Christmas Wrap, Trees & Plant Gifts

Q. Why is the holiday or gift wrapping not recyclable, after all, it is paper? I was hoping to shred it and then use it as mulch this summer.   

A. While some might disagree, I think it has merit as mulch when shredded and combined with other material. From a recycling point of view, today’s wrapping paper is often dyed, laminated and/or contains non-paper additives such as glitter, plastics etc. which cannot be recycled and made into other products. However, much of it can be composted. You need to avoid high gloss paper, paper with plastic or with metallic coatings, and “Astro Bright.” Tissue paper is ideal to be composted. I know many people believe it’s not safe to compost colored paper, but experts agree the inks used today are quite safe. Most modern inks, in fact, are soy ink, hence much of the holiday debris can be saved, shredded and used as mulch next year.

Q. What can I plant in a container that can be brought indoors for a couple of weeks during the holidays and then moved back outside?    

A. I’d consider a Sasanqua Camellia or an Alberta Spruce. Sasanqua Camellias are blooming now with the variety Yuletide being particularly popular. Yuletide has a single row of petals that is a festive, red color with yellow stamens in the center. It’s also available in pink. They make an excellent container plant. Sasanqua Camellias grow six to eight feet tall in the ground, but the size is easily controlled with pruning for containers. The blooming period starts in late fall and is usually finished by January. Unlike the spring blooming varieties, Sasanqua’s grow in the sun so long as the roots are insulated with mulch from the heat of the day sun. Alberta Spruce make an excellent small living Christmas Tree. They’re a dark green color with short needles and a compact growth habit. Whether they’re indoors or out you can decorate them with holiday lights, ornaments or any other type of decorations. For this year, I’d leave them in their original container and transplant them in the spring. The cans can be covered with any number of different materials such as foil, burlap, landscape fabric cover with artificial holly and berries. Before bringing them indoors, water thoroughly several days before by hand and place a clear plastic tray under them to protect the carpet or flooring. I’d keep them indoors for no longer than two weeks and water them immediately when they’re brought back outdoors. With room temperatures around seventy degrees. A cup of water or two depending on the container size, every five days should be sufficient. Also, keep them away from any heat generating source, such as heating vents or a fireplace. Sasanqua Camellias or Alberta Spruce are beautiful and festive around entryways when combined with red and white cyclamen, Zygocactus and, of course, poinsettias.

Q. I was given a mixed arrangement of plants consisting of Kalanchoe, Dragon Tree, and Silvery Queen Pothus. After separating the plants and transplanting them into separate containers, the leaves on the Dragon Tree are falling off. Is that normal?

A. The Dragon Tree or Dracaena is a columnar plant. They’re usually found with multiple plants growing in the same container at staggered heights. It is normal for the lowest or oldest leaves to yellow and fall off first. Unlike other plants, the new leaves will not develop where they dropped off. The new growth forms at the top of the canes; hence, there is no lateral branching. Excessive leaf drop can be from excessive moisture, so you don’t want to over water them. They can go several weeks in between watering. I’d give them a good soaking by watering them in the sink letting the water drain before returning them to their permanent location.

Tulips, Orchids, and Cherry Trees

Q. I’ve planted a portion of my Tulip bulbs earlier. The rest are still in the refrigerator and they’ll be planted later this month. Will the flowering season be extended by the staggered planting?

A. November is an excellent month to plant spring flowering bulbs especially those going in containers. But, there is no advantage in staggering the plantings of tulips. Tulips are grouped into early, mid-season and late flowering varieties; such as Darwin (midseason), Parrot (late), Double (midseason), Lily (late), Fosteriana (early) and others. It is the early season varieties that emerge from the ground first, but it varies from year to year. With a warm October and November, it’s not unusual for bulbs to emerge early from the ground; however, that does not seem to be the case this year. Regardless, I would not be concerned about it. When winter arrives, the early sprouting tulips and bulbs, in general, will not be damaged by freezing temperatures. Thus, you extend the flowering period of tulips, by planting some of all the different flowering types but group them together. It is a point frequently overlooked when purchasing tulips. Besides the flowering time, another point overlooked is the stem length as it varies by type. Instead of a showy, uniform mass of color next spring, the tulips bloom randomly at different heights. The expectation from the effort is spoiled and it generates dissatisfaction. Packaged bulbs are better at avoiding this then selecting a mix selection of varieties from open boxes. This is also a contributor to the decline in residential, tulip bulbs being planted nationwide. There is a lot effort with little return. Unlike Daffodils and other bulbs, tulips take several years to rejuvenate themselves whether they are left in the ground or dug up. Hence, you should plant new bulbs each year for the best color presentation year after year.

