Ornamental Grasses for Low-Water Landscaping

We usually equate the word “grass” with “lawn,” but did you know there are many durable and decorative grasses that can be combined with other flowering perennial plants to create a lovely water-wise garden?

Although the term “ornamental grasses” can refer to both true grasses and other grass-like plants, we’ll focus on those in the grass family (Poaceae) here.

Ornamental grasses come in many forms and colors, and they can be used in different ways. The taller species are ideal when used as single accent plants in small gardens or large pots. In more expansive settings, grasses of all sizes are attractive when planted in rows, small clusters, or freeform drifts.

Grasses are essentially foliage plants. Their flowers tend to be inconspicuous and earthy-colored (cream, tan, gold, or brown), but the mature flowering spikes still add plenty of visual interest, especially since the long stalks look absolutely gorgeous when gently waving in the breeze!

Most ornamental grasses can be allowed to grow with minimal maintenance, but most perform best when pruned every year or two. Avoid shearing grass clumps into 1- to 2-foot-high balls (a common but improper and unattractive practice). Instead, they should be cut down to a few inches above ground level in late winter. Fresh new growth will emerge in spring to rejuvenate the clumps.

Ornamental grasses generally thrive in fun sun or light shade. Most prefer well-drained soils, but some tolerate clay soil. Here are some of the best selections for our Central Valley:

California Native Ornamental Grasses

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens).  A durable 4-foot grass with arching, narrow, green leaves and graceful tan flower spikes. Cut nearly to the ground every three years, and periodically rake out dead foliage.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis). A green-leaved species that grows to 2 feet tall. Its dense creamy-white seed heads look like narrow flags or “eyelashes” held at nearly right angles to the stems; when ripe, they curl and often turn purplish. The cultivar ‘Blond Ambition’ is especially attractive.

Deer grass (Photo by Ellen Zagory)

Seed heads of blue grama grass (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Non-Native Ornamental Grasses

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora). An upright grower up to 5 feet tall, with pinkish or plum-colored flower spikes that mature to dark tan or golden-brown. ‘Karl Foerster’ is an excellent cultivar.

Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This fine-leaved grass grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. It has showy blooms from late summer through fall, bearing dark pink flowers on delicate, plume-like spikes. The dwarf cultivar ‘Regal Mist’ has prolific pink blooms; “White Cloud’ has ivory flowers.

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). With steely blue foliage and a spiky-looking habit, this attractive grass grows 1½ to 2 feet tall. Its thin flower spikes emerge bluish white and age to a golden hue.

'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Photo from UCANR)

Pink muhly grass (Photo from UC Davis Arboretum)










Blue oat grass (Photo from UCANR)



Invasive Grasses: Do NOT Plant

Some ornamental grasses once commonly planted in landscapes are now known to be invasive. They multiply rapidly and escape into natural areas, where they cause significant ecological and economic damage by displacing native plant and animal species, increasing fire hazard, and interfering with grazing land and crop production. They are also extremely difficult and costly to eradicate once established.

Avoid planting these, and remove them when possible:

Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana). Originally from South America, this grass has become a serious problem in California, especially in coastal areas such as Big Sur. Mature clumps can tower up to 10 feet tall or more; the stiff, dense leaves have sharp, saw-toothed edges; and the root systems are tough and very deep.

Mexican feather grass (Nassella/Stipa tenuissima). This is a beautiful and delicately-textured grass, but it self-seeds prolifically and spreads quickly. Unfortunately, it’s still  grown and sold in the nursery trade.

Green fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). This grass blooms in summer, bearing purplish plumes that look like foxtails. (Note: Colorful, sterile, noninvasive varieties are being developed and are good alternatives. Examples: ‘Rubrum,’ with deep purple leaves, and ‘Fireworks,’ with burgundy- or magenta-striped leaves.)

For gardening related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit the “Contact Us” link on our website.



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Celebrating California’s Native Bees

The word “bee” usually brings to mind an image of a honeybee, but let’s also remember the invaluable contributions and amazing diversity of our lesser-known native bee species.

Of course, honeybees and their hives are familiar sights in our local gardens and farmland. They help pollinate the orchards and crops so crucial to our agricultural economy. The sweet honey they produce is a culinary delight. They’ve been part of our lives and lore for so long that we can’t imagine a world without them, yet they’re the “new bees” in California. The western honeybee (Apis mellifera)­­—originally from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East— was only introduced to North America in the early 17th century, and a few subspecies are now present in our state.

In contrast, California has about 1,600 species of native bees! They are highly varied in size, ranging from 1/10 to 3/4 of an inch long. Many are scarcely recognizable as bees; some are fuzzy and grey, others are metallic green or blue, and some are even polka-dotted.

Some native bees are “social” and form colonies that nest in hives or large cavities. Bumblebees are the only social native bees in California, and they produce minimal honey since their hives last only a year. They are generalist feeders, foraging for nectar and pollen from different types of plants. They are also “buzz pollinators,” vibrating their wing muscles to dislodge pollen from flowers (a process essential to tomato and pepper plants).

