Seasonal Chores

Just because we’re heading into winter is no reason to stop growing vegetables. With a shift in focus, there are any number of edibles that you can tend during cooler weather.

By Way of Background

Cool-season broccoli and green onions share space with bright-blooming calendulas.

Living on the Central Coast has many virtues, not the least of which is that in the garden, our mild, Mediterranean climate means we can grow crops year-round. But instead of four seasons per year, our edibles only have two: the warm season and the cool season.

Warm-season crops are generally big, robust growers that bear fruit in some form or another. These are our sun-kissed tomatoes, elegant squash and zucchini, crunchy bush beans, succulent corn and sweet and fiery peppers. To mature properly, the warm-weather types need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, plus plenty of heat. Each has a predictable time line, generally marked on the seed packet or plant tag, with days from planting to harvest ranging from 45 days to 120 days, depending on the variety.

Cool-season crops tend to be more demure in stature and yield edible roots (beets and carrots), leaves and stalks (salad greens and Swiss chard), and flower buds (broccoli and cauliflower). There’s nary a fruit in sight.

Cool-season vegetables require far less sunshine. Four to six hours of direct light is sufficient on the days that the sun does shine. If clouds or rain move in, they may slow down or take a break. But they suffer no harm. When brighter skies appear, they simply resume growing. As a result, during wetter years — or those gifted with a string of warm, sunny days — it can be difficult to predict when exactly a particular edible will be ready to harvest.

Getting Started

Carrots need consistent moisture and excellent drainage for uniform growth.

One of the keys to successful warm-season vegetables is providing enough water early on, to keep the young plants and their emerging roots well hydrated.

Cool-season crops can face quite the opposite problem.

In a rainy year, and depending on your soil type, they may have trouble drying out.

Excellent drainage is critical. While your cool-season edibles won’t mind any and all moisture that nature provides, they absolutely detest sitting in cold, boggy soil for days on end.

If you have heavy clay, dig down at least a foot and amend the excavated soil with a generous blend of coarse and fine-textured compost to force rough, jagged pathways between the small, slick clay particles. Then shape the amended soil into mounds at least 6 inches high and 12 to 18 inches wide.

Packman broccoli forms a central head, followed by side shoots that can be harvested for three to four weeks.

If you have coarse, sandy soil, amend with finer-textured compost. In coarse soils, compost replenishes nutrients and acts like a sponge, preventing the nutrients and water from washing away too quickly.Growing cool-season edibles in a raised bed provides an opportunity to adjust both your soil composition and drainage.

But even if your raised bed soil is tip-top at the moment, be sure to mix in at least an inch or two of compost each time you plant.

Or if you garden in that magical mix of rich, loamy soil that already drains well, still consider applying a soil conditioner that contains humic acid or mycorrhizae to boost beneficial microorganisms in the soil. We add new material every time we plant a new crop, and after 20 years, the soil in our raised beds is dark, rich and smells wonderful. Even better, it reliably produces healthy bumper crops.

Also consider growing your cool-season crops in containers, if what you’re growing doesn’t have a big footprint, such as a mixture of leafy greens or several rounds of carrots. Provided they’ll get enough sunshine, you can put the containers close to your front or back door. That way you won’t leave a trail of muddy footsteps each time you traipse back and forth to your garden.

What to Plant Now

Cool-season root crops include beets, carrots, green onions, kohlrabi, leeks, radishes and turnips.

Sow these directly in the garden, as the roots are difficult to transplant. Be sure to net the bed. Foraging birds can pluck the seedlings so rapidly that you might not realize that your seeds ever sprouted.

Buttercrunch lettuce and frilly red lettuce contrast beautifully in the garden as well as on the plate.

Leaf and stalk crops include bok choy, cabbage, celery, kale, lettuce, radicchio, salad greens, spinach and Swiss chard.

While you can grow any of these from seed, I like to purchase nursery seedlings for their variety.

For instance, rather than buying a single seed packet and growing 20 Red Sails lettuce plants, I’d rather spend a little more for an assortment of butter, romaine and loose-leaf lettuces.

They’re prettier in the garden and on the plate. And I don’t have to contend with birds gobbling up my tiny little sprouts.

Edible flower buds include artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower. These are the behemoths of the cool-season world, inhabiting far more space in the garden.

A single artichoke plant, with its silvery, serrated leaves, can easily grow 5 feet tall and wide, while broccoli and cauliflower plants grow about 2 feet tall and wide. With their deep, spreading roots, all three are at their best in fertile, well-drained beds.

A slightly different version of this article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Crimson clover is an excellent source of nitrogen, provides forage for beneficial insects and helps control erosion.

If you’re planning to grow only a few vegetables this winter — or even none at all — don’t leave your garden beds bare. Instead, consider sowing a cover crop to rejuvenate your soil.

Sometimes called compost crops or green manure, cover crops have been used for centuries to replenish nutrients, loosen up compacted soil, control erosion, inhibit weeds and provide habitat for beneficial insects.

The technique faded away in the 1950s when the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides became widespread. But with recent interest in organic and sustainable growing techniques, cover crops are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Getting Started

Ryegrass helps to break up heavy soil and  control erosion, while fava beans fix nitrogen and attract beneficial insects.

Cover crops come in two flavors: warm-season and cool-season. In all but the largest home gardens, the cool-season types are more practical. That’s because our warm-season summer vegetables tend to take up a lot of room. Think sprawling melon vines, robust rustling cornstalks and bushy, full-bodied tomatoes. Every last square inch of soil is generally consumed by one edible or another.

Come the cool season, many of our crops, including leafy greens, carrots and radishes, can be planted more intensively. Growing these smaller edibles often leaves a fair amount of bare earth, which is perfect for sowing a cover crop.

As for what to grow: consider what you’d like to achieve. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil by grabbing it from the atmosphere and “fixing” it in nodules on their roots. Cool-season annual legumes include clover, vetch, field peas, alfalfa and bell or fava beans.

Grasses and cereal grains help to build the soil and boost fertility by adding organic material. They also improve tilth and fight erosion. While they can look a little straggly themselves, they help to crowd out weeds. Look for annual ryegrass, barley and oats.

Grow a mix if you’d like your cover crop to accomplish more than one of the above. For example, Bountiful Gardens, a mail-order nursery in Willits, California, offers a Compost Crop Mix containing wheat, vetch, rye and fava beans, while Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, also mail-order, has a Premium Soil Builder Mix composed of bell beans, BioMaster peas, yellow peas, purple vetch, hairy vetch and Cayuse oats.

In the Garden

Planting a blend of wheat, purple vetch and white-blooming fava beans adds nutrients, fixes nitrogen and improves the overall structure of the soil. It’s also pretty enough to harvest for a bouquet.

