Versatility of Grasses

The word “grass” often conjures images of unifrom, flat, green spaces providing lawnmowers with their raison d’etre, but there is a whole world of grasses out there! Our climate allows us to grow species from all over the world, but California offers many beautiful native grasses that serve multiple functions in the landscape.

Why plant grasses?
Besides the ecological benefits of erosion control and soil filtration, the gracefully shimmering foliage offers a beautiful sense of movement to the garden. Wildlife benefits immensely from grass: foliage acts as protective cover and nesting material, and seeds provide food for wildlife, whose activities entertain us in turn!

Know Your Grasses
There are three families that fall under the colloquial term “grass”: true grasses (poaceae spp), rushes (juncus spp), and sedges (carex spp). These grow either as dense clumps (bunch-type grasses) or spread horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. California’s native true grasses, such as the official state grass Nassella pulchra, tend to be more heat- and drought-tolerant than sedges and rushes.

How to use grasses
Lawns can be replaced by mass plantings of low-growing native grasses, which provide a more textured look that reduces irrigation and mowing needs. You can create a meadow by accenting with larger bunch grasses and colorful perennial and annual flowering plants. Suggestions for lawn substitutes can be found on the Theodore Payne website.
For more on meadows, see John Greenlee’s book, The American Meadow Garden.

Bunch-type grasses can be used as accents in meadows, as described above, or in mixed perennial beds. Broad-leaved plants like the contrast in color and texture offered by the fine foliage and panicles of grasses.

Using larger bunch-type grasses as a backdrop to a perennial bed is very effective, especially when the morning (or evening) light shines through the inflorescens. Smaller grasses can also form a border in the front of a planting bed, which is especialy helpful on slopes to prevent run-off.

How not to use grasses
Exotic grasses can be beautiful additions to your garden, but stay away from invasives. See the California Invasive Plant Council’s website and this blog on Mexican Feather and Chilean Needle grasses.

Grass maintenance
Grasses are considered either cool or warm-season, which determines when they put on the most growth and how best to coppice them. Cool-season grasses should only be cut down 1/3-1/4 of their original height, whereas warm-season grasses can be coppiced down to stubs. Leave the “chaff” on the ground as mulch or add to your compost pile.

Lawn-alternative grasses don’t need to be mowed every week, which reduces organic waste, labor, gasoline, fertilizer, and noise pollution. They can be mowed a few times throughout the growing season (or not at all) if desired. Meadows can be irrigated like lawns with spray-type emitters (but less frequently for low-water species).

Coppicing frequency and time of year depends upon the species (see page 7-8 of The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden Guidelines for Pruning). A good rule of thumb for time of year is after seed drop in late fall but before (or just as) spring growth appears. However, because lady beetles like to overwinter in dense clumps of grass, I suggest leaving the tufts until spring and letting these wonderful critters feast on those troublesome aphids (who wants to look at dormant, chopped, stubs of grass anyway?).

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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California Style in the Garden

The thick, vertically-oriented leaves of manzanita protect them from sunburn and moisture loss

Plants that evolved in hot, dry climates have a certain look that not everyone finds appealing. Perhaps the cultural influence of east coast gardening is still strong or the lush growth of wet-climate plants represents life and fertility, but we still perceive this look as “normal”.

The aesthetic of high-water use plants is an adaptation to their native conditions, just as the unique aesthetic of summer-dry plants represents their adaptation to drought, heat, and in some places, intermittent wildfire:

A thick, waxy cuticle layer partially obscures chlorophyll, giving foliage a bluish-gray hue rather than the “pure” greens of summer-wet species. Called sclerophyllous, this adaptation reduces water loss and insulates against the heat. This foliage is tough, leathery, and thick; a high essential oil and fiber content provides pest protection. Taking a lot of energy to produce, sclerophyllous leaves are evergreen and last about two years.

Small leaf size reduces surface area for evaporation to occur.

Fuzzy foliage is a result of non-living plant hairs (trichomes) on the leaf surface, reducing water loss and sunburn. The foliage often appears silvery white.

Vertically-oriented leaves, such as those of the manzanita, also prevent sunburn. Some species curl their leaves to prevent full sun exposure.

Dropping leaves in summer is a strategy plants with more tender foliage use to prevent water loss. Also called seasonal dimorphism, plants shed larger leaves, starting with those near the ground, before growing smaller leaves. Larger leaves appear again after the rains begin. Unless leaves are diseased, leave them on the ground as a mulch. California’s tradition of hygenic, irrigated landscapes can make the late-summer aesthetic difficult to accept!

Low, bushy growth shades the ground, keeping roots cool and preventing moisture loss from the soil. It also protects the plant from dessicating winds.