The “solitary” native bees are much more plentiful than the social bees, and they generally congregate only to mate. They don’t make honey and are much less likely to sting than social bees since they have no colonies to defend. Approximately 70% of solitary bees are ground-nesting, and they must tunnel into bare soil (not soil that is mulched or covered with plastic). The remaining 30% are cavity-nesting, which means they build their nests in tubular holes (hollow stems, burrows bored in wood, etc.). The females build the nests and often sleep in them, while the males shelter outside.

Male valley carpenter bee (Xylocarpa varipuncta) on Salvia leucantha (KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO)

Solitary bees often have very evocative names: mason, leaf-cutting, miner, digger, sweat, cuckoo, carpenter, and more. Many are generalist feeders, but others (such as the sunflower and squash bees) are specialist feeders, which means they depend on a single type of plant as a food source.

Preservation of native bees is vital for both agriculture and a healthy ecosystem. Amazingly, research shows that some native bee species pollinate crops up to two times as effectively as non-native honeybees. Just as importantly, native bees evolved alongside our native wildflowers and other endemic plants and are best suited to be their pollinators.

Sadly, bee populations are declining, sometimes precipitously. While colony collapse disorder is causing sudden die-off in honeybee hives, native bee populations are also increasingly at risk due to habitat loss, pesticide use, invasive plants and insects, and introduced diseases. One unfortunate example is the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis), a once common and important pollinator that has now nearly disappeared from California and other states.

We can help protect and sustain native bee populations by:

  • Planting a variety of native and ornamental plants with varying bloom times.
  • Providing nesting habitat by preserving some open soil and building bee houses.
  • Maintaining buffers of high-quality habitat and native vegetation near farmland, and planting hedgerows with diverse plant species.
  • Reducing or eliminating the use of broad spectrum and systemic insecticides, which can harm all types of bees.

To learn more, read “California Bees & Blooms,” an excellent book written by several University of California bee experts. For bee identification guides, pollinator plant lists, and other resources, visit the Xerces Society website (www.xerces.org/pollinators-california-region/). The UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab website (www.helpabee.org/) has an excellent overview of our state’s native bees, information on bee gardening, and instructions for building bee boxes. To see a wide variety of bees, visit the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a public garden near the U.C. Davis campus.

A section of tile mosaic from the Haagen Dazs Honey Bee Haven in Davis, showing two native bees (KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO)


















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

Additional note: For another source of information, see Bringing in the Bees, published on February 5 in Sacramento Magazine.

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Why Water-Wise Gardens Look Different

California Fuchsia blooms in summer and attracts many pollinators such as this Valley Carpenter Bee

At a local nursery this past fall, I was excited to find a robust selection of water-wise plants, a reflection of this rapidly expanding market. Another interesting phenomenon, related to me by a nursery employee, was a little less exciting: “customers come in asking for drought-tolerant plants, but change their minds when they see them.” Such news breaks the hearts of Mediterranean garden geeks like me who wish everyone could appreciate the unique beauty of water-wise plants.

It’s understandable to question what the hubbub is all about then water-wise plants are compared side-by-side with traditional landscape species. Negative reactions tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) “they look different from my thirsty plants, and are therefore ugly”, or 2)” if I search long enough, I will find species looking exactly like the thirsty ones I have now.” Although experience will always affect how we see the world, let us attempt to remove our Hydrangea-tinted glasses for a less biased viewpoint by exploring what makes water-wise plants look the way they do.

One of the first things we notice is how sparse water-wise plants look when compared to the lush, full growth of thirstier plants. It’s all about water conservation, as smaller and fewer leaves mean less surface area for water to escape from and less to keep cool in the hot sun. While these acclimated plants can appear strange or unappealing at first, contemplating the paradox of growing lush plants with giant foliage in a hot, dry climate, renders those traditional plants a little more bizarre than before.

Another trait shared by many water-wise plants is fuzzy foliage, which is due to hairs on the leaf surface that protect against excess UV radiation. Plants with smooth, bluish-green foliage have a thick, waxy cuticle that also protects against UV radiation, along with reducing water loss. The soft, supple, bright green foliage found on plants native to regions with summer rain is rare among drought-tolerant plants. California plants native to riparian areas where rivers and streams provide roots with year-round access to water are an exception.

Plants native to hot, dry regions tend to be bushy and low-growing; even our native oak trees, which can reach enormous sizes, naturally grow with low-hanging branches when left to their own devices. This adaptation reduces moisture loss by shading the ground, and protects leaves from the wind, which desiccates by whisking moisture away (think about how dry your skin gets on windy days). Although we love our graceful Birch trees, their single-trunk, upright habit almost screams, “take my water away!”

