- Author: Tina Saravia
The first plants that come to my mind when I hear “nitrogen fixers,” are beans and peas of the legume family. Their roots have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil that gathers nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form of nitrogen that plants can use. Proof of that nitrogen shows up as little white bumps or nodules on the roots.
But there are also plants outside of the legume family that fix nitrogen. I happen to have one of them in my drought-tolerant bed by the mailbox, next to the driveway. It's a California lilac or Ceanothus spp.
It belongs to the Buckthorn family and is one of the 50-60 species of nitrogen-fixing shrubs in that family. it's a prostrate form that stays low to the ground, has light blue flowers in late winter and the leaves remain dark green the rest of the year. This plant has been in the ground for about 5 or 6 years and has not needed any watering, except the first year it was planted, even In the heat of summer. It's one of my favorite landscape plants.
There are plants in other plant families that can also fix their own nitrogen. But what I found most Interesting was an article from “The California Aggie” website about nitrogen-fixing corn.
“In the mountainous region of Sierra Mixe in Southern Mexico, a particular type of corn grows and feeds an entire community — without fertilizer. According to the article “there has been speculation for decades that this corn might be able to naturally fix its own nitrogen from the atmosphere, researchers at UC Davis have finally been able to gather conclusive evidence supporting this rare and bizarre phenomenon.”
It's a very recent finding and the “UC Davis team is still in the beginning processes of testing whether this corn has the capabilities to be commercialized.”
Here's the link to the article:
This will be an interesting development to follow.
- Author: Kathleen Craig
Have you ever wondered how to respond to gardening myths? Have you ever been giving a Master Gardener presentation and encountered the odd questions about a myth or worse yet, been awkwardly obliged to explain that helpful hints from an audience member are quite unscientific?
For me, yes to the above! There are so many sources of unproven information on the Internet, and unfortunately, most garden myths are not supported by science. We certainly don't want people leaving our presentations believing garden myths that they picked up from another attendee.
Here are some examples of garden myths and the science that debunks it:
Myth: Buried banana peels provide potassium to your plants.
Yes, bananas and their peels contain potassium which stimulates plant growth and flower production, however, the amount of nitrogen needed to break down the peel will mean less nitrogen is available for greening plants. What would be beneficial of course, would be to compost the banana peels and top-dress plants with compost instead.
Another garden myth recommends spreading crushed eggshells in the vegetable garden to cure blossom end rot with all that calcium that they leach into the soil. I did that before becoming a master gardener, and those eggshell chips are in the garden, unchanged, 3 years later. It turns out that unless the eggshells are ground into a fine powder and are put in an acidic solution, the calcium stays intact. Archaeological digs have actually found eggshells that have not decomposed. Also, in general, plants tend to not be calcium deficient in the first place
Myth: It is beneficial to use “natural” weed control mixtures such as baking soda, vinegar, and dish soap. While this recipe doesn't have traditional herbicides in it, it doesn't really kill weeds satisfactorily and adds a lot of sodium to the soil which is toxic to plants.
But wait…there's more! Put gravel in the bottom of your plant pots so the soil will drain better. Or better yet, put a sponge in the bottom of the pot! (This was a hint I saw in the Handyman magazine). What better way to keep your plant's roots moist and encourage root rot! Now I'm getting downright sarcastic!
The best way to get your plants to drain properly, of course, is to use well-draining soil and to water deeply and not too often according to the plant's water requirements. (The jury is still out on whether it's ok to line the pot with a coffee filter, or screening to prevent soil from being washed out when the plant gets watered. When surfaces change, it tends to disrupt the wicking action of water through soil, thus raising the water table and slowing the drainage.
Again, before I attended the Master Gardener training, I was game for trying some of the gardening hints I read. One of the worst ones that I fell for was putting ice cubes on your orchids in order to give them the “right” amount of water. The idea is that the ice cube melts slowly so the water drips into the soil medium and doesn't over-water the plant. This did nothing to improve my orchids. After reading up on the subject, I learned that since orchids are tropical plants and are unlikely to encounter an ice storm in their natural growing environment, putting ice on them would be a shock to the plants. One of my orchids survived, but now I water it deeply and less often, use fast-draining planting media.
The existence of gardening “experts” who follow old, unproven customs and continue to spread misinformation so frustrated some horticultural experts that they formed a group called the “Garden Professors”. They provide science-based information regarding the efficacy of garden myths. The group includes Fred Hoffman, and Linda Chalker-Scott and others. Their website is very helpful.
