Gardening on the wild side

Do you dislike well-groomed and well-defined landscape areas and plants? Perhaps you enjoy a more chaotic and diverse landscape that promotes wildlife and more likely mimics a natural environment. I have preferred gardening on the wild side. Sometimes we garden on the wild side because we must. At my previous homestead which had about an acre of landscaping on a ten-acre farm, it was difficult to make the rounds between farming and gardening to keep things as manicured as they could have been. Hence, I adopted a ‘wild side’ gardening approach because I had to, but it also fit my nature as well.

I was fortunate when I purchased our new homestead in Morada to find a home whose previous owner is a fellow Master Gardener who liked gardening on the wild side. The front yard contains many native plants which encourage visits by butterflies, bees, and birds. It is also attractive to all the neighborhood cats and everyone knows that domestic cats live more on the wild side than on the domestic side of life. I am not sure why the cats come, but I think they expect to find something to hunt here. There are fence lizards that hang out between some large rocks that I see the cats trying to catch, but so far, I have seen no success. Cat visits are another aspect of my front yard to enjoy. 

It is great to have a diverse front yard that is not comprised of bland Bermuda grass or fescue that requires frequent mowing and fertilizing. It is also water-conserving compared with turf as most of the area being on a drip system. If we were to replace half of the U.S. area that is now in lawns with native plant communities, we could create over 20 million acres which is an area larger than that of our national parks. 

Wildlife has been on the decline as their habitat is destroyed by increasing usurpation of the planet by the ever-increasing number and consumption rates of us, Homo sapiens. Biodiversity decline along with climate change threatens planet ecosystems. According to a recent U.N. report, one million species of plants and animals are currently at risk of extinction. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. 

Birds in North America have declined by nearly 30 percent since 1970 with a loss of 2.9 billion birds. This is based on a bird list of 529 species compiled by the monitoring of researchers and bird enthusiasts across the continent. Pesticides, habitat alterations, loss and fragmentation as well as climate change are culprits in the decline. 

One of the positive things we can do is to provide better bird habitat in our gardens and we can avoid the use of pesticides. Providing native plants for food, shelter and water are three things to do; see: Avoiding pesticides will also enhance the use of our gardens by pollinating bees and butterflies.

For some views on gardening on the wild side see:  For books on wild gardening just google ‘wild gardening books’ but beware that a lot of information is based on East coast gardening which is a very different gardening environment than what we experience here in our Mediterranean climate California. 

Unfortunately, many of our nursery plants are not native but imports and are not conducive to supporting our native animals and many simple landscape designs lack the diversity that wildlife requires. This has been documented by Douglas Tallamy, a professor at my old alma mater, U. of Delaware whose new book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, is a New York Times Bestseller. This is his third book on this subject.

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) is one group that is doing diligent work at introducing native plants to the public and conserving native plants. Their mission statement is: to conserve California native plants and their natural habitats and increase understanding, appreciation, and horticultural use of native plants. Check out their website: They often have plant sales and information on the local chapter of CNPS can be found here: 

Creating a wild garden will help fight the COVID pandemic stay at home blues because the beauty will make staying home a pleasant thing to do. Happy gardening on the wild side!

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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Growing strawberries can be fun and healthy too.

Strawberries are a delight in any garden. Strawberries are cultivars mostly developed from Fragaria x ananassa a hybrid plant created in France in the middle of the 18th century by crossing a North American strawberry Fragaria virginiana and a Chilean strawberry F. Chiloensis. I can remember wild strawberries growing along our country road in New Jersey when I was a kid. The strawberries were small but very yummy. These were likely the species F. virginiana.

California is the world’s leading producer of strawberry plants with income of about 60 million dollars. Nurseries produce one billion plants per year of which 600 million are grown by California farmers and the rest go elsewhere. California is well suited by climate to produce both plants and berries. Consequently, California provides 80 percent of fresh and processed strawberries in the U.S and these sales contribute 750 million dollars annually. The UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program since the 1930’s has developed more than 60 patented varieties of strawberries which have, increased strawberry yield from about 6 tons/acre in the 1950s to more than 30 tons/acre today.

Most of us associate strawberries with spring, but it is important to plant them in the fall so you will have a few to eat next spring. Another advantage of growing your own strawberries organically is that you may avoid some pesticides residues. Strawberries have been number one for several years among the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables designated by the Environmental Working Group as contaminated with pesticides even though within FDA standards, see:

There are basically three kinds of strawberries; Short day or June-bearing, ever bearing and day-neutral. June-bearing strawberries produce a large crop of generally large berries over a short period usually a month. June bearing berries are good if you want to preserve some as jam or freezing. However, if you want fresh berries throughout the year and don’t mind picking smaller and fewer, go with a day-neutral or an everbearing variety. Day-neutral strawberries are a modern cultivar developed from everbearing plants. The modern day-neutral varieties were developed to produce continuously all summer and into the fall whereas, the older original everbearing types produced two to three separate crops through the growing season.

Common June-bearing types which do well in our area are: Chandler, Camarosa, Camino Real, Merced and Ventana. Day-neutral strawberries are: Albion a disease resistant variety for fresh consumption and others widely adapted are: Cabrillo, Aromas, Diamante, Monterey, Seascape, Hecker, and Portola. Quinault is an everbearing variety.

Planting: Strawberries prefer a rich loamy, well- drained moist soil with a soil pH in the range of 5.5-7.5. Add compost or well-aged manure before planting for nutrients and to increase water retention as strawberries do best when soil is kept moist. Solutions of fish emulsion can be used to fertilize during the season. How many strawberries should I plant? At least 7-10 plants for fresh strawberry consumption per person and for preserving by jam or freezing 100 or more.  

