In defense of the (mostly) harmless spider

With apologies to those who suffer from arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), this week’s article covers a member of the animal kingdom that isn’t usually thought of as beneficial.

Spiders often get a bad rap. They’re portrayed as evil or deadly creatures in movies. Large, black bodies with eight spindly legs are commonly seen as spooky decorations during Halloween. Real-life spiders are viewed as frightful critters to be screamed at or smashed. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned from childhood to treat spiders with revulsion.

Not all cultures fear spiders. Spiders were symbols of wealth and protection from poverty in ancient Rome. The ancient Chinese believed anyone who saw a spider drop from its web was blessed with good luck. The spider-man character Anansi, the embodiment of wisdom and storytelling, is prominent in the folklore of west Africa, the West Indies, the Caribbean, and even the southern U.S. (as “Aunt Nancy”). Spider Woman is a powerful figure in the mythology of southwestern Native Americans.

While all spiders are predatory and make venom, very few spider species pose a serious threat to humans. Although spider bites can be painful, they’re more of a nuisance than a health threat. Furthermore, spiders typically shy away from people, and will bite only if disturbed.

Let’s examine some basics of spider biology. They’re not insects or “bugs,” (all of which have six legs, wings, and two eyes); instead, spiders are wingless and have eight legs and eight eyes. Spiders belong to the Arachnid family, a group that also includes ticks, mites, and scorpions. Female spiders lay eggs that hatch into spiderlings that look like miniature adults and grow to maturity in several stages.

A few of the most common spiders in California are the:

Orb-weavers or garden spiders: These spiders — often beautifully patterned or ornamented — spin the classic spider web, with a spiral of silk overlaid on spokes that radiate from a central point.

Jumping spiders: These fairly small and hairy spiders don’t spin webs; instead, they stalk and pounce on their prey. They can jump up to 50 times their body length by harnessing the energy of a chemical reaction in their hindmost legs! They’re also the largest family of spiders worldwide.

Black widows: This is one of many spiders classified as “cobweb weavers.” The female is a jet-black spider with a red hourglass-shaped pattern on the underside of her large, round abdomen; the male is smaller, brown, and non-poisonous. Black widows spin irregular, amorphous webs using silk that is extremely strong and sticky. If bitten by a female, seek medical care, since this is one spider whose bite can be harmful and sometimes even fatal to people (especially children, older adults, or those with compromised immune systems).

A well camouflaged crab spider capturing a housefly (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Here are some fascinating facts about spiders and the beneficial role they play in our ecosystem and lives:

  • Spiders are vital for controlling insect populations, and they eat other garden pests too.
  • Spiders are found on every continent except Antarctica.
  • Spiders are a crucial food source for many birds, lizards, snakes, and even some small mammals.
  • Many hummingbird species rely on spider silk to bind and anchor their nest materials.
  • Web-weaving spiders have special organs called spinnerets that they use to create “silk” from liquid protein. Many filaments are combined to make a single silk strand.
  • Spider silk is the strongest-known natural material; it’s pound-for-pound much stronger than steel, and it’s inspiring innovations in materials science and mechanical engineering.
  • Scientists are studying spider silk for various medical uses since it’s strong, biodegradable, and tissue compatible (not subject to rejection).
  • Chemicals derived from spider venom are used to treat several diseases.

Leave spiders in your garden where possible so they can continue to perform their beneficial role. If spiders make their homes in places where they’re a nuisance — inside homes, near entryways and porches, on outdoor seating, or in woodpiles — it’s best to use non-toxic methods of removal. Catch-and-release techniques and simple spider-catcher devices can be used to relocate spiders without harming them. Brooms, dusters, and vacuums can be used to rid an area of spiders and their webs. Sticky traps can control spiders in and near homes without poisons. Insecticides should be avoided both indoors and out since they’re minimally effective and potentially harmful. Rather than killing all spiders within reach, take a few minutes to watch them in action and appreciate the vital role they play.

For a fascinating time-lapse video of orb weaver web construction, watch this YouTube video.

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

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Gardening for a Lifetime

Gardening is one of those hobbies that you can do throughout your lifetime- but that doesn’t mean our bodies can go like they used to. Your muscles may get weaker and ache more readily. Falls can do more damage. Your energy and endurance may wane, and your skin may get thinner.

Gardening keeps you healthy in the mind and body, and can help prolong vitality better than most other activities. It’s been shown that gardening is excellent exercise that offers cardiovascular and muscular strengthening. The gentle, low impact physical stress that gardening offers is wonderful, especially for aging bodies.

There are some ways you can make gardening easier on your body as you age, which can help you avoid injury most importantly, but will also help you enjoy more- after all, you’ve earned it!


It’s important to keep in mind that the most important gardening tool we have is our body. Before you head out to the garden, spend 10 minutes warming up your muscles and get your heart pumping. Go for a brisk walk around the block and do a little stretching to get your body ready to go.

