Superb and spectacular sages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other excellent sages for Central Valley gardens are:

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

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

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

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New Zealand Garden Tour Finale

In the last report on our garden tour, I described some historic gardens in Hamilton. For me, it was one of the best parts of the trip, but there were still many excellent gardens to visit and I am sharing some of those with you today. Near Wellington we visited the Otari-Wilton’s Bush a Native Plant Garden and Forest which featured native plants large and small, and then we flew from Wellington to Queenstown on the South Island. Our first garden in Queenstown was Chantecler, a beautiful private estate garden where we got a glimpse of how New Zealand’s one-percent might enjoy life. The grounds were extensive and varied with hydrangeas in the shade and lavender, roses and fountains in the sunny spots.
Pam and I avoided the trip to Milford Sound choosing instead to recover at our hotel from the colds we caught from our fellow bus travelers, but we didn’t miss out on any gardens. After a long bus trip from Queenstown, our next stop was Glenfollach gardens in Dunedin. The most memorable part of this garden was the varied fuchsias which seem to thrive well all over New Zealand.
A fantastic venue was the Larnach Castle, a manor home built in the 1870’s by W.J. M. Larnach, a wealthy banker and politician, who, despite his fortune, committed suicide in 1898. The building itself was lavish with exquisite Victorian woodwork, tile and plaster features. It also had a spectacular view of the large bay at Dunedin Harbor as well as extensive and varied gardens.
We also visited the Dunedin Botanical Gardens which were fabulous with plants from Africa, South America and other areas as well as Rhododendrons, roses and other flower gardens and borders. It is a place that you could explore for more than a day. I was inspired to order and plant some Alstroemeria when I got home and likely will get some of the Tiger lilies too.
Trott’s garden was our next stop at Ashburton and it was a delightful garden of hedges and borders and one of our last garden was Ohinetihi in Christchurch which featured several large art pieces. There are so many gardens and hundreds of pictures I would love to share, but not enough room in this brief column. Soon I will be back to California garden issues–Happy gardening and garden travels.
If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website.

Fountain at Chantacler in Queestown, New Zealand

Otari-Wilton Bush Garden featured many native plants.

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A tour of New Zealand Gardens; Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

The Italian Renaissance garden featured Citrus, statuary and flowers.

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

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

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

The Char Bagh Garden

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

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

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

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Restoring California’s native oaks

Imagine for a moment what our valley looked like only two centuries ago.

Before the mass settlement of California, grizzly bears, herds of tule elk and deer, and sky-darkening flocks of migratory birds were common in what we now call San Joaquin County. Northern Valley Yokuts and Miwok communities lived and thrived within the oak woodlands and riparian forests. It was very different from today.

San Joaquin County is now part of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation and the world. But this transformation came at great expense. Vast oak woodlands were clear-cut so that the flat and fertile land could be farmed, and in the process, our local native people, flora, and fauna were largely decimated or displaced.

Oak trees native to our county include valley oak (Quercus lobata),blue oak (Quercus douglasii), black oak (Quercus kelloggii), interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii),and more. The genus nameQuercus is a Latin word derived from two Celtic words: “quer” and “cuez”, meaning fine and tree, respectively. Very appropriate, since oaks are indeed fine trees.

Oak Grove Regional Park in northwest Stockton preserves one of the few remaining natural stands of valley oak woodland in this county. Although it’s been somewhat altered by human activity, it remains intact because it was once part of a late 1880s cattle ranch. If you wander the trails in the southern part of the park on a quiet morning — doing your best to ignore the closely encroaching residential development and the nearby freeway — you can get a sense of what’s been lost elsewhere. Or wander the stands of oak riparian forest in other nearby preserves: the Lodi Lake Nature Area, Caswell Memorial State Park in south-central San Joaquin County, or the Cosumnes River Preserve in southwestern Sacramento County.

One of my favorite depictions of what this area used to look like is “Forest Monarchs,” a large and iconic oil painting created in the late 1800s by famed landscape artist Albert Bierstadt. His stunningly beautiful rendering captures a herd of deer in a wildflower-filled field studded with towering, majestic, old growth oak trees; a picturesque Central Valley scene long gone. You can view it for yourself in the Hull Gallery at the Haggin Museum.