Planting patterns vary by berry type. June bearing plantings need to allow for lots of runners and daughter plants. Therefore, the spacing is two feet between plants and it will be necessary to control the number of runners that are allowed to stay in the patch because crowded runners enhance disease and suppress crop production.

Day-neutral plants will not have as many runners and can be initially planted at one foot apart, but again not all runners and daughter plants may be needed. Runners should be rooted at roughly 6 inches spacings. It is important to set plants at the right depth so that the middle of the crown is at the surface. Planting too deep may cause the plant to rot and too shallow will cause them to dry out.

Irrigation: Strawberry plants have shallow roots and require consistent moist soil throughout the growing season. Drip irrigation with built in emitters keeps the moisture away from the fruit and   conserves water by placing it where it is needed. It is generally run every day during the summer for 1-2 hours. Strawberries should be mulched with straw, dried grass or other material to keep the fruit clean and conserve moisture. Plastic mulch can be used also.

Several strawberry growing instruction videos are at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: For comprehensive information on growing strawberries and sources for plants see: Happy strawberry gardening!

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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Support your beneficial garden friends.

When I was a young kid imbued with the notion that most bugs are bad, I likely killed a few garden friends. I knew that lady beetles were good guys or gals and praying mantis were also friends. When I was in first grade, I took a mantis egg case, which is scientifically, termed an ootheca, plural oothecae, to school in a jar and watching the mantis hatch to the amusement of myself and fellow classmates. It was a learning experience and here I am many years later still learning as there is no end of learning for a gardener.

Some folks are insect phobic whether insects are beneficial or malevolent, but many insects are our garden friends nonetheless. Learning about the good insects in our gardens and how to help maintain their populations is important for gardeners to keep a balanced garden ecosystem. One of my better learning experiences was observing soldier beetles devouring aphids from my artichokes. After a week of grazing by several of these awesome beetles, there were no aphids on or in the artichokes I harvested.  For a great poster on the many beneficial insects that we should know about see:

One thing that you can do to encourage beneficial insects is to have a diverse landscape and you can also establish plants that provide habitat for them. One group of beneficial insects to encourage is pollinators. Pollinator gardens can encourage pollinators to visit and if you have squash, cucumbers and melons then bees are to be encouraged to hang out in your garden.

Native plants work well to provide the pollen and nectar that pollinators require. Research has demonstrated that native plants are 4 times more attractive to pollinators than non-natives. Hence planting natives in your garden will supply pollinators with the nutrition they need to thrive. A combination of native perennials with differing bloom times can provide habitat from spring to fall. Plants arranged into masses of each species or variety will lure in more pollinators than a scattering of individual plants throughout the garden. This is not to say that some non-natives aren’t desirable as well.

Here are some suggestions for plants that will encourage pollinators. Lavender of various named cultivars blooms from spring through early summer. In particular, ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ Lavandula × ginginsii ‘is a long-blooming shrub-like perennial that will provide winter structure to your pollinator planting. It blooms early and lasts into summer. It is popular with large carpenter bees and a range of smaller bees for its nectar.

Russian sage, (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is a tough, upright deciduous perennial that attracts native bees as well as honey bees. It blooms from late spring to fall. It is tall and is best planted in the back of the border. It should be cut back to the base in winter. Blanket flower, Gaillardia x grandiflora is a hybrid colorful daisy-type flower which attracts a number of native bees. It is a short-lived perennial that blooms from spring through fall.

Some shrubs that work are California lilac, Ceanothus of which there are several cultivars. Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ is an upright large specimen that blooms in early spring. Western redbud, (Cercis occidentalis) native to the foothills of California and the Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, attract both native bees and honeybees when blooming in early spring. The abundant magenta-pink pea-shaped flowers are a welcoming spring bloom.  For plants that support our native bees see this website at the UC Davis arboretum:

Annual and perennial Salvias provide nectar for hummingbirds, bumblebees and butterflies during spring, summer and fall. I have a Salvia greggii ‘hotlips’ growing outside my office window and every day from spring through the summer hummingbirds and carpenter bees can be seen visiting this plant for nectar. Another salvia that attracts butterflies, bees and hummingbirds is Salvia guaranitica ‘black and blue’. Both of these perennial Salvias need to be cut back in early spring to encourage new growth as blooms occur on new growth. For more information on plants that attract hummingbirds see:

I grow colorful zinnias every year and they are loved by butterflies.  Zinnias come in sizes from 6 inches to 4 feet tall. The most commonly planted are several cultivars of Zinnia elegans. There are many other pollinator-supporting plants: Hollyhock, Bee Balm, (Monarda), germander wood sage (Salvia chamaedryoides), trumpet vine (Campsis grandiflora), passion vine (Passaflora incarnata), catmint (Nepeta × fassenii), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) , rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) and goldenrod (Solidago californica) to mention a few. Happy pollinator gardening and love those beneficial garden helpers.

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 hows and whys of vermicomposting

If you’re looking for a productive and child-friendly summer project, this just might be it.

The Latin word “vermi” means worm, and vermicomposting is the process of using worms to create compost. It’s a small-scale recycling process that converts kitchen waste to “garden gold.” Most horticulturalists consider worm compost to be the best soil amendment, since it’s full of beneficial microorganisms and a long list of nutrients essential to plant growth and development.

The final product of the vermicomposting process is a crumbly, rich, dark brown, earthy material. A thin layer of this compost can be used to top-dress the soil of potted plants. It can be worked into garden soil to improve its texture and nutrient content. And it’s especially useful in the vegetable garden, where it helps feed food-producing plants and encourages the development of healthy roots.

