How to help your houseplants thrive

Houseplants. They bring beautiful greenery and a soothing outdoor presence to artificial interior environments. They convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen. They help filter pollutants from sterile, indoor air. In other words, they’re simply miraculous!

Houseplants are typically grown for their foliage; their leaves can range from tiny to huge, lacy to leathery, rich green to variegated or multicolored. Some are grown for their spectacular and vibrantly colored flowers: orchids, African violets, bromeliads, kalanchoes, and more. Whatever your preference, indoor plants can be a great source of beauty and joy.

The best way to ensure a “green thumb” is to choose plants that will thrive in the conditions in the different areas of your home. Each nook or shelf or spot on the floor has its own special mix of sun exposure, light, air circulation, humidity, and temperature. Paying close attention to these conditions is the first step to success.

Houseplants are incredibly diverse. Some come from dry and sunny climates like ours; many others originate from areas with warm, humid, semi-shady tropical environments. It’s important to know the basic preferences of different indoor plants so that they can be given the best home.

The other key to success: learning how to maintain each of your chosen plants in a healthy condition. With houseplants’ great diversity comes a wide range of specific cultural needs, but here are some basic care guidelines. 

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’). Photo by “Mokkie”, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snake_Plant_(Sansevieria_trifasciata_%27Laurentii%27).jpg

Water 

Interestingly, overwatering is the main cause of houseplant death. Symptoms of overwatering—yellowing foliage, droopy appearance—often mimic those of under-watering, so it’s important to check soil moisture before breaking out the watering can. (On the other hand, severe lack of water is also very harmful to plants, and they might die if allowed to wilt repeatedly.)

One easy way to check for dry soil is to test its weight by lifting the entire pot. Properly moist soil will have some heft; too-dry soil won’t have much weight. A quick visual test can be effective, since moist soil is usually dark in appearance. You can also physically test soil moisture with a meter (the fancy method) or by probing with a finger (the low-tech method). If the soil is damp an inch or more below the surface, it’s probably moist enough. 

Frequent watering with small amounts of water is harmful to potted plants over the long term, because this leads to a build-up of salts and other minerals. It’s best to water plants less frequently and more thoroughly, until water passes through the pot’s drainage holes. Most potted plants benefit from an occasional thorough flushing. Plants growing in solid-bottomed pots without drainage holes must be watered cautiously, so that the soil doesn’t become waterlogged. 

Seasonal changes also affect the amount of water houseplants need. Most houseplants need more water while actively growing in spring, summer and early fall; water them more sparingly in the late fall and winter. 

The water itself is also important to consider. Some houseplants are highly sensitive to fluoridated water; others prefer lukewarm water instead of cold water. Never use softened water since it contains high levels of damaging salts. 

Lighting

This is the second of the two most crucial elements for houseplant care. Depending on their natural environment, houseplants vary greatly in the amount and type of light they require. Some plants prefer direct sunlight, but this can literally be deadly for others.

Natural light from windows is best for indoor plants, but full-spectrum fluorescent lighting can be a good substitute in dark indoor areas. Some plants prefer only diffuse, indirect light from north- or east-facing windows; others can tolerate bright light or direct sunlight from south- and west-facing windows. Be sure to research the individual needs of your plants, because correct lighting is absolutely critical.

Soil

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

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

Humidity

With the exception of hot-environment succulents and cacti, houseplants generally don’t care for extra-dry indoor air. 

Moisture-loving tropical plants appreciate the humid environment in bathrooms or laundry rooms. Some plants appreciate a gently daily or semi-weekly leaf misting. Another way to increase humidity is to place potted indoor plants on trays filled with small pebbles and a small amount of water; the little rocks keep the pot bases above water, and the water evaporates slowly to give some extra moisture to the plants.

Temperature

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

Fertilizer

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

Pests and Diseases

You can minimize houseplant pest problems by using a few simple precautions. Before you purchase a plant, carefully inspect its leaves, stems, and flowers (if any), and also check the soil. Most common houseplant pests—mealybugs, scale insects, whiteflies, spider mites—will be visible to the naked eye. Also check for discolored, speckled, blotchy, or rotting leaves or any unusual growths on the soil; these can be signs of microscopic pests, fungal infections, or other diseases. Leave behind any plants that don’t pass these basic tests, because a bargain price isn’t worth the potential headache of spreading pests or pathogens throughout your home.

Keep in mind that stressed plants are more susceptible to attack by harmful organisms. Conscientious care of houseplants is the best way to prevent pest and disease problems.

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Although these general care recommendations apply to the vast majority of houseplants, each species has its own specific cultural requirements. It’s best to consult a reputable book or other guide for specific advice about caring for your beloved plants. Some excellent references are: 

  • Houseplant books by well-known publishers such as Sunset and Ortho.
  • The House Plant Expert, by D. G. Hessayon
  • Sunset’s web page entitled, “The Ultimate Guide to Indoor Plants” https://www.sunset.com/garden/flowers-plants/indoor-plants
A glossy-leaved stalk of a “ZZ plant” (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

To close, here are a few of my favorite, super-hardy, and easy care houseplants:

  • The ubiquitous spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
  • The “ZZ Plant” (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), with fleshy underground tubers and long sturdy stems graced with deep green, glossy leaves.
  • The snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), which grows as a cluster of narrow, stiff, upright leaves.