Wildfire survival is essential for plants native to chaparral ecologies. Plants survive as seeders or sprouters, the latter being most relevant to home gardeners. Sprouters regrow from specialized roots (burls) that store extra starches, allowing them to survive and send up new shoots after wildfires. This can frustrate gardeners who are trying to grow sprouters like Ceanothus or Western Redbud as single-trunk trees. Sprouts will emerge from the base throughout the plant’s life, so keep this in mind when deciding how to cultivate them. On ther other hand, sprouting is advantageous for rejuvinating scraggly plants: just coppice them at the base! For more on pruning California natives, see the Yerba Buena Nursery Guide to Pruning.

Tolerance of alkaline soils is important for plants native to summer-dry climates, where high pH limits nutrient availability. Local soils are neutral to alkaline, making this an important factor in selecting plants for your garden.

Irrigation allows us to defy California’s summer-dry climate and use “normal” plants from east coast climates, but the drought necessitates a stronger sense of place, to express the local climate and soil in our plant choices.

For more about water-wise gardening, visit the San Joaquin County Master Gardener page on Low Water Use Landscapes. 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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Harvest Day 2014

Fair Oaks Horticulture Center is a one-acre instructional facility in Sacramento maintained by the Sacramento County Master Gardeners. If you have never heard of FOHC, then the annual Harvest Day is a great time to visit! This educational event features garden-related workshops, tours, tastings, and, of course, plenty of knowledgeable Master Gardeners to answer your questions.

What: Harvest Day 2014
When: Saturday, August 2, 2014  8am-2pm
Where: Fair Oaks Horticulture Center
11549 Fair Oaks Boulevard
Fair Oaks, CA 95628
Admission and Parking:  Free!

Activities: There will be plenty of delicious fruits and vegetables to try, from tomatoes and squash to melons and tree fruit. Many of these are growing in the demo garden, along with California native and Mediterranean plants, which are great for our summer-dry climate. Master Gardeners will be available at the Plant Clinic to offer advice about your own garden and explain various techniques employed in the demo garden such as soil solarization, square-foot gardening, and espalier.

If you need a break, you can rest in the shade and listen to one of these expert speakers:
8:30-9:15Research Meets Reality: Fruit Tree Pest and Drought Challenges
Chuck Ingels, UC Extension Farm and Horticulture Advisor
Quentyn Young, manager, Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery

9:45-10:30 – Lush and Colorful: Year-Round Beauty with Water-Wise Plants
Janet Sluis, curator, Sunset Western Garden Collection

11:30-12:14 – Going Organic
Patricia Boudier, Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply

12:45-1:30 – Cooking in Season
Rick Mahan, chef and owner, The Waterboy Restaurant and One Speed Pizza 

If you want to know even more, a wide variety of organizations and businesses are represented at the educational tables, from irrigation suppliers and nurseries to conservation non-profits.

Other activities include mini-workshops on composting and vermicomosting (composting with worms), and a silent auction with items donated by local garden-related businesses. If you get hungry you don’t need to leave; there will be food trucks for lunch and sorbet and gelato for dessert. It might be warm, so remember to bring your hat and sunscreen. Hope to see you there!

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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Gardening with Drought

The drought is tenacious and even though the governor has set a goal of a 20 percent reduction in water use it hasn’t happened yet, so more stringent enforcement is coming. As gardeners what can we to conserve water?  I remember the last drought in 1976-77 and how poorly I handled it. In October 1976, I moved to the country so I could cheerfully garden after years of cramped gardening on city lots. A friend and I cleared a large plot of weeds and junk from an uncultivated wasteland for a garden in the spring of 1977. I planted lots of vegetables and wastefully watered using sprinklers. Wow, what a weed patch that was!

I learned quickly that the only sane way to grow vegetables was using drip irrigation. Drip irrigation has improved with better filters and emitters plus programmable controllers.  We also have landscape water controllers that when set properly automatically dispense the right amount of water depending on conditions. They can and should be manipulated seasonally to reduce irrigation in the fall and spring when water needs are less. A water audit to make sure you are putting on the right amount of water for your landscape is useful. For information on water auditing go here:

Conserve water during the drought by doing the following:

  • Take out some of your ever thirsty lawn and plant native plants or Mediterranean adapted plants which require less water once established.
  • When establishing new non-turf landscapes consider installing drip irrigation that puts the water at the plant.
  • Apply 2-4 inches of mulch to conserve moisture in the landscape or in the garden.
  • Pay attention to your controller settings and water only as needed.
  • If we reduce watering, lawns go dormant and they will often come back. However, landscape shrubs, perennials and trees need enough water to survive.  Methods for minimal watering for survival of your landscape can be found here:

About 70 percent of urban water use is for landscapes—conserving here is vital for getting through this drought.