Cover crops are grown from seed. It’s important to sow the cool-season annual types in September or October while daytime temperatures and soil temperatures are still warm, which boosts germination and gets the seedlings off to a  strong start.

Here’s what to do:

  • Rough up the soil with a stiff rake, garden fork or shovel.
  • Smack any dirt clods to break them apart.
  • Apply a specialized bacteria inoculant to any legume seeds.
  • Scatter the seed at the rate suggested on the packet.
  • Lightly rake in the seed to the recommended depth.
  • Gently water the area.
  • Mulch with a light layer of straw or shredded leaves, then water again.
  • Keep the surface visibly moist for the first week.

Once the seeds sprout, start backing off on the water. As the seedlings begin to shade their own roots, ease off to once a week or so. When winter rains appear, stop watering entirely, unless a dry spell occurs.

Cool-season cover crops typically take five to six months to do their work and should be ready to be knocked down in March or April. But the weather ultimately governs their tenure. They may stall out during several weeks of cooler temperatures and rain, or speed up dramatically with a series of unseasonably warm, dry days.

Harvest Time

Below ground, alfalfa fixes nitrogen. Above ground, it provides excellent habitat for bees.

Regardless of the calendar, your cover crop’s time is up when it begins flowering and its roots are still fresh and pliable.

That point is critical. I once made the mistake of letting fava beans complete their life cycle, including setting seed and withering away. Then, digging into the soil, I discovered thick, fibrous roots. While it’s best to wait three to six weeks between harvesting a cover crop and planting new vegetable seeds or seedlings, no way were those tough ropes of roots going to decompose within a reasonable period of time. To plant new vegetables, I had to yank out the roots, which included their nitrogen nodes. Doing so defeated the purpose of planting the favas. Plus, it was extra work.

To harvest your cover crop, mow it, weed whack it or hack it to the ground. If you’ve grown vetch, trailing peas or any thick-stemmed plants, cut them up so they’ll break down faster. Let the spent pieces dry out for a week or two, then till them into the soil. Or rake up the dried top growth and add it to your compost pile. Later on, you can mix the finished compost into your garden soil, returning all those nutrients and goodness to the earth.

This article was first published in the Fall 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Sweet 100s - ripening beautifully and positively delicious!

Sweet 100 tomatoes – ripening beautifully, and positively delicious!

July 4th is always our target date for picking our first fresh tomatoes of the season.

This year, we lucked out. We planted our tomatoes late — in early May, instead of late March or even April.

But a recent run of sunny days speeded up their ripening and sure enough, later today we’ll harvest what I’m sure will be the best tomatoes that we’ve ever tasted.

Of course the next time we pick them, they’ll once again be the best ever. As well as the time after that and the time after that… Truly, nothing beats a home-grown tomato in my book.

What’s interesting about our first tomatoes this year is that there are two very different varieties on the exact same schedule.

The first are Sweet 100s, which are not much of a surprise, since they’re cherries and always seem to ripen quickly, then produce forever.

But the other tomatoes are plump, medium-sized yellows on a volunteer plant.

Our mystery volunteer.

Our mystery volunteer.

Last year, we grew heirloom tomatoes in that bed, including two Yellow Pears.

Although I can’t find the remaining plant tags, I seem to remember the rest of the bed being comprised of Stupice, Carmelo and Black Prince, all in shades of medium to dark red, and all heirlooms as well.

Now the great thing about heirloom tomatoes — unlike modern hybrids — is that they’re true to seed. So future generations should bear like fruit.

So the big mystery is how plump yellows came to be. Since we grow our tomatoes shoulder-to-shoulder in raised beds, did our Yellow Pears somehow cross-pollinate with one of the other heirlooms? Or did a bird bring it in?

I may try to save some seed at the end of the season to see what results next year.

In the meantime, I’m more focused on what will be on our table tonight — perfectly delectable, perfectly sun-ripened, perfectly fresh tomatoes for the 4th of July.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

If you don't already, learn to appreciate gopher snakes.

Earth Day festivities are set for this week throughout the county and the country.

But you can celebrate the occasion year-round in the garden by following a few simple techniques.

The following ideas are easy on the natural world. Some require a little effort. Others might be considered downright lazy.

What they all share is the goal of conserving resources while creating a healthy environment for your plants and the creatures that inhabit your garden.

You can call it ecological, environmental, sustainable or green gardening. But by whatever measure, also please call it common sense.

Fix Those Drips

Stop that drip!

Sooner or later, it seems that most outdoor faucets leak. Aside from the wasted water, a mucky wet spot right up against your house is not good.

Depending on your skills, you can fix the leak yourself or call a plumber.

If the faucet handle spurts only when you turn on the water, the lazy way out is to place a bucket beneath and use the water to irrigate potted plants.

Sometimes it’s not the faucet, but the hose connector. Rather than tossing the hose, replace the connector.

If repairs aren’t in the offing, plant a bog plant under the faucet so that the leak isn’t a complete waste.

Depending on the size of the seep, pretty California native perennials to consider include western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) and Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata).


Taller pop-up sprinklers water this swath of California meadow sedge (Carex praegracilis).

Watering by hand, hauling hoses and moving portable lawn sprinklers gets old quickly. It’s tedious, inefficient and has the potential to waste an incredible amount of water.

Instead, install drip irrigation in your flower beds and around shrubs and trees; and pop-up sprinklers for your ground covers and lawn.

Then install an irrigation controller to automate the system. If you have water-conserving plants that need water every two to three weeks, make sure your timer can accommodate that long of an interval. Some inexpensive controllers only allow intervals of up to a week.

Just because you have a controller doesn’t mean you can ignore it. For instance, if May and June are damp and foggy, your plants won’t need much water. But if clear, windy days persist, they’ll want more.

Regardless of whether you automate or stay manual, water early in the morning, before the wind kicks up. This minimizes evaporation, gives your plants a fresh start and helps reduce fungal diseases that can take hold if the foliage is wet at night.

Fight Bugs Naturally

They may foul your eaves, but cliff swallows eat mosquitoes, too.

Avoid using bug spray as your first line of defense.

If aphids are a problem, hose them off with a blast from your hose. Or release lady bugs or green lacewings to gobble them up. If aphids are infiltrating your late-season broccoli, plant green onions nearby.

Marigolds, calendulas and nasturtiums are also excellent companions. In the vegetable garden, they’ll help to deter bean beetles, cabbage pests, nematodes, tomato hornworms, asparagus beetles and squash bugs.

If giant white fly is a problem, try mulching with cocoa hulls and spraying the undersides of the affected plants with horticultural oil or a mild dilution of powdered dish soap.

Cliff swallows will make a mess as they build their mud nests in your eaves. But they eat mosquitoes by the thousands.

Gopher snakes may appear alarming. But leave them alone. They’ll help keep underground rodents from tearing up your garden. And unlike gopher gas and other poisons, they won’t hurt the environment.