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

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Complete the gardening experience by seed saving.

Saving seeds can be a fun thing to do and you can save seeds from plants that you find particularly satisfying. You can save a little money too. Some terms and definitions are in order to help understand the basics of seed saving.

Self-pollination occurs on plants with ‘perfect flowers’ where the transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigma of the same flower occurs on the same plant or a clone of the same plant. Self-pollinating plants are tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, beans and peas. These are the easiest plants to save seeds from because they usually don’t cross-pollinate. However, there still exists a remote possibility of cross-pollination even with some of these plants.

Therefore it is recommended to keep lettuce and tomato varieties separated by at least 10 feet. Some older varieties of (heirloom) tomatoes have flowers that do not exclude cross-pollination because the style (female ovary part) is higher than the anthers (male parts) and thus could be pollinated by insects. Hence, it is safer to separate such tomatoes to the extent possible. Most of the time, cross-pollination does not occur for these plants. I have saved a lot of heirlooms planted next to each other without a problem, but the plants from seeds I saved from a ‘Big Rainbow’ turned out more to be more like ‘Little Rainbows’.  I always wondered if that one got cross-pollinated. Peppers are also vulnerable to cross-pollination and the hot pepper genes are dominant, so be cautious.

Open pollination occurs when wind, insects (pollinators like bees), or the gardener pollinates the flowers so they can set fruit and produce seeds. The seed of open-pollinated plants, when planted in subsequent years, will yield the same type of plant as its original or it can be said to be: ‘true to seed’. There will be some variation in plants from the seeds, but that is to be expected.

Heirloom plants are always open-pollinated or self-pollinated but they are a variety that has been around for at least 50 years.

Hybrid: A hybrid plant is a cross between two different types, or varieties, of plants. Growers hybridize a vegetable by isolating the most coveted traits from one variety and combining them with traits from another to form a totally new offspring. Seeds saved from a hybrid are unlikely to be true to the hybrid plant. However, some hybrids have been produced for such a long time that they can be propagated by seed saving. I attended a conference where a tomato breeder informed us that if the hybrid tomato seed costs less than 25 cents per seed, it is likely OK to save seeds from the hybrid as it has over several generations become a stable variety and will produce seeds like the parent. I suspect that ‘Early Girl’ tomato is one that qualifies as it has been around since 1975 and the cost is about 8 cents per seed. ‘Early Girl’ is sweet, tasty and early to produce.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seeds: These are seeds that have been genetically manipulated in a laboratory with certain genes inserted. For example, corn and soybeans have been genetically modified so that the fields can be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide without harm to these plants. We often see ‘Non-GMO’ labels on advertising for garden seeds and in seed catalogs and seed packets. This is more of a reassuring marketing ploy than a real issue. There are no flower or vegetable seeds for the home gardeners that are GMO. The cost of producing GMO seeds for home gardeners is too high to be worth the effort.

Saving seeds that are not self-pollinating is a bit tricky. Plants of different varieties need to be separated by distance, isolated (caged to exclude insects) or have different bloom times. For more information on this, see: https://www.seedsavers.org/isolation-distances. However, if you only have only one variety of cosmos, carrots, beets, chard, melon or other plants and you are far enough away from your neighbor’s gardens (or wild carrots) you can save seeds safely.

In the case of squash flowers you can isolate the female by bagging until it opens then hand pollinate by rubbing male flower parts on the female and then bagging again to exclude insects and tag it for seed saving. This is not a seed saving effort I have had the time or patience for. Whatever you decide to do in the seed saving department, it can be a satisfying culmination of the gardening experience. Happy seed saving.

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 mistakes we sometimes make

Gardening is like most human endeavors prone to making errors. Last year I had a great harvest of strawberries from April to July. These were plants that I dug up at my old home the previous fall and moved them to my new home in Morada. I spaced the plants about 12 inches apart and they thrived. 

However, after harvest they thrived too well, sending out runners every which way and I made the mistake of not controlling them or starting a new patch. The bed became jam-packed with plants this past spring. It is recommended to prune off excess runners and I did try to thin them. I even potted up over 120 plants for our Linden Garden Club Plant Sale, but I was still not ruthless enough to thin them adequately. Consequently, I got very few strawberries this year as they were too crowded to be productive. 

In June, I dug out a few plants and spaced them 12 inches apart in a new bed to start over. I think I will get a good crop next spring, but after next year’s crop, I will replant them to a new bed right away after harvest and avoid the period of runner madness that I failed to address this past year.