Q. I have two Phalaenopsis Orchids that have finished flowering. The leaves are fine, but the stems are starting to turn yellow. Do I cut these stems off? How then do I continue to care for them?

A. It’s natural for the old flower stems on Phalaenopsis Orchids to turn yellow and die back. I would not cut the old stems off at the soil. Instead, cut them back leaving about four inches of the old stem. You should get a new flower spike developing from this point in about eight to twelve weeks. Next, I would start feeding them Orchid Food as they are now going into a growth cycle. Orchids are dormant when they are in bud and bloom. Gro More is one of several brands of Orchid Food available. Overwatering is a big problem now so watch the watering schedule. The growing medium is breaking down into smaller particles and holding more moisture. The days between watering need to be extended to prevent them from staying too wet. Replanting is the recommended method of avoiding this problem.Q. My Van Cherry tree is acting strangely. It was bought last spring but we haven’t gotten around to planting it. The leaves are drying up and falling off. Yet, there are new leaves forming and it is flowering again. Is this common with cherry trees?

A. Yes, this occurs periodically in the landscape but it is a more frequent occurrence with container fruit and flowering trees. Water Stress from irregular watering is the primary cause of the leaves drying up and falling off. They should be watered every other day or daily to avoid having problems depending on the temperatures. The rate that a plant loses water is affected by the temperature and the wind along with the container which heats up in the afternoon sun. All of these factors contribute to a plant suffering from water stress throughout the growing season. It starts in the leaves along the outer edges and top of the plant where they turn brown and get very crinkly. If the tree dehydrates completely, it dies. Cherry trees start to go dormant naturally in the early fall. Water stress increases the leaf drop forcing an earlier than normal dormancy. With mild temperatures, shorter days and moisture, the tree awakens from dormancy, flowers and begins a new growth cycle. Although, all of this is short lived. With cooler days and nights, the tree will go back into dormancy and that stops the growth. The tree drops any of the new leaves and the rest of the older leaves. There is no permanent damage done to the tree. Next spring, it will awaken again. Fruit trees should not be carried over into a second growing season in the same container, so, I’d plant it in the ground or a larger container by the end of February. There just isn’t enough room for all their roots.

Tulips, Iris and Hydrangeas

Q. My tulips and daffodils were removed from the ground and stored after the foliage turned brown. When should I replant them and should they be chilled first?

A. Spring or summer flowering bulbs stored from the previous year are replanted during their typical planting season. So you’d replant daffodils, narcissus, tulips, etc., in the fall, while dahlias, gladiolus and others would go back into the ground in the late winter or early spring. Yes, tulips should be chilled for six weeks before planting, but not the daffodils as the ground doesn’t get cold enough. When chilling tulips in a refrigerator, be sure you remove all apples, bananas, tomatoes and other fruits. The Ethylene gas from the maturing fruit can damage the immature flower(s). That being said, the real question is whether it’s worth the effort. Tulip flowers vary so don’t expect last year’s tulips to be as showy this year, as they won’t. They require another growing season before they reach their peak again. You improve the color show by mixing in new bulbs with the older ones. Personally, I’d plant new bulbs each year. This is not the case with daffodils and narcissus, as they’re planted anytime before the rainy season begins. Also, it is common to leave them in the ground year after year. The clumps are dug up and divided when the groupings become so crowded that the flower size is reduced. Also, the overcrowding is the major reason why daffodils and narcissus stop blooming altogether. Typically, they’re divided every three to four years. As with new planting, you should add Bulb Food or Bone Meal. Depending on the size of the bulb, add a teaspoon or tablespoon under each bulb so that nutrients are immediately available to the new roots.

Q. How do I go about planting and caring for Bearded Iris? Is now a good time to plant?

A. Fall is an excellent time to plant Bearded Iris. They like a sunny, well-drained soil so incorporate generous amounts of soil amendments or homemade compost and a starter fertilizer. Next, you will need to level the area and plant the new Irises so three-quarter of the rhizome is above the soil surface. If they’re planted too deep they will rot. Also, be sure the fan of leaves is facing the sun. Bearded Irises are water-wise so be careful not to over-water them during the summer and fall. Remove the spent flowers on a dry day so the soft tissue will callous over quickly. With established plants, do not trim the foliage off except to remove the areas with leaf spots. Only when the leaves turn brown in the fall should they be cut back or pulled off and the clumps can be divided as early as August.  You feed them twice a year—spring and fall—with an organic fertilizer. And finally, keep litter and grass away from the Iris plants because clean cultivation is the best precaution against future troubles.