Start a Compost Bin

Yum! Kitchen scraps and a few rose leaves destined for my compost pile.

Compost does wonderful things in the garden. It provides nutrients in an easily accessible form to plants and promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

You can buy bags of compost or create your own.

Three things go into my compost bins: kitchen scraps, yard waste and leftover potting soil.

Kitchen scraps are fruit and vegetable waste — apple cores, onion peels, celery stalks, leafy greens and the like. Don’t use meat and dairy scraps. They’ll go rancid. I collect the scraps in a stainless pot with a tight-fitting lid, then mix the contents into my outdoor compost bins once or twice a week.

Yard waste is a combination of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material. The green is mostly grass clippings, while the brown is crumpled leaves, plus debris swept off the driveway and patio.

I occasionally add water, which seems to help speed the decomposition. Be sure your bins are in a sunny spot. The pile needs to build up heat to break down the various materials. Relegated to the shade, the process can literally take years.

Mulch Clippings

A light layer of both fresh and dried glass clippings is a healthy mulch for these variegated iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata'), bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) and soon-to-bloom yellow Coreopsis.

Don’t throw away your lawn clippings. They contain valuable nutrients. Instead, put them to work in your garden.

You can use a mulching mower, which chops the grass blades even finer than a regular mower, then deposits the cuttings back on the lawn.

If your lawn is purely for show, that’s great. But if you have kids or animals romping across with wet feet, they’ll track those little blades everywhere.

Instead, mulch your flower beds with a thin layer. if the clippings are too thick, the blades will mat together and begin to smell.

Or dump the clippings in your compost pile. Mix them well with the other contents, so that they don’t bind together and form an impenetrable block.

Freshen Mulch

A thick layer of gorilla hair mulch softens the angular effect of these foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

Two to 3 inches of grass clippings can make a slimy mess. But several inches thick of loose, organic material, such as walk-on bark, will conserve moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help reduce weeds.

Plus, it looks nice, smells good and provides a consistent look to the landscape.

I’ve had a few clients complain that mulch is a waste, because it disappears. But that’s actually a good thing. That “disappearance” means the mulch is breaking down, releasing nutrients to the plants and improving the texture of the soil.

Weed By Hand

A bulky layer of mulch will inhibit weed seeds that need light to germinate. But other opportunistic weeds will still come through.

Rather than killing the weeds with chemical sprays, set aside time to pull the weeds by hand. Try to get the weeds before they set seed. If I see flowers forming and am short on time, I’ll use kitchen scissors to snip off the heads, then go back later to dig out the leafy parts and their roots.

Use caution if you resort to using a “weed and feed” product on your lawn. The “weed” portion of the equation contains chemicals that may be harmful to kids or animals that play too soon in the area.

Fertilize Naturally

Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost.

Whether it’s in liquid or granular form, or slowly released from fluffy compost or humus, use natural or organic fertilizer as much as possible.

It’s much kinder to the soil, as well as to earthworms, birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Look for products that contain beneficial soil bacteria such as mycorrhizae, compost, guano, humic acid or humus (compost that has broken down past the fibrous state).

With increasing interest in “green” products, mainstream lawn and garden chemical companies are now offering natural products, too.

Also look for organics that are OMRI listed. The Organic Materials Review Institute tests products intended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing. The OMRI seal means that what you’re buying complies with USDA organic standards.

Choose Your Battles

A striped monarch butterfly caterpillar begins to devour the tasty leaves of a butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica).

Sometimes a few defoliated plants are worth the effort to attract wildlife.

In my garden, I willingly sacrifice butterflyweed (Asclepias curassavica) in order to fortify the fat, yellow-striped monarch butterfly caterpillars that somehow know to appear just when the yellow, orange and red flowers are beginning to bloom.

A few years back, little cottontail bunnies nibbled away all my seedling melons. Rather than fighting the gray fluffballs, I planted another round in a raised bed that they couldn’t reach.

But even I have my limits. When slugs and snails begin to defoliate my roses, I draw my line in the sand with Sluggo, a natural granular product containing iron phosphate, which is safe to use around pets and wildlife. This year I’m also planning to try a new foliar spray from Gro-Power called Snail & Slug Away. It’s nontoxic, organic and lists cinnamon oil as its active ingredient. Maybe it even smells good.

Seeds of Wisdom

If you’re encouraging birds, butterflies and other wildlife to visit your garden, go pesticide free. Otherwise you risk administering a dose of toxic chemicals when the critters forage among your flowers.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor do I have any control over its content.

Carmelo heirloom tomato

The perfect tomato.

It may be round and red, with a thick slice providing a juicy, sun-ripened complement to a sandwich or burger.

It may be pear-shaped and yellow, and pack a crisp punch in a salad of fresh greens.

It may be oval, flushed with pink and just meaty enough to create a thick sauce.

Or it may be a sweet, marble-sized orb that’s so delicious that you lose count of how many you pop into your mouth, still out in the garden.

Really, there is no one perfect tomato. Instead, there are literally dozens, any of which may be perfect at a particular moment.

And fortunately, despite those many colors, shapes and sizes, all tomatoes thrive with the same care. Success starts with good soil, good roots and plenty of sunshine. Add proper watering, and you’re on your way to as many perfect tomatoes as you can squeeze into your space.

Getting Growing

Cherokee heirloom tomatoes

Start with rich, loose, well-draining soil in a spot that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight a day.

Raised beds or mounds at least 12 to 18 inches tall are ideal.

Dig down a foot, working in several inches of well-aged compost throughout the bed  to boost fertility and drainage.

Tomatoes are a rarity in that you can intentionally plant them deep to encourage more extensive rooting.

Strip the first few sets of leaves. Dig a hole deep enough to bury the exposed nodes, which will then sprout roots, rather than more leaves. Toss a low-nitrogen, slow-release granular fertilizer into each hole. Cover the fertilizer with a handful of soil to prevent direct contact with the roots.

Freshly planted tomato seedlings, awaiting their cages.

Then space your plants at least 2 1/2 feet apart.

Plums and cherries may go closer, while the largest plants should go 3 feet apart or more.

Tomato cages or stakes — adorned with reflective tape to thwart birds — are a must. I often start with tomato cages, then pound in taller redwood stakes mid-season.

Even the smallest plants need support when their limber branches begin to sag under the weight of developing fruit.

Consistency is Key

Better Boy modern hybrid tomatoes. Note the touch of blossom end rot on the bottom right. Despite our best efforts, the disease is not always inescapable.

Irrigation can be tricky. It should be consistent in order to prevent blossom end rot, an unsightly condition that damages the fruit, yet infrequent enough to tease out the most intense, fresh flavors by the time your tomatoes are ripe.

