“The falling leaves, drift by my window”—time for composting.


Red and golden leaves are coming down---to make great compost

Yes, Johnny Mathis, “The autumn leaves of red and gold” are falling at last. With the warm October it seemed that fall would never get here, but November has been wet and cool and the leaves are coming down. You can put your leaves out to be hauled away and somewhere they will be made into compost which you can buy back in a plastic bag at your local nursery center. Or, you can compost them at home and get some great soil enhancing material for a little work at no cost. After all, hauling leaves here and there and back again requires energy and burning energy is heating up our little planet.  Composting is not hard to do. You just need the right mix of ingredients to help nature do its thing to decompose organic matter into compost and ultimately into soil humus.

Years ago, I used to load my pickup with bags of leaves from the streets after dropping my stepdaughter off at high school. Added to my large stock of leaves from my shaded home and with some nitrogen rich materials such as green grass, kitchen scraps, coffee ground or chicken manure mixed in, I created some large compost piles.

There are two methods of composting. You can batch compost or use the ‘let-it-rot’ mode. The batch method entails putting all the ingredients together and moistening them well to start a batch that will heat up. The heat destroys most weed seeds and pathogens that might be in you compost pile. To do a batch that will heat up and compost properly you will need a minimum of a cubic yard of material or a pile that is about 3ft x 3ft x 3ft.  For the ‘let-it-rot’ mode of composting you can just keep piling material on and it will compost over time, but will not heat up to destroy weed seeds or pathogens.

I use both methods. The batch compost I use for seed starting and container potting soil to avoid weeds, whereas the let-it-rot method is easier and I just remove compost from the bottom of the pile for use in the garden. The let it rot method does still require moisture and a lot more time, but if you don’t want the exercise of turning the pile to aerate and keep it heating this is a good method.

It is amazing how fast a well-constructed batch compost pile will heat up and start decomposing. I have seen compost piles go from ambient temperature to 160 ºF in 24 hours. This heat is generated by the microorganisms as they break down the organic matter.  I advise buying a good compost thermometer to monitor the temperature in the pile. It can also be used as a soil thermometer which is helpful at spring planting time.  Batch composting with weekly turnings of the pile can produce finished compost in a few weeks.

Compost thermometer is an important tool for composting.

It is important to have the right mix of ingredients, but this is something that experimentation can help determine. Ideally you want a mix of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) in a ratio that is about 30:1. Leaves, straw and high carbon materials are usually dry and often referred to as “browns.” The ratio of C:N in these materials may vary from 60:1 for leaves up to 500:1 for sawdust. A good approximation is to add about equal amounts of leaves to ‘green materials’ such as chicken manure which has a C:N of 10:1 or grass clippings or coffee ground with a C:N equal to 20:1. A good reference for batch composting is http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/compost_rapidcompost.pdf . For the ‘let-it-rot’ method, a good resource is Stu Campbell’s book, ‘Let-it-Rot, the Gardener’s Guide to Composting’ Third Edition. Another classic composting book of renown is J.I. Rodale’s ‘Complete Book of Composting.’ It is a comprehensive treatise on the history of composting as well a practical guidance on how to do it.

Compost can be used in so many ways. It makes a good container medium and also works well in flats or containers for seed starting in the green house. It can be used as mulch for vegetables, landscape perennials, fruit trees or shrubs. It is a great soil amendment for growing vegetables of all kinds. It feeds microorganisms in the soil which feed your plants and enhances drainage as well as keeping soil friable and loose. This is especially valuable for leafy and shoot forming vegetables like lettuces, broccoli, kale, cabbages and cauliflower. Each spring I mix in two shovels of compost in the planting spot for my tomatoes and this gives them the nutrients needed for the entire summer. For healthier soil—happy composting!

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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What on Earth is Leaf Mold?

In my earlier column on fall leaves, I mentioned something called “leaf mold.” Since this isn’t a commonly understood term, it deserves a more thorough explanation.

Leaf mold is the organic breakdown product of dead leaves, and it’s both a natural and healthy substance. It shouldn’t be confused with fungal diseases of plants such as sooty mold and gray mold (Botrytis blight). It’s also not the same as standard compost.

It’s incredibly easy to make leaf mold using a simple, three-step process: (1) rake leaves into a pile in an inconspicuous, unpaved area; (2) moisten them thoroughly; and (3) wait… then wait some more.

