Convergent lady beetles at the ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Laboratory in Newark, Delaware.

Stand in the middle of your garden, close your eyes and listen.

Mentally screen out any urban noise — planes overhead, barking dogs, traffic, children — and focus on the natural world. You might hear the hum of honeybees, chirping of birds, wind rustling through leaves or tall grass, or rhythmic drips of moving water.

Those familiar sounds bring a feeling of peace, right?

But take out a magnifying glass and you’ll find that that sense of calm masks a silent war of sorts. On a microscopic level, pests and predators are battling to the death amid the leaves and soil of our gardens.

That’s not a bad thing.

To flip it, predators of pests are actually beneficial. They help keep our gardens healthy by combating pests that might otherwise damage or destroy our crops.

Use of predator insects dates back some 1700 years, when citrus growers in China colonized yellow fear ants to protect against insect pests. The growers linked their trees with bamboo strips so the ants could more easily move from one infestation to the next.

Most of us were introduced to beneficials when we were children, via ladybugs. The cute, round bugs are real charmers. However, their ability to annihilate pests should not be underestimated. Indeed, the importation of Australian ladybird beetles to southern California in the 1880s saved the fledgling citrus industry from a deadly wipeout threatened by cottony cushion scale.

The Big Three

Today, aphids are often the gateway pest that sparks interest in beneficial insects.

Ron Whitehurst, a pest control advisor and co-owner of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, a company in Ventura that produces and distributes insects and other organisms, supplies and tools for biological control of pests, advises first simply blasting aphids with water. Next up, a soapy solution of an ounce and a half of liquid soap to a gallon of water.

If neither works, he then suggests releasing beneficial insects.

Convergent ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) are a good start, especially early in the year when other beneficials might not be as active. They are voracious eaters: a single black and orange-spotted alligator-shaped larva may eat 400 aphids before it pupates, while an adult may eat 5,000 aphids during its year-long life.

A green lacewing larva dines on whitefly nymphs.

When temperatures warm up, green lacewings can be even more effective.

The larvae devour not only aphids, but caterpillar pests, eggs and young larvae of Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, leaf hoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scales, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. As a bonus: unlike ladybugs, green lacewing larvae can’t fly away.

Also, it’s interesting to note that once the larvae mature to gossamer-winged adults, they become vegetarians, supping only on pollen and nectar.

A third aphid-eater Whitehurst recommends is Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

“The mamma Aphidoletes comes around and finds aphids. The baby, a little orange maggot, spears the aphids and sucks them dry and throws them off the plant,” he said. “They tend to colonize. You could do one release, then let them grow and develop.”

Beyond Aphids

To conquer spider mites, thrips, moths and other pests, a second tier of beneficial insects awaits.

“If people are growing lettuces and culinary herbs, spider mites would be one of the things that would be a major pest problem,” Whitehurst said. “From a cultural standpoint, use overhead watering. Spider mites like it hot and dry. So increase the humidity and decrease the temperature to make them less competitive.”

Absent that, he recommends predator mites. Neoseiulus californicus battles spider mites as well as persea mites, which are especially pernicious bugs that suck the chlorophyll from avocado leaves and eventually defoliate the trees.

A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs.

Minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus) go after western flower thrips, onion thrips and whiteflies.

Or for a one-two punch, Whitehurst recommends Ambleyseius cucumeris, which tackles thrips on the upper part of a plant, and Hypoaspis miles, a soil-dwelling mite that feeds on thrips as they drop on the soil to pupate.

“If you grow a bunch of culinary herbs, it would make sense to inoculate early in the season with those two predator mites to bring down the population of thrips,” he said.

Trichogramma wasps are parasitic insects that lay their eggs within the eggs of over 200 pest moth species. The trichogramma larvae eat the innards of the pest eggs, pupate, then emerge as winged adults, ready to lay ever more eggs. The wasps are especially effective against cabbage caterpillars and worms.

Creating a Habitat

You can grow your own beneficial insects by the way you garden.

“We want to emphasize the whole basic organic or biological approach to gardening,” Whitehurst said. “Focus on feeding the microbes in the soil so the roots on the plants are healthy. Then fertilize with compost and use mulch where appropriate. That will again feed the soil microbes and feed the decomposer insects that feed the predator insects, like the predatory ground beetles and wolf spiders.”

Golden trichogramma wasps parasitizing insect eggs.