Here’s how to get started.

The worms

Red worms or red wigglers (Eisenia foetida)—often sold as bait—are the best species to use for vermicomposting. In their natural environment, they feed on organic matter that accumulates on the soil surface, and they’re content to live in crowded conditions with frequent disruptions (like feeding and harvesting). Other common worm species aren’t suitable for vermicomposting. The night crawler—often used for bait—doesn’t thrive in captivity, nor does the common earthworm, since they both need plenty of soil, room to wander, and cool temperatures to survive and thrive. 

A worm bin is typically started with about one pound of red worms (roughly 1,000), but it can be started with less than that, as long as the bin isn’t initially overloaded with food. Commercial worm farms and local bait shops are good sources of red worms.

Red wigglers in worm bin bedding material.  (Photo courtesy of Andrea Ikeda)

The worm bin

There are many fancy, commercially produced, and expensive worm bins, but it’s simple and more fun to create your own.

The basic requirements for a well-functioning, easy-to-maintain bin: (1) it should be shallow, with a depth of no more than 12 inches; (2) it shouldn’t hold too much moisture; (3) it should have ventilation; and (4) it should be portable. Various vermicomposting resources have different recommendations, so do a bit of investigation to figure out your own preferences and needs, which are partly related to your volume of usable kitchen waste.

For a small-scale worm bin, a lidded, opaque (not clear-sided) plastic container works well. A sturdy, wooden box with a hinged or removable lid can also work, especially for a large outdoor worm box. Worms like a dark environment since their skin is light-sensitive, so a closed container is essential for their comfort and for pest control.

Vermicomposting guides recommend drilling ventilation and drainage holes in a worm box, the first for air circulation, and the second to prevent excessive moisture build-up. Drainage holes do complicate indoor storage, however, and it’s possible to do without.

The location

A dark, indoor, out-of-the-way place—under the kitchen sink, in a laundry room, inside an unused cabinet, or in an insulated garage—works best as a location for worm boxes. “Pet” worms are happiest with relatively consistent temperatures between 55 and 75°F and a minimum of disturbance. (I once tried maintaining a worm box outdoors, and that experiment failed miserably; in my yard, it was too difficult to keep a consistently cool temperature, and the wriggly little decomposers cooked in the summer heat.)

The bedding

Bedding is the material used to fill and refill the worm bin as needed. It serves several purposes, acting as a refuge where worms can shelter and breed, a moisture control agent, and a backup source of food if plant scraps are scarce.

If you subscribe to the print edition of The Record, you have a head start on creating a worm box. Newspapers that use plant-based, non-toxic inks are one of the best and most readily available sources of bedding material. They’re very easy to tear into narrow strips, they hold moisture well, and they decompose readily. (However, don’t use the slick, full-color advertising inserts.)

Other suitable bedding materials are shredded, uncontaminated, corrugated cardboard (minus any tape or non-biodegradable elements such as wax); coconut coir; plain shredded paper without coatings or chemicals (not magazines, cereal boxes, or other packages); burlap cloth; and shredded leaves.

The bedding material should be loose and slightly moist, like a damp sponge. Fill the box to the top with bedding, and replenish it as it settles and breaks down. 

The worm food

Yes—Raw plant matter (apple cores, banana and carrot peels, vegetable trimmings, wilted lettuce leaves, etc.); plain cooked vegetables; crushed eggshells; cooked rice/grains in small quantities; and dead or wilted leaves from non-toxic houseplants all make good food for red worms. So does that mushy bag of greens that sat for too long in the refrigerator (minus the plastic, of course).

No—Pungent plants such as onions and garlic; meat or dairy products; oily foods; pet waste; or vegetable matter that’s been sauced, dressed, or seasoned. It’s also best to avoid citrus; it contains the chemical limonene, which is toxic to worms, and it can make the bin environment too acidic.

It helps to chop food into small pieces before adding it to the bin. Worms don’t have teeth, so their food must be soft or in pieces tiny enough to swallow. They can eat their own weight every five to seven days. Add a handful of clean sand, coffee grounds (used or fresh), or other gritty material to the box too; worms will swallow it and store it in their gizzards to help grind up the food. Slowly but surely, the worms will covert scraps into compost.

Food scraps should be buried at least one inch deep in the bedding, and preferably underneath it. This discourages potential pests such as fruit flies. Don’t add too much food at once, and monitor your bin to ensure that worms have adequate but not excessive meals.

Worm bin with newspaper-strip bedding pulled aside, showing newly added kitchen scraps (top), and decomposing scraps 5 days later (bottom). (Bin recommendations and photos courtesy of Andrea Ikeda)

The harvest

The worms’ digestive systems break down the food scraps, and the by-product—called “worm castings”—is the end goal of the vermicomposting process. In less delicate terms, it’s worm poop. It looks just like rich, dark, crumbly soil, it doesn’t stink, and it’s an incredibly nutrient-rich, organic soil additive.

There are two simple ways to harvest home-created worm compost. The easiest process is from within the bin. Using close-fitting gloves, move all the food scraps and remaining bedding to one end of the bin, leaving the underlying worm compost exposed. Over the next few weeks, put food in the end with bedding, to encourage the worms to migrate to that side, then remove the worm-free finished compost from the other end, picking out and saving any leftover worms. Spread out the remaining material, add new food and bedding, then repeat the process in another few weeks.