The method used to create leaf mold differs from compost-making in several ways:

  • The spent leaves used to make leaf mold are called “brown matter,” which is high in carbon. However, this material isn’t combined with nitrogen-rich “green” ingredients as in compost; only leaves are used.
  • Leaf mold is formed by a “cold” process through the action of soil-dwelling fungi. This is in contrast to the “hot,” bacterial composting process.
  • Since the decomposing action of beneficial fungi is very slow, it takes six months to two years for leaves to break down completely into leaf mold.

A large, open pile of leaves isn’t practical in many residential gardens due to space or aesthetic reasons. If you’d like to try making leaf mold but would prefer a more space-saving and attractive approach, fashion a simple cage out of chicken wire or hardware cloth. Before filling the cage with leaves, line it with cardboard to help retain moisture, and place it in a shady, wind-sheltered location. You can also make leaf mold by placing leaves and a shovelful of soil (with its fungi) into a black plastic bag, loosely tying it, and punching small holes in the sides. However, plastic bags aren’t the best choice because they’re single-use and they break apart with time, especially if exposed to sun.

A sample wire bin for containing leaves

Patience is definitely needed when making leaf mold, but it’s human nature to want fast results! To produce leaf mold most quickly, chop the leaves into smaller pieces with a shredder or bagging mower and make a pile as large as possible. Collect leaves soon after they drop, since newly fallen leaves have higher nitrogen content than older leaves and will begin to decompose faster. Turn the leaves occasionally to help aerate them and speed up decomposition. Add water occasionally to keep the leaves damp and the fungi happy.

Leaf type also influences the speed of the process. Small or delicate leaves—such as those from most Maple, Chinese Pistache, and Crape Myrtle trees—will break down more quickly than larger leaves. Tough, leathery, or thick leaves—such as those from Magnolias, Hollies, Sycamores, and many Oaks—should be shredded since they have lots of tough cellulose fibers that can resist decomposition. Needles from conifers can also be used; they generally take two to three years to break down, but leaf mold made from Pine needles makes an excellent mulch for acid-loving plant species such as Camellias, Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and blueberries.

It takes time and space to make leaf mold, but the results are well worth the wait. The final product is a rich, crumbly, earthy-scented, dark brown substance called humus, and it’s ready to use when no recognizable leaf pieces remain.

A handful of completed leaf mold

Leaf mold isn’t “nutrient rich” and doesn’t contain as much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as commercial, inorganic fertilizers. However, it contains a wealth of other trace elements needed by plants, and it’s far better in terms of improving soil health. It can be mixed into the soil as an organic amendment, thereby improving soil structure and supporting beneficial earthworms and microorganisms. It can be applied as a three-to-four-inch-thick top-dressing or mulch to help suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, and protect plant roots from extremes of heat and cold. (Keep it several inches away from tree trunks and plant crowns, to avoid rot.) It can also be used as an excellent moisture-retaining soil conditioner in vegetable gardens, raised beds, and containers.

Have some fun with fungi this year and try making some good mold!

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/


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Fall Resolution: Leave the Leaves

It’s a good day! As I write, the chill in the air and the sight of oh-so-rare raindrops is invigorating, a welcome change from our unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of precipitation. Although Fall officially began on September 23 this year, it finally feels as if it’s arrived, and our deciduous trees are beginning to show their seasonal changes. But one thing about this time of the year doesn’t change: the dilemma of what to do with all those fallen leaves.

In the not-so-distant past, homeowners typically dealt with the bounty of autumn leaves by collecting, bagging, and disposing of them. The term “leaf litter” was taken very literally; leaves were treated as nothing more than trash to be hauled away to the landfill. Now, many municipalities have changed their practices by handling green material separately from other waste and by implementing composting programs. In California, these actions were in large part driven by Assembly Bill 939 (AB 939), which mandates that all cities and counties divert at least 50% of their waste stream from landfills. Despite laws such as these, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that yard waste (leaves and other plant material) still amounts to roughly 13 percent of our country’s municipal solid waste!

Whether trashed or composted, leaves from most residential and commercial properties are still removed and taken to a collection facility of some type. Rather than disposing of your leaves offsite, there are many ecologically sound reasons to “leave your leaves” where they fall:

  • Your trees invest a lot of time and energy producing all those nutrient-rich leaves, most of which can be allowed to remain where they drop in garden beds. They form an organic mulch that retains soil moisture, suppresses weeds, improves soil health, and supports beneficial soil organisms.
  • On lawns, you can use a mower with a good mulching blade to chop up leaves where they fall. The resulting tiny pieces can be left in place along with grass clippings; they will settle into the lawn, decompose, and act as a natural fertilizer.
  • Allowing your leaves to stay where they fall saves a lot of time and effort (and potentially money, if you pay for yard maintenance and inorganic fertilizers).
  • Fallen leaves provide habitat for a variety of wildlife and help support a diverse ecosystem. Many birds, small mammals, lizards, and beneficial insects use dead leaves for nesting material, shelter, and food.

