Archive for March, 2011

Ah gardening! It’s all so simple, and yet it can get so freaking complicated, so quickly. Planting seeds for instance. The simple question is, “When can I plant seeds?” And the answer is…well, there are many answers depending on many factors, but let’s try to make it simple.

The simple story about seeds is they need the right soil temperature, the right exposure to light, and the right amount of water to germinate. Sounds easy and it is, kind of. If you follow some basic guidelines you’ll get a pretty good germination rate, not 100%, but good enough.

Here’s where we can make it complicated. This chart that shows the “practical” soil temperature for planting seeds to get a good crop versus the “optimal” temperature for seed germination.


From Gardener's Supply Company

I found it very interesting that the optimal soil temperature where you can expect almost all the seeds to germinate for corn or cucumbers would be 95 degrees. Really! My soil never gets that warm and I’m betting yours never does either. So ignore the optimal temperature and focus on the practical temperature.

Now the next question could be how in the heck do I know what my soil temperature is? And the answer is that there are a couple of ways to do that. One would be to get a soil thermometer to test your soil (a little complicated), or you might go to your local extension’s website and find a record of soil temps (still a little complicated). Or you could say, “It’s late March/early April in Zone 10 (when, generally speaking, the soil temps should be good) and that means it’s time to plant.”

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to your soil temperatures. (In fact, if you regularly have trouble with a particular crop seed, this might help you figure out where you’re going wrong.) It’s just that you don’t have to be so precise.

A good rule of thumb is to plant warm season crops when the soil temps are between 50 degrees and 60 degrees and the daytime/air temperature is between 65 degrees and 80 degrees.

Most of the veggies on the following list are warm season crops, but a few are cool season crops that need a long time to grow before they are mature. Still others can be grown all year round in our zone. But let’s just make it as simple as possible to avoid further confusing anyone. Here’s your list of vegetable seeds to plant right now in coastal Southern California (USDA Zone 10/Sunset Zone 22, 23, 24) in late March/early April.

Seeds to plant in March/April

  • Beets
  • Bush Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Collards
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Jicama
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Lima Beans
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Radish
  • Snap Beans
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Summer Squash
  • Tomato
  • Turnip
  • Watermelon
  • Winter Squash

Planting tips:

  • Nothing short of full sun is going to cut it for most plants. Make sure you place your veggie garden where it will get at least 8 hours of sunlight.
  • If you have heavy clay soil, do yourself a huge favor and build a raised bed. The truth is that unless you have perfectly loamy soil, you will have much better results with a raised bed.
  • Raised beds are absolutely the way to go if you are in an urban area where your soil is likely to be contaminated with lead and other pollutants.
  • If you have gophers, nail 1/8″ – 1/4″ hardware cloth on the bottom of your raised bed frames to keep them out.
  • Use topsoil in your raised beds, NOT potting soil.
  • Amend with a good organic amendment.
  • Keep you seeds evenly moist until they sprout – use a hose sprayer or a sprinkler.
  • Install drip lines. Ditto on the success factor with drip watering for vegetables, plus it will conserve water.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch. Conserves water, keeps soil temperatures moderated and plants happy (i.e. not stressed), and cuts way down on weeds.

This is a link to an awesome UC ANR chart that shows when to plant vegetables in all California regions, how to plant them, how much to plant for a family of 4, and how to preserve your crops.

Folks in cooler planting zones should be starting seeds indoors for planting when the air and soil temps warm up. For Durango and all other zones — find out from your local extension or nursery when the soil temps will be 50 – 60 degrees and plan on getting seeds or seedlings in the ground then.

Mary Beth will be writing about Durango area planting in the coming weeks.


Good planting.


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Durango, Colorado

Irvine, California

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Last week I was watering a plant on my windowsill when a flash of movement caught my eye. A hummingbird!

She hovered on the other side of the glass and I couldn’t figure out why she was looking at me through this window. The hummers in my garden are always checking out what I’m doing, but this window is facing the innermost corner of a little walled garden — not the birds’ usual haunt. In a moment the mystery was solved as I watched her flit past the Heavenly Bamboo’s leafy cover and settle into her tiny, tiny nest.

Hardly able to contain my excitement (I at least had the presence of mind to move away), I literally jumped up and did a happy dance. What an honor to be able to see this little miracle unfold!

This is precisely why I have been gardening organically and why I’ve done my best to make my property a creature-friendly habitat. It’s so obviously paid off. I have many more birds, lizards and beneficial insects in my garden, especially this year.

My beds need to be cleaned and my shrubs could use a trim, but I had a feeling that with all this activity there must be a nest or two hidden from view. So I decided to hold off on that work and I’ve made a real effort to keep Miss Emmie on a short leash for the nesting season. Good thing, because the hummingbird’s nest is so tiny — the size of a golf ball — that I never would have seen it before the loppers dropped the branch, nest and all, to the ground.

