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How I Converted My Yards to Drought-Tolerant Plants and Shrubs, Part 1

This segment will discuss remaking our back yard.  We also took on the project of replacing our front lawn once the backyard renovation was mostly complete, but more on that in the next post! 

In late 1996, my husband, two children, and I moved from Montana to San Ramon. In Montana, we had tried to make a living in a rural setting, but “You can't eat the scenery", I learned too late.  When we moved to San Ramon, for a variety of reasons, we needed to find an empty house read for immediate possession. The house we bought came with a big backyard pool. We certainly enjoyed having the pool for many years, but once the kids were out of the house, we didn't use it much. The solar panels used to heat the water meant the pool was only hot enough to swim in from mid-May through September. While the maintenance costs weren't astronomical, we spent plenty to keep it in good condition. Other swim venues were very close at hand – San Ramon's huge swim complex is right over the creek at California High School – and I belonged to 24 Hour Fitness so I could swim there in an indoor pool any time of day.

Deconstruction of Pool Begins
In 2013, we got a couple of bids to repair the pool and decking, and found out it would cost more to fix it than to take it out completely. We decided to take out the pool.  Beginning in December 2013, our contractor began work to completely remove all evidence of a pool. Because we got rid of the pool all together, we received a $13,000 reduction in our property taxes. In other words, we pretty much paid ourselves back for turning the backyard into a living space for families.

At the time of the pool's deconstruction (as I like to call it) I was in the midst of my Master Gardener training through Contra Costa County and University of California County Extension Program (UCCE).

I knew from my MG training I wanted to have raised vegetable beds and to plant easy-care plants and shrubs. Since we live near the entire spectrum of K-12 schools, we also decided to add lawn for salability purposes. Many parents would want to have a play space for their children.

Our house is a typical tri-level suburban house that sits on a 70' x 100' sf. lot. In my Soils class, I learned our house sits on clay soil with no nutritive value, suitable only for supporting a 1500 sf. house. I would have to bring in lots of good stuff if I expected anything to grow! Because of San Ramon permit requirements, we had to replace our pool, and concrete decking with the same type of soil our house sits on. We had a soils engineer overseeing the placement and compaction of soil trucked in from the East Bay Hills. Only the final 12 inches could be ‘living' soil we could plant ornamentals and trees in. We were assured the soil was decent, though we might want to add compost and other amendments to attract worms and the like.

Filling the Pool up with Filf Dirt
As you can see from the pictures, the pool and required concrete decking really did take up 80% of the arable yard. (I love the one of the diving board to nowhere!) Once this contractor was finished, we needed another contractor to bring in ‘good' soil for our two 8' x 3' raised beds, the hillside where the giant date palm tree and a large cypress bush reside, and the rest of the yard that did not need fill that met permit requirements. Before this work was done, Bill spent countless hours building a paver patio and yards of French drains to carry water away from our house. Handy husband Bill also put the two raised beds together. For good measure, he tacked on landscape wire to the bottom to keep rodents out.

Pool filled in and beginning of Backyard Grading
Our landscape contractor brought in ‘good' soil and compost, created the irrigation system for the lawn and the raised beds, and laid warm season fescue grass sod. He moved agapanthus plants and removed some palm trees that we did not want (though one grouping has since grown back and it is easier to keep them now). Much of the perimeter's plantings pre-existed this renovation work. Lined against the house, three types of geraniums (that I have propagated more than once), and agapanthus (that I had moved from elsewhere) have thrived with very little direct sun. Both of these plants are extremely low maintenance and are rarely watered. You can get cuttings or corms from friends that will fill in your planting area in less than a year, guaranteed! Along this same wall, I took out a bed of geraniums and replaced them with half a dozen nearly dead Abutilon plants in 4” pots. Happily, for me, all but one of these plants are flourishing and have put out many yellow, pink and red colored blossoms in abundance! Oleander bushes cover another side along a neighbor's fence.

The hillside at the back of the property was covered with mulch, which was easy to live with and easy to replenish as necessary. The landscaper first moved the mulch to the level surface around the grass and the raised beds, and then added soil to the hillside. I have since added a lime tree, two miniature agapanthus plants, and three pittosporum bushes to the hillside, and creeping rosemary and white yarrow against the date palm behind a stone wall barrier. The fourth side, along our other neighbor's fence, now has agapanthus, two rhododendrons someone gave me, a transplanted ornamental onion set, and in the corner, a leafy grape plant that so far does not bear fruit but turns a lovely red on the fall. My neighbor's vinca minor has been creeping into that corner as well, and I am doing my best to encourage it.

Backyard leveled out

My two planter boxes hold a mishmash of plants. Last year's crop of heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, various peppers and artichokes were a wash-out due to the lack of enough hours of sun. Now I am using the beds as a nursery of sorts, to grow small plants and seedlings for re-planting elsewhere. I also have one artichoke that is blooming, and some red onions and garlic that I expect will make it and be edible 

Finished backyard

I have barely touched the surface of my efforts, but I am happy to know that every plant is there because of me. It's okay if some die, because I know where I can get more. I have to admit I did not enjoy the work initially because I had so little confidence. I thought I had a ‘black thumb.' Now I know that is not true. Although I have a long way to go to become a ‘master' master gardener, I know I can accomplish what I set my mind to achieve. And boy, oh boy, is that a great feeling!

Next chapter: My front yard conversion: a lot more work that continues to this day!

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 at 1:02 AM

Meet Me at the Fair!

McCormack Hall assistant superintendent Sharon Payne of Vallejo, a past president of the Solano County 4-H Leaders' Council, stands next to youth photography featuring insects. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

County fairs are filled with fun, food and festivities. They're meant to educate, inform and entertain. What we've always loved about the county fairs: the incredible exhibits. Especially exhibits dealing with photographs and paintings of insects. When...