As you might be able to guess, our state’s remaining oak habitat is precious — and it continues to disappear. In the last seven decades, more than 1 million acres have been lost due to land development, wildfire, disease, harvesting for firewood, and other forms of habitat destruction.

Most of California’s native oak trees, at their mature size, are too large for a typical city residential lot. But anyone who owns a large parcel, farmland, or rangeland can potentially accommodate one or more oaks on their property. And anyone at all, regardless of property ownership, can participate in oak reforestation efforts.

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) is one organization helping to restore lost oak habitat, through a project called Re-Oak California. Participants throughout the state can collect acorns from native oak species and/or assist in oak replanting efforts.

This restoration initiative was begun by CNPS less than two years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating 2017 wildfires in northern Bay Area counties. That initial Re-Oak Wine Country project was expanded to cover all of California in 2018.

The environmental benefits of the Re-Oak California initiative are incalculable. A single mature oak tree can support hundreds of other plant and animal species. Birds and small mammals nest, shelter, and find food in their canopies. Countless insect species, including valuable pollinators, rely on oaks for food, shelter, and reproduction. Numerous animal species feed upon their abundant acorns. Oaks also grow in close association with a variety of understory shrubs, annual plants, and native grasses. The list of benefits goes on and on… not to mention the sheer beauty of a mature oak.

According to the California Wildlife Foundation’s California Oaks project, “California’s oak woodlands sustain higher levels of biodiversity than virtually any other terrestrial ecosystem in the state. More than 300 species depend on oak woodlands for food and shelter.” 

Oaks also help lessen the impact of climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. A 2008 study by the California Oak Foundation found that, “oak woodlands and forests sequester and store atmospheric carbon in quantities that contribute to the health and well-being of Californians.” They also “sequester carbon in the form of understory shrubs, grasses and forbs, downed woody debris (decaying logs and twigs) and soil borne carbon (not including below ground tree root systems).”

To learn more about Re-Oak California, visit Sign up to receive email updates and to learn how to properly save and mail in acorns for replanting. This year’s acorn collection will begin in the fall; acorns and seedlings from the 2018 collection effort are still being planted and tended.

If you’d like to learn more about our state’s many oaks species, their specific growth habits, and oak conservation efforts:

  • See CNPS’s November 2018 Re-Oak California press release
  • Read the book “Oaks of California” by Bruce M. Pavlik et. al., published in 1991 by Cachuma Press and the California Oak Foundation.
  • Visit the website of California Oaks, a project of the California Wildlife Foundation, and check out their many online resources.

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

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A magnificent migration of painted ladies

If you’ve spent any time outside in the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed a greater than normal number of butterflies flitting past. You’ve been privileged to witness the largest migration of painted lady butterflies in nearly 15 years.

This miracle of nature was spawned by heavier than average winter and spring rainfall in the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. That rainfall triggered abundant plant growth and a “superbloom” of desert-region plants, which in turn encouraged an explosion in the population of the painted lady butterflies that rely on these plants.

Millions of painted ladies are now migrating from their starting points through California to locations in the northwest U.S.: Oregon, Washington, and some even as far as Alaska. It’s an unimaginably long journey for such a small and seemingly delicate creature. 

Professor Arthur Shapiro from the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California at Davis has studied butterfly migration for decades. He explains that the entire North American population of painted ladies butterflies migrates to the deserts of southeast California, West Texas and northern Mexico during the winter. When the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the local annual plants. Once they transform into adult butterflies, they begin flying north. They can live up to six weeks, but most don’t live that long. There are waves of migration: the first generation flies to northern California; the butterflies stop to breed; and the next generation(s) continue the journey to the Pacific Northwest.

These butterflies tend to fly low and fast (up to 25 mph), hugging open fields and flying sharply up and down to clear obstacles in their way. Their erratic flight is even more attention getting when their numbers are so great. A reserve of abdominal fat fuels each butterfly’s travel, and the insect stops to reproduce only when that energy source is expended.

Painted ladies scientific name Vanessa cardui – are gorgeous butterflies. Their predominant color is orange, but both the upper and lower surfaces of their wings are vibrantly and intricately patterned with other colors including white, black, grey, and shades of brown from tan to rust. 

Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) feeding from rosemary flowers (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)

Swarms of these beautiful butterflies first arrived at my neighborhood on March 22. That morning, a friend and I travelled to CalExpo in Sacramento for a special visit to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show; by the time we returned to Stockton in the afternoon, countless painted ladies were fluttering down the streets, through yards, and over houses. It was an incredible and jaw-dropping sight.

The number of migrating painted ladies has decreased since then, but on calm sunny days many of these showy butterflies can still be seen in flight, stopping occasionally to rest.

For nearly three weeks, painted ladies have been visiting my garden to have a drink and take a breather before moving on. It’s been rewarding to watch them eagerly sip nectar from flowers and sun themselves with open wings. They seem especially attracted to the rosemary plants in full bloom (especially the Tuscan Blue variety) and the Bees’ Bliss sage (a California native Salviahybrid). 

And now, a bit of science.

Butterflies can be broadly grouped into two categories: generalists and specialists. Generalists are those types of butterflies whose caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of different plants. Specialists, on the other hand, are butterflies whose caterpillars rely on a single kind of “host plant” for their food. (Adult butterflies, the pretty flying insects we so love, don’t factor into this categorization because they sip nectar from many species of flowers.)

The painted lady butterfly is a generalist, since its caterpillars can feed on many different plants; they favor plants in the mallow, thistle, and borage families. On the other hand, some of our most common native butterflies are specialists. The iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)is the best-known specialist; its caterpillars only eat leaves of milkweed plants (Asclepiasspecies). Caterpillars of the stunning, iridescent, blue-black pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor)feed only on leaves of pipevine plants (Aristolochiaspecies). 

Unfortunately, the fact that painted ladies are thriving this year doesn’t mean that other native butterfly species are faring well. Many butterfly species, including monarchs, are in serious decline. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change all pose serious threats to the survival of butterflies and other pollinating insects.

You can help to reverse this sad trend by using ecologically safe gardening practices and filling your garden with butterfly-friendly plants. Nectar-rich flowers preferred by adult butterflies include a variety of California natives (asters, buckwheats, coyote mint, goldenrods, milkweeds, salvias, sunflowers) and introduced landscape plants (butterfly bush, cosmos, lantana, lavender, lilac, marigolds, pincushion flower, and rosemary).

Planting a garden to attract and nourish butterflies can be a rewarding experience. When you choose plants specifically to encourage butterflies and other pollinators, it helps restore lost natural environment and results in a garden with an assortment of beautiful plants and year-round bloom. What could be better? 

A few excellent resources for the budding butterfly gardener are:

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

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A tour of New Zealand gardens-Part 1.

New Zealand dahlias were mostly single or colarette and were developed there,

In January, Pam and I were fortunate to get included on a garden tour of private and public gardens in New Zealand. The tour was sponsored by the Northwest Horticultural Society located in Seattle and organized by Earthbound Expeditions which is also headquartered in Washington. There were 32 of us and we all managed to meet at the Grand Mercure hotel in Auckland on Jan 14 to start our garden adventure.

There were seven Master Gardeners, five garden designers, a retired flower farmer and two expert horticulturists who were very good at plant identification. They knew their plants whereas some of us were disadvantaged in this department, as the many native plants of New Zealand are pretty unique along with their exotic names. There were also 4 people who worked for or had retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service and I felt a kinship with them as I had worked in Fisheries for the State of California.

There were several spouses who were along for just the experience of seeing New Zealand, an exotic nation too far away for a casual visit. In addition to gardens, we also visited a Maori cultural center in Rotorua where we were an audience for mini-lectures on Maori culture as well as cultural dances and songs. After which we enjoyed a buffet dinner, so it was not all just about gardens. We traveled by bus and also got to see much of the countryside on both the North Island and South Island.

I noticed that Agapanthus was growing everywhere, so I thought it was the national flower. Actually the nation flower is the Kowhai (Sophora tetraptera), a yellow flower produced on an evergreen tree. I saw a lot more Agapanthus naturalizesd along all the roads. It is considered an invasive plant, not the national flower, although I can think of many worse invasive plants. For example, I found Vinca major, an old nemesis of mine, growing in a least two of the private gardens we visited and they are as unlikely to get rid of it as I was in my previously owned landscape.

New Zealand folks have made many bad decisions in an attempt to make New Zealand more like England. They imported hundreds of plants as well as birds and deer from England and created some serious ecological problems. They are now very strict with regard to plants and animals coming into the country having established a strict Biosecurity Act in 1993.