The “cone method” is also easy. Remove a few large handfuls of castings to a portable surface (the box lid works well) and shape them into a cone. Move it to a sunny area for a few minutes. After the worms dig to the bottom to avoid the bright light, harvest the compost from the top of the cone and return the remaining compost and worms to the bin.

A more labor-intensive way to collect worm castings is to empty the entire contents of the bin onto a large plastic sheet. Wearing gloves, carefully pick out the worms, any remaining food scraps, and bedding remnants and return them to the box. What’s left behind will be the finished worm compost. Return some of the compost to the bin, add more food, and top off with fresh bedding to start the process anew.

Other notes

For my current worm bin, I used a 10-gallon plastic container without drainage holes, and drilled a series of closely spaced, 1/8-inch ventilation holes around the top. (This is a smaller diameter than usually recommended, but I’ve had better luck with smaller, more numerous holes.) I also use dry newspaper strips when topping off the already-damp contents of the bin. These measures, plus occasionally loosening the castings, keeps the moisture level under control.

Involving kids in vermicomposting will help them learn about the natural environment, recycling, and caring for living things. Teach them to handle the worms sparingly and gently, and encourage them (and possibly yourself) to overcome any squeamishness!

A healthy, productive worm box shouldn’t have an objectionable odor; it should have a fresh, earthy smell that usually isn’t noticeable unless the box is opened. Therefore, having it in or near the kitchen shouldn’t be a problem, and that makes it easily accessible for regular worm feedings.

If you see little capsules that resemble tiny lemons in your worm box, that’s good! Those are worm egg cases; they range in color from bright yellow to brownish, and each contains from two to twenty worms. They’re a sign that your system is functioning well, and you’ll soon have lots of tiny worms populating your bin.

Other little critters might also inhabit your box, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you see miniscule, whitish insects, those are springtails, another species that aids in decomposition. I have those in my box, and I also have pillbugs, which I intentionally introduced since they help break down food matter into pieces small enough for the worms to ingest. Neither of these have escaped the box or caused any problems. Outdoor worm boxes can attract many other small inhabitants as well, but most are simply part of the natural ecosystem.

Fruit flies and ants, however, are unwelcome pests. They can be discouraged by keeping the worm box filled to the top with bedding, by using only recommended food matter, and by occasionally and gently stirring the contents at the bottom of the box.

Vermicomposting resources

  • The book “Worms Eat My Garbage,” by Mary Appelhof (1936-2005). First published in 1993, it was updated by Joanne Olszewski in 2017 for a 35th anniversary edition.
  • UCCE Master Gardeners of San Joaquin County website, “Composting with Worms”
  • The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) “Vermicomposting” webpage (Their cute little brochure/bookmark called Worms, downloadable from this website, is what got me interested in vermicomposting many years ago.)
  • North Carolina State Extension’s website “Vermicomposting for Households”

If you’re interested in seeing a commercial worm farming operation, plan a future, when-safe visit to P.J. Dunn Working Red Worms in the nearby city of Galt; it’s the closest worm farm to San Joaquin County. Call in advance to ensure that they have worms and worm compost ready for sale, or possibly even arrange for a group tour.

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

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Helpful resources for gardeners and non-gardeners alike

In one way or another, COVID-19 has been a dominant influence in our lives these past few months, and like it or not, it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. And even if you’ve “had it up to here” with coronavirus news, please read on for the sake of those you care about.

There are still so many unknowns about the novel coronavirus. Can an effective vaccine be developed? Are previously exposed people vulnerable to reinfection by new viral strains? Are sudden new cases of inflammatory diseases in children tied to viral exposure? Over time, scientific investigations will help answer these questions and relieve some of the current uncertainties.

The vast majority of us will apparently escape the most serious health consequences of this pandemic, but within our circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, we all know someone who’s highly vulnerable to severe or even deadly symptoms. That’s why the importance of science-based information can’t be underestimated. That’s also why I’d like to share some helpful and informative resources with my fellow San Joaquin County residents.

Part of the U.C. Master Gardener Program’s mission statement is “To extend research-based knowledge and information on home horticulture, pest management, and sustainable landscape practices to the residents of California […].” University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) is the umbrella organization for our state’s Master Gardener program, and they now have a webpage dedicated to “Coronavirus and COVID-19”—

Some of the many resource categories on UCANR’s “Coronavirus and COVOD-19” webpage (Image courtesy of UCANR)

This UCANR website is divided into several sections: agriculture; food, water, and nutrition; youth development; gardening; exploring your environment; and health and wellness. It’s truly a one-stop-shop of information for the general public, not just for those with gardening on the brain. Some of the available information is specifically virus-related, but other resources are simply helpful for developing and maintaining healthy lifestyles.

Here’s a small sampling of the helpful guidance you can find on this informative site (with the relevant section name in parentheses):

