One of the beautiful gardens I'll feature during my talk.

One of the beautiful gardens I’ll feature during my talk.

On Wednesday, August 7, 2013, I’ll be the featured speaker for the monthly meeting of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society.

My talk will be: “Digging the Good Life: Creating Colorful, Water-Conserving Gardens.”

I’ll describe how to create gardens in a number of different styles by using the wide range of colorful and interesting low-water plants that thrive in our mild, wonderful climate. I’ll also note which plants attract beneficial insects and sustain wildlife, and touch on integrating edibles into the landscape.

I’m looking forward to sharing what I know with kindred spirits, and encourage anyone who loves gardening to attend the meeting, which is free and open to the public.

The meeting will start at 7 p.m. on August 7 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the corner of Foothill and La Cumbre Roads, Santa Barbara.


Adult Asian Citrus Psyllids strike a distinctive pose, angling their backsides up into the air when they feed.

A tiny bug that can carry a deadly citrus disease has been found for the first time in Santa Barbara County — in Santa Maria — and a quarantine may be declared within the next few days.

An Asian Citrus Psyllid was caught last month in a yellow sticky trap hanging from an orange tree in a residential neighborhood three blocks north of the Santa Maria Town Center Mall. The find was confirmed by state agricultural officials this week.

Why the Psyllids are Dangerous

While the psyllids on their own don’t pose much of a problem, they deal a lethal blow to citrus trees if they become infected with a bacterial disease known as citrus greening or huanglongbing (HLB). The disease deforms the fruit, makes it taste bitter, then kills the tree. The devastating disease, which has no cure, was detected in Florida in 2005 and has wiped out more than $1 billion in citrus revenue there. Since then, HLB has marched across a number of southern states, leaving thousands of dead trees in its wake. It reared its ugly head in California earlier this year, infecting a lemon/pummelo tree in Hacienda Heights.

About the size of an aphid, brownish-gray adult Asian Citrus Psyllids mass on the underside of a citrus leaf.

Right now, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) officials are trying to figure out whether the discovery of the single adult psyllid in Santa Maria was an isolated incident or indicative of a larger problem, according to Brian Cabrera, an entomologist at the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

“They set out more traps around the area to see how many more there might be, and how much of the area is infested,” Cabrera said. “Based on the results of their survey, they’ll decide what type of quarantine is going to be implemented.”

Choices include a quarantine with a 20-mile radius or a quarantine limited to Santa Barbara County, he said.

In the nymph stage, Asian Citrus Psyllids are dull orange, have red eyes and produce waxy tubules that direct honeydew away from their bodies.

Regardless, a quarantine would ban the movement of any type of citrus — plants, clippings, leaves and fruit — out of the area. The only exception would be commercially grown citrus that meets stringent requirements and receives approved treatment, Cabrera said.

Such a quarantine already exists for a portion of southern Santa Barbara County. After a psyllid was found in La Conchita in Ventura County in 2010, CDFA slapped a 20-mile-radius quarantine around the discovery. The ban is still in effect. It runs from the Ventura County line to Highway 154 and from the coastline high into the foothills, and includes Summerland, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, eastern Goleta and Painted Cave.

Where Did the Psyllid Come From?

Abnormal fruit produced by

Abnormal fruit produced by a citrus tree infected by Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease.

As for how the psyllid made its way to Santa Maria, Cabrera said that if it turns out to be a single find, it’s likely that it arrived as a hitchhiker.

“It was in a residential area, not near commercial orchards,” he said. “Probably someone went into an area in LA County or Ventura County, they got a bag of oranges from one of their family members and a psyllid was attached to one of the leaves. That’s why they call it a hitchhiker.”

But solo or not, ag officials are on high alert, and are actively monitoring sticky traps placed in neighborhoods and commercial groves, parcel carriers like UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service, and the inventory of various retailers, including big box stores like Costco.

Symptoms of HLB include yellow mottling of the leaves and small, hard fruit with a bitter taste.

Cabrera also encourages homeowners to keep an eye on their citrus trees for any evidence of the psyllids, which are tiny, winged insects that feed on tender, new shoots with their heads down and their bodies angled up at about 45 degrees. The damage may be what’s most apparent — yellow blotches on the leaves and misshapen, bitter fruit.

