Help and Advice from the Help Desk of the Master Gardeners of Contra Costa
Client's Request for Information and Advice:
The tree has received water from the lawn that surrounds it, although I am now cutting back to watering only every two weeks due to the drought, which I understand should be sufficient for the tree. It has not been pruned except occasionally to keep it out of the power lines. Large roots are visible on the surface of the lawn. I believe the only fertilizer it has received would have been when the lawn was fertilized, which hasn't occurred for probably ten years.
I hesitate to contact a tree pruner, as I am not confident that they would give me an accurate, unbiased answer since it would be in their interest to suggest that pruning was necessary.
MGCC's Help Desk Response:
Thank you for contacting the Master Gardener Help Desk.
You are right to be concerned about your tree, especially during the drought. Trees on residential properties can add value to the property, provide a pleasant setting for the house, neighborhood and community, shade from the hot summer sun, and a “sense of place”. There would no doubt be different neighborhoods without our trees. Because of these factors, homeowners taking good care of their trees are usually amply rewarded.
Your Sycamore tree is probably a California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa), a widely planted residential tree for its beauty and shade which can live for over 150 years. While generally easy to get along with, Sycamores do have their problems at times, namely Anthracnose and Powdery Mildew (see http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/GARDEN/PLANTS/sycamore.html). Overall though these are usually minor irritants to the homeowner if the tree is properly cared for, e.g. watering to maintain its health, and some pruning to provide for appropriate growth.
However, our research find that Sycamores are known to experience a phenomenon called "Summer Branch Drop". More information about this phenomenon can be found at this link from the Journal of Arboriculture. (http://bit.ly/1HormZb)
While Master Gardeners can provide advice and appropriate references on the care of your Sycamore, we are not professional arborists, especially for significant concerns such as yours. From the pictures of the overhanging branches, it would seem that an assessment of the health and well-being of your Sycamore by a professional arborist is appropriate. While the cost of professional consultation is not insubstantial, the payback in peace-of-mind and protection of your investment in the tree and house could be substantial. So, in spite of your misgivings about the motivations of a tree service company, we would strongly advise that you have your tree inspected and evaluated by a certified arborist, probably a consulting arborist to provide a neutral 3rd party evaluation. Certification of arborists is by the International Society of Arborists (ISA). Some certified arborists are independent consultants while others are associated with specific tree care companies. While the independent consultant's consultation is probably close to a given fee, you should be able to request an estimate from any tree maintenance company for their proposed work. UC provides some advice on dealing with contractors and consultants at this link (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74125.html).
ISA Certified Arborists in our area can be found at this link http://www.isa-arbor.com/findanarborist/findanarborist.aspx. Once on line at the ISA page, to find an arborist in our area, use the Search by location function. Choose United States from the pull down menu, then type in the zip code and radius of interest (25 miles should be more than ample) and search again. This will bring up a list of certified arborists who work in our area as well as distinguishing who that are associated with and/or an independent consultant. My search found that there are many certified arborists to choose from in our area.
It appears that the tree has been receiving reasonable cultural care. Fertilizing established trees is usually not necessary. Your watering schedule may be sufficient, but we recommend that you speak with the arborist about caring for your tree during the drought as well, especially since you have exposed roots.
I hope that this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact us again if you need further assistance.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the web at http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/Ask_Us/
- Author: Rebecca Suzanne
Recently, a friend forwarded me a New York Times article about the nationwide use of California water through the consumption of food produced in the Golden State. The article, based on data from the University of California at Davis and the Pacific Institute, states that the average U.S. resident uses 300 gallons of California water this way, every week.
In the face of the worst drought in California recorded history, my inclination has been to stop growing water-thirsty annuals of any kind, including fruits and vegetables. Yet the Times article gave me pause; I feel confident that I can grow an asparagus tip using less than their stated .22 gallons of water and I most assuredly can grow an onion slice using less than .7 gallons!
