley’s heat and frost and attract wildlife by offering food and shelter. There are shade and sun plants to choose from, and many have decorative value such as showy flowers (Currant, Manzanita) or beautiful berries (Coffeeberry, Toyon), or both.

Recommended food plants are those with good berry, seed, pollen, or nectar production. Insects needing a place to overwinter or protection from predators seek out large bunchgrasses such as Deer Grass or Alkalai Sacaton. Spending water on insect condos might make you hesitate, but ladybeetles are among the beneficials using grasses for shelter. They will appreciate your investment in this invertebrate timeshare by emerging in spring to eat aphids off your roses. Other insects seeking refuge in grasses are a protein source for birds and other insects, adding to your garden’s web of life.

Plants from “The New Front Yard” can be found at the UC Davis Arboretum Plant Sales. For more information on this plant list and for plant sale dates, visit their website at <>. If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Preparing Trees for Winter

Author: Dave Fujino
Published on: October 27. 2014

California’s drought is having a visible impact on lawns throughout the state as homeowners reduce their outdoor watering. Lawns can be brought back to life relatively quickly, but once a tree dies, its loss is irreversible.

As the amount of sunlight falling on trees is reduced with the change in the seasons, trees go into dormancy and require less water than during the hot summer months. But in exceptionally dry conditions, a tree may not have enough stored moisture to survive until drought conditions improve. Tree advocates and water officials today urged homeowners to educate themselves on effective tree care to ensure their trees’ survival in the months ahead – especially if California’s extended dry period continues this winter.

Representatives of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, California Center for Urban Horticulture (CCUH) at UC Davis, UC Cooperative Extension and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) told the media a return of normal rainfall this winter might be enough to sustain trees without special care and watering. However, with no way to know how long the current drought will continue, the advocates said knowing when and where to water a tree can be the difference between its life and death.

“We are seeing locations in California where trees are dying because they haven’t been watered adequately,” said CCUH Director Dave Fujino. “While homeowners are trying to save water by letting lawns die, they need to continue watering their nearby trees.”

Chuck Ingels, U.C. Cooperative Extension Horticulture Advisor, urged homeowners to follow these steps:

  • Dig into the soil 6 to 8 inches at a tree’s drip line – the area immediately below the widest part of the leaf canopy; if the soil feels dry and crumbly, it needs water.
  • Apply water slowly and uniformly using low-volume application equipment, such as a soaker hose that circles the tree at the drip line. Allow water to saturate the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches.
  • Allow the soil to dry between waterings; for most mature trees, one or two deep waterings per month is adequate. Fewer waterings – and perhaps none – are needed during the cooler and potentially wet winter months.
  • Add mulch (leaves or wood chips) between the trunk and drip line to retain the soil’s moisture.
  • Reduce competition for water by removing weeds and grass within 4 feet of a tree’s trunk.

Anne Fenkner, Greenprint Regional Coordinator at the Sacramento Tree Foundation, said trees are essential to the health and beauty of residences and entire communities throughout the state. “Trees provide food for people and animals and shade that helps make hot climates livable,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves, our children, their children and the trees themselves to help them get through this extraordinarily dry period. When water supplies are limited, priority should be given to trees, then shrubs and perennials and lastly to lawn and annuals.”

Julie Saare-Edmonds, DWR’s Landscape Program Manager, said Californians are responding to the call in January by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. to reduce their water usage by 20 percent.

But if a homeowner has allowed a lawn to dry up during the drought, trees growing in that lawn may not be getting enough water and may need more to help them transition into winter dormancy.

Fenkner said that trees have varying water needs depending on their species, age, size, slope of the ground beneath them and other factors. Homeowners can nurture their trees and improve their health by understanding tree care principles:

  • Older established trees may be starved for water as well as younger trees. The low rainfall last winter did not replenish the soil moisture adequately and they may need a moisture boost before winter.
  • Avoid fertilizing trees now; it will stimulate new growth at the wrong time of year.
  • When planting new trees, choose species wisely. Consult a local urban forestry group such as the Sacramento Tree Foundation or check the Arboretum All-Stars list at UC Davis. We don’t know how long the drought will last, so consider selecting drought-resistant varieties and delaying planting until drought conditions improve. If the drought worsens in 2015, investments in new trees may be lost.
  • Improve the quality of the soil in which the trees grow. Aerate lawns so the roots of mature trees have good access to water and oxygen.
  • Consult the Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners or a certified arborist if you have questions about the health of a mature tree.
If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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New Bee Book is Urbanite Delight

California has myriad native bees, many of which are endangered due to habitat loss and heavy pesticide use. The urban dweller may feel a strong desire to help, but where to begin? What are the best plants? Which bees can I attract? What do healthy bees need besides food?

