Summer gardening in the Santa Clarita Valley area

UCanGrowThat

burnt cannas  Sunburn can brown leaves when temperatures suddenly spike

Summer gardening in the Santa Clarita Valley area can be a challenge. There is an astonishingly wide range of microclimates in and around the city. Soils, humidity, sun intensity and even rainfall can vary considerably from one place to the next – sometimes even from one part of your property to another! But being inland chaparral, there are commonalities that make gardening in this part of Los Angeles County harder in the summertime than the rest of the year. Yet, if you love gardening, you don’t have to hide indoors all summer. Just plan around summer challenges. Keeping active in the garden will be good for you, your home, your garden and the environment. Here are some things to keep in mind.

garden hat holder

These garden hats are ready to go on their tree ‘hook’!

It gets hot!

The sun is intense in the inland chaparral. And we experience wide temperatures ranges that allow cooling at night. Too much sun has been proven dangerous to our skin, and overheating can cause sun stroke. That can make summer gardening less inviting than at other times of the year.

What you can do

This is one of the easier issues gardeners can handle. Simply take advantage of our nighttime temperature drops by working during the cooler hours of early morning and late afternoon. And to make working safer and more comfortable, wear protection. Add a hat, gloves and loosely fitting long-sleeved and leg-covering clothes. These will not only help protect from sun, but from scratches and insect bites. Wear a good sunscreen with a high pH. Closed-toe shoes will protect your feet from injury and absorbent socks will keep them more comfortable in the heat. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.

Wildfire view

A landscape view no one wants in their garden. So design your garden to be wildfire resistant!

We live in the land of wildfires!*

We were again reminded of our vulnerability, how easily fires start, how much fuel there is out there despite the drought, how quickly they spread, how greedily and cruelly they will consume anything they can, and how willingly they will invade even areas we might have thought safe. We are also learning there is no reliable fire season anymore, so don’t wait around for the autumn Santa Ana winds before you consider making your home safe.

What you can do

Clear any brush surrounding your home. Keep gutters, eaves, areas around your house – especially corners where we tend to pile things up – and gardens cleaned up. Remove wood piles near your house. Design your landscape for beauty, efficiency, productivity and safety. That includes fire breaks in your design, choose your materials and their placement carefully, use low profile plants, avoid highly flammable trees and position irrigation and water sources wisely.

wild rabbit

Rabbits are cute, but they can become very destructive in the summer garden.

Wildlife invasions

Temperatures have been gradually warming during the past half dozen years. Many insects that used to avoid our frosty winters have expanded their territory into our gardens. We are seeing mealy bugs, thrips, scale insects and more aphids than ever.

Snails are invading northern and eastern Santa Clarita Valley landscapes. And raccoons, not all that common twenty years ago, are now seen everywhere up through Acton. Coyotes and rabbits, mice and rats, tree and ground squirrels, gophers and more are exploding in population and feeding off of our lush gardens as their natural resources are vanishing under housing construction and drought.

Now, diseases that threaten the human and pet population are finding vectors to endanger our health. Mosquitoes are carrying an assortment of diseases rarely seen a decade ago, ticks are doing the same, and bats are bringing rabies into a city previously disease free.

What you can do

Planting, pruning and other garden work will clean your garden and take away homes where pests multiply. Using chemicals will encourage pests to build up resistance and those same chemicals can filter into our edibles, drinking water, entering our food chain and that of friendly wildlife. Whenever possible, use physical barriers to deter pests. Try sticky traps, sound and odor deterrents and if necessary, enclose your most delectable edible and decorative plants in half-inch hardware cloth. Block entry holes into your house where rodents will happily move in and multiply.

Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs invite you or your guests to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Enjoy summer gardening and using your garden

Despite summer gardening challenges, the garden still has a lot to offer. Make time to use your garden. Grow edibles, relax in the shade to reduce stress. Play with the children and pets. Use your pool if you have one. Entertain friends during balmy evenings. And keep your body active and your mind at peace working in the garden. There are plenty of jobs that can be done even during the hot summer months.

What you can do in the garden

Keeping spent flowers cut off of plants before they set seed will redirect that seed-setting energy into more flowering. Pulling weeds while they are small will make the job easy. It will also avoid the big job of brush clearance to keep your home safe if a wildfire should threaten.