McCormack Hall assistant superintendent Sharon Payne of Vallejo, a past president of the Solano County 4-H Leaders' Council, stands next to youth photography featuring insects. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
McCormack Hall assistant superintendent Sharon Payne of Vallejo, a past president of the Solano County 4-H Leaders' Council, stands next to youth photography featuring insects. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

McCormack Hall assistant superintendent Sharon Payne of Vallejo, a past president of the Solano County 4-H Leaders' Council, stands next to youth photography featuring insects. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

n artist's depiction of the Western tiger swallowtail (above) is one of the exhibits in McCormack Hall, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
n artist's depiction of the Western tiger swallowtail (above) is one of the exhibits in McCormack Hall, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

An artist's depiction of the Western tiger swallowtail (above) is one of the exhibits in McCormack Hall, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 at 4:50 PM

There Is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

A freeloader fly dines on a bee freshly killed by a garden spider. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

There is such a thing as a free lunch. And a free breakfast. And a free dinner. And a free snack. That is, if you're a freeloader fly. If you've ever watched a spider snare a bee or other insect in its web, and wrap it like a fit-to-be-tied...

A freeloader fly dines on a bee freshly killed by a garden spider. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A freeloader fly dines on a bee freshly killed by a garden spider. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A freeloader fly dines on a bee freshly killed by a garden spider. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Close-up of a freeloader fly, family Milichiidae. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Close-up of a freeloader fly, family Milichiidae. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Close-up of a freeloader fly, family Milichiidae. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, July 27, 2015 at 8:53 PM

Grapes Not Looking Too Good?

Client's Question and Request:
I'm in central county and growing Zinfindel Grapes in my backyard garden. The vines are now several years old and producing fruit this year. The grape leaves have now developed “blotches” and the grapes look “cloudy” and not very healthy. What's the problem and what can I do about it? The pictures below show the leaf damage and what the grape bunches look like.

Zinfandel Grape leaves impacted
earlier by powdery mildew
Zinfandel Grapes impacted by
Powdery Mildew

MGCC Help Desk Response and Advice:
Based on the grape samples and the photos you provided, the problem with the grapes appears to be powdery mildew.

Powdery mildew is a common fungal disease on grapes. It first shows up as faint white powder on the grapes but later can progress to cause brown russeting on the developing grapes. That russeting was somewhat apparent on the grape samples you brought in. Affected fruit cannot ripen normally and may crack as it grows.

Shady conditions and lack of good air circulation favors the development of the disease on grapes. When the vines are pruned iduring dormancy so that shoots are positioned in the next growing season, try to prune so that the plants will allow exposure of the developing fruit to sunlight and good air circulation. Avoid overhead watering of the vines which can spread the fungal spores to new locations.

Next growing season, watch closely for the appearance of powdery mildew. Early signs of a developing problem include young emerging leaves being deformed or showing a puckered condition. Prune out such areas as soon as they appear and it may help to prevent new infections.

If you lose a large percentage of the grapes this season, you may also want to consider the use of fungicides to prevent a recurrence next year. Take a close look at this UC website which gives detailed information about different types of fungicide that can be used and includes directions on how and when they should be applied:  http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7494.html

We hope this information is helpful. You're welcome to contact us again with any further questions

Help Desk of the Master Gardeners of Contra Costa


Note: The  Master Gardeners of Contra Costa's Help Desk is available year-round to answer your gardening questions.  Except for a few holidays, we're open every week, Monday through Thursday for walk-ins from 9:00 am to Noon at 75 Santa Barbara Road, 2d Floor, Pleasant Hill, CA  94523. We can also be reached via telephone:  (925) 646-6586, email: ccmg@ucanr.edu, or on the web at http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/Ask_Us/

Posted on Monday, July 27, 2015 at 12:10 AM

Native Plants

 

 

Native Plants 

By Nancy Hartwick  UCCE Master Gardener

 

What are the advantages of landscaping with California native plants?  Mary, Atascadero

 

 Native plants can be quite liberating. They free the gardener of the work and expense of fertilizing and watering. Natives need no fertilizer because they work in partnership with bacteria in the soil called mycorrhizae. These partners help the plants absorb water and nutrients and fix nitrogen in the roots of some species.

Watering is required when the plants are first put in the ground. But once they are established, usually after the first year, little or no water is needed, except in times of extreme drought. Some species of plants, such as Ceanothus and Arbutus will weaken and die if overwatered.

Coastal California has a Mediterranean climate, with normal rainfall occurring from fall through spring. Summers are dry and watering established natives at this time is a definite no-no.

The gardener will have little or no use for insecticide as these plants are adapted to live with our naturally occurring insects. Forgoing insecticide may allow more beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies to thrive in the native garden.

Soil amendments are also not recommended. Rather, choose plants according to the type of soil you have, be it sand, sandy loam or clay. You may find several types of soil on different parts of your property. So work with it, rather than against it.

Also, study the needs of the plants you want with regard to environmental factors such as sun exposure, drainage and wind. Plants   that do well in the north part of the county may not thrive at the beach or in south county. Furthermore, what grows in your front yard may not thrive in the back yard due to differing microclimate conditions. 

Your garden may look a little sparse in the beginning, as many of the plants are slow starters. But make note of the estimated size of the mature plants, and plan carefully to avoid crowding.

For an extensive list and descriptions of California native plants, visit laspilitas.com.  There you'll find information about the plants as well as planting and maintaining your native garden.

Posted on Sunday, July 26, 2015 at 4:31 PM

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