  • “How to Stay Food Secure and Eat Well Despite COVID-19” (Food, Water, and Nutrition)—This flyer includes basic health tips and links to various organizational websites related to local food initiatives, food safety and health, and much more.
  • “COVID-19 Safety Guidelines for Farm Stands” (Agriculture)—This link includes guideline for roadside produce stands and large-format, printable signs for posting at agricultural sites open to the public.
  • “Guidance On The Safe Usage of Open Spaces During COVID-19” (Health and Wellness)—This one-page flyer has basic safety guidelines and links to various public resource agency websites regarding outdoor access.
  • “4-H Healthy Living Activity Guide” (Youth Development)—This 18-page guide is packed full of valuable guidance and fun, age-appropriate activities for children. It’s a wonderful source of inspiring, educational ideas that you can use to keep your kids, grandkids, or students engaged and learning while sheltering at home. A sampling of the contents: building a first aid kit; reducing stress through mindfulness; simple science experiments; and many easy and nutritious recipes.
  •  “Composting Is Good for Your Garden and the Environment”(Gardening)—This informative Master Gardener tip sheet discussed the basics and benefits of backyard composting. This could be an excellent new spring/summer activity for anyone with a bit of space and extra at-home time on their hands. (Note: Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s possible to use the technique of vermicomposting to create your own compost; more about that next topic week.)
  • Other Miscellaneous Resources—While I haven’t yet finished exploring UCANR’s coronavirus website, there are quite a few items that have captured my interest.  The Health and Wellness section includes two mask-making patterns from the University of Florida Department of Anesthesiology that “have been found to be as, or more, effective than the N95 mask.” The Agriculture section includes a practical guide to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; a resource guide for immigrants in California; and a page called “COVID-19 Infection Prevention for Agricultural Employers and Employees.” The Exploring Your Environment section has links to the UC California Naturalist program; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (for those interested in citizen science and bird observation); and the nature journaling website of John Muir Laws. (I’ve been fortunate enough to attend one of his out-on-the-trail workshops; he’s a very talented artist and wonderful teacher.) And there’s so much more….

May the information on the UCANR website help you stay safe and well!

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

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The tastiest tomato to plant this spring.

Tomatoes come in lots of sizes and colors as there are 7500 cultivars.

It is time to think about getting vegetables planted for delicious summer meals and for next winter too, if you have enough to freeze or can. Many homeowners are reduced to small back yards so having a large garden may not be possible, but room for a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini or eggplants are often doable—provided there is 6-8 hours of sunshine. According to a national poll, 26 percent of all US households have a vegetable garden with the tomato the most popular crop. Bell peppers rank a distant second.
Amazingly there are 7500 varieties of tomatoes. There are red ones, yellow ones, green ones, black ones; little cherries and large two pound slicers and everything in between. There are so many seeds and so little time to explore this great variety of tomatoes. Here is a bit of garden trivia. The tomato was classified by our Supreme Court as a vegetable in 1893 even though botanically it is a fruit. Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio have all rebelled and have declared the tomato there state fruit.
I used to have a large garden area which permitted me to experiment a lot with a variety of heirloom tomatoes and peppers to see which ones would do well and were tasty. I would save seeds from the heirlooms I liked for future plantings, and although I now have less room, I still like to grow a variety of vegetables. This year I am planting 18 varieties of tomatoes and perhaps 12 varieties of peppers and 4 eggplants.
I have grown plants for our Linden Garden Club plant sale for several years (this year’s sale was canceled due to the coronavirus). One of the most popular tomatoes each year is ‘Sungold’ a hybrid cherry tomato that is the tomato candy of the garden. Some customers only want red tomatoes and some are more adventurous and willing to try something yellow with names like ‘Azoychka’ or ‘Golden Jubilee’ or one that is bicolor, yellow and red, like ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’. These are heirloom tomatoes which are open pollenated seeds from plants that are over 50 years old. Heirlooms have become popular with tomato enthusiasts who have become disaffected with standard supermarket faire which is often designed for ease of shipping and long shelf-life.
Tomatoes aficionados look for tomatoes with reputations for good taste and that is one criterion that should be paramount for tomato lovers: see:

Purple Cherokee is an heirloom that wins a lot of tasting contest.

song.html. ‘Cherokee Purple’ is one such tomato that wins a lot of tasting contests and another is ‘Brandywine’. While neither of these plants is high yielding—their good taste is worth the growing.
There are some with reputations for both taste and high yields. Years ago I bought a book by Dr. Carolyn Male ‘100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden’. I searched the book and picked out the tomatoes that were most productive and tasty and grew them as well as some recommended by the Seed Saver’s
Exchange, a non-profit seed bank organization which started in the 1970s when Diane Ott Whealy wanted to preserve her grandfather’s favorite ‘German Pink’ tomato for posterity.
I discovered: ‘Azoychka’, ‘Druzba’,‘Soldacki’, ‘Bulgarian 7’, ‘Thessaloniki’, ‘Italian Heirloom’, ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’, ‘Redfield Beauty’, ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’, ‘Box Car Willey’, ‘Big Rainbow’, ‘Marizol Gold’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Gold Medal’ and ‘Paul Robeson’ among others. How I have enjoyed growing and eating these wonderful tomatoes! They may not be as disease resistant as some of the hybrid tomatoes like ‘Ace 55’, ‘Early Girl’, ‘Big Beef’ and ’Celebrity’, but I haven’t had a disease problem with heirlooms.
There is often a story behind some of these tomatoes that add interest. For example, ‘Mortgage Lifter’ was originally named ‘Radiator Shop Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’. It was developed by ‘Charlie’ Byles of Logan, West Virginia in the 1930s and was so named because Mr. Byles owned a radiator repair shop, and through marketing of his popular tomato, he was able to lift the mortgage on his house in a mere six years.

German Pink heirloom is one that helped launch the Seed Saver’s Exchange.

Druzba is an heirloom from Bulgaria.

The ‘Paul Robeson’ tomato also has a story. Paul Robeson was a black athlete, opera star and actor who got fed up with segregation in the United States and was sympathetic to the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Russian tomato breeders named this tomato to honor him. The ‘Box Car Willie’ tomato was named after a singer with the Grand Ole Opry whose real name was Lecil Travis Martin. His stage name lives on and you can enjoy this heirloom and others. Happy tomato gardening!

Tomatoes are easily put up for winter fare.

