Summer Priorities

 

My first summer priority in the garden centers on weeding, and my regular resolution to walk around with a weed identification book. My desire to know the names of garden plants extends to the weeds that know so well how to grow under all conditions, and without nurture.

One new arrival is the Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum), which is a relative of several desirable plants, including potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. It is common throughout California.

7-17-15 - Solanum_nigrum

This weed grows up to four feet tall. UC’s Integrated Pest Management website describes its leaves as follows: “The first true leaves are spade shaped with smooth edges and the lower surface is often purple. Later leaves are increasingly larger, egg shaped, dark green, often purple tinged, with a smooth to slightly wavy edge, and covered with short non-glandular hairs and some glandular hairs.”

The plant produces small, star-shaped white flowers that develop in blackberries about one-quarter inch in diameter. Some varieties have edible berries, but their taste is not good enough to offset risking that you have a different variety in your garden.

To its credit, the Black Nightshade pulls up easily.

Another member of the Solanaceae, the tomato, is also flourishing in my garden. This year, I planted two cherry tomato varieties from Love Apple Farm, chosen at San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. A volunteer from last season, ‘Sweet Million’, popped up, so with minimal watering, I have an abundant harvest of cherries for salads and casual snacks outdoors.

Then, a friend gave me a seedling of a Black Krim (Solanum lycopersicum), a heirloom tomato from Russia. This plant needs consistent moisture. If the soil is allowed to dry out between watering sessions, the fruit has a tendency to crack.

Tomato fanciers relish its “rich, salty flavor,” so I’m watching for the fruits to ripen enough for a taste. When fully ripe, the tomatoes are a dark reddish purple or brown (not truly black) and with dark green around the top, or shoulder.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 11.57.09 AM

Black Krim Tomato Credit: www.gardenharvestsupply.com/

Another priority for the summer is mulching, which is actually a good practice for any season, whenever the soil is uncovered. Mulching discourages weeds, slows the evaporation of moisture, creates a good environment for soil microbes, and protects the soil from erosion.

Organic mulches are available in garden centers in bags of 1.5 or 2 cubic feet. For larger gardens, chipped material from a tree service is a low-cost alternative. Such material is coarser than commercial mulches, and consequently lasts longer.

A tree service will drop a load of chips on your property without charge, if you can receive it on their schedule. Another option is load a yard or two of chips into your truck, at the service’s premises. Call ahead!

A responsible tree service will not bring or offer chips from diseased trees, but otherwise the chips will be from a randomly chosen pruning project. All chips are good in the garden, but some are more aromatic than others. Think eucalyptus!

Finally, during these warm summer months, we can anticipate significant rainfalls this winter, based on the meteorologists’ assessments of the El Niño ocean conditions. Potentially heavy rains won’t completely end our drought, but it could help a lot.

***

GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

Protecting the Pollinators

The next time you are in your garden, tell the bees a national strategy now exists to protect their health.

The document, dated May 19, 2015, responds to President Obama’s memorandum of June 19, 2014, establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and including representatives of fourteen other federal agencies. The president asked for a report in six months, but it required eleven months.

Monarch Butterly

Monarch Butterly

Several federal studies on pollinator health had already been conducted, and most observers recognized that the decline of honeybee and butterfly populations was resulting from several factors:

Loss of Habitat. The use of Roundup to kill weeds in crop fields also has been eliminating milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) that Monarch larvae eat.

Exposure to Chemical Pesticides. The use of neonicotinoid pesticides (“neonics”) also has been killing honeybees and leading to Colony Collapse Disorder, and perhaps killing birds as well.

Attacks from Pests. The Varroa destructor is a tiny parasitic mite that first appeared in the United States in 1987. It infests bee colonies and feeds on bee blood.

Other threats to pollinator health include loss of nutritional forage, diseases, and even stresses related to trucking beehives to pollinate agricultural crops.

The Task Force report addresses four themes: research on pollinator losses, public education and outreach, improving pollinator habitat, and developing public-private partnerships to carry out these activities.