“Our office is happy to look at any samples. There are so many other things that could cause a citrus leaf to turn yellow,” Cabrera said, adding, “Tell everybody not to move any citrus around.”

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.

An adult Asian citrus psyllid, bottom up.

After several years of wary anticipation, the dreaded citrus greening disease, huanglongbing (HLB), has been found in southern California. And that has put officials in Santa Barbara County — and throughout the state — on high alert.

The devastating disease was detected in Florida in 2005, and has wiped out $1.3 billion in citrus revenue there. Since then, HLB has marched across a number of southern states, leaving thousands of dead trees in its wake.

HLB is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid. Occasional psyllids have been found in back yard gardens and commercial groves in California over the past few years. I first wrote about the threat in September 2009 (see below). Since then, the closest to Santa Barbara County that psyllids have been found has been in La Conchita and Santa Paula.

The afflicted tree in Hacienda Heights.

Not all Asian citrus psyllids transmit the disease, and up to this point, none proved to be a carrier.

But the infected lemon/pummelo tree found in Hacienda Heights is a real game changer.

It’s the first citrus tree to test positive for HLB in California. Psyllids found in the same neighborhood tested positive for the disease as well.

The tree has since been dug out and moved to a state lab for further testing.

State agriculture officials say they plan to “conduct treatment of citrus trees within 800 meters of the find site,” although what that treatment will be has not yet been revealed.

What is known is that there’s still no cure for the deadly disease.

What’s Next?

Locally, Santa Barbara County agriculture officials hope to prevent HLB from infecting Central Coast citrus trees through a quarantine, inspections and help from the public.

For now, a quarantine put into place in December 2010 is still in effect for southern Santa Barbara County.

The area runs from the Ventura County line to Highway 154, and from the coastline high into the foothills. It includes Summerland, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, eastern Goleta and Painted Cave. No citrus of any type — no plants, clippings, leaves or fruit — is to be transported out of the quarantine area.

Strictly speaking, this means that if you live within the quarantine area and work in the western end of Goleta, you shouldn’t even pack a home-grown orange in your lunch.

The state has set up similar quarantines in Ventura, Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego Counties.

What to Look For

Asian citrus psyllids are tiny, winged insects that feed with their heads down and their bottoms angled up at about 45 degrees.

Asian citrus psyllids typically lay their eggs on the newest, most tender, unfolded leaves.

They produce tiny, bright, golden-yellow eggs, while the nymphs are dull orange and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

The damage that they cause is far more evident: yellow blotches on the leaves and misshapen, not-too-tasty fruit. Indeed, the Hacienda Heights tree had those yellow mottled leaves.

The trouble is, other diseases can cause similar symptoms.

If you suspect something is wrong with any of your citrus trees, take a sample to the county agriculture commissioner’s office. Instructions are listed below.

Here’s what I wrote back in September 2009. Dramatic then, perhaps, but even more so today.

Imagine a day with no fresh-squeezed orange juice. No lemon zest. No slices of lime. No sweet Satsuma tangerines. No citrus of any kind.

That’s a doomsday that California agricultural officials are trying to prevent. And they’re looking for help from everyone who grows citrus trees — from a singe lemon planted in a pot on a patio, to the largest commercial groves in the state.

All citrus — oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, mandarins, tangerines, tangelos, kumquats, citrons, pomelos and the like — are at risk, as well as closely related ornamental plants, such as orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata), cape chestnut trees (Calodendrum capensis) and culinary curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), which may be shipped in from Hawaii or India.

The Threat

An adult Asian citrus psyllid. Even the adults are so tiny that they're nearly impossible to see without a magnifying glass.

The threat starts with the Asian citrus psyllid. On their own, the tiny insects don’t cause irreparable damage.

But they deal a lethal blow to citrus trees when they become infected with Huanglongbing (HLB), a devastating bacterial plant disease that’s also known as citrus greening disease.

Essentially, the disease deforms the fruit and makes it tastes bitter, then kills the tree.

