Managing Weeds Without Herbicides

Field Bindweed requires persistent management if allowed to become established

Weeds. What would spring be without them? For some, weed-pulling is calming and meditative. For others, it is a loathsome task leading to feelings of anger, frustration, and orneriness. How can we maintain a weed-free garden and our mental health?

Like illness in the human body, weeds are often a sign that something has gone awry in the garden’s ecosystem. Herbicides can be tempting with their promises to be a “cure-all” for your weedy woes. Unfortunately, “weed-free gardens” are impossible, at least in the long term, and launching a chemical assault introduces toxins into your immediate surroundings. Instead, try turning those unwanted, irritating plants into an opportunity to learn about why they happen in the first place, and what you can do about it.

There are myriad factors leading to weeds, and many are caused by humans. Not what you wanted to hear? We would certainly prefer to blame nature, but the fact is, humans have transferred plants (and animals) around the globe for centuries, both intentionally and unintentionally. Seeds hitching a ride on boots or animal fodder, for example, were dropped off wherever people went. Upon reaching their destination, seeds either perish because the climate is unsuitable, or thrive because the climate is great and their natural enemies stayed home.

Although weeds settle in quickly when they find favorable conditions, there are steps you can take to reduce their numbers. The easiest, and most beneficial practice is to lay down a 3”-4” layer of mulch around your plants, preferably organic (e.g. bark). This prevents weeds from germinating in the first place and protects your soil (and desired plants) from heat and drought.

There will always be some weeds that manage to peek through mulch, so try to pull them before they go to seed and make little ones. Perennial weeds (those living three or more years), such as field bindweed, form extensive root systems that take hold quickly unless yanked out the minute their fearsome foliage appears. If you inherit a thick, hearty patch of established weeds, you will likely need more specific control strategies. The University of California Integrated Pest Management website is a good place to start: <>

To prevent existing seeds from germinating, avoid tilling the soil, which brings them to the surface. Tilling is also damaging to soil health and should not be practiced on a regular basis. For large areas that are bare for part of the year, try growing cover crops, which are plants grown to benefit soil health and provide a living mulch that blocks weeds from growing. This is a great idea for dormant vegetable gardens in winter, when rains can provide the irrigation. More information on cover crops can be found at <>

Many weeds start out their lives in nurseries as adorable little bundles of joy in a 4” container. After the initial fun, the “terrible twos” start up, and that precious purple morning glory vine is wreaking havoc on your neighbor’s fence three doors down, and that wisteria vine lifts your house off its foundations (true story, by the way). Be aware of what you are planting and whether you have the commitment for long-term management. Even though many nurseries have stopped growing some of the worst offendors, check out the California Invasive Plant Council’s website at <> to find out which species have the potential to escape into the wild and cause trouble in natural habitats.

Weeds are ubiquitous, and managing them is an ongoing task. If emotional trauma persists, remember that weeds were born the day a human looked at a poor, innocent plant and decided it needed to go away. They are illiterate organisms who have never read a gardening book, and have zero control over where their progeny lands. Avoiding the toxic effects of herbicides means creating an unfavorable environment for weeds, and, hopefully, less weed-pulling for you.

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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Citrus thoughts for spring

It is time to consider caring for your citrus or planting some if you have none and want to enjoy picking your own ripe tangerines, oranges, lemons, limes, pummelos, and grapefruit. There are lots of citrus suitable for planting in San Joaquin County. One of the best to plant is a dwarf, Improved Meyer lemon. It is a highly productive variety that is somewhat freeze resistant and will keep you in lemons for a few months annually. Meyer lemons are a little sweeter than other lemons.  I have one that is about 40 years old and still going strong and very productive. It can be planted in containers as well as in the ground, but if you want to give it room with less fuss—plant it in the ground. Folks in parts of the country where it freezes can grow them in containers so they can be moved to a warm spot for the winter.

If you want a more tart lemon, I can recommend ‘Lisbon’ which is less likely to be damaged by freezing temperatures than the ‘Eureka’ variety. The Lisbon or Eureka lemon both require more diligent pruning than the Meyer. They tend to grow more vigorously, with long straggly branches. Hence, they need pruning to keep them stubby and supportive of the fruit that they abundantly produce.