The Task Force also identified three target outcomes:

  • Reduce honeybee colony losses by to no more than 15% within ten years;
  • Increase the Eastern population of Monarch butterflies to 225 million butterflies by 2020;
  • Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

The Task Force, working with numerous federal agencies, has developed a series of action plans and resources to pursue these intended outcomes. It also has committed to annual assessments of progress toward these goals.

Another bureaucracy has been created!

Bee-friendly organizations have been less than enthusiastic about these plans. For example, the Xerces Society said, “The national strategy includes valuable long-term plans that could, over time, strengthen the pesticide regulatory system. But it fails to offer pesticide mitigation to address issues currently facing pollinators.”

Similarly, the Center for Food Safety said, “the plan is unfortunately too weak to actually accomplish these goals.” The Center called for speedy action to reduce uses of chemical pesticides and herbicides that have been identified as threats to pollinator health.

We’ll watch for the results of these action plans. We would like to tell the bees that the federal strategy is working.

Meanwhile, help to protect our hardworking pollinators by keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using the less-toxic alternatives. For more ideas, the Pollinator Partnership has provided,  “7 Things You Can Do For Pollinators.”

More

Another bee-friendly group that advocates reduced uses of neonics is Beyond Pesticides.

Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

One of the best bargains in gardening is planting bare root trees and shrubs. And now is the time to do just that.

Bare root trees are dormant, by definition, and not attractive in the usual way, but they are excellent candidates for addition to your garden.

Bare Root Tree

Click to Enlarge

I have often written of the advantages of buying mail order plants, to draw from a wider selection than local garden centers can offer. That’s still a good practice for many plants, although there are drawbacks, as well: mail order buyers need to confirm that the plant of interest is right for their garden, particularly in terms of winter temperatures. Some tropical plants will not survive even the moderate winters of the Monterey Bay area, and some require more winter chill than they will receive in our climate, and will not blossom or fruit well here.

Years ago, eager to start a small orchard of antique varieties of apple and pear trees, I ordered ten bare root plants from a mid-west nursery, only to watch them struggle and eventually fail for lack of winter chill. Purely by chance, one tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin, managed to survive my garden’s USDA zone and is producing very tasty apples to this year. That tree stands to remind me to do my homework before ordering mail order plants.

The hazards of selection are less important during bare root season because local garden centers are able to stock very good inventories of bare root trees and shrubs that are right for the local climate.

Despite the best efforts of garden centers, the economics of stocking containerized plants limit inventories of plants in pots: they cost more to ship and require more space, and offered at twice the price of the same plant in bare root.

Conversely, mail order suppliers (which still might offer a greater range of choices) can ship wholesale orders of bare root plants efficiently to garden centers, but have to recover the greater costs of shipping small quantities of plants to retail purchasers. So, for individual gardeners, the mail order price could be higher than the garden center price.

Additional benefits of buying bare root plants include larger root mass, according to researchers, easier to move and plant without soil and container, and faster growth because they adapt easily to local soil as they come out of dormancy.

The range of options at a garden center could include ornamentals, fruit trees, roses and berries. Many other shrubs could be offered in bare root form, as well, with the same advantages, but I have seen little development of that market.

When selecting an ornamental or fruit tree, look for a straight trunk, evenly spaced branches (if any), good spread of healthy-looking roots that have been kept moist, and a complete lack of any wounds or disease.

Many garden centers also offer espaliered fruit trees that have been developed by grafting branches in the right places, rather than by the time- and labor-consuming process of training. Some espaliered dwarf apple trees include grafts of several apple varieties, to produce a healthy young tree that will both fit a tight space in the garden and produce a selection of applies that ripen at different times during the season.

It is important to plant bare root specimens before bud break, so there is a small window of opportunity for the lowest prices. Don’t delay!

Goals for the New Year

Resolutions too often involve stopping something we enjoy doing, and easily abandoned. Let us instead try positive goals for gardening in 2015.

Good goals for gardeners might involve contributing to the community, sustaining the environment and adopting best practices in our gardens. We might not want to take on all those lofty goals at once, so here is a short list of options.

Volunteer at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

The best opportunity to test the waters is to attend the Arboretum’s annual series of free Volunteer Orientation and Training classes, which are held on seven Tuesday mornings, beginning January 13th.