There are many, many web sites that cover this topic, but I have narrowed it down to just a few resources for you. When you encounter a question or opinion about garden myths, here are some quick and reliable references:
The Informed Gardener and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again by Linda Chalker-Scott
- Author: Lowell Cooper
It's the way things work.
At a time like this pandemic, it is difficult for me to tell myself that this is part of the bigger picture of how the natural world works. Everything feels very unnatural. I (and I assume that I am not the only one to feel this) never went through a period of such prolonged distancing and isolation. It is like some giant punishment. But at the same time:
We noticed to resident doves eating and softly cooing and probably living in our wisteria in the garden.
Our olive tree is bursting with olive fruit with big promises for the mid-Fall harvest.
Annuals are putting on their regular display – cosmos, petunias, and dahlias – quietly showing off.
Lots of black bees enjoying the flowers and there are lots of bees busily at work.
Two beautiful orioles making tentative visits the hummingbird feeders for the first time.
And I even spied a large garden snake poking around.
There are many other signs of life. It all seems quite under the coronavirus radar. So while our mundane human existence is turning upside down, the natural order seems quite intact, indeed, natural. I find this very reassuring that in the midst of national tragedy, political conspiracy theories, and an atmosphere of profound uncertainty about health maintenance outside of my home, on another level it is business as usual.
What is to be learned from all this? For me, this social isolation has given me a chance to see another part of my daily life which I usually take for granted and move past all too quickly. I am not the meditative sort so it almost catches me by surprise to see and hear the hummingbirds. Since the pandemic is likely going to be with us for a long time, nature unfolds, cycles, and makes her presence known everywhere but quietly. As the smog disappears, low and behold there is sky and stars., These sites and events get lost and don't command time on Fox, NPR, and other mass media, but nature doesn't need the publicity right now since isolating in place gives me an opportunity to turn up my internal focus on what is around me all the time and the volume is there and I can attend to it.
When given a pandemic lemon, I choose as much as I can to enjoy the natural lemonade.
- Author: Karen Metz
It's been an interesting experience to garden at the time of the COVID 19 outbreak. Shortly after we had gone under the shelter at home order, my husband called me from Raleys to tell me they were selling tomato plants. He told me they had ‘Early Girl' and ‘Roma' varieties and they had bell peppers as well. I asked him to get me one of each.
Now at this point, I had no idea how long we were going to stay under the order. I also had not realized that the big box hardware stores and some nurseries would be allowed to remain open. In usual years I would choose one or two plants each from several varieties of tomato, but this year I figured I should be grateful for whatever I could get. Also, I thought it was too late in the season to try growing tomatoes or bell peppers from seed. To be honest, I had never had much luck with that in the past anyway.
When my husband got home, I found I had a six-pack each of ‘Early Girl' and ‘Roma' tomatoes and a six-pack of bell peppers. Oh my! I had never grown that many tomatoes before. I placed them in my raised bed where they were soon joined by a volunteer that sprouted up where I had grown cherry tomatoes last year.
Now tomatoes have some extra challenges growing at my house. Only one raised bed really gets enough irrigation for them. So, unfortunately, I have not been able to practice crop rotation to minimize the buildup of plant diseases in the soil. Also, the raised bed that is available is also the home of beautiful gladioli, that I am not willing to part with.
So, each year is a gamble to see if the tomatoes can get tall enough, early enough to keep from being shaded out by the gladioli. I do put tomato cages around the tomato transplants to try and give them designated spaces.
Getting the plants in the ground quickly and having a variety that matures rapidly like ‘Early Girl' has worked out beautifully. I picked the first ‘Early Girl' in the second week of June. Early Girls are also disease resistant which is good for my situation. They are indeterminant which means they will keep growing till the frost kills them.
The Romas are doing well also. They are loaded right now with fruit although they are still green, as they take longer to mature than the Early Girls. Romas are classic paste tomatoes with fewer seeds and juice, and thicker, meatier walls than standard tomatoes. These qualities make them wonderful for cooking and canning. However, Romas are also good for eating raw. My husband and I love them cut up in salads.
Knowing that the six-pack of bell peppers only had the raised bed with the poor irrigation available to them: I decided to do an experiment. I put three in a large pot which I watered every day. The other three went out into the raised bed which I also watered by hand. The container peppers are doing much better, being twice as large and already having fruit before the raised bed peppers have even started to blossom.