The nest is hidden in the leafy branches on the far lower right part of the shrub.

Mama Bird has been a real trooper. She’s endured several storms the past few days, one of which had 50 – 60 mph winds. She just hunkers down in her nest while the shrub sways in the wind. She chose a good place to build her nest though. The little garden is walled in on three side and the fourth side has only a four-foot opening.

Her nest is a marvelous structure. It’s cantilevered out from a fork in the branches and she’s constructed it from the materials at hand; I recognize birch bark, dried leaf pieces, skinny twigs, and lots and lots of cobwebs to hold it all together.

Mama Bird has only one egg in her nest, though hummingbirds often lay two. She has a regular schedule leaving her nest for about 20 minutes at a time, but most of the day she sits quietly on her egg. I’ve been watching her for a week, so it should be just  another week or so till baby emerges from its egg.

Here she sits for the most part unperturbed by my nosey camera. I haven’t wanted to scare her so I’ve taken these pics with available light, through a dirty pane of glass, which is why the last two are grainy and not very sharp. I’d love some better shots, but the important thing is to make sure that I don’t disturb her, not the quality of the pictures.

I can’t wait to see our little baby hummingbird! Of course, I’ll be taking as many pictures as Mama will allow and sharing them here with you.

Happy Spring!!!

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Today’s tips are meant for gardeners in Southern California, but will apply to those of you in cooler climates in a month or so.

We’ve been having a spell of wet, cool weather. Normally things are growing at a rapid pace by now, but because the night-time (and even the day) temps have been unseasonably cool our gardens are a bit behind where they would normally be. Still, that’s ok because it gives us a chance to catch up if we’ve fallen behind.

March Garden Maintenance

  • Fertilize lawns. I use GroPower Plus and it seems to work well. It has humic acid which is really good for conditioning the heavy clay soil in our area.
  • Fertilize roses. This year I’m trying Dr. Earth Organic 3 Rose and Flower Fertilizer. It’s got lots of great ingredients, like fish bone meal and kelp meal, that should help my roses be strong and healthy.
  • Check new growth for pests. Staying on top of pests in your garden is key to keeping plants healthy. Succulent new growth attracts sucking insects like aphids.
    • My roses have aphids. I washed them off with a stream of water and I’m going to pick up a container or two of ladybugs to help keep them under control.
    • Snails and slugs. We’re likely to notice a big increase in their numbers because of all the rain we’ve had. If you garden organically, you’ll have help in controlling snails and slugs. Lizards will eat them, as will opossums and birds. You can lay down barriers of diatomaceous earth, sand or crushed eggshells to keep them from your plants. Copper barriers on tree trunks will keep them from climbing up and eating fruit (they love citrus). You can capture them by watering an area they frequent and laying down a board or a piece of old carpet. You can also use dampened tubes of rolled newspapers. — anything that creates a dark, damp space. Wait a day or so and pick it up in the morning to capture these pests. Seal them in a plastic bag and throw them in the trash. You can also put some beer in a shallow pan or can. They’ll come for a drink and fall in and drown.
  • Pinch back fuchsias. Cut them back by two-thirds or so, leaving 2-5 leaf buds for new growth.
  • Divide perennials like agapanthus, callas, day lilies, rudbeckia and daisies.
  • Pruning – many books will tell you it’s time to prune ornamentals, but it’s best to wait a while until the spring nesting season is over. Otherwise you might inadvertently prune away a nest with eggs or baby birds. (Speaking of which, check out Thursday’s Garden Journal for an exciting surprise!)
  • Stay on top of weeding. The rains will make weeds pop up, so get them out of your beds while the damp soil makes it easy and before they disperse seeds for a whole new round of weeds.
  • Finish cleaning up storm debris in your flower beds. Put down some compost or other organic fertilizer (see last week’s tips on improving your soil) and mulch.

We’ve noticed in our search terms that a number of people are looking for information about digging fresh manure into soil. Be careful. Some manures must be aged before you use them. If you are preparing new beds and will be able to leave it to mature for at least couple of weeks, you can dig in fresh horse or cow manure. However, don’t dig these manures into soil near plants. It will heat up as it decomposes and it will burn your plants’ roots, possibly killing them. Chicken manure also needs to be aged – at lease three months.

Once these “hot” manures have been aged for three months, you can use them as you would other fertilizers. Other manures like rabbit or llama poo are ok to use straight, both for digging into new beds and as top dressing on established beds. Just be sure you find out how much to use. Too much of anything will cause big problems.

