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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Push Back That Fence!



It drives me nuts when people install a fence on top of their front-yard property line, or flush with a corner of their house. That is, unless there’s a compelling reason to do so.

Instead, I much prefer stepping back the fence a few feet, or sometimes pulling it forward.

Doing so creates a sense of depth, provides all sorts of planting possibilities and is far more interesting than simply erecting a flat, hard face against a sidewalk or in line with the exterior of your home.

While it may have been nearly a year since I wrote the following for Fine Gardening magazine, the advice still holds true today.





Martha Garstang Hill, the very talented artist who drew the illustrations, granted permission for me to display her work here on my website. You can view more of her creations at

The illustrations are also reprinted with permission © 2012, The Taunton Press, Inc., Fine Gardening issue #147, September/October 2012. You can visit the magazine’s website by clicking here: Fine Gardening.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton, Martha Garstang Hill and the Taunton Press. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text, illustrations or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Conserving Water: Making Every Precious Drop Count

Summer 2013

Summer 2013

In a grand sense, conserving water in the garden is imperative. Limited supplies, uncertain rainfall and drought are all very real issues on the Central Coast.

It’s easy enough to shift your ornamental plantings to a wide variety of California native and Mediterranean species that require little water or no water. But putting edibles on a water diet can be tricky.

Folks converting to edible landscapes often see their water bills rise after they plant their first crops. The natural inclination is to keep the plants well hydrated, and some edibles — including annual vegetables — need lots of water to sprout, grow and produce delicious food in short order. Sweet summer corn, for instance, is a water hog. I let mine go too dry too frequently last year. The result: stunted stalks and tough, shriveled kernels on the few ears that formed.

However, some veggies, such as garden-fresh tomatoes, actually benefit from reduced irrigation. So while you may use more water to grow your own food, you can also take steps to avoid wasting it.

Getting Started

Good soil prep is essential. Work at least 3 to 4 inches of compost into the top 12 inches of soil. Along with boosting fertility, compost acts like a sponge, retaining moisture and offering nooks and crannies for oxygen to reach the roots of your plants. In clay soil, compost works by pushing apart tiny soil particles to facilitate better air and water movement. In sandy soil, it encourages water to linger, rather than whooshing through.

Run drip irrigation or soaker hose between your plants to apply the water directly to the soil and the roots below. Or hand-water from a bucket or hose. Just don’t splash water everywhere. If you save warm-up water from your shower, store it in a rain barrel so you can water when you need to, rather than arbitrarily emptying a bucket every day. Shape basins around your edibles to prevent runoff, or plant on raised rows with furrows along each side that you can flood. Some water will evaporate, but not as much as if you use sprinklers.

Avoid sprinklers, which can throw water indiscriminately, lose significant moisture to evaporation and hit the leaves and fruit, possibly leading to disease.

Apply an inch or two of mulch to retain surface moisture. Use fine-textured compost, topper, straw or other loose, organic material. Some folks suspend lightweight, translucent row covers over their crops to slow down evaporation. I’ve not tried them, but they might work.

Ongoing Care

Whatever your method, water in the morning. Your plants will appreciate the moisture as they greet the day. And it’s generally cool and still, so any exposed water won’t evaporate as quickly as when daytime temperatures and breezes pick up.

Do not use an irrigation timer. Most veggies — even those that require regular water — don’t need the next round until the top inch of soil dries out. That moment depends on your mulch, soil type, wind and what’s happening overhead with brilliant sun or overcast skies. A timer is not a substitute for your personal touch.

Check the moisture with a screwdriver or hand weeder. Either one will slide right in if the soil is still damp, or be tough to poke if the soil has dried out. If your plants wilt mid-day, then rebound in the evening, you may not need to water. But if the leaves stay seriously limp, you’re not irrigating enough.

When you do water, soak the soil. As with permanent plantings, you want to promote deep rooting, which comes from saturating the soil, then letting the top inch or so dry out before watering again.

Low-Water Crops

Tomatoes easily top the list. For years, I’ve been promoting teasing out their flavor by limiting the water. Stingy irrigation is simply the best way to concentrate their rich, full taste. Your plants may look terrible, but your harvests will be fabulous. The technique works with tomatillos as well.

As for other summer veggies: once they’ve gained enough size to shade their own roots, peppers and eggplants haven’t been super thirsty in my garden. Potatoes don’t require much water, either. I grew a nice batch of reds this spring without irrigating at all — although a few rain showers undoubtedly helped. This season, I’m planning to limit water to my zucchini plants to see if that can slow down their over-abundant, late-summer production.

