The Lawn Is Always Greener

70419thumbTurf grasses are the ultimate in groundcover. They are very durable, and useful for covering large areas in a very user friendly manner. The toughest varieties are used for athletic fields because they withstand the wear and tear. In home gardens, all sorts of varieties are grown as lawns. Like other groundcovers, lawns limit erosion, and are cleaner than bare summer dust and winter mud.

Yes, turf grasses and lawns are the most useful of plant materials; but they are also the most demanding. They require more water than almost anything else, except only aquatic plants and some bedding plants. A healthy lawn must be mown and edged regularly, and as often as weekly in warm weather. Weeds are difficult to control once established. Gophers can cause serious damage.

Regardless, for all sorts of landscapes ranging from athletic fields to home gardens, a lawn is worth the work it takes to grow it. Only Trona High School has a dirt athletic field; and only because the soil is too saline and the weather is too scorching for turf grass. At least home garden lawns are more modest than they were years ago, with larger patios and decks, and other groundcover.

Artificial turf still has a bad reputation. The first AstroTurf of the late 1960s was nothing like real turf grass. It had a coarse texture, and eventually faded and deteriorated. Its main problem was that it was so regularly compared to real turf grass instead of recognized for its own attributes as an alternative to lawn, like carpeting for outdoor spaces. Yet, it was popular for certain applications.

Modern artificial turf looks and feels a bit more convincing, and is more resistant to wear and weathering. It might be more convincing if it were not so perfectly uniform. It is already more popular than old fashioned AstroTurf was, even for playgrounds and athletic fields. Artificial turf is expensive to purchase and install, but not as expensive as the maintenance and watering of real grass.

Compared to the installation of real turf grass that needs irrigation and soil amendment, the installation of artificial turf necessitates less excavation. It is therefore less invasive to the shallow roots of established trees and shrubs that are already in the landscape. However, plants that are accustomed to generous lawn irrigation might need to be watered through newly installed artificial turf.

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Squash For Summer And Winter

80425thumbConsidering that some of the winter squash can last right through winter and into spring, there really is a squash for every season. By the time the last of the winter squash run out, the first of the summer squash will be ready later in spring. They get an early start here, and continue until frost. By that time, the earliest of the winter squash will be ready for autumn, and will last through winter.

However, they all get planted about now. There is no such thing as cool season squash. They are all warm season vegetables (actually fruits). The vines and foliage all grow like weeds while the weather is warm, and then succumb to frost at the end of their season. They all grow very easily from seed, but because each garden needs only a few plants, they are often planted as seedlings.

The main difference between summer and winter squash is that summer squash plants continue to produce many smaller fruits while the weather is warm, and winter squash plants produce only a few larger and firmer fruits that develop slowly while the weather is warm, and then finish ripening as the vines that produce them die in autumn and winter. One begins where the other finishes.

Zucchini is the most familiar summer squash here. It is most productive if regularly deprived of its tender juvenile fruit, and is notably less productive if the fruit is allowed to get bigger and tougher. Pumpkin is the most familiar winter squash here. It is expected to produce only a few big and firm fruit that take all season to develop. Extra juvenile fruit may get plucked to favor one or two fruits.

Summer squash deserve more prominent locations in the garden because the fruit gets harvested regularly. Zucchini grows as a large plant, but stays somewhat confined. Winter squash want the same sort of rich garden soil and watering, but can be put out of the way. Except for plucking a few extra fruit, not much more needs to be done to them. Some like to climb fences. Pumpkin vines can be directed to the edge or just outside of the garden.

A Tree Falls In The Forest

70412thumbThe Great Basin bristlecone pine of the eastern Sierra Nevada can live more than five thousand years. The giant sequoia of the western Sierra Nevada can live more than three thousand years. The familiar coastal redwood from the Coastal Ranges can live more than two thousand years. Besides impressive longevity, one thing that they all have in common is that they all eventually die.

Most trees in home gardens do not live much more than a century. Some oaks can last a long time. Willows, poplars and acacias do not. Trees typically do not live as long in landscape situations as they do naturally in the wild because their life cycles are accelerated by watering and fertilizing, and also because watering promotes rot. Some trees get removed because they grow too big.

While trees are young and growing, they sometimes need help with structural problems. They might need pruning to eliminate limbs that are likely to break away and fall. On rare occasion, trees might need pruning to reduce weight and resistance to wind if stability becomes a concern. Falling limbs or falling trees are very natural in the wild, but can be serious problems around the home.