There is no cure.

“The combination of the Asian citrus psyllid and the disease has the greatest potential to impact citrus growing in California of anything I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Gillette, Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner. “The reason for that is that the Mediterranean fruit flies, the other fruit flies, we can get rid of. This one, they haven’t been able to stop it anyplace yet, and it actually kills the trees.”

The deadly duo has ravaged groves around the world, including Asia, India, Egypt, Africa and Brazil. The disease was discovered in Florida in September 2005, and has since spread throughout the state, taking a serious bite out of Florida’s $9.3 billion juice industry. HLB has also been detected in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula.

An infestation of adult Asian citrus psyllids.

Meanwhile, the psyllids — not yet carrying HLB, as far as anyone knows — are moving into California. They were first reported in groves in San Diego and Imperial Counties in August 2008. Last week, they showed up in Santa Ana on a lemon tree, and in Echo Park on a calamondin tree, which bears small, tangy orange fruit. Quarantines are in effect everywhere the psyllids have been found, including all 800 square miles of Orange County.

A serendipitous finding of the dreaded Huanglongbing occurred in July — although not on a live tree. Instead, an agricultural inspection “sniff dog” at a FedEx facility in Fresno found a duffle bag shipped from India that carried curry leaves and infected psyllids.

Another sniff dog, this one last week at a FedEx depot in Sacramento, detected psyllids inside a package from Texas containing guavas and curry leaves. Fortunately, none of those psyllids tested positive.

“No one can say for sure if the disease will ever get here (to Santa Barbara County),” said Gillette. “One, you hope it doesn’t, but it’s likely it will. Then two, you hope it isn’t going to have the same effect on citrus in this area. But I think that’s pretty naive.”

The Symptoms

According to the California Citrus Research Board, the nymphs are dull orange, have red eyes and produce waxy tubules that direct honeydew away from their bodies.

At 3 to 4 millimeters in length at maturity, Asian citrus psyllids are so tiny, even the experts can have trouble detecting them.

“When I spoke with the entomologist in San Diego County, he said they were really hard to see,” said Brian Cabrera, Santa Barbara County Entomologist.

“Several people, all experts, were looking for the insects. They all looked but couldn’t find them. Then they vacuumed the leaves, and they actually found the psyllid that way.”

So rather than searching for psyllids, Cabrera said, homeowners should look for their damage. Asian citrus psyllids feed on new stems and leaves. That’s why agricultural officials are on high alert now, since citrus trees push out new growth between late summer and early winter.

Psyllids that aren’t infected with greening disease can still harm leaves, Cabrera said. “Their saliva actually has some toxicity to cause the leaves to curl. (And) they produce a tiny amount of wax.”

But the damage is far worse once the disease strikes.

Characteristic yellow mottling of the leaves.

“Homeowners should look for anything suspicious with their trees, any sudden decline in the trees, any abnormalities, or yellowing of the leaves,” Cabrera said. “The fruit is abnormal, lopsided and bitter. The leaves have a twisted, gnarled, deformed look.”

Also, according to the California Citrus Research Board, “As HLB progresses, leaves and whole branches fall off the tree and eventually the entire tree dies.”

Unfortunately, identification is tricky because plenty of other pests, diseases and mineral deficiencies create the same symptoms. For instance, chlorosis, a common iron deficiency in citrus, also causes yellowing leaves.

“The main problem is that the symptoms are not diagnostic,” said Heather Scheck, Santa Barbara County Plant Pathologist. She sends questionable leaves to a lab in Sacramento for molecular testing. “It could also be a nutritional problem. It could be another disease, viral, bacterial or fungal. That’s what happened in Florida. They probably had it in for a long time. It wasn’t until they did the actual testing that they discovered they had citrus greening disease.”

What to Do

HLB-infected trees produce lopsided, misshapen fruit.

County agricultural officials urge anyone who suspects that their plants are being harmed by any type of insects or disease, not just Asian citrus psyllids or citrus greening, to collect samples for testing. The service is free.

“One of our missions is to reduce pesticide use. We accomplish that by giving accurate diagnosis,” Scheck said. “You don’t want to hear that someone has sprayed and sprayed, only to discover that it’s a virus or nutritional thing.”