Winter dormancy certainly isn’t unique to our climate, but the extreme heat of summer means some plants shed leaves in late summer to reduce water loss. This can be in lieu of, or in addition to, a winter dormancy. Summer shabbiness is difficult to stomach, but there are some drought-tolerant plants that naturally bloom in late summer. California fuchsias and Buckwheats (Eriogonum species) are two prime examples, sending up plenty of beautiful, pollinator-feeding flowers at this difficult time of year, but without requiring excess irrigation.

Visiting a nursery and comparing drought-tolerant plants with the eye-popping pony-packs of Snapdragons and Petunias can be a tad disappointing. Keep in mind that low-water plants are at their best when their roots have room to spread, which can’t happen in a little one-gallon container. Starting small and, I admit, a little scraggly at times, they have great potential for maturing into graceful specimens, providing benefits to pollinators and other wildlife, while asking for less water, maintenance, and fertilizer in return.

If you still find yourself unconvinced, a field trip to a water-wise demonstration garden featuring water-wise plants could provide a more realistic view of what these plants will look like as they mature. The SJ County Master Gardeners have a demo garden by the Stockton airport at 2102 E. Earhart Avenue. For more water-wise demo garden locations, 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 at sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu.






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Winter Weather and Yellowing Leaves

Healthy leaf (top) and leaf suffering from iron chlorosis (bottom)

A stroll through your garden of late may have revealed some plants with yellowing foliage. There are several possible causes, but iron chlorosis, a condition in which a plant deficient in iron cannot produce sufficient chlorophyll, is common at this time of year. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green in plants and capturing light for photosynthesis, the process in which plants produce food for themselves.

If you have already dashed off to purchase iron, then keep the receipt, because I have a surprise…you probably don’t need iron fertilizer for your iron-deficient plant!

To understand how this could be, it’s important to know what’s happening in the soil. Iron is one of 17 elements essential for plant growth and metabolism. Iron is typically plentiful in California soils, but certain conditions often make it “unavailable” to plants:

Alkaline soil, meaning soil with a pH of 7.0 or higher, holds on to iron (and many other nutrients), making it inaccessible to plants. Most plants prefer a pH around 6.5.

Soggy and/or cold soil limits microbial activity and the important services they provide in getting nutrients to the plants. Microbes need porous soil and a certain temperature range to thrive, which is why chlorosis is more common in winter. Compacted or heavy soils are especially prone to a lack of porosity in cold, wet weather.

Nutrient imbalances, especially an overabundance of zinc, copper, and manganese, can make iron less available. Causes vary, but can be due to over-application of certain fertilizers.

When determining if you do, in fact, have iron chlorosis, consider factors such as watering, the time of year, and then look at the pattern of yellowing on the leaves. Iron chlorosis presents as green veins with the interspaces being yellow, typically on the newer leaves. Other possible causes include Zinc and Manganese deficiencies or exposure to herbicides containing simazine or diuron. See the UC Integrated Pest Management website for pictures of various patterns of chlorosis:

So what can you do? The key is to focus on improving soil health, which can help lower the pH and increase iron availability. Adding compost to the soil and mulching the surface increases biological activity and improves porosity. If the chlorosis appears only in winter (and isn’t severe), then simply wait until the soil dries out, and the problem may correct itself. Be sure not to over-water at other times of the year, not just because it’s wasteful, but because it can also induce iron chlorosis.

Selecting plants that tolerate alkaline soil can make things easier. Plants native to arid regions, including California natives and other Mediterranean-climate species, have a better tolerance for alkaline soils than acid-lovers such as Hydrangea, Gardenia, Rhododendrons/Azaleas, Camellias, Hollies, Magnolias, and Blueberries. If you must grow acid-loving plants, be sure to apply plenty of compost and mulch, or try growing them in containers where you can control the soil pH by purchasing acid potting mix.

You may go to a garden center and be told that simply adding sulfur will effectively lower the pH. This is correct if your soil does not contain “free-lime” (calcium carbonate), which cancels out the acidifying effects of sulfur. If you have hard water, then you are more likely to have free-lime in your soil. You can test this by taking a small sample of dry soil and adding household vinegar. If it fizzles, then you have free-lime, and you can return that bag of sulfur along with the iron (I hope you kept receipts for both). Keep in mind that highly alkaline soil (above 7.3 pH) cannot be amended enough to grow acid-long plants without ongoing chlorosis issues.

Applications of iron sulfate or chelates to the soil can correct deficiencies if your soil is sufficiently acidic (6.5 or less) and actually needs iron. Remember that simply dumping extra iron into you soil is not going to fix a deficiency if the soil conditions make it unavailable! Foliar applications are good for a quick-fix, though the effects disappear quickly too, meaning you may need to reapply several times a year.

Be sure to avoid Ironite®, an iron supplement containing toxic levels of arsenic and lead. It has been illegal in Canada since 1997, and is under investigation in California. Aluminum sulfate is another amendment to avoid because of the potential for aluminum toxicity. Gypsum has often been touted as a way to lower pH, but this is not true. It increases porosity (drainage) in clay soils with an imbalance of magnesium and calcium, but if your clay soil is “tight” (i.e. holds on to nutrients; not releasing them to plants) for other reasons, gypsum won’t do you much good.