Making this mistake with strawberries reminds me that I haven’t always thinned lettuce and carrot seedlings like I should. It is difficult to be ruthless, but that is often necessary to get good quality vegetables. I have also learned that planting lettuce in flats and transplanting them with the proper spacing avoids the thinning problem when seeding directly. Sometimes our mistakes turn out fortuitously well. This past year I had some old carrot seeds that I thought were not viable. I threw them out on a patch of compost-rich soil and ended up with the best carrot crop in years, whereas the ones I planted in nice neat rows didn’t germinate or were mowed down by snails.

I recently made a mistake when resetting my controller for watering. I thought I set it to water every two days for 45 minutes, but I found out a couple of days later that I had misread the dial and set it to water every 2 hours. I wasted water and I think some of my seeds didn’t come up because they were overwatered. ‘Pay attention’ is my guiding principle for the gardener but I obviously failed to uphold it.

All gardeners need to pay attention to garden’s soil type too. This is very basic knowledge to ascertain about your property. Sandy soils will require more frequent watering and more attention to fertilizing than heavy clay soils which hold moisture and are more fertile. All soils benefit from adding compost and incorporating compost is the best way to hold water longer in sandy soils and change the tight soil structure of clay soils to make them drain better and increase friability. Feed the soil compost and the soil will feed your plants. Most landscape plants need no fertilizer or inputs, but vegetable and flower plants often do. If you think you have soil-related problems, get a soil test and find out more about your soil type, organic matter, pH, and available nutrients. For a list of soil test laboratories, see: http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/files/51308.pdf

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting weeding. Getting weeds when they are young and not producing seeds is critical to having fewer weeds in subsequent years. At my new home I would be very rich if I got a nickel for the thousands of spurge weeds that I removed from my gardens in the past two years. Recently, my friend, Dave, noticed that I had a plant in my flower bed that I had assumed was planted there for a reason. He identified it as Catchweed Bedstraw (Galium aparine) which has little prickles on the stems that give it a rough sandpaper feel.

I had no familiarity with this plant, but Dave recommended I get rid of it ASAP as it is nuisance weed at his homestead. Later I found it in several places in my landscape, so apparently it has gone to seed before. If not for Dave’s informing me, I would have left this plant in my landscape which would have been another mistake to add to my list. Although unknown to me, it is a widely distributed weed in California see: https://www.calflora.org//cgi-bin/species_query.cgi?where-calrecnum=3669.

For more on garden mistakes see: https://www.newlifeonahomestead.com/gardening-mistakes/.

Mistakes are the hard way we learn to become better, happier gardeners, but avoiding them is even better.

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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Understanding the sun exposure needs of plants

As we enter the hottest parts of our San Joaquin summer, sun is a timely topic. 

Fall planting season will be here before we know it, and this is an excellent time for both experienced and budding landscapers to make plans for large-scale garden makeovers or the addition of a few new plants here and there. No matter what your future garden goals, it’s important to know about sun exposure and how it should affect your plant selection process.

Most gardeners are familiar with nursery plant tags and gardening reference books that use phrases such as “full sun” or “partial shade”—but what do those descriptions really mean? Let’s shed a little light on this important topic!

Sun versus shade

Over the eons, different plant species have evolved to adapt to the various environmental conditions specific to their location. Sun and light exposure is one important element of this adaptation, and we need to have an understanding of it to ensure that our plants thrive. General categories (which vary from source to source) are:

  • Full sun = 6 or more hours of direct sun. Vegetable plants and fruit trees need 8 to 10 hours of sun for best production. 
  • Light shade = 4 to 6 hours of direct sun. Many sun-loving plants can tolerate this condition, and plants preferring some shade can handle a bit of exposure to not-too-intense sunlight. 
  • Part(ial) shade/sun = 2 to 4 hours of direct sun. Some conditions that qualify: locations near or under trees with a light-filtering canopy; areas that received reflected light off buildings or fences; and areas that get several hours of morning sun but little to no afternoon sun.
  • Full shade= 2 hours or less of direct sun. Such areas include those covered mostly in shadow or that have dappled shade throughout the day.
  • Dense shade= No direct sun and little indirect sun. This includes areas under dense evergreen trees or shrubs, under overhangs, or in narrow, sheltered pathways. Growing conditions in such locations are difficult because they can also be very dry or because there is lots of competition for root space. Attractive mulches, pavers, or garden art are good solutions for such plant-unfriendly spaces.

Keep in mind that even dense shade does not mean a completely dark location, because all plants need some light to grow.

Plant tags will sometimes list more than one of these ratings. What does that mean? The first term listed is the plant’s preferred condition, while the secondary term is a condition the plant can also tolerate. For example, a plant with a tag saying “sun to part shade” would grow best in a sunny location but could still handle some shade. 

These ratings are sometimes qualified even further. One example from the Sunset Western Garden Book is the plant known as beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis).The sun exposure notation for this plant says, “afternoon shade in hottest climates,” and that description is very accurate. This ornamental groundcover is growing in one part of my yard to provide small, seedy snacks for chickens, and over the years it has spread by runners from the lightly shaded location where it was planted to an area that receives full afternoon sun in the summer. The adventurous, spreading parts of the plant look severely stressed at this time of year, whereas the parts shielded from afternoon sun are still lush and happy.