Insect samples should include both the insects and a few damaged leaves, while suspicious stems and leaves should be on branches at least 18 inches long.

Two of the agricultural commissioner’s offices accept walk-ins between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday: 624 W. Foster Rd., Santa Maria, 934-6200; and 263 Camino del Remedio, Santa Barbara, 681-5600. Or make an appointment to leave samples at 121 N. G St., Lompoc, 737-7733; or 1745 Mission Dr., Solvang, 686-5064.

In addition, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has added the Asian citrus psyllid to its residential trapping program, which is how the psyllids were discovered in Santa Ana and Echo Park. Here in Santa Barbara County, CDFA technicians based in Buellton set traps in neighborhoods, parks and business centers countywide.

“Non-indigenous fruit flies are our main deal. Mediterranean, Mexican, Oriental and melon flies. We also do the light brown apple moth, Asian citrus psyllid and false coddling moth. That’s what we’re trapping for now,” said Jay Burwell, a CDFA Agricultural Technician III. “Right now, we have 368 locations. But that fluctuates highly for seasonal host availability.”

Yellow sticky cards are the trap of choice for the Asian citrus psyllid, which Burwell’s office sends to Sacramento for testing and identification.

“The problem is, there are so many psyllids,” he said. “If there were only one type of psyllid, it would be easy to detect.”

Stop the Transport

Because there is no cure for Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease, the only way to prevent the deadly disease is to avoid transporting citrus trees, citrus fruit and closely related plants, such as orange jasmine, cape chestnut trees and curry leaves.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, “The safest approach is simply to not move citrus plants, ship citrus plants, or buy host citrus plants online unless you are absolutely sure the plant is not from an area that is quarantined for either citrus greening disease or Asian citrus psyllids.”

Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commissioner Bill Gillette echoes those thoughts.

“The message for everybody isn’t so much this particular insect as it is for all fruits and vegetables, whether you’re dealing with Oriental fruit flies or the light brown apple moth or Asian citrus psyllids. Those generally don’t get here by themselves,” he said.

“These types of things, certainly the disease, that’s how it’s going to get in here. Somebody’s going to either inadvertently or smuggle some infected plant material in here. Then we’ve got a problem.”

Useful Websites

To learn more about the Asian citrus psyllid and Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease, read prevention tips, and view photos of the psyllid and the damage it can cause, visit:

The Citrus Research Board

California Department of Food & Agriculture

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources

US Department of Agriculture

Seeds of Wisdom

If you suspect any problem with your citrus trees, especially on new growth, take a sample to an office of the county agricultural commissioner for a diagnosis or call the state pest hotline, (800) 491-1899.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Fall has a way of sneaking up on our Central Coast gardens. It doesn’t arrive in one fell swoop like so many places. There’s not a single cold snap or deep freeze to announce that the seasons have changed.

Instead, we get a mish-mash of conditions for a month or two, with temperatures bouncing around from the 40s and 50s at night to the low 60s to the low 80s during the day.

But the trend is still toward shorter days and crisper nights. And then suddenly — indeed, sometimes it seems overnight — our deciduous trees erupt into glorious fall color.

Granted, you’re not likely to see the postcard-perfect images that you’ll find in New England, where vast stands display impossible shades of brilliance.

Hachiya persimmon (Diospyros kaki 'Hachiya')

Much of that is because we have a greater diversity of trees, with many different tropicals, subtropicals and evergreens mixed in with our deciduous trees.

We also have a slower progression of color. Rather than busting loose all at once, followed by a quick fade, our leaves typically take their sweet time to shift color, then drop.

As a result, we may see the first hints of color in September, with Japanese maples starting to turn, followed by persimmons and maidenhair trees. Others, such as birches and sycamores, often come late to the party, not fully coloring up until November or even early December.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how fast our trees turn, or whether they’re planted in masses or as single specimens. They’re all beautiful this time of year, especially at sunup and sundown, with the low rays of sunlight shimmering through their tissue-thin leaves of red, yellow, purple and orange.

The following are among the best.