Gardeners far wiser than I figured this out a long time ago. The phenomenal Rosalind Creasy - long a proponent of sustainable gardening - wrote a 2014 post on just this topic: “When in Drought – Plant Vegetables”. In her post, Rosalind states that growing the average pound of lettuce commercially uses 15 gallons of water, a pound of tomatoes 22 gallons, and a pound of potatoes 30 gallons. Bio-intensive gardener John Jeavons, Director of Ecology Action and author of the best-selling How to Grow More Vegetables, has demonstrated through years of hands-on research, that organic home gardening uses up to 87% less water to grow vegetables as compared to commercial farming. Contra Costa Master Gardener and journalist Joan Morris offers these additional tips for growing vegetables in a drought:
- Don't spare the compost. Add 3 to 4 inches of compost to your garden beds and work it lightly into the soil. Healthy soil produces healthy plants, which need less water.
- Mulch. Add 3 to 5 inches of mulch on top of beds to help reduce water evaporation. Mulch can be almost anything including dried leaves, aged horse manure, extra compost or straw, not hay. Mulch also will repress weed growth.
- Install a drip irrigation system. Drip systems use much less water than any other form of irrigation, and the plants like it better, too.
- Be selective. Plant only what you like and only as much as you'll consume.
- Consider planting early maturing and short-season crops, which will use less water.
- Plant seedlings close together on an offset pattern, rather than in a row. This configuration uses less water and as the plants grow, they will shade the soil and reduce evaporation.
- Grow high-yield vegetables, such as beans, squash, egg plant, peppers and tomatoes. You'll get more for your water buck with these plants.
- Keep your beds weeded. Weeds not only are annoying, they compete with your plants for water and nutrients, and they are much better at grabbing them.
- When given a choice, plant determinate varieties. Determinate plants grow to a certain size and produce for a specific amount of time. Indeterminate varieties will continue to grow and produce until frost. The determinate types, with their shorter growing season, will use less water.
- Instead of planting seeds and watering the entire bed, start seeds in a tray and then transplant the seedlings into your garden.
- We typically do this with certain plants, such as tomatoes, in order to get a head start on the growing season, but consider doing it with the big seed plants such as pumpkins, corn and squash.
- Use shade cloth to help prevent soil evaporation and prevent sunburn.
- Try dry farming. Many plants, including tomatoes, can be dry farmed. Our Garden will have two demonstration beds this year, growing a number of different tomato varieties.
- For successful dry farming, you want to create a spongy growing medium that will hold water. The best way, Miller says, is to grow a cover crop over the winter and then cut the plants down and work them into the soil.
- If you didn't have a cover crop, then prepare the bed with lots of compost.
- Plant your tomatoes and water them as usual for the first few days to get them established, then water only once a week. Once the tomatoes flower and set fruit, cut off all water. The plants may not look great, but they will produce and some say the fruit will taste better.
So step aside, all you salvias and succulents – my vegetable garden is coming through! My rudimentary rainwater and graywater systems will do their best to keep those veggies hydrated, lots of nutrient-rich compost and a deep layer of mulch will keep them cool and moist, and long, deep sips from a drip irrigation system will fill in as needed.
For additional information on dry farming tomatoes, see http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/files/140321.pdf/span>
Help for the Gardener from the Contra Costa Master Gardener Help Desk
Client's Request: I am looking for advice on a drought tolerant grass variety or mix for my front yard. We are located in San Ramon, and the area receives full sun. We have taken out our existing lawn! We will have edibles, water permeable surfaces, paths and a small amount of grass (or other suitable ground cover), about 200 ft2. This will be mostly ornamental, although one area (next to the driveway) will likely receive some foot traffic. I identified UC Davis Buffalo grass as a possibility, but we are open to anything that makes sense. Most important are low water requirement and low maintenance, ability to tolerate some foot traffic, open to a longer ‘shaggy' growth habit, although the ability to mow to a shorter length would be nice. Full sun environment. Soil is good I think, some clay but not too heavy, drains well.
CCMG Help Desk Response: Congratulations on taking the first step towards a water-wise garden by removing your lawn. It's important that we all learn how to use water more efficiently as demand rises and drought conditions continue. You would like to retain a small lawn which will receive foot traffic next to the driveway and would like advice on grass selection.
