UC Davis Picnic Day: Bring on the Bugs!

Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey      Published on: April 13, 2015

DAVIS–A picnic without bugs just isn’t a picnic. Ask any entomologist.

When the 101st annual Picnic Day at the University of California, Davis takes place campuswide on Saturday, April 18, visitors will see plenty of insects and other arthropods from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at two sites: Briggs Hall on Kleiber Hall Drive and the Bohart Museum of Entomology on Crocker Lane.

Ants? Yes. Bees? Sure. Other pollinators? Definitely. The focus is on pollinators.

This is Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant. It is a very common species, but tends to be pushed aside by the introduced Argentine ant, says ant specialist/professor Phil Ward. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

This is Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant. It is a very common species, but tends to be pushed aside by the introduced Argentine ant, says ant specialist/professor Phil Ward. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Theme of the campuswide picnic is “The Heart of Our Community,” but over at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, the theme is “The Good, the Bad and the Bugly.” The museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, will feature pollinators. The museum houses nearly 8 million specimens. It also houses a live “petting zoo,” comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and a rose-haired tarantula named Peaches, a crowd favorite.


At Briggs Hall, a new event is the Pollinator Pavilion, where visitors can see and learn about bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Pollination ecologist/graduate student Margaret “Rei” Scampavia is coordinating the project. “We’re going to have painted lady butterflies, monarchs, male blue orchard bees, and a live bumblebee colony,” she said. Other events at the Pollinator Pavilion will include puppet shows, a chance to practice pollinator observations, museum specimens, and information on how individuals can help support healthy pollinator populations (The Pollinator Pavilion replaces the termite trails activity)

UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management will give away lady beetles. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management will give away lady beetles. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Favorite displays or activities returning are the “Bug Doctor” booth, where an entomologist “is in” and will answer questions about insects; American cockroach races, where visitors can cheer their favorite cockroach to victory; maggot art, where participants can dip a maggot into non-toxic water-based paint and let it crawl (or guide it), on a white piece of paper.

Forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey will portray “Dr. Death,” showing methods used in forensic entomology. The Phil Ward lab will assemble a display on the incredible diversity of ants. The Sharon Lawler lab will display aquatic insects and answer any questions about them.


Visitors can sample six different varietals of honey at a honey tasting table set up in the Briggs courtyard. The flavors are coffee blossom, meadowfoam blossom, buckwheat, creamed clover, cotton and chestnut said. Elina Niño, Extension apiculturist. A bee observation hive will be set up in across from the courtyard, where Niño and staff research associate Billy Synk will answer questions about bees.


Graduate student Stacy Hishinuma and forest entomologist Steve Seybold, a chemical ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, and an affiliate of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will display forest insects.

Medical entomology graduate students will set up displays about diseases vectored by mosquitoes and other insects.  The Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District will provide an educational exhibit about mosquito abatement. Exhibits also will include such topics as fly fishing/fly-tying.

The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) will be giving away lady beetles, aka ladybugs, with the hope that the beneficial insects will land in someone’s yard to gobble aphids and other soft-bodied insects. UC IPM also will display pest management control books.

Entomology Club members will offer face-painting.  Another popular activity is posing as a bug or flower in a wood cutout.


Professor Diane Ullman, with the help of a maggot, created this art work at the

Professor Diane Ullman, with the help of a maggot, created this art at the "maggot art" table. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey



A crowd favorite at the Bohart Museum of Entomology is Peaches, a rose-haired tarantula. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A crowd favorite at the Bohart Museum of Entomology is Peaches, a rose-haired tarantula. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Forensic entomologist Robet Kimsey as

Forensic entomologist Robet Kimsey as "Dr. Death" Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey



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The New California Landscape, part 3: Irrigation

Alas, irrigation is not the sexiest topic in this three-part series. It is, however, the most crucial element of any water efficient landscape (besides favoring drought-tolerant plants). An efficient irrigation system gets exactly the right amount of water exactly where it needs to be, with minimal losses to the street or gutter.