Fortunately, all these questions are answered in California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists by Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter (Heyday, 2014, in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society). The information contained in this book is based on years of careful research at the UC Berkely Urban Bee Lab and other sites around the state. In studies conducted by professors, UC students, and volunteers, various plants have been tested for attractiveness to bees, along with which bee species are found most often in urban gardens.

Amateur and experienced habitat gardeners alike will find the UC tested, bee approved quality very refreshing, especially in it’s relevance to California climates and bee species. There are too many generalist habitat garden books out there; most of the ones I have read focus on honeybees and call for water-hungry plants unsuitable to California’s Mediterranean climate.

The content is easy to read, well-organized, and has a simple, no-nonsense layout. There is a wonderful lack of clutter, and the diagrams are clear and informative. The beautiful photography work, by Rollin Coville, is one of the book’s best features.

Much of this book’s content can be found on the Urban Bee Lab website, but the book goes into more depth. The section on bees common to urban gardens has pictures and descriptions of several species and basic lessons in bee taxonomy, which will help you identify the bees present in your garden. The chapter on natural enemies teaches us that bees, like all other creatures, are part of a food chain, and are preyed upon by micro and macro-organisms alike. The book did not specify whether it’s necessary to manage predators, which would have been helpful, but if you want to identify them this chapter is for you!

My favorite feature of this book is the plant information (I’m a gardener, after all!). There is a whole chapter on plant anatomy and how this affects bee-plant relationships. The authors tell us to “think like a bee” when designing our gardens.

All this information can seem overwhelming, which is why I am glad to report that instead of barraging the reader with a list of 200 best bee plants, they focus on around 50 species. They go a step further by giving useful information such as flowering season, forage type (pollen or nectar or both), gardening tips and pictures for each plant, and more.

This is a terrific book for anyone interested in helping native bees (and honeybees, which are also covered). For ordering information, go to the UC Berkely Urban Bee Lab website. If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Fall Chores to do and Not to do


Fall is time for raking leaves and composting them, but irrigation season is over so turn your landscape controller to off and save precious water. Also time to take down any battery operated electronic garden water controllers so they don’t freeze and break.   For the vegetable garden, do a cleanup of unused irrigation drip lines; weeds and debris go on the compost pile and of course keep after those winter weeds. If you let mallow go until spring, it is a backbreaker to get out. Dahlias stalks are usually cut back after frost or you can wait until spring which helps keep water out of the hollow stems that can cause rot.

Now is a good time to dig gladiolus bulbs and store them where they won’t freeze. Gladiolus bulbs can be left in the ground overwinter, but after two years become crowded and bloom less. Fall is a good time to establish new perennials. They will have a rainy season to get roots well established before next summer.Visiting nurseries is always a pleasant outing and if you visit now and order your bare root trees, you might get a discount for ordering early.

If you have frost sensitive plants in containers, like Hibiscus, Plumeria, Begonias or others, you should put them inside a greenhouse, garage or other place that is protected from frost or hard freeze conditions. If you have some plants in the ground you may be able to protect them with covers for frost, but maybe not a hard freeze. Some non-hardy plants that I love, like Mandevillea and Lantana, I treat as annuals and purchase them again next spring.

Don’t prune fruit or landscape trees in the fall unless it is to remove dead or broken tree limbs, which can be removed anytime. It is best to wait until January for dormant pruning of fruit trees and roses. Don’t prune climbing roses until after they bloom next spring. Citrus should await the end of cold weather before pruning in March or April. Citrus usually needs little pruning except for outliers to make the tree compact and keep it in bounds. After winter, any dead or freeze damaged limbs will be evident and can be removed then.

Pruning back herbaceous perennials should await the end of winter when warmer weather is here. Fall pruning of perennials makes for less freeze protection and they can be more easily damaged or killed. Fall is a good time to take stock of your garden tools. A coat of linseed oil on wooden handles will keep the wood in better condition. Also remove rust from tools and coat with some non-motor oil like canola, or linseed oil. Sharpen your pruning shears or buy new ones for the upcoming season of pruning. Soon catalogues will be coming for next year and you can relax by the fireside with a glass of vino and fantasize about beautiful dahlias or vegetables to plant next year. Gardening is a joy—most of the time.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.


