The birds and the berries

Fall is upon us, and with the season comes a profusion of color. But it’s not just leaves that bring autumn color and beauty; berries do too.

Bird-friendly, berry-producing shrubs have a lot of environmental value. They help sustain and nourish bird populations, providing energy in the form of fruit and seeds when other sources of food become scarce. They help to replace natural bird habitat lost or highly disturbed by urban/suburban development, large-scale farming, and grazing. They provide cover and nesting sites for birds and give them places to hide from predators (hawks, raccoons, opossums, and wayward cats). Evergreen shrubs that keep their foliage throughout winter also help to shelter birds from harsh weather.

Another benefit of berry-producing shrubs is that most have nectar-rich flowers. Such flowers are favored food sources for Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, native bee species, honeybees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators.

Besides providing wildlife value and habitat, berry-producing shrubs can also be a wonderful source of entertainment. Fully ripe berries attract many different birds to a garden and bring hours of joy to novice and avid bird watchers alike. For an added show, some birds will even get intoxicated after eating fermented berries. My front yard used to be planted with a pyracantha hedge, and one year many old berries were left on the plants. A large flock of cedar waxwings visited, and after feasting for a while the cute, plump little birds were flying groggily to a nearby tree or fluttering in a stupor on the ground!

Many California native shrubs are outstanding choices for a bird-lover’s landscape.  They attract fruit-eating birds such as cedar waxwings, finches, grosbeaks, mockingbirds, robins, tanagers, thrushes, and towhees. Here’s a sampling of what I like to call “beautiful berry-bearing bushes,” all suitable for planting in San Joaquin County:

  • Manzanitas(Arctostaphylos spp.) — There are numerous species, some suitable for our valley growing conditions. Their fruits aren’t technically berries (they’re “drupes”), but their rounded reddish fruits with sticky coatings are bird favorites.
  • Oregon grape(Berberis aquifolium)— These showy evergreen plants have shiny, spiny, holly-like leaves and nectar-rich, bright yellow flowers in spring, followed by juicy purplish berries in the fall.
  • Woodland strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) — Although not a shrub, this low-growing groundcover for partial shade has small, red, seedy, edible fruit.
  • Toyon(Heteromeles arbutifolia)— A large evergreen shrub or small tree with dark green leaves, small white flowers in early summer, and bright red berries in winter.
  • Hollyleaf cherry(Prunus ilicifolia) A tall, attractive, evergreen shrub with lightly spiny leaves and spikes of creamy white flowers in spring. Many types of birds (eat its dark red to deep purple fruits. The fruits look like big berries, but they’re actually small cherries with pits and minimal flesh.
  • California coffeeberry(Rhamnus californica)— This large, sun-loving evergreen shrub has dark green leaves and inconspicuous, greenish-white flowers in spring. The berries change color from green to red to black as they ripen from late summer through fall and winter. Two attractive and compact cultivars of coffeeberry are ‘Mound San Bruno’ and ‘Eve Case.’  [NOTE to The Record: Cultivar names are meant to be enclosed in single quotes – that is the standard nomenclature. PLEASE DO NOT CHANGE.]
  • Snowberry(Symphoricarpos albus) — A small deciduous shrub with open form and arching stems. It bears small pink flowers in spring and waxy white berries in fall and winter. After the leaves drop, the showy berries persist on the stems.
  • Currants — California golden currant (Ribes aureum)and pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). These moderately sized, deciduous plants have thorny stems, small maple-like leaves, and gorgeous flowers in winter and spring, followed by tasty fruit in the fall.
  • Fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum)— A summer-deciduous plant with profuse, pinkish red, tubular flowers in late winter to early spring. The berries are reddish orange and very spiky when ripe
  • Blue elderberry(Sambucus mexicana) — A large deciduous shrub with clusters of creamy white flowers in spring and dark blue berries in fall. 
  • California wild grape(Vitus californica‘Roger’s Red’) — This deciduous, rambling, ornamental vine has intense yellow to red fall leaf color. The grapes ripen in fall; they are small and purple with a bitter skin.

A cedar waxwing eating a toyon berry (Photo courtesy of Evleen Anderson, Golden Gate Audubon Society)

Some berry-producing non-native plants are also very attractive to birds:

  • Hollies— Mockingbirds favor the berries from these thorny-leaved shrubs.
  • Amethyst beautyberry— An attractive deciduous vine with delicate pinkish-purple flowers in summer and dense clusters of bright violet berries that persist from September into early winter.
  • Pyracantha, camphor, cotoneaster, and privet— A word of warning: although many bird species enthusiastically feed upon the berries of these shrubs and trees, these plants are also invasive (ranked here in order from moderate to severe). Birds eat the berries and readily spread the fast-sprouting seeds to wildlands. Plant similar native plants instead, especially if you live in a rural or semi-rural area.

While some of the berries listed above are edible for both birds AND people, others are unpalatable or mildly toxic. NEVER consume a berry unless you know it’s safe.

This time of year is an optimal time for planting California natives; they can develop deep roots during fall and winter and become established before the heat of summer. Why not try a new berry-growing plant this year, and see what birds it brings?

For more information, read The California Wildlife Habitat Garden by Nancy Bauer, or visit the Theodore Payne Foundation online and follow the links: Native Plant Database > Plant Guides > Birds.

