Time to Plant Bulbs!

Daffodil

Daffodil

Ten years ago I planted about a dozen daffodil bulbs in my front yard. Every year since, those beautiful bloomers have multiplied, creating drifts of yellow, white and orange when the rest of the garden is still sleeping. And the best part is, other than putting the bulbs in the ground, I have done absolutely nothing to make that annual spring show continue. I haven’t watered or fertilized them, and I’ve never once divided them. Given the many hours I have devoted to keeping other perennials healthy and pest free, I have come to see these zero-maintenance wonders as old, reliable friends.

Many bulbs are relatively carefree additions to the garden, particularly if you choose natives and/or ones that adapt easily to the Sierra foothills’ soil and climate. Since fall is the best time to plant winter-, spring-, and even some summer-blooming bulbs, use the following basic tips to make your investment in bulbs pay off for years to come.

Wild Hyacinth

Wild Hyacinth

Choose Bulbs Wisely. Look for big, firm, clean bulbs that don’t show any evidence of browning or rotting (soft spots).   Larger, more mature bulbs usually produce more flowers than small ones. Some of the easiest bulbs to find and plant now include anemone, allium, freesia, hyacinth, tulip and narcissus.  But don’t limit yourself to the nursery and big-box store standbys. There are a number of lovely native bulbs, like the Tuolumne Fawnlily (erythronium tuolumnense), Harvest Brodiaea (brodiaea elegans) and Purplehead (dichelostemma capitatum). Check out the photos and growing habits of these and other indigenous bulbs at the California Native Plant Society’s website: cnps.org, which also recommends nurseries and other sources for buying native plants.

Soil Matters. Like most plants, bulbs prefer well-drained soil. If you have dense clay or compacted soil, try planting bulbs on a slope or in raised beds. Or, amend garden soil with good compost or other organic material before planting. (Note: UC studies have shown that amending soil in just the hole you dig for the plant doesn’t do much good in the long run. If you’re going to amend, do it in a larger area, like an entire garden bed. Then, be sure to add compost to the top, around plants, annually.)

Harvest Brodiaea

Harvest Brodiaea

Plant Per Instructions. While all types of bulbs need to be planted with the growth points up and the roots down, it is not always easy to tell which end is which, so rely on the package instructions for correct positioning. Planting depth varies among different types of bulbs, but the general rule of thumb is two to three times the height of the bulb. Again, look to the specific planting instructions either provided on the package or in a good gardening resource such as Sunset’s Western Garden Book or the University of California Extension’s California Garden Web at cagardenweb.ucanr.edu.

Water Sparingly Until Active Growth. Moisten the soil when you plant the bulb, then let the fall and winter rain and snow take over. If we experience dry spells in the colder months, water sparingly. Too much watering will cause bulbs to rot. One exception: summer-blooming bulbs often require more water, since their active growth coincides with dry, hot weather.

Fertize Little or Not at All. Healthy, mature bulbs store all of the nutrients needed for the upcoming season’s growth and bloom. After blooming, you can add a light fertilizer to help replenish the stored nutrients, ensuring a vibrant flower show again next year.

Tuolumne Fawnlily

Tuolumne Fawnlily

Deter the Pests. Gophers, squirrels and other rodents make quick meals out of bulbs (except daffodils, which they avoid), so either buy or make wire “gopher cages” to protect the bulbs when you plant them.

Let the Plant Prepare for Next Year. After the plant blooms and the leaves start turning yellow, fight the urge to snip off unsightly foliage. Bulbs use up all of their stored nutrients during the growing season and must rely on their leaves to continue photosynthesis in order to replenish nutrients for next year’s bloom. If you can’t stand the sight of fading leaves, plant bulbs among evergreen perennials that will hide the foliage.

One of the best things about planting bulbs is the delayed, and sometimes surprising gratification they bring. Tuck them in your garden now, and four to six months later when you’ve almost forgotten all about them, they will put on a show that ushers in spring.