Of course, there are some special considerations. Some leaves are too large to be left where they fall (e.g. because they smother plants or are unattractive). Leaves from diseased trees should be collected and disposed of. Leaves from certain types of trees (walnuts and Eucalyptus species, for example) can be allelopathic, which means they can harm other plants or inhibit their growth; these should not be left in place or reused.

If you can’t keep your leaves in place for some reason, you can still rake them off lawns or sweep them from paving, then use them on your property in other ways:

  • They can be cut into smaller pieces using a lawnmower or shredder (if necessary), then redistributed as mulch in the landscape.
  • They can be collected and used as part of the “brown matter” component for homemade compost, which can in turn be used to top-dress or enrich your soil.
  • They can be piled on an area of open soil. With time, they will break down into “leaf mold” (partially decomposed leaves) that makes a rich soil amendment

Yet another reason for leaving the leaves is that large-scale leaf collection and removal can be detrimental. Several adverse impacts are associated with the much-loved/much-despised (depending on your perspective) leaf blower. (Incidentally, leaf blowers started becoming widely used in California after the major drought in the 1970s, as water-conserving alternatives to hosing down driveways and other “hardscape” areas.) While leaf blowers do have certain advantages in terms of time and convenience, consider these facts about them and about leaf removal in general:

  • Leaf blowers in commercial use typically have two-stroke gas engines, which are far more polluting than most car engines. Although improved four-stroke engines are being phased in, various sources cite research showing that a leaf blower operated for half an hour generates as many pollutants as a car driven for 50 to 400 miles!
  • Leaf blowers are also sources of noise and particulate pollution. How many of us haven’t experienced the annoyance of a loud leaf blower on an otherwise peaceful weekend morning, followed by that roving dust cloud? (If a leaf blower or mower must be used, consider a quiet and non-polluting electric or battery-powered model.)
  • Vehicles used by municipal leaf removal services and commercial landscapers generate even more air pollution while collecting, transporting, and moving leaves.
  • Leaves bagged in plastic can’t be commercially composted, and must be handled as regular waste. When placed in a typical landfill environment, the organic leaf matter doesn’t receive enough oxygen to decompose properly. Instead, it produces methane gas, which is a “greenhouse gas” associated with atmospheric warming.

Personally, when I need to collect or move my leaves, I still love my good old-fashioned rake. It’s cheap, non-polluting, and quiet to operate, plus it keeps me fit and gives me some time to contemplate life. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of times spent raking fall leaves into a massive pile, followed by the joy of launching into them, grabbing as many as I could hold, and throwing them in the air. Rake, jump, toss, repeat. There’s a lot of value in kids experiencing a bit of outdoor physical activity (yes, even through chores) and some fun, hands-on contact with Nature. Impressions from this type of experience last a lifetime: the up-close look at fall leaves with their different forms, ornate vein patterns, and hues of yellow, orange, and red; the rich, earthy smell; the discovery of small critters hidden among the leaves. Lots to smile about. . . .

This autumn, consider a different approach to your “leaf litter.” Leave it where it falls when possible, and when not, keep it and treat it as the valuable resource it is.

If you’d like to try your hand at making compost, see the California Master Gardener Tip Sheet at http://ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/files/77131.pdf.

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Enjoy Fall Color

Virginia Creeper in full fall glory

Autumn is here and beautiful and colorful foliage is here or coming shortly if we have the good fortune of cooler weather and perhaps rain. It is a good time to think about planting beautiful foliage plants to enjoy next fall. The ancient Gingko tree (Gingko biloba) produces colorful yellow leaves in the fall, but make sure you buy a grafted male tree, because the female tree has horribly smelly fruit. Another shade tree with great red color is the Chinese Pistachio (Pistacia chinensis) which is a commonly planted street tree in Stockton.

The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), is another foliage performer. I have two seedlings—one stays bright red in the fall while the other turns yellow with orange highlights, so there is a lot of variation within this species. There are also many grafted cultivars of Japanese maples that are red most of the year. Those with delicate foliage do not handle wind and our hot valley temperatures very well. They do best when shaded and protected from wind. A more robust variety is Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ which handles the heat better.

Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) turn crimson and add foliage to their summer repertoire of color. Pin oak (Quercus palustris), scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), red maple (Acer rubrum Red Sunset’), Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) or western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and persimmons round out a cast of colorful trees.. After the yellow and orange persimmon leaves are gone the persimmons remain as colorful bird food ornaments, if you can’t eat them all. For more information on trees, consult Sunset Western Garden book or for trees http://ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/files/117115.pdf

The shrub, burning bush (Euonymous alatus) has very crimson foliage that makes it an autumn favorite. It makes a good border plant, but make sure it has room to grow. Mine is about 8 ft. tall and 8 ft. wide. It is very tolerant of some shade, soil variations and is drought tolerant. It requires little maintenance other than occasional light pruning.  ‘Rudy Haag’ is a slow growing diminutive form of the bush that will get only 5 feet tall in 15 years.

The Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a vine which grows on my large oak trees, It is crimson and gorgeous as weather cools, but winter storms will quickly put the red leaves on the ground. This is a plant to introduce with care as it can spread and can be invasive as a ground cover or a tree clinging vine. It is not a plant for everyone.  However, I do enjoy the color each fall on my oak trees, despite its straying tendencies and it also has berries that birds feed on.

There are other plants that have colorful berries that persist into winter and provide birds with food. I have several tall, large Cotoneasters as west-side foundation plants and I don’t know what species they are, but they have endured for many years despite being susceptible to fireblight. There are over 70 species of Cotoneaster ranging from short ground covers to tall hedge-like varieties. The tall ones are best for the birds and a host of robins or cedar waxwings enjoy feeding on the berries. Cotoneasters tend to be very drought tolerant and do well in alkaline soils. Pyracantha and the native Toyon also supply colorful berries and bird food well into winter. Another plant providing color nearly year round is the Evereste crabapple. It was developed in France in 1974 and it is a beauty. It has long-lasting blooms in spring and colorful small apples which stay on the tree into the winter and can be used for jelly, spicing up cider or feeding the birds.

One of my most colorful landscape plants is the annual castor bean (Ricinus communis). It has dark red-green foliage and beautiful bean pods that are red before they turn brown.  I have used castor bean florescence in floral designs and they are eye-catching and unusual. Keep in mind that the plant is poisonous.

Last Thanksgiving, I made an arrangement of Cotoneaster branches, persimmons, squash and some floral spikes of castor bean which brightened the table. It was fun to do and took so little time to collect these items from my garden.

So take stock of your landscape and see if you have room for new foliage plants to brighten a gloomy autumn day or a berry or fruit producer to feed the birds next winter. They are enjoyably well worth having.

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Cool season vegetables provide vitamins and flavor

Packman Broccoli is a good early variety.

My cool season vegetable garden is well underway and I want to share with you some of the possibilities for growing your own vegetables this fall. I planted lettuce and onion seeds in flats in mid-August and transplanted the lettuce in early September. The lettuce that was direct seeded is growing much better than the transplants and we are now eating salads. The onion sets are growing nicely and I just gave them a little fish emulsion fertilizer to encourage them along. The onions will be planted at the end of October.

The first 2 weeks of October will be garlic planting time and if you have leftovers from last winter’s crop, plant the cloves about 1-2 inches deep. The soft-necked garlics are better keepers than the hardnecked cultivars. The soft-necked tend to be milder in flavor, so if you like pungent garlic, try one of the many hardneck types. A good source for garlics and garlic information is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: http://www.groworganic.com/organic-gardening/seasonal-items/seed-garlic.

I like to plant both onions and garlic through 3-4 layers of newspaper mulch with a drip irrigation line down the center under the paper.  I punch holes through the paper and plant the onions or garlic on each side of the dripline and about 4-5 inches apart in the row. The edges of the newspaper can be held down with soil. This is a pain to do and not a chore for a windy day, but it saves a lot of weeding later. Neither of these alliums grows well with weed competition.  I can remember winters in the past when the weeds overwhelmed the onions and garlic because it was hard to weed in the mud and rain. The drip irrigation will get them off to a good start in case the rains come late and provide water in late spring.

I started broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants in flats in July, but alas, the cursed ground squirrels got the best of me and ate the plants even though I put them up on a table. For the first year that I can remember, I was forced to buy plants and fortunately found a good selection at Port Stockton Nursery. I even found my favorite Brussels sprout cultivar ‘Jade Cross’ which is a good variety for our Central Valley. I got all planted right after purchase and I am looking forward to a good harvest. Other nurseries likely carry stocks of lettuce and brassicas that you can plant now if you didn’t grow your own.

