Protecting You And Your Garden During A Heatwave

Hello summer! Today marks the official first day of summer and it is hot out there! The last thing you may be thinking about are your plants in the garden but this week of temperatures over 100° can be stressful on our landscapes. The sizzling heat not only affects your ability to enjoy the outdoors, it also causes you to fear for the survival of your garden. While many plants can thrive in the normal summer heat, lengthy doses of daytime temperatures in the 100’s along with warm nighttime temperatures are enough to push even the hardiest gardeners and plants to the edge.  During conditions of extreme heat, some simple tips can help keep both you and your garden healthy.

Go into the garden prepared

With some simple precautions, you can safely garden in the heat.

  • Don’t try to do anything significant when it’s this hot. That means, no weeding or planting.
  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.
  • If you’re outside in hot weather you’ll need to make an effort to drink more fluids. Drink plenty of cool (not icy cold) fluids; water is best. Avoid drinking liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels)
  • Take breaks often. Try to rest in shaded areas so that your body’s thermostat will have a chance to recover.
  • Pay attention to signs of heat-related illness, including extremely high body temperature, headache, rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea, confusion, or unconsciousness. Stop working if you experience any of these symptoms.

Plants lose water through leaves and must take up water from the soil to replenish what was lost. If there isn’t enough moisture in the soil, or if it is hot enough that the plant can’t replace lost water fast enough, the plant will wilt. Often, plants wilt during the heat of the day but recover when temperatures cool in the evening. If a plant looks peaked and wilted early in the morning, it needs water. If a plant looks fine in the morning, but droopy in the afternoon, check it the next morning. Here are some more tips on keeping your plants alive during this extreme heat.

Water wisely

  • Early morning between is the best time to water. This decreases evaporative water loss and conserves water.
  • Avoid brief, frequent watering which leads to shallow roots systems that are more susceptible to drought and temperature extremes.
  • Irrigate the soil deeply and infrequently. Apply enough water each week to wet a sandy soil 12” deep and a clay soil 6-8” deep.
  • Avoid watering foliage; water the soil at plant base. Sun heats the water on leaves resulting in scorch or burn and increasing the possibility of fungal diseases.
  • Make sure your soil drains properly. Poorly drained, soggy soil conditions combined with hot weather can wipe out a plant in a matter of days.
  • Plants in containers, new plants, and those in particularly hot, sunny places may require more water. Move containers to shady areas and closer to the house so they are easier to water.

Don’t forget the fruits and veggies! Ripe fruit (tomatoes, melons, peppers, etc) require large amounts of water from your plants. To reduce heat and water stress on your heavily-producing plants, harvest your ripe fruit frequently and thoroughly (including damaged fruits).Harvest during the cooler hours of the day is not just easier on the gardener but also on the produce. Strong midday sun can wilt or dry out your crops, so move them out of the sunlight and bring them to a cooler location as soon as possible.

Provide shade if needed. You can create temporary shade structures by hanging shade “sails” or shade cloth that is available at most hardware and garden centers. Burlap or other cloth types work just as well as long as there is airflow. Use plant stakes or tomato cages to support the temporary structures. You can also repurpose your rarely-used umbrellas to provide some shade.

What about the lawn? If you must go out and mow your lawn there are a few things to keep in mind. Mow turf at a taller height; never cut more than 1/3 of the blade. Taller grass height results in deeper root systems which helps turf in heat and drought. You can leave clippings on lawn to reduce evaporative water loss from soil and to provide moisture and nutrients to turf as they decompose.

Everything else can wait. There are other things that can be done out in the garden to help conserve water, but not during the extreme heat we are having this week. When it cools down go out and pull the weeds that are competing not only for nutrients but water as well. Adding 2-4 inches of mulch around your plants can help retain moisture, keep the soil cool and help reduce weeds. Compost can help soil to retain more water. In addition, a healthy soil full of beneficial soil organisms, such as mycorrhizal fungi, helps plants to better tolerate drought. Wait until the heat wave is over for any heavy pruning and fertilizing of ornamentals, shrubs and trees.

Take it easy. This is not the time for hardcore gardening or planting anything new. Do the basics early in the day or in the evening and then head indoors or to the pool.

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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Giving Water Two Lives

This garden is watered by wastewater, or "graywater," from a washing machine.

With the departure of winter rains, most of us have had to turn on the sprinklers by now to help plants thrive in our hot, dry summers. However, we can minimize water use in the landscape with practices such as choosing low-water use plants, applying mulch, and efficient irrigation practices. You can also reuse household water, or “graywater,” in the landscape, which is a great way to get more bang for your buck.

Graywater can be summed up as everything but the kitchen sink (and the toilet); wastewater from showers, bathroom wash basins, and washing machines can all be used. Water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers have high levels of organic matter, and a correspondingly higher potential for pathogens so are not permitted as graywater sources without treatment before reuse.

