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Planting Big and/or Tall Containers

Advice for the Home Gardener From the Contra Costa Master Gardeners' Help Desk

Client's Question and Request for Advice:

Large planted container
found on
I have a tall planter, probably 3 feet tall. It is about one foot wide. What is recommended to put in the bottom of it to take up space? Completely filling it with soil seems like an awful lot of soil.

CCMG Help Desk's Advice:
Thank you for contacting Contra Costa Master Gardeners' Help Desk.

Before you decide how to handle the container, you'll need to decide what you will plant in it. Some plants may benefit by having a deep rooting area, in which case you wouldn't want to use fill material below the potting soil. (If you need some help in determining if your target plants fit that category, you could inquire at the nursery where you buy your plants or check back with us.)

If you're planning to use the containers for annual flowers or other plants that are shallow rooted or for seasonal display, the deeper planting zone is probably unnecessary. In this situation, for reasons I'll explain below, you shouldn't simply put a filler material in the bottom of the container and then put your potting soil directly on top of the filler.

Pot-in-pot technique
Instead, plant in an inexpensive plastic plant container that will fit inside your deeper ornamental container. Choose a container that is large enough to support your plants, but more shallow than the deep ornamental planter. You can then use a filler material in the bottom of the deep container and put the inexpensive container on top of the filler. If you use some sphagnum moss or a mulch around your plants at the top of the container, you probably won't see the inexpensive container and it will look as though the plants have been planted directly into the deep decorative planter. And when it's time to replace your annual plants (or repot any perennials), it will be easy to remove the inexpensive container and refill it with fresh potting soil and new plants.

Here's why you shouldn't put the soil mixture directly into the deep container on top of some type of fill material. Many years ago, it was customary to place pebbles or broken pieces of clay pots in the bottom of planting containers below the potting soil. The thought at the time was that those materials would help the containers drain better. But scientific studies have shown that instead of improving drainage, the pebbles or broken-up clay chars in the bottom of a container actually interfere with drainage and can cause the potting soil to stay over-saturated with water.

Also, I've seen suggestions to fill the bottom of deep containers with Styrofoam packing peanuts (or other pieces of broken up Styrofoam) and put your potting soil on top. The problem with placing potting soil directly over such fill material is that the roots of the plants may start growing down into the Styrofoam fill. Because the Styrofoam won't absorb water, the roots in that area will dry out quickly and not supply the plant with water. Also, the Styrofoam area will have no plant nutrients needed by the plant so you don't want to encourage roots to grow into such fill materials.

If you use the “pot inside the pot” method described above, you can fill the lower part of the deep ornamental container with any type of fill material that doesn't interfere with drainage from the container in which you plant your plants. Be sure that both the deep ornamental container and the container in which you plant your plants have drainage holes and that they are not being blocked by the fill material. (If the container holes are so large that fill material or potting soil will fall through the holes, you can cover the drainage holes with landscape fabric or light-weight screen. The fabric or screen will keep the fill materials or soil from falling through the holes but won't interfere with water drainage.

You could use Styrofoam peanuts or broken up pieces of Styrofoam in the bottom of the ornamental container below the inexpensive container in which you have the plants. The plant roots will be contained in the planning container and won't grow into the Styrofoam. If you choose to use that type of fill, first check to be sure that the Styrofoam materials don't start dissolving when you place them in water. Some of the newer types of Styrofoam-like material is constructed so that it starts breaking down in water. You don't want to use that type of material as fill since it will start shrinking as it disintegrates.

Also, be careful not to make the ornamental container top-heavy. If you need more weight to keep the ornamental container stable, you could use pebbles or rocks or other heavy items as the fill material so long as you're careful not to block the drainage holes. You could put some heavy materials in the bottom, then add a Styrofoam layer and then insert your planting container on top.

Hope you find this information to be helpful and that you create a lovely container display.

Contra Costa Master Gardeners Help Desk

Note: The Contra Costa Master Gardener 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:, or on the web at

Posted on Monday, March 2, 2015 at 12:06 AM

The UC Apiary Newsletter Is Smokin'

A beekeeper smoking a hive. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
If you're looking for the newsletter, from the UC apiaries, it has a new home.