I also decided to try planting some vegetables from seed. Now, most of my seeds are very, very old. Some radishes sprouted, but as it had already gotten quite warm, they bolted, rapidly going to flower and seed, before the root had matured. My lettuce and bean seeds didn't come up at all.
I had some eggplant seeds that my Uncle Curtis had given me back in 2008. Given their age. I threw about thirty seeds in each of two pots and kept them inside on a windowsill. After about eight weeks, just when I was getting ready to give up and throw them out, a tiny sprout appeared. Soon after, another one followed. I ended up with two seedlings that I was able to transition to outside and then plant in the raised bed. We will see if they deliver the small white eggplant that my uncle had promised back in 2008.
The last thing that I threw into the raised bed was some new potatoes from the grocery store that had not been used quickly enough and had sprouted. I cut them into pieces, let the edges dry for a day or two, then planted them in a little trench in the raised bed. As they grew, I have piled additional soil on them. So far, they seem happy, as long as I water them daily.
Although this time of sheltering at home has meant that usual resources and varieties have been limited; I have had an abundance of home time. This has allowed more time in the garden to water, to watch, and to appreciate. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the growing season plays out.
- Author: Jenni Dodini
One of my surprise gifts this year was the lovely bougainvillea pictured below. I did not have the heart to tell the giver that I have been known as a killer of bougainvillea. I have always looked at them with jealous eyes because they are SO BEAUTIFUL, especially when the cameras pan the landscape at the Augusta National Golf Course on TV. (Just FYI, I am NOT the watcher of golf at this house. It's my husband.)
So, what to do, what to do? Well, RESEARCH of course.
I went on-line to my favorite site, GardeningKnowHow to start my research. Then, the next site down was JoyUsGardens, with a lovely flower between Joy and Us. The JoyUs site has several videos on the individual topics addressed and many pictures of several varieties.
Well, just what did I learn? Firstly, I probably have killed the previous plants with the kindness of water. Or the wrong soil. Or both. Bougainvillea is a very drought-resistant plant. They only require watering when they start to wilt and/or the soil is very dry. They also prefer a deep and infrequent watering. However, they do need regular watering until they are well established.
Now, as for soil, the preferred medium is loamy, containing equal amounts of sand, clay, and silt and a pH of just over 6. There were 2 recommendations for fertilizing: 1) monthly with well balanced, all-purpose fertilizer at half the recommended amount; and 2) using compost to fertilize. If over-watered, they will develop root rot or have more greenery and less flowering.
This leads to what I learned next - planting. Plant in a place that gets at least 6 hours of full sun per day. (Guess that I need to modify my planting plan to a different location.) They are native to the Brazil latitude region of the South American continent. In our latitude, they do best in USDA zones 10 and 11, and zone 9 with adequate protection as they don't like sustained temperatures less than 30F. We are in Zone 9B. Older plants do tolerate the cold better though. Bougainvillea does well in pots so long as the pot is large enough and has good drainage. They really do not like to be transplanted as the roots are very sensitive, so be sure to plant in a place where the plant will thrive undisturbed.
Once planted, they need to be trained. Even though a bougainvillea is a vine, it does not twine or attaches itself. If trellising, make sure that the trellis can support the weight of the growing plant. There are dwarf varieties available that can be shaped into a hedge or ground cover, and are even amenable to being a bonsai! Other varieties grow up to 8 feet and as tall as 25 feet in the wild and supported! Getting back on topic, the plant needs to be tied to the trellis with a tie that can support the weight of the plant over time. That leads to the topic of pruning. If the plant needs pruning, it is best to prune it in the very late fall or end of winter. It was recommended to cut away any dead wood as it appears and pinch off the soft growing tips to make the plant have thicker and fuller growth. When working with the bougainvillea, one must WATCH OUT FOR THE THORNS!!!
Now about the BEAUTIFUL flowers. Bougainvillea is an evergreen plant that blooms in the summer. Most think that the orange, yellow, crimson, or magenta blooms are the flowers, but those are actually modified leaves called bracts that surround the tiny white flowers. The color depends on the variety and tends to fade as the summer progresses.
The list of pests is thankfully short. Aphids, which can be sprayed away with water; Bougainvillea looper caterpillar that eats the leaves at night but only for a short time; and leafcutter bees, also for a short time.
Now that I have a better understanding of taking care of this plant, hopefully, I can keep it alive.