Before evaluating lawn alternatives, it is important to understand the differences between the two categories of grasses. Grasses are considered warm-season or cool-season, depending on when they grow best. In California warm-season grasses (e.g Bermuda, St. Augustine, buffalo) generally do best in southern California while cool-season grasses (e.g. blue, rye, fescue, bent) do best north of the Bay Area. In between is a transition zone, where both cool-season and warm-season grasses will grow but the climate is not optimum for either. Warm-season grasses tend to turn brown and go dormant during the winter in areas where there is frost, such as San Ramon. And cool season grasses require extra water to endure our hot dry summers.
Below are several options for lower water use grasses which can tolerate foot traffic. However, none of the grasses listed below currently qualify for your Water District's (EBMUD) lawn conversion rebates, nor does synthetic turf. In order to qualify for a lawn conversion rebate, EBMUD requires that the lawn be replaced with low or very low water-use plants, or permeable lawn alternatives such as decomposed granite or mulch.
Native Bentgrass - Agrostis pallens is a cool-season California native bentgrass, with a uniform growing habit, medium texture, and deep green color. Native bentgrass requires full sun, withstands foot traffic, and has a good wear recovery due to self repairing rhizomes. Native bentgrass can be either mowed or it can be left to flop, creating the look of a natural, informal meadow. If you want the look of a mowed lawn, you should continually mow it. If you let it get long and shaggy before mowing it low, it will have a scalped look until it has had time to grow back. The sod grower's irrigation trials indicate that Native Bentgrass requires about half the water of a traditional cool-season grass to keep the lawn green throughout the year. Starting a native bentgrass lawn from seed can be a challenge because it is slow to start. But it has recently been made available as sod with degradable netting from Delta Bluegrass Company in Stockton. The price of Native Bentgrass sod is more than that of traditional blue, rye, or fescue sods because it takes longer for the grower to produce. If cost is not the primary factor, a Native Bentgrass sod might make a great alternative to your conventional lawn. For more information on this California Native Sod, see http://www.deltabluegrass.com/blendcomparisonchart .
UC Verde Buffalograss - UC Verde is a variety of buffalograss which was developed by University of California researchers at Riverside and Davis as a lower water use alternative to the traditional cool and warm-season grasses. It is a warm-season grass native to the North American plains; it looks terrific during summer; and is soft on bare feet. But its main drawback is that in Northern California it goes fully dormant in the winter, turning straw-colored after a hard frost occurs. People often use a biodegradable green dye during the winter in order to maintain the appearance of a green lawn. UC Verde grows to only 4-6" tall and requires mowing only every 2-3 weeks. It is planted from plugs which are usually spaced 12 inches apart and should be planted early in the warm season (e.g. May) to give the lawn a chance to establish before the weather cools. It spreads by rhizomes and is very competitive with weeds once established. However, keeping the lawn weed-free until it becomes fully established is more challenging than installing sod, and may require an aggressive weeding campaign. UC Verde buffalograss requires 50% to 75% less water than the typical fescue lawn. For more information on growing and maintaining UC Verde buffalograss, including photos of the grass throughout the season, see http://cesacramento.ucanr.edu/Pomology/Turf_Demonstration_Project/Three_species_in_irrigation_trial/UC_Verde_buffalograss/ .
No-Mow Fineleaf Fescue – Fineleaf fescues are cool-season grasses which include red fescue, Chewings fescue, sheep fescue and hard fescue. Many new and improved fineleaf fescue species and cultivars have come to California in recent years. Fineleaf fescues can be either seeded or sodded. They typically require about 85% of the water needed to keep a typical lawn green in the summer but they can withstand more severe irrigation deficit and dormancy with the ability to come back the following year. Fineleaf fescue lawns can be kept to about 2 ½" by mowing every 2 to 3 weeks or they can be left to grow to a height of 6 to 12 inches to create a "natural" look by mowing 1 to 4 times per year. They are an aesthetically pleasing no-mow grassy groundcover, with lower water requirements, however, they are not suitable for areas where pedestrian traffic is common. For more information on fineleaf fescue, see the attached U.C. article "No-Mow Fineleaf Fescue Grasses for California Urban Landscapes" (http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/pdf/8391.pdf).