Now you don’t have to be a purist. It’s fine to buy beneficials. But to entice them in the first place, or encourage them to stick around after they’ve devoured your pests, sustenance is a must.

The trick is to plant plants that provide a succession of pollen and nectar year-round. The patch can be left a little weedy or wild, and should never be sprayed.

“Dill is a real champ as far as having this umbel-shaped flower that has nectar available to big insects and little insects,” Whitehurst said. “Several others in the Apiaceae family are fennel, cilantro and anise. You can grow more moderate versions. Ornamental bronze fennel is a little more reserved than the wild fennel.”

Other herbs to sustain beneficials include angelica, anise hyssop, borage, caraway, chamomile, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, teucrium, thyme and yarrow.

Native plants include milkweed (Asclepias), saltbush (Atriplex), coyote brush (Baccharis), wild lilac (Ceanothus), buckwheat (Eriogonum), toyon (Heteromeles), bladder pod (Isomeris) and coffeeberry (Rhamnus).

A handful of miscellaneous plants includes golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), bell beans, black-eyed peas, bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), corn, cosmos, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), sunflowers and white clover (Trifolia repens).

Lending a Hand

An adult assassin bug, Zelus renardii, feeds on a Lygus bug, which disfigures and damages strawberries.

After you’ve built up an ecosystem and colonized beneficials in one spot, it’s easy to move them to wherever trouble is brewing by spraying an attractant.

For instance, if aphids are massing on your broccoli, Whitehurst advises the following.

“Mix equal parts sugar and dried brewers yeast. Add water. Then spray large droplets, widely scattered. That simulates the situation where you have plants that are real sticky with honeydew. That will draw in the lacewings and ladybirds and syrphid flies and such… It’s pretty effective as far as drawing in the aphid predators.”

Helping Combat the Enemy

While beneficial insects dominate their prey, they are vulnerable to ants.

“Ants collect the honeydew, the sugary poop from aphids, whitefly, scale,” Whitehurst said. “If they’re working the plants, they will be collecting that honeydew and driving off the beneficial insects that are trying to eat the pests that are generating their candy.”

Controlling ants, then, is an important aspect of supporting and maintaining your beneficials. Whitehurst recommends buying or mixing up a borate-based bait. The ants will eat the bait, take it back to their colonies and perish.

Thanks to the California Department of Food & Agriculture for providing these photos.

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

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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.

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A series of weathered redwood beds allows for intensive planting of summer vegetables, including Serrano peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, red bell peppers and two dozen tomatoes. These beds are spaced 3 feet apart to allow crops to spill over the sides, and to provide room for pushing a wheelbarrow in between.

Do your summer vegetables need a lift?

Raised beds are an excellent way to amp up your harvests.

Few of us have naturally occurring vegetable quality soil. It can be tough to create the rich, loamy stuff in the ground. Instead, start fresh, by building up.

An elevated growing space makes it easier to improve your soil’s fertility and tilth, and to water, weed and harvest crops.

With a few modifications, raised beds protect against rabbits and rodents. You won’t step on productive soil or waste it between rows. You can garden more intensively. And you’ll quickly find that raised beds are easy on the back.

The Basics

UC 157 asparagus, a perennial crop, will flourish for up to 20 years in a raised bed.

A traditional, stripped-down version is a rectangular wood frame with four posts.

The wood is typically redwood or cedar, although you can get creative with materials. For instance, stone beds are beautiful. But they’re pricey and their thick sides require more space.

Also beware of old, pressure-treated timbers or railroad ties that might leach nasty chemicals.

Given a standard board length of 8 feet, 4 x 8-foot beds are a common size. That width is great for larger, perennial crops, such as asparagus, blueberries and raspberries.

But I think it’s too wide for seasonal edibles, including tomatoes, beans and peppers. You’ll be tempted to plant three rows. But the middle row will be nearly impossible to reach once the veggies gain size. Beds that are 3 x 8, with two rows each, are easier to manage.

The ends are nearly complete.

As for height: the boards should be at least 1 foot tall and 1 to 2 inches thick. A single, foot-wide board for each side is the simplest approach.

However, to save money, you can stack several narrower boards.

Just be sure the boards are straight and flush, so that soil and water don’t leak out between them.

Just one side to go!

Use sturdy 4 x 4-inch posts. Cut them 1 foot taller than the height of the bed, to allow for 1 foot to be buried in the ground. If you build a 1-foot tall bed, you’ll need four 2-foot lengths, or one 8-foot post.