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Fall Harvest Time-Think Persimmons

Drying persimmons- author photoDrying persimmons- author photo

The squirrels are gathering nuts for winter survival. Winters are a pretty benign, short period in our wonderful Valley climate. It is also time for humans to take in their share of fall bounty. Seeing persimmons turn orange each year is enjoyable and birds are provided lots of food as they ripen. I have never liked raw persimmons to eat, though I do appreciate persimmon cookies made using soft-ripe Hachiya persimmons.

I grew up in New Jersey where wild persimmons grew in the woods and they were much more astringent than these California domesticated ones. They were often used in initiation rites for freshmen FFA when I was in high school—a very unpleasant taste and experience—having someone shove a wild persimmon in your mouth while blindfolded. Not a good persimmon experience!

However, I have discovered, after sampling some friend’s offerings, that I like dried persimmons. Consequently, by drying them for the last few years I now make a small dent in the abundant production of my two large, old, Hachiya persimmon trees. My home was built in 1895 and the trees were old when I moved here 38 years ago, so they are likely at least 60-70 years old, or more, and still producing abundantly.

There are basically two kinds of cultivated persimmons, the astringent varieties that make your mouth pucker and the non-astringent varieties that you can eat without the pucker before they become soft-ripe and lose the astringency. Fortunately, dried Hachiya persimmons lose the astringency when dried before they become soft-ripe. I also have a Fuju persimmon which some people enjoy because they are not astringent before becoming soft and can be eaten in a firm state like an apple. Both of these varieties do well here in our long hot summers, and both can set seedless fruit without pollination (parthenocarpic), hence no pollinator required.  However, having both varieties together can result in cross pollination that can produce a few seeds occasionally.  Both are grafted on date plum root stock (Diospyros lotus). The Fuyu attains a height of 12-18 ft. whereas the Hachiya grows to 20-24 feet. Persimmons are grafted and you can expect to pay around $40 per tree.

Choices of persimmons to grow are not just restricted to these two but they are the two most commonly planted in California for commercial production. Now is the time to plan for bare root tree planting as that season is almost here. Bay-Laurel nursery in Atascadero, CA offers seven Japanese persimmons in their online catalogue: Another mail order nursery, Raintree, in Morton, WA offers 11 varieties

One commonly planted variety is the astringent Chocolate persimmon which is red outside and brown inside. It is delicious and a good choice for connoisseurs.  There is also an early ripening variety from Japan which is named Coffeecake (Japanese name is Nishimura Wase). It is non-astringent when pollinated and ripens from mid-September to mid-October. For best flavor it should be pollinated by the Chocolate Persimmon.  There are other Persimmons to be found at these nurseries and more information on Persimmons can be found at:

Persimmons are definitely a healthy food. It is an excellent source of soluble fiber, vitamins A, B6 and C; potassium and manganese. One medium-size persimmon contains 118 calories, 31 grams of carbohydrates and less than 1 gram of protein and fat and 6 grams of fiber. If you don’t like persimmons there is one compensating factor—birds seem to love them, including my chickens. I am sure they benefit from the good nutrition and their eggs will better benefit us as well.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Garden Timing is Important

When it comes to gardening, timing is important although perhaps not as critical as timing a swing in baseball. I thought about my timing this morning, because it is definitely off for a couple of plants I like to grow—peas and sweet peas. I should have planted them in late October and here it is nearly mid-November and I haven’t even cleared a spot for them in the garden.  Everything else got done in a timely way. The broccoli, cabbages, garlic, turnips, carrots and onions all planted on time, but I apparently didn’t mind my peas—no Q’s involved. With this unusually warm fall, I likely will get away with planting them now and if the weather continues warm perhaps the late planting will be fine and come show time next spring, I will harvest lots of peas and sweet pea flowers.

Master Gardeners often get questions about timing issues. When should I prune apricots, plant garlic or mulch landscape plants?  These are not trivial questions, because timing is often very important to successful gardening.  Two good garden rules are “Pay Attention” and “Be on Time.” One thing I love about gardening is how it connects us to seasonal changes.  Everything has its season-a time to plant and a time to harvest. This is a pretty basic and pleasant way to live and experience life that is as old as the Neolithic.

Answers to when it is appropriate to do these garden chores are available in a variety of publications and many can be found online via Google searches. If you put UC or UC Davis in your search topic you may get a UC Cooperative Extension or UC Davis site with the best science-based information if it is available on that subject.  One publication that contains a wealth of gardening information is the California Master Gardener’s Handbook, ANR Publication 3382 and it is available at .  It is an excellent, comprehensive guide for gardeners. The Master Gardener Website also has a number of online publications dealing with vegetable growing, orchards, landscapes and other subjects.