Taking steps to improve your irrigation requires you to pay attention rather than going into automatic mode. Here are things to look for when improving the efficiency of your system:

Stop overwatering!
Overwaterng is much too common. Lawns will be fine on two days a week in the heat of summer, and many established ornamental shrubs need less. The knee-jerk reaction to a limp plant is to grab a hose, but grab a moisture meter or a screwdriver instead and check the soil moisture several inches down.
Signs of overwatering resemble underwatering; ironically, both can lead to water uptake issues, the former because there is not enough water in the soil, the latter because root rot due to soggy, anaerobic soil reduces water-absorbing abilities.
If your lawn is dying on two days a week of water, there is most likely a cultural issue going on. It is better to water deeply but infrequently, rather than in short bursts several days a week. Shallow watering promotes shallow roots and drought intolerance. Check out the UC Integrated Pest Management Guide to Healthy Lawns for more information:

Proper maintenance
Do you know where your valve manifolds are? Do you know how to operate your sprinkler controller? Hopefully the answer is yes to both, because it will make testing and maintaining your irrigation system much easier!
Regularly check for leaks at all emitters and drip lines, and clean clogged heads and drip filters. Replace old, leaky hose spigots or hose washers that have become brittle and ineffective. Valve manifolds can also leak if sediment gets under the cap, leaking water even when turned off. This is tricky to spot and requires close inpection.
For information on irrigation:

Plants watered by the same valve need to have matching sun and water requirements, or someone is going to sulk (see overwatering section above). Do not water a sunny area and a shady area on the same valve, as the evaporation rates will be very different. It takes planning to do this properly, but will result in a healthier garden.
More information on hydrozoning can be found at:

Match emitter types
Avoid creating hodge-podge irrigation systems in which a broken emitter is replaced  with whatever is handy. Different emitters, whether drip or spray, have different water pressure requirements. Mixing things up often causes water to go everywhere (except where you want it).
Do not mix drip emitters with different flow rates on one valve. You can either place more emitters on plants that need more water, or divide two areas on the same valve using a barbed ball valve, available at irrigation specialty stores.

Run-off and puddling
We have all seen wet sidewalks and driveways when there was no rain, a sure sign that someone needs to adjust their timers! Concrete is not a living being, and so does not require hydration. Soils can only filtrate water so quickly, and run-off usually indicates too much water being applied all at once. Set your timer to water in cycles or switch to a type with a lower flow rate, such as drip or MP rotators for spray.
Puddling is caused by the same issue, and is exacerbated where there are low spots or the soil has been compacted after years of excess water and pedestrian traffic. Puddling can also occur at the base of a shrub that is blocking a sprayer. In the heat of summer, this water often evaporates before soaking into the ground.
Improving your soil can help with filtration:

For ornamental beds and vegetables, a 2-4 inch layer of organic mulch will help retain moisture, moderate soil temperatures, discourage weeds, and provide organic matter to improve soil aeration. Gravel is also good for moisture retention and temperature regulation in the winter. Avoid landscape fabric, which only works in the short-term to conrol weeds. Plastic inhibits rainwater filtration into the soil, looks unattractive, and creates a non-biodegradable mess as it wears down. Both make adding compost or other amendments difficult.

Re-thinking how we water our landscapes will be necessary for maintaining healthy gardens as the availability of cheap water becomes something of the past. Eliminating wasteful watering regimens and systems will be an important part of this transition, allowing us to retain the joy and beauty that plants bring to our lives.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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The New California Landscape part 2: Making the Physical Shift

sheet mulching project in progress

For many decades, Californians have been spoiled by technology that has allowed us to grow water-hungry plants from all over the world. This has never been a “wet climate” by any stretch of the imagination, and we are finally seeing the dire consequences of acting as though it were.

Making changes to our water management strategy is essential to the well-being of humans and non-humans alike. Part 1 of this series, “Making the Aesthetic Shift”, addressed envisioning water-wise landscapes by visiting WEL gardens in the Sacramento region. This article will focus on making the physical transition from traditional landscapes to those that conserve water and wildlife.

Many people begin this transition by removing turf, one of the biggest water hogs in the landscape. Removing lawn may seem like a huge undertaking, and it can be if you have a large area or an invasive species such as Bermuda grass. The key is to have a plan, which can be done in stages to mitigate cost and time constraints.