Although redirecting wastewater from bathtubs and sinks requires a permit, homeowners can install a system connecting their washing machine to the garden without a permit. Also known as laundry-to-landscape, there are 13 do’s and don’ts mandated by Chapter 15 of the California Plumbing Code. They won’t all be listed here, but they boil down to minimizing contamination. A full list of California’s codes and policies for graywater can be viewed at

The specific layout of your system will vary, depending on the set-up of your washing machine and landscape. All systems are required to have a diversion with a three-way valve, which sends the wastewater either out to the garden or to the sewer/septic system. This allows you to keep water that may contain certain chemicals or biohazards (e.g. diaper wash water) from entering your landscape. Once the diversion pipe exits the house, it is sent to a mulch basin which consists of an outlet chamber in which mulch replaces the top several inches of soil. There needs to be air space between the drain outlet and the mulch surface so that roots do not grow back into the pipe. Details and other considerations for laundry-to-landscape systems can be found at

When deciding if you want to install a graywater system, consider what you will be irrigating. Fruit trees are great because they require regular watering. In a hot climate such as ours, a medium-sized fruit tree can use 30-50 gallons of water a week. Ornamental shrubs and trees with moderate to high water requirements are also great, but low-water use plants will not like being watered several times a week. It is possible to water lawns with graywater via subsurface drip irrigation, but installation can be expensive and you need to generate a lot of graywater in order to break even. It’s better to grow fruit trees and turn that used water into food!

To irrigate trees, a branched drain system can be added. This will disperse water from the outlet chamber to a mulch basin surrounding the tree. If you have an established tree, it is best to dig a basin around the drip line (the outer edge of the canopy), which is where the plant’s feeder roots are. Roots closer to the trunk are larger, and cutting into them causes more damage. For heavier soils, make sure the the tree is elevated above the basin so that water does not collect around the crown, creating the potential for rot.

If you are only running a couple loads of laundry a week with an efficient front-load machine, then this system may not be worth the effort. If you find that you do not produce much wastewater (which is great) but still want to use a laundry-to-landscape system, direct the water to shallow-rooted plants. If you put small amounts of water around a deep-rooted tree, it won’t benefit much. Some plants are more sensitive to salts than others and could be damaged with the constant application of graywater. Azaleas and strawberries are two examples of salt-sensitive plants.

An important rule of thumb for graywater systems is that what goes in must come out. Certain chemicals in laundry products can be harmful to plants, especially if applied over the long term. Chlorine is often added to bleach, which can cause new foliage to look bleached. Boron is sometimes added to detergents under the name borax, but also damages foliage by causing leaf edges to look burnt. If you need to use products that could potentially harm your plants, use that three-way valve to send the wastewater out to the sewer instead. A list of landscape-safe cleaning products can be found 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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The pros and cons of landscape mulches

Mulches have long been considered an important component of aesthetically pleasing and environmental friendly gardens. However, not all mulches are created equal.

The best mulches (when properly applied) can conserve water, suppress weeds, regulate soil temperature, control erosion, and contribute to the health of both plants and soil. Conversely, inferior materials can be harmful and create problems in the garden.

There are two categories of mulch: (1) organic, made from once-living, carbon-based materials; and (2) inorganic, made from synthetic materials or non-living natural materials. Organic mulches are superior to inorganic ones for several reasons. They eventually decompose, and this decay supplies nutrients to plant roots and improves soil texture (especially important for clay). They don’t introduce foreign, non-biodegradable materials into the soil. And, although they need to be replenished periodically, they’re the most effective at cooling the soil.


Bark mulches. These come in many forms—shredded, large chunks, small nuggets—each with distinct qualities. Mulches of cedar and redwood bark decompose slowly and have natural insect repelling properties. Shredded bark products knit together in mats that resist shifting but can repel water. Bark chunks are the longest lasting and most water permeable. All are attractive and beneficial to the garden ecosystem.

Organic wood mulch in a thriving, low water use garden (Kathy Ikeda)

Recycled wood. Black- or reddish-dyed wood mulches have become popular lately, and they’re often cheaper than other wood products. They’re generally made from chipped scrap lumber, so it’s important to use a source that doesn’t incorporate painted or chemically treated wood. Avoid heat-retaining, black colored mulch in sunny areas.

Wood chippings. Some tree trimmers, electrical utilities, and landfills with green waste disposal facilities offer wood chippings free of charge to homeowners. Use caution with such sources, and do your best to verify that the material is free of diseases and weed seeds. As an alternative, rent a chipper and reuse your own pruned branches.

Other. Weed-free straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves, and pine needles can be used as mulch, but they decompose rapidly and are most appropriate for small areas or vegetable gardens.


Stone mulches. Natural materials such as rocks, pebbles, and gravel are long lasting, moisture conserving, and attractive, but they have limited usefulness in San Joaquin County’s broiling summer climate. Stone absorbs and retains the sun’s energy, then transfers heat to the soil and radiates it to nearby plants, even after air temperatures drop. This stresses plants, damages their bark and/or foliage, and leads to a need for excessive irrigation. Stone mulches are also difficult to clean of fallen leaves and other organic matter, and drip irrigation systems are very difficult to maintain and repair when covered with rock. Use stone mulches only in cactus and succulent gardens, dry streambeds and pathways, or shady areas with few plants.

