Question from Dan:
I just spent the past four hours reading your website looking for answers to several questions. My wife and I bought a house in Banning and moved in June 3rd. Since then I’ve been digging holes for blueberry bushes (6), raspberries and blackberries (4 each), and two 3×7 pits for vegetables. I’ve got quite a green thumb and intend to put it to use in a completely organic fashion. All the berry plants were bought from backyardberries.com and are certified organic.
The property is huge and was in need of tender loving care which I am now giving. I want to begin composting but I’ve got an inordinate amount of brown waste and very little green waste. Question number one, then, is should I send the brown to the dump and wait to begin composting when I’ve got a better ratio of green to brown waste or can I do something in the meantime with these four trashcan (western waste cans) of leaves, dead grass, pine needles, et al?
I read earlier that you recommend the blueberries to have a lot of water which is contrary to what Keith recommends at www.backyardberries.com. Of course, he is in Indiana so he could be wrong for where we live (near Palm Springs if you aren’t aware of Banning). My north fence line is under 75′ pine trees and when I dug the holes there was six inches of pine mulching naturally where I intended to plant so the soil was already quite acidic! Perfect! Anyways, my Sharpblue and Sunshine blues are doing well since the transplant but my Palomas are really struggling. I actually dug up one of them thinking that I set the root ball too deep and brought it up to slightly above the normal level of the slope. I’ve been watering on Sunday mornings a full gallon per plant and then sprinkleing a bit on Tuesday evenings to keep the mulched pine needles damp. Question number two. You know the types of blueberries that I have and know where I live, should I water these plants more often?
Of the brambles I bought from Keith, an Apache blackberry came out of the potted container in bad shape and has since lost all it’s leaves and the stalk is brown. Question number three, is there hope for the root system of this plant for next season? By the way, the other brambles are doing splendidly!
Regarding those tall pine trees, unfortunately I had to scale those trees and cut several branches to open up the sun to my plants leaving me with quite a pile of pine tree branches that I need to dispose of. Question number four. Is it a good or bad idea to work those pine branches (I know to only use the small parts) into the compost pile that I am going to start?
Finally, question number five, is it true that Marigolds planted around the vegetable garden is a nice way to keep most insects off the garden? What about around the blueberries and brambles? Same thing?
Thank you for this website and sharing all your valuable experiences and knowledge. I’m 50 years old but only recently really coming to terms with my gift… everything I plant grows! I guess that mom being from a family of farmers in Oklahoma and Dad being from a family of farmers in Iowa helped but I’m a surfer boy from Long Beach California who still is learning about this wonderous way of life.
Answer from Pat:
When beginning a new organic garden the first steps are to consider the soil and climate of the garden and then decide on a design. A small reference library of a few good books and garden magazines can be a huge help. I recommend Sunset Western Garden Book and my book Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening, Month by Month, as the keystones of any beginning garden library for our climate. By looking up all plants in Sunset Western Garden Book prior to purchasing you will avoid dozens of mistakes, and by reading my book beginning with the introductory chapter “What You Need to Know First” and then read each monthly chapter during that specific month of the year, you will know just what to do when. Start reading the July chapter now in July and carry on from there throughout the year, month by month. After reading it through for a couple of years you will know a huge amount about gardening in a Mediterranean climate. Much of the skill of gardening in Southern California is knowing what to do when and planting and tending for plants in tune with the seasons. Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine can also be a help, though some of the information discussed will not apply here and some of the plants are not grown here. Beware also of information published in local newspapers. Now that newspapers are on limited budgets they often pick up garden articles from cold-winter sources other than local ones and these frequently give wrong advice such as fall feeding for deciduous fruit trees, when spring feeding is usually a better practice in warm-winter climates. (Feeding in fall can stimulate growth instead of dormancy.)
Now for the climate: In Banning you are in Sunset Climate Zone 18, “Above and below the thermal belts in Southern California’s interior valleys”. This means that the continental air mass influences your garden climate more than does the oceanic air mass. Nonetheless, you are still living in a Mediterranean climate, not a Southwest climate. In a Mediterranean climate most rainfall occurs in fall, winter, and spring, with a long summer drought. In the Southwest desert and in the Southwest climates of Arizona and New Mexico, by contrast, summer monsoons are the norm, even if not this year. The area where the desert begins, east of the second range of mountains is a different climate from ours. It is a Southwest desert climate. Plants native to the desert, such as ocotillo and others, are adapted to summer rainfall, sometimes greening up and blooming several times a year, unlike the plants of the chaparral, such as flannelbush (Fremontedendron), that can be killed by summer irrigation.
