Master Gardener News Blog
Crisp Days In December Gardens
By Steve McDermott Master Gardener
Romantic snow scenes dominate our television screens now, and while the Central Coast may not bring up visions of walking through the woods on a snowy night, we do have a nip of frost in the air; the sweet scented aroma of fallen leaves and sea salt smells invoke our memories of holidays past.
It’s a good time to just walk around your garden, sense the crisp air and to wander off in thought about your spring garden. But for the present, there are a few things you can do. Turn off or adjust automatic rain sprinklers so they don’t over-water—let the rain, shorter days and cooler weather do the job. Organize garden supplies; sharpen and condition shovels and tools so they’re ready for spring.
Late December and January is a good time to trim deciduous trees (use clean, sharp pruning shears for this task). Remove diseased, dead or injured wood. Think about air circulation and wind resistance to mildly restructure your tree shape. Make sure crowded or crossing branches are removed. Consult a Master Gardener or visit http://unacr.org/sites/gardenweb/Landscape_Trees for proper pruning techniques. Peaches and other stone fruit trees may need a fungicide to avoid disease problems next spring.
Make sure to move tender container plants into safe areas away from frost damage. Under frost weather warnings, make sure susceptible plants are covered with a permeable material such as burlap or a sheet that is supported enough so that it does not touch the plant. When freeze warnings are announced in your local weather report, you need to move your plants to a warmer area such as inside your house or garage.
This is also the time to plant bare-root plants, including roses. Spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, corcus, and hyacinth can be planted after being chilled. In coastal areas, you can plant alyssum, coreopsis, forget-me -not, hollyhock, and lavatera.
As December ends, use left over garland and tree trimmings for mulch on top of the soil around acid loving plants such as azaleas, camellias, ferns, rhododendrons, and living holiday trees you plant for holidays future.
Ode to Cabbage
By Andrea Peck
Cut your cabbages when they are firm, but leave the plant in the ground for tasty “small” cabbages that are a nice addition in salads.
Wow. Did I miss a season? Just yesterday I took out my seed packages, determined to plant a few edibles before the forecasted rain began. Amongst the little seed packets, I greedily seized my cabbage seed. Hi, Ho! This was a perfect time to plant! But, as I read the fine print on the packet, it dawned on me that I was mistaken. According to the package cabbage seeds should be sown during late summer or early spring. Hmph.
The sky outside was a perfect, moody, cloudy vignette that promised healthy water free of charge. A slight breeze, neither cool nor warm, wafted from the open door.
Little cabbage heads danced before my eyes. But, alas! I had missed my window.
I have not grown many cabbages in my lifetime, but I have grown enough to know that they are far superior when grown in your own backyard. Cabbage is a funny thing; it doesn’t elicit a sense of craving like, say, a peach would. But backyard cabbage is delicious and when you grow one and finally pick it, you might find yourself taking bites out of it as you chop it up for your meal. It is that amazing.
Well, I might have missed my opportunity, but I decided to push the envelope. We live in California after all, isn’t that what we are supposed to do?
It didn’t take long for me to discover that, according to the California Master Gardener Handbook, cabbage can be grown year-round along the coast. I was overjoyed to hear this, but I have read about (and experienced firsthand) the requirements for seed germination. Just to be on the safe side, I decided to seek further truth from my hefty Master Gardener tome.
Because my home is subject to some frost, I decided to find the optimal seed germination temperatures for cabbage. According to the Master Gardener Handbook, cabbage seeds have the best chance of germinating between 60-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, that is the optimal range. Technically cabbage seeds can germinate as low as 40°F and as high as 95°F. Currently our temperatures fall within that range. I might just take a little time to plant a few seeds, after all.
Cabbage requires rich soil and a pH that falls between 6.0 – 7.5. Despite its stalwart appearance, it is subject to invasion by many pests and diseases. Maintaining consistent soil health and irrigation practices helps your cabbage heads resist complete attack. They appreciate a bit of fussing. On your garden walks, take time to visit with your spherical bug collectors. Handpick worms, bugs, snails and slugs. Keep your cabbages well mulched to keep moisture in. They like it cozy.
If you get lucky and your cabbage makes a showing, you can wait until the head is firm before harvesting. Don’t wait too long, however. My book says right here on page 367 that over mature cabbage may burst.
By Christina Muller Master Gardener
I’d like to plant roses but aren’t they too much trouble? Arthur, Oceano
Many gardeners believe that roses require a lot of water and regular herbicide applications to stay healthy but in fact, many roses are very tough plants. Wild roses occur throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the Mojave Desert. If suitable varieties are chosen, they can thrive in gardens with little effort.
Roses come in many forms and can fill a number of different roles. A row of thorny roses can become a privacy barrier and provide nesting habitat for birds. A shrub can be a showy focal point with fragrant flowers lasting months. A large rambler can block an unfortunate view; while a climber can adorn an arbor or trellis.
