California Drought – Summer 2014

Milewide Nursery, located in northwestern California, is surrounded by a typical hot Mediterranean climate. Even when we don’t have drought years, our summers are dry and hot; and our winters are mild and very wet, at least when we aren’t in drought. This last winter was very dry for us and, now, in August, we can see the difference everywhere in the forest and around the nursery.
The US Drought Monitor presently considers us in Exceptional Drought Conditions, with as much as 58% of our area effected. Our area is visited every few years by El Nino, a storm system that comes across the Pacific and can drop a lot of water on us. Well, early this spring there was a lot a hopeful talk that this upcoming El Nino being a drencher. The signs are there – something is coming in the fall, but it may not be the forceful kind of weather we need to break the drought. Remember, we don’t expect rain in the summer, but we do need it to store up our soils.
It is much harder to keep nursery plants wet. Lose some staff, miss a watering, get caught by an unexpected high 90 day and things die. In the forest, at least natural patterns are operating – the forest creates a canopy, vegetation diversifies, each finding its niche, green manure accumulates a little each year along with the compost mulch the forest is creating each year from the fallen duff and leaf. Our nursery benefits from mimicking some of these patterns.
We have tired to mitigate this year’s water shortage in a number of ways. Of course, we have mulched our trees and our beds whenever possible; we made several compost piles over the winter and we collected forest compost. With these in hand, we dressed each olive tree and all the other trees and beds on the farm – we put on a couple of inches of compost and a couple of inches of loose leaf. The important thing is that mulch is good and thick – at least 4 to 6 inches. I actually wasn’t that happy to be taking that leaf mulch away from my forest.
Drip is the word… install drips everywhere that you can. Section areas off so that you can use timers. Don’t use sprinklers… at least if you want to save water. And the droppers needn’t be the drop by drop type, you can make good use of a variety of emitters – visit was a good idea of the options you can use. Make sure that you keep your maintenance up, checking that the emitters are actually working – sometimes you don’t know before your plant is too wilted.
Half-bury your pots when you can. We have been placing gravel in our nursery areas so that we can nestle the pots down into the gravel – works real good with the roots coming out into the moist gravel. The easiest way to kill a plant is to put it into a pot; if you dig the pot into the ground a quarter to a third its height, the plant will have access to a larger volume of soil during emergency.
Place sensitive plants in the shade. Pretty simple, but it will save you.
Mist occasionally, adding humidity to the air. This can spell you between regular waterings but it won’t use up too much of your water.
And although it is very disheartening to watch your plants struggle or die, and the fires that plague our area are scary and destructive, the smog in the air still gives us beautiful red sunsets.


ps.. talk about a scary picture… check out this snowpack picture for California



I tell you; I love that Wikipedia. Preparing for this blog post, I took a peek at the entry for “landscaping” and the entry seemed to confuse more than help. Its not Wikipedia’s fault, turns out that landscaping is not simply defined. Consider the options; you can explore aquascaping, arboriculture, ecoscaping, horticulture, landscape architecture, landscape contracting, landscape design, landscape ecology, landscape engineering, landscape planning, naturescaping and sustainable landscaping. Quite a mouth full, eh? When I think of landscaping, I think of my gardens, my courtyard and the spaces around my home – I am going for beauty and for ease of use. Somehow, I think that I shouldn’t need a college degree to landscape. But,certainly, your landscaping efforts need planning.
Conscious landscaping can take place on any level – you can have a potted “landscape” within your home, or a pleasant shady “landscape” in your sunny courtyard, or a carefully crafted landscape “layout” surrounding your home.
One way to get a handle on this is to explore the various landscaping design elements – they turn out to be fairly standardized, but its not the list of design elements, its how you use those elements and which you use.
And in another big mouthful, here they are:

accent, association, asymmetry, balance, color, composition, density/mass, harmony, proportion, repetition, rhythm, richness, scale, sequence, simplicity, structure, symmetry, tension, texture, unity and variety.

Whew! We can’t explore all these here, but you might check out “landscape design elements” on-line for more information. If you would like to see many of these elements in action, pay a visit to where you will find 77,000 landscape design photos – very inspirational – fun to look at as well.
I am landscaping my new home. We have been here a couple of years now and, so, we have discovered many of the natural use patterns around us. Often your landscape will tell you how to design it if you can listen. Don’t force your will on your land and garden; this can be expensive and unsatisfactory. We built our house on a slight slope between a large live oak and the hillside and this allowed us to place a few vegetable terrace beds on the hillside and a “tree room” under the live oak. We have a small lawn space in front of our courtyard that changes into our hottub deck. And our roof is a flat wooden deck. We set these spaces up as separate “areas” that we would design around and within. Our rough landscaping was planned on as we designed our home. Even if you are not building a home, you want to integrate “landscaping” both inside and outside your home. “Pattern Language” talks about the crucial “edge” between these two spaces. We lined the edge around our house with pavers and moss – we can walk barefoot all around the house. “Pattern Language” is well worth looking over as it will change your take on designing things for yourself.
Because we tried planning, our landscaping decisions were easier. Large pots are fitting in nicely around our courtyard and on the deck. Outside our courtyard and across our small lawn area is a beautiful view of our local hills, so no large trees in that viewscape – unless they can help frame the view. We have three outdoor staircases and each provides planting opportunities along their edges – we have already planted several large flowered peony down the side of one staircase. An orchard surrounds the house, so fruit trees were a slam dunk. I think you get the idea.

– Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (Oxford University Press)
– These architects, after studying cultures across the world, developed a number     of “patterns” that humans use regularly to build their homes and cities. A very     accessible design approach.
– Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscaping – Naturally by Robert Kourik     (Chelsea Green)
– Explains design elements simply and offers sustainable (and edible) guidelines     for your garden.
– A Tuscan Paradise by Marina Schinz (Stewart, Tabori and Chang)
– Houzz
– Better Homes and Garden – – an example of a contracting service
– – edible landscaping

Cucumber beetle control…

Cucumber beetles (Diabrotica spp.- spotted and striped)

spotcukeThanks Univ of Kentucky

Recommended cucumber beetle IPM (Integrated Pest Management plan)

1. spray pyganic (pyrethrum insecticide) – kills flying beetles

2. drench with nematodes – attacks larve eating roots

3. hang yellow cards/ with clove scent – catches flying beetles


Tips on changing your growing environment -

- ID the spotted and stripped beetles – make sure you are treating for the targeted pest

- plant later in year – the infestation could be lighter

- cultivate soil – disturbs the eggs

- use heavy compost mulch – makes it difficult for the pests to move around

- use row covers – makes it difficult for the pests to move around


Other possible options -

- interplant marigolds as trap crops

- spray with compost tea

- use a dolomite/wood ash wash

- use kaolin clay spray under the leaves (cryolite/Kryocide 96W) – needs regular application

- use diatomaceous earth – needs regular application

- yellow sticky cards (with clove, cinnamon or bay leaf scent) – really does catch the pests. We recommend that you cut the yellow cards into wide strips and tie them to short bamboo stakes and place along your veggie bedsd

- use an insecticide off the ranch shelves – pyrethrum-based  – like  bifithrin

- use rotenone powder or Sevin 4F as knock down sprays if you need – very good summary of information


Please help me decide which image to post high resolution…

These pictures were taken on our ranch – even the pictures of my grandsons. Which pictures do you like best? I thought I would put up everyone’s favorite as a high resolution download. Make your choice on the poll.

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Controlling soil gnats and aphids

