- Author: Carolyn Dorsch
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Maggie Mah
Straw is not just for animal bedding. It has many other usages. With spring about to arrive, are you starting to think about planting a summer garden? Have you ever thought of growing your vegetables in straw bales? It's not only fun but also quite the conversation starter and your veggie plants will thrive! All you need is a sunny spot (6-8 hours/day) and a few supplies.
What is straw bale gardening?
In a nutshell, it is using straw bales like planters to grow your vegetable and herbs. The bales are the size of a medium-sized container, about 18” tall, 21” wide, and 36” long and held together with nylon twine around the edges. Each bale lasts for a single growing season and afterward, it can be composted or used as mulch.
What are the advantages of straw bale gardening?
There are many. At the top of the list: no digging or weeding is required! With the bale's raised height, there's less bending over or kneeling so it is very easy to plant. Plants in bales cannot be overwatered and require less fertilizer and fewer pest controls than a traditional garden. Bale gardens can also be started earlier in the season because the inside of the bales will be warmer than the soil temperatures in the ground.
What can I grow in a straw bale?
Just about any vegetable or herb that can be grown in your bay area microclimate can be grown in a straw bale. You can also grow flowers such as cosmos and poppies to add all-season color and to help draw in pollinators. To find out more about what grows best in your climate, Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Peirce is a great resource.
Is there anything that isn't recommended for growing in a straw bale?
There are a few plants that, although they will grow in straw, are better left in the ground. Any plants that get tall, like corn and string beans, will be even taller when grown in the bale and will therefore be more difficult to harvest. Another exception: perennial plants such as asparagus, stevia, etc. This is because the bales only last for a single season. As the plants grow, the bales are very slowly breaking down and converting to compost. After harvest, the bales
will begin to fall apart.
How do I get started?
Straw bales must be “conditioned” before anything can be planted inside them. NOTE: be sure your bales are straw, not hay. Conditioning starts the process of converting the straw on the interior of the bale into nutrients for the growing plants. Conditioning is a 10-12 day process during which time the bales will need to be watered and fertilized. At the end of the 12-day period, the bales will look the same from the outside but inside, the straw will have composted enough to feed your growing plants. Straw Bale Gardens Complete by Joel Karsten provides detailed steps to condition the bales and the organic fertilizer to use.
Should I use seeds or seedlings?
The most foolproof method is to transplant small plants/seedlings directly into the top of the conditioned bales. Six-pack starts are the easiest size to plant. Starting from seed is also possible, but will require more attention. To grow from seeds, sow them in a fine layer of soil on top of the bales. Keep the layer moist and monitor carefully to be sure it doesn't dry out. As they grow, you may also need to provide additional support to your plants with stakes, trellises, tomato cages, etc. This can be a fun project for the entire family and now is the perfect time to start your own straw bale garden.
Carolyn Dorsch is a University of California Master Gardener who loves all aspects of gardening. The article was edited by UC Master Gardeners Cynthia Nations and Maggie Mah.
- Author: Marvin Goodman
- Author: Judith Dean
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
It's spring and time to be thinking about what you're going to plant in your spring/summer garden. For most of us who like to garden, deciding what to plant focuses on what we hope to harvest, prepare, and eventually serve as part of our home cooked meals. It's so much fun to dream about the bountiful garden we'll have with lots of beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce.
This year, University of California Master Gardeners of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties would like to encourage you to think about something additional as you're dreaming about and planning your garden. Think about your neighbors – the ones you know, as well as the ones you've yet to meet. Think about the pleasure of helping to put some of those dream tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce on their plates as well as yours.
Many of our neighbors don't have gardens, and in too many cases, don't have enough food to feed themselves and their families. Whether you see it or not, hunger is a daily reality for too many people in our communities, especially as we reflect on the impact of the pandemic and its economic fallout. It is a crisis that continues.
Starting this year, our gardens can and will make an impact. They'll do this if enough of us decide to participate in the UC Master Gardener initiative, Harvest for Neighbors. This program seeks to build on the long-standing tradition of gardeners sharing their harvest with others. It is a people-helping-people program to assist in feeding the hungry in our own communities.
One of our goals for this program is to encourage our neighbors who have gardens, to plant one extra row in their gardens, and to harvest those extra fruits and vegetables and provide them to local food pantries. Another goal is to encourage groups of people to participate in this effort together. (i.e. garden clubs, youth groups, seniors, schools, community gardens and faith organizations)
Join us and help make this effort successful. We, UC Master Gardeners, will help and support you. Our mission is to help people garden more sustainably and successfully. To make sure that happens, we are going to be liaisons to garden groups. To support you in this effort, you'll have access to all our UC Master Gardener public talks and website resources, and garden groups will each get their own mentor. We'll support you so you can grow extra, and together we will impact hunger and food insecurity in the Bay Area. We can put you in touch with food pantries that welcome home-grown food in your area.
