Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

This is a bit late, but if you live in or around Irvine you’re going to want to come by the South Coast Research & Extension Center (SCREC) this morning for the 4th Annual Residential Demonstration Landscape Open House & Vendor Fair (phew – doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it?).

Today from 9 am to 2 pm there will be garden industry vendors and water agencies showing the latest methods to reduce landscape water usage. Master Gardeners will be speaking about composting, small space gardening, pest control, and edible landscaping. Plus, best of all, there will be a plant sale (cash or check only).

You’ll also marvel at SCREC, a beautiful rural oasis in our busy suburban/urban environment. Most folks have no idea what a treasure we have here in Irvine. I often do my Master Gardener volunteer hours there pruning in citrus, persimmon, pluot and cherimoya groves. They also have 3 residential landscapes demonstrating different levels of water conservation through landscaping and planting.

I’ll be there as a “seed planter/floater.” So come by and say hi. I guarantee you’ll learn something to improve your home garden.

Event is today 9am to 2 pm at SCREC 7601 Irvine Boulevard, Irvine CA 92618. All lectures and demonstrations are free. Plant sales are by cash or check only – no charges. Click here for more info and a list of speakers, demonstrations and vendors.



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I’ve been in my house for most of the time that I’ve lived in California — 19 years. And in all that time I’ve missed having the big, productive vegetable garden that I had in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of reasons that I haven’t been growing vegetables here; too little time, not enough sun, etc., but the big one is the really crappy soil in our area.

Soil is so very important for growing veggies. Of course light, water and nutrition are key elements, but you can have all of those and still not be able to grow much in the way of vegetables if your soil is lousy.

My soil is compacted and low in organic matter, a result of building practices in developments such a mine. Builders come in and level the ground, bulldozing away the fertile topsoil. Add the fact that the soil in this area is full of heavy clay, which stops tiny little roots dead in their tracks, and you have very inhospitable veggie growing conditions.

The solution is to build raised beds that you can fill with beautiful, fertile soil and loads of compost. Which is what I did last week.

This project is pretty easy. In spite of having only the most basic woodworking skills, I had no problem getting good results. I started with plans, which I modified it to match my needs, that I found on Sunset Magazines website. Now some of you may laugh at how little mine is (4′ x 4′), but I have only one tiny spot that gets enough sun for growing anything but part-shade plants.

I decided on a smaller version than Sunset’s also because this is test run that I didn’t want to sink a lot of money into. If it works, I’ll get some of the eucalyptus trees that surround my yard trimmed or removed (Have you priced this kind of job lately? Yowzers!) and redo my landscape to accommodate larger beds. In the meantime, this project cost me about $90 and took about 4 hours. Here’s how I did it.


  • One 16-foot long 2 x 12 cut into 4 equal pieces (ends up being a tad less than 4′ each due to the saw cut)
  • One 8 foot long 2 x 4 cut into 4 16-inch pieces with some left over
  • A box of 2 1/2″ decking screws – you’ll only need 12 of them though
  • One roll of 1/4″ hardware cloth (I had to get a 3′ x 10′ roll — a 4′ x 10′ would have been better)
  • Five 1 cu. ft. bags of organic topsoil
  • Three 1.5 cu. ft. bags of organic planting compost (total topsoil + compost should be 9 – 10 cubic feet)
  • 2 cups organic Tomato & Vegetable food
  • One small Jack Russel Terrier, optional

I went to Lowe’s (wish there was a real lumber yard in the area) and bought top grade pine. You can use pine, redwood or cedar. The latter two will last a while longer but there are sustainability issues with the cedar. DO NOT BUY TREATED WOOD even if they say it’s the new, safe kind. I don’t believe any of it is food-safe and it’s certainly not organic.

When you are selecting the wood look down the length of the board to make sure it’s not warped. A tiny bit bowing or twisting is ok, but it should be very, very slight. Also eliminate any lumber that has more than very minor splits on the ends or lots of knots.

