Growing Edibles in Modules

Spring has arrived! Our days grow longer from the Vernal Equinox (March 20) until the Summer Solstice on June 21. This season inspires gardeners to focus anew on their gardens.

To be sure, avid gardeners have diligently pursued dormant-period priorities and planted before the rainy season, and their landscapes are now in good condition. But many have taken a break during recent months.

This is the time when gardeners aspire to planting vegetables mostly for the pleasure of seeing edibles develop in their gardens. A vegetable patch might or might not save money, depending on how it is planned and implemented, but it reliably satisfies gardeners of any age and is particularly gratifying for kids.

For novice gardeners, however, creating a vegetable garden can be a daunting prospect. It often seems like a lot of work and mysterious requirements, and the impulse evolves quickly to “maybe next year.”

Fortunately, we have great new resource for just this situation: the 2nd edition of Mel Bartholomew’s classic garden book, “All New Square Foot Gardening.” Earlier versions were published in 1981 and 2007, and this new edition expands upon those bestsellers.

The result is an exceptionally clear and complete explanation for an efficient, cost-effective method for growing vegetables in the home garden.

The insight for square-foot gardening is while growing vegetable in rows works well for commercial farmers, home gardeners could use their space better and meet their food needs more accurately and efficiently with modular “square-foot” gardening.

The basic plan is a raised bed, four-feet square, with sixteen planting beds. Each one-foot square can be planted with one large vegetable, such as broccoli or cabbage, or up to sixteen smaller vegetables, e.g., onions or carrots.

The book includes multiple variations: repeating the basic plan as needed for a large family, adding a trellis for vining plants, planting on a patio or balcony, etc.

Bartholomew describes each step of garden development in detail, with lucid photographs. The process is easily applied by most gardeners, and the author’s website offers more information and a range of useful products.

If you have postponed your desire to grow vegetables, this book will help you to discover a satisfying and successful adventure with edible gardening. If you are already gardening in rows, square-foot gardening will help you to create a more efficient, more manageable approach.

Enjoy your garden!

Delightful Dahlias

Get ready for the annual tuber and plant sale by The Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, next Saturday, April 6th, at the Deer Park Shopping Center, in Aptos.

The sale will open at 9:00 a.m., when there likely will be a line of eager dahlia growers looking for the latest hybrid introductions, or particular favorites, or specific colors to complete a landscaping design.

Or all of the above!

The dahlia, a native of Mexico, grows quite well in the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate.

There are many varieties of dahlias, so selection of plants for your garden is the first task. A good and simple rule of thumb is to select varieties that please your eyes. Other approaches include selecting plants that have won prizes or that have blossoms of the color, form or size that you prefer.

Fortunately, there are excellent plant selection resources on the website of the American Dahlia Society <>; click on the link for “Dahlia Resources.” To view photos of dahlia blossoms, conduct a Google search for “dahlia plants” and click on “Images”

Tubers are specialized structures designed to store nutrients during a dormant season. Dahlias are stem tubers, which differ from root tubers, like potatoes. A stem tuber has one or more buds on the end that was attached to the old plant. These buds, called “eyes” are the plant’s growing points, so examine actual tubers to spot an “eye.” Even experienced growers can have difficulty recognizing an eye, but a tuber lacking an eye will not produce new growth, so look closely.

The ADS website also provides information on cultivating dahlias. The basic (and easy) method is to select a spot that enjoys at least six hours of direct sunlight every day, and good drainage. The time to plant is between “right now” and about mid-June. The top of the tuber should four-to-six inches below the surface (larger tubers are planted deeper) with the “eye” facing upwards.

Taller dahlias should be staked to avoid flopping. Install a stake near the tuber at planting time; pushing a stake into the soil later risks damaging the tuber.

If you prefer not decorating your new dahlia bed with bare stakes, install a short piece of plastic pipe next to the tuber, with the top just above soil level. Then, when the plant threatens to flop, insert a thin stake into the plastic pipe and tie the dahlia to the stake.