When to prune citrus, is a question often asked of Master Gardeners. The ideal time is in the spring after any frost damage can be observed and removed and before new growth occurs or summer heat sets in. Spring is also the best time to purchase and plant new citrus trees. Pruning out water sprouts (gourmands) may improve yields because more energy can go toward fruit production. Water sprouts will not produce fruit. Pruning can improve fruit quality through increasing light in the canopy. In older trees, reducing tree height facilitates harvesting and reduces risk of injury from ladders. The best approach is to plant dwarf trees and avoid heights where possible. Skirt pruning facilitates weeding, mulch additions, and other cultural practices, as well as reducing risk of soil borne pathogens affecting the fruit. Pruning may reduce insect and disease pest problems.

A mature Improved Meyer lemon that needs to be skirt pruned to provide more clearance underneath the tree.

If you have older trees, say greater than 40 years old, it is good to disinfect pruners after pruning and before pruning younger trees. Use of disease free budwood and rootstock in more recent years has reduced the incidence of these diseases. Older trees are more likely to harbor viruses and they may be spread by the pruning tools if not disinfected. A 15 percent bleach solution or Lysol can be used to disinfect pruners.

I had a Valencia orange that was over 50 years old and it developed Psorosis, a virus disease causing shelling of bark on the scion caused by a virus. It was also common on old trees before it was eliminated in nursery stock. My Valencia, which produced lots of oranges for several years, finally declined over time and had to be removed. It will take my young Valencia many years to become as productive as that old tree.

As with any tree pruning it is important not to damage or remove the branch collar which produces the tissues which heal the wound. The branch collar is the area around the base of a large branch, often visible as a ridge or wrinkled bark around the branch. It contains a narrow band of cells known as the “branch defense zone” which activate the growth of the callus tissue that grows over the pruning cut. Citrus bark is also thin and easily damaged so care should be taken not to scar the bark.

In order to shape a young tree, downward growing shoots should be pruned to allow upward growing buds to become dominant. Cutting the shoot just above an axillary bud (the bud in the angle between the leaf and the stem) pointing upward will redirect growth upward. This will help shape the tree for future production.

Beware of any shoots that are thorny and originate below the scion wood on the rootstock. These shoots below the bud union should be removed as soon as they appear.  For trees on Trifoliate rootstocks (Poncirus trifoliata), the thorns from the rootstock are very obvious and hazardous to your skin.

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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Some of the good fungus among our plants

On January 13 National Public Radio presented a segment on forests investigations by Suzanne Simard, a forestry ecologist, who worked out how trees in the forest can communicate and share resources by use of underground connections via fungi mycelium. It was very fascinating and the presentation is on TED  One has to wonder if such communications and sharing of resources happen outside of forests, but we do know that fungus and plants go together.

What is mycelium one might ask? Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. These vegetative components of fungi are less conspicuous than the reproductive fruiting stages that we recognize as mushrooms, but the mycelium often forms symbiotic relationships with the plants in our gardens. They also are important in breaking down material in ecosystems and in our compost piles. It can be seen in the compost pile as light grey threads. Mycelium is good at breaking down lignin, the woody parts of plants. In compost piles they operate best at temperatures less than 120 ºF. They are also good at breaking down and detoxifying hydrocarbons often found in industrial wastes such as oil and pesticides.

The mycelium, when in a symbiotic plant relationship, is termed mycorrhizae. The term comes from the Greek word ‘mykos’ meaning fungi and ‘riz’ referring to root and hence describes the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the root of a vascular plant. There are actually two kinds of relationships; endomycorrhizae actually invade the plant root cells whereas ectomycorrhizae form a sheath around the root, but do not invade root tissues. Endomycorrhizae are also referred to in the literature as arbuscular mycorrhizae.

The fungi benefits from sugars that the plant produces and the plant benefits because the fungi shares phosphate, nitrogen, iron, copper and other minerals with the plant. The host plant may donate between 4 and 20% of its photosynthetically fixed carbon to the mycorrhizal fungus. Mycorrhizae also help increase the surface area of the plant root system because hyphae can spread beyond the nutrient depletion zone. The benefits of the mycorrhizae are most evident on poor soils where plants are nutrient challenged. Mycorrhizae also help protect plants from root pathogens and help plants withstand drought.

Fossil records indicate that these symbiotic relationships have been around for 400 to 450 millions years and these fungi are widespread in our environment. They likely helped plants adapt to a terrestrial existence as they colonized the earth. Approximately 80 % of all known land plant species form mycorrhizal interactions with these ubiquitous soil fungi. However, there can be situations where the mycorrhizae are not present because of construction or other soil disturbances. This is where entrepreneurs have come to the rescue by providing a variety of mycorrhizae for use in compost, greenhouses, agriculture, turf and other situations.