The common Bushtail possum, a nocturnal native of Australia, was introduced into New Zealand in the 1850’s to establish a fur industry, but it thrived with no predators and a mild climate. It has become a major orchard and garden pest. There are an estimated 30 million of them in New Zealand now down from 60 million as they are either poisoned or trapped. A cottage industry of blending possum fur with Merino wool is done to make a soft yarn for knitting and for sweaters. My wife, who loves to knit, bought some. We all seem to learn a little late about invasive plants and animals.

One of my many learning experiences was the discovery of many unusual dahlias in the gardens. I later learned that they have been bred in New Zealand by plant breeder Keith Hammett. Subsequently, I ordered some ‘Sunflower’ dahlia seeds from him, to see if I can grow a few here. They are mostly of the single or colarette form. Several of the dahlias had striking dark foliage. Only a few dahlias available here have such foliage.  

We got to visit about 21 gardens and they were spectacular in so many ways. Some of the large private gardens belonged to New Zealand’s wealthier citizens and some were small cottage gardens. All were works of long term, passionate gardening dedication. We visited two such cottage gardens that were crammed with flowers as well as some edibles.

Colorful front garden of Robyn Kilty in Christchurch.

Backyard of the cottage garden featuring ferns, flax and tiles.

The garden of Robyn Kilty in Christchurch was full of perennial flowers and grasses in the front yard of her 1865 worker’s cottage.  The side yard had an apricot, large ferns, flax, and several tile mosaics. The cottage managed to survive the 2011 Christchurch earthquake despite the chimney toppling through the roof into the living room. Robyn fortunately was not in the living room making her one lucky gardener.

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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Straw bale gardening

Do you want to your own vegetables, but have minimal garden space, poor or heavy clay soil, or limited financial resources? Do you manage or want to begin a school or community garden, but need to start small or stretch limited funding? Do you want to give your children a fun adventure in growing their own food or flowers? Straw bale gardening could be the perfect solution for you.

Using straw bales as a planting medium is an effective and easy method of soil-less gardening. It allows anyone to grow a variety of plants — vegetables, strawberries, annual flowers, and bulbs — without the need to build and fill raised beds or purchase expensive pots and potting soil. It’s essentially container gardening without a container!

If you prefer a meticulously tidy yard with a showcase appearance, straw bale gardens might not be for you. They certainly have a rustic, less-kempt appearance than gardens with tiers of decorative pots or wooden raised beds. On the other hand, even a well-manicured garden can accommodate a bale or two concealed behind a low hedge or thigh-high shrubs. Half the joy is in the experiment

When starting a bale garden, be sure to buy straw bales, not hay bales. Hay is usually grown as animal feed and contains entire green plants (timothy, alfalfa, wheat, etc.), including the seedheads; straw is the dry, hollow, leftover stalks of those same plants, a harvest byproduct without seeds. Look for dense, dry, heavy bales. Consider buying your bales from an organic farmer to ensure that the straw isn’t contaminated by pesticides or other chemicals.

The key to success with straw bale gardening is pre-conditioning of the bale before planting, using only water and fertilizer. Seedlings planted in a dry, unconditioned bale are likely to die.

Before beginning the conditioning process, place your bale(s) in a carefully chosen and sunny location. Straw bales are large and unwieldy, and they’re virtually impossible to move once they’re saturated with water. Sunlight is critical for a vegetable garden; the site should receive at least 6 to 8 hours of full, direct sun every day.

If using more than one bale, place them end-to-end in a north-south orientation for best efficiency and sun exposure. Space rows four to six feet apart. (For a garden on a slope, align the bales so they point downhill, not across the slope, to prevent them from tipping over.)

When positioning the straw bales, turn them on edge so the baling strings are on the sides, not on the top and bottom. Also, orient the bales so that the cut ends of the straw (not the folded parts) are pointed up, to allow for maximum penetration of water and fertilizer.

Locate your straw bale garden near an easily accessible water source. Perforated soaker hoses laid on top of the bales are the best form of season-long irrigation. Avoid sprinklers, because wet leaves encourage plant diseases.