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Conserving Green Wastes

A recent article in The Record discussed the mandatory new law and the need to reduce of materials going into landfills. One of the reasons we have a Master Gardener program in San Joaquin County is to help educate gardeners to reduce the amount of green wastes going to landfills. I am always amazed when I go to the North County Landfill, at how often I see people dumping large amounts of discarded landscape materials. Here are some of the things that you can do to reduce organic material from the landfill.  Right plant for the right space will reduce the amount of pruning that you do. Planting a plant that grows too large for the space allotted will result in a never ending job of size reduction by pruning and the creation of green wastes to get rid of. Lawn clippings and leaves are sources of landfill material that can be composted at home and thus avoid energy costs of their pickup and disposal. It also provides you with nutrients and mulching compost for your landscape plants or vegetable garden and thus conserves your soils fertility. Fertilizing, watering, mowing and culturing lawn and we don’t even eat it!  Hence, another possibility is to lose some of the lawn and plant Mediterranean plants, native plants or an edible garden that uses less water and fertilizer. Such landscapes can be watered using drip irrigation, thus putting water right where the plants need it and wasting none. Food prices are rising, so it makes sense to grow some of your own food where possible.

For those interested in composting I wrote an article, Composting 101, found on page 12 of our first MG Newsletters.  One thing not mentioned in that article, but important to know about is that you can make compost without turning the compost which is not a fun chore.  It takes a lot longer, but “let it rot” composting does work as long as there is moisture in the pile which is essential for any composting. Compost should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge. One new thing that is happening at the N. County landfill on Harney Lane is the diversion of green wastes for composting. I was not able to get details, but when I do, you will read it here.

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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It is Winter Garden Time

Packman Broccoli, an early variety

July 4th is celebrating time and it is also a reminder to me that it is time to start seeds for that winter garden.  If you like fresh broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts it is time to get the seeds started in flats or six packs. I always devote several flats to my brassicas as I enjoy more than one variety of each.  I usually transplant them  to the garden at the end of August. For an early producing broccoli that is ready in 50 days, I like Packman.  Other broccolis I plant are: Premium Crop, Waltham29, and heirlooms, Di Ciccio and Calabrese. 

For Brussels sprouts I have found out the Long Island Improved isn’t a reliable crop producer. Instead I plant the hybrid, Jade Cross, which is not available locally.  I get my seeds via mail from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, OR.  Brussels sprouts are so good when fresh from the garden compared with those from the supermarket and you can pick them over several weeks. 

For cabbage I plant Flat Dutch, Red Acre, Early Jersey Wakefield, and Alcosa, a savoy type with crinkled leaves. It is good to pay attention to the number of days until the vegetable is ready for picking.  This is usually indicated on the seed packet and is important to spread out your harvest by planting various varieties. There are lots of cultivars to choose from and of course we are lucky to have a local seed store, Lockhart’s which has lots of winter garden seeds to try. It is important to get them started now for a bountiful fall and winter of harvesting.

Red Drumhead Cabbage from Bountiful Gardens Catalogue

Flats with seedlings emerging for the winter garden

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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Lettuce Seed Saving

Raised bed of mixed lettuce varieties.

My lettuce that I didn’t get to harvest is now bursting with blossoms and seeds.  I love lettuce and the salads made from it. Hence, I like to grow lots of different kinds and colors too: butter heads, leaf types, and cos (Romaine).  Lettuce seed is usually cheap to buy as seeds go. You will discover why when you first harvest your seeds, which in a lot of cases, is right about now.  Lettuce is a short lived annual so plant it in Feb-April and harvest seed in July or plant in August-September for a fall harvest. No need to wait two years like you do for seeds from biennials like fennel, carrots, onions and lots of others. The seeds are very abundant and the good news is that lettuce is self-pollinating.  That said, there is a chance of cross pollination by insects so if you want to keep your variety pure you can separate varieties by 10-20 feet. Even if there is cross pollination, you will still get lettuce and maybe something new and interesting.

Harvesting lettuce seed is easy to do. When the blooms turn brown and the flower fuzz turns white it is time. Cut the stem, invert in a clean 5 gallon bucket and shake and bash the plant against it sides. The seeds will drop to the bottom and now you need to separate the chaff from the seed. You can do this with a colander or screen and let the seed fall through or you can blow the chaff away by a little wind power, but not too much as the seed is fairly light in weight.  However, there is so much seed that a little loss is tolerable.  Lettuce seed should be labeled and stored in a dry, cool, dark environment-like in a jar or plastic bag in a refrigerator. It should remain viable for 3 years.