With all these complicated explanations and “don’t do this” commands, it’s actually all very simple: add organic matter such as compost, only apply as much water as is needed to maintain moderate growth, and use plants that are OK with the soil you have. For more information, see the Colorado Master Gardener Notes on iron chlorosis:

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: sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu.




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Plan now for homegrown vegetables in 2016

Look forward to summer abundance by planning now. Courtesy photo Lee Miller

As we sit by the fire on cold, rainy, winter evenings, it is time to think about and plan for all those spring and summer vegetables to enjoy in 2016. Catalogues are coming in now or there are also lots of online, paper-saving catalogues to visit as well for suggested new and old varieties to grow. For starters think lettuce, arugula, endive and other greens. Get an early start, growing these in the greenhouse this month. The starts can be set out early so that you can enjoy fresh lettuce starting in March or April before summer heat negates lettuce growing. They don’t take a lot of room and tolerate some shade better than other vegetables, if space and shade are problems for you. If you don’t have a greenhouse, you can likely buy sets at a nursery.

If you do start your own seeds there are many beautiful, tasty lettuces available and you can also buy Mesclun greens for salads. Some of my favorite Romaine lettuces are: Rouge d’hiver, Red Leprechaun and Forrellenschluss, an Austrian heirloom which translates to ‘Speckled Trout Back’. For butterhead lettuces I like: Grandpa Admire’s, Sanguine Ameliore, Forrellenschluss Bunte, Gully’s Favorite, Yugoslav Red and Marveille de Quatre Saisons. Leaf lettuces can be harvested as cut and come again plants; some I enjoy are; Bronze Arrowhead, Black Seeded Simpson, Flame, Red Velvet and Red Sails. These are all available from the Seed Savers Exchange and other vendors. If you need help learning how to grow Mesclun or other lettuces you can find it at Renee’s garden seeds, Johnny’s Select Seeds or Seed Savers Exchange websites.

One new green leaf vegetable I tried recently was Tatsoi.  Rosette Bok Choy might be another name and AKA Spinach Mustard. This is a versatile green that can be used in salads or as a cooked green used like you would spinach. It is easy to grow and beautiful too.

Of course the workhorses of the summer garden are tomatoes and peppers. There is a lot of interest in tasty heirloom tomatoes and the newest twist on heirlooms is Heirloom Marriage tomatoes which are hybrids of heirlooms which have the taste and heirloom qualities, but are earlier maturing, tasty and have higher yields. For example, the Genuwine tomato is a cross between Costoluto Genovese and Brandywine.  Brandywine, known for great taste, is often not a high yielding variety, but this hybrid is 12-19 days earlier bearing and higher yielding. Other ones are: Cherokee-Carbon, a cross of Cherokee Purple x Carbon; Big Brandy, a cross of Big Dwarf x Brandywine; Perfect Flame, a cross of Peron x Flamme; and Marzinera, a cross of San Marzano x Cream Sausage. These are new seeds developed by PanAmerican Seed Company, but are sold through various seed vendors including Johnny’s Select Seeds, Reimer Seeds and Territorial Seeds.

Tomato spotted wilt was first described in Australia in 1919 and was later identified as a virus disease. TSWV is now common in temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions around the world. It not only infects tomatoes, but peppers and many other plants as well (see: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r783102211.html ). There are several tomato cultivars on the market that are resistant to this disease which is vectored by small, one mm long, Western Flower thrips and other thrips species which are impossible to control. Last year, I lost over 75 percent of my tomatoes to TSWV. If your garden is vulnerable to this disease, as are most gardens in the Linden area, you might consider planting some tomatoes that are disease resistant.  Reimer Seeds features 16 TSWV resistant cultivars and is one of the best sources of such tomatoes: http://www.reimerseeds.com/tomato-spotted-wilt-virus-resistant_1472.aspx  and there are other vendors that have a few resistant cultivars. Resistant tomatoes  may not have flavor that match heirlooms, but you will have tomatoes for the larder.

High yielding, tasty, golden peppers won this year’s AAS awards. Cornito Giallo F1 and Escamillo F1 are both touted as sweet and prolific new peppers to try. I like old favorites: Napoleon, Cal Wonder Bell, Orange Bell, and if you like mild heat, Anaheim, Early Jalapeno are good, but for a real taste-bud burn try Serranos or Habaneros which are well represented along with lots of heirloom peppers at Seed Saver’s Exchange.

Great choices in vegetables can be found in several online catalogues: John Scheeper’s Kitchen Garden Seeds: http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com/; Bountiful Gardens; https://www.bountifulgardens.org/; Territorial Seeds: http://www.territorialseed.com/; Nichols Garden Nursery: https://www.nicholsgardennursery.com; Seed Saver’s Exchange: http://www.seedsavers.org/; Johnny’s Selected Seeds: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/, Renee’s garden seeds: http://www.reneesgarden.com/. Lockhart Seed Store in Stockton has a great selection of seeds; a rarity to have a seed store in town. May all your plants be fruitful in 2016.

