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The Myths Your Mother Taught You

July 20th, 2011
In the summer 2010 issue of Seeds for Thought, Cheryl Potts, Solano County Master Gardener, debunks common garden myths. Click here to read the full article.
Myth 1: Organic pesticides/fertilizers are better for the environment because they are non-toxic.     

 Using organic pesticides and fertilizers does have its benefits, including minimal disturbances to animals, people and the environment, but many organic products are poisonous to people and pets if ingested. For example, cocoa mulch is becoming more and more popular but cocoa can kill dogs once ingested, and pyrethrum, used as an insecticide, is toxic to people and pets when used incorrectly.*  

*In an earlier post, Common Summer Vegetable Problems Solved!!, we suggested using pyrethrum sprays for squash bugs, so if you plan on using this please carefully read the labels, closely follow the instructions and always store properly!     

Myth 2: Nothing will grow under a spruce tree because the ground becomes too acidic due to the fallen needles.     

The soil under a spruce tree is the same as the soil in any other part of your yard. The reason nothing grows under the trees is because of the tree’s thick canopy which blocks any sunlight or water from getting to the ground directly below.     

Myth 3: Watering on a sunny day will burn the plant leaves, as the sun reflecting through the water acts like a magnifying glass.     

Leaves can dry out if there is a high amount of salt in the water and hot temperatures, but the burning does not actually have anything to do with the the water droplets themselves. The reason it is recommended to water in the morning is simply because higher sun causes more evaporation.      

Myth 4: Gravel at the bottom of a pot is necessary for drainage.     

Gravel is not necessary, nor is it a good idea, because it takes up room needed for soil and root growth and adds extra weight to the pot. Instead try placing a small piece of broken crockery over the drainage hole which will help hold the soil in but still allow for necessary drainage.     

Example of a beer trap for slugs


Myth 5 : Placing broken egg shells on top of the soil will prevent slugs from getting to your plants.     

Egg shells are unfortunately no match for slugs, as they can crawl right through them. Instead use a safe store-bought pellet or try the “beer method.” Slugs are attracted to the sweet scent of beer so bury a small wide jar (with the top off) full of beer in the edge of your garden. The slugs will inch toward this and eventually fall in and drown. See the photo to the left for an example of how to make a beer trap.     

Myth 6: Drought tolerant plants do not need water.     

Plants labeled “drought tolerant” are not actually drought tolerant during their first year and need just as much water and mulching as the next plant. It is only after the first year that the plant will start to fend for itself but a monthly watering should still be included.     

Myth 7: Drought tolerant and drought resistant are the same thing.     

Not quite. Drought tolerant plants can go for limited periods of time without any water, whereas drought resistant plants are naturally able to live and survive long periods without irrigation.     

Myth 8: You must stake a newly planted tree to ensure a strong trunk.     

Trees build their strength by flexing, so giving them artificial support does not give them a chance to strengthen on their own. Also the strapping can interrupt the sap flow which will cause problems.     



No Nutsedge Here

July 19th, 2011

Nutsedge is an aggressive weed, that most closely resembles grass. 

If you feel you are constantly fighting this weed to no avail, check out this article by Willa Pettydrove, Solano County Master Gardener, in the Summer 2007 issue of Seeds for Thought newsletter. Click here to read the full article or read on to see an abbreviated version that includes tips for what and what not to do.   

Immature nutsedge

What works   

  • Nutsedge loves water-logged soil so an easy fix is to correct your irrigation and soil drainage problems.
  • Prevent further tubular growth by removing the young nutsedge plants, which will only have five to six leaves. Simply pulling the weeds will work fine, but it is most effective to hoe by hand.
  •  If tubers are present, repeated removal of top growth will help to keep them under control as it is essentially starving the plant. Note that mature tubers (nutsedge with more than six leaves) can resprout as many as 10-12 times! These new sprouts will be weaker than the previous ones but they will gradually work together to resupply themselves unless removed.
  • If a plant is small the best way to remove them is to dig, by hand 8-14 inches deep to remove the whole plant. Remove and destroy any and all tubers (do not put them in your compost!). If you have nutsedge in smaller patches of turf, it is best to dig out a patch that is at least eight inches deep, refill, and then seed or sod the patch.
Left uncontrolled, nutsedge can form patches that spread more than ten feet in diameter.

What won’t work   

  • Using a tiller to destroy mature nutsedge. This technique will only cause the infestation to spread because it moves the tubers around in the soil, allowing them to resprout if they are strong enough. However, repeated tilling in small areas before the nutsedge matures will reduce populations
  • Systemic herbicides, like glyphosate, are a common misplaced effort of destroying the plant but because the herbicides really only touch the leaves, the tuber remain unaffected. Glyphosate might work on the younger plant in which the tubers have not formed.
  • Black plastic mulching won’t do the trick as the sharp, pointy leaves will go right through.