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Durango, Colorado

Irvine, California

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In Thursday’s Garden Journal we wrote about using amendments to improve soil structure. Today’s post is about adding amendments to improve fertility. As always we are recommending only organic amendments, which for our purposes are those that are derived from living organisms or that are naturally occurring.

Let’s start with one very important concept that should help you understand what we are trying to accomplish. We aren’t feeding the plants directly (like when you use synthetic fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro); we are building soil fertility and supporting naturally occurring organisms which convert organic components into nutrients which feed the plants.

This conversion happens relatively slowly providing your plants with a consistent, long-lasting source of nutrients which is much better for plant health and disease resistance. Synthetic fertilizers tend to stress plants, leach into groundwater, and kill beneficial organisms. This sets up a downward spiral of fewer nutrients, fewer microbes producing nutrients, and stressed plants. But once you commit to feeding the soil, you’ll build fertility instead of destroying it.

There is some crossover in amendments in that those that improve soil structure also improve fertility and vice versa, but we’ve tried to make things a little simpler by listing them by their primary function. For instance, kelp and seaweed are highly nutritious and in their natural form their bulk opens up soil and improves structure so they are on Thursday’s list. On the other hand, if we were to use the liquid form, its function would be primarily a fertilizer.

There are many, many organic amendments that can be added to your soil to improve fertility. Here is a list of our favorites.

  • Aged horse manure — be sure to get manure that has been well-aged, at least 3 months. Otherwise you may get weeds from seeds that have passed through undigested.
  • Aged chicken manure  — should be aged at least 3 months.
  • Alfalfa meal — use no more than a couple of times a year. More can have negative effects.
  • Commercial mixes such as Yum Yum Mix, which Mary Beth loves. (Still haven’t found it in OC.)
  • Composted kitchen and garden waste
  • Cottonseed meal – a slow release, slightly acid fertilizer. Good for azaleas and camellias.
  • Cow manure — can be used fresh, but wait 2 weeks to plant. Otherwise it should be aged 2 – 3 months.
  • Fish meal and fish bone meal
  • Green manure/cover crops such as alfalfa, clovers, crown vetch which can be grown and turned into the soil to decompose.
  • Leaf mold — this is appropriate for acid-loving plants such as azaleas and camelias.
  • Llama poo — can be used fresh without fear of burning. (Available in the Durango area. Have not heard of a source in Orange County.)
  • Rabbit manure — don’t need to age this. Safe to use straight on the ground.

There are a few rules to follow when applying these amendments and those that we discussed last Thursday. Depending on your existing soil structure and fertility and the amendments you choose, you could use an amendment or two from Thursday’s list and one or two from this list, but be careful not to overdo it.

If you dig in a nutrient rich compost, that might be all that you need. But if you are amending a new bed and add a lot of straw or sawdust, you’ll need to add a high-nitrogen amendment from this list such as a manure. When creating new beds work the soil when it is neither too wet, nor too dry. Dump the amendments on top of the soil and dig in to a depth of 12″ to 18″.

If you are amending/fertilizing an existing bed you should rake back the 2″ – 3″ layer of mulch, distribute the amendment(s) around the plants (but not too close to the trunk/stalks/stems). You may want to lightly scratch it in, but some plants have surface roots that can be damaged, so watering it in is a better choice. Rake back the layer of mulch and you’re done.

You can fertilize once or twice a year depending on the needs of your plants (some plants need more than others) and the existing fertility level of the soil. Always follow the directions on the package — more is NOT better. It can burn or kill your plants. If you are unsure of which of these to use, check with your county Cooperative Extension or local nursery for expert advice that is appropriate for your area.

Keep in mind that under the surface of your existing beds lies a complex web of garden helpers often referred to as the soil food web. It includes worms, bugs, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and protozoa. The soil is laced with these creatures and webbed with threads of fungi. You want to maintain this as much as possible, which means that after your initial new bed amendment you’ll dig into the soil only as much as you need to for planting. The less you disturb it the better. As a matter of fact, you’ll want to walk on your soil as little as possible too to avoid compacting it. So set some stones, create narrow walkways, or lay down boards to keep compaction at a minimum.

One last caution: pets and other creatures can be attracted to organic fertilizers. I have many times turned my back for just a second only to find my dog’s face buried in the mulch licking up the apparently very tasty stuff. So far she hasn’t suffered any ill effects, but it’s a good idea to keep your pets out of a freshly amended area until the attractive smell wears off. This is especially true if you’re using fresh manure which can cause a very upset tummy.

Improving your soil structure and fertility will go a very long way to making you a spectacularly successful gardener. Soil is where it all starts, so make sure yours is the best it can be.

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Durango, Colorado

Irvine, California

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