Autumn garden chore time is here

An enjoyable chore-cutting Dahlia bouquets. Lee Miller photo.

An enjoyable chore-cutting Dahlia bouquets. Lee Miller photo.

It is time for fall plantings of all kinds of vegetables. In August, I started lettuce, fennel and onion seeds in flats and I also direct seeded beets, collard greens, lettuce, fennel, turnips, kale, carrots and Kohlrabi. Bok choy and Chinese cabbage are other good fall vegetables. The broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages I had planted in flats in early July had more failures than successes, so I replanted them and recently transplanted them to the garden. I hope they can make a crop because timing is important. Get them started too late and they don’t always grow sufficiently before cold weather to produce a crop. Last year the plants I bought at the nursery did not do well because they apparently were started from seed too late. However, it is worth the gamble to grow a winter garden. Garlic and peas should be planted in early October and onion sets around November 1 or earlier if available. California is a paradise for gardeners because vegetables can be grown year around.

Fall is always the best time to plant shrubs and landscape trees. The cool winter temperatures and rains will give plants time to grow roots and become established, before the challenging heat of next summer. If you love fall colors of red or gold on your trees then some good ones to plant are: Chinese pistache, Gingko, Tupelo, scarlet oak, red oak, Japanese maple, red maple, crepe myrtle or redbud.  It is a good idea to make sure that any mature trees will fit into your landscape space and not be a problem for service lines.  PG&E has a good tree guide book for the right tree in the right place that you can order free from PG&E:

It is also time to plant bulbs, perennials, annuals for winter/spring blooms. With cooler weather, you can plant perennials such as: foxglove, Geum, Penstemon, Salvia, yarrow, Delphinium, Coreopsis Gaillardia, and Campanula and annuals such as: snapdragons, larkspur, ornamental cabbage and kale, Iceland poppies, primrose and stock.  Keep soil moist before the rains start for success and optimal growth. Order your spring blooming bulbs early for best selection and to get them in time for October planting. There are early, mid-season and late-season choices in most bulbs so you can extend bloom enjoyment by careful selection. Narcissus come in a wide variety of shapes and colors and is my favorite because, once established, they come back abundantly every spring; unlike tulips which are generally planted as an annual. Some other choices are: anemone, calla, freesia, Hyacinth, Muscari, and Dutch iris

Prune any low branches from your citrus to discourage fungus infection on the fruit. Cut off branches lower than 18-24 inches above the soil and clean up fallen leaves, old fruit or other organic matter and then mulch with wood chips or bark to keep fungus spores from infecting low hanging fruit when it rains.

Fall is a good time to divide perennials if they are overcrowded. They will grow and bloom better when not crowded. Ornamental grasses Iris, Shasta daisies, Solomon’s seal, yarrow, daylilies; Agapanthus and cannas are just a few which need periodic division. They can be dug up with a spading fork or shovel and then divided with a sharp knife, saw or spade. Replant ASAP or give some extras to friends or neighbors.  Add compost to make up for any lost soil volume and discard any unhealthy plants. For more tips on division of plants see:

Roses will be coming into the fall bloom period although if you dead-headed them frequently you likely enjoyed some roses all through the summer. Final feeding for roses should be in October and it is best to give it either compost or 0-10-10 fertilizer as nitrogen will encourage tender, frost damage-prone shoots. Renew the mulch for winter and avoid fertilizing again until spring.

After two hours work---A full wheel barrow of weed trees and Camellia trimmings. Lee Miller photo.

One of my garden rules is to ‘pay attention’. When you don’t ‘pay attention’ plants can die for lack of water, weeds can take over; lots of things can go wrong. One recent Sunday morning I decided I needed to trim back a Camelia from the doorway to my wine cellar, because I would soon be opening it to bottle wine. As I started trimming, I noticed that there were many seedling trees growing under the Camellias. I spent two hours digging out walnut, pecan, privot, bay, Virginia creeper, and Algerian ivy seedlings from under the Camellias. Some had obviously been there for a long time, but I hadn’t payed attention. Some chores can come your way when you are not even looking for them. I went on to prune dead wood and stray branches from the Camellias and ended up with a wheel barrel of clean up stuff for my unscheduled morning’s work. Gardening often can surprise like this, it seems. Happy autumn 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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Irrigation 101: Back to Basics

Plants or objects such as this boulder can block sprinklers, leaving dry patches on the other side.

