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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It’s time for bare root planting

Have you been thinking of adding a fruit tree or two, some roses, or other productive plants to your garden? This is the perfect time for plants that are sold in “bare root” form.

Most deciduous fruit and nut trees are available bare root: almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, walnuts, and more. Other ornamental shrubs, fruiting vines, and perennial edibles are also available bare root: artichokes, asparagus, cane berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries), grapes, kiwis, roses, etc.

Commercial growers dig these trees and plants from the ground in late December when they’re dormant. The soil is washed off the roots, then the plants are bundled or packaged and shipped to local nurseries without pots. The roots are covered with a loose, moisture-retaining material such as peat moss, sawdust, fine wood shavings, or shredded paper to keep them from drying out.

The bare root season is short, lasting only from January through mid-February, so take advantage of this opportunity before it’s too late! (If you miss local bare root offerings, you might still find some plants by mail order through growers in colder climate areas of the country.)

There are several advantages to buying bare root plants:

  • Optimal Growth.  Bare root plants acclimate more readily to new soil conditions than do actively growing plants. Also, since they have no leaves or flowers to maintain, they can put all their energy into developing a strong root system after planting.
  • Low Weight.Because there is no heavy pot filled with soil, moving the plants from field to store to planting location is much easier.
  • Wide Selection. The variety of fruit trees and roses available now is much greater than during the warmer months of the year. Shop soon for the best selection.
  • Great Price.It’s much more efficient for growers to harvest, store, and ship plants in bare root form, and there is no supplemental cost for pots, planting soil, or the labor involved in potting. Therefore, it’s less expensive to get a bare root plant to market, and those cost savings are passed along to the consumer.

Before buying a bare root plant, inspect the root system carefully. Look for a healthy root system with an abundance of well-branched feeder roots. Avoid plants with dry and shriveled roots, rotting roots, badly kinked or broken roots, or roots that circle and girdle the base of the plant. If the roots are covered with plastic, examine any visible roots and make sure that the packaging is intact to prevent dried out roots.

Check the upper part of the plant too. The bark should be undamaged, and the trunk or branch structure should be sound. Rose plants should have at least three healthy canes. Some herbaceous (non-woody) bare root plants, such as artichokes and asparagus, are sold as funny-looking root balls without any top growth; don’t worry, new leaves will emerge a few weeks after planting.

Another consideration for stone fruit trees (with a single, large, hard seed) and pome fruit trees (with a core of small seeds, such as apples, pears, quince) is chill hours. These trees need a minimum number of hours below 45°F in order to break dormancy and achieve good flower formation and fruit set. In San Joaquin County, our average annual chill hours are about 1100 (data from 2013-2017), so check the plant label to make sure you buy appropriately.

It’s usually better to purchase from reputable nurseries with knowledgeable staff than from discount stores and big box chains. Unscrupulous retailers have been known to remove leaves from bare root plants so that they looked dormant when they aren’t. Emerging leaf buds or flowers mean that plants have come out of dormancy, and picking off their new growth robs the awakening plants of valuable energy.

Bare root plants should be planted in their permanent location as soon as possible after purchase, but rainy weather or busy schedules can interfere with the best of intentions. If immediate planting isn’t possible, you’ll need to keep the roots of your chosen plants from drying out or freezing. Loosely wrap the rootballs with wet burlap or newspaper, or place them in a pot full of fine, moist, sawdust or compost. Keep the plants outdoors in a cool location; avoid warm, bright places because they might think it’s spring and come out of dormancy.

Bare root fruit trees with opaque plastic packaging that prevents root inspection. These trees were improperly displayed in a warm, bright, interior location. (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)


















The best way to temporarily store bare root trees is by a process known as “heeling in.” Dig a shallow V-shaped trench in a protected, shady area of your yard. Remove any packaging from around the roots, then place the rootball into the trench so that it is entirely below ground, with the tree lying down against the side of but outside the trench. Cover the rootball with loose soil or sawdust, then water it lightly but frequently to keep it moist, not saturated. A wheelbarrow in the garage works well as a temporary storage “trench” too.