In your own garden, there’s bound to be trial and error. You don’t want to water so much that you dilute the flavor. But in withholding water to intensify the taste, you probably don’t want leathery, thick-skinned fruit that yields just a tiny blast of savory goodness.

Yet tinkering with those nuances is what many of us enjoy about gardening. It has a lot to say about how connected to nature we feel when growing edibles. And nothing beats getting it right.

Dry Farming

Santa Barbara County has a rich history of this centuries-old technique, which banks winter-time moisture for dry, summer days.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, local growers dry-farmed wheat, barley, hay, beans, corn, peas, potatoes, garden vegetables and fruit. With the advent of irrigation, first for alfalfa and sugar beets, then for vegetables and other crops, dry farming faded away. But not entirely — Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon dry-farms its grapes, and last year, I spotted a few acres of dry-farmed tomatoes in Carpinteria.

Dry farming takes prep, space and heavier soil that hangs onto every drop of water. While it’s too late this year, the following is the general idea for vegetable crops.

Grow a cover crop over winter. Next spring, while the soil is damp — but not saturated — till in the cover crop at least a foot deep. Till every few weeks, several more times. The goal is to push the organic material deep into the soil while bringing up residual moisture that’s otherwise locked in below.

A crumby “dust mulch” of dryer soil should begin to form on the surface. Tamp down the dust mulch in late spring to “seal” the soil, then plant your seedlings. Their emerging roots should seek out the subsurface moisture, then follow it downward, developing such a broad, deep network that they won’t need further watering from above.

Your yields may be smaller, but the flavor is often unsurpassed.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Compost: Feed Your Veggies and They’ll Feed You

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

One of the best ways to bring edibles to life is to work nearly dead material into the soil.

Indeed, decomposing matter, in the form of compost, is truly a wonder product. It adds nutrients, activates beneficial soil microorganisms, improves tilth and drainage, and boosts the vitality of your crops.

What’s more, you can make your own.

Getting Started

A simple setup consists of one or two bins measuring 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 3 feet tall. Store-bought kits are typically brown or black recycled plastic. Or you can build your own from four posts, enough broad slats or chicken wire to enclose the sides and a tarp to cover the top. Slits between the slats should be wide enough for air flow, but narrow enough to keep out rodents and inquisitive pets.

Where to site your bins is open to debate. Our two “cook” faster in the sun, although shade doesn’t bring the process to a screeching halt. Convenience is probably more important, as is a nearby faucet. You’ll need to water your pile regularly to keep the decomposition going.


The beauty of home-made compost is that the ingredients should already be on hand.

Indoors, collect fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and leftover grains, including stale bread, rice and pasta. Do not use meat, fat or dairy products. Home compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill pathogens that can contaminate the batch.

Outdoors, gather leaves, lawn clippings, yard trimmings and leftover potting soil. Don’t compost weeds bearing seeds or any potentially diseased material, such as spent tomato plants. Toss those into your green waste: commercial composters generate enough heat to kill contaminants.

You can also collect kelp. Harvesting seaweed in the water requires a sport fishing license and is limited to 10 pounds per day. But any that’s washed up on the sand is fair game. Just don’t do so right after a storm, when upstream pollutants may have washed into the shore water.

Whatever the material, chop, cut or break it into pieces an inch thick or smaller, to hasten decomposition. Throw a three-inch limb onto the pile and it may take years to break down.

The Mix

An ideal mix is three parts brown (carbon) to two parts green (nitrogen).

Brown waste is literally brown or tan, such as dried leaves, twigs and stale bread. Green waste includes fresh leaves, lawn clippings and produce scraps.

You’ll make the quickest compost by filling the entire bin at once. Layer the materials: a few inches of green, followed by a few inches of brown, and so on. Wet each layer as you go. Moist — but not sopping wet — piles decompose faster than those that are bone dry.

Cover the pile. It should begin to kick off heat within a few days, indicating microbes at work. If not, mix in more green material. Or if the pile smells like ammonia or any grass clippings appear slimy, mix in some carbon instead.

Dampen and turn your pile once a week. The components should start to break down in several months, then turn rich brown. Once the mix smells fresh and crumbles through your fingers, it’s ready to go into the garden. Sift out any larger chunks that haven’t decomposed and save them for your next batch.

