Drought Tolerance, Sheet Mulching, Liquidambers and Bamboo

Q. I’m looking to remove a portion of my lawn and replace it with drought tolerant plants. Is there a way, I can do this without removing the grass or using any chemicals to kill it? In addition, I don’t want to wait for the grass to die first.

A. Yes, there is a method of doing exactly what you described. It’s called ‘Sheet Mulching.’ Sheet Mulching is not new, and in fact it’s used by organic gardeners who utilize Permaculture. Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature. It’s a natural process that combines soil improvement, weed removal, and mulching in one fell swoop. It is currently being utilized by a whole new group of gardeners looking to replace their grass with plants. You’ll need cardboard and/or lots of newspaper along with an organic mulch.Stack of newspapers

First, scalp the grass by mowing it as low as possible. Next, dig the planting holes, amend the back fill, plant your plants and add starter fertilizer. A thick layer of cardboard and/or a half an inch of newspaper should then used to cover or smother the old lawn area leaving the plants exposed. A second option is to cover the entire area first before planting, and then cut holes in the paper or cardboard layer. Think of the cardboard or paper layer as an organic or biodegradable landscape fabric.

To prevent the material from moving or blowing around wet the layer down as you proceed. You should over lap the seams or edges by four to six inches to prevent any new growth or weeds from developing. BE WARNED: Sheet Mulching will not prevent germination of the weed seeds that blow in on top of the mulch. Wet the paper again with the existing sprinklers before applying the mulch because the moisture aids the decomposition. I recommend converting conventional sprinklers to drip irrigation, and then cover the area with a three inch layer of mulch and wet it. Be careful not to bury the new plants in the mulch! The entire conversion process should take a about day once all the materials have been secured.

Sheet Mulching’s other purpose is to turn barren or unproductive hard soil into new planting areas. This can be done in the open ground or within a raise bed. It will take several growing seasons for the whole process to be completed, but it is worth the time and energy. To revitalize your soil, first place a thick layer of cardboard and/or newspaper on the ground. Next, top it with eight to twenty-four inches of organic material, bark, straw, grass clippings, along with household kitchen waste. Spread the material evenly in alternating layers. Start small, as you’ll likely need a significant amount of organic material. This technique is often referred to as ‘Lasagna Gardening.’

Liquidambar Trees and Pollen

Q. When a Liquidambar starts to produce pollen? I’m trying to figure out if it could be the source of our daughter’s severe spring allergies. Help!

A. Liquidambar trees bloom in March. It produces both male and female flowers as two separate structures about the same time as the leaves are emerging from dormancy. Plant pollen moves around by insects and the wind. Wind pollination requires light pollen and lots of it that can travel great distances. This is the troublesome kind because it is abundant, easily inhaled and likely to cause allergic reactions. Flowers that depend on bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and beetles for pollination tend to produce heavy, sticky grains that are somewhat airborne. My gut feeling is that your Liquidambar is not the culprit.

Instead, there may be multiple sources based on the plants in your yard. Foundation plants, especially next to windows and doorway entries, can be an immediate source of problems to those predisposed to pollen allergies. Birch, Oaks, Cedars, Walnuts and Olives, as well as Junipers, Privets, Podocarpus and even Lilacs are problematical for those allergic to pollen.

My suggestion is to purchase a copy of Tom Ogren’s book Allergy Free Gardening. In Tom’s book, he has developed a system of rating plants based on allergy severity and sensitivity. The Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS) assigns plants, including edibles, a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best for allergies and 10 being worst. Hopefully you can now identify the problem plant(s)! Of course, this assumes that you know the names of the plants in your yard. If not, take samples or high-resolution pictures to your favorite garden center and ask the nursery professional for help.


‘Hellish’ Heavenly Bamboo

Q. My Heavenly Bamboo plants are out of control. They’re small towers, standing about six feet tall and are quite top heavy, which causes the branches to sag away from the plant at extreme angles. Is there a problem with severely pruning them back to a much smaller size? In my neighborhood, I see several plantings that are much smaller.

A. The Sunset Western Garden Book describes Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina domestica, as a slow to moderate growing shrub six to eight feet high, spreading three to four feet. It has a clumping habit and spreads by shoots or runners. There are several options you can use to control the top heaviness and the spread. You can: stake the clump and tie the staggering stems to it with green plastic tape; cut off the top-heavy or all the canes at ground level as new shoots will appear from the base. The new growth can be sheared annually like a hedge to keep it the right height. You can also reduce the tree’s width by removing a section of the clump with a shovel. Finally, your last is too replace them with the shorter growing varieties. Nandina Domestica Firepower, Harbor Dwarf, and Sienna Sunrise are three varieties that do not grow beyond four feet. Heavenly Bamboo does not produce lateral shoots, so reducing the height is the best way to obtain a more shorter and compact plant.