Sun-scorched leaves on a beach strawberry plant, Fragaria chiloensis (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

That’s intense

Light intensity is another important consideration. It’s a relatively simple concept: morning sunlight is gentler and less intense than the hot, harsh afternoon sun. Plants that need some shade will do better if they’re exposed to sun earlier in the day and protected from sun in the latter hours of the day.

Direct sunlight, where the sun’s rays fall directly on a plant’s leaves, is also very different than indirect sunlight, where a plant receives light reflected from other sources. Some plants, particularly houseplants native to shady tropical forest environments—Philodendron, Calathea, Plectranthus, Schefflera, and more—can be quickly and severely damaged by direct sun exposure on their sensitive leaves.

Location, location, location

Climate zones (either those defined by the USDA or Sunset) are an important consideration when evaluating sun exposure. If you purchase a plant from an out-of-area nursery or mail-order source, carefully investigate how it will respond to our local growing conditions. A plant might be rated as suitable for “full sun” by a grower located in the Bay Area or states in the northern U.S., but that rating often won’t translate well to our harsher summer environment.

Microclimates—the often-profound differences in climate conditions that can exist in a landscape—are also a key factor. Large trees, fences, walls, house orientations, and the seasons all affect the sun exposure that each area of a garden receives. A part of the yard that’s shady in the winter might not be in the summer as the angle of the sun changes. Plants in locations with a southern or western exposure or those near heat-reflecting walls or paving are more susceptible to light- or heat-related damage. Plants under a deciduous tree will receive more direct sun in the winter when the tree is bare than they do in the summer when the tree is leafed out. Pay close attention to these factors and make note of them when developing a planting plan.

I’ll use one difficult part of my own backyard to illustrate this concept. Due to the ever-changing angle of the sun throughout the year, the footprint of my house, and the location of overhangs, one small dry garden bed receives lots of full summer sun during the hottest time of year—including intense afternoon heat reflected off an adjacent stucco wall—but it’s in full shade all day during the coldest winter months. I haven’t found a perennial plant that’s happy with such extremes of sun exposure and growing conditions, so this little patch of soil is where I’ve resigned myself to “crop rotation,” growing heat-and-sun-loving herbs in the summer and shade-loving annuals in the winter.

As always, gardening is a matter of experimentation and trial-and-error! If a plant is scorching/bleaching or failing to thrive because of improper sun or shade exposure (or any other site-related condition), try transplanting it to another location that might be more suitable, and watch to see how it responds to its new home.

Some helpful resources that include sun exposure guidance/considerations are:

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

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How to use the Master Gardener Help Desk

Has your garden been invaded by an insect pest, and you have no idea what it is or how to safely banish it from your yard? Is one of your beloved and formerly thriving plants suddenly looking stressed and unhealthy, and you have no clue what’s wrong? Is your garden suddenly plagued by unfamiliar and tenacious weeds, and you want to learn what they are and the best way to remove and prevent them?

The San Joaquin Master Gardener Program, administered by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), has a Help Desk service specifically intended to help answer these types of questions. Here’s a brief summary of our contact information:

Master Gardener Help Desk
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday 
Address: Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center, 2101 E. Earhart Blvd., Suite 200, Stockton
Phone: (209) 953-6112
Email: anrmgsanjoaquin@ucanr.edu
Website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Hotline_Office/

When you contact the Help Desk, remember that it might take a few days or even weeks to properly diagnose your particular plant and/or pest problem. Sometimes the cause, effect, and solution can be fairly easy to determine; at other times, Master Gardener volunteers might need to enlist the help of trained scientists (plant pathologists, entomologists, etc.) to correctly diagnose a condition or identify a pest. Remember that accurately determining the problem is the key to finding the appropriate and effective solution.

Plant damage and disorders have either biotic or abiotic origins. Biotic problems are those caused by living organisms: small mammals; chewing or sucking insects; snails and slugs; harmful fungi, bacteria, or viruses; and more. Abiotic problems arise from environmental factors such as pesticide toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, drought stress, overwatering, air pollution, mineral imbalances, excess or insufficient sun exposure, and so on. 

It’s most helpful for Help Desk volunteers if our “customers” initially visit in person and deliver actual plant and/or insect specimens. Diseases, disorders, and pests are often specific to particular plant species, so the first step in solving your garden-related problem is to accurately identify the affected plant. Having an actual sample or two in hand makes that process, and the eventual diagnosis, much easier. Later follow-up can be by email or phone.