When you’re ready to put your bare root plants in the ground, choose a sunny location with well-drained soil. Prune out any damaged roots. Dig shallow holes only as deep as the rootballs, and 2 to 3 times as wide. While you’re digging, dunk the rootballs in a bucket of water to rehydrate them. (Don’t leave roots submerged for more than a few hours, because they need oxygen to survive.)

Trees should be planted with the graft union above the soil level and the crown or root flare at ground level; if planted too low, the crown will rot, and if too high, the rootball will dry out. Other bare root perennials should be planted on top of a cone of packed soil within the planting hole, with the roots spread out over the cone and the crown of the plant at ground level. Once the plants are in place, backfill the holes with native soil, gently tamp it down to eliminate any air pockets around the roots, then water.

There are many important considerations when planting a bare root tree or perennial, far too many to cover in detail here. Consult these excellent resources before you buy and plant your bare root treasures:

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

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Proper pruning of ornamental grasses

I have to admit, this article is about one of my pet peeves, plant butchering. I hope to educate homeowners and commercial landscapers about how the specific growth habits of different plants should dictate the appropriate pruning methods.

If you remember only one rule from this article, it should be this: some plants should NOT be sheared into unnatural balls or boxes!

This caveat especially applies to tall grass species and similar plants. Their leaves are showy, and if they’re chopped halfway off the attractive form of the plants will be ruined permanently or for many years to come. If grasses are “shaped” like hedges, the result is unsightly, ragged balls of half-length leaves from which the points of longer, newly emerged leaves stick out, looking like a horrible haircut.

Ornamental grasses and other plants with a similar appearance have characteristically long, narrow, strap-like leaves, and they’re frequently used as focal points in a landscape. Depending on the species, their foliage can be stiffly upright, gracefully arching, or tufted. They don’t have branches with leaves scattered along their length; instead, their leaves all emerge like a fountain from a central, ground level clump or “crown.” Their leaf buds are at the root-shoot junction at or near the soil level.

So how should these plants be properly maintained? Let’s start with the grasses.

Ornamental grasses can be grouped into two categories: warm season and cool season.  Each has different pruning needs.

Warm season ornamental grasses

Warm-season grasses grow best at temperature between 80 and 95°F. They grow robustly during spring and summer, flower in fall, and go dormant from late fall through early spring. Some commonly planted decorative species of warm season grass include Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Fountaingrass (Pennisetumspecies), and Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis).

As a general rule, warm season grasses need a pruning only once a year or less. Oftentimes, they can be “combed” with gloved hands or with a small rake to remove dead leaves and neaten their appearance, without the need for severe pruning. When grooming the plants, start at the base then pull upward to remove old growth. If necessary, the clumps can be renewed by cutting them down to a height of 2 to 4 inches (not flush to the ground, to protect the crowns).

The best time to cut back warm season grasses is in late winter or very early spring, just before fresh leaves begin to emerge. (The exact timing of new growth depends on climate and precipitation.) The exception to this seasonal trimming rule is if you live in a fire-prone area; in this instance, cut back dried grass clumps in the fall, and protect their tender crowns with a layer of loose organic mulch.

Warm season grasses are best undisturbed through winter. Their dried flowering stalks, seedheads, and leaves change color to subtle shades of golden-brown, tan, and white during dormancy, adding a decorative touch and visual interest to the winter garden. The old leaves also protect the tender crown of the plant from frost damage, and they provide shelter for birds and beneficial insects.

Poorly pruned deergrass, with new leaves emerging from improperly shaped balls, contrasted with a beautifully maintained deergrass specimen. (Photos © Kathy Ikeda)












Cool season ornamental grasses

Cool season grasses favor temperatures between 60 and 75°F. They begin new growth as temperatures drop in the fall, and they prefer more moisture than warm season grasses. Many cool season grasses flower in spring and stop sending out new growth in summer. In our mild climate they grow year round, although their growth slows significantly in heat. Some common ornamental cool season grasses include Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutifolia), Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca), and Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens).

Periodic upkeep to remove dead leaves and spent seedheads is sufficient to keep these grasses attractive for many years, without trimming/pruning. Use the same grooming method as with warm season grasses.