Paying a little more for well-made, ergonomically designed tools should be part of everyone’s retirement plan. There are many tools available that have been modified to make gardening tasks easier on your body, make sure you choose the proper tool for the task at hand. Try out tools before you buy because handle size, weight, and length of spindle are all key when it comes to using a tool properly.

Keep your tools sharp and clean for easier use. If your tools have wooden or metal handles, consider adding padded tape or pipe insulation foam for better grip.

Invest in a pair of really good gloves that you will keep on no matter what the task, cuts and abrasions in the skin of the hands are an invitation to infection. You should attend to any cuts, bruises or insect bites immediately. Wear long sleeves and sturdy pants to protect your skin from the sun and scratches.

Taking Precautions in the Heat

Extreme temperatures are dangerous for everyone, but as we age our bodies are less able to recover from heat stroke and dehydration as well as our bodies could when we were younger. The best time to work in the garden is in the morning and evening when it’s coolest. Make sure you take breaks as you feel necessary to prevent overheating and always bring a water bottle to prevent dehydration. A broad rimed hat can help keep you cool and don’t forget to apply sunscreen frequently.

Try to alternate sitting and standing positions at 30-minute intervals and take breaks in order for your body to rest from the repetitive movements, like digging. Rotate each gardening activity with ones that require different muscle groups and different body positions. If you have a cellphone, carry it with you any time you are outside the house in case you find yourself in a situation where you need to call for help.

Rethink the Landscape      

Choosing plants that are easy to maintain and able to withstand a variety of conditions is essential for an easy gardening experience. If possible, reduce the amount of high maintenance plants you have.

Container gardening can reduce your gardening stress, and the many different and attractive containers available add interesting focal points to your garden. You can also turn just about anything into a container garden. From teapots to milk jugs, wooden dressers to wine barrels, let your creativity run wild!

Consider installing raised beds that reduce bending over by allowing you to work in a standing or seated position. Raised beds can be constructed in many styles using a wide variety of materials. Various shapes and curves can be included to help blend the raised garden into your existing landscape, making it both attractive and functional.

Growing vegetables using vertical trellises reduces bending and picking. Many vegetables grow well when trellised like cucumbers, beans, squash, and melons.

Ask for Help 

Recruit help for heavy garden jobs and mowing. Trade your knowledge with a younger, beginning gardener or neighbor for those garden jobs that need a bit more strength. Your knowledge will help them garden better, and their help will save your back and aching joints.  Often family members are at a loss when it comes to gift ideas for that person that “has everything”. Make it easy for them by giving them a gardening tool wish list or ask for help in the garden as a gift.


Take your time doing things in the garden. Make lots of wonderful drinks to enjoy as you go along. Pet the cat, watch the butterflies and listen to the birds. This is what gardening is about!

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




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Troubleshooting Tomato Problems

One of the most versatile and rewarding plants in a summer edible garden is the tomato. According to a 2014 study by the National Gardening Association, 86 percent of

Catfacing on tomatoes

homes with vegetable gardens grow tomatoes. It is understandable that the tomato plant is a popular home vegetable garden staple. Tomatoes offer thousands of different varieties options and flavors, plus, nothing beats the flavor of a ripe tomato straight from the garden.

When properly cared for, a single tomato plant can produce 10 to 15 pounds or more of fruit. If tomato yields aren’t what was expected or the fruit is damaged it could be due to a number of diseases, pests or abiotic disorders. Abiotic disorders result from nonliving causes and are often attributable to environmental or cultural factors, or simply to the plant’s genetic makeup. Below are five common abiotic disorders of tomatoes and recommended remedies from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources publication, Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden (publication number 8159).

Flower Drop and Failure to Set Fruit

The Problem: The blossoms fall off or the plant fails to set fruit.

Probable Causes:  Night temperatures are too low, below 55ºF, or daytime temperatures too high, above 90ºF. There could have been excessive smog during the blossoming period. Perhaps too much nitrogen fertilizer was applied or they are in too much shade. The plants might have been set out too early in spring or are not a variety that do well in our area.

Control: Choose varieties adapted to your climate zone, plant tomatoes in full sun, keep soil evenly moist, and avoid excessive nitrogen fertilizer. Hormone sprays can improve fruit set during low temperatures, but will not help in high temperatures.

Tapping on blossom stems 3 times a week at midday when flowers are open may improve pollination and help set fruit.


Problem: The fruit turns light brown and leathery on side exposed to the sun.

Probable Cause: Overexposure to sunlight.

Control: Maintain plant vigor to produce adequate leaf cover and avoid overpruning.

If needed, provide partial shade (e.g., shade cloth, screening material) during hours of most intense sunlight.

Leaf Roll

Problem: Older leaves roll upward and inward rather suddenly, become stiff to the touch, brittle, and leathery.

Probable Cause: High light intensity and high soil moisture, particularly when plants are staked and heavily pruned. Some varieties are more susceptible than others.

Control: Choose less-susceptible varieties. Try to maintain even soil moisture and provide partial shade during periods of intense sunlight.

