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: http://www.aboutorchids.com/.

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:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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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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Frost Protection for Sensitive Plants

We are fortunate to live in a mild climate that allows us to grow certain fruits and vegetables during the winter. However, one of the biggest worries a gardener may have is the threat of freezing weather and frosts that can harm or kill plants and damage crops. When the local weatherman warns of “a chance of frost,” it’s important to take precautions to protect your frost sensitive plants. The timing of the first frost varies from year to year, typically it is mid-November or sometime around there. Frost injures plants by causing ice crystals to form in plant cells and on the leaf surface. This process makes water inaccessible to plant tissues and interrupts the movement of fluids.

It is helpful to know the difference between a frost advisory and a freeze warning, as well as terminology used in weather predictions. Case in point: covering plants before the sun sets can help retain heat near the plants when a frost advisory is issued. The same plant protection may have less impact following a freeze warning. NOAA’s definitions:

  • Frost: The deposition of ice crystals directly on the surface of exposed objects. In the right conditions (clear skies, winds less than 6 mph) frost can occur when observed air temperatures are several degrees above freezing.
  • Freeze: When observed air temperatures fall to 32 F or lower.
  • Killing Freeze: When observed air temperatures fall to 30 F or lower for at least two consecutive hours.
  • Frost Advisory: Issued when frost is forecast to occur at 3 or more weather observation sites.
  • Freeze Warning: Issued when a freeze is expected to occur at 3 or more observation sites.

Here are some tips that will help you be prepared and give your plants a better chance at surviving our winter weather.

Before a frost

  • Identify cold spots in landscape by monitoring with thermometers.
  • Identify plants at risk: citrus, succulents, tender perennials, tropical and subtropical plants.
  • Have supplies ready: sheets, blankets or frost cloths, lights, wraps for trunks, thermometers, stakes or framework to hold covers off foliage. Frost cloths come in different weights that can provide 4° to 8° of protection. Because the frost cloth allows some light and air to penetrate, it can stay on plants for a few days at a time. Frost cloth can lay directly on plant foliage.
  • Prepare tender plants: avoid fertilizing and pruning after August to minimize tender new growth.
  • Rake away mulch to allow soil to warm up during the day and radiate heat into the plant at night.
  • Monitor weather forecasts and note how low temperatures will be and for how long.
    Local frost: clear, dry nights, usually temperature warms during the day
    Hard freeze: temperature inversion or Arctic front, can last for days or weeks, are very damaging
  • Move potted plants to a warmer spot next to the house or under a patio cover, especially on the south side.
  • Water the soil thoroughly (except around succulents). Wet soil holds heat better than dry soil, protecting roots and warming air near the soil.
  • Cover plants before sunset to capture ground heat radiating upward at night.  Remove sheets, blankets and other covers daily if it is sunny and above freezing to allow soil to absorb heat.
  • Add heat by using outdoor lights: hang 100 watt drop lights or holiday string lights to interior of plant. Use the old C7 or C9 large bulbs, not new LED lights which do not give off heat.  Old style holiday lights that give off heat can provide up to 3° of protection.  Use lights, extension cords, and multi-outlets or power strips that are rated for outdoor use and are grounded (3-prong). Avoid connecting together more than three light strings in a line.
  • Wrap trunks of tender trees if a hard freeze is expected, using towels, blankets, rags, or pipe insulation.
  • Harvest ripe citrus fruit. Generally both green and ripe fruit are damaged below 30°, but there is some variation by species (refer to chart in UC ANR Publication 8100, Frost Protection for Citrus and Other Subtropicals).

When a frost is forecast

After a frost

Plants can be remarkably resilient. If you see signs of frost damage, do not prune off the affected parts or dig up the plant immediately. Wait until the weather warms up in late March or early April to see whether new leaves sprout. You may see healthy new growth at the base of the plant, at which point you can prune out the damaged parts. If no regrowth is noted, you may want to remove the dead specimen and replace it with a more cold-tolerant species.

For more information or if you have gardening questions, please call the Master Gardener Helpline at 209-953-6112.