It’s Easy to Go Native

Pearly Everlasting

Pearly Everlasting

The good news/bad news is that it has taken a years-long drought in the West to convince mainstream gardeners to consider natives in landscaping. In brief, natives need less water, few or no soil amendments or fertilizers, and generally present fewer problems with pest infestations and disease. They also do a better job in the long run, of helping native wildlife and pollinators thrive. And if you’ve experienced the repeated discouragement of trying to grow plants here that really belong in the wetlands or by the beach, you’ll appreciate what good company our native greenery can be.

The sad irony is, most of the nurseries we have come to know and love carry a preponderance of non-natives, and the few plants that are “local” aren’t typically labeled as such, so who knows?

The good news is, there are several outstanding, easy-to-use resources available now to research and/or purchase native plants.

Canyon Liveforever

Canyon Liveforever

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has a new tool on their website that is almost too good to be true. It’s called “Calscape,” and the link to it is on their homepage. All you do is click on your location — say, Sonora — on their map of California and voila, you are given all the plants native to your area, with color photos, by category: perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs, grasses, succulents, vines, groundcovers, plants that prefer sun, shade, are drought-tolerant, attract birds and butterflies, etc. They even provide a “storage” spot called “My Plants,” where you can create a library of your favorites or the ones you want to try.

I clicked on “perennials” and was presented with color thumbnail photos of 92 different native plants! There were plants that flower in pink, purple, red, orange, yellow and white, which dispels the common myth that natives are boring. And did you know that we have our own, native varieties of asters, columbine, lilies, larkspur and geraniums? I’ve decided to hunt for several natives on the list just because of their names: “Pearly Everlasting,” “Canyon Liveforever” and “Texas Paintbrush.” Make use of this wonderful tool at http://www.cnps.org.

Tuolumne Fawnlily

Tuolumne Fawnlily


All of this talk of going native leads us to another great, timely resource: the twice-a-year plant sale (spring and fall) hosted by the Sierra Foothills Chapter of CNPS. If you missed the October 24 fall plant sale, contact our local chapter of CNPS by visiting their website at http://www.centralsierracnps.org.  Seasoned native-plant gardeners in the society can help you purchase from the best seed or plant sources.

Another resource for learning about native plants is the Tuolumne County Master Gardeners, who maintain a demonstration garden in downtown Sonora that contains many native plants. The demonstration garden is located at 251 S. Barretta Street. You can also learn more about native plants and all manner of gardening topics at the Master Gardener website: http://www.ucanr.edu/sites/Tuolumne_County_Master_Gardeners.

Because fall is the best time to introduce new plants to your garden, this is a great time to invest in easy to grow native plants that will color your world for years to come. Just imagine yourself next spring: instead of spending countless hours and money coaxing finicky exotic plants (and lawns) to survive, there you are, sipping iced tea and taking in the wonderful garden view of plants that are very happy growing where they are without much help from you, thank you very much.

It’s Time to Feed the Birds

goldfinch at feeder

Goldfinches love Nyger seed

One essential element of creating a healthy garden is providing for birds. Because they need high-fat, calorie-rich foods to get through winter (and for some, migration), this is a great time for gardeners to offer supplemental food. It’s also a perfect time to curl up with gardening books and make plans for a more bird-friendly garden year-round.

You’ll be in good company if you focus on our feathered friends now. February is National Bird-Feeding Month, and the Audubon Society’s “Great Backyard Bird Count” occurs February 13 through 16.

Here are some tips for offering supplemental food and planning a garden that feeds birds all year.