Few elements surpass water on your plants’ list of requirements. While some plants aren’t terribly picky about their watering schedule, some are more exacting and dislike irrational irrigation choices. The added complications of drought and water restrictions are enough to make your head spin. Can’t we simplify and pop outside to water whenever there’s nothing interesting on television?

Besides the rampant overwatering this would cause, we would be robbed of the opportunity to become better acquainted with the needs of our foliaged friends. Their first self-affirmation will likely be that they have genetically hardwired watering needs independent of television programming. Self-affirmation number two will be that opposites do not attract; mixing high- and low-water plants makes for poor relationships. Meeting the needs of one will inevitably sacrifice the other.

In the past, guesswork was the home gardener’s method of choice for grouping plants. Times have changed, especially with tight water budgets calling for more informed choices. Fortunately, the UC Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) has conducted research that groups plants into high, medium, low, and very low water needs. These are further divided into the six major climates of California. This information is available on a searchable database at

Irrigation is much more efficient and effective when all the plants on a circuit (AKA “valve” or “station”) need the same amount of water. You may need to do some “editing” of any mismatched planting beds before going on to the next major part of good irrigation, which is a well-designed and functioning system.

There are many different kinds of irrigation, but we can simplify a little by dividing them into two basic categories: drip and spray. Turf grass is almost always irrigated by spray; the trick is to get even coverage and apply water in the right quantity and frequency. When designing a system, make sure the spray of one head reaches to the next head, called “head-to-head coverage” in irrigation lingo. This is important because the area immediately around sprinkler heads gets most of the water, while the outer two-thirds of the spray area get less. To prevent dry patches, overlap the spray areas for even water distribution.

Avoid playing “hope and poke” with your irrigation timer by gathering information. Observe the sprinklers in action and make appropriate repairs or adjustments. Check to see how long the sprinklers can run before water starts puddling or flowing onto sidewalks. Determine the output of your sprinklers by performing a catch can test (see the following website). A handy tool for irrigation scheduling and general lawn care is available on the UC Guide to Healthy Lawns website at

Both drip irrigation and spray can be used on ornamentals and edibles, though drip is usually recommended wherever possible because of its efficiency rate of up to 90%. Drip systems consist of flexible tubing that runs above ground, delivering water in drips that infiltrate slowly to prevent run-off. Like spray, drip irrigation systems must be properly designed and installed to be effective. In addition, they require more frequent inspections, especially if the system is subject to wildlife, pets, or children. Regular inspection of the lines and emitters will help ensure that dead plants are not the first indicator of chewed lines or an emitter that has been knocked out of place by a game of dodgeball.

Water conservation is another important component of your irrigation system. Watering deeply but infrequently is better than daily, shallow watering, which forces plant roots to grow at the surface rather than deeper in the soil where they become more drought-resistant. Organic mulch (e.g. bark) placed on the soil surface reduces evaporation and feeds the soil microbiome, all of which makes for healthier plants.

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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What is Integrated Pest Management?

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to prevent pests or manage pests in a less harmful manner than just reaching for a toxic chemical. It was developed by scientists in the 1970’s and the University of California program started in 1979. IPM helps homeowners, gardeners and farmers deal with pests in a manner that is the least damaging to human health and to our environment. IPM likely got its impetus from Rachael Carson’s 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’ which brought serious attention to the impacts of widespread pesticide use on our environment, wildlife and us.

IPM has several components thus the term integrated. First of all is correct identification of the pest and monitoring its impacts. You need to know what creature or disease you are dealing with to select a winning strategy to control it. Pests can include weeds, vertebrates, invertebrates, insects, bacteria, viruses and fungi. If the pest does no economic damage, is it even a pest?  If it is not harmful, nothing needs to be done.

Prevention by the selection of plants that are resistant to diseases or pests is a good starting place. For example older cultivars of Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp) are highly susceptible to powdery mildew, but newer cultivars, some with Native American names, are bred for resistance and don’t require treatment for powdery mildew especially when planted in the sun and properly pruned to keep them open. Some resistant varieties are: Catwaba, Kiowa, Hopi, Natchez and many others see:

Most peaches are susceptible to peach leaf curl, a fungus which requires preventive spraying during the dormant season. Most people either forget to spray, or they lazily hope for the best—like a dry spring that inhibits the fungi. There are a few varieties resistant to peach leaf curl and they are Frosty, Black Boy, Muir, Avalon Pride and Indian Free.  If these varieties don’t suit, then plant others and vow to spray for peach leaf curl. Plant breeders are busy breeding disease resistant roses, tomatoes and many plants that we can enjoy and avoid pest situations. This is the first line of defense against pests.