American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

American sweet gum, up close.

This robust tree bears maple-shaped leaves that turn gold, red and burgundy in fall. It has a nice, upright shape, and grows moderately fast to 60 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet wide. Although American sweet gum is a popular street tree in older neighborhoods, its beefy surface roots can lift pavement. So plant yours at least 10 to 15 feet away from sidewalks, patios, driveways and the foundation of your home. That will also help you to avoid having to constantly sweep the golfball-sized sticker balls that drop much of the year.

But all is forgiven when those leaves turn color and light up the neighborhood.

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

This statuesque native produces giant, leathery, maple-like leave that turn the richest orangey-gold in the coldest spots on the Central Coast.

Just south of Buellton, California sycamores that line the stream corridor along the east side of Highway 101 yield brilliant hues every year.

In milder areas, you’ll generally see a mix of rustic brown and gold, and even a few pale green leaves that never really turn.

After the leaves drop, the solid trunks reveal zig-zagging branches and beautiful, mottled, peeling bark in shades of white, tan, cinnamon and dark brown.

California sycamore grows fast to 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide. It is not for the faint of heart — or for small gardens.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

If you plant only one tree for fall color, let it be Chinese pistache.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

Neat and well-mannered, with roots that stay within bounds, it nonetheless trumpets its presence in fall as a raucous fireball of orange and red. On close inspection, some leaves turn yellow and pink as well. Adding to the explosive effect are dangling leaflets that dance in the breeze.

Chinese pistache grows 30 to 60 feet tall and wide. A relative newcomer to many neighborhoods, it will be interesting to watch as the various trees take on size over the next 10 to 15 years. As with many trees, it performs best with good drainage and deep, infrequent watering.

European white birch (Betula pendula)

A European white birch swirls in the wind.

This traditional front yard tree grows narrow and tall, and is often planted in groups.

The arrowhead-shaped leaves, hanging from weeping branches, turn to liquid gold in the fall.

Those leaves offer a beautiful, stark contrast to the white and black furrowed bark.

Mature trees reach 40 feet tall, 20 feet wide and form a surprisingly broad trunk a foot wide or wider.

If you plant several, vary their initial sizes so that they don’t grow into three equally stout trees in 15 to 20 years.

Also know that greedy surface roots will crowd out any underplantings, including lawn, over time.

I’m planning to replace a swath of declining fairy fan flower (Scaevola ‘Mauve Clusters’) beneath my European white birch with an underlayment of landscape fabric topped by dark, polished pebbles, come spring.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)

Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku')

This dainty tree produces some of the earliest and most spectacular fall color, although its delicate leaves drop relatively fast. It grows to about 20 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety.

More than a dozen Japanese maples are commonly available, ranging from Bloodgood, which bears scarlet leaves in fall, to coral bark maple, which turns an ethereal yellow.

Protect your Japanese maple from the harshest elements. It will be at its best tucked into a sheltered corner or beneath a taller, evergreen tree, where wind and heat won’t tatter its leaves and turn them crispy.

Japanese or oriental persimmon (Diospyros kaki)

Fuyu persimmon (Diospyros kaki 'Fuyu')

Often overlooked until it sports fall color, this fruit tree bears round, nearly heart-shaped leaves that shift from green to yellow to deep, glowing orange. Plump, orange fruits that hang on long after the leaves have dropped are a bonus.

As a shade tree, persimmon has a nice, rounded silhouette and grows 30 feet tall and wide. As a fruit tree, it’s generally grafted to yield Fuyu, a nonastringent fruit that’s sweet when picked; or Hachiya, an astringent fruit that softens and sweetens after picking.

Maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba)

Maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba)

Year in and year out, this showstopper yields what may be the most vibrant yellow of any Central Coast tree.

It’s also among the most reliable for turning color, even with the mildest of temperatures.

The drooping, fan-shaped leaves then fall nearly all at once, gifting the earth with a golden glow.

Maidenhair tree is one of the oldest flowering plants on earth, dating back some 200 million years. Male trees bear small, inconspicuous flowers, while females produce large, fleshy seeds in late fall that smell positively hideous. Fortunately, nurseries seldom offer female trees for sale.