In doing research for this article, I came across a study made by a master gardener in another county were the MG had planted a variety of plants in the same soil mixture but with and without mycorrhizae. The test of the difference caused by the mycorrhizae was to measure the height of the plants. It actually did show differences, but they were small except for the Cardoon which with mycorrhizae was twice as tall as the one without the mycorrhizae. I think the study would have been more successful if they had used poorer soil for growing medium instead of the rich medium they used. This would perhaps have enhanced the effect the mycorrhizae. It is also unknown if they used the best mycorrhizae for the plants grown because there are lots of species.

However I have seen other studies where the plant size was markedly greater when mycorrhizae were present versus plants were it was absent. For example, potatoes grown with mycorrhizae present yielded 33 percent more by weight than potatoes grown without mycorrhizae. Cabbages and its relatives are one of the few plants that don’t have mycorrhizae helping them grow. For more information on kinds of mycorrhizae see: It is good to know that the fungus among us is not all bad and in fact vital to good gardening success.

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’s Old is New Again

A very basic concept has sparked an exciting revolution with this generation, but it is far from new. Upcycling is the act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. Some of the best examples of modern-day upcycling come from the 1930s-40s when families had very little economic or material resources. In this age of thrift, they reused almost everything, repurposing items over and over until they were no longer useful: Feed sacks became dresses or old doors became the new dining room table.

Thrift is still a trend today and a big reason some people upcycle. Others enjoy the artistic aesthetic. One of the biggest reasons for the rebirth of upcycling is the positive impact on the environment. Items destined for the dump are rescued and remade into something useful.

Many garden upcycling ideas start with items around the house and a need for something. So, before you throw away or recycle broken or used items, give them a second look and ask yourself if they can be used in the garden. A quick search on the internet under “repurposing or upcycling in the garden” will give you all the inspiration you will need to get started. We aren’t all artists, but with some elbow grease and a little creativity, even the novice can fashion some fun and quirky statements for the landscape.

Here are some of my favorites to help get you started!

  • One of the first projects to come to mind are upcycled garden containers like an old bird cage with a spill of charming succulents in the bottom. Paint old tires in vibrant hues, stack them and fill with dirt. Use colanders to make hanging baskets or decorate an old dresser and plant in its drawers. An old chandelier can be spruced up with some paint and makes a great hanging flower planter.  Whimsical items take on even more charm when plants are installed in them. Children’s rain boots, rusty tool boxes, old tins, teapots, glassware, and more provide interesting planting options.
  • Install an old mailbox onto a fencepost near your garden, and use it to keep gloves, tools, seed packets, and other necessities nearby and safe from the elements.
  • Milk jugs are amazing garden tools! They can be used as cloches, seed starters, scoops, waterers, dusters, upside-down vegetable planters, and more!
  • Yogurt containers, egg cartons, and toilet paper rolls cut in half make perfect containers for holding soil and starting small plants from seeds. Make sure to poke a few holes in the bottom of anything that is solid to allow water to drain.
  • Use plastic mesh baskets from cherry tomatoes or strawberries to protect newly-sprouted seedlings such as corn, cucumber, melons, and squash from birds.  By the time the seedlings are tall enough to reach through the tops of the baskets, they are no longer as tender and detectible as the birds prefer.
  • Save sets of jars for sorting and storing seeds you’ve collected.  Use the same type of jar for each type of seed for quick sorting.  Choose the jar size to match the quantity of seeds you have.  Place them together on a shelf for quick, at-a-glance recognition and easy retrieval.
  • While some plants require lots of room to be happy, succulents actually do better in small containers or planted close together. Colorful food cans make great homes for succulents!
  • Don’t throw out that chair with the broken seat! Turn it into a pretty planter for petunias and other flowers.
  • Planting veggies and need some plant labels? You can paint old kitchen spoon vibrant colors and add your sprouting seedling name. Old mini blind vanes or pained rocks work well too! If you have some wine corks lying around, you can stick them on a bamboo skewer and write the name on the cork for a unique label.
  • Turn an old, broken bike into a cool planter.  Paint it bright colors, install a planter or basket at the handle bars and park it amongst a wildflower garden.
  • Decorative garden balls are an inexpensive alternative to the classic gazing ball. Take an old bowling ball or mason jar, add some paint and glue on some flat marbles (glass gems), pennies, or old costume jewelry to create a unique garden decoration.

With upcycling, the possibilities are limited only to the materials you already have on hand and your creativity. Dig around your basement or garage or scour yard sales to find objects that appeal to you. Then get out the paint, super glue, twine, glue gun and any other decorating tools you need and go to town. Upcycling in the garden can be a fun, family project that let’s everyone put a special touch on your outdoor spaces while making a positive impact on the environment.