Lowe’s will cut any lumber you buy to your measurements for no additional charge — good thing because these boards would never have fit into my car, nor could I have managed the larger piece by myself.

Some of the changes I made to the original plans were: I used 12″ lumber for the sides because I couldn’t see any reason to use two 6″ boards as they did in the Sunset plans. And I switched out their recommended 4″ x 4″ corner posts for 2″ x 4″ because my bed is smaller and I thought it wouldn’t compromise the sturdiness factor — besides it saved a little $$. I didn’t add the piping for the row cover hoops because it never gets that cold here, however my resident bird population may cause me to regret not being able to float some bird netting.


  • Electric or battery-powered drill, plus a screw driver bit and a drill bit that is slightly smaller in diameter than the decking screws
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Metal snips or shears

I assembled the bed upside down right where I was going to place it. In retrospect this was probably a mistake that accounted for my not getting the box perfectly squared. So I recommend assembling it on a flat surface like your patio, deck or garage. I did the whole thing myself, but if you can recruit a helper (one with opposable thumbs) so much the better.

  1. Lay down two of the 2 x 4s and place one 2 x 12 on top of them so they are right angles, lining up the 2 x 4s at opposite edges.
  2. Drill pilot holes to prevent splitting the wood. Use 3 decking screws for each end. Screw through the 2 x 12 into the 2 x 4s.
  3. Repeat for one more side. You should have two sides with legs and 2 sides without. (As you can see I switched out my little battery-powered drill which didn’t have enough torque for my electric drill)
  4. Attach one plain board to one board with legs, making sure that the corner is square and the legs face inside the box. Be sure you place the screws so they go into the wood and not the gap between the side and the leg.
  5. Attach the second legged board to the opposite side.
  6. Attach the final side.
  7. Next you should try to get the site as close to level as you can. 
  8. Then turn the bed right side up and mark the soil where the legs will go.
  9. Dig holes four inches deep for the legs.
  10. Place the legs in the holes and fill them in tamping the dirt around the legs.
  11. If there are slight gaps under the sides, take some dirt and mound it along the sides to fill them.
  12. Cut the hardware cloth to fit and lay it on the bottom. This is important if you live in an area with moles and gophers.
  13. Dump the soil and compost in and mix thoroughly using the shovel and the cultivator. Soil should come to within 3 inches of the top.
  14. Add the organic fertilizer and mix that into the top 4 -6 inches.
  15. Using the bow rake, level the soil
  16. Gently spray water to moisten soil.

Now you’re ready to plant!

It is little, but I’m very excited to have a vegetable garden again — no matter how small. Now Emmie needs a nap and so do I!
Update: I should have mentioned that you can increase the size of this raised bed by at least two feet in length with no issues. I wouldn’t recommend increasing the width. For raised beds 3′ to 4′ is as wide as you’ll probably want to go. It makes it easier to reach into the bed for weeding, planting and harvesting.

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Here are a couple of things I read over the past week that you might want to take a look at.

The Cost of a Green Lawn. There’s a new law in New Jersey limiting the amount of fertilizer that homeowners and landscapers can use on lawns. The law was passed after environmental activists warned that state legislators that “Barnegat Bay, the state’s largest enclosed estuary, was dying, in part because of the pollution caused by runoff lawn fertilizer as it washed into the sewer system. Such overstimulation has caused an increase in algae and jellyfish in the bay, and a decrease in sea grass, fish and shellfish.”

People, do we need our green lawns so much that we poison the waterways and kill everything that lives in them? Really?

So what should you do about it, wherever you are? At the very least FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE PACKAGE. A lot of pollution comes from people not applying the recommended amount of fertilizer, pesticide, etc. Use only the recommended amount; more is not better. Better yet, reduce the amount of lawn to the bare minimum (which might be none!), use only organic products, and learn to live with a few weeds.

