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UC Davis Good Life Garden Home Edition: COMPOST

April 29th, 2011

As a member of the communications team for the UC Davis Good Life Garden I try to promote the garden and encourage our community to expand their edible gardening experiences.  We hope that by following the Good Life Garden’s progress, you can learn how to plant your own seasonal edibles, because, they not only taste great, they are great for you and our environment.  There is however one small problem, I am not a gardener!  But I can follow instructions, and like when experts tell me what to do!

Yada, yada, yada…Welcome to the first edition of what we are calling the UC Davis Good Life Garden Home Edition–Tales from Total Amateurs.

The total amateurs in this case are my husband, my dog and me.  We have been growing an edible garden in our backyard for about three summers in a row now with dwindling success each year, but this year is going to be different; we hope!  This year we are going to do it right, but we need your support.  We will also seek more advice than we have in the past with the hope that we can help each other along.

STEP ONE:  Soil Preparation

Right now we are starting with getting our soil ready by following tips we’ve gotten from the Good Life Garden blog, Sunset Magazine, and others in an effort to create the same bounty and beauty we see at the UC Davis Good Life Garden.

Here is a link to how the UC Davis Good Life Garden preps their soil.

A couple years ago we started composting.  We read about it, evaluated all the potential options, looked into getting a discount composter from the county, and then finally, after months of indecision we stopped fretting about it and just started doing it.  We are sure there is a better way, but, after watching this video from Sunset Magazine, composting really didn’t seem that complicated after all.

Photo of Compost and Garden Area
This is a partial photo of our raised garden bed, but in the back there you can see our compost bin. It is not too complicated. Just start by layering dry stuff (leaves, etc.) with wet stuff (grass clippings, food waste from your kitchen, etc.)

Here is the link to that video that helped kick start our composting efforts:

How to Make a Chicken Wire Compost Bin

They offer other videos you can access from this same page that include “How to Make Your Own Compost.”

Long story short, it can be complicated, but doesn’t have to be.  In preparation for this summer’s garden, we are excited to actually be using the compost we’ve helped create. It is weird to think about dirt as your own.  I’m very proud of it.

Photo showing the shoveling of compost.
Here my husband is spreading around some compost that, I must say, looks pretty darn good. Not a very scientific evaluation is it? Or, as I also like to say, it’s dirt only a mother could love!

Photo of earthworms in the compost.
I know this is a sign of good compost–fat, healthy earthworms!

HELP?!  Name that Insect!

When we were spreading out our compost, a bunch of these emerged from our bin.  What is this?  Is it beneficial or not?

Photo of unknown beetle
Can you help us identify this insect? Is it good that there were a lot of them in our compost pile or not?

Of Assassins, Soldiers, Damsels and Hovercraft: Four Beneficial Insects

April 27th, 2011

This is an abridged version of the article written by Darrell g.h. Schramm, U.C. Master Gardener, Solano County from the Solano County Master Gardeners Spring 2010 Newsletter, “Seeds for Thought.”    Click here to read the full article.

As the inhabitants of our injured world move increasingly from less toxic to non-toxic methods in agriculture and gardening, it is vital to be informed of insects in our landscapes that are beneficial to us. Spraying and fertilizing with toxins has too often destroyed our allies along with our enemies. If we recognize and befriend insects that are good for us, we may need not to work so hard on those that are against us. Among the beneficial insects that assist us in garden, landscape, and crops are the assassin bugs (Reduviidae), the soldier beetles (Cantharidae), the damsel bug (Nabis spp.), and the syrphid fly (Syrphidae)—also known as hover fly or flower fly.

Several types of assassin bug inhabit the West, the most common being Robust Assassin Bug (Apiomerus spp.), Spined Assassin Bug (Sinea diadema), and Leafhopper Assassin bug (Zelus renardii). These long-legged insects have a small head with bulbous eyes and a syringe-like beak with which they inject a poison into their captured prey. While the adults do not fly well, they—like the nymphs—move quickly when disturbed. While they feed on many insects, they feast significantly on aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, asparagus beetles, Japanese beetles, and, regrettably, the beneficial lacewing. Some prey on termites.