I confess to a personal interest in this suggestion, but the Arboretum stands on its own as a unique resource for the Monterey Bay area and California. The orientation offers a fascinating experience to move behind-the-scenes into the Arboretum’s operation, and, if you decide to volunteer, a rewarding place to help out—in many different ways—during your available hours.

During the orientation sessions, Arboretum staff and volunteers present slide shows and walking tours through the various gardens and collections. The classes also introduce participants to horticulture, gardening, plant conservation, propagation and basic botany.

For information, visit <arboretum.ucsc.edu/> and click on “Read more…”

Succeed with Fruit Trees

The Monterey Bay area is a fine place to grow a wide range of fruit trees, and you can enjoy Nature’s bounty IF you follow basic principles.

A good place to pick up those principles is the Free Fruit Tree Q&A Sessions conducted by Orin Martin, manager of UC Santa Cruz’s Alan Chadwick Garden, and Matthew Sutton, founder and owner of Orchard Keepers (www.orchardkeepers.com). Sessions will be held from 10:00 to 12:00 noon, January 10th at The Garden Company, 2218 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, and January 17th at the San Lorenzo Garden Center, 235 River Street, Santa Cruz.

These sessions will kick off the 2015 series of fruit tree workshops offered by the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden. For information and to register the workshops, call (831) 459-3240, email casfs@ucsc.edu, or see the Brown Paper Tickets site at http://tinyurl.com/workshops2015.

Graft a Fruit Tree

The Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers will host is annual free exchange of fruit tree scions from 12:00 to 3:00, Sunday, January 11th, at Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Building #5005, Aptos. Several hundred varieties of common, rare and experimental scions (cuttings) from all over the world will be available. There also will be grafting demonstrations, and experts and hobbyists to answer your questions.

Adding different varieties to your fruit trees is an interesting, productive, quick and very inexpensive way to learn about fruit trees and create new edibles in your garden.

For more information, send email to Monterey_bay@crfg.org, or call 831-332-4699.

There are many other creative and productive goals for gardeners. Use this occasion to target your gardening visions during the coming year.

Flat Fruit Trees

One of the oldest advanced techniques of gardening—and one of my favorites—is espaliering, which involves shaping woody plants into two-dimensional shapes. Now, in bare root season, it’s timely to consider this tree training technique.

Espaliering has been traced back to the walled gardens of Persia, as long ago as 4,000 B.C. It was practiced during the Roman Empire and developed further during the Middle Ages.

There are good reasons for training trees or shrubs into relatively flat shapes. The primary reason in many situations is to garden productively within a limited space. Adding one fruit tree might be possible in a smaller garden, but even trees growing on dwarf rootstock can require a ten by ten area, plus some walking-around space, for cultivation. A gardener could use this tree training technique to grow several different trees in the same 1oo square feet.

Espaliers - Les Quatre Vents

These espaliered apple trees were growing at Les Quatre Vents, a notable private garden near Quebec, Canada. I took this photo in August, 2013

Espaliering is especially useful in narrow spaces along a driveway or sidewalk, or between the house and the property boundary. With an appropriate training plan, the gardener can maintain a row of fruit trees at a height of three or four feet, in a low profile that is both accessible and attractive.

Espaliered Apple Tree

Reader Bob Lippe of Seaside photographed this apple tree near a chateau in the Loire Valley, in France. The tree was being maintained at a height of only two feet.

If you have a space for which you might like to grow an espalier, check first to determine whether sun exposure is sufficient for the plant(s) you would like to install in the space. The most popular plants for espaliers are fruit trees, particularly apples, apricots, cherries and pears. In addition to fruit trees, other plants also can be grown in flat panels, including berries and climbing plants.

All the popular fruit trees—and most fruiting or flowering bushes or vines—require six or more hours of direct sunlight each day. Specific fruit tree varieties will perform better than others in the Monterey Bay area, so it would be prudent to do a bit of research before buying a tree for this purpose, or any other garden use.

Local garden centers usually offer only varieties that are appropriate for the immediate area. One could also seek the advice o the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers < http://www.crfg.org/>.

