Plant Problems- What’s a Gardener to do?

Just one of many banana slugs in my garden

Everything was growing nicely in the garden until the banana slugs and squirrels started eating me out of house and home, fungal leaf spots and aphids appeared and the gophers and deer decided they really liked my plants. What’s a gardener to do?

Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving. And whether it’s your car, your smart phone, an irrigation system or yellowing leaves on a plant the goal is to find the solution and make everything work again. When you eliminate the potential causes of the problem hopefully the solution restores everything to its working order. Sometimes this is easier said than done as we all know.

A few weeks ago I received a text with pictures of some plants with leaf spots and was asked for a solution. Over the winter we received a lot of rain so I wasn’t surprised. But if this were mid-summer I’d suspect that the plant leaves were burned by the sun and not getting deep enough irrigation. At this time of year, however, black or brown spots on leaves are fungal or bacterial problems and should be treated with an organic fungicide like Serenade which is non-toxic to bees and beneficial insects, Neem, copper or sulfur spray to prevent and control spreading. Affected leaves should be discarded.

The subject of how much fertilizer and what kind came up in another troubleshooting email. The issue was whether to use an organic high phosphate fertilizer in order to encourage bud development on a notoriously short-season tree dahlia. A single spring application of rock phosphate should be sufficient. Sometimes adding too much phosphorus can actually hurt a plant, preventing the uptake of other nutrients necessary to prevent other deficiencies. A balanced fertilizer containing all three nutrients- nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-was recommended for the remainder of the season.

Winter yellow leaves on Meyer Improved lemon

Then there are the problems in my own garden. Well, it seems I am always trying to solve something with plants, pests or critters but now it’s the lemon tree. The older leaves of this tree are yellow. The new growth looks fine so it isn’t an iron deficiency where young leaves display green veins along with a yellowish color.

It isn’t a nitrogen deficiency either where the mature leaves slowly bleach to a mottled irregular green and yellow pattern, become entirely yellow and then are shed while the discoloration spreads to the younger leaves. I fertilized in March with an all-purpose balanced fertilizer. Citrus are heavy feeders and require a steady source of nitrogen, the ideal citrus fertilizer having a ration of 3:1:1 (N:P:K)

After eliminating other mineral deficiencies or overwatering as the problem I decided that my lemon was simply dropping interior leaves which is normal after winter but I wanted to trouble shoot all potential causes to be sure citrus greening wasn’t the culprit. If it had been this deadly disease the leaves would have exhibited an asymmetrical pattern.

To quote Sherlock Holmes “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I’ll try to remember that when I’m troubleshooting my next problem in the garden. Oh and by the way my banana slug relocation program is going well.

DIY Landscape DEsign Ideas

On a lovely spring day recently I spent some time in Palo Alto enjoying local gardens. It’s amazing what can be accomplished on a small lot where every foot counts. If you are looking to add some pizzazz to your garden and not spend much money, one of the gardens I visited will be right up your alley. Here are some take-a ways for your own landscaping.

Using driftwood collected from remote Santa Cruz beaches the owner of one amazing garden created a gate, several fences, flower bed borders to keep the dog out, an arbor and even a gazebo. He found used bricks and stones to build paths and also a patio but it was all the driftwood creations that caught my eye.

Take a few moments to really look at your garden. Look at the view from inside the windows and from the driveway as you enter. Then imagine all it could be with some simple changes.

A hand made driftwood arbor

The elements of garden design, like arrangement of paths, planting beds and open spaces, shape your garden. Have you ever noticed how your eye is drawn along a path through the garden? The plantings along the sides serve to frame but it’s the style of the path itself that enhances your experience in the garden.

The materials you choose for a path determine how fast or slow your walk will be. A casual path of gravel or bark chips lends itself to slow meandering around bends in the path. Flagstone pavers set in sand with spaces left between for low growing ground covers are good choices for both major access walks and smaller paths. Be sure to space the stones no further than a comfortable stride apart.

A curved line or offset sections of paving slows movement inviting you to notice the surroundings. Curves should look as if they are supposed to be there. Place a large plant, rock or sculptural feature at a turning point so that you must walk around the object. Remember a lightly curved path makes a nice entrance walk or a stroll through the garden but stick with straight lines for a path to take out the trash or get fire wood.