As trees age, they develop more structural deficiencies, which are increasingly difficult to repair or accommodate. Most big old hardwood trees have some degree of decay within their main trunks, even if no such damage is visible from the outside. Although perfectly natural, this decay eventually compromises structural integrity. Stability is slowly compromised as aging roots decay.

It is true that most trees that fall or drop limbs are more likely to do so while getting thrashed by winter storms. However, there are other factors that can bring down limbs or entire trees. Warming spring weather promotes growth of new foliage, which significantly increases the weight and wind resistance of structurally deficient limbs and destabilized trees. Warmth also accelerates decay. Even after winter storms, there are many other reasons to be aware of the health of trees.

Bulbs Foliage Lingers After Bloom

80418thumbDaffodils, freesias, lilies, snowdrops and the various early spring blooming bulbs and bulb like perennials will be finishing soon if they have not finished already, leaving us with the annual question of what to do with the foliage after bloom. The plants will not bloom again until next year, and the remaining foliage might be unappealing without bloom. Much of it slowly deteriorates into summer.

Bulbs that were forced have probably exhausted their resources, so are not likely to recover. Formerly forced daffodils and narcissus can go into the garden, but after the foliage dies back, they will probably never be seen again. Regeneration is possible though. Forced hyacinths and tulips are not likely worth the effort. They do not get enough chill here to bloom reliably in spring anyway.

Daffodils and narcissus (and for those who insist on growing them, hyacinths and tulips,) that bloomed out in the garden will need to retain their foliage long enough to sustain regeneration of new bulbs that will bloom next spring. As long as the foliage is still green, it is working. When it withers and turns brown, it is easy to pluck from the soil, leaving new but dormant bulbs in the soil below.

Some of us like to tie long daffodil, narcissus and snowdrop foliage into knots so that it lays down for the process; but this only makes it more prominent in the landscape than if it were just left to lay down flat. Freesias are experts at laying down, which is why they might have needed to be staked while in bloom. The foliage of many early spring bulbs is easier to ignore in mixed plantings.

It is even easier to ignore if overplanted with annuals or perennials that are just deep enough to obscure the foliage. Shallow groundcover might work for some of the more aggressive bulbs. Bulb foliage will need to be tucked under. Flower stalks should be pruned away from bulb foliage, not only because they are the most unsightly parts (if not concealed), but also because developing seed or fruit structures divert resources from bulb development.

All Good Things In Moderation

70405thumbToo much of a good thing can be a problem. That is why bacon is not one of the four basic food groups. It is why sunny weather gets mixed with a bit of rain. It is why we can not give plants too much fertilizer. Since late last summer or autumn, there has not been much need for fertilizer. If fertilized too late, citrus and bougainvillea develop new growth just in time to be damaged by frost.

Now it is time to start applying fertilizer, but only if necessary or advantageous. Fertilizer really is not as important as the creative marketing of fertilizers suggests. It is useful for new plants, fruits, flowers, lawns and especially for vegetables, but is probably overkill for healthy and established plants. There is no need to promote growth of trees and shrubbery that are at their optimum size.

Some of the specialty fertilizers are a bit fancier than they need to be. With few exceptions, complete fertilizers are useful for most applications. As long as plants get the extra nutrients that they crave, they should not complain. They can not read the labels of the fertilizers that they receive. Plants are more likely to have problems if they get too much of something that they do not need.

Rhododendrons and azaleas might like specialty acidifying fertilizer, but should be satisfied with a complete fertilizer. Citrus might likewise appreciate fertilizer that is specially formulate for citrus, but are probably not too discriminating. Palms only want specialty palm fertilizer if they demonstrate symptoms of nutrient deficiency. (Some palms are sensitive to deficiencies of micro nutrients.)

Too much fertilizer, especially fertilizer with a good amount of nitrogen, can inhibit bloom of several plants. Bougainvillea puts more effort into vigorous shoots and foliage than into bloom if it gets strung out on nitrogen. Nasturtium will do the same. In pots and poorly drained locations, excessive fertilizer can become toxic enough to discolor foliage or even scorch the edges of large leaves.

