Creating healthy Morgan Hill soil is the best way to grow healthy plants that need less protection from pests and diseases, produce more flowers and food, and require less work. Let's learn more about growing great soil.
What is great soil?
Soil is a highly complex natural body that some call the Earth's living skin. Soil stores water and nutrients, filters our drinking water, helps break down toxic wastes, and is a critical player in carbon cycling, nitrogen cycling, and, let's face it, life on Earth. Soil is made up of minerals, dead things, living things, gases, and liquids. Great soil has spaces that hold and allow water and gases to flow, carrying nutrients to your plants. Great soil is rich in organic matter that is made up of living things, and things that used to be alive. Great soil also contains the 17 primary nutrients required for plant development. But before you can grow great soil, you need to know what you already have.
What is in your soil?
The only way to really know what is in your soil is with a test from a reputable lab. The Olson test is better for the West Coast, while the Brays test is better on East Coast. In the Bay Area, we tend to have clay soil that is highly prone to compaction. Aeration is frequently needed. Clay soil tends to contain plenty of most of the necessary minerals, and too much salt and phosphorous. Iron and nitrogen deficiencies are common in the Bay Area. Your soil test results should include percentage ratings for each of the major plant nutrients. It may also tell you how much organic matter is in your soil.
Organic matter in soil
Organic matter is critical to soil health, and it can range from 1 to 8 percent. As living things die and begin to breakdown, they add nutrients and improve soil structure. They also alter the electrical charge of soil. Ensuring there is enough organic matter in the soil also improves porosity, aeration, and biological activity.
Soil is usually described as being sand, loam (silt) or clay. Sand is big. You can see individual particles. And water and nutrients can drain away quickly. Loam is made up of medium-sized particles that hold a good balance of gases, liquids, minerals and organic matter. Clay is made up of extremely tiny particles that can hold a lot of water and minerals. Organic particles surrounded by clay are protected from the microorganisms that break them down into nutrients that can be used by plants, creating an unattainable banquet. Each type of soil benefits from the following:
Sand — add organic matter to help it retain water and nutrients
Loam — add organic matter to help maintain the inorganic mineral and organic matter balance
Clay — add organic matter to improve soil structure and porosity, and to speed the breakdown of organic matter
Adding organic matter to soil is critical to plant health. A one percent increase in organic matter can make a profound difference in soil structure. This helps plant roots get to and absorb nutrients. You can add organic matter to your soil by:
• Mulching with untreated chipped wood
• Amending with composted kitchen and yard scraps
• Incorporating aged manure from local horse and cattle farms
• Raising chickens and composting their soiled bedding
• Protecting bare soil with ground cover crops
• Applying organic top dressings
Once you've increased the amount of organic matter, you will want to add nitrogen. Nitrogen levels are the single most limiting factor in most gardens, and organic matter can help plants access the nitrogen already present. Most soils contain less than 1 percent nitrogen, while 2 to 5 percent is ideal. Which form will you use? Inorganic nitrogen can be found as nitrites or ammonium. When roots take up nitrates, they increase the pH of the immediate area, making it more alkaline. The opposite is true when plants take up ammonium, making the soil more acidic. Organic sources of nitrogen include blood meal and cottonseed meal, both of which will acidify soil.
You can't know which form of nitrogen is right for your soil until you know its pH. Soil with a low pH makes it harder for plants to access some macronutrients. Soil with a high pH does the same thing. Most plants prefer a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 to thrive. Growing great soil means identifying and managing your soil's pH.
Creating healthy soil
Soil creation is called pedogenesis. You can create great soil in your garden and landscape when you:
1. Learn what you already have, with a reliable soil test.
2. Regularly incorporate organic matter with compost, mulch, and even coffee grounds.
3. Analyze your soil structure and aerate, as needed.
4. Only add needed amendments, and in the proper form for your soil.
5. Determine your soil's pH.
Other ways to improve your soil's health is by growing cover crops, using crop rotation, installing foot paths to reduce compaction, and avoiding irrigation run-off and urban drool.
For more information, visit UC Master Gardeners or call (408) 282-3105 between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
This article first appeared in the June 21 — July 4, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life.
If, like me, you have only certain days and times that allow you to get out and enjoy your garden — you might decide to “dig-in” and carry out your plans even when weather conditions suggest doing otherwise.
Just brief periods of exposure to high temperatures can cause serious health issues, especially when you are exerting yourself. Make sure to increase your fluid intake — avoiding alcohol and/or sugary or carbonated drinks, since they can seriously heighten dehydration. Take shade-breaks often, to allow your body temperature to normalize.
Signs of heat-related illness include high body temperature, headaches, dizziness or confusion, nausea, rapid heartbeat and even loss of consciousness. Seniors, children and folks who are overweight or on certain medications (ask your doctor) need to be extra careful.
Don't cut safety measures when you are in a hurry or tired – accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, and the ramifications just aren't worth it! When using power tools, wear safely glasses, gloves, sturdy shoes and proper clothing to protect your body. If using loud equipment, protect your hearing with earplugs or headphones.