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




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Inspecting Trees for Hazards

Storm damaged trees are something many homeowners will have to deal with at some point. This last storm brought with it some pretty powerful winds and with that many downed fences and trees. For some, it may be too late to inspect trees for potential hazards but hopefully for many of you, this last storm spared trees planted around your home and neighborhood.

Although some tree failures are not predictable and cannot be prevented, many failures can be prevented. By inspecting trees for common structural defects, many potential failures can be corrected before they cause damage or injury. It is best to make inspections before stormy weather and immediately afterward.

You should inspect healthy and unhealthy trees on a regular basis. Large trees have a greater hazard potential than small trees and should be inspected more frequently and in greater detail. Always make your inspections from the ground, do not climb the tree or use a ladder to improve your viewing perspective. If you suspect a hazardous condition, immediately contact your utility company and consult an arborist who has the equipment and training to conduct the inspection safely. If you determine that a tree is a potential hazard, keep people, pets, and vehicles out of the area until the hazardous condition has been corrected.

Thoroughly inspect the tree for the following defects:

Lean: Determine whether the vertical axis of the tree has recently changed and check the ground around the base of the tree for uplift or exposed roots. If the tree was vertical but has moved from the vertical position, it is called a leaner. These are trees that are in the process of falling and could fall completely at any time and require immediate attention.

Multiple trunks: Some trees develop more than one trunk, which are often weakly attached and prone to splitting apart— especially those with narrow angles of attachment. This condition is a concern in large trees. Inspect the point where the trunks meet.

Weakly attached branches: Inspect large branches (greater than 3 inches) at the point where they attach to the trunk. Trees with many branches arising from the same point on the trunk are weak and potentially hazardous. If one branch breaks, the others are more likely to fail.

Cavities, large decay pockets, and other evidence of decay: Inspect the trunk and large branches for cavities or large decay pockets. If you find cavities or decay at a point where loads are great (where branches meet or at the base of the trunk), they are a concern. If a cavity or decay pocket is especially large and is at a key structural location, the tree is more likely to fail.

Mushrooms and conks growing on the bark of trees or on exposed roots indicate root rot or wood decay. As the decay progresses, the wood is weakened and failure is more likely.

It is very important to have your tree inspected by an arborist if you find cavities or decay. Tree size and weight distribution should be considered when deciding if the tree is a hazard. Do not attempt to clean out or seal a cavity or decay pocket—you may be doing more harm than good.

Trunk and branch cracks: Inspect the trunk and large branches for cracks. If a crack is found, determine if it extends into the wood or is confined to the bark. Insert a pencil or other object into the crack and measure its depth. Look into the crack to see if you can tell the thickness of the bark and whether the crack extends into the wood.

Cracks confined to the bark are not usually a problem, but there is reason for concern when the crack extends into the wood. Deep cracks indicate that a separation of the wood within a trunk or branch has occurred and the tree has become structurally weakened. If you find a crack, it is best to have it inspected by an arborist.

Hanging or broken branches (hangers): Hangers are branches that are broken but have not fallen from the tree. They may still be partially attached or completely separated and lodged in the canopy. Inspect for branches that are hanging down from a break point and for branches that have broken off completely and are resting on other branches. Hangers should be removed as soon as possible.

Dead branches (deadwood): Branches that have died will eventually fall off and can cause damage when they fall. Inspect trees that lose their leaves in winter when they are in full-leaf (late spring through early fall). Evergreen trees can be inspected for deadwood at any time. If you find deadwood, plan to have it removed. This does not have to be done immediately, but should not be ignored

Obtaining professional advice and services: The best assurance of getting quality advice or tree work is by hiring an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) or a consulting arborist who is a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). Certification does not guarantee quality performance, it is only a means of helping you select an arborist who has a demonstrated level of knowledge and technical proficiency. You should verify that your arborist is insured and check his or her references. When you call for service, the arborist will come out and assess the storm damage to your trees and explain the best way to repair the tree if it is salvageable.

When Tree Damage Repair Is Not an Option: Trees are beautiful, valuable assets to a property and in most cases an arborist will exhaust all other options before deciding that a tree must be cut down. Unfortunately, some storm damaged trees are simply beyond repair, and complete removal is the only safe course of action.

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

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Fundamental facts about fertilizers

Spring is almost upon us, and with the season comes a rush of new plant growth and the urge to spend time in our gardens. Although fertilizer might seem a dry topic, give it some thought before you visit your favorite nursery.