Used brick tapered path in a small garden

If your garden is small, a tapering path edged with curving flower beds will seem to converge on the horizon, giving the illusion of depth and distance. Plantings of grasses in the beds will create a sense of movement.

A redwood slab bench invites one to pause to enjoy the meadow.

You can separate plants and people by designing seating along the walkways. A good spot to place seating is at a fork in the path or where two types of paving meet another. Any object you can comfortably sit on is a possibility. Besides wood or ornamental iron benches, rocks, tree stumps, seat walls and planters can also double as seating.

Limit the number of elements in the garden. Rather than trying to include everything in the garden try for a unified look with the fewest number of things. Make each one count.

A short driftwood fence to protect a planting bed

Creating interest outside a window depends not only on plant choices but also simple design solutions. Keep the garden simple and restful. Editing some of the plants will make the garden lower maintenance, too. Plants that have overgrown the space need constant pruning. Move them to a better spot.

Another tip that makes an area more restful visually is to limit your plant palette. Plants that you can see through make a space seem larger. Some plants like Japanese maple, nandina and dogwood are naturally airy while other plants like camellia can be pruned for openness. Low growing, mounding ground covers help unify the garden. Plant soothing greenery for year round appeal with seasonal color from perennials and shrubs.

The great thing about making a garden is that you don’t have to do it all at once. And gardens are easy to alter as your ideas change. A garden is never done.

Garden Tour & English Tea in Scotts Valley

Path to Heaven tall bearded iris

I know where I’m gonna be on Saturday, May11th. St Phillip”s in Scotts Valley s having their 17th annual garden tour and English tea fundraiser for local charities including their own food pantry and community shelter. This year St.Phillip’s has chosen the Teen Kitchen Project as a special recipient for funds. I’ve previously visited two of the gardens on the tour and am looking forward to the others. Here are some highlights of what you can expect on tour day.

The full High Tea Luncheon includes home made scones with jam and cream, a delicious and light soup, sausage rolls and finger sandwiches plus sweet treats such as English toffee and shortbread cookies.

Doc Hencke’s entry garden

One of the gardens on the tour has been featured several times in my column. Richard Hencke’s garden – I call him Doc – in Scott’s Valley is one not to be missed. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. Wear your walking shoes to truly enjoy this garden and the changes he’s made in his landscape over the past few years – before, during and after the drought.

Richard redid his pond a couple years ago. He was tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira should be in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of weeping leptospermum. Among Doc’s passions is creating visual boundaries with flowering vines that grow up into the trees. Richard will be the first to admit that some are growing better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely although he told me that the excessive rains and cold snap this year has caused come havoc. I”m not sure about the yucca he and his brother dug up in Texas that finally bloomed a couple years ago. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughed.

Watering can collection on vintage wagon

The other garden I’ve had the pleasure to visit is the tall bearded iris farm of Jim and Irene Cummins. Also in Scotts Valley, the iris farm has been so successful that this year when the National Convention is being hosted by Region 14 their garden will be one of the host gardens on the tour.

When I asked Jim for the growing tips last year that make his iris so spectacular he told me he mostly uses lawn trimmings and tree leaves along with the native sand to break the soil down. “Iris don’t seem to care much as to soil type, they just need good drainage”, he said. He fertilizes with a balanced granular 15-15-15 fertilizer, using only an 1/8 cup or less sprinkled around each clump around Valentines Day and again in August or September. Another tip he told me was to be sure to plant the rhizomes very shallow with only the tops showing and about 12-18 inches apart. They water every 2-3 weeks although he says they can go longer between irrigations.

Among the beds of prized bearded iris there is an impressive antique farming implement collection. This historic property dates back to 1849 when an older house was built as a stagecoach stop. Everywhere you look the Cummins’ have created an interesting vignette of plants and artifacts. On the old barn there is an impressive vintage wrench collection as well as dozens of spigot handles. Antique tractor seats, watering cans, washing tubs, rusted bed frames, wagons, old kiddie cars- you name it, Jim and Irene have collected it.