The most justifiable uses for fertilizers now are for flowering annuals and vegetable plants. Tomato and corn plants respond very favorably to fertilizer because they are so greedy with the nutrients they require for their unnaturally abundant production. (In the wild, the ancestors of tomato and corn do not really produce like garden varieties do.) Flowers, of course, take a lot of resources too.

Weeds Want To Get Ahead

80411thumbWeeds always seem to have unfair advantages. While we pamper so many of our desirable plants to get them to grow and perform, weeds proliferate without help. They survive harsh conditions, inferior soil and some of the techniques we try to kill them with. They do not need much, if any water. They broadcast inordinate volumes of seed. They grow fast enough to overwhelm other plants.

This is the time of year when most weeds really get going. Like most other plants, they like the warming weather and moist soil of early spring. Many bloom and sow seed before summer weather gets too warm and dry in areas that do not get watered. Some that happen to be where they get watered may perpetuate second or third generations through summer! Weeds really are efficient!

However, the same pleasant weather that allows weeds to grow so efficiently also allows us to come out to work in the garden. The same soft rain moistened soil that the weeds enjoy so much also facilitates weeding. It will be more difficult to pull weeds later when the soil is drier, and roots are more dispersed. It is best to pull them before they sow seed for the next generation anyway.

Most of the annoying weeds are annuals or biennials. Some are perennials. A few weeds might be seedlings of substantial vines, shrubs or trees, like privet, acacia, eucalyptus or cane berries, especially the common and very nasty Himalayan blackberry. Cane berries have thorny stems that are unpleasant to handle, and perennial roots that must be dug. They can be very difficult to kill.

Tree and shrub seedlings should be pulled or dug out completely. Except for palms, most regenerate if merely cut above ground, and are very difficult to remove or kill the second time around. It is no coincidence that they tend to appear in the worst situations under utility cables and next to fences and other landscape features. Birds tend to perch in such spots as they eat the fruit from around large seeds that then get discarded, or as they deposit small seeds that were within small fruit and berries that they ate earlier.

Summer Vegetables Enjoy Warming Weather

40910thumbIf there are any cool season vegetables left in the garden, they should probably be harvested pretty soon. If left too much longer, they will be ruined by warming weather. Cabbage will bolt (start to bloom) once it realizes that it is spring. Cauliflower and broccoli, which are juvenile flowers, will become bitter as the flowers mature and try to bloom. Besides, they all need to get out of the way.

Warm season vegetables need the space. Tomato, pepper, eggplant, zucchini and other squash plants are ready to disperse their roots and get to growing. They are usually planted as seedlings because only a few of each are needed. A few seedlings of each type are more reliable, but not much more expensive than a packet of seeds; and they do not need to take the time to germinate.

However, because they are so easy to grow, seed for zucchini and other squash, as well as melon, are popularly sown directly where plants are desired. There was no need to sow them indoors earlier to plant in the garden as seedlings now. Onions can be grown from seed for late harvest, or they can be grown from juvenile onions known as ‘sets’ for earlier harvest or for green onions.

There are two main reasons why cucumbers, beans and corn should be grown from seed, although cucumber seedlings can be practical if only a few are desired. Otherwise, so many individual plants are needed that it would be relatively expensive to purchase enough seedlings. The main reason for sowing seed directly is that their seedlings are sensitive to the stress of transplanting.

Tomato, zucchini and beans are likely the most popular of warm season vegetables because they are so productive and reliable, even in limited space. Pole beans can be grown on trellises against fences or walls in very tight spots. Corn is less popular because it needs so much space, and needs to be watered so regularly. Too few plants may not be adequate for cross pollination. Pepper and eggplant, as well as okra, are not too demanding, but appreciate rich soil, regular watering and warm exposure.

Houseplants Might Enjoy Some Weather

80404thumbThey were not always houseplants. They came from somewhere else. Most came from shady tropical forests, which is why they have such big dark green leaves, and are so tolerant of shady home interiors. They are pretty good sports about tolerating the domestic lifestyles that we subject them to, but they would really prefer to be thousands of miles away, growing wild back home.

Home interiors lack the sort of weather that the natural environments of houseplants get. The majority of houseplants would prefer rain, humidity, occasional breezes and perhaps more warmth. Some succulents may not miss the rain, but might crave heat and more sunlight. Regardless of what houseplants want, that can not get all of it in the comfort of our homes. They want to get out!