In an interesting speech William Rosenzweig, accepting the Oslo Business for Peace Award, talks about the lessons he learns from his garden and how he applies them to business. I especially like this quote: “In essence, the gardener’s work is a life of care. We cultivate abundance from scarce resources. We nurture, encourage, fertilize – and prune when necessary – while being respectful of the true and wild nature of all things.”

Love that!

Come back tomorrow for a new Tuesday’s Tips on building a raised garden bed.

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…and other news. Here are a few stories that we’ve come across in the past few days that we think you might find interesting.

School Wildlife Habitats

We loved this one in particular. We all know about the life-enhancing lessons that kids take away from school (food) gardens. Well here’s another powerful way to engage them, help them learn, and improve their lives in the short- and long-term.

The Leo Politi Elementary School, in one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles, removed 5,000 square feet of concrete and lawn and replaced it with native plants and trees. Amazingly (or not, as most gardeners know), insects, birds and other creatures appeared so quickly that the principal said it was almost as if they were waiting for this oasis to appear. Not only were the kids fascinated with the activity in their new habitat, but the school’s science scores increased six-fold.

Let’s hear it for school gardens, both edible and habitat gardens. They enrich the lives of students, teachers and their neighborhoods by creating green spaces for all kinds of creatures. Read the whole story here.,

Historic Garden Photography

Anne Raver (one of our favorite garden writers) writes in the NY Times about a collection of garden photos taken from the late 1800’s to 1935 by Frances Benjamin Johnson. A catalog of her hand-colored glass lantern slides is available here. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone planning a new garden.


Finally, here’s a thought-provoking editorial, Drop That Bog, that appeared in the NY Times on April 11. It’s a pretty convincing argument against using peat moss. We’ll quote it here in its entirety:

“To gardeners, there is something deeply gratifying about opening a bag of sphagnum peat moss. It’s the smell and texture, as well as knowing that peat makes a good ground cover and soil improver. But, like so many other things in our lives, peat moss looks different, and far less gratifying, when you take climate change into account.

What gardeners are buying in those compressed bags of peat is the remains of what was once a living bog. Extracting peat requires a kind of surface mining — laying back the top layer of a drained wetland and digging out the peat. The stuff you’re forking onto your garden is a broken-down version of stuff that has been used for centuries as fuel in Scotland, Britain and Ireland.

Here’s the trouble. Peat results when bog and wetland plants decompose partially in the absence of oxygen. Instead of emitting carbon dioxide as they decompose, they become the carbon in peat. In other words, peat acts as a carbon sink, trapping carbon that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere. But once peat has been dug up — even before it is burned or dug into the corner of the garden where you’re hoping to plant blueberries — it begins to release its stored carbon, adding to the climate-altering carbon dioxide we are already pouring into the atmosphere.

Compared with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when gardeners drive to the nursery, the problem may not seem that big. But every reduction helps, and there are easy alternatives. The best substitute for peat in the garden is compost, which you can make at home, unlike peat, which takes thousands of years to form. Peat should stay where it does the most good: in the place where it formed, beneath the complex ecology of a living wetland.”

That’s it for now.

P. S. Yes, we have been on an extended hiatus which was quite a bit longer than we intended, but we’re happy to be back. Tomorrow’s Tuesday’s Tips will be a primer on creating succulent terrariums. It’s super easy!

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Gardeners are easy to buy gifts for, they never have everything they need. Tools get lost, “borrowed”,  broken, or they simply wear out like our garden gloves which we go through at an alarming rate. Not that we would want anyone to buy us garden gloves. No, we’d like to get something that we wouldn’t buy for ourselves — something interesting, something that sparks our imaginations, or that’s a bit of an indulgence.

What might that be you ask? Well, Mary Beth and I have a few suggestions for gifts for the gardeners on your list who work so hard all year long to beautify your surroundings and to leave their small patches of this amazing planet in better shape than they found it.

Barbara’s List:

On the top of my list of suggestions is something that I already have and love:

Beautiful and practical, these Vermont slate garden markers designed by my very good friend Liz and handcrafted by her husband Jim are a gift that any gardener would be thrilled to have. And with markers for herbs, vegetables and perennials, you’re sure to find the perfect selection for your gardener. $5 each with discounts for orders larger than five.