Another source of information on when to do garden chores is Sunset Garden’s “Successful Gardening Month by Month.” It provides information for each Sunset climate zone in the West. Sunset subsequently has published a number of Western Garden Annuals that also list chores by zone and month.  You need purchase only one used copy when available at the local Friends of the Library book store and you will have a wealth of information on monthly chores.

I have to also tout our own quarterly Master Gardener e-Newsletter ‘Garden Notes’ which always feature a comprehensive synopsis of garden chores by month for each quarter.  It is free and an excellent local source of gardening information and recipes. It can be subscribed to at this link: .  A number of back issues are also available to download in PDF format. This Newsletter has won a State Master Gardener Award for Excellence and is an outstanding product of our San Joaquin County Master Gardeners who work to help fellow gardeners. Happy gardening and may your garden timing be perfect.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.



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Increasing Garden Biodiversity

Gulf Fritillary adult and caterpillar on passion vine, photo by author

We are living in the Anthropocene-a human dominated epoch- where human activities are likely to cause mass extinctions and a decrease in biodiversity.  Many animals are already extinct and   more are threatened with extinction.  It is hard for us as individuals to prevent deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing and other human activities, but we can do some things in our gardens to provide habitat for critters-in particular habitat for birds, beneficial insects, and pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Greater biodiversity increases stability in your garden ecosystem and lessens the outbreak of a pest when you have beneficial predatory insects and birds to keep them in check. Reach not for the sprayer, but instead build a diverse garden habitat and you will be less dependent on pesticides.

Recently at the UC statewide Master Gardener Conference, Dr. Doug Tallamy, an ecological entomologist at the U. of Delaware, talked about what we can do as gardeners to foster more biodiversity in landscapes. His research was done on the east coast, but the principles should apply everywhere.

One striking fact he presented was that there are 20 million acres of lawns in the U.S. and the biodiversity in this monoculture is near zero. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to keep all those lawns mowed as well as human energy, water and fertilizer and we don’t even eat the grass! The model for large expanses of lawn was the estates of English aristocracy who created large vistas of grass to highlight the grandeur of their palaces. The lawn became symbolic of wealth and power. Today, some lawn is useful for children and dogs at play, but otherwise is not functional.

One thing we can do is to replace lawn, where possible, and create a diversity of landscape plants that provide habitat for birds, pollinators and caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars that eat our plants, but caterpillars also become butterflies, moths and they also are sought by birds to feed their young.  Dr. Tallamy has noted that a decline in song birds is associated with a decrease in caterpillars that are used to feed young nestlings. One factor is the introduction of many non-native plants from Europe, Australia, etc. that have not co-evolved with native insects and are thus less likely to have their defenses broached by the native caterpillars.

Dr. Tallamy has written a book “Bringing Nature Home: How Native plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens,” which I think would be an enlightening read and is on my list. Unfortunately, his plant lists are not likely applicable to California, but native plant lists and information on nurturing biodiversity can be found at the California Native Plant Society.

Recently, one of my fellow MGs, Win Rogers, came to get some passion vine from my garden to rear some caterpillars of Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), a beautiful orange butterfly. Gulf Fritillary only lays its eggs on passion vine (Passiflora sp). When Win arrived and we began to harvest some definitely surplus passion vine, she found caterpillars on the vines and I got to see the first Gulf Fritillary adult as well. What a unexpected experience! I have had the passion vine for over 3 years now and this is the first time this butterfly has showed up, but it proves the adage—if you plant it they will eventually come.

When I was a graduate student many years ago I read a paper by a Russian scientist that predicted that someday only humans and their domesticated plants and animals would occupy the earth. We will have replaced the biosphere with the Noosphere where all is controlled and dominated by the human mind. Nature’s remnants would be confined to zoos and a few reserves. We seem to be well on our way there, but let us prove him wrong by sustaining nature in our gardens.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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    Lee Miller

    Lee Miller is a University of Delaware graduate and retired fisheries biologist, he gardens on 10 acres and makes wine each year with the help of a cadre of friends. However, his first love is gardening and he grows various fruit trees, heirloom ... Read Full

    Marcy Sousa

    Marcy Sousa is the San Joaquin County UC Master Gardener Program Coordinator. She is a Stockton native and enjoys teaching others about gardening. She has her bachelors from Stanislaus State in Permaculture. She has been with the program since 2007. Read Full

    Nadia Zane

    Nadia Zane is a UC Master Gardener, a landscape designer and Stockton native. She has a fondness for California native plants and sustainable landscaping, which she utilizes in her work for Native Beauty Garden Design. She is a member of the CA ... Read Full
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