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Insecticidal Soaps: An Eco-friendly Method of Pest Control

Most gardeners are good stewards of the land and attempt to control pests using tactics with minimal environmental impact. Insecticidal soaps have become an increasingly popular method of controlling certain insects in a very “eco-friendly” manner. Insecticidal soaps can be a valuable tool to manage insect and mite pests on houseplants, vegetables, fruits and ornamentals. Soaps control many targeted pests with fewer potential adverse effects to the user, beneficial insects and the environment compared to more traditional pesticides. To be most effective, it’s important to understand how insecticidal soaps “work,” to know their mode of action, and to recognize their benefits and limitations.

What is insecticidal soap?

Soaps are made when the fatty acid portion of either plant or animal oils are joined with a strong alkali. They are potassium salts of fatty acids. Commercial products contain a blend of selected fatty acid chain lengths.

How do insecticidal soaps work?

Insecticidal soaps kill by suffocation, they appear to disrupt the cellular membranes of the insect, and they remove protective waxes that cover the insect, resulting in dehydration. There is no residual insecticidal activity once the spray application has dried.  Insecticidal soaps rapidly degrade and wash off of leaf surfaces. Insecticidal soaps are also an effective leaf wash to remove honeydew, sooty mold and other debris from leaves.

Benefits of Insecticidal Soap

Insecticidal soaps are most effective on soft-bodied pests such as aphids, lacebugs, leafhoppers, mealybugs, thrips, sawfly larvae (pear and rose slugs), scale insects (especially scale crawlers), plant bugs, psyllids, spider mites and whiteflies.  Insecticidal soap has less effect against insect eggs. Insecticidal soap are also less effective against hard bodied pests such as beetles. Some soaps are labeled for suppression of powdery mildew on certain plants.

Soaps have low toxicity to mammals. However, they can be mildly irritating to the skin or eyes. Insecticidal soaps are biodegradable, do not persist in the environment, and they do not contain any organic solvents.  Many formulations of insecticidal soap can be used on various food crops up to the day of harvest. Some plants are sensitive to soap sprays and may be seriously injured by them. Read the label to make sure your plant is not one of them.

How to Apply

Insecticidal soaps should be applied when conditions favor slow drying to maximize effectiveness, e.g., in the early morning hours with dew coverage or in the early evening. Avoid treating with soaps on hot sunny afternoons which promote rapid drying. Thorough coverage is vital for the soap to be effective: Spray thoroughly, but not beyond the point of runoff. Repeat applications may also be needed as determined by follow up scouting.

Insecticidal soap mixed in hard water with a high mineral content may be less effective and more toxic to the treated plants. A precipitate (soup scum) may be formed when the metal ions (e.g., calcium, iron or magnesium) found in hard water bind to the fatty acids in the soap. Because insecticidal soaps are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, do not use near bodies of water.

Making your own

You may think that homemade soap sprays can be a low-cost alternative to store-bought sprays since insecticidal soaps are chemically similar to many household liquid soaps but there is a substantially increased risk of plant injury with them. Dry dish detergent and all clothes-washing detergents are far too harsh to use on plants because of all the additives in them. Some soaps and detergents are poor insecticides. However, there are many features of commercial insecticidal soap products that distinguish them from the dish washing liquids or liquid hand soaps that are sometimes substituted. Commercial soap sprays are generally better because they are designed specifically to control insects and minimize plant damage.

In general, soaps are effective tools in an integrated approach toward pest management if they are used properly with an understanding of their limitations and benefits. Chemical control should be used only after all other integrated pest management methods have failed. As with all pesticides, however, there are limitations and hazards associated with their use. Understand these limitations, and carefully follow all label instructions.

For more information on pesticides and pesticide alternatives, visit the UC IPM website, http://ipm.ucanr.edu. If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu


Information for this article was adapted from the University of Colorado Extension and University of Connecticut Extension.




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Leave the leaves this fall

Autumn is here! Although the fall season officially began more than two months ago, it finally feels as if it’s arrived. The cooler temperatures are invigorating and a welcome change, and rainstorms during the last two weeks have brought much-needed precipitation and relief from smoky skies.

Fall is one of my favorite times of year. We’re fortunate to have lots of beautiful deciduous trees in our county: ginkgo, liquidambar, Chinese pistache, Japanese maple, and more. When their leaves display peak fall color, the vibrant hues are like a celebration. The party only ceases when the colors fade and the leaves flutter to the ground.