Straw bale demonstration garden by Marin County UC Master Gardeners (Courtesy UCANR)











Straw bale gardens are safe to establish atop paved surfaces and septic system drainage fields. “Wasted space” can become productive and healthy. About the only places these gardens shouldn’t be placed are on wooden decks or contaminated soil.

You will need about a pound of standard lawn fertilizer with at least 20% nitrogen to condition each straw bale. DON’T use fertilizers that contain herbicides. For organic gardening, use about three pounds of organic fertilizer (e.g. blood meal or fish emulsion) per bale, along with a source of phosphorus (bone or fish meal) and potassium (wood ash or kelp meal); mix thoroughly before application.

The conditioning process is simple. Use lukewarm (not cold) water and follow these steps:

Day 1— Saturate each bale with water until it starts to come out of the bottom. Evenly sprinkle each bale with ½ cup lawn fertilizer or 3 cups organic fertilizer, and water thoroughly.

Day 2— Water thoroughly

Day 3— Fertilize and water as on Day 1, skipping the initial saturation

Day 4— Water thoroughly

Day 5— Fertilize and water as on Day 3

Day 6 — Water thoroughly

Days 7, 8, and 9 — Apply ¼ cup lawn fertilizer or 1½ cup organic fertilizer, then water

Day 10— Apply 1 cup of balanced 10-10-10 garden fertilizer (10% each of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) to each bale. Water around the cracks in the bales to keep from washing out the fertilizer.

Days 12 to 18— It might not look like it, but the internal conditioning process has progressed enough to allow planting. Use a clean hand trowel to make holes in the bale. Carefully plant your seedlings, gently filling in around each of them with a handful of sterile planting mix (NOT regular, unsterile garden soil).

Over time, the combined action of water, fertilizer, and naturalmicrobes converts the interior of the bale into a moist, loose, nutrient rich, and nicely warm growing medium suitable for tender young plant seedlings. The twine-bound exterior stays relatively dry and acts as a “container.” Water plants regularly and fertilize monthly.

Worms and mushrooms in or on a bale are not a problem; in fact, they’re a sign that decomposition is progressing well.

In the San Joaquin and Sacramento County area, the month of March is a good time to begin conditioning hay bales for a summer vegetable crop. April is a prime month to plant seedlings of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and early season lettuce, so if you start conditioning your bales in mid- to late-March they’ll be ready for planting at just the right time.

Straw bale gardens have many advantages. They’re very productive because they provide an ideal growing environment. They’re great for root crops such as carrots, radishes, onions, and potatoes that need loose soil; when mature, break open the bale to harvest. Because they’re 20 to 24 inches above ground level, straw bale gardens are ideal for people who have trouble stooping or bending over. They also need no weeding, and they eliminate problems caused by soil borne diseases.

Another benefit of straw bale gardening is that there’s virtually no waste. When the bales start to fall apart, the leftover stalks make good mulch, and the rich, decomposed center material is a wonderful soil amendment. Reuse both in your garden, and all you need to dispose of is the binding twine.

Straw bale vegetable garden at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, the demonstration garden of the Sacramento County UC Master Gardeners. (Courtesy UCANR)














The authority on straw bale gardening is Joel Karsten. He has authored two books on the topic  — “Straw Bale Gardens” and “Straw Bale Solutions” — and his website ( is an excellent resource. You can also find him on YouTube; search for the videos entitled “Straw Bale Garden Basics with Joel Karsten” and “Let’s end world hunger with the straw bale gardens method.” And, be sure to read UCANR Publication 8559, “Gardening with Straw Bales.”

Even one straw bale and a few vegetable plants can provide plenty of nutritious, tasty, home grown produce for your diet. Mr. Karsten recommends using five straw bales per person to supply all of a family’s produce needs during the growing season. However many bales you use, enjoy the experiment!

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





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How to prune two popular grass-like plants

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how to prune ornamental grasses. This article covers a similar topic: how to care for two widely used and loved perennial plants that resemble oversized grasses.

New Zealand flax (Phormium species)

There are only two species of Phormium, but there are lots of named cultivars and hybrids with different sizes and leaf colors. In fact, these plants (which are not true flaxes) are grown primarily for their foliage. Their evergreen leaves are fairly narrow, stiff, and sword-like, with parallel veins and sharply pointed ends; they can be either upright, arching, or in between. Each plant forms only one to a few tall flower stalks, which emerge in late spring to early summer and rise above the foliage. They bear many nectar-rich, tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds. For more information on Phormiums, see this article by Sonoma County Master Gardeners.