I also seed planted Purple Top turnips, Red Russian Kale, Dinosaur Kale, Kohlrabi, chard, two kinds of Bok Choy, carrots and beets to round out the fall garden. I probably have overplanted, but our chickens love the plant thinnings and any surplus plants.

It is also a good idea to plant cultivars with different maturity times for a succession of harvests or include sprouting types that have side-shoots after the main head is cut. For example, Early Dividend, Packman, and Green Comet are early cultivars maturing at 45-55 days, whereas Premium Crop, Waltham 29 and Marathon mature at 65-70 days after transplanting.  Cultivars such as Di Cicco, are more apt to sprout side shoots to be harvested after the main head is taken. Packman has beautiful large heads, but is not as good at producing side shoots. Romanesco is an unusual chartreuse colored broccoli that produces in 75-100 days after transplanting.

These fall vegetables have three things in common. They need a sunny location, a well-drained soil, and one that is enriched with lots of organic matter. The brassicas and lettuces, which are leaf and shoot producers, will thrive with nitrogen inputs which can be provided by either compost or doses of fish emulsion.  Harvesting broccoli proceeds when the heads or sideshoot begin to swell and are firm, green and beaded up. The floret bud are tight and no yellow flowers are appearing. 

If you love cabbage or like to make sauerkraut then some cabbages should be in your fall wish list. I like Jersey Wakefield for an early harvest at 60-75 days after transplant. Golden Acre is also early and Copenhagen Market is a small cabbage that seldom splits and is ideal for small gardens (63-100 days from transplant). For sauerkraut any cabbage will do, but Late Dutch is a large cabbage, 10-15 lbs., 100 days from transplant, that will make a lot kraut. Even red cabbages can be used and Ruby Ball and Red Acre are good red varieties. Unprocessed sauerkraut is a good pro-biotic food and, processed or not, it is a good source of fiber and essential nutrients, including iron, vitamin K and vitamin C.

California is a great place to live if you love gardening, because you can garden year round. Happy winter gardening!

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/


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Plant fall bulbs for spring beauty


Unknown Jonquil Narcissus

It is time to think about planting fall bulbs for gorgeous spring flowers. In most cases this is a drought-smart practice as well. Most of our fall planted bulbs evolved in Mediterranean climates like California. Hence, they grow and prosper on winter and spring rains and need no summer watering which is a perfect fit for California. In fact, most do better if they don’t get summer water. They also can fit into a variety of landscape situations. While preferring sunny sites, they are tolerant of afternoon shade. They can be planted in areas where deciduous trees won’t leaf out and provide total shade until after the bulbs have bloomed. They also thrive under or amongst perennial shrubs as well as in containers.

I have planted lots of bulbs over the years and when they come back each year, it is like being greeted by an old friend. There is one clump of daffodils that has bloomed every year for the 39 seasons I have lived here. Recently, I attempted to find out the variety name. I contacted the America Daffodil Society http://daffodilusa.org/ (Americans have a society for everything) and sent them a picture, but haven’t heard yet from a volunteer. This site is a good resource to visit for lots of information on daffodils including a list of vendors.

I also have lots of summer snowflakes, Leucojum aestivum and paperwhites,Narcissus papyraceus, the early bloomers heralding spring. Summer snowflake is a misnomer, as it blooms in late winter and early spring in California.  In fact, the paperwhites herald winter here—often blooming in December. These are the bulbs that eastern folks buy to force in indoor pots so they have fragrant blooms by Christmas, but in California they are blooming in my garden before Christmas.

While tulips are beautiful in Holland and in colder climates, they seldom come back to visit again in California. If you do plant tulips in the Central Valley, it is a good idea to chill bulbs in a refrigerator for 4-6 weeks before planting. This assures longer flower stems than if you don’t chill. The only tulips I have planted recently are species tulips from which many of the hybrids have been developed. These species tulips repeat bloom whereas the fancy, tall hybrids don’t. However, even species tulips can rot, if planted where there is summer irrigation.

The bulbs I love best are Narcissus or daffodils, as they are commonly called. There are 200 species and over 25,000 named cultivars. There are also early, late and midseason varieties to stretch out the bloom season. Most daffodils will do well in California. For more information consult the websites of daffodil vendors which are listed on the American Daffodil Society’s website. Here is a short list of cultvars by season.

Early Bloomers: ‘Barrett Browning’ – small-cupped; ‘Tête-á-Tête’ – Cyclamineus Narcissus; ‘February Gold’ – Cyclamineus Narcissus; ‘Little Gem’ – miniature trumpet;‘Topolino’ – miniature trumpet; ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ – trumpet daffodil; .