Q. I read that to keep Hydrangeas a pink color you should feed them an acid fertilizer and then to turn them blue, use something alkaline. Each spring, I fertilize my pink Hydrangea with an acid fertilizer but the blooms turn out to be a dirty white color. What am I doing wrong?

A. The flower color on Hydrangeas is determined by the acidity or alkalinity of the soil and it’s measured by the soil pH. A pH scale runs from one to fourteen with seven being neutral. Any reading below seven is acid while any reading above eight is alkaline. A simple pH kit is available at your favorite garden center to measure your soil. Unfortunately, your blue/pink formula is backward. Hydrangeas turn pink in alkaline soils while we get blue tones in acid conditions. You keep Hydrangeas pink or red by fertilizing with Superphosphate or 0-10-10. For blue and/or lavender Hydrangeas feed them Aluminum Sulphate, EB Stone True Blue or similar acidifer. Begin in the fall and continue monthly, February through May. These additives are a supplement to your usual plant fertilizers, not a replacement.

Pumpkins, Gardenias, and Raccoons

Q. How do I go about preserving my pumpkins until Halloween? They have turned a nice orange color.  Should they be left on the plant or do I remove them just before carving?                                   

A. Actually, you could do both. Besides, the orange color, a pumpkin is mature when the rind loses its shine and it’s hard enough that you can’t scratch it with your fingernail. The curly tendrils on the part of the vine near the pumpkin turn brown and die back when it is completely ripe. Personally, I’d remove them and leave them in a sunny location. This allows them to develop a tough, rot-resistant skin and improves their shelf life dramatically. A mature pumpkin can last for months before spoiling, so, you may wish to save a few for Thanksgiving. When you harvest pumpkins, remove them from the vines with a sharp knife or use a pair of pruning shears. You should also leave about three to four inches of the stem attached to the pumpkin. This also extends its shelf life. In addition, harvested pumpkins don’t need to be washed. The dirt can simply be brushed off after a few days of drying.

Q. Last year, I bought a blooming Gardenia at the grocery store. I have it growing indoors where it gets morning sun and lots of light. This year, I‘ve only had two blooms. All the other buds have turned black and dropped off. What can I do to keep the blooms from falling off?                                                    

A. Gardenias are not the easiest plants to get to bloom. It’s not unusual for gardeners to have issues with the buds turning black and falling off both indoors and in the landscape. The primary cause for bud drop is nighttime temperatures below sixty degrees. With outdoor plants, September through early November is the best blooming period. You have shorter days and warmer nights along with some humidly. Indoors you have better control on the temperature but it can get awfully dry. So, you might want to place it on a saucer with pebbles and add a little water to raise the humidly. The water line should be below the bottom of the pot. Gardenias do not like to be disturbed so this can be the other reason for bud drop. So with container plants, keep them in one location, and move them as little as possible.

 Note: Gardenias found with the blooming plants at supermarkets and other retailers are usually grown under control conditions in a greenhouse while the landscape plants are grown under different conditions outdoors.     

Q. Last fall, we had a problem with raccoons. They tore up the lawn to feast on the grubs. I’d like to avoid the problem this year and discourage the raccoons early on. Is there an easy way to tell if the lawn grubs have returned?

A. There is a simple test for the presence of grubs you can do using detergent and water. Grub damage normally starts next to a hot cement or concrete edge and quickly expands towards the center of the lawn. The grass turns brown and you’ll also notice the lawn thinning out or disappearing, leaving bare spots. To conduct the grub test, you should set up several test sites both in the areas attacked last year and some neutral sites. With stakes and string, mark off several two by two-foot squares in each of the areas. Next, mix two tablespoons of a liquid soap or detergent in a bucket of water and pour the solution evenly over the areas. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, you keep a close eye on the soil surface. The detergent agitates the grubs forcing them to the surface. If grubs are present, you control them by applying Beneficial Nematodes. Beneficial Nematodes are an environmentally friendly method of killing all the soil insects except earthworms. Another option is Bonide Grub Beater. This is a granular product that’s applied with a spreader as early as June to protect the area for the balance of the year. I might apply a grub control solution even if the tests prove to be negative or inconclusive. You don’t want to wait until the raccoon’s return as the controls will take some weeks to work, all the while the damage continues. The raccoons will be a frequent visitor until they are convinced that the grubs are gone.