African iris or “fortnight lily” (Dietes species)

These evergreen plants are in the iris family; they aren’t lilies as one of their common names suggests. Their leaves are narrow, dark green and strap-like, and they grow in large, compact masses. The two species most often grown in our area are Dietes iridioides, which has six-petaled white flowers with yellow and purple accents, and Dietes bicolor, which has cream colored flowers with maroon accents. They’re grown both for their attractive leaves and pretty flowers.

Pruning advice

Like ornamental grasses, the leaves of these plants emerge from central, ground level “crowns”; there are no branches. Each leaf grows from a small clump, and the plants are formed from many tightly packed clumps.

Both of these plants are dramatic in appearance, but if the leaves are cut partway off their beautiful form will be severely disfigured. Phormium and Dietes plants aren’t meant to be trimmed like hedges or balls, because that ruins their naturally elegant, fountain-like look. If the tapered ends of the leaves are sheared off, they won’t grow back, resulting in a plant full of persistently ugly, straight-cut leaves. Knowledgeable plant people consider such treatment a “crime against horticulture.”

Once Phormium and Dietes species are improperly pruned, the only options for regaining natural-looking, attractive plants are to: (1) replace the plants entirely or (2) undertake several years’ worth of corrective pruning. If attempting to save such injured plants, remove mangled leaves little by little over a period of months or years, depending on the extent of damage.

You might remember that most ornamental grass species benefit from a seasonally appropriate and severe pruning to just a few inches above ground level every one to two years. DO NOT prune the above-listed plants in that fashion; it will severely damage them or even kill them.

The correct way to prune Phormium and Dietes plants is by hand, cutting the leaves off at the base, as close as possible to the ground without damaging other parts of the plant. When pruning, be sure to use very sharp pruners for clean cuts, since the leaves are tough and fibrous. Also, wear gloves and eye protection to guard against injury from the sharp terminal points of the leaves. Dead foliage can sometimes be pulled out rather than cut off, but be careful that you don’t pull out an entire living clump along with the dead leaves.

For some excellent advice and nice visual guidance on pruning Phormiums, watch this YouTube video. The same techniques apply to Dietes plants.

Incorrectly pruned African iris (Dietes iridioides) at Micke Grove Regional Park, compared to the same plant in full bloom and natural form (with a Phormium in the background). (Photos © Kathy Ikeda)















The flowering stalks of these plants, when left to grow naturally, add a lot of visual interest. However, incorrect hedge-type trimming destroys the blooming parts of these plants and eliminates much of their seasonal beauty and wildlife value. The flower stalks of Phormium and Dietes plants are very different, and they require different pruning methods.

The tall flower spikes of Phormium plants only last for a year, and they can be pruned out at the base of the plant when the blooms are spent and the stalk is dry. As with the leaves, prune them out as close to the base as possible, or carefully pull them out if they are dried and break free from the plant easily.

The flowering stalks of Dietes plants — unlike those of Phormium — persist from year to year, and they often re-bloom. They should be left on the plant, and should only be removed if they die or are in an unwanted position. Once the flowers bloom, large, ovoid green seedpods form, each filled with numerous small black seeds. If the seed pods are left on the plant to dry, they pop open and disperse seeds to nearby areas. To prevent vigorous self-seeding, periodically pluck off the seedpods as they form.

I’d like to use this opportunity to promote a valuable resource here in our county: the Green Gardener program. Sponsored by the San Joaquin County Department of Public Works, Solid Waste Division, this training program educates landscapers in correct pruning practices, environmentally safe landscape management principles, water conservation, green waste reduction, and much more. It’s worthwhile for local public agencies and businesses to encourage their landscaping staff to attend this program, because properly trained individuals know how best to care for landscapes and avoid costly maintenance-related mistakes. It’s much cheaper in the long run to hire a knowledgeable professional than to replace plants or trees damaged or killed by improper care or outright butchering.

Far too many planted areas have been irreparably harmed by untrained landscapers who know how to operate mowers, blowers, and hedge trimmers, but know nothing about the acceptable care of plants. Landscape management should be treated with the respect accorded any other profession, both from the standpoint of those hiring the landscapers and from the perspective of those doing the job. I sometimes ask the question, “Would you hire an untrained person to do repair work on your home or to care for your child?”  The same caution and screening principles should apply to the gardening/landscaping world. Even homeowners should take care to hire well-trained gardeners.