Mid-Spring Bloomers: ‘King Alfred’- trumpet; ‘April Queen’ – large-cupped ; ‘Peeping Tom’ – Cyclamineus Narcissus; ‘Professor Einstein’ – large-cupped ;‘Ice Follies’ – large-cupped; ‘Mount Hood’ – trumpet; ‘Narcissus Color Run’ large cupped hybrid,

Late Bloomers: ‘Quail’-Jonquilla; ‘Cheerfulness’ -double; ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’ – double; ‘Flower Record’ – large-cupped; ‘Passionale’-large cupped; ‘Peridot’- large cupped

There are also heirloom varieties of Narcissus. For some older heirloom varieties, you can find them at Old House Gardens: http://www.oldhousegardens.com/display/?choices=Fall.  I grew one called, ‘Brilliancy’, created in 1906, and it is coming back each year.  One offering of theirs, ‘Double Campernelle’, was first developed in 1601 and thus created before the first English settlement in the New World, a real peace of history. This site has a search engine that will refine what you seek. These bulbs are a bit pricey because they are rare and hard to find. Start with a few and multiply them.

Garden centers often carry the commonly loved varieties, Ice Follies, Salome, Mount Hood, and King Alfred all of which do well here.  When buying bulbs it is best to buy large bulbs. Examine well to make sure there are no soft or decayed bulbs in your pack. Best to pick them out individually from a bulk display, but that may not be possible these days.

Another good feature of Narcissus is that they contain alkaloids that are toxic, so gophers, rabbits and deer leave them alone, though squirrels will sometimes dig them up. Finally, don’t remove the leaves until after they die back. They need to nourish the bulbs for next year’s greetings. Happy Bulb Planting!

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

Snowflake, Leucojem aestivalis

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Thin Overcrowded Gardens to Reduce Competition

A parking strip with 'Moonshine' yarrow is simple but dramatic

One of the best things in life is gaining new friendships, increasing the amount of love you receive and give. Wouldn’t it be great if space automatically increased each time we “gained” a new plant? True, you can practice vertical gardening and get creative with the layout of your landscape, but let’s face it: most of us garden within a physically contained space.

Every garden, whether it’s 1/4 acre or 40 acres, has another limiting factor: water. When space and water are plentiful, you can have a huge party with all your little (and not-so-little) green friends, but the average urban lot and water shortage mean it’s time to pick and choose which plants mean the most to you, and which party crashers can go.

It may seem like plants have feelings, but really, they don’t, so you can be ruthless in the initial stages. The first group of plants to consider eliminating are invasives, plants that spread rapidly at the expense of everything around them. A good example is English ivy, which covers the ground in a thick carpet, taking away water and nutrients from other plants. More information on invasive plants can be found at the California Invasive Plant Council’s website: www.cal-ipc.org/landscaping/dpp

Plants that are not doing well, no matter how hard you try, should also be considered for removal. Plants placed in the wrong light exposure, unfavorable soil (too heavy, etc), or are marginal in our climate will probably never do well unless conditions can be amended to suit them. Fussy plants can be beautiful, but start asking yourself if it’s worth the trouble and what you are getting out of them in the end.

Overcrowded planting beds are very common, a symptom of impulse purchases, impatience, and poor planning (or no planning). Remedies often include removal, but choosing the keepers requires you to know what species you have and what their natural growth habit and life cycles are. Unidentified plants can be brought to a locally-owned nursery or the Master Gardener’s (see our website below for contact information). Bringing more than just a leaf is helpful (a small branch and photo of the overall plant is best).

After you know your plants, you can begin to think about their functions. Shade from trees, the aesthetic value of flowering perennials, and maintenance requirements are major factors to consider. Mature trees add economic value to your home, so removing competing plants can help them get the water, sun, and nutrients they need. Thirsty plants with only aesthetic value can be considered for removal, especially if there are other existing plants to fill in. However, you can think about what the plant does in exchange for the amount of resources that go into it. For instance, fruit trees require regular water, but they provide food for people (and wildlife, much to our chagrin!).

Plants with wildlife value offer something to the creatures that share their space with us. Plants providing nectar and/or pollen are great for people to look at and pollinators to feed on, though not all plants are equal in their ability to provide forage. Insects and birds also need habitat for mating, nesting, and shelter from enemies, so keeping some of you large shrubs and trees is important.