There are several methods of lawn removal; which you choose depends greatly on your resources, the conditions of your site, your grass species, the tolerance of your neighbors, and more. Here are a few of the most commonly chosen methods:

1. Sheet mulching: Part of creating a drought-tolerant garden is building soil health to increase drainage and reduce water run-off or puddling; sheet mulching is one of the best ways to accomplish this. It consists of layers of cardboard, compost, and mulch piled on top of the turf, blocking photosynthesis and starving the grass. Soil-dwelling fauna will eat the decomposing grass and cardboard, improving the soil as they go. Allowing 3-6 months before planting is necessary for invasive grass species to avoid having it grow up through your nice new plants.
More details can be found at:

2. Soil solarization: If you have an area receiving at least 8 hours of direct sun everyday, then you can try laying sheets of clear (not black) plastic directly on the grass. This works best for the control of soil-born diseases, but can be effective in killing certain weeds (roots and seeds) as well.
More details can be found at:

4. Sod-cutters and rototillers: If you have a cool-season grass such as fescue, physical removal will work well. If you have a pernicious, invasive warm-season grass like Bermuda, a sod-cutter (or rototiller) will be a huge mistake, as any chopped-up bit of root can sprout into a new plant. Weed seeds will also be turned up, so multiple rototillings may be necessary. It can also be tricky if you have tree or shrub roots near the surface, as often happens when they are growing in or near a lawn (shallow watering of lawns encourages trees to grow roots near the surface).

5. Chemical removal: Master Gardeners always advocate the least toxic method first, or more positively, the most beneficial method for your garden ecology. Some herbicides linger a long time in the soil, disrupting the microbiome and leaching into aquifers. There are cases, however, when using herbicides such as glyphosate or vinegar might be the most practical option, especially if you will be converting to a native meadow where invasive weeds can easily take over your native grasses. Always read labels and follow directions carefully.
General information on chemical and mechanical removal can be found at:

Don’t forget about converting your irrigation as well. If you are sheet mulching, you can convert to drip irrigation before or after, though doing it before will require less digging and disturbance of the top mulch layer. Adjusting or installing new spray heads can be done afterwards so that they are at the appropriate height. Be sure to mark their location before mulching!

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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The New California Landscape, part 1: Making the Aesthetic Shift

Elk Grove Rain Garden

On March 17, 2015, the California State Water Resources Board voted to extend and expand the water use restrictions put in place last year in response to the drought. For those who escaped restrictions last year, this means limiting your irrigation to two days a week; for those who already have restrictions, they will remain the same unless your water provider indicates otherwise.

However you may feel about these restrictions, the water situation is indeed dire; but every use of the word drought implies a lack thereof, a time when water is plentiful. This short-term thinking encourages temporary solutions, preventing the physical and mental adjustment to a new paradigm in which water is treated as a finite resource to be used judiciously and conscientiously.

This shift in thinking can be applied directly at home, especially in the garden where traditional landscapes account for over 50% of residential water use. A major obstacle can be visualizing what this might look like; here in San Joaquin County we suffer from a dearth of water-wise plants in nurseries, public places, and our neighbors’ yards. This can lead to the assumption that it’s only possible to save water in the landscape by planting succulents, fake turf, or paving over everything. None of these options benefits wildlife, which suffer when their food and habitat are removed.

I am happy to report that the new paradigm is all about colors, layers, and textures in a palate that is firmly Mediterranean. Before choosing succulents or concrete, try visiting a Water Efficient Landscape, also known as “WEL” gardens. There are several in the Sacramento region to help you dislodge the flat, green lawn aesthetic firmly entrenched in our minds. A WEL garden demonstrates the myriad possiblities of plants that address our need to conserve water and wildlife; plants are marked with tags, and some WEL gardens have a website with a plant species list.

Some wonderful WEL gardens to visit include:

• UC Davis Arboretum
Located along the Putah Creek canal on the UC Davis campus, the arboretum is considered the main source for horticultural wisdom in the Central Valley. Their plants are suitable to our hot, dry climate, and many have low maintenance requirements. Their collection of 22,000 plant species are divided into 17 collections by place of origin, mostly parts of California and other places with a similar climate. Admission is free; it is open to the public year-round.