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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Spring is busting out all over.

Are you feeling homebound after the edict by our Governor to stay home? Here is something that will help reduce your anxiety level and deal with the threat posed by the Coronavirus. Enjoy some gardening which is a well-known stress reducer. I have not been feeling anxious about the virus because I have been busy gardening.  Last year we installed a new septic tank and as a result there was a lot of lawn missing and the old lawn was a bit spotty.  Last week we had sod installed in our back yard so now we have a new green lawn that makes our landscape beautiful and complete. We also added 12 yards of mulch to the vegetable garden and orchard areas after putting down landscape fabric. This will keep the weeds at bay and make gardening much easier.

It is a joy to see so many blooming flowers this time of year. Many trees are blooming; tulip trees, Bradford pears, flowering plum and lots of Western and Eastern redbuds. Last year I removed a sweetgum (Liquidamber styracciflua) from my landscape as the gumballs it dropped were such a nuisance and the tree was not well developed. Although there is now a sweetgum that has been bred that doesn’t produce gumballs, I decided that I would replace that tree with two redbuds.

Freesias are a cheerful spring container bulb.

I have missed the redbuds at my previous home, Redbud Farm, where there were 13 large Eastern redbuds in the landscape. Hence I purchased and planted two grafted redbuds that are ‘Appalachian Red’ cultivars of Cercis Canadensis. ‘Appalachian Red’ has blooms of a deep pink tone than the usual lighter pink of redbuds. They came as very small trees, but I hope they will grow quickly to provide shade and blooms.

Spring is a good time to take stock of your landscape and see what you might have room to add to it for spring enjoyment. With the coronavirus keeping us all at home it is not a shortage of time that would keep us from doing this. Do you have a few blank spots?  Are there some tired plants that could be replaced? I decided that one thing I am missing that I used to enjoy are peonies, so I am thinking about finding room to fit one or two into my landscape. I don’t have a lot of room, because I bought my new home from a fellow Master Gardener who had done a great job of landscaping. It is positively beautiful and is one of the many features we enjoy at our new home.

In the front yard, there is a mostly native plant garden and the two backyard borders feature roses, a lilac, Azaleas, Narcissus, Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata), three Chinese fringe bushes (Lorapetalum Chinensis), several daylilies and lots of white flowers: Cala Lilies, (Zantedeschia aethiopica), Candytuft (Iberis semperiverns), an unnamed white Camellia, several white Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis), and two Spirea shrubs in full bloom. If you have Spirea it is good to prune them after they bloom to keep them healthy and to foster new growth for next year’s blooms. Spirea bloom on new wood so rejuvenating the plant by pruning will keep them blooming fully.

There are also three bluebell varieties in the border and I had a devil of a time figuring out what they were. There are a lot of plants named bluebells and they are in disparate genera. One is the Portuguese squill (Scylla Peruviana). Here is a little garden trivia for you. It is a native of the Western Mediterranean but was named Peruviana because Peru was the name of the ship that brought the specimen to the taxonomist but the ship was not from Peru as it turns out. After a lot of studying on my computer, I identified the two other bluebells as Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica).

 I also planted about 300 Narcissus in the last two years and have enjoyed their blooms this spring. I also have 5 pots full of Freesias and I don’t know how or why I have so many, but I am enjoying all the color they bring to my deck this spring. Another garden activity might be to consider planting containers of herbs that you need for your summer cuisine or what flowers you want to foster for summer blooms. I have already planted parsley, culinary sage and basil in containers. I have also been planting gladiolus in a raised bed for early summer bouquets.

Other garden activities may soon include planting tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, beans, melons, corn, and annual flowers like zinnias, marigolds and chrysanthemums. Enjoy being homebound, plan for ever more beautiful gardens and stay healthy.

 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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Vegetable gardening in the days of COVID-19, and beyond

An extended period of home isolation might be necessary in the near future to minimize the rapid spread and devastating consequences of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, I recommended vegetable gardening as a way to cope with the stress of social distancing and as a source of healthy food and safe outdoor activity. That topic deserves more attention, given the growing concerns about COVID-19.

In this time of uncertainty, growing fresh annual vegetables and melons at home might be anything from a productive form of outdoor activity to a much-needed source of nutrition for your family and for others in need. Growing food at home is very satisfying, and it also helps reduce trips to the grocery store.

Whether you have a large backyard or just a sunny balcony, it’s possible to grow even a small number of food-producing plants. The basic requirements are good soil, water, a source of nutrition (worm castings, compost, or commercial vegetable fertilizers), and direct sun exposure of at least 6 to 8 hours each day.

Japanese eggplants interplanted with marigolds for pest control and a splash of color. (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

If you’ve never grown vegetables at home before, or would like to become better at it, here are some excellent resources:

  • San Joaquin Master Gardeners’ “Home Vegetable Gardening” website: This page has links to a locally appropriate and easy-to-read vegetable planting guide, a University of California publication entitled “Vegetable Gardening Basics,” information on growing vegetables in containers, and much more.
  • The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) webpage for vegetables and melons: This site is organized by type of plant—beans, carrots, corn, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and so on. Each page provides not only pest control tips for each plant, but also a whole range of valuable cultural care information: planting, watering, fertilizing, harvesting and storage, and much more.
  • What’s Growing On, the blog by San Joaquin Master Gardeners (SJMGs): Most of our past articles are accessible on this website, as a public service provided by SJMGs and The Record, and many are about vegetable gardening and related topics.

Seeds are one way to start growing vegetables now, in preparation for summer or fall harvests. Some food plants—such as beans, carrots, corn, melons, squash—are ideal for April planting from seed, and they should be planted in the ground where they are to grow. This is called “direct seeding,” and it’s the easiest planting method. 