oh my! These guys can really wreck havoc with potted plants and they sneak right up on you. The root aphid is very pernicious and can easily be mistaken for some other problem – worse, it infects your entire production line. Fungus gnats are nearly as bad. Both of these insects, in turn, enable other problems to develop. These can include gray mold, susceptibility to other fungal diseases or the introduction of termites or grub worms.
If very badly infected, you may want to just throw the plants away(and burn the remains). To check for a bad infection of root aphids in potted plants, lift the pot up and look beneath it. If you see many little, scurrying whitish nymphs, you may need to toss that plant. The same with a fungus gnat infestation – if you see many small “gnats” rushing around the top especially coming up along the edges of the pot, then you may be too late and you might consider tossing the thing. You don’t want that plant sitting around as a vector of infection.
Once you have decided what to save and what to toss, you can begin treatment. Considering that the damage you see visible on the plant structure above the soil is the result of the root damage below the soil, you want to not only destroy the insect, but also help the soil and the roots to make a comeback.
Use an IPM (integrated pest management) approach as a way to think about the problem and to overcome these pests. In simple terms, an IPM involves knowing what your insect is, changing your growing environment, helping the plant to defend itself, attacking with biologics and following up with the heavy guns if you need to. All of this needs a calendared step by step application of biologics and pesticide.
First, pay attention to your growing environment – both the gnats and the aphids prefer a moist environment, so don’t let your soil get wet; do not overwater and check your PH – correct with dolomite powder. Too much water creates an insect friendly environment for both fungus gnats and root aphids. They also prefer dense quiet surroundings, so keep your plants clean, add some air circulation, and remove waste. This would also be a good time to put out sticky yellow cards to capture the flying fungus gnats; you do this both to monitor how bad the infection is but also to, simply, catch the things. If they are caught on a card, they can’t lay eggs. Before you start adding any biologics to the soil, apply a soil drench of hydrogen peroxide to contact kill what larve you can. The peroxide must be mixed 1 part peroxide and 4 parts water if you are using ordinary grocery store peroxide.
Now apply non-pesticide products intended to aid your plants against the pests. In this case, we are recommending Regalia, which enables the plant’s immune response system, as well as mycorizia, a soil fungus that symbiotically attaches to the plant’s roots and assists in the roots function.
How to use Regalia, mycorizia and compost tea.
Regalia is an extract of Reynoutria sachalinensis which is a little pricey, but effective. The product activates “a plant’s natural defenses to protect against a variety of fungal and bacterial diseases…” and helps the plant to produce “phytoalexins, cell strengtheners, antioxidants, phenolics and PR proteins” which all hold fungal disease back. Use it as a soil drench – let your soil dry out before application.
Mycorizia has been on the market for quite a while. It is a fungus itself that attaches to the plant’s roots, in effect extending the roots into the soil and increasing their performance. The mycoriza channels nutrients to the roots they attach to. Once an employee accidentally gave some of the nursery’s potted plants too much mycoriza (I think in the form of Dr. Earth) and although green and vigorous, they were stunted. When we pulled the plants out of their pots, we discovered that the roots clustered very close to the plant – no need to go anywhere else. When we re-potted them in fresh soil, they returned to normal, but they were always very large after that.
There is some controversy over the use of compost tea. Some say to brew it one way and some say another. Some say that it has no measurable effect, some say different. We are of the opinion that compost tea, whether anaerobic or aerobic, is a very good enhancer.  Foliar spray on the leaves for stronger and greener leaves and soil drench to add more microbes to the soil. Oh, and it is very easy to make. Some people buy air mixing pumps and special ingredients, but you can away with a 55 galleon drum and basic stuff like manure and seaweed power – add some compost enabler to spark things off.
Next apply the biologics -
How to use Gnatrol and nematodes
Gnatrol (bacillus thuringiensis) is alive; don’t let it get hot and use it in a brisk manner. Once it is in the soil, it will hatch and start eating gnat larvae. Add about a 1/2 pound to 100 gals of water. The yellow cards should be cut into pieces so you can better spread them around. When they fill with gnats, remove and replace. Nematodes ( steinernema feltiae) have a delay of about 7 days after application before they become active. They perform very well, but after their food is gone, they will leave – occasional re-application would be appropriate.
Outright pesticides would be last. Bear in mind that pesticides will often kill the good guys in the soil just as they will kill the baddies. Use them last. Having said that, we wouldn’t hesitate to use these pesticides if needed – we are just very careful. A pyrethrum-like pesticide such as bifenthrin works well. We water bifenthrin into the soil around the roots for root aphids and generally in the pot for fungus gnats – the product is a contact killer. We apply for three successive waterings. Use rubber gloves and a mask.
How to use bifithrin
Follow the package directions and the maker’s re-application intervals. Mix it well and drench your soil. Do not mix the bifethrin with other products. The stuff kills on contact.

good luck




The pungent, resinous, perennial, evergreen shrub Rosemarinus officinalis, commonly called rosemary, does well on a rocky slope.They don’t particularly like heavy soils and they can do without lots of water. Expect them to get 2’ high and 3’ or more broad.
Their leaves are thick and leathery needles that provide an attractive background for their small blue or pink flowers. Since the plant has Mediterranean origins, you will need to bring it inside if the weather drops much below 20 degrees – keep it in a pot and bury the pot in the ground during the summer if you get cold winters. Here in northern California I plant them in the ground (Zone 9). They make a great ground cover.
Keep the fertilizer to a minimum.
Rosemary is easy to harvest (Gorizia is my favorite culinary variety) – just take a pinch of needles and place them in your pasta sauce. My Sicilian Nana often sent me out into the backyard to collect sprigs for a chicken roast or for her pasta sauce. I like a lot; why not find out how much you like?
The rosemary also makes a nearly indestructible bonsai – it prefers a cascading style or a windswept style. Even if it looks bad, it looks good. It recovers well from abuse. In fact, the scrub’s tendency to rebranch and spread will keep you regularly nipping at that fresh growth. Keep an eye on how the main and lateral branches look; that is where the shape and character of your rosemary bonsai will develop. Plant in a tall urn-like pot for the cascading look and in a broad low pot for the more controlled bonsai look.


and, I just picked up a new gardening book (I am a bit of a fiend on books) called Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi (The Easy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes). He specializes in small bonsai. I like the idea of bonsai being accessible to the Everyman – myself included – the idea of inadvertently destroying a 15 year old bonsai is just too much for me. But it doesn’t have to be that way; Mr. Kobayashi presents a way to create very attractive table bonsai – and if one of them goes south, then make another. I am trying something very similar, but I would like to use more native trees and shrubs. And the bonsai I want are larger specimens – even if they are still accessible. The first plants I thought of were the rosemary and the japanese maple. Both grow well here in our zone 9 area.
Keshiki Bonsai also relies heavily on moss and having seen his examples, I also think that moss is a must have around the base of your bonsai. I am not sure what local mosses might serve and I will get back to you on that.
Of course, you don’t have to go all special and bonsai on the poor rosemary, it will make quite the display without your help – just remember that rosemary can really look good in the right setting, in a pot or as a ground cover.
Another time I will explain the process we use at Milewide to get a rosemary bonsai up to speed, but it involves getting the “trunk” right.