New plants can be planted at this time of year, especially California natives, cacti and succulents. They will need to be regularly watered (including the drought-tolerant natives) to help roots settle in, and more delicate plants will appreciate some shading for the first few weeks. Most cacti and succulents love being planted during the dry season of summer gardening, but some may still be burnt when exposed to sudden hot sun. Keep dead leaves, sticks and branches cleaned up to discourage pests as well as eliminating fire fuel.

WIldfire view

Destructive, fast-moving wildfires endanger life, homes and gardens

*An extra note regarding wildfires and fallout

If you have ash on your property from the Sand Fire (or any other), sweep or blow it from traffic areas so it won’t be inhaled or tracked into your house. You can then quickly wash the remaining soot into the soil. Areas directly impacted by high heat will experience deeper effects from fire, but landscapes with ash and soot fallout, will benefit from potassium, phosphorus and magnesium and a number of trace elements, as well as calcium (raising the already high pH of our soils).

Adding compost or soil sulfur will acidify the soil and help neutralize the effect of the calcium if your soil is already high in lime. For the most part, the rise in alkalinity will not be a problem and the rest of the additions will actually help enrich your soil. If your house or garden was directly reddened by Foscheck foam, lightly water the surface, then wash it away with a gentle spray. It is water soluble.

When it is hot outdoors, work inside. It’s a perfect opportunity to list what you want to plant when the weather cools in the autumn. You can also use the time to design/redesign your garden with tough plants, lawn replacements and non-living materials (like colored gravel, decomposed granite, or something more imaginative like shale pieces, recycled tumbled glass and more).

After all, it will be hot again next summer. If the trend keeps up, it may be even hotter and drier than this year. But rather than losing out on one of the most beneficial outdoor activities, summer gardening, adapt to the changes and turn your landscape into a comfortable, productive, fun, sustainable and just plain beautiful place to be – all year around!

The Ultimate Edible Garden Solution

The Ultimate Edible Garden Solution

UCanGrowThat

screenhouse view

View of the screenhouse

A screenhouse?

Got garden pests? Try a screenhouse! This is a decorative, practical and Eco-friendly way to grow safe and healthy edibles.

With bizarre weather in many areas wildlife is being forced to search more aggressively for food. If you are growing your own vegetable garden, this can mean that protecting your produce for yourself is getting harder.

In my case I’d tried just about everything from natural deterrents to electric netting and it still wasn’t enough. Once the local wildlife put the word out there was a marvelous feasting center in the area, my productive vegetable gardens were decimated. In the end, the only option left was to physically bar unwanted critters. But the most determined (rats and mice) found ways to invade any fencing, netting or other containment I tried. –Until I built my screenhouse. Here’s how I did it.

I had enjoyed cultivating and propagating interesting plants for years with my woven plastic covered, aluminum framed greenhouse. But not only had my priorities changed, I was tired of looking out of my back slider doors at the big white balloon-like structure. It was time to make that greenhouse useful again. And to make it an attractive part of the view from inside the house as well.

fabric greenhouse

The plastic fabric covered greenhouse in winter. Not every glamorous!

Building the screenhouse

Removing the plastic cover was easy, especially since it was already falling apart. The metal frame, anchored into the ground was 12’ x 16’. It wasn’t as large as I would have wished, but it fit well in the space and would serve my basic needs.

I built two large raised planters with wood (no preservatives). The bottoms were lined with ½” wire ‘hardware cloth’ to keep out gophers and moles. The insides were lined with waterproof leftover off-cuts of rubber sheeting from when I built my own pond several years ago. The outside wood was protected with water seal, screwed together, and painted. I leveled the ground and surrounded the base of the raised beds with 3/4” gravel, leaving a pathway down the middle of pea gravel (which is easier on the feet).

building raised vegetable beds

Building the raised beds. Lower beds would take less fill. The bottom halves of these were layered with compostable materials.

The metal greenhouse framework was covered with sheets of more ½” hardware cloth – spaced wide enough for pollinators to enter, but too small for even little field mice. (Sides were buried down into the ground to discourage diggers from tunneling under the bottom.)

screenhouse doors

Wooden framed double doors (open here) allow for easy entry.

I built double doors for easy entry and made sure there were multiple latches to keep out even the clever raccoons. Irrigation is provided by a drip system supplemented by some manual hosing in very dry, hot periods. Since I live where the summer sun is so strong it can burn tomatoes, I added a thin shade cloth for a roof and spray painted lines to suggest shingles. All materials were secured to the frame and each other by sewing with flexible metal wire.