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

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Resources to be a better gardener

Gardening is always a learning experience which keeps it interesting as well as challenging when some new pest shows up or something doesn’t go as planned. No matter how much we know, it seems that there is more to be learned in a never ending process. This week I want to share with you some of the resources that can be helpful to make you a more informed and better gardener. First of all there is Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a great resource and secondly is Google. If you have a question or want to see a picture or find information on a plant, just try Google and you will likely be rewarded with a lot of information to sort through.

Google might take you to Dave’s Gardens, a plant finder/gardener’s information paradise where you can subscribe for $19 per year and have access to reviews of nurseries, discussion forums, files on plants, pests, birds, landscaping, garden articles, pros and cons on various plants and a gardening community of over 700,000 members. Even without membership there is access to a lot of information.

Just the plant file is one of the world’s largest. Here is their description of their plant file. “PlantFiles is largest plant database in the world, built by 60,154 gardeners working together from around the world. The database has 217,995 entries, 374,489 images and 153,342 comments. Currently entries are from 430 families, 5,355 genera, 46,715 species, and 135,279 cultivars.”  So there is a lot of information here just on plants. I searched for information for the Gulf fritillary butterfly and I found 80 images and 20 reviews to give you an idea of how much information can be found there. However, you may find their search engine to be very lacking in sophistication.

The California Native Plant Society has a very useful and awesome website:  https://calscape.org/ . It has pictures, map locations, growing conditions and other information on 7095 native plants in California. You can look at native trees, vines, shrubs and others as categories and then select individual species to get lots of info.

A website that I like is the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This IPM program fosters a scientific and environmentally conscious approach to pest management.  It has a tremendous amount of information to help gardeners identify and deal with landscape pests including weeds and it has a lot of information to help you garden better: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html.

There are also many publications that are useful from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division (UCANR). Some of these are free and can be easily downloaded as PDF files and some are available for purchase from their online catalogue. For more information, see: https://ucanr.edu/Publications_524/.

The Xerces Society (https://xerces.org/) is an organization that is dedicated to pollinator conservation. They promote habitats and gardening practices that conserve bees, butterflies and other pollinators; a very worthy cause. Their website features articles, books, guides and other resources to help you foster populations of pollinators.

There are also various plant societies that promote information about their particular type of plant. I like dahlias and roses, so I joined the American Dahlia Society (ADS) and the American Rose Society (ARS). Both have publications. The Rose Society’s American Rose is a very slick well-done magazine with information on growing and exhibiting rose. The ADS publishes Bulletin of the American Dahlia Society, Inc. which is mostly about exhibiting, but sometimes has helpful articles on growing dahlias. It is unlikely to win an award. Both societies have websites as well.

The Iris Society (AIS) has a website https://www.irises.org/ to offer images and information about Iris as does the American Orchid Society (AOS) http://www.aos.org/ and the American Peony Society https://www.americanpeonysociety.org/. The first two have magazines to promote their respective flowers. Not to be left out is the African Violet Society of America http://www.avsa.org/.  They have a bimonthly magazine and they have an amazing photo gallery on this website of every African violet imaginable. I am quite sure there are more societies than I know of, but if you think there might be one for a flower you like—just Google your flower name and see what pops up.

Another resource is YouTube where you can find videos on useful garden tips. Some plant suppliers have useful information on growing their plants. For example, Swan Island Dahlias has several videos on digging, storing, dividing tubers, and growing dahlias. Not to be left out is our Master Gardening website listed below for many gardening resources. To be a better garden requires some effort and resources, but it is a worthwhile pursuit and I hope this information will be helpful.

If you are interested in becoming a UC Master Gardener, you will need to apply by September 28, for the 19 weekly classes which start in 2019. To apply or 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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Happiness is being in a pollinator garden.

An Anna's hummingbird feeding on and blending in with Brazilian salvia.

If you stand still in a garden of zinnias and other flowers frequented by hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and bees, it can be a joyful learning experience.  Years ago, I became acquainted with the Gulf Fritillary (Agaulis vanilla) butterfly after growing some passion vines to provide shade to the deck on my wife’s studio. I didn’t know it at the time but Gulf fritillary lays its eggs mostly on passion vines.

Fritillary adult and caterpillar on a passion vine that is their food source as larvae.

Another Master Gardener wanted some of my passion vine to feed some caterpillars of the butterfly and so when she came to collect it, I noticed for the first time the caterpillars and one adult Gulf Fritillary butterfly. It was a very serendipitous experience.  I have been a fan of these butterflies ever since. At my new home, the gardener next door has a passion vine which has provided Gulf Fritillary butterflies galore for me to enjoy in my garden. I counted eight of these butterflies at one time flitting about.

Butterflies may not be as efficient as bees in pollinating plants and crops, but butterflies certainly do their fair share in bringing about seed and fruit production. They are definitely pleasing to watch. Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers, but they lay their eggs on a limited number of native plants because butterfly caterpillars are host specific.