And then begins the dilemma: what to do with all those fallen leaves?

Sadly, many homeowners still deal with the bounty of autumn leaves by collecting, bagging, and disposing of them. Leaves are treated as a nuisance or as trash to be hauled away to the landfill.

Fortunately, most municipalities are changing this practice by handling “green waste” separately from household trash and by implementing composting programs. In California, these actions were in large part driven by Assembly Bill 939 (AB 939), the 1989 law mandating that all cities and counties divert at least 50% of their waste stream from landfills. Despite laws such as these, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that yard waste (leaves and other plant material) still amounts to roughly 13 percent of our country’s municipal solid waste!

Leaves are usually removed from most residential yards and commercial properties and taken to a collection facility of some type. Instead of moving your leaves offsite, there are many ecologically sound reasons to “leave the leaves” in your landscape:

  • Your trees invest a lot of time and energy producing all those nutrient-rich leaves, most of which can be allowed to remain where they drop in garden beds. They form organic mulch that retains soil moisture, suppresses weeds, improves soil health, and supports beneficial soil organisms.
  • On lawns, leaves can be chopped up using a mower with a sharp and specialized mulching blade. The resulting tiny leaf bits can be left in place along with grass clippings; they will settle into the lawn, decompose slowly, and act as a natural soil amendment. (Whole leaves should not be left on lawns.)
  • Allowing your leaves to remain where they fall saves a lot of time, effort, and even money (particularly if you pay for yard maintenance).
  • Fallen leaves help support a diverse ecosystem. Many birds, small mammals, lizards, and beneficial insects use dead leaves for nesting material, shelter, and food.

If you can’t keep your leaves in place for some reason, you can still collect them and use them on your property in other ways.

  • Large leaves can be cut into smaller pieces using a lawnmower or shredder and then redistributed as weed-suppressing mulch in the landscape.
  • Leaves can be used as the brown matter component in a compost bin. The finished compost can later be used to “top-dress” and enrich your soil.
  • Leaves can be piled on a patch of open soil. If kept moist, they will soon break down into “leaf mold” (partially decomposed leaves) that makes a rich soil amendment

Of course, there are some special considerations. Leaves from infested or diseased trees should be collected and disposed of to prevent spread of harmful organisms. Leaves from certain types of trees (walnuts and eucalyptus species, for example) can be allelopathic, which means they can harm other plants or inhibit their growth; these leaves should not be left in place.

Yet another reason for leaving the leaves is that large-scale leaf collection and removal can be detrimental. Consider these facts:

  • Leaves stuffed into plastic bags or other non-biodegradable containers can’t be commercially composted; they must be handled as trash, not as a reusable resource.
  • When placed in a typical landfill environment, organic leaf matter doesn’t receive enough oxygen to decompose properly. Instead, it produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas associated with climate change.
  • Most commercial-grade leaf blowers have polluting two-stroke gas engines, although cleaner four-stroke engines are being phased in. Research shows that a typical leaf blower operated for half an hour generates as many pollutants as a car driven for 50 to 400 miles! They are also noisy and sources of particulate pollution from blowing dust. (If a leaf blower or mower must be used, consider a quiet and non-polluting electric or battery-powered model.)
  • Vehicles used by municipal leaf removal services and commercial landscapers generate lots of air and noise pollution while collecting, transporting, and moving leaves.

Personally, when I need to collect or move my leaves, I still love my rake. It’s cheap, non-polluting, and quiet to operate, and using it is good exercise and an opportunity for some fresh air and peaceful time outdoors. It’s also a joy to get an up-close look at fall leaves with their different forms, ornate vein patterns, and hues of yellow, orange, and red.

This autumn, consider a different approach to your leaves. Leave them where they fall when possible, and when not, keep them on your property and treat them as the valuable resource they are.

