Archive for March, 2010

Barbara & Mary Beth: Today we thought we’d share a few tips on how to get great photos of all the beautiful things you grow. Now, we don’t claim to be photo pros, but we have some tips that will help you get great, dramatic pics of even the most humble garden flowers.

Tip #1: Depth of Field

OK. We saw your eyes roll back in your head. At first, this concept freaks out just about everyone but stay with us. We’re going to ignore a lot of detail and believe us, there’s a LOT of detail on this one subject and it can get confusing. But you don’t really need to understand all of it to use this technique. We’re going to keep it real simple.

Depth of field simply means how much of your image is in focus from the front of your shot to the back. Is it just one flower? This a shallow depth of field.

This astilbe was shot at f/8. If it had been shot at f/5.6 (like the lobelia below) the focus would have been limited to just a couple of the little blossoms.

Or, is it the whole garden? The depth of field just got a lot deeper.

This was shot with the aperture at f/125 (and it probably should have been higher).

You can control your depth of field by doing one thing — making the aperture, a.k.a. the f-stop, or the hole in the lens through which the light travels on your camera lens bigger or smaller. When you use an aperture of f/8 or less, you’ll get a really shallow depth of field. This makes the background very fuzzy and pulls your attention to the in-focus part of the picture. When you increase the aperture number, you increase the depth of field — and that means that more of your picture will be in focus.

Here’s a little bit of the confusing part. When your camera is in the manual mode and you open up your lens for an aperture of f/8 (or less) more light is getting in which can overexpose your shot. You’ll need to compensate for this by increasing the speed — the other half of the exposure equation. Set your aperture and then watch your meter reading, bumping up the speed (1/100, 1/250, 1/500, etc.) until your meter is in the middle of the +/- scale.

Or, if you’re more familiar with all the bells and whistles, you can set it to aperture mode (A mode) and the camera will automatically change the speed to get the best exposure.

Tip #2: Focus

It’s not enough to just make sure your focus is sharp. Pay attention to what you’re focusing on. You’re in charge!  You’re telling a little story here. Is the story about the garden? About the flowers? About one single flower, or part of the flower? Decide what you want the viewer to look at and focus on that. That will draw the eye to the part of the picture you want them to see.

For example:

We love lobelia. In this photo the aperture is set to f/5.6 for a shallow depth of field. The focus is on the lobelia in the middle of the frame.

No wait, we love the pansy! Same shot, same aperture (f/5.6) but this time the focus is on the pansy.

So go get your camera and play around with the buttons. Read your manual — not all of it if you don’t like that sort of thing — just enough to know how to put it into manual mode or aperture mode.

That’s it for today. In the near future we’ll follow up with a couple more tips, like how shooting at the right time of day will help you get great shots (hint: early morning or late afternoon) and how backgrounds can affect your picture.

One more thing. We feel the need for a little rant.  If we had a dollar for every time someone asked us what kind of cameras we use, and then said that they could take great shots if only they had a fancier camera, we’d be very rich. It’s not the camera, people. It’s the photographer.

We’ve both stepped up to fancier cameras — Barbara uses a Nikon D80 and Mary Beth uses a Canon 50D and we’ve scrimped and saved to get some pretty nice lenses too. But before that we worked with little point and shoot cameras in the $ 200 – $300 range and we got great pictures AFTER we learned how to use them. (A lot of the earliest pictures on this blog were taken with point and shoot cameras.)

So no excuses, get out there and take some great shots!


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Mary Beth: Here’s another new semi-regular feature — Sunday Zen. We haven’t quite defined it yet, but the post title will give you a hint about where we’re going with this.

Whatever we dream up, it will be all about the images and similar in mood — quiet, contemplative and restful. Because at least one day out of our busy week should have some space for being still and contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.

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East Coast

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Garter Snake

West Coast

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Two Tuesday’s Tips in a row! We amaze ourselves.

This week Mary Beth wants to tell you about her favorite tool. Last summer she slapped one in my hand and I was an instant convert. Then I’ve got some tips for starting peas and beans.

Mary Beth: If I had to pick only one important tip to give you, it would be to find yourself a good tool to weed with. For years I never used a tool to pull weeds — never even thought about it. Then about twelve years ago my first client introduced me to the Cape Cod weeder and it was a revelation. Aaaaahhhhhh! It’s made weeding almost bearable.

During the growing season it never leaves my side. There was a time when I had only one Cape Cod weeder and then it disappeared (I later found in the compost pile). I was completely lost without it, so now I have at least 3 at all times. It’s oddly ergonomic and I sometimes give them to clients who are suffering from achy joints. Every single one of them is now hooked. I purchase mine through Amazon.

My other tip is buy some screaming bright paint and paint the handles of your tools so you can find them in your garden beds and compost piles!

Barbara: So many tips to share! Here are a couple for this week, just in time to help you get your peas and beans started.

The first one is a recipe for a soil-less seed starting mix. Everyone knows that you should use this or sterile seed starting mix (don’t sterilize soil yourself, buy it at the garden store) so you don’t loose your seedlings to damping off, right?

4 quarts shredded sphagnum moss

2 quarts fine grade vermiculite

2 quarts perlite

1/4 cup kelp meal

1 tablespoon ground limestone

Mix all ingredients in a clean bucket. Wet down the night before you plant your seeds so you’ll have a a nice crumbly mix to start your seeds in.