Here's how you can get involved:
• If you want to organize your organization or friends to become a growing group, we'll share with you what other groups are already doing. Please RSVP to UC Master Gardeners: Marvin Goodman and/or Judith Dean.
And, if you want to get a head start, this is the link to the Master Gardener Program of San Mateo and San Francisco counties: http://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu. You will find classes and information that will help you get ready to expand your garden for yourself and for your neighbors in need.
Marvin Goodman and Judith Dean are UC Master Gardeners who continuously learn and develop their gardening skills and share their knowledge with others. The article was edited by UC Master Gardeners Susan Kornfeld and Cynthia Nations.
- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
Are you looking for a showy, drought tolerant plant that blooms profusely and attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators? You might like to try Aloes! They range in size from six-inch houseplants to tall trees. In the past, people mostly grew small aloes indoors for their medicinal properties. Now there are more than 500 popular species and cultivars to choose from, many of which grow wonderfully in our mild coastal winters.
Aloes should be planted in containers or in fast-draining soils. You can use a ready-made succulent mix from a garden center or else mix two parts sand, two parts gardening soil, and one part pumice. Be careful with watering. Aloes store water in their leaves, stems, or roots and therefore need very little water to survive. Too much can harm them.
Some people think succulents don't need fertilizer, but to keep them healthy, strong, and beautiful, provide nutrients in the fall (before it rains) and in the spring (before new growth). Appropriate fertilizing includes a light feeding of compost tea, diluted fish emulsion, or a balanced fertilizer (15-15-15). Be sure to dilute concentrated liquid fertilizers half and half with water.
Great Aloes for the Coast
The Fan Aloe (Aloe plicatilis) blooms in winter with bright orange tubular flowers held on unbranched purple flower stems rising above its distinctive fan-shaped leaves. Plant it in full sun on the coast either in the ground or a large container. It's a slow grower, reaching 4-8 feet tall and wide. The foliage falls off with age revealing its smooth gray bark and stout contorted truck.
Beautiful spikes of the Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens) light up our neighborhoods, parks, and highways. They grow quickly in the sun and are identified by their orange to bright red winter blooms. Thick clusters of this sturdy Aloe can reach to 8 feet tall and wide. Its lightly-toothed leaves are narrow and dark green. After it has established its roots, it thrives on natural rainfall. Best yet, this beauty is known for its superior medicinal qualities.
Also known for medicinal qualities is Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis), an aloe that grows like a bush without a central trunk. Although it can reach 3 feet tall and wide, indoor plants are much smaller. This aloe prefers bright, indirect sunlight. Its light-green leaves will turn yellow if exposed to the sun. A spring bloomer, its inflorescence can blossom into yellow, orange, pink, or red flowers. Aloe Vera gel is used topically but should not be ingested.
The Tree Aloe (Aloe barberae or Aloe bainesii) is a fast-growing and long-lived 20–30-foot tree. It sports a massive trunk, multiple thick branches, and a high rounded crown that forms an interesting variety of shapes and sizes. Winter blooms in varying shades of pink are held high above the dark-green foliage. It enjoys full sun and is becoming popular in drought-tolerant landscaping.
I have to mention my favorite, the rare and sought-after Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Its gray-green leaves radiate in a perfect spiral, and its summer inflorescence grows about one foot high with orange or salmon flowers. This Aloe does not create offshoots so only regenerates by seed. Make sure it has good drainage, more water than other Aloes, and sun/part shade on the coast.
Aloes thrive in our area and are appreciated for their patterns, textured leaves, and amazing silhouettes in the garden. Have fun discovering the many species and cultivars available for your garden!
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who has several species of Aloes in her garden. Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who enjoys working as a fine gardener in the Bay Area.
- Author: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
Boxwood. You see it all over – and for good reason. They are oh so versatile, easy to prune and shape, and a lovely bright green. They've been a mainstay of residential and commercial landscapes for as long as I can remember. They are, however, slow-growing, rather fussy about soil, and are susceptible to root rot, branch cankers, and blight. They also need regular water. Let me propose Coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis as a great alternative. Although this sturdy native is typically overlooked, savvy gardeners are discovering it can do most anything boxwood can do and with none of its drawbacks.
First, its landscape usefulness: Coyote bush comes in a variety of sizes, from low and sprawling to rounded to an imposingly large shrub. And while it might look rangy in the wild, it responds well to pruning – like boxwood. A small variety forms an undulating carpet, another can be shaped as a specimen – even topiary, and others placed as privacy screens and hedges. A bit of shearing keeps coyote bush lush and full. If need be, you can hack it to the ground and it will grow back beautifully.
Best of all, it provides terrific habitat in your garden. It's an important and popular source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but even more importantly, it provides food for over a hundred native insect species – which are very important for nesting birds. Many of these insects prey on the aphids, mites and whiteflies that damage other plants in the garden. Coyote bush blooms in fall, making it a critical source of nutrients for over-wintering insects.