At the outset, water every day or two to keep the soil visibly damp. I shape basins around my plants, then fill the basins several times each time I water. I use a watering wand to avoid splashing the leaves, which can lead to disease. If your soil crusts or cracks, surround your seedlings with an inch-thick layer of loose mulch.

As new leaves flush out and shade the roots, stretch your watering intervals to every three or four days, then up to a week or even 10 days, still giving a good soak each time. Let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings. Irrigate early in the morning to help the plants stay hydrated in the summer heat.

If you see fantastic vegetative growth but few flowers and weak, watery-tasting fruit, you’re watering too frequently. But don’t stop abruptly. A sudden change in irrigation can disrupt your plants’ ability to pull calcium from the soil, which can result in that dreaded blossom end rot.

So Many Choices

Black Prince heirloom tomatoes

Local nurseries, seed catalogs, internet sites and even drugstores are brimming with tomatoes in springtime. Rather than grabbing the first six-pack you see, consider the size, shape and color, as well as whether you want to eat your tomatoes fresh, in sauces or canned for winter.

Most will be indeterminate types, which send out long vines that keep growing and bearing fruit until frost kills them off. Determinate types, or bush tomatoes, reach a certain size, bear most of their fruit within a couple of weeks, then collapse. They’re worth seeking out if you want to can or preserve your tomatoes all at once.

Lemon Boy tomatoes, VFN hybrids

Hybrid tomatoes are modern varieties bred for certain traits and disease resistance. “V,” “F,” “N” and “T” indicate resistance to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes and tobacco mosaic virus, all of which can slay your plants. Super Bush VFN tomatoes, for instance, resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes.

However, due to breeding, hybrids are not true to seed, and hybrid offspring are not likely to resemble their parents.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, have been passed down from one generation to the next and are true to seed. While heirlooms may not have as strong disease resistance as modern hybrids, they tend to have greater variety in shape and color, and softer skins.

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor do I have any control over its content.

Haskell's Beach, at our doorstep.

Out of the sea and literally into the land might seem like an unlikely path for a fish.

But that’s exactly how some civilizations have fertilized their crops for hundreds of years, by burying fish — or their remains — beneath the seeds that they sow.

Marine plants have been used for centuries as well, to add fertility and improve soil texture. Even seabird poop has its followers.

Cultures around the world gather animals and plants from the ocean to improve their harvests on land. With the Pacific Ocean at our doorstep, it’s another natural technique that we can employ to grow edibles in our gardens.

Bury A Fish

Whether whole, in scraps or simply the entrails gutted from last night’s dinner, fish are a natural fertilizer steeped in history.

In grade school, you may have learned that the American Indian Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant fish with corn. Academics debate the truth of that tale: some insist that Squanto was merely demonstrating a technique that he’d picked up while living in Europe, where farmers have buried fish as fertilizer since medieval times. Nonetheless, it’s a technique that was also practiced by ancient Egyptians along the Nile and pre-Columbian people in Peru.

Wherever the location, the chemistry is the same: raw fish decay fast in the soil, delivering high doses of nitrogen as well as phosphorous and trace minerals to any plant roots lurking nearby.

If you try this at home, you don’t have to bury the whole fish. Partial carcasses, heads and bones — basically any of the messy stuff that you don’t eat — are effective. Just be sure to go down at least a foot to avoid attracting animals that might dig up the remains, and at least several inches below any seeds or roots of new seedlings that you plant.

Fish Byproducts

A gift from the sea.

If the idea of burying guts and gills beneath your edibles is repulsive, consider processing scraps into an emulsion to use as a fertilizer above the ground by following this recipe from the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance:

Liquefy the fish by placing it in a blender with warm water and blending thoroughly. Pour the emulsion into a 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid. Stir the contents daily or every other day to mix in air to aid decomposition and promote aerobic microbial growth. Add shredded newspapers, dried leaves, sawdust or brown grass clippings as the emulsion decays. Pour molasses or pureed fruit into the liquid to help control odor and contribute healthy microorganisms. Wait two weeks until the entire mixture has turned brown before using. To reduce the fishy odor, add brown sugar, molasses or pureed fruit and ferment a few days longer.

Or if that process is off-putting, buy a prepared fish fertilizer. Fish meal is composed of incredibly smelly protein-rich flakes, powder or granules; fish emulsion is the slightly less pungent slurry left over from creating fish meal; and fish hydrolysate is created by mixing fresh fish with enzymes that digest the fish, turning it into a thick brew that retains all the proteins, hormones, trace elements and vitamins.

Whatever you chose, read the label: just because it contains the word “fish” does not mean that it’s organic or even all-natural.


Fresh kelp, on its way to the shore.

Seaweed is a quadruple threat — it can be used as a soil amendment, mulch, fertilizer or compost starter.

Kelp is our highest profile seaweed, with the ocean tossing it onto our beaches year-round.

The deep amber, brown and bronze-colored, rubbery bubbles and ropes don’t deliver much nitrogen or phosphorous, but they’re a rich source of potassium and trace elements, including boron, copper, iron, manganese and zinc.

Wading into the ocean to collect kelp requires a sport fishing license and has a 10-pound per day limit. But any kelp that’s been washed up on shore is fair game. Just don’t gather it shortly after a storm when upstream pollutants may have discharged into the water.

Seasoned with sand and free for the taking.

Collect the kelp and take it home. Slash it into pieces and work it into the soil, where it will release nutrients and growth hormones that will stimulate faster and more extensive rooting. Or apply it as mulch, 2 to 4 inches thick.

There are many recipes for making seaweed into liquid fertilizer. The quickest is to mix several handfuls of kelp with 5 gallons of water in a covered bucket. Stir the mixture for a few days, then strain it, dilute it in half, and apply the liquid as a soil drench or foliar spray. A more lengthy, no-stir method is to put a few bagfuls of kelp into a trash can. Fill with water to the top, put the lid on, then wait a couple of months until the water has turned brown and the seaweed has decomposed. Again, dilute before applying.


The original Bird Island.

Guano often refers to poop produced by both bats and birds.

But seabird poop is the original guano, with the name derived from the Incan word for “the droppings of seabirds.” Indeed, those droppings were so prized that anyone caught disturbing the deposits could be put to death.

Today, you don’t have to swim out to Bird Island off Goleta or scramble over any rocky outcroppings that attract colonies of seabirds to collect their business. Instead, a number of companies sell pellets of Peruvian seabird guano, which are high in nitrogen and phosphorous, and contain trace minerals.

In the garden, till the pellets into the soil, add them to individual planting holes or mix them with water, then spray.

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor do I have any control over its content.

Orange miniature petunia (Calibrachoa 'Aloha Tiki Orange')

They’re here.

Springtime launches the debut of a new crop of brightly blooming perennials.