Snails enjoy snacking on dahlias, so as soon as new growth appears, apply non-toxic snail bait, such as Sluggo or Escargo. Gophers also find the tubers tasty, so plan to monitor for evidence of gopher activity, and have traps ready.

Enjoy your garden!


2013 Dahlia Sale

Perennial Wildflowers and the Year’s Big Show

When we think of native California wildflowers, we usually envision wide swaths of gold or blue blossoms draped over the state’s open spaces. The state’s hundreds of annual wildflowers are great treasures of nature, whether in open fields or private gardens, but our delight with the annuals should extend to California’s perennial wildflowers. Many of these are excellent candidates for the residential garden.

Both the annual and perennial wildflowers offer all the benefits of native plants: having evolved to thrive in our dry-summer climate and native soil, they are both easy to grow and eagerly enjoyed by the native fauna for food and shelter.

Many native perennial wildflowers are valuable assets for the home garden. Here are a few of the most popular:

  • Foothill Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus) and Bush Monkey-flower (Mimulus spp.) grow well in both full sun and partial shade.
  • Pacific Coast Irises, smaller than the tall bearded irises, include the best-known Douglas Iris (I. douglasiana) and ten other species. These plants hybridize easily in the wild, so they are usually referred to by their group name. Both species plants and natural hybrids are reliable bloomers, as are the many cultivated hybrids. Pacific Coast Irises are difficult to transplant successfully, so are usually propagated in the fall by divisions or seeds.
  • Alumroot (Heuchera spp.), a small, easily grown plant for the shade garden, occurs in sixteen native California species, including H. maxima, H. sanguinea, and H. micrantha. Growers have developed many hybrids with a variety of leaf colors. The flowers are attractive but not the primary attraction.
  • Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea), which prefers moist and shady conditions, produces large triangular leaves and carmine red flowers on stems that rise up to three feet.

Visit for sources of information on many more California native perennial wildflowers.


The San Francisco Flower & Garden Show opens on Wednesday, March 20th, and continues through Sunday, March 24th at the San Mateo Event Center. One of the nation’s largest and best events for home gardeners, this year’s Show offers 20 gorgeous international display gardens and the 30 small space gardens, 13 seminars each day by gardening experts, and a Marketplace with several hundred vendors offering plants and garden products.

A highlight will be the world’s largest rotating succulent globe, designed and created by Robin Stockwell, in Monterey County. I saw this unique globe in development and I’m confident it will amaze all who see it.

The SF Flower and Garden Show is a must-see event for learning about many aspects of gardening and landscaping, bringing home desirable new plants and garden accessories, and simply enjoying time in the company of other avid gardeners.

For more info, see the feature article in today’s Herald and visit

Enjoy your garden!

Wildflower Season

We are approaching the early spring period (March and April, particularly) when the annual wildflowers display their blossoms for our viewing pleasure.

To be frank, however, this display is not intended for our eyes, but rather to attract bees and other pollinators so that the plants could set seeds. It’s really about reproduction, right there in the open.

But never mind, we can freely enjoy this extraordinary display and need not feel the least bit voyeuristic.

Viewing our native wildflowers provides a unique experience, an annual celebration of floral beauty, and an opportunity to appreciate nature’s bounty.

Several ways to appreciate wildflowers come to mind, each with strong points:

Gardening with Wildflowers

California native plants are fine candidates for residential gardens, and wildflowers bring all the associated virtues: tolerate drought, play well with other flora and fauna, etc. They also look great, thrive in the Monterey Bay soils and microclimates, and self-seed freely. Their bloom periods are no longer than needed for reproduction, but with planning the gardener could select species for a longer display.