Rubber mulch. This is made from recycled tires, and although it’s very water-permeable and comes in a variety of colors, it’s better suited for playgrounds than landscapes. It retains heat, is more flammable than wood, and can leach potentially toxic chemicals into the ground and water. Also, the durable rubber chunks eventually settle into the soil, creating an unfavorable environment for plants and their roots.

Black plastic sheeting. Once widely used for weed control, black plastic is impermeable and severely restricts air and water penetration into the soil. It also tears easily, leaving an unsightly and difficult-to-clean mess. It’s best used as a short-term soil covering for vegetable gardens, where it can reduce weed growth and warm the soil early in the planting season.

Geotextiles or landscape fabrics. These porous materials do allow pass-through of air and water. They’re typically used as underlayment beneath inorganic mulches, but they’re entirely unnecessary under organic mulches and are detrimental to soil health. Those containing UV inhibitors are more durable, but all will eventually deteriorate and leave non-biodegradable pieces of polypropylene in the soil.

Once you’ve selected your preferred mulch, here are a few important considerations:

  • Irrigate the soil thoroughly before covering it with mulch.
  • Apply mulches on top of (not incorporated into) the soil in a layer deep enough to retain moisture and minimize light penetration: 3 to 4 inches for coarsely texture mulches, 2 to 3 inches for finer ones.
  • Keep mulch several inches away from plants. Mulches placed directly against tree trunks or up to the “crown” of shrubs can encourage rot or pest infestation.
  • Leave a sizeable patch of bare, sunny, well-drained soil for ground-nesting native bees. These beneficial pollinators won’t tunnel through mulch, and they need areas undisturbed by cultivation or pesticides.
  • For the most efficient irrigation, convert overhead sprinklers to drip systems placed under the mulch. Water from sprinklers must be applied longer and in greater quantities in order to penetrate a layer of organic mulch and reach plant roots.
  • Don’t use mulch in areas where it could be washed off curbs and into storm drains during heavy rains.

Improper and damaging "mulch volcanoes" at the bases of recently planted trees (Mississippi State University)

For more information, see these resources: “Types of Mulch” and “Types and Uses of Mulch in the Landscape

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website.

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Controlling snails and slugs

How many times have you wandered into your garden on a cool weekend morning, only to discover telltale slime trails, holes chewed in the leaves of just-planted ornamentals, or vegetable seedlings chewed to the ground? Or worse yet, walked unsuspectingly down a pathway only to smash a slimy slug or crunch a juicy snail beneath your feet?

Common garden snails and slugs are such ubiquitous pests that the battle to control them never ends. This year, soaking rains and lush new plant growth have provided a plentiful selection of tender morsels for them to eat.

Brown garden snail and damage on citrus fruit. (Photo courtesy of the University of California)

Gray garden slugs (Photo by Jack Kelly Clark, UC IPM)

The most common snails and slugs in our California gardens are non-native; in fact, the brown garden snail was originally introduced to the U.S. as food. But, since most folks would rather not snack on them, let’s look at other ways to reduce their population!

Cultural control methods involve eliminating the environmental conditions that snails and slugs prefer. When possible, replace plants susceptible to chewing damage with others that resist the pests, such as California poppy, lantana, lavender, ornamental grasses, rosemary, sages, and stiff-leaved or woody plants. Switch from sprinklers to drip irrigation to minimize excess surface moisture. Watch for dark, damp hiding places and modify them to be less attractive.

One very effective method of reducing snail and slug populations is to hand pick them regularly. It’s best to do this after dark, early in the morning, or after a period of rain or irrigation, since snails and slugs are nocturnal and most active in moist conditions. Picking up snails by their hard shells is relatively easy. Slugs are another matter; when disturbed, they contract their muscles and exude slime to become slippery, almost-impossible-to-grip lumps. Try scooping them up with an old spoon or a latex-gloved hand.

If you find hand-picking too distasteful, try enlisting your children or grandchildren in a nighttime “treasure hunt.” Kids armed with flashlights and a ready-made disposal system (a small pail or zip-closure plastic bag partially filled with soapy water) can turn the search into a fun contest.

Barriers are a method of non-lethal snail and slug control. Copper barriers are most effective at keeping the pests away from treasured plants; the metal reacts with slime secretions to create a shock-like sensation. Buy copper flashing, foil, or mesh, trim it into strips, then wrap it around tree trunks and containers or place it along the edges of planter beds. Copper sulfate (alone or mixed with hydrated lime) can also be brushed on surfaces as a repellant.

Abrasives substances that irritate the muscular “foot” of snails and slugs can also be used as barriers. Simply place dry ashes or food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on the soil around planting areas, in bands about 3 inches wide. This technique is best used in small garden areas (since the abrasives must be used in relatively large quantities) and in areas that don’t get wet (since they lose their effectiveness when damp). Be sure the area you encircle is free of snails and slugs or you will keep them near the plants you’re trying to protect.

