Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Western Patch

I know! It’s been absolutely ages since I put up a new post for my blog. I was about to scrap the whole thing but then I realized maybe blogging for me (it was fun at first and I had all the time set aside for it) might be how gardening is for others (it quickly turns into a chore and you wonder why you bother). Well that is exactly why you should talk to fellow gardeners (and bloggers) to help inspire you to keep on trying because at some point you'll look back and be very pleased that you did. Gardening like blogging are ways of leaving a record of what you've accomplished, if not for others to see, then at least for yourself (and I swear that is the most philosophical I will get in this post)!

So I though I would share a successful “patch” that I’ve been working on.

This patch was an empty space against the fence on the western side of my yard. My main drip line already ran against the fence so bringing water to the area was no problem but the soil itself, ugh! Its reddish heavy clay filled with rocks ranging in size from that of a grape to a melon. In the summer without water it becomes necessary to dig at it first with a pick ax and in the winter it can be so saturated from the rain that you may expect to slowly sink where you stand. Luckily, we have good drainage in the form of a gradual southern slope and those pesky rocks actually do aid in the aeration and permeability of the soil.

Since I spotted a few plants at Talini’s Nursery (see favorite nursery links) that I just had to have and was afraid may not be there in the fall (a much more appropriate time to establish new shrubs), I decided to risk it and just spend the extra time necessary to baby them.

In the font, I put in euphorbia pithyusa “Faded Jeans.” It just looked really cool, was soft to the touch and my experience with other euphorbia, a sun loving plant, had always been successful. It won’t get much taller than what you see now and perhaps in another month I’ll take some clipping and start new plants from it.

My “anchor” plant behind the euphorbia is a stunning relative to the hibiscus, pavonia missionum. The flowers are small, 1 inch across, but are numerous and have not stopped producing since I got the plant. I call it my “anchor” plant because it will grow to 4 to 6 feet tall and spread out as much. The nice thing about branchy shrubs like this is you can trim lower branches to allow other low growing plants beneath it. In some cases, you can even shape such a shrub to be a small tree.
Off to its right I’ve put in Russian Sage. Like most sages it has been a very easy plant for me. With long blooming stems of light blue/purple flowers, it is a great filler plant. It will die back in winter- I usually cut it down to the ground- but will pop back up in spring and can grow up to 5 feet tall and maybe taller if you have more shade.

To the left of the pavonia missionum is a dark purple almost black plant that is a type of hibiscus. Hibiscus acetosella or “maple sugar” has been growing steadily since its introduction to my yard though I may have to wait until next year for it to flower- if it makes it through winter. It is usually an annual but should be a perennial in zones 9 through 11. We shall see.
My last plant in this patch is a variegated elderberry and doesn’t appear to have done a thing since I planted it… but it ain’t dead either. It may be getting too much sun and I may move it especially since it may get up to 15 feet tall! (Please note, you really cannot see it in the photo, if it starts to grow, I'll post another photo of it).

Now, to get these babies into the ground in the beginning of July when we’re experiencing high 90’s and triple digit weather, I started off by putting down a thick layer of mulch, about 2 to 3 inches. Then I soaked the area in the evening, giving the ground time to absorb the water over night, and then the next day soaked it a little more in the late afternoon when my western fence casted a shadow on the patch. About 30 minutes later, I pushed aside the mulch in the areas where the plants would go and started digging. I have to say I was very surprised at how easy it was. I had soaked areas before but never with mulch and boy did it make a difference! I had 5 plants in the ground in less than 30 minutes! I should also add that when digging I inadvertently stabbed several earthworms since they seemed to be everywhere! Just because you have clay and it dry and it seems filled with rocks and it can be a real pain- doesn’t mean you have bad soil! Just show it a little love!

Next post will be about my ever expanding succulent patch filled with plants from a recent trip to Annie’s Annuals!

If this inspires you at all, now is actually a very nice time to start planting shrubs and trees! Don't forget to soak the area prior to planting!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Well it’s been awhile since I blogged and I admit it, I’ve been in the garden a lot! For the last couple of weeks the daytime temps have been in 70’s and it’s been cooling at night but not freezing.

My lawn, which goes dormant in the winter, has come back to life. I tossed down some fertilizer, gave it a good watering, (we really haven’t had enough rain this spring), raked it the following day and then gave it a light mowing.