If you wish to attract assassin bugs, grow Queen Anne’s lace, plants of the carrot and of the daisy family, goldenrod, alfalfa, oleander, and/or camphorweed. Provided you do not use toxic sprays, a combination of these plants is sure to host them. In the fall they seem to prefer yellow and white or all-yellow flowers.

spined assassin bug

An adult spined assassin bug. Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

The adults of the damsel bug are long, slender insects as well, about two-fifths of an inch, typically matte brown, grey, or somewhat yellow-tan. The body looks rather like a long, false fingernail. The head is somewhat like that of the assassin bug, small with bulbous eyes; the antennae are quite long. The nymphs look similar but are shiny in hue, unlike the adult. Both move swiftly when disquieted or stirred by outside stimuli. Tree crops, row crops, and roses welcome them. Why? Because they feed on aphids, small caterpillars, leafhoppers, mites, thrips, and other bugs.

Like most beneficial insects, they prefer tiny flowers that offer both nectar and pollen. Some of the flowers that attract them are the following: coneflowers, sunflowers, daisies, asters, and cosmos; angelica, fennel, yarrow, and dill; lavender, goldenrod, hyssop, and other spiked flowers; evening primrose, poppies, and buttercups. Plant any of these generously, and the damsels will help you in your distress.

damsel bugs

damsel bug adult (top) and nymph (bottom). Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

Soldier beetles help keep enemy pests in check and also pollinate. These half-inch, narrow insects sport flattened, leathery but soft wings covering their backs. Usually dark brown or black, sometimes grey, the wings contrast with the orange, red, or yellow head. Soldier beetles have long, thread-like antennae. Generally hatching in the spring, the larvae are dark, flat, and multi-segmented, the head rather rectangular and usually deep blood red. In litter, in soil, or under bark, they feast mostly on the eggs and larvae of beetles, grasshoppers, moths, and—sadly—butterflies, as well as on root maggots, aphids, and mites.

Want to attract them? As pollinators, they favor cluster-flowered plants in the sunflower and umbel families, such as milkweed, fennel, yarrow, goldenrod, and cosmos. They prefer a moist habitat. If you grow these plants, keep them watered to keep the soldiers around.

soldier beetle

Adult soldier beetle. Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

The syrphid fly is one of few insects that can fly backwards. Reminiscent of a honeybee, it wears black and yellow crossbands around its abdomen.  Drawn to aphids in gardens, landscapes, and agricultural sites, the females lay their eggs near or in colonies of aphids. The whitish or grey eggs, oblong and generally found lying on their sides, metamorphose into legless larvae that appear maggot-like, usually with a yellow stripe on the back from the tapered head to the toe. Up to a half-inch in length, they show a translucent skin that reveals internal organs. It is when syrphid flies are in the larval stage that they feed on insects—primarily plant-eating insects. One syrphid larva can consume hundreds of aphids a month.

California lilac (ceanothus), asters, buckwheat, fleabane, helianthus, roses, and slender sunflowers attract the fly. But they also feed on aphids found on citrus, grains, corn, alfalfa, grapes, lettuce and other vegetables. They do not sting. Welcome them.

Syrphid fly larvae on rose. Photo by Jennifer Baumbach.

Want to  learn more?  The Integrated Pest Management Program online has a fantastic gallery of beneficial insects.

Haggard, Peter and Judy. Insects of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2006.
Lavoipierre, Frederique. Garden Allies: Soldier Beetles. Pacific Horticulture. July 2008.
UC IPM Online. ‘Pests in Home, Garden, Landscape and Turf: Natural Enemies Gallery.’