Viewing Wildflowers in Captivity

Monterey Bay area gardeners and nature lovers can enjoy the 52nd annual wildflower show, a gift of the Pacific Grove Museum and the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. This extraordinary show, the largest of its kind in the Northern and Western Hemispheres, will present more than 600 species and varieties of wildflowers that are native to California’s central coast. The cut flowers are short-lived, of course, so plan your visit during the period from Friday, April 19th to Sunday, April 21st, from 10:00 to 5:00 each day. The show is free to Museum members and CNPS members; others are asked to donate $5.00. This unique show ranks as a world-class opportunity to enjoy and learn about our native wildflowers.

Visiting Wildflowers at their Homes

Wildflowers are most spectacular in vast multi-colored sweeps in the wild. Fields of wildflowers have delighted and impressed viewers, dating from reports by the earliest explorers, notably including the naturalist John Muir, who wrote in 1916, “Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich-furred garden of yellow Compositae.”

There are many possible field trips to the wildflowers in March and April. In the Monterey Bay area, these sites include Garland Park, the Pinnacles National Park, Fort Ord, Point Lobos State Reserve, and many others.


The website of the California State Parks provides comprehensive guidance to Discover Spring Wildflowers in California State Parks.

The indispensable resource for local viewing in Dr. Rod Yeager’s website, Wildflowers of Monterey County. Look also for his book, Wildflowers of Central Coastal California.

For nature lovers ready to travel farther afield, find wildflowers in ten western U.S. states in the AAA’s website on Wildflower Resources.

For John Muir’s writing about California wildflowers, visit the Sierra Club’s website, Quotations About California Central Valley Wildflowers.

Visit the wildflowers this year!

Wildflowers for the Cultivated Garden

If you see some of California’s wildflowers in the field or at the wildflower show in the Pacific Grove Museum (April 19-21), you just might be inspired to add a few to your own garden. In this column, we offer some thoughts for such a project.

First, the season when wildflowers are in bloom is the time to choose your favorites and begin plans for your garden. The early bloomers are already appearing; wildflower season will continue through about August. Many opportunities exist to spot those that would please your eyes and enhance your home landscape.

When selecting wildflowers for the garden, consider plants that are small, neat and refined, and suitable for the sunny or shady site where you would place them.

Most annual wildflowers grow best in full sun. An early bloomer, Baby Blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii) is a popular choice for February. Each bowl-shaped blossom has five azure blue petals and a white center with dark blue flecks or streaks from the base. The plant grows about six inches tall.

The blossoms of the related Fivespot (N. maculata) have five white petals, each with a blue-purple spot at the tip. It grows to about twelve inches tall, and blooms in the early spring.

Other good choices for a sunny garden include Baby Lupine (Lupinus nanus), Foothill Poppy (Eschscholzia caespitosa), Canchalagua (Cenaurium venustum), and Wind Poppy (Stylomecon heterophylla). Taller annuals include Desert Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), Bird’s Eyes (Gilia tricolor), Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata) and Farewell-to-Spring (Clarkia ssp.). You may well find additional wildflowers to enjoy.

California annual wildflowers are best planted from seed. Some garden centers will present some potted seedlings, but mail order nurseries will offer a wider selection and lower prices.

For a bed of about 133 square feet, ¼ to ½ ounce of seeds, depending on size, will be enough. Sources for small inexpensive packets of seeds for specific plants (not mixes) including the following:

  • Larner Seeds, which also offers a $4.00 booklet, “Notes on Growing California Wildflowers”(
  • The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, which also offers a weekly Wildflower Hotline (
  • Seed Hunt, which is located in the Pajaro Valley in the Monterey Bay area (

Annual wildflower seeds may be sown at any time before the beginning of the rainy season, i.e., about mid-October. Clear the area of weeds, sow the seeds and rake them in lightly, mostly to make them difficult for birds to find. The seeds will remain dormant during the dry season, and should not be watered at that time. They will germinate naturally when wet with rain.

Several desirable California native wildflowers are perennial plants. We will explore good choices among those plants in this column next week.