Visit any nursery now, and you’ll find row upon row of fresh, colorful beauties in 4-inch round or square pots.

Less expensive than a one-gallon plant and bearing a larger root mass than a seedling plucked from a pony pack, these 4-inchers are a perfect size to plant during the first days of spring.

In the garden, they’ll fill in quickly. Depending on what you choose, they’ll also bloom nonstop for as long as 12 to 24 months. However, it’s worth noting that while technically these prolific bloomers are perennials, because they expend so much energy to produce all those flowers, they may eventually collapse and never recover.

So at the end of however long their flowering might be, I give mine a good pruning. If they don’t respond within a few weeks, I yank them and start anew.

That said, the following short-lived perennials are among my favorites for quick, continuous color.

Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia)

Angelface Blue summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia 'Angelface Blue')

Picture a snapdragon for flower shape; a blue, pink, purple or white delphinium for flower color, and any kind of penstemon for slender, pointed leaves.

Combine those traits and you’ll have an Angelonia, which bears those plump flowers on upright spikes that grow 18 to 24 inches tall.

Angelonia blooms most heavily in heat, and prefers full sun and moderate to regular watering.

The plants are said to be deer resistant, although I haven’t tested them. The flowers are self-cleaning, meaning they’ll fall off neatly. Or harvest the spikes early and bring them indoors for a long-lasting bouquet.

Dresden Blue bears medium blue flowers and is among the most popular. Darker blues and darker purples are excellent as well.


Goldie bidens (Bidens 'Goldie')

Bidens may look delicate, with its lush, ferny foliage and bright yellow daisy flowers. But this native of Mexico, Guatemala and the southern United States is surprisingly tough, blooming everywhere from cultivated gardens to more difficult conditions.

But provide full sun. My plants thrive in dry, clay soil and are nice, self-cleaning companions to lavender and Mexican sage.

Also check the plant tag for the growth habit. Some Bidens, such as Goldilocks Rocks, form neat mounds about a foot tall and wide, while others, such as Goldie, have a looser habit and trail 2 feet or more.

Swan River Daisy (Brachyscome)

Blue Zephyr Swan River daisy (Brachyscome 'Blue Zephyr')

This fluffy perennial bears petite, daisy-like flowers in pastel shades of purple, pink, yellow or white, all with greenish-yellow centers.

Swan River daisy is a good filler between other plants, although it can be fussy about drainage, living longer in sandy soil than clay. I have grown mine next to a lawn, where its flexible stems and thready flowers have tolerated overspray from the sprinklers.

Provide full sun and regular water. Shear back the flowers occasionally to encourage more blooming.

Miniature Petunia or Million Bells (Calibrachoa)

Yellow miniature petunia (Calibrachoa 'Spring Fling Lemon')

Is there a color this native of Brazil does not bloom in?

Perhaps because it’s such a popular and dependably prolific bloomer, hybridizers have spent much time on this spreading perennial, creating flowers in both pastel and bright shades of pink, rose, red, violet, orange, yellow and white.

The quarter-sized flowers look like small petunias. But the flowers drop off on their own, and the stems and leaves are not sticky. Some varieties grow flat, reaching only 6 inches tall, while others form clumpy mounds. Check to see which type you’re buying.

Provide full sun to light shade, good drainage and let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings.

Twinspur (Diascia)

Twinspur (Diascia hybrid)

This offering from South Africa bears scores of pink, salmon, lavender or white flowers that open one after the next, up twisty, twirly stems. On the backsides of each flower are two curved “spurs” that are said to bear oil that attracts pollinating bees.

Trailing varieties of twinspur are good filler plants and spread at least 2 feet wide. Clumping types grow only a foot or so wide, and grouped together make nice masses of color. The plants are self-cleaning, so once again, no dead-heading is necessary.

Provide full sun to partial shade and moderate water. In the hottest inland areas, blooming may slow down or stop if night-time temperatures hover in the upper 70s or above. Go ahead and trim your plants if that happens. Doing so will encourage branching, which will produce even more flowers once the temps cool down.


Lavender and white Nemesia

This South African native is fragrant, with a scent reminiscent of cloves. Upright spikes of flowers appear in purple, pink, blue, white and yellow.

Blue Bird is among the most widely planted, while varieties in the new Angelart series bloom in even more shades, with fruit names like pear, mango and raspberry.

Nemesia is best with full sun in the morning, then shade in the afternoon.

It also likes good drainage and regular water.

Like twinspur, it may stop blooming if night-time temperatures stay in the high 70s.

Again, snip back the foliage to promote more prolific blooming once the night-time temps drop.

Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa columbaria)

Giant Blue pincushion flower (SCabiosa 'Giant Blue')

This short-lived perennial attracts butterflies with its pretty pink, lavender or blue flowers that look a little like flattened pompoms atop wiry stems. Individual stamens rise above the flowers, like straight pins stuck into sewing pincushions.

Provide full sun and moderate to regular water. In clay soil, pincushion flower may decline after a year or two; in sandy soil or loam, it should live longer.

This is one of the few 4-inchers that you’ll have to dead head. But doing so will encourage more ample flowering.

Fairy Fan Flower (Scaevola)

Mauve Clusters fairy fan flower (Scaevola 'Mauve Clusters')

This native of Australia is longer lived than most, and forms a dense ground cover of unusual flowers that look only half formed, with nearly rectangular petals arranged like a fan.

Mauve Clusters is the flattest variety, growing only a few inches tall while trailing 3 feet wide. The Whirlwind and Top Pot series, in lavender, pink and white, bear larger flowers and grow up to 1 foot tall while spreading 3 feet wide.

Provide full sun and moderate to regular water. The flowers are self-cleaning.

Bacopa (Sutera)

Nano White bacopa (Sutera 'Nano White')

This popular perennial is widely planted in containers, with its tiny green leaves and bright white flowers spilling gracefully over the edges.

But bacopa does just as well in the ground, provided it receives full morning sun, afternoon shade and consistent, frequent watering. It is one of the thirstiest short-lived perennials. If yours starts dropping buds — even though the leaves are not wilting — it’s time to water.

Also provide enough room, as bacopa tends to roam far and wide. For instance, Giant Snowflake can spread 3 to 4 feet by the end of its first summer, while remaining only 6 to 8 inches tall.

The traditional white-on-green is my favorite. Newer varieties bloom in pink or lavender, and there’s even one called Gold ‘n Pearls, which bears variegated lime and green leaves.

Garden Verbena (Verbena x hybrida)

Lavender verbena (Verbena 'Superbena Royale Chambray')

Rounded clusters of tiny flowers in purple, pink, red, white and nearly blue bloom on top of foot-tall plants that spread up to 3 feet wide. The little flower clusters make great landing pads for swallowtail butterflies to then sup the nectar.