Monthly spring gardening guide

April 21st, 2011

Confused about what to do and when now that spring is here?  Thanks to our Solano County Master Gardener friends, here is a guide that covers what you should plant, what maintenance needs to be done, and what preventative measures you can take for the months of April, May and June.   This is an abridged version of the article that you can find in the Spring 2010 Solano County Master Gardeners Newsletter.  Click here to read the full article.



  • Edibles: loose-leaf lettuce, herbs, chard, carrots, radishes, spinach.
  • Warm-season annuals: ageratum, alyssum, salvia, sunflower, zinnia.
  • Perennials: lavender, coreopsis, rudbeckia, penstemon, verbena.


  • Bait for snails and slugs.
  • Rid new growth of aphids with a blast of water from your hose every few days.
  • Dump standing water to slow mosquito breeding.


  • Pull or hoe weeds as soon as they appear.
  • Fertilize citrus, azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons.
  • Spray olives, liquidambar and other messy trees with fruit control hormone or blast with hose to curb fruit production.

Who DOESN'T love lavender?



  • Edibles: beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, watermelon.
  • Plants to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds: agastache, bee balm, coneflower, coral bells, fuchsia, honeysuckle.
  • Plant chrysanthemums for fall color.
  • Perennial shrubs, trees or vines.


  • Tune up drip irrigation systems.
  • Build basins around the bases of shrubs and trees; mulch those and garden plants to conserve moisture and reduce weeds, leaving a mulch-free margin around plant crowns and stems.
  • Stake tomatoes and perennials.
  • Remain vigilant against snails, slugs and aphids.


  • Fertilize citrus and established perennials and vegetables.
  • Deadhead spent flowers to encourage new bloom; pinch back petunias and fuchsia.
  • Allow spring bulb foliage to yellow and dry out before removing.
tomato stakes

Make sure to get your stakes in for your tomatoes...

green zebra tomatoes you can enjoy a bounty of tomatoes like these green zebras we had last year. Yum!



  • Edibles: melon, beans, and corn from seed; tomato, squash and cucumber seedlings.
  • Successive plantings of basil and cilantro.
  • Summer annuals: cosmos, marigolds, portulaca, sunflowers, zinnias.
  • Summer-blooming perennials: daylilies, gloriosa daisy, Russian sage, salvia, yarrow.


  • Mulch to keep roots cool and retain moisture.
  • Check underside of tomato leaves for hornworms.
  • Spray roses with Neem oil to help control aphids, black spot, whiteflies and powdery mildew.
  • Inspect garden for earwigs.
  • Remain vigilant against snails and slugs.


  • Roses: cut back faded blooms to 1/4” above first five leaflet that faces outside bush.
  • Fruit trees: thin apples, pears, peaches and nectarines, leaving about 6” between fruit.
  • Sprinklers: summer heat increases water needs by 2” per week. Adjust sprinklers for adequate coverage and irrigation.
  • Fertilize annual flowers, vegetables, lawns and roses.
  • Dig and divide crowded bulbs; allow to dry before replanting.
  • Deep-water trees to encourage strong root growth.

Get your sunflowers planted asap!


The week in pictures!

April 19th, 2011

Here’s an update on what’s happening in the garden this week – enjoy the photos!


The word of the day is 'artichoke'...They are going crazy out there!


The lavender is the other show-stealer this week...


It's the bee's knees!

bolted red cabbage

Unfortunately a lot of our lettuces and cabbages are bolting because our gardener was told to hold off on harvesting things due to Picnic Day and some other events. The flowers are pretty though! I would have expected them to be red or purple, like the cabbage.


More bolting romaine lettuce! I think it looks cool, even if it's no longer edible.

winter barley

The winter barley is thriving.


And the 'pretty in pink' radishes are sprouting.


We've got peas!

garden colors

Even though a lot of the plants are on their last legs and are going to be removed next week, the color is still vibrant.


The fennel is looking pretty tasty...

I can't wait for the brown turkey figs to be ready to eat! They're getting there slowly...

artichokes 2

The attack of the artichokes!