The new UC California Cooperative Extension apiculturist, Elina Lastro Niño, has moved it to her website now that Eric Mussen has retired. Mussen, now Extension apiculturist emeritus, wrote the newsletter from 1976 to 2014 and loaded it on his UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology website. The editions are now archived.

The new home? It's on the elninobeelab website

It's available online for free, of course. The newsletter is published bimonthly: in February, April, June, August, October and December.  Niño relates: "If you wish to have this newsletter sent directly to your email address, please follow the instructions below.  Enter this URL into your browser: When it opens, it should relate to subscribing to this newsletter.  Enter your email address and then click submit. It is time to decide whether to continue your hard copy subscription. The mailed subscription rate is now $25 per year (six issues). If you'd still like to continue this subscription please send a check by April 10, 2015 payable to the UC Regents and mailed to Elina L. Niño at the address in the signature block. Be sure to include your name and mailing address. If the check is not received you will not receive the next issue of the newsletter as a hard copy. This, of course, does not apply to those who have already prepaid for a certain time period."

In the newest edition, published today, you'll learn about how to treat those nasty Varroa mites, known far and wide (except in Australia, which doesn't have them) as beekeepers' Public Enemy No. 1.

Niño writes about HopGuard® II, "basically an 'old' product developed by BetaTec Hop Products, Inc., but it has an improved delivery system."

You'll also learn

  • what Niño said when she addressed the the Avocado Pollination Seminar series
  • that EPA is registering a new insecticide, flupyradifuron
  • about exciting upcoming events, including a bee symposium, open house, and queen-rearing workshops, and
  • some great information about how honey bees collect nectar.

How honey bees collect nectar is her Kids' Corner feature. "Usually after about three weeks of  life as a house bee, all healthy honey bees in a normal, healthy colony become foragers," she writes. "They start every morning by going out into the world looking for the best sources of sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen. Some of them even collect water. Now, I'm sure you've seen these friendly ladies just buzzing along visiting flowers in your back yard. By the way, just a reminder, forager bees will not attack unless they feel threatened so just make sure you don't bother them and you should be fine (and tell your friends too!). "

Niño goes on to explain the process, and points out, as Mussen emphasizes, that honey is "not actually bee vomit as it never goes through a digestion (breakdown) process in the digestive tract of a honey bee." (Mussen officially retired in June 2014 after 38-years of service, but he continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall and assists wherever he can, including writing a few articles for the newsletter.)

Niño, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology on Sept. 1, 2014 from Pennsylvania State University—2600 miles away--is as busy as the proverbial worker bee.

 “California is a good place to bee,” she told us recently. “I just wish I could have brought some of that Pennsylvania rain with me to help out California's drought."

Niño operates her field lab at Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus, and at her lab in Briggs Hall, on the central campus. Her aims: to conduct practical, problem-solving research projects; to support the state's beekeepers through research, extension and outreach; and to address beekeeper and industry concerns.

 The mission of her program is "to provide support to California beekeepers and other relevant stakeholders through research, extension and outreach." Niño studies honey bee biology, health, reproduction, pollination biology, insect ecology, evolution, genomics and chemical ecology.

Check out her lab's website at; and her Facebook page at Her email is so easy to remember:

Extension apiculturist Elina Niño in front of hives at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Extension apiculturist Elina Niño in front of hives at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Extension apiculturist Elina Niño in front of hives at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Friday, February 27, 2015 at 5:20 PM

New ANR advisor profiled in Wines and Vines

Lindsay Jordan.
Lindsay Jordan has joined the academic staff of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources as a UC Cooperative Extension viticulture advisor for Merced, Mariposa and Madera counties, reported Jane Firstenfeld in Wines and Vines.

Jordan has a master's degree from Cornell University and bachelor's degree from UC Davis.

"We consider her a star," said Maxwell Norton, who retires June 30 after 30 years as a Merced County UC ANR advisor and county director.

Jordon told Wines and Vines that she expects water use, conservation and irrigation issues to be topics of interest to growers in her territory, which she estimates contains about 90,000 acres of vineyards.

However, her focus, she said, will "ultimately be determined by what best serves the growers."

Posted on Friday, February 27, 2015 at 8:56 AM

Remembering Vernon Burton: 1924-2015

Vern Burton in 1980.
Family, friends and colleagues are remembering Vernon Burton, 90, known for his 38-year exemplary career with UC Cooperative Extension, including 10 years as a Kern County farm adviser in Bakersfield, and 28 years with UC Davis Department of Entomology (now the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology).