Letting some plants go can be tough, but it allows your remaining plants to breath and take on their natural shape and size. Understanding what happens in an overcrowded garden can help you become more conscientious about over-planting in the future, though I know from experience this doesn’t always happen. If nothing else, decluttering your garden gives you an excuse to go buy more plants.

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


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Embracing Change: Countering Drought Depression

A simple planting of Berkeley sedge requires less water and maintenance than a traditional lawn

A drive through town these days is often marked by brown landscapes, dying trees, and a certain sadness we must set aside to carry on the day’s business. Whether experienced as an irritating nag or an anxiety-inducing shriek, “drought depression” is on the rise, especially with climate change clouding predictions for a possible end. Each individual has their own reaction, but a common thread is feeling the loss of something fundamental to our existence, beyond the loss of a job or a loved one: the very ability of the earth to provide sustenance for human life.

Dark and dreary stuff, right?

If you made it through that first paragraph without skipping over to a YouTube cat video, you are to be commended. Drought-related catastrophes have become so commonplace they should have their own section in the newspaper between “Money” and “Obituaries”, but the pervasiveness of our water troubles only underscores how important it is to recognize that change is upon us.

A relationship that was defined by our supposed control over nature is capsizing: nature mandates our existence, not the other way around. We must come to terms with this truth, and based on the struggles we see happening everyday, it has not been smooth sailing. We still cling to a time when we didn’t have to give conscious thought to our landscapes as living ecosystems, instead trying to force plants into the role of inanimate outdoor decoration. Like the Five Stages of Grief, letting go of the good ol’ days causes a variety of reactions:

Denial: “When the drought is over I can go back to watering the sidewalk with run-off from my lawn sprinklers.”

Anger/Blame: “This is ____’s fault! Why doesn’t someone do something? If someone did something, I could still water the sidewalk.”

Bargaining: “I’ll do anything to keep my lawn; I’ll paint it green, if necessary!” (grass paint is a real thing, by the way)

Depression: “My sidewalk will die without run-off, the world is ending, #droughtdepression” (not a real hashtag…yet)

The fifth stage, acceptance, will help us move forward; clinging to the ideal of a perpetually lush landscape in a dry climate will only hurt us when what we see is in constant conflict with what we want. The past is dragging us down, both emotionally and physically, and prevents acknowledgment of the natural life cycle of plants in a place with only 13 inches of rain a year (if we are lucky).

Although not everyone loves to garden, we can all gain something from a deeper understanding of the ecosystem and our place in it, not to mention the positives resulting from a proactive response to crises: stronger community, a broader perspective, the opportunity and driving force for creative solutions, and the best part for those who love to garden, a whole new palette of plants to choose from.

The new paradigm will mean a great change, so dry those tears and let go of that lush lawn and sidewalk, put down that green paint and go find low-water plants to feed our beloved birds and bees. Wherever you are in the Five Stages of Grief, open yourself to the possibility of acceptance; our best chance for the future is to embrace the concept of California as a dry state, and to express this in our landscapes.

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

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Color in the Late Summer Garden

A mixed fall flower show of Lavender, Sulfur buckwheat, and California fuchsia

Although fall is now considered the best time to plant in our Mediterranean climate, those still opting for spring planting may find the instant gratification of putting a blooming plant in the ground too tempting to resist; but what happens as the seasons progress and those early eye-candy plants fade?

To mitigate the late summer “dead zone”, think beyond the first few weeks of spring when selecting plants. With fall planting season around the corner, now is the perfect time to research plants to provide much needed color and pollinator forage at a difficult time of year.

Starting with evergreen species will help keep the garden filled in for much of the year. Some late-bloomers with year-round foliage are listed below; all prefer full sun unless otherwise noted:

Bottlebrush ‘Violaceous’ (Callistemon citrinus)
True to its name, this large shrub has violet flowers resembling bottlebrush bristles, blooming heavily in spring and fall. Very attractive to bees and hummingbirds.

Saint Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
A large shrub native to California with large clusters of white flowers on umbels atop a basal mound of rounded, silvery foliage. A great accent that requires only an occasional deep watering. Butterflies love the flowers; birds eat the seeds. Blooms late summer into fall.

Germander sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)
A low mounding shrub with fragrant, silvery foliage and violet-blue flowers attracting myriad bee species. Blooms sporadically throughout the growing season.

Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens)
A ground cover with fleshy, blade-like foliage and a spray of yellow-orange flowers from spring until frost. Great for honeybees and full sun to part shade.

Other evergreens that bloom now include Sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and Lavender (Lavandula spp, ‘Goodwin Creek’, L. x intermedia). Although the flowers of Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) are not showy, they are excellent for pollinators.