For my vegetable garden I picked up the following tomato seedlings from Capital Nursery: a six pack of “Early Girl,” a couple of “Beefsteak,” and a rare heirloom “Watermelon Beefsteak.” I’ll probably pick up a few more tomatoes in another week but I only had room for these right now as some of my winter veggies are still taking up valuable real estate. The nice thing about having chard and carrots still in the bed is that they protect the tomatoes from any strong winds until the seedlings have a chance to get a little stronger. A few words on tomato plants:

1. I like to use tomato cages or some other form of restraint as they have a tendency to sprawl which doesn’t hurt them but it does make it easier on you to pick the tomatoes.
2. Learn if the tomato is “determinate” producing all its fruit at once or “indeterminate” producing its fruit throughout the growing season. I like to do a bit of both kinds. The determinate kind I use for canning.
3. I like to companion plant. The theory of companion planting is that when planted together certain plants will help ward off diseases or pests. For tomatoes I mix in marigolds, parsley, basil and nasturtium. I actually add nasturtium to all my other veggies- it’s a pretty plant and the flowers are a nice addition to salads.

With new tomato seedlings I always pinch off the first set of leaves and plant it a little deeper so the soil goes up to where the leaves previously were. It makes the plant stronger.

In addition to the tomatoes, I planted some seeds of carrots, beets and corn (I’ll add additional rows every couple of weeks to stagger the harvest). Within a couple more weeks I’ll put in squash, cucumber and pepper seedlings.

Fruit trees are always fun but I’m always nervous about committing… you know, planting them in the ground forever and ever until death do us part. My solution, wine barrels! This year I’ve got a dwarf blood orange and a “Kadota” fig tree which already has figs on it! I’m also hoping to find a good variety of avocado. For container fruit trees look for dwarf, mini, or varieties known to do well in containers. You may also want to find out when you can expect your first crop and if it’s self pollinating.

And since the weather’s been so nice, I’ve been finding myself wanting to just lay around in it! Unfortunately the price of attractive loungers range anywhere from hundred bucks upwards! So I got a little resourceful and made my own from scrape wood and deck screws. Four leisurely hours and a beer later and I’m sitting pretty! Happy spring!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Try not to Panic.

First it was a week of rain and now it’s been a week of sunshine. I try not to panic. During spring an impatient gardener can blow through more cash at a nursery than a stripper at a stiletto shoe sale.

So to keep myself from buying too many plants too soon I begin weeding in earnest. It’s the perfect time to do this. The weeds come out easy and every time you’re about to get hot a puffy cloud covers the sun long enough for you to get cool again. But I admit it, I did pick up some Sequoia strawberries which I planted beneath a couple of Imperial Star artichokes. I’m hoping the large leaves will allow them enough sunlight but keep them hidden from the birds. The other purchase included some veggie seeds. My favorite seed companies include Botanical Interests, Seed Savers, Seeds of Change, Renee’s Garden, Kitazawa Seed Co. and Burpee’s Organic.

I am not a big fan of starting my own seedlings indoors. I think our growing season here on the west coast is long enough and our weather mild enough that you can usually start most seeds right in your garden bed. The seeds I put in this week for my spring/early summer garden included sugar peas (around a trellis), carrots, chard and Chinese stir fry greens like pac choi. (A lot of these are the same that I do for a winter garden). Each year I try to add a few new vegetables to the mix. This year when it warms up a little more, I'm going to try okra. I picked a variety called Clemson Spineless 80 that was developed in 1980 from Clemson University. Try not to panic. No, it is not a genetically modified plant but now that I brought it up….

Recently while having a friend over for dinner the topic of genetically modified plants came up. Which made me wonder what is the difference between a (GMO) genetically modified organism versus a hybrid versus an heirloom?

Plants on their own will adapt and evolve to the changes in their habitat and when gardeners get involved it happens even more often. Propagating and crossing plants to create cultivated (something that grows with consistent results due to human action) varieties and completely new plants have been going on for a very long time. I doubt that any vegetables or fruits today are as they were a millennium ago. For example the carrot which we are use to seeing as an orange root was in fact any other color but orange until the 16th century when a Dutch crossed a pale yellow variety with a red one.

What the Dutch did was transfer thousand of genes, in no particular order, within the same species and which probably took a few generations of carrots before he got the orange one which I believe at the time would be considered a hybrid. Now from what I understand of GMO’s a single gene can be altered, in one generation and you can cross the species barrier. Try not to panic.
I’m really not sure how many GMO’s are available on the market but I have notice that one of my favorite seed companies Botanical Interests makes a point of stating on their website site that they do not willing sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. In fact, Botanical Interests usually gives a history of the cultivated variety on the seed package as with the Clemson Spineless Okra. Even many heirlooms have had human intervention. Generally heirlooms are varieties that were not changed since 1900. If it is of great concern, try not to panic, do a little research and always ask.