Peppers, Roses & Native Plants

Q. Can you tell me what has happened to my hot peppers? For the second year, they grow to about a foot tall no taller and the flowers that form drop off. I planted them in April and they’re in a location that gets lots of sun. What do I need to do to solve my dilemma?

A. Hot or Chili peppers fail to flourish and flowers because of temperature, poor pollination or air circulation, and excess nitrogen. Of these, temperature is the most likely cause. Chili Peppers are extremely sensitive to temperature. It’s the night time temperature that the most critical as they like warm days and nights. The plants stagnate when the temperatures dips below fifty-five degrees and the cool conditions prevent buds from forming. Once the plants stop growing, they are very slow to recover when the temperatures warm up. It’s more likely to be a problem with those plants planted in March/April than those planted in May. You avoid this problem by planting around Mother’s Day. By then, the rainy season should be over and the temperature should be on the rise. If we’re having a cool and wet early spring then delay the planting. Poor air circulation, and pollination is not usually a problem with the in ground plantings but with those in containers especially those growing next to a wall. You’ll find pepper blossoms are even more sensitive to temperature during pollination. You may need to entice pollinators to the area by adding some brightly colored flowers nearby, such as Marigolds. Excess nitrogen causes the plant to puts all of its energy into foliage growth. Low fertility and low moisture levels can also result in poor flowering, bud drop and stunted growth along with irregular watering. But I don’t believe that poor air circulation or excess nitrogen is you problem. Next year my suggestion is to stagger you’re planting to see the difference. I’d plant one plant in April, May and even June and evaluate the performance. The late season planting will be the better performers.

Q. My climbing roses have finished blooming for the year. They need to be pruned as they’re way too dense. Can I prune them way back now?

A. This is one of those yes, no, or depends on, answers. You’d do your heaviest pruning on all types of roses during the winter months. They’re also pruned after every flush of flowers to shape the plants and control their size. It’s not unusual for many varieties of roses to bloom year round although the foliage isn’t pristine. The exception is Lady Banksia and Cecil Brunner because their spring bloomers and should be sheared back after the blooming period. When their cut back during the winter, the spring flowers are not as dramatic. With older Hybrid Tea varieties such as Peace, Chrysler Imperial, or Queen Elizabeth, you need to be careful pruning them severely as they bloom on the second year wood. If you prune too heavy, you’ll get no flowers next year. If this is a variety introduced this century then these varieties for the most part bloom on both the new and old wood. So, it doesn’t matter what’s removed or left. The biggest concern with pruning all types of roses way back or severely during the summer months is sunburn. The green, exposed canes will be damaged from the mid to late afternoon sun. These canes turn black on those plants facing south, west or in the southwest direction. These damaged canes typically die. You protect the canes by leaving a fair amount of leaves. If you live inland where it gets hot, I’d wait till winter to prune while your odds for success is greater along the coast. Again, this applies to cutting them back severely. You can thin out some of the growth now as long as you don’t exposed to many of the green canes. I could be more specific if the variety was known. If it is, then I’d consult a nursery professional at your favorite garden center for his or her opinion. They’re the best resource for what would be best in your area.Q. I removed my lawn and replaced it with California Natives and other water-wise plants. They have been in for two years and are doing very well. I’m very pleased. Do you know if they have any special fertilizer requirements?

A. Native plants have no special fertilizer requirements as they’re not heavy feeders. True California Natives are best fed in November just before the rains while the rest are fed in early March before the flush of new growth. I’d take the plant list to your favorite garden center and have the nursery professional advice you as to which time period is best for each plant. I’d use a general organic fertilizer like EB Stone or Dr Earth Organic All Purpose Fertilizer. One application is all that’s necessary per year.


Lemons, Weeds & Palm Trees

Q. I’m curious as to why the leaves of large palm trees are tied up when they are being transported? Also, how long are they kept tied?

A. There are two reasons for this typical method of transporting palms. The horticultural reason is to protect the critical terminal bud from windburn and dehydration as palms have no lateral branches. The terminal bud is where the new leaves/fronds or growth originates. If this area is damage the mortality rate is huge. The second reason is to narrow the canopy so they can be transported on roads, highways and freeways without any special precautions. They are left tied up for several weeks to months depending on the time of the year, location and variety.