The butterfly has a 4-stage life cycle egg, caterpillar (larvae), pupa and adult. After mating, females typically deposit their eggs on the undersides of leaves, especially those that act as a food source for newly emerging caterpillars. Butterflies taste with their feet, which is where their taste sensors are located. Hence by standing on their offspring’s food, they can taste it to determine if this is the right plant for their caterpillar offspring.  For a great resource on creating a pollinator garden and a list of plants used by pollinators see: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8498.pdf. Caterpillars also are harvested by birds to feed their nestlings, so they are an important part of our landscape ecosystem.

Years ago, at a Master Gardener Conference, I heard a lecture by Doug Tallamy who is a noted entomology professor at my alma mater, the University of Delaware. He pointed out that we have decreased native plants by planting lots of exotic ones that native insects have not co-evolved with, hence discouraging our native fauna. He is author of the book “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Garden” which won a silver medal from the Garden Writer’s Association in 2008.

Tallamy restored 10 acres of a previously mowed hayfield which had been farmed for centuries to a native forest and meadow and was pleased that so many native species returned.  Standing under one of his young oak trees, he observed 11 caterpillars belonging to six species; a notable increase in biodiversity. His book is based not only on ecological theory and expertise, but also on practical considerations for creating a more diverse landscape, although mostly with East Coast gardener’s in mind.

We can all improve our gardens and enjoy more pollinators as they go from flower to flower. Every day, I enjoy carpenter bees, honey bees and small bees I don’t know the names of in my garden. I enjoy several Anna’s hummingbirds as well as the Western Swallowtail butterfly with its bright yellow wings trimmed in black. A new butterfly I learned of recently is the fiery skipper. One

A fiery skipper butterfly on a zinnia in my garden.

way to find out what butterflies might be in your neighborhood and could be a new garden friend is to check out this website: http://www.gardenswithwings.com/what-is-a-butterfly-garden.html. You can enter your zip code and discover which butterflies are likely in your area. Recently, I bought a butterfly field guide and was amazed at how many species of butterflies there are in North America.

Occasionally, I might see a Monarch butterfly as I have some milkweed. If you want to plant milkweed to encourage Monarchs, this site will help you plant a native species: http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/CA-milkweed-guide_XercesSoc6.pdf

One of the reasons that the Monarch butterfly is decreasing in abundance is because the milkweed that they are dependent on for reproduction and food is declining across the Midwest due to the growth in intensive agriculture and the use of GMO plants that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide. Milkweed abundance has decreased with increased glyphosate use. Just another unintended consequence of human ingenuity, but we can hope the Monarchs survive us.

If you are interested in becoming a UC Master Gardener, you will need to apply by September 28, for the 19 weekly classes which start in 2019. To apply or 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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A healthy approach to garden pest management

For as long as human beings have been cultivating crops and growing ornamental plants, pest control has been an important to-do. Anyone who grows plants for food or pleasure must also be concerned with the organisms that might harm those plants.

The word “pest” in garden lingo is fairly all encompassing. It can refer to animal species that consume and damage plants or spread plant diseases—gophers, rats, and other mammals; insects such as aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, and mites; or other critters such as snails, slugs, and nematodes. It can refer to weeds or parasitic plants—bindweed, dandelions, mistletoe, spurge, and more. Or, it can refer to fungi, bacteria, and viruses—living organisms that are neither plant nor animal—some of which can harm plants.

Over the centuries, conventional wisdom about how to successfully manage plant pest problems has evolved. I recently stumbled across these two fascinating turn-of-the-century tidbits from an 1879 Illinois newspaper, advice we’re unlikely to follow today:

“For lice upon plants, syringe with a solution of soap and whale oil.”
“Very weak lime water will kill worms in flower pots.”

Successful pest control is a delicate balance. On the one hand, it’s important to manage plant pests so that they don’t do excessive harm. On the other hand, it’s critical to use the most effective and least toxic pest control approach to avoid serious environmental damage and human health concerns.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the modern standard for pest control, based upon many decades of scientific research. It’s defined as “an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.”

There are several key components to a successful IPM program:

  • Rule 1: Identify the pest. Just as you shouldn’t take a medicine without first diagnosing an illness, so you shouldn’t take any action before knowing precisely what your pest problem is. Inaccurate diagnosis can lead to an ineffective or even detrimental treatment program. If you’re uncertain of what pest you’re dealing with, use the services of our local Master Gardener hotline at (209) 953-6112 or the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner at (209) 953-6000.
  • Rule 2: Choose the right control method. Very often, pest problems can be solved by using one or a combination of simple, non-toxic measures, without resorting to the use of chemicals. (More about this below.)
  • Rule 3: Evaluate the control and develop a pest management plan. This common sense and business-like approach means you should monitor all pest control methods to check their effectiveness, and then formulate an approach for the future.

Plant pest problems can often be easily prevented or minimized. Select plant species or cultivars that are disease-resistant and well adapted to the growing conditions in a particular space. Practice proper garden sanitation by cleaning tools regularly and disposing of diseased plant material properly. Water, prune, and fertilize plants in the right way at the right time to avoid stressing them and compromising their natural self-defenses.