I will be teaching a workshop on seed saving at the Stockton Water Treatment Plant on Lower Sacramento Road on July 12 and at the Manteca Library on July 19th.  For more details go to this UC Master Gardener website.

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Rotten tomaotes, peppers and eggplant… Oh My!

There aren’t many things that frustrate me in the garden but going out to pick that ripe, red tomato only to find  there is a sunken rotten spot on the bottom of the fruit is on the top of my list. This is called blossom end rot and it can happen to your tomatoes, peppers, melons and eggplant.

Vegetables need calcium for healthy development. When tomatoes, peppers, melons, and eggplant can’t get enough from the soil, the tissues on the blossom end of the fruit break down. The calcium shortage may be because the soil lacks calcium, or calcium is present but is tied up in the soil chemistry because the pH is too low. Also, drought stress or moisture fluctuations can reduce its uptake into the plant. Another reason is that too much fertilizer causes the plant to grow so fast that the calcium can’t move into the plant quickly enough. Plants with blossom end rot show small, light brown spots at the blossom end of immature fruit. The affected area gradually expands into a sunken, leathery, brown or black lesion as the fruit ripens. Hard, brown areas may develop inside the fruit, either with or without external symptoms.

To reduce rot, avoid moisture stress. Use mulch to keep the soil evenly moist. Monitor soil moisture to make sure that the root zone neither dries out nor remains saturated.

Don’t over-fertilize. Too much nitrogen during early fruiting, especially with nitrogen made from ammonia, ties up calcium in the soil chemistry. Follow recommended rates for fertilizers.

Bonnie Plants

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Protect California’s Landscape this Camping Season, Don’t Move Firewood!

Originally published on: May 20, 2014
Author: Mary Louise Flint


Firewood for campfire
Firewood Task Force

Moving firewood is not usually something people think about as they are preparing to go on a camping trip but it is something important to keep in mind.  If you are preparing for an upcoming trip,  you can help protect California’s forests by buying firewood from a local source near the campsite rather than bringing it with you.When people move wood from place to place, they may also be moving invasive insects and diseases that threaten California’s landscape and wildland trees. The goldspotted oak borer, which is devastating native oaks in San Diego, was likely brought there from Arizona in firewood. The polyphagous shothole borer, walnut twig beetle and thousand cankers disease, and the pathogen causing sudden oak disease, all continue to spread to new areas on infested wood chips, plant debris, or wood moved for woodworking or firewood.

Over the past year, the California Firewood Task Force has asked the public to “buy it where you burn it”—that is, don’t bring wood from home when you camp, do use wood from local sources, and leave leftover wood at the campsite for the next camper.  Even if wood does not appear to have borer holes or other evidence of pests, don’t assume that the wood is pest free.  Be on the safe side and don’t move it.

The California Forest Pest Council established the Task Force in 2011 to educate Californians about what they can do to prevent movement of invasive pests in wood. The Task Force developed a Web site, put up billboards across California, sponsored children’s activities at parks and fairs, encouraged campgrounds to sell only local firewood, gave presentations across the state, and developed best management practices, posters, and other information to engage the public.

For more information visit


Two walnut twig beetles (Photo credit - Larry Strand)
Two walnut twig beetles (Photo credit – Larry Strand)
Thousand cankers disease (Photo credit - Larry Strand)
Thousand cankers disease (Photo credit – Larry Strand)
The Polyphagous shot hole borer (Photo credit - Arakelian)
The Polyphagous shot hole borer (Photo credit – Arakelian)

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Carpenter Bees: Mostly Beneficial

Female mountain carpenter bee. [Photo by J.K. Clark]

Adult female mountain carpenter bee

Have you seen large black or golden-brown bees foraging in your garden? These could be carpenter bees. Carpenter bees bore into lumber or trees to make nests  for their brood and can damage structural wood or leave unsightly holes and stains. Multiple bees may use a common entry hole, tunneling several feet into wood to create chambers for their offspring, and the sound or sight of these large bees may be disturbing to some people. However, carpenter bees are considered mostly beneficial because of their role in pollination. Males can’t sting and females rarely do.

Prevention is the best approach for management. Use hardwoods in structures where possible and paint or varnish exposed surfaces. If you find carpenter bee holes and nests in your structure, wait for bees to emerge and fill the holes with steel wool or caulk to prevent their reuse. Pesticides should not usually be necessary. Read more about these insects in the newly revised Pest Note: Carpenter Bees.

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    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

    Nadia Zane

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