Nutsedge with tuber


**A tuber, as defined byMerrium-Webster, is a short fleshy usually underground stem bearing minute scale leaves each of which bears a bud in its axial (where the small stem joins the larger one) and is potentially able to produce a new plant.


composting is easy…no really, it is!

July 18th, 2011

Thanks to Christine Smith and the Placer County Master Gardener’s Summer 2005 issue of The Curious Gardener, we have great instructions on how to build and understand a compost pile!

There are four basic things needed for this kind of compost pile: browns, greens, air, and water. This means your pile should be located in a open area, near a water source, and should have equal parts green and brown.

“Brown” is something dry and high in carbon. There are lots of examples of brown; you can include dead leaves, cut brush, wood shavings, and straw. From inside the house you can use newspaper, paper egg cartons, junk mail (but only the non-slick or shiny paper), paper towels, as well as the paper towel tubes, and other forms of corrugated cardboard.

The “greens” will come from things that are moist and high in nitrogen. Grass clippings, or feces from animals that only eat plants, and from the kitchen you should save tea bags, citrus rinds, and fruit or vegetable trimmings.

Proper air and water balance within a pile is essential for rapid decomposition to occur. Turning, lifting and stirring are the most efficient ways to aerate a compost pile. The pile should be moist to the touch, but yield no liquid when squeezed, similar to a wrung-out sponge. Also the smaller the pieces, the faser the composting process, so pieces should be between 1/2″ to 1 and 1/2″ in size. To achieve this size, try shredding the compost ingredients before adding them to the pile or using a power lawn mower with a bag attachment to reduce the particle size and increase particle surface area. Altogether though, the pile should be about 3′x3′x3′ or one cubic yard.

Assembling the pile:

  1. Start with 4-6″ of brown
  2. Add 4-6″ of green
  3. Mix the layers using a spading fork or shovel
  4. Check pile for moisture- grab a clump of material and squeeze it, if it sticks together you’re good to go, if not sprinkle a little water on the pile and re-stir

Repeat steps 1-4 until the pile is 3′x3′x3′, always checking moisture content after each layer is added. After about 2 days the pile temperature will be between 110-140F , which could cause steam to come off the pile but this means that composting is happening! On day 3, turn the pile and check the moisture, and this is to be done every 3 days from this point forward. Temperature will continue to rise, which kills weed seeds, insect eggs and diseased organisms. Using a compost thermometer check the temperature and if it rises above 140F, cool it off by turning the pile. 

After 2 weeks the pile temperature will drop as composting slows and at this point the compost should be dark brown and crumbly with an earthy scent.


The Buddy System

July 12th, 2011
Jan Bower, Yolo County Master Gardener, explains how the planting buddy system or companion planting works in her article from the 2010 Summer issue of The Yolo Gardener. Click here to read the full article.

Jan explains companion planting is the idea that some plants benefit from growing in close proximity to others, it’s nature’s ”buddy system.” Some known benefits of the buddy system are better growth, higher yield, pest control and weed repression.

The Three Sisters buddy planting

This idea originated with the Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois, who planted corn, beans and squash together calling the combination “Three Sisters.” Unbeknownst to them this threesome worked so well together because squash takes nitrogen out of the soil, while beans put it back. Lastly corn creates shade which is needed for good production of squash and beans.

Here is a list of was to create beneficial plant associations:

  • Trap Cropping- Plant a secondary plant that attracts pests away from the main crop
  • Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation- Reduce the need for nitrogen based fertilizers by planting legumes and/or clover which add nitrogen back into the soil
  • Physical Spatial Interactions- Plant your garden with a tall, sun loving plant and a low, shade loving plant. For example, plant corn or sunflowers with squash or lettuce.
  • Beneficial Habitats- Create a habitat that attracts and supports a population of beneficial insects.  To do this reduce pesticide use and provide host insects, nectar, pollen, water and shelter. Beneficial insects include: ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies, spiders and wasps.
  • Security Through Diversity- Mix different types of plants in the garden so if pests or adverse conditions destroy some plants, others will remain.
Ladybugs helps us get rid of those pesky aphids!

Here are some buddy planting examples:

  • Mint, rosemary, and garlic create a strong scent that repels aphids, ants and other pests from members of the cabbage family (broccoli, turnips, radishes) as well as roses.
  • Beans and peas should never be planted near the members of the onion family (garlic, chives, leeks and shallots). The excessive nitrogen given off by beans and peas encourages more foliage and less bulb. Also the sulphurous gas given off by onions is toxic to peas. Instead try planting beans and peas with carrots!

Do you plan your garden to incorporate companion or “buddy” plantings? Let us know combinations you like.


Tips for Planting Your Veggies in a Container

July 7th, 2011
Roberta Hopkins, Sacramento Master Gardener, wrote a tip list for planting with containers. Click here to see the complete list. 