In addition to making good use of limited space, espaliering has at least two additional benefits. One is to increase a fruit tree’s productivity. Training a tree to a two-dimensional form emphasizes horizontal branching, which maximizes the development of fruiting spurs. In addition, the flat form exposes more of the branches to sunlight and air, which promotes fruiting.

The second additional benefit is the opportunity for creative expression. Over the years, gardeners have developed many patterns for shaping the branches of trees and shrubs: fans, candelabras, and multi-tiered shapes are simplest to manage and most popular.

A special form of espalier, the cordon, is a single-trunked tree that develops spur clusters along its length. In this approach, branching is avoided and the trunk is trained to forty=-five degrees to the horizontal. A variation, the step-over design, brings the trunk to the horizontal, forming a low border.

For advice on growing fruit trees, attend a fruit tree workshop, such as those offered by the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden: call (831) 459-3240, email casfs@ucsc.edu, or visit the Brown Paper Tickets website at http://tinyurl.com/workshops2015.

For specific information on espaliering, visit a bookstore, public library or Amazon.com for Allen Gilbert’s “Espalier: Beautiful Productive Garden Walls and Fences” (Hyland House, 2009). Any of several other more general books on pruning also would be helpful.

Visit your local garden center now for an early selection of bare root fruit trees.

Tree Identification (Pineapple Guava)

Q.  Could you please give me the name of this tree.

Ri%20thumb%20fruit Rick%20tree

You have helped me in the past.

A. Your plant is a Pineapple Guava (Feijoa sellowiana), a cousin of the Chilean plants, Luma and Ugni. Michael Kusiak, president of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, identified it quickly when I asked. He said, “Once you train your eye to them, you will see them all over Santa Cruz County.”

Here’s a link to a short YouTube video about the Pineapple Guava.

Worms in Apples

Q. My apple tree has some kind of bug  that has infected the fruit and as a result it has worms in the apples.  What can I use to get rid of these unwelcome visitors? August 2014

A.

The worms are probably the larvae of the codling moth.

Here is an article from Planet Natural (www.planetnatural.com) on non-toxic control of this pest. It’s not quick or easy, but with persistence should be effective.

Tour Offers Insights to Growing Citrus


The Monterey Bay chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers recently organized a members-only tour of a local citrus nursery’s growing grounds, in Watsonville.

Aaron Dillon, our tour guide, shared the history of Four Winds Growers, which was started by his great grandparents. He described the current operations and the pests and diseases that are challenging the entire citrus business.

10-17-14 Aaron Dillon

One threat to citrus trees is the citrus leafminer (Phyllocnistis citrella), a very small Asian moth that lays its eggs in the tissue of citrus leaves. The eggs hatch into larva that feeds on the leaf, leaving a clearly visible, serpentine trail just below the surface of the leaf. Leafminers disfigure the leaves but rarely cause serious damage.

A greater threat is the Huanglongbing disease (HLB), which is known by the common names “citrus greening disease” and “yellow shoot disease.” HLB kills citrus trees.

A tiny insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, transfers this disease from tree to tree as it feeds. Because there is no cure for HLB, the control strategy is to find and stop the insect from spreading the disease. This pest has greatly reduced southern California’s citrus nursery industry, and has very recently been spotted in the San Jose area.

The citrus industry has developed regulations and procedures for propagating citrus trees in greenhouses, while keeping Asian citrus psyllids outside. The tour group entered an enormous greenhouse through an antechamber, in which a large fan produced positive air pressure to exclude any psyllids. The outer door closed, the fan was turned off, and an inner door opened to allow the group to enter the working area of the greenhouse.

Inside, a greenhouse worker, Alicia, expertly demonstrated the process of grafting a citrus scion to a robust rootstock. A skilled worker can graft 1,000 plants in a single day.

10-17-14 Grafting Orange Scions

Aaron Dillon engaged the interested visitors with a wide-ranging presentation of many aspects of growing citrus trees. He demonstrated the extensive facilities in a large greenhouse where roses had been grown previously, and proudly showed an even larger new greenhouse now being readied for an expansion of propagation activities.