Another IPM practice is biological control which is to encourage the enemies of pests. Creating a diverse landscape that provides habitats and food for natural enemies of pests is a good practice and not indiscriminately spraying pesticides that kill them is a paramount consideration. Some beneficial insects that are predators on pests are lady beetles, lacewings, spiders, soldier beetles, syrphid flies and mini-parasitic wasps. The mini-wasps parasitize aphids and caterpillars. For more info on beneficial insects, see: .

For many pests, physical barriers or mechanical removal will work to keep them at bay. For example, ants will invade your home for water and food. One way to keep them out is to eliminate any access by caulking openings or removing any vegetation that they use as a highway into your home. Ant bait traps that work to kill ant colonies are another method. For aphids, a stream of water will wash them off rose buds or plant leaves without resort to pesticides. Since aphids can return rather quickly this should be done as frequently as needed at least twice per week.

Barriers such as using old toilet paper rolls wrapped around young plant stems will work for cutworms if you should have that problem. Similarly bird netting works to keep birds from picking your fruit before you get a chance. Every year, I have to cover my half acre of wine grapes with bird netting, an onerous, but necessary chore if I want to make wine. Raised beds are a common way to garden these days and if you want to keep gophers at bay, it is wise to line the bottom with gopher wire or hardware cloth.  I don’t have this situation, so I constantly have to trap gophers with McCabe traps and oft times suffer damage before I catch them. Deer, ground squirrels and rabbits can also be garden nuisances. Fencing off the garden or trapping are ways to deal with them.

Another way to control pests is to follow good gardening practices. Cleaning up debris and composting will eliminate hiding places for pests and keeping weeds under control will avoid the buildup of weed seeds in the soil. Soil solarization can also reduce the weed problem see:  Be sanitary and remove infected plant material such as black spot infected leaves from under roses or petal blight infected blossoms from Camellias to diminish sources of disease causing organisms.

When all else fails one can use pesticides, but use the least toxic one that will get the job done. Follow directions on the label and use in ways that reduce human, pet and environmental exposure. IPM works well and I hope you will learn more garden tips at this informative website for gardeners:

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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Basic tips for houseplant care

Some people have a magical touch and homes overflowing with thriving greenery; others just can’t seem to keep an indoor plant alive. Even if you’re cursed with a “black thumb,” there’s still hope.

Houseplants are incredibly diverse, and although some come from climate zones like ours, most popular species are native to warm, humid, tropical environments. Houseplants are typically grown for their foliage, which can range from tiny to huge, lacy to leathery, rich green to variegated or multicolored. Some are grown for their spectacular and vibrantly colored flowers. With such diversity comes a wide range of specific cultural needs, but a few simple guidelines will help provide a measure of success.


Overwatering is the primary cause of houseplant death. Symptoms of overwatering—yellowing foliage, droopy appearance—often mimic those of under-watering, so it’s important to check soil moisture using weight or visual tests, a soil moisture meter, or a simple finger probe. If the soil is heavy, dark in appearance, or damp an inch or more below the surface, it’s probably moist enough. On the other hand, severe lack of water is also harmful, and plants will perish if allowed to wilt repeatedly.

Frequent watering with small amounts of water is detrimental to potted plants; instead, water them less often and more thoroughly, until water passes through the drainage holes. Solid-bottomed pots must be watered cautiously to prevent waterlogged soil. Most houseplants need more water while actively growing in spring, summer and early fall; water more sparingly in the late fall and winter. Some houseplants are highly sensitive to fluoridated water; others don’t like cold water. Never use softened water since it contains high levels of damaging salts.


This is the second of the two most crucial elements for houseplant care. Depending on their natural environment, houseplants vary greatly in the amount and type of light they require. Natural light from windows is preferable, but full-spectrum fluorescent lighting can be a good substitute in dark indoor areas. Some plants prefer only diffuse, indirect light from north- or east-facing windows; others can tolerate bright light or direct sunlight from south- and west-facing windows. Be sure to research the individual lighting needs of your plants, and to locate them appropriately.


Purchase a high quality, commercially prepared, sterile potting mix that is suited to the plant(s) you own. For most tropical plants, an all-purpose potting mix with some organic matter will suffice. For plants such as African violets that prefer acidic soil, use a specially labeled mix or one high in peat content. For succulents or cacti, use a product specifically labeled for them since it’s lightweight and fast draining and will dry out between waterings. Don’t fill pots with compost (which is a soil amendment) or garden soil (which is too dense).