Add to Their Winter Menu

Steller's_Jay_holding_peanut_in_beak

Offer raw peanuts to jays

Many of the birds we see most often in the foothills—robins, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, Steller’s jays—have a diet that’s heavy on insects, but more so in spring and summer as they feed their young. You can supplement birds’ cold-season menu by keeping these things in mind:

Rely on a high-quality birdseed mix that will attract the widest variety of birds. Avoid cheap mixes that are predominantly millet or grain byproducts, and look for high-fat content blends that have the most black-oil sunflower, safflower and/or Nyger seeds. You can keep squirrels from raiding your bird diners by purchasing squirrel-proof feeders, or by filling unprotected feeders with only safflower seeds, which squirrels (and bossy birds like blackbirds) don’t particularly like. Speaking of bird-feeder marauders, keep the aggressive jays away by providing them with a bowl full of raw peanuts in another part of the garden.

Oranges are welcome winter treats

Oranges are welcome winter treats

Different birds prefer to feed at different levels in the garden, so scatter some seeds on the ground (think robins, towhees), put some in hanging tubes or socks and some in platform or hopper feeders affixed to trees or garden posts.

Birds are always on the lookout for predators, so place feeders near trees or bushes where they will have a ready escape and a perch to watch from until the coast is clear.

In addition to seeds, other winter treats include orange halves, jelly, and store-bought or homemade suet (beef or sheep fat mixed with a variety of seeds, fruit, etc.). The National Wildlife Federation has a fun, homemade suet “ornament” project on their website: http://www.nwf.org/kids/family-fun/crafts/suet-ornaments.aspx.

Keep your feeders clean. Wet weather promotes mold and mildew, so empty and scrub out your bird feeders often.

Make Plans for a Bird-Friendly Garden

Take some time now, while there aren’t so many garden chores, to research and make a list of plants to add to your garden to attract more birds year-round. Here are some tips:

Leave coneflowers to form seed heads for birds

Leave coneflowers to form seed heads for birds

Grow hardy perennials that form appetizing seed heads for birds: coneflower, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis and seed-bearing foothill natives.Because insects normally make up the bulk of backyard bird diets, if you create a diverse garden with a lot of natives, you will draw a healthy assortment of insects that birds love to eat.

One often overlooked category of garden plants that offers backyard and migratory birds much-needed “fuel,” especially in fall and winter, is berry-producing shrubs and groundcovers. Here are some of the best berry-rich plants: California holly (Toyon), American cranberry viburnum, dogwood, California coffeeberry, serviceberry, winterberry, crabapple, highbush blueberry, groundcover bunchberry, and certain elderberries.

Cedar waxwing eating berries

Cedar waxwing eating berries

One of the benefits of attracting more birds to your garden is the sheer pleasure of watching them.

The Cornell Lab “Project Feeder Watch” has a great website that lists food and feeder preferences for nearly 100 common North American birds: http://feederwatch.org/learn/common-feeder-birds/. To learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit http://birds.audubon.org/great-backyard-bird-count.

Rachel Oppedahl is a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener who especially loves Steller’s jays, even though they are noisy rascals.

Prepare Your Garden for Winter

rake-in-fallen-leavesIt’s often easy to forget about our gardens once blooms have disappeared, foliage has wilted, fall leaves start dropping and the season turns our thoughts to holidays and other things, well . . . not gardening. But for those who take advantage of the cool autumn days to clean up and prepare the garden for winter (and spring), the benefits are many: a tidier landscape, protected and rejuvenated plants, and improved soil. With that in mind, here is an autumn garden checklist:

Clean Up

• Get rid of diseased perennial leaves and entire plants if necessary, so pests don’t overwinter in your garden.
• Remove spent crops and, if no disease is present, chop up and put in your compost pile. The same goes for fall leaves.
• Dispose of all diseased plant debris in the garbage, not in the compost pile.