Blossom End Rot

Problem: Water-soaked spot on blossom end of fruit enlarges and darkens, becomes sunken and leathery. Affects both green and ripe fruit, and is more common on sandier soils.

Probable Cause:Calcium nutrition and water balance in the plant, aggravated by high soil salt content and fluctuating soil moisture.

Blossom end rot in tomatoes is a common abiotic disorder

Control: Maintain even soil moisture. Amend planting area with organic matter such as compost to improve water retention. Avoid heavy applications of high-nitrogen fertilizer. Soils that are deficient in calcium may be amended with gypsum.

Fruit Cracks and Catfacing

Problem: Circular cracks around the stem end and cracks radiating outward from the stem. There may also be malformation and cracking at the blossom end (catfacing).

Probable Causes: Periods of very fast growth with high temperatures and high soil moisture levels. Wide fluctuations in soil moisture content or heavy rain following a dry period or wide differences in day and night temperatures. Catfacing may also be caused by abnormally cool or hot conditions. Disturbances to the flower parts during blossoming can also lead to fruit cracking. There are just some varieties that are more susceptible to cracks and catfacing than others.

Control: Choose varieties that are adapted to your climate zone and are less susceptible to cracking. Keep soil evenly moist and maintain good leaf cover or provide partial shade in periods of high light intensity. Adding a layer of organic mulch 3 to 4 inches deep such as compost helps moderate soil temperatures and soil moisture fluctuations.


Pests eating away at your tomatoes?
Other damages that are caused to tomato plants can be caused by a variety of pests. Some examples of common pests, include: hornworms, tomato fruitworms, tomato pinworms, stink bugs, white flies, and leafminers. For information about identifying and managing pests in your edible garden visit the UC Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) website,

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



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Summer garden problems explored

Squash bug life stages: eggs, nymphs and adults, Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens.

Heat and tomato fruit set: The hot streak we had recently was not good for a lot of plants, but in particular not good for fruit set in tomatoes. Tomato blossoms drop off when daytime temperatures exceed 95 and night-time temperatures are above 70. Tomatoes in the sun may experience temperatures as much as 10 to 15 degrees higher than a shade measurement. Hence, there likely will be some time slots of no tomato harvest. Cool summers are best for consistent tomato production in our valley.

Some things that might help would be to use shade cloth which will keep plants cooler while only partially blocking light; misting them at midday also helps. Planting some varieties early to get some early tomatoes before hot weather comes and planting others late for fall tomatoes. However, most indeterminate varieties will start producing again in the fall or in cooler weather, without planting new plants. There are also some varieties more heat tolerant than others: Arkansas traveler, Early Girl, Marvel Striped, Thessaloniki, Roma are a few, for more information see: .

Squash bugs: The squash bug (Anasa tristis) is a garden pest that many of us battle annually Squash bugs feed on cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and summer and winter squash. It will often cause wilt of zucchini or squash plants. If you garden organically, here is one approach that helps. Spray water with a hose or watering can over your zucchini plants. This will cause the bugs to crawl out of their hiding places and move upward on the plant where you can see them and pick them off. Another approach is to place boards or wood shingles under the plants where the bugs will hide overnight. In the early morning, turn over the boards and squash the bugs.

If you are lucky enough to kill the overwintering adults before they reproduce, then you may enjoy a bug-free summer. Be sure to check underneath leaves for their shiny orange-brown eggs and rub them off before they hatch. It takes about a week or more for eggs to hatch. If they hatch, the nymphs can be killed by neem oil or horticultural oils, but it is difficult to spray under the leaves where they hang out. If nymphs are present, you may have lost the chance to be free of squash bugs this year.

I have noticed that the bugs show up first and most abundantly in my Caserta variety of zucchini, so some plants may be more susceptible than others; hence planting more resistant varieties can help ease the problem. To reduce the overwintering of adult squash bugs, it is advisable to clean up garden debris and vines in the fall by removal or composting them.

Stink Bugs: A tomato pest that resembles the squash bug is the stink bug. Both have stinking odors when squished, but the stink bug make a bad odor when disturbed. The most common species statewide is the consperse stink bug (Euschistus conspersus). It is the most important species in the northern San Joaquin valley. If you have yellow spots or splotches on your ripe tomatoes, the stink bug is the likely culprit and the stings that cause the yellow spots may be delivered when the tomato is green. They then show up as dark pinpricks surrounded by a slightly discolored area.

Deterring these pests include: cleaning out weeds and debris around the vegetable garden where adults overwinter or hide, encourage beneficial predators: birds, assassin bugs, praying mantis. You can also use pheremone traps designed for stinkbugs. Hand picking, neem oil and insecticide soaps can also be used to kill stink bugs. Planting decoy crops will help keep them away from your tomatoes or other crop of interest. Decoy plants are mustard, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, sunflower, marigolds, lavender and chrysanthemums.

Blossom end rot: If you have a brown spot of tissue on the blossom end of the tomato it is likely blossom end rot. This is not a pathogen caused problem, but is produced by a calcium imbalance in the plant. It is often brought on by inconsistent watering. It is best to water tomatoes 2 times per week and water deeply each time. Tomato roots can go four feet deep so shallow watering is not advisable.