Garden verbena is self-cleaning, tough and tolerates heat and marginal soils. It’s fine with moderate to regular water. But do not use overhead sprayers, which can cause mildew on the leaves and flowers.

Planting Tips

Pink verbena (Verbena 'Superbena Pink Parfait')

Your 4-inch perennials may be blooming heavily before their toes touch the ground.

In the garden, you’ll need to provide tip-top soil for most, to sustain the show.

Work in lots of well-rotted compost or other fine, organic material into the bed before planting. While the soil does not have to be as rich and loamy as for vegetables, it should still be fertile, loose and drain well.

For maximum impact, follow the spacing recommendations on the labels. For some short-lived perennials, that may be only a foot apart.

Some of these flashy bloomers tolerate overhead watering. But most will topple beneath the weight of waterlogged flowers or even mildew.

For best results, use soaker hose, drip irrigation or rim the area with a basin, then flood it whenever the top half inch to inch of soil dries out. A thick layer of mulch will stretch the time between watering.

Seeds of Wisdom

Many showy, short-lived perennials bear dainty flowers that are best appreciated up close, planted as edgings along paths or patios, in masses or at the front of a border.

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Pink tuberous begonia

With fall-planted bulbs — daffodils, anemones, hyacinths and the like — just beginning to pop up, it may seem too soon to think about planting bulbs again.

But plant an entirely different set of bulbs in the garden this month or next, and you’ll have another round of blooming bulbs from summer through fall.

This set includes tuberous begonias, caladiums and dahlias, all of which come from fleshy tubers; gladiolus, which sprout from dry, papery corms; and calla lilies, which rise from rhizomes.

Tuberous Begonias

Red tuberous begonia

It’s amazing that such unimpressive brown disks can produce such magnificent flowers within months of planting.

Unless you have terrific drainage and are willing to roust snails daily, plant your tuberous begonias in hanging baskets or pots.

Fill the container with loose potting soil or a mix of leaf mold, coarse sand, finely ground bark and peat moss. Place the dusty brown tuber on top, dimpled side up. Cover the tuber with a thin layer of potting soil. Water thoroughly.

Then keep the soil moist through the rest of the growing season. Tuberous begonias grow best with lots of water, high humidity and filtered sunlight.

In addition, apply a mild dose of a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer twice a month until May, to encourage the crinkled, succulent leaves to grow. Then switch to a low-nitrogen fertilizer to boost blossoming and blooming.

In the fall, after the stems fall off, lift out your tubers, dust off the dirt, and store them in a cool, dry location until the following spring.


How's that for tropical?

These flashy foliage plants provide a dose of the tropics, with large, heart-shaped leaves in crazy combinations of red, green and cream. Give them bright light, but keep them out of direct sun, which can burn their paper-thin leaves.

Caladiums are happiest in pots, where you can control the drainage and snails.

Start the tubers in a loose, fertile potting mix similar to what you’d use for tuberous begonias. Place the tubers bumpy side up. Cover them with 2 inches of soil, then water well.

Once your caladiums are up and growing, water them at ground level. Over-head water can spoil their leaves. When the leaves begin to fade in the fall, taper off watering. After they shrivel up, dig out the tubers, trim the dead stems, brush off the dirt and store them in a cool, dry place until spring.

Calla Lilies (Zantedeschia)

Graceful, upright swirls are the hallmark of calla lilies.

The erect, swirling white flowers of this rhizome are long-time favorites for both weddings and funerals.

They’re also among the most flexible of the summer-blooming bulbs, thriving in sun and shade, and in soils ranging from loose and well drained, to heavy clay.

Give your callas lots of water and they’ll bloom frequently. Let them go dry, and they’ll cycle in and out of bloom and dormancy.

Pant the common white calla rhizomes 6 inches deep and a foot or two apart. The dainty, dwarf hybrids, which bear pastel, speckled flowers in shades of pink, peach, yellow and red, go about 2 inches deep.

Don’t worry about digging up the rhizomes at the end of the season. Calla lilies easily naturalize on the Central Coast, forming ever-broadening clumps.


Mystic Dreamer dahlia

Dahlias are fussy to get started, but their show-stopping flowers are great payback.

Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and wide. Mix the excavated soil with loose potting soil, compost or other medium-textured organic material. Put 4 inches of the mix back in the hole, then place the tuber on top, with its eye up. Cover the tuber with another few inches, then water thoroughly.

As the tuber sprouts, gradually add more of the loose material until you fill the hole.

If you’re growing large, show-quality plants, put a 4 to 6-foot tall redwood stake or rebar in the hole at planting time. Pound in a stake later, and you may pierce the tuber and kill the plant.

If your dahlias decline at the end of summer, whack them to the ground and keep watering. The plants should send up new branches and resume blooming in October and November.

Some folks dig up their tubers for winter. I grow mine in raised beds and leave them alone.


These sweetly fragrant flowers from South Africa are most commonly planted in fall. But you can put them in the ground in late winter, too, for summertime blooms.

Plant the marble-sized corms at least 2 inches deep, with their tips up, in a sunny spot. Freesias need good drainage, but not much water. Irrigate them while they’re up and growing and flowering. After they fade, you can ignore them until the following year.

Freesias also do well in pots. But be patient: the corms may take four months to bloom.


Plump flowers open upward on each stalk of this Oberbayern gladiolus.

These regal, flowering swords have been staples of the cut-flower industry for years. Plant them now, and you have a good chance of avoiding thrips. The persistent, tiny pests disfigure the flowers and foliage during warmer weather.

Choose smallish corms that are about as tall as they are wide. Bigger, flatter ones may be past their prime. Plant the corms several inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in rich, loamy soil in full sun. I grow mine along the edges of raised vegetable beds. I will have harvested the flowers by the time my summer veggies need the space.

Water once a week, and apply a mild liquid fertilizer after five leaves have appeared, then again after the flower buds begin to swell.

Harvest each spike, just above the bottom three or four leaves, as the first flower opens. The remaining buds will open indoors.

After the plants stop blooming and the bottom leaves turn yellow, chop the stalks to the ground. Dig up the corms every few years and cut them apart to create new plants.

Glory Lily or Climbing Lily (Gloriosa rothschildiana)

The dancing flames of glory lily.

The upward-flaring flowers of this tropical vine are an incredible combination of scarlet red and banana yellow. Unusual tendrils that help the vine advance emerge from the tips of long, triangular leaves.

Glory lily thrives in sun or filtered shade. It can clamber up a 6 to 10-foot trellis or pole in a single summer, and is fine in a large container.

Place the tuber on its side in the same kind of loose mix that tuberous begonias and caladiums adore, and cover with 4 inches of soil.

After the tuber sprouts, water it regularly and apply a balanced liquid fertilizer every three weeks. In late summer as the vine finishes blooming, scale back the water. Stop completely after the foliage dies.

