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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Growing Grapes

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

Whether destined for wine or eaten straight off the vine, grapes are a natural for Santa Barbara County gardens.

There’s plenty of precedent.

Both wine grapes and table grapes have been cultivated for thousands of years in other Mediterranean climates. In California, Franciscans planted grapes at the missions that Father Serra established in the late 1700s.

Today, you might be inspired by the orderly rows of wine grapes marching across local hillsides. You may crave crisp, sweet grapes, plucked fresh from the garden, or a shade-covered arbor.

Whatever your desires, It’s important to match our coastal conditions with the dozens of grape varieties available.

By Way of Background

Simply put, grapes are berries produced on deciduous, woody vines. The two species common for consumption are European grapes (Vitis vinifera) and American grapes (Vitis labrusca). A third group, American hybrids, are crosses between the two.

European varieties are the most widespread wine, table and raisin grapes grown in California. But they require hot summer nights and a long growing season, and are prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease that can distort and damage the fruit. Afflicted vines are to be dusted with sulfur every two weeks from spring until harvest.

American varieties are favored for table grapes, raisins, jelly and jam. They are better suited to our coastal climate as they bear well during shorter seasons and cooler temperatures, and are not as susceptible to mildew.

It’s important to note that while daytime highs in our inland valleys and canyons may match temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley — where Thompson Seedless grapes reign supreme — our nights are considerably cooler. Those night-time temperatures are why cool-blooded Americans are a good match.

American hybrids can be more easy-going than the Europeans, too. Some bear less disease-prone wine grapes; others produce flavorful table grapes.

In addition, our native California wild grape (Vitis californica) bears tiny fruit that’s edible, but more likely to provide sustenance to birds than humans. Roger’s Red is an especially beautiful selection that creates summertime shade and reliably turns bright red in fall.

What to Grow

Wine grapes are generally small and bear seeds, while their thick skins contribute to the aroma of wine. Table grapes are larger, often seedless and have thin skins.

Unless you’re determined to replicate a vineyard planting and willing to tackle the difficulties of cultivating wine grapes, table grapes are an easier bet.

American and American hybrids for the Central Coast include dark purple Blueberry, Concord and Mars; red Canadice, Catawba, Suffolk and Vanessa; green Himrod, Interlaken and Niagara; and yellow Golden Muscat.

You may find success with a few European table grapes that prefer cooler temperatures, such as Black Monukka, a seedless purplish-black; and two greens, Muscat of Alexandria and Perlette. Avoid heat-loving Thompson seedless unless you value its super-sized leaves, which are ideal for Middle Eastern dishes that require stuffing grape leaves.

Planting Time

All grapes need fast drainage and some summer heat.

Choose a sunny spot with the most gritty, sandy, minerally soil possible. It doesn’t have to be particularly fertile: you can amend and mulch with compost to boost nutrients.

If yours is thick, adobe soil, plant your vines in a raised bed or on tall, broad mounds or a steep slope. Otherwise, your vines may thrive for the first few years, then slowly decline as the heavy soil inevitably swallows them up. Even in the best draining soil, plant your vines a few inches high to allow for settling.

Also provide support. Space your vines at least 8 feet apart, then train them on a few strands of galvanized wire strung between freestanding posts; on a broad, sturdy trellis; or up the posts of a pergola or arbor. Install the stakes at planting time. Although it will take several years for your vines to be completely up and growing, driving a stake into the ground later on could damage the roots.

Ongoing Care

It may take up to five years for your first harvest.

During the first summer, water your vines every week and loosely tie up any branches that flop on the ground.

Just before your vines break dormancy the following spring, start pruning to create the scaffolding branches that push out the smooth, year-old wood that bears clusters of fruit.

Correct pruning is key. In local vineyards, balancing foliage and fruit is an art, developed over years of practice by vintners to create world-class wines.

In the home garden, pruning presents a mind-blowing number of options. It’s a tedious, multi-year process and varies based on whether you’re using posts and wires, or covering a fence or arbor. Some vines require pruning canes; others require pruning spurs.

Detailing each specific technique would be mind-numbingly boring unless you’re out there wielding pruners at this particular moment. Instead, arm yourself with a good pruning book or directions from the internet. An excellent place to start is UC Cooperative Extension’s California Master Gardener Handbook or website,


Grapes turn color well before they’re ripe, and once picked, they don’t continue to ripen. So pick a few to check their flavor before harvesting full clusters.