Traps can also be an easy and effective method of control. One approach is to place wooden boards or overturned pots on the ground. Snails and slugs will hide underneath them during the night, and in the morning they can be scraped off and disposed of.

Beer traps are another non-toxic method of attracting and killing snails and slugs, but they have a few disadvantages. They must be cleaned and refilled frequently; they only work within a radius of a few feet, since it’s the odor of fermented sugar that attracts the fleshy pests; and lots of traps are needed to reduce snail/slug populations. Rather than using a perfectly good beverage, make a concoction that will ferment and entice just as effectively as beer. Measure one tablespoon each of yeast, flour, and sugar, mix with one cup of water, and pour into high-walled containers with narrow openings.

Low-toxicity baits are another option for snail and slug control. Pellets or granules containing iron phosphate (Sluggo, Escar-Go) are the safest for children, pets, and wildlife. Sprinkle them around affected plants—do not mound bait in piles—and always follow application instructions.

Avoid poisonous means of snail and slug control whenever possible. Many products contain metaldehyde, which is attractive and very toxic to dogs, cats, birds, and other wildlife. Never place these baits where children or pets can reach them, and do not apply them on or near plants, especially those being grown for food. Don’t use metaldehyde-based products that also contain carbaryl, since it’s toxic to earthworms and other beneficial soil-dwelling organisms.

For more specific information and guidance, see U.C. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Publication 7427, “Snails and Slugs” (

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website.


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Creating a Hummingbird Habitat

Do you love to watch hummingbirds fly around your garden? Many gardeners are fascinated with the beauty and aerobatics of hummingbirds. The key to attracting hummingbirds to your yard is to plant lots of flowers and provide the habitat that will give them shade, shelter, food, and security. These birds are loyal and once they find a habitat that satisfies their needs, they faithfully return year after year. Feeding hummingbirds for your personal enjoyment also helps the eco-system. These birds are pollinators and play an important role in the life cycle of flowering plants.

Did you know: There are 340 species of hummingbirds (16 of which actually breed in the United States) making them the second most diverse bird family on earth. Hummingbirds are the tiniest of all birds, weighing less than an ounce and measuring only 3 inches long. Their brightly-colored, iridescent feathers and quick movements make them appear as living sun catchers—hence their nickname, flying jewels. They have a unique ability to fly in any direction, even backward, with their wings beating up to 80 beats per second.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating a hummingbird habitat.

Location: Before you start planting a hummingbird garden, the first thing that needs to be picked out is the location. The hummingbird garden needs to be positioned where you can see it; otherwise, what is the fun of attracting the hummingbirds in the first place.

Flowers: Brightly–colored flowers that are tubular hold the most nectar, and are particularly attractive to hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are very visual creatures and have excellent vision and do not rely on smell. The best hummingbird gardens will include flowers that bloom at different times so hummingbirds always have an available food source, no matter when they visit. Make sure to deadhead spent flowers to enhance blooming.

Water: Hummingbirds need water to drink and to bathe. They prefer moving water sources such as sprinklers, fountains, waterfalls, misters and drippers and will often perch in a spray or fly through moving water to cool off or bathe. A small birdbath or even a shallow bowl with rocks works very well for hummingbirds to perch and drink water. All types of water sources should be kept fresh and clean. Position the water near nectar-rich flowers to make it even more attractive to hummingbirds.

Feeders: Nectar feeders are one of the most common ways to attract hummingbirds to your yard. A wide range of feeder styles is available and may come with wasp, hornet and ant guards. They are often colored red to help attract hummingbirds.

Hummingbird feeders impose a responsibility on the provider. To be safe, they must be clean, and that is a challenge in hot weather. The solution should be changed at least every other day, even if no hummingbirds are using it, so that it doesn’t ferment or get moldy. Every filling, you should flush the feeder with hot tap water and clean with a tooth brush or bottle brush. Most experts advise against using soap or detergent.  If all this is too much trouble, just plant the flowers and skip the artificial feeders. You’ll still attract hummingbirds, and you won’t be harming them with unsanitary feeders.

Nectar is easy to make for your feeders.  Boil four cups of water and stir in one cup of white sugar, let it cool and pour into clean feeders. It is recommended to avoid honey, which can cause a fatal fungal infection on the birds’ tongues. You do not need to add food coloring to the solution, the red color on the feeder is sufficient. If your feeder does not have any red on it, attach red flagging tape to the feeder or hanger. You can store the excess syrup in the refrigerator for a week or two. If the ants find your feeder you can apply petroleum jelly to the wire hanger to prevent them from getting to the nectar.

Hummingbirds are territorial and are not likely to share “their” feeders. So, hang more feeders far enough apart to attract more birds.

Insects: While hummingbirds are most well known for their fondness for nectar, they also eat a large quantity of insects, including gnats, aphids, and spiders. This protein is especially critical during the nesting season, when young hummingbirds need plenty of protein for proper growth. To attract hummingbirds to backyard insects, avoid using pesticides or insecticides that will kill off this food source.