Fertilizing plants is often equated with “feeding” them, but plants produce their own food through photosynthesis, using the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water to sugars and oxygen. Fertilizers do, however, provide plants with essential nutrients for cell development, function, and growth.

The basic purpose of fertilizers is to replace soil nutrients that deplete over time. Soil composition and pH have a direct effect on what nutrients can be absorbed by plants and how efficiently, so it’s wise to do a basic soil test before choosing or using a fertilizer to remedy any apparent nutrient deficiencies.

Fertilizers come in two basic types: organic (those derived from natural sources, including plant compost, animal manure, fish emulsion, and bone meal) and inorganic (composed of synthetic chemicals). Organic fertilizers have many benefits: they release nutrients over a long period; they improve the structure and water-holding capacity of soil; and they have a complex profile of macro- and micronutrients. The downside is that they’re more expensive and can vary in content or quality. Inorganic fertilizers release nutrients quickly, are consistent in composition, and are less expensive, but they don’t improve soil quality or contain as many nutrients.

Fertilizer bag with N-P-K ratio, showing each nutrient in its usual chemical form

Every fertilizer label shows something called the “N-P-K” ratio, which indicates the percentage by volume of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). A “balanced” fertilizer has equal amounts of each of these three plant macronutrients; for example, a product labeled 16-16-16 has 16% N, 16% P, 16% K, and 52% other ingredients. A “complete” fertilizer contains all three major nutrients; an “incomplete” fertilizer has only one or two of them.

You might think, “If I use more fertilizer than recommended, my plants will grow even better.” No! Many serious problems can result from overuse of fertilizers. Too much fertilizer can burn plant roots and foliage; surplus nitrogen can leach into and pollute water; and excess nutrients can over-stimulate plant growth, leading to an unnecessary cycle of frequent pruning and stressed, disease-susceptible plants. Fertilizers should always be applied according to the instructions.

It’s also tempting to try shortcuts, and rationalize, “One kind of fertilizer will be fine for all my plants.” Wrong! Plants have unique nutrient requirements, and different fertilizers are formulated for different purposes. For example, many plants native to Australia can be harmed or killed by phosphorus-containing fertilizers, while other plants need phosphorus to thrive. A fertilizer intended for citrus trees is different from that designed for acid-loving azaleas and camellias… and so on.

Timing is another key consideration: season, rainfall, planting dates, and other factors are important in determining the right time to fertilize. If deciding when to fertilize shrubs and trees, their age, maturity, and species should be considered. Lawns are still another matter, and homeowners tend to apply fertilizer on lawns unnecessarily and wastefully.

An effective alternative to commercial lawn fertilizers is the easy practice of “grasscycling.” Grass clippings become natural fertilizer when they’re allowed to remain in place after mowing – they decompose and return nutrients to the soil. Grasscycling is often thought of as a relatively new sustainable practice, but its benefits have been known for many decades. I recently stumbled across a 1924 article from a Midwestern newspaper that cited this advice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Cuttings should begin early with the lawn mower set as high as possible and should be repeated frequently. The clippings should all remain upon the lawn. The more of these clippings that can be retained about the roots of the grass the better the chances for a good lawn.” Nowadays, lawnmowers can be fitted with special mulching blades to make the process more efficient and the clipping size small.

By now, it should be clear that fertilizing is a very complex topic with far more detail than can be covered here. Before you fertilize, make sure that you—or those you hire to care for your garden—fully understand the specific goal of fertilizing; the product that will best meet that goal; and the proper rate, method, and timing for applying the chosen fertilizer.

Two excellent online resources are “A Gardener’s Guide to Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs” (NC State University) and “The UC Guide to Healthy Lawns” (UC IPM). You can also consult the California Master Gardener Handbook (Chapter 3 – Soil and Fertilizer Management) for in-depth guidance.

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


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Getting the dirt on earthworms

Earthworms. They’re so small and seemingly insignificant that we hardly give them a second thought.

These squirmy denizens of the dirt usually go about their lives unseen—they’re revealed to us only when upturned in a shovelful of soil or when stranded on pavement after a drenching rain. (Worms crawl out of the ground during heavy storms because they breathe air through their skin and can drown if the soil is saturated with water.)

