L.A. at Home

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Southern California Living

Category: Master Gardener

Master in training: 60 tomato plants later ...


One of the perks of the master gardener class I joined and blogged about was access to lots of free plants in various stages of development. Not knowing any better, I planted just about every tomato seed, plug or seedling that came my way. I was late in my staking and pruning, but thanks to June gloom that continued into August, I caught up, not really noticing I had about 60 tomato plants in various stages of development.

Then, suddenly, summer happened.

Tomatos-cannedIn the last month I’ve gone from selectively picking to harvesting as best I can, first with a child’s beach bucket and now with a tarp. It’s unrelenting — 8 pounds of about-to-fall fruit calling out to me every day. I eat some and can others, but I’m also putting the best of the best tomatoes aside, mindful of seeds for next year. I'm also starting a list of what worked and what didn't.

The Italian Red Pears, grown from Franchi seeds, were my first mail-order success. They also blossomed and fruited last despite placement in the hottest part of the front row, coming to maturity slowly in this summer we’ve had. They were well preceded by heirloom Black Zebras, seedlings that I got in class. The fruit were a beautiful striated green-black, as big as fists, and charmingly misshapen. They were delicious sliced thin, raw on crispy bread, a bed of basil and a top sprinkling of Cotija cheese. (Salt, pepper or vinegar were optional because the tomato’s acid-sweet blend is strong enough on its own.) The Zebras were full of seeds, and even though the plants only produced a couple of fruit per stem, they were worth the real estate. My third big save were Mortgage Lifter heirlooms I got from a friend. They’re another plus-size producer, sweeter and not as complex in flavor as the Zebras but more productive.

Different gardeners have different methods for saving seed. Keep reading for mine ...

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Don't ask the master gardeners for advice on growing pot

One of the mandates of the UC Extension Master Gardener program that I joined and blogged about earlier this year is that we share our newly acquired knowledge and offer gardening advice to our communities. One noteworthy exception: marijuana. It is the one plant for which we can’t offer advice -- not for growing, propagation or problem diagnosis. 

That definitive word came down last week from Pam Geisel, the statewide master gardener coordinator at UC Davis. She was passing along instructions from the office of the general counsel of the UC Regents (who oversee the master gardener and community garden programs) via their agricultural and natural resources division.

ANR policy prohibits any services “directly associated with the plant,” read the directive.

Even though medical marijuana is legal in California, and some “UCCE clientele might object” if we refuse to give advice, UC agents must remain silent when it comes to pot. A request for additional clarification has gone back to the Regents' general counsel, especially in light of the upcoming election, but “that policy will almost certainly say that we do not provide services for marijuana,” Geisel concluded.

It’s a bit of a nonissue for master gardeners locally. Yvonne Savio, who heads the program here in Los Angeles, told me she knew of only one telephone query to the Master Gardener phone helpline (323- 260-3238) or to mglosangeleshelpline@ucdavis.edu. And that was a few years ago.

Savio related the call: "The caller asked about growing a ‘grass,’ but when our MG suggested growing a drought-tolerant variety, the caller specified, ‘No, I mean marijuana’ to which our MG replied, 'No, I’m sorry, I can’t respond to that.'”

And just as master gardeners can’t advise on marijuana, community gardens — where many master gardeners work as volunteer advisors -- cannot provide real estate. Even if the grower has a permit to grow, community gardens are zero-tolerance spaces, Al Renner, the executive director of the Los Angeles Garden Council, told me at Solano Community Garden, a secret four-acre jewel of a garden on a slope right next to the 1941 tunnel on the 110.
“It’s hard to tell somebody to pull out what they consider medicine but we have rules. [And even then] kids go into the gardens at night and smoke and throw their seeds out, knowing they’re going to be watered. Sometimes they come back to me asking ‘Mr. Renner. Did any of those seeds I planted come up?’”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo: Medical marijuana for sale at a dispensary. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

How to prune tomatoes like a pro


Tomatoes are sometimes considered no-brainers to grow -- fruitful, rambunctious weeds that can thrive on indifference. That may be true for bush tomatoes, the varieties that politely grow to a certain size and then set out their fruit at about the same time.