If you’d like to try making compost, see these resources:


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Camellias are wonderful shrub/trees for winter blooms

A 'Debutante' blossom has a wonderful elegans form. (All photos by Lee Miller)After downsizing to a smaller place last year there is one thing that I miss—the dozen Camellias that I planted over the years as well as two really old ones at my Victorian homestead. I think these two older Camellias were close to 100 years old which tells you that, once established, these are

This 'Debutante' Camellia is 20 feet tall and likely over 100 years old.

tough plants. One is a gorgeous large, light pink, informal double-style bloom named ‘Debutante’ and it was developed initially as ‘Sara C. Hastie’ around 1900 in the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, South Carolina. It was later renamed ‘Debutante’ for sales appeal. Fortunately, I do have one mature white-blooming Camellia at my new residence and maybe I will add more.

Camellia japonica blooms from late December through March depending on the variety. There are now a large number of hybrids of C, japonica (about 2,000 named cultivars) which originally were understory plants in the mountain forests of Asia. Camellia japonica is one of 250 species and one of these, C. sinensis, is widely planted for its tea leaves so thanks to Camellias you get to enjoy tea. Another species, Camellia sasanqua, is also planted as an ornamental and although not as popular as the C. japonica, it does bloom earlier in November and December so you can enjoy Camellias longer if you plant both kinds.

Camellias were first sold in the United States in 1807 as greenhouse plants, but were soon planted outdoors in the Southern States. The state flower of Alabama is C. japonica. They first arrived in Sacramento, California from Japan on February 7, 1852 and have thrived there so well that Sacramento is known as the Camellia City. Each spring, the Sacramento Camellia Society, established in 1924, holds its annual flower show. Next year’s show will be held March 2 and 3 at the Elks Lodge – 6446 Riverside Blvd. Sacramento, CA  95831. It will be the 95th annual show and is the oldest Camellia show in the U.S. For more information about the society, see: https://www.camelliasocietyofsacramento.org/home.html.

Magnolia Plantation and Garden in Charleston, South Carolina has 20,000 Camellias in its garden collection from the 19th century to the present. One of the oldest gardens in the U.S., it was first planted 325 years ago and has been open to the public since the 1870s. It has been designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence and is visited by tourists from around the world.

A prolific red bloomer 'Dorothy Wood'.

Camellia blossoms are highly varied in form and range between 1.5 and 5 inches in size. The recognized forms are single, semi-double, irregular semi-double, formal double, informal double (previously called peony form) and elegans (previously known as anemone form).  Colors are white, pink, red, various blends of white and pink and red and white for both species and hybrids. For views of form and colors, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camellia_japonica.

Both Camellias are not difficult to grow, but it is important to do some things correctly to avoid failure. Plant it right and in the right place. The roots are shallow and have high oxygen demand. They do


This 'Adolphe Audusson var' has a large red and white blossom.

well in a loose, well-amended soil with good drainage and a pH of around 6.5.  Therefore it is important to keep the soil level in the pot even with that of the planting soil and not bury the root ball deep or cover roots with too much soil. It is also important that they don’t compete with other plants roots. In the Central Valley, it is best to plant them in dappled shade and give them afternoon shade if at all possible. Camellias are apparently a deer proof



‘Demitasse’ a small, beautiful camellia.


plant and they can handle cold weather to a point. They are limited to USDA climate zones 7-10 and can handle short bouts with below freezing temperatures, but should be protected from winds, if possible.

Camellias can be pruned to control height and spread, but it is best to plant them with lots of room. Some will grow to 20 feet tall or more and be perhaps half as wide as tall. It is good to check on the variety to see what size is listed and space accordingly. The listed height of ‘Debutante’ ranges from 6’ to 15’ in catalogues, but my ‘Debutante’ was over 20 feet high.

Camellia petal blight, a fungus, will turn blossoms brown and is difficult to control using the preferred method of sanitation. Infected blooms should be removed and destroyed from both the plant and off the ground. Mulch should be replaced annually.

The next few months are ideal to select and plant Camellias for they will be blooming in the nurseries and you can find the blooms and plants that you like. Happy Camelia gardening.

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

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Enjoy your gardening—find, buy and use the best garden tools

These Felco pruners in a holster on your belt will be one of your best garden companions.