Examine the soil and the rims of your pots for white, crusty-looking deposits; this indicates a build-up of harmful salts in the soil (from fertilizers or minerals in the water). To remedy this problem, scrub the pots and either replace the soil or thoroughly flush it with water. Most houseplants should be repotted with fresh soil every few years. Don’t reuse old soil, since it could be contaminated or nutrient poor.


With the exception of dry-environment succulents, houseplants generally don’t thrive in dry indoor air unless given some special care. Many plants appreciate a gently daily or semi-weekly leaf misting. Plants can also be placed in bathrooms or on trays filled with small pebbles and water so they get additional moisture.


Daytime temperatures between 65 and 75 °F are acceptable for most houseplants, with slightly lower temperatures at nighttime. Keep plants away from the hot, drying drafts from heater vents and the cold blasts of winter air from doors, windows, and air conditioners.


All potted plants need fertilizer to replace lost soil nutrients. Plants that are fast-growing, frequently watered, or in fast-draining soils should be fertilized more often. Slow-release fertilizer pellets and water-soluble fertilizers are the easiest to use on indoor plants. Follow label instructions to avoid harmful over-fertilizing, and avoid fertilizing plants in late fall and winter when their growth slows.

Pests and Diseases

Minimize houseplant problems by using a few simple precautions. Carefully inspect a houseplant’s leaves, stems, and soil before purchasing. If you see any signs of common pests (mealybugs, scale insects, whiteflies, spider mites) or diseases (stem rot, leaf spot, soil fungi) don’t bring that plant home. Care for your plants properly, because stressed plants are more susceptible to attack by harmful organisms.

Space limitations allow only the most basic overview of a very complex topic here. For more detailed information on the needs of specific houseplant species, please consult reputable books or online resources.

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


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Gardens as refuges for wildlife

This coming Sunday, September 4 is National Wildlife Day. While this name might conjure up images of animals living in pristine natural areas and parks far from home, wildlife can (and should) be an important component of our gardens.

The San Joaquin Valley used to support vast herds of tule elk, sky-darkening flocks of migratory birds, plentiful native salmon, and even our state mammal, the California grizzly bear. These and numerous smaller creatures have largely been lost or displaced due to urban development, large-scale water diversion, and monoculture farming. Yet even in this highly altered environment, our residential and commercial landscapes, public gardens, and agricultural areas have tremendous potential for supporting a wide array of small local fauna.

Habitat diversity is one key to the survival of wildlife, and we can help provide that diversity by creating miniature ecosystems in our yards.

Just like humans, animals have a few basic needs for survival: water, food, shelter, and places to raise their offspring. Plants are essential to meeting these needs. They provide seeds, berries, nectar, pollen, and succulent fruit for nourishment; they bear foliage in which birds and small animals can hide and/or build their nests; and they’re a source of moisture, shade, and nesting material.

Wise plant selection is a crucial element of a wildlife-friendly environment, since it determines the number and variety of creatures a yard can support. Plants that originally grew in our area—native oaks and grasses, sages, buckwheats, penstemons, and many more—are the best choices for wildlife because they evolved alongside our California animal species and are best suited to their needs. Plant species imported from different U.S. regions or countries can be beautiful and useful in their own way, but some are far more wildlife-friendly than others, so they must be chosen carefully if they’re to provide for our indigenous fauna.

Sunflowers are one outstanding choice for attracting wildlife such as pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds. These annual plants add color to my backyard garden every year, and they hum with activity from spring through fall. When aphids take hold on spring’s succulent new leaves, so do the ladybug larvae. Once the vibrant and cheerful blooms appear, so do the pollinators; honeybees, bumblebees, several other types of native bees, and five species of butterflies have visited my plants this year. Come summer and early fall, dragonflies occasionally use the tall stems as a roost, young praying mantises hide and hunt in the plants, and the ripening sunflower seeds attract small birds such as juncos, finches, and grosbeaks. It’s both educational and entertaining to watch the seasonal show.

Lesser goldfinch at native sunflower (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

There are many other ways to make inexpensive and wildlife-friendly additions to an existing landscape. Solitary native bees appreciate an elevated, open patch of soil or a wooden bee box in which to nest. A cluster of boulders near low-growing shrubs will give insect-eating lizards a place to sun themselves and hide. A rock wall or large boulders will provide denning spots for beneficial non-poisonous garter and gopher snakes (which help control pest insects, snails, slugs, and rodents). Frogs and toads will thrive near a small, shallow pond surrounded by moisture loving plants. A birdbath will provide much-needed water for birds and insects; locate it under an arbor or tree to shield small birds from sun and predators, and place a flat stone just above the water level to give butterflies and bees a place to land.