Use long wood screws, rather than nails, to connect the boards and attach the posts. Angle brackets at each corner will provide extra stability.

Build your frame upside down on a flat space, such as a driveway or patio, with the posts in the air.

Prepping the Space

Carrots love crumbly soil.

Summer vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, while winter vegetables need at least four to six hours.

Mark where the raised bed will go, then excavate a foot of soil. Set the frame in place and level it.

The wood should rest on the finished soil level, rather than be buried, which will hasten deterioration.

Line the cavity with quarter-inch or half-inch aviary wire or chicken wire to thwart gophers, moles and other tunneling varmints. Bend the wire up against the interior sides of the frame, then secure the edges with a staple gun.

Also break up any dirt clods in the excavated soil.

The finer the texture, the more easily your edibles can gain a toe-hold in the bed.

The Soil

The beauty of a raised bed is that you have total control. The soil should be deep, fertile, hold moisture and drain well. It should smell fresh and sift easily through your fingers.

All done, and filled with a rich, sift-through-your fingers mix of topsoil, existing soil and redwood compost.

How much? A 3 x 8 bed, 1 foot tall and filled to the brim, requires 24 cubic feet of material. But your soil won’t go all the way to the top. Eighteen to 20 cubic feet is sufficient.

If your garden soil is free of weeds and reasonably loose and fertile, go ahead and “harvest” some.

But at least two-thirds of what goes into your raised bed should be high-quality soil builder, compost and/or topsoil.

Specialty products, like chicken manure and kelp, should be one-third or less. Do not use potting soil. It’s expensive and settles significantly.

Packman broccoli and green onions are flanked by orange calendulas in this raised redwood bed. After harvest, I’ll reinvigorate the soil by mixing in several inches of compost.

If you’re planning to grow your edibles organically, start with the soil. Kellogg’s sells a soil-enriching compost that’s certified organic. E.B. Stone offers an organic flower and vegetable planting mix as well.

Home-made compost, loaded with beneficial microorganisms, is fabulous. But not many of us have 20 cubic feet of the good stuff on hand. Yet even if you only have a bucketful, use it.

Start filling your foot-deep pit with 4 to 6 inches of the excavated soil. Add an equal amount of new material. Mix it thoroughly with a rake or by hand. Try not to tangle with the aviary wire below.

Add another 4 to 6 inches of excavated soil. Mix it in. Add the new material and mix it in.

Continue layering and mixing until you’ve filled the bed to within a few inches of the top.

Run your fingers through it one last time, and you’re ready to plant.

This article was first published in the Summer 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.

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Amy Ramos talks about her water-conserving garden.

A water-wise garden that I designed last year will be featured on Santa Barbara’s City TV in July.

A camera crew shot the garden and interviewed my client, Amy Ramos, this week for an episode of “Inside Santa Barbara.”

Amy explained how we ripped out the sod lawn in her front yard and replaced it with colorful, water-conserving shrubs, perennials and ground covers.

Another look at Amy’s garden.

She reduced her water bill and her maintenance, and got a beautiful, fragrant garden in keeping with the cottage style of her home in return.

Amy also received a $1,000 rebate from the city’s Smart Landscape Rebate Program. Check with me or visit to see if you might qualify for a $1,000 rebate, too.

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

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Spotted nettle

Who needs flowers?

Try to liven up a shady spot in your garden, and your list of ever-blooming plants is likely to be woefully short.

But shift your focus to foliage plants, and you’ll enter a world of year-round color.

Along with many shades of green, you’ll find leaves in yellow, orange, red, pink, purple and white. You’ll see speckles, swirls and stripes, and even some metallics.

These wild characters tend to like warm weather, so there’s a good selection at nurseries now. They include an assortment of annuals and perennials, although due to our mild weather, those that are labeled as annuals may behave as short-lived perennials, thriving for a few years before expiring.

Watering needs range from dry to wet. Most appreciate a monthly dose of fertilizer.

The following are among the best for crazy color right along the ground, or just above it.

Carpet Bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Catlin’s Giant carpet bugle

The straight carpet bugle is a classic, quiet, dark-green ground cover.

But the spinach-like, puckery leaves of Catlin’s Giant are bronzy red, and Black Scallop is dark purple.

Both creep along the ground and spread 2 to 3 feet wide. Short plumes of bluish-purple flowers rise another 6 to 8 inches above.