An Alternative

Adding all the ingredients at once doesn’t account for ongoing contributions.

That’s why a second bin is handy. I save food scraps in a tight-fitting container on my kitchen counter, then add them to my first bin once a week, along with yard trimmings. Every few weeks, I water the pile and turn it. There’s little heat, but the material does ever so slowly degrade.

When the contents finally reach the top, I dig out a few shovelfuls of the most decomposed material, spread it on the empty bottom of bin #2, then begin my bit-by-bit process again. In the meantime, I occasionally water and turn bin #1. The compost is usually ready in 6 months to a year, which conveniently is just about the time that bin #2 is full.

Worm Composting

This is for folks who generate some kitchen waste, but little yard waste. The worms thrive on table scraps and produce worm castings — worm poop — which are a surprisingly wonderful soil amendment.

You’ll need a worm bin, special red worms that thrive in close quarters and a spot where the temperature stays between 55 and 75 degrees. Provide nesting material, such as leaf mold, shredded newsprint and a few handfuls of soil. Add scraps slowly at the outset, to give the worms time to build up their numbers. As with outdoor bins, avoid meat, bones or dairy products.

This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Beneficial Insects: The Good Fight


Convergent lady beetles at the ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Laboratory in Newark, Delaware.

Stand in the middle of your garden, close your eyes and listen.

Mentally screen out any urban noise — planes overhead, barking dogs, traffic, children — and focus on the natural world. You might hear the hum of honeybees, chirping of birds, wind rustling through leaves or tall grass, or rhythmic drips of moving water.

Those familiar sounds bring a feeling of peace, right?

But take out a magnifying glass and you’ll find that that sense of calm masks a silent war of sorts. On a microscopic level, pests and predators are battling to the death amid the leaves and soil of our gardens.

That’s not a bad thing.

To flip it, predators of pests are actually beneficial. They help keep our gardens healthy by combating pests that might otherwise damage or destroy our crops.

Use of predator insects dates back some 1700 years, when citrus growers in China colonized yellow fear ants to protect against insect pests. The growers linked their trees with bamboo strips so the ants could more easily move from one infestation to the next.

Most of us were introduced to beneficials when we were children, via ladybugs. The cute, round bugs are real charmers. However, their ability to annihilate pests should not be underestimated. Indeed, the importation of Australian ladybird beetles to southern California in the 1880s saved the fledgling citrus industry from a deadly wipeout threatened by cottony cushion scale.

The Big Three

Today, aphids are often the gateway pest that sparks interest in beneficial insects.

Ron Whitehurst, a pest control advisor and co-owner of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, a company in Ventura that produces and distributes insects and other organisms, supplies and tools for biological control of pests, advises first simply blasting aphids with water. Next up, a soapy solution of an ounce and a half of liquid soap to a gallon of water.

If neither works, he then suggests releasing beneficial insects.

Convergent ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) are a good start, especially early in the year when other beneficials might not be as active. They are voracious eaters: a single black and orange-spotted alligator-shaped larva may eat 400 aphids before it pupates, while an adult may eat 5,000 aphids during its year-long life.

A green lacewing larva dines on whitefly nymphs.

When temperatures warm up, green lacewings can be even more effective.

The larvae devour not only aphids, but caterpillar pests, eggs and young larvae of Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, leaf hoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scales, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. As a bonus: unlike ladybugs, green lacewing larvae can’t fly away.

Also, it’s interesting to note that once the larvae mature to gossamer-winged adults, they become vegetarians, supping only on pollen and nectar.

A third aphid-eater Whitehurst recommends is Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

“The mamma Aphidoletes comes around and finds aphids. The baby, a little orange maggot, spears the aphids and sucks them dry and throws them off the plant,” he said. “They tend to colonize. You could do one release, then let them grow and develop.”

Beyond Aphids

To conquer spider mites, thrips, moths and other pests, a second tier of beneficial insects awaits.

“If people are growing lettuces and culinary herbs, spider mites would be one of the things that would be a major pest problem,” Whitehurst said. “From a cultural standpoint, use overhead watering. Spider mites like it hot and dry. So increase the humidity and decrease the temperature to make them less competitive.”

Absent that, he recommends predator mites. Neoseiulus californicus battles spider mites as well as persea mites, which are especially pernicious bugs that suck the chlorophyll from avocado leaves and eventually defoliate the trees.

A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs.

Minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus) go after western flower thrips, onion thrips and whiteflies.