Bee houses on display at the UCD Arboretum (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)














A wide range of plants sizes also helps to nurture wildlife. Large trees with understory plantings of shrubs and groundcovers provide better habitat for animals than a landscape with only isolated trees and shrubs near a patch of lawn. Homeowners and farming operations can employ this principle of habitat diversity by creating hedgerows along property boundaries. Hedgerows are mixed border plantings that incorporate varied annual and perennial plants, with the specific goal of providing for beneficial wildlife.

For more information on supporting wildlife in your garden, consult these resources:

(September 4 is also National Newspaper Carrier Day! Consider giving your neighborhood carrier a word or token of thanks.)

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

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Improving Soil Health With Cover Crops

This taprooted Daikon radish does double duty by breaking up heavy soils and being delicious.

Cover crops are plants grown for the direct benefit of the soil rather than human consumption. They were known in ancient China and India and have been standard practice in many agricultural regions of the world, including colonial America. This changed in the 1940s when our WWII infrastructure was redirected toward the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that replaced traditional land stewardship practices.

In its own way, the “Green Revolution” cushioned humanity from nature’s attempts to sabotage our tomato beds, and it certainly increased global food production. Unfortunately, the environmental and human health costs begged for better solutions. Before long, we saw the return of traditional (but improved) cultural practices such as cover cropping, which offers better living through biology.

Building soil health and fertility are the main reasons for using cover crops, but the benefits don’t stop there. The soil’s many organisms play a major role in plant vitality, and they love cover crops, which they use as food. This recycles important nutrients, particularly nitrogen, back into the soil for future plant use. Over time, the increased biological activity improves soil’s structure, and water and nutrient holding abilities.

Creating balance is another key to healthy soil, which cover crops achieve in several ways. They break up the cycle of pests and diseases that accumulate when plants within the same family (e.g. tomatoes and eggplant or cucumbers and melons) are grown too many times in a row. The habitat cover crops provide is beneficial to a diversity of creatures, preventing any one species from becoming a pest. You even get a natural weed block, as many weed seeds cannot germinate through the thick mat of cover crops.

Selecting your cover crop takes some research, but it’s usually best to choose a mix to counterbalance drawbacks of any given species. At minimum, you should plant legumes (e.g. fava bean, cowpeas) for a quick release of Nitrogen, and grasses (e.g. winter rye) to decompose more slowly, providing a longer-lasting mulch and slower Nitrogen release. Other cover crops to consider are oilseed radishes whose taproots break up heavy, compacted soil, and buckwheat, which establishes quickly, providing rapid weed suppression.

Using cover crops takes some planning, as you will be growing them in place of food crops. They are an excellent alternative to letting soil lie fallow over winter when rains can leach nutrients out of the root zone or cause erosion. Select a site in full sun and sow seeds in September or October. Water until the rains arrive, and then only as needed during winter dry spells. They won’t need any other maintenance until March, when you cut them down in preparation for your food crops. The exact timing depends on how quickly they begin to set flower, which is when you want to kill them.

Tradition calls for tilling cover crop biomass into the soil. For soil microbes, this is like taking a bulldozer to your house and hosting a dinner party the same day: possible, but not conducive to comfort. Bacteria, fungus, worms, and many other organisms feeding on organic matter exist in different strata of the soil, depending on what stage of decomposition their food needs to be in. Some organisms, especially bacteria, are immobile, so disrupting the soil layers moves many to where they won’t be able to access the food they need. If you feel more comfortable incorporating the cover crops into your soil, organisms will eventually repopulate, but try to disturb them as little as possible.

Four to six weeks before planting your food crop, kill the cover crop with a lawn mower, weed whacker, or string trimmer, cutting as close to the ground as possible. Spread the biomass evenly on the ground as a mulch. At planting time, use a mattock to create planting strips. Food crops started from large seeds or transplants work best.

Other benefits of the “no-till” method include keeping weed seeds buried, and saving you a lot of work. As long as you have legumes, the temporary nitrogen deficiency mentioned above should not be an issue. Selecting annual grasses rather than perennials will help ensure they won’t stick around when it comes time to plant your food crops. Finally, be sure to kill cover crops before they set seeds to maximize nutrient recycling and prevent weed problems.