Cut Back and Prune

FrostOnSedumWhile many perennials, shrubs and trees benefit from a late fall or winter trim (or even radical pruning), the best wisdom here is to take the time to research each plant to determine what it prefers. Other things to consider:
• Resist the temptation to trim or prune while the weather is still relatively warm, even though technically speaking, it is autumn. The reason is, cutting back before the weather has triggered dormancy often causes the plant to send out new, tender growth that could not survive a hard frost.
• If you have perennials such as coneflower and yarrow that produce significant seed heads, consider leaving them until late winter or spring. The birds will enjoy the feast.
• Some perennials are best cut back to the ground in order to remove spent foliage that tends to harbor disease. Peonies are a good example. Once their leaves wilt and turn yellow, remove them; left in the garden, they can encourage overwintering of boytritis blight, a common fungal disease.

dye-mulch-s600x6001Mulch

Applying or adding to mulches in the garden before the first frost helps to:
• Protect the roots and crowns of perennials by insulating the soil.
• Prevent soil compaction from heavy rains (let us hope).
• Help stop erosion from heavy rains and wind.
• Enrich the soil as it decomposes.

Improve Your Soil

Creating healthy garden soil is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure a thriving garden. Time spent improving and mulching your soil will result in less time spent watering, fertilizing and fighting pests, because vigorous plants are more able to resist insects and diseases. Fall is a great time to enrich your soil because you can dig among plants when they are moving into dormancy.
fertility-soil• Add organic matter to help encourage the natural cycles that enrich soil. Some examples of organic matter include compost, composted or aged manures, straw, grass clippings and shredded leaves.
• To be effective, large amounts of organic matter are necessary, about one-third of soil volume. Work a two- to four-inch layer of materials into the top one foot of soil. But do not cultivate soil when it is wet, as it can damage soil structure.
• If your soil needs amendments, use a 100-percent organic fertilizer, and fork it into the top three to four inches of soil.

Once you have put your garden to bed for the winter, curl up on the couch with a good garden catalogue and plan next year’s additions!

Control Spider Mites Naturally

Typical stippling indicative of spider mites.

Typical stippling indicative of spider mites.

Have you noticed an odd stippling on the leaves of plants in your garden lately? Or maybe a super-fine, spider-like webbing on a favorite bush? These are two early signs of an infestation of spider mites, one of the most common garden pests during the hottest months of summer.

It’s high season for spider mites because their favorite conditions are hot, dry and dusty. The drought makes matters worse, as water-stressed plants are even more vulnerable to attack.

Spider mites look like tiny, moving dots, mostly on the undersides of leaves. But with a 10x hand lens, you can easily see them. They feed on many ornamental plants, as well as fruit trees, vegetables, vines and berries.

If you don’t control them early, spider mites can do massive harm as they suck the cell contents from leaves. There is a common progression of visual symptoms of an uncontrolled outbreak. First, leaves become stippled with tiny light spots. Next, the spider mites’ telltale webbing starts to spread. Later, the leaves often take on a bronze color and have a dusty, dry appearance. Finally, the leaves turn yellow or red, dry up and fall off. For more close-up photos of spider mite damage, as well as specific mite identification, go to http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7405.html.

Spider mites and their fine webbing

Spider mites and their fine webbing

The good news is, the best way to control spider mites is to employ simple, natural controls. The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program has actually found that application of broad-spectrum pesticides often causes outbreaks of spider mites. “Spider mites frequently become a problem after applying insecticides,” states UC Pest Notes. “Such outbreaks are commonly a result of the insecticide killing off the mites’ natural enemies but also occur when certain insecticides stimulate mite reproduction.”

So, put the Sevin back on the shelf. Here are more effective ways to manage spider mite infestations.

Rely on the Good Guys   Spider mites have many natural enemies, so the first line of defense is to create a garden that draws beneficial insects. A diverse selection of native and/or drought-hardy Mediterranean plants is best. You can also help Mother Nature by purchasing and releasing one of several commercially available mite species, such as the western predatory mite, which feed on spider mites. These predatory mites don’t feed on foliage or become pests. However, they must be released when spider mites are actually present, or they will starve or migrate elsewhere.

Rock Garden

Natives and climate appropriate plants fair best against mites.