On the coast, roses can fall prey to rust, mildew, and other diseases due to the humidity. Look for resistant varieties among modern roses, but don’t forget wild rose species and Old Garden Roses (OGRs). Many Chinas and Noisettes thrive in such conditions; some will flower nearly continuously in mild climates.
Hot, dry summers further inland mean less concern with disease and more concern with water conservation. Mulch will keep roots cool and slow moisture loss. Gardeners might also look to ‘found’ roses - those OGRs that have survived at abandoned homes and neglected cemeteries. One such rose is Harison’s Yellow, a fragrant climber known variously as the Oregon Trail Rose, Logtown Rose, Pioneer Rose and the Yellow Rose of Texas. It started as a chance seedling, was propagated and sold by a Long Island nursery, and then traveled west with settlers. It lives on in many areas of the west with no care at all.
Wildlife and native gardeners may wish to grow roses native to California and San Luis Obispo County, in particular. Most have sharp thorns, grow in thickets and will withstand some drought. Flowers are singular in shades of pink and most are fragrant. The hips which form in the fall will be enjoyed by birds and other wildlife.
By Andrea Peck
There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder.
It’s easy to get caught up in the work of the garden, the sheer joy of slaving on hands and knees, even with a little foam pad underneath your knees to protect them from the little pebbles and bits that make up a garden. Time may pass, if you have time, and you may look up into the dusk and find that you have weeded yourself into oblivion, even trimming a bit too much of this and that in your diligence. You stand for a better view, and from all the angles you can summon, given your bent posture and decrepit knees, you see that there is no better angle. It is as if you never planted a thing. The land, now barren, is only broken by non-fruiting plants and maybe if you are lucky, some type of leafy green vegetable or an outline of some dormant growth.
It is fall after all. The crisp light casts shadows on skeletons of trees and low dark spots.
It is slowing, we are slowing, and the garden is rehashing its purpose. Not all of us experience this predicament; some gardens hold up no matter what time of year, but if you grow annuals or edibles, you know what I mean. You wonder where all your hard work went as the sky turns grey into night and the night gets cold.
The slate, now blank, awaits consideration.
But it is in this work, this constancy, that the garden is most enjoyed. Learning takes place from our mistakes and blunders, our experimentations. Fervor overtakes us at times as we dig, getting into the soil, planting, waiting, finding out - will it grow? We are close to nature in these moments. Over time you develop a knack, and your gardening becomes an expression of your heart that others may not see; one that calls you onto those pathways that you made so that you could once again bend and toil, planting, harvesting, discovering.
Your garden, if you let it, will be another world to you. You may not have complete control as bugs and pests, and what is that fungus(!) confront you along the way. Nature has the last say. But let it be and let it grow and you will uncover a wild way to feel at peace.
Your expectations may be high as you envision manicured gardens that never deviate – but great expectations are prickly things that seldom soothe.
By Andrea Peck Master Gardener
Q. I’d like to use culinary herbs in my holiday cooking, what can I grow in the garden?
Mary M. Atascadero
As you find yourself smack dab in the middle of the holiday season you may be pondering the idea of growing herbs in your own garden. Certainly fresh herbs would be nice as you tinker with recipes and sort through 5-year-old bottles of semi-green seasonings. Growing your own herbs is an easy extension of the gardening practice you currently indulge in and once you begin your own collection of herbs, you’ll likely find yourself eager to experiment. I must admit that having a little herbary in the yard makes for shorter shopping lists, fresher fare, and less money spent at the register. The exciting news is that herbs are easy to grow and make for attractive additions to the garden.
Herbs fall into three basic categories: annual, perennial and biennial. Annual herbs include anise, basil, coriander and dill. Perennial herbs include chives, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, rosemary, lemon verbena, lemon grass and thyme. Examples of biennial herbs are caraway, parsley and sage. Depending on your climate, annuals may sometimes take on a more perennial growth habit.
When planting herbs, it is important to select a good site, preferably one that is close to the kitchen. Place plants in a sunny spot that drains well. Herbs prefer loamy soil with a pH around 6.0 to 7.0. Don’t over fertilize herbs as this tends to create excess growth and deplete flavor. In areas where freezing is common, potting plants in containers can be a solution. Many herbs grow happily in containers provided the soil drains well.
A designated herb bed may be your first inclination, but when you see how pretty most herbs are, you may opt to plant them along borders in and among other edibles and ornamentals with similar sun and water needs.
During the holiday season, herbs have many uses beyond cooking. Create oil infusions and savory salts or fragrant sugars with herbs such as rosemary and lavender. Build a pungent herb wreath or simply trim your rosemary bush into the shape of a Christmas tree and decorate away.