See the Sacramento County Master Gardener website at <> for information on traditional cover crop methods. 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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Indoor Plants Help Clean the Air

Spider Plants are great for filtering indoor air pollution

Many people are drawn to the aroma of a new car, a recently varnished cabinet in all its unscratched glory, or “spring fresh”- scented cleaners. We may revel in newness and hygiene, but the smells associated with “fresh and clean” are often due to toxins in a variety of household products. When released into the air, these chemicals become indoor air pollution and have been linked to a variety of illnesses, including nausea, asthma, cancer, and neurological, developmental, and reproductive disorders.

While it’s impossible to eliminate them completely, you can reduce levels by choosing products with fewer toxins, and growing indoor plants to filter some of the harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) out of the air. If this seems like horticultural hocus-pocus, worry not; indoor plants have proven their worth in many scientific studies that tested some of the most common VOCs such as formaldehyde (paper products), benzene and toluene (plastics, detergents, glue), and ammonia (cleaners, fertilizers).

To get the most out of your indoor plants’ filtration benefits, it helps to know a few factoids. One of the most important things to know is that the foliage has only a secondary role in the removal of undesirable compounds. Most of the action happens in the soil, called the “potted plant microcosm” by researchers, where VOCs are metabolized into harmless byproducts. Carbon monoxide is also taken up by soil bacteria for their metabolic processes, and by plants to stimulate root growth and seed germination.

Unfortunately for those who lack a green thumb, your dead plant coffins (pots of soil with deceased plants) will not keep this microcosm alive. Plants and soil microbes have a mutually beneficial relationship in which plants provide sugars for soil microbes; microbes, in turn, help plants access more nutrients and water.

Another fact to consider is that some plant-microbe teams are better than others at VOC reduction. Examples of great air-cleansers include Boston Fern (Nephrolepis obliterata), Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Purple Heart Plant (Tradescantia Pallida), Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens), and Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica). NASA’s list of clean air plants, created after their seminal research of the late 1980s, is easily found with an internet search and provides more plant ideas.

On the flip side to this biofiltration boon, some potted plant microcosms actually emit VOCs as well. Soil bacteria is responsible for some, so plant selection can help. However, most come from cultural practices, which the plant guardian has more control over. Selecting plant species whose needs match your home environment will prevent a lot of problems, as keeping them healthy will be easier. If necessary, use horticultural oils instead of toxic pesticides to deal with pests. Feed with organic fertilizers instead of synthetics; better yet, choose plants with lower fertilizer needs, and place them outside, if possible, when it’s time to feed so that some of the VOCs are gone when the plant is brought back indoors (some plants do not like being moved, so do your homework first). Choosing clay or ceramic over plastic containers can further reduce VOC emissions.

For more information on caring for indoor plants, check out the SJ County Master Gardener website at If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112.


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Garden for bounty and health.

Some of the bounty from my garden.

I grew up on a farm and have enjoyed both the outdoors and seeing things grow. As a kid, I would get home from school and take my dog for a hike in the 40 acres woodlot that was part of our farm. This early exposure to nature shaped my later life as an ecologist and biologist. My mother was a talented, excellent gardener and she fostered my love of growing food and flowers.

Recently, gardening projects have been started as a healthy way of connecting children with the environment as schools have added gardening to their curricula. Teaching math and science along with the practical aspects growing food is a hands-on dynamic approach to learning that connects children with soil and plants.

If you google either Gardening or Nature and Health, you will get lots of articles on how being in a natural environment or a garden is good for one’s health. Here are just three examples and excerpts: Why gardening is good for your health -, “Two separate studies that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found, respectively, that those who gardened regularly had a 36% and 47% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account.”  How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal  Scientific American- “ Just  three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and to induce relaxation, according to various studies of healthy people that measured physiological changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, or heart and brain electrical activity.”

Petal Power: Why Is Gardening So Good For Our Mental Health, “when we exercise levels of serotonin and dopamine (hormones that make us feel good) rise and the level of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress), is lowered. It’s true that a session in the garden can leave you dead on your feet, but it can also get rid of excess energy so you sleep better and ultimately feel renewed inside.”

Likewise if you google recidivism rates in prison populations as affected by horticulture and gardening, you will also find many articles touting how gardening has positive effects. Here is what one academic review paper had to say about mental health aspects. “Prison gardening programs were shown to enhance incarcerated individuals’ psychosocial wellbeing in three key ways: 1) increase in self-efficacy and self-worth, 2) decrease in anxiety and depression spectrum symptoms, and 3) reduction in recidivism rates.”