Second, Coyote bush doesn't need to be babied. Once established, it needs no supplemental water. It can, however, tolerate moderate summer water so no need to reconfigure your irrigation. Nor is it picky about where you plant it, growing happily in loose, sandy soil or slow-draining clay; in full sun or in partial or light shade.
Third, it's a resistant survivor. Waxy coating on its leaves retards water loss, while resinous oils on the leaves repel deer. The leaves also contain a high concentration of fire-retardant organic compounds, so low-growing coyote bush can be a good choice in fire-safe landscaping. If it does burn, coyote
bush will often re-sprout from the root crown.
The most popular coyote bush in our area is B. pilularis 'Pigeon Point' – a dwarf clone cultivar whose progenitor was reportedly discovered just south of Half Moon Bay. It mounds from one to three feet and quickly spreads out eight to ten feet wide. It only takes a couple of years to fill in, much faster than the prostrate ceanothus or Manzanita varieties that might otherwise be selected.
Another popular subspecies is B. pilularis consanguinea which grows three to six feet tall and is attractive along fence lines or pruned as a hedge or verdant specimen plant. As a specimen, its rounded form should be periodically pruned to keep it full and not leggy. Consanguinea matures in a year or two, so are great plants to begin site restoration.
Whichever coyote bush you choose, hosing it off every couple of weeks in the summer will keep it looking its green and shiny best.
Male coyote plants are typically used in landscaping (Pigeon Point plants are all males), as the fluffy white flowers on the female can create unwanted volunteers. Some people like the fluffy flowers, others find them rather boring but, if you want to grow your own bird seed, plant females.
So, if you have some boxwood you're looking to swap out or a bare spot with a half-day or more of sun that needs some cheery green, plant Coyote!
Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who works as a fine gardener in the Bay Area. The article was edited by Cynthia Nations, a UC Master Gardener.
- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
We're spending a lot of time indoors so it's more important than ever to create comfortable and inviting spaces in which to live, work, and play. It's crucial to our mental and physical wellbeing! Many people are using houseplants to bring a bit of nature indoors. Once you bring them in, though, you need to know how to care for them.
What does it take to keep a houseplant healthy, safe, and happy? It's fairly simple: good growing medium, water, light, and nutrients. Begin by keeping a simple database of each houseplant with its name, date purchased, size, and its light, water, and nutrient needs.
Growing Medium: Make your own! Use 1 part coconut coir (pre-soak and separate), 2 parts sieved compost (adds essential nutrients), 1 part pumice or dry stall (adds aeration), and 1-1/2 cup worm castings (for extra nutrients and beneficial microorganisms), or simply buy your potting mix at a garden center.
Water: Houseplants should never stand in water; they prefer being slightly dry. Watering once a week is good for most houseplants (refer to your houseplant database). Keep a saucer beneath the container to catch excess water.
Light: While all plants need light for photosynthesis, they have different daily requirements: high light (6 or more hours); medium light (4-6 hours); and low light (3 hours or fewer). If your plant stops producing new growth, it isn't getting the light it needs.
Nutrients: While there are many chemical fertilizers available on the market, there are also many naturally occurring nutrients you can use. The key is to feed the soil, not the plant. Container plants use up nutrients in the potting mix, and it is up to you to replace them. Using organic material improves soil structure and enhances its ability to hold nutrients and moisture. It also increases aeration and promotes beneficial microbial activity. Common organic liquid ingredients include fish emulsion, worm tea, compost tea, plant extracts, and liquid kelp.
Five easy houseplants (with database information):
1) ZZ Plant (Zamioculcus zamifolia). Growth: H/W 2-3'; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Low to bright indirect light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months during growing season; Notes: Wide, dark and attractive shiny green leaves, resistant to disease and insects, tolerates neglect.
2) Snake Plant/Mother-in-Law Tongue (Sansevieriatrifasciata); Growth: 6”-12'; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Indirect steady light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months during growing season; Notes: Nearly indestructible, thrives in dark corners or bright light, adds height to plant groupings.
3) Marble Queen Pothos (Epipremnum aureum); Growth: 5' vine length; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Slightly moist; Light Needs: Low; Nutrient Requirements: Monthly during growing season; Notes: Heart-shaped leaves, quick-growing hanging vines.
4) Chinese Money Plant (Pilea Pepermoides); Growth: H-12" (leaves grow larger with less light); Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water every 1-2 weeks or when leaves look droopy; Light Needs: Bright, indirect; Nutrient Requirements: Monthly; Notes: Unusual round leaves, self-propagator, rotate plant so stem will grow straight.
5) Zebra Plant (Haworthia fasciata); Growth: H-3”; W-5-6”; Soil: Well-drained; Water Needs: Water when fully dry; Light Needs: Low, indirect light; Nutrient Requirements: Every 3 months; Notes: Easy-care indoor succulent, rarely affected by common succulent pests, soil needs extra pumice or coarse sand, slow grower.
Using these and so many other houseplants, your pandemic shelter can be an indoor garden of delights.
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who loves gardening indoors and out. The article was edited by Susan Kornfeld, UC Master Gardener.