Nature’s Medicine Chest

April 8th, 2011

This is an abridged article written by Jan Bower, Yolo County Master Gardener,  from “The Yolo Gardener” Fall 2010 Newsletter–a quarterly publication by the UC Yolo County Master Gardeners. Thank you Jan for this great information!  To read the full article, visit their website here.

Herbs have a variety of uses. They flavor foods, perfume gifts, repel insects, heal illnesses, and serve as companion plants. They can be grown in their own formal garden, along a pathway, or in containers.  They played an important role in traditional medicine, but are also playing an increasingly important role in modern medicine.

For medicinal purposes, the herbs are most often prepared as teas, oils, or spices used in foods, but they can also be inhaled in steam baths and included in ointments, poultices, pills, powders, and gargles. One thing to keep in mind, however, in using herbs for healing is that some of them might be poisonous or addictive so consulting a medical practitioner before use is recommended.

Disclaimer: Medicinal herbs have been with us since the earliest of times. However, many have not been proven to be effective for all of their traditional uses; one should always consult a medical professional before self-treating with an herb.

Here is a short list of some familiar herbs and their medicinal qualities and applications – all of which can be found in the Good Life Garden!

  • Basil  (Ocimum basilicum) comes in many varieties with different scents and flavors. Used widely in tomato-based dishes, it can be a remedy for diseases of the brain, heart, lungs, kidney, and bladder and is often mixed with borage in a tea to revive lowered vitality. The dried leaves are also made into snuff to remedy headaches and colds. One variety has the distinct aroma of camphor and has been known to draw out poison from insect stings and bites.

    Check out all that basil from our herb harvest last year!

  • Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) and berries from the bay laurel tree have a volatile oil that can be applied externally to bruises and sprains, dropped into ears to relieve pain, and used to treat rheumatism, hysteria, and flatulence. As an essential ingredient of a “bouquet garni” (a bundle of herbs that are tied together and used in cooking), bay leaves can improve the appetite and cure fevers.

    bay laurel

    One of the few bay laurels we have in the garden.

  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) contain a pungent oil that stimulates the appetite, aids with kidney function, and helps lower high blood pressure.
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seeds and leaves can serve as a laxative, relieve dizziness, help purify the blood, or help cure kidney stones and other urinary dysfunctions.
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is used to strengthen eyesight and refresh tired eyes. The seeds produce an oil that helps digestion and relieves asthma and abdominal pain.

    We had some massive fennel last year!

  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has the effect of smelling salts – it calms nerves, relaxes tensions, and alleviates faintness, dizziness, and insomnia. Used in the bath, lavender refreshes the skin and is recommended for oily complexions and pimples.

    Who DOESN'T love lavender? It smells amazing, is awesome for home remedies, and is gorgeous.

  • Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is used to fight bad colds, cramps and other digestive disorders, painful swellings, rheumatism, colic, and nervous headaches.
  • Mint (Mentha arvensis) provides relief for colds, inflammation of mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract, gallbladder disorders, gastrointestinal pain from gas, and muscle and nerve pain.


    Be careful of mint - it has a variety of uses but can take over your garden! That's why we keep it in a raised bed.

  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is rich in iron, vitamins A, B, and C, and an oil called apiol, which is extracted from the seeds for therapy related to infections of the urinary tract, general disease prevention, and treatment of digestion and circulation problems, and kidney stones.


    Who knew parsley had so many uses and was filled with so many vitamins?

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) stimulates memory and circulation, relieves headaches and other rheumatic conditions, and strengthens eyesight.
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis) decreases sweating, restores energy and memory, and is helpful in digestion, particularly as it relates to the liver. It is found in mouthwashes and gargles because of its antiseptic properties and is used to whiten teeth and heal inflammations of the mouth and throat, e.g. gingivitis and sore gums due to wearing dentures.
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is used to treat bronchitis, whooping cough, sore throats, colds, headaches, cramps, colic, bowel and bladder disorders, bad eyesight, and loss of appetite.