Growing-Tomatoes-FeatheryBut so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which include most heirlooms,  require more attention. These plants easily can out-grow their welcome, sending out vines with minds of their own.

I needed advice for the dozens of adolescent plants in my Echo Park garden, so I attended a tomato workshop conducted by Judy Frankel, a graduate of the UC Cooperative Extension's Master Gardener program, who raises tomatoes and citrus in her backyard in Rancho Palos Verdes. Frankel runs the Rancho Palos Verdes Fruit Exchange and has about 35 tomato plants in the ground. The garden seems to have fewer because most are under such attentive control -- staked or caged, then pruned aggressively by removing the spotted, the diseased, the deformed and the useless.

“I have a rule,” Frankel says, snipping off drooping, fungal-splotched foliage from the base of one plant. “No ugly leaves.”

It’s a philosophy that can have big rewards. Indeterminate tomatoes are famously flavorful and can be charmingly robust, surging 10 feet high, bushy as a hedge -- and totally out of control. But with loving discipline -- a little cutting, a little staking -- that vigor can be channeled into some serious edible weight. To learn how, click to the jump ...

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Master gardener in training: Whittier woman crafts her own sustainable landscape


One of the primary messages of the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program I've been blogging about is sustainability, and one example of someone who transformed that sensibility into a lifestyle is Roxanne Sotelo, a 2001 Master Gardener graduate from Whittier. She catches rainwater, recycles much of her gray water and has five compost bins. When a 20-year-old avocado tree had a major pruning, nothing left the property. She composted everything.

“I could play with this all day,” says Sotelo, stuffing leaves down into the hopper of her 14-amp mulcher, a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband. “He knows what a gardener wants,” she says.

Well, he knows what this gardener wants.

The Sotelos live on a quiet street in a neighborhood where the lots are small and nearly everyone has the same front yard: a tidy square of manicured St. Augustine grass that fronts a sidewalk shaded by mature magnolias. The largest tree on the block towers over Sotelo’s front yard, where the lawn is partially covered with three raised beds, each 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. They are overflowing with flowering fennel, peppers, melons, eggplants, beans, chard, tomatoes -- an eruption of early summer vigor, mirrored across her driveway on a strip of dirt (technically belonging to her neighbor) that she has planted with the three sisters: corn, squash and beans. For more on Sotelo and her gardening strategies, keep reading ...

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Master gardener in training: What is 'damping off,' and how can I spare my seedlings from it?


There are few more discouraging garden problems than the botanical version of crib death, generically known as damping off: rotting seeds and shoots below soil or stems and seedlings above ground.  It can be caused by a number of fungi, some of which are ubiquitous in soils and can live indefinitely — however the main culprit is poor gardening: overcrowding, overfeeding and over-watering.

In my L.A. at Home series on the UC Extension's Master Gardener program, I've mentioned but not fully explained the term "damping off." It’s easy to write off seeds that don’t germinate to a bad batch rather than bad gardening, but at other times damping off is unavoidably apparent as seemingly viable seedlings suddenly lose all their vigor, wilting on hot days, dropping leaves prematurely, and, in worst cases, withering up and dying. This most commonly occurs in the first month. You’ll have to uproot the plant to determine if damping off is the problem and not salty soil, excess fertilizing, or insects.

Depending on the fungal culprit, the tap root may be slimy, wet, show lesions, or the lateral roots may be dark brown and dry (black root rot). A blackened sick-looking taproot suggests Pythium root rot especially if the soil is wet due to poor watering or poor drainage. The root will look rotted but won’t smell. You may also see white fungal threads encircling the root.

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Master gardener in training: Ladybugs are good, but lacewings and mantises may be better


The question is when, not if, aphids will find your tomatoes, or caterpillar holes will appear on the eggplants. For dealing with the inevitable pest incursion, my UC Extension Master Gardener class has been taught integrated pest management, which considers plant selection, physical barriers, trapping, biological controls and, as a last resort, the least-toxic pesticides.

Defending your planted real estate is possible only with a broad view. A knee-jerk reaction won’t help. So take a deep breath and consider the long-term potential of beneficial insects.

The goodwill ambassador of biological controls is the ladybug — cute, available at nurseries and able to eat 50 aphids a day. Ladybugs should be released at night, when they’re less likely to fly away for the garden next door (though they may do that the next day anyway).