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWP): For some gardener especially in the Linden area, TSWP   virus overwinters in weeds in orchards and it is carried to the tomatoes or peppers by tiny, 1 mm long, thrips. The plant declines over time with bronzing and curling of leaves and fruit have a mottled appearance. It is best to remove the infected plants. To avoid this problem, plant TSWP resistant tomatoes, but they are not readily available to gardeners unless you grow your own. For more info go to: .


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

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Garden downsizing— losses lamented; smaller celebrated

Growing beautiful gladiolus such as these will be missed at my new garden. These were planted in March at my old garden in March.

One of the things that Master Gardeners and others teach new gardeners is to not bite off too much when starting to garden. With experience one can take on more efforts if you want to. Here is what one family magazine has to say, “Be realistic when you plan your first garden. Start small; you can always expand later in the summer or next spring.”

I had to follow the ‘garden small’ advice out of necessity when I lived in the city and was a frustrated gardener with small back and front yards. I love to grow stuff and I wanted to find a place where I could fulfill my passion. I found that country place of 6 acres in 1976, where I planted and grew lots: table grapes, wine grapes, fruit trees like apples, apricots, figs, peaches, pears, plums and citrus, heirloom vegetables and melons, black berries, blueberries and myriad flowers: Camellias, roses, gladiolus, dahlias Narcissus, Iris, daylilies, zinnias and others.

Over the past 40 years, I got carried away with gardening projects and activities like canning and freezing produce. It pretty much consumed my life and then I finally realized that I was not quite up to maintaining it all as it should be maintained. I didn’t really want to give up this demanding beautiful mistress, but reality has to be faced. Age has a way of creeping up on you or perhaps it flies at you as the proverbial ‘time that flies’ or ‘life is short’. The latter proverb is not evident to youths, but I can now wonder, where did those 40 years go?

So, we made a tough decision to downsize from our current10 acres to 0.6 acres. Fortunately, I found a place that another Master Gardener had developed with a passion for gardening. There is so much that I will miss, like growing several rows of gladiolus annually. I will also miss the citrus and fruit trees, the grapes and the wine making with so many friends helping, but I will enjoy the peace of body and mind that I can now handle the beautiful diverse garden that she created. It is also easier to live in a single story rancher than in a two story Victorian. I will also stay optimistic that any fruit trees I plant will bear fruit before I fade away. Optimism is the gardener’s strength and maybe partly why gardeners live longer lives on average;

I have a nagging question as I downsize. What will the new owner; if I find one, do about all the gardens I have created? What will happen to all those wonderful plants, cared for over the years? This might be a concern that most serious gardeners experience as they move on. I am taking on a Master Gardener’s garden and I suspect that all the changes I make will not be greeted enthusiastically by her as she herself downsizes. I had to start by taking out some old mature trees to lighten the garden area for dahlias which need lots of sunlight. I am pretty passionate about dahlias as evidenced by the expense of taking out those three large, old trees. This was not an egregious desecration as she never planted the trees and they were old and tired and dahlias are lovely to view and enjoy. I hope that she will come back to see them when they bloom. I planted over 100 dahlias to enjoy—not much downsizing of that addiction!

Gladiolus will be especially missed in downsizing as their beauty won a lot of best of show ribbons at the old San Joaquin Fair when adult horticulture was in vogue.

My concern for my old garden’s future will need to be abolished sometime. Monet’s gardens were restored and revitalized recently.  Vita Sackville-West, a celebrity gardener of Virginia Wolf fame, deeded her Sissinghurst Castle gardens in England to the National Trust in 1947. Alas, most of us who love gardening are neither celebrities nor gardeners of great note, nor do we donate gardens to avoid taxes. Gardens are always a work in progress, they evolve over time and are not completed like a sculpture or a painting to be posed in a museum. They require a lot of care and maintenance over the years. I will have little to say about the future of my gardens, but just hope someone who loves plants and gardens will appreciate and enjoy them, despite the work involved.

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

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Protecting You And Your Garden During A Heatwave

Hello summer! Today marks the official first day of summer and it is hot out there! The last thing you may be thinking about are your plants in the garden but this week of temperatures over 100° can be stressful on our landscapes. The sizzling heat not only affects your ability to enjoy the outdoors, it also causes you to fear for the survival of your garden. While many plants can thrive in the normal summer heat, lengthy doses of daytime temperatures in the 100’s along with warm nighttime temperatures are enough to push even the hardiest gardeners and plants to the edge.  During conditions of extreme heat, some simple tips can help keep both you and your garden healthy.

Go into the garden prepared

With some simple precautions, you can safely garden in the heat.

  • Don’t try to do anything significant when it’s this hot. That means, no weeding or planting.
  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.
  • If you’re outside in hot weather you’ll need to make an effort to drink more fluids. Drink plenty of cool (not icy cold) fluids; water is best. Avoid drinking liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels)
  • Take breaks often. Try to rest in shaded areas so that your body’s thermostat will have a chance to recover.
  • Pay attention to signs of heat-related illness, including extremely high body temperature, headache, rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea, confusion, or unconsciousness. Stop working if you experience any of these symptoms.