If using chemicals, please read and follow the directions! Applying too much, or even the right amount but in the wrong way can be dangerous to you, your pets and your plants and soil!
Be sure to protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks, too. Use an insect repellent with DEET. Wear a long-sleeve shirt and long pants; tuck your pant legs inside your socks; and check your body thoroughly after gardening (and/or a hike). Make sure to dump any standing water around your garden or property, since mosquitoes can breed in just a capful of water.
And just as your Mom says, use your sunscreen! You need to reapply it often when working up a sweat outdoors. Also, wear sunglasses and a wide-brim hat to protect your eyes, face and neck.
Make sure to get regular medical checkups and a tetanus vaccination every 10 years. Tetanus, which lives in soil, can enter the body through a scratch from a thorn or a cut from garden shears or other tools.
Master Garden Bonnie Wagner recently sent out a list of other helpful tips: Make sure your tools are sharp so you don't have to put so much muscle into using them, and choose tools with long handles to avoid bending or kneeling whenever possible. If your task requires you to get up and down a lot, use a garden kneeler with handles, so both your legs and arms can help you change position.
Buy ergonomic tools that fit your hand and are designed to minimize strain. If you don't have the proper tool for the job, rent or borrow one. Don't try to make do with the wrong one. Use a wheel barrow or wagon to move around heavy or bulky items. Don't carry them with your arms extended in front of you, since that increases strain on your back. Consider hiring someone to do dangerous jobs such ladder work and or using power tools with which you aren't familiar. You'll find it to be money well-spent!
Gardening is an excellent way to stay healthy both physically and mentally, provided you take care of yourself and actually stop once in a while to smell the roses!
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the July 23 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
Benefits of seed starts
Some plants, such as lettuce, have tiny seeds that need light to germinate. Planting these directly in the ground often leads to losses due to wind dispersal or rotting under too much soil. Starting these plants in containers makes it easy to monitor them and keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout.
As seedlings grow, they can become root bound, which means the roots start wrapping around the inner wall of the container. Before this happens, you can up-pot or transplant those seedlings. Up-potting means moving a seedling from a small container to a slightly larger one. Transplanting means moving the plant to where it will live out its life.
When not to transplant
Plants that are fruiting, flowering, infested, or infected should generally not be transplanted. New transplants need to be able to focus on building strong root systems. Also, just as some people are more sensitive than others, some plants do not take kindly to being transplanted. The following plants should be sown directly into the ground whenever possible: artichoke, beans, beets, butternut squash, carrots, corn, cucumber, dill, melons, onions, peas, radishes, summer squash and zucchini.
How to transplant seedlings
For many vegetables, you can transplant seedlings with the first leaves below the soil line. Very often, these meristem tissues will transform into root tissues, adding nutrients to the plants. Once the seedlings are a couple of inches tall, prepare their new home, making sure the soil is loose.
The South Bay's heavy clay can form an impenetrable barrier to new roots if it is left smooth from a trowel or shovel. Be sure to rough up the edges of the planting hole. Then, follow these steps to successfully transplant the seedlings:
1. Place your hand over the container with the plant between your fingers.
2. Gently turn the pot on its side or upside down, tapping the bottom with your other hand to knock the soil loose.
3. Cup your first hand to hold onto as much of the soil as possible.
4. Examine the roots and spread them out if they have started wrapping around themselves.
5. Slowly turn your hand, allowing the root system to roll into the hole.
6. Ensure all roots are covered with soil. If peat pots were used, make sure all of the peat is covered, as well.
7. Gently pat the soil down to eliminate any big air pockets. (Most roots don't like being exposed to air.)
8. Water thoroughly.
Caring for new transplants
New transplants should be treated gently for a few days. To help a young seedling thrive in its new environment, in a process called ecesis, be sure to:
Harden off seedlings before transplanting; water regularly, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings; do not use insecticidal soap or other treatments right away; feed transplanted seedlings with fish emulsion or phosphorous a few days after their ordeal; protect seedlings against cutworm damage by inserting a paperboard ring a couple of inches into the soil; provide wind protection by cutting the bottom out of large plastic jugs and placing them over vulnerable plants.
Visit the South County Teaching and Demo Garden, at St. Louise Hospital, 9400 No Name Uno. For more information, visit Events and Classes or call (408) 282-3105 between 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
Photo: Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.
This article first appeared in the May 24 – June 6, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life.
Thanks to the rain, mosquitoes are thick
Russ Parman, assistant manager with the Santa Clara County Vector Control District, says because “of the abundance of rain we had earlier in the year we still have areas of standing water and damp environments that serve as perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other flying pests.”
About 19 species of mosquitoes have been detected in the Bay Area.
By using planes equipped with sophisticated cameras, the district can spot problem areas from 5,000 feet. A recent trip detected 700 stagnant swimming pools in a 130-square mile area where there already were 1,500 pools known to exist.
Field technicians go door-to-door contacting owners about the pools and telling people about options.