Tip #2: Using an inoculant when you start your beans and peas can significantly increase your crop yield, but did you know that you should only use bottled water to start? That’s because chlorine in tap water will kill the bacteria that are in the inoculant. So go get yourself some bean and pea inoculant from your friendly neighborhood, independent garden store. Soak your seeds in bottled water for a half-hour or so. Drain the water and spoon the inoculant into the container of wet seeds. Mix it to coat the seeds and then plant them right away. Make sure you use either new containers or old ones that you have washed with a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach + 9 parts water). Rinse well after washing with the bleach solution.

Happy planting!

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Barbara: Yesterday my Master Gardener class went to the amazing Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Growers of an incredible collection of California native plants and located on 30 acres at the edge of Caspers Regional Park, this magnificent piece of land is filled with California native gardens, growing fields, straw bale houses and, of course, many, many gorgeous plants. Owner Mike Evans took us for a behind-the-scenes tour of the operation. It was fascinating. And, boy, do they do it right — from the mycorrihzae that they produce themselves and add to their planting mix, to the Sonoran Desert plant collection they’ve added to help keep the pollinators happy enough to stick around in the summer when our native plants aren’t blossoming.

I tried. I really, really tried not to buy any plants. I found one book I just had to have. That was IT I told myself. But then I saw this beauty beaming a million watts of color straight into my lizard brain. “Must have this plant!” it said. And I obeyed.

Blood Flower Milkweed

Besides, it’s highly attractive to Monarch butterflies and it’ll take part shade, which is pretty much all I’ve got. So I took two!

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Spring has sprung in the West and it’s on its way in the East — although with that crazy weather you might find it hard to believe. This week’s tips focus on roses and weeds.

In the Garden

MB: Whip up a batch of my version of Rose Tea for a quick boost. I make this tea for roses, but irises love this as well. In my garden the blooms are huge and plants just thrive on it. I usually make a large garbage can full of this and let ferment for a week. (Be warned — it smells really bad! )

This recipe is for a 5 gallon pail for those who don’t want to have a surplus of stinky tea in their backyard. Multiply as needed for larger quantities.

Rose Tea
2-3 cups alfalfa pellets or alfalfa meal with no salt added  (inexpensive at an AG store or farmers co-op)
5 tablespoons fish emulsion
1 tablespoon of liquid seaweed extract or 1/2 cup kelp powder  (I use Stress X)
1/2 cup Epsom salts (buy it at the drug store — way cheaper than at the garden center)
3 tablespoons molasses (supposed cut smell down)

Mix all the ingredients in the pail then fill with water to the top. Stir, cover and let sit for a week. Feed roses twice a month with tea, about 1/2 gallon to 1 gallon for each plant. The sludge that remains on the bottom of the pail can be spread around plants. Scratch it in a little to prevent a crust from forming.

Another quick rose tip: bury chopped banana peels and eggshells around your roses.

Weed Control

B: With the rains come the unwelcome abundance of weeds. Knock down the first spring flush and you’ll have less to deal with later on. Knock down the lesser second and third flushes and you’ll be living easy the rest of the summer. Well, I’ll be honest, it’ll be easier. With weeds it’s all relative, but less is ALWAYS better.

Annual weeds reproduce exclusively by seed, so the best time to control them is at germination or shortly thereafter, but especially before pollination. After they’ve dropped their seeds, you’re in for a whole lot more weeds.

Perennial weeds are harder to control. Hand weeding in early spring will eliminate a lot of them, but you have to be sure to get all of the roots and runners.

These are good IPM (Integrated Pest Management) practices for controlling weeds and it’ll make it much less likely that you’ll have to resort to chemical means of control later on.

A good resource for identifying weeds and methods of controlling them is the University of California IPM site. You’ll find weeds that are common in gardens across the country, but if you’re in a state other than California and you don’t see what you’re looking for, I suggest going to your local university cooperative extension’s website.

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A reader asked us if we knew how to deal with some pesky ground-nesting bees that have made their home in potted plants in her nursery. She’s concerned that they might bother her customers, so we did some research and found out lots of interesting things.

Ground-nesting bees are part of a large group of natives called solitary bees who are not usually aggressive and rarely sting. They live and reproduce in tunnels that they dig into the ground (or in potted plants). They seem to like to nest near each other and their spring nesting activities, which last four to six weeks, may make them more noticeable.

We humans seemed to have found a way to make life difficult for our native bees, especially in urban settings (by definition this is anything that isn’t rural). In California between 60 – 70% of native bees live in underground tunnels (Urban Bee Gardens) and they need access to bare soil in order to build their nests. But we gardeners love to mulch and when we do we’re covering large areas of potential nesting sites.

If you do need to do something about ground-nesting bees in your yard, the University of Michigan Integrated Pest Management site says it’s best to deal with the bees by using cultural controls. Ground-nesting bees prefer well-drained soil containing little organic matter. Covering the affected area with mulch or ground cover and watering it regularly will discourage them.

Keep in mind though that these native bees have a very important role in pollination. Their place in the ecological system is especially vital because they are not subject to the human-caused health problems that plague honeybees and if honeybee populations continue to decline, solitary bees will become ever more important in pollinating wild plants, crops, and landscape plants. So discourage them where you must, but consider dedicating an out of the way area of your garden to the bees by keeping it dry and free of mulch, especially in urban areas where they need all the help they can get.

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