Elk Grove Rain Garden Plaza
9385 Laguna Springs Dr, Elk Grove, CA 95758
A rain garden is a shallow depression in the landscape designed to catch and filter storm water runoff to enhance plant growth, enrich the soil, and recharge the local water table.
The Elk Grove Rain Garden features plants for our region that can take seasonal flooding, and reduced water in the summer. It is also a public gathering place, with artwork by local schoolchildren, and a covered sitting area for picnics. It is open to the public year-round. No admission fee.

Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens

San Joaquin County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden

Sacramento County:
Fair Oaks Horticulture Center
11549 Fair Oaks Boulevard
Fair Oaks, CA 95628

San Joaquin County:
Robert J. Cabral Ag Center
2101 E Earhart Ave
Stockton, CA 95206

Master Gardener demonstration gardens utilize both edibles and water-wise ornamentals. Monthly workshops are held at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center where you can learn about specific topics and ask a Master Gardener about plants you see in the garden. A list of water-wise species at the Fair Oaks garden is available at: http://ucanr.org/sites/sacmg/files/72271.pdf.

Choosing a group of smaller demonstration gardens to visit makes a nice day trip to research your future landscape. More WEL gardens in the Sacramento area are listed on EcoLandscape California’s website:

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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Visit the UC Davis Arboretum to Admire and Buy Plants

UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery

For many gardeners, spring causes a mad rush to nurseries; plants fly off shelves in a binge of blooms and foliage, driven by the barren dormancy of winter months. One of my favorite places to imbibe in this frenzy is the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery, which hosts four sales in the spring. Besides choosing from a wide selection of plants, you can also visit the Arboretum or the Honey Bee Haven Garden for free.

The first sale is held in early March and is for Arboretum members only, but you can join at the door and get $10 off your purchase, plus the 10% discount members receive with every purchase. Sales held on April 11, 25, and May 16 are open to the public (no membership required).  The nursery is located at 1046 Garrod Drive in Davis, California.

As fun as it is to grab every plant that tickles your fancy, having a plan of attack (and your own shopping cart) will be a great advantage. The plant sale inventory is available now on the Arboretum’s blog (see below). For those of you interested in the conservation of water and wildlife, the Arboretum has developed several plant lists, based on years of research, to guide your choices:

1. Arboretum All-Stars: Their original compilation of 100 plants with low or moderate water requirements, ease of care, year-yound interest, reliability in our climate, and resistance to most pests and disease. There is a searchable database at the Arboretum’s website (see below).

2. The New Front Yard: a list of over 40 species, mostly California natives, with wildlife value. The idea is to replace lawn with plants that will increase your garden’s ability to provide nectar, pollen, berries, seeds, and habitat. Most are drought-tolerant and easy to maintain. This list is available at the Arboretum’s website (see below).

3. 35 Low-Water Plants You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of: Yes, it’s a long title, but a great list! There is a strong mix of natives and exotics; most are low or very low-water use, requiring irrigation 2 times a month or less. Many of these beautiful plants are still uncommon in most retail nurseries. This list can be found at the Arboretum’s blog page (see below).

After the plant sale, you can tour the Arboretum. Considered the main source of horticultural information for the Central Valley, the Arboretum serves as a teaching and research institution for the university. The Arboretum contains over 22,000 plants, divided into 17 collections. Even if you don’t visit the entire Arboretum, the Ruth Risdon Storer Garden is just around the corner from the Arboretum Teaching Nursery on Garrod Drive, and contains low-water, Valley-wise plants for sun and shade. The Arboretum continues northeast from there, along the banks of the Putah Creek canal, ending (or beginning, depending on where you start!) with the new Native Plant GATEway Garden, which is planted with species native to the Putah Creek region.

Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven Garden at UC Davis

On your way home you might make a jaunt across Highway 113 to the Häagen-Dazs Honey-Bee Haven, located adjacent to the Harry H. Laidlaw, Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road in Davis. Installed in 2009, this garden is filled with myriad plants to attract pollinators, particularly native bees. Species include shrubs, trees, groundcovers, vegetables, herbaceous perennials, and more. Admission is free, and open to the public 7 days a week from dawn until dusk.

The best plant selection can be had early in the day, so if you want to visit the Arboretum or the Honey Bee Haven, shop first and tour the gardens second. Come prepared with your own list of plants to buy and sites to see to make the best use of your time. Happy shopping, and happy gardening!

Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven Garden

UC Davis Arboretum: Plant Sales

UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden Blog

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.




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The International Year of the Soil is Here at Last

Soil is the basis for much of life on earth and certainly there would be no civilization without soil and water. Soil is the basis for all of our food, animal feed, and fuel and fiber production and for services to ecosystems and human well-being. It is the reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity, and therefore requires the same attention as above-ground biodiversity. Many people do not understand that soil is alive with many kinds of bacteria, fungi, micro-organisms and animals. It is so important to understand how it all works and yet soil ecology is a very young frontier of science.  Since soil in great areas has been abused, eroded and destroyed over the past 10,000 years it is perhaps late to be doing this, but the UN has declared 2015 the international year of the soil.

The objectives are to:

  • Raise full awareness among civil society and decision makers about the profound importance of soil for human life;
  • Educate the public about the crucial role soil plays in food security, carbon sequestration, climate change adaptation and mitigation, essential ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and sustainable development;
  • Support effective policies and actions for the sustainable management and protection of soil resources;
  • Promote investment in sustainable soil management activities to develop and maintain healthy soils for different land users and population groups;
  • Strengthen initiatives in connection with the SDG process (Sustainable Development Goals) and Post-2015 agenda;
  • Advocate for rapid capacity enhancement for soil information collection and monitoring at all levels (global, regional and national).

Everyone who tends a plot of land can effect a change and make a difference in the future of the planet depending on how we care for soil. Understanding that is a living space for lots of kinds of life is a good start. For more information on soil ecology see: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/soil/SoilBiology/soil_food_web.htm.

 By sequestering more carbon in the world’s soils we can also mitigate climate change. Plowing up prairie and other soils has resulted in a loss of perhaps 50-70 percent of the carbon which oxidizes into CO2, a greenhouse gas. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/soil_as_carbon_storehouse_new_weapon_in_climate_fight/2744/

We need to work at restoring carbon to the soil, by less tilling and other ways yet to be discovered. One way we gardeners can help is to make compost and use it liberally to restore soil organic content. Treat your soil well; it is a living resource that supports much of life on earth and it might be the carbon sink that helps mitigate the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.

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It is Time for Growing Spuds

Harvesting Yukon Gold Potatoes-photo courtesy Lee Miller

I didn’t know I had an Irish ancestry until I retired and researched my family history. It was long ago, before the potato famine, that my Irish family arrived, but maybe it’s those Irish roots that make for my love of potatoes. Every March I make sure I buy seed potatoes at Lockhart’s Seeds store and plant them to enjoy through the summer and fall. It is an easy crop to grow here as it does well in cooler spring weather. This year’s spring is so warm I could have planted in February. I am not alone in my love of potatoes. It is one of the most widely grown and widely consumed vegetables in the world.


It is wise to plant only seed potatoes grown for the home gardener. They are virus free and have not been treated to prevent sprouting as have grocery store potatoes. Grocery store potatoes will likely rot before sprouting and they may also have potato viruses.  It is possible to use leftover potatoes from your past potato growing efforts and this can work well most of the time as long as they have not picked up a virus along the way. I have had mixed results doing this and will usually opt for new seed potatoes.

If you like gourmet potatoes, there are places to buy exotic varieties having lots of flavor and good texture.  Seed Savers Exchange http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/Potatoes/ has several varieties and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply http://www.groworganic.com/seeds/seed-potatoes.html has a 24 variety selection of organic seed potatoes. German Butterball and Russian Banana fingerlings are a couple of flavorful ones that I have grown and enjoyed.

I like both Yellow Finn and Red LaSoda for their flavor and texture and both make good potato salads. Yukon Gold makes great mashed potatoes, but that’s not my favorite way to enjoy potatoes, so I seldom grow it though it is a very prolific producer of large potatoes.

There are many ways to grow potatoes. They should be planted fairly deep in loose soil amended well with either compost or aged manure. A day before planting I cut the potatoes leaving at least two eyes on each cut section. Mostly I cut them in half, but if there is only one or two eyes, I leave them uncut. Let them air dry in the shade and plant the following day. Some plant them more shallowly and then hill up dirt around them in the row. One year when it was too wet to work the soil, I laid the potatoes on the soil and piled 6 inches of compost on top of them and it worked out fine.