On October 13, I participated in the Master Gardeners Open Garden day at the County Ag Center where San Joaquin County Master Gardeners tend several excellent show gardens. There is a Mediterranean Garden, a Native Plant Garden, and an Edible Garden among others. Open garden day offers lots of resources and helpful advice on gardening from Master Gardeners.  We also provide a tool sharpening booth where people can bring their hand tools for a tune-up and sharpening and I have participated along with 4 fellow Master Gardeners in providing tool tune ups for the past 3 years.

What I find most interesting is the range in tool quality we get to sharpen. No reflection on the owners of tools, because most of us never take a course in garden tools, hence I am offering some tool

The upper trowel has a forged socket and will last a lifetime, whereas the low one will bend or break.

advice. My first rule of tools is to buy the best quality that you can afford. The old rule of thumb applies to garden tools; “you get what you pay for.” Cheap is unlikely to be equated with best, unless you are lucky at a yard sale. I have scored a few good tools at yard sales in the past as well as a few lemons because I didn’t know better.

Here are some suggestions to evaluate garden tools. Pick them up and appraise the weight. Is it a tool that you can handle easily or is it perhaps too heavy or an uncomfortable fit to your hands?   Hands differ greatly in terms of size and strength so a good fit is important and the wife may need a different smaller tool from her husband if they both garden. If the tool is uncomfortable it is not likely to be used for long. Is it crafted of quality materials and designed well for its intended purpose? Wooden handles usually of Ash are generally preferable to plastic handles. Fibreglass handles are strong, but can deteriorate when left in the sun. I usually prefer wood to other materials, but for loppers the metal handles are stronger than wood. For an evaluation and comparison of tools go to: http://bestreviews.com/best-pruning-shears

It is good to inspect your tool for any defects, damage or loose handles or screws. I have to confess that I once bought a shovel and didn’t inspect it as I should have. The wood handle grain was crooked and should not have been used, but the factory quality control was as lacking as was my inspection before purchasing it. The shovel handle broke the first time I used it and, though the store returned my money, it was a waste of my time.

A spading fork with heavy forged tines will last a lifetime, whereas one with lighter steel will bend and be junk in no time.

Tool selection of course depends a great deal on your interests and activities as a gardener. If you are going to be raising a lot of vegetables you will need tools to dig and cultivate with. So the garden shed might have a broad fork, spading fork, spade or shovel for breaking ground, and various choices of rakes, scratchers, trowels, and weeders to aid in smoothing soil and planting plants or seeds and keeping weeds out. Shovels, trowels and hoes with forged sockets for fastening the handles are sturdier than the sheet metal sockets common on cheaper tools.

Most of us are involved, in landscape maintenance or have fruit trees, roses or other flowers to be pruned. This requires tools like loppers, hand pruners, pruning saws, lawn trimmers or hedge trimmers. Loppers and shears can be bypass or anvil type. The anvil type is most affective at cutting dead wood. I would recommend a pruning saw for removing dead wood and forget the anvil types which tend to crush what you don’t want crushed, like rose stems. When checking out hedge trimmers, loppers or hand pruners they should

These loppers have a cushion to ease shock and one nut to adjust blade tension.

have shock absorbing cushions on the handles to ease the jolt involved when cutting through branches. Many cheap tools will not have this feature.

The blades on loppers or shears should be very close so they cut cleanly but not so close as to bind up. A good feature to look for is the ease with which you can adjust the blades so they cut cleanly. Loppers or shears with a fixed nut or bolt on one side can be loosened or tightened with one wrench, whereas, if neither the bolt nor nut are fixed, two wrenches are needed which is awkward to do.

Some quality pruning shears such the Felco brand have changeable blades so that they can be replaced when worn down. They are expensive, but will last a lifetime of garden use. Just remember to buy the best you can afford to make for happier, more enjoyable gardening.

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

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The birds and the berries

Fall is upon us, and with the season comes a profusion of color. But it’s not just leaves that bring autumn color and beauty; berries do too.

Bird-friendly, berry-producing shrubs have a lot of environmental value. They help sustain and nourish bird populations, providing energy in the form of fruit and seeds when other sources of food become scarce. They help to replace natural bird habitat lost or highly disturbed by urban/suburban development, large-scale farming, and grazing. They provide cover and nesting sites for birds and give them places to hide from predators (hawks, raccoons, opossums, and wayward cats). Evergreen shrubs that keep their foliage throughout winter also help to shelter birds from harsh weather.