He passed Jan. 22, 2015. A celebration of life will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1, at the University Retirement Community at 1515 Shasta Drive, Davis.

Characterized as having a wonderful sense of humor, an always-ready smile and quick wit, Vern Burton was also an avid golfer. That's why a “Putt One for Vern” contest will be included in the reception festivities.

Vern was born in Omaha, Neb., on June 3, 1924, the only child of John and Vesta Burton. He spent his childhood in several states: Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois before his father, in the tire business, moved his family to Los Angeles in 1939.

In July 1943, young Vern was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Adair, Ore., to a new wartime infantry division – the 70th Infantry “Trailblazer” Division. Burton would later say that his three years in the Army proved to be “a great educational experience and quite an adventure for someone just out of high school." He landed in Marseille, France on Dec. 15, “the day the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge.  “I went overseas as a squad leader (Battle of the Bulge) and came back as a platoon sergeant." He received his honorable discharge in April 1946.

It was while he was completing basic training in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, that he met his future wife, Charlotte McKnight. They were married for more than 66 years. The couple raised two daughters, who in turn gave them four granddaughters. 

Young Vern earned a bachelor's degree in entomology from UC Berkeley and a master's from LSU. He retired from his entomological career in December 1988.

Back in the fall of 2009, we interviewed Vern Burton for a feature story. He was 85 then and residing in the University Retirement  Community.

We wrote: 

"Vern Burton didn't set out to become an entomologist. 

"Home from the World War II battlefields, he enrolled in Compton Community College and then the University of California, Berkeley.
"A family friend promised him a job in his termite control business once he finished his studies.

"His college associates, however, couldn't envision 'Vern and termites' in the same sentence.

"Neither could he."

Burton told us during the interview: "There were better things to do in life than crawling under a house looking for termites."

So began a 38-year career that would encompass 10 years as a Kern County Farm Adviser and 28 years as an Extension entomologist affiliated with the UC Davis Department of Entomology. During his career, Burton worked with crops such as alfalfa, beans, cotton, potatoes, small grains and sugar beets and helped resolve pest problems through integrated pest management (IPM) strategies and close associations with university researchers.

Burton enjoyed working with researchers like noted alfalfa seed expert Oscar Bacon, now a retired professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. “I'd help identity problems in the field and take them back to the researchers” he told us. "I always enjoyed helping people in ag and urban settings with their insect problems,” Burton said, “or their perceived problems.”

Tuber worms in potatoes? Check.  Lygus bugs in seed alfalfa? Check. Spider mites on dry beans? Check. Nematodes in cotton? Check. Green peach aphids in sugar beets? Check. Burton helped recommend the guidelines in several of the Statewide IPM Program's commodity manuals. His collaborative research also appears in California Agriculture and other publications. 

When Burton retired in December 1988, then Cong. Vic Fazio lauded him for his outstanding contributions to California agriculture, particularly in the field of IPM. In remarks entered into the congressional record on Jan 4, 1989, Fazio said that Burton “contributed greatly to California agriculture and to the University of California's mission for excellence in agricultural research, education and public service.”

“Mr. Burton's outstanding contributions include the development of innovative methods and strategies for nematode control in cotton, which have improved production while reducing pesticide use. He also aided in the development and establishment of treatment thresholds for green peach aphid on sugar beets and established and supervised the cotton pest management program in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1970s. That work resulted in the appropriation of permanent federal funds for an integrated pest management program.”

"Other successes included more effective and efficient control of lygus bugs and spider mites on dry beans, development of a successful pest management program on Burbank potatoes, and investigations on an aphid believed to be a serious insect pest on small grains. Mr. Burton helped prove that the aphid actually had no significant impact on grain yields and thereby insecticide use was markedly reduced.”

Fazio noted that over the years, Burton “has provided support and guidance to county programs conducted by Farm Advisors through field test pilot activities, recommendations, and suggestions for problem solutions, and printed information and participation in educational programs. He has also helped disseminate education and informative entomological information to a diverse clientele in agricultural and urban areas throughout the state.”