Fortunately I have never had a prison experience, but I have experienced all my life the mental and physical benefits of gardening. There is value in learning early the responsibility of nurturing plants and being connected to other living things. Gardening is also mentally challenging. There is a lot to know and learn about the thousands of plants and seeds available to the gardener today and all the aspects of managing their environments so they prosper. You never run out of learning possibilities and challenges.

Most of our life is spent interacting with other humans, so it is restful to spend time with plants and pets far from the maddening crowds—which works well for me.  About 99 percent of our time on earth as a species was spent in a truly natural environment in small groups of perhaps 40 humans. The age of civilization and living in cities is only one percent of species history and the existence of very large cities has happened just since 1800. As recently as the 1930’s Depression, fifty percent of our population lived on farms growing most of their own food. Presently 63 percent live in urbanized, artificial environments which can be very stressful. Gardens provide a break from the stresses of modern life and a chance to reconnect soil and plants.

Thomas Jefferson said it well in 1813, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well-watered and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, someone always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

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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Dispelling some garden Myths

The following is a description of common garden myths that gardeners can and should avoid.

  • Drought tolerant plants don’t need water. Well, yes, they do need water in their first year until they become established which will encourage roots to go deep. Once established they become drought tolerant.
  • When it comes to fertilizers and pesticides, if a little is good, twice is better. This myth can raise havoc with your plants and the environment. It is very important to follow the directions when applying chemicals. One of my Master Gardener friends told the story of supplying a relative with a large container of glyphosate (Roundup), enough to last for years. The following year he wanted more because, not reading the directions, he had used it at full strength instead of diluted, which for Super Concentrate Roundup is 3 tablespoons per gallon of water. Since glyphosate has been declared a cancer causing chemical, using more than necessary is unwise to say the least. Oversupplying chemical fertilizer can burn the plant’s roots. Some expert has figured out the right amounts of fertilizers or pesticides to use and has put it on a label—so reading and following label instructions is good for your health and your plant’s health.
  • Add sand to clay soils will loosen up the soil. I was once guilty of believing this one when I lived with black adobe soil in North Stockton. It sounds sensible that sand, which drains well, should help clay soils drain better, but this is not what happens. It creates a compacted mess that is more difficult to till unless so much sand is added that it becomes sandy soil. Adding compost and organic matter is the best way to create better drainage and tilth to heavy clay soils.
  • Egg shells because they have sharp edges repel slugs and snails. This is not a sure fire remedy as snails can crawl over razorblades without harm. Other approaches work better. Bands of dry diatomaceous earth, sawdust or sand around your plants can deter snails better. Wide copper strips on raised beds will also work by apparently giving the snail a shock, but they are a rather expensive cure at the price of copper. Nocturnal hunts with a flashlight or at dawn can eliminate a lot of snails or nearly all of them if you are diligent. If you use snail and slug baits and have safety concerns about wildlife and pets, it is best to use iron phosphate baits which are safer for pets and the environment than meta-aldehyde baits. In all cases, read the label and apply properly.
  • The phosphorus fertilizer myth. Phosphorus may often be limiting in agricultural soils that have been heavily used for production. However, in landscaped, urban soils phosphorus is rarely deficient and the over application of this element can interfere with a plant’s absorption of iron, manganese and zinc, resulting in yellowing of leaves and poor plant health. Phosphorus is generally stable in the soil and unlike nitrogen, does not readily leach out. Rarely is it necessary to add bone meal or high phosphorus fertilizers when landscape planting.
  • Treating pruning wounds with paint, tar or grafting compound. This actually does more harm than good because the natural callousing process that the tree invokes to reduce pathogens infecting the wound is inhibited. Thus, it is important to make clean cuts with clean tools and let the tree or shrub heal on its own. If heavy pruning is to be done, it is best done in late winter which reduces the risks of wound infection.
  • Dig deep holes when planting trees or shrubs and the plants will be more stable. Actually, dig a wide hole and not a deep one. A deep hole with loose material under the plant can cause it to settle deeper than it was when grown. This is especially bad for grafted trees where the graft union ends up located at ground level or below. It is especially critical for dwarfing-rootstock fruit trees to be planted with the scion or top part kept at the depth it was in the nursery. If planted too deep, the scion part may grow its own roots and hence lose the dwarfing characteristics of the rootstock. One exception to this is rose planting in cold climates where the graft union is placed an inch below the surface to help insure winter survival; not a problem in most of California.
  • Fill the planting hole with compost and fertilizer. This would seem like a great idea, but it has the result of not forcing the roots out into the native soil and thus restricts root growth to the nutrient rich medium you added to the hole. This adversely affects the stability of the plant and its ability to access water. For more information on many garden myths, see:  Happy myth-free 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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An up-close look at pollen (achoo!)