Blast Them Off   The spider mites in my garden prefer to beleaguer my late mother’s beloved roses planted in barrels on the front deck. I haven’t had the heart to let the roses die for lack of water—drought or no drought. So, to control mites, I diligently spray them down most mornings (forgive me, TUD) with a quick, hard blast from a hose with a pistol nozzle. This practice not only knocks off the mites and their eggs, but also removes the dusty conditions they love so much.

Choose Safer Treatments   If all else fails, use selective products such as insecticidal soap or oil. According to UC IPM, “Both petroleum-based horticultural oils and plant-based oils such as neem, canola, or cottonseed oils are acceptable.” UC also suggests trying any number of plant extracts formulated as acaricides (a pesticide that kills mites), including oils from garlic, clove, mint, rosemary and cinnamon. UC cautions that, “These materials may injure some plants, so check labels and/or test them out on a portion of the foliage several days before applying a full treatment.” Because oils and soaps must contact mites in order to kill them, it’s important that coverage is complete, especially on the undersides of leaves. These products should not be used on water-stressed plants or when temperatures exceed 90°F, so apply them after watering in the evening and spray the plants down with water the next morning, after the pesticide has done its job and before temperatures rise. Repeated applications are sometimes necessary.

As with most garden pests, spider mites can be controlled with a little planning and the use of eco-friendly practices.

Rachel Oppedahl is a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener.

Tools Help Estimate Water Needs

Rock GardenMost of us could use a little help in determining how much to water our gardens during a drought—both to conserve water and, if possible, save the trees, shrubs and other plants we cherish. Here are a few guidelines and tools to help you determine watering needs with the drought in mind.

Watch for Plant Stress A quick, easy way to ensure plants are getting just enough water to survive is to check them visually before irrigating, rather than relying on preset timers or a fixed watering schedule. For established plantings, the rule of thumb is to wait until you see the first sign of plant stress: typically, slightly wilted leaves (the operative word here is “slightly”). This is a simple, effective method to use in mature gardens and landscapes. The “stress test” is not a good method to determine water needs for new plants in the garden, though, even if they are billed as drought tolerant once established. Most new plants need heavier, more constant watering the first year or two to grow a strong root system.

Remember the 50-Percent Rule Many established landscape plants can survive on about half of their ideal water needs for at least one season of severe drought. But first you need to know how deeply a particular plant likes to be watered. The University of California Master Gardener Handbook offers this general guideline for determining how deeply three different classifications of plants should be watered under non-drought conditions:

yarrow_colorado_mix_pop-up

Yarrow, a drought tolerant perennial

Leafy vegetables and annual bedding plants: 6 inches to 1 foot
Small shrubs, cool-season turf grass, corn and tomatoes: 1 to 2 feet
Large shrubs, trees, warm-season turf grass: 1.5 to 5 feet

Using a rough guide like this, you can approximate what watering depth represents 50 percent of ideal. (The caveat is, depending on the plants or landscapes in question, plus state and local water restrictions, you may have to settle for even less than half of an ideal watering depth.)

Know How Deep it Goes Once you determine how deep to water, how do you know if your irrigation system is reaching that depth? You can buy portable soil meters. Or you can drive a long screwdriver into the soil, then pull it out and check to see how much of the tool holds moist soil. If you like to get your hands dirty—and you’d also like to learn more about your soil composition—go for the “feel test.” With a trowel or shovel, dig to roughly half the plant’s ideal moisture depth. Place a handful of soil from the bottom of the hole into your palm, then close your hand and squeeze. You’re at roughly the 50 percent depth if the characteristics of the soil in your hand match one of the following:

Clay soil, not too wet, not too dry

Clay soil, not too wet, not too dry

Sandy Loam: Still appears dry, will not form a ball with pressure
Clay Loam: A little crumbly but will hold together under pressure
Clay: Will form a ball under pressure

If rivulets of water run from the soil when squeezed, or if the soil easily ribbons out between your fingers and feels slick, you are overwatering. You should only need to test for soil-moisture depth once or twice during the growing season if your watering schedule is consistent.