Even though they can evoke a squeamish response, earthworms are good for the garden. They burrow and create long tunnels through the soil, which helps aerate and loosen it, creates channels for movement of water and oxygen, and allows plant roots to penetrate more easily. They help mix plant matter into the topsoil where beneficial microorganisms can decompose it. They consume organic matter such as fallen leaves, thereby recycling plant nutrients and increasing soil fertility. Worm castings (a.k.a. poop) are an excellent soil amendment since they’re rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Research even suggests that plants have improved disease resistance if planted in soil enriched with worm castings. Worms also provide a valuable source of food for birds, frogs, and other wildlife (not to mention being gobbled up by backyard chickens and fish on hooks).

Most of our native local species of worms have been destroyed or displaced by human activity; the kinds we usually see are descendants of hardier worms intentionally or accidentally introduced to North America by early European and Asian immigrants. There are now about 180 different species of earthworms in the U.S. and Canada, a third of which are non-native (including night crawlers). The typical garden earthworms are NOT the same as redworms or “red wigglers” (Eisenia foetida), the non-native species most commonly recommended for use in home worm composting.

Earthworms are primitive but fascinating creatures. They don’t have eyes, but they do have special light-detecting receptors. Light is a bad thing for creatures whose natural habitat is underground, and worms have evolved to move away from light sources, hence their burrowing instinct. They “hear” by detecting vibrations, and they produce mucus or “slime” in reaction to stress (e.g. being yanked from the ground). They also have voracious appetites: some species can eat their weight in organic matter every day.

Worms are hermaphroditic: each worm has both male and female reproductive organs in its elongated, muscular, tube-like body. Typically, two earthworms join side-by-side in opposing directions to mate, and each member of the pair produces an egg capsule from which one to several immature worms eventually emerge. Redworms are among the most prolific breeders.

In part due to its reproductive success, some Native American cultures revere the earthworm totem as a symbol of fertility, productive thought, and acceptance of emotions. In our modern society, the worm can represent either the beneficent (as in the sweet, bespectacled bookworm) or malicious (as in harmful software that lurks in the Internet).

A common earthworm with castings (Univ. of CA)













This is a good time to discredit a common misconception about worms. If a worm is cut in half by a shovel or by an over-enthusiastic tug from a curious child, the two parts won’t heal and live to create new worms. The head end (with its tiny brain and five hearts) can’t survive without the tail end (with its digestive system), and the worm simply dies.

You can use several techniques to encourage greater earthworm populations in your garden: (1) Avoid frequent tilling or cultivation of soil; (2) Minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, all of which disturb naturally occurring soil micro- and macro-organisms; (3) Allow leaf litter to remain on soil year-round, to provide a food source for worms; and (4) “Sheet mulch” bare soil, using layers of cardboard, mulch, and compost to keep soil cool and moist and to provide a source of organic material for worms to eat.

A word of caution: don’t dump unused live bait worms in a remote natural area. Many forest and mountain environments are naturally devoid of earthworms, and introducing them to those areas can be harmful. Forests often depend on a dense, protective, year-round layer of leaf litter, and earthworms will rapidly consume that thick organic mat.

For more about earthworms in our ecosystem, go online to and search for the article Earthworm Ecology in California, or read the book “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms” by Amy Stewart.

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




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Worms Turn Food Waste Into Garden Gold

Worms make quick work of your kitchen scraps, leaving behind a nutritious amendment for your soil

One of the best ways to improve your soil and plant health is to apply compost, which is decomposed organic matter full of beneficial microbes. However, managing a pile takes time, space, a strong back, and the right kinds of organic materials to achieve the characterstics of quality compost. For those of you living on tiny urban lots with busy schedules or limited physical abilities, you can still turn food waste into an excellent soil amendment by harnessing the power of worms.

Yes, you read that correctly: worms.

I don’t mean tossing food on the ground for worms and less desirable wildlife find. I am talking about vermicomposting, the process in which worms eat your kitchen scraps so the bacteria in their guts can break down nutrients into a form that plants can use. It is a tidy, contained system that recylces food waste, feeds the soil, and connects us with the circle of life (sans heart-wrenching deaths of cartoon lions).

This amazing process requires a bin and a few other ingredients. People have used many different types of containers, and size depends upon how much food waste you produce. However wide the bin is, it should be no deeper than 12 inches. A bin measuring 2′ wide and 4′ long is good for a family of four. Make sure to drill holes 3/8” to 1/4” wide in the sides, top, and bottom. Elevate off the ground on blocks and place a drainage tray underneath to catch any drips (only overly-wet bins will have a lot of drippings).