Q. I have a six-foot high Meyer lemon tree that is a wonderful producer. However, this past year some bug or animal has skinned the lemons even though they have remained attached to the tree. It is a very strange site to see a lemon with some or no white pith, exposed to the air. Have you ever heard of such of a thing happening before?A. Yes, I have. This is becoming more and more of an issue for gardeners as it’s happening to citrus, tomatoes and other edibles. It’s highly unlikely that a bug would be the cause of the problem. Their mouth parts are not large enough to due this type of damage. Also, it would take an army of insects to skin a lemon so you would see signs of their activity. It’s more likely a rodent or larger animal that feeds at night is the culprit. Raccoons, possums or roof rats are the primary suspects and roof rats would be my guess. A roof rat is dark brown to black and measures thirteen to eighteen inches in length including the tail. They weigh five to nine ounces, are slender, and their ears are large and nearly hairless. Although they will nest in structures, we do find outdoor nests in dense, thick, shrubby ground covers such as Cotoneasters, Junipers, Ceanothus, and Ivy. Roof rats are omnivorous. They feed on fresh fruit, plant material, nuts, seeds, vegetables and even tree bark. They can be a problem with birdseed, both in feeders and stored in bags along with dog and cat food. They love to eat citrus and tomatoes because it serves as both a food and water source, hence they visit vegetable gardens often during the summer. I’d look along the ground for droppings which are black, long and cylindrical. Controlling the problem outdoors is easier said than done. Your best options are trapping and habitat modification. Climbing vines or hedges on fences or buildings should be thinned as should overhanging tree limbs. Again this is easier said than done because they are so mobile and move effortlessly from yard to yard. I wouldn’t use poison baits because of the threat to domestic animals. Traps should be placed off the ground like on the fence runners as they are more likely to catch them there. Overall, your success rate will be low. Fortunately, they should leave your lemon alone once the rainy season starts.

Q. When is the best time to use a pre-emergent weed control?

A. Pre-emergent herbicides are those chemical weed killers that control seeds before they germinate in a landscape including turf. They can be applied year round but once the seeds develop roots they are ineffective. Hence, they can be applied over the top of existing plants without damaging them. Pre-emergent herbicides do not distinguish between good or unwanted seeds. When installing trees, shrubs, ground covers, seasonal color and perennials, pre-emergent herbicides are applied just before adding any mulch and watering. Moisture is the critical factor in activating the chemical barrier that kills the seeds. As long as you don’t break the barrier by cultivating, the pre-emergent herbicide should last a growing season. I’d double check the label for the specific time period of each product. With an established landscape, reapply pre-emergent herbicides annually in mid November to control the unwanted weed seeds that have blown in all summer long. In non-irrigated areas, it’s applied just before the first major rain of the season. Pre-emergent herbicides are only applied to an established turf, January through March. Bonide Crabgrass Preventer and Preen are two granular pre-emergent herbicides while Monterey Weed Impede is a liquid. Also, they cannot be used as a pre-plant before laying sod or sowing seed.  With all herbicides, get second opinion from a nursery professional at your favorite garden center, so, you don’t make a critical mistake.


Tomatoes, Roses & Clematis

Q. I have two tomato plants growing in large pots. They’re doing real well, in fact you can almost watch them grow. But, I’m a bit concerned because they are so very bushy. Should I strip some of the growth off or just let them continue on?

 A. It is important for tomatoes to be bushy with lots of leaves. The foliage protects the ripening tomatoes from sunburn so the leaves act as a type of sunblock. Sunburn is a tan/beige spot that forms on the south and southwest side of the fruits. But, you can have too much of a good thing, so I’d be thinning the growth throughout the season. Plants will become very crowded and dense as they mature, especially when you’re using a tomato cage. Thinning lets in more light and increases air circulation throughout the plant, keeping the inside foliage from turning brown. Also, the dense foliage is a perfect hiding plant for the Tomato Hornworm. Hornworms on tomatoes are a problem June through September. The Hornworm is the larva stage of a moth. The adult moth lays its eggs near the center of the plant. Its only purpose is to eat—which it does twenty/four seven until it gets very large and drops to the soil where it goes through another stage of the metamorphosis and emerges as an adult moth. Signs of Hornworms are holes in the leaves and black droppings on the ground. You control them with BT or Captain Jack Dead Bug Brew. Both of these insecticides are safe to use on edibles.

Q. I have removed the spent flowers on my roses, but, I’m concerned because there are absolutely no leaves on the branches. Looking at them, one would think it’s the middle of winter. What has happened and will the foliage return?