How to submit plant samples:

  • Use sharp, sterile pruning tools to avoid spreading any potential diseases. 
  • If possible, trim off an affected piece of plant large enough to include leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, and even roots, if that could be where problems are occurring. This aids in plant identification and diagnosis.
  • For comparison’s sake, also trim and bring in a healthy portion of the plant.
  • Bring plant samples to the office as soon as possible after collecting them. Fresh samples are absolutely necessary for accurate diagnosis; old, dried, or rotten material can’t be used.
  • Place plant samples in sealable plastic bags large enough to accommodate them without damage. (This not only protects the sample, it also prevents accidental spread of potential plant pathogens.)
  • Write your name, contact information, and date and location of collection on each bag.
  • Refrigerate plant samples for a short time if immediate delivery to the Help Desk isn’t possible.
  • If it’s not physically possible to bring a sample—for instance, if the specimen is too large —please take a series of clear photos of the plant from different angles, ranging from a picture of the entire plant/tree to close-ups of the problem area.

How to submit insect samples:

  • Collect one or more insects using a method that won’t damage them. Squashed specimens or insects with missing body parts can’t be identified.
  • Place the insect(s) in a tightly sealable clear jar or container. (Plastic bags aren’t suitable, and a tight seal is necessary to prevent unintentional release of pests into new areas.)
  • If possible, preserve the insect by covering it with clear rubbing alcohol.
  • Write your name, contact information, and date and location of collection on the outside of each container.
  • Deliver your insect specimen(s) to the Help Desk as soon as possible; they can be refrigerated for a few days if necessary.
Master Gardener Win Rogers at the Help Desk window in the Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center. (Photo courtesy of Candy Walker)

We recognize that busy lives and work schedules prevent many people from visiting the Help Desk in person, which is why there are also options for emailing or calling our office. Email is by far the more effective of these two, because plant/pest photographs can be submitted electronically and because it gives both our office and our patrons a written record of the diagnosis process. If you call the Help Desk after hours, please leave a voicemail with your name, the date and time of your call, the city where you live, and your phone number and email address.

No matter what method you use to contact the Help Desk—in person visit, email, or phone call—be prepared to answer a long list of questions from our volunteers. Plant problems are often caused by a combination of factors, so our investigative work must necessarily cover a whole spectrum of issues. If you already know the exact ID of your plant, that’s a good start. We’ll also ask you to tell us, to the best of your abilities, what cultural care your plant has been receiving: timing and frequency of watering, fertilizer use, pesticide/herbicide exposure, daily sun/shade, pruning, etc. Environmental factors can lead to stressed plants, and stressed plants are more susceptible to diseases and pests, so this is all relevant data collection.

The Help Desk is staffed entirely by Master Gardener volunteers, with either one or two people present in the office during each weekday shift. Every attempt is made to keep the office staffed on a regular basis; however, it’s best to call ahead to ensure that someone will be available if you intend to visit the office in person.

Although Master Gardeners can’t make home visits or provide physical gardening assistance to individuals, our Help Desk volunteers work hard to provide San Joaquin County residents with a valuable public service, and we hope you’ll take advantage of it when needed! 

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Lavender makes a beautiful summer addition to your garden.

It will soon be officially summer and time to enjoy summer blooms. In last week week’s column, Kathy Ikeda advocated for Salvias and they are a great flowering perennial for our California Mediterranean climate. Another flower group that I love to grow is Lavender which is also well suited to our dry, warm climate. It too is very drought tolerant and does best in full sun and well-drained soils. It has grey-green scented foliage and will thrive with neglect except for annual pruning. It has been grown for centuries for its fragrance, and for use in cosmetics, culinary, wands, sachets and potpourri. It also attracts beneficial insects. There are many varieties and cultivars; so many that they are hard to identify in your garden if you don’t have the source information.
The English Lavender, (Lavandula angustifolia) grows to about 2-3 feet tall and wide and is good for making wands as well as for culinary use and its oil is the best for cosmetics. There are several cultivars of this species and I will only mention a few: see: https://www.highcountrygardens.com/search/go?w=english%20lavender
Lavandula augustifolia ‘Hidcote’ forms smaller mounds to 18 inches tall with deep purple, edible blossoms on 8 inch stalks. It is a good choice for edging walkways and garden beds.

English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ a violet cultivar.