Next you need to get bedding. Bedding provides worms with a place to get away from kitchen scraps to reproduce; it also provides a food source if kitchen scraps are scarce (or unfavorable). The simplest source of bedding is shredded newspaper, but you can also use regular paper, corrugated cardboard, dried leaves (watch for chemicals), or coconut coir. Bedding material needs to be damp enough to feel like a wrung-out sponge. Add a handful of soil, which contains grit for their digestion.

Worms eat almost anything that was once living, but if this is your first time, it’s best to stick with vegetable and fruit scraps for the first month or so until you can guage how much they will eat. Minimize pungent foods such as citrus and onions; speed up the process by chopping food into little pieces. Worms eat their weight in food every 5-7 days, but observe them carefully. As populations grow and bedding disappears (i.e. gets eaten), you can add more food. Be sure to bury food at least 1” deep to keep fruit flies away. Never feed them pet feces, non-biodegradable materials, or scraps with a high salt or fat content (worms will eventually eat salty/fatty items, but don’t put in a lot all at once).

There are thousands of worm species worldwide, but only a few are good candidates for worm bins. Redworms (Eisenia fetida) are the the most common, as they live in groups, feed on organic matter at the soil surface (this is why your bin should be less than 12” deep), and lack feelings of wanderlust, making them ideal for closed quarters. Start with a pound of worms, which can be purchased at fishing supply stores or online. Be sure to cover the bin to block out light.

Worms turn their bedding and kitchen scraps into a fine, dark material similar to ground coffee. The simplest harvesting method involves shoving the finished material to one side of the bin, placing fresh bedding and food in the empty side, and waiting for the worms to migrate. This could take several weeks and will never be a complete evacuation. Dumping the bin out onto a large, plastic sheet and scooping the vermicompost off the top (allow worms to work their way down by shining a lamp on the pile) is more thorough and allows you to evaluate whether you want to make any changes in your worm routine.

Although vermicompost is great for any garden plant, it is especially beneficial for veggies. Apartment-dwellers can practice vermicomposting as well and use the finished product on potted plants or give it to friends with gardens. It’s difficult to use too much; try to go with a minimum 1/4″ layer. You can scratch it lightly into the soil if desired, especially if you do not use mulch, which prevents it from forming a crusty layer in hot, dry weather.

For more tips and tricks, see Mary Appelhof’s excellent book on vermicomposting, entitled Worms Eat My Garbage (Flowerfield Enterprises, 1997).

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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Why Soil is Better Than Dirt


This compost bin is a great place to recycle garden clippings and kitchen scraps into food for the soil.

We’ve all heard the words “soil” and “dirt,” but what’s the difference? Both have the same basic components: particles of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. The difference lies in how they function: dirt is where we stick our plants and dump water, fertilizers, and pesticides in the hopes of keeping plants alive; it loiters beneath our feet, supporting the weight of everything from humans to skyscrapers, all the while being completely ignored by the average citizen.

Soil, on the other hand, deserves a lot more respect. It contains a thriving community of organisms, many of which interact directly with plant roots to the benefit of all. This mutually beneficial relationship is crucial to plant health and can make gardening easier on humans if we allow the process to go along undisturbed.

One of the most important services soil organisms provide is making nutrients available to plants. The area immediately surrounding plant roots is covered with bacteria and fungi, which eat 50% of the sugars produced during plant photosynthesis. They also feed on nutrients from the surrounding soil, whose crystalline structure makes them unusable to plants. Bacteria and fungi have the enzymes and acids to break down these nutrients into forms plants can use, which is released when microscopic predators such as nematodes and protozoa come along and burst them open for a snack.

The living layer around plant roots, called a biofilm, also provides protection. A strong population of beneficial organisms crowds out invading pathogens and keeps existing bad guys in check. This biofilm is slightly alkaline, ensuring that the nutrients released by the bacteria and fungi will not be tied up by an overly acidic or alkaline environment. Remember that just because your soil may test as being extremely alkaline (rarely acidic in California), plants and organisms work as a team to change their lot in life.

The powers of living soil don’t end here; outside of the biofilm, organisms eat dead plant matter, releasing nutrients back into the soil. They secrete fluids (my apologies to squeamish readers) that bind together soil into little clumps called aggregates, which create air channels. These channels provide drainage and oxygen flow, the latter of which is essential in preventing anaerobic organisms and their toxic wastes from flourishing.

How do you know if your garden is full of dirt or soil? Think about how you treat your soil: dirt results from the over use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, inorganic amendments, and frequent tillage, leaving you with a heavier work load to make up for the lack or organisms. Another dirt-indicator is dead plant matter (“detritus”) that sits on the bare ground for months without decaying at all. Real soil contains the life to start decomposition quickly; in fact, keeping soil bare is a sure way to remove nutrients and starve soil organisms, leaving you with dirt.