A. The rainy periods in March and April is the cause of your problem. Roses are susceptible to rust, Black Spot and mildew. Black Spot causes the leaves to have yellow spots with black blotches, and as the disease progresses, the foliage drops off. Rust gives you orange spots on the back of the leaves, and mildew forms a white film on the foliage, stems and buds. These are air-borne diseases that attack when moisture remains on the foliage after the sun has gone down. There are plenty of products available to control these diseases but they don’t eradicate the problem. The best solution is Bayer Advanced All in One Rose Care. It’s a systemic control applied to the roots before the diseases show up, so, it’s ideal to use in early March when the new growth is about an inch long. It gives six weeks of protection against rust, Black Spot and mildew, and this should keep the foliage pristine through the end of the rain season. A fourth disease called Downey Mildew can also be troublesome when cool, damp conditions are present for an extended period. Downy Mildew is usually limited to the coastal areas where there is a strong marine influence, but there can be years where it’s widespread. This disease is often confused with Black Spot because of the similar yellow spots with black leaf blotches. The most distinguishing characteristic of Downey Mildew is the plant’s extreme and rapid (overnight) defoliation. But from your question, Black Spot is more than likely your problem and not Downey Mildew. Your biggest concern right now should be températures over ninety degrees for those plants in the afternoon sun. Without any leaves, sunburn is a big concern for the stems. You protect these plants by draping shade cloth over them until the new growth returns. The new growth should return in four to six weeks.

Q. Why is my Clematis growing poorly? The lower leaves have turned brown and a few of the ends are shriveling up. Generally speaking, most of the leaves on one plant look very poor. The Clematis next to it is thriving and getting ready to bloom. I’d like its neighbor to do the same. What should I be doing?

A. In solving this mystery, I’d investigate the planting depth. I’d remove some of the soil to locate the top of the first root. Clematis, and plants in general, are buried too deep if the top of the first root is more than a half inch below the soil surface. It is very common to plant in a bowl shape hole.  Unfortunately, the sides collapse quickly inward, burying the plant. Instead, the root ball should be at or above the soil surface after planting. You correct this by digging the plant up and raising the top of the root ball to the soil surface using a shovel and filling in the void under the plant with soil to prevent it from re-sinking. Mulch is added later to insulate the roots and conserve moisture. I believe the number one non-pest reason for erratic plant behavior, stagnate growth, and then plants dying, is clay soil and plants being planted too

Butterflies, Christmas Trees & Wisteria

Q. I would like to attract more butterflies to our garden. What plants can I plant to encourage them into taking up residence in our neck of the woods?

A. Attracting butterflies to your garden can be a rewarding venture. A Butterfly Garden is a mixture of perennials and annuals plants along with some ornamentals. They can be rewarding as it can also attract hummingbirds and bees. But for all their benefits, it may not be ideal for everyone. The plants that attract butterflies are divided into two types, the host and nectar food plants. Host plants are used by the adult butterfly to lays its eggs on while the nectar plants attract the mature adult butterflies. The eggs hatch into caterpillars (ugh) that feeds on the host plant so be prepared for lots of leaves that have been chewed on. Baby caterpillars eat quite a lot and will make your plants look as if they are being destroyed, but don’t worry about that, this is necessary for their survival. The young caterpillars feed on the host plants until they form their cocoons and emerge later as an adult. If you don’t want to look at the eaten plants, simply plant them in the center or the back of your butterfly garden or in areas that are not highly visible. But, don’t plant your host plants too far away from the nectar plants. It’s best to plant them right next to each other or in close proximity, as the tiny caterpillars cannot travel far to find their own food. Most species of caterpillars are particular about the type of plants they eat. If the eggs are not laid on the correct plant(s), the new caterpillars will not survive. Hence it’s not advisable to plant a Butterfly Garden over a large area. If you choose not to provide any host plants, you will have fewer butterflies. Ceanothus, Penstemon and Aster are a few of the host plants while nectar plants include Toyon, Lantana, Marigolds Verbena, and Milkweed. For a more complete list, check your favorite garden centers for a handout. And finally, here is an online resource.

Q. We bought a five-gallon pine tree last Christmas. We now want to transplant it into a larger container or should we wait? Also, how might we keep it from getting too big?