Cool season grasses often don’t need cutting back unless the foliage is damaged or dominated by old leaves. If it’s necessary to renew these grasses, cut them down by about 2/3 before the fall growth spurt, or early in summer if fire danger is a consideration. Trimming cool season grasses too severely or frequently or at the wrong time of year — such as during peak fall and winter growth or during severe cold weather — will stress the plants and make them more susceptible to disease or frost damage. Once new growth fills in, the older, shortened leaves can be selectively cut out with pruners to improve appearance if needed.

Cool season grasses are also pretty in winter, when cold temperatures often leave their foliage tinged with hues of bronze, purple, red, or gold.

Some final notes

Make sure your pruning tools are clean and sharp to prevent disease and ragged cuts. Hand pruners work well for small grass species, but if you have large grass clumps to cut back, use manual hedge shears, electric hedge trimmers, or a weed trimmer fitted with a blade attachment.

One useful trick is to bind the leaves of each grass clump together before pruning; this keeps them out of the way and makes clean up easy. If you use natural jute twine instead of man-made materials, the entire bundles can be composted or put in green waste bins.

Some excellent sources of information on ornamental grasses and their care are:

  • “The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses” by John Greenlee
  • Pruning Ornamental Grasses,” an online article by the UC Master Gardeners of Sonoma County
  • A short YouTube video entitled “Pruning Ornamental Grasses” by the University of Illinois Extension

Next month, we’ll take a look at how to properly maintain grass-like plants.

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


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Tree Peonies and herbaceous peonies are long term plants.

A tree peony in full bloom is dazzling.

Another tree peony that will brighten the garden.

There are quite a few plants that I miss after downsizing. I have previously mentioned camellias and several productive citrus trees are missed too. Also missing at my new home are tree peonies (Paeonia suffructicosa) and herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). The tree peonies were pretty special. When I first moved to my former home in 1976, I found an old tree peony that was in a bad spot, so I moved it to a better location and enjoyed its dark red blooms for 40 years as well as those of others that I added to the peony patch.

Tree peonies are magnificent, long-lived woody shrubs that enhance any gardener’s joy. They provide structure in the garden and the foliage is bronze in early spring, dark green in summer and bronze to purple in the fall. They can reach 4 to 6 feet in height and are capable of bearing fragrant flowers up to ten inches in diameter. They are the most popular flower in China and once were grown exclusively for the emperor.

Many tree peonies for sale are grafted clones of popular varieties. Tree peonies can be started from seed, but with difficulty and I have never mastered the technique involved although I did have one grow from self-seeding. Many peonies purveyors often sell tree peony seeds in addition to plants, so it can be done. I had a good friend and neighbor, John, who mastered growing them from seeds. He planted seeds annually and when they started to bloom, which occurred about 3 years later, he would sell them. John never knew what colors or kind of flowers the seeds would produce until the first bloom. I was an eager buyer and he once gave me one that I always cherished in his memory as he is no longer with us.

The bees love these tree peonies along with gardeners.

I planted a patch of my garden with several tree peonies and got to enjoy their transient beauty each spring. Rain and wind are the enemies of the large vulnerable blooms, so I always wanted good weather during the bloom time which is relatively short. Fortunately, I took lots of pictures so I can still enjoy them in my old age.

Here are some tips on growing tree peonies. Some afternoon shade and dappled shade is best, but they can handle full sun. A well-drained, rich soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline is preferred; so most local soils will work. Fertilizing can be a top dressing in the spring with an inch of compost or aged manure. Some shelter from wind is advisable to protect blooms in the spring and where they will be protected against drying winds. Tree Peonies are very drought tolerant once established and should not be overwatered.

Pruning is fairly minimal and should be done in February when buds start to swell. Dead shoots should come off and remove dead material back to lower live buds. Often there is die-back of last year’s flowering shoot, hence the need to prune back to live buds. Also prune out any wayward shoots that are horizontal and not upright.

Companion plants that work well with tree peonies are snowdrop bulbs (Leucojem aestivum), Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), Scilla bulbs (Scilla siberica) and perhaps some early blooming Narcissus around the edges of the tree peony patch such as paperwhites or small daffodils. Heucheras, violets, and Hellebores will also work to provide variety.  I planted a crepe myrtle in the middle of my tree peonies which provided color from summer to fall.

Herbaceous peonies make a nice fragrant border to this patio.