Recycled creativity

I had a lot of old wood lattice left over from previous construction as well as pieces of wood from broken trellises. I laced on a fake façade of lattice  painted ( to match my house), tied together frames of recycled scrap wood for the illusion of window shapes, and added shutters (one pair cut in half for two small ‘windows’). This way the ugly white plastic balloon of a greenhouse was now a little cottage that housed my raised vegetable garden planters – the top half filled with aged compost from friends I knew who had horses and other stock animals. Adding light-weight flower boxes to the faux outside wall was the final touch.

facade for edible screenhouse

Screenhouse facade

For the first time in years, I am harvesting organic, tasty fresh vegetables again. The raised gardens are gentle on my back, use water efficiently and help me easily see any insect invasions so I can remove them before they become a real problem. The view from inside my house no longer shows an eyesore; instead I see a cute little cottage. You can adapt this idea by building your own frame or using any other strong skelleton like a greenhouse frame (without the expensive panels) or a do-it-yourself carport frame. Decorate yours any way you want, or just keep it simple.

The results

So far I am thrilled with the replacement of my old greenhouse. I don’t have to use poisons or harm wildlife to protect my fruits and vegetables, care is easy, efficient and low maintenance, and a previous eye-sore has now become the focal point of the back garden. Even the pets can’t wreak havoc with my growing area. It truly has become the ultimate edible garden solution — and I think I’ve tried just about everything else!

I am currently working on building a miniature picket fence for the garden of potted plants that populate the area outside the doorway of the screenhouse. This way the most tender plants can be fully protected inside the ‘house’ while I can expand my growing space into containers for the less bothered edibles.

Garden advice even the experts get wrong

 

 

thinking cartoon

Nobody knows everything!

We like to believe that the experts who write the books we buy, direct us with what we should do on television or on the internet, and write knowledgeable articles will always give us correct information. But there’s plenty of garden advice even the experts get wrong. We forget that these people are only human and can make mistakes, too.

So what is some of the garden advice that even the experts get wrong? Here are some misconceptions or poor advice I’ve run into.

“What has grown well for the experts will grow well for you.” Or maybe not. I know some of the top garden book writers who are positive which plants will grow well and which won’t. Yet after gardening for many decades, I can say for certain that just because a plant flourishes in one area does NOT guarantee it will be happy even in an area that appears to be similar. I’ve found this true particularly in Southern California where soils, humidity and temperatures vary widely – sometimes even within the same piece of property. One expert – with several top-selling garden books — assured me that a plant I know will not grow well inland in northern Los Angeles County MUST thrive because it does so well in the inland San Diego area. The person is highly respected in professional gardening circles – and wrong!

“Famous landscape designers and architects don’t make big mistakes.” Most of us who design gardens work hard not to make mistakes. A good designer or professional gardener will stand by his or her work and make right any errors. But all are human. There are a few designers who are highly esteemed (and extremely well paid) who prefer to keep up the illusion they know everything. I have been called in twice to fix mistakes made by two of these. I do not know if they genuinely believe themselves to be perfect or that is part of their effort of branding themselves. Just don’t buy into the illusion. Nobody’s perfect!

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy.

 

yellow aphids

Yellow aphids infest milkweed

Aphids have spindly legs and cannot climb back up stems once washed off with water.” I have been guilty of giving out this advice myself since it has been spouted by garden gurus forever. While washing off some aphids in my greenhouse a friend pointed out several of the little insects boldly trundling straight up her arm. “Those legs don’t act spindly or weak on me,” she observed. I have to agree.

“Ladybugs will solve all your aphid problems.” I was directly assured this by arguably the best known television garden celebrity. Ladybugs (and their immature forms) are excellent control for eating pests like aphids. They have ravenous appetites for aphids and will be an enormous help in the garden. But not only do they tend to miss insects hidden in tight folds of leaves, they will fly away to other feeding areas, often before the job is fully done. Enough pests can be left behind to spawn a new infestation in no time. This is also true for other natural predators like the praying mantis. These are excellent Eco-friendly tools for the garden. Please do use these natural pest fighters! Just don’t expect miracles.

cutting tree limb

Major pruning of tree limbs is best done in the autumn and winter months, but different trees require different pruning techniques

“Most tree trimmers know what they are doing.” Certainly all the butchered trees I see daily deny this belief. Trees are large and special organisms. Proper treatment and pruning is a science. If you want yours to grow strong and healthy, lasting for many decades, spend the extra to hire a good arborist. There is a reason these people spend years in their specialty. It may look easy to just chop off limbs, but trees take a long time to mature and their growth can impact your whole property. Just because someone knows a few of the “tricks of the trade” does not make him or her into a tree expert.