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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It is time for garden planning

Tropicana--a great multiple award winning rose

My brother used to rationalize spending on hobbies that went “I don’t drink, smoke or gamble, so I can spend money on photography.”  I too admit to frugality, but when it comes to gardening I splurge because I don’t want to miss a season of beauty and good vegetables from the garden.

My spring flower season will be enhanced by the addition of a hundred good quality Daffodil Narcissus bulbs. When buying Narcissus bulbs it is important to pay attention to the grade which is based on circumference in centimeters. DN1 is fairly rare exhibition size and are over 16 cm.  Grade DN2 bulbs are 14-16 cm and average 1.5 flowers per bulb whereas smaller ones—12-14 cm and will average 1.25 flowers per bulb.

If you can, buy the best, hence, I ordered a mixture of Long Trumpet Landscape Narcissus bulbs (Grade DN2). I had no idea of where they might be planted, but I managed to find two spots, one near my front door and the other on the south side of our chicken palace. The chickens won’t see and enjoy them, but I will. I can hardly wait to see them come up.

Most bulbs planted in California are from Mediterranean climates and are pre-adapted to do well here and will last a long time. A good friend of mine, now deceased, gave me some Jonquil Narcissus thirty years ago. Every spring they come back as a memorial to his generosity and friendship as do tree peonies and many other plants in my yard that he generously shared with me. I cherish this aspect of gardening which reminds me of garden friendships past and present.

Recently, I ordered $140 worth of gladiolus which will be coming my way soon. The bad part about this is that when they arrive they have to be planted, watered, weeded, and nourished before the blooms come. I tend to overlook this downside while viewing all those beautiful catalogue photos of gladiolus.

I already have lots of Dahlias, but there are so many beautiful ones out there to enjoy. Soon, I will splurge there too and worry about the downside later.  Swan Island Dahlias have a great selection and they will replace any tubers that don’t grow and this does happen. Be aware that gophers enjoy tubers too.

Dahlias are gorgeous and brighten with many forms and colors

I have over 100 roses including Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, Floribundas, Hybrid Perpetuals, Polyanthas, and Climbers, but there are more old and new roses to plant and enjoy if I can just find some spots to plant them. I noticed that many bare-root roses have already arrived in stores. What to choose?  The American Rose Society annually prints a Handbook for Selecting Roses. It lists type, name, the date hybridized or registered, petal count, color and average rose performance using a 10 point scale based on a survey of Rose Society membership. You can join or find lots of free rose information on the Rose Society website: http://www.rose.org/resources/. I looked over a selection of roses in a nursery recently and found lots of tried and true varieties. Many of these roses in the following list score 8.3-8.7, considered excellent and a score of 7.3 to 8.2 is above average according to the Handbook. So here is a partial list of my favorites:  ‘Gene Boerner’8.2; ‘Tropicana’7.7, ‘Mister Lincoln’8.3; ‘Touch of Class’8.5; ’Brandy’ 7.6; ‘Royal Highness’7.6; ‘Electron’7.8;  ‘Medallion’7.6; ‘Olympiad’8.4; ‘Chicago Peace’7.8; ‘Love and Peace’7.9; ‘Double Delight’8.3; ‘Black Magic’8.1; ‘Oklahoma’7.2; ‘Perfect Moment’8.0; ‘Proud Land’7.5; and ‘Honor’7.6. Although ‘Tropicana’ doesn’t score high, it is the winner of more awards than any other rose in history and it is a prolific beauty.

Gardeners in Manteca and Lodi areas have to be concerned about Hoplia beetle adults chewing roses in late March-May http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7499.html. They are especially attracted to light-colored flowers and chew round holes in the petals of white, yellow, apricot, and pink roses. Some gardeners experiencing this pest avoid planting light colored roses.

Roses do require some care, but that is no reason not to plant them as they reward with beautiful blooms from spring to fall. Unless you are a rosarian interested in exhibiting them, the care is not arduous: planting properly (full sun), watering, dormant pruning in January and dead heading to encourage blooms. Of course you don’t need to dead head so much if you harvest regularly to enjoy rose bouquets.

Whoops, no room left for vegetables; maybe another time, for now, happy flower gardening in 2016.

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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Pruning Tools of the Trade

Have you ever wandered into a garden store, only to be met by a bewildering array of tools hanging from the racks?

Most retail garden suppliers stock an impressive variety of hand-operated (non-power) pruning tools, but offer scant guidance on how to choose the one you really need.

“Tool talk” might not be the most exciting garden-related topic, but it’s important to know how to properly use and care for each type of pruning implement.

Hand pruners

These short-handled tools are generally intended for use on plant stems and small branches ½ inch in diameter or less


Two hands are needed to operate these long-handled tools, which are designed to cut branches up to 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Loppers should be used primarily to cut dead or just-removed branches into smaller pieces; avoid using them for pruning, since they tend to damage branches.