At the old homestead, there was also a row of Herbaceous Peonies. I enjoyed their large pink blossoms every spring. Herbaceous peonies require a cool winter climate, well drained, loamy soil, good air circulation and sunshine. They are best planted in the fall so they can develop the root system and storage of nutrients for spring growth. They are deer proof as are tree peonies, so both are good candidate for foothill gardens. These are long-lived perennials and can bloom with single or double flowers in colors from pure white to deep red. The cut flowers are often fragrant and will last for a week if cut at full bud stage. Unlike tree peonies, herbaceous peonies are cut to the ground in the winter or early spring. For a look at companion plants to use with herbaceous peonies see:

Intersectional or Itoh peonies are hybrids of tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. They are short, strong-stemmed, require no support and make excellent cut flowers. They bloom about 3 weeks after herbaceous peonies bloom. Hybridization has resulted in gold and yellow blooms not seen in herbaceous peonies. The Itoh peonies are pruned to the ground each winter like herbaceous peonies. So—be a happy gardener and enjoy glorious peonies.

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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Time is nigh for pruning roses.

'Love and Peace' is a gorgeous hybrid tea rose which can be the reward for thoughtful rose pruning and care

Generally modern roses are best pruned in January when they are as dormant as they will likely get in California. I always think of New Year’s Day as the time to start. The timing and amount of material removed depends on which roses you have in your garden. There is no reason to be anxious about pruning roses. It is not easy to kill a rose, especially by pruning and often gardeners don’t prune as severely as may be desirable. Learning to prune roses is best done with a hands-on approach with an instructor to guide you, but that isn’t always possible, so I will do my best to be an instructor from afar.

Before starting, it is useful to understand some history and terms. Remontane is another term for repeat blooming. Remontane roses were created from a Chinese rose, Rosa chinensis that was imported to Europe from China in 1759. Before this date all European roses only bloomed once. Modern Roses were developed after the first hybrid tea, ‘La France’, was created in 1867.

The bud union is the point from which new canes grow and is the part of the plant grafted to the rootstock. Suckers are canes that come from rootstock below the bud union.  However, some roses are now propagated on their own rootstocks. The shank is the area of the root stock between the bud union and the roots. The bud eye is the bud that lies just above each leaf origin. Prickles are those thorn-like parts that we avoid by wearing gauntlet gloves when pruning. They are prickles not thorns though even rosarians often call them thorns. For more rose glossary terms and a useful rosarian website see:

Pruning Hybrid Tea, Floribunda, Grandiflora Roses and MiniaturesThese are all modern roses, repeat bloomers and have similar pruning methods. Miniature roses are basically miniature versions of hybrid tea roses and can be pruned similarly. Roses may have only 2 to 4 canes when purchased. However, as they grow they develop more canes and the younger canes should be left, provided they are large and robust. Older canes in decline with little new, strong growth in the past year should be removed.


There is no set number of canes to leave—it depends on the vigor of the rose. Pruning a rose increases its vigor so if your rose has a lot of vigor, prune leaving more canes and longer canes; if less vigorous, prune harder. Canes will also need to be shortened by half of their length and to 3/8 inch above an outside facing bud eye to keep the center open and vase- like.

It is also important to examine the cane bark for damage from disease and remove parts so damaged; also if the canes’ centers are brown and dead looking then remove segments until healthy tissue is evident. Also remove any suckers coming up from the rootstock as they will take away resources from your grafted rose and eventually take over. Any wimpy growth less than pencil size should also be removed.

Shrub Roses, Old Garden Roses do not need to be pruned as severely as the above roses. Height may be reduced and older declining canes should be removed using the “one-third” method. Each year a third of the older canes are removed as well as dead or diseased canes. If the old garden roses are once blooming types, such as Galica, Centifolia, Alba, Moss or Damask, a majority of pruning is done after bloom.

Climbers: Climbers have their own pruning needs. Roses that bloom only once a season are pruned just after the bloom period ends; strong new growth produced after bloom will bear flowers the following spring. Lady Bank’s (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), a climbing rose, is an example of this type.

Many climbing roses bloom twice, first on the older branches and then on the growth of the current season. In the winter, remove

Goatskin gauntlet gloves were a gift to me that I cherish as they provide vital protection for rose pruning

diseased, injured, crossing or spindly branches, cutting them away flush with the cane from which they emerge. Older, woody canes can be removed as well and canes that have outgrown their support should be trimmed to put them back inbounds.