Unfortunately, that is not an option. Plants that have adapted to the relative darkness and protection from (shortwave or SUV) ultraviolet light in the home would roast if suddenly exposed to direct sunlight. (Windows block SUV light.) They would get battered by wind and damaged or killed by frost in winter. Those that become outdoor plants should be transitioned slowly and methodically.

However, there are a few times a year when the weather is not expected to get too cold, hot or windy, when houseplants can come out to the garden to get very lightly rinsed with a hose. Taking them out immediately prior to a light rain is even better. Rain is gentler and more sustained than a brief and coarse hose rinsing. Both techniques rinse away dust and residue from insect activity.

Rinsing does not eliminate mite, scale or mealybug infestations, but temporarily eliminates the residue from such infestations, and somewhat disrupts their activity. Mites prefer dusty plants to clean ones. While plant are outside, it would be a good time for any necessary repotting, or to apply horticultural oil to control mites or scale. Mineral deposits can also be scrubbed from saucers and the bottoms of pots. If hosed during sunny weather, houseplants should be shaded by a larger tree or awning.

Autumn Really Was For Planting

70531thumbIt is easy to see why there are optimum times to prune, and just as easy to see when pruning should not be done. Generally, deciduous plants prefer to get pruned while dormant and bare. They should not be pruned when actively blooming or making new foliage. Roots are of course not so easy to see. Do we really know what they are doing, or what sort of mischief they are getting into?

Autumn is the best time for planting most plants. They are less active than they had been earlier in the year, and many are going dormant. Either way, they do not need much. Once in the ground, their roots are kept cool and moist by the weather. They get to sit there all winter, as they slowly begin to disperse their roots to get ready for the following spring. It all fits into their natural life cycle.

Shopping habits, however, do not. By autumn, many plants are neither as pretty nor as tempting as they were earlier in the year. By winter, the weather keeps many of us inside, and out of nurseries. Now that it is spring, it is difficult to resist all the pretty plants that are blooming so delightfully. We are tempted to buy them compulsively, even if we have no immediate plans for them.

That is okay. We can make this work. Buying certain plants in bloom actually has certain advantages. It shows how and when particular plants bloom. This might be helpful when trying to decide between different cultivars of deciduous magnolias, flowering cherries, flowering crabapples or wisterias, for example. Besides, they will finish blooming quickly, and start to produce new foliage.

If planted before new foliage matures, new plants should be planted in cool weather, and maybe sprayed lightly with water after the roots get soaked in. This is best for drought tolerant plants like ceanothus, that want out of their cans (nursery pots) as soon as possible. If new plants stay in their cans long enough for foliage to mature, they must be watered carefully, but not kept saturated. The black vinyl cans should be shaded, since they get warm in sunlight.

Frost Is History For Now

80328thumbThere is no doubt that frost will return next autumn. It does that every year. Right now, we are more concerned that is should not return prior to that. It is now safe to plant plants that are sensitive to frost. Even if the weather were to somehow get cold enough to necessitate protection of frost sensitive plants, it will not be severely cold, and it will not last long. It is best to start now than to delay.

It is also safe to prune away foliage and stems that were damaged by frost through winter. It was best to leave it in place through winter, both to provide a bit of insulation for undamaged stems below, and to not promote new growth. Pruning it away allows warming sunlight to the undamaged stems, and stimulates generation of new growth. A bit of new growth might already be apparent.

Many leafy perennials can be cut to the ground, or at least just above their rhizomes. The tall vertical canes of cannas can be cut back to the low horizontal rhizomes that creep along the ground. The canes are not really stems anyway, but are merely upright foliar shoots. Any shorter new shoots that are beginning to develop can remain, even if a few outer leaves happen to be damaged.

Zonal geraniums can likewise be pruned almost to the ground, leaving only stubs of lower stems, even if only upper and outer foliage was damaged by frost. Although they do not need to be cut back so severely, they respond to such pruning splendidly, with vigorous new stems and foliage. The fungal foliar disease known as ‘rust’ overwinters in old leaves that get removed in the process.

Lemons, limes and any other citrus that were damaged by frost only need to have their damaged stems removed as far back as viable growth, where new buds might already be visible. However, if more pruning is necessary, this would be a good time to do it. Major pruning should not be done later in summer because the sensitive bark of inner stems can be scalded by sudden exposure to too much sunlight. Small trees that are sensitive to frost become more resilient as the grow larger.