Give a Fig!

For those who are passionate about perfectly ripened, locally-grown fruit, the late- spring and early-summer farmers’ market is filled with sweet surprises. Plump, juicy berries are now joined by long-awaited treasures like cherries, apricots, and figs—arguably the most voluptuous fruit of all.

Vector hand drawn watercolor painting fruit fig on white background.This preliminary fig season is far too brief for many of us. So, after eating my fill of figs out-of-hand, in salads, tarts, pizza, or simply enrobed in prosciutto, I longed to capture their unique flavor to carry me through leaner times. Rather than immersing myself in the traditional canning process, I now turn to this quick and easy recipe.

The following small-batch condiment can last for weeks—even months—in the refrigerator, providing that I don’t sneak a spoonful or two every time I wander through the kitchen. It is filled with figgy goodness! And, the addition of a whole lemon—skin, pith, and all—makes this recipe pleasantly piquant, and the walnuts add a touch of crunch.

Although I most frequently enjoy fig conserve spooned onto a warm, buttery scone or toasted English muffin, there are plenty of other uses for this recipe:

–Slather your favorite soft cheese (goat, brie, or blue) over crostini, or spoon it onto a leaf of Belgian endive; then top with a dab of fig conserve and a few tiny arugula leaves, or chopped fresh thyme or rosemary.

–Spread fig conserve over a wheel—or even a wedge—of ripe brie and top with more toasted walnuts.

–Serve a small bowl of fig conserve with cheese or charcuterie platters.

–Serve fig conserve as a condiment alongside roast pork or chops. When the main course is baked ham, serve fig conserve with warm buttermilk biscuits.

–Squeeze fresh lemon juice over a plain grilled chicken breast, and serve a spoonful of fig conserve on the side.

–Dollop fig conserve over a scoop of vanilla ice cream; then drizzle with a bit of honey and top with finely chopped crystallized ginger or candied lemon zest.

–Smear wheat meal digestive biscuits or gingersnaps with mascarpone or cream cheese, and top with a dab of fig conserve.

–Pack fig conserve into a decorative jar, tie with a raffia bow, and present to your host as a gift.


                                                                    Fig Conserve

1/4 cup California walnut halves and pieces

1 whole lemon, rinsed well and patted dry

1 pint Black Mission or other firm but ripe figs, stemmed, and halved if large

1 cup granulated sugar

1 pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the walnuts in a small baking dish and bake, turning once or twice, until lightly toasted and fragrant, 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool, then chop coarsely.
  2. Cut the lemon into quarters and discard any seeds.
  3. With a large, sharp knife or in a food processor, pulsing the machine on and off, coarsely chop the whole lemon. Scrape the chopped lemon and any accumulated juices into a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan.
  4. Stir the figs, sugar, and salt into the lemon and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a low boil and cook, stirring often, until the sugar has melted and the mixture has thickened, 25 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Stir in the walnuts and transfer to a covered container. Refrigerate until serving. Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups.


                                                                 Figalicious Facts

–The fig is one of the oldest cultivated fruits. Since it is nutritious and easily preserved by drying, it became a staple of people in southern Europe and Arabia.

–According to the bible figs grew in the Garden of Eden, for it was fig leaves that Adam and Eve reportedly used to cover their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit.

–In 1769 Father Junipero Serra planted California’s first figs in the San Diego area. California now produces 95% of the U.S. fig crop and is the 3rd largest producer in the world, trailing closely behind Turkey and Greece.

–Because ripe figs are fragile and do not travel well, each year around 30 million pounds of the California crop are transformed into dried figs.

–Figs are in season twice each year: first in June through July; and again in August through October or November.

–Figs must remain on the tree until fully ripe, as they do not ripen once they have been picked. For this reason, buy only figs that are very soft and ready to eat.

–Fresh Black Mission figs are teardrop-shaped with purple-black skin and strawberry-colored flesh inside. Brown Turkey figs are chubby, squat teardrops, with thicker, reddish-brown skin and pink interior. Kadota figs have thin green skin and pale flesh.

–Rich in fiber, iron, and calcium, figs are actually inverted flowers containing thousands of edible seeds.

–1 large fig weighs in at about 47 calories.

–Place whole, un-washed figs in a brown paper bag and store in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.org. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!