Get Technical If you are mathematically inclined, there is a UC-developed system for determining irrigation rates called “The Landscape Coefficient Method.” Simply put, by using mathematical formulas that include published evapotranspiration rates by region and month, plus plant species, landscape density and microclimate factors, you can determine more precisely how much to water. The accompanying “Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS)” guide is an exhaustive alphabetical list of plant species that indicates whether a given plant would have low, moderate or high water needs, by region. Visit http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS.

With the right tools and practices (and the right plants), we have a better chance of saving the gardens we love.

Rachel Oppedahl is a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener who is mathematically challenged, so she will be watching for wilting leaves and digging holes to manage landscape watering.

Make Every Drop Count With Efficient Irrigation

Gone are the days when it was okay to water our gardens and lawns with sprinklers and sprayers that shot six feet into the air, and flooded the driveway and street gutters. These days, we know we need to conserve, and that means employing irrigation methods that deliver water directly to the soil around or inches above the plants that need it, to minimize or completely eliminate water loss to evaporation or runoff.

Following are examples of more efficient irrigation products for the garden, and the pros and cons of each.

soakerhose

Soaker hose. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Soaker Hoses are made from a porous material that delivers water slowly and evenly along the length of the hose—as long as the ground is relatively flat. If placed on a steep incline, gravity and the force of flow will result in more of the water being delivered at the downhill end of the hose. On level ground, the spread of water is typically only a few inches from the hose, so they are best used in very narrow beds or a line of individual plants. The biggest advantages of soaker hoses are that they are inexpensive and easy to set up in the garden.

There are several disadvantages of soaker hoses. They are not the best choice for beds that have widely spaced plants, because you end up watering the empty spaces (or weeds) in between. If your water is relatively high in minerals, the life of a soaker hose will be short, maybe a season or two, as the microscopic holes clog easily.

Similar to a soaker hose is drip tape, a more lightweight product that works well for row crops and raised beds.

shrubbler

Shrubbler drip emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Drip Systems are the classic 1/4″ to 1/2″ black tubing into which you attach emitters, pressure regulators, backflow devices, filter screens, and timers if you want them. As a matter of fact, if you want to get your geek on in the garden, a drip system is the way to go because there is a mind-boggling selection of components available to choose from. A basic emitter head will precisely water the soil around an individual plant. “Shrubbler” and “bubbler” emitters deliver water in a wider radius, perfect for shrubs and trees. “Micro-jet” heads let you adjust the low-level spray to a quarter, half or full circle for more dense plantings or ground covers. And “turbulent” emitters are said to minimize clogging by the self-cleaning action of the head design.

The disadvantages of drip systems are setup and maintenance, and depending on the size of your garden, cost. Emitter heads are notorious for clogging and have to be either cleaned or replaced periodically.

sprayer

Inline spray emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Adjustable Sprayers can cover a radius of up to 12 feet or more. They can be installed in a drip system on risers, or, as with “rain birds” or other high-performance sprayers, attached to a PVC pipe or even a hose end. These sprayers lose a little more water to evaporation than do basic drip emitters, but they are more effective at watering lawns and large, dense plantings of ground covers and ornamentals. Plus, if like me, spider mites are the bane of your gardening existence, these taller, far-reaching sprayers (used in the early morning) help minimize spider mites’ favorite conditions: hot, dry and dusty.

Here are some basic tips to increase the effectiveness and durability of any of the watering systems mentioned above:

  • Bury tubing and hoses under mulch to slow damage from direct sun and extreme temperatures.
  • Choose emitters that are ideal for the plants/areas you need to water.
  • If you want to set up a drip system on an incline, consider purchasing the pressure regulators and emitters that will produce an even flow of water.

Rachel Oppedahl is a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener who has fond, faraway memories of running through sixfoot-high sprinklers in summer as a child.