My hope is that people will enjoy learning about their plants and give them the careful, loving treatment they deserve. It makes a world of difference, and results in more beauty in our lives!

A reminder: All past San Joaquin Master Gardener articles are available on The Record’s blog site “What’s Growing On.”

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Who are the UC Master Gardeners?

Are you growing food this year? Do you have bugs in your garden? Do you want to learn more about growing roses? If you are a gardener with questions or an interest in learning, it helps to have a credible source of information. Maybe you need someone to answer your questions about pests or plant diseases. Perhaps you need good advice on selecting low water plant varieties, tips on growing California natives or figuring out what is wrong with your peach tree.  For many people in our county, the San Joaquin UC Master Gardener volunteers have come to the rescue answering questions very similar to these. There are also many people that have no idea what we are about, what we are doing or how we can help so I thought I would give a little insight to our program.

Master Gardeners have a love of gardening and a passion to share it with others. Our current program began in 2007 after a 15-20 year hiatus in the county. I was hired as the program coordinator and have been part of the program since the beginning. We are able to have this program thanks to the generous support of the San Joaquin County Public Works Solid Waste Department and the funding we receive from the cities and county through AB939. The Master Gardener Program is part of the University of California, Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources. We are administered under the local Cooperative Extension office along with our adult and youth nutrition programs, farm advisors, master food preservers and 4-H programs.

Master Gardeners are more than just a garden club – although don’t get me wrong, we can talk about plants and bugs all day! San Joaquin UC Master Gardeners go through an extensive 19 week training (95 hours) on a variety of gardening topics from composting and entomology to plant diseases and propagation complete with weekly quizzes and a final exam. Once training is complete, our volunteers give back a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer service the first year they are active in the program. Every year after, they volunteer a minimum of 25 hours and attend 12 hours of continuing education classes to remain certified. Our volunteers get to pick the projects they want to get involved with and often come up with some really great and new projects and collaborations with local agencies and programs in our communities.

Our trained volunteers offer free science-based gardening information to people all over the county. We cover a wide array of gardening topics that make a difference in not only California’s landscape, but also the communities we serve.

Some major areas include:

  • Reduced green waste
  • Early detection of invasive pests, plants and diseases
  • Reduced spread of endemic pests
  • Improved water quality
  • Increased water conservation
  • Increased pollinator habitat
  • Improved nutrition (food gardening)
  • Improved emotional and physical health
  • Closer connection to community

Our Master Gardeners are involved in our community in many different ways. We educate the public about gardening at our free workshops, answer home horticulture questions in our helpline office, and are involved in school and community gardens. Master Gardeners can be found at many events throughout the county from festivals to farmers markets. We give presentations to garden clubs and other service organizations and invite the public out to our Learning Landscape at our Open Garden Day events. We share information via social and printed media. Our primary goal is to educate people about topics related to home horticulture, pest management, and sustainable landscape practices. Since the inception of our program, our volunteers have contributed over 56,000 volunteer hours in the county and have earned over 15,000 hours of continuing education.

We are all about teaching and learning, but we like to have fun also! Our Master Gardeners have started internal clubs on specific topics like herbs and garden related books. We have the opportunity to attend field trips and other special events that often aren’t open to the general public. One of the things I enjoy the most are the friendships that are made within the program. I always say that our Master Gardener volunteers are more like family.

If you have any gardening related questions or questions about our program, please give our helpline a call. If you have an idea for a potential collaboration, are looking for a garden related speaker or have any other questions, feel free to contact us. You can reach us at our helpline number at 209-953-6100 or by visiting our website at

Happy Gardening!


Timeline of the Cooperative Extension and UC Master Gardener Program

1862 – Sponsored by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, the Morrill Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.

1887 – The Hatch Act established Experiment Stations to develop “useful and practical information … and to promote scientific investigations and experiments.”

1914 – The Smith-Lever Act provided federal funds for cooperative administration of extension education by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the state land grant colleges.

1972 – Overwhelmed with calls from home gardeners, Dr. D. Gibby and Dr. A. Davison, Washington State University Cooperative Extension agents, established a group of trained volunteers and called them Master Gardeners.