10-17-14 Visitors in the Mist

Four Winds Growers propagates popular varieties of orange, mandarin, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and kumquat. For details, visit the nursery’s website <wwwlfourwindsgrowers.com> and click on “Our Citrus Trees.” Dillon listed three interesting varieties that consumers will enjoy in the future:

  • Vaniglia Sanguigno (acidless sweet orange)
  • Lee x Nova Mandarin (88-2 mandarin hybrid)
  • New Zealand Lemonade (sweet lemon hybrid)

For information on these and many other varieties, browse to the amazing Citrus Variety Collection website, maintained by the University of California, Riverside <http://www.citrusvariety.ucr.edu/>.

Many varieties of citrus trees grow well in the Monterey Bay area, and local nurseries have many choices in stock currently. Growing information is readily available on the websites of the California Rare Fruit Growers < www.crfg.org/> and Four Winds Growers. Pest control advice for home gardeners is offered by the Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program www.californiacitrusthreat.org/.

Garden Plants on the Move (Moving Trees & Shrubs)

Autumn in the garden is a good time to prepare for relocating shrubs or trees that would look or grow better in a different location.

If the thought of moving a shrub or tree troubles you, recognize that even good plants need not be permanent. Here are some reasons for moving a healthy shrub or tree.

  • The tree or shrub has grown so large it’s crowding a walkway or other plants.
  • Other nearby plants have grown so large that they are shading a plant that needs sun.
  • Other nearby plants are now gone, exposing a plant that needs shade.
  • The tree or shrub is needed elsewhere in the landscape.
  • The gardener wishes to install a new feature, and the tree or shrub is in the way.
  • The gardener has wishes to establish a thematic plant bed where an off-theme tree or shrub is growing.

When preparing to relocate a plant, first decide on where it will go. Examine the new location to ensure that it is the right place for this particular plant. Confirm that the soil is suitable, the drainage is good, and the exposure it right for the plant. Finally, make certain that the new spot could accommodate the plant when it is fully grown. Then, dig a hole twice the width of the intended root ball.

Ideally, prune the roots to protect against transplant shock. This involves digging a trench around the plant, outside the intended root ball, refilling the trench and watering to settle the soil. Root-prune in March for plants to be moved in October, and in October for plants to be moved in March.

Then, plan how to move the plant, taking its size into consideration.

Small Shrubs and Trees

For a shrub less than three feet tall, or a tree with a trunk is less than one inch wide, you could move it bareroot, i.e., without digging up a root ball. To move such a smaller plant bareroot, dig a trench around it, cutting the longer roots, wash the soil off the lateral roots, and use a flat shovel to remove the soil under the plant. Keep the roots moist until you are ready to transplant.

Not-so-small Shrubs and Trees

If you are preparing to move a plant that is between three and five feet high, decide how large a root ball to provide. For industry standards for transplanting different plants of various sizes, visit the website, americanhort.org and search for “root ball.” For example, moving a five-foot tree or shrub requires an eighteen-inch wide root ball. A root ball of that size could weigh 250 pounds, so plan for the appropriate equipment and helpers.

Larger Shrubs and Trees

Most gardeners will hire a tree service to move a tree or shrub that is larger than five feet high. If you prefer to do such work yourself, I will say “best wishes,” and predict that you will have professionals do your next transplant.

Really Large Trees

Even very large trees—up to forty-five feet high—can be moved successfully, if not cheaply. The widely available tree spade uses an array of large shovels to dig a conical divot to pluck a plant from the ground, and deposit it in a matching hole. For video clips of tree spades in various sizes, browse to YouTube.com and search for “tree spade.” To see an interesting DIY device, search YouTube for “Tree Toad 24 inch Tree Transplanter.”

Tree Spade

A mechanized tree spade makes transplanting large bushes and small or medium trees a much easier proposition. Photo: Dutchman Industries

 

A newer technology for moving larger plants is the “air tool,” which uses compressed air to blow soil away from a tree’s roots. This bareroot method avoids pruning or breaking the roots, so the plant experiences little trauma and quickly resumes its usual growth cycle. To see a brief video demo of the air tool, visit growingwisdom.com, click on “Trees & Shrubs” and scroll to the link, “How to Move Large Trees Using an Air Tool.”

After moving a tree or shrub, transplanting herbaceous perennials is easy!