"Vern was dedicated to California growers, and worked tirelessly to provide new and useful information to them,"  IPM specialist Frank Zalom, professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us. "He understood the research-extension continuum better than most people ever could, having served the university as an extension entomologist in the county and also here on campus.”

Also active in entomological organizations, Burton served as president and secretary-treasurer of the Northern California Entomology Club and as secretary-treasurer of the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America.

Burton and his wife, a retired 20-year accountant with the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department, moved into the University Retirement Community, Davis, in 2004. 

In his early retirement years, he served as a lieutenant governor in 1992-93 of Division 7, Kiwanis International; worked four years in the UC Davis Medical Center gift shop and helped with the Kiwanis Family House at the Med Center. He traveled with his family, played golf and fished.

A favorite activity since childhood was “to get up early and go fishing in the morning and fry it for breakfast the same day.”

Emeritus Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty in 1976 and retired in 2014, remembers Vern as a “dedicated scientist with a terrific sense of humor.” They shared office space with two other scientists on the third floor of Briggs Hall.

Vern claimed that bees would always single him out for special attention, Mussen said.

“Whenever I'd watch a honey bee demonstration in alfalfa and clover fields (which bees pollinate), honey bees would find me and deposit their stinger," Burton told us. "I'd stay out of the fields if they just moved in the honey bees.”

At age 85, Vern was enjoying retirement: spending time with his wife, reading mysteries, using his computer (“I used to be scared to death of computers and since my retirement, I've become friends with it”), playing computer card games (bridge, poker and hearts) and watching occasional sports on TV, especially professional golf and football (he played football in high school) and college baseball and basketball.  

Burton was preceded in death by his wife, Charlotte Burton. He is survived by his daughters Maryn Mason (Bill) and Anice Isaacs (Bob); and granddaughters Kimberly Mason, Audra Anderson (Kory), Rebecca Mason, Ashley Nolan (Bowie).

In lieu of flowers, the family requests remembrances  to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, UC Davis, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616; the Kiwanis Family House, 2875 50th St., Sacramento, CA 95817; or The University Retirement Community Foundation, 1515 Shasta Drive, Davis, CA 95616.

Remembrances can be posted on the online guestbook at

Vern Burton at 85. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Vern Burton at 85. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Vern Burton at 85. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 6:39 PM

Two Who Make a Difference

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi addresses the crowd. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
They are two who make a difference.

Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology, received the 2015 Distinguished Emeritus Award and Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, received an Edward A. Dickson Emeritus Professor Award at the chancellor's luncheon on Monday, Feb. 23 in the UC Davis Pavilion.

The two emeriti professors from the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology were among those honored at the event.  UC Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi, Provost Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter, and  emcee Bill Rains, past president of the UC Davis Emeriti Association, praised them for their work.

Robbin Thorp
Thorp was singled out for the distinguished emeritus award for his outstanding scholarly work and service accomplished since his retirement in 1994. "Dr. Robbin Thorp should be the first scientist to be cloned," said emcee Rains, quoting James Cane of the USDA-ARS Pollinating Insect Research Unit, Utah State University, Logan 

Thorp, who joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1964 and achieved emeritus status in 1994, is a state, national and global authority on pollination ecology, ecology and systematics of honey bees, bumble bees, vernal pool bees, conservation of bees, contribution of native bees to crop pollination, and bees of urban gardens and agricultural landscapes.

Since his retirement, he has compiled an exemplary record for his research, teaching, publications, presentations, and advisement services, sharing his expertise with local, statewide, national and international audiences. In his retirement, he has published 68 papers and is the first author on 15 publications. He received several prestigious awards: the 2013 outstanding team award, with several colleagues, from the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America, and the 2010-2011 Edward A. Dickson Emeriti Professorship, UC Davis. Thorp is the North American regional co-chair for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bumblebee Specialist group.   He is a member of 10 professional societies, including the International Society of Hymenopterists.

A fellow of the California Academy of Sciences since 1986 and a world authority on bumble bees and other native bees, Thorp keynoted the Smithsonian Institution's public symposium on “The Plight of the Bumble Bees” in June of 2009 in Washington D.C., delivering a presentation on “Western Bumble Bees in Peril.”  He continues to monitor bumble bee populations in California and Oregon, including Franklin bumble bee (Bombus franklini), which he fears may be extinct. He has sounded the alarm on protecting bumble bees.