Also don’t worry if your grapes aren’t as plump as those at the supermarket. Many commercial growers spray growth hormones to expand the fruits’ cells. That changes the appearance, but not the sugars. Your grapes may be smaller, but they’ll be just as delectable — if not more — because you’ll be able to harvest them at their absolute peak of freshness.

This article was first published in the Spring 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.

Cool-Season Root Crops

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

Sow. Grow. Dig. Eat.

That’s basically all it takes to grow cool-season root crops, like beets, carrots, radishes and turnips.

These earthy edibles are among the easiest winter vegetables to grow. They take up little space. They deliver rapid results, with the first ready to eat six to eight weeks after sprouting.

And the frilly shoots and sturdy roots are content to live out their lives in containers. Provided they get at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, you can grow them in pots outside your kitchen door, thereby avoiding muddy footprints in and out of the garden over winter.

Getting Started

Very light, loose soil with excellent drainage is a must. Otherwise, your roots may be stubby, malformed, difficult to harvest and susceptible to rot.

Break up the soil with a shovel or garden fork, then work in lots of fine-textured compost or other well-decomposed organic material to improve the fertility and tilth.

If you’re starting with sandier soil, you’re in luck. But if you have heavy clay, build broad mounds or switch to raised beds so that you can better control the texture. Or give up on the ground altogether and fill a container with a lightweight potting soil or a blend of a general potting soil and a cactus and succulent mix.

When you’re done prepping it, the soil should smell good, be crumbly, feel a little silty or gritty, and slip through your fingers like sand falling through an hourglass.

Wherever the location, make sure that the fresh, loose soil is 8 to 18 inches deep, depending on what you grow. In general, you’ll need to dig about twice the depth of the crop to account for the combined length of the root, its “tail” and another few inches.

For instance, petite Sparkler radishes are about the size of a golf ball. Add their 3 to 4-inch-long tails plus a little wiggle room, and you’re up to 8 inches deep. Slender Sugarsnax carrots grow 12 inches long, plus another few inches of tail. You’ll need a full 18 inches of loose, deep soil for them to grow properly.

Direct Sowing Your Seeds

Sow your root crops directly where they’ll grow. Do not start them in flats or containers, where they can quickly exceed the depth, become stunted and stop growing. Even if they don’t slam into the bottom of the container, they may still balk at transplanting.

• Shape shallow furrows In your beautifully prepped soil with your fingers, a trowel or a broad stick. Follow the depth and spacing instructions on the individual seed packets.

• Pour the tiny seeds from the packet into your hand, then pinch and dribble them into the furrows.

• Gently brush the soil from the sides of the furrows over the seeds to create a thin covering about a quarter-inch to a half-inch thick.

• Lightly sprinkle the soil with a water bucket or hose. Too much force can dislodge the seeds before they’ve had a chance to root into the ground.

• Protect your soon-to-emerge seedlings from marauding birds by netting the bed.

• Keep the soil moist. Within a week to 10 days, you should see the first sprouts.

• Once your seedlings have produced several sets of true leaves, begin thinning them to their recommended spacing. Toss the fresh thinnings into soups or salads.

• Once the frilly tops of the remaining seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, remove the bird netting.

Ongoing Care

Root crops need consistent irrigation for uniform growth and to prevent cracking. If winter rains don’t comply, water at least once a week. Apply an inch-thick layer of fine-textured mulch to maintain moisture on the soil surface.

When your roots approach their maturity dates, brush back the soil to check the width and color of their “shoulders.” Pull one if you’re not sure whether they’re ripe.

Depending on when you sow your first roots, you may be able to plant several more rounds before warm weather begins next spring. Be sure to rejuvenate the soil each time.

Or plan on succession planting. Instead of sowing an entire packet now, sow a new row every few weeks. Your roots will mature in waves, rather than all at once.

Or interplant your seeds with slower-growing, cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. You’ll have plenty of time to harvest the roots before the larger edibles fill in.

Patience may be required. If we have a string of cool, rainy days, the roots may stall out, taking longer to mature. Those 8-week carrots could end up taking 12 weeks. But when they’re ready, they’ll still taste just as crunchy and delicious.

This article was first published in the Winter 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.

Bagrada Bugs: How to Combat the Destructive Pests

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

Should home gardeners still plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other brassicas this winter?

The answer is “yes,” provided you’re willing to take on a series of steps to help prevent the destructive Bagrada bugs from showing up, or to beat them back if they do.