“Nurseries know all about the plants available.” Most nurseries do know about the plants they stock, but even experts in specific areas – such as fruit trees – are sometimes unaware of what other growers or nurseries are developing and selling. A very fine tree grower recently assured me that the ultra-dwarf fruit tree variety I have doesn’t exist. Happily, ignorant of this misinformation, my fruit tree is thriving and growing nicely into the tree it really is.

“If you follow the rules, your garden will always look great.” First of all, rules are always changing. Secondly, all living things go through periods when they don’t look great. Even plants need to take a rest every now and then. Nature makes her own rules and will always send the unexpected – and often uncontrollable — bit of weather, genetic weakness, pest attack or plain old serendipity to interrupt your plans. Love your garden for the amazing, constantly-changing beauty it has to offer. Nature doesn’t do “perfect”!

The moral of this story is you need to do your homework. With the internet, you have a tool to research your questions. Experts are people who have put much of their life into learning their trade. But they are still only human and they, too, can make mistakes. So get multiple answers when you have questions and accept that much of the fun of gardening is in the experimentation and the lessons you can learn with your own experience. You can figure out how ‘you can grow that’  with your own trial and error experiments. Use advice from others for guidance (most of it is very helpful) , then focus on your own learning journey as a gardener.

 

Don’t forget winter fruit tree spraying

fruit tree blossoms

Decorative peach blossoms will set fine fruits if insects don’t wreak havoc on them!

Healthy fruit trees are the result of good care. One of the more important aspects of getting good fruit and having beautiful, blooming fruit and nut trees is the winter spraying regimen. This is a job all too frequently overlooked even in mild winter climates which offer plenty of time to do the job. There are many ways to protect fruit trees from destructive weather and pests but don’t forget winter fruit tree spraying. It should start in the autumn, as soon as trees drop their leaves, and continue until springtime opens the blossoms.

fruit on the tree

A fine crop of pluots

Fruit and nut tree varieties should be selected for your climate – or even microclimate. They all have different needs. Equally, fungal infections and insect pests have favorite areas and favorite host trees. For example, in warmer coastal parts of Los Angeles, citrus trees fall easy prey to scale, whitefly and mealybug. In others areas, black rot can eat into the limbs of stone fruit trees (plum, apricot, nectarine, etc.). Fire blight can turn branches of fruiting and ornamental pears black just about everywhere. And leaf-rollers and aphids can attack a whole assortment of fruit trees in warm winter climates where they are not killed off by frosts.

Garden sprayer

Find the sprayer that works best for you.

Just as you have a lot of choices with tree cultivars, you also have a wide range of tree protecting sprays. There are plenty of commercial products for sale, but I prefer to use the organic or old fashioned remedies that are less toxic and work as well – if not better. The best sprays to use in autumn and winter are the dormant oil sprays, usually lime-sulfur or copper-sulfate. These sprays will help suffocate over-wintering insects and can function as fungicides. Neem® is an organic spray that is also used safely to kill insect pests on edibles. Try to spray trees as soon as you can after leaf drop and, ideally, spray every three to four weeks until the flower buds swell. Sprays can harm pollinating insects, so avoid any treatments while trees are in bloom. Do not use lime in any form on apricot trees – especially after they bud up – since they are lime sensitive. For more sensitive and evergreen fruit trees growing in the milder regions, try using a lighter fine oil spray made for leaf contact. Most of these treatments are all-natural and organically acceptable.

It is best to spray when winds are not blowing. Coat the whole tree from branch tips to base. Some fruit or nut trees can also be sprayed after bud drop. Do a little research into the needs of your specific kind of fruit tree(s). Make sure you read the labels and follow directions carefully. It is important to use the right proportions when mixing with water.

fruiting peach

Healthy peach on the tree

Weather and timing are critical for fruit spraying to be most effective. Proper winter spraying of fruit trees can make the difference between beautiful, fruitful trees and struggling, nonproductive trees. Sometimes these treatments can even save a tree’s life.