Irrigation – Whichever grass you select, your irrigation system plays an important role in water conservation. Standard spray irrigation heads are not an efficient method of applying water. You might consider replacing conventional sprinkler nozzles with high-efficiency rotating or precision nozzles. Or perhaps install a below grade inline emitter system such as Eco-mat by Hunter irrigation http://www.hunterindustries.com/irrigation-product/micro-irrigation/eco-matr-and-pld-esd . Replacing traditional irrigation timers with weather-based models (smart controllers) can help to provide the amount of water actually required by the plant, and often results in water savings. If you are redoing you irrigation system, you might want to check out the water district's rebates, if any, for upgrading irrigation equipment and installing Smart Controllers (for EBMUD see http://www.ebmud.com/for-customers/water-conservation-rebates-and-services/lawn-conversion-irrigation-upgrade-rebates).
Good luck with your project. Feel free to contact us if you need additional information.
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: email@example.com, or on the web at http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/Ask_Us/
Advice for the Home Gardener from the Contra Costa Master Gardeners' Help Desk
Client's Questions and Concerns
Client called with “huge problem with birch trees". She left her email address, but also asked for someone to call and help her with some advice. Called several times but couldn't leave a message since her voicemail box was full. Sent her an email with some of the “usual” problems with birch trees and asked her to contact us if she needed more information. (Note: Although this advice didn't come to satisfactory conclusions, CCMG Help Desk thought it would be beneficial to remind gardeners of the value and care of their trees, especially the oft-planted and vulnerable birch trees, and the need for prioritizing tree care especially during the drought. You can replace and restore many shrubs and perennials in several years and at moderate costs; replacing trees can be expensive when you include value to the property and costs of removal, and can take many years.)
Response and Advice from the CCMG Help Desk
Thank you for calling Master Gardeners with your birch tree problem. However, in order to help you, we will need some more information and either samples or photos of the tree.
In the meantime, I have included information which might be helpful adapted from an article from a Solano County Master Gardener blog:
- Most likely your birch tree is a European white birch (Betula pendula), native to northern Europe with its cooler climes and plenty of rainfall to sustain the trees. They grow magnificently there, and to their full potential, much larger than any you'll likely see in Contra Costa County.
- In Contra Costa County, especially the central and eastern areas, the life span of a birch tree is approximately 25 years due to heat and lack of rainfall. Decline will often show in branch dieback or leaf drop. During drought, birch trees – which need consistent and deep irrigation – will show signs of stress such as dead branches. Or depending upon the tree's age and care, those dead branches may just be signs of old age and a steady decline.
- Many homeowners with birch don't realize how stressed birch trees can get in drought periods. The natural habitat of birch trees is the forest, where they grow alongside creeks and streams.
- Birch are often planted in lawns and home owners forget that when they stop or reduce irrigating their lawns that birch will often be put in stress unless additional water is provided.
- If your tree is in a lawn, remove the grass from around the trunk out to the drip line and replace it with a layer of fine bark mulch, chopped red cedar bark or aged compost. A bender board around the perimeter of the mulch will prevent the mulch from working into the lawn.
- To determine the actual soil moisture “feeding” your birch, you can push a long screwdriver into the soil, working outward from the trunk to the drip line under the leaves. If the screwdriver does not easily penetrate the soil, then the tree must be irrigated.
- One method of supplemental tree irrigation is to lay several lengths of soaker hoses, working outward from the trunk to the perimeter of the tree under the drip line. Attach a garden hose to the soaker hose and let the water drip for several hours until the screwdriver will easily slip into the soil. You can find a rmuch more duable and automated version of this watering system at http://ccuh.ucdavis.edu/public/drought/tree-ring-irrigation-contraption-tric-1/tree-ring-irrigation-contraption-tric
- The birch root system is also extremely sensitive to fertilizers and herbicides, including weed and feed products as well as mechanical damage, for example string trimmers.