Perches: Hummingbirds do not walk or hop but do perch about 80% of their life. Providing perches such as slender poles, clotheslines, thin vines, trellises, wires and multiple levels of shrubbery will give birds suitable shelter. At the same time, because many hummingbirds are very aggressive, they will prefer perches that also have good fields of view to protect their territories. A perch also supplies a spot “preening”, which is removing built up debris in their feathers.

Nesting Spots: Hummingbirds build their nests mostly in trees and shrubs. Providing sheltered, safe areas of plants for the birds to nest will make a backyard more attractive. You can supply suitable nesting materials including fine natural cotton and animal fur to attract nesting birds. Spider silk is especially attractive for nesting hummingbirds, because the elasticity of the silk is essential for their nests and female hummers use the silk to bind their nests together.

I hope you will think about trying to welcome these marvelous gifts of nature to your garden. With a few easy additions you can turn your yard into a hummingbird haven.

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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Ants and Aphids: A Pesky Partnership

Convergent lady beetle feasting on an aphid

Late spring is prime time for one of our “favorite” plant pests: aphids. Temperatures are averaging in the 70s, and plants are still flush with tender, new growth from an unusually wet winter. Turn over a leaf, and you might see itsy-bitsy insects in a variety of colors, from lime green to brown, red or black, depending on the species. They are generally less than a quarter-inch in length, and difficult to see in detail without a microscope.

How could something so small damage your plants? Their power lies in numbers; females can give birth to 12 live young per day during the growing season. These newborn nymphs can become reproducing adults in as little as 7 days, meaning colonies can grow quickly when conditions are right. All these little mouths require feeding, which is achieved by a long, slender mouthpart that pierces plant tissue and sucks out the sap.

While aphid populations are low, their presence often goes unnoticed, but larger parties can cause more serious damage. Typical damage looks like yellowing, distorted foliage at the tender growth of shoots where the aphid’s favorite food resides. Aphids secrete the excess sugars as a liquid called “honeydew,” which grows a fungus called black sooty mold, creating a harmless but unsightly mess. Their feeding can also transmit viruses. Vegetables such squash, lettuce, beets, and potatoes are especially vulnerable.

Ants are particularly fond of this honeydew, “milking” the aphids and taking it back to their nests. In return, ants fend off predators such as ladybeetles and parasitoid wasps and reduce fungal diseases by removing infected bodies. One experiment conducted in Japan blocked ants from tending eight aphid colonies; all the colonies perished except for a lone survivor in one colony; the others were all eaten by natural enemies!

To keep ants out of trees, place sticky tape (e.g. Tanglefoot) around the trunk to trap them. Be sure to prune back other access routes such as where branches contact the roof, fences, or other plants. Check the sticky tape regularly, as dead ants stuck on the tape can create a morbid, but functional bridge to the other side for their living counterparts.

Sticky tape works best on single-trunk trees. For everything else, use a bait station with slow-acting poison to manage ant populations. Foraging ants collect the bait and take it back to their colony to share death with everyone, including the queen. For minor ant issues, ant stakes or small bait containers will do. For serious invasions, refillable bait station may be necessary. When selecting a bait, remember that ants are attracted to various foods depending on their species and the time of year. Baits are generally carbohydrate, protein, or fat-based; if ant identification eludes you, try different products to see which they prefer. Consult the UC Integrated Pest Managament page on ants to see who likes what: <>

Besides shooing the ants away, you can encourage their natural enemies to take up permanent residence in your outdoor home, providing faster relief for your plants. Avoid using broad spectrum pesticides, which kill everything (pests will always return first if predators are gone). You can also provide nectar plants for the beneficials, which need food when aphids are not around. Aphids predators are small, so their forage should be correspondingly small. Asters, Yarrow, Buckwheat, and Coreopsis are all good choices. Provide water by lightly sprinkling plants in the morning.

You can also create a less hospitable home for aphids. Avoid overwatering and high applications of nitrogen fertilizer, which causes plants to put out a lot of lush growth that aphids love. Aphids can be knocked off plants with a spray of water; infested plant parts can also be pruned off. If you absolutely must use a chemical, try neem oil or insecticidal soap, which have a short residual time and are less likely to kill non-target organisms (i.e. beneficials) than broad-spectrum pesticides. Thorough coverage of the foliage is necessary for good control, and repeat application may be needed until populations are tolerable.

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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Sages are great perennials in your border

Perennial borders are wonderful. Little or no annual planting, but some pruning and deadheading required from time to time to keep plants flowering. Sage advice is to include some sage plants, in your perennial flower bed. The true sages are Salvias, but Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, is not a true sage, nor is it from Russia, but it is also a great plant for the border. It is a non-stop bloomer that is easy to care for, with fragrant blue flowers that can attract bees.