Lesser known is the green lacewing, a.k.a. the aphid lion, pictured above. Lacewings may not be icons like ladybugs, but they can eat soft-bodied insects 20 times faster. Lacewing eggs — 1,000 fit in a pea — will hatch quickly, and because they lack wings, they will stay put in vegetable beds or in container plantings. 

MG609_pestsjeffIMG_0045 Praying mantises will eat anything that comes their way. Do not let the eggs hatch before you put them out (in the crotch of a tree, preferably). Mantises have terrible eyesight and will eat the first thing in their path — including siblings. Like lacewings, mantises do not fly. (That's a mantis egg sack, at right.)

The pint-sized king of the beneficial insects, however, is trichogramma, a genus of  parasitic wasp less than 1 millimeter long, or one-quarter the size of a grain of pepper. They are widely used in commercial agriculture, effective for controlling 200 kinds of moths and caterpillars, including horn worms and the cabbage loopers ravaging my dinosaur kale. The trichogramma kills — and I love this — by laying its eggs within its prey’s eggs. The wasp egg consumes its host from within and then emerges, alien-like, out of the back of the carcass, leaving behind a brown shell. The larva then goes on to eat more eggs. It is a killing machine.

It’s a bug-eat-bug world, Paula White from Orcon told my class. “Pick the right bug for the job.”

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Master gardener in training: Battling bugs

Caterpillar 1, bean plant 0.

In the UC Extension Master Gardener class, I've learned about the romance of seeds and seedlings, the chemistry of compost and mulch. Now it's time to face the less pleasant realities of the garden: pests -- more specifically, expert recommendations for fighting them off your vegetable crops.

Some bugs do more than eat my food. In the process they weaken the plant, making it susceptible to disease and environmental stress. The bugs aren't evil, just hungry.

Bugs2 Although pests can include vertebrates such as opossums, raccoons and gophers, in class our primary focus has been on insects, the good and the bad. Of the million species documented so far, fewer than 0.1% are considered pests. And by "insect," I'm only talking about bugs with six legs, three body parts and two antennae. Spiders and mites are arachnids. Pill bugs are crustaceans. Snails and slugs are in a weird little group of their own -- hermaphroditic, cannibalistic and living in a world defined by mucus.

Aphids, white fly, mealybugs and other pests move in gradually, almost invisibly. Most aphids are female and don’t need fertilization; put a meal in front of them and they become a baby factory, dropping eggs on the undersides of leaves and in buds. They excrete dew on the undersides of leaves, a sugary treat for ants that over time can become a petri dish for sooty mold. Psyllids do the same. A tomato horn worm, on the other hand, is not so subtle. It can reduce a healthy tomato plant to a stump overnight, starting at the top and chomping its way down. Caterpillars can be shockingly destructive because the irregular holes in the leaves are often blamed on snails and slugs, delaying proper diagnosis.

That's the first step: identifying the problem. How extensive is it? Then you should decide your threshold: How many aphids are too many? Pest and weed specialist Cheryl Wilen talked to my class about integrated pest management, an environmentally aware and holistic approach promoted by the UC Cooperative Extension. The IPM rules are flexible and friendly to organic gardeners: Set a threshold, identify and monitor pests, prevent if possible, and as a last resort, control.

Identifying your problem is tricky. Here are questions to consider:

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Master gardener in training: learning
to love seeds and nurture seedlings


MGseeds2 For the first time in my gardening life, I feel like a parent. I’ve grown a selection of plants from seed and teased out more seedlings from some adopted mini-plugs. I've eased them into the ground and through their transplant shock. They’ve developed their first true leaves, taken on an identity.

MGseeds3 In the UC Extension Master Gardener program this spring, I've gained a new respect for the seed in all the forms it takes, from the fine powder of lettuces to the softball-sized coconut from an oil palm. For the first time, I’m reading closely the information on the seed packets. 

All seeds are embryos and contain the starchy energy for their first growth in the cotyledon. A monocot, such as corn, has one cotyledon, but the majority of flowering plants are dicots, with two halves. When the first leaf surfaces, if it's grass-like or hollow (like an onion), it's a monocot. If there are two first leaves (like a pepper), it's a dicot.