Pest control methods can be grouped into several categories:

  • Cultural Control. This means changing plant care activities to reduce pest problems. For example, crop rotation helps minimize pest problems in edible gardens and agricultural plots. Also, landscapes with diverse plantings are less susceptible to pest problems than monocultures.
  • Mechanical Control. This simply means using some kind of physical action. Some examples: using a strong stream of water to spray off aphids or scale insects; hand-pulling weeds; using non-chemical traps; hand-picking caterpillars and snails; and using screens, barriers, netting, or mulches to exclude animals, insects, and weeds.
  • Environmental Control. Water, sun exposure, and soil conditions can affect plant health. For example, overwatering can lead to fungal infection and other plant diseases. Soil solarization can reduce weed germination and soil pathogens.
  • Biological Control. There are many species of beneficial insects (aphids, lacewings, predatory wasps, soldier beetles, and more) that work to reduce populations of harmful insects. Allow them to do their job, encourage them to stay by adding their favorite plants to your garden, and remember that pesticides often kill the “helpful bugs” along with the bad ones.
  • Chemical Control. Always use pesticides and herbicides as a last resort, and be sure to follow the application instructions to the letter, because overuse of garden chemicals has many serious, detrimental consequences. (Look up “Ten Reasons Not to Use Pesticides” by the Center for Environmental Health.) One very important thing to remember when using chemicals is that more is NOT better! Pesticide labels are legally binding documents; it’s illegal and dangerous to apply garden chemicals in a manner inconsistent with the instructions.

A screenshot from the UC IPM (Integrated Pest Management) website, showing the categories of available pest resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The University of California IPM website is an excellent, detailed, and comprehensive resource for use by home gardeners, agricultural personnel, or natural resource specialists. Click on “What Is IPM?” for a reader-friendly explanation, or explore the website’s many pest-specific pages. You can also refer to the “Safe and Sustainable Pest Management” chapter of the California Master Gardener Handbook; it’s available through both the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library system and the Lodi Public Library.

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

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Special fall plant sales and garden events

Fall is a wonderful time to “think garden.” The peak heat of summer is over, garden events abound, and it’s a perfect time to plant. The late fall months (October and November) are especially ideal for re-landscaping or planting a new garden. Cooler daytime temperature means that plants experience less transplanting shock, while warm soil and rain showers encourage the growth of new roots before the cold of winter makes plants go dormant.

Take advantage of these upcoming events to buy special new plants, view gorgeous gardens, learn something new, or simply get outside in a beautiful setting:

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Fair Oaks Horticulture Center Open Garden

When:      Saturday, September 8 from 9 a.m. to noon
Where:     11549 Fair Oaks Boulevard, Fair Oaks
Website:   http://sacmg.ucanr.edu/?calitem=389780&g=21788

This horticulture center—which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year—is the demonstration garden for the UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County. It’s divided into several different areas: a water-efficient landscape, a composting area, an irrigation display, and an edible garden with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and more. During this free-to-the-public celebration, Master Gardeners will present mini-demonstrations on various topics at 10 a.m.

Fall visitors in the large edible garden at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. (Kathy Ikeda)

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CNPS Fall Native Plant Sale (Sacramento)

When:      Saturday and Sunday, September 22 and 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where:     Shepard Garden and Arts Center at McKinley Park
                3300 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento
Website:   https://bit.ly/2C7xIzT

This annual sale by the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) features a wide variety of California native perennials, shrubs, and trees. A bonus is the artisan market with creations by local artists. Admission is free, and if you join CNPS or renew your membership at the sale you will receive a complimentary one-gallon plant. Proceeds from this event support CNPS’s educational and conservation work.

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Gardening with California Native Plants

When:      Tuesday, September 25 from 10:30 a.m. to noon
Where:     Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center
                2101 E. Earhart Ave., Stockton
Website:   http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/?calitem=423404&g=3626

A free educational seminar by the UCCE San Joaquin Master Gardeners. Learn about the benefits of growing California natives, their cultural needs, and more. To reserve a space and class materials, call (209) 953-6100. While you’re there, visit the beautiful demonstration garden!

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UCD Arboretum Plant Sales

When:      Saturday, September 29 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. (members only)
                September 29 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. (public sale)
                Saturday, October 13 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (public sale)
                Saturday, November 3 from9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (public clearance sale)
Where:     UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery
                Garrod Drive (across from the Veterinary School), UCD campus, Davis
Website:   https://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/plant-sales

These sales are extremely popular, so arrive early for the best selection! Enjoy choosing from the many special California natives and other plants at this one-acre nursery, including those on the Arboretum All-Stars list. You’ll be inspired by the water-wise landscaping, and can get guidance from the many gardening experts on site. If you have extra time, plan to wander the nearby Arboretum pathways and the Mary Wattis Brown Garden of California Native Plants.

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CNPS Fall Native Plant Sale (North San Joaquin Valley)

When:      Saturday, October 20 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (tentative)
Where:     Hughson Arboretum and Gardens
                Corner of Whitmore and Euclid Roads, Hughson
Website:   https://nsj.cnps.org

This annual sale by the North San Joaquin Valley Chapter of CNPS is held in cooperation with the Hughson Arboretum, whose mission is “to plant, maintain and make available to the public, native tree and plant species, trees of historic value, or other types of plant material to promote education about and appreciation of our natural environment….” The sale date is still tentative, so be sure to check the website for updates and confirmation.

