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Updated: 1 year 19 weeks ago

Thinning fruit; growing peppers

June 12, 2016 - 8:47pm

Summer is almost officially here!  It seems that as the climate warms, more people are getting a jump start on the season much earlier. I saw lots of summer squash already at the farmers market last week and some people are picking cherry tomatoes already! But I was happy with my harvest a few days ago of several small cabbages, (which went into a batch of sauerkraut).  I love to watch how fast the warm season crops grow now and trust that they will be giving crops soon.

Many fruit trees are loaded this year. We had close to “normal” winter chill and some much-needed rain, resulting in good fruit set. Unfortunately, this can lead to breaking branches and stressed trees too. Thinning crops – whether on trees or in the ground – is one of the hardest tasks for gardeners. You invest in a crop, so may feel that you deserve all the fruit.  Or it may seem like the fruit/plants are your babies that you cannot bear to eliminate before they are mature. But too much fruit on a tree, (or plants too close together), can actually be harmful.

Broken branches can destroy the tree’s structure, expose the bark and fruit to sunburn, and make it more vulnerable to pests and diseases. It can take years to repair this damage. And even if branches don’t break, when branches are bent with heavy fruit for too long, they can stay in that position and start to look more like a weeping than an upright tree. This is especially problematic with younger trees that have not reached full height. The strongest angle for main tree branches is around 45 degrees, so if a branch becomes more horizontal, it becomes more vulnerable to breaking.

In addition, it takes a lot of the tree’s energy to ripen fruit. If too much fruit is on a tree it will have less energy for growth. And, if energy is limited, the tree won’t have reserves to have much fruit next year. Fruit bud potential for many trees is determined the prior June, so now is the time to make sure your trees are not stressed or overloaded with fruit.

How much is too much fruit? Like the answers to most gardening questions, it depends on many factors, including the overall health of the tree and your goals eg, growth vs. fruit production, or total yield vs. larger size individual fruit.  But some general guidelines include:

Apples – No more than 2 per spur; one per spur if total load is high and more growth is needed.

Pears – As per apples if heavy load; can be 3 per spur if light load and plenty of vigor.

Peaches & nectarines – Should not be touching when full size; a hand span apart is best.

Plums – Can be closer than peaches but reduce crowding to lighten load and increase fruit size.

Persimmons – Take off every other fruit if heavy load; lighten branch ends.

Even if fruit is thinned, you may need to prop branches for support. Use 2×2 or 2×4 lumber, old broom handles or other sturdy supports and pad the spot that meets the tree with rags, old sponges, etc. Lift the branch gently to position the support and make sure that it won’t trip someone or get bumped by machinery.

A very different crop that may need some extra attention at this time is peppers. I like to grow plenty of peppers so I can preserve some to add color and that special flavor to winter and spring greens.  I’ve found that peppers do not do well unless temperatures are warm and there are plenty of nutrients and moisture in the soil, especially when plants are young. I often add a little extra organic nitrogen-containing fertilizer when peppers are planted and/or water with diluted fish emulsion a few times. Especially for types with larger size fruit, it’s important to build a large plant with big leaves to support the peppers and shade them from sunburn. All peppers will ripen to red, orange or yellow, but leaving them on the plants long enough to ripen often leads to sunburn. Since ripe peppers taste so much better and are higher in nutrients, I let my peppers turn color before picking.

May your gardens thrive this summer!


Cool weather challenges; weeds-into-gold

May 11, 2016 - 2:39pm

Our weather turned cool this May, which has been wonderful in some ways. The rush to get warm season crops in the ground is less pressing and watering is less critical. But the cool weather is presenting its own challenges too. Small amounts of rain like we’ve had can help keep seed beds moist but doesn’t really soak in. The strong winds in late April and early May pulled a lot of water out of the ground. I was surprised at how dry the soil my garden beds was when I planted my tomatoes last week, though mulched perennial beds are still moist.

Cool weather also means that warm season crops germinate and grow slowly. Seeds can rot in the soil if it is not warm enough and slow growth gives pests and diseases an advantage. Earwigs, slugs, snails, and birds can be devastating at this time. Some gardeners feel that this is the one time that bare soil in a garden with newly planted annuals is a good thing. Bare soil absorbs heat from the sun much better than mulched soil and does not provide as much hiding space for leaf eating critters.

I often put green strawberry baskets upside down over newly planted or emerging seedlings to keep birds off. Small chicken wire “hoods” can work well too. Floating row cover protects seedlings from all of these pests plus aphids and the flies whose larvae become leaf miners, but you can’t see your plants through them!  Some farmers are starting to use a product for pest exclusion called ProtekNet that you can see through and lasts much longer than row cover. I hope that it becomes available in garden size quantities at some point.

SluggoPlus is a product that helps control slugs, snails, earwigs and pill bugs, but it is expensive. Snails can be controlled by nightly patrols with a flashlight. You can stomp on them or collect in a bucket, (with tight fitting lid), and give to someone who has chickens. Same with slugs, though you will need a tweezers or clippers…. And look closely in dense foliage like agapanthus, ivy and rosemary shrubs, as snails often live in these. Or make traps with shallow dishes of beer or other fermented liquid.  These critters also like to hide out between nested nursery flats or pots, so you can put those in the garden, but make sure to check them daily, shaking the pests into buckets.