Hand pruners and loppers come with two distinct blade configurations, each with special uses and care needs. A third type of blade arrangement applies only to pruners.

  • Bypass: This style has a curved upper blade that glides past a lower curved  “hook” or “anvil.” The hook holds a stem or branch while the blade cuts. Bypass-type tools are the best choice for most gardening work since they’re designed for use on live plant material. The blade is only beveled on the edge facing away from the anvil; the other side is flat. Never sharpen the flat edge of the blade on bypass-style tools; doing so leaves a gap between blade and anvil and causes branches to get stuck in the tool. When cutting, place the blade side of a bypass tool toward the main stem and away from the part being removed.
  • Anvil: This style has a straight-edged upper blade that moves downward to meet the center of a flat-surfaced lower “anvil” or “table.” Anvil-type tools should only be used on dead branches—never on live, healthy ones—since they don’t cleanly cut all the way through stems and their blade action tends to crush delicate plant tissues. The blade of anvil-style tools is beveled on both sides, so both edges need to be evenly sharpened if they become dull.
  • Scissor: As the name implies, this style of hand pruner operates like a pair of scissors, with two short, straight, sharpened blades. They’re designed only for lightweight tasks such as pruning tiny twigs and flower or herb stems.

Hand saws

Not all hand saws are designed for pruning use. Carpenter saws, which have straight blades and a hand-hole in the handle, cut only when being pushed away from the user (on the “push stroke”) and are intended for use on dried wood or lumber, not for pruning living or “green” wood. Pruning saws are specifically designed to cut live branches ½ inch or more in diameter, and they cut on the “pull stroke.” Curved-blade pruning saws cut most efficiently and quickly, while straight-bladed pruning saws are best for use in tight spaces or for finer cuts. Pruning saws come in several styles: folding, with blades that store in the handles; fixed, with blades rigidly affixed to the handles; and Japanese, with razor-sharp, triple-edged teeth on the blade.

Hand-operated pruning tools are also available in “extension” or pole-mounted forms, and some have a telescoping feature that allows adjustment of the pole’s length. Pole saws and extension pruners can greatly increase an operator’s reach, but they tend to be unwieldy and less precise. For safety reasons, never operate pole-type tools near overhead power lines.

When using any type of pruning tool, be careful to avoid a twisting action while cutting to prevent tearing bark, creating ragged-edged cuts, or damaging tool blades.

It’s also important to care for your pruning tools to keep them in top operating condition. Always keep the blades properly sharpened to avoid damaging plant tissues and to reduce pruning effort. Thoroughly clean, dry, and oil tools after use to prevent rusting and to avoid transmitting plant pathogens.

For photos and more information, see Pruning Equipment for Home Gardeners, Sharpening Blades, and Maintaining Lawn and Garden Tools.

Happy New Year!

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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The Art of Pruning: Part 2

As winter rapidly approaches and leaves disappear from trees, gardeners’ thoughts turn from raking to pruning. The dormant season is an ideal time for pruning trees, especially since they’re “at rest” and since the structure of bare-branched deciduous trees is easy to see.

Like perennial shrubs, trees have special pruning requirements, and they should be treated with care since they’re the dominant features in a landscape. Proper pruning is an acquired skill that takes both knowledge and precision, and it should be given attention throughout a tree’s lifetime. Most trees need judicious pruning when young to develop good structure, and older trees need regular but lighter follow-up pruning care.

Sadly, proper tree pruning is often the exception rather than the rule. It only takes one instance of substandard pruning to damage a tree’s health and appearance permanently. An unknowledgeable or minimally trained tree trimmer can destroy decades of lovely tree growth in a matter of minutes.

Trees can be harmed in many ways by improper pruning practices:

  • “Topping” or severing a mature tree’s main structural limbs can cause severe problems such as improper wound healing, trunk decay, cracking/splitting, and persistent stress. It also destroys the tree’s form.
  • Drastically cutting back a tree’s living canopy weakens it and often results in sunscald (bark burn and death due to sudden, excessive sun exposure).
  • Poorly or excessively pruned trees respond by growing spindly, weakly-attached new branches that have unattractive form and a greater risk of breakage.
  • Trees that are neglected after planting and aren’t properly trained in their early years of growth usually need more severe and damaging corrective pruning in later years.
  • Using dull or dirty cutting tools or careless techniques can lead to ragged cuts, torn bark, infections, or worse.

A horribly disfigured, severely topped tree with dead or dying major limbs, cracked wood, peeling bark, and weak and unbalanced regrowth. KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO


Unnatural-looking trees that have been poorly pruned on two levels: the main branches were once topped very low, then the regrown limbs were stripped of all lower branches. KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO






























An important concept to remember: correctly pruned trees have a natural, un-pruned look, and don’t look like a creature from a Dr. Seuss book! (One key exception is when utility companies must prune trees under overhead lines for safety reasons; to avoid this problem, don’t plant large-maturing trees in such locations. Another exception is when trees are intentionally trained in topiary or espalier form.)