  • Containers can be decorative or utilitarian or both!
  • Full pots are HEAVY, so plant pots in their final location to save yourself from having to move them later.
  • Metal pots are heat conductors and should not be used in the summer
  • Clay pots should be soaked in water for 5-10 minutes before planting in them, as they are more porous than glazed ceramic, wood or plastic and will dry out faster.
  • All pots need a drainage hole.
  • Use pots no smaller than 6″ across.


  • Stick your finger into the soil to test for moisture- if it is dry, it it time to water!
  • Frequent watering leaches nutrients our of the soil, so fertilize the plants with a balanced fertilizer about every 2 weeks
  • Plants in containers basically have their roots exposed so they dry out faster than plants in the ground, they need more frequent (slow and thorough) watering.
  • Use commercial potting mix, not gardening soil because gardening soil compacts in the pot, making it too difficult for the roots to reach water, air and nutrients.
  • Heat and dry air affect plants in containers more than those in the ground.
3 Steps for planting into a pot
  1. Fill the container with potting mix until you reach the depth of the plant container plus an extra 1-2 inches because once you water the mix the soil will settle. (See step 2.)
  2. Water thoroughly and let the mix settle.
  3. Place the plant in the container and water thoroughly again.

Recipe for Potting Mix

  • 2/3 cubic yard nitrogen stabilized ground bark, coir dust or peat moss
  • 1/3 cubic yard washed 20 grit sand
  • 6 lbs. 0-10-10 granular fertilizer
  • 10 lbs. dolomite

Mix all the ingredients together in a wheelbarrow. 

Containers can be decorative or utilitarian or both!


Common Summer Vegetable Problems Solved!!

July 6th, 2011

Unfortunately there are a lot of little things that can go wrong in a vegetable garden, but with good advice Cindy Fake, Placer County Master Gardener, you can steer clear of all of them!  Click here to read the whole article from The Curious Gardener newsletter.

Let’s start with successful summer vegetable garden basics:

  1. Prep your soil with lots of organic matter (material that has come from a once living organism).
  2. Choose plants based on your specific microclimate. A microclimate is a small area whose atmospheric conditions differs from the surrounding area. For example, when planting around the bottom of a hill, be cautious of water run-off, which could result in over watering.  Or if you plant in a small side yard, a wind tunnel could be created between the fence and house wall, injuring wind sensitive plants.
  3. Water according to root depth; young plants should be watered frequently in small amounts, whereas older plants can we watered in larger amounts but less frequently.

Now for some plant-specific tips:

Pink Berkeley Wild Boar Tomato


Tomatoes can be difficult to grow, due to blossom/fruit drop, which is caused by extreme temperatures. If the temperatures drop below fifty degrees, or rise above ninety degrees, it will cause the flowers or young fruit to drop off. Blossom drop only effects certain varieties, like cherry tomatoes, and most of us will find our backyards reaching over ninety degrees, so those who should worry about this are the gardeners whose nighttime temperatures drop, such as Placerville. Blossom drop could be caused by an abundance of nitrogen in the soil, so once flowers form start to use a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium.

Another common tomato dilemma is calcium deficiency in the fruit, which is due to the rapid evaporation of water on leaves. To prevent this, your garden must have good irrigation and use mulch. If you find your plants have calcium deficiency you can try oyster shell lime, but only as a last ditch-effort.

A bell pepper showing signs of sunscalding


The major problem that pepper plants can have is sunscald, which is caused by continuous and harsh sun exposure. This can be prevented by planting the peppers close together so they can assist in shading each other. Also plant any larger plants you intend to grow on the west side of the peppers, to help shade them. If flowers appear before a good canopy has developed on the pepper plant, cut those flowers off to ensure the plant’s resources go into creating a protective layer of leaves before growing fruit. Once you’ve let your plant get ready for the sunny days and it is starting to form fruit, take a look at their shape and make sure they look healthy. If not, this could be due to poor pollination, which is an easy fix! Try tapping the flowers with your finger midday, to help pollination.

A variety of summer squash

Squashes and Melons

To help the bees find your summer fruit, plant flowering plants around the area of your squash or melon, which will attract the bees to that general area.

Powdery mildew is a common problem caused by a lack of good air circulation around the plant. to prevent it add sulfur, potassium bicarbonate or neem oil to the soil in late July, all of which should aid in the prevention of the mildew.

Squash bugs can also be a big squash problem. Smash any eggs you find on the back of the leaves. Spraying adults and eggs are a waste so when you see the nymphs, which resemble a larvae shape and are small and gray, use insecticidal soaps or pyrethrin sprays (an insecticide excreted from pyrethum flowers).

To find out more about these plants and tips to keep them going throughout the summer, check out the Placer County Master Gardener’s newsletter The Curious Gardener.