Close-up of plaque.
Thorp maintains his office and research headquarters in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on the UC Davis campus. Among his latest publications: he co-authored two books published in 2014:  Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday). Of the 20,000 bee species identified worldwide, some 4000 are found in the United States, and 1600 in California.

Thorp spends much of his time in the Bohart Museum of Entomology, which houses collections critical to his bee identification work. He identifies species and regularly volunteers at the open houses and other event.

Thorp is an integral part of The Bee Course, an annual 10-day workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and held at the Southwestern Field Station near Portal, Ariz. He has taught there since 2002 (the instructors are all volunteers), and even though he is 81 years young, he plans to continue teaching there.  (See more on the departmental web page.)

Hugh Dingle
Hugh Dingle. an international authority on animal migration, received a Dickson award to help fund his research on monarch butterflies, “Monarchs in the Pacific: Is Contemporary Evolution Occurring on Isolated Islands?” Monarch butterflies established just 200 years ago in remote Pacific islands are undergoing contemporary evolution through differences in their wing span and other changes, he believes.

Dingle, author of two editions of Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move, said his previous studies reveal that migrant and resident monarchs exhibit different wing shapes. He will be working with community ecologist/associate professor Louie Yang and molecular geneticist/assistant professor Joanna Chiu of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology to examine the ecology and physiology of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in three islands where contemporary evolution might be expected. The islands are Oahu (Hawaii), Guam (Marianas) and Weno (Chuuk or Truk).

“This is the necessary first step in a long-term analysis of the evolutionary ecology and physiology of monarch butterflies on remote Pacific islands,” said Dingle, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Animal Behavior Society.

Dingle said the monarch, widely distributed “for eons” in the New World, is fairly new to the Pacific islands and to Australia. “In addition to North America, the monarch occurs as a resident throughout the Caribbean and Central and northern South America—and probably as a migrant farther south. One of the more intriguing aspects of its distribution is that beginning in the early part of the 19th century, it spread throughout the Pacific all the way to Australia, where there are now well-established."

An analysis of a monarch population in Hawaii shows that resident monarchs have shorter, broader wings than the long-distance migrants. The Hawaii butterfly wings were shorter than the eastern U.S. long-distance migrants, but “not so short-winged as the residents in the Caribbean or Costa Rica, which have been present in those locations for eons, rather than the 200 years for Hawaii.”

“If there are indeed wing shape changes associated with evolution in isolation, are there other changes that may have occurred under selection and local adaptation for residency?” Dingle wonders. “Are there other changes that may have occurred under selection and local adaptation for residency? Examples of such traits might be changes in flight muscle physiology, changes in photoperiodic diapause response, changes in the characteristics of orientation ability and its relation to antennal circadian rhythms, or changes in the reproductive capacity or tactics (re-colonization of ‘empty' habitats is no longer part of the life cycle).

Dingle published the second edition of Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move (Oxford University Press) in November 2014. It is the sequel to the widely acclaimed first edition, published in 1996. National Geographic featured Dingle in its cover story on “Great Migrations”  in November 2010.  LiveScience interviewed him for its November 2010 piece on “Why Do Animals Migrate?” (See more on the departmental web page.)

Congratulations, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Robbin Thorp, and Dickson Professorship Awardee Hugh Dingle!

(Note: This blog, Bug Squad, focuses on entomology. Other recipients of the Dickson award were Daniel Anderson of the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources; Martha Macri of the Department of Linguistics; and Peter Schiffman, Department of Geology. (See web page.)

Emcee Bill Rains (left) congratulations Robbin Thorp. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Emcee Bill Rains (left) congratulations Robbin Thorp. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Emcee Bill Rains (left) congratulations Robbin Thorp. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

From left are Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter; emcee Bill Rains; Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor; and Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
From left are Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter; emcee Bill Rains; Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor; and Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

From left are Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter; emcee Bill Rains; Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor; and Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Hugh Dingle (standing right) and Daniel Anderson (standing left), two of the Dickson recipients, receive the applause of the crowd. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Hugh Dingle (standing right) and Daniel Anderson (standing left), two of the Dickson recipients, receive the applause of the crowd. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Hugh Dingle (standing right) and Daniel Anderson (standing left), two of the Dickson recipients, receive the applause of the crowd. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 9:14 PM

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