Maidenhair tree often starts out slow, then speeds up, eventually reaching up to 50 tall and about half as wide.

Purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera)

The already dark leaves of this fruitless plum turn nearly inky black in fall.

Purple Pony purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Purple Pony')

It is especially beautiful when offset by the golden tones of a European white birch or brilliant yellow gingko.

Purple-leaf plum sheds its leaves from the top down, so can look a little awkward just before the last leaves drop.

This tough tree withstands wind, poor soil and street pollution, and is found in neighborhoods everywhere. It generally grows upright, to 30 feet tall.

A dozen or so named varieties, such as Krauter Vesuvius and Purple Pony, may have slightly different forms, and be more rounded or not quite as tall.

Why Leaves Change Color

Fall color is the result of deciduous plants preparing for winter.

Yet another beautiful American sweet gum.

Before dropping their leaves, the plants convert the starch in their foliage to sugars to store in their branches, stems and trunks to sustain themselves until they leaf out the following spring.

But cold temperatures can hinder the process, preventing the sugars from reaching their destinations. That buildup of sugars often appears as red pigment.

Meanwhile, the green chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing any other pigments that might have been masked, such as red, yellow, purple or orange.

The mashup of stalled sugars and pigments results in what we see as fall color.

Colder temperatures often heighten the hues, while mild temperatures can dull them. Strong, afternoon sun can intensify colors as well, sometimes to the point that the southwest side of a tree may sport more vivid color than its other sides.

Seeds of Wisdom

Fall color is not limited to trees. Deciduous shrubs, grape vines and some fruit trees, including peaches, plums and pluots, can produce dazzling foliage as well.

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What's That Tree?

Have you always wondered what that purple-flowering tree was, down the street? Or the one by the post office that turns bright yellow in fall?

Turn to a new book by Matt Ritter, a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and you should have the answer in short order.

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us” features 150 of the most common trees growing in urban and suburban areas across the state.

“Ninety-five percent of the trees are covered,” Ritter said, noting that these are trees that have been planted in neighborhoods, gardens, parks and along streets. There are a handful of California natives. But most of the trees living in what arborists call our “urban forest” are from Australia, East Asia and other temperate and subtropical regions of the world.

A Unique Approach

Valley oak (Quercus lobata)

Plenty of books have been written about trees. However, what makes Ritter’s distinct is the approach he offers to identify trees.

Readers can take two paths: flip through the pages until they find a photo that resembles what they’re trying to figure out. That’s generally an easy route, as each of the 150 trees gets a full page treatment, with more than 500 photos and illustrations of mature specimens and close-ups of leaves, bark, cones, flowers, seeds and other pertinent details.

Or the more scientifically inclined might follow Ritter’s keys.

Keys are well-known in botany. Books about native plants — the encyclopedic Jepson Manual in particular — go to great lengths to “key” individual species by posing a series of either/or questions that narrow the choices until an identification is made.

But according to Ritter, no book about commonly planted trees has ever done that.

“There are no keys for regular trees,” he said. “It’s difficult to do (create the keys) because you have to first of all know what you would see. .. It’s training as a botanist that got me the ability to do that.”

Female cone of a Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris).

Ritter’s keys include such deceptively simple either/or questions as “Are the leaves lighter green on the lower surfaces?” or “Are the leaves the same color on the upper and lower surfaces; fruit smooth?” Based on the answers, he identifies the species or refers the reader to increasingly specific keys, where the identification is ultimately made.

When you reach that moment for a particular eucalyptus, for example, he said, “Now all of a sudden, you know it’s a sugar gum, with smooth bark, orange blotches and a lighter color on the leaf. You can be confident you are looking at the same thing, because on page 57 you can see it.”

To make the process easier for novices, he suggests first keying a tree whose identity you already know. He even provides a ruler along the edge of the back cover to measure various attributes of mystery trees.

“I wanted the book to be readable and interesting for the beginner, people who are just starting to look at trees, all the way to a person who’s a curator of an herbarium who wants to know esoteric differences between acacias. I was trying to strike the balance,” Ritter said.

