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It's been a tough year for gardeners, but don't despair

LA Times columnist Sandy Banks reached the conclusion that gardening is not for dilettantes.
When Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks shared her disappointment with her summer garden, she got words of encouragement straight from Missy Gable, the director of the UC's Statewide Master Gardener Program. Gable commiserated with Banks, saying her own homegrown tomatoes wound up with blossom end rot because of irrigation difficulties this year.

"I had the same experience that most people did," Gable said.

Banks began the 2014 summer gardening season like most home gardeners, full of hope and enthusiasm. But as fall approached she found herself with "a few spindly stalks of okra, a tangle of barren melon vines and a pepper plant loaded with misshapen pods."

Gable and another UC Cooperative Extension advisor, Janet Hartin, chalked up this year's garden frustrations in part to the state of California's water woes.

"A lot of people are calling and want to rip out their whole garden and just put in native plants," Hartin told the columnist.

But she and Gable assured the writer that vegetables are well worth the water it takes to grow them.

"... By growing fruits and vegetables, you're decreasing your carbon footprint," Gable said. "You're not using pesticides, not making trips to the grocery store.... The environmental and health benefits of home gardens are lasting and important."

Gable offered some suggestions to improve the chances for success:

  • Add compost to the soil to provide nutrients and increase water-holding capacity
  • Switch to water-conserving drip irrigation
  • Insulate the soil surface with a thick layer of mulch
  • Make careful planting decisions

"(Gable) steered me to a bevy of experts who take questions by email and phone through the University of California's Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program. I've bookmarked local planting guides and advice online at," Banks wrote.

Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2014 at 9:20 AM

California pitahaya potential, and other recent news

Box of dragon fruit (Photo: Adel Kader)
Reporter Cary Blake of Western Farm Press wanted to take part in the mini pitahaya festival last week in Indio. An invitation from UC Cooperative Extension advisor José Aguiar said the first item on the agenda was pitahaya ice cream tasting. A schedule conflict kept him away, but that didn't stop Blake from speculating about the potential for pitahaya production in the Golden State in the Farm Press Blog.

According to the CDFA (2012 statistics), he wrote, the Top-10 commodities produced in California are, in order, included milk, grapes, almonds, nursery plants, cattle and calves, strawberries, lettuce, walnuts, hay, and tomatoes.

Pitahaya must be WAY down the list, but worth a taste, Blake wrote.


Other recent news:

  • UC Cooperative Extension hosted an "Insect Blitz" on Sept. 13 at UC Cooperative Extension's Elkus Ranch, which featured the opportunity to consider bugs as a delicious food source, reported the Half Moon Bay Review.

    The event also included a "bio blitz," in which participants were encouraged to venture off on the 150-acre site and collect samples of plant and insect species. Elkus Ranch Director Virginia Bolshakova, UC Cooperative Extension advisor and San Mateo-San Francisco County Director, said the event gave the public a chance to learn about the biodiversity of the area.
  • The San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times reported on the spread of bagrada bug to the San Francisco Bay Area. The pest was introduced into Southern California six years ago and has been marching northward and eastward ever since.

    "This bug is highly nasty," said entomologist Shimat Joseph, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Monterey County. "It can make a crop unmarketable.

    The story also quoted Virginia Bolshakova.

    "Everybody is keeping their eyes open as it travels up the coast," she said. "It is likely just a matter of time" until it reaches the rural farms along the edge of the Pacific."
Posted on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 8:58 AM

Almond farmers relying on groundwater to cope with drought

California has emerged as the world's almond orchard because of near-perfect conditions for the crop, but in terms of production, it may have hit its peak, reported Jennifer Rankin in The Guardian.

"The future for farming almonds in California will always be there," said David Doll, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Merced County. "It is more about coming into balance with our water resources."

The story quoted from a UC report that California farmers have spent an extra $500 million this year pumping extra water to cope with the drought.

Co-author of the study, Richard Howitt, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, cautioned against singling out particular crops.

"Don't blame almonds for the problem," he said. "The problem is one of water mismanagement."

He suggested changes in how California manages water so farmers monitor their groundwater use and replenish supplies when there is more rain.

"[The farmers] should be repaying what they are taking. And if they are taking more, as they always are in droughts, then they should be making plans to repay it back in wet years. If you treat your groundwater the way you treat your retirement account, then everything would be OK."

More information about water stress in almonds may be found in David Doll's blog, The Almond Doctor.

Leaves dying and dropping early in a Merced County almond orchard most likely due to water stress.. (Photo: James Nichols)


Posted on Monday, September 15, 2014 at 10:46 AM

Farmers are feeling the impact of the drought

Because of the drought, California almond farmers have been forced to drill new wells, rely on salty groundwater for irrigation and bulldoze some trees, reported Robert Rodriguez in the Fresno Bee.

The story presented results from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, which worked with state ag officials to send surveys to 688 California almond farmers; 458 of them responded.

The survey found that nearly 70 percent of almond farmers have only groundwater to irrigate their trees. About 23 percent said they had to drill new wells and 32 percent were reconditioning existing wells.

Normally growers mix surface water with groundwater to dilute the salts in water that has been pumped up from wells. But for many farmers, that hasn't been possible this year.

"Consequently, the amount of salt in the trees has placed them under stress and it is being reflected in smaller nut size, reduced growth and the potential for small crops in the future," said Bob Beede, University of California Cooperative Extension emeritus adviser who specialists in nut crops. He added that salt buildup can kill a tree.

Almond farmers use mechanical shakers to knock the nuts to the ground for harvest.

Read more here:
Almond farmers use mechanical shakers to knock the nuts to the ground for harvest.
Almond farmers use mechanical shakers to knock the nuts to the ground for harvest.

Read more here:
Posted on Monday, September 15, 2014 at 9:28 AM

Giant King Grass harvested at UC research center

Harvesting Giant King Grass (Photo: Viaspace Inc.)
The first crop of Giant King Grass, a hybrid grass with biofuel potential, was harvested at the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville this month, reported Ethanol Producer Magazine.

Giant King Grass is a fast-growing, high-yield grass that grows under a variety of soil conditions, according to Viaspace Green Energy Inc. It is propagated vegetatively and, with sufficient rain or irrigation, can grow 15 to 18 feet high in six months.

At the UC Desert Rec, scientists compared two planting processes:

  • Planting single nodes that grow into individual plants with some space between them.
  • Planting whole stalks continuously end to end, which results in a dense row of plants about six inches apart.

Preliminary results showed the whole stalk planting germinated earlier and grew more quickly. The individual plants had a significant number of skips where the nodes failed to germinate.

Two harvesting regimens were tested:

  • Harvest when the plant is 6 to 8 feet tall every two months for animal feed and to produce biogas for anaerobic digestion.
  • Harvest when the plant is 15 to 18 feet tall for bioenergy applications, such as direct combustion in a power plant, energy pellets or cellulosic biofuels.

"It was 108 degrees when I arrived in Holtville last Monday evening (Sept. 8, 2014) at 6 p.m.," said Carl Kukkonen, CEO of Viaspace. "Giant King Grass is planted in the worst soil at the University of California site, and still the results are good. I am pleased that Giant King Grass grows well in this extremely hot and dry environment."

Posted on Friday, September 12, 2014 at 1:15 PM

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