Weeds are loving this cool, moist weather too. Can you use weeds “harvested” now as “straw” mulch next month?  Many of us are thinking about how to close, or at least reduce, our organic material import/export cycle these days. Weeds that have not yet gone to seed and won’t root and grow again, (like Bermuda grass would), can be skimmed off just below the soil surface, or mowed or weed whacked. Leave to dry for a couple of days then rake up and store to use as mulch.

This material would also be great to layer with kitchen waste in your compost. If you like the idea of making your own compost but are having trouble integrating it into your life, it may be helpful to create better systems that make composting easy. Some people find it helpful to have 2 lidded buckets or bins just outside near the kitchen. One has dry organic material like weeds, leaves, straw, etc. You put a layer of this material in the collecting bucket, then every time you dump some non-animal kitchen waste into the collecting bucket you add a layer of the dry material. This should prevent the kitchen waste from getting slimy and stinky. When the collecting bucket is full you add it to your in-process compost. When your in-process compost has enough materials collected to make a pile at least 3’ x 3’ in size, add  water, as needed, (should be like a wrung-out sponge), and let it “cook”. A second pile then becomes your in-process pile.

Participating in this waste-into-gold process can be very gratifying! For more information on composting, the Master Gardeners are holding a series of workshops this summer. See

May your garden grow well!


Bursting spring; planting potatoes in limited space; spring pests.

April 2, 2016 - 9:05am

Wow, what a powerfully beautiful spring we are having! With the blessing of water in the ground and adequate winter chill, fruit trees, roses and other plants that go winter dormant are bursting into bloom and new growth. Although there are still puddles and very wet soil in some places, the soil in my garden is perfect for working  and raised beds may even be getting dry. I’m finding big variations in soil moisture. Remember that you cannot tell how moist soil is a few inches down by looking at the surface, so keep a small shovel or hand trowel handy to dig down and check.

Sometimes we get what we ask for. We are lucky to have gotten the rain we’ve been praying for, and some plants that I’ve been encouraging have now “naturalized” in my garden. The “cover crop” in much of my garden this winter was mache (aka.“corn salad”), Miners lettuce and parsley. I’ve been enjoying, (and sharing), these along with my over-wintered lettuce, escarole and endives. Since these are all starting to bolt, (go to seed), now, I have been clearing out areas by cutting roots off just below soil surface. Those beautiful greens are too good to waste, so I’m laying them down in thick layers around paths and perennials to act as a mulch. Many weeds that have not gone to seed can be used as mulch too. Alternately, they would be great to use in compost.

Last year I got to expand my garden and build a new bed, which I promptly planted to potatoes. Since it’s important

Seed potatoes in a trench.

to not grow potatoes in the same spot 2 years in a row, I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in a row of them in the last couple of weeks without taking out plants I’m still harvesting from. Potatoes are tubers – modified stems – that grow above the “seed” potato. Any part of the stem that is buried will make potatoes, and the parts above soil level make green leaves. I like to plant potatoes in a trench that is 4-8” deep, then as the stems grow, I gradually cover with soil, always leaving a couple inches of leaves exposed to keep growing. Since I did have space on the edge of a bed, I realized that I could put the soil from the trench in buckets or old potting soil bags instead of piling it on the edge of the trench.

After taking the photo to the right, I planted each seed potato in place covered by about an inch of soil. No need to water the seed potatoes at this point; I check expectantly for new shoots to emerge and when they are clearly growing, I will start watering my potatoes.

Unfortunately, spring pests burst forth with the warm weather we had some days in March too. We have not seen many slugs or snails the last couple of years due to the drought, but they are around and breeding now. Cleaning out those over-wintered plants and weeds exposes the slugs, and I check carefully in established plants for snails. Leaf miners exploded in the leaves of my chard and beets, so I check those carefully too and destroy the leaves or parts of leaves with leaf miners in them. And I saw one harlequin beetle in a tree collard, so am keeping a close eye on them too. Rodents have gotten active as well; moles, voles and gophers are tunneling and breeding, so trap them if you can. Mowing the grass and weeds reduces hiding places for these rodents and makes it easier for predators, (eg. hawks, owls, coyotes, and hunting cats), to catch them.

I just read an article about the importance of systematic “monitoring” for pests on farms. The author recommended walking the farm on the same day each week with a clipboard and chart to record numbers of certain pests or disease symptoms on certain crops to help determine patterns and when it could be necessary to implement controls. A key point was to be aware of a potential problem and take action before a full “infestation” occurs. When doing this on a garden scale, it can just be about slowing down and paying attention in the garden. Look to really see what is going on, and be patient. This is also how one develops a deeper relationship with your garden and the process becomes more satisfying over time.

Wildflowers are popping too, so since it’s still too early for the main summer plantings, take a break from your garden and get out for a hike where you can enjoy nature’s glory.

Happy spring!