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Growing Fabulous Citrus

When:      Tuesday, October 23 from 10:30 a.m. to noon
Where:     Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center
                2101 E. Earhart Ave., Stockton
Website:   http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/?calitem=423408&g=3626

A free educational seminar by the UCCE San Joaquin Master Gardeners. Learn about citrus varieties suitable for our climate, planting and care techniques, and more. To reserve a space and class materials, call (209) 953-6100.

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REMINDER: Are you interested in becoming a San Joaquin Master Gardener? Completed applications for the 2019 training program must be received by September 28. See http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Becoming_a_Master_Gardener/for details and for an application form.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/.

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Experiencing the new in gardening

I discovered a Lily of the Nile, Agapanthus, which was a deep blue at my new home this year. The only ones I had ever known were either light blue or white. So, being a curious gardener, I looked up Agapanthus images using Google. I found that the genus Agapanthus consists of 4 species and the cultivars are often hybrids of these species.  I found a variety of deep blue and bluish-purple colors in hybrids that I had never realized existed and a range of named cultivars. ‘Midnight Blue’, ‘Storm Cloud’, ‘Bluestorm’ and ‘Mood Indigo’ are all a dark purplish blue.  ‘Northern Star’ has tall stems supporting blue violet flowers and petals with dark stripes down the petal’s center.

Even white to creamy white, Agapanthus, have a wide range of cultivars: ‘Alice Gloucester,’ ‘Bressingham White,’ ‘Snowy Owl, and many others. For more information on varieties of Agapanthus see: https://www.gardenguides.com/123357-agapanthus-colors.html

I also discovered that Agapanthus means flower of love, from the Greek agape, meaning love, and anthos, meaning flower. What is not to love about a flower that repeats annually to brighten our summer and fall days? No wonder so many are to be seen in so many front gardens.

Hotlips, a Salvia that attracts hummingbirds and bees

Another plant that I enjoy is ‘Hotlips’ sage (Salvia microphylla). I planted it outside my office window when I first moved in. It replaced a Cleveland sage that had died in the same spot, but ‘Hotlips’ has flourished, growing from a four inch plant to a three-footer in one year. Watching from my window, I enjoy hummingbirds and carpenter bees visiting the plant for nectar. Another beautiful flower at my new home is Black and Blue Hummingbird Sage or Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), a Salvia with intense dark blue flowers with a black calyx. It is beautiful, but

Brazilian Sage is a deep blue and a favorite of bees in my garden.

checking it out, I discovered it can be thuggish and invasive. I think I can deal with that because it is so special.

Three old enemies at my new home are spotted spurge and creeping spurge (Euphorbia maculata and Euphorbia serpens) and field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). I have destroyed several thousand of these ubiquitous weeds that are everywhere in my new garden. Spurge is an annual, so if I can just keep them from going to seed, maybe I can get rid of it. I found that seeds of this species have longevity of about 6-7 years, so I need to stay diligent for a few years to be successful. Recently, during a nursery visit I spied spurge growing in several 5 gallon citrus pots—no wonder this weed spreads.

The bind weed is a perennial, so even if I can keep them from seeding, the plants will keep coming back. However, it is possible to eventually starve this deeply rooted perennial if you keep destroying the shoots as they come back. Due diligence is again required.

Recently, I discovered a horned tomato caterpillar eating one of my tomato plants. I found the rascal and put him on a volunteer tomato plant that I didn’t care about. I think it worked because a day later the small volunteer was half eaten. The reason I didn’t kill this creature is that tomato hornworms are the larval stage of white-lined sphinx moths (Hyles lineata) which is also known as

Sphinx moth or hummingbird moth is a beauty

the hummingbird moth.

They are the size of a hummingbird with a 2-3 inch wingspan and also have the same capability of hovering like hummingbirds which is a rare feat in the animal kingdom. They are beautiful, nocturnal and feed on nectar usually preferring white flowers. Fragrant white vining moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) open in the evening when the sphinx moths get started feeding and years ago I observed sphinx moths feeding at moonflowers which I had painstakingly grew from seeds.

When I was a five year old on my Dad’s farm and had no inkling that hornworms became pretty moths, my older siblings and I were sent out to rid 3 acres of tomatoes of hornworms using an inexpensive organic method. We were each equipped with a pair of scissors and, when finding the pest, we cut them in two with the scissors. Of course, if you have ever tried to hunt these green hornworms, you know that they are well camouflaged on the tomato plant. I have no idea how many we missed, but I am certain that a few survived to become beautiful hummingbird moths.

Happy gardening and spare a few tomatoes and their caterpillars for the sake of sphinx moths.

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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Gardening is a lifelong learning experience

Most of us find gardening a challenge.  So many plants to know and choose from, so many configurations of plants possible and so many things to consider, sun exposure or shade, plant textures, flower colors and advancing verses receding colors. What type and amount of hardscape and paths to include and also styles of gardens and themes, such as pollinator gardens or native plant gardens or Japanese gardens. Landscapes that are bio-diverse are also the best because they help minimize some pests and pest damage as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Having downsized in this past year to a smaller home and garden, I have a new garden to work in and to learn new ways to garden. Fortunately, the previous owners did a wonderful job of landscaping with a mostly native plant garden in the front and in the back are roses, flowers for pollinators and an area for composting and vegetable growing in raised beds. I added 3 more raised beds making 9 in total. I like to grow a variety of musk melons which takes up nearly two raised beds.  Corn and pole beans take up a lot of room so I gave up the pole beans and the corn in favor of melons and of course dahlias which you can’t buy at the local market.