A. There is no need to waiting as they can be transplanted now. You should select a large container, about the size of a half a wine barrel or twenty-four by eighteen inch lightweight plastic pot. Most of the pine trees used as living Christmas trees are not small trees by nature. When mature, these rapidly growing evergreen trees can reach a height of fifty to eighty feet with a wide spread. The young growth of the plant is groomed or sheared to have that “Christmas Tree” shape. However, they will lose this shape quickly as they mature. Their natural shape is more oval or round. You can control the size by trimming the new growth or “candle growth.” The candle growth is the long, very upright shoot that is visible in the spring. They will extend above the mature needles at the end of the branches. With a pair of hand shears, I’d cut the new growth off where the new growth meets the old. Eventually, your tree will need to be planted in the ground but it may be too big for most of today’s smaller yards.

Q. I have a Wisteria that’s fifteen years old. It grows by leaps and bounds every year but blooms only in the spring. My neighbor’s Wisteria blooms and re blooms for months every year. What do I need to do to get mine to bloom and bloom again?

A. The simple answer is that there is not a thing you can do to extend the blooming season. With Wisterias, Mother Nature is in control of the entire repeat blooming cycles. It’s more likely to happen when temperatures go from mild to hot then back to mild. This type of change is the trigger for a flowering cycle. This is more likely to occur where there is a strong marine influence and unlikely in the warmer, inland areas. On a personal note, my blue Wisteria is in bloom for Easter while the pink one blooms around Mother’s Day. Also, the blue Wisteria always has a repeat blooming cycle, while the pink one re-blooms periodically. However, this year, it has finished blooming.

Tomatoes, Peppers & Soil

Q. Could you explain the different between Determinate and Indeterminate tomatoes? Each year, I get so confused when I go to buy my tomato plants. In addition when is the ideal time to plant? 

A. Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit and are called determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties do better in smaller spaces making them ideal for containers such as an Earth Box, while the Indeterminate tomatoes are rigorous growers; hence they require staking and/or a tomato cage as they get quite large. Determinate plants are short, bushy and grow to only a height of about four feet. They are often called bush tomatoes. The tomatoes form on the terminals ends of the plants: hence, they are self topping and seldom require support. They stop growing when the fruit sets on the terminal or top bud ripen their entire crop, usually over a two week period, and then die. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow indefinitely until killed by a frost. I like to refer to them as the Energizer Bunny of tomatoes. The plant is always producing stems and leaves as the lead or terminal buds does not set fruit. The fruit set on the laterals instead. In addition, the fruit ripens progressively as the vine grows, so there are tomatoes in all stages of development at any one time. Cherry tomatoes varieties along with Early Girl, Brandywine and Big Boy are examples of Indeterminate tomatoes. Gardeners often make the mistake of planting tomatoes too early. The key in growing tomatoes and setting fruit is not the daytime temperatures. Tomatoes are a warm season crop that struggles and/or fails to set fruit with nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees. Once the plants are slowed down, they never recover and fail to meet expectations. Personally, I’d plant tomatoes between April 15 and May 15 after the rainy season has concluded.

Q. This year, I’d like to plant my peppers in containers. How many can I plant and can I mix both hot and sweet peppers together in the same pot?

A. Peppers grow very nicely in containers and yes, you can mix the hot and sweet varieties in the same pot. With chili or hot pepper varieties, you are better off waiting until the end of the month to plant or whenever the rainy season has concluded. The number of plants is determined by the size of the pot. I’d allow each plant about eight to twelve inches of space. If your pot is large enough, you could mix in Alyssum and Marigolds as companion plants to deter insect problems. Because of the nutrient depletion with every watering, I’d fertilize them with a vegetable food every other month or with Osmocote at the time of planting and again in July. Osmocote is a time release fertilizer that releases a little bit of nutrients with every watering. Peppers have shallow roots so you need to be careful when you cultivate and mulching is recommended to conserve moisture.  Water conservation is enhanced by adding the plant polymer, Soil Moist, to the soil mix at planting. Soil Moist is a crystal that hydrates into a gel with water. The roots of plants use the gel as a back up réservoir extending the days between watering.  All the pepper varieties are compatible with each other so there isn’t a problem with whatever varieties you choose.

Q. Is there a way to sterilize soil other than baking it in an oven? When I recycle the old soil from containers, I first sift the soil and then store it in trash cans.  I find that the weed seeds are not killed when stored for a year or so.