Plants lose water through leaves and must take up water from the soil to replenish what was lost. If there isn’t enough moisture in the soil, or if it is hot enough that the plant can’t replace lost water fast enough, the plant will wilt. Often, plants wilt during the heat of the day but recover when temperatures cool in the evening. If a plant looks peaked and wilted early in the morning, it needs water. If a plant looks fine in the morning, but droopy in the afternoon, check it the next morning. Here are some more tips on keeping your plants alive during this extreme heat.

Water wisely

  • Early morning between is the best time to water. This decreases evaporative water loss and conserves water.
  • Avoid brief, frequent watering which leads to shallow roots systems that are more susceptible to drought and temperature extremes.
  • Irrigate the soil deeply and infrequently. Apply enough water each week to wet a sandy soil 12” deep and a clay soil 6-8” deep.
  • Avoid watering foliage; water the soil at plant base. Sun heats the water on leaves resulting in scorch or burn and increasing the possibility of fungal diseases.
  • Make sure your soil drains properly. Poorly drained, soggy soil conditions combined with hot weather can wipe out a plant in a matter of days.
  • Plants in containers, new plants, and those in particularly hot, sunny places may require more water. Move containers to shady areas and closer to the house so they are easier to water.

Don’t forget the fruits and veggies! Ripe fruit (tomatoes, melons, peppers, etc) require large amounts of water from your plants. To reduce heat and water stress on your heavily-producing plants, harvest your ripe fruit frequently and thoroughly (including damaged fruits).Harvest during the cooler hours of the day is not just easier on the gardener but also on the produce. Strong midday sun can wilt or dry out your crops, so move them out of the sunlight and bring them to a cooler location as soon as possible.

Provide shade if needed. You can create temporary shade structures by hanging shade “sails” or shade cloth that is available at most hardware and garden centers. Burlap or other cloth types work just as well as long as there is airflow. Use plant stakes or tomato cages to support the temporary structures. You can also repurpose your rarely-used umbrellas to provide some shade.

What about the lawn? If you must go out and mow your lawn there are a few things to keep in mind. Mow turf at a taller height; never cut more than 1/3 of the blade. Taller grass height results in deeper root systems which helps turf in heat and drought. You can leave clippings on lawn to reduce evaporative water loss from soil and to provide moisture and nutrients to turf as they decompose.

Everything else can wait. There are other things that can be done out in the garden to help conserve water, but not during the extreme heat we are having this week. When it cools down go out and pull the weeds that are competing not only for nutrients but water as well. Adding 2-4 inches of mulch around your plants can help retain moisture, keep the soil cool and help reduce weeds. Compost can help soil to retain more water. In addition, a healthy soil full of beneficial soil organisms, such as mycorrhizal fungi, helps plants to better tolerate drought. Wait until the heat wave is over for any heavy pruning and fertilizing of ornamentals, shrubs and trees.

Take it easy. This is not the time for hardcore gardening or planting anything new. Do the basics early in the day or in the evening and then head indoors or to the pool.

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


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Giving Water Two Lives

This garden is watered by wastewater, or "graywater," from a washing machine.

With the departure of winter rains, most of us have had to turn on the sprinklers by now to help plants thrive in our hot, dry summers. However, we can minimize water use in the landscape with practices such as choosing low-water use plants, applying mulch, and efficient irrigation practices. You can also reuse household water, or “graywater,” in the landscape, which is a great way to get more bang for your buck.

Graywater can be summed up as everything but the kitchen sink (and the toilet); wastewater from showers, bathroom wash basins, and washing machines can all be used. Water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers have high levels of organic matter, and a correspondingly higher potential for pathogens so are not permitted as graywater sources without treatment before reuse.

Although redirecting wastewater from bathtubs and sinks requires a permit, homeowners can install a system connecting their washing machine to the garden without a permit. Also known as laundry-to-landscape, there are 13 do’s and don’ts mandated by Chapter 15 of the California Plumbing Code. They won’t all be listed here, but they boil down to minimizing contamination. A full list of California’s codes and policies for graywater can be viewed at

The specific layout of your system will vary, depending on the set-up of your washing machine and landscape. All systems are required to have a diversion with a three-way valve, which sends the wastewater either out to the garden or to the sewer/septic system. This allows you to keep water that may contain certain chemicals or biohazards (e.g. diaper wash water) from entering your landscape. Once the diversion pipe exits the house, it is sent to a mulch basin which consists of an outlet chamber in which mulch replaces the top several inches of soil. There needs to be air space between the drain outlet and the mulch surface so that roots do not grow back into the pipe. Details and other considerations for laundry-to-landscape systems can be found at

When deciding if you want to install a graywater system, consider what you will be irrigating. Fruit trees are great because they require regular watering. In a hot climate such as ours, a medium-sized fruit tree can use 30-50 gallons of water a week. Ornamental shrubs and trees with moderate to high water requirements are also great, but low-water use plants will not like being watered several times a week. It is possible to water lawns with graywater via subsurface drip irrigation, but installation can be expensive and you need to generate a lot of graywater in order to break even. It’s better to grow fruit trees and turn that used water into food!