A Light-Hearted Touch

The many shades of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

As a professor, Ritter knows his way around thick, technical botanic tomes. He’s also editor-in-chief of Madroño, an academic quarterly journal published by the California Botanical Society, a group comprised of university professors and researchers.

Yet he has taken a decidedly light — but sincere — tone with this book. Early on, Ritter writes, “This is a book about trees, made from the bodies of dead trees, and reading it is a poor substitute at best for experiencing these wonderful organisms directly and personally. Take it with you and walk out among the trees in your neighborhood.”

He tucks in tidbits about natural history, quotes and tongue-in-cheek lists.

For instance, “Magnolias are an ancient and primitive group of flowering plants that evolved at a time when Earth was covered primarily with ferns and conifers… These flowers evolved prior to butterflies and bees and were originally pollinated by beetles and other ancient insects.”

The many quotes include this one from humorist Jack Handy, “I think people tend to forget that trees are living creatures. They’re sort of like dogs. Huge, quiet, motionless dogs, with bark instead of fur.”

And this from French historian and educator Charles Rollin: “The highest and most lofty trees have the most reason to dread the thunder.”

Ritter has fun with his lists, too, such as “Hobo Trees: Common Trees along California’s Roadways and Railroad Tracks” and “The Ten Trees Most Likely to Trip You on the Sidewalk.”

Then there’s “California’s ‘Old-Timey’ Trees: Trees planted in California long ago and now regularly found near old home sites and missions.” The old-timers include such imposing giants as tree of heaven, bunya bunya tree, blue gum and Monterey cypress.

“Another whole goal is to look at things in a different way,” Ritter said. “That’s a plant palette that existed then that doesn’t exist anymore… Now, when you see an area on the side of a hill with an old blue gum and a Monterey pine, even though any evidence of a structure is long gone, you’ll know that an old house existed there because old timey trees are still there.”

What Else is Inside

Ginkgo or maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Each plant entry starts with the tree’s botanic name and common name, along with its Latin translation, pronunciation, plant family, native location, leaf type, habit, shape, sex and height.

“The thing there on every page, the plant morphology, that came from a lot of observation,” Ritter said.

The descriptions benefit from his observations as well. For example, about the tulip tree, which grows more than 80 feet tall, he writes, “A long pole trimmer, brave climb, jet pack, or view from a three-story building may be necessary to observe these majestic blooms closely, but they are well worth the effort.”

What you won’t find, though, are planting instructions or pest and disease diagnoses. Ritter said he didn’t want to duplicate information readily available from other sources.

“As a botanist, the two questions are, ‘What is that thing in my yard?’ and ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Many other books address the second question. This book addresses that first question.”

He added, “My audience is people in urban and suburban environments in California who will pick up the book, flip through it, instantly recognize something around them… Then they’ll get sucked in. A lay person who has a burgeoning curiosity about trees. I want them to become more interested in trees, I want them to become defenders of trees, I want them to plant trees, I want them ultimately to be more interested in general about organisms and conservation and diversity.”

About Matt Ritter

Author Matt Ritter ensnared in the massive, above-ground roots of the Moreton Bay fig tree that sits near the Santa Barbara Amtrak station.

Author of “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us,” Matt Ritter is a botany professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is editor-in-chief of the California Botanic Society’s quarterly journal. He writes about lesser-known but worthy trees for Pacific Horticulture Magazine; has written natural history and field trip guides about San Luis Obispo, and numerous scientific papers; and contributed to botanical references, including the upcoming second edition of the “Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California” and the “Flora of North America Project.”

He is also chair of the City of San Luis Obispo Tree Committee.

Ritter shot all of the photographs for this new book. He is particularly proud that while he featured many street trees, not a single automobile is pictured.

Ritter is a lively speaker. His next appearance on the Central Coast will be February 20 at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History.

In addition to his work as a botanist, Ritter describes himself as “a woodworker, athlete, musician, gardener, and all-around likable guy.”

Seeds of Wisdom

“A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us”, by Matt Ritter, 2011, costs $18.95. It is available at most independent bookstores, including The Book Loft in Solvang, and online at

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

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