Zone 18 where you live is a good place for growing many deciduous fruit and nut trees such as apricot, peach, apple, and walnut. Always consult the lists in Sunset before choosing varieties to plant so you will have the right ones for your climate. The same goes for berries. You have more winter chill where you live than we do along the coast but you still need to be aware of varieties and purchase the best ones for your climate. You may already be doing this since I note you purchased ‘Sharpblue’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’ Southern highbush blueberry varieties, which are the correct ones for your climate. I don’t know why ‘Paloma’ is not doing well, because it is also classed as a Southern highbush variety, but is known for early harvest. This might indicate it is sensitive to heat and thus not quite as vigorous in summer as the other varieties. (Even if you already know everything I have written here so far, I am covering the waterfront because this information could be helpful to other people reading this blog.)
Regarding watering of blueberries, they are best adapted to the conditions that make a camellia or azalea happy: That is acid soil and also moist soils. In order to maintain moist soils in our dry climate, we have to water more frequently than one would need to do in New England or the Middle West. In cool climates where rainfall is year-round, blueberries would require little additional watering.
Now for the soil: Most likely if you live in Banning on the valley floor, you have clay soil. This is not bad soil. Clay is filled with nutrients, but will require plenty of organic amendments to make it drain. If there is a problem with drainage, it could also benefit from regular applications of gypsum. Some agriculturists do not believe in adding manure to clay soil because of the build-up of salts, which can be a problem in any dry climate. However, if you can find a source of clean horse manure from an owner who picks up the manure daily so it doesn’t get pieces of salt in it, and doesn’t have too much bedding in it, this can be very helpful to the tilth and quality of your soil. The best time to top with manure is fall ahead of the rains which will then wash the goodness of the manure into the ground. Nothing is likely to do a better job of building up the ground than this. Other organic additives you can add if desired, such as John and Bob’s Soil Optimizer, Seaweed extracts, or humic acid, earthworm castings, etc. all will add to the goodness of the ground.
Regarding your composting. There is a difference between hot composting and slow composting. All the dry leaves, pine needles, and dry grass could be composted without adding anything. Just create a pile or dig a pit in shade and make sure there are no tree roots that can invade it. Wet down the pile and keep it moist. Everything will eventually rot. This is slow composting. A plastic sheet over the top can help to keep it from drying out in your climate. Be careful to monitor the pile. With dry grass in there, there could be more nitrogen than you think. It could get hot and burst into flames, so keep the pile moist and toss it if it really heats up. Years ago my husband and I rented a house on the beach in Malibu. A neighbor with a vacant lot next to us cleaned up his property and piled up leaves, grass, and pine needles against our fence. A rain got it wet and one night I woke up smelling smoke. The pile had burst into flames and was burning our fence. The fire department came and put it out.
Regarding the ‘Apache’, a thornless blackberry, cut off any dead parts, if you have humic acid, soak the ground with a solution. Humic acid stimulates rooting. If there is any life left in the plant it might wake it up and stimulate some growth. However, it sounds as if the plant is dead. I can’t know on this without looking at the plant. Sometimes it’s worth waiting a bit and seeing if something finally comes up from the roots. You never know, some hunk of the root might still be alive and if so will eventually send up a stalk.
Regarding marigolds. French marigolds (Tagetes patula) do kill nematodes, but only if planted solidly in a plot and left for an entire season. A tall variety called ‘Nema-Gone’ is just one of the types especially touted for this use. Nematodes are less of a problem in clay soils than in dry sandy ones and well-maintained soils with a high-humus content are less inviting to nematodes than dry soils without a lot of organics. Regardless of the scientific truth, however, there is a benefit in planting marigolds with vegetables and that is that the more different plants one can grow together, the fewer pest problems one will have. It is when we have a plantation of only one species all together in one place that pests move in en masse and are much more difficult to handle. In an eclectic home garden that is organic, pests do not have a chance to settle down and specialize on one particular type of plant. It is also important to grow many pollen-bearing flowers, such as herbs and wildflowers to attract bees and other beneficials.
Regarding pests on brambles such as blackberries, the worst pests are caterpillars, but they only eat the leaves. You could introduce trichogramma wasps to control them. Other controls include birds, but birds will also peck at the fruit. Bird netting protects fruit from birds. If fine enough might ever keep out cabbage butterflies. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is an organic spray that controls caterpillars. Spinosad is more effective but the problem with it is it kills bees. Handpicking at night with a flashlight also works.
As far as woody branches go, if you could invest in a chipper, you could grind the pine branches up for mulch. Woody mulch is excellent for keeping down weeds and maintaining moisture in the soil. Just don’t accidentally dig it into the ground because it will subtract nitrogen from the ground in order to rot. Eventually it will rot and improve the soil. A chipper is helpful when composting using the hot compost method, since small pieces of stem such as tomato stems or corn stalks rot much more quickly than big pieces.
It was fun reading of your enthusiasm and successes. Keep up the good work! At fifty you should have many happy years of gardening ahead.
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