If a small seed is planted too deeply, all its reserves will be used trying to get to the surface, leaving nothing to feed these first leaves. For this reason it’s best to plant seeds no deeper than their length. 

Newly planted seeds should be watered twice a day until the first leaves emerge -- when they can be transplanted from trays or pots. Water once a day until the second set of leaves appears and then start a less frequent/deeper watering pattern to encourage deeper root growth. (Some seeds are best sowed directly in the ground -- peas, melons, carrots, beans and flowers -- because they don’t transplant well.)

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Master gardener in training: backyard orchards


As you might recall from the Thursday post on my Master Gardener class, Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery was lecturing on backyard orchards and high-density planting -- putting lots of fruit trees in a small space. This backyard method has become a trend among commercial growers, especially in the avocado fields of Ventura County. There are three key issues: choosing successive ripening varieties, controlling tree size through aggressive summer pruning, and growing varieties you know you will use.

The area can be small -- four trees in a 10-by-15-foot space, either all together or in four separate holes. Pruning means fruit are within arm’s reach -- and that bird netting and trimming tasks can be done in minutes. By planting successively ripening varieties, you can have a reasonable amount of edibles nearly year round: peaches from May until September, apples from June to November, pears from July to October.

If four trees sounds like too much work, you can always get a single tree with multiple varieties grafted onto it. An apple tree with six varieties of successive ripening fruit on one rootstock can be espaliered in an area 5 feet wide by 5 feet tall and 12 inches from the fence. They’re not cheap, of course -- not unless you factor in the carbon costs of that shiny Red Delicious in the supermarket.

Once you've chosen the right varieties, the mini-orchard is managed through controlling the tree’s vigor, its natural predilection for growth. Feed trees to develop structure their first few years with a mix that is high in nitrogen (a 12-3-3 mixture of nitrogen, potassium and potash). But once established, reverse the formula  to 3-12-12. Nitrogen will push your trees just like it pushes your lawn, Spellman told us. You get more fruiting and flowering wood when you take nitrogen out of picture.

When selecting a tree, consider the runts, something that already has low branches. The tallest isn’t always the best for a backyard orchard.“We’re not looking for fruit trees,” said Spellman. “We’re looking for fruity bushes.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo: An espaliered tree with three types of apples. Credit: Ann Summa

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Master gardener in training: The minutia of mulch

Digging As readers of my posts know, I'm enrolled in UC Extension's Master Gardener program and sharing some of the lessons here.

In a recent class on backyard orchards, our speaker, Tom Spellman from Dave Wilson Nursery, began with an impassioned plea for mulching. Rather than spend hours making his own compost, he gets a $10 truckload of mulch and spreads it up to a half-foot thick throughout his home orchard. The benefits are obvious, he said.

MG_Mulch_Detail“It does three things: It keeps your ground temperature during the warmest part of the summer cooler by 15 or 20 degrees," he said. It also makes better use of your irrigation water by 50%, probably saving $25 a month on the water bill. And it "brings back the bioactivity in your soil" while making trees more resistant to disease or pests.

Mulch is not compost, although it will become compost when it breaks down. Whereas compost gets mixed into the soil, mulch sits on top, offering protection from the sun along with natural weed suppression. And just as with compost, mulch choices abound.

Organic mulch should have no more than 15% of any one type of material — horse stable bedding, eucalyptus leaves, wood chips and the like. Select the largest grind possible. If you have pets, avoid cocoa mulch or coco coir mulch. Both can be toxic. Use eucalyptus or oleander mulch in areas where you don’t want anything to grow.

You can get free mulch from the city of Los Angeles or get in touch with a local tree service company such as Marcuson Tree Works. Josh Marcuson, the U.K.-trained arborist in Elysian Park pictured at top, runs his trimmings and cuttings through a chipper and delivers the mulch free to Farmlab, local residents, community gardens and schools. He avoids dumping charges, and gardeners get a mulch blend that has been vetted by an expert. Anytime is a good time to mulch, he says, even before you plant. The mulch conditions and softens the soil.

Friday: backyard orchards.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos: Ann Summa

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