Climbing roses will need to be fastened to a fence, wall or trellis or support with tape or ties. Select the best canes and trim back sufficiently to allow for new growth to be supported. Lateral shoots are shortened to 2 to 5 buds by cutting at 3/8 inch above the highest bud. Climbing roses will produce more flowers if the canes are positioned somewhat horizontally to the extent possible.

For more information on rose pruning see: and for videos on pruning roses Fine Gardening has several at:  Here’s to a good start on next year’s roses—happy pruning.

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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Orchids are easier than you think

Phaelaonopsis orchids are offered at many grocery outlets.

I am sure that gardeners reading this might be a bit skeptical of orchids being easy. Full disclosure, some are very fussy, but even the easy ones can be killed if not properly tended. Grocery stores often feature orchids in their flower offerings and they are so gorgeous it is hard to resist buying one. They are cheaper to buy alive than the artificial silk one often offered in many stores and online. Although silk ones are definitely hard to kill, the living ones are preferred if you are a gardener.

Orchids are a large family of 22,000 or 110,000 species depending on your source, but there are a lot of them and many hybrids as well. Hence, there is no end of possibilities for the avid collector and I suspect that orchid collecting can be addictive for the orchid enthusiast. If you are an enthusiast, you can join others; see the San Joaquin Orchid Society on Facebook. I have yielded several times to their beauty, but unfortunately my few orchids all succumbed last winter because I failed to protect from freeze damage following my downsizing move.

Recently, the Linden Garden Club had a guess speaker on orchids and I learned more about caring for orchids. Our speaker, from Modesto, was the president of the International Orchid Society, so definitely an expert. One thing I learned was to keep most orchids out of direct sun. The orchid that we see for sale at stores is Phalaenopsis or hybrids thereof. This is a long blooming orchid which is best kept in bright shade as one would do with African violets. Another thing she addressed was the use of ice cubes to slowly water orchids. Orchids are mostly tropical plants so ice watering is a very bad idea.

In nature, orchids don’t grow in soil, but are epiphytes that live in rain forest trees. You can replicate this kind of environment by using orchid bark or a moss potting mix. Orchid bark potting material or moss based material is readily purchased at nurseries. The orchid bark contains fir bark and charcoal. The orchids you purchase are often planted in a moss mixture.

Either of these materials will provide the quick drainage and plentiful air pockets that orchid roots require. In the case of Phalaenopsis, it is best to use a medium coarse bark mix if available. Orchid bark decomposes within 18 months to 2 years, depending on watering and fertilizing practices (wetter and more fertilizer means shorter bark life). Repotting should be done before major decomposition creates anaerobic conditions causing root rot.

Phalaenopsisis a long bloomer and after blooming it is time to get it ready for a new season of blooms by repotting to give the

Phaelaonosis orchid I recently purchased with 3 stems of flowers, a good find.

roots room to grow. Often the ones purchased are crowded into a small plastic pot inside a terra cotta or ceramic pot. The orchid should be gently removed from the plastic pot and any brown-colored, dead roots removed by cutting with scissors or pruners along with the dead bloom stem. Soaking the roots in water can help remove old potting material.  If roots were crowded go to a larger pot, but not more than 2 inches larger than the current one. Do not tightly pack the potting material because an orchid’s roots need breathing room. Repotting should be done every 2-3 years and best to stick to plastic or terra cotta pots with drainage holes.

What other conditions will be optimal for my orchid?  Keep the orchid in a spot that gets a lot of light but is out of direct sunlight. If the orchid isn’t getting enough light, it may not bloom again. Warmer temperatures are best from 70 to 85 F. Humidity is often hard to control in the home. You can either use a humidifier in the orchid room or place the plant on a saucer filled with pebbles and water (with the pot’s bottom not in the water). The evaporation will add moisture to the air. You can also mist-spray the plant’s leaves a couple of times a week. For more good information on orchids:

Water deeply until excess water runs out of the drainage holes. Phalaenopsis should be watered thoroughly about once every 14-20 days; more than that could be too much. Allow the potting medium to dry out between watering to avoid root rot and killing the orchid. Balanced commercial orchid fertilizers (20-20-20) will keep your plant growing. Eventually, after new leaves have grown in, a stem will start to grow and as it elongates, be sure to tie it gently to a stake you stick into the pot. You can save the bamboo stake and ties your orchid came with and use them again— so enjoy happy orchid growing.