Other vegetable seeds can be started indoors or in a greenhouse. This method is usually used with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, which can be started indoors from seed as early as January and February (when temperatures are too cold outside for proper seed germination and growth). It’s a bit late in the season to start these seeds now, but you can give it a try. 

Leftover plastic containers from earlier plant purchases—especially six-packs and 4-inch pots—work well for starting vegetable seeds. Improvised seed-starting trays can also be made out of rigid plastic produce containers, the ones pre-punched with ventilation holes; their lids help retain some humidity, which helps keep soil moist. Before starting seeds in old or pre-used containers, sterilize them by submerging them in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water), rinse them with lukewarm water, and allow them to dry before filling them with a seed-starting mix. Then, plant seeds according to the instruction on the packets. 

After your vegetable seeds sprout and grow to an adequate size (a minimum of two sets of mature leaves), they can be transplanted into the garden after a “hardening off” period. This means gradually exposing them to ever-increasing increments of direct sun exposure over a period of about two weeks.  

You can help support our local economy by buying seeds or seedlings from area nurseries and garden centers. Call in advance to verify their hours of business—since they might be modified or even closed due to virus-related concerns—and to check their availability of vegetable seeds or seedlings. Or, order seeds online and have them delivered to your home.

Vegetable plants—especially root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes—prefer loose, deep soil that’s rich in organic matter. If you have heavy clay or sandy soil, amend it with compost to help assure your vegetable plants’ health and vigor.

Once your plants start growing in earnest, make sure they get adequate water. Vegetables prefer consistently moist soil, and tomatoes and peppers are particularly susceptible to damage from inconsistent watering. Also, most vegetable plants don’t like water on their leaves (it encourages fungal growth), so avoid overhead sprinklers and use a ground-level hose or drip irrigation. 

Another growing tip: avoid using pesticides. Home vegetable gardening is the easiest way to obtain fresh produce free of chemical contamination, and most common pests can be eliminated with non-toxic methods. Chewing damage from caterpillars, such as cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms, can be minimized by inspecting plants and picking off any invaders by hand. Aphids, which like to congregate on and suck juices from the leaves of many vegetables, can simply be sprayed off with a strong stream of water. Earwigs can be caught at night in rolled-up newspaper, then disposed of in the morning.

Once your plants start bearing their much-awaited edibles, it’s time to enjoy! Even non-traditional parts of some vegetable plants can be eaten. Beets, Brussels sprouts, and pea greens are a few favorite examples in our family. The leaves of these plants aren’t usually seen in grocery stores, but they’re perfectly edible. Once washed, they can be julienned and added to a salad, or chopped and lightly sautéed with olive oil and some seasonings for a delicious side dish. But be cautious. The leaves of some vegetables contain toxic compounds and should not be eaten, so be sure to check a reputable source before eating atypical parts of a plant.

A basket full of unique and decorative “Michael Pollan” tomatoes, named after the well-known author (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

If you end up having a larger harvest than you can use, you can preserve many kinds of vegetables by canning them. An important note: home canning must be done in a way that eliminates the possibility of botulism, a serious and often fatal illness. It’s caused by a species of bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) that produces an extremely potent toxin; contamination can be prevented by proper sterilization and heating processes.  If you have canning-related questions, you can find information here:

Finally, this is a perfect time to share the bounty of your garden. Give some vegetables or fruits to your house-bound, elderly neighbors. Donate your excess produce to local food banks, senior centers, and homeless shelters. Maybe even support a local, independent restaurant, by helping reduce their costs for purchasing fresh vegetables. (Call any organization or business first—before dropping off fresh foods—to see if your produce will meet their needs, and to avoid potential waste or other problems.) Use your personal vegetable gardening project to strengthen our community, both now and for the long term.

Wishing you good health and happy growing!

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

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The value of gardens and gardening in trying times

This is truly an unprecedented period in the history of our country and our world. The sudden development and rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is upending lives around the planet, and our normal lives and customary routines have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

This column is supposed to be garden-related, but before I delve into that topic, it’s important to acknowledge my fellow human beings’ stress and grief. To anyone struggling with isolation, loss of job or income, disrupted school schedules, or other difficult circumstances, I wish you strength and the hope that your needs will be soon be met. To those who are ill with the novel coronavirus, I wish you a quick and complete recovery. To all the medical professionals who are providing virus testing and caring for infected patients, and to others whose important and ongoing work puts them in harm’s way, I send wishes for your good health and a message of profound gratitude. And to anyone who has lost a loved one as a result of this pandemic, my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.

Whatever your circumstances are in this moment, my hope is that gardens and gardening can help in some way.

Elephant sculptures amid beautiful blooms at the Clovis Botanical Garden, February 2020. Their raised trunks are symbols of good fortune, a timely wish for all. (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Gardens and natural environments are very therapeutic. Simply being outdoors amidst fresh air, sunshine, and greenery can reduce stress, alleviate depression, lower blood pressure, and increase our bodies’ production of vitamin D. Caring for plants is a wonderful source of physical activity, and it also stimulates the mind. Self-care is particularly important now, and gardening is one cheap and easy way to fulfill part of that need.

Rather than thinking of “yard work” as a necessary drudgery, try focusing on its health-giving benefits. Any stay-at-home time spent pruning, weeding, or planting is helping keep you fit and strong. And, if your time and energy level allows, why not try a fun and rewarding mini-project? If you have some favorite perennial plants, try propagating them by taking stem cuttings, treating them with rooting hormone, and planting them in moist, sterilized potting mix. If you have an unused/underutilized area or an unwanted patch of grass, start planning now to replace it in fall with California natives; this will help support local pollinators and restore a bit of natural habitat. Or, plant a tree or shrub to honor a loved one.