Gardening is a lifelong activity that requires continued learning and exploration.  It can be a challenge for our brains to keep us young in spirit as we age. Recently, I judged 4-H entries in the youth floriculture show at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock. I enjoy my flower judging activity and it can be a learning experience for me as well as for the kids entering their flowers. I score them less than first place for flowers entered past prime, deformed, ungroomed or so short-stemmed that they barely peep out of their containers.  However, most of the entries get a first place and hopefully those getting second place will improve their showmanship next time.

Mexican Bird of Paradise is a collage of bright golds and reds.

At this show, I was treated to two flowers which I had never seen before. I suspect that more than one 4-H kid came from a family growing these flowers as there were four entries each of these unusual flowers. A white cactus flower that was awesome as well as a Mexican Bird of Paradise, which I later discovered is a drought tolerant shrub native to the Mojave Desert. The exact white cactus flower that I saw was not easily identified in Google images as there seem to be several so named. There were also lots of zinnias, dahlias, marigolds, lilies and crepe myrtles which kept me busy for 2 hours scoring them all. It is inspiring to see such interest in flowers by youngsters.

We also need to learn to better use our landscape watering. In our Mediterranean California climate where water supply is getting scanter, water conservation in our landscapes is very important.  Water use per person per day for Californians in July 2016 was about 113 gallons. Traditionally, about 53 percent of household water use is on the landscape. It has likely improved

White cactus flower is about 5 inches in diameter and is awesome to behold.

since then with reductions in lawns and water needy plants.

Recently, at midafternoon and with temperature exceeding 100 ºF; I drove by a yard in my neighborhood where lawn sprinklers were running. When humidity is low and temperatures high,   evaporation is also high. Perhaps 30 percent of the water being applied in the heat of the day is evaporating and not reaching or helping the lawn. To be smart at minimizing evaporation and maximizing efficient use of irrigation water, it is best to water between 4 AM and 8 AM. Watering in the evening is more apt to promote water borne diseases than watering in the early morning and watering in the heat of the day definitely wastes water.

With irrigation controllers it is not hard to be consistently correct with watering times. Also, if you are watering a steeply sloping bank or have heavy clay soils, it is possible with a controller to water for short periods interspersed with no watering periods so that the water has a chance to infiltrate rather than run off.  For more tips on water conserving landscape plants see: https://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/plant-database. Here is to both life-long garden learning and water conservation in your landscape.

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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Become a UC Master Gardener

If you love to garden, have an interest in lifelong learning, enjoy sharing your knowledge and are committed to community service, the Master Gardener program is the place for you. Master Gardeners are community members who love gardening and are enthusiastic to share their knowledge with others. This program offers comprehensive training in the best home gardening practices and an opportunity to use your knowledge in service to your community. Master Gardeners are helping home and community gardeners reap the maximum benefits and enjoyment from gardening.

The mission of the San Joaquin UC Master Gardeners is to extend research-based knowledge and information on home horticulture, pest management, and sustainable landscape practices to the residents of San Joaquin County. UC Master Gardeners extend research-based information by conducting workshops and demonstrations, diagnosing plant and pest problems, speaking to community groups, utilizing social and print media,  educating teachers and parents at school gardens, and answering gardening questions at local fairs and farmers markets as well as on our email and phone helplines. Master Gardener volunteers help empower neighborhoods to foster healthier gardens, communities and a sustainable environment.

The Master Gardener program began in Washington State in 1972 and quickly expanded to other states. The first University of California programs were established in Riverside and Sacramento counties in 1980. San Joaquin re-launched its program in 2007 and since then, the San Joaquin Master Gardeners have volunteered over 53,000 hours and have earned over 14,700 continuing education hours. The program is funded by the cities and counties of San Joaquin and AB939. We are excited to announce the Stanislaus County will be starting a Master Gardener Program and San Joaquin County will be training those volunteers to help get their program up and running.

Our next training will begin in January 2019 and is open to residents of San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.  Prospective Master Gardeners will attend an orientation meeting in October and are then interviewed to make sure that they are willing and able to complete the volunteer commitment. Those who enter the program must commit to donating a minimum of 50 volunteer hours the first year to Master Gardener public education projects and 25 hours every year after along with earning 12 hours of continuing education.

The training program will be an extensive 19-week course providing a practical overview of horticultural and sustainable landscape practices. Training sessions meet Wednesdays from January 30 to June 5. Classes are taught by experts from the UC faculty and staff, landscape and nursery professionals, local horticultural educators and certified Master Gardeners that are outstanding teachers, who inspire students. Trainees must pass the weekly quizzes and take home final exam with a 70% or better. Classes will be held on the Robert Cabal Agricultural Center in Stockton. Applications may be downloaded from our website or picked up at our office. The registration fee for this program is $180, which includes a copy of the UC Master Gardener manual as well as other UC home horticulture books and covers class supplies.

After completing this training, newly certified Master Gardeners possess not only increased knowledge but, most importantly, an understanding of how and where to find accurate information to share with the public on all kinds of gardening topics. As a bonus, you also have a group of new friends who share the same interest, enthusiasm and dedication to helping the public. You get to meet other like-minded people as well as learn how to have healthier plants, healthier gardeners, a healthier environment and a healthier community and you choose projects that fit your interests, abilities and skills.