Another benefit of berry-producing shrubs is that most have nectar-rich flowers. Such flowers are favored food sources for Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, native bee species, honeybees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators.

Besides providing wildlife value and habitat, berry-producing shrubs can also be a wonderful source of entertainment. Fully ripe berries attract many different birds to a garden and bring hours of joy to novice and avid bird watchers alike. For an added show, some birds will even get intoxicated after eating fermented berries. My front yard used to be planted with a pyracantha hedge, and one year many old berries were left on the plants. A large flock of cedar waxwings visited, and after feasting for a while the cute, plump little birds were flying groggily to a nearby tree or fluttering in a stupor on the ground!

Many California native shrubs are outstanding choices for a bird-lover’s landscape.  They attract fruit-eating birds such as cedar waxwings, finches, grosbeaks, mockingbirds, robins, tanagers, thrushes, and towhees. Here’s a sampling of what I like to call “beautiful berry-bearing bushes,” all suitable for planting in San Joaquin County:

  • Manzanitas(Arctostaphylos spp.) — There are numerous species, some suitable for our valley growing conditions. Their fruits aren’t technically berries (they’re “drupes”), but their rounded reddish fruits with sticky coatings are bird favorites.
  • Oregon grape(Berberis aquifolium)— These showy evergreen plants have shiny, spiny, holly-like leaves and nectar-rich, bright yellow flowers in spring, followed by juicy purplish berries in the fall.
  • Woodland strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) — Although not a shrub, this low-growing groundcover for partial shade has small, red, seedy, edible fruit.
  • Toyon(Heteromeles arbutifolia)— A large evergreen shrub or small tree with dark green leaves, small white flowers in early summer, and bright red berries in winter.
  • Hollyleaf cherry(Prunus ilicifolia) A tall, attractive, evergreen shrub with lightly spiny leaves and spikes of creamy white flowers in spring. Many types of birds (eat its dark red to deep purple fruits. The fruits look like big berries, but they’re actually small cherries with pits and minimal flesh.
  • California coffeeberry(Rhamnus californica)— This large, sun-loving evergreen shrub has dark green leaves and inconspicuous, greenish-white flowers in spring. The berries change color from green to red to black as they ripen from late summer through fall and winter. Two attractive and compact cultivars of coffeeberry are ‘Mound San Bruno’ and ‘Eve Case.’  [NOTE to The Record: Cultivar names are meant to be enclosed in single quotes – that is the standard nomenclature. PLEASE DO NOT CHANGE.]
  • Snowberry(Symphoricarpos albus) — A small deciduous shrub with open form and arching stems. It bears small pink flowers in spring and waxy white berries in fall and winter. After the leaves drop, the showy berries persist on the stems.
  • Currants — California golden currant (Ribes aureum)and pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). These moderately sized, deciduous plants have thorny stems, small maple-like leaves, and gorgeous flowers in winter and spring, followed by tasty fruit in the fall.
  • Fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum)— A summer-deciduous plant with profuse, pinkish red, tubular flowers in late winter to early spring. The berries are reddish orange and very spiky when ripe
  • Blue elderberry(Sambucus mexicana) — A large deciduous shrub with clusters of creamy white flowers in spring and dark blue berries in fall. 
  • California wild grape(Vitus californica‘Roger’s Red’) — This deciduous, rambling, ornamental vine has intense yellow to red fall leaf color. The grapes ripen in fall; they are small and purple with a bitter skin.

A cedar waxwing eating a toyon berry (Photo courtesy of Evleen Anderson, Golden Gate Audubon Society)

Some berry-producing non-native plants are also very attractive to birds:

  • Hollies— Mockingbirds favor the berries from these thorny-leaved shrubs.
  • Amethyst beautyberry— An attractive deciduous vine with delicate pinkish-purple flowers in summer and dense clusters of bright violet berries that persist from September into early winter.
  • Pyracantha, camphor, cotoneaster, and privet— A word of warning: although many bird species enthusiastically feed upon the berries of these shrubs and trees, these plants are also invasive (ranked here in order from moderate to severe). Birds eat the berries and readily spread the fast-sprouting seeds to wildlands. Plant similar native plants instead, especially if you live in a rural or semi-rural area.