If your glory lily is in the ground, dig up the tuber and store it indoors. If it has been growing in a pot, store it, pot and all, in a dry, sheltered place.

Mexican Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa)

Fragrant spikes of white flowers rise a couple of feet above clumps of grassy leaves on this native of Mexico.

Select the largest tubers possible. Plant them 2 inches deep in the ground or in a container. Water well, then let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings until the tubers sprout. Once you see green, start watering once a week.

Dig up and divide the clumps during dormancy every three to four years. The youngest, smallest bulbs may take several years to gain enough size to bloom.

When to Plant

Yet another luscious tuberous begonia, this one in yellow.

Buy your summer-blooming bulbs at local nurseries and mail-order catalogs now. But make sure your ground has dried out before you plant them, as they may perish in cold, wet soil. Instead, they like it warm, loose, and with excellent drainage.

If you don’t want to wait, pot up your bulbs.

Some, such as tuberous begonias and caladiums, will be content to live out their lives in containers. But plan to transplant others, including dahlias, gladiolus and calla lilies, which do best in the ground and may even naturalize there.

Seeds of Wisdom

Most summer-flowering bulbs require watering once or twice a week, so plant them within reach of a hose or faucet.

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May Pride peach blossoms.

Bare-root season is not just for roses.

Deciduous fruit trees go dormant, too, and are equally accepting of being dug up, having the soil removed from their roots and then being transported to nurseries where they’re available now.

Remarkably, within a few years these stick-like plants will grow rapidly, bud out and produce delicious, tree-ripened fruit. Your choices include apple, apricot, cherry, fig, mulberry, nectarine, nectaplum, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, pluot and pomegranate trees as well as almond, pistachio and walnut trees.

But first, as with roses, you’ll find nondescript, tan or gray bundles of trunks, branches and twigs stuck in bins filled with moist sand or sawdust to protect their dormant, stringy roots. As with roses, you’ll likely see enticing photos posted above each. And as with roses, it’s critical to read the descriptions to make sure that whatever you take home can be expected to thrive in your garden.

Consider the Chill

May Pride peaches only require 150 to 200 chill hours to set fruit properly.

Your most important factor at the nursery is how much cold a particular tree needs to properly set fruit. Cold is calculated by measuring chill hours, which are the number of hours the temperature drops below 45 degrees between November 1 and February 28.

That number is key because many pome and stone fruit trees require more chill hours than certain Central Coast neighborhoods offer.

For example, some apples, cherries and pears require 1,100 to 1,500 chill hours, yet our mildest, coastal areas rarely get more than 300 chill hours. You have far more options if you live in the Santa Ynez Valley, which accumulates at least 1,000 chill hours most years.

UC Davis compiles the numbers, and this season has proved chilly so far. As of February 2, Santa Maria reported 593 chill hours; Lompoc, 832; Santa Ynez, 1,035; Nipomo, 630; and Santa Barbara, 312.

Selecting Stock

After narrowing your choices, gently tug a tree out of its bin and check for the following:

The roots should be plump, hairy and evenly spaced, not shriveled or lopsided.

The bud union, where the root stock is grafted to the bearing wood, should appear smooth and strong.

The trunk should measure 1/2 to 5/8ths of an inch in diameter. Smaller than that may result in poor growth; any larger, and it may not be in balance with the roots.

Any limbs should flex easily. If they snap, they’re probably dead.

The branching structure — unless it’s entirely out of whack — is not as important. You’ll be trimming the top and side shoots after planting.

Selecting the Site

Anna apples require 200 chill hours.

Sunlight, good drainage, wind protection and the coldest spot in your garden are all key.

Fruit trees need at least six hours of direct sunlight to stimulate buds and develop mature fruit. That direct light is most important during the growing season. It’s not a problem if the sun swings low in the dead of winter.

However, good drainage is important year-round. If water puddles where you plan to plant, shape a mound at least a foot tall or build a raised bed.

Fruit trees don’t like wind, especially when they’re budding out in late winter and early spring, and again when the fruit is beginning to mature. Fierce winds can literally blow off buds and rip off ripening fruit.

As for that all-important chill: avoid planting your bare-root fruit trees up against your house, driveway or patio, as all three can radiate considerable warmth. Instead, seek a low spot where cold collects.

Planting Time

Anna apple trees bear heavy crops, especially when cross-pollinated by Dorsett Golden or Einshemer apples.

Dig a hole as deep as your tree’s roots and at least three times as wide.

It’s fine to work in compost over the general planting area. But don’t worry about amending the hole. Instead, just break up any clods, line the hole with quarter-inch aviary wire if gophers are a problem, then form a dirt cone on the bottom of the hole to support the roots.

Pack down the cone and set the tree on top. Orient the bud union so that the flat notch faces the north or northeast, to prevent sun damage. Start filling the hole.

If you’re not sure how deep to plant the tree, lay a shovel across the hole. Look for the faint soil line on the trunk, then hold the tree over the hole to see how that soil line matches with the existing soil.

Plant your tree an inch or two high, to allow for settling. Ideally, the bud union will end up sitting 3 to 5 inches above the soil line, while the uppermost of the largest, thickest roots will be buried several inches below.

Shape a watering basin about a foot away from the trunk. Apply an inch or two of mulch, avoiding direct contact with the trunk. Then soak the tree.

Don’t fertilize. The tree possesses sufficient energy in its tissues to break dormancy, and any salt in the fertilizer may burn emerging roots.

Shape Up Your Tree

May Pride peaches are early bearing and produce sweet, smooth-textured, medium-size fruit. They're easy to peel and have freestone pits inside. Yum!

Once your tree is in the ground, it’s time to prune.

Most likely, your tree is composed of a whip and possibly a few side branches. Despite its paltry size, you still need to trim it in order to initiate good branching. Cut off the top about a quarter inch above a bud that’s 30 to 36 inches above the ground.

Then trim any side branches to 3-inch stubs bearing two or three buds.

In no time, it should start sending out whips and shoots in every direction. Toward the end of summer, prune your developing tree with an eye toward its future framework. Cut back new growth by up to a half in order to encourage evenly spaced, strong, balanced branches and to maintain plenty of air flow through the tree.

Some folks advocate keeping fruit trees compact and bush-like so that they’re easier to care for and harvest. If you’d like to adopt that technique, often referred to as Backyard Orchard Culture, trim your tree to 18 to 24 inches at planting time, to force lower, bushier branching. Then cut it back twice — by half in late spring, and by half again in late summer.

Watering Your Fruit Trees

While you should keep the soil moist if winter rains don’t oblige, new, bare-root fruit trees don’t require a lot of supplemental water until temperatures warm up and new growth takes off.

According to UC Cooperative Extension, a healthy, first-year fruit tree that’s not mulched needs 5 to 10 gallons of water a week during the summer, and much less water if it is mulched.