Vector control districts will provide free mosquito-eating fish to those who no longer want to use or maintain their pools. Pool owners also can use a variety of control products or they can either get the pool back into swim condition, fill it in with sand, or remove it.
In the Bay Area the most common mosquitoes are the house mosquito (Culex pipiens), a short-range flyer of only a mile or two, and the encephalitis mosquito (Culex tarsalis), which can travel up to 10 miles.
Both are the primary vectors for West Nile virus. They generally feed on the blood of birds but occasionally bite humans and other mammals as well, which can spread the virus.
The mosquitoes are most active just after sunset and just before dawn.
Recently, the container-breeding, invasive Aedes genus mosquitoes have become a significant concern. They are easily transported by hitch-hiking on vehicles and containers, and can breed in as little as a bottle cap full of water.
Unlike the more common mosquitoes, Aedes mosquitoes bite during the day, love to feed on humans and can transmit several severe and sometimes fatal illnesses including Zika, chikungunya and dengue viruses . They can breed indoors as well as outdoors.
Two of concern are the yellow-fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus). The yellow-fever mosquito is deep brown with a fiddle-shaped marking on its thorax and has prominently banded legs. The Asian tiger is jet black with a white stripe down the middle of its back and also has banded legs.
The invasive Aedes mosquitos are now well established in both Central and Southern California. With the frequent travel and transport of vehicles and goods, experts believe it is only a matter of time before they take hold in the Bay Area. In recent years there have been brief infestations in both San Mateo and Alameda counties.
Along with increased mosquito activity, you might also be seeing swarms or large populations of midges. Midges (Chironomidae) resemble mosquitoes but are actually small flies. You might see mating swarms in open areas. Although they can be a nuisance in large numbers, they do not bite.
Take a walk around your property and empty any collections of standing water you find. Check all plant pots, trash cans, rain gutters and any water catchment systems you may have set up. As the temperature starts to heat up, we need to be even more vigilant.
If you see these mosquitoes, find dead birds, or know of unattended pools, call the district in your area.
- Santa Clara, 408-918-4770
- Contra Costa County, 925-771-6196
- Alameda County, 510-783-7744 (In Albany, call 510-567-6800.)
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
Mosquito Illustration: California Master Gardener Handbook
This article first appeared in the June 25 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
Blame the drought followed by ample rain
Local nurseries and growers are scrambling to keep up, but demand — especially for specific cultivars — has caused an extreme shortage of many sought-after plants.
With most of the drought water restrictions now removed, people are rushing to replace the plants they lost in the drought.
Many people also took advantage of rebates and took out all or part of their lawns. To qualify for a rebate from the state or local water providers, the lawn had to be replaced with plants from an approved list. Each plant was rated for its water efficiency and rebate programs required homeowners to plant a set percentage of their yard and obtain a certain point value based on the plants they chose.
Plants with the highest point values were in high demand and sold out quickly. Growers have been scrambling to catch up, but the heavy, frequent rains have put local growers behind in their planting, which has significantly delayed availability.
Viktoria Gleason, Green Goods Buyer for Summerwinds Nursery in San Jose, says homeowners are driving what growers are producing.
“Now,” she says, “even national growers like Monrovia are growing California lilac, manzanita, ceanothus and even Western redbud. That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago.”
Acacias, especially ‘Cousin Itt', Chinese pistache and some crape myrtles, were at the top of the point list and are now virtually impossible to get.
If you are looking for great dry shade shrubs try Loropetalum (fringe plant), which comes in many sizes and colors. Many cultivars of Pieris (lily of the valley) offer bicolored leaves and dainty, bell shaped flowers. There are salvias in every size and color, and even one for deep shade.
Trees that should be readily available include Tristania laurina (water gum), which is slow growing with fragrant leaves; Arbutus ‘Marina' (strawberry tree), which has beautiful red bark, profuse pinkish white flowers and red edible fruit that provides interest all year; and Olea (European olive), which is well-suited for our Mediterranean climate. Options include fruiting, non-fruiting and even a beautiful weeping variety, Olea ‘HidShurtleff.'
Wendy Calhoun, Buyer for Yamagami's Nursery in Cupertino, says in addition to picking the right plant for the right area, people need to understand their irrigation systems.
“Most people apply too little water, way too often,” Calhoun says.
Plants thrive with infrequent but deep watering. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to apply twice the container size of water once a week. A 1 gallon plant would get 2 gallons of water per week. In extremely hot weather you might need to double that amount twice per week, but no more.
Proper watering is the most critical factor in growing healthy plants. Most plants, especially drought tolerant ones such as lavender, rosemary and California natives, fail in their second year, Calhoun says, because of over watering.
Curtis Ferris, General Manager at Soquel Nursery Growers in Soquel, says the drought has actually been good for growers and consumers.
“People are replacing their thirsty lawns with much better options and we hope they continue to do so,” Ferris says.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
Photo: Rebecca Schoenenberger
This article first appeared in the May 20 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.