Timing is everything
As much as warm winter days (and glossy seed catalogs) may tempt us, Morgan Hill gardeners are wise to wait. According to the almanac of farming fame, Morgan Hill's last frost date is Feb. 15, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that gardeners have a 10 percent chance of freezing temperatures as late as March 20! Starting too soon is simply a waste of time and seed.
Before planting, decide what you want to grow. Browsing seed catalogs can be intoxicating. Rather than ordering everything that looks good, find plants that are suitable to your microclimate, won't need a lot of water, and are non-invasive.
Read the label
Most seed packets are a wealth of valuable information that includes an image of the plant, description, and any special needs. Labels also list the year, timing, planting depth and spacing, thinning, sunlight, and watering needs of each plant. Use this information and save it for future reference.
Some seeds can be planted directly into the ground. This is called direct sowing. While all growing areas will serve your plants better if they are regularly fed with aged manure and compost, this is especially true for seeds and seedlings. They have a lot of work ahead of them and need all the nutrients they can get their little root hairs into. Most seeds are better off started in small pots filled with high-quality potting soil or starter mix.
Starting seeds in small containers is the easiest way to begin. Placing one seed into each small container allows tiny roots to develop unchallenged. It also makes transplanting less stressful. You can reuse plastic seed starting pots, called "cell flats" from when you buy seedlings. Remember to clean and disinfect flats to avoid spreading pests or diseases. You can make biodegradable planting containers from paperboard egg cartons, newspaper, or toilet paper tubes, or you can buy seed starter pots. Take-out food containers, with clear plastic lids, can also be used for seed starting. The plastic covers keep warmth and moisture in.
Once you have collected your seeds, containers, and potting soil, you are ready to plant. Labels made from Popsicle sticks are very handy, too. Labeling is important because many young plants are difficult to tell apart until they are long past the transplanting stage. Follow these steps for successful seed starting:
- Fill all containers loosely with potting soil, tamping it down gently.
- Place one seed in the soil to the depth specified on the packet.
- Add a dated plant label to each pot.
- Place flats on a water-resistant surface that will receive six to eight hours of sunlight each day, where they will be safe from slugs and snails.
- Gently and thoroughly water the flats. For seeds left on the soil surface, use a mister to water, to avoid washing them away, or pushing them too deeply into the soil. Soil should be kept moist, but not soggy, until the first true leaves are seen.
- Some plants, such as peppers, may need extra heat from a heating mat.
Now the seeds are started and waiting begins. Use this time to prepare your garden beds, raised beds, containers, towers, and other planting areas so they will be ready when it is time for transplanting,
Stop by the Spring Garden Market from 9 a.m.–2 p.m., April 14 at Martial Cottle Park for spring planting needs.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
This article first appeared in the March 14 – 27, 2018 issue of Morgan Hill Life.
The Going Native Garden Tour, now in its 16th year, features more than 50 gardens from Morgan Hill to San Mateo. These gardens will delight and inspire you to replace that thirsty lawn with gorgeous, low-water, low-maintenance native and Mediterranean options. Not only are they beautiful, they support our local birds, bees, bugs, and wildlife.The North Bay tour is on April 7 and the South Bay tour is on April 8. Both run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour: To view gardens throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties, don't miss the 14th annual Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour on May 6 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Various gardens will feature live music, artwork, and native plants for sale and plenty of activities for the kids.
Spring Garden Market: The oldest and largest edible gardening event of the year, you won't want to miss the 24th annual Spring Garden Market, brought to you by the Santa Clara Master Gardeners. Over the last several months they have seeded, up-potted, watered, trailed and tested nearly 20,000 plants just for you.
With more than 70 varieties of tomatoes, it is almost impossible to pick just a few. There will be all sizes, colors and taste selections to choose from. If standard red is your tomato-du-jour, there will be dozens of options ranging from beefsteak to cherry. If you make your own sauce, don't miss out on the paste tomatoes that range in size from 1-5 inches long. But, if like me, you like to color outside the lines, try growing a few black, green, orange, yellow or even bi-colored varieties. Some tomatoes are extremely sweet, some have very low acid, and some have very few seeds. Just ask one of the experts that will be on hand to help you find what exactly what you are looking for.