By the way, thanks so much for all the encouragement on the blog either via comments or emails. The blog is a lot more work than I expected but its fun and causing me to examine my gardening methods or lack there of. So thanks again for taking the time to read and the lovely comments!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feels Like Spring

In between winter rains there are days, if you have the opportunity to work in the garden, that cause you pause and wonder, "am I about to sweat?" Winter in the Sacramento Valley can be misleading at times, even the plants get confused. I keep a careful eye on my dwarf nectarine tree which I consider my special needs plant. Of all my dormant winter plants it is always the first to announce spring.

I purchased it as a "bare root" plant in February a few years back. Most fruit trees (apple, peaches, nectarines, plutos, plums), nut trees, grapes and black berry plants are sold as bare root plants in their dormant state. They have no leaves or flowers and look like a dead branch sitting in a barrel of mulch with no soil clinging to there roots. The only thing you have to go on is the picture on the tag and the hopefully, helpful sales person. There are two reasons why I buy bare root plants: the price and a better start. Typically bare root plants are up to half the price because the nursery doesn't have to use soil or a pot. They will pull them out of the mulch and wrap the roots in a piece of paper and off you go. Because your plant isn't sitting in nursery soil, you don't have to worry about it trying to adjust to your own, just plant it directly into your garden (perhaps mix in a small amount of fertilize in your own soil). Once it wakes up, it will proceed to flower and then shoot out leaves and branches as if it was always living in your yard.

My nectarine did just that, but by early spring it was apparent that all was not well. Its leaves were curly in on themselves. The fruit would grow but then develop very rough spots as if sprinkled with large granules of sea salt. It was quite horrific looking as if my now deformed tree was trying to audition for some part in a gory scream flick. As it turn out, the nectarine tree had been infected by a fungus called taphrina deformans aka Peach Leaf Curl. The nursery handed me a bottle of dormant spray. For now there was nothing to do but watch as the mutilated leaves and fruit quickly fell off my tree and spent the summer looking rather naked and sad.

Dormant sprays are not really fun. The main ingredient is typically sulfur or copper mixed with lime. I spend some time trying to figure out if there was an "organic" solution. In my mind organic would mean mixing some hippy soap and water. But no such luck. Leaf Curl is a very prevalent fungus in the Sacramento Valley and without spraying, it is unlikely that once infected your tree will not continue to be infected year after year. The Integrated Pest Management Program in California (check out their website under Helpful Links to the right) recommends the following products for home gardeners: Lilly Miller Kop R Spray Concentrate, Monterey Liqui-Cop and Lilly Miller Microcop Fungicide. The best time to spray is right before your buds begin to open (looks for those few eager buds that have barely cracked open and you can see a little green or pink). Wait for day when it will be sunny and more importantly when it will not rain for the next couple of days. Dormant sprays can over time build up in the soil and become toxic and should not be allowed to run off into water ways.

In the last few years there are some new varieties that are Leaf Curl resistant or a little more tolerant:
For Peaches- Indian Free, Q 1-8, and Muir

For Nectarines - Kreibich

Now that my nectarine is about to flower I'll start prepping my vegetable beds and debate on adding another raised bed....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome to The Heather Patch

Well, I'll start off by saying I am not a gardening expert by any means! I've read lots of books, shop at a lot of nurseries and even gone to a few shows (the cool ones by various plant societies- not the Home and Garden Show). My gardening techniques run the gamut. I take ideas from both local public gardens and private gardens of friends, I experiment, I move plants as if they were furniture and there is definitely blood, sweat and tears. But in the end, it's as if I've gotten to draw the picture but garden refuses to color within the lines. It's probably prettier that way.

This time of year most of us are just staring at the gray sky, thankful for the rains but wondering when we can start playing again. Don't worry, there's plenty to do! I started my winter vegetable garden in mid October and have been reaping the rewards since December. First there were the radishes that seem to grow over night. Then rainbow kale (why bother with green kale when you can get "greens" in brilliant reds and yellows) along with other "Chinese" greens. Now for the last few weeks I've been getting some great turnips and carrots, all of which started from seed.

I am not a big fan of roses or at least have not found any that I am too wild about. However, if you do have them, you should be cutting them back now if you haven't already. I have also pruned my grapes, my nectarine tree and have cut back my butterfly bushes.

A word on pruning- it is not nearly as difficult as some folks make it sound. A few easy rules I follow:
1. Don't cut the bud. If you want a bud to grow, leave it be and cut after the bud (a bud is that little knot on the branch from which a new branch will grow).
2. Cut everything growing down. This is especially true for fruit trees. I just run my hand below each branch and whenever I run into another branch starting to grow down from my first branch I cut it. If you don't do this with your fruit trees the weight of the fruits will break the branch wasting all the energy your tree spend growing that branch and the fruit in the first place!
3. Use good SHARP shears when pruning, you do not want to rip branches off. For bushes I like to cut so the tops are curved. But just remember, you will not kill your bush from a bad pruning job- it will grow back, it just may look funny for awhile!