For many people, pollen is the “p-word”. . . as in, “PLEASE, don’t say that word!” The mere mention of pollen can conjure up runny noses, watery and itchy eyes, and looks of desperation from those with hay fever. Here in the fertile, crop-rich San Joaquin Valley, it’s often said that if you don’t already have allergies, you’ll develop them.

Trees such as oaks, birches, conifers (pines, firs, spruces), and nut crops (walnuts, almonds, pecans) are especially prolific producers of pollen, and they’re ubiquitous in our area. They’re joined by other common pollen-producing plants, including grasses and many of our favorite garden flowers. It’s an allergy sufferer’s nightmare.

Pollen literally means “fine flour” or “mill dust” in Latin. While it’s a health nuisance, it’s also a valuable and necessary evil.

We’re familiar with pollen as that yellowish, powdery-looking stuff that drifts away from trees and other plants in spring and summer, making us miserable as it floats through the air, collects on our cars and homes, and settles in our nostrils. But without pollen, we literally couldn’t survive. The vast majority of plants on Earth depend on pollen for their reproduction, and we in turn depend on plants for food and oxygen.

Pollen is unique to seed-producing plants, which are divided into the flowering plants (Angiosperms) and the cone-bearing plants (Gymnosperms). The pollen-bearing structures of these plants are contained either in the flowers or the cones. More primitive plants such as ferns, fungi, mosses, and horsetails don’t make pollen; instead, they produce spores.

So, what exactly is pollen, anyway?

A clue to pollen’s specific purpose lies in the aforementioned scientific classifications of pollen-producing plants: the suffix –sperm means “seed” in Greek. Pollen is the male vehicle for a seed-forming plant’s sexual reproduction. Each microscopic pollen grain has a hard outer coating that protects the inner contents—two sperm cells and a tube cell—from damage and dehydration.

Plants fall into two categories when it comes to the type of pollination: (1) self-pollinated, or (2) cross-pollinated, where pollen from one plant must transfer to another plant of the same species.

Pollination begins when grains of pollen move from the male part of a plant to the female part of a plant. Pollen transfer can occur in one of two ways: (1) abiotic pollination, where pollen is carried by wind or water (most common in grasses and trees), or (2) the far-more-typical biotic pollination, where a living organism such as a bee, butterfly, moth, wasp, fly, bird, bat, or other animal moves the pollen (most common in non-tree flowering plants).

Once a pollen grain comes in contact with the female part of a plant, it germinates. A pollen tube develops, emerging through a specialized opening in the outer covering then extending toward the structure that holds the egg. The sperm cells then leave the pollen grain and travel through the pollen tube, ending their journey when they reach the egg. Fertilization occurs once the plant’s egg/ovule and sperm cells unite, and that initiates seed development.

Some amazing pollen-related facts about corn: Just one stalk can produce about 18 million pollen grains! The pollen grains land on the ends of the female corn silk; there is one strand of silk attached to each developing kernel. The single-celled pollen tubes that grow from the pollen grains through the silk can be up to a foot long!

Many small members of the animal kingdom depend upon pollen. Honeybees and native bees use protein-rich pollen, either eating it themselves or mixing it with sugary nectar before feeding it to their developing larvae. (Pollen is not used to make honey; honey is regurgitated nectar.) Some beetles—including ladybugs—and many common types of web-weaving spiders also consume pollen as part of their diet.

When seen under a microscope, pollen grains are exquisitely beautiful natural works of art. Their outer coatings are intricately patterned, spiked, or pitted, and different plant species produce their own unique pollen designs. Pollen can be sticky-surfaced or spine-studded so that it’s easily carried on the hair, feathers, or fur of pollinators, or it can be lightweight and aerodynamically crafted to float in a breeze.

False-color scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains from a variety of common plants: sunflower, morning glory, prairie hollyhock, oriental lily, evening primrose and castor bean. (Public domain image from the Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility)















For more information and a visual treat, read the book Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, or search the Internet for “pollen electron microscopy” to see extraordinary images. And try very hard to appreciate pollen, even as it makes you sneeze.

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


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    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

    Nadia Zane

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