Or for a one-two punch, Whitehurst recommends Ambleyseius cucumeris, which tackles thrips on the upper part of a plant, and Hypoaspis miles, a soil-dwelling mite that feeds on thrips as they drop on the soil to pupate.

“If you grow a bunch of culinary herbs, it would make sense to inoculate early in the season with those two predator mites to bring down the population of thrips,” he said.

Trichogramma wasps are parasitic insects that lay their eggs within the eggs of over 200 pest moth species. The trichogramma larvae eat the innards of the pest eggs, pupate, then emerge as winged adults, ready to lay ever more eggs. The wasps are especially effective against cabbage caterpillars and worms.

Creating a Habitat

You can grow your own beneficial insects by the way you garden.

“We want to emphasize the whole basic organic or biological approach to gardening,” Whitehurst said. “Focus on feeding the microbes in the soil so the roots on the plants are healthy. Then fertilize with compost and use mulch where appropriate. That will again feed the soil microbes and feed the decomposer insects that feed the predator insects, like the predatory ground beetles and wolf spiders.”

Golden trichogramma wasps parasitizing insect eggs.

Now you don’t have to be a purist. It’s fine to buy beneficials. But to entice them in the first place, or encourage them to stick around after they’ve devoured your pests, sustenance is a must.

The trick is to plant plants that provide a succession of pollen and nectar year-round. The patch can be left a little weedy or wild, and should never be sprayed.

“Dill is a real champ as far as having this umbel-shaped flower that has nectar available to big insects and little insects,” Whitehurst said. “Several others in the Apiaceae family are fennel, cilantro and anise. You can grow more moderate versions. Ornamental bronze fennel is a little more reserved than the wild fennel.”

Other herbs to sustain beneficials include angelica, anise hyssop, borage, caraway, chamomile, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, teucrium, thyme and yarrow.

Native plants include milkweed (Asclepias), saltbush (Atriplex), coyote brush (Baccharis), wild lilac (Ceanothus), buckwheat (Eriogonum), toyon (Heteromeles), bladder pod (Isomeris) and coffeeberry (Rhamnus).

A handful of miscellaneous plants includes golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), bell beans, black-eyed peas, bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), corn, cosmos, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), sunflowers and white clover (Trifolia repens).

Lending a Hand

An adult assassin bug, Zelus renardii, feeds on a Lygus bug, which disfigures and damages strawberries.

After you’ve built up an ecosystem and colonized beneficials in one spot, it’s easy to move them to wherever trouble is brewing by spraying an attractant.

For instance, if aphids are massing on your broccoli, Whitehurst advises the following.

“Mix equal parts sugar and dried brewers yeast. Add water. Then spray large droplets, widely scattered. That simulates the situation where you have plants that are real sticky with honeydew. That will draw in the lacewings and ladybirds and syrphid flies and such… It’s pretty effective as far as drawing in the aphid predators.”

Helping Combat the Enemy

While beneficial insects dominate their prey, they are vulnerable to ants.

“Ants collect the honeydew, the sugary poop from aphids, whitefly, scale,” Whitehurst said. “If they’re working the plants, they will be collecting that honeydew and driving off the beneficial insects that are trying to eat the pests that are generating their candy.”

Controlling ants, then, is an important aspect of supporting and maintaining your beneficials. Whitehurst recommends buying or mixing up a borate-based bait. The ants will eat the bait, take it back to their colonies and perish.

Thanks to the California Department of Food & Agriculture for providing these photos.

A slightly condensed version of this article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Build Your Own Raised Vegetable Beds


A series of weathered redwood beds allows for intensive planting of summer vegetables, including Serrano peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, red bell peppers and two dozen tomatoes. These beds are spaced 3 feet apart to allow crops to spill over the sides, and to provide room for pushing a wheelbarrow in between.

Do your summer vegetables need a lift?

Raised beds are an excellent way to amp up your harvests.

Few of us have naturally occurring vegetable quality soil. It can be tough to create the rich, loamy stuff in the ground. Instead, start fresh, by building up.

An elevated growing space makes it easier to improve your soil’s fertility and tilth, and to water, weed and harvest crops.

With a few modifications, raised beds protect against rabbits and rodents. You won’t step on productive soil or waste it between rows. You can garden more intensively. And you’ll quickly find that raised beds are easy on the back.

The Basics

UC 157 asparagus, a perennial crop, will flourish for up to 20 years in a raised bed.

A traditional, stripped-down version is a rectangular wood frame with four posts.