A more heat tolerant cultivar is Lavandula augustifolia ‘Munstead’ which is 18-24 inches tall, mounding and suitable for walkway, rockeries, garden beds, knot gardens small hedges and mixes well with other perennials in the border. It will thrive on slopes and in rock gardens and will naturalize. It is a good choice for fresh or dried arrangements, sachets, essential oils and perfume.
The hybrid, Lavandula x ginginsii ‘Goodwin Creek Gray’, is a large bush with finely toothed silver grey foliage and long, slender, dark purple spikes. It is very heat and drought tolerant and works well in perennial borders as well as containers. One of its parents is the French lavender Lavandula dentata, which differs from the English lavender in that it is less hardy, taller and less compact with longer bloom time and longer lasting blooms. English lavender definitely has more of the characteristic lavender fragrance than the French lavender. Goodwin Creek Gray is an excellent French lavender selection for our area.
Lavandula x intermedia, also called Lavandin, is a hybrid cross between English Lavender and Lavandula latifolia (Portuguese Lavender). The Lavandin cultivars are slightly less hardy than Lavandula angustifolia, but tend to grow larger, up to 4 feet, bloom later from July to August, and produce more flower spikes than other Lavenders. There are several cultivars which you can examine at: https://victorslavender.com/available-plants-products/lavandula-x-intermedia/
Spanish lavender, or Lavendula stoechas, is just one of about 40 varieties of this fragrant herb and is somewhat more heat tolerant being native to southern Spain. It is similar in most aspects to others described, but the flowers are definitely unique. The top of each flowering stem grows larger, upright bracts that resemble rabbit ears. It is well suited to growing in containers. The flowers may be purple or pink, depending on the cultivar. ‘Ann’s Purple’ is larger than others, and it will grow about 30 inches tall and wide. ‘Purple ribbon’ produces dark purple flowers and is a little bit cold hardier than other cultivars. ‘Kew Red’ produces pink flowers of a dark raspberry shade. ‘Winter Bees’ will start to bloom earlier than most cultivars, beginning in late winter in California. ‘Lusko’s Dwarf’ grows to about 12 inches and is a good one for containers. For more information on Spanish Lavender see: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/lavender/spanish-lavender-plants.htm
Whatever lavender you choose it is relatively low maintenance, with low water requirements once it is established. Pruning need be done only once per year and best done in the spring just before new growth starts. Prune back by about a third which will keep the plant from getting too woody and increase the blooms for harvest. If there are dead branches remove them. If the plant is not pruned it may become very woody and blossoming will decrease. For more information on selecting the lavender see: https://www.gardenia.net/guide/how-to-choose-the-right-lavender.
Whatever lavender you choose it will provide enjoyment for years as they are long-lived perennials. I once grew several English Lavender plants from seeds and the plants kept going for over 20 years and still might be going, if the new owners care for them. It is indeed a plant of many virtues to love and enjoy.
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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Create compact orchards for lots of fresh fruit.

Recently. Phil Pursel, representing David Wilson Nursery come to our monthly Master Gardener’s meeting to tell us about backyard fruit growing techniques. Yes, Master Gardeners do have meetings once a month to hear speakers to educate us on gardening issues and this one was very relevant. The size of home lots has shrunk noticeably in the last fifty years with population growth and land prices compelling construction of more homes per acre. Hence, many folks don’t consider growing a back yard orchard of fruit trees on small lots, but it is possible using some newer techniques.
I had a large fruit orchard where I previously lived that was nearly half an acre. Since downsizing, I had to become more rational about fruit growing and have learned that less can actually be more. I planted only 9 fruit trees and grafted three rootstocks of flowering plum to edible plums. In this article I describe some of the things that can be done to produce more tree fruit in smaller areas.
For starters, why would you want to do this? If you know what fresh ripe fruit tastes like, you might prefer home grown ripe fruit to those found in the supermarket that are picked before being ripe and are neither as tasty nor as sweet because they are picked and shipped before ripening.
When planning your orchard you should consider trees that will ripen sequentially and not all at once and crop size has to be considered too. A large Santa Rosa plum tree can ripen and drop several hundred pounds of fruit in a short time—more Jam making and fresh fruit than most can handle. Smaller trees mean less is more. For more information on this from Dave Wilson Nursery see: https://www.davewilson.com/home-gardens/backyard-orchard-culture
How do you pack more trees into small spaces, and thus increase the variety of fruit? One way that you can do this is to buy multi-grafted trees. This can work, but you need to be diligent. One or two of the grafts can become dominant and will crowd out the other grafts, so the fruit salad is not balanced among the tree parts. To avoid this here are some things you can do. If possible, select a tree that has the grafted limbs evenly spaced around the trunk and always plant the smallest limb (the “weakest” variety) to the south/southwest to insure that it gets plenty of sun.
Cut back the strongest growing varieties by 2/3rds and cut back the weakest variety by 1/2 — or not at all. Watch the growth-rate of the smaller limbs during the summer to determine if pruning is necessary and if the weakest variety is half the size of the others, don’t cut it back.

Three nectarine or peach trees planted together to be trained as a fruit bush. (Photo courtesy of the Master Gardener Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks, CA)

Another approach is high density planting with different varieties. You can plant 3 or 4 trees close together. The trees should have similar rootstock vigor so that one or more trees don’t dominate the others. The crowding of the trees will help decrease their vigor and summer pruning will keep them as fruit bushes that will provide crops of manageable size and the use of ladders can be avoided. See fruit bush at: http://homeorchard.ucdavis.edu/8057.pdf
When trees are kept small, more trees can be in a given space which results in more kinds of fruit and a longer harvest season. One cannot rely on dwarfing rootstocks to keep trees small. The only reliable method is summer pruning which decreases the plant’s vigor. Cut back new growth by one half or more in April and May or later in the summer. Trees can also be planted in a hedgerow which is basically creating a hedge of fruit bushes that are maintained in a shortened form by pruning.
Another approach to maximize your space is to espalier fruit trees against a wall, a fence or on a trellis in two dimensions. It is a technique started in Roman times. The fruit trees should be exposed to at least 6 hours or more of sunlight and requires paying attention to manage and train the plant to the espalier form.
There are a variety shapes for an espalier. There are cordon (branches straight out to the sides), fan (branches fanning up and to the side), candelabra (like a cordon but the branches turn at a right angle to form the shape of a candelabra), lattice (multiple trees with crossing branches). The fan and the candelabra forms take advantage of the natural tendencies of trees to grow in an upright direction and may be easier to maintain than the cordon approach. Most commonly espaliered trees are apple, pear and plum. Grapes are also often cordon trained. For more information on espalier techniques see: https://www.epicgardening.com/espalier-fruit-trees/
May your back yard orchard be fruitful!
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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Superb and spectacular sages