To irrigate trees, a branched drain system can be added. This will disperse water from the outlet chamber to a mulch basin surrounding the tree. If you have an established tree, it is best to dig a basin around the drip line (the outer edge of the canopy), which is where the plant’s feeder roots are. Roots closer to the trunk are larger, and cutting into them causes more damage. For heavier soils, make sure the the tree is elevated above the basin so that water does not collect around the crown, creating the potential for rot.

If you are only running a couple loads of laundry a week with an efficient front-load machine, then this system may not be worth the effort. If you find that you do not produce much wastewater (which is great) but still want to use a laundry-to-landscape system, direct the water to shallow-rooted plants. If you put small amounts of water around a deep-rooted tree, it won’t benefit much. Some plants are more sensitive to salts than others and could be damaged with the constant application of graywater. Azaleas and strawberries are two examples of salt-sensitive plants.

An important rule of thumb for graywater systems is that what goes in must come out. Certain chemicals in laundry products can be harmful to plants, especially if applied over the long term. Chlorine is often added to bleach, which can cause new foliage to look bleached. Boron is sometimes added to detergents under the name borax, but also damages foliage by causing leaf edges to look burnt. If you need to use products that could potentially harm your plants, use that three-way valve to send the wastewater out to the sewer instead. A list of landscape-safe cleaning products can be found at

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

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The pros and cons of landscape mulches

Mulches have long been considered an important component of aesthetically pleasing and environmental friendly gardens. However, not all mulches are created equal.

The best mulches (when properly applied) can conserve water, suppress weeds, regulate soil temperature, control erosion, and contribute to the health of both plants and soil. Conversely, inferior materials can be harmful and create problems in the garden.

There are two categories of mulch: (1) organic, made from once-living, carbon-based materials; and (2) inorganic, made from synthetic materials or non-living natural materials. Organic mulches are superior to inorganic ones for several reasons. They eventually decompose, and this decay supplies nutrients to plant roots and improves soil texture (especially important for clay). They don’t introduce foreign, non-biodegradable materials into the soil. And, although they need to be replenished periodically, they’re the most effective at cooling the soil.


Bark mulches. These come in many forms—shredded, large chunks, small nuggets—each with distinct qualities. Mulches of cedar and redwood bark decompose slowly and have natural insect repelling properties. Shredded bark products knit together in mats that resist shifting but can repel water. Bark chunks are the longest lasting and most water permeable. All are attractive and beneficial to the garden ecosystem.

Organic wood mulch in a thriving, low water use garden (Kathy Ikeda)

Recycled wood. Black- or reddish-dyed wood mulches have become popular lately, and they’re often cheaper than other wood products. They’re generally made from chipped scrap lumber, so it’s important to use a source that doesn’t incorporate painted or chemically treated wood. Avoid heat-retaining, black colored mulch in sunny areas.

Wood chippings. Some tree trimmers, electrical utilities, and landfills with green waste disposal facilities offer wood chippings free of charge to homeowners. Use caution with such sources, and do your best to verify that the material is free of diseases and weed seeds. As an alternative, rent a chipper and reuse your own pruned branches.

Other. Weed-free straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves, and pine needles can be used as mulch, but they decompose rapidly and are most appropriate for small areas or vegetable gardens.


Stone mulches. Natural materials such as rocks, pebbles, and gravel are long lasting, moisture conserving, and attractive, but they have limited usefulness in San Joaquin County’s broiling summer climate. Stone absorbs and retains the sun’s energy, then transfers heat to the soil and radiates it to nearby plants, even after air temperatures drop. This stresses plants, damages their bark and/or foliage, and leads to a need for excessive irrigation. Stone mulches are also difficult to clean of fallen leaves and other organic matter, and drip irrigation systems are very difficult to maintain and repair when covered with rock. Use stone mulches only in cactus and succulent gardens, dry streambeds and pathways, or shady areas with few plants.

Rubber mulch. This is made from recycled tires, and although it’s very water-permeable and comes in a variety of colors, it’s better suited for playgrounds than landscapes. It retains heat, is more flammable than wood, and can leach potentially toxic chemicals into the ground and water. Also, the durable rubber chunks eventually settle into the soil, creating an unfavorable environment for plants and their roots.

Black plastic sheeting. Once widely used for weed control, black plastic is impermeable and severely restricts air and water penetration into the soil. It also tears easily, leaving an unsightly and difficult-to-clean mess. It’s best used as a short-term soil covering for vegetable gardens, where it can reduce weed growth and warm the soil early in the planting season.

Geotextiles or landscape fabrics. These porous materials do allow pass-through of air and water. They’re typically used as underlayment beneath inorganic mulches, but they’re entirely unnecessary under organic mulches and are detrimental to soil health. Those containing UV inhibitors are more durable, but all will eventually deteriorate and leave non-biodegradable pieces of polypropylene in the soil.