Some general tree pruning guidelines:

  • Determine your pruning objective(s) before beginning work. Do you need to clear branches from over a patio, walkway, or house? Thin a tree to reduce weight or shading? Improve a tree’s structure?
  • Inspect a tree’s trunk, branches, and roots for rot, cracking, or other hazards before pruning or climbing.
  • Maintain a tree’s natural form, while minimizing and balancing the amount of foliage or branches removed.
  • Begin with “cleaning” a tree by removing dead, diseased, broken, or badly crossing/rubbing branches.
  • Remove no more than 50% of live foliage/branches on young trees, 25% on medium-aged trees, and 10 to 15% in fully mature trees.
  • Don’t cut into the branch collar, the ring of thickened tissue where a branch joins a larger branch or trunk. A damaged branch collar won’t heal properly.
  • Don’t use any compounds to “seal” pruning cuts.
  • Use clean, sharp, well-maintained pruning tools. Sterilize them between cuts if removing diseased branches.

There are also some key points to keep in mind when hiring a tree professional. The best choice is a certified arborist who follows American National Standards Institute (ANSI) pruning and safety standards and develops a job-tailored list of pruning specifications.

Don’t employ tree trimmers who utilize improper topping as a primary approach. Remember that even if the individual or business you hire has proper licensing, liability insurance, and worker’s compensation, these are not necessarily an indication of appropriate pruning knowledge. It’s far better to pay for quality tree care than to bear the expense of removing or tolerating trees damaged beyond repair by low-cost, inexperienced workers.

Proper tree pruning practices are complex, and vary depending on a tree’s age, form, species, and growing environment. Fortunately, there are many excellent and very specific pruning resources available:

Wishing you a happy holiday and pruning season!

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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The Art of Pruning: Part 1

Pruning is defined as “the selective removal of plant parts to achieve specific goals.” Unfortunately, what often passes for “pruning” in our landscapes is more akin to butchering. Shrubs are sheared into balls and cubes even when this treatment isn’t appropriate for their natural growth habit. Trees are chopped and hacked without proper attention to their form, weakening them and destroying their branch structure. The result: unsightly and unhealthy plants that might never recover.

Too often, entire landscaped areas are pruned exclusively with hedge trimmers. This indiscriminate treatment results in plants with a hard-edged, unnatural look. A properly trained gardener knows how AND WHEN to wield a hedge trimmer, and when it’s best to use other pruning tools and more finessed techniques.

Hedges are certainly suitable in some instances, particularly in formal gardens or when shrubs are utilized as low screens. Plants such as boxwoods (Buxus spp.) and some privets (Ligustrum spp.) are well suited for shearing or training into special forms such as topiary. However, hedge trimmers should never be used as all-purpose pruning implements, and shrubs should not always look like an exercise in geometry!

Some examples where shearing is commonly and incorrectly applied:

  • Plants with long, strap-like leaves, such as New Zealand flax (Phormium spp.), African iris (Dietes spp.), and tall perennial grasses. Cutting their leaves off midway destroys their graceful form and results in an ugly, ragged profile, especially when new leaves emerge from the trimmed clump. Remove only dead or damaged leaves from flaxes and irises, and only by cutting them off individually at the base. Renew perennial grasses by cutting them almost to the ground when dormant, not into a ball.
  • Plants with large or leathery leaves and tough stems. Hedge trimmers can’t cleanly cut such material, and will result in plants with damaged, shredded edges. It’s best to hand prune these types of shrubs, removing or shortening stems selectively in order to achieve the desired form.
  • Plants that were improperly located. Many shrubs are regularly sheared to keep them in bounds because they were planted in spaces too small to accommodate their mature size. It’s better to relocate plants or replace them with smaller-growing alternatives instead of constantly giving them bad haircuts.
  • Plants that were too densely planted. This trend is very common in commercial landscapes, where a “filled in” look is wanted immediately. As plants mature, they become far too crowded and are severely pruned to prevent a solid mass of vegetation from forming. Reducing the number of plants will significantly reduce maintenance needs and costs.

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) with new growth emerging from poorly sheared balls. KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO

Shrubs tightly and irregularly sheared without regard to form. KATHY IKEDA/COURTESY PHOTO

Improper pruning can have many adverse effects:

  • It can permanently destroy a plant’s aesthetics and reduce its value.
  • It can weaken a plant and compromise its ability to heal, thus making it more susceptible to diseases and/or pest infestations.
  • If done in the wrong season, it can prevent plants from flowering or fruiting, or it can encourage tender new growth during a time when it can be damaged or killed by cold.
  • If too much foliage is removed at one time, it can force a plant into a spurt of regrowth, since it needs leaves to produce its own food through photosynthesis. This increases the plant’s demands for water and nutrients (which can be particularly stressful and damaging for a plant in drought conditions).