Herbaceous perennials (i.e. plants that die to the ground during dormancy) offer some of the greatest flower displays in the garden, so try some of these water-wise species in between your foundation plants for even more fall color:

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Russian sage has aromatic leaves and woody growth that make it seem evergreen, but requires cutting to the ground each spring for best appearance. Upright stems are topped with purple flowers in spring and again in fall if flower stems are cut back after the first round of blooms.

California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
California fuchsia emerges in spring as thin, woody stalks, waiting until the hottest part of the summer to put forth red trumpet-shaped flowers to attract hummingbirds and bees. A great low-water plant for full sun to part shade.

Blanketflower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)
A small, mounding perennial with 2”-3” red and yellow flowers from spring until frost. Easy to find in nurseries and great for a hot, sunny spot; protect spring growth from slugs and snails.

Long-lasting dried flower heads of Showy stonecrop add unique element to the fall garden

Showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile)
A unique succulent with 5” umbels of clustered pink flowers atop fleshy stalks. Showy stonecrop blooms in late summer and tolerates part shade; attractive to butterflies and bees. The dried flower heads add an interesting element to the garden as well, especially in mass plantings, which can be created by divisions of the mother plant(s).

Other herbaceous perennials flowering in late summer and fall include Lilac verbena (Glandularia lilacina), California goldenrod (Solidago californica), Great Valley gumplant (Grindelia camporum), Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), and Sundrops (Calylophus drummondianus).

Some of the above plants can be found on the UC Davis Arboretum All-Star’s website: arboretum.ucdavis.edu/arboretum_all_stars.aspx
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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For peace of mind; garden organically Part 1.

Recently, one of our Master Gardeners said she wants to learn to garden more organically. What do we mean by organic?  Living or dead organisms contain carbon and that is organic, so what is the big deal?  Well let’s use a definition of organic in the gardening or farming sense from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.”

Can’t be done you say?  Well, yes it can be done and lots of folks have been doing it. My mother gardened using organic methods 70 years ago and the Romans did so for hundreds of years. In fact most of the world has farmed and gardened organically until the 20th century. There was a time not long ago when synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers were unknown.

After WWI, the Haber–Bosch method, used for making explosives during the war, became an artificial nitrogen fixation process for the production of ammonia for fertilizer. The mining of nitrates like guano and sodium nitrate deposits in Chile was not keeping up with increased demand for nitrogen fertilizers. Hence this process eventually earned scientists Haber and Bosch Nobel Prizes. After WWII there were poison gases and compounds around that were developed for warfare. Naturally these chemical companies wanted to find a use for them, so why not for pest control? I don’t know if this earned anyone a Nobel Prize.

After a few years of applying persistent pesticides, the result was Silent Spring, a book by Rachael Carson about the unintended consequences to our environment by the widespread use of DDT, Dieldren, Chlordane and other persistent pesticides also known as biocides because they can be toxic to life in general. The environmental movement was launched as people became concerned about what we were doing to our environment, other species and ourselves.

When farming or gardening organically, naturally occurring materials can be used for pest control such as sulfur which is used as a fungicide. Naturally occurring substances are generally, but not always, less harmful to humans and the environment. You don’t want to get sulfur in your eyes—it burns! For fertilizing soil, compost, feather meal, fish emulsion, manures, and other materials will work and there is less chance of salts building up in soils as can occur with chemically formulated fertilizers.

However, it is much easier to apply chemicals compared to compost or manures which are bulky and that is one reason that organic food is more expensive, because it requires more labor and care in growing food. The organic farmer/gardener feeds the life in the soil and that in turn feeds the plants. Unfortunately, industrial agriculture tends to deplete soils of organic matter and soil life while relying on fertilizer for plant growth.

One reason to garden and eat organically grown food is to keep chemicals out of our bodies that might not be good for our health. New formulations of chemical pesticides are less persistent and there are rigid standards established to minimize residues on our food and we hope they are enforced consistently. However, some residues do get into our bodies. There is no way of knowing all the synergistic effects of putting myriad foreign toxins into our bodies and pesticides are only one set of many chemicals we are exposed to.

Noted columnist, Bill Moyers, had his blood and urine tested for presence of alien chemicals and the list was 84 items long. That is not a reassuring result though he has lived past the normal male lifetime. Probably most of us have a similar suite of alien chemicals in our bodies.

Gardening organically is a challenge to outsmart those pests that make gardening difficult, but it can be done. More on how to garden organically to follow in part 2.

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found at: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/.

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    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

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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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