Once you’ve selected your preferred mulch, here are a few important considerations:

  • Irrigate the soil thoroughly before covering it with mulch.
  • Apply mulches on top of (not incorporated into) the soil in a layer deep enough to retain moisture and minimize light penetration: 3 to 4 inches for coarsely texture mulches, 2 to 3 inches for finer ones.
  • Keep mulch several inches away from plants. Mulches placed directly against tree trunks or up to the “crown” of shrubs can encourage rot or pest infestation.
  • Leave a sizeable patch of bare, sunny, well-drained soil for ground-nesting native bees. These beneficial pollinators won’t tunnel through mulch, and they need areas undisturbed by cultivation or pesticides.
  • For the most efficient irrigation, convert overhead sprinklers to drip systems placed under the mulch. Water from sprinklers must be applied longer and in greater quantities in order to penetrate a layer of organic mulch and reach plant roots.
  • Don’t use mulch in areas where it could be washed off curbs and into storm drains during heavy rains.

Improper and damaging "mulch volcanoes" at the bases of recently planted trees (Mississippi State University)

For more information, see these resources: “Types of Mulch” and “Types and Uses of Mulch in the Landscape

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

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Controlling snails and slugs

How many times have you wandered into your garden on a cool weekend morning, only to discover telltale slime trails, holes chewed in the leaves of just-planted ornamentals, or vegetable seedlings chewed to the ground? Or worse yet, walked unsuspectingly down a pathway only to smash a slimy slug or crunch a juicy snail beneath your feet?

Common garden snails and slugs are such ubiquitous pests that the battle to control them never ends. This year, soaking rains and lush new plant growth have provided a plentiful selection of tender morsels for them to eat.

Brown garden snail and damage on citrus fruit. (Photo courtesy of the University of California)

Gray garden slugs (Photo by Jack Kelly Clark, UC IPM)

The most common snails and slugs in our California gardens are non-native; in fact, the brown garden snail was originally introduced to the U.S. as food. But, since most folks would rather not snack on them, let’s look at other ways to reduce their population!

Cultural control methods involve eliminating the environmental conditions that snails and slugs prefer. When possible, replace plants susceptible to chewing damage with others that resist the pests, such as California poppy, lantana, lavender, ornamental grasses, rosemary, sages, and stiff-leaved or woody plants. Switch from sprinklers to drip irrigation to minimize excess surface moisture. Watch for dark, damp hiding places and modify them to be less attractive.

One very effective method of reducing snail and slug populations is to hand pick them regularly. It’s best to do this after dark, early in the morning, or after a period of rain or irrigation, since snails and slugs are nocturnal and most active in moist conditions. Picking up snails by their hard shells is relatively easy. Slugs are another matter; when disturbed, they contract their muscles and exude slime to become slippery, almost-impossible-to-grip lumps. Try scooping them up with an old spoon or a latex-gloved hand.

If you find hand-picking too distasteful, try enlisting your children or grandchildren in a nighttime “treasure hunt.” Kids armed with flashlights and a ready-made disposal system (a small pail or zip-closure plastic bag partially filled with soapy water) can turn the search into a fun contest.

Barriers are a method of non-lethal snail and slug control. Copper barriers are most effective at keeping the pests away from treasured plants; the metal reacts with slime secretions to create a shock-like sensation. Buy copper flashing, foil, or mesh, trim it into strips, then wrap it around tree trunks and containers or place it along the edges of planter beds. Copper sulfate (alone or mixed with hydrated lime) can also be brushed on surfaces as a repellant.

Abrasives substances that irritate the muscular “foot” of snails and slugs can also be used as barriers. Simply place dry ashes or food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on the soil around planting areas, in bands about 3 inches wide. This technique is best used in small garden areas (since the abrasives must be used in relatively large quantities) and in areas that don’t get wet (since they lose their effectiveness when damp). Be sure the area you encircle is free of snails and slugs or you will keep them near the plants you’re trying to protect.

Traps can also be an easy and effective method of control. One approach is to place wooden boards or overturned pots on the ground. Snails and slugs will hide underneath them during the night, and in the morning they can be scraped off and disposed of.

Beer traps are another non-toxic method of attracting and killing snails and slugs, but they have a few disadvantages. They must be cleaned and refilled frequently; they only work within a radius of a few feet, since it’s the odor of fermented sugar that attracts the fleshy pests; and lots of traps are needed to reduce snail/slug populations. Rather than using a perfectly good beverage, make a concoction that will ferment and entice just as effectively as beer. Measure one tablespoon each of yeast, flour, and sugar, mix with one cup of water, and pour into high-walled containers with narrow openings.

Low-toxicity baits are another option for snail and slug control. Pellets or granules containing iron phosphate (Sluggo, Escar-Go) are the safest for children, pets, and wildlife. Sprinkle them around affected plants—do not mound bait in piles—and always follow application instructions.