Look up the word “sage” in the dictionary, and the first definitions are typically those referring to a wise person or the culinary herb. But the word also applies to a group of ornamental plants well known and loved by gardeners around the world.

Sage plants belong to the genus Salvia, a word not to be confused with the similar but very different “saliva.” On the other hand, Salvia plants are beautiful garden performers worth salivating over! They’re long-blooming and fragrant, they attract a variety of insect pollinators and hummingbirds, and they’re attractive and low-maintenance.

The name Salvia is derived from the Latin word “salvere” — meaning to save — referring to the natural healing properties of many sages. (Always refer to reputable sources and consult your medical professional before using these or any other plants for medicinal purposes.)

Salvias are members of the mint family — Lamiaceae, pronounced Lay-mee-AY-cee-ee — and their close cousins include other fragrant plants such as basil, lavender, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. All plants in this family share distinctive characteristics: square stems; paired, simple leaves with aromatic oils; and two-lipped, tubular flowers. The small flowers are borne in whorls at the ends of the stems, and depending on the species, the blooms can be in tight clusters or spaced loosely along the stems.

Sages are a diverse group of plants, ranging from large shrubs to low-growing groundcover forms. Some are grown as annuals, but most are perennial plants that can be used as foundation plantings in landscapes. Most thrive in well-drained soils, and their water needs are generally low to moderate.

Salvia officinalis is the scientific name of common culinary sage. It’s a low-growing shrub that can do double duty in the garden as both an attractive landscape plant and an edible herb. Its flowers are rose/mauve to lavender in color, and its leaves can be used either fresh or dried. There are several types with variegated foliage for added garden interest, including one named Tricolor, with gray-green leaves edged in white and pinkish-purple.

If you’re considering planting sage in your garden, think beyond the edible kind. There are countless species and hybrids of ornamental Salvia, some better adapted to our Central Valley climate than others. My personal favorites — most of which need only an occasional summer watering and no fertilizer — are:

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). This drought-adapted California native groundcover sage has earned its designation as a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds, with large, deep-magenta flowers borne on sturdy spikes in winter and spring; cut flowering stems back to the ground when spent. The large bright green leaves have a mild fruity/minty scent, and the plant spreads by underground rhizomes. It’s good for dry locations with morning sun and afternoon shade, and is excellent when planted under oaks.

Mint bush sage (Salvia microphylla). This shrub is another Arboretum All-Star, and as the word “microphylla” suggests, it has tiny leaves, along with thin stems and delicate flowers that attract hummers and native bumblebees. There are many named varieties, including the popular ‘Hot Lips’, with its bicolor red and white flowers; ‘Pink’, with intensely pink blooms; and ‘Stormy Pink’, with light pink flowers that emerge from dark purple buds. The leaves of this sage species have a spicy-fruity scent, and the flowers appear almost year-round. Prune these plants back hard in winter to encourage plenty of new vigorous growth and blooms. 

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). These are large shrubs, up to 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Their long, narrow leaves are green above and grayish-white and fuzzy on the undersides. These sages are stunners when in bloom; their numerous long flowering spikes are covered in large, velvety, purple calyxes (bud coverings) from which the flowers emerge. The standard species has white flower petals; ‘Midnight’ has purple petals; and ‘Santa Barbara’ is a compact variety with vibrant violet petals. When these plants decline in the winter, cut them to the ground to renew and to control rangy growth.

Salvia leucantha at the Clovis Botanical Garden
(Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Sierra San Antonio sage (Salvia x jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’). This sage is a cross between S. microphylla and S. greggi. It’s a long-blooming, small shrub (up to 1½ feet high by 3 feet wide) bearing peach- to cream-colored flowers with pastel yellow lips. It attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds and is gorgeous when paired with blue flowering penstemons.

Limelight Mexican sage (Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’). The coloration of this sage is stunning, with deep bluish-purple flowers emerging from bright chartreuse calyxes. This plant has a relatively tall and narrow form, with deep green, triangular leaves. It needs moderate water, some fertilizer, and light afternoon shade to look its best in our area.

Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ at the Clovis Botanical Garden (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

White sage (Salvia apiana). Native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of Southern and Baja California, this plant is also known as sacred sage for its long-standing spiritual and medicinal use by many Native American tribes. It’s a tall, fast-growing shrub with large, smooth, fragrant, silvery-blue-green leaves and 5-foot-tall spikes of white flowers tinged with lavender. This plant’s natural pollinators include native bumblebees, hawk moths, and wasps. Sadly, white sage is disappearing from its natural habitat due to its growing popularity and unscrupulous over-collection. Grow it at home, but leave it alone in the wild! It’s another Arboretum All-Star.

Other excellent sages for Central Valley gardens are:

  • Winifred Gillman sage (S. clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’)
  • Autumn sage (S. greggii)
  • Creeping sage (S. ‘Bee’s Bliss’) 
  • Germander sage (S. chamaedryoides)

Try experimenting with several of these spectacular sages, and relish the results.

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

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New Zealand Garden Tour Finale

In the last report on our garden tour, I described some historic gardens in Hamilton. For me, it was one of the best parts of the trip, but there were still many excellent gardens to visit and I am sharing some of those with you today. Near Wellington we visited the Otari-Wilton’s Bush a Native Plant Garden and Forest which featured native plants large and small, and then we flew from Wellington to Queenstown on the South Island. Our first garden in Queenstown was Chantecler, a beautiful private estate garden where we got a glimpse of how New Zealand’s one-percent might enjoy life. The grounds were extensive and varied with hydrangeas in the shade and lavender, roses and fountains in the sunny spots.
Pam and I avoided the trip to Milford Sound choosing instead to recover at our hotel from the colds we caught from our fellow bus travelers, but we didn’t miss out on any gardens. After a long bus trip from Queenstown, our next stop was Glenfollach gardens in Dunedin. The most memorable part of this garden was the varied fuchsias which seem to thrive well all over New Zealand.
A fantastic venue was the Larnach Castle, a manor home built in the 1870’s by W.J. M. Larnach, a wealthy banker and politician, who, despite his fortune, committed suicide in 1898. The building itself was lavish with exquisite Victorian woodwork, tile and plaster features. It also had a spectacular view of the large bay at Dunedin Harbor as well as extensive and varied gardens.
We also visited the Dunedin Botanical Gardens which were fabulous with plants from Africa, South America and other areas as well as Rhododendrons, roses and other flower gardens and borders. It is a place that you could explore for more than a day. I was inspired to order and plant some Alstroemeria when I got home and likely will get some of the Tiger lilies too.
Trott’s garden was our next stop at Ashburton and it was a delightful garden of hedges and borders and one of our last garden was Ohinetihi in Christchurch which featured several large art pieces. There are so many gardens and hundreds of pictures I would love to share, but not enough room in this brief column. Soon I will be back to California garden issues–Happy gardening and garden travels.
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.

Fountain at Chantacler in Queestown, New Zealand

Otari-Wilton Bush Garden featured many native plants.

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A tour of New Zealand Gardens; Part 2

One of the Hamilton gardens–The Tudor garden featuring standards with mythical creatures.

The Auckland Botanical Garden was a large expanse of lawns and trees, but a disappointment as the roses were not well tended. There were some worthy sculptor pieces in the gardens.

We visited 21 gardens on this 2 week tour. Our first garden, Ayrlies, north of Auckland, is acknowledged by some as one of the outstanding gardens of New Zealand. It started out as three acres in 1964 and has overtime been expanded to 46 acres. It featured several ponds and large swathes of lawn and informal colorful perennial borders.

Sculptures were one of the good features at the Auckland Botanical Gardens.

The Hamilton Gardens were really exceptional and we had a guide to take us through the gardens allotted for our visit. Hamilton Gardens acknowledges that there is a history to tell about gardens, their development over time and across cultures. The gardens were established on a four acre former rubbish heap—a marvelous improvement. The gardens through history covered about 4000 years and, although we only saw a few of the 21 gardens, they were spectacular. The garden has plans to add more over time as money allows.

The Italian Renaissance garden featured Citrus, statuary and flowers.

Our first garden was a traditional classic Japanese garden of the Muromachi period from 1333 to 1568. A monochromatic abstraction of a natural landscape was on one side and a water featured landscape was on the other side of a pavilion overlook. We visited a classic Maori garden where Kumara (sweet potatoes) were a staple.

The Japanese landscape garden was beautifully done.
The Maori garden of the staple sweet potatoes.

The Indian Char Bagh Gardens were one of the most widespread traditional ‘Paradise Gardens’ or ‘Universal Gardens’ because of their widespread use. They were enclosed, four part gardens spread by Muslims from Asia to North Africa to Spain during the 8th to 18th centuries. They usually had a water feature and were a sensual experience of fragrance, sound and floral beauty.

The Char Bagh Garden

The Italian Renaissance gardens were filled with statuary, water features, citrus, flowers and hedges. The 16th century Tudor garden featured a tower overlooking knot gardens with lots of heraldic standards featuring fantasy beasts such as dragons and unicorns. Most Tudor gardens were destroyed by Cromwell or neglect.

We also looked at a large kitchen garden, herb garden and a small tropical garden too. It was a great day enjoying the history and variety of gardens.

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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