Light can cause an excessive buildup of solanine, an alkaloid common to members of the nighshade family, Solanacea. It is associated with turning a green color. It is toxic, causing vomiting, headaches, hallucinations, so it is good to cover them well by hilling. After harvest keep them out of light. Green and sprouted? Throw it out!

I grow them in rows now, but initially I grew them in a big used tractor tire filled with compost.  It is also possible to grow them in containers, see: http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=9648 or in sunny spots in your landscape. You can use plastic garbage cans or potato sacks as containers. Potatoes are formed above the seed potatoes so as shoots emerge from the initial soil/potato layer in the container, you can add more seed potatoes and soil and end up with a few layers in a container. Harvesting is as easy as dumping the can and picking out the potatoes.  A good source of UC information on potato growing can be found here: http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/organic_potatoes.pdf.

Potatoes can be harvested in June.  Yellowing vines indicate that they are ready. To harvest a digging fork is best, but a shovel will work too. Cutting off the water well before harvesting makes it easier to dig and clean them.

Storing potatoes is important to make your crop last as long as possible. After digging leave your crop covered in the shade for a few days to let them cure. Moist cuts can dry and not be an opening for invasive fungus or bacteria.  Potatoes severely wounded in the digging should be eaten first and not stored. If they rot, they will infect others. After curing they can be stored in cool, dry place.

Unfortunately some of the good ones just don’t have a long storage. For example, Red LaSoda starts to sprout in early fall which results in the potatoes becoming soft. However you can keep them firm longer by pulling of the sprouts frequently which is a tedious chore. It depends on how long you want to keep eating those ‘pommes de la terre’, French for ‘apples of the earth’; an apt description.

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 in a Name?


Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed Lettuce-Compliments of Territorial Seeds

In January, I attended the 35th Eco-Farm Conference in Asilomar which is a gathering devoted to organic farming and gardening. One speaker, Deborah Madison, was the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco in 1979 and has written many influential vegetarian cookbooks. Her menus were driven by what was available fresh from local farms.  Deborah talked about the importance of naming the vegetables and fruits one sells whether in co-ops or farmers markets. She cited the example of one farmer who didn’t name one of his most popular vegetables for fear that other farmers would grow it and undercut his business. This was folly in Deborah’s view, for people need to know the name of what they like and enjoy. How else are they to get what they want if they don’t know the name?

I couldn’t agree more that names are important.  I will often give away plants and usually with a name tag, but a year later I will be asked “What was the yellow tomato that you gave me last year? It sure was good.”  Well since I grow about ten yellow tomatoes and they are all good, it is hard to put my finger on the one they liked.  When I am showing people around my Dahlia patch, they are amazed that I know the names of the Dahlias. If you have a sweetheart, you would know her name! If I have a Dahlia that I cherish and I want to grow more or replace it, I had better know the name. The name is just a handle on a particular plant DNA that will produce a species and variety that we want.

Names can be fun too. One of my favorite plant names that I ran across years ago is ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed Lettuce. No one seems to know how ‘Drunken Woman’ got into the name, but the lettuce is a savoy type, hence the frizzy-headed part. Then there is the tomato, ‘Charlie’s Radiator Shop Mortgage Lifter’, which is an open-pollenated, meaty variety that Charlie Byles of West Virginia bred in the Depression. He sold plants at a dollar each and paid off his shop mortgage of $6,000. It is still an heirloom favorite that is sold today by most seed catalogues with the shorter name of ‘Mortgage Lifter’. Names associated with a story supply fun to gardening.

Botanical names are scientific and come in two parts and hence are binomial. The binomial system of nomenclature was devised by Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s. The language is based on Latin and since few of us learn Latin these days, Latin names are difficult to decipher and pronounce which is a ‘turn-off’ to a lot of people. However, it allows everyone to communicate in a common plant lingo. Latin is really not dead after all.

The genus is the first name part as in Echinacia and the second part is the species name purpurea. Echinacea purpurea has a common name that most of us know as purple coneflower, a commonly planted border perennial. Most of us use common names, but common names vary by region, time and language and hence are not as reliable as botanical names, so if you want to be sure of your plant material it is good to know the Botanical name.