Be sure to bait for snails and slugs, which love to munch the leaves. It’s okay to let the plants can go dry between waterings.

Rex Begonias

Rex begonia

This class of begonias bears amazing patterns on large, crinkly, pointed leaves. Colors range from green to white to gray to burgundy, with a few metallic tones thrown in.

Rex begonias tend to be collector’s plants and can command high prices.

They’re best in pots or hanging baskets where you can admire all that value up close.

Keep the soil evenly moist and avoid watering from above, as the droplets can spot the leaves and lead to botrytis, a potentially deadly fungal disease.

Variegated Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea ‘Variegata’)

Variegated ground ivy

Don’t let the dainty, variegated leaves of this perennial fool you.

Just like its bigger namesakes, ground ivy traverses the earth via trailing stems that root and re-root. It grows only a few inches tall and is useful for covering small patches of poor soil.

But keep it away from your lawn, where it can become a nuisance.

It’s easier to control — and is quite fetching — in hanging baskets. Plant in cool sun or bright shade, and water about once a week during dry spells.

Variegated Licorice Plant (Helichrysum petiolare ‘Licorice Splash’)

Licorice Splash licorice plant

Fuzzy, multi-hued leaves in dark green, light green, yellow and silver densely cloak this charming perennial, while the long, slightly fuzzy branches gracefully arch and weave their way through other plants.

Licorice Splash is often recommended for containers.But because it grows at least a foot tall and spreads a few feet wide, I prefer growing it in the ground, where it has room to roam.

Water about once a week until your plants are established. Then let them go dry between waterings.

Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Kassandra coral bells

Plant breeders have gone nuts with these small, clumping perennials, creating a seemingly infinite number of color combinations in green, amber, yellow, purple and silver.

Look for Kassandra, which bears frilly, maple-like leaves in orange, yellow and red; Cathedral Windows, which bears purple leaves with puckery pink splotches; and Silver Scrolls, which bears larger, slightly cupped leaves that are silver with green veins and purple edges on top, and completely purple underneath.

Regardless of their coloring, coral bells are at their best with fast-draining soil and morning sun or all-day filtered light. Full sun or late afternoon sun can scorch the leaves.

Polka-Dot Plant (Hypoestes)

Splash Red polka-dot plant

Bright, tropical pairs of leaves adorn this perennial. Splash Red is bright cherry red with splotches of olive green, while Splash Pink is hot pink with speckles of medium green.

Polka-dot plant is grown as a houseplant in most places, and it’s debatable as to whether it will overwinter on the Central Coast.

Your best bet is to grow it in a pot so you can bring indoors if temperatures drop. Water frequently, and pinch back the leaves to the nearest joint if your plant gets leggy.

New Guinea Impatiens

Painted Paradise White impatiens

Standard impatiens are grown for their nonstop, colorful flowers: their small, nondescript green leaves have zero to do with their popularity.

But the New Guinea hybrids bear large, lush, tropical leaves with strong, contrasting patterns of green, white, yellow, coral, red and bronze. The flowers seem almost an afterthought.

Most of the hybrids grow 1 to 2 feet tall, and slightly wider. Their colors are brought out by bright, indirect light or not-too-intense morning sun. Keep the soil evenly moist.

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)

Chillin’ Limeade sweet potato vine

Who would have thought that the lowly edible tuber could be enticed into producing such decorative top growth?

Lush, heart-shaped leaves glow in opposing — yet complementary — shades of lime-green and purple.

The plants don’t actually vine — they have a trailing habit, and are better on the ground as a quick-growing cover, or in a container where they’ll spill over the side.

They grow fast during warm weather, and easily reach 3 feet wide by summer’s end. But in late fall, they collapse. And while they’re technically a perennial, I’ve not been able to resurrect mine for another go-round the following year.

Dead Nettle or Spotted Nettle (Lamium maculatum)

Emeralds n’ Gold spotted nettle with variegated plectranthus.

What a hideous name for such an appealing and versatile shade plant.

Trailing stems bear heart-shaped leaves that sport all sorts of patterns in green, yellow and silver.

Emeralds n’ Gold is green with a bright yellow edging and a silver stripe down the middle, while Pink Pewter is ghostly white with just a hint of green on the edges.

Dead nettles spread fast, but are easy to keep within bounds. They grow well in part to full shade, and appreciate evenly moist soil.

Coleus (Solenostemon or Coleus x hybridus)

Kong Red coleus

These tropical plants can be fussy to get right.