Surendra Dara, strawberry and vegetable crops advisor and affiliated IPM advisor for UC Cooperative Extension for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and entomologist Brian Cabrera, Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, offer the following advice.

Start by buying pest-free transplants or sowing seeds in flats or shallow containers. Until they’re at least 8 to 9 inches tall, grow the plants in a protected location, such as a sealed greenhouse or beneath row covers tucked into the soil, as Bagrada bugs are more likely to overwhelm younger plants bearing more tender leaves and stems.

Bagrada bugs drop into crevices in the soil when temperatures cool, and to lay their eggs. Before transplanting your edibles into the garden, till the heck out of the soil to wreak havoc on any bugs or eggs that may be lingering there.

Or solarize the soil by covering it with clear plastic for a week or more. Heat generated beneath the plastic should kill the bugs and eggs.

Beef up your soil’s fertility prior to planting, as healthier plants are better equipped to cope with damage.

If you’re satisfied that your soil is bug-free, grow your crops beneath row covers for the entire season. Use hoops to keep the covers a few inches above the plants to prevent the bugs from piercing the leaves through the fabric.

Absent row covers, if Bagrada bugs descend, hand-pick or vacuum them. They seem to have a built-in defense to slide off the plants when the leaves are jostled, so lay down newspapers first to catch them. Dump the bugs into a bucket of soapy water, then pour them down a drain or strain out their carcasses and toss them in the trash.

If the bugs already abound, grow a trapping crop of their favorite hosts, alyssum and wild mustard. While risky, the theory is that the bugs will feast on the traps, not your edibles.

Spray Bagradas in the nymph stage, when they look like ladybugs, with Azadirachtin. The organic, neem-based product is a growth regulator that disrupts their molting, so they don’t mature.

Or spray Mycotrol-O at any point in the bugs’ life. The organic bio-pesticide is a fungus that penetrates their bodies, multiplies, then emerges through the membranes, killing them in the process.

This article was first published in the Winter 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.

Windowsill Herbs: Bring the Garden Indoors for Winter

Winter 2012

Winter 2012

How to improve on the delicious aroma of a savory sauce or simmering soup wafting through the house on a cold, drizzly day?

With a pinch of fresh herbs and seasonings, of course. Your winter garden may be slumbering outdoors. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up growing. Tend a few herbs on a sunny windowsill and you’ll be able to infuse fresh flavors in your fixings throughout the shortest days of the year.

Getting Started

To successfully grow herbs indoors you must have light, and lots of it. Most herbs need at least six to eight hours of daily direct sunlight — or very bright indirect light — to thrive and produce oils. Your best bet is a south or southwest-facing window. Hold your hand above the sill. If your hand casts a distinct shadow, your herbs should be okay.

Otherwise, set up supplemental lighting. A dedicated grow light system consisting of a stand and one or more high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs starts at about $100. Or buy a couple of inexpensive, clamp-on aluminum reflectors from a hardware store, then fit them with compact fluorescent bulbs. Place the reflectors 4 to 6 inches from the plants. If the leaves begin to crisp up, move the lights a few inches away. If the plants stretch toward the lights, move them closer.

Also, artificial light is not as intense as natural sunlight. Put the lights on a timer and run them 12 to 16 hours a day.

Without a greenhouse, it’s difficult to start herb seed indoors, especially in winter. Instead, buy organically grown seedlings, then transplant them to containers at least 6 inches wide.

Good drainage is key. Use fresh potting soil — not dirt from the garden, which may be heavy and drain poorly. Herbs prefer soil that stays crumbly, even when you squeeze it when it’s wet. Consider adding perlite or vermiculite, or blend regular potting soil with a cactus and succulent mix.

Terra cotta pots breathe, which helps reduce the threat of fungal diseases. But with good air circulation, other decorative containers are fine, too. Just be sure to plant each type of herb in its own pot, as container-grown herbs typically don’t like to share precious soil with roots of other herbs. For instance, you can cluster several parsley plants. But don’t combine oregano with chives with mint.

Choose Wisely

Indoors or out, herbs grow at a leisurely pace during winter. It takes longer for them to build up their volatile oils and their yields are not likely to be as abundant. That said, the following eight should do well.

• Bay (Lauris nobilis) grows slowly. Fortunately, most recipes require only a few leaves. Fresh bay leaves are mild; their potency picks up a few weeks after harvest.

• Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) grow from tiny bulbs packed tightly together. They need less light than most herbs indoors, and prefer their soil a little moister.

• Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a giant among herbs, reaching up to 6 feet tall in the garden. Indoors, that height is not likely. However, still plant your lemongrass in a larger pot, up to 16 inches in diameter.

• Mint (Mentha) is invasive in the garden and should be kept solo indoors as well, to prevent it from overrunning unsuspecting companions. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) complements meat, vegetables, fruit and chocolate, while peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is more intensely flavored and is infused to make tea.

• Parsley (Petroselinum hortense) does not need as much light. But it grows slowly. Plant several to yield more than a few sprigs.

• Oregano (Origanum vulgare) craves as much light as you can provide. Another invasive, it’s best grown alone.

• Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) loves dry soil and sun. An upright-growing type — rather than a trailing variety — will conserve space. You can often find cute topiaries trained as Christmas trees over the holidays.

• Thyme (Thymus) also covets light. Fresh thyme is sweeter and less bitter than dried thyme, and comes in flavors ranging from hints of lemon to mint to caraway to oregano.

Note the conspicuous absence of basil on the list. A heat and sun-loving annual herb, it’s best in the summer garden. In addition, dill and cilantro send down deep tap roots that are difficult to keep going in all but the largest pots outdoors, much less inside. And while it’s just about unstoppable in the garden, culinary sage turns into a balky wimp indoors.

Ongoing Care

Exercise restraint when watering. Wait until the top half inch or more of soil is dry, then put the plants in a sink and run tepid water over the soil — not on the leaves — for a few minutes. Let the pots drain. Fifteen to 30 minutes later, water again, then let them drain again.

Don’t leave standing water in the saucers. Constant wet at your herbs’ roots can lead to rot. Also don’t instantly water if a few leaves turn yellow. Yellowing often indicates overwatering, so check the soil first.

Pinch the leaves regularly and snip any emerging flower buds. Harvesting the leaves will help keep your herbs bushy and promote new growth. But don’t trim more than a third at a time unless you’re willing to risk losing the entire plant.

After the first of the year, apply a liquid fertilizer. Diluted fish emulsion is often recommended, although its powerful odor can be overwhelming indoors. Alternatives include kelp and other products low in phosphorous, which will boost your herbs’ all-important foliage, rather than flowers.

This article was first published in the Winter 2012 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.

Attack of the Bagrada Bugs


Bagrada bugs busy mating on a Brussels sprouts leaf.

A destructive new insect, seemingly out of nowhere, is wreaking havoc on local organic growers and home gardeners.

Over the last six weeks or so, literally hundreds of thousands of Bagrada hilaris bugs have descended on a host of edibles growing in fields across Santa Barbara County and begun methodically sucking the life out of them.

“We lost all the plants in our early plantings of broccoli, cauliflower, anything in the brassica family, Brussels sprouts, all the kale,” said Mark Tollefson, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta. “Over the course of a week, we watched the plants curl up and die.”

Other organic gardeners from Carpinteria to Santa Ynez are suffering losses as well, primarily to members of the brassica family, but also to bok choy, cilantro, peppers and even corn.

“They also are eating weeds, mustard and alyssum. They’re feeding on the plant juices,” said Brian Cabrera, an entomologist at the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. “I have heard that there’s a toxin (in their saliva) that they inject, but I don’t know if they’re actually that toxic to the leaf. I think mainly the damage is from hundreds of these bugs on a single plant, jabbing their little needle-like mouth parts and sucking it dry.”

What to Look For

Bagrada bugs at two stages of life: nymph on the top left; adult on the bottom right.

At first glance, bagrada bugs look like small, dark ladybugs, which of course are fantastic beneficial insects.

But that’s actually their nymph stage, when they’re relatively round, and a two-toned black and red. In a matter of days, they morph to their next stage, in which their bodies elongate and develop distinctive pale, orangish stripes, spots and other marks. Then they begin mating — with the female the larger of the pair — and the cycle begins anew.

In my garden, we first spotted the nymphs on our Brussels sprouts and late-season corn a week ago last Sunday. The adults began emerging a few days later and had begun mating by Friday. We haven’t seen the small, round jelly-like eggs yet, but don’t imagine that it will take long for them to appear. According to Cabrera, a single female can lay about 100 eggs during her lifetime.

Where They Come From

Maria Murrietta, a UC Cooperative Extension agricultural technician, collects Bagrada bugs that have annihilated my Brussels sprouts. The bugs will go to a UC lab for research.

Bagrada bugs are native to east and southern Africa, Egypt, Zaire and Senegal, according to the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside. They first appeared four years ago in Los Angeles County and rapidly spread through southern California and southern Arizona.