A good trowel is hard to find. I’ve busted more than a few of them in heavy clay soil. But I think this one might do the trick. It’s a hand-forged 4″ trowel from Red Pig Garden Tools that looks like it will last a lifetime. $30




Last, but not least is the very versatile hori-hori knife from A.M. Leonard. Good for digging, weeding, transplanting or dividing perennials, your gardener will find a million uses for this tool. $21.99





Mary Beth’s List:

I think that seeds would make perfect stocking stuffers. Check out these cool seed bombs from Etsy shop recycledideas. $8.60 for a DIY kit that makes 200 – 250 seed bombs or $2 per bag of 5 -6.





For the bee-loving gardener, a beginner bee hive kit from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. $195





A good hand tool carrier is the mother of all gift ideas. I have one like this that I stole from Ray and everybody at work wanted one. It’s rugged and perfect for garden tools and other miscellaneous garden stuff.  $39.99





And look at this site. ‘Scuse me as I wipe the drool off my desk. I’d love pretty much any one of the hand tools from the Garden Tool Company. $11 – $95

Now, you’d better get going because, incredibly, there’s not that much time left before the stocking are filled and presents are wrapped and waiting to be opened!

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Last week’s post was about using a solution of alcohol and water (one part alcohol to 10 parts water) to restrict the growth of paperwhites. Theoretically this will keep the stems short and strong enough to support the flowers without them tipping over. My paperwhites have grown super fast this week.

And some of them have started tipping over. I think this is because I didn’t change the water soon enough. The instructions were to start the bulbs in regular water and when the shoots reached a couple of inches to pour out the plain water and replace it with the alcohol/water solution. By the time I read about this and replaced the water most of the bulb shoots were 3 – 4 inches high, too far along apparently to have the desired effect. It will be interesting to see if the bulbs with the shorter shoots do any better.

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I’ve been so busy getting ready for company next week that my days are a blur of sanding, painting, installing, etc. Of course, gardening is part of the preparations and I’m doing a bit of planting both outdoors and indoors.

I love the way paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) look, but not the fragrance so I haven’t forced any of these bulbs in many, many years. But I was seduced by some really healthy looking bulbs when I was at Roger’s Gardens a few days ago. Roger’s is one of the premier nurseries in our area—or any area for that matter — and a very dangerous place to go with a few dollars in my pocket. Needless to say I spent a little more than I planned on spending, i.e. buying some of those bulbs.

I gathered some glass containers and put the bulbs in with some glass pebbles and water. A few days later they looked like this:

But then I got to thinking that maybe I should do a little research because, who knows, someone may have found a better way to do it in the intervening years. Lo and behold, someone has found a better way to force the bulbs. Specifically to deal with paperwhite’s propensity to grow so tall that they topple over. That means that I would have had to figure out a way to support the stems pretty soon, but with this newish technique I won’t have to bother with all that. Here’s how.

It’s very simple really. Once the green shoots are a couple of inches long, pour out the water and replace it with a solution that is 1 part rubbing alcohol to 10 or 11 parts of water. You can also use any hard liquor (not beer or wine), but you’ll have to do some calculations based on the percentage of alcohol to get the proper mixture. For that info click on this link to Easy to Grow Bulbs and an article by William B. Miller, Professor of Horticulture and Director of the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell University cleverly entitled “Pickling Paperwhites.”

The result will be paperwhites that are about one third shorter that normal and less likely to tip over. According to Professor White they don’t know exactly why this is, but feel that it’s because the alcohol induces stress that prevents the plant from absorbing water as effectively as it normally would which limits the growth but not the flower production or longevity.

I replaced the water a couple of days ago and my plants still look great. So we’ll see. They’ll be beautiful I’m sure, I just hope that I don’t mind the smell as much as I used to.

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