All this and more can be yours when you purchase a ticket for the tour online at http://www.stphilip-sv.net or by calling their office at 831-438-4360.

Dogwoods in the garden

Eastern flowering dogwood growing in Bonny Doon

I’m so excited. The dogwoods are blooming. Earlier this month there was nary a flowering dogwood to be found but now I’m seeing them everywhere. The native dogwoods in the Sierra are slower this year as the snow hasn’t even melted in many places yet but they’ll be blooming before you know it. If every year you vow to add a dogwood to your own garden here are some tips.

Dogwood are a good tree choice for the allergy sufferer as their pollen is not wind borne. Their showy flowers, which are actually bracts, are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is large and heavy, sticking to insects rather than becoming airborne and leading to sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes.

Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief’

There are four main species of dogwood trees. From the Himalayas in China comes cornus capitata. Korea is home to cornus kousa. Cornus florida is native to the east coast and the west coast is home to cornus nuttallii or the Western dogwood.

We are all familiar with the Eastern dogwood that’s blooming now. With various shades of pink or white blossoms they are stunning but rain and wind can cut short the flowering season many a year and the root system is prone to disease.

Our native Western dogwood is unfortunately prone to leaf spot fungal diseases when grown out of their range. They are a little temperamental in the garden before they reach the age of 10 years but after that they tolerate seasonal flooding and flower and grow with little care in morning sun or light shade.

The kousa dogwood is a more drought tolerant, disease resistant and a tougher plant all around. Large, showy flowers open after the tree has leafed out and remain for a long time. This makes it good for hybridizing with other varieties.

The Stella series is a mix of a florida on kousa dogwood roots. Vesuvius series is a cross of our native nuttallii with a florida as is Eddie’s White Wonder. There is also a nuttullii-kousa cross called Venus that displays huge flowers and gets its disease resistance from the kousa roots. All these cultivars strive to produce a tree with superior disease resistance and huge, long lasting blooms.

Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’

Deciduous dogwoods don’t like wet feet especially in the winter. That’s how they develop fungal disease. But there’s an evergreen dogwood that can handle moisture all year round. Cornus capitata Mountain Moon is a tough tree that can handle strong winds and isn’t bothered by any pests or diseases. They enjoy lots of organic matter as do all dogwoods. Huge flowers up to 6” wide can last from late spring into early summer. After flowering, the fruits begin to form and grow into red balls about the size of large strawberries. This is the reason is it also known as the Himalayan Strawberry Tree.

Dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife. All sorts of critters use this tree for food and shelter. The giant silk moth and several species of butterflies favor dogwoods as host plants. The spring flowers provide nectar to bees and other pollinating insects. Robin and sparrow are just two of the bird species than build nests on the horizontal branches and many others seek shelter in the leaves. The high calcium, high fat, fleshy red fruits are eaten by 35 species of birds including titmice, juncos and waxwings.

Many people think of dogwoods as an understory tree but this location is often too shady. Grow them in a full or partial sun location that gets afternoon shade after 4:00 PM. Add a couple of extra drip emitters or inline drip tubing to your irrigation system and they’ll be happy.

Earth Day – Kids Can Make a Difference

Scarlett Biles playing in my garden

Start summer early with the kids by planting a fruit tree, flower, vegetable or native shrub now. Planting something is having confidence in the future. Earth Day is almost here. It celebrates the natural beauty of our planet, our clean air and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy. Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. Our connection to the earth is one of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children.

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else fresh, tasty homegrown food. What better place for kids to play than in a place where they can use their hands and connect with the earth? Where else can they make a plan for a plot of land and learn the lessons of hope and wonder, suspense and patience and even success and failure? In a garden you can have conversations about life and even death in a way that doesn’t seem so sad.

Adelyn Biles displays her art in the garden

Finding things to do in the garden is easy. You probably already have some edible flowers in your garden. Tuberous begonia petals taste like lemon. Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds. Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce. You can also freeze flowers like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme in ice cubes.

Flowers that kids can cut will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden. Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies. Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallowtail butterflies. Another easy to grow flower for cutting is the snapdragon.

Besides flowers, fragrant foliage plants like lemon basil, lemon verbena, lime thyme, orange mint and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid’s garden.