There are many guides to botanical names on line which explain the words origin and pronunciation. One is Botanaria located in Dave’s Garden website: http://davesgarden.com/guides/botanary/#b. Another is at a  Fine Gardening Magazine’s website which not only provides phonetic spelling, but has an auditory button which delivers a voice correctly pronouncing the name: http://www.finegardening.com/pronunciation-guide/a. Botanical names can really help you with plant descriptions. Micro means small, phylla means leaf, and hence microphylla is a small leafed plant. Albus means white, so you can bet that blooms or some part of the plant is white. Learning these descriptors helps with plant knowledge over time.

There are over 20,000 named Dahlias, 7500 tomatoes, over 6500 rose varieties. There are about 1,000 new cultivars of daylilies registered annually with the American Hemerocallis Society, which means that there are about 73,000 now.  One has to wonder how people come up with new names. Examples from the daylily clan show the diversity. There are 137 with ‘plum’ in the name; for example Plum Crazy’, ‘Plum Cute’, ‘Plum Dandy’, ‘Plum Perfect’, and even ‘Plum Plum’.  Daylilies with “peach”  in their names number 314, and  148 daylilies use ‘cherry’, and 84 use ‘apple’.  I pity the registrar-of-names for these plant societies who have to keep track.

Keeping track of the plants we have in our own gardens is a chore and alas I have forgotten and lost track of quite a few despite my attempts at journaling plantings. I recommend it nonetheless, so when someone asks you ‘What is that beautiful blooming shrub?’; you will supply a correct name.

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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CA State Soil

We all know California has many state symbols. The grizzly bear flying in the state flag, golden poppies and the valley quail are all symbols that connect you back to our golden state. Did you know that California has a state soil?

What is a State Soil?

A state soil is a soil that has special significance to a particular state. Each state in the United States has selected a state soil, twenty of which have been legislatively established. These “Official State Soils” share the same level of distinction as official state flowers and birds. Also, representative soils have been selected for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. California’s State Soil is the “San Joaquin” soil. It was designated the official state soil of California in 1997. California’s central valley has more than half a million acres of San Joaquin soils.

A little about soil profiles and textures

Soil Horizons

Soil is made up of distinct layers, called horizons. Each layer has its own characteristics that make it different from all of the other layers. These characteristics play a very important role in what the soil is used for and why it is important.

O HORIZON- This is the top layer of soil that is made up of living and decomposed materials like leaves, plants, and bugs. This layer is very thin and is usually pretty dark.

A HORIZON- This is the layer that we call “topsoil” and it is located just below the O Horizon. This layer is made up of minerals and decomposed organic matter and it is also very dark in color. This is the layer that many plants roots grow in.

B HORIZON- This is the layer that we call “subsoil” and it is located just below the A Horizon. This layer has clay and mineral deposits and less organic materials than the layers above it. This layer is also lighter in color than the layers above it.

C HORIZON- This is the layer that we call “regolith” and it is located just below the B Horizon. This layer is made up of slightly unbroken rock and only a little bit of organic material is found here. Plant roots are not found in this layer.

Soil Textures

Three types of particles are found in soil: sand, silt and clay. Soil texture is classified by the type of particle that makes up the majority of the soil. Each soil type has a distinctive textural feel and holding a sample of your garden soil in your hand may help you determine the type of texture that makes up your garden soil.

Sandy Soil: Sand is the largest of the particles found in soil. It is a sharp-edged material, giving the soil a gritty feel. When wet, it remains course and breaks apart easily. Beach sand is at the extreme end of sandy soils. Sandy soil holds almost no nutrients and does not retain moisture. Plants do not grow well in this type of soil.

Silty Soil:  Silt particles are smooth and smaller than sand particles. When wet, a silty soil feels mud-like; it’s smooth and has a silky texture. It’s rich in nutrients but retains moisture to the point where garden plants are unable to access oxygen. In a silty soil, plants wilt because they can’t breathe.

Clay Soil: Clay is the smallest of the particles and a clay soil will clump and feel sticky when wet. Air flow between particles is limited if not non-existent. When dry, the soil has a dusty feel to it and the surface is hard and dense, making it difficult to work the soil for tilling or digging. Although high in nutrients, clay soil is less than ideal for gardens. Plant roots may not be able to penetrate the dense soils to access nutrients and oxygen.