But wow!

Few other plants match the intensity of the foliage, which can include yellow, hot pink and fire-engine red on the same leaf.

Most coleus grow about 2 feet tall and wide, and are at their finest when out of the wind and in filtered light.

Too much sun and their colors may bleach out. Water once or twice a week and apply a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer twice a month.

Watering Your Foliage Plants

Among the best: a fancy-leaf Rex begonia and silvery dichondra on the left, black mondo grass on the right and splashes of red impatiens and polka-dot plant throughout.

How your foliage plants spread will determine the best way to water them.

Conventional drip irrigation emitters are fine for plants that grow from a central stem.

But for those that re-root, use overhead sprayers or weave soaker tube through the planting bed to evenly water the area.

Early on, you may have to play with the frequency. Many shade plants require more water than sun lovers. But because they’re in the shade, the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly.

Watch closely to catch the plants just before they wilt significantly. Note the number of days that has elapsed, and then water a day or two earlier than that. As the plants gain size, try backing off on the frequency.

Seeds of Wisdom

Hose off your foliage plants occasionally, to keep their colorful leaves looking fresh. Do so early in the day, so that the leaves have time to dry before cooler nighttime temperatures set in.

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Siam Queen basil

Growing annual herbs from seed is among the easiest, most rewarding tasks you can tackle in the garden.

Annual herbs grow fast. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be able to snip your first flavorful leaves.

From seed, you’ll find a greater selection than from transplants, and the seed packets will cost less. Sow a few plants every few weeks, and you’ll have your favorite herbs — fresh — until next winter.

Up close, many annual herbs bear beautiful leaf colors, patterns and textures.

Let some flower, and you’ll attract beneficial insects to your garden as well.

A Need for Speed

Unlike perennial herbs, which are in it for the long haul, annual herbs do their business in a season. Theirs is a simple life. They germinate, send up stems, branches and leaves, then produce buds and flowers. Soon after, they go to seed, collapse and die.

One advantage to this brief dance in the spotlight is that most annual herbs don’t take a lot of space. That’s why they flourish in cute, little pots: they don’t typically produce much root mass.

Another plus is that you don’t have to make a life-time investment in an herb that you might not like. With such fast results, it’s easy to experiment without risking much time, money and effort.

The Best Annual Herbs


Dark purple Opal basil and grassy chives top this strawberry pot.

If you grow only one annual herb, let it be basil.

The tender herb is the most exquisite complement to home-grown tomatoes.

From seed, you’ll find an array of flavors, including sweet, lemon, anise, cinnamon, Italian, Thai and Greek, each with a different leaf shape and fragrance.

Most varieties grow a foot tall and wide. They perform best with heat, fluffy soil and frequent water.

Seeds have a high germination rate, so sow them a few inches apart, then thin the seedlings to 12 inches apart.

Harvest the foliage throughout the growing season.

Or wait until the flower buds begin to form, which is when the leaves will contain their most concentrated oils.


Borage and bees.

This fuzzy, blue-blooming herb hit the big time when edible flowers became fashionable a decade ago. Both the flowers and leaves taste like mild cucumber.

In the ground, the knee-high plants may run rampant, seeding out exuberantly into poor, dry soil. Instead, contain your borage in a pot, where it will happily bask in full sun or part shade.

Honeybees love the flowers, too.


This soothing, sun lover comes in two flavors.

Annual German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an upright herb that bears white, button-sized daisy flowers for brewing a mild tea. (Discard the narrow, white petals and brew the yellow button centers.)

Perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) forms a low, fragrant mat and fits well between stepping stones. Its pungent flowers may taste bitter, and are better in potpourri.


The fresh, chopped leaves of this dual-purpose herb are a must-grow for salsa, while its coriander seeds are a key component in curry.

Cilantro is best suited for sowing directly in the garden, as it sends down a deep taproot at the same time that it quickly stretches 1 to 3 feet tall. Plants may look weedy, especially if they get blown about by the wind or go dry.

Harvest the newest, freshest leaves, and plan to sow new plants every few weeks through the end of summer. Let a few specimens flower, to attract beneficial insects.

Harvest the coriander when the seeds turn brown.



Related to cilantro, dill also sends down a tap root. So sow it where you’d like it to grow.

Have patience: seeds may take a few weeks to sprout. Dill will bolt if it’s too hot or too crowded. Provide some shade and thin the seedlings to 6 to 8 inches apart.