A. Storing soil in a dark location isn’t an effective method of killing weed seeds. They can remain dormant for a long period and germinate when exposed to light and moisture. To effectively kill the weed seeds, soil insects and soil pathogens, the soil needs to be heated. For the home gardener, soil solarization is a simple non chemical technique that captures heat from the sun to sterilize soil. Commercial equipment is not cost effective while a household oven isn’t very practical. Soil sterilization is a sensible solution for large or small quantities of soil. You can tarp areas off an area or place small amounts of soil in plastic bags. It should be pre-moistened and then sealed or covered. The weeds seeds are killed as the temperature rises converting the moisture into steam. Depending on the quantity, it needs to bake in the sun for six to ten weeks. June through September is the primary period to sterilize soil using the sun. Once it’s been sterilized and aired out, you can store it in trash cans indefinitely. A back up plan is to control the weed seeds with pre-emergent herbicides. There are organic liquid as well as granular products available. 

Seed Germinating Time

Q. I saved the seeds from last year’s tomatoes and pepper plants. When would it be a good time to start the seeds, so I can transplant them into the garden in May?

A. When germinating flower or vegetable seeds, I’d allow six to eight weeks between sowing the seed and planting in the open ground. Hence, I’d be sowing the seed in early March. However, if these were hybrid varieties, it’s not worth the effort and you’ll be disappointed. You only want to save and replant open-pollinated varieties. The seeds saved from hybrid flowers and vegetables varieties are unpredictable. The chances they are duplicates from last year’s varieties is not very good. It’s all about genetics, so I’d start with new plants. If not, the first thing to do is check to see if the seed is viable. Viable seed means it is capable of germinating. This is easily accomplished by pouring the seed into a glass of water or a larger receptacle. You discard the seed that floats on the surface and plant those that sink. The viable seed is dried out by spreading it over a paper towel and covering it with a second sheet. Next, sow the seed into a flat of pre-moistened potting soil, moist like a wrung-out sponge. With a pen or pencil, you make furrows in the soil, sowing the seeds in the rows and then cover the seeds. The flat is then covered with plastic to trap the moisture and heat. Once the seedlings start to emerge from the soil, remove the sheeting and place the flat in an area that gets morning sun. The seedlings are transferred to individual pots when they get two sets of true leaves. Some gardeners prefer to sow seed directly into individual pots and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I prefer the other method as it allows me to select and grow the most vigorous seedlings.

Note: May is an excellent time to plant vegetables, especially tomatoes and peppers. It’s not unusual for summer vegetables to struggle with cool and damp weather in March and April. So, there is a real advantage by waiting until May to plant.

Q. Last year, I planted cucumbers and was disappointed. They had a bitter, odd taste to them. A neighbor suggested that they were being pollinated by the squash plants growing near them? Will moving the squash to a different location solve this problem?

A. The problem will not be fixed by relocating the squash plants. Squash and cucumbers can’t cross pollinate as the genetic structure of the two plants are very different. Only members of the same species can interbreed. Squash will cross pollinate with other squashes, melons and pumpkins. This brings us to the next fallacy of this old-wives tale. If the two plants could cross breed, would it affect the current year’s fruits? The answer to this is also,” no.” When two plants cross pollinate, the results are unknown until the following year when you grow the saved, seed. Now this is a mute point if you plant new plants each year. Thus, cucumbers, squashes, melons and pumpkins can grow a side by side with no problems.                                                                  

The bitterness in cucumbers is due to a naturally occurring compound called cucurbitin. All cucumber plants contain varying amounts of this compound that is triggered by environmental stress. Environmental stress comes from high temperatures, heavy soil that is too wet, dry, and/or drains poorly, low fertility, insects and foliage diseases. Many times it is a combination of many of these factors. However in the Bay Area, I believe that uneven or irregular watering contributes to the problem. This is particularly a problem when the growing season has below-normal temperatures in the spring, coupled with rapid changes in temperatures from mild to hot during the summer months. This is what we saw last year as April was beautiful, May was below normal and then we hit triple digits on June sixth.  We then had triple digit heat spells in July, August and September. Bay Area gardeners tend to water with the same frequency regardless of the temperature. Yes, we water more when it’s hot but never less when the temperatures go below normal. The other factor is the soil preparation. Overall, it’s pretty minimal for our adobe, clay soil. Soil amendments must be added yearly in the spring to replenish what was lost last year. In addition, mulching is encouraged in vegetable gardens to even out the moisture and insulate the surface roots from the sun. Also, overly mature or improperly stored cucumbers may also develop a mild bitterness; however, it’s often not severe.

Note: The cucurbitin is often concentrated at the stem end of the vegetable and in the light green layer under the skin of the cucumber. You can limit the bitterness by peeling cucumbers from the blossom end toward the stem end and cutting off the last inch. It is best to rinse your peeling knife after each slice so as not to spread the bitter taste.