1981 – The first UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Programs were established in Riverside and Sacramento counties.

2002 – The UC Master Gardener Program was officially recognized as a statewide program in California.

2007 – The San Joaquin UC Master Gardener Program begins and joins the other statewide programs located in 36 counties.

2016 – More than 5 million hours donated by UC Master Gardener volunteers since program inception, with a value of more than $137 million!

2019 – The San Joaquin UC Master Gardeners have contributed over 56,000 volunteer hours in the county and have earned over 15,000 hours of continuing education.


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Growing winter vegetables is fun and nutritious

A bed of lettuce will provide many salads

Our Central Valley’s wonderful climate is conducive to year around gardening, something the rest of the nation likely cannot relate to. I normally get my seeds at our local Lockhart seed store, but in July, I only needed a few seeds for my winter garden, so I went to a nearby big box store for some seeds. I couldn’t find a seed rack so when I asked, “Where are the seeds?” the clerk told me that corporate headquarters in North Carolina had ordered all the seed racks removed to make way for other merchandise. Apparently, garden seed planting season was over in North Carolina so that must be true for California. I subsequently went to another nearby big box store and it had three seed racks available. Their corporate headquarters is in Atlanta, farther south than NC, or maybe the management is just smarter.

I am a gardener who pays attention to holidays; rose pruning starts New Year’s Day, garlic planting just before Columbus Day and July Fourth is the time to plant the Brassicas for a winter garden. This seems an unlikely time to start a winter garden in the beginning of summer and that is likely why some gardeners miss out on starting their winter garden from seeds early enough.

I start my seeds in flats and keep them away from pests to the extent possible. However the cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae), a white butterfly with black dots on the wings can be counted on to show up. It is the most serious pest of Brassicas and they are a pest until cold weather sets in. They lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars that will devour Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower seedlings.

To foil them, you can spray the plants with BT which stands for Bacillus thurengeinsis, a bacterium that will kill the caterpillars.  It works by infecting the caterpillar’s gut with toxins that causes the caterpillar to stop eating and die in a couple of days. The good thing about it is that it is not toxic to mammals, birds, fish or fowl; a good organic pest killer.

The second organic way I reduce this pest is with a butterfly net which I use to catch and crush the adults before they lay many eggs. Fortunately, only about 4 per day showed up and I usually caught most of them. Sometimes the number of these adults is very high, but this past year not many were around. This is a good technic for a retired person like me who enjoys being in the garden, but not so good for people who work all day.

We have been enjoying broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts this winter.  We have also been enjoying lettuce. I start the seeds in flats in late July/early August and set the seedling out about 8 inches apart in raised beds for fall harvesting.  The lettuce grows fast and is ready for harvesting by late October and keeps going until a hard freeze in December or January. This year I planted Merveille des Quatre Saison, a French heirloom Bibb lettuce variety that has stood the test of time

Marveille des Quatre Saisons a delightful French heirloom lettuce

and is now widely available. It forms big heads of radiant color with beautiful ruby-red edged leaves surrounded by tightly folded green hearts.

Forrellenschluss and Lolla Rosa provide contrasting colors in a salad

I also planted Seed Saver’s Exchange ( lettuces; Grandma Hadley, a butterhead, which has dark purple fringe on leaf edges; and Rouge d’Hiver, a red romaine lettuce; Bunt Forellenschluss, an Austrian butterhead lettuce with maroon speckles. The translation of Forellenschluss is ‘speckled trout back’ and it is a very attractive lettuce. In the past I have grown several red varieties which add color to your salads. Red Sails, Red Velvet and Lolla Rossa are all attractive red lettuces.

These lettuces are just a few among many to choose from that are both gorgeous to look at as well as healthy and tasty.  If you have ever thrown out store-bought lettuce away, because it got on the contaminated-with- E.coli list, you can grow your own. It doesn’t take a lot of space and lettuce can handle some shade.

Rounding out my winter garden are garlic, yellow and red onions, arugula, Tuscan kale, chard, kohlrabi, sugar peas, sweet peas, and shogun turnips. As a former New Jersey farm boy, I never cease to be amazed and joyful at gardening year around in California.

I hope you are enjoying the produce from your winter gardening too, but if not there is always next 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:

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