Loamy Soil: Loam is a combination of all three particles– sand, silt and clay–in nearly-equal proportions. The large sand particles promote drainage and air flow within the soil. The smaller silt particles are rich in nutrients and aid in moisture retention. Clay, also rich in nutrients, balances the poor soil retention of the sand and the excessive moisture of the silt.

If you would like to see what kind of soil you have, click here to start NRCS’s web soil survey.

If you are curious to see all of California’s state symbols from fish to gemstone, click here.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

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Composting and Water Conservation

  • Author: Rob Bennaton
  • Author: Adapted from an article by the Alameda County Master Gardeners Help Desk
  • Published on: February 17, 2015

At this time of year, biodegradable organic matter such as tree and shrub leaves are often in big supply. Whether passively allowed to decompose or actively managed to speed up the composting process, and use the compost, we often turn to our backyard, community or school garden compost system as a repository for these materials. But, we may not always appreciate how the compost produced from organic materials such as fallen tree leaves, prunings and food scraps can help our farm or garden soil better hold water year-round.

To the many benefits of composting, add another: water conservation. When compost is added to bare soils as a thin layer, it is an effective barrier against evaporation of soil moisture, a practice called top- or side-dressing. Compost also reduces plants’ needs for water by increasing how much water can be held by the soil – only a 5% increase in organic material quadruples the soil’s water holding capacity.1

[A] 2000 study … found that increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by adding compost helped all crops during summer droughts by reducing periods of water stress. The amount of water in … 8 inches … of the compost amended soil increased to 1.9 inches compared with 1.3 inches in un-amended soil. Since vegetables require 1 inch of water a week, at field capacity, the compost amended soil held a 2-week supply of water.2

Compost is the result of a process whereby a large volume of organic matter is rapidly decomposed into a smaller volume that is then used to amend the soil. Soil particles occur in aggregates or clumps, unless they have a high amount of sand particles that do not hold together well. Soil structure refers to the arrangement of sand, silt and clay particles into larger aggregates.3 One can assess the soil structure for their home or community garden by doing the soil-ribbon test and the soils-sedimentation test. This video from Kansas State University tells you how to assess your soil texture by feel. The bottom line is that amending the soil with compost improves its structure, which significantly affects how well it holds water.

Compost is decomposed organic matter that has stabilized, yet, still continues decomposing, though, at a slower rate. The organisms that break down organic matter release glue-like substances that bind soil particles into crumbly aggregates. These irregularly shaped aggregates have air-spaces between them and can be penetrated and occupied by water, nutrients, and plants’ roots. Soils rich in organic material have a sponge-like quality that holds water and, thus, plants growing in them have lower water needs.4 In sandy soils with poor water retention, compost improves the soil’s water holding capacity by improving soil structure ie., aggregate stability.

Unlike sandy soils, clay soils are characterized by small spaces between the small clay particles. Clay soils have good water retention capacity, however, the spaces in between the particles can fill with water quickly, excluding oxygen and nutrients, and, essentially, drowning the plants. Water saturation in clay soils may also cause soil runoff because those soils cannot hold more water, but, adding compost aerates clay soils and increases its capacity to hold water, oxygen, and nutrients needed for healthy plant growth.

Ultimately, regularly amending with compost lightens clay soils, thus, reducing run-off, and increases the water holding capacity of sandy soils, hence, reducing the need for water. Adding compost as a thin mulch layer over bare soils reduces water evaporation, while also reducing the need for water by garden and farm raised plants. Top-dressing with compost in combination with a thin top-layer of straw mulch in food-growing areas, or a thin woodchip mulch in ornamental garden areas, can reduce plants’ water needs around their roots even more, where water is needed the most.

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.

1 Compost Fundamentals, Compost Benefits and Uses. Washington State University, Whatcom County Extension. Accessed on 28 January 2015.

2 M. Charles Gould. Compost increases the water holding capacity of droughty soils. Michigan State University Extension. Accessed on 28 January 2015.

3 Dennis R. Pittenger, ed., California Master Gardener Handbook (University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2002), 36.

4 For the Gardener: Building Fertile Soil. Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, University of California, Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA: University of California, no date provided).

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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

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    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

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    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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