How to kill or live with dandelions – your choice!

UCanGrowThat

But do you want to?

dandelion weed

How bad is this weed?

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have proved to be one of the most successful pests of the gardener. They have adapted to lawns and gardens all over the world. Although there is a rare California variety (Taxacum californicum), these shaggy, yellow flowered weeds are not native to the United States – or many other places they now call home.

These brightly colored invaders delight in speckling themselves all over your carefully tended lawn, shouldering out your prize flowers and bullying your vegetables out of their rows. They are rarely welcome and even more rarely willing to leave easily. Here are some suggestions how to kill or live with dandelions. It’s your choice!

There are several reasons dandelions are so tenacious. First, they have long tap roots and even pieces of these roots can regenerate. They also grow, bloom and set seed very fast – often before you even notice them they have started to propagate across your landscape. Most types can develop seeds asexually so they are not dependent on cross-pollination and, once the seeds are set, they catch a ride on wind currents and travel aloft for impressive distances.

This means dandelions are well equipped to battle you for your garden space. It is your job to interrupt these growth advantages if you want to get rid of them.

dandelion seed head

The familiar seed head of a dandelion

Stop dandelions by killing the plant before it can set seed. You can use commercial herbicides, natural/organic weed-killing methods, or simply dig out the plant by hand. The safest method is hand pulling since you will be introducing no poisons into your environment. It is labor intensive because you must get all parts of the root out or it will grow from remaining pieces. If you opt for using an herbicide, make sure you follow the directions exactly. You will likely have to treat the weeds more than once using chemicals and remember toxicity can remain in the soil even once the weed is gone. Keep children, pets and edibles away!

Other suggestions are to water with boiling water or pure vinegar. These organic methods will require multiple treatments and won’t necessarily kill the whole plant. They can also injure surrounding plants. They are, however, very safe for people and animals and even the high acidity created by vinegar will not be long-lasting in the soil.

Snipping or pulling all seed heads early – ideally before they open – will keep dandelions from seeding all over your garden. But it will not stop seeds from neighboring properties from parachuting in.

Dandelions have some redeeming traits you can enjoy if you don’t want to battle them. These weeds aren’t all bad guys.

All parts are edible and nourishing. Flowers are attractive and the whimsical seed heads have captured the imaginations of lovers, children and photographers. The roots also offer up a tasty coffee substitute. But think twice before puffing away the spherical seed head in hopes of fulfilling your wishes. You will likely be setting free a whole army of seeds on their way to invade someone else’s garden!

 

 

 

Aphid pests

 

aphids

The tiny aphid (Sketch by Jane Gates)

Aphids are little delicate bugs that suck juices from plants. One won’t cause any harm, but aphid pests multiply at an awesome rate and can coat leaves, buds and even stems in record time. They come in reds, yellows, greens, whites, blacks and browns. Colorful though they might be, they are also messy and destructive.

Some aphids will produce winged members when colonies get too big or the host plant becomes to weak and these flyers wing away to establish new colonies. Because aphids pests exude a sticky sweet liquid, ants love them and are happy to transport members to ever widening locations in order to extend the colonies. Ants actually will ‘farm’ these insects, moving them from one plant to another. More aphids feast on your plants. More sweet good stuff for the ants. More ants everywhere. More ailing plants. Yuck.

Aphids have weak little legs and if knocked off a plant with a stream of water, they are unable to climb back up again. Score a point for the gardener this time. Unfortunately, by the time an infestation is noted, there are often too many aphids to wash off. If you find an infestation is getting too widespread to wash off with water alone, try using one of the insecticidal soaps. Usually blasting with water and using the soap is enough to keep these insects pests under control.

The best way to keep aphids from getting ahead of you in the garden is to keep inspecting your plants. Keep a watch on tender, new, green shoots and the hidden undersides of leaves. New growth is most susceptible. Another natural control is to allow ladybugs, lacewings and other predators to feast on your aphids. Usually, so long as the aphid populations don’t grow too widespread, Mother Nature sends some of these voracious little aphid-munchers along to balance out the population. Keeping these friendly predators safe to do their jobs in the garden is one good reason to avoid heavy poisons in the garden whenever possible.

In short, vigilance, a squirt of water, horticultural insecticidal soap, and some help from pest-eating insects is usually enough to keep aphid pests from getting out of control in your garden.