If you want to get involved in your community and enjoy preserving food, the UC Master Food Preservers are also accepting applications for their 2018 training that begins in September of 2018. More information about their program can be found on their website, ucanr.edu/sjmfp2018.

More information about our program and the next training can be found on our website. http://ucanr.edu/sjmg. If you have questions, feel free to contact the Master Gardener Helpline at 209-953-6100.

 

 

 

 

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The carpenter bee – friend or foe?

We usually think of carpenter bees as those bulky, black bees that buzz loudly around our yards and burrow into wood, earning them a reputation as pest insects to be eliminated. You might be surprised to learn better side of these interesting native bees!

Three different species of large carpenter bees live in California, all belonging to the genus Xylocopa. The one usually seen in our area is the Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta). The females of this species are common and instantly recognizable: black and slightly hairy, with black eyes and shimmering dark wings.  The males are seldom seen but stunning: slightly fuzzy and rich golden-brown in color, with a yellowish head and mesmerizing olive green eyes. Their appearance has earned them the moniker “teddy bear bees.”

Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta). On the left is a black female dusted with yellow pollen (perched on a passionflower, with a honeybee in the background). On the right is a golden-brown male (perched on the flower spike of a Mexican bush sage). Photos © Kathy Ikeda

Despite their somewhat startling size and sound, these carpenter bees aren’t as scary as they might appear. Male carpenter bees can’t sting, and females will sting only if disturbed (and even then, that threshold is high). Their large body size and relatively small wings make their flight look aerodynamically impossible and even comical at times!

Large carpenter bees have earned their name — and a bad reputation — by their practice of nesting in wood. They don’t construct hives like honeybees; instead, the females use their strong mandibles (jaws) to chew a small round entry hole and a narrow, six- to ten-inch-long tunnel into soft wood or the trunks of dead trees (cottonwoods and plane trees are favorites). They then use the leftover sawdust from tunnel excavation to wall off a series of brood cells inside the tunnel. A large mass of pollen and nectar is deposited in each cell, then a single large egg is laid on each mass. The eggs soon hatch and develop into adult bees, which remain in the nest until spring.

Preventive measures are the best way to prevent any structural damage from carpenter bees. They won’t disturb painted, varnished, or treated wood and they will avoid holes and cracks that have been sealed or caulked, so regular home maintenance is an effective deterrent. They also won’t tunnel into composite wood decking. Steel wool stuffed into the nest entry holes will discourage carpenter bees from returning, but the nests must be empty for this technique to work. For more specific information, visit the University of California Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) website: https://bit.ly/2KSq9jM

Pest control companies used to recommend insecticidal sprays and dusts to eliminate carpenter bees from homes, decks, and other wooden structures. Fortunately, that practice is changing as researchers learn more about carpenter bees’ habits and their beneficial role in our natural ecosystem. As one expert notes, “their contribution to pollination far outweighs any damage to structures.” Also, our California carpenter bee species are far less destructive than other species in the eastern U.S.

Chemical control should never be used as a first line of defense against carpenter bees, because the recommended insecticides also can be lethal to honeybees and a wide range of other beneficial insects (See https://bit.ly/2zj5rVI).

You can encourage large carpenter bees to nest in a non-damaging way by placing a scrap piece of untreated 4×4 redwood post or a log section in a sheltered place in your garden, and pre-drilling it with some shallow holes. The bees will find and enlarge the holes.

California is also home to thirteen bee species in the genus Ceratina, collectively known as small carpenter bees. They look nothing like their better-known relatives; they are tiny (less than ¼ inch long), have narrower abdomens, and are metallic greenish-black in color. They bore into and build their nests inside pithy or soft-cored stems of plants such as elderberries, agave, cole crops (Brassica), and sunflowers. This nesting behavior does not harm the plants.

Both the large and small species of carpenter bees act as valuable pollinators. They visit a wide variety of native plants, ornamentals, and some crops, feeding on the sweet liquid nectar from the flowers and collecting pollen to feed to their young. When they do this, they facilitate plant reproduction by carrying pollen from flower to flower. Read more about carpenter bees and their roles as pollinators at https://bit.ly/1DprK8k.

Narrow, tubular flowers present a special challenge for the large species of carpenter bees; the bees are too big to squeeze inside them to get to the nectar and pollen. In these cases, the carpenter bees engage in nectar robbing: they land on the outside of the flowers and use their sharp mouthparts to pierce them and drink the nectar inside. This doesn’t harm the blooms, but it also means that the bees don’t come in contact with the pollen-laden structures inside the flowers, and in these instances, no pollination occurs. Fortunately, large carpenter bees also visit and are able to pollinate wide variety of plants with more accessible flowers, and the smaller species of carpenter bees — unlike their larger cousins — are able to climb into tube-shaped flowers and pollinate them.