The infestation at Fairview Gardens in mid-August was quickly followed by reports to Cabrera from Solvang, the Mesa, Mission Canyon and other parts of Goleta.

“Then a couple weeks ago, we started getting calls from some of the growers, organic growers especially,” Cabrera said. “They’re getting hit pretty hard. They can’t use some of the materials that the nonorganic growers can use.”

Indeed, conventional farmers are combating — and controlling — bagrada bugs with pyrethroids and organophosphates like chlorpyrifos and malathion, according to Surendra Dara, a strawberry and vegetable crops advisor and affiliated IPM advisor for UC Cooperative Extension for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

The trouble is, the bugs are so new to scientists that they haven’t yet figured out much in the way of organic controls, Dara said.

Bagrada bugs, scooped up and ready for their trip to the lab.

“Because of the kind of bug it is and its life cycle, it can be a little tricky to develop a strategy to target its vulnerable stages,” he said. “The organic growers, the small gardeners, homeowners, they don’t have resources that farmers have. So for organic farms, you don’t have as many options.”

But that doesn’t mean growers like Tollefson are throwing in the towel. He plans to wait another week before planting another round of cool-season crops. In the meantime, he’ll work through a list of tasks, starting with mixing diatomaceous earth with water, then spraying it on the ground.

“I don’t know the exact pathology, but I do know that bugs that are in contact with it die,” he said. “Bagrada bugs dive into the ground. So sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the soil can be helpful as far as managing them.”

Tollefson also plans to interplant strong-scented garlic and onions with his brassicas, and to wait until his starter plants are 6 to 9 inches tall — instead of just a few inches — before putting them in the ground. His thinking is that the larger plants will be more robust, thereby have a better chance of withstanding the bugs.

Another tactic is to break up the soil. “When temperatures drop below 50 degrees or get very, very hot, the bugs get sluggish. At that point, they stay in the soil,” he said. “Tilling the soil grinds them up. I have a big rototiller. It’s 70 inches wide.”

Weed control is important as well, he said. He might try planting a few sacrificial or trapping crops to intentionally attract the bugs, then kill them “in a natural way.”

Also important is building soil fertility, he added. “The more healthy the plants, the more opportunity we have to beat the bug.”

In Home Gardens

Despite similar markings during their nymph stage, Bagrada bugs are NOT beneficial ladybugs.

For home gardeners whose vegetables are already infested, Cabrera suggested spraying the afflicted plants with a 1% or 2% insecticidal soap solution. In addition, he said, “Vacuuming them off is worth a try.”

For folks who are getting ready to sow their cool-season vegetables from seed, Cabrera recommended turning the soil first, to destroy any eggs, then installing row covers immediately. His advice holds for planting seedlings, too.

“If you determine that your plants are bug-free and egg-free, then put up row covers,” he said. “Make sure that the covers aren’t lying on the plants because the bugs can eat through that. Raise up the covers through hoops or pipes, then bury the edges because (otherwise) the bugs can crawl under.”

As for what lies ahead, Cabrera said, “I don’t know how long they’ll be around. If the weather cools off, the activity will drop off because they don’t seem to be active on cooler days. It remains to be seen within the next few weeks what’s going to happen.”

As far as scientific research into organic controls: Dara is launching a study this week, thanks to scores of bagrada bugs that Maria Murrietta, a UC Cooperative Extension agricultural technician, collected from my ailing Brussels sprouts and corn plants on Friday.

Bye, bye, bagradas. Too bad I couldn’t donate every last one that’s decimating my garden to science!

It was a happy day, to donate so many destructive bugs to science.

Over the new few weeks, Dara will subject those bugs to a mix of products, with the aim of determining whether any organic methods have the potential to successfully control and/or kill the bugs.

In the meantime, Tollefson is philosophical about the challenge.

“So yeah, it’s a big deal to lose these crops,” he said. “But the reality is, it’s one more thing to deal with. It’s significant enough that we can’t ignore it. (But) we’re farmers. We’ll adapt to this bug.”

This article also appears at

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

Summer Standouts




This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Fine Gardening under the theme “Summer Standouts.”

Fine Gardening used my photos of Big Magenta African daisy and San Miguel Island buckwheat in the article.

However, other photographers provided the images of Limelight Mexican sage and Vancouver Centennial pelargonium. I’ve swapped in my own images of those two plants here, in order to avoid violating those photographers’ copyright.

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

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