With tomatoes, size really does matter. If you are gardening in containers or a small space, opt for determinate varieties that only grow 2-4 feet high. Indeterminates usually grow from about 5-8 feet tall, and semi-indeterminates fall somewhere in between. Some fruit in as little as 50 days and others will take well over 100, so you can definitely extend your harvest by choosing wisely.
Like tomatoes, peppers come in all colors, sizes, and tastes and there will be plenty to chose from. Some are so sweet you can eat them right off the vine, others will make you feel like a fire-breathing dragon! There are lots of reds, but try a few orange, yellow, green, purple and blacks as well. Most peppers will do fine in a pot, and some are very ornamental, so would be a great addition to your sunny deck or patio. Others can get several feet tall and need staking or a trellis for support.
For all of you chefs out there, don't miss the fabulous herbs that will be offered. There will be many varieties of basil, chives, dill, fennel, lemongrass, oregano, parley, tarragon, and thyme.
Here are more fantastic Master Gardener events happening soon throughout the Bay Area:
- Martial Cottle Park, April 14, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., 5283 Snell Ave., San Jose
- Guglielmo Winery, April 21, 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., 1480 East Main Ave., Morgan Hill
- San Mateo Event Center, April 21, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., 1346 Saratoga Dr., San Mateo
- Our Garden, April 7, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., 2405 Shadelands Dr., Walnut Creek
- Contra Costa County Fairgrounds, April 14, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., 1201 W. 10th St., Antioch
- Richmond Public Library, April 28, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., 325 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond
Happy gardening and see you at the market.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
Photos by Pam Roper
This article first appeared in the March 25 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
Now is a great time of year to consider replacing your lawn with native or non-native ground covers
Lawns are a sign of wealth and prosperity. They come to us from English nobility. It ends up that lawns grow easily in England, and sheep like to keep them nicely trimmed (and well-fed). Gilroy summers are nothing like English summers and our lawns pay the price. What looks beautiful now is bound to end up brown, brittle, and prone to erosion. Otherwise, you will have to water it every few days and still, most of it ends up sunburned. There are other options that maintain property values and usefulness.
Gilroy ground covers: native and otherwise
Instead of ill-suited lawn grasses, you can install yarrow, mint, or oregano to make lovely edible ground covers that your children can still use to play ball. If you prefer the advantages of going native, you can grow Ceanothus thyrisiflorus, creeping buckwheat, or many species of salvia.
The California Native Plant Society can make dozens of other suggestions for ground covers and other lawn replacement options with plants that have evolved to thrive in the Gilroy area without a lot of effort or water on your part.
Lose the lawn to edibles
Instead of weeding, feeding, seeding, watering, and mowing a lawn, why not invest a fraction of the effort for some edibles? Many food plants, besides garlic, grow in Gilroy.
A single fruit or nut tree can provide the same shade as an ornamental tree, but they will also provide several pounds of food each year for a decade or more. You can also opt for traditional row gardening, artistic raised beds, or you can think up something really creative.
Of course, some communities frown on front yard gardens, so be sure to check on the rules in your city ahead of time.
Zero effort yards
If you are like many people today, time is at a premium. You simply do not have any to spare on gardening (and what a shame that is). If this sounds like you, you can eliminate yard work altogether with a stone garden or a xeriscape. Stone gardens are exactly how they sound, an artistic arrangement of stones of various sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. Xeriscapes use plants that generally do not need watering or other care. Succulents and cacti are common examples.
If you are ready to replace your lawn with something better, learn more about the Santa Clara County Lawn Replacement Rebate program or call (408) 630-2554. This program is a great way to recover the costs associated with replacing your lawn with something easier, more productive, and easier on the environment.
You can learn more about lawn care and replacement at the South County Teaching and Demo Garden, found at St. Louise Hospital, 9400 No Name Uno, in Gilroy. Classes are regularly offered to the public.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
Photo: Allen Buchinski
This article first appeared in the December 27 – January 9, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life
Top five methods to preserve your harvest
You can make the most of your garden harvest by keeping everything fresh and harvesting fruits and vegetables as soon as they are ready. Leaving them on the vine or stem for too long and they can attract pests and diseases. Flavor and texture also tend to deteriorate over time.