The Easter Bunny – artist Adelyn Biles

Pet-able plants are a sure hit with kids. Usually we tell them, “Don’t touch”, so to actually have someone encourage this is a rare treat. If your own garden doesn’t have plants that look and feel so soft that you can’t resist petting them, consider adding lamb’s ears which are soft and furry, artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or fountain grass.

All kids love lady bugs. Make your garden a more inviting place for these and other beneficial insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Lady bugs will patrol your plants looking for tiny insects and their eggs.
Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.

Kid friendly gardens should not contain plants that are poisonous. Sounds like a no brainer but even some of our common natives like the berries of snowberry and the leaves of Western azalea are poisonous. Non-toxic plants include abelia, abutilon, liriope, butterfly bush, Hens and Chicks, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan. Better to check the poison control website if in doubt. http://www.calpoison.org and search “plants”.

Scarlett playing with the hot dog bun before lunch in the garden

To share one’s excitement and knowledge of the outdoor world with a child is fun and rewarding. The wonder on a young person’s face as they discover a swallowtail butterfly, a flower just starting to open or a bird feeding in the garden is priceless. And be sure to leave some time after a busy day out in the garden for kids to draw what they’ve enjoyed outside.

Get a kid into gardening and nature and they’ll be good stewards of the land for a lifetime. Plus you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.

Gardening in Grosbeak Time

Black-headed grosbeak

Just like the swallows that return each year to Capistrano I can set my own calendar by the Black-headed grosbeaks arrival in my garden. Although they eat a lot and dominate the feeders for several months I enjoy their antics. With vibrant orange, black and white coloring I could watch them all day. They are the clowns of the bird world and signal that spring is truly here and I better get to finishing up my garden chores. Everything is growing gangbusters these days with all the abundant rainfall.

Fertilize -Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden. I use an organic balanced granular fertilizer on everything. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the winter season and they may be lacking in iron. Perennials benefit from both a fresh layer of compost and a light application of balanced fertilizer. They respond to the phosphorus from bone meal especially in the spring for root growth, stem sturdiness and flower development. Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants or wash it off with the hose. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom and you see new leaves emerging.

Time to divide daylilies and move if needed.

Transplant – If you need to move or divide any plants that have outgrown their space or are not growing with other plants of the same water usage now is a good time. Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock. As you plant new additions to the garden add organic matter to the soil. If your garden’s soil is sandy, organic matter enriches it allowing it to hold water more efficiently. If your soil tends toward clay, organic matter will loosen it up and improve drainage. In well-amended soil, plants grow deep roots, are hardier for cold, more resistant to disease and more drought tolerant.

Spread fresh compost or wood chip mulch around all your plants to help plants get off to a strong start. Good soil is the secret to successful gardening. The first principle of organic gardening is to feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Remember that all gardening used to be organic. Layer 2-3″ of compost or wood chips on top of the soil letting it slowly decompose and filter down into the soil. Bark nuggets and shredded bark do not increase your soil’s fertility like compost or wood chips but they at least conserve moisture and help keep weeds at bay.

Check for aphids – They may be out in full force sucking plant juices from the tender new leaves of everything from roses to hellebore to Japanese maples. A strong spray from the hose may be enough to dislodge them. If they still persist, you can spray organic insecticidal soap, neem oil or horticultural oil to kill them. As with all pesticide sprays, do this early in the morning or later when they are not in the sun. Be sure to test first to make sure the spray doesn’t burn the new growth and always mix according to the directions.

The dreaded hedge parsley weed before setting those seeds that stick to everything

Weed while the soil is moist and before weeds have gone to seed. Even if you don’t get the entire root of more persistent weeds, just keep pulling at the new growth. Eventually, the plant will give up having used up all of the food stored in its roots. I’m still battling hedge parsley with it’s sticky seed balls that cling to my shoelaces and the dog’s fur if I don’t get it before it sets seed. I’ll be out there again this spring pulling them.

Spring daffodils

The most important to-do for early spring is to take time out and enjoy your garden and our beautiful surroundings. Those last few weeds will be there tomorrow but you’ll never get another today.

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