- When birches get stressed during even our “usual” Northern California summer droughts, borers can move in. This problem is often exacerbated by reduced irrigation during our current long-term drought. The bronze birch borer, Agrilus anxius, is the main culprit. Apparently there is quite a large local population of the borers. Intensive insecticide applications may keep them at bay. Check the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management website for more information on preventive measures: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/GARDEN/PLANTS/birch.html.
If you go to this link and in the right columns scroll down to 'birch borers', you might find clues to what is ailing your tree bug-wise. However, it is important to positively identify the cause before any measures are taken to manage the problem, so we look forward to hearing from you again.
With a little TLC, you should be able to coax a few more years out of your birch.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the web at http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/Ask_Us//span>/span>
- Author: MaryJo Smith
"Me mind on fire -- Me soul on fire -- Feeling hot hot hot" are not just lyrics to the catchy one-hit wonder by Buster Poindexter. It's also what we've been thinking (and our plants have been feeling) this summer. Although as of September 22nd, the season technically shifted from summer to fall, the temperatures have remained in the mid- to high 90's.
The hot sun and high temperatures can be brutal on a garden causing plants and vegetables to wilt, and soils to dry out. This isn't only about the heat and sun though; when diminished water availability is added to the scenario, it becomes about the effects that all three combined have on the garden. The goal this year has been to keep a healthy amount of moisture in the soil using less water.
With the water restrictions still in effect, it's important to look at ways to grow a fall garden with less water. One way to do that is by using row covers or shade cloths.
Protecting the plants from direct sunlight by using row covers or shade cloth reduces the leaf temperature and plant watering needs (they don't "sweat" as much). This can raise the production of your garden and reduce your irrigating and fertilizing costs. Its also useful in protecting your vegetable patch from insects and birds.
Row covers are often used in the winter to protect plants from frost, and during the spring and summer months to block out the sun. However, consider using them during the early fall season to protect your newly planted "cool" season crops from the sun and heat. Row covers generally block out 15-30% of the sun, depending upon the thickness of the cloth.
With the autumnal heat we've been having, shade cloth, which is a little heavier, might be an even better way to go. It comes in a variety of colors and densities depending upon the amount of sun to be blocked and what vegetables or plants need protection. While light colored shade cloth will reflect more of the sun's rays and heat, expect higher temperatures under darker shade cloth, unless you provide ample air space.
Shade cloth requires a simple support structure consisting of PVC or metal bows that span one or more rows. The bows support the shade cloth over the crop, providing cooling shade and reducing water needs.
If you are planting a vegetable garden, understanding the light requirements of each crop may allow you to plant some crops in a naturally shaded environment. Lettuce, currants, gooseberries, spinach, cauliflower and most beans can grow in conditions with less than full sun. Under these conditions, water use needs will be reduced due to the natural cooling of the plant.
Even plants that require full sun and love the heat (80-90°), such as peppers and tomatoes, sometimes need shade cloth too due to the intense summer sun or heat. I placed shade cloth over my tomatoes this summer when the temperatures were especially high.
Shade cloth can be placed over plants during the hottest time of the day (11 am to 4 pm) to keep them from getting sunburned or stressed. Sun damage can result in wilted or burned leaves and skin. Many of the cool season crops will bolt or go to seed prematurely in higher temperatures, and leafy vegetables turn bitter in taste.
Seedlings and recently transplanted starters do best with reduced sun until they are established. Initially, a shade cloth with a 10% percent density is perfect for sun-loving plants; 30% density cloth is best for more sun sensitive plants. This weight of cloth can also provide some protection from the drying effects of wind. During the hot summer months, most vegetable garden plants require 40% to 60% percent protection from the sun. Even though we are now in October, given the high temperatures were experiencing, using a 40-50% shade cloth to cover the newly planted crops can help with reducing the temperature. Shade can lower plant and soil temperatures by as much as 10°F.
Row covers and shade cloth can be purchased at many garden centers or online. I purchase mine online because of the broader selection.