Harvest the wispy leaves for everything from fish to potatoes, then gather the seeds for pickling cucumbers.


This wavy-leaved herb prefers cooler spots, too. Be warned that its seeds can be balky to germinate. You may have better luck buying transplants.

Curly parsley is an attractive, ankle-high edging in partial shade. Flat, broad-leaf Italian parsley yields stronger flavor, and grows up to 3 feet tall.

Summer Savory

With dainty pink flowers lining its upright stalks, summer savory is one of the prettiest annual herbs.

Its slender, aromatic leaves and flowering tops complement perennial oregano, rosemary and thyme in herbes de Provence mixes. It grows about a foot tall and prefers full sun.

Perennial Herbs

Lemon thyme

Perennial and shrub herbs generally require more space and a longer-term commitment.

Chives are an exception, growing well in 6 to 8-inch pots.

Grow your mint and oregano in pots, too. Otherwise, their invasive roots may rapidly overtake unsuspecting neighbors.

Lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme have better manners. While often grown in large containers, they perform even better in the ground. With our mild, Mediterranean weather, they’re content to become permanent members of the garden.

Getting Started

Silvery culinary garden sage (Salvia officinalis) contrasts beautifully with chives, sweet William and snapdragons.

Fast-draining, fertile soil and plenty of sunshine are key.

The easiest way to control the planting medium is to grow your annual herbs in containers.

Fill with premium potting soil, then add a balanced, slow-release, granular fertilizer.

On a windowsill or table, you can use small, terra cotta pots. Or fill larger bowls or containers with an assortment of herbs.

In the ground, unless your bed is already rich and loamy, plant in raised beds or mounds. Supplement the existing soil with generous amounts of loose, well-aged organic material to create a fine, crumbly mix.

This article was first published 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.

Casa del Herrero

Got spring fever? Itchy feet? How about playing hooky and getting out to visit a community garden?

This Friday, May 11, is National Public Gardens Day.

The fourth annual event, each year set for the Friday before Mother’s Day, is a “national day of celebration that invites communities to explore the beauty of their local green spaces while raising awareness of the important role public gardens play in promoting conservation, education and environmental preservation,” according to organizers.

But cut to the chase. Locally, a host of public and nonprofit gardens that ordinarily charge admission are throwing open their doors to visitors or reducing their rates.

Where to Go

Dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) spills over a trail at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

In Santa Barbara, you can visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for free on Friday by clicking on this link and printing the coupon. The botanic garden is one of the nation’s oldest, and focuses exclusively on native plants.

Casa del Herrero is discounting its docent-led tours in May and June by 20%. Call 805/565-5653 for reservations. The 1925 Montecito estate, designed by George Washington Smith, is a National Historic Landmark. The garden is a rare, remaining example of the elaborate estate gardens that were designed during what historians call the Golden Age of American Gardens, 1895 – 1940.

Pacific Coast iris at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Lotusland is offering a 20% discount on tours on May 16 and 17. Call 805 969-9990 for reservations. The 37-acre botanical estate garden showcases Madam Ganna Walska’s extravagant ideas of outdoor beauty, lavishly illustrated by subtropical and tropical plants from around the world.

The Huerta Garden at the Old Mission Santa Barbara is cutting its admission price on May 12 and May 19. Call 805 682-4713, x 166 for reservations. As part of the California mission system, the garden has a strong historical bent. It features plants introduced to California during the Mission Era, 1769 – 1836, along with many California native plants.

Completely Free

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), sage (Salvia) and California lilac (Ceanothus) at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Master Gardeners of Santa Barbara County are leading free tours at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. at the following locations: Mission Historical Park and the A.C. Postel Rose Garden, Los Olivos and Laguna Streets; Alice Keck Memorial Gardens, 1500 Santa Barbara Street; and Chase Palm Park, 323 E. Cabrillo Street. You can also pick up tickets for free rides on the 1917 Allan Herschell Carousel at Chase Palm Park at the Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo Street.

In addition, courthouse docents will lead tours of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens, Anapamu and Anacapa Streets. And the Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, will be offering a Horticultural Highlights Tour, free with paid zoo admission.

Further Afield

Another look at Casa del Herrero.

A dozen other public gardens in California, including the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, are participating in Friday’s events.

Across the nation, more than 150 botanical gardens, arboretums and preserves are offering freebies. Visit for more information.

So call in sick with a case of spring fever, and enjoy!

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