While some of the berries listed above are edible for both birds AND people, others are unpalatable or mildly toxic. NEVER consume a berry unless you know it’s safe.

This time of year is an optimal time for planting California natives; they can develop deep roots during fall and winter and become established before the heat of summer. Why not try a new berry-growing plant this year, and see what birds it brings?

For more information, read The California Wildlife Habitat Garden by Nancy Bauer, or visit the Theodore Payne Foundation online and follow the links: Native Plant Database > Plant Guides > Birds.

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

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Resources to be a better gardener

Gardening is always a learning experience which keeps it interesting as well as challenging when some new pest shows up or something doesn’t go as planned. No matter how much we know, it seems that there is more to be learned in a never ending process. This week I want to share with you some of the resources that can be helpful to make you a more informed and better gardener. First of all there is Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a great resource and secondly is Google. If you have a question or want to see a picture or find information on a plant, just try Google and you will likely be rewarded with a lot of information to sort through.

Google might take you to Dave’s Gardens, a plant finder/gardener’s information paradise where you can subscribe for $19 per year and have access to reviews of nurseries, discussion forums, files on plants, pests, birds, landscaping, garden articles, pros and cons on various plants and a gardening community of over 700,000 members. Even without membership there is access to a lot of information.

Just the plant file is one of the world’s largest. Here is their description of their plant file. “PlantFiles is largest plant database in the world, built by 60,154 gardeners working together from around the world. The database has 217,995 entries, 374,489 images and 153,342 comments. Currently entries are from 430 families, 5,355 genera, 46,715 species, and 135,279 cultivars.”  So there is a lot of information here just on plants. I searched for information for the Gulf fritillary butterfly and I found 80 images and 20 reviews to give you an idea of how much information can be found there. However, you may find their search engine to be very lacking in sophistication.

The California Native Plant Society has a very useful and awesome website:  https://calscape.org/ . It has pictures, map locations, growing conditions and other information on 7095 native plants in California. You can look at native trees, vines, shrubs and others as categories and then select individual species to get lots of info.

A website that I like is the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This IPM program fosters a scientific and environmentally conscious approach to pest management.  It has a tremendous amount of information to help gardeners identify and deal with landscape pests including weeds and it has a lot of information to help you garden better: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html.

There are also many publications that are useful from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division (UCANR). Some of these are free and can be easily downloaded as PDF files and some are available for purchase from their online catalogue. For more information, see: https://ucanr.edu/Publications_524/.

The Xerces Society (https://xerces.org/) is an organization that is dedicated to pollinator conservation. They promote habitats and gardening practices that conserve bees, butterflies and other pollinators; a very worthy cause. Their website features articles, books, guides and other resources to help you foster populations of pollinators.

There are also various plant societies that promote information about their particular type of plant. I like dahlias and roses, so I joined the American Dahlia Society (ADS) and the American Rose Society (ARS). Both have publications. The Rose Society’s American Rose is a very slick well-done magazine with information on growing and exhibiting rose. The ADS publishes Bulletin of the American Dahlia Society, Inc. which is mostly about exhibiting, but sometimes has helpful articles on growing dahlias. It is unlikely to win an award. Both societies have websites as well.

The Iris Society (AIS) has a website https://www.irises.org/ to offer images and information about Iris as does the American Orchid Society (AOS) http://www.aos.org/ and the American Peony Society https://www.americanpeonysociety.org/. The first two have magazines to promote their respective flowers. Not to be left out is the African Violet Society of America http://www.avsa.org/.  They have a bimonthly magazine and they have an amazing photo gallery on this website of every African violet imaginable. I am quite sure there are more societies than I know of, but if you think there might be one for a flower you like—just Google your flower name and see what pops up.

Another resource is YouTube where you can find videos on useful garden tips. Some plant suppliers have useful information on growing their plants. For example, Swan Island Dahlias has several videos on digging, storing, dividing tubers, and growing dahlias. Not to be left out is our Master Gardening website listed below for many gardening resources. To be a better garden requires some effort and resources, but it is a worthwhile pursuit and I hope this information will be helpful.