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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Rain gardens

Now that wet weather has finally arrived, it seems a good time to write something about those little drops falling from the sky.

You might ask, “What are rain gardens?” One writer has very aptly described them as gardens that “encompass all possible elements that can be used to capture, channel, divert and make the most of the rain and snow that fall on a property.” The goal is to create a landscape that keeps water onsite. Rain gardens are not ponds, however; when properly designed, they allow water to percolate into the soil within one to three days.

Why is water retention important? Consider this: urban/suburban development has covered vast areas of land with paved surfaces and buildings, preventing any precipitation from reaching the soil underneath. The moisture that used to soak into the soil now drains away. It can no longer nurture the roots of trees and others plants, benefit soil-dwelling organisms, or help sustain natural underground reservoirs of water.

Most city rainfall travels from sky to impermeable surface to storm drain.  Rain from waterproof roofs is collected in rain gutters, then it travels through drainpipes to street gutters. Rain that falls on parking lots, streets, and sidewalks flows into storm drains without ever touching bare soil. Those storm drains connect to conveyance systems that carry untreated water into local waterways. Street pollutants (oil, gas, asphalt leachates, antifreeze, and more), loose trash, and many other harmful substances are thus carried out to local rivers and the ocean. That sobering fact is why many of our local storm drain inlets are painted with notices that say, “No Dumping. Flows to Delta.” Even the water that drains from lawns can be contaminated with excess fertilizer, pesticides, and pet waste. Untreated, polluted runoff fouls natural bodies of water, harms aquatic wildlife and vegetation, and is a main cause of toxic algae blooms.

Rain gardens can help mitigate these problems by restoring habitat and mimicking natural patterns of water movement. They are key elements of sustainable landscaping and have many environmental benefits:

  • They capture and conserve precious rainwater and snowmelt rather than diverting it to storm drains.
  • They help recharge depleted stores of groundwater by allowing more water to soak into the earth.
  • They help to minimize erosion and flooding
  • They reduce water pollution, since they give plants and soil microorganisms the time to break down water-borne toxins
  • They minimize the need for supplemental garden irrigation

While fulfilling all these utilitarian purposes, rain gardens can also be beautiful additions to home and commercial landscapes. Local native plants are best suited

The simplest rain garden is a well-drained depression with amended soil or gravel at the bottom. More complex rain garden designs can include rain barrels or cisterns to capture runoff from roofs; bioswales or “dry creek beds”; pervious paving (which is porous and allows pass-through of water), and infiltration galleries (perforated below-grade conduits for water transfer).

Rain gardens all have two elements in common: (1) the water enters at a grade higher than where it settles, and (2) there is an overflow outlet. From there, the possibilities are endless. Rain garden designs and plantings can be modern, classical, or rustic. They can either be concealed or they can be featured elements of a landscape design.

Rain gardens should be placed at least 10 feet away from homes. They should be located in an area with good drainage, and kept away from septic systems, underground utilities, and the roots of large or established trees.

The entry sign at the Elk Grove Rain Garden Plaza (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)

For a wonderful outing and a comprehensive overview of how a well-designed rain garden functions, visit the Elk Grove Rain Garden Plazaat 9385 Laguna Springs Drive. It features an interactive sculptural fountain surrounded by different types of permeable paving; a raised composite wood boardwalk over a sunken wetland area; a garden planted with locally-sourced, low-water-use California natives and Mediterranean plant species; a shade structure fitted with rain chains and rain barrels; a large paver patio with bench seating; a dry well for groundwater recharge; and many artistic elements, including a low wall inset with colorful, student-designed ceramic tiles. A fact sheet and plant list for this garden are available online.

One part of the City of Elk Grove’s Rain Garden Plaza, with the shade structure and fountain in the background and a small portion of the landscaped bioswale area in the foreground. (Photo © Kathy Ikeda)
















Until you have an opportunity to visit this rain garden, enjoy exploring these articles and resources:

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




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