Vegetable gardening is yet another rewarding and productive pursuit during this time of recommended “cocooning.” You might recall that residents of the U.S. and other countries were encouraged to plant their own Victory Gardens during World Wars I and II and other periods of national crisis and solidarity. Now—as then—vegetable gardens can provide healthy physical activity, a morale boost, and an inexpensive source of nourishment in the days and weeks to come. March and April are ideal months to plant seeds of summer crops such as beans, carrots, corn, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. For those with school-age children, this is an opportunity to teach them where their plant-based food comes from and how to grow it. Consider sharing share seeds and harvests with your loved ones and neighbors while developing a healthy, long-term habit of growing your own food. You can find locally appropriate vegetable gardening resources at

While spending time inside your home, houseplants can be a source of joy. Their greenery beautifies rooms, and in some circumstances they help purify and oxygenate indoor air. Ornamental plants are truly a form of horticultural therapy; they’ve been proven to aid in recovery from sickness, and having plants nearby helps improve human memory, concentration, and productivity. This is an excellent time to learn more about caring for each of your indoor plants; to repot them with fresh planting mix; to give them a spring feeding with worm castings, compost, or fertilizer; or to gently bathe them and clean their leaves of accumulated dust.

Outdoor exercise is another great coping strategy, and it’s still allowed under current statewide COVID-19 guidelines. If you live near a public park or garden, plan a short visit for some physical activity and relaxation. However, do so cautiously, and remember to keep a safe distance from others so that you don’t expose yourself or them to unnecessary risk. Stay close to home, and be sure to check ahead of time about open hours and restrictions. Two small and close-at-hand public gardens are the native plant garden at the Oak Grove Nature Center and the Learning Landscape outside the San Joaquin Master Gardener office.

I hope that you can use gardens and gardening to help maintain your health in the coming days and weeks, within the limitations of prudent social distancing. Please be sure to follow any current and developing state and federal COVID-19 recommendations and orders, to ensure the safety of your family, friends, and the community at large. We’re all in this together.

As an additional public service, please refer to these reputable sources of information regarding COVID-19:

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

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Growing Dahlias is hard work but very rewarding.

I have grown dahlias for a lot of years and I am still learning how to be successful at propagating this plant from tubers. Dahlias come in various nuances of colors, sizes, and forms and they bloom starting in June continuing to November. Last year I had about 150 Dahlias. They are a bit perplexing and difficult at times, but the rewards are so great that the effort to deal with these cantankerous tubers is worth it.
One good thing about living in California, you don’t have to dig your dahlia tubers to keep them from freezing like my mother used to do where I grew up in New Jersey. My mother only had a few dahlias and perhaps digging a few and storing them in the cellar each year was enough of a workout.
I am hard-pressed to dig all the dahlias that I grow. Last year I dug all of them, but this year I dug only half. It is a chore to wash off the black adobe clay from the tubers, label and store them in wood shavings until this spring when they will be divided to replant or give away. Dahlias tubers left in the ground over the winter are well established and know when to start growing and they bloom sooner than newly planted tubers. If you like early blooms, and who doesn’t leave some in the ground. The downside of not digging them is that some may rot if the winter is particularly wet which is not the case this winter. Hence I am hoping that the four rows I didn’t dig will be blooming early.
Tubers should be planted 2-3 feet apart with 4 feet between rows to allow access. They will need to be staked and tied as they grow, so best to plant the stake at the same time that the tuber is planted so the tuber is not impaled by the stake if done later. Tomato cages can also be used to confine the plants. I like to mix compost into the planting hole which enhances growth without chemical fertilizers. Just planted tubers should not be watered heavily but once plants are growing about 1 inch of water per week is good. I use a drip system with 2 GPH emitters and water for an hour every other day or about 6 gallons per plant per week.
Unfortunately, there are always pests lurking to ruin your dahlia garden. When the first shoots appear they are food for snails, slugs, and earwigs. These pests can be thwarted by using snail and slug bait. If you have pets the best bait contains iron phosphate which unlike metaldehyde baits will not harm your pets. You can also deplete the population by hunting them by flashlight at night. Earwigs can be thwarted by placing some diatomaceous earth in a ring around the young shoots or they can be trapped using tuna fish cans or cat food cans with ¼ inch of oil preferably fish oil in the bottom with the cans buried at ground level. It is also a good idea to deny them hiding places beneath boards or mulch if possible.
Later in the season, the pests are thrips and spider mites. When you want to enjoy the blooms these critters want to enjoy the dahlia leaves. I found that spraying the foliage with water helps control their abundance as mites don’t like moist conditions and they along with thrips can get washed off. Insecticidal soaps and Neem oil solutions can also be used. It is good to stay on top of this or the plants will suffer and blooms will be less too. It is also good to keep a sticky trap in the garden to monitor for thrips abundance and keep on top of it. For more information on pest control see:
Keep flowers deadheaded or preferably your vases full. To encourage larger blooms it is good to disbud the two side buds and leave the main bud. It also a good idea to head cut the new plant at 12 inches to encourage early-branching which will result in more blooms later. It is also good to thin older well-established dahlias if there are many weak shoots they should be removed to enhance energy going to the main stems.
More info and videos on dividing and storing Dahlias is at Swan Island Dahlias at: Happy dahlia gardening.

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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