Your landscape represents not only a beautiful addition to your home or business, but also a significant monetary investment, and it deserves proper attention. If you care for your own garden, do your plants a favor by educating yourself on proper pruning practices. If you hire a landscaper, select a person or company who is truly knowledgeable about plant care. Correct pruning might take more time in a single visit, but it saves both time and money in the long run.

One source for locating a well educated, appropriately certified gardener is San Joaquin County’s Green Gardener website (https://www.sjgov.org/solidwaste/Green-Gardener-Program.htm). This in-depth training program for landscape professionals is offered annually, and graduates have both academic and practical training in proper pruning techniques.

Proper pruning practices vary greatly depending on the plant species, and the topic is far too complex to cover in detail here. If you’d like to learn more, identify the plants in your landscape, then consult reputable sources (such as the Sunset Western Garden Book or university horticulture websites) for the pruning needs of each specific plant.

The next time your plants require pruning, try an approach that will help your garden to look “a cut above” the rest.

(Coming next week: tree pruning recommendations and warnings, plus some expert pruning references.)

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


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Fall is time for harvesting and cleanup.

A thanks is due for nature's bounty-kiwis, squash, persimmons and walnuts.

It is a good time of the year for harvesting and for sprucing up the garden and landscape. Last week before our first light frost, I got out and harvested my crop of kiwis. The crop was light this year—one box compared to three last year, but the fruit were larger.  I only have three kiwi vines, two females and one male for pollination. The trick is to prune correctly to get good fruit set, so I need to work on that this year. Fruit is born on new growth from one year old vines just like wine grapes, but kiwis appear to be a lot harder to prune than grapes. In part this is true because they are on a trellis that requires pruning from a ladder unlike most grapes, but there are many more choices to make as well.

I also harvested lots of Hachiya persimmons and cranked up my dehydrator and dried persimmons all week. I also loaded a wheel barrow full of butternut squash along with a few Musquee de Province pumpkins for winter fare. Summer gardening is done and it was not a great year for me and other gardeners have complained also about poor production of beans, peppers and some tomatoes. Spotted Wilt Virus took its toll on many of my tomatoes and peppers this year. The virus is carried by thrips and not a lot can be done about it. For more information if you had that problem you can go to: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r783102211.html

The chayote (Sechium edule) crop was dismal this year too, with only two fruit found, whereas in some years I harvest several boxes to share with friends. Chayote is native to Mexico and is enjoyed there much like potatoes are here. It is a tropical or subtropical crop that can be grown here, but not always successfully, apparently. It is a perennial with pear-shaped, squash fruit that provides fiber, folate and Vitamin C with low calories.  It can be added to salads or cooked in meat or vegetable dishes. It is easily grown, by just planting the entire fruit. The large seed only sprouts within the fruit and does not grow if separated.  Like the kiwi, it is a vine that is grown on a trellis. The crop usually weighs in heavily so no flimsy trellis is advised to grow these.

I have no good explanation for the crop failure, but it has happened once before. One possibility is that the fruit, which is usually set late in the summer, is set too late to grow to maturity in some years.  Lots of baby-sized chayote were visible this fall, so that is likely the problem.

Chayote crop in a better year.

Here are some things to do this fall for your garden.

  • First turn off your sprinklers-the cooler rainy season is here. Last week I saw sprinklers on at a commercial building in Stockton. Unfortunately we are still having a drought and El Nino is not yet here, but we have had rain enough for lawns to thrive.
  • Plant cool season flowers such as dianthus, Iceland poppy, pansy, primrose, snapdragon, stock.
  • Clean up summer vegetable garden and add the residue to your compost pile.
  • Mulching soil so that winter rains don’t run off along with soil. Mulching also saves a lot of weeding by reducing weeds and it makes weeding easier to accomplish because the few weeds that occur do not root as well.  For information on mulches: http://www.doityourself.com/stry/why-mulch-6-benefits-of-mulching.
  • Prune the lower branches on citrus at least 24” above the soil and clean out fallen leaves and old fruit from under the trees and mulch to prevent fungus spores from splashing from the ground onto the fruit causing brown rot.
  • It is time to think about planting winter bare root crops which will be available in late December and January. Perennial vegetables like artichokes, horse radish and asparagus can be planted now as well as strawberries.
  • Divide any crowded perennials such as Iris, daylilies and share them with friends or replant immediately for yourself.
  • If you are thinking of planting some blueberries this winter or spring, it is important to lower soil pH to 4-5. Most of our soils are close to a pH of 7. You can acidify the soil with a cup of soil sulfur per plant, but it is best to apply it several weeks before planting so it has time to acidify. Adding lots of organic matter also helps to hold soil moisture as blueberries prefer moist soil.
  • Subscribe to the Master Gardener Quarterly Newsletter which has gardening tips, advice and interesting articles written by San Joaquin County Master Gardeners. Subscribe and see back issues at: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Master_Gardener_newsletter/.

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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    Lee Miller

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

    Marcy Sousa

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

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