Obviously the amount of water that a new fruit tree in your own garden needs depends greatly on your soil type, air temperature, sun exposure and overall conditions.

It’s okay to let the top couple of inches of soil dry out between waterings. But the soil further down in the root zone should stay moist. Use a soil moisture probe or dig down 4 to 6 inches with a screwdriver or hand weeder occasionally to check.

When you do irrigate, use drip irrigation, attach a bubbler to your hose or set your faucet to a trickle so that the water flows out slowly and gives your tree a deep soak, rather than a quick blast solely to the surface.

Seeds of Wisdom

If recent rains have made your soil too wet to dig, put your bare-root tree in a bucket filled with moist sand, sawdust or even shredded newspapers. Set the tree in a shady spot out of the wind and keep the temporary mix damp but not soggy.

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A ladder makes pruning this peach tree a lot easier.

Sharpen those pruners. It’s time to start cutting in the garden.

Despite a run of warm days, this is the season when many landscape plants are dormant — or as dormant as they’re going to be in our temperate climate.

Making corrective cuts now will boost their health and encourage more buds, flowers and fruit.

First up are roses and deciduous fruit trees.

But other dormant plants will benefit from a shape-up now, too. It’s a lot easier to prune when your shrubs and trees are bare. You can see what you’re doing without contending with a canopy of leaves, and pests and diseases are not likely to be active.


It may seem crazy to cut back roses now. If yours are like mine, they’re still covered in leaves, buds and fresh flowers. But a closer look reveals that they’re tattered around the edges. If you don’t prune, the upcoming growth is destined to become a tangled, thorny mess by summer.

Start by chopping off the top in order to reduce the bush to about 3 feet tall.

Don’t worry about where you make the cuts. This is just the first round. Snip off any remaining flowers. Then strip the leaves and any suckers at the base by hand, using a downward tug. Watch out for thorns. Heavy, elbow-length gauntlet gloves provide good protection.

Use hand pruners to cut smaller branches, such as these rose canes.

Next, stand back and evaluate the framework. Cut out dead or shriveled canes all the way to the base of the bush; old canes that are thicker than your thumb; and new canes that are distorted or smaller in diameter than a pencil.

Roses — like so many other plants — benefit from plenty of air flow through their centers. They also need sunlight to penetrate their crowns to initiate new bud growth, which results in better flowering.

So next, cut out any canes that cross over the middle.

Then shape what’s left. On shrub roses, keep pruning until five to seven canes remain. Trim the canes to 18 to 24 inches tall, varying the heights so that the bush will bloom with a more natural look. On hybrid tea roses, keep at least three to five canes. Depending on who’s providing advice, those canes can be trimmed 18 to 36 inches tall.

Finally, nip back any side branches that cross or rub against other branches or canes.
Make all your cuts just above an outward-facing bud. This encourages new growth to flare out, rather than tilt back toward the center of the bush.

Deciduous Fruit Trees

For all deciduous fruit trees, start by pruning any dead or diseased wood. Then remove rubbing or crossing branches.

Use loppers to cut branches 1 to 2 inches in diameter.

Be sure to make clean cuts next to lower, heavier branches. Fruit trees are prone to diseases that can get their start in stubs that are left long enough to die back, while cuts close to larger branches protect and heal by producing new bark and wood.

Next, know how your particular fruit trees produce fruit.

Apple and pear trees, for instance, bear fruit on fuzzy, nubby spurs that emerge on branches at least a year old. Those spurs flower and fruit every year, so should be kept from one year to the next.

The only winter pruning of an apple tree — other than a light shaping for aesthetics — should be to remove dead or diseased wood, rubbing or crossing branches, and any remaining limbs that interfere with sunlight reaching the center of the tree. Sucker growth should be removed whenever it appears, at any time of year.

Pear trees require a heavier hand, as they produce tall, upright whips that should be headed back during dormancy. Thin the whips so that air and sunlight can penetrate the canopy. Then cut back the remaining whips by two thirds, to maximize the size of the fruit and to keep it in the lower arms of the tree.

Plum trees bear on long-lived spurs that take several years to form. In the meantime, just as with pear trees, thin each year’s new, upright whips so that they’re spaced about one foot apart. Then cut back those remaining whips by two thirds.

Peach trees bear on year-old wood. They also require the heaviest pruning of all because each branch bears fruit only once. As such, the trees should be cut back by more than one half each year.

Start by removing dead, diseased and rubbing branches. Then cut out any branches that have produced peaches.

Next, thin the branches so that all of the new, twiggy growth from last year ends up being spaced about a foot apart and the silhouette of the tree looks like an upside-down umbrella. Then head back the twiggy growth by another third.

This last step is necessary to pump the tree’s energy into the remaining fruit buds, which optimizes the size of the fruit. Otherwise, those full-length, new whips will bear more fruit, but of much smaller size.

Nectarine trees are related to peaches and bear fruit on year-old twiggy branches as well. Follow the same steps, except the twiggy branches can be left closer together, spaced about 8 inches apart.

Groom Grasses and Other Plants

By now, your big, billowy ornamental grasses are likely to be ragged visions of their former selves. If you haven’t already, cut them all the way to the ground. Use a weed whacker, machete or even kitchen scissors. There’s no point in leaving more than an inch or two of the past year’s foliage above ground, as new stalks will sprout from the crowns, not the stems.

Small, cool-season grasses, including the various blue fescues, may still be actively growing, so wield a lighter hand. Use a stiff rake to comb out the desiccated stems, or trim taller blades with a brush mower with the blade set on high.

Use a hand saw to cut branches 2 to 3 inches in diameter or larger.

Also take a look around your garden with a critical eye toward dead flowers and leggy growth. Pinch, nip and tuck wherever necessary to rejuvenate the plants and to pull them away from walls, windows and eaves.

Wait until March or April to cut back tropical and subtropical plants, such as bougainvillea, cannas, citrus trees and palm trees. Leave them alone until all danger of frost has passed and spring temperatures have begun to warm up.

In addition, assign pruning of taller trees to a certified arborist, who will use proper pruning equipment and climbing techniques, and know just where to make cuts to ensure the overall health and beauty of your trees.

Guides to Pruning Fruit Trees

For information about how to prune specific fruit trees, turn to: “The Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees,” by Chuck A. Ingels, Pamela M. Geisel and Maxwell V. Norton, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication 3485; or “How to Prune Fruit Trees” by R. Sanford Martin, Martin Bio-Products, which is often carried in nurseries.

Seeds of Wisdom

A dead-looking branch may be quite alive underneath. Flex the branch or scrape the bark with your fingernail or a pocket knife. If the branch has give, or if there’s green beneath the bark, it still possesses life.

Visit Joan’s website at, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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