I dug up a small seedling several years ago from a garden club friend and since then have multiplied it a few times in my landscape and have dug a few gift plants for friends. It does go to seed and is easily propagated, but it is not uncontrollable or obnoxiously invasive. Since it can get 5 ft tall, near the back of the border may be the best spot. It requires well drained average soil, full sun and moderate water. It is drought and heat tolerant.

I am unsure which cultivar I have, but Russian sage cultivars include ‘Blue Mist’, which has light blue flowers, ‘Blue Haze’, ‘Blue Spire’, which have deep purple flowers, ‘Longin’ a lavender-blue, with stiff upright stems and a more formal appearance,  ‘Little Spire’, a dwarf variety (2ft. height), and ‘Filigran’, a cut leaf, lacier texture with more upright growth.

Salvias come in a wide palette of colors and sizes and have a long bloom season. I especially like the dark violet-purple, 30 inch tall, Salvia nemorosa‘Caradonna’ cultivar which blooms from May to October if deadheaded after the first bloom. It was awarded the most Outstanding New Perennial in 2000 by the International Hardy Plant Union. ‘Caradonna’ attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds and is rabbit/deer-resistant as are most Salvias.  It is all the more striking when planted with yellow flowering companions such as the daylily, ‘Stella d’ora’, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, or yarrow, Acheillea ‘Moonshine’.

Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna' provides a purple addition to the perennial border. Photo by Lee Miller

I also like and have grown Salvia x sylvestris ‘May Night’ hybrid which is also indigo blue flowered with a height of 18 to 24 inches. It is increased by division as this is a sterile hybrid.

Salvia greggii, Autumn sage, is an American native that is mostly red blooming in the wild and comes in a variety of mostly red cultivars, but also in orange, pink, white, blue depending on the region it is from. The range of colors has been enhanced by breeding new cultivars. It is disease and insect free and drought tolerant.  It is a great plant for our drought prone area. I have to admit I was curious about how this Salvia acquired the name greggii. I found out that it was named by botanist, Asa Gray in 1870, in honor of Josiah Greg, a southwest explorer and naturalist who discovered it in Texas in the 1840’s. He died at age 44, falling off a horse in 1850, so honored he is, with this appreciated plant.

Salvia greggii should be lightly pruned periodically during the summer and it should be taken back to about a third of its size in February just before the growth season. This will keep the plant healthier looking going into spring.

Another species with several cultivars is Mexican sage, Salvia microphylla. ‘Hot Lips’ is a cultivar that is commonly planted and it is a large plant that gets 30 inches tall and sprawls 6 feet.

Salvia 'Hot Lips' is a colorful addition to the border. Photo by Lee Miller

It is adorned with stunning bicolor flowers with red tips and white lips. In spring, the first flowers are all red, then bicolor.

Mexican Bush Sage, Salvia leucanthea, which is a 40 inch tall bush with purple and white velvety flowers that blooms from late summer to fall. It is cold hardy in our zone and well worth having if you have room for it.

For a run down on the many kinds of Salvias available see: , or  Here is to being sage and add some sages to your landscape for long flowering beauty with less watering.

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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Watch what and where you plant!

I see so many plants that are planted in the wrong place for the size of the plant. ‘Wrong plant wrong place’ perhaps, instead of ‘right plant for the right place’ as our gardening mantra goes. By right plant in the right place we should take into account not only the environmental conditions that the particular plant needs, such as soil, light, moisture, hardiness, etc, but also the eventual size that it will become and its future impact on our gardening activities.

The problem is that when we purchase plants they are so small; it may be hard to visualize how large they might become someday. I live in a Victorian home built about 1895 and the builder was an amateur horticulturist, so he planted a variety of plants which included a horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).  It was planted about 10 feet from the house and now it towers about 60 feet with branches touching the roof and hovering over it. Definitely it is a problem of being too close to a structure, a not uncommon problem in landscapes.

Horse chestnut planted too close to the home and Cotoneasters too tall for foundation plantings.

Recently I looked at a property that had two large conifers, a Deodor Cedar (Cedrus deodara) and an incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), planted only about 10 feet apart. When planted as small trees in the 1950’s that distance likely looked very large. However, now that both trees are over 50 feet tall, with interlocking branches shading out lower limbs, the distance apart was obviously too small. One tree needs to go, if not both of them and the expensive removal costs will not be paid by the person who planted them.

In surveying my own landscape I can find mistakes too. I planted a Chinese fringe shrub (Loropetalum chinense) several years ago and I thought it would grow only 3 feet tall as per my observations of other specimens in people’s landscapes. According to the specifications for the species it can get over 6 feet tall, so I obviously did not do my homework. It is now 5 feet tall and blocks one of my sprinklers. I added 12 inches to the sprinkler riser, but that only helped for one year. Now the sprinkler is blocked again, so it’s time for serious pruning to reduce it in size. Had I checked out the mature size before planting, I would have found a different spot. The good news is that Lorapetalum tolerates heavy pruning, but the bad news is it will likely need doing often.

Another mistake I made was planting Salvia microphylla ‘Hot lips’ too close to a walkway. If I had read up on this prolifically blooming plant, I would have learned that it can sprawl 6 feet, so planting it 1.5 feet from the walkway was only half way from where I should have put it. It is a beautiful plant, but now I need to prune it to keep it in check.