I’ve spent many hours in my garden in close proximity to these fascinating insects, observing them without worry. Valley carpenter bees constructed a nest in our redwood arbor many years ago, but we leave them undisturbed, because their limited burrowing doesn’t compromise the structural integrity. It’s been fascinating to watch them fly in and out of the small nest hole and visit nearby perennials, including two of their favorites, autumn sage and foothill penstemon. I’ve been able to photograph the bees up close and to watch them as they hover nearby; I’ve never once been stung, and have been well entertained.

My carpenter bee verdict: Definitely a friend!

To learn more about the highly diverse species of bees in our state, read the book “California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists,” published by Heyday Books. For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.

 

 

 

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Contemplating climate change and gardening

After several days of scorching temperatures and skies dusky with smoke from local wildfires, it seems an appropriate time to consider how climate change will affect the plant life that gardeners love so dearly.

As our California weather patterns become more unpredictable, it’s inevitable that changes will occur to our local ecosystems. Forests stressed by higher summertime temperatures, more frequent drought conditions, and bark beetle infestations will experience tree die-off at an accelerating rate. Wildfires will become more severe and frequent, burning natural habitat, gardens, and homes. Native plant communities will be forced to migrate to higher elevations as average temperatures rise — or die off if they can’t adapt.  The ability of plants to adapt to changes in precipitation patterns has wide-ranging implications for agriculture, forestry, grazing, the nursery industry, and home gardeners.

California’s water supply, already a critical issue in our naturally arid state, will become an even more pressing issue as our state’s population continues to increase. Mandatory water rationing and water metering for all homes will probably be the wave of the future.

Our family lives in a neighborhood without water meters. We’re extremely conscious about both our interior (home) and exterior (garden) water use, to the point of allowing our never-used front lawn to go mostly brown in summer while we plan a more water-wise landscape. (Sorry, neighbors!) It’s not very attractive at the moment; however, it’s far more discouraging to see other households be so wasteful with precious water. One neighbor runs front yard sprinklers every day on a too-long cycle, leading to wasteful runoff and persistent flooding of a drainage area that leads away from their property. Pay-for-usage water billing (rather than flat-rate charges) will hopefully encourage water conservation and reduce or prevent such misuse.

Weather patterns and water supply are inextricably connected to the health of our gardens and to the productivity of the farming operations that are such a vital part of our county’s economy. The potential effects of climate change are dire, but there is hope. We can all do our part to minimize human impact on our planet and to garden sensibly. Making appropriate adaptations now — such as implementing permanent water conservation measures and switching to water-sensible plants/crops — will help prevent potentially catastrophic consequences in the future.

Here are some ways to make water- and climate-sensible changes to your home landscape:

  • Convert gardens from high-water-use plants to California native plants and low-water-use plants. Consult the WUCOLS IV plant list (http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/) to learn more; it classifies hundreds of plant species by their water needs, from very low to high. (WUCOLS = Water Use Classification of Landscape Species)
  • Water plants and lawns deeply and infrequently (rather than shallowly and often). This encourages their roots to penetrate far into the soil, which in turn makes them more resistant to hot, dry weather.
  • When landscaping, use the principle of “hydrozoning,” or grouping plants together by their water usage. That way, irrigation systems can be adjusted to provide only as much water as those plants need. (Intermixing plants with different water requirements results in overwatering some plants to provide enough water to the thirstiest ones.)
  • Use organic mulches in planting beds to conserve soil moisture and keep plant roots cooler.
  • Use your powers of observation to see what plants look best under stressful conditions. Those that thrive are far better choices that ones that don’t. (For example, after the last severe drought, our local neighborhoods were riddled with dead, dying, or badly suffering redwoods and birch trees. These two species are naturally adapted to moist environments and they require lots of water; therefore, they’re poor choices for the Central Valley.)
  • Check your irrigation system to make sure all sprinklers and emitters are working properly, and fix any leaks. Also, watch for runoff; it’s a sign that water is being applied faster than it can soak into the soil. Adjust your irrigation timer to reduce the length of the watering cycle, or water in a series of shorter cycles.
  • Plant area-appropriate, deciduous shade trees on the south and west sides of your home, if possible. They will help shield your house from the afternoon sun in the summer, keeping it cooler and minimizing air conditioner use. In the winter, the leafless trees will allow the sun to warm your house, reducing the need for heating.

Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens), one of many durable and beautiful California native plants. It’s an excellent choice for a garden adapted to tough climate conditions. (Kathy Ikeda)

I’m using a portion of my yard as a test plot for low-water-use plants, and I’m being intentionally hard on them. Not counting the initial year of plant establishment, this area gets deep, supplemental watering only a few times each year; I rely mostly on natural rainfall. Despite little water and mostly full-sun conditions, these California native plants are thriving and attractive: California fuchsia, California coffeeberry, red buckwheat, foothill penstemon, sedum autumn joy, deer grass, and two varieties of yarrow. Some other non-native plants—bidens, hybrid soapwort, and cape balsam—are also great successes.

One innovative experiment regarding plants and climate change is now under way at U.C. Santa Cruz. The newly installed Future Garden is a joint science and art project to determine which native plants respond best to the conditions expected to occur with climate change. Read more about it at http://ias.ucsc.edu/content/2018/harrisons-future-garden-ucsc-arboretum.

In these times of change, let’s all take the time to be conscious of our gardening practices, and to improve them for the benefit of our community and our planet.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.

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  • Blog Authors

    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

    Nadia Zane

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