If you are interested in becoming a UC Master Gardener, you will need to apply by September 28, for the 19 weekly classes which start in 2019. To apply or if you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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Happiness is being in a pollinator garden.

An Anna's hummingbird feeding on and blending in with Brazilian salvia.

If you stand still in a garden of zinnias and other flowers frequented by hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and bees, it can be a joyful learning experience.  Years ago, I became acquainted with the Gulf Fritillary (Agaulis vanilla) butterfly after growing some passion vines to provide shade to the deck on my wife’s studio. I didn’t know it at the time but Gulf fritillary lays its eggs mostly on passion vines.

Fritillary adult and caterpillar on a passion vine that is their food source as larvae.

Another Master Gardener wanted some of my passion vine to feed some caterpillars of the butterfly and so when she came to collect it, I noticed for the first time the caterpillars and one adult Gulf Fritillary butterfly. It was a very serendipitous experience.  I have been a fan of these butterflies ever since. At my new home, the gardener next door has a passion vine which has provided Gulf Fritillary butterflies galore for me to enjoy in my garden. I counted eight of these butterflies at one time flitting about.

Butterflies may not be as efficient as bees in pollinating plants and crops, but butterflies certainly do their fair share in bringing about seed and fruit production. They are definitely pleasing to watch. Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers, but they lay their eggs on a limited number of native plants because butterfly caterpillars are host specific.

The butterfly has a 4-stage life cycle egg, caterpillar (larvae), pupa and adult. After mating, females typically deposit their eggs on the undersides of leaves, especially those that act as a food source for newly emerging caterpillars. Butterflies taste with their feet, which is where their taste sensors are located. Hence by standing on their offspring’s food, they can taste it to determine if this is the right plant for their caterpillar offspring.  For a great resource on creating a pollinator garden and a list of plants used by pollinators see: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8498.pdf. Caterpillars also are harvested by birds to feed their nestlings, so they are an important part of our landscape ecosystem.

Years ago, at a Master Gardener Conference, I heard a lecture by Doug Tallamy who is a noted entomology professor at my alma mater, the University of Delaware. He pointed out that we have decreased native plants by planting lots of exotic ones that native insects have not co-evolved with, hence discouraging our native fauna. He is author of the book “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Garden” which won a silver medal from the Garden Writer’s Association in 2008.

Tallamy restored 10 acres of a previously mowed hayfield which had been farmed for centuries to a native forest and meadow and was pleased that so many native species returned.  Standing under one of his young oak trees, he observed 11 caterpillars belonging to six species; a notable increase in biodiversity. His book is based not only on ecological theory and expertise, but also on practical considerations for creating a more diverse landscape, although mostly with East Coast gardener’s in mind.

We can all improve our gardens and enjoy more pollinators as they go from flower to flower. Every day, I enjoy carpenter bees, honey bees and small bees I don’t know the names of in my garden. I enjoy several Anna’s hummingbirds as well as the Western Swallowtail butterfly with its bright yellow wings trimmed in black. A new butterfly I learned of recently is the fiery skipper. One

A fiery skipper butterfly on a zinnia in my garden.

way to find out what butterflies might be in your neighborhood and could be a new garden friend is to check out this website: http://www.gardenswithwings.com/what-is-a-butterfly-garden.html. You can enter your zip code and discover which butterflies are likely in your area. Recently, I bought a butterfly field guide and was amazed at how many species of butterflies there are in North America.

Occasionally, I might see a Monarch butterfly as I have some milkweed. If you want to plant milkweed to encourage Monarchs, this site will help you plant a native species: http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/CA-milkweed-guide_XercesSoc6.pdf

One of the reasons that the Monarch butterfly is decreasing in abundance is because the milkweed that they are dependent on for reproduction and food is declining across the Midwest due to the growth in intensive agriculture and the use of GMO plants that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide. Milkweed abundance has decreased with increased glyphosate use. Just another unintended consequence of human ingenuity, but we can hope the Monarchs survive us.

If you are interested in becoming a UC Master Gardener, you will need to apply by September 28, for the 19 weekly classes which start in 2019. To apply or if you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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