Foundation plants around homes can be another area where size can be a problem. At my home,   Cotoneasters that grow to over15 feet were planted along the west side of the home and two Camellias, 20 feet tall, are on the east side. Both of these plantings block the view from the windows which in my case is not a big problem. Because I don’t have air conditioning they do tend to shade the home and keep it cooler. When selecting foundation plantings, it is wise to look for plants that will not block views or become crowded.

Being aware of is the aggressive plants can also prevent a lot of work. I planted a New England aster which blooms with blue flowers in the fall and attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects. However, it is very spreading in habit with underground rhizomes spreading the plant in a widening circle. I took it out and put it in a 15 gallon pot to contain it, but 5 years later I still have remnants popping up among my Iris and though I dig them out each year, I never have defeated this plant as it pops up again the next year.

Similarly, a past owner had planted periwinkle, Vinca major, which has become a major pain in my horticulture. I have been trying for forty years to get rid of it without success. If I let up on extermination efforts, I soon lose what gains were made because it is aggressively invasive.  
Avoid ‘wrong plant for the wrong place’ by checking the label before you plant or consult a ‘plant finder’ website such as: or Sunset’s Western Garden book on the plant to find out its maximum size. For information on noninvasive alternatives to invasive plants consult May all your plantings have happy endings.

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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Bee Kind to Our Hardworking Pollinators

Master Gardeners are often asked to speak at local garden clubs and other social organizations and a topic that is always of interest is gardening for pollinators, especially bees.  It seems lately, gardeners are trying to do their part in helping the bees, and that is a good thing!

Native bumble bee. Photo credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey

There are 4,000 species of native bees in the country. Some are social and some are solitary. There are specialistbees and generalist bees. These bees pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in this country and 80 percent of our flowering plants. Most people are familiar with the European honey bee (originally from South and Southeast Asia), but few know that California is home to 1,600 species of native bees, the most diverse bee population in the U.S..

According to the Xerces Society, native bees are North America’s most important group of pollinators. California’s native bees pollinate our crops yet they don’t make a drop of honey for human consumption.  They are 200 times more efficient at pollination than honey bees! According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, pollinating an acre of apples requires 60,000-120,000 honey bees; the same area can be pollinated by 250-750 mason bees.

Some of the more common families of bees found in CA are:

APIDAE (Cuckoo, Digger, Carpenter, Bumble, and Honey Bees) The family Apidae is very diverse and is the largest group of bees. It contains a diverse array of digger bees, most of which nest in the soil, carpenter bees which nest in soft wood or pithy stems, and bumble and honey bees which nest in large cavities or hives, are social, and have distinctive pollen baskets

COLLETIDAE (Membrane Bees) The small family Colletidae is known for the membranous, cellophane-like secretions used by females to line burrows they excavate in the soil, or that they construct in tubular cavities.

ANDRENIDAE (Mining Bees) This is a large family of soil nesting bees, hence the common name Mining Bees. These are among the first bees to emerge and visit flowers in spring.

HALICTIDAE (Sweat Bees) Sweat bees have earned their common name from the tendency, especially of the smaller species, to land on ones skin and lap up perspiration for both its moisture and salt content.

MEGACHILIDAE(Leafcutting, Mason, Cotton Bees) The family Megachilidae is a large and diverse group of bees. They are the architects of the bee world. They nest

Male valley carpenter bee. Photo credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey

primarily in pre-formed tubular cavities (tunnels of woodboring beetles, hollow plant stems, and even abandoned snail shells) using a wide variety of materials collected from the environment, including leaf and flower pieces, masticated leaves, mud, resin, plant hairs, and pebbles to construct brood chambers for their young.

You can help California’s hardworking bees by making a few simple changes in your garden. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind as you grow your bee-friendly garden.

Provide Food One of the best ways to initially attract wildlife to your garden is to provide food. In the case of bees it’s with flowers that provide nectar and pollen all year long. Adult bees feed on sugary nectar for energy. The pollen they collect is a protein and vitamin rich source which they will feed to their young.

If you have the space, plant flowers in patches. These provide more resources and allow bees to forage in one spot for a long period of time. As well as having large patch sizes of flowers, diversity is also important. Native bees are more likely to forage on native plants, so the more diversity of plants the better. Bees are attracted to brightly colored flowers in shades of blue or yellow (bees cannot see red) that are open during the day. Try to avoid hybridized plant varieties, as they are often less beneficial for bees

Provide Cover and Places to Raise Young Most native bees are solitary nest makers and between 60-70% of the native CA bee species dig tunnels in soil and create a series of nest cells. If you are a “mulcher” make sure to leave some bare dirt areas because bees will not dig through a thick layer of mulch.

Provide Water Water is also a key resource for wildlife and bees are no exception. Bees need a place to get fresh, clean water. Fill a shallow container of water with pebbles or twigs for the bees to land on while drinking.  Make sure to maintain the container full of fresh water to ensure that they know they can return to the same spot every day.