Fruits can be simmered and pureed and then either canned or frozen. It can also be dried into fruit leather. Vegetables can be cooked, pureed, and then frozen for later use in soups, casseroles, and other recipes. All those zucchini can be cooked into Chocolate Zucchini Cake for a popular dessert that always disappears quickly. They can also be stuffed and frozen for a simple pop-in-the-oven dinner.
Freshly picked and washed produce can be placed in a resealable plastic bag or container and stored in the freezer. If you have an abundance of tomatoes that you will be canning, this is an excellent way to retain that fresh flavor while waiting for enough ripe fruit to warrant firing up the stove. Peas and beans should be hulled before freezing, but those pods can be tossed into a separate freezer bag to be used to make soup stock come winter.
Canning tomatoes is an easy way to store food from your garden. The acidity in tomatoes makes them far less likely to develop mold. That being said, enlist the help of an experienced canner and be sure to follow food safety guidelines whenever canning.
Many fruits and vegetables from your garden can be dried for future use and easy storage. Grapes, peas, and beans can be dried at room temperature. For other foods, you can use a commercial dehydrator or your oven. Times and temperatures vary, depending on the type of food and its thickness. You can look online or go to your local library for specific instructions.
Sometimes, your garden will simply produce more food than you can use. Family, friends, and neighbors should always top the list when your garden produces abundance. Local food banks and other charities are nearly always happy to accept donations of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Rather than tossing out the fruits of your labor, make the most of your harvest with these simple methods for prolonging your garden's shelf life.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
Photo: UC, Melissa Womack
This article first appeared in the August 17, 2017 issue of South Valley Magazine.
One simple, cost-effective way to reduce your water use is to set up a greywater system that allows you to capture and redirect water from your washing machine for use on landscape trees, shrubs, ground covers, and lawn. (It should not be used on vegetable gardens where you are growing root crops or where edibles touch the ground.)
On average, a laundry-to-landscape system will recapture 17 gallons a day per person. For a family of four over one month, that amounts to a whopping 2,000 gallons for reuse.
Some counties offer rebate programs that cover all or part of the material costs for setting up a greywater system. The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers a Graywater Laundry to Landscape Rebate for properly connecting your washing machine to a greywater irrigation system. For most cities in the district the rebate is $200; some, such as Cupertino, are subsidizing the program and offering $400 per household.
According to Justin Burks, manager of the rebate program, “laundry to landscape greywater systems are simple, relative to other greywater systems. Most folks are able to set the system up over a long weekend or two.” But if you aren't all that handy, or just don't have the time, there are many trained professionals who can do the job for you. Installation prices range from around $700 to $1,000, including materials. A properly maintained system should last about 10 years.
Greywater can't be stored; it needs to be distributed to one or more areas that have been dug out, backfilled with mulch and are large enough to absorb the water. The mulch basin must be large enough to prevent runoff or pooling, and tubing needs to labeled appropriately so the water isn't used for drinking.
When you apply for the rebate, the water district will provide you with the square footage needed for a minimum mulch basin, based on your washer's age and type, the amount of laundry you do and the soil type on your property. In many areas, no permit is needed, but customers must verify that with their local planning or building department before starting the project.
No pre-inspection by the water district is necessary, but after installation, an inspector will visit to verify the system was set up and is performing properly. After passing the post-inspection, applicants will receive their rebate checks in four to six weeks.
When using the system, you will need to use biodegradable and non-toxic detergent (widely available) and avoid bleach, since it can be harmful to plants and soil. It's also best to avoid using greywater to irrigate acid-loving, pH-sensitive plants, such as blueberries, ferns, camellias, and rhododendrons.
“Recycling and reusing every drop of water that you possibly can not only saves you money, it's the right thing to do,” says Richard Santos, vice chair of the district's board of directors. “Using water wisely, especially on your landscape, is a win-win!”
But before you reach for that toolkit, go to the website valleywater.org to check out the rebate requirements and fill out the application. Wait to receive a Notice to Proceed before starting work.
Although a greywater system may not be at the top of your holiday wish list, it truly is a gift that will keep giving back — to you, your family and the planet!
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the December 10 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.