The wood is typically redwood or cedar, although you can get creative with materials. For instance, stone beds are beautiful. But they’re pricey and their thick sides require more space.

Also beware of old, pressure-treated timbers or railroad ties that might leach nasty chemicals.

Given a standard board length of 8 feet, 4 x 8-foot beds are a common size. That width is great for larger, perennial crops, such as asparagus, blueberries and raspberries.

But I think it’s too wide for seasonal edibles, including tomatoes, beans and peppers. You’ll be tempted to plant three rows. But the middle row will be nearly impossible to reach once the veggies gain size. Beds that are 3 x 8, with two rows each, are easier to manage.

The ends are nearly complete.

As for height: the boards should be at least 1 foot tall and 1 to 2 inches thick. A single, foot-wide board for each side is the simplest approach.

However, to save money, you can stack several narrower boards.

Just be sure the boards are straight and flush, so that soil and water don’t leak out between them.

Just one side to go!

Use sturdy 4 x 4-inch posts. Cut them 1 foot taller than the height of the bed, to allow for 1 foot to be buried in the ground. If you build a 1-foot tall bed, you’ll need four 2-foot lengths, or one 8-foot post.

Use long wood screws, rather than nails, to connect the boards and attach the posts. Angle brackets at each corner will provide extra stability.

Build your frame upside down on a flat space, such as a driveway or patio, with the posts in the air.

Prepping the Space

Carrots love crumbly soil.

Summer vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, while winter vegetables need at least four to six hours.

Mark where the raised bed will go, then excavate a foot of soil. Set the frame in place and level it.

The wood should rest on the finished soil level, rather than be buried, which will hasten deterioration.

Line the cavity with quarter-inch or half-inch aviary wire or chicken wire to thwart gophers, moles and other tunneling varmints. Bend the wire up against the interior sides of the frame, then secure the edges with a staple gun.

Also break up any dirt clods in the excavated soil.

The finer the texture, the more easily your edibles can gain a toe-hold in the bed.

The Soil

The beauty of a raised bed is that you have total control. The soil should be deep, fertile, hold moisture and drain well. It should smell fresh and sift easily through your fingers.

All done, and filled with a rich, sift-through-your fingers mix of topsoil, existing soil and redwood compost.

How much? A 3 x 8 bed, 1 foot tall and filled to the brim, requires 24 cubic feet of material. But your soil won’t go all the way to the top. Eighteen to 20 cubic feet is sufficient.

If your garden soil is free of weeds and reasonably loose and fertile, go ahead and “harvest” some.

But at least two-thirds of what goes into your raised bed should be high-quality soil builder, compost and/or topsoil.

Specialty products, like chicken manure and kelp, should be one-third or less. Do not use potting soil. It’s expensive and settles significantly.

Packman broccoli and green onions are flanked by orange calendulas in this raised redwood bed. After harvest, I’ll reinvigorate the soil by mixing in several inches of compost.

If you’re planning to grow your edibles organically, start with the soil. Kellogg’s sells a soil-enriching compost that’s certified organic. E.B. Stone offers an organic flower and vegetable planting mix as well.

Home-made compost, loaded with beneficial microorganisms, is fabulous. But not many of us have 20 cubic feet of the good stuff on hand. Yet even if you only have a bucketful, use it.

Start filling your foot-deep pit with 4 to 6 inches of the excavated soil. Add an equal amount of new material. Mix it thoroughly with a rake or by hand. Try not to tangle with the aviary wire below.

Add another 4 to 6 inches of excavated soil. Mix it in. Add the new material and mix it in.

Continue layering and mixing until you’ve filled the bed to within a few inches of the top.

Run your fingers through it one last time, and you’re ready to plant.

This article was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Look for My Garden on Santa Barbara City TV


Amy Ramos talks about her water-conserving garden.

A water-wise garden that I designed last year will be featured on Santa Barbara’s City TV in July.

A camera crew shot the garden and interviewed my client, Amy Ramos, this week for an episode of “Inside Santa Barbara.”

Amy explained how we ripped out the sod lawn in her front yard and replaced it with colorful, water-conserving shrubs, perennials and ground covers.

Another look at Amy’s garden.

She reduced her water bill and her maintenance, and got a beautiful, fragrant garden in keeping with the cottage style of her home in return.

Amy also received a $1,000 rebate from the city’s Smart Landscape Rebate Program. Check with me or visit to see if you might qualify for a $1,000 rebate, too.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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