Reduce pesticide use. It is extremely important to avoid using any insecticides, herbicides, or pesticides on your plants – even organic ones contain substances that are harmful to bees.  Pesticides do not distinguish between pests and pollinators. If you must use a pesticide, use the least toxic material possible. Before purchasing, read labels carefully, as many pesticides are especially dangerous for bees. Never spray a blooming plant and spray after dusk when bees and other pollinators are less active.

By adding a few easy to do features in your garden you can provide an oasis for local bees.  In return, the bees will pollinate your flowers, providing a bountiful harvest of fruits, seeds and vegetables as well as the joy of watching them up close.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website:




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It’s Time to Thin Fruit

Spring is a busy time in the garden and gardeners often find themselves with a list chores to complete. If you are looking for some inspiration to get started in your own garden, join us at our Spring Open Garden day on April 22, from 9 am – noon.  Master Gardeners will be working in the garden and will be available to answer your gardening questions. We will have tomato plants for sale, several displays and demos (including tool sharpening so bring your pruners) and light refreshments. Come on out so you can see how to complete some of these spring garden chores. The garden is located at 2101 E Earhart Ave, Stockton, 95206. If you would like to see pictures from our Fall Open Garden day, click here.

By now, spring fever shopping at the local nursery has lead to a car full of plants that still need a home in your yard, the weeds are abundant, the battle with the aphids is beginning and we can’t forget the planning and planting of summer vegetable gardens. Your fruit tree should be loaded with small fruit and I bet you can already taste that ripe, juicy peach on a hot summer day.

 One of the most often overlooked chores is fruit thinning. Fruit trees often set more fruit than they can support, especially if the trees were not properly pruned during the previous season. Excessive fruit compete with each other for carbohydrates (stored energy) and remain small.


Thinning immature fruit at the appropriate time allows each remaining fruit to develop to its maximum size. Less-crowded fruit receive more sunlight, so fruit color and flavor may be improved.

Reducing the fruit load through proper pruning and fruit thinning, especially near the ends of branches, lessens the chances of limb breakage. It’s much less tragic to pluck many tiny peaches off your favorite tree than to lose an entire limb because it was so heavily weighed down. It can also reduce alternate bearing (a cycle in which the tree bears excessively in one year and little the next year).

Fruit thinning can also reduce the spread of some diseases. For example, if the fruit are touching each other, brown rot can quickly spread from one fruit to another just before harvest.


Flowers and fruits naturally thin themselves, often at distinct time periods. Blossoms that were not pollinated turn yellow and drop off just after flowering. Small, immature fruits often drop naturally during what is known as “June drop,” which usually occurs in May in California. Fruits that are diseased or infested with insects may also drop prematurely.


Cherries, figs, persimmons, pomegranates, citrus, and nut trees do not usually require thinning. However, branches of persimmon trees can break from the weight of a heavy crop and may benefit from some fruit thinning or branch propping. All stone fruits (peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries, plums, etc.) require thinning. Pome fruits like apples and Asian pears as well as most European pears require thinning. Bartlett pears often thin themselves, and harvesting larger fruit early (early to mid-July) allows the smaller fruit to increase in size for a second pick 1 to 2 weeks later.


Fruit should be thinned when they are fairly small–typically from early April (for early-ripening fruit) to mid-May (for late-ripening fruit). The amount of fruit to thin depends on the species and the overall fruit load on the tree. For example, stone fruits such as apricots and plums are fairly small, so they should be thinned to 2 to 4 inches apart on the branch. Peaches and nectarines should be thinned to about 3 to 5 inches. When the crop is heavy, fruit should be spaced no less than 6 to 8 inches apart.

Unlike stone fruits, which produce one fruit per bud, pome fruits (apples and pears) produce a cluster of flowers and fruit from each bud. Thin to no more than one to two fruit per cluster, depending on the total fruit set and growing conditions


It’s a simple (but tedious) task to thin fruit and it doesn’t require any special equipment, all you need is your hands. To avoid damaging branches, twist fruit off gently rather than pulling it. Remove “doubles” (two fruit fused together) and small, disfigured, or damaged fruit when you have the option. Extremely small or damaged fruit should be removed regardless of spacing, and leaving the largest fruits on the tree is more important than exact spacing. So, you will have to use your own judgment when making decisions about which fruit to thin and which to leave.  Keep the largest fruit whenever possible.

If thinning by hand is impractical you can use a pole to help with the process. Pole-thinning is much faster, and although it is less accurate, the results are often sufficient. Attach a short rubber hose, cloth, or thick tape to the end of the pole to reduce scarring or bruising of branches. Strike individual fruit or clusters to remove a portion of the fruit. With experience, you will be able to strike a cluster once or twice with just enough force to adequately break up the cluster.

Once you have experienced the fruit at its best, thinning is performed with a solid sense of purpose and maybe even some excitement.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website:



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  • Blog Authors

    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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