Obtaining soil is not overly complex: apply good compost, which is organic matter that has been fully decomposed by bacteria and fungi. This acts as an inoculant to repopulate your soil with the organisms to build a healhty food web. Depending on your situation (and physical ability), compost may be difficult to make; compost can be purchased, but quality material is expensive, so apply where it is most needed, such as around vegetables or prized ornamentals.

Compost-making requires another article (and a certain amount of work), but the reduction in chemical use and increase in plant health is worth it. Help your soil organisms along by looking into composting at <>. If nothing else, switch to organic fertilizers and leave non-diseased detritus (or organic mulch such as bark)  on the soil surface to feed soil organisms and recycle nutrients whenever possible.

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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Time for seed searching.

A newspaper mulch for onions keeps winter weeds at bay. Lee Miller photo

These past few days the plant and seed catalogues are starting to arrive to remind us that spring is just around the corner. With all the rain lately it is not timely to be in the garden. Walking on wet soil can cause soil compaction, so it is a good time to stay inside. That said, I did have the foresight or perhaps good luck to spread wood chips in the walkway between Dahlia rows before the rains were heavy. Hence, I was able to get out between storms and dig Dahlia tubers because the wood chips kept mud at bay. I am also glad I planted my garlic and onions through repurposed Records which keeps down the weeds during the winter. It is difficult to be weeding in this weather and the weeds are thriving with the rain.

It is best to enjoy the rain while perusing some catalogues by the fireside. You can think about new vegetables and old vegetables to try out this coming season. I like to grow tasty heirloom tomatoes and I am always willing to try a few new varieties. One of the catalogues I received recently was from Tomato Growers Supply Co. They offer seeds for about 600 varieties of tomatoes and a few hundred peppers which should be enough to keep trying new tomatoes and pepper varieties for years. They have an on-line catalogue as well at:  I have bought seeds from them in the past and have been satisfied with their seeds.

Of course you can save your own seeds from open-pollenated varieties. These are not hybrid seeds. Saved hybrid seeds will not produce a plant like the parent F1 generation hybrid, but will likely revert to one of the parents. Hybrids do often offer the advantage of inbred genetic resistant to diseases and can be tasty as well.

Of course there are lots of seed purveyors around and if you want to check out how reliable they are, you can go to Dave’s Garden website ( ) and check out the number of negative or positive reviews on nurseries and seed houses in their Garden Watchdog page. One seed company that I have used for research, because it carries lots of peppers and tomatoes, had 83 negative comments, 14 neutral and 32 positive ones. That is a pretty sorry record. Thus it is good to check out seed houses and not get burned.

Seeds for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants as well as many flowers need to be started in late January or early February to get them sized right for April planting. If seeds have poor germination, a common complaint, then it throws off the timing of planting, or may result in a desired cultivar not getting planted this season.

We are fortunate here in Stockton to have our very own seed house, Lockhart seeds, and they carry a fair range of bulbs and seeds for vegetables and flowers. It is fun to go into their store, because it is a heirloom of a seed store with old varnished oak seed cabinets, 3 inch tongue and groove wood floors and a unique old-fashioned, cozy charm. Such stores were a fixture in many cities years ago, but many have disappeared.  Our big box stores also carry a variety of seeds.

One seed purveyor I like to support is the Seed-Saver’s Exchange which is a non-profit organization that has a seed bank for heirloom seeds that have come from various sources including Native Americans and the offspring of immigrant families that brought seeds of their  favorite vegetables when they emigrated to America.  It was started in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and her husband, who wanted to save her grandfather’s ‘German Pink’ tomato and a morning glory for future generations.

From that modest start of saving two heirlooms, the SSE has grown into a large enterprise with thousands of seeds in their seed bank. Today they have 13,000 supporting members and have 20,000 plant varieties that they maintain on a 890 acre, Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa. They offer some of their best heirlooms in a beautiful, well-illustrated catalogue and their materials are also accessible on line at:

Another good heirloom seed company is Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. which was started in 1998 and has along with SSE promoted interest in maintaining and providing heirloom seeds.  It is based in Missouri, but also has a seed store in an old bank in downtown Petaluma; it has a website catalogue as well: .  Dave’s Garden Watchdog lists 1029 positive to 40 negatives for this company. That is a pretty good endorsement. Where ever you find your seeds or plants for this year’s garden, may you find joy and happiness in gardening in 2017.

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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  • Blog Authors

    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

    Nadia Zane

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