Avoid poisonous means of snail and slug control whenever possible. Many products contain metaldehyde, which is attractive and very toxic to dogs, cats, birds, and other wildlife. Never place these baits where children or pets can reach them, and do not apply them on or near plants, especially those being grown for food. Don’t use metaldehyde-based products that also contain carbaryl, since it’s toxic to earthworms and other beneficial soil-dwelling organisms.

For more specific information and guidance, see U.C. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Publication 7427, “Snails and Slugs” (

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


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Creating a Hummingbird Habitat

Do you love to watch hummingbirds fly around your garden? Many gardeners are fascinated with the beauty and aerobatics of hummingbirds. The key to attracting hummingbirds to your yard is to plant lots of flowers and provide the habitat that will give them shade, shelter, food, and security. These birds are loyal and once they find a habitat that satisfies their needs, they faithfully return year after year. Feeding hummingbirds for your personal enjoyment also helps the eco-system. These birds are pollinators and play an important role in the life cycle of flowering plants.

Did you know: There are 340 species of hummingbirds (16 of which actually breed in the United States) making them the second most diverse bird family on earth. Hummingbirds are the tiniest of all birds, weighing less than an ounce and measuring only 3 inches long. Their brightly-colored, iridescent feathers and quick movements make them appear as living sun catchers—hence their nickname, flying jewels. They have a unique ability to fly in any direction, even backward, with their wings beating up to 80 beats per second.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating a hummingbird habitat.

Location: Before you start planting a hummingbird garden, the first thing that needs to be picked out is the location. The hummingbird garden needs to be positioned where you can see it; otherwise, what is the fun of attracting the hummingbirds in the first place.

Flowers: Brightly–colored flowers that are tubular hold the most nectar, and are particularly attractive to hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are very visual creatures and have excellent vision and do not rely on smell. The best hummingbird gardens will include flowers that bloom at different times so hummingbirds always have an available food source, no matter when they visit. Make sure to deadhead spent flowers to enhance blooming.

Water: Hummingbirds need water to drink and to bathe. They prefer moving water sources such as sprinklers, fountains, waterfalls, misters and drippers and will often perch in a spray or fly through moving water to cool off or bathe. A small birdbath or even a shallow bowl with rocks works very well for hummingbirds to perch and drink water. All types of water sources should be kept fresh and clean. Position the water near nectar-rich flowers to make it even more attractive to hummingbirds.

Feeders: Nectar feeders are one of the most common ways to attract hummingbirds to your yard. A wide range of feeder styles is available and may come with wasp, hornet and ant guards. They are often colored red to help attract hummingbirds.

Hummingbird feeders impose a responsibility on the provider. To be safe, they must be clean, and that is a challenge in hot weather. The solution should be changed at least every other day, even if no hummingbirds are using it, so that it doesn’t ferment or get moldy. Every filling, you should flush the feeder with hot tap water and clean with a tooth brush or bottle brush. Most experts advise against using soap or detergent.  If all this is too much trouble, just plant the flowers and skip the artificial feeders. You’ll still attract hummingbirds, and you won’t be harming them with unsanitary feeders.

Nectar is easy to make for your feeders.  Boil four cups of water and stir in one cup of white sugar, let it cool and pour into clean feeders. It is recommended to avoid honey, which can cause a fatal fungal infection on the birds’ tongues. You do not need to add food coloring to the solution, the red color on the feeder is sufficient. If your feeder does not have any red on it, attach red flagging tape to the feeder or hanger. You can store the excess syrup in the refrigerator for a week or two. If the ants find your feeder you can apply petroleum jelly to the wire hanger to prevent them from getting to the nectar.

Hummingbirds are territorial and are not likely to share “their” feeders. So, hang more feeders far enough apart to attract more birds.

Insects: While hummingbirds are most well known for their fondness for nectar, they also eat a large quantity of insects, including gnats, aphids, and spiders. This protein is especially critical during the nesting season, when young hummingbirds need plenty of protein for proper growth. To attract hummingbirds to backyard insects, avoid using pesticides or insecticides that will kill off this food source.

Perches: Hummingbirds do not walk or hop but do perch about 80% of their life. Providing perches such as slender poles, clotheslines, thin vines, trellises, wires and multiple levels of shrubbery will give birds suitable shelter. At the same time, because many hummingbirds are very aggressive, they will prefer perches that also have good fields of view to protect their territories. A perch also supplies a spot “preening”, which is removing built up debris in their feathers.

Nesting Spots: Hummingbirds build their nests mostly in trees and shrubs. Providing sheltered, safe areas of plants for the birds to nest will make a backyard more attractive. You can supply suitable nesting materials including fine natural cotton and animal fur to attract nesting birds. Spider silk is especially attractive for nesting hummingbirds, because the elasticity of the silk is essential for their nests and female hummers use the silk to bind their nests together.

I hope you will think about trying to welcome these marvelous gifts of nature